I was brought up to be an ardent believer in the religion of this ageutopianism. My father used to read aloud to us on Sunday evenings from books like William Morris's Earthly Paradise, a title which lingered in my mind as having some special significance over and above the text. I remember the scene vividly our suburban sitting-room in South Croydon, my mother asleep in her chair, my father's voice rising and falling vigorously. He liked reading aloud; everything to do with the spoken word, especially public speaking, appealed to him. My clearest memory of him is at open-air meetings, with his words rising above the noise of traffic as he held forth about the splendid world that lay ahead when once the power of capitalism had been broken, and the public good, not private cupidity, governed and directed the works, thoughts and aspirations of mankind. I see and hear him now, a small bearded figure with broad shoulders, raised on a platform, his voice rather harsh, but penetrating; the meagre audience gathered round him, for the most part ribald or indifferent, with a few zealots in the front row. How proud I was, from my earliest years, to be one of these, exaggeratedly applauding every point he made and laughing uproariously at every joke!
To me it all seemed absolutely clear and incontrovertible. I rode in Croydon's municipal trams with a serene inward confidence that the free-enterprise buses were doomed to succumb to their challenge. I shopped for my mother in the local co-op store with a similar confidence that the lure of divi would soon capture all the business from rival, profit-making enterprises. Government secondary schools of the kind that I attended would, I was confident, provide the enlightened citizenry for our New Jerusalem when it came to pass. I joyously addressed envelopes and distributed leaflets and posters when my father was standing as a Labour candidate for the local borough council; I rang door-bells, and explained to the often irate housewife who answered that a vote for him was a vote for a better worldI did not say for paradise, but that was what I meant. I listened avidly and ecstatically when, on Saturday evenings, my father and his cronies discussed how this better world was to be brought to pass. They were mostly City clerks like myself, belonging to the lower middle class, who had moved from the Chapel with its remote expectation of a heavenly sequel to a virtuous life, into the bright glare of Fabian and Socialist certainties that tomorrow or the day after heaven could be made to exist on earth. It sometimes happened that, as I listened, I dozed or fell asleep, to be brusquely awakened and sent to bed. Their ardent words mingled with my private dreams, so that if I muttered in my sleep, more likely than not, it would be about the public ownership of the means of production, or the nationalisation of the railways and the banks.
At the same time I had a sense, sometimes enormously vivid, that I was a stranger in a strange land; a visitor, not a native. My first conscious recollection of life is of walking down the street in Sanderstead where we then lived (it must have been in about 1909, when I was six) in someone else's hat, and wondering who I was. Then, some thirty-five years later, at Allied Headquarters in Algiers, a colonel explained to me how the term 'displaced person' had been decided upon for all the various individuals who had already found, or would shortly find, themselves, as it were, loose in the worldwithout nationality, or place of residence, or even identity; only a vague awareness of being ostensibly such a person, born of such parents, at such a time, and now no one and belonging nowhere. As he went on talkinga rather heavy man, as I recall, running to stoutness, in an over-tight battle-dress with red tabsit seemed to me that this was the sickest of sick expressions; an emanation of a sick world, which, as victory approached, came to seem sicker than ever.
Then I thought: After all, I'm a displaced person myself, and always have been one, from the beginning. The feeling, I was surprised to find, gave me a great sense of satisfaction, almost of ecstacyI also in battle-dress, though with no red tabs; supposed to be fighting a war with someone or other about something or other (Oh, Churchill! Oh, finest hour !); engaged allegedly in liberating captive nations and laying low the oppressor (Help is on the way! and then that string of displaced national anthems! - I, a D.P. I was reminded of the incident when I read about how Simone Weil in Portugal, visiting a very poor fishing village near LisbonCascais, maybeon the day of its patron saint, happened to watch the women going in procession to the ships, carrying candles and chanting ' what must certainly be very ancient hymns of a heart-rending sadness.' There, the certainty suddenly came to her 'that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help adhering to it, and I among the others.' I cannot pretend that I had a similar certainty that Christianity is pre-eminently for D.P.s, and therefore for me. None the less, my awareness of being a D.P. made me feel uplifted in that desolate Headquarters and in the company of that ungainly colonel. Subsequently, I was to learn that You are to be found in the lowest, darkest depths, and that all who find You are thereby transported to the loftiest, brightest heights.
This sense of being a stranger, which first came to me at the very beginning of my life, I have never quite lost, however engulfed I might be, at particular times and in particular circumstances, in the pursuits of this worldwhether through cupidity, vanity or sensuality; three chains which bind us, three goads which drive us, three iron gates which isolate us in the tiny, dark dungeon of our ego. For me there has always been and I count it the greatest of all blessingsa window never finally blacked out, a light never finally extinguished. Days or weeks or months might pass. Would it never returnthe lostness? I strain my ears to hear it, like distant music; my eyes to see it, a very bright light very far away. Has it gone for ever? And thenah! the relief. Like slipping away from a sleeping embrace, silently shutting a door behind one, tiptoeing off in the grey light of dawna stranger again. The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realise, is to feel ourselves to be at home here on earth. As long as we are aliens we cannot forget our true homeland, which is that other kingdom You proclaimed.
