You say you want a
Records and Rebels 1966-70
Victoria and Albert Museum
until 26 February 2017
This exhibition explores what was significant about the late 1960s. It does this mainly through music; but also through fashion and film, design and political activism. The topic is a vast Kulturkampf. Were the Sixties a good thing or a bad thing? This show is convinced that the Sixties were a great thing. But greatness is built on limitations. It’s no surprise that these years are summed up by the self-regarding gag, that if you remember the Sixties you weren’t there. Most people on the planet, including the ones patronised by the new radical Left, were not alive on that showing. Perhaps what the Counterculturalists needed to give them a sense of proportion was a dose of Austin Powers.
In fact this well-curated exhibition does feel like an Austin Powers film. But the quality of the show is that its range of artefacts makes clear that there’s more than one way to view the late Sixties. Indeed, the show quotes John Osborne: “It’s pretty dreary living in the American Age – unless you’re an American.”
The presence of Osborne should remind us that the Sixties didn’t appear from nowhere. There had been a sense in Britain of the Establishment in crisis at least since Suez, if not from Churchill’s defeat in the 1945 General Election. The social changes of the late Sixties had already been prepared for by less flamboyant, less showbizzy people. So if the Beatles provided the soundtrack for the era, the legislation – Theatres Act 1968, Divorce Reform Act 1969, Equal Pay Act 1970, Race Relations Act 1965, Abortion Act 1967 – was passed by MPs and campaigners who rarely dressed in kaftans.
Not everything changed at the same pace. Women’s and Gay Liberation certainly made huge steps in the late Sixties, but the curators of this show must have seen the irony of showing one of Jane Fonda’s extremely skimpy costumes from Barbarella alongside The Female Eunuch. Fonda was, of course, at the most beautiful end of the radically chic; but she also provides a way into some of the contradictions of the era. If the curators had asked why “Hanoi Jane” ended up on the side of Chairman Mao, one of the worst mass murderers in history, then pushing through the Cultural Revolution they might not have made the offensive suggestion that the Prague Spring was no different from Les Evénements of 1968.
But moral blindness was often an affliction of the Counterculture. The Soixante-huitards weren’t shot or put in labour camps like the brave Czechs. Instead, they went onto to make lucrative public careers. Jane Fonda went onto marry Ted Turner, a successful television mogul. One reason why the Counterculture has had such a good press is that it threw up some very effective capitalists and entrepreneurs. Why these people have retained an aura of hipsterdom could have been given more attention. After all, there’s nothing very countercultural in squeezing out the competition and parking revenues in low-tax jurisdictions. As has often been pointed out, the youthful idealism of the late Sixties grew into something which it began by condemning. At least the show does have a picture satirising The Who for selling out; though it doesn’t mention the greatest apostasy of them all: the conversion of Bob Dylan to Christianity.
The exhibition ends with a video of a whole series of events and people apparently influenced by the late Sixties. Since this includes Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and secondary pickets the net is cast wide – so wide as to be meaningless. Maybe we will have to wait for the next volumes of David Kynaston’s magisterial history of post-war Britain to have a thought-out analysis of the period. In the meantime, the V&A is a good place to start. There are free headphones which work not by a button but are activated by whichever zone you happen to stand in. And however broadbrush or irritating it might be, the show drives home the point that the music and fashion of the late Sixties did frighten the Establishment. It really did look as if the middle classes were going to become addicted to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Old hierarchies did break down, and for good reasons. There had been a shift in earning power to the young. The pill liberated women, and men perhaps even more. And there was something tired and rotten about British society. Eco-idealism was attractive set against cheesy adverts for the new Barclaycard.
Or to look at it another way, as the exhibition snobbishly puts it, the Sixties was a time when singers replaced variety acts. Above this claim there is a picture of the young Tom Jones, a working-class boy made very good, and until recently a judge on The Voice UK. Does that make Simon Cowell the true heir of the Counterculture?
NEW LLANTHONY ABBEY
Father Ignatius’s Monastery at Capel-y-ffin
Peterscourt Press 509pp £18.50
ISBN 978 1911175230
In the gallery of Anglo-Catholic saints and sinners Joseph Leycester Lyne (Father Ignatius) occupies an ambivalent position. He was a devout young man, early drawn by a romantic medievalism to the re-establishment of the Religious Life in the Church of England, supported by Dr Pusey and Priscilla Lydia Sellon. He was made a deacon; but did not proceed to the priesthood – at least not within the Church of England. He served under the great Fr Prynne with whom he had difficulties, as he did later with Fr Lowder. He had great energy and attracted supporters and adherents. Many of these, however, were flotsam and jetsam: criminals; a confidence trickster; eccentric misfits; one with a “devious disposition and unpleasant temper”; and another who was described as a “most holy man” but who struck Fr Ignatius’s mother as “an unmitigated scamp”. Although he had the vision to launch the project, despite his limitations, he lacked insight into human nature. His energy tipped over into impatience; and his manifesto caused controversy. He was self-professed, self-appointed, eager but ignorant, and inexperienced. He was regularly and comprehensively inhibited from preaching in dioceses, and turned to touring hired halls to spread his vision. There is the whiff of an ecclesiastical huckster about him.
After various false starts and peregrinations he settled his community, in which life was often divisive, unhappy, and fractious, at New Llanthony Abbey – a set of “slightly sinister-looking Victorian Gothic buildings beside the ruins of a church”. His community at Capel-y-ffin was based on a Benedictine template and principles with Three Orders: those cloistered; those living in the world in their own homes but following a quasi-monastic life of canonical hours and habit; and those similarly in the world observing rules of regular communion, confession, prayer, alms-giving and obedience to abbatial discipline. His behaviour could be decidedly prelatical: he “introduced a most slavish kind of homage enjoining his associates of the Order never to speak to him unless they went down on their knees, and never to pass him without making a prostration”. It is not surprising that there is some evidence of nervous collapse, a “psychosomatic element in [his] breakdown”.
The quieter life of the Abbey, although not without its own familial disquiet during the occupancy of Eric Gill and his family, after Fr Ignatius’s death and the exodus of the community, and the present work of the pilgrimage trust, is not neglected in what inevitably seems like an extended postscript.
One of the several merits of this book is the fascinating detail that it provides for those who came and went – the subsidiary cast, a motley crew, however we regard them – and not least the appearance of Joseph René Vilatte, one of the episcopi vagantes that almost invariably turn up in a certain strain of Anglo-Catholicism. They emerge from Fr Ignatius’s shadow and allow a more comprehensive understanding of the enterprise and its ultimate failure. It is a heady mixture of scandal, devotion and decadence, personal tensions and friendships, vision and trumpery. The mouvementé life is seen in the context of the buildings and the constant demands of finance. The careful and judicious sifting of evidence from personal reminiscences, contemporary press reports, previous publications (it is not the first study and that by Arthur Calder-Marshall, The Enthusiast, still repays attention), results in an enjoyable, instructive, detailed, and compelling study. I hesitate to call it definitive because new and unexpected treasures can emerge from unlikely places – but it will take some dramatic revelation to supersede this account. This is a substantial and significant book, well-researched, rooted in thorough archival sources and attractively, if weightily, presented and written by Hugh Allen, comprehensive in its scope, measured and considered in its judgements.
A Pastoral Council
Serafino M. Lanzetta
Gracewing 552pp £25
ISBN 978 0852448885
In the past decade or two a huge controversy has raged within the Roman Catholic Church on the interpretation of Vatican II. Was it a continuation of past teaching, or a rupture? How do you interpret the Council Decrees? Has the Church really changed, or has it avoided the change the Council Fathers wanted? The questions are endless. Clearly Vatican II is not an event which ended in 1965, but one which continues 50 years later as people try to unpack its significance. Naturally, private agendas influence this process and it is not helped by the ambiguity of several of the Council documents. The ambiguity was, of course, often intended, in order to keep on board the majority of the voting bishops. It did, and in most votes the majorities were overwhelmingly large. In this study of the Council, and particularly its hermeneutic, Lanzetta attempts to map out some of the key debates and help us to understand something of what was going on.
