Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Permanent and benevolent disorder

I came across this terrific description of a Roman Catholic home the other day:

The village was one of those half-urbanised Georgian settlements on the edge of Bath where English Catholics of a certain standing have elected to gather in their exile. The cottage lay at the country end of it, a tiny sandstone mansion with a steep narrow garden descending to a stretch of river, and they sat in the cluttered kitchen on wheelback chairs, surrounded by washing-up and vaguely votive bric-a-brac: a cracked ceramic plaque of the Virgin Mary from Lourdes; a disintegrating rush cross jammed behind the cooker; a child’s paper mobile of angels rotating in the draught; a photograph of Ronald Knox. While they talked, filthy grandchildren wandered in and stared at them before tall mothers swept them off. It was a household in permanent and benevolent disorder, pervaded by the gentle thrill of religious persecution. A white morning sun was poking through the Bath mist. There was a sound of slow water dripping in the gutters.

John le Carré - A Perfect Spy

My own Catholic heritage, alas lapsed, is of the dirtpoor Irish Merseyside variety, but having grown up in the affluent south I have spent formative time amongst such households and know their ‘permanent and benevolent disorder’ well.

The Tall Mothers invariably have long dark hair either descending in a straight ribbon to the waist or tied in a bun, and they carry on conversations while picking distractedly through hallways of strewn wellies and junior cricket equipment, generally assisted by the eldest daughter, a clone in miniature. Boys run about in unseasonal school uniform and hand-me-downs, appearing suddenly in doorways to make earnest announcements about meteor showers or dead rodents in the garden. The father is absent, or distant when present and often the first cousin of his wife.

There is always too much old furniture crammed into small, impractically-shaped rooms. Welsh dressers, egg cups, Guild of St Stephen medals ... apostle spoons, why not; and the general ambience is that of a true aristocratic bloodline in temporary exile, bumbling through a few generations until the world, which somehow took a wrong turn with Henry VIII, rights itself and the loyal are returned to their natural dominion.


  1. I knew a family precisely like this when I was at school. Uncanny.

  2. Your south western variety seem to emanate from the Elizabethan branch, pre Henry the Eighth. My aunt married a Catholic who gave her seven little presents and then inconveniently died, leaving her converted, with a name redolent of The Quiet Man and seven little mouths to feed, they multiplied I mean man, did they. Her first born begat nine the rest followed closely behind, they could have played the crowd scene from Spartacus.
    We felt as Protestants like a lean-to tacked onto a factory, in the midst of a maelstrom.
    Remarkably some done good, others not, virtually all handed in their membership cards. My aunt was predeceased by six of her seven siblings remaining a tower of strength throughout and until her death the only one with full membership, it kinda makes mincemeat of Dawkins current theory.

  3. It reminds me of my childhood. Even down to the marrying of cousins; we've done that for three generations on the trot. Perhaps wisely, my generation have decided to give it a break for the next and allow some fresh blood in; possibly Prot, but of course, we tell the Aunts, never Irish. All eight of us children charging round in darned hand me downs and my father a vaguely unknown figure who spent most of his life avoiding us and the hordes of regularly visiting cousins.

    It all seemed a great deal of fun to me, but we also knew that we lived a life that was semi-detached from the society we were nominally a part of.

  4. One of the hated jobs I had as an articling student years ago was to search titles for purchaser-clients. This was before high-tech and title certification and involved reviewing the whole history of the land and every document that dealt with it for decades and beyond--sometimes right back to the Crown patent in the 19th century--to ensure the chain of title passed legally. Because of my boss's practice, a lot of my assignments involved new suburban lands carved out of farmlands on the edges of Ottawa (which, lest you forget, Gaw, is the capital of Canada).

    West of Ottawa was English Protestant and it was usually a simple affair. The patent went to Ira or Seth and the land stayed in the same family for generations. If it was divided, it was usually divided into two equal parts easy to track. Mortgages were very rare. The whole history was contained in half a dozen straightforward documents and, with luck, the job could be done in half an hour. It all screamed order, sobriety, economy and dullness.

    The East was French Catholic and what a difference! Théophile got his patent at the same time as Ira and then pure havoc reigned. The land was divided and then sub-divided higgly-piggly into irregular parts without surveys using old metes and bounds descriptions impossible to follow. The lands would be mortaged frequently and the mortgages would be assigned, then partially discharged, then amended, then re-negotiated and then finally discharged, only to start all over again. Irregular parcels would be conveyed to apparent strangers and then re-conveyed in whole or in part. The impression it all left was pure chaos and I often had an image of large families dividing their time between attending Mass and arguing over how the family should divide the "ancestral lands" in order to care for all, both the responsible and the dissolute, fairly, but not necessarily rationally. Needless to say it took hours of tedious, brain-bleeding work and we hated it. I mark that year as the apex of my anti-papist prejudices.

