Author: A.N. Wilson Page 1 of 6

Black Prince Alert

It will distress some readers to know that a violent warmonger, responsible for thousands of deaths in France , is lying in a position of honour in Canterbury Cathedral. Edward the Black Prince, whose magnificent tomb is one of the glories of the Mother Church of the Southern Province,  was the victor of the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers in which half the French nobility were slain. He ravaged and laid waste the Auvergne, Narbonne, Limousin….

Presumably it was Edward the Black Prince that the present Archbishop of Canterbury had in mind when he said recently – reported in the Times, November 10th, “The Church, goodness me, you just go round Canterbury Cathedral and there are monuments everywhere, or Westminster Abbey. We are looking at all that, and some will have to come down”.

Who are “we” in this sentence? Perhaps we shall never know . The Archbish, as it happens, has no authority to pull down monuments in Canterbury Cathedral, which are in the care of the Dean and Chapter. Likewise, Westminster Abbey. If he had his pick of who to remove from the National Valhalla, he would probably be spoilt for choice. Geoffrey Chaucer, of course, would be driven out of Poet’s Corner for his (admittedly nauseating ) Prioress’s Tale, about Little St Hugh of Lincoln being supposedly murdered by the Jews. Some people wondered at the time why the strongly anti-Christian D.H.Lawrence was commemorated in Poet’s Corner, but if you were trying to fit Lawrence into a “woke”view of the world, you’d have the work cut out! He was an undoubted racist, sexist and , had he lived long enough would have been, like his namesake of Arabia, a fascist. As a Croydon schoolmaster in his twenties he was already dreaming of constructing gas ovens in which to destroy those he hated.

  King Edward I, who signed the Edict of Expulsion, asking the Jews to leave England altogether in 1290, would lose his tomb if Justin Welby had anything to do with it. In fact, if you went round Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, you would find it difficult to find a monument pre-1960 to anyone who had not, in some way or another, had a scale of values markedly differing from our own.

One of the most magnificent tombs in the Abbey is that designed by Maximilian Holt for the  person who could claim to be the greatest leader Britain ever had – Queen Elizabeth I : greatest in terms of intelligence, in terms of ability to inspire and unite the population, in terms of cultural achievements and changing  and enhancing the position of her country among the nations. It was not just sycophancy which made her subjects see her as Gloriana.

Yet, there was a buccaneering side to this brilliant intellectual, and when Sir John Hawkins and Francis Drake offered her gold and jewels looted from the Spaniards, she was more than happy, not merely to take the swag but to be depicted, in portrait after portrait, dripping with what some would regard as stolen property. And, far worse – indeed utterly fatefully – by endorsing Hawkins, she also endorsed his having traded in fellow-human beings when he took them from Portuguese slaving ships and sold them on in the West Indies.

No doubt Justin Welby would feel very righteous if he went round with a hammer, like the old Puritans in Reformation times, and eliminated all  monuments to these wicked people.

Christianity teaches us that we are all wicked, we have all gone astray. Putting the monument up to a king who expelled the Jews, or to those in the eighteenth and nineteenth century who committed outrages against humanity – that was seen as a contentious thing to do. But pulling the monuments down, especially when the monuments are objects of beauty – that is surely a  moral as well as an aesthetic mistake.

We do not necessarily endorse the past by cherishing its often beautiful but mysterious buildings and artifacts. You learn, over and over again, the lesson that the past really was a foreign country. The study of history requires the patience and subtlety to learn its complicated language.  Edward the Confessor, the saint whose shrine lies at the heart of the Abbey, owned slaves, albeit white slaves. Slavery was part of Anglo-Saxon culture .  Remember, four hundred years before Edward the Confessor, it was the sight of little English slave-boys in the market who inspired the Pope to exclaim they were “Angeli non Angli”, and to send St Augustine to evangelize our land.

Our churches and cathedrals are among the greatest art works, freely available to all. No art work can speak to us unless we listen to it, attend to it. Archbishop Welby does not want to look and listen. He wants, as so many people do now a days, to go round judging the past, and obliterating the bits which offend him. He thinks he could cut out the bits which he is afraid of, or thinks will upset people – such as monuments to empire builders and tyrants. He does not realize that the past and its messages cannot be edited, they can only be either heard, or destroyed.