There is much that is helpful in this book: it reminds us that Vatican II was quite different from all other Councils in that it did not seek to define any doctrine. It firmly resisted the pressure from the Holy Office to anathematise modern heresies. Under the direction of Pope John XXIII it breathed a new spirit of openness and love to the world. It was not, as the Holy Office would have liked, an inward looking Council, tidying up the Church and protecting Catholics from error. It was intended to be a pastoral council, though it is not entirely clear what that meant.
Three factors about the Council are emphasised here. First, if it was a pastoral council it was also a theologians’ council. The Council Fathers brought in their periti, some of the best theologians of the age, and they made a great impact on the documents and the debates. Thus Rahner, Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), de Lubac, Congar, and others like them were crucially important in bringing a quite new understanding of the Church and God’s concern for humankind into the new way of Catholic life.
Secondly, the Council was shaped by ecumenical concern. Cardinal Bea, the saintly head of the Council for Christian Unity, had the Pope’s ear. He and other great figures, particularly from the German and French speaking episcopates kept asking, “How will this sound to non-Catholic ears?” So for instance they managed to prevent the Council producing a separate decree on the Blessed Virgin Mary, and instead got her included in the decree on the nature of the Church, where she belongs.
Thirdly, the Church was blessed then with some truly great bishops who had a real vision of what the Church should be in the world. König, Lienart, Alfrink, Suenens, Frings, Hurley, and Montini (Paul VI) were particularly important in keeping the Council out of the Curia’s clutches and maintaining an open face to the world.
A major part of this book consists of a detailed discussion of how the decrees on Revelation, Church and Mary came into being – you need to have a good knowledge of the theological issues involved. Latin helps as well, as there are important quotations that are not translated.
The translation of the book from Italian is poor. It seems to have been done in haste and is often clumsy and sometimes unintelligible, retaining Italian word order and technical terms (like “diriment”) which have no meaning in English. The worst howler I came across was “the duplicity of Revelation”. Having wondered what deliberate lies the book of Revelation was supposed to have told I realised it actually described the two sources of revelation: duplici fonte revelationis.
Nicolas Stebbing CR
ANGELS AND ICONS
Pre-Raphaelite Stained Glass 1850-1870
Seraphim Press 369pp £40 inc p&p for readers of New Directions
ISBN 978 0953280131
The pre-Raphaelite poster-boys, Morris, Burne-Jones, and Rossetti, need little introduction. But what of the lesser lights (if they can be called such) whose work provides the backdrop for many a parish church’s tapestry of stained glass? This volume seeks to raise the profile of often-overlooked designers: John Richard Clayton, Alfred Bell, Clement Heaton, James Butler, Robert Turnill Bayne, and those others who made the running for their better-known colleagues and whose artistry eased the way for the full flowering of Victorian ecclesiastical glasswork. The volume ends with the reaction against medievalism in the 1870s as the Church’s self-confidence faced the challenges of scientific advances and shifting philosophical and religious thought; and as Neoclassicism drew art, religious and secular, in a different direction.
Concerning himself with a limited, though crucial, period, Waters writes skilfully and engagingly, combining necessary detail with fascinating asides. There is a story to be told and he tells it with skill. The well-researched text avoids scholarly dryness and takes the reader on a journey from a brief reflection on the medieval roots of the movement through to its full flowering, which lent beauty to a goodly number of humble and otherwise undistinguished English parish churches.
Stained glass, of course, has to be seen, not just described. Alastair Carew-Cox’s plate photography (no digital short-cuts here) brings out the full colour and detail of hundreds of remarkable windows. So generous is the provision of pictures that there is hardly a double-page spread without one, many full-page. Although there is no index (that shortcoming will be made good in a second volume, Damozels and Deities, due to be published in 2017) a gazetteer locates and attributes the 700 or so windows and churches featured.
Much love has clearly gone into the labour of publishing this volume, and a great deal of pleasure will be derived from reading it. Solid enough for the study as it is, this book will probably find a convenient place near the coffee table to be enjoyed again and again by owner and visitors alike. For any of a pious disposition, the kaleidoscope of images will serve well as a springboard for meditation; for the adventurous, perhaps the basis of a Grand Tour to see the windows in their true setting. Parishioners looking to make a seasonal gift to their clergy will find their generosity much appreciated, and clergy not so blessed might well treat themselves.
