Ronald Knox and the grandeurs of an English garden
THERE is one lawn in England that sums up our dream of ourselves. On one side there is an old manor house, gabled, with many windows, of the sort of haphazard, organic design that is more intimately pleasing than supreme works of architecture. It sits among a curious set of walled gardens and the walls are ancient and walls can be architecture, too.
So you can walk from compartment to compartment enjoying a garden in the English fashion. It is not in the Italian mode where there are great terraces from which to survey the picturesque abodes of the lower classes. Nor is it in the French manner with vast formal parks cut off from the reality and other beauty of the world.
This place is like the real London. Its splendours are all surprises. Its prides are secret. It is a place of enclosed squares. It is private, almost secret, as are London's squares and mews. The grandeurs are muted — and the vast Regency Palaces around Regents Park were all houses for the worthy nouveau riche. The house, Melts Manor, used to belong to the Abbot of Glastonbury. His last steward, Thomas Horner, bought it from that brilliant Henry and royal politican who had every political disease to which the Body Politik is heir. It is a healthy sign in England that he is now despised and hated by all manner of folk, despite his undoubted common touch.
But this unostentatious house, protected among its open boxes, is a Catholic house. I went there to Mass last week. They have a chapel in one of their open boxes. The guide book calls it a "bothy''. It is a lean-to against one of their noble walls.
It was hardly a mass occasion. The Abbot of Glastonbury, Dom Aelred Watkin, OSB, who is Mayor of Beckles, said Mass. The Earl of Oxford served. His Countess knelt bent over a bench made of oak. It was in Latin — and I did not know the responses any more.
I cannot repeat the Confiteor in the new version in Latin. Julian Oxford bravely and obviously knowledgably said the "For thine is the glory" in Latin: very quietly in a small chapel that gets crammed to the gills on a Sunday: beautiful, "Crouchback", daunting, full of love, combining elegance with austerity, privileged, small with a slightly persecuted air, a rare sort of place, the sort that compels prayer.
The house if full of the fragments of the more rejected parts of English history. As I have said, it used to be the manor of the Abbot of Glastonbury and there are signs still of the fact that he lived there.
Thomas Horner, who svas his steward and bought it, sat on the jury that condemned him to death. This Richard Whiting was hanged on the top of the Tor with a splendid view of his own and most sacred and magical monastery in the whole of Europe.
But, above all else in this place, there is a tower that rises intimately over the bottom of the garden. This is one of those Somerset towers. It is of a splendour and richness that beggars rationality.
There it stands on the other side of one of these old walls, more rich than the tower of Magdalen in Oxford which is usually regarded as the greatest of all Gothic towers, almost absurd in its rural grandeur. The windows are of stone and each pinnacle on each corner of its tower is crowned with a metal flag that seems to stream in the wind even on the stillest day of the year.
Inside there is a side chapel dedicated to the mourning for the brilliant young mcn who died almost casually in the First World War. They went out there, the young officers, expecting nothing but death in the first few weeks. This is the most poignant of all their memorials in the world. It is very nearly intolerable.
In one side chapel there is an equestrian statue of a I forner. On a wall there is an inscription for an Asquith. All of these were done by major artists. Alas, some of the impedimenta of the swords and helmets and the sad things that accompany death in war have had
to be taken away because there are people that steal such things. Even a piece of heraldic sculpture on the end of a monument has been knocked off for a souvenir of some doubtless delightful outing.
Faith like glass
TI IF OCCASION for going to Mells was the anniversary of the death of Mgr Ronald Knox. He was a rare a person as any artist. Some great and holy men have a faith made of bronze. This is a splendid material. It is expensive, hard to scratch and quite impossible to batter into pieces with human hands. There is a three-ply or hard board sort of faith that can cover a man for his life. be adequate for all but the most terrible storms or be thrown away as rubbish. There is another sort of faith, as delicate and dangerous as Venetian glass. Ronnie Knox had this sort.
He was the son of sound clerical stock. Indeed, his father was Bishop of Manchester. He went to Eton, where he endured one of those puberties of gilded and innocent joy and success that tended to make the rest of life a bit of a drag — except for his pursuing, uncomforting, demanding, intellectual, fastidious and absolute God.
For at Mells Ronnie is buried under a long stone upon whch Evelyn Waugh wrote in one of his wordier moments. It is a place of utter loveliness and if it matters where you arc buried, in the ruins of your house, in a public cemetery beside a gasometer, in a high tomb before a great altar, in a bulldozed ditch with gipsies and homosexuals and liberals and priests and rabbis, it matters little.
But Ronnie, who spent his last muted ten years at Melts, is buried, not in splendour, but in love. Near him are the families that encrusted the place. There is the grave of Christopher Hollis, that abrasive Catholic, and Siegfried Sassoon, that most private convert. Catholics and non-Catholics from the Ammerdown "Study Centre" Caine to pray at Ronnie's grave-side. Ammerdown is one of those Centres of intensive Christian study that arc becoming the explosive cells of the new sort of very demanding Christianity.
Naturally it pelted with rain. We walked into the church singing a Latin hymn. There was a brief service in the Anglican church without any sort of grief or sentimentality. Both of those would have been abhorrent to Ronnie.
Then, out into the gentle. beautiful, English rain, we walked, about thirty of us, with a cross. and stood around Ronnie's grave and there we sang the Salve Regina. Then we went away.
It is now not of the slightest importance what Ronnie would have liked. But there is a story about him which is wholly untrue. Though his Latin was adequate, his French was appalling. And he is incessantly reported as having heard a confession in French and at the end, after a long pause, saying "Oh — vous avez, aver vousr Untrue stories fit people curiously and cling to them. There was something of Ronnie's gentleness and awkwardness in this occasion. Charterhouse loved it and Ronnie did not need his prayers.
SOME time ago, when the Queen visited the Flower Festival in Westminster Cathedral, I wrote of the despair of a clearly nonCatholic photographer who asked where the "toilets" were. Feeling like the officer who delivers the coupe de grace after a bungled execution, I told him that the nearest I could think of were on Victoria Station.
Now probably a majority of English Catholics will visit this gorgeous place in the course of their lives and my error has provoked a charming correspondence, the distillation of which I feel it is my public and private duty to pass on to possible distressed pilgrims. One severely functual letter was from a lady who did not seem to like the new artistic and popular uses to which the Cathedral is being put. However, she clearly knows the place more intimately than I.
She wrote: "For your future information and any others in the vicinity who can't he expected to know anyway, there are at least
three men's and ladies' rooms within a stone's throw.
I. across the piazza outside Boots and GPO — Westminster Council loos (down the steps) 2. The Conference Centre is usually open. (This is the semiunderground construction on the right of the Cathedral's facade as you face it.) 3. McDonalds on the Maim (downstairs). A cup of good coffee should be bought on the way out as a thanks offering." Now there's research for you!
Another gentleman wrote with some charming but dangerous advice: "Re your report on the Gents' at Westminster Cathedral, there are two provided in the outer sacristy. The mode of entry 60 years ago when I was a boy was to ring the bell marked 'Confessions" (press button) and gain entry by an appeal to the sacristan's' charity.
"Some people used to make the mistake of pulling the adjacent bell-rope. This was an embarrassing mistake as it Was meant to alert the public to the imminence of a service."
(Charterhouse severely warns against such bravado and in his experience sacristans have little charity to spare when they have a sacristy full of ill-behaved altar boys and clergy fussing about the sit of their albs.) And while we are on the subject. I remember before the war dining at Campion. Hall in Oxford when Father D'Arcy was Master. I he guest of honour was Sir Edwin Lutyens who had designed a colossal and wonderful cathedral for Liverpool of which only the crypt — one of the wonders of the North still — was ever completed.
His great domed masterpiece was to have loos within the thickness of its walls. This was a revolutionary innovation at the time.
His idea was that at the first blessing of the building the Pope, far away in Rome, should press a jewelled button and all the loos, by remote control, would flush.
More than that, at one of the rehearsals for the coronation of King George VI, Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury, whom I loved for his wit and honesty, worried about the noise the loos might make during the long service, They had been specially installed under, I think, the raised seating in the transcepts — Peers and Peeresses for the use of.
So at one moment in the solemnities of the rehearsal he ordered that they all be pulled simultaneously. Apparently they were reasonably inaudible. But Time Magazine published a photograph of the Archbishop and under it they set the immortal caption: "He called a Royal Flush".
That's enough about that — for the time being.