~ Posted by Simon Willis, January 7th 2013
A few days before Christmas, a friend gave me a book I'd never heard of. It has an unprepossessing green cover, with a simple white design forming an arch of outlined stones. It is called "Gather the Fragments", a book of days compiled by Alan Ecclestone. I turned to the entry for that day, December 22nd, and found that it was from William Golding's novel "The Spire", which is about the construction of the pinnacle on top of the cathedral in Salisbury, the town where I grew up and where I was going the following day.
Ecclestone was a vicar who worked in the industrial north of England, ministering in places like Barrow and Sheffield. After he retired in 1969, he started to write out by hand extracts from prose and poetry from some of his 12,000 books—passages that had meant something to him—and collected them in ring binders. Then he and a friend called Jim Cotter began editing the collection down into a book, matching quotations to days. Ecclestone died in 1992. The finished book was published the following year, the title taken from John's gospel, when Jesus tells his disciples to gather up the leftovers.
I took the book home for Christmas. At the back there's a list of the collected writers, and it's tempting to skip around the days and months to find your favourites. But I tried to stick to each day's entry. For December 24th, which was grey and wet, there was Cecil Day-Lewis's poem "Christmas Eve", a prod for anyone who finds that, as Day-Lewis writes in the poem, "It is hard / To see it as more than a time-worn tinsel routine". The poem ends:
"No. It's a miracle great enough
If through centuries, clouded and dingy, this Day can keep
Christmas Day's piece was an intimate and hopeful poem about the birth of Jesus by Maud Saville, Boxing Day's a reflection on martyrdom from T.S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral". In three days, Ecclestone had encapsulated Christmas's many conflicting moods.
Best of all so far are the entries for the new year, a trio of severe lessons in resolution—and I don't mean the giving-up-alcohol-for-a-month kind. On new year's day it was the Jewish philosopher and mystic Martin Buber, reflecting on our responsibility for those parts of life "for which we have a relation of deeds which may count". For January 2nd Ecclestone chose W.H. Auden's poem "For the Time Being". In the poem, Christmas is over, the decorations are back in the loft, and we're going back to work. But now Auden wants us to make an ordinary time extraordinary, "When the spirit must practise his scales of rejoicing." Then came an extract from Iris Murdoch's book "The Sovereignty of the Good". "The chief enemy of excellence in morality," she writes, "is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams which prevent one from seeing what there is outside one." At a time of the year when lots of us want to reinvent ourselves, she'd rather we went the other way. Her message is "pay attention!"
As you read the book, you begin to see that it isn't just a collection of fragments, but a book with an architecture that draws you on. The passages for the new year don't just work on their own, but create an atmosphere for a stretch of time.
Ecclestone clearly found as much inspiration in secular works as sacred. Since January 3rd we've had Emily Brontë, Boris Pasternak, more Eliot, and the French poet and essayist Charles Péguy. I can't tell you what comes tomorrow—my rule is, one a day for the rest of the year. But if you want to find out, you can get a copy of the book from Cairns Publications at cottercairns.co.uk.