Stuart Reid Charterhouse
hat do we think of Christopher Jamison, the former abbot of Worth Abbey? We think he’s a good egg, don’t we, even if he is not exactly hard-boiled. The BBC documentary series The Monastery made him a star and now he is to feature in a new BBC Television series, The Big Silence, in which five busy worldlings – only one of whom has religious beliefs – learn to be silent under Fr Jamison’s tutelage at Worth, and later at a Jesuit retreat house in Wales. The series of three programmes begins this Friday (October 22). If you are not taking part in a pub quiz, or saying a novena, you might think of switching on BBC Two at seven o’clock and taking a peek. If you are reading this at the weekend, you should be able to catch up with The Big Silence on the internet.
Personally, I found The Monastery a bit touchyfeely, but was nevertheless moved and impressed by it. I was even more impressed, though, by Fr Jamison’s later public outings, and most especially by his denunciation of the Disney empire in his book Finding Happiness. A visit to Disneyland, he wrote, “is the new pilgrimage that children desire, a rite of passage into the meaning of life according to Disney. Where once morality and meaning were available as part of our free cultural inheritance, now corporations sell them to us as products”.
Pilgrimage is the word, but there is great sadness in some of these young pilgrims. About 15 years ago I went to Disney World – basically the same thing as Disneyland, but in Florida rather than California – with my youngest son, who was then 10 or 11. I like funfairs and the rides at Disney World were very good, and everything was clean and orderly and well-managed: there was no chance of picking up viral hepatitis in the restrooms. But the thing I’ll never forget is sitting on a shuttle bus from the car park and seeing a boy of my son’s age in a wheelchair. He was sallow and thin, and obviously dying, and his parents seemed hopeless, bewildered.
The boy looked at my son, who was in the peak of health, and his look pierced my heart. It was a shy, it was wistful and – this is the thing that will never leave me – it was envious. The boy sensed he was dying, as it seemed to me, and was frightened. He wanted life, but life was to be denied him. Now he was at this secular Lourdes. He was there because his parents loved him. They wanted, quite rightly, to give him a final treat. It was the best they could do. But there was nothing for him there; certainly there was no hope.
Or am I overdramatising a rather banal memory, investing it with meaning that was not there? Could be. All the same, that frightened, sad, sallow face... Avery agreeable thing happened to me in the basement of St Mary Moorfields in the City of London last week. I met the family rights campaigner Lynette Burrows for the first time. Lynette and I go back 20 years, to the days when she wrote for the Sunday Telegraph comment pages and I looked after the comment desk. Until last week, however, our occasionally edgy relationship had been confined to the telephone. Maybe I was not always agreeable when we spoke; maybe she was sometimes a bit sharp. Whatever the case, I had always imagined her as a strong woman – which she is – but as a bit of a prude, too. She is not in the least prudish, however. She is lots of fun.
The Sunday Telegraph comment section in those days was edited by Peregrine Worsthorne and known as “Worsthorne College”. Not surprisingly it was the last refuge of unfashionable ideas (actually, it was very often the first, the only refuge), and Lynette Burrows had a pretty good stock of unfashionable ideas. When Thelma and Louise was released to almost universal praise in 1991 she did a piece for us saying that it was vile feminist propaganda. (Perry later told me he thought the film was “rather sweet”.) But no one sought to prosecute her for crimes against the sisterhood. Five years ago, however, she overstepped the mark when she said on a BBC Radio 5 discussion programme that homosexual couples should not be allowed to adopt children. On that occasion she was contacted by the police, who said a “homophobic incident” had been reported to them.
When we met last week (at a gathering of perhaps rather conservative Catholics) she laughed about her brush with the law. It had not troubled her in the least. “I mean, what could the police do?” she said. She is certainly no Victim Catholic, and is quite relaxed about the perceived anti-Catholic bias of the BBC. The BBC itself was not the problem, she told me, and it was, in fact, sometimes a source of spiritual nourishment. The problem was Oxbridge. The BBC had a habit of hiring intelligent people from the two great universities, and everything that was bad about the corporation – including its apparent hostility to Catholicism – stemmed from that.
“These people have been taught from the age of five that intelligence is all that matters,” said Lynette. “They have no emotional understanding, no broad fellow-feeling, no spirituality; just intelligence. What’s the use of all this intelligence? If they are so bloody clever, why are we still in such a mess?” Quite. Intelligence is not all it is cracked up to be. This is not just a dullard’s prejudice. Some of my best friends are intelligent. They write leading articles and “think pieces” about the many problems confronting the nation, and the world, and they express themselves with grace, wit and logic; but the mess remains.
There are very clever people in politics, too, whose policies are eminently reasonable; but the mess remains. David Willetts, Minister of State for the Universities and Science, is so intelligent that he is known as “Two Brains”. What have his two brains ever done to clean up the mess?
It is no coincidence that we were led into war in 2003 by what is known as Intelligence.