Mixing it with Benedictines

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The Independent Online
I am a bit jittery this morning. In a couple of days, I have to give my Lenten meditation on the subject of monks. I hope the parishioners of Moreton on Lugg will not feel that I am abusing their church. The problem is that, on top of being a life-long sceptic, I am these days increasingly suspicious of all this spiritual guff. I am not sure that it is good for people like me to try to become more ethereal and inward and all that. In fact, I should like to be more corporeal, more emotional, more - well, gutsy. I suppose it is just middle-aged blues: one begins to feel oneself frosting up a bit, and one worries about it.

I have begun to wonder how healthy it was to go away, off and on, for three years in a row while I researched and wrote my book on monks (Fools For God, Collins, 1987, long ago pulped or remaindered or whatever other hell awaits such little-read gems). Of course it was not a penitential or a purgatorial time: I had some of my best smokes and gin-and-tonics in the desert near St Antony's monastery in Egypt. They were on a par with the post-prandials down by the quay of Stavronikita monastery on Mount Athos, after exquisite sticky yoghurts and little bean stews and cloves of garlic among the icons and the dying light at supper.

I remember the moment when a cardinal turned to me in the refectory at Solesmes, in northern France, and suggested that I would be unwise to miss having some of the excellent red wine with my steak. I had been on the wagon for a while and the claret hit my brain like a rocket. I have always thought the most remarkable thing about French monks was not that they drank wine with their lunch, but that they drank only one glass. Abstinence is a doddle compared with moderation. Allowing myself four or five glasses, I pottered off to my guest-cell, tried to read, and had one of the best sleeps of my life.

They sang pretty well at Solesmes and are famous for reviving Gregorian chant. No such glamour attached to the Benedictines at Santo Domingo de Silos, high on a windswept plateau in central Spain. I should think they are best known for the remarkable 12th-century carvings which litter their cloister and which would bring an ape to its knees. The monks were incredibly kind to me and I spent a lovely few days there one May, with my garret room overlooking the little village and the snow-dusted sierra all around. I had some good grog over cigarettes and a book in a scruffy cafe at the monastery's gates before retiring to a pretty little cell with the promise of excellent coffee in the morning.

I teased the Spanish monks a little about their having invested heavily in some sort of intensive poultry business which kept the wolf from the devotional door. But I had no idea that these Benedictines would take my strictures so seriously as to make a record. Now Canto Gregoriano, by the Coro de Monjes del Monasterio Benedictino de Santo Domingo de Silos, has romped to the top of the classical charts all over Europe (here, it is also high in the pop charts). Previously, as far as my own experience goes, one had to go to religious bookshops (or the little gift store at St David's Cathedral, Pembroke) to be sure of topping up with this sweet sort of warbling.

I bet it is being bought by all the drones who have to zoom up and down motorways for their living. It has long been my conviction that modern men find sanctuary in their cars (no wives, kids, bosses). Now they can have professionals exquisitely praying in stereo around them. I particularly used to like the late Salve Regina the monks would sing - by candlelight, I am almost sure - out in the cloister before a 14th-century triple-decker statue of St Anne (mother of Mary), the BVM and Jesus.

Part of the problem with rabbiting away in church about monks is that it is only a few days since I was pushing good taste to the limits while acting as compere for a Race Night at the kids' school. Race Nights are an odd business in which the audience bets on horses that run in races on film. Because I had just seen Eddie Izzard and been mightily impressed by his act - it is charmingly bitter-sweet and timeless - I have been keen to see how I am with a joke in front of an audience.

Granted that we have the most famous field in Britain just up the road at Much Marcle, I could not resist a little nonsense about how it had probably become the only field in the county where no one was trying to build a house. Beyond that, I swore, there would be no ready-mix concrete jokes.

I was tempted to make a few remarks about the night I spent in my camper van at Heathrow. It may well have been just as the IRA was planting its devices. I had steamed up the M4 through the night with a wonderful new tape of female country-and-western stars for company. Then I rested up within a few yards of the airport perimeter for six or seven hours before an early flight to Sweden. I returned on a flight a smidgin later than the mortar attack. After we had landed we all faffed about getting nowhere for an hour or so. There was a certain amount of eyeball-rolling, but this seemed to be from irritation about being late for supper or TV shows rather than any anxiety that someone appeared to want to blow us all to blazes.

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