Saturday, 17 March 2018

Book review: Nicholas Crane's "Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Journey Across Europe"

This lovely book narrates one of the most extraordinary adventures imaginable; a walk from Cape Finisterre in north-west Spain all the way to Constantinople – a 6,000-plus mile trek through the mountainous spine of the continent, undertaken continuously over eighteen months, mostly alone, with a strict prohibition on using any means of transport other than Shanks’ pony. Crane has to fend off attempts to get him in cars by, inter alia, Ukrainian border policemen and a Turkish general, and declines to use a cable car in his attempted climb of Mont Blanc.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Escape to the country: is there anything to be gained from fleeing the urban jungle?

(This post is a slightly amended version of a piece originally published in 2015 on another website, now defunct.)

It’s funny the things that catch your attention. A couple of years ago, I read a detective story set in London in 1912. At one point, a policeman walking north through London is said to have emerged into open country shortly after Highgate. Highgate! Nowadays Highgate is about five miles from the northern outskirts of London. Since the beginning of the last century, our capital has spread relentlessly north into what was once Middlesex and Hertfordshire, swallowing up many places which used to be small villages and towns—Arnos Grove, Enfield, Palmers Green, Southgate, a pattern repeated on the east, south and west of the city. This growth of London’s geographical extent, its “footprint”, continued even as Greater London’s actual population went into considerable decline during the four decades after the Second World War. London’s population explosion in the nineteenth century—from about 1 million to over 6 million—did not affect London’s actual area in anything like the same way, presumably because so many of the new Londoners were poor workers and their families crammed into slums, as opposed to the comfortable middle-class commuters in their suburban semis who made up much of the twentieth century growth.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

When He Was Still Far Off

Three days a week, his vigil
A hard cold duty under the domes.
The dull hours that make a tyranny
Watching, noting, checking.
The essence of tyranny is the list
and he is the pencil-tip, the typehammer.
What we call freedom is defiance of the list
The flight from category; man’s counterfeit categories.

Here they come, the wreckers,
dissidents, enemies of the state.
Old ladies shuffling and unsure
of every step but certain
of the One thing.
Students testing their nerve
The tall one doesn’t believe it,
he is taking the girl to bed.
But he has found a way to live against the Lie.
The family men – straight backed, hard faced.
At peace because they have not made peace.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Detective stories read 2017

I read too many detective stories.


The 12.30 From Croydon
Freeman Wills Crofts
Very good inverted whodunit (I’m on a short break from War And Peace, taking advantage of a Kindle Unlimited offer to fill my boots with Golden Age classics). Like other works in the sub-genre, it follows a man who is, at least initially, weak and foolish and desperate rather than wicked. There is something pitiful and very human in Charles Swinburn’s attachment to the obviously unworthy and unpleasant Una Mellor and his determination to hang on to his upper middle-class respectability, at any cost. That’s not to say that Crofts – who was a fairly stern moralist – ever suggests that the murders committed are justified, only that he paints a plausible picture of the kind of thought processes by which a murderer might justify his actions to himself. There is a tantalising ambiguity in whether we are meant to take seriously the purportedly selfless aspects of Swinburn’s rationalisation of the first murder, i.e. his worries that if he does not get the money to save the works from his uncle, his workers’ lives will be ruined.

One thing the book does very well is show, without laying it on with a trowel, how irreparably and inevitably the act of murder separates a person from their fellow humans, and how the demands of conscience are inescapable even for a man who thinks he is beyond the mere bourgeois morality that values each life equally above and beyond utilitarian concerns (I think we might infer Crofts’ low view of utilitarianism from this book). I was reminded when reading of this of how much the spectre of the gallows mattered in creating the dramatic and moral force of the Golden Age mystery. The stakes are very high, and take on a near-religious dimension, when the price of detection for a murderer might very well be an appointment with Pierrepoint – to be followed, perhaps, by an encounter with another Judge, even more fearsome than those found on the bench of the Old Bailey. 

Books read 2017 (excluding whodunits)

The usual short(ish) reviews. It's not been a great year in terms of "serious" reading but I did get through a couple of real doorstops - War And Peace and The Man On The Donkey.

For review of Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, see here.

Detective story reviews here.

The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians In A Post-Christian Nation
Rod Dreher
There is a terrible flood coming, and you’re still sitting in your back garden knocking back beers and planning a new extension to your house. That’s the starting point of this long-awaited, endlessly discussed, and oft-criticised book. Rod writes in a chatty and engaging style, weaving anecdote and interview and analysis together to make a very compelling case for his central thesis that we are facing a new Dark Age for Christianity and that traditional believers must act to preserve the faith in an unprecedentedly hostile culture. “Politics is no substitute for personal holiness”, he writes, and this rejection of the religious right’s traditional political approach is the credo underlying the whole book. I have my quibbles with the broad brush presentation of the chapter on how Christianity lost the Western mind, from Ockham to Obergefell, but this isn’t a scholarly book, it’s a book written to be accessible for a wide audience with relatively little historical knowledge. The chapter on the monks of Nursia is particularly fascinating, but there are marvellous pen portraits of all kinds of Christian intentional communities all over the USA. It’s an open question how well Rod’s prescriptions translate over the Atlantic, but we do have things to learn. And I think Rod’s “alarmism”, as it has been called, is more than justified, even if the timescales might be a little longer than he thinks.

