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.

Some Stars and Associated Thoughts

I’ve never actually thought about this but I do actually love association games. If I see someone in the street who bears any kind of resemblance to a famous person, I’ll note it. Perhaps he could be his brother or cousin - depending on how close the resemblance is.

Similarly, if I hear a sound that reminds me of a piece of music or just of another sound that will get noted too. An recent example of this would be the cup tree in our kitchen, When you turn it, the clinking sound that the cups make is just the same as the medicine man’s clinking phials as he walks towards Almásy at the start of The English Patient.

Last night, as I spoke to someone on Twitter, I found that I was even capable of associating a theological title with a character in J R R Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology. I’m not sure how wise this is but as it is Tolkien I’m very happy to runs with it.

The title in question was Star of the Sea, which belongs to the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to Wikipedia, the Star of the Sea,

… title was used to emphasize Mary’s role as a sign of hope and as a guiding star for Christians, especially gentiles, whom the Old Testament Israelites metaphorically referred to as the sea, meaning anyone beyond the “coasts”, or, that is to say, sociopolitical, and religious (Mosaic law), borders of Israelite territory. Under this title, the Virgin Mary is believed to intercede as a guide and protector of those who travel or seek their livelihoods on the sea.
(Full article here)

If you read the rest of the article, you’ll see that the star associated with Mary is actually Polaris. As soon as I thought of the title last night, though, I thought of Venus, the Morning and Evening Star; this in turn put me in mind of the character of Eärendil in Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology.

As fans of JRRT will know, Eärendil is the mariner who sailed to Valinor, the home of the Valar, to plead for the ‘gods’ help in the fight against Morgoth. He is identified with Venus within the mythology because of the Silmaril jewel which he wore upon his brow and whose light could be seen in the morning and evening from Middle-earth.

But how did Eärendil come to be identified with Venus in the first place?

Well, after sailing to Valinor, Eärendil was not permitted to return home. So, he continued his journeying in his ship, travelling ‘even into the starless voids’. The light of the jewel, however, continued to be seen ‘most often… at morning or at evening, glimmering in sunrise or sunset, as [Eärendil] came back to Valinor from voyages beyond the confines of the world’. These quotes come from Of The Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath in The Silmarillion.

By-the-bye, Tolkien’s Eärendil was inspired by the following line from the Anglo-Saxon poem Crist,

éala éarendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended
“Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, over Middle-earth to men sent”

The above translation is from Wikipedia; you can read the full article on Eärendil here. As you can see, Earendel is referred to as an angel but as the article mentions has also been identified with John the Baptist. This makes perfect sense when you view Venus as the Morning Star. She starts the day shining brightly in the sky, but as the Sun rises, Venus dims until she is becomes invisible. Compare that to the words of John 3: 30 – “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Douai Rheims Bible).

A Chiaroscuro Church

Last weekend, I met a seminarian. During our conversation, he complimented my parish church on its appearance. I love the building because it is my parish church but I must be honest and say I do not love its plain white walls and table-stand high altar. I told the seminarian that if I had my way, that would be replaced by a baroque high altar. Something large. Something grand. Something – to my eyes anyway – achingly beautiful. You can be sure that if I had my way, the rest of the church would undergo a similar renovation.

Our conversation ended not long later. Whether it was because of what I had said I cannot say but had we continued talking I would have been prepared to compromise. Although I am very fond of baroque architecture, Romanesque and Gothic also rank highly in my estimation.

So it was then, that yesterday afternoon I sat down at the back of St James’s neo-gothic Catholic church in Spanish Place, London and basked in the beauty of her vaulted ceiling, proud pillars and ornate decorations.

As it happened, though, what made the visit memorable was not the church’s architecture. London has been having some very variable weather recently. Blue sky one minutes, grey clouds the next, rain following on – stopping minutes later. As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I’ve been caught out by the changing conditions more than once.

Fortunately, yesterday did not prove to be the third time. Very kindly, it did not start raining until I was back home. As I sat in the church, though, the clouds did start to gather. This was very noticeable because the lights in the nave were not on. Therefore, every time the Sun was obscured, the church became bathed in  the clouds’ shadow.

They must have been thick clouds, for the change from light to shade was so pronounced, I immediately thought of the chiaroscuro effect employed by artists. I confess I did not hold this thought in my mind for too long – I was too busy being thankful for the votive candles ahead of me and the beacons of light that they were providing in the gloom. Which fact brings me back to my parish church. She may not for me be the most beautiful in the world but her light walls and tall windows make her a light place even when it is gloomy and that is a good model for the heart.