  5. My mother had a theory that although Catholics were 'odd', that is not us, their church music was better, at funerals, and brother, did we get a good helping of them. For approximately twenty years the only time I saw the McCl.....'s was when the next one went down.
    Not without a tussle in the early days, if you resigned it upset the priests as in 'go bury yourself'

  6. Hmmn, an Irish family name and Catholic schools here, with half-Irish aunts talking about the "hooly fadder" and, earlier in my childhood, men of the cloth haunting the house in search of a square meal, whisky and cigarettes. You could hardly open a wardrobe without a monk or a monsignor falling out. I suppose to begin with God to me was a smell, the sour musty aroma of middle-aged single men who've had a few. Partly as a result the whole Catholic thing left me baffled and still does. My cousins would have been a perfect fit for that family, and for Recusant's too, especially living "a life that was semi-detached from the society we were nominally a part of". But for me it meant, to borrow a phrase, "get out as early as you can, and don't become a priest yourself".

  7. I had a feeling that Recusant would relate to this (I'm good at gleaning things) and am glad you commented.

    My bit of the above post is based on two particular large Catholic families of my childhood acquaintance, one slightly madder than the other (parents being first cousins) but otherwise highly confusable.

  8. Perfectly captured Brit - I remember going to stay with a boy from school who's family were exactly like this

    My memories of the weekend I stayed there was going to the church and wondering if the incense was some kind of drugs, and how could I go about getting hold of some of the wine and wafers everyone else was getting. I was really freaked out by all the hand shaking and 'peace be with you' stuff going on.

  9. Brit, you dangle a maggot very well.

    On cousin marriage, one shouldn't be too surprised at it. I gather, in a purely unsourced way, that up to a third of marriages worldwide are between first cousins. We only decided that it had maybe gone too far when two of my first cousins once removed maybe had their eyes just a bit too close together and their cheek bones maybe a tad too prominent. Still it saves all the fandangle of getting the local bishop's permission to set aside the church's consanguinity rules

    Mark and Malty, I think your memories maybe say more about something peculiarly Irish and less about Catholicism as it might be recognised by Italian, French or even English Catholics.

    Confession time. The conceit we English Catholics suffer from is the belief that we are more English then everybody else and that we just have to wait for this crew of counterjumpers to bugger off for England to return to its rightful and happy state. Bonkers, I know, but still well lodged in our make-up.

  10. Some mileage can be wrung (rang?) from this Brito'gram. One of my aunt's sons was a funeral director and left foot, my mother was a district nurse and right foot, this at a time of plenty on the ashes to ashes front, there was one other funeral parlour in the area. The accepted norm was to ply the town's district nurses with praise, sherry, fags. This in the hope, or bribery if you like, that the recipients of the largesse would, as soon as the dear departed had departed, tip the wink, "ere Fred, old Jimmie Green's just had the sheet thrown over him". As the mater was his aunt, and therefore family, my cousin expected the information free gratis, in his dreams. Therein may lie the beginnings of religious wars, Catholic Undertaker v Protestant undertaker aided and abetted by a Protestant nurse working for a multi denominational organisation fighting over the burial rights of the dead, all for a glass of sherry, 5 Capstan full strength and a compliment about the perm.

  11. that is so perfectly described - I know just the family!

  12. "The father is absent, or distant when present and often the first cousin of his wife."

    Ive checked my English Catholic linage which goes right back to pre civil war royalist Oxford, and Ive also check my Irish Catholic linage which goes back around 200 years and ive also checked my Polish Catholic linage which goes back again around 200 years, and I have found none that have been married cousins.

    Ive also asked my wife, but also the 5 generations that have passed since that linage left the orphanage in China, none have been married cousins.

    I suspect this what you talk about is a scouse observation.

    The last bit is true though, my wife insists in sending old furniture ect to the storage unit. everything has to be saved for older age or when the kids leave ect. Whether we have the money or not things tend to be used and reused.

    God Save the Pope, one mouth to go.

  13. Ah Sean, few indeed are the commenters who would go to such investigative lengths to prove that a throwaway blog line might be a bit of an unsound generalisation.

  14. Its all in the database brit, thank goodness for spreadsheets, where would we be without them hey?

    I blame it on the Wednesday night bingo in the community centre as a kid.