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New Afrikaans Orthodox parish

18 February 2017

Today we drove 255 km to Stilfontein in the North-West Province where Archbishop Damaskinos of Johannesburg and Pretoria blessed the St Theodore the Tyro Orthodox Mission Church. It is the second Afrikaans-speaking parish in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria (the first one was in Eldorado Park, in Johannesburg). Other parishes have had occasional services in Afrikaans, but these are the only parishes in the Archdiocese where the main liturgical language is Afrikaans.

In a way the new parish is an offshoot of the Greek Orthodox parish in Klerksdorp, where Fr Seraphim (van Niekerk) has served as parish priest for several years. In Stilfontein there was a disused church building belonging to the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk, which the mission congregation bought, and converted to an Orthodox temple.

St Theodore of Tyre Orthodox Mission Church, Stilfontein

St Theodore the Tyro Orthodox Mission Church, Stilfontein

Extensive modifications were made to the church interior, which was originally a typical Reformed-style church with the pulpit as the central focus.

The ikonostasis of St Theodore of Tyre Church, Stilfontein

The ikonostasis of St Theodore Tyro Church, Stilfontein

Archbishop Damaskinos arrived with a visiting bishop from Tanzania, Metropolitan Demetrios of Irinoupolis (Dar es Salaam), and was greeted by members of the congregation.

Archbishop Damaskinos being greeted by a member of the congregation, followed by Metropolitan Demetrios of Tanzania, Fr Seraphim,

Archbishop Damaskinos being greeted by a member of the congregation, followed by Metropolitan Demetrios of Tanzania, Fr Seraphim.

We met first in a tent outside the church, where Archbishop Damaskinos blessed holy water for blessing the temple.

Archbishop Damaskinos doing the Lesser Blessing of Water

Archbishop Damaskinos doing the Lesser Blessing of Water

The Archbishop then blessed the entrance to the temple, and we began the Divine Liturgy, served by Fr Kobus (van der Riet), who, together with Fr Zacharias of Robertson in the Western Cape,  has played a large part in translating the liturgical texts into Afrikaans.

Archbishop Damaskinos blessing the entrance to the temple

Archbishop Damaskinos blessing the entrance to the temple

At the end of the Divine Liturgy we had a Memorial Service for the departed, since it was a Soul Saturday, being the Saturday before Meatfare Sunday (Soul Saturdays, of which there are several during the year, are equivalent to the Western celebration of All Souls on 2 November).

Memorial Service for Soul Saturday

Memorial Service for Soul Saturday

At the end of the service the Archbishop addressed the congregation, wishing them well for the future, and Fr Kobus and others spoke, explaining something of the history and theology of the Orthodox Church for non-Orthodox visitors.

Fr Kobus (van der Riet) addressing the congregation at the end of the service.

Fr Kobus (van der Riet) addressing the congregation at the end of the service.

And after the service, refreshments were served in the hall.

The meal after the service

The meal after the service

It was a great joy to share with this new parish in their celebration, and I hope they grow in both numbers and faithfulness.

The vision of St Eustathius

The vision of St Eustathius

On the lawn in front to the church is a statue of a stag with a cross between its antlers. Fr Seraphim explained that it represented a vision of St Eustathius, who once when out hunting, saw a vision of such a stag. The statue was created by a Zimbabwean artist.

The Church is dedicated to St Theodore the Tyro (“the Recruit”), whose feast day is 17 February.

The church chandelier reflected in the floor tiles

The church chandelier reflected in the floor tiles


Christianity and Buddhism

17 February 2017

I first learned about Buddhism from history lessons at school, and found it and other religions quite interesting, and later from reading Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. I’ve commented on that in a blog post on the decline of Buddhism in America, where I also considered some of the missiological implications. But, as I point out in that blog post,  most of my knowledge was second-hand, acquired through reading, reflection and theorising. I suspect that for people living outside countries where Buddhism is strong, most of their knowledge is acquired like that.

It seemed to me that there were several superficial resemblances between Christianity and Buddhism. Many of the moral teachings and some of the spiritual disciplines were similar, but as they approached each other more closely they suddenly sprang apart, like the north poles of two magnets brought together. For at its heart, Christianity is personal, while Buddhism is at it’s heart impersonal. At the heart of Christianity is an I and Thou relationship between God and a human person. while at the heart of Buddhism there is neither a personal God nor a personal self to relate to him.

But this was theoretical knowledge, gained from reading Buddhist scriptures and books about Buddhism, and occasional sitting in Buddhist temples.

Nikolai-do: Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo, Japan

Nikolai-do: Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo, Japan

But Deacon Giorgi Maximov has now written about the observations of St Nicholas of Japan, who writes from first-hand knowledge. Buddhism is a major religion in Japan, and when St Nicholas went there as a missionary in 1861 it had been the dominant religion for some centuries. He read Buddhist literature in Japanese, and spoke to many Buddhist people, including former Buddhist converts to Orthodoxy, who were able to tell him exactly what it was in Christianity that appealed to them, which they did not find in Buddhism.

There are also some interesting parallels between Buddhist and Christian mission, as well as the significant differences in beliefs.

Deacon Giorgi Maximov. St. Nicholas of Japan on Buddhism / OrthoChristian.Com:

Although he thoroughly studied it, St. Nicholas did not have an interest in Buddhism in and of itself and looked at it exclusively from the practical, missionary point of view. This view allowed him to notice what other scholars and polemicists paid no attention to in Buddhism. This included missionary methods of Buddhism. The saint notes the “flexibility of Buddhism and its ability to adapt to the customs of the country in which it appears.” As an illustration the author points to how, according to Buddhist belief, Buddha and the Bodhisattvas made an oath to “be born in various ignorant countries in order to bring them to salvation.” This allowed Buddhists to pronounce Amaterasu and other Japanese gods to be incarnations of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, taken on by them in order to “prepare them to receive the true teachings of Buddhism… Thus, Buddhism called Japanese gods by their names, accepted them under these names and into their temples, and took root and flourished in Japan.

Something similar had happened in Christian mission as well — see, for example, Gregory the Great and the Pagan Shrines of Kent | George Demacopoulos –

Describing the teachings of Buddhism, St. Nicholas concludes a natural cause for each of its characteristic elements—historical, cultural, and psychological circumstances. For example, explaining the successful spread of Buddhism in its early stages, the saint writes, “Having arisen on Indian soil as an antidote to the Brahmin caste system and the oppression of the lower classes by the higher, Buddhism was in this respect a preaching of spiritual equality and love in the pagan world; on the other hand, because it is the preaching of a man who was the heir to the throne but became instead a beggar, it is the preaching against the vanity of this world, of non-acquisitiveness and poverty.

To these missiological similarities I can perhaps add another.

A Buddhist friend once told me that when the first Buddhist missionaries went from India to China their teaching consisted of only two kinds of statements:

  1. This is what we do
  2.  This is what we do not do

Only when people showed an interest in knowing more, and and started asking deeper questions, did they go beyond that.

And it seems to me, when we look at Christian mission history, the most successful Christian missionaries seem to have followed the same pattern. But some have followed a different pattern, putting the negative statement first, and changing it from the first to the second person, so that instead of saying “this is what we do” it became “this is what you should not do”.

So some Protestant missionaries to China spread the message that the Chinese should not bind the feet of girls, and formed the Natural Foot Society to spread that idea. In this and similar ways, moralism was substituted for evangelism. There is a common perception among many secularised people that “the missionaries” came to destroy culture, motivated by cultural imperialism, yet many secularised westerners try to impose their culture on other people in the same way. In Christian  mission this often had unintended consequences.

St Nicholas of JapanSt Nicholas also deals with the differences in beliefs between Christianity and Buddhism. If one were discussing other religions, one might speak of theological differences, but the core of Buddhism is atheistic, so one cannot speak of “theology” in Buddhism, only of beliefs. Some varieties of Buddhism recognise various gods, but when you reach the heart of the matter, the gods are irrelevant.

Academics nowadays like to speak of “theology of religions”, but when you read what they say it is rarely any such thing. But St Nicholas of Japan gives a Christian theology of Buddhism, just as St John of Damascus gave a Christian theology of Islam, and unlike the western academic theologians in their ivory towers, they lived among people who practised the religions they wrote about.



Last exit to Brooklyn loveless passion

4 February 2017

Last Exit To BrooklynLast Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A sad book about sad and lonely people who are incapable of love, and look for it in all the wrong places.

I first read it nearly 50 years ago, and found it rather depressing. Back then I was a fan of Beat Generation literature, and it was lent to me by a fellow student who was also a fan, and thought it was of the same or similar genre, but it wasn’t really.

It was listed in The Modern Library as one of the 200 best novels in English written in the second half of the 20th century, so I thought it might be worth re-reading, and when I found a copy in the library I took it out.

The Modern Library description begins, “This is written with a freedom and flow and use of vernacular and voice that makes it hugely readable.” After starting it, I found that its style made it hugely unreadable, and went on to Surprised by joy instead. Hubert Selby clearly does not believe in the apostrophe, and used this book in a one-man crusade for its abolition. I found that this made the book all but unreadable, and kept having to go back and reread a sentence to puzzle out its meaning.

Eventually I returned to it, thinking that if I had managed to read it once, I could manage to do so again, and perhaps one would get used to the style after a while, and stop trying to work out whether “were” in a particular context actually meant “we’re”. And so, after about 30 pages or so, it began to flow more easily, and Selby’s idiosyncracies of style became less obtrusive.

The book is a series of narratives about a group of people, most of whom form the clientele of an all-night diner they call the Greeks. After a while it becomes clear that there is only one Greek, called Alex, who doesn’t come into the story much. One of the favourite occupations of the characters is beating up and robbing soldiers and sailors, which places the action in the period immediately after the Second World War, though the book was actually published in 1964. Another character is proud of his Cadillac with big tail fins, which places it around 1958-1960, so it’s (its) never quite clear whether it is set in the 1940s or the 1960s.

Some characters, like the “hip queer” Georgette, long for love, and Georgette hopes for the love of Vinnie, whose main claim to fame is that he knows someone who was shot dead by the police. Vinnie, however, seems quite incapable of love, and it goes downhill from there.

There is Tralala the whore who tries to exploit soldiers and sailors for greed, but ends up being exploited by everyone, in a most horrific way. Her fate is one of the few things I remembered vividly from my first reading of the book. Some of her clients are looking to her for love, but, like Vinnie, she seems incapable of love, and despises them for it.

There is Harry Black, a union organiser, who hates his wife, his child, his boss, and his fellow-workers. He organises a strike, which benefits no one, but proceeds from and feeds Harry’s misanthropy, though calling it misanthropy is perhaps dignifying it too much by implying that it is an organized philosophy of life. Harry’s outlook and behaviour, like that of most of the other characters, is controlled by the passions.

passionsIn Orthodox ascetic theology the passions are things that Christians try to bring under control and subdue. The essence of the passions is that they are things that we passively undergo. We suffer the passions, and the passions control us. Growth in the Christian life consists in bringing the passions under control, and subduing them. The goal is dispassion (apatheia) and union with God (Theosis). The characters in the book, however,  are pathetic, in every sense of the word.

We discussed Last exit to Brooklyn a little at our monthly literary coffee klatsch. The conversation was mainly about the differences between the novels of Charles Williams on the one hand, and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on the other. Lewis and Tolkien locate their fantasy stories in other worlds, whereas in Williams the otherness intrudes into this world, to the delight of some and the discomfort of others. I said that Last exit to Brooklyn was just the opposite of Williams, and almost entirely secular. There is no other world. There is only this one, in all its sordidness, lovelessness and violence. One or two characters have vague longinss for love, but there is nothing of the joy that characterised the Sehnsucht that C.S. Lewis describes; it is rather characterised by bitterness and disappointment.

Right towards the end there is just the hint of another world, but it fails to make an impact on the domestic violence, child abuse, crime, drug addiction and loveless sex of the surrounding flats in the housing estate. The sounds of a prayer meeting in one of the flats are incomprehensible to the neighbours, while on Sunday morning distant church bells ring, but not loud enough to disturb the hangovers of most of the inhabitants.

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Surprised by joy: re-reading books

31 January 2017

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early LifeSurprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis

Reading a book a second time a long time after the first reading often means one sees it in a completely different way, and this one is no exception.

It is a spiritual autobiography, an account of how C.S. Lewis abandoned the Christian faith of his childhood, and returned to it in later life.

When I first read it, I had not read many of his books. I was still at school, and so it was the parts of the book where he was a schoolboy that stood out in my memory, comparing the schools he had attended with those I attended, and noting the similarities and differences. I thought then that Surprised by joy was by far the best of his books that I had read up to that point. I recall three that we had in the house, Mere Christianity, and one with a title like Broadcast talks, and one that I think was called Transposition and other addresses.

All these had been bought by my mother who was then returning to the Christian faith after having been agnostic for most of her adult life. And it was she who recommended that I read Surprised by joy. The things that struck me most about it were, as I have said, his schooldays, and the experience that he called joy, an intense longing for something indefinable, sparked off by something one had seen or read or imagined.

One of the things that struck me both times I read it was that Edwardian education took the classics much more seriously. As a schoolboy Lewis was familiar with Greek and Latin authors I had never heard of. Our education was shallow by comparison, but perhaps what it lacked in depth it gained in breadth. Lewis does not mention geography, physics or chemistry in his education, and mathematics seems to have been an afterthought.

One of the things that struck me on the second reading is that Lewis stressed his discovery that Joy came unbidden. It could not be organised or sought for its own sake. Towards the end of the book he talks about the difference between “enjoyment” and “contemplation”, between experiencing something and contemplating the experience. On my first reading that was probably way above my head, and I hardly recall it at all. On the second reading it made a lot of sense. But something of what Lewis said may have rubbed off on me the first time, as a few years later I discovered this existentially instead of just reading about it.

I was in my final year at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and had become involved in promoting student ecumenism. There was an ecumenical (or interdenominational, or non-denominational) student organisation, the Students Christian Association (SCA), which, though it had four sections, Afrikaans, English, Black and Coloured, nevertheless brought Christian students of different denominations, traditiions and cultural backgrounds together. In 1964 the Afrikaans section, which was the most powerful and the most well-off financially, proposed that, in accordance with the then dominant policy of apartheid, the four sections become completely separate organisations. Those who disagreed with this idea began looking for ways of having a more inclusive student ecumenism, and one of the ways we tried to do this was to organise an ecumenical student camp for members of the four God clubs at the University of Natal.

The God clubs were the SCA, which was largely evangelical Protestant, the Anglican Society, the Methodist Club and the Catholic Society.

The camp was held at Lexden, a camping ground on the other side of town from the university. There were speakers from each of the traditions, and the SCA speaker brought a bright and bouncy organising type slomng with him, who immediately tried to take over and said, “Let’s sing ‘Joy, wonderful joy’. That should get things started.” I think most of those presenrt were embarrased at this attempt to impose the SCA Evangelical tradition of singing bouncy choruses with little theological content, but apart from that the theological content of this one annoyed most of the others.

If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy
Let Jesus come into your heart.

We objected that this put the cart before the horse, means before ends. Joy was a by-product of knowing Jesus, not the main motivation. We tried to articulate our objection, and eventually said that the chorus promoted spiritual masturbation.

And on re-reading Surprised by joy I discovered that Lewis had already articulared this, in very similar terms — he said that the moment he sought joy as an experience, with value in itself, he lost it. It was the longing for something else that was the occasion for joy.

About ten years after the camp at Lexden the charismatic renewal movement was sweeping through South African churches, and many people found that it helped to make God real to them for the first time in their lives. It was not just an intellectual faith, but an existential faith. But the charismatic renewal movement gradually dissipated, sank into the ground, and almost disappeared. And this was largely from s similar cause — people began seeking spiritual experiences, which were sometimes experiences of joy, as ends in themselves, rather than as by-products of knowing God.

Was awareness of this something I had discoverered for myself, or was it a seed planted by C.S. Lewis in his book, which had suddenly germinated when the conditions were right?

Another idea that struck me on the second reading, but not on the first, was that of chronological snobbery.

It came up in an online discussion a few days before I reread the book.

Someone described a certain Anglican bishop as a “celebrity heretic”, and, in my usual pedantic fashion, I noted that description was not apt because the bishop in question had not been tried for heresy by his own denomination. The person who had started the discussion then said:

‘Trials for “heresy” are a bet dated, don’t you think?’

That strikes me as a supremely illogical argument, and is what I call “chronological chauvinism”, and Lewis called “chronological snobbery”. As Lewis put it:

‘Why — damn it — it’s medieval,’ I exclaimed, for I still had all the chronological snobbery of my period and used the names of earlier periods as terms of abuse.

and he goes on to say,

Barfield… destroyed for ever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my ‘chronological snobbery’, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.

I must have read this the first time I read the book, but am not aware of having read it then, and can’t remember having encountered any instance of chronological snobbery before reading it. But I have encountered several instances since then, and have similar objections to those expressed by Lewis. People claim to be amazed that anyone can do or believe such and such a thing “in 2017”, as though there were some peculiar and almost magical quality of 2017 that makes the thing incredible.

Was this logical fallacy my own discovery, or was it a seed planted by reading Lewis that was waiting for the right conditions to germinate?

Sometimes reading a book again after a long interval can make the book seem trite and almost boring. Such was my experience with Brave new world. Reading it at the age of 17, I thought it profound and illuminating. Rereading it at the age of 67, it seemed a bit trite. Is that in itself a form of chronological snobbery? Or is it just that science ficrtion has its strongest appeal among teenagers, or “young adults” as they call them in the book trade, and is less attractive to old adults?

But rereading Surprised by joy was very different. I had read more of Lewis’s other works, especially his fiction, and had much greater experience of the things he wrote about.

At the age of 18 I went to university and studied English literature. In some ways it was far too young. I’d like to have done it again at the age of 68, when I’d had more experience of life. But on the other hand, perhaps it was reading those books when I was too young to appreciate them that helped me to interpret life as I lived it later, as seems to have been the case with Surprised by joy.

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TGIF: our weekly contact with white people

28 January 2017

We resumed our weekly contact with white people as TGIF resumed after the Christmas holidays.

TGIF is a gathering at a coffee shop early on Friday mornings, where someone speaks on a topic for 45 minutes, followed by 15 minutes discussion, and it’s all over by 7:30 in time for people to get to work.

Until last year, we went sporadically, when there was a particularly interesting speaker, but about a year ago we started going regularly. TGIF has a break for a couple of months over December and January, and when it resumed yesterday we realised that when it wasn’t meeting, we had very little contact with white people as a group.  The people who come to TGIF, however,  are probably not typical of what most would regard as white society or the “white community”; these are mostly evangelical Christians with a conscience, aware of white privilege, and so probably not a good barometer of what white people are thinking.

TGIF at the OM Link Building in Hatfield, Tshwane

TGIF at the OM Link Building in Hatfield, Tshwane

Not that we care that most of the people present are white. That’s not why we go there. We go mainly because most of the talks are interesting and stimulating, and though one is exposed to different ideas on the Internet, I find that it is rare that I read an article there from beginning to end, and most of the stuff on social media consists of text bites, which requre even less of an attention span. Sometimes at TGIF we stay a bit longer, continuing the discussion with others who don’t have to rush off to work. It’s not the colour of the discussers, but the interesting views expressed that keeps us going back for more.

But a couple of things made me more aware of the whiteness of most of those attending TGIF, and also of a possible generation gap. One of the other regular attenders shared something that had appeared on Facebook:

#WeWhitePeople need to hold fellow white people accountable for the everyday, and systemic racism which benefits all of us. If we don’t who will? None of us are exempt. We need to shift our people from oppressive behaviours and that begins by confronting the racist programming in ourselves.

What do you want to say? Hashtag #WeWhitePeople and have your say. Please upload a photograph of yourself (if safe to do so), and share your own commitment to ending white supremacy.

Now I see a few problems with that. One of them relates to the term “our people”, which I see as ipso facto racist, for reasons I have explained here How racist are you? | Khanya. One of the ways in which we who lived through the apartheid era, and who happened to be white, confronted the racist programming in ourselves was to learn to stop thinking of “we white people” and to stop thinking of white people as “our people”. So invitations and exhortations to think of ourselves in those terms sound like invitations to reprogram ourselves as racists, as a dog returns to its vomit. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but it’s there.

But there are white racists in South Africa, and racism remains a problem in our society. So how can we combat it?

One answer, that seems to be implied in the Facebook post quoted above, is to use our influence to shift “our people” from oppressive behaviours. And this was also dealt with by the speaker at TGIF, Robert Botha, who was speaking on diplomacy and leadership.

He said that we often think that we are helpless in the face of these social forces, but there is relational analysis, which can tell us about relational proximity. We might be close to people who are close to people with influence.

So, if we are white, we might be close to people who have influence in the “white community”, perhaps. Except that I don’t think that there is such thing as a “white community”. We often use words like “community” loosely implying that there is community where there is none. I can speak of the TGIF community, because people who attend TGIF meet regularly and have social intercourse with one another. So can I influence any of them to use their influence among people they are in contact with to combat racism? I think some of them are already doing that. But they are the only white people I’m in regular and frequent face-to-face contact with.

Of course there is the Internet, and social media like Facebook and Twitter. There one encounters people one has never met face-to-face; can one influence people there? Perhaps to some extent, but text bites, like sound bites, can be shallow, and become tiresome after a while. Trying to influence people there can be counterproductive, because in text bites, even when superimposed on graphics, are simply assertions without any attempt to justify them.

So what can I do to shift people (not “my” people) from oppressive behaviours? Well, one way is to preach the gospel, which is the good news of liberation from oppression. And another, for those who look back on the apartheid era and think it wasn’t so bad, is to write about it in this blog, which I do, under the heading Tales from Dystopia.

Can anyone suggest anything else?


The minds of robots and the mystery of consciousness

26 January 2017

The minds of robotsThe minds of robots by James T. Culbertson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What can I say about a book I read 50 years ago?

I was a student at St Chad’s College, Durham, at the time, and I borrowed the book from the university library. It wasn’t part of the required reading for any of my courses, and probably the best I can do is see what I wrote in my diary back then — 24 January 1967.

It was library recall day, and I returned the diaries of Lewis Carroll, though I had not finished them yet. I saw a book called The minds of robots, which looked interesting from the blurb on the inside cover. It is something I have thought about and talked about, but everyone thinks I am talking nonsense — the relationship of consciousness to the topological connectivity of the nervous system. After reading A subway named Möbius about 3-4 years ago, I came to the conclusion that consciousness was the result of the movement of nerve impulses through the great topological connectivity and complexity of the brain, so that they transcended the physical mechanism, and like the Boston train in the story, lost their “whereness” on the circuit, and went into the fifth dimension.

According to the blurb, the author, James T. Culbertson, believes the topological movement is consciousness, but I’ll have to read the book to see what he says. But it’s good to see that an expert in maths is thinking along these lines. It seems quite a fascinating study.

And a couple of days later, after reading more of the book (26 January 1967)

In reading The minds of robots I still have not come across anything that bridges the gap between the sensations experienced and the network of causal transcensions [?] which gives rise to
them. But on thinking it occurred to me that the sensation of, say, green, is like a green light in a car dashboard. Its significance is purely arbitrary. The different labels on dials on a dashboard, and green sensation bears as little resemblance to the stimulus which causes it as the needle pointing to 40 lbs/sq. in. does to oil in a gallery being pumped to a bearing. This seems to cover everything involved, yet there still seems to be a gap of conception somewhere, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps more thought will provide the answer eventually.

This would all be ancient history, and there would seem to be little point in discussing a book that is long out of print, except that I have recently seen several articles on the web on the topic of the nature of consciousness, and artificial intelligence, yet the conversation doesn’t seem to have advanced much beyond where it was 50 years ago.

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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.

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