Read absolute truths epub format

Authors: Susan Howatch

absolute truths

 

 

 

 

This book is dedicated to all my friends among the clergy of the Anglican Communion (and in particu
lar the Church of England) with thanks for their
support and encouragement. My special thanks also
goes to Alex Wedderspoon for his great sermon preached in Guildford Cathedral in 1987 on the
eighth chapter of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,
verse twenty-eight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PART ONE

 

TRADITION AND
CERTAINTY


Absolute truth is a very uncomfortable thing when we come
into contact with it. For the most part, in daily life, we get
along more easily by avoiding it: not by deceit, but by run
ning away ..

REGINALD SOMERSET WARD

(1881-1962)

Anglican Priest and Spiritual Director

To Jerusalem

 

 

 

ONE
...


No
doubt it would be more suitable for a theologian to be
absolutely pickled in devout reflection and immune from all
external influences; but
wrap ourselves
round
as we may in
the cocoon of ecclesiastical cobwebs, we cannot altogether seal ourselves off from the surrounding atmosphere.’

AUSTIN FARRER

Warden of Keble College,

Oxford,
1960-1968

Said or Sung

 

 

 

 

I

 

What can be more devastating than a catastrophe which arrives
out of the blue?

During the course of my life I have suffered three catastrophes,
but the first two can be classified as predictable: my crisis in 1937
was preceded by a period of increasingly erratic behaviour, and
my capture by the Germans in 1942 could have been prophesied by any pessimist who knew I had volunteered on the outbreak of
war to be an army chaplain. But the disaster of 1965 walloped me
without warning.

Ten years have now passed since 1965, but the other day
as
I
embarked on my daily journey through the Deaths Column of
The
Times,
I saw that my old adversary had died and at once I
was
recalling with great clarity that desperate year in that anarchic decade when he and I had fought our final battle in the shadow
of Starbridge Cathedral.


A
Y S G A RT H,
Norman Neville ("Stephen"),’ I read. ‘Beloved
husband of Dido and devoted father of ...’ But I failed to read
the list of offspring. I felt too bereaved. How strange it is that the further one journeys through life the more likely one becomes to mourn the loss of old enemies almost as much as the loss of old
friends! The divisions of the past seem unimportant; we become
unified by the shrinking of the future.


Oh God!’ said my wife, glancing across the breakfast table and
seeing my expression. ‘Who’s died now?’

Having answered her question I turned from the small entry in
the Deaths Column to the many inches of unremitting praise on
the obituary page. Did I approve of this fulsome enactment of the
cliché
Nil
nisi bonum de mortuis est?
Summoning all my Christian
charity I told myself I did. I was, after all, a retired bishop of the Church of England and supposed to radiate Christian charity as
lavishly as the fountains of Trafalgar Square spout water. However,
I did think that the allocation of three half-columns to this former
Dean of Starbridge was a trifle generous. Two would have been
quite sufficient.


What a whitewash!’ commented my wife after she had skimmed
through this paean. ‘When I think back to 1965...’

I thought of 1965, the year of my third catastrophe, the year
Aysgarth and I had fought to the finish. Bishops and deans, of
course, are not supposed to fight at all. Indeed as senior churchmen
they are required to be either holy or perfect English gentlemen
or, preferably, both.

How we all hanker after ideals, after certainties — and after abso
lute truths — which will provide us with security as we struggle to
survive in the ambiguous, cloudy, chaotic world which surrounds us! Moreover, although in a rapidly changing society ideals may
appear to be swept away by a rising tide of cynicism, the experience
of the past demonstrates that people will continue to hunger for
those ideals, even when absolute truths are no longer in fashion.

Society was certainly changing with great speed in the 1960s,
and when I was a bishop I became famous for defending tradition at a time when all traditions were under attack. I had two heroes: St Augustine, who had proclaimed the absolute truths till the end,
even as the barbarians advanced on his city, and St Athanasius,
the bishop famous for
being so resolutely
contra
mundum, against
the world, as he fought heresy to the last ditch. By 1965 I had
decided that I, like my two heroes, was being obliged to endure
a dissolute, demoralised, disordered society, and that my duty was to fight tooth and nail against decadence. A fighting bishop unfor
tunately has little chance to lead a quiet life, but I decided that
was the price I had to pay in order to preserve my ideals.

