Heft is a word used in North British highlands, such as the Cumbrian fells or Lake District where this novel is set, to describe an area of pasture to which a flock or herd of animals like sheep have become accustomed (‘ hefted’). In another meaning in English it also refers to weightiness; its use as a noun or verb now largely archaic, but it survives more commonly in use as the adjective often euphemistically employed to describe an obese person: hefty.
Towards Mellbreak is the first novel by Marie-Elsa Bragg, who is an Anglican priest and therapist as well as a writer. She identifies as half French and half Cumbrian, and brought up in London. Avid BBC Radio 4 listeners and alumni of Leeds University will recognise her surname as that of the eminent broadcaster and former University Chancellor Melvyn Bragg, the author’s father. Her mother, Marie-Elisabeth Roche, committed suicide when she was 6 years old.
I discovered this writer, and her novel, through a profile piece about her in the new arts magazine Monk; which takes a spirituality perspective on contemporary creativity. I chose to read Towards Mellbreak because of my own intense relationship with the Lake District in the years 1968 – 1977, as a frequent visitor and fell- walker.
The word ‘heft’ in both its senses sums up the book for me. It is the story of a hill-farming family struggling to retain hope of a future life in the land to which its members, as much as the sheep they love, have become hefted. It is a book with hefty themes; exploring the resilience and springs of hope to be found in the often hidden traditional resources of family memories, lifelong friendships and religious practices. These are sources of enduring strength which are invisible, to the governmental advisors and their ever-evolving policies. But ultimately remembering proves no defence against the perils of ignorance.
Yesterday finally I came across the grave of the English writer George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) which is improbably located in the Oxfordshire village of Sutton Courtenay. It is now where one of our family lives and the route of an Easter holiday walk took us by the churchyard of the village’s ancient parish church.
I had read all of Orwell’s books with the possible exception of A Clergyman’s Daughter (which I don’t recall) by the time I was 25. I had a craze on Orwell whilst I was in the 6th form and read all the books the school library had by him. Animal Farm I’d been required to read as part of the English examination curriculum at school. One of his books I read last of all was Burmese Days, which I taught to students at Kiamuya Secondary School in Kenya in 1979 as part of its O-level equivalent Literature in English course.
Scott Renee on why the social pain of exclusion and marginalisation can be deadly for social democracy and how states need a social security net to alleviate that pain and show that their people matter.
I cannot claim to have been a lifetime fan or follower of Joan Baez. Not in the way I kept up with Bob Dylan over the decades since I heard him first in 1969 when I was 13. There’s the issue for me. Dylan’s songs are best sung by Dylan. Why listen to others singing them? Baez sang a lot of Dylan. That was the casually uninformed view I picked up in my teenage years, and so Joan Baez’s music never was embedded in my formative experiences of musical discovery.
There was one exception though. I have possessed, in its original vinyl and cover, her album Come from the Shadows since the mid-70s. I don’t recall whether I was given it or sought it out. It made a profound impression. Certainly I recall it rarely strayed far from the turntable in my early student years 74 -77. Baez’s voice is unique and beautiful for sure, and listening to this album I appreciated it, but it was the social justice message of the songs which really hit me. “All the weary mothers of the earth” is a lyric which became one of my lifetime earworms, even during the two decades before Spotify and the vinyl revival, when the record player and vinyl albums languished in the loft.
Earlier this week I found myself reading Elizabeth Thomson’s paen to Joan Baez: Joan Baez The Last Leaf. It was the first full day of the presidency of Joe Biden. He, of course, is an exact contemporary of Baez, only a year or two younger than her.
So here I was reading a book written for Baez’s retirement from her professional career, not unreasonably at almost 80 years old, on the day Biden was entering the pinnacle and greatest challenge of his. Singer and politician are very different careers, as Bob Dylan’s story shows. So there might not generally be any cause for comment, except as this book sets out to make very clear, Baez, whilst a musician to her core, has always been more than that.
Not ever a holder of political office, she became both an active and an iconic leader nonetheless, in the groundswell for global social justice and human rights which began to rise in the 1960s.
More than a singer of protest songs, Baez both founded and funded charities and campaigns dedicated to a vision of a better social compact and world order, in particular based on principles of non- violence she had found in her family connection with the Quakers and her friendship with Martin Luther King. Without subordinating musical integrity to political messaging, Thomson argues, Baez placed her musical gifts , her celebrated fame as a performer, and her money in the service of the cause of global justice. Amnesty International’s growth in the US owes much to Joan Baez.
Notwithstanding Reagan/Thatcher and all that has followed of rampant neoliberal capitalism and the reactionary Right, reaching its noxious apogee, really a nadir, in Trump, the star of social justice has continued to rise. It is the true and only voice of the future, if human species self-destruction is to be averted. With the election of Biden and Harris this week that star shines again.
The poetic voice of social justice has been handed on rightly to the young generation, the likes of the astonishingly talented Amanda Gorman.
Admitting openly her unabashed admiration for Joan Baez as an artist and as a human being, Thomson wants to set on record the true wonder and power of Baez’s life work. Her book has done that for me. It has made me a little regretful that I forgot somehow to keep listening to Baez in the decades I deserted her work. Perhaps too it has been a wake-up call to me, and can be for all who hunger and thirst for justice, not to lose faith, especially now, that “we shall overcome”.
This piece by Simon Mair of the University of Surrey, linked below, was published in The Conversation at the end of March 2020, about 2 weeks after the first full stay at home restrictions started in the UK.
The image is one I have chosen which is by Edward Hicks (American, 1780–1849), entitled Peaceable Kingdom. (1834. Oil on canvas, 29.6 × 35.5 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.).
The painting is based on the biblical prophecy or vision, described in Isaiah Chapter 11, of a society in which people live in harmony with each other and creation, with an ethic of protection of life and avoiding harm.
The piece is even more useful now I believe as it is clear that the coronavirus pandemic is not a short-term phenomenon from which we will be able to get back to normal after a few months of disruption. It has exposed huge weaknesses and deficiencies in our previous social, political, and economic lives which must change. The impact on health, well-being and the economy mean new imaginations of the future social contract and economic system are called for. Coupled with the urgent issues of climate change and the need to address inequalities of respect and opportunities highlighted by Black Lives Matter in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, as well as growing awareness of the inadequacy of our social security provisions in the UK, there is a growing urgent need for change.
On National Poetry Day 2020 I share this poem I wrote after a visit to Peckham Rye on 28th May. It was the Spring holiday week; towards the end of the initial wave of Covid-19 deaths and the full lockdown restrictions in England had been eased slightly.
As charities, trade unions, religious groups, and civil society organisations, we urgently call on public bodies to uphold their ethical and legal responsibilities to ensure human rights and international law are respected.