A blog in Fealty to Apollo

On Thursday and Friday last week I went on a course that I had not wanted to do.

O! How I love, on a fair summer’s eve,
When streams of light pour down the golden west,
And on the balmy zephyrs tranquil rest
The silver clouds

Unfortunately, attendance was mandatory so off I went.

Soft voices had they, that with tender plea
Whispered of peace, and truth, and friendliness unquelled.

Did I walk with a heavy heart? No, not at all; for although I the course was not to my liking, I thought to myself ‘Who knows, perhaps something good will come out of it; perhaps I will hear something, meet someone, or do something that will be for my good in the future.”

But what, without the social thought of thee,
Would be the wonders of the sky and sea?

So, far from having a heavy heart, I walked up the road with a light one.

Now I direct my eyes into the west,
Which at this moment is in sunbeams dressed:
Why westward turn?

Now, in case you are thinking ‘what a good man this writer is – so positive!’ let me admit that my thoughts were as much me simply being practical as they were about my ‘good’ nature coming to the fore.

Just like that bird am I in loss of time,
Whene’er I venture on the stream of rhyme

What about the course? Well, guess what – we had a very good and kind teacher and I met some interesting people. By the time it ended at lunchtime on Friday I was quite sorry to leave!

How many bards gild the lapses of time!
A few of them have ever been the food of my delighted fancy.

Before moving on, I should add that when I say ‘interesting’ I’m not being English; I don’t mean ‘disagreeable’. No, they really were interesting people for the stories they had to tell.

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold

Once the course ended, I had an afternoon to spend as I wished. So, as one does (and this one definitely does from time to time), I took a walk to Hampstead Heath.

Fresh morning guests have blown away all fear
From my glad bosom

There, I found a bench and sat down to read a few of John Keats’ poems – aloud. A few weeks ago, on my last visit to the Heath, I found a bench slightly off the beaten track and decided to read a few of the poems aloud. It was— how can I describe it? It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. John Keats is my favourite poet. His words get inside me. They set my soul alight. They transport me. I become as one who though he is in the world is not quite of it. It is as if I am resident of Faërie who has stepped out of his magical world and into the duller one that is our own.

Give me a golden pen, and let me lean
On heaped up flowers, in regions clear, and far

In short, if I met most of my writing heroes, I would give them a firm handshake and say ‘thank you’. Keats would get a warm embrace and were we close, a kiss upon the forehead.

Of lovely Laura in her light green dress,
And faithful Petrarch gloriously crowned.

And in case you are wondering, the quotations come from some of the poems I read on Friday. I didn’t choose them for any relevancy they had to my words but just because I wanted to share them with you. I hope you liked them.

In noisome alley, and in pathless wood:
And where we think the truth least understood,
Oft may be found a ‘singleness of aim’

Catching Up On Books

Back in June I mentioned that I counted how many books I had on the go, and found that it was ten. I resolved to not start any more until I had finished them

When I wrote that post, I was already on my way to achieving this objective, having finished Benedict XVI An Intimate Portrait by Peter Seewald, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway and J R R Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf.

What happened next? How did I get on with the other seven?

Well, I have now read five of them. The two outstanding books are a biography of St Philip Neri and one of John Keats, and I have to say I was never completely committed to finishing them in the first place. They are both books that I have been content to dip in and out of from time to time.

Of the five…

Gertrude Bell Queen of the Desert by Georgina Howell

I had just re-started this book when I wrote my original post. Bell was not always a very likeable person – she was a very gifted and driven person but suffered something of the pride that can come with great talent – so from that point of view, and that alone, the book was sometimes a little difficult to read.

However, matters improved immensely when Bell finally entered the desert. This is really because I love books or films set in the desert. Bell herself didn’t change but I think that great sandy vastness made me more tolerant or forgiving of her.

On Gertrude Bell – Yes, she could be rather proud but she also had a kind side, and the arabs came to know it very well. She fought hard for their cause after the First World War, and was instrumental in the creation of modern Iraq. When she died in Baghdad in 1926 the great and good, humble and poor, and everyone in-between, turned out to wish her farewell.

A ‘biopic’ of Gertrude Bell is currently being filmed; if you would like to bone up on who this formidable woman was, I thoroughly recommend this book.

