Life During Wartime

This year, 2023, is the 100th anniversary of my parish, Our Lady of Lourdes, in north London. As part of the celebrations the parish priest, Fr David, asked me to edit a commemorative book about the parish and its history. So last week I made an appointment to visit the archives of the Diocese of Westminster, where I was given the box containing the parish archives.

Among the papers I found a copy of a previous commemorative booklet, one that had been produced to mark the 20th anniversary of the parish’s founding. Only, this was in 1943, in the middle of World War II. Among the other items in the booklet was a poem, modelled on Rudyard Kipling’s If, telling what life was like in a north London suburban parish that had seen much bombing due to the main east coast railway line running through the parish. The poem was written by the parish priest, Fr Joseph Sunn, who founded the parish in 1923. It is one of the most vivid portraits of what life was like for the people on the home front that I have ever read and finding it in the archive was an inexpressible delight.

For the first time in 80 years, you can read it too. Below are pictures of the text, and below that my transcription of the poem.

(with apologies to Kipling)

Fr Joseph Sunn

If you can keep your head when, all about you,
Old London burns, and feel IT’S UP TO YOU
And, grasping mask, shield, pipe, pump, tin hat, shovel,
Put out your fire – and perhaps your neighbours too.
If you can wait, and not be bored by waiting,
For the “All Clear” which means some blessed sleep,
And rise, when your alarm – an hour later –
Says, “Time for work!” (No breakfast, that must keep.)
If you can dream, and not make dreams your masters,
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim;
Remember pre-war juicy steaks and onions,
Eat bread and marge – but pay about the same.
If you can meet the nightmare weekend shopping,
Hear shopmen call in chorus, “No! No!! No!!!
“Bananas, what are they?” “Eggs, perhaps next Friday:
If I should hear of one I’ll let you know.”
If you can watch the crazy world about you,
Not criticise, but grin and keep your wits,
They’ll put you in the history books, and call you,
“The Sleepy Britishers who beat the Blitz.”
If you can travel on the tubes and buses
With half a dozen people on your feet,
And in the evening queue up for a sausage
Before you take the foul thing home to eat;
If you can wash up nasty pans and dishes,
Then – spurning slippers – put on heavy boots
And, taking turnip seeds, fork, spade and shovel,
Pull up your favourite rose tree by the roots.
If you can force your nerve, and heart, and sinew
To do a little more than just your whack.
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the will which says to you, “HIT BACK!”
If you can say “I’ve done my bit already,
But I’ll do more to help the fighting man;
If I can’t drop a bomb, or fire a rifle,
By heck, I’ll buy one for the chap who can!”
But you HAVE done these things, and will continue
To do two jobs each day instead of one
(On half the rations too, instead of double),
You may be doing three before you’re done!
But you have found the all-deciding answer,
No one will rule you with a Nazi rod,
Three years ago you stood alone, unaided,
But in your heart you knew you stood with God.
If you can put your faith in Him, your Father,
Not ask “Why send this war?” “What have I done?”
(Not only sinners suffer on the journey,
To weariness and pain He sent His Son.)
You on God’s side, and at His side, rebuilding
A new world on His pattern, brave and clear,
Already in the East the clouds are breaking –
Work, when you look again, Dawn may be here!

Book review: Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein

Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein

This is an enlightening, enriching and superbly written account of the shifting waters and treacherous sands that join the River Thames to the North Sea. Lichtenstein works broadly downstream, starting from London and moving eastwards, telling the extraordinarily varied stories of the lives that intersected and intersect with the river. The river was what made London, bringing the world to the city, but what is fascinating is how much life went on in and around the river, from dredgers and fishermen, to a self-declared autonomous republic on an old sea fort in the estuary.

The sea fort, calling itself the Principality of Sealand, has been fought over, invaded and defended in its time. The river itself flows with tales, from drowned boats laden with unexploded munitions to the hard lives of the fishermen, and Lichtenstein does a superb job of telling them.

She also has a great deal of time for the various artists who seek to incorporate the river into their work – sometimes with near fatal results. Taking a photographer with her to record the sailing of an old yacht, the photographer faffs around for so long trying to set up his camera that the boat crashes. In the crash, Lichtenstein is quite badly injured. Her commitment to river side artists shows a notable lessening thereafter!

