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As I say, my smugness suddenly broke down. The bell again chimed: “I am one of these people.”

Apart from its value in the salvation of souls, the Catholic Confessional has certain prudential uses. One is invited to tell the truth, not about others, but about oneself; and to a priest trained to expect it; and through whom, alone, absolution will be conducted. A good priest (and they are not so rare) is not there to collect excuses. He is there to hear patiently what you did. The “you” in this formula may, from sheer embarrassment, get out of the habit of doing just those things that will need to be confessed.

The Ten Commandments are all well and good. Not one suggests that the recognition of reality is sinful. They should be upheld in their totality. They, and the other wingéd instruments of Christian faith, should be taken with deadly seriousness against the gravitational pull of Hell.

Thanks to their après-guerre deregulation, the West Germans recovered much faster than, well, Labour-governed Britain; and frankly capitalist “economic miracles” similar to the German happened in Italy and France. Western Europe rebounded from six years of unprecedented physical destruction, in more-or-less six years. People wanted to laugh again. Secretly they had wanted to live, even while the bombs were falling, but now the boys were home, and the girls were having babies.

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England, below the Ribble and Tees, is special, thanks to the Domesday Book of the invading, tax-loving Normans, and their general propensity to good record-keeping. The towns and villages ennumerated in 1086 can be traced to the present day; more than nineteen-in-twenty are still there. Having figures to start, and through the parish books later, we can track an economic and demographic history with an accuracy possible in no other country. We can know, for instance, of the population boom through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which had slackened well before the “Black Death.” And with that boom, impressive advances in farming, technology, and building, as today. Nothing conduces to technical improvement, as a bit of crowding.

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The urbane have perhaps always been busy erasing death from their picture of life. We imagine farms as places “full of life.” But the old farmers could tell you that is less than half the story: just a brief passage in the history of death. The groaning table of reunion, at harvest and thanksgiving, is death on turkeys and geese; our daily bread is golden death on the green and waving corn. Finally the grim reaper appears, and it is death on us. Our winter is death; death then resurrection.

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But upon looking in, I was aghast. Those were the days of the “Dutch Catechism,” and the clown masses, and the socialist priests (remember them?) — of obvious heresies and intentional vileness. I couldn’t believe the “Catholic Church” retained any standing, with God or anyone else; it had so obviously gone to the dogs. Whereas, the higher Anglicans still had smells and bells. And beautiful music, and tasteful decorations. So far as I was unconsciously church-scouting, they had already moved to the top of my list.

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My memory fails, compounded by my confusion at the time. I had read the Book of Common Prayer, but quickly lost my place in it. I was ignored, stepped around, and almost through, as if I were the ghost. There were candles, a procession was forming: “What now?”

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It is a blustery November in 1976, and I am on one of my long walks, through Suffolk. Truth to tell, I’d already looked into “contemporary Catholicism,” assuming the Roman Communion to be the definitive Christian one. A close friend, and beloved old atheist companion from the road in Asia — giant, red-haired, Edinburgh Scottish, brilliant and philosophically ruthless, had put the matter plainly for me. This had been after, with perfect attention, listening to my account of conversion.

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Yet while living and travelling in England and Europe, I often went into a church. Never on a Sunday or Holy Day, however. My interest was archaeological. A history buff: I wanted to see the art and architecture while it still stood. I was also curious about the music, and drawn in sometimes by the sound of an organ. But if I found a choir, too, and a “church service” in progress, I would take flight.

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The procession led out, through the arch under the tower, into the churchyard. On clearing the portal it scattered, into small, purposeful groups.

PREFACE The present publication is intended to supply a recognised deficiency in our literature—a library edition of the Essays of Montaigne.

This proportion I cited — the nineteen-in-twenty — which I have from reading in economic history mostly years ago, fascinates my attention. We know large tracts were depopulated, we find the archaeological evidence easily enough. They were planting rye within the walls of Winchester, and many other towns. Everywhere, they had elbow-room again. Our deep ecologists would have been pleased — those who think life on this planet would be better had a few billion souls not been born, or would politely disappear. As Christianity, and environmentalism, are mortally opposed, and the fourteenth century was overwhelmingly Christian, I expect complaints of overpopulation were differently expressed at the time. Mostly it would have been moaning from younger brothers about the distribution of inherited land.