Bless Me, Father turned out to be just the thing for an autumn weekend afternoon. It’s short, light, breezily written and genuinely funny in places, which I hadn’t entirely expected — despite the recommendation that landed it in my set of books to read — from a book published forty years ago about events twenty years previous to that. Neil Boyd relates stories from his earliest days as a Catholic priest in a mixed neighborhood in London in the early 1950s.
If Bless Me, Father was a period piece, as I rather suspect it was, when it was published in 1977 — just a year before Armistead Maupin‘s Tales of the City how’s that for a world of difference — it’s more of a historical document now. The world that Boyd depicts is something I only knew from Andy Capp comic strips (and boy howdy is that a strange thing to put on the funny pages of a South Louisiana newspaper, now that I think about it) and the occasional black and white movie rerun on weekend television. The ex-con who has trouble landing a job, and the accountant who seems to follow him around to ensure that he doesn’t keep one if he does manage to find a place. The neighborhood bookie who keeps racing pigeons, who knew that that was even a thing? (Well, plenty of English people, I suppose, but it keeps proving the point about being separated by a common language.) The deep rivalry between Anglican and Catholic parishes in a local annual swimming contest.
The eleven stories in the book are generally 20 pages or less, such that the whole volume is only about 175 pages. This is a length that has virtually disappeared, presumably for commercial reasons, among the kinds of books I like to read, and I miss it a bit. Sit down with a book one day, finish it later the same day or, at a stretch, the next. I find that satisfying, especially if it doesn’t require staying up all night. By way of comparison, even the light and breezy science fiction mystery of John Scalzi‘s Head On is nearly twice as long. Publishers’ and readers’ ideas of what constitutes a short novel have changed over the years, yet another way in which Bless Me, Father is a period piece.
Boyd is a classic young and idealistic clergyman, paired with an older and slyer priest to minister to the various needs of the people of St Jude’s parish, part of the fictional neighborhood of Fairwater in the equally fictional Borough of Kenworthy in the western part of the reasonably non-fictional city of London. There is a fearsome if hard-pressed housekeeper, Mrs Pring, who looks after the two of them. Boyd observes and reports on the human comedy around him, not least his own foibles which include excessive zeal, a near literal seriousness, and the lack of worldly experience that six years of seminary is likely to produce. If there is an overarching theme, it is how nearly everyone is happier if their facades are maintained, if the forms are observed without too much attention to the substance, or at least not punctilious attention.
For example, the two fathers are brought in to formalize an engagement between two young people in Sicilian families. The patriarchs immigrated to England around the turn of the 20th century, and say they are happier maintaining the old ways. Their sons pretend not to be able to speak very good English, at least as long as the old men are in earshot. The priests haggle closely about every aspect of the coming ceremony, and wind up at exactly the standard charge for a parish wedding. The young people have supposedly never seen each other socially, although they went to school together. In fact, their mothers have been conniving to enable them to go to the movies alone nearly every week. Everyone is putting everyone else on, and it is in fact quite funny as Boyd tells it.
It’s also a little bit sad, and in the hands of a different author who wants to write a different book, it probably could have been set as a scathing examination of the costs of hypocrisy. But Boyd keeps it light, although he is surely more explicit about sex as a writer in the 1970s than he would have been at the time of the stories, and Bless Me, Father breezes along, amusing company for an afternoon.