ON THE CUSP: DAYS OF ’62
Bloomsbury, 2021 £18.99 239pp, ISBN 978-1-5266-3201
Life is a series of forgotten moments. Not if you are the historian David Kynaston in this the fourth instalment of his history of post-war Britain. Under his omnibus title Tales of a New Jerusalem, he has chronicled Austerity Britain, 1945-51; Family Britain, 1951-57; Modernity Britain, 1957-62; and now he comes to the point of transition, the cusp year of 1962. Specifically June to October in that year. The mythology of the period is that the crucial cultural shift in the post-war period occurred from the end of the Lady Chatterly ban to the Beatles first LP. It was a period through which I lived, aged twelve, and was blissfully ignorant of both.
From a wide and impressive array of resources: many archive holdings, Mass Observation, national and local newspapers, diaries (published and unpublished) from all sorts and conditions of diarists, autobiographies, gazetteers, surveys, opinion polls and more, David Kynaston serves a smorgasbord, offers a kaleidoscope, a cornucopia, a bran tub (apt epithets abound) of events, tragic to comic, Pontins to Parliament, Oxford High Tables to the back streets and slums of Glasgow and Rochdale, and many stations in between. Similarly with the dramatic personae from high to low, rich to poor, bright to dim, athletic to inert. There is an abundance of piquant detail, a series of telling snapshots. As a mosaic is made of fragments, so is this book.
Although a confirmed urbanite, one of the most striking changes that struck me was that of the topography of the countryside which changed at an alarming rate. The virtual disappearance of hedgerows, the loss of heathland and wild grassland, the appearance of “huge and enervating” prairie-like fields changed the rural landscape. These changes were complemented by the mechanisation which saw the sharp decline of old skills as husbandry experienced technological change and its potential for greater output. Hoeing, harvesting, reaping by hand, ploughing by “treading the land” yielded to tractors and combine harvesters. Mechanics could achieve in a day or two what gangs of men and women took weeks. One of the farm workers looked mournfully and wistfully from his retirement cottage over the fields where he had laboured, which he tended and ploughed.
Plenty of farming but not much on faith or religion. Granted, Honest to God, the best-selling encouragement to doubt would not come until 1963, though surely this weed was already beginning to propagate in the Days of ‘62. Other aspects of social life, its industrial, economic, demographic, cultural, and political life are well observed. Although painting and sculpture are not conspicuous (a glancing reference to David Hockney), the surveys of popular music, theatre, television, and new writing, as they create and chronicle the zeitgeist are invariably engaging and allusive. The book begins and ends with the Rolling Stones but it is the threnody of the emergence of the Fab Four from Liverpool, The Beatles, that takes precedence as the most conspicuously emblematic of the times.
His extended consideration of Commonwealth immigration, and the consequent racial discrimination that scarred the era, is explicit and has the power to shock. Yet, sixty years later, there remain strong and disturbing echoes of those times. This is not a complacent book of a past over and done, a foreign country then that is different now. The question which arises is not how much the present is different from and better than the past but, rather, how much is it, if not the same, tragically similar? This is not a book about that slippery and contested subject progress. “What is progress?’ asks the sceptical historian and is still waiting for an answer.
It is, in part, a book of vivid vignettes that illustrate matters beyond themselves. They can seem a tad relentless, not least the list of the “cast of thousands, largely unaware … that cultural tectonic plates were about to shift and that they would be part of the story”; from Leo Abse to Harold Wilson. However, one of the most affecting is the account by Andrée Bokikto whose daughter, Simone, was born on Thursday, 27 September 1962. Simone was born with deformities resulting from thalidomide. “I just cried and cried. But I prayed too: I said to God, if she’s going to suffer, take her now. Because I wanted her, but not if she was going to have an awful life.” Her husband, similarly anxious, was persuaded that their daughter would be fine, “she was our baby, and things would work out.” Shortly after the birth a consultant warned her not to talk about thalidomide. The author rightly comments on this “heartbreaking (as well as revealing) account” which presaged a long and ultimately successful campaign and legal action to bring the drug companies to account.
Touching, in a different context, is his reference to and quotation from that most “humane” of architectural critics, Iain Nairn. He was sceptical about the post-war generation of progressive architects and their self-appointed task to create a New Jerusalem, which resulted in soulless and sinister boxes in the sky. Nairn argued for “a complete reversal of architectural and town planning theory”. That was “the only hope of keeping the city alive as an organism. It must renew itself as naturally as the body does. If that obscures someone’s tidy vision of how people live, then tant pis”.
