Wednesday, October 01, 2014

At the Blue Note Café

I was led back in memory to the Blue Note Café by a series of events: a surprise gift through the post (Loreena McKennitt discs); Tom’s essay on Poverty of Spirit, posted on the same day as mine on Attitude; and then Ellie’s comment on my last:

The magical thing is that we recover scattered pieces long forgotten and reassemble them into a new image to present to the world. It delights me to have a idea pop up, remember an image, locate a quote, string together some words, and ask Blogger to make it into a post. I think of this as my ‘work’. Housework, yardwork, and such are drudgery in comparison.

The moment I read her words, the same thought took root in me, as if it had always been there. And the idea which popped up was one briefly mentioned in my last: an encounter in Glastonbury. It was in the mid-Nineties. We went there on a last-minute whim, it might have been March or October. The idea was mine for I’d started to read John Cowper Powys’ novel, A Glastonbury Romance. My growing interest in this author eventually led me to a series of essays published in a literary magazine, La Lettre Powysienne, encouraged by its editor Mme Peltier. In retrospect they seem laborious practice-pieces, compared with the freedom & spontaneity of blogging. (Sorry, Jacqueline, I know you didn’t approve of blogging, and found the very word ugly.)

We left home on Friday afternoon for the three-hour drive. I imagined Glastonbury as a numinous place, replete with ancient legends; but hardly expected to see ghosts on the road, a mile or two before we got there. It was dusk, on a winding country road hemmed in by darkening hedgerows on either side. Round a bend, I suddenly saw two mediaeval peasants trudging along at the roadside, bearing staffs and bundles and what looked like bamboo hats on their backs. It may not have occurred to me at the time, but they looked like something from Basho, that celebrated seventeenth-century Zen pilgrim who remains the patron saint of this blog. I yelled “Did you see THAT!” but my passengers were dozing, the children having tired of chanting “Are we nearly there yet?” And that was it. An unsolved mystery, ghosts or merely a trick of the light, the sort of fleeting impression you might forget altogether for want of anywhere to file it in your head.

The next day, we wandered round the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. The grounds have become an open-air museum. After falling victim to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in fifteen-hundred-and-something when he seized every valuable Catholic property, it still remains in the hands of the Church of England which he founded. I imagine the site was never deconsecrated; for while the Anglicans aren’t into saints and superstitions to the extent of the Catholics, it’s still a holy place by any measure. It has a numinous presence, which I certainly felt. They say St Joseph of Arimathea came here, after the Crucifixion, not to mention the Lord himself, risen or otherwise. And if those feet in ancient time did walk upon England’s mountains green, and were the Holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures truly seen, then this would be the spot. Not to mention the tomb of King Arthur, as alleged. And it was a holy place before the Christian missionaries came.

It would be very easy to give you the proper facts with the aid of 5 minutes’ Wikipedia research, but I don’t want to overpaint the tattered remnants of personal memory with stuff that anyone can look up. I shall tell my own truth, unembellished, hoping it will stand up reasonably well. The Abbey attracts tourists of every kind, including shrine-worshippers. Mostly the ruins are unroofed, but there was still the remains of a crypt, you could walk down some grassy steps and get to it: stone-vaulted at one end with a proper Christian altar freshly maintained and chairs facing it, making a little chapel, protected from rain and gales but but open to the fresh breeze, children’s cries and birdsong; for the rear part was open to the sky.

And here it was that I found those pilgrims, those mediaeval peasants I thought I’d seen on the road. They had laid down their bamboo staffs and burdens in front of the altar and stood in their antique clothes and sandalled feet, gently chanting with low obeisances and other gestures. At such close quarters I could have no doubt they were real, but you could only see them from a rear view.

Later the same day we wandered around the shops. In one of the boutiques surrounding a small courtyard off the main street, I bought a Loreena McKennitt cassette. I’d never heard of her but The Lady of Shalott was playing as we entered, and I had to have it: an album called “The Visit”. Then we went into the Blue Note Café. I have a vague idea that it’s famous. They’ve redone the frontage since, but I found an older photo, more like it was then. I imagine it’s well-known to musicians and fans who descend on the town for the annual Festival. That day, as we took our snacks and drinks, it was busy but not crowded. Once again I saw the pilgrim pair, listened to their conversation with other customers, and finally met them.

