The Road to Taizé

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Kébé, in July I went to the Taizé Community in France to spend a week praying in silence. A retreat, in other words. Silent, that is, apart from singing…

Falaises de Douvres

There is a coach which goes from Birmingham and London to Taizé once a week in the summer months. Here it is, below the white cliffs of Dover, as we waited to embark on the ferry to France. We left Birmingham at about two in the afternoon and arrived in Dover a little before sunset. It was a beautiful sunny day. I thought of my last trip to Taizé (I have only been twice), which took place seventeen years ago, in the spring of 1997. I caught the train that time, from Coventry to London Euston, then from London Victoria to Paris Gare du Nord, via the Channel Tunnel, which had opened maybe three years before. Then from Paris I went be train and bus to Taizé. On the way back I spent a few hours sightseeing and shopping in Paris. No such distraction this time. Straight to Taizé and straight back home again a week later.

Au revoir Blighty

Au revoir, Blighty. I took this picture from the open passenger deck high up on the ferry where people go to smoke. By the time the boat reached Calais it was nearly dark. The coach drove on through eastern France throughout the night and arrived at Taizé just after 8 o’clock. I tried to sleep on the coach, but it’s not easy. I thought of the overnight coach journeys I made when I was in Canada, from the little town in northern Quebec where I lived to the big city, Ottawa or Montreal.

At Taizé we were greeted by some of the pérmanents, the young people who live and work there for a while (but not permanently; the name is confusing to us English-speakers). Among them were my friends Matt and Steph from Birmingham, who were at Taizé for a few weeks over the summer. The pérmanents are volunteers who work for the brothers who make up the Taizé Community.

Le champs des silencieux (et silencieuses)...

Le champs des silencieux (et silencieuses)…

Life at Taizé is simple. Most visitors stay for a week. Some sleep in dormitories, others in tents. I brought my own tent and was shown the way to the field for the adults who had chosen to spend the week in silence. At Taizé you are an ‘adult’ if you are over 30 or so. The brothers welcome young people – aged 16-30 – mostly, but older adults are welcome, too.

In the main square of the community I queued up for breakfast: crusty baguette – the French stick loaf – with butter, jam and a bowl of hot chocolate. Then I walked to the silent field at the far end of the site, put my tent up, unpacked and went to sleep for a few hours.

Birthday Dream

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I dreamed this yesterday morning. A sad, ‘realistic’ dream, not one of those dreams in which you, Kébé, and I are together again and happy.

I went round to your house on Saturday morning, Kébé, to give you a birthday present. In the dream your house was in Leamington, and in some ways it looked like my parents’ old house in Leamington, where I grew up. My mother – whom you also, in real life, no longer see – was in the kitchen baking cakes and icing them with white icing. Your mother was out. The hatch to the living room was open slightly, and I looked through the crack and saw you watching TV, flanked by your sister and brother. I kept my eyes on you, waiting for you to look up and return my gaze. At last you did so, with a flicker of recognition followed by disgust and turning away. I imagined you for a moment, playing outside, skin browned by the sun, and wondered whether you now thought of yourself as an African, Cameroonian child, like your half-sister and -brother, or whether you still had any thought for your father and for your English (and also Scottish) family on your father’s side.

I had not wrapped the present or finished the hand-made card, and I worked on them in the kitchen, worried that your mother might return at any moment and find me there. I had chosen a dark, reddish-brown sheet of card for the background and realised that the colour was all wrong for a birthday card; it was the colour of dried blood, and it clashed with the lighter-coloured pieces I wanted to stick on it – I remember a violin in pale green.

I talked with the woman in the kitchen who might or might not have been my mother. I said that there were now no go-betweens for your mother and me, that all our friends had been compelled to take sides. I added that I wished I knew where your birthday party was to take place, as the house would surely be too small. She said that your mother was friendly with some nuns who lived nearby and might use their hall. I replied that I remembered their house, and I pictured to myself a tall Victorian parish house, like one I know in Liverpool, that is used as a drop-in centre for refugees and migrants by Asylum Link Merseyside – oh, Kébé, that’s a story for another time.

Your brother came and spoke to me. He was friendly enough, asked my why I had come, and I explained. He told me a story about a Russian couple who were living nearby; one went to work, the other claimed benefits, and he smiled, for the point of the story was to say that they were cheating the system, taking money that did not rightly belong to them. I looked away and carried on with my work, and your brother left. I wondered if I had hurt his feelings by not laughing at his story and responding to him, and that I had therefore lost a valuable contact, someone who could be a link between me and you.

Oh Kébé, it’s just a few weeks now to your ninth birthday. Will I even be able to get a birthday card to you? I now know the address of your godfather, whom I had lost touch with for so long, so maybe he could help. In the meantime, I need to work on my Open University module. I have an exam in two weeks’ time and I am not ready for it, so I need to put this blog aside for a fortnight or so.

Destroying Beauty

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I marked the varied colors in flat spreading fields chekerd with closes of different tinted grain like colors in a map the copper tinted colors of clover in blossom the sun tand green of the ripening hay the lighter hues of wheat and barley intermixd with the sunny glare of the yellow charlock and the sunset imitation of the scarlet head aches with the blue corn bottles crowding their splendid colors in large sheets over the land and ‘troubling the cornfields’ with destroying beauty.” (John Clare, quoted by Richard Mabey in Weeds, p20).

John Clare, who wrote this in his notebook close on two hundred years ago, knew what he was talking about. He was a poet who studied nature and depicted its beauty in his poems. He was also a farm worker who had weeded fields, and knew that if the weeds were allowed to smother the crop, people would go hungry. A ‘destroying beauty’ indeed.

Cornflowers, Tile Cross

Here are some cornflowers, Centaurea cyanus, Clare’s ‘blue corn bottles’, in Tile Cross Park.

Corn chamomile

These are corn chamomile (I think), Anthemis arvensis, another common cornfield weed in Clare’s day.

Corn marigolds at Tile Cross

Corn marigolds at Tile Cross

And these are corn marigolds, Chrysanthemum segetum, with some corn poppies, Clare’s ‘scarlet head aches’, and cornflowers mixed in. These and the corn chamomile above have also been sown in Tile Cross Park, where they can delight us, and provide food for bees and other insects, without destroying our food. Wild plants and creatures help us in so many ways, something I would like to explore in this blog, Kébé. You were interested in the natural world around us, and I always tried to encourage that interest. Do you remember the John Clare poems we used to read together, the one about Clock-a-clay the ladybird, and the one about Little Trotty Wagtail?

Here we are at the old house in Radford, in October 2011, as I was bringing you home from school and spending a couple of hours with you before returning you to your mother at the bed-and-breakfast hotel. We were living apart by then, but contact had not yet broken down, and I wrote in my diary:

“We picked wildflowers from the planter – cornflowers and corn marigolds – and arranged them in a jar with an African marigold, self-seeded from Mr Patel’s crop, and a creamy-white nasturtium.”

Mr Patel was the landlord, who lived two doors away, and who grew masses of African marigolds which he used in the Hindu temple.

I’ll leave the last words of this post on weeds and wildflowers to Richard Mabey, again in Weeds:

“We have no choice, if we are to survive as a species, to deal with the ‘troubling’ of weeds. But we can’t ignore their beauty either, or the fact that they are the prototypes of most of the plants that keep us alive. What we ignore, more perilously, is the fact that many of them may be holding the bruised parts of the planet from falling apart.”(pp20-21)

Wildflower Mix

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We also did some watering, drawing off some juice from the worm bin, diluting it and feeding the impoverished, concrete-surrounded plants at the front: the camellia and its two companions and the purple clematis that climbs the trellis by the front door… Kébé showed me a poppy picture she had made with pieces cut out of crêpe paper sheets. We admired the poppies, cornflowers, corn marigolds and corncockle in the planter and the self-seeded pansies that are coming up under the runner beans. We watered the back year with plain water – Kébé was more interested in playing ‘Floody’, watering the concrete slabs. (28th July 2011)

Corncockle

When you were five, Kébé, and we still lived all together in Coventry, in that house we rented in Radford, we grew wildflowers in a tub in the backyard. They came from a packet of mixed seeds from the kinds of flowers that used to grow in cornfields. Here is a photo, or part of a photo, of that tub of wildflowers, and behind it, back in April 2011, you are learning how to skip.

