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Almost thirty years ago, I went to the Yorkshire Dales with a group of friends to undertake an ascent of the Three Peaks. Penyghent, Whernside and Ingleborough make for a stiff day's walking. But we were very young and the challenge of quantity was more significant to us than the quality of more leisured ascent.
As we recovered in the pub that evening, one of the group took a poem from his rucksack. It was 'Inheritance', Laurence Binyon's depiction of Ingleborough. It isn't a great poem because Binyon was not a great poet. But he had a real gift for the kind phrase that winkles its way into the consciousness – as 'For the Fallen' so well illustrates.
This is how Binyon closes his poem about the fellside from which we had just returned:
But the things that are dearest
You have told them never;
They are deep in our veins
For ever and ever;
They come over the mind
When the world's noise is still
As to me comes the vision
Of one blue hill,
The first of England
That spoke to me.
What is it about a country which 'speaks to us'? During this jubilee holiday when a certain kind of national fervour is de rigueur, it would be foolish to pretend that there is no such sentiment – even though its reality may be very different from the one which is being presented to us, accoutred in scarlet and gold and drawing deeply on wells of militarism and concocted 'tradition'.
Like most of us in these islands, I am a hybrid creature. Poles, Bavarians and Ulster Scots have laid down their genetic markers in my DNA, But I feel myself an Englishwoman. This is because, as with a duckling emerging from its egg, my surroundings have imprinted themselves on my mind and heart. I love the English landscape and the effects wrought upon it by our eccentric climate. I love its music, literature and visual art.
And it was being in the presence of one small corner of this art last weekend which crystallised for me the value of listening to the still small voice of that indefinable Englishness which can be so perfectly captured in the vision of those who have the gift of interpreting the 'seeing' of the most local of experiences in a manner which is actually universal.
The Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden is home to the work of the Great Bardfield artists, the best known of whom are Eric Ravilious, John Aldridge, Eric Bawden and Tirza Garwood. Their art is gentle, sometimes tenderly whimsical, yet always without sentimentality. It is also transformative.
From the clear-sighted, donnish self portrait of John Aldridge, alive with intelligence, to the pale landscapes of Ravilious with their slightly elongated and marginally uneasy figures, they invite reflection on how we may come to see the familiar as alive with new potential. And because the familiarity is that of English scenes and people, it reminds me that the sacramental is rooted in the ordinary and that we do not need grand gestures to be in the presence of that which is most essentially of ourselves.
For that reason, it has no part in xenophobia, racism or patriotism as popularly presented. It does not breathe an air of national superiority or of contempt – however subtly veiled - for the 'other'. What was offered to me – a Cumbrian woman in an Essex gallery – was the universal experience of knowing, just for one moment, an intimation of the eternal through the transfiguration of the temporal and almost comically local.
Such, perhaps, is Incarnation, offered to us when “the world's noise is still."
© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpenTweet