Thurifer considers heritage
The first poem that I learned by heart, nursery rhymes apart, was ‘Loveliest of Trees the Cherry Now.’ By some remarkable failure of synapses I had come to think it was by Walter de la Mare. Not so, as I was reminded by a recent re-reading of ‘A Shropshire Lad’ by A. E. Housman. It forms an envoi to Peter Parker’s book Housman Country: Into the Heart of England. Housman suffered a breakdown when an Oxford undergraduate but, after some wilderness years, became Professor of Classics at King’s College, London, then Cambridge. Parker’s book, part biography, also examines Housman’s relation to the Shropshire countryside, music his poems inspired, and their influence on others. Like his academic career, his poetry took off slowly. He contributed financially to publication costs and took no royalties. Yet it was a publishing sensation, and is still in print and strikingly influential: Morrissey and Inspector Morse are mentioned by Parker. The poems especially influenced troops in the trenches during World War I. A slim volume easily carried by all ranks, its melancholy sense of loss, exile, forlorn love and penumbra of doom spoke eloquently to that generation, though it was written a decade before the outbreak of the Great War. Parker visited places mentioned and alluded to, and offers topographical and architectural correction that does not detract from, but rather enhances, Housman’s poetic imagination. I was happy (c’est le mot juste?) to have returned to Housman after a fifty-year lapse, reacquaint myself with his poetry, and recall that sense of melancholic introspection of teenage years.
Mirabile dictu: who would have thought there were sufficient eccentric Anglican clergymen to fill a book? Although of modest size and format, not a multi-volume set, the curate of Our Lady and St Nicholas, Liverpool—Fergus Butler-Gallie—has written a jeu d’esprit. Some familiar tales are winningly retold and some fresh examples of the species are uncovered. In one instance, however, our young author misses a trick and omits the most egregious example of one of his subject’s eccentricity. F. A. Simpson, Fellow and Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, was a historian, author of an unfinished study of the life and times of Louis Napoleon (two of a projected four volumes: the first well-received, the second less so). A clerical Don who had reservations about the divinity of Christ (‘How can one believe in the divinity of Our Lord when he was so unconscionably rude to his mother?’), he had a small number of sermons that were repeated for some fifty years. To surprise and consternation he was invited by Mervyn Stockwood (who became a controversial prelate) to preach at his consecration as Bishop of Southwark in 1959. The anticipated anxieties were fully justified: the sermon resulted in a mixture of scandal and absurdity of kind in which the CofE excels. The Archbishop of Canterbury (Fisher) described it as ‘deplorable.’ It insulted the bench of bishops, animadverted to homosexuality, entirely ignored the bishop consecrated with Stockwood, and tread on other toes. A vividly funny description is given of Simpson and the events surrounding the sermon in the late Eric James’ book, The House of my Friends: Memories and Reflections. He wrote: ‘[T]he most memorable moment… came unexpectedly in a passage on the gift of preaching. “To you, my brother, I hesitate to say this, for to you has been given a measure of eloquence, a rare gift, a noble gift, although unharnessed it can be a dangerous gift. But harnessed, not shackled, it will be all the more valuable in your new office, since not many of that office possess it.”’ Despite that omission, the vade mecum by Fergus Butler-Gallie can be recommended. The book is snappily titled A Field Guide to the English Clergy: A Compendium of Diverse Eccentrics, Pirates, Prelates and Adventurers; All Anglican, Some Practising.
William Gibbs (1790–1875) was reputed to be the wealthiest commoner in the kingdom. His fortune was based on guano: his family firm had a near monopoly of its import into Europe as a fertiliser. A philanthropic Anglo-Catholic, he contributed generously to building Keble College, Oxford. At Tyntesfield he commissioned Arthur Blomfield to design the magnificent Gothic Revival chapel. Modelled on Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, it may not achieve similar delicacy, but remains a fine example of the architectural heritage of the Catholic Revival. The house, a fascinating survival, vividly recalls that lost world of high-Victorian life. Mark Girouard, architect and writer, said that ‘there is no other Victorian country house which so richly represents its age.’ If you have a ‘bucket list’ this should be on it. It is open every day except Christmas Day. The last family occupants were two bachelor brothers who had retreated to two bedrooms. Neglect, by force of circumstances, ensued. The house was in poor repair and needed major restoration. The National Trust, by public appeal, received substantial donations from benefactors, significant grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and National Lottery to buy the house, contents and gardens. It remained open during protracted renovation and refurbishment as rooms have gradually been revealed. I first saw it in those early days and returned recently to see two floors now revealed as well as the glorious chapel. Walks through woods and formal gardens also offer much to visitors. Prices and costs in the restaurant, situated in the former stables, are high (it is the National Trust after all) but this is money well spent. And all because of guano!