2 November 2016
Evelyn Waugh was once described as a man who thought of himself as being, in the sight of God, an English Country Gentleman of ancient and recusant ancestry. In fact, he was the son of a parvenu Anglican publisher quite well down in the Middle Class. I suspect that it is one of the characteristics of this last century and a half ... say, since the time of Disraeli ... I wonder why is it he that comes to my mind ... that we construct our sense of self-identity, not from our actual and family backgrounds, but from what we have discovered for ourselves; and not infrequently in reaction against our real and fearfully prosaic individual inheritances. Is it all to do with the cultural disintegration of this period?
I plead guilty to being myself a prime example of this embarrassing phenomenon of radical inauthenticity. I have always regarded myself as a Latin Catholic, deeply rooted in Classical Antiquity, but at home in ancient Rome while only a sympathetic visitor in ancient Athens ... where my wife, so much more of a Hellenist, is at home. Classicism Baptised makes me feel profoundly the product of the latinate culture and Liturgy which has shaped Western Europe for centuries. I am not, subjectively, in the least English; in fact ... well, Waugh once described me rather acutely in his account of Scott-King, another equally dim classics master: " ... he was filled, suddenly, with deep homesickness for the South. He had not often nor for long visited those enchanted lands; a dozen times, perhaps, for a few weeks ... but his treasure and his heart lay buried there. Hot oil and garlic and spilled wine; luminous pinnacles above a dusky wall; fireworks at night, fountains at noonday; the shepherd's pipe on the scented hillside ... he had left his coin in the waters of Trevi; he had wedded the Adriatic; he was a Mediterranean man." Hot oil and garlic and spilled wine ... ah, how that tugs at me even now while I sit here tapping at my computer in the chilly English autumn. My carnal temptations are to reach for Ovid's Metamorphoses when I should be saying my Office and to dream about Tiepolo ceilings while I should be making my meditation. I rarely pass through London without going to gaze upon the statue of S Pius V, the Victor of Lepanto and the Author of Regnans in excelsis. He stands on the right hand side of the Lady Altar at Brompton; originally, with its spectacular North Italian pietra dura, from Brescia. It is where, through the generosity of the Provost, I said my first Mass in Full Communion with the See of Rome, before going across the road with two immensely dear friends from Papa Stronsay, and the brilliant, the convivial, Father Ray, to eat a French lunch and to drink a lot of French wine.
My father, on the other hand, was a British naval officer who was otherly romantic and squandered his affections on crooks like Drake and Raleigh; who loathed Irish, frogs, papists, waps, and dagoes; who entertained suspicions about people who mispronounced Trafalgar; and who had an enormous picture of Nelson upon his wall.