SUNDAY AT THE CROSS BONES
Fourth Estate, 12.99
BY HIS very title, the Rector of Stiffkey (hard by Cockthorpe) seemed destined to be at the centre of the UK's first sex scandal. Neglecting his sleepy Norfolk parish, the Rector (n Harold Davidson) spent six days of the week in Soho, 'befriending' fallen women and runaway boys.
His Virtue Reclamation League, supported by gullible and usually sozzled Establishment figures, tried to reform the detritus of the Depression through more virtuous work such as serving in Lyons tea rooms. But the non-stop crusade of this Havana-sucking teetotaller in the stews of the Smoke inevitably attracted the hounds of the yellow press and a private detective hired by the Church of England. Plus a change perhaps: if Mary Magdalene washed the feet of Jesus in this day and age, we can imagine the headlines in the red tops.
At the ensuing church trial, in 1932, only one of the 40 witnesses, Barbara Harris, a 17-year-old prostitute bribed with money and alcohol, testified against him. Nevertheless, the Rector was found guilty of "systematic misbehaviour" and "removed, deposed and degraded" by his nemesis, the Bishop of Norwich. Davidson would end his days at a Skegness amusement park, mauled by a lioness who took umbrage at her cage-mate's protestations of innocence. At his funeral, his widow refused to wear black, and 3,000 people followed his coffin.
The nature of the rector's intentions, and the reasons for his downfall, will forever remain obscure. After his death, a bogus biographer, probably hired by the bishop, ran off with his potentially compromising letters and journal. Seventy years after his death, the rector's descendants are still trying to clear his name. Without their consent, John Walsh tries to imaginatively recreate the events and explore the minds of the scandal's protagonists.
Walsh's prose can be pungent, to say the least, conjuring up a world where men in London pubs, including hacks from the Evening Standard, seek to play the "French horn" with "brasses", as well as other more blatantly obscene euphemisms. As the "Prostitute's Padre" explores "the bottom of the monstrous world", we stumble into East End brothels reeking of "the smell of decay, of moth-worn bloomers and stale semen, of leaking gas and bletted fruit, of lies and tidal sewage".
Walsh breathes vivid life into Harris, a brazen, boozy, bangers-and-mash-demolishing hussy who dismisses the Rector's moral crusade thus: "the only intimate liaison that's forbidden in the Commandments is adultery". Harris has by far the best lines, deconstructing the intentions of a man of the cloth whose opening gambit with poules de luxe, and shabbier specimens, is to liken them to movie actresses of the day. He may wish to save the girls from spending "Sunday at the Cross Bones", but his pestering invitations to restaurants and music halls seem to suggest deeper, less ecclesiastical, urges.
However, there is always something unsatisfying about imaginary solutions to real mysteries. Walsh's 'explanations' add little to the ample existing literature on the Rector: fleeting fellatio with Harris; a frustrated showmanship that dates back to friendship with the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt; and the trauma of his wife's wartime infidelity. It is unfortunate that the rector's life after defrocking, which begins, Diogenes-like, in a barrel on Blackpool promenade - tuppence each for gawping spectators - is consigned to a short epilogue.
The author claims to illustrate the contemporary relevance of the Rector of Stiffkey. The papers are "full of Iraq"; it is a Reverend Blair who gives the Remembrance Day sermon the lubricious vicar fatefully misses. These nods to current affairs seem fortuitous and superficial. More convincingly, Harris's treacherous testimony is an example of the spectacularism of the underclass: Jade Goody with added eloquence. Disgraced Davidson's last days as an exhibit anticipate the Hamiltons of this world.
But there is something irksomely and anachronistically southern English about this fat tome: The Archers with added archness. Do we really need to speculate on the sexual mores of servants of that gross irrelevance, the Church of England? Why bore us again with the dismal drama of the Home Counties Christian soul? And Walsh's largely anodyne descriptions of gallus street girls, universally freelance and prey only to pneumonia, would appear very foreign to those gallant lads in their stag parties who regularly brutalise prostitutes in Riga and beyond.