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

Cherishing Churchyards

Long Sutton 2
Long Sutton Churchyard in late April

 

Five hundred years ago there were no tombs in your graveyard. Bodies were under its ground but the souls that had lived in them were remembered at the alter in church. Sometimes after service the churchyard was used for sports. On feast days churchwardens provided ale from the church ale house. In many old towns and villages there is an inn overlooking the churchyard, just as the Swan does at Wantage. It is probably a survival of the church ale house.

But after the Reformation people seem to have preferred to commemorate themselves in stone. The rich had sculptured memorials inside the church, the less rich headstones in the churchyard and the poor had to be content with men’s memory.

Many old customs survive connected with churchyards. No parson, for instance, can cut down the trees in his churchyards unless they are required for the repair of the chancel; and offending rectors can be heavily fined – and once they could be excommunicated. Then it is interesting to see how the old belief that the Devil haunted the north side of the church survived until the 19th century; in few old churchyards are there even any eighteenth-century tombs on the north side of the church and only if the village happened to be on the north side was the north door used.

From Tennis Whites and Teacakes, John Betjeman, edited by Stephen Games, London 2007.

This is from an article by John Betjeman, from an article on ‘Country Churchyards’, published in May 1953 in his diocesan newsletter. Today is the beginning of Cherishing Churchyards Week, organized by Caring for God’s Acre, a small Herefordshire charity that supports the conservation of burial grounds. I wish good weather and good cheer to all the volunteers involved, and all the gardeners who’ll be spending time this weekend caring for a churchyard.

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