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Something to say for themselves

08 February 2013

The Church Times's columnists have given the paper part of its character. Glyn Paflin  brings back some voices from the past

COLUMNISTS! Hats off to them! Aren't you just sick of them? The Church Times has had its share; but for most of its history it appointed them sparingly - and none of them has been as inconsistently contrarian as Private Eye's Glenda Slagg.

Their main advantage editorially is that, if they are chosen well, their copy arrives regularly and on time, and to a predictably high standard, and they gain a following. To the readers, they seem closely associated with the paper; to the staff, they may be people who never set foot in the office from one year to the next.

Sub-editors' penance is to keep a columnist they disagree with out of court, and to guard him or her from exposure for ignorance or illiteracy. But watch out when you change the copy of a columnist who is known for standing on his or her dignity.

Anonymity is a way of keeping journalistic egos in check, and it was the general rule in the early days. Political comment, for example, was for more than a century confined to the leading articles and a column entitled "Summary of the News".

 

An obvious predecessor of today's columnists such as Canon Giles Fraser and Paul Vallely was Bishop Hugh Montefiore, a swashbuckling liberal, who, in retirement, was commissioned to write every week by John Whale in the early 1990s. His articles were carefully researched, and he had the gift of goading our readers into writing letters by championing any new theories that he read about.

He was particularly prickly about any editorial changes to his copy. The byline photo on his column was one of those fund-raising charity publicity photos, from which a large cardboard cheque had been carefully cropped. So it is perhaps fitting that his most memorable exercise in antagonism was a head-on collision with the Additional Curates' Society, a charity supported by many traditional Anglo-Catholic parishes, over grants for women curates.

IN THE early days, when Anglo-Catholicism was everything to the Church Times, it sought to speak with a unified voice for one Church, one faith, one Lord - and was often at odds with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Tait, over the persecution of Ritualists by the Church Association.

So it is an irony that its first diary columnist, for more than 20 years, was a protégé of Tait, Canon William Benham (1831-1910), whose closeness to the Archbishop was cemented by his sympathetic support after the Archbishop lost his son, Craufurd, and wife, Catharine. (Tait was much bereaved.)

Benham was eventually Tait's co- biographer with Archbishop Randall Davidson, who paid tribute to Benham's "curiously wide range of miscellaneous knowledge", his "depth of simple Evangelical piety", and "tireless freshness and energy".

Benham's gifts as a preacher had first impressed Archbishop Charles T. Longley; and Benham had obtained his title for ordination as a lecturer in divinity and English literature at St Mark's College, Chelsea, when its principal was Derwent Coleridge (son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

 

Under the pseudonym "Peter Lombard", Benham steered away from controversies, and wrote as a scholar and antiquarian with an appetite for the new opportunities for travel being opened up by railways and steamers. (His hobby was "riding on the tops of omnibuses".)

On 18 October 1889, for example, he writes in his column, "Varia":

The doctor bade me go out of town for a week, so I said at breakfast, "I see there is a new line just opened, which brings us within easy distance of a little village I have long wished to see, Chalfont St Giles, where Milton once lived." The village is three miles and a half from the station, but our landlord had chartered a funny shandrydan for us, which, like everything else, was very cheap and comfortable, and we had a lovely drive out. . .

He praises the countryside and briefly describes the village before getting to his main interest: the church - ". . . square embattled tower with a very tall staff, walls of flint and blocks of chalk, lead roof, nave with two aisles, and a very long chancel, the nave being 51 feet and the chancel 40 feet. . ."

Then it is on to some remarks about Milton, and "the notorious pluralist, Pretyman, [who] came once a year or so to his cure of souls, and when he appeared the people used to walk out of church. . ." And, finally, having been shown the rusty clapper of the former Sanctus bell by the verger, he notes that "in this parish the practice of ringing the Sanctus is still in a manner kept up. A bell is rung, not in the correct place, but as soon as the Sacrament is finished."

 

On 26 February 1892, however, he has bigger fish to fry: he can relate a "great expedition" at the end of the previous month, in a party of six, including "Mrs Lombard", which took in Rome, Naples, Alexandria, Cairo, and the Holy Land, including Jerusalem.

We enter the City, and I do not hesitate to say that any inhabitant of Western Europe must stand amazed at all he beholds. "The streets of Jerusalem" - do not think of the streets of London, Belgravia, or Whitechapel, nor of any country town. Tall houses of brown stone, the wide streets about 12 feet apart. The Via Dolorosa is rather wider in places; we measured it, and found that at one spot it was 15 feet wide, at another only 10. I need not say that it is no place for vehicles. . .

