Poet of faith
OUR local poetry group made sure that we had good seats for the première of a new play, Sand in the Sandwiches, at the Oxford Playhouse. Edward Fox provided a satisfyingly convincing portrayal of the much-loved and roguish former Poet Laureate John Betjeman, with a script written by the Emmy Award-winning writer Hugh Whitemore.
We hadn’t all quite appreciated that it was to be a one-man performance, but, in the event, Fox was brilliant. And yet, as I left, I felt a bit disappointed — even cheated.
It was fun, and there was plenty of Betjeman’s typically artful poetry (“Joan Hunter Dunn” brought the house down), but the script failed to take seriously the poet’s profound and sometimes wistful Anglican faith. This was so central to who he was, and what he wrote, that to sideline it quite so conspicuously distorts the picture of his work.
The play’s last words implied that Betjeman was agnostic about what awaits us after death. It is true that, in many of his poems, he spoke of a fear of dying — in which cottage hospital would he gasp his way out of this world? — and he would freely acknowledge that (like many devout Christians) he struggled with “We believe . . . in the resurrection of the body.”
I have in my files, as it happens, a letter he wrote not long before he died, in which he told me that he had found assurance on that subject — one that we had often discussed during the course of making some 30 radio programmes together. In any case, difficulties over aspects of the faith, such as resurrection and heaven, are not evidence either of insincerity or superficiality.
Betjeman had wrestled with such questions. His lightness of touch as a poet should not be confused with triviality. From “Blame the Vicar” to “St Saviour’s, Aberdeen Park” — “Christ, at this Highbury Altar” — he celebrated the bizarre but kindly face of the Church of England as generations of churchgoers have experienced it.
The quintessential Anglican poet of the 20th century often found the Church funny (who doesn’t?), but his faith, born in the Anglo-Catholic Congresses of the 1930s and expressed in scores of poems, was central to his identity: “That God was man in Palestine And lives today in bread and wine”.
In a country garden
KIDLINGTON is a suburb to the north of Oxford. There, in one sentence I have upset all its residents, but “suburb”, in normal English usage, is what it is. Its most famous resident is Sir Richard Branson, but, although its quiet streets and neat houses speak of comfort, it is not especially posh.
For the past couple of years, however, it has experienced a strange phenomenon. Coachloads of Chinese tourists disembark there (having left the dreaming spires of Oxford on their way to “do” Stratford-upon-Avon), and, led by their tour guides, disperse to take pictures of themselves in people’s front gardens.
I am not talking of the odd initiative. Literally hundreds of families back in China must by now have admired their relatives framed by a tidy semi and standing in a typical neat English front garden. Why do they choose this setting, when they have just left some of the most imposing architecture in the UK?
One visitor explained: “We have never seen anything like it before. People won’t believe that you live in nice little houses with gardens on the street full of flowers and plants.” There is obviously a fortune to be made by the person who exports the Kidlington Effect to Beijing.
I said that these tourists are on their way to Stratford on Avon, to do reverence to the Bard, but, as a break in the journey, they will spend an hour or two at Bicester Shopping Village, sampling good-quality British clothing at cut prices. Recently, local news reported that, after one of these locust-like visitations, there were no shoes left in most of the shops. By then, well-shod Chinese feet were making their way to Shakespeare’s tomb in Holy Trinity.
Scarves and nostalgia
THE other day, I opened the drawer where I keep my clerical bits and bobs and got out my black scarf. I was taking a funeral in a crematorium. As I handled it, a tiny wave of nostalgia touched me. I could not remember when I had last worn it. Down these parts, apart from the town-centre churches, services of the Word are frequently taken by licensed lay ministers. The ordained clergy are, in effect, “mass priests”.
So, I mused, would the old black scarf, often topped with an academic hood, once the normal mark of an Anglican cleric, eventually fade from memory? Some today, of course, have abandoned it because they do not wear robes at all. Why wear a funereal black scarf when you can dazzle in a brightly coloured T-shirt or blouse? Others don’t wear scarves because they prefer more ancient colourful attire. And many, like me, seldom wear one because I hardly ever take a “black-scarf” service.
MY NOSTALGIC anxieties were quickly relieved, however, when I opened my copy of The Church of Ireland Gazette. As usual, it was replete with photographs of men and women wearing black scarves. Indeed, in the issue of 6 October there were pictured no fewer than 23 black scarves around clerical necks, male and female. I know, because I counted them. So the death of the scarf has been greatly exaggerated. It is alive and well and living in the Church of Ireland.
Here, in the Church of England, I suspect that black is regarded as inconsistent with the “vibrancy” that is frequently claimed as a congregation’s chief quality in advertisements for new clergy. Even a theological college recently described itself as “vibrant”. Perhaps there is a market for vibrant scarves: I have seen a few adorned with stars, loaves, fish, praying hands, and flying doves.
For me, though, as for those smiling Irish clergy, black is beautiful enough.
Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former head of religious broadcasting at the BBC.