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1: The Bishop's Fool (part 2)


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« on: January 21, 2023, 03:31:12 am »

ON MY first visit to Bagwick I decided I would go unannounced. First I would spend a night at the cathedral city, then drive over to Bagwick, have a drink at the village pub, see what sort of flock Rymer's was, and afterwards walk up to the Rectory. The eastering Midlands are the dullest part of England from the window of a train. Storby, my destination, does not impress: it has never been very important, has no charter, it is a county town no more. The county, I have always found, has not much identity, it has to be hunted for on the map: being on the small side; being a county that fits in, not that stands out; not upon the sea (and having a coastline always helps one to remember the position of a county): lastly, with a name which is too long, and one not written in large letters upon our palates, like Devonshire Cream, or Worcester Sauce, or Yorkshire Pudding, or Dundee Cake. Upon its eastern side, for half its length, it melts into a bleak-fen county, on the other side it is blackened by a forest of chimneys, where the furnaces of its big industrial neighbours are producing mechanical legs, taxi-cabs and toy-locomotives. Storby is on its eastern border, which is why it stands in so flat a landscape. Bagwick lies directly west of the city. Once you have crossed six miles or so of plain as flat as a billiard table the land begins to rise, but of course not very much. It is a county that never rises into the air more than the height of Box Hill.

The spire of Storby's Cathedral stuck up like a spike out of the perfectly flat collection of roofs. As there are no other steeples or buildings of any size, it causes on arrival one to feel that the Cathedral possessed of this unusually tapering horn is all that is outstanding in this cold and lonely community. In fact, once you are part of the flatness yourself, that is inside the city, it is found to be swarming with people on bicycles and others selling barrowsful of flowers, and a goodly amount of ribaldry can be heard passing between bicycle and flower-laden barrow. There is much vitality in the large market-place upon a river bank, and entire streets that are still mediæval. The inhabitants get more out of them that way than if they demolished the open-timber houses bulging over the ancient cobbles, and erected prosaic contemporary abodes, touristically unprofitable. The aura of antiquity extends to the hotels, no good hotel being of later date than Queen Anne.

Storby's Cathedral dominated the market, as a Cathedral should. Fans of Perpendicular became delirious as they approached it, sticking up propped and buttressed as in the stone-age of building it must be. It is entirely deserted by the clergy—you would expect to see one corbeau from time to time. But like Rymer I suppose they all wear sports jackets and sports shirts. There seemed to be a lot of people about, it is true, obviously not enthusiasts of the Perpendicular: they may have been some of the staff off-duty. I saw no one anywhere in the city who showed any sign of being a clergyman. What might be described as the flight from the Cloth certainly makes the churches and cathedrals seem more derelict even than they are.

When on the way to my hotel from the railway station, the taxi crossed a river. "What is the name of the river?" I enquired of the young taximan as we were moving over the bridge. He drove on in silence. "Is it perhaps the Stor?" I suggested. He muttered, and it appeared he actually did not know. He was a native of Storby. I suppose the war had come before he had got around to asking the name of anything, and once he got back (at about the age of twenty-three at a guess) he had other things to think about. However when I laughed understandingly he began speaking again, saying that for his part he could not see why people came to Storby (he thought English Perpendicular was my weakness of course), he could see nothing very exciting about Storby and in fact took every opportunity of getting out of it. Having got this off his chest, in Storby idiom and half-said to himself, he resumed his eloquent silence. I gave him a handsome tip, he was the sort of citizen I like.

Next day, as I had planned to do, I was driven out to Bagwick in a hired car. If anyone is interested in fields, hundreds and hundreds of them, tilted up and all running the same way, with telegraph poles to give variety to the scene, it must be a lovely drive. After fourteen or fifteen miles of implacable farmland but no sign of man or beast we entered Bagwick. There was no one there either. It was a sizeable village, with a pub and a few shops. Its street was not straight, it kept bearing round to the left. As we moved forward we came in sight of a solitary figure, coming in our direction, followed by a barking dog. Towards this infuriated animal the solitary figure turned, appeasement visibly his policy, but it was the wrong dog, to judge from the disappointing results. Suddenly, as we drew nearer, I realized that it was none other than my reverend friend himself. I asked the driver to stop.

Rymer in the metropolis is a dude compared with Rymer at Bagwick. As I walked towards him he was saluting me with raised arm and sending up a welcoming wail of astonishment, tinctured with embarrassment—the raised arm having a bad effect on the dog, at the same time exposing a gaping armpit, the tattered tweed suggestive of the coarsely hirsute.

The Rector of Bagwick was the village "bum" it seemed. In sweet Auburn ugliest village of the Plain they had a scarecrow to preach to them! His attire was terrific. No mendicant friar ever hobbled down a street in a more tatterdemalion advertisement of poverty.

A brownish tweed that was so obsolete that it necessitated a vertical patch the size of a folded newspaper in one place, the sleeves of which had to terminate in cuffs of leather three inches deep, and demanded to be reinforced with leather at the collar line and to have two pocket-tops bound with pigskin, was already qualified to serve the tramp-comedian in his act. Parti-coloured patches practically everywhere had plainly been selected for their effect. Only that could explain the mighty patch placarding his left side: for did it have to be black? It was a piece of "the Cloth" called into service—perhaps cut off what was left of the trousers he wore as a curate. Oh, Rymer—cabotin!—almighty clown! That was my first reaction to the Rector chez lui.

The flabby and sagging droop dawdled nearer, with his high-pitched cry: "Why didn't you telephone, you should have telephoned: I'd have fetched you." Then his big smiling face, ruggedly handsome and anxiously sweet, came up. I took him by a small corduroy patch upon his sleeve and said "Greetings your reverence!" And he said "I am glad to see you!" But the reverend gentleman moved away to pick up a stone. He bent down and oh what a vast expanse he had for sitting purposes! which now presented itself—lingeringly while he picked his stone. A small fluffy hole half-way up the left posterior for which a darning needle would soon be imperative—was this a declaration of independence on the part of a proud parson, or had he not noticed when a nail had torn his trouser-seat? He stood up, and with placatory absence of passion he cast the stone (discovering a ragged elbow). The stone however struck the dog. "Oh, did I hit you, Jacko?" he called with patronizing contrition. "I am sorry, I'll bring you a bone, honest injun. Tomorrow!" But the dog as was evident held strongish views on the throwing of stones. He had retired out of range to denounce Rymer with a deeper note of warning to whom it might concern.

Reactions on my side continued to be uncomplimentary to such playing at the down-and-out as I regarded it in my short-sightedness. How would this big fat baby like to be homeless, his stipend what he could pick up on the street? He read my thoughts and flapped deliberately the black patch of obvious clerical origin, which seemed to be coming unstuck at the bottom. The dog interpreting this as an insult rushed towards us his teeth bared like a Hollywood glamour girl. Rymer flapped it again, and I expected to see one of his patches ripped off and with luck a bit of the flesh behind it. I thought Jacko would try for the big black one—or failing that go off with the blue strip on one of the knees. But the dog was petrified by a piercing cry as a gaunt villager flew out of a lane. "Jacko!" the woman shrieked, and the voice had the effect of the radar wave said to stop ducks in mid-flight. "Come here, do you hear me, Jacko!" She yapped as she flew and the dog fell to the ground as if he had been shot, his ears glued against his head and his belly scraping the street.

The woman's eyes as she ran darted at Rymer; where to her mind the blame lay was plain enough and she would have told him so I thought if I had not been there.

"Ah, Mrs. Rossiter, thank you for saving my life!" In a high-pitched yell he musically greeted his saviour. "Very kind of you, Jacko is unusually naughty this morning. I must bring him another bone—a nice big bone!"

Driving Jacko before her, his tail stuck tight between his legs, Mrs. Rossiter retired swiftly into the lane out of which she had come, with a rather dangerous growl followed by a spit.

We looked at one another.

"Exit Jacko. Quite a dog!" said I. Rymer, ruffled more by Mrs. Rossiter than by Jacko, agreed that the latter was just all dog.

"Mrs. Rossiter's a nice woman really," he observed.

"I thought she was nice," I told him.

"It's very sad, she lost her husband a year ago, he was killed by one of Jack Cox's bulls."

"Oh dear."

"Yes, it's very sad. Jacko's all she's got." He looked at me.

"I see!" I said. "Of course...."

"He does that every time I come this way. He never seems to get used to me."

"It must be difficult for you to come into Bagwick," I observed. "Why don't you carry a stick?"

"I can't do that," he answered shortly.

Then he gazed at me with polite enthusiasm, welcoming me to Bagwick.

"Well, I am glad to see you," he exclaimed, "but why didn't you telephone? Shall we go up to the house? You must be hungry aren't you? My wife will be delighted to see you—come along."

Pointing to the "Lord Salisbury" I enquired: "Can't I get something at that pub?" I had to say something. "Will you come with me? A nice mousetrap sandwich and a glass of ale." But he of course said "Nonsense", so we drove to the Rectory, a few rat-like heads poking out of doors, watching us depart.

"What a jolly little village," I said.

"Yes, it is rather nice," he responded modestly.

As we drove along I took back the terms cabotin and clown which naturally at first I had hurled at him sotto voce—at the tatterdemalion Rector of Bagwick doubtless on his morning tour of duty, showing himself to his parishioners. Then I recognized I had been quite wrong. First of all, at Oxford he had enough money no doubt to dress the part of a young gentleman, but, of course, bar the patches, he must have looked much as he does at present. For a fashion of stylistic shabbiness (which he would seek to outstrip if I know my Rymer) would have turned him away from what "a young gentleman ought to look like" to "what in practice he does look like".

Today, however, he really had not the means to buy new clothes. A good suit costs forty pounds odd, a bad one twenty. The Oxford training would lead him to make a great big comic virtue of necessity. That was the first, and negative, side of it.

Next, what could he wear? In his circumstances, and with his beliefs, should he have adopted the overalls of the labourer? The Cathedral would have disapproved. To the petty, brushed-up-till-it-shone, shabby-genteel he objected. He preferred to satirize his poverty, to clown, rather than to conceal. Indeed there was protest in his get-up. He preferred to parade the streets of his parish in rags—to go up to London and buy a drawing costing as much as a new suit—I looked at the bobbling black patch with appreciation. I actually had his cheque in my pocket. Noticing my glance, he wobbled his patch at me. He had once said he would like to be the Bishop's Fool, I remembered.

We entered the Rectory drive, the car poked at by the wild overplus of vegetation which was certainly not that of a normal garden. Such coarse-tongued plants as put in their appearance where there is no finer life or competitive human culture, were visible out of the window of the car. The car described an arc around an island that was a miniature wilderness, a dusty jungle growing to a considerable height above the gravel, upon which it dropped unidentifiable vegetable matter. When I left the car, I found that the Rectory was hemmed in by the same nameless growths, swarming up its walls with an ugly vigour.

"Polygonum," said Rymer, giving a name to what I was looking at. "It's rather nice stuff unless it gets out of hand." He paused. "It has got out of hand."

"It does look slightly like a riot. Why don't you grow roses?"

"Why don't I grow roses?" Rymer looked at the savage scene facing his front door. "Oh, I don't know: snake-weed is just as good. This stuff is rather nice: when it doesn't get out of hand."

The Rectory was unexpectedly tall, this was even apparent above the eruption of polygonum threatening it on all sides. A roomy house, it had been built to contain the bulging families which the Victorian clergy regularly produced between evening and morning prayers.

The place had a big parched lonely look. Nothing grew upon its pale brick face. But since it is an Ark which obviously for a long time has ridden the wastes, no emblem of stability, like ivy, would be likely to attach itself to this mansion meant for the Deluge. So it is as bare as when it was built, except for dust, droppings, or the kind of warts that neglected houses have.

Although, without, the scene was so savage, the Rectory within, excepting the hall which was a little wild, was otherwise like the popular idea of a rectory. Rymer had acquired a few other small pictures besides mine, the radio put the Rymers in touch with the intellectual giants of Britain on the Third Programme, and of course all programmes supplied buckets full of music. A piano enabled them to perform themselves. His wife is charming: he is for her a big wilful schoolboy. Thus he was peremptorily dispatched as soon as we arrived to put on his London suit. For his son, too, whom I met on another occasion, Rymer is a bit of a youthful terror. That very grave and severe young man is at Oxford, though how he got there Heaven knows. A scholarship I suppose from the local grammar school. Both Eleanor and son Robert love him, but are strangers to his exuberances. Therefore even in his home he is alone with his excess of imagination, his poet's passion. All that is most serious to him seems like play to his family: his pastel, his politics, his pride in his poverty. This is not to say that his family are wanting in taste or vitality, only that he has too much—for a life passed on the poverty-line. Indeed he is like a domesticated troll who having fallen in love with Eleanor had consented to live as humans do—and I have seen Eleanor stare at him with puzzled affection and he waggle his black patch at her and give a merry clerical whinny. For of course he is not a goblin but a born clergyman.

The living quarters are in the back of the house. Out of the drawing-room windows however it is the same as out of the front-door. Nature coarsely proliferates, and man does nothing to check her: she throws up her low-grade creations. No one in the house has the energy to go out and cut the stuff down and burn it up. Let it grow all over the building, let it do what it likes, so long as we can get in and out, so long as it is not inside!

Such is the response I think of the inmates, exhausted by petty hardships, harassed with taxation, worn out with wars, threatened with expulsion—it was their answer to an existence to which they had not been born or bred, in the golden aftermath of the Victorian era. But gazing out of one of the windows, I dismally responded to the scene of squalid vegetable fecundity, the solid sea of snake-weed, polygonum, or whatever it was, nettles and dock leaves of course adding themselves to this chaos. An inglorious duck-pond appeared in the near distance—it is forced upon one whenever one looks out of one of the vicarage windows, how this man exists upon the frontiers of a vacuum of a new sort. The well-furnished room, with its gouache horsemen and its piano, is an advance-post: there is the no-man's-land between our age and the darkness to come. He is the last of a species (to which we all belong) and in him in travail—and there are none of us do not experience the travail too—is another species.

Dressed in garments literally dropping to pieces he moves around his parish, among people who dread and loathe poverty and want. And he stands in spite of himself for poverty and for want. He is one of the first English clergymen to stand for poverty and want. And as he moves around, from house to house, the doors quickly shut at his approach as if he were infected with some complaint which no one was particularly anxious to have; and out of rags tacked together his "Oxford accent" issues with incongruous patronage; his encyclopædic affectations exasperate, his great-heartedness abashes—for there is no cash only credit in Heaven, the currency of religion, no longer legal tender. The majority of the shopkeepers and labourers' wives of Bagwick have given up "the opiate of the People", they are no longer addicts. Does Rymer at times wish he had another drug to peddle? I have often wondered. And as to Sundays, in patched surplice (it can hardly be whole, to judge from the remainder of his wardrobe) he goes through a majestic liturgy accompanied on a small harmonium, before a congregation usually of the odd villager plus the family.