The attitude attacked by Nairn also underpinned the philosophy of the Pilkington Report on broadcasting, which opens the book. Its text was substantially written by Richard Hoggart, “some lecturer in a provincial university” according to Lord Kilmuir, then Lord Chancellor, as haut en bas as Hoggart’s prose. Hoggart (a media don) was a puritan with a moral soul and, like most socialists, knew what was best for people. He quoted, approvingly, the historian R. H. Tawney, “Triviality is more dangerous to the soul than wickedness”. Moral theologians may have something to say about that but it underpinned the ethos of public service broadcasting for many years. And now? Circumspicere.
Historiographical concerns about whether or not there are watersheds or cusps, or if there is such an entity as the “spirit of the age” are not dispelled by this book but, as the pointilliste portrait of a society in flux (as it ever is), there is much here that is rewarding and stimulating.
John Le Carré
208 pp ISBN: 9780241550069
This is Le Carré’s posthumous publication, a thin volume, complete, yet somehow unsatisfactory, as if the author had left the typescript in a drawer of his desk with good reason. Le Carré fans have to read it, if only to hear the last gasp of the magician spy writer as he assembles the final cast of unlikely characters and superfluous adverbs for our escapist enjoyment. The hero of Silverview is not a spy, however, but a lost soul called Julian, who is trying to run a bookshop in a desolate seaside town in East Anglia where nobody reads. We first meet Julian as he emerges from his shop in search of breakfast, clutching to his throat the velvet collars of a black overcoat left over from the City life he had renounced two months previously. Not a good career move, Julian. Le Carré fans spot danger whenever a character changes lanes in life. Sure enough, in a dismal clapboard shack on the beach, run, we deduce, by a foreigner (“You seat you anywhere! I come soon, okay?”) Julian meets for a second time his nemesis, Edward Avon “with his air of perpetual motion, being far too preoccupied with hanging up his broad-brimmed Homburg hat and adjusting his dripping fawn raincoat over the back of a chair – there was no mistaking the rebellious mop of white hair or the unexpectedly delicate fingers, as, with a defiant flourish, they extracted a folded copy of the Guardian newspaper from the recesses of the raincoat and flattened it on the table before him.” Did you know you were being followed, Julian? Surely your bookshop stocks Le Carré’s works.
There is no mistaking that in his old age the Master is slipping into self-parody. No detail is too specific to be spared repetition. The Homburg turns up again on the next page in the bookshop, hanging on the Victorian hat stand, and sure enough Edward Avon soon sets off into a storm “with wings of white hair streaming from under his Homburg.” The overload of descriptive detail, pinpoint accurate in Le Carré’s earlier novels, appears in Silverview as stage direction, preparing us, perhaps, for the more satisfactory Netflix version. In print, Silverview’s reported speech, drowning in detail, impedes the reader.
Fear not, fans. We soon leave the empty bookshop and are plunged into more familiar territory: MI6 and their rogue agents, run by the cut-throat maniacs we know so well. “… the front door opened to reveal a stalky, bespectacled man in his mid-fifties, with a leftward lean to his body, and a long beakish head tilted in semi-humorous enquiry.” This unofficial Middle East desk, bent on the ruin of colleagues as well as nations, seems to have everyone in the novel on the payroll, including, at the end, the unsuspecting Julian. Overlooking the author’s blatant use of coincidence, we discover that the department operates 300 feet below the ground in an abandoned wartime base in East Anglia. Here everybody speaks as if we are still in the Cuban missile crisis. Yet in this strange buried place, Le Carré’s writing takes on an elegiac quality, as if saying farewell to the world he knew and had recreated for his readers. A former agent describes his return. “They were standing in the hellhole, known to insiders as the Hawk Sanctuary, and Proctor’s ears were still popping from the descent. The same plywood conference table and school chairs. The same giant television screen, dormant. The same row of blank computers. The same vile strip-lighting overhead. The same imitation windows, wax flowers and blue sky. A sense of a ship abandoned, slowly sinking. A stench of decay, age, and oil.”
At the close of the book, the agents and their controllers assemble for a Secret Service funeral, at which Julian, in his “City shoes”, finds that he is a pallbearer. The undertaker addresses the group. “I will commence with an admonition, gentlemen. Do not on any account touch the handles. If you touch the handles, you will find yourselves going home with them.” Perhaps Silverview should not be judged too harshly. Humour and nostalgia help us past the wandering plot and inconclusive ending. Silverview, by the way, is just the name of the house where Edward Avon lives. I can’t help thinking this might have been a working title. Netflix might consider something a little more catchy, maybe Homburgs At Dawn.
The BRF book of 365 Bible Reflections
Karen Laister & Olivia Warburton (Editors)
with contributions from BRF Authors, supporters and well-wishers
BRF 2021 £14.99 416pp
ISBN 978 1 80039 100 0
A hundred years ago in January 1922 Revd Leslie Mannering of St Matthew’s Brixton circulated his first monthly leaflet of bible readings with commentaries ‘for the purpose of deepening the life of Prayer, Bible-reading and Holy Communion in each one of us’. So began what became the world-wide movement we know as BRF, the Bible Reading Fellowship. The Centenary is being launched with publication of 365 bible reflections written by different contributors including myself geared to energise searching of scripture and submission of lives to the Word of God. As Sally Welch writes, ‘we are not a people of a book… we are children of God… we follow a person, not a page; the Word, not words’. The genius of BRF is its steering away from both biblical literalism and renegotiation of scripture to fit in with contemporary thinking. ‘The BRF book of 365 Bible Reflections’ is a series of windows to be opened daily providing ‘light to our paths’ (Psalm 119:105). The variety of readings and contributors are structured around celebrating the transformative power of scripture and ‘BRF’s long history of coming alongside people at all stages of faith, encouraging Bible reading and everyday faith since 1922’. A third of the commentaries are constituted from daily readings journeying through Old and New Testament without Apocrypha. Another third journeys through the Christian year from Advent to Pentecost. Shorter sections include praying the Psalms, the Bible and old age and a final section linked to the marks of mission adopted by the Anglican Communion: tell, teach, tend, transform and treasure. The theme of ‘Sharing the Story’ runs through the collection of one page reflections which end appropriately with the invitation in Romans to listen more deeply to the longings of creation and deepen environmental stewardship. The book is well geared for flexible use as, for examples, deciding to use it in a season like Lent or to follow a three month tour through Old and New Testament or spend a fortnight on what the Bible has to say to older people. Each day has different scripture and contributor and that makes for ongoing freshness. There is no word of God without power. In this book BRF provides a variety of insight from hundreds of co-authors into the transforming power of the good news of Jesus Christ.
A Passion for Places
England Through the Eyes of John Betjeman
Amberley Publishing 2021
The year: 1971. The scene: Queens Gate, South Kensington. 7 pm on a summer evening. A parson and a sidesman stand on the steps of Saint Augustine’s church, waiting for the congregation to arrive for Evening Prayer at 7.30. Heading south, a Mini draws to a stop outside the church and an elderly man gets out. Approaching us, he says: ‘Do you mind if I have a look at your Martin Travers reredos?’ and disappears inside. Five minutes later, he emerges, saying ‘Thanks very much’; the Mini moves off towards Chelsea. That was John Betjeman [for it is he] doing what he enjoyed most, church crawling, formed by family holidays in Cornwall and early schooldays in Oxford.
This book, by a former London archdeacon, isn’t just concerned with churches. It chronicles Betjeman’s life, his formation at Oxford and his clashes with C. S. Lewis and Nikolaus Pevsner. On the other hand he established lifelong friendships. For much of the time working with John Piper, Betjeman launched the Shell Guides to the English counties early in the 1930s; these were written by them and many of their friends to take advantage of the rise in pleasure motoring, being written and illustrated in what was at the time an innovative style.
The series continued to be produced up until 1984 and sometimes contained some acerbic comments, possibly the most memorable being David Verey’s description of Llandrindod Wells in Mid Wales (1960):- ‘Round every corner one expects to find the sea: but there is no sea, only rain.’ After his marriage to Penelope Chetwode in 1933 Betjeman moved to Berkshire and combined work on the Shell Guides with his other writing.
After the War, Betjeman was briefly involved with the Murray’s guides – to Berkshire and Buckinghamshire – before the Shell Guides restarted, and beside his varied writing also undertook broadcasting, initially on the radio (over 300 broadcasts in 1945-1978). As time passed, Betjeman increasing moved into television, making memorable programmes that covered his enthusiasm, whether churches or the railways, particularly those of London (Metroland). Of course, Betjeman was deeply involved in the campaign to save St Pancras station, threatened at a time when British Railways had a very negative attitude towards its heritage and, indeed, its services. It is fitting that there is a statue of Betjeman in St Pancras station now.
And then there are Betjeman’s poems. He specialised in the understated, the ordinary church or Victorian architecture, and was a poet of place. Several of his poems feature churches, perhaps most memorably in Lincolnshire, a county that you do not automatically associate with Betjeman, whether the encounter with the spectral mad Rector of (the fictional) Speckleby in ‘A Lincolnshire Tale’, or ‘A Lincolnshire Church’. Although the Collected Poems does not say so, ‘A Lincolnshire Church’ is based on Betjeman’s visit to Saint Margaret’s Huttoft; the Indian priest was the Rev. Theophilus Caleb (vicar 1943-59), who is buried in the churchyard. As Henry Thorold told me some forty years ago, it was written as a ‘thank you’ to the mother of Jack Yates, Thorold’s co-author of the magnificent Shell Guide to Lincolnshire, who had put him up for several days in Louth, on a visit to the county.
