Jessica Streeting’s ‘Sea-Change’ is a poetic memoir of singular poise and poignancy, writes Andrew Rumsey.
We were one stray,
Set apart family
In acres of garden,
Our echoing Rectory
And one clergy stipend.
Whether evoking a vacant parsonage, an exposed Norfolk horizon, or the void left by traumatic and early loss, a genius of space pervades Sea-change: a poetic memoir of singular poise and poignancy by Jessica Streeting.
The departed glory of Streeting’s father – a musical and visionary parish priest who led his young family from Oxford to the East Anglian village of Cawston in the mid-Seventies – fills the air around these uncluttered lines, which form a lyrical meditation on loss and removal. Revisiting his grave in the present, soon after her mother’s death, the author takes us back to the blurred but immediate attention of childhood, when close things (like the “beetle-eaten pew ends” in Cawston church) become icons by which the outlying fog of adult behaviour is interpreted: sacraments of youth.
Jessica Streeting’s voice in verse is winsome, inviting us to see as she saw, and her small observances yield some memorable images that cradle the most jagged experience, as we are drawn towards the seaborne tragedy at the poem’s core. Hammer-beam angels carved into the church ceiling become a particular motif and hover, benign, but muted, over the scene. The simplicity of form and style fits this epic poem perfectly, leaving room for ‘the absence that is like a presence’, as R.S.Thomas put it – both of her father and of the God who is likewise both ‘here and not here’ in these pages. Anglican spirituality, now unfamiliar to most but the octogenarian inhabitants of these pews, is mediated by ordinary things – dried flowers, choir scores, bell-ropes – a subtle quality easy to misinterpret, but one that Streeting grasps intuitively. At one point she remarks, tellingly, “I may have mistaken music for God. Or God for music.”
Of a similar age, and a rectory child too, I grew up with the same sensory impressions of church buildings: idling alone in the candle-damp while Dad busied himself in the vestry. The 1970s was a pivot-point for the village church: parishes were being clustered together in newly unfeasible jobs, barn-like rectories were still being sold off and the last Victorian or medieval anomalies in clergy income ironed out. There are little hints at this new world, epitomised by the family’s transition to a bright, but somewhat less soulful, new home. Old Vicarages by this stage weren’t the manicured and luxurious retreats they have since become, but bleak and unheated places (J.L.Carr captured their essence perfectly in A Month in the Country). My widower uncle – a parson in the same parish for forty years from 1938 – had one, and I remember him around this time occupying a single chaotic corner while the rest mouldered away under dustsheets.
“A rector was travelled and learned and odd” observes Streeting: “pursued unnatural interests for love of God”. And while she recounts adroitly the set-apartness of vicarage life (“not native, but naturalised”), she also understands the gift of these often fragile and eccentric clerics to a settled community. In a touching foreword, Stephen Fry – who lived in the neighbouring village and for whom Jessica’s father, Reverend Paul Farnham, was something of a mentor – pays tribute to that pastoral legacy. With Farnham’s arrival, “I finally had a companion with whom I could talk books, ideas, music, logic and religion”. Knowing his loathing of the subject, Farnham proceeds to make Fry his girls’ maths tutor.
Streeting’s portrait of a warm and complex man – and of his devoted family, unmoored by their shared experience – is finely written and at times weepingly powerful. With discreet use of black and white photographs and a handsome marbled cover like an Edwardian cleric’s diary, what Keats called ‘the holiness of the heart’s affections’ rarely finds such beautiful lodging.
‘Sea-Change’ is out now and available here (£10.23), published by Propolis.