By John Harriott
WHEN Patrick O'Donovan was the Washington correspondent of The Observer I used to read his column even before the cricket reports — the highest tribute one Englishman can pay to another.
Since then, his writing has given me more pleasure than the combined work of any other halfdozen journalists. I remember especially sitting in a train from London to Oxford and reading Patrick's account of Sir Winston Churchill's funeral.
It struck me then — and it still does, for I cut it out and kept it as a now yellowing, souvenir — as far and away the finest description and interpretation of that solemn and memorable event, and I believe that no anthology of modern English prose would be complete without it.
To enter, then, within these columns fills me with awe — while Patrick is on holiday — like entering some venerable cathedral round whose dome are inscribed the words TerribIlls est locus iste. But I shall try not to damage the fabric too much during this temporary tenancy. or lose its administrator his loyal and substantial congregation while he enjoys his holiday.
And talking of cathedrals reminds me of an occasion when I sat alongside Patrick, or as much alongside as was possible in the circumstances, on a Roman carrozzo drawn by a spavined hack which moved along more or less sideways at rather under walking pace.
While the driver tried to resurrect the poor creature, dragged almost to a standstill by the tonnage behind it, Patrick discoursed volubly, and with much extravagant gesture on the glories of baroque architecture, a large quantity of' which could be dimly perceived through the dusk of evening.
The discourse ended when the lecturer rounded on me and growled in a quite different tone: "I feel a bloody fool, up here, don't you?" I did, but it was a small price to pay for so much learning and eloquence.
True story of a miracle
LIKE most common-orgarden Christians I am no great hand at performing miracles. I say to the
mountain "Move" and it refuses to budge.
Rut while on a fishing expedition off the Cornish coast I claim to have performed a miracle so clear and evident that even one of the ancient Cornish saints would have put it in his record book.
Two friends I was staying with were hanging over the side, one with a rod. the other with a line, while I. very clumsily, was trying to find the wind.
For over an hour there was not the ghost of a bite, not even a ripple on the surface. Suddenly one of them said: "We have laboured all day and caught nothing".
said: "Don't worry", a great deal more confidently than I felt. You don't know what we
Catholics can do. pray to St Peter and I guarantee that within five minutes you'll have a fish on the fine".
So I did, and believe it or not, as Ripley used to say, (the other Ripley that is, not our very own Believe-it-or-else Ripley) within two minutes there were triumphant shouts from both sides of the boat as both rod and line felt a fishy tug.
Within the next 45 minutes the two between them hauled in no fewer than 31 mackerel — rather more, in fact, than we had been led to believe the Russian trawlers had left in the entire sea.
My friend looked at the shining catch and said quizzically: "I think I'd better become a Catholic".
I set this down not simply out of vanity, though no doubt that has something to do with it, but because stories of unanswered prayer are so frequent, and we are all very shy of letting on when, mirabile &cu.', the opposite happens.
And for the glory of St Peter,
who has plainly not lost interest in his old trade, and to prove that the rationalists are wrong. And as a tip to other fishermen, and because this is that greatest of rarities, a fishing-story that is perfectly true.
Wit as quick as his bowling was
I WAS GLAD to see The Observer doff its hat recently to the cricket commentators of Radio Three.
As a cricket fanatic who puts first things first and only works between overs when Test matches are on, I regret the passing of their conversation at the end of the summer almost as much as the end of the Test match series itself.
Whatever the quality of the cricket the quality of their conversation rarely flags. and this in an age when the art of conversation is thought to be dead. It is a verbal equivalent of the music quartet.
And though Brian Johnson, the youngest cricket elder in captivity, keeps up he tempo, and Trevor Bailey provides a solid ground base, for my money it is Fred Trueman who supplies who supplies the colour and the grace-notes.
Whenever he re-enters the conversation I expect something original, and he rarely disappoints. His wit is as quick as his bowling when he was in his prime, and gives the lie to the southern conceit that Yorkshiremen only think one thought a year.
I still relish his remark during a Test last season when there was a bomb scare. Johnson mused on the likely direction the souls of the commentators would take if the bomb went up under the commentary box; up or down?
"Well, Brian," said Trueman, "one thing's for sure. We'd have friends in both places". They need not worry. Since cricket is such a heavenly game it can have only one possible setting, and its devotees only one possible destination.
Though playing under the eye of the Almighty, a combination of Lord Hawke and W. G. Grace may be a bit of a strain for new arrivals, worse even than going out to bat for the first time at the (earthly) Lord's.
It's odd that Thomas Lord — who, incidentally, was a Catholic — gave his own appropriate name to the headquarters of cricket, where the cognoscenti continually Catch a glimpse of paradise, and everyone else a hint of eternity.
Widening our horizons
A RECENT study by the Ministry of Overseas Development once again draws attention to the lack of public interest in what goes on outside Britain.
The faLt of British insularity. is nothing new. In 1939 Madge and Harrison's Mass Observation unit remarked: "Interest in oneself and one's home has predominated far and away over international and general political concerns, except in the upper middle class".
And every newspaper editor knows that to the average reader the fact that the man next door has broken his leg is of far more interest than the death of a million Chinese in a famine.
Our unwillingness to take much interest in the outside world causes much despair and depression across the Channel — though on the evidence nobody is likely to know or care.
Last year at a conference in Brussels organised by the Catholic Office of Information on European Problems (OCIPE) and its Protestant counterpart, I was struck by the number of businessmen, trade union officials, politicians and churchmen who complained about British self-absorption.
One trade unionist said of his British colleagues: "They cannot look beyond the white cliffs of Dover". Even if antagonising potential friends causes no heartsearching, the extent of British dependence on the outside world is a strong motive for widening our horizons.
One job in three depends on exports, over half our food is imported, and three-quarters of all British companies depend to some extent on imported raw materials. Since our very existence is bound up with events in the rest of the world it seems dangerous as well as unrealistic to refuse them some attention.
However, that may be. the Ministry intends to give a thrust to development education so that we will at least begin to understand the complex relations between this country and others, especially those of the Third World, and why we cannot tackle problems to do with food, employment or living standards in isolation from conditions and policies overseas.
This is a most important project, and I personally hope that Catholic schools and other educational institutions will give it enthusiastic backing.
One of the unpublicised merits of Catholic education — sometimes lost sight of in discussion of its inadequacies — has been to give Catholic children a sense of the wider world as members of a worldwide Church.
I doubt if I am alone in thinking that I learned more about geography and culture of other countries from talks and writings on the Church's missionary work than from any other source. That is a good foundation to build on, even if the nature of missionary work has undergone a seachange.
Catholics above all should be aware of human society as a vast spider's web to touch any part of which is to vibrate the whole. And encouraging better knowledge of the connections between our own way of life and the lives of people in other parts of the world is one obvious area in which members of a Universal Church can give a lead.
My favourite Cornish saint
FORTIFIED myself in advance with a visit to Cornwall, staying with friends at Rock, where the foreshore is always alive with small-boat sailors and their families. The sailing boom in recent years has been astonishing.
Every Englishman seems to nurse a secret ambition to command his own boat, and the smaller the official navy, the larger grows the armada of little ships nestling in the harbours round our coasts.
Few sights are more endearing than the middle-aged amateur Nelsons impressing their wives and children into carrying oars, sails, life-jackets and other mis
cellaneous equipment, not forgetting a good measure of gin, heaving stubborn keels across the sands when the tide is out, and pushing the boat out while the Cin-C wades around looking for the elusive channel like a traffic warden who has lost his parking metres.
There's always a lot of fidgeting activity wherever there are boats, and of course that curious noise, a little like the tinkling of temple bells, as halyards tap against masts.
Boats in Cornwall have rather taken the place of saints. There used to be almost as many saints in Cornwall as snakes in Ireland until A.L. Rowse drove them all into the sea.
My favourite is St Piran, who began his very active career by raising from the dead seven harpists who had been drowned in an Irish bog. A local king threw him off a cliff attached to a millstone but it floated and he sailed across to Cornwall, where he became celebrated as a saint who liked a good meal, a goad
story, and wrestling.
He is also said to have discovered how to smelt tin, which is why he is the Tinner's Saint. and why the Cornish flag bears the Cross of St Piran — a white cross on a black ground, symbolising the light of God in a dark world and white tin metal against black rock.
He is the kind of saint I like, very cheerful and with a relish for the spice of life. Nowadays the A dvocatus Diaboli wouldn't give him a second look — dubious miracles, no theology and too lively by half.
Sick Siberia joke
SICK JOKE of the week. The Intourist office in Regent Street has a hand-written notice in the window which reads: "Be adventurous. Travel to Siberia for £263."
In Russia itself, of course, being adventurous gets you there for free.
John Harriott contributes the Periscope column for the Tablet