Though the religion of my home and childhood was so completely secular, I had a notion of You and a feeling about the Bibleso much so that in some weird superstitious way I would put it under my pillow at night opened at certain places. How I came to do this I have no idea, and I cannot now remember what the places were, though I think one of them may have been the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians. I have always been bad at sleeping, and as a childindeed, well into manhoodI was subject to nightmares. Perhaps the Bible under my pillow was intended to be some sort of protection when the night got into my head. The nightmares, incidentally, were nearly always the sameI was imprisoned in a dark place, and felt a frenzied desire to get out into the light. Once, so dreaming, I actually put my arm through the glass of my bedroom window to get out, and awoke with blood gushing out of a cut vein. I have the scar still.
My notion of You was the conventional non-sectarian one of the timea superlatively good man, gentle and unworldly, who was done to death by the sort of people who voted Conservative and became aldermen or Justices of the Peace. If You were not actually a paid-up member of the Labour Party, it was only because there didn't happen to be a Labour Party in Galilee when You lived there. By driving the money-changers out of the temple You clearly showed that You were against capitalism; if the money-changers had been nationalised like the Post Offfice, or state-registered like a betting-shop, they would doubtless have been unobjectionable. My picture of You derived, I should suppose, from popular prints like Holman Hunt's 'The Light of the World'was long-haired, with the hair parted in the middle, bearded and wearing a crown of thorns, the eyes long-suffering and full of love despite the wrongs that had been done You, Your clothing likewise following the style usual in Bible illustrationsa sort of long coloured tunic. Your death at the hands of the authorities seemed entirely fitting. If You came back to earth, then surely, my father and his cronies concluded with my full approbation, the same fate would befall You as before; the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chief Justice and other dignitaries would see to that.
It is curious to reflect that this concept of You as a dedicated progressive and freedom-fighter is now generally approved in most clerical, and even ecclesiastical, circles. As I have found, pointing out that You resolutely refused to attach Yourself to earthly causes like Jewish nationalism, and refrained from denouncing injustices and inequalities of the time, such as slavery, amounts almost to blasphemy today. Nothing, it seems, can save You from joining Lords Soper and MacLeod on the Labour Benches in the House of Lords. Nor is it any use quoting Your own words about the tribulations and illusory hopes of this world; the new translations of the Gospels and Epistles provide a ready instrument for a continuous process ofto use the highly relevant Communist termrevisionism, whereby any position, from Lady Chatterley to squalling campus hipsters, can conveniently be incorporated in Your message. It was bad enough when the clergy identified themselves with the social and political status quo; now that they are ready to support any deviation from it, and champion anyone who can produce credentials, however dubious, of being down-trodden and oppressed, it is even worse. If there is one thing more unedifying than a ruling class in a position of dominance, it is a ruling class like ours on the run. They are capable of every folly and misjudgment, mistake their enemies for friends, and, of course, vice versa, and feel bound to go out of their way to encourage whatever and whoever seeks their destruction. In their forefront today one notes a bizarre contingent of crazed figures in purple and black cassocks.
Though I completely accepted the image of You derived from my father and his cronies, I had some sort of awareness from the very beginning that Your life was tragic in the sense that Lear's was, or Macbeth's. I understood dimly that this tragic You was to be seen as being in a quite different category from the progressive one. Your unique tragedy was to do with blood as I had seen it, peeping in at the local slaughter-house; red and warm and terrible, and at the same time, it seemed, cleansing and sanctifying. Washed in the blood of the lamb! somehow the phrase, probably from a revivalist hymn, had got into my head. I brooded over it and wondered about it; horrified at the notion, and yet also vaguely aware of what was signified by the Atonementa sacrificial death, someone dying that others might live. Many years after, in Australia, I happened to be present at a sheep shearing. As the lambs looked up with their gentle frightened eyes, it quite often happened that the mechanical shears drew blood. The sight agitated me abnormallythe blood so red against wool so soft and white. Why did I feel as though I had seen it before, long ago? Why was the sight somehow familiar to me? Then my mind went back to the slaughter-house, and to being washed in the blood of the lamb. That was itthe sacrificial lamb, Agnus Dei.
My father would certainly have described himself as an essentially religious man. Like many early supporters of the Labour Party he had come in via the Chapel, and his mental attitudes continued to the end of his life to bear strong traces of nonconformityin his case, Congregationalism. Even to this day the style of Labour Party oratory and official gatherings is more reminiscent of Methodism than Marxism. None the less, my father and his cronies took up an agnostic position; they liked making jokes about 'God Almighty' which were mildly shocking to my mother, who stubbornly maintained some sort of Christian orthodoxy. On one occasion she remarked to me with great emphasis, when I had been expressing doubts about the story of Daniel in the lions' den: 'If Daniel isn't true then nothing is.' I paid more heed to an observation of my father's delivered on numerous occasions, that he disliked the cross as he did any other gibbet. This seemed to me extremely amusing, and I tried it out myself on my fellow schoolboys, though without much effect one way or the other; they were neither amused nor shocked.
Raising a laugh by being shocking was a large element in the agnosticism of early Socialists like my father. A similar technique half a century later gave the B.B.C. television programme That Was the week That Was, and all its derivatives, their great appeal. Truly I have lived to see the poor jokes of my near-proletarian childhood become the wit of the reluctant bourgeoisie of my late middle-age. How often Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and the other young satirists of the fifties and sixties have carried me back to our little suburban sitting-room, and my father and his cronies holding forth about the Establishment's grotesque villainies and Anglican Christianity's fatuities! The first story I ever wrotein printed letters when I was very youngwas about a train which, to the delight of the passengers, went zooming along through station after station without stopping, until it failed to stop at their particular stations. Then they yelled and howled in protest, but it made no impression on the engine-driver, who just took the train roaring on. It was only long afterwards that I understood what the story meant.
Despite my father's ostensible agnosticism, we had quite an acquaintanceship among Anglican clergymen and dissenting ministers. These were Labour sympathisers prepared under certain circumstances to take the chair at our meetings. We were glad to have them; their presence provided a certain guarantee of respectabilityor so we supposedwhich in those far-off days was sorely needed. We were still liable to be charged with being believers in 'free love', the abolition of marriage and the family, and other, as they were then considered, disreputable causes. Though we indignantly denied these charges, claiming that our moral standards were decidedly higher than our accusers', some of them stuck. The Soviet regime's early ebullient attitude to marriage, divorce and abortion was used against us, and certain individuals belonging to our own flockDr Aveling, Marx's son-in-law, and H. G. Wells were extreme exampleswere vulnerable in this respect. Closer at hand, there was the Whiteway Colony, near Stroud in Gloucestershire, started and conducted by some of my father's friends and associates, where marriage and money were both eschewed as bourgeois-capitalist abominations. I had spent some months near Whiteway in my ninth year, when I developed symptoms of tuberculosis, and was ordered by the doctor to be in the country. So I knew that the colonists were given to nude bathing and other interesting but unconventional behaviour. My father went out of his way to hold them up to friendly ridicule as being more absurd than immoral, and did not allow our association with them to blunt our indignant repudiation of any propensity to preach or practise sexual promiscuity. I should suppose that my father's actual behaviour was impeccably virtuous whatever he might say about bourgeois morality. But successive Labour governments have introduced permissive legislation on matters like homosexuality, abortion and divorce, which could be taken as justifying the charges of moral turpitude made against the Labour movement in its early days. At the same time, the Soviet regime has turned into one of the few strongholds of puritanism in the mid-twentieth century. This has led to considerable confusion on the Left. If it is part of enlightenment to be tolerant of homosexuals, sexual promiscuity and marital infidelity, how can this be combined with admiring the U.S.S.R., where perversion, eroticism and divorce are looked at askance? Such complexities lay ahead. In my childhood years there seemed no possible question but that we were the true exponents of virtue, both private and public; the true heirs of the Christian tradition, even though we had thrown overboard Christian dogmas along with the Christian deity.
The clergymen and ministers who were prepared to join with us on this basis conformed to a type, rare enough then, but now prevalent, if not pretty well universal, in all denominations, with the possible exception of the Roman Catholics, though since Pope John's Ecumenical Council, multiplying rapidly among them, too. They visited us from time to time, and I can remember them well: men in black suits, pipe-smokers for the most part; a bit restless in their places, fidgety, and somehow how can I put it?coarse and 'physical'; their breathing heavy their tongues very red and their lips very full, their laughter and their talk over-eager. I found them repulsive. They represented, one can now see, the beginning of a powerful tide which was to sweep through the churches, transforming exhortation into demagogy, creeds into political programmes, and transcendentalism into utopianism. All we wanted of them was that they should grace our gatherings with their cloth, and this they were prepared to do. Behind their backs, we ridiculed their compliance and gullibility, but to their faces we were polite and respectful. My own feelings about them was crystallised in Moscow in the early thirties when I had occasion to show one of them round an anti-God museum. As we moved from one exhibit to another, pausing before the books displayed long enough for their blasphemous titles to be translated, I wondered when a sense of shock or disapproval would register on his amiable countenance. It never did; with his broad expanse of clerical collar shining in the late autumn sunshine, he departed even more cheerfully than he came. In the light of this and other like experiences, I have come to regard clerical Christianity and its officers as totally farcicalas Kierkegaard puts it, a folding screen behind which the Christian evades the real strenuousness of being a Christian. Momentarily, I have to admit, with Protestant romanticism I toyed with the notion that the Roman Catholic Church, with its longer tradition, tougher discipline and more rigid doctrine, would prove an exception, and manage to resist the Gadarene slide on which the other denominations had embarked so blithely and disastrously. How mistaken I was! Already most of the Nonconformist denominations are at their last gasp, and the Church of England is sustained only by the ostensible importance that is derived from its connection with the State. It will be surprising now if the Roman Church does not find itself in a similar case in a matter of years rather than decadeslike N.A.T.O., a headquarters without any armies. No doubt the Ecumenical movement will be stimulated by this sense of corporate weakness, but it is unlikely that unity brought about on such a basis will prove either enduring or a source of additional strengthrather, if anything, the reverse.
In the no-man's-land between the churches and progressive politics there existed institutions like Brotherhoods and Socialist Sunday Schools; vaguely 'religious' in character, but eschewing transcendentalism of every kind; a sort of agnosticism sweetened by hymns. My father was a favourite speaker at Brotherhood meetings. His particular blend of political idealism and religiosity from his Chapel days was just what was wanted. In any case he, too, rather liked speaking from a pulpit. Had he been born some decades earlier I think he would have been a preacher rather than a political propagandist. When, later on he became a Member of Parliament I was surprised to notice how little to his taste were the stratagems and devices of machine politics in which he was necessarily involved. He was most at home with moral issues a self-indulgence I have inherited. Of our local Socialist Sunday School I have only the dimmest memory, and cannot have attended more than once or twice. We sang hymns of sorts, and reverently considered the brotherhood of man; there were readings from News from Nowhere and, I think, Winwood Reade's The Martyrdom of Man; we were exhorted to renounce the devil of capitalism and all his works, and confidently await our reward in the coming of the New Jerusalem in the shape of a Socialist Co operative Commonwealth. My recollection is that, apart from the absence of any reference to a deity, the procedure was indistinguishable from that of any other Protestant Sunday School. There was even a collection.
The Quakers also welcomed my father as a speaker, and I vividly remember going to a Friends' Meeting House with him. During the period of quiet meditation, as I observed, he bowed his head with the others; when he came to address them, it was in quieter accents than he normally adopted. To me, the Quakers symbolised riches; my mother would whisper to me how wealthy they were, and it was true, as I knew, that a good part of my father's election expenses would be contributed by his Quaker friends and admirers. Their sober but expensive clothes, their simple but well-appointed houses, filled me with awe mixed with distaste. I detected, as I thought, something worldly in their unworldliness; a kind of oatmeal sensuality in their austerity, something greedy in their self-abnegation
In any case, I was generally uneasy, not just about Quakers, but about this whole concept of a Jesus of good causes. I would catch a glimpse of a crossnot necessarily a crucifix; maybe two pieces of wood accidentally nailed together, on a telegraph pole for instanceand suddenly my heart would stand still. In an instinctive, intuitive way I understood that something more important, more tumultuous, more passionate, was at issue than our good causes, however admirable they might be. Something to do with the deep, inner nature of life itselfmine, and all life. Something inescapable, pursuing and pursued, for ever beyond my reach and yet under my hand; part of the air I breathed, and lost in the wide firmament above. As was to happen to me so often, I found in Blake the exact words:
To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
I can remember the first time my eyes rested on lines by Blake (actually, 'Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time'), and the extraordinary feeling I had of some unique distillation of understanding and joy, a unique revelation of life's very innermost meaning and significance.
I find it more difficult to recall and recount the feelings I had about the cross even before it meant anything to me as such. It was, I know, an obsessive interest; something I avidly sought out, as inflamed senses do erotica. I might fasten bits of wood together myself, or doodle it. This symbol, which was considered to be derisory in my home, was yet also the focus of inconceivable hopes and desireslike a lost love's face, pulled out and gazed at with sick longing. As I remember this, a sense of my own failure lies leadenly upon me. I should have worn it over my heart; carried it, a precious standard never to be wrested out of my hands; even though I fell, still borne aloft. It should have been my cult, my uniform, my language, my life. I shall have no excuse; I can't say I didn't know. I knew from the beginning, and turned away. The lucky thieves were crucified with their Saviour; You called me, and I didn't gothose empty years, those empty words, that empty passion !
A south London suburb in the years of the I9I4-I8 war which was where I spent my childhoodprovided a rootless, faithless, and, I should suppose, rather sick environment. The hysteria of violence was very much in the air; military bands played the soldiers who were leaving for the front to the railway station; officers on leave caroused at the Greyhound Hotel, and women on war work exuded a randy tang which I sensed, without understanding, other than vaguely, what it signified. It was, as I now see, a manner of life which was to become general made up of lights rather than substances, of movement rather than settlement. We schoolboys had the freedom of the streets by day and by night; the vast holocaust taking place across the Channelsometimes vaguely heard in a distant roar of guns, or dimly seen in a silver zeppelin gliding across the sky leaving a trail of noise and fireseemed in our eyes a stupendous spectacle in which, if only it went on long enough, there was a part for us. Greatly daring, I even, in my sixteenth year, timorously went into a recruiting office to volunteer, but withdrew in confusion when asked for a birth certificate. If, outwardly, out of reverence for my father, I shared his sombre mood when he scanned the long casualty lists, and echoed his hopes that the projected League of Nations would make this war one to end war and usher in a better, juster world, inside me I only longed that peace might be delayed until I, too, had donned a uniform like my older brothers, seen men die, and found a hero's comfort and recompense in the arms of lovely women.
Such unrealised hopes lingered on until, some two decades later, they seemed about to be belatedly realised; but by then, I was already middle-aged; any available lovely women were likewise well past their springtime, and the new war, in any case proved to be a non-war as far as we were concerned fought elsewhere, by other arms than ours; a conflict outside our provenance, opera-bouffe whose comic captains and seedy kings were most reluctant to depart. The other, earlier war, regrettably from my point of view, duly ended. From the open top of a bus threading its way laboriously through the teeming streets, I watched the scenes of celebration. It was the first time I had seen what human beings are like when they cast aside all restraintshouting, grimacing, flushed, extravagant in their jubilation. The scene with its apocalyptic flavour recalled to me vividly the lurid Dore illustrations in an edition of Dante's Inferno among my father's books whose pages I often turned over.
Religious instruction, so called, at first my elementary, and then my secondary school, consisted of Bible stories and secular moral tales, suspended in favour of mental arithmetic when examinations or government inspectors loomed. I maintained an attitude of detached contempt, as befitted the son of a Socialist and agnostic, and enjoyed airing my view that the Bible was demonstrably untrue, and the moral tales a mean device to keep the downtrodden and oppressed content with their lot. At morning prayers the headmaster often made us repeat 'Hallowed be Thy name' three or four times to get the aspirate rightwhich on one occasion induced me, in fear and trembling, but with outward bravado, to raise my hand in class afterwards and ask whether it was considered that the deity was as particular about sounding our aitches as the headmaster. The smile of the teacher and the giggles of my classmates made me feel pleased with myself, but even then my satisfaction was touched with a nagging worry that I had been in some incomprehensible way cheap and disloyalto what or to whom I had no idea. The same sort of experience has befallen me again and again. On how many mornings have I, like Peter, heard the cock crow thrice with an aching heart! Even in those far-off days most of the elementary and secondary school teachers would have called themselves free-thinkers, and were already assiduously preparing the way for the climate of prevailing agnosticism today. A future social historian is likely to decide that the most powerful instrument of all in bringing about the erosion of our civilisation was none other than the public education system set up with such high hopes and at so great expense precisely to sustain it.
Through a school friend I got into the way of occasionally attending the services in a Congregational chapel near my home. It was a grey stone building in neo-gothic style with a tall steeple. The minister, a man from the Hebrides with a long white beard, seemed to me a prophetic figure, but my true motive for attending his services was to look at girlssomething a good deal less easily attainable then than it is today. As I devoutly bent my head in prayer I would peer through my fingers at a girl's head similarly bent, brooding on her unresponsiveness to my passion, perhaps even unawareness of it; on her female body, warm and hidden, under her clothes. The officers' uniforms in the congregationthere would always be one or two at least who were home on leaveinevitably put an amorous schoolboy in the shade; after the service, lurking noisily and hopefully in the street outside, I was left to make my way home alone. Of the service itself I remember little except the hearty hymns and tremulously ardent voice of the bearded minister. Even then it was a dying cult; already the life was draining out of itthose heavy wooden pews emptying, the pulpit words losing whatever fire they still had, likewise the reading from the majestic Bible on its brass rest. Fewer and fewer would, as the years passed, remain in their places to swallow the little cubes of bread and sip the unfermented wine of the Last Supper.
The tide of the twentieth century was flowing in a different direction altogether. It was the picture palaces, their fronts so brilliantly lighted, inside so mysteriously dark, that provided our true churches and chapels. There we sat, separately or clasped together, in scented darkness (in those days attendants during intervals squirted perfume like Flit over the heads of the patrons in their seats) and worshipped our tribal godssex, money and violenceas they were projected on to the screen and entered into our own minds and bodies. Thus the new gospel was propoundedin the beginning was the Flesh and the Flesh became Word; to be carnally minded is lifedying in the Spirit to be re-born in the Flesh. There was no more ardent acolyte than I, and yet, trudging homewards late at night along the empty tram-lines, a fearful sense of desolation would fall upon me. I strained my ear, but heard only the sound of my own footsteps; I peered ahead, but saw nothing except the tramlines reaching into the distance. And Youwhere were You then ? Ready ! the answer comes backready, but unsummoned.
In 1920, when I was seventeen, I went to Cambridge, rather, as it seems in retrospect, in fulfilment of my father's aspirations than of mine. It was he, not I, who spoke of an Alma Mater, of sporting one's oak, etc., etc. His Fabian heroes, in their tweed suits and ample coloured ties, with their enriched voices and flow of eager words, seemed to him the flower of mankind, and
he hoped that Cambridge would make me another such. Alas, dear man, it was not to be. His innocent snobbishness, of a kind very prevalent in the Labour Party, then as now, led him, without his being aware of it, to want to have me made in the image of all that, as a Socialist, he most deplored. I thought of this years later when Lord Snow, after a spirited recommendation of comprehensive schools to his fellow-peers, let out that he was sending his own son to Eton. Only as children of God are we equal; all other claims to equalitysocial, economic, racial, intellectual, sexualonly serve in practice to intensify inequality. For this reason Your commandment to love our fellow men follows after, and depends upon, the commandment to love God. How marvellous is the love thus attainedthe faces looming up, young and old, sullen and gay, beautiful and plain, clever and stupid, black, pink and grey; all brothers and sisters, all equally dear!
My college (Selwyn) was full of ordinands, most of them ex-service; in my youthful eyes, ravaged and wild-looking, wearing British warms and ready, at the drop of a hat, to launch off into a blood-curdling account of slaughter on the Western Front or in Gallipoli. They were perhapsand who shall blame them? a little bit mad, and their Christian faith correspondingly somehow crazed. I believe that with many of them it all wore off, and they either abandoned the idea of the Church, or settled down to be run-of-the-mill clergymen. At the time, however, they were full of wild fancies of leading a crusade which would re-convert post-war Englandnickname men, after Woodbine Willie or Tubby Clayton, who saw themselves as combining the attributes of saint and demagogue, marching in a cassock at the head of a great procession winding its way to the New Jerusalem. Their dream, too, was to be realised belatedly in the person of Canon Collins and the C.N.D. movement.
Chapel in those days was compulsory, and I became familiar with the order of Anglican services and the Book of Common Prayer, almost the only beneficial result of the four years I spent at Cambridge. There was also a great deal of other religious activity in the shape of meetings and discussions and retreats. I remember particularly Father Vernon, an Anglican monk from Stanford-le-Hope where I spent a few days with him. He was a dark, impressive, ardent man who for a short while enjoyed a considerable vogue, and then, as I vaguely learnt, became a Roman Catholic and was heard of no more. With a vague notion of joining his order, I awaited some vision or guidance which never came, and in the end departed with relief, conscious, as I thought, of something inadequate, even phoney, about the place. Was it flight or dismissal; pursued or pursuingor both? In this quest for You we look without finding and find without looking. And to the very endlike Bunyan's Pilgrim who, with Mount Sion and the Heavenly Hosts actually in view, and but one river still to cross, stumbled, and dreaded that the water would close over his head. But for Hopeful's reassuring words he might have fallen even there.
At Cambridge the afterglow of the Oxford Movement was still discernible. Most of the ordinands I knew were, to a greater or lesser degree, Anglo-Catholics, and had heroic tales to tell of introducing the Reserved Sacrament in the teeth of a congregation's opposition; of vestments, up to and including lace, despitefully worn, and incense despitefully wafted (like that perfume in the picture palaces) over worshippers' heads. I remember being taken to breakfast with a certain Father Tooth, a venerable figure who had once been stoned for conducting services in what was considered to be a Romish style; the offending vestment and the actual stone thrown being mounted in a glass case and available for inspection. This martyrdom failed to impress me. Preoccupation with ritual has always seemed to me comparable, in matters of worship, with preoccupation with erotic techniques in matters of sex. Bearing out the comparison, the literature on the subject reads very like the Kama Sutra. I got in the way, at this time, of partaking at the early morning Communion service; took the wafer into my mouth and drank from the cup, expecting rare nourishment from this spiritual food, crossing myself and bowing down accordingly. You never came to me in Your body and Your blood, dispensed as the Blessed Elements by an intoning priest.
Very different from Stanford-le-Hope was the Oratory House at Cambridge where I resided for several terms as a result of my friendship with A.V.a friendship which has lasted now for the best part of half a century, growing ever more delightful and comfortablehe being a member of this brotherhood of Anglican priests. We said the offices through the day, and in the afternoons I usually worked in the garden under the direction of Wilfred Knox, brother of Ronnie, one of those enchanting human beings who seem to have no more than half a foot in this world. It was altogether a rather idyllic existence as I recall it; I'm sure You were there, in the little chapel and in the garden, but somehow I missed You. Truly, one needs eyes to see. How easily I understand how even Mary could mistake You for the gardener! As I look back I realise that the only times I have been happy have been in simplicity and austerity; a little white room with a chair and a table, fruit and rice on a green leaf, a barrack hut or a tentsuch circumstances bring their own ecstasy, and You within reach, or at any rate hailing distance. What insanity, then, to bury one's head in the trough; to glut the senses and inflate the ego to monstrous proportions, thereby ensuring that You are inexorably lost to view! That extraordinary lostness that overwhelms one, flesh against flesh, gorging, or avidly looking up where the remorseless arc lights beat down ! So the years have gone, and only a remnant of life remains, which still You may deign to accept, as I dare hope.
