Oxford & St. Benet’s Hall

Oxford-St Benet’s Hall

I went up to St. Benet’s in the Autumn of 1959 and  discovered  a house which was spare in its furniture, severe and awkward in its chapel but solid and sound din its routines.  We were there to work and pray and the prayer life of the house was more emphasised than any other in the day.  We went to the Sheldonian for matriculation with out mortar boards and gowns and were quite a rank of clerics at the same time.  We joined with Campion hall and met our contemporaries in the Jesuit house.   Our tutors were chosen for us from all round the university and the senior tutors for the hall especially for the historians was Robin Jeffs. Robin was  on one of those kindly young dons who aspired to a job in one of the colleges but it never came his way.  He knew his history, but he was much more inclined to be interested in style rather than content.  we went to h his rooms in North Oxford and there was always sherry.  he impressed us by his manner at first but when we went to him later we saw his limitation. Blaise (see below) delighted in him at first by once he had met other starts of the university like James Campbell he went right off him.  Robin I never saw after my schools, but Believe he got a job in Sheffield university.

Baliase Turck had come over from Mount Angel Abbey to do a history degree at Oxford.  He was in his late 20s and very much in awe of the  world he was entering.  He did not find it easy too grasp the standard of the work which we were required to do, the detail and the concentration and the  precision were foreign to him.  However he revelled in the life and being more mature than most of us struck a good balance between the needs of undergraduates and the  rest of the life i the house.  Without being actually chose, we got on well, and had a lot to share in our common course.  However he was not an inspiration historically to me, and was not able to lift me up to a higher level.

I began by playing rugby for St. Catherines which was the college which we were linked with for sports – and also for the mongrels which comprised all the theological colleges.  After my first game against New College I made friends with David White,a young physicist and invited him over to St. Benets for tea.  I came to know him and his family well and we have remained friends ever since.  He was a congregationalist and his Grandmother was the daughter of  John Lumley, General Booths’s right hand men.  His place of worship was Mansfield, the Congregationalist college, but I soon discovered a complete anti intellectual approach to his faith – and set about trying to get him to think about theology, becasue I fered that the itnellecutal world he was in would soon sstsart to pull against the fideist tradition which he was brought up in- and I feared he would lose his faith.. We kept up our friendship and religious discussions all the time i was at Oxford – getting to know his wife to be  the mother of his son Stephen, and others in his group.  However his religious life drifted away and he became an agnostic while being a professor of biology at York University – he split up with his wife and married an American ex Catholic.

There was shortly after the beginning of the term a survey for TB and it was discovered that I had TB or had had it. I was subjected to a series of injections and medicine to cope on the presumption that I had had it.  This put paid to my rugby an sport.   I now turned to my clarinet and began playing in the Holywell orchestra under Lazlo Heltay – a Hungarian musician at Oxford at the time, but the orchestra was not good and I was worse, but they tolerated me.  I found some people to play with one from Bradfield called Swain and another who was John Murray – the son of the publisher.  They were both better than me and though we had some delightful sessions I did not get anywhere.  I had lessons from jazz clarinetist in Boosey and Hawkes’s practice room near St. mary Mags and then from a lady, but though I learned a bit, they were rather frustrated at my lack of progress.  I used to play in SBH in the basement bicycle room, and occasionally with Anselm Cramer on the cello – he wrote out pieces for us to play. hen I came to prepare for my solemn voiws i was able to get a pari of Calrinets from B & H. – There wre called imperioals and cost £60 each. I was advised to get a pare A and B. In 1992 I was told that these were worth about £1200 second hand. I used to got to paly with the Holywell Orchestra under its conductor Lazlo Heltay. I hate to think how bad I must hae been, but no one rsented me being there.  I got a friend of two to play with me David Prouse who had been educated at Bradfield and finally John Murray (of the publishing family) with whom I once went to hear the Haydn Trumpet Concerto and the 1812 in Tom quad at Christ Church. I have continued playing them on an off ever since. In all the locations where I have been – Italian Mountains, seaside. Barracks and in Santiago Chile where I taught my first ? only pupil.   I used to go to the Balliol concerts and once had hte privilege of hearing Leon Goosens playing in the Oxford town hall that was before his accident.  Other memebrs of the community were in teh Bach choir, and I rmember Anselm telling me that he had sat under Hote ?  while they were singing or playing his Te Deum.  Henry Wansbrough was meticulous in practice on the organ at Pippy and Jimmys before going to play rugby – a degree of organisation and energy which I admired from afar then, but much nearer later.

