St Giles Online
Rector's Message - July
Whenever I stare at the blank pages of yet another newsletter and wonder what or who to write about, while, outside, late spring turns to summer, trees are in full leaf, hedgerow flowers peep through the undergrowth and small creatures have well and truly woken up -I think of Ruby.
I think of Ruby when I stare at the blank page because when I used to put together the newsletter for my previous Sussex church Ruby would always contribute a few paragraphs, and people would tell me that when it landed on their doormat hers (not mine!) was the first piece they read; and I think of Ruby when late spring became summer because the contributions she made to the newsletter were called ‘Nature Notes.’
Ruby was diminutive, busy, quick of movement and seldom still. She suffered the foolishness of no one, nor their grandiose schemes or pretensions or their condescension. Like Catherine Lillian Gleen of St Giles (whose memorial hangs on the south wall of the church) Ruby ‘cared for the church with her own hands,’ dusted it, swept it free of bat droppings, ‘polished the sunbeams’ (I think that’s Dylan Thomas), and opened and closed it everyday without fail. Harry, her late husband, had wound the tower clock everyday as well and made sure that the melodies of the carillon (some hymn tunes, folk tunes and the national anthem!) were heard every few hours across the rolling, Wealden hills which surrounded the ridge-top church.
Towards me she seemed brusque at first and impatient, but later I realised it was less this and more that she just knew how things should be done in the church because she had been there so long and I had not, which was fair enough. With time I learned to respect her and interpret her brusqueness for unfamiliarity and the defensiveness that village ‘folk’ can initially display towards newcomers.
She lived in one half of a modest council house built either for agricultural workers in the surrounding farms or for railway workers from the line which ran nearby and which is now a heritage steam railway. A small kitchen gave way to a small living room and a small back room. It’s how people lived between the wars. The garden made up for these constraints. You could ‘dig for victory’ in a garden like that. Nowadays kitchens have grown and gardens shrunk. How odd.
Sometimes I would visit and find her two budgerigars flying around the living room. This, I have to admit, took a little getting used to but perhaps, having survived this trial by feathers, I became more accepted. Furniture was sparse and economical and had not been renewed for some time. Since Harry’s death her own life had narrowed and become less sociable. She didn’t get on so well with the more recent incomers. The harvest festival suppers she had organised in time past with home-made game pies had been replaced by fancy salads and foreign food. Even before we knew the term, Ruby was through and through a Brexiteer!
A humble person in her way, then, unassuming and habitual, yet she cultivated a very particular gift: she knew how to look closely at the world around her and pay attention to the particularities of each season, each month, each day, each time of day. The walk from her house to the church and back took barely ten minutes but in that time she would hear the lark’s call, or the scurrying of field mice, observe the hole in the fence the badgers had used the night before, note when the first snow drops had opened, or stopped to gaze at a bank of meadowsweet down a farm track. Nothing escaped her gaze. She had been looking at it for forty or more years and looked still, with endless fascination and affection. Her ‘Nature Notes’ were full of the sightings of the month just passing. She chided us for our thoughtlessness towards the natural world and taught us to see and to look more closely than we did. Ruby noticed everything. When it came to the homily at her funeral I remember saying: ‘Now that Ruby has gone, who will notice everything?
There is, of course, even in the West End, more of a natural world than we might imagine; flora and fauna do not stop living and moving about just because we are noisier; they just adapt. I have seen foxes trot down Gower Street of an evening as if it were a country lane and heard the blackbirds at dusk; the magnolia flowers here as well as anywhere. But I recall Ruby not so much for what she saw in leafy Sussex as for the quality of her seeing, for having time in her looking, and those two things, time and looking (which belong together) seem in such short supply among us. Yet ours is a neighbourhood that needs all the looking it can get, for it rarely stands still and, without care, common places and shared rights are subtly infringed by expansive developers, private corporations and negligent, cash-strapped local authorities.
At the end of June I heard a talk by Travis Elborough at Lincoln’s Inn. He spoke about the history of (mostly London) parks (see his book, ‘A Walk in the Park: the life and times of a people’s institution’), how their usage has changed and how watchful and vigilant we must be today to ensure they remain ‘free and open at the point of use,’ just like the NHS (another institution that requires constant watchfulness for signs of decay).
There is a natural habitat to every neighbourhood, the urban no less than the rural, and each require us to look between the cracks of the everyday for signs of disappearing species and lost communities. Ruby couldn’t stand the city and, in fact, I can never remember her saying she had ever been to London, though perhaps as a child. Who needs a city when there is such a wealth of life all around you to observe and find joy in. The specialty of her column was to imagine conversations between the robin and the crow or what the mouse was saying as she ran into the barn full of grain. There was a touch of the child in her which few of us are able to retain. I commend her watchfulness to you.
On Sundays Ruby stood in the church’s choir, usually alone, usually singing at slightly too high a pitch, and usually making sure the younger vicar behaved himself and kept to the script. As time past, I did not always keep to the script but by then I was (or so I like to think) tolerated. I missed her greatly when she died. I had to find more words for the newsletter for a start, but most of all I missed her art of seeing. There is a God of the minor and a God of the major things, but it is the same truth that runs through them both, the same preciousness, and for us, the same need to look and notice everything.