Page 12, 17th March 1978

17th March 1978
Page 12
Page 12, 17th March 1978 — A man set alight by ideas

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Locations: Rome, London, Winchester, Oxford


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A man set alight by ideas

Keywords: Charles Darwin

IT WOULD BE HARD to think of a more satisfactory life than that of Douglas Woodruff. He died full of years, recognised and admired, able to command a multitude of friends.

I suppose he was, of Englishspeaking laymen, the best known for his committed Catholicism. It is no disrespect to say that he conferred an ex tra dignity and prestige upon the institution of the Church in Britain.

No one dared to patronise Douglas Woodruff. No one

thought his views absurd or of a merely romantic.. interest. Even the most arrogantly learned contradicted him with care and civility.

. He never sought controversy. He radiated a natural authority even when the occasion was reasonably frivolous.

Wherever he sat, even though there might he a bishop or two offering purple competi tion M the same room, even though there was one of Her Majesty's judges or a head of an Oxford college, a writer of exquisite eminence, young priests of a post-Conciliar impatience, journalists with all the answers, sonie of the more intellectually acceptable peers, men who had done well in the City or women of uncommon beauty, he was always the centre of the room.

He had. to begin with, an unfair advantage. He was portly

without being gross. He had a massive quietly commanding face and his hair misbehaved in picturesque tufts and swathes.

His eyes were tired and humorous. His mouth seemed always at the ready to laugh and to ask a question or to set some rare fact or apposite anecdote precisely into its proper place in the talk.

For so prodigious a worker and reader, he got about a great deal. Countless Catholics will remember his progress up the aisles of cathedrals and churches and halls to attend a ceremony, to pray at the Requiem of a friend. to lecture.

Encased in a ponderous overcoat and leaning on a thick blackthorn walking stick which had been given him by an Irish bishop, imperceptively steered towards the right place by his wife who did not chivvy or chase him but kept her independence and left him his, he came up the aisle like a galleon up an estuary.

His eyes were failing him, but he recognised friends by their voices. And he loved these ceremonious occasions and travelled miles, his wife at the wheel, to be there.

The last time l saw him was at Bishop Murphy-O'Connor's consecration in Arundel Cathedral, But that time he sat at the back with his wife and let Catholic England wash around him. That was not long ago.

Then there was his wit. He was a master of the special art of after-dinner speaking which is done at a time when wisdom and learning must be richly clothed in wit or else die of cold.

In his time, he had no superior. His talk was genial and precisely turned. If he told a funny story, it was not a mere fiction, but a thing about perhaps Gladstone or Cardinal Consalvi.

His formal obituaries have appeared elsewhere. Those are the guns fired to salute the dead. This is less consequential. He was brought into the Church at 13, went first to the Benedictines at Ramsgate and then to Downside. That place taught him, I think, to accept the Church as so natural and civilised a part of life, as a sort of embellishment to his civilisation. It also sank some pretty solid foundations for his faith.

But Oxford gilded him. It was one of those glittering experiences that strike those who deserve them. His friends became the confidential successes which used to animate power in England; they became important men or interesting scoundrels or ostensible failures of the nicest or funniest sort. But they learnt style, and they learnt how to talk in the frivolous glare of the Oxford Union and what to say and how to write in the privacy of libraries and untidy rooms.

Joy in living, and wine

But if Douglas Woodruff could talk, and cultivate his friends and relish life with the sort of joy in living and wine and learning and friends and privileged gossip that we used to associate with English Catholicism, he could also withdraw and study.

And for this he had the necessary attributes of an historian. He had the application of an anchorite. And he had a prodigious memory.

He could lecture about King Alfred, for example, and sit leaning on his stick on the altar steps of an ancient parish church in Alfred's own city of Winchester and talk about Alfred's brothers who had been kings, the cousinage, t he alliance of princes with curiously hairy names and sit there, like a blind sage entrancing a court with ancestral facts through which he threaded his quiet wit and disciplined art.

But of course all this required reading. fle had another gift which helped. He had a knowledge of love of rare and worthwhile (not the same thing) books. So he would pore over booksellers' catalogues and buy often more than he could afford.

He would receive a vast number of books to review, and it is the reviewer's right to keep such books. At his home near Abingdon he had a 15th century domestic wing left standing free from what had been a cell or dependent priory of the great Abbey of Abingdon.

This block of plain rooms with thick walls and small windows and fireplaces like church doors, he turned into a library. There were Edwardian stables, and they too were heaped with books. Ile knew where to find a book he wanted. He loved them. He read them. He remembered them.

His eyes failed him and it seemed as unfair as the failure of a composer's hearing. He did not complain. He rather dangerously pretended there was nothing wrong. He could read, but painfully, with the book close to his eye and then even that became too much.

I remember having stayed with him not so long ago and coming to say goodbye in the morning. He was lying in bed listening to a "talking book" reciting Milton's "Paradise I.ost" — and doing it rather badly we both thought.

He had in fact just completed a book about Milton when he died. He would use this invaluable and state-provided machine which has now a rich variety of hooks on spools for the blind, or he would listen to his wife reading.

They would do this with a matter-of-faet patience far into the night, when guests were asleep in his house or they had gone upstairs in someone else's.

It was a rare partnership. They each commanded a half of their common life.

