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Literary son of the vicarage

25 October 2013

Ronald Blythe enjoys glimpses of a world that has vanished

Beauty for Ashes: Selected prose and related documents
Francis Warner
Colin Smythe Ltd £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT923 )

AUTOBIOGRAPHY and biography come together in this arresting memoir-cum-essay. A boyhood recollection of the Blitz, a wartime vicarage, and then, swiftly and enthrallingly, memories of William Temple and his tragically brief archiepiscopate. It is a period when anything about the Church of England - and Britain - is of huge fascination still.

The writer's family and the Anglican leadership are interwoven. Although Beauty for Ashes reveals the close-knit nature of their association, its picture of a young man moving out of it into the post-war and exciting world of literatureand art is authoritative and fascinating.

There are substantial accounts of Henry Moore, Kathleen Raine, and Samuel Beckett, and new glimpses of C. S. Lewis, Francis Bacon, and Henry Chadwick. Most of all, there is an intimate, garnered-from-diaries story of a particular culture which only someone from the heart of Anglicanism would be able to relate. Christ's Hospital and Cambridge - and music - lie behind it all, and produce a recognisable kind of person, although in Francis Warner's case a delightful one.

He writes well, and quotes well, and is a good poet. He bridges the old classicism and post-Eliot language, is at home in this world, and tells us about it with grace and authority. It is a tale that his contemporaries will love and that the writer-priests of the presentwill read, maybe, with some envy; for it is a kind of unification ofgifts which belongs now to a past time, and is now both elusive and allusive.

The hopes and fears of the post-war world, its shame and its triumph, are present. We see Warner becoming who he is. His access to some of the best creative people of his day has an ease about it, and we learn how much we have lost - or forgotten. The religious morality of his time or, rather, its conventions are absent. His is the Church that produced Bishop Bell and T. S. Eliot, plus a brilliant post-Second World War culture. Thereis an account of the revision of the Psalter.

We are able to understand where we are now through Warner's pattern of his own life. And we can tell through his quiet prose and verse how we have got where weare at this moment. Beauty forAshes is a gentle book and an honest one. The many photographs are themselves the expressions of anage that created what we havenow. It begins with the author as a child watching aerial battles, and concludes with his acknowledging the faithfulness of the life he has been allotted, and being grateful for most of it.

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