Sir: The advice of Jeremy Clarke’s Aunty Margaret that he ‘must “get right with the Lord” as a matter of the gravest urgency’ in the light of his cancer diagnosis is spot on. I say that not just because I’m a vicar, but because I have sat at innumerable bedsides of people in the last days of their lives and have often found myself thinking: ‘You really should have prepared for this a long time ago.’ But by then they were too sick, too tired or too drugged up to think straight about spiritual matters and I have always felt that I would be intruding if I forced the issue. Deathbed conversions such as Lord Marchmain’s in Brideshead Revisited are, in my experience, almost nonexistent. We would all do well to heed Aunty Margaret’s advice and prepare for death ‘as a matter of gravest urgency’.
The Revd Richard Coombs
Rector of Cheltenham
Why the bishops belong
Sir: You are entirely justified in drawing attention to the selective nature of the moral outrage expressed by the current Church of England bishops with regard to the government’s immigration policy (‘The deportation debacle’, 18 June). But it is incorrect to suggest that the episcopal presence in the House of Lords is a question of utility, ‘so that they can add thoughtful insights into important political issues of the day’. Bishops and archbishops were summoned to the Councils by the English kings as early as the 11th century and have been part of the House of Lords from the time it acquired a separate identity as a House of Parliament at the end of the 14th century. The Lords Spiritual are therefore in the Upper Chamber by right, no matter how unsatisfactory their ‘performance’.
Sir: Toby Young on La Bohème (18 June) was a delight. If a surprise; I had always imagined him as an opera-goer from his teens. Like him, I have ploughed my own musical path, it not having been part of my upbringing. As a young ingénu in the mid-1960s, I tentatively took a new girlfriend to the ROH to see Bohème. You bought tickets from the box office on the night in those days; on selecting the Upper Slips at 12/6d (with limited views) I was asked ‘Which side do you want?’ Nonplussed, with the new lady at my shoulder, I asked if the box officer had any advice. Came the reply, ‘She dies on the right’. Two on the left then, please. Three decades and many an opera later, I was entertaining some American connections at the same opera in the ROH again. Trying to give my opera-newbie guest some sense of the story ahead of the second act, I concluded with something like ‘and the curtain comes down as Alcindoro is handed the bill for the entire evening’. The reply came back: ‘So the next drinks are when Al gets the check.’ Toby has many a happy evening ahead of him.
Sir: Philip Hensher (4 June) wonders what T.S. Eliot thought of Henry Reed’s ‘dazzling take on Four Quartets’, ‘Chard Whitlow’. The Episcopalian Minister Dr William Turner Levy, in his 1968 book Affectionately, T.S. Eliot: the Story of a Friendship, 1947-1965, reports that in 1958 he showed Eliot and his wife Valerie, who were visiting him in his New York home, a ‘new acquisition, two pages in Dylan Thomas’s handwriting, from a notebook which he had used during his poetry readings’. The pages contained ‘Chard Whitlow’. ‘Tom gave it a close scrutiny… removed his fountain pen from his inside breast pocket and wrote on the bottom of the second of the two pages… [He] said: “You know, William, this is the only piece of paper in existence that has both Dylan’s writing on it and mine.” I read what he had written: “Not bad. But I think I could write a better parody myself! T. S. Eliot, 27.iv.58.”’
Dylan Thomas’s sublime rendering of ‘Chard Whitlow’ may be heard online.
How words change
Sir: Charles Moore’s meditation on the fate of the words ‘condescension’ and ‘disinterested’ (Notes, 18 June) illustrates a case in point about the difference between language ‘evolving’ and just being mangled.
Nowadays when someone uses ‘disinterested’ to mean ‘uninterested’, you can count on the comment space filling up with people calling the solecism out. As to ‘condescension’, I think it is now generally understood as meaning a capacity for loftiness and sneering, rather than its original, almost opposite, meaning, which might be rendered in modern parlance as getting down with the kids. It has, in other words, travelled from the rude land of abuse to the dignified state of evolution.
When does a word cross this Rubicon? Perhaps as long as there are people left alive patrolling it who are both not disinterested and not uninterested in keeping things as they were, the moment is held off. Whether holding it off is a good or bad thing is a whole different question, and I will not be so condescending as to offer a view.
A royal in Romania
Sir: Boris Kalnoky misses out the real reason Prince Charles came to love Transylvania (‘Letter from Transylvania’, 18 June). It stems back to the late 1980s when the then dictator, Ceaucescu, planned to bulldoze the historic Saxon villages and relocate the inhabitants to flats in the cities. In horror at the potential desecration, HRH became patron of the wonderful Mihai Eminescu Trust. For nearly 20 years he worked with the Trust, which campaigned against the planned destruction and then supported the villagers to ensure the right restoration and care of the ancient buildings and the re-skilling of those who had remained and not fled to Germany.
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