The Book of Psalms

Over the last couple of years, I have been re-reading the Psalms.  I was brought up in a Church of England family, and went to Church of England and Roman Catholic schools, so I am familiar with the psalms from church liturgies.  However,  I don’t think I have ever read the psalms straight through before.  And although I’ve been a Christian for much of my life, I wouldn’t call myself one now – theist, yes, but not a Christian.

I don’t know why I decided to re-read them again, but there is sufficient distance from the Christian that I once was for me to be able to read them afresh.My PsalterMy reading copy of the Psalms is this nice little cloth-bound and gold-tooled copy which I bought for £1 in a second-book shop in Hay-on-Wye on one of our summer holidays in the 1990s – so it has been with me for some time!

It has the benefits of both including a Latin translation and red rubrics.  Don’t know what red rubrics are?!  My mother was obsessed with them! – no prayer book or Bible came up to scratch unless it had red rubrics.  They are the red letters denoting the titles and numbers at the beginning of each psalm – and actually my mother’s phrase “red rubrics”  is a tautology because the word rubric is also a reference to the redness of the script.

They do look nice – perhaps my mother was right to place so much importance on them.

As for the Latin – well, in my youth I was a student of Latin, and I still find it a helpful gloss on places where the English text is curious.Psalm 1 - Beatus virThis is a very old English translation, and it is salutary to remember what it cost some brave and very principled men to give us a translation in the vernacular.  Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) is credited with this version but his translation was based on those by William Tyndale, Martin Luther and others.  Some of these men died for the principle of providing a Bible that everyone could understand; others experienced long periods in exile and many trials and tribulations.  It is almost beyond our modern comprehension that some five hundred years ago, you couldn’t hear the texts of your own religion in your own language (nor read them either, but then most people couldn’t read anyhow).Pslam 23 - the Lord is my ShepherdThere are all sorts of treasures to be found in the Psalms.

Firstly, there is great honesty with the human condition.  The psalmist knows how shitty life can be and truly excels in recapturing how absolutely miserable one can feel: “I am feeble and sore smitten: I have roared for the very disquietness of my heart.” (Psalm 38)

The psalmist is also good on how nasty one can feel when things are going well for everybody else, and just rotten for you.  How spiteful is this: “… it shall come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones…Let it thus happen from the Lord unto mine enemies…” (Psalm 109)

But the psalmist is also good on comfort: “Thou tellest my flittings; put my tears into thy bottle: are not these things noted in thy book?” (Psalm 56)  What an exquisite image of our tears being so valued that they are bottled!

Evocative  language just flows from Coverdale’s pen, and one of my favourite psalms (and I think the most beautiful) is Psalm 121.  A psalm of great comfort, it is commonly read at funeral services because of the last verse: “The Lord shall preserve thy going out, and thy coming in: from this time forth for evermore.”Psalms 120 and 121It is the first line of this psalm that intrigues me most (of perhaps all the lines in the psalms). I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills: from whence cometh my help.  Some years ago we found it engraved on the window of a small church of Capel-y-ffin in Wales.  The trees were a bit overgrown, but you could just see the hills behind that the little window looked out on.  What a beautiful use of the psalm!  So comforting, so reassuring – but why? What is there in the hills that is so full of help?

Levavi oculos meos in montes, unde veniet auxilium mihi.  No clues from the Latin.  A phrase to ponder over.Window at Capel-y-ffin churchThere are great stories in the psalms too, and nowhere more poignantly than with Psalm 137:

“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.  As for our harps, we hanged them up: upon the trees that are therein.  For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody in our heaviness: Sing us one of the songs of Sion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song: in a strange land?”

Perhaps, like me, you have Boney M’s version in your ears now?!

