By Patrick O'Donovan
DOUGLAS Woodruff came up to Winchester recently and we had the church of St Lawrence ready for him. It s an Anglican church, plain and decent, by the footpath to the Cathedral, and in this church he sat in front of the altar and talked about the city's hero, who is King Alfred.
He does not see well, yet spoke clearly and exactly without notes, with a slightly Edwardian lisp. He dealt with the intricacies of the Wessex royal cousinage, with the names that have grown outlandish over the centuries with the cairn and the confidence of the master of a subject.
He sat massively in his place. He held a blackthorn walking stick which was given to him by an Irish bishop, as if it were a staff of office, His audience from the Cathedral, the school and the town, listened with that hall' smile of pleasure that meant they were being continually surprised.
But I suppose the chief thing about Douglas Woodruff is that he is a Catholic. His mother was a convert but his father's family were of sound clerical, low church evangelical stock from Kent. At the age of 13, he was received into the Church, received its best education and then committed himself to it as his Faith, his study and his love. It is a rare case of a career built upon total commitment. It is strong commitment based upon understanding and an encylopaedic knowledge. He has a memory that serves him as a library. It is a, faculty that is very necessary to historians, Facts sink in but remain available. Facts, gossip, other men's ideas, happenings, the talk of friends, even the dates of the death of princes, innumerable books read and remembered, all serve him so that while seeming to be the most available and gregarious of men, he has produced more than a dozen books. There are also countless articles and leaders. There are speeches that made him one of the best lecturers and after dinner speakers of a generation of great and studied talkers, and there is the corpus of his private talk.
He is restless and likes to go visiting, to the table of a friend watches intently and listens with the hunger of those who are continuously curious about anything that is useful and decent.
People come to hint now like Ambassadors from the world and he sits in a winged-back chair with a glass of sherry and starts them off talking and giving their tribute of news.
"Really?" he says, and it is only occasionally sceptical. He is easily surprised because he would be neither a journalist nor an historian if he were not.
He is restless and likes to go viviting, to the table of a friend or to great occasions in Church and State. His massive figure, looking every inch a Papist, but gentle with it, smiling to friends, must be known in most of the cathedral aisles of the country. He has known "everyone" from Popes downwards. He is a useful patron to the young. His memory is a vast department store for other mentally more lazy writers.
He is also the comfort of many, lay and clerical, who have lost a measure of confidence in the Church, It is true that, to say the least, he has not rejoiced in the changes in the Church nor in the new ways of some of its ministers. But he has not whined about it, nor has it changed his loyalty. He is there, very rock-like, still certain, basing his certainty on a formidable erudition that is fed by that memory.
The Church in this country has had more than its fair share of great writers and scholars. In the past it was very conscious of the moral support they gave to the beliefs of an occasionally neurotic minority.
Such men are deadly rare just now, Douglas Woodruff is in this English tradition of strong, learned, almost impatient belief and his life gives back some of the confidence which the Church here has temporaris ly lost, and, by the goodness of God, it has been a joyous sort of life.
Had he not been a Catholic, he could have had almost anything he wanted. He has not complained. The Catholic Herald is delighted to wish their greatest colleague ad multos annos.