I was greatly taken by Dunbar’s Belhaven Hill School Choristers’ singing, in Dunblane Cathedral on Sunday. They sang the Howard Goodall setting of the hymn Love divine, all loves excelling. A fine melody, highly wrought, and deeply emotional. I almost blubbed! There followed a New Testament reading – Luke 24: 13 – 35 – the road to Emmaus. I don’t think this story appears in any of the other gospels. Following the crucifixion, two men in a state of perplexity walk the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and are joined by a mysterious third figure. T. S. Eliot alludes to this event in The Waste Land.
Who is the third who walks beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?
In his notes on The Waste Land, Eliot alludes to Emmaus, and also to an Antarctic expedition, possibly one of Shackleton’s. When a group of people are in a state of total exhaustion, they may hallucinate the presence of another individual within their midst. The composer Edmund Rubbra incorporated the tale of the road to Emmaus in his Ninth Symphony, a choral work depicting the events between the crucifixion and the Ascension. It is a very striking work, but it is extremely austere. I’ve said it before: nobody does austere like Rubbra. It is arresting, but not consoling. It is not Brahms’ German Requiem.
Nobody knows exactly where the village of Emmaus is, or was, if it ever existed at all. I suppose archaeologists could be minded to draw a circle with centre Jerusalem and of radius seven miles, and then organise a series of digs around the resulting circumference. But I hope they don’t. I prefer to think of Emmaus as a mirage. Nothing good would come of its discovery. Some entrepreneur with an eye for the main chance would market it as a tourist destination. “Perplexed? Chill out in Emmaus, at the five star Cleopas Hotel.” The shops would be bulging with tat. Third Man mugs and tea towels.
Then, at 3.00 pm on Sunday, the balloon went up. Fortunately it was only a rehearsal. But all over the UK, millions of smart phones squawked. At least, so I am led to believe. I had switched my phone off. I felt a sharp stab of irritation at this latest government wheeze, to have the entire populace jump to the threat of terror, tsunami, or nuclear annihilation. Sometimes I wish politicians would cease to have initiatives.
And what? Mend potholes? In the language of the literati, it’s a “trope”, or a “narrative”, that our governments should put all their grandiose plans on the back-burner and just “concentrate on the day job”. You know, health, education, law and order, the economy. I even wonder about that. The whole idea that the government “runs the country” seems to me to be a fallacy. They don’t run the country. We – that is, you and I – run the country. The running of the country, that is, the conduct of human affairs throughout the realm, is nothing but a Grand Integral of all the activities that take place, day in day out, in schools, universities, hospitals, GP practices, care homes, High Streets, shops, check-out counters, businesses, trains and boats and planes, court rooms, prisons, churches… And so on. And the really important transactions that take place, the ones that really matter to individuals, are mostly one-on-one. Sometimes I think that the more powerful the offices government ministers hold, the more redundant and effete they become, because they have removed themselves from the intimacy of a one-on-one transaction, in order to develop all-encompassing strategies involving an App.
Of government, my father used to say, “We are not well led.” I cannot think that this state of disillusionment is healthy. The trouble is, if we lose faith in governance, it becomes extremely difficult to retain a sense of self-worth. We begin to feel that our contribution to the “Grand Integral” is worthless, because not valued. This is why people go on strike – not because they are overworked and underpaid; but because they are undervalued. You strike because you no longer feel you have a stake in the maintenance of the Grand Integral.
Anyway I had my phone switched off and I didn’t hear the klaxon and, presumably, the directive to “duck and cover”. In fact I was walking with a companion along the disused railway line to the west of Callander (disused thanks to the Beeching Axe and yet another initiative). We walked in the direction of the Iron Age fort at Bochastle, passing an ancient Roman settlement on our right. I don’t suppose it would have been a much sought-after posting for the centurions, here in the far north-western reaches of the Roman Empire. “Lovely scenery!” “Yes, but the locals are not cooperative. Trouble is, they have no stake in the empire.” As we walked past the Romans, I don’t think we were joined by a third individual. But you never know.
I subsequently learned that the balloon had failed to go up for a substantial number of possessors of G4 and G5 smart phones. The organisation of libations in breweries comes to mind. I’m not proud that I take delight in an administrative foul-up. I suppose I must to some extent share the vandalistic attitude of the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. An Edinburgh professor has written a letter in today’s Herald describing how, when he asked a couple of youths not to try to set a bus shelter on fire, they said, “Why? Everything’s f***** anyway.” I can understand why teenage hackers take delight in fouling up government computer systems. They are thumbing their noses at authority.
A plague on all their fancy initiatives. Of all the UK’s previous PMs, I think I admire Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman the most. He seemed able to keep things on an even keel between 1905 and 1908. Every September he went off for six weeks to the Spa town of Marianbad where he read German literature. I think Rishi Sunak should consider emulating Sir Henry. Moreover, he shouldn’t take his mobile with him, with its latest pernicious App. We need to be protected from the madcap schemes of the powerful. Lloyd George used to say of Churchill, “The trouble with Winston is, he will get out the maps.”