’Oly, ’Oly, ’Oly

D.A.N. Jones

  • From Early Life by William Cooper
    Macmillan, 180 pp, £13.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 333 52367 9
  • Son of Adam by Denis Forman
    Deutsch, 201 pp, £12.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 233 98593 X
  • A Welsh Childhood by Alice Thomas Ellis and Patrick Sutherland
    Joseph, 186 pp, £15.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 7181 3292 0
  • Alarms and Excursions: Thirty Years in Israel by Naomi Shepherd
    Collins, 220 pp, £16.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 00 215333 5
  • Birds of Ill Omen by Marie Seurat, translated by Dorothy Blair
    Quartet, 168 pp, £10.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 7043 2694 9

Only one of these five memoirs can be fairly called secular – quite unconcerned with the consolations of religion, untroubled by the complications. This is From Early Life by the oldest of the five authors, the novelist and scientist ‘William Cooper’: he was born in 1910 and brought up (as Harry Hoff) in the town of Crewe in Cheshire. Seniors in his family were determined chapel-goers, but Cooper-Hoff looks back at his childhood, over eighty years, with the quiet smile of a tolerant agnostic: his light, amused impressions illustrate the way England has become more secular than other nations, during this century. Though he claims to have an unreliable memory, he can remember being a beautiful baby of two, in 1912, and screaming at a parson who approached his pram, saying: ‘Hello, my little man.’ He can remember moving up from the Infants to the Big School, where the headmaster brandished his cane at the morning assembly, announcing: ‘You’re going to sing “ ’Oly, ’Oly, ’Oly” – I’ll cut some of you in two.’ The boys were trundled across the road for an Anglican church service once a week. He remembers being baptised when he was nine, at the instigation of his piano teacher, who wanted him in the church choir. Young Harry was quite pleased with the fuss. Though his father came of a ‘good Baptist’ family and his mother from a ‘good Wesleyan’ family, neither was ‘given to going to chapel’ and only rarely did they threaten young Harry: ‘If you go on like this, you’ll be sent to Sunday School next week!’

He enjoyed the church choir, the ritual ‘bowing and scraping’ – the church was ‘Medium-High perhaps?’ At 13 he was marked out as a potential acolyte, a server at the Communion Service, so he was confirmed by the Bishop of Chester, with his parents present among the congregation: once again, young Harry did not feel a thing. At Crewe County Secondary School, he evaded ‘Religious Knowledge’ lessons, for he dismissed the idea of ‘being required to take seriously all the implausible stuff in the first books of the Old Testament’: he had been reading about evolution in the Children’s Encyclopedia. Among his kinsmen, some high-minded Methodists conducted their business negotiations on the steps of the Wesleyan Chapel after morning service – so alleged an envious relative who ‘frequented the Primitive Methodists, a social notch lower than the Wesleyans’, but the author suspects that just as many deals were done ‘on the steps of the Prims’. His Great-Aunt Sally, respected and well-to-do, suggested before a meal: ‘Harry, will you please to say Grace for us?’ Harry stammered out: ‘I don’t know any Grace.’ Then feeling a sharp kick in the ankle he turned to his mother and asked: ‘What are you kicking me for?’ His Great-Aunt Sally paid for his education at Christ’s College, Cambridge, which he had chosen partly because Darwin had been a member of the college: ‘The Theory of Evolution, which I hadn’t studied at all, must – because even I knew it explained how we came to be here without the invention of any supernatural agency – be right up my street.’

The parenthesis here is, I suppose, an example of blind faith. He is weighty in his parentheses, light and easy in his narrative. Other boys called him ‘Happy Hoff’ or, with lewd intent, ‘Thos Off’. He was frightened by the printed word ‘self-abuse’, since the slang expression ‘tossing off’, was so harmless and humorous. ‘Why is is that giving a word to something invariably transforms it, usually into something awful? (“God” provides a most striking case in point.)’ He is a skilful and experienced writer: this memoir might easily be mistaken for one of his novels, Scenes from Provincial Life, Scenes from Married Life, Scenes from ... He feels that readers want scenes. When he muses he breaks off with a parenthesis: ‘(Readers seem to be born with a craving for events.)’ There are many agreeable scenes and events, about school dances and his aunt’s pawnshop: ‘Pawnshops have gone, thank goodness! The rich have found other ways of squeezing the poor.’ Such parentheses hint at his political and non-religious opinions, his sexual experience and his class-consciousness. On the last page, he arrives at Cambridge and remarks: ‘For the first time in my life I was surrounded by the upper classes en masse. They all looked bigger and stronger than me!’

