I always feel a tinge of sadness at this time of year when the darkening evenings remind me that we’re already a couple of months beyond the summer solstice and heading towards the autumn and winter. I get over it fairly quickly by reminding myself of how lovely autumn can be and the various things I tend to do during the winter months when I spend more time indoors. One of those, and it’s something that also played a part in the most restrictive spells of the lockdown, is family history research. I’ve been doing it on and off for several years and although I have been able to trace a variety of ancestral lines back several centuries, all too often I’ve been unable to discover much about most of my ancestor’s lives. But there have been some exceptions.
In 1802 the poem ‘The Caledonian Herd-Boy’ was published and David Service who was born and grew on a farm west of Dumbarton, achieved overnight success and everyone who was anyone wanted to meet him. Like many others who become suddenly famous he struggled to cope and became alcoholic. He was very devout and among his collected papers are prayers which reveal the depths of his shame, his desperation and feelings of wretchedness as he castigated himself for his weakness, begged God’s forgiveness and promised amendment of his ways. Again and again he tried, sometimes regaining some stability and occasionally further success as a poet, but all in the end to no avail. Increasingly desperate he wrote vindictive (though often very funny) rhymes about those who refused him drinks, hauled him off to jail or simply refused his requests for help. He became almost totally estranged from his wife and children who had long since given up believing his promises of reform and eventually died in poverty. My grandmother, his great, great granddaughter, carried on and sustained a long family tradition of absolute hostility, and spoke of him with anger, contempt and loathing 130 years after his death!
David grew up to the simple life of a herd-boy on the hills overlooking the Clyde, but had both ambition and ability, trained as a cobbler and moved south. He found the fame he sought, climbed the social ladder and sampled the adulation of the rich and powerful in London society, but the experience was damaging. It exposed his anxieties and fears of failure and inadequacy, and he found that drinking helped him cope. But the drinking became unmanageable, family impatience turned to hostility and his stern religious background and his own personal faith condemned him. This created a deep sense of shame and self-loathing that only served to drive him into deeper despair and an even more serious dependency on alcohol. Sadly, his religious background and his personal version of faith estranged him from God. Reading through his prayers leaves a vivid picture of someone unable to forgive himself, unable to accept forgiveness or to believe that he was forgivable. Time and again he tried to reform himself but failed, and every failure intensified his tendency to beat himself up.
Another more recent poet, Ann Lewin, wrote about this behavioural cycle. Some of you may have heard me quote it before, but it’s worth repeating
Love your neighbour as yourself.
The trouble is we do.
And since we do not always love ourselves,
Our neighbour suffers from our handicap.
Strange feelings come from depths we don’t
Control, causing us to react, and not respond.
How can we learn to love our dark unknown,
Embrace, accept, forgive what lies within?
Can we believe it is already done?
We are profoundly loved, both in our depths
And to the limit of his love, which knows no end.
A starting place, with time and eternity
To learn its truth. And in the meantime,
What a blessing for our neighbour, to be
Loved as we are (learning to) love ourselves.