LONDON, ONTARIO - In addition to some of its more routinely trumpeted pleasures and solaces, as you get older Christmas also becomes an annual opportunity to spend time communing with the ghosts of the beloved dead. One old friend who’s taking up more pronounced residence in my thoughts this year is Jane Loptson, who died in the hallway outside of her apartment at the Mary Campbell Co-op in the early afternoon of December 27th, 2013. She had been venturing out to buy some groceries following a rough Christmas when she’d had more than her usual difficulty breathing. Jane would have turned sixty the following April though no one expected her to make old bones, saddled as she was for nearly half of her life with multiple sclerosis which incrementally wasted her body away (the 1980s would’ve been the last time she weighed more than a hundred pounds) and stripped away one physical faculty after another.
LONDON, ONTARIO – December is the month when even people who do not read and ordinarily display no love for the classics, are apt to bump into one of the dozens of film adaptations (or variations thereupon) of Charles Dickens’ (1812–70) single best-known story; his short novella from 1843, A Christmas Carol. And if they’re particularly lucky, the version of this preternaturally powerful parable which they’ll latch onto, is the 1951 production directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. This version is the truest to the original story, quoting great slabs of glorious Dickensian dialogue verbatim, and also spares its viewers the squirm-inducing misery of having to navigate or ignore any extraneous musical interludes of larded-on piety and sentiment. While it would be a shame if the only Dickens story one knew was A Christmas Carol (there’s so much more to explore!) even that limited reading or viewing would be sufficient to establish a fair idea of the author’s gifts and strengths.
LONDON, ONTARIO – At this month’s meeting of the Wrinklings, the membership was asked to bring along and talk about those treasured religious texts – be they prayer books, missals, sermons, catechisms, encyclicals, biographies, memoirs, spiritual reflections, theological compendiums or anthologies – which have provided them with the most nourishment and direction over the years. Of the eight members who turned out on that last Wednesday night in November, I was astonished and heartened to see that three of us (yes, I was one) cited the sermons of Ronald Knox. The foremost English Catholic spokesman from the 1920s until his death, the scholar/priest Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1888–1957) is not exactly a household name today.
LONDON, ONTARIO – During my career earlier this century in retail sales, I made friends with a regular customer who read a lot of my stuff in the press and on slow days in the shop when there was nobody else around, he would pepper me with questions about various aspects of my faith. Provided I was in the right mood and felt up to the challenge, I enjoyed our conversations a lot. They required me to bring some lucidity and objective formulation to matters which were so subjective and interior that I realized I might not have developed much capacity to express them in a way that would be comprehensible to anyone else. In the phraseology of St. Augustine in his Confessions, discussing how tricky it can sometimes be to express those truths so foundational that we rarely pause to consider how we know what we know: “If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.” So I was grateful for the opportunity to try to cultivate some intelligibility.
LONDON, ONTARIO – During the car ride up to Latin Mass in St. Thomas yesterday, I kicked off our 2019 edition of the Christmas season perhaps one week earlier than I can usually get away with it. “I’m writing about it,” I said by way of belligerent explanation that brooked no objections, slipping the first disc of Handel’s Messiah into the car’s CD player. I blame this uncouth jumping of the Christmas queue entirely on Jane Glover whose magnificent, Handel in London (2018), I just finished reading last week. Glover, herself a conductor and director of the Glyndebourne Touring Opera and the London Mozart Players, has wonderfully expanded my appreciation of the German-born George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) whose formidable industry and gift for invention did so much to help England forge its own musical identity.
LONDON, ONTARIO – Although I never did earn my high school diploma and assured each of our kids when they were growing up that quitting school on their 16th birthdays was fine with me so long as there was some honourable study or pursuit to which they were prepared to commit themselves, I also have to admit that if it hadn’t been for a certain teacher of English, I might never have taken hold of my aptitude for writing and developed it into the primary vehicle by which I have experienced and interpreted my own life and the world around me.
LONDON, ONTARIO – My wife and I met as fellow students in film class in high school. For our very first date in January of 1971, we saw Five Easy Pieces at the Hyland Theatre. As a pastime, the claim could be made that going to the movies is built into the most primary strands of our connubial DNA. And one of the ways we commemorated our 40th wedding anniversary was to buy one of those nameplate plaques which they affix to the arm of a cinema chair in a scheme that the re-opened Hyland came up with to help pay off the heart-stopping cost of their new projector. But nearly half a century into our relationship with the movies and each other, we do have to acknowledge that we simply aren’t knocking back new flicks at the rate that we used to.
LONDON, ONTARIO – It was three years ago this fall (on the very eve of Donald Trump’s spectacularly upsetting electoral victory) that Leonard Cohen died in Los Angeles at the age of 82, leaving a hole in the world of music and letters that never will be filled; not even temporarily by the release next month of what will be Cohen’s 15th studio album of original material. Cohen's son and latter-day producer, Adam, has diligently gathered and dressed up some leftover tracks to compile one final album, entitled Thanks for the Dance. I confidently say that the hole never will be filled because – for me, at least – the real glory of Cohen’s music and poetry (I never made much progress with his novels) has always been a richly suggestive Zen-like emptiness that haunts the imagination. Cohen was a master of audaciously expressed intimations, impressions and allusions that you can’t quite take hold of to analyse how or why they work so brilliantly well.
LONDON, ONTARIO – Back in June of 1995 when I was editing SCENE magazine and my wife was doing the layout, I turned a review of Susan Wallis’ just-released book, Bicycle Day Trips in and Around London, into a full-length column which I entitled Recovering the Thrill of Messing Around on Bikes. Wallis’ book had inspired me to drag the Raleigh ten-speed which I had been ignoring for almost 20 years out of our garden shed and take it for a spin. It was then I realized how much I’d never liked that bike and how much I preferred the old one-speed coaster bikes of my youth which didn’t require me to crouch forward in a way I found unnatural and uncomfortable.
LONDON, ONTARIO – Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801–90) who was elevated to sainthood on Sunday, October 13, is widely regarded as one of the supreme prose stylists of the English language; a distinction which is avidly accorded him by temperaments as diverse as G.K. Chesterton and James Joyce. Less central to the reputation of this remarkably prodigious thinker and writer is the poetry he occasionally tossed off on the side. Newman had no illusions that his poetic gifts were of any accomplishment or significance. He took to poetry as nothing more than a form of recreation; a different modality in which to exercise his literary inclinations.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
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