Charlie Hegarty Notebook
y friend John Bate has sent me his latest book of poems.
This collection is privately printed, though John’s writing has often featured in well-known poetical publications.
The themes are eclectic, reflecting his preoccupations: love, children, the loss of friends, pity for the little people caught up in the savagery of war and so on. A poem called “Mostar” begins: “How do I respond, in my armchairjto the killings in Mostar?
And another, addressed to his beloved wife with all the affectionate familiarity of a long marriage and entitled “Peggie in the Morning”, starts: When I see you stepping rom your bath these days, back view you’re a bit of a Socrates...
But this piece is not about the poems, it is about the beauty of John and Peggie’s marriage. Both converts and now in their 90s, they met and married soon after World War II. John recalls that “it wasn’t until Peggie and I were on our honeymoon that I found the faith; it just came to me after a visit to a Carmelite priory”. Millions had lost their lives in the war. Determined to challenge this legacy of death, they married in the hope of many children. There were to be 12. John says: “We little realised how many we would have. All our strength, energy, ingenuity, earning power for about 35 years was needed to keep our show on the road.” John trained as a librarian and later re-trained in Scotland as a teacher. At first they lived in Cornwall where he found work in the county library. Money was very tight and they longed for a home of their own. They began a novena to St Joseph, patron of families and homes.
John soon fixed them up with a little house “with two attic bedrooms, a tiny sitting room and a kitchen with a gas cooker, a sink, a bath and a copper to heat the bath water. The bath was covered with a board which served as our table.” The £100 deposit was loaned to them by the previous owner and they moved their family (four children by then) in on Christmas Eve. They prepared a chicken for the next day and lit a candle in front of their little cardboard cut-out crib.
When their children were young they said a decade of the rosary every night with them. John adds: “There is also a very demanding rosary novena which we both used to say when times were desperate.” After the children had grown up and left home, “we realised how tired we were”, John says. Sustained by their shared faith they began to go to midday lectures at the local art gallery; Peggie learned calligraphy and John became a volunteer tourist guide.
When grandchildren came along (there are now 28 and several great-grandchildren) “a whole new ‘career’ opened up for us as grandparents”.
Now retired in Berwick, their days are spent being visited by relays of children and grandchildren. Together, they stroll along the ramparts to look at the North Sea, play Scrabble and read to each other in bed. They get to daily Mass when they can and say the Divine Office together. They told me they would be happy to be shipwrecked on a desert island “as we could then read each other’s books”.
It is hardly news to say the traditional concept of marriage – the permanent, faithful union of a man and a woman, open to life – is under severe attack these days. John and Peggie have lived this Christian ideal for over 60 years: a marvellous example. God bless them.