The silence of the monks – a day out on Caldey Island

St Illtyd's Church, Caldey Island
St Illtyd’s Church, Caldey Island

There’s nothing like visiting a monastery for a good day out. At least, that’s what they think in Lebanon, where mountain-top monasteries are a popular visitor attraction. Go to one of the big, Maronite institutions, and you’ll find families and coach parties circulating between the various chapels and shrines, making votive offerings to saints and buying souvenirs in the gift shop.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find the same culture of monastic tourism flourishing at Caldey, an island a boat ride off the south Pembrokeshire coast which is home to a community of Cistercians.

Cistercians are a strict order following the Rule of Benedict more commonly known as Trappists and known for embracing silence as part of their spiritual discipline. On Caldey since 1929, they are continuing the long tradition of British monasticism that began in the 6th century when the Celtic Christians, realising the potential of beautiful, remote places to foster the life of the spirit, began to found holy islands such as Iona and Lindisfarne. Today, the community at Caldey is all that remains of the once-thriving Cistercian tradition in Wales, home to 13 such monasteries until the dissolution of 1536 put a sudden, violent end to the monastic way of life.

But peace pervaded the place on our visit last week. The island was full of monastic tourists, as families took in the sea views, visited the chapels, sniffed in the perfume and chocolate shops and sat at the cafe below the island woods. The prayer board in St David’s Chapel and altar of the tiny medieval St Illtyd’s Church were testimony to the visitors’ longings and loses: ‘Dear Monks, Please pray for the Swansea five nurses that justice may be done’, wrote one petitioner; ‘Dear Dad, We miss you every day and love you always’, wrote another.

On the hill above the jetty stood the abbey itself, an italianate creation by a local architect echoing the style of monasteries in the European tradition. Behind its closed doors, the monks were getting on with their highly-structured day, starting with Vigils at 3.30 am and proceeding, through periods of prayer, study and manual work, to Compline at 7.30 pm, and bed. There was no chance of getting a taste of monastic life on the inside, as I did when I spent a weekend at Holy Trinity Monastery, a tiny Benedictine start-up a few years ago. But we did see one monk, whipping up to the jetty in a VW polo and striding purposefully to have a word with the boatman. And I enjoyed overhearing a conversation in the museum about how the shortbread sold out immediately because the abbot only baked once a week, and then had to wait for Brother So-and-So to wrap it.

My hunch is that modern monasticism has a peculiar fascination for us Brits because our religious history, with the sudden break from Rome, sets the religious way of life more apart from society than on mainland, Catholic Europe. Perhaps all those smutty jokes about nuns and monks are an attempt to make them more normal, more like the rest of us. How do they do it, live this life apart, day after day, year after year, we wonder. And what does it bring them?

The Abbot of Caldey, Father Daniel, tries to explain what it means to be a Cistercian today in this frank account. It involves, he says, life in a community centred on prayer, with all the challenges and disappointments that living closely with others brings. And it means a concerted attempt to attain what we moderns more commonly associate with the eastern spiritual traditions, to live in the moment: ‘To be a Cistercian is just to get on with life as it presents itself from moment to moment, to try to be “here”‘, writes Fr Daniel.

I would hazard that, as life in modern Britain becomes increasingly driven by noise, activity and money-making, it’s a desire to get briefly closer to this, more contemplative approach to life that draws around a thousand visitors a day to Caldey Island each summer. Like in the mountaintop monasteries of Lebanon, it provides a good, but peaceful day out. I don’t think I was imagining it, but the expressions of everyone in the boat as we ploughed the sea back to Tenby were of joyful calm.

The Other Glastonbury – and why you should go

Photo by Keith Sellick
Back in the day, about a hundred years ago, I went to Glastonbury Festival. Soon after arriving, my boyfriend and I broke up and I tramped across miles of tent-crammed fields looking for my other friends. It was boiling by day and freezing by night, and there were far too many people in one place, to my mind. I gather it’s got bigger since.

Despite my misery, I couldn’t help noticing that this was an exceptionally beautiful part of the world. And as, during the following years, Glastonbury’s reputation as a special spiritual place grew, I wondered what it was like. Finally, last summer, I went to find out. If you haven’t been so far, I recommend it to you.

Why go to Glastonbury Town? Some short answers: it’s very pretty. A compact but lively market town set in hills on the edge of the Somerset Levels, you can have a good dose of town and quite a lot of country. It’s historic: Glastonbury’s abbey dates back to the first centuries of British Christianity and the heyday of monasticism. And with it’s array of New Age shops, therapists, rituals and workshops, it’s nothing short of a phenomenon.

