Summer reads and serendipitous books

Girl with spectacles and cloche hat sitting in a field and reading intentlySchool’s out, and as my summer offer begins – details below – my own summer reading is well underway. So far this year, my holiday reads are not so much the result of conscious choice as chance – books that turned up serendipitously in my life, embedded in their own little stories.

Cover of Love Like Salt by Helen StevensonThe first, Love Like Salt, turned up at a party, appearing out of the bag of its author, Helen Stevenson. We were at a writers’ party to which we’d been asked to bring copies of our books; after talking for a while about life and writing, we spontaneously swopped our own pieces of life-writing. Helen’s exquisitely written memoir centres on her experience as a mother of a daughter with cystic fibrosis and her decision to end what was, on the face of it, an idyllic life in France. But, like the best of its genre, Love Like Salt is really about love and the unexpected challenges life throws at us.

Cover of Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris PackhamMy second serendipitous read came via a back-handed recommendation from my godmother. She couldn’t say she enjoyed Chris Packham’s memoir about growing up with Aspergers, she said, but she found Fingers in the Sparkle Jar ‘an unusual book’ which made for painful reading at points. That got me interested, and so, despite the many other titles on my to-read shelf, I bought a copy.

But in the event, I aborted my reading on the second chapter, and herein lies a different tale about reading and writing. As a well-known zoologist, Packham has naturally not devoted much time to learning the craft of writing, while to this particular reader, style matters. It’s not that his book is badly written; it’s more that its voice is part celeb-memoir, part jolly-bloke, descriptive speaking style he tends to use on Springwatch – difficult to take in large quantities. Meanwhile, my own writing and reading background has heightened my awareness that, in fiction and non-fiction alike, the voice of the narrator is as least as important as the story itself.

fox cub sitting in the grassI’ll certainly go back to Packham’s memoir; sometimes all it takes to appreciate a book is a shift in mode and expectation. And of course the subject – the relation between humans and animals – is bang on-topic for my latest writing project. But, lying in a field earlier this month, I chose to move straight onto the other book in my suitcase, a short work of fiction given to me by a friend last Christmas.

Cover of The Guest Cat by Takashi HiraideWith a writer for narrator, The Guest Cat is very much a writer’s book. The story itself is slight – a cat starts visiting a couple; they get fond of it, and then [SPOILER ALERT]. But the voice of the storyteller has a still, matter-of-fact quality that takes you right into his distinctively Japanese world, something which the translation only seems to heighten. The novel explores an existential puzzle – why do the couple love this particular cat so much? – without ever reducing it to a simple answer.

If you’re noticing that common themes seem to be emerging out of my serendipitous summer reads – love, especially that between humans and animals, and the way life works on us, for better or worse – you’d be right. And perhaps that’s not a matter of chance.


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Acorns on a branch against a background of green leaves and the cover of The New British Druids by Alex KlaushoferA whirling dervish in white and the cover of Sufi Circles by Alex KlaushoferA gate and archway revealing a vista of tree, garden and house that is the cover of The New Monastics by Alex KlaushoferProfile of man sitting looking at a craggy landscape which is the cover of Hidden Hermits by Alex Klaushofer

Hunting foxes, hanging parliaments

Hunt master in red jacket on horse with line of hounds
John Harwood

Amid the mass of coverage spewed out by my radio the day after the election, I was struck by one voter’s reason for rejecting the incumbent Tory government. It was the Tories’ plans to repeal the hunting ban, he told the interviewer; he just couldn’t stomach them.

The hunting ban, which became law under a Labour government in 2004, put an end to a ritualised blood sport that had become popular, with its red jackets and ceremony, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In recent elections the Conservatives have generally supported the repeal of the Hunting Act, with May promising a free vote this time around. But with issues like Brexit and Austerity at stake, you would have thought it would be a pretty minor election issue.

Yet hunting seems to have had a significant influence on voters. According to one poll, half the electorate felt that a candidate’s position on hunting would affect the way they voted, while other research suggested that keeping the ban was Labour’s most popular policy. Corbyn no doubt expressed the feelings of many supporters when he characterised hunting as a ‘barbarity’.

