Skip to content

I didn’t know you cared

19 January 2017

I Didn't Know You CaredI Didn’t Know You Cared by Peter Tinniswood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another book about the Brandon family, somewhere in northern England in the 1960s, sequel to A touch of Daniel. Carter and Pat Brandon, after two years of marriage, find that living in a young executive housing estate with architect-designed homes isn’t all it is cracked up to be. Carter’s uncle Mort decides to cash in his life savings to buy three allotments, where he goes to live in a retired railway carriage and proudly grows weeds, among which cousin Celia searches for healing herbs to cure Uncle Mort’s wasting disease.

This is the third time I’ve read this book, 40 years after the first time, and I think it is still my favourite of Peter Tinniswood‘s Brandon quartet. Like the others, it is a slice of life, a picture of life in 1960s northern England. As I noted in my review of A touch of Daniel, it is now frozen in time as well as in space, a picture of a way of life that has passed, of pre-Thatcher Britain.

I also think, after the third reading, that it would not be unfair to compare Tinniswood to Charles Dickens. What Dickens did for 19th-century southern England, Tinniswood has done for 20th-century northern England. He has created larger-than-life characters that typify the place and period. There is Pat Brandon, who talks in advertising slogans, trying to be a yuppie. There is Uncle Mort, who in many respects is just the opposite. In the age of the youthful rebellion of the hippies, Uncle Mort was an elderly rebel, defying convention and the social expectations expressed by his sister, Annie Brandon, Carter Brandon’s mother.

So Peter Tinniswood portrays everyday life with a kind of Dickensian satire and dark humour. Some of the problems of the 1960s, which became obsessions in later decades, like racism, sexism, pollution and capitalist greed, are also present and treated with satirical humour, and occasional outbursts from the normally taciturn Carter Brandon, who otherwise says little other than “Aye. Well. Mm.”

That, and other sayings from the books, have entered our family vocabulary, and we have been using them for the last 40 years. “Pardon?”, “Ke-wick” (the cry of a pet owl), “Ursula smoulders”. And my all-time favourite, from Mrs Annie Brandon, “It’s only human nature for dogs to chase motorbikes.”

Yes, the more I think about it, the more I think Peter Tinniswood deserves recognition as the 20th-century Dickens.

View all my reviews

A touch of Daniel

18 January 2017

A Touch Of DanielA Touch Of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read A touch of Daniel 45 years ago, quite soon after it was written, and only a few years after I had visited north-west England, where it is set. The story deals with the Brandon family, who live in a place that sounds like Oldham, Lancashire, where I once stayed with a college friend, Alan Cox. I had been reading other books set in the area, like Elidor, and so I found a kind of affinity and feel for the place.

A touch of Daniel above all gives a feel for the place and the people. It deals with the Brandon family, who take in various widowed relatives, and deals with how they all get on in a crowded house. It is both sad and funny, and the first time I read it, it struck me as amazingly realistic. If you wanted to get a feel for the culture of people in north-western England in the 1960s, this would be the book to read.

Daniel is a baby, said by some members of the family to be a source of “fluences”, and by others to be a victim of “fluences”. I thought “fluences” was a made-up word until I heard someone use it in real life a few weeks after I had read the book.

The first reading gave a feeling for the place and the people, but reading it again 45 years later it is also a remembrance of things past, a recalling of pre-Thatcher Britain.

I’m now re-reading the next book in the series, I didn’t know you cared.

View all my reviews

Neoinkings: Time to talk

5 January 2017

At our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch this morning, the main theme of our conversation was time.

Literary Coffee Klatsch, on the 12th Day of Christmas. Val Hayes, Duncan Reyburn, David Levey

Literary Coffee Klatsch, on the 12th Day of Christmas. Val Hayes, Duncan Reyburn, David Levey

But it started with children’s books, with Duncan Reyburn describing how he read books to his young daughter Isla, aged 2, reading about The cat in the hat. We got on to Bible stories. and noted that most books of Bible stories for young children were not much good. Val and I recalled a series that were good, produced originally by the Bible Society of the Netherlands. They had one line of story, and the rest of the page was a picture, and the pictures, by Kees de Kort, were excellent. They were produced in a wide variety of languages, including most of the 11 official languages of South Africa.

Jesus books

Jesus books

Unfortunately when the Bible Society of South Africa reprinted them they did not use the original illustrations by Kees de Kort, but used rather abstract line drawings, which are much more of an adult taste, and much less attractive or intelligible to young children.

Duncan remarked that some Bible stories were really scary and nasty, perhaps too much so for young children, like Daniel in the lion’s den and the three young men in the fiery furnace. I remarked that people in real life can be pretty scary too, and Val said she had read somewhere of a child whose parents had protected him from all stories of monsters, so he made them up all by himself, and said that children who had no siblings, like eldest children and only children, being somewhat sheltered from the nastiness of other children. I’m not so sure about that. I recall, when I was about 4 years old, hitting a friend over the head with a hoe (a toy hoe, but still a hoe). It produced a spectacular welt and bruise, and when an adult said my friend had a nice egg on his head, I went into peals of laughter, not at having hit him — I was sorry for doing that once the heat of the moment had passed, but by the description of a bruise as an egg. But the adults thought it was very callous. My mother also told me that I had once had a bite mark, with deep tooth marks, on my arm. She asked who had bitten me, and I had insisted that it was a mosquito. So stories of violent human behaviour are not neccesarily alien to young children.

Duncan commented that when Isla had got a proper bed to sleep in (not a cot), she was convinced that there was something under it

Jesus and the storm, by Kees de Kort

Jesus and the storm, by Kees de Kort

David Levey joined us, and spoke of Madeleine l”Engle’s children’s books, like A wrinkle in time. which dealt with the problems of entering a two-dimensional world. I recalled one of my favourite short stories by Stephen King, Mrs. Todd’s short cut and Duncan said that there was a film currently on circuit, called Arrival which dealt with alien creatures arriving on earth, and the difficulty of translating language whose concepts were utterly alien. It was a good film but they went and spoilt it, according to Duncan, by saying that science could not yet analyse the nature of love.

Then Duncan Reyburn tells us about discussions he’s been having with people who believe in Open Theism, which he finds too constrictive, and its exponents seem to regard God as being constrained by time, as if time were uncreated, rather than God, which would make God a kind of demiurge, and Time itself God. David Levey said that that sounded a bit like Process Theology, but Duncan says no, Open Theism is more like Process Theology Lite.

It’s all a bit beyond me, because I stopped following trends in Western theology around 1985, but it reminds me of a theory I have, that most people I’ve discussed it with seem to think is too far-fetched, but it goes back to the Middle Ages, when Western theology tended to develop along different lines from Orthodox theology. Partly this was scholasticism, and there was a change in Western thought that began around them, when the primary distinctio0n ceased to be that between creator and creature, but became rather the distinction between natural and supernatural. The Open Theism notion of God as bound by time seems to be an extension of that.

But it’s also seen in eucharistic theology, with the notion of transsubstantiation, and the Western idea of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist — that if it was real it could not be symbolic, and if it was symbolic it could not be real. In literature this concern seemed to be reflected in the popularity of stories of the Quest for the Holy Grail around that period.

We discussed a few other things, like “charismatic worship” (which seems to have congealed into a fixed pattern rather than being charismatic) and introspective hymns that seem to focus on the emotions and inner experience of the worshipper rather than on God, Both seem to focus more on manipulating people’s experience of worship rather than worship itself. Perhaps this is part of the Zeitgeist — it’s an attitude found in software development as well, where programmers aim for an enhanced “user experience”, which is far more important than whether the software does what it is claimed to do, or indeed whether it does anything useful at all.

I’ve probably got quite a lot of this wrong, but it was nevertheless an interesting discussion.

Kiss: File JC 110

29 December 2016

Kiss File Jc 110Kiss File Jc 110 by Linda Hoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this book gripping and enthralling reading, but perhaps that’s just me. It’s about the relationship between a Special Branch spy and the subject of his surveillance, a teenager, Julian Christopher. Perhaps I found it so enthralling because I have seen (and have photocopies of) the reports the Special Branch wrote about me between 1964 and 1984, so it has a personal interest.

Julian Christopher is a fairly average teenager with rich parents whose left-wing political interests attracted the attention of the Special Branch. He began to question his parents’ secularist-atheist values when his best friend was involved in an accident. Julian became interested in Christianity, and joined the Radical Christian Fellowship, which his Special Branch minder then infiltrated.

The Special Branch man gets copies of Julian’s diary, and tries to win his trust and friendship, but part of him dislikes what he is doing.

I did not have the same close relations with members of the SB that are described in the book, though when I was studying overseas I did send Christmas cards to Warrant Officer van Rensburg of the Pietermaritzburg SB. Unlike the spy in the book, we knew who Van Resnburg was, and he made no recret of his presence at meetings — the SB let their presence be known because they wanted to intimidate people. Part of my motivation for sending Christmas cards to Warrant Officer van Rensburg was a “love your enemies” thing, but I have to admit that part of it was also to let him know that I knew his home address — two could play at the spying game, and though I had no intention of tossing a petrol bomb into his car (as the SB had done to a friend’s car), perhaps the thought that his clients knew where he lived could act as a slight deterrent.

But the SB did employ undercover spies, and this, of course, engendered an atmosphere of suspicion. As in the book, there were small Christian study groups where it was important to develop an atmosphere of trust, but that was difficult when you were never sure whether the person next to you might not be an SB spy.

One particular example of this, which I did not experience myself, was a Christian Institute Bible Study group that a friend of mine attended, and one of the other members of the group was a psychologist who was also a mental patient at the Fort Napier Hospital in Pietermaritzburg who had been induced by the SB to spy on my friend. This could only have exacerbated his mental condition in a way that harmed both the spy and the spied-upon. And it is that kind of psychological tension that is brought out most dramatically in this book.

For some readers it might seem a bit similar to a kind of futuristic fantasy like 1984, but for me the striking thing was its authenticity, in being so close to real life. It was about the British S[pecial Branch, not the South African one, but the groups they infiltrated were rather true to life as well. I knew of the Christian wing of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and joined the Christian Committee of 100, which was similar to the Radical Christian Fellowship in the book, though rather less organised and effective. If the British SB noticed its activities, they do not seem to have informed their opposite numbers in South Africa, or if they did, the latter did not see fit to include that in their reports to the Minister of Justice.

So yes, this is a very good read, and very true to life.

View all my reviews

Young Romantics: Leigh Hunt, Shelley et al

18 December 2016

Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled LivesYoung Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron and Other Tangled Lives by Daisy Hay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was 12 years old my mother gave me a book of essays by William Hazlitt as a Christmas present. I am not sure what she had in mind, or what appeal it might have for an 12-year-old whose reading, up till that point, had consisted mainly of Enid Blyton and the Biggles books. As I wandered around the neighbourhood on foot, by bicycle or on horseback I tried to be observant in looking for clues of possible criminal activity, in emulation of the Secret Seven. To think a child with such preoccupations would be interested in reading Hazlitt’s essays seems to be stretching things too far. To a 12-year-old, most of the references and allusions were not just obscure, but incomprehensible.

Even when I finally took it down from the shelf and began to read it 45 years later I found it heavy going.

But now, after reading Young Romantics, I feel ready to tackle Hazlitt again, because it puts his writing into context — not only what he was writing about, but whom he was writing for (and against).

It was also when I was twelve years old that I first began to like Keats’s poetry. The first few lines of Endymion, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” gripped me, and I put my own interpretation on them, and made no connection between Keats and Hazlitt. Perhaps that is why my mother gave me Hazlitt’s essays, but it’s too late to ask her now.

But when I began reading this book I began to feel a bit like Keats felt on first looking into Chapman’s Homer. Literary figures that I has seen as quite separate began to make sense because of their interactions with each other. Keats and Shelley have always been among my favourite poets, and I found it very interesting reading, in part because they formed a kind of literary circle similar to the Bloombury Group and the Inklings in the 20th century..

One of the circle, Leigh Hunt, who was imprisoned for libelling the Prince Regent, managed to conduct business and even enjoy married life and the society of his friends from his prison cell, and continued to edit his paper The Examiner from prison. His paper promoted radical political reform and poetry, but being in prison also taught him the value of friendship and “sociability”.

Hay (2011:41)writes

The result was that by the end of his prison sentence Hunt had established ‘sociability’ as an important ideological principle. He did so in an experiment in living which elevated the rituals of friendship — communal dining, music making, letter writing, shared reading — so that in Hunt’s rooms in the old infirmary these rituals took on a cooperative, oppositional significance. In The Examiner such activities were given a public outlet, as conversations over dinner were rewritten in the collaborative ‘Table Talk’ columns, letters from friends were published and discussed in editorials, and as different members of Hunt’s circle contributed theatrical and literary reviews which reflected the group’s diversity as well as its coherence.

As I read on it seemed that in the period 1814-1816 they were a bunch of aristocratic hippie dropouts, similar in many ways to the middle-class Beat Generation and hippie dropouts of of the 1950s and 1960s. And they happened to write good poetry.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac’s On the road trip of 1948 seems
positively tame compared with Shelley’s teenage elopement through war-torn Europe with Mary Godwin and her stepsister, in the pause between Napoleon’s incarceration on and escape from Elba and his final defeat at Waterloo. It was definitely a period when Brit tourists were not welcome in Europe. And as they had no money, they went much of the way on foot. They belived in anarcy and free love, but at the root of it was a kind of selfishness.

Carolyn Cassady‘s Off the road is pretty scathing about Neal Cassady & Jack Kerouac’s habits of promiscuity and selfishness too — another link across these generations.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley eventually married Mary Godwin, after his first wife’s suicide but it seems that the so-called “free love” often turned out to be neither. Mary’s father, William Godwin, wrote the book on it, but when his children and stepchildren began to practise what he preached, he turned them out of the house and would not speak to them. Some hippie communes of the late 1960s and early 1970s were based on similar ideals, though others were not. There’s a kind of balance between sociability and selfishness that seems to be missing in all

Eventually the literary circle around Leigh Hunt began to disintegrate, and at that point the book does too. The book follows Percy and Mary Shelley, and the other members of the group only make appearances when their lives touch those of the Shelleys. Byron, Keats and Hunt flit in and out. Keats’s death is noted, because he had arrived in Italy at Shelley’s invitation, though he never got to visit they Shelleys. Shelley’s death is described in detail, but Byron’s is mentioned merely in passing. We read about what happened to each of Shelley’s children, but Hunt’s disappear into obscurity.

The “sociability” that had originally drawn the group together eventually becomes the subject of varying interpretations. As Hay (2011:283)

All these women had learnt of the reality of free love back in the 1810s, when their unorthodox living arrangements, and the ideals of Shelley and Hunt, had variously exposed their lives to public scrutiny and, in the case of Mary and Claire, their bodies to illegitimate pregnancy. This was also true for Jane Williams, whose chikren were born outside of wedlock and who had lost her male protector. Now that the men of the group were dead, or living abroad, the women were left behind to count the cost of youthful idealism: damaged reputations, limited earning capacity, and exclusion from polite society.

Leigh Hunt, who had gone to Italy to join his wealthier friends Shelley and Byron in the hope of earning a living in a joint publishing venture, a periodical called The Liberal, was left stranded by their deaths, and discovered much the same when he returned to England

Hunt’s homecoming was thus, in many ways, disappointing. The network which sustained his imagination during his absence turned out to be a chimera. As far as Hunt’s friends were concerned, this was a natural progression in which the demands of work and family took precedence over youthful ideals of communal living. They recognised that their intense, clasustrophobic, clubbable circle of the 1810s belonged to a different era. Its public and private significance has faded as British politics entered the calmer waters of the 1820s, and their individual responsibilities towards parents, husbands, wives and children increased.

And I wonder if that is not perhaps a good description of the fate of many of the hippie communes of my youth.

A question the book raises for me is the nature and conception of liberalism. The group that gathered around Hunt, Shelley & Co described themselves and saw themselves as liberals, but it seems to me that they might better be described as libertarians and libertines. Their notion of the need to destroy social institutions such as marriage, because they saw them as oppressive and enslaving seems to contrast with their desire for sociability. Perhaps as a result of that the ideal of sociability was never realised, and the lives of the dead members of the circle were reinvented as lives of extreme individualism.

View all my reviews

Sacred Britain: place and pilgrimage

16 December 2016

Sacred BritainSacred Britain by Martin Palmer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book looked interesting, but I was a little bit suspicious of it, because such books sometimes tend to be full of New Age tosh. But as it was a library book it would cost nothing to look at and there was no compulsion to read it. There was no mention of ley lines in the index, and that seemed to be a good sign.

It dealt with things like sacred groves and holy wells, and that was interesting, as my great grandfather grew up in the vicinity of a holy well, which I was able to visit. But though the book was informative, it seemed rather shallow. The main aim seemed to be to encourage people to go on pilgrimages, and to create a lot of pilgrimage routes, old and new.

I also learnt a few things I hadn’t known about history in general. One was that there had two periods of major ecological collapse in Britain.

First was a mini-Ice Age about 1000 BC, caused by a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland

Before this, the inhabitants had built stone circles, such as Stonehenge (the biggest) which seem to have served ritual and astronomical purposes, though very little is known about them or the people who built them. After the mini-Ice Age, the inhabitants were more warlike, and the henges were abandoned. There were invasions of new groups, like the Celts, and instead of henges, hill forts were built.Overpopulation led to competition for scarce resources.

The second ecological disaster was caused by the Romans, who ruled southern Britain from 44BC to around AD 410. They went in for big agri-business, needed to feed the cities of their empire, and they exhausted the soil, chopped down the forests, and created an ecological disaster. Britain got off relatively lightly, though, as the Romans’ activities in North Africa turned those parts of the world into the deserts they are today. As the historian Ronald Hutton put it,

Christians in antiquity were no more destructive of the environment than pagans. They may have cut down sacred groves at pagan places of worship, but that was about as far as it went. The Roman Empire, while pagan, caused an ecological disaster by cutting down the North African forests, causing much of the topsoil to be washed into the Mediterranean, and in the same period the lion was exterminated in Europe, the elephant and hippopotamus in North Africa and the bear in England. Christianity was irrelevant to this process.

The coming of Christianity to Britain enabled the land to recover somewhat, and the authors have an interesting notion of Christian town planning, which was lost around the time of the Enlightenment when secular town planning took over. They note the Chinese art of Feng Shui, and the Christian equivalent that developed in Russia, but give interesting examples of how it appeared in England too, and it can be seen in the placement of churches dedicated to particular saints — St Michael and St Catherine on hill tops, churches dedicated to St Helen were often placed close to one reputed to hold a relic of the true cross, and so on.

One rather disappointing thing was that it repeated the hoary old legend of Eostre being a Celtic goddess. Though first published in 1997 the authors did not make use of books like The pagan religions of the ancient British Isles by Ronald Hutton, which had already been published in 1991, and might have saved them from such errors.

View all my reviews

Pecha Kucha and deacons

3 December 2016

The Orthodox Church is not generally well known in South Africa, which has a bewildering variety of more than 10000 different Christian groups. Yesterday we had two opportunities to make it better known among groups of other South African Christians.

The first was Pecha Kucha at TGIF, at 6:30 am.

Pecha Kucha is Japanese for chit-chat, but the term has also come to be used to refer to a specific presentation style: Each speaker has exactly 20 slides showing for exactly 20 seconds each, resulting in short and fast-paced presentations of 6min 40sec.  The slides advance automatically, and the speaker cannot slow them down or speed them up.

Thorsten Marbach and Val Hayes, preparing for the Pecha Kucha presentation on St Nicholas of Japan

Thorsten Marbach and Val Hayes, preparing for the Pecha Kucha presentation on St Nicholas of Japan

TGIF is an informal Friday-morning coffee-shop meeting with a topical and challenging talk followed by a time for questions and discussion – all over a cup of good coffee. We’ve been attending TGIF meetings on and off for nearly ten years, more regularly since Val retired. Most of those who attend come from the Evangelical Christian tradition, and there have only been a few encounters with Orthodoxy, though once there was a meeting of new monasticism and old.

This time Val was one of the Pecha Kucha presenters, and her presentation was on the life of St Nicholas of Japan and his missionary career. It was quite a challenge to produce twenty slides, and to fit the narrative to exactly 20 seconds on each.

St Nicholas was chaplain to the Russian consulate in Hakodate, and his first converts were three samurai. When persecution broke out against Japanese Christians, St Nicholas sent them home to lie low for a while. What he did not expect was that on their way home, to their separate home fillages, they preached the gospel in every place where they stayed.

When St Nicholas sent his first three converts home to avoid persecution, he did not realise that they would evangelist the placess they passed through on the way home. So the number of Orthodox Christians grew rapidly, and John Ono (pictured) was ordained as the first Japanese Orthodox bishop

When St Nicholas sent his first three converts home to avoid persecution, he did not realise that they would evangelise the places they passed through on the way home. So the number of Orthodox Christians grew rapidly, and John Ono (pictured) was ordained as the first Japanese Orthodox bishop

There were several other presentations — including ones on poetry, on the need to tell more than one story, on the need to make Christianity difficult again, and on the uses of Twitter.

In the afternoon we went to Benoni, where the Anglican Church was having a deacons’ c0nference. They had about 30 deacons from several Anglican dioceses, and as part of their programme they were having presentations from Methodists, Roman Catholics and Orthodox on their understanding of the diaconate. They were meeting at the Lumko Conference centre, and Val and I joined them for lunch, and after lunch we went to St Athanasius Orthodox Church in the centre of Benoni, where the parish priest, Fr Markos, made us welcome.

Lumko Retreat and Conference Centre, Brentwood Park, Benoni

Lumko Retreat and Conference Centre, Brentwood Park, Benoni

Many of the Anglican deacons had never been into an Orthodox temple before, and in order to explain the liturgical duties of a deacon it was necessary to explain the architecture of the temple, and how it related to worship. That also meant explaining the ikons on the ikonostasis and some of the other ikons and their positions.

Anglican deacon Gwynn Lawlor at St Athansius Church, Benoni

Anglican deacon Gwynn Lawlor at St Athansius Church, Benoni

One of the significant differences between Anglican and Orthodox deacons is that the Anglican ordination service outlines the duties of a deacon, but the Orthodox ordination service does not. But in the other Orthodox services the liturgical duties of the deacon are explicitly set out in the rubrics, whereas in the Anglican service books there is barely any mention of deacons at all. Some of the things I said (and some I didn’t say) are included in this post on Deacons and diaconate, so you can read them there, and I won’t repeat them here.

Some of the participants in the Anglican deacons' conference at St Athanasius Orthodox Church in Benoni

Some of the participants in the Anglican deacons’ conference at St Athanasius Orthodox Church in Benoni

In order that it should not be mere talk, but actual experience, we ended up by serving Vespers. Zoe and Marios Hadji-Joseph from St Nicholas of Japan Orthodox Church in Brixton kindly joined us, so Zoe and Val could sing Vespers in English, and Marios could act as an altar boy. Thus we were able to show, in a small way, that in Orthodox Vespers many different ministries are working together. The priest (Fr Markos in this case) does relatively little — giving the dismissal and the exclamations at the end of the litanies. The deacon does more — leading the litanies and censing the church, assisted in this by the altar boy. But most of the service is done by the choir/congregation.

After Vespers -- answering questions about ikons

After Vespers — answering questions about ikons