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Radio review: Free Thinking, and Meeting Myself Coming Back

05 March 2021


An episode of Free Thinking was devoted to St John Henry Newman (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week)

An episode of Free Thinking was devoted to St John Henry Newman (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week)

“I AM a citizen of God and of humanity.” Tim Stanley’s declaration, during a Free Thinking episode devoted to St John Henry Newman (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week), might strike one as a little vainglorious; but a dash of vainglory was exactly what was needed at the end of this somewhat bland discussion of the great theologian.

Newman’s becoming a Roman Catholic left Victorian society reaching for its smelling salts. But today’s secular culture could hardly care less if a public figure embraced new doctrinal principles.

As an Englishman who went over to Rome himself, Tim Stanley feels the wrench keenly: he has left his father and mother; his sense of be­­longing has been ruptured.

A fellow guest, Catherine Pepinster, teasingly referred to this as “convertitis” — an intensity of feeling brought on by conscious reinvention — although she, as a cradle Catholic, acknow­ledged a similar sense of parallel loyalties resulting from a childhood in which the Pope’s Urbi et Orbi address was received with the same solemnity as the Queen’s Speech. And this was despite the claim, frequently made, that Newman is a de facto patron saint of conversion, and in him Englishness and Roman Catholicism were reconciled.

Kate Kennedy gave a short essay on The Dream of Gerontius: Elgar’s choral setting of Newman’s poetry, which has been taken as the ultimate artistic expression of this reconciliation. But to commentators such as Mr Stanley, who long for Catholicism to have a distinctive voice in the public realm, the tune is old: if the 21st-century notion of Englishness is one of secular liberalism, then it is time to cast asunder what Newman joined together.

One element of that Englishness for which we routinely congratulate ourselves is the tradition of satire. It is a comfortable cliché to invoke Private Eye in the same breath as Alexander Pope and William Hogarth, as if it is this genealogy of self-mockery that uniquely preserves us from tyranny. Thankfully, Ian Hislop, who has been editing Private Eye since he was 26 years old, is not often given to comfortable clichés, since the existence of his magazine relies on taking the mickey wherever the mickey can be taken.

And yet there is discernible in Mr Hislop’s career a consistent thread, tough enough to be deemed a kind of ideology. In Meeting Myself Coming Back (Radio 4, Saturday), in which the guest is invited to re­­flect with the aid of the BBC archive, Mr Hislop was reassured to hear moments of authentic indignation at times when press freedom was com­promised: for instance, when the court awarded debilitating damages to Sonia Sutcliffe as the result of a libel case.

He is careful to maintain two inches “of moral high ground” above those whom his magazine vilifies, and he still treasures the advice of his former boss: Don’t sleep with your secretary, and keep your hands out of the till.

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