lONDON, ONTARIO – It is startling to realize that the last time I shook hands with another human being was only twenty-three days ago. Wuhan Virus awareness was definitely starting to rise by then but there hadn’t been any lock-downs yet locally. Those wouldn’t arrive in earnest until the end of that week. On the day in question, I was standing with a younger chap at the back of our church before we processed in as readers at what would turn out to be the last 12:30 Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Cathedral. I initiated the gesture and could see a flicker of hesitation in this man’s face before he took hold of my proffered hand.
He didn’t demur or stop smiling but I felt badly that I had over-ridden his fleeting hesitation with my bullishly instinctive bonhomie and privately resolved that it was time to stop doing that to people until such a time as everybody’s fears and uncertainty on this score were put to rest.
We drove into Toronto this Sunday on an in-and-out rescue mission to pick up our son whose working life has been put on indefinite hold by the lock-down. You may recall that the afternoon was almost summerish. Of course, one understands – or, at least, remembers – the human impulse to go out promenading on the first quasi-balmy day in half a year. But the lack of adherence to social distancing protocols in the pedestrian-clogged walkways around High Park and the waterfront was both alarming and appalling to behold. Have these people been sleeping under rocks all month? Do they actually think they’re impervious to such a wildly proliferating virus? Driving into town from the 401 to our home in the late afternoon, our son was mightily impressed by the much more zipped-up and standoffish atmosphere on display in London.
It is a mark of how swiftly our thinking and our instincts have shifted in such a short while that I almost disbelieve that my final handshake took place as recently as March 8th. It now feels like it was at least three months – or a full season – ago. You know . . . back in the good old days when people were still able to naturally and unconsciously enjoy the easy freedoms of movement and association. Watching movies these last couple of weeks, whenever I happen upon a scene of a crowded downtown sidewalk or a stadium full of people swaying to a musical performance, I am stabbed with an exile’s haunted longing for a world we’ve been obliged to leave behind.
I shudder to read some reports that suggest we might have to live in this sterile and desiccated way for eighteen more months or even two years; until some sort of vaccine is discovered and distributed which can keep the Wuhan Bat Soup Flu at bay. But I’m resistant to making certain adaptations in the interim which invariably employ computer screens in contriving artificial facsimiles of the sort of social interaction I miss. I’ve rudely ignored two overtures from my regular Scrabble-playing compadre, urging me to download some sort of app that will allow us to wage our bi-monthly campaigns from separate rooms half a city apart with the click of a mouse. I suppose I’m considering it, in a rather halfhearted way. But, feeling that I'm already spending way too much time on line as it is, I’m just not ready yet to admit that our lives have really come to quite such a pathetic pass as this.
Most dashing of all for me was the fact that last week, for the first time in the twenty-four and a half years of our existence (our silver anniversary will come up the last Wednesday in September), my Christian men’s book club, the Wrinklings, was not able to assemble for our monthly confab thanks to this intractable global plague. Small wonder that as some sort of compensation, I just finished reading the recently published The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age by Leo Damrosch; a study of the group of writers, thinkers, artists, actors and statesmen who gravitated around Samuel Johnson for two decades in their weekly meetings in a private room at London’s Turk’s Head Tavern.
Among the eminent 18th century worthies who assembled most weeks were Joshua Reynolds (the foremost portraitist of his day, who formally established the club to ensure a venue where friends could gather to luxuriate in the brilliance of Johnson’s speech and also as a ploy to try to mitigate Johnson’s pronounced susceptibility to melancholia), James Boswell (a failed lawyer and a vain and morally incontinent suck-up to the rich and powerful who would eventually chronicle Johnson's life in the finest biography in the English language) Edward Gibbon (who revolutionized historical writing with his life-consuming opus, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), Oliver Goldsmith (a poet, playwright and novelist most famous for The Deserted Village, She Stoops to Conquer and The Vicar of Wakefield), Adam Smith (a political thinker and economic theorist whose best known title The Wealth of Nations is still read today), David Garrick (a one time student of Johnson's and the foremost actor and theatre impresario of his age) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (author of the plays, The Rivals and The Critic and latterly a distinguished parliamentarian).
