The spirituality of sad old hippies

Standing around the grave in the gathering dusk, we all sang `Mr Tambourine Man'
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The Independent Culture
I WAS not among Selwyn Burr's closest friends, our acquaintance down the years tending to be of the brisk, passing kind. But he was one of those men whom one was always glad to meet, a big, bearded, talkative character for whom the usual cliches - "one of a kind", "larger than life" - are not quite sufficient. Give or take the odd adventure in southern France or on the west coast of America, he had lived in East Anglia, where he had arrived in the wave of those looking for an alternative lifestyle, since the early Sixties. He had done up houses, developed unlikely properties and tried to set up music festivals, forever an opportunist but one who had remained faithful to his hippy buccaneer roots. His was a wild and rackety life, so perhaps it should have been no surprise that he died suddenly in his sixties. He was buried last week.

There are funerals and funerals and, apart from one moment of bathos and irritation, Selwyn's was one of the better ones. Outside the church at Diss the coffin lay on a haycart behind a black carthorse. Inside there gathered a large crowd of friends and family, an unconventional crew rather less formally and respectably dressed than might normally be expected at a solemn occasion at St Mary's. A musician friend sang a song about love. There were two eulogies, one from someone who had known him since their school days and who recounted the facts of Selwyn's eventful life, and another from a more recent friend, who talked about Selwyn's influence on those around him. Both were eloquent and heartfelt.

The vicar stood to make a sermon. His text was from St John, chapter 14: "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth and the life." The exposition was lengthy. We were told how Jesus was our friend, and why Christianity was different from all other religions, being more than just a set of rules. There was no reference to the life we were celebrating, or even to the reason why we were there. It was not a bad sermon, but every syllable sounded all-purpose and second-hand, as if it had been taken from "The Church of England Book of Sermons for Every Occasion".

As the sermon took its predictable course, the temperature in the congregation seemed to drop by about 10 degrees. It seemed to me - and later I discovered that I was not alone - that there was something hectoring in the well worn Anglican platitudes we were hearing. The secular obeisances had been expressed; now it was time for Jesus, not so much a friend, in this version, as a head prefect. Church, we were being reminded, is not just for funerals or for Christmas but for always. Here, on an occasion when a group of serious and independent-minded people were at their most susceptible, was a perfect marketing opportunity; instead, we were being reminded of how exclusive, respectable and uncompromising the Church of England could be.

Surely establishment religion need not be this unbending. After all, was it not in this very church that John Skelton, the great and outrageous poet and rector of Diss, presided in the early 16th century, banishing a fellow cleric for hunting pigeons with a falcon in St Mary's, penning vitriolic epitaphs to parishioners of whom he disapproved and composing poems in which religious and sexual devotions are scandalously conflated?

The unconventional attitude to religion lives on in Diss, incidentally. The local record shop has put a life-sized Nativity scene in its front window, in which Robbie Williams appears as Joseph and Natalie Imbruglia as the Virgin Mary, carrying, in swaddling-clothes, Mel B.

After the service, the haycart set off briskly through Diss towards Wortham Ling, a common two miles from Diss, on the border of which Selwyn was to be buried. Some of us trotting after the procession (the horse seemed to be in training for the plough sprint championships) partook of some half-time refreshments in a pub along the way, arguing that it was what Selwyn would have wished.

As a result we missed the interment, and, by the time we arrived, the vicar had gone and friends were already shovelling clay and earth into the grave. When the work was completed a guitar was produced and songsheets were handed out. Standing around the grave in the gathering dusk, we sang "Mr Tambourine Man".

To a passer-by on Wortham Ling, we might have seemed like a bunch of sad old hippies but as, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow, we sang in unison, the odd, psalm-like melody hanging in the still winter air, I suspect that we all felt nearer to Selwyn and to genuine spirituality than at any time during the church service that morning.