Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

by
11 August 2017

Malcolm Guite is subjected to mistaken identity

0:00 / 0:00

SOMETHING strange, but strangely beautiful, happened to me the other day when I was hear­ing mass in Clare Priory. I say “hearing” be­­cause, as an Anglican guest in that lovely old Roman Catholic house, which has made me so welcome, I knew I could not receive the sacra­ment, but I still delighted to be in its presence. I like making retreats there, amid those ruins come to life again, because I so often feel myself to be just that — a ruin come to life again.

What happened was this. When we stood to share the Peace, a very well-dressed man, whom I had noticed glancing at me at various points in the service with a look of kind concern, slipped a folded paper discreetly into my hand as he shook it. I couldn’t look then and there; so I slipped it quietly into my pocket, and returned to my place as the service continued.

After the mass was ended, and we went in peace, I took the paper from my pocket — it turned out to be a tenner! I was nonplussed at first, and then it suddenly dawned on me that he had taken me, or mistaken me, for a tramp, for one of those gentlemen of the road whom the religious houses of England still occasionally shelter and set on their way again.

Well, I suppose my appearance was against me. I may have been, I confess, a little dish­evelled (shevelling was never my strong point), and perhaps my longish white hair and beard and my favourite old tweed greatcoat all con­trib­uted to the mistaken identity. I suddenly recalled the day, 40 years ago, when I set off from school for my university interview, wear­ing a new-bought suit and having actually combed my hair, and, as I left, one of the school­masters opened a window and shouted after me “Guite, you look like a tramp who is pretending not to be!” (they didn’t go in for “affirmation” in those days), and I realised why even my wife has given up on keeping me tidy as a lost cause.

Advertisement

But what to do? My benefactor had long since gone, and, even if I found him, it would only have embarrassed him to return the money. Well, I thought, perhaps, I can be a courier, and I can make a special delivery to the next “gentle­man of the road” I meet, the one for whom this gift was really intended.

It didn’t take long. I don’t remember beggars in Cambridge when I was a student in the 1970s, but now I counted seven in my short walk from the bus station to another bus stop. I made the first one’s day with my recorded delivery, but something strange was happening: as I met the other six, I somehow found there was a little more money in my pocket than I thought, that my wallet was somehow a little easier to open — or was it my eyes that had been opened, too?

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read up to twelve articles for free. (You will need to register.)