Alice doesn’t live here any more

Damian Thompson on the enchanting world of Alice Thomas Ellis, the former Spectator columnist who died last week

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Alice Thomas Ellis, the novelist and former Spectator columnist who died last week, once took part in an earnest feminist questionnaire that asked her to name the most important event in women’s history.

‘The Annunciation,’ she replied.

Alice — known to all her friends by her real name, Anna — bore the physical aspect of a sensitive north London novelist: her huge, panda eyes were pools of compassion, framed by wispy hair and hand-made earrings. When people discovered that she was a Catholic — indeed, that it was the most important thing in her life — they sometimes assumed that she belonged to the Church’s ‘justice ’n’ peace’ brigade and subscribed to the Tablet, an archly progressive Catholic magazine.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. ‘I sometimes think that the Devil lives in Islington and reads the Tablet,’ she announced shortly before she died. ‘But I may be doing him an injustice.’ She would have been pleased to know that her obituary in the Tablet this week was short and mean-spirited.

In fact, Anna lived in a part of Camden every bit as right-on as Islington. She was a conservative in Bohemia. Like James Lees-Milne, she had converted to Catholicism only to discover that Mother Church was just about to dismantle her glorious heritage with Zwinglian zeal. Unlike Lees-Milne, who scuttled back to Anglican Choral Matins, she stayed and fought her corner. It was a messy, prolonged and (for her admirers) enjoyable battle.

Here is a much abbreviated list of things that Anna disliked about the modern Catholic Church: the ineptly translated English Mass; the ‘sign of peace’; nuns who wore Crimplene instead of burka-like habits; lay people strutting about the sanctuary; the word ‘empowering’; folk hymns; and the Most Revd Derek Worlock, Archbishop of Liverpool.

Anna’s feud with Worlock was no less vigorous because it was posthumous. The Archbishop was, deep down, a conservative, but in a very different sense from Anna. When Rome’s theology was ultramontane, so was his; when Vatican II proclaimed a new era of ‘collaborative ministry’ and threw out the furniture, he did likewise, without ever quite losing his icy curial manner. Worlock was a holy man; but Anna could never see that, and a few weeks after his death in 1996 she let rip in the Catholic Herald, then between editors.

The next Archbishop of Liverpool, she wrote, should ‘repudiate’ the work of his predecessor, whose ecumenical ministry had involved ‘taking something pure and strong, mixing it up with something weak and polluted, slashing it about, watching the churches empty and then congratulating yourself on your progress’. She also took a sideswipe at the liberal lobby ‘Catholics for a Changing Church’, suggesting that if they wanted to change a church they could always demolish Liverpool’s ‘grotesque’ cathedral.

I do not need to tell readers of The Spectator how the leaders of Liverpool react when they think their dignity has been affronted. The Catholic Herald found itself banned from parishes all over Merseyside. It published a grovelling tribute to Worlock and dozens of letters from his flock saying how wonderful he was; letters from other Liverpudlians thanking Anna for her comments were quietly shelved.

I’m sorry to say that Anna was then sacked as a Herald contributor, and she took her column off to the Oldie. Two years later, however, the Chestertonian figure of Dr William Oddie arrived as editor and Anna returned — this time to write on the much safer topic of food. The column was called, inevitably, ‘Catholic Tastes’.

She was a wonderful cook, though it helped if one averted one’s eyes from the light shower of ash falling off her cigarette as she bent over the Aga. She made the best fish pie I have ever tasted. I never saw her eat: she would push food at her guests while recharging her glass.

By the time I met Anna she had endured a succession of tragedies: the deaths of two children and her beloved publisher husband, Colin Haycraft. She was a frail and sad person; but she was one of those sad people who mysteriously lift the spirits of others, as opposed to those jovial folk who make everyone miserable.

We met as a result of a short-lived plot to found a conservative rival to the Tablet, provisionally entitled the Inquisitor. Dr Oddie was to be editor, and we sketched out our plans over Piers Paul Read’s kitchen table. Then we retired for a pub lunch, though in the event only Piers and William ate anything.

I was a heavy drinker in those days, and I hope no one will take offence if I say that so, in the most elegant way, was Anna. The others departed, and we settled ourselves in the snug like a couple of old biddies from the early days of Coronation Street.

I confessed shyly that I had read none of her novels. Where should I start? ‘Don’t,’ she said firmly. ‘You wouldn’t enjoy them, darling.’ We moved on to the obvious topic: the cringe-making dreadfulness of ‘with-it’ Catholic liturgies. ‘The sneer on the face of a teenager confronted by a “rave in the nave” is enough to freeze the blood,’ said Anna.

This conversation went on for a long time. We took our turns paying for the beer, but Anna felt it was unladylike to go to the bar, so she would press some coins into my hand every time it was her round. She started talking about the losses in her life.

Then, suddenly, it was dark outside. We had each drunk 11 pints. Bugger. I had been booked on to a late flight to Rome to cover a story for a newspaper. Now I had missed it. While I panicked, Anna continued her meditation on sadness. ‘There is no guarantee of happiness in this life, Damian,’ she announced. ‘Absolutely none.’

I ran into the street, found a phone box, broke the news to the editor, and discovered that, as usual, Anna was absolutely right.

Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald.