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I wonder if you know these verses? They refer to the birth of our monarch. In those days, the Home Secretary was meant to be present at Royal births, or at least sitting outside the bedroom door, to insure that no usurper was smuggled in a warming pan.


Midnight in Mayfair. Hush’d are the dark bricks

In Bruton Street of Number Seventeen.

Inside, the long-case clock sedately ticks.

Outside, a car draws up, and there is seen

Home Secret’ry, Sir William Joynson Hicks.

Softly he enters. Little doth he ween

     That e’er the hall clock strikes the hour of three,

      A future monarch he is going to see.

Hail to the Princess who, ere break of dawn

Salutes Sir William with an infant squawk!

April the Twenty-First, Hail happy morn!

A loyal Empire echoes to the talk.

King George V’s first grandchild has been born,

Child to the fair Elizabeth of York.

     Sleep on, sweet babe, the sun is shining yet

     Upon thy grandsire’s Empire – LILIBET!

The latent imperialism of the final couplet is, of course, not something which a contemporary poet would allow, but in other ways,  the verses are surely rather beautiful?

I was impressed, re-reading the work, by the strophes concerning the Abdication in 1936.

Later the stricken mother would endeavour

To break the news to her bewilder’d child.

“Your Uncle David, usually so clever,

Has been by an American beguil’d.

He must away”. “Oh – Mummie, not forever?”

Bravely, and through her tears, the Duchess smil’d.

          And while the Duchess with her daughter frets,

          Downstairs, the air is thick with cigarettes.

The  anonymously published LILIBET (Blond and Briggs, 1984) chronicles the infancy of our monarch, ending with

Treetops Hotel, and from a balcony,

Binoculars train’d on the water-buck,

She talks to friends of fishing; playfully

Boasting of catch that day. “Beginner’s luck”.

No one replies. Philip approaches. He

Seems oddly silent. He’s not often stuck

     For words. His face is drawn with silent gloom.

    He takes her arm and leads her to her room.

Treetops Hotel, of course, on the Sagama Water in Kenya, is where the Queen learnt of her father’s death, and her own accession to the throne.

Much of the narrative poem, which stretches over 94pages, derives from the recollections of Marion Crawford,  the governess to “The Little Princesses” – though the author also received help from Her Majesty’s then Secretary in supplying the names of all the corgis. Heather, Tinker, Foxy, Buzz, Sherry, Brush and the others are listed, rather in the manner in which Homer catalogues the Grecian commanders and their ships at the beginning of the Iliad.

Recently, some commentators have said it was tactless of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to have called their daughter “Lilibet”, rather than Elizabeth. “Lilibet”, they aver, is a private name, and there was something “cloth-eared” – that was what one of the columnists said – about them, to have appropriated it. Is it possible, though, that in their galumphing way, by calling their child Lilibet Diana, they were trying to single out the two members of the Royal Family whom they most admired? Could they, even, have been holding out an olive branch?   Was it clumsy of the author of “LILIBET”,  back in 1984, thus  to name his poem? I have often asked myself the question, being myself the (then anonymous )poet.

Hans Kueng

Hans Kueng is dead! I feel I owe him an immense debt since, when in my usual state of confusion  where religion is in question,

I read his book DOES GOD EXIST?  (published aeons ago) and decided that, however strong the voices are nowadays that tell us to live without all that stuff, I would (hesitantly)  stay with it.

Someone should write a play – maybe they have? – about Kueng and Ratzinger, the two young whizz-kid professors from Tuebingen attending the Vatican Council together between 1962-5. They were close friends, and, presumably, as intellectual Catholics witnessing the stupendous Council unfold, they realized that change was not only in the ait, but desirable. But then came 1968, Les evenements, and the great divide opened between them: Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was horrified by the anarchy, the student revolt, the revolution which was shaking the church, the stream of clever men and women leaving their monasteries and convents. Kueng took the other view. It said in the obits that Benedict used to entertain Kueng to dinner in the Vatican in later days. Oh, to be a fly on the wall – only it is very unlikely, given the domestic perfections in which Benedict lived, that there were any flies. His secretary Georg Gaenswein, known as Gay Org or il bello Giorgio, would have seen to that.

