Remembering the Two Jacks: CS Lewis and John F Kennedy

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My diary is usually a blank since Covid and becoming a Carer, apart from the inspiring reminders to ‘Put bins out’ or ‘Do food order’.  But that wasn’t the case on 22 November 2013.

It was the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of author and Professor C S Lewis and author and President John F Kennedy.  All Lewis fans know that he died on the same day as the terrible assassination of Kennedy, and so the fact didn’t get much publicity at the time as a result.

That any of these events should have had an effect on my diary entries for 2013 seems increasingly strange as the years go by.  But it caused an unlikely clash: I was supposed to be in two places at once.

Firstly, I was invited to be part of the celebration of C S Lewis’ life at the inclusion of a memorial to him in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey in London. This was later to be published as:

Secondly, I was invited to the celebration of the life of President Kennedy being held on the same day at the memorial to Kennedy at Runnymede in Surrey.

The Kennedy Memorial Trust

Back in 1984 I had been awarded a scholarship to Harvard by the Kennedy Memorial Trust, and it was this Trust that had been set up in 1965 to acknowledge the British people’s huge outpouring of grief at the President’s death.  The two parts were to be a “memorial in landscape and stone” at Runnymede and a ”living memorial” in the form of the Scholarship programme for around ten postgraduates a year to go from the UK to Harvard or MIT.  There are now over five hundred of us. [1]

Runnymede near Windsor was the scene of the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the ‘Great Charter of Liberty’ extracted by the barons from King John, which meant even the king was to be subject to the law. In a sense it was the beginning of parliamentary government and the inspiration for ideas of political liberty around the world, and it was here the official memorial stone to the President was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1965.  The ceremony was attended by members of the Kennedy family, and the land that holds the memorial was granted to the American people in perpetuity.   The event was largely organised in 1965 by David Ormsby-Gore, Lord Harlech.  He had been one of Kennedy’s best friends and British Ambassador to America (and who, strangely enough, was to interview and then award me the Kennedy Scholarship in 1985 on the very day he too was to die tragically, in a car crash on the way home).

There is a video of the moving ceremony at Runnymede and the surrounding countryside: the walk through a wicket gate and then a wood and then the path to the seven ton block of Portland stone, which were all part of the memorial and designed to be like ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ for the visitor.

It reminded me of Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College Oxford where Lewis had his spiritual breakthrough in his talk with Tolkien and Dyson.

The two memorial stones are similar in some ways, including quotes from the men themselves, though on a different scale:

Lewis at Westminster Abbey

Of course I wanted to be at both events in 2013.  But since I’d been asked to be part of a panel discussing Lewis’s influence today, but would only have been a spectator at the Kennedy event, then it certainly made sense to be at Westminster Abbey.

Plus the fact that Lewis had influenced my spiritual and academic life to a far greater extent than Kennedy, although the scholarship to Harvard was fantastic and led me to spend four years in America as a result.

I tend to be reading books by or about CS Lewis most of the time, but by sheer coincidence I’ve just finished a different book that instead involved Kennedy, as it was the biography of his ‘forgotten’ sister Kathleen, known as ‘Kick’ [1]

Kick and Jack

When Kick was born in 1920, Jack was already two and a half.  They were to become best friends in a family of nine children and remained so throughout life, although Kick’s was to be cut short by tragedy even before her brother.  At her untimely death in a plane crash in 1948 she was already a widow.  She had married William ‘Billie’ Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, the son of the Duke of Devonshire, but Billie had been killed in heroic circumstances in the Second World War.  She really could have wandered around the magnificent Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and whispered ‘Of all this I might have been mistress’, like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

  It was partly through her social success with the English upper classes, backed up by their father being the American ambassador to Britain, that mean Jack Kennedy had access to the rich and powerful in the UK.  I was interested to read how pro-British he was, especially in his admiration of Churchill, for example, studying his speeches.

Irish Roots

Of course Kennedy was also keen to explore his Irish roots in several Irish counties.  The fact that his sister had married into the Devonshires also meant that they had invitations to their Irish property, Lismore Castle in County Waterford, which also would have belonged to Kick’s husband, had not tragedy intervened.  The extent to which the Kennedys had woven themselves into British life before the War really surprised me.  It also made me think more about CS Lewis’ Irish roots in Belfast and the ‘pull’ that Ireland has for the many millions who have ancestry there, including my own via a grandmother and her family, the MacNabs.  For both CSL and JFK, Ireland was ‘home’.

