These past few days, I’ve been trapped indoors by the rain. England has been hit by a cloud of unhappiness; a cyclone of damp. I stood beneath an umbrella in the garden one afternoon, shielded imperfectly from a storm of hail – bare feet on the stone path, hands trembling at the stub of a cigarette. It’s a martyr’s weather, but without the satisfactory ending.

What to do between writing? There’s an occasional visit from my mother, which means a cup of tea and church gossip. [A mad woman comes every Sunday and interrupts the sermons. She says the pastor is an agent of the devil. Several members of the congregation probably agree.] Otherwise, unable to go out, it’s a cigarette beneath an umbrella, a cheese sandwich, and some music. I don’t like to read. Other people write so much better than me – it’s insulting.

In the same way that Proust was transfixed by smell, I find the right kind of melody transports me somewhere else. By accident, I rediscovered Couperin and now I’m listening to Leçon de Ténèbres again and again. I’m probably confusing my composers (Gesualdo? Palestrina?), but if I stretch out on the floor and close my eyes, I think I can hear this music ten years ago in a room in Cambridge. I have few happy memories of that place, but one of them was the year that I took lodgings at the lonely end of my college. The windows wouldn’t shut properly and a wind blew from the living room, down the hall, and into my bedroom. There wasn’t a corner of my home that wasn’t cold. The pain was exhilarating: like a wet electric shock running all over my body.

I converted to Christianity while living in those rooms, thanks to several exciting conversations with a priest in his study. He had a big black Labrador that stunk of nicotine. Then I’d return home and stretch out on the bed, close my eyes, and listen to the sacred music that travelled the breeze from the living room, down the hall, and into my bedroom. “Qui tollis peccáta mundi, miserére nobis; qui tollis peccáta mundi, súscipe deprecatiónem nostram.”

In that crystal clear isolation, I came closer to God than evermore. Perhaps it was the product of physical and mental discomfort, I do not know. But whenever someone opened the door of my cell – letting the wind and the music escape - the spell was broken. And yet, I could never resist inviting them in. I dreamt one night that I had put the nails through Christ’s hands myself. When I awoke in terror, I called a girl. Physical infatuation followed and I never felt the same frozen peace again. Lord, have mercy.

Some months later, I went to confession at an abbey. They said on the phone that I could turn up at any time and someone would hear me. I rang the bell repeatedly for ten minutes, until a man in his eighties opened the door wearing nothing but a bathrobe. I said I was here to confess. “I was asleep,” he replied. “I’m very old.” He complained about his knees throughout the confession and, at the end, said he was going back to bed. I suspect that I went home and did the same.

Ten years later, the music ends and I peel myself off the floor. Back to the kettle, back to the fridge, back to work. Tap, tap, tap, type, type, type.  The days of innocent slumber are over. A pretty memory for an ugly spring.

This is a brief post to wish everyone a happy Easter. It’s been unusually sober and religious for me. I had hoped to stay with friends in South Carolina but work commitments kept me in Washington. Everyone I knew in DC was out of town, so it was just me and Netflix for most of the weekend. I ended up going to church every day, culminating in an Old Rite Mass on early Sunday morning (I got up at 7am!). Now I feel rested and happy. The ordinary Lent-ending binge – with its associated regret and paranoia – has been averted. This year I have walked the straight and narrow path without a single tipsy trip or turn. Heck, I might be a candidate for sainthood.

I love the fact that this year Passover coincided with Easter. I doubly love how the American media covered the events differently according to the religious profiles of the staff. In the Huffington Post, it was all about how Moses was a proto-trade unionist and the message of Passover is to stand firm against The Bankers. In the National Review, Passover was all about the importance of the alliance with Israel against the al-Qaeda hordes. On Fox News, one segment ran, “Today is Passover, the day that Jews were liberated from Egypt. Let’s talk to Father Patrick McCarthy about the importance of this to Christians.” 

