The Tablet: A Commemorative History 1840-1990 by Michael Walsh (Tablet Publishing, 48 Great Peter, Street, London SW1, £4.95 inc p + p).
Peter Stanford THE Tablet is Britain's oldest Catholic weekly, and in terms of circulation is the great trend bucker of the religious press in recent years. It is currently celebrating its 150th birthday (the Catholic Herald is a spring chicken in comparison with only a century and a bit to its name) with its readership figures touching 16,000 for the first time in its history (we still manage to steal a sizeable march on them there at least).
Needless to say I eagerly leafed through Michael Walsh's commemorative history for the secret of their success, but he is noticeably brief on recent times, my opposite number John Wilkins obviously keeping his circulation boosting cards close to his chest. However, with the benefit of a turbulent six months in the ante-room of John's editorial nerve-centre before I entered the hallowed corridors of Herald House, ll would estimate that Mr Walsh has it just about right when he highlights the Tablet's decidedly ecumenical outlook, its digest approach to news, its appeal to an older, if still questioning, age group, and its sound financial base in a charitable trust as factors in its current prosperity.
Indeed looking back to the Tablet's origins and its first owner-proprietor, Frederick Lucas, it is interesting to note the parallels that connect his approach to that of the current management. Lucas was not afraid to take on the wealthy, to ask awkward questions of the bishops, or to examine intelligently decrees emanating from Rome. His sense of humour may have been lost somewhere in the passage of years, as has his Irish nationalism which reflected the fact that he was both Member of Parliament for Meath and largely based in Dublin. The intervening period between Lucas's early independence and today's Tablet with its echoes of his pioneering approach has not always been so distinguished, as Michael Walsh makes plain. Its second editor-owner John Wallis replaced Lucas's questioning attitudes with a less challenging subservience to the rich and educated Catholic elite in England.
It was under Fr (later Cardinal) Herbert Vaughan that the Tablet took on the distinctive feel as a weekly review rather than a newspaper that has survived to this day. Vaughan, even before his elevation to the see of Westminster, was a firm backer in print of the Vatican line on such questions as papal infallibility.
With Cardinal Vaughan's death in 1902 the journal fell ever more under clerical sway, and reached the nadir of its fortunes under Ernest Oldmeadow, editor from 1923 to 1936 whom Michael Walsh paints as a thoroughly unpleasant, arrogant man, fiercely anti-ecumenical and indeed hell-bent on destroying the first flowering of interchurch understanding in the Malines conversations.
It was late in 1935 that Cardinal Hinsley became tired both of the drain on finances _that the Tablet represented and of Oldmeadow's pretentions. A group headed by young publisher Tom Burns approached the cardinal and took the magazine out of clerical bands. Editor from 1936
until the late 1960s was Douglas Woodruff described by our own late Charterhouse Chronicler Patrick O'Donovan as a man who "made being a Catholic almost over-exciting and a matter for the sort of pride that goes to support football teams".
Under lay control the Tablet at once became less "churchy" (Vaughan had started the policy of using it as something of a noticeboard for clerics) and more aware of the outside world. Woodruff was conspicuously interested in foreign affairs, though his enthusiasm for Franco rings rather hollow today.
His own growing conservatism, however, made him less than enthusiastic for the changes of Vatican II, a distaste that conveyed itself through the pages of the journal to readers, By the time the great Humanae vitae debate broke out Torn Burns had taken over the editor's chair, and was fearless in opposing the papal line whatever the signals of protest sent from Rome, and indeed the displeasure of Woodruff.
What I missed in this book was any examination of what it means to be a publication or indeed a company that bills itself "Catholic". Mr Walsh reports some of the harsh and decidedly unChristian treatment handed out by the management in the 1920s to people who had dedicated a great deal of their lives to the Tablet. He might have developed this theme in the later chapters of his study.
Michael Walsh's brief (less than 100 pages) history is admirably well expressed (though he does slip into the occasional Tabletism — for instance when he refers to Cardinal Vaughan "drawing to the end of his life" rather than dying). Racy presentation has never been a feature of the Tablet and this history's solidly (and rather ecclesiastically) purple cover will not surprise regular readers. As with the journal itself it is the measured tone of the text that keeps them coming back for more.