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Rural and rambling

22 November 2013

Malcolm Doney takes pleasure in a non-cerebral credo

The Undelivered Mardle: A memoir of belief, doubt and delight
John Rogers
DLT £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70 (Use code CT544 )

A "mardle" is an old Suffolk term for gossip, or chat. More recently, it has been adopted to describe a talk on a subject of local interest. The "undelivered mardle" that forms the title of John Rogers's delightful small book is just that: a talk that he failed to give.

On 26 March 2007, Rogers - a retired teacher and tree-planter - had been due to deliver a mardle to the people of the Suffolk village of Letheringham, about their ancient priory church, St Mary's. But on that day he suffered a heart attack, and found himself on his back in Papworth hospital rather than on his hind legs giving a talk.

The Undelivered Mardle is an expanded version of the talk he would have given. But it is not any run-of-the-mill history lesson. About a month before he was due to give the talk, he was having breakfast with his three young grandsons. One of them, when asked what he was thinking, replied: "I'm wondering two things - what is the meaning of life, and what are we going to do today?"

Those two essential questions are what drive Rogers's own thoughts, as he explores the history of Letheringham and its church. His style is ambulatory, discursive, occasionally cranky, and just the right side of rambling. Occasionally, he enters a kind of trance in which he imagines he is one of the builders of the church, or that he can hear the discussions among the rooks.

He is inspired both by the "wordless wisdom" of people who live close to the land, and by the people who "meet in their lonely sanctuary and recite their complex catechisms in ancient liturgical English". He asks pertinent questions about what it is we believe, and how churches such as St Mary's, and their congregations, cling on to the faith that built them. His reflections, and a sense of looming ecological disaster, draw him to those who work with their hands, who do more than they say. "It's how I live that's what I believe," says an eccentric, quasi-angelic visitor he encounters in the church. This non-cerebral credo keeps him faithful, as he rattles towards his Maker (so he believes) in a wailing ambulance.

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