It’s holiday season, and was so in August 1780. Johnson writes to invite a Scottish friend to come and enjoy the bright lights of London, but a little later perhaps, when winter is drawing in.
To DR. BEATTIE, AT ABERDEEN.
More years than I have any delight to reckon, have past since you and I saw one another; of this, however, there is no reason for making any reprehensory complaint—Sic fata ferunt*. But methinks there might pass some small interchange of regard between us.
If you say, that I ought to have written, I now write; and I write to tell you, that I have much kindness for you and Mrs. Beattie; and that I wish your health better, and your life long. Try change of air, and come a few degrees Southwards: a softer climate may do you both good; winter is coming on; and London will be warmer, and gayer, and busier, and more fertile of amusement than Aberdeen.
More news I have not to tell you, and therefore you must be contented with hearing, what I know not whether you much wish to hear, that I am, Sir,
Your most humble servant, SAM. JOHNSON.
August 21, 1780.
Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780 by James Boswell.
Good Morning! I’d like to share an old family story that has a bearing on our lives during the second summer of covid-19; we hope you enjoy your holidays, but please let other people enjoy theirs in peace!
We looked around for somewhere to eat our picnic and my young daughters chose the spot between the paws of one of the sphinxes that guard Cleopatra’s needle, an inscribed obelisk associated with the Queen, on the Embankment in central London. Here we were out of the way and could watch the river traffic and the passing tourists.
In the half-hour or so we were there four different families or groups swarmed up beside the girls, posing for photographs; there is another sphinx on the other side of the Needle. Only the last family asked permission, and that was when we were leaving, otherwise there came no apology or acknowledgement of our family at all.
This extreme case of bad manners poses two questions. What, first of all, do we go away for? These people did not appear to be looking at or appreciating the monument at all. I guess they too were near Charing Cross, and had to tick the Needle off their list, and take a photo to prove it. In fact the second, unoccupied sphynx was better lit and unoccupied, so why intrude on us?
Which brings up the second question: do we consider other people when on holiday? The first time I ever felt ashamed to be English overseas was when a couple of middle-aged compatriots smuggled two Yorkshire terriers into a Galway restaurant and fed them titbits on their laps. It was not the last time!
It’s not just inebriated football supporters who get us a bad reputation abroad; it can be you or I, when we don’t take trouble to learn foreign ways, whether tipping, using the buses, or even the plumbing. The ordinary courtesy of consideration and neighbourliness are important, even in London.
Don’t spoil your holiday – or someone else’s – with bad manners!
Another blog by Eddie Gilmore of the Irish Chaplaincy in London. Thank you Eddie, as always.
“You don’t realise how much you’ve missed something until you have it again.”
I’d only gone down to the newly re-opened library to return the couple of books that I’d had out since last year and to borrow a new one. As I came out of the main entrance onto Canterbury High Street I was greeted by an unusual sight. There were seven elderly-looking ladies about to start some kind of performance. They were dressed identically in grey headscarves and billowing black shawls and each had a zimmer frame. To the accompaniment of a slightly eerie soundtrack, they began to push their zimmer frames around one another and were looking more and more distressed and agitated. Their expressions then softened, as did their movements, and suddenly they all pushed away their zimmers and began to dance. Next, they undid their headscarves and flung them into a captivated crowd and ripped off the black shawls to reveal colourful dresses. A solitary man appeared with a large drum, onto which he was beating a flamenco rhythm. The spectacle ended with the setting off of party-poppers and the women throwing rice over the bystanders, before disappearing, dancing, round the corner. I was utterly enchanted and deeply touched. It was the first live dance performance I’d seen in over a year, the first live anything, and it was so good to experience it again.
As I went round to the other side of the library to get my bike I came across the women in their flamenco dresses, looking very pleased with themselves. “That was wonderful,” I gushed. “Thank you so much.” And I added, almost in tears, “You don’t realise how much you’ve missed something until you have it again.” One of them asked if I’d like more rice strewn over me. “Oh yes!” I replied, and was duly anointed. I felt truly blessed.
