My Pop Life #127 : He Who Would Valiant Be


To Be A Pilgrim

he who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster

let hm in constancy follow the master

there’s no discouragement can make him once relent

his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim…

At some point in 1966 my mother was still in Hellingly Hospital near Herstmonceux in East Sussex, receiving ECG and taking various medications, mainly Largactyl.   She’d had a Nervous Breakdown.  She would be there for 9 months in all.  I wrote about this period in My Pop Life #55.  My dad was struggling to cope with three young sons and a full-time teaching job in Brighton and initially he’d been helped by our Nan, Ruby Laming who’d travelled up from Portsmouth and lived with us in the village.   Apart from missing Mum terribly our lives hadn’t changed all that much – we still walked up the road to the little village school, played football, fought in the playground, saved up for a packet of crisps and hid in the bales of the barn opposite our house.

Mum came home eventually 9 months later, but Dad moved out under a cloud pretty soon after that after being caught with the babysitter.  So then it was Mum and three boys.   These years blur and blend, but perhaps it was 1968 when she must have returned to hospital again.

And suddenly we were shipped out to Brighton – or at least Paul and I were.  Andrew was only 3 or 4 years old at this point and would have been transferred to Mum’s sister Valerie in Portsmouth.   Separated not for the first or the last time.   But at least we weren’t in care.   Being abused somewhere.   Lucky us.   I think Paul and I were 10 and 8 years old respectively.  It may be 9 and 7.  Someone may help me pin the year down.  It won’t make that much difference.

We were taken to a house in Lauriston Road where a colleague of my Dad’s lived with his family.  Phil was a teacher at Westlain Grammar too.  His wife Moyra also worked but I cannot remember her job.  They had two children called Ceri and Eleri – the daughter Eleri was one year older than Ceri.

Lauriston Road is opposite the top end of Preston Park in Brighton.    Us country boys from a small village with one shop were suitably gobsmacked by this development.  Just down Preston Road was the Rookery Rock Garden, right opposite the park and we explored that with delight.  Twisty paths, ponds with fish, rocks and overhanging trees, all built on a hillside between the main road north – the A23 and the railway line.  It has a slightly Japanese feel in design, and was built in 1935 using tons of imported Cheddar rock and stone.   It is still a delightful place to visit.  It was my first taste of Brighton.

We were all taken to their primary school the next morning, but Paul refused to go, hanging onto the baluster of the staircase and screaming his head off.  Moyra got quite upset with him – I imagine she was being made late for work, and there was nowhere else for us to be at that age.  Eventually his hands were prised free from the staircase and we were bundled into a Morris Traveller and taken to school.

Christian reads his Book :  William Blake

The school was terrifying of course.  We’d been used to a tiny classroom with a dozen kids, three or four of them my own age.   Now we were lined up at desks with 25-30 strange faces and a large female teacher whose name I have erased.  She read to us every day from a large book about a man called Christian and his journey across a strange forbidding landscape – the Hill Of Difficulty, the Valley of Humiliation and carrying this weight everywhere he went – a book.  When Christian was captured by The Giant Despair and imprisoned in his Doubting Castle I started freaking out.

The psycho-geography of Pilgrim’s Progress

Then I caught chicken pox.  Then Paul caught chicken pox.  Then Ceri caught chicken pox.  Then Eleri caught chicken pox.  That was the end of school !!  We were bedridden for at least a week, maybe more.  Phil would read us bedtime stories at night bless him.  In loco parentis.  We never really made friends with those kids and I don’t think we ever saw them again.  It was like an unearthly interlude with illness – and probably felt like chaos to my parents.

John Bunyan (detail) – painting by Thomas Sadler

Later I realised that the book that was being read aloud to us was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a christian allegory the first part of which was published in England in 1677 while Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching without a licence.   Perhaps it was an abridged version, or a child’s version we were listening to.  In any event the looming Celestial City and the Valley Of The Shadow Of Death both represented the same thing to me – horror.  I can’t ever remember enjoying Christian stories, whether Old Testament, New Testament or books like Pilgrim’s Progress.  They always felt slightly threatening.  Perhaps it was the context, or the character of the teller.

6th-former, Lewes Grammar 1964 by the Chapel

Later when I was at Grammar School in Lewes we sang in the School Chapel, the whole school assembled to stand in pews and hold hymnbooks and sing together.   Me in shorts, uniform, striped dark blue and light blue tie and cap.   And there was that word again, in a tune that filled my heart :  To Be A Pilgrim.  I never heard any version of this on record or anywhere else, my entire memory of it is as a hymn sung in a church.  Little did I know that the words of the hymn were taken from Bunyan’s book, slightly modified in 1906 by Percy Dearnal, and set to music in the same year by my namesake Ralph Vaughan Williams.   Later on Vaughan Williams would write an opera called Pilgrim’s Progress which premiered in 1951.

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams

Young Ralph – he was 34 at the time – took the music from a Sussex folk song called Monk’s Gate, named after a village near Horsham, the tune being collected by a Mrs Harriet Verrall of that parish who was also responsible for the Sussex Carol.  The resulting tune and words are forever stirring and pleasing to mine ear, and do not remind me of the shadowy days listening to Pilgrim’s Progress in some strange forbidding grey school in Brighton.  I can pick up and discard these associations in my own time – luckily – for the hated Thatcher’s funeral also featured this very hymn.   In fact I’m quite fond of the word Pilgrim.  I like to set myself random tasks, usually psycho-geographical in nature, oft times muso-geographical, and then become a pilgrim for the length of a day, a week, a year.  An example is to be found at My Pop Life 16 when Jenny and I visited the Metropolitan Museum in 2014 seeking the paintings from Rufus Wainwright‘s The Art Teacher, or at My Pop Life #97 when I sought out the locations in Berlin that David Bowie references in “Where Are We Now?“.  In both instances I was a pilgrim.  There is a staggeringly good Van Der Graaf Generator song called Pilgrims which I am inordinately fond of.

And there is a Wishbone Ash LP called Pilgrimage which captured our teenage imagination at one point with its twin lead guitar attack and which I have not revisited this long century since.   But it means so much more than this.  Remember the Canterbury Tales?

The Hajj to Mecca ? The Pilgrimage Of Grace ?

Benares ?  

These mass movements of the devoted are peaceful in nature, the very opposite of a crusade.  And yet and yet.  I have to reject the religious way, the idea of such certainly being handed to me in a book, from a man, located in a place, a system of beliefs laid out for me.  The centre of the universe is surely everywhere as Sitting Bull once observed.

Pilgrims are focussed.  Single minded.  Valiant – possibly.   They seek, they search, they have a reason to go on.  Following a master ?  Don’t know about that.  It would certainly make it easier though wouldn’t it ?  Make it easier to be a pilgrim.

Maddy Prior who used to be in Steeleye Span :

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. brownie
    Dec 02, 2015 @ 09:31:14

    Ralph, brilliant memories but I went to school in Portsmouth or rather I started school, so I must have been at least 4-5 which would have made year 68-69, so you would have been older!! you have a brilliant memory, I can barely remember anything from Selmeston days… just fleeting snapshots, more a feeling than an actual memory…. twisty roads, sandpit, gramaphone, roller staking in hall….

    Like

    Reply

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