http://www.bedandbreakfastruraldevon.co.uk/old_vineyard_1.html What's to say? Sometimes I write stuff. Sometimes it comes out a bit like poetry - often it doesn't. Never entered a competition, never submitted anything for publication.
Neil’s Story I never met Neil Moss, the chronologies of our lives only overlapped by months; but I do remember his story. It was a story that unfolded on a world holding its breath when I was only months old; and yet I remember it, or at least the telling of it, as if it were yesterday. Some stories are like that, so remarkable, so vivid – or, in the case of Neil Moss, so traumatic, as to indelibly imprint their selves onto our memories, almost as if we had been there. Neil was a philosophy student at Oxford’s Balliol College, whose alumni include poets such as Swinburne and Southey (both Poets Laureate) Robert Browning and Hilaire Belloc; authors Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley and Neville Shute, and some of our greatest thinkers, including Adam Smith, William Beveridge and Richard Dawkins. It is fair to say that Neil was one of our “brightest and best.” At just twenty years of age both he and his story became fossilised forever; buried by the ever accumulating snow of time and news, and the sedimentary limestone of the southern Pennines. On Sunday March 22nd 1959, the earth swallowed him up, like the whale swallowing Jonah. It never spat him out. Neil Moss was a speleologist, or, in the parlance of the day, a potholer. On that particular Sunday he was part of a team planning to explore as yet uncharted passages in Peak Cavern, in the small town of Castleton in the Peak District of Derbyshire. Among the caving fraternity the cave is known as “The Devil’s Arse,” due to the sporadic sounds of gushing water echoing up from deep within. Its yawning entrance lies beneath the ruin of the Norman Peveril Castle. Cottages where a rope making industry once thrived fit easily within its jaws. The party’s destination was an unexplored fissure – to get to it they had to pass through passages little wider than the human body. Neil led the party into the virgin darkness. Due to the narrowness of the shaft he was negotiating it was thought neither necessary nor practical for him to be tied on to the following person. At just after four o’clock that afternoon, using a light ladder and climbing rope, Neil squeezed through a “corkscrew” turn in a vertical chimney, whereupon his further descent was blocked by a loose boulder. At this point, due to the confines of the rock around him, he was unable to move either upwards or downwards, and so a rope was lowered to him from forty feet above to enable his companions to retrieve him. A combination of factors; the rope being too flimsy and his position being too tightly wedged, led to the rope snapping – on three occasions. Neil was firmly stuck; he could neither move his arms nor bend his legs. He was one-thousand feet underground. Reports vary as to the events which followed, but what is certain is that at this point Neil Moss was immersed in humankind’s most fevered nightmare - immobility, isolation and perhaps worst of all, total and impenetrable darkness. This was not the fantasy horror of vampires or werewolves, nor was it the unpalatable screen atrocities of the modern-day slasher movie. This was pure and undiluted primeval fear. One can only surmise the terror he was feeling. What is known for certain is that cave rescuers and those with mining and medical experience gathered in Castleton as news spread of Neil’s predicament. National radio appeals went out for experts in the field – televisions still being a rare luxury in the late fifties. All over Britain – and further afield, people sat by their crackling valve radios and waited for news. One problem in those confined spaces was a shortage of air; almost immediately the level of carbon dioxide would have begun to rise and breathing would have become difficult. Access to Neil was virtually impossible; he was trapped at the shoulders and unable to raise his arms. Rescue attempts concentrated on getting a supply of oxygen to him, but it proved difficult to fit a mask over his face, unless someone could be lowered head-first down the shaft. Even then they were barely able to touch the top of his head. Ropes were tied to him and hooks passed through his clothing in attempts to raise him, but to no avail. With each attempt the chafing on his shoulders would have caused them to swell, and made his extraction more unlikely. By this time he was drifting in and out of consciousness. Rescuers talked in desperation of cutting a tunnel to him through a side passage; but there was no time. In a vain attempt to widen the passage a series of volunteers tried chipping away at the surrounding rock. Some reports suggest that a slight girl caver was lowered to him by her feet, in an attempt to break his collarbones and ease his passage. There must have come a time in this physical, mental and emotional struggle where both the rescue party and Neil himself realised that all options and hope had been exhausted. This is perhaps the very point which the human mind finds too awful to contemplate – the certain knowledge that he would never see the outside world above again. In these circumstances even the atheists among us would surely be crying out to a God. Contemporary