Tuesday 24 October 2023

A Lincolnshire Man

 This Cultural Life is a Radio 4 programme in which various 'creative' luminaries talk about the cultural influences that have shaped them. Yesterday, by chance, I happened on the edition in which the massively successful lyricist Bernie Taupin was interviewed. He is not a man in whom I have much interest, but my ears pricked up when he started talking about his childhood. Taupin is a Lincolnshire man, born in what he described as 'the middle of nowhere' – in fact an isolated farmhouse somewhere near Sleaford, in la Lincolnshire profonde – from where the family moved to the grander surroundings of Rowston Manor, where they lived rent free, Bernie's father being the farm manager. His mother and his maternal grandfather were both poetry lovers, and his grandfather particularly enjoyed reciting Victorian narrative verse, so the young Taupin – like me! – grew up with the likes of 'Young Lochinvar', 'The Highwayman' and Macaulay's 'Horatius' ('Lars Porsena of Clusium By the nine gods he swore...') ringing in his ears. I don't know what effect this had on his songwriting; it certainly didn't turn me into a millionaire lyricist, but there you go...
From Rowston Manor, the Taupins moved to a run-down farmhouse in the gloriously named village of Owmby-by-Spital. The sound of this name reminded me of another narrative poem – John Betjeman's 'A Lincolnshire Tale'. I wonder if Bernie knows it...

                                                            Kirkby with Muckby-cum-Sparrowby-cum-Spinx 

                                                                   Is down a long lane in the county of Lincs.
                                                             And often on Wednesdays, well-harnessed and spruce,
                                                                   I would drive into Wiss over Winderby Sluice.


A whacking great sunset bathed level and drain

From Kirkby with Muckby to Beckby-on-Bain,

And I saw, as I journeyed, my marketing done,

Old Caisterby tower take the last of the sun.


The night air grew nippy.  An autumn mist roll’d

(In a scent of dead cabbages) down from the wold,

In the ocean of silence that flooded me round

The crunch of the wheels was a comforting sound.


The lane lengthened narrowly into the night

With the Bain on its left bank, the drain on its right,

And feebly the carriage-lamps glimmered ahead

When all of a sudden the pony fell dead.


The remoteness was awful, the stillness intense,

Of invisible fenland, around and immense;

And out on the dark, with a roar and a swell,

Swung, hollowly thundering, Speckleby bell.


Though myself the Archdeacon for many a year,

I had not summoned courage for visiting here;

Our incumbents were mostly eccentric or sad

But – the Speckleby Rector was said to be mad.


Oh cold was the ev’ning and tall was the tower

And strangely compelling the tenor bell’s power!

As loud on the reed-beds and strong through the dark

It toll’ from the church in the tenantless park.


The mansion was ruined, the empty demesne

Was slowly reverting to marshland again –

Marsh where the village was, grass in the Hall,

And the church and the rectory waiting to fall.


And even in springtime with kingcups about

And stumps of old oak-trees attempting to sprout,

‘Twas a sinister place, neither fenland nor wold,

And doubly forbidding in darkness and cold.


As down swung the tenor, a beacon of sound,

Over listening acres of waterlogged ground

I stood by the tombs to see pass and repass

The gleam of a taper, through clear leaded glass.


And such lighting of lights in the thunderous roar

The heart summoning courage to hand at the door;

I grated it open on scents I knew well,

The dry smell of damp rot, the hassocky smell.


What a forest of woodwork in ochres and grains

Unevenly doubled in diamonded panes,

And over the plaster, so textured with time,

Sweet discolouration of umber and lime!


The candles ensconced on each high panelled pew

Brought the caverns of brass-studded baize into view,

But the roof and its rafters were lost to the sight

As they soared to the dark of the Lincolnshire night:


And high from the chancel arch paused to look down

A sign-painter’s beasts in their fight for the Crown,

While massive, impressive, and still as the grave

A three-decker pulpit frowned over the nave.


Shall I ever forget what a stillness was there

When the bell ceased its tolling and thinned on the air?

Then an opening door showed a long pair of hands

And the Rector himself in his gown and his bands.

. . . . . . . . . .

Such a fell Visitation I shall not forget,

Such a rush through the dark, that I rush through it yet,

And I pray, as the bells ring o’er fenland and hill,

That the Speckleby acres be tenantless still.

(Apologies for the weird spacing at the start, which I couldn't fix.)

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