Why such strong feelings? I think that hunting is one of those symbolic issues which plays into our sense of who we are and who we want to be. A distaste for violence, along with a growing awareness of the natural world and our impact on it, is central to the values of a modern western society. Add to that the fact that the British, as the enduring popularity of Springwatch shows, are a nation of animal lovers, and it’s clear why the re-legalisation of a bloodsport would be seen as retrograde.

Foxes, as the hunters of live animals prey of choice, seem to arouse particularly strong feelings. In books they tend to appear as either villains or heroes – as the shyster in Beatrix Potter or the Robin Hood-style family provider in Fantastic Mr Fox. These attitudes manifest into equally polarised human behaviours, with tabloids reporting ‘attacks’ by urban foxes on the one hand and extraordinary attempts by animal rescuers to help foxes on the other.

For me, this election campaign has coincided with a chance to experience the world of animal rescue at first hand. At Secret World Rescue Centre I’m learning how orphaned foxes are reared and, once fully grown, returned to the wild.

Peter Trimming
In particular, I’m following the fortunes of one trio of cubs who illustrate the extremes of attitudes towards foxes. With their (still lactating) mother shot by a neighbour of the land where they had their den, the cubs are now being cared for by other humans. It’s tricky work because human contact needs to be kept to a minimum so that the foxes will remain wild enough to survive in an environment in which humans – ban or no ban – remain a key predator.

If all goes well, by the end of the summer the cubs will be released into the wild, as will, soon afterwards, a short book telling their story.

Meanwhile, I hope that May, for as long as she’s around, will have more on her legislative plate than creating more vulpine orphans.

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Biophilia-in-action: inside a wildlife rescue centre

Young blackbird gaping to receive food on a stick in a wildlife rescue centre

This spring, I’ve been getting closer to birds than I ever dreamt of by volunteering at the wildlife rescue centre Secret World.

At this time of year, the centre is full of young birds who need help from humans to make it to adulthood. Generally orphaned and sometimes injured, they will be cared for until, having spent the latter stages of their stay with minimal human contact, they are released back into the wild. Depending on the day, the hospital section where I’ve been working might house groups of blackbirds, pairs of robins and dunnocks, pigeons, a magpie, a couple of crows and a nestful of tits – the range of birds typically found in British gardens.

This kind of beyond-the-call care of wildlife – a step on from the love of nature that prompts over half the adults in the UK to feed the birds in their garden
– is biophilia-in-action.

The love is in the detail. The birds have to be fed at regular intervals – between one and four hours, depending on age – and the details of what they consume recorded in their patient notes. Each is weighed daily, so that weight loss or a failure to gain can alert staff to an underlying medical condition. Birds who share cages are distinguished by Tippex marks on their heads and dubbed ‘White Mark’, ‘Two Spots’ or ‘No Mark’.

Blackbirds are given a mix of tinned cat food, mealworms and bogena – a dry mix of crushed insects – on a paintbrush or a wooden coffee stirrer. Most other species are fed live mealworms or waxworms on tweezers, chopped into beak-sized pieces.

On my first day, my fellow-volunteer teaches me the technique of holding the stick almost vertically above the bird’s head and, when its beak gapes, popping the food in. (Think the ‘and here’s an aeroplane …’ trick when feeding a baby). You might persuade a reluctant bird to gape, she adds, by tickling the sides of its beak with the stick.

Many of the birds are eager to feed, hopping around, literally gaping, and would willingly consume more than the maximum six helpings thought to be good for them at any one time. One group of blackbirds practically queues, those at the back waiting until the front one has had his fill. One of a trio of large, hungry birds seems to work out that his chances are better if he separates himself from the other two, hopping to a part of the cage where I can feed him without competition. As Secret World’s founder Pauline Kidner says: ‘wildlife knows when you’re trying to help it’. Then again, some birds seem not to, fluttering away from the stick in fear.

Feeding a sestet of long-tailed tits is a challenge: they huddle together in their woollen nest. They are truly tiny: their wingspan is half the length of my thumb, a delicate construction of little bones and feathers. I am supposed to chop their waxworms into thirds, but this is tricky as the caterpillars compress their fat bodies at the touch of the scissors, and the chopped segments join up with other bits. But I find that surprisingly large chunks of caterpillar disappear down into the tiny beaks; the nestlings will eat whole insects in nature, after all.

