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29th
September
2018

Jane Austen Has Invited Me To Tea

If you want a sense of how large the Muslim world is, and how committed its believers are to holy ritual, you might begin your research in Jeddah airport.

Saudi Arabia’s second city sits on the azure waters of the Red Sea, approximately 60kms from Mecca. The signposts call it Makkah. Every year, the airport braces for Hajj – the pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest place which all Muslims should complete once in their lives.

Jeddah’s airport has its own Hajj terminal, distinguished by a myriad of open air tent-like structures to accommodate the annual influx. Living there in the 1990s, I recall staring at thousands of freshly arrived pilgrims clad in uniform white, waiting in stoic silence and apparent passivity.

What it must be, I thought, to have committed to a belief system for the whole of one’s life, and then finally make your way to its essence.

One of the cultural crises we face in 2018 Ireland is that there is precious little left to believe in. The banks burnt us. The Gardaí corrupted us. The Church raped us. The politicians ignored us.

But it is unhealthy to have no heroes. What is the point in trudging through our 30,000 days if we cannot dream of a world more beautiful than that which unfolds before our eyes. A world of purer honour, purer insight, purer love.

I have felt the sting of unbelief. That moment when you realise: I’m longer on this team; no longer signed-up to its doctrine. To fall out of love is a terrible thing. It is a version of being robbed. It happens with institutions. It can also happen with people, with places, with professions…a dizzying array of life experiences which once sustained us can, over time, leave us cold and wanting.

But I must believe.

And so I have, amongst other strategies, turned to the imaginary life. To culture and creation. To the joy of invented perfection, in the perfect knowledge it cannot exist.

It turns out that fiction is the only thing that remains true.

I know this because I am a devoted believer in its high Priestess. Her books, first published in the early 18th century by ‘a lady’, are a kind of manna for the human soul.

And this weekend is my moment of grace. I have heard the calling. I have arrived for my Hampshire Hajj. Because yes. It is true.

Jane Austen has invited me to tea.

Ms Austen does not serve coffee. Nor would she insult me with camomile or nettle infusions, given I have not alerted her to any feelings of ill-health. And if she were to perceive a paleness in my complexion as I enter her home, politeness would forbid its acknowledgement.

As to the particular tea leaf that Ms Austen will choose for my visit, I know better than to linger in such conjecture. She will select the variety that goes perfectly with this crisp early autumn day, releasing an aroma that is sure to enrapture from its first tinkling pour.

Like my gracious hostess, I do not care to ponder on the ways in which life can deliver tedium. We are partial to a world of surprise. And it is our belief that they are all the more delicious for being planned.

Whether such an assertion applies to matters sartorial is the theme of my current mental cogitation. I have put some considerable time into choosing my day’s attire.

The turn of the season is a fair weather friend. One should wear clothing tentatively in September. Rather than apply logic to my wardrobe, I have invited the hand of Kismet to assist.

It is for this reason that, clad in wool from the west of Ireland and denim so favoured by the frontiersmen of the New World, I feel wholly equal to the occasion. Ms Austen knows that a gentleman with income in the £10,000s would hardly feel bound by the customs of the locality. It is, let us agree, a planned surprise of the unplanned variety.

We are unlikely conspirators in the joys of living and of polite refreshment; she a gentleman’s daughter, and I a simple Celtic worshipper.

But such are we. And as I wait in a resting post outside of Chawton, my heart is all aglow. This day has finally come. I have journeyed to the essence. Jane Austen has invited me to tea.

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