The Male Portrait
Wallace Collection, London
until 30th January 2022
This exhibition is shown in two rooms. The first is allowed to take eight people, the second forty-five. If only. This must be the best sparsely attended exhibition in London. And, sadly, at the time of writing, the few visitors present were still barred from parts of the gallery – with some of its most excellent paintings – for covid reasons. But at least this gives an opportunity to look in some tranquillity at some of the finest works of one of the greatest of painters.
Frans Hals (1582-1666) was a near contemporary of Rembrandt. Like Rembrandt he worked most of his life in one town, in Hals’ case the town of Haarlem. And, like Rembrandt, he was for a time highly successful but died in poverty. Most important of all, like Rembrandt, Hals was a virtuoso in paint who loved his medium.
Hals’ extant body of work is smaller than Rembrandt’s and he doesn’t have the same range of media – there’s no great collection of Hals’ prints or drawings; and his subject matter is narrower – portraits of well-off men and women, married couples, civic groups and peasants (usually drunk).
This show is entirely made up of well-off men. They all wear black and have white ruffs. Two of the ruffs are hard and Calvinist, the others are soft and good for showing off long hair. The backgrounds are grey to brown, with only one showing anything else (a window with trees which looks so crude many have doubted whether Hals painted it). The sitters’ gaze suggests they are as much looking at us as we them. But none of them looks the viewer straight on. All are slightly twisted and many lean on the back of a chair (a pose apparently invented by Hals). Many of the sitters have a full figure.
But, and this is a Hals trademark, how varied the pictures are. The characters are different. The clothes are different. The paint is different. Van Gogh said there were 27 different blacks in Hals and just following the different blacks is one way into the pictures. At a quick glance it’s easy to think they’re all the same, the different blacks show how much they’re not.
The show covers most of Hals’ career and it is clear how his brushstrokes became freer over time. In the earliest works, in the Renaissance fashion, the brushworks are invisible. Soon they become visible and fluid, though they never lose their precision. So, ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ (1624) has brushwork of strength and precision in the lace cuffs, while the swathes of black show the beginnings of Hals’ looser style. The latest picture in the show, the Fitzwilliam’s ‘Portrait of a Man,’ (1660-3?) is so loose that if it weren’t in a Hals show it could easily pass off as mid-period Manet. Indeed, Manet and Van Gogh led the new appreciation of Hals which was sparked by the Fourth Marquess of Hertford’s purchase of ‘The Laughing Cavalier’.
Hals’ brushwork, however pleasurable, is, of course, never just an end in itself. There is dramatic force in the big sweeps of black paint. And, for all that these sober Dutchmen are in the fashionable Spanish black, that black is often threaded with joyful patterns either in different black threads, or, more spectacularly, with multi-coloured silks. Again, ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ is the great example of this, but the portraits of Willem Coymans and of Jasper Schade have equally dashing patterns.
The Schade picture stands out for just how wealthy some of Hals’ clients were. Schade was an aristocrat from Utrecht who famously spent money – one piece of worked cloth he purchased cost 3/4s of skilled workman’s annual wage. Though much romantic ink has been spilt on the expressions of people in portraits, Schade’s look of aristocratic cool humour and arrogance is enough to make the observer wonder if he really wanted to be seen that way for posterity.
But just what we make of Hals’ portraits must be led by the most famous of them all. Called by some the most handsome man in art, the only accurate word in the title ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ is the. The subject doesn’t laugh. He’s not an aristocrat. I’m glad the show suggestss he’s slightly sinister, something I’ve long thought. But does that mean the curators of the show and I simply have the same historically-bound outlook? Would we have thought differently a hundred years ago when the picture received its nickname? Should we have the same attitude as Lord Clarke, who as a near aristocrat from a tradesman’s family, was not far different in background to the people Hals painted – he thought Hals ‘revoltingly cheerful and horribly skilful.’ Well, the pictures in this show aren’t cheerful like Hals’ peasant drunks (and I’m with Clarke on those). But the skill is not horrible. It is part and parcel of a supreme painter.
TEACHER, PASTOR, BISHOP, SAINT
Gracewing, 2021 £30
565pp, hbk ISBN 978 178182 970 7
As a son of Lincolnshire, I feel I know Bishop Edward King well. His portrait graced churches and halls throughout the county and, whilst I was a curate in the early eighties, a strong oral tradition about him still flourished among clergy and people. In fact, there has never been any reason not to know him well even outside of his Diocese: many of his retreat addresses and sermons were collected and in print within a year of his death in 1910.
Biographies (brief and lengthy) abound: Randolph (1911), Russell (1912), Randolph and Townroe (1918), Wilgress (1930), Lord Elton, (1958) Chadwick (1968), and Newton (1977). The earliest are simple hagiographies; likewise Elton’s and Chadwick’s are unremittingly positive in their assessment of King’s life and ministry. It is not until Newton’s In search for a Saint that any shadows are cast and then they are not at all substantial. King claimed to be a ‘Bishop to the poor’ but lived in comparative wealth. There were the rumours of disquiet that his memorial statue should be of the Bishop confirming a young boy (Dr Marshall is very quick and sure in his dismissal of the possibility of scandal). In fact, there are few twentieth century Anglican personalities that have been so closely examined as that of Bishop King.
Why another biography? I had hoped that Bishop Marshall had uncovered yet more gems and jewels to decorate the memory of Edward King, and there a few. Dr Marshall acknowledges his debt to the research of the late John Newton for the more detailed understanding of the influence of Bishop Sailer of Regensburg on King’s pastoral theology. Marshall also had sight of David Young’s thesis on The Judgement. The minutes of the meetings of East Anglian Bishops have also provided new perspectives on Kings thoughts on contemporary social issues as they affected pastoral practice. The opening section on King’s family gives some acute observations of the origins of future traits in the mature priest and bishop. Marshall also provides the fullest analysis of his ministry at the 1897 Lambeth Conference.
This is a very welcome addition to the collection of King’s biographies, not least because it presents the fullest picture yet of his earlier life, beginning with his childhood in a Kentish clerical household. His time as both chaplain and later principle of Cuddesdon is skilfully retold with a judicious use of memoirs and letters (there may be more to come, as the Cuddesdon archives have yet to be tapped). With the aid of this vivid account and portrait Marshall is able to provide a powerful representation of King’s life as well as an in depth reappraisal of his significance for the contemporary church.
Teacher, Pastor, Bishop – this biography is in part a plea for the renewal today of the teaching and pastoral ministry of priest and bishop. Marshall laments the poor standard of theological learning and expertise on the current bench of bishops and the relegation of skills and understanding in pastoral care to below knowledge of management techniques and language. King, as Rowan Williams points out in the forward, reshaped the nature of episcopal ministry in the Church of England with his assiduous pastoral care and inspired and effective teaching and preaching. If at times this biography appears to be lengthy quotations from secondary sources strung together, it is only because Marshall has unearthed opinions of King that are authentic. And there are moments of fresh insight when a kaleidoscope of quotations is brought into a glorious pattern by Marshall’s perceptive reading of King.
There are two lengthy reflective passages in the book. One is the chapter ‘The Golden Years’ assessing his twenty-five years as Bishop of Lincoln. This chapter reviews King’s response to various challenges: the poverty of the clergy, the need for new churches in Grimsby, marriage and divorce, the rise of secular education, the ‘people’s budget’ of 1909, ritualism and party spirit in the church. In all these areas King’s position was often surprising; open to the possibility of remarriage, the rejection of more Roman ritual and a scrupulous use of the Prayer Book, ecumenical in outreach to non- conformists, voting against the Old Age Pension. Marshall concludes that King’s approach to each situation was that of a ‘radical contemplative’ who took every problem into the depth of prayer and the light of scripture. He was then able to communicate his clear settled view with both sensitivity and authority.
Another careful analysis of King’s ministry is found in the chapter The secret of King’s influence, where Marshall seeks to understand what Liddon termed King’s ‘genius for sympathy’ – his renowned sensitivity and gentleness. He speculates about his relationship with both men and women and his celibate life style. He refers to Philip Seddon, Philip Sheldrake, Alistair Campbell and other modern writers on pastoral care, particularly to explore the place of sexuality. Marshall concludes that whatever technique of interpretation is tried, Edward King defies the mould. His influence is found in his total devotion to Jesus, his practice of prayer and his deep and undivided attention to individuals. In King, Christ was present – and that was the cause of his widespread and long lasting influence. His life was the work of Grace. Marshall argues that now, over a century after his death, the influence of this ‘one on the many’ is being understood. The conclusion is: King was Holy.
The title ends with the attribution Saint, so is this a biography or a hagiography? As Newton did in the seventies, Marