Great British Eccentrics

Many years ago, when I was at school in York, I was introduced to one of the songmen of the Minster. He had been there for years and was living in a little house belonging to the Dean and Chapter in Monk Bar Court with its back yard hard up against the medieval city wall. He was an amazing fellow who was born in Halifax during the first World War and had learned enough about music and singing to be up to English Cathedral standards of choral singing. His name was John Rothera.

His two great passions were photography and sound recording. He was often to be seen carrying a huge 1950’s Ferrograph tape recorder on his bicycle to make recordings at the Minster. He had a “ball and biscuit” microphone permanently hanging over the choir stalls from the cathedral’s central tower. The length of the cable would have been unimaginable! His house was quite incredible with something of the Quentin Crisp grottiness, but with a surprising implied sense of order. Everything he collected was meticulously arranged, but other aspects like his kitchen were quite distasteful. He would talk on and on about these centres of interest, which included organs and church music – the two things that brought he and I into an intense friendship. In 1974, when I was introduced to him by someone from the choir at Holy Trinity in Micklegate, he was 58 and I was a fresh young schoolboy of fifteen.

He was also a railway enthusiast and actually bought the last Sheffield tram, and found someone to store it for him. Whether it has survived since his death is another question. He would go on for hours about steam locomotives, different mechanical designs and the London Underground. He was quite lucky to find in me someone who appreciated machines and knowing how things worked. I was that sort of boy!

I moved away from York in 1978 and had little contact with John, and I was eventually informed of his death in 1997 from prostate cancer. That was the time when I was a working guest with the Benedictines at Triors Abbey. The memories flooded back to me, but he was someone I found so hard to understand. One man who had known him earlier than myself called John the last of the great British eccentrics.

Eccentricity seems to be something so British compared with the conformism of people here in France and especially Germany. English culture has always had more time for difference and individual passion for things that go unnoticed by most people. Despite our enormous age difference, John and I seemed to have something in common. I did not do too well at school and felt quite alienated from my fellow adolescents at school. It was all very innocent, but such a friendship did cause concern for my parents and housemaster. Nowadays, such a man would be assumed to be a dangerous paedophile!

It was only since I began to explore the world of Aspergers Syndrome that I began to discover the answers to my own life. I have almost arrived at the age of John Rothera when I met him in 1974. My life took a different turn from his. He stayed in the same place for decades, and I moved around and experienced many things. There are still things I learned from him like the use of shutter speed and aperture to increase or decrease the depth of focus in a photograph. My memory about many of these long evenings at Monk Bar Court is still razor sharp. I began to interest myself in Aspergers Syndrome due to dialogues with an American and a young Englishman living not far from London. The flashing lights brought me to consult many sites about this high-functioning “section” of the autistic spectrum. I also did a number of online tests and they were all positive.

It is a conventional term known to psychologists and psychiatrists to enable them to rationalise quirky and eccentric people, find a scientific constant of characteristics and traits, and discover a typology. Every single human person is absolutely unique, but there are mental characteristics in common in the same way as our normal and abnormal physical characteristics known to our doctors. It does help to make a distinction between “being a certain way” and being a “jerk” or someone of moral mischief, or with culpable moral failings like selfishness and lack of concern for other people.

It is extraordinarily difficult to get a professional diagnosis. I waited several weeks for the application form to fill in from our local autism centre attached to the main hospital of Rouen, and I recently received a letter telling me that the waiting list can be eighteen months or more. I’m sure they have to give priority to children with all kinds of difficulties and needs for therapy before real mental problems set in. Finally, all that is in question is a label, for other people to be able to rationalise what they would fail to understand otherwise. To the person in question, a diagnosis makes no difference other than to bring relief in the form of credible answers to questions about one’s life. Old school reports are seen under a whole different frequency of light, and mean something completely new. I remember my own life – and that of that old character in York pedalling on his old bicycle from Monk Bar to the Minster.

Aspergers Syndrome leaves the intellectual faculties completely intact, and perhaps enhances them, but the price is high. It causes difficulties for a person in relating to other people and maintaining relationships. It has been very helpful to research far and wide, because many opinions, even professional ones, lead to confusion. I even saw one article yesterday that confused Aspergers Syndrome with psychopathy and linked “aspies” with notorious serial killers! There is a lot of scientific research and many more “human” sources to outline the positive aspects of the way a person is made, created by God, and with a spiritual beauty not found with most other human beings. I write this article in the light of many of these writings that enlighten and enhance my own experience.

To be sure, the experience of life teaches us “coping strategies” – using the intellect where intuition leads us astray. In time, from being a green schoolboy of fifteen, we learn what facial expressions mean, when people are getting bored with the technical details that are so indispensable for understanding how something works. They just don’t want to know, and they have that right. My treasure is their trash – so be it. But, I still have to treat my neighbour as I would like him to treat me. We have to learn to listen, even if it bores the pants off us. I think I managed incredibly well at seminary, because I had plenty of time in the day to be alone and take a “rest”. When you have about forty priests and seminarians playing games of living in the eighteenth century, one man’s quirkiness goes un-noticed! I spent most of my time reading and writing, and improving the chapel organ.

I mentioned in an earlier article that the institutional Church is made for extroverts and “neurotypicals” (people who are not autistic in any way), even more so the seminary system for screening men for suitability for the priesthood and training them. Pastoral ministry in a parish is no vocation for someone who does not have good social skills! I was very struck by the abdication of Benedict XVI in 2013, who said of himself that he was unable to do things a Pope is expected to do, especially since the days of John Paul II. I doubt that he is an “aspie”, but he is definitely an introvert, an intellectual and a contemplative. Vocations directors and seminary rectors are usually highly gifted in selected men who satisfy the usual criteria of our days, especially people skills and leadership. Such criticism, when it came my way, caused me no small amount of discouragement – and a challenge to prove them wrong. It all haunted me those dark days of January 1997 at Triors as the snow fell, the exorcism of the possessed man and the lugubrious early morning Abbot’s Mass in the crypt.

We have to be like lambs and wise as serpents, as Christ warned his disciples. We can’t expose ourselves, at least without self-knowledge, because the worst is always assumed by those “other people” living on another planet. We can’t hide ourselves, but we do have a duty to do the best we can using rules of courtesy and moral principles, and seeking to understand the soul facing us and looking us in the eye. But, there is a lot of acting, and this is not good spiritually, because we are called to be true and honest, not play a caricature of something we’re not. For many years, I tormented myself with the question of whether the priesthood itself was not for me a mask covering an inadequate person! That was until I discovered this neurological condition discovered by the Austrian psychiatrist in 1944. It isn’t an excuse for moral failings but a revelation, an answer, a favour we can do ourselves.

Going for a diagnosis is a perilous undertaking. My brother is a medical doctor, and I have sometimes asked him questions – and he didn’t know the answer. Either he didn’t know, or it was out of his field of expertise as a general practitioner. Many doctors are aloof from their patients. They have to be because they have to defend themselves. Psychiatrists even more, and then you have professionals who are in it by vocation, others because it’s money for old rope and there is little to care about. It is a lottery. Specialised centres are almost inaccessible except through excessively long waiting lists, and even then you have the aloof “clerics” and the “plethora of human dross” they are paid to deal with. The notion of vocation is rare, as it has become with priests, sad to say. We don’t entrust our souls to just about anyone. Harmless as doves but as cunning a serpents. Medice, cura te teipsum – physician, heal thyself. How much suffering goes without assistance, and so I have decided to do my bit – as a priest and not as a medical professional.

It is all about a label, but we live in a society that requires evidence, proof of good faith, the possibility of putting people into neat categories. Otherwise, they become afraid and dangerous. I have only to be myself – but that isn’t good enough for most people.