The Devonshires and Chatsworth

I now realise that this makes sense of a photo I once saw.  It was of President Kennedy’s Inaugural parade in January 1961, and there right on the front row was Deborah, the Duchess of Devonshire, right next to the President. The photo is in a book of Debo’s letters [2].

At the time everyone wondered who on earth this woman was.  But she, as Debo Mitford, had been great friends with Kick Kennedy when Kick had dated Billie, the Marquess of Hartington, and Debo had dated his younger brother Andrew, so they hung out as a foursome before the War.   When Billie was killed in 1944, Andrew inherited the title and therefore became the next Duke, and owner of Chatsworth and numerous other stunning properties.  If death hadn’t intervened for Kick in 1948, aged only 28, she would have been the ‘new’ Duchess, so in a sense Debo was a substitute for Kick at the Inauguration.

JFK had been so upset at the death of his sister that he only visited her grave at  Edensor near Chatsworth years later, just months before his own death.

The Two Jacks as Young Readers

But one of the things that surprised me the most was how similar the two Jacks had been in childhood and early youth, in the sense that both had been loners much of the time and voracious readers, and of course it was this that was to give them the edge in their subsequent careers, forming their main interests and pursuits.  I already knew about CSL’s reading habits, but was amazed at how frequently JFK had been ill and in hospital or bed bound whilst growing up and had therefore read so deeply.  Both had been deeply influenced by their boyhood reading on the history of Chivalry, for example.  And later on JFK’s father’s appointment as Ambassador to the Court of St James, and the political and aristocratic contacts that this provided in the UK, meant that Kennedy could as a young man meet the political and cultural heroes he had only encountered in his reading.

Christmas at Chatsworth

At Christmas I usually re-post my blogs about the wonderful Narnian ‘Christmas at Chatsworth’ event I also attended in 2013.   Of course the main focus of this is from the creative imagination of Jack Lewis, as each room at the stately home was magnificently decorated with characters and themes from the ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. 

But this year, as I look again at these Christmas photos, I will definitely be thinking of the Kennedy connection as well, of Kathleen and her younger brother Jack, who also wandered around Chatsworth in awe.  I will remember the future President, and Kick his sister who should have been a Duchess, and the events that forever link the two globally famous Irish Jacks, the Professor and the President.


[1]  For Kennedy Memorial Trust, see

[2]  Paula Byrne, Kick: The True Story of JFK’s Sister and the Heir to Chatsworth (HarperCollins, 2016)

[3]  For Debo & JFK, see

and (ed.) Charlotte Mosley, In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray, 2008) re Inauguration.

For the short film about the Kennedy Memorial, see

For the Westminster Abbey Institute Symposium from 21 November 2013, see

Do Poets need their own Corner?

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Do Poets need their own Corner?

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet's Corner

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet’s Corner

Far from being confined to the events of last November, a high level of interest in C S Lewis and his inclusion in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey continues. The lectures by Alister McGrath and Malcolm Guite and the discussion of the Symposium panel, of which I was a member, are now available on the web in audio and soon as a film on YouTube. It certainly does seem to have been “the Lewis event of the century” – at least so far! [1]

Just after the event itself I was very amused to read a poem by Wendy Cope on why there should be a Poet’s Corner at all. I don’t think anyone else has referred to it in connection with Lewis, so I thought you might like to see some of it. It’s from her first volume of poetry, entitled Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis [2] and is a comic response to an Engineer who had written to a newspaper complaining that there is a Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey to honour our nation’s greats in that field but not an ‘Engineer’s Corner’ or equivalent for those in different professions (presumably ignoring the many political and military ‘saviours’ who tend to get their statues scattered around sacred spaces willy-nilly the rest of the time).

The poet Wendy Cope

The poet Wendy Cope

So in ‘Engineer’s Corner’, Cope’s ironic consolation begins:

“We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints –

That’s why so many poets end up rich,

While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets.

Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?”

