Ronald Blythe goes forth to carry out the task of a writer
“HERE is the church” — a fat goose¬berry; “here is the steeple” — the tuft; and “here come all the country people” — the juicy pips. It was always St Peter’s, Sudbury, Suffolk, when I said this.
Yesterday, I walked in the small town, remembering this and that. Here is the north door, thinned to a biscuit by the centuries. Here, on its left side, is the stoup — dry now, but medieval fingers once touched holy water in it. Here are a few church-hugging tombs, even if most of the Sudbury congregations are being run over regularly by buses.
It is a cold May morning, and the familiar borough could well have been Proust’s Combray, somewhere where memory is put to work.
Quite a few people are sitting about — sitting, at ten in the morn¬ing! It would never have happened in my day. They cannot all have had a funny turn. Nice railings, to which Canon Hughes never chained his black bike. Gorgeous reredos, under a dust sheet. Wonderful bells, which father listened to, standing out in the garden on practice night.
A writer’s task is to make ordin¬ari¬ness extraordinary. This is not something that a writer can help doing. “That boy’s head!” they said. What¬ever next!
I was looking for half a dozen butter-knives with bone handles. “Bone handles, you say, sir? Try the charity shops.” Lots of these. Fat ladies, scrawny old chaps. The jewellers’ where father bought mother’s rings.
Andrew has loaned me a book that I have been searching for all my life, The Claimants to the Estates of William Jennens late of Acton, near Long Melford, Suffolk. Andrew and I were born in this village. Mr Jennens had been its squire, a bachelor who drowned in money. Birming¬ham iron channelled rivers of it to his Suffolk address. He filled vases with it, put it under the bed and in the cellars, gave it to anyone who would be good enough to take it, but still it flooded in his direction. A will was no use; it washed away wills. He went to church on Sundays, and sat below his marble father, and I hope some of his money came the Revd Mr Bickersteth’s way. When, at last, Mr Jennens died, the litigants swarmed in. But the lawyers were too smart for them, and, during the next 40 years, took it all. The Jen¬nens case entertained society and enthralled Charles Dickens, who put it to use in Bleak House.
I was less interested in this scan¬dal, however, than in the author’s description of Acton Church, where both Andrew and I were baptised, and where my father’s name is on the Great War memorial. Not that anything happened to him: just there and back to the Dardanelles, the usual thing. Before this mishap, he sang in the choir.
The 1877 book never mentions Perp. and Dec. or the mighty de Bures brass — the finest, some say, in England. But it adores the varnished seating and the floor space, and that “in the north-west corner of the churchyard a place of accommodation had been erected for those who during divine service may have to satisfy the calls of nature”.
The north-west corner is where my ancestors lie. It is now the wild plot. Our crosses will be floating in cow-parsley, one of the loveliest sights in England. But poor old Mr Jennens, drowning in Birmingham money and being dubbed a miser, which he never was. Just a lonely man who could not swim in it. Thirty or so years after his burial, they pulled his mansion down, brick by brick, and sold each one.