Friday, 21 October 2016

I hear those voices that will not be drowned

The trouble with leading such a full and vivid life is that there is no time to post anything about it. Basically, I'm too busy. Even when I'm on holiday I'm too busy.

I had a marvellous two weeks camping, cycling and swimming along the south and south east coast of England. The beaches are a bit rough and tumbly with their shelves, but well worth braving the waters if there isn't too much of a swell. A mean temperature of 18 degrees might seem a bit chilly for some, but it was truly exhilarating. I love that tingly feeling you get when you throw yourself in. After a while, your body adjusts and you can swim for as long as you like.

Romney Marsh has always held a fascination for me. Years ago, when I first cycled there, it was marvellously atmospheric. Now, it's full of rumbling lorries and people wanting to get everywhere fast. Thankfully, Sustrans have created some excellent cycle routes and it's quite possible to enjoy a few hours of wind and birdsong and get a sense of the open sky. The landscape is very flat. It feels like it might go on forever, but the coast is not very far away. Highlights are RSPB Dungeness and Prospect Cottage - Derek Jarman's garden is a wonder - but do avoid intruding upon the new owner's privacy.

Aldeburgh, which I never seem to pronounce properly, so I always sound like a tourist, is an interesting town. If you like sea food, you could hardly find a better place to explore the tastes and textures of the local catch. I can also recommend the Cragg Sisters Tea Room. Their carrot cake  is probably the most luxurious you will ever eat. No trip to Aldeburgh would be complete without seeing Maggie Hambling's Scallop. It's quite remarkable and Britten's words resonate even more for me these days with so many thousands dying in their attempts to seek asylum.

That's Holiday Part I. It was followed by a week in which I was a wedding celebrant, a baby naming celebrant and also one of a group of artists meeting to discuss the possibility of working together on a project  involving refugees and asylum seekers, Oxfordshire schools and the Ashmolean Museum...more about that later.

Part II took me to France where cyclists are always given a car's width and the roads aren't pocked with holes and turned into death traps. Plenty of good swimming here, too. The long flat sandy beaches of Normandy are well known and I spent hours ploughing the calm waters. It was hard to imagine my stepfather in the D-Day landings when there were children playing with buckets and spades and dogs racing up and down.

Reminders of the carnage are everywhere and to be honest, I got sick of it. I felt nauseated by a tourist industry built on heroism and the machinery of war. All the roads are named after US soldiers - didn't the roads have names before? Must everything be memorialised? Then I saw something which made me stop and think. There was a sign by the stade near where I was camping. Here, where people play tennis and race round the track, had been a temporary graveyard of 5,000 men. Not far away, there had been two other temporary graveyards - some 14,000 men in total. It suddenly dawned on me that local people would have been witness to that. The young men would have been lying not just on their beaches, but in their fields and ditches, in the roads, by their houses - everywhere. Someone had to pick them up and bury them. The wife of the local maire took responsibility for the 5,000 graves. She placed flowers on them and took pictures to send to their families in the States. One of those men could equally have been my stepfather.

For every act of brutality, there is an equal act of compassion somewhere in the world. I was witness to and part of an act of compassion recently. A stillborn baby was found in a park in Oxford earlier this year. We buried her this week. We gave her a dignified funeral and people came from miles around to pay their respects and to mourn her. I described her as a bird that had fallen from the nest. She was the saddest gift we will ever know. Sometimes, it takes profound grief to show human beings at their best. I have no doubt that the people of Normandy were affected deeply by what they experienced and I know that such experiences percolate down through the generations, too.

Compassion and a commitment to the welfare of all human beings is something to celebrate. The artists I met with between my two holidays will be striving to fulfil that. We have recently had news that our funding bid has been met. I don't know about poets being the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but I do know that poets, musicians, storytellers and visual artists are part of the warp and weft of community - and by community, I mean the whole world. We do hear those voices that will not be drowned and we ask that they are heard by everybody. Welcome to our rough and tumbly shores.

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