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
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?
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
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 . . .
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."
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
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
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