Some highlights: the only goddess temple in Europe – worth a visit, especially if you fancy some downtime. For stimulation, try the Library of Avalon, the only public library of esoterica in the UK. Need some guidance about your life path, or just a sympathetic ear? Pop into the Glastonbury Reception Centre, a kind of drop-in counselling centre with a spiritual twist.

Chalice Well, the hillside gardens created around an iron-rich spring, are an oasis of tranquility, but my particular outdoor favourite is somewhat less well-known. St Margaret’s Chapel and almshouses, just off a busy street opposite the bus station, has an atmosphere of concentrated peace and a strong sense of the-past-in-the-present. All this and more I explored in the little town of Glastonbury.

Of course, for the curious tourist, Glastonbury cannot but raise an interesting, possibly unsettling question – is the place a hub of New Age nonsense or a spiritual mecca for our times? But that’s something each visitor must decide for herself.

In Search of Glastonbury, a short digital travelogue, is available on Amazon now.

Glastonbury – the town that teaches discernment

Photo by Hans Splinter
Photo by Hans Splinter

Last summer, I decided to visit Glastonbury for the first time. The place, as the heart of the county bordering on my native Gloucestershire, had long intrigued me. And, as somewhere that claimed to be a special spiritual place, I wanted to get under its skin, to take a kind of experiential snapshot.

According to current estimates, there are 70 – 100 different faith groups in today’s Glastonbury. The town is home to the only Goddess temple in Europe and an array of esoteric practices and beliefs that generate a vibrant spiritual economy and a wealth of workshops, meetings and rituals beyond the capacity of any one person’s diary. These sit alongside branches of the main global faiths, including of course Christianity. Glastonbury Abbey dates back to the early years of British Christianity, and legend has it was founded by Joseph of Arimathea when he came to Somerset with the young Jesus.

So, with a nod to the literary genre in which the traveller writes about his native land, I set off in search of Glastonbury.

What I found was the clearest example, in the form of a place, of the need for discernment that I have ever seen. Discernment, a term used to describe the delicate process of deciding how to live and what to do in moral, practical and spiritual terms, has long been part of the Christian tradition; these days it’s also widely recognised in pagan and other traditions as essential to right living.

The point about discernment is that it requires engagement, and it takes time. Trying to discern the right choice rules out the uncritical embracing of an attractive option, just as it inhibits the hasty dismissal of the unfamiliar. It takes time and patience to come to the (working) conclusion that this or that person/life/group/idea is or isn’t for you. Maybe it was, and now it isn’t any longer: discernment is open to change.

Discernment, in other words, is the antidote to dogma. And, because it’s something that everyone needs to use in their own lives, it distinguishes itself from rational scepticism in that it includes the psycho-spiritual and is personally meaningful.

For the discerning visitor, Glastonbury is the business. It would be impossible to go there and appreciate it with an attitude of dismissive scepticism: that would be like Richard Dawkins writing the biography of Rowan Williams, and miss the point entirely. As testified by its long spiritual lineage and cornucopia of faiths and beliefs, there is clearly something going on in Glastonbury. Its distinctive nature and atmosphere attracts spiritual tourists from all over the world, along with a regular influx of residents who move there in the hope of a different way of life. To dismiss this all as New Age nonsense would be to ignore a vitally interesting example of the interplay between meaning and place.

At the same time, those looking to Glastonbury for easy answers and pain-free transformation are likely to be disappointed. This all-too-human town, as some of its residents in my travelogue point out, presents challenges to those who go there, especially to the unwary. ‘Discernment needs to be used a lot,’ says Morgana West, founder of the Glastonbury Pilgrim Reception Centre. ‘This is what we advocate – be discerning, explore, but keep your feet on the ground and sort the wheat from the chaff.’

‘Sometimes someone has a guru and realises that it’s just another human being who’s getting a lot of money out of them,’ she adds. ‘A lot of people come and think, “it’s Glastonbury, everyone here will have all the answers”. Unfortunately, they don’t.’

In Search of Glastonbury is out on 20th June.

Introducing the ‘travella’ – the short form travelogue

Glastonbury Tor by Andrew Gustar
Photo by Andrew Gustar

Travel writing is in crisis, for at least a couple of reasons. Firstly, it reflects – perhaps even amplifies – the wider crisis afflicting journalism: failing media outlets, derisory writing fees and an editorial culture that favours puff pieces over independent reportage. ‘The dream is over and the quickening plunge into poverty is unsettling,’ explains Leif Pettersen.