On this occasion it was that he took me over to see his church, situated a couple of hundred yards down the road. The building was not large but it was absurdly lofty, like a thin slice of a cathedral. The vault near the entrance, for it grew to its greatest height at the farthest point from the altar, would not have been out of place at Canterbury. The font was so high it was not possible to use it without placing blocks of wood against it. I had no difficulty in understanding, as soon as I saw it, what had happened when first Rymer took up his duties at Bagwick. He saw the towering arches; his imagination, to his undoing, got to work. He made the great original mistake out of which all his subsequent miseries issued.

I had heard, almost in the first half-hour of our earliest intimacies, about the beautiful reredos purchased by him for Bagwick. The protests and intrigues it had brought down on his head were things, one saw, of obsessional dimensions, looming up behind his unemotional narrative, when he spoke of the days when he first went to Bagwick. The extravagance had revealed to the village, it was easy to understand, the order of man that had come among them. They glimpsed the big troll I have spoken of. Promptly they started to gang up. No ordinary sensible man would be so lacking in judgement as to import the side of a house into a small village church! Some distant cousin of Don Quixote was in their midst—soon he might mistake them for the Saracens and begin cutting them down. Their faces hardened, not soft at the best of times north of The Wash, their tongues wagged. There was a village cabal at "The Marquess of Salisbury". Finally after years of bickering, the reredos had to be disposed of, sold at a crushing loss, and it was he who incurred it, not the village.

---

Our luncheon, I am ashamed to say, was excellent. There was, I am sure, the week's meat-ration, also the week's bones in the nourishing well-peppered soup. More than half the week's rations were accounted for in this chivalrous hospitality. From a small farmer Rymer received certain favours. But this big arrogant man in rags, who always knew everybody's business better than they did themselves, would be a protégé that not everyone would choose. I can see some farmer giving him a half-dozen intact eggs and a few cracked ones once, but not making a habit of it. Much food for nothing, or at its market value, he would not get, and he has not the money to pay the black-market price for things, nor would it be wise to do so if he had.

Soon all clergymen in this country will have vows of poverty thrust upon them as I have already suggested, and a new type of ministry will come into being. Quite probably it is the only way to secure a truly Christian Church. It may after all be God's will. In His great wisdom it would not be likely to escape Him that a penniless clergyman is better than one who rides to hounds. Then the country people will have to bring gifts of food—a fowl, bread, pickles, a tin of sardines, pig's-trotters, apricots and greengages in season, as the moujiks once would do to their holy men. Otherwise the clergy quite literally will die out. An unpleasant transition is at present in progress. But people have so little sense of the future. The majority are completely defective in this sense. They fail to realize the significance of a process until life is suddenly quite different to what it was. They then adjust themselves at a disadvantage. The clergy should prepare themselves for penury; else quite unprepared they will find themselves the poorest class of men. Fasts would not be amiss. And they should accustom their parishioners to the idea that their sacred calling must reduce them to great poverty.

In the meantime we find Rymer, for a start, without clothes to his back, or only a travesty of clothes; and there is no other class of man that must go in rags, except the vagabond. I told him that I should come down in a year or so and discover him walking through Bagwick in a loin-cloth: what would Jacko say to that? How would Mrs. Rossiter react? It is one of those cracks that have an uncomfortably prophetic ring. Heaven avert the omen. Rymer still feels too much "the gentleman", of course, as his forebears were fine parsons in plump livings. He is a master type, of his own accord he will never go the whole way to the new model, to the country-clergyman-in-the-loin-cloth: soliciting alms in the name of God, or sitting near the altar of his church as people lay their gifts on the steps—sleeping on a camp-bed in the vestry—I am not saying that will happen tomorrow: and Rymer was heroic, in the way a prophet is, as clothed in tatters he went poker-faced to meet his fate and that of all his kind. For the village dogs will not care much for the New Model man-of-God and the villagers not improbably may stone them.

That Rymer has the seeds of heroism I hope by now is plain. If need be he would sit naked at the foot of the Cross (though it might be with the superior glint of the Have-not in his glazing eye) and die if he was not fed.

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