In the 1960s there were three years which now stand out in my
memory. The first was 1963, when I clashed with Aysgarth over
that pornographic sculpture which he commissioned for the
Cathedral churchyard; it was the year Bishop John Robinson wrote
his bestseller
Honest to God, a
book which rocked the Church to its foundations, and the year I wrote in rebuttal
A Modern Heresy
for Modern
Man.
That was when I ceased to be merely a conserva
tive bishop, underlining the importance of preserving the accumu
lated wisdom from the past, and became a fighting bishop
contra
mundum.
The second year which I remember vividly is 1968. That
was the year young Nicholas Darrow, my spiritual director’s son,
was finally ordained after what I suspected was a very shady interval
in his private life. It was also the year my son Charley became
engaged and my son Michael was married, yet despite these family
milestones 1965 remains the year which is most clearly etched in
my memory. Not 1963. Not 1968. But 1965.

Let me now describe the man I was before my third catastrophe
felled me, the catastrophe which arrived out of the blue. I had
been the Bishop of Starbridge for eight years and despite a tentative
start I had become highly successful. My sons were both doing
well in their chosen careers, and although in their different ways
they still worried me, I had come to the condusion that
as
a parent
I must have been doing something right; at the very least I felt I
deserved a medal for paternal endurance. I was on happier ground
when I considered my marriage, now almost twenty-eight years
old and a perfect partnership.

In short, I was not ill-pleased with my life, and stimulated by this benign opinion of myself I travelled constantly around my
ecclesiastical fiefdom, spoke forcefully on education in the House
of Lords, held forth with confidence on television discussion pro
grammes, ruled various committees with an iron hand and terror
ised the lily-livered liberals of the Church Assembly. I also had
sufficient zest to maintain my prowess on the golf course and enjoy
my wife’s company on the days off which she so zealously preserved
for me amidst the roaring cataract of my engagements. Occasionally I felt no older than forty-five. On my bad days I felt about
fifty-nine. On average I felt somewhere in my early fifties. In fact I
was as old
as
the century, but who cared? I was fit, busy, respected,
pampered and privileged. Frequently and conscientiously I
thanked God for the outstanding good fortune which enabled me
to serve him
as
he required – and what he required, I had no
doubt, was that I should fight slipshod thinking by defending
the faith in a manner which was tough-minded and intellectually
rigorous. St Augustine and St Athanasius, I often told myself,
would have been proud of me.

I
was proud of me, although of course I had far too much
spiritual savoir-faire to do other than shove this secret opinion of
myself to the very back of my mind. By 1965 I was too preoccupied
by my current battles to waste much time visualising my future
obituary in
The Times,
but on those rare moments when I paused
to picture my posthumous eminence, I saw long, long columns of very dense newsprint.

God stood by and watched me for some time. Then in 1965 he
saw the chance to act, and seizing me by the scruff of the neck
he began to shake me loose from the suffocating folds of my self-satisfaction, my arrogance and my pride.

 

 

 

 

II

 

In order to convey the impact of the catastrophe, I must now
describe what was going on in my life as I steamed smoothly
forward to the abyss.

1965 was little over a month old, and we were all recovering
from the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, an event which
had temporarily united in grief the members of our increasingly frivolous and fragmented society. For people of my generation it
seemed that one of the strongest ropes tethering us to the past
had been severed, and ‘the old order changeth, yielding place to
new’ was a comment constantly in my thoughts at the time. Watch
ing that winter funeral on television I shuddered at the thought
of the inevitably apocalyptic future.

However, I had little time to contemplate apocalypses. As one
of the Church’s experts on education, I was required to worry
about the government’s plans to scrap the 11-plus examination and establish comprehensive schools; I was planning to make a speech on the subject in the Church Assembly later that month, and I was also framing a speech for the House of Lords about curbing hooliganism by restricting the hours of coffee-bars. My involvement in current events of this nature required in addition
that I brooded on racism – or, as it was called in those days,
racialism – and marvelled at the state of a society which would
permit a play entitled
You’ll Come To
Love Your Sperm-Count
to be
not only performed in public but actually reviewed by an esteemed
magazine.

I remember I had begun to think about my Lent sermons but
Easter was late that year, Good Friday falling on the sixteenth of April, so the sermons had not yet been written. In my spare
time I was working on a book about Hippolytus, that early
Christian writer whose battles against the sexually lax Bishop
Callistus had resounded throughout the Roman Empire; at the
beginning of my academic career I had made a name for myself
by specialising in the conflicts of the Early Church, and before
my accession to the bishopric I had been Lyttelton Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.

At this point may I just rebut two of the snide criticisms which my enemies used to hurl at me? (Unfortunately by 1965 my fighting style had earned me many enemies.) The first was that aca
demics are unsuited to any position of importance in what
is
fondly
called ‘the real world’. According to this belief, which is so typical of the British vice of despising intellectuals, academic theologians are incapable of preaching the faith in words of one syllable to the proletariat, but this is just crypto-Marxist hogwash. I knew exactly what the proletariat wanted to hear. They wanted to hear certain
ties, and whether those certainties were expressed in monosyllables
or polysyllables was immaterial. Naturally I would not have
dreamed of burdening the uneducated with fascinating theological
speculation; that sort of discourse has to be left to those who have
the aptitude and training to comprehend it. Would one expect a beginner at the piano to play Mozart? Of course not! A beginner
must learn by absorbing simple exercises. This fact does not mean
that the beginner is incapable of intuitively grasping the wonder
and mystery of music. It merely means he has to take much of the
theory on trust from those who have devoted their lives to studying
it.

Having demolished the idea that I am incapable of communicati
ng with uneducated people, let me go on to rebut the second
snide criticism hurled at me during my bishopric. It was alleged
that
as
I had spent most of my career in an ivory tower I was
ill-equipped for pastoral work. What nonsense! The problems of
undergraduates sharpen any clergyman’s pastoral skills, and
besides, my years as an army chaplain had given me a breadth of experience which I would never have acquired in ordinary parish
work.

I have to confess that I have never actually done any ordinary
parish work. The training of priests was more haphazard in my
youth, and if one had the right connections one could sidestep
hurdles which today are
de rigueur.
In my case Archbishop Lang
had taken an interest in me, and I had spent the opening years of
my career
as
one of his chaplains before accepting the head
mastership of a minor public school at the ridiculously young age
of twenty-seven. Not surprisingly this latter move had proved to
be a mistake, but even before I returned to Cambridge to resume
my career as a theologian, I felt that an appointment to a parish
was merely something which happened to other people.

I admit I did worry from time to time in the 1930s about this
significant omission from my curriculum vitae, but always I came
to the conclusion that since my path had crossed so providentially
with Archbishop Lang’s it would have been wrong to spurn the
opportunities which in consequence came my way. I was still reasoning along these lines in the 1950s when I told myself it
would have been wrong to spurn a bishopric merely because I had
sufficient brains to flourish among the ivory towers of Cambridge.
(Indeed if more bishops had more brains, the pronouncements
from the episcopal bench in the House of Lords in the 1960s
might have been far more worthy of attention.)
I did not turn my back on my academic work when I accepted
the bishopric. Indeed as I toiled away in Starbridge I soon felt I
needed regular
divertissements
to cheer me up, and this was why I
was nearly always writing some book or other during my sparetime. I dictated these books to a succession of most attractive
part-time secretaries, all under thirty. In 1965 my part-time secre
tary was Sally, the daughter of my henchman the Archdeacon of
Starbridge, and I much enjoyed dictating the fruits of my
researches to such a glamorous young woman. It made a welcome
change from dictating letters on diocesan affairs to my full-time
secretary Miss Peabody who, although matchlessly efficient, was
hardly the last word in glamour. My wife quite understood that I
needed a break from Miss Peabody occasionally, and always went
to great trouble to recruit exactly the right part-time secretary to
brighten my off-duty hours.

My wife and Miss Peabody kept me organised. I had two chap
lains, one a priest who handled all the ecclesiastical business and
one a layman who acted as a liaison officer with the secular world,
but Miss Peabody guarded my appointments diary and this privi
lege gave her a certain amount of power over the two young
men. I classed this arrangement as prudent. Chaplains can become
power-mad with very
little
encouragement, but
Miss
Peabody
ensured that all such delusions of grandeur were stillborn. Miss
Peabody also supervised the typist, recently hired to help her with
the increased volume of secretarial work, and organised the book
keeping.

In addition I employed a cook-housekeeper, who lived out, and
a daily cleaner. A gardener appeared occasionally to mow the lawns
and prune any vegetation which acquired an undisciplined appear
ance. From this list of personnel it can be correctly deduced that
Starbridge was one of the premier bishoprics, but if I had not had
a private income to supplement my episcopal salary I might have
found my financial circumstances tiresome, and we were certainly
a long way from those halcyon days before the war when my
predecessors had lived in considerable splendour. Alex Jardine, for
instance, had kept twelve indoor servants, two gardeners and a
chauffeur when he had been bishop in the 1930s. He had also lived
in the old episcopal palace, now occupied by the Choir School, but
despite the loss of the palace I could hardly claim I was uncomfortably housed. My home was a handsome Georgian building called
the South Canonry which also stood within Starbridge’s huge
walled Close, and from the upstairs windows we could look across
the Choir School’s playing-field to the tower and spire of the
Cathedral.


I’m glad the trees hide the palace from us,’ Lyle had said on our arrival at the South Canonry in 1957. She had lived at the
palace before the war as the paid companion of Bishop Jardine’s
wife, and the experience had not always been a happy one.

Lyle was my wife, and I must now describe just how important
she was to me by 1965. Before the war people had joked that she
ran the diocese for Jardine as well as his palace, and I sometimes
thought she could have run the diocese for me. She was the perfect wife for a bishop. She solved all household problems. She appeared
in church regularly. She excelled in charity work. She controlled
numerous committees. She controlled the chaplains. She even con
trolled Miss Peabody. She monitored the wives of the diocesan
clergy so skilfully that I knew about any marriage trouble among
my priests almost before they were aware of it themselves. She
also read the Church newspapers to keep me informed of any
serpentine twist of Church politics which I might have been too
busy to notice.

In addition she ensured that I had everything I needed: clean
shirts, socks, shoes, every item of my uniform — all appeared as if
by magic whenever they were required. Bottles of my favourite whisky and sherry never failed to be present on the sideboard.
Cigarettes were always in my cigarette-case. I was like an expensive
car tended by a devoted mechanic. I purred along
as
effortlessly
as a well-tuned Rolls-Royce.

The one matter which Lyle never organised for me was my
Creator. ‘You deal with God,’ she said. ‘I’ll deal with everything
else.’ I did talk to her about God, particularly when I needed
to let off steam about the intellectually sloppy antics of various
liberal-radical churchmen, but although she listened with sympathy
she seldom said more than: ‘Yes, darling,’ or: ‘What a bore for
you!’ Once I could not resist saying to her: ‘I sometimes feel
troubled that you never want to discuss your faith with me,’ but she
merely answered: ‘What’s there to discuss? I’m not an intellectual.’

The truth was that Lyle was no fool, but a skimpy education
had given her an inferiority complex about intellectual matters
with the result that she always played down the knowledge of
Christianity which she had acquired through her copious reading.
I knew her faith was deep, but I knew too that she would never
be one of those clerical wives who gave talks on such subjects as
‘Faith in Family Life’. Her most successful talk to the Mothers’
Union was entitled: ‘How to Survive Small Children’, and faith
was barely mentioned at all.

But by 1965 Lyle had become profoundly interested in prayer.
She had even formed a prayer-group composed entirely of women,
a move which I found remarkable because in the past she had
seldom had much time for her own sex. My spiritual director was
most intrigued and said the formation of the group was a great step forward for Lyle. I was equally intrigued and wanted to ask
questions, but since my advice was never sought I realised my task
was merely to provide tacit support. I did enquire in the beginning
what had triggered this new interest but Lyle only said in an
offhand voice: ‘It was my involvement with Venetia. When I had
that lunch with her in London I realised there was nothing more
I could do except pray for her,’ and I saw at once it would be
tactful not to prolong the conversation. Venetia, a former part-time
secretary of mine, had been Lyle’s protégée. I had seen that Lyle
was becoming too involved, regarding the girl
as
the daughter we
had never had, and I had several times been tempted to utter a
word of warning, but in the end I had kept quiet, preferring to rely
on the probability that Lyle’s hard-headed common sense would eventually triumph. Such pseudo-parental relationships often dis
solve unhappily when one party fails to fulfil the psychological
needs of the other, and it had been obvious to me that Venetia, a
muddled, unhappy young woman, had been looking not for a
second mother but for a second father, a quest which had had
disastrous consequences. By 1965 she had moved out of our lives,
but the prayer-group, her unexpected legacy to Lyle, was flourishing.

Our younger son Michael had commented during the Christmas
of 1964: ‘The prayer-group’s Mum doing her own thing,’ but our
other son, Charley, had said with his customary lack of tact: ‘Cyni
cal types don’t usually become mystical — I hope she’s not going
nuts.’ I gave this remark the robust dismissal it deserved, but it
did underline to me how uncharacteristic this new deep interest
in prayer was. I also had to admit to myself that although Charley
had been tactless in describing Lyle as cynical, he had not been
incorrect. ‘I always believe the worst,’ Lyle would say, ‘because the
worst is usually true’ – a philosophy which was repugnant to me,
but no matter how often I was tempted to criticise this attitude,
I always remembered her past and abstained. A disastrous love
affair in the 1930s had left her emotionally scarred. In the circum
stances I felt it was a wonder she had any faith left at all.

And now, having disclosed the disastrous love affair which Lyle
had endured, I must disclose just how far we were from being a
conventional ecclesiastical family. Lyle had been pregnant at the
time of our marriage, and our elder son was not, biologically, my
son at all.

 

 

 

 

III

 

I hate to speak of this skeleton in the cupboard, but as I am
engaged in painting a picture of my career, marriage and family
life in order to set the scene for
1965, I
can hardly leave a large
central section of the canvas unpainted. If I did, the events of 1965
would be to a large extent incomprehensible.

So let me now turn, with great reluctance, to the skeleton.

We had a code-name for this lover who had nearly destroyed
Lyle. It was Samson, a man ruined by his involvement with the
wrong woman. I had chosen this sobriquet in a rush triggered by
my loathing of the entire subject and had only afterwards reflected
that the choice automatically cast Lyle
as
Delilah, a lady who has
never received a good press. However, when I had voiced my
misgivings Lyle had said bleakly: ‘And what right have I to receive
a good press?’ – a question which had taken me back to the harrow
ing early days of our marriage when she had been recovering from
the most destructive aspects of the affair.

Lyle was my second wife. I had been married for three years in
my twenties to a pleasant, innocent girl called Jane whom now
adays I could recall with only the smallest twinge of anguish. We
had been fond of each other but unsuited, and our difficulties had
been unresolved at the time of her death in a car crash. Fortunately
I had managed to come to terms with this tragedy before I jour
neyed again to the altar in 1937, but although I realised Lyle was
curious to know more about her predecessor I felt no desire to
pour forth a torrent of information. Perhaps it was fortunate that
back in 1937 Lyle was far too bound up with her own unhappy
past to spare much time to speculate about mine.

Lyle’s affair with Samson had been conducted with fanatical
secrecy because he had been not only a married man but a distin
guished married man. In fact – and I hate to admit this but I do
need to explain why he was so vulnerable to scandal – he was a
clergyman. Of course clerical failures have always existed and of
course one must do one’s Christian best to be charitable to those
who break the rules, let the side down and drag the Church
through the mud, but I have to confess that Samson reduced my
stock of Christian charity to an all-time low. I knew I had to forgive
him for the damage he had inflicted on Lyle, but unfortunately
forgiveness cannot be turned on like a supply of hot water from
a well-stoked boiler, and this particular act of forgiveness had
remained frozen in the pipes of my mind for some time.

It was not until I returned from the war that I managed to
forgive him. At least I assumed I had forgiven him because I
realised I had reached the point where I was seldom troubled by
his memory. By that time he was not merely tucked away behind
a pseudonym, categorised theologically as a sinner who had to be
forgiven and thereby rendered
as
harmless as an exhibit in a
museum; he was also dead, a fact which meant the affair with Lyle could never be resurrected. Occasionally his name – his real name
– came up in ecclesiastical circles, but not too often, and as the
1940s drew to a close I realised I had consigned him to the com
partment in my mind which housed other obsolete images from
the previous decade: Edward VIII abdicating the throne, Jack
Buchanan singing, Harold Larwood bowling and Shirley Temple
dancing. The point about these people,
as
I told my spiritual direc
tor, was that I could think of them without pain; therefore, I
reasoned, if I had relegated Samson to this harmless group, I must
on some deep psychological level have forgiven him. The hallmark
of forgiveness is that it enables the forgiver to live painlessly with the forgiven.

Certainly by
1965
I was satisfied that I had not only forgiven
Samson but managed to convert his malign memory into a benign
force in my ministry. Indeed it was arguable that my reputation
as a bishop tough on sexual sin was the direct result of being
obliged to pick up the pieces after a catastrophic adulterous liaison.
The 1960s might have been the age of the permissive society, but
thanks to my encounter with Samson at Starbridge in 1937 I was
going to preach against immorality until I dropped dead or my
tongue fell out. After all I had endured, nursing Lyle back to a
normal life, no one could have expected
me
to endorse promiscuity
— but no one still alive knew now what I had endured in the early
days of my marriage, no one except Lyle herself and my spiritual
director, Jon Darrow.

I had had no trouble forgiving Lyle herself for this affair which
had already run into difficulties by the time I met her. It is easy
to feel compassion for someone one loves, particularly when that
someone is emotionally wrecked and verging on the suicidal. What
1 did find hard to endure was the fact that after we were married she could not love me as much as I loved her. This gradual reali
sation that she was still far more bound up with Samson than she
was willing to admit became so hard for me to bear that I was
more than willing to escape from my marriage once the war came.
Naturally I told everyone that I was volunteering to be an army
chaplain because I wanted to have a hand in Hitler’s defeat — and
this was no lie — but the whole truth was rather less palatable.
Nowadays, I dare say, I would have wound up in the divorce
court. So much for the permissive society! Young people refuse to acknowledge that there can be rewards for enduring the dark
days of a marriage; happiness is always supposed to be instan
taneous and any deferral is regarded as intolerable. Was there ever
such a flight from reality? No wonder the young resort to drugs
to ease their disorientation! They have never been taught to face
reality and endure it — or in other words, they have never been
taught how to survive. The permissive society is a phantom utopia
which promises perfect freedom and yet has all its adherents in
chains on Death Row.

The mention of chains reminds me of the three years I spent as a prisoner of war. That experience certainly taught me some lessons
about how to survive adversity, and when I returned home in 1945 I found the rewards of my long endurance were about to
begin. Samson was dead, Lyle was at last ready to be devoted to me
and a new era in my marriage had dawned. With relief I prepared to
live happily ever after, but did I? No.

I had had a tough time as a prisoner and I returned home with
my health damaged. I did manage to reconsummate the marriage,
but our efforts to produce another baby failed and tests revealed
my poor health was to blame, a diagnosis which did nothing for either my marriage or my self-esteem. Now it was Lyle who endured, Lyle who battled on, Lyle who was not loved as she should have been. She was saved from despair by the doctors’
belief that I would make a full recovery, but I languished, suffering
a reaction from my long ordeal and reduced to apathy by the well-known syndrome of survivor’s guilt. Finally an old friend of
mine, a doctor called Alan Romaine, took me aside and said: ‘You
will get better, Charles, but you’ve got to work at recovery — it’s
no good just sitting back and waiting for it to happen.’ He gave
me a diet-sheet, listing all the unrationed, nutritious foods I could
eat, and he dragooned me into taking up golf again, but I think
I was eventually cured not so much by exercise and good nutrition
as by his care and compassion.

Did Lyle and I then have our much-wanted third child and live
happily ever after? No. Lyle was by this time approaching the menopause and our daughter continued to exist only in our imaginations. Lyle became increasingly upset. I became increasingly upset. Meanwhile the two boys were big enough to be perpetually fighting, yelling and smashing everything in sight. The marriage limped on.

The reward for our endurance of this apparently endless ordeal
finally arrived when Michael followed Charley to prep school and
Lyle and I found ourselves on our own for two-thirds of the year.
It was then that the terrible truth dawned: we were happiest as a
childless couple.

I was so shocked by this revelation, contrary as it was to all the
modern Christian thinking on family life, that for a long while I
found myself unable to speak of it, even to Lyle, but eventually I
forced myself to discuss the matter with my spiritual director.

Jon reminded me that family life had not always been a Christian ideal. He also suggested that my duty was to be myself, Charles Ashworth, not some ecclesiastical robot who mindlessly toed the fashionable Church line on domestic matters.

I felt obliged to say: ‘But I can hardly preach on the joys of
being a childless couple!’


