Priests’ Lib

C.H. Sisson

  • Some day I’ll find you: An Autobiography by H.A. Williams
    Mitchell Beazley, 383 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 85533 448 7

‘Few people,’ said the Mothers’ Union Journal, speaking of Harry Williams, ‘can make being human more thrilling, more worthwhile, and more fun.’ It is something to live down. It might be thought that a former lecturer in theology, now a member of a religious order, would have a better chance than most of doing so. The matter hangs in the balance, however, when one opens this autobiography at random to find that one is in that delicate territory in which saints have fun. The vicar of St Barnabas, Pimlico, here characterised as one of that exalted order, had it – loved it, in fact. When one learns that this vicar, on his birthday, ‘used to give us all a lavish dinner at Kettner’s’, one may, without being a great connoisseur of the clergy, think that one begins to have some clue as to the sort of priest he was. It was in this parish that Williams elected to serve his first curacy. Open the book again, however, and one finds: ‘I believe that the Religious (monastic) Life can be lived fruitfully only if those who enter it are constantly aware that they have done so, not because they are more spiritual than others, but because they are less so.’ Perhaps the Mothers’ Union Journal has not got the whole story. At any rate, one would have to read the book to find out.

The story that unfolds is a complicated one. Not that the narrative is at all intricate in design – it is, indeed, all bits and pieces – but the intended range of reference is wide. On the one hand, the book is, as the author says, ‘a description of people and places’ he has known. On the other hand, he has had troubles not of an ordinary kind, and this ‘transposes the book into another key and makes it more like a pilgrim’s progress’. The combination is not made any easier by the fact that the pilgrim has not only ‘been lucky in often finding people amusing’ but has – to judge by some of the trivial or even inane remarks which have somehow stuck in his memory – often been rather easily amused. That is no doubt a winning characteristic, within limits, in ordinary life, but it has dangers for the autobiographer. ‘As a boy at home and at school people were not so amusing.’ It is the way of the world, and it must be said that the ways of the world at large have had rather a small part in Williams’s life, as recorded. For some years of his childhood his family were members of the English colony at St Malo, in the days when ‘servants, food and drink were all cheap for English people.’ ‘But it was Cambridge without doubt that was the richest soil for amusement, since dons’ – and Williams was one himself for a good many years – ‘for all their intelligence, can frequently be possessed by folly, some of it positively sublime, some with an edge on it which the uninitiated might mistake for malice; while the naïveté of undergraduates can on occasion seem very funny if also very touching.’ There were also those years at London churches which, to put the matter no more strongly, seem to have had rather special relationships with the world in which they were planted. Indeed it struck me, reading Williams’s story, that in some respects the sober and workaday life at Mirfield, where he finally became a monk, was more like the ordinary laborious world than anything he tells us of his life before he went there ‘In Community you have to live at close quarters with people some at least of whom you will find temperamentally incompatible. You must be prepared to associate constantly with at least a few people who get on your nerves.’ Just like the office or the Army, one might say.

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