Dark, true, impure and dissonant

The etymology of the place name "Pinvin"Penda's Fen 
My Harvest Festival address a few weeks ago began with these words:

The articulation of a certain kind of modest, low-key national identity seems very important to me, however, with every fibre in my body I want to protest against the current slow-burning return here in Britain, Europe and the USA of a kind of old-school, sectarian nationalism that seems bent on dividing the world up into an imaginary “us” and imaginary “bad”-others — be those “bad”-others labelled, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers or merely foreigners of all kinds who look and talk differently to “us”

Following on from this I offered you a further, related meditation encouraging us to think about how, as a liberal, free-religious community that is both Unitarian and Universalist in outlook, we might so protest. As you know, to help do this, I’ve been concerned to promote a conception of cosmopolitanism that has been defined by the British-born, Ghanaian-American philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah (who is also the current BBC Reith Lecturer) as “universality plus difference.”

The challenge is, of course how to let the universal allow particulars and, at the same time, how to let the particulars speak of the universal. Today I want to attempt the latter. In what follows the particular of which I speak is England and Englishness but, please don't be concerned if you are not (or consider yourself not to be) English. At the very least I simply hope my reflections will help you to begin to think how your own national identities can speak of the universal.

Now, in the post-Brexit vote situation, one of the things that is being forced upon many of us, very much against our will, is the need to define ourselves no longer as British (let alone European) but as being strongly English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish.

As I have just noted, I think the articulation of a certain kind of national identity seems very important to me but it is one that I think must never be strong but always modest, and extremely low-key. Not only that but, speaking personally as an Englishman who is an heir to a radical, dissenting, non-conformist religious tradition, if I am going to be forced by political and cultural circumstances to articulate an English identity then I’m going to make damn sure it’s a highly subversive and anarchic one, one that by continuing to value and promote plurality and a radical openness to difference and complexity is self-consciously going to try to undercut every attempt to produce a strong English national identity.

With this thought in mind I’d like to place before you, not a singular, strong dream of nationhood, but a contemporary yet still historically rooted religious and social vision of England and Englishness that is anarchic and highly plural.

It is a vision which finds its roots in a story about King Penda, the last pagan king of England who, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, became king in 626 and ruled for 30 years before being killed by the army of Oswiu of Bernicia at the Battle of the Winwaed (a still unidentified river) on 15 November 655 (or 654). The battle has been taken to mark the end of Anglo-Saxon paganism and the beginning of Christian dominance in this land.

Still from the film "Penda's Fen"
In the very early 1970s the English playwright David Rudkin (b. 1936) was living with his wife in Worcestershire and she used to drive to her work as a teacher through a village called Pinvin [PINVIN]. One day she came back and told Rudkin, “It’s a strange thing. There was a sign up to say that the road to Pinvin was closed and whoever put it up had spelled the name wrongly . . . with an F [PINFIN].”  Rudkin replied, that maybe that was how whoever did that said or heard it, or maybe it was a Welshman putting F for V. Here is how Rudkin continues the story:

So, I looked it up in a dictionary of place names, and of course I found there that the name is deeply layered. Going back behind Pinvin there is Pinfin and behind Pinfin there is Penderfen and behind Pendafen there is Penda’s Fen (“The Edge Is Where The Centre Is—David Rudkin and Penda's Fen: An Archeology”, 2nd Edition, Circadian Press, New York, 2015, pp. 13-14)

It helped Rudkin begin to write a screenplay in which he could begin to explore not just how multilayered is our language but also our landscape and, of course our own individual and national identities. In 1974 this idea finally saw the light of day in a BBC Play for Today film called “Penda’s Fen” directed by the great Alan Clarke (1935–1990).

It's a truly remarkable film and, in an ideal world, I’d love to show it to you at this point in the proceedings in its pristine pristine beauty thanks to the British Film Institute which has finally made it available on DVD. Alas, time and copyright means I cannot so I will have to make do with the following synopsis, which is a slightly expanded version of Rudkin's own.

In the pastoral landscape of Three Choirs England, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire & Herefordshire, a quietly radical and openminded clergyman’s adopted son called Stephen, in his last days at an English public school, has his idealistic value-system and the precious tokens of his self-image all broken away — his parentage (for he eventually discovers he is adopted), his sexuality (as he discovers he is strongly attracted to other boys), his nationality and conventional patriotism (to an old-school imperialistic vision of England) and his religious faith (as his own evangelical and highly conservative interpretation of Christianity—unlike that of his adoptive father—begins to collapse with the experience of a more creative, and natural, religious syncretism).   

Below the slopes of the Malvern Hills often travelling by bicycle in and around mysterious Pinvin, Penda’s Fen, Stephen has encounters with an angel, a demon, with the ghost of Elgar (whose music he almost fetishistically devours), the crucified Jesus and, as we shall hear in a moment, with Penda himself, England’s last pagan king. 

The way these experiences and visions intertwine is to me quite beautiful and compelling and only watching the film can properly do them justice. But, suffice it to say they all serve bring Stephen to a moment of crisis and epiphany in the final scenes.

