Much too close for comfort Mr Belloc
I HIAIRE BELLOC'S novels are hardly read now and never discussed, however his satirical spy story But Soft VVe are Observed', published in 1928 should be necessary reading for all retrospective futurologists. George Orwell chose 1984 for his annus horrendus: Belloc chose 1979 and a story peculiarly relevant to the present political situation.
We are concerned with oil and Iran; the plot of this book concerns 'Western lrania' and eremin, another commodity 'vital to the world's transport. The two political parties controlling the world are the communist (natural heirs to the forgotten 'fortes) and the anarchist (representing the old socialists).
Western Irania, however is annihilationist, a black spot in an otherwise well-controlled world since the third universal and eternal peace treaty in the sixties.
All the world's governments and more importantly the politically powerful international conglomerates want to negotiate with Western frank' for the eremin concession.
The Western Iranians, however, a violent little people, have already tortured to death an expeditionary force, so their ruler has sallied forth in disguise to negotiate off his own bat, with the highest bidder.
Since this is an espionage tale, there are in fact five separate sleuths whom Belloc helpfully refer l to as sleuths A, B, C, 1) and F. The latter has an accent because he is French.
The two protagonists are similarly helpfully labelled Chaps one and two. This is a device which might well be followed by other masters of the genre.
It is, as Belloc says 'one of those instances which are becoming increasingly numerous in recent years, where the openly accredited representatives of a government have no real authority to negotiate.
Personally I would rather not be an embassy hostage in such circumstances. So Chap one sets out under several false names, and sleuths A-t. set out to capture him on behalf of the British Government. and all the other powerful monied interests.
Chap One fails to travel far because he is shipwrecked on the coast of Labrador, and Chap two — a bewildered innocent, is mistaken for him by all concerned because by chance he had booked the cabin vacated by ('hap one when Chap one decided to travel on another ship, the illfated one.
It is complicated, but the ritual espionage complications are only the dressing for Be!toe's thesis that national loyalties are always corrupted by international finance and the pinnacles of power are always held by these most divorced from the interests of the electorate.
Apart from the analogies with the present oil crisis, Belloc's British Government is run by a woman Prime Minister with a woman minister for foreign affairs — Lady Caroline Balcombe. She is the power behind No. Ten, One of those women of whom it is felt that they occupy naturally and inevitably a certain place in politics.'
One might not want to say this of Mrs Thatcher, but perhaps Shirley Williams will find her appropriate portfolio in a future Labour governement.
The fun Belloc has with the idea of females (they were not yet fully enfranchised when he was writing) does not detract from the corrupt power which with he imbues them.
It is not until the very last chapter that Chap one is released from Labrador back into the plot and Chap two released from the burden of a mistaken identity he has never understood having been pursued all over the country and to France in a chase reminiscent of Hannay's in The 39 Steps.
Satirical projection of his present into the future is truer to our present than Orwell or Aldous Huxley, though he lacks their ability to shock.
DURING this summer, which has been such an enemy to crops. cricket and holidaymakers, I have sometimes reflected on these lines from Richard Wilbur's poem My Father Paints the SIMMIer: Caught summer is always an imagined time.
Time gave ii, yes, but time out of any mind.
There must be prime In the heart to beget that season, to reaeh past rain and find Riding the ,palest days
Its perfect blaze. That is one way to deal with it, to retreat into a summer of the mind. Some of the saints employed more direct forms of action. One was an obscure Scottish saint, obscure that is outside the diocese of Aberdeen.
He was Saint Nathalan, and I came across his traces in a small and charming Animal Park at Monaltrie, near Balmoral. After a summer, grim even for Scotland, he was provoked by a threatened loss of the harvest in a land already suffering from famine to curse God. The effect was dramatic.
The clouds broke, the sun shone, and there was, after all, a record harvest, But of course, being a saint, he began to have second thoughts about the end justifying the means and all that. So, filled with remorse, he shackled his right arm and leg together, threw the key into the River Dee, and, thus handicapped, set off to walk to Rome.
He eventually arrived and went to pray at the shrine of St Peter. Afterwards he bought a fish for his supper from a small boy in the street, lo and behold. on cutting it open. he found inside the key to his chains.
That's the legend. More prosaically Butler adds that the Roman authorities were so impressed by his piety that they made him a bishop and kept him in the city for many years.
