A southern light ship sheltered in a northern land

It’s been quiet on The Light Ships blog because there’s so much to do getting the book ready and preparing for the events which will be happening in November – more news about all that next week. But in the meantime, here are some photos of the Italian Chapel, on the island of Lamb Holm. I had a longstanding invitation to give a lecture in Kirkwall at the end of September so I got to spend a weekend in Orkney, which is one of the loveliest and most interesting places I know. When a friend took me to see the Chapel I saw why it is the most visited site in an area not short of wonderful monuments right back to Neolithic times.

The chapel was created by Italian prisoners of war, who were in Orkney to work on the Churchill Barriers which link several islands and close the eastern approach to Scapa Flow. The men requested a chapel and were assigned a couple of Nissen huts. In a few months of 1943, using only salvaged materials and working in their spare time, they created an extraordinary vision of the kind of church they were used to attending at home. Several men were skilled craftsman, including the painter Domenico Chiocchetti, who was responsible for the Madonna and Child among much else.

When they left, in September 1944, they entrusted the chapel to the people of Orkney who have looked after it impeccably in subsequent years. Signor Chiocchetti and others of the men involved returned in later years to do repairs and add further embellishments, cementing a friendship that had grown in the least auspicious of circumstances, and across all the cultural distance between Orkney and Italy. Today, the Italian Chapel continues to bear witness to humanity’s creativity in its search for meaning: a northern light ship.

Making a mark

 

You expect to see stained glass in an English parish church: it’s one of the visual signs that instantly identifies a church as such, like a spire. Most of it was put in by the Victorians, because so much was destroyed by puritans and other iconoclasts in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Victorians meant well, and some of their work is very fine, but often it’s literal, sentimental and crudely coloured, like the pictures in the King James Bible I was given at primary school.

And so, as a result, we see the splash of colour in a church, but don’t often look at the pictures it makes. These three windows, which fill the Victorian apse added to the east end of Sutton St James church, are what you see when you come into the church. When I was there, the southern one glowed with sunshine (which is why the photograph is so dark and bright), but I didn’t look very closely.

But a conversation with Pauline Stebbings changed its appearance entirely. The central window, she said, had been commissioned by her grandmother as a memorial to her grandfather, in 1947. When she had died two years later, the children had installed the northern window and then, when one of them had died in 1951, the third window was made. Pauline remembers the family being involved in deciding the design of the windows:

I do like them and so many people say how good they are. I can remember when I was small, having them on the big table – the plan of it all and working out what scenes they put in and all that.  But the family did say it didn’t matter how many more of them died, there wouldn’t be any more put in, because I suppose they’d cost the earth now. But it would be a lot of money then, wouldn’t it?’

So these images were created in the years after the Second World War, by a local farming family to honour and remember those they had loved. No more and no less than the continuing process of the generations leaving their mark on their church, for themselves and those who come after.

Poetry, film and the strangeness of the recent past

A Passion for Churches (1974)2

What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky,

Without church towers to recognise you by?

John Betjeman, A Passion for Churches (1974)

It’s impossible not to look at and write about English village churches without the presence of John Betjeman. Although he will be remembered as a highly original poet, and was widely appreciated as such in his lifetime, it was his television films that made Betjeman such a recognisable figure in the 1960s and 1970s. Made in television’s salad days, before its executives thought they knew what was good, these are highly personal portraits of places and things that Betjeman loved: the seaside, trains, architecture and, repeatedly, churches.

One of the best, A Passion for Churches, is about Norfolk’s churches and it can be watched on the BBC iPlayer. In it Betjeman visits some wonderful places: Trunch, Sandringham (where Tony Fitt-Savage was organist at the time), Cley-next-the Sea.

But it’s the people who steal the show: the mothers with their children at a Wednesday afternoon Sunday School; the young couple getting married (he went on to be a Bishop of Manchester). He meets the Chaplain of the Broads, chugging about on a boat to greet the holidaymakers, a vicar dedicated to his model railway and another going out to see the men on the Smith’s Point Light Ship. There’s 6am Easter service on the quay at Lowestoft with a Salvation Army band, people singing hymns in the wind and sun. And there’s Billy West, a bellringer for 60 years, saying:

Ah that’s music in your ear, that’s music in the ear. Once that gets hold of you, I suppose that’s like smoking cigarettes; once that gets hold of you that, that’s a drug: you can’t get rid of it. There’s something about it, I don’t know what it is, but you’d go anywhere for it. If there weren’t somewhere where there were some bells I’d go crazy, I know I should. Bells are life to me. I mean, it never seems Sunday to me if we don’t hear the bells.

