Sunday, 6 March 2011

Ends and beginnings

“In my beginning is my end” is the opening line of T S Elliot’s poem East Coker. This is true of our pilgrimage journeys and it is certainly true of life. Today my mind is drawn to powerful lines in this poem:

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

These words remind me of Brendan, Shakespearean actor, friend and 93 year old who died a few days ago.

I was introduced to Brendan some years ago. He lived on his own. Quickly a friendship formed and I visited him regularly. Usually all I would have to do was pose a question and sit back for quite a long time while Brendan expounded the answer. He could talk for hours about acting and his stage successes. He became an engineer when he left school but hated it. By chance he got a job in stage management, then his first speaking part. The rest, as they say, is history. He toured the United States, and appeared in many films and television programmes but his first love was being on the stage performing Shakespeare. Having worked with many of the great British actors he had a mean line in character description and many an afternoon was spent in his one room apartment listening to the juicy gossip of the past.

Brendan (R) with Sir Ian McKellen and the cast of Arsenic and Old Lace 1963
Brendan was proud of the fact that he had always worked right into his 70’s before illness forced his retirement. He was also proud that he had outlived everyone in his family. But that pride was also tinged with sadness as were some of his stories of the many follies in his life, the parties, the champagne, the glitz. He loved all of that but came to realize the emptiness of it. Latterly his preoccupation was prayer and reciting Shakespeare sonnets “to keep my mind alive”. Not a bad preoccupation for any of us!
Brendan lived a full and long life. He died peacefully at the end of his journey. This week a few of us will assemble to say the final farewell. He spoke about his funeral and asked me to play some Beethoven for him. I can think of nothing better than the Ode to Joy from the 9th Symphony as we say goodbye. He also hooted with laughter when I said that there would be applause but this time no encore.
He always thanked me effusively when I visited. He never ever understood that I got more out of the friendship than I ever put in.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow
Macbeth, Act V, Sc. V

Brendan was avidly interested in my walking trips in Spain and when I was away I telephoned him from time to time. He used to interrogate me for every detail. He thought moving there was a wonderful idea. “Everyone should pursue their dream if they can” was his wise counsel. “Will you be able to play the organ there?” was one of his more penetrating questions. Whilst I glossed over the answer in truth that has slightly worried me because most Spanish churches have never had organs since they are allergic to the high temperatures of summer and cold of winter and those that do have fallen into serious disrepair. There is also no tradition of singing in Spain except in the major Cathedrals where they have choirs. Indeed even in Santiago the Cathedral choir only assembles on High Days and Holidays. As I have gazed around my study trying to think of what music books and so on to take with me I was starting to wonder how much use they would get.

Time for another Camino Miracle. Remember Piotr, the polish pilgrim whose Compostela I wrote, who appeared in London one day and who has been playing the violin with me? Well Piotr spent 7 years in Santiago teaching music. “We have to find you somewhere to play the organ” he said a few weeks ago with a twinkle in his eye. “Yes, but where?” I said explaining my anxieties. Piotr looked around the church in Clapham where music is a strong feature, where the people sing with gusto and the priests are very appreciative. “Oh I think we can find you a place, just like this” he said. “Errrr, in Galicia? in Spain? “ “Oh yes,” was the reply.

And so after a couple of e mails and phone calls a few weeks ago I boarded the train for the 40 minute train journey from Santiago to Pontevedra. Right there adjacent to the Camino Portuguese and facing the hostal in which I had slept whilst writing the CSJ Guide to the route is the Basílica de Santa María A Grande. This 16th Century Church is stunningly beautiful and it has a restored pipe organ.

I had decided to arrive early and check out the Masses and what the priest was like. As I opened the door a wave of sound hit me. Singing. Loud singing. The voices of several hundred people. Astonished I squeezed into the standing room only against the back wall. Accompanied by a few guitars the Family Mass was well underway. The priest was very nice and encouraging. He spoke warmly to the congregation and it was clear they were enjoying themselves. There was a real feeling of joy.
Still reeling in surprise I watched that Mass end and I knew another two were due to begin in rapid succession. The priest, Don Jaime, was pleased to see me when I introduced myself as Piotr’s friend from London. I said I would attend the 12 noon Mass and talk to him after that. He said he was also doing the 1pm Mass then had to go to A Coruña but he would have a few minutes to speak to me. At 12 o’clock another 150 people filled the pews in the nave. There was no accompaniment but…they sang! After mass Don Jaime apologised that he had to rush away in the afternoon. I told him not to worry as I was returning in May and would come to see him. “If you are leaving after the 1pm Mass would it be ok if I tried the organ?” I enquired tentatively.“ Why wait until then?” he replied. “Play for the Mass.” So, with about 3 minutes preparation whilst the seats filled up yet again, that’s what I did. In that 40 minute service I could feel that this was a man I could work with then after Mass when people came up to thank me I knew I would be welcome. I wondered how to broach the subject of the organist vacancy with the priest. He came over to say goodbye after Mass. “When you come back in May can we discuss whether you would consider becoming our organist?“ He asked. As the English say, “it would be churlish to refuse.”


  1. Well..... how well things are falling into place already.... what an amazing thing is happening!

  2. the more things change, the more they remain the same.

  3. Fantastic Johnnie. ...just ask and you shall receive.... or not even ask??

    Life is about taking chances, grabbing those opportunities...... We hope to get back to Pontevedra to visit a friend after our Huelva/ Vdlp, about 13 June, so will come along and hear you play in the Basilica de Santa Maria.

    Buen camino. Carole

  4. a profound blog, much appreciated