Diary: Serenhedd James

18 January 2019

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On the sea shore

I HAVE, as some of you may recall, a regular bolthole near Chichester; but it was only recently that I got as far as visiting Holy Trinity, Bosham, on the coast just down the road. Ten years ago, three of us took a bouncy young German Shepherd for a yomp around the harbour without, alas, going near the church. Of that merry band, one is now a solicitor in London, another is Choral Director of the Hallé, and I am still writing for the Church Times. We are all one step ahead of the dog, who is in a shallow grave at the bottom of his master’s garden.

The seaside church at Bosham — pronounced “Bozzum” — is pregnant with history. Bede mentions it in his History of the English Church and People; pre-Conquest, the manor was owned by the ill-fated Earl of Wessex. It was where Harold Godwinson and his knights rested and prayed in 1064 before heading to Normandy to parley with William the Bastard; and the striking Saxon chancel arch even appears in the Bayeux Tapestry. Successive restorers of the building have left it well alone.

Among other features to delight the eye are the sniggering carved faces at the bottom of the pillars of the nave, at least one of which looks as though it is about to tell a particularly lewd joke; the kneelers in the quire, which are richly embroidered with hymn tunes (the first I recognised was Isaac Watts’s Nativity); and what may or may not be the resting-place of an infant daughter of Cnut.

I heartily recommend a visit; but, talking of Cnut, visitors need to mind where they park their cars. From the safety of lunch on the terrace at the Anchor Bleu, I watched one barefoot daytripper with rolled-up trousers gamely wading out to rescue his motor from the rapidly disappearing foreshore, as the tide galloped in.

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Surprise, surprise

WITH the manuscript of my book on the Cowley Fathers having gone to the publishers, I managed, during the Christmas octave, to carve out some space for reading for pleasure: a rare treat. The gripping darkness of William Golding’s The Spire gave way to the bumptious fun of Fergus Butler-Gallie’s Field Guide to the English Clergy (Books for Christmas, 30 November 2018); but I also found time to devour The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

I now wish that I had read it many years ago, if only for Sandy Stranger’s wry assessment of the dour Scotch Calvinism of the 1930s, with its emphasis on double predestination and the belief that God “planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died”. Later on, reading Calvin for herself — on her way towards Roman Catholicism and a convent — Sandy discovers that, “although popular conceptions of Calvinism were sometimes mistaken, in this particular there was no mistake — indeed, it was but a mild understanding of the case, [Calvin] having made it God’s pleasure to implant in certain people an erroneous sense of joy and salvation; so that their surprise at the end might be the nastier.”

I did much of my reading buried deep in the countryside, with carols, fruit cake, and claret — and in front of a crackling, blazing hot fire. From nasty surprises, good Lord deliver us.

Seeking a sign

TALKING of nasty surprises, do readers remember where they were when the news about George Bell first broke? I was at Rome, in the vanguard of the Archbishop’s XI (Cricket, 30 October 2015), and sitting with the Editor, Paul Handley, on a sofa in the yellow salone of the Anglican Centre. We had just breakfasted and were enjoying the morning sunshine while preparing for the rigours of the day. Paul is one of the few people to have seen me speechless.

George Bell House soon became 4 Canon Lane; and I later managed to restrain an impish urge to write to the Dean of Chichester to demand that the Bell Tower be also renamed, for the sake of consistency. Since it is the tower that contains the cathedral bells, that would have been ludicrous — but then, of course, this is the Church of England.

On my latest visit to Chichester, three years later almost to the day, it was impossible not to notice that the sign reading “Bell Tower” had vanished. Since then, a number of my winged monkeys have confirmed its enduring absence.

A charming clergyman to whom I spoke after choral evensong seemed as baffled as I about the sign’s disappearance; but he asked me not to suggest in any public forum that its removal from the Bell Tower had anything to do with its having been called, well, the “Bell Tower”.

So I won’t be doing that, then; and certainly not here.

Comfort and joy

BACK to nice surprises. We are a godfather again: this time to the daughter of friends whom I first met after evensong and Benediction in Pimlico, and who have since married and moved to the country. They have crossed the Tiber, too; and I was grateful for the pastoral generosity of the officiating Benedictine. One of the godmothers is a beautiful Italian marchesa, however; so perhaps that counts double.

Suited and booted, we duly made our promises at the font of a tiny polychrome-stencilled, neo-Gothic chapel-of-ease on the border of Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, before returning to the big house for champagne, cucumber sandwiches, and wedding cake. As far as I am concerned, little Maud is now the bonniest babe in all Christendom.

Dr Serenhedd James is director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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