Perhaps the best of his work for the BBC is A Passion for Churches, filmed in Norfolk in 1974. It celebrates both the county’s heritage of buildings and also the life of the Church of England in the diocese of Norwich, whether it is Pauline Plummer restoring the magnificent roodscreen at Ranworth; the Mother’s Union festival in Norwich Cathedral; Fr. Fair saying Matins at Flordon; a wedding at Lyng; the church fête at South Raynham; or the Rev. Gordon James editing the parish magazine (‘Wensum Diary’) in his new rectory at Weston Longville.
And there is much more. Even the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham features, though the filming of Fr. Michael Smith‘s Sunday Solemn Mass at South Creake did not appear in the final version. With his love of the work of Ninian Comper, the last great architect of the Gothic Revival (a point of friction with Pevsner), Betjeman made sure that the vast retablo at Wymondham Abbey was included, and travelled beyond the county boundary to Lound In Suffolk (but still in the diocese of Norwich) to film Comper’s ‘Golden Church’ there. Pictures of several Norfolk churches feature in the text.
Like his writing on churches, notably the Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, which reach an audience that Pevsner’s books cannot, his poems speak to ordinary people. The author brings out Betjeman’s appeal, with plentiful quotations and illustrations of the subjects. It ends in Cornwall, where Betjeman is buried, in a place close to his heart.
Additional Lent reading for 2022
Two more titles for Lent this year offer something for the literary and something special for Passiontide, from established authors with a clear focus on spiritual growth.
Shakespeare is the driving force behind Peter Graystone’s All’s Well that Ends Well (Canterbury Press, £12.99). The Bard was a Christian of depth and dedication – this much shines forth in his works – so this companion by one of the theatre critics on the Church Times meets the need for people of faith who appreciate who the Shakespearean canon is both a map and journey of faith. Subtitled ‘From dust to Resurrection’ it takes readers through ‘40 days with Shakespeare’ quoting from the plays, sonnets, and even his will. Each chapter begins a quotation or passage, followed by some exploration and analysis of its place and context (including plot and character where appropriate) and some spiritual reflection. This is not intended to be a book for anyone flicking through to find their favourite moment or lines to see what Graystone makes of them, for it is sequential and best sat with as compiled. Graystone’s familiarity with the complete works is impressive and he writes with obvious affection. But this is not Frank Kermode-style literary analysis either. He offers fluent and helpful disquisition on what is going without getting caught up in academic high branches. The religious element at the end of each one is short and serves more as a stepping-off point for group discussion or personal meditation; no author-prescribed theological reflection which may trammel or translate. At first this can seem like short-changing but as it goes on the project comes together and makes sense. Lent must be a time for personal exploration and depth, the soul-searching and heartwork which must out of necessity be bother personal and individual. To have such a compendium of Shakespeare selections with articulate notes is helpful. It is also a happy reminder of how three seminal texts (the Complete Works, the Book of Common Prayer, and the King James Bible) were all written within the space of a generation, are conversant, and beautiful examples of English on page, designed to be read and declaimed, in public and private, for good and for ill. All remain much-loved, used and applied today. The frontispiece quotes from The Winter’s Tale: ‘It is required you do awake your faith’. Graystone helps us to do this admirably, seeing things through the eyes of Shakespeare and his characters, and not getting in the way himself.
Andrew Nunn is the social media-mad Dean of Southwark and his The Hour is Come: Passion in real time (Canterbury Press, £12.99) begins on ‘Mothering Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, with a reminder of those early days [in the crib]’. It’s imaginative and also original. Each chapter (a thematic stretch of horizon all the way to Pentecost, although the consecutive days are from Palm Sunday to Easter Monday) offers a scripture passage, reflection and prayer. Writing in the preface, Nunn says it is ‘born of the desire to set the events of the Passion into the context of the fast-paced, news-hungry, hard reality of the city, to get the pace of the story and the urgency of the Gospels into our thinking’. The real-time dimension is indeed a striking one. For those who might pause to consider what Our Lord was doing during Holy Week at a particular time or location, this volume gives that along with devotional content. So in the midst of polishing, fetching flowers, folding booklets and laying out vestments, it takes us back to Jerusalem and the specific particularity of Christ in that place and that time, encouraging a different intimacy and identification. ‘Remember above everything that all this happened for you, Jesus entered our real time to enter your real time and bring you to eternity,’ he states. It could prove very useful for devotional groups and activities during Passiontide. It’s certainly useful for personal use and many preachers will find the apposite, interesting reflections to be of some value in preparation for talks and homilies. It helps us to bring Holy Week alive in a welcome and novel way.