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
I have written about this book and Patrick Leigh Fermor on various other occasions so I won’t say too much here except that I enjoyed the book again very much indeed. As I read it, I made a note of all the words Leigh Fermor used, which I didn’t recognise. It came to a fairly long list. He was a very erudite man. At some suitable moment, I shall take this list to my dictionary to find out what they all mean.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
I first read this book at the turn of the century and hated it. I just couldn’t get on with its non-linear narrative, and the fact that the patient and Katherine Clifton were not at the centre of the story. A while ago, I thought to myself (I think someone or something inspired this thought but I can’t remember who), ‘You know, The English Patient is really best understood as a piece of literary impressionism; as a poem. Why not read it like that?’ So I did, and my opinion of the book has changed utterly. It is beautiful, absolutely beautiful and my heart ached to read it. If a book could manifest itself as a physical act, The English Patient would be a tight embrace by one’s beloved.

The Girl at the Lion D’or by Sebastian Faulks
I can’t remember if I have talked about this book much, or even at all, before; it is, however, one of my dearest favourites. I think I might leave off saying much here in favour of dedicating a separate post to it. Before moving on, though, perhaps I might answer the question of why I like it so much. The reason is Anne Louvet. She is such a believable character. When you read her story, it is as if you are reading the story of a real person. She is loving, needy, kind, vulnerable and lives in a terribly unfair and harsh world, which Faulks realises incredibly well.

The last book wasn’t a book at all – it was actually the collection of journals that I have stacked up on my desk. Well, I have read a few of them but there are still too many to mention there.

So, Philip Neri and John Keats aside, have I now caught up on my reading? Well, I’d be lying if I didn’t make one or two digressions while reading the Ten! That is the life of a bibliophile.

Tolkien’s Tree

Sad news from Oxford

Oxford University’s Botanic Garden is planning a send-off for the iconic black pine known as ‘Tolkien’s tree’, which needs to be removed from the Garden after two limbs fell from the tree on Saturday.

The tree, a pinus nigra, was a favourite of J R R Tolkien during his time in Oxford
(Oxford Today)

Not only that, Tolkien posed beside the tree in the last known photograph of him.
Tolkiens favourite treeIn keeping with too many other articles about Tolkien, the report notes that ‘… some say its twisting branches resemble the ‘ents’ in his The Lord of the Rings novels.’

Sometimes it really does feel that everywhere Tolkien went, everything he touched, indeed everything he looked at possibly inspired a scene or character in The Lord of the Rings.

Be that as it may, there is good news – the Botanical Garden intends to propagate the tree so one day we’ll see a ‘son of’ rise up into the starry sky.

I would be very happy if it was named Christopher’s Tree after Tolkien’s son who has done so much to help us understand the development of Tolkien’s work since his father’s death in 1973 through the arrangement and publishing of JRRT’s manuscripts.

Pope Francis on Archbishop Óscar Romero

Today, I read an article on the BBC website which stated that,

Pope Francis has lifted a ban on the beatification of murdered Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero.

You can read the article here.

Something can be banned formally or informally. In my opinion, the second paragraph of the BBC report implies that Archbishop Romero’s cause was banned formally. It says,

For years, the Roman Catholic Church blocked the process because of concerns that he had Marxist ideas.

The basis of my opinion is that the paragraph speaks of ‘the Roman Catholic Church’ blocking Romero’s cause rather than of any individual within the Church using their position or influence to do so. Do let me know if you disagree with my interpretation.

Staying with the second paragraph, note how the language suddenly changes. In paragraph one, the report says the pope had ‘lifted a ban’. In paragraph two, it says the Church had ‘blocked’ Romero’s cause.

Are the words ban and block synonyms? No, not according to my OED:

To ban – officially forbid something or prevent someone from doing something
To block – hinder or prevent

Actually, you could argue that Romero’s cause was banned in the sense that it was ‘prevented’ from moving forward but I would argue that as another – indeed, the primary – meaning of the word is to ‘officially forbid something’ then the BBC report should not have used the word unless the writer also meant that Romero’s cause was ‘officially prohibited’ as well as prevented.

My reason for arguing this is that by using the word ‘ban’ the BBC writer creates a misleading picture of what has actually happened, or rather, what has not happened.

So, what has happened? Why are we not talking about Blessed or even Saint Óscar Romero right now?

I have no connections in the Vatican. I am just a Catholic tapping away on his keyboard. I, by myself, have no special insight to offer you.

However, unless the unnamed writer of the BBC article is a member of the Vatican, neither does he. He must rely on his sources. Well, as he does, so do I.

The BBC writer’s source is Pope Francis himself. Is there a better source than him? Perhaps not, except, if the writer is going to use him, it would be helpful if he quoted the Holy Father in a way that was relevant to his claim that the Church banned Romero’s cause.

This is what the Pope is quoted as saying,

“For me Romero is a man of God,” the pontiff told journalists on the plane bringing him back from a trip to South Korea.

“There are no doctrinal problems and it is very important that [the beatification] is done quickly.”

Where here is there any proof that the Church banned Archbishop Romero’s cause? Is the writer holding something back? If he is, he is being being lazy in not revealing it.

That’s the BBC writer, what about my source? As it happens, Pope Francis’ wish to see Archbishop Romero beatified is not new. The story is only appearing now – again – because the pope was asked about it yesterday.

Thus, when I read the story this morning I thought to myself ‘this sounds familiar. Didn’t Benedict unblock the cause a while ago?’. So, I googled ‘Benedict Romero Cause’. That’s all. The very first result that came up was this article, written in October 2013, on the Vatican Insider website.

I encourage you to read the article, but the upshot of it is this – after the year 2000, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) assessed Romero’s published and unpublished works and found them to be free of error.

Despite this, not everyone involved in the process was in favour of Romero’s cause proceeding. The report names one of the CDF consulters, the late Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, as having ‘played an important role in slowing the cause down’. As a result of this opposition, the CDF – under the authority of the the future Pope Benedict – put it on hold.

After Benedict’s election to the papacy in 2005, nothing happened. Then, very unexpectedly, in 2007 he,

… told reporters he considered [Romero] a “great witness of the faith, a man of great Christian virtue who worked for peace and against the dictatorship and was assassinated while celebrating Mass. Consequently, his death was truly “credible”, a witness of faith.”… Benedict XVI concluded by saying Romero is a figure who “merits beatification, I do not doubt.”

This corrects the impression given by John McManus in his analysis of the BBC writer’s article (or of his own article?) that Benedict was against Romero’s cause. McManus writes,

Francis’s decision to send the case of the Archbishop Romero to the Vatican’s saint-making office flies in the face of what his two predecessors advocated.

Clearly, by 2007 Benedict was in favour of Romero’s cause being moved on.

Having said that, it would be true to say that, as the Vatican Insider article notes Benedict did not get Romero’s cause moving again after 2007.

Why was this? Was it because he secretly didn’t want it to or because there was still opposition in the Vatican and Benedict – in his determination to be a collegial pope – decided to respect that? For fairness’ sake, we cannot assume ill faith. Unless we have proof of it we have to believe that Benedict would have liked to see the cause pushed on but wasn’t strong enough for whatever reason or didn’t for good reason.

One final point. If you are unfamiliar withe the issues surrounding Archbishop Romero, you might be wondering why there was opposition in the CDF to the continuation of his cause. The answer lies in the ellipsis of the Vatican Insider quotation above.

[Benedict] … explained that “the problem was that a political party wrongly wished to use [Romero] as their badge, as an emblematic figure.”

Obviously, that was the problem during Pope St John Paul II’s pontificate. But in case you have the impression that John Paul had no time for Romero,

During his 1983 pilgrimage to El Salvador, John Paul insisted on visiting Romero’s tomb despite the pleas of Latin American bishops and the Salvadoran government. John Paul II asked local priests to open the door of the cathedral which was locked up by the military. He immersed himself in prayer for a long time in front of Romero’s tomb.

John Paul II again demonstrated his affection for Oscar Romero by insisting ”again against the wishes of many churchmen” that during the 2000 Jubilee Year celebration in Rome’s Coliseum Romero’s name be mentioned among the great martyrs of the Americas.
(First Things)


I’d like to conclude this post by expressing my reservations over another statement made by John McManus. He writes,

Francis’s own instincts early on in his Church career also tended to be suspicious of
Romero’s Liberation Theology, preferring clerics to steer away from political analysis and advocate salvation through prayer instead.

Now, I do not know what Francis taught in his early Church career so I am not speaking here from a position of strength. However, I would be very very surprised if Francis ever told anyone to ‘advocate salvation through prayer’. If he did, I would very much like to see the proof. I appreciate that McManus has to keep things short and simple but there is concise and there is inaccurate and I suspect that his statement is inaccurate.