Another Cambridge man, Sir Denis Forman, is of the Scottish upper class, I suppose – quite a formidable fellow, though popular and well-respected. He used to be Chairman and Managing Director of Granada Television: a musical man, he has written one other book, Mozart’s Piano Concertos. He is not such a shrewd author as Cooper aka Hoff (seven years his senior) and his candid memoir of boyhood does not manage to conceal his self-esteem, nor his disdain for his father, the Adam Forman of his book’s title. Adam Forman went to a Scottish public school, Loretto, and stayed there until he was 20. He belonged to a group of Loretto boys called the Palship: they liked to mess about in boats, along the Tweed and Annan, camping like Boy Scouts, making their base at a fine country house in Dumfries, called Craigielands, the family home of two of their number, the Smith brothers. Adam Forman married their sister, Flora Smith, and Denis was born and bred at Craigielands. Son of Adam describes the boy’s happy-seeming life on this estate and records his discontents.

Young Denis enjoyed the sporty life, the hearty environment, which he was offered at Craigielands, the fishing and the curling, but he resented his family’s piety – of the ‘United Free Church (Continuing)’ – and he reacted to the corporate spirit of the Palship in a mood almost of jealousy, an outsider’s envy. He suggests that his father was immature: he ‘was 20 years old and Head Boy of Loretto when the Palship made its first trip. On its last he was a married man of 38 with two children.’ Adam left Loretto in 1890, was ordained in 1907 and swiftly returned to the school, as chaplain and housemaster. Sir Denis discusses him in a chapter entitled ‘Such a Decent Chap’, remarking that he sometimes felt ashamed of not liking his father better – ‘but then a moment’s reflection would steady me up.’ When old Adam died, aged 100, he was regarded as ‘a great gentleman’, ‘an inspiration and almost a saint’ to generations of Scouts. None doubted ‘the simplicity of his faith, his unquestioning belief in the rightness of all he did’. Three of Adam’s sons, though, remember him for his follies and eccentricities.

Denis went to Loretto, too. Before leaving for his father’s school, he informed his pious family that he had a surprise for God: he did not believe in Him. The deity they worshipped was ‘just a leftover from what the tribes in Palestine used to believe ... Why not Shiva? Why not Thor?’ This declaration made everybody unhappy. His father began to warm to him, but only slightly, when he began to do well on the rugby field. Loretto was much like Craigielands, though more severe: during his first term, Denis was beaten more frequently than any other boy in the school, the climax being eight beatings in six days. He was happier helping the harvesters and the sheepshearers on the home farm, enjoying their jokes against his father, writhing when Adam tried to talk to these employees in their own tongue, the couthy Doric. Denis became class-conscious in a grim, guilty way.

This frankly censorious memoir is like one of those novels where the author is so hard on his characters that the reader wants to leap to their defence: it may embarrass male readers, making them uneasy about their own fatherhood and sonship. Nevertheless, despite the grimness, Sir Denis often refreshes the imagination with enlivening accounts of what was, to all seeming, a happy and enviable boyhood. The book is illustrated by pleasing photographs of the Formans, the Smiths and their attendants, most of them taken by poor old Adam, with sardonic captions supplied by Sir Denis: ‘Marnie – wig, smell and all’; ‘Sam Smith, MP for Flint and religious bore’; ‘John Bulman, tutor, whisky lover and cheat’; ‘The misery of picnics’; ‘The Palship, dressed to kill ... ’ In triumphant contrast, there is: ‘Myself at 11, fisherman, child musicologist and budding atheist’.