Hogarth and Europe –
Uncovering City Life
Tate Britain, London
until 20th March, 2022
When this show opened it was panned by The Guardian as too woke. With the passage of time should we think better of it? I tried.
At their own estimation, the curators confront, critique, challenge and reveal the work of William Hogarth (1697-1764). They set his work within a larger history of social and cultural change. In other words, Hogarth is judged against today’s progressive standards and found wanting.
‘Laddish’ is the word used to describe him and that is as kind as it gets from the cast of 18 commentators who have been employed by the show for their opinions. Half of them have a background in the study of eighteenth century art. Their strength lies in the unremitting case for the prosecution.
So we are told Hogarth caricatured the oppressed. In fact, he caricatured everybody. But the rich, it is asserted, enjoyed being caricatured, so they don’t count. And when we look at the sympathetic picture of the heads of six of his servants, it is said the work was used to attract upper class money. So even when Hogarth was being progressive he was compromised. And though the finest pictures on show are of women and were painted for women, little is made of this. Instead, we are reminded that Hogarth sold most of his pictures to men.
That is not to say Hogarth has no case to answer. The strongest and most persuasive criticism of the painter is his treatment of forced sex. This was to an extent tolerated at the time (but only to an extent) and was and is nasty. The curators treat the before and after paintings of forced sex in a measured way.
To continue with the theme of female sexuality, ‘The Lady’s Last Stake’ is hung next to those pictures. The curators argue that ‘The Lady’ shows a frank grasp of that female sexuality and is something women would be interested in. But the picture might just be a Hogarthian rendition of ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.’ A more direct take on female sexuality is that of a serving girl with her black lover in the print ‘Noon’. That combination of sex and race is more complex and more direct than we might have expected in the eighteenth century.
Still, we have to reckon that Hogarth did not have a superhuman ability to transcend his time, and his pictures wouldn’t have sold if he’d had the sensibilities of the twenty-first-century progressive middle classes. He reflects an eighteenth-century England which was often violent, inegalitarian and brutish. Much money was made from exploitation (not just of slaves, this was the time of the Highland Clearances) and used to buy paintings. And, yes, Hogarth was not a crude Little Englander. He drew inspiration from the great Chardin even while taking the mickey out of the French – the curators treat ‘The Gate of Calais’ as if they’d caught Nigel Farage eating a croissant. But it is no secret that Hogarth learnt from the best continental artists.
In the end, it is dispiriting to have the shortcomings of the eighteenth century continually forced on the visitor and in a way which is often tendentious and finger-wagging. No wonder the show is almost empty. Why go to an exhibition about a man and his art which are so plainly disapproved of by the people who have put it on?
Or, indeed, one which is incoherent, for it claims to be about changes in painting in the great cities of London, Paris, Amsterdam and Venice. And there are a lot of paintings and prints. But there is no strong thread to relate these riches. The only rule of thumb is that Hogarth comes out badly of any comparison. When we see a picture of a Dutch officers’ mess, the soldiers are well-behaved. Surprise, surprise: Hogarth’s service personnel are generally drunk. And when we look at one of Watteau’s charming semi-staged fêtes there are no comments about the lack of respect or financial reward given to French actors and musicians, or assumptions about how the fête could have been paid for. By contrast, Hogarth can’t sit on a chair without being castigated for exploitation.
All of which is a disappointment because there is so much to enjoy here. Hogarth’s street scenes are full of life and energy compared to his decorous European neighbours. Elegant eighteenth-century French satire simply doesn’t pack the punch of Hogarth’s dramatic, clear-eyed mockery. Indeed, a more interesting show would have followed the line of popular transgressive beauty which leads from Hogarth to The Beano and Viz, via Charles Dickens.
And then, what is culpably missed by the commentators, Hogarth is a gorgeous painter. His fabrics and skin tones, the juxtaposition of colours, the ability to convey satire in a line of ink and character with dabs of paint, all these are life affirming. ‘Mrs Salter,’ one of his greatest works, is not a beauty (most of his women aren’t) but comely and recognisable. She is framed in a deliberately old-fashioned oval and dressed simply. And she rivals the Infantas of Velázquez.
There is joy to be found in Tate Britain, and it’s delivered by William Hogarth. Go to the show for the artist, not for the commentariat.