Saturday, September 05, 2020

Summer Reading

 This has been a weird summer, for me as it has for most. I have read more than I first thought. I catalog my books only after they have been read, and this is the stack since early summer.

Solovyov and Larionov by Eugene Vodolozkin. Of course he is best known, at least in Orthodox circles, for Laurus. This is his first novel, from about 11 years ago. Vodolozkin is a good storyteller, and this particular tale jumps back and forth between immediate post-Revolution Russia and early post-Soviet Russia. I recommend it, but if you are looking for another Laurus, this is not that. I look forward to reading more from Vodolozkin.

The Quest for Shakespeare by Joseph Pearce. The thrust of this work is the apparent recusant Catholicism of William Shakespeare, hiding in plain sight, you might say. The author certainly lays out a convincing case for it. Pearce’s own story is an interesting one; starting out as an English skinhead and then converting to Catholicism. He is a prolific writer of Catholic polemics, as well as a popular speaker in traditionalist circles. His best works seem to focus on English literary figures who converted to Catholicism, such as Literary Converts.

Too Much is Never Enough by Mary L. Trump. This is not the sort of book I usually buy and I doubt that it will remain in my library. But, I am glad I read it. Ms. Trump does not tell me anything about the kind of person DJT is that I did not already know, or anything that should not be perfectly obvious to anyone who views his actions and words with open eyes. I know what Trump is. I was curious to learn how he got that way. The family is, charitably speaking, grotesque. The women come off no better than the men. By the time he was 8 to 10 years old, the die was already cast for DJT; out of control with a father who laughed at every outrage, humored any whim, funded any debacle. Trumpists dismiss this as the work of a disgruntled heir and a homage to her father against the rest of the family. I will just say that first, she has ample reason to be disgruntled, and second, even her father does not come across all that sympathetically.

Beyond the Dreams of Avarice by Russell Kirk. I enjoy reading Kirk, and this collection of essays did not disappoint. He is credited with being the founder of modern American Conservatism, providing an intellectual foundation to traditionalist thought. I think History will be kind to Kirk in a way that it will not be, for example, to William F. Buckley. He has been gone about 26 years, I think, and long before that time he was something of a Voice in the Wilderness. against what the Conservative Movement was becoming. Those Americans who wear the label Conservative today would be largely unrecognizable to Kirk.

Monsieur Ouine by George Bernanos. Ugh. In the type of journals and sites I visit, Bernanos, said to be one of the great French Catholic writers, is occasionally mentioned as the sort of author who writes the sort of books that someone like me would tend to read. He claimed that this was his greatest novel. I determined that I would finish the thing; mostly dialogue, between which characters I was never really sure. A young boy was killed. An old man died. A floozy woman’s carriage turned over–why and exactly how, I was never able to determine. I was no better informed once I finished than when I began.

Malicroix by Henri Bosco. This author redeems French literature from his contemporary, Bernanos. He writes a compelling, somewhat macabre, and ultimately satisfying read, set in the rural South of France. Bosco has something to say, and I will be looking for other of his works.

Bearings & Distances by Glen Arbery. I rarely read contemporary fiction. I made an exception for Arbery, a professor at a Catholic college in Wyoming, I believe. I was intrigued to read this well received work, it as it had a land surveying angle, the profession in which I spent 35 years. He also sets the story in the South, where politeness, hospitality and sweet tea often provide a thin protective veneer over the mayhem, murder and madness just underneath. Arbery tells a good story, with important lessons about the persistence of family and faith in spite of it all.

Old House of Fear by Russell Kirk. In the early 1960’s, Kirk wrote three novels, today largely unknown. This is the second one I have read. The first was set in post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa, while the setting for this one is on the desolate outermost island in the Hebredes. If he had stayed with writing novels, I think he would be better known today than he is now. These are remarkable stories well told. For many years I have scribbled down memorable passages I read along the way, but they are rarely dialogue from novels. No so with Kirk’s work. Of course his philosophy comes through, as you would expect. But he never beats you over the head with it; he never lets it get in the way of a good story. I will be looking for that third novel, but they are a bit hard to find.

Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy by Ben Sonnenberg. Let’s be clear about this: Sonnenberg is not a sympathetic character. He is urbane, hedonistic, well-fixed, well-read, well-traveled and all that. But there is an emptiness to it all. He knows he is a snot and couldn’t care less. But there is a brutal honesty to his writing; so sharp, so clever, so incisive, that you really can’t put it down.

Proceedings of the Anthony Powell Society Conference, 31 August – 2 September 2018, Merton College Oxford. I did actually read this. The proceedings were edited by longtime friend, Dr. Keith Marshall and the subject was “Anthony Powell and the Visual Arts.” For Powellians, all the papers were certainly worthwhile, but the real treasure was the 78 pages of color plates in the center of the volume. Well done, Keith!

The Crisis in Western Education by Christopher Dawson. My two favorite 20th-Century historians were Sir Steven Runciman and Christopher Dawson, two very different individuals, to be sure. Given enough time, I hope to read everything that each of them published. This 1961 work has been reissued in recent years. Dawson is hardly popular today, but his work on the nature, development and transmission of a culture have stood the test of time, and, in light of contemporary events, have proved to be quite prescient.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

England and Wales, 2019

     I am back and rested after spending 15 days in the U.K.  While I always enjoy coming home, the truth of the matter is that I was not quite ready to return.  I felt much at home  there.  James and I had a lengthy discussion about the nature of eccentricity, and maybe their broader capacity for acceptance of that sort of thing perhaps explains it.  Like our country, you can find most anything you are looking for in the U.K.  There are innumerable other aspects to the British, for good or ill, but I was largely seeking one thing:  village life and the pastoral.  I am pleased to report that it yet survives.  While it is not exactly Orwell's vision of "old maids cycling to Holy Communion in the morning mist," enough remains to be recognizable and appreciated by this Anglophile of long-standing.  Reservoirs of ways of life are deep and tenacious here, and they have an almost infinite capacity to muddle on through things.  If you seek this, however, you must leave London and the Home Counties far behind as quickly as possible. 

