I am in love with people I never knew, and one of them is Mary Wilson. The great lady has died at the age of 102 and, despite being the wife of a former prime minister, always displayed a sensible, old-fashioned refusal to pretend to like politics.
She met her husband, Harold, on the tennis court in 1934. After a week of courtship, he told her that a) they were going to marry and b) he was going to be an MP. “She laughed,” Harold later wrote, “and has said a hundred times since that if she believed me she would never have married me.”
In 1964, he was elected Labour prime minister and Mary was forced to move into Number 10. Happily for her, he lost the 1970 election and they moved out. Regrettably, he won again in 1974 and they had to return. The outgoing tenant, Ted Heath, had not only redecorated the place garishly but cancelled the television rental.
Mary was her own person. She disagreed with Harold about policy (anti-nuclear, anti-European integration) and became a bestselling poet, composing the kind of “dear old England” verse that was popular probably because it was contrary to the very “forward-thinking” Britain that Harold was trying to build. Mary was a close friend of John Betjeman, who dedicated a poem to her about a day trip they took to Diss in Norfolk; it’s naughty, it hints at an affair (“We’ll meet, my sweet, at Liverpool Street”) but one can no more imagine the Wilsons playing away from home than one can imagine Margaret Thatcher going to an all-night rave.
It’s precisely that loyalty that I find so captivating about Mary Wilson. Sometime in the mid-Seventies, possibly even while he was prime minister, Harold began to show signs of Alzheimer’s. After years of enduring the show of politics, Mary now had to switch to caring full-time for her husband. They moved to a bungalow on the Scilly Isles, where Harold descended into terminal confusion: “It takes me three hours to get him ready,” she confided to a friend.
And yet she did it. Having had my own brief experience of looking after a relative who was dying – and discombobulated – I have enormous admiration for Mary’s stoicism. Was she religious? I haven’t been able to find out, though it’s noteworthy that she was the daughter of a Congregationalist minister. A throwback to the Labour non-conformist tradition, perhaps, which within one mid-20th century generation went from being intensely religious to stubbornly humanist, and yet retained the ethical framework it was born with. You don’t find that in Labour nowadays. It’s pretty much the church of liberal atheism now.
One story from Harold’s later years is full of grace. Ted Heath apparently made a point of inviting the ailing Harold and his wife to Sunday lunches at his home in Salisbury. After decades of personal rivalry, Heath showed a degree of gentle kindness that isn’t usually associated with the old grinch – and proved that when we put aside the politics, we’ve more in common than we realise.
I attended the recent Mass for the new shrine at Corpus Christi, Covent Garden, and it was a testament to the glory of the service that I didn’t fall asleep once. I like my Masses Latin, low and short. This lasted two-and-a-half hours. But it was spellbinding, with superb music and a witty sermon by Cardinal Nichols.
About three-quarters of the way through, we processed around Covent Garden with the Blessed Sacrament. I personally didn’t see any onlookers kneel (I’m told one or two did), but then I didn’t see any men selling apples and pears either. Covent Garden used to be a real market where you could weigh and squeeze fresh fruit. Today it’s a tourist shopping centre. Traditional British fare of pizza and chips goes for around 500 quid.
The Catholic Church is breathing life back into Old England, and Corpus Christi Church is an obvious place to start. First opened in 1874, it was built in reparation for sins committed against the Blessed Sacrament during the Reformation. Sadly, it fell into decline and disrepair. The truth is that the English church has been through two iconoclastic periods: the 16th-century Protestant one and the liberal revolution of the Seventies, which did just as much to strip our altars and degrade our churches. The latter reforms were sadder because the Catholics inflicted them on itself. There was no glorious martyrdom this time around. Just self-harm.
Today, however, a new spirit is stirring. Popular devotions are back; confessions are on the up; and a new generation of priests is reviving beauty and the Old Rite. It’s a restoration. In 10 years’ time, the Corpus Christi procession will be a feature of many local churches – and the English unbelievers will watch and think, “Ooo, that looks interesting. How do I join in?” That’s the way you convert. With magnificence.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and a Catholic Herald contributing editor
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