Monday, 1 January 2018

My published articles 2017 - a roundup

For Niall completists...

"Seeking God in the Lord of the Rings" in the Scottish Catholic Observer, 10/03/17

- Why Catholics continue to be inspired by Tolkien's epic trilogy

"Escape from the madding crowd", also in the SCO, 28/04/17

- Do we need a theology of the moment?

"Why modern Christians need cathedrals" in the Catholic Herald, 18/05/17 (£)

- Christian architecture still matters.

"Illiberal Democracy" in the SCO, 23/06/17

- What the resignation of Tim Farron tells us about the prospects for Christians in politics

"How modern architects ripped society apart" in the Herald, 20/07/17

- Post-war town planning has been a spiritual disaster but recovery may be coming.

"Adapting well-loved books to the screen is a minefield, but we should expect better" in The Irish Catholic, 09/11/17

- Why were the Hobbit films so utterly terrible?

"The triumph of the non-apology" in the Herald, 29/11/17 (£)

- Can Christians rescue the proper apology?

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Future of Memory: Remembrance In Years To Come

Courseulles sur Mer, where my paternal grandfather Ivor Gooch came ashore during the invasion of Normandy (taken in 2013).
This post is a slightly amended version of an article originally published in 2015 on another website, now defunct. 

The end of an era

Amid the commemorations of the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in summer 2014 came a poignant announcement: the official disbanding of the Normandy Veterans’ Association. I found this rather sad, not least because my grandfather was a D-Day veteran, who went ashore on Juno Beach with the 3rd Canadian Division.

What the disbanding really emphasised to me is that the Second World War is now a very long time ago. Its beginning in 1939 is further in the past from us than the Battle of Gettysburg was to people in 1939. This may seem like a banal observation, but it has been easy to forget how chronologically distant we are from the war because of its constant, powerful cultural presence in British life.

I suspect though that this presence may, at last, be diminishing. Anyone who saw active service with British or Commonwealth forces in the war is now at least in their late eighties, with the possible exception of some former boy seamen. Within twenty years, we will say the last goodbye to the last veteran of active service in that conflict (we passed that milestone with the Great War in 2009, when Harry Patch, “the Last Fighting Tommy”, died aged 111). Soon after that, the war will pass out of living memory altogether. Already in 2017, you need to be pushing 80 to have any meaningful memory of the years 1939-45.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

English College (II)

A botanist preserving precious seed
of fading species, victim of some bight,
the college now. The threat remains the same,
an ever-shifting but familiar fight:
we bid our Caesars shut the church’s mouth,
compel the knee to Moloch – just the once.
Be still, small voice within, let us be free!
Leviathan, for now, can help us run.
Run swift and heedless from the old hard truths:
that in our pomps we are but dust and earth,
and in our depths that penitence alone
will bring us through the fire to rebirth;
that we are not the makers of ourselves,
Prometheans unbound, each one complete,
but weak and cruel and foolish all at once
tireless in the art of self-deceit.

(This is one of a pair of poems inspired by a visit to the Venerable English College in Rome for the diaconal ordination of a friend some years ago. See the first here)

English College (I)

They know an older England here, and so
have kept the faith with Sherwin’s planted flame,
these men whose exile brings them close to home;
uneasy lies the land from which they came.
These halls preserve the air of long ago.
Of whispered prayers in priest-holes, then the wait
to know if those outside had time to hide 
the Mass-books, strip the altar, stow the plate.
Of lonely abbeys visited at night
by wreckers as reformers well-disguised.
King Henry’s men, their paperwork all square,
five hundred years’ tradition now despised.
Of silent chantries, masses left unsung
below high windows naked of their glass;
despoiled vestments, confiscated gold
and prayer-smooth cloisters overlaid with grass.

(This is one of a pair of poems inspired by a visit to the Venerable English College in Rome for the diaconal ordination of a friend some years ago. See the second here)

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Of bedrooms and boardrooms: sex, money and the limits of freedom

(This post was originally published as an article in 2016 on another website, now defunct. If I wrote it now I'd change some things but it still reflects my overall thinking, more or less.)

A common criticism levelled at those on the political right is that there is a contradiction between on the one hand their preference for maximal freedom in the economic sphere, and on the other a more restrictive attitude to personal freedoms. As the Democrat Josh Lyman says to a Republican adversary in the liberal-leaning TV show The West Wing, “I like you guys that want to reduce the size of government, make it just small enough so it can fit in our bedrooms.”

It’s a good line, but is it anything more than that?

There is actually a strong logic behind the combination of social conservatism and liberal economics, and it is this: if you want a relatively limited state then you need strong families that produce law-abiding, hard-working individuals who look after each other and believe in self-reliance. You need a robust civil society and a population that values self-control, deferred gratification, and restraint. That wise old bird GK Chesterton wrote that “if men will not be governed by the Ten Commandments, they will be governed by the ten thousand commandments”.