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Diary: Mark Oakley

21 August 2020

ISTOCK

Songs without words

IN THE unlikely event that I’m ever asked on to Desert Island Discs, I know I’d choose quite a lot of Beethoven. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth this year, I have been reading Laura Tunbridge’s excellent Beethoven: A life in nine pieces, and enjoying the BBC’s three-part series Being Beethoven. I’ve tended to think that in life he was probably a person easier to admire than like, but I’ve been made to reconsider.

Tears came to my eyes when I read about his visit to the home of his pianist friend Dorothea von Ertmann. Her three-year-old son had just died. Beethoven came in, sat at the piano, and improvised beautifully for about an hour. He then got up, pressed Dorothea’s hand, and “went as silently as he had arrived”. Music, that day, was the only language they were able to share.

 

Sugar-free treats

TO BOOK or not to book a holiday? That is the question. Will someone on your plane be tested positive on arrival for Covid-19 and unintentionally condemn you and 400 other people to a local barracks for 14 days before your return? How do you wear masks in the pool?

Ever since I heard them described as “face nappies” I’ve been reluctant to think of them anywhere near a buffet, no matter how enticing. Wouldn’t it just be easier to pour a Malibu and pineapple and sit in a bucket of water at home?

Well, no. I’ve decided that anxiety is an emotion, not a mandate, and so I’ve booked a few days in Vienna so that I can visit Beethoven’s grave. As the Austrians say, “Das Leben ist kein Zuckerschlecken”: life is no sugar-licking; you just have to get on with it.

I’ll also be able to visit the grave of another hero, W. H. Auden. He lies in a country churchyard in Kirchstetten, about an hour from the capital. Auden said that “Death is like distant thunder heard at a picnic.” As I get older, I find that the rumbling makes me enjoy the picnic a bit more. I’m not a taphophile, or a tombstone tourist, but I do find myself distilled by a poignant cemetery. As the gospel teaches, it can be the place of fresh starts.

 

Promising outline

I AM planning a funeral in College for Dr Peter Linehan, a Fellow for more than 50 years and a committed Roman Catholic. Among his many books is The Ladies of Zamora: a study of the scandalous goings-on in a 13th-century Spanish convent.

Perhaps this equipped him for his work over many years overseeing student discipline. An obituary recalled how, when one hungover student stood before him, charged with having the night before drawn a very large phallic symbol in white flour on the College lawn, Peter asked him whether the flour was self-raising.

 

Back to the future

THE writer Arundhati Roy has said that, besides being a virus, Covid-19 is an X-ray. It has looked inside us and seen the fractures. It seems to me, after conversations with many lay and clergy friends, that there is some research to be done into the effect of the past few months on our spiritual lives, our confidence in the Church, and our vocation.

Our stability has been undermined by a succession of waves that have increased our sense of being liminal, displaced, or, at worst, drowning — as individuals and as an institution. It feels, from the way in which many are talking, that a long-overdue return to something more essential about the Church’s calling is widely and urgently hungered for.

To be lost is also to be in a time of discovery. It will be important to attend to the intimations. The jargon and models of business and indifferent management have failed us. We might be on the verge of a sort of necessary interruption. Is it time for deeper soil to be turned over to the top, and time-tested Christian wisdom offered, imaginatively and sacramentally, as something unexpectedly welcome?

When some magnificent poplar trees were felled, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote that “After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.” God forbid that this should ever be said of the Christian gospel, and the communities who seek out its truth in our parched times.

 

Well met

THINKING more about Peter Linehan, I remembered a day early this year when we met each other walking in the College. “I’m so pleased to bump into you,” Peter said. “Why’s that?” I asked. “Oh, no particular reason,” Peter said, smiling. I’ve thought a lot about that encounter recently, and wondered whether the world might be a little bit better if we learned to say such things to each other more often.

Rest in peace, Peter — and thank you.

 

Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.

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