SOMEBODY — an amused Irishman, probably — once suggested that the first act of many good English people on arrival in Heaven is to complain about the company.
A need to feel superior, socially, morally or intellectually, does indeed seem to be so common, even among naturally kindly people, as to amount to a national characteristic; and this shows itself in all sorts of strange ways.
For instance, at the time when cancellation of the Pope's visit seemed almost a certainty and most people were really rather sad about it, the "whisper round the clubs", as Wodehouse might have put it, tended increasingly to affect to treat the whole affair as rather comic — at any rate, this was so at a highly regarded watering-hole that tolerates me among its members.
To sustain the Wodehouse imagery, if I may, I heard a dry sherry ask: "What would he and the Queen talk about?" A large gin and tonic, who likes to seem a survival of a vanished age, said: "Difficulty of finding good servants nowadays, I expect." A young Bloody Mary, abreast of the news, deferentially half agreed. "Well, something like that. How about labour relations? Talk of a strike at the Vatican, isn't there? Any chance of one at the Palace?"
Several of those at the bar especially the dry sherry — would have had sober, professional knowledge that in the matter of labour relations the Vatican and the Palace do, in fact, have a good deal in common.
Both are the homes and, so to speak, headquarters, of monat•chies, but both manage their domestic arrangements in a remarkably democratic manner. The Palace servants, for example, their-jcihs—wetur vitt-no sign of servility or flunkeyism, and they all belong. as do the rest of the employed Palace staff, to a trade union.
Their pay and conditions approximate to the Civil Service averages for the kinds of work they do. Something of a family atmosphere, which is very apparent at Buckingham Palace and Windsor, probably sustains morale, and people are proud of working for the Queen.
But if conditions were other than they are, discontent could produce a strike in the Royal work force, just as it can, and increasingly often does, in Civil Service departments.
Employment at the Vatican is, perhaps, not quite so cut and dried a matter and. naturally enough, rather Italian in character. Various privileges have to be taken into account, such as the fact that Vatican employees pay no income tax and can obtain duty-free petrol and other goods.
George Bull, in his recent book, Inside the Vatican. says that life can be Spartan on the lower rungs of the Vatican ladder, but for all Holy See employees, the 33-hour week and numerous -religiousttotidays -all-OWgenerous— free time: so there is quite a lot of moon-lighting.
Health and pension facilities are good, but financed from wage deductions.
There have been what George Bull calls "ripples of economic and social discontent" on the lower "slopes of the vineyard". These were most noticeable in the 1970s, when there was pressure on the Vatican to keep abreast of galloping wage increases in surrounding Italy. Pope Paul VI set up an Office of Labour Relations, and most of the lay Workers, feeling that privileges and other benefits were no longer enough to offset rising living costs, formed an association which they now want to have the status of a union.
Papal encyclicals, including a recent one, clearly support the general principles involved, so it seems likely that discussion will eventually achieve an agreement.
I HOPE THAT many of those who saw the BBC2 dramatisation of Antonia White's largely autobiographical novel, Frost in May, also heard the To-day programme's re-broadcast of an interview Rosemary Harthill had with the author some years ago.
Describing Frost in May. ,a Radio Times article said it was about a young girl who "goes to a strict convent school, is attracted to some elements of the religious life but gradually finds herself rebelling against what she sees as unreasonable restrictions on her freedom of thought". In the interview, Antonia White, on whose own schooldays the story was based, told of the astonishing happening that caused her to return to the Church after 15 years, during which she regarded herself as a convinced atheist
undJVecause OTThis, experienced= feelings of great liberation.
She that m Christmas l ■ e in 19-10 she decided she would like to go to the midnight Mass at the Carmelite church in Church Street, Kensington, not from any religious motivation, but rather as one might .decide to attend a concert or some other performance. She made a preliminary visit, found a lot of people, many of them women With shopping bags, waiting their turn to go to Confession and, experiencing a feeling of some superiors inher own freedom from any such need, start to make She said that as she approached the door, she felt a sensation of being physically pushed and directed back to the queue for Confession. She found herself kneeling with the others and, presently. in the confessional box. Bewildered, she told the priest: "I shouldn't be here. I don't want to go to Confession."
He told her that before her arrival he had been pondering, in some agony-of doubt. whether or not he should leave the Carmelites to take up some kind of pastoral work that was more involved in the world. He had asked God to send him a sinner as a sign.
Antonio White made her Confession. The priest stayed a Carmelite. In spite of some periods of spiritual aridity, Antonia White remained a Catholic until her death in 1980.
I don't know if the convent, portrayed with great precision in the TV version of Frost in May, did convey an oppressive atmosphere to viewers generally: but several women I know, one of them a non-Catholic, recognised it as being quite unmistakably the place where they were themselves at school.
They said they had watched enthralled and filled with a happy nostalgia which did not include memories of being unduly oppressed.
The youngest of them did say: "Mind you, it had changed a bit by my day. In my last year, they even had someone in to show us how to use make-up properly." I think she may have made an important point.
Quite probably. the convent's disciplines in the TV play were to a great extent generally typical of the period and reflected much of what could also be found in other girls' boarding schools but made more rational and palatable by religious motivations.