Being an English Catholic in the first two thirds of the 20th century was rather like being Jewish
Three weeks ago my sister and I said goodbye to our family house. Our 92-year-old mother has moved into a care home just a couple of streets away from my sister. Things could have turned out a lot worse, but it did mean we had to sell the stockbroker Tudor place my parents bought 31 years ago – and where my father died, of a sudden heart attack, little more than a year after moving in.
He’d been happy about leaving the main bit of Reading and arriving in Caversham Heights, which is so well-upholstered that it scarcely feels like Reading at all – and indeed used to be part of Oxfordshire rather than Berkshire. I don’t know how many times I’ve forced that last bit of information on people. There’s something a bit embarrassing about coming from Reading, which had the soul ripped out of it when Henry VIII dissolved its Benedictine Abbey. The ruins are just off the main street, but no one seems very interested.
I spent my teenage years living in the town, plus an agonisingly dull stretch on the Reading Chronicle after university. But we didn’t move there until I was nearly 11 so I was never one of the townsfolk (a word of which the Chronicle was particularly fond, especially if those townsfolk were “up in arms”). I don’t have a home town. And, as of last month, it feels like I don’t really have a home.
I never miss an opportunity to feel sorry for myself and this is quite a good one. Although I have a nice flat in London, I’m single, so there’s no family to absorb the shock of everything closing down. And it has been a shock, more than I expected. The painting of an unidentified dockside, so impressionistic that it could be Liverpool or Hong Kong, now hangs above my stereo system. But I don’t want it to be there; I’d prefer it in its proper place, above my dear mother as she sips a cup of tea while reading her prayer book.
The Thompsons were a very Catholic family without being sentimentally devout. My father, a naturally reserved man, once tried the experiment of saying a family rosary. Once, note. Somebody “spoiled it for everyone else” by groaning with boredom after every decade and was sent to his room.
Yet my parents’ social lives were dominated by the Church, either in the form of parish work or running the Raphael Pilgrimage to Lourdes, which my father ran on behalf of Group Captain Leonard Cheshire. My parents met when they were volunteering at one of his homes for the disabled. He announced their engagement. There was always a card from Leonard on the mantelpiece during those early Christmases in Caversham Heights.
Now that the house is empty it feels as if a tiny piece of English Catholic life has been dismantled. Recently I read the family memoirs of one of my father’s friends. The backdrop was Borehamwood, Herts, in the 1950s – perfect for a Barbara Pym novel, if only my dad and his friend hadn’t been “Roman Catholics”, who tend to be reserved for cameo appearances in her books. They didn’t live in a ghetto, exactly. But they knew who was and wasn’t a Catholic and that knowledge dictated most of their life choices.
The same was true of my mother. She was a good cook, especially of puddings, but I don’t remember many Protestants digging into her apple pie with just a hint of orange peel (makes all the difference – try it). My Mother, and her mother as well, were always saying things like “he’s not a Catholic but he’s a very good man”. Being a Catholic during the first two thirds of the 20th century was rather like being Jewish. A not unjustified suspicion of outsiders was offset by tremendous charitable energy.
The difference, I suppose, is that it’s easier to stop being a Catholic than a Jew. I don’t rule out a Catholic revival in England – but it will be counter-cultural, not tribal, because the members of the tribe are dead or in nursing homes and their children have wandered off the reservation. Or, to put it more politely, English Catholicism will never again have the taken-for-granted quality of tea in my mother’s sitting room after (in her case) long hours of visiting the sick. We closed the door on that world last month and it was hard.