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The Darlings of Downing Street by Garry O’Connor

Theatre Posted on Sun, September 20, 2020 12:18:21
The Darlings of Downing Street by Garry O’Connor

Garry O’Connor, better known for his probing researches into the lives, loves and professional craft of figures large on stage and screen – figures as diverse as Peggy Ashcroft and Alec Guinness – is eminently well placed to deconstruct theatrical trends in modern political life. His insights into the duality and mimetic display of Tony and Cherie Blair encapsulate at a stroke the tasteless descent of public debate, with politics a discipline now more or less one with media showmanship. It’s the image, underpinned by short, nominal, non-verbal slogans, that infects almost every aspect of modern culture. We cannot blame the Blairs personally, who after all are only products themselves of the media schedule, but O’Connor’s searching biography of that pair – a symbiotic pair – not entirely unique in contemporary politics, is as good a litmus as any of leadership as more public display than public accountability.

A highly charged assessment of a pair of ham actors who saw ‘politics as a performance art’. Highly recommended. Sunday Express

A portrait of a couple totally involved and supportive of each other, a couple who loved the limelight and who fought to retain the power which kept them in the spotlight…. Interesting background material for both Tony and Cherie…. The various scandals are well-documented. Irish Emigrant

Eloquent, a climactic tirade…a credible mountain of condemnation…. His central theme is presented with coruscating force. The Herald (Glasgow)

Readable, fluent, assertive…rather disreputable. Quentin Letts, Daily Mail

Serialised (twice) in Mail on Sunday (10 and 24 June 2007) and in Catholic Herald (22 July 2007). Mail on Sunday and Catholic Herald

The Darlings of Downing Street is published as an ebook and is available at online retailers, including the following:

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Smashwords



The Church and the world: Catholic and Identitarian by Julien Langella, reviewed by Jon Elsby

Criticism Posted on Sat, September 05, 2020 13:47:38
Julien Langella

The title Catholic and Identitarian suggests yet another culture war diatribe by an American Catholic of a neo- or palaeo-conservative persuasion. But, in fact, Julien Langella is a Frenchman and he writes from an unapologetically francocentric perspective. However, he shares with the American Catholic conservative intellectuals a profound contempt for the globalized, dumbed down, lowest-common-denominator monoculture (or, more accurately, non-culture) which modern liberals have imposed on the western world in the name of multiculturalism.

Langella argues that every true culture is rooted, geographically, linguistically, and historically, and that a culture independent of place, language, and history is an impossibility. The multiculturalism embraced by liberals is actually the negation of culture. It denies people – specifically, Europeans – the right to difference, and the right to celebrate their own culture, because that (allegedly) might be offensive to immigrants. Instead, they are told to submit to a narrative that brands their own culture as racist, misogynistic, patriarchal, and oppressive, and exalts an artificial, homogenized, rootlessly international, liberal, pop culture, which is a commercially confected product rather than an organic development arising from an authentic human community. This modern liberal culture is relentlessly affirmative of minority rights, whether the minorities in question are defined by race (BAME: black and minority ethnic), gender (which is seen, not as a binary datum of nature, but as a social construct with a potentially infinite number of gradations), or sexual orientation (LGBTI: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, or intersex).

Langella further argues that the evident rootedness of all authentic cultures in particularities of place, language, and history implies that every culture is fundamentally racial. Preference for one’s own race is natural to all men and an aspect of the human quality of loyalty to a patria – a homeland. He agrees with American conservatives like George Weigel, who argue that Europe, with its below-replacement birth rate among its indigenous populations, is committing demographic suicide by making itself economically and demographically reliant on immigrant populations, mainly from Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. Most of these immigrants are Muslim, and their culture is therefore radically different from the indigenous Christian culture of European nations: like oil and water, these cultures do not mix, and, as Muslim immigrant populations grow, they will increasingly threaten the indigenous Christian (or post-Christian) culture with extinction in the nations where it was formerly dominant.

This dramatic scenario will resonate with many Christians, especially the older among them, some of whom will naturally tend to project their consciousness of their own approaching extinction onto the external world. But the proven ease with which a preference for one’s own race can turn into a hatred of all other races should give us pause. The bloody and war-torn history of Europe is largely the result of racial, national, societal, and cultural conflicts (e.g. royalists versus republicans, Catholics versus Protestants, or France versus England), and European liberals are, understandably and rightly, wary of anything that might trigger a reversion to such pre-EU antagonisms. That is prudence, not cowardice: and identitarian conservatives would do well to mark the distinction. The subtitle of Langella’s book – From Protest to Reconquest – with its unambiguously militant connotations, suggests that bellicosity forms a part of the outlook he is recommending to his readers, and his outspoken admiration for the warrior-monks and bishops of the Crusades confirms as much.

Most people today prefer peaceful co-existence to aggression and conflict. To Langella and other like-minded thinkers, this seems effeminate and pusillanimous. Europeans, they say, are willing to pay any price, and to make any sacrifice, including their own independence, their freedom, and their culture, rather than fight to protect all three. To some, this will seem a soul-stirring call to arms. To others, it will seem an irresponsible stoking of the fires of racial and religious division, economic inequality, and social injustice.

Langella protests, not only against multiculturalism, but also against liberal gender theory and the practice or advocacy of miscegenation, which he regards as a genetic and cultural weakening of the racial stock. Against liberal cultural and political theory, he raises the banner of populism, which he describes as ‘nothing more than popular common sense’. Actually, on close examination, populism proves to be not at all the same as popular common sense. Its salient characteristics are a rejection of experts, expertise, and evidence-based thinking; a profound hatred of all elites and establishments; a determination to assert the popular will, whatever the consequences; a tendency to base opinions on instincts rather than evidence, and to hold opinions with a firmness unwarranted by the evidence; an impatience with complexity and a dogmatic belief that simple solutions to complex problems must be practicable; a preference for assertorical statements over detailed analysis; skepticism with regard to reasoned arguments; a willingness to believe crude slogans, especially if they are repeated over and over again; credulity towards unfounded conspiracy theories and baseless allegations of corruption or malfeasance in high places; and a ready acceptance of the unsubstantiated claims and implausible promises of demagogues. Hardly common sense, then – popular or otherwise.

I should here declare an interest. I am a product of a mixed-race marriage. My father was English and my mother came from a Dutch burgher family in Sri Lanka. Ethnically, she was half Indian, the other half being a mixture of English, Dutch, and German. Moreover, my wife is half Pakistani and half Chinese. My mother was, and my wife is, culturally and linguistically English, except insofar as both have (or had) a mild preference for Indian and Chinese food over English – as, indeed, do I. It is, perhaps, worth pointing out (as we are discussing racial purity, among other things), that the English and the French are both mongrel races. The modern English are a mixture of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Celts, Romanized Britons, Picts, Gaels, Frisians, Vikings, and Normans (to name only the principal contributors), while the modern French are descendants of Gauls, Franks, Romans, Visigoths, Burgundians, Norsemen, and Suebi. According to a Wikipedia article, apart from French, the following regional languages or dialects are spoken in France: Norman, Picard, Poitevin-Saintongeais, Franco-Provençal, Occitan, Catalan, Auvergnat, Corsican, Basque, French Flemish, Lorraine Franconian, Alsatian, and Breton. Given this already existing racial, linguistic, and cultural diversity, calls for an end to miscegenation and a return to racial and cultural purity, seem a few centuries too late and quite pointless.

Whatever the advocates of racial and cultural purity may say, globalization and multiculturalism today are simply facts of life. We cannot turn the clock and the calendar back to the 1950s, even if we want to – and most of us do not.

