A Young Girl in Red, 1913
A Conversation Piece

52 Authors: Week 17 - Christopher Derrick

I was never shot down into Occupied France. But in my distant R.A.F. days, I was carefully briefed about what I was to do in that event; and it struck me at the time that my situation then would be closely analogous to what 'being a Catholic' means ... But it's a bad metaphor in two ways. In the first place, while it's a disaster for any pilot to be shot down, it's no kind of disaster for a human being to get himself born into this world, enemy-occupied though it is ... Then, while it was that pilot's sole business to get back to England as soon as possible, it is not the Christian's sole duty to get to Heaven in the shortest possible time. ... So perhaps we should vary it with a different wartime picture – that of a secret agent, let us say, who is parachuted into France quite deliberately for an extended period. ... He also looks forward to a return home and his Sovereign's approval. But in the meantime, here in France and in the face of the enemy, he has been given a job to do – some specific job of which he may fail to see the point, but for which he is uniquely qualified.

– Christopher Derrick, That Strange Divine Sea (1983), p. 102.

Christopher Derrick was not a novelist but an essayist. In the 1950s he worked as an editor and publisher's reader, and as printing officer for London University. He published three books in 1969, at the age of 48, and thereafter a new non-fiction book perhaps every two or three years until 1987. These touch on many of the hot topics of the day: liturgy, contraception, population, ecology, education — none of them topics that have lost interest, although the terms in which they are discussed may have changed somewhat. He died in 2007, 20 years after his last book was published, and I wrote his obituary for an obscure magazine called St Austin Review, edited by Joseph Pearce. I did so because of one of those coincidences that it is hard not to take as a sign: I had met him a dozen years before, read a couple of his books not long after, and for no discernible reason suddenly felt a strong urge to find out more about him. Searching on the Internet, I discovered that he had died a fortnight before.

As a student in the mid-1990s I used to attend the evening guest lectures organised from time to time by the Newman Society. At one of these the invited speaker was a man I had never heard of, and the topic was something like "Catholic attitudes to sex". I went to the lecture steeled to be appalled — fully expecting something either abstract or sentimental, and possibly both. Instead, a vigorous old man with a long white beard exhorted us about the power, majesty and blood-lust of the goddess Venus — not as a deity to be worshipped, but certainly to be regarded with awe and respect, and above all caution. Nothing that he said was in any way contrary to Catholic faith or morals, but he managed to combine down-to-earth good sense with a high mythic style. A hint of it can be caught from a piece he wrote for America in 1981, The Desacralization of Venus, although that is more deliberative in tone, and much more directly aimed at responses to Humanae Vitae. Perhaps the sentence that gives the best feel of the later lecture is: "Cleverer people than myself will be able to specify . . . the exact sense in which she (or, perhaps, any other pagan "god") might be said to die and rise again in Christ and so attain real divinity as a partaker in His." It reflects the emphasis of a collection of essays on inter-faith ecumenism that he edited in the mid-1960s, entitled Light of Revelation and Non-Christians.

When the talk was over, a number of us hung around to hear more. The conversation touched on G.K. Chesterton, who had been a friend of Derrick's father, and as I was just in the process of discovering Chesterton this made me listen carefully. One thing that Derrick said was: "I knew Chesterton, not merely as an acquaintance but as a family friend, and while I would rise up and smite down anyone who said a word against him, he was not by any means a saint". A couple of American students were particularly eager to make his acquaintance, and to quiz him about C.S. Lewis. They had heard of him, and knew he had been one of Lewis's students in the 1940s. Ignatius Press had published his C. S. Lewis and the Church of Rome in the early 1980s. What they perhaps did not know, and I found out only recently, is that Derrick had been the publisher's editor who gave final shape to the memoir and edition of the letters of C.S. Lewis produced under Warren Lewis's name in 1966 – "Warnie's" debilitating battle with alcoholism making considerable further editorial intervention necessary. The American students wanted his opinion of A.N. Wilson’s just-published biography of Lewis, but he simply dismissed Wilson as a "fribble" – an apt and evocative word that I had never heard before, and have never heard since.

