IT IS a day for spring gardening, but here I am, glued to the indiscreet pictures in the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments for North East Essex. You would think that they would have drawn a curtain over those frowsty robes in the vestry, and collected those scattered hymn-books before pressing the shutter. It is not as if the First World War had started: there were still years to go.
But I felt somehow illuminated by the dangling paraffin lamps. They lit another world, and almost another faith. And the knights and ladies sleep on, but with chopped hands; for the reformers did not allow “Ora pro nobis”. Prayer could not apply when you were dead.
The architectural text is crisp, finely chiselled, and free of popularity. As a youthful know-all I would lead people to the south door of St Peter’s, Colchester, and wait for their gasps of astonishment at the astounding ironwork; but usually nothing was said. Now I think more of George Herbert’s church door than that of some master metal-workers. But I soon mastered Historical Monuments language, and have since woven it into Christian poetry.
The March outdoors says, Forget these old buildings, and see flowers. They are torrential. And so early! And think of Matthias, that make-up-the-round-number man. And do a little weeding to rid yourself of unprayerful posture. But I tell a wasp on the window, “Not yet.”
Christopher, my New Zealand friend, is taking pictures of the garden. He is tall and skilful, and not so much polite as endlessly considerate. He is recording my days with Kurt Hutten at Aldeburgh ages ago.
I introduced Kurt and his wife, Gretl, to Little Gidding, and he, without saying a word, introduced me to the Nazi concentration camps. He would swim in the cold sea at Aldeburgh, and emerge shuddering, his Leica lying on the shingle. We did unlikely things together, such as watching the yearly sales at Newmarket. No one mentioned the Holocaust, not ever. Only the cries of Suffolk gulls filled our ears.
He was King George VI’s favourite photographer — “the nice German gentleman”. Ancient photograph albums show me looking out of windows. Whenever I go to Aldeburgh to walk on the marshes, I hear Kurt’s witty voice as he held back from unspeakable horrors to listen to a young man describing medieval Suffolk churches or farms or plants.
Every now and then, he and his wife from Vienna would exchange glances: she so chic, he judging me a little, I thought at the time, though not unkindly. He illustrated my little guide to Aldeburgh Parish Church, and our faiths became intermingled in some inexplicable fashion.
Each of us has this fragmental experience of life. It was only a few days after Ash Wednesday that Janani Luwum was murdered at his altar, the victim of hatred. How could such a man be so hated? His love frightened people.
Every now and then, familiar to most of us as it is, I read St Paul’s peroration of love. He sent it to the church at Corinth, a mainly Gentile place. The Christians there must have been stunned by its beautiful expansive language, as we still are today. There is nothing fragmental here. People often hear it for the first time at a funeral.
“What reading would you like?”
Blank faces. “You choose.”
At the door, they thank me for “a lovely service”.
The numbers tumble, but love hangs on.