Before the journalist and former Private Eye editor Christopher Booker died last year, aged 81, he’d just finished a book, Groupthink: A Study in Self-Delusion, published this week.
Under that catch-all heading of Groupthink, Booker nimbly skewers the malaise of the modern age: how an “in-group” polices society with its new form of puritanism, coming down hard on anyone who disagrees with its worldview.
The book’s afterword, by his son Nicholas Booker, includes a touching picture of Booker’s final days.
Groupthink, it turns out, wasn’t his last book. That honour went to Booker’s guide to St Mary’s, the church in Litton, Somerset, where he lived. In the week before he died, he made final corrections to the guide.
In his last months, Booker’s sight became ever worse. He had to use a torch to read, even in broad daylight. It was the same torch that guided him up and down the church path every night to lock the door of St Mary’s.
There’s a long line of journalistic reactionaries who end up turning to the Church. After decades of drinking, smoking and womanising, Malcolm Muggeridge became a devout Christian. In Richard Ingrams’s biography of Muggeridge, he quotes Muggeridge saying, in 1965, “All I can say is that, in all my travels, Christianity is the best thing I have come across.”
Ingrams himself – Private Eye editor, sainted founder of the Oldie and a regular in the Catholic Herald – is an observant Catholic and plays the organ in his local church.
And Auberon Waugh may have attacked everyone and everything in his Private Eye diaries, a work of satirical genius. But he retained an attachment to, and deep understanding of, the Catholic Church he was born into. Bron’s father, Evelyn Waugh, and Wilfred De’Ath, the Oldie columnist who’s just died at 82, were devout Catholic converts despite their sublime, scathing prose.
It’s too fanciful to say all satirists and comic, caustic writers are religious. But there is surely a connection between minds that attack humbug and hypocrisy and minds that seek eternal truth.
Over the weekend, I devoured Matthew Byrne’s new book, Fonts (Shire Books, £8.99).
Byrne covers the complete history of fonts, from early Christian, Italian ones all the way up to the moving lump of rock, dragged from Bethlehem, for the post-war reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral.
You could tell the history of British architecture through its fonts: from simple, blocky Anglo-Saxon ones, through mighty, elegantly carved Norman fonts, right up to the lissom, classical, 18th-century beauties.
Grinling Gibbons gets a good show in the new book, with a luscious picture of his font at St James’s, Piccadilly. The font’s bowl is decorated with scenes of Christ’s baptism, St Philip baptising the Eunuch of Candace and Noah’s Ark. Gibbons carved the stem of the font as the Tree of Knowledge, with Adam and Eve on either side.
I know St James’s well and often look at the font. Very charming it is, too – although, I must say, it looks a little clumsy compared with Gibbons’s sublime limewood carving over the altar, of a pelican surrounded by fruit, flowers, shells and wheatears.
Gibbons was a master at woodcarving but not so great in stone. It’s comforting that even geniuses have their limits.
I’ve just been in America, travelling around New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
For the first time, I realised quite how grateful I am for those foldable luggage racks you find in most hotel rooms.
Whenever I checked into a new room, I lobbed my bag onto the luggage rack and it became an instant wardrobe as I fished into it every day for new socks, boxers and a shirt.
Why are these ultra-useful objects confined to hotels? I immediately went online and ordered one for £29.99. So they are available; we just don’t use them at home.
It made me think of all the other things we confine to one department in our lives and don’t let into other departments.
I take that rubber spidery device you use to attach your phone to the car dashboard – and attach it to my bath tray to look at my phone in the tub. I’ve also taken one of those reading lights you clip onto a book to read – and placed it on the side of the bath as a standalone light.
I must be careful. This sort of change-of-purpose stuff can lead to madness. I had a friend at school who carried around his textbooks in an old washing-powder box. It was deeply impractical – it had no handle. And he looked utterly bonkers.
A fond farewell to Luke Coppen, outgoing editor of this wonderful magazine.
As well as being a brilliant editor when it came to choosing articles, he also has those rare gifts in an editor – patience and kindness. Godspeed.
Harry Mount is the editor of The Oldie
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