I’ve long had a special place in my heart for good old Dr. Johnson, a superb essayist and the lone compiler of the first English dictionary. On the recommendation of my brother Ted (who shares a birthday with Dr. J.) I first read James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson in the first year of my marriage and have revisited this sprawling and affectionate account of a great soul’s life every few years since. This was the book that first enabled me to lift myself up over the rim of the 20th century and imaginatively immerse myself in the culture of an earlier time; a wonderfully liberating exercise which did much to free me from the petty and limiting tyranny of only paying attention to the concerns and issues of the present day. Boswell’s inexhaustible portrait presents Johnson in his fullness and very occasional smallness, at his best and at his silliest, at his noblest and most guilelessly touching.
While I’ve read the entire book three or four times, often my return visits are just to spend a couple days re-tasting a handful of favourite scenes. Amongst dozens of touchstones here are two in particular that never fail to bring tears to my eyes. One is the account of the time, a few years before his death, when Johnson was revisiting his hometown of Lichfield and in an act of personal penance for an occasion in his surly youth when he refused to help his stationer father run his book stall in a nearby town, Johnson removed his hat to stand for an hour in the pouring rain in the Uttoxeter market square in the very spot where that stall had been set up. Another is the account of the night after the pubs had closed when two much younger writers, well into their cups, went around to Johnson’s house on a kind of dare and called up to the sleeping scribe to pull on his pants and coat and come join them in an early morning ramble ... and, bless his heart, he did.
When the Wrinklings are next able to gather, I’m hoping we’ll talk about The Club and perhaps compare it with some other books that examine groups of male friends who gather to discuss literature of all kinds (including their own), their faith, their intellectual passions and world events. These will include, of course, Humphrey Carpenter’s magnificent 1978 volume about our quasi-namesakes, The Inklings (which discusses the literary cross-pollination going on between those great Christian fantasists C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams) and the more recent Inklings biography, The Fellowship, by Philip and Carol Zaleski, which, though more bloated and speculative than would be ideal, digs a little deeper and fleshes out the portraits of what we might call the second-tier Inklings – Hugo Dyson. Own Barfield and Neville Coghill.
Then we have the less formal literary fraternity of journalist and Christian apologist, Malcolm Muggeridge, prolific biographer Hesketh Pearson and all-round jack-of-literary-trades (including biographies, anthologies, novels, essays and travelogues) Hugh Kingsmill to consider. The two best books on this circle of friends are Richard Ingrams’ God’s Apology: A Chronicle of Three Friends (which takes its title from Kingsmill’s quip that “Friends are God’s apology for relations”), and Muggeridge and Pearson’s own, About Kingsmill, which they wrote shortly after the death of Hugh to commemorate him and assuage their grief with reminiscence and tribute.
Also perhaps worth a look is Hesketh Pearson’s 1930 biography of Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles and an early progenitor not just of evolutionary theory but the phonograph, the submarine and psychoanalysis) which pays considerable attention to the circle of writers, scientists and inveterate inventors who gathered at Darwin’s Birmingham-area house on nights when a full moon illuminated their path and thus became known as The Lunar Men, The Lunar Society or even just The Lunatics. Included in Dr. Darwin's circle of friends were James Watt (inventor of the steam engine), Joseph Priestley (the discoverer of oxygen), and Josiah Wedgewood (the progenitor of a pottery empire), In 2002 British biographer Jenny Uglow gave an updated appraisal of these men and the many schemes and ideas they hatched in her book, The Lunar Men.
Any literary fraternity worth its salt subtly self-selects for compatibility of temperament and interest. There's a great story told about the Inklings one night when J.R.R. Tolkien pulled out a sheaf of papers to read his latest installment from The Lord of the Rings and Hugo Dyson was heard to groan , "Oh, not more fucking elves!" You don't all have to work the same subject but you do have to be on the same wavelength. We've had men drop in to the Wrinklings for a session or two and then, not quite connecting in a way that does them any good, quietly drift away. Only once have we had to send an obnoxious member packing when he proved incapable of appreciating what everybody else could see; that he was stubbornly banging his head against the wrong wall and playing some game that nobody else was engaged by.
In my experience a membership roll of more than about ten risks becoming too diffuse and scattered; not everybody who wants it will find a way to get their turn at bat. I've been fascinated to watch on nights when more forceful members haven't made it out to a meeting, how more reticent souls step up their game and become more forthcoming. We don't develop a corporate identity but we do forge something like a collective taste. And we know some new member has really found their Wrinklings' legs when they are able to come up with a recommendation for an author or a subject that is met with wide approval. In addition to discussion about our set subject, our meetings always open with an open call for the writers in our midst to share any new work they've been developing and get some feedback.
There was one night about ten years ago when nearly all of the Wrinklings and their wives were invited to the same house party and by some sort of bibliophilic instinct, we fellows had separately made our way to the host’s library where we were eventually caught talking and laughing amongst ourselves when the host’s wife came through and ordered us all back to the party to mingle with the other guests.
Over the last quarter century, three of the Wrinklings have crossed over Jordan. About eight years ago one of those late members was predeceased by his wife who happened to be buried on the last Wednesday of a month in the spring. Just about all of the Wrinklings were at the funeral reception, expressing our condolences to our friend and not saying anything about the meeting that night, assuming he wouldn’t be able to make it out and it would be disrespectful or gauche to say anything about it.
As a group of us were leaving, our latest widower looked at us uncertainly and said, “We’re still on for tonight, right?”
“Sure,” I told him, “If you’re up to it.”
“I’ll be there,” he said, and he was.
I hitched a ride home from the reception with another fellow Wrinkling and his wife who said to her husband on the way out of the parking lot, “If I die before you and I get buried on the last Wednesday of the month and you insist on attending the Wrinklings that night, I swear I’ll find a way to dig myself up out of the earth and strangle you. Okay, Honey?”
“All right, Dear..”
Yes, the Wrinklings is a fraternity - a men's association - and we've occasionally caught
flak for that which, if it bothered us at all, we would insist is totally undeserved. None of us bear women any ill will. We all think women are tops and, except for the priests in our group,. we've underlined that devotion with matrimony. We just don't want women in our group as surely as we're not wanted in some of theirs. If membership in our club was predicated on articles of faith, I am confident that one of them would be our rejection of the insane assertion that gender is nothing more than a 'social construction'; that apart from physical differences, male and female characteristics are all culturally instilled and not innate.
I remember a few years before we started up the club, I had spilled a pot of freshly brewed coffee on top of my bare right foot. Hot and steaming grinds were plastered to the top of that foot and doing a real number on my flesh as I frantically danced about, shaking them off. The bubble of pus that quickly formed there was enormous and I couldn't resist breaking it which got me into pretty serious medical trouble, requiring painkillers and even a cane for a few days. That Christmas I was recounting the whole sordid tale to a room full of friends and couldn't help noticing that the women within earshot were practically climbing over each other to get out of the room. And the space which their exit freed up was soon filled by more guys pushing in, saying, "Go back to the bit where you take that safety pin and poke the bubble. What happened then?"
No, we don't sit around exchanging horror stories about blood and pus. More often than not, we're talking about theology. But the energy in the room is decidedly male and it is in that distinctive atmosphere that we let ourselves off a kind of leash and are able to encourage each other in such a way that we can express insights with a boldness and even a daring kind of recklessness that would not be possible in any other forum. We surprise ourselves sometimes with what gets said and might well walk some of it back later upon reconsideration. But it does us a world of good to have a place in this world where we know we can get it out there with no holds barred and see what it sounds like and how it sits with others. Needless to say, this is a form of intellectual exchange that can only transpire when we gather together in a room, face to face.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :