A Room With a View

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The View

The excited cries and yells of the teenagers echoed down the narrow, winding stone staircase and into our tiny hotel room where we were trying, unsuccessfully, to unpack without bumping into one another. We had just arrived at the Porta Rossa Hotel in Florence, a 13th century building that looked as though it hadn’t been renovated in all the centuries since. It was a kind of Italian Fawlty Towers, only with a real tower. We hurried up the stairs to find the source of the excitement. A rat in their room wouldn’t have been out of place in this medieval pile. Continue reading “A Room With a View”

My Love Affair with Gerard Manley Hopkins

Last Saturday I watched the funeral service for Senator John McCain at the National Cathedral. I really tuned in because I wanted to hear President Obama’s eulogy, but I was soon drawn in by the beauty and dignity of the ceremony. The music was magnificent, particularly John Rutter’s setting of The Lord is my Shepherd and Renee Fleming’s Oh Danny Boy. Several speakers mentioned McCain’s love of literature, but I could not have been more surprised by his choice of a reading from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The chosen passage was from As Kingfishers Catch Fire beginning with the line “the just man justices.” One rarely hears mention of Hopkins in public life in America and Continue reading “My Love Affair with Gerard Manley Hopkins”

Fish N’ Chips N’ a Stripper

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“Now I can tell you what happened,” whispered my husband Mel when the children had finished eating and gone to play in the other room. He did have a strange expression on his face when he came back from the Fish N’ Chip shop with our dinner, a cat that ate the canary kind of smirk, but he said nothing until the children were out of earshot. It was his first visit to England and we were staying with my mother in the house where I grew up on Marks Gate Estate in Chadwell Heath. We were all tired after a long day of sight-seeing in London and nobody felt like cooking. So Mel offered to go round the corner to the Fish N’ Chip shop on Rose Lane and pick up dinner. He felt proud that he could go it alone, having spent a couple of weeks getting used to deciphering the London accent. He had also learned about ordering fish and chips, that you have to specify the kind of fish and that one of the choices is plaice, a fish unknown in America. But it turned out that the timing of his expedition would give him quite a different immersion in English culture. Continue reading “Fish N’ Chips N’ a Stripper”

The Cousins Lunch

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Cousins Brian and Rita at lunch in New York

“Let me get this straight,” said my husband as he dropped me off at our local Metro station. “You’re going to New York to meet a guy you met on the internet?” We laughed. What he said was literally true, but it wasn’t quite as foolish as it sounded. I did meet Brian on the internet but it was on ancestry.com, not Tinder or some such shady meeting place. Though I suppose statistically a long lost second cousin is just as likely to be a serial killer as any random stranger. But Ancestry declared us a DNA match and we have nuns in common on our family trees. Surely a sign of divine favor. So I waved goodbye to Continue reading “The Cousins Lunch”

Brass Rubbing

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Brass rubbings above the bookcase in my living room. On the right are Sir John and Lady Joan de la Pole

The line on the job application, paper in those days, asked “What are your hobbies?” I hesitated. The one piece of advice about job hunting I remembered from library school was “Never say your favorite hobby is reading.” Curious advice to give aspiring librarians, perhaps, but the idea was to avoid the impression you thought librarianship was just sitting around reading. You must project serious professionalism, information services not novel reading, people skills not shrinking violets hiding behind the covers of a book. But reading was in fact my hobby. Pretty much my only hobby. So I had to give Continue reading “Brass Rubbing”

Church and State, Skirt and Flag

For the benefit of new readers who did not follow me in my Dabbler days, this is the first in a series of favorite posts from the Dabbler Archives.  This piece first appeared in The Dabbler on August 31st 2011.

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I could not have chosen a more eventful time for my first visit to America than the summer of 1969. Americans were still reeling from the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the disastrous Democratic Convention the year before. Richard Nixon was President and the word “quagmire” was being used about the Vietnam War. There was an edge of danger in the air. I felt as though I had departed a world of smudgy grays and entered a vivid Technicolor movie. Los Angeles was all bright, searing light and straight lines dissolving into a yellowish smog. Everywhere enormous, garish plastic creatures loomed, the icons of consumer culture, making the city seem one vast Disneyland. Baking heat Continue reading “Church and State, Skirt and Flag”

On My Bookshelf – Slant Manifesto

Slant Manifesto

Subtitled Catholics and the Left this worn little paperback sits on my bookshelf like a relic of another age. It was a time when English Catholics looked to Marxist thought to inspire a full expression of their faith. Released in 1966 by the Catholic publishers Sheed and Ward, Slant Manifesto is a compilation of writings by the founders of Slant. Slant was a journal published from 1964 to 1970 by a group of Catholic Cambridge undergraduates and Dominican priests, many of whom went on to become leading intellectuals and theologians. In the introduction to the Manifesto Neil Middleton explains that the group “is engaged in the exploration of the idea that Christian commitment at the moment carries with it the obligation to be socialist.” A sample of the chapter headings is a rough Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – Slant Manifesto”

On My Bookshelf – A Flap of Nuns

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I’m in the back row second from the left.

A Flap of Nuns isn’t  the title of a book on my bookshelf. The term is one of the collective nouns in James Lipton’s classic An Exaltation of Larks. I use it here as a means of confession that I own far too many books about nuns than you would expect of a lapsed Catholic and firm agnostic. But once a convent schoolgirl always a convent schoolgirl in some sense. I was educated by nuns from the age of seven to eighteen, first at St. Mary’s Convent in Romford and then at Brentwood Ursuline Convent High School. If it were up to me the collective noun for nuns would not be Flap, it would be Clack, for the distinctive sound of rosary beads, worn hanging from the waist, rattling and clacking as Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – A Flap of Nuns”

That Was The Year That Was

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Long ago and far away in the England of the 1960’s television political satire was born. I was fourteen years old, precociously interested in current events, and allowed to stay up late to watch That Was The Week That Was. TW3 as it was known first aired on Saturday November 24th 1962. The star was a young David Frost and I was soon helplessly in love, my first big crush. The show was revolutionary. The hitherto staid and cautious BBC Continue reading “That Was The Year That Was”