Wednesday, 4 May 2016


Those of you who know and love Brother Conradus – who became the abbey cook in the course of my Hawk and the Dove series – may remember that he took the trouble to go out into the woods and gather ramsons for the abbey kitchens.

Some of you will know all about ramsons, others will not; so, as they are growing abundantly and in glorious bloom just now, I thought a few ramsons thoughts might interest you.

Otherwise known as Wild Garlic, ramsons emanate a wonderful aroma of garlic in the air all around. For flavor, they taste of garlic, but a far more delicate flavor than regular garlic.

Their Latin name is Allium Ursinum. The Ursinum part of course refers to bears, and that came about because brown bears like ramsons and dig up the bulbs to eat.

Ramsons are nice lightly steamed, added to salad – basically anywhere you might include chives or scallions, ramsons are a good alternative, with a garlic rather than onion flavor. Apparently cases of poisoning happen when people are looking for ramsons to add to their recipes – but I find this puzzling. I’ve read that it’s because people gather lily of the valley by mistake – but it would be a sadly impaired nose that could confuse lily of the valley with garlic, would it not? They are also sometimes confused with Autumn Crocus and Lords-and-Ladies. The crucial clue is – do they smell of garlic? If so, they are ramsons; if not, they aren’t.

You can also feed them to cows (and it’s said that makes the milk garlicky) or substitute them for basil in pesto (completely different taste results, obviously). Cornish Yarg cheese is sometimes made wrapped in ramsons rather than nettles, and in Turkey they chop it into the curds in cheese production.

There’s evidence that people have been eating ramsons as far back as the stone age – though the ones who ate lily of the valley by mistake expired.

Just now the woods are full of them. Our Hebe took these pictures on her walk today.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016


At the end of the eighteenth century, an Italian rake by the name of Giacomo Casanova wrote his book Histoire de ma Vie. I have no idea why he wrote it in French if he was Italian, but apparently this is so.

Incarcerated for five years in a Venetian gaol on a charge of “foul atheism” and fornication, Casanova spends his time either dwelling upon his memories of past seductions or reminiscing about the same with a cell-mate. Eventually he escapes.

The English playwright Dennis Potter wrote a television drama series based on this story. Entitled Casanova, the BBC ran it in the November and December of 1971 with Frank Finlay in the title role.

I was fourteen years old at the time and my mother was forty-four. We are talking about the days when there were three channels on the telly, if you turned it on during the day you got the test card, and the night’s viewing ended by midnight with the National Anthem and then the moving pictures closed down into a white dot vanishing into blackness. The End.

My father was almost never there, but I remember he did come home for a brief interval from his global ramblings during the broadcasting of Dennis Potter’s Casanova series. I found this intensely frustrating. I was not close to my father in any respect. He was a nervous man, full of tics and twitches, and more likely than my mother to judge what was basically a well-written bodice-ripper unsuitable. Even if he had not, I’d have found it profoundly embarrassing to watch it with him in the room. Back in those days I was very close to my mother, and we had been enjoying watching the series together. The subject matter was not our usual choice of viewing, but Dennis Potter’s work is of the highest quality – ground-breaking, and unmissable given the lack of alternatives at the time.

Each episode opened with the chosen musical theme, played by a chamber orchestra in the appropriate eighteenth century costume.

The music in question was not widely played. Though we'd had a conscientious introduction to classical music at my junior school, I had never heard it before and my mother hadn’t either. Indeed until this point I think it would be fair to say it had escaped the attention of the (modern) general public. But it was captivating, haunting, lyrical, beautiful. Even though an LP (Long Play vinyl disc) cost ten shillings back then, we just had to have it. So it came about that my mother and I went 50-5o on the purchase from the music shop in Bishops Stortford of a recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The movement called Autumn was the theme for Dennis Potter’s Casanova.

I think the BBC’s airing of that theme tune was like the casual and na├»ve act of a man who plants one small Japanese knotweed in his garden because it is so beautiful. Little does he know what it will lead to.

Now, I am fifty-eight and my mother is eighty-eight.  I have just come off the phone having made a call to the Department of Work and Pensions, whom I had to inform of her recent hospital stay. As is the case with many large organisations, it took the most interminable time for anybody to answer the call. As I waited, piped through to my patient ear, in between the robotic voice announcements about call volumes etc etc, came the by now all too familiar strains of Autumn from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It’s the music of choice for almost every answering service in the UK. And I think Dennis Potter’s responsible for that.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Hebe's chant on perception

From time to time I like to re-post this, just because I think it's brilliant.

It's by our Hebe who also painted this picture for the original cover of The Breath of Peace. I think the picture's brilliant, too.

Anyway - here's the chant:

Seeing yourself – a chant on perception

When you see your face in the mirror,
Don’t be dissatisfied with what you see.
For your face is only one part of you.

There are parts of you that you cannot see.
There are parts of you that you will never know;
You cannot know how beautiful you are to others.

There is also a part of you
That others can never know;
The part of you that is only for you to see,
And it is beautiful in its mystery.

I believe there is a God,
And he knows all of you and me.
He knows the things that I cannot know – 
The parts that only you can see.

But he also knows what I know,
And the parts you can never see,
God can see the whole of us – 
Even that which is a mystery.

When you look at your face and your body,
Don’t be dissatisfied with what you see; 
For beauty is not only in that which is visible,
But also in parts that are not seen.

And do not think that any part of you is ugly,
Even the inside part of you:
For part of the beauty that is you
Is when every part of you is together.

A body is far more beautiful alive than when it is dead;
But, when all is said and done,
We cannot know how beautiful we are
’Til we see what God sees.

And do not be afraid when you are changing –
Your face or the inside of you; 
For that’s what it is to be alive.

If you ever feel misunderstood,
Ugly, or even invisible,
Know that, because I have seen you and known a part of you,
There is a part of you that is a part of me.

Can you see that we are a part of each other, then?
So what you see in the mirror is not all of you:
Don’t be trapped by feelings of inadequacy;
Let it be a mystery, and let it set you free.

So do not be unhappy with your body – 
Love it, for it is part of your wholeness;
And if you cannot do that,
Love it because it is part of mine.

(Words of chant © Hebe Wilcock 2006)

Monday, 11 April 2016

The sonnet in The Beautiful Thread (2)

As Brother Conradus, anticipating his mother’s visit to St Alcuin’s, says to his abbot: “You will love her, Father John. You will absolutely love her.”

And Brother Conradus turns out to be quite right.

Conradus’s mother Rose – already well-known to the community through the many nuggets of her wisdom they’ve had passed on to them by her son – arrives at the abbot’s lodge after he’s undergone a succession of awkward encounters with difficult people. He’s feeling, to put it mildly, somewhat stressed.

Opening the door to the abbey court, trying to force himself to address one of the many tasks awaiting his attention, he catches sight of Brother Conradus making his way towards the abbot’s house, bringing a visitor:
“It was then, as he stood in the doorway of his house, within the shadow of its frame, that he saw Brother Conradus crossing the court towards him with a comfortably proportioned woman who simply had to be his mother. Deep in happy conversation, Brother Conradus gesticulating and laughing, pausing to point out the checker as they passed it, the door to the refectory, the windows of the library above, they made slow progress. And then she broke off to walk across, over to the wall beneath the refectory windows where a mass of bluebells, fading now but still in bloom, gave out such a glorious fragrance. And John watched her kneel unselfconsciously and unaffectedly, putting her hands to the flowers, bending her face to them, breathing in the perfume. Brother Conradus came to stand beside her, and she turned her head, lifting her face, her smile full of delight and appreciation. That’s where he gets it from, then, thought John. I wish more of your sons had vocations, Rose. We could do with the whole tribe up here.

