arts, books, other reviews
RENAISSANCE FACES: VAN EYCK TO TITIAN
The National Gallery
15 October 2008-18 January 2009 Admission £10; concessions £9
The excellent film which introduces this exhibition makes the simple but important point that the art of portraiture existed long before the Renaissance, but that the Renaissance introduced and evolved the idea of likeness. Albrecht Diirer said that portraiture 'preserves the likenesses of men after their deaths.' But there is more than memento mori to the portraits on display.
The paintings, sculptures and coins are grouped in rooms according to themes: 'Remembering' (as in Diir-er's definition); 'Identity, attributes and allegory'; 'Courtship and friendship'; 'Families'; 'Love and beauty'; 'Drawings'; and the final spectacular room, 'Portraits of rulers'.
These themes work well and provide a thesis to compare and contrast works. Not surprisingly in one of the rooms the dominating work is The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, one of the Gallery's own paintings. But you will also find a splendidly executed painting by Parmi-gianino, the Portrait of a Collector. The sitter has on the table in front of him a few artefacts and holds in his hand a book with a beautiful jewelled binding. The particular interest lies in the querulous expression of the sitter who seems to be irritated by an interruption. This is a tellingly human touch and points to the development of personality through expression rather than through the iconography of the painting. Of course, all that is there. The attributes
and hints in the background say much about the sitter and the painting can still be read in this way.
In this room is also the oddly disturbing portrait of The Emperor Rudolph II as Vertumnus (the god of seasons) painted by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The image is formed entirely from a wide range of fruits and vegetables and flowers to show the congruity of the Emperor with plenty. There are hints of ancient Rome and of political statements.
Lorenzo Lotto (about 1480-1556/7) ~ Portrait of Giovanni della Volta with his Wife ©The National Gallery, London (NG1047)
It is oddly flat in its finish and the glossy reproduction in the catalogue is rather more appealing. This painting hangs in the Skoklosters Slott. Another of the National Gallery's own paintings is The Tailor by Giovanni Battista Moroni which shows that a successful tradesman can also have his portrait painted with the tools of his trade and that the art of portraiture is moving out of the aristocratic stratum of society. It is a delicately achieved portrait, with the tailor looking gently out of the painting.
See also the magnificent painting by Lorenzo Lotto of Fra Gregario Belo of Vicenza (on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of New York) where the steady gaze of concentrated thought, emphasized by a tightly clenched fist and an exquisite background miniature of the crucifixion, speaks of the priest's spiritual intensity. This speaks beyond itself, as the catalogue points out, because the congregation to which the friar belonged was 'a hotbed of unorthodox religious reform...receptive to the new spirituality propounded by Luther, who advocated a religion that was not dependent on the Church as intercessor, but focused on the spiritual life of the individual' There is much to enjoy throughout this exhibition, not least a startling modern portrait by Diirer of Johannes Kleberger, where the portrait bust, through an markedly unsubtle use of perspective, leaps from the canvas. It owes much to sculpted busts that had been in existence since antiquity and were, in a sense, rediscovered in the Renaissance. There is a stunningly serene and delicately carved bust of St Constance, called The Beautiful Florentine, and a solid and imposing marble of Niccolo Strozzi by Mino da Fiesole, as well as a strongly individual bust of Francesco Sassetti by Antonio Rossellino. Do not overlook the famous miniature by Nicholas Hilliard of the Young Man Among the Roses.
