It was a cold and dark winter in England, 1977. Rain fell nearly every day, making the sidewalks slippery and the houses damp, especially the ones without central heating. Old age pensioners went about in tatty sweaters and complained about the price of coal. The war was long over, but they still remembered the Blitz, the rationing, the boys leaving for France, never to return. They needed comfort and solace that the 1970s could not give them. They were old. They shook their canes at the nascent punk scene. They wanted something safe and quiet. Something amusing. Something to read by the light of a 50-watt bulb. James Herriot released Vet in a Spin that year, but it was a skinny volume, not like the American Herriots, which are each two British Herriot books put together in a single volume (If Only They Could Talk, It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, etc.). So what were the elderly of Britain to read? Mr. Smith, who ran the bookshoppe on the high street, recommended it to them: Bless Me, Father by Neil Boyd and blurbed by James Herriot himself.
Bless Me, Father says “hilarious bestseller” on the cover, and I'd believe it. It's the sort of wholesome memoir that old people like. Those old people are dead now, and so are the memories of Bless Me, Father and its sequels. More people might know the TV show Bless Me, Father, broadcast on the BBC from 1978 through 1981, but I'd never heard of it until I googled the book just now. It's available on DVD, if you're curious. It might be one of those rare TV shows that's better than book. Bless Me, Father would benefit from the episodic structure and quick pacing of a television re-telling. Each chapter is an anecdote and each anecdote runs for twenty pages, leaving plenty of time for the antics to wear thin and the reader to get bored. It's not a bad book by any means. If you know any old people, Catholics especially, this book would make a great gift. A young curate comes to the parish of St. Jude's in South London where he meets Father Duddleswell and the housekeeper, Mrs. Pring. Father Duddleswell and Mrs. Pring have an antimony that's never as funny on paper as it must be in the author's head. Take this, when Father Duddleswell is feeling unwell:
“I'd be much obliged if you would be after keeping to yourself your untutored opinion on the state of me health.”
“And who'll lay you out if you cop it, tell me that?”
“You should humor him, Mrs. Pring,” I whispered.
“Let his back go on itching, I say.”
Another outburst. “Leave the lad be, or I'll shoot you to shivers.”
Confusing, kind of mean, not particularly witty. But then the book has its moments. Father Boyd's first time hearing his first confession, his first confessant says, in a high-pitched child's voice, “Bless me father, for I have sinned. This is my second confession ever. I've committed adultery three times.” Father Boyd wonders if the person behind the screen is a midget, or putting on a false voice. “No, wait. Adultery's that funny one. I stole three pennies from me mum's purse.”
Bless Me, Father also reminds one of the mysteries of faith. Not the nature of God, but the weird stuff we do. In one story, a Dominican priest rings up to ask if he and some students can celebrate mass at St. Jude's on their pilgrim's way between Tonwell and Our Lady at Walsingham. Father Duddleswell poo poos the Dominicans' heretical ways and goes off to do whatever priests do on weekdays. When the Dominicans turn up, Father Boyd invites them to use the chapel for their mass. The Dominican priest says, “No, no,” and leads the pilgrims into the parlour, along with a loaf, not Communion wafers. Scandalized, Father Boyd retires to his study for reflection and prayer until he hears the Dominicans banging out and goes down to check on the damage. The parlor is in disarray and, to his horror, there are crumbs, crumbs!, on the table. He gathers them up one by one, making a particular point to separate the crumbs from the normal dust. And then he looks down and realizes that there are crumbs on the floor as well. He has been walking on the literal flesh of Christ! Hoover in hand, he makes plans to vacuum it all up and burn the vacuum bag in a sacred fire, but, after vacuuming, Father Boyd looks at the bottom of the vacuum and realizes that it has crumbs in the brushes. He's a priest, how was he supposed to know that vacuums have brushes? There's only one thing to do. He waits until cover of night, digs a hole in the back garden, and buries the vacuum cleaner in freshly consecrated ground. The next day, while Mrs. Pring is banging around wondering what happened to her vacuum cleaner, the Dominican priest calls up to say, “Sorry we left a mess last night. The lads were famished from all the walking and we needed a place to eat our sandwiches.”
Still in the category of books that are okay but not great and might make good gifts for the elderly in your life (old men, this one), I present to you Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal. I was inspired to grab it out of the backstock audiobook flat at work and check it out because I had just seen James May discover the source of the Nile on Top Gear and I wanted background. Explorers of the Nile is about those who came before, but mostly about James Hanning Speke and his rightful, right-track thinking that the led to Livingstone's discovery of the source, at the expense of Richard Burton. To put it another away, I'd never heard of James Hanning Speke until I listened to this book, and Tim Jeal thinks that's a damn shame.
(“Discovery” is a strong word for these white men. These explorers travelled, with unspeakable hardship, true, from village to village, and traded trade goods for food and passage from the people who already lived near the bodies of water they were discovering, assisted by tens and hundreds of porters, many of whom had already been there assisting Arab-Swahili traders who had already travelled there. “Mapping,” I would call it, and there's nothing dishonorable about mapping.)
“Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” was most of what I knew about Nile exploration before I read this book (and watched this series' Top Gear Africa special). I did learn a lot, but I could have read something more basic and comprehensive. This book reminds me of Robin Okey's Eastern Europe: 1740-1985,which also assumes previous knowledge while addressing a broad topic with a title that makes it look introductory. Explorers of the Nile did have raw anecdotes about horrible things that happened to various people, and the ending wrapped up nicely with a rundown on modern Sudan, Niger, and Togo and what European exploration and conquest did to them. (To be fair, Jeal stresses that Europeans helped to end the Arab-Swahili slave trade and most of his explorers would have been horrified by the results of colonization.) One could read this book, if one were so inclined, but there are other books out there. I haven't read it, but King Leopold's Ghost seems like a better bet for African history books. It's been a bestseller, so people who don't much about Africa are reading it. And I'm going to recommend The World and a Very Small Place in Africa: A History of Globalization in Niumi, the Gambia. I've been reading that off and on for a while. It's one of those unfortunate books that's fantastically interesting while also being an powerful soporific. If you start reading it now, you will probably beat me to the end.
N.B. I did handle a first edition book by Dr. David Livingstone several weeks ago and was surprised to find that it was only selling for $6. 1880s, beautiful cover, plates, nice shape, and it still wasn't fetching a price. Once a bestseller, always in excess. You're not going to retire on that first edition DaVinci Code.
Off to read better books.