Since 2000, when I turned 60, I have lived at the Hospital of St Cross, a medieval almshouse in Winchester. It was founded about 1132 by William the Conqueror’s grandson, Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester – as “sheltered accommodation” for old men in straitened circumstances. (It’s not a medical hospital – here the word has the same sort of implication as “hospitality”.)
I first visited the place as an Oxford undergraduate in 1960, while staying with a college friend whose father was a Winchester GP. Noting its glorious architecture – mainly 15th-century – and its tranquillity, I thought: “I might want to apply to live here one day.” When I was 60, I did so, and was accepted. We who live in the almshouse are called “Brothers”.
At the entrance, they serve the “Wayfarer’s Dole” – a beaker of beer and a piece of bread. They gave it to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother when she paid us a visit. As she sipped the beer, she gave a pleasant smile, as if to say, “That’s the right stuff!” – but one could see a bubble coming out of her head saying, “Wish it was a gin and Dubonnet!”
We are not monks. You don’t have to be a believer to be a Brother, but you do have to attend a 20-minute Matins service at ten each morning, wearing a gown. My father was a militant atheist. He once said to me: “The worst thing you could ever tell me is that you were going to become a priest.” I mentioned that to Iris Murdoch, at a lunch party at the Bedfords’ Woburn Abbey.
“How have you been able to resist it?” she asked. That, I thought, is the mind of a great novelist.
When I came to St Cross in 2000, I was an agnostic. But, while living there, I received a “divine rebuke” that I felt God had given me in a minor miracle. I had donesomething mildly dishonourable. (I had better make it clear it was not something sexual.) So I wrote to the Dean of Winchester, the Very Reverend Catherine Ogle, and asked to be christened, (Because of my father’s views, I never had been.) Dean Ogle wrote back: “This is a cause of rejoicing.” I was baptised in Winchester Cathedral.
When I was in my twenties, I had begun work on a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet. It folded, because the publisher’s advance ran out. As I admired Hopkins, I gave thought as to whether I should become a Roman Catholic. But all my (state) schools had been C of E, so was my Oxford college, where I sometimes read the lesson in chapel. I felt I had been given a C of E training which was now “kindled”. I don’t forget that St Cross was founded by Roman Catholics.
Though the Hopkins book failed, I have written 35 others – among them, the first English book on Art Deco (1968) and a three-volume biography of John Betjeman (1988, 2002, 2004). In my most recent book, Elgarado! (2020), I claim to have cracked the “Enigma” of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. I sent a copy to the late Anthony Payne, the composer who, in the 1990s, completed Elgar’s Third Symphony from fragments. He wrote back: “I think you have entered Elgar’s mind. I cannot imagine anyone coming closer than you have done to a solution of the Enigma.”
I deeply admire Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius (1900), based on Cardinal Newman’s long poem of that title (1865). But Hopkins, in his “terrible sonnet” “Carrion Comfort”, took issue with Gerontius’s cri de coeur “I can no more”:
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee,
Not untwist – slack they may be – these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can:
Can something, hope, wish day come,
not choose not to be.
Even in normal times, the Hospital of St Cross is an ideal setting for a writer: very quiet. And I have to say that lockdown had at least one beneficial effect, for me. I made much better progress with the autobiography I am currently writing (Vita Bevis) than I would usually have done. It’s an ill wind…
At maximum, there are 25 of us Brothers. I have now been at the Hospital longer than all of them but one. The mix of Brothers is very good – the best I have known in my 21 years’ residence – though I do miss the Brother (formerly a bulldozer driver) who when, in Chapel, Hymn 66 was announced, uttered the words: “Clickety-click!”
This article first appeared in the September 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today
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