Christianity itself is, for very many people  alive today, troublingly, even offensive. (In its suggestion that salvation is through Christ only, in its patriarchal traditions, in its history of crusades and persecutions, in its distrust of the body and its hostility not only to homosexuality but to most sex…) That is not, surely, an argument in favour of pulling down Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, even though, if you followed Justin Welby’s rather silly argument, that is probably what you would expect a modern secular liberal society to do. ENDS

Graham Greene

(This is a version of a recent article in The Tablet).

There have been some pretty galumphing attempts to write the life of Graham Greene, in which his complicated sex life seemed more important to the prolix  authors than his novels.

 What was needed was what we now have, (Russian Roulette, by Richard Greene, no relation, Little Brown ) a one-volume, well-balanced biography which never loses hold of why we might want to read a book about Graham Greene: namely, that he wrote six or seven truly brilliant books, and was responsible, with Carol Reed, for what is surely one of the best films ever made, The Third Man.

A biography of such a man needs to take into account his large family, his headmaster father, his many (quite rum) siblings,  –  one a fascist, one Director General of the BBC, ,- his unhappy marriage, his compulsive disloyalty as a husband, his  alcohol- and barbiturates-dependency, his addiction to the seedy, his string of mistresses, his sympathy for his old chum  the  traitor Philby, his fondness for Castro, his belief that he’d rather live in the Soviet Union than in the USA  . Above all, the biographer, and the reader of such a book, would need to be aware of Greene’s consummate skill at arranging the material of his own life ; his genius for self-promotion disguised as a quest for privacy; self-dramatization portrayed as a spiritual quest.

All these things the new biography by Richard Greene, a Canadian professor who is no relation, competently, unpretentiously and briskly does. But  Richard Greene never loses sight of the central thing about Graham Greene, namely that he was first and foremost a novelist ;  surely one of the best novelists, in any language, of his generation. The sheer technical brilliance with which the stories unfold in The Power and the Glory and Brighton Rock make them object lessons in  how to frame a narrative . There is also the distinctive view of the world which made Greene, for some, the great Catholic novelist, for others, a mountebank, capable of peddling theological paradox for sensationalist effect. When he worked as a publisher at Eyre and Spottiswood, his colleague  Douglas Jerrold, another Catholic, felt that Greene’s novels trivialised religion, and missed “the essence of a Catholic life”.

The film of The Third Man  which is a wonderful achievement, would not have been possible had not, with one part of his fantasy life, the author actually shared Harry Lime’s cynicism. “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock”. Orwell found  Greene’s outlook snobbish : “Hell is a sort of high-class night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only” , since everyone else was too invincibly ignorant to be damned.

It is probably difficult at this historical distance to realize that Greene was  regarded by some of his contemporaries, not merely as an accomplished popular novelist, but also as a religious sage. Pope Paul VI was a fan – or so Greene claimed.  Equally satisfying., however, were the regular denunciations which senior Catholic figures could be relied upon to supply, to the delight of Greene’s publicity machine. When The Heart of the Matter was banned in Ireland, it went on to sell 300,000 copies.

Similar success was guaranteed when the Holy Office condemned The Power and the Glory,.

You could have replied, to these responses from “Disgusted of Citta Vaticana” that the books were , after all,  only novels, not essays in theology. Some of Greene’s friends and admirers, within the Catholic fold,however, clearly   considered  Greene’s books to be something more than mere entertainments. Evelyn Waugh, the new biography reminds us, believed that Greene had an “apostolic mission”. Edith Sitwell, another convert,  wrote to him, “I said before, but I repeat it, what a great priest you would have made”.

 Many must have questioned   the melodramatic way in which Greene manipulated, for sensationalist effect, the  idea expressed by Charles Peguy,  that  the sinner was as close to God as the saint. Peguy was first invoked, in Greene’s published work, by the old priest hearing Rose’s confession at the end of Brighton Rock. “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the appalling… strangeness of the mercy of God”.  From here, apparently, it was only a step to Time magazine’s article on the publication of The End of the Affair: “NOVELIST GRAHAM GREENE: Adultery can lead to sainthood”.

If this doctine is true , Greene, long before he died,  must have been  well on his way to  sanctification . Evelyn Waugh, who expressed the view to a friend that Greene was a saint, was asked “But, what about Mrs Walston? ” This was the vampish  Catherine Walston, one of Greene’s longest-standing mistresses, who herself became a Catholic. The new biography reminds us,  “A wisecrack went round that they had made love behind all the high altars of Europe”. Waugh’s reply to his censorious friend was this. “In the middle ages, there was a Pope who was so holy that he felt in danger of people revering his sanctity, which would lead to spiritual pride. So he took to appearing in the streets of Rome wearing a ridiculous paper hat, so that no one could take him too seriously. Mrs Walston is Graham’s paper hat”.

It was a charming observation, but this new biography makes it clear that the melodrama of the whisky priest bringing salvation to the poor Mexicans for whom he said his slurred mass;  or  of the  posthumous miracles wrought by Catherine Walston, transformed into Sarah in The End of the Affair, were not fantasies kept solely within the pages of his fiction. “To be a saint is the only happiness”, Greene told his Journal. “Oh Christ, if one could set one’s ambition at goodness – so that financial worry meant nothing more than failure at tennis”… This was a man who drove ruthlessly hard bargains with his publishers, and accumulated vast sums from his film deals, even though so much of his fortune was lost through his foolishly putting his financial affairs in the hands of a swindler.  (The swindler,  Tom Roe,  squirreled Greene’s money in Switzerland to avoid paying tax),.In the long, tormented affair with Mrs Walston, which brought great misery to Greene, and to all involved,    the pair continued to read de Caussade and  von Hugel and to  have what sound like  cringeworthy theological conversations with one another and with their many priest friends, one of whom (the Dominican scholar Thomas Gilby OP)  Catherine complicated matters by seducing.  The sentence in this new  biography which really encapsulates the man  in one sentence comes when he was researching The Lawless Roads in Mexico in the 1930s. “Greene went on to Mexico City where, in a characteristic pairing, he made visits to a monastery and a brothel”.

Not content with espousing the  paradoxes of Peguy ,  Greene also swallowed the gobble-de-gook of psychoanalysis, and put himself in the hands of a man who sounds, in the new book, like a real charlatan , Eric Strauss.  He also supported Marxist uprisings all round the world, the less plausible the thug or dictator, such as Fidel Castro, the more likely Greene was to admire him just as Greene, unlike others who worked with him in MI6 at the end of the war, continued to defend the treacheries of Kim Philby, which sent many to their deaths. Greene’s zest for paradox did not necessarily blind him to the cruelty of the Soviet system. This was surely part of its appeal to him.

 Yet the tension in his imaginative world between Marxism and Catholicism was touchingly fictionalized in the novel Monsignor Quixote, in which the descendant of Sacho Panza is found to be a Communist mayor in contemporary Spain and the descendant of the Man of La Mancha is an obscure  priest, raised to the status of Monsignor by  a farcical set of mishaps in his remote village. The book sprang out of Greene’s friendship  with a priest called Leopoldo Duran.

Their  drives  through Spain in a battered old car, and their alcoholically fuelled conversations about doubt and faith are among the most moving things Greene ever wrote. In another late novel, The Human Factor, not only did he write one of the best espionage novels, but there is also a domestic warmth. In both these lateish novels, there is a distrust of the  hard-edged certainties and neatly drawn stereotypical positions which had so appealed to a younger Greene . Yet it was precisely the hard-edgedness of the Catholic view of the world, embraced in Greene’s early fiction, which made it work so well. Pinkie and Rose, in Brighton Rock both believe in hell but so did their author, else the story would not be so powerful.

Just as Golden Age detective fiction was made sharper by the reader’s knowledge that the murderer, unearthed by Lord Peter Wimsey ,  was going to be hanged, so Greene’s sharpest Catholic novels were ones in which the doctrine of hell was only tempered by the paradoxical twists of Peguy, and a sense of the divine mercy too deep for understanding.

If Greene’s biographer were analysing his ideas, they would most of them seem to rest on flimsy foundations. Anyone who had spent a day reading Solzhenitsyn, for example, would take Greene’s declared preference for life as Soviet citizen with a pinch of salt. His biographer is especially sound on Greene’s nonsensical political posturings, which would be of importance had he been a politician, just as his theological views  can not be disentangled from the imaginative take on the world which produced the novels., From  blitzed London in which he lost all his possessions, his books and his house, he wrote to a friend, “London is extraordinarily pleasant these days with all the new open spaces, and the rather Mexican effect of ruined churches”.

From Mexico itself he had written, that Christianity in that country is “a dark and tormented and magic cult. But what harm in that? We are too inclined to forget that Christianity is magic – the man raised from the dead, the devils cast out, water turned into wine, an earth religion- the clay mixed with spittle, the body raised again. Perhaps these dark crosses had more in them of original Christianity than our aseptic rational variety”.

