Monday, August 13, 2018

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And don't lie." He was a legendary curmudgeon.

It put me in mind of a question, Lady Wheare, once my landlady in Oxford, put to me, as a prospective tenant. "Have you read War and Peace?" Pause. "There is a test, you know!" I never did discover whether you were rejected if you said no (or if she felt you might be lying in saying yes).

She was a remarkable woman, and formidable, as this obituary in the Oxford Times illustrates: http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/community/obituaries/obits/10789899.Rebel_with_many_causes_who__was_Oxford___s____urban_guerilla___/

Since I was actually domiciled in the same house (two cottages in Wolvercote partially converted into one), I had an opportunity to watch her in action closely!

Though a devout Christian, she had a skepticism about bishops and women priests (they failed in voice projection) and a horror of reserved seats in church. These she would deliberately sit in and then defy anyone brave or foolish enough to try and eject her. She was irredeemably of her class but possessed of a notable egalitarianism before God. Her dislike of women priests was not theological. Alongside bishops, she placed St Paul, not least for his difficulties with acknowledging the authority of women. Called upon to read one such passage in the Letters during Evensong at St. Giles, she dumped it in favour of the Beatitudes. When reminded of this in a low timorous voice by the Vicar,  she replied to him, loudly and bluntly, "Yes, I know but I am never reading that passage" and carried on with the Blessings!

But under that formidable persona was a person of extraordinary kindness (and resolute practicality), the obituary only captures a fraction of her public charitable activities (excluding, for example, her helping to build Oxford's first student residence for people with a disability). Nor does it capture what was, I think, at her heart.

This was the conviction that everyone, without exception, was of interest, interesting and had something uniquely theirs to offer the world (even if, as she said, it might take several sherries to unearth it) and that if we had failed in the past, nobody was without the possibility of making amends and redemption. The man, for instance, she had employed cutting the grass of Wolvercote Green was an ex-prison inmate in need of work. It was an obligation to treat everyone with that interested regard that allowed them to try and be their best selves.

The worst failure you could make, apart from being St Paul, was to imagine that people were to be disregarded for any reason but especially any form of prejudice. She had a relation, by marriage, who was a racist (and anti-Semitic) and was suffered only for the reason of proximity. This did not prevent Lady Wheare happily inviting her neighbours to dinner (an Afro-American couple and academics) when the said relative was visiting and Lady Wheare happily bashed home her points as the relative inwardly cringed yet with such skill that the Afro-American couple were wholly unaware and at ease! Only I was in the know and watched a liberal of the heart on the politest, but most pointed, of warpaths!



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