Although the name Capel-y-Ffin is often associated with the idiosyncratic Catholicism of Eric Gill and David Jones (and I will return to them in another post), the hamlet is also home to both a small Anglican church and a Baptist chapel, which lie almost side by side in quiet rivalry. In Wales, according to the old joke, there is always ‘the other place’, the one you don’t go to. Curiously, considering the number of times I have passed through, I had never ventured into either of them until a couple of weeks ago, when I visited both. The little church of St Mary the Virgin, as Kilvert wrote, ‘squats like a stout grey owl among its seven great black yews’, and venturing inside, it feels almost as if I have entered one of those tiny sanctuaries hidden away in the Greek mountains, because the art work has a decidedly Orthodox flavour. There is also a David Jones hanging by the staircase, to the right of the door. Or should I say a copy, or print of a David Jones, as the Tate in London claims to own the original.
It is early morning, and after a week of hot weather — one of our famous heatwaves — we are entitled to some rain, which duly arrives as I climb to Darren Llwyd, following the track to the Twmpa, also known as Lord Hereford’s Knob. As I go along, I am vaguely pondering Thoreau’s commendation that ‘to affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.’ And how do you go about that? Not, I imagine, through conscious effort, but rather through a kind of non-doing, of which walking, if done without perturbation or hurry, might be an example. Letting things be and allowing thoughts —if they must come — to unfold in their own way. Slowing down. Today will be a slow walk. I will strive to be responsive to the quality of the day, as Thoreau has it.
But there is a problem. I’m preoccupied by an article I’ve recently read about the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and it has raised a few issues. Or re-raised them, I should say. The article, by Philip Ball, which appears in Quanta magazine, and which I happened across while surfing without purpose, challenges what it calls ‘the most extraordinary, alluring and thought-provoking of all the ways in which quantum mechanics has been interpreted.’ I won’t go into the argument that Ball makes in his article, largely because it is quite technical and I don’t understand the physics. But in essence, the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) suggests that there are a near-infinity of universes, all of them superimposed within the same physical space but isolated from one another and evolving separately. (It should not be confused with the multiverse hypothesis, in which there are countless other universes, each originating in a different Big Bang, which are distinct and separate from our own). In the MWI, the other worlds contain replicas of you and me, but they are leading other lives, doing things that we do not. As Ball’s article points out, the many worlds interpretation is highly seductive: ‘It tells us that we have multiple selves, living other lives in other universes, quite possibly doing all the things that we dream of but will never achieve (or never dare to attempt). There is no path not taken.’
It’s a sort of comfort to know (or rather, to imagine) that there are innumerable versions of oneself doing stuff in other worlds, and the idea makes us feel less alone. It provides a sort of balm for all the fuck-ups of one’s past: at least in one of those other worlds a version of myself acted otherwise, and the idea offers a strange kind of release, or even salvation. The idea appeals to the religious instinct, I suppose, and at the same time softens the tyranny of memory, which adds to its appeal.
I have written about this elsewhere on this blog, in relation to a story by Borges, The Garden of the Forking Paths, which contains the following passage:
‘Your ancestor . . . believed in an infinite series of times, in a dizzily growing, ever-spreading network of diverging, converging and parallel times. This web of time – the strands of which approach one another, bifurcate, intersect, or ignore each other through the centuries – embraces every possibility. We do not exist in most of them. In some you exist and not I, while in others I do, and you do not, and in yet others both of us exist. In this one, in which chance has favoured me, you have come to my gate. In another, you, crossing the garden, have found me dead. In yet another, I say these very same words, but am an error, a phantom.’
This notion of infinite outcomes to any situation is a source of perennial fascination to Borges, and the idea seems especially feasible in this part of the world, the Black Mountains: I often get the sensation, when walking or driving across Gospel Pass and down into the Ewyas valley, of entering a zone where, more than elsewhere, the laws of everyday reality disintegrate. It is perhaps in the nature of borders, as liminal zones, but the notion is especially powerful here. Looking east, the road towards Hay snakes along the mountainside like a road in a children’s story book, and as I reach Hay Bluff, and the wide Wye valley stretches out below me, I am struck once again by the yellow, almost rusty light of these uplands on days, like today, of low hanging cloud. It is like looking at the world through an amber filter.
My route now follows the Offa’s Dyke path leading towards Hatterall Hill, with the Olchon Valley to my left. I follow it with tiring footsteps in the persistent drizzle, and only when I come to the turning off point, two miles south, does the weather clear. The unexpected sunshine adds a spring to my step, and I descend rapidly down a steep path through shoulder-high ferns, almost to the valley road, but turn off just before, along a pretty, wooded track, one of those paths best encountered in the early evening light of a summer’s day. And before joining the valley road, on the right, stands the Baptist Chapel. The building itself is closed up, and I can’t go in, but there is the demure and mossy graveyard, and a most hospitable bench, in which I can sit and take it all in. It is a wonderfully tranquil spot, beside an especially imposing yew tree. There are worse places to spend eternity, I imagine: at least for this version of you, either in this or whichever world you find yourself.