Pedro and Ricky come again
As Miss Prism said, ‘Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary that we all carry about with us.’ This month’s exhibitions piece is about the art shows which are always with us.
The best of these is our local architecture. Architectural exhibitions always fall far short of the real thing, though the Palladio Museum in Vicenza does as good a job as any, but architecture itself is always around us. It’s there to be looked at and its interaction with local materials, with land- or cityscape and with its users provides pleasure and food for thought.
In this country two of the best past generation of serious commentators on architecture were John Betjeman and Alec Clifton-Taylor. In our own day Gavin Stamp and Jonathan Meades have written illuminating work and Meades – actor, journalist, polymath, furious critic and atheist – has just published some of his collected journalism. Unfortunately, little of his splendid television work is available even on the net though if you don’t buy the book see the films about Brutalism and Essex.
The Meades persona is highly intelligent and rudely self-confident. He has a huge knowledge of things most people aren’t interested in, and which throw a new light on familiar topics. Meades went to Salisbury Cathedral School (and RADA). He is one of the last of a generation of brilliant boys who flourished in the fertile mix of post-war Grammar, Direct Grant and minor public schools – the article on Stephen Tennant is especially scathing about the upper classes and their sycophants. And he demolishes received opinion with such gusto and vim that you might wonder if he has any sympathy for people who don’t have the self-assurance to create themselves – Establishment panjandra deserve a good kicking, but not the everyday man in the street. In fact, a couple of articles about Brighton in this collection reveal a gentler Meades, though not everybody will recognise his claim that vanity is the hallmark of its townspeople.
The two films available on the net are a persuasive entrée into his work. In the film about Essex Meades delights in that unfashionable county while taking a Pythonesque view of its clichés. He makes sense of the county, why it looks the way it does, the beauty of its light and water, and the occasionally weird history of its places. It’s a model of how to look at architecture.
The film about Brutalism celebrates an architecture which has fallen out of fashion. He explores its roots in Expressionism, its influence on Nazi war architecture and argues passionately that what is good in it should be preserved.
These films illustrate Meades Credo is that most art in most generations is second rate or a lot worse. That much of what is venerated in any age in contemporary architecture is placed before the public by self-promoters who may or may not have talent. That fashion and its child Received Opinion define taste and, in the case of architecture, are usually based on hollow philosophies. Above all, that what is good is good – which begs the question – and has to be thought through and looked at and understood from a series of perspectives.
One of those perspectives is craftsmanship. Meades believes that the great western tradition of art required a high standard of technical ability. Picasso could draw like a child because he first drew like a master. Tracey Emin is a weak artist because she never had that technical skill. And the canon of western art retains validity in the face of the conceptualist brigade – he describes Duchamp as no better than an adolescent, and his epigones as worse. Painting will endure because unlike, say, video art, it does physically endure.
And Meades reckons there are a lot of phonies in the art world – bureaucrats, curators, critics, creatives, a whole conspiracy against the people. He is also very rude about Christianity but he’s worth hearing because we should come to terms with the best of our detractors. So, in typical Meades’ fashion his commentary on the architecture the Second Vatican Council leads him to understand the Council as an attack on the people’s Faith by a modernising élite. He is wrong to try to divorce mediaeval stonemasons from their faith, but right to ask what would anybody from the Middle Ages have made of the Gothic revivalism of Keble College. And he’s right to insist upon open debate in the face of cancel culture, and on clear English in the face of the smoke and mirrors of post-Marxist ‘theory.’
Meades should be read for his entertainment value – at least when the reader isn’t on the end of it – and for what we can learn from looking at and thinking about and learning about our built environment. After all, the writer who praises Fellers of the Oxford Covered Market has the instinct for good judgement.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo
Manilla Press 2019 £8.99
ISBN 978-1838770013 400pp
UN statistics inform us that in 2019, 80 million people were displaced. The problems surrounding such a flood of refugees are depicted daily on our media; it is an overwhelming phenomenon, and the scale is hard to grasp, let alone all the associated politics. ‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’ is a fictional story based on well known facts about the tumult in Syria which succeeds in putting faces on what it is to be a 21st century refugee from a war zone. The author is Christy Lefteri, a lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University, who is herself the daughter of Cypriot refugees. Her book was inspired through her work as a volunteer at a UNICEF supported refugee centre in Athens.
Beekeeper Nuri and his artist wife Afra live in Aleppo. Their peaceful life in that beautiful city is destroyed in the Syrian conflict, an unspeakable loss which includes that of a family member and for Afra, now blind, her sight. The book chronicles the couple’s flight to the UK via Turkey and Greece. Nuri’s cousin and fellow beekeeper, Mustafa, who has already arrived in Yorkshire and is teaching beekeeping, provides a focus for their flight through e mail correspondence.
