Milk straight from an old H.P. sauce bottle
I had a dreamy morning out and about yesterday with Sarah Salway, looking at the churches at Tudeley and Capel in West Kent. After twelve years living in the rocky landscape of Cornwall where there are few trees, Kent strikes me as intoxicatingly lush. There’s a fullness and heaviness about the landscape – orchards gravid with apples and the cornfields like full heads of blonde hair, early this year, awash with poppies like giant blood stains, now ready for harvesting. The hedgerows and meadows everywhere are deepening into yet more complex shades of green.
I’ve been thinking – as you do – about the nature of existence recently. Tudeley Church is famous for its Chagall windows. When I went in, I gasped at the blueness of the three windows facing me, showing different elements of creation. I gasped again at the East memorial window with its depiction of a tragic drowning accident beneath Christ on the cross – and a third time when I turned back towards the South door and was surprised, after all that blue, to see two huge golden windows, dazzling in the summer light.
What I’ve been musing on though, is how, in a sense, these windows don’t exist. Yes, there is stained glass framed in lead and stone but their beauty and art is wholly dependent on light. At night, they’d be invisible (like the Victorian windows in the vestry until Sarah showed me where the light switch was). On a dull day, they’d be completely different, even yesterday, the occasional passing cloud suddenly illuminated an angel or a Chagall horse /ass that I hadn’t noticed before. I thought of buying some postcards but they had a dead quality, in no way reflecting (a light metaphor) the beauty of the windows.
This whole summer has been extraordinarily beautiful and that too is a trick of the light. Blean Woods, my regular dog walking haunt, has been ultra-dapply, the garden is periodically awash with butterflies – they still themselves when a cloud comes over, then rise up in a flurry when there’s sudden warmth.
Perhaps transcendence – that sense of beauty and otherness, mediated by light – depends on transcience – and is non-existent, pure spirit. Whereas maybe (using a distinction I read in Thomas Moore’s book Care of the Soul), the concrete, the stuff we’re surrounded by, the earthly relates to the soul.
Sarah had brought breakfast for us to eat in the churchyard. There was milk in a jamjar which took me back immediately to picnics with my grandparents on the beaches around East Kent with, in pre-tupperware days, everything in jars, old sauce bottles and tins, little paper screws of salt and a tiny gas stove for making tea. And that took me straight to a favourite Charles Causley poem, Eden Rock.
This poem is full of the thing-ness of things as well as light and an evocation of an after-life (Causley’s father died when he was seven).
The poem is also a window through which I can look and see my grandparents and their complicated picnics, my many memories of Cornwall and now, breakfast in a country churchyard – none of which ‘exist’ other than as tricks of a light that’s long since changed into new patterns. And yet there is the now-ness and thing-ness of this present moment to enjoy too – what Thomas Moore calls the ‘imperfect, intoxicating sensuousness of worldly life’ – lunch, tomatoes fresh from the vine, the thought making my mouth water.