Although over the years I have got to see a fair bit of Suffolk, first of all when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge and then later on driving around with Ro looking for royal arms in churches, for some reason I never found my way to Great Livermere (though I became quite familiar with Bury St Edmunds) until last week when we went there for the unveiling of the Monty James memorial. It's a shame I didn't, because it's a beautiful place. Nowadays it has to share its rector with several other parishes, and services at St Peter's church are infrequent, nothing like as often as every Sunday. This is, alas, the present fate of many village churches.

Nevertheless, the church is well looked after, the graveyard (still in use) tended, and the thatch on the roof in good order. The rather odd looking belfry that tops off the tower replaced a taller structure designed as an eyecatcher to be seen from Livermere Hall across the park. The top of the tower collapsed in 1872 so Monty would have remembered it, and its demise. The fall must have been a conversation point in the village for years after the event, but so far as I know he never referred to it anywhere.

Beyond the churchyard wall is the real beauty of the place: the park, now alas sadly denuded of the oaks that populated it in Monty's day, but still sloping gently down to the mere. It was late afternoon when we arrived, and a watery sun was falling slowly down towards the water. Birds were calling in the plantation which still closes off the view to the south-west - Livermere Hall may be gone, but the trees of the plantation remain, and so does the ruin of Little Livermere church, Herbert James's other cure, unroofed as recently as the 1950s, but still perched prominently and defiantly on the far side of the lake.

Back in the eighteen-sixties it must have been an epitome of rural England, with Hall and Church facing one another across the parkland, and the Rectory just down the lane. But not too deeply rural, after all: Bury St Edmunds is only a few miles away, and the James family never seem to have lost touch with the wider world.

I think, having seen Great Livermere for myself, and felt its ambience, that I can understand Monty a little better. I think I'd like to visit there again some time soon, some quieter time, and walk down to the mere, and listen to the water and the reeds. Last week, there were a lot of us around, and we had a purpose, so there was little time just to be there and enjoy the feel of the place.

Not that it wasn't fun to be there. There must have been more people in the church than they've had in quite a while (except maybe for a very occasional wedding), fairly evenly split between locals and fantasists. The villagers did us proud with refreshments after the dedication service, including what Ro tells me was the best cup of tea she'd had in years, real leaf tea and properly made. One memorable bit of the proceedings sticks particularly in my mind. After the service itself (Evening Prayer in the 1662 BCP version, surely the only possible choice for such an occasion), and the unveiling ceremony performed by Nicholas James, Roger Johnson read Monty's A Vignette, from the middle tier of the three-decker pulpit. As he read, a shaft of late, low sunlight shone in through a strategically placed window and lit up Roger and the pulpit. It was almost as though someone had switched a spotlight on. As he came to the end of the tale, it faded.

Later on, sixteen of us, including Nick James, adjourned to the Priory Hotel in Bury St Edmunds for the "M.R.James Memorial Dinner". The hotel provided us with a room of our own for the meal and timed it nicely, so that we lingered over the coffee and candied strawberries till almost midnight, a perfect end to a memorable day.

It wouldn't have happened without Clive, and his dogged persistence in the face of some formidable problems, and I'm glad that certain persons who shall remain nameless here hatched the idea of making him a little presentation at the end of the dedication service: one of Vince's wonderful models, in this instance Old Martin, the title character from Clive's story of that name. It was wonderful to see his reaction!

So many, many thanks, Clive, for making it all possible. There were flowers on the grave of Monty's parents, and we have Clive to thank for that too: a thoughtful touch.

b Rob Grano mentioned Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan in the last mailing. I've always had a soft spot for Hearn ever since I discovered a couple of his books in our school library when I was about 16. How reliable his relation of old Japanese folk tales is, and how much he bent them to suit his telling, I don't know. But the style is wonderful.

b It's always said that when Jane McBryde was born, MRJ became her guardian. It occurred to me the other day that this doesn't make sense. A guardian is someone who is appointed to act in a parental role to a child whose parents have died, but in this case Jane's mother was still alive so a legal guardian wasn't necessary. In any case, MRJ's actions toward Jane were never those of a guardian. I suspect that the term was used very loosely, and that in fact what MRJ did was become a trustee of some sort of financial settlement in Jane's favour, perhaps under James McBryde's will. (Did he make one? It would be interesting to know). One of the first letters in "Letters to a Friend" mentions a trust so this is probably the explanation.

b I went to a meeting in the Weston conference centre at UMIST recently. In the lobby area, on the mezzanine by the phones, there was a bust of a sinister, hooded, monastic-looking figure. I thought it might be Savonarola or someone like that, but of course I had to go over and have a good look. Who was it? Luca Paoli, the 15th-century inventor of double entry bookkeeping! Hardly the stuff to wake you screaming in the night (unless maybe you're an accountant expecting the auditors next day...)

Darroll Pardoe for The Everlasting Club, November 1998 mailing. Completed 5th October 1998. Caritas Porcularum #349. © Darroll Pardoe 1998.


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November 1st 1998