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I’ve just watched a documentary called “Janet Baker in her own words”.
In the 1980’s I was a huge fan of the Mezzo-Soprano Janet Baker: I remember going to a concert she was involved with at the Albert Hall proudly wearing a “Dame Janet Baker rules O.K.” T-shirt, and I managed to see her live a number of times including her penultimate Opera appearance in Gluck’s “Orfeo & Euridice“ at Glyndebourne on 15th July 1982. I’ll always remember that day: I’d got a return ticket & wandered spellbound around the grounds before Dame Janet’s mesmerising performance in the old auditorium which was like an overgrown village hall, with its amateurish charm lost now in the svelte wooden amphitheatre of the new House. She was, needless to say, glorious. She continued to sing in recitals and concerts for another seven years and I heard her a few times before she retired fully in 1989.
It was hugely moving to hear this amazing singer break her silence after thirty years and to be reminded of the subtle beauty of her voice and the power of her stage presence.
But why this in a Rector’s letter?
The Church Times Diary July 2019
I recently heard a talk by the Historian and Television Presenter Bettany Hughes, and very good it was too. At one point she was talking about myths and history: and off the cuff she remarked that in the opinion of some neuroscientists, we can’t as individuals have a future thought without accessing a memory. In other words, in our minds the past not only roots the present but in a concrete way embodies the possibilities of the future. This resonated with me, especially in terms of prayer life.
Prayers – particularly repetitive, formal things like Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and the psalms – accrete layers of meaning when we recite them, which spark off associations and memories, which in turn can speak to where we are in the present. They are like a palimpsest - a thing of lost strata and accretions.
A palimpsest is primarily a medieval or older manuscript with writing and illustrations which are later scrapped off for re-use for other layers of writing: so layers are built up, with older text sometimes showing through like lost memories. But my favourite palimpsest is actually an ancient fresco, in Santa Maria Antica in Rome which I saw when I was on sabbatical three years ago. Originally part of a guard room and temple complex built and decorated by the Emperor Hadrian at the foot of the Palatine Hill, it was in the 5th century turned into a church, and over the next three centuries another five or so layers of paint were built up before the church was lost in an earthquake in 847 A.D. The Palimpsest Wall, as it is called, is a beautiful but uncanny thing, an image of the Virgin Mary shown as Queen of Heaven (the oldest example of this image in existence ) looming out of the painted strata like a spectral Byzantine Empress, lost in time. In a similar way fragments of texts, scripture and liturgy float in and out of focus as we pray, the past making its claim on, and giving form to, the present.
Nature Notes are usually written a month or more before you see them, so they may sometimes seem a bit out of date. I am currently writing these in France on August 9th. By September, autumn will have started and the leaves of some trees will have begun to turn and blackberries will be adorning the hedgerows.
Currently, France is experiencing a series of “canicules”. These are heat waves or mounds of hot air moving north from the Sahara Desert through Europe. The temperature at night remains hot at more than 25 degrees Celsius. The daytime temperature reaches the high thirties.