Tuesday, September 27, 2011

East-Anglian Church-Crawl

 Cansell Grove Farmhouse, Rattlesden, Suffolk

The homeward flight to America, like the outbound flight two weeks earlier, was surprisingly comfortable.  I deduce from the popular press that one regards a half-empty glass in a philosophical light much dimmer from that in which one views a glass half-full.  But so far as airplane flights are concerned, half-full and half-empty are equally excellent categories.  I want to report on the second half of our English tour before its golden memories become overwhelmed by the fierce urgency of now—a phrase I hope I can recycle as our President moves on to the less fierce indifference of whenever.  The actual pretext of our trip to England was an annual Oxford reunion.  It was splendid, even if for constraint of time I can say nothing more than that about it.  The real high points of the trip were a series of reconnections with several old friends.
I left off my last post after the first of two days in the Cambridge area.  Our second night was spent in the nearby village of Linton with Hilary (Joan’s niece) and Alan Crooks and their two delightful young boys Ivor and George.  On Wednesday, after a pleasant lunch in beautiful Saffron Walden (Essex), Hilary drove us to the Cambridge railway station where we caught a train to Stowmarket in Suffolk, there to be met by our friends and hosts for the next two nights, Michael and Heather Nicholas.

 The Athenaeum, Pall Mall, London

            We had actually already seen Michael and Heather on Monday, between Oxford and Cambridge.  He had organized for a group of old college friends a very elegant lunch at his London club, the Athenaeum.  This was my first visit to those sacred precincts, the ne plus ultra of British intellectual exclusivity.   In lieu of a visitors’ book they have an album featuring the photographs of the fifty Nobelists who are past or current members.  I know people at the Century Club in New York who have wangled their way into that comparatively plebeian institution primarily with the view of exploiting its reciprocal privileges with the London Athenaeum.  The plaice was excellent, though there was nary a gaitered bishop in sight.
A word or two more about our host.  Many married people, of whom I am one, naturally attach a special importance to the person through whom they came to know a future spouse.  I first encountered my spouse in church.  All the best medievals first spotted their girlfriends in church.  Why should that not be true of medievalists as well?  Think of Troilus.  He’s wandering around the Trojan Athenaeum, ogles Criseyde, and gets shot through the eyeball by Cupid.  Think of Petrarch.  There he is in the church of Saint Claire in Avignon.  He looks up from his distracted prayers, and there she is.  The rest is history—history, deployed in approximately 317,421 European sonnets.  Well, fifty years ago in Oxford there were no female students in Jesus College and no male students in Saint Anne’s.  Under these circumstances it proved decisive to my personal fate that there was an organization called the “Jesus-Saint Anne’s Musical Society,” which offered occasional concerts in the beautiful seventeenth-century chapel of Jesus College.  The impresario of the Jesus-Saint Anne’s Musical Society, and for all I know its inventor, was Michael B.Nicholas.  So in a sense I owe him the debt of my life-long indebtedness.


The Lord Lyon King of Arms and the
Chief Marshal of the University

Real and Phoney Ceremonial Grandeur
 with Real and Phoney Georgian Royalty

Furthermore, though jealousy hardly features in my lengthy catalogue of imperfections, I must confess that Michael excited in me an intense “title envy”.  I eventually became the “Louis W. Fairchild Professor of English, and Professor of Comparative Literature,” which should satisfy the vanity of any man; but I still find myself lusting after the glory of two titles I can never possess.  The first, once held by the early Scottish poet David Lindsay of the Mount, is “the Lord Lyon King of Arms”.  The Lyon King of Arms is the chief ceremonial officer of Scotland.  The other and even more enviable title was that held by Michael Nicholas when I first met him: the Organ Scholar of Jesus.  The Organ Scholar of Jesus! With that beginning, his subsequent fame as a church musician was virtually guaranteed.
            Michael and Heather now live in the beautiful Suffolk village of Rattlesden, in a glorious old thatched farmhouse, the “new wing” of which considerably antedates the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.  Heavy oak beams, many of them fully exposed and transformed by age to the texture of iron, hold its spacious rooms together with impressive conviction.  Heather, one of the mainstays of the local history society, pointed out to me faint apotropaic graffiti incised by some pre-Elizabethan in the fire-place beam: a petaled wheel, and the sign of the Virgin (V.V., virgo virginum).

            Thursday, blessed by glorious weather, was devoted to a day-long church-crawl in the general direction of the eastern coast.  In the Middle Ages and early modern period much of Suffolk enjoyed a protracted agricultural and mercantile prosperity, and many of the area’s parish churches are mini-cathedrals.  We ended at Aldeburgh, the home of the greatest of modern British composers, Benjamin Britten, who is naturally one of Michael’s musical heroes.  We visited Britten’s gravesite in the beautiful churchyard at Aldeburgh, and admired the “Britten window” in the church itself.  We wandered along the shingle beach of the old town in an early autumn twilight.. 

 The Britten memorial window by John Piper, Aldeburgh parish church, with detail of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace


Even the most mellow of days must end, and this one ended memorably, with a splendid supper at the Swan Inn in Woolpit.  This was a timely visit, for I had just about decided that the wonderful old pubs of my youth were as dead as Chesterton and Belloc.  If you get far enough out in the country you lose the pinball machines and the braying hordes of inebriated yuppies, but partridge is still on the menu.  Old wood, old books, old wine—but best of all, old friends.

The spectacular beamed ceiling of Woolpit parish church