The Skirl of the Pipes #Somme100

My great uncle, James (Jim) Spranger Harrison (my Granny’s brother), was a writer, artist and keen fisherman and was one of the lucky soldiers to survive World War One. He joined the war in 1914, signing up, under-age under his mother’s maiden name of Beaumont. When he left Northern France to travel east to fight with the Dunsterforce in Mesopotamia he started writing a diary. It is easy to imagine that the conditions of long distance travel were more conducive to keeping a journal than the trenches. It is a fascinating artefact, a perceptive and honest account of what he experienced. The pages reveal a lively and enthusiastic young man, but are spiked with his horror of what war really meant.  Constantly resistant to his detrimental surroundings his love of order and cleanliness rings clear (as does his love of fresh fruit and the good salmon fishing in the clear waters of the River Hodder in Lancashire!). All his experience of the earlier years of the war in France is spoken of in retrospect, and is often versed as acknowledged but unwelcome memories that he has to expunge.  A most poetic and Roman Catholic soul he often quotes pertinent lines and keeps a sense of the year by remembering Holy days.


This photograph taken at the Bordon training camp in Hampshire on 29th July 1916. Uncle Jim’s regiment arrived at the Somme on 2nd July 1916 and fought famously at the battle of Delville Wood from 14th July 1916, where they made heavy losses and where a special memorial and museum have been erected in remembrance. The date of the photograph suggests that he arrived at the Somme later on. (Or perhaps it is a communication of survival for his mother at home). He has signed it in the name of “Beaumont” the name he used to join up with. He went on to fight at Passchendaele and at Ypres and was selected for the Dunsterforce, where he travelled to the East to protect the Armenians from the Turks.

This quote relates how he was haunted by his memories of Northern France when he was stationed at Ruz Camp in Mesopotamia in 1918.

Just across the road is a big Indian encampment. Our dark warriors possess an excellent band of pipers; and occasionally of an evening they play outside our officers’ mess. I used to love to hear the pipes, but when I heard them a couple of nights ago, for the first time since leaving France, they only served to recall to me a great, grey land of shell holes, and mud, and slush, and splintered trunks, and skeleton ruins, and everlasting smoke, and nerve-wracking noise, and stench indescribable; where old men and women sit dazed among the wreckage of their homes in the pulverised villages, and gaze unseeing at the stark, dishonoured bodies of their murdered daughters, while children cling to their knees, crying, crying … where men live and toil like half-drowned rats, grey as the the grey mud they labour in, yet facing with a cheerfulness at which the world marvels, creatures that also once were men, but descending to the very depths where the ghouls live emerged fiends in human form … and where everywhere lay dead with curses in their sightless eyes – or laughter. I wonder will the skirl of pipes always recall to me only horrors that I would forget!

At another date in the journal when Uncle Jim recounts the horrors of Ypres, he begins the section with this quote from Omar Khayyam which seems so fitting as we remember the devastating Battle of the Somme:

“And look – a thousand Blossoms with the Day

Woke – and a thousand scatter’d into clay.

Lo! Some we loved…

Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,

And one by one crept silently to Rest.”


The Key of David

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about my faith and religion recently as I’m trying to navigate my thinking in terms of contemporary art and writing. This post is for a Christmas set within what might be perceived on Social Media to be a largely secular country.

I started writing this post on Saturday evening, and coincidentally (or not!) a website had the Key of David as the advent symbol for the next day, December 20th. It included the beautiful Latin verse (there is a translation on that page) :

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israël, qui aperis, et nemo claudit, claudis, et nemo aperuit: veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris, sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

In various readings of The Key of David I’ve found that Christ is either perceived as being or having “The Key of David”. This particular page reads it as:

“Christ is the Key of the House of David who opens to us the full meaning of the scriptural prophecies, and reopens for all mankind the gate of Heaven.”

David prefigures Jesus in so many ways and from a Christian point of view it is a reflexive relationship, for where as Jesus is “wholly divine” the Prophet David prefigures Christ and whereas Jesus is simultaneously “wholly human” Jesus is emulating his ancestor, the legendary David of scripture. It is clear from Jesus’s own words that he held David in high regard, he frequently quotes his psalms (even on the Cross) and his attitudes to the poor, the down trodden, reverberate those of David’s and simultaneously fulfil his prophecy.

The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,

Luke 4:18

I cannot help thinking that as a child, (like myself and so many friends at our Catholic primary school), the “wholly human” Jesus might have been exalted by the story of David and Goliath and perhaps even played out the story with His friends as we did. It is a game that even 1970 or so years later we played at primary school, when someone’s elder brother would stride about the playing field as Goliath the giant and we tiny infants would charge around, a flock of little Davids (although I must stress we never threw a stone… only a bean bag or a soft Snoopy toy at the most!). The elder brother would delight us with his scariness, make brutish assertions and bellow at us before succumbing to a dramatic fall amid childish whoops and cheers of victory. Was David a super hero of Jesus’s childhood?  The small boy overthrowing the massive brute of an oppressor will forever inspire the down trodden. The notion of an inner wisdom and courage carrying David forth against an impossible giant certainly inspired us as children, and I imagine is still carried in the hearts of my friends.