Despite all the experience we gain over the decades, trying to follow the advice of parents, schoolteachers and seminary rectors, we don’t change – cannot change. We keep the same focused and obsessive minds, the razor sharp memories, often behaving the same way as when we were young. I have suffered from internet trolls in the same way as schoolyard bullies, but the difference is learning to detect their behaviour and go against our natural instinct of compassion and kindness.

One of our most dangerous emotions is fear and our fight-or-flight response. In situations of extreme fear, we shut down like many animal species. Adrenaline does strange things: it spurs us to react against a dangerous situation or causes us to seize up and shut down. With autism, the shut-down reflex is that much more sensitive. I have often had this emotion of fear in large crowds of people or at the supermarket. It is quite unnerving. Many suffer more than I do, but I can’t get out of the place quickly enough once my basket is filled with what I had on my shopping list. The last hurdle is paying – going through the process like cattle at the slaughterhouse! At last, I find myself free, the goods in the van and the basket put in its place and I’m gratefully away…

Many “aspies” have sensory issues, which is less of a problem for me. Excessive noise and modern “music” are quite frightening. Crowds are something to be avoided whenever possible, and I abhor cities in the same way. I am rarely bothered by lights. Smells, both pleasant and unpleasant, usually remind me of all sorts of things in my life. I suppose that a putrid calf being autopsied by my father in the dead animal part of his surgery caused me to puke up, but that is nothing unusual!

Seminary was fairly “cool”, but school was another matter. The traditional English boarding school is (or was) tough. I am sure that my old school and other English public schools are reformed and enlightened since the days of flogging and fagging – I hope so for the amounts they cost parents in fees. Team sports are particularly trying as is sleeping in a dormitory. All the same, we still had academic and practical work we could do on our own, and this brought balance and relief. Having intellectual ability does little if we are not up to social expectations. Of course, nowadays, such a school would have evaluation procedures in place when things go unexpectedly.

If we have this difficulty with getting on in the mainstream, we are incredibly focused. I would very much like to write some books instead of this blog, or at least in a different proportion, but I don’t have enough time alone. I remember my father picking me up as a child for lack of tact, for saying or doing the wrong things. I could never seem to be able to do anything right. When things came to a head in about 1970 (I was 11), my father became concerned and had me do tests with a psychologist in Barrow-in-Furness. What results? I have no idea. He introduced me to fishing and took me for long walks by the sea. I have never forgotten this concern and kindness, albeit with little apparent understanding. It was why I was sent to Wennington in 1971 in the hope that something would get me out of my shell. I am very lucky to have such a father (he’s still going strong at 88 years), but there were things we just knew nothing about in those days.

For all the social disabilities, “aspies” have higher IQ’s, a sense of the prophetic and the visionary, to be “out of the box” and conventional wisdom. We find patterns and logic where most people don’t. I have self-taught myself many things like electricity, plumbing, tiling and other trades – to be able to do my own jobs at home without the expense of a professional job. I can do quite a lot of things with my van too, but I am still prudent about what really needs a pro.

I read about physical clumsiness and sensory hypersensitivity. I am very sensitive to pleasurable sensuality (I have written on this subject) and this leaves me with differences of opinion regarding Christian stoicism and epicurianism. I am very precise in my movements and I navigate very accurately at sea by sight and spatial perception. That is atypical, but I have given thought to the sensory question. I am particularly sensitive to being shouted at. Being told off as a child was a worse punishment than a smack-bottom! There is a transferring of negative emotion and not merely physical pain. It may sound odd to readers, but I take great comfort from having an old silk curtain in bed at night. I stroke it and rub my face on it, and it makes me think of my best moments as a child and the old Victorian house with the rattling windows in Kendal. I have to admit being quite fussy about clothes. I like the priest’s cassock, and would probably feel quite well in a Muslim thobe, of course at home and in private. Long flowing hair has added another dimension to my life. I have always been grateful for having had a musical education. Sailing has done me a lot of good, more than I could imagine than when I was doing regatta training at sailing school – and discovered dinghy  cruising: just discovering nature close to the shore is a small boat. Winter makes life more difficult, since many of these things are not possible. There are still music and the silk curtain – and also prayer and my life as a contemplative priest.