     This trip had a definite purpose.  My youngest son is English, though he has not had much exposure to his native country, and what he has had has been in modern, urban Britain.  As his American naturalization ceremony approaches, and he becomes more at home as an American, we both thought it would be advantageous to spend some time in the country of his birth, soaking up as much history and culture as we could along the way.

     I charted an ambitious itinerary, though hardly the marathon of some of my previous expeditions.  After making a stop in London's Kensal Green Cemetery, I left the city as quickly as possible, making first for Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam Museum, then on to a small riverside inn in nearby Holywell.  As luck would have it, they were having their annual well-dressing festivities at the Holy Well of St. Ivo, right down the way.  The next day, we were on to Ely, a quick visit with my Spanish friend and almost-cousin Andres, then Little Walsingham, and around the Norfolk coast and back into the East Midlands, staying at an old Edwardian hotel in the working-class town of Wellingborough.  Then with a few stops along the way, we made our way to the misty Peak District, but not before a stop Leicester Cathedral for Richard III and at the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub in Nottingham.  The first item of business was to purchase some proper English duds for me in Bakewell:  a rain jacket and a pair of wellies.  After partaking of the Peak District for a couple of days, we dipped into Birmingham to view the Pre-Raphaelite works there, then stopped by St. Kenelm's Church and holy well, then the Arts and Crafts masterpiece of Wightwick Manor, before settling-in for a number of days in the Welsh Marches.  Although we technically stayed in far western Shropshire and Herefordshire, we were all over eastern Wales as well.  The attractions here--hiking in the most scenic region of the U.K., snug little pubs, Guinness and homemade gin,
holy wells and ruined abbeys, old churches and new monasteries, book stores galore, and local cider--really made this the heart of our trip.  From there, the too-touristy (for us) Wye Valley, a dip into Bath for James, paying literary homage at Mells and The Chantry, then pushing on to the west coast of Cornwall, staying at a 16th-century farmstead in Poldark Country, only steps away from the bluffs.  We enjoyed this locale every bit as much as the Welsh Marches, though our activities were more confining to coastal walking and hanging out at our pubs of choice.  After several days there, and a side trip up to Clovelly in Devon, we began the somewhat melancholy return towards London;  a stop at Cerne Abbas to see the Giant, then T. E. Lawrence's cottage, then on to the Chiltern Hills where we made a few more literary tags, as well as tooling around "Midsummer Murders" territory.  On our last day, we visited the Orthodox Shrine of St. Edward King and Martyr at Brookwood, before meeting a longtime acquaintance of mine at Heathrow Terminal 5.

     I was in full history professor mode, and the trip definitely took on historical and literary overtones, with me overseeing a variation of Six Degrees of Separation for a number of British authors and artists.  Centering on the interrelated notable English families of Asquith and Horner, with stops at the graveyards in Mells and Sutton Courtenay, I was able to link together Edward Burne-Jones, Simeon Solomon, Sigfreid Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edith and Osbert Sitwell, Fr. Ronald A. Knox, Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Alastair Graham, Steven Runciman, Steven Tennant, George Orwell, Prince Antoine Bibescu, Patrick Leigh Fermor and others.  And from a small stretch of country road in the Ewyas Valley, I brought in Fr. Ignatius, Digby Dolbein, Francis Kilvert, Eric Gill, David Jones, and Bruce Chatwin.  Visits to favorite bookstores in Brampton Bryan and Hay on Wye, necessitated that I had unpack the extra soft suitcase that I had folded up inside my main bag.

     In addition, I was able to visit with several literary acquaintances made through the years.  We had tea with Nicolas and Frances McDowell, proprietors of The Old Stile Press, at their lovely home on the Wye River.  We talked of many things, including the Richard Barnfield and Alice Meynell works I received from them.  Late in the trip, we had a fascinating meeting with Tom Sawford at a Middle Wallop pub.  If enthusiasm counts for anything at all, then Tom is far ahead of the game.  He is responsible for this website devoted to all things Patrick Leigh Fermor.  Tom presented me with a first British edition copy of Between the Woods and the Water, for which I was deeply touched.  Finally, at Caffe Nero in Heathrow Terminal 5, James and I visited with my longtime correspondent, Keith Marshall and wife Noreen.  Keith is the moving force behind The Anthony Powell Society, of which I am a founding member.  We enjoyed a quick hour discussing AP, parting with hopes for future meetings.  And in one obscure and only tangentially literary association, we chatted with a nice elderly monk, whom I had met before, at the Orthodox Shrine of St. Edward King and Martyr.  I thought this jogged something in my memory, and once home discovered he had been mentioned in passing in the recent biography of Sir Steven Runciman.

     We largely stayed in small inns, usually just a cluster of rooms above a pub.  This suited to a tee.  We probably had nicer rooms in the venues more on the hotel end of the spectrum, but at the cost of the low key ambiance we were after.  I believe that the countryside was something of an eye-opener for James.  And I'm not above learning a thing or two along the way myself, even at my age.  Over a short course of time, I became a full-fledged convert to the British style of drinking ale and beer; no more ill-considered complaints from me along those lines.  In fact, I now actually prefer it that way, and a pint of Guinness in particular.  James was an excellent coach in this regard.  I do not mean to imply that it was all boozy Guinness nights.  On some days I opted for G & Ts.   

     Given my interests, we found ourselves visiting a number of old churches, both large and small.  There are, sad to say, simply too many of them, given the U.K.'s post-Christian, if not post-post-Christian culture.  Some of the smaller churches have been converted to other uses, while others sit closed up amidst overgrown churchyards.  The lucky ones still have a semblance of parish life, sometimes even a vibrant one at that.  The larger churches and cathedrals are the ones where I feel most removed from any real sense of holiness or that it is still even a place of worship.  And whether large or small, seemingly all have to resort to using their building for community centers, concerts, plays and lectures to try and make ends meet.  The larger cathedral churches are sometimes roped off, where admittance is charged to stroll through the sanctuary (such as in Ely).  Pleas for donations are everywhere.  Many of them post figures of how much it costs every day to keep the church open.  I am suspicious of these figures, but if true then I think I would just throw up my hands in hopelessness.  

     Without being too judgmental about it all, I would say that the problem is baked-in.  In Orthodox lands, the scale is much smaller.  Even in larger churches with a soaring dome, the interior space is actually quite small and intimate.  And the simplicity of Orthodox design means that these churches could be rebuilt or restored or repaired through the ages relatively affordably.  The English churches, once they left the simplicity of the Anglo-Saxon age and moved into the Romanesque and then the Gothic high Middle Ages, seem to me to be ever more difficult to maintain or repair given their height and immense size.  I'm not sure how they will be able to do it, going forward.  If the U.K. were still a land of church-goers, then this would not be a problem, but it hasn't been that for a long time.  One thing I have noticed, is that in their interpretive instructions to visitors, they often note how the church had once been awash in color, before, of course, things started going off the rails in the English Reformation.    

     In one Norman church, tucked away in a corner of Radnorshire, I showed James an
exquisitely sculptured font dating from the early 1100s; said to be the best preserved from that era in the entire country.  Amidst the intricate design was a Norman version of the Harrowing of Hell, a familiar subject in Orthodox iconography.  Six weeks earlier, half a world away in a tiny Orthodox church high in the remote Caucasus mountains, we viewed the same scene, albeit on a frescoed wall.  More than anything else we've seen and talked about recently, this spoke to the overall unity and universality of the Faith prior to the Reformation. 

     Before leaving home, I figured this would be my last trip to the U.K. (as well it might be).  But if I am granted enough time, I will return.  I am already thinking about next summer--Ireland, the Isle of Man and the North.  We will see.  But from this journey, a few of my favorites, below:

     Offa's Dyke Path atop the Black Mountains, even with Llanthony; views of Ewyas Valley and Wales to the west and the Golden Valley and Herefordshire to the east.
     The B4391 between Llanfyllin and Pennant Melangell in Wales
     The road approaching Trevique Farm, off the B2363 out of Boscastle, Cornwall.

     The drive between The Bridges and Church Stretton in Shropshire.
     Offa's Dyke Path in the Black Mountains of Wales
     Coastal Pathway in northwest Cornwall.

     James loved Hay on Wye--no argument there.
     Bakewell in the Peak District is also a contender

     Most any of them

     The Stiperstones Inn, Stiperstones, Shropshire--home of their homemade Whinberry Gin
     The Napoleon Inn, Boscastle, Cornwall
     The Cobwell Inn, Boscastle, Cornwall
     The Jug and Glass, Peak District--where I was introduced to the "Gimm's Cup," a Pimm's Cup topped off with cucumber gin

     James' favorite by far was Abbe Dore in Herefordshire, and I agree.
     For a quintessential village church, St. David's at Kilpeck, Herefordshire is hard to beat


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Thoughts on Cuba

 I have always wanted to visit Cuba.  For years, my cousin Selma and I would talk about it at the family reunion every July.  Last summer, she warned me not to launch off across the Gulf of Mexico without at least extending the invitation to her.  And out of the blue, I also learned that my younger son had a keen interest, as well.

     Back during the days of Cuban-American normalization of relations, I worried that once the restrictions were removed, Americans would rush in and ruin everything before I could visit.  In the current climate of abnormalization of, well, just about everything, that now seems a quaint concern.  Then last November, John Bolton started blathering about the "Troika of Tyranny,"  signaling a possible tightening of current restrictions against Cuba, including travel.  How could I not go?
     The three of us took advantage of a narrow window of opportunity between the New Year and the beginning of the Spring semester.  Travel to Cuba is inexpensive and easier than we are led to believe, as long as you are prepared to play the game of semantics with our officials, if needed.  So, after 5 days in Havana and 2 days in Trinidad on the south coast, here are, in no particular order other than the first, my thoughts on Cuba, as follows:

