And all ye men of tender heart; Forgiving others take your part.
THOSE words are from the great hymn of St Francis of Assisi, All creatures of our God and King, and they are apt for today, Septuagesima, so named because it is roughly 70 days before Easter. Our theme is brotherly love and solidarity. On what are these things based? Well, they cannot be based on vague pietisms such as worldwide peace. As George Eliot said: ‘Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the life of the poultry.’
True brotherly love and a solidarity which counts for something cannot be constructed upon vague and diffuse agreeable feelings or touchy-feely tugs at the heartstrings. True brotherly love and solidarity require self-giving and self-sacrifice. St Francis embodied this brotherly love and gave his whole life to the poor. Not to the picturesque poor of holy poverty, but to every stinking, diseased beggar he met.
There is a true solidarity and brotherhood of man – though to be woker-than-woke we shall have to call it the personhood of persons – but it comes from neither idealising nor patronising the poor. First, this fellowship and solidarity among women and men is all about regular, gratuitous acts of kindness. Secondly, it comes through creating local institutions which will help people escape the poverty and deprivation into which they were born.
Good schools first of all. I don’t mean what people today mean by a good school. It’s not a matter of having a computer for every child, or of how many pupils to a teacher, or even about mixed-sex loos. My first school was Castleton County Primary in Leeds, next to the main railway line, now and then bombed by Hitler. There were 40 in our class – most of them unspeakably deprived beyond the ken of either Jeremy Corbyn or Sir Keir Starmer. Many children had no shoes and they came to school in rags.
Some went hungry and would even beg for their pal’s apple core at morning playtime. Exercise books were in short supply and we used chalk and slates. But by the time we were 11 we had learnt our times tables, the parts of speech and how to parse an English sentence. In our heads we carried an outline of our nation’s history from 55BC to the day before yesterday.
We were also taught the Christian faith under the terms of the 1944 Butler Education Act which provided for a daily act of worship. In short, we were given a grounding in the things that could emancipate us. Knowledge is the road to freedom and self-improvement. But what now goes on in schools? Never mind 11-year-olds, there’s many a teacher without a clue what ‘parse an English sentence’ means. And instead of the outline of the Christian faith, children are indoctrinated into the contemporary lie that any opinion is as good as any other.
After school, there was the children’s library. It was in the basement under the main building on Armley Town Street, not far from Alan Bennett’s dad’s butcher’s shop. There was the smell of damp and of something that was being used to dry out the damp. But there were wonders: Hans Andersen’s fairy tales and the infinitely more unsettling – and therefore instructive – Tales of the Brothers Grimm which agreed with the Bible’s view that there is evil in the world as well as good. There also were The Coral Island, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. When we began our teens, we were allowed up into the main library where some of us used to make a beeline for the art section, not so much to fasten ourselves upon the Golden Section but to peruse the pictures of the naked ladies there. If we giggled, we were shushed.
Nowadays public libraries are like Bedlam: they are the antidote to reading. I heard one of the government’s commissars for something called Education, Society and Culture set out her ten-year blueprint for the ideal library. Because the very word library revives distasteful echoes of elitism, the commissar recommends that it be renamed ‘idea store’ which, she says, should have the feel of a record store or internet café. But really a library exists to free you from the cultural slagheap of the consumer pop culture. The commissar recommends that the librarians all wear the same T-shirts. They used to wear real clothes when I was a boy. She says the ultimate point of the library is to provide a neutral welcoming community space and to support active citizenship. It sounds like something dreamed up in East Germany under the Communists.
Neither the modern school nor the modern library stands a chance of promoting solidarity. A great patronising infantilism is being thrust upon the people by those responsible for the institutions of our land. And it all oozes from the putrescent flowering of the sentimental vision. When the devil wants to lead us away from God, he doesn’t usually choose to lure us by sensational sins. The devil is the Ape of God and so his policy is to make satanic counterfeits of God’s gifts and commandments. He therefore perverts virtues into vices: love into lust; humility into obsequiousness; probity into stinginess; genuine feeling into sentimentality.
Instead of brotherly love, a cloying sentimentality. Think overseas aid – that is, poor people in rich countries being bullied into giving their money to rich people in poor countries. Sentimentality is the hallmark of our times. It is not sweet and harmless, a little bit of sugary self-indulgence against the dark corners of the late afternoon. It derives from psychopathology and it leads to psychopathology.
Think of the sentimentalist Joseph Stalin at the May Day parades with tears in his eyes as he watches the long lines of little children carrying flowers – while he executes their parents by the tens of millions. Think of the sentimental Nazis with their perverted strength through joy, the silly armbands and the kitsch Bruderbund songs. Or of the Chicago Mafia and Al Capone with their machine guns and their watery-eyed devotion to Momma. Irish republicans with their mawkish patriotic songs and their penchant for blowing up worshippers on Remembrance Sunday. Think Barbara Windsor as the East End smasher with a heart of gold. And right behind her the Kray twins.
Sentimentality is the enemy of genuine emotion and true love because it is, in the words of D H Lawrence, ‘the business of working off on yourself feelings that you don’t really have’. As Cyril Connolly remarked of George Orwell: ‘He couldn’t blow his nose without moralising on the conditions of employment in the handkerchief factories.’
The church goes in for sentimentality these days even in the sanctuary. A prominent Catholic church in Paris has removed from before the Blessed Sacrament the prie dieu and installed thick pile carpets and armchairs. Sorrow for sins has been replaced by what the leaders of that Paris church call contemplative therapy – forgetting what Karl Kraus said: ‘Psychotherapy is the disease for which it pretends to be the cure.’
Which brings us back to St Francis. He was the very opposite of a sentimentalist. That’s why he founded the friars, the brotherhood, based on brotherly love and solidarity. As Chesterton said of him: ‘He was ready to live on refuse.’ And that was something much uglier as an experience than the refined simplicity which vegetarians and water-drinkers call ‘the simple life’.
Brotherly love based on truth-telling, charity and discipleship: those are the gifts of St Francis which we celebrate on Septuagesima. Let us recall that a few years after the death of this poor man who chose the way of brotherly love, there were 5,000 who dressed in the friars’ simple brown robe.
And after a few years more, the greatest poet in Christendom, Dante Alighieri, was laid in his tomb wearing that same vestment.