J. B. MORTON, who died a few days ago, used to be a household name, one to quote and swear by and revere. For more than 50 years he wrote a small column in the Daily Express under the byline of Beachcomber and it was one of the foundation stones of that paper's success and a mark of Lord Beaverbrook's genius that he resisted the attempts of at least one editor to suppress it.
It was the most extraordinary thing in journalism, It consisted of deadpan, creative nonsense, and it was pure joy. He was 85 when he died, and had not written for several years.
He went to Harrow and Oxford, and fell under the influence of Belloc, to such an extent that he became a Catholic in 1922 and wrote like one for the rest of his life.
And it was something to be a Catholic in those days. It was a time of aggressive confidence, especially in the writing world. Catholic writers went on about beer and wine and the vulgarities of usury and the corruption of politics. They were polite to bishops and rather rude to Protestants.
They sat in Fleet Street pubs to write — it is hard enough just to get in these days. They would call for service by thumping the bar top, usually with a blackthorn walking stick — behaviour which would get you thrown out to-day.
They were not the least bit ecumenical. They were ready hotly to defend anything, whether it was the Inquisition, the Borgias, the Crusades, the Feudal System, Papal nepotism or France. Facts tended to be disposable like tissues. It was all a tremendous lark which concealed a great deal of slogging hard work and a profound and loving and utterly unapologetic faith.
I suppose there were only a few of them, but they animated our Church at a time when the hierarchy tended to be rather fussy canon lawyers, and parish priests knew their place which was high up the local pecking order.
But their joy shone through their work, and J. B. Morton's column and his little books were a marvellous part of it. He too for a while was one of the Fleet Street carousers — one never thinks of them as alcoholics — but then he withdrew to Sussex, the county they all tended to think of as the most sacred of all. (Quite wrong! Yorkshire is.) He hated every aspect of modernity, and his romanticism, now increasingly shared by ecologists, dwelt upon a dreamtime medieval England where there was laughter and good ale and everything was green. And of course the True Presence was in every church in the kingdom.
He was not a great controversialist. He just "sent-up" almost everything to do with his time — except the Church and the Monarchy. He wrote short news stories about imaginary characters to whom he gave names like Mr Justice Cocklecarrot, and Captain Eoulenough, a potentate called the Khur of Khasdown and Getaweh.
He had no inhibitions about colour. He was rude about aristocrats, even Celtic ones, and he invented the Macaroon of Macaroon, And greatest of all, there was the scientist, Dr Strabismus (Whom God Preserve) of Utrecht.
Bernard Levin, briefly emerging this Sunday from the gloom of The Times into the light of The Observer, quoted one of his headlines. "Sixty horses wedged in chimney". Then, beneath it: "The story to fit this sensational headline has not yet turned up."
The Editor of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams, who has written a book about him, described him as small, sturdy, shy and smiling — like a Hobbit. But then after he married he became more and more of a recluse and when his wife died, he found it hard to look after himself and appeared to live on bread and jam.
But he was not broke and, after a brief had patch, a good home was found for him through the exertions of his Church. I never met him, but read him with endless delight. I suppose one does not mourn aged strangers, but 1 wish him that perfect peace, plus much laughter and a heavenly bar upon which to thunder his walking stick. I cannot think of any columnist so certain of literary immortality.
Father who risk the law
AMERICAN doctors live in perpetual fear of being sued for malpractice. It is a neat and vicious circle. Juries tend to find against doctors out of compassion for some unfortunate person. Doctors have to take out enormously expensive insurance against the damages they may have to pay. The doctors put their fees up to meet the cost of insurance. The jurors and judges dislike the doctors even more as bloodsuckers, and the damages get heavier and heavier for what may be the purest accident or a human error in an uncertain situation or an entrapment by clever lawyers. And so they have to take out more insurance, and so on.
It is costly luxury being sick there, and all those nice people you see being cured of drug addiction or being run over on the American television soap operas in fine hospitals run by exhausted but devoted young doctors are going to have to lower their standards of living once they are home and cured.
Now I see that the same is happening to the clergy. There is a Church Mutual Insurance Co which will insure a cleric in five states against the effect of had counselling. For a mere $20 a year they can be guarded against costs and damages up to S300,000,
For example, there was 4 pastor who was asked for advice by a woman with a marriage problem. He advised her to leave her husband. She did, and the husband resented it and shot her. She got better and they were reconciled. They sued the pastor.
I would imagine that Catholic priests are in less danger than others. Their confessions are secret and would he hard to prove in court. Yet a loathsome pair of Italian journalists did take a tape recorder into the confessional, again and again, to prove how very different was the attitude of different priests to the same old sins.
The general American view is that such complaints are frivolous. Even so there are still lawyers' fees. They are less open handed than us about costs.
The uses of eternity
I STOLE this from the commonplace book of the Dean of Winchester. I have no idea where he finds the time to do all his reading. He is much busier than I.
"The problem of our presentday civilisation are so grave and pressing that even Christians may think it their duty to make them their primary concern and to consider belief in eternity as a kind of luxury.
"They are utterly wrong. The problems of our day have beome so incomparably complicated and difficult just because people do not believe in eternal life any more. They are seized bya kind of time-panic.
"Not believing in the eternal Kingdom they try to make this world a paradise and by doing so they create a state of things which is more akin to Hell than to Heaven. The loss of real hope — ie hope in eternal life — creates utopias, and utopias may be considered as one of the main roots of our present-day chaos.
"If a man loses the real hope he has to choose between illusions and despair, and mostly he
vacillates between the two in a spiritual condition which the psychiatrists describe as 'depressivemaniac.'" Emil Brunner. "Christianity and Civilisation."
Insult of the week
"I MUST BELIEVE in the Apostolic Succession, otherwise how can the Bishop of Exeter be descended from Judas Escariot?"
Now before any perfervid ecumenist reaches for his pen, the one with the poison on it, I must state that this splendid remark does not refer to his present Lord
ship of that pleasant city and that it was made by one of the nicest men who ever lived.
This was Sydney Smith, a clergyman of the Established Church who was born in 1771 and died in 1845. He was educated at Winchester and showed many of the symptoms of that high minded liberalism lived out in some luxury and intellectual arrogance that is said to be the tell-tale symptom of a Wykhamist. In short he was a splendid Whig, and is remembered still for his conversation.
He was a great diner-out, and the sort of writer who would today contribute whole pages to the political weeklies and be asked to give the Reith Lectures by the BBC. He became a Canon of St Paul's which was a super-Quango of its time and ensured the sort of comfort and respect now given to the heads of organisations that deal with nationalised industries.
He was a great supporter of Catholic Emancipation, and left those who opposed it high and dry like hulks on an untidy shore.
He was not always kind. Of the magisterial historian Macauley he once raid: "His sudden flashes of silence make his conversation delightful."
Such gems of creative and enchanting malice are to-day more likely to be found in the cabinets of the Church of Rome than in those of Canterbury. The lattter are too worried about themselves, This is a great pity.
It is one of the functions of the clergy of every denomination to entertain the laity and keep alive the illusion that we still live in a civilised world.