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Diary

by
19 December 2011

by Jonathan Boardman

Bookshop ranter

I THINK I must be getting old. I went to a bookshop, having heard an interesting radio review of Julian Barnes’s recent Mann Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an End­ing, and, on finding it on the shelves, started talking aloud to myself. “A novel? Call this a novel? In the good old days it would have been termed a novelette — or, better, a long short story. I am not buying this; and, what’s more, I am not going to buy anything.”

I harrumphed out of the shop. I do not know whether anybody wit­nessed my solitary and surpris­ingly violent rant, but I feel sure that, if they had, it would merely have evoked the thought: “What a cranky old man!”

Looking back on the incident, and indeed sharing it in this piece, I can laugh at it, especially as I went on to buy the book about a week later at an airport bookshop (finishing it dur­ing the flight). Long short story it remains, but a brilliant piece of writing it most definitely is. In fact, now I have read it, I acknowledge that it is as long as it ought to be; that such an intense monologue could not have been sustained further — or, had it been, the effect of the piece would only have been reduced.

It is the idiosyncratic account of his life by an older man (his voice is the only one we hear, all others ap­pearing as reported speech). In fact, it is a kind of diary, the trustworthi­ness of which is gradually and brilliantly undermined by the auth­orial voice’s lack of self-awareness. It should be a caution to anyone daring to contribute to a column entitled “Diary”.

If one example of caution could be considered of marginal effect, let me add another: Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (“Now a major motion-picture”), which I picked up at the airport with the Barnes. The woman narrator of this work — Eve — reflects on the reluc­tance she felt in bearing children, in a series of unsent letters to her husband. They are estranged after their son has committed a Colum­bine-style massacre at his American high school.

The towering self-absorption of the subject has meant that I have been unable, so far, to bring myself to finish it, despite its being of the length that I would expect in a novel.

Pang of loss

WHEN I was younger, and con­temporaries were having children, I experienced no particular pangs of regret for being childless. I enjoyed the company of the families I fre­quented, and went home with no feeling of a gaping hole in my life.

Now that I have reached the age where my contemporaries’ children are just beginning to have children of their own, however, I have felt the need to review my complacency. If I felt no lack in not being a father, I am beginning to acknowledge a sense of deprivation because I will never be a grandparent. All Saints’, Rome, seems suddenly full of charming kids presenting me with drawings to magnet to the fridge; and the Third Sunday of Advent took me to St Anthony Abbot’s, Padova, where there are more than 49 children in the Sunday school.

Now that I have reached the age where my contemporaries’ children are just beginning to have children of their own, however, I have felt the need to review my complacency. If I felt no lack in not being a father, I am beginning to acknowledge a sense of deprivation because I will never be a grandparent. All Saints’, Rome, seems suddenly full of charming kids presenting me with drawings to magnet to the fridge; and the Third Sunday of Advent took me to St Anthony Abbot’s, Padova, where there are more than 49 children in the Sunday school.

I was there to say farewell to the Revd Sampson Ajuka, the charis­matic Curate-in-Charge of this in­credibly vibrant community of largely Nigerian immigrants to Italy. Samp­son is leaving with his family after Christmas to take up a post in the Clogher diocese in Ireland. The younger of his currently two chil­dren (Ogonna, his wife, is ex­pect­ing another in May) is named Rejoice, and so it was with a special appropriateness that I preached on 1 Thessalonians 15.16ff.

At the lighting of the Advent wreath’s third candle, I was advised to speak to the children in Italian, since, of course, they all attend Italian public schools. I asked them whose coming we would be celebrating in two weeks’ time at the lighting of the white candle at the centre of the wreath. Without hesitation came the reply, “Babbo Natale” (Father Christ­mas).

Baby brothers, including Bambino Gesù, are clearly not so much to be expected as the great white-bearded present giver. Could they have mis­taken me for him?

Venerable sage

AT A recent cocktail party at the Anglican Centre in Rome, I fell into conversation with an articulate Londoner. We somehow arrived on a consideration of the significance of grey (aka white) hairs. I ventured that my white beard leant dignity, cred­ibility, even sagacity, to what would otherwise have been my banal utter­ances, only to have my pre­concep­tions dashed. “I have always consid­ered a white beard to denote benev­olence rather than wisdom.” Touché.

The ranting man in the bookshop seemed far from wise; he might at least, I suppose, aspire to bene­volence. The oldest member of the All Saints’ congregation is Margaret, who, to preserve her right not to declare her age, I can describe as being exactly 50 years my senior.

She has recovered well this year from a broken hip acquired in a bag-snatching episode, and is continuing singing in the choir, pursuing com­puter studies, and teaching painting. Perhaps I am not getting old at all.

The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints’, Rome.

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