A Walk in Honour of G K Chesterton

A week ago I walked twenty-seven miles in honour of G. K. Chesterton, from St George’s Church of England church in Kensington to Chesterton’s grave in Beaconsfield. I came home utterly exhausted and with calves that looked like they had been tattooed with two long tongues of flame.

Why did I do it?

Well, why not? is a good response. When a man meets a challenge it is in his nature to throw down his gauntlet and fight a duel with it until one or the other of them hits the ground.

I can go further than that, though; I did it for love of Chesterton’s writings and, through them, for love of him.

I had every reason not to do the walk – my boots were in deplorable condition and on such a hot day I would have been much better off taking it easy indoors – but when Chesterton comes calling, you answer the door.

You don’t have to, of course, but by golly you are missing out on remarkable company if you do. If you don’t believe me, read anything by GKC with a cigar and glass of red wine and/or beer by your side. They’ll be for the celebration when you discover how gloriously wrong you were and what a great writer he was.

I didn’t undertake the walk alone. It was led by a man who I shall call Stuart because, well, that’s his name. A few years ago Stuart retraced Hilaire Belloc’s path to Rome so this walk must have been like a stroll in the garden for him. In his modesty he claimed that the passing years have withered his legs, though I think they looked every bit as persistent as ragwort.

In total, sixteen or seventeen other men and women of varying degrees of sanity walked either alongside us, way ahead of us, or (far) behind us depending on the time of day. We were a crew of such motliness as to make a certain Rock n Roll band jealous.

Of our party, only Stuart had to walk – he was being sponsored on behalf of the Good Counsel Network. The GCN help women who are considering having an abortion. Along the way, we stopped outside an abortion clinic in Ealing to say the G K Chesterton prayer.

The right of a woman to have an abortion, prayer vigils outside abortion clinics and so forth are, of course, hot issues these days. So hot, in fact, there are many otherwise sensible people who cannot touch them without going mad.

With this in mind, I may have readers tutting at our group’s lamentable behaviour or even guiding their cursor key to the URL box with expletives on their lips and contempt in their hearts. If so, I wish them goodbye and a happy life. I am no more interested talking to someone who isn’t prepared to listen to me than they are to hear what I have to say.

If you are still reading even though you disagree with the Catholic position regarding abortion, thank you for being you, which is to say, thank you for cultivating a mature mind and heart. I don’t intend to hit you over the head with my view of abortion – if you know the Church position, you will know it already; I simply wish to record what we did on this walk. After all, most of it was simply walking and that by itself is not a terribly interesting thing to talk about.

Upon leaving Ealing, we made our way to Uxbridge where we arrived just in time to hear the gospel being sung in Latin at a high Old Rite Mass, organised by the Latin Mass Society. I was beginning to feel my unfitness by then and so can’t say that I was able to appreciate the Mass as much as I would have liked. In fact, between you and me, I was most grateful for the rest that the sitting and kneeling afforded.

When God gives, He gives good. After the Mass, therefore, we continued to stop – if that is possible – and had lunch in the church hall. There, I was able to catch up with the parish priest who used to be the curate of my parish.

All good things come to an end, though, and too soon (otherwise translated as an hour or so later) we hit the road once more. Over field, across road, down lane and even passing horses.

Last year, I lasted until the last couple of miles before hitting the walking wall and become very irritable with the world. This year I again ran out of energy before the end. Knowing what had happened last time round, though, I managed to preserve my temper until the end… almost. I’ll come back to that.

Something that happened earlier, however, was a single step on a strip of road next to the motorway. My little toe squished. I knew immediately that I had a blister. One step it was not there, the next it was. If it wasn’t so squishy its sudden appearance would have been fascinating.

How did I make it to the end? Two bananas, a chocolate bar and mouthfuls of water at appropriate intervals. did the trick.

We left Kensington at eight o’clock in the morning, arrived at Uxbridge just after one thirty pm, and reached Beaconsfield around eight-thirty in the evening. Thankfully, the graveyard doors were still open, so we straggled in and made our way to the grave that Chesterton, despite being a man of the broadest possible girth, shares with his wife, Frances, and secretary, Dorothy Collins. He always was a kind man. When you read something – anything – by him, you will see that.

