Winter Diary

Thurifer  offers a new way forward

 

Ellen Wilkinson (1891–1947) was a Labour MP and writer. As MP for Jarrow she was a central figure in the ‘Jarrow Crusade,’ which saw a group of men from her constituency march to London in protest at unemployment and poverty. As Education Secretary in Attlee’s post-war government, she was responsible for the implementation of the 1944 Education Act. She suffered from asthma and emphysema and contracted pneumonia which, accelerated by barbiturate poisoning, led to her death at only 55 in 1947. Although the coroner decided that she had overdosed her prescription medication accidentally, there was a suspicion that a failed love affair with Herbert Morrison may have led to suicide. She was first elected to the Commons in 1924 when she was the only female MP on the Labour benches (three women incumbents had lost their seats in the General Election). She lost her seat in 1931, regaining one in 1935. During that hiatus she wrote several, mainly political, books, but there was one work of crime fiction. ‘The Division Bell Murder’ (published in the admirable series British Library Crime Fiction) is a worthy example of the Golden Age of crime fiction. Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers remain preeminent from that period, but the series brings many once popular practitioners to a new audience. On the evidence of this book, it is a matter of regret that Wilkinson did not write more. She was a good writer of clear, precise prose, with neat turns of phrase. It is well plotted with good characterization and an assured political and parliamentary background. Although regarded as a left-wing firebrand and dubbed ‘Red Ellen’ (a soubriquet reflecting her hair colour as well as her politics), her protagonists are mainly Conservative and are sympathetically handled. The Prime Minister is Baldwinesque; another character is based on the acidulous Nancy Astor. The mise en scène is an assured insider’s view and is affectionately drawn. She clearly loved Parliament, its atmosphere, traditions, quirks and quiddities, courtesies and conflicts, nooks and crannies. Much is still recognizable. One exception is in a brief intervention by Mr Speaker during a fractious debate, arising with gravitas, natural dignity and quiet authority to restore order. Very different today…

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It was Nancy Astor (the first woman to take her seat in the Commons) who told Winston Churchill that were he her husband she would poison his drink, to which he replied that were she his wife he would drink it.

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There was much that I remember more happily from the year passing. The exhibition of the part-reconstituted collection of King Charles I’s paintings (Royal Academy); Daniel Roth’s organ recital (Westminster Cathedral); the facade of Castle Howard seen for the first time; Beethoven’s 9th and Missa Solemnis (Barbican) and a live relay from the Proms (I cannot bear the Royal Albert Hall in summer) of a thrilling rendition of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Kirill Petrenko. Fr Brownsell’s farewell Mass at Notting Hill and dinner with the Parish Clerks’ Company are also among the highlights.

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The year has less happy memories of travel. A splendid week in the Yorkshire Dales was bracketed by two horrendous journeys. Outward, we were held outside Doncaster for an hour and a half and, when the train was ‘terminated’ there spent another 90 minutes on the platform waiting for a train to Leeds. A further 40-minute delay followed for a train to Northallerton, where we finally arrived three and a half hours late (and too late to collect our hire car.) The return journey saw all trains from the North East canceled following a stormy night during which lightning struck and disabled the signalling system. A coach to Leeds was followed by yet more delayed trains. We eventually boarded one, but alighted after 40 minutes to allow the air conditioning to be repaired. After about 45 minutes we boarded again, and then had to wait another 30 or so minutes for another train to set off before us. Only 25 minutes into our journey the air conditioning failed and the next two hours were spent in a travelling sauna. We arrived four and a half hours late. Refund of all fares softened the pain. Commuting for six months was not much better: traffic congestion, buses rerouted, broken down, one had its wing mirror shorn by a passing lorry, another suffered a complete computer collapse requiring emergency exit. The Underground was little better: packed, hot, and insufferable.

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As we turn into the year when the United Kingdom demits from the European Union the following, which I first copied into a commonplace book in about 1970, may be of antiquarian interest. In a speech delivered in 1851 Victor Hugo said this: ‘We say to France, to England, to Prussia, to Austria, to Spain, to Italy, to Russia, we say to them: a day will come when your weapons will fall from your hands, a day when war will seem absurd and be as impossible between Paris and London, St Petersburg and Berlin, Vienna and Turin, as today it would seem impossible between Rouen and Amiens, Boston and Philadelphia. A day will come when you France, you Russia, you Italy, you England, you Germany, all you continental nations, without losing your characteristics, your glorious individuality, will intimately dissolve into a superior unity and you will constitute the European brotherhood just as Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace, and all the provinces, have dissolved into France. A day will come when there will be no battlefields, but markets opening to commerce and minds, opening to ideas… A day will come when we shall see those two immense groups—the United States of America and the United States of Europe—stretching out their hands across the sea exchanging their products, their arts, their works of genius, cleaning up the globe, making deserts fruitful, ameliorating creation under the eyes of the Creator, and going together to reap the well-being of all.’

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My favourite line of the year was not, alas, some pithy spiritual insight, learned observation, neat literary trope, acute pensée that had not occurred to Pascal, and if it had he had not written it down. Rather, it was ‘Out here the smell was eye-watering. Like jamming your head in a dead badger.’ I laughed aloud. There is a crisp Christmas tenner for the first to identify the source and send the answer to (beware spelling!)

newdirectionsacrisptenor@gmail.com

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As a seasonal thought here is a modest proposal for the revivification of the spiritual life and the pastoral primacy of the English church: all episcopal sees created since 1485 to be suppressed (delivering a minimum saving of £1,028,880 per year plus the ancillary costs from the abolition of diocesan boards, committees and bureaucracy). All suffragan sees to be abolished (a saving of £2,588,520 per year). In the larger dioceses a small number of parish priests to be ordained to episcopal orders to conduct confirmations and ordinations in their area. They would be paid a standard fee (equivalent to that of a Mass stipend for cover) and expenses from the parish they visit. Bishops would no longer sit in the House of Lords. However, if this proves too radical a suggestion they would continue to sit but their daily allowance would be deducted from their episcopal stipend or paid into a diocesan fund to support poor parishes. All bishops and priests would be paid the same stipend. Needless to say the most expensive item of church activity, General Synod, would be abolished. And a happy Christmas to one and all.

2019-02-13T16:03:14+00:00 December 2018 Articles|