My style of life makes things easier: living in the country and being self-employed. Someone said recently on his YouTube that he didn’t mind working for forty hours, even eighty hours. His problem would have been having a boss and being in a corporate structure. Like me, he works alone and motivates himself very nicely to do a good job for what customers pay him. I manage very well without the crap, but I have to be motivated and ready to do some boring work like specifications for machines in factories or my most hated subject, corporate management!

One thing where I went wrong in life was trying to convince others or even be someone I wasn’t. It was one of the less pure aspects of my vocation to the priesthood, and caused me many issues of conscience. We are brainwashed into wanting status, success, power and money that we go along with it as far as it can, and all of a sudden the bottle is empty. Little me hasn’t convinced anyone of anything. Everyone else gets where he want to go, but I am confronted with a barrier. I might as well want to be the Pope! Some people make themselves into false popes, but such silliness is way off my radar. Another is the illusion to which many “independent” clergy fall. There is a social aspect of the priesthood none of us can escape, but above all the theological and ecclesiastical dimension – which is essential.

Acceptance and self-acceptance are the way. We can make efforts against moral disorders and sin, but we can’t become someone else. It just doesn’t happen. That goes down very badly with vocations directors and seminary rectors. We are expected to be social and corporate, team players and mainstream, even at Gricigliano. One of the criteria for ordaining priests is soundness of physical and mental health. You find all the stuff from Rome in seminary libraries and nowadays on the internet. The gate is quite narrow, and we are told that it is for the protection of the sheep (cough) faithful.

I think I could argue that Aspergers is a gift in spite of the social handicaps it involves. Even with some psychiatric disorders, there is always a place. There is even a monastery in Franjce for mentally handicapped people with conditions like Downs Sydrome – good on the founder for giving those beautiful souls a vocation in life! Jean Vanier is one of the leading lights of our time in the acceptance of those who are handicapped in some way compared with the majority of humanity. Most of those who live in his communities would otherwise be institutionalised and banished from anything like normal human life.

From my reading and my own experience, “aspies” have intense interests and powers of concentration. Most of the great composers were perhaps “aspies”. Musical composition is not “inspiration” or messages from God: it is gruelling hard work and fanatical devotion. Writing is a little easier and is more my medium, but it still requires focus and work, which is why (among other reasons) marriage is not my vocation. I don’t imagine that “aspies” make good parish priests, any more than company managers or project team leaders. However, the Church has always had many things for priests to do. Don Lorenzo Perosi was a priest and a prolific composer of whom Puccini said “C’è più musica nella testa di Perosi che in quella mia e di Mascagni messe insieme” (There’s more music in Perosi’s head than in mine and Mascagni’s put together). He spent much of his life suffering from severe depression and other neurological problems. His work and spirit remain with us. Priests are found in monasteries, hermitages, teaching in schools and universities, buried in books in libraries, sometimes living and working with ordinary people as a new form of ministry and evangelism. Vivaldi was a priest and his ministry was music and beauty. Others write books or are artists.

I remember my interview with our ACC diocesan board of ministry, where one priest caused me no small amount of pain with his questions. A man on the rack tells everything! I was asked what use I would be to the Diocese. I answered “None at all, I’m just a fool for Christ, nothing else”. I was accepted into my Bishop’s clergy, and the priest in question has since then been most sympathetic, and sent me a Christmas card a few days ago. Sometimes, the unexpected answer is the one that upsets the apple cart. I didn’t have the mind to try to justify myself, and that was long before I started reading about Aspergers Syndrome.