But a bird won’t feed if it’s cold. A newly-arrived blackbird with an injured wing needs warming up, and I’m asked to make a ‘hot glove’ – a glove filled with hot water which will act as a hot water bottle.

Then there are the ‘blobs’, as birds so recently hatched so as not to have grown any feathers. A robin, bald apart from a bit of fluff on his head, was brought in that morning after being attacked by a cat. The general view is that he’s unlikely to survive, but valiant attempts are made every half-hour to get him to take a creamy mix of neonate from a pipette.

Feeding a bird is a peculiarly absorbing activity, one that makes the world around you disappear: briefly, two entirely different species come together in a common project. But, working in the animal hospital, it also strikes me how soon the sense of wonder at being close to wildlife disappears behind the round of tasks involved in being a bird-nurse. The cages must be cleaned and disinfected daily; piles of towels are sent to the laundry, fresh greenery cut to ‘enrich’ the birds’ living quarters … and then it’s time to start feeding again. I imagine nurses faced with a ward full of humans feel similarly.

At the same time, I notice that almost everyone who comes into the hospital rooms talks to or about the birds in affectionate, humanising terms. It’s a sign that, despite the conservation orthodoxy that carers should remain aloof around animals destined for release, a relationship is in progress. Humans are vocal animals, and our biophilia needs expression.

One lunchtime, having moved to another section to work with mammals, I return to the hospital to visit the birds. I am taken by a trio of gold finches, identifiable by the distinctive colouring that is beginning to form out of the browny-grey mass of feathers. ‘So you miss the birds’ observes my former trainer, and invites me to feed them. Two of the finches are keen, but third third one gapes and then turns his head away every time the food comes close. Feeding becomes a two-woman job – my companion holds the reluctant feeder while I proffer the food. He keeps his beak firmly closed. ‘I think he’s blind,’ she says. ‘If he doesn’t eat, he won’t make it.’

At the end of the day I pop back to see how he’s doing, and find that he’s finally fed.

Hail the yew, the first Christmas tree

Bright red berry on stem of yew

The first British Christmas tree was not the perfectly proportioned Scandi fir that adorns the ideal living room.

It was a single yew bough, introduced to the English court by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, decorated with ribbons and candles. She went on to display an entire yew tree and from that the Christmas tree tradition, whether yew, fir or plastic, evolved.

A native British tree, the particular qualities of the yew made it the object of reverence long before the advent of Christianity. Its old wood can put forth new shoots and drooping boughs take root, with the result that a single tree can live hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.

According to Yew expert Fred Hageneder, it was these qualities that contributed to its sacred status among the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Nordic people of northern Europe. ‘The Tree of Life is an image of the whole universe, or at least of planet earth, which embodies the notion that all life is related to each other and that all that lives is holy,’ he writes. ‘To serve as an ‘earthly representation’ of the Tree of Life, different cultures chose different tree species, according to which species grew in the region and – since all tree species have different characteristics and qualities – which tree character resonated best with the spiritual ideals emphasized by any given culture.’

It’s not hard to see how, in the northern hemisphere where life was historically dominated by seasonal cycles and the darkness of winter, the yew became an emblem of death and renewal. As the darkest point of the year shifted into the beginning of the new year, for the Druids it was the quintessential solstice tree. And, poisonous in all but its berries, it could provide an arboreal portal to the underworld …

Although it’s not known exactly why, under Christianity, yew trees continued to be planted in churchyards – there’s a summary of many possible explanations here – it seems likely that as churches were built on or close to pagan burial sites, they inherited the long-lived yews that grew there. To make their presence theologically sound, all that was required was a small lexical tweak from ‘rebirth’ to ‘resurrection’. In tooday’s churchyards yews still provide shelter for the modern pilgrims, as does this one at Wilmington in the summer of 2016.

So it’s good to conclude my final blog of the year with this thought of the happy coexistence of the pagan and the Christian, nature-based faith and institutional religion, outdoors and indoors. Happy Christmas tree!

The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent. But in the spirit of unreformed Scrooge, the offer ends at Christmas. Humbug!

St Lucy – the Catholic goddess of midwinter

St Lucy with her eyes on a plate
Not a lot of British people know this, but December 13th is the Feast of St Lucy, a young girl who died under the Roman persecution of Christians in the 4th century.

Until a few centuries ago, under the Julian calendar that preceded the modern Gregorian one, St Lucy’s Day was also the shortest day, the darkest point of the year just before the rebirth of the sun, as celebrated by John Donne in his Nocturnal about ‘the day’s deep midnight’.

Sound familiar? The intertwining of pagan with Christian elements means that St Lucy the Catholic martyr is also the goddess of the Winter Solstice, her feastday a festival of light. (Lucy derives from lux=light)

St Lucy is celebrated in various ways in different countries, from processions of girls wearing headdresses of candles in Sweden and other Nordic countries, to the planting of Christmas wheat in Hungry and Croatia. It’s a syncretic feast that the modern Catholic tradition seems to have integrated with ease.

Facts about the historical Lucy are few, but myths abound, and they have a contemporary resonance. One version of her life puts her firmly in the tradition of virgin martyrs, telling of her torture and death as a result of her refusal to marry – a counter-cultural option taken up by a tiny minority of women. Another gory story tells of how her torturers torn her eyes out, a legend that made her the patron saint of the blind, pictured with her eyes on a plate. Then theres the tale of how Lucy smuggled herself into the catacombs of Rome to take food to the persecuted Christians hiding there. Think foodbanks, humanitarian aid!

So I like St Lucy, and the way she embodies key elements of the Christian and pagan traditions that shape the way we experience winter. And I like the richness of the myths about her, and how they provide resources for thinking about different and difficult aspects of life – misogyny, religious persecution, brutality. She’s a good example of how both Catholic and pagan traditions use human figures, whether saints or goddesses, to bring into focus qualities and experiences that might otherwise seem remote.

And I like, finally, that as I was born an hour into December 14th, my birthday* coincides with a woman who went against the orthodoxies of her society to live the life of the spirit.

This is the third in a series of weekly blogs on Christian and pagan themes through Advent. The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent.

*The author would like to apologise to users of Facebook who were led to believe that my birthday was on April 1st and took the trouble to send me birthday wishes. This was a joke conducted for data protection reasons.

Pagan Advent: a time of silence and secrets

Winter field with frozen stone and grass in the foreground
Photo by Nicklas Lundqvist

Behind the Christian, the pagan: it’s now generally accepted that the origins of Advent and Christmas lie in the midwinter festivals celebrated by ancient cultures.

The pagan take on Advent is pretty familiar to anyone concerned with the interplay between nature and the human: it’s the season that approaches the turn of the year, moving inexorably (in the northern hemisphere) to its darkest, deadest point.

Then, after a short period of ‘standing still’ – the meaning of ‘solstice’ – the sun resumes its journey, bringing light and the renewal of life. As in Christianity, it’s thought of in terms of birth, but rather than a single, human and dramatic interruption of history, the re-birth of the sun is part of the cycle of life and the earthly nature of things. In both versions of Advent, Sun-days – the days of the sun – are significant.

This sense of stopping, of the (temporary) deadness of the natural world, is central to the pagan understanding of midwinter, and is fed, each and every year, by our experience of what’s (not) going on outside in the natural world. It’s so powerful that it seeps into one of the best-known, oft-sung Christian responses to the season: ‘In the bleak midwinter … Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,’ writes Christina Rossetti, acknowledging the intractability of the hibernal, before returning returning to the sentimental Christianity characteristic of the Victorian age.

At this time of year, I find I’m instinctively looking for complements in the human realm. As night falls, there’s a desire to stay in and be quiet. But it’s also a time of year when, unusually, I feel a strong pull to attend a church service. One year I found a perfect liturgical match in a kind of dramatic enactment of Advent at St Martin-in-the-Fields: the service began in total darkness, gradually illuminated by candles. I loved it, but it was too much for about a fifth of the congregation, who left early on. One pagan winter solstice gathering, by contrast, proved so busy and chatty that I never went back to that group again.

