Exhibitions in lockdown
My last article for New Directions featured an exhibition which was closed after three days. At the time of writing there’s no knowing when galleries will be open. So, in a time of lockdown what are the virtual alternatives for those who want to look at art?
There are many websites dedicated to aspects of art. The Web Gallery of Art has a good collection both of artists and of their extant work (paintings at any rate). It facilitates an exploration of the museums and galleries where an artist’s paintings are held. Those gallery and museum sites which have pictures of their whole collections are amongst the most interesting arts sites. They are certainly the best curated. They allow the detail of a work to be seen and the quality of the reproduced image is generally high. To explore them is like the old days of truffling in a good secondhand bookshop before Amazon and algorithms commercialised taste. They’re one way to help with the planning of your post-lockdown break.
That is to treat the web like a book. It is great for getting to know to know the range on an artist’s œuvre. It’s not so good for appreciating the art. Titian’s great late work, ‘The flaying of Marsyas’ was first shown in London in the 1984 ‘The Genius of Venice’ exhibition. Iris Murdoch was so taken with it that it features in her portrait in the National Gallery. And it remains one of the best reasons to go to the Czech Republic where it hangs in the Archbishop’s Palace in Kroměří. The painting came as a shock to many in the art world because it had been known but only from books. Nothing could prepare the viewer for the actual in the raw seeing of the work. It had to be seen to make its impact.
This goes for all art. Not even a very good reproduction with closeups has the same effect. For one thing, closeups aren’t always the point – Rembrandt was famously intolerant of visitors who wanted to look close at his paintings and told them the smell of the paint was poisonous. More important is that it is not possible, even with modern technology, to adequately reproduce the tone, texture and light effect on a painting, let alone a sculpture. No one will sit before a computer screen and be shaken by ‘The flaying of Marsyas.’ More likely they will wonder what the fuss was about. The same happens if you watch on screen the recording of a play you saw in the theatre.
Robert Hughes, the great Australian critic, whose ‘Shock of the New’ television series was the worthy successor to Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation,’ refused to follow up that series just because he came to see that electronic media weren’t able to reproduce the shock of twentieth century art on a screen. His turn to Goya’s analysis of man’s inhumanity to man and the corruption of self-perpetuating élites was, sadly, not the magnum opus hoped for, but his criticism prior to his car crash in 1999 is well worth looking out.
And that is where electronic media come into their own. They don’t reproduce the real thing, anymore than you can eat a meal celebrated via webcam and YouTube. But so much can be learnt from critics or artists talking. One of the best examples of this is the BBC series ‘100 Great Paintings.’ It is very hard to track down, but even the iPlayer’s 5 minutes of John Hale’s presentation on Poussin is so helpful in terms of vocabulary and the technique of description. By contrast today’s generation of telly dons and media communicators are forced to trivialise even if they have something useful to say.
Kenneth Clark remains the doyen of arts presenters on film. His pronunciation of ’capitalism’ may be a hoot or an inspiration, depending on taste. His teeth would never pass muster on television today. And his tweeds have the solidity of a pre-throwaway society. No wonder his opinions expressed with immense self-assurance and fluency were much satirised in the 1960s. Today we can see he was a prophet. How many people at the time of les evénéments would have devoted a large part of any tv programme to the great German pilgrimage churches? Or seen that the Church was truly in solidarity with society when she honoured God in worship in great buildings?
Clearly not a religious man, Clark recognised with greater charity than Edward Gibbon the essential role played in the continuance of European civilisation (and Clark had wanted to make clear the limits of his perspective, only to be overruled by the BBC) by the religious orders. He saw the irrational, dehumanising aspects of the rising rights culture and the hollowness of Western Civilisation as it grew more managerial while losing its raison d’être. And he had the good taste to enjoy the religion of happy Italians and Baroque’s charming evangelism as opposed to the inwardness and angst of the German reformers.
But if Kenneth Clark doesn’t do it for you, there’s always Brian Sewell. Enjoy him on YouTube.
The production of Wise Children, directed by Emma Rice, was staged at the Old Vic in 2019 before touring to multiple regional theatres including York Theatre Royal, as shown in the filmed version which is now online on BBC iPlayer. In Rice’s prelude, she highlights a quotation from Angela Carter’s novel which has been adapted into this play, “what a joy it is to dance and sing!” Particularly in these times, this exclamation, which we hear three times during the performance highlights the magic of theatre and performance, even in dark periods which are inherent in this piece. The story begins in 1989 Brixton where we find twin sisters Dora (Gareth Snook) and Nora (Etta Murfitt) reflecting on their lives before this point, triggered by receiving an invitation to their absent since birth father’s 100th birthday celebrations. This show is stunningly put together. Although the characters of Dora and Nora are arguably centre stage, the wonderful multi-rolling ensemble cast alongside the brilliant casting, direction, set, lighting and musicians, team together to illustrate a turbulent, fantastical, dramatic and comedically tragic play. The company truly work well as an ensemble, with two of the actors (Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud) becoming Young Dora and Nora amongst various roles. Immediately in the show’s opening, the audience is struck by the writing’s powerful feminism as the Young Dora and Nora are captured on the darkly lit stage (which also depicts the play’s own stage setting) singing, “you think you are possessing me, but I have got my teeth in you.” The entire first half is beautifully fast paced with intricate scene changes, often using puppetry, acrobatics, and physical theatre to shift between locations – much like Bristol Old Vic’s touring production of Swallows and Amazons in 2012, as well as in Kneehigh’s Dead Dog in A Suitcase. Music and sound effects are predominately created live by the cast, instruments including the glockenspiel, tenor saxophone and piano contributing to the eerie but theatrical narrative and portrayal. Although initially, I questioned the need to include the adolescent characters of Showgirl Dora (Melissa James) and Showgirl Nora (Omari Douglas) actually, in changing the cast here, combined with the actors’ strong physicality and promiscuous sequinned costuming, allowed for the advancement in the characters’ life stories and an easy flow into the second half. I cannot stress enough how every aspect of this production supports the other, forming a hyperactive show which oozes with theatricality across its performance, staging and content. The plot itself is rooted to theatre as it follows the world of Nora and Dora going through their lives as performers, whilst dealing with family relationships, specifically with absent actor father Melchior Hazard. Older Dora and Nora constantly refer to living on ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ which provides an incline of both the darkness and discussion of class that can expected from this production. Whilst there are several characters played by this multi-rolling cast, they are smartly costumed to make them easily identifiable. Particularly enjoyable are the yellow tartan trousers worn by Peregrine Hazard and Young Peregrine, played by two different actors, and perfectly cast by Sam Jones CDG. The costumes were generally a useful tool to express the play’s dark comedy, such as the naked body suit worn by Grandma Chance. Overall, this play is as dazzling as the ‘Wise Children’ lights which hang above the stage and twinkle to depict the piece’s Brighton sequences. Emma Rice as director was perfectly suited to this production and evidently uses her knowledge as former artistic director of The Globe in the show’s Shakespearean moments. During these times with the closure of our theatres, I fully suggest watching this dark but beautifully put together performance. It is available until Wednesday 8th July on BBC iPlayer and recommended to an adult audience.
The Authorized Biography of John Habgood, Archbishop of York, 1983-1995
ISBN 978 0 281 05828 0 223pp
Batting for the Poor: The authorized biography of the celebrated cricketer and bishop
ISBN 978 0 281 08105 9 348pp
Anglo-Catholics have something of a schizophrenic relationship with bishops. The Oxford Movement was predicated on the doctrine of Apostolic Succession. Respect for the doctrine was often accompanied with contempt for the holder of the office. A high regard for episcopacy was combined with a low view of bishops. There was always “a pressing need to hold base individuals to the lofty dignity of their office.” Even bishops from the tradition were suspected of having succumbed to an Establishment embrace, accompanied by a haut en bas benignity towards a backward pupil.
