BOOK REVIEWS

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

Members of the congregation have expressed an interest in posting book reviews and in sharing their current reading choices here.

Reviews can be about anything recently read which provoked the wish to share more widely. It can be a religious book, a book about some interest of hobby or fiction or anything else.

If you want to submit something please email your review to wyvischarge@gmail.com for inclusion on this page.

And our first review (three books for the price of one!) is from Robin Lingard . Thank you Robin for getting the ball rolling!

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.

4th March 2021

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.”