Before the grave, we said the GKC prayer once more. Photographs were taken and, I am afraid to say, this is where my patience, which had somehow lasted longer than my strength, gave way. One more picture… Another one… Ano— NO. I am off to the pub, thank you.

And to the pub we went. I can’t remember its name but there I enjoyed a soothing glass of coke. In case you think this a betrayal of all that Chesterton stood for – which I agree it was – I did have a beer in a pub that we stopped at along the way. I even downed it in five minutes. I wonder if GKC ever managed that.

From the pub – home. And PRAISE GOD the water heater had been put on by a very kind soul and I was able to have a bath to wash off the day’s sweat and grime. When I say ‘I’ I really mean my upper body due to my sun-hot legs. Despite them, it was a very satisfactory end to the day.

Would I do it again? You bet. Time heals such inconsequential injuries as complete and utter exhaustion while the heart never forgets a beloved writer. Roll on next July. I will try not to lose my temper at all and will, come what may, have a beer at the end.

As I Read Twitter This Morning…

… I happened upon a link to a story in The Guardian regarding the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the birth of writer and poet Laurie Lee. You can read it here.

I discovered Lee’s books in 1997 after learning of his death. It’s a bit rotten to only become aware of a person’s existence once they have died but if it is a choice between that and never learning about them at all then I’d rather come lately into their company, so’s to speak, than remain in ignorance.

Cider With Rosie, Lee’s account of his idyllic childhood in Gloucestershire following the First World War, is the book on which Lee’s literary reputation stands. As the Guardian report makes clear some people look down upon it on account of the book’s ‘rose tinted view of life in rural Britain’ but, quite frankly, if a man cannot have a rose-tinted view of his childhood then what can he have a rose-tinted view about? If anyone says ‘nothing, it’s better to be realistic’ then I would accuse him of being a boor and blind to beauty and shove his face into a copy of Cider with Rosie or a Monet canvass for his own good.

From Cider With Rosie I moved on to As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning and A Moment of War, which cover his departure from Gloucestershire as a young man, life in London, walk across Spain and role in the Spanish Civil War where, like George Orwell, he fought on the side of the Republicans. Then came the poetry and that was more or less that until now.

What I liked most about Lee was his richness of language; he had a very poetic mind and it showed. As a result of that, reading one of his books became less like reading a text and more like viewing a painting. I also appreciated Lee’s references to drinking cognac and coffee during his walk across Spain – especially once I had tasted this lovely drink for myself!

Lee died in May 1997. A few weeks later, after finishing my final exams at university, I went on a little tour of the West Country, starting in Gloucester and finishing at Land’s End. On the way, I visited the Slad Valley and the Woolpack Pub where Lee liked to drink. I remember being very concerned at the time about ‘development’ in the region (inverted commas because the idea that the countryside is not developed is absurd). Let’s visit the West Country now, I told myself, before the whole place is concreted over. It is with a little sadness, therefore, that I read in the Guardian report that there is a proposal to extend housing in Stroud so that it cuts into the Slad Valley. It wouldn’t be so bad if I knew that Stroud had used up every inch of its space but, if the city is anything like London, it probably hasn’t; I bet there are still unused offices there.

I can’t stop so-called developers. But I can add my voice to those who say Laurie Lee was a great writer and is thoroughly worth spending even just a little time with. Like A Time of Gifts, Cider With Rosie takes you to another world and leaves you a richer person for the beauty of its prose.


Recently, I sat down with myself and wrote out a list of all the books I currently had ‘on the go’. It came to 10. I looked in the proverbial mirror and swore that I would not start any more until I had finished all of them.

In the last week or two, I have made good progress towards this aim. Benedict XVI An Intimate Portrait by Peter Seewald has now been finished, as has Tolkien’s Translation of Beowulf and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

I enjoyed Seewald’s Portrait very much. He likes Benedict but is not afraid to approach him critically. As part of his research for the book he not only spoke to friends of the former pope but enemies as well, for example, Hans Küng. Seewald tells the story as he sees it and does not try to smother you with his point-of-view, and that’s a good writer.

I enjoyed Tolkien’s Beowulf because it was Tolkien’s Beowulf. I have to say, I didn’t find it an easy read, though. For starters, being a poem, the language is very concentrated. This made it easy for me to lose my bearings. The word order is also mixed around which sometimes throws one. Secondly, Tolkien’s translation is in prose which just isn’t my favourite way of approaching the poem. On the plus side, Beowulf is a stonking good story and I really liked the alliteration!

