This ‘wry soliloquy’, as Ronald Blythe calls The Undelivered Mardle in his introduction, is quite unlike anything else, although its ostensible subject, the history of a small Suffolk farmyard church and its parish (accompanied by three excellent maps) might suggest otherwise. Asked to give a talk or ‘mardle’ to raise money for the priory church at Letheringham, and having established that he might ‘question the sense of preserving such relics’, John Rogers paid a series of meditative visits over several months. On the day he was to deliver the mardle he had a heart attack; afterwards, ‘feeling rather feeble’ and aware that as a public speaker he was ‘unpredictable’, he decided to write it down instead.
Via such figures as his delightful father-in-law, a ‘Blue Domer’, and the old friend, ‘a devout atheist’ who speaks of people ‘going to church to talk to their imaginary friend’, his account of the church and its material and spiritual vicissitudes, leads him to the question of what churchgoers, present and past, actually believe. Rogers tries to imagine what those first builders thought they were doing; and gathering, on the way, information from local people, architectural, historical and theological experts (including the Theological Beachcomber of Walberswick), what function such churches now serve.
The old friend’s remark prompts a digression on the odd things people do converse with: including their ‘cars, golf balls, photographs of loved ones, wooden legs, bread (while it rises), dogs and cats, trees and flowers’ and, notably, their penises. He himself has over the years projected onto an ancient teddy bear
some of the human qualities I admire: patience, equanimity, quiet wisdom, modesty, politeness, good looks, a sense of humour, courage, a taste for adventure and a respect for fair play…
Retired tree-planter, teacher and bible-shortener (The Basic Bible: Key Readings with Notes, Hutchinson, 1977), the author belongs in the company of Cobbett and Blake: eccentric, visionary and earthy. He believes in the monastic balance of work and worship and deplores, among other things, ‘Christianity’s perennial anti-Semitism’ and modern forestry techniques (‘the earth deeply injured, the water tables unbalanced and the wastage huge’).
Among much else in this moving and entertainingly erudite diary he disputes any necessary antagonism between religion and science (observing, in a particularly splendid chapter, that the basic material of hymn-singers is much the same as that of the scientist: ‘they are all fascinated by the same mysteries’). And finally he sets out, in detail, the church’s annual accounts (shortfall, £3,000). Churches, he tells us, are the actual property of the parishioners, however few and whatever their beliefs.
The unacknowledged signs of impending heart attack lend the book an unexpected, if understated, narrative tension, and Rogers’s account of the strange, restless vigil before he calls the ambulance at dawn is memorable. A short, beautifully constructed masterpiece, for unbelievers as much as believers, The Undelivered Mardle is a timely antidote to the sour polemics of Dawkins and Grayling and the excesses of religious fundamentalism alike.