Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Liminal Times: a Nunc Dimittis?

The talk is all of comings and goings. Today one prime minister leaves office, another takes his place. Doors open for some and close for others. We are living in liminal times.

But this is always true of life, however little attention we normally give the thresholds we cross. Yesterday, when pundits were all over the media assessing David Cameron's stewardship as prime minister and speculating about Theresa May's, I went to London to see my ageing mother. It's been distressing to watch her suffering in the past few weeks. It began with her being urgently admitted to hospital. Then, when we and she all thought she was well enough, she went to a nursing home nearby. After a few days there was another crisis and she was back in the hospital again, on the same ward she had left the previous week. The nurses were pleased to see her back: "we so loved Dorothea" they said. It was touching. You could tell it was sincere.

She is a lot weaker than she was. Most of the time she is asleep. There is no pain and no discomfort as far as we can tell. When she is awake she is completely lucid, knows exactly where she is and why. But she and we all recognise the truth. As they say, it's simply a matter of time now.

However, yesterday something rather wonderful happened.

My daughter met me off the train: she was spending a couple of days in London in connection with her work and had taken Madeleine her 7 month daughter with her. We fought our way on to a bus (how hard life is in London when you are dependent on wheels, whether buggies or wheelchairs). It seems that Madeleine has enjoyed her time in the capital, stimulated by its bustle and activity. We got off near the hospital and walked up the hill, uncertain about what we would find. The sky was overcast and it was beginning to rain.

In the ward, my sister had already arrived. My mother was asleep and did not look likely to waken any time soon. We waited. Life went on around us. Doctors and nurses came and went. Screens were drawn round beds, then undrawn. A man was shouting in some distress down the corridor. Our granddaughter was quite content to take in the new sights and sounds and scents of a hospital ward, not having been in one since her own delivery last December.

Then, after a bit of nudging, my mother opened her eyes. She saw Madeleine who was looking directly at her. There was what I can only call an epiphany, a transfiguring recognition. An old and tired face came alive with a radiant smile. There was laughter in her eyes, and the hint of tears. "How lovely" she said, "how lovely!" and gazed at the great-granddaughter she had never met till that moment. And Madeleine smiled back. It was as if the clouds had been rolled back and the sun had come out. In that recognition scene, a corner of a hospital ward seemed luminous with peace, joy and love.

So much of human life seemed to be squeezed into those few minutes. For a brief while there was a constellation of four generations in that intimate space. If Madeleine lives to my mother's age their years will have spanned nearly two centuries. "Here's your line of descent" said my daughter to her. It wasn't fanciful to see my mother's strong Jewish features traced in the baby's face. The last time we gathered round a hospital bed like this was thirty years ago when we said farewell to my grandmother, my mother's mother. She was about the same age my mother is now. My children were small. There was talk then, I recall, of passing the family likeness down the distaff side.

What was going through my mind during this Proustian experience by the bedside, this beautiful and poignant encounter between the very old and the very young, between a long life nearing its end and one that has hardly begun?

Inevitably, it was the picture painted by St Luke near the beginning of his gospel. When Joseph and Mary bring the infant Jesus to the temple to be "presented", the holy family are received by two elderly frequenters of the temple, Simeon and Anna. Who knows how old Simeon is, but Anna, we are told, is 84. Simeon gathers up the infant in his arms and blesses him. He has seen what he has lived and longed to see: the child in whom his hope and the hope of all nations rests. "Lord, now you let your servant go in peace." He can die fulfilled and - we can presume - happy. They both can - for why mention Anna at all unless she too is caught up in this meeting of age with infancy?

I don't say that it was necessarily my mother's Nunc Dimittis. Who knows? But something in my waters tells me that this was a final as well as a first meeting with her great-granddaughter, a valediction as well as a welcome. Ave atque vale. I could be wrong. I would love to be, as long as she is comfortable and free of pain and in her right mind. She has surprised us all her life, probably surprised herself for not only surviving the Nazi holocaust that should have meant extinction but living long enough to see her children's children's children. 


But it did seem that we were poised on the edge of a threshold at a profoundly liminal point in all our lives. Everything felt slowed down in one of those rare experiences when the present moment is transformed into a glowing sacrament that transcends time and place. I believe my mother felt it that way. So if this should be an end as well as a beginning, if one door is soon to close as another has just opened, I need to remember how it could not have been more beautiful, nor more filled with the presence of God. In these two cherished faces from either end of life, and in the love that flowed between them, Gerard Manley Hopkins' words became true for me:

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father, through the features of men's faces.

My mother was right. "How lovely!"

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Brexit and The Archers

Here's a bit of fun stuff for the post-#Brexit blues. Or not. It may depend. You may think I'm trivialising the solemn or solemnising the trivial. 

The Archers was (were?) born the same year as me, in that annus mirabilis 1950. I've been an avid listener since I was a teenager. In the days of our analogue innocence, woe betide anyone who interrupted those hallowed 15 minutes. Nowadays, the BBC iPlayer has loosened the tight grip the 7pm pips used to have on my daily routine (though I'm old enough to remember when it was 6.45pm - perhaps some readers of my generation can recall when the change was made).

