INTRODUCTION TO THE PUBLISHED VERSION
OF CANON DAVID NEAUM'S REMINISCENCES
Canon Andrew Neaum
Canon David Neaum died on Holy Innocents’ Day, 2001 at the age of 89.
Unusual for a priest, although a great talker, he was more a man of action than of words. He was happier in the kitchen, the field, the work shed and out and about in the parish than he was in the office. His were not the lily white hands of the scribe. Nor was he much given to introspection, at least publically, or to wearing his heart and feelings on his sleeve. Like the Synoptic Gospels’ Jesus of Nazareth, he is to be found and known and loved in narrative and lively conversation. The sort of person he was had to be deduced, discovered and inferred from the doings and events of an active and travelled man. It is the story that matters, that holds the key to the person and personality. His love of his children and of all close friends, as well as his faith in God, were articulated far more in deed than word.
It is fitting therefore that he should have been above all else a raconteur, a teller of stories. For much of his life he was a much sort after dinner table guest. This was because he could so easily and so well fascinate his fellow guests with deceptively simple and straightforward stories of his Derbyshire youth and of his small Atlantic island and African mission-priest travels and experiences. To invite him to dinner was to have him dominate the evening with such stories. Dorothy his wife would nod in agreement, add a provocative comment or two now and then, and if the wine had been liberally poured, nod off and snore happily as the familiar tales followed on one after the other, enthralling the company.
On his retirement from parish ministry and after the death of his beloved Dorothy, the calls upon his time became less demanding and he began to put his gifts as a raconteur to good use. He wrote down some of his stories and published them in parish pewsheets and magazines. His first series, “Golden Bells and Pomegranates”, was written and published in the new-sheets of the Queensland Parish where he settled on leaving the Island of St Helena. It is a series of stories about his long and interesting life as a deacon and priest, beginning in England, moving on to Tristan da Cunha, back to England, then to Rhodesia and on finally to the island of St Helena. The deceptively simple and unadorned style of the stories and their positive and profoundly appreciative view of ordinary Anglican parish life and priesthood proved extremely popular in his parish. Eventually I began to publish them in the parish magazines of Ararat Parish and then in the Ballarat Diocesan paper which I edited at the time. Rather to my surprise they were very popular with church folk who did not even know him, especially lay people. The clergy too often prefer their own maunderings to those of other people, a truth demonstrated by the arrival in Ballarat of a new bishop who was disparaging of David’s offerings in the diocesan paper, let alone my own. He quickly turned the paper into a dull public relations rag dominated by pictures of himself, his own non-narrative ruminations and stale parish-pump waffle! David viewed all this with an amused and tolerant charity that I found more difficult to muster.
With the encouragement of the parishioners of St Mark’s Slacks Creek in Brisbane Diocese, we have prepared this edition of “Golden Bells and Pomegranates”, combined with a later series of articles written for the parishioners of St John’s Wodonga, “Count Your Blessings” which tell of his childhood and young adulthood through to ordination.
Why was David Neaum so good and popular a raconteur? On the face of it, it has little to do with style. His stories both at the dinner table and his two written series are artless and simple. It is the story that matters, it is what is told that appeals, not how it is told. Yet it is not quite as simple as that. Artlessness is an art in itself. It was his lack of artistry that allowed the narrative and its characters so memorably and simply to live and to be. Events and people come to life in his stories just because they are not obscured by verbiage and analysis. People encountered in a long and interesting life and the events and occurrences of that life are simply presented as they were, and prove fascinating in themselves. Because David held very definite and strong opinions, there is no suspicion whatsoever of blandness to his tales, on the contrary, there is the spice of politically incorrect comment, but it is a very light spicing, the opinions are declared largely in asides and sparingly. It is the story and the people, the events and the happenings that hold the interest. He had a perspective on life that made the ordinary appear fascinating. He sought out exotic places in which to exercise his ministry, he loved and enjoyed life, the Anglican priesthood and the common man and woman, and he had the good fortune to spring from a more than usually talented and interesting family.
Another attraction is his faith. In an age of doubt and angst his soundness and surety of faith were appealing and reassuring. He lived out his faith in a strong, practical and altogether admirable way. He was brought up in a very musical, high church parish. Many of his stories dwell appreciatively upon that grounding, but he did react against extreme anglo-catholicism. He moved to more solid, central ground while retaining a largely catholic inclusiveness, style and sense of order and dignity in worship. He loathed liturgists and loved the old Prayer Book rites, maintaining, I am sure rightly, that most liturgists, unlike he himself who prayed the offices and liturgy with relish, were bored by them, and that it was for this reason as much as for more noble ones, that they desired to change them. Their lack of respect for and love of the old rites making them the very last people on earth to entrust with so precious a treasure as the divine liturgy. However, although a conservative, he was not madly so. He came to tolerate and then even almost to appreciate the new rites, though always preferring the old. Likewise with the ordination of women. He could see no sense, once this (to him) regrettable innovation had become a fact, to go on resisting it to the detriment of the far more important work of the Church.
His devotional life was centred upon the daily office. Unless desperately ill or in the most extreme of circumstances he never ever failed to say matins and evensong, usually with Dorothy his wife, and when his children came home from boarding school, or just happened to be around, with them too. In his old age and with failing eye sight he would take an hour and sometimes two over each daily office, struggling to read the lessons, falling asleep between verses, but insistent upon saying everything. Being a reticent man he did not reveal what his private prayer consisted of, but right up until the end he was a great intercessor, asking me for particular names from the parish sick list in need of special prayer. I know that I personally have been prayed for earnestly, daily and lovingly for every day of my life. I trust that this continues from beyond death.
His sermons, as often as not, were narrative in style. He would tell the biblical story in his own words, digressing into his own story periodically and then would draw altogether orthodox and profoundly commonsensical and practical conclusions. He never preached from a written text, just a few notes. This sort of sermon is not the sort that I personally find the most useful or admirable, but as he once said to me when I complained about someone else’s sermon, “There is not a sermon preached that can’t, if listened to in the right spirit, confer some blessing upon a listener.” Certainly most people seemed to love his preaching and find in its accessibility, commonsense wisdom and certainty of faith a useful aid in making sense of the Bible and applying faith to daily living.
One of David Neaum’s greatest enthusiasms was music. He had a light tenor voice that remained sure and true to the end and he was able to sing the versicles at Choral Evensong in St John’s Wodonga up until a few months before he died.
He was recruited into his parish church choir at the age of six, where, under a particularly talented and tyrannical rector/choirmaster he learned all that was necessary to make him a successful choirmaster himself, once he was ordained. Wherever he went as a parish priest he either founded a choir or took over the running of an existing one. The only long gap in his choral activity was as a mission priest in Africa where, surprisingly, he did not get involved in African choral singing, probably because the school on the mission station he went to was for boys, and the only women available were unable to read, let alone read English. He was an exacting and fierce choir master. Even during a service, if he thought the choir was dragging, he would start loudly snapping his fingers to get everyone back in time. He loved it all.
For many years the only music listened to in our house was home made, my mother being a pianist. It was not until we left mission work and the bush that we acquired a gramophone and the wherewithal to buy luxuries like records. On my leaving boarding school to go to university, during which time I lived at home and began to develop a passion for music myself, we began a musical collaboration. I sang in his choir and edited his parish magazine in which the hymn numbers for the month were printed and so I began to pick them. In those days I had a bias against any tunes written later than about 1820 and so Orlando Gibbons and his like ruled, and even the great Victorian sentimentalists like J B Dykes were only sparingly sung. How the congregation put up with it I don’t know, but they were led by a good choir and my father’s tastes largely coincided with my own. He also financed me in the building up of a record collection. Wherever we went on holiday outside of sanctions-pinched Rhodesia, we searched out record shops and spent happy hours listening to and buying early music, nothing later than Beethoven. I still have this collection, though because the records were played on inferior equipment their use to me now is largely archival, the noise and scratchiness is unbearable for sustained and serious listening for pleasure.
What was it that motivated David to leave rural ministry in England, to which he seemed so well suited, and head off to the uttermost parts of the world? He certainly felt himself called to mission work, and had it not been Tristan da Cunha it would have been somewhere else. The seeds were planted in him by holidaying missionaries who came to his home church to preach when he was a child. His practical, people oriented and out-of-the-study style of priesthood suited him very well to old fashioned mission work. Particularly so in Africa where he managed thirty two or more schools that necessitated travelling enormous distances every month over appalling roads in badly sprung vehicles. It seems to have been this that wrecked his neck, giving him a trembling head with a persistent pull to one side that caused him great discomfort until his death. He built teachers’ houses, classrooms and churches, sometimes doing the plumbing himself. He designed and built his own and an assistant’s house on a new mission station, with the help of an amiable African builder. His blunt speaking and honesty, allied to his sense of humour, seemed to be greatly appreciated by the Africans. When the nationalistic liberation war began to manifest itself in the burning of schools and sometimes churches, he let it be known that should any buildings under his care be burned there would be not the slightest chance of them being rebuilt. Not one was burnt.
He left mission work in order to see me and also my brother, should he so choose, through university. There was no way that this could be financed on an unaugmented mission priest’s pittance. In those days the Easter Offering was given to the priest to augment his salary, it was but a few pounds on mission stations, whereas in white suburban parishes it could be several thousand. He took on the parish of St Mary’s in the affluent north eastern suburb of Salisbury where he stayed for seventeen years until retirement. It was a happy time for him, not least because he was much appreciated by his parish and although a country priest more than a suburban one, there remained a country component to his parish and for a long time as well he was an effective archdeacon of a huge swathe of country. Even in his own parish he was able to extend the rectory and to plan and oversee the building of a detached bed-sitter for my use, combined with servants quarters and a garage.
His final fling as an active full time priest, though officially retired, was on the island of St Helena where he became the parish priest of Jamestown and archdeacon. This was probably a mistake. Both he and Dorothy were less than content, probably in part because they were trying to recapture the Tristan da Cunha experience, and the world and its people, even on small islands, had changed enormously in thirty or more years. It was with some relief that they left after three years to retire in Queensland, where my brother has settled.
As a husband and father David is more difficult to sum up, he being so reticent a man when it came to matters of the heart. If there was any discord between his wife Dorothy and him they kept it entirely to themselves, his children saw nothing of it. They were an admirably suited pair, though David was a man who liked and usually got his own way. Dorothy was a strong-minded and willed person herself though, and could manage him to a great extent, if and when she felt it necessary, but she allowed him an enormous say even in such matters as how she dressed He would go shopping for dresses and handbags with her and make the final choice, often buying three or four or more at a time, she seemed to trust his taste totally. They were both great readers and there were always great piles of library books in the house. It was in Africa that they developed the siesta habit, after lunch every day they would lie down for a read and sleep. Dorothy usually chose the books and I read a good number of them too, they both loved Dickens and read and reread regularly their own set of his complete works. He loved to buy in bulk, a habit probably developed on Tristan da Cunha where one had to order supplies for six months or longer. Even when living in the suburbs we shopped for vegetables for a time at the wholesale market, and so disposing of a sack of cucumbers by making gallons of cucumber soup was a feature of family life in the cucumber season. Although an old fashioned husband and father and so very much the boss of the home, he was unusually domesticated, taking part in cooking, washing, cleaning and all household decisions. Expertise in all of this came from his time with Fr and Mrs Mellor when he was a child and young man, as chronicled in his reminiscences. He was extremely competent at any practical task he undertook. He managed his financial affairs with an expertise that ensured we never ever felt poor and was always an astonishingly generous man, giving away a full tenth of his income and teaching us to do likewise. When I first got regular employment he advised me to open a Building Society account called a “Tithe Account” and to cream off ten percent of my salary into it each month to give away, a practice that he followed all his life and which I do to this day. You don’t have to be a religious fanatic to be generous, indeed I have an atheist friend here in Australia who does likewise. So well did he manage his financial affairs that when I needed a car to get to university it was automatically purchased with no fuss, first an ancient Morris Minor and then an old Ford Prefect and he was always able to make his trips back to England on leave, sometimes with exotic detours, though of course, as a missionary priest the fares back and forth were paid by his missionary society.
As a father he was undemonstrative, but loved to involve his children in whatever he was doing. He liked to have me with him as assistant in the woodwork shed, as plumber’s mate and in the garden, or as companion on his treks round the schools of his mission district, talking away and treating me like an adult, though impatient and sharply critical if I made a mistake. He also liked us to say Mattins with him and to serve at the altar.
As far as school was concerned my memory tells me he simply left us to it. There was little if any comment on our reports or urging us on to excel, he just expected us to succeed, and anyway we were miles away from parental direction, at boarding school. He prepared my brother and me for confirmation at home on our own, for we were on a mission station and the hundreds of African candidates confirmed with us were prepared in their own language by the African assistant priest. His teaching was old fashioned in the extreme. We learned the Prayer Book Catechism off by heart, but the essence of the faith he expected us to pick up in the living of it.
Both he and Dorothy were great smokers and once we were in our mid teens he was happy to allow his two sons to do likewise, so long as we smoked a pipe and not cigarettes. My brother Peter later used sometimes to cycle to school smoking a pipe, to the chagrin of his teachers. We were allowed to drink wine as children, in moderation, though as we grew older he urged beer drinking on us two boys in preference to any other alcoholic drink, considering its bulk safer. Bawdy talk was permissible, but never what he called “filth”.