Realism in portraiture is well represented. Not all of these works are flattering. There is the well-known painting by Quinten Massys of An Old Woman which formed the inspiration for Sir John Tenniel's and Children, 1547 illustration of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. The sitter has been identified, quite early in the painting's history, as the Duchess of Carinthia and Countess of Tyrol, and her extreme features are thought to be the result of Paget's disease, osteitis deformans, the continued growth and malformation of the bones. Such knowledge makes the painting touching rather than grotesque. Similarly the painting by Domenico Ghir-landaio of the Head of an Old Man, who shows the disfiguring results of (probably) rhinophyma, is ameliorated by the presence of an adoring child and the tenderness of the expression of the man himself. There is a room of drawings, some of which are preliminary sketches, for paintings seen elsewhere which are a serious study and exhibition in themselves and lead to the final room of portraits of public grandeur and political display. There are magnificent portraits of Pope Julius II by Raphael, and of Pope Paul III by Titian, who is also represented by a portrait, grand but brooding, of King Philip II of Spain. There are also statues and busts of him by Leoni and Jonghelinck, and a truly wonderful bust of the Emperor Charles V. These mighty representations are undercut by a portrait on the same scale by Antonis Mor of Perejon, Buffoon to the Count Benavente and the Duke of Alba. His twisted right forearm and wrist, grasping a pack of cards, and his mournful expression form a telling contrast to the majesty that surrounds him and he performs the function in his portrait as he performed in his life.
Partly because we do not often see portraits of Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor), the one in this final room by Antonis Mor is particularly affecting. Probably painted while she was undergoing her phantom pregnancy, there is a steeliness in the gaze but a resignation of expression and a tension about her features that elicit a high degree of sympathy. But that is but one of the abiding images of this fine, stimulating and enjoyable exhibition.
DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST
Directed by Robert Bresson
Optimum World 5055201802590, £20
This film by Robert Bresson was first released in 1951. It is based on George Bernanos' 1936 book of the same title, using a script written by Bernanos. The slipcase quotes the Guardian as saying that it is 'an exceptionally intelligent film'. Don't let that put you off. It is a powerful film which, because of the authors input, is also exceptionally Christian.
The story begins with the arrival of a young priest taking a first parish in the village of Ambricourt. Bernanos had treated similar material in his first book, Under Satan's Sun. That book has also been made into a film with Gerard Depardieu as a cure who is part Cyrano de Bergerac, part Cure d'Ars; a big, strong man who works miracles to the point of raising the dead, fights Satan, has a complicated relationship with a beautiful woman and dies, worn out, hearing confessions.
No such luck for the Cure d'Ambricourt. When he has saved souls, the grip of evil on the world - one of Bernanos' great themes - means that things go from bad to worse. Hardly anyone comes to his church, despite intensive visiting through the dull, muddy Pas de Calais countryside (the film makes it quite clear that we are not missing much when the Eurostar rushes through to Lille). His life of evangelical poverty is an excuse for the local peasants to cheat him. When he prepares their children for first communion, he is mocked for his pains. And when he takes St Paul's advice and drinks a little wine for the sake of his stomach, he is presumed to be an alcoholic. In fact, the cure is in the advanced stages of stomach cancer and his death at the end of the film has an echo of St Therese of Lisieux, even to the words, 'Grace is everything - Grace c'est tout'.
And that is the point. This is a film about grace and about the hand of God in this world. The austerity of the priest's life is echoed in the austerity of the film, which builds strongly through short, simple scenes to the inevitable close. The power of the cinematography helps us see the power of grace.
Of course, the austerity of the cure is double-edged. A wiser and possibly worldlier priest has to explain to him that his people hate him because his simplicity burns into their souls. Any patron would think twice about appointing this tactless man to a living. He has no 'people skills'. He is socially inept. And yet when it comes to saving souls, the cure can read the secrets of the heart and break the most stubborn wills.
However, the pivotal point of the film comes not with another soul saved but when the cure begins to understand his own particular relationship with God, which is that he should share in Christ's Agony in the Garden. The simplicity and enthusiasm of the young man are to be rewarded by a share in Christ's sufferings. It is difficult to imagine a spirituality more alien to the contemporary Church in any of its incarnations, though St Francis of Assisi would have got the point.
