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Adventures of a flaneuse

02 January 2015

Mark Oakley draws nourishment from a scholarly inner and outer travelogue

A Tour of Bones: Facing fear and looking for life
Denise Inge
Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop Special Price £14.99 (Use code CT870 )

THE 19th-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac contributed to the debates of his day on the nature of a flâneur by concluding that it was someone who practised "gastronomy of the eye". The flâneur walks with purpose, curiously enjoying the richness and density of experience, and gratefully puzzling at the meaning of it all.

I never had the fortune to meet Denise Inge, but reading this last book of hers convinced me that she was, several generations later, a spiritual flâneuse, a 21st-century divine, ambling with her God, and as profoundly gifted in her quick-eyed observance as in her ability to feed us with a gentle and resilient discernment.

Married to a bishop, she found herself moving to a new home that lay on top of a medieval charnel house, or ossuary; and she became distracted by the thought that she now lived and moved over the bones of the dead: "They do what they are, they remain. They make no noise about it. They insist on nothing, demand or require nothing of me except the admission, which I make seldom and reluctantly, that one day I shall join them in bare beauty."

The flâneur will always restlessly pursue such distracting thoughts, and Inge took off with a friend around Europe to look at four other distinct and alarming charnel houses. On the way, she encountered a bored Polish nun wielding a femur and a microphone, underground artworks that would make Damien Hirst shiver, and Austrian skulls with the deceased's name written on the forehead, a passport, presumably, for the day of resurrection.

As she travelled, so she tried to "face that king of fears" which each of us badly ignores, the fear born in knowing that our life has a firm full stop ahead of it, and at an unknown time and place. This looking fear in the eye becomes more poignant as Inge discovered, during the course of writing the book, that she had cancer, and that her own end is nearer that she ever thought.

Inge's book is a resonant travelogue for the outer and inner landscape. She beautifully captures passing moments and sights as transparently as the tone allows us a little closer to her. Her spirit, which modestly energises every page, is infectiously audacious and yet reassuring. The hope that she holds in her naturally stakes a claim in the unknown and unprovable, because life has possibilities to share that we can never predict or even conceive.

Her heart appears unconfined enough to sing along with the beauty of the world as much as her intelligence is humane enough to know that it is always more important to be loving than to be "right". Shaped by Traherne and Frost, Inge's faith is inspirited in the truth that God is in the diverse detail of this world as poetry itself nestles in the poem.

In the evening of her life, Inge reflects: "The cancer has not made life more precious. That would make it seem like something fragile to lock away in the cupboard. No, it has made it more delicious." There is that "gastronomy of the eye" again. The experience that forms the depth of this book led her, as one of life's more faithfully adventurous flâneuses, to look past her fear and towards the God of life.

She writes: "We are free, I believe, if we find it on the inside - which is the only place from which freedom cannot be wrested, and the only kind of freedom that is abiding." She died on Easter Day. 

The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral.

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