The Blank Page

I like stationary. There are so many wonderful notebooks and watermarked sheets to choose from when the internet allows you to browse the global marketplace. I recall a few years ago standing in a street in Positano gazing at the hand-bound books of marbled paper in a shop window. Paper has been made along the Amalfi coast since Medieval times. I resisted the temptation to purchase (just) but am not so disciplined on other occasions. A new notebook offers so many possibilities, perhaps too many. The act of writing instantly and progressively reduces the options for what the book will be telling, and regret can come quickly.

“She drinks pints of coffee and writes little observations and ideas for stories with her best fountain pen on the linen-white pages of expensive notebooks. Sometimes, when it’s going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery.”

Nicholls, D. (2011). One day. Hachette UK.

If the material to write on fails to distract, there is always the means of writing to consider. I must be towards the end of the era when undergraduate work was all hand-written – which could be a challenge. Fast-speaking lecturers, without the offer of typed notes, tested many students’ ability to record the key points. However, the ceremony of writing, especially with a fountain pen, continues to appeal. I can empathise with the irritation of King Charles when pens fail to ink, or leak their cargo when least expected. (I was allowed to return to the church where I blotted the Service Register). Despite these perils I share the delight Seamus Heaney finds in the feel and flow of a quality pen.

The nib uncapped,
Treating it to its first deep snorkel
In a newly opened ink-bottle,

Guttery, snottery,
Letting it rest then at an angle
To ingest

Seamus Heaney, The Conway Stewart, in Human Chain, Faber and Faber Limited, 2010

Other disincentives to write include the sheer volume of texts now written, and the outstanding quality of some contemporary writing. I was deeply sorry to learn in recent days of the death of Hilary Mantel. The skill Mantel manages to effect in her Cromwell trilogy is astonishing. All the more so because even 500 years later, writing about this period of English history remains fraught with ‘positions’ and continuing political implications. It is a credit to her craft that people from so many different religious backgrounds and cultures read and applaud these novels. Perhaps this is because the humanity of her characters, and Cromwell in particular, shine through so convincingly. Seldom have I been so moved by reading anything, as I was by the conclusion of The Mirror & the Light when Cromwell is taken to his execution.

“His foot is now on the step of the scaffold. His mind is quiet but the body has its own business, and that business includes trembling. His head turns again. He is not looking for pardon. He knows the king is busy getting married. All he is looking for is the source of the noise, to quell it, because he wants to die listening to his own heart, till verse and prayer fade and heart says hush”.

Mantel, H. (2020). The Mirror & the Light: A Novel (Vol. 3). Henry Holt and Company. Chicago

The splendid Slightly Foxed Ltd published its limited edition of Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving up the Ghost (2003), in 2017. The book is a moving narrative and addresses some of Mantel’s motivation to write.

I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being – even if the writing is aimless doodling that no one will ever read, or the diary that no one can see til I’m dead. When you have committed enough words to paper you feel you have a spine stiff enough to stand up in the wind. But when you stop writing you find that’s all you are, a spine, a row of rattling vertebrae, dried out like an old quill pen.

Hilary Mantel, Giving up the Ghost, 2017 Slightly Foxed Ltd p. 207

Perhaps writers all need this sense of compulsion in order to succeed in seeing their story to the end. Goodness knows how many incomplete books exist, or how many finished works languish in a drawer, rejected for publication at every turn. BBC Radio 4’s comedy-drama Ed Reardon’s Week is a modern and amusing take on a long history of frustrated authors. In the nineteenth century a central character in Middlemarch, the middle-aged cleric-scholar Edward Casaubon dies with his opus magnum incomplete: The Key to All Mythologies. Ambitious in scope and sprawling in nature, George Eliot exposes the opposite problem to the anxiety of the blank page: too many details, too many notes and references, an endless number of pages and an unending topic to study.

On reflection, maybe it’s time to fire up the search engine once again and ponder the merits of paper weight, ‘tooth’, and stitched binding

The Hollow Crown

Part of what was so moving about Thursday’s events, was the experience common to so many families of sudden and unexpected news; the dash to a bedside; the realisation that life is ending. As a hospital chaplain I witnessed on many occasions the anxiety of families as to whether everyone would get there in time, the inevitable sorrow once the moment of death arrived, and the imperceptible shift in relationships that death precipitates. In many instances a death can be the end of an era. The moment when some familiar conversations about long-deceased relatives and neighbours are no longer possible.

The BBC series, The Hollow Crown, began in 2012 and featured several of Shakespeare’s history plays. It was a tour de force of casting and direction and will no doubt remain an important part of the BBC’s archive. One of the sublimely acted moments featured Simon Russell-Beale as the comic character, Falstaff. Sitting by a fireside at night, Falstaff reminisces with Shallow and Silence about the days of their youth. It is at once a sad and honest recognition of our mortality, and the days that pass so quickly.

Certain, ’tis certain; very sure, very sure: death,
as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall die.

King Henry IV, part II, Act 3, Scene 2, William Shakespeare 1660

In the conversation about their past, the protagonists avoid detail. Although the play is set in another era, looking back over the 55 years from the date of its performance, audiences would recognise how dangerous it was to discuss history. The beliefs, convictions and actions of one period could bring plaudits at the time but a decade later put someone in peril of trial and execution. It was much safer to say simply: ‘Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that this knight and I have seen!’

We do not now live in a country that presents this kind of risk. There may be a social expectation about public conduct and comments during the period of official mourning for the Queen, but there are no punitive sanctions. We can speak about the past, and voice convictions that may be at odds with the prevailing mood. This is not a freedom enjoyed everywhere and, travelling in Cuba some years ago, I was aware of how cautious local people could be in speaking about their society and its history.

The title for the BBC series is taken from Richard III and concerns the mortality of kings: ‘within the hollow crown That rounds the mortal temples of a king Keeps Death his court’. Despite all the layers of privilege and deference, sovereigns are mortal and death can come quickly. The empty crown is the enduring motif of royalty, with its void filled instantly, silently and seamlessly, the moment its last occupant dies. In the past this could be contested and fought over, whereas now the British monarchy’s succession is no longer disputed. After a reign of astonishing longevity, while its trappings and function may change, the likely succession of sovereigns appears guaranteed deep into the 22nd century.

While in no sense a presence in people’s immediate relationships, the departure of the Queen will be felt by many as the loss of a vital connection with the past. Her experience of WWII, and Prime Ministers from Churchill to Truss, highlight a consistency spanning generations. On the news of her death my thoughts went to my mother and grandmother, both keen supporters of the Queen. As an early and life-long member of the Mothers’ Union, my grandmother was an active participant in an organisation for which the Queen was Patron up until the moment of her death.

The poet John Donne was 31 years old when Elizabeth I died in 1603. His subsequent rise to become Dean of St Paul’s relied on Royal patronage, and was accompanied by the composition of some of the finest Metaphysical poetry in the English Language. Donne was very concerned with death, and one of his most memorable texts adopts the idea of literature to explore his theme.

When someone dies: “one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another”.

John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions; Meditation XVII.

Understandably, the Queen’s life contained a series of volumes – possibly its own library – of public interactions and comments. Not to mention the private moments, the scattered leaves, that are also part of our story. She is now being translated into posterity and, spiritually, to a better place. To give Shakespeare the final word, even a long and notable Royal reign is fleeting in the sweep of human history. Our time on stage comes to an end and, when the ‘insubstantial pageant has faded’, no grandeur alters the truth we all hold in common: that ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep’.