21 September 2019

50 years later, we live
in an increasingly
‘Pythonesque’ world

What did the Europeans ever do for us? … a street plaque on the corner of Bore Street and Bird Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of Friday afternoon with former schoolfriends, celebrating 50 years since we left school at Gormanston College in Co Meath.

Over 30 or more 60-somethings gathered together for a long and lingering lunch in the Cliff House in Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin.

There were sad but grateful memories of those who could not join us for lunch, and we read the names of those we know who have died over the past half century. But the afternoon was filled with memories of what were largely happy school days, and how well we were prepared to go out into the world.

How that world has changed over the past 50 years.

It is 50 years Monty Python’s Flying Circus was first broadcast on BBC1 ago, on 5 October 1969. It went on to run for four series, inspiring four original films, numerous live shows, several albums and many follow-up shows, including Fawlty Towers.

Ten years later, I was a student in Japan in 1979, on a fellowship provided for young journalists by Journalistes en Europe and Nihon Shimbun Kyokai. That year also saw the release of the Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, released on 8 November 1979.

In The Life of Brian, John Cleese plays Reg, who gives a revolutionary speech at meeting, asking, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’

In response, his listeners outline all forms of positive aspects of the Roman occupation, such as sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, public health and peace, followed by ‘what have the Romans ever done for us except sanitation, medicine, education ...’

Reg: ‘Oh, great. Great. We – we need doers in our movement, Brian, but, before you join us, know this. There is not one of us here who would not gladly suffer death to rid this country of the Romans once and for all.’

John Cleese later parodied his own line in a 1986 BBC advert defending the Television Licence Fee: ‘What has the BBC ever given us?’ The scene inspired a BBC history series, What the Romans Did for Us (2000), written and presented by Adam Hart-Davis.

The Bird Street Pedestrianisation plan in Lichfield was aided by the European Regional Development Fund (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Walking through the streets of Lichfield earlier this week, there was one small reminder of how we live in an increasingly Pythonesque world.

A stone plaque embedded in the paving at the corner of Bore Street and Bird Street reads: ‘Bird Street Pedestrianisation Lichfield District Council aided by the European Regional Development Fund.’ In the centre, the year ‘1992’ is encircled by the 12 stars of the European Union.

It is so easy to forget what Europe has done for us, in Britain and Ireland, over the past half century. It is 80 years since World War II began in Europe. Asking what Europe has done for us shows how absurd and Pythonesque world we live in.

Sadly, to paraphrase Reg in The Life of Brian, it seems that in the deeply divided Britain of today, there are some people who might easily declare, ‘There is not one of us here who would not gladly suffer death to rid this country of Europe once and for all.’

I have never known Britain to be so divided as it is today, not even at the height of the miners’ strike. Perhaps it has never been so divided since the English civil war in the 1640s and the 1650s. When I hear people talking about the ‘Dunkirk Spirit,’ I want to remind them that Dunkerque is in France, and that it was a spirit that regretted being forced to withdraw from Europe, that wanted to engage with Europe, to set wrongs to right, to seek justice and peace, and to put an end to the extremes of the far right. I am even more worried about the tangible rise in Islamophobia and racism in ‘middle England.’

I was at a meeting earlier this week at which my former colleague at The Irish Times, Paul Gillespie, spoke of the present Brexit crisis in Britain, and posited four scenarios that may unfold in the months to come, two due to a hard Brexit: the break-up of the UK or a differentiated UK; and two due to a soft Brexit: a renegotiated UK or a federal UK.

Each of these scenarios points to the present crises in British identity and English identity. What does it mean to be British any more, when it seems the majority of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland appear to resent a move towards a hard Brexit that seems to be driven by English nationalists? And what does it mean any more to be English when English nationalism does not share the social justice values found in either Scottish and Welsh nationalism, and, ironically, appears to be more European than British in that it shares many of the characteristics of populist nationalism found today in France, Spain, Germany, Hungary, Italy and other EU member states?