The abbot receives Rose into his house, and they have their first conversation. If you pick out their dialogue with one another from its setting, you’ll see that their conversation forms a sonnet:

“Will you be weary now? Shall you first rest?”
“I’ve ridden far, but I am eager, too – ”
“To hear about the wedding? Is that best?”
“Oh yes – but more, to spend some time with you.
Our lad writes home about his Abbot John
In every single letter that he sends.”
“Aye, Rose – we likewise know you through your son;
I almost feel that we’re already friends.”
“Then may I – but I don’t want to impose.
If I would be a nuisance, you must say – ”
“Ah, no! You are most truly welcome, Rose.
I’ve been so looking forward to this day.”
“It’s such a big adventure to come here!”
“You’re welcome, with wide open arms, my dear.”

This is not my idea but Shakespeare’s – it was a literary stratagem for conveying the harmony – the congruence – between two individuals.

In his play Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo first notices Juliet he soliloquises in iambic pentameter—that is, in lines ten syllables long, with accents falling on every second syllable, as in: O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
The soliloquy is in rhyming couplets – similar to, but not precisely, sonnet form (a sonnet has fourteen lines):
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.

The power of this is that it expresses a lyrical moment – when Romeo’s soul is suddenly caught up into harmony, the beautiful melody of love.

Later, as Romeo and Juliet meet, the dialogue between them now forms a true sonnet:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand 
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this: 
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand 
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. 

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, 
Which mannerly devotion shows in this; 
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch, 
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss. 

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too? 

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer. 

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do; 
They pray — grant thou, lest faith turn to despair. 

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake. 

Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take. 

On his own, the poetry of Romeo’s soul is incomplete; put him together with Juliet, and the poetry is consummated. It speaks, as you can see, of their quality of their relationship.

Because of the sonnet’s structure – its compactness, the call-and response evoked by its rhyme scheme; the flirtation and teasing of proposition and response, the pleasing resolution of the volta at the end – enhanced by Shakespeare into a rhyming couplet. It’s a love affair in verse, and Shakespeare, arguably better than anyone, perfected the art of love’s expression in sonnet form – Had I no ear nor eyes, to hear nor see, Yet should I be in love by touching thee.

I borrowed the idea to communicate the instinctive and immediate harmony between Rose and Abbot John.

Their love – like Romeo and Juliet’s – cannot be; but its potential is nonetheless rich and beautiful; undeniable.

And sometimes, whatever our realistic possibilities, that’s how life is.

Friday, 8 April 2016

The sonnet in The Beautiful Thread

During the Middle Ages, there were so many social, political and theological constraints. To step outside convention and orthodoxy was dangerous – it could cost your life.

Maybe because it was so, artists and writers became adept at coded signals. The medieval mind loved patterns and riddles, ever seeking and inserting hidden messages – in poetic forms, in the physical attitudes and attributes and attire of the subjects of paintings, in juxtapositions and order, in shapes that called to mind other shapes. So much was said in what remained unsaid: and people became accustomed to looking for the silenced word.

In his plays, Shakespeare conveys much about relationship – harmonies and disharmonies – by the forms in which he presents dialogues and soliloquies.

The Hawk and the Dove series is written throughout in prose evocative of the medieval mindset. Some reviewers express disappointment at the modernity of some of the phraseology – but what I tried to do was express the spirit I found in medieval attitudes and writing, not recreate the forms. Though here and there I’ve enjoyed working with medieval literary conventions – for example, the frame tale form of the first two volumes and the evocation of the Fioretti in the vignettes of those first two books.

And I wonder – if you have read The Beautiful Thread, did you find the sonnet hidden in it?

Thursday, 31 March 2016

A Day And A Life

In June, the final volume of The Hawk and the Dove series comes out. The title of this last one is A Day and a Life. This story looks at what commitment means – belonging, responsibility, patience; the interwoven threads of the fabric of love. It’s about community, vocation and relationship.

Within the context of one ordinary day at St Alcuin’s, it looks at the small but significant things that can make all the difference to our happiness; in this one day, the warp and weft of the life the brothers have chosen is made plain.

A Day and a Life is available for pre-order on Amazon UK now. Just to clear up a common misconception, US readers can order books from Amazon UK to get their hands on a copy faster; the postage is a little more than ordering for a US address from Amazon dot com – but only by about as much as it costs to buy a cup of coffee; and I think US readers will be able to buy Kindle copies from Amazon UK once it’s out here in the UK (set me right in a comment if that isn’t so).

Meanwhile, here’s Chapter Seven, and Father Bernard facing up to tackling a very unwelcome task all on his own.

*        *        *


Father Bernard has felt unhappy about this since he first had to do it. Years have gone by, nothing has improved. The problem has even been compounded by passing time, because if you do anything long enough it becomes tradition, it acquires a strength of its own. You tie a man with one linen strand and he can snap his bonds without the slightest effort. You wind the same strand round him a hundred times and you have a prisoner. There’s strength in habit. What you do every day becomes who you are. And that’s the whole problem.
It all started back in Abbot Columba’s time – whom they called Father Peregrine. To be fair, Bernard wasn’t sacristan then; that only started when Father Chad held the reins between abbots. Back in Father Peregrine’s time, he’d been sent as a novice to help out Brother Paulinus – and somehow got stuck with it, even after he’d been ordained and Father Chad made him sacristan. Bernard hoped he’d only have to do both jobs for a while, until they got a new superior in post.
And now there’s Abbot John, who apparently hasn’t noticed how extremely unreasonable and unfair this is; at any rate he shows no signs of doing anything about it. Father Bernard wonders if he can raise the matter. Not really, he thinks, seeing his only objections are that he’s sick of it, has enough to do already, and doesn’t see why someone else shouldn’t take on the job for a wonder. He suspects that on those criteria he could be the first in a very long queue asking for a change. The abbot himself doesn’t always look entirely overjoyed with the obligations his role places upon him.
There is something else, though, and if he’s honest (which just now he’s trying to dodge) Father Bernard knows this is not altogether admirable: it’s that he thinks, as an ordained man and the sacristan at St Alcuin’s, being expected to do the laundry is, frankly, beneath him.
It’s not that he has no help. Someone usually spares one or two of the novices from their regular occupations. Brother Cassian occasionally helps if the children aren’t in school – when they’re out picking the plums or the cherries. Brother Robert often comes over; there are natural spaces between jobs in the pottery. Brother Cedd hardly ever shows his face when there’s washing to be done; though, thinking about it, poor Father Clement is squinting badly these days. He’s relying on that lad, training him up in the fastest possible time. You can’t blame him wanting to make the most of what eyesight he still has. Now, Brother Boniface is a frequent assistant – because candidly he’s of little use in the scriptorium, but he delivers a mighty beating to a linen sheet with a paddle. Good thing he’s not left overseeing the schoolboys. And Colin, the new lad – ah, good value there! A hard grafter, no airs and graces; not like that Brother Felix.
Father Bernard, if he had to suggest someone else to take on responsibility for the laundry, would put forward Brother Richard. The fraterer’s work can’t possibly be as onerous as a sacristan’s duties; he doesn’t have to be up first in the middle of the night and again at dawn, for one thing. And a fraterer’s work isn’t so lofty. There’s not such a jarring contrast. What does the fraterer have to do, after all? Keep the whetstone and sand in good order, all tidy and ready in the lavatorium for the brothers to sharpen their knives. Set the table and clear everything away after meals. Make sure there are water jugs supplied and filled at mealtime – and ale. Work with the kitcheners to get the bread to the table, and the bowls of condiments – which have proliferated since Brother Conradus took charge in the kitchen with his conserves and pickles, his chutneys and mustards, and the good Lord knows what else. He has to change the towels but that’s only once a fortnight, and the last abbot put a stop to tablecloths – said they went beyond the boundaries of holy poverty – so he hasn’t got to bother with those. It’s the fraterer’s obedience to see the towels washed and repaired, but at the moment Brother Richard tosses them in with the rest of the things – as Father Bernard sees he has done today. He has to sweep the frater, of course, and the adjacent paths and cloister passage, and strew the floors with fresh herbs. He has to keep the lavatorium clean – so laundry should come naturally to him. But how long can those chores take a diligent man?
