General Features

Time out with Joanna Bogle

Fiona Basile, Kairos Catholic Journal, Thursday 12 September 2013

BRITISH author Joanna Bogle is no stranger to Melbourne. She first came to Australia in 1979 at the invitation of ‘a young man’ she’d met in London—she was doing some writing and Catholic campaigning at the time.

It was early spring and the jasmine was blooming. Joanna and the young man enjoyed strolls along the Yarra River and in the Botanic Gardens, and had ‘unforgettable conversations’ along the lines of: ‘If you were ever thinking of getting married, which I’m sure you’re not, would you ever? and all that kind of thing.’ Joanna was engaged to the ‘young man’, Jamie Bogle, the following spring (1980). The couple have been married for 33 years.

Joanna, who lives in London with Jamie, was back in Melbourne last month to launch her latest book, Courage and Conviction.

Tell me more about your first trip to Australia.

It was all very exciting and everyone was terribly nice. I had the huge privilege of meeting Bob Santamaria and ‘sat at his feet’, so to speak, listening, learning a lot and getting involved with the pro-life movement.
Australia, with Bob Santamaria and the National Civic Council (NCC), pioneered a whole way of being Catholic in public life, a whole way of taking responsibility for your country, which has had a massive and far-reaching influence. And I would say I’m one of many who were formed and trained in that, and inspired by the way he taught, and by this idea of government, of service and response to your duty in public life for your country.
That has been a formative influence on young people in the pro-life movement who have picked up that idea of generous service, accepting the knocks and setbacks, along with intellectual formation in order to render that service, and nurturing of your spiritual life at the same time. The NCC made it relevant in the middle of the 20th century under very difficult circumstances, and is doing it still. It’s a uniquely Australian contribution to our Catholic life.
You have written around 20 books, tell me about your writing work.

Writing books is hard work. People say to me, ‘Oh, I suppose you have to wait for the inspiration?’ No, you don’t. Writing is work and I sit at my computer and I get on with it. It doesn’t just flow; it doesn’t work like that. I work at writing. It’s like ironing, or riding a bike. You start off not doing very well, and then after a while you get the hang of it and people can teach you a bit.
I don’t write fiction; I am a journalist and I trained on local newspapers, where you got the information by interviewing and checking and then wrote the news story. And once I progressed, I wrote the feature, and there is, or should be, a difference. News is news and is sacrosanct; it tells you what happened. Features are commentaries on the news or explorations, inevitably biased—and they’re meant to be because they carry a byline—about the news; an interview with somebody, a feature article exploring history. And [writing] books developed from that. My first books were on local history, which was very good training actually on how to check facts and information.
Where do your ideas come from?

It’s always different. I honestly think that if somebody has a worthy, noble story, then that story is worth telling. So, I usually write about saints and heroes; but not always. I write about other people and places as well. But in very general terms I want to write about events, and especially about people who are large and exciting and noble and good. I want to do what St Paul said, whatsoever is beautiful, whatever is of good report, ‘think on these things’, and in particular on these people.
Somebody could write a jolly interesting book about somebody simply revolting, and of course a lot of people do. And there’s a good case to be made for writing about people who are not entirely saintly, great men and women who’ve shaped our world for good or evil or for a bit of both. We’ve all been enriched by reading a magnificent biography, of say Winston Churchill. Let’s not pretend he was a saint, but he was a great man.
I am interested in writing about saints, not because I am one, or because I’m
ever likely to become one, but because I know one when I see one and I like to share the story.
How did the idea come about for your latest book, Courage and Conviction, which tells the story of Pope Pius XII, Bridgettine nuns Mother Riccarda Hambrough and Mother Katherine Flanagan, and the rescue of the Jews?

My publisher, Tom Longford, sent me an email saying: ‘Cutting in the post to you regarding possible idea for new book, Regards, T.’ The cutting had the headline: ‘British Nun Might be Beatified by Pope.’ And it had a hideous photograph showing a woman wearing a baseball cap. Well, the story turned out to be a very interesting one. It wasn’t a baseball cap at all; rather, it was a Bridgettine nun, and they wear this extraordinary head gear, which consists of a cross going from the forehead to the back, then from one side of the head to the other, with a band round it. The result is rather riveting, especially when it is clamped on and holds in place a nun’s veil and they wear a long robe; you certainly notice it. There are Bridgettines in England, at the excellent distance-education Maryvale Institute, where I have been studying, on the outskirts of Birmingham.
I was interested in the story because both of the women were originally from Britain and one of the nuns, Mother Riccarda, hid Jews in the Casa de Santa Birgitta in Rome during World War II. This makes her not only holy, but extremely brave, because the penalty for doing this was that you could be shot. And I realised it had greater significance because there had been a great deal of controversy about whether or not the Catholic Church did enough to rescue Jews in Rome, and also surrounding Pope Pius XII.
So the book tells the story of these two women. I have set it within a wider context of the continuing discussions of Pope Pius XII, who was a holy and remarkable man, and who did a great deal of good in terms of having helped save the lives of many Jewish people during the war, despite being much maligned. I wanted to set the record straight about Pius XII because it’s annoying seeing lies told about a good man.
And truth has its own importance, for its own sake. One of the things that I liked about Blessed John Paul II is that he said: ‘You don’t need to impose truth; it imposes itself because it is true.’ That’s very true. The lie never lasts; even the very big lie never lasts, but it is up to us to teach [the truth], and then it will impose itself.

Joanna Bogle was honoured with the title of Dame of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St Gregory the Great by Pope Benedict XVI in early 2013. For more information about Joanna, see