In both these quotations from Greene’s private writings, we can see the imagination at work which, when exquisitely  crafted into fictions or films, would grow into that distinctive atmosphere of “Greene-land”.ENDS

Wider yet and wider

The hoo-ha about whether to sing “Land of Hope and Glory” at the Last Night of the Proms made me remember the endearing author of the offending lyrics.

We are in the middle of moving house at the moment, which has  involved me in parting from thousands of books, some of them dear old friends. In our bedroom, however, is a bookcase containing about 200 volumes from  which I could not  imagine being parted. They include Proust, P.G.Wodehouse,  The Nebuly Coat, The Oxford Book of German Verse, ditto Prose, and so forth. I might write about this collection of “Desert Island Books” in a later blog.

Two members of the celebrated Benson tribe, children of the Archbishop of Canterbury Edward White Benson,  are assembled in this shelf of favourites. Fred Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels – of course. But also, a book called On the Edge of Paradise by David Newsome (doyen of Benson studies, former Master of Wellington College) , which is the life of Arthur (A.C.) Benson told through his  copious diaries.

They were a very loveable family, the Bensons, but many would consider them rum. The future Archbishop proposed to his wife when she was just 12. Having given birth to the family of writers –  among them, Monsignor Hugh, author of such thrilling recusant tales as  Come Rack, Come Rope! – , Fred, the high camp humorous novelist, and Arthur, A.C., who was an Eton beak, and subsequently Master of Magdalene College Cambridge. Their mum, born  Mary Sidgwick, fell in love with Lucy Tait, the daughter of the previous Archbish. They shared a bed – the children were only mildly embarrassed by this.

Magdalene College, of which A.C. became master, is perhaps chiefly celebrated for housing the diary and library of its famous alumnus  Samuel Pepys. Another great diarist, however, was A.C.Benson, His journals run for over five million words, and it is, sad that so few of them are in print. Techno-incompetence means that I have printed two illustrations of the Pepys library in this blog, and, having tried to delete one of them, and inadvertently deleted the whole entry, I have decided to leave both in place! Perhaps appropriately. If the truth is told, I would far rather read A.C.Benson’s diaries than Pepys. Where Pepys is brutally coarse, Arthur is hyper-sensitive. Where Pepys is on the make, Benson was on the lose, emotionally at any rate. Whereas Pepys stood on the threshold of Britain being about to take off – as a great commercial power, as an intellectual powerhouse, as an architectural paradise, Benson came when all that was about to come to an end, and be irreparably ruined by the First World War. The hateful twentieth century destroyed everything he – and we – ever loved. Pepys’s diaries are for those whose favourite seasons are spring and summer. Benson’s diaries are for those of us who love the melancholy of autumn.

Some entries are thousands of words long. His impressions of life, and of the hundreds of people he met, and of the  innocent pre-First World War days where he led such a privileged existence are indeed a sort of Paradise, when we step back into them today. But poor Arthur was deeply depressive, and often confined in mental hospitals for his crushing black dog periods.

He fell in love with a succession of beautiful young men, but would have been horrified, indeed was horrified, by the idea of “doing anything” about this. Newsome’s book has a poignant jacket, illustrated with a number of photographs –  one shows the Benson tribe entire,  another, old A.C., distinguished don and  and , top left, poor Arthur, standing beside Dadie Rylands, who himself grew  to  be the legendary King’s don, friend of the Bloomsburies etc. I knew Dadie a bit – perhaps that’s another blog.

In this picture, Dadie, a blonde twenty-year-old, had his hand through Benson’s arm. Looking full at the camera, Benson could be some retired Indian army colonel, with his double-breasted suit and his walrus moustache. Behind the staring eyes, though… Ah! Such sadness.

In one diary entry he ruefully reflected that he had always lived on the edge of Paradise, and never entered it. Hence Newsome’s title.

Benson, who would be the first editor of Queen Victoria’s letters, was in his forties when the King, Edward VII, asked him to supply some lyrics for Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March.

He  had first met Elgar in 1902 when the King had asked them to collaborate on his Coronation Ode. Thry met at the Queen’s Hall, which was where the Proms used to be held – before it was bombed in the Second War, Elgar had only been to the Proms once before. He walked straight to the ticket office, ignoring the long queue and insisted on being given a free ticket. He sat through a Saint-Saens march, a Tchaikovsky concerto (“my idea of music”. )“Then came the Ode. Elgar stepped to the box; he is taller and shapelier than I have imagined…a long nose – red hands – large cuffs”. He conducted with a smiling aplomb – has a funny fumbling movement of the hands after end of piece. The Ode did both please and impress me very much; it is wizard-like music”.

