Luke Upward: Atheist Style God
Within his favourite charity, Thinking Dogs For The Stupid, Luke Upward maintained a special section of Atheist Dogs For The Credulous. These were specially trained to bite Mormon missionaries and all other representatives of religious groups which leech on their adherents.
Upward’s atheism was described by his jealous rival Walter Downer as stylistic rather than principled, but in his case those adjectives were virtual synonyms. Like all atheists he admired the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, but when briefly incarcerated in Salt Lake City he rashly began to skim the Book of Mormon. He hurled the volume at his gaolers, shouting “No God could
write this badly!” Having been expelled from three English public schools (for incidents later used in Lindsay Anderson’s cult classic film If) Upward had an expert knowledge of Hymns Ancient And Modern. When attending traditional Church of England services for social reasons, Upward enjoyed leading the congregation, and often the organist, in classic hymns in his expressive voice which his friend Ricky Rubato described as a Barrimanilotone. If he blundered into a happy-clappy church and was confronted by one of their soggy-white-bread hymns, he would do the same, with great fervour, only deliberately off-key.
In his own words, Luke Upward had no objection to religion in private between consenting adults. He asked religions to conduct themselves with good manners and good taste (he was secretly pleased
to bear the name of the best-written Gospel), and considered it vulgar and impertinent for any religion to evangelize or to tell anyone how to live. One Christian sect particularly annoyed him by preaching loudly and without warning in his local bus. Upward tried to retaliate by forming a chapter of atheist missionaries, to call on the sect’s headquarters with the wonderful news that there is no God and that no one has to read the Bible except for pleasure, but not even his loyal disciple Ted Level could be induced to support this enterprise.
Speaking of buses, Upward in his youth followed an unshakeable rule: “you must never been seen on a London bus with a three-figure number, other than the 137 between Peter Jones and Harrods.” In
those days, central London buses generally bore low numbers and high numbers were mostly confined to the suburbs. Upward would sometimes stand for hours in drenching rain rather than board a 159 and be suspected of journeying to Streatham. But Upward was never a snob. “I have nothing against Streatham,” he once told me. “Streatham is all very well in its place.”
In spite of his atheism, Luke Upward had friendships with clergy of many faiths who met his standards of style and deportment. He was particularly close to the Reverend Franklin Cense (and his wife Myrtle), whom he encountered as the vicar of Little Parvum. Not much had happened in Little Parvum since the plague years, although Ricky Rubato once performed there on Pensioners Night at the Pie and Gerbil, before he was engaged as accompanist to Beppo The Wonder Dog. Upward described it as “the village where time goes to sleep”.
Upward had bestowed his presence on Little Parvum to attend the wedding of one of his cricketing friends in the parish church of Saint Simon the Querulous (an early Christian martyr who complained about the poor changing facilities in the arena, the coarse sand on the combat floor, and, with his last breath, the grubby paws of the opposing lion.) With singular carelessness, this wedding had coincided with the Saturday of the Test match at Lords against Australia, then at a particularly gripping stage. The groom’s chums including Upward watched play for as long as possible on the flickering television screen in the Pie and Gerbil. They then listened to a sputtering transistor radio in the church yard as Henry Blofeld described an 82 bus on Test Match Special. Finally Upward heard the first strains of the Wedding March and led all the other chums into the church just ahead of the bride and her father. Fortunately the Reverend Franklin Cense was aware of the situation. He had arranged a relay of parishioners to put up the score on the hymn board at the end of each over: thus, Hymn 246 followed by Hymn 5 meant England 246 for 5 wickets. The vicar also obligingly preached an appropriate but minimalist sermon, in scarcely more time than an over by the great Dennis Lillie in which he had been snicked to the boundary (estimated 4 minutes for deliveries, 2 minutes for return of ball, further 4 minutes for epithets).
Upward was so taken with the Reverend Franklin Cense’s approach that he devised a poster for him. “This church offers you a MOMENT of PEACE, an HOUR of BEAUTY, a LIFETIME of HOPE, an ETERNITY of JOY.” Upward the atheist considered this a very decent stab at a USP for the Church of England, but he removed the poster when St Simon the Querulous fell into the hands of a happy-clappy.
After the cricketer’s wedding at St Simon the Querulous, Little Parvum, Luke Upward continued to stay in contact with its sporting vicar, the Revd Franklin Cense (and his wife Myrtle). He was
delighted when Cense was promoted Rural Dean of Welwyngood, and furious when he was passed over for the sudden vacancy for the Metropolitan at Amersham. Upward had several serious discussions with the Censes and explained to them why he was committed to atheism. “I want to play the cards life deals me without feeling that God might have stacked the deck,” he declared, as he dealt Franklin and Myrtle a flush apiece and himself a full house.
Persistent atheism did not prevent Luke Upward from being a popular visitor at the vicarage in Little Parvum during its occupation by the Revd Franklin Cense (and his wife Myrtle). They did tire,
ever so slightly, of Upward’s repeated phrase on departure: “I must be taking leave of my Censes.” Upward tried to make his visits coincide with the vicar’s whist drives. His performances at the tables, with his beautifully manicured fingers dealing his equally well manicured packs of cards, raised sufficient funds to restore the organ at St Simon the Querulous. Upward also managed discreetly to redistribute income from the wealthiest parishoners to those identified by the vicar as the neediest.
The Censes were nothing if not ecumenical and Upward was honoured to be asked to serve as there-is-no-godfather to their infant daughter. He persuaded them to name her Marigold, thus creating an appropriate Biblical trio of Marigold, Franklin Cense and Myrtle. In place of the usual boring silver mug, Upward gave her an anti-christening present of a rare and valuable miniature zither from his
collection, made by the Cornish master, Pixie Catto. In place of the usual vows on her behalf, Upward was asked to supply some wisdom which might be useful to her in later life. He thought hard and said “Marigold, if an American ever asks you to bet that you know the easternmost state in the United States, the answer is not Maine but Alaska, because Alaska contains the Aleutian islands which cross the 180-degree meridian into the eastern hemisphere and therefore contain the easternmost point in the United States.”
All the assembled Chases looked a shade disappointed by this advice, which seemed unduly contingent on Marigold’s meeting an American hustler with an atlas. England’s premier man-of-letters
reflected again for a few moments and came up with some excellent advice of much wider application. Drawing on his universally unfortunate career on the turf, he said “Marigold, never, ever, bet on a horse with four legs.”
In gratitude for years of hospitality at the vicarage in Little Parvum and later the rural deanery at Welwyngood, Upward allowed his host, the Very Reverend Franklin Cense to attempt to convert him to Anglican Christianity. He knew that the baptism of Britain’s pre-eminent atheist man of letters would be a serious boost for Cense’s career and assist his ambition to become the Metropolitan at Amersham. He promised to approach the subject with an open mind, although he warned his friend in a memorable “app” that “an open mind does not imply a vacant one.”
Cense had the wit to use only the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and reinforced his literary appeal by quoting liberally from the sermons of Upward’s favourite
John Donne. Upward was also impressed with the language of the Thirty Nine Articles although he thought their number excessive. Cense said that Upward could take them on the instalment plan, once a week, over a period of nine months.
Upward put up his faultlessly manicured hands. “It’s a handsome offer, my dear very reverend thing. But the truth is, I prefer an easy life. As an atheist I don’t have to worry about Thirty Nine Articles or even Ten Commandments. I have a credo of six words: act for others, think for yourself. I admit I am much better at the second part than the first” (at which point he polished off the last of the chocolate digestives, leaving the three Censes with only the misnamed Rich Teas), “but that is all the guidance I need. As an atheist, I do not have to wrestle with some holy book, and edit bits out because God didn’t really mean that or wouldn’t say that today, or say ‘that didn’t really happen, it was just allegory.’ I don’t have to worry about all sorts of strange stories, Elisha setting bears onto children because they made fun of his bald head, or the Gadarene swine. Why couldn’t Jesus just cure the man called Legion, why did He have to wipe out those poor pigs? They may have been Gadarene swine to my namesake the evangelist but one of them might have been the Empress of Blandings to her owner.
“As an atheist I never have to fret about an awful Archbishop or a pitiful Pope or a rancid rabbi or an impossible imam and wonder why on earth God chose him (or her). If my old chum Richard
Dawkins gets an issue totally wrong I don’t have to think for a second that God might have got it wrong too or that God might not be keeping an eye on the hired help. I can say ‘Dawkers, old bean, you’ve made the most frightful floater,’ and he can say ‘Uppers, old chap, what on earth do you mean?’” (Dawkins and Henry Blofeld of Test Match Special were the only people allowed to call him Uppers. The nickname reminded Upward too much of his financial condition.) “We’ll have an argument and then he’ll agree with me.
“As an atheist, I don’t have to worry how life began, or why. It began because stuff happens. All sorts of things happen, like the novels of Walter Downer, without any apparent reason. I don’t have to believe that anything or anyone in the universe has a purpose, which I have to discover. As an atheist, I don’t look for the keys to all mysteries, like poor Mr Casaubon. The universe to me is not some vast horserace to me, with a celestial handicapper who does not even tell me the runners and riders or the length of the course.
“Atheism saves me time and worry. And if I’m wrong I will have all the time in the next world to discover why. Is your God going to send me to Hell for not believing in Him? Stalin behaved that way, but surely not God?” At this point Upward absent-mindedly finished off the last of the Rich Teas as well. He won back the rural deanery’s biscuit money with interest at the next whist drive.