William Davage reflects on the ups and downs of writing for New Directions as we approach our 300th edition
Although I did not contribute to the first edition of this magazine, I did purchase the first issue. It required a rare change of policy for Pusey House Library, of which I was then Custodian. From its foundation in 1884 the House had taken the Church Times and continued to do so, although it was no longer the house journal of Anglo-Catholicism, at least not as Pusey House knew it. Friday morning’s had a routine. After Mass and breakfast the then Principal, Fr Philip Ursell, retired to his study to read the Church Times. Invariably, about an hour later, the Library door would be thrown open, he would fling the paper on my desk and the latest outrage would be outlined in the strongest terms. Oh happy days. As the early issues of ND were an inset in the Church of England Newspaper, we had to amend our policy and buy both papers.
I first wrote for ND in April 1999 when an edited (and redacted) version of a lecture, entitled On What Grounds? which I had given for Cost of Conscience in London, York and Bristol, was published. In June that year I wrote my first book review. It was of Michael Saward’s autobiography A faint streak of humility. It remains one of the most unintentionally funny books I have read. I then returned to my Oxford hibernation for six years without disturbing the pages of ND, such had been my impact.
By that time the Principal of the House was Fr Jonathan Baker. He later went on to lesser things. He returned from an Editorial Board meeting to ask me to edit the Books and Arts pages. Naturally, I declined. It seemed too much like hard work. His persuasive charm succeeded and I agreed, as a joint effort with him and our colleague Fr Barry Orford. It was agreed that I did not have to attend every Editorial Board meeting. Although it had to be done on occasions, I never really liked being away from Pusey House in term.
As Pusey House Library bought new books every term, I kept an eye on forthcoming publications and it was easy enough to review once purchased. It was less easy to entice other reviewers. I pointed out at one Board meeting that there was no fee and it was scarcely an enticing prospect to ask already busy people to write 600 words to a deadline and reward them with a £9.95 paperback. However, there were enough kind souls who agreed to contribute and the book pages were always able to fulfil the word quota that was required.
Expansion into other of the Arts was suggested and there was the occasional theatre or exhibition review (this was before Fr Owen Higgs began his series of reviews.) ”What about opera?” I was asked. “You go to the opera. You could write a review.” I did, indeed, go to the opera but suggested that as my musical ability was less than negligible, a review saying “the music was nice” might not be enough. Welsh National Opera came to Oxford, usually for the last week of their season, therefore reviews would be redundant. I would have to take a train to Covent Garden, an expensive ticket, catch the last train back. It did not appeal.
A telephone call, about 4pm, enquired where was the article on S. Dunstan from me as the deadline was that evening. Although having no memory being asked to write it and being fairly sure that I had not been asked, I agreed. After Evening Prayer, I repaired to the Library to research. A break for Supper and Compline. Another hour in the Library and then to the computer. I filed 1000 words just before midnight. At that moment I was possibly a world expert on S. Dunstan. It had all gone by breakfast.
In autumn of 2009 I was sacked. A charming letter from Bishop John Broadhurst said that the Editorial Board was to be reconstituted. I was thanked for my contribution. It was a cull of the oldies: to be replaced by younger people. I was 58. My successor was 57. I was made a Contributing Editor. For the next three years I neither contributed nor edited. I had agreed that when asked and if able I would write. Sadly, when I was asked, I was not able and when I was able, I was not asked.
My happiest memory? Fr Geoffrey Kirk holding forth in Editorial meetings with that exquisite combination of learning and coruscating wit. Scorn and derision for any hapless opponent of flaccid views. Reasoned and cogent demolition of arguments with which he disagreed. Respect for opponents who wrote about and argued their case well and cogently. An impish naughtiness and revelling in plotting and intrigue. Scholarly, urbane, cultured, he possessed the keenest of minds and the most gifted of pens.
I was asked by the present Editor, in 2012 during his first occupancy of the Editor’s chair, to write again and have contributed the occasional book review and articles from time to time since then. I particularly enjoyed a short series of interviews that I conducted with Dr Brian Hanson, Bishops Jonathan Baker, Martyn Jarrett, Norman Banks and Glynn Webster and regretted that it was not possible to do more. This, by a statistical fluke, is my 200th contribution.
Fr William Davage lives in Hampstead from where he writes for New Directions.