You could preach on the heroism of those who feel called to
bring up other people’s children.’

I denied being a hero, but when Jon answered: ‘You are to
Charley,’ I was comforted. Charley’s idolising of me ranked along
side Lyle’s devotion as my reward for all I had had to endure in
the early years of marriage. Moreover this hero-worship by my
adopted son went a long way towards compensating me for the
difficulties I experienced with my real son, Michael.

And now, having exposed the less palatable side of my marriage,
I must nerve myself to describe the
effect on my sons
of the skeleton
in the family closet. I need to explain why
and
how they became
the young men they were at that time in February 1965, when we
were all steaming forward towards the abyss.

 

 

 

 

IV

 

Of course I thought of Charley as my son. Of course I did.
I had married Lyle in full knowledge of the fact that he already
existed as a foetus, and I had accepted full responsibility for
him. I had brought him up. I had made him what he was. He
was mine.

Yet he was not mine. He was unlike me both physically and
temperamentally. I understood early on in his life why many adopt
ing parents go to immense trouble to find a child who bears some
chance resemblance to them. They need to forget there are no
shared genes. A benign forgetfulness makes life easier, particularly
when the child has been fathered by ‘one’s wife’s former lover.
Even after I believed Samson to be forgiven, living harmlessly in
the nostalgia drawer of my memory alongside Edward VIII, Jack
Buchanan, Harold Larwood and Shirley Temple, I could have
done without the daily reminders of that past trauma, but I taught
myself to overlook Charley’s resemblance to Samson and see
instead only his resemblance to Lyle.

The bright side of Charley’s inheritance lay in the fact that he possessed Samson’s first-class brain. This was a great delight to
me, particularly when Charley became old enough to study theology, and it made us far more compatible than we had been during
his childhood when his volatile temperament had persistently
grated on my nerves.

It had grated on Lyle’s
nerves
too. Lyle was not naturally gifted
at motherhood, and although she loved the boys she found it difficult to manage them when they were young. This lack of
m
anagement meant the boys became hard work for anyone deter
mined to become a conscientious parent – but I have no wish to
blame Lyle for this state of affairs; after all, life was hard for her during the war, particularly during those years when I was a pris
oner, and no doubt she was not alone in finding it difficult to be
the sole parent of a family. If I appear to criticise her it
is
only
because I need to explain why, when I returned home after the
war, I soon discovered that parenthood was no picnic. Probably one of the reasons why we both became so keen to celebrate the new beginning of our marriage by producing a daughter was the
belief – almost certainly misguided – that a little girl would be all sweetness and light, a compensation for the barbarity of our sons.

Another fact which exacerbated our complex family situation
was that Lyle was ill-at-ease with Charley. No doubt all manner
of guilty feelings were at work below the surface of her mind, but
the result was that she tended to escape from this unsatisfactory
relationship by idolising Michael. Charley resented this behaviour
and to prevent him being hurt I found myself paying him special
a
ttention. This in turn upset Michael, who became abnormally
demanding. Again, I have no wish to blame Lyle for triggering
these emotional disorders; she could not help feeling guilty about
Samson and muddled about Charley, but nonetheless the situation
was one which even the most gifted of fathers would have found challenging.

The final fact which aggravated our troubles was no one’s fault
at all and can only be attributed to the lottery of genetics. Michael resembled me physically but his intellect was dissimilar to mine,
and the older he grew the more incomprehensible he became to
me. It was not that he was stupid. He was just as clever as Lyle, but as he grew older we found we had nothing in common but a fondness for cricket and rugger. I minded this more than I should
have done, and when he embarked on a phase, common among
the sons of clergymen, of rejecting religion, I minded fiercely.
Meanwhile nimble-witted, intellectually stimulating, devoutly
religious Charley was ever ready to compensate me for Michael’s
shortcomings. Was it surprising that I welcomed this develop
ment? No. But Michael became jealous. He began to misbehave,
partly to grab my attention and partly to pay me back for favouring
the cuckoo in the nest. Michael thought he should come first. I
greatly regretted that he knew Charley was only his half-brother,
but once Charley had been told about Samson it had proved
impossible to keep Michael in ignorance.

