Lord Longford has at various stages in his long life in the public eye suffered from attacks on his personality and his unusual style from those who find his Christian concern too hard to palate. Prison reform, pornography, the fate of those our capitalist culture deems failures are all topics that shock, that only occasionally shake us out of our cosy complacency. By forcefully dealing with these issues, Lord Longford has invited the ridicule of those who prefer not to know.
Some would regard him as as saint, and so it is interesting that his forthcoming book is devoted to just that topic, Saints.
There is no false modesty here for Frank Longford would laugh at the idea of himself as a saint. But in the book he does reveal once again a capacity to provide an overview of a subject that is rather intangible. Sure, we can all name our best loved saints, and even a few details of their lives, but how often do we pause to consider when we read of a forthcoming beatification or canonisation what it takes to make a saint?
Those qualities he attempts to unravel with accounts of the early martyrs and their descendants through the ages Thomas More, Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales and so on.
Although feeling a certain affinity with St John Bosco since he was my confirmation saint (I actually wanted St Winifred but they told me to be serious), I have to admit that the twentieth century saints interest me more. Because of the way our church works, we have to wait an interminable amount of time for the canonisation process to trundle toward its conclusion.
Surely there is a case for men such as Oscar Romero, martyrs in short, to be canonised rapidly as a mark of the Church's determination that those who dare to speak out for the voiceless will not therefore make themselves targets for those they expose. The Vatican could give them a form of protection be it only token.
Oscar Romero is one of those Lord Longford profiles. He feels that eventually his time will come.
Ugandan Archbishop Luwum was killed by Idi Amin in the late 1970s. As an Anglican he cannot be a candidate for canonisation. But why not asks Lord Longford? Having examined the nature of sainthood, he can find no reason why its status should not be conferred outside the narrow confines of the Church.
Saints is published by Hutchinson on November 26, price £12.95.
Time for forgiveness
ONE of Frank Longford's most provocative stances hass been to urge that Myra Hindley be released. His campaign may have been counterproductive, he will now accept. By associating his name with hers, he has kept her in the public gaze, and hence subject to the malign influence of the tabloid press. Yet if we pause unemotionally to consider his case, it is a clear and logical one.
When her case came up for review two years ago, a local parole board, having considered all the evidence from experts who had treated Myra Hindley during her 20 years in prison, decided that she had been punished enough. They recommended that she be released. Their decision was in line with the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittain's ruling that the primary grounds for judging suitability for parole should be whether that person was still a danger to society.
When the case came before the National Parole Board, they dismissed it after a cursory glance. Why? Because it was politically unacceptable for Leon Brittain to release her. And why was it politically unacceptable?
Because the tabloid press (and the Times) had whipped their
readerships up into such a frenzy of hate. One rag has a note on Myra Hindley's clipping file ordering that every reference to her be prefaced with the word "evil".
Anyone who last week read Myra Hindley's letter to the mother of one of her victims, a
private letter incidentally which the Daily Mirror chose to
publish, will have seen her remorse, her continuing agony and self-hatred for what she did, and her acceptance of the fact that she will spend the rest of her life in prison.
In such circumstances, the least we can now do is leave her be. What more does the public want out of this woman?
I am too young to remember her crimes, and would never want to belittle them in any way, but feel that it is time for at least the hatred to stop. We claim to be a Christian society, can we not forgive this woman as we have forgiven others?
And if our parole system is not to be at the mercy of the popular press, perhaps at some stage in the future there will come a time when Myra Hindley's case can be reviewed and she may be released.
TO express such sentiments about Myra Hindley is a guaranteed spanner in the works on any dinner conversation. And I suspect, having been drawn unwillingly into stating the case on too many occasions, a very good reason not to invite me again.
Thankfully I didn't have a moment to add this to my list of faux pas when invited to a masonic ladies' night recently. When pressed into accompanying a partner-less friend, I had conjured up notions of butchers' aprons, funny handshakes and a generally conspiratorial air of a "secret society" rather like Opus Dei.
Sadly, as per usual in fact, such colourful notions were not borne out by the realities. The masons were resolutely down-to-earth folk, interested more in their common ground of the motor trade or small businesses than obscure rituals.
There were a few strange moments — one too many toasts to the Queen as part of a mistaken affectation of grandeur that belied the rather earthy feel of a brotherhood in the air; an overwhelming sexism that relegated the women present to the role of "the wife" or worse still "my other half"; and one too many jokes when I felt more relaxed about the aprons masons take it all very seriously..
I don't anticipate another invitation.
Down the 'stow
I HAD half expected to recognise a few of the faces from the ladies' night when I went down the 'stow — Walthamstow Dog Track. This is one little corner of the East End of London that the predatory Yuppies have yet to penetrate. The Porsches outside belonged to the Bookies not the brokers, while the flashing figures on a computerised screen were the latest odds for the kind of forecast (first and second dogs) that had little to do with sliding shares.
With its homely charm and family atmosphere, Walthamstow Dog Track is a kind of national institution. Beneath its neon sign and stonecladded walls, there is something of the community feel that has been destroyed in the East End as in other inner cities by outsiders like me moving in and attempting to change the character of the place, consciously or not.
DOTTED around the shores of this country are numerous small islands, many of them with religious connections. There is something about being on an island that must make man more open or willing to listen to things other than earthly concerns.
Burgh Island, off the South Devon coast, is just such a location. Originally a holy place with a monastery that stood on its summit facing out to the Atlantic, it has recently taken on a whole new lease of life.
In 1927, Burgh Island fell into the hands of Archibald Nettleford, a wealthy industrialist and theatre impresario. He commissioned a seaside retreat in the Art Deco style of the times to entertain his "jet set" friends — Agatha Christie (who wrote Evil Under the Sun on Burgh Island), Noel Coward, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. His guests were serenaded by Harry Roy and the Mayfair Four who rowed out to the diving raft in the centre of the Mermaid Pool — a natural rock
pool on the island — and played. Quite a feat to keep the instruments dry!
Sadly, the island and its temple of art deco fell into disrepair until 1985 when Beatrice and Tony Porter beat off the challenge of a snooker federation, nudists, and pop stars to buy the place at auction.
They found the Mermaid Pool wrecked, the stained glass Peacock Dome broken and ready to tumble in, and any original furniture weather-beaten.
Sleeping in their overcoats for a whole winter, they have worked furiously to restore the splendours of this wonderful place, reached at high tide on my visit, by a sea tractor. Now in addition to art deco ballrooms, bars and dining rooms, the Burgh Island hotel offers 13 suites and a haven of peace. You can contact the Porters at Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea, South Devon, TQ7 4AU.
• PLAYING GOD . . . it is interesting to see that the new editor of the Universe, our most friendly of rivals, is a man of such a range of expertise. Not only does he manage to review all six books on their Bookshelf page last week, he also fills two full pages on Brazilian slums and Vatican finances.