BOOK REVIEWS

My eclectic ‘to be read’ this year collection. Ed.

Whose Feet Walked on England’s Mountains Green?

7th September 2021

The last night of the proms 2021, still affected by some covid restrictions, will none the less include the usual enthusiastic rendition of ‘Jerusalem’.   But what do those in the hall, and the huge radio and tv audiences around the world, think those opening words are about?  Given that the second line speaks of the Holy Lamb of God they might (if they give the words any attention at all) think its God’s feet that are being referred to.  But is it?

The author, William Blake, was an extraordinary man, and one completely at odds with the world he lived in.  While late eighteenth century society was in the grip of the enlightenment enthusiasm for rationalism and science, categorising, counting and quantifying everything in sight, Blake lived a visionary life and talked in very matter of fact ways about his many encounters with angels, with historical figures from the past and with such mysterious figures as the fiery Los, the intensely focussed and controlling Urizon and the giant Albion.  Blake was a poet, painter and printmaker whose strange but magnetic words and artworks all emerged from his visionary experiences and have both fascinated and confused people for over 200 years.  His work has inspired others to such an extent that a huge statue outside the British Library by Eduardo Paulozzi is based on Blake’s portrayal of Newton which in turn is based on Blake’s mysterious Urizon and ‘Jerusalem’ is sung as a hymn, serves as unofficial English national anthem to be rolled out not only at the proms, but at the Women’s Institute and party-political conferences!

A brilliant new biography by John Higgs‘William Blake VS The World’ builds on more than a century of research to take us into the heart of Blake.  It is attractively written and readable, delving, like a detective story, into world Blake lived in, the influences he absorbed and it also takes the reader on journeys into the writings of medieval mystics and many others who have had visionary experiences, into neuroscience to discover how the brain works, into counter culture, quantum physics, comparative religion and more!  By doing so it takes us deeper into Blake mysterious world. Along the way we learn that those feet probably belong to Albion, but to find out who and what Albion is you’ll have to read the book!  

However, this book is much more than an insightful biography of Blake.  It invites us to use Blake as a guide to understand ourselves and our world.  It is an invitation to those who read it to open their minds to the richness and importance of imagination and of visionary and mystical experience and to realise that the contemporary world may now be in even more need of Blake’s vision to balance the narrow and constricting materialist view of the universe and of human life that has come to dominate our current world view.  This biography places Blake very firmly among the great spiritual visionaries and someone with some important truths to impart to Christians and to the church!

‘William Blake vs The World’ by John Higgs

Weidenfield & Nicolson 2021

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30th July 2021

Holiday reading

A week away, in a cottage with dubious media reception but comfortable sofas – a golden opportunity.  What to take? . . well, our house is full of books.  However, there is no temptation like a bookshop, and the review section of the Saturday paper had spawned one or two ideas.  

The review of Letters to Camondo, by Edmund de Waal, sparked interest on various fronts: it confirmed what I had suspected, that he was one of the sons of Victor de Waal, who was Anglican chaplain at Nottingham University when I was an undergraduate there in the 1960s, but also revealed a link with the Ephrussi banking family, and Robin and I had, on a recent holiday in the South of France, visited the Villa Ephrussi on Cap Ferrat, near Nice.  So here were some threads to explore.  There had been an earlier book by the same author, The Hare with Amber Eyes, which had registered in my mind, but I had not sought it out, fearing that a book by a highly-regarded ceramicist might be too technical to be enjoyable: however, the two were clearly meant to be read in sequence.

The Hare with Amber Eyes proved to be an engaging account of the rise (and eventual demise) of a family with its origins in a shtetl on the Polish border, and its commercial origins trading grain (extremely successfully) in Odessa.  From Odessa they had spread out into Europe, and later into the Americas, and the hare of the title proved to be one of a collection of netsuke – miniature Japanese figurines – which was acquired by one of the family in Paris in the mid-19th century and provides the link between the various branches as it passes down the line.  The history of a Jewish family in the period from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century will not necessarily be an easy read emotionally, especially as one branch was based in Vienna, but can raise some interesting aperçus into the cultural world of the time: the Jewish immigrants, with plenty of money and having large new houses to furnish, were great patrons of the arts, especially the visual arts. And as the members of the family disperse around the world questions of identity and belonging (how does a descendant of this family come to be an Anglican priest?) also arise.

Having finished this book, it seemed best not to move directly to the Letters, but Giles Fraser’s book Chosen had somehow found its way into my basket in a local bookshop, and promised to deal with some similar questions though from a different angle. Giles Fraser is also of Jewish descent and is also an Anglican priest, and is perhaps best known for having resigned from the team at St Paul’s over the Occupy affair some years ago.  This is a book considerably more personal to the author, and more focussed on current social/moral/religious issues, although family history runs through it: occasionally it borders on the obsessive; but the exposition of the Biblical basis for the conclusions he comes to is lucid and persuasive, although freedom to disagree is always an option.

There was just time to take in Letters to Camondo before we had to leave, and it was again an engaging read. Camondo, a near neighbour of the Ephrussi brothers in Paris, died in 1935, and the letters are an exploration of some of the questions that descendants of Jewish families would, I am sure, like to ask their forebears were they still alive.  The pervading question, however, is one that Camondo himself might have liked to ask the French authorities: if one has lived in a country for most of a century, if your son has died fighting a war for that country, if one has been apparently accepted by society there, what else must one do to avoid deportation and death at the hands of an occupying power? 

Margaret.

25th April 2021

Hope for the Future

A month ago, I reviewed a hopeful approach to the past, but what about the future?  Can we be hopeful in the face of climate change and the many other challenges that face the planet and what, if anything, can Christians contribute to a hopeful future?

‘The Future We Choose’ and ‘Seeing Differently’ are two very different books which are both realistic and hopeful about the future.

‘The Future We Choose; Surviving the Climate Crisis’ has been written by two people deeply involved in the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 and its implementation.  Christiana Figueres was UN Executive Secretary for Climate Change and Tom Rivett-Carnac was the senior strategist for the Paris Agreement and so they know what they are talking about.  Their book is divided into three main sections.

Part 1 explores two possible futures. In one future the world makes no further progress towards halting the ever-increasing global climate crisis and as temperatures soar, the world heats and burns, sea levels rise, wiping out low lying countries and cities, fuelling a huge escalation in the already alarming refugee crisis: inequalities between and within nations increase as do social unrest, desperation and violence. The alternative future sees humanity co-operate to reduce all the various factors fuelling the climate crisis.  In that scenario the climate stabilises, the dangers recede, nature thrives again and a better quality of life becomes available to more people the world over.

That sounds optimistic, even pie in the sky, but it isn’t, and parts two and three are intensely practical and down to earth in their approach.  Part two tackles the issue of mindset; the need for us all to shift our assumptions about economic progress and how we use and share the world’s resources. It suggests three key ways in which the whole human race must change some of its inherited and cherished assumptions and attitudes. Part three explores ten practical actions that are needed if, some at least, of that positive future is to become a reality. We can all share in some of those actions but others are more a matter of international agreement and practical political solutions.

This book is very soundly based, a practical assessment of where we are and what we must do if things are to improve and the authors know only too well how difficult it will be to achieve.

Seeing Differently; Franciscans and Creation’ approaches these issues from the point of view of Christian faith and practice inspired by St Francis of Assisi.  Its authors are all Anglican Franciscans and their book is also divided into three parts. 

Part 1 looks back to Francis himself and the many stories about him as well as his writings and his remembered sayings, and it teases out some of his key themes.  Part two takes us into the history of the Franciscan movement and the later developments that led to a particularly Franciscan approach to the natural world, to spirituality and prayer, and to human living and flourishing. Part three brings us right into the present. Written during last year in the first wave of the pandemic it takes the themes from parts one and two and weaves them into an exploration of what it means to live as a Franciscan now, and how Francis might inspire all of us to face the challenges of the future.

