At the beginning of lockdown, I spent a lot of time debating with myself – no one else around to take me on – about the spirituality of Mass on Livestream, versus real live Mass. Whether online or not, the interior of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, in Mayfair, inspires prayer: I have always felt this, since the early days when my father, then Frank Pakenham, a convert, used to take me to Mass there. The bribe was breakfast at the Connaught Hotel afterwards (not nearly so luxurious as it is today but a good deal more luxurious than our North Oxford home).
Nowadays, contemplating the backdrop of Pugin’s high altar is one of my weekly pleasures – and I like to think that it is a spiritual pleasure. I make the point of being in good time to switch on, as I enjoy the sight of the empty church coming to life with the lighting of the candles by a solitary figure. Then the internal debate begins. Is it not better to be totally absorbed in such contemplation, with the priest and the Mass in the foreground at the new altar, than to be intermittently distracted by the glimpse of a friend, or a friend’s new coat?
I was deciding that this was definitely the case, and congratulating myself on the new concentration I was showing, when I suddenly realised, to my horror, that at the same time as devoutly watching my iPad screen, I was also painting my nails frosty pink! Clearly the sin of spiritual pride came into it somewhere. As for the sin of painting your nails while watching Mass, I wonder what the ever-tolerant Pope Francis would say.
My cats prefer to watch Netflix. I have noticed that Ferdy and Bella (seven-year-old companions originally kittens from the admirable Mayhew rescue home) perk up at certain television programmes. Action, not always of the most salubrious nature, gets their ears up. Personally, I have taken to Netflix with enthusiasm, watching not only the fashionable current series, (Call My Agent! my favourite at the moment) but old films which gave me pleasure once such as Billy Elliot and Funny Girl. But this nightly addiction does remind me vividly of the difference between lockdown and wartime, although the two are often compared.
Thoroughout the war the theatre remained open. Now it is tragically silenced. Even in the Blitz, the Windmill Theatre in the West End was able to boast: “We never closed.” In Oxford, we enjoyed both the New Theatre and the Playhouse, the former benefitting from the Blitz and opening what would have been West End shows. My mother happily paid for tickets to get rid of us. A passion for the theatre was the result: it included, as a schoolchild, hanging round for autographs afterwards.
The cinema was another Oxford pleasure throughout the war – slightly more complicated by my brother Thomas and I wanting to watch films which needed an adult to accompany a child. The Ritz and Super cinemas were our targets. Our prey were the kindly American soldiers, genial GIs whom I would accost with this winning line: ‘Can I be your little girl?’ At which point, when he agreed, Thomas bounced out too. No one ever refused to take us in, although the ticket lady must have been suspicious about some of the relationships; as for the Yanks, they were gentlemen one and all. They gave us sweets and with a slightly puzzled look, asked me if I wanted nylons. (I didn’t, but Eileen, our nanny, did).
Back to lockdown with, alas, no friendly GIs to cheer us, only Zooms with family in Mexico as another virtual substitute, I remembered the other day that I once defined happiness as: “Being alone in a room, in a house full of people.” That was certainly true when I was the eldest of eight children, and even more so when I was the mother of six trying to write a book. Lockdown, alas, brings one without the other.
So I will have to fall back, optimistically, on my second rather different definition of happiness, given to a Scottish newspaper. “Happiness is finding an Agatha Christie at Inverness airport which you haven’t read before.” So where is now the new Agatha Christie to console me? PS I went on to define unhappiness as settling down to read the Agatha Christie on the plane, and then finding I had read it before under another title.