In 2013, the former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams (now Baron Williams of Oystermouth), began his foreword to The Heart in Pilgrimage: A Prayerbook for Catholic Christians (ed. Eamon Duffy) with these words—

One of the least helpful things in the history of Christianity is the way in which the word ‘Catholic’ has been turned into another tribal badge. The most important definitions of the word in the early Church stress that calling the Church ‘Catholic’ is a matter of grasping that it teaches the whole truth in a way that involves the whole person and is addressed to the whole of humanity.

It is hard to see how a Church which claims to be universal – for that is what ‘catholic’ means – and claims also to address the whole of humanity, can be reconciled with the narrow, intolerant, insular vision promoted by Langella. Much of his book consists of apocalyptic warnings and dire prophecies, backed up by anecdotal evidence and the testimony of carefully selected (sometimes rather dubious) authorities. All this is leavened by a good deal of rhetorical fear-mongering and demonization of the Other. Nor does he stop there. Even fellow-Catholics whose views differ from his are excoriated. This is what he says about Cardinal Hamao of Japan—

In 2004, the Japanese Cardinal Hamao, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Displaced Persons, published the document Erga migrantes caritas Christi (The Love of Christ toward Migrants). He writes: ‘The passage of monocultural societies to multicultural societies affords a providential opportunity to realize the divine plan of universal communion.’ Far from being an isolated sentence in the original, this idea comes up several times and is unmistakably clear: we should put in place a ‘truly fraternal home so that current migrations can be considered as the announcement, the mystery even, of the Reign of God already present within the Church.’

This speech clearly intends us to realize here on earth, by our own powers, the heavenly hope of total communion with God: earthly paradise by the great mixing of peoples and races. Immigration: a trampoline for the Second Coming! To want to precipitate the coming of the Kingdom of God by our own means – poor human means, condemned to impotence because we are stained by original sin – is nothing more than heresy […] And, like every heresy, it is also blasphemous, because the creature takes itself for the Creator. Like the United Nations, ‘it is just a huge blasphemy…. For what does it mean to unite men outside of the Father who created them, the Son who ransomed them, and the Holy Spirit who alone can gather them in love?’ They’re trying to rebuild the tower of Babel.

This overheated passage is not untypical. I would merely point out, first, that Cardinal Hamao does not say in the passage quoted that we are to realize by our own powers the heavenly hope of total communion with God; second, the view that our poor human means are ‘condemned to impotence’ because of original sin is Calvinism, not Catholicism, which has always taught the necessity for faith and works; third, that heresy is not necessarily blasphemous; and fourth, that a Catholic layman ought to think long and hard before he accuses a cardinal of heresy and blasphemy. A layman is, of course, perfectly at liberty to disagree with a cardinal, and to say so publicly. But Catholicism teaches him that he should express his disagreement in measured language, using reasoned arguments, having due regard for the facts, and without distorting the cardinal’s words. Langella fails to meet all four of these criteria.

The pity is that, shorn of these faults, Langella’s essay has merits. It raises uncomfortable questions for globalists, liberal multiculturalists, and (to use Rowan Williams’s term) programmatic secularists – questions which deserve a considered and reasoned response. But Langella’s own answers to those questions are unconvincing. He writes with the passion and prejudice of an ideologue, when what is called for is an eirenic, thoughtful, courteous and civilized dialogue between people of different views. On one level, his book is an interesting, if flawed, contribution to an ongoing debate. But on another, it risks – to borrow a phrase from the late US Senator John McCain – ‘firing up the crazies’. Those who read this essay uncritically, and accept all its contentions at face value, might well be motivated, by fear of the Other, to act in violent and anti-social ways. Langella will, no doubt, answer that it was not his intention to provoke such a response, but he cannot so easily absolve himself of responsibility for the effects of his words on impressionable readers. He could, if he chose, have made his argument in more neutral and less incendiary terms. He might not then have sold as many copies, but the book would have been all the better for a modicum of authorial self-restraint.

Langella’s hostility to immigration is at odds with two things: (1) empirical evidence that immigrants in general confer significant economic and cultural benefits on the countries where they settle; and (2) Pope Francis’s pleas, in line with Scripture and a long tradition of Church teaching, that migrants and refugees be treated with kindness and generosity. [1] Not surprisingly, Langella has some harsh things to say about the present pontiff. But ordinary Catholics are rightly inclined to be suspicious of anyone who claims, if only by implication, to be more Catholic than the pope. The title of Langella’s essay has two terms – but this polemic is certainly much more identitarian than Catholic.

Notes

[1] Catholics should note that the pope is merely asking for the performance of the fourth of the seven corporal acts of mercy: that is, to shelter the homeless.

Jon Elsby is the author of Light in the Darkness, a series of essays on Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, and C. S. Lewis. It is available from online retailers, including

Amazon UK

Amazon USA

Book Depository

Wordery



To Be Lectured by a Wikipedia Editor is Not a Pleasant Experience, by Sophie Gilfillan

Criticism Posted on Mon, August 31, 2020 10:42:07
Lakeside

I do not remember who said – perhaps Jimmy Wales somewhere – that of all the— Well, here is that other story….

The weirdest thing I ever got invited to was a gaggle of Wikipedia editors, or the half-dozen who escaped lockdown, and after a trimmed-down schedule – other talks cancelled – took a truncated convention to the Aronsborgs, a conference hotel attractive in its location – leafy grounds etc. – just a kilometre from Lake Mälaren. You can find it on the map. I couldn’t see what I was going to report on, bar a cabal of middle-aged men who did PowerPoint not too well, and got in an awful lot of intricacy in sharing latest thoughts on markup, and how best to fact-check.

Explosive stuff came in the coffee break, when – suitably distanced, a kind of Love in the Time of Cholera, but none of us masked or gloved – I was shown what keyboard sport these Wikis got up to, though not before the three, the triumvirate, a trio of speakers vying for leadership, bombarded with their résumés, in an indecent scramble after top billing in my scratchpad.

Take Baron Scarpia, or the name he went by when doing his bit on Wikipedia. No, he had never been a chief of police, but of all Italian opera Tosca was his favourite. ‘What are you then?’ I asked. All I got for answer was: ‘I do stuff. I’m no baritone.’ He was not native to but lived in Baltimore, having done high school in West Virginia. He didn’t say where he’d got his doctorates. He joined Wikipedia in 2007, and was on his fifth, sixth account, as he never remembered passwords. Think of all those Scarpias, listless in the dim recesses of encyclocyberia, emasculated for want of a login key. He’d been editing for all that time, and now he’d reached heady heights: ‘I’m an administrator.’

Please, one hand clapping.

Now to BluFuse. BluFuse is a deletionist, as administrator apportioning his best quality time to new-page patrol and clean-up, keen-eyed for spam, PR, political spin, pimping and self-aggrandisement. I see from my notes I had him down as a Cromwell in the God-given fight against trade practices, or those carried on in the hallowed encyclosphere of public information. ‘I mean, I hold to the gold standard of verifiability. More coffee, Sophie?’ Yes, that is my name. But could a blenched-looking BluFuse compete with Mortimer Slim (and yes, that was his name), from Bucks in England, with a degree in engineering and a career in IT (systems calls and recursion, he said), who then gave it up in the depths of a cold English February when he got involved in pantomime, and took it far enough that he bought shares in the Playhouse, Ashley-on-Stair, where he does his Widow Twankey. He is also a Morris dancer, and trustee of the Market Town Market Square Foundation, which takes up more of his time on sunny afternoons.

