“I hear those voices that will not be drowned”. These words from Peter Grimes are pierced through the four metre high sculpture by Maggi Hambling which stands on the beach at Aldeburgh in celebration of the life and work of Benjamin Britten. Read against the Suffolk sky, they go straight to the heart.
For those of us whose working lives are passed in the gathering of, and comment upon, news, the space to stand away from the conveyor belt of the 'now' in order to reflect upon its enduring meaning, is both difficult and essential. The 48 hours we have just spent on the Suffolk coast and its hinterland has been a time of relaxation as expected, but also of unexpected and unlooked for revelation.
Hambling's sculpture of a vast scallop shell is astonishing. It is hard to believe that metal could be so fluid. From one angle, the fixed shape of the shell dominates. Viewed from another, it becomes all movement – waves undulating and breaking, seaweed flowing around rock. And always the words, inseparable from the scene, but apposite to all places and all times.
Ever since I first fell under the spell of Britten's music as a fifteen year old 'O'-level pupil studying the St Nicholas Cantata, this coast has been part of the world of my imagination. Now, living much closer than I did 40 years ago, I visit it whenever I can. The shingle beach does not draw bucket and spade holiday makers and the unmistakeable colouring of this eastern sea is not attractive to the compilers of holiday brochures. Whatever the hue of the vast East Anglian sky, the waters here remain a steely blue-grey with a brown undertone which reminds the onlooker of the earth against which the waves rush and withdraw.
I cannot look on this scene without hearing the high violins which open the first of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Never have a place and an artist been so closely knit together and it is hard to imagine a piece of art which could have better captured this emotional union, than Hambling's scallop shell. The skill and vision of two great visual and aural artists combined to speak of the divine spirit in a manner which took me entirely by surprise on this Bank Holiday excursion. Truly this was “a wind blowing from another country”.
The church at Iken, just inland from Aldeburgh and a curlew's flight along the river Alde, stands on the site where St Botolph built a minster in the mid 7th century. The original foundation was destroyed by Vikings 200 years later and a new church built around 1070. Following the winding and narrow roads to this isolated church which stands in marshland on a promontory of the river, is to slip away a little from the 21st century and its preoccupations.
Driving between fields of sweet corn and sunflowers along lanes edged with drifts of sand, we were not surprised to be met by a sign welcoming us as pilgrims. And although our packs were in the boot of a car and a sat-nav had been our guide, we had – albeit unintentionally - come in the spirit of pilgrimage.
The small, partly thatched church has a simplicity and sanctity which causes a catch in the breath. The Norman nave, without decoration and rough rendered in stone and flint, is both ancient and timeless and if one stands facing west so as not to see the Victorian chancel, is undoubtedly a 'thin place' – a term in Celtic spirituality describing a location where the partition between our material world and the spiritual realm is insubstantial. Within these walls, forty generations have come to rejoice and to grieve; to bring their quotidian anxieties and their life-changing decisions. It is a place where “prayer has been made valid”.
That sense of the divine breath in human deeds, creativity and suffering which had struck me so strongly as we looked at the North Sea through the interstices of Hambling's scallop, came once more. And it came more powerfully still as we looked at photographs of two young men in uniforms of the 1914-18 war which were on display in the church. These boys are buried in the churchyard, their lives cut down when they were just blossoming, by the cruelty and folly of the powerful. Proud and a little self-conscious in their uniforms, they seem both far distant from us and yet familiar. They may not have had eloquent tongues in their lifetimes, but theirs are among the voices that will not be drowned.
Those voices, speaking across the centuries and continuing to speak in our own time, must be heard. It is our calling to listen. And I have learned during these few 'holy' days that it is necessary to occasionally stand back from the pursuit of what we may think to be contemporary, if our writing, speech and action is to retain relevance.