The flowers that grew in that tub were, I remember, corn poppies, corncockle, corn chamomile, corn marigold and cornflowers. You can see two of the blue cornflowers in the picture. The tall plants are corncockle, Agrostemma githago, but they haven’t flowered yet. Eventually they produced flat triangles of petals that opened out into beautiful purple-pink blooms, “exquisite purple flowers that open from their buds like unfolding flags,” as Richard Mabey says in Weeds. Beautiful but poisonous: he explains that corncockle produces seeds that are almost the same size and weight as those of wheat and that ripen at the same time. They were difficult to winnow out, got into the flour and made it grey and harmful to eat. Seed cleaning has got much better over the years and corncockle has become very rare.

By Tile Cross Road, where the no. 17 bus reaches its terminus by the park, all these flowers are growing, all except the pretty but poisonous corncockle that is. I like to think that maybe they are the seeds of flowers that grew in the cornfields here before the houses were built. But it is much more likely that someone planted mixed wildflower seeds here, too, to brighten up this corner of Birmingham.

Boodle

Boodle

Here are some of them, corn marigolds mostly, with the trees of the park and the no. 17 bus and the Tile Cross shops behind them. Corn marigold, Chrysanthemum segetum, was known five hundred years ago as ‘goulde’ or ‘boodle’ on account of its bright golden colour, or so Richard Mabey tells us: “gold was boodle long before the days of cartoon burglars.”

Pulling down the Bunting

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Bunting

It is August Bank Holiday, the public holiday that brings the English summer to a close, more or less. It has rained all day and I have been at work. I pulled down the summer bunting in the staff canteen, bunting that is sent out to the stores, Union flags alternating with soft fruit, raspberries and strawberries.

Bunting reminds me of one of the first stories that you wrote, Kébé, when you were five years old plus a month or two. It was called “Daddy A… and the Woodies” (you used my real name, of course). The Woodies pulled down the bunting in the park and were afraid that Daddy A would be cross with them. They said it was a mistake and that they were sorry. Daddy A understood and was not angry. “Yay,” said the Woodies….

The story was inspired by an episode in Tove Jansson’s “Moominsummer Madness”, which I had just read to you. Jansson’s Woodies are timid, childlike creatures who want to play in the park but are chased away by the park-keeper and his wife, a pair of bossy, over-tidy hemulens. The park-keeper puts up signs all over the park forbidding visitors from doing anything enjoyable. Snufkin is so angry with him that he plants Hattifattener seeds in the park at midsummer, which sprout into electric Hattifatteners that make the park-keeper and his wife glow and crackle with static electricity. They run away, if I remember rightly, leaving the park to Snufkin, who pulls down the signs, and to the Woodies, who are able to have fun at last. The Woodies attach themselves to Snufkin and follow him everywhere. Snufkin, who likes to be free to wander, is not happy about this, but Moominmamma takes charge of the Woodies and all ends well.

You were puzzled by Snufkin, Kébé, and asked me if he was good or bad. I, in turn, was flattered to be compared to Snufkin in your story. I used to want to be a wanderer, a free spirit, like Snufkin, though often I felt more like a timid Woody. Now I am content to be settled in one place, and would be very happy to have a child who came to me and depended on me….

Your Reception class teacher thought very highly of your writing and storytelling skills, so I sent the Woodies story into school for her to read. Oh, if only I had taken a copy! For when the story was finally returned, I was no longer living with you Kébé, and it was lost for good.

I should learn to let go of these things and not worry about them. Probably you would be embarrassed by that story now, nearly three years later. But it’s important to me because it shows something I know to be true and want to remember, and not forget. That you had a kind and gentle father who was not angry with you for making mistakes. That you still have a kind and gentle father who loves you and waits for you to come back, one day.

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Gentil Coquelicot

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J’ai descendu dans mon jardin (bis)
Pour y cueillir du romarin
Gentil coquelicot, Mesdames
Gentil coquelicot nouveau

Poppies, Tile Cross Park

“I went down into my garden to pick some rosemary there. Lovely poppy, my ladies, lovely new poppy.”