Perhaps, then, to put it another way, this time of year is about silence and secrets. It’s no secret – with a book title like the one to the right – that I’m drawn to the hidden and the unacknowledged – so I especially like the way this anonymous writer on Patheos characterises Advent:‘Perhaps the season between Samhain and Imbolc is meant to be focused on Silence.
On Secrecy, and things kept very close to the heart.’

This is the second in a series of weekly blogs on Christian and pagan themes through Advent. The paperback edition of The Secret Life of God is available here at a 15% discount during Advent.

No room for displacement: the language of moving

Cardboard box with picture of house on it

They say that moving is one of the most stressful things you can do. It’s up there, in the research, after bereavement and divorce, as one of the great life-events that shake your world. The articles list the sources of stress with empathic relish: the buying and selling of houses, the packing of boxes, the misplaced possessions, the domestic disorder that stretches into months, even years … The way we describe and frame this experience says a lot about our priorities and concerns in twenty-first century Britain.

My move last year from London to the West Country got me
thinking about the language of moving and what it reveals, often through omission, about our relation to place. Its vocabulary demonstrates an overarching concern for the concrete, the financial, the organisation of possessions, the paramount importance of our (dis)comfort and (in)convenience.

Yet it omits the fundamental process of dis-placement and re-rooting that moving involves, how our surroundings imprint in us mental images of place that endure long beyond their physical presence, the way that geography and environment shape our daily routines. The dominant discourse about moving betrays a partial, atomistic way of looking at what is an important rite of passage in our relation to place – the ending of a relationship with one place, and the slow process of forging a new relationship with another.

Born in London but having grown up in a Gloucestershire village, I am topographically schizophrenic. The choices of my adult life represent an attempt to bring some sort of resolution to these two formative places. For almost a decade, I found a compromise in Crystal Palace, the Janus-faced hill-suburb that looks to the centre of London one way, the green of southern England the other. Its garden, bordering allotments and neighbouring gardens, was a haven for local wildlife.

My cottage in Bradford on Avon at the southernmost tip of the Cotswolds close to the Gloucestershire border represents a reversal of my previous compromise: instead of inhabiting a patch of (relative) wild in the city, I now live at the edge of a town set amid hills and fields. But the move to the other side of my topographical self has brought with it an uprooting, a displacing not acknowledged in the dominant discourse, especially not by those of my generation. Social talk about moving tends to focus relentlessly on the positive, with comments on the excitement that a new house and surroundings will bring.

Perhaps not surprisingly, since they come from a time when life was less atomised, it is older people who seem to understand the rupture involved in changing place. My eighty-something godmother enquires solicitously again and again as to how I am feeling: am I settling? Do I feel strange? A psychotherapist friend of similar age elides from talk of gardening to the planting of me:

‘Transplanting us is not so easy,’ she writes. ‘It is full of surprises, however well we prepare for it, and it is by definition unsettling! Everyone seems to experience it differently. When we moved I found myself going through an amazing range of feelings and moods. Our invisible roots need rest and the comfort of familiar, beloved books and music for several weeks before they can begin to find their way into new soil. You must be prepared for that and look after them.’ Psychology, with its focus on relationships between humans, doesn’t pay enough attention to place, she thinks.

I’m coming to think that this absence is part of a broader lack in our language about our relation to place. Standard English has just one word for feelings of longing for a particular place: ‘homesick’. The word implies a polarity: you are at home or away, and suggests the simple solution of going home; it carries no sense of the process of adapting to a new place or of mixed or complex feelings. Other languages of the British Isles do much better at capturing the range of feelings and experiences that make up the human attachment to place.

Welsh has ‘hiraeth’, a word that connotes a yearning for a place that is lost or may not exist, a feeling of longing to be ‘at home’ in the sense of achieving a sense of belonging, of finding your paradise. Its cognate ‘cynefin’ denotes ‘habitat’ or ‘customary abode’; the place which formed you, and with which you are most familiar. In a definition which encompasses cultural, social and geographical influences, Nicholas Sinclair describes it as ‘the place of your birth and of your upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatised.’

The Scottish Gaelic ‘duthchas’ conveys the collective nature of a heritage that connects people to a particular place, historically also the tribal system of land rights accorded to the members of a clan. The fact that the Scottish Gaelic equivalent of homesickness, nostalgia or longing for home, cianalas has given rise to a genre of Gaelic poetry written by emigrees called ‘bàrdachd cianalais’ is perhaps testament to how a profound sense of rootedness finds linguistic expression.

