Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Degrees of separation

Reading Grevel Lindop's new biography of Charles Williams, I was struck by degrees of separation: in the case of Williams only one; and, the one who, in the acknowledgements, is recognised as giving Lindop the impetus for writing the biography in the first place; namely, the poet, Anne Ridler. I had met Anne at St Mary the Virgin, the University Church in Oxford, that we both attended; and, I religiously went to her house once a month to attend a silent prayer group for which I, periodically, prepared the readings and facilitated. Then I knew barely anything of Williams. He was to me a footnote to the Inklings, important to C.S. Lewis especially, but no more. How I regret this now! Had I known, and of Anne's willingness, eagerness to discuss him, I would have pounced!

But it is worse for another of Williams' friends, deeper yet than Anne, one of the women whom Williams saw as one of his muses (and acolytes), also, floated into my reach - Lois Lang-Sims - a member of the Friends of the Centre, an informal study group for spirituality and psychology, whose chair was a friend of mine and whose annual seaside gathering I attended (and indeed it was the first conference I ever addressed - on ecology and the sacred - with Teddy Goldsmith, the founder of The Ecologist and uncle of the putative Conservative mayor of London, my co-speaker)!

Two possibilities lost to glean first hand accounts of this remarkable, neglected, poet, novelist and theologian (with occult tendencies).

I have to make do with the skilled hands of Lindop and so far so good - beautifully written, sympathetic yet critical and painted against the backdrop of its time.

This too struck home. What is it about particular times and places that make them resonate more than others? Here I am reminded of a remark of the novelist, Paul Scott, that we live out the values of our grandparents (making the first third of the last century decidedly my period) either in opposition or with regard but always with feeling. This would explain the immediate identification with Williams and his family and his own struggle to remain economically aloft, the importance of education (and its informal acquisition), the atmosphere of self-improvement rubbing against class distinction; and, the omnipresent hovering of the First World War and its disjointing of values (even if, as in this case, Williams was excused fighting through ill health and short sight).

It would not explain, however, in a very different context why I am haunted by the expatriate experience of China in the 20s and 30s - a country I have never visited (nor one of my ancestors as far as I can tell)! Williams would simply say it was a product of our interconnectedness - there is nothing ultimately in the patterning of our common humanity that we do not share. 

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