Angels and Icons can be ordered via Seraphim Press Ltd (to whom cheques should be made out) at Home Farm, Abbots Morton, Worcestershire WR7 4NA. Mention New Directions to receive the discounted price of £40 to include post and packing.
Book of the month
GOD IS NO THING
Hurst 122pp £9.99
ISBN 978 1849046374
With all that contends against Christianity intellectually it’s greatly refreshing to read a book that’s politely “yes, and” in its engagement with opponents of faith, whilst affirmative of the intellectual coherence and authenticity of Christianity. We owe this to Rupert Shortt, religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement, whose experience of scrutinising writings about religion comes well into play in his tackling of over-hasty verdicts.
Many believing artists and writers in the UK are advised to conceal their faith if they want a following. Such is our local scenario, in which secular humanism predominates the world of ideas with a pretended neutrality. Meanwhile secularism is losing ground worldwide with three quarters of humanity professing a religious faith, said to be heading for 80% by 2050. People the world over evidently see in Christianity a vitality and coherence that is being lost or obscured in our own culture. Reading Shortt provides Christians with a tonic in his successful reminder of the main lines of Christianity, acceptance of humbling critique, and his trenchant overturning of facile objections.
“Christianity – at its centre, the story of love’s mending of wounded hearts – forms a potent resource for making sense of our existence. It provides the strongest available underpinning for values including the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, and human responsibility for the environment. It is the only world faith apart from Judaism to have weathered the storms of modernity.” This summary of Christianity is the first brilliant precis of three or four in the book.
Much of the book is an engagement with how over-simple the latter thesis is, which takes us repeatedly forward and backward in time, admitting the Church’s failings and amply illustrating the shortcomings of secularism. I liked the section linked to the book’s title on how God isn’t actually seen as a thing or any part of reality in Christian tradition. “Herbert McCabe had a tart rejoinder to those who imagine that you can add God and the universe together and make two. ‘Two what?’”
In another passage, more geared to encourage mind than heart, Shortt reflects on the biblically-based Magna Carta of 1215. That basis has been little noted in the recent commemoration, yet it can be argued that commitment to human rights “may not automatically survive once commitment to the infinite value of every human life has faded away”. Faith systems, however much they earn criticism, help preserve such insight. John Habgood once warned of society’s being liable to lose its bearings without “a public frame, a shared faith, which can sharpen vague feelings into prayer and commitment and action”. This book catalogues impressively commitment from Christians with these watchwords: “the common good, trust, non-discrimination, the priority of the poor and disadvantaged, and stewardship”.
Rupert Shortt says “yes” to Darwin in his quasi-religious reverence for creation, whilst admitting that the status of human beings in Christian faith is challenged by Darwinian theory. The misuse of power by Christians made Darwin a victim, and has caused harm through the centuries offsetting much good. Christian shame over the Holocaust shows a coming of age that may one day be replicated in an Islam ashamed over the behaviour of its extremists. The problem for religion and for secularism is the tendency to bully rather than reason with one another. God is to be seen as loving intelligence so that “love of the truth drives us from the world to God, and the truth of love sends us back from God to the world” (William of St-Thierry).
Believing in Christian truth isn’t something cerebral, contrary to those thinking you build belief or disbelief by argument. For the author it’s not a matter of thinking your way into a new way of living, but of living your way into a new way of thinking. This reminded me of Austin Farrer’s saying that “Faith is the act of the whole man, doubt of a part.” To believe in the Resurrection, for example, is living out the death of the old self so that the Holy Spirit can bring new life through the agency of faith. To believe in the Cross of Christ – and the book returns to this again and again – is about making sense of suffering by the assurance “not all that happens is determined by God’s plan but that all that happens is encompassed by his love” (W. H. Vanstone).
As quoted above from the author of this powerful defence of the Church’s faith: “Christianity – at its centre, the story of love’s mending of wounded hearts – forms a potent resource for making sense of our existence.” As former atheist A. N. Wilson writes on the book cover: “This is a case for Faith which will trouble the doubting with reason’s light.”