‘Seeing differently’ fundamentally tackles the most difficult aspect of the current crisis that ‘The Future We Choose’highlights – how we change our mindset, how we can be turned round to see the world and our lives differently and in ways which ensure that our footprint on the world does as little damage as possible.  

Within the overall Christian tradition there have always been some who give priority to internal change and personal faith, repentance and forgiveness.  There have also been those who give priority to the transformation of society, to the promotion of God’s kingdom of justice and peace in the world.  This book reminds us that these are not either/or choices.  The spiritual journey of inner transformation and the kingdom emphasis on the transformation of human society belong together.  ‘Seeing Differently’ suggests a number of ways forward that are inspiring, yet down to earth, both wise and wonderful.

Two books to read, ponder and change us!

Gordon

The Future we choose; Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac

Manilla Press 2020

Seeing Differently; Franciscans and Creation by Simon Cocksedge, Samuel Double and Nicholas Alan Worssam

Canterbury Press 2021

21st March 2021

A Hopeful History!

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies has sold millions of copies and been translated into a host of languages.  It tells a gloomy tale of how a group of schoolboys survive a plane crash but are left stranded on a pacific island.  After a promising start it is not long before what Golding regarded as their true nature asserted itself. They become increasingly savage, violent and eventually murderous.  Golding’s pessimistic ‘take’ on humanity is probably one of the most widely shared assumptions about human nature and is certainly one backed up by some influential religious thinkers and teachers.  St Paul in his gloomier moments, St Augustine of Hippo more significantly, and most especially the majority of 16th century protestant ‘reformers’ in an extreme way emphasised human wickedness and saw people as a mass of sin incapable of anything good except by God’s grace.  

But one recent book has an interestingly different ‘take’ on humanity.  Rutger Bregman compares the behaviour Golding attributed to the boys in ‘Lord of the Flies’ with a true story of stranded boys – and the real boys behaved in exactly the opposite way to Golding’s fictional boys.  In his book Humankind – A Hopeful History he explores masses of evidence suggesting that human beings possess natural and instinctive tendencies towards goodness, co-operation and trust and suggests that taking all that evidence on board will lead us to shift our understanding of human beings and society.  However, Bregman is no starry-eyed utopian living in a dream world!  He knows only too well that humans are capable of great evil but he roots out some explanations for how this can happen and under what conditions.  His insights include much that is helpful and plausible and the book is a significant attempt to shift the balance of assumptions and introduce us to a more truthful and realistic view of human nature.

Like all such books it has its weaknesses and it needs to be read critically and not just accepted on face value.  But I found its strengths far outweighed the few weaknesses.  All in all a very worthwhile read – and almost entirely devoid of the kind of impenetrable jargon that mars so many books.  I thoroughly recommend it.

Gordon 

Rutger Bregman    

Humankind – A Hopeful History.  

English translation published Bloomsbury 2020

Hardback and paperback versions available

4th March 2021

“The Girl with the Louding Voice” by Abi Dare

Today is World Books Day and to celebrate here is a recommendation from Janet.

“ I warmly recommend a book we have read recently in our Book Group.   “The Girl with the Louding Voice” by Abi Dare, published in 2020.  It is about modern day slavery for girls in Nigeria.    She writes with beautifully with humour and skill, once you have got used to her delightful use of language the story flows through a pretty awful situation describing village life for young girls and their expectations for their future.  She describes the various characters with great skill.    It shows the amazing resilience and determination of the heroine to be heard and have a fruitful future.  It may not sound very appealing but we all thought it was a really good and interesting read.”

20th Feb 2021

AN IMPERIAL TRIPTYCH

The lock-downs have provided the ideal opportunity to take down favourite volumes from our bookshelves and read them once more.  Three inter-connected books have given me particular pleasure and I should therefore like to recommend them to others.  They were written between the mid-1960s and 1970s by James (later Jan) Morris to chronicle the development, apogee and dissolution of the British Empire.  If that sounds a bit heavy, don’t be discouraged.  The chapters are short and sub-divided, making for good bedside reading, the style is elegant and witty, the language clear and the narrative arresting.  One book leads readily into the next.  (They are still available in paper-back – for around £30 as a set from Amazon.)