Otherwise, Cambridge, so far as I was concerned, consisted of boredom, dissatisfaction, and misty afternoon walks. Ever after, the notion of higher education as a panacea for contemporary ills has seemed to me a total absurditymore than ever so today. From Cambridge I went to Alwaye in South India to join the staff of the Union Christian College there. The College was on the top of a remote hill by the Periyar River, and had only just been started by a dedicated band of Indian Christians. I grew to love them and the place; when I went back some forty years later everything seemed just the same, except that I had grown old, and most of those I knew there were deadthe same austere hostels in one of which I had lived, the same stony hill-side which I had so often climbed up and down, the same swift-flowing river in which I had so often bathed, the same students moving silently, bare-footed, in their white shirts and dhoties. Thinking then about it, I realised that in the company of these good and dedicated men I was given my last chance to enlist definitively in Your service, but that I turned away. All the circumstances were perfectthe remoteness, so that even the British Raj scarcely impinged on us; the fellowship and true austerity; and You. Yes, You were there, I knowwhich, I suppose, was why I had to go. However far and fast I've run, still over my shoulder I'd catch a glimpse of You on the horizon, and then run faster and farther than ever, thinking triumphantly: Now I have escaped. But no, there You were, coming after me. Very well, I'd decide, if I can't get away by running, I'll shut my eyes and ears and not see or hear You. No good ! one sees and hears You, not with the eyes and ears, but inwardly, with the soul, whose faculties never can be quite put out however gorged, stupefied and ego-inflated we may become. Now I can flee no farther; I fall. Mercy!
The years that followed were spent almost wholly in the wilderness of this world where the profession of journalism permits one to be a sort of power-voyeur, peering through keyholes at the antics of the great, and deriving therefrom little spasms of obscene excitement. Even so, however enraptured I became, I could never shake off the feeling that the spectacle was Theatre rather than Lifeentries and exits, words spoken, postures adopted, all previously rehearsed, with a prompter handy to help the players with their lines. The times are out of sync, I'd often say to myself, (especially in the House of Commons Press Gallery), noting how some outpouring of rhetoric bore no relation to the drama currently being played, but belonged to another on which the curtain had long ago fallen and the audience departed; likewise the make-up, the lighting, the costumes, the scenery, so that the players, coming on to the stage, stumbled, bumping into cardboard walls and groves which, according to the script they were following, should not have been there. I, too, played my little accompanying jig on a typewriter keyboard'The people of this country will never for a moment countenance . . .' 'Our two great countries will ever march forward together ...' 'British policy is, and must ever be, based on fidelity to ...' When I peer into the past I hear all these dead words whistling through its cavernous emptiness. How wise You were to decline the Devil's offer of the kingdoms of the earth! The offer, as You well understand, was fraudulent; there are no kingdomsonly script-writers, make-up girls, a wardrobe-mistress, a stage manager. As for that other kingdom Yours, which is not of this worldit alone is real. The cross is real wood, the nails are real iron, the vinegar truly tastes bitter and the cry of desolation is live, not recorded.
Your aphorism about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's deprives power of its sting. (What a brilliant aphorism, by the way; quite in the vein of Machiavelli, whose attitude to power is so infinitely preferable to, say, a Woodrow Wilson's, Gilbert Murray's or an Eleanor Roosevelt's, and has done so much less harm!) Sensual appetites are disposed of less easily. When the Devil makes his offer (always open incidentally) of the kingdoms of the earth, it is the bordellos which glow so alluringly to most of us, not the banks and the countinghouses and the snow-swept corridors of power. We can easily resist becoming millionaires, privy-councillors or chairmen of the Prices and Incomes Board, but to swim away on a tide of sensual ecstasy, to be lost in another body, to fly as high as the ceiling on the wings of the night, or even of the afternoon that, surely, is something. The imagination recoils from the prizes, or toys, of a materialist society. Who but some halfwitted oil sheik or popular actor can go on desiring sleek yachts or motor-cars or white villas perched above yellow sands? But what about the toys in living flesh? The Barbie dolls that bleed? The Hefner playmates that move? The celluloid loves for ever panting and for ever young?
Sex is the mysticism of a materialist societyin the beginning was the Flesh, and the Flesh became Word; with its own mysteriesthis is my birth pill; swallow it in remembrance of me!and its own sacred texts and scripturesthe erotica which fall like black atomic rain on the just and unjust alike, drenching us, blinding us, stupefying us. To be carnally minded is life! So we have ventured on, Little Flowers of D. H. Lawrence; our Aphrodites rising, bikini'd and oiled, from Cote d'Azur beaches; drive-in Lotharios, Romeos of the motorways, glowing and burning like electric log fires, untilcut!the switch is turned off, leaving the desolate, impenetrable night. Did I sometimes, staring sleepless into it, even then catch a glimpse, far, far away, of a remote shading of the black into grey? A minuscule intimation of a dawn that would break? You!