Writing in the Tablet last week [14 September 2019] under the heading ‘The End of England,’ Professor Nicholas Boyle of Magdalene College, Cambridge, argues the British constitution is crumbling before our eyes, its frailties brutally exposed by the Brexit storm. But, he says, something even more fundamental has been shattered: the country's national identity. He argues the English no longer know who they are as a people, or what they are for.

Apart from the constitutional crisis that is unfolding, there is also a break-down in the unwritten conventions of British political culture. Both Boris Johnson and David Cameron have drawn the monarch into politics in recent weeks, and as I watch the behaviour of Dominic Cummings I find myself thinking the Spivs have taken over the Tory party. As Lord Hennessy wrote in the same edition of the Tablet, ‘it has become starkly apparent: the day of good chap is no more.’

Paul Gillespie also referred to the ‘good chap theory.’ It was invented by a Cabinet Office civil servant, Clive Priestly, who used to put it that the ‘good chaps’ (of both sexes) know where the undrawn lines of the constitution are and make sure they come nowehere near, let alone cross them.

It sometimes worries me when I find myself admiring Tory politicians such as Ken Clarke and John Major and dismissing the leader of the Labour Party because of his failure to deal with antisemitism at all levels of party membership.

Am I beginning to sound too like my father 50 years ago, listening to the news in the mornings and I finding myself acclaiming the vote in the House of Lords the night before?

Three books for
a pilgrim visitor to
Lichfield Cathedral

Three books bought this week in the shop in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

When the Lichfield Cathedral Gift Shop was at No. 9 The Close, it provided an interesting collection of books of local interest and had a quiet corner brimming full with second-hand books that could keep me quiet, rummaging in seclusion, for hours.

The shop faced the west front of the Cathedral, and was also well-stocked with CDs, including recordings by the cathedral choir, as well as appropriate cards and gifts that I often bought for students at their ordination.

The shop also supported local artists and suppliers, stocking a range from artists working in Lichfield and Staffordshire.

The shop closed last year, but reopened in October as Lichfield Cathedral Gift Shop and Box Office at 11 Baker’s Lane in the Three Spires Shopping Centre. In recent weeks, however, that too has closed.

However, books, CDs and gifts are still on sale in a corner of the cathedral, and I came away this week with three books.

A-Z of Lichfield, Places, People, History is the first book by local historian and tour guide Jono Oates and covers the history of the city using the letters of the alphabet, from A to Z.

Jonathan ‘Jono’ Oates is a tour guide and local historian who lives in Lichfield. He worked for over 10 years as a tourism officer for Visit Lichfield, the tourism department at Lichfield District Council. Jono writes for City Life in Lichfield, a Lichfield magazine, and also writes website and social media reviews about plays and musicals including those at the Lichfield Garrick theatre.

I missed his book signing in Lichfield Library last weekend [14 September] during the Lichfield Heritage Festival, so was glad to buy it in the cathedral this week.

The cathedral city is known to many as the birthplace of Samuel Johnson, who published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, but was also home to the Shakespearean actor David Garrick, the antiquarian Elias Ashmole, who gave his name to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin.

This book offers readers an engaging tour of Lichfield, tracing its roots back to Saint Chad in the seventh century, through the English Civil War, its period of prosperity in the 18th century as a coaching city, and the Victorian era that left its architectural and economic marks on the city in the 19th century.

Jono introduces us to famous people, brings us through narrow streets and lanes, and invites us to look at old houses, churches and pubs with new pairs of eyes.

Here are the amazing stories of Stephen Panting, who tried to embezzle the Garrick family, the missing statue of ‘Old Father Time,’ the genealogist Gregory King and the shocking story of Colonel James Kilian who was a war-time hero in Lichfield but later faced war crimes charges in Germany in 1946.

The story of Lichfield Youth Hostel Association might have been enhanced by telling the story of the Youth Hostel on Birmingham Road, the first place where I stayed in Lichfield 50 years ago and known to many as ‘Mrs Buckingham’s Palace.’

Like a good Scrabble player, the author of a book like this needs a creative and imaginative approach to using the letters Q, X and Z. In the case of Lichfield, Quonians Lane provides the obvious answer to Q, although he does not explore the meaning of its name, but he also includes Quantril’s butchers and the Queen’s Head in Sandford Street.

I had never heard of the X-Ray car at Kennings on Saint John Street in 1939, and Z offers some interesting nuggets on Zeppelins, Zoonomia (thanks here to Erasmus Darwin), Zachary Turnpenny, and Appoline Zuingle. But you have to buy the book, and read right through to the end to find out why Appoline and Zachary also have their place in this A-Z.

The former Prince of Wales on Bore Street has been in a sad state of abandonment since 2004 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

When it came to writing about Lichfield’s pubs and former pubs, my go-to book for many years was John Shaw’s The Old Pubs of Lichfield (2001). However, this week I bought Neil Coley’s Lichfield Pubs, which I had known of but had not held in my hands until now.

Neil Coley, who lives in Lichfield, is the author of a number of local history books and articles. He has a BA degree in History and Politics from Lancaster University and an MA in Media from De Montford University.

In the 18th century, Lichfield was notorious for its many pubs and brothels. Today, only its pubs are famous. Many of these pubs date from the Georgian era, others claim even greater antiquity and longevity, and some were visited by Lichfield’s most famous son, Samuel Johnson.

These pubs, with their beguiling names and histories, hold the stories of old coaching inns with their stagecoaches and highwaymen. There are lost pubs that have been turned to other uses, including shops (the Woolpack on Bore Street or the Bald Buck on Greenhill), restaurants (the Swan and the Wheatsheaf on Bird Street) and private houses (the Lemon Tree, the Pheasant or the Little George on Beacon Street).

Here too you can find Lichfield’s first micropub, the Whippet Inn on Tamworth Street and a reference to the ‘Carry On’ innuendo that gives it its name.

An army regiment was founded in the King’s Head on Bird Street and there are two rival inns where political parties encouraged mob violence in the street that separated them.

Some of my favourites are missing, such as the Hedgehog on Stafford Road, because they are too far out from the city.

This book may inspire the compilers of pub quizzes and settle many arguments about which is the oldest pub in Lichfield or what is meaning of an old name, and tell us who knows the King’s Head from the Queen’s Head.

As I watched a wedding party make their way into the King’s Head on Bird Street this week and looked at the sad state of the former Prince of Wales on Bore Street, I was aware of how important books like this are for local memory and handing on traditions.

My return visits to Lichfield are always mini-pilgrimages, with time for prayer, silence, contemplative walks and church visits. So, I was glad this week to pick up another copy of The Way of a Pilgrim. My old copies, translated by RM French and introduced by Bishop Walter Frere, are torn and worn or were given away long ago.

This edition, published in 2017, is translated by Anna Zaranko and edited and introduced by Andrew Louth, who was one of my lecturers some years ago at a course run by the Institute of Orthodox Studies (IOCS) at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

This book began as a collection of essays first published as four short stories in Russia in 1884. It was introduced to many in the west through JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, ant is now a beloved spiritual guide to many, introducing them to the Jesus Prayer and the riches of Orthodox spirituality.

● Jono Oates, A-Z of Lichfield, Places, People, History (Stroud: Amberley, 2019, ISBN 9781445691770, pb, 96 pp, £14.99).

● Neil Coley, Lichfield Pubs (Stroud: Amberley, 2016, ISBN 9781445651385, pb, 96 pp, £14.99)

● Andrew Louth (ed), The Way of A Pilgrim (Penguin Classics, 2017/2019, ISBN 9780241201350, 197 pp, £9.99) ]

The Cathedral Shop moved out of The Close last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)