Buildings of England

T.J. Clark

Time and again, however well we know the landscape of love,
and the little churchyard with lamenting names …
                time and again we go out two together,
under the old trees …

Rainer Maria Rilke

Not time and again, but – this being Ruby, my daughter aged six – just once.
One typical Norfolk afternoon, as I recall it,
In early summer, so that the oaks creaking in the hedgerows
Were still mostly black against the sky, and the wheat and barley grey-green.
It was mid-afternoon, after a long morning tacking from church to church.
I was on a Norfolk high,
Always convinced that inside the next protesting church door
Would be a piece of shattered fretwork to put even Trunch in the shade,
Or a Dance of Death more desperate than Sparham’s.

The three kids had put up with me as the hours went by.
Many a major prize had been offered, for the first to spot the wild man
Or the window with the star of Bethlehem or the pig
Doing something unmentionable on the misericord.
Ruby’s patience was wearing thin. Crisps and blackcurrant in The Victory
Were no longer enough to keep the demon boredom at bay.
And Ruby’s boredom was a force, a power of blackness, that all of us feared.

Where were we, exactly? I’m no longer sure.
Maybe we’d stopped to see the flint hulks of the old cathedral at North Elmham
Sullen in their field, Ministry signs rotting among the nettles,
And then headed west and south, into what even Pevsner calls
‘This strangely obscure and inaccessible area’ with St Mary’s Beeston at its heart.
How was I supposed to resist the great man saying ‘Interior … impressive,
Wide and high, with its tiled floor and untreated oak very moving’?

Ruby, in her tea-lady blue pinafore, stamped half-heartedly on the tiles
And showed no sign of softening at the sight of untreated oak.
We filed out of the porch into the sun. The air was heavy in the churchyard, smelling of yew.
Across the road was a roll of low hills, picture postcard inviting, fields with half-ripe barley,
And just over the ridge another church tower – a high square tower
With battlements and coats of arms like Erpingham’s or Wighton’s, maybe the west tower
Of Weasenham St Peter’s, ‘unbuttressed’, says Pevsner, ‘Early English …
Note the remarkably ornate north side (Perp), with flushwork decoration.’

It was just over the hill, goddamn it!
                                    Major prize for the first …
Ruby stood in the road, hands on hips. She turned towards us. She knew what was brewing
And delivered her ultimatum, booming from the bottom of her six-year-old lungs:
‘If I see another bloody church today, I shall throw up!’

It was not unlike the time three years earlier, when, trying as usual
To cram too much of a (botched) dream of fatherhood into
The available space, I had read the kids the opening of David Copperfield – the terrible Murdstone chapters –
And Ruby had exited after a page or so, going along the landing to say to her stepmother,
White-faced but calm, frightened, considerate, as if taking pity on my mistake,
‘I think I am too young to hear this.’