Christy Lefteri weaves a simple storyline with profound overtones touching the pain of displacement, bereavement and estrangement of the two refugees, one from another. If it makes sense of what being a refugee is about, it does so by telling the truth whilst depicting the triumph of the human spirit. The author spares a lot of savage detail but brings in enough to build a sympathetic portrait of Nuri and Afra through humiliations endured in Aleppo, on their journey and when they arrive in Britain.
‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’ is a tale of the reconciliation of Nuri and Afra pulled apart by the tragedy yet drawn together in mutual support on their journey. Throughout the book we are made aware of the flight of bees, with Nuri and Mustafa’s apiary business partnership making a frame for the human flight. Though well written the book is no easy read with its harsh context. The author provides an appealing celebration of human resilience whilst depicting the dreadful consequences for individuals of instability in their homeland.
Love’s Mysteries: the body, grief, precariousness
Canterbury Press 2020 £12.99 ISBN: 9781786222817 144pp
Rachel Mann seems to be prolific. This year we have already reviewed her novel and Lent book, and now her popular theology. Love’s Mysteries: the body, grief, precariousness and God is one of the first books to emerge with a meditative focus on the pandemic and published late last year. This is in addition to her other writings, including poetry. She was already writing something on the body and precariousness when coronavirus struck, and so continued throughout the time of Covid, and closes with a final chapter she ‘never expected to write’, encapsulating in a few pages – ‘full of grief and bewilderment and dislocation…a kind of subtle trauma…an endless Holy Saturday’ – what many will have gone through this past year. That was before the most recent lockdown experience, and is valuable. We need contributions to the theological framework that help make sense of what’s happened, changed, and surprised us. The presence of God throughout is vital discernment; Mann gives us that, and more besides.
One of her main themes of precariousness is stretched a little as ‘the substance of the everyday’. But it makes sense when she juxtaposes it with ‘the ways grief operates in the theological and philosophical realm’. Integrating with the physicality of the body makes sense. She rightly alludes to how the pandemic has assailed our security and challenged the assumptions about our personal safety. Likewise, it has brought a host of other thoughts and emotions not so common before: the threat that ‘other’ may be a harmful vector of the virus, and the insight into how difficult life is for people in poorer countries with less healthcare infrastructure and higher infection rate risks.
Looking at grief, she opens with a pacey and engaging account of the night a bomb went off at the Manchester Arena in May 2017 as 14,000 concert-goers were leaving. It’s where she lives and so has an obvious connection with this tragedy. She speaks of public reactions – the shock and trauma, trying to understand something so horrendous, and yet wanting to think the best – and considers how racism and social cohesion play in because the bomber was a Muslim. ‘But I wonder if we are to be agents of grace we cannot be hardened to the limits of grief, because they signal something about our (and the diverse wider communities’) senses of justice, suffering, oppression and value.’ She moves quickly through the thought that ‘grief is a signal of precariousness and vice-versa’ – then the stretch, that by becoming human God made himself precarious in a way that challenges divinity. It is at this point that she brings out one of her hobby horses for a gallop around the paddock: ‘a misunderstanding in so much of patriarchal Christianity which has led to fear of bodies, and of women’s bodies and black bodies and queer bodies especially’. I am not sure that the devotion to Our Lady and ‘theology of the womb’, or missionaries who risked their lives, or chaplains who sat at the bedside of AIDS patients would agree, but that is beside the point she wants to make. ‘The idea of God emptying herself unto fragile flesh is one of the great shocks of Christian theology.’ This penchant for the flashy phrase can often mislead her and needlessly complicate the narrative too. A few pages before she borrows the Trinitarian term ‘indwelling’ to illustrate who grief can bring people together and let others in. She finishes this chapter with ‘I wonder if Christ’s precarious glory offers us a way to begin to value again’. (Has his glory ever been precarious?)
At times this can be exciting and stimulating. When she recounts her own trials through having a stoma bag and a trans woman who has undergone ‘gender confirmation’ (her quote marks), though not for the squeamish it is gripping because she uses Roland Barthes’ model of studium and punctum. Being at the hospital death of a member of her congregation with the same woman’s lifelong friend and the acceptance of a ‘good death’ is moving. She is not afraid to speak of the body as sacramental. She is also good on arts and media. An extended look at the Mendes film 1917 or the JL Carr novel A Month in the Country are helpful. But ‘The Holy Spirit lives to shock’ and ‘Many, including me, have explored in other contexts the extent to which [the Annunciation] might be a scene of rape’ less so. The fashionable idea that Our Lord experienced sexual abuse through crucifixion is mentioned too. Her chapter on ‘cruel optimism’ – the things we hope for and yet are impossible to attain (in this world) – deserves a lot more ground. (Although William T Cavanaugh has already done this in original and solid work.)
There is good stuff here. A former philosophy student she has an agile mind and writes with flair. Setting aside the dualistic (women good, patriarchy bad) and ideas which push their luck (Eve the first example of women’s lib), and the occasional lapses into spirituality jargonese, it hits the mark on body theology. Some tighter editing and greater care with the themes would have made it more targeted.
Justice and Love – A Philosophical Dialogue
Mary Zournazi & Rowan Williams
Bloomsbury 2020 17.99 ISBN: 9781350090361 224pp
‘It’s not fair’ – the universal cry of childhood. But is it about ‘my right’ or ‘what is right?’ It’s a question central to this stimulating book, which offers far more than the title suggests, with insights from, and into, not just philosophy and theology; but art, literature and science too.
We are reminded of the difference between the Hebrew religious and Latin juridical roots of the concept of justice, with the former pointing to a sense of a correct ‘alignment’ of posture, direction, relationships, i.e. with something that is ‘right’, and therefore much bigger than an aggregation of ‘rights’. There’s an echo in the Greek idea of dikaios or dikaiosune – of ‘righteousness’, things as they are intended to be.
I appreciated the way in which this dialogue between two profoundly open and creative thinkers is grounded in the geopolitical realities of 2015-2020, during which their conversations took place. So, what we mean by justice and other values is explored against the rise of ISIS, conflict and suffering in Syria, the polarisations associated with Brexit or the emergence of Trumpism, and the challenges of climate change and a global pandemic. More locally, how do we see trends in British culture, education, personal relationships, and family life? All may be viewed through the prisms of justice and love, and with an exercise of the imagination as to what, in hearing the cry of another’s hurt (most especially ‘why am I being hurt?’), these virtues may imply.
The nature of the book as a dialogue helps in this. Ben Okri, in his introductory essay (the book is almost worth buying just for this) writes: ‘A society is only as alive as its core conversations . . .to listen is to give space within oneself to the other.’ No attentiveness – no justice! Yet ‘this is a time of monologues, soliloquies, solipsistic speech in twitter-sphere . . we talk from our solitude . . . we are talked at.’ The essence of violence, Simone Weil argued, is its power to limit a person’s, or group’s, ability to ‘consent’ to, or their power to ‘refuse’, what others wish to impose. Where and how do we experience this in the world – and the church – today? A just society moderates the force of violence, allowing the power to refuse it. It frees people from having to join the same game – of violence or deception, of tit for tat (itself a debased, albeit popular understanding of justice). Hence the power of grace, when it intervenes in ways that remind us that the world may not be as it seems, and prompts an awareness of other realities and possibilities of living.
If I have a criticism, it is that this is not followed through in the book’s final section which seeks a non-religious basis for what it calls ‘discourses of faith’. Hope for the future, the authors suggest, may be found in the construction of a shared faith in three things. First, that human beings are participating in an intelligible order and, therefore, capable of connection with each other to make sense of, and construct, a ‘shared world’. Then, that a modern recognition of universal and equal approaches to human dignity is both hard won and irreversible. Finally, there is the practical confidence we show each day in the meaningfulness of free actions. In our hearts we know that we are not automatons; we have choice and choice matters. All fair enough; yet big questions remain about how we make connections, about whether a universal approach to equal human dignity is today’s norm, let alone irreversible, and how we learn to use freedom and make choices that are loving and just, or recognise when they are not.
I would have liked an exploration of the relevance of mercy, and the need to face head on the reality of sin. A Christian theologian and a humanist philosopher conclude their dialogue with agreement on how very close justice stands to love – ‘love understood as the sheer will or consent for the other to be what it is, and the bracketing out of the complaints of an ego that fears for its survival.’ That fear is part of the reality of sin: ‘that inherent flaw by which our better aspirations are frustrated’ as John Polkinghorne described it. And to stay with the dialogue, the quest for justice and the exercise of love to sustain it, requires that grace which the Judaeo-Christian tradition knows as ‘mercy’. This is not mere ‘clemency’ as in a juridical understanding, but the fullness of that beautiful Hebrew word hesed, with its connotations of compassionate, empathetic, loving kindness, a steadfast staying alongside the hurting other: an essential part of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
THE ADVENTURES OF MISS
BARBARA PYM: A BIOGRAPHY
William Collins £25
She closed the book and placed it on the side table. She mused uncertainly on what she had read. She pulled herself together and poured her second cup of tea. Unusually, she cut a second slice of Madeira cake. It was, after all, a special occasion. It is not every day that you finish reading a biography of yourself. Had she recognised herself in its pages? To see yourself as others see you is disconcerting. Do we ever know ourselves? Did not someone say somewhere, “If I knew myself, I would kill myself”? That would be a step too far: unthinkable. The Church would have something to say about that.
The cake was good, the right consistency. At least that was something beyond reproach. Biographies are, or should be, revelatory. What is the point otherwise? She could do without hagiography. She was not a saint. But should everything be revealed? Reticence was a virtue she admired. Much more could be achieved, subtleties of characterisation, for example. Elliptical references, hints and suggestions, rather than block-buster (is that the word they use so promiscuously?) revelations and exposure.
Given she was an author of social particularity, close, acute observation, perhaps she should not complain. Hers was the world of “the trivial round, the common task”. She was unsentimental, unsparing in her observation of provincial England, of the spiritual despair of lives thwarted by circumstance and personal failings. And she was piercingly funny,
She retrieved the tea-tray from the kitchen, placed the impedimenta on it and returned to the kitchen. As she washed the cup and saucer, having emptied the teapot and disposed of the tea-leaves, she thought that she would telephone Fr Hampstead. He knew the Anglo-Catholic milieu, albeit a generation after her. He knew Oxford (sadly not Freddie Hood), its dreaming spires, lost causes. He knew St Gabriel’s, Warwick Square, All Saints’ Notting Hill, life in north London. What did he make of it? He was bound to have read it. Perhaps he had been asked to review it for that Anglo-Catholic journal. What was it called? New Beginnings? No. Tautology. Which Directions?
She dialled his number. He answered immediately. “Oxford 4881”. He must have been at his desk. “Could I speak to Dr Pusey, please?”. “Ah, hello Miss Pym”. He could not bring himself to use her Christian name. He was pleased that she had remembered but not surprised because it was the sort of absurdity she enjoyed. He had a call from someone at the Electricity Board who had asked to speak to Dr Pusey. “He is dead.” “Oh, I am sorry to hear that, my condolences”.
“Thank you, but as he died in 1882 I think that we are over the worst”.
They had never met. He had not known her in the full flowering of her literary fame: only from her rediscovery in 1977. Recommendations by Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin in the TLS as unduly neglected had led to her second spring as a novelist. Her books had been re-published plus three new ones, including that rejected by Jonathan Cape’s Tom Maschler. He had thought her too out-of-date. She was no longer in tune with the zeitgeist in all its vulgar, libertarian, utopian, nihilistic, squalid, foul-mouthed glory. And insufficient copies had been sold.
“Do you have the new biography of me?”
“Yes, I have it”.
“Have you been asked to review it for New Whatsit?”
“New Directions. Yes, I have”.
“What might you say? Were you shocked?”
“I have sat in the confessional often enough never to be shocked”.
“Even my Oxford passions?”
“Serial stalking came as a surprise. You take authorial research to new levels. A rackety undergraduate life. Rather promiscuous passion than desiccated conformity. It does not need a Freudian to see how something that seems akin to rape was sufficiently traumatic to tear the relevant pages from your diary. However dashing your suitor, love was unrequited in sexual passion”.
“What about my liaison with my German Army Officer?”
“Unsurprising that you would fall for a handsome Officer, Nazi or not. At least it was love for an individual not necessarily the cause, unlike some other of your contemporaries.”
“My biographer suggests that I ought to have realised the horrors”.
“Some of your contemporaries did, many did not. At least your admiration for Hitler was temporary and not as insane as the nominative determinative Unity Valkyrie Mitford. Many were blind to the horrors beneath the surface. Love is blind and makes fools of us all. Future generations may look back on our cancel-culture and its desire to ban, banish, suppress opinions and prevent debate as an intellectual totalitarianism as corrosive as those of the past”.
“It is sad that you need to make these excuses”.
“It is the books that matter. St Paul seems like a nightmare at times”.
“What about the style of the biography and the writing?”
“The prose is sparky and crisp. Rather breathless and staccato. Not as textured, layered, supple, or subtle, as your style. The brief, episodic chapters are variable. Some seem little more than notes written-up but not developed. The 18th century chapter headings, while initially amusing, become irksome. Minor irritants in an otherwise lively and revealing portrait, for good and ill”.
She knew him well enough to enquire whether his inner pedant had anything to add.
“Page 229: Leo Amery ‘was the man who demanded that Chamberlain should ‘speak for England’.’ The remark was to Arthur Greenwood,”.
“I am still unsure whether the details of relationships ought to be aired”.
“But, Miss Pym, you left the evidence. Your fictional characters are based on close observation of those you knew. You are not unusual in that but you execute it with a rare satirical gift. Many will be relieved that Miss Pym was not quite so prim”.
“I can hear a bell.”
“The summons to Evensong. A Pymian ending to our conversation. Good afternoon, Miss Pym”.
She put down the telephone and looked out of the window. The agapanthus looked particularly striking but the aggressively dead zinnias caught her beady eye.