Cover To Cover is the anchor program for GPB’s literary coverage. Cover To Cover features a collection of distinctive Southern voices interviewing Georgia writers, Southern writers, and writers dealing with the South. The GPB Southern Lit Cadre will provide you with a varied, weekly glimpse at fiction, non-fiction, history, poetry, and even the occasional ‘old school’ nod to Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Charles Edward Flynn, May 4th, 1934-September 27th, 2007

I apologize for not having posted a blog entry since the end of September. My father passed away September 27, and I left immediately for Britain to be with my family and help arrange the funeral.

[Pictured: The Flynn family at home in 2004. Caroline (my sister), me, Dad and Mum]

Life has been something of a whirl since the day my father died, and only now am I finally getting back to some sense of normality.

I hope you will indulge me. I gave the eulogy at my father's funeral and I'd like to share the text of what I said with you so that you may get some sense of the man he was.

Charles Edward Flynn
4th May 1934 to 27th September 2007
Delivered at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church
Sawston, Cambridge
Friday, October 5, 2007

There are things in life we pray we never have to do; important things we know will be beyond our capabilities, like resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example; or little things we know will just disgust us too much, like shaking hands with a politician; or significant things that no sane person would agree to tackle because of the sheer complexity of the task at hand, like giving the eulogy at Charles Flynn’s funeral.

The only reason I’m doing this now is because I was in Atlanta last week when Dad died and they asked for volunteers to give his eulogy. I was the only person who didn’t take a step back.

My father was, to quote Winston Churchill, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” and no one in their right mind wants to try to unravel and make sense of the layers of that puzzle in front of a church full of mourners.

However, as his only son, I feel it is my duty to talk to you about Charles Flynn because I loved him and that love drives me to bring understanding to a life that otherwise some might not appreciate.

There is an adjective used often in America to describe a certain type of person. That adjective is “ornery.” It might be used in the following way, “Boy, Charles sure is ornery today,” meaning “Charles sure is acting like a complete curmudgeon today.”

I was actually quite taken aback when I first heard “ornery” used in Georgia. I had never heard the word before and so, like the good literature graduate student I was, I went to look it up in the dictionary. Imagine my surprise when I turned to the appropriate page, traced my finger down the column of words and, when I got to “ornery,” saw a picture of Dad.

One of the things I want to tell you about my father today is that he was a fun person. Humor was something that was tremendously important to him. He loved classic English comedy, first on the radio and then on television. He soaked up The Goons, Tony Hancock, Morecombe & Wise, The Two Ronnies, and Dave Allen. He read the books of Spike Milligan; he had a fined-tuned appreciation for the piano playing of Les Dawson. And he never failed to laugh when Ernie told Eric about the latest play what he wrote.

A few years ago, in anticipation of this eulogy, and knowing that I would need proof to convince the congregation at his funeral that my father was not completely ornery, I put together a set of questions and asked him to write down his answers. You know the kind of thing, those celebrity Q & As you see in OK! or Hello!

Here are the questions and my father’s answers:

Q: Favorite music? A: Anything in plainchant. It used to be Madonna until I found out it wasn’t the Madonna I was thinking of
Q: Favorite drink: Gin? Beer? Wine? Whiskey? A: All of the above
Q: Favorite wine? A: Red
Q: Favorite pastimes or hobbies? A: Performing my ablutions
Q: Heroes? A: Benson & Hedges and Johnnie Walker
Q: If you could meet one famous person from history, who would it be? A: Sir Walter Raleigh
Q: Favorite sayings? A: Semper in excremento, sole profundum qui variat [I’m always in the crap, it’s just the depth that varies]
Q: Boxers or briefs? A: Neither. I go commando!
Despite what was a developed and heightened sense of humor, Dad was always inscrutable.

Inscrutable. You could never exactly pinpoint what was going through his mind at any given moment. He was not a man given to wearing his heart on his sleeve. His modus operandi was much more subdued; there were emotions he felt very comfortable with – humor and anger, for example – but others were rarely evidenced as they were feelings he found difficult to process.

I always wished he would be more demonstrative and I spent a long time lamenting what I saw as his deficiencies. But as I grew older and experienced my father in more detail, I came to understand why he was the way he was. And I came to appreciate that, like all of us, he was a man shaped by his environment. In his case, however, I think the environment that shaped him was not as gentle as it might have been.

Born in 1934, Charles Edward Flynn was the only child of old parents, both of whom were well into their 40s when he was born. He always spoke fondly of his years as a pupil with the Sisters of Mercy at Crackley Hall outside Kenilworth. As it was wartime, the school was evacuated to Stoneleigh Abbey and Dad often used to tell us of the time he and some of the other pupils and nuns were strafed by gunfire from a German plane as they ran to take cover.