A Moveable Feast is the latest book to be finished. Whenever I think of Hemingway, I think of someone who writes in a very spartan fashion. Few adjectives, short sentences – to the point. Midway through A Moveable Feast, though, I suddenly realised that Hemingway really does like his conjunction – and this, and that, and the other. And (sorry), to be honest, I really loved reading them (did you notice me indulge myself in the third paragraph above?). It gave the book a real aural quality – like I wasn’t reading words on a page but was somehow being spoken to.

What’s next? Well, I’ll keep the name of six of the books secret so that I can reveal them as and when I finish them but I will say that I have just (re)started a biography of the desert explorer, Gertrude Bell. Much to my surprise, she is now 36 and has not yet started exploring the desert. I can’t wait for her to do so, so that I can listen to my soundtrack of The English Patient while she rides across the desert atop her camel.

Books, Blessings, and Excommunications

A few days ago I visited St Paul’s Bookshop next to Westminster Cathedral. I was bemused to see that books by and about Pope Francis occupied twice as much space on the shelves as those by and about Pope St John Paul II and Benedict XVI combined.

Of course, what Francis lacks in terms of what he has written he makes up for in terms of being the new pope about whom people want to read and that explains his dominant shelf position. Can we imagine, though, that if Francis is still pope in five years time, the division of space at St Paul’s will be more equal?

I’d like to think so but what I fear will happen is that John Paul’s most popular works will remain on show while the rest remains hidden from view and forgotten about by Joe Catholic on the street.

If this happens, I won’t blame St Paul’s. Firstly, if Francis is still pope he will still be producing new works – either directly or indirectly – which will naturally take priority for shelf space. Secondly, I don’t think that we – Mankind – are just that good at remembering our past. Even if John Paul and Benedict had equal space to Francis, we would still choose the latter if only because he is the latest thing.

In proof of the above, I would cite as an example the blessing that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, gave to Francis this week.

On the face of it, the blessing was a kind gesture. How could it not be given the enmity that existed for so many years between the Catholic Church and Church of England?

The problem is that the reason for that enmity has not gone away in the meantime. In fact, theologically speaking, the C of E and Catholic Church are even further away from each other than ever they were before. One of the reasons for this (from the Catholic perspective) is due to the C of E’s admission of female priests and bishops.

Let it be noted that I am not saying that the Catholic Church and Church of England should be at war with one another! What I am saying, though, is that I don’t understand why at this present juncture the pope thought that accepting the Archbishop of Canterbury’s blessing was a worth while idea. Reason being: Our Lord prayed that Christians may be one. What is the value in accepting a blessing from someone whose ecclesial community appears to have no such desire?

To my mind the reason that the blessing happened is because for Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby it was the latest ecumenical thing to do. Who knows, maybe they were right. I’m very happy to pray that this is the case although I must admit that as I write these words I don’t really feel it. Right now, the whole business appears to me as a kind of theological realpolitik.

So, Pope Francis is not a man afraid to court controversy. Neither is he a man who is afraid to court danger. During a trip to southern Italy this week he excommunicated all Mafia members from the Church. If this does not lead to a violent response from the Italian Mob I will be very surprised. Let’s pray not.
Two reports I saw about the excommunications afforded another example of our forgetfulness of the past.

The first report came in the form of a tweet. The writer reported what Francis had just done and commented that the Church was now – finally – entering a new era. He had clearly forgotten how John Paul II had condemned the Mafia in 1993.

The second was a video report in which the reporter implied that Francis was determined to be a different kind of pope. The words were placed ‘on top’ of pictures of Francis at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. That reporter had also forgotten how John Paul visited the Wall in 2000.

In the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor

Before Patrick Leigh Fermor could begin his great walk across Europe he had to make his way from his Mayfair home to Irondale Wharf, next to Tower Bridge, to board the Stadthouder Willem that would take him to the Hook of Holland.

Fermor describes the route he took in the opening pages of A Time of Gifts. Yesterday (or, on 9th June 2014 if you are reading this in the future) I followed in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s footsteps – or rather, the tyre tread of his cab taking photographs of the locations that he mentions as I went.

