Word from Wormingford

by
10 January 2007

Ronald Blythe finds Harwich to be not quite England

THE EPIPHANY. Isaiah’s “multitude of camels and dromedaries of Midian” join Reginald Heber’s “beasts of the stall”. We say, “Arise, shine, for thy light is come . . . and the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and the kings to the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thy eyes round about, and see!”

Stephen and I are lifting up our eyes around Harwich. Oyster-catchers are feeding among the seaweed. Across an all-but-washed-away breakwater, I catch a glimpse of Dr Johnson stomping to and fro, as the ship is carrying his new young friend, James Boswell, to Holland. Stephen and I turn the corner, and there is Captain Christopher Jones’s house, a trim building with oversailing and four handsome sash windows, and quite good enough to be the birthplace of the sailor who had the nerve to take a somewhat decrepit vessel named the Mayflower into world history.

The Captain’s wife Josian had a quarter-share in it. No doubt the stern religious passengers, with their beasts of the stall and their precious seedcorn, had paid them a tidy sum for the Atlantic crossing. Only four years later, in 1624, the Mayflower lay in ruins at Rotherhithe, its planks running with mud and gulls.

Harwich is still heavy with Christmas. Faces peer at us through the windows of poky pubs. Like the Mayflower, the town itself fell apart right up until the 1960s. As a boy, I found it sensationally tumbledown, one of those W. W. Jacobs places where oceanic folk drifted into warrens. But then came container ships, the EU, the renaissance of Trinity House, the luxurious ferries — and the facelift.

This last included the 1911 Electric Palace cinema. We lurked for a moment outside. Inside, Buster Keaton was smiling through a cigarette fog as usual, and the lady would be crashing away at the piano.

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The harbour light on this Epiphany afternoon is that of Delft, milkily blue and rich, dull gold. The listless tide slops against moorings. The red-brick lighthouse, stolen from a Vermeer, stands above us, as do the fine sectional houses that the Norwegians gave to the port after the devastating 1953 flood. One might be in Harwich, but one is not quite in England.

Samuel Pepys represented it in Parliament. Everyone who was anyone stepped ashore here, or sailed away from here. Driving home, we thank Harwich for blowing the cobwebs away. The land is flat and sullen. Ribbon development from the 1930s gradually peters, and leaves the special emptiness that exists just behind the coast. Here and there, a garish Santa Claus goes on handing out electric gifts on an isolated cottage.

Back home, the cards topple about on the bookcase and the dead holly on the beams. I rouse the fire. Isaiah, now in full Epiphany mode, tells us: “Surely the isles shall wait for me, and the ships of Tarshish first, to bring

thy sons from afar, their silver

and their gold with them . . . and

a little one shall become a thousand.”

I am reading my presents by the light of a new desk lamp, which unfortunately appeals to the vanity of the white cat, who knows how lovely she looks in its glow. Thus, about two feet of purring fur nearly on top of the page. The book is Graham Parry’s The Arts of the Anglican Counter-Reformation.

Never before have they been so intelligently set out, these contentious piles of church furniture. Now we have good people who will polish it, but not worship among it. And people whose liturgy is the flower-list. Parry reminds us of our twin inventories of beautiful religious accessories: those belonging to the Temple and to Herbert’s poems The Temple.

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