William Brodrick

My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. -- Wilfred Owen

I think it was Santayana who said that unless we remember the past we are condemned to repeat it. Hence it is a matter of duty. But history is also about honouring and preserving memory and that, too, is a moral imperative. -- William Brodrick

A reflective individual made more so in adolescence by a major car crash involving my parents. My father had a stroke a year later and never spoke again, save to swear; or walk, save to hobble. My mother nursed him for to years, until he died; then she contracted motor neurone disease and died shortly afterwards. Throughout was a seemingly endless civil action for damages. When the settlement cheque came through it was co-extensive with the debts that had accrued. Oddly enough, this was the area of law to which I eventually turned. -- William Brodrick

William Brodrick (1960- ) is a former monk who became a practicing barrister. In his debut novel, The Sixth Lamentation, William Brodrick draws upon his experience both as an Augustinian friar and as a practicing lawyer.

The Sixth Lamentation (2003) is a powerful and moving novel of Occupied France. The past casts a long shadow over the future. The past bares its ugly scars when Eduard Schwermann, a wanted Nazi war criminal, seeks sanctuary in Larkwood Priory. We learn of the past through Agnes Embleton, a member of the Round Table, a smuggling ring in Occupied France which helped smuggle Jewish children out of the country. The smuggling ring was betrayed. Agnes was sent to Auschwitz but managed to survive. Now dying of motor neurone disease she writes down what she knows in a notebook for her granddaughter Lucy. We learn of the past through Father Anselm, a monk at Larkwood Priory, who tries to piece together the fragments of the past. The novel weaves fact and fiction. All though is not what it seems. At times a very painful tale. [see BCID 6945813]

In writing The Sixth Lamentation, William Brodrick drew heavily upon the war time experience of his own mother, Margaretha Duyker. She was part of a smuggling ring and took a child out of Amsterdam by train to Arnhem. She was caught by the Gestapo and imprisoned. The child was taken away. She died of motor neurone disease in 1989. The Sixth Lamentation was written as a memorial to her.

The Sixth Lamentation was shortlisted for the Richard and Judy British Book Awards 2005.

As a former monk turned barrister, William Brodrick has a deep sense of justice. Is justice a legal or theological issue? Or is it impossible to separate the two?

I cannot separate them. Or perhaps I should say the imperative to implement justice raises both juridical and theological questions. On the one hand we must constantly interrogate our legislative systems, asking whether they adequately recognise and enforce identified rights. But absolute justice is always elusive. Certain rights are not recognised; others are difficult to protect; and the law cannot restore to victims what they have lost, not least when it is their life. These reflections can prompt theological discourse, because we are confronting not so much the limitations of legal systems as the problem of evil, along with the mystery of God's relationship to the world. While these questions imply a standpoint of faith, it seems to me that everyone asks them at some point or another. My novel, and indeed anything else I may write, is very much concerned with this territory. Incidentally, I chose the name 'Anselm' for my character, after the medieval saint, lawyer and theologian, because for him the starting point lay in faith seeking understanding, not understanding seeking faith. These are deep but inviting waters.

In The Devil and Miss Prym, Paulo Coelho writes of good doing evil, of evil doing good. We see this in The Sixth Lamentation. We have to learn not to judge, nor like death, can we escape the past. Or, as Lucy (Agnes' granddaughter) later puts it, "Nothing's what it seems, you know .. None of us are who we think we are."

As even Father Anselm has to admit at the end, "Almost without exception, I misunderstood everything. Millions died from hatred, beneath a blue sky like the one over Larkwood this afternoon ... I just can't make sense out of it, other than to cry." The Prior replies, "You never will understand, fully, and in a way. you mustn't. If you do, you'll be trotting out formulas ... Out there, in the world it can be very cold. It seems to be about luck, good and bad, and the distribution is absurd. We have to be candles, burning between hope and despair, faith and doubt, life and death, all the opposites. That is the disquietening place where people must always find us ... Somehow, by being here at peace, we help the world cope with what it cannot understand".

As she lies dying, Agnes Embleton tells her granddaughter Lucy: "Death is like the past. We can't change either of them. We have to make friends with them both."

William Brodrick was born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1960. Having lived in Canada since he was eleven, he went to school in Australia and England, and went on to take a BA in Philosophy and Theology, then a MTh (Master of Theology) and a Degree of Utter Barrister. Brodrick worked on a logging camp in British Columbia, Canada, before joining the Augustinian Friars (1979-1985). He began his life as a friar in Dublin, Ireland, based on a farm that deployed Iron Age techniques bringing him very close to nature. After several years as a friar, he left the order to help set up a charity at the request of Cardinal Hume, The Depaul Trust, which worked with homeless people. In 1991 he became a barrister. He holds British and Canadian citizenship and is married with three children with whom he lives in France.

In his introduction to The Devil and Miss Prym, Paulo Coelho writes of the paths that unexpectedly open up before us and the choices we have to make. He thought he was about to become a successful record producer, but instead became a writer. As one path closed, another one opened. This was equally apparent with the life of William Brodrick and the choices he made.