  • The Cuban people are some of the most open, welcoming and hospitable people that I have ever encountered in my travels.  In the past, that honor was always reserved for citizens of the Republic of Georgia.  To my Georgian friends, I will just say that now you have some stiff competition.
  • The world comes to Cuba, and more than a few Americans.  There are many direct flights from Canada, Mexico and Central and South America, as would be expected.  But there are also direct flights from all over Europe, and even Istanbul.  The fellow travelers one meets are from all over the world, and the pleasures of a Cuban vacation are no novelty to them.  Flights from the U.S. are centered in Florida--Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, with an additional flight out of Atlanta and Newark, I believe.  The Cubans seems particularly pleased that an increasing trickle of Americans are rediscovering their country, despite the rhetoric out of Washington (this of course does not address the flow of Cuban-Americans back and forth from South Florida, bringing in appliances and electronic gear as they come.)
  • The Cuban people seem disinclined to talk about politics, either to laud theirs or to discount ours (no doubt a wise habit of self-preservation that they have taken on in the last 70 years or so.)  Travellers one meets are curious about the predicament we find ourselves in now, and Latin Americans are particularly sympathetic, as many of them have had long experience with bullying tinhorn dictators such as ours.  
  • It would be just as wrong to suggest that everyone is fat and happy in this worker's paradise as it is for us to believe that all Cubans are yearning to break free of the Communist yoke.   I did not at all witness a sullen, downtrodden populace, under the heavy boot of a police state (as Bolton et al would have you believe).  People were going about their daily lives, as happy I suppose, as people elsewhere.  No doubt there are those who feel frustrated at the constraints inherent to their system (and the exodus of the upper and middle classes during the Revolution cannot be dismissed out of hand).  BUT, the Cuban people receive some of the best medical care in the world, all free.  Their college education is also free.  They pay no rent.  Free public transportation is readily available.  And food staples are heavily subsidized.  Would they give all this up for more "opportunity?"  I wonder.
  • Yes, there is still grinding poverty in Cuba.  This failure of the Revolution to live up to its ideals of equalizing conditions is perhaps the most powerful indictment against it.  But, there seems to be no hunger.  Cuba feeds itself.  And one finds, particularly in Havana, Cubans living is enviable locales, dressing smartly, and dining at the nice restaurants along with the tourists.  I do not understand, exactly, how all this happens--surely there has to be something more than just luck of the draw.  We were talking to one young couple--he had spent a few years in Montana, of all places--who lived in a choice terraced flat overlooking the plaza in front of the former Presidential Palace (now the Museo de la Revolucion).  After talking awhile, we learned that yes, his parents lived there with them, and before that it had been his grandfather's apartment.  So there is a continuity, in some respect, of residence, Revolution or not.  I suspect there is quite a lot of that.  Much of the old elite residential areas are given over to embassies and headquarters.  (One wonders why Venezuela, a country with real relations with Cuba is housed in a simple Arts and Crafts Mansion, while the U.S., which has few relations with Cuba is housed in an ugly high rise facing the Malecon.)
  • Cuban food is quite good and healthy--heavy on the fruits and fruit juices for breakfast and heavy on the rice for other meals.  They seem less bread-centric than we are (or at least, I am).  And the servings are more than generous.  For a Texan, I would have to say that it can be a bit bland at times, though this hardly registers as a complaint.
  • Our trade restrictions are just wrong-headed.  It only strengthens the government's position, as economic woes can be blamed on our embargo.  And restrictions on the importation of Cuban rum to the U.S. is a self-inflicted wound for us.
  • Cubans suffer from a bit of the same affliction as some Southerners.  To listen to some of my compatriots, you would think that the Civil War was the only thing that ever happened in the South.  In Cuba, someone would also be forgiven for concluding that the Revolution was the only thing that ever happened here of note.
  • We toured the Museo de la Revolucion, which we found to be fascinating.  I do think, however, that they overplay their hand a bit when it comes to the CIA.  Every bad thing that ever happened is blamed on the CIA, with no proof offered.  Mind you, I do not think that the CIA is innocent of this sort of thing at all.  I just believe it gives them far too much credit.  Just look at all the times they tried to assassinate Castro, who died at 90 in his own bed.
  • I would have to say that music in Cuba is, quite literally, "in the air."  One does not have to go far to hear the salsa beat somewhere, and the Cuban people are quick to break out in dance.  My travelling companions took full advantage of this.  
  • The vintage automobiles are a real thing--a tribute to Cuban ingenuity that so many of them are still on the road.  In Havana, they are primarily the domain of taxi drivers and/or companies, with the convertibles catering to open air tours for the visitors.  In the countryside, one suspects that the vintage cars are used by individuals.
  • Over here, one gets the idea that Havana is a crumbling city.  This is only partly true.  Make no mistake, architecturally, Havana is a grand city.  Beautiful old neo-classical,  beaux arts and art deco buildings predominate around the numerous parks, plazas and public spaces.  Sure, there is modern ugliness, but it rarely mars the traditional neighborhoods.  Many structures are undergoing restoration and fresh coats of paint.  It seems these will be relatively luxurious flats, and I am not exactly sure the clientele intended for them.  And yet, one also sees many grand old structures tumbling down--the Teatro Capitolio, for example, not a few yards from the Capitol grounds.  Often these buildings are blocked off, with some shoring-up in evidence, and with scafolding surround the building.  But, vines sometimes wind their way around to the very top of the scafolding, and trees sometimes peak out from the collapsed roofs of the buildings, indicated years of inactivity.  In short, the Cuban government realizes what they have, but with limited resources seem to be doing the best that they can.
  • The inefficiencies of a state-run system can stand out to utilitarian-minded Americans.  Credit cards are worthless in Cuba.  Every visitor must bring enough cash to convert to Cuban CUCs.  And this must be done at the airport, if for nothing more than to be able to pay for your taxi into the city.  So, with all the visitors pouring into the one international airport, one would think that more than one government employee in the currency exchange booth might be needed; or that there at least could be another employee in the ready to take over when that employee went on break. 

     I am sure I can think of other things to say, and when I do, I will update this list.  I am a little under the weather at present, so will draw this to a close.  The best recommendation I can give for Cuba is the fact that, given enough time, I plan to return.  And I have to say something about my two travelling companions.  When it comes to travel, someone has to put the plan together and arrange all the logistical matters.  That would be me.  And then there are those who make things happen once the plan is in play.  That would Selma and my younger son.  I would travel anywhere with either or both of them.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Recent Article on Orthodoxy in the South

I don’t post much about Orthodoxy on FB these days. This is not from any dimming of enthusiasm on my part, but rather more from a recognition that the truth of the faith does not rise or fall on FB posts. I have learned to give a wide berth to anything smacking of triumphalism, which I find to be ultimately unconvincing. And, I do not enjoy theological polemics, even though I realize that for some, this is the very breath of life itself. Finally, I don’t want to provide a target for those who enjoy taking potshots online. So, outside of something of interest involving our particular parish, or an appealing online homily, or perhaps something more related to history, then I avoid Orthodox-related posts.
But I feel a need to make this one--and to promote a recent article in the “Oxford American,” the premier magazine of Southern literature and culture. The journal is in its twenty-seventh year, and we have all the issues, save for three or four from the first couple of years. The article is “The Light of Heaven: Father Damian Hart and the Pull of the Orthodox Church” by Nick Tabor. The broad subject is the Orthodox Church’s history in the South, and more particularly the establishment and growth of the Diocese of the South in my own jurisdiction, the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).
The author is no disgruntled ex, but a convert of some years, a communicant of the OCA Cathedral in Manhattan. Tabor’s conversion story is similar to many of ours. He first became aware of the Church while in college in MIchigan. Later, his Orthodox life took a detour through the South for a short while, feeding his interest in the subject matter at hand.
His research into the very early years of the Diocese is fascinating. But his story is no puff-piece extolling the growth of Southern Orthodoxy. And while laudatory of Archbishop Dmitri, it is no hagiography. Tabor squarely addresses the laxity in oversight and discipline in the early years. This allowed for the occasional flowering of what might, at best, be charitably denoted as runaway eccentricity, but sometimes something much worse. One aspect of the story is of particular interest to me. Tabor’s examines the noticeable fixation some Southern Orthodox (mainly men) have with monks and monasteries. Monasticism is an essential part of Orthodoxy, so the concept is not in question. But poorly supervised monasteries have sometimes fallen under the spell of rogue abbots, from which much lasting harm can come.
Overall, the piece is even-handed, which is to say that it is a real history. I do take pride in the fact that Orthodoxy has taken hold in the South, so that we are a permanent fixture here, albeit in our small way. When the history of Southern Orthodoxy is written, Tabor’s work will be an essential source.
I didn’t post this to elicit comments pro or con on Orthodoxy. So, please don’t. I wanted to spread the word of this article--in an unexpected source--to interested Southern clergy and parishioners. The piece is in the Fall 2018 issue (# 102). The OA is sold in Barnes and Noble, at least in the South, but the Fall issue is not yet on the shelves. You may go to their online site, click the Shop tab, and there you will be able to purchase a single issue hard copy or a more affordable digital copy for $2.99.

On John McCain and his Funeral

Now that John McCain Week is over, I thought I’d make a comment or two. I’ve always been ambivalent about McCain, neither greatly admiring nor detesting the man. And, I do adhere strongly to the old adage about not speaking ill of the dead.
So, yes, I hate it that he was in a prison camp for over 5 years, just as I hate it about the death and suffering resulting from the missiles he fired. The hagiographies this week have skimmed over the personal and career messiness of his post-Vietnam, pre-Senate years. But then, most of our lives couldn’t hold up to very much scrutiny either.
His senatorial career has largely been characterized by warmongering; unthinking, reflexive, bomb-first-ask-questions-later warmongering. Over the last 20 years or so, you can chart my foreign policy positions as being consistently 180 degrees from whatever John McCain and the Amigos were promoting. Coming off the Bush Administration, there was not the remotest possibility that I would consider voting for him in 2008. His choice of Sarah Palin, a decision breathtaking in its reckless irresponsibility, confirmed my worst suspicions. In recent years, in issues ranging from Syria to Iran to Russia, he has surpassed even himself. The image of a clueless McCain, grinning broadly, surrounded by his Syrian jihadists--excuse me, “freedom fighters,” is one I’ll never forget.
I do appreciate two things about his public service. The first was his self-deprecating humor. He did not take himself too seriously. Up until November 2016, that had always been a mark of a successful American political career. I sorely miss it. Second, I do appreciate the tone he set following DJT’s election. McCain did not pretend that this is all normal when it is not. He was not hesitant to call-out Crazy when he saw it. So, McCain's calls for civility and dignity and respect have been appreciated, by me, at least.
Even so, the week-long events have been, I think, just a little much. The schedule was choreographed by McCain himself, in his last days. Clearly, he was trying to send a message to the nation, and I don’t fault that, necessarily. The endless and obligatory references by his hagiographers, however, to his, shall we say, “earthiness,” quickly wore thin. In any other context, they would have been describing a foul-mouthed old crank. The last straw came from Jon Meacham, whose commentary usually runs the gamut from smug to insufferable. He referenced Theodore Roosevelt’s speech at the groundbreaking for the National Cathedral. TR quoted James 1:22, “but be ye doers of the word…” Meacham then brought it around to the present, stating that “there was no greater doer of the word than John McCain.” At that point, I had to turn off the radio. A political life in public service can, I suppose, be a good thing. But that is not at all what the Scripture was saying, if not, in fact, the exact opposite. I have heard no better recent example of the conflating of politics, nationalism, patriotism, and religious sentimentality into the toxic mix that is our national civic religion.

Monday, September 04, 2017

More Travels In the U.K: Some Misfits Along the Way

At grave of Dylan Thomas, Laugharne, Wales

The day after returning home in late July, I had my regular lunch an old friend.  He is a bit conventional in his view of the way things should be.  The fact that things were never actually like that in reality is besides the point.  I was talking about poetry in general and made the observation that so many poets seemed to be tortured souls, whether it be by alcohol, sex, or substance abuse, and this tension in their lives fueled their poetic impulses.  My friend was unwilling to grant the point, and I countered that I thought very little poetry emanated from the easy chairs of suburbia.  He was still having none of it, so I herded the conversation on to more well-nibbled pastures.

But I believe my point to be defensible, and not only for poets, but for authors and artists as well.  Many were misfits who made a royal mess of things.  But these souls interest me far more than the Great Figures of History.  While I don’t want to leave the impression that I spent all of my time over there poking around graveyards, I did seek out the final resting places of some interesting sorts, who may not have operated on the same plane as the likes of Chesterton and Tolkien from my previous post.
Dylan Thomas statue, Laugharne

I’ll start off with Dylan Thomas, the great Welsh poet, monumental drunk and colossal screw-up.  At this point, I am more familiar with his biography than I am his actual poetry, but a favorite is the short Death Shall Have No Dominion.  For the last few years of his life, the Thomases lived at Laugharne, a coastal village in the south of Wales.  Dylan Thomas’ physique didn’t quite lend itself to statuary, but there’s one of him anyway, down by the harbor.  The Boathouse, his workshop in Laugharne, is open to tourists, but that would’ve necessitated a parking fee and a lengthy hike from the town center.  I had already walked nearly 7 miles that day, so I decided to give it a pass.  I did, however, visit his and Caitlin’s common grave in the new cemetery adjacent to St. Martin’s churchyard.  The marker is very humble, a white painted wooden cross with both their names and dates on it.  

Before the Thomases lived in Laugharne, they lived in New Quay, on the west coast of Wales.  As would be expected, the poet became a regular at the New Inn pub (now closed, sadly), where he made the acquaintance of an already established regular, a distinguished looking, slightly older gentleman by the name of Alistair Graham.  

Who was this man?  The short answer is that he was Sebastian Flyte, the character created by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited.  I first read of Graham in a passing reference (but extensive footnote) in the new biography of Steven Runciman.  The two met in Athens in the mid 1930s, both in low-level diplomatic positions:  Runciman in early phase of a long and varied career, and Graham in the only real job he ever tackled.  They had some trysts but Runciman was too discreet for someone like Graham.  The footnote in the Runciman biography led me to Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear:  A Memoir for Misfits, one of the most weirdly satisfying books I have ever read.  He devotes a chapter to Graham.
Evelyn Waugh
Alistair Graham

Here, I must double back to Evelyn Waugh to properly tell of Alistair Graham.  I like Waugh well enough, having read The Loved One, Decline and Fall, Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust, Scoop, The Sword of Honour Trilogy, and of course, Brideshead Revisited.  He is most noted for the latter, but it is not really my favorite.  Black Mischief is particularly funny, and the Sword of Honour Trilogy stayed with me.  But on the whole, I prefer Powell.  