Indeed, it was a rare sort of life. It was the sort that a civilised man might choose. It was certainly brave, it was almost an adventure. He launched himself with his talents into journalism when politics or the professions would have been more proper. He was never fit enough for soldiering.

He managed to avoid the Grub Street part of journalism. He worked on The Times. He invented the Fourth Leader, which is now gone but used to be a daily and most difficult exercise in urbane wit.

He wrote leaders and concocted policy at a time when The Times had the power and prestige of a disinterested Department of State. He edited The Tablet and made it required reading in international affairs.

Ile wrote a great deal about the Empire in days when honourable men regarded it as a cause for responsible concern rather than as a field for easy investment and cheap labour. He wrote civilised, political books. He wrote a life of Charlemagne. He wrote "The Tichborne Claimant," which is a monument to sustained and original research.

Presents like tribute

Remember, then, a man neither of a Johnsonian disarray nor of a military neatness, ensconced in a high backed chair, perhaps with a glass of sherry, as avid in the talk as a man wrapt in music.

He has emerged from his study. He relaxes into a different sort of intensity. His whole house is crowded with the evidence of a full and unusual life. There are portraits from his wife's family.

There are presents that were offered like tribute, There is a sculptured head of him and a painted portrait. There are signed photographs of Popes, and there used to be his papal Knight's Grand Cross of the Order of St Gregory until some sneak-thief stole it.

There are objects that proclaim their Catholicism and a dining-room made for hospitality. A room in the library block is a chapel. It is

undramatic and still has altar cards on its top. The stream of visiting priests use the Latin, though not the Tridentine form, for preference.

It was a joyous and exciting house. It was comfortable and ii was seldom empty, and I never could tell how the two of

them got so much done. For there was never any strain to be seen there and children tended to Lake over,

For, to crown it all with the most pleasing of crowns, he was also an admirable listener and his quiet and breathless voice never talked another down. At least I never heard him do it, though I have heard him sorely provoked.

He was a fortunate man, hut he and his wife made that good fortune by working. He did not grow dull or vague with age. He still dictated a column for The Tablet which was a model of lucidity, a monument to his power of memory and the product of a high Christian civilisation right to the last of them.

If Douglas Woodruff was a journalist, then journalism is capable of grandeur. But I do not think any single word will do for him any more than one only will do for Samuel Johnson or G. K.. Chesterton or Father D'Arcy.

But all this leaves out the essential clement in the man — his faith. He was a committed and learned Catholic and knew his theology and lectured on Aquinas. Indeed, if he had not been so public, so utter a Catholic, he would certainly have been Editor of The Observer, perhaps of The Times. People cared more about such things in those days.

It was not architecture or music or gardens that set him alight, but ideas and the things that ideas made. I le came especially alive in Rome. He knew the rulers of the Church, who treated him with a rare deference. But this was the surface of his Catholicism.

When he was kneeling in church he and his wife seemed both at home and alone, He did not rejoice in the Second Vatican Council. He complained only gently, and never in public. He was wry about Pope John. That an idea was fashionable or not never meant a thing to him.

His widow, Mia, shared his ideas and his faith. They had their separate ways that invariably met. If any can, journalists can pray in print. May he rest in peace.

Open wound in our side

SOME TIME AGO there was a long article by Mr Victor Zorza in The Guardian. It was called "Death of a daughter".

Mr Zorza is a leading Kremlinologist. This pays much better though it is no harder, than Vaticanology. He is not regarded as a stylist and no particular personality comes through his opaque and professional interpretations of what passes for news from the USSR. But this article was different it was an almost proud account of how his daughter died. She had cancer. She stayed at home in the English country until she had to be moved to a "hospice" where her pain could be better controlled.

She was firm in her refusal of any sort of religion; as firm in her denial as any martyr in his affirmation, For me this courage added an extra dimension of desolation to her death.

She did not rail against her early death. There were few tears.

The doctors devoted themselves to keeping her agony at bay and the nurses professionally helped make her death gentle. There was no hint of quiet euthanasia, no charitably-assisted suicide.

The article appeared first in America. It had a powerful impact. and Senator Edward Kennedy has joined a movement to spread such hospices.

But the article has been noticed in this country as was that -shattering and cruelly intrusive Panorama programme on senile dementia in a northern holiday resort to which retired people gravitate in hope.

Suddenly this bad taste thing is being discussed. But there is no effective political pressure from the old, and the dying cast no votes.

Our sort of society is no

longer geared to care for the old within the family. And there is not much chance of anything being done for them on any massive and national scale.

A long time ago, I did a TV programme about a place then starkly called "St Joseph's Hospice for the aged and the Dying." It was in Hackney, in East London. It was a very bad programme about a very good place. The subject so impressed a friend that he enlisted me to get a friend of his in — to die.

This old man had been close to the summit of political power for many years in this country. Yet is was harder to get him admitted than a young soccer hooligan into the MCC. Eventually they found room for him, because TV is a great dooropener and because he had done the State some service.

It was an astonishing place, hut not horrifying, The nurses were nuns and they tended to be Irish, exhausted and calm. When they were too old to work on the wards, they would sit and hold some dying person's hand, all night if necessary.

The doctor was as practical about pain as a dentist about an inessential tooth. He did not think that pain was the proper or even the usual concomitant of death.

But those nuns and the other hospice workers, Christian or not, are working on a great and neglected wound open in the side of our civilisation.

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