It’s the story of the Jews in exile, of course, who cannot muster their spirits to sing as their Babylonian captors demand – a despair shared with other captives, at other times, in other places.  In the Iliad, Homer wrote poignantly of Andromache lamenting to her husband, Hector, about the treatment she could expect as a captive when he was dead.  In recent times, we have heard the heartbreaking stories of Yazidi women taken into slavery and Nigerian girls stolen from their land.  This Jewish lament in the psalms is the song of all these captives.  The beauty of the lament moves us just as much the anguish expressed.

Small phrases crafted by the psalmist and his translator (they were all men) are just wonderful.  You don’t have to be spinner to enjoy  “He shall come down like the rain into a fleece of wool: even as the drops that water the earth.” (Psalm 72).  or know confusion to recognise “For I am become like a bottle in the smoke: yet do I not forget thy statutes.” (Psalm 119)

What I am left with above all else after my re-reading of the psalms is that these are the musings and poetry and songs of a people looking for answers to the human condition – just as we all are.  Who could not sympathise with the exasperation with which this psalm addresses God: My heart was hot within me, and while I was thus musing the fire kindled; and at the last I spake with my tongue:  Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days …” (Psalm 39)

There is great and deep comfort – similar to that a mother might offer when she croons over her crying child and reassures the baby that it’s alright.  She doesn’t, of course, know that things will always be alright for her child, but in that moment – yes, things are alright, and she is being completely honest.  Psalm 121 again: The Lord himself is thy keeper: the Lord is thy defence upon thy right hand;  so that the sun shall not burn thee by day: neither the moon by night.  The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil…”

Now – there’s something else in this little book – something that I missed until now, and I can’t think why I didn’t see it before!Offizier - Gefangenenlager - ColbergThere is a purple stamp on the front page.  Researches on the internet reveal that it is the permission stamp for the prisoner-of-war camp at Bad Colberg in Saxony where captive British officers were housed during the First World War.Name plateLook at the front page.  I reckon that there are four hands here.  Somebody has printed J.H.Goodall at the top of the page in pencil.  There is a £1 marker below that.  Then somebody has written JHHGoodall in ink – this looks like a signature of ownership.  Below that is my name, and my notes on where I acquired the book.  We can account for the £1 price marker too as it is linked with my acquisition of the book.

But the printed pencil name and inked name are the same and it has always puzzled me why there is this duplication.

Further searches on the internet, using the London Gazette website and the ICRC records of POW camps, reveal that a Captain J.H.H.Goodall was seconded from the Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment to the Royal Flying Corps in March 1917. But in June 1917 he was listed as missing, and then just a month later he was reported as being a prisoner in German hands.post-59858-0-10162600-1428357000(Bad Colberg sanatorium/POW camp, courtesy of the Great War Forum)

It is likely that the ICRC supplied small religious books as well as letters and parcels to POWs.  This would explain the pencilled name at the top of the page, and the personal signature below.

I just hope this little psalter was a comfort to him.

Extraordinarily, I even found a photo of Captain J.H.H.Goodall – aah, the miracles of the internet!  (He is standing at the very back – he was nearly 6 foot tall – , and his brother, Marcus, who died in the fighting on the Somme, is in the row just in front of him.  This photograph, taken on April 13th 1915 on the steps of York Baths, courtesy of the Yorkshire Film Archive.)  JHHGoodallFinally – and almost by chance – I happened upon the full story of Captain John Humphrey Herbert Goodall and his courageous war service on the Hazlewood School Great War Roll of Service webpage.

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The Holy Island of Lindisfarne

I will let you into a secret.  It was for this view that we moved the 400 miles from Devon to live in Northumberland.evening light on Holy IslandYou are looking out of the window, over the fields, over the Eastcoast railway line, over the sea, towards Holy Island.  That bump that you see towards the right of the picture is the Elizabethan castle standing proud on Beblowe crag.  In differing lights the island looms grey or shimmers as a mirage. Sometimes it is wrapped in mist.  It is always fascinating.

It is as though one is glimpsing Avalon, the Isles of the Blest, a place associated with deep yearning and longing – and peace.

Although I have always felt drawn to this distant vision, I haven’t always enjoyed going to Holy Island.

Our first visit was in August 2004.  Like the rest of the day-trippers, we’d checked the tide tables and driven over the causeway in a busy queue of holiday makers.  We were directed into a huge busy carpark, and followed the stream of people walking into the village where it’s all busy and bustling, and you can join the rest of the crowds in the tiny Lutyens castle, the mediaeval priory or the usual mish-mash of touristy shops.

Nothing special there.  Just busy, bustling and bustling.  How to reconcile this with the spiritual intensity of St Aidan and St Cuthbert, to draw near to the harshness of life that those amazing monks experienced who produced the Lindisfarne Gospels, to understand the holiness of the place?

Well – we have learned the way.  Now I can feel the island calling to me when we have not visited for a while.  It has worked its magic on me, and I am a disciple.

So – let me tell you about our visit earlier this week.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne is not really an island.  It would be much more accurate to call it  a peninsula.  Peninsula – from paene meaning nearly in Latin and insula meaning island.  It is just that: nearly an island.

You have to cross a causeway to get to Holy Island, and the causeway is flooded by the tide twice a day.  So for approximately eleven hours of each day it’s inaccessible by road.driving over the causewayBefore the causeway was built in the sixties, you had to approach by boat, or else walk with your donkeys over the sands as these two good ladies did.Holy Island ladies crossing the causewayWere you to cross when the tide was high, you would be unable to drive right over the causeway. You would have to take refuge in this rickety little wooden hut and wait for the tide to go down.crossing the causewayYou are still directed into the huge busy carpark.  Even though it’s a long way off the school summer holidays, the carpark is crowded and busy.  Holy Island is an immensely popular visitor attraction. crowded carpark But it is from here that we diverge from the masses. Holy Island mapWhile most people walk into the village (or catch the local hopper bus), we back-tracked and walked along the road to a footpath that takes you over to the dunes.   Stephen striding ahead from the carparkThe expedition has begun!!  You can immediately see how different this area is.  The wild flowers are fantastic.  There are poppies and daisies….Poppies and daisiesand cowslips and orchids and buttercups and vetch…..cowslips and orchidsThere is also piri-piri.   At this time of year it is young and green and harmless. Young pirri-pirri plantsThere are warnings about piri-piri, and rightly so as it is most tiresome and we definitely do not want it to spread.Pirri-pirri burr warning signOne year, later in the summer, I unwisely trampled in the piri-piri and this was the result.  This plant has the best survival tactics of any I have ever known – it attaches itself with little wiry hooks which are the very devil to remove. and then it travels with you until it finds a nice new uncolonised spot to invade. pirri-pirri on Katherine's shoes After you leave the meadows, you climb up into the dunes, and there is the sea!  The vegetation is different here – more sparse and lower growing.  Everywhere the birds are calling.  I cannot capture the many larks we see as they fly up and up and up with their glorious singing.  But believe me, they are there, and their song is beautiful.looking for birdsWe sat on the edge of the dunes and looked down on this wonderful white empty beach.  Not a lot of birdlife here today, and no people at all.  Strange – there are usually oyster catchers, curlews and redshanks, and at least the odd beach-comber competing for finds.sandy beachesThere are, however, quite a few kittiwakes chicks in nests on the cliffs.  We can see one nest quite clearly.  There is a very demanding chick there!  You can see its open greedy beak, and boy, could we hear it!  When parents arrive with food, the chicks go wild and make an unholy din.kittiwakesAfter watching the birds, we turn inland again and head for the castle. glimpsing the castle aheadIt is fascinating how many different sorts of terrain there are on one small island.  We call this part the Moon Landscape.  It is actually what was once Nessend Quarry.  This is where, in the 1860s, they quarried for limestone.  The extracted limestone was fed into the limekilns (at the foot of Lindisfarne Castle) where it was roasted into quicklime (commonly used as an agricultural spread for neutralising acid soils).lunar landscape You clamber out through sandy dunes and are back in meadowland again.  We are once more in the land of verdant greenness.meadow flowersThere are traces of old dykes and ditches. The monks farmed here so these may be very old indeed.traces of old ditchesWe turn onto the old tramway that once carried the limestone to the Castle lime kilns.  This is very comfortable walking after the rough terrain of the quarries and dunes.  They’ve clearly been shearing the sheep – bits of their fleece are scattered all over like snow. walking the old tramway But it’s a coarse fleece – I shan’t be taking any home to spin.  fleeceNow we’re beginning to draw closer to the castle, and we can see the sheep whose fleece I’ve been inspecting.Lindisfarne castle from the distanceI love Lindisfarne castle.  The washed colours remind me of an Uccello painting.Lindisfarne castleIt is not an old castle as British castles go – nor did it see important action.  A castle was first built on the protruding rock of Beblowe Crag in the 1570s as part of the English defences on its unruly Scottish borders.  But in 1603 the crowns of England and Scotland were united under James (1st of England, 6th of Scotland), so after that the castle was rather unnecessary (although a small military garrison was maintained there for another three centuries).