For anyone interested in the river and how the people living alongside it have used, abused, loved and hated it, this is a wonderful book.

When the Conqueror met the Confessor

Edward the Confessor as depicted in the centre of the Wilton Diptych.

William, Duke of Normandy, knew Edward, future king of England, as a boy. This is because, when William was born, Edward was living in exile with his mother’s relatives in Normandy. Cnut had conquered England and Edward had fled with his mother, Emma, He had no expectation of ever becoming king. But when, via a series of unexpected marriages and early deaths, Edward came to the throne in 1042, William was 14 and quite old enough to be engaged by the politics that brought Edward the crown.

As king of England, Edward retained close links with the court where he had grown up. As king, Edward had had to engage with the powerful Earl Godwin and his family, marrying Godwin’s daughter, Edith, and raising Godwin’s son Harold to an earldom. But Edward apparently chafed at this dependence and in 1051 Edward moved against the family, forcing Godwin and his sons into exile and sending Edith to a convent. However, Godwin and his sons returned the following year with an army and, to prevent civil war, Edward had to reinstate them and take Edith back as his wife and queen.

However, during the year when Edward was free of the Godwins, one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded a visit from across the Channel. Around October or November of 1051, William with his retinue visited Edward. Remembering his debt to the Norman court and his dislike of Earl Godwin and his family, it’s possible that Edward promised the throne to William should he remain childless.

William returned to Normandy convinced that, so long as Edward and Edith did not unexpectedly produce an heir, then he would be king of England.

Of course, what William did not know was that Edward did not have the authority to promise the crown to William. There were no fixed laws of succession but rather a series of traditions, starting with blood relation to the previous king but also involving the promise of the previous king and the assent of the English magnates.

The situation was slowly being set for the disaster that was to befall the English nobility.

Book review: Complete Short Stories by Evelyn Waugh

The Complete Short Stories by Evelyn Waugh

“Bunty, you see in the paper, that chap Waugh has a new book out?”

“What’s it called, darling?”

“The Complete Short Stories.”

“What a dull title. Must be a dreary writer.”

“Nonsense, Bunty. He’s the chap you met in a bar in Abyssinia.”

“You mean the fellow who stole all my stories?”

“That’s the one. You’re in this new one too.”

“I hope he gets me right this time, darling. He made me out to be a frightful cad in the last one.”

“But you are a frightful cad, Bunty.”

“Would you want me any other way, darling?”

“Of course not, Bunty. Just that…”

“Just what?”

“It would be nice if you could remember my name.”

“Of course I remember your name, darling.”

“What is it, Bunty?”

“Why, it’s darling. Would you have me call you anything else?”

“No, of course not, Bunty.”

“That’s better, darling. Now, pass me the paper. I must check the racing results.”

Book review: Christmas by Nick Page

Christmas by Nick Page

You know all those stories and memes about Christmas actually being a pagan feast that the early Church appropriated? Christmas trees, yule and yule logs, even the actual day of the celebration? Turns out that the myth of the Christian origin of Christmas is as much a myth as its detractors claim the feast is itself.

Nick Page does an excellent job of chasing the historical roots of Christmas down to their often obscure origins. In particular, he digs down into the origin of the feast in the Christian calendar and the roughly contemporary start of the pagan feast that the Church was supposed to have muscled in upon.

Coming closer in time, it’s fascinating to learn how many apparently ancient Christmas customs are actually relatively recent, with most of them starting in the 18th and, particularly, 19th centuries. The book’s subtitle – Tradition, Truth and Total Baubles – shows Page’s love of jokes and puns. For this reader, there were slightly too many but that’s down to taste. All in all, the book is an excellent and readable account of how we have come to have the Christmas that we celebrate today.

After 1066

The Battle of Hastings brought the world of the old Anglo-Saxon nobility to a bloody end. Twenty years after the battle, when the Domesday Book, William’s inventory of the country was completed, Englishmen owned just five per cent of the country. William of Malmesbury (c.1095 – c.1043), an Anglo-Norman monk and chronicler, wrote that “England has become the dwelling place of foreigners and a playground for lords of alien blood. No Englishman today is an earl, a bishop or an abbot.”

