Twilight of the dogs

'The tide was coming in fast. "Oh, look. That man can't persuade his dog to go through the water. He'll have to carry it. Oh. He's dropped it"'
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''Does the panel think that we pay enough attention to the spiritual side of life?" was the question, as I remember it.

''Does the panel think that we pay enough attention to the spiritual side of life?" was the question, as I remember it.

This was during a session of Radio 4's Any Questions some years ago at Dartington, near Totnes, and the reason I remember the question so clearly is that I was one of the four radio panellists and would therefore have to answer the question on air, and probably have to own up to the fact that although I am a very thoughtful and caring person, I don't think much about the spiritual side of life as a general rule, and I couldn't remember ever having had a spiritual experience.

The other members of the panel didn't make that mistake. Aware that we were near Totnes, and therefore in a rather New Age part of the world, they said that the spiritual side of life was tremendously vital blah blah blah, and received the kind of applause that you get when you give the Any Questions audience the raw meat it has been baying for. Or muesli, anyway.

Ever since that day in Totnes, I have always wanted to have a spiritual experience to make up for the barrenness I felt.

And now I have had one.

It took place a week or two ago, not so very far from Totnes, down in Cornwall. My wife and I were coming back from a brief visit to the Far West, and were looking for a place where we could eat the fish picnic we had compiled at Padstow that morning. We decided on Trebarwith, a tiny seaside village down a tiny valley. The fact that the first thing you come to is a gigantic car park gives you a clue that it's not undiscovered.

But we parked and walked on down and found that although there were a few greasy cafés, there was also a large and sandy beach, easily able to take all the people who had left all those cars in the car park. Not wishing for a picnic full of sand, we walked a few hundred yards up along the coastal path, which took us on to the cliff top overlooking the entire beach and there, in a solitary, grassy, flowery spot, we ate our shrimps and Mr Rick Stein's fougasse and surveyed humanity.

Humanity, from our seagull's-eye view, looked quite small and up to lots of different things, mostly nicely old-fashioned. Some were surfing, some were exploring rock pools or batting things to each other, some were urging their dogs into the water, or reading, or eating, or trying to get skin cancer, and one family was building a huge sandcastle, and all so far below that you couldn't really hear them.

What we realised from our angle, and what most of humanity didn't seem aware of, was that the tide was coming in quite fast. And that the beach was divided into two halves by a big projection of rock that would soon be covered by the tide, thus cutting off the people on the right-hand half of the beach from the beach exit. And we watched, dispassionately, as most people tumbled to the danger and took action, and others blithely played on, courting doom. People who knew the place waded out into the waves, where their escape route was quite shallow, but others stuck closer to the shoreline and got into trouble. It was like watching a very poorly run rehearsal for the crossing of the Red Sea.

"The lady in the blue dress has got stuck in that pool," said my wife. "She can't pull up her dress higher than the water. She's going to be soaked."

"That man can't persuade his dog to go through the water," I said. "He'll have to carry it. Oh. He's dropped it."

"Do you see the man with the cameras round his neck who just came through?" she said. "He's shaking them now. He doesn't look too happy. Oh – there goes the sandcastle!"

And so we sat in our god-like eyrie and commented on the human drama way below, as if it were a film, or a modern Brueghel painting. We didn't think anyone was in real danger. But you never knew...

And that was where I had my moment of spiritual enlightenment.

I suddenly realised that if we had been gods, we would really have been enjoying the scene.

People sometimes ask, in shocked tones, how God can possibly allow certain terrible things to happen.

Well, here were we, with a divine view of humanity in trouble, and like gods in Olympus we sat and ate our grapes and supped our ambrosia and watched the scene, and the question, I suddenly realised, is not, "How could God possibly allow terrible things to happen?" but, "How could he possibly not let them happen? How could he resist?"

I wonder if the man at Totnes would accept that as bona fide spiritual enlightenment.

I fear not, somehow.