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18 August 2017


So much for August

ON LAMMAS DAY, I sat down in the garden of the Perch, just outside Oxford, to interview Fr Mark Woodruff. He now ministers to the English-speaking Ukrainian Catho­lic community in London, but when he was a student he lived with the Society of St John the Evangelist at St Edward’s House, Westminster. The weather was lovely, and we sat outside and tucked into an old-fashioned pub lunch with jugs of proper beer.

We were halfway through when the heavens opened, sending tour­ists scattering in all directions. You will be glad to hear that we stayed put, and I got on with recording his reminiscences of the Cowley Fathers when they were holding the fort in their expensively austere London house long after their Indian sum­mers had come to an end.

How we chuckled at those foolish Americans, warm and dry and far away under the terrace canopy. As the heavy droplets became a tor­rential deluge, we simply turned our table’s parasol around so that the worst of the rain poured down our backs and not on to our heads. That showed them.


Fascist viewpoint

THE dank and dreary weather has brought back warm and sunny memories of Rome. A while ago, I dragged one of my usual loyal and patient travelling companions around a temporary exhibition at the Cap­ito­line Museums.

These generally do little for me: they are full of old pots and statues, most of them broken. The material on the Spina di Borgo, however, was fascinating, and presented a history of the medieval warren of streets, churches, and palazzos that occup­ied the space between the Piazza San Pietro and the Tiber, until Mus­solini had it all razed in the 1930s to construct the Via della Concilia­zi­one and improve the view of the façade of St Peter’s.

As impressive as the vista may be now, the plan had its faults: similar suggestions had been opposed for centuries. The old zigzagging streets of the Spina meant that pilgrims lost sight of the basilica as they left the Lungotevere, and then stumbled on it almost as if by accident at the end. The breathless descriptions left by so many of them depend on the surprise of their having encountered the huge piazza and basilica at sud­den close quarters, which was just what Bernini envisaged.

The photo of Il Duce ceremoni­ally beginning the demo­lition with a pickaxe was carefully hidden away in the last room — at the end and around a corner. I knew it would be about somewhere.



Circles of hell

A FRIEND recently persuaded me to go clothes shopping with him at Bicester Village. I rarely shop for clothes, as anyone who sees me in the flesh will realise. That said, I was once recognised from my Church Times mugshot while rummaging through gentlemen’s underwear in Jermyn Street.

At outlet villages, the worst ele­ments of the average town centre are concentrated in one place. There are no interruptions in the dysto­pian horror: no little independent book­shops struggling gamely on, or old-fashioned cafés where you can still order a large black coffee with­out speaking cod-Italian and being forced to introduce yourself to strangers. I know a priest who makes baristas write “Father” on the side of his paper cup.

Next time you are dragged shop­ping against your will, make a game of noting the most fatuous and bewildering chain-names you can find. “True Religion” seems to offer nothing but denim — a handy moniker for emboldened low-church clergy after the General Sy­nod’s re­cent meeting — and “All Saints” pre­tends to sell antique sew­ing ma­­chines.

“Rituals” proffers candles and in­­cense, but of the wrong sort. I once suffered similar disappoint­ment when I took Robert M. Sapol­sky’s A Primate’s Memoir off a book­shelf, without spotting the subtitle: A neuroscientist’s uncon­ven­tional life among the baboons.


‘Mrs Trellis’

IT IS always nice when readers write in. After my last column appeared (Diary, 23 June), the BBC’s Callum May sent a message from Broad­casting House.

He pointed out that the elderly gentle­man I had noted opposite Westminster Abbey was in fact the unfrocked “dancing priest” Neil Horan. For some reason he had passed me by until then; but it turns out that the former Fr Horan ap­­peared briefly on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009, and is well known by very many people indeed through his appearances at sporting events. A quick internet search brought up plenty of material, none of which I can now unsee.

Meanwhile, Tim Stanley wrote from Bristol with a suggestion about where the teapot presented to new incumbents might suitably be placed. “There is only one place to put the teapot,” he said. “Lift the lid on the thurible, and let it rest on the bowl below so that the glowing charcoal keeps the tea hot until the end of the service. It could give a whole new meaning to the term ‘high tea’.”

You may well groan; but I was very grateful for Mr Stanley’s con­tribution, as all the others were un­­printable. That poor archdeacon.


Dr Serenhedd James is director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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