Arts, Books and other Reviews
RSC, Stratford upon Avon
It is a fairly rare experience in 2005 to see the first major production of a Shakespearean play, or at least of a play of which Shakespeare was one of the revisers. It had in 1592 caught the eye of Edmund Tilney, the government censor, who demanded extensive cuts and alterations. This was not only because of its sympathetic portrayal of a popular Catholic martyr, but perhaps even more because it showed Londoners rioting against the presence of immigrants in the city.
It was the usual popular cry – taking our jobs, stealing our women, cheating us in business dealings. Watching it just after the General Election, in which the same fears had been exploited, made it all the more poignant, and More’s speech to the rioters, painting a picture of ‘the wretched strangers, their babies on their backs…plodding to the ports of transportation’ could have been from an Amnesty International pamphlet.
The play opens with the riots of 1517, quelled by More in a gentle manner, engineering a pardon for the rioters (though whatever the popular tradition, many were imprisoned and thirteen executed). More is elevated with a knighthood and membership of the Privy Council, eventually to become Lord Chancellor.
The writers have shown the populist side of his character, the ‘merry madcap More’ turning the tables against a complacent aristocracy. But with John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, More refuses to submit to the King’s demands to sign unspecified Articles and is sentenced to death.
Directed by Robert Delamere, and with More played excellently by Nigel Cooke, the RSC production brings out the lightness and the popularity of More, whose witticisms at the opening calm the crowd of rioters, and at the end calm his own fears for what is to come.
If the play began with a modern political touch, it ends with a reminder, in a time still of some persecution, of what the Faith demands. No wonder it was censored.
SAMPLES OF A GOLDEN AGE
London and provincial theatres
We never seem to live in a golden age. But, feeling in optimistic vein, let me assert my conviction that we are living in and through a golden age of London and provincial theatre. It is not, however, cheap.
The national companies continue to offer admirable work. The Royal National Theatre, among many admirable productions surpassed even itself with The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Will there be a West-End transfer? The Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford seems to have emerged from its recent plight, and phase of Maoist cultural destruction, and is preparing to perform all Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets next year.
However, I want here to take a snapshot of one week’s commercial theatre-going in April this year. These were not opening nights, nor new plays, nor were they chosen on any principle, other than to see a random selection of what was on offer. Only one production disappointed, all the others provided an excellent evening’s entertainment, and were well worth the prices paid.
Man and Boy at the small but exquisite Duke of York’s Theatre was a revival of Terence Rattigan’s last commercial play. Rattigan suffered more than most from the rise of the Angry Young Men and the dispiriting drama of social realism. Fortunately he has undergone something of a reappraisal and revival, and he has emerged as a playwright rather tougher and less sentimental than his previous reputation would allow. This play was not particularly successful when first produced and he may have struggled in its writing as it went through many drafts. Eileen Atkins has returned to his first thoughts for this production and it emerges as taut and coherent, well-paced and balanced.
David Suchet plays a Romanian international financier, Antonescu, who has wheeled and dealed sometimes within, but for the most part without legal constraints for many years. Caught up in his financial web, buying favours, paying for loyalty, company and affection, Antonescu loses the affection of his son who can find no place in his world.
As his loyal personal assistant, David Yelland gives a superb performance, suave, contained, frighteningly efficient, all-knowing, all-seeing, yet distant and uncontaminated, carefully insulating himself from the fall-out. He had Antonescu add a post-script to a suicide note exculpating him from all criminal knowledge. There was not an unwanted gesture, no verbal flourishes, no infelicities of style in Yelland’s performance; simply a master class in how to occupy a part and dominate a scene with economy and skilful characterization. This, and the performance of David Suchet, represent acting of the highest standard. Other parts were more sketchily written, the women’s parts particularly so, and left little scope for inventiveness, but there were no weak links in the cast.
Great acting was even more in evidenc in Schiller’s Don Carlos (now ended at the Gielgud Theatre). This production, by Michael Grandage, began at the Sheffield Playhouse and it could not have been bettered. As the audience arrived in the auditorium, an enormous thurible was swinging from one side of the stage to the other, pouring out billows of sweet incense. This echo of the Cathedral of Santiago di Compostella was matched by the set itself which had more than a hint of that severe granite masterpiece, the Escorial, the palace, fortress and monastery of King Philip II of Spain.
Within a recognizable historical framework and using real historical figures, Schiller seeks in his play (with considerable dramatic licence) to personify the conflict between the medieval mind and the mind of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Schiller was ardent in his articulation of the latter’s ideals of intellectual freedom and political liberty, but he is not unfair to the opposing point of view and this gives great strength to the intellectual and political conflict at the heart of the play. Like Milton he has given the devil, in the shape of Philip II, some of the best lines and Philip possesses such strength of character that he is more than a match for his libertarian son.
This is ensemble playing of the finest quality, but bestriding all is the Philip II of Derek Jacobi. Schiller has not written a cartoon or pantomime villain but a subtle, complicated, wracked human being, whose every nuance is captured and thrillingly exploited by Sir Derek. He is in the plenitude of his powers. He is never less than riveting. In all aspects of his characterization, he triumphantly vindicated Kenneth Tynan’s criteria for a ‘high-definition’ performance. His defining moment is as he stands motionless, frozen in grief and horror with tears streaming down his stricken face as Don Carlos unleashes a verbal assault. Some actors reveal their souls and inner selves, which are of no interest to any of us, and think that it is great acting: Sir Derek reveals Philip’s soul and in that we know him and something of ourselves. There is much pretentious tosh spoken about acting but its higher claims are gloriously vindicated by such a performance.
Another great actor John Gielgud, in one of his more feline remarks, is reputed to have said that the actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit was ‘no longer a tour de force but forced to tour.’ Ronald Harwood was Wolfit’s dresser and his play The Dresser sees a similar figure, only referred to as Sir, touring the country during the Second World War, bringing Shakespeare to the people as bombs fell, defying the forces of darkness and nihilism with the most humane of writers. If this revival does not efface memories of the excellent film starting Tom Courtney and Albert Finney, it has great merits and joys of its own and two fine performances by Julian Glover (Sir) and Nicholas Lyndhurst (Norman, the dresser).
Their relationship is touching yet unhealthy: fawning and dependent, loving and indifferent; and these complexities are well delineated. If Lyndhurst did not have quite the neurotic edge as Courtney’s Norman, he had prim superiority and wounded pride. If Glover lacked something of the barn-storming egomania of Sir, he had vulnerability and fear in his eyes.
On a lighter note, there was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium. It is immense fun and was thoroughly enjoyed by all ages at the Wednesday Matinee I attended. The chorus and dancers are spirited, the songs accessible, the principal roles taken with aplomb by seasoned professionals: Brian Conley seemed slightly under par as Caractacus Potts, but Christopher Biggins as Baron Bombast was just right, and Alvin Stardust, as a chilling Child-catcher, was a revelation, who brought a sinister frisson to the second half and was swept away in a net in a dizzying coup de theatre. Inevitably the star was the car itself. It did fly! It did not quite loop the loop but it soared and twirled, turned and spun. A scrumptious production – truly. See it if you can.
A one-off production at the Royal Albert Hall for the 150th birthday of the Society of the Holy Cross ended my week. It was a triumph of organization as well as a glorious affirmation of the spirit of Anglo-Catholicism that has not yet been entirely extinguished from the English Church.
a Museum in a Monastery
Fine Arts Museum, Seville
The Fine Arts Museum in Seville – only a Ryanair flight away from here – is housed in an especially interesting and beautiful building, or series of buildings. It is in a former convent and the cool plant-filled courtyards are very much part of its charm. There are three courtyards, a handsome staircase, and a large baroque church in which Murillos and Zubarans are really seen at their best. The church, though not fully restored, is an outstanding example of Andalusian Mannerist architecture.
Tiles decorate all Spanish churches and chapels, mostly in blues, navy blues and yellows. Ceramic pictures of saints and depictions of biblical incidents are found in public buildings, churches, homes and shops all over Spain. This Museum has a fine sixteenth century altar, with portraits of two local saints, St Rufina and St Justa, surrounded by swirls of blue and green foliage on a golden background. From another convent comes a tiled Madonna and Child, with the Madonna’s starry cloak and formal hand gesture owing much to the tradition of icons.
In the sixteenth century, there was great economic expansion in Seville, and an increased demand for artistic products. Foreign artists, especially from Flanders, came to the city, and their tradition of meticulous realistic painting influenced local art. The flowering of ceramic art at this time produced works of great beauty and intensity. The figures and groups are made in baked clay, with the finest of detailing and colour. The Entombment of Christ by Piedro Millãn shows figures, weeping and grief-stricken, grouped round the lifeless figure of Christ. The nails and the crown of thorns lie in front of the tomb, and in the belt of one of the sorrowing disciples are the hammer and pincers he has recently used.
St Jerome Penitent, by Torrigiani, is another almost life-size polychrome baked clay figure of great religious power. The saint, a vigorous muscular man, gazes intently at the Cross in one hand, while holding a stone in the other. The veins on his arms, hands and legs almost seem to be pulsating.
Altarpieces, however, are one of Spain’s most important contributions to the history of art, and the immense church of what was the Convent of the Calced Mercederians is a wonderful setting for displaying the works of Murillo and Zubaran, probably Seville’s most celebrated artists. Murillo’s works really benefit from being seen in this way. His grasp of the effects of light, and his towering figures on heaped-up clouds and the lovingly observed domestic groups in the foreground, look wonderful in the large spaces of a Spanish church, where of course, they were always intended to be seen. One small Virgin and Child is hung in a side chapel and lit to emphasise the extraordinary intimacy of the painting. As you look at it, the Child seems to become three-dimensional.
There are paintings here by Zubaran, an artist much admired both for the quality of his painting and his religious perception. His Christ Crucified is a stark painting, showing the figure of Christ in total isolation, lit by a brilliant light, which falls across the beautiful body and the richly folded and creased white loincloth. There is also his Apotheosis of St Thomas Aquinas, a magnificent altarpiece, regarded by some as his best work. It shows the saint rising on a sunlit cloud into the presence of the Trinity, surrounded by the doctors of the church.
Zubaran was much in demand in Seville and the Museum gives us some idea of his sumptuous technique and religious insight. On a different scale, his St Hugo in the Refectory is a wonderful painting, a marvellous study in light and textures, dwelling on the thick white habits of the monks, the thin folded tablecloth, and the lace-edged lawn worn by St Hugo. All these delight the eye, even if the actual miracle is somewhat obscure!
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time when the arts in Seville reached a very high level, and this is well displayed in the museum. But there is much else of interest to see, including some domestic portraits and a splendid series showing the Coronation Parade of Ferdinand IV, which gives a vivid impression of life in a prosperous and very Spanish city. However, it is the intensity of the religious paintings and statuary that remains in the memory. These works were mainly commissioned by the many wealthy religious houses and civic organisations in Seville. They could afford the best and the best is truly impressive.
STAINER THE CRUCIFIXION
Chandos - Naxos - Decca - CDP
Few musical works can have endured over the years such a mauling as The Crucifixion, Sir John Stainer’s meditation on Our Lord’s Passion. It became almost a requirement for professional musical critics to dismiss the work with the tone of scorn which is a hallmark of British artistic snobbery. It must be admitted, of course, that the middle decades of the twentieth century were not propitious for appreciation of Stainer’s music. The Sixties and Seventies marked the high point of ignorant attacks on Victorian life and culture, just as they wrought mindless destruction of much fine Victorian architecture.
During this period the musical bien pensants were suffering from a severe attack of Webern, Schoenberg and Stockhausen, resulting in feverish hostility toward any music which was melodious, enjoyable or popular. Small wonder that there was little sympathy for so thoroughly Victorian a work as The Crucifixion, which suffered the added disadvantage of dealing with a Christian theme.
Yet Stainer’s work has survived all assaults. Even in those dark days, Barry Rose and George Guest flew its flag by recording the piece. More recently, as we have learned to appreciate the greatness and vigour of the Victorian era, The Crucifixion has found new admirers. The Chandos record company produced a recording in 1997 (CHAN 9551), and now Naxos, the most enterprising classical music label in our country, has added a new performance of the piece by the choir of Clare College, Cambridge (NAXOS 8.557624) to their outstanding series of recordings of English Church Music.
The reason for The Crucifixion’s durability is a simple one. It works, and it is memorable. Like all successful art, it achieves what its creator set out to achieve. Stainer wished to provide a Passiontide cantata for choirs which could not have attempted large-scale Passion music such as that by Bach. The resulting piece lies within the competence of good church or non-professional voices, needing in addition only two soloists and an able and sensitive organist. There is no point in criticizing it for being a product of its time, any more than there is point in denying greatness to, say, Wagner because you happen not to care for his musical idiom.
The Crucifixion must be accepted on its own terms, and when it is performed well, and by the relatively small forces which Stainer had in mind, it continues to move and satisfy. (Incidentally, to perform it with the organ part arranged for orchestra, as has been done on another recent recording, is to misinterpret Stainer’s intentions.) Nor should it be forgotten that The Crucifixion is very much a Tractarian work. Both Stainer and his librettist, W.J. Sparrow-Simpson, were influenced by the Oxford Movement, and the hymns which they wrote to be sung by the congregation as part of The Crucifixion must have carried a high doctrine of the Incarnation and the Eucharist into many an unsuspecting hearer’s breast.
Piers Burton-Page’s notes for the Chandos version were wildly wrong to say that the hymns are ‘irredeemably Victorian in the way they dwell on suffering and gore and almost masochistic self-abnegation.’ The words stress a fully incarnational theology, gazing awestruck at the self-offering of the Son of God, walking the path of suffering because of the divine love and compassion for human beings.
The new Naxos recording is to be strongly recommended. It is marked by generally well-judged tempi (more satisfying than those on Chandos), clear diction and good solo singing. I have only one serious reservation, and that concerns the hymns which are such an important part of the work. This performance makes the same error which marred the Wells Cathedral choir’s recording of nineteenth century hymns, Jerusalem the Golden (CDP 12102), namely, too much unison singing. The best Victorian hymn tunes are generally characterized by good harmony, and there are many telling harmonic touches in Stainer’s music for the hymns in The Crucifixion. It is a real loss to be deprived of these choral harmonies, which were meant for a congregation to enjoy.
On this point the Chandos recording is more satisfactory, though in general I find it a much less sympathetic performance. The Naxos version has not displaced that by George Guest and St John’s College, Cambridge, in my affections (DECCA 436 146-2), but there the problem is that the hymns were shortened to allow the work to be fitted onto a single LP. However, this new Naxos performance is one not to be missed, and should help to win The Crucifixion new admirers. It costs only £4·99, and in addition there is a free disc of selections from Naxos’s English Choral Classics.
SCRIPTURE AND THE AUTHORITY OF GOD
SPCK, 108pp, pbk
0 281 05722 2, £7·99
‘Well,’ said Johnson, ‘we had a good talk.’ Boswell: ‘Yes, Sir, you tossed and gored several persons.’
The Bishop of Durham is the Great Cham of today’s Church of England. For those who enjoyed his gorings in The Resurrection of the Son of God (I got as far as early hits on Drs Carnley and Avis), this new work is ripe with errors despatched with a Johnsonian ‘I refute it thus!’ though its shortness leaves little room for individuals to be named and shamed (one of the exceptions is Dr Williams, for ignoring the Bible in his doctrine of the Trinity).
The Bishop is well aware of his reputation for writing very long books, but this one is a tract. This places him in a ‘Catch 22’ situation where, in order to popularise, the arguments can become too compressed (after a number of goes, I still cannot understand the critique of Catholic treatments of the role of the bishop in the formation of the Canon). One of the strengths of his long works is that following the lead of St Thomas Aquinas, as interpreted by Lonergan and Meyer, Wright gives sufficient space for arguments to develop.
Another point where Wright agrees with that Thomist tradition, is that texts should and can be read primarily in the sense their author intended. But he parts company with Aquinas with the fashionable assertion that the great tradition in theology lies in methodology rather than content (which surely contradicts his statement that the divinity of Christ is not open to question). This exaltation of methodology reminded me of the criticism of Hooker (admired by Wright) and other early Anglican divines, that rather than join St Anselm with a faith which looked for understanding, they were orthodox by chance.
Caveats aside, there is much here which readers of New Directions should enjoy. Wright believes strongly that all holy Scripture is written for our building up and guidance (bowdlerised lectionaries and psalters are criticized) and, following on from The New Testament and the People of God, he describes Scripture as a five-act drama which is both dynamic and internally consistent. This allows him to show how Scripture should be read today (and read aloud; he asserts the primary place of Scripture is in public worship, and bemoans the poor quality of public reading).
Much of the book is devoted to how Scripture has come to be so misunderstood and devalued (the Enlightenment is the main culprit, with Radical Orthodoxy, its latest child, dismissed for telling the Christian story without reference to the Bible). The strengths of liberalism, fundamentalism, post-modernism, feminism et al. are noted, and their mistakes listed in a syllabus errorum.
And the Bishop gives us his way forward, which is, inter alia, that bishops should teach holy Scripture. He argues that the bureaucratization of the Church, the emphasis on legal powers, the recycling of worn out ideas (he is sharp on the phenomenon of the ‘oldest liberal in town’), the displacement of biblical preaching, teaching and pastoral care, all this has created an episcopate far removed from the Tradition. Perhaps the Bishop’s next book should be a blueprint for the reform of his collegial brothers.
A Christian Critique
Mark D. Chapman
DLT, 116pp, pbk
0 232 52603 6, £10·95
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once commented, when someone suggested that the Church should not be involved in politics, that he knew of no more political a God than the God of Christianity. After last month’s ‘historic’ victory for Tony Blair’s Labour Party, Mark Chapman offers readers a Christian response to the philosophy of New Labour.
Whilst I may not fully agree with Chapman’s theology or political philosophy, his commentary on Blair’s style of government gives any Christian concerned with social issues food for thought. Chapman sees himself in the tradition of the Christian Socialists of the last century and reflects this in his choice of political models and ideals. He is highly critical of New Labour. Having resigned from the Labour Party over the first Gulf War, it is clear that he is disappointed in the direction in which it has moved since it elected Tony Blair as its leader.
Chapman is concerned that Labour has left behind its socialist roots – betraying therefore the Christian values which had so underpinned the socialist vision. He urges his Christian readers to reinvigorate the political life of the nation with the values of fraternity, solidarity and co-operation.
To do this, Chapman draws on democratic, socialist and pluralist ideas, combining them with values of the Gospel and the Christian tradition. Chapman is keen that there should be dialogue and urges Christians to engage with pluralist ideas. This should come as no surprise, as one of the major influences on Chapman is J.N. Figgis, who was amongst the first Anglican theologians to suggest that an omni-competent state posed a danger to religion and human freedom. In an age when communities seem to be disintegrating further, Chapman is keen to question Tony Blair’s ever vaguer ideas of community, and thus the focus of much of the book centres on rebuilding an idea of community in society.
Chapman sees society as an amalgam of groups working together in order to strive for the common good, with no one group in control. In such a situation the state is there to act as mediator to ‘prevent the right of any group to define the common good’ and to ensure the full participation of all the various groups and communities. The state exists to ensure that society is ordered fairly. In such a society Christians have a role to play in conversation with other groups, as no one group has access to the ‘common good.’ This, I think, raises serious questions for Christians.
Chapman suggests that Christians should come to value pluralism, as it is at the heart of the Christian doctrine of humanity. To do this, however, Christians must avoid clinging onto the ‘utter certainty of revealed law.’ Chapman calls on Christian politicians to be more open so that they might contribute to a ‘tolerant, open and conversationalist state’ and thus practice a ‘truly Christian form of politics.’ Should Christians adopt this stance, my concern would be that the doctrines of the Church would become diluted. Too often we have seen how the influences of secular pressure groups have affected decisions made by the Church.
Clearly Chapman is urging all Christians to come into conversation with society in order to improve the social and moral life of the state. But in entering into this conversation Christians must be careful not to throw away the doctrines and beliefs of Christianity in order to gain a compromise.
Chapman himself suggests that his ideas might be applied to the Church. It is encouraging to read a proponent of the Affirming Catholic school urging that all groups should be listened to in political debate. We can only hope that in the years to come Anglo-Catholics are given a fair hearing in General Synod and that proponents of a ‘conversationalist’ state are willing to enter into fair debate with their opponents, recognizing that no single group has access to the ‘common good.’
In 1997, Chapman, like many no doubt, rejoiced at the fall of the Conservative Party from power but found himself disappointed by the government that replaced them. Whilst this book laments the New Labour period, it does little to destroy the ideologies of Blair’s Britain; rather, it acts as a critique of the very nature of government in this country, and is thus far more radical than the title implies. Chapman calls into question the very way in which we view our governing classes and calls us all to become more involved in the political process.
There is much to consider in this book when viewed as a commentary on politics as a whole and not just Blair’s government. Whether we are discussing the politics of the Church or those of the State, this book serves as a wake-up call. At the very least Chapman wants us to be involved in the political process. Whatever our political persuasion, we should not shy away from debate and disagreement as they are at the ‘heart of a functioning democracy.’ As he himself points out, when the members of a ‘community’ are ‘active and participatory…governments begin to take notice.’ Those of us who are traditionalists can only hope that this is in fact the case.
POETS AND GOD
David L. Edwards
DLT, 256pp, pbk
0 232 52577 3, £12·95
It was Dr Johnson who wrote famously that to hear a woman preaching was like seeing a dog walking on its hind legs: the wonder was not that it was done well, but that it was done at all. It is indeed a wonder, for which we can be grateful, that David Edwards has written this book, which includes a chapter each on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herbert, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake, together with a Preface which lays out a grand tour d’horizon for what follows. Such breadth is to be marvelled at, and the author is to be commended for packing so much into a compact volume. There is a wealth of textual, biographical and historical detail, and none of the chapters would disincline the reader unacquainted with a particular poet from going away to read the primary texts.
Nevertheless, one must record a certain unease with the final result of Edwards’ labours. Far too much of the book is taken up with sheer synopsis of the works under discussion. This is particularly true of the chapter on Shakespeare, in which almost every play is lovingly summarized, leaving little room for anything but the most superficial critical discussion. The largely narrative approach adopted by Edwards squeezes out any real attention to the language, and to the music of the verse (a lack of which will be keenly felt by anyone who, like this reviewer, may once have been confronted by the examination question, ‘Write on Tennyson’s ear’), and the critical method can best be described as naïve, with too many assertions about who may or may not be counted as a ‘great’ according to some, at times crude, criteria. Coleridge particularly suffers in this respect. Then, there are too many Whig assumptions: the poets are too often judged as to how far they point towards, or away from, a set of values which correspond with the contemporary liberal consensus.
It is difficult to be sure quite at whom the book is aimed. The general reader, wanting to learn much in a short time, will surely be helped by this enthusiastic and competent guide, which is certainly not without fresh insight, not least his arresting comment (writing on William Blake) that ‘the British may feel the need to conquer an empire because they are not happy in bed.’
Watch House Press, 106pp, pbk
0 954 7157 13, £10
Given my fragile state on May 6, the editors of this illustrious rag, the very mention of which is known to strike fear into the heart of the liberal establishment, felt I needed cheering up. Their solution was simple. They passed your young fogies’ correspondent the Anglo-Catholic equivalent of Thought for the Day, minus the left-wing bias naturally, and asked him to review it.
Fr Mullen’s latest book does exactly what it says on the cover: it offers for each day of the year a brief thought to consider. The book could easily be read from cover to cover as often each thought connects with the next in a larger stream of debate. Indeed whilst I got slightly carried away with Fr Mullen’s discussion on punishment and democracy (‘the arrogance which screams for yet more democracy while it despises the views of the people’) I think the wise reader would read the book day by day or if need be week by week.
There is much to consider in what he writes. I found his thought for 8 October the most thought provoking and perhaps the most disconcerting. When he writes that ‘‘The Church of England is dead’ is not a mere metaphor. As Blake saw, even a rose can be ‘sick’’. He speaks as one who all around him sees the destruction of the traditions and values he holds most dear. In one simple sentence Mullen challenges us to bring the Church back to life and to prevent it being destroyed by ‘the invisible worm’.
Not all is doom and gloom. I was much amused by the sign in a public lavatory in Bridlington which read ‘Accidents will inevitably happen’. One thing is clear: Fr Mullen is not afraid to laugh at himself or at the world around him. He clearly has a wide range of interests from English literature and classics to history, philosophy and theology. I must admit to finding his enthusiasm for all aspects of culture quite infectious. His discussion of the poetry of T.S. Eliot caused me to return to Prufrock, one of my favourite poems when I studied it at A-level, and look at it in a new light. As an eighteen year old I never considered it a religious poem which has in it a ‘sense of incarnation’.
Fr Mullen could never be accused of shying away from controversy and this is perhaps why Everyday Thoughts makes such a refreshing change in a politically correct world. Many people will find that what Mullen comments on is something they themselves have at one time or another thought but perhaps were afraid to say. Nothing it would seem escapes his attention; he succeeds in his aim to provoke discussion of issues that are so often taken for granted by both Church and society. Whether one agrees with Mullen or not one cannot help but be amused.
The English Jesuits from Campion to Martindale
Bernard Basset sj
Gracewing, 208pp, pbk
0 85244 599 7, [£9·99]
Anyone acquainted with Bernard Basset’s book The English Jesuits from Campion to Martindale will echo heartily Terrance Corrigan’s praise from the preface to the first edition that Basset’s work stands as ‘a magnificent story racily told’. That edition of 1967 is written fluently, with attention to detail and several pertinent illustrations. In comparison, Rodger Charles’ abridged version represents something of a disappointment. All that is there is indeed Basset’s work, which is excellent, but it lacks so much of what makes the first edition such a good read: facts are presented without many of the colourful descriptions and asides which make the original so interesting.
Also absent are the quotations from original correspondence, which, being so necessary to the historian, represent gaping voids in the text. Particularly disappointing is the omission of the original appendices, which included the full text of Campion’s Brag, often referred to in the book and cited as a crucial piece of pro-Catholic propaganda. What remains of Basset’s text is, as was the original, extremely good, albeit slightly dated in places.
As one might expect of an history of the Jesuits told from within, it leans in the Society’s favour rather more than a secular author might, and Charles’ abridgement certainly brings out the essence of Basset’s attempt to enhance the reputation of Robert Persons. His accounts of more recent Jesuits in the epilogue retain some of the colourful descriptions of men known personally to Basset, with their eccentricities, their triumphs and failings, and in many cases their heart-warming selflessness and humanity, following in the tradition of their martyred forebears.
It would be unfair not to acknowledge that Charles warns the reader of his intentions in his introduction: ‘The purpose of this work...is to make available the essentials of the book as it was published in 1967...I hope this encourages the readers who are further interested to become familiar with that original.’ The most infuriating aspect of the book, however, is its careless presentation. The text is littered with errors of grammar and punctuation, and one might be forgiven for thinking that the convention of using inverted commas when citing quotations had passed out of fashion. As such, a number of sentences make little sense at first sight, and require great efforts of disentanglement on the part of the reader.
This abridged version has been published to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the English Province of the Society of Jesus. While Basset’s work certainly deserves to be read more widely, I am at a loss to understand who might benefit from this abridged version that would not find a reprint of the original infinitely more satisfying.
Bantam, 324pp, hbk
0 593 05291 9, £20
This book begins more like a piece of travel writing than history, as the author shares his imagination and enthusiasm for what he has found in modern day Hungary, the origin and centre of Attila’s early fifth century empire. The Hun threat to Constantinople is well documented (by the Greeks) and is interesting, but the powerful heart of this study is May’s fine reconstruction of the battle on the Catalaunian Plains in central France, when an alliance of Visigoths and the last of the Romans finally halted the terrifying advance of Attila’s army in 451.
A year later he came within an ace of sacking Ravenna; a year after that he died, and his empire fell almost as fast as it had arisen. For all his enthusiasm May is forced to concur with the dismissive judgement of an earlier historian. ‘Did the Huns make no direct contribution to the progress of Europe? Had they nothing to offer besides terror? The answer is, No, they offered nothing. They were mere plunderers and marauders.’ His, however, was the final blow that ended any hopes of a revival of the old empire in the west.
The dark horror of the end of civilization as we know it at the hands of ferocious and numberless barbarians has become part of the defining myth of Europe. If the twenty-first century has opened bleakly, for those who see Christendom as civilization’s successor to the Roman Empire, there is some comfort in looking back to what was the worst century of them all. Alaric the Goth was terrible, but Attila the Hun a generation later was more terrible still.
SAINTS IN MEDIEVAL MANUSCRIPTS
British Library, 64 pp, pbk
0 7123 4870 0, [£7·95]
Another in a beautifully illustrated series exploring themes of medieval life from their illuminated manuscripts. There is little that will surprise readers of ND, but the sheer range of devotion is powerfully portrayed, from fairy tale absurdity to profound theological reflection, and the broad catholicity of depiction, men and women, young and old, high born and low, single and in armies, forceful and timorous, sometimes appealing and often repellent.
Even if you worship in a church filled with statues, it would be hard not to regret the loss of intimacy we once shared with that great company of heaven. Illustrated is an early sixteenth century St Roch, complete with the angel touching his plague spot and the dog which brought him his food. Hugely popular in the fifteenth century, his cult revived during the cholera epidemics of the nineteenth.
ON PLATES AND BOWLS
In his latest bestseller, Ian MacEwan explores some of the pleasures of Saturday morning. Despite the book’s many felicities, it was at this point that I began to suspect we had been given the literary equivalent of The West Wing, Record Review, squash, foodie shopping; all was in place, but there was no mention of the Saturday Financial Times. In our household this is the read of the week, with its mix of Rowley Leigh’s historically aware critique of seasonable foods, Jancis Robinson, the first ‘Mistress of Wine,’ and, on the first Saturday of the month, the ‘How to Spend It’ magazine. It is consumer porn.
Its title says all you need to know about it, but under the inspired editorship, now sadly past, of Lucia van der Post, this was the source for rare and affordable luxuries (and how appropriate, and sensible, that the daughter of the guru and mystic to those who shop at Aspreys should have cut out the mysticism and concentrated on Aspreys). Thankfully she still writes for the magazine and her guide to where to buy ‘It’ was the jumping off point for this ceramics neophyte.
In the mid-nineties, modern ceramics were fashionable and the more frivolous consumer magazines would say how indispensable it was to have some Edmund de Waal to be truly minimalist. Readers of this magazine might doubt whether being the son of that particular ex-Dean of Canterbury is a selling point, but they should heed Ezekiel and treat the son on his own, considerable, merits. Fortunately, for fashion is often blind to taste and only pushes up prices (this column prefers to buy its beauty on the cheap), that trend has not lasted, and it is still possible to buy good, modern ceramics.
I emphasise the buying, because to appreciate ceramics, like most art, we have to become familiar with it. There are excellent collections of ceramics in our national and provincial museums; the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has one of the best Song ware collections outside China, and, since their collections are largely hidden, who knows what riches are in the V&A or the British Museum. The finest ceramics have always been sought after and are in the hands of serious collectors and museums. But good modern work can be bought, and it is in the day to day contact with what even a modest income can extend to, that a real appreciation of ceramics can grow.
One place to start looking at ceramics is Contemporary Applied Arts in Percy Street, London, W1 (only 400 yards from Christ the King). As well as an excellent website (caa.org.uk), a whole range of work, not just ceramics, is for sale, and the artists are both newcomers and the internationally famous. It is also a good source for presents which are that little bit out of the ordinary; just the sort of place, in fact, Ian MacEwan might have dropped into Saturday.