On The Latin Mass And Moby-Dick

I remember the Latin Mass. Dimly, dimly, but I do remember it, in all its mystery. It was perhaps made all the more unfathomable because, until I was six or seven years old, we attended Sunday morning Mass in a pub. Not in a function room within a pub, but in the main bar area. Towels were draped over the beer pumps, that I remember. These were the only visits to a pub my family made.

Thinking back, I must have found the world a very confusing place, at least on Sunday mornings. All smartly dressed, we would walk together to this big pub on a crossroads, wherein a man in a black soutane would intone what must have struck me as gibberish, while performing slow ritualistic manoeuvres, against a backdrop of a counter lined with a row of unknown objects hidden under towels, behind which was a glittering array of bottles and glassware. I remember that when Mass ended, many of the parishioners, and the priest, remained behind, eager for the pub to open, but we always left to go home.

There was no Catholic church on the council estate where I grew up, and I assume the parish had persuaded the pub landlord to offer his premises to ensure our souls were saved. In my memory, I date the change to the vernacular Mass, and the longer walk to the parish church proper, as happening at the same time, when I was six or seven. Thus passed forever a curious feature of my childhood. I was old enough for it to have become a familiar, even reassuring, routine, and I recall a vague yet definite sense of disappointment with the new regime. I didn’t mind the longer walk – it took us through a park, with a playground and a duckpond and immense green well-mown lawns – but instead of the wood-panelled gloom of the pub, Mass now took place in a bright, modern church and, worse, I could understand the words. All the mystery was leached out of my Sunday mornings.

It took only a few years of that before, one morning when I was fourteen, I woke up with the clear conviction that the whole Catholicism hoo-hah – actually, no, the whole religion hoo-hah – was absolute twaddle. I have never seriously diverted from this view in the succeeding years, despite a couple of wobbles. My devout yet tolerant parents never made an issue of it, never forced me to attend that ghastly bright modern church against my will, though I remember my father telling me, with a strange admixture of the world-weary and the smug, that the day would come when I would return to the bosom of the church and re-embrace the faith of my childhood. Who knows?, he may yet be proved right.

I find myself wondering if my loss of faith, which really did seem to happen overnight, would have been quite so decisive had the Mass still been said in Latin, had we still celebrated it in the pub. There was something very seductive about those incomprehensible words. I would happily have swapped the pub for a church that was old and stony and cold and gloomy, but knowing the sense of what the priest was saying, and what I was bidden to respond, was fatal.

The name of the pub was the Moby-Dick. It is still there, on the crossroads. Not so long ago, I passed it, on the way to somewhere unconnected with my childhood, and I was pleased to note – for the first time, but also for the first time consciously checking – that the hyphen in the title of the novel is present and correct in the name of the pub. (Just as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is often given as 1984, so Moby-Dick loses its hyphen, to my minor irritation.) When tiny, and attending Mass, I was of course wholly ignorant of Melville’s novel. It was not among the many many books on the shelves at home – a huge number of books, the possession of which I thought was commonplace, until I grew a little older and learned that most of our neighbours on the estate had no books at all. But I did know that Moby-Dick was a whale, for so it was depicted, white and thrashing about in the sea, on the pub sign. I cannot remember how old I was when I learned of the existence of the book, though I do recall, as a teenager, buying the copy I still have, the Penguin edition bulked out with Harold Beaver’s remarkable critical apparatus. Years passed before I actually got round to reading it, and I read more of Melville – Bartleby The Scrivener and Typee and The Confidence-Man : His Masquerade – before I read Moby-Dick. Which, of course, if I am to insist on the hyphen, I should also take care to give its proper title Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. And typing that last word reminds me, all of a sudden, that the name of the road on which the pub is situated, one of the four meeting at the crossroads, is Whalebone Lane. I have no idea what possible connection there is between this road, far from the sea, and whales or whaling. No doubt I could find out.

I do know, incidentally, that close by, for many years, lived Eva Hart (1905-1996), one of the longest-living survivors of the sinking of the Titanic. There is a local pub named after her too.

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