Country Matters: Sunset over a lost England

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The Independent Online
WHAT was it that drew more than 100 people to a little church high on the wilds of Exmoor, in a fearsome deluge of rain? Kinship, friendship, respect and love for the man we were burying, of course; yet to me it seemed that there was a pull beyond the usual ones that bring people to a funeral - and when the family asked me to say a few words during the service, I had to do my best to put my finger on it.

To me, more than a generation his junior, he was always Old Jack. He must have been in his forties when I first knew him - a big, solid farmer, slow moving and slow spoken, with a slight hesitation in his voice that had the effect of increasing his natural courtesy. I always felt instinctively that, like an oak tree, he represented everything good and dependable in the British countryside.

He was not a man of Devon, having lived there only for the last dozen years of his life. Rather, he was born and brought up in the Chilterns, one of five brothers on a small family farm, where the cows were milked by hand and the milk went into town on a horse-drawn float.

There he lived and worked, attuned to the rhythm of the seasons, and when war came in 1939, fate ordained that, of all the men in the family, he should be the one who stayed behind to keep the farm going. Fate also provided him with a lifelong partner, in the form of a London girl who had been working as a secretary in the City. With the onset of hostilities, she was drafted into the Land Army and was sent to help on his farm. She and Jack were married soon after the war and remained devoted to each other until his death.

For me, his magic lay in the fact that he was thoroughly old-fashioned, in the best sense of the word. He had old-world manners and he felt comfortable under the old order of large country estates. Because he liked to talk about bygone times, he seemed to represent an Arcadian countryside, which I came to too late to know.

My favourite anecdote was of how in summer, as a boy, he was paid sixpence a day to scare the rooks off the ripening cherries. His weapon was an ancient muzzle-loader, which he would discharge at intervals, and one day, as he went for lunch, he handed the gun to another lad, who was to maintain the intermittent bombardment while he was away.

This fellow, supposing the gun to be unloaded, rammed another charge down the barrel - and when he next pulled the trigger, the double detonation blew him backwards through the wooden wall of a barn. Whenever Jack told the story, we would pretend not to know the outcome, to make sure of hearing the punch line, always exactly the same: 'Oh yes,' he would say in his slow and serious way, 'It put him through the boards.'

When he died, someone came up with the extraordinary fact that never in his 84 years had he been abroad. Dedicated as he was to cricket in summer and shooting in winter, he had never ventured farther afield than the Isle of Wight.

This confirmed my feeling that he was quintessentially English - and certainly my own memories of him chiefly centre around village cricket. Later, he became a first-rate umpire, but in youth and middle age he used to keep wicket; his hands were so huge that he could scarcely pull gloves on over them, and, unlike more cautious colleagues, who stood back to fast bowlers, he would stand up to everyone, with the ball thudding into his palms or fingers or other parts of his anatomy. On one unforgettable occasion it hit him on the top of his head and flew high behind him to the boundary for four byes - and still he never flinched.

Upright and decent though he was, it was not unknown for him, while crouching at the batsman's shoulder, to wage a mild form of psychological warfare. 'Cor]' he would mutter. 'Ball's doing a bit, isn't it?', and even if it were doing nothing at all, the batsman would be marginally disconcerted by the fear that he had failed to notice some sinister deviation.

Once when I was bowling and Jack was the umpire, I found that the ball was swinging sharply away to the off. Time and again I beat the bat, and time and again the ball drifted out to pass harmlessly within millimetres of the off stump. Several times, as I walked back to bowl again, I cursed mildly in exasperation, appealing for sympathy at my lack of luck. But Jack, though he was our own umpire, maintained an Olympian indifference, and merely murmured, 'You want to bowl at the wicket.'

Would cricket and farming furnish enough material for my address at the funeral? How was I to express the particular admiration that I knew all present would feel?

I considered recourse to poetry. In vain I searched John Clare for lines that would epitomise Jack's rustic qualities. Then I thought of Gray's Elegy written in a Country Churchyard - and there I was very near the mark. As 'the curfew tolls the knell of passing day,', the poet's imagination ranges over the lives of the simple people buried beneath the turf.

Gray's vision moved him to write wonderfully sonorous lines: 'Slow through the church- way path we saw him borne.' One stanza in particular almost filled my bill:

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife

Their sober wishes never learned to stray;

Along the cool sequestered vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet I realised the tone of the poem was wrong: it is mournful, full of regret for ambition thwarted, for talent which never had a chance. Moreover, Gray was thinking especially of a young man - 'a youth to fortune and to fame unknown'. Old Jack had neither fame nor fortune, but he did not covet them, and there was nothing disappointing or tragic about his life. On the contrary, it was happy and good and full of quiet achievement.

I decided that poetry would not be appropriate. In any case, I did not want to strike a doom-laden note. Better to be cheerful and concentrate on the things he did best.

In the end, cricket proved the key, for I discovered that during his last decade, Jack had been instrumental in the founding of a new club, based on a pub near his home, and that at the funeral his coffin bearers would all be members of the team.

So we gathered, in a downpour such as only Exmoor could lay on. Rain pelted down, driven by half a gale, but people seemed impervious as they walked bare-headed up the long path through the graveyard. Inside, the church was packed. I had steeled myself to remain composed, but when the congregation lifted the rafters with 'Who would true valour see', it was hard to keep emotion in check.

Then suddenly I was in the pulpit, doing my inadequate best. A few minutes later we clustered round the open grave, with rain beating on the lid of the coffin. Back in the low-ceilinged farmhouse, spirits lifted over a magnificent cricket-type tea, and as I set out for home, the great storm rolled away northwards over the moor. I found comfort in a fiery sunset, but I could not shake off my sense of loss, or my feeling that an irreplaceable part of England had gone for ever.