BENHAM, with his Victorian zeal for observation and measurement, is joined by another pseudonymous columnist in the Edwardian era: "Viator", Canon T. A. Lacey (1853-1931), already a reviewer and leader-writer, and now able to make intellectual fireworks in a column headed "The Wayfarer", often prefaced by an untranslated Latin tag.

Viator lets you know that he is a university man. He is more of a stylist than Benham (Lacey was a contributor to The English Hymnal), and an influence in taking the paper away from the fundamentalism of the Tractarian era, by refusing to get into a flap about what, in 1907, Pope Pius X denounced as Modernism. The Loisy débâcle "forbids the supposition that finality can be attained in the order of thought, even by papal decree", Lacey wrote.

 

Though "Viatrix" makes cameo appearances, her husband's debates are likely to be with clerical friends, Anglican and Roman.

As a rule I see little of Harvey in Lent; he is busy preaching: but one day last week I saw him from my study window come striding up the hill under the chestnuts, eager as if he were full of some new matter. What it was I never learnt, for as he entered the room his eye fell on a volume lying idle.

"Ah! You have the Acton Letters," he exclaimed, and took it up. Then, dropping into an easy chair, he said, "Don't let me interrupt you," and settled down to read. I was doing nothing in particular, so I got down the interleaved copy of my great work on the Female Poets of the Tenth Century, in which I make corrections for a possible second edition, and prepared myself for a long sitting. . .

Viator, like Chesterton, enjoys a paradox. On a visit to Bedford, he asks a roadmaker whether he knows of Bunyan and the Pilgrim's Progress. Confounding expectations, the man says, "O aye, my mis'ess reads me out o' that a good bit now and then." The man says that he has learnt from it to keep on the straight path. "I don't hold by no chapels, nor nothing o' that sort. I stick to the church and try to keep straight on, and He'll help me over at the end."

Viator is delighted. "This was tremendous. I had struck pure gold of interest. Here was a careful learner extracting out of the old Anabaptist's teaching a lesson of straight and patient orthodoxy. . ."

In 1919, Viator revisits Barchester to see how it has changed.

As for the Bishop, he now spends most of his time in a motor-car, rushing about the diocese in assiduous attendance to his duties; he devotes two days a week to the work of various committees in London, preaches or makes speeches on all suitable or unsuitable occasions, and in the few interstices of his occupied time reads, I suppose, a newspaper, some current reviews, and occasionally, perhaps, a recent book dealing with urgent affairs of the Church or the world; so that he does not count for much at Barchester. . .

LACEY, having embarrassed the Church Times by associating too closely with Free Churchmen, was replaced in 1920 as weekly essayist by C. B. Mortlock, whose "Round-About Papers" appeared over the pseudonym, "Urbanus", until - astonishingly - the week before his death in 1967.

Latterly Rector of St Vedast's, Foster Lane, in London, he features in the great Hans Feibusch mural in St Alban's Holborn (Feibusch illustrated a book of the columns, Inky Blossoms). He also served as the CT's drama critic, attending the theatre in top hat and tails. In a piece on Frank Buchman's Moral Re-armament, he once memorably dubbed it "the Salvation Army in evening dress".

Urbanus is the Church Times's Mrs Miniver. When, in her column in The Times, Jan Struther (Joyce Anstruther) describes Mrs Miniver's enjoyment in buying a new engagement book, she is not far from what Sacheverell Sitwell called Urbanus's tone of "civilized, I had almost said . . . Horatian contentment".

 

Writing through the Second World War, Urbanus takes as little notice of it as possible. Nevertheless, in February 1944, oranges become available again. "Can I expect any small boy of ten to believe that we remember the day when the streets of London were paved with orange-peel?" Urbanus asks.

The only fully satisfactory way of enjoying oranges is to eat them in your bath. Tumble them into the hot water and give them time to get warm right through. Then join them. Your-bath-tray having already been provided with a dessert plate and a silver knife, you take an orange from the water, cut it into halves, remove the pips into the plate, and suck out the juice with never a thought for anything but the delight of sucking an orange.

Although his range includes ecclesiastical matters and travel, he is at his most charming when he reveals his love of London.

Civilization has fallen into such parlous state that one must needs look to Nature for the signs of spring. Ladders leaning across the London pavement and supporting the house-painter used to be among the pleasant signs of spring. Another was the return to the park of the regiments of green chairs; and yet another was the street-seller of light-blue and dark-blue Boat-Race favours, but he had to give place to the balloon-woman who had her pitch by Bull's Gate, where one entered the Broad Walk from Bayswater Road.

Unconscious artistry, or the fashion of her order, saw to it that she was attired in garments of black, so that not even a touch of colour in her bonnet challenged the shimmering glory of her airy wares.