Afterwards, in the dressing room,  “I found Elgar with his artists. I ought to have thanked them – but I was too stupid – and just had three pleasurable words with E., who was very genial and pleasant. Once or twice I detected a twang, I thought”.

A typical Benson diary entry, with its close attention to all the details – Elgar’s funny gestures with his hands, his slightly “common” voice.  The “Land of Hope and Glory”  lines were added at the last minute when the King wanted more of the Benson-Elgar duo. Apart from “Land of Hope and Glory”, Benson also wrote the words for a melody called “My Heart”, a poem he composed in ten minutes.

Elgar liked Benson’s work, and suggested they collaborate on an opera on the theme of Cleopatra. Newsome adds, “Arthur never followed it up – probably wisely”.

Elgar came to hate the slaughter and insensitive jingoism associated with the Pomp and Circumstance march. Benson, in 1914, said that he was against war in any circumstances, thought it should be as outmoded as duelling. He died in 1925, having lived through the war which saw the death of hundreds of his former pupils at school and university.

To revisit his diaries, with Newsome as guide, is to feast on an innocent, largely male world. His favourite play was The Tempest. “I think Ariel is the hero of the piece, that pretty, sexless creature, the dreaming spirit of wood and flower. It takes hold of me to think of Ariel serving so zealously and only waiting for his escape to the blossom that hangs on the bough. Then Prospero giving up his enchantments and the isle full of noises to go back to the world and business. Macbeth frightens me and Hamlet bewilders me; but The Tempest leaves me happier at heart”.

Heading for the Inferno

We live in a dystopia . Very hard to imagine any  imaginative young writer, poet or novelist, producing a work of uplift in the Covid-infected, climate-changed planet, where all the governments of the world seem to be either grossly incompetent, or hideously corrupt or both. . Whenever you think the post-Christian generations began, – at the time of the French Revolution? Or much later? Post-Second World War? –  it is striking that the Biblical templates borrowed by the post-Christians are now  those of apocalyptic destruction and disaster.  Optimistic socialists of 1945 might have looked forward to a New Heaven and a New Earth. The generations under 30 do not see that world coming to pass.

Young Greta Thunberg is the environmentalist Joan of Arc. But most people, certainly most young people I know, do not want to believe that the world can be saved. Like latter-day Anabaptists or Muggletonians, they derive evident satisfaction from the thought that humanity, and the world it inhabits, is heading for incineration. The inside of their heads must be like one of the more apocalyptic canvases of John Martin.

Valerie Fritsch is one of the young stars of German-speaking literature at the moment.

Born in Austria in 1989, her novel Winters Garten was published five years ago now and has already achieved a sort of classic status. It deserves it. Like Rilke or Pasternak, she has written prose fiction as if she were writing a poem. She does not go in for explanations, so we do not know why the European country in which we find ourselves is deep into a disaster. In one of the most memorable scenes, the hero peers down from a harbour wall and sees the corpses of innumerable naval officers, many of them wearing their medals, and gleaming like fishes beneath the sea. They are only one example of a current wave of mass suicides.

Anton Winter, son of a violin maker, had an upbringing outside the unnamed city, on his grandparents’ farm or estate. The garden where he roamed free, and where ladies sat among the rhubarb patches, seems timeless. At first the reader wonders whether it is an historical novel, possibly a Vienna of the time of Musil. But we are soon brought uncomfortably forward into a time beyond our own. Anton has left the superabundant, tickly planted world of the grandparents behind and now inhabits a tower block in the city . From his prefabricated Grenfell-like block, h e can look down on the ruins of the city.

The  grandparents’ world was far from idyllic. His granny kept the foetuses of all her miscarried babies in jamjars which were buried with her. But she lived in a recognizably  Catholic, or ex-Catholic world, with a figurine of her Guardian Angel on a gold chain round her neck. Anton must find, or be, his own Guardian Angel.

