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.