Quentin de la Bédoyère
Is gardening a great reliever of stress? Speaking as an observer, this is hardly so. Does anyone know a gardener who is not suffering from too much or too little rain, the wrong kind of soil, the invasion of snails, or any one of a whole range of ills threatening the entire effort of the season? The fast-track City life, or getting a newspaper to bed on time, is tranquil meditation by comparison.
Then there are the fashionable problems of ecology. How does one avoid artificial fertiliser, or unkind slug pellets? For some, the compost heap, with its carefully modulated layers of garbage, has become an end in itself. One may be taken out to admire it just as one might once have been asked to admire a particularly fine Italian garden sculpture. A former editor of this newspaper scarcely allowed an edition to go by without an update on his compost.
Next comes the battle of the species. Predatory birds, fledglings, thieving squirrels, goldfish prone to dropsy, tadpoles, frogs, newts, and the household cats all compete in a hostile symbiosis to the despair of the really sensitive gardener. And what does one do about this season’s fox cubs? A marvellously pretty sight, which our friends come miles to see. They forget the damage that can be done by fox siblings using protective netting as a trampoline, or tender young vegetables as skittles. But they are forgiven. They spread mushroom spores throughout their territory. And not half an hour ago I had a dish of mushrooms still hot from the garden, in a garlic sauce. No gourmet has ever eaten better.
Agood topic for after dinner entertainment is the “What if it had never happened?” game. What if we had lost the Battle of Britain, for instance? Or, what if antibiotics had not been invented? The Catholic version of this might be: what if Vatican II had never been called? That would be revealing.
Would the Church now be burgeoning, the pews stuffed to the overflowing, and vocations by the hundred? Or would it be a wasteland, peopled by a hard core, preserved from dissolution only by the Holy Spirit? Of course such polarity would be absurd, but perhaps no more absurd than wishing, as some do, that the Council had never happened. The fact is that by that time there was a deep fault line caused by the tension between an autocratic, semi-medieval ecclesiastical structure, and a laity (together with a large number of theologians and clergy of all ranks) which had moved, rightly or wrongly, towards a different understanding of the community of the Church. And like the San Andreas fault, a catastrophic earthquake was only a matter of time, unless it were averted by the whole Church facing up to the situation.
Of course one can argue that some decrees of the Council were misguided in their objectives, and few commentators of any persuasion would agree with every detail. Others might say that the implementation of the decrees was grossly at fault — too conservative or too liberal, depending on one’s standpoint. And there are those who say that our current woes are neither the first nor the last which the Church will encounter on its pilgrimage, and that one day we will see this as a valley of the shadow of darkness through which we had to pass. But no one who retains the least contact with reality can imagine that the Church could have (in human judgement) survived by simply ignoring the warning groans of seismic disaster.
WH Auden preferred the poet who liked to watch the way words hang around together rather than the poet who felt he had something to say. So I started to think of some of the words that hang around together in my mind. The problem is that there are far too many of them, and each one triggers the thought of another. Is there a better opening line than Piers Plowman’s “In somer seson, when softe was the sonne”? But, even earlier, comes the lovely, anonymous, quatrain which ends with “From alle wymmen mi love is lent, and lyht on Alysoun”.
Perhaps you prefer something a little more modern. Try Francis Thompson’s “forward like a wind blown flame came bosom and mouth to mine!” Perhaps Eleanor Rigby, from Lennon and McCartney, who is “wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door” strikes a chord with you, as it does with me.
But the gap between the early and the modern is stuffed with such treasures that it is hard to know where to begin. My romantic bent leans me towards Herrick’s “Whenas in silks my Julia goes, then then (methinks) how sweetly flows that liquefaction of her clothes.” One really needs to read Milton’s “in this dark world and wide” within its context, but just let the phrase trickle, like a subtle liqueur, over the palate of your mind. “For many a time I have been half in love with easeful death” is unmissable, and Dowson’s “Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine, there fell thy shadow, Cynara!” is always in the background.
If you love to watch the way words hang together you will by now be jumping with frustration. How could he have left out this, or that? Look, not a word of Shakespeare. Where is Donne — or Dunn, for that matter? Has he never read Emily Brontë or Herbert? Does he care nothing for Owen, or Housman, or Plath, or Heaney, or that depressing little librarian whose name I can never remember? Has he passed by Yeats without a glance? Good! Let your frustration spill over into sending me your favourite poetic morsels, the ones that really move you. Let’s share them.