Requiem for Jennifer

I didn’t know Jennifer Swift that well but I knew her well enough to be sad to hear she had died. I must have first met her at a convention but I already knew the name from her stories in Interzone. She was Christian, she lived in Oxford, she wrote sf and she liked C.S. Lewis – obviously we were going to get on. Thanks to her I even got to give a talk at the C.S. Lewis society: Lewis was quite strongly opposed to space exploration, but I humbly proposed a few takes on the topic through the lens of science fiction that he might have approved of.

We developed an annual tradition in which she and her husband Tim would explore yet another picturesque cycling route around Oxfordshire on their tandem, and the route would intersect with a pub where I could join them for lunch and she could pick my brains about agents, writing novels and other related affairs. When Jennifer had identified you as a source of information you got a distinct feeling of being locked on to. She was born to be a journalist. The parallel world where her novel did finally get published is a richer place than this one. My input would have accounted for a fraction of the whole which would have been drawn from the many, many streams and strands of thought that so fascinated her.

Latterly, of course, it was we rather than I who joined them for lunch. No lunch this year, though. Didn’t think anything of it and it was probably unrelated to her illness, which was only diagnosed mid-July. Then on 30 September Tim emailed all her friends to say she had died: stage 4 metastatic breast cancer in the liver and possibly the spinal column. Requiem mass sung this morning in the chapel at Magdalen.

Good grief, if I was doing a reading at my wife’s memorial service I couldn’t possibly be as dignified and calm as Tim was, reading a passage from Julian of Norwich in which she saw God hosting a banquet for all the honoured souls in his house – i.e. all of them – and taking a lower seat himself, refusing to hold an exalted position in his own home.

After a couple of shaky starts – the lad must be just on the verge of his voice breaking – a child sang a solo from Perelandra: the Opera, music by Donald Swann (who Tim has always strongly resembled in my eyes):

No man may shorten the way.
Each must carry his cross
On the long road to Calvary,
Follow where other feet have trodden.
Though the burden seems too great
For bleeding shoulders to uphold,
Too dark the path
For failing eyes to see,
Yet the lonely hill must still be climbed,
The desolation still be borne.
No man may shorten the way.

And what a difference it makes at a funeral where the minister delivering the sermon actually knew the deceased.

Once in a while it’s good to splurge out on some really high church. Incense, Latin, the lot. (Though if I had one teeny, tiny criticism, it would be that the incense was kept in a separate room the other side of a closed door, and the server in charge of smells would duck in and out from time to time to get it. The first time he left I honestly thought he might have badly needed a pee and questioned why he had to go in the middle of Tim’s reading. Okay, this was probably for a good reason: I expect the incense was kept in a liturgically sanctioned fume cupboard without which it would have reduced visibility in the chapel to five feet – but even so, it was distracting.)

I thought of the contrast with my usual church and remembered an analogy by C.S. Lewis, which therefore Jennifer would approve of. In fact I know that even Philip Pullman approves of this one because he’s who I heard it from. Roughly it goes: when I was a child, I liked lemonade but I didn’t like wine. Now I’m an adult I still like lemonade but I also like wine. I now enjoy two experiences where I used to enjoy only one: my maturity has enriched me.

Those churches that resolutely use only forms of worship devised this century are confining themselves to lemonade only – and the more determinedly modern they are (“this unsingable piece of whimsy was a hit at New Wine so we must sing it every week until either one day someone learns the tune or we bring back a new hit from New Wine next year – whichever is sooner”) the flatter the lemonade is. Everyone needs a good vintage draught from time to time.

Back to Jennifer, her Church Times obituary is a lovely read and I’ll finish as the service did. Jennifer:

In Paradisum deducant te angeli, in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere aeternam habeas requiem.

May the angels lead thee to Paradise; at thy coming may the martyrs receive thee, and bring thee into the holy city Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive thee, and with Lazarus, once a beggar, may thou have eternal rest.

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