Updated: Nov 8, 2020
It is a season of forgotten holidays, moving toward Lockdown Two in the UK. This morning I saw Sarah walk past my front door in the village as I was heading back in after a swim, me in damp dry-robe feeling a slight shiver and wanting to get dry and warm and into the day. She cheered me up a little as we talked swimming, just briefly – she in pink and black lycra, a cheery combination – who swims down at Eynsham Lock, usually with Ed. Exercise with one other person is permissible under the new rules, from this coming Thursday, she said. So we can swim; we can keep on swimming. Lidos and clubs and indoor pools are closed, but outdoor swimming will still be allowed as part of the government’s encouragement to maintain outdoor exercise - I checked in the Independent newspaper, and that's what it said.
It was All Saints Day yesterday, First of November, and All Souls Day today, November 2nd, also known as the Day of the Dead in the Christian calendar. Both are forgotten holidays these days, at least where I live. The Day of the Dead is the day to honour people who have died, people important to you. This tradition is pretty well lost in the UK, but it continues in Mexico, in Poland, and in many other Catholic countries. My own day of the dead brings to mind my mother and father of course, but also those who have died since the first UK lockdown, March 23rd. At work these are Nick Allen and Marcus Banks; at the Serpentine Swimming Club, Caroline Harris; within family, my sister’s life-partner Jan. But also those many anonymous people who have died with complications of COVID-19 – all are ghosts in the current plague narrative. This is a reminder of how tenuous the tread of life is; how life must be celebrated, even when you are in a damp dry-robe, shivering. Embracing the shiver, rejoicing the fact that we can keep swimming, with one other person, I felt my life made more precious by remembering the dead.
The night before last was All Hallows Eve, a night which is remembered in a form which has morphed from its Christian origins. In Christian form this is the night before All Saint’s Day, in a way similar to the relationship between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This ‘night-before-the-day’ has pagan origins, as with some other Christian traditions, and has reverted back in the present-day to a vestige of the pagan version - trick or treat children dressed as ghouls or witches knocking on doors in hope of chocolate or lollies. The original pagan version is quite terrifying to me –a night when the walls that separate the living world and the world of the spirits are thinner than the rice-paper walls of a traditional Japanese house. Bonfires, the burning of animal sacrifices, and feasting were ritual practices which helped keep these worlds separate, because if they were not kept separate, all hell would break loose - a terrifying idea then, and now. The pale pagan form, Halloween, practiced in Eynsham village has a set of civilising codes, marked by carved pumpkins on doorsteps of households that have bought into rewarding trick-or-treaters.
Pumpkins featured on All Saints Day too, on the way to church yesterday with my son, for Solemn Mass at the Oxford Oratory. Looking up at the beautiful new buildings of St Annes College on Woodstock Road, I saw a row of carved pumpkins on a glass-clad staircase, looking out across Woodstock Road, perhaps hopefully. I don’t know how much trick-or-treat business the students of St Anne’s did last night, but there is always a sadness the night after a party, especially when the day that follows is the forgotten holiday, All Saints Day. The sadness I carried with me on All Saints Day was that which came with the announcement, last night by the Trick-or-Treat Prime Minister, of the second COVID-19 Lockdown – a much needed lock down in my view, but late again, as with Lockdown One. Going to church this morning, I was in need of stock-piling hope and beauty ahead of Lockdown Two. At the Oratory, I gave a nodding hello to Maria, Pauline’s Italian rowing friend who was glowing and seemed happy. She had just been to Mass, and this offered a sign that Solemn Mass might make me happy too, or at the very least offer hope.
Church did not disappoint - they had it all on show. The Oxford Oratory, in its grand Victorian splendour, had all the Saints on display. Fifty-two of them, on the screen behind the altar, each with their own candle lit in their honour. Eleven reliquaries and reliquary caskets on the altar, some I am sure with multiple relics of the saints. There were many more relics on display in the reliquary altar at the back of the church. Today was almost back-to-back Mass, fulfilling the demand for hope and spiritual fulfilment before All Souls Day and Lockdown Two, due to start on the 5th of November. “Remember, Remember the 5th of November” – an annual celebration of failure. In 1605 on that day, a plot against King James the First failed when Guy Fawkes, one of the plotters, was discovered hot-handed in the Houses of Parliament guarding the explosives with which they planned to blow up Parliament. My son says that what fueled The Plot was King James’ reneging on promises to make life easier for Catholics in England – fact is, he made it much worse. Once the now-largely-forgotten religious context of Bonfire Night (as it is now known) is remembered, this day, November 5th, bundles itself into the week-and-a-day of holidays, much as New Years’ Day does into the Christmas holiday.
Seeing the Saints behind the altar at the Oratory raised my spirits, my heart now singing to a different beat as we walked respectfully to our pews, directed by wardens, keeping social distance. “When the saints… Go marching in… When the saints go marching in…” Singing in my mind. I was there, in that number, as the saints were marching in, on this fine sunny First of November All Saints Day. Solemn mass was solemn and powerful. The organ-playing was pumped up to level ten on the volume, the first two notes sent a shiver down my spine – visceral, like heavy metal - resonating like Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’. I sometimes mentally play the opening riffs of this song as I approach the morning-fog-clad waters of Hardwick Lake or Port Meadow, getting pumped up to swim at below ten degrees Celsius, before the sun, just peeking above the tree-line, starts to burn off the fog. ‘Smoke on the Water’ carries a swimming layer of meaning for me - set in Montreux in Switzerland, the water in question being Lake Geneva.
The choir brought me back from heavy-metal Lake Geneva, singing like there was no tomorrow. Singing Thomas Tallis, a composer for turbulent times – much more so in his time than in ours. I thanked God for all we have, that make COVID-19 so much less than the plagues of bygone times – still serious, still playing out its drama, still killing, but with the forces of science and technology offering hope for a return to a new normal. I was doing mental battle – thanks versus tiredness – hope versus despair. We are, I am, tired of it, and restrictions are coming on Thursday, Novemberfire Night. I can’t say I am particularly religious – more along the lines of ‘once a catholic, always a catholic’. But I was deeply moved today – the Saints on display, on their day – it felt like the Oxford Oratory was deploying the full force of the Saints against COVID-19. The big guns of hope were firing hard and fast against despair. This Catholic church, this morning, this All Saints Day, was giving something that politicians had singularly failed in – hope. “We must be humble in the face of nature” said the Prime Minister last night. While that is often true, it wasn’t what was hoped of him; he didn’t inspire hope when hope was hoped for. Bonfires on November 5th mark the failure of the Gunpower Plot to blow up Parliament. I was left wondering which policy wonk in the UK Government found delicious irony in setting the start of Lockdown Two on the same day, perhaps marking another failure. Here, today, at the Oxford Oratory, the ritual practices - the nodding, bowing, kneeling, the murmur of common-prayer, the full-on incense attacking both nose and this new plague with medieval holy-smoke, the Latin plain-song – was burning off the fog like sunlight on the lake, on the river. Just keep swimming, and the fog will lift.
My son asked me why I was morose as we walked back to the car. “Not morose”, I said, “…hopeful. I am hopeful”. November 5th is Bonfire Night and will become Lockdown Two Day. I mulled it over in my hopeful moroseness, going back to the car parked in my department on this bright fine November All Saints Day. I swam 400 meters at 10 degrees before breakfast, on this the first day of my personal Polar Bear Challenge; Lockdown Two was announced on Halloween and the detail of what could and could not be done needed to be picked through. Avoid panic-buying; stay resolute; see your family while you can. Just keep swimming in a responsible way.
The department has a garden with two apple trees, both growing traditional Oxfordshire varieties. Picking apples is always cheerful activity. I asked my son to help me pick some wind-falls for an apple crumble pudding to go with supper that All Saints Sunday night. The thought that repeated itself as I stooped to find the least-bruised of these beautiful big yellow-and-red apples - Lockdown Two - Just Keep Swimming – as best you can, within the rules. The saints had marched in, heavy-metal Lake Geneva, Thomas Tallis, planted their flags in my cerebral cortex. “Is there a patron saint of swimming?” – a less thought-of question, but somehow relevant to this Forgotten Holiday and the weeks to come. I looked this up later that day. Google Says No, or rather, kind-off. Depends where you go and who you believe. The internet isn’t always clear - if the universe, according to Roger Penrose, is donut-shaped, then the internet is a Swiss-cheese, full of holes. Saints who can offer protection to swimmers according to the web - there is Saint Adjutor, born a Norman, died in 1131. He could swim, very well, and becalmed a treacherous whirlpool in his local river in France. St Sebastian might also count for swimmers with a competitive inclination, as a modern-day saint of athletes. Saint Christopher might be useful – he protects against floods and storms, and his protection of travelers will be less in demand during Lockdown Two. And St John the Baptist of course.
The day before Lockdown Two I met with Pauline to take a last walk in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, to get a fill of material culture. Coming into Oxford, the traffic going West, to Witney and the Cotswolds, was tail to tail, like the Friday night exodus from London to weekend cottages in the country. In the Ashmolean, four objects summed it up the new season of Lockdown Two for me. Tucci’s fifteenth century ‘Flight of the Vestal Virgins’, people fleeing Rome with their sacred vessels as the Gauls attack Rome, a scene from Livy’s History of Rome. This echoed the contemporary vestal virgins fleeing in their sacred vehicles on the A40 due West, as COVID-19 attacked London. Then Giovanni de Paolo’s ‘Christ Baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan’- the closest I could find to a swimmers saint. Then a reliquary containing a fragment of the true cross, an echo of All Saints Day at the Oxford Oratory; and the lantern said to have been used by Guy Fawkes in the Gunpowder Plot, echoing the celebration of failure on November 5th. A mixed catch of symbolic objects for a season that evokes mixed sentiment, this year much more so because of the current circumstances. So what hope is there for swimmers and outdoor swimming? Three or four saints can offer some hope for swimmers, if you can believe in saints. Whether you can or you can't, whether or not you can buy in to the idea of the Forgotten Holidays, I hope you can find your own way, or your way with one other person, in the month or months to come.
Smoke on the Water - Deep Purple, Lake Geneva and a burnt out casino - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LvICAttWwE
When the Saints go Marching In - Nola Brass Band busking in Madrid -
In Ieiunio et Fletu - Thomas Tallis