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05 September 2014


Mystery worshipper

MARGOT ASQUITH, like Clarissa Eden, had a crisis flowing through her Downing Street drawing-room; but hers lasted much longer, of course - until it brought down her husband, politically, in 1916.

As the First World War entered its second year, King George V, Queen Mary, and Queen Alexandra went to church to upraise their hearts with the nation.

"Henry, Lucy, Puffin and [I] drove to St. Paul's Cathedral," too, Margot Asquith's Great War Diary 1914-1916 reveals. After the service, the Liberal Prime Minister's wife was characteristically frank about it (she who wrote of Churchill that his "vanity is septic", and of the Germans that "No people has ever so departed from the spirit of Christ").

"It was a badly managed service, and a great occasion missed. Our clergy are wonderfully lacking in drama and effectiveness. I wish they would all recruit, and just leave the old ones to train a new lot to read the lessons in proper, manly English voices instead of that 3rd. sex, horrible, indistinct, blurred way of reading which puts people either to sleep, or completely 'away' from what is going on.

"'Rock of Ages' is a grand hymn, but it was sung slowly, so that the singers in the Dome were not in time with the choir. It should have been sung loud and straight and not too slow, with a great rush of organ sound to bring all of us into line.

"There were long prayers, poor music, and a moderate sermon from the Archbishop. I did so long and crave for a short sermon telling us to look up, and not to feel hard and puzzled, or to say things would be just the same in a few years after the war. If it is rather difficult to believe in God, it is more just now to believe in Man. . ."

The previously unpublished diary has been edited by the historian Michael Brock and his wife, Eleanor, with plenty of help for the general reader on the background to the events and dramatis personae on which this forceful character often pithily expresses herself (Oxford, £30 (CT Bookshop £27); 978-0-19-822977-3).


'Our man' Clayton

ON THE credit side of the Church of England's account, however, I see that Richard van Emden's splendidly woven tapestry of First World War material from primary sources, Tommy's War: The Western Front in soldiers' words and photographs (Bloomsbury, £25 (£22.50); 978-1-4088-4436-6), has extracts that bear eloquent witness to the ministry of an Anglican padre, the Revd "Tubby" Clayton, founder (as plenty of our readers won't need to be told) of the movement Toc H.

There are two extracts from Clayton's own writings, one of them an extended one that gives his account of Easter Day at Talbot House, Poperinghe, in 1917. I wonder what some of today's busy incumbents would think of this: "I had about 480 communicants, single-handed at Talbot House. . . In the afternoon I started again, and had celebrations at battery positions and elsewhere, an evensong at a Kite Balloon Section, an evensong at Talbot House, and an evening celebration for some forty men who had been on duty in the morning. This made fourteen services during the day, which kept me from stagnation. . ."

But particularly touching is the reflective tribute from Pioneer George Dewdney, 72 Section, "P" Special Company, Royal Engineers, in May 1918, after Clayton had been forced to give up Talbot House, and had transferred his operations to a meadow and orchard referred to as "Dingley Dell" or "Camp Clayton", where he had four Armstrong huts, and proposed to run "Talbot Park".

Dewdney writes of how Clayton managed to attract to services soldiers who did not normally go to church, and includes this comment, still relevant, perhaps:

"I think Clayton's services appeal so because he seems to run them on the assumption that this is not the first time one has been to church, as so many preachers imagine it to be. He does not choose "Fight the Good Fight" and "Onward Christian Soldiers" every time and his sermons - though preaching is not his forte - are sufficiently intellectual to keep one thoughtful and interested. . . I never knew such a smile as his."

Dewdley concludes with a tribute to Clayton's holy guile: "He is the limit for 'getting round' orders, in the interests of our troops."

Photo from the book, Books

Set it to music

A TREAT lies in store for audiences at the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival later this month, according to a press release that cheered us for a moment during a sombre August.

Among news of appearances by well-known names such as Jessye Norman, Julian Fellowes, Maureen Lipman, Ken Hom, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury "Lord George Carey", who is to talk about 21st-century ethical dilemmas, we read: "World-renowned scientist Richard Dawkins will talk about the early influences on his life and work accompanied by the Orchestra of St John who will perform some of his favourite pieces of music live."

Having done so much for the theologians and moral philosophers, can it be that Professor Dawkins is now going to show Ms Norman a thing or two about voice production?


Helpful hint

I LIKE to pass on practical tips from the sacristy and the parsonage, even if a few of the clergy found it hard to give a sensible answer to the question we published a little while ago about cleaning a silver thurible (which came from a hard-pressed lay sacristan whose predecessor had recently carried his secrets in this particular matter to the grave).

The Revd Dr Steven Underdown has written from Brighton - where, I believe, a few of the clergy still wear black - about a concern that may strike more of a sympathetic chord, since it affects clerical attire.

"I washed a whole batch of clerical kit - shirts [although this is not what he typed], trousers, and socks - and left some tissues in a trouser pocket. Everything came out misted with white. I couldn't wipe it off, brush it off, shake it off. I was seriously considering dumping the whole lot. . ."

The internet came to the rescue, and Dr Underdown passes on its wisdom: "Rewash the clothes, without soap, but with half a dozen aspirin tablets. It works!"

He is so delighted with the result that he thinks we might be so kind as to let the Goths know, too.

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