I'm glad to say that he finally got home to Scotland where he built a number of churches. In the Animal Park is a brimming well, dedicated to his memory, and an effigy of this seventh century saint.
His features have been worn smooth by time but his halo is still quite distinct — a sermon in stone if ever there was. Alas, the Scottish weather has not changed much and I often tempted to imitate Saint Nathalan's less exemplary behaviour as I peered through curtains of rain for a glimpse of distant peaks and heathery hillsides.
The horror and pity
FOR THE past few Sundays I have been glued to the television set watching, under the spell of pity and horror, the unfolding of Vera Brittain's autobiography Testament of Youth.
I can add nothing to the hundreds of superlatives deservedly heaped upon it. It's yet another literary — and in this case televisual — masterpiece to add to the astonishing progeny of the Great War. The worst of all wars inspired much of the best writing in this century from masses of marvellous poetry of which the chiefest were probably the poems of Wilfred Owen through reflective narratives like Robert Graves Goodbye-to all That to mystical prose poems like David Jones' In Parenthesis. The list is almost endless.
A passing mention of the Jesuit padre who attended at the death of Roland Leighton reminded me of SOMC less well-known accounts by chaplains who served in the war, men very free of the gong-ho piety which modern dramatists love to caricature.
There was the splendid March Kind Comrade written by Fr R J M Steuart, full of unsentimental compassion for the simplicity and suffering of the men in the frontline, and containing a moving account of the final days of a young soldier executed as a deserter.
In a lighter vein is Fr Arthur Day's Memoirs of a Cavalry Chaplain. In Mesopotamia, when all the officers about him were killed, Fr Day once led a cavalry charge, unarmed but blowing a hunting horn; no doubt reprehensible and against King's Regulations but still pretty spirited.
He also tells how a parcel of foreign decorations were sent to his unit. When the commanding officer opened it he passed the medals round the occupants of the dug-out which served as a temporary mess.
Father Day chose a dramatic looking ribbon and found he had awarded himself the White Eagle of Serbia. Well, that was his story. Mesopotamia Messpots as he called it — was also the scene of an odd experience suffered by Fr Wellesley Colley, yet another distinguished Jesuit chaplain.
Getting back to his camp late one night he got hopelessly lost in the dark. Eventually he nearly broke his neck falling into a deep hole in the ground, and decided ' there was nothing for it but to curl up at the bottom and go to sleep. He was awakened by the sound of hymn singing, and, standing up. found himself in a grave with a dawn funeral procession heading straight for him.
As he said, he was not sure whether he or the mourners were -the most put out. Many of these wartime chaplains were by any standards tremendous men. and their example had a lot to do with the fading of the anti-Catholic prejudice still fashionable before the Great War.
Dies a nation as the hand moves
HISTORIANS today look upon the Great War as the war which nobody wanted. a bad accident due to misunderstandings and lack of foresight among the political leaders of the day. I sometimes wonder whether historians of the future, if and when they pass judgement on our own age, will not see our attitude towards Third World poverty and the trouble now brewing because of it, in much the same light; the Great War of the last quarter of the twentieth century, a calamity which could have been avoided with a little more foresight, a little less nationalistic fervour, and a little more willingness to compromise. In the time it has taken to write this column more than a thousand people will have died of hunger. Getting on for onequarter of the human race is now suffering from malnutrition. In many countries unemployment is four or five times greater than our own.
Every single comparative statistic between the rich and poor nations, and concerned with the basic needs of existence — nutrition, life expectancy, infant mortality, health care, jobs and education is a rending shock. Yet the richer governments, including our own, still virtually ignore the dreadful daily casualty lists, and treat the greatest problem of the day as if it were a bit of stained wallpaper which they might get round to replacing when there happens to be some extra money to spare.
Far from being at the end of the action list I believe it should be right at the top. And that all the attempts to tackle our national problems of inflation, unemployment, re-structuring of industry, and the profligate waste of natural resources, while ignoring the human waste in other parts of the world, will prove as futile as trying to weed a small garden in the the centre of a howling wilderness.
A new deal between the rich and poor nations is not the possible aftermath of more stable prosperity for ourselves, but the key to it.
Politicians traditionally think that what is high minded will not work. But if ever there was an issue where moral duty, plain commonsense and self interest all pointed in the same direction, then the plight of the Third World is it.
