The Benedictine monks of Douai Abbey at Woolhampton in Berkshire have been celebrating the 400th anniversary of the founding of their community in 1615. There have been visits from cardinals old and new and a statue of their patron saint, St Edmund, king and martyr, has been installed in the Abbey Church. A handsome commemorative brochure records a number of events in the long history of the community which, prior to its expulsion in 1903, was based in France where, inter alia, it received the body of the exiled James II for burial and in 1775 played host to Dr Johnson, who complained about the food in his diary: “A meagre day. Soup meagre, herrings, eels, both with sauce. Fryed [sic] fish, lentils, tasteless in themselves.” One hopes that today’s monks manage to live off a less meagre diet.
I remember vividly the first time I was made aware of the existence of Douai. It must have been in about 1968, when I was being driven to play in a village cricket match at Ashford Hill near Newbury by my friend and fellow cricketer PJ Kavanagh. We had lost our way and were driving down a narrow country road when, rounding a bend, we saw before us a huge modern-looking church looming up above the trees.
Kavanagh gasped in horror “My God! It’s my old school!” Later I read PJ’s early memoir The Perfect Stranger, in which he describes his tragically short marriage to Sally, daughter of the novelist Rosamund Lehmann, who died suddenly when they were both working for the British Council in Java. He also describes his painful memories of Douai, which in those days combined a monastery with a public school, remembering “the sense of being watched – at the end of every corridor there was always a black figure in long skirts and silent rubber shoes … the expression at the corners of the mouth containing all the knowledge necessary of the fallen nature of man, and boy”.
PJ had ended up at Douai thanks to his Irish father Ted, creator of the famous wartime radio programme ITMA. He was a friend of the Douai headmaster Fr Ignatius Rice who, in turn, was a friend of GK Chesterton and had officiated at Chesterton’s reception into the Catholic Church in 1922 (Fr Rice had proposed that the ceremony should take place at Douai but Chesterton felt it would be too grand for him).
PJ, who despite Douai remained faithful to the Church throughout his life, was also devoted to Chesterton and compiled an excellent anthology, The Bodley Head Chesterton, published in 1985. We sang Chesterton’s hymn O God of Earth and Altar at PJ’s funeral in September at Burford. He had died suddenly aged 84.
I did one service for him many years ago by recommending him to Alexander Chancellor, then editing The Spectator, and he wrote a weekly column for the magazine for several years in the 1980s which was full of his quiet humour, his love of poetry and landscape.
There was a friendly if incestuous tone to The Spectator in those days. I was the TV critic and when I was interviewed on the BBC in 1983 by the psychiatrist Dr Anthony Clare, PJ lamented that he had failed to get much out of me. What about all those personal attacks in Private Eye, for instance? “Another thing he could have pursued,” he wrote, “was Ingrams’s religious faith, which can give an air of detachment from the things of this world which is infuriating and inexplicable to those who do not possess it.”
He sent me a card not long before he died and I was able to reply, telling him that I had joined him in the Church and was attending Sunday Mass regularly at Douai. The school he so hated has long since closed down.
Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and The Oldie
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.