The Norfolk author whose book brought Stephen Fry to tears
- Credit: Joanna Millington
A dream of an angel brought the Rev Paul Farnham and his family to a paradise of country churches, rural lanes, a huge wild garden and villages full of kind and clever people. It also brought them unimaginable tragedy.
Jess Streeting was just eight when she arrived in Cawston, near Aylsham, with her parents and younger sister. For five years the girls ran wild in the huge rectory garden and out across the village. Their childhood was an idyll of countryside, village school, church music and singing, new friends and age-old traditions.
Paul Farnham was a gifted, charismatic, faith-full priest. He loved music and people and sailing and God. He travelled between his five Norfolk parishes – Cawston, Booton, Haveringland, Eastgate and Brandiston - “On his bright red Vespa. Black clergy cloak billowing,” as Jess writes in the poem she has conjured from the tragedy which engulfed the family.
Forty years after Paul drowned and 13-year-old Jess barely survived the freak storm which overturned their sailing boat, just off a Norfolk beach, she has turned her grief into a poetic memoir. Framed by a return to the church and churchyard, she recalls how the family fell for Cawston and Norfolk and then, in simple, evocative, stark verse, the unbearable, terrifying end of the dream.
“I wanted to do something that was a homage to my parents,” she said. “I liked the idea of an epic poem, the simple language; repetitive, alliterative; the preoccupation with the after-life and a dream-like quality to it; the idea of paradise lost, found in the garden and then lost.
“When I first started writing I had quite a lot of phrases from TS Eliot’s Wasteland, like scaffolding, which then fell away. When I was a teenager, after dad died, I desperately needed the hugeness and brilliance of great writing and great music because there was no other way to make sense of the awfulness.”
Her father had seen, in a dream, the vast church and its angels, the rectory and its wild garden, before they arrived in Norfolk. Drawn to the county, the new rector had a gift of drawing people to him.
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One of the many people whose life he touched was Stephen Fry, then a teenager living in nearby Booton.
“The arrival of Paul Farnham was the realisation of a dream for me. I finally had a companion with whom I could talk books, ideas, music, logic and religion, an intellectual and spiritual mentor,” says Stephen, in a foreword to Jess’s book.
Paul encouraged Stephen to apply to Cambridge University and employed him to help Jess with her maths ahead of her application for a place at Norwich High School. “He took that very seriously, bless him. I think he was about 19. He was so patient and so talented,” said Jess. “He was a kind of genius teenager; he was wonderful to know and I think my father knew he would go far. He staged this play and Stephen was in it. When he started to become famous I don’t think anyone was really surprised. He just had this extra dimension.”
Jess, and her sister Alice, have been friends with Stephen and his family ever since. Stephen was one of the first people to see her poem, telling Jess it had made him cry, and giving her the confidence to approach publisher Henry Layte of Norwich’s Book Hive and Propolis publishers.
“I’ve had such an overwhelming response to it,” she said. “I wanted people to read it quickly, almost gambol through it, like we were, in the freedom of all those fields around Cawston. We had so much freedom. We biked everywhere; our minds had freedom to roam too.”
Jess went on to train as a nurse and work as school nurse and now supports and advises school nurses for a large London health trust. “My professional life’s ambition has been to understand ways of supporting adolescents and children going through loss,” she said.
Alice became a renowned orchestral conductor. Music ran through their childhood and Jess said: “Church music has always been really important to me. I do a lot of singing and it’s always church music. I’ve always been involved in church, through music. I had a period of really falling away from the church and then latterly I’ve begun to realise again how incredibly important it is to me.
“My father had the most extraordinary faith. We always felt he was all right. My ambivalence was all around, 'What about us?' The imagery had been so strong, of him and those angels. We were incredibly privileged to have had all that and yet here we are on the earth and they’ve gone, he’s gone, that frozen feeling.”
She stands beside the gate which led from the Rectory garden into the churchyard. It’s locked now, she cannot go back. But a robin sings and seems to urge her to tell her story of life, death and angels.
And so she does. And it is about ordinary day-to-day village life and an extraordinary priest and father. It gathers in the people, places, history and wildlife which surrounded them from the wise and gentle village schoolmaster, writer and naturalist to choirboys with voices which soared to the angels in the church roof.
Close to the end of her story Jess wonders whether angels hovered, waiting to take her father home, and the church angels watch over a lone coffin.
Much more recently, during a church restoration, she came face to face with the medieval angels of Cawston.
“For a very brief time you could go up the scaffolding,” she said. “It’s the most extraordinary experience, seeing those angels up close. I just burst into tears.”
Jess and her teacher husband divide their time between London and Cromer. “Norfolk is a magical county. It’s a God-ward county with all its churches,” she said. There is a memorial to Paul Farnham in Cawston church and his name will be one of around many on the new Wells lifeboat. Sea-Change is another memorial.
Sea-Change by Jessica Streeting is published by Propolis.
Jess will be talking about the book with writer and naturalist Patrick Barkham, who grew up nearby, at The Book Hive, Norwich, on March 3.