We live in a time where traditions, beliefs and even history is being questioned. But how do we better understand the muddle of concepts, ideas and arguments that are out there which bombard our minds demanding they be included in our concept of logic? Phil Rickman has given us a starting point through his character of the Revd. Merrily Watkins. And the novel of her introduction, The Wine of Angels, deserves to be mentioned.
Merrily had a recurring dream. She’d read somewhere that it was a common dream, with obvious symbolism.
By recurring . . . well, she’d fave it maybe once every few months, or the gaps might be even longer nowadays.
There was a period, not long before Sean died, when it came almost nightly. Or even, in that intense and suffocating period, twice or three times the same night – she’d close her eyes and the dream would be waiting there like an empty train by a deserted platform. Sometimes it was merely puzzling, sometimes it seemed to open up exciting possibilities. Occasionally, it was very frightening and she awoke shredded with dread.
What happened . . . she was in a house> Not always the same house, but it was her own house, and she’d lived there quite some time without realizing. Or sometimes she’d just forgotten, she’d gone on living there, possibly for years, without registering that the house had . . . a third floor.
It was clear that she’d lived quite comfortably in this house, which was often bright and pleasant, and that she must have passed the extra staircase thousands of times, either unaware of it or because there was simply no reason to go up there.
In the dream, however, she had to go up. With varying amounts of anticipation or cold dread. Because something up there had made its presence know to her.
She’d nearly always awaken before she made it to the top of the stairs. Either disappointed or trembling with relief. Just occasionally, before her eyes opened, she would glimpse a gloomy, airless landing with a row of grey doors.
In reality, if you excluded flats, she had never lived in a three-storey house.
Now, however . . .
Many of us were introduced to Merrily Watkins in the television adaptation of Midwinter of the Spirit (which is also the second book of the series.) However, reading the books give so much more insight into current social thoughts and mores. Watkins must deal with the pressures of being a female ordained minister in a small town. She tries to deal with the fine line of religion, tradition and superstition while dealing with her own tragic past PLUS raising a teenage daughter. Readers can forgive her for taking the Lord’s name in vain on more than one occasion.
The evening visit had become a kind of ritual. Her trainers pattered on the flagged floor of the nave. Her footsteps made no echoes; the acoustics, as Alf had said, were warm and tight.
Walking on bones. Several of the flags were memorial stones, dating back three, four centuries. Francis Mott, d. 1713. John Jenkyn, whose dates were worn away into the sandstone like the lower half of the indented skull in the centre of Jenkyn’s flag – they didn’t dress it up in those days.
Couldn’t be more different from the last place, in Liverpool: a warehouse: scuffed, kicked about, a city church of smutted brick, with no graveyard, only rusty railings. The building couldn’t have been less important; it was what you did there, what you brought to it.
This church was important – medieval, Grade One Listed. Beautiful beyond price, even to people with no faith. And it felt friendly. Even to a woman. It enfolded you.
Hey, don’t knock it.
Merrily faced the altar through the rood-screen out of which row upon row of apple shapes were carved. Closed her eyes and saw a deep, dark velvety blue. Feeling at once guilty about this habitual need for reassurance.
‘Mum? That you?’
Merrily’s eyes opened. ‘In here!’
Jane’s head appeared round the door, hair as dark as the oak. ‘You’re not doing anything . . . private?’
‘Like what, for heaven’s sake?’
‘You know . . .’
‘Like doing the rounds? Locking up?’
Merrily stood with hands on hips. Getting a bit fed up with this attitude, the kid treating God like a stepfather. Was it always going to be like this until she left home and old mum in the dog collar became a figure of affectionate amusement?
While there is drama, excitement with this simple plot, Rickman has descriptive details and profound moments in this story. Watkins may be the hero and in a position of authority but she is in now way perfect. She bungles. She waffles. She is indecisive. In short, she is human in an extra-ordinary situation. Just like the rest of us at times.
She felt completely wrong. She felt overdressed and under-qualified for the white surplice and the clerical scarf and the academic hood from theological college.
She should have been barefoot, in sackcloth. She was here to serve, and she wasn’t up to it. She was going to be a disaster. She looked out at all the pious, formal faces, fronting for the inveterate village gossips who’d always known she wasn’t going to fit in.
She fasted, at least – if unintentionally. A whole day on tea and coffee and cigs. Her head felt like it was somewhere in the rafters. She didn’t much care.
The bishop was ritually explaining a few basics to the congregation, as if they needed to know.
‘The Church of England is part of the One, Holy Catholic Church worshiping the one true God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.’
The word generation making her think at once of her daughter.
The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman has given readers a wonderful means of understanding the complexities of ideals that exists in today’s society. The protagonist, Merrily Watkins, is not a perfect person but is a human struggling through life for her beliefs. This is a great read and profound one to ponder upon afterwards.