It was reborn into modern life in the early 20th century when Edward Hudson (the owner and founder of Country Life magazine) acquired the building.  He appointed the distinguished architect, Edwin Lutyens, to convert the castle into a home.  Lutyens made a magnificent job of it.  It is enchanting inside – simple magnificence combined with a strong eye for detail.

On the shoreline below the castle people make cairns with the local stones.  We may not all visit Holy Island as Christians, but without doubt many people find in the place a deep spirituality.  I think this couple were building a cairn to commemorate the scattering of cremated ashes. building cairns I can well understand why you would wish to leave the ashes of those precious to you in the care of these little islands on the Northumbrian coast. 

You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid  (T S Eliot: Little Gidding)

On the distant horizon is the Inner Farne Island, whither Cuthbert retreated when he could no longer cope with the busyness of Lindisfarne.  cairns by the shoreNow we are rounding the shoreline and the old tram road path leads up to the Castle (those arches on the left are the Lime Kilns).  The castle sits like a galleon sailing in these magnificent Northumbrian skies.walking round to the lime kilns and castleWe are nearing civilisation …Stephen walking round castleBut first, glance up at the golden lichen on the castle approaches.  Lichen thrives where the atmosphere is pure.lichen under castle And look down, at the banks of valerian on the lower castle reaches.valerianWe are back now with our fellow tourists.   The ruins of the Priory are in our sights.joining crowdsA sunny lunch in the local pub.  It’s quite an ordinary little  pub, but how many other pubs sit so casually next to such magnificent ruins? Stephen in pub It was St Aidan who brought Christianity to these islands at the request of King Oswald of neighbouring Bamburgh Castle.  St AidanThe sainted Aidan was much loved and is still revered as a great saint, as is his successor, Cuthbert.  But in many ways it has to be said that Cuthbert has overtaken Aidan in the popularity stakes.  St Cuthbert amid ruinsThis is Cuthbert’s country.  He was – and still is – hugely special to Northumbrians.  They remember him locally as Cuddy.  If you look carefully you’ll see the Cuddy duck (actually an Eider) nestling at the foot of this rather curious statue of Cuthbert.  Crinoid fossils found on the beaches are Cuddy beads, and were once used to make rosaries.  Today there’s a ginger cat asleep nearby, oblivious to everything but the sunny warmth.  cat amid ruinsAidan and Cuthbert never knew this stone built Priory.  Aidan came here in 635, and Cuthbert is thought to have arrived here some 30 years later.  They lived and worshipped in wooden buildings which have completely disappeared, but are thought to have been on the same site.   LindisfarneFol27rIncipitMattGiven the simplicity of the monks’ lives here on Lindisfarne it is truly extraordinary that one of the finest books extant, the Lindisfarne gospels, was copied and illustrated here.  The Lindisfarne Gospels are thought to be the work of Bishop Eadfrith, Cuthbert’s successor on the island.  They are now one of the greatest treasures of the British Library.  First page of St Matthew’s gospel.  Image made available to the public domain by Wikipedia.wood carving of monks carrying Cuthbert's bodyThe monks left Lindisfarne in disarray when Viking raiders began a series of attacks on the monastery at the end of the 8th century.  But they took the body of their beloved St Cuthbert with them, and a fine wooden carving in the church commemorates their devotion.