My divided soul admires both the Tuebingen whizz-kids. Why, when the Church embraced some measure of the Enlightenment, in the 1970s, did it need, vandalistically, to discard the Latin Mass and its beautiful musical settings? Yet equally, how COULD Ratzinger, when still a Professor, have failed a Ph.D thesis because the candidate questioned the historical reality of Abraham? (!)

When the Church chose, very early in its history, perhaps in the First Century, to celebrate Saints Peter and Paul on the same feast day, it laid down a template for the future. Paul in one of the earliest Christian documents (Galatians) denounced Peter for appearing to backtrack on the Revolutionary Gospel, by insisting that Gentile converts follow the Torah, circumcise, abstain from forbidden meats etc.  Yet both went to Rome, both died martyrs deaths.

When I wrote a  sceptical book about Paul (Paul:The Mind of the Apostle) I rather pooh-poohed the historical reality of all this; but then archaeologists found in the church of St Paul Outside the Walls, chains which undoubtedly dated from the time of the Apostle. The tradition that Peter and Paul were both in Rome and both died for the Faith is very, very old.

Pass a generation, and you see the Church,  in the 80s or 90s, in documents such as the Gospel of Matthew, saying that Christ had been  a  Judaic compromiser – on the one hand,  like Paul, denouncing the scribes and Pharisees for their punctilious attitude to the Torah,  on the other, like Peter, saying that not a jot or tittle of the Torah could be discarded before the End of Days.

We have not reached the end of Days yet, but some would say we had come close to witnessing the end of historic, institutional Christianity in Europe. The conservatives, for whom Benedict XVI is a hero, think everything would be all right, even if it were only for the faithful few, if the Church stuck to its guns, and continued to behave as if the last 250 years had not taken place. The followers of Kueng see nothing but death in such an attitude, and point to the catastrophic effects of conservative clericalism, not least in the child abuse scandals.

I find Kueng’s later work, insisting not only on ecumenical approaches to Protestants, but to all people of faith, very  inspiring. “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions”. It won’t DO for  secular Western liberals simply to denounce all the religious experiences of the human race as mumbo-jumbo, and remain intolerantly uncomprehending of why the millions troop to Mecca, to the banks of the Ganges, to Lourdes, in spite of the Enlightenment. The imaginations which conceived of the Upanishads and built Chartres Cathedral have things to teach.

Kueng stirred us both to be adventurous in our thought about the whole spiritual adventure of the human race, and , if we are believers, to be humble about the way we claim infallible authority for our beliefs. Was it  the Dominican Lacordaire who said, in the 19th century, that he hoped to die a penitent Catholic but an impenitent Liberal? 

A Jab to the Music of Time

Such is the extraordinary vanity of human beings – well, of this one anyway –  I am unable to believe that I am seventy years old, and , although the messages given back by the looking glass when I shave each morning are unmistakable.  I still inwardly believe that I could pass for forty-five (in the dark with the light behind me).

But 70 I am, and so, of course, I am eligible for the vaccine in this Covid19 era. I received a summons to something called the Rec Club, which if you simply say it, seemed like my kind of club.

Why not admit it and say that BOTH the other clubs I frequent., the …. Well never mind their names, but they are full of persons such as myself, old wrecks.

Image result for rec club hampstead

I turned up on time for my injection, asking myself (shades of Sir Walter Elliot) why I should find myself in a queue full of these pathetic OLD people? The queue, the assembly of the pathetic old things in the Rec Centre, the conduct of the vaccine – all were quite extraordinarily efficiently organized. We were all in and out of the place within half an hour. The doctor who gave me the jab, very much “one of us” shared my regret that it was not a syringe-ful of good old Oxford Vaccine but instead this foreign muck, Pfizer,   but he told me that they are vaccinating 1,000 people PER DAY in this gym, and it all worked like clockwork. One is so used to EVERYTHING nowadays being badly run and stupidly organized, that  I could not believe the ease, charm,and speed with which the whole operation was conducted.

