Page 6, 30th May 1986

30th May 1986
Page 6
Page 6, 30th May 1986 — FOR HALF a century, Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward formed
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Organisations: Labor
Locations: Oxford

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FOR HALF a century, Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward formed

Keywords: Frank Sheed

a remarkable Catholic partnership — she a biographer (notably of G IC Chesterton) he a theologian, together as publishers who founded Sheed and Ward and as tireless campaigners for social reform. Their son Wilfrid remembers this extraordinary duo in Frank and Maisie, published this month by Chatto and Windus (price £10). Here we publish an extract.

FIVE years before I'd been surprised at how at home Frank and Maisie felt in America; now I was even more surprised to find them at home in England — a really weird country.

I suppose if you do enough of your living in your head, travel is just an incident. Anyway, cultural differences that shook me like bomb blasts were, to Frank, simply new conventions to be mastered, and to Maisie, fascinating oddities of no particular eternal substance. The very difficult doctrine of the brotherhood of man was almost too easy for them to swallow: being equally at home, and not at home, everywhere. they found a world thinly covered in a rind of inessentials. Language, custom, things like that, nothing to be afraid of. There was nothing "out there," to compete with, or stand up to, the Good News of the Gospel.

For this reason, they were able to dump me with a clear heart, not just into the strange land of England, but into an English Catholic school remote even from the rest of England, and whole oceans and centuries distant from the Roxy or Yankee Stadium. I felt as it I'd moved back into the world of the Wards, somehow gone rancid. I can't say, , with adolescent laziness, that I hated the place; or even, with adult ditto, that .1 didn't understand it. Part of me understood it all too well. I just didn't want it.

You can't grow up in several directions at once. Many refugees emerged from similar wrenchings and twistings with somewhat weak, indeterminate identities as if they's been bent once too often in a greehouse. My horror of Downside, my new Benedictine school, says little about the objective merits of the place (although even other English boys found it spooky) but much about my blind instinct not to be bent again. At first I cried, in sheer confusion, and then I campaigned, and in fact j got out just in time. Because by the end of my second term, I was beginning to like the place.

If I'd stayed, I'd have lost everything I had. English schools were known then to stamp their boys forever, and no school had a more rococo stamp than Downside. To become a recognisable "Old Gregorian" I'd have had to start completely from scratch. And what was bloodcurdling was to realise how easy that might be to do; one's personality might be much more superficial than it felt, a bad paint job. At least, the other foreign boys who'd just been there a few months seemed to be peeling already. Downside in those days featured a sort of world-weary aesthetism: languor, a hint of make-believe homosexuality, a touch of the fop — all the Oxford hand-medowns, grimly wrestled over by less talented schoolboys. It would have been sinfully easy to imitate this imitation.

Of course, the understanding was that beneath our make-up we were rock-ribbed Catholics all, capable of Prodigies of prayer and fasting, and magnificent under fire. We were just making fun of worldliness, because we knew better. Even the monks allowed themselves a piece of this Christian playfulness, for example, our burly housemaster who would dangle a -particular boy on his knee and call him Dolly — which was the boy's universal nickname, but still — in heavily flirtatious tones, until the facetiousness made one's teeth hurt.

These were the Catholic remnants as I found them: snobbish, heavy on Norman names, distantly kind, temperately friendly; pointless. They had kept the Faith, but had no place to go with it. Although Catholics had long since crashed public life, and we were mighty

ground of our one cabinet member (Richard Stokes, Labour), our preferred style faced languidly backward to a time when Catholics lived in eccentric enclaves like this and made their own fun. The explosion that was Newman and the Wards had come and gone, leaving this epicene boys' club behind. We had a vintners' society. Fashionable priests gave little talks. On half-holy days, we visited Wells and Frome cathedrals — the excitement lay in guessing which. Or thrilled to the scrawny ruins of a Roman road in Stratton-on-Fosse. Only a savage or an American could ask for anything more.

It has all been blown away long since. The sixties in their awesome house-to-house sweep had no particular trouble with Downside, which at this writing is debating whether to stop taking girls. England in 1946 was still too drained to try anything it hadn't tried before, so that much of life was fossilised in the manner of Downside: I just happened to catch a particularly fruity specimen of a school.

Luckily for me, Downside proved equally difficult for me to tackle physically. The classrooms seemed to be acres apart, and the normal school

gait was the sprint. So I was always chugging into class on my two canes after the lesson had started. At least once a week, maybe twice, the whole school would fling into military gear and drill with much clatter in the quad. I was allowed to take country walks instead, feeling so far out of it that I was almost ethereal, like a Ward indeed.

But my thoughts were all of America. If my parents had not sent me to this nether extreme, this reductio ad absurdum of Englishness, I might have compromised with the rest, and arrived at some sort of transatlantic mix ahead of my time. Now I wanted the whole American hog. Little did I know that I was simply trapped in a religious museum. I thought all England was like this and I wanted out.

No sooner had I gotten sprung by doctor's orders from the crows who blackened the trees, cawing their black thoughts, and their namesakes the "crows" (our name for the monks) who taught us theirs, than I began lobbying to get out of the country altogether. Talk about rising expectations. My rural rambles in Stratton-on-Fosse had turned me into an American for life.




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