At the end of the evening, when the officers of the society decided it was time to usher us out and lock up, they proffered the speaker a cheque for his fee. He declined to accept it and sent his host out into the evening drizzle in search of a cash machine. He fixed me with a glittering eye, and said, "Always get it in cash if you can. A cheque just disappears into the overdraft."

A few weeks after the lecture I happened upon one of Derrick's books in a second-hand bookshop, Trimming the Ark: Catholic Attitudes and the Cult of Change. Published in 1969, it is a level-headed book about what has come to be called "the Spirit of the Council", deprecating both over-eager modernizing and over-reaction against it ("trimming" being a nautical term for keeping balance while changing direction), and in particular gently deflating the "evolutionary fallacy" of thinking that change is either always necessary or necessarily an improvement. Some time later I read Escape from Scepticism, a book-length essay on education inspired by a visit to Thomas Aquinas College. Only when writing up his obituary did I hunt down The Delicate Creation (on ecological issues) and The Rule of Peace (on the applicability of the Rule of St Benedict to modern secular life).


One book of his I have bought several copies of second-hand, and given away to various people in turn, is quite unlike the others. His Reader's Report on the Writing of Novels has nothing to do with Catholic responses to modern enthusiasms, but draws on his experience as a publisher's reader to provide practical advice to aspiring novelists. On page 33 he describes his motivation for writing the book:

For the sake of my bank balance, I want a great many novels to be written and submitted; for the sake of my day-to-day comfort, I want them to be tolerable reading at least; and for the sake of my reputation and pride, I hope one day to discover a masterpiece.

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.


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"Cleverer people than myself will be able to specify . . . the exact sense in which she (or, perhaps, any other pagan "god") might be said to die and rise again in Christ and so attain real divinity as a partaker in His."

That is a great sentence--a great thought. I have to think about it.


This is my extra-busy day, so I won't have time to comment till this evening, but I do have a few remarks to add. Btw I looked for pictured of CD with long white beard to go with this post, and only found one small photo sans beard.

I love Derrick's 'Sex and Sacredness' - it means much more to me than the 'theology of the body'! And 'That Strange Divine Sea' - an excellent book! I was so lucky to read these books as a new Catholic! I remember reading that parable that Paul begins this piece with - it's stayed with me all these years!

What most impressed me was the patient and polite way he answered "gotcha" hypotheticals pitched by hormonal undergraduates. The patent bad faith of the questioners had me grinding my teeth, and I was sitting quietly at the back (as always).

Perhaps he grew the beard for the occasion. It certainly didn't do the prophetic/mythopoetic style of the delivery any harm.

I read several of his books in the early '80s, including Sex and Sacredness. I liked them all, although I don't remember them in much detail now. Always kind of had in mind to read Strange Divine Sea but never have.

Definition of "fribble". Another dictionary says it was first recorded in 1664. From the same root as "frivolous," maybe.

Just the name Strange Divine Sea makes me want to read it.


It could maybe say nothing much new to a lifelong Catholic. It is a great book for a new Catholic to read.

Perhaps not new, but fresh. It gives a unique personal perspective.

That was perhaps too telegraphic: I mean that while the book doesn't say anything about the Church that a long-standing active member wouldn't already know, it says it from a personal angle that gives fresh perspective.

The title was actually mildly off-putting to me. I'm not really sure why. Very mildly, but probably part of the reason why I didn't read it back then.

I corresponded very briefly with Derrick around that same time. I think he was one of the people who wrote to me after my conversion story was published in the National Catholic Register. He said something in one letter about the relative unimportance of one's work compared to family that was very helpful to me, and that I always remembered.

It does sound like something from Rod McKuen, and back then, I might have associated it with the 70s, but knowing who it is, it didn't affect me that way.


I don't think I gave it a whole lot of thought, I just remember thinking that it didn't sound appealing. I should give it a try now.

This was marvellous. Thank you, Paul.

"I remember reading that parable that Paul begins this piece with - it's stayed with me all these years!"

Yes, that parable was wonderful.

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