HALLOWED moments are hard to find when you can’t, on impulse, lift the heavy latch and step inside a country church, or simply wander into a cathedral. Absorbing antiquity has been pretty much out of bounds; and the mitigations around going to church leave me feeling bound and gagged and far from worshipful.
But we have had a glimmer of light in the shape of a cautious return to choral music: a joyful reassembly of our 14 voices, to record hymns and anthems for Ascension and Pentecost. We last came physically together for Christmas recording, in the brief window before further lockdown. Passiontide and Easter passed us by, and the break in the cycle — the interruption of the story — has been strange and unsettling.
Now we are giving to “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire” the monastic sound that sends a shiver down the spine. There is nothing like it. The evening sun chooses that moment to pour through the west window, and all is divine.
Back to basics
I COME down to earth to address the malfunctioning electric flush on the camper-van lavatory. I hear of a man called Dave who is a wizard at fixing them. His services are so in demand, as camping gets under way again, that I have to wait five weeks for a visit; but then I get nothing short of an education in maintenance, and a considerable expansion of knowledge.
He calls me out when he has finished. He has myriad tools and bits laid out on the drive. He explains seals and filters, and the proportion of chemical fluid to water which prevents corrosion of parts and consequent damage to the system. He demonstrates how to detach and drain the water pipe, and makes me do it myself so that he is satisfied that I know how.
I realise with chagrin how little I know, or have bothered to learn since my husband died. He knew this stuff almost by instinct; could find his way with ease around an engine, and, in the early, impoverished days of our marriage, serviced our Mini himself.
But I also reflect how very hands-off and remotely operated life has become, especially in the past year. When I venture into town, I no longer have to put money into a parking machine because — like everything else — I can tap it into my phone. Dave’s van, packed to the gunwales with boxes of bits, is a reminder that life still needs an engine to drive it.
I AM reminded of that in a different sense on the new Whitby sculpture trail: a wonderful series of permanent artworks by the Yorkshire sculptor Emma Stothard. She creates life-size figures from galvanised wire, woven by hand on to a steel skeleton; and there is something very dignified about these Whitby ones, all associated with the town’s fishing heritage.
There’s no sentimentality here; no winsome looking back to some golden past. I love the industry of the Herring Lassies by the bandstand — two women gutting fish at a table, and another packing them — and the upright figure of the Fishwife with her barrels by the harbour. They speak of resilience, and fortitude, and something harder to define. I touch them and feel a connection.
Ways without words
FUNERALS have been an anguish: only a few mourners allowed, and consolation at a distance awkward and unsatisfactory. But there is also an intimacy in those smaller numbers. Emrys Bryson, a great friend and renowned journalist on the Nottingham Evening Post, dies a day short of his 94th birthday, and a few of us are privileged to attend the service with his family.
He always had pockets full of chocolate bars to share with friends, and when we arrive at the crematorium, we see one on each of our seats, along with the order of service. Everyone is masked, and no one is speaking. But everyone is smiling as they pick up their chocolate. You can see it in the eyes, in the knowing tilt of the head, in the gesture towards each other which clearly says, “A last bit of mischief. How he would have loved that.”
I HAVE cause to go down to the Devon coast. Paignton is dominated by resting cruise ships that have turned this and other bays into giant parking lots for ships at anchor. There is something ghostly about the armada of resting vessels that present a different face with the turn of the tide. It encapsulates all the waiting and the abnormality of things.
But there is awakening in other parts: in the glory of the flowers, and the greenness of the trees. The lanes are quiet, and the hedges tall; the bays on the south-west coastal path tempt the walker down to the shore. We have come equipped to beachcomb: we scour the bay and extract bottles and tops, plastic and string from the crevices of the rocks.
It reminds me of childhood in my own seaside town. At the end of a day when “trippers” had poured in off the train, we used to go down to the lower promenade and scavenge for the coins that we knew would have been dropped from pockets from the high railings above the sands. And then we would go and check the arcade for overlooked coins in the penny machines. Life has a way of skilling you for the things to come.
Pat Ashworth is a journalist, playwright, and (soon to be again) theatrical landlady.