Waugh gained a reputation in later life as a crusty and ill-tempered traditionalist Catholic convert.  But as a younger man at Oxford, he was something altogether different.  Here he moved freely among the “bright young people” and the noted aesthetes of the 1920s.  He and Graham were quickly drawn to each other, and Waugh was a frequent visitor to the Graham place in Northamptonshire.  In fact, for the better part of three years, the two were commonly known to be couple.  They eventually separated, and Waugh moved on; marrying, divorcing, converting, and then marrying again, as his reputation as a writer grew.  

Graham left briefly for the aforementioned diplomatic posting in Athens.  He returned to London and was soon in hot water with the authorities there.  In that era, one might think it had something to do with his sexual proclivities, but apparently that was not the case at all, and it is not at all clear exactly why he had to leave the city.  But leave he did.  He bought a comfortable, roomy estate about a mile out of remote New Quay, Wales.  And here he settled into 45 years of anonymity.  No one questioned his antecedents, and he was at home in his regular spot at the New Inn.  Of course there would be talk from time to time about the goings-on at his house.  Once, Caitlin Thomas supposedly danced naked atop his coffee table.  The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were said to be occasional guests, and from time to time a Catholic priest would slip in for a visit, for through it all, Graham remained a Catholic.
Waugh graves, outside the churchyard, Combe Florey

Waugh is best known for Brideshead Revisited, basing Lord Sebastian Flyte on Alistair Graham and Lady Marchmain on Graham’s formidable mother.  This did not cause any problems for Graham, for it is a safe bet that no one in New Quay had read the book, or if by chance they had, no one could connect it with him.  But then in 1981 came the highly successful television mini-series with Jeremy Irons portraying Sebastian Flyte.  This changed everything.  Interest in the series led to investigations into Waugh’s sources for the characters.  Soon, reporters were snooping around New Quay.  Graham panicked and went into a recluse mood, refusing to answer any questions, and slamming the door in the face of intrepid interviewers.  And, as always happens, the money began to run out.  Graham sold the house in the country and moved into New Quay, purchasing a modest row cottage on Rock Street, facing the ocean. (Gentrification has even found New Quay, where little houses on this street now fetch $500,000.) Graham died in 1984, I believe, and his ashes were buried at sea.

While history and celebrity bypassed Graham, Evelyn Waugh, in contrast, was never far out of the public limelight.  Revenue from his writings and wealthy in-laws allowed him to purchase a Georgian manor house in Combe Florey, complete with expansive park and imposing gatehouse.  I imagine that the advertising for the offer could have easily said:  Be an English Lord of the Manor; the Complete Package.  It is that kind of place.  But while he purchased the social accoutrements to the life to which he aspired, he was ill-fitted for the role; in short, a misfit.  And Waugh would probably admitted as much.  Nothing illustrates his outsider status better than his grave.  The back side of the park is hard up against the Sts. Peter and Paul churchyard.  But Waugh, his wife and daughter are not buried in the graveyard, as such, but just over the cemetery wall into the field.  One has to step over a wall and onto the private property to view it. The English gravestones do not seem to age well, and his is already almost unreadable.  In time, the estate became too expensive to maintain and Waugh’s grandchildren were forced to dump it.  Vanity of vanities.


Leaving 20th century figures behind for a bit, I also visited the graves of a 15th-century couple, "Black" Vaughan and his wife, Ellen "the Terrible." Subsequent generations attributed the "Black" moniker to the evil character of Sir Thomas Vaughan, though it may have originally been nothing more than a reference to his black hair. Ellen's reputation is a little easier to pin down. A Welsh lady, she shot an arrow through the heart of her brother's assassin, evening the score with her own hands. Vaughan is my wife's maiden name. It would be fun if there were a family connection, but I know that genealogy does not work that way.

Tomb of "Black" Vaughan and Ellen "the Terrible"
Vaughan supported the Yorkists in the War of the Roses, and was captured and beheaded in 1469. According to the legend, his faithful dog brought his skull back to Hergest Court in Herefordshire, near the Welsh border. The effigies of the couple are close by in St. Mary's Church, Knighton. Interestingly, the dog is also in effigy, at Vaughan's feet. Local lore claims that Vaughan's spirit haunted the town until an exorcism trapped the evil spirit into a small box, which was then sunk in Hergest Pool.

The hauntings continued, however, though this time through manifestations of the dog. The Vaughans remained at Hergest Court for hundreds of years after Black Vaughan's beheading. The ghost of the hound would make itself known from time to time, always foretelling the immanent death of a family member. Townspeople would not travel down the road to Hergest Court at night.
Effigy of the Vaughan dog, what's left of it

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it should be. Arthur Conan Doyle used this as the basis for his story, "The Hound of the Baskervilles." The monuments in the church are beautiful to behold and worth seeing, even without the legends. We do not have to believe everything of this nature, but we also do not have to automatically dismiss the inexplicable. A wholly rational world, swept clean of any mystery would be dull indeed.


Some other interesting characters whose locales I visited were the quirky “Fr. Ignatius” and the Rev. Francis Kilvert, and I suppose I should also include Digby Mackworth Dolben in this group. The former was a Church of England ritualist who attempted to establish Anglican monasticism in the last half of the nineteenth century.  As one can imagine, this had to be something of a tough sell, and he failed spectacularly.  To the end of his days, Fr. Ignatius remained a controversial figure, something of a gadfly to the church hierarchy.

