A Pilgrim's Way

A weekend in Kent with friends and I was locked in by rain except for a late afternoon break in the deluge when I could venture out for walk that partly embraced the Pilgrims' Way from London to Canterbury. There is nothing that is spectacle in the Kent countryside but it contrives nonetheless to be beautiful. The curvature of hills and ridges are irregular breaking from the valleys in different ways such that all becomes surprise.

The Pilgrims Way is now mostly a meandering path of bridleway and quiet side road but once it trafficked souls to England's most popular site of pilgrimage, St Thomas a Beckett's tomb at its pre-eminent cathedral in Canterbury: the courtier turned archbishop turned martyr. Curious, in a way, that the popularity of a pilgrimage site bore no relation to the hierarchy of the relic. After all a mere saint (and a recent one at that) trumped, say, a phial of Christ's blood kept at Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire that was reanimated at Easter, flowing in its test tube, to the awe of witnesses (and to which Chaucer's Pardonner makes reference as he journeys to Canterbury). Perhaps medieval man had a realistic sense of his or her own 'littleness' and expected more from a saint (or relic) that sailed closer to the contours of his or her own life? This Thomas a Beckett certainly did.

As I walked, with the clouds racing across the sky and the wind shaking drops from the overshadowing trees, I was once again reminded of the fickleness of memory. At school for three, if not four, consecutive years, in the summer, we ran a production of T.S. Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral' in our own fourteenth century school chapel. I must have watched this play (as one of the stage crew) in innumerable rehearsals and, at least, twelve (if not sixteen) performances and apart from remembering that Beckett gives a Christmas sermon midway through, I can recall nothing of the play! Even as I remember that (for a school production) it was consistently lauded, nothing of Eliot's vision or poetry lingers with me.

I do not think I have a 'theatre gene' because, ironically, at the same time, I first read Eliot's 'Four Quartets' and I can vividly remember time, place and how the words first entered me, taking root into the love I bear for them now. Perhaps theatre is an 'extroverted art' and so gleans no purchase on this introverted soul but the Quartets became the theatre of an inner pilgramage.


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