Christmas Diary

Thurifer goes shopping

 

Christmas presents for my parents were easy. My father liked to have the latest cologne or after-shave. He had a tendency to the modern in furniture and cars, as well as grooming. My mother was less on trend and never deviated from Chanel No. 5. A book published earlier in the year (Chanel’s Riviera by Anne de Courcy, W&N, £20) shows that my pocket money pennies found their way into the coffers of the unattractive figure of Coco Chanel. I was not surprised by the hedonistic lifestyle, the round of parties, the luxury and indolence, the sense of entitlement and imperious caprice. Nor by the cast of Thirties characters that peopled her life. The tedious Windsors (David and Wallis), of course, Maugham, Cocteau, Oswald Mosley and his ‘philandering… as natural as breathing.’ But during the War she lived in Nazi-occupied Paris at the Ritz and her lavish house on the Riviera in some style. She was deeply anti-Semitic, indifferent to the fate of the Jews deported, used the anti-Semitic legislation to engineer the ruin of the company that manufactured and distributed her perfume until she acquired it, thereby substantially increasing her wealth, was contemptuous of those who worked for her, and shacked up with a Nazi officer. Somehow she escaped retribution for her willing collaboration but decamped to Switzerland to enjoy the fruits of her dismal conduct. And with my pocket money.

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This year saw the 20th anniversary of the foundation of the Anglo-Catholic History Society (ACHS). Launched at St Mary’s Bourne Street with a lecture by Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, subsequently its President, a position he held until his death, the Society has held lectures each year with distinguished contributors, published them in booklet form, and sponsored, financially supported, and produced several books. The Society grew out of conversations between the late Michael Farrer (a compendium of Anglo-Catholic lore) and Brent Skelly, who remains its Secretary. Only by knowing our past and weeding out its myths can we understand ourselves and the Church and the world we presently occupy. This is neither antiquarianism nor nostalgia but a vital component of our self-understanding. Here’s to another 20 years and many more.

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In his novel Exit Ghost, Philip Roth wrote: ‘For the profundity which is achieved not by complexity but by clarity and simplicity. For the purity of the sentiment but death, parting and loss. For the long melodic lines spinning out and the female voice soaring and soaring. For the repose and composure and gracefulness and the intense beauty of the soaring. The composer drops all masks and stands before you naked and you dissolve.’ Every word could be applied to the great soprano Jessye Norman, who died earlier this year. I heard her live only once, in a Lieder Recital at the Royal Festival Hall over 20 years ago, and it remains in the memory for its poise and subtlety, the colours of the voice and artistry. There is a performance on YouTube of a 1985 prom of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony conducted by Georg Solti where she flings the top notes to the furthest parts of the Royal Albert Hall with an almost reckless abandon that is entirely thrilling. Memory eternal.

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My book of the year was, without hesitation, The Cowley Fathers: A History of the English Congregation of the Society of St John the Evangelist by Serenhedd James. I suspect it may become a classic of Anglo-Catholic history. A book of this quality comes around once in a generation. The research and writing were funded from the Fellowship of St John Trust Association and the trustees are to be congratulated on this enterprise. The scholarly tradition in Anglo-Catholicism is one the glories of the Catholic Movement and it is sometimes under-appreciated and, certainly, under-funded. Their investment in this project has been triumphantly vindicated. 

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In any competition of invective and vituperation, historians have a very good chance of winning all the glittering prizes. It does not always require a literary battering-ram. Is there a better demolition by damning with faint praise than this feline paragraph by Hugh Trevor-Roper on A. L. Rowse? 

‘His scholarship may have been overlaid by incrustations of an outrageous egotism, his sentience dulled by opulent fat, but neither has been extinguished… His style repels the fastidious. His monologues and tirades may be uttered to captive railway passengers or disintegrating college tables. But his critics had better be careful. In learning and scholarship they will not easily catch him out. Buried in mounting dross, the gold may still be found.’

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This came to mind earlier in the year having read an obituary in The Guardian by Professor Sir Richard Evans on Norman Stone. He acknowledged Stone’s cleverness, that he could write entertaining prose, that he was a talented linguist and that his first book on the Eastern Front in World War I was ‘a scintillating narrative… admirably succinct and clearly argued.’ For most of the obituary, however, the boot went in. 

‘He hurled [abuse] at anyone he disapproved of, including feminists (“rancid”), Oxford dons (“a dreadful collection of deadbeats, dead wood and has-beens”), students (“smelly and inattentive”), David Cameron and John Major (“transitional nobodies”).’

He wrote ‘quick potboilers… superficial and poorly researched work.’ Other epithets and criticisms included: ‘undisciplined,’ neglect of duties by playing poker, ‘drinking himself into oblivion in Soho,’ renting out his rooms at Worcester College, ‘groping female students,’ ‘mixing worn-out historical clichés with random statements of his own personal views,’ ‘little research, never bothered to check his facts, relied on his literary flair to mask his mistakes.’ And the final thrust: ‘Journalists often described him as “one of Britain’s leading historians”, but in truth he was nothing of the kind, as any serious member of the profession will tell you.’ He quoted Edward Heath (one of Stone’s bêtes noires, ‘a flabby-faced coward’): ‘Many parents of Oxford students must be both horrified and disgusted that the higher education of our children should rest in the hands of such a man.’ In the interest of balance, it should be noted that Evans wrote a sympathetic biography of the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm (not, I suspect someone of whom Stone would have anything good to say) who, as Harold Wilson said of Eric Heffer, was ‘not as nice as he looks.’ I do not subscribe to the maxim that you should never speak ill of the dead. But I would prefer Trevor-Roper’s silken prose and stiletto to Sir Richard’s bludgeon.

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Of domestic trials and tribulations there is no end. Within the space of 10 days, and while hors de combat with crippling arthritis, the dehumidifier gave up the ghost, the iron exploded while ironing a shirt, the runner for the sliding doors on the wardrobe became detached, the doors stuck and had to be manhandled for 20 minutes before they gave way and could be removed, a plant pot was delivered broken, a short time after the dishwasher needed to be replaced. The collapse of the world order was acted out in miniature in a leafy suburb. Pathetic fallacy? I think not.

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BP and the National Portrait Gallery were criticized for the company’s sponsorship, over three decades, of the annual portrait competition. This has been an important annual exhibition and has, each year, produced excellent work and boosted careers or rewarded amateur efforts. Sky Arts also sponsors an annual prize for Portrait Artist of the Year. Over several weeks nine artists per week paint or draw three well-known people in the public eye. It is fascinating to see the techniques, successes and failures of the artists, the engaging judges (although I only rarely agree with their final judgement) and the presenters, the epitome of the genre Joan Bakewell and, currently, the actor Stephen Mangan (who does not quite match his predecessor, the comedian Frank Skinner). There is a cash prize and a commission to paint a public figure for a national institution. This year it was Sir Tom Jones for the Museum of Wales. Portraiture is clearly flourishing and both this programme and the BP/NPG co-operation are to be applauded.

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Looking back on this year of grace: If you think things will improve, they never do. If you think things cannot be any worse, they invariably will be.

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Louis XVI was guillotined on 21st January 1793 during the Terror of the French Revolution. After the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy in the ample shape of Louis XVIII, Luigi Cherubini wrote a Requiem Mass, first sung on the 23rd anniversary of the execution in 1817. The bodies of Louis and Marie Antoinette had been buried in the Basilica of St Denis, the mausoleum of many of the French monarchs, in 1815. Commissioned for what was a state occasion of commemoration, it was conceived on a large symphonic scale. In 1820 a marche funèbre was added. At a subsequent proposed performance in 1834 it was prohibited by the Archbishop of Paris, Hyacinthe-Louis De Quélen, because it used women’s voices. Cherubini wrote a version for men’s voices only. Marie Antoinette was beheaded on 16th October 1793. A Requiem Mass for her was composed by Charles-François Plantade (1787–1870). Both works have been recorded, recently by Le Concert Spirituel directed by Hervé Niquet. Recommended.

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Joyeux Noël et heureuse nouvelle année

2020-02-10T13:45:40+00:00 December 2019 Articles|