To be or not to be in Ambridge

ImageHow could he say that? How could he think that? Perhaps the most shocking moment of last week’s Archers was one of Rob’s outbursts when he declared that he didn’t ‘want to live in bloody Ambridge’. It was, of course, of a piece with the rest of his simply appalling behaviour and the hyperbole of a man who is struggling with a mixture of fear, guilt, and indecision. But the idea that he did not wish to live in the idyllic community that is Ambridge would be stunning to the many followers of the programme. How could he?

Of course, those who have lived in a village like Ambridge will be all too aware that the suburbanite can create a picture of Elysium that bears little relation to reality. Would I really want to face the inquisition of Susan when I went to buy my paper? Or to risk being late for appointments as I drove slowly behind one of Shula’s horses or David’s tractors? Or to be bullied by Lynda into donning tights to take part in her panto? It is to state the obvious to say that there are disadvantages as well as benefits to living in a small community and that the appeal of village life is greater to some than to others. It is also obvious that a community like Ambridge is not for everyone an easy community of which to feel a part. Many who have made their home in a small village will know what Rob’s wife is experiencing. Jess feels that she has to try (and maybe is trying too hard) to be accepted.

But Rob’s petulant utterance was not about the drawbacks of living in a village like Ambridge; he would be quite happy to reside in another small community provided that it was not the one in which his (former?) inamorata also lived. That is a reason that he needs to keep hidden, so he avers that there are other motives for moving – to reduce Jess’ commuting time or to put some distance between himself and his work. They are all ideas which suggest some dislocation between the different parts of his life and point us to the real issue at the heart of his unfortunate statement.

Christianity (as is most apparent in this week) is a religion of Incarnation. The carols and readings of Christmas are about God becoming human in a particular time and place. That he did so gives that time and place particular significance. So (as far as the security situation will allow) pilgrims will gather in Manger Square tonight to celebrate that here Christ was born. That does not detract at all from the universality of the Christian message. On the contrary, it affirms that just as one place was blessed by divine presence so any place can be blessed by divine presence. And that one place was and is not perfect: the Bethlehem in which Christ was born was under the shadow of violence, with a people who were oppressed, and a population who lived in fear. The Bethlehem of today may not be very different.

So our imperfect places – our towns, villages, neighbourhoods – are the places where we are. They have particular significance because of the particular (if ordinary) circumstance of our being there. And they are the places that we often love. Those who live in rural communities are sometimes inordinately proud of the place of their birth or their current abode because it is the place where they belong. It has a preciousness that it does not have for others and other places do not have for them. That is part of what it means to be human – to belong somewhere.

Another part of what it means to be human is to feel a sense of alienation at times – a sense of not belonging somewhere (perhaps of not belonging anywhere). There is a spiritual aspect to that which Christian writers since the time of the Fathers have interpreted as a consequence of sin; Adam and Eve were exiled as a consequence of their disobedience. Christian converts will often talk about their experience as an homecoming. So the sense of belonging somewhere, of loving the place where one is, can also have a profound spiritual dimension to it for the Christian when one says that this is the place where God has called me to be, physically and spiritually.

What Rob’s lamentable outburst reveals is a profound sense of dislocation in all sorts of ways. The Christian who loves Ambridge has to feel deeply sorry for someone who has brought that on himself.

 

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Who let the dogs out?

DSCF5581Over the weeks that this blog has been silent, the story of Ed’s antipathy to dogs has slowly built to an horrible climax. The killing of Baz is only the latest episode in the epic-like saga of fraternal hostility between Ed and Will. Were this a Greek tragedy, one shudders to think was the conclusion would be.

But the circumstances that led Ed to pull the trigger and bring sorrow to his nephew (and stepson) go back some weeks. Convinced, on far from certain evidence, that the neospora in his herd that caused some cows to abort came from dog faeces, Ed embarked on a campaign (for which, after David’s experience of a dog worrying his sheep there was some sympathy) of encouraging dog walkers to keep their animals away from his stock. The campaign became increasingly hysterical (though even Lynda was persuaded not to walk Scruff on Grange Farm any longer) until the moment when, in failing light, Ed shot Baz as the trainee working dog set off after an hare.

Was Ed to blame? Will thinks that it was a deliberate act; Ed protests (with his father as his witness) that he did not know that it was Baz. The listener is somewhat perplexed by that focus: can farmers really shoot dogs that are presenting no immediate danger to their beasts? The dog presumably belonged to somebody who was going to be devastated when an apparently unhinged dairy farmer executed their pet.

Baz, of course, was not a pet, but it’s a word that points us to the heart of the issue. What is our relationship with the animals who share our lives? That Ed proposes to atone for the act by buying George a puppy suggests that he is utterly confused. He does not keep animals in order to be emotionally attached to them. His cows do not provide him with something to love; that Vicky treats cattle in that manner annoys him; his poster campaign suggested that he had little sympathy with those who kept a dog for companionship and the joy of walking in the countryside. But for many people animals are not commercial property. Pet owners are (by and large) pet lovers. Farmers (by and large) cannot afford to be sentimental.

The question of our relationship with the animals who share our lives was one to which the hagiographers frequently returned in the saints’ lives of the early mediaeval period. Cuthbert came out of a cold sea to have his legs dried by otters; Benedict shared his meals with a raven; Antony asked the wild beasts nicely not to eat from his garden and they desisted. The message is clear: at our best, at our most holy, we live in co-operation with the animals. There are hints of the vision of Isaiah 11 where the lion lays down with the lamb behind these stories; Isaiah paints a picture of a world with its primeval harmony restored. Not only do animals live in peace with each other, but human beings and animals live together without either threatening or fearing the other.

Perhaps the pet owner is sensing just a little of that; the dog who returns at its owner’s call and is eager to please gives us a glimpse of a better world. The dog that is allowed to worry sheep or to defecate on a dairy farm points us to the selfishness that mars our relationships not only with each other but with the whole of creation. The death of Baz is a part of the tragedy that afflicts not only the Grundy family but the whole of creation. The joyous moments that all animal lovers experience with their pets point us to a peace that might even, one day, reconcile Will and Ed.