Friday, 30 January 2009

Marble

“You know” remarked Nancy, in one of the tiny gaps in our conversation the other evening, "that this country is not ‘Greece’, we call it ‘Hellas’.” Who’d have thought it? Least of all cack-handed me that I’d been applying a 1.2mm stone cutter on an angle grinder to shape a skirting of marble from Evvoia for the upstairs room. It’s not sculpture (several reincarnations away if I’m very good) but the joins, as we work round the room, look sound and neat. Other countries have crude oil so that people will come from across the world to drill wells in their lands but for their gifts in building and making images of men ‘Hellas’ – a name made of old words for ‘bright’ and ‘stone’ – got marble. * * * How does a child learn to understand and think for itself? Some never do, living always within hearing of the chimes of certainty; some from conception use every sense to parse the world. Is one luckier? From early on I wondered at those sweet and sour fantasies offered children – not quite aware I was a child, full of enquiry but with limited intelligence. My first magic was stars, gazing up at them from a veranda in a village in Hampshire with my great grandmother, before peacetime light pollution. She and I shared her house almost on our own, my parents working on the war. She named the Milky Way and the Plough and said no one knew what was beyond them but that "it went on". I lay in bed – I recall this – wondering at my first mystery – that we were surrounded by a space that went on. I shifted – logically – to the puzzle of time. “So when did it begin?” “No-one really knows,” she said. Wonder filled me at the idea of something that could not begin because even if you defined a beginning you could not truthfully answer the question “but what came before the beginning?” and more than imagining some end to the universe you could answer the question “but what’s beyond that edge?” By saying “I don’t know” to a small child my dear great grandparent from Oldham had shown me a mystery, at a time of joyful childhood innocence – so puzzlement and wonder and excitement at the unknowable became intertwined. It made it easier to share in the fantasies while knowing they were there for those who shared them. I believed and knew at the same time - ‘Father Christmas might be’ - the magic old man in deepest red and green velvet bringing grown-up’s presents in bright crackling silvery paper. I happily wondered at the magic of conjurors at London Theatres who could cut ordinary people, from the audience, painlessly in pieces and make birds appear from their pockets. I saw a colour picture in a book of a man bleeding with nails through his hands and feet and felt nauseated, horrified. This man had been deliberately hurt by some people. I didn't understand but it looked unspeakable. There was no magic, nor wonder in the matter, just nails through flesh in wood (no picture of this atrocity needed). I was too ashamed to ask about what I'd seen. I was told at school, much later, stories about heaven and resurrection - magic not as mysterious as the infinity I’d been helped to see by my great grandmother. Growing up I struggled dully with methods of enquiry, which, to someone cleverer, would have led me to the discipline of science. I was actually more attracted to the methods – though I didn’t think of them as that – for approaching mystery, getting closer to my first experience of infinity, the devotions that gave insight into ‘the eternal’ - in school English, Divinity, History and Art - subjects in which I was quite good, because I enjoyed them, unlike my dismal performance in maths and latin (requiring logic). I learned beautiful sounds, language and music; secular and religious merged; rituals and example kept me striving to be good, instilled conscience, explained frightful things, defined compassion and love and instilled doubt as a proper way to approach faith while teaching that despair was a kind of sin. Thus my religion has never clashed with wonder at the infinite and the stories of Adam and Eve, of beginnings – of which my favourite is St John’s in which the beginning is a word and the word was light; mystery contained in shifts of tense. I'm moved by words that doubt and wonder have inspired – the face of the deep, the wings of the morning, nunc dimittis, we shall be changed, in sure and certain hope, , behold I show you a mystery, he shall stand at the latter day. Long ago my stepfather told me that although he didn’t believe in hell, his actions were influenced by the fear of it instilled in him as a child of Methodists in Huddersfield. I don’t think he regretted this. It is good that although I’m faithless on the subject of incarnation, miracles and resurrection, I wonder at their magic. I gladly share in devotions that bring me closer to such mysteries, yet long ago my step-father, pondering the church as an institution, asked me if I knew that the Queen Elizabeth – that behemoth of a ship whose exploded image I’d once assembled in a wooden jigsaw – that that ship, so he’d been told by an engineer, “if you stopped stoking her boilers or fuelling her turbines, would continue through the ocean, like a city freighted with her thousands of passengers enjoying her shops, dining rooms, lounges, swimming pool, promenade decks, cinema, and her many state cabins with private baths through to crowded steerage, for another ninety miles before she finally stopped.” [Back to the future 24 March 2009 - piece by Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent 'Why we are all haunted by religion', that it monopolised an appetite - or Larkin quote 'a hunger in himself to be more serious']

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