Of course life is easy for a poet, she continues. There’s a daily demand for their work as people eagerly devour at least a poem a day whereas, Cope sarcastically sympathises, desperate engineers have to take a second job to make ends meet and can’t have a social life if they’re to get any work done at all, the poor things.

“While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimlers,

You’ll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,

With no hope of a statue in the Abbey,

With no hope, even, of a modest bust.”

And of course small boys prefer poems to engines! Anyone can see that the massive popular embrace of poetry is why the country is going to the dogs.

I wish I could quote her poem in full but no doubt copyright forbids. The comic impact is much greater in her succinct sarcastic rhyme. But Cope’s main point here seems to be that poets deserve the attention they get in Westminster Abbey in order to raise their profile and do something to make up for the neglect and poverty they suffered in life. Engineers and the like, you already have your reward. She is not tackling the question of whether there might be something peculiarly appropriate about poets and other artists of the word having a place of civic honour in a place of worship, that those whose work is most likely to exalt our souls to access the spiritual should be privileged in this way. Do artists of the word have more chance of leading us to consider the Word Himself than the mechanics of the material? Perhaps it’s an argument that will always exist between the poetic and musical Hrossa and the mechanical and crafts-oriented Pfiffltriggi (to put it in terms of Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet).

But as soon as we start to analyse this distinction in supposed worthiness for Abbey inclusion, there emerge some notable gaps. If we are to have a biblical emphasis on helping the poor and the sick, why is there not a Doctors/Nurses/Healers’ Corner? Or a Police and Social Workers’ Corner for those who rescue children from abuse and women from domestic violence? I could go on. In fact, the more one tries to analyse the need for a specifically Poets’ Corner, the more the argument falls down. This special Corner can’t just be to somehow ‘make it up’ to those we’ve treated rather shabbily here and feel a bit ashamed about, like children who give a special present to the teacher at the end of the year that they’ve given the hardest time to. And I wouldn’t have thought that the aim of a Poet’s Corner was to get every member of the populace writing poetry for themselves, an interesting world though that would be.

Sir Philip Sydney

Sir Philip Sydney

On a purely superficial level it seems appropriate that poets and writers should have their own corner to hide in – introverted observers rather than participators in life, who were able to view life from one step removed and so write to shape our vision of it more effectively. But straightaway I think of how many of our greatest poets were also men of action, for example those who were soldiers too – Sir Philip Sydney, Lord Byron, the War Poets themselves, and of course C S Lewis whose first published poem was ‘Death in Battle’ in John Galsworthy’s journal for war poets Reveille in 1919. Perhaps one thing those in Poets’ Corner have in common is that they were writers who burst out into the world in action and word and vision on a national and international level, and we finally caught on enough to honour them, whether hundreds of years later, or in Lewis’ case only fifty.

And all this talk of ‘great men’ – there are women in Poet’s Corner too. Wendy Cope herself is already an OBE and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, despite writing hugely enjoyable comic verse that appeals to a wide audience, so… who knows what will happen in the future, Abbey-wise? Rowan Williams, who preached at the Lewis memorial service at the Abbey, has called her the wittiest of contemporary English poets. She has almost been Poet Laureate twice and when she wanted to downsize to move house she sold her huge archive of material to the British Library. (This makes me very jealous as I’m currently downsizing and about to move house, but I think contacting the BL might be a bit premature in my case…)

In thinking about about how we honour our fellow human beings after death in public life, it’s easy to forget the real point – that everyone who does the will of God faithfully in this life will on the Great Day hear the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” from the Lord Himself and receive gracious reward from Him. What more does anyone need? C S Lewis gave a brilliant imagined portrayal of how human beings will be honoured or otherwise after death in his novel The Great Divorce of 1945. One character everyone remembers from this book is that glorious bright lady whom ‘Lewis‘ mistakes for the Virgin Mary herself, but is told by the MacDonald character: “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.” When reviewing this book in 1946, The New Yorker said: “If wit and wisdom, style and scholarship are requisites to pass through the pearly gates, Mr Lewis will be among the angels.” [3] I’m sure Lewis would have counted a true wisdom as the only one of those qualities to really count in that regard. Anyway, I’m here concerned with the far more earthly issue of who passes into the corner of the poets in Westminster Abbey. I think I would conclude that a special corner for poets is probably indefensible, but the fact is it’s there, and since it is there, and in view of what it’s become over the centuries, then Lewis should be there too. His inclusion is certainly miraculous considering his early lack of faith and other struggles. When His father Albert was discussing his son’s atheism with his eldest son Warren, he was obviously worried but still clung on to hope, writing “…I do think that if Oxford does not spoil him… he may write something that men will not willingly let die.” [4]


[1] I’m glad to say that my blog on the C S Lewis Memorial Service has been shared by hundreds on Facebook and included on lists of the most useful resources about that event, eg. by William O’Flaherty, and Sarah Clarkson at

[2] Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, Faber and Faber, 1986.