When they have given the poor old dears their jab, they told them to sit in rows for quarter of an hour , just in case the injection has the effect of making them dizzy. So, there I sat, itching to get home to continue with my current writing project which is…. My memoirs!

Image result for rugby school

Here’s the funny thing. I had just reached the point of the story where I was a boy at Rugby School, and I was writing about the weird fact that I was never bullied – even though, with ludicrous affectations etc I might be said to have been “asking for it”. . Indeed, I do not think there was bullying, as such, anyway in my house, though there was casual VERBAL  racism and antisemitism, which of course must have felt like bullying for those at the receiving end.  One Indian boy in our house got bullied, and I still feel guilt at somehow not intervening or trying to stop the brutes who did it. (He’d arrived late, in the middle of a term, from Mumbai, poor kid, and somehow or another he unleashed a Lord of the Flies atmosphere in the place which never surfaced otherwise). But compared with the violence and brutality which happened in the same house ten years earlier when my brother was there, that house  was  in general  calm, gentle, amusing.

Almost the last sentence I’d written, before setting out to the Rec Club for my jab, was to say that even truly WEIRD boys were not merely tolerated but liked, and that those of us who aspired to be intellectuals and aesthetes, though perhaps regarded as ridiculous by others, were not subjected to persecution. I gave as an example a charmingly eccentric boy called Roderic Wye (actually I never knew his first name, I have only just discovered it from Google) who liked the works of Sir Steven Runciman. He and I used to vie with one another to see who could quote more from the History of the Crusades. Wye, as I remember, knew the whole of the final magnificent page of Volume Three by heart.

See the source image

As I sat, post-jab, wondering why I’d been placed by the NHS among all these old-looking people,  quietly waiting for fifteen minutes to make sure we did not pass out from the shock of the injection, a man with a white beard turned round and said, “We were at school together”. Through our masks, we  reminisced, about our love of Runciman’s Crusades, about the time-wasting of Corps (blanco-ing spats and cleaning Enfield rifles before we collected our Cert A), I of course did not mention that only hours before I had been writing about him, having not thought about him once for well over half a century. The last time I saw him, he was an eighteen-year old with red hair. Now he was white-bearded and distinguished .

 Highly distinguished. Wye is a learned Sinologist who has spent many years as a diplomat in China. (Info retrieved from Google again, and his conversation in the Rec Club).

See the source image

How strange, that from the mists of time, a figure to whom I once looked up, (he’s a bit older than I am) but who had utterly vanished from my world, should have surfaced at the very time when I had been thinking about him. It makes me think that Memory, Mnemosyne, who, after all, was Mother of the Muses  creates the most extraordinary situations, and that Proust, Anthony Powell and others who have woven memory-inspired artistic garlands were indeed inspired.


Autobiography is a branch of fiction. This is not to say that Newman’s Apologia or Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit are untrue. Merely that they are the work of  skilled writers, and the arrangement of one’s life– especially the arrangement of that kaleidoscope, one’s INNER life – into a story is an inherently artificial thing to do. Not least because, in a story, one thing happens after another, and in actual, experienced, life the important events do not happen chronologically, and  if  certain events or experiences possess more significance than others, this might only emerge  long after they have happened, or not happened.  Perhaps this explains SOME of T.S.Eliot’s personal obsession with not having a biography written of him, a preoccupation which gripped him  from really quite early manhood. The reflections on his inner journey in Burnt Norton would suggest that it was impossible, quite to put these things into  narrative, because time, unlike prose narratives, does not progress in a linear form.

These thoughts, themselves repetitions of inner preoccupations of mine  stretching back many years, came to mind when I was finishing the latest winner of the Man Booker Prize SHUGGIE BAIN, by Douglas Stuart (Picador £14.99). I very much admired it  and could easily see why the judges, one of whom happens to be my eldest child – my God, talk about the policemen looking younger, one’s CHILD is a Booker judge!! –  thought SHUGGIE BAIN was worthy of the prize which, in the past, has been given to such masterpieces as Iris Murdoch’s THE SEA, THE SEA and Salman Rushdie’s MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN.

Douglas Stuart works as a fashion designer in New York, but, as he has made clear in many interviews, SHUGGIE BAIN is the story of his early life in Glasgow during the 1980s – when the mines and the manufacturing industries and the docks of that magnificent old port were all being destroyed by the march of monetarism,  and for many people there was small hope of  paid work or,  indeed , of  anything interesting to pass the time.  Shuggie (it is Scottish for Hugh or Hughie) is the third child of Agnes, and the story chronicles her disastrous relationship with alcohol, played out in a series of grotty residences, where the women sit round poring over sale catalogues for cheap clothes and domestic appliances to buy on the never-never. “Thank God for black-outs”, as one of  the women says to Shuggie’s mother, while crossing herself.

“Look. Ah know why ye drink, hen. It’s hard to cope sometimes. Ah steer clear of the drink, but ah still need a couple of these every day”. As she produces the wee bottle of Valium, she adds, “Welcome to Pithead”. When, much later in the book, Shuggie and his mother have moved to Glasgow’s East End, his new friend, – in some ways the most sympathetic character in the whole book, Leanne Kelly – having asked why he speaks so funny, confides, “Ma brothers would skin me if they knew I was going around with a dirty Orange dog”. (In fact, though the son of a Prod taxi driver, Shuggie is of his mother’s religion,. Ie Cath-lick).

Everyone is poor, none of the women actually likes their man, and the tribal divide between Catholic and Protestant, is expressed less by attendance at a place of worship than by  sporting a Glasgow Rangers Sports bag or a bit of Celtic memorabilia. Preference for McEwan’s Lager reveals the tribal allegiance.

None of the men – I was going to write, the “real men” – in the book is remotely sympathetic. Pot-bellied, balding, farting, sexually clumsy, and now largely unemployed, unless they are taxi-drivers or prepared to go and work as mine-foremen in South Africa –   we hear, with eery accuracy how they speak, but we do not see into their souls. This is is a book about women – and Shuggie. From  an early age, Shuggie  realizes that all the women have correctly diagnosed that there is something about him which “isnae right”.  In spite of his attempts  to bone up on football, from a tattered old copy of a sports handbook, given away free with the local newspaper, he convinces no one.

Gide was furious with Proust for the opening pages of Sodome et Gomorrhe, where it was suggested that there were certain men who were really girls trapped inside male bodies. This viewpoint in 2020-21 is, OF COURSE,  offensive on almost all levels, managing to  upset transgender sensitivities as well as the feelings of homosexuals. Such  delicate sensitivities and feelings, however, are not on very wide display in the poorer parts of Glasgow in the 1980s. Even when he is eight, and moving with his alkie mother to the Pithead region of ex-coal-mines, the other residents yell out his supposed resemblance to Liberace. Everything about him, from his voice to his walk, to his fondness for rearranging his mother’s few non-pawnable knick-knacks on the window ledge –  tells the same mysterious story. There are moments of horror, as when other boys at school beat him up, or he takes an unwise taxi ride on New Year’s Eve in quest of his mother, but even in these dark moments, the comedy is unrelenting.

For that reason, Shuggie Bain is  Dickensian. It does not imitate Dickens, but it has Charles Dickens’s ability to turn the humiliations and heartbreaks of a poverty-stricken childhood into a work of art. You would think that Dickens could not have improved on his childhood horror-story after you have read David Copperfield, but he could lower the bucket repeatedly into the well and produce Little Dorrit and Great Expectations. It will be fascinating to see, in the case of debut-writer Douglas Stuart, whether he continues to write about working-class Glasgow, or whether the impeccable ear for dialogue and the nuanced comic timing will enable him to write fictions about his current sphere of usefulness. If so, The Devil Wears Prada will one day have a great rival.

I really recommend Shuggie Bain.

Uneasy Lies…..

The public seems to be dividing over The Crown, the drama series on Netflix. On the one hand there are those who stress the programme’s entertainment value, high production standards, good acting etc. On the other, there are those who deplore its departure from  strict historical accuracy.

(For what its worth, I think that most of the acting, especially that by Olivia Colman as the Queen, is almost criminally bad.

