Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

14 December 2009

That Calm Sunday

A happily retired busy old man. 

When a Chicago company bought mine out in 1990 I took the money and ran - home. I was 57. I could, I guess, have done nothing for the rest of my life but I wasn’t built that way. I grew up with a work ethic.
Fortunately I had had a book published before I ‘retired’ and was working on writing and illustrating the second when the Yanks came. Over the next seventeen or so years I wrote, or wrote and illustrated, about twenty-four books, some large some small, and also cobbled a lot of ephemeral journalistic stuff; deliriously busy, relaxations earned. 

But recently I have felt disinclined to work at the previous pitch and have been bothered by a creeping indolence. Can I really go through life without serious projects? Can I sit and read whenever I feel like it? Or just stare at the birds in the garden?

I wrestled with this problem until I read something recently that revealed an ameliorating philosophy with which I could feel comfortable. In Liddell Hart’s biography of Lawrence of Arabia: ‘T.E.Lawrence’ (Jonathan Cape, June 1964 ed.) he discusses Lawrence’s retirement from the Royal Air Force in February 1935 and how, in the previous October, Lawrence had written:
‘For myself, I am going to taste the flavour of true leisure. For 46 years have I worked and been worked. Remaineth 23 years (of expectancy). May they be like Flecker’s “a calm Sunday that goes on and on”
'If I like this leisure when it comes, do me the favour of hoping that I may be able to afford its prolongation for ever and ever.'
Lawrence’s life was one of enormous achievement. He was an Oxford scholar whose graduation thesis ‘Crusader Castles’ has never been out of print. He was an archaeologist with Sir Leonard Woolley in Palestine. He was deeply and famously involved in the Arab Revolt that threw the Turks out of Palestine in 1918. He worked hard to further the Arabist cause at the post war conferences, feeling sullied and guilty at being part of the British betrayal of Hussein and Feisal. He wrote ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. He deliberately demeaned himself by serving in the lowest ranks of the Royal Air Force and enduring a short, hateful, interregnum in the Tanks Corps.

Lawrence was friend and colleague of Winston Churchill, Emir Feisal, Lord Allenby, Lord Trenchard, John Buchan and many of the literary, political and intellectual figures of his age. He worked hard for his ‘Sunday that goes on and on’.

I liken myself to Lawrence in one way only: I worked hard all my life. If he could comfort himself with idleness then surely so could I?

I wanted to find out more about James Elroy Flecker whose words Lawrence had quoted. They knew each other as contemporaries. The words come from part two of the prologue to his ‘The Golden Journey to Samarkand’:
And how beguile you? Death has no repose
Warmer and deeper than the Orient sand
Which hides the beauty and bright faith of those
Who make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

And now they wait and whiten peaceably,
Those conquerors, those poets, those so fair:
They know time comes, not only you and I,
But the whole world shall whiten, here or there;

When those long caravans that cross the plain
With dauntless feet and sound of silver bells
Put forth no more for glory or for gain,
Take no more solace from the palm-girt wells.

When the great markets by the sea shut fast
All that calm Sunday that goes on and on:
When even lovers find their peace at last,
And Earth is but a star, that once had shone.
Lawrence deliberately misread Flecker. He used ‘that calm Sunday’ to mean retirement after a long life in service whereas Flecker meant death (which has no repose warmer or deeper than the Orient sand - sands known only too well to Lawrence). Those who make the golden journey ‘whiten’ - their bones whiten - as they wait for the whole world to die, and for earth to continue as another unpopulated star in the firmament.
The long Sunday of Lawrence’s retirement is simply the prelude to Flecker’s!

The Sunday metaphor arises from the fact that in Victorian and Edwardian England Sunday was taken extremely seriously as a day not only of rest but also of propriety: shops shut, theatres closed, best clothes to be worn and a nation-wide silence; those few who did not attend church or chapel lurked behind net curtains for fear of their neighbours’ disapproval!

Sadly, Lawrence died in a motor cycle smash only three months after he wrote that letter to Liddell Hart. He was 47. He was looking forward to a quiet life in his cottage at Clouds Hill, Dorset. I’ve been there; it is a simple two storeyed house where he might have been contented surrounded by books and washed by Mozart. It was not to be.

James Elroy Flecker, born four years earlier than Lawrence in 1884, died in 1915 of tuberculosis; he was 31.
I, approaching 77, have already had a far longer Sunday than Lawrence, and a busier one, too. Now, having read of his and Flecker’s yearning for indolence, I can relax in a house full of books while, as they so aptly have it these days, going with the flow and innocently enjoying ‘All that calm Sunday that goes on and on.’


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By Don Donovan