From popes to presidents: the five most awkward living arrangements | Bella Mackie

As Pope Benedict returns to the Vatican, home of Pope Francis, we look back for some lessons on coping with co-habitation

After a long break at the official papal summer residence, Pope Benedict is expected to return to the Vatican today, where he will live in a building within the grounds. This will create an unusual scenario – one where two popes live side by side. While it's easy to assume that Pope Francis will welcome his predecessor warmly, he couldn't be blamed for being slightly uneasy about the old boss returning to live at such close quarters. Pope Benedict has reassured advisers that he intends to live a quiet life of prayer and study, but who's to say there won't be unforeseen tensions.

To get an inkling as to what it might be like for Francis and Benedict, we've picked five stories of awkward living arrangements. Let them serve as a warning to the cohabiting popes:

1. The Odd Couple

The most famous of all difficult flatmate stories is this 1968 comedy film, about Felix Ungar, a tidy control freak, and Oscar Madison, a messy and spontaneous writer. Though they clash repeatedly, in the end they learn something from each other. So if Pope Benedict starts leaving his old robes all over the place, Francis would do well to learn to turn a blind eye and enjoy the chaos.

2. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair

These two need no introduction. A notoriously tricky couple, being neighbours for so many years must have been fraught with tension. Imagine all the awkward moments at the front door, or the forced acknowledgments when you meet over the fence. Blair acknowledged their famous clashes, when he quipped about his wife Cherie's open dislike of Brown: "At least I don't have to worry about her running off with the bloke next door." I think the popes can rest easy on this one actually.

3. Roger Casement and Joseph Conrad

The British diplomat and Polish writer first met in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the end of the 19th century, when they shared a room. At the time, their interest in exposing the colonial exploitation they witnessed brought them together. But their friendship was put to the test when Casement was condemned to death for high treason for trying to spark an uprising in Ireland. Among his friends in literary London, Conrad alone did not support appeals for Casement's sentence to be commuted. We have to assume that the popes would leave those kind of judgments to God, rather than comment on court proceedings.

4. Harry Truman and his mother-in-law

President Truman's mother-in-law, Madge Wallace, lived with the president and his wife, Bess, from their marriage until her death. She famously thought her daughter had married beneath her, and never missed an opportunity to tell Truman so. Not only did she address the President as "Mr Truman", she also made several quips that were designed to sting: "Why would Harry run against that nice Mr Dewey?" she asked, when Truman was fighting the 1948 presidential election. President Truman clearly had the patience of a saint, but if Pope Benedict starts interfering too much, Francis might want to think about changing the locks.

5. Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine

The first siblings to have won lead actor Academy Awards, they have had a notoriously bad relationship since both being nominated for Best Actress in 1941, which Fontaine won. In 1946, when de Havilland was presented with the Best Actress Academy Award by her sister, Fontaine refused to even shake her hand. In a faint echo of the script of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, the sisters have held on to the animosity for decades. So if the papal feud builds to this thespian level, they'd do well to maintain a dignified silence and keep the catfights within Vatican walls.

Can you think of any other famously tricky living arrangements? Do you have any tips for the papal duo? How can they make their new set up work?


Bella Mackie

The GuardianTramp

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