I grew up in damp southeast Lancashire, scalding hot Queensland, and temperate Vancouver Island: three different environments and cultures with nothing to bind them together. By the age of eighteen I had enjoyed a varied existence making me a wanderer, intellectually and spiritually. Perhaps that is why I loved the stories of Russian pilgrims walking hundreds of miles over the steppes to tiny shrines, eschewing vodka and devouring scripture. And with a trace of that mystical spirit of adventure I joined religious life. I left 5 years later, to my surprise, on the same pilgrim route. To ask me why is to ask for part of the stuff from which my future books will spring. And between their covers is where the answer will lie.

I worked with homeless people - which was a deeply influential experience - and then trained for the Bar - later specialising in personal injury law. I had only just begun to shape my practice when I fell ill with cancer. With sudden uninvited acuity I realised that life is a single chance; no second goes; and from that moment an insidious restlessness dismantled what might have been a fruitful professional life. In the end I knew I had to write, for reasons I could not fathom, and took six months off to devote myself to doing it. Within days I realised that this was what I had always wanted to do - since I was a child when, aged nine, I had written my first book, The Origins of the First World War, with illustrations by the author.

In a sort of argument with providence, I applied to be a Deputy District Judge at the same time as I began preparing my novel. If appointed I knew I would probably never finish the book. So by applying I was setting up a road that diverged in two: the law in one direction, and writing the other. To my surprise, I was called for an interview, but was duly knocked back: I remain profoundly grateful to the Lord Chancellor's Department for their uncharacteristic perspicacity. From then on the road to my future, whatever it might be, was open and wide, and I entered it with a lightness of step that eventually led to my first novel - The Sixth Lamentation.

As the paths diverge, there is rarely a signpost pointing out the path to take. We have to learn like Santiago in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho to read the signs, to listen to our heart, to learn how to communicate with the Soul of the World.

Since his debut novel, William Brodrick has written two more novels - The Gardens of the Dead (2006) and A Whispered Name (2008) - both of which feature Father Anselm.

His second novel, The Gardens of the Dead, is in part tribute to the period he spent working with the homeless after leaving religious life and before coming to the Bar. He worked at the Passage Day Centre in Victoria, London and subsequently at the Depaul Trust. He wanted to capture in the novel, something of the wonderful people he met, and tell something about their stories and wisdom. He says, "Many of them, while on the move and without a home, had 'arrived' in a spiritual sense beyond anything I could hope for". Hence the theme of pilgrimage, the homeless person as a kind of Desert Father or mystic. His other aim was to provide an insight into some of the dangers of the street, and how some young people can be lost to the protection of law.

A Whispered Name, like The Sixth Lamentation, delves into the past and the shadow it casts on the future, only this time the horror of the trenches of World War One. Men were shot for cowardice and desertion. They were shell-shocked, pushed beyond human endurance. Captain Herbert Moore serves on a Field General Court Martial. He condemns a deserter to death. A decision that is to haunt him for the rest of his life. As it does those of the firing squad who have to carry out the execution. [see BCID 6960255]

In A Whispered Name we learn how Father Anselm came to be a monk at Larkswood Priory. He was drawn by words he was later to learn had been written by Father Moore.

We can't promise happiness,
but if God has called you to be here
you will taste a peace this world cannot give.

It was Father Moore who some years later, was the catalyst in Anselm joining the Priory. On learning that Anselm was a lawyer, Father Moore groaned 'Ah, the Lord wasn't that fond of lawyers.' He then grimaced 'Law and love, it's not always a happy marriage.' Anselm volunteered an alternative view 'that love without law would be licentious, and law without love would be ruthless. Father Moore liked that one.

Anselm raised with Father Moore 'I came across you by accident. What would you have done if I hadn't turned up?' Anselm had found Father Moore in a battered Cortina in a ditch. Father Moore thought for a moment and replied 'Nothing happens by accident.'

It was on meeting Father Moore that Anselm, like Santiago in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, listened to his heart. He learnt how to read the signs, to communicate with the Soul of the World.

William Brodrick uses to great effect the poetry of the Great War poets in his novels. In The Sixth Lamentation it is lines from 'The Burning of the Leaves' written by Laurence Binyon in 1942. In A Whispered Name it is a few lines taken from 'How To Die' by Siegfried Sassoon.

He lifts his fingers toward the skies
Where holy brightness breaks in flame;
Radiance reflected in his eyes,
And on his lips a whispered name.

Inscribed on a slate stone in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey in London to commemorate the sixteen Great War poets are these words by Wilfred Owen: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." This inscription could equally apply to The Sixth Lamentation and A Whispered Name.

The writing of William Brodrick has a strong affinity with that of Paulo Coelho. The style is not the same, the style is very different, but both writers have the ability to communicate with the Soul of the World.

Music is a particular love of William Brodrick, he plays the piano, guitar and trumpet. In his spare time he paints watercolours and is interested in black and white photography.

William Brodrick decided his path to serving God was for him to leave the monastic life and serve in other ways. He had not lost his faith. Paulo Coelho serves through his writings. If we think we have understood, have all the answers, then we haven't. All we have is glib answers, formulas, superstition, the sort of slick answers false prophet Nicky Gumbel of Alpha Course is wont to peddle. It may provide a comfort blanket, but it will not last. The best we can hope for is a vague understanding, to be candles flickering between hope and despair, faith and hope, life and death. These are the issues William Brodrick explores in The Sixth Lamentation.

(c) Keith Parkins 2009 -- February 2009 rev 1