Our son, William, celebrated his marriage on Saturday. You would expect me to say that it was wonderful, sunny occasion. I do, and it was. I have been trying to work out why.
The most important factor is something which parents can, fortunately, affect very little. Will was marrying a beautiful, kind and thoughtful woman, whom he loves; and she loves him. This mutuality, rather than any doctrine, is the main thing. Marriage occurs naturally in organised society and is not invented by religion. Religions only annex and defend it. Although my wife and I are believers — and so are Will and Hannah — I do not think religion is essential to the concept of marriage.
It makes a heaven of a difference, however. We are lucky to have a beautiful 14th-century parish church just down the road, and even luckier to have a bishop in the family (John Oliver, ex-Hereford), who also, 34 years ago, married us. Much as one values parish life, there is always a risk — cynics would say a probability — that the local vicar (someone we no longer have, thanks to a diocese-imposed permanent ‘interregnum’) will make a hash of it. Our bishop got everything right. We had been worried about the liturgy since this was not a marriage but a service of blessing, because Hannah needed a visa to stay here and so the couple married in a registry office earlier in the year (hence my phrase ‘celebrated his marriage’ above). Although the service of blessing lacks the vows, and the thrill of inevitable, legal fact, it is simple, clear and affecting.
In his address, the bishop said that marriage is not a merely private event, and that this is one of its great benefits. It is shared between family, friends and neighbours. It reaffirms that there is such a thing as society. This is particularly evident in a country wedding. We walked from the church to our house. The superb caterer was a farmer’s wife from the next-door parish, and most of her food was local. The beer (though not — perhaps just as well — the wine) was also from Sussex. We knew the churchwardens, the cake-maker in the village, and our dear friends from the hunt who procured and arranged the spectacular flowers (lots of artichokes). The station bistro let us park our cars in its spaces; the police specially delivered parking cones; the new village hall, which my wife Caroline had done so much to get built, was the site of the dinner and dance. The choir and soloist were virtually foreign, crossing the border from Wittersham, 15 miles away in Kent, but even in this case we knew the principals. Neighbours drove the bride’s family, stewarded the parking, filmed the scene, engraved the order of service, inscribed the invitations, played the organ, cleaned the house, tidied the garden, mended the drive and painted the windows at the last minute, worked open the west door of the church when it was stuck, and cleared up afterwards. Only the ceilidh band, the marquee and the handsome portable lavatories came from more than 25 miles away. People were consistently kind, I think because they felt part of it. Leaving out family, I calculate that the labour of at least 78 people was directly involved, for 170 guests. A third of the guests lived within ten miles. The striking thing, in retrospect, is that we did not make a deliberate effort to source things locally: it just happened.
Having extolled localism, however, I should like immediately to contradict myself: one of the nicest things was that our son married a woman from 5,000 miles away. Hannah is from the state of Montana (147,040 square miles: 1 million people). So it was a shock for her family to come to Britain (80,083 square miles: 63 million people), and sad to leave their daughter in this crowded island. Whenever Hannah’s family made speeches, they wept. Although this expressed grief at losing Hannah, it was also part of their joy and generosity about the marriage — happy-sad, not miserable. We were very touched, and slightly ashamed of the British way of pretending that everything is a joke. Without wishing to disparage the women of Britain, I feel more excited to have a foreign daughter-in-law than a home-grown one. Marriage as social cement (see previous item) is balanced by marriage as adventure and romance.
Americans have a custom called the rehearsal party the night before. Hannah’s parents, Tom and Charlotte, exported this to Sussex. It is an excellent way for each family to get to know the other before the hurly-burly of the main event. Tom presented me with an authentic Stetson, which won my head and heart simultaneously.
The warm afterglow must not be allowed to efface from the memory just how complicated the whole production is. (Production is the right word, because it is like putting on an intricate play with only one performance.) We tried repeatedly to think through everything, but failed. We didn’t have a cake knife, for example, which was both sturdy and ornamental enough. We severely miscalculated how long it would take to erect scaffolding in the village hall and hang 40 drapes and accompanying gauze from a rail 25 feet up. The train to the village station broke down. Only the intervention of a skilled guest could make the microphone work. Will wore smart new shoes, with the result that the morning after a night’s dancing, he could not walk. The rush to do everything at once is indescribable. When we went upstairs at the end of the evening, I found among our sheets a packet of cereal, my driving glasses, some Finish dishwasher tablets and a cucumber. Caroline had swept these up from the car before chauffeuring the bridesmaids to the service and hurled them on to our bed.
Our revels now are ended, it is raining, and the caterers have left not a rack behind. I might wonder if it had really happened, were it not for the presence of my new Stetson in its sturdy box.
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