I like living in a society where religion is comfortably and openly discussed. I’ve written many times before about growing up in a Baptist home in England and how that set me apart from my peers – I always felt perfectly comfortable talking about faith, whereas they saw it as a subject best reserved for Christmas holidays and the death bed. Outside of England there are two varieties of Christian country. One is where faith is externalized and cultural – somewhere like Italy, where there’s a church on every corner and the constant chime of bells. The other is where faith is internalized and part of a private discourse. That would be like America. Here in the USA, the Calvinist principle that salvation is to be achieved on one’s own terms predominates. But because the Americans are so terribly extroverted, something that should be a private monologue is invariably turned into a public conversation. Faith buzzes around one’s ears like radio waves – never materialized in physical form, but a constant fizz of chatter in the air.

Religion is the invisible architecture of America. Where Italy has Cathedrals and monasteries, America has television missions and mail-order Bibles. In Europe, Christian identity is a given because it’s physically actualized all around you. In America it has to be constantly verbally reaffirmed, precisely because you can’t touch it or see it. The unique genius of the American civil religion is its blending of medieval faith and Enlightenment reason. It is hammered out mid-air between interlocutors. The battleground is everywhere – and that mad fellow screaming Armageddon on the doorstep of Safeways is just another of our glorious foot soldiers. Do not shun him. Next week he could be the Republican Senator from Kentucky.

Happy Easter!

A brilliant academic, Toby Jackman, has passed away (see pic. left). With him goes the Cambridge University of old. It is a damning indictment of Cambridge’s current priorities that it didn’t inform its alumni of his death. I only found out myself two months later via a mutual friend. He was a dear, gentle, eccentric man who typified the academic aristocracy of the postwar West – eternally curious, yet strangely disengaged.

He was born Sydney Jackman, but took the name “Toby” in honor of his favorite teddy bear. After his Californian parents died, Toby was raised in Canada by his grandparents. He took a BA in physics (shudder) at Washington State, followed by a PhD in history at Harvard. He was very proud of the fact that his PhD was a biography: something few tutors would tolerate nowadays. Toby was interested in narrative and anecdote, which are discouraged in contemporary academia. It’s not true that he produced no further significant work, but he really used his Harvard connections to build an international collection of acquaintances and to turn himself into a latter-day flaneur. Among the names in his rolodex were Paul Mellon and John Julius Norwich. He collected art and distributed his family’s cash across the academic world. He excelled as an administrator and a teacher and established himself as a fellow of St. Edmund’s Hall in Cambridge. That’s how I had the pleasure of meeting him.

Toby took me and a friend to lunch one afternoon. He was tall and slight and quite blind, but was a charismatic magnet for conversation and gossip. He was fascinated by the revival of Catholicism in Cambridge (of which I was only a tangential part). High religion was to his generation a sin worthy of the Greeks but he reveled in the exoticism of our company. He struck me as an old fashioned Anglo-American liberal: more English than the English, but without their unpleasant snobbery. He was the kind of campus radical who might have campaigned (read: sign a petition) for nuclear disarmament, but not stopped too long lest he miss cocktails with Gerald and Betty Ford.

The point of a Cambridge education to men like Toby was to cultivate mind and character. The aspiration of getting a job was vulgar; equally silly as wasting one’s time and opportunity on drugs and sex. He threw out and absorbed the facts of art, literature, history, quantum-mechanics with the casuality of a woman discussing the neighbors beneath a salon hairdryer. Toby was a social and intellectual polymath.

When the lunch finished, he suggested we go Dutch. My friend explained later that Toby was rolling in money, but sometimes didn't offer to pay lest his guest take offense at the implication that he was penniless. I saw him a few more times and noticed that, as the years drew on, his dress became more avant-garde. By late 2005, he was walking around in what can only be described as dungarees and a cap. Pinned to the shoulder strap was a faded ribbon promoting a cause that had long been won. It was possible that he did all this because we were Catholics and thought we would appreciate his effort of "dressing down".

Now that Toby is gone, Cambridge is minus one less of those excellent men who stroll the riverbank in suits and hats. They sit in pub gardens stringing endless yarns about the time Isherwood tried to kiss them, or they performed the Heimlich Maneuver on Salvador Dali. They are the faint echo of a better, gentler age and I miss them all. RIP Toby and RIP Cambridge.