One tiny person makes all the difference to history and this idea reverberates throughout Western literature, even to the present day in the new Star Wars film (The Force Awakens *spoilers alert*) where a poverty stricken scavenger and a repentant storm trooper allow for the salvation of the galaxy. In this we are clear every single soul matters. Surely it is not “even the most insignificant”  it is “especially the most insignificant” who have the potency for redemption.

In the Old and New Testaments God frequently favours or singles out the insignificant, the younger child (Joseph), the shepherd boy (David), the sinner (Saul/ St. Paul). Each is chosen for redemption of one kind or another and one knows that those who have been redeemed themselves are likely to use their redeemed position kindly and wisely because they know how it feels to be on the bottom rung of the ladder. With Christ, it would seem that God chose the extreme instance of vulnerability and dependence.

C.S. Lewis wrote that to love is to be vulnerable:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

It is interesting for me then that C.S. Lewis uses the metaphor of a locked casket, closed to love out of fear, and it struck me after reading this that the greatest love in the world was brought to us, demonstrated to us, in the form of the most vulnerable creature on the planet, a human baby.  Jesus, the key to love, is presented at the Annunciation as the unborn Christ, the most fragile instance of human life in the universe. Christmas marks the birth of a King and Saviour but one devoid of any instinct or ability except to cry and to suckle, a King who is utterly dependent.

Mary too places herself into a position of vulnerability out of love. An unmarried mother in ancient Palestine was a figure of extreme vulnerability, so the vulnerability of Christ is beholden to another vulnerability, who is yet beholden to another, Joseph, who agreed to take the burden of this unmarried mother to his potential social disgrace and ostracisation.  Love inspires courage between them, love overcomes fear through trust in God.

“Full of Grace” is an every day phrase to Roman Catholics, but one tremendous meaning of it is this golden reciprocity: Mary trusts God implicitly as He trusts Her. This trust resonates through her, she literally magnifies it.


The Nativity, Wood Engraving by Gwen Raverat 1916

This lowly and Holy three are then dependent on the hospitality of a inn keeper;  and it seems that there is a set of concentric circles of reliance and generosity, each mutually reverberating a trust back and forth; a resonance of Holiness and Grace. At the centre is the Key of David. It is a key which opens our hearts because it signifies Love and all that Love entails.

Our governments are currently faced with the opportunity to offer help and shelter to the vulnerable in vast numbers of migrants and refugees fleeing the violence in the Middle East. Who knows who we might be helping? The fearful think we are helping terrorists. It is harder for any creature to love and trust when it has been hurt; a dog that has been beaten, a human who has been betrayed, a city which has been attacked – all naturally raise their defences, harden themselves against future hurt. When one has been repeatedly hurt one tends to see threat, read negativity in any ambiguity. Overcoming fear with hope is difficult without faith. It is possible that we are dependent on these refugees for our own redemption in this greedy and unbalanced world. Allowing passage to these weary travellers inevitably means lowering our defences and making ourselves vulnerable, but on all levels that is what it takes to love and to be loved.


Advent usually seems to be the season for the writings of the Prophet Isaiah, but during some research for an application earlier this week I stumbled across one of the psalms of David which I had copied out in about 1992 when I was at university. Today it struck me as being “of the moment”. I wondered why I had copied out this particular psalm, and then found the reason: my hero poet Sir Phillip Sidney had put me onto David, not just as a Prophet and King of the Old Testament, not just as Slayer of Goliath, but as a Poet.

NPG 5732; Sir Philip Sidney by Unknown artist

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, circa 1576?

On a hand-out we were given in lectures at Glasgow,  there was a passage written by Sir Phillip Sidney in 1583 (I’ve kept to most of the original spelling but for easier reading have substituted “v”s for where the facsimile lent Elizabethan “u”s and “i”s for “j”s). “Vates” is an English/ Latin term for prophet and has etymological connections to the word “Bard”.





And may not I presume a little further, to shew the reasonablenes of this worde Vates? And say that the holy Davids Psalms are a divine Poem? If I doo, I shall not do it without the testimonie of great learned men, both auncient and moderne: but even the name Psalmes will speake for mee, which, being interpreted, is nothing but songes. Then that it is fully written in meeter, as all learned Hebrecians agree, although the rules be not yet fully found. Lastly and principally, his handeling his prophecy, which is meerely poetical. For what els is the awaking of his musicall instruments; the often and free changing of persons; his notable Prosopopeias, when he maketh you, as it were, see God coming in his Majestie; his telling of the Beastes joyfulness, and hills leaping, but a heavenlie poesie , wherein almost hee sheweth himselfe a passionate lover of that unspeakable and everlasting beautie to be seene by the eyes of the minde, onely cleared by fayth? 


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