Remembering honourable lives helps us understand the birth we celebrate on Christmas Day.
by Charles Moore
First published in The Telegraph 24 December 2011.
Tomorrow we celebrate the most important birth in human history, so forgive me for writing about a funeral and a memorial service.
Both occurred in this Christmas season. The memorial service, in St James’s, Piccadilly, was for Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. Paddy, as all his friends knew him, was a man of unique distinction and unique charm. He won the DSO in the Second World War for his part in the celebrated kidnap (filmed with Dirk Bogarde in Ill Met by Moonlight) of the German General Kreipe in occupied Crete. He became famous as a writer. His best-known books, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, describe his slow walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, begun in December 1933 (he spent Christmas that year in Bingen, in newly Nazi Germany) and not completed until January 1, 1935. His prose, at once romantic and scholarly, ornate and exact, could have no successful imitators, but it has tens of thousands of fans.
In his life as well as his writing, Leigh Fermor was, though he would have disliked the phrase, a role model – brave, handsome, witty, multi-lingual, widely and deeply read, a gifted singer, reciter and drinking companion, a traveller in exotic places, a man who gave delight. When he died, aged 96, this newspaper’s obituary described him as “one of the few genuine Renaissance figures produced by Britain in the 20th century”.
The funeral, the week after Paddy’s service, was for Tony Woodall. Tony was a woodman and neighbour of ours in Sussex. Unusually for a rural family in the South East, the Woodalls are Catholics (I am told there was an Irish grandmother in the case). Every Sunday at our Catholic church, Tony would pull a surplice over his open-neck shirt and frayed working trousers and serve, his huge hands carefully placing the chalice and the patten on the altar. He would ring the little altar bells with a shake as strong as that of a dog with a rabbit. At the intercessions, where people are invited to propose further prayers, it was most commonly Tony who did so. He tended to ask us to pray for people who might not be automatically popular, such as Myra Hindley. His compassion was radical, and universal. He never stopped working. He dropped dead outdoors a couple of weeks ago, aged 79.
Tony Woodall was not known beyond his small corner of rural England, but, like Paddy, he commanded people’s love. The church where he served fits only 120 people, but 200 came to the funeral and many had to stand outside. It fell to me to help flank the hearse as it arrived, trying (and failing) to hold up a candle without it blowing out. I had to pick my way to my place through wild-haired countrymen wielding chainsaws. As Tony’s wicker coffin was lifted up and carried into the church, the saws, by way of tribute, roared into synchronised action.
Both men’s services did justice to the person commemorated. In the case of Paddy Leigh Fermor, there were readings in four languages. Robin Lane Fox read Horace’s Ode 1.9. These were the lines which Paddy heard his prisoner General Kreipe reciting to himself as they watched the cold dawn break over Mount Ida in May 1944 (“See how resplendent in deep snow Soracte stands…”): Paddy knew the Latin words and completed the recitation, forming a bond between enemies. William Blacker chanted a Romanian ballad. Then John Julius Norwich and his daughter Artemis Cooper led us in one of Paddy’s specialities – his own translations of English songs into comically unsuitable foreign tongues. “Do ye ken John Peel, with his coat so grey?” became “Conosce Gian’ Peel, con sua giacca tanta griggia?”
The gospel was from Luke 12: “…take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. The life is more than meat, and the body more than raiment.”
At Tony’s funeral, the gospel was Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes, the list of those who are blest for their meekness or mercy, poverty of spirit or purity of heart. Of them Jesus says: “Ye are the salt of the earth.”
Tony’s son John spoke to us. He remembered the night of the Great Storm of 1987, when he was 10 years old. At two in the morning, Tony came into his bedroom, grasping a chainsaw. “I’m going out,” he told him, “to saw up these trees that are falling and blocking the way. If the roof blows off, come and get me.” A tree fell on his arms that night, but he kept on sawing.
John recalled his father’s goodness, which included caring for his permanently sick wife. “Crikey,” he said, “if only more people were like Dad, I reckon the world would be a hell of a better place. Pardon my language.”
We more than pardoned it, of course. “Thank you for coming,” he said, “You are all honourable men and women.” Whether we were or we weren’t, we felt a renewed confidence that the old-fashioned word had meaning: it was shown in the life of the dead man.
The Romanian ballad recited at Paddy’s memorial service is called the Mioritza. It concerns a shepherd about to be murdered by rivals. He instructs his ewe-lamb, who has the gift of speech, to tell others no word of his death. She must tell them only that “I married tonight a king’s daughter”: “At my wedding, tell/ how a star fell,/ that the sun and the moon were holding our crown,/ how the guests at the feast/were maples and firs”.
At Tony’s funeral, when John had spoken, he moved from the lectern. Just as he was about to rejoin the congregation, he stopped by his father’s coffin. “That evening,” he said, “I stood at the spot where Dad had died. The moon was up, and I saw a firework. But then I realised it wasn’t a firework, because there was no noise. It was a meteorite. I thought: ‘That was Dad.’ ” He went back to his place.
Paddy Leigh Fermor wrote that he loved the Romanian ballad because “its magic lies in its linking together of directness and the tragic sense, its capture of the isolated feeling that surrounds shepherds and the forlorn exaltation that haunts their steep grazings and forests”.
After a life well lived, we can all look back on it with that directness, especially when we attend services such as these. As if from those “steep grazings”, we can see the life laid out, shining plain. We may forget that, for the people who lived it, it often did not seem plain at all. As we sang at Tony’s funeral: “Through many dangers, toils and snares,/ I have already come.” The achievement of something grandly simple is an endlessly complicated process, a lifelong work of trial and error.
Anyway, as I said at the beginning, tomorrow marks a birth, not a death. Another Telegraph obituary, this one of the 7th Earl of Yarborough, related how, at his village carol service, he read the lesson about the shepherds deserting their flocks to see the baby in Bethlehem. “I’d just like to say,” he told the startled congregation, “that if these men had been my shepherds, I’d have sacked them.” One must be glad that the earl was not present 2,000 years ago. The shepherds were the best people to receive the message of the angel. With their linking of “directness and the tragic sense”, they understood what the strange birth would mean.