Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. This post will probably make more sense if you read the first part first, but do just plunge in if you prefer. You will appreciate that I am describing events of forty years ago, which I have not previously looked back on this analytically, trying to work out my motives and my mood. I hope to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But I am looking backwards through a glass darkly and, dear reader, it will not be the whole truth for the fashion for epics has passed.
After my Indian idyll, I spent nearly a year in Trinidad with the family of my greatest friend at university. It was intended to be a fortnight’s holiday to take part in Edmund Hart’s Inferno band at 1970 Carnival (as a vampire – see right), but I had no compelling reason to return to England and I was lucky enough to be invited to stay on as part of the family. I taught English and History at Bishop Anstey High School and a state of emergency was declared. To this day I deny that there was any connection between these two events, although the set books were Animal Farm and Julius Caesar. The headmistress told me I was on no account to mention the word ‘revolution’. Not for the first (or last) time, I had some difficulty in following the diktats of those in authority over me.
My friend was posted to Geneva, and it was clearly time for me to move on. We had all spent Christmas 1968 in New York, since when I had longed to live there. So, with about $100 in my pocket and an introduction from my grandmother to Edith Lutyens (but no job or anywhere to live) I arrived in Manhattan. I got a job at British Information Services, and a fifth-floor walk-up apartment on Lexington, between 57th and 58th street, thanks to Edith. Think ‘Barefoot in the Park’. My church-going for the next three years was pretty much limited to occasional visits with Marjorie Kenyon to her local church in Old Lyme or St Barts on Park Avenue.
It was not that I ceased to think about God. On the contrary, as you will see, I was spiritually omnivorous. At no stage did I reject Christ, but nor did I focus on Him. With hindsight (a wonderful thing) I see this as a belated rebellion, part of growing up. I had always resisted doing what was expected of me when it was expected of me: an aunt with whom I had been despatched to spend Christmas at the age of ten later remarked drily to my mother that I was ‘an argumentative little blighter’ and at school I had declined to be confirmed at the same time as the other girls in my class, feeling that it was not to be ‘taken in hand unadvisedly or lightly’, like the bronze life-saving medal, another school enterprise undertaken en masse. I was confirmed the following year. (What a little prig I must have been!)
One aspect of Christianity that has always bothered me is that if I had been born in the Middle East, I would probably be Moslem, if I had been born in India, I would be Hindu, if I had been born in Japan I would be Shintoist and so on. Connected with this is the uncomfortable fact that if I had been born before the birth of Christ, I would not be Christian. I cannot believe that these people are ineligible for heaven. I imagine you know the story of the six blind men and the elephant, one version of which comes from the Mahabharata. This makes sense to me, and I am not alone: even Bishop Desmond Tutu called his book ’God is not a Christian’.
It was as if I continued to feel part of the Body of Christ, but was trying on different outfits from the dressing-up box in the attic to wear on top of my Christian faith.
But to return to Edith, my mentor for the next three years. She showed me the world of her New York in the 1970s, the world of theatre and design, including one memorable evening with Tilli Losch. I thought it was glamorous and exciting and wonderful. One of her friends was Michael Dyne, author of The Right Honourable Gentleman.
Michael was a follower of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, and gave me a copy of The Fourth Way. If you are interested, you can read part of the introduction here. Roughly speaking, few people could understand Gurdjieff, so Ouspensky tried to explain his thinking. It is a relief to admit, after all these years, that I had great difficulty in understanding Ouspensky either. I wanted to be capable of great thought, and I wanted to please Michael, but we both realised that I was not quite the disciple that he was looking for. Instead, he told me about the I Ching, the one with Jung’s introduction.
This is a Confucian oracle, with 64 possible answers to whatever question one might pose. I asked whether I should return permanently to England: the answer was to the effect that I had many miles still to travel “before crossing the Great Water”. I thought this a very clever answer.
Next I moved to the Tarot.
I joined a group, where we met weekly in each other’s houses to learn about the symbolism of the 22 major arcana. We did not use the cards to predict the future – the idea was based on psychoanalysis, that we should meditate on the images in order to establish the sort of contact with our unconscious minds normally only available in sleep. I have not looked at the Tarot since leaving New York (having in one sense outgrown the need) but there are one or two images which are interesting in a Christian context. The obvious one is The Fool. Also water plays a significant part, as the water of life does in Christianity.
During my stay in New York, one odd thing did happen. The Ark Royal came to town and, as traditionally happens, the British Consulate was asked to provide a list of suitable people to invite on board, to be heavily weighted in favour of nubile females. British Information Services, of which I was part, were invited en bloc. There were perhaps two or three hundred officers as our hosts. I spent a long time in conversation with a most interesting man, who turned out to be the Roman Catholic padre. We reached the end of our conversation, and continued to circulate. The next man I talked to, equally interesting, turned out to be the Church of England chaplain. It was then time to go home. I am still wondering what this says about them – and about me. We hear about gaydar, do you think there is such a thing as ‘spaydar’, for people with an interest in spirituality to seek each other out? (Since this is the most flattering explanation, it is as you will understand the one I prefer to accept).
I returned to England, and married Robert, then head of the Drama and Dance Department of the British Council. We were married by the Revd Bruce Gillingham, then chaplain of Robert’s Oxford college. I became a more regular churchgoer, to St Paul’s Wilton Place in the time of the Revd Christopher Courtauld. A magical six years followed, in which we went to the theatre (at no expense) at least twice a week. And then it was time to go abroad again – I pleaded to go back to India, and we arrived in Calcutta in August 1987.
Was I still smitten by India and all things Indian? ‘What time are the animal sacrifices at the Kali Temple?’ asked an official visitor who had come to stay. I offered her my car and driver, but declined to accompany her, though I did manage not to voice my distaste at the question. However, she must have sensed it, for on my return I found she had put a painted clay statue of Kali, about two feet high, in the middle of my dining table, complete with necklace of skulls. What would you have done in my place?
I moved the statue to the hall table for the night. The next day, after our guests left, we were fortuitously going on a boat trip on the Hooghly. It is the custom, at the end of the Durga Puja and some other festivals, to immerse the clay images in the Hooghly. This is therefore not considered disrespectful, but a fitting end. I put Kali in a carrier bag, with respect, and took her on board the boat. Without telling the others what I was doing, since I did not want a fuss made, I slipped her into the river on the down tide – she would have disssolved before reaching the Bayof Bengal.
I would like to leave the last word to Emily Dickinson
We play at paste
Till qualified for pearl,
then drop the paste,
And deem ourself a fool
The shapes, though, were similar,
And our new hands
Learned gem tactics
The main illustration is by Andy Lindley Light Through Stained Glass via Twelve Baskets