The day after that I was having a well-earned coffee with a couple of the guys I’d done my Saturday morning club cycle ride with (and what a treat it is to be riding in a group again). We were basking in the sun by the Argentinian café in the Dane John Gardens in Canterbury, and it was great to see people out and about again. I’d been chatting with Conor en route about coming out of lockdown and I’d told him about how much I’d enjoyed seeing a live dance performance again. Just then I spotted a couple in the nearby bandstand doing a tango. “Look!” I exclaimed to Conor and Chris, “there’s a couple dancing.” Chris then told us of how he had practised for months the first dance, to an 80s song, he did with his wife at his wedding, and the conversation went onto other songs from the 80s. Then I told Dublin-born Conor about a nice scene from the film ‘Sing Street’ in which the protagonist, a boy who forms his own band, gathers a load of fellow-pupils at his Dublin school to be dancers at the first gig and implores them to “dance like it’s the 80s!”
One of my favourite scenes from ‘Mamma Mia’ is where all the women, young and old, dance down to the harbour to the tune of ‘Dancing Queen’ and then leap into the sea. An especially touching bit of that scene is an older woman casting off the large pile of sticks she’s been carrying on her shoulders, joining the joyful procession, and crying out, “Oh YEAH.” A few months ago my ninety-one year old mum was sent a wind-up dancing leprechaun by one of her sisters in Newry. The care home where she lives sent a gorgeous video of her standing up and doing a little jig alongside the leprechaun. This from someone who needs a zimmer frame these days to get around.
The day after the Argentinian coffee and tango in the park was Trinity Sunday and Yim Soon and I were at our customary zoom Mass. Part of a reflection from one of the women present was the playing of a Nina Simone song ‘I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.’ During the song several of us present began to sway and dance, and David the priest was moving from side to side the icon of the Trinity, so that it looked as if the Trinity themselves were dancing. It was a special moment.
I’ve always been taken by the Hindu belief that the Lord Shiva danced the world into existence. On this theme, the most well-known song of Sydney Carter is ‘The Lord of the Dance’, whose lyrics go ‘Dance, dance, wherever you may be; I am the Lord of the dance, said he.’ As a child I was convinced that this lyric was, ‘I am the Lord of the dance settee.’ When we were young my sister and I used to jump up and down on the settee in the living-room, and it seemed to me very fitting that God would be jumping up and down with us! The image of the dance settee has, happily, never really left me.
Yim Soon and I are delighted to have just been invited to a wedding, the first such invitation in ages. It’s friends who are musicians and as well as the prospect of good music one of my first thoughts was that we’ll hopefully be able to have a good dance as part of the celebration. I’ve written before of my August holiday in Barmouth, which is an annual reunion of old friends (who met in the 80s!), plus their now mainly adult children, which began in 2000. One of the traditions of the week is a concert night and one of the traditions of the concert night is the singing of ‘500 Miles’. At what was to be the final performance before Covid, the song turned into a long conga of people snaking around the concert room and that led in turn to everyone dancing, old and young together, to other 70s and 80s classics. It was one of the highlights for me of Barmouth 2019.
To finish, here again are the immortal words of Sydney Carter, at least how I remember them:
‘And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be; for I am the Lord of the dance settee’!
“This is no time to save, but spend, To give for nothing, not to lend. Let foes make friends: let them forget The mischief-making dead that fret The living with complaint like this— “He wronged us once, hate him and his.” Christmas has come; let every man Eat, drink, be merry all he can. Ale’s my best mark, but if port wine Or whisky’s yours—let it be mine; No matter what lies in the bowls, We’ll make it rich with our own souls. Farewell to study, books and pen, And welcome to all kinds of men.”
From Foliage: Various Poems by W. H. Davies. A man who had known poverty, living on the streets, before he was taken up by other writers.
I shall delight to hear the ocean roar, or see the stars twinkle, in the company of men to whom Nature does not spread her volumes or utter her voice in vain. Samuel Johnson, in Boswell.
Dr Samuel Johnson had finally seen his Dictionary through the presses, and was about to go back to Lichfield to see his elderly mother. He would then have time for a holiday: this is part of his reply to an invitation to visit friends in Lincolnshire. At the time of posting we did not know if our August holiday would happen, but we can always reach the coast in a few minutes from home.Enjoy August, home or away, and thank God for friends and family.
