Tuesday 2 April 2019

The Book

In case you haven't seen this month's Literary Review, here's my Diary contribution, about the all but legendary Book that has been haunting this blog for many months...

So, what are you doing with your retirement? It’s a question I’m often asked, and at some point in my answer I have to own up to the fact that I’m writing a book (‘Neither am I,’ Peter Cook would always say at this juncture – but I am, really). It’s a tricky one, as the book is rather hard to describe – at least in terms that aren’t going to lead to an awkward silence and a swift change of subject. The fact is that the core subject of my book (now nearing completion) is English church monuments. Worse, English church monuments of a particular period, roughly speaking the seventeenth century. I don’t think there’ll be a scramble for the film rights.
  But hear me out. Those monuments I’m writing about represent a wealth of superb, world-class sculpture, here in England – and almost nobody even knows it’s there. Why? Largely, I guess, because so many of these beautiful monuments stand in obscure parish churches, scattered across the country, often in the most remote locations. One of the greatest of them, for example – Epiphanius Evesham’s hauntingly beautiful monument to Sir Adrian Scrope – stands in the isolated, unvisited church of St Leonard’s, South Cockerington, in an all but deserted corner of Lincolnshire. If a gallery full of these monuments were to be assembled in a national museum, their beauties would be obvious to all – but, as it is, they must be sought out, and that isn’t always easy. It involves a good deal of research, and much traveling to out-of-the-way corners of the country. And then there is the frustrating problem of getting inside.

So often in my travels I’ve come across church doors firmly locked. I know now to telephone beforehand, make the necessary arrangements, and hope for the best. Even the redoubtable Mrs Esdaile, author of the essential English Church Monuments, 1510-1840 (Batsford, 1946), sometimes encountered a locked church. It happened once when she was visiting Stowe Nine Churches in Northamptonshire to see one of the most beautiful monuments in England  –Lady Elizabeth Carey’s, a marvel of white marble, carved by the great Nicholas Stone. Remonstrating with the Rector, she was duly chastened when he told her he had recently surprised a pair of Americans trying to prise up Lady Carey’s effigy with a crowbar. There are sometimes good reasons for keeping a church locked. 
  Existing books on church monuments, with the exception of Mrs Esdaile’s – and especially its long introductory chapter by Sacheverell Sitwell – tend to be dry antiquarian accounts, more like catalogues than books that anyone would want to read through. The sheer aesthetic charge that the best monuments deliver is barely even hinted at in these resolutely objective works – whereas it will be central to mine, which might almost be called (but happily isn’t) The Joy of Monuments. But it isn’t only about monuments; it’s often as much about people and places, and mortality and immortality, and poetry and butterflies. 
It’s not a scholarly treatise, nor a heritage guidebook or gazetteer – but nor is it the sort of book a publisher would no doubt want to be made out of this subject: a ‘journey of discovery’ with a catchy title, each chapter beginning with a bit of first-person, present tense scene-setting (‘It’s a wet Wednesday and I’m standing in the middle of nowhere – or, to be precise, South Cockerington, where I have an appointment with Sir Adrian Scrope’). That’s exactly the book I didn’t want to write. What will come out (before the end of the year) is the book I wanted to write. This means I shall be self-publishing, and that, no doubt, is going to be an adventure in itself – a ‘journey of discovery’, even. 
  Philip Larkin is a persistent presence in my book. It was an encounter with a church monument, in Chichester cathedral in the winter of 1956, that inspired one of his most famous poems, An Arundel Tomb. The monument, battered and not especially distinguished, is fourteenth-century work and commemorates Richard FitzAlan, Tenth Earl of Arundel, and his second wife, Eleanor of Lancaster (their actual tomb is at Lewes priory). Their hands are joined, and Larkin, having never seen this on a monument before, found the detail 'deeply affecting'. However, he had reservations about An Arundel Tomb as a poem, partly because he'd muddled up the hands (the Earl's right, not left, holds the Countess's) and had not realised that the effigies were restored in 1843, and it was at that point that the present joined hands were carved (the originals having been lost). He might have learned, too, that the gesture of joining hands is not uncommon on medieval monuments, and denotes something much closer to dynastic union than to romantic love.

Larkin is now remembered more for the resonant last line of that poem – ‘What will survive of us is love’ – and the equally resonant first line of This Be the Verse (‘They f*ck you up, your mum and dad’) than for anything else he wrote. ‘What will survive of us is love’ is far from a heartfelt statement, still less an assertion. It’s almost strangled by reservations: ‘Time has transfigured them into Untruth,’ writes Larkin of the hand-holding effigies. ‘The stone fidelity / They hardly meant has come to be  / Their final blazon, and to prove / Our almost-instinct almost true:  / What will survive of us is love.’ And what has survived most tenaciously of the poem is that last line, wrenched out of context to become a favourite consoling quotation at funerals. The Arundel monument has become one of the most famous and most visited in England. And Larkin’s stone in Poets’ Corner is inscribed with those last words he hardly meant.
  When I began the book, I thought I’d be ending it with those words – which would have been nicely symmetrical, as I begin it with Larkin and his other great church poem, Church Going. There is no better evocation of the feeling that comes with stepping for the first time into an unfamiliar church, into that ‘tense, musty, unignorable silence, / Brewed God knows how long’ – a mix of abashed self-consciousness, awkward reverence, bewilderment and awe. I still feel it every time. And what words will end my book, if not Larkin’s? I think I know, but I haven’t written that last chapter yet. Time to get on.


  1. Of course dynastic union based on marital union and romantic love are far from mutually exclusive. It can be all things at once. Yes, Larkin’s diffidence is notable. The link below speaks to the very subject.Good luck with the book.

  2. Thanks Guy. Larkinesque indeed...

  3. Perhaps Larkin's greatest line is in "Aubade" — "the good not done, the love not given, time / torn off unused."
    Those are the real sins in life.
    Looking forward to reading your book, Nige.

  4. Yes, wise word those, Frank.
    Hope you enjoy the book...

  5. There is an instagram account called @devonchurchland whose operator wanders about taking close up pictures of little known features in little known churches in Devon - there might be something in there of interest for your project, which sounds fascinating.

  6. Thanks, zmkc – that sounds like a very worthwhile project. More counties should do it.