The sociable hermit

Medieval England was full of religious solitaries. Brother Harold Palmer is among the last of the breed. After leading a reclusive life for five decades, he wants some company.

This article was published in the November 2018 issue of The Oldie.

Photo: Mark Greaves

Photo: Mark Greaves

My car bumps up a bridal path, pushing past overgrown ferns. I open one gate after another, pass a crowd of sheep, then arrive at the top of a hill. There is a cluster of buildings, a ruined wall, a very old caravan and a church. Brother Harold Palmer, whose place this is, is nowhere to be seen – until, that is, I look in the church, and find him sitting there completely still, as if transfixed.

Brother Harold has lived on this hill in Northumberland since 1971; first in a caravan, then in a house he built with the help of friends. In the decades since then he has raised enough money to build a church and four monastic cells, designed by Harold with architects Ralph Patisson and John Sanders. The church, built by two builders over seven years, won a RIBA award in 2015.

Built in a Romanesque style, the church looks like it could be 1,000 years old. The view from the cells is breathtaking: a patchwork of green fields all the way to Scotland.

After a minute or two of silence, Brother Harold gets up abruptly to say hello. He has a missing tooth, and leans heavily on a stick, but his eyes sparkle. ‘Have you come to see me?’ he asks, sounding amazed. He shows me my cell, where I will stay the night. There is a paraffin lamp (electricity only came recently) and a hatch to put food through. He asks me to keep doors closed – swallows have a habit of flying in.

Brother Harold, who is is 86, has followed the same monastic routine for more than half his life, singing plainchant and reciting prayers in a church seven times a day. His approach is described as semi-eremitical – that is, he is somewhat a hermit, but not a full recluse. He has guests fairly regularly. He gets driven by a friend to the shops. Although he may go for weeks without seeing anyone, he has a mobile phone. His singular achievement is not solitude, but the place itself, and his decades-long dedication to praying in it alone.

Harold is, I think, a little uneasy about his journalist visitor. ‘I don’t know what you are going to make of all this,’ he says. His place is certainly more sociable than I had imagined. Just as we sit down for tea, an Anglican bishop and his wife pop in with cake. Another man, Frank, also appears at the door – he has come to walk his dog.

This is an excerpt. The full article can be read in November 2018’s issue of The Oldie.

‘I’ve had a beautiful life’

Patrick Reyntiens is one of the greatest stained-glass artists of our age. As he prepares to turn 90 he reflects on nannies, guardian angels and the faith that drives him

This article was first published in the Catholic Herald on 15 May 2015.


Patrick Reyntiens writes for the Catholic Herald thanks to his guardian angel. On a dark winter’s morning 15 years ago, an angel visited him and said he would live until he was 96. But there was a catch. “You’ll have to work for it,” the angel told him. Reyntiens, who turns 90 this year, took the advice to heart. He is prodigiously active: he still paints, writes, travels and gives talks. His angel has not appeared since. “One didn’t know if one was having a dream or if it was true,” he says. “But I shall not forget it.”

Reyntiens has written for the Herald since the 1990s. Before that, as you may know, he was Britain’s leading stainedglass artist of the 20th century. For 35 years he worked with the painter John Piper, turning his basic designs into finished stained glass. Their biggest projects, at Coventry Cathedral and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, were completed during a revival of the art form in the 1950s and 1960s.

I visit Reyntiens at his house in Ilminster, Somerset, in the hope of discovering more about his life’s work. Unfortunately, this proves to be more difficult than I had imagined. What he really wants to talk about is books. In his library he has 16,000. He gives me a tour and I quickly realise I am out of my depth. He has sections for art, architecture, the classics, French literature, 1930s literature… He points to a Balzac shelf and admits that he’s “only read about five” of them. I keep quiet about how many I’ve read. “I don’t know who’s going to inherit all this,” he says. “I may sell the lot.”

Reyntiens is an extremely generous host and apologises for not offering sherry – he says he’s given up alcohol for Lent. “Still, we’ll have a little wine for lunch,” he adds.

Our conversation is propelled by his enthusiasms. His range of interests is enormous. He talks about everything from Somerset’s medieval wool trade and underground Catholicism in Scotland to how humans underestimate animals – geese in particular.

His love of books began with his nanny, Violet Grey, who used to read Dickens to him for half an hour every night before bed. His family sound like a pretty cultured lot: his grandmother, Flora, was a friend of John Singer Sargent. She played piano with him and bought his house when he died.

Reyntiens has no fond memories of Flora – he recalls her shouting “Idiot!” at him as a toddler – but her taste for fine objects seems to have partly inspired his career as an artist. Growing up, he says, he was surrounded by beautiful artefacts and pictures. “[It was] an amazing feeling of being in this place and I just wanted to draw and then I wanted to paint,” he says. He has his family’s furniture still – a cabinet from the 1740s, a dining table sculpted in the 1870s and statues of St Francis, St Joseph and St Teresa of Avila bought by Flora in 1920s Portugal. “I never want to buy another piece of furniture in my life,” he says.

Read the rest of the article here.

‘Jesus would have been a good punk’

Ex-Clash drummer Terry Chimes explains he’s ready to take atheists on in TV debates

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on 28 March 2014.

Terry Chimes

On holiday in Rio in 2000 Terry Chimes couldn’t keep his eyes off the Christ the Redeemer statue. “I kept being drawn to it, and I didn’t know why,” he says. He had been thinking about a remark by the Hindu guru Ramana Maharshi, who described Christ’s Resurrection as a metaphor for the spiritual self coming to life and the ego dying. Once he came back to England, he was gripped by a spiritual “super thirst” and shut himself away for two weeks to read books about Christianity. The “dam burst”, he says, with C S Lewis.

The passage, in the book Mere Christianity, was about pride. C S Lewis wrote that if you take pride “in thinking that you are more spiritual than someone else, then Satan will rub his hands with glee”, says Chimes. As he read the words he had the “chilling awareness” that he had been in “just such a trap for 20 years”. He put the book down, sat on the sofa and, he says, had “the most extraordinary experience of my life”. In his autobiography, The Strange Case of Dr Terry and Mr Chimes, he describes it as a “presence coming through me in strong waves”. “At that moment,” he writes, “everything material and concrete seemed like nothing compared to the power and majesty of this presence. Everything in my world seemed to be instantly shattered, leaving me feeling tiny, naked and exposed. At the same time I felt the most extraordinarily powerful love… there were many tears, but also the most profound feeling that I would always be loved until the end of time and beyond. I also realised at that moment that my life could never be the same again.”

Chimes had been raised a Catholic but hadn’t believed in anything other than a vague “higher power” since he was 12 or so. “I was searching forever,” he says. “I read every book going. I tried different types of meditation. But I was always one step away from finding what I needed.”

I meet him for lunch in Loughton, Essex, where he lives. He picks me up in a shiny new Mercedes – the number plate spells CH11MES. He is dressed smartly, in a blue blazer. His life has taken some sharp turns. He is not, I think, someone who’s afraid of change. First, he was a drummer for The Clash, and toured with bands like Black Sabbath. Then he became a chiropractor (that is, a therapist who manipulates parts of the body to try to fix joint or spine problems). His next big adjustment is that he’s about to get married. His fiancee is from Manila and they met online. They talked via Skype for two months before he flew out to visit her. We sit down to eat at Zizzi. Chimes, seeing the waiter alarmed at my recording device, jokes that it’s “for feedback”. He is a rapid talker, rattling off one-liners before I’ve had time to open my mouth.

He explains that, after his Damascene experience, while he might “get annoyed with God”, he’s “never ever doubtful for a microsecond that he’s there and real and knows me very intimately”. He goes to Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes in Wanstead, where he’s also part of a meditation group. (He meditates for half an hour each day before work.) He says he “tells the world” about meditation because he thinks it’s so good, but hardly anyone gives it a try. “I don’t know why. I think they think it’s some kind of witchcraft or something.” The aim of the group, he says, is to sit there, clear your mind and become “more aware and share in the love between the Father and the Son”. He adds: “I don’t know if they think we take our clothes off or what we do.”

Chimes says he has told his old bandmates about his conversion but that they were not particularly interested. “They always thought I was a bit weird anyway,” he says. He does not, though, see any great contradiction between punk and Catholicism. “Jesus would have been a good punk in a way,” he says. “He was interested in freedom, in honesty, in doing the right thing, and all of those things are kind of aligned in the way the punk thing came along.” He describes punk as a reaction to bands “sitting in private jets, earning a fortune, not being in touch with their fans”. Those bands were “a bit like legalists in the Church”, he says.

