“And, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.” That’s how it felt at the Cheltenham Literature Festival a couple of weeks ago, seeing a live audience after so long: sign of the abating, for a moment at least, of the wretched coronavirus. Two hundred or so sat socially distanced in the town hall, which normally seats a thousand; but, goodness, did we all appreciate it (and those watching the live-streaming). Some of the festival staff were tearful.
I chaired four panels, one of them on St John Henry Newman, on his feast day no less. Taking part were Newman scholar Mgr Roderick Strange, and Ruth Gledhill, former religious affairs correspondent of the Times and now online editor of the Tablet. When I’d invited Ruth she was an Anglican, but by the festival she’d crossed the Tiber. That wasn’t a problem because my third panellist was AN Wilson, but then he had to withdraw at the last minute. So I myself had to be the voice of “scepticism”. I reprised my former Anglican advocacy of Tract XC, but it was like Rumpole up against a couple of silks.
I was also taken to task for saying that the last English saint to be canonised before Newman, other than martyrs, was St John of Bridlington. I have a particular devotion to him as he was born in my mother’s village in the Yorkshire Wolds. John, prior of the great Augustinian priory of Bridlington, where Henry V did pilgrimage before Agincourt, was canonised in 1404. St Osmund, however, although he’d died in 1099, wasn’t canonised until 1457. He was the second bishop of Sarum, patronal saint of the church where I worship in Salisbury. But Osmund was Norman, not English – the Conqueror’s nephew, indeed. So technically I was right, but I’ll choose my words with more care in future.
My historical novels have frequent biblical references because my hero, Matthew Hervey, like many of the Duke of Wellington’s officers, is the son of a parson. Soldiers knew their Scripture in those days, but I do wonder sometimes if I ask too much of modern readers less churched. I was astonished, however, by a recent tweet from an Oxford don, Dr Jennifer Cassidy, in response to the prime minister’s saying that in the depths of the Second World War “the government sketched out a vision of the post-war New Jerusalem that they wanted to build.” Dr Cassidy asked: “Does the PM know how fractioned Jerusalem is? It is one of the most divided cities on earth.”
In a sermon in 1873, Newman envisaged a future when people would no longer believe. He surely couldn’t have imagined, though, a future when they no longer knew? And in Oxford of all places.
Like many readers, I suspect, I pit my brains against the teams’ (and my wife’s) on University Challenge. Lately some team members have taken to introducing themselves with just their first name: “Hi, I’m Joe, I’m from Loamshire, and I study eugenics.” It’s cool perhaps, but I find it twee. No matter, but then the other day I was talking to some blind and partially sighted veterans who are also keen followers. The problem is that when a contestant “buzzes”, the surname is called, not the first name, so they don’t know which of the four he or she is. Part of their enjoyment is knowing whether the question is related to the contestant’s degree subject, which they can’t then discern.
December sees the 50th anniversary of the death of Britain’s most admired general of the 20th century, Field Marshal Viscount Slim, co-founder and first president of the Burma Star Association. As a newly commissioned subaltern I was on parade at his funeral in Windsor Castle. Slim is the only cradle Catholic to become Chief of the (Imperial) General Staff. But Slim renounced, or at least abandoned, his Catholicism when a captain after marrying the daughter of a Scots Presbyterian minister. Apparently it troubled him in later years that he’d not kept his promise to his mother to adhere to the faith. Notwithstanding, RIP “Uncle Bill” Slim.
Allan Mallinson is a military historian and novelist. His latest novel is The Tigress of Mysore (Penguin Random House)
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