On the lighter side, the film also gives an entertaining picture of clergy life. Claude Laydu, who plays the cure, had spent some time in religious institutions to see how clergy behave. His portrayal of clergy mannerisms is a long way from the Vicar of Dibley, but a little too close for comfort. And then there are the other clergy. There is the friend from seminary, a man bubbling with ideas and cleverness who, nevertheless, cannot see how much his girl loves him or notice that his friend is on the point of death. And there is the neighbouring priest, a man of good sense and good living, who tries to fatten up his colleague. Of course, behind the humour of those portraits there is a strong sense of the separateness of the clergy. This separateness is the more poignant when, on his way to his appointment with the specialist who will tell the priest that he is dying, the cure goes for a motorcycle ride with a dashing young soldier on leave from the Legion. The soldier says they could have been comrades because priest and soldier share the great human virtue of facing the world full on. The dying priest for once is happy to share some human warmth and we realize how much he has given up for God.
PIANO WORKS: 3
John Lenehan, piano
Naxos 8.570461, £6.00
'I am not a great composer,' remarked John Ireland, 'but I am a significant one', and that self-portrait cannot be bettered. Ireland (1879-1962) did not work on the scale of Elgar or Vaughan Williams, to speak only of English composers. He produced no opera, no symphony, and no oratorio. He could write, and write very well, larger orchestral pieces such as his symphonic study Mai Dun, or the Legend for piano and orchestra, or the choral setting These Things Shall Be, and notably his Piano Concerto - one of the finest written by a British composer. For his most personal thoughts, though, he turned instinctively to the intimacy of songs, chamber music and compositions for solo piano. Yet he was undeniably a significant composer. To paraphrase a comment by Bernard Levin on E.M. Forster (and Ireland's position in English music bears some comparison with that of Forster in English literature), if Ireland had not written as he did there would be a hole in our music and we should be indefinitely puzzled as to what was missing.
Ireland's musical voice, once heard, is unmistakable but hard to define. It is unquestionably English, but not the Eng-lishness of Elgar's nobility and melancholy, or of Vaughan Williams' folksongs. Like most of the outstanding musical talents of his generation he was thoroughly grounded in composition by the teaching of C. V. Stanford. However, he escaped the pervasive German musical atmosphere of the time, and a healthy influence from France leavened his own style.
Ireland's music for the Anglican Church is well known, and he was a committed, if rather uneasy, Churchman. This was something he shared with the man who was the most important influence in his creative life. Just as Arnold Bax was awakened to the world of Celtic things by the poetry of W. B. Yeats, so Ireland found a soul mate in the Welsh writer, Arthur Machen. Machen was a High Churchman, yet like Ireland he responded strongly to landscape. Both men had a powerful sense of old paganism lurking just below the surface of things and ready to break out, possibly destructively. The inspiration of Machen is at work clearly in a piano piece like Scarlet Ceremonies (see below), where he is quoted at the head of the score, but his vision is also found mingling with Ireland's own sensitivity to ancient sites in Mai Dun, The Forgotten Rite, Legend, and the piano sequence Sarnia, inspired by the Channel Islands.
This recording is the third disk of Ireland's solo piano music which Naxos has produced. Once again John Lenehan shows himself to be a magnificent servant of Ireland's work. He has all the technique required to deal with the difficulties sometimes found in the piano writing - the apparent ease with which he faced the hair-raising challenge of Scarlet Ceremonies on disk 2 showed that - but he also meets Ireland's specific request that his shifting harmonies should be clearly heard and not lost in a wash of sound. On this disk Lenehan moves without effort from the demands of the Sonata (whose third movement was inspired by the pagan hill fort, Chanctonbury Ring) through the quiet reflection of pieces such as The Undertone to the sprightly On a Birthday Morning. When one is able to hear a good selection of Ireland's solo piano works played well, the variety, inspiration and depth of feeling to be found in them become apparent.
I end with a warning. If you buy this recording and fall under Ireland's spell you will be impelled to buy the two previous disks so as to discover more of the work of a composer who was (to borrow from Levin on Forster again) 'a man of undoubted though elusive genius'. Full marks to Naxos for undertaking the task of giving us Ireland's piano music, and to John Lenehan for his skill and insight as
a performer. I hope Naxos have plans for asking him to record the Piano Concerto and Legend, as well as for giving us a disk of some of Ireland's orchestral pieces.