Secondly and more happily, the age of the monied, cultured Victorian explorer who recounted the traveller’s tale of unexplored lands peopled by savages has given way to a smaller, more democratic world in which we all know more about each other.

The coming-together of these two trends has caused many to wonder whether the genre is on its way to extinction. But to predict the end of travel writing is a bit like assuming the invention of photography will bring about the end of art. The former only jeopardises the latter if you assume its role is to represent in a literal way. As many lovers of the genre have argued, travel writing is as much about ways of seeing a place and the inner journey of the narrator as the recording of facts and external events.

My current, preferred formulation of what travel writing is for us, now, comes from Michael Jacobs : “the greatness of good travel literature lies perhaps in its mingling of genres”. A genre that has traditionally combined reporting on place with autobiographical elements provides the perfect starting point for the writing about place and nature which makes up so much of contemporary narrative non-fiction.

Meanwhile on the economic front, it’s possible that the digital age may yet give back what it has taken away. The rise of longform journalism/shortform writing represents something of a revolution: the economics of traditional book publishing has rarely allowed the publication of standalone short stories and essays, while collections have long been the cinderella of full-length works.

The emergence of longform is enabling me to combine the new form of the short, digital travelogue with an old tradition of travel writing in which the narrator, drawn by the popular image of a place, goes to find the reality. In In Search of Glastonbury, I set out to discover how far the market town lives up to its reputation as a New Age mecca for our times.

I’m calling this little travel book a ‘travella’ – a short travelogue with a nod to the novella. (I did think of ‘travelette’, but was put off by the association with the moist towelettes you still get on some airlines which doesn’t have quite the same ring.)

In Search of Glastonbury will be published on June 20th, the eve of the longest day, when I plan to set fire to – oh, damn those prepositions! ­- in my garden.

Death, life and Eurovision

Photo by Jonas Tana
Photo by Jonas Tana

This week sees two of the most worthwhile events of my year – Dying Matters Awareness Week and the Eurovision Song Contest.

An incongruous coupling, I know; I’ll try to explain. I came across the campaigning organisation Dying Matters a few years ago in the wake of the death of both my parents and an old friend, and was immediately struck by its necessity. A loose-knit coalition of healthcare professionals and other interested parties – anyone can sign up – it’s trying to promote a more open discussion of death and dying, and to encourage people to make plans for the time when their lives come to an end.

The Dying Matters Coalition has got its work cut out in tackling what is a peculiarly deep-rooted taboo. In modern Britain, you can easily live into your forties without experiencing any real contact with death. In a culture largely in denial about the reality of death, the odd fatal accident or triumph of cancer is often brushed off as an outrage, an exception to the natural order in which life goes on indefinitely.

My own experience is a case in point. I had never seen a corpse until I saw my father, lying stilled on his hospital bed. Nor until that day had I had any experience of a deathbed or the process of another’s dying. It was the little things that threw me: I didn’t know how to talk to my father, who except in sleep I’d never seen prone and unseeing before. I was struck by the way the vicar’s wife – a nurse – swept into the room and, enfolding his hand, began talking into his ear. It was a lesson in the fact that the needs and etiquette of the deathbed are different.

British denial about death afflicts even the NHS. A friend of mine was with her father when he died in a cafe. It was expected: he had was nearly 90 and had been diagnosed with a fatal heart condition. But when the ambulance came, the paramedics wanted to pump the dead body into life, a prospect which horrified my friend and her watching mother. Unmoved by their protestations, the medics wouldn’t give up their plan until my friend, who happens to be a hospice nurse, got the GP on the phone to enforce the ‘Do not resuscitate’ order.

Of course the biggest denial concerns one’s own dying. It didn’t used to be this way, but the fact of my death, as a certain event in my future rather than a theoretical possibility, goes through my mind on all except very busy days. The thought isn’t remotely gloomy; if anything, it makes me more resolved than ever to enjoy my life while it lasts. And the corollary of that is taking my bucket list seriously; not just adding to it, but acting on it.

That’s why on Thursday I’m flying to Vienna on for the Eurovision Song Contest – something that has been on my bucket list for a while. Why, I hear you ask? I’ve loved Eurovision since a child for its sheer exuberance, its shameless, untrammelled display of frocks and spangles and silly costumes, in combination with a moving ballad or a good piece of pop. I love it still, despite the voting politics, and despite the fact that in Britain its cheesiness is only just tolerated by the prevailing irony.