Even normally good actors such as Helena Bonham Carter are not good in this show. The Mrs Thatcher actress does not even act, she just does that unfunny Mrs Thatcher imitation everyone used to do in the 1980s which in fact bore no resemblance to the real lady. The only exception is the Lady Di actress, Emma Corrin, who seems as good as it is possible to be.

Behind each opposing  group, of course, there are those with an axe to grind. Some of those who have rushed to attack the Crown in the press seem to be signalling, rather desperately, towards the Monarch, or whoever arranges these matters, that they would like to be able to write the meaningless letters CBE or  OBE after their names.  Equally, some of those who praise the production standards of Netflix might be doing so from the perspective of republicanism. There can be no doubt , if you hate the way Lady Di was treated by her husband and his family, that you think they deserve a good kicking, even quarter of a century after the tragic events which led to her death.

And then again, the whole thing is complicated by the absolutely chilling revelations by Channel Four that Martin Bashir secured his Panorama interview with Lady Di by a clever series of outright lies and forgeries. Worst among these was surely the forging of bank statements, purporting to show that the Princess’s secretary – in fact one of her most stalwart protectors and supporters –  was secretly accepting bribes to work for the other side.

The sinister facts unearthed by the Channel Four documentary do remind us how very murky the whole story was, and is. True, the BBC has been shown up. The Producer of the Panorama programme, who knew how dodgy Bashir’s methods were, is dead, but he died with the Princess’s blood on his hands.

But this is where I think that some of those who attack Netflix’s The Crown are being a little naif in their suggestion that there were no dark forces at work, trying to undermine and threaten the Princess. There is a trail of unanswered mysteries surrounding her death itself, including the fact that the white Fiat Uno which forced her car to crash in the underpass, has never been found. Nor, as far as we can tell, has there ever been a very strenuous effort to find it.

Two or three years before her tragic death, I had lunch in a Kensington hotel with a couple of my fellow journalists and two officers in the SAS , who were drinking, even by the standards of our profession, very heavily.  As they became plastered, the soldiers told us that they had been offered enormous sums of money to assassinate the Princess, and that they were sure that one day, sooner or later, she would be killed.

This brings me to the strong implication, in The Crown, that the Duke of Edinburgh actually threatened his daughter-in-law with the possibility of her being murdered to shut her up. It has been pointed out that the Duke is now a frail old man of ninety-nine and that he surely deserves better than for a playwright, Peter Morgan, to invent a scene in which Prince Philip came up to Lady Di’s bedroom at Sandringham before Christmas Dinner to hint that if she did not buck up, she would be in danger.

Watching the Crown has, no doubt, brought out the inner Royalist or Inner Oliver Cromwell in most of us.

Having for years told myself that I was a keen monarchist, I have realized, watching it, that I think the monarchy has outgrown any meaning or usefulness it once had, and that there is a simple reason for this.The reason everyone feels awkward in the presence of the Queen and her family is not because they are royal, it is because they are freaks. In Lady Di’s presence, everyone felt immediately at ease.

Seeing an actress depict Lady Di reminds me of why the whole world fell in love with her. This is not because she was a princess in a “fairy tale” – as Bob Runcie said at the wedding in his amazingly camp voice. It is because – if we must  have princesses and kings and queens in the real world,  – she is precisely the sort of person we should like to have in such a role – starry, sympathetic, unpompous, and – one thing which it is really quite easy to be –  polite.

The staggering personal rudeness of Princess Anne and Prince Philip is too well known to be worth mentioning. But the truth is that none of the Royal Family have ordinary, decent good manners of the kind you would naturally expect from another person if meeting them for the first time.  Lady Di was not a saint, but she did put herself out for others and she had the most beautiful manners. Her removal from the scene was a huge national tragedy from which Britain has never recovered. I think that  Peter Morgan’s drama reflects this fact and it is a greater truth than whether or not the – let’s be honest –  horrid old Duke actually threatened her.

For what it is worth, my guess is that evidence will eventually come to light , not only that Lady Di was deliberately murdered, but that this crime was committed, if not with the collusion, at least with the knowledge of at least one member of her ex-husband’s family. ENDS

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

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