Anne’s head got sliced off as I landed in Gatwick
It’s funny the way people always fear that the person sitting beside them might be hiding something
I met a miner from Cornwall at the weekend. When he was working he would go a mile and a half down into the hot, dry hell of a tin mine where no one sang or made idle chatter, in order to preserve every ounce of energy for the drilling.
As the cage brought them down the shaft, dropping at a speed of 50 miles per hour, there was always the risk of someone shouting “hold fast!” for some safety reason. “Hold fast,” meant that the cage stopped suddenly. The suspension cables would stretch and contract, and the cage would bounce up and down like a yoyo for a few minutes, causing some men to wet themselves or throw up their breakfasts.
“But it was the heat that bothered me,” he said. “The dark, dry heat of a hole in the ground, two miles deep. And no one sang down there, I can tell you.”
He smiled across the table at me.
We were in a restaurant in Kent, not far from the Tudor village of Chiddingstone and close enough to Hever Castle, where Anne Boleyn spent her childhood. He was sitting beside his partner, a woman whose grandchild had been recently christened.
That’s how family gatherings are: 50 or 60 people in a restaurant, half of whom don’t know each other, until the food is devoured and everyone goes back to some suburban house for lashings of drink and that strange ritual whereby eccentric aunties dance like deranged teenagers until 5am.
Anne Boleyn’s head
The miner and I came from very different backgrounds and found it difficult to discover any focus for our common humanity. I mentioned Anne Boleyn because I had been reading Bring Up the Bodies, and poor Anne’s head had been sliced off by a fancy French executioner just as I landed at Gatwick.
But the miner from Cornwall didn’t seem bothered much with historical trivialities, and so we continued to eye each other with some unease. It’s funny the way people always fear that the person sitting beside them might be hiding something.
When I was young, God was my excuse for hiding everything. God, and nobody else, was the one I shared my life with. The rest of the world was a kind of blur of sinful humanity that I weighed up at each encounter; a bit like how Thomas Cromwell survived in Tudor times.
By the time I ended up in the priesthood, I was hiding not just from other people but from myself. I remember trying to hide in a greenhouse one time, among the tomato plants. I was a curate with a fine bungalow, and beyond the tarmac backyard there stood a rickety greenhouse where the previous curate had nursed the lush plants into existence.
The greenhouse effect
Not having any notion as to how I should conduct myself in a rural parish, I tried to stay away from the phone. Phone calls were invariably from the parish priest wanting to know what I was doing, or demanding that I join him at his long mahogany table, where he would empty out cloth bags of money and count the pennies and shillings with the tedious attention of a character in a Dickens novel.
So I sat in the greenhouse plucking leaves off the tomato plants, which was the best way to avoid the phone in the days before mobiles.
One afternoon a woman knocked on the back door. A woman whom I knew to be burdened by scruples and who felt compelled to consult her priest on the smallest of moral matters.
To avoid her attention I kept as still as I could behind the foliage. But she came straight across to the greenhouse, pressed her nose against the glass and said, “I know you’re in there, Father, and you may have a red face but I know you’re not a tomato.”
Not that I mentioned this anecdote to the miner. I sensed that the idleness of Catholic clerics might be as remote to him as the fastidious prayers of Anne Boleyn.
But it was in a song that we found each other. He was singing an old miner’s song in the kitchen, leaning against the worktop, and I happened to know the melody and was able to join in with him.
“You must come to Cornwall,” he exclaimed, suddenly, when the song was done, as if he had discovered an important truth. As if in that harmony, the disparity of our backgrounds had suddenly dissolved. “Yes indeed, you would love Cornwall,” he said knowingly, and we both smiled.