Around this time of year I like to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Either read, or listen to Simon Armitage recounting his own translation of the tale. It is a magical story of an imagined past, where the Christmas and New Year festivities are celebrated in the bitter cold of a Medieval winter. Full of detail and drama, the story is heard at its best while sitting beside a roaring fire on late afternoon during the first days of January.
“And wonder, dread and warArmitage, S. (2008). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (A New Verse Translation). WW Norton & Company.
have lingered in that land
where loss and love in turn
have held the upper hand.”
Fortunes change. Tragically, loss appears to have held the upper hand for much of 2020. Not only in the UK, but around the world, a tsunami of illness has broken on our shores and borne many away. It has been a year of mortality significantly above and beyond the pattern of recent decades. As we remember the people who have died it is also important to recognise the frightening illness many have experienced, with breathlessness and anxiety that this is ‘the end’. Doctors are only now starting to understand the many consequences of illness and the reality of long covid. We know that a legacy of mental illness will follow the events of 2020, whether linked to physical suffering or arising from that myriad of losses both great and small. Employment, education, key life events, holidays, income, and the company of family and friends. It seems endless.
At various points in the year we have been reminded this this will pass. That humanity will recover from this seismic stumble and continue to progress towards greater longevity, health and wealth. However, as we also know, this was at best a partial narrative. Plenty of places in the world were already suffering through lack of resources, access to clean water, education and food. In the UK we learned recently that UNICEF will be feeding children here for the first time in 70 years. Wealth inequalities continue to widen and there is some indication that sections of society in countries with the greatest inequality have been the most vulnerable to COVID-19.
We must do better. While the frost and freeze of a Medieval landscape may be enjoyable by a fireside, it cannot be the reality for people unable to keep warm for want of basic necessities. As the UK departs fully from the European Union, with many of the leaders of change seeking greater flexibility and entrepreneurialism, its cost cannot be carried by the poorest in our society. Success in this new venture must be measured by a change in fortune for the vulnerable in our communities, not only the privileged.
It is to be hoped that 2021 will not bring as much unexpected damage as its predecessor. The path ahead is still uncertain, which makes it all the more important to do whatever we can to help love have the upper hand in our personal and collective actions. This may seem a fanciful and unrealistic vision, but it can have real edge and ambition when we strive to implement its qualities. William Temple knew that loving your neighbour could not be a government policy but he believed that when love was expressed in any kind of social organisation it was experienced as justice. The emerging analysis of COVID-19 shows that wealthy societies denying many citizens a share in resources are both unjust and damaging – for everyone.
The author of Sir Gawain was no doubt an entertainer of an antique time. Yet even poets who please a crowd sew truth with the yarn they are telling. In this case it was the risks and rewards of chivalry and courtly love. Just before Christmas I was given a more contemporary poetic offering in Diane Pacitti’s 2020 title Dark Angelic Mills. It is beautifully written and delightfully northern. As we begin to digest an extraordinarily difficult year, and to build some of our experiences into 2021, we need poets to help us see more clearly the realities and opportunities of our time. In her poem A Prayer of St Hilda, Pacitti concludes as follows:
Transform each barrier wall into the tallDiane Pacitti Dark Angelic Mills (2020) Canterbury Press
Support of a broad tent, a spacious hall;
Saint of wise love, it is to you we call;
Help us to build a sheltering home for all.