Dabbler Diary – Recusants, hoopleheads and grockles

The most memorable and piercing end of term report I received at school consisted of this single sentence: “Andrew’s attitude is a not entirely displeasing mixture of cooperation and sedition.” This headstone-worthy epigram was penned by my A-level history teacher, a Mr Berwick Coates, and blow me if I didn’t open the Sunday Times the other week and find the man himself staring back at me, under the headline Berwick conquers at last with novel of 1066’. It seems that Mr Coates has become, at the age of 80-something (he’s coy on the exact figure), “the oldest British person to have struck a deal with a leading publisher for a debut novel” – an £80k advance for two ripping yarns about the Norman Conquest.

Despite the intervening decades his visage was barely aged. Handsome, with a bald Mekon-like dome, half-moon specs, villain’s goatee and a cocksure twinkle in the eye. At school he exuded a worldly self-confidence – the girls called him ‘James Bond’ and liked him, which is why the boys didn’t much. I used to do a well-received impersonation, jabbing the air with a pen and pronouncing alternate words with dramatic emphasis. “So, here he was, in a scrap with the French, in a scrap with the Spanish, up to his neck in debt… just what the hell was Henry going to do next?”

Mr Coates taught us the Tudors and Stewarts – the juiciest bit of English history – and he taught it as it bloody well should be taught, i.e. as a ripping yarn, with G.R. Elton the textbook. None of your ‘themes’ or ‘Imagine yourself in the role of a female serf,  how might her attitudes towards gender equality differ from a modern feminist?’ or whatever twaddle New Labour foisted upon our poor students in the  Dark Ages (1997 to Gove).

I despair at my younger self for thinking of those lessons as a chore – what bliss it would be now to spend all day reading about Henry VIII’s divorces or Elizabeth I’s foreign policy, and what an ungrateful, seditious/cooperative little hooplehead I was for not realising it. Good on you, Berwick Coates, I hope someone buys the film rights and makes you filthy rich.



This superb article by Theo Hobson stamps on what remains of Dawkinsian atheism with an audible squelch.

The events of 9/11 were the main trigger for [the New Atheist movement]…. There was a desire to see Islamic terrorism as the symbolic synecdoche of all of religion. On one level this makes some sense: does not all religion place faith above reason? Isn’t this intrinsically dangerous? Don’t all religions jeopardise secular freedom, whether through holy wars or faith schools? On another level it is absurd: is the local vicar, struggling to build community and help smelly drunks stay alive, really a force for evil — even if she has some illiberal opinions? When such questions arise, a big bright ‘Complicated’ sign ought to flash in one’s brain. Instead, in the wake of 9/11, many otherwise thoughtful people opted for simplicity over complexity.

Pity that Christopher Hitchens’ legacy is sullied by his membership of the New Atheist gang – probably the only thing about which he was ever boring. A former Trotskyist, The Hitch retained the habit of starting from an absolute first principle and following it through to what he deemed a logical conclusion. There are many great pundits in this absolutist mould on both left and right (my fellow editor Gaw argues convincingly that Peter Hitchens, despite appearances, is essentially a Trot) and they’re usually the most fun to read. They have no time for pragmatism – which they think is for moral wusses – so they often end up following their own logic into absurd positions.

Nick Cohen is one of our finest absolutists and is currently the go-to man for comparing British ‘restrictions’ on freedom of speech to Soviet censorship, as in this piece which arrives at the rather wild conclusion that the BBC’s decision to only partially play Ding Dong the Witch is Dead as a mark of respect to Margaret Thatcher is an encouragement to Vladimir Putin’s Russian propaganda machine. Nick, like the Hitch, is also firmly in the God Is Not Good camp. Even in this article about Twitter he cannot resist a bizarre swipe – “The most malicious man on the paper was, as so often, the religious affairs editor. (Holiness corrupts, in my experience, and absolute holiness corrupts absolutely.)”) Oh dear, the big bright sign is not flashing ‘Complicated’, but ‘Plot Lost!’


In the centre of York, on Parliament Street, was a big marquee full of representatives of ‘social justice and human rights’ organisations, each with its own little stall – the York LGBT Forum, the York Racial Equality Network, the York Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the People’s Front of York and the Yorkian People’s Front and so on. I ducked my head in and instantly ducked it out again having been confronted with a placard yelling “Some people are gay, get over it!” But I am over it, I silently protested, as is surely anyone who could conceivably choose to step into a Human Rights marquee. You get over it. We walked on. There was a miraculous spring sunshine, drinkers gabbled outside every pub, the Minster sat vast and square and many Americans clogged the Shambles.


We were in York for the wedding reception of an old pal. His wife is exceptionally pretty. My old pal, it’s fair to say, isn’t. ‘Batting above his average’ is the phrase that springs to mind, but so unfailingly genial is Doc Fox that none of his male friends resent his good fortune. Like all the best wedding receptions it ended in a ludicrous multi-generational disco; the groom prancing around to Ring of Fire with a matadorial elegance I’d never suspected him of possessing. Booze count: one straight vodka, four lagers, two G&Ts, one accidental vodka and lime. Hangover report: slight to moderate, then becoming poor, occasionally rough.

We stayed nearby in the oldest living nunnery in England, of all places. The Bar Convent, next to Micklegate, est 1686 and still going strong, its warren-like corridors and unexpected atria now connecting guestrooms, libraries (wherein Yorkish geeks played strategy boardgames), a café and a museum about recusancy. (It was a bit of a shock to be reminded that we Roman Catholics are supposed to venerate St Thomas More, when Hilary Mantel had Cranmer and Cromwell as the heroes and More as a sadistic pervert. And anyway I find I’ve grown very Anglican over the years.) The chapel is well worth a visit, boasting a surprise dome, much gold leaf, eight emergency exits for the congregation in case of a raid and a priest’s hole. The whole thing is cunningly concealed within the heart of the building and a slate pitched roof hides the dome from unholy, hairy-handed Cromwellians with their cudgels and decrees.


But before York, to Devon, also for nuptial celebrations, in this case the ruby wedding anniversary of my parents. At the Saturday evening mass Father Keiran gave them a well-judged blessing. So small is the local non-lapsed Catholic population and so inaccessible the chapel at RAF Chivenor (it is literally surrounded by armed guards) that proceedings did have a certain air of clandestine recusancy. At half time a visiting priest from London, Father John of the Cambone Missionaries, took to the lectern. “It is a privilege to be here at Our Lady Star of the Sea in Ilfracombe, it’s a really nice city, I wish I could stay longer but I have to go straight off,” he began in an aggressive Scottish accent – quite an opening gambit considering that (1) Ilfracombe is not a city but a very small town and (2) we were not in it anyway.

He then commenced a pitch for charitable donations to the Cambone Missionaries, who carry out their humanitarian work in Africa, Asia and South America. I say ‘pitch’ but this was no Comic Relief-style appeal to our sympathies, no plaintive tugging at the heartstrings. There were no stories of starving orphans or grieving mothers, nor indeed any details about what precisely, the Cambone Missionaries do. This was a charity appeal Catholic-style, a straightforward command from authority: it is your duty to give me your money. Father John finished his haranguing on a light note. “So, nae fush and chups fae supper tonight, gie yer money tae the mission instead. Eh?”  The ‘ya wee bastards’ coda was left unsaid but clearly implied. There was a non-plussed silence as he sat down. On the way out I gave generously.


My father and I drove to Tiverton Parkway to meet my brother-in-law’s train from London. The last time we made that journey was during the eye episode, when Gabriel’s Oboe wormed around in my skull and, suffering from unbearable photophobia, I had to bury my head in a towel to block out the light. How wonderful then to drive the North Devon link road as so many grockles do – with a light heart and an appreciation of the glorious countryside. Yes, one can do a lot worse with a weekend than motor around North Devon, past such splendid place names as Beaples Barton and Harpson Kidland, avoiding South Molton but perhaps take the long way round via Brayford and Bratton Fleming up to Combe Martin with its vertiginous slopes, to Berrynarbour, to Ilfracombe where Verity presents her ugly innards to the sea, on to Mortehoe, through Woolacombe,  Georgeham and Croyde, the vast emptiness of Saunton Sands and at last pausing atop the hills near Lobb, to look across the burrows and the strip farms  of the Great Field and all the way down to Braunton, its snug pubs aglow in the twilight, each  just about visible to the trained eye, waiting with barrels of Tribute ale and a cheap pool table: The Williams Arms, The Black Horse, The White Lion, The London Inn, The Mariner’s Arms, The Ebrington, The Aggie and The George.

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15 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – Recusants, hoopleheads and grockles

  1. Gaw
    April 29, 2013 at 07:35

    What with all the fuss over Dawkinsite atheism, good old fashioned Protestant anti-papism has hardly had a look in recently. I doubt that anyone in the press will point out that – as for 9/11 (but only in this respect!) – religion isn’t all about things like John Paul II’s latest miracle, reports of which reached us just yesterday.

  2. Gaw
    April 29, 2013 at 07:57

    Having thought a bit about how many pundits appear more or less mad, I think someone – probably a medical institute hungry for publicity and funding, and reported via press release – should do some research on whether having to express a strong opinion on something at least once a week, over the course of a few hundred words, and regardless of whether you feel like it, can damage mental health.

