How do you survive as a Christian believer – and even preserve something of that faith in your children – in a society where Christianity is so drastically on the wane? The Church is being pushed to the margins, the practising Catholic population is ageing (despite bursts of youth enthusiasm), and Britain (according to a 2014 Gallup survey) is one of the world’s most irreligious countries.
Reflecting on these questions puts me in mind of Philip Larkin’s half-ironic, half-sincere poems such as the often quoted “Church Going”, and of a scene in Kingsley Amis’s novel The Old Devils, which was published in 1986 and won the Booker Prize.
There is a crucial episode half-way through Amis’s book in which two central characters, already sad about something else, drift into a wistful meditation on our collective loss of religious sense. Decent, boring Malcolm, preoccupied with his bowels, is reunited with an old girlfriend from student days, lovely Rhiannon Weaver, long-since married to an upmarket media Welshman. They drive along the coast to visit spots from their briefly shared romantic past that Malcolm hopes might jog Rhiannon’s memory, but they don’t and Rhiannon is upset and blames herself. They come to a deserted church (Amis’s biographer Zachary Leader says it is based on St Illtyd’s on the Gower Peninsula); it is closed up, and, as the church-spotter Malcolm explains to Rhiannon, a service hasn’t been held in it since 1959.
“Do you believe in it yourself, Malcolm?” asks Rhiannon. Malcolm replies: “It’s very hard to answer that. In a way I suppose I do. I certainly hate to see it all disappearing.” A bit later he confides: “I like to come here occasionally. It helps me … no, it’s impossible to say without sounding pompous. Anyway, it’s a wonderful spot. Peaceful.”
Anyone reading The Old Devils will have already been primed to hear echoes of Amis’s friend Larkin: for example, a character has reflected that life is “first boredom, then more boredom”, adapting “Life is first boredom, then fear” from Larkin’s elegy on ageing, “Dockery and Son”.
Now the Malcolm-Rhiannon scene plants hints of other poems (mainly “Church Going” and “An Arundel Tomb”) in which Larkin’s poetic voice blends sophisticated irony and scepticism with sincere feeling – mainly that nostalgia for the institutional Church which the poet described (in “Aubade”) as “that vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die”.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection