'There is a different country we enter when we suffer, and that those who have learned to feel their way through different forms of darkness, and spent time - for whatever reason - treading its paths, recognise each other and are more likely to turn to those who have been there too. The gift of empathy is all the better for being hard-won,'
...the words of Michael Mayne in his introduction to The Enduring Melody.
It is several years since I read Susan Hill's staunch and sincere recommend of Michael Mayne's book, in the days when she wrote a blog on her website. Michael Mayne had been a personal friend of Susan's, the Dean Emeritus of Westminster and former Head of Religious Programmes (Radio) at the BBC.
I swiftly bought the book and then couldn't read it.
My early edition has the lovely Samuel Palmer pen and ink wash painting The Bright Cloud on the cover which I thought apt and which made the book seem very enticing, but perhaps Ronald Blythe in his 'puff' on that cover encapsulates why I may have bottled out..
'An autobiography of dying. It was brave to write it and it needs courage to read it, but the benefits are enormous...'
Clearly and despite all the benefits therin my courage failed me back in 2006, but that was before I had embarked on the day job I do now which has involved intensive revision and updating of my training as a bereavement counsellor in the early 1990s.
So when I picked up The Enduring Melody again last week I shouldn't have been surprised to find it was like a completely different 'me' opening the first page, because I now see I have developed the strategies that give me that courage to proceed.. so this is not a health warning exactly, but you may want to be aware that whilst the book starts in health, and that was the intention throughout, it becomes something very different and at times distressing when Michael Mayne is diagnosed with what proves to be a highly malignant tumour of his jaw. He finds himself navigating his way through the 'questioning country of cancer' and that was not on the itinerary.
Ronald Blythe goes on to say...
'Michael Mayne belongs to the great priest-writers. He takes on the issues of mortality, both in religion and literature, and makes us all discover what pain has taught him. It is a wonderful achievement.'
I don't know many priest-writers but I'd put Gerard Hughes and Thomas Merton on my list for sure.
Alan Bennett, another close friend of Michael Mayne's describes the book thus
' An heroic book.... his courage, his humour and his tone of voice do not desert him; humbling and inspiring, it is a validation both of his faith and his humanity.'
I should comment on the 'faith' aspect too.
I would not normally pick up a book that described Christianity in quite so much depth, and I will admit that I skimmed a few parts. Whilst I know they were an essential part of Michael Mayne's journey, and a real questioning and affirmation of his lifelong beliefs when put to the test, for a lapsed Anglican like myself the theology seemed of less relevance on this reading. For anyone with a particular interest, that will be essential reading whilst the medical and literary content may not... so this is a book that can be read selectively.
That is in no way to detract from all the threads of his life that Michael Mayne skillfully weaves together as he explores the ways in which the kaleidoscope of his life 'has slipped a little,' and what subsequently supports him through the harrowing process of the surgery, the treatment and the pain of his final illness. Not only his faith, and prayer as stillness rather than supplication, but his family, his marriage, his music and books and a wonderful selection of old films.
I was a first time Prommer proper this year in that I made a point of checking what was on each night and listening if I wanted to...never again will I miss the Proms, and fancy it taking me so long to make them a part of my summer.
And Michael Mayne's reading is far-ranging...
The Mysteries of Glass by Sue Gee
Findings by Kathleen Jamie
Making it Up by Penelope Lively
Snow by Orhan Pamuk
Author, Author by David Lodge
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
After the Victorians by A.N Wilson
Old Filth by Jane Gardam
Grace and Truth by Jennifer Johnston
The short stories of William Maxwell help him through the sleepless hours before his surgery, and for which he was in the operating theatre for twelve hours. And then countless authors and poets are mentioned in more general terms, Edward Thomas, Vikram Seth ( a close friend and confidante), Carol Ann Duffy, D.H.Lawrence, John McGahern, Hilary Mantel, John Burnside, Andrei Makine and many more.
There is frequent reference to T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets, a book I read carefully for the first time only last year, but I have a recording of Ralph Fiennes reading it which I will now listen to because somehow The Enduring Melody is also about the transcendence and transforming power of words and how much they can achieve, and about what Michael Mayne calls the Cantus Firmus of his own life, the fixed ground of a lifelong melody.
And whilst that may all sound horribly pretentious taken out of context, it is not in the slightest in this book, more a real testament to the power of this book that I felt such a genuiness about those foundations, and in ways that I could indentify with whilst formulating my own version.
Michael Mayne's voice is deeply self-effacing and honest as he faces up to a devastating final illness, and I think different aspects may shine through for different readers here, but above all what will shine through for everyone is a man of limitless spiritual and personal humility who has left us a wonderful legacy with this book, a melody I have finally listened to and heard and one that will most certainly endure.