Memories · Notes from West London · On the box · Word of the week

World of the week: Dazzle

We continue to subscribe to Netflix, nearly two years after I agreed to my daughter’s request that we sign up for the “free” 30 day trial. I learnt recently that I could reduce my monthly fee down a bit. We are still paying extra so that we can run it on up to four devices. We have, at some point over the last two years, viewed Netflix on four different screens (two laptops, a phone, our TV) but not for several months now. We only watch it through the TV. I hear of people who get much greater benefit from their subscription – paying less, and sharing their account details with family members in other cities so that more people can watch. We have not done this.

Also, unlike many Netflix subscribers, we have not spent much of our time watching “The Crown”, one of the streaming service’s biggest hits. The programmes that have taken up most viewing time are, in descending order: “Friends”, “Modern Family”, “Big Bang Theory”, “Brooklyn Nine Nine”, “Glee” and “Breaking Bad”. We have also watched a few movies and I have seen both series of “After Life”.

Earlier this year, though, I did watch one episode of “The Crown”. It was S4Ep7, “The Hereditary Principle”, described as follows: “Grappling with mental health issues, [Princess] Margaret seeks help and discovers an appalling secret about estranged members of the royal family”.

I wanted to see what they made of the only real-life person in the show who I ever encountered. I have never hung out with any member of the royal family, but I did get to know the person portrayed here as “Dazzle”: Father Derek Jennings. I was unaware that he even had the nickname “Dazzle”.

He served in our parish in the late 1980s, just after he was ordained. He was an Anglican who converted to Catholicism and gave up a glittering career in the civil service to train as a Catholic priest. He was also a friend of Princess Margaret. If you believe the dialogue and the action on screen during S4Ep7, she tried it on with him. He turned down her advances, and her sister (HRH Queen Elizabeth II herself) explained why: in addition to his priestly vocation, “Dazzle” was “a friend of Dorothy”. Both sisters pronounce the nickname as “Dezzle”, to rhyme with “embezzle”, as you might expect.

There was so much new information for me to process here: his close connections with the royal family, his nickname, the idea that the queen would use the phrase “friend of Dorothy”, ever. I ran a few web searches, and there are stories of “Dazzle” also being friends with Alec Guinness and Richard Coles (then a member of Communards, the chart-topping pop duo, and not yet an Anglican vicar). One story suggested that “Dazzle” was trying to persuade Coles to convert to Catholicism and might even have been making some progress. The words scripted for him in “The Crown” suggest that he tried to convert Princess Margaret too.

My encounters and conversations with him did not involve acting royalty, successful chart acts or members of the House of Windsor. Soon after he arrived in the parish, he conducted a baptism for a member of my family. During our conversation afterwards (about student life mostly) we learnt that his father and I had attended the same college, many decades apart.

Late the following year I remember his excitement at the news that the Soviet Union was going to limit arms production. It was during Advent, and he drew parallels with the day’s reading from Isaiah (2: 1-5):

“He will wield authority over the nations 
and adjudicate between many peoples; 
these will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles. 
Nation will not lift sword against nation, 
there will be no more training for war.” 

“Swords into ploughshares … spears into sickles … There will be no more training for war.” I had never seen him so animated. I think of him whenever I hear these words.

Shortly after this, he had a run-in with some of my closest family friends. I had been asked to be godfather to their second child. The mother of my godson went to the presbytery to arrange the baptism. “Dazzle” answered the door, said he didn’t recognize her from mass, and that you couldn’t just turn up and book a baptism like you were ordering theatre tickets. He asked where they lived. They had until fairly recently lived about 100 yards from the church, but had moved less than a mile away. They were one street into a sub-parish of this, their usual parish. The church there, and its parish community, were much smaller. He told her she should go to that smaller church, and that she couldn’t have her son baptised in the same place as her first child.

If the parish priest had answered the door instead, the reaction, and what happened next, would have been very different. He had been in the parish for over 15 years, and knew the family well. My godson’s mother returned to the car, where her mother had been waiting for her. She was in a state of shock. Her mother (my godson’s grandmother) was of Italian stock. She was furious. She left the car where it was and hammered on the presbytery door. When the priest answered, she let loose a string of expletives. Her closing words have passed into family lore. I will censor them for you here, but the blanks in the following quote indicate a word beginning with “F”: “—- you and —- your —-ing church”. And then they came round to ours for a cup of coffee and to tell us all about it.

The baptism was arranged at the smaller church, and nobody in their family ever returned to the larger one, which they had attended for decades. And none of them ever spoke to “Dazzle” again.

Around the same time, an older member of the parish, who I had become friends with when volunteering for a church organization, also had a run-in with him. The parishioner’s wife had been wheelchair-bound since the 1950s. There are two spaces near the altar set up specifically for wheelchairs: the pews are shorter so that wheelchairs can be accommodated there. At one of the more formal masses (the Bishop was in town) “Dazzle” decided that the wheelchairs should stay in the side chapel rather than in their usual places. My friend’s wife was already in situ and “Dazzle” tried to move her. She felt humiliated at being moved on, and made sure that the brake was on. He struggled with her wheels for a few minutes before giving up, and after that mass she never returned to the building. My friend had to drive his wife to mass two miles away rather attend their nearest church (they were a four-minute walk away).

Within a year, “Dazzle” had moved on, to serve as a chaplain at London University. It seemed like a more appropriate setting for him, dealing primarily with students rather than the wide range of demands in a busy parish. Within five years, in January 1995, he was dead. We learnt that it was from cancer, “lymphatic leukaemia” according to the  obituary in the 1996 Westminster Yearbook which I have just dug out.

A few years ago, chatting after mass with some other parishioners over a cup of coffee, the subject turned to previous priests of the parish. Someone mentioned Derek Jennings, and she and I had stories to tell of people he had fallen out with, people who never returned to the parish even after he had moved on. One of the newer parishioners had never heard of him, and we explained that he had died, young, many years earlier.

“What did he die of?”
“Cancer, I think,” I said.

The woman who had originally mentioned him gave me a look that suggested I was being naïve. She told me that he had died of AIDS: everyone knew that. It turns out that there was an awful lot about “Dazzle” that I didn’t know.

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