Saturday, 1 August 2009

Father Britt

I defy anyone to summon Father Britt on to a page (poetry, prose or drama) or a screen (TV, computer or shadow puppet). His ninety years of life have given him a wealth that enjoys poverty, a depth that is not complex precisely, and a stature that suffers nothing from stumbles or a bow in the spine. How are such qualities to be distilled?
Father Britt smile lights up the room around him with glee and mischief. His smile creases his whole face, but I can’t look beyond his eyes. It is not so much that his eyes smile, as that they ARE smile. Every day that I go to Morning Prayer, I shake his hand and appropriate one smile entirely for myself. He has been in the church since 5a.m, sitting in the dark enjoying the peace so that when dawn arrives he will be there to greet it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the sun refused to rise the day he slept in.

Joining the hordes to eat outside during the Celebration in May

Father Britt is very deaf. Added to this, he hears women’s voices less clearly. This has two effects: first, people tend to treat him as if he is stupid, or at least a blunted intelligence. Their mistake- after shouting the same facile comment three times, he will finally hear it and counter with his distinctive understated, dry wit. Many times he has made B and me laugh out loud with the chalky, gentlemanly English ascerbity of it. Second, it makes you very aware of how much garbage we pad out conversations with- many sentences wish themselves unsaid on third holler. Now, I tend to ask a question which will allow him to conduct most of the conversation himself. He is full of fascinating memories (watching the first sea-planes being developed at Lee-on-Solent as a boy in the 1920s), opinions (he reads as many papers and magazines as he can find) and facts. Unlocking them is frustratingly difficult, especially as he is clearly sociable. Delicate questions are no longer delicate after you’ve bellowed them three times to the surrounding district. He is staggeringly open to new ideas, and to re-assessing his views in the light of new evidence. I miss the conversations I could imagine having with him.
He came to Guyana by boat in 1954, not long after his Ordination. He could thus be excused for being very conservative (he’s 90!), very colonial (Guyana was a colony for the whole of his first decade here), and rather ex-pat. But it would not occur to Father Britt to be any of these things. He is too humble, belongs too dearly, sees himself too much at the service of people. This makes him surprising. He appreciates everything, remarking every day on how good each meal is, insisting on washing up his own plate, and even handwashing his clothes. (The difference between the humble and the pigheaded; he only washes the half-dirty ones, giving the rest to Emma who will do them better). Most days he gardens, sometimes walking right out of the compound to collect manure. Getting up from planting is hard for him, but not humiliating. He glows not like a fire, or a candle, but like a lantern.

I find his company poignant because he shows me what my grandfather could have been. They have some superficial resemblances, but my grandfather’s life was twisted out of shape because he tried to have two lives, and got lost in the maze of the parallel realities he created. He was miserable, and bitter, constantly meting out the judgments of which he was so desperately afraid himself. Perhaps we become what we fear. Father Britt is a man who wills the one thing. I honestly believe he fears nothing. Jesuits talk about freedom: watching him day after day, I think I am beginning to comprehend it. It’s a kind of empty-handed abundance. And when his trumpet sounds, his life will not be lost, but completed.


  1. Hi s Does he really sit in the church from 5am! amazing. I find you writting so full of great images and questions as well as revelations Sarah. Now...I have a problem with you blog. Reading the white writing on the black screen makes my eyes hurt. Is it just me? any ideas?

  2. (Actually it is Esther!)

    I just LOVE this description of Father Britt. Is there any way of writing down some of his memories?

    (I agree with Winston, the white on black hurts my eyes too)