Let's not go in for exaggerated claims. I won't say that all I've ever learned in life has been picked up from The Archers. But as a north London suburbanite brought up behind privet hedges and net curtains, I did learn quite a lot about the countryside. To us townies, it was a foreign country. They did things differently there. That was part of my justification for listening to it, or so I told my mother. She was a dyed-in-the-wool Mrs Dale fan. She was disconsolate when it folded. But I don't know how much medical knowledge she or anyone ever distilled from Dr Dale's surgery or his worrisome wife. By contrast, I used to say to her, The Archers was educational. It was far more than entertainment (we didn't call them soaps in those days). You were informed about the realities of farming and how people interacted with the land. You learned. So it was essential listening. And also, a lot of the time, huge fun.

This marriage of informing and entertaining was always the mission of The Archers. It was originally conceived as a way of getting information across to farmers and smallholders about how to increase productivity after the austerities and food-shortages of the war and post-war rationing. There was regular advice from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who had a role in devising the scripts. You didn't just learn about the daily round and common task of the life in the countryside: good husbandry, farm-management, the vicissitudes of seed-time and harvest and the hazards of unseasonal frosts. Nor was it just about Doris Archer's kitchen, jam-making and beef stews. You picked up a lot about rural poverty, employee relationships, estate management, pesticides and livestock movement not to mention the (sometimes overwrought) dynamics of village life. This daily window on an "everyday story of country folk" had its ups and downs. But you felt you were in the company of people who knew what they were talking about when it came to the landscapes of middle England.

But the programme has never been merely quotidian in its concerns. Some of its big stories have focused on events that have been very much in the headlines: organic farming, foot-and-mouth disease, farm tenancies, road building, badger-culling, flooding and GM crops. The Archers were never afraid of being topical, even controversial. Locals expressed their views forcibly on the village green, in the shop, in the Bull, even in church. The cut-and-thrust was part of the point. The programme didn't need to take sides to acquaint a listening public with the joys and sorrows of a green and pleasant land from which many were increasingly distanced in towns and cities.

Which brings me to my point. Why have The Archers studiously avoided getting drawn into the greatest political decision of our generation, the European Union Referendum? Our friends at Felpersham Cathedral (@Felpercathedral) installed an #EUReferendometer to monitor all mentions of the referendum on the programme. (Discursus: I wonder where did they put it - in a transept? the crypt? the triforium? underneath the high altar? Or did the Dean or a minor canon have to wear it under their cassock and surplice like a heart monitor?)

The Cathedral issued a weekly report on referendum talk in the village. There was little to report: just one significant kick, a conversation between Adam and David about the implications of EU membership for farming. (David was for Remain. Adam, surprisingly, said he would be voting Leave - as a gay man, had he forgotten the progress so energetically promoted by the EU in relation to LGBT equality?) Apart from that, not a single conversation about any substantive referendum themes. Not one!  The referendometer flatlined for the best part of four whole months. There was just a bland exchange or two about how important it was to vote and how the village hall was given its customary role as polling station, but without getting into any issues ("I know better than to ask you which way you're going to vote", or weasel words to that effect).

When it came to the EU debate, Ambridge was the most silent, undisturbed place in Europe. The Bull was untroubled by any argument. There were no sermons in church, no meetings in the village hall. Peggy didn't fall out over it with the vicar. Debbie runs a farm in Hungary, yet she had nothing to say from the perspective of eastern Europe. Brian and Justin are used to thinking big about farming, but they had more pressing things on their mind than the Common Agricultural Policy. Young farmers Pip and Josh bucked the trend of their generation by not being engaged with it at all let alone coming in as fervent Remainers. Even Susan kept her counsel, a phenomenon unheard-of in all the years she has presided over the village shop. A cloud of EU-unknowing hung over the village. The referendum was strictly off-limits. It was the topic - love it or loathe it - that dare not speak its name except (we are guessing) in dark corners out of reach of the microphone. Out of reach of us.

I find this profound silence perplexing. The Archers has a good track record in helping listeners understand how the big news stories affect the countryside and the rural economy. It knows from long experience how to weave them seamlessly and unselfconsciously into fictional drama. I wasn't expecting it to take a position on the EU, but I was 100% sure it would deliver on its past form of squaring up to hot topics like the referendum. I was wrong. More wrong than I could ever have guessed. Its avoidance of the EU debate has been near complete. And, I think, cowardly and disappointing.

I used to belong to the wonderful group called the "Archers Anarchists". Their core belief is that the programme isn't make-believe and its participants aren't actors. The place and the people are real. I'm afraid that after the referendum, Ambridge has become less real than it used to be. The cynics and mockers are right. It's a little bit of an imagined but lost England, a feel-good audio theme park that is untroubled by the messy complexities of national and global politics even when they bear directly on it. If the Archers don't care about rural life enough to engage with a national debate with such momentous consequences for all the Ambridges across the UK, why should we bother to take them seriously any more? 

Ambridge: you have let us down. I doubt you would have changed anyone's mind. I'm not suggesting you should have tried. But had you been a bit more spirited, we would have gone into the polling booth better informed, whether we live in an urban or a rural environment. I'd have thought it would be an unrivalled opportunity for The Archers to come into its own once again, assert its own relevance, get itself noticed. You showed with Helen and Rob that you knew how to handle a difficult story really well and get the nation talking about it. So why duck out of the referendum? Were you under orders from On High? We need to know. 

Ok, let's not get too solemn about it. There's more to life than Ambridge and the referendum. (There really is!) I'm sure the BBC will take this in good part. It comes from a well-wisher. We want Ambridge to flourish as we learn how to inhabit a post-Brexit world. No doubt we'll hear about that from time to time even if it's too late to help us make this biggest political decision of our lifetimes. But we shall keep calm and carry on listening. We're too hooked to do anything else.