Since October, my father has been unwell in a nursing home and my mother has been keeping him company there. We said that we would see how things are going by spring and my father has looked eagerly out of the window at the skeleton trees for some sign of buds or early birds. As we reached the limits of medicine, the care home staff have shown the extraordinary powers of kindness and cheerfulness.
My father is a little too weak for expeditions so I bring him news of the natural world. I had heard the sounds of the woodpecker, for instance. He nodded: “Which kind?” My father’s naturalism is of the Gilbert White kind, observing narrowly. When his two-year-old great grandson showed him a picture of a barn owl and proudly exclaimed: “Twitter-wooo,” dad replied that was not how a barn owl sounded at all.
The fretfulness about being incarcerated has lessened over the months and he lies on his bed with a kind of serenity. I described this to a former archbishop, who said acceptance is a form of faith. The signs of spring are also a preparation for Lent and the season of grief is accompanied by signs of hope.
My father has a steadfast friend, the Rev Kit Chalcraft, who visits weekly and talks of religion and poetry. Naturally, we have been quoting T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets;
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
This is potent for my parents, for marriages are built on memories. Kit suggested that my father might like to listen to some of his beloved Beethoven while he dozed so we installed Alexa speech recognition technology by his bedside. My father looked luminous, lifting his tired hand to conduct the Pastoral Symphony. My parents are celebrating their wedding anniversary, the kind of marital longevity which is out of fashion but which has its rewards when the vows become reality. In sickness and in health. For better, for worse. We played on Alexa the song that brought them together, “Some Enchanted Evening”, from South Pacific, and they gazed at each other across a room with the tender knowledge of lifetimes.
Politics and the economy are rough at the moment which makes hinterlands all the more important. Squeezed at dinner between a distinguished economist and former Treasury permanent secretary and a chief executive, I settled into a conversation about inflation and employment. But they were far more interested in discussing their respective orchestras. Scratch a business figure and you will find an aesthete more often than you think. Simon Robey, investment banker, choral scholar. His knighthood is for “services to music” and as he looks down from his Royal Opera House box it is with the wistful confidence that it could have been him on stage. Richard Sharp took over as chairman of the BBC with the understanding that the former Goldman Sachs banker would bring brutal economic realities into the institution. But I hear that his passionate interest is in the BBC orchestras. He is right, of course. If you had to reduce the BBC to its public service core, it would be the World Service and the Proms.
We keep hearing of Boris Johnson that rule makers can’t be rule breakers. His heart has not been in lockdown and presumably is not much in government. Those of us who knew Boris as a colleague on the Daily Telegraph have constantly to guess his natural Hogarthian position and then replace it with the one suitable for a prime minister. The former editor of the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, said of Boris that his insubordination was so engrained that the only possible position for him was leadership. But I do believe that his ability to hold two apparently contradictory positions remains his best hope. As he said of Downing Street, it is his office and his home. It is private and public. It is his birthday cake, and he is eating it. He is the least Lenten figure I can think of.
I hope to mark Lent with a visit from my friend, Dr Aho Shemunkasho, who teaches Syriac theology at the University of Salzburg. I met Aho when I was writing my book about monastic lessons. I did not tell him that my reason for visiting Salzburg was the Sound of Music, but then I could not hide my excitement to find that his home was directly opposite Nonnberg Abbey. He comes to the UK on a sadder, more pressing mission to find support for Aramaic as a living language. Unless it is taught in universities such as his, the language of the Bible will become extinct. I bleakly message Charles Moore asking if this might be a priority for Operation Save Big Dog. Sometimes, away from politics, a butterfly flaps its wings and our history and culture is in peril.
Sarah Sands is a journalist and the author of The Interior Silence (Short Books)
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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