Both subjects of these books were together on the episcopal bench and after retirement remained on the benches of the House of Lords. Both shared the distinction of being papabile, to succeed Robert Runcie at Canterbury but lost out to George Carey. Seen at the time as Mrs T’s revenge on the C of E.
The timing of the publication of the Habgood book is unfortunate. It comes with an endorsement on the cover from Justin Welby whose utterances of late have undermined any value that can be placed on them. Both come with slews of pre-publication “celebrity” praise on their first pages, Habgood’s mostly from that exclusive of all clubs, of which the author is a member, episcopal chums (12/16): rarely a good sign. Sheppard’s the more eclectic (14 in all, only one member of the club, plus the RC Archbishop of Liverpool, one former Prime Minister, three peers, two cricketers, a smattering of academics and journalists, a former editor of Woman’s Own, making a welcome appearance in a clerical biography. Sheppard wrote a column for several years. The publishers are trying too hard: bordering on desperation. There may well be no market left. And those who have been ennobled are, mostly, given incorrect titles.
Habgood’s clerical biography is almost an episcopal cliché: Eton, King’s College, Cambridge (BA, MA, PhD), fashionable curacy in Kensington, Vice Principal, Westcott House, then, a swerve as Rector of Jedburgh, back on track, Principal, Queen’s College, Birmingham, Bishop of Durham, Archbishop of York. Seven years in a parish, par for the course. Fourteen years for Sheppard, following Trinity Hall, Cambridge and Ridley Hall, in Islington and Canning Town (Mayflower Family Centre), then onto the once trendy suffragan see of Woolwich and finally a long stint in Liverpool.
John Habgood was academic, learned, serious, somewhat other-worldly and shy, possessing an “effortless and benign sense of entitlement”. Although this book is “authorised” it is an uneasy combination of biography and quasi-affectionate memoir tinged with exasperation at Habgood’s silences. There are too many authorial asides and intrusions. The relentlessly jokey author seems anxious to supply the wit lacking in his subject, but his own comedic ability is limited, misplaced and occasionally vulgar. Habgood had a dry wit and, when sparingly deployed, shows he needs no help. The authorial tone is uneven, from smut to gravitas. The description of the childhood family caravan might endanger Mr Pooter’s place in comic literature. Although it is good to know that it was “donated to Monty’s African campaign, no doubt striking terror into Rommel’s heart.” The book is in danger of becoming popular for all the wrong reasons. Shorn of these irritants, there is a modest undergraduate essay trying to struggle free from the dross. Habgood’s stature and character deserves a better book than this.
Theologically and politically he made telling, weighty, perhaps decisive, contributions to the catastrophic liberal shift in the Church in the several influential posts he held. He gave it whatever intellectual underpinning it could claim. Within that context, he argued well and was always worth hearing, even by those who disagreed with him. Although pastoral encounter was not his strength, he tried and, apart from the odd lapse into reserve, was diligent. As bishop, Habgood was generally sure-footed. His preferment to Durham gave him automatic admission to the House of Lords, He did not have to wait on the cab-rank principle. His contributions were often significant and heard with respect. He could, however, be a mildly turbulent, independent cleric and did not always toe the party line. He sometimes re-shaped it – helped by a weak Archbishop in Dr Coggan.
He was less adept towards the end of his career. His sharply dismissive, uncharacteristically unguarded response to the Crockford Preface, as significant a crisis in its day as is the church’s response to today’s pandemic, was misjudged and damaged his reputation. He dismissed the anonymous author as a “disappointed cleric” But he had guessed the author wrongly. He only made that clear years later. Had he acted earlier he might have limited the damage. As it was, he appeared insensitive and lacking compassion. Perhaps the introduction of PEVs for those unreconciled to the ordination of women was a measure of atonement. Bishop Wilbourne is wrong to say that Dr Bennett, the author of the Preface who committed suicide, received his last Communion from Robert Runcie in New College. It was in the Chapel of Pusey House, and there is film to prove it.
Habgood was a substantial figure and should not be overshadowed by the cavalier cricketer, something of a sporting heart-throb, that was David Sheppard. In an era of Gentlemen v Players, he was among the former, the embodiment of the amateur ethos. Both he and Habgood were influenced by the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU) but Sheppard’s was the classic evangelical conversion experience and his commitment to evangelisation in the University, as well as to cricket, endangered his academic achievement. Although I am temperamentally unmoved by, and sceptical of, such phenomena, the importance to Sheppard’s life were profound. He did, however, as the book makes clear, distance himself from that ethos later in life feeling he “had to make a total break” from one mentor’s elitist, misogynistic “ruthlessness.” His parish experience moved him away from the CICCU principle of individual conversion following the realisation that Christians had to be concerned with the conditions in which people lived as much as the state of their souls. Socially deprived and war-damaged Islington, its lack of basic amenities taught him what Anglo-Catholic “slum” priests had long known. Bedded in the community of the Mayflower Project in Canning Town reinforced that perspective. He did not pretend to be what he was not. He had the gift of delegation to those who were better than he was at some things and was not insecure in the success of others.
When made Bishop of Woolwich he insisted on living in Peckham, not Blackheath, albeit a four-story house. He had as his diocesan the flamboyant Mervyn Stockwood and succeeded John “Honest to God” Robinson and did not quite fit the South Bank Religion profile. On social and moral questions, he was more conservative. He worshipped in the Anglo-Catholic parish church and, determined to serve all sorts and conditions, was instructed in High-Church ways, not least circumnavigation of an altar with a thurible. On his first outing he did not know when to stop and went around again.
Even before Woolwich his outstanding cricketing prowess, very well covered here, gave him a high-media profile: the subject of This Is Your Life at thirty. He did not court, but did not shrink from, media attention and was prominent in several significant public disputes. One of the first sportsmen to refuse to tour apartheid South Africa, as a member of MCC, he led a campaign to cancel a later proposed tour when the SA government refused to accept Basil D’Oliveira as a member of the team.
His ministry in and from Liverpool occupies about half the book. It is a lucid, balanced, not uncritical, and detailed, without becoming bogged down. An appraisal of riots in Toxteth, the rise and fall of the Militant tendency in the governance of the city, Faith in the City, the blight of inner-city poverty and social dislocation, the tragedies of the Heysel Stadium and Hillsborough, the remarkable ecumenical liaison with Archbishop Derek Worlock and John Newton. Fully in command of the material, the author skilfully navigates through crises, commissions, committees, boards, political thickets, bruising encounters (Norman Tebbit in fine form) and succeeds in keeping them fresh and interesting: no mean feat.
This is much the better book. Written with style and fluency, dispassionate, encompassing sporting and ecclesiastical achievement with aplomb. He does not ignore, nor underplay shortcomings but is judicious, not judgmental. He writes sympathetically about Grace Sheppard’s ill-health, from a physical breakdown on honeymoon, with Sheppard returning to parish and cricket while she remained in a convent cell, to subsequent agoraphobia and ovarian cancer. She was possessed of great courage and fortitude. This sane, assured book deserves to rank high among ecclesiastical biographies; outstanding.
Both volumes have a generous number of photographs but Habgood’s has no index: shoddy. However, it comes with a gold silk marker generally reserved for large, significant books. This is not one.
The Cowley Fathers in Philadelphia
Steven Haws CR
Authorhouse 2019 £25
(Mirfield Publications price)
ISBN 978-1-7283-9102-1 212pp
As a beneficiary of the Catholic vision of both the Mirfield and Cowley Fathers, I enjoyed Mirfield monk Steven Haws’ story of the work done by Cowley in Philadelphia from 1876-1891. Indeed, the home parish of the author is St Clement, Philadelphia, which well equips him for this labour of love; chronicling ministries of evangelisation, catechesis, spiritual direction and lay empowerment for service that gave heart to the early Episcopal Church. Brother Steven relays the heart for mission of the Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE) founder Father Benson, who saw his the outreach work of his community of mission priests as a ‘humble means of awaking souls, and bringing them to a devout use of the ordinary means of grace.’ This was especially the case when the SSJE fathers were put at the disposal of parish clergy for weeks under the patronage of St John the Evangelist.
A parochial mission by SSJE in St Clement, Philadelphia 1874 opened the way for the order to run that parish from 1876. They brought, through sacrifice and good-humoured service (in the face of episcopal opposition), significant church growth and a deepening of spiritual life that rippled out from their venture. Disputes about prayer for the dead and sacramental confession became side lined by this dynamic evangelisation, which enriched the Episcopal Church in the way the Oxford Movement enriched the Church of England. Part of that enrichment was the revival of religious life starting with SSJE itself, the first post-Reformation order for men.
The work at St Clements was heartened by the faithful example of the English priests like Father Arthur Tooth SSC, who was gaoled in 1877 for ritual ‘crimes’ under the notorious Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874. The work of the parish was further emboldened through the visit to Philadelphia in 1880 of Father Alexander Mackonochie SSC. The Vicar of St Alban’s, Holborn preached outside Church due to a parallel ritual ban imposed on St Clement’s. Like Mackonochie, SSJE eventually gained approval for work that was evidently true to Christ’ Incarnation in its simultaneous addressing of spiritual poverty and social deprivation.
Steven Haws portrays Fathers Benson, Prescott, Maturin, Sheppard, Field, Longridge, Convers and Brother Maynard celebrating their gifts of preaching, administration, music, youth engagement and spiritual wisdom. Field became a hero of the Johnstown flood disaster of 1889 vividly described in the book. The ascetic witness of SSJE linked to Field’s Guild of the Iron Cross founded 1882 through which ultimately thousands of men were drawn to make this costly pledge: ‘I pledge myself to resist the sin of intemperance, and will use my influence to prevent the commission of this sin by others. I pledge myself to resist the sin of blasphemy, to honour God’s name and bless my fellow men. I pledge myself to resist the sin of impurity in thought, word and deed, and to use my influence to draw others from evil talking and immoral living’. Persuading so many to make such a commitment puts the missionary achievements of 21st century Anglicanism well into the shade.
‘The Cowley Fathers in Philadelphia’ reminded me how much the Church owes to the power houses of religious life and of our need to pray and work for their revival and for a rise in costly discipleship unashamed to be counter cultural. In all the ecclesiastical disputes they braved SSJE at St Clement’s did not let their discipleship, nor presentation to others of the claims of discipleship, slip. And neither should we who brave similar trials.
The Authorized Biography – Vol III: Herself Alone
Allen Lane, 2019
Writing in the Spectator recently, Charles Moore confessed embarrassment at his latest book being so long but that Hilary Mantel had produced one of similar length and aptly timed it with the beginning of lockdown. At 860 pages plus notes, Herself Alone, the conclusion to his three-volume life of Margaret Thatcher, is a staggering achievement. There can be few biographers in living memory so well matched to their subject. Moore was chosen for his sympathy and expertise, but the result must have surpassed expectation. During the 1980s he was a columnist on the Daily Telegraph and edited the Spectator from 1984-90. Thereafter he edited the Sunday Telegraph and Daily Telegraph until 2003. His eye for detail and the telling colour-flash of what makes a good story, along with narrative pace and immersion in Tory culture, produce a definitive and thrilling treatment of arguably our greatest prime minister since the Second World War.
To his credit, Moore marshals astonishing amounts of material — much of it primary source — to present a rounded and insightful portrait of Mrs Thatcher. The number of people interviewed, read or cross-referred shows the journalistic knack. Done with flair, he sees through conflicting accounts which look to rewrite history or varnish a personal legacy. His subtle commentary, like any Greek Chorus, builds a gradual and cumulative analysis of the Thatcher style and legend. In some ways this is too soon to say, but in others we have plenty of evidence to demonstrate the lasting, personal impact of MT on the British political scene. Cyclicality in politics sees many familiar themes returning.
The action begins with the election victory in June 1987, the Conservatives returned with a majority of 102. (“I must have at least 80,” she had said.) This third term saw a distinct move from economics to social reform; notably education, health, and inner-cities. We maintain separate departments for health and social security, the educational reforms have endured, and the taxation:public spending ratio and rates set by the 1988 Lawson Budget have more or less been the model ever since. She had a point on Europe exceeding its intergovernmental role (set out in the 1988 Bruges Speech) which has come to pass in Brexit. She became excited in the late 80s about environmentalism which is now firmly on the political agenda, although lamented it later as at risk of hijack by ‘a marvellous excuse for worldwide, supranational socialism’. Moore’s relentless detail and constant Conservatism could sometimes pull back for more context. He gives three pages to the unpopular introduction of Section 28 as part of the Local Government Bill in 1988. Explaining it as not homophobic but looking to curb the antics of loony left councils, he might have added Kinnock was likewise exasperated as per his ‘Labour Council!’ speech at Bournemouth in 1985.
There are longeurs; some chapters can prove heavy going. Dealing with the Spycatcher Affair, or South Africa, are necessary but the track weighs down if not of immediate interest. Bush’s remoteness after the love-in of the Reagan years makes for unhappy reading. Moore tackles misunderstanding and misinterpretation of her, especially the “no such thing as society” remark in a 1987 Woman’s Own interview about everyone doing their bit; it came to be weaponised against her. The draining away of power after her 10-year anniversary is both tragic and dramatic. The vigour with which Moore attacks her 1990 downfall is the equal of any political thriller.
Throughout, there is the sense of how difficult the balancing act was. The tension between longevity and experience, yet with energy and appeal. There is blind loyalty (especially to friends and advisers or international allies like Reagan and Pinochet) with the pragmatic demands of having to be PM and do the job with integrity. In private she was often open and inquisitive, whereas the public persona too often came over as hectoring and performative. She strived for greater home ownership yet battled with interest rates and her own monetarism. She was radical and reactionary in turns but still needed to win votes. She bestrode the world stage. A moderniser but quaintly old-fashioned, mentions of her reluctant agreement to pelmets on the curtains when No. 10 was refurbished but that they have brown paper on top so as to aid cleaning, or a discreet cheque she sent to the Mildmay Hospital after a private visit to its Aids patients, are welcome human glimpses.
Her Christianity and church relations were almost exclusively the realm of Brian (now Lord) Griffiths who, with Charles Powell and Bernard Ingham, formed part of her mighty key adviser triumvirate. She was essentially Low Church and her childhood Methodism chimed with his evangelicalism. She struggled to understand anglo-catholicism and had an antagonistic relationship with bishops, especially Runcie. It was widely held that she preferred the inexperienced Carey over Habgood for Canterbury, and so Moore concurs. But she at least turned to Bishop Graham Leonard when some help was needed over faith and religious education in the National Curriculum. Her May 1988 ‘Sermon on the Mound’ address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland wanted to reignite political popularity north of the border, and answer perceived lingering criticism in the Anglican Faith in the City report. Despite Griffiths’ able work, and her lines on choice with individual contribution to collective responsibility, it sank. She bemoaned that attempts to relieve poverty by creating wealth were accused of being simple materialism; she sought a moral basis for a secular society. Her April 2013 funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral, with superlative sermon by Bishop Chartres, was a fitting reconciliation.
Without doubt one of the most industrious and divisive prime ministers Britain has ever seen, Margaret Thatcher deserves the comprehensive and stimulating account which Moore has given us. His Epilogue at the end, after the final 120 pagers of her sad retreat, chronicles an extraordinary person in extraordinary times. Tempora mutantur indeed.
Out of the Noise
ISBN 978 1912881 383 (2019)
In Out of the Noise, Michael Fisher gives us a very detailed and well-remembered account of his post war childhood and adolescence. He was born and grew up in the North Staffordshire Moorlands town of Leek. The book title derives from a quaint local saying – “Leek – out of the noise”. When our parents, or a dear friend or relative, die there are usually lots of things we would like to have known about them, not least their early formative years. Michael Fisher has written this book with his daughter and grandchildren specially in mind and been led to share details of his early life and experience with a much wider readership; “with so many memories abounding, I thought I would write a memoir of those bygone days for the benefit of my daughter and her family who actually know very little about my early years but I think it might be of wider interest too, of days just after the Second World War when people really did leave their back doors unlocked , and could walk the gas-lit streets of a Moorlands town without fear of vandals or hooligans”.
He was born in 1943 and lived for his first 25 years in the very distinctive and interesting town of Leek set in magnificent country. In the Shell Guide, Henry Thorold describes it as “in character it is a decidedly north country town: its mills, its chimneys, its houses of blackened stone, its steep streets and cobbles, its surrounding moorlands, its industrial atmosphere – yet homely domestic scale, all combine to remind one of the small textile towns of the West Riding or rural Lancashire. The town took to silk, hosiery and dying in the 18C, and grew prosperous. But it is not a large town, and it is possible to walk round and enjoy its streets and its buildings on foot.”
These were times of continued wartime rationing, ‘make do and mend’, and austerity followed by modest recovery and prosperity. Few people had a car or a television, ate out in restaurants or had ‘mod cons’ in the home. Michael Fisher evokes the personal history of his upbringing with great clarity, sensitivity and quiet humour. Though an only child he was surrounded by an extended family in somewhat claustrophobic Leek with a cluster of aunts who we get to know and enjoy in the pages of this book. Aunt Mary, slightly snobbish moody wife of John Asher, local pharmacist. Nellie, Dorothy, Flossie and Myra, his favourite aunt, who together kept the Wool and Fancy Depository Shop in Leek. Stories of home and school, holidays often in Wales or Lytham St Annes, outings with parents and aunts, school and church choir abound. At the age of about ten he was taken on a memorable formative trip on the train from Leek to Oakamoor, walking through Dimmingsdale to Alton. The spectacular view of Alton Towers and Castle standing in the spectacular “Rhineland” setting high above the River Churnet, a romantic view that really gripped and thrilled the young Michael.
They visited the Castle, then a convent, and its Chapel and St John’s Church adjacent. “I shall never forget that experience. It was like entering another world, which is indeed what it is: the world of A.W.N. Pugin and the nineteenth century Gothic Revival …… it was a world of spires and pinnacles, glowing stained glass and twinkling candles, like nothing I had ever seen before”. It was indeed “A Vision of Splendour”. This day out was but one of the many influences and ideas that were to shape his life and future career as an historian, teacher, writer, craftsman, and priest. In due course to splendid books on A.W.N. Pugin and the Gothic Revival, among them “Gothic for Ever.”
As one gets older you tend to reflect more and more about your early life. It is quite difficult to write about it as it really was, bearing in mind the trials and tribulations of growing up. I think Michael Fisher does it well in this absorbing and enjoyable book. He records the happy times but also boldly sets out difficult and unhappy experiences during his adolescence. “Looking back” he writes, “I am rather glad to have been blessed with a childhood that was ‘out of the noise’ in more senses than one. Childhood was just that: there were few if any of the problems, pressures and challenges that children in the early twenty first century appear to labour under.”