One of the funniest books I have ever read was “The Book of Heroic Failures”, written by the founder of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain. The background to this is that Stephen Pile was a fairly ordinary Englishman who believed that the world was becoming obsessed with “success” – bigger, better richer, brighter, faster, and all the rest – when most of us are pretty ordinary, like himself. So, reasonably enough, he formed a club for people who were NOT very good at anything, and especially for those who were very bad at something – who used to meet, and tell each other stories of spectacular failures. These were later collected and published under the title “The Book of Heroic Failures.” I read this nearly thirty years ago, and still snort when I remember some of the anecdotes: of a hard of hearing military quartermaster who incorrectly heard a request for several hundred brass taps, and bought bra straps instead (for an all0male camp), or the nervous amateur actor who had a few drinks to calm his nerves before his first night as the Prince of Denmark, then a few more – then passed out just before the curtain. In the best theatrical tradition, the show duly went on – without Hamlet.
The book itself was a story of staggering failures:
The original edition included an application to become a member of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain; however, this was taken out in later editions because the club received over 30,000 applications and closed on the grounds that it was “a failure as a failure.” The American version of the book was misprinted by the publishers, who left out half the introduction. As a consequence, later versions of the book came out with an erratum slip longer than the entire introduction.
In his second book, The Return of Heroic Failures, Stephen Pile reports that Taiwanese pirates were not aware of this and did not include the erratum slip. His second book came out in Greece in 1992 although his first one had never been published. In fact, his second book was named “Η ΤΕΧΝΗ ΤΗΣ ΑΠΟΤΥΧΙΑΣ No1“. A small erratum slip in the book itself explains that it was a mistake. In an interview with English Radio DJ Andrew Marshall, Pile said, “The Book is one of the least successful books ever issued in the USA, I don’t think it has reached double figures there as yet and long may that remain the case.”
The sales success of the book elsewhere led to its author being expelled from his own club – he had become too successful to be included as “not terribly good”.
One of the most spectacular stories in the book, was that of the ship that sunk itself. This was HMS Trinidad, which was providing escort services to an Arctic convoy. Unfortunately, the frigid temperature conditions created a tiny flaw in the gyroscope operation of on of its torpedoes. The flaw created a tiny shift in direction to one side – a shift which was constantly sustained. This caused the torpedo, instead of firing in a dead straight line as usual, instead to describe a perfect circle, returning to its origin – and so sunk its own ship.
While thinking about the history of the papacy recently, I remembered this story, and reflected on it as metaphor. In its long history over two thousand years, the papacy and supporting structure have emerged ever so gradually from authentic adherence to Gospel values of simplicity, collegiality and inclusion. As the church grew, slowly a leadership class emerged, which became a ruling class,which became an all powerful cabal which at times appears to be more concerned with the preservation of its own power than with the fundamental matter of the Gospels.
In the modern world, it has become obvious to all outside of it how this obsession with control and the certainty of its own rightness has distanced itself from ordinary Catholics, who simply disregard its teaching on sexual matters , and creates the conditions ripe for all manner of abuses – of which the current stories of child abuse are just one part. More and more Catholics, while faithful to the central faith, simply no longer feel called on to blindly obey the dictates of the Vatican, and are becoming “Catholic, but not Roman”, in the words of Tom McMahon.
I wonder: in this long, persistent deviation from the Gospels to the pursuit of power and control, hs the papacy torpedoed itself?
- The case of the Pope (opentabernacle.wordpress.com)
- Vatican: Cardinals Will ‘Reflect and Pray’ on Sex Abuse Crisis (politicsdaily.com)