As is usually the case, I backed into this character.  I enjoy the writings of the 20th-century English historian Christopher Dawson, who was Welsh on his mother's side, born at Hay Castle.  This is less grand than it sounds, his grandfather was the Archdeacon in Hay-on-Wye and the Castle was simply the ecclesiastical residence (now a burned-out hulk looming over the town center.) Reading Dawson's biography led me to Rev. Kilvert and his diaries.
Rev. Francis Kilvert

He tragically died just after his marriage, at age 39, but lived a full life, however, and left an impact on his region. Rev. Kilvert was much more at home with the unfortunates, and the vagabonds he met along the road, than he was in ecclesiastical circles. He was a naturalist, in several senses of the word, being a strong advocate of walking, and of nude swimming. Kilvert kept a journal, which after his death was cleaned-up a little by his heirs, published, and becoming something of a cult classic. There is even a Kilvert Society to keep his memory alive.  

He had a knack for listening to people's stories, whether it was the crippled old veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, or the old woman who remembered seeing the fairies dancing on the floor of the mill, or the man who proudly showed off an old jug--a family heirloom from that day in the 1640s when the fugitive Charles I came by their house and asked for a drink.
At Capel-y-ffin, the chapel house in background where the Rev. Kilvert saw the young washwoman with the "lusty arms"

And the man could walk. On 5 April 1870, he set out after breakfast from Clyru and made his way to Hay, where he paid his respects to the Archdeacon, wife and daughters (one would eventually be the mother of Christopher Dawson), then walked on south and up to the Gospel Pass, then followed the Honddu River down into the Vale of Ewyas until he reached Capel-y-ffin. Here, he admired the small squatty church amid the ancient yews, and chatted up a young woman across the road at the chapel house, whom he described as "a buxom comely wholesome girl with fair hair rosy face blue eyes and fair clean skin [who] stood washing at a tub in the sunshine, up to the elbows of her round white lusty arms in soapsuds." Here, he cut up the hill in an effort to visit with "Fr. Ignatius," who happened to be away in London (Kilvert would meet him, however, on subsequent visits.) He talked with the stone-masons constructing the monastery and acknowledged the two dour "monks" trudging away in their garden. Overall he was more impressed with the stonemasons and the girl washing clothes--people whom he thought were "living naturally in their world and taking their share of its work, care and pleasures"--than these wannabe monks. He rejoined the road and continued on down until he reached the abbey ruins at Llanthony. Here, he paid a leisurely visit with the caretaker, swapping stories and enjoying a meal together. And then he retraced his steps home, arriving about 6:00 pm. His diary noted, "We were rather tired with our 25 miles walk, but not extraordinarily so."
The poet Digby Mackworth Dolben

I also learned of Fr. Ignatius from the biography of Digby Mackworth Dolben, a young poet who drowned at age 19 in 1867.  Dolben was a different sort; there seemed to be an almost ethereal aspect to him which attracted attention wherever he went.  He once entered the Church of St. Alban in Birmingham during their Sunday service, walking down the aisle in nothing more than a simple black habit, belted by a knotted rope, and barefoot. He was an early acolyte of Fr. Ignatius, and planned to go even further. He was not interested in any Anglican monasticism, but planned to convert to Catholicism. Dolben's father made him promise not convert until after graduating from Oxford, in order to avoid the "scandal." The noted poet and Catholic convert Gerard Manly Hopkins fell madly in love with Dolben prior to his taking own taking of vows.  Dolben never had a strong constitution, but loved to swim. He was teaching the son of a friend how to swim when he lost consciousness and sank into the river. The young poet would have slipped through the cracks of history if not for his cousin and later poet laureate of Great Britain who published his biography and poems in 1911.
Grave of Rev. Francis Kilvert, Bredwardine

After Fr. Ignatius’s time, his monastic experiment was occuped by the artist commune led by the controversial Eric Gill.  The troubled Welsh poet and painter David Jones lived at the commune for a while.  To bring the loose threads back together, Jones was himself a great friend of Christopher Dawson.  Today the site, on a hillside looking down upon the little church at Capel-y-ffin, is a Riding Center, not accessible to the curious traveler.  But standing down in the narrow roadway next to the church, one can make out the white building above, and the gleaming white statue of the Virgin Mary carved by Eric Gill.  Fr. Ignatius is buried close-by.
The old "monastery" of "Fr. Ignatius," Capel-y-ffin, Wales


As mentioned in a previous post, some artwork led me to the Church of St. Andrews in Mells, Somerset.  While there, I visited the graves--a few feet apart--of two friends who pursued widely differing paths, but ended up, literally and figuratively at the same place: Msgr. Ronald A. Knox, priest, author and humorist, and Siegfried Sassoon, poet and author.  

They both moved easily with British society, coming from the upper classes, so they could hardly be characterized as misfits. But they both charted independent paths. Knox was an Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism in 1917, at which time his father, the Bishop of Manchester, disinherited him. He became one of the chief spokesmen for English Catholicism and was even entrusted with retranslating the Vulgate Bible, in light of the Hebrew and Greek. Of an amiable temperament, Knox was known for his skillful use of humor in his writings. I picked up one of his novels--”Barchester Pilgrimage’’-which I read while traveling.  A great fan of the author, he took Trollope’s Barchester series and followed the families for another 50 to 60 years, bring them into the mid 1930s.  It is a good read, and Knox does not try to sugar-coat the story, or make any polemic points.  The famiies’ courses follow pretty much the trend of English society during that time period, and they end up about where you would expect them to be in 1935.  As a great fan of Trollope, who has read the entire canon, I found that he was faithful to the spirit of the Trollope's work.

At grave of Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon was from an colorful background, his mother one of the artsy Thornycrafts, and his father one of the Sassoons, a famous Jewish banking and commercial family, as important in Baghdad, Bombay and Beijing as the Rothschilds were in Europe.  Their wealth washed Sassoon’s great-grandfather ashore in London.  Siegfried had little contact with his wealthy relatives, however, as they disowned his father when he married a Gentile. One of the most intriguing passages from Sassoon's autobiography of his early years was his sense of being out of place at his father's Jewish funeral, amidst a host of high and mighty relatives whom he barely knew.

At grave of Msgr. Ronald Arbuthnot Knox
 Sassoon is best known as being one of the great “war poets”, although he was already making a name for himself before the Great War, and he continued to write for many years afterwards.  Sassoon was widely known to be homosexual, discreet but decidely so. As mentioned in an earlier post, he was the mentor of Wilfred Owen.  Later, he had an extended relationship with the flamboyant Stephen Tennant.  

