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An Irishman abroad

16 November 2012

"I AM the product of long cor-ridors," he wrote, "empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes. . . . Also, of endless books."

We approach the anniversary of the death of Clive Staples Lewis. He died on 22 November 1963, but his passing was largely unnoticed, as he shared the day with the assassination of J. F. Kennedy. The world stopped for the shot President; but a more intriguing man had died that day in Oxford.

In many ways, England was never home for this Belfast Protestant who, on arrival, in his words, "conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal". He always sought Irish company, and "like all Irish people who meet in England, we ended by criticisms on the invincible flippancy and dullness of the Anglo-Saxon race. After all, there is no doubt, ami, that the Irish are the only people: with all their faults, I would not gladly live or die among another folk."

Some have suggested, however, that it was his despair of sectarian strife in Belfast which created a passion for unity among Christians around what the Roman Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton called "mere Christianity" - core doctrinal beliefs that all denominations could share.

But religion came late to Lewis; after becoming an atheist at the age of 15, he immersed himself fully in pagan mythology. As a 19-year-old, he experienced trench warfare on the Somme, and agreed with Lucretius: "Had God designed the world, it would not be a world so frail and faulty as we see."

His adoption of Christianity, influenced both by Tolkien and by Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, is famously recorded in Surprised by Joy: "You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling . . . the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."

He became a famous Christian apologist, but, in 1960, wrote with a different voice after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman - a relationship that had developed from intellectual friendship to passionate commitment. Such was the savagery and rage of A Grief Observed that it was published under the pseudonym N. W. Clerk for fear of offence. It was a hatchet job on everything he had previously written, although, for some Christians, it is their favourite Lewis of all.

No plastic saint, young Clive lost his mother when young, knew only a distant father, and lived in a land never quite his own. But, in such exile, what homecomings he described.

Simon Parke is the author of Pippa's Progress (DLT, 2012).

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