What was the point of all this? I got the nib-end of their editorial machismo when, that social distancing relaxed perilously, I was given sample of one hapless latecomer to the Wikipedia biosphere. Half after VN, he called himself Jonnie Gradepoint, and had his one and only full contribution to the Wales Tower of Babel splattered over by these three senior eds – the Baron Scarpia, BluFuse, and the nämdigerred Mortimer Slim (an old-world schoolmarm and stickler for pronunciation). Gradepoint had made the mistake of posting up an article on the critic, all-round littérateur, and noted political biographer Finlake Swale, and was slapped down immediately, when 1) he hadn’t supplied copyright info re the PNG portrait heading up the article, 2) he’d included content written like an ad, and 3) as author he appeared to have a close association with his subject (conflict of interest). Who knows what other stuff Gradepoint and Swale hatched up between them in a world made media circus.

Gradepoint perpetrated the further crime of attempting to edit out these blunt remarks, only to note their reappearance in a yellowed, exclamation-pointed boxout at the head of Swale’s page. In desperation I understand Gradepoint made open appeal to the Wikipedia editing community, more or less saying I’m happy for you to rewrite, and was told that also was problematic, an insult in fact, given that any contribution to Wikipedia is always ‘open for editing’. Petitions, invitations, requests for help in clean-up are therefore supererogatory. I was shown the page, and the slap-downs, and surprised my three learned goops when I did not add to their chortling. I felt rather sorry for Gradepoint. ‘Will send you my copy,’ I said, ‘when I’ve written it up.’

Sophie Gilfillan is a freelance journalist and sometime reviewer for CentreHouse Press.

[sophiegilfillan at centrehousepress dot co dot uk]



The Holly Scholarship

Uncategorised Posted on Fri, August 14, 2020 12:35:59
Proceeds from the sale of Utopia are in aid of the Holly Scholarship

Proceeds from the sale of Peter Cowlam’s novella Utopia are in aid of the Holly Scholarship, a fund set up in honour of Holly Cowlam, the author’s daughter-in-law, who as a young woman of twenty-eight took her own life in the July of 2018.

Holly Cowlam dedicated her life to working with children with autism, and had the specific aim of bringing Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) into the mainstream. ABA is a therapy based on the scientific analysis of learning and behaviour. Its practitioners apply acute understanding of how behaviour functions, of how it is affected by environmental factors, and of how learning is actuated. The purpose of ABA is to augment behaviours that are helpful, and to diminish those that are either harmful or adversely affect learning.

For Holly, ABA had proved its efficacy with early intervention and individualised programmes for children living with autism. Her main area of professional activity was where autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had been diagnosed. Above all Holly was a committed advocate of ABA, strongly supporting its potential to create a secure, positive environment in the teaching of functional living and the nurturing of communication skills, so important to the children in her care.

Sadly Holly had been suffering from anxiety and depression, and on 9 July 2018 decided to end her life. There are many unanswered questions surrounding that decision. It perhaps will never be known what depths she had entered, and by what feelings she was driven. Nevertheless Holly never lost her passion for her work, having taken on the task of guiding all those who came under her supervision to the best of opportunities, through an education promoting maximum outcomes, no matter the challenge. She inspired others with passion and positivity, and brought out the best in those she worked with. The Holly Scholarship, initiated by her husband Jack Cowlam, is aimed at providing yearly ABA scholarships for children living with autism.

Proceeds from the sale of Utopia will go to that cause. Holly Cowlam, 13 February 1990 – 9 July 2018.

Utopia is available at online retailers, including the following:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Barnes and Noble

Waterstones

Book Depository

Wordery



Britain and the World, by Andrew Elsby

Uncategorised Posted on Sun, August 09, 2020 15:00:45
Britain and the World, by Andrew Elsby

Britain and the World: Case Studies in British Foreign Policy Decision-Making 1939–1968 traces a period of relative British decline in economic, military, political and diplomatic power and the policies with which successive British governments reacted to it. The book assesses the different causal influences on the decision-making process, including the objective economic, political and military context and the attitudes, perceptions, personalities and relationships of those involved in British political and official establishment foreign-policy decision-making. Addressed are the negotiations for an Anglo-Soviet alliance in the spring and summer of 1939, the Soviet demand in late 1941 and early 1942 for recognition of their annexation of the Baltics, the post-war future of Germany, the Berlin crisis of 1948–49, the Suez crisis of 1956, and a comparison between British policy over the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, and British policy in the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1968.

Britain and the World is available at the following online retailers:

Amazon USA

Amazon UK

Barnes and Noble

Waterstones

Book Depository



Thomas Müntzer, by Peter Cowlam

Theology Posted on Wed, August 05, 2020 12:42:28
Thomas Müntzer

Thomas Müntzer didn’t do by half / What was preconceived / In the modern Romantic Marx.

Thomas Müntzer (c1489–1525) was a leading German activist during the Reformation, whose oratory was fiery and prophetic. In 1524–25 he took part in the abortive Peasants’ Revolt in Thuringia, and is now seen as a major force in the religious and social history of modern Europe. In the twentieth century Marxists came to characterise him as an early agitator in the struggle against feudalism and for a classless society.

He was, initially, an advocate of Lutheran theology, yet soon opposed the Lutheran idea of ‘justification’ – i.e. justification by faith alone, with authority vested in Scripture. Müntzer instead vested supremacy in the inner light of the Holy Spirit. That in turn led to a call for the conquest of anti-Christian earthly government. In his view the common people, as the instruments of God, would have to perform that conquest themselves. Müntzer professed that the commoners, lacking property and unspoiled by worldly sophistication, were God’s elect through whom God’s will was manifest. As God’s elect it was for the peasants to lead the eschatological process against all enemies of the Holy Spirit.

Through his preaching Müntzer gathered disciples to his cause, and produced important religious, liturgical, and theological writings, including German Church Office, German-Protestant Mass, Of Written Faith, and Precise Exposure of False Belief. He tried, unsuccessfully, to urge on Saxon rulers the task of restoring Christendom to its biblical resplendence.

He was involved in the abortive revolt of 1524–25, with grievances against, among other things, rising taxes. Mühlhausen was at the centre of the uprising in central Germany, where Müntzer took command of local troops. He stressed his belief that only if the common people identified the law of God within themselves, and placed group above individual interests, would society be transformed, promising a future without social and legal discrimination. During the rebellion, possibly seen by him as the last struggle between cosmic good and evil, Müntzer equated the lot of peasant, tradesman, and commoner with the liberation of Christendom. The revolt collapsed and Müntzer was taken prisoner, tortured, tried and executed.

Peter Cowlam is the author of New King Palmers, winner of the 2018 Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction. It is available from online retailers, including

Amazon UK

Amazon USA

Barnes and Noble

Waterstones



Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, 8th Baron of Wigmore, by Peter Cowlam

Ethnology Posted on Mon, July 27, 2020 12:48:17
Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March

Poor Roger Mortimer / As he stood before his slaughterer. / His scrotal sac was intact / But about to be cruelly hacked.

Mortimer, born circa 1287, was the lover of Queen Isabella of France, King Edward II’s queen. Between them, in 1327, Mortimer and Isabella schemed Edward’s deposition and murder. For the next three years Mortimer was virtual King of England, with Edward III still in his minority.

A descendant of Norman knights who had come with William the Conqueror, he inherited wealthy estates, mostly in Wales and Ireland. On the death of his father, the 7th Baron of Wigmore, he became, in 1304, the 8th Baron. He devoted himself to the control of his Irish lordships against the Lacys, his wife’s kinsmen, who called to their aid Edward Bruce, who was fighting to become King of Ireland. In 1316 Mortimer was defeated at Kells and withdrew to England, but afterwards, in Ireland, as lieutenant to Edward II, he was central in overcoming Bruce and in driving the Lacys from Meath.