He is a bird-breeder, and as the disaster in the  modern city gets worse, he meets, and begins to make love to, a red-haired mysterious woman called Frederike, who is working in the hospital, which is now almost entirely devoted to  a maternity unit. She helps to deliver a child who, it turns out, is Anton’s nephew. They all – his long-estranged brother, the mother of the child, Frederike and he, retire to the now more or less deserted and ruinous garden of childhood. I won’t spoil the surprise ending for you, but I strongly recommend the novel. The scenes in which, from the unbearably cold house, they gaze across the snows to the  distant city in flames will long stay in my mind as an image of what the modern pessimistic imaginative  mind sees when it looks out of the window.

Hilaire Belloc 150 years on

Hilaire Belloc was born on 27 July 1870. He died a couple of weeks before his 83rd birthday, in 1953. To British and American  Catholics of those times it would have been unimaginable that one day  his name would fade, for he was by far the starriest defender of the Faith, and his books were on the shelf of every literate Catholic – histories, in abundance, travels, poetry, apologetics, economics, politics. I still treasure a bookmark made for me when I was about six,  by a teacher,  Sister Mary Alban OP, inscribed in her matchless calligraphy ,  with Belloc’s lines about the grace of God being in courtesy –  not always a grace of which he availed himself.

It is now forty years since Belloc’s grandchildren approached me and asked me to write his life. I was an unlikely choice, being the Hon Sec of the Wishy Washy Society, whereas Belloc liked banging the drum.

Remember The Arundel Carol – “May all good fellows who here agree/Drink audit ale in Heaven with me/And may all my enemies go to hell,/ Noel, Noel!”.

 I still feel grateful to the family for asking me to chronicle his life . “When I am dead, I hope it may be said/His sins were scarlet but his books were read”. Alas for him, his sins were of a kind we find unpardonable and largely for this reason, the books  go unread..

Imagine a modern reader ,  who had barely heard of him,  picking up a volume of  Belloc’s  verse in a second-hand bookshop .  She might be  surprised by how good it is.  Such a reader  might place the poet in the tradition of English pastoral. 

Spirits that call and no one answers

Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done.

Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers,

And never a ploughman under the sun,

Never a ploughman. Never a one.

But the pessimism of the poem is coming from a different imaginative world than that inhabited by his Prot public-schoolboy  “Georgian”  contemporaries ,

Likewise the  poems seemingly for children are animated by  something  hard-edged which is at variance with anything we would call either  English or Pastoral .They depict children who  were incorrigible – Henry King, whose habit of chewing little bits of string led to his grisly fate – “Oh my Friends be warned by me/That Breakfast, Dinner/Lunch and Tea/Are all the human frame requires/With that the Wretched Child expires”. Matilda dies in flames. Jim who did not keep a hold of nurse, is devoured by a lion. Lord Lundy’s inability to restrain tears leads to the anathema of his grandfather –“Sir! You have disappointed us!/We had intended you to be/The next Prime Minister but three:/The stocks were sold: the Press was squared./The middle class was quite prepared./But as it is! My language fails/ Go out and govern New South Wales”.

The child who has  absorbed  these verses has actually learnt to be subversive. The England depicted, where the “hoary social curse” stinks “a trifle worse/Than in the days of Queen Victoria” is being  judged  by a quite different value-code. “The moral is, it is indeed/You must not monkey with the Creed”.

Belloc, though  for a time a Liberal MP,   and though the celebrant  of the Sussex pines, was not really English: he was  half French . His  Englishness was that of the awkward squad: his mother, a redoubtable feminist called Bessie Parkes was descended from  the great chemist Joseph Priestley, and from nonconformist radicals. It was through  Cardinal Manning she  became a Catholic, and it was Manning’s Catholicism , with the social radicalism of Rerum Novarum, and an Ultramontane hope that the Papacy would provide the conscience of Europe, which guided Belloc’s thought.

The book which expounds his political  outlook most succinctly is The Servile State (1927), an application of the principles of Leo XIII and Cardinal Manning to the world scene of the 1920s. Faced by the instability of the Capitalist system (he published his book two years before the Wall Street Crash of 1929) and by the social injustices it inevitably produced, he foresaw only three possible solutions. First was Collectivism, the experiment already being tried in Soviet Russia with catastrophic effect. Secondly, the re-establishment of Property by Distributism in which the mass of citizens should severally own the means of production”. (Sometimes nicknamed Three acres and a cow). Third, what he called A Servile State which is really what we live in today.

The twentieth century saw a number of heroic attempts to put the ideas of this great book into practice. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement in the United States springs at once to mind. There was the Ditchling Community in Sussex, where Eric Gill and his Guild of Craft workers put many of Belloc’s views into practice. 

