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

Whaplode Church Flower Festival

Whaplode Church

Whaplode flower festival starts today

Church flower festivals, which are such a beautiful aspect of life in the Lincolnshire fenlands mostly take place in the spring. But one or two cannily wait until later in the year and Whaplode is one of those. If you have some time this weekend, do try to get there. As well as the flowers, there’s an organ recital, bell ringing, live music, teas, a hog roast and much more – all at one of the most beautiful, interesting churches in the Fens.

It’s the kind of celebration that has been going in churches and churchyards for hundreds of years: a community coming together to celebrate being who they are. 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Whaplode Flower Festival – Long may it continue.

Links

 

Flowers Whaplode August 2014 flyer

The difference between being and doing

Freiston Church 1

An ancient and beautiful church fulfils its primary function merely by existing. It is, in itself, and irrespective of the numbers using it, an act of worship. … It is only in modern times that the belief has arisen that a church has to be filled regularly with worshippers to justify its existence.

These words, originally from the Friends of Friendless Churches and quoted by the late Henry Thorold, in his Lincolnshire Churches Revisited, are a striking reminder of the difference between being and doing, a distinction that is often forgotten in our utilitarian age.

News about ‘The Light Ships’

It’s been quiet on these pages for a few days because I’m working on the first draft of the book – well, to be more precise, on the first draft of the first part of The Light Ships book. Using only the words of the 70 or 80 people I’ve met in the past three months, this is the core of the book. It is something of an experiment, as I try to weave a true and interesting tapestry from all those conversations. I did a short version of that for another book called Where We Dream, but this is very different, not least because this is a much bigger conversation between people who have never met. I expect to have it done by the end of the month, so that everyone can check their own part, as it were.

In the meantime, here is a little gallery of church kneelers, which are for me the very symbols of art that in the service of life, faith, community and memory. It is also an art without pretention or, it seems to me, egotism.

More news in a week or two…

Whaplode Riots!

Jo Wheeler’s Village Postcard project – a Transported commission, like The Light Ships – is coming to fruition this week, with photographic installations in bus stops at Cowbit, Moulton, Whaplode and Pinchbeck, as well as on the 505 buses that link Spalding with King’s Lynn. All the details are on Jo’s website. Because we’re working in the same villages, there’s naturally some overlap – and here’s her account of a visit to Whaplode church, with some great photos of the churchyard.

The Village Postcard Project

Found out about the Whaplode riot of 1482 today, which took place in the grounds of the St Mary’s where I’ve been photographing recently. The grounds are more of a cottage garden than a graveyard, which the villagers plant and tend. There are no oppressive yew trees, and this time of year there’s a wonderful array of colourful and casual blooms lining the pathway to the Church entrance and framing the ancient stone. In the 15th Century the Abbot at Crowland was responsible for collecting Whaplode’s local taxes. When these were not used to make urgent repairs to St Mary’s the villagers asked if they could chop down the trees in the grounds and use the wood to make the repairs themselves. When the Abbot refused the villagers rioted, kidnapping the Abbot’s local steward and taking axes to the trees. So there may well have been Yew trees at one time! Hundreds of years…

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Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

Heckington Church, Lincolnshire, July 2014
Heckington Church, Lincolnshire, July 2014

 

Oh, is the water sweet and cool,

Gentle and brown, above the pool?

And laughs the immortal river still

Under the mill, under the mill?

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?

And Certainty? and Quiet kind?

Deep meadows yet, for to forget

The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet

Stands the Church clock at ten to three?

And is there honey still for tea?

Rupert Brooke, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester (1912)

Although written long before anyone knew the Great War was coming, and in a lighter tone than the poetry he would write when it did, Rupert Brooke’s evocation from abroad of life in an English village is endlessly poignant. We do, after all, know what came in 1914.

Rupert Brooke died in 1915 on a hospital ship in the Aegean Sea. He was 27 years old. By then, his poetry was both successful and closely associated with the war. His sonnets, The Dead and The Soldier, – ‘If I should die, think only this of me’ – had caught something of the spirit of sacrificial heroism that had inspired young men from all over England to volunteer in the summer of 1914.

Among them were scores of farm labourers, tradesmen and other young men from the Fens, who joined the Lincolnshire Regiment and fought on the Western Front. Many of them, far more than anyone imagined on 4 August 1914, never came back. The lost were remembered by their parents, sisters and former comrades in the parish church, where so many other lives, and so many historical crises, had also left their mark.