accounts differ as to whether Neil was given morphine to soften this awful truth, and to help him slip from this life - many accounts suggest that he died of asphyxiation due to the carbon dioxide; either way it would have been cruel to deny him this; the last possible comfort. Neil died at approximately 2am on Tuesday morning, March 24th 1959. It must have been a completely forlorn procession up and out into an expectant world for the teams of men and women who had spent over thirty-six hours trying to rescue him. It was his father, waiting outside the cave, who received the news. In the tradition of cavers and cave rescuers it is considered a failure to leave a brother, or his body, beneath the ground, but in Neil’s case retrieval would be practically impossible. On his father’s instructions, and to prevent further incidents, Neil’s shaft was capped with concrete; and so it remains. A plaque in his memory was fixed in the entry chamber, now known as “Moss Chamber.” All this happened over fifty years ago. It is perhaps the saddest thought, that in another fifty or a hundred years, there may be no one left to remember him. “Benedictus benedicat”. - May the blessed one give a blessing. (Part of the Balliol Grace.) Almighty God, Who hast in Thy good providence disposed the hearts of men to mutual charity, that here on earth in diverse brotherhoods they may prepare the coming of Thy heavenly kingdom, we give Thee thanks for every human fellowship, but more especially that Thou hast prospered this our ancient house, and still dost guide the footsteps of her children, not weighting our merits nor measuring Thy fatherly affection. Send forth Thy light upon those assembled here and on our brethren dispersed through all the world, that we and they being knit more closely in the bonds of friendship may likewise frow in love of Thee and obtain together those eternal mansions which Thou hast promised by the mouth of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Balliol College Prayer.) Ecclesiasticus ch. 44, vv. 1-15 is the traditional reading at Balliol Gaudies*. It begins: "Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us . . . . . . And some there be, which have no memorial, who are perished as though they had not been, and become as though they had not been born: …….. But these were men of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten. * http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaudy http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,810881-1,00.html http://www.grantham.karoo.net/paul/graves/neilmoss.htm Visiting Neil Hello old friend. I’m sorry that it’s been a while. I can’t pretend that this cold place is easy on the mind. But nonetheless you’re always there, somewhere, underneath and in the darkness; thinking through philosophies, searching out those sparks of why and wherefore to eternity. Who me? I’ve done OK, The usual, you know - job, house, car - relationships; the ordinary stuff of life. Though I always held a candle for you. Your memory sometimes hides - but never fades. You’re set in stone. And now and then I call your name, and wonder if you hear. and know that in my memory, you’ll never really be alone. What’s in the bag? Oh just some things I brought for you I thought you might have missed – comforts, more for me than you perhaps, “Benedictus benedicat”: a firmament of winter stars a skylark’s hymn to spring-mown hay a summer blush of giggling girls a patch of bluebells fallen from the cloudless air of May an autumn sunset, stained with ripened fruit warm rain, lightning slashing at a charcoal sky, a seastorm’s anger, three coins - a wish from Rome plainsong heard across an Oxford lawn a playground full of laughter, a valley’s eiderdown of mist at dawn a scented silver trail of woodsmoke, leading home. Neruda’s words – (pour them gently in your ears) Elgar’s melodies for English hills a precious vial of unguent tears - scalded with rage - and frozen by a mother’s loss a moondust footprint from a giant’s leap a nation’s roaring heart one afternoon in sixty-six a pillow, dewed and warm with woman scent a skyline waltz of starling wings the molten kisses of love’s first fire - as hot, and fierce, as hornet stings. café chatter, jokes and bottles cracked with friends, a generation’s theme tunes, leaked from a letter box in Abbey Road, church bells and confetti strewn across a village green two golden circles – interlocked with nothing in between, a child’s warm hand, to flutter like a new-fledged bird in yours strawberries, ice cream melting in a July afternoon, the Sunday scent of bacon that tiptoes up a stair a barefoot walk in meadows wet with dew a patient fathom that waits beneath the dapple of the parish yew and love, love enough to outlast every dying sun and fading moon wrapped in the words of an agnostic’s faltering prayer. I can’t take you home – that gift was never mine to give; just your story, and the memory of you to remind a world you too once laughed, once loved, once lived. So goodbye old friend, I’ll light that candle for you for hope, and remembrance of a long-lost cause we’ll meet again one day I’ll cross my darkness where you wait for me in yours.
All poems are copyright of the originating author. Permission must be obtained before using or performing others' poems.
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