Still from the film "Penda's Fen"
The penultimate scene of the film shows Stephen at his public school listening to his headmaster giving the boys a graduation day speech which concludes with him citing the opening lies of the very English hymn, Jerusalem. On reaching the lines, “And did the countenance divine, Shine forth upon our clouded hills?” we cut to shots of the Malvern Hills at sunset
until we finally settle on a shot of a pensive Stephen sitting on the top of the hills looking out over that truly astonishing view of the Severn valley, the hills of Herefordshire and the Welsh mountains, parts of thirteen counties, the Bristol Channel and, on a good clear day, even the three cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford. Then, over the horizon, what I take to be his birth parents (whom he has never met) slowly appear and, on sitting down before him, they begin to speak. It’s a strange and disconcerting dialogue.

Mother: Are you an English boy?

Father: Such a light in his eye.

Mother: True English boy?

Father: It is he. It is he. He has the light.

Mother: We knew the child would come. He’s been promised us for so long. But that we should find him is too lovely to be true.

[The father tries to reach out and touch Stephen]

Mother: No, if we touch him, he’ll vanish. It’s written.

Father: The child is innocent. He does not know his inheritance. Nor does he know the courage he will need to exercise his right in this dark world. Not that they put us to the fire any more. Oh, Stephen. Stephen. Think of that torment. To be burned. Shackled to the mockery of a tree and burned. Living. Burned away. 

Mother: What torment is that? Through the flames we see our Lord. He reaches out his hand, to bring us from the shadow of this world.  When we were burned, we cried in joy. The Crosstians [sic] think we scream. We cried in joy. When we are burned, why, we are turned to light. 

Father: Look [pointing towards the sun setting over the landscape]. Your inheritance. The kings of the Earth, you can govern. They walk in their sleep. Yours is the right to inherit the power. To will their will. Power, Stephen, to turn the rock of the world to wealth. Power, to fall and not to die. Like Joan the Maid. To fall and not to die. 

Mother: You have to come with us. You are our child of light. You have to be born in us. Then you become pure light.   

I take this scene to be summing up some of the most dangerous ideas, hopes, aspirations and will to power that are present in all forms of strong nationalism. Ideas of true nationhood, the hope that a strong and pure leader of the nation is to emerge, fantasies about the beauty and value of bloody and painful martyrdom, dark dreams about dynastic or racial inheritance, kings, order, power and wealth. And lastly, but not lastly, corrupt ideas about purity, especially the purity of race and religion. All these things Stephen’s birth parents lay before him to tempt him back into their conformist world-view. But during the course of the film we have seen that these are the very things that Stephen has understood he must reject and casting off if he is to be true not only to his own complex, multilayered self but also true to the complex, multilayered nature of the English landscape, culture, politics, music and religion which has indelibly shaped him throughout.

Immediately following his “mother’s” last words the following remarkable and inspiring lines spring forth from Stephen’s lips, words that echo, but significantly modify and further pluralise, the vision of inclusiveness once grasped after by St Paul in his letter to Galatians which you heard earlier in our readings.

“No. No! I am nothing pure. Nothing pure. My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man. Light with darkness. Mixed! Mixed. I am nothing special, nothing pure. I am mud and flame!”

In shock at hearing this blasphemy his birth parents reply that if the light (remember they think they are the light) cannot have him then neither can the darkness. At this point Stephen jumps up and begins to run away from them down the hill. As he does this his parents take a polaroid picture of Stephen fleeing which, immediately upon coming out of the camera, they set light to. Instantly Stephen falls to the ground and begins to burn. Writhing in pain and agony, he suddenly cries out “Penda!”. The burning stops. All is still. When Stephen looks up his parents are gone and there, alone on the bare hillside above him, is seated King Penda. Then Penda begins to speak to Stephen, beginning with some words about his birth parents:

Still from the film "Penda's Fen"
There you have seen the true dark enemies of England. Sick father and mother who would have us children forever. Stephen, our land must live. This land we love must live. Her deep, dark flame must never die. Night is falling. Your land and mine goes down into a darkness now, and I, and all the other guardians of her flame are driven from our home up out into the wolf’s jaw. But the flame still flickers in the fen. You are marked down to cherish that. Cherish the flame till we can safely wake again. The flame is in your hands, we trusted you, our sacred demon of ungovernableness. Cherish the flame. We shall rest easy. 

And then, as he leans forward to touch Stephen’s head, Penda says a final blessing:

Stephen, be secret. Child, be strange. Dark, true, impure and dissonant. Cherish our flame. Our dawn shall come.    

Then, suddenly, Penda is gone and Stephen is alone again on hillside. Finally, as the playwright Rudkin himself says:

In the final image, [Stephen] turns away from his idealised landscape, to go into the world and adulthood with a value system more anarchistic now, and readier to integrate the contradictions of experience.

Personally, I find this inclusive, pluralistic, syncretic, complex, many layered vision of England and Englishness utterly intoxicating and I, for one, want to celebrate and live in a land and among people who understand they are nothing special, nothing pure. A mixed race, one that is woman and man, light with darkness, mud and flame. Mixed! Mixed. A land and people inhabited by a sacred demon of ungovernableness. Dark, true, impure and dissonant.

This understanding of England and Englishness is not, of course, the one that will be sold to us by any of our politicians and religious leaders in the coming months and years. But, at the very least, I hope it is a vision that will inspire this local radical, liberal, pluralist religious community and that here, in the heart of another dark fen, we can keep alive and flickering the same rebellious, inspiring and anarchic flame of inclusive impurity that King Penda passed on to young Stephen.


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