I apologise to speakers of these languages if I’ve mangled the meanings of these terms, untranslatable as they are into Standard English. But my lack of fluency with this kind of language is part of my point: as someone who has always lived somewhere along a horizontal line of southern England, it’s not part of my natural vocabulary. If I want to describe the psycho-spiritual and experiential elements of my relation to place directly, rather than through the more oblique forms of fiction or poetry, I have to have recourse, clumsily, to a vocabulary outside native tongue.

This helps to explain why, despite the conscious choosing of my move westwards, I sometimes awake with an image of a Victorian streets imprinted on my mind, or catch myself wondering whether a particular plant is in bloom in south London. In these moments I’m aware that I haven’t quite hefted, that I’m in the midst of a transition, the in-between time that goes unacknowledged in the dominant discourse about moving. ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now,’ writes A E Housman, in a poem that is generally taken to be about the fleeting nature of human existence. Our culture is very good at talking about our relation to time, especially our varied and conflicting feelings about the past, but neglects the kindred feelings about place. And yet the blossoming cherry tree that Housman’s speaker resolves to see is a particular tree in a particular place: ‘the cherry’ (emphasis added) … ‘stands about the woodland ride’.

And so, as I cross the liminal territory between moving and settling during my first adult year in the West Country, I wonder how particular cherry trees in Crystal Palace are doing. I’m also charting the profess of my newly-planted apple trees which, grafted from local parent-trees and donated by neighbours, are uber-specific to my area. The element now needed to cement my relationship to my new habitat is the seasonal cycles that will bring the familiarity captured by the word ‘cynefin’.

This is an extract from an article published in issue 15 of Earthlines.

The Autumn equinox and the symbolism of the apple

Red and green apple held between fingers and thumb against a blue sky

The autumn equinox – one of two days in the year when day and night are of equal length and which, in the pagan tradition, marks the beginning of the dark half of the year, comes as Christian churches celebrate the gathering in of the crops with the Harvest Festival. This year, for me, it’s all about apples.

Six months ago, having moved to an area of the West Country
historically dominated by orchards, I took the first steps in creating my own garden-orchard by planting some saplings.

And now, the light half of the year later, the first fruit of my orchard is a single, golden Russet. It’s Applewatch! If I allow it to fall, it will bruise and get eaten; if I pick it before it’s ready, I will have bad luck till Spring!

Apples have a rich and complicated symbolism across spiritual and religious traditions. For the Celts, apples had the power of healing and rebirth; for the Druids, as host to mistletoe, it was a sacred tree like the oak.

But of course, in Britain, the most powerful story about the apple is the Biblical one, portraying it as the fruity incarnation of forbidden knowledge. The cause, along with the serpent and the weakness of Woman, of The Fall, the apple represents the power and risks inherent in knowledge. In other words, it’s the Freewill Fruit.

The idea of the riskiness of apples permeates western culture. The apple in ‘Snow White’ is the container of poison, the vehicle of the evil stepmother’s magic that places the girl into a death-like state. In ‘Cider with Rosie’, Laurie Lee chronicles his sexual awakening thanks to an illicit jar of cider under a hay wagon in a chapter entitled ‘First bite of the apple’.

I’m not sure what the apple represents in contemporary British culture, but I suspect it may something to do with an attempt to preserve community and local character in the face of
homogenizing, impersonal modernity. In a couple of weeks, my local community group is holding its annual apple pick in the community orchard, a child-focused afternoon which will result in apple juice for the rest of the year.

And it’s a quarter of a century since Common Ground launched Apple Day on 21st October,
suggesting that the apple be used as ‘a symbol of what is being lost in many aspects of our lives and shown that anyone can take positive action towards change’.

My final thought about apples takes me to Lebanon, where I once went on an apple-picking weekend with a local eco-tourism company. I was a lone foreigner among a group of Maronites, and we picked apples for a leisurely while before having lunch and a lie-down in the orchard. The Syrian seasonal workers – living in nearby tents – were the best pickers, scrambling fast up trees to protect the apples from a bruising fall. There’s a symbolism in that, too.