Belloc saw that  all this political and economic  evil went hand in hand and stemmed from  the loss of the Catholic faith in Europe .

The ideas of The Servile State, so distrustful both of the tyranny of state and of market, are echoed in many of the encyclicals  of John Paul II  . Whether there would be much chance of  Belloc’ s histories enjoying widespread popularity again, one rather doubts.  They were composed at lightning rate: he wrote the life of James II in a fortnight on a holiday in North Africa, with no books to hand. The best of the historical books relate to France. His history of Paris, which gives out in the 18th century, is packed with good stuff. The revolutionary histories – the Life of Danton in particular – are marvellous.

Rereading  the chatty travel-books, notably The Path to Rome, when he walked to the Eternal City  opining on everything under the sun,  and The Cruise of the Nona, his book about sailing (he was a passionate yachtsman) ,  has been disillusioning .  I found the former arch and purple prosy, and the latter – despite its many sad  beauties, blustering and absurd.

No, worse than absurd. For here one comes to the core  difficulty, and the reason why the Church in our day has distanced itself  both from what Belloc stood for and his way of standing for it.

What I  first found most attractive about Belloc’s Defence of the Catholic Faith , still has enormous appeal.  He  propounded not the inner life,  but  the Catholic Thing, “the Thing that is the core and soul of all our history for fifteen hundred years, and on into the present time: the continuator of all our Pagan origins, transformed, baptised, illumined; the matrix of such culture as we still maintain”.

If  you value the common European heritage from  “the pagans on whom we all repose)  to Dante , from St  Benedict to St Dominic , from Aquinas to John Paul II, there is  something obviously attractive about the Bellocian catchphrase , “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith”.

But, but, but….when you read The Cruise of the Nona, with its adulation of Mussolini, its casual antisemitism,  then you realize it is not just Belloc you are finding repellent: it is a whole mindset, exemplified , distinctively but not uniquely French ,  which carries along with its piety a bundle of odious falsehoods and sheer nastiness.

Before I researched this article, I’d promised myself not to express priggish horror at Belloc’s  unreconstructed  views, picked up when doing his National Service in the French Army, in the 1890s .  Why not just celebrate Belloc the elegist,  , the humorist ,the tramp who in the Path to Rome was a sort of Edwardian Jack Kerouac,  the yachtsman who gazed with such lyricism and such heart break at the sea, “the common sacrament of this world?” Why not just cast out the slimy dark bilge water gurgling around in the stern of his old boat the Nona and bucket out the filth, without mention, into the ocean? And the answer must be, that, in his lifetime, Belloc was not just a supremely entertaining journalist-poet.  He had also set up his brass plate as a Catholic apologist and as he banged the drum for “Europe and the Faith”, he dragged all his less salubrious prejudices into the foreground, actually making them part and parcel of his defence of  Catholicism  itself.

The anti-semitism can not be overlooked.  The Cruise of the Nona , published in 1925, still persists, against all the contrary  evidence then available , in proclaiming the guilt of Dreyfus.  If the familiar pattern – hatred of the “Money Power”, distrust of international capital, slithering into   the bullyism of   antisemitic cliché , –  could be detached from Belloc’s Catholicism, one could , almost, laugh it off as an ugly period detail. These horrible ideas, however, persist to this day. Consider the underbelly of Le Pen’s Front National

Belloc himself was not a Nazi, if only because he detested Germans even more than he disliked Jews  . He was the first British journalist to denounce the Pope, Pius XII, for not doing more to protest against the Hitler regime and in particular the persecution, later massacre, of the Jews. But I never found a scintilla of evidence that Belloc could see a connection between the sort of anti-semitic views he expressed throughout his life, and the horrors of the Third Reich.

The pilgrim Church went on a very long journey after 1945 towards a discovery of how true Pius XI’s words had been, that we are all spiritual semites.  The present Holy Father, with his call to  everyone to read the Scriptures,  could not be further from Belloc who dismissed the Epistles of Paul as those of a “muddly old yid”.

I do not want, however,  to end negatively.

In early life he had dreamed of being a don at Oxford and he never forgave All Souls’ for not giving him a fellowship.  Thank God  they  didn’t.  He  rampaged off, after Oxford, to become  one of the great men of Fleet  Street ,  absurdly opinionated, drunken, sometimes hilarious and sometimes hectoring. He was a better writer in every way than his chum Chesterton. For one thing, you sense in his writing, especially in the funny verses,  a deep sense of life’s cruelty and  sorrow.  In his religion,  Belloc was honest enough to find no consolation for this sorrow, which stemmed from the loss of his wife and two beloved sons.  Apart from the sea,  it was drinking and laughing with friends which brought consolation. I find that – and his absolute absence of humbug – very sympathetic.