This was one of the comptines, or French nursery rhymes, in one of your three books of comptines, Kébé. We used to enjoy singing this when you were three or four. Now you are learning French at school, and your teacher said in your report last summer that you help the class with pronunciation. You probably find songs like Gentil Coquelicot too babyish now that you are eight. But don’t forget them, they were fun to sing, and they were a good introduction to the French language and to la chanson, French song. You could share them with younger children, maybe one day with your own children, who knows.

I photographed these poppies yesterday at the entrance to Tile Cross Park on Tile Cross Road, in my corner of Birmingham.

Poppy, Meadway

Here is another one, growing by Meadway in Tile Cross, on my morning walk to the bus stop to catch my bus to work. I took the picture on the 10th of June.

Poppies outside old library, Avenue Road, Leamington

And here are some more, growing outside the old library building on Avenue Road in Leamington Spa. I took the picture as I was walking from the railway station to the Peace Festival in the Pump Room Gardens last June. When your Grandpa worked as a librarian, Kébé, this was his library. Now the building is being converted into housing. The library moved to the Pump Rooms some years ago.

Poppies, Freeman Street, Birmingham

Here are yet more poppies, growing right in the centre of Birmingham on Freeman Street. You can see the seed heads very clearly. They are containers which shake the tiny black seeds to the ground. Richard Mabey, in his book Weeds, explains that each poppy head can contain a thousand seeds. As the stalk dries out, the head droops and blows in the wind, and seeds are shaken out through the small holes around the rim. The wind can blow them as far as a metre away.

Once in the ground, the seeds can remain dormant for as long as eighty years before germinating when the ground is disturbed. “Europe’s earth is full of poppies and bleeds with them when it’s cut”, writes Mabey. When the bombshells of the First World War turned the fields of France and Belgium to mud, poppies sprang up and covered the land, which is why we remember soldiers killed in wartime with poppies.

These photos all show corn poppies, Papaver rhoeas, which are native to the lands to the east of the Mediterranean sea, where farming first began several thousand years ago. Poppy is “Pa pa” in the language of the Sumerians, who were some of the first farmers, in what is now Iraq, as Mabey explains. The Assyrians called poppies “The daughters of the field.” The long dry summers in this part of the world kill many plants, leaving patches of bare earth where annual weeds – weeds which live for a year only – can grow. Poppy was one such weed, and it sprouted in the fields of wheat and barley of these early farmers. As farming spread across Europe, poppies spread with it, reaching Britain over five thousand years ago.

In cities, poppies find plenty of patches of disturbed land where they can grow. Who knows, perhaps the poppy growing round the corner from me on Meadway came from a plant that grew in the cornfields here, before this part of Birmingham was built sixty years ago.

Toadflax

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ToadflaxPurple Toadflax

Two toadflax plants. The one on the left, with yellow and cream flowers, is common toadflax, Linaria vulgaris, which is native to Britain. I photographed it on Tuesday evening in my backyard in Tile Cross, Birmingham, where it has poked through the asphalt.

On the right is purple toadflax, Linaria purpurea, growing on Judd’s Lane in Rowley’s Green, Coventry, near to the Ricoh Arena. Purple toadflax is native to Italy, but is often grown in gardens in Britain and has spread as a roadside weed. I took this photo on Spring Bank Holiday, the 26th May. Do you recognise this flower, Kébé? It seems to have become a very common weed of British cities, and a very attractive one.

 

Goldenrod

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Goldenrod

I saw this clump of goldenrod on Saturday afternoon. It was growing by the roadside in Cook’s Lane, Tile Cross, not far from where I live. I think it’s Canadian goldenrod, solidago canadensis, though I’m not absolutely sure. As its name suggests, this plant is not native but has been introduced to Britain from North America. It grows here as a weed, but a very attractive one.

According to Richard Mabey, in his book Weeds, goldenrod is especially common in Birmingham. He thinks that this is because it was a popular flower for growing on allotments and ‘guinea gardens’, and Birmingham has many of these. I can’t say I have seen much goldenrod here myself, but maybe I haven’t looked in the right parts of Birmingham.

I know you have moved to another part of Coventry, Kébé. Is there a particular plant that you often see growing wild in the place where you live now?

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