“A splendid afternon to set out!”, said one of the friends who was seeing me off, peering at the rain and rolling up the window.
     The other two agreed. Sheltering under the Curzon Street arch of Shepherd Market, we had found a taxi at last. 

curzon_street_archAs we shall see, not all the locations that Leigh Fermor mentions are still extant. As you can see above, though, the arch is. To be sure, I am only assuming that this is the correct arch. For all I know, they hailed a cab from another one now gone. However, as the one above leads into Shepherd’s Market, I hope I can be allowed my assumption. Below is the arch from the Shepherd Market end.

In Half Moon Street, all collars were up. A thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Piccadilly…

Here is Half Moon Street. Bowler hats are all but extinct now. Suited men in general rarely wear hats these days, which is a great shame. To be sure, I don’t think I saw too many suited men in this part of London. Smart-casual was the order of the day; given the weather that was probably sensible.

… the Jermyn Street shops, distorted by streaming water, had become a submarine arcade…

Since joining the London Library nearly three years ago I have come to know Jermyn Street very well, albeit fleetingly as I cut through or pass down it on my way to and from St James’ Square. The street is most well known for the fashionable clothes shops based on it; but, as the picture below of Turnbull & Asser shows, the external decorations of the shops are also rather lovely to look at.

By the bye, round the corner from Jermyn Street is the Cavendish Hotel where the Bright Young Things of the twenties used to drink and party. If I remember correctly, Leigh Fermor joined that scene in the early thirties although by then the movement had passed its sell-by date.

… and the clubmen of Pall Mall, with china tea and anchovy toast in mind, were scuttling for sanctuary up the steps of their clubs.

Above is a picture of the Travellers Club, of which Leigh Fermor was a member. They clearly got on well together as in later years the club presented him with a bronze bust of himself.

Incidentally, the Travellers was also Mons. Alfred Gilbey’s home after leaving Cambridge in the sixties. If you don’t know about Gilbey, shame on me for not mentioning him on this blog. I shall make a note to do so. In the meantime, search him out. He was a very holy man.

Blown askew, the Trafalgar Square fountains twirled like mops…

Well, here are the fountains in an altogether more sedate mood. The square is normally a hive of activity – it was somewhere after nine o’clock by the time I reached it so I’m sure many tourists were still at their breakfast tables.

… our taxi, delayed by a horde of Charing Cross commuters reeling and stampeding under a cloudburst crept into The Strand.

I waited for a horde of commuters to burst out of Charing Cross Station but, alas, none came. It was more a decisive trickle. After a few minutes, I got impatient and took the above photograph.

We splashed up Ludgate Hill…

It was as I walked up Ludgate Hill that I reflected on how much London has changed since Leigh Fermor’s trip began in December 1933. What inspired this thought was seeing the construction site on the left of the road and new-looking Cannon Street station on my right. I was surrounded by newness and it felt very dislocating

To be sure, there are still many buildings standing that eighteen year old PLF would recognise but occasionally construction sites and buildings that seem to have no continuity with buildings from the past make one feel that not only is the past another country but another world.

… and the dome of St. Paul’s sank deeper in its pillared shoulders.

This photo of St. Paul’s was taken from its south side. Not long ago, it was hidden behind scaffolding so you are seeing the fruit of many men’s labour in cleaning the facade. It is quite a majestic sight.

The tyres slewed away from the drowning cathedral and a minute later the silhouette of The Monument, descried through veils of rain, seemed so convincingly liquefied out of the perpendicular that the tilting thoroughfare might have been forty fathoms down.

the_monumentThe Monument was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and marks an important event – the Great Fire in 1666. You can also climb up it for a view of the City. However, I rarely see it mentioned as a place worth visiting. It doesn’t even have a proper name! It is a lovely memorial, though, and – as you can see – has a pub next door. There is really no excuse not to step off the beaten track for a moment and pay it a visit.

The driver, as he swerved wetly into Upper Thames Street, leaned back and said: “Nice weather for young ducks”.


Conversely, the less said about Upper Thames Street the better. Neither would I recommend anyone visit it. As you can see, above, it is a valley of concrete and glass, a representation of all that is wrong with contemporary architecture. Let’s move quickly on.