In middle age, somewhat surprisingly, Sassoon seemed to change course. He married, and then fathered a son. While his marriage eventually ended in divorce, he was incredibly close to this only child. Still later, he became fast friends with his neighbor Msgr. Knox and become a happy convert to Catholicism. I find it fitting that they are buried so near one another.  I’ve read some of poetry, as well as his early autobiography.  I found him a sympathetic voice.

I hoped to avoid London altogether this trip, with the exception of the last full day in the U.K.  I planned to visit a couple of sites on the outskirts of London (which I did) and then that afternoon, I planned to visit the graves of Francis Thompson and Lionel Pigot Johnson in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, and the grave of Simeon Solomon in Williston Jewish Cemetery. Time permitting, there were others that interested me in the Catholic Cemetery, as well as the adjoining Kensal Green.   These three definitely fit the characterization of troubled artistic temperaments. While they all died in the early years of the 20th-century, their demons are particularly up-to-date: drugs, sex, and alcohol.
Francis Thompson

Francis Thompson was the son of middle class Catholic doctor in Birmingham.  He was supposed to carry on his father's profession, but repeated failed in his medical studies. A sickly youth, Thompson developed an addiction to laudanum, which later led to the same for opium.  He started writing poetry early on, but could not stay straight.  He ended up in London, an habitue of opium dens, bars and brothels. In recent years, his name has been added to the long list of possible Jack the Rippers, though I seriously doubt that. He earned a little change as he could, hopefully sending out poetry to various publishers. Alice Meynell, poet and suffragist, received one of them and shared it with her husband, Wilfred Meynell, owner of a Catholic publishing house. They took Thompson off the street and into their home, where he lived as a member of their family for many years. His time with the Meynells was his most productive period. The Hound of Heaven, in which Jesus Christ's unflagging pursuit of an individual soul is compared to that of a pursuing bloodhound, dates from these years. (On a personal note, this poem is one of the most transforming things that I have encountered in a lifetime of reading.) But somewhat predictably, Thompson could not stay straight, and his life and addictions had taken their toll on him. He died at age 47. While in Hay, I was able to find a set of his collected works.

Lionel Pigot Johnson

Lionel Pigot Johnson was another tortured young poet and literary critic.  He struggled with alcoholism and repressed homosexuality. It was Johnson who introduced his cousin, Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, to Oscar Wilde. He moved briefly in those circles, but became estranged from Wilde after he took up with Douglas. Johnson found relief in his conversion to Catholicism in 1891. His most noted poem is Dark Angel. He died in 1902 at age 35, after supposedly falling off a bar stool in the Green Dragon Pub. I have a volume of his collected poems, as well as his critical study of Thomas Hardy.
Simeon Solomon

The Pre-Raphaelite artists interest me, and starting with Burne-Jones, I have become more and more familiar with the personalities and their works over the last couple of years. Simeon Solomon was the lone Jewish artist among the group. He was well-liked and respected, but tended towards outrageous behavior. Like Johnson, he was homosexual, but there was nothing repressed about it. Long before the Oscar Wilde scandal, Simeon Solomon made scandalous headlines in the English newspapers.  He was caught in the act with a stable-hand, prosecuted and convicted.  And then he was caught again.  In a sad reflection on late Victorian society, Solomon was subsequently shunned by most of his peers, and this brilliant artist ended his days as a derelict street artist, working for small change. He died in 1905.
Solomon's "Love in Autumn"

All three of these men were immensely talented, and yet they led tragic lives. But through their poetry, their writings, their art, they speak to us yet. And if we are wise, we will not turn away, but understand that we are no different than they.

The two factors which had dogged me my entire stay in the U.K. were in play that last day, as well; namely, English weather and English traffic. Cutting across Surrey and Sussex, I attempted and then abandoned a plan to visit a site in Crawley, stopped by the giant yew tree at Crowhurst and saw the Last Judgment wall mural uncovered at Chaldon church. This left me south of London, just inside the M25. The two cemeteries I wanted to visit are northwest from central London. What I should have done was to work my way back to the M25 and drive clockwise until I could aim towards my sites from the northwest. But I have been on the M25 when it was a parking lot as far as the eye could see. So, I decided to bust up straight through London. Big mistake.
Though much shorter in actual miles, the drive took my far longer, I believe, than using the M25. Traffic congestion was unrelenting, though I was able to see, somewhat against my wishes, a number of neighborhoods up close: Battersea, Chelsea, Kensington, Notting Hill, Shepherd's Bush, to name a few.

The grave of Francis Thompson

I arrived at St. Mary's Cemetery a little after 3:00 pm, about two hours later than planned and now pressed for time. The rain, which had never really stopped, was coming down harder and harder. I had done my research and knew the general area of Thompson's grave. I found it with little trouble. It is an above ground tomb, carved by Eric Gill. Pressed for space, the cemetery sold plots in what had been a walkway in front of the grave. Now someone else's tombstone was almost flush up against Thompson's, making it difficult to see Gill's carving, or even Thompson's name. On the other side of the tomb is a line from a poem to his godson, one of the Meynell children: Look for me in the nurseries of Heaven. I had planned to recite all 185 lines of The Hound of Heaven, but the rain was fast washing away my plans. I made do with the first section of the poem and the concluding verses.

I was less sure of Johnson's grave, but just before giving up, found it not 30 ft. from Thompson's. I had a copy of Dark Angel, and as it was relatively short, I read it quickly in the rain.
At the grave of Lionel Pigot Johnson

There were others I wished to visit: Alice Meynell and Pearl Craigie (the author known as John Oliver Hobbes) in St. Mary’s, and Anthony Trollope and perhaps Wilkie Collins in adjoining Kensal Green Cemetery. But time and traffic and rain had made this impractical. These sites, as well as Simeon Solomon's in the nearby Jewish cemetery will have to wait until another trip. For now, my thoughts were all about returning my rental car to the airport and preparing for my early morning flight home the next day.