Magazine article The Spectator

Seeing the Light

Magazine article The Spectator

Seeing the Light

Article excerpt

HOLY SMOKE by Libby Purves

Hodder, L14.99, pp. 200

There are aspects of this book which may put the reader off, particularly The Spectator reader. To start with, there is the title. It has the slightly out-of-date facetiousness of posters outside evangelical churches or books by Tory politicians (Inside Right, Centre Forward).

Then there is the attack on grand English Catholics, Brideshead Revisited and the late Monsignor Alfred Gilbey. Of Gilbey, Libby Purves writes: `In his last years he was adopted with passion as a mascot by the new fogeyism, The Spectator tendency' and it is this rather than `poor dead Monsignor Gilbey' himself that the author really dislikes:

The `right kind of young man', poseurs, nostalgics, Brideshead-junkies, escaped High Anglicans on the run from women priests, and generally creepy misogynist incensewaggers.

I have an uncomfortable feeling that if Miss Purves had to identify an individual representative of this `Spectator tendency' it would be me. Certainly my two successors as editor are utterly free of the taint of which she complains, and so were my predecessors. The present editor may have had this in mind when he asked me to review the book.

The author tells us that when `on the bowsprit of the Brixham sailing trawler Lome Leader just off the Ardnamurchan Point, if you must know', she experienced a `definitely religious moment' in which she decided never again to nurse hatred, enmity or resentment towards anyone. She adds, therefore, `If you think this is a god-awful book and review it with such deadly skill that I burst into tears ... I shall forgive you.'

But I fear I have to disappoint the editor and speak well of this book, and not only because I do not wish to be forgiven by Libby Purves. She is, by her own admission, rather unfair towards the Gilbeyites. She knows that they are not necessarily worse than anyone else: it is just that she lacks sympathy for them, sympathy in its exact sense of fellow feeling. This leads her, I think, to be unobservant of them. Lord St John of Fawsley, for example, will be pleased to find himself described as 'a toff, and everyone else will be surprised. All I would say is that Alfred Gilbey, whom I only knew very slightly, may have had some silly views and certainly had some embarrassing acolytes, but he was a good man. He was kind and he devoted his life to the practice and preaching of his faith. …

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