I have quite strong melancholy tendencies. Probably they are being exacerbated by helping to write this book about the centenary of Berhampore School. If you have a weak back you shouldn’t lift heavy things all the time; if you have a melancholy streak you shouldn’t research local social history. I have always found it very hard to accept that everyone has to die, and that nothing lasts. I don’t need to be too intellectual about how I feel; it just feels very unfair. If you’re not careful it can make everything seem a bit pointless. Now you could say that pointlessness could liberate you, but if you say that then you’re not thinking about the right things. Pointlessness in vacuuming the house is fine, but in loving your children? Well, that’s a bit harsh.
It’s not helping that I am reading a biography of Dorothy Wordsworth. Reading about her is difficult for this particular melancholic for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it reminds me of 1993 when I took a course on the Romantic and Victorian poets which in turn reminds me of a time when I was 20 and had time to lounge around reading Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats. Secondly, Dorothy’s writing invokes in me a great sense of mono no aware. This is a Japanese term which can be translated as the “pathos of things”, or “a sensitivity to the ephemeral”. Her very precise descriptions of the flowers, or the birds, or the landscape from over 200 years ago reminds me that every moment of beauty passes. Being able, through art, to experience those long vanished moments is both sweet and sad.
There can be a tendency in the melancholic to wish that nothing changed, but this wouldn’t work. The melancholic might think back on reading Ode to a Nightingale in 1993 with yearning, but if transported back to that time might be quite dissatisfied with having been robbed of 21 years of experiences and relationships for the sake of a poem. It’s not wanting to go back in time that afflicts me. When Huston Smith talks about “primal religions” (such as the traditional beliefs of the Maori) he says that they tend to walk backwards into the future: everything that happens now is referenced to the past. I am not, as far as I know, a primal religion, but I think that I also walk backwards into the future. It is an enriching and painful process.
On Wednesday I went to talk to the local vicar at the local church around the corner from my house. St Cuthbert’s is closed, and being sold, but the Reverend still uses the office in the church hall. He showed me around the church, and took me up into the bell tower. Plastic flowers from a lei had been dropped on the steps and in the small room at the top of the space someone had painted their names on the walls. Territorial Pissings.
I am, as I keep saying, not Christian, but I feel that I am religious. I’m not sure what religion is supposed to be officially, but for me it seems like the collected wisdom and folly of humanity on the subject of why we are here, and what here is. Leaving most of what is said about Christ aside I can, for example, take a great deal from his Sermon on the Mount. Never mind the Kingdom of Heaven, the kingdom of heaven on earth involves compassion and social justice.
The end of St Cuthbert’s in Berhampore is the end of something at least 90 years old in the community. While I was looking at the old photos the Reverend had in a folder it was clear that for a long time St Cuthbert’s was a very important place in Berhampore. There were dozens of photos of Scouts and Girl Guides, and slightly less exuberant pictures of Sunday School kids. In the old newspaper clippings I have looked at there have been countless weddings and funerals and fundraising fetes, and recitals, and events of moment. Inside the church, on the old wooden lectern, or a pew, there are brass plaques in memory of people long deceased who were – so the script reads – devoted members of the parish.
In a place like St Cuthbert’s in Berhampore faith reads quietly. I’m sure it had its moments, but it mostly seems to have been the cups of tea and fundraising faith of E.M. Forster novels. The parish bought their Reverend an easy chair. The Reverend gifted the church a blue carpet runner. That kind of thing. I am following the life of one woman from Berhampore who died in the 1930s and taught piano. She appears occasionally in the Evening Post as a member of a drama group, or as fundraising for the poor, or as the tutor of some pupils who have done well at their piano examinations. Miss Fagan seems to have led a good life and to have been involved in the church. It is a life that has largely vanished. Being the kind of person that I am I find researching and writing about Miss Fagan bittersweet.
The Reverend at St Cuthbert’s said that they are going to gather five or six of the oldest parishioners together and do a small oral history. It was more a duty of care that anything else, he said. Some of them, after all, had been coming to the church for 40 years and were feeling very sad about what had happened. I feel a bit sad about what has happened. It seems to me that growing old is not much fun in a world that looks forward into the future.
It is a thought that occurs to me again and again as I potter around historical Berhampore. Up the end of Britomart Street is a block of council flats now condemned. One of its old tenants was a man called Brian Bell. Whatever Bell was in his youth – a raconteur, writer, critic – had mostly gone in old age. He is the star of an hour-long film called Down the Barrel made a few years before his death in 2000, and he doesn’t seem a happy man on the whole. He rails against most things, but he also has great affections and passions that are half silly and half correct. His photographs of the dairies of Newtown are done on the basis that they are unique and exotic emblems of New Zealandness, which is perfectly right, but the photos are so poorly executed that they really just become misjudged snapshots. Bell spends a lot of time taking photos of the bus stop at the start of Rintoul Street opposite the Salvation Army and talking about its artistic qualities. He is right, but the photos we see are not up to much.
And so, inevitably, I now find that when I pass that bus stop – which is almost every day – it is filled with the pathos of everyday things. As is his old block of flats. His old block of flats is actually a hideous eyesore but my introduction to Brian Bell has imbued it with meaning. Soon it will be torn down. Walking backwards into the future is hard when the past is being torn down. There is some kind of duty to preserve it; if not physically then on the page. I will never meet Miss Fagan, or Brian, or Dorothy, but remembering that they were here seems important, if it is only to remind us that all things are temporary and therefore, that all things require our attention.