Chimes was only in The Clash for about a year before he decided to quit. The reason, he explains in his book, was that he wasn’t enjoying it. He was constantly arguing with everyone else. He thought they all got carried away with their idealism, saying things like “we won’t earn any money, we’ll give it all away”. He says: “I wanted to play music and they wanted to change the world. I didn’t mind changing the world but it had to be done realistically.”

He carried on drumming for a dozen more years, and even rejoined The Clash for a while, before training as a chiropractor, which, he says in his autobiography, gave him a “more profound happiness” than he ever had on stage. Now, after a break of almost 20 years, Chimes is back in the music business again. His band The Crunch have recorded an album and are performing at festivals in Spain and Sweden. On April 9 he is playing at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, central London, where, at a Clash gig in the 1970s, a brawl broke out and he was kicked in the face by a fan. “Hopefully it will be more peaceful,” he says.

Chimes admits he has a tendency to “get angry with things when they’re not right”, and before very long we are talking grumpily about the anti-Catholic press. He laments the fact that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were under constant attack during their pontificates. He gets “quite offended”, he says, by people saying how much nicer Francis is, simply because the press has laid off for a change. “They need to see beyond the headlines and actually realise all three were great men. We can’t compare them and say which one is better. It’s not a beauty contest.”

Chimes says, in fact, that he would like to speak up for the Church in the public square. “I feel atheists are getting far too much airtime and there’s no one there to fight back. They might drag on a local bishop to argue but he’s sometimes a bit too nice and doesn’t confront these people.” I must sound surprised by the idea, because Chimes is insistent. “I think it will happen,” he says. “I don’t mind arguing with people.”

Chimes invites me back for tea at his house, which has some grand touches. There is a small waterfall in the garden and, at the top of a staircase, a large painting of the Crucifixion. In a few days he is off to the Philippines to help plan the final details of his wedding. “The more atheistic the world becomes the more people are obsessed with weddings and Christmas,” he says. His mother, who is too frail to travel, will watch the ceremony on Skype.

His life is full of fresh starts: a marriage, a band, a book. I wouldn’t be surprised if becoming a voice for the Church will turn out to be another.

Interview with a writer: David Mitchell January 25 2013

David Mitchell slaps a big hand on his head. ‘I look back at that kid and think, what were you thinking! How dare you, idiot!’ He is talking about his recklessness as a young writer. ‘Yeah I’ll stop it halfway, five times, and start it again. I’ll pretend I’m a Chinese woman living up a mountain.’ He compares it to being a teenager ‘leaping off a 12-foot wall’ without fear. As writers get older, he says, the recklessness subsides, and ‘it needs to be replaced by technique. If you can do that, you’re still in business.’

One of his most madly structured books, Cloud Atlas, has just been made into a film. That’s why we are meeting. Made by the directors of The Matrix, it’s crammed with six stories, each set in a different world, from the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century to an Orwellian super-state in the future. All the worlds feature Tom Hanks.

Mitchell says the film ‘ticked all the boxes’ for him, though he was involved in its production and so can’t be impartial (he’s even in it, briefly). He loved being on set. For a writer, he says, ‘any chance to get an access all areas pass to a different world, a different tribe, is gold’.

He describes himself as a ‘journalist inside a novelist’, and I can see why. His curiosity is unsettling. He asks me about my recorders, my pencil (it’s shaped like a drumstick), my writerly ambitions and my prognosis for planet Earth. I fear I’ll end up as a character in his notebook.

He is finishing off his sixth novel at the moment. According to Wikipedia, it’s about a young girl growing up in Ireland. Mitchell laughs. ‘No no no no, that’s not true.’ He doesn’t want to give too much away – ‘it’s morphing quite quickly, and it shouldn’t be at this stage, it should be set’. He says it has ‘dollops of the fantastic in it’, though not of the hobbits-and-elves kind. ‘Stuff between life and death. And the soul.’ The fantasy material is ‘volatile’, he says. ‘It’s great as long as it’s off screen but the moment you show it or explain it then you can hear the hiss of deflating air. So it’s a bitch to handle… That’s not a particularly post-feminist phrase: it’s a swine to handle.’

Mitchell is, it’s pretty clear, totally consumed by his work. Being away from his laptop and notebook for a few days is like ‘oxygen starvation’. ‘It’s just awful,’ he says. ‘They’re wasted days.’ He says that his writing ‘is the very first thought of any day when I wake up and it’s the very last one as well’.

It sounds a bit extreme, I say. ‘Yes, but – isn’t that a form of happiness, to spend your life getting better and better at something that’s very difficult to do well?’ People who are really content, he suggests, generally ‘have some kind of a cause, some kind of a vocation, that they live in rather than do’.