Barry A. Orford
A Study in Religious Ambiguity W.S.F. Pickering James Clark & Co., 300pp, pbk 978 0227679883, £19.50
'Beware of the Anglo-Catholics - they're all sodomites with unpleasant accents.' One cannot help feeling on reading W.S.F. Pickering's study of Anglo-Catholicism that Waugh's line is the highest praise any Catholic in the Church of England can expect from him. In the newly-printed edition of this now somewhat dated text, Pickering undertakes to explore the ambiguities within Anglo-Catholicism in order to ask 'what keeps priests and laity of strong Catholic inclinations loyal to Anglicanism?' - clearly a relevant question. The term 'ambiguity' is rarely positive, and so Pickering's slant is clear from the outset. This considerably undermines the work as a whole, which often lacks the objective tone one would welcome in a scholarly work.
The study is divided into three sections. Pickering begins by offering a brief definition of Anglo-Catholicism as distinct from other 'high church' groups such as the Tractarians or Anglo-Papalists. Part 2 deals with the emergence of Anglo-Catholicism and its rise to what he considers its apogee during the interwar years. The following section treats 'sexuality', and the whole thing is rounded off with a postscript to the existing edition which reminds the reader that, gosh, some pretty important changes have taken place in the last twenty years, about which it's probably a good idea to have a bit of a think.
Pickering writes engagingly about the history of Anglo-Catholicism, and the historical sections of the work, when the author is at his most objective, are involving. I was also fascinated by his comments on the notion of an Anglo-Roman Catholic patois' and brand of humour. Perhaps that is why I was amused by several anecdotes in the book which were instead most probably designed to provoke shock and dismay among Pickering's readers, such as the following exchange from Punch:
Fiancée: After we're married, dear, you won't mind if I don't come to your church much, will you?' Curate: 'But why ever not, precious?' Fiancée: 'Well, you see, I don't really approve of married clergymen.'
Another anecdote concerned Fr de Waal's peculiarity that if he entered a church where Gothic vestments were used, he would 'produce a card of safety pins and turn them into the Latin shape'.
However, any such enjoyment derived from this book was as methodically extinguished as a Tenebrae hearse by having to read the rest of it. It is very much aimed at those suspicious of, or flatly against, any Catholic elements in the Church of England. The most worrying section is that concerning Anglo-Catholicism and homosexuality, where the author's comments border on the downright offensive. To suggest that all homosexuals are by definition effeminate and lacy figures is insulting and does not belong here. The chapter on 'Remaining where they are', which essentially demands to know why Anglo-Catholics are still hanging around like a bad smell (Rosa Mystica, perhaps), feels rather like a case of 'here's your hat, what's your hurry?' Finally, I was amused by the high praise lavished upon that painfully right-on body Affirming Catholicism' [sic] which 'attempts to be firmly positive in its aims' (after which read: unlike those scheming rotters at FiF...).
However, putting such petty squabbles aside, the most frustrating aspect of this book is that it is so flagrantly unschol-arly Pickering boldly asserts that 'what is written in the pages ahead is a sociological exploration of Anglo-Catholicism'. However, while he does base the historical section of the book on existing data, his conclusions in the latter part, which deals with more recent developments, seem to be the product of his own musings and prejudices, rather than the sort of proper, empirical evidence usually gathered by social scientists. Pickering's comment that 'Yet once more there is a lack of scientific evidence' sums up the book's main problem rather well.
Mr Pickering claims that he was advised by several people to write another book on Anglo-Catholicism in the light of the events of 1992 and the probable outcome of General Synod in 2008-9, but considered this unachievable (thank Heaven for small mercies?). Given the huge changes brought about by recent decisions in the Church of England (or 'experiments in change', to quote Dr Williams' recent words at Lourdes), it might have been more appropriate to have undertaken further, detailed research, rather than tacking on a rather half-hearted and largely impressionistic view of developments during the nineteen years since the book was first published.
Pickering's book is primarily concerned with costume rather than creed -with 'orthofrocksy', not orthodoxy - and thus lacks any semblance of meaningful engagement with those who are concerned less with 'tatting about' than with their life as Christian men and women and their earnest desire to do Gods will and to serve his Church and her people. Indeed, Pickering might have taken the trouble to chat with some Anglo-Catholics; perhaps the swathe of often young, vibrant, committed and, dare I say it, vaguely normal Anglo-Catholics around at the moment. Still, if he didn't, would anyone really care?
Archbishop of Canterbury
James Clark and Co., 131pp, hbk
This is trailed as the first scholarly biography of Archbishop Fisher. It is a tad unfair to Edward Carpenter's book which was not unscholarly and was substantial. But this is as good a time as any to offer a reappraisal and to bring some greater perspective than may have been possible for Dean Carpenter; not least because in its ecumenical aspect Fisher's archiepiscopate was framed by a call for the unity of the Free Churches with the Church of England and his visit to Pope John XXIII. We have learned in recent years, and all too painfully, that you cannot have both.
Fisher also suffered, according to Professor Hein, from being sandwiched between William Temple and Michael Ramsay, two charismatic figures beside whom Fisher appears headmasterly and bound into the establishment at a time when certainties are starting to be undermined. Fisher's 'pivotal archiepiscopate' has been unduly neglected and this book sets out to rectify this lacuna.
Professor Hein's picture of Fisher does not deviate unduly from the consensus. Here was an uncomplicated man, conservative and consistent in outlook and attitudes, loyal, devoted, showing powers of intellect and physical stamina whose early life and career at Repton marked him and shaped his headmasterly approach to his episcopal offices.
The life is approached partly chronologically and partly thematically when it comes to the discussion of his archiepiscopate. Professor Hein argues persuasively that the child was the father of the man. He brings into focus Fisher's two episcopal appointments at Chester and London, where he brought some administrative order to the chaos left by the loveable but scatty Winnington-Ingram. He also sought, with the administrator's eye and attitude, to bring order to the Code of Canon Law while he was Archbishop. It was a matter of some controversy at the time, and questions were asked whether this should be a priority in a post-war world and disconnected society.
The relative futility of the time and effort expended was highlighted when Canon Law proved inadequate to cope with the case of Bishop Barnes of Birmingham. Professor Hein deals succinctly and clearly with this cause célèbre. Fisher could not find any sensible disciplinary procedure to deal with Barnes other than a full-scale heresy trial. With sane advice from, among others, Bishop Kirk of Oxford, he opted for a condemnation of the book in firm and unambiguous terms in a speech to Convocation.
He said that Barnes so diminishes.. .the content of the Christian Faith as to make the residue which is left inconsistent with the scriptural doctrine and beliefs of the Church in which [he] holds office...he reduces the resurrection of Our Lord to a subjective conviction on the part of His disciples. .. [a bishop has] stricter standards... adequately and faithfully [to express] the general doctrines of the Church and their scriptural basis which he is pledged by his office to defend and promote.' Fisher was not satisfied that the book Barnes had published was consistent with Church teaching and said that 'if his views were mine, I should not feel that I could still hold episcopal office in the Church.' Dr Fisher: thou shouldest be living at this hour.
Fisher presided over two Lambeth Conferences, rather less fraught than those in more recent years, and he presided over the transformation of the Church of the Empire. As the British Imperium gave way to the Commonwealth of Nations, Fisher was particularly concerned with the development of indigenous hierarchies, not least in Africa to which he devoted especial interest. He also supported the launch of the World Council of Churches and developed an ecumenical role which was forward-looking for the time and from someone of his background.
His contribution to the political discourse of the United Kingdom in the matter of social and moral change was characterized, according to Professor Hein, by 'a hard-nosed, common-sense' realism. His instincts were conservative and he supported, for example, the retention of capital punishment for some murders. He was comfortable in the Establishment and would, no doubt, today be bewildered at the changes that have occurred in such a relatively short time. He was always suspicious of the radical social Catholicism of his successor and tried to influence the Prime Minister of the day not to elevate Ramsey to Canterbury. But the Anglo-Catholic Harold Macmillan would have none of it, saying that Fisher may have been Ramsey's headmaster but he was not his. It was Ramsey who provided a moral underpinning to the socio-sexual reforms of the heady Sixties.
Professor Hein has written a sensitive essay on Fisher and has brought him to our attention. He still seems a Victorian or Edwardian relic and a man of his time, age, social conditioning and understanding. He was no academic or intellectual, and, in an Archbishop who has to negotiate the shoals and shifting sands, that is perhaps a good thing. Perhaps our settled view of Fisher has not been unduly disturbed by this book, but it will have had the beneficial result of bringing us to reappraise his contribution, and see him in a fresher light and perhaps with a greater degree of sympathy than his reputation has enjoyed thus far.
There is, sadly, no index, which would have been helpful even in a short book. In these economically catastrophic times, to ask £17.50 for 113 pages of text is a bit steep.
CREATION OR EVOLUTION
Do we have to choose? Denis Alexander
Monarch Books, 382pp, pbk 9781854247469, £10.99
Is it to be creation or evolution? The authority of scientific research or of the Bible? If you live in both worlds like Dr Alexander you are yourself an authority and a guide to these dilemmas. His guidance comes in a massive book that delves into the detail of evolutionary theory and provides a relatively mainstream Christian response to it. The writers passion for truth carries the reader along despite a great amount of detailed analysis and a dearth of summary sections.
Alexander believes 'the Bible is the inspired Word of God from cover to cover' and also that 'within the scientific community. ..the word 'Christian is now often equated with the ideas of creationism or ID (Intelligent Design), making it that much harder to share the good news about Christ.' In his b o ok there is a clarification of the deepest issues at stake in the 'creation-evolution debate and the presentation of an 'evolutionary creationism' that counters views expressed by contemporary atheists as well as hard-line creationists.
If the 4.6 billion year history of the earth is crammed into a single day, the whole of recorded history is compressed into one fifth of the second before midnight, a blink of an eyelid. The existence of genes, chromosomes and DNA packaging, the idea of diversity, genomes, natural selection, speciation - all that is intrinsic to and argues for the acceptance of evolutionary theory is detailed. Though Alexander sets out five models for relating the story of Adam and Eve to evolutionary biology the literal interpretation associated with Archbishop Ussher which dated their coming into existence in 4004 bc is inevitably given short shrift. Rather evolution is affirmed as 'the winner-takes-all mechanism...remarkably successful in helping humankind to fulfil the command given in Genesis 1.28.'
In Alexander's evolutionary creationism God's providential purposes and handiwork are to be discerned throughout the long evolutionary process. The Bible and its God-given supplement, nature, are to be taken together and not allowed to be rival interpreters. The idea of a God invoked to fill the gaps of knowledge is rightly dismissed but the author, having criticised creationists, goes after atheists for similarly supporting their disbelief from such gaps'. Evolutionary biology sees some sort of direction to the evolution of life which starts from the simple one cell organisms and moves through multicellular organisms to plants, reptiles then mammals climaxing in homininids. Atheism-of-the-gaps' makes interpretations of scientific data that build on occasional exceptions to what is seen as a growing scientific consensus on 'the existence of an ordered, constrained, directional history of life'.
2009 is the double centenary of Charles Darwin's birth and the sesquicentenary of his book On the Origin of Species published in 1859. Many see the wane of Christian allegiance in Britain as stemming from the creation-evolution debate that began in those days and which continues to reveal a lack of intellectual rigour in Christian circles. This book will help those especially from the Evangelical tradition to recover the credibility of Bible believing in the face of evolution. It needs supplementing by fresh engagement with the Catholic tradition. Writers like the priest geologist Teil-hard de Chardin, Christian evolutionary mystic, have helped draw the sting of the creation-evolution within Catholicism.
For most Christians Alexanders title Creation or Evolution - Do we have to choose? is a non-question and yet very many Christians are ill-equipped to explain why this is the case and to turn the argument around. It is well worth buying this book to arm your Christian witness to engage with the Darwin anniversary.
Kenneth Tynan's late scatological flowering on television and on the stage (not dispelled by the publication of his rather squalid and explicit diaries) has largely overshadowed his reputation as the finest drama critic since Hazlitt. Perhaps this selection of his writings on the theatre [Theatre Writings by Kenneth Tynan, edited by Dominic Shellard; Nick Hearn, £9.99] will go some way to restore him to that pinnacle. His writing deserves it.
Theatre criticism is more enduring than the thing it describes. Was it Edwin Booth, the great American tragedian and brother of the assassin of Lincoln, who described acting as 'sculpting in snow'? And some of the most enduring of such criticism is that penned in vitriol: the cutting phrase, the elegant insult always has appeal. But where Hazlitt and Tynan are so very good is in their praise, in the marvellous evocation of great acting, in the careful delineation of the 'high-definition' performance, as Tynan memorably and accurately put it.
There are strictures enough in this book. Tynan hated the 'Loamshire' feel of much post-war, safe, drawing room drama which he saw as enervating and mediocre. He had his pet hates and was not slow or forgiving in giving them a bad notice. But there is also tremendous insight and psychological perspicacity as he charts the rise of the new theatre of the Fifties and beyond. Great stage acting only lives in the moment (and is never really captured in other media) and in the vividness of memory. Tynan could bring to the minds eye performances that you did not see and make it seem as though you had been in the stalls with him: a rare talent.
Piers Brendon is an historian who is always well worth reading. In his book The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997 [Vintage, £9.99], with its echoes of Edward Gibbon, he narrates exactly what his title says, and does so with some panache. The end of Empire and its metamorphosis into the Commonwealth is coming into some sort of historical perspective and is increasingly the subject of books and surveys. Of course, he has taken on a huge task, not much less than that of Gibbon, and with a similar trajectory. He is sufficiently fleet of foot to maintain a goodly forward momentum but without undue loss of the broader scene. His work often has more than a hint of the iconoclastic and there is no loss of that here. He is quicker to sense the exploitative aspects of imperialist colonialization than the benefits of Empire but as a tour d'horizon it has set a high standard.
We are used to speaking of 'the bright young things' to characterize the yoof of the roaring Twenties. However, the phrase originally used was 'bright young people' and it referred specifically to a coterie of aristocratic and wealthy young men and women with a bohemian attitude to life, rather frenetic in their enjoyment and their lavish parties. They may seem entirely frivolous, especially in contrast to the grim realities of the Great War against which they were reacting: they were grateful simply for being alive. However, the likes of the Mitfords, Bryan Guiness, Stephen Tennant (was his life entirely as useless as it appears?), Cecil Beaton, the photographer, Beverley Nichols, something of a literary enfant terrible before he succumbed to a Godfrey-Winn-like cosiness without the saccharine sentimentality, have entered into the consciousness as emblematic of the period.
Of course, they were chronicled with a merciless eye by Evelyn Waugh and we should be grateful for their existence as fodder for his satire. D. J. Taylor's book Bright Young People: the Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940 [Vintage, £9.99] offers a rather sober re-assessment. Among the bright young people was also the perennial favourite John Betjeman.
Continuum have issued a charming collection of Betjeman's poetry [Poems in the Porch by John Betjeman, edited by Kevin Gardner; Continuum, £14.99] which brings together poems he wrote to be read out on the wireless, some of which are published here for the first time. They deal with one of his favourite subjects, churches and religion, and they strike characteristic chords. The best made it into the Collected Poems and although the others are of variable quality, and one or two are not up to the mark, they make a welcome and enjoyable addition to the Betjeman literary record. Mr Gardner provides a helpful introduction.
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