Guest Column

GUEST COLUMN

Laurence Coupe

Buxton Advertiser; Derbyshire Times; Matlock Mercury; Mansfield Chad; Worksop Guardian; Hucknall Dispatch

The articles usually appear first in the Buxton Advertiser, then in the others over subsequent weeks.

 

#Wordsworth’s wisdom helps in defence of natural world

Date of first publication: 22 Feb 2024                     

It’s all too easy to lapse into defeatism and despair when we think about the task of protecting our natural environment. We know it’s urgent that we protect our rivers, woodland and wildlife. A reliable source of inspiration is the poetry of William Wordsworth (1770-1850), which reminds us of how much nature can – and should – mean to us.

Memorably, he does so in ‘The Tables Turned’, a poem written in response to a friend’s suggestion that his time would be better spent in reading books of ideas than in communing with his natural environment. On the contrary, says the poet: ‘One impulse from a vernal wood / May teach you more of man, / Of moral evil and of good, / Than all the sages can.’

It’s not that difficult, Wordsworth tells us. As long as we can hear a bird singing, we can affirm our relationship with the earth: ‘And hark! how blithe the throstle [song thrush]sings! / He, too, is no mean preacher: / Come forth into the light of things, / Let Nature be your teacher.’

That line, ‘Come forth into the light of things’ tells us that nature is in every aspect illuminating. Trees, streams, mountains, flowers: they are all charged with ‘light’, and we are invited to align ourselves with it. The word ‘things’ might strike us as odd, but Wordsworth is simply being ‘down to earth’, so to speak – celebrating the natural world in all its manifestations.

‘The Tables Turned’, then, gives us a moment of insight into nature as our true home. In a longer, more reflective poem, ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’, Wordsworth spells this idea out.  He speaks of a source ‘Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, / And the round ocean and the living air, / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: / A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things.’

Essentially, here is an anticipation of what we now call ‘ecology’, which is the study of the earth as our ‘home’ (Greek, oikos), for which we are responsible. Our duty is to regain our connection with outer nature, and to understand that our inner nature is inseparable from it.

Wordsworth can certainly help us in this process.

 

#It is better to learn from our mistakes and move on

Date of first publication: 4 January 2024                

When Frank Sinatra agreed to record a French song with English lyrics (written by Paul Anka), he couldn’t have known how often it would be quoted. By now, we all know those defiantly casual lines: ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few, / But then again, too few to mention.’

At a time of year when we usually make resolutions, we often ponder our own reasons to feel regret. For example, we may resolve to keep to a diet, having regretted our gain in weight. That’s fair enough, but on the whole we might do worse than adopt Sinatra’s carefree approach to the apparent obligation to be in a constant state of guilt.

Of course, we’re not talking about criminal or malicious behaviour, about which the perpetrator should surely feel continual remorse. Rather, we’re talking about everyday mistakes that any of us might make.

Here I think it’s worth quoting 19C philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who puts this issue into perspective: ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards.’ In other words, we have to blunder along as best we can, doing what we think is appropriate at the time – without ever knowing the full consequences.

For instance, a man of 50 might torment himself by wondering: ‘What on earth was I playing at 30 years ago? What was I thinking of at the age of 20?’ Or else he might take time to reflect: ‘Well, that was then; this is now.’

Perhaps we might also learn from the wisdom of spiritual thinker Eckhart Tolle. In The Power of Now, he distinguishes between two kinds of time.

If you made a mistake in the past, and learn from it now, without making any fuss, you are using ‘clock time’.

But if you dwell on it, if you make it ‘mine’, and if you indulge in self-criticism, remorse or guilt, you are trapping yourself in ‘psychological time’. Regret will have become a permanent obsession which is poisoning your mind. Tolle tells us to remind ourselves that we are always in the ‘Now’, and to celebrate the awareness that comes with it.

We might not describe Frank Sinatra as spiritual thinker. But when he sang Paul Anka’s song, he was right after all. Let’s give ourselves permission to feel a little more comfortable with learning from our mistakes and then moving on.

 

#Follow the yellow brick road to find some interesting ideas

Date of first publication: 7 December 2023            

The Wizard of Oz is an entertaining, classic film that is always worth viewing again. One reason is that it’s full of interesting ideas. Here are a few.

Reality and Fantasy.

Some of the characters in Kansas reappear in the land of Oz, but transfigured. The three farmhands become the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion who join Dorothy on her journey. The nasty Miss Gulch, who wants to have Dorothy’s little dog, Toto, put down, becomes the Wicked Witch of the West. Professor Marvel, the bogus psychic, becomes the Wizard of Oz.

This reminds us that ordinary people are potentially fascinating, and that even the wildest fantasy has its roots in the mundane world with which we might be dissatisfied.

Don’t Be Fooled!

When Dorothy and her three friends stand before the awesome image of the Wizard of Oz for the second time, Toto is the one to uncover the Wizard’s secret: he pulls away a curtain to the side of the huge image of the Wizard, revealing an ordinary man manipulating a machine. The image of the almighty Wizard is a fraud. A little dog teaches us that all too often those who appear high and mighty are actually humble mortals putting on an act.

The Circuitous Quest.

The traditional quest narrative nearly always involved a male hero – a warrior who has to prove his worth – but here the protagonist is a young girl with no special strength or secret power. Yet what Dorothy gains from her journey is remarkable, making her ready to return home.

If Dorothy’s adventure can be described as a quest, then it’s best described as ‘circuitous’. To quote the poet T.S.Eliot: ‘And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.’

Enough Already!

Dorothy thought she needed the Wizard to show her the way home, but the Good Witch tells her simply to click the heels of her ruby slippers, think of home, and she’ll be there – because she has now learnt to appreciate it. ‘There’s no place like home.’

Similarly, her three friends don’t need the Wizard to grant their wishes. In coming to Dorothy’s aid when she’s caught by the Wicked Witch, they prove that they already have a brain (Scarecrow), a heart (Tin Man) and courage (Lion).

There’s lots more to say … but for now that’s enough already!

 

#Poetry can often help us to make some sense of our lives

Date of first publication: 19 October 2023 

Every remembrance day it’s customary to recite these key lines from Laurence Binyon’s ‘To the Fallen’: ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: / Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. / At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.’ Few people can remain unmoved by those words in that order.

Poetry is well worth turning to when we want to make sense of our lives. We can find a reason in rhyme.

W. H. Davies offers good advice in the form of a question: ‘What is this world if, full of care, / We have no time to stop and stare?’ The radical Christian poet William Blake invites us to open up our imaginations and see the beauty of nature and the mystery of the cosmos: ‘To see a world in a grain of sand / And a heaven in a wild flower, / Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And eternity in an hour…’

To say that poetry helps us live is not to say that it should ignore the fact of death. Shakespeare puts it into perspective:Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages; / Thou thy worldly task hast done, / Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages: / Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.’

Those of us who are well advanced in years might often turn to W.S. Landor’s reflections: ‘I strove with none, for none was worth my strife. / Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art: / I warmed both hands before the fire of life; / It sinks, and I am ready to depart.’

Interestingly, there are a lot of poems about poetry itself and how it can help us live. W.H. Auden wrote a powerful poem on the occasion of the death of a poet he admired, W.B. Yeats, conveying the function of all great poets: ‘In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountain start. / In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.’ That’s exactly what I’m trying to say – but said many times better, in the form of verse!

 

#Green dimension in Christian message is an important one

Date of first publication: 17 August 2023   

It was Joni Mitchell who reminded us: ‘We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.’  In order to emphasise her ‘green’ message she instinctively drew on Biblical imagery.

In the first chapter of Genesis, we are told repeatedly that as God systematically created the earth and all its glories he ‘saw that it was good’.

Then, in the second chapter, we learn that the first man, Adam, created by God to live in the Garden of Eden, is formed from the earth itself (Adamah). His role is essentially stewardship of the very earth from which he has arisen.

We all know what happens in the third chapter: Adam and his wife Eve are expelled from the Garden for disobeying God. Famously, St Augustine in the fifth century AD was prompted by this episode to formulate his theory of ‘Original Sin’: we have all inherited the offence committed by Adam and Eve.

But countering this is the theory formulated much more recently by the radical priest Matthew Fox – that of ‘Original Blessing’. This reminds us that God had seen his creation was ‘good’, and that we are invited both to serve it and to rejoice in it.

It’s noteworthy that Jesus in the Gospels consistently uses imagery which evokes the natural world. For example, he compares the Kingdom of God to ‘a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches’ (Luke 13: 18-19).

In the New Testament, we find Jesus being referred to as ‘the second Adam’ and ‘the son of Adam’.  Significantly, when he arises from his tomb in the garden, Mary Magdalene at first mistakes him for a gardener.  This might remind us that his concern is just as much for the earth as for heaven.

Indeed, Bishop James Jones, thinking of Jesus’s prayer – ‘Our Father … thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ – is prompted to coin a memorable phrase: ‘The consummation of the coming Kingdom is the earthing of heaven.’

Joni Mitchell may not have intended to say all this, but her ‘green’ message is all the more powerful given these Biblical connections. Conversely, the Christian faith only makes full sense when it takes on a ‘green’ dimension.

 

#Everyone has the democratic right to some peace and quiet

Date of first publication: 11 May, 2023                   

When I walk into my local shopping centre, the first sound I hear is not that of casual conversation, but non-stop piped music – played loud.  I once asked one of the men running it whether they ever got fed up with the noise, and wanted to turn it down – or even off. His reply: ‘We can’t. It’s controlled at HQ’.

A standard definition of ‘noise’ is ‘an unpleasant sound’: one that is loud, irritating, or unwanted. For many shoppers, piped music exactly fits the bill. It’s everywhere, of course. It’s increasingly difficult to find an eating or drinking place that isn’t dominated by it – often at deafening volume. If you object, you may well be asked: ‘Don’t you like music?’ It’s tempting to reply: ‘Yes, and that’s the point!’

Indeed, many musical celebrities disapprove strongly of muzak:  they see it as a debasement of the medium, whether pop or classical. The patrons of the brilliant ‘Pipedown’ campaign include Lesley Garrett, Julian Lloyd Webber and Simon Rattle.

As for the volume, those on the autism spectrum, or those with conditions such as CFS/ME and fibromyalgia, find loud music positively painful. Again, it is no coincidence that the US military used to blast round-the-clock rock music at their prisoners as a form of torture.

Avoiding locations which impose muzak, however, does not rid you of the problem of noise nuisance.  All too often, the tranquillity of your home and garden is liable to be ruined, either by inconsiderate neighbours who play their sound systems at full   blast or by workmen nearby who can’t work without their boombox. Again, a peaceful walk down a country lane is all too often marred by a thumping car stereo.

Such everyday experiences bring home an unavoidable fact: noise is a form of pollution. There’s so much of it: hence it is becoming more and more difficult to find a peaceful location. So we have to see it as an environmental challenge. The noise from traffic and industry is a major problem, of course. But the point about the noise from unwelcome music is that it could so easily be avoided, simply by those responsible stopping to consider its effect.

Music we have chosen is a great pleasure. But if it’s imposed on us, it counts as noise. We need to insist that everyone has the democratic right to peace and quiet.