But it’s hearing the Norfolk in Mr West’s voice that gives that statement its poetry.

A Passion for Churches (1974)8

 

And poetry runs throughout the film as Betjeman shifts easily from prose to verse in a way no one would dare to do today.

And should we let the poor old churches die?

Do the stones speak? My word, of course they do.

Here in the midst of life they cry aloud:

’You’ve used us to build houses for your prayer;

You’ve left us here to die beside the road.’

 

Christ, son of God, come down to me and save:

How fearful and how final seems the grave.

Only through death and resurrection come;

Only from shadows can we see the light;

Only at our lowest comes the gleam:

Help us, we’re all alone and full of fear.

Drowning, we stretch our hands to you for aid

And wholly unexpectedly you come:

Most tolerant and all embracing church.

A Passion for Churches was made forty years ago. It’s not just the clothes and plummy voices that seem to belong to another age. Such public statements of belief would cause embarrassment in public life today. It’s Philip Larkin’s post-religious ‘Church Going’ rather than Betjeman’s faith that fits the tenor of the age.

Nothing is more remote than the recent past: not yet history but how we were is already unthinkably strange. Thus we live and pass and all that we believe to be normal is just more of the vast oddity of human beings.

In some churches all prayer has ceased.

St. Benedict’s, Norwich, is a tower alone.

But better let it stand

A lighthouse beckoning to a changing world.

A Passion for Churches (1974)4

Access to churches

Asgarby church2

A baking July afternoon in Lincolnshire. Everything feels flattened under the heat: sheep, crops, fields. The houses I pass are quiet as if people are waiting for the cool of evening to come out of doors. A wrong turn has brought me to Asgarby, a village I’ve never seen: a few houses and a lovely church sheltered by trees as they so often are in the English countryside. I pull over and walk down the lane to the iron gate of the churchyard; a little wooden sign says ‘welcome’. But, with disappointment, I find the church locked. At least the windows are low and filled with clear glass, so I get tantalizing glimpses of the lovely, light-filled interior through the spider webs. But it’s not the same as being able to sit in the cool stone for a few minutes before going on my way.

Unattended churches are vulnerable to thefts, though perhaps less than they once were thanks to modern security measures. At greatest risk, according to statistics published by Lincolnshire Police, are personal property (such as mobile phones), equipment found in the community spaces now common in churches, and building materials – above all lead. Last Friday night, five strips of lead were stolen from the roof of Gedney church. It’s a distressing blow to any church community and the repairs will cost far more than the stolen metal will fetch. But the church being locked made no difference.

Since 2001, both Labour and Conservative governments have made free admission to national museums a point of principle. It’s certainly one mark of a civilised society that its major public museums are open to all. But not everyone can get to the V&A, Tate or the British Museum to see the nation’s treasures. It may be free to get in, but getting to the entrance is not.

There is great art in every part of the country though: in England’s historic churches. These buildings are among the oldest and finest we have. They are treasure-houses of sculpture, stained glass, metalwork, painting and other forms of art, where elite and everyday tastes claim legitimacy in a cultural negotiation that has left its trace over centuries. And they are freely accessible. When they are not locked.

Simon Jenkins describes the parish churches as a vast, dispersed museum of England: I think they are different and more interesting than that, but I know what he means. They are immensely valuable places in so many ways and they belong to all of us.

So perhaps the Department of Culture, Media and Sport could find a way to help ensure that more of them are open, to more people, more often. There’s the Heritage Lottery Fund, ministers will say – but they haven’t spoken, as I have, to elderly people who have struggled with the forms only to be turned down, twice. A government-backed insurance scheme might be one form of assistance, but there are undoubtedly others. A little imaginative help to the communities who use and cherish these buildings, for themselves and for the nation, could make a simple by substantial difference to people’s everyday access to their artistic heritage.