The poetry of the First World War is closely linked in the English imagination with the experience of industrial warfare. No other war has left such a trace in our literature. Today, one hundred years after the entry of Great Britain into the Great War, let the words of another fine poet, Laurence Binyon, mark the day, as they have so often in Remembrance Services in each one of these churches:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon, For The Fallen, (1914)

Links

On the eve of war

 

In 1914, Macmillan & Co published the latest in their successful series of topographical books on England. Highways and Byways in Lincolnshire was written by a retired Hampshire Headmaster, Willingham Franklin Rawlings, and illustrated with pencil drawings by Frederick L. Griggs. It was a handsome volume, over 500 pages of rich text about the county, with – as usual in Lincolnshire – much attention given to the ancient churches.

Griggs’ drawings, even allowing for the limits of available print technology, are very fine. Although he contributed illustrations for a number of similar books, Fred Griggs (1876 –1938) was far more than a jobbing artist. He studied at the Slade and was associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. He made an important contribution to English etching and has been described as ‘the most important etcher who followed in the Samuel Palmer tradition’.

And, like Edwin Smith, John Piper and so many other 20th century artists drawn to the subject of churches, his work was firmly within the English neo-romantic tradition. Here are his drawings of fenland churches as reproduced, on the eve of the First World War, in Highways and Byways in Lincolnshire.

 

 

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

Who owns the church?

 

The churches of England do not, like those of France, belong to the state, neither do they belong to the Church Commissioners, the bishops, the parsons or the patrons. They belong to the people. They are part of our common heritage and the responsibility for their custody rests legally with the parochial church councils and morally with the parishioners, of whom the church councils are the elected representatives. In the cases of non-Anglican churches the position is similar. They belong to the religious societies for whose use they were built.

Our ancient parish churches were for many centuries the sole places of worship in the country and they therefore make a claim upon all of us, whatever our religious denomination may happen to be, because our forefathers built them, were christened and married in them and now rest beneath their shade.

Lincolnshire Old Churches Trust, 1976

If allowance is made for some of the old-fashioned assumptions about faith and gender in this 40-year-old quote, it remains a lucid explanation not just of who owns our churches, but why.

Lincolnshire Old Churches Trust

Learning to look: Edwin Smith

Browsing in a secondhand bookshop, thirty years ago, I came across a large format book entitled English Abbeys and Priories, filled with page after page of the most beautiful black and white photographs. I’d always loved photography and knew the work of people like Robert Capa, Bill Brandt, Don McCullin and, most of all then, Henri Cartier-Bresson. But Edwin Smith was a new name, and his work had none of the drama or narratives of modern life I’d been drawn to before. These images of ancient buildings seemed timeless, not least because they rarely included people.

Though the book seemed expensive at the time, it has been one of my most rewarding possessions. I’ve spent hours looking at the photogravure plates – a costly form of reproduction rarely used nowadays but capable of giving deep blacks and silvery greys that beautifully captured the subtle tones of Smith’s work. And over the years, I found other books by Edwin Smith: English Cottages and Farmhouses, Scotland, Ireland, Pompeii, Athens and many others. Sometimes his photographs were just used as illustrations but the best volumes, usually published by Thames and Hudson in the 1950s and 1960s, were long photo-essays of a kind publishers no longer produce. And the best of these were created with his wife, the writer and artist Olive Cook: it is rare to find two creative sensibilities so well attuned as these.

Smith was an artist at heart, though he had little success as painter or draughtsman. The only exhibition of his paintings, in 1944, earned a single sale and he later observed that he must be the only artist with a complete collection of his own work. Although it was in photography that he found artistic success, his real peers are artists like Edward Bawden, Peggy Angus, Enid Marx, John Piper and Eric Ravilious.

Edwin Smith died in 1971, aged only 59, but his work, never fashionable, was already out of time. Neo-romantic in spirit, it was a conscious resistance to certain aspects of the modern world, including its tendency to make everywhere look the same. And that matters not just for reasons of aesthetics or sentimentality but because the places where we live shape how we live.

In art, as in life, this perspective always risks nostalgia and worse. It is easily dismissed as backward-looking, fuddy-duddy even. But the voices who question the headlong rush towards progress are important, and sometimes they are right. In the anxious times we live in today, there has been a revival of interest in the 20th century English neo-romantic artists like Angus, Piper and Ravilious. Edwin Smith, whose photographic archive is held by the RIBA, is being rediscovered with a major exhibition of his work in London this autumn. It will have been worth the wait.

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith