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Beauty of the ancient

03 November 2017


Quiet: Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery on BBC 4

Quiet: Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery on BBC 4

TO HAVE been unable to watch Retreat: Meditations from a Monas­tery (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) as it was broadcast because one was too busy would have been both a pathetic excuse and a clear indica­tion of how greatly one was in need of this ministry. I, however, was unable to watch it at the time because I was on retreat; BBC iPlayer allows me to comment.

This is the first of BBC4’s slow tele­­vision. Without back­ground mu­­sic, we entered the silence of Down­side Abbey, broken only by Latin plainchant. There was no voice-over com­mentary: merely sparse, discreet captions offering basic in­­­for­mation about who St Benedict was, or why the monks wear hoods.

I would have liked more of the Latin, in the sense that the film was skewed rather towards the physical tasks that they undertake: wood­carv­ing, bread-making, and garden­ing. They might feel that the daily round of worship, prayer, and praise should have received greater priority, and surely the mass, the centre of it all, is actually in English.

Is there a directorial bias towards emphasising the sheer otherness of monastic life: how utterly different it is from our usual frenetic pace? I have not yet seen the other two episodes, but I hope that they will broaden the focus, show­ing, for example, the char­ism of hospitality so central to the Benedic­tine Way.

A Year in an English Garden (BBC4, Monday of last week) was also a depiction of ancient enclosure, as the garden in question is a walled garden, a hortus conclusus. Here, we revisited the 1950s to see speeded-up camera work of plants germinating, grow­ing, flowering, fruiting, and fading.

It was, quite consciously, a medi­tation on both the primeval tasks of horticulture and on life and mortality. We saw as much rotting com­post as glorious blooms: the garden a place where life springs from death, cyclic, inevitable. It was terrific, but per­haps, for those desperately won­der­ing how they will survive until their universal-credit payment arrives, as relevant as the Gothic Revival splen­dours of Downside.

For real escapism, you could not beat the inspiration behind Harry Potter: A history of magic (BBC2, Saturday). In this trailer for the British Library’s exhibition illustrating the related studies of alchemy, divina­tion, and magic, we had J. K. Rowling herself as our guide — or, rather, a figure express­ing on our behalf the appropriate “Oohs” and “Ahs” as the librarians revealed manu­­script, book, and object. Things that she has known only in reproduction are here in the flesh.

But at its heart lay, for me, a queasy evasion: it was billed as a story of real-life magic, but what exactly are we supposed to think is real? Juxtaposing Culpepper’s Complete Herbal with a medieval recipe for the Philosopher’s Stone seems to me more muddled than illuminating: this is the realm not of deeper and more profound self-knowledge, but of fantasy.

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