I dreamt I dwelt in great halls
CRIKEY. I’m 60. Because I spend my evenings singing in marquees to mark such milestone passages, doing the same for my own would have felt like a busman’s holiday—i asked, instead, for an Indian takeaway with the family around the kitchen table.
The Grand Dhurbar that Kate laid on in the nave of the church I own was rather stretching the brief, but I’m lucky to have a large family and it did look magnificent. Matthew Rice argued recently in this magazine for the re-secularising of naves (Diary of a church mouse, April 12). Provided that, as here, the chancel is retained as a separately defined chapel serving today’s smaller congregations, naves can be usefully returned to their initial conception as medieval great halls.
Next week, I’m the cabaret at another 60th, in the Balearics—private jets out of Farnborough, catering by the island’s grandest hotel and a celebrated rock band to dance to. I’m not envious. My anniversary was marked by the hanging of a staggeringly beautiful chandelier from the high hammerbeams of my chapel and the painting of a thousand golden stars on the indigo ground of its walls. Reckon I win.
And being 60 is hardly anything to worry about— Nicholas Parsons, after all, is well over 90 and on cracking form he was, too, as we played Just a Minute as part of Oxford’s Literary Festival. We feasted in Keble College’s great hall next to Lady Carey, wife of the recent archbishop. That of Lambeth Palace has just had a terrific facelift, but it was in the great hall of the Old Palace at Canterbury that I recalled playing games of charades with Lady Carey’s predecessor, Mrs Ramsey, while I was a chorister at the cathedral there.
Alex Renton’s recently published Stiff Upper Lip (Book review, April 19) takes the cudgel to boarding-school education and perhaps sending an eight year old away is indefensible nowadays, but… oh, to be a chorister, which is to become a professional musician by the age of 12. To know by osmosis Latin, ecclesiastical architecture, Plantagenet history, meditation, the poetry of Donne, the importance of rehearsal, Greek symbolism, Thackeray, the meaning of charity and the function of great halls. Put simply, it’s worth the candle. It’s everthing that is civilised.
Maybe it comes across as priggish at 12, but at 60, believe me, I’m thoroughly grateful for it. Liberal educationalists may wring their hands, but this is one baby never to throw out with the bathwater.
Fincham Hall, nearby in Norfolk, has for too long rotted away, unloved. Pevsner raves about its early-16th-century tower, its vaulted and heraldically bossed lobby-room, its battlements and Tudor brickwork, its listed stable block, its screens passage and the fireplace in its—yes—great hall. Minutes from the mainline railway to Cambridge and London, why has its sale price dropped again, to £600,000?
This is what I think: a supine King’s Lynn Council is, allegedly, going to allow 24-hour din-making, corn-drying behemoths to be built mere yards away from its Elizabethan door- way (with Ionic pilasters). I’m the first to advocate that the needs of agri-business must be served, but, heck, it’s not as though Norfolk is short of sensible alternative space.
The council’s apparent gutlessness can be measured by visiting Fincham’s neighbouring village of Stoke Ferry, where a visually horrifying chickenfeed mill has, for these 60 years, belched dust, stench, noise, lorries and discontent from its hulk at the very centre of a conservation area, destroying the peace of the community, including a medieval church in which— you’ve guessed—i write this.
Being 60 is hardly anything to worry about– Nicholas Parsons is well over 90’
Would that 2Agriculture’s Ranjit Boporan, latest owner of the mill and now of the Bernard Matthews empire, might grant my birthday wish: to sell it off as brownfield land and move the antiquated brute somewhere else.
Enough. When I was in Oxford, Tim Rice instructed me on how to deal with cold callers. When interrupted while in the bath, or serving soufflé, or up a ladder in your great hall, and asked whether you are the owner-occupier, reply in a Fenella Fielding whisper: ‘Yes I am. What are you wearing?’ Repeat, increasingly lubriciously, at every follow-up question until they slam the phone down on you. I’ve tried it and it’s such fun that you’ll welcome the intrusions.
Kit Hesketh-harvey is a society cabaret entertainer and regular broadcaster for the BBC. He lives in Norfolk