Thurifer has been out and about

Belatedly I have read Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman by Minoo Dinsha: outstandingly good, beautifully written in sinuous, nuanced prose. His publishing debut, it shows that genes tell. Son of the novelist Candid McWilliams and the Oxford don Fran Dinshaw, his biography combines meticulous research, judicious commentary, phrases mordant, allusive, illuminating, sharp, beguiling. One sentence does little justice to the whole but gives some flavour: Sir Basil Zaharoff, whose ‘real first name was Zacharias, was… the marrying kind, on occasion bigamously. He put this to the proof for the last time in his mid-seventies, by his union in 1924 with his long-time Spanish mistress, Marie de Muguiro y Beruete, Duchess of Marchena, whose previous husband, a Spanish Prince of the Blood and violent lunatic, had only just died.’ Runciman, historian of the Crusades, academic, traveller, connected with literary, political, espionage milieus, occultist, Calvinist yet an acquaintance of Msgr Roncalli (Pope John XXIII), defender of Orthodoxy, Grand Orator to the Ecumenical Patriarch, honorary Whirling Dervish, lived a long life. Many exotic blooms come and go but a steady pace and an agreeable wit help to navigate the narrative. This is not hagiography but a penetrating study of several interlocking worlds and families and Runciman’s sometimes brittle and febrile characteristics are not glossed but are seen in the context of a fascinating, clever and compelling personality. Mr Dinshaw’s is a precocious and serious talent, not unlike his subject.  

Runciman was part of a remarkable nexus of political and literary families in Northumberland in the last century. Percys at Alnwick, Runcimans at Doxford, Grey’s at Howick, Trevelyans at Wallington, Ridleys at Blagdon. Conservatives at Alnwick and Blagdon, Liberals (and later Socialists) at Wallington, Doxford and Howick. The Grey family own Hawick. The 2nd Earl was the Prime Minister of the 1832 Great Reform Bill. He has a monument, like Lord Nelson’s, in Newcastle upon Tyne. In a later generation, Sir Edward Grey was the Foreign Secretary in the reforming Liberal government of 1908–1916. His poignant words in 1914 still echo. ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.’ He wrote several books in his later years, The Charm of Birds and Fly Fishing evidence of his abiding interests as a countryman. The Ridleys at Blagdon were more political than literary but the present Viscount (writing as Matt Ridley) is a journalist and author on environmental issues and Jane Ridley, grand-daughter of the 3rd Viscount, daughter of the politician Nicholas Ridley, is a popular, fine historian. Runciman’s father was a member of the Cabinet with Edward Grey and survived into National Government and Conservative cabinets until World War II. It was his eponymous commission that preceded the Munich Agreement. The great ‘Whig’ historian G. M. Trevelyan was born at Wallington, son of the politician and historian Sir George Otto. G.M’s elder brother inherited the baronetcy and served in the first Labour Cabinet as President of the Board of Education in 1924 and again between 1929–1931. Between those two periods the presidency was held by Lord Eustace Percy.

In 1881, Andrew Crozier switched on an electric light in the Library of Cragside, Northumberland. It was the first house to use hydroelectricity and Crozier was chosen because as a page boy in Lord Armstrong’s household he was the youngest, not yet a teenager, and was the most likely to outlive the family and other staff and be able to witness to that historic domestic moment. He lived a further seventy years. On 24 September 1928, Thomas Auton laid the foundation stone of the Metropolitan District Railway Company in St James’ London, now the headquarters of Transport for London. He had been an employee for 43 years and housekeeper from 1899 to 1928. Both Crozier and Auton have achieved a small piece of immortality. We are used to seeing foundation stones and plaques bearing the name of royalty, the aristocracy, various of the great and the good, it is heartening to read of the more modest and unspectacular securing a corner of the national story.

Parish notes: two significant examples of the benefits of longevity occurred at the end of January. Canon David Wyatt marked 50 years as the Vicar of S. Paul’s, Paddington, Salford. He was appointed to a parish where the church was scheduled to be demolished along with most of the parish. He fought to save the church, including a threat to chain himself to the railings. He succeeded. He repaired and refurbished the church, its interior a jewel by Stephen Dykes-Bower and was ready to offer a ministry to his new parishioners. At a sprightly 81 (he was appointed before a retirement age was specified) that ministry continues undiminished, wonderfully supported by his wife. A large party and an interview on the Sunday programme marked the event and, from the background merriment of the interview, it was a very happy day. In Notting Hill, Fr John Brownsell, having reached the mandatory age of 70, retired after 45 years at All Saints, from curate to Team Vicar to Vicar. It is certainly rare and may be unique in this more mouvementé age when career development is the norm. His farewell Mass was attended by 250–300 people. Of course, there was a tinge of sadness but the atmosphere was one of completion, of a task done. He preached a moving homily on the Nunc Dimittis. He was departing in peace having seen so many examples of Christ’s light and salvation in the lives of so many. The evening before there was a programme of his favourite music and its significance, from classical to pop. To both these fine priests, either in office or retirement, ad multos annos.