The Lark Ascending

If, unlikely as it is, I am invited onto BBC Radio 4's 'Desert Island Discs' (the archive of this long running interview programme can be found here: and am asked which of my eight recordings I would want to keep if the other seven were to be washed away, it would be this one: Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'The Lark Ascending'.

The reason would be abidingly personal. The violin cadenza was played at the funeral of my closest friend, Ann. This, in itself, would mark it and yet it took on a deeper significance. A year after her death, I visited India for the first time. India was the place of her birth and her fashioning. Though she was English, India had shaped her, biographically and spiritually. It has been a continuous presence in her home where we had worked closely together to build a new organisation serving the spiritual needs of those in prison. India was a place known even before I stepped across its threshold.

On my arrival there, squashed hurriedly into a completely full internal flight and separated in the melee from my book, I turned untypically to the inflight magazine and opened it at an article on Kalimpong where Ann was born: the first arrival in the new district hospital. On my return to England, turning on the ignition of my car at the airport, it was this music that flowed from the radio (starting from the opening bar, in complete alignment). My journey to her place, wholly framed by her birth and her burial.

This would be sufficient resonance on its own but obviously in itself, it is a utterly beautiful piece of music that both captures an imaging of place - an England that is now and always - that is natural and, however, obscured by passing time and human neglect, always waiting to shine forth and is glimpsing of transcendence.

Vaughan Williams always described himself as an 'agnostic' (especially when it came to the formalities of traditional Christianity) but in all of his art, he shows forth that he was not always (or indeed ever) of his own opinion. His work is saturated in the sacred sense of things. Like Shelley, expelled from Oxford for 'atheism' and to whose 'Ode to the Skylark' this music owes a great deal, he was of God's party.

"Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
    Bird thou never wert -
    That from Heaven or near it
              Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art..." captures it perfectly.


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