From quiet homes and first beginning

Out to the undiscovered ends

There’s nothing worth the wear of winning

But laughter and the love of friends.

            This article was written for The Tablet, and appears in their issue of 24th July 2020.

Perjuring Bishops

This picture could be entitled “Laughing all the Way to the Bank”.

Like many old hacks, I have done a range of jobs in the Street of Shame. While I was Literary Editor of the Evening Standard, a  dream job which could scarcely be described as demanding, my  editor, Paul Dacre – a demon-figure for  the chattering classes but the kindest and best employer I ever had and certainly the best editor – suggested I cover trials. I sat through every day of several famous ones – including Rose West at Winchester Crown Court and  the William Kennedy Smith trial for rape in  Palm Beach, Florida.  (Kennedy Smith was acquitted, West was sent down for life, both interesting judgements in my view). In some ways the most instructive, however,  from a legal point of view, was the trial of Jeffrey Archer for perjury. It emerged that he had lied in court, when suing a newspaper for a story that he had given money to a woman, in a brown paper envelope, who mysteriously died shortly before the perjury case.

He was sent down for four years and served two – 2001-3.  The trial was interesting because the Judge, Mr Justice Potts, made it so clear to the jury  that perjury really strikes at the heart of the entire legal system. You simply can not have a system of justice which is effective if the word of witnesses and plaintiffs and defendants is unreliable. Hence the significance of their swearing to the truth of their statements on the Holy Bible .

I do not know Jeffrey Archer’s religious beliefs, and it could well be that he thought  the Bible was a work of no more significance than one of his own novels. You might have guessed that the wife of an Archbishop of Canterbury would think otherwise, but apparently not.

A former Dean of Canterbury, an old chap called Victor  De Waal (father of the charming, and famous potter) has now admitted that he had a fling with Lindy Runcie, while her husband Bob was Archbishop of Canterbury. Why de Waal wants the publicity at the age of 91, we are not in a position to say. His affair with Mrs Runcie  was  no one’s business but their own, you might say, and how can a gutter journalist like myself justify bringing a private matter such as this to the public notice?

Good question, but I would submit, m’ lud,  that it WAS in the public interest if the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of the Mother Church of the Diocese of Canterbury were having a friendship the Dean now deems to have been “inappropriate”. After all, the Church presumes to tell people how they should behave in the bedroom, whether it is admissible for unmarried people to sleep together, whether it is in order to be gay, divorced whaddever.

Rosalind Runcie, when she read a reference to her affair with de Waal in the Daily Star, sued for libel. She won substantial damages which she spent, it was said, doing up the gardens  at Lambeth Palace.  Some genial old Anglican bishop once said that he always thought of the Ten Commandments as like an exam “seven only need be attempted”. Clearly,  Lindy Runcie thought the same, choosing to ignore the injunctions both against committing adultery and bearing false witness. When I think of the , admittedly repellent, Jeffrey Archer doing two years in prison for committing perjury, it seems preposterous that Mrs Runcie, later Lady Runcie, was not banged up for committing the same offence.

Another of my journalistic assignments in days long gone was to write a column for Private Eye about the bishops of the Church of England. My by-line was Lucy Fer. All sorts of disobliging things were written by Lucy Fer about most of the diocesan bishops and some of the smaller fry. I liked a letter, sent to Lucy, by a Jamaican lady  who said she was prepared to have ONE of her sons abused by the bishop but when he did it with all three she felt that it was a step too far. Only one bishop, Bath and Wells, sued.  He had done a real estate fiddle, and sold a property for grossly under its market value to favour a friend. He also perjured himself, since I knew for absolute fact that the matter over which he complained was true. He settled out of court and got £43,000 which he said he was going to give to charity but , as far as investigation was possible, no evidence was ever found which suggested the money  ever left the bishop’s own bank account.

While I was writing my Lucy Fer pieces I often had twinges of conscience, thinking it was rather mean to reveal  quite what a shower the bishops were. The story of Rosalind Runcie’s  making substantial sums of money out of lying, while holding a Bible in her hands, makes me realize that, as a character says in one of I. Compton Burnett’s novels, cynicism can never go too far.

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