At this point my tale is a little blurred because the tatters of memory are pieced from several sources: what I learned at first hand in the café, what I subsequently heard in a radio programme, and what I read on a website. Today in October 2014 all my ingenious keyword combinations fail to unlock the secrets of that pair, and their pilgrimage. Uncharacteristically, Google has gone tight-lipped like a Sphinx. This eyewitness account may be all you’ll ever get; all else erased by the restless sands of time. It falls on me therefore, to give you an unvarnished narrative like a sworn witness in court.

The man was English, he might have been in his late thirties. He had been a soldier, whether in the regular army or a mercenary I don’t recall, nor in which theatre of war he had received his serious injuries, nor even if they were sustained in combat, nor even if they were injuries. Perhaps he had had some life-threatening infection. I only know that soldiering was his thing: to be brave, swashbuckling, aggressive and full of himself. But after he was struck down he was weak as a baby and was tended by a nurse, who later became his companion, wife and fellow-pilgrim. If she was not German, she was Scandinavian; and perhaps it was she who introduced him to a gentler way of living. She was more educated than he. If they should ever read this blog and correct me, it would be wonderful, but I don’t even have a name, despite searching my computer files and old notebooks.

His recovery to health took at least two years. Then at some point he became a Buddhist, or perhaps he went to Japan first, I don’t know. Perhaps his nurse became a Buddhist before he did. At any event, in Japan he studied Buddhism under a master, the leader of a particular sect not then known in Britain. The Master saw possibilities in him, as a man by force of circumstance starting afresh, his raw energies restored but his future empty as he had renounced his former military career. I imagine his instinct to conquer was still intact, but he wished to turn his sword into some kind of ploughshare. When I say “imagine”, I mean I’m trying to reconstruct the impressions left behind by faded memories.

The crux was that the Master offered him a deal. He was to take monastic views, suitably tailored to his marital state; to wear the old Japanese clothes; to adopt a vegetarian diet; to carry no money, but depend on the kindness of strangers encountered; to obey the Master and keep him informed via regular correspondence; to worship at the shrines of 63 holy places in the United Kingdom. (Strange that I remember that number, perhaps falsely.)

On completion of this pilgrimage, the Master would invest him as Abbot with a mission to establish and lead the sect in these islands.

That’s all I can tell you, just a few rags and tatters. For the rest, we can only look within ourselves and surmise. It’s like one of those Werner Herzog movies based on real life and the director’s own dramatic instincts. By cinematic wizardry he creates bizarre near-mad characters whose inner logic you never quite grasp consciously; but you find yourself able to walk sympathetically in their shoes.

To me this tale is a microcosm of religious conversion: realizing one’s profound dissatisfaction with life so far, not through any special insight but only when cornered by force of circumstance. Then there is the acting-out of self-abasement rituals which nevertheless confer their own special distinction upon the convert. There is the sacrifice of ordinary comforts and safety for the lure of future glory. The path is underpinned by humble obedience and self-denial, tainted with calculated ambition; penance coupled with adventure. And that’s just in the heart of the disciple. What was the Master’s intent? To bring them to a spiritual realization? To allow life's harshness to knock off their corners? To use as foot-soldiers in some imperial venture? I don’t think one can know, even when in possession of all the facts.

But as I write this, I see that the colourful pilgrimage I witnessed in Glastonbury was a comic-book representation of my own drab and long-drawn-out spiritual journey as it stood then, one that I don’t know how to tell, have no desire to tell. I recall to my shame introducing myself to this ex-soldier-turned-Buddhist, there in the café, telling him I too had a Master, I too had a path. It wasn’t a good move, because it introduced male rivalry and the hidden doubts we each must have had about the exotic journey we’d embarked upon; the kind of doubts which make you defensive, ready to fight some metaphorical duel.

I’d love to find out what happened to him, meet him again, and definitely not pick up from where we left off.