Damian Thompson talks to the distinguished — and mischievous — Catholic writer who has guided the Herald through some stormy decades The Hon Gerard Noel, one of England's most distinguished and affable Catholic writers, has a greater capacity to enrage certain Catholic Herald readers than any other contributor.
I tell him that. and he looks surprised. "Really?" he says, raising an eyebrow. "Good Lord." He examines the end of his cigar in mock-solemnity. and I can see that he is trying to suppress a laugh.
"You know perfectly well that you do. Gerry,I say.
"Ah, well. Dear me. I hope they don't get too upset."
But they do. Gerry, the only man to have edited the Herald twice (and stood in as acting editor for a third term), confuses traditionalist Catholics because he looks as if he ought to be one of them.
His suits have the rumpled look that only a first-class bespoke tailor can-achieve. There are those fat cigars. the type designed to be smoked in the back of a Cadillac in Batista's Cuba. He has also just published after years of diligent research a book on the history of Vermouth and the mixing of the perfect martini.
And the voice! Not elaborately posh, but definitely closer to the claret tones of White's Club (to which he belongs) than the nasal local-government twang of Eccleston Square.
If one didn't know better. one might expect to see Gerard Noel, son of the Earl of Gainsborough, in some ultra-traditionalist church attending a Tridentine "Maaaaas" In reality, that is where one is most likely to find Gerry's most bitter critics. For this is a Vatican II Catholic and not just that, but a liberal who enjoys shocking readers of his articles by tossing in lines such as "there have always been women priests in the Church".
That was deliberately mischievous. "I suppose it was," says Gerry. "What I meant, of course, was that all Christians, men and women. share in the priesthood of all believers it's a different thing from the ordained priesthood."
Does he personally dislike traditionalists? "Goodness, no. They're not wrong about everything. But they can be rather annoying." And he goes on to mention a prominent traditionalist Catholic lady. "Such a snob, a real Hyacinth Bucket, poor thing."
Gerard Noel has written about 15 books he is not quite sure of the total including serious and acclaimed studies of Queen Victoria's Catholic granddaughter, Queen Ena of Spain, and the Borgias, the latter published a few months ago. In fact, he has brought out three books in his 80th year, and there are more to come.
At The Catholic Herald, however, we think of him as the editorial director who has steadied the ship during periods now thankfully over when the paper changed editorial policy quite radically, depending on who was in the editor's chair.
He has a particular fondness for three editors: Richard Dowden. Peter Stanford (with whom he cowrote a book about the Catholic Church) and the irrepressible Cristina Odone.
I remember Gerry's daughter Lizzie once telling me: "Dad does this wicked impersonation of Cristina flirting in a miniskirt. He uses a bath towel for the skirt." Alas, however. Gerry has turned down requests over many years to perform this act in public. "Some other time, old boy."
His other impersonations, however, are uncannily accurate (and much funnier, to my mind, than the smug sermonising of Rory Bremner).
Despite all the redesigns and ideological tilting, The Catholic Herald still bears the stamp of Gerard Noel's stints as editor. Charterhouse Chronicle, for example, was his invention. He wrote it himself at first. then handed over the reins to the legendary Fleet Street hack Patrick O'Donovan legendary, like so many journalists at the time, not only for the quality of his prose but also for the intensity of his thirst. "That was a bit of a problem," admits Gerry.
"Sometimes it took two or three triple gins before his hangover subsided. Poor old Patrick but he was a marvellous writer." It is hard to believe, listening to Gerry, that he once had an American accent. He was on board an ocean liner, going to visit his grandmother, when war was declared in 1939. As a result, he was educated at Georgetown Prep School, Washington DC. and by the time he arrived at Exeter College, Oxford, enough of it had rubbed off on him to be known as "the Yank at Oxford".
One of his contemporaries was Anthony Wedgewood Bean, a rival for presidency of the Oxford Union. "We had an agreement that he wasn't going to run against me, but then he changed his mind and beat me by a few votes," recalls Gerry (not., it has to be said, for the first time). "Mind you, I like old Tony. The dirty dog."
After university, Gerry qualified as a barrister and also tried his vocation at the Beda College in Rome. It was there that he met Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, "a very good Rector of the English College, very diplomatic, highly respected". Some of the Cardinal's early problems with the media. he believes, were not his fault. "The worst paedophile cases were covered up under Basil Hume, and that was the mess that Corrnac inherited." Gerry also got to know Cardinal Montini, later Paul VI. "He was a very tortured soul. People said he was homosexual, which annoyed him because he wasn't, and after Humanae Vitae I think he had a nervous breakdown."
Gerry pays tribute to Pope John Paul II's heroic qualities, but without special enthusiasm. "He was too inflexible, and I was appalled by the way he let Opus Dei push through the canonisation of Escriva. I like Benedict, but if he does bring back the Tridentine Mass in a big way then I'm afraid that will be very divisive."
And, no doubt, our editorial director will let us know exactly what he thinks. We would expect nothing else. Later this month, the Herald is giving a reception for Gerry and Adele Noel to mark, belatedly, his 80th birthday; but it is definitely not a retirement party.
In fact, Gerry is putting the fmal touches to what promises to be his most controversial book to date. As a young man he met Pope Pius XII, and now he is drawing on published documents to bring out a vindication of Pius.
"He was very anti-Nazi indeed, and worried tremendously that he hadn't done enough to help the Jews, though he did a great deal.
"My book will be a vindication, though not perhaps the one that people expect. For example, I'll be going into his relationship with the nun who ran his household, which was entirely innocent but so close that it was almost a marriage."
That will really get the traditionalists worked up. "Do you think so?" says Gerry. "Ah, well."