new year’s day 2017 south of york station, virgin east coast service to london’s king’s cross
not listening to caedmon’s call, but felt’s ‘forever breathes the lonely word’
i didn’t go to whitby in search of caedmon. in fact, i had no idea there was a connection between the little english north sea-side town and the band that i followed super-religiously throughout my most formative years. a quickly-planned twixtmas trip to york somehow escalated to the inclusion of whitby – not exactly nearby, but also not that far away – on the itinerary for reasons i genuinely cannot remember or even fathom now. this detail passed me by but became relevant.
caedmon’s call was a band for and of christian people but they weren’t a christian band. or they were, and by that i mean they wrote songs that dived into christian philosophy in a way that my church high school would’ve called heretical. maybe not that extreme, but they made me ask questions and they created wonder where previously i only felt judgement and the push to conform.
after some time, me and the band became ‘friends’ because i went to far too many concerts – sometimes driving upwards of 14 hours across moonbeam-strewn texas plains to catch them in just one more bible-belt town’s church sanctuary or college auditorium. i pushed up the gumption on a snowy night around 1995 in wondrously named glorieta, new mexico and exchanged addresses with derek webb after the show. we wrote letters and chatted on IRC at musicians’ hours and i went to more shows. later i would even cover one of their songs on a long-lost fanclub rarity album (yes i just linked that there and it is from a bygone age and that’s all i have to say).
this is not really meant to be a post about all that, but it is about that, because the sun was setting over whitby a couple of days ago when i realised there was a trajectory of my life that had just come full-circle.
it was a big, yellowish orangish pinkish orb and it was shattering the blue winter sky into a million fragments of pastel when we walked up the 199 steps to whitby’s anglo-saxon hillside retreat where the very oddly shaped church of st mary and, behind it, the foreboding crumbles of benedictine whitby abbey, live, windbattered and muddy. the churchyard has a very atmospheric graveyard where the headstones look out over the north sea in a bleak and perfect fashion. they are all small and old worn stone, like you expect headstones in a graveyard like that to be, but then there’s this one 20ft-high spire of a cross at the very corner of the cemetery.
i credit bill, who looked more closely at it and spotted the name ‘caedmon’ on it, and i knew immediately it was not a coincidence, for how many caedmons were there, ever? at the bottom of the cross, inscribed:
“To the glory of God, and in memory of Caedmon, Father of English sacred song. Fell asleep hard by AD 680.”
caedmon was basically a stable boy at whitby abbey in the 600s. but hilda – at that time abbess of the then-mixed abbey – saw something in him and his verse and voice and encouraged him to keep singing and writing, and caedmon wrote what are possibly some of the very first songs and poems in the english language (a northumbrian dialect of old english), though he is all but forgotten today.
it called me to wonder about caedmon and hilda’s friendship. what did the powerful abbess see in a stable boy? he must have had a very special aura around him, and perhaps she was lonely despite the many monks and nuns around her. if being a career woman in the 21st century is hard, i can only imagine running a sizeable abbey in such a time must have been a gargantuan task with few real friends to call upon. it is said kings came to hilda for advice. who did she go to, i wonder?
sometimes friends arrive in guises that are inexplicable and not really that sensical – inconvenient or troublesome even – and we just have to go with it. i like to think about caedmon and hilda’s secret friendship, hanging out in the stables at odd hours maybe, the puffing of horses in torchlight while they exchanged music and verse in damp, hay-heavy air. hilda probably worried with each footfall she might be discovered in such a tryst, and caedmon just wondering what he did to attract such an important woman’s attention.
2016 was a hard year for many and a year of loss and passing away and foreboding the end of many things. i was sort of hoping that this full-circle life-loop-closing would have some symmetry to it, but actually i first heard caedmon’s call in 1994 and that marks a hardly-round 22-year anniversary. still, much happened in 2016 that felt like the poetic end to some things and the mysterious beginning to others, and i can’t help but feel this strange meeting of caedmon in his final resting place, just a few thousand minutes before the end of 2016, and so many thousands of miles and lives lived since i first heard his story, simply cannot be chance.
When I’m cold and alone all I want
Is my freedom, a sudden gust of gravity
I stop wailing and kicking just to let
This water cover me, cover me
On Margate Sands. I can connect Nothing with nothing. The broken finger-nails of dirty hands. My people humble people who expect Nothing.
