Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

29 June 2018

As summer gets into full swing, Malcolm Guite celebrates church fêtes

THE season of fêtes and garden parties is well and truly on us: bunting is going up on village greens and over lych-gates, churches are made festive with flowers, and time-worn tombolas are set spinning again.

I really enjoy church fêtes. I like them for their ordinariness, for their sense of make- do and mend, for the wonderful variety of ages, sizes, and shapes of the people who attend them — so different from the wall to-wall photo-shopped images of youth and glamour that assail us, and ultimately oppress us, in the world of advertising, where every lawn is perfectly trimmed, every couple young and beautiful, and every family well turned out and perfectly happy.

At a church fête, by contrast, everyone comes just as they are. We assemble much as the worn-out household items and well-thumbed paperbacks are assembled for the bric-a-brac stall: people take us as they find us.

And the children, who all have access at home to highly sophisticated computer games created with a budget of millions, suddenly discover that they are just as happy kicking a football through target holes cut into a plywood board, or fishing with a stick and string for yellow plastic ducks in a tub of water.

In fact, at Linton, we take it a stage further and have a “duck race”, launching a whole flotilla of plastic ducks, each “sponsored” or purchased for fund-raising, and let them float down the Granta as it curves round the church, and wait with bated breath to see which is first to float under the Lady Bridge. The real ducks, and Mussolini the goose, look on in amazement.

And, again, everything runs happily counter to the oppressive worldliness of a consumer society. Here, nobody cares who wins; here, we are glad to bid in the auction for more than a thing is worth; here, we are just as happy when the thrown hoop misses as when it settles over a bottle, which will almost certainly find its way back on to the stall next year.

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Here, we celebrate the old and familiar rather than insisting on the shiny and new, and yet there is a newness, too: old acquaintances renewed, newcomers to the parish suddenly feeling that they belong, a new thankfulness that all of this is still going on. If a scribe of the Kingdom is like the householder who takes out of his treasury things old and things new, then perhaps there’s something of that hidden Kingdom in every church fête.

Even Philip Larkin emerges from his wry melancholy to celebrate these home-brewed affairs. His wonderful poem “Show Saturday” was written about a county show in Bellingham in 1973, rather than a church fête, but it notices and savours many of the same sights:
 

Bead-stalls, balloon-men . . . a beer-marquee that
Half-screens a canvas Gents; a tent selling tweed,
And another, jackets. Folks sit about on bales
Like great straw dice. . .
 

And that poem rises to a powerful recognition that, even in the ordinariness of these occasions, we can discern
 

. . . much greater gestures; something they share
That breaks ancestrally each year into
Regenerate union. Let it always be there.
 

I can only say Amen.

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