I’ve spent the last week or so reading and re-reading the writer C S Lewis, because last night I had to take part in a radio panel discussion about him on Newstalk . Given that Lewis was a good East Belfast Protestant, they’ve erected a statue to him somewhere on the Newtownards Road, complete with wardrobe as seen in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. There are so many aspects of the man you could talk about, such as his intelligence (three Firsts from Oxford), his courage (fought and wounded in the First World War but never dwells on it in his writing) or his relations with women (he lived with a woman 26 years his senior because he’d made a war-time pact with a fellow-soldier that if he survived and the fellow-soldier didn’t, he’d look after his mother).
But it’s his contradictory attitudes to England and the English that I find particularly intriguing. He went from Holywood, Co Down to England for the first time and he was not impressed by the natives or their landscape: “The strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons. But what was worse was the English landscape…I have made up the quarrel since; but at that moment I conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal”.
Having like many another Irishman a heavily-Anglicised education, he came late to Irish writers, particularly W B Yeats. By this time he was an established don at Oxford: “I am often surprised to find how utterly ignored Yeats is among the men I have met: perhaps his appeal is purely Irish – if so, then thank the gods that I am Irish”.
And he’s particularly good on Irish people living in England: “Like all Irish people who meet in England we ended by criticisms on the invincible flippancy and dullness of the Anglo-Saxon race. After all there is not doubt that the Irish are the only people: with all their faults I would not gladly live or die among another folk”.
But of course that’s exactly what he didn’t do. He actually lived and died in England, and his friends were English academics like J R R Tolkein (yes, the Lord of the Rings man) and Neville Coghill. He’d been brought up in Holywood, he tells us, never to trust a Papist, and was happy to discover that one of his best friends at Oxford was just that.
He was a brilliant, kindly man, who wrote about everything - wonderful children’s books, science-fiction books, books about Christianity, books about why bad things happen (The Problem of Pain), books where he pretended to be the devil (The Screwtape Letters) and books where he described and analysed the loss of his wife (A Grief Observed). Reading him is like encountering a mind that’s going off like a Catherine wheel, ideas lighting up the sky in every direction. Sometimes as I read, it felt as if I was reading that other great Protestant Irishman, George Bernard Shaw. In my book, there’s no higher compliment.