[3] Quoted in Walter Hooper (ed.), C S Lewis: A Companion and Guide, HarperCollins, London, 1996, p289.

[4] ibid., p142.

C S Lewis’ Memorial Service

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C S Lewis’ Memorial Service


Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

After being at the C S Lewis memorial events at Westminster Abbey this week – listening to lectures on C S Lewis, speaking at the C S Lewis Symposium, meeting up with C S Lewis fans and friends, and finally attending the C S Lewis service itself – I felt like having a bit of a day off today to recover, preferably on activities nothing to do with C S Lewis. Especially as I’ve also spent the last few weeks reading Lewis’ novels and writing talks about Lewis, some non-Lewis reading seemed in order, much as I love him.

But, as usually happens when I’m trying to escape a subject, the very thing I pick up instead drags me back to it – or, to put it more positively, gives new insight and perspective on the forbidden subject. This morning, as an escape, I picked up at random an old murder mystery by Ngaio Marsh called False Scent (1960). It concerns the death of a famous actress. And after being with the thousands who turned up to honour Lewis this week, I couldn’t help but resonate with the opening words of Ngaio Marsh’s story:

“When she died it was as if all the love she had inspired in so many people suddenly blossomed. She had never, of course, realised how greatly she was loved, never known that she was to be carried by six young men who would ask to perform this last courtesy: to bear her on their strong shoulders, so gently and with such dedication. Quite insignificant people were there… the family nurse… her dresser… the stage doorkeeper… Crowds of people whom she herself would have scarcely remembered but upon whom, at some time, she had bestowed the gift of her charm. All the Knights and Dames, of course, and The Management, and… the great producer who had so often directed her. Bertie Saracen who had created her dresses since the days when she was a bit-part actress and who had, indeed, risen to his present eminence in the wake of her mounting fame. But it was not for her fame that they had come to say goodbye to her. It was because, quite simply, they had loved her.”

That was exactly how I felt! I, surely, was one of those “insignificant people” who had turned up to honour Lewis on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. As a speaker at one of the commemorative events, I did have a place in the Quire of the Abbey and so was closer to the ‘action’ and so felt doubly blessed and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking along the lines of “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

Service booklet for C S Lewis' Memorial

Service booklet for C S Lewis’ Memorial

The service was stunning and moving, beginning with the oh-so-appropriate opening hymn ‘He who would valiant be’ based on Pilgrim’s Progress, then a recording of Lewis himself speaking about “getting a real self”. How strange and affecting to hear his voice in that setting. Then Dr Francis Warner, one of Lewis’ pupils, read from Isaiah 35 (including the wonderful phrase “the habitation of dragons”!), and Prof Helen Cooper, who holds Lewis’ old chair at Cambridge, read 2 Corinthians 4 (“eternal weight of glory”). There followed a particularly telling reading as Douglas Gresham, Lewis’ stepson, gave us Aslan’s welcoming of the children into his land forever after their earthly deaths from The Last Battle – hard not to shed a tear at that point if you hadn’t already. Dr Michael Ward led the dedication of the memorial that he has done so much to bring about and Walter Hooper, Lewis’ friend and secretary and the editor of his works, laid beautiful white flowers above Lewis’ name.   The Right Rev and Right Hon Rowan Williams (now “The Lord Williams of Oystermouth” – who knew?) gave a brilliant sermon on Lewis’ defense of language and the human, and the Choir sang Paul Mealor’s flowing arrangement of Lewis’ poem ‘Love’s as warm as tears’ – another opportunity for tears from the congregation. The prayers were led by a wonderful array of clergy representing the geography of Lewis’ life and the service ended on an uplifting note with ‘O praise ye the Lord!’