The Anglo-Saxon nobles who survived the invasion and William’s brutal supression of the rebellions of the next decade went abroad. Exiled Englishmen fetched up all over the old North Sea world. But some went further, all the way to Byzantium. With so many battle-trained exiles looking for employment, the Emperor’s Varangian Guard, which had previously been manned by Scandinavians, became a largely English unit.

They left behind an England where it seemed that the language might change as completely as land ownership. The new Norman kings spoke French and Latin and made little attempt to learn the language of their subjects. However, Henry I, the third in the line of Norman kings, began a revival in English and English customs that might have led to early reconciliation if it was not for his lack of a male heir. Henry designated his daughter, Matilda, as ruler but Stephen, William’s grandson, wanted the crown for himself. The ensuing 20-year civil war caused such destruction that it was called the Anarchy and, the Chronicle lamented, “Christ and his saints slept.”

But at the more local level, contacts between the 8,000-odd Norman settlers and the native English slowly improved. Intermarriage had become common by the early 12th century. While there were no English abbots, Englishmen served as priors in monasteries and monks worked to improve relations between the two peoples. And when the Anarchy ended and Henry II ascended the throne at the end of 1154, things had changed. A century after Hastings, English had become again the national language, although the Old English names were largely lost. The English were now a race of Roberts and Johns and Williams, rather than Æthelwins and Œthelwalds and Oswalds.

By 1170, Richard fitz Nigel could write, “In the present day, the races have become so fused that it can scarcely be discerned who is English and who is Norman.” The conquerors had, in the end, been assimilated.

Book review: The Greatest Viking by Desmond Seward

The Greatest Viking by Desmond Seward

Desmond Seward, who died on 3 April 2022, was one of Britain’s most accomplished popular historians, his many books displaying a mixture of vigorous storytelling and close attention to primary and secondary sources. Seward’s final book, published posthumously, shows that he suffered no decline in his gifts in his final years. The Greatest Viking takes the life of King Olav Haraldsson and brings the man and his times to life. In this, Seward was helped by Olav’s life being, like that of so many of the great Vikings, a tale of outrageous adventure, of reversals and victories, daring escapes and unlikely returns. Indeed, it’s the sort of life that if Seward had been writing a novel, he would have had to tone it down to make it more believable.

Olav, in life and even more in his death, became a symbol of Norwegian national identity, so much so that we was given – and still holds – the title of Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae, the eternal king of Norway. Olav, a descendant of Harald Fairhair, the first man to unite Norway, saw it as his destiny to bring the country under his rule. Following his conversion to Christianity, he widened his mission to include banishing the old Norse gods. Seward is particularly insightful in explaining the savagery with which Olav went about suppressing the old pagan religion, neither excusing Olav’s fierceness nor downplaying the depravity attached to worshipping the old gods. Although we have lost an excellent historian, The Greatest Viking is an excellent valediction of a lifetime’s work bringing the past to life for new generations.

Book review: Cult of the Spiral Dawn by Peter Fehervari

Cult of the Spiral Dawn by Peter Fehervari

Peter Fehervari is the unlikely Evelyn Waugh of 40k authors. Writing about Tyrannid genestealer cults is not an obvious opportunity to showcase a prose style that combines the economy of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall with the jewel crusted baroquetries of his Brideshead Revisited, but Fehervari, rather extraordinarily, manages to do so. One of the very, very few 40k books to read for its literary qualities.

Book review: Relentless by Dean Koontz

Relentless by Dean Koontz

I am, in principle, in favour of stories where the hero is an unassuming but nevertheless quietly heroic writer – I can’t imagine why. I also thoroughly approve of stories where the villain is a horribly unfair literary critic, of vituperative opinions and little discernment. Having been on the receiving end of a few reviews of the writer-is-an-idiot-and-his-work-is-worse variety I can aver that there are few retributions not fully deserved by such reviewers.

Despite all these points in its favour, I must nevertheless admit that ‘Relentless’ is boiler plate Koontz: standard late period fare without the original ideas of ‘Innocence’ or ‘The City’. One for Koontz completists only.