Farewell Norman St John Stevas, staunch champion of the unborn

Lord St John, here in 1971 at a protest against anti-Semitism in Russia PA Archive/Press Association Images

I am sad that Norman St John Stevas has died. When I was a boy at Ratcliffe College I used to read the Catholic Herald every week, and I greatly used to enjoy his contributions. He had a weekly column which was balanced by the weekly column of a Labour MP, Kevin McNamara.

Norman was then, and probably remains, Ratcliffe’s most famous Old Boy. It was thus rather thrilling to meet him when I was an undergraduate at Oxford. That was in the early eighties, and in those days, Norman, though by now no longer a member of Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet, was still a hugely bright star in the firmament.

Unlike a lot of people who have trodden the corridors of power, he was not in the least secretive about his experiences. He loathed Mrs Thatcher, and he idolised the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Pius IX. His house in Northamptonshire was filled with relics and pictures of all three. He even had a cassock which was supposed to have belonged to the Blessed Pius, and I had heard that on occasions he wore it to fancy dress parties.

In the garden of that house were peacocks; the male peacock could not get on with the females and had to be cordoned off in his own little enclosure which was known as “the Vatican”. Also in the garden were a marble pulpit which ad been given to him by Fr Tony Hamson when it was being thrown out of the fine church, St Mary’s in Stow Hill, Newport. Upstairs were an altar and tabernacle, with reserved sacrament, which had come from the oratory at Ratcliffe College, again rescued items. They were the work of Pugin, the son, not the father, both of whom had worked on the building and decoration of Ratcliffe.

Fr Hamson was Norman’s great friend, and they had been contemporaries at school; also in that year, if I am not mistaken, was Fr Kit Cunningham. It was through knowing them and others that I was able to glean details about Norman’s early years. He had a sister called Juno, who was an actress, and who married the actor Terence Alexander, who later became famous in the television series Bergerac. His mother was an Irish Catholic, who had married a Greek, and, after the marriage broke up, had been left very badly off, but the Order educated the young Norman for free; indeed the family even lived in the Lodge at Ratcliffe. Or at least, so I was told; it is all rather long ago, but I think these details are right.

Norman was rightly celebrated for his wit and his panache and his charming persona, but he was also a very serious character, and a scholar as well. He was, above all, a staunch champion of the rights of the unborn, and in the sixties and seventies was tireless in fighting that battle in parliament. He also wrote several books that used to be standard texts on the question. One of the ambitions of the great headmasters of Ratcliffe in Norman’s youth, Fathers Cuthbert Emery and Claude Leetham, was to turn out Catholics who would take a full part in public life. Norman certainly did that – and more. They would have been proud of him. May he rest in peace.