He went on to be educated at Bablake School in Coventry (as all the best and brightest are!), and was then sent to boarding school at Sacred Heart College in Droitwich. He always had many great stories to tell about his time there, and how much trouble he got into, and the friends he made, and the priests who taught him.

These stories always spoke of a zest for life. Here was someone for whom the world was an oyster, someone who came from good working-class stock and would take the very best traits from his family and parlay them into a more comfortable existence.

That he did, although not necessarily easily. The difficulties he experienced, and there were many, came from within.

In order to understand my father we have to understand that he was someone that time left behind. He spent so much of his life looking backward at what had passed and hankering for the time it would return. He was not a great lover of change and he did not adapt to it well, and while not a Luddite, he clung to modes of being and thinking that he thought would preserve that past for him.

You will have by now picked up on his love of Latin. To him this language of a long-gone age was the essence of the world he had once known and lived in comfortably. It was the language of the Church as he was growing up, and as such, it was the language of praise and worship. It was also a mystical entity, not understood by all and not appreciated by all; but for him it was the language that expressed the mysticism of faith and the nature of God. The Tridentine Mass was the rite of worship he had grown up in, and when, in the early 1960s, the Second Vatican Council promulgated a new form of mass celebrated in the vernacular, Dad was lost.

He stayed away from the Church for several years, and when he did return you could see in his bearing that he was yearning for the intimacy and refinement of the Latin Mass.

Latin continued as one of the threads of his life. When I was 11, I was one of the cast members of the Coventry Scouts’ Gang Show. Dad was away working in Scotland on opening night, but I remember arriving at the stage door before the show and being handed an envelope addressed to me. Inside was a telegram from Dad wishing me and the rest of the cast best wishes for opening night. He signed it “Pater Tuus,” “your father.”

There were other examples of his taste for the past. July of 1985 saw two family celebrations fall on consecutive days. July 16th was Mum and Dad’s 25th wedding anniversary and the 17th was my graduation from university.

At home Dad had been collecting 20 pence pieces. I can’t remember how long he’d been collecting the coins, but several weeks ahead of these celebrations, Dad said he thought we should cash in the coins and use the proceeds to buy bowler hats for each of us to wear at the anniversary and graduation.

The bowler hat had never been an integral part of my wardrobe, but it had for Dad. As a young, newly married accountant, he was working in Birmingham and took the train every morning to work. He wore the standard work uniform of the day: dark suit, white shirt with starched collar, furled umbrella, briefcase…and bowler hat. Of course, 25 years later the bowler hat had been eclipsed by, well, nothing. While I was not in the habit of wearing a bowler to lectures every day, I thought Dad’s idea was quaint.

He cashed in the coins and off we went to Dunn & Co. in the Coventry city centre. They had bowler hats and we selected the appropriate sizes. Dad then asked about getting them fitted. The young sales assistant looked at Dad like he was from Mars; he had absolutely no idea what Dad was on about. When the Manager came over and explained that there wasn’t much call for hat fitting these days, Dad was furious. He marched out of the shop, without the hats, and I was left to apologize.

We eventually bought the hats from a Dunn & Co. store in Birmingham.

Another of Dad’s throwbacks to the past was the pair of pince-nez he bought, presumably from an antiques shop or estate sale. For those who may not know, pince-nez were the precursor to spectacles as we know them today. Instead of two bars either side of your face that hooked over your ears, the nose grips were spring-loaded and could be pressed open and placed on the bridge of the nose where they sat. Pincer is the French verb meaning "to pinch," and le nez is the French for “nose”. This device literally “pinched your nose.”

The family went out for a meal at a restaurant one evening and Dad insisted on taking his new pince-nez with him. The frame and lenses were attached to a small gold chain which had an ear piece on the end so you could hook them over your ear and leave them dangling when they weren’t on your nose. When the waitress came to take our order, Dad took the dangling pince-nez and perched them on his nose and began to look at the menu. Not being used to wearing such an item, he couldn’t keep them on his nose, and the lenses weren’t his prescription either.

That waitress must have gone back to the kitchen with our order and said “You should see the guy at table 3. He thinks he’s Prince Albert or something.”

Dad was a faithful letter writer. He wrote to me very often when I was at university and then when I moved to the States. I still have his letters, and reading them over again I am struck by just how funny he could be, and also touched by his persistence; he would often begin by saying something like “Not that much has happened to your Mum and I since I last wrote but…” and he’d go on to mention anything he thought might interest or amuse me.

He often used to cut things out of The Times and include them in his letters. It might be a letter written to the Editor, or some piece of trivia, or an amusing anecdote. Here’s one that I’ve kept. It’s the text of a notice behind the bar at the Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in England, on Tan Hill, Yorkshire. It reads:

“The landlord smokes, his wife smokes, all the staff smoke, most of the locals smoke, those that have made it up the hill need a smoke. If the wind is in the east the pub smokes. So if you want a smoke-free zone, go outside.”
There’s one Times cutting that really sticks in my mind because it seems to sum up so much about Dad, his love of Latin, his hankering for the past, and his strong sense of humor. The cutting reads:
Capsellarum magnetoscopicarum theca - the Latin for video rental store as given in the Vatican’s new Latin dictionary.”
Dad was notorious for his smoking. Whenever the telephone rang there was an almost Pavlovian response from Dad: he’d pick up his cigarettes, take one out, light it and then answer the phone. In a world that increasingly rejected smoking, Dad resolutely held out. He seemed to know half the Catholic Episcopal hierarchy in England because he met them after some celebration mass when they were outside having a smoke.

Dad would suddenly disappear from functions so he could go outside to smoke. He smoked for almost 60 years, and although he paid a physical price for it, he enjoyed it. So much so that when Mum, Caroline and myself went to see Dad at the funeral director’s earlier this week, we put a new pack of 20 Superkings in his jacket pocket in the coffin, so he’d have what he needed for the journey to Heaven or across the Styx.

In fact, it would not surprise me in the least if Dad were outside the church right now smoking a cigarette and thinking to himself “I never brought St.John up to be so prolix.” Would someone please check for me?

I’m just waiting to hear, through some divine prophecy or a Marian vision, about Dad’s reaction when he gets to the Pearly Gates and he’s waiting in line with his bowler hat and pince-nez and the ever-present cigarette between his fingers, and just as St. Peter opens the gate for Dad to enter, the Great Saint looks at Dad and points to a sign in Latin on the gate post which reads: Tibi gratias agimus quod nihil fumas, “Thank you for not smoking.”

I said earlier that Dad was a man that time forgot, and I think throughout his life he sought to recreate bygone eras as a way of once more getting to grips with a world he could know and understand. There were events in his life that I think left an emotional scar on him and destabilized the world as he understood it.

When he was 17 he was diagnosed with pleurisy and was confined to bed for 6 months. This obviously had an impact on his education, and perhaps on how he was treated by his parents, as there were great suspicions that “pleurisy” was a code word for tuberculosis.

Dad’s mother refused to attend his wedding to Mum. I can’t imagine what affect that must have had on him.

Several years later he found out that, despite all he’d been told, he was not an only child but indeed had a half-sister, someone he’d always been led to believe was his cousin.

These were things that shook his confidence in a world he’d been led to believe was his for the taking. The hurt he inevitably suffered he internalised, but he clung to those things that he felt could bear him up: the Church and its Latin, articles that had once been commonplace in his world such as the bowler hat or pince-nez, and of course his family.

He loved us in the best way he knew how. He wasn’t given to sentimentality, but he’d make us laugh, let us laugh at him, share in our sorrows and our celebrations, and do little things to put his stamp on things in our lives.

As a final tribute to this great man laid out before us in his coffin, I want to dig into the past to celebrate all that he was and all that he gave to me.

I know Dad was proud of the fact that I did so many years, too many years maybe, of Latin.

When I was preparing for Latin A-level, one of the prescribed texts we had to study was the poems of the first century B.C. Roman poet Catullus. To this day he remains one of my favorite poets. I have even taught him in translation to my undergraduates at the University of Georgia.

One Catullus poem has always stood out for me because of the depth of sorrow it expresses. Catullus’s brother had died while on a foreign civil service posting and his funeral had to be carried out in the absence of any family. Later Catullus himself takes a post in that same region and visits the grave where his brother’s ashes are buried.

Here is that short poem, in English translation:
Carried over many seas, and through many nations,
Brother, I come to these sad funeral rites,
to grant you the last gifts to the dead,
and speak in vain to your silent ashes,
since fortune has stolen from me your very self.
Ah alas, my brother, taken so shamefully from me.
Yet now, receive these sad gifts
which by the ancient custom of our fathers,
have been handed down as offerings to the dead,
take them, soaked deeply with a brother’s
tears, and forever, brother: ‘Hail and Farewell!’
We have come from far and wide to pay tribute to my father according to the long-established rites of the Church. And as a final goodbye to this great man, let me amend slightly Catullus’s last line and commend Charles Edward Flynn to the joys of Heaven as he would want, that is, in Latin.

And so I say to you Dad,

In perpetuum, pater, ave atque vale.