A Welsh Childhood is also strengthened by photographs, about a hundred of them, large and handsome: they celebrate the misty greyness and wetness of rural Wales, small, ruined houses in vast, numinous landscapes, properly illustrating some aspects of the author’s moody, rambling text. Alice Thomas Ellis, a Roman Catholic novelist, was brought up in Penmaenmawr, between Conwy and Bangor on the North Wales coast, facing the island of Anglesey. In one of her moods, she is inclined towards elegy for the ruined stone cottages and commination for all ‘housing developments’. She requires some great authority to forbid change in her childhood homeland. The flanks of Penmaen, the ‘Big Rock’, have been thoroughly quarried and the summit (with its ancient fort) has been sliced off. ‘Who was first permitted to start removing this major aspect of the landscape?’ Again, ‘there are high-rise flats on the shores of Anglesey. Who let them do that? And why?’ She fires off these indignant questions, but offers no answers.

In another mood, she rambles round her childhood, her schooling and her games on ffrith (the lower slopes of the mountain), sometimes offering a list of her clothes – ‘boring,’ as she admits, ‘but if you wish to remember the past it helps to remember what you were wearing.’ She was the daughter of Liverpool people, a Welshwoman and a Russo-Finn: her father belonged to a Positivist sect, called the Church of Humanity, and her mother to the Church in Wales. The young Alice used to attend the English Congregational Church and read the lesson in Welsh. However, she was friendly to a Franciscan friary nearby and she had Roman Catholic relatives in Llandudno, with whom she attended Mass: as she grew up, she ‘reverted to the old religion’. She inclines to believe in other other-worldly things too – ghosts and UFOs, frequently ‘sighted’ in Wales. She recounts Welsh legends in a distant, perhaps too jocular manner, but suddenly breaks into her ghost story about a Lady Wynne of Tudor times with the stark information that she herself, when pregnant, lost her child in the same way that Lady Wynne had done.

She is terse and stoical again when reporting the death of her young son, merely quoting the Latin epitaph composed by her husband. She has had seven children and much of her book concerns not her own ‘Welsh childhood’ but the times she has spent in rural Wales with her own children and others, sometimes as many as ten children in a solitary cottage at Stacros, 12 miles from Bala. The prevailing mood now is a pleasing, religious melancholy: her days at Stacros were the happiest days of her life and now they have gone. It would have been good to die while the children slept. She tends to associate her own melancholy with the supposed general ‘morbidity’ of the Welsh, but we may doubt this – and anyway ‘morbidity’ is Latin for disease, not for easeful death.

With the other two books we enter a region of true morbidity – the Middle East, where no one will deny the importance of religions. In Alarms and Excursions the information is mediated by a bright, bustling author, determined to make sense of it all. At least, Naomi Shepherd starts out that way, though her thirty years in Israel have led her to a grave, almost pessimistic outlook. London-bred, Oxford-educated, she became the Israel correspondent for the New Statesman in the Sixties, under John Freeman’s editorship: it was then possible to see Israel as a quaint, attractive place in which British readers took a thoughtful or sentimental interest – rather like France in the days when reputable British papers carried a ‘Letter from Paris’. The author had gone to Israel soon after the embarrassment of Anthony Eden’s ‘police action’ at Suez: she taught at the Hebrew University, wrote film scripts for the Jewish Agency, joined in an excursion to Russia. She was made aware of Israel’s ambivalent attitude towards Jews of the Diaspora, of a different way of looking at Sephardim and Ashkenazim, of a sharper clash between dati’ im (religious Jews) and hiloni’ im (secular Jews, like herself). She married a soldierly man who had changed his name from Lichtblum to Layish (meaning ‘lion-cub’): he never went near a synagogue, being ‘staunchly anti-clerical’, although he came from a famous rabbinical family. He had ‘an affectionate familiarity with Jewish customs – that agnostic Yiddishkeit which must be scarcely comprehensible to a non-Jew’.

