MY TUTOR at university once said to me that “There are two Mark Oakleys. One is outrageous in humour, and the other is very serious in reflection. And,” he continued, “there’s not much in between. You usually get one or the other.”
He’s been proved right over the years, and never more than now: cooped up at home, I find myself either reading melancholic poems, immersed in late Beethoven, or watching clips of Kenneth Williams’s anecdotes and dancing in the kitchen to kick-’em-high Songs from the Shows.
Life, I suppose, is captured by the sock and buskin masks of theatre; but, on balance, I think humour must tip the scales. Surely laughter is a promise of redemption — and faith is trusting that the promise is being kept.
I SHOULD have been going to Australia to give some talks over Easter. It is a land of poets. The late lamented Clive James had a bard’s eye for raw description: who can forget his observation of Dame Barbara Cartland? “Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.”
From that continent, though, it is Les Murray’s poetry that I admire most. Each of his collections is dedicated to the glory of God; Murray came to mind when I heard the latest whinges from the National Secular Society about religious staff being considered essential in our difficult times. When Murray’s father died, he wrote a poem that ends: “Snobs mind us off religion Nowadays, if they can. Fuck them. I wish you God.” Quite so.
Pulling the strings
I AM partial, from time to time, to a good crime novel or thriller. At the Bloxham Festival (Features, 6 March), I met Jo Baker, whose recent novel The Body Lies (Back-page interview, 14 February) kept my light on late into the night. It’s about a creative-writing teacher, one of whose male students begins to write about her; as the chapters get written, she sees that the student is writing her fate — and it’s not pretty.
It’s a clever idea, and made me wonder just who in our lives writes the lines that we must live to, who dictates the grammar of our decisions, and controls the ways the chapters of our lives pan out? I guess many of us will find the answers to these questions unsettling. I feel a sermon coming on.
PERHAPS no one wrote a crime book like Agatha Christie. Her second husband was Sir Max Mallowan, the great historian of the ancient Middle East, to whom she was happily married for 46 years. “An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have,” she famously said. “The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.”
There’s something of a whodunnit feel to the Easter narratives of the Gospels. Whereas many are drawn to the beautifully crafted Johannine stories, or the Lukan resonances of the Emmaus road, I find myself more at home with the abrupt and disorientating end of Mark’s Gospel: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
My head is certainly running about at the moment, with not a little fear and anxiety. And yet, being still in my room at home with candle lit and prayer book open, unable to see or say anything to another person, I feel again that amazement at the fragile gifts of life and love, and of the hope that faith infuses in them that they are both to be trusted. This is the beginnings of resurrection. It’s a road I want to keep to.
I HAVE signed a contract to write Volume 2 of The Splash of Words (Books, 25 November 2016). I’m looking forward to writing it, because I discover what I believe during the process, not usually before. The first sentence is always the hardest. I read it, think it’s awful, and then paralysis sets in. I try to take encouragement from Kahlil Gibran’s note that “half of what I say is meaningless; but I say it so that the other half may reach you.”
It will be a strange Easter, not being able to be in church for the Triduum. But perhaps the truth of our faith will never be more tested — and never be more essential to celebrate. Our spiritual ancestors lived with plagues and wars and illness. Their faith is passed down not as a hobby, but for human survival and refreshment.
As usual, George Herbert says it all, and with his words I wish you all a peaceful and very blessed Easter.
Do not by hanging down break from the hand,
Which as it riseth, raiseth thee:
And with his buriall-linen dry thine eyes:
Christ left his grave-clothes, that we might, when grief
Draws tears, or bloud, not want an handkerchief.
Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.