(from “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell, George Birkbeck Norman Hill)
Looking ahead to Pilgrimage 2020, Vincent lent me a guide to the Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury, which claims that the Church of Saint Martha near Guildford is the only one dedicated to this friend of the Lord. There’s one nearby, but it’s Catholic, so doesn’t count for this writer! But then he also notes the Reformation loss of Saint Peter’s in Winchester without mentioning that the beautiful Catholic church nearby bears that Apostle’s name. No doubt Simon Peter was welcome to the home in Bethany of Martha, Mary and Lazarus.
Martha is the welcomer, just as much as Mary.
Here in Canterbury we are well into the swing of summer, which means visitors, tourists and pilgrims, most people a bit of both: hundreds of continental school students every day; Americans, Japanese and Chinese on package tours, and some travelling independently; families feeling the heat – altogether more varied than the crew who travelled with Chaucer. Some of them produce questionnaires testing my knowledge of Canterbury history – by no means A*; or asking which shops I use most often – I could not identify ten from the list, even if I found five I never visit with consummate ease.
Like Martha, we must be welcomers, some hidden in the kitchen, some paid to serve visitors, all of us readily pointing out directions or speaking a few phrases of whatever language we picked up at school. Is it my inner Martha or my inner Mary who answers the questionnaire, points out the way to the cathedral coach park, or railway station? Peu importe, as they say; does it matter?
It was Martha who went out to meet her Lord after her brother died. Perhaps she’s the one to look to when a visitor to our church has not heard of Saint Thomas, or at the other extreme, wants to reverence the relic; when two coachloads, that is 100+ teenagers, are crossing the road in an orderly (German) or ragged (French) line and holding up traffic, meaning me on my bike.
Welcoming visitors, even when I don’t want anything to do with them, is welcoming the Lord. The day after writing this I sat in the crypt at Canterbury Cathedral; at first the two coachloads were very intrusive, but that gave way to quiet. Some of them stopped to light candles; they were being shepherded along, so could not stay to pray; they let their little light shine though!
I don’t think the ancient Israelites were altogether fond of the forest. One of the most vivid forest stories tells how Absalom, David’s rebel son, was caught by the hair as he rode under an oak tree while his mule galloped on without him. Absalom was a sitting duck for Joab and his men, who killed him, bringing David to tears. (2 Samuel 18, 19). Earlier, in Joshua 17, we read how the tribe of Joseph cleared away the forest to have room to settle and farm, a process that continues around the world to this day.
But something is lost as we clear the forest and then build suburbs over the resulting fields. Closeness to creation and the creator. Abel, at 3¾ years has found it at Forest School: he spends a day a week in the woods with his nursery school, getting muddy and enjoying himself among the trees. We would wait forever for him to tell us what he gets up to, but my teachers’ magazine ‘Educate’ tells how children are equal partners in learning and can take over the leadership of such sessions, under the guidance of their teachers.
One teacher, Jen Hawkes, says, ‘It’s about shared experiences and making friendships. They build a bond in the forest that helps them in the classroom. We’ve had lots of children making friendships who have previously struggled with that – which is so important, especially for mental health.’ So what the children do is by no means all that they learn out of doors. They learn to trust each other.
Perhaps the Missionaries of Africa were prophetic in sending us schoolboys into the woods on half-holidays. There would be one or two at least in July; the priest-teachers were probably as sick of lessons as we were, and whatever we may have fancied they were up to in our absence, they no doubt had meetings to discuss our progress and all the routine matters that arise in any school. But we were free for the day. Note the seven pound jam tins, blackened from being used to cook a shared meal on the open fire to the left. Glamping this was not!
Fifty-odd years after this photograph captured the moment, I am in touch with three of the lads shown. That says something for the bonds built in the forest and other parts of our shared life. Perhaps the Missionaries of Africa were prophetic!
I was just fidgeting to get comfortable in the crypt when she strode in, wearing stout trainers, bag on her back. A couple of coins chinked in the box, a candle was lit, and out she walked, on her way. A pilgrim, leaving her prayer behind?
A pilgrim was I too, even if I had walked little more than a mile to reach the cathedral.
Lead, kindly light, all pilgrims and travellers, especially during this holiday time. And may our hearts turn to you as you walk with us, unperceived.