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet's Corner

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet’s Corner

There was then the chance for us to actually see the memorial with Lewis’ name in the stone floor of Poet’s Corner, cut with his own words: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”

There may often be people going to services at Westminster Abbey just to see the magnificence of the building (and not pay the usual £18 entrance fee – there’s a tip for you) or some may have been tempted to come simply because Lewis is now a celebrity, as opposed to the very few who went to his funeral in 1963. But I don’t think this was the case yesterday on the 22nd of November, 2013. If I can adapt the words of the Ngaio Marsh story:

“But it was not for his fame that they had come to say goodbye to him. It was because, quite simply, they had loved him.”

The Honouring of Dead Poets Society

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Keats' Grave

Keats’ Grave

The Honouring of Dead Poets Society

Around 130 years ago there was an effort to raise funds to belatedly help the poet Keats, or rather his sister who was his only surviving close relative. There was a sense that not enough had been done to honour the young poet during his too-brief life. Only recognised post mortem as one of England’s greats, John Keats had been neglected and he and his family subjected to unnecessary suffering as a result.

I discovered this attempt at fund-raising when reading some of another poet’s letters in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Preraphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was writing in February 1880 to Harry Buxton Foreman, a collector of Keats manuscripts, to ask about Foreman’s copy of Endymion. Rossetti describes himself as “a lover of Keats” despite the fact that he then goes on to diss Keats quite severely (most of his sonnets were “very faulty or inferior”, although his sonnet on Chapman’s Homer is good and the finest is On a Dream). He then refers to the subscription to help Keats’ sister Frances Mary, wife by this time of Valentine Llanos. Rossetti is sad that so little has been achieved by this point:

“It is grievous to me to find how little progress has been made with the Keats subscription. I have found a lukewarmness incredible to me even among special admirers of the poet. I had hoped much from America, but this it seems proves fallacious.” [1]

There was to be a happy ending eventually, however. Disraeli, now Lord Beaconsfield, granted a Civil List Pension to Frances Mary in old age, the younger sister of the young dead genius. What else could the lovers of Keats do? There was always his grave in Rome with the memorial stone without a name, only to the one whose “Name was writ in Water”, organised by the painter Joseph Severn who was with Keats when he died and honoured his request concerning the brief epitaph. Many, including Oscar Wilde, made the journey there to honour their poetic hero. I must confess, though I have been to Rome, I have never made that pilgrimage, although I did visit Oscar Wilde’s grave in Pere-la-Chaise cemetery in Paris in the 1980s. I still have the photo of me aged 20, standing under an umbrella next to the large Jacob Epstein monument of a sphinx, looking intense and dismal in the rain in an inappropriately bright cardigan that just failed to be sunflower yellow. The Epstein monument records lines from Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol : “For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn.” I had already memorised these lines as a Melancholy Romantic teenager and so was delighted to find them as the last word on my favourite poet of that time. (A bit different to Wilde’s last reported words: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do”, or indeed Disraeli’s great last words: “I think I’m getting better now”!) But it still took a while longer for Keats to be honoured in his own country with a memorial. There was an attempt in 1939 to have a plaque dedicated to him in Westminster Abbey but the advent of the Second World War delayed things till 1954.

But this November marks the honouring of another poet who was not honoured (as a poet, at any rate) in his lifetime. The great writer and scholar C S Lewis (the writer of Dymer rather than Endymion) is to have a plaque unveiled to his name in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, largely due to the efforts of Dr Michael Ward.  It has often been noted that Lewis, though sometimes ignored in Britain, has been embraced by America, and this is certainly true of those subscribing to the memorial to Lewis for Westminster Abbey. There has not been the “lukewarmness” from the USA that Rossetti noted in the Keats fund-raising, for which we’re very grateful.

But there is a slight way to go. You can still make donations at where you also get your free tickets to come to the celebrations. This is your chance to be a part of it. And this time I get to be part of it too, as one of the speakers at the Symposium on 21 November. I promise not to wear the unfortunate yellow cardigan.


[1] D G Rossetti, John Keats: Criticism and Comment, Private Circulation, 1919 (30 copies of 5 of DGR’s letters printed for T J Wise of Hampstead).