No presenters were sacked in the writing of this blog

St Giles, patron saint of hermits

There he lived with only a deer for company – according to some legends, the hind provided the under-nourished hermit with milk – until one day he was wounded by a stray arrow from a royal hunting party. Refusing all worldly inducements, he went on to found a forest monastery under the Rule of St Benedict. And so, with the motley biographically-based portfolio given to saints, Giles became the patron saint of woodland, the disabled and diseased, outcasts, and hermits.

I’m fond of St Giles. With the church in the village where I grew up named after him, I’ve spent many a dull moment staring at his image in the the east window, appreciating the presence of the animal and image of simple companionship.

These days, he strikes me as a useful emblem of the need for solitude in modern life and the stillness that can bring a deeper connection with nature. Modern society tends to discourage and dismiss solitude, portraying it as the loneliness which speaks of failure, those who seek it out as misfits and misanthropes. But, as this piece by Phil Daoust about the actively-chosen solitude makes clear, for some it’s the condition for exploration of both inner and outer worlds, creativity and, for some, just a peaceful life without the white noise of constant chit-chat.

Britain’s fractured religious history has contributed to the decline of the solitary, privileging busyness and action even in religious circles. The hermits and anchorites that were a part of society in medieval England largely disappeared with the destruction of the monasteries, and the Church of England has never been big on contemplation.

Hidden Hermits, launched on the Feast of St Giles, features a rare interview with a hermit of the old-fashioned variety – he’s lived on a hilltop for decades, doesn’t like speaking to journalists and yearned for solitude even as young monk. It also chronicles the rise of a new kind of solitary, a little-known network of modern people combining silence and solitude with ordinary life, without the requirements of an institution.

So as September ushers in a new season of busyness – back-to-school, off-to-uni, return-to-work – spare a thought for St Giles and his life of solitude among the trees.

Hidden Hermits is available on Amazon

In praise of the micro-solstice

The New British Druids cover
Photo by JB Kilpatrick

This year’s summer solstice is a special one. First and famously, as it’s all over the media, this year’s longest day coincides with a full moon. This is rare: it last happened in 1967, and won’t happen again until 2062, by which time I’ll almost certainly be stardust.

I like that there’s a growing custom, deriving from Native American tradition, of giving full moons their seasonal names. So the June full moon is the Strawberry Moon, to mark the beginning of the strawberry season.

I also rather like how here in Britain, we use the summer solstice as a yet another reason to grumble about the climate we live in, pointing out that the longest day marks the moment at which the days begin to shorten on their inevitable march towards winter. It’s downhill from here on, we like to remark, momentarily forgetting that some traditions consider mid-late June as the start of summer.

Yet I suspect this particular version of British pessimism is a way of relating to the climatic quirks of the natural world which we inhabit. And since recently I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about the British way of relating to nature, this year’s summer solstice seems the right time to release The New British Druids, a piece of longform reportage on contemporary Druidry. Anyone who’s read The Secret Life of God will find most of the material there, so this standalone short ebook is aimed at those who would appreciate a shorter read specifically about neopaganism.

I loved summer solstice long before I discovered the rich rituals and lore of our native nature faiths. In praise of the micro-solsticeYears ago of a solstice in London I used to drag any friends willing enough up Primrose Hill, and for the last couple of years I’ve held a suburban solstice fire party in my back garden in Crystal Palace. See those flames leap!

This solstice is different as, having moved from London to Wiltshire, I find myself for the first time within easy driving distance of the Great Henge. Will I join the heaving crowds for the night of the 20th/21st?

I don’t think so. As Amy Willis points out in this article, there are plenty of other places to mark the first high point of the British summer. I may tootle over to the stone circle she doesn’t
mention at Avebury, and see whether it’s possible to see the dawn in amid all the parking and health and safety restrictions.

Kitchen Window Henge
Kitchen Window Henge

If not, I think I’ll be happy to see this year’s summer sun stand still amid my own strawberry patch, inherited from the
previous owner of my new-to-me garden. Or perhaps I can just hold my own micro-solstice by looking at the small stones standing on the wall behind the kitchen window. For stone worship, as no one ever actually said, begins at home …

The New British Druids is available on Amazon.