Magazine article The Spectator

Decline and Ascent

Magazine article The Spectator

Decline and Ascent

Article excerpt

Decline and ascent FATHER JOE: THE MAN WHO SAVED MY SOUL by Tony Hendra Hamish Hamilton, £16.99, pp. 288, ISBN 0241143144 £14.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

As a rule I decline to review books by old friends: it puts either one's integrity or the friendship at risk. I make an exception of Father Joe because I first read it six months ago, prior to its publication in New York and, while not as overwhelmed as many American reviewers - Andrew Sullivan in the New York Times Book Review placed it in 'the first tier of spiritual memoirs ever written' - I did find it an exceptional book that merits its success in the United States.

Tony Hendra is the son of an English stained-glass artist from a working-class background, and a mother of Irish though she liked to pretend it was Scottish - extraction. He was raised as a Catholic and at the age of 14 was almost seduced by a married woman in the parish. The husband, after catching them in flagrante delicto, took Hendra for a spiritual dressing down to a Benedictine monk, Dom Joseph Warrilow, at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. Instead of a stern Catholic disciplinarian, Hendra found in this monk a man who was kind, wise and understanding. Thus started a lifelong friendship with Father Joe.

At the age of 18 Hendra won an Exhibition to St John's College, Cambridge. He only accepted the place at Father Joe's insistence: he wanted instead to become a monk at Quarr. I too was an undergraduate at St John's: there are two flattering paragraphs about me in this book. I remember Hendra as a farouche character - articulate, intelligent, invested with intimidating energy and constantly wrestling with conflicting drives towards a life of Rabelaisian indulgence and a monastic vocation. He always seemed angry.

By his last year at Cambridge he had channelled that rage into iconoclastic lampoons, joining the circle of satirists at the Cambridge Footlights, deciding to 'save the world through laughter' rather than prayer. He had also discovered sex and his girlfriend, Judy Christmas, a fellow student and talented actress, became pregnant. They got married, went to America and there had a second child.

What follows is a powerful, intelligent, witty, stimulating and often moving account of Hendra's fall from grace. In worldly terms he was a success, editing the National Lampoon and Spy magazine, co-founding Spitting Image on British television and starring in the film satirising a touring pop group, This is Spinal Tap. …

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