What’s Happening in Syria Once Happened Here Too

New Star & Crescent Contributing Editor, Gareth Rees, takes a philosophical and psychological tour of Portsmouth’s own Cathedral of St Thomas.

A guy from Dubai once told me that if, in his travels, he couldn’t find a mosque, a visit to a cemetery would be an adequate substitute. My mind flies to old Mr Goddard digging a grave in the graveyard of Blendworth Church. The children walked on the graves tempting God to punish us.

Today, well-absorbed in the metropolitan tumult, a cemetery in the midst of all this is an attractive place perhaps simply because of the quietness? Does the evidence of death, its normality, replace a long-suppressed mortal panic with a soupcon of fatalistic calm and reduce somewhat the power and press of the worries of today? Does being in the presence of nature, of trees, alter the body’s chemistry in a benign and pacific way?

Coming into Portsmouth by train and just before Fratton station, there’s an extensive cemetery and it looks a very beautiful place especially in early summer when the many trees are newly in leaf. I must go and walk in that place, I say to myself, but I never have. I have, however, many times strolled through Highland Road Cemetery at the end of winter when it seems death is turned into resurrection when the skeletal trees are dressed anew in greenery.

Not all the graves there are simple. There’s some grandiosity; the grave of a naval man killed by accident in Kingston, Jamaica. How does grandiosity secure an advance in this life let alone in the next – if there is one. Tombs in Highgate Cemetery come to mind and greedy trees stealing the light, their roots protruding and strangling and upsetting the stone-work intrusions into their territory. I suppose they tried to strangle Karl Marx, unsuccessfully, I reckon.

Do you prefer big or little, Blenheim Palace or a cottage, a motorway or a lane, a treble whopper or a grain of rice, a cathedral or that tiny church in the middle of a field which is seen before the train from London reaches Rowlands Castle? And, by the way, who was Rowland and where’s the castle? I’ve asked around in that village and no-one knew.

There’s a little garden of the dead where I often stop and it’s tucked away at the back of St Thomas’s Cathedral. There’s usually no one there but there is a cat which is usually in a state of Buddhist repose. But maybe it’s just the satisfaction following a good meal, a bird perhaps, recently stalked, seized and crunched up in its sharp little teeth. Maybe this feline presence explains the absence of bird-song. But there’s plenty to make up for the absence of that particular blessing, the roses, the buttercups, the frisson in the willow tree and a choir singing in the cathedral.

As I leave, I walk over paving stones which have etched into them the names of the dead and one of them, when alive, showed ‘courage and endeavour’.

But what does ‘dead’ mean? Is it a corpse? I wonder where the owner went. Dead as well? I’m not sure I can have a view about death when I’ve not experienced it. Perhaps I have experienced it. Rejection feels like death and that’s how it was when failing to be chosen to represent the Earth in the Inter-Galactic Competition to Find the Most Self-Obsessed Planet Ever Known.

Just as I’m leaving the garden, I notice a plaque which was set there as memorial to those who may have died prematurely as a result of exposure to radiation when sent to witness the testing of weapons of mass destruction at Christmas Island. Well, that was about sixty years ago, a spasm of insanity which surely has passed now. But did I hear that one of the first policy statements by the new Prime Minister was that the ability to poison and kill millions of people, animals, trees and grass land must be updated? And did I see her coming out of church where it’s said that ‘he who lives by the sword dies by the sword’?

And then a few steps on and in front of the cathedral there is another memorial laid on the spot where fourteen people, wives, husbands, children and old people, were killed by a bomb in 1941. I’m just a few steps away from roses and buttercups but my mind is far from there and in a world of state-sponsored terrorism which is much closer to home than the Middle East. Well, just call it terror.

This very spot outside the cathedral is depicted in a painting by Edward King which can be seen in the Portsmouth museum. King, a long-term patient at St James’ Hospital, painted rural scenes in Milton when permitted by staff to stroll to the edge of the hospital grounds. During the war, he was permitted to walk further in order to record through his painting the results of German bombs.

Difficult to imagine rural scenes in Portsmouth today. Difficult to imagine that what is happening to Syria once happened here too.

Photography by Moshe Tasky