I knew all adoption agencies recommended that an adopted
child should be told the truth at an early age, but I could never
bring myself to tell Charley. I had convinced myself that the truth,
an example of extreme clerical failure,
was
too unedifying to be
divulged to a child, but I knew that eventually I would have to
speak out and I knew exactly when that moment would come.
Samson had left Charley his library, the gift to take effect on
Charley’s eighteenth birthday. Samson’s widow was still alive, so
Charley did not inherit the money until later, but the books were
in storage, waiting to be claimed. Possibly I could have explained away this legacy as the generous gesture of a childless old man,
but there was a letter. I knew there was a letter because Samson’s
solicitor had spoken of it; he was keeping it in his firm’s safe for
presentation along with the storage papers. Lyle said I had to get
hold of the letter and give it to Charley myself. The solicitor hesi
tated, but after all, we were a clerical couple who could be trusted
to behave properly. The letter arrived.


Steam it open,’ said Lyle, confounding his expectations.

We were at Cambridge at the time. It was 1956, the year before
I was offered the Starbridge bishopric, and I was still the Lyttelton Professor of Divinity. Charley was away at school but due home
on a weekend exeat in order to celebrate his birthday. We were
breakfasting in the kitchen when the letter arrived. I remember
feeling sick at the sight of Samson’s writing on the envelope, and
this reaction startled me. A communication from Edward VIII,
Jack Buchanan, Harold Larwood or Shirley Temple would never
have induced feelings of nausea.

Meanwhile Lyle had refilled the kettle and was boiling some
more water for the steaming operation.

I did manage to say strongly: ‘It’s quite unthinkable that I should
steam open this letter,’ but Lyle just said: ‘If you won’t I will,’ and removed the letter from my hands. I was then told that after all I
had done for Charley I had a right to know the contents, and
somehow I found myself unable to argue convincingly to the con
trary. Nausea is not conducive to skilled debate. Neither is fear, and
at that point I was very afraid that my relationship with Charley –
that just reward for my past suffering – would be damaged beyond
repair by this potentially devastating assault from the past.

Lyle read the letter and wept.

I said: ‘it’s quite unthinkable that I should read a single word
of it.’ But I did. I read one word. And another. And after that I
gave up trying to put the letter down. As I read I automatically
moved closer to the sink in case I was overcome with the need to
vomit.


It’s all about how wonderful you are,’ said Lyle, unable to find
a handkerchief and snuffling into a tea-towel.

‘How very embarrassing.’ This traditional public-school
response to any situation which flouted the British tradition of
emotional understatement was utterly inadequate but no other
phrase sprang to mind at such an agonising moment. The grave,
simple, dignified sentences skimmed past my eyes and streamed through my defences so that in the end I was incapable of uttering
word. I could only think: this is a very great letter from a very
Christian man. But I had no idea what to make of this thought.
I could not cope with it. Vilely upset I reached the signature at the bottom of the last page, dropped the letter on the draining-
board and waited by the sink for the vomiting to commence, but
nothing happened.


Well, you don’t have to worry, do you?’ I heard Lyle say at last.
‘Everything’s going to be all right.’

I suddenly realised that this was true. Weak with relief I picked
up the letter and read it again. Samson had made no paternal
claims. My role in Charley’s life was affirmed, not undermined.
The writer assumed all responsibility for the past tragedy and said
he quite accepted that he had been unfit to play any part in
Charley’s upbringing, but he still hoped that Charley would accept
the books and later the money
as a gift.
They came with no obliga
tion to respect the donor. The writer realised he had no right to
demand any benign response. He wanted above all to stress how
immensely grateful and happy he was that Charley should have
been brought up by .. .

I stopped reading, folding the letter carefully and put it back in
the envelope. I did not want his praise. I did not want him offering Charley the kind of selfless love which expected nothing in return.
And above all else I did not want him making my wife cry and
reminding us both unbearably of the past.


Very nice,’ I said. ‘Very sporting of him not to upset the apple-
cart.’ The dreadful middle-class banalities sounded hideously false
but at least they were safe. The next moment I said: ‘He’s got no business coming back like this. He should stay locked up in the
1930s where he belongs.’ That was not safe at all. That was a most
dangerous thing to say, indicative of some convoluted state which could never be allowed to see the light of day, but Lyle was coming
to my rescue, Lyle was saying: ‘We’ll lock him up again. Once all this is over we’ll put him back in the 1930s where he belongs.’

And that
was
that.

Or was it?