FAITHFUL WITNESS (Features, 30 October 2020) is the confidential diaries of a kindly, modest, but thoughtful Anglican priest. In the recent parade of diaries, unbelievable interviews, and extraordinary political commentaries, Alan Don’s diaries shine out, because he actually was in “the room where it happened”.
And what rooms! During the critical years 1931-46, Don was, throughout, Chaplain to the Archbishop, Chaplain to the Kings, and Chaplain to the Speakers of the House of Commons. These were years of the Depression, the rise of Nazi Germany, the Abdication, the Coronation of George VI, the Munich crisis, the Second World War and the London Blitz, and finally victory.
Don was the silent observer but faithful diarist, whether he was on the roof of Westminster Abbey, fighting incendiaries, sitting in the early 1930s next to Gandhi in Lambeth Palace, listening to Baldwin’s distress while talking to Archbishop Lang about Edward and Mrs Simpson, visiting refugee camps for Jews who had fled the Nazis, or saying the prayers in Parliament the day Britain declared war. Yes, Don was in all the rooms, remembering what was said and then writing so well about it.
You will enjoy reading these beautifully written diaries because of the unique insight into these historical events, but also because of Don’s remarkable analysis of the personalities. For example, Don was deeply fond of Lang and the Archbishop’s strengths of duty, great pastoral care, and overwhelming hard work; but Don was aware that Lang could be irritable, very reserved, and rather short with people who tried to care for him.
There are wonderful insights throughout the diaries. Nevertheless, I was even shocked, but enlightened, when near to the Abdication, Don, this 1930s Establishment priest, said of Edward VIII: “I should suspect that His Majesty is sexually abnormal which may account for the hold Mrs Simpson has over him.”
There were numerous occurrences that only Don was able to see, hear, and then record — for example, the deeply moving anointing of George VI: “[The King] stripped of all his beautiful robes, waiting in simple white garments — a mere man, unadorned — for his hallowing — . . . then what a change! . . . his new status as the Anointed of the Lord. . .”
But Don also records that, just before this solemn moment, Lord Salisbury, carrying the Crown of St Edward on a cushion, tried to hand it formally to the Archbishop, but Salisbury’s chain of office got tangled with the tassels of the cushion, and they had to be wrenched apart.
Robert Beaken has done a brilliant work in editing these diaries. He is a scholar of this period, having written an excellent biography of Lang. There are a thorough introduction and very helpful footnotes, telling you who everyone is. Beaken says of Alan Don and Cosmo Lang: “two very human men, with strengths and weaknesses, and much quiet kindness and decency — busily working away, endeavouring to do their best during some very difficult and often tragic years of British history”.
The Ven. Dr Lyle Dennen is Archdeacon Emeritus of Hackney.
Faithful Witness: The confidential diaries of Alan Don, Chaplain to the King, the Archbishop and the Speaker, 1931-1946
Robert Beaken, editor
Church Times Bookshop £27