Sunday, 12 November 2017

Requiem for Mary Barns

Being the Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of Mary Barns, Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Jaz Coleman and Myself.

Life leads us down peculiar paths. When universal forces are in playful mood, the mystery and magic imparted can be utterly fascinating. The universe tells its own jokes, and they can be pretty funny ones. It favours synchronicities, puns and the processing of order in its adventures. It loves a parable, a metaphor, and a neat resolution to a complicated puzzle. If we're willing to let go, to allow it to navigate, life has a habit of steering us away from the mundane. All we need to do is take the punches with the prizes and live for the moment, no matter how momentous our doubts about such activities might seem.

Today, Remembrance Sunday, started with a classic subconscious pun when I visited my local secondhand emporium and came away with an LP by 'War' and an anarcho-punk compilation CD called 'Anti-War'. I bought a Killing Joke CD too.

I dropped the War LP on the passenger seat, popped Anti-War into the CD player of my car and drove into town, where I picked up a charity shop book called 'Dickens on an Island' for £1.99. I love Charles Dickens. I love the Isle of Wight. This book, a summary of the time those two great forces of English culture and history met, seemed to me to be sent from the heavens.

I went for lunch in the George Inn, an early 19th century pub in Newport. It's entirely possible that Dickens, too, could have dined here. I ordered roast pork, added lashings of apple sauce, opened the book, and started reading...

I quickly learned that a passage Dickens included in chapter two of David Copperfield was more than likely inspired by an island epitaph. Specifically, the words on the gravestone of Mary Barns in All Saints Church, Calbourne. I punched the church into Google Maps while I ate my roast spuds. 4.8 miles.

I finished my grub, walked back to my car, peeled a parking ticket from the windscreen and set off for Calbourne. I put the Killing Joke CD on and considered the requiem for Mary Barns while the song 'Requiem' played:

"Afflictions sore, long time I bore. Physicians were in vain.
"Till God did please to give me cure, and ease me of my pain."

I was on a mission - a mission made public by a Facebook live video. This is not something I would usually do. The inspiration came in the moment and for a spurious reason - Mary had died in 1779. It seemed right and proper, somehow, to speak about her using the technology of today. It's an acknowledgement of the centuries. A tribute.

I walked up to the church and first saw some graves from the 1970s. I turned left, found some dating back to the 1760s. Then, after just a minute of looking, she loomed in front of me. Her tombstone was worn but still legible. A winged cherub adorned the top edge of it. As an aside, the same cherub that I had used for the cover of a record I put out in 1994. At that moment, I was occupying the same space as Charles Dickens most likely had - physical space and mindspace. I was thrilled, and a little sad.

Mary died at age 14, it transpires. In two days it will be the 238th anniversary of her death. She will not know, of course, that Dickens almost certainly read her epitaph - a full 70 years after it was carved into stone - and immortalised it into one of the greatest novels ever written. Nor will she know that some idiot with a charity shop book and a smartphone would visit her grave two centuries after her death to tell the people of the internet about it.

There's a line in Alice In Wonderland where Lewis Carroll writes: "Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way." That's kind of how I feel about days like today.

That £1.99 charity shop purchase, that LP, that CD, today's date, the Georgian pub where I ate my dinner, the windy grasslands where I tried to make my Facebook video, the church, the grave: all these things conspire to form the impression that a true connection to the deep past or, sometimes, the unfathomable future is not only possible but is commonplace. It's a supernatural feeling that is wholly outside of our control yet available to all. Good times.


1765 - Mary Barns is born
1779 - Mary Barns dies
1800-ish - George Inn, Newport, is built
1812 - Charles Dickens is born
1848 - Charles Dickens visits Isle of Wight
1849 - David Copperfield is published
1870 - Charles Dickens dies
1964 - I am born
1980 - Requiem by Killing Joke is released
1994 - I Was A Teenage Gwent Boy LP is released
2002 - My motor car is manufactured
2016 - A pig is born
2017 - A pig is butchered and roast pork is served