Arts & Books

Book Review: The man who made Downside chuckle

A view of Downside Abbey in Stratton-on-the- Fosse, Somerset

Monastic Identities
by Dom Aidan Bellenger,
Downside Abbey Press, £30

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This is an affectionate but rigorous account of significant figures with close links to Downside. Early on we encounter William Bernard Ullathorne, first Bishop of Birmingham and a leading light in the discussions that led to the restoration of the hierarchy in England and Wales. The chapter neatly captures the promise and problems of mid-19th-century English Catholic life.

Cardinal Francis Aidan Gasquet also makes a notable appearance and is portrayed here as a decent scholar and as someone who remained indomitably English, despite spending most of his final three decades in Rome.

Two of the best chapters concern a brace of Benedictine historians: Bede Camm, who devoted much time to tales of the early-modern Catholic martyrs, and David Knowles, whose scholarship transformed the study of monastic history.

There are subsequent studies of, among others, Theodore Baily and Christopher Batley, who star in a chapter about 20th-century Benedictine reform.

The laurels must go, however, to the piece on Hubert van Zeller. His “combination of wit and monastic idealism” was, Bellenger writes, “an unusual one”. Alongside his prolific literary outpourings, van Zeller also produced some wonderfully amusing cartoons of people at Downside. A handsome selection is reproduced here and I defy anyone not to chuckle.

I would never encourage vandalism when it comes to books, but you’ll be half tempted to cut out the image of the choirmaster and composer Alphege Shebbeare, place it in a frame, and put it on your wall. He is conducting with such vigour that his feet appear to have defied the laws of gravity. The same terrible temptation might arise when you see Fabian Pole gardening in full clerical get-up with a watering can in hand and a cigarette dangling precariously from his lips.

This collection of pieces written over the past 30 years offers a rewarding insight into English Benedictine life.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (05/6/15).

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