Underneath the A310 in Twickenham, in the grounds of Radnor House prep school, lies the grotto of Alexander Pope. It once looked out over the Thames, but now its view takes in the walls of the sixth-form art block and an astroturf sports pitch. But the magic of what Pope called his ‘shadowy cave’ is not lost. The grotto smells of flint. Its walls are encrusted with geological curiosities. There is a piece of basalt hacked from the Giant’s Causeway and there was once a stalagmite from Wookey Hole, supposedly shot down from the roof of the cave at Pope’s request.
As everyone knows by now, it’s 600 years since a pope last resigned. It’s even longer than that since the pope was an Englishman: Hadrian IV (1154-59) is the only one there’s been so far, and it seems unlikely there’ll be another any time soon, despite the aspirations of the Twitter account @tonyforpope: 'Tony Blair. Regular guy, former PM, saviour of Western civilisation, next pope.' Hadrian IV has had a few fictional successors, though. Hadrian the Seventh (1904) is a brilliant fantasy self-portrait by Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo.
Colm Tóibín in the LRB (19 August 2010) on Ratzinger's election and pontificate:
The news that Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace were among the million people (including 22 ‘world leaders’) who thronged St Peter's Square for the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II lends a piquant note to what was already a gothic occasion. Their presence was not, in itself, surprising: Mugabe tends to remember he is a Catholic whenever it is convenient – as in the case of his marriage to Grace, celebrated in a Catholic high mass in Harare, although they had by then already had two children. More recently, however, the main point has been to evade the EU's targeted sanctions and thus provide Grace (widely known as ‘Dis-Grace’) with opportunities for her extravagant shopping trips. The Mugabes were in Rome in 2005 for John Paul II's funeral, and again in 2008 and 2009 for UN food conferences – they get a free pass from the Vatican and from the UN, of which Zimbabwe is still a member.
Apparently the last pope, John Paul II, didn’t much care for the term ‘Popemobile’, which lacks the gravitas of the sedia gestatoria, the flunkey-borne sedan chair, flanked by white ostrich plumes, used for bearing popes on public show until the start of Karol Wojtyła’s pontificate in 1978. Presumably the term was formed by analogy with the Batmobile, used by the Caped Crusader for his forays into Gotham City’s dark underbelly, there to do battle with the Penguin, the Joker and other badhats.
I don't often find myself agreeing with the Archbishop of Canterbury. On reading his remarks about Irish Catholicism ('an institution so deeply bound into the life of a society... suddenly losing all credibility – that's not just a problem for the Church, it's a problem for everybody in Ireland'), I was transported back to my Catholic boyhood when, before a rugby game against an Anglican school, our Christian Brother teachers would warm us up with stories of Catholics being burnt at the stake by the Prots, with the coup de grace being 'and since this is a Protestant school we're playing at, don't leave any valuables in the changing room.' I can only imagine the depths of chagrin within the Church right now at having an Anglican divine dilate upon the Church's moral failings.