Their children ‘grew up as pagans’, she says, ‘refusing even to go to a reform synagogue, as I suggested. I failed to understand how they could manage without the pleasures of an early faith, and the still greater excitement of breaking with it.’ The father arranged for the bar-mitzvah of Joshua, their eldest son, to be held not in a synagogue but at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but he was quite strict about what women mustn’t do at the ceremony, in deference to his orthodox kinsmen. This was in 1978, shortly after the Camp David Accords with the Egyptian Government of Sadat. Shepherd was one of those alarmed by Israel’s new right-wing government, headed by Menachem Begin: religious parties allied themselves with the right-wingers, rejecting Labour and the old ‘gentle, unassertive form of orthodoxy’. Israeli politicians not only ‘donned skull-caps to consult with Ashkenazi sages but made pilgrimages to oriental cult leaders’. What she calls ‘Biblical literalism’ was taking an increasingly political tone: the new leader, Begin, ‘felt free to interpret the peace with Egypt as giving him a free hand slowly to annex the West Bank, Bible in hand’.

Five years later, the Lebanon War began, starting as a ‘limited attack’ on Palestinian positions, developing into full-scale warfare, made notorious by the massacre of Palestinian refugees by the Phalangist Christians, Israel’s new allies. Naomi Shepherd began demonstrating against the Israeli Government, supporting the ‘Peace Now’ movement, working for the Israeli Association for Civil Rights. In the second year of the war, Joshua evaded military service by coming to England, occasioning a breach with his patriotic, soldierly father. It is during this latter period of her story that her account becomes most compelling, with its blend of personal and political history.

Marie Seurat’s memoir of the Middle East reads, inappropriately, like a dandified French novel, from the days of Cocteau and Gide, wilful and impressionistic. She is not a professional writer and acknowledges: ‘Paul-Jean Franceschini helped me give my story a shape.’ She was born to a wealthy Syriac Christian family in Aleppo, Syria, and Bird of Ill Omen is a translation of Les Corbeaux d’ Alep: she frequently refers to the sinister ravens of Aleppo when describing her travels. Mme Seurat acquired some celebrity in France when her French husband, Michel Seurat, was kidnapped in Beirut in 1985: he had just flown back from Morocco, where he was attending a conference on ‘Terrorism and Urban Violence’, for he was a scholar in such matters, speaking fluent Arabic. On his way home, from the Beirut airport, he was taken as a ‘hostage’ and eventually killed. The book begins with Mme Seurat waiting for him in her Beirut flat, looking at the green carpet and cursing it: ‘Green! The colour of all-conquering Islam, the warriors of the Prophet.’

After some days, the Islamic Jihad ‘claim responsibility’ for kidnapping Michel and she fears that they will surrender him to the cruelties of the Syrian Government which he has often criticised. She makes for the southern suburbs of the city, where the Shi’ite Muslims have their headquarters, to plead with Sheikh Fadlallah. She receives a letter from her imprisoned husband and, subsequently, his gaolers bring him round to visit her in their flat: she buys many Arab cakes and pastries, to ‘sweeten them on his behalf’. News of this meeting reaches the press and soon she is surrounded by cameras and microphones. She remembers a hijacked aircraft she saw at the airport, with the pilot and terrorist posing, gun at head, on the instructions of a television crew. Mme Seurat goes to watch a Muslim ceremony: ‘I want to get near the frenzy of Michel’s gaolers, submerge myself in their madness. I want my red hair to stand out like a sacrilegious blot against this black and morbid Islam.’ Bleeding militants emerge from a seething mob, although ‘Sheikh Fadlallah has forbidden flagellation this year.’ She thinks she identifies in the crowd Michel’s captor and ‘the leader of the kidnappers’ commando’. She appeals to many notables, meeting President Mitterrand, Terry Waite (then at liberty), an ‘influential Shi’ite extremist’ she knows, a terrorist imprisoned in a French jail: she ‘gushes over him’. European grandees arrive in Beirut to negotiate with the kidnappers and make a grander name for themselves. It is announced that Michel has been executed, but no one can be believed. Eventually, Mme Seurat is convinced, cursing all the officials of the West, all the journalists whom the terrorists can so easily manipulate, and devising sadistic punishment fantasies for her Muslim enemies. She has her child baptised in the Syriac Christian Church, whose priests tell her that her husband was a martyr of Christendom. The strange thing about her horrible story is that the style of the book gives the impression that she is enjoying the excitement.