In the 12th century monks returned to build the Priory that we see today.  It is a beautiful building, and despite the exposure to the elements still looks amazing.  You can still make out the details of the chevrons on the columns.  priory ruinsEven in the Priory, it is the Castle perched on Beblowe Crag that dominates.  It intrigues me that when I speak of gazing longingly at Holy Island, it is a conflation of the image of the Castle and the ethos that the monks created that sits in my mind.  The Castle is the stronger visual symbol of the place, but without the history of Aidan, Cuthbert, Eadfrith, and all their fellow unknown monks, it could just be another castle.  Of course, Mother Nature has a strong part to play in making this place remarkable too!looking from the priory ruins to the castleTime to face the world again.  There’s the whole Lindisfarne/Holy Island retail experience.  Lindisfarne shopsAnd then we join the pedestrians walking back to the car park.  I hope they will return to the mainland as refreshed by their visit to Holy Island as I have been. walking back to the car

Duddo stone circle

Earlier this week we walked to the Duddo stone circle. Duddo stones I am in awe of this place.  It is just magnificent.  On this visit – as on the other times we have visited – we had the place almost completely to ourselves.  Nobody else but the birds – larks singing, the odd cuckoo, an old pheasant croak.  Oh yes – a lone dog walker who turned round when she saw us at the stones and left us to enjoy the place alone. Stephen sitting against stone This is not a remarkable stone circle in  itself – it is small, and the stones are very worn and not really imposing.  But without doubt this is an extraordinary place.   Is it the location, the amazing views, the knowledge that this place meant so much to earlier peoples that they took the trouble to build this stone circle here?  A combination of all these, I would guess.Duddo stones from a distanceYou approach the stones along a flat dry path, some 20 minutes or so away from the road.walk up to Duddo stonesLooking down from stones to dog walkerWhen you get to the top, you can see that you are on a small mound in the centre of a landscape bowl that slopes away off into the far distance.Stephen looking over viewFrom the top you can see for miles and miles.  Right on the western horizon are the Eildon Hills, beloved by Walter Scott (called by the Romans Trimontium).looking over to EildonsTo the south is the looming Cheviot range. looking towards Cheviots To the north is the ridge that runs above the Tweed, separating Scotland from England, with Berwick at its most easterly point.  Looking northRadiocarbon indicates that the placing of these stones may date to as early as 2000 BC.  This site is very very old.  Duddo stoneThis is now a five stone circle.  Originally there were two other stones in the circle, but these were moved when – can you believe it?! – a determined farmer ploughed across the interior of the circle, disturbing the cremated human remains later found buried in the centre of the circle.Duddo stone 2The stones are worn, sculpted by wind and friendly sheep into the most fantastical of shapes – perhaps a bit like hands?Duddo stone like a fistSurely this is a fist?

In my mind’s eye, I stand on tippy tippy tip-toes and stretch my imagination back to the people who made and used this place.  It’s a gathering place, with crowds of people travelling over from the distant hills to stand at the foot of the mound, looking up at the stones and the rituals taking place there.

But Stephen reasonably points out that this area may have been wooded, not the open plain that we see today.  We just don’t know what the land was like then but the forest clearances do date to the period when the stone circle was set up.

It’s almost impossible to shift one’s mind from our world of take-away meals, worries about the NHS, fascination with social media, celebrity obsession, Ikea etc  to the people of four thousand years ago.Duddo stone with graffitti I wonder what the ancient peoples here would have thought about this modern graffitti?