To Carthage then I came
there is a victorian pavilion in margate where ts eliot wrote the third section of his most famous poem, ‘the waste land’. it’s the sort of poem that seems to draw people to it, although it is also among the most complex and least understandable poems ever written. i was certainly taken in by it when i first read it during a high school british lit class i won’t say how many decades ago and have been trying to understand it since. i mostly still don’t.
my time in london has got me closer, for much of ‘the waste land’ is about life in london. like me, ts was a yank in london – a fact many seem not to realise about him – and lived long in this city; long enough to have absorbed the futile shuffle of city workers across blustering london bridge every morning and how, somehow, there is still beauty in that.
london also drove ts mad, as it will do any person who lives here long enough. he captures the sort of love-hate that every londoner feels at some point, almost alluringly referring to the city’s ‘violet hour’ just before vitriolic adjectives about ‘the human engine’ and the river thames ‘spewing’ oil and tar and drifting logs. like most londoners, ts loved this city, and yet he sometimes felt it was killing his soul.
margate is a seaside town on the southeast coast of england in kent, which had its heyday during the victorian era just before the turn of the 20th century. queen victoria thought open-air bathing and sea-salty oxygen were good for the health (which…obviously). until rather recently, margate was on a mostly downhill trajectory since that time.
ts went to margate in 1921 to recover from a ‘nervous breakdown’; as far as i can tell, this just means he just went a bit mad for awhile, and haven’t we all. when ts arrived there, it likely would’ve still been busy with cafe-goers, electric trams and swimmers polka-dotting its crescent beach. over the decades, these were replaced by gaming arcades, greggs and wetherspoons.
a friend of mine – a self-described london dilettante and the sort of person who can be relied upon to think up these kinds of odd and wonderful excursions – suggested a day out in margate recently, and we happily obliged, thinking first of the sea air and rumours of a revival of pubs, particularly the ‘micro’ variety, selling good ale and nothing else. yes please.
it wasn’t until i started reading about margate that i discovered the ts connection, in particular, the seaside pavilion where he sat writing ‘the fire sermon’ (drawing on saint augustine at some length) and looking at the sea. i expected to feel something special here, or at least see what ts saw when he penned such mighty and difficult-to-comprehend language.
the sun was dropping to the west and we were almost to running late for our train back to london when we paused at the pavilion, after a day on the ales following a rather random group of morris dancers around margate’s excellent selection of small pubs. the sky was an ethereal grey-blue of the sort where the colour is washed out by a brilliant, dusky almost-evening light. the sea was steely and shimmering, but calm.
inside, the pavilion has a bunch of fold-down, cinema-style seats facing the water, where i imagine ts must’ve sat during his long days recovering and writing. but that day, in one corner, stacks of stained cardboard boxes, used tesco bags, grubby blankets and empty bottles surrounded a small group of homeless people holding cans of cider and looking menacingly at anyone daring near their makeshift residence.
what of that. i am not sure. the pavilion was designated a grade II listed building by english heritage in 2009. because of that it still stands, and it is indeed magnificent with wide views out over the north sea. add a high salt breeze and it seems almost anyone would be penning poetry under its latticed gables. too, it would be easy to compare the state of things there now to ts’s uneasy state of mind as he embarked on writing ‘the waste land’s’ tumultuous part III – downtrodden and eroded by too many days in london (a condition most londoners will still report with semi-regularity today). but even that metaphor seems too forthcoming for such a work as ‘the waste land’.
what i can say is go to margate. drink some ales. if you are unafraid of the cold, have a swim.
look at the sea from ts’s vantage, and you will feel something – possibly inexplicable. i did.
lean back, crane, gape.
15 mi, up up up
unaffected visages, strings of browned beads
swirling orange fabric
hewn in rock
before the sun rose on this time.
did those monks know, care, we’d come –
build catwalks and stairwells and handrails
windhowl through wire mesh –
for glimpses into dark caves, where
some painted faces waited.
you can see them hanging
robes dangling, swaying feet inside
carving an eyeball, a simper, a hand aloft
up this cliffside
flying apsaras of mogao
circling around sakyamuni
with music, dune-curved dances
scarves floating round their waists
never touching fairy skin-to-silk,
a lotus flower, legs crossed, sublime.
i get lost in the language
like sand, smooth,
as if water were
cast in time.
the sun crests hot
and dry through dust and smoke from
then fades into a watercolour of peach, brown
now an azure empyrean heaven
sand mountains outlines of where we can’t go
the taklamakan wilds, the qilian shan feeding
dry riverbeds here
with bursts of mudgush come spring.
red lanterns, orange LEDs on a hotel to the west
reminders of this life
and those that came before.