It was padding about the streets of Moscow that the other dreamthe kingdom of heaven on earthdissolved for me, never to be revived. Those grey anonymous figures, likewise padding about the streets, seemed infinitely remote, withdrawn, for ever strangers, yet somehow near and dear. The grey streets were paradise, the eyeless buildings the many mansions of which heaven is composed. I caught another glimpse of paradise in Berlin after it had been liberatedthere the mansions made of rubble, and the heavenly hosts, the glow of liberation still upon them, bartering cigarettes for tins of Spam, and love for both. (Later, this practice was transformed by means of mirrors into a shining, glowing one, running with schlag and fat cigars, with bartered love still plentifully available, but for paper money, not Spam.) So many paradises springing up all over the place, all with many mansions, mansions of light and love; the most majestic of all, the master-paradise on which all the others were basedon Manhattan Island! Oh, what marvellous mansions there, reaching into the sky! What heavenly Muzak overflowing the streets and buildings, what brilliant lights spelling out what delectable hopes and desires, what heavenly hosts pursuing what happiness on magic screens in living colour!
And You? I never caught even a glimpse of you in any paradiseunless You were an old coloured shoe-shine man on a windy corner in Chicago one February morning, smiling from ear to ear; or a little man with a lame leg in the Immigration Department in New York, whose smiling patience as he listened to one Puerto Rican after another seemed to reach from there to eternity. Oh, and whoever painted the front of the little church in the woods at Kliasma near Moscowpainted it in blues as bright as the sky and whites that outshone the snow? That might have been You. Or again at Kiev, at an Easter service when the collectivisation famine was in full swing, and Bernard Shaw and newspaper correspondents were telling the world of the bursting granaries and apple-checked dairy-maids in the Ukraine. What a congregation that was, packed in tight, squeezed together like sardines! I myself was pressed against a stone pillar, and scarcely able to breathe. Not that I wanted to particularly. So many grey, hungry faces, all luminous, like an El Greco painting; and all singing. How they sangabout how there was no help except in You, nowhere to turn except to You; nothing, nothing, that could possibly bring any comfort except You. I could have touched You then, You were so near not up at the altar, of course, where the bearded priests, crowned and bowing and chanting, swung their censersOne of the grey faces, the greyest and most luminous of all.
It was strange in a way that I should thus have found myself nearest to You in the land where for half a century past the practice of the Christian religion has been most ruthlessly suppressed; where the very printing of the Gospels is forbidden, and You are derided by all the organs of an all-powerful State as once you were by the Roman soldiers when they decked you out as a ribald King of the Jews. Yet on reflection, not so strange. How infinitely preferable it is to be abhorred, rather than embraced, by those in authority. Where the distinction between God and Caesar is so abundantly clear, no one in his sensesor out of them, for that matteris likely to suggest that any good purpose would be served by arranging a dialogue between the two of them. In the Communist countries an unmistakable and unbridgable abyss divides the kingdoms of the earth and Your kingdom, with no crazed clerics gibbering and grimacing in the intervening no-man's-land. It provides the perfect circumstances for the Christian faith to bloom anewso uncannily like the circumstances in which it first bloomed at the beginning of the Christian era. I look eastwards, not westwards, for a new Star of Bethlehem.
It would be comforting to be able to say: Now I see! To recite with total satisfaction one of the Church's venerable creeds'I believe in God, the Father Almighty....' To point to such a moment of illumination when all became miraculously clear. To join with full identification in one of the varieties of Christian worship. Above all, to feel able to say to You: 'Lord!' and confidently await Your command. Comforting but alas, it would not be true. The one thing above all others that You require of us is, surely, the truth. I have to confess, then, that I see only fitfully, believe no creed wholly, have had no all-sufficing moment of illumination.
And Youwhat do I know of You? A living presence in the world; the one who, of all the billions and billions and billions of our human family came most immediately from God and went most immediately to God, while remaining most humanly and intimately here among us, today, as yesterday and tomorrow; for all time. Did You live and die and rise from the dead as they say? Who knows, or for that matter, cares? History is for the dead, and You are alive. Similarly, all those churches raised and maintained in Your name, from the tiniest, weirdest conventicle to the great cathedrals rising so sublimely into the skythey are for the dead, and must themselves die; are, indeed, dying fast. They belong to time, You to eternity. At the intersection of time and eternitynailed thereYou confront us; a perpetual reminder that, living, we die and, dying, we live. An incarnation wonderful to contemplate; the light of the world, indeed.
Fiat lux ! Let there be light ! So everything began at God's majestic command; so it might have continued till the end of timehistory unendingexcept that You intervened, shining another light into the innermost recesses of the human will, where the ego reigns and reaches out in tentacles of dark desire. Having seen this other light, I turn to it, striving and growing towards it as plants do towards the sun. The light of love, abolishing the darkness of hate; the light of peace, abolishing the darkness of strife and confusion; the light of life, abolishing the darkness of death; the light of creativity, abolishing the darkness of destruction. Though, in terms of history, the darkness falls, blacking out us and our world, You have overcome history. You came as light into the world, that whoever believed in You should not remain in darkness. The promise stands for ever. Your light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Nor ever will.
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