As a demi-Austrian, I have a special affection for Conchita Wurst. That a bearded lady should trump the deep conservatism of the Austrian culture I knew as a child is wonderful; that she should do so with a song that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up seems little short of miraculous. And contrary to the British tradition of drag (and Aussie, thank you, Dame Edna), Tomas Neuwirth bases his female persona on his considerable natural beauty and the result is something that is more than comic.

In the run-up to Eurovision, Conchita has been touring the UK, and the interviews give the impression of someone who has got to grips with the choices of life earlier than most. They reveal someone motivated primarily by the need to be who s/he is rather than a drive for fame or success. In this respect, I find her a model of authenticity.

So, as I prepare for my first trip to Vienna since the age of 13, the message of Eurovision 2015 for me is ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’ – in the knowledge that you will die.

Libraries and the life of the body

Photo by Gregory Bodnar
Photo by Gregory Bodnar

In my third and final blog on public libraries before the election, I want to deal with an obvious yet overlooked aspect of the library and why we still need it: Libraries are places, housing physical books and sheltering people of flesh and blood.

It is this truth, until recently accepted as an unquestionable good, that is partly responsible for the dismantling of the national library network now in progress.

The digital age brought with it a new but widespread assumption: when books can be obtained with a few clicks and information accessed online from home, school or on the move, a building which you can visit to consult physical books becomes superfluous. Seth Godin summarises this view succintly: the library is a warehouse for books and a house for the librarian, designed to meet the requirements of an older, pre-digital society.

It’s a view that very much expresses the excitement of the first flush of the digital revolution, when its proponents proclaimed the arrival of a brave new world in which information, liberated from the shackles of location, could flow freely.

Lefties wanting to make an economic link – thank you, Adorno – might put this technological change in the context of late capitalism, diagnosing a shift towards a greater level of abstraction which makes it easier to see production, and therefore humans, as units of capital. With so much of life now lived on screen and conducted by machines capable of processing amounts of data beyond the limits of human biology, it’s tempting to think that we have finally transcended the body.

When it comes to libraries, this fantasy of transcendence means that we’ve risen above the need to tramp (in the rain, if you’re in Manchester) to your local library, as my great-great-grandfather did a century and a half ago at the beginnings of the public library movement. Translated into policy, it makes it easier for councils to justify closing over a third of libraries in the last seven years, with more cuts to come. It’s no coincidence that the 2015 election party manifestos, in the few mentions they make of libraries, tend to focus on promises to extend broadband rather than keep buildings open.

But despite everything the digital age has brought us, we remain embodied beings, with a need for knowledge and culture in its physical form. My local library in Upper Norwood was a pertinent reminder of this over Easter. Heaving with bodies of different ages and sizes, it hosted young children wanting an outing with a educational focus, teenagers needing a quiet place to revise for their GCSEs, and acted as a central venue for a community liaison event run by the local police.

Councils are missing crucial something when they ignore this, the importance of library-as-location in the heart of the community. Libraries are not just about access to information; they are places to go and to be that are specific to the areas in which are placed. They have a distinctive atmosphere and purpose that cannot be replicated in cafes or hired halls, or substituted by an ‘online experience’. In order to feed the mind, libraries must first meet the needs of the body.

Closing libraries an ‘attack on the soul of the country’

5405303830_4062d80a7b_mThe measure of a society is how it treats its libraries. ‘It just strikes me as something a nation can boast about – we lend people books for free,’ says James Brown in a swelte little anthology I’ve been reading called The Library Book, borrowed from my local, threatened
Upper Norwood Library.

Library services have been the low-hanging fruit of the recession. Over a third of UK libraries have closed since 2008, with councils blaming cuts by central government. Since library services aren’t ring-fenced, the 1964 legislation imposing an obligation on councils to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ has done little to protect them. Central government lays the responsibility at the door of councils: culture minister Ed Vaizy has an impressive track record of inaction, ignoring a number of local communities’ requests for intervention.

The 2015 budget has been even more revealing about government priorities. In an upbeat speech citing Britain’s rising fortunes, the chancellor announced a series of military giveaways: £7.5 million for events commemorating the two world wars, £2.5 million to renovate the RAF museum in Hendon and £1.3 million to rebuild a WWI airbase at Chelmsford. A further million has been set aside to rescue the Battle of Britain chapel at Biggin Hill from closure by the MoD.