It hardly compares with his own responsibilities as sacristan. He’s the timekeeper for the whole community for one thing. The sacristan’s is a high-ranking office; he has to be a priest. He has to care for the candles and light them, scour the sacred vessels every week, bake the hosts, launder and iron and fold the corporals – which shouldn’t cause any man to say, “Oh well, if he’s doing that he might as well take on the rest of the laundry while he’s at it.”
So now, because it’s Tuesday, he has to take the barrow and collect all the dirty linen from the big chest by the bottom of the night stairs, and cart it along to the laundry room to be scrubbed. Thank God they at least wash their own braies. Half the men put out their sheets this week, the other half the following week. It’s a big load.
The water running into the laundry troughs is clean and pure. It comes from two springs high up in the hills, piped along lead-lined masonry conduits and passing through cisterns allowing sediment to settle and pressure to build. The laundry is warm (if oppressively steamy) from the fires under the big brass water pots. Father Bernard grudgingly concedes he should be grateful; at St Alcuin’s he doesn’t have to kneel at the water’s edge and scrub the sheets in the river shallows – at least their system is properly organized. And Father John lets them have the good olive oil soap all the way from Italy. Bernard still remembers the stink of the soap his mother made from lard when he was a lad. This is much nicer, and scented with Brother Walafrid’s herbal oils furthermore – lavender and rose, rosemary and lemon balm. Right round the edges of the drying green behind the laundry room, where Father Bernard spreads the sheets to dry in the sunshine, latherwort is growing in abundance. Well organized, true, and well provided for – but there’s no getting away from it, this is back-breaking work. Especially because Father Bernard is tall. The stone troughs and their slanting stone scrubbing slabs are that bit too low. By the end of the morning he will barely be able to straighten up. He knows that already. Tuesday is not his favourite day.
When he gets to the laundry with his mountain of linen, he can hardly believe his eyes. No one has come to help him. The water is heating – Brother Richard lights the fires early on while Bernard is still busy in the vestry – but now he’s gone, and there’s nobody around. It is physically possible to tip the water from the cauldron into the trough without help – whoever built the place thought of that when they sited the firepits and the washing troughs – but it certainly isn’t easy, and Father Bernard has scalded himself on that manoeuvre more than once. He could also do with some help to haul the wet things that have been soaking in lye to be rinsed off and washed through. They get so heavy.
He stands in the middle of the laundry room feeling immensely sorry for himself for some little while. It looks as though there really is no one coming to help him. He thinks of going to look for Brother Richard, but if he’s honest (and he’s still dodging that) the sense of absolute martyrdom has a sort of horrible addictive sweetness he’s half enjoying. He thinks he’ll struggle on alone. This is his cross to bear. This is what people are like. Where is help when you need it? What’s the point of all the fine talk about faith and dedication if you can’t even see to it there’s someone on hand to help with the washing? Call this a community? Huh. Moodily, he shoves the plug into the drain, and lets the water begin to accumulate in the big stone trough.
He fetches the bats and the soap, rolls up his sleeves and fastens them back, tucks the hem of his tunic up out of the way into his belt, ties on a big linen apron, soft with wear and many times patched, and starts to pile half the linens he’s brought along, into the trough.
Struggling and sweating, his hands double-wrapped in rags against the heat of the metal, he tips the hot water into the trough. He bungs the hole where cold water flows in. It doesn’t back up and flood – that’s the point of the cisterns; their capacity is enough to regulate the system.
