At the Gate of the Year: a poem, two monarchs, my grandmother…and God.

In memory of Patricia Timmons and all those who passed from Covid-19 💛

Christmas, 1939

George finds himself — hardly for the first time — lost for words.

But the stakes are rather higher than they have been in the past. At that awful opening of the Empire exhibition in Glasgow, for instance.

For George — Albert really; a man with no desire and less aptitude for kingship — is tasked with lifting the spirits of a nation — an Empire — as the season of goodwill lies darkened by war, and new, untold evil.

Thankfully, help is at hand. Quite literally. For placed in his hands is a quite remarkable piece of poetry.

Its words embolden him to tell the Commonwealth: “I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which in my closing words I would to say to you:

“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’

And he replied:

‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’”

The King concludes with his own words “May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.”

February, 2020

This writer finds himself in the well-lit environs of Oaktree Church, Acton. It is Week 3 or 4 or 5 into ‘Finding God in Poetry’, weekly meetups at which we read spiritually engaged poetry, mining the canon for some clue as to the workings of God in the pens of poets, both famed and unsung. Very often, we must dig; but sometimes, we simply hit a spring, and divine communion pours forth from the page.

This is among the latter. The reader’s voice begins to falter, halt, quiver “…into the Hand of God…That shall be to you better than light…and safer… than a known way”. She completes the lines, but weeping. “I’m sorry…that’s beautiful,” she says, dabbing her eyes.

No need to apologise. We all know we’ve encountered something special.

At the next session, the group organiser plays George VI’s reading on YouTube, and we all nod that you can just about make out his disguised stammer.

A few weeks later, the series is cut short “due to the continued coronavirus business” says the group leader. “I am sorry it is all ending so abruptly.”

May, 2020

The world has changed.

I stand with my extended family — in bubbles — around an open grave. The grave contains our family matriarch, our mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who survived the Blitz, cancer and a brain tumour, but was one of thousands who fell to ‘covid’ — when had we stopped calling it ‘coronavirus’? — as it ravaged through Britain’s care homes.

It is windy. ‘Abide With Me’ is laden with emotion. My nerves build as the task of the eulogy approaches; don’t muck it up.

But first, my auntie speaks. She produces a little old postcard with an artist’s impression of a cat on it — “Mum liked cats”, my auntie says.

On the other side, she explains, Granny had written out a prayer, which she goes on to read to us. “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year…”

That prayer…that poem…where had I heard it?

“…that I may tread safely into the unknown.” Of course! That poetry thing…months ago. Feels more like years…

Once again, the reading concludes with tears.

That evening I feel compelled to share the lines on Facebook. No explanation.

A dear friend comments, informing me that the book The Servant Queen and the King She Serves alleges that it was the future Queen Elizabeth herself that had stiffened her father’s sinews by showing him the poem.

Another piece of the puzzle. That book, published by the Bible Society to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday in 2016, had lain on Granny’s coffee table for some years, until she had moved to her care home.

The image now came starkly into focus. In her moments of loneliness and fear, as dementia tightened its grip and the prospect of mortality demanded earnest confrontation, Granny had found solace in the pages of this book, in the poem — and placed her hand into the Hand of God.

One of our own small comforts in losing Granny in those dark times was that at some point she really had made peace with her parting. Mum tells me that she — in one of her many surprising moments of clarity during her final years — had once very calmly said that she wouldn’t be around for much longer. Another time, when Mum brought up her coming 90th birthday, she had given her a funny look, as if to say “Really? Me? 90? Don’t think so!”

Sure enough, she passed two weeks short of it.

For me, the idea that the monarch might’ve played this indirect role in reassuring Granny as she contemplated a journey into the unknown is entirely appropriate. She could be a contrary woman and, having married an Irishman, was conflicted in her Britishness; at some point after the death of the Queen Mother whom she’d admired greatly, she embarked on an extended republican phase which lasted almost a decade, which only apparently thawed come the spate of royal occasions starting with Kate & Wills’ marriage in 2011.

By the time of Harry & Meghan’s union in 2018, she could recognise few of the aristocratic features on the screen.

But she knew the Queen.

The Sovereign seemed to take on a whole new role in our living room that day; a kind of human lightning rod for memory, in a mind where memory was now a precious resource. Or, more simply, the role of an old friend.

There was a more universal aptness too of course. Coming weeks after the whole nation, royalist and republican alike, had applauded the Queen’s graceful invocation of Britons’ wartime spirit (along with the quite literal applause for our other most treasured national institution — also weaved into the mythic narrative of the 1940s), the old argument about monarchy providing steadying continuity pealed out with renewed and practical sense.

Christmas, 2020

In researching for this piece, I find that The Gate of the Year was also a source of great comfort to the Queen Mother and was read at her funeral in 2002.

I grapple with the possibility that the facts might not conform to the story. Was it really the 13 year old Lilibet that had given her father the poem, or was it her mother? Did Granny really discover the poem in The Servant Queen? Or did she recall it from the Queen Mother’s funeral? Or even from that hallowed broadcast in 1939? Peoples’ retention spans were surely more muscular then…

Perhaps. But none of that meaningfully changes a jot.

Christmas, 1939

That damned poem has bally well done the trick.

The nation’s imagination has been captured, Christmas kept and that beastly stammer held at bay.

But a question follows.

Who penned the piece that saved the day?

After a frantic Boxing Day’s research, BBC radio announces at midnight that the author of The Gate of the Year is Minnie Louise Haskins, a retired LSE academic.

Madras, India, 1912

Minnie Haskins, a Methodist missionary originally from Bristol, is desperate to raise funds for the Zenana women’s mission that she joined in 1907.

She has few resources besides her words.

So she plans to publish her poetry collection, The Desert. She is particularly fond of her poem God Knows, full of assuring theodicies to soothe the soul (So heart be still:/What need our little life/Our human life to know,/If God hath comprehension?)

But something is missing. Something that bottles a little of the pioneering can-do spirit that has enabled her extraordinary journey so far.

Of course! Her writer’s brain flickers into ignition. A preamble.

She writes:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

Writer & actor. Conservative liberalism. Generous orthodoxy. (For everything else, there’s Blu-Tac.)

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