    (Regularly making opinionated but short comments on blog posts is, of course, totally harmless).

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      April 29, 2013 at 13:25

      It definitely must. Nick Cohen has to compose combative opinions for the Observer, the Spectator blog, Standpoint, the Jewish Chronicle and god knows what else, and he is always at maximum moral outrage. This means that he must have to spend pretty every single waking moment mentally composing arguments. That cannot be healthy.

  3. Worm
    April 29, 2013 at 10:12

    “The Williams Arms, The Black Horse, The White Lion, The London Inn, The Mariner’s Arms, The Ebrington, The Aggie and The George.”

    aka ‘The Sipping Forecast’

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      April 29, 2013 at 13:26

      Very good, Worm.

  4. Worm
    April 29, 2013 at 10:20

    I wonder if Father John of the Cambone Missionaries works on commission?

  5. markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
    April 29, 2013 at 10:55

    What a fabulous way to start the week, though I’ll ignore the intimation that Hilary Mantel is a good writer: got twenty pages into Wolf Hall before it was tumbling into the charity box. My wife – no Catholic – didn’t even make it that far.

    I saw that Nick Cohen Twitter piece and had exactly the same reaction. He starts well and reasonably, but, as ever, the red mist descends and he loses all balance and proportion. He actually reminds me of all the tuppeny revolutionaries I studied with at university in the Seventies. All one can do is sigh.

    Those Cambone Missionaries are all the same, but I at least prefer their cloth-eared non-exortations to the heart-string pluckers of Cafod. Going to Mass nowadays is getting to be as expensive as the opera.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      April 29, 2013 at 13:29

      Thanks Recusant.

      It would be unhealthy to agree about too much so I’m glad we differ on Wolf Hall. I think it’s a masterpiece, but also enjoyable to read – in fact, I can think of very few novels I’ve enjoyed more.

      • markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
        April 29, 2013 at 13:55

        Confession time.

        She also has a face and a voice that puts her, to me, in the same category as Prof. Brian ‘Babyface’ Cox. Although, seeing as how she is a lady, we shall have to create a distaff category to ‘Faces You Want to Punch’. Something like ‘Faces That Deserve a Pie’

  6. peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
    April 29, 2013 at 13:21

    Congrats to Mr. Coates. As a longtime casual history buff I remember how often I bought seemingly promising books only to abandon them when the first chapter recounted riveting tales of the percentage of disposible income the average 14th century household spent on clothing. It was a dreary discipline until well into the eighties when Paul Johnson resurrected kings and battles with Modern Times and set the stage for the likes of others like the incomparable Robert Massie. I loved the critic who said reading modern social history was like how she imagined having a stroke. First the fingers go numb, then the hand, then the arm…

    The same spirit-killing approach frequently happens with English and drama, where the kids are made to study forgettable “socially relevant” or experimental works that they hate, even when they are shrewd enough to master requisite shibboleths about racism and patriarchy for the exam. There is something about “progressive” education that seems hellbent on performing intellectual lobotomies on the young. Perhaps they are worried if they inflame the young with too much enthusiasm, they will all run off to seduce wenches or reconstitute the Empire.

  7. youandpi@aol.com'
    Michael Smith
    April 29, 2013 at 21:19

    A priest’s hole you say?

    I like the Kings and Queens approach to history – especially someone like Edward II who was both at the same time.

    I prefer history to literature because history is God’s novel, the Almighty’s pastiche of Tolstoy you might say.

  8. zmkc@ymail.com'
    April 30, 2013 at 15:06

    I’ve seen Nick Cohen take blog comments that don’t go along with his arguments – at least on the subject of Hungary and its government (and I’m not talking about wild unhinged comments of the troll-y variety) – off his blog, which makes me distrust him.

    • Brit
      April 30, 2013 at 21:54

      Nick censors? That’s a bit of a scandal…

  9. bensix@live.co.uk'
    May 2, 2013 at 01:44

    Lovely story about Berwick Coates – and also good to learn that I can wait another six decades before growing too depressed about my novels being unpublished.

    I have a great affection for many of Hitchens’ writings – and one of the high points of my week was discovering this debate, in which he and William Buckley team up to freeze out the poor schlub who is supposed to be promoting his book – but he was a bad influence on political culture. A moralist is only admirable if his sentiments accord with the facts, and Hitchens’ pronouncements existed independently of them. A Long Short War is destined to be a set text on collective delusions in the twenty-first century.

    • Brit
      May 2, 2013 at 13:59

      Thanks for the young Hitch link, Ben, awesome find.

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