If am told that the balloon-woman has returned to herald the spring and enliven its pale sunshine with the gaiety of her colours, the spell of the snowdrops will be broken, and I shall not repine.

IN THE mean time, the diary had become a modern piece of journalism. Sidney Dark's "From a Journalist's Notebook: The Week's Jottings", which often covered the best part of a page, consisted of many short items, was mainly about people, and benefited from his wide contacts. It was signed "Laicus Ignotus", which concealed the fact that it was by the Editor himself.

Few editors have found time to write such a column themselves. After Dark left the paper in 1941, it was replaced by "The Passing Week" by "Journeyman", followed by "The Inside of the Week", which was instigated by the Revd Jack Westlake, Vicar of Old St Pancras.

This diary was a popular feature until 1980. In 1952, on Westlake's resignation, Alan Shadwick, the assistant editor, took it over, with Westlake's pseudonym, "Squirrel Nutkin". He laboured under this burden until 16 September 1960, when he confessed:

Like many people before me who have writhed under an embarrassing inherited name, I have decided to change it by deed poll.

Squirrel Nutkin has had a good run for his money, but for years has secretly been wanting to come down to earth from the cosy treetop realms of make-believe suggested by that name, and now signs himself - in commemora-tion of that drab and doomed but dramatic and very dear street in the parish of St Peter's, Limehouse - Pennyfields.

Shadwick had been one of the last of the East End's bachelor clergy-house martyrs, and stayed loyal to his adopted part of London until his death. When he retired in 1980, his successor as diarist was "Sidesman", a staff reporter and north-London churchwarden, Betty Saunders.

The column had a new lease of life as the "Portugal Street Diary", named after the location of the rather plush-looking Church Times offices at that time, and highlighting the lighter and more heart-warming sides of life in the Anglican Communion. It continued in this format until the present diary format, with a rota (very C of E) of contributors (in which she was soon included), was introduced by John Whale in 1989.

For the Christmas issue of 1987, Sidesman found herself short of a lead item, and resorted to subterfuge: she wrote some comic verses on a perennial theme of parish life, and then passed them through the fax machine in order to present them to the editor, Bernard Palmer, as if they had been sent in anonymously. Naturally, they told a ghost story, which began:

This is a story that's chilling and dark,
The story of Cyril Horatio Stark,
The demon organist of Plankton park,
From St Agatha's, Abattoir Road.

The horrible tale commences, alas,
On a Christmas Eve, at the Midnight Mass,
When old Mr Harris was singing the bass,
And Prebendary Hogg was our Vicar.

Cyril Stark and the Preb. never spoke - not a word
Between the two foemen had ever been heard,
Since Fr Hogg sabotaged something by Byrd,
At a service to celebrate VE-Day. . .

On that dire Christmas Eve, as if by mistake,
Cyril cut short the sermon with Christians, awake:
The Vicar's blind fury made all the choir shake.
Cyril grinned as he pulled all the stops out. . .

THIS round-up would not be complete without a tribute to Rosamund Essex, the paper's former editor, who returned in the New Year of 1968 to express "a feminine and personal view" in a column that began in the same week as Margaret Duggan's "As I See It". Miss Essex's pieces, "All Sorts and Conditions", appeared over her own name until shortly before her death in April 1985.

She was Urbanus's successor, but in a less self-conscious style, and peddled a happy line in trivia (as she did in a piece making anagrams of the names of bishops' palaces); and her columns appealed to me more when I was a child than the children's column, "Young Readers", next to which they often appeared.

In the last seven months of her life, she wrote them while she was a patient at St Christopher's Hospice, Sydenham, and this further endeared her to many of the paper's readers, whose views on various subjects and recollections she often solicited - if not, as she once did, their old confirmation prayer-books.

As the end drew near, she returned to the subject of poverty, which Dark had encouraged her to her to make her own as a young reporter on the Church Times in the 1930s, and which she had pursued further after her editorship when she worked for Christian Aid:

There is a time for laughter and there is a time for weeping. Both can be remedial, and I had a good boo-hoo the other night: it did me a power of good. I am sure that many of my readers will agree that they can find relief in tears.

You will not, readers, think it irreverent if I quote from the Scriptures and remind you of the shortest verse in the New Testament: "Jesus wept." It was at the time of the death of Lazarus.

Have you noticed that those suffering from the worst famine conditions remain dry-eyed, too weak to show emotion? They stare passively at all around them. Only the tots can let fall a tear of human suffering. . .

A doctor talking to me the other day said how foolish it was to suppose that it was somehow shameful for an Englishman to cry, "for men must work and women must weep. . ."

So cry, gentlemen, cry, and share in the suffering of the times. A man will be depriving himself of one of the most important gifts of his humanity if he cannot cry. Now and then he should be able to weep.

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