I return to my original theme of the New Goliards, not that of clergy who fail to respect legitimate authority in the Church, namely their Bishop, but the notion that diversity of humanity builds of the true charisma of the Church. This is the point at which bureaucracy and corporate management fail and the only discerning strength comes from humanity, experience of life, compassion and a life of contemplation and love. I began to write on this theme of aspergers and the priesthood almost a year ago. Very few comment, because the subject must be very far from my readers’ lives, but it is of increasing importance to me, not only for the question of my own vocation at an existential level, but others who are “out there” and of whom some read my blog.

I belong to a very tiny Church, but which has established itself in a normal way of ecclesiastical life, and is working for unity with other Continuing Anglican Churches. My blog is something like my Church: we cry in the wilderness as a prophetic voice. There must be diversity in the ways men offer themselves for the priesthood or ministries like the diaconate or the lectorate. Most are equipped for parish ministry and the gifts of the extrovert it requires. I bring my mind back to the reluctant German Pope who became convinced that it was not his vocation, abdicated and continues as a quiet contemplative. His presence in this world still witnesses to his prayers and his unexpressed and secret thoughts. It is easier for a simple priest to be himself.

The mainstream Churches have become excessively modelled on modern management principles which is a “mild form” of totalitarianism which differs only in degree from the murderous ideologies that killed weak or less useful people. It has always been encouraging when exceptional people have reached out to “others”. At this point, I mention my own Bishop in connection with Credo Care, which gets disabled children into foster care. I have always admired his humanitarian commitment, which as an extrovert he is good at.

I would certainly be no good at organising anything, but I willingly advocate humanitarian work – but more so the complete inclusion of atypical people in the life of the Church to the maximum of their abilities. Only today, a disabled priest wrote to me for liturgical texts, which I will try to send him tomorrow.

Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them (Matthew 11).

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2 Responses to Great British Eccentrics

  1. Ed Grummitt says:

    Very interesting post – I did come to it rather late, sorry. All this is because of Paul Jarman of Beamish Museum’s blog (I shared a flat with his father and other railway fiends 40 odd years ago). Paul found an old photo from 1960 on Ebay, which was of John Rothera’s tram (Sheffield 513) at the Middleton Railway in Leeds. Mr. Rothera had to move it from Leeds as serious vandalism was occurring there, and the tram then led a peripatetic life. First to Cullingworth near Bradford, next to Oxenhope on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, then to the old York Tramways yard at Fulford (round the corner from my mother in law!).

    513 was moved to Beamish (near Newcastle) in 1977 and finally ran again in 1982. (I presume at some stage Mr. Rothera made the tram’s ownership over to Beamish, which was pretty acute of him). Since then the tram has run at Blackpool and Carlton Colville in East Anglia, and will one day return to Beamish. So John Rothera’s apparently weird decision to buy a tramcar turned out well.

    I have in my time met a few other tramcar and rail enthusiasts who, in spite of many eccentricities, have contributed immensely to the common weal. An obvious example is the late Rev. Teddy Boston of Cadeby who built a railway in his vicarage garden, which also contained large numbers of small locomotives, traction engines, a shed full of model railways, and general scrap. But he took his calling seriously.

    All I can say is that the Lord really does move in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform – I endorse your inclusion of atypical people (aren’t we all?) in the life of the Church.

    Best regards – Ed

    • Dear old John! I’m glad things turned out well for that tram. Railway rolling stock is incredibly heavy and requires serious equipment to handle it.

      I am not particularly “into” railways, but machines fascinate me. I am not the only one. Look up the term “sterling engine” on YouTube and you will find an incredible amount of interest in this amazing invention from the early 19th century. My “thing” is boats. I have two small dinghies, and my wife agrees to our buying a yacht in a couple of years’ time when we finish paying off the house. I favour the Westerley Centaur, a twin-keel 26-foot vessel, which can be moored or dry out anywhere. I’ll probably sail up the French coast to Holland and perhaps over to England in good weather conditions. The Centaur is a safe boat but not designed for very bad conditions! Back to machines, I’ll have the diesel engine to look after…

      Yes, we’re all strange bods, going the same way on our pilgrimage of life. Go well.

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