I was born in the first week of March nineteen forty seven, in the middle of the worst blizzard of the worst winter in over a century. Great rivers froze over, twenty foot drifts blocked the roads, all over the country trains were stranded – on the Settle-Carlisle line forty women returning from a pantomime in Leeds kept themselves alive singing highlights from “Puss In Boots” for thirteen hours until they were finally rescued. It was that kind of a winter – strikes, rationing, power cuts, riots in India and Palestine, the nation huddling together in utility underwear in Nissen huts and prefabs eating spam and tinned whale and waiting for the new socialist government to build the New Jerusalem. The early post-war years were famously grey, hungry, drab. But at least you weren’t German.
My father is an Anglican clergyman. He comes from a long line of vicars, solicitors and doctors, members of that nomadic tribe of Empire professionals, neither particular rich nor particularly poor, who belonged nowhere in particular but slotted effortlessly into their allotted place in the social hierarchy anywhere where orders were given in English, which in this instance included Samoa, Kenya, Australia and Jamaica as well as all four corners of the British Isles. My mother’s people were Dublin Protestants who had fled back to England lock stock and hat-boxes when the Feinians took over in the nineteen twenties only to find the country changed in the four hundred years they’d been away. In Ireland they’d been thought English, in England they were irredeemably Irish. This confusion of identity meant that few of them managed to breed.
By nineteen forty four, when Bill and Sheelagh arrived in Hexham-on-Tyne with my three older siblings, the time had come to plant roots in firmer soil. They’d never been to Northumberland before: my father got the job through a man he’d known at Cambridge. That’s the way things worked; his own father had been transferred from a wet and demanding parish in South Wales to the vacant Archbishopric of the West Indies because a friend from his student days who he ran into in London one day thought he looked down in the dumps and that the Caribbean climate and undemanding work-load might cheer him up.
I’m the runt of the litter, carrot-topped and freckled, the last of five, one of whom, Padraig, was accidentally smothered by his nanny when the family was still living in London. I was baptised in the great stone font which sits under the regimental flags and war memorials in the cavernous gothic nave of Hexham Abbey. I’m the only Seán anyone in Northumberland has ever come across; people who know how it’s pronounced can’t spell it, people who can spell it can’t pronounce it.
The Seán is for the playwright Sean O’Casey, the Padraig for the poet and Republican martyr Padraig Pearse. Aside from her passion for striking up unsolicited conversations with strangers they’re the only clues to mum’s Irish roots, which she otherwise keeps well hidden. Irish in England at this time means Catholic, chambermaid, navvy, drunk, ignorant, unwashed, unruly, superstitious and ungovernable. Her own life is a bewildering confusion of wanting to belong and wanting to subvert. She admires high achievers and name-drops famous acquaintances but is endlessly befriending and adopting the poor and sick and bewildered and those whose lives have not worked out they way they hoped. She hates being a Rector’s wife and longs to connect with something grander, more exciting, less convention-bound than small-town parish life. She takes vicariously refuge in books, devouring stack after stack of biographies of bohemian poets and painters and adventurers. In the small hours, unable to sleep through dad’s contented snores, she shares a Parisian garret with Hemingway, a camel with Lawrence of Arabia, and brings Byron his breakfast in bed.
Dad on the other hand loves his job. He’s an unhurried man, and the gentle pace of the town and its people fit him like a favourite old sweater.
“You’ve no idea what hell it is,” she told me in her eighties, shortly before the Altzheimers took her off somewhere else entirely,“ to be married to a man everyone likes.”
She’s right: everyone likes dad, and why wouldn’t they. He’s gentle, good-natured, dignified, darkly handsome, somewhat innocent, somewhat idle, with immaculate manners, a keen but benign sense of humour, a dislike of fuss and conflict and an inherited air of quiet and comforting authority which make him safe and easy to be around. He has, as far as I’m aware, no great ambitions in life beyond making Sheelagh happy (misunderstanding her needs, he has mixed luck) and in later life a strong desire to see Margaret Thatcher suffer a slow and painful death. I suppose she’s his nemesis, the embodiment of everything he choses not to notice in life – anger, aggression, greed, jealousy, self-interest, chauvinism, bad manners.
His credo is the Sermon on the Mount, his Jesus gentle, beatific and benign. He loves God, and finds nothing puzzling – or even worth talking about – in the mysteries and contradictions of his faith. He keeps his sermons short, and when the weather is good truncates matins, (“omitting verses two to eleven…”) so that we can go out into the sunshine and enjoy the Lord’s bounteous gifts. The Abbey’s rock and moss Easter Garden is so over-burdened with jam jars of primroses and bluebells you hardly notice the inconvenient agony of Calvary tucked away on the summit. He and mum know about suffering – she’d lost her father in her teens, her beloved boy-soldier brother on the Somme, and never really got over Padraig’s never-mentioned death – but I don’t think either of them believe in Evil. The worst they ever say of anyone is that they’re ‘difficult’.
