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Satire and sin, the path to God: Tony Hendra's Father Joe - THE COMMENTARY

By Joseph Planta

VANCOUVER - Rowan Atkinson, playing a preacher in the skit "The Wedding," says: "The Lord he loves laughter: God, the laugher giver; Christ, the comedian." Tony Hendra sort of agrees saying that Christ must have been quite funny. "I think there are little bits and pieces in the Gospels that survive that suggest that he was probably like any good preacher: capable of getting his points over by making people laugh," says Hendra, the author of the wonderful book, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul.

Hendra, a satirist, is also quite prolific. He's contributed to many magazines including Vanity Fair, Esquire, Forbes, Details, Harper's, and GQ, and also was an editor of National Lampoon, and Spy Magazine. He's probably more famous for his role in This is Spinal Tap, as well as being an original producer of the BBC's Spitting Image. For someone so adept in afflicting the comfortable and powerful, Hendra has written a book that is astonishing. It astonishes, first in the sheer craftsmanship that Hendra hones over phrases and sentences in this book. Even after finishing the book, one can find himself going back and rereading passages for the sheer eloquence and skill that Hendra has in turning a phrase and capturing vividness of emotion and action in mere words. Secondly, it is astonishing in that it is extremely heartfelt and touching. For someone who skewered the sacred cow of John Lennon in the 1970s, you'd never think that he'd be capable of something so moving and tear-inducing.

Father Joe revolves around the part that Father Joseph Warrilow played in one Tony Hendra's life, from the time Hendra first met him at the age 14. Young Hendra was in the midst of a tempestuous affair with a married woman, whose husband he was taking religious instruction from. Hendra's parents were ambivalent towards religion. His father, "simply a desultory agnostic," who didn't believe in anything really, was married to a "good Catholic." The mother, a "good" Catholic, went to mass regularly, but was less ferocious in letting the teachings of Christ interfere with her daily life. Hendra writes that she occasionally let middle-class peccadilloes through such as "gossip, bitching, kid-slapping, neighbour bashing and petty vengeance." So Hendra finds his catechism in the young couple up the road, Ben and Lily Bootle. Lily's a suffering young wife taking care of their baby, while Ben teaches young Tony. Eventually, Hendra spends an inordinate amount of time at the Bootle's and one day when Ben's away, Lily and young Tony are in the midst of an inappropriate relationship. Seduction, ŕ la The Graduate, but in the end he only gets to second base with Mrs. Bootle. It's enough however, and of course, Ben walks in as the two are in flagrante delicto.

Rather than kill the young lad, or even tell his parents, Ben and Tony head on a trip to the Isle of Wight and a monastery where Hendra meets Father Joe, a Benedictine Monk. Terrified, Hendra expects the worst. Instead he finds a priest who is tender, who loves, and who listens. Punishment is not what this padre metes out, rather unaccustomed compassion. What follows in the rest of the book is the path that Tony Hendra takes in life. It starts with a desire to be a monk too, to going to Cambridge to share classes with Stephen Hawking, to finding another calling instead of religious life - comedy. Satire calls out to Tony Hendra, and playing with guys like Graham Chapman and John Cleese, and seeing the groundbreaking satirical show, Beyond the Fringe. The first part of the book ends with the realisation that Hendra has, after seeing the 1960s show starring Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore (which becomes a big hit on Broadway too): "I went into that theatre a monk. I came out a satirist. Save the world through prayer? I don't think so. I'm going to save it through laughter."

And he did. He met Michael O'Donoghue, who went on to Saturday Night Live. Hendra co-created Lemmings, the off-Broadway smash whose cast included John Belushi and Chevy Chase. Editing National Lampoon followed, and while living on both coasts, having walked through a marriage that didn't really make it, he pined for going home to England and making a smash there. Throughout this memoir of sorts by Hendra, Father Joe remains a constant, not only in the plot, but in his life. As a memoir Hendra is honest about being a selfish husband and father, a drug addict, and trying to find comfort or solace in the inhospitable world of satire. At times he is brutally honest, making for a stunning summation of his times. He's also honest that in these less that saintly times, where being a monk was no longer a priority, how he drifted from his faith and how even Father Joe drifted from his consciousness and life. Hendra reclaims his faith, and Father Joe's presence, as well as the realisation that being a monk was not meant to be. Hendra realises that after selfishly feeling relief after both his first wife and his second wife, Carla, had miscarriages, his calling in life was to be as good a father as possible.

There are many touching scenes in this book. That realisation is one, as is the realisation that his own relationship with his parents had drifted far too much, yet there was nothing to do but realise that remote gulf that time and death could not reconcile. There are also many fierce scenes. The snatches about dealing with 'relationship stuff' when Hendra meets his second wife Carla, are angry and dramatic. In the end Father Joe plays the father role in Tony's life, and it is obvious how much love and emotion is had between the two and that if Hendra couldn't have the same with his own father, he would with this spiritual father he found. The book demonstrates that we often make our own families, or new ones come about, especially if those relationships with our own blood relatives don't always work out.

What Tony Hendra has wrought in these 271 pages is something very special. It is remarkable, as well as wonderful. It is not only a memoir about his own life and times, but in the end a portrait of a man who impacted his life greatly. You couldn't say that Tony Hendra has written a précis about Joseph Warrilow. It turns out that Warrilow led a life that was far fuller than we are led to believe until the last chapter of this book. Hendra finds out much later that this seemingly cloistered monk was a firm friend and confident to many, many more people, and not just Tony Hendra. It turns out that Princess Diana had sought his advice, as did the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and hundreds other. Hendra had thought the secluded Father Joe was an innocent savant, as he seemed incongruous to the outside world. In the end, Hendra realises that this was Father Joe's own outlook at people. There were only people, no differences, no airs, something that those of us in the outside world can never really understand, "Father Joe was the human incarnation of Blake's vision: you can find eternity in a grain of sand."

Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul is a wonderful book. I've been re-reading parts of the book even after finishing it. It is an experience to savour, not just because of the fine writing, but also the fact the memoir is so frighteningly honest. Has the book made me think? Of course it has. Hendra's relationship with his religion has given me much to think about, as I have struggled with my own Catholicism as well. (On the book jacket Frank McCourt writes: "You might cherish this book so much that you'll keep it on the shelf beside Saint Augustine, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Thomas Merton." The New York Times review by Andrew Sullivan wrote that Father Joe was a book "that - I'm not exaggerating - belongs in the first tier of spiritual memoirs ever written.") The book also has the amazing ability to let the reader reconsider his relationships with people, and find the meaning in each, even those seemingly inane. On a personal level, I adored this book. It had me laughing and crying, and laughing and crying some more. It makes it painfully clear that religion is best taken when not force fed. Though some guiding is sometimes needed when embarking on the path to God, once there the destination is more significant, deep, and meaningful. Tony Hendra's Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul is remarkable in that this deep and meaningful tome will surprise in the significance that it will have on those that read it.


Later this week, I'll have a piece about the fallout from Father Joe, the book. After the initial buzz, the book has taken on a controversy of its own.


Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul by Tony Hendra (ISBN: 1400061849) is published by Random House, and is $35.95 CDN ($24.95 USD).


Click to buy this book from Father Joe: the Man Who Saved My Soul

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