MULLING OVER THE RUMBLE
It is early morning and there is just a glimmer, rather than a full-blown celebration of light slipping under my darkened blinds. Then comes the sound of one car rumbling and I am awake and alive to the day. It is time to jump out of bed. London! There is so much to see, so much to do, so much to celebrate in this city wonderland where all nations, all races and all kinds of thoughts are living together, mostly harmoniously, in a kind of matrimonial peace and compromise. What is the weather going to be like? What to wear to go out? Roll up the blinds and look out. I have come to embrace the cold English weather. Fifteen years of living under the burning West African sun led me to believe that I never would nor ever could survive here in winter. Yet, here I am and, having discovered that when the hostile winter strikes to simply adorn four thermal vests, three pairs of leggings, two pairs of socks, gloves, scarf and a hat and then I am as cosy as a partridge in a pear tree might be and ready to go out.
Checking the weather I glance at the headlines. A day in the life of 2015:
France launches airstrike against I.S.
U.K. will hit back at terrorists.
Bomb caused Sinai jet to crash.
Serbian police arrest a man.
Liverpool teen killed by a bullet.
Five dead men as a train derails.
Security alert! The sirens whine. We all fall down!
Sshh! What is the sound of one hand clapping?
What is a way to stop these rapping,
Chattering thoughts of my monkey mind?
How can I find a way to unwind?
Stop, pause, breathe and balance,
Focus on your inner smile. Let it glow, let it grow; turn your world inside out.
Now I am ready to face the day.
People in London lead with their noses and weave in and out to get on their way.
I am feeling obliged and I am feeling I ought to compare the polyphonic; some might say cacophonous, sound of city life to the serene countryside or the swishing, slapping sounds of the sea? Or, perhaps:
‘By an ancient pond
A frog jumps in Plop!’ Basho.
Yet, I will not and I shall not. I choose to find Zen in the market place because wherever I am is where I am to be.
I venture out into the hustle and the bustle of people rushing by, through the rain pelting down like silver daggers descending from the sky.
An umbrella lies
Broken on the sodden street
It weeps for mankind.
I enter a church where an organ plays. Yes! Music is the food of love but how to find words for this feeling that is bubbling up inside?
A Sufi mystic once wrote:
There is only one reason
We have followed God into this world:
To encourage laughter, freedom, dance
The organ bellows, and the God of thunder roars. The angry hordes decry.
Thou shalt not, thou wilt not, lest ye be thrown from the tower top.
Quickly I leave the church.
Jumbled, confused mind
Leaf falls gently to the ground
Oh! Mindless nature.
Oasis of calm
Any other day, and other week this might have just been about my favourite city London. But this day, this week, it will be a tale of two cities. For Paris and London, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.
I love both cities with their noise, their bustle, their history and their present, their old and their new, their pandemonium and their peace. All these things are there, if you know where to look. You can find peace in London and Paris, in small secluded gardens in churchyards, in little bookshops, in strolls alongside their noble rivers, or sipping wine or coffee in tiny cafes.
But today my journey is to St Pauls cathedral, my favourite London building. I walk briskly through Caledonian Park in the autumnal rain, fat grey squirrels cavorting through the dripping, slippery leaves, whilst crazy dogs run around in circles. Caledonian road tube lift not working again. Read the depressing Metro headlines in the tube to Holborn, then change onto the Central line. Now were are at Chancery Lane, so I am nearly there. But the doors aren’t opening. Eventually the train moves forward a little way. Frustrated travellers gather by the doors. But the doors still don’t open. Damn, I’ll be late for my meeting. Suddenly the doors open. The driver makes an announcement.
“Please leave the train. This train will not be going anywhere due to passenger action on the train.”
Then, more urgently.
“Evacuate the train! Evacuate the station!”
It was the clearest tube announcement I have ever heard. For once, no one turned to their neighbour and said: “What did he say?” We all knew, and as one we left the train and went up the escalator. Suited business people, tourists and others, all glad to be out in the wind and the rain rather than in the uncertain underground.
In my parent’s war people used to rush from the street down into the underground to escape the bombs. Now, in what I suppose I must call my war – and perhaps even my children’s war – people rush from the underground to the street to escape the risk of bombs from below. As I wait for the bus to St Pauls the sirens start wailing, emergency vehicles start arriving. Probably a false alarm, but…
The familiar dome of St Pauls brings me another reminder of my parent’s war. A photo of this symbol of London, lit up by searchlights, surrounded by the smoke and flames of the Blitz, but miraculously surviving to give a symbol of hope and continuity of the British spirit. An oasis of hope in the storm of war. This week has seen many iconic buildings representing symbols of hope and resistance. Across the world buildings that are important to nations have been swathed in red, white and blue to show sympathy and support for France.
SAD BELLS OF ST PAULS
RING LOUD ACROSS THE CHANNEL
HEARD BY NOTRE DAME
At the Guildhall there is a remembrance of my grandparent’s war in the library which, even in these security conscious days, searches your bag on the way out, not on the way in. Are they afraid we will steal some knowledge from the books?
The exhibition is about Talbot House, a temporary oasis near the Belgian front “where the kitchen fell down on alternate Tuesdays”. A valiant attempt by the Rev Clayton to provide a sanctuary to soldiers within the sounds of the shells of Ypres. A place where young men could exchange a cap for a book, and could walk in a garden, pick flowers, press them and send them to their loved ones. Life pressed into death.
LANDSCAPE OF VIPERS
MUD, GUNS, GAS, WIRE, DUTY, DEATH
HAVEN IN WIPERS
The Reverend also tried to provide solace to families of the dead.
“He died instantaneously. A true soldier’s death.”
Truth or lies? Trying to provide an oasis of ease in a desert of pain, or just perpetuating old men’s lies?
Seven young men died an instantaneous death last Friday 13th. Their supporters will call this a true soldiers death, a martyr’s death. Throughout the centuries there have always been people content for others to die for their cause.
AGAIN THE OLD LIE
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
PRO PATRIA MORI
(Wilfred Owen 1917)
Neruda suggests we count to twelve and all keep still to be together in sudden strangeness. I have stood with many others this week in stillness and silence, joining together in sudden strangeness. These moments of contemplation provide a brief oasis of calm in a sad and stressful time.
We are apprehensive, we do not know what the future will bring, but those buildings of beauty and those places of peace in Paris and London will remain, and the fat grey squirrels and the crazy dogs will still run in the park.
From a visit to the Talbot House exhibition at Guildhall
Outside the house, the cold was so sharp it could snap twigs. Shutting the door behind her, she wandered towards the lighthouse, passing The Old Radio Station where the ghost of Morse tapped out: dot-dash, dot dash. Ships warned of the enemy approaching. She took a few paces down the hill and across the field. Fireflies glittered as they danced to their hidden tune. Wild poppies strewn over the springtime grass closed their petals against the night air. The beam from lighthouse cut a swathe through the dark sky. She sat down on the grassy terrace where the land receded. Grass to earth, earth to earth, crumbling downwards to be washed away by the waiting sea.
dark descending sea rising
birds no longer singing
spume on the tide receding
Was this the still point in a turning world? The spirit of a family gone. A Victorian picnic on a beach, captured in a sepia photo. A boy who went to war and never returned. So close to the Talbot House yet so far. No birdsong for him. Only the mud, the field guns, the pains in his ears. And a stiff upper lip. A death that beckoned through a smog of gas.
who will put the arc in triumph?
what god will get the glory?
praise to the Almighty or Allah
as they carve their names through time
allons enfants de la patrie
and God save the Queen
they will find their garden
and the birds will sing again
Astrid Sutton Sharkey