The only thing I have in common with Larkin, as far as I can tell, is a fondness for churches despite being a complete non-believer. Larkin’s reputation has suffered a fair bashing since his exchange of letters with Kingsley Amis was published, and some racist doggerel discovered, but a poem like ‘Church Going’ (and another favourite, ‘Ambulances’) will never really go out of fashion. The end of it strikes a chord with me: ‘A serious house on serious earth it is/… If only that so many dead lie round’. Larkin seems to have written so many good poems that he is ensured of a place in history, and of not being relegated to the status ‘minor’, like, say, Edward Thomas, of whose poems, only ‘Adlestrop’ is really remembered. (I also wonder what will become of Andrew Motion, Thomas’s major suppporter, who hasn’t, I think, produced anything, excellent poet that he is, which sticks in the memory. I can’t quote you a Motion poem, where I could quote a great deal by Carol Ann Duffy (say).)
Anyway, such thoughts filtered through my head while in the memorial service this week. I find churches interesting places when they are empty, but I’ve never been a fan of choral singing, nor of ritual in action. I was baptised – I have a colourful little certificate to prove it – but when my school started to lean on me heavily to be ‘confirmed’, I backed out in a big way. This was not seen as in any way respectable, so I was shuttled round a variety of chaplains etc. to explain my non-belief, and I played up a line that I was inherently spiritual, had Leonard Cohen records etc (‘Jesus was a sailor…’) , and actually my biblical knowledge was pretty spectacular, too. They gave up in the end. Whereas my sister and brother just let it happen to them. My brother doesn’t believe in God – certainly not after the last few football seasons, and the various hammerings meted out to Sunderland. And nor do I.
Still, religion has always interested me, and specifically its imagery. When I was twelve, I remember coming across some amazing images in a book about St. Veronica, and being mightily impressed. What didn’t impress me was having to practise singing psalms. Whoever decided psalms were a good idea to set to music (yes, I know it’s David, the King not my brother, but I doubt he had the Anglican dirges in mind, although here I may be being unfair to the Anglicans – I am sure synagogues can also ruin a good tune) needed their head examining. I quite like reading psalms, and even have favourites, but that’s something else again.
But going to a church is just the same for me as reading a poem. Some are better than others. Some abide, is that the word I’m looking for, in the memory more than others.
And, seeking to fight my way out of the crazy mixed-up thinking in this blog, I have been to Adlestrop and paid, as it were, my respects. It’s somewhere in the Cotswolds, but I couldn’t say where without getting the maps out. It was in 1984, so I’d have been 31 or 32. I was starting to put weight on in the wrong place even then: