Virginia Barton

The Monk, the Skull, and the Scotch

Catholic Herald, 1 July 1988


What do a monk, a skull and a bottle of scotch have in common?

Alas I have no punchline with which to lighten your day, especially since the clergy, death and drink are often the constituents of a good joke. Dave Allen would turn them to advantage. Where this rasp is concerned, the answer is more mundane. They – this monk, skull and scotch – were the subjects of three separate newspaper cuttings I received in the post last week. Thoughtful friends keep me abreast of the serious, the absurd and the outrageous, presuming quite correctly, that I have no time to read all the papers properly.

The monk was the headmaster of Downside who fulfilled a lifelong ambition to address the Women’s Institute’s AGM at the Albert Hall. The cutting I was sent was dominated by two huge pies with a short column strapped on.

The correspondent revealed nothing of Dom Phillip Jebb’s speech bar quoting a couplet of his grandfather’s making, and remarking that his black Benedictine habit stood out in stark contrast to the bright hues of the women’s clothing.

This was irritating as whatever a monk said to such a gathering must have included something of interest. It is typical of the national dailies to titivate its readers with a startling photograph and then deny them the substance.

The correspondent reported that the WI movement lost 9,000 members last year, though it is still by far the largest of the women’s groups. And that a motion proposing the castration of persistent rapists was received with gasps and applause in about equal measure.

The skull was that of the late late Lady Hester Stanhope. Her tomb near Sidon was recently vandalised. The Red Cross offered the skull to the British Embassy in Lebanon where for some extraordinary reason they declined to take it in.

What will the Red Cross do with it now? It could so easily have been repatriated to London in the diplomatic bag (stuffed with socks and memos) and reburied alongside her uncle Pitt. The eccentric Lady Hester (read all about her in The Wilder Shores of Love by Leslie Blanch) was a wanderer in life and it would seem that in death too, part of her at least has no resting place.

It’s a short hop from skulls to booze. Shorter in reverse, if the article from the Sunday Times I was sent is to be believed. This long and bard piece was devoted to alcohol abuse. The illustrious grandfather of the headmaster of Downside, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh and other famous names suffered posthumous slanging from this correspondent.

By no means averse to liquid refreshment in the form of fermented grapes myself, this article touched a tender spot. Sparked off by the disgraceful and shameful scenes of rioting football fans, the reporter was at pains to point out, with notorious examples, the premature senility that overindulgence in alcohol appears to provoke.

Like so many of the good things in life (cream slices, having a flutter on the gee-gees) they are all very well in moderation. The town I live in has its fair share of alcoholic down-and-outs.

It also has a university. Among the down-and-outs there is a noticeable increase of youngsters. Breaches of discipline by students are almost always due to drink.

This leads one to believe that alcohol is not only readily available, but that everyone can afford it. Often at the expense of something else (shoes for the children, books, food) the drinker, like the drug-user, will beg, steal or borrow to satisfy the craving. As with the drug-user, it takes many months to rehabilitate an alcoholic and is expensive in terms of care, lost working hours and misery inflicted on nearest and dearest.

The most telling argument against heavy drinking I came across was a profound remark made by a student: “The one thing that prevents me from becoming an alcoholic is the thought that the cure would deny my ever drinking again.”

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings!


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