… the bells of St Magnus the Martyr and St. Dunstan’s-in-the-East were tolling the hour…

Above (on Lower Thames Street, just a few feet from where the previous photos were taken) is St Magnus the Martyr church, part of the Church of England. The noticeboard outside it declared that St Magnus’ is a ‘Forward in Faith’ church. I didn’t know what this meant at the time but have since been informed that Forward in Faith is a traditionalist group within the Anglican Communion. It rejects the idea (should I say ‘theology’?) of female priests and bishops. Looking at the notice boards, one would be forgiven for thinking that the church was a Catholic one – the services, for example, were referred to as Masses. Interestingly, the rector’s full title is ‘cardinal rector’. I assume this office is a Pre-Reformation one.
I have to apologise for not getting a clear photograph of St Dunstan’s. The church is in a very tight area, crowded in by buildings. Below is a wall, beyond which is the church garden. I assume that the wall is all that remains of an older church building. I must look that up. The garden, though, was a very tranquil space; I’m sure it is very popular with office workers in the area.

The Mint and the Tower of London. Dark complexes of battlements and tree-tops and turrets dimly assembled…

Above is a photograph of the Royal Mint Court. I have no idea if this is the same Mint building that Leigh Fermor passed. The quotation above seems to apply more to the Tower than Mint. Today, the Mint appears to be offices. Perhaps back in the thirties it was indeed where British money was made? Maybe the building, too, looked different.

… the driver indicated the flight of stone steps that descended to Irongate Wharf. We were down them in a moment; and beyond the cobbles and the bollards, with the Dutch tricolour beating damply from her poop and a ragged fan of smoke streaming over the river, the Stadthouder Willem rode at anchor.

Here we are! As you can see, Irongate Wharf has gone now; replaced by the Tower hotel. But this is where the Stadthouder picked Leigh Fermor up and, bore him away to Holland to begin his great adventure. Or, as he called it, the Great Trudge! Below is a photo of the Thames, looking down the river. I wonder how much that view has changed since 1933?
Here is a photograph of the Wharf. The picture comes from the Museum of London’s website.
I started my journey in Mayfair at about eighty thirty in the morning. It took me about two and a half hours to walk to Tower Bridge – that’s including stops to take pictures, take bearings and so forth. I could certainly have done with the weather being a little cooler but am glad it wasn’t raining!

After finishing my little trek, I retired to a pub on Tower Hill. It was not yet midday so I forewent an alcoholic drink and settled for a lemonade instead. If you would like to know ‘what happened next’ for Leigh Fermor, I cannot recommend A Time of Gifts and his its sequels Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road highly enough. To find out what happened when another man followed in PLF’s footsteps, not just to Tower Bridge but across Europe, I can also recommend Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water.

Dicing With Death in a Land of Shadows

Last night I visited the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge to hear Giles Milton talk about his book Russian Roulette.

I first read Milton’s account of Britain’s spying operation against the Bolsheviks in both Russia and the Far East last year and thoroughly enjoyed it – you can read my Amazon review here, and I am very happy to report that the talk was delivered in a lively and engaging manner. Together with the breathtaking stories of what our early spies got up to, the talk reminded me what a rich story Milton told in his book.

Visiting the Special Forces Club was also a very singular experience. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is located behind an unmarked door. Inside is a small reception area – we are in a converted house – with stairs leading up to the barroom. The walls of the staircase are lined with photographs of members of the SOE (Special Operations Executive) – for whom the club was formed in 1945.

Milton’s talk took place in the barroom, so as I walked up the stairs I had time to glance at some of the photographs. Many were, of course, black and white, but among them was one in colour of a soldier with dusty brown hair. I didn’t quite catch his name but saw that he was a member of the SAS.

The photographs of those members of the Club who died while on active duty are framed in black and it seemed to me that many if not all of the photographs were decorated in that way. Having said that, I was moving quite swiftly so maybe I misjudged their appearance? Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the SOE to say what their casualty figures were.

At the end of the talk, I came away from the club feeling very privileged at having been able to visit it. The men and women who founded it, the men and women who are likely to be members today, are a breed apart from civilians such as myself. They are a heroic people, a people willing to take very seriously the notion of dying for their comrades and country.

Of course, it would be unfair of me to put them on a pedestal but would you have been willing to be parachuted into occupied France? Leap into the Iranian embassy? Join a bomb disposal squad? I’m not sure I would have! If you would and are not in the army or Military Intelligence then I suspect you are in the wrong job!

That aside, it was very humbling to walk past those pictures and no less so to think about them now. I don’t suppose I shall be going back there in a hurry so it was an experience to treasure.

For those who have died in the service of their country – Requeiscant in Pace.