In 1317 he was associated with the Earl of Pembroke’s ‘middle party’, but in 1321 distrust of the Despensers drove him and other marcher lords into conflict with those in South Wales. He got no help from Edward II’s other enemies, and in January 1322 Roger and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk surrendered. They were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Roger escaped in 1323, fleeing to France. In 1325 he was joined by Queen Isabella, who became his mistress. They invaded England in September 1326, with the fall of the Despensers followed by the deposition and murder (1327) of Edward II. Mortimer was deeply implicated.

As the queen’s paramour, Mortimer virtually ruled England, and using that position furthered his own ends. He was created Earl of March in October 1328. He secured lordships of Denbigh, Oswestry, and Clun, the marcher lordships of the Mortimers of Chirk, and Montgomery. His avarice, arrogance, and unpopular policy towards Scotland inspired his fellow barons to revulsion against him. In October 1330 the young King Edward III had him seized at Nottingham and sent to the Tower. Condemned for crimes by his peers in Parliament, he was hanged at Tyburn as a traitor, where at the point of death he was emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered. His estates were forfeited to the crown.

Peter Cowlam is the author of New King Palmers, winner of the 2018 Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction. It is available from online retailers, including

Amazon UK

Amazon USA

Barnes and Noble

Waterstones



Elizabeth Jennings: ‘The Inward War’ by Dana Greene, reviewed by Jon Elsby

Criticism Posted on Sat, July 25, 2020 15:38:47
Elizabeth Jennings: ‘The Inward War’, by Dana Greene

Dana Greene’s biography of Elizabeth Jennings (1926–2001) is a record of a life outwardly uneventful but characterized by inner turmoil. Jennings, the only woman and only Catholic associated with the group misleadingly labelled ‘The Movement’, was subject to periodic bouts of mental illness (anxiety, depression, obsessive spending and hoarding, and paranoia), which were sometimes severe enough for her to be temporarily institutionalized. She underwent psychiatric treatment which she found hard to bear and which did little to improve her condition. She was often lonely and always hypersensitive to criticism. She was also chronically short of money, although, whenever she was in funds, she spent recklessly and extravagantly, on drink, taxi rides, trips to the cinema and the theatre, and on the toys and knick-knacks by which she loved to be surrounded. And she was emotionally needy and extremely demanding, often soliciting loans, or gifts of money, or other forms of material assistance from her friends, who must have had a great deal of patience and forbearance, as well as generosity.

Greene charts, sympathetically but with commendable objectivity, the trajectory of Jennings’ life from an intermittently happy childhood (although her mother was distant and her father irascible), through her student days at Oxford (by which time she had blossomed into an attractive young woman with delicate features), to her old age ravaged by mental and physical illness (when her unkempt and dishevelled appearance led to her being known as ‘the bag lady of the sonnets’). She never married, but seems always to have needed someone to love: one of the many psychological necessities of her complex nature. She was both obsessed with and afraid of sex, but had many close friendships with men (often priests) and women.

Jennings led, in many ways, an unhappy life – perhaps it would not be exaggerating to call it tortured. Such inner peace as she found came from two things: writing poetry and her Catholic faith. She wrote poetry copiously all her life, even when she was institutionalized. Only a fraction of her total output has been published, but even that runs to several hundred poems. Critics sometimes suggested that she wrote too much and revised too little, but a writer seldom chooses his or her modus operandi. Nearly all writers are obsessives who write, in response to some deep inner compulsion, in the only way they can. Flaubert could spend an entire day agonizing over the choice of a single word (‘le mot juste’) or the construction of a particular sentence. Jennings, however, wrote quickly and incessantly, and rarely revised what she had written.

For Jennings, poetry had a sacramental character. In her mind and imagination, art and religion were closely related. In her epilogue, Greene writes insightfully—

For Jennings, the function of poetry is to discover order in a post-Edenic world marked by chaos, time, decay, and darkness. Poetry restores what is lost and only half-remembered. It halts time and, like love, religious ritual, and the experience of nature, it holds back darkness and gives brief access to the transcendent, offering hope in the midst of despair. She suggests that the best poems are those which show order emerging from conflict. For her, the poem moves not from the general to the particular, or from one abstraction to another. Neither is it concerned with theoretical ideas, but with ideas expressed in images, metaphors, and similes. Although poetry must be personal, the poet’s experience is shaped and ordered by means of imagination, emotion, technical skill, and intellect. As a consequence, the poet’s individual experience is transcended. The poem which emerges is an autonomous phenomenon, one independent of its creator.

[…]

Poetry is a restoration, but it is also ‘a way of looking,’ of seeing the world. As such, it is a gateway to the numinous, like the Eucharist, and analogous to prayer and mystical experience. Given these insights about the nature of poetry, Jennings can be understood as an early contributor to the field of theopoetics, the study of poetry as an embodied dimension of human experience, an offering of legitimate evidence of the intersection of divine and human interaction.

Many religious poets have apprehended poetry in precisely this sense. The metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, Milton, Blake, Hopkins, Thompson, Meynell, and Patmore, would probably have agreed. So, I suspect, would T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Roy Campbell, and George Mackay Brown – the first two being Anglicans, and the last two, like Jennings, Roman Catholics. The religious sensibility has an instinctive affinity for order and a corresponding aversion from whatever tends to produce chaos, disorder, misrule, and anarchy. For Jennings, writing poetry was a way of distilling order, purpose, and meaning from the amorphous data of personal experience. Her Catholic faith was absolutely crucial to this enterprise. From Catholicism, she derived her ‘way of looking’ – the standpoint from which she perceived and interpreted reality. In this, she resembles several other Catholic authors who suffered from mental illness and for whom the Church was a rock and faith was a way of keeping the demons at bay – e.g. Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, and Alice Thomas Ellis. Not that they believed because they had a psychological need to believe: rather, it was the case that, having been received into the Church because they had been persuaded by the evidence [1] that the Catholic faith was true, they then found it to be a bulwark against chaos, misery, depression, and despair. As Hilaire Belloc wrote in his ‘Letter to Dean Inge,’

One thing in this world is different from all other. It has a personality and a force. It is recognized, and (when recognized) most violently loved or hated. It is the Catholic Church. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it, is the Night.

Perhaps it is because the craft of poetry is so technically exacting – it is, above all, the prime example of the ordered use of language – that so many poets are drawn to Catholicism. In Jennings’ life and art, the quest for order and meaning was central and paramount. There must have been, somewhere in the recesses of her unconscious mind, a profound fear of disorder, and perhaps even a tendency to associate disorder with madness and mental collapse. In the light of her many psychological problems and her harrowing experiences of psychotherapy, such a view would be understandable.

Jennings’ enormous literary output included several prose works (mostly critical essays) and some unpublished autobiographies. According to Greene, the autobiographies are exercises in concealment rather than self-revelation. In many respects, Jennings was an intensely private person who guarded her privacy jealously. The extraordinary thing is that this difficult, disturbed, and demanding woman – someone for whom the term ‘high maintenance’ might have been invented – had so many loyal, true friends: the priests Sebastian Bullough, Hildebrand James, and Peter Levi, Rugena (Ruga) Stanley, Priscilla (Prisca) Tolkien, and C. V. (Veronica) Wedgwood, were among those who befriended her and helped her in different ways, sometimes financially, sometimes by providing her with a home to stay in, always by supporting her emotionally.

Not the least of the merits of this fascinating biography is that it reminds us that creative gifts often come at a high price. By common consent and critical acclamation, Elizabeth Jennings was one of the greatest poets of the late twentieth century. But how many of us would have wanted her gifts if we had to pay for them by living her life?

Notes

[1] The evidence for the Catholic Faith comprises both (1) historical and empirical (experiential) data, and (2) philosophical arguments.

Jon Elsby is the author of Light in the Darkness, a series of essays on Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, and C. S. Lewis. It is available from online retailers, including

Amazon UK

Amazon USA

Book Depository

Wordery



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