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Diary: Pat Ashworth

10 May 2024


Temps perdu

I AM witnessing a lot of old age and infirmity on frequent visits to a care home, and it is sobering. Vascular dementia is a cruel, cruel thing. But there are moments of illumination — humour, even — as something breaks through the mist.

We sit in one of the lounge areas and watch in fascination as a resident wanders in with a single wellington boot, which she places carefully on the table. She stands back in critical appraisal, like an artist before an easel, before repositioning it with precision and departing.

We look at each other. A smile breaks over both our faces; our eyebrows lift, but we need no words: we are our familiar selves again, sharing a childhood mischief. And then, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony starts to play over the sound system, and I look directly at her face. There is something of recognition and contentment there, and my heart gives a lurch.

Suddenly, I am taken back with startling clarity to a student flat in Finsbury Park. My flatmate, Stephanie, had a Dansette record-player, and we were building up our collection, mostly Joan Baez; but one day I bought the “Pastoral” Symphony, and played it at full volume while reading The Stricken Deer: the anguished life of the poet, Thomas Cowper.

The effect of this combination was like stepping through a veil: the first time in my life that I knew what it was to be elevated to another plane. It was nothing short of holy. And here I was, decades later, with tragedy and beauty fusing again, and still with the power to move.


Hidden lives

IT IS proving an irony that, despite the distance between the Midlands and the Highlands, I see more of my son now than I did when he lived in Manchester. We walk in the forest above Uath Lochans, in the Cairngorms, and I am shocked to see the devastation wrought by the extreme winter storms. It is like a battlefield on which the bodies of the dead remain where they fell. You can see where the wind ripped through a cluster of these straight-backed trees and felled them in a single cut, with a single scream.

But now it is late April, and the view from the top, almost above the treeline, is of a great, green vastness. The air is pure. The scent is heavenly. And, when we descend, we come across — of all things — a wedding by the lochside. It is a tiny affair: just the bride and groom, bridesmaid and best man, a celebrant, and a photographer.

We glimpse them as the vows are being exchanged, and we don’t like to intrude; so we hang back and watch from a distance. We can see a bottle of champagne waiting on a white picnic table, and we come across a camper van close by where the bride and bridesmaid must have changed. It’s a secret wedding, in a secret place, and I lament that I will never know the story.


Bridge of sighs

DEATHS, on the other hand, do mostly come with a story. We stand and wonder at the impossibly precipitous incline of the Highlands’ oldest packhorse bridge, a diminished stone construction straddling the torrent at Carrbridge. (“Straight out of The Silver Chair!” marvels a friend on seeing the image.)

There is a plaque close by with the history of this “coffin bridge”. The etching is of a funeral procession, backs hunched, heads down against the wind, toiling up the steep rise as they follow the jolting, horse-drawn cart that bears the coffin. It is a picture of misery and determination, resilience and respect.

Before 1717, when the bridge was built, funerals had to be delayed until the raging waters of the River Dulnain had subsided enough to enable the mourners to cross to the church on the other side of the river. We look now at the ingenuity of the construction and the fact of its survival, and we shake our heads in wonder.


Street theatre

I AM brimful of good things after a weekend in York with readers of this paper and members of the Royal School of Church Music, attending the Festival of Faith and Music. So heady, so soaring was the musical offering in the Minster, in particular, that hitting the streets of the city might have been expected to provide a touch of ordinariness.

But no. There is a mad hen-party, for one thing, with a flamboyant bride-to-be and a flock of her brightly plumaged friends. They are posing at various iconic locations, and I begin to recognise them by their shrieks. There are costumed tourist guides, including a witch gaily addressing a party by the railings of the stonemason‘s yard. A marvellously disrespectful gargoyle is grinning from behind the railings of the yard. It all becomes a a bit surreal.


Safe on Canaan’s side

YORK has experienced 24 hours of continuous rainfall. For the duration of the festival, I’m staying in my camper van on a small and peaceful rural site, two miles from the city centre. Despite being on a hardstanding pitch, I wake on Sunday to find myself surrounded by water — so much so that the cable hooking me up to the electricity supply is under water.

Miraculously, in the late afternoon, the rain stops, and the sun comes out. The moment it does, there is a chorus of birdsong. Two rabbits have a Watership Down moment and chase each other across the grass. I am Noah after the floods. I am safe in my ark.


Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.

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