Funding for the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, described by Osborne as the defeat of ‘an ill-judged alliance between the champion of a united Europe and a renegade force of Scottish nationalists … well worth the £1 million we will provide to celebrate it’ sounds like blatant flag-waving.

Put that against the sums involved in running libraries – for £283 000 a year you get seven libraries in Cardiff – and you feel like putting in a Freedom of Information request to find out the size of the government’s firework budget for the war celebrations.

Whatever the result of the election, for libraries things are only going to get worse. The next round of cuts will bring more closures, even if Labour gets into (some) power. In a recent Twitter conversation shadow culture minister Chris Bryant avoided any kind of commitment, making vague noises about having a ministerial chair for the libraries task force and implementing the Sieghart Report.

Even the Greens seem to be part of the do-nothing political consensus about libraries. In response to questions from Leon Bolton, culture spokesman Martin Dobson conceded the party had little in the way of policy on libraries, despite the fact that Green Party supporters are often fervent library campaigners.

Do the politicians know what they’re doing? The decade 2008-2018 (the year when the current deficit-focused spending plans end) will see the dismantling of the national network of libraries that has put free books and a quiet place to read in the heart of every community. As I wrote in my last blog, this kind of provision hasn’t been in place very long: the public library movement that our Victorian forebears began only came to fruition with the 1964 Act. That it should have lasted so short a time and be extinguished so soon makes me sad.

It also calls to mind something else I read in The Library Book, this time from Manic Street Preachers lyricist Nicky Wire: ‘Ridding our villages, towns and cities of libraries, which are essential in shaping a nation’s consciousness, seems like a direct attack on the soul of the country.’

Ways of seeing: travel writing in the 21st century

Photo by Darren Harmon
Photo by Darren Harmon

Is there still a place for travel writing in the 21st century? In age of mass travel, it’s inevitable that the raison d’etre of travel writing should be questioned. Even today’s armchair travellers have a mass of images and information about the most distant places available at the touch of a screen.

But I’d like to think that, while we no longer need reports of strange customs and uncharted territories in the way our forebears did, good travel writing does something special. It offers, as Colin Thubron has put it, a ‘way of seeing’ the world, mediating other places and people through the personal lens of the journeying narrator, capturing a particular vision – partial, but nonetheless true – and conveying it to others.

Travel writing in the tradition of journalism, meanwhile, gets behind the headlines and cliches about a place, providing some of the stories and context that our fast-moving media culture ignores.

This more nuanced understanding of travel writing helps to explain the rather strange project of writing about your own land. The sub-genre is hardly new: in his English Journey of 1930, J B Priestley took a snapshot of industrial and rural England during the depression. A hundred years earlier, in Rural Rides, William Cobbett chronicled changing life in the English countryside from the back of a horse. Then, in a pootling prototype of a road-movie, H V Morton motored in quest of Arcadian England between the wars, recounting his misadventures with an air of amused superiority.

I also love the grim realism of writing that derives its energy from the misery and discomfort of travel. In this respect, the miserablism of ‘Travels with Myself and Another‘, in which Martha Gelhorn grimly details the horrors of her trips to the more challenging parts of the world, is unrivalled. I’ve taken the book traveling to remind myself that whatever inconveniences I might experience, things could always be worse.

A more populist variant of armchair schadenfreude comes from Bill Bryson, who does a nice line in shouting at landladies of grim B&Bs in the decidedly un-Arcadian Britain of the 1970s.

The distinctive qualities of these travel classics help me to understand the potential of the genre for my own work. At its best, writing of place is a genre-busting form which weaves human stories and responses with the observation of culture, politics and religion and a sensuous, experiential evocation of geography and climate. It offers writers and readers the chance to see a place – even our own country – more clearly, to understand its particular, specific nature. It’s capacious enough to include investigation that brings to light the failings and hypocrisies of a society and a bardic song of praise to the beauty and meaning of a place.

Yes, there is still a place for travel writing. In fact, in an increasingly complex world, I think it’s essential.

So that’s why I wrote a travelogue about my own country, focusing particularly on an aspect of British life I think is going largely undocumented. The Secret Life of God will be published soon, along with In search of Glastonbury, a short, companion ebook which tries to get under the skin of the English market town that claims to be the New Age mecca for our times.

For an email about the release of In Search of Glastonbury and The Secret Life of God, leave your email in the box on the right.