Mr Rural Dean (by Fred Secombe)

Years ago, I read 'A Comedy of Clerical Errors' by Fred Secombe - who happens to be the younger brother of the late Sir Harry Secombe. He is an ordained minister in the Church of England, and his book was about some of his early days working in a parish. I read it before I started writing book reviews, and only remember it vaguely - but seem to recall it was fairly enjoyable and humorous.

So when I saw 'Mr Rural Dean' in a charity shop, I bought it immediately. At the start of this book, Fred is an established Vicar of Abergelly in the 1960s, happily married to Eleanor (the village doctor), with two young children. The book opens with a rehearsal of 'Pirates of Penzance'- Fred and his wife are apparently great fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, and started a society in their parish.

All goes well with the rehearsal, but Fred's churchwarden appears to be dallying with a 17-year-old member of the chorus, and deceiving his wife.

The book is a series of anecdotes of Fred's life in the next few months. A little like the better-known books by Gerald Durrell or Gervais Phinn, I assume they are basically true, perhaps with some names or facts slightly changed to protect people's privacy.

During the course of the book, the congregation try to raise money for a new church plant, the organist has a heart attack, Fred is asked to conduct a baptism for a bookie and his wife with 120 guests... and so on. Unfortunately, although there is a lot of potential, none of it is actually terribly exciting, and it isn't brilliantly written. There are no astute or wry observations, and the humour - such as it is - is more in the slapstick style which doesn't really appeal to me.

Moreover the conversations are long-winded and rather stilted, not helped by extreme formality which was, perhaps, typical of Wales forty or more years ago. Fred as Vicar seems to hold far too much authority - he disparages modern hymns, yells at the congregation when they are talking too loudly, yet kowtows to the local earl, and only allows other 'educated' people (such as teachers) to use his first name.

God is barely mentioned. The whole church appears to exist for the skae of tradition; evangelism in this book means 'getting people into church' - irrelevant of their standing in God's eyes - and none of the characters come across as more than two-dimensional.

Having said all that, it was certainly readable... I kept going, and was mildly interested in some of the subplots, but it really wasn't very inspiring. Fred Secombe has apparently written several others in similar vein, but I doubt if I'll be reading them, unless I happen to spot them equally inexpensively in other charity shops. Nothing like as good as David Wilbourne's two excellent books of similar genre, in my view.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 24th July 2008

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