HAMISH arrives as he always does, en route from his parish to a week by the Suffolk sea. And we do what we always do — make a little pilgrimage to St Francis, at Wissington. I can see this village on the opposite bank of the Stour from my garden — two miles by foot, ten by car. The weather is golden, and smells of fallen plums.
Hamish and I lunch on fish and chips and beer, then enter the white aisle and look up. St Francis and a friend of his are preaching to birds — rooks, perhaps — who listen attentively. For hundreds of years they listened under whitewash. Then Professor Tristram scraped it off to reveal what the late Middle Ages, congregation saw at mass — blackbirds at their devotions.
There was a painting-school near Colchester where artist-monks carried colours and ladders to write the Gospel in pictures on plastered walls. It included, of course, a fearful dragon above the north door, and a tail whisking the way to hell.
This part of my village calendar fulfilled, I attend a showing of my film Akenfield, directed by Peter Hall, at Bury St Edmunds. There I am, perpetually young, dressed in borrowed robes, taking a country funeral. An old farmworker has died, and, rather like drowning, his whole existence passes through the memory of his son and grandson.
My East Anglian neighbours have seen this film so often that they have taken it for themselves. There are more than 300 “actors” in it, including the schoolchildren. Benjamin Britten was to have provided the music, but he fell ill, and we used Michael Tippett’s Corelli arrangement.
We also sang “The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended”, the first line of which was borrowed from an anonymous line in a collection of church poems. John Ellerton’s son was being seen off to the mission field — a life-threatening place in those days. Embracing his boy goodbye, Canon Ellerton went inside, and comforted himself with the realisation that the same sun would rise and set on them both.
The hymn is a devotion on time. The St Martin-in-the-Fields choir sings it in the film Akenfield. We were in Hoo church, near Framlingham, where there was a carved holder for a fob watch and an hour-glass on the pulpit, and I can hear the muted groan of the congregation as the rector turned the latter upside down to preach on and on.
What did they say, these wordy parsons? Beautiful scholarly things, perhaps. In the disgraceful skit on Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, they said, “On Sundays, he do go to church to hear the parson spout. He puts a shilling in the bag and takes a sovereign out!”
I was a Suffolk choirboy. My memories of matins and evensong are full of glorious music and marvellous words, of a white river of choristers in procession, and the hissing of gaslight; but not a word of sermons. And bell-ringing! Father would stand in the garden on practice night, as I do now when they ring at Little Horkesley, the sound pouring through the trees and over the corn.
An old man who farmed here would sit in the pear-tree to listen to the bells. I am honoured to have been an honorary ringer for many years. Bells are often given exquisite texts. One in Charsfield, Suffolk, says: “Box of sweet honey, I am Michael’s bell.”
Saffron in flower, but a new quiet — all the birds are on their way to Africa. Three hornets in my bedroom are zooming around like Second World War bombers, and wait to be liberated. Not a buzz of thanks.