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Diary: Ian Marchant

08 March 2024


New age

MY FRIENDS, I am officially an OAP. I’m not sure all this pension stuff is fair and right, but the money is more than welcome. The Perpetual Curate of Botolph St Otto may wonder how she’s going to get through another winter, but, let me assure her, writing books is not the way forward.

Back in the days when undergraduates paid £9000 p.a. for me to teach them creative writing (a profession at which they probably wouldn’t get a sniff of nine grand in a lifetime), I would tell them that the average member of the Society of Authors earned £7000 a year, but that it was only so high because J. K. Rowling was a member. How they laughed, the young fools! Nevertheless, for whatever reason, here I am, with new-found wealth, and I’m thinking about my “lifestyle”.

The adverts on daytime TV are bursting with promise. I’m asked to picture my wife and myself choosing age-appropriate armchairs, wearing protective pads in the spin class, sipping prosecco on the upper deck of a river cruiser, and enjoying salads with attractive couples of a similar age. All this is to come, I feel sure, but we started small, and booked for four nights at a Premier Inn in Marlborough.


Stranger than fiction

NEITHER of us knew Wiltshire in any detail, and Marlborough is only about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Presteigne. It’s a good old town, with a church at either end of the wide high street and a proper market in the middle. We visited four or five Wiltshire churches a day, I guess, including Avebury, where we also visited the World Heritage Car Park Gift Shop and Café.

After we’d looked around the welcoming and fascinating church (and looked at the stones), I warned Hilary: “There will be a crystal shop” — and there was: a smasher, with lots of New Age gewgaws, crystal beings, ponchos, tarot cards, and so forth. I wrote a book on the origins of the British counter-culture, and, to summarise my findings, much of the spiritual apparatus that was instrumental to the putative dawning of the Age of Aquarius comes directly from Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy.

The shop was packed with young people, flicking through books about animal spirit-guides and ley lines, and discussing the merits and otherwise of various tarot packs. Perhaps it’s me. We believe some odd stuff, after all.


The old, old story

ONE of the best bits of a few days’ church-crawling is deciding where to worship on the Sunday. We chose Potterne, just south of Devizes, where the Revd Gerry Lynch is incumbent. It helps, of course, that Potterne Church is splendid — central to the village, yet raised high on a hill. But, as I said to the nice sidesperson who welcomed us, I had come to hear Gerry preach. He’s an inveterate church-crawler himself, and Hilary had met him a few years earlier when he walked over the hills to Presteigne.

What had fired me up, however, was an article he’d written for The Critic in January. He argued that the problems in the Church were not because of poor management, but because of a “narrative crisis”. After an afternoon in ye olde gifte shoppes of Avebury, that seemed to me self-evident. Our story is still the greatest story ever told, and the job of all of us — clergy and laity alike — is to tell it in such a way that people lose interest in Madame Blavatsky and her successors.

I find this idea empowering; I found Gerry’s sermon on the day of our visit, about tech scepticism and the transfiguration, deeply inspiring. In short, I became a Gerry Lynch fanboy.


Everlasting arms

ON OUR last day, we “did” Salisbury Cathedral, the outside of which was free from scaffolding for the first time since 1986. We both had an unexpected reaction, which was “Oh, I mean, I know it’s amazing and that, but . . . ”

It’s hard to see it for what it is. It was built between 1220 and 1258, all bar the troublesome spire, which was added in 1320. But who builds a cathedral in 38 years? Cathedrals are supposed to be lumpy and bumpy, not all of a piece like this. Unfairly, it looks a bit too good to be true, like an architect’s model — which is, I suppose a huge tribute. (I realise there will be letters.)

Inside, it is full of wonders. My chest tightened. I began my journey into faith here, nearly 40 years ago. In the north porch, there is a pair of engraved glass panels by Laurence Whistler, dedicated in memory of two young women who lost their lives before their time, and each engraved with a quote from “Little Gidding”: “The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew tree are of equal duration.”

This was what I needed to hear at that moment. Because my first wife had just died, suddenly, overnight, and I needed, more than anything, not an efficient organisation, but a dream, an intuition, a poem, a glimpse of Tolkien’s “true myth”.

And then Hilary got a text, with some profoundly sad family news. And there we were; and, in the midst of the visitors, the cathedral still could do its centuries-old work; and there we were, in an empty side chapel, holding one another, being held in our turn.


Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire.

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