Asgarby church9

Ancient presences

These four heads hold up the roof of Cowbit church, above the altar. They are probably the oldest carved stones in the building and they didn’t start out where they are now, though they were always made to support a roof, probably for a church built in the 1100s. They are crudely made – at least in comparison with the skillful carving you can see at, say, Pinchbeck – but they are full of life. Their wild, untamed faces, seem either threatening or fearful.

They speak of an older world, far more insecure than ours, where suffering and death could strike from a blue sky, without understandable cause and therefore without the possibility of mitigation. In such times, the church’s protection must have seemed a vital defence against the randomness of life.

These heads belong in Cowbit church. As sculptures in a white-walled museum, surrounded by unrelated treasures, they would be prisoners of an alien culture. It’s good to see them where they have always been, rooted in the place they were made, their eyes meeting the descendants of those who made them.

Reading a church

Gosberton

An ancient church is a complex physical object, in a particular place and marked by the passage of time. We recognize that it has purpose and meaning and so we often talk about it – directly or indirectly – as needing to be decoded. It’s true that its sculptures, paintings and stained glass were intended to remind people of specific biblical stories. Its form and the rituals it served were shaped by clear theological beliefs. Nowadays, in the age of cultural studies, ‘text’ is frequently applied to things other than arrangements of letters like these. Everything is a text, if you know how to read it.

But, it’s said, we live in a post-Christian country. People are no longer brought up with the stories of the Old and New Testaments. They do not know about the loaves and the fishes or the Tree of Jesse, nor where a Catherine Wheel gets its name. The uncertainty evoked by Philip Larkin in Church Going – ‘some brass and stuff / Up at the holy end’ – is felt by many people (though perhaps not the poet himself). At any rate, those who write about churches think so. Simon Jenkins writes in England’s Thousand Best Churches:

To most people today a church is a puzzling place […] Why piscinas, stoups and misericords; why gargoyles, corbels and Green Men? The church is a song without words, an architectural Sanskrit.

Sir Roy Strong, though he disagrees with Simon Jenkins about many things, also feels that this knowledge can no longer be taken for granted, explain that his book

is an attempt to tell those who love visiting these beautiful field buildings what went on inside them and in some form, however truncated, still does today.

And so books and TV programmes are dedicated to helping the visitor decipher the text that is an English parish church. Full of recondite information, they can answer almost any question you might have about architectural styles, funerary monuments or rood screens.

But do we really need them?

The point of Larkin’s poem is that, even without such knowledge and whatever their own relationship with Christianity, each person who enters a church understands that this is a place where, for centuries, people have wanted to be serious about themselves and their community, about love, about death, about existence. The forms in which that desire for something beyond ourselves is expressed matter less than the desire. And having been built and used for that purpose for so long, the place may not need help to communicate to strangers from another time or another culture.

(And if we do get stuck, there’s always Wikipedia.)

Links

 

The music of angels

BBC Radio Lincolnshire has a weekly arts programme called Tuesday Extra, and this week’s edition was particularly rich in connections to The Light Ships. The guests included Andrew Dennis, who runs Woodlands Organic Farm, near Boston, and whose vision of the land’s connection with people has made it such a rewarding place to visit. As someone who knows and loves the arts, Andrew has welcomed poets, composers and artists to spend time at Woodlands, creating new work inspired by the landscape, the people and their work in growing organic food and raising traditional Lincolnshire breeds. The programme included extracts from Cecilia McDowall’s lovely ‘Five Seasons’ (2006), whose composition was partly inspired by her stay at Woodlands and the fenland scene.

Richard Still, another guest on Tuesday’s programme, spoke about his efforts to reconstruct the instruments that were played in medieval churches. At a concert in Lincoln Cathedral, he’d found his attention caught by the pictures of angel musicians in the stained glass: the images above, from the cathedral, were all added by Richard to BBC Lincolnshire’s Facebook page so that listeners could see for themselves. A recorder player and expert in ancient music, he has made some instruments based on the versions that can still be found in churches, five hundred years or more after the echoes of their notes faded away.

A programme like Tuesday Extra – which you can still listen to online by clicking here – is wonderful partly because it’s so ordinary. One weekday teatime, you might be driving home or preparing supper (with local vegetables!) and find yourself transported by the haunting sounds of mediaeval music over the fields on whose produce we all depend.