Stepping Out With A Song

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Issue 300
January/February 2017
A Plea for Empathy

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Stepping Out With A Song
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Cover: Artwork by Melvyn Evans www.melvynevans.com

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India Windsor-Clive joined modern pilgrims on a 125-mile walk to celebrate the centenary of England’s ‘unofficial anthem’.

British Pilgrimage Trust walking through Sussex Photograph by Will Parsons

British Pilgrimage Trust walking through Sussex Photograph by Will Parsons

“O, what land is the Land of Dreams?
What are its mountains, and what are its streams?”

– William Blake, ‘The Land of Dreams’

Amidst the clattering of waste bins, the thrumming of kitchen fans and the whispering of laundry steam, the spirited words to ‘Jerusalem’ took to the air. The voices of staff from the nearby Savoy hotel faded, as our singing gradually permeated this backstreet of London. There was no audience but that of the place itself. We were standing on the site where the visionary artist and poet William Blake died – reputedly while singing out loud with his last breaths.

As the nights drew in and autumn leaves fell, I joined The British Pilgrimage Trust on a 10-day journey in late October to mark the centenary of the song ‘Jerusalem’. It is 100 years since the composer Hubert Parry set Blake’s words to a rousing melody – which was to become a very familiar one.

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire;
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

After offering our first rendition to the sun as it rose over Primrose Hill, we set off from Blake’s currently unmarked grave in Bunhill Fields, Islington, our destination the cottage in Felpham on the Sussex coast in which he wrote the words to ‘Jerusalem’ as part of his epic poem Milton, and the house in Rustington where Parry composed the music: six miles and 112 years apart.

Along the way, we sang ‘Jerusalem’ at sites associated with the song’s life story while peregrinating through London, from humming the tune at Parry’s memorial stone in St Paul’s Cathedral, to being joined in song by a mother and daughter opposite Wellington House, where the Propaganda Bureau set up by the British government during the first world war had commissioned the song for the Fight for Right campaign before Parry instead donated it to the women’s suffrage movement. (With many memorials en route, our journey was deeply imbued with the tragedy of the conflict.)

William Parsons and Guy Hayward, the British Pilgrimage Trust co-founders leading this songful expedition, described it as “an act of rewilding, of releasing the song into its indigenous environment, the deep English interior. Delving into the back garden of a nation, land and self”.

We walked out of the bustling inner city, through its ex-industrial outskirts to the commuter lands of Surrey and beyond; through dappled avenues of auburn-soaked leaves; along the rivers and through the valleys. Passing through smells and changing soils, from the sand of Surrey to the oaks of the Sussex Weald, from pastoral scenes unfolding over the chalk Downs to the fertile coastal plains. Journeying on foot allowed for a deep connection with the land we trod – itself a source of inspiration for ‘Jerusalem’.

Our small group of pilgrims included Kitty Rice, an illustrator; James Keay, a composer; and Matilda Wnek, a poet. And through writing poetry, composing music and drawing came the passing on of ideas, information and sentiments as we travelled. Delving into the song’s ambiguous realms of meaning, we considered Blake as a prolific creative, little known and deemed a madman during his lifetime. What defines Blake’s concept of ‘Jerusalem’? Was he mocking the state and Christianity, or referring to religious warfare? Was he referring to the English myth of Jesus coming to England with Joseph of Arimathea? We considered how a melody redefined a poem, but also how music brought to light a mastermind.

After singing by Cobham Water Mill, the oldest of our ‘satanic’ mills, and wishing into the Silent Pool, a spring-fed lake at the foot of the North Downs, we felt our way through tunnelling woods in the dark one evening, emerging into the idyllic village of Hascombe. The beautiful church of St Peter, home to a medieval screen made from Jerusalem olivewood, caught the moonlight as we passed. We arrived at The White Horse pub, where we put down our hazelwood staffs and sprawled out drawing, reading Blake poems and reflecting on the day’s walk. We caught the attention of a couple in the corner of the room, who studied our ramblings before one said to the other in a hushed breath, “I think they’re singing pilgrims.” By the end of the evening we had the whole pub merrily belting out ‘Jerusalem’ before we marched back out into the night to sleep under a tarpaulin on a nearby hilltop.

The act of pilgrimage felt like a bonding between past and present, people and place, leaving a glistening trail of minute connections. We witnessed how ‘Jerusalem’ resonated in the hearts and minds of so many people, and yet how its meaning remains largely unknown, making people’s connection to it hard to define, whether it be to the land or to an idea of England. Guy points out how “people were grateful for what we were doing and understood the importance of it, and yet there was this lack of unified understanding which people were happy to dwell within. It’s somehow such a key motif, a key dream and myth of England that defies explanation, and that’s possibly the source of its power.” A dense tapestry of historical complexity and aspiration; as Guy concludes, “its mystery will continue to bear fruit for centuries to come.”

After a dedicated 125 miles on foot we approached the 17th-century cottage in Felpham on All Hallows’ Eve. It was while awaiting his trial at the Guildhall in Chichester for sedition – having execrated the state in offending a soldier who was urinating in his garden – that Blake wrote his famed poem. There’s an irony in how this poem has become an unofficial national anthem, its words seemingly undermining its triumphalism. Tim Heath, chair of The Blake Society and The Blake Cottage Trust, describes ‘Jerusalem’ as “a hymn to dissent and a song that challenges both the Singer and the State”.

We were singing ‘Jerusalem’ in the garden when we became aware of another, delicate voice drawing near. A woman walked in and joined us for the last stanza. Amazingly, she had heard about the pilgrimage, had driven to Felpham on a whim, and had been walking around the town singing before hearing us. She had grown up here, and she told us of how she used to have apple fights in the garden where we stood. Blake’s depiction of an angel in the garden sprang to mind: “Away to sweet Felpham, for Heaven is there. The Ladder of Angels descends through the air.”

The British Pilgrimage Trust is attempting to revive the tradition of pilgrimages for modern times and with modern means. See britishpilgrimage.org. Today’s infrastructure – pubs, bridleways, public footpaths and underused churches – enables the pursuit of dedicated journeys on foot to places or things of special significance. The Blake Society is raising funds to lay a ledger stone to mark the spot where Blake is buried in Bunhill Fields. You can support Blake’s Grave Campaign at www.blakesociety.org/blakes-grave/grave-project

India Windsor-Clive is a freelance journalist.

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