Thursday, July 7, 2016

Elizabeth Smither on saints

The 87th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is again from the January/February 1994 issue. The seven-page feature “I Get a Kick Out of This” was a collection of brief pieces by Brian Turner, Jacqueline Fahey, Owen Marshall, Barbara Else, Colin Hogg, Iain Sharp, Nigel Cox, Mary-Louise Brown, Brian Boyd and others – booksellers, painters, publishers, journalists – writing about more cheerful stuff than most books magazines did at the time: motorbikes, daughters, dogs, poker, haircuts, guitars, ice cream, roses, science, shoes and more. The intro read:
There’s more to life than books. . . For a start, there’s chocolate. Here are another 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures.
 So far we have had Barbara Else on romance, aka lust  and Tim Wilson on press-ups. Today: poet, novelist and short-story writer Elizabeth Smither.

November 1, November 2, or particularly the midnight between, when All Saints crosses into All Souls, has always been my favourite time of year. What a lovely gradation it is: All Saints, All Souls – then it might be All Dogs, All Cats.

It seems a boundless kind of festival, incorporating the saints, like Teresa of Avila, who didn’t decay and had bits lopped off by the faithful, and others who dashed straight to ashes or dust (which reminds me of an all-time favourite bit of verse by an lndian babu on the death of Queen Victoria: “Dust to Dust and Ashes to Ashes/Into the tomb the great Queen dashes”).

What, I wonder, happened to those of Teresan tendencies who were never dug up to see? Are there unacknowledged saints underneath the sod crying out “Me too!”? Our own Katherine Mansfield, when disinterred, was found to be remarkably well-preserved. A saint of the short story?

My friend Margo, who begins her letters with a saint’s feast day, has caused a retaliatory search on my part through saints’ calendars. Our salutations, in the attempt to outdo one another, resemble missiles.

Waiting in my armoury are Caspar del Bufalo, Telesphorus, Theodosius the Cenobiarch, Fursey and Nicolas von Flue. And who were Edith of Polesworth and Edith of Tamworth, the Seven Sleepers, Ethelburga of Faremoutiers-en-Brie who sounds like a cheese? Up my sleeve are St Bee, St Winebald and Elizabeth Bichier des Ages. No matter what the date, there will be a name to send like a flaming arrow pitched at a turret.

Saints are nothing if not individual. Who can forget Teresa Avila’s table manners, her railing at the heavens when her barge sank, her laughter at the Inquisition’s cart? Others altered their DNA structures by sublime patience: St Therese of Lisieux washing snotty handkerchiefs next to a nun with halitosis. Choose, they seem to say, be what you like and don’t care.

Just recently I looked up St Polycarp. At 86 he was burnt to death, but the flames behaved abnormally, “making a sort of arch, like a ship’s sail filled with wind so he looked not like burning flesh but like bread in the oven”. To get rid of this image they had to stab him as well.

And in London at Westminster Cathedral there was the feretory of St John Southworth, the body buried and dug up and stuffed like a horsehair sofa. But his feet were encased in little red socks. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. A size three shoe, I think. Such feet, little saint.

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