Bede died hundreds of years ago but the place he lived, Jarrow, still exists. Jarrow is way up in the northeast of England. On Jarrow’s Wikipedia page, you see it on a map of Tyne and Wear, kind of in an analogous position on the screen to Tyne and Wear’s own location in the country. Its jagged outline gloms onto the upper right-hand part of England like a tattoo on a shoulder.
Somewhere beneath that on the Wikipedia page, Bede’s name lies under Roger Avon’s, like this:
• Roger Avon, actor
• Bede, Benedictine monk and scholar
You may remember Roger Avon from 1972’s Au Pair Girls, or Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 AD (1966). I think it’s funny that Daleks – Invasion Earth is only set 134 years in the future, while Bede lived ten times as long ago as that. There are only two women on the list of famous Jarrow residents. The majority of the people on the list are footballers and musicians. Among them are Wee Georgie Wood, the music-hall star Paul Thompson, who played the drums in Roxy Music, and Sunderland Football Club goalkeeper Jimmy Thorpe.
George Wood was better known as Wee Georgie Wood because he was a little person and “worked most his professional life in the guise of a child.” The second paragraph of his page begins “Wood, who, when fully grown, was 4 ft 9 in.” George is mentioned at the end of the Beatles’s “Dig It,” one of the worst songs on Let It Be, their worst album. On the West Coast of Tasmania there is a model railway named “Wee Georgie Wood Railway” because it is small, as was Wee Georgie Wood. When Paul Thompson was a teenager, he played in a band called the Urge. “Tiredness from performing with them seven nights a week in local clubs and pubs led him to fall asleep on his job as an apprentice metalworker, which resulted in his dismissal,” reads his Wikipedia page. Thompson is now in a band called the Metaphors.
Jimmy Thorpe died after being kicked in the head and chest during a match against Chelsea. It was a few days later that he actually slipped behind the veil separating the mortal and the spiritual Jarrows, but on the town’s Wikipedia page Jimmy is memorialized as having “lost his life helping the club win the 1936 League title.” Footballing Jarrow’s other great son, David Hague, might be a bit more famous, but his Wikipedia page ends: “After playing for the Portland, where Hague was nominated for rookie of the year, Hague went to Uruguay to play for Danubio F.C. It was decided that Soccer did not deserve David and he quit instead.” Jimmy Thorpe never quit instead.
Whether or not the Venerable Bede’s character was informed by an immutable spirit of Jarrow, we can never know. It’s cold up there, teetering on the North Sea. I don’t believe that my personality is determined by the place I was born, but I must be at least a little bit worried that it could be true, because otherwise I wouldn’t have made it the subject of my paper at Kalamazoo.
I was trying to figure out how the particular tropes of racism and nationalism (two sides of the same coin) came to be how they are. “Environmental determinism” and “geographical determinism” are some terms you can use to refer to the idea that the place you’re born in (the weather, the location, which of Noah’s sons founded your continent, etc.) has an effect on your inner life. Racists tend to believe it, because it suggests that people are different from each other in some essential way. Anyway, perhaps in another time Bede could have been the one to administer the tick-tock time-bomb pelvic beat to “Love is the Drug.” Maybe he could have taken footballs slick with cold mud to the face (with a slap) and groin (with a thud). We’ll never know. Instead, Bede spent his life in a Benedictine monastery, presumably never having sex or drinking or playing football or drums. He grew up to be a hero anyway, and maybe that’s the spirit of Jarrow: one hero every thousand years.
The history of Jarrow’s sons may show us that Bede is only one local champion among many, but his talent matched the greatest of his neighbors. The Venerable Bede never played in the Metaphors, but the figure he invented to describe the human lifespan has haunted me since I first read it, sleepy and floppy with hangover in my university halls room, which was full of red carnations jammed into empty wine bottles. Here’s my translation:
It seems to me, your majesty, that the life human beings have on earth now, when you see it in relation to everything we don’t know about, is like this: You are sitting having supper in winter with all your advisors and commanders, a nice fire burning, while outside storms of rain and snow are raging. A sparrow flies swiftly through the room. In one door, out the other. While the sparrow is inside, the winter storm cannot hurt him. But after a little space of comfort, he soon returns to the wintry winter, out of your sight. In the same way, the life of human beings is only visible to us for a short time: what happens next, or what happened before, we just don’t know.
I first read these lines during my first year at university. It had got so cold so quickly—one day I was moving in, asking the girls on my corridor if my outfit for the first night’s formal dinner was okay, then it was winter. I brought a lot of stuff with me, records and an easel and so on. Ioanna’s room was across the courtyard and I could wave to her through the window.
We who are on earth today live out the figurative second in a sparrow’s life as its body moves from one window to the other. We don’t remember where we were and we can’t see out the dark window (since it is so bright in here) to predict where our flight path will take us. That feeling of being protected from the weather outside is real—when I was a kid my bedroom was in the attic, and my bed was under sloping windows, so when it rained I could look straight up into the weather my body didn’t have to experience, and feel happy. But, safe from the wintry storm, the tempestas, we who shelter in here don’t understand much at all.
I thought all that about the swift flight of the sparrow and put the library book down. It clanged around in my brain for a minute, banging into the sad Old English poems about exile and my ambivalent feelings about the bits of Boethius sitting in a box in Pavia. Then it drifted down and settled on the ocean floor of my interior life. I’d been staring straight ahead at the basin that was bolted to the wall at the foot of my bed for a few seconds, but now I put on my boots and blue coat and headphones and walked around Oxford for a while. First I walked around Radcliffe Square, which is profoundly cobbled. Then I walked over to Broad Street, down to Longwall and then to the Cowley roundabout. Those roads just have ordinary pavements that are normal to walk on.
Trudging around in the dark, I was clueless but electrified. Bede had made me feel like an idiot, but his sparrow clarified for me the relationship between my body and time. This flesh—absurd puppet! I woke up that morning in 2007. Big deal. How many eyes opened on a day like, say, July 26, 1158, in any given city, let’s say Munich? We tick off months and paychecks and paint parts of our bodies and our skin droops. We are sweet animals, but there have been so very many of us. You’re less than a grain of rice in a thousand swimming pools of rice. All of which is to say that Bede’s sparrow is a very appealing kind of thought to both a medieval religious person and a sad twenty-year-old just after the turn of the next millennium. That was how my dream vision began.
In a tapestry or manuscript illumination depicting an allegorical scene, it is common to find labels hovering over people’s heads. A person might be labeled “Avarice,” for example. These labels are a guide to the kind of symbolism called personification allegory: each character represents an idea, then they behave so as to illuminate the principle they embody. In allegory everything seen is mirrored, deferred and relative.
Across Kalamazoo, labels and signs hovered everywhere. After giving my paper, I went for a solitary little wander. At the end of one corridor I found, taped to the glass part of a door, a piece of paper advertising an event called “SO YOU THINK YOU CAN CHANT,” which promised attendees “An EnCHANTed Evening.” Drawn to the sign, I reached out to touch it and ended up opening the door it was attached to. On the other side of the door, a cavern of wonders! Here was the big exhibition hall, where all the scholarly presses, little-crystal vendors (one stall was named “THE CURIOUS LOVE OF PRECIOUS STONES”) and medieval music-makers flog their wares.