Bill’s favourite saint is the mild and modest Cuthbert who healed the sick and served the poor and spent his old age on a rock on the Farne Islands preaching to the eider ducks. The theme of his own sermons, often shamelessly recycled, never changes:
…let us appreciate the God-given gifts that surround us , viz. our friends, this beautiful Abbey, the food we eat, the countryside, the birds bees flowers hills etc; let us as we do so never forget the lonely/poor/persecuted/sick/bereaved/homeless/frightened/worried/tired etc; life can be a bit lousy at times but however rotten things may seem we know God loves us and forgives and blesses everything and everyone, for ever and ever and a day, and may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord
I never once heard him preach about Cuthbert’s contemporary Wilfrid, a make-my-day-sinner dogmatist and fearsome enforcer of Papal Writ, who founded the monastery at Hexham in 672. Proselytisers, like retailers, understand the importance of Location, and the site he chose at Hexham, perched on a low elbow above the Tyne midway between the North Sea and the Solway Firth was prime evangelical real estate, straddling the junction of two trade routes, north-south along the Pennine ridge and high border fells, east-west from the mouth of the Tyne to the Solway Firth . Wilfrid’s church was looted by the Vikings; the Augustinian abbey which replaced it was burned down on six separate occasions by the Scots; Henry VIII got rid of the monastery and demolished the cloisters. But the fabric of the present cathedral-sized, square-towered abbey is still, apart from the nave, medieval and its sandstone bulk still dominates the town. In the twelfth century its scale in that sparsely populated, cabin-dwelling landscape must have been truly awesome. You’d never get planning permission for it now.
The Abbey lies at the core not just of the town but of my childhood. By the time I’m sent away to school I know every stone and window from the defaced Roman altars recycled into paving stones and the crypt vault plastered with Saxon ox-blood to the thick-trunked forests of gothic arches and the scorch-marks left on the wide and majestic night stairs worn slide-smooth by generations of half-asleep monks; I’ve tried on the rusted crusader helmets that hang in the nave, know how to balance on the heavy oak misericords in the choir and where to find the hidden catch on the half-door that leads to the organ loft.
‘The past’ Chekhov wrote in ‘The Student, ‘ is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another. And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain: and that when he touched one end the other quivered.’
I learn about the Abbey from the verger, a glum drip-nosed Dickensian relic called Mr Taylor ( he doesn’t appear to have a forename ) who once during matins flew over the congregation like a Chagal rabbi when the capstan of the bell rope he was tolling looped the loop and winched him thirty feet into the air.
The bat-filled belfry which nearly did for him is a place of Edgar Alan Poe terror, like being trapped inside a giant alarm clock. The climb up is long and tortuous. Once inside you have fifteen minutes between peels to negotiate your way through the creaking beams and pulleys and climb the teetering bean-stalk ladder to the trap-door in the roof, but it’s worth it for the view of the town from the windy, pigeon-shit encrusted battlements, and beyond to the rolling hills which mark the tempting frontiers of terra incognita.
We’re roughly half way up Hexham’s social and physical gradient, on the border line between the rose-trellised Quality above and the artisans terraces in the fog-hollow down the hill, but well hedged and quarantined, physically and socially, from both. Everyone in town knows who we are, though. The rich assume we’re poor, the poor that we’re rich. Parishioners and their children are wary, suspecting us of Goodness. The fact that dad works for God puts people on their best behaviour. Even if it didn’t he and mum like to think the best of everyone, and expect us to do the same. If there’s malice or envy or resentment out there I’m unlikely to recognise it.
It’s never entirely clear where the clergy belong in the social scheme of things, but as jungles go it feels pretty safe. I trust the same people and institutions mum and dad trust, which includes just about everything and everyone – policemen, doctors, scientists, the government, the courts, the education system, the military, the ‘Times’ and the BBC. Like them I believe in authority, obedience, right and wrong, respect, discipline, delayed gratification, public service, charity, progress, democracy, Queen and Country, clean shoes, brushed hair, orderly queuing, table manners, the forgiveness of sins and above all the future. In my ideal world there will be no poverty or disease, longer holidays, even shorter church services, better weather, an end to the ban on reading after lights out and no more stewed prunes, junket or oxtail soup, ever. There will inevitably be wars but they will be just and patriotic, which is roughly the same thing. What’s more we’ll win them. We always do.
Copyright by the Author