Mitchell describes a ‘little throb of pleasure from a bloody perfect sentence’. He says: ‘People can hate you, they can hate what you write, they can despise your very soul, but they can’t alter the fact that this sentence is perfect.’

I ask him if writing gets any easier. ‘Well, you’ll find out. Um. Firstly, no… You see the swarm that is caused by reality and words more clearly, and because you’re seeing it more clearly you’re unable to write as superficially as you used to. And your prose can become unreadably dense.’ He says, looking at the snow falling outside the window, ‘it’s like staring into a snowstorm – what flakes are you going to leave out of this swirling mass and which ones are you going to take and use.’

Read the rest of the article here.

‘We rot. Don’t we?’

The Spectator, December 15 2012.

Joanna Lumley

Joanna Lumley and Sister Elizabeth Obbard are seated at the front of the church. Lumley is perched elegantly on the edge of her chair; Sister Elizabeth settles deep into hers, submerged under folds of habit. They are talking in front of an audience at the Carmelite church in Kensington, west London, about life as a nun. And Sister Elizabeth is being wonderfully honest. ‘The first six months were dreadful,’ she says. This was in the 1960s, when religious sisters did hard, physical work that was ‘supposed to make you humble’. Did it make her humble, asks Lumley. ‘No,’ says Sister Elizabeth, who is meek but steely. ‘It made me angry.’

The evening has been organised by Grange Park Opera, in advance of its production of Les Carmélites, a spine-chilling opera about the French Revolution that culminates in the execution of 16 nuns. The connection to Lumley is that her husband, Stephen Barlow, is conducting.

Lumley says she wanted the evening to illustrate how ‘ordinary ordinary’ a nun could be — ‘kindly, well read, easy to talk to’. I meet her a few weeks later. In between she was in New York, filming The Wolf of Wall Street, in which she kisses Leonardo di Caprio. The paparazzi took lots of pictures. ‘It’s the sound, tsk, tsk, tsk, click, of the camera that’s horrible. It’s distracting.’ The kiss, she says, irritated, had to be done ‘again and again and again’.

Lumley (who is 66) is, of course, charming and courteous and lovely. By the end of our meeting, though, I worry things have turned a bit bleak.

The life of a nun is not entirely new to her: she was educated at an Anglo-Catholic convent in Sussex. She loved it, she says, and kept in touch with all her teachers. I ask, tentatively, because I think it might be bad manners, if she believed in God when she left. ‘Well, that kind of a God…’ She suddenly sits back in her chair. ‘Well, I’ve always believed in everything. I ought to put that on the cards immediately.’ She believes, she says, in ghosts, intuition, premonitions, being able to speak to animals. And, she says in a comic weedy voice, she believes in ‘the trees’. So she couldn’t not believe in a creator. ‘But I don’t think I’m a follower of religion, if that’s what you mean.’ She cites a new book by the Dalai Lama, called Beyond Religion, which says religion is just about kindness. ‘There’s nothing else to learn, nothing else to do. Once you realise that, maybe you don’t have to do religion at all.’

I ask her if she believes in reincarnation, only because newspapers in the past have said that she does. ‘Well, we can’t not!’ she says. ‘Nothing in this room is new. Everything’s been recycled because nothing’s left the planet and nothing’s come into the planet.’

I am not sure I follow, so I ask what the process is. ‘Well, we rot! Don’t we?’ If people are burnt and their ashes scattered, she explains, the ashes might feed into a plant, the plant might get eaten and so on. ‘Everything is re-used, which is the brilliance of life I think.’

So it’s not that our spirit latches on to a new being? ‘No. I’m not sure I believe in this. It’d be rather draining if the same people kept coming round and round again.’

The conversation begins to take a darker turn. ‘The truth is,’ Lumley says, ‘it doesn’t matter what we believe. What happens happens. People only think of things to make themselves happier. Religion is just to make you feel happier. It’s a comfort thing: if you believe that on the other side there’s going to be Elvis and your parents and Beethoven, it doesn’t matter. Nobody can prove it doesn’t happen.

‘If it makes you happy, and if it makes you peaceful about death, excellent,’ she says, lightly. ‘Because you’re going to die, one thing we do know is we’re going to die, we don’t know when or how and we all hope it doesn’t hurt, but no one can mind being dead.’

Read the rest of the article here.