The first book, chronologically, is “Heaven’s Command”, subtitled “An Imperial Progress”.  It charts the largely unplanned, even accidental process by which Britain came to acquire the largest empire of its time during the 19th century and sets out how the British people came to adopt an imperial view of the world.  The original motives behind it were mixed.  Many of them were admirable – to outlaw slavery, to spread Christianity, to share the fruits of civilisation and technology.  In some cases, the impetus came from scientific curiosity and exploration of the unknown.  However, commercial initiative and acquisitiveness were never far away, with “trade following the flag” – and as that phrase implies, the whole enterprise rested largely on unopposed mastery of the sea-lanes.  The turning-point seems to have come with the Indian Mutiny of 1857, after which attitudes hardened and continued expansion rested more on the argument that “having won that territory we have to obtain the next one in order to defend it”.  The book then shows – and mourns – the ways in which a coarsening of commercial and societal assumptions about the Empire, its peoples and its role in relation to the “mother country” developed in the latter decades of the century into unthinking jingoism.  At the same time, Morris never loses sight of the economic and social progress achieved for many of those within the imperial realms.

The second book, which was in fact the first to be published, is “Pax Britannica”, subtitled “The Climax of an Empire”.  Centred on the tumultuous celebration of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897, it presents a detailed, often enthusiastic survey of the Empire at its greatest extent and illuminates the ways in which imperial concepts had come to permeate all aspects of British life.  Like the Jubilee itself, bringing all the many representatives of the Empire to London to participate in perhaps the greatest of imperial events, the book draws together all the many strands of history and geography which had created such a world-wide political entity.  The book also serves, however, to identify the fissures and tensions which were already present in the structure as it reached its peak and which would soon begin to engineer its decline.  

That decline is the subject of the third book in the series – “Farewell the Trumpets”, subtitled “An Imperial Retreat”.  The process is traced from immediately after the Jubilee, with the outbreak of the Boer War in 1898 and the military and political shock-waves which setbacks and defeats generated, but it is made clear that the roots went back much further.  British power and supremacy were already being challenged – and resented – both by those they governed and by other nations with imperial pretensions.  Although the two World Wars saw military support from across the Empire coming readily to Britain’s aid, the British themselves became increasingly concerned with insular problems and less interested in holding on to what had been acquired overseas.  The traditionally stated intention to hand over power at some future time “when the locals are ready for it” morphed into a gradual recognition that Britain was no longer in a position to dictate that time.  The retreat from India in 1947 is presented as the breaking of a dam, after which the progressive unravelling of power and control became inevitable all across those red areas of the world map.  That so much of this was in the end achieved peacefully is given full recognition in the book, though an outmoded world view still persisted in some quarters.  Even that is shown to have met its end in 1956, in the embarrassing tragic-comedy of Suez.  The book ends with the death and funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965, symbolising in the span of one man’s life the end of that unique era in the story of Britain.  

Why do I recommend these books so strongly?  I think it’s because they work exceptionally well at four different levels.  At the level of “the big picture” they present a boldly successful summary of history, geography and politics across two centuries and a large part of the globe.  More intimately, the books are full of vivid pen portraits of people and places which illustrate the main themes – and these are in many ways the most captivating aspects of the writing.  The accounts of individual lives are unfailingly clear-sighted yet never less than sympathetic, while the many descriptions of distant places reflect the personal experiences of Morris as an enthusiastic and adventurous traveller.  

There is also a strong moral current flowing all through the account of imperial affairs, examining motives and actions from the highest political level to those whose boots were on the ground and giving an extra bite to the historical narrative.  Its overall message is that, however well-intentioned the objective, governing people without their consent is always going to end in tears.  

Finally – and for me most significantly – the history of Empire as told in these books casts an informative light on many of the events of our own times.  The Falklands War, Anglo-Irish relations, the turmoil of the Middle East, military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Brexit and the concept of “Global Britain” can all be viewed through the prism which Morris presents to the reader.  I think many people who do not know the books will enjoy them as much as I have.

Robin