To bring home the scale of the present and impending disaster might offer the common cause, stimulate the spiritual revival, and set the economy on the sounder footing, for which different constituencies continually appeal. Only the Church seems at the present time to be making the connections, and at least on this issue it is wiser in its generation than the secular politicians.
Might is but a deadly Right
NONE of that would make much sense to the American Right, whose re-emergence so soon after Watergate I view with foreboding.
The ingredients which nourish it, unbridled capitalism, chestbeating militarism and ,fundamentalist religion, inspire attitudes of mind and statements of policy which make our own Monday Club look like the Boys Brigade.
Political analysts have often drawn attention to the way in which American conservatives of the more extreme sort justify the power of money and the gun as virtous in the sight of thc Lord; in the modern patois, JR plus JC, so to speak.
But not all the millionaires are Protestant Bible thumpers. There is a Catholic variant of the species as well. Not long after Vatican II some of these folk, equally rich, aggressive and bustling, started systematically to buy up Catholic periodicals, both popular and specialist, to counter what were regarded as dangerously reformist ideas, less, I imagine, for love of pure doctrine that from fear that the right to private property might be eroded.
Some years ago, while I was in Rome. one of these potentates heralded his arrival and sent the secretaries of dozens of institutes and commissions scurrying to dust off their files on good causes stagnating for lack of funds.
When he arrived he made it crystal clears that all he was interested in was devotion to the Sacred Heart.
Within twenty-four hours all the applications for funds were hastily emended: World Justice and the Sacred Heart: Migrants and the Sacred Heart; Liturgical Reform and the Sacred Heart; Nuclear Disarmament and the Sacred Heart; Catholic High Schools and the Sacred Heart.
It was all of no Use. The millionaire's own heart was as flint, and his coffers opened only to those who had pictures or pamphlets of the Sacred Heart to put on the market. I hope it is not too unkind to think that this kind of conservative sees religion less in terms of faith than as a form of social control, a moat defensive of The Bank. It's deeper flaw is to equate material success with divine favour — not quite the message of the Gospel.
Anyway, I keep my fingers crossed that over the next few weeks it will over-reach itself and we will all be spared an Age of "Reaganorance" .
Beneath the fayre a fierce Faith
RELIGIOUS conservatism was set in a calmer light by the His. hop of Oxford when he came to preach recently at the 800th anniversary celebrations of our village church.
There were, of course, secular celebrations as well, a street fair with the stallholders dressed in a riotous assortment of mediaeval costume, a Pied Piper and a Punch and Judy show, donkey rides. exhibitions of ancient crafts. and a display of photographs and artefacts depicting the village life as it used to be.
Every night for a week the great Church of St Peter was floodlit, and during the day the parish treasures, deeds and registers were on view.
But the high point was undoubtedly the Solemn Eucharist concelebrated by the Bishop with clergy who included the present Vicar and his son, as well as those previous Vicars who are still alive. The Bishop heroically resisted the temptation to wallow in nostalgia and sentiment.
' Instead he preached a sermon of positively Knoxian elegance and subtlety (Ronald's, I mean, not John's) about selective conservation of old traditions and the need to relish new ways in which the ancient faith can be expressed.
For the fine array of local Papists who has come to share the rejoicing and to swell the congregation, there was plenty of visual evidence, some sad, some heartening, to add point to his words.
All about were the gravestones of countrymen buried under different rites, and plain windows once brilliant with stained glass. But their own presence was a testament to a better sort of change, and before their eyes a liturgy so similar to their own that one needed to be wide awake to spot the differences.
There were Americans and White Russians and Germans and West Indians to express the Church's extension geographically and in a wide variety of cultures; the deeply worn doorstep to express its extension in time and the continuity of our own culture; and statues of the saints expressing the Church's extension beyond time.
It came as a shock suddenly to think of all the events crowded into the eight hundred years of the church's history, all the changes, successes and failures it had witnessed, and then to realise that when it was built Christianity had existed and survived for over a thousand years and the country had survived Roman settlers, AngloSaxon and Viking invasions, and the Norman conquest — an even longer period of perhaps even more turbulent history.
The faith in Christ which built the village church is awesomely tenacious, and still younger and fresher than its weathered stones.