Not long after I was there Mile Bellasis had a breakdown, and Fr. Robert Coverdale came to look at the hall.  he determined that the conditions should be improved so that there was less strain and the most obvious effect was that we all gained easy chairs in our rooms. and there were better chairs in the calefactory.  Miles then went fro chemistry to English – did not get a degree – went to America and in 1994 he left the community after a lifetime of great enthusiasm and work for the Priory.

On one occasion Thomas who was studying maths got involved in Oxfam and the war on want exhibition.  He and Vincent Marron composed a prayer for a cards which was Fr. Simon Trafford first experiment in calligraphy. The card later became the payer card for Mother Theresa’s workers.  The exhibition was in the Divinity schools and we were all roped in to help run it.

It was David White who first told me that there was rather a special film at the Scala – called the Seventh Seal.  I was allowed a film a term and went to see it.  The effect on me was dramatic.  It was an allegory about faith but set in the Middle Ages were a Knight returns from the Crusades and he want experience of God, – his journey to that experience is played with his agnostic squire, death with whom he plays chess, Mia and Jof with their child who are jugglers and wandering minstrels,  Plog the blacksmith and his wife Lisa, Raval the ex-seminary professor who robs corpses, all in a landscape of plague.  The symbolism, the theme, the stunning idea, images, characters and detail took me entirely by surprise I had never seen a film which could do this before and for 3 days I explore its ideas with everyone who had seen it and many who hadn’t.  it became the mst important film in my life but I  had to wait until the early 1980 before I could get a copy on tape.  I showed it several times to the AFS later, and then lectured on it continuously for 15 years. I saw some of the new Wave from France adn also Jazz on a Summers Day which made a big impct on me. From this time on I became involved with cinema and later took over the Film Society and ACK. (see below)

Sometime during the first two years I met Max Leuthenmayr who was a budding sculptor and was working at the Ashmolean – he was a friend of Fr. Thomas’ and I remember my Father was interested in giving a statue of the Sacred Heart to Ampelforth for the new Church.  I interested Max in the project and he did some maquettes to look at – they were not successful, and the project did not go any further.

One name in the town which I was given by Fr. Fabian who had gone down as I came up was  Miss      who always had tickets for the Stanley Match and would invite me.  This connection passed to both Ralph and Timothy.  He brother was a Cowley Father and she was a very devoted Anglican. I met her again in 1992. Theses trips and others to Ifley Rd were made more interesting when John Willcox was OU captain and I knew that he was coming to teach with us.  I and a Holy Ghost father worked out some moves for the Univ side since they had an excellent lineout thrower from America – these moves were put into practice, but though they did not win the game, the newspapers next day after the varsity match were full of the tactics.  I never went to the Varsity match, but was able to get to Miss     to watch internationals on her television.

As I look back I know now that I struggled rather with my academic work.  I gained a love for History and this has increased and become more significant during my life especially as  I poured much energy into the notes and books which I read and wrote for the classes.   I was very fortunate with my tutors.  I chose to study St. Augustine as my special subject.  This was rather ambitious because I was not much good at languages  eg. Latin, but I thought that the contact with theology would stand me in good stead.  I now am very pleased with my choice as I was then .  My tutor was Peter Brown who was at the time writing is great book on SA.  He was fellow of All Souls and the most gifted historian of his generation.  he chose to devote his life to the end of the roman Empire and has done continuous work on it since. He left all souls and went to a university in the US.  At this time he was living married on Boars hill.  But we met in his rooms in All Souls and thus gained access to the Codrington Library where I spent many hours working.  At time he would come to take me to tea i his rooms.   Above all I remember that he had that academic humility which suggested that one’s essays were worth reading and could give him some insight in to St. Augustine.  When I read his book on SA, if found the proof of a huge and sympathetic intelligence.  However I am not sure how committed he was as a Christian – High anglican is what he is supposed to be.

Douglas Price at Keble was our tutor for modern history, Tom Parker the Chaplain of Univ for my special European period which was the reformation, James Campbell f Worcester for Anglo saxon history prelims. Fieldhouse of   a colonial institute opposite SBH was for constitutional history.  His quick mind and insight was one of the most lasting influences on my historical thinking – he  introduced me to the legal aspect of history and the legal way of thinking – a n introduction which I have always been grateful for.

Firgures eho were asscoiated wih the hall when I was up who came from ouside. Inhouse members were  Miles B. Anslem Cramer, Vincent Marron, Henry Wansbrough(in his fourt year – greats) Alban Crossley, Thomas Cullinan, I was the only one of my year to start, but Jack Peters and Ronald Mallaband came up later.   Fr. Richard was a secualr priest studying history laster beame a chancellor in a diocese – he was one of a series of diocesan priests who had a place reserved from them at St. B.  Blaise Turck from Mount Angel Oregon strted with me in the History sccools..  he was a delightful man who found the Hall English and difficult. He had done a degdree already but was rarely to get an Oxford one.  His essays I rmemebr tende dto start with Adam and be rather descriptureive which ratther floored his tutors.  However we bth got through.   He was intracsted by Roin Jeffs at first but soon got very fed up with his style.   He as puncilious in his observance and it was only in our list year that I discovered he kept a little bottle in his room.  Wehne he returend to Mount Agnel he was important in the moasntery adn when they build a librry, he got R.A. Southern the great medievalist of St. Johns to give a series of lectures there to opene it.  He came back for a sabbatical and I met him again in the 1980s.   Another American who has since achieve distinciton was Fr. Aidan kavanagh who was studying the Fathers or liturgy.  Fr. Hugh Farmer from Quarr came to spend a year and he lfte the Quarr community later and has established hismelf a s a writer since.  Br. Gerard Rogers came rom Belmoth and he was not very happy though a delightful man – he left the community.  Fr.  Craig McFeely from Buckfast came and was a delightful incluence – he worked on parishes later and died early.  His confrere Fr. Gabriel Arnold came up to read History becasue they wee just starting their prep school.  A rather sad ex Jesuit  John Cornwell was a member of the hall .  A very pleasant man easy to talk to and obviously quite clerver without being an academic.  Much later in the 1980 a boy at Ampelfroth said his father wished to be rmembered to me, John Cornwell – and I said when I knew JC it was unlikely that he wuld ahve the money to send his son here – what is his Story ?  It trnspired stht John was a manager of the Observer, and writingbooks – he became very famous with boooks on John Paul 1.  and other stories of Catholic histry adn interst though not relly a beleiver.  I met him later.  he ans his wife wonce joined us in Bolton house on one of the Amp. TStudend confeences days when they had some fourign studients on a camp in the vicinity.   Fr. Gerald was the master and  it was aslwys sayd that he was intersted in Mystics and much becasue he had been the estate manager riding roudn the valley on a horse.    he was a dry rather dull man, but very likebale.  However as time went on I disocvered that I disagreed with him on almost eveything.  so our conversations wre a little tortured.  may stories exist about his Mastership but the one i likeed best was when one of the brethren put a long string of cotton under the cloth in the conference room libary, becasue when he spoiek he was always picking at inviisblebits of fluff.  He went n pulling and pulling – whther the brethsren held strign faces is not known.

After our 4.5 days of 3  hours exams in June 1962, I got an Oxford 3rd or a Camb 2.2. Which was disappointing but about right for my level.