Photo at Pixabay
A very special memory this year was the carol service in the ancient church of St Kentigern in Mungrisdale. I don’t go to church very often, but I have always thought this was a very special place, in this very special village, and sometimes I slip into the tiny church to sit quietly for a while, looking out through the end window at the fells. I will miss it so much when, regretfully, we leave the village in the New Year.
This year, some of the villagers got a choir together and instituted a Carol Service for the first time. I was honoured to be asked to read a poem: Christmas by John Betjeman. I’m not particularly a fan of Betjeman, but this is an evocative poem of a particular time in the twentieth century, which I can almost, though not quite, remember – trams and oil lamps, and girls in slacks like my mother wore at weekends as a kind of rebellion (trousers were forbidden for teachers during the week). I have read poetry in performance, mostly my own, at fairly large gatherings, even on BBC2 in the Review Show. But I was really nervous this time to be reading in front of my neighbours.
Oddly, I felt I was representing Mungrisdale Writers, for all the wonderful writers who have been part of the group for the last eighteen years. Dorothy Chalk, for example, who was such an important part of the community for so many years, who now lives in Caldbeck and can rarely get to classes, the late Jill, Lady Jackson, a dear friend, who with Dorothy helped me start to the group and inspired me as our first chairman (she hated the word chairwoman). Way back then, we discussed how we were going to begin with a journal about writing to be called ‘The Fell and the Star.’ I still like that name. When I think of the hundreds of fantastic poems, prose, and stories that have poured out of the amazing group and given such pleasure and laughter and moved us so much, I felt I was reading the poem for everyone.
I practised it loads over the pre-Christmas period while preventing a very small black Labrador puppy from destroying the house, trying to remember who I had sent Christmas cards to, and generally organising Christmas in my normal chaotic way. There were a few lines in the poem which could be difficult, and I know that those little hiccups in scansion and meaning could be minefields when faced with an audience, liable to trap one into a stumble. Then I had a dream which threw me into a mild panic, that I had forgotten to take the script with me, and had gone to the wrong church. Marooned in the snow, with no transport, it was impossible to get back to the right church on time. Mindful of the portent of dreams, I took one copy in my pocket and one in my handbag, just in case …
We struggled into the church out of a wild storm. What seemed like hundreds of candles flooded the little building with light, right up to the ancient beamed ceiling. The village had really gone to town. Carols in their own way are their own ritual. When we return to ritual, of whatever kind, we are stretching back through Time, on our personal journey … For me, the connections include our youngest daughter Harriet singing the solo in ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, a single voice in the enormity of St Andrews Church in Penrith. I didn’t have a ‘religious’ childhood, and we never went to church as a family, but somehow carols transcended all that, and are part of the rich fabric of our heritage.
In my mind, I always saw them as red and gold, the pages inscribed with ancient writing, like illuminated manuscripts, although one of the most famous, my favourite, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, was written by the poet Christina Rossetti in the nineteenth century. Learning to play ‘Away in a Manger’ on the piano in my first year of lessons was a fantastic thrill, although no one ever asked me to accompany them! I remember my first teaching job as I dressed the shepherds in tea towels, and draped tinsel round the angels’ heads, and then my first year Infant class singing ‘Away in a Manger’ in that special way only Infants do i.e. mostly forgetting the words.
I have just seen a film of my youngest granddaughter Freya, age 5, at their school carol service this year, holding the Baby Jesus as though her life depended on it, looking terrified. Her new baby brother had been born the week before, and I imagine she related to it deeply and felt her great sense of responsibility. (She actually burst into tears at the end and had to be led off the stage, and I hoped that wouldn’t happen to me!)
With this tiny church lit by candlelight, and crowded with villagers, I was quite nervous. I would have to sit at the end of the pew and wait for my prompt, which was the Second Lesson. Then, glasses on my head, I strode forward and hopefully performed a good rendition of Betjeman’s poem. At the end, dizzy with relief, I turned into the wrong pew, much to the surprise of the man sitting there. Several people came up to me at the end during the sherry and mince pies, to point out that the fan heater was so loud they couldn’t hear what I was saying. I believe the Greeks have a word for it – hubris!
I certainly felt I was representing you all, and your fortnightly journey to this tiny, powerful village of Mungrisdale – a place where, nearby, George Fox preached in the early years of Quakerism, a place which was probably special long before Christianity. I often have the strong feeling that we are only continuing a line of inspiration and creativity which goes back a very long way, protected and encircled by the mountains in this fertile place of flowers and trees and stories …
That is beyond any specific religion, for me. But I was glad to be in that place of candlelight with its own ancient story and traditions. I was glad to be asked.