We took great family holidays together, one memorable one with a single tent for the whole family, all the way up to Kariba Dam, which was then in the process of being built, over the Zambezi and up along its northern bank to Livingstone and the Victoria Falls, then down to Bulawayo and on home, arriving, he later told us, with only two and sixpence left in his pocket. There were other wonderful family camping holidays together in Mocambique, to Beira many times, and once to Lourenco Marques. There we revelled in the Latin cuisine, wine and way of life under a hot, tropical African sun and always spent hours wandering the docks, an obsession of Canon David’s that he has passed on to me. There were also memorable holidays in the eastern highlands of Rhodesia and in South Africa.
On his wife’s death he moved down to live near to us in Ararat where he took over the assistant priest’s house and played a full part in the life of the parish. I had to learn to cope with a tyrannical ex-choirmaster in my own choir, which took a bit of doing, probably more for him than for me, but old age brought with it greater tolerance for incompetence than was once the case. He visited the hospital, preached, sang Evensong and took a traditional rite weekday Eucharist. He also found delight in a small vegetable garden and immersed himself in the joys of domesticity, cooking exceedingly tasty meals for himself and cakes and pastries to share with us and anyone who called. He thus enjoyed a long twilight ministry, still revelling in priestly work, people, good talk and good food.
He was always immensely well disciplined, never neglecting his daily office, or exceeding his self-imposed limit of two glasses of sherry or wine every evening. His remedy for illness or pain was to get up and do something. He fell and broke his hip on his way to a Friday morning, traditional rite Eucharist. This was the beginning of a physical decline that necessitated his coming to live in the Rectory with us. There he learned to curb his impatience most marvellously, and to bear with our more adventurous and cosmopolitan eating habits, protesting only occasionally. He enjoyed being able to remain a part of a rectory family. In earlier times when visiting us he liked to get in to the kitchen, not only to help cook, but also to wash up. When no longer able to do this for us he bought us a dish washing machine in compensation.
He had, needless to say, an enormous influence upon my life. For a start he ensured that I could never dismiss the Christian faith easily. I had been a part of and witness to so healthy, virile, attractive and unhypocritical version of the faith, that even when filled with conventional and arrogant university student doubt, I could never really let go of either the institution or the practices it demanded of me. So much so that I still call myself an idolatrous Anglican in that I am one of those rare folk who actually love the institution as well as its God, and for a time it was love of the institution not the God that held me. My own call to priesthood became clear to me in a religious experience and turn-around when I was thousands of miles away from my family, my home and their influence, working as a teacher in London. However, it was in fact the distance from both home and family that actually put them into true perspective for me, and so the real call lay less in a religious experience of any numinous sort than in religious experience transmitted in the ordinary living of faith by mother, father, brother and sister in family, mission and parish life.
Well now the old fellow’s dead. He loved God, his family and life very deeply and well. There is a great consolation for those of us who live just such a Christian life, a consolation pointed out first, I think, by the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Paschal in his “Great Wager”. In a sense we win both ways. For if Canon David’s wealth of experience, wit, sparkle, love and goodness are now no more, are finished, done with and gone for ever, and so the Christian faith he lived bunkum, so what. For such a life remains the only sort of life worth living anyway. What a life it was! Both he and I would have wanted no other. But then the Faith isn’t bunkum, those who think it is are deluded.
AN EXTRACT FROM CANON DAVID’S
INSTRUCTIONS FOR HIS FUNERAL
"If in Australia I would prefer my body to lie with Dorothy (ie in Queensland) with the cost paid out of anything I leave. If abroad I wish to be buried, not cremated.
“I demand the cheapest coffin possible and a curse on anyone who puts any Stone on my grave.
“A curse also on any Mortician who Tarts me up.
“I would wish for no mourning, no dark clothes, no ‘Bun-fight’ - merely a family drink to wish me well.
“Wherever I die (unless a plane accident drops me in the sea) I would like the 1662 Prayer Book Service with Psalm 90 and, if possible 2 hymns - No: 682 in the old A & M book - ‘Awake our soul....’ and No: 298 in A & M Revised, ‘Lead Kindly Light.....’, sung to the 2nd tune by J.B. Dykes (The only way I can get this tune is to die!!), but I shall not haunt my sons if the tune ‘Sandon’ has to be sung. I would prefer the Officiating Priest and family only at the cemetery.
“.....thanks to all my family for their love and care to their Mum and me. Commandment No. 5 well and truly kept!”