So he begins, his red, wet hands scrubbing and slapping the linens viciously on the grooved stone slabs. He repents of that fairly quickly; he knows perfectly well the way he’s going at it could rub the sheets into holes there and then, and linen is expensive. He pauses, stands quite still, discreetly smites his breast with his soapy fist, muttering “Mea culpa.” He comes back to the scrubbing more gently; but there’s nothing to stop him smacking the hell out of the wet linen with the bats.
In a weary pause, as he stretches his aching back and wipes the sweat off his brow with the corner of his apron, he hears footsteps approaching. Oh! Now they turn to, when the job’s half done!
He bends to the trough again so that they’ll find him hard at work and all alone when they come through the door. And then it’s his abbot’s voice saying, so humbly and full of concern: “I’m so sorry, Father Bernard, please forgive me. I didn’t remember until just now that Brother Thomas was meant to be helping you with this today. I sent him out on an errand first thing, and promised to look out somebody else to help you, and I completely forgot. I am so sorry. Here – let me help. What shall I do? Those bits in soak, in the other trough?”
As Father John rolls up his sleeves, kilts up his habit, dons an apron, and sets about it, Father Bernard steeps in shame. He can well imagine their former abbot, Father Peregrine, involving himself in menial tasks around the place. But if he had, it would have been in conscious self-abasement, humbling himself to the way of service Christ had chosen, and showed those who loved him, to follow. It would have been an intentional act of lowliness, to vanquish the stubborn pride of his aristocratic instincts. This man is different. Father John has scrubbed more sheets than he’s eaten hot dinners, in the course of the years of loving service he’s given in St Alcuin’s infirmary. And the linens he washed there would, for the most part, have been fouler by a long way than anything dropped off routinely from the dorter. It occurs to Father Bernard, he has never once heard Father John complain – nor yet Brother Michael, their infirmarian now. They just got on with it, cheerfully and kindly; the service of their love, for the care of the old and sick.
When the job is done, they spread as many sheets as they have room for on the drying green, towels draped over the bushes of rosemary and lavender, whatever cannot be accommodated here hung on lines strung across the cloister garth, the washing prevented from drooping too low by forked props cut from saplings in the spinney above the burial ground.
“Back aching?” asks the abbot with a sympathetic grin, as Father Bernard straightens up. “Let me take the baskets back, then. I got there late, it’s the least I can do. Then I think it’ll be all about time for the midday Office. These’ll dry nicely in this sunshine.”
“Father John,” says the sacristan. This is difficult, but he knows it should be said. “When you arrived, I’d been wrapped up in a very long internal monologue of bitter complaint. Thank you for coming to help me. It makes all the difference.”
He feels the warmth of kindness and understanding, sees it in his abbot’s face, those observant, evaluating eyes.
“Have you maybe been taking care of the laundry long enough, Father Bernard?” John asks him. “Is it time I asked someone else to pick this up? I think maybe you have enough to do with your other duties.”
And Father Bernard starts to dismiss it, to protest that he doesn’t mind. “Oh, don’t you worry about me. I can fit it in. Today was an exception; there are usually two or three here to lend a hand. I’m used to it, Father. I –” Suddenly he stops. Why do this? Why pretend? His abbot is listening thoughtfully to his lies, his prevarications.
“D’you know,” he admits, “I am fed up to the soles of my feet with this job. I’ve been doing it for years. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t – somebody’s got to. But, a break from it… oh, dear heaven, what I wouldn’t give!”
And his abbot is laughing at him, affectionately, understanding the way it feels. “I’ll sort it out,” he says. “Maybe Brother Richard, maybe Brother Giles. Let me give it some thought. I promise you faithfully, I won’t forget!”
In the cloister garth, as Father Bernard watches his abbot pick up the laundry baskets to return, the warmth of the September sun brings out the fragrance of the herbs, of the roses Brother Fidelis trains up every inch of stone he can reach, knocking nails into the mortar for the twine that holds them up.
And it takes him by surprise, coming back to him as sharp and vivid as when he first came here, not much more than a lad: that this is a beautiful place.