Thursday, September 09, 2004

Quite a find...

I’ve managed to acquire quite a treasure for my library. Thanks to the generosity of a bibliophile friend, I find myself in possession of a complete (5 volume) set of the short stories and novellas of the late Fr. Linus d’Alton. They are, in themselves, of relatively little literary value, but as a curiosity and collector’s item are notable. Bound in green leather and with pages edged with gold leaf, they mainly consist of comic tales set amongst a fanciful monastic, ecclesiastical and academic milieu in an unnamed English city. d’Alton, rather ambitiously, thought of himself as a clerical PG Wodehouse, but the fact that they had to be privately published by a London vanity publishers, the Kingfisher Press. As a matter of fact, neither the style, nor the quality of humour commend themselves, with the majority of stories being elaborate superstructures supporting a painfully unfunny and well-flagged punchline.

Far more interesting, in fact, than the stories themselves are the adventures of Fr. Linus himself and it is unfortunate that he never chose to turn his literary ‘talent’ to writing his own memoirs. An Oxford graduate and English diocesan priest, d’Alton volunteered as a chaplain to the British armed forces during the Second World War. This brought him to Rome shortly after the liberation and thereafter never returned home. It is rumoured that his Ordinary was only too happy for his bonviveur priest to stay on in Rome – it is understood that they had some manner of falling-out prior to the war and his bishop had no great confidence in d’Alton’s pastoral capabilities. d’Alton talked himself into the position of chaplain and confessor to a convent of nun on the Aventine, a post that brought with it a small income and a large apartment.

He saw out the rest of his days between writing, socializing and attending to his nominal duties in the convent. He quickly became well-known in clerical circles, but never sought advancement in curial or academic circles. It being suggested to him that he might try and enter the Papal diplomatic corps, he reportedly quipped, “I have no interest in emerging myself in such a pond, where it seems that only the scum floats to the top.” It is because of this reticence that despite being well known as a wit and socialite, he made no impact on such events as the Second Vatican Council. (That being said, I did spot that he does warrant a mention in Yves Congar’s conciliar diary.)

Those who remember him have described me as being a well-built figure, standing well over 6 foot tall, cutting a striking figure in cassock, saturno (clerical hat) and handlebar moustache. Later years, however, saw him go into mental and physical decline. He spent his last days pottering around the city dressed in a rough approximation to a Benedictine habit and insisting on being called ‘Dom Pio,’ one of the more obscure characters in his books. (Rome is incredibly tolerant of such eccentricities.) He finally passed away in 1982 and was buried in the Campo Verano cemetery.
The subprior was puzzled – “I don’t understand what the Theoretical Physics Department needs with a dozen lead-lined boxes.” Raising an eyebrow, the novice-master replied, “Nor do I, but I’m more concerned by the fact that Professor Schrodinger spends an inordinate time loitering in the vicinity of the Home for Abandoned Felines.”
-Intellectus quaerens by Fr Linus d’Alton

The professor of moral philosophy leaned back in his armchair. “You will understand,” he drawled, “that this august institution is not in the habit of condoning dishonesty.”
“Indeed not,” responded Bro. Cuthbert. “My understanding is that it preferred to encourage it.”
- New Words, New Ways by Fr Linus d’Alton

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