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Diary

18 October 2013

Furry visitor: the Kentish Town fox. See "Brush and brooms" (below)

Furry visitor: the Kentish Town fox. See "Brush and brooms" (below)

Fiction, Ecclesiastical

THE church world of Compton Mackenzie's Sinister Street seems much further away than it did when I was closer to the right age to read this once popular Bildungsroman. It tried my patience even then. But it riveted the young George Orwell.

I took it up again this summer, thinking that a literary centenary was being unjustly neglected; but once more the temptation to skim and skip overwhelmed me, and, I regret, an intelligent appreciation is for someone else to write. Perhaps you do have to be in the Flanders trenches, where it was among the books officially provided for the troops, to get the most out of it.

The TV people haven't touched it since 1969, and my guess is that they skirted its ecclesiastical pitfalls. It goes without saying that today's TV viewers are even less well-equipped than those of 1969 to grasp the finer points of churchmanship.

Nevertheless, its hero sets a splendid example to young people: "During that year [in the boyhood of the hero, Michael Fane] occurred what the papers called a Crisis in the Church, and Michael and his three friends took in every week The Church Times, The Church Review, The English Churchman, Church Bells, The Record and The Rock in order to play their part in the crisis" (no italics in my edition).

If the church aspect of Sinister Street whets your appetite, then there is always Mackenzie's trilogy The Altar Steps, The Parson's Progress, and The Heavenly Ladder; and, when you've done with them, the fiction of Winston Churchill's cousin Shane Leslie, if you can stomach it. Leslie's satirical edge is more of a sledgehammer, I think.

My own preference is for the more sincere and less suffocating atmosphere of Ernest Raymond's Tell England and The Chalice and the Sword. After relinquishing Holy Orders after the First World War, Raymond ended his life back in tune with the C of E. His problem had been Christian belief as such.

Mackenzie and Leslie were, on the other hand, both RC "'verts". Mackenzie went over while writing Sinister Street, but it is only at the conclusion of The Heavenly Ladder that his troubled Anglo-Catholic priest, Mark Lidderdale, is received into the Roman fold by a simple village parrocco in Italy, after reading Benedict's Rule. "Was not the Church of England a church of Sarabaites? . . . He, like a child, was beginning life all over again."

In his history of the 20th-century Church, Canon Roger Lloyd, who was in his twenties when the trilogy came out, commented that it left a nasty taste in the mouth; but that was essentially his verdict on the Anglo-Catholicism of the period: too many nasty young men and acid-tongued clergymen with a "maddening facility in inventing sins" for their unlucky penitents.

In his own fiction there is little danger of finding an occasion of sin. In The Troubling of the City, a character is shown to be truly evil because he pauses for a while in front of the window of a rubber-goods shop in Charing Cross Road. Whatever would Canon Lloyd make of the world we live in now?

 

Succès de scandale

WOULD Sinister Street have done so well without the Banned Book War - that row about Boot's and Smith's libraries' allegedly making the first volume, and other novels of the time, hard to obtain (100 Years Ago, 20 September)? Its author liked to think so, since it stayed in print for decades; but it did benefit from the publicity.

The rumpus was worked up from some happy coincidences by the Daily Mail; and the young Mackenzie piggybacked on a protest from the seasoned writer W. B. Maxwell. Son of that queen of the circulating libraries Mrs Braddon (Lady Audley's Secret, etc.), Maxwell had good reason to feel indignant at the suspicion that his latest novel had been censored by them.

But Mackenzie got stick on his own account. His memoirs record that the Rector of Wallasey, Canon Cogswell, writing to the Liverpool Post, declared himself "disgusted" by Sinister Street. "The very title is suggestive. The hero and heroine are quite gratuitously bastards. . . "

Then the Headmaster of Eton, the Revd the Hon. Edward Lyttelton, wrote to The Times a generalised warning about current fiction, that "in proportion as the adolescent mind grows absorbed in sex ques tions wreckage of life ensues. . . sanity and upright manliness are destroyed."

Mackenzie took this personally; but, though he felt that novelists should address "sex questions" if they wished to (but never got into such hot water as Shane Leslie did over The Cantab), it seems probable - on the evidence of a conciliatory letter from Lyttelton to Mackenzie's wife - that the headmaster had had other novels in mind.

Hall Caine's The Woman Thou Gavest Me so excited the horror of the Church Times in the summer of 1913 that it devoted a full column to denouncing the book, into which, it declared, "everything unsavoury is thrown" - a nun with a priest as "paramour", "Paris of the very ugliest", and "repellent scenes between the unloving wife and the passionate husband . . . not a shred of the veil of intimacy . . . left".

True to form, the Church Times feared not so much for schoolboys as for womankind. Caine, the unsigned review suggested, had forgotten that "he was writing for the tender eyes of ladies which, not having seen the evil in the world, can never afterwards look on life with the same fearless purity. It is a big responsibility to take."

 

Brush and brooms

WHEN the new Priest-in-Charge of St Benet and All Saints, Kentish Town, London, the Revd Peter Anthony, and his pastoral assistant, Euan Grant, locked up the church one Sunday evening, they did not notice that a visitor was present.

The next morning, when Mr Grant opened up, he discovered that a fox had made itself at home under the Vicar's stall.

"I was sitting down to a soft-boiled egg for breakfast on my recreation day," Fr Anthony tells us, "when I was called over to church in my dressing-gown and slippers."

Seeing Fr Anthony, the fox vacated his stall, and darted into the organ console through the gap above the swell pedal. "I saw his brush disappear into the organ," Fr Anthony said, "and so I had to get my screwdriver out and set to work."

Once the back of the console was off, the Vicar and his assistant drove the fox out of the building with brooms. But it seems to be drawn to the cloth. "I often find him sniffing round my back door," Fr Anthony said. "I had called the RSPCA, but they said they couldn't help." Too busy, no doubt, like archbishops.

Of course the fox's timing was wrong. It should have visited a week later, on Animal Welfare Sunday.

 

You're on camera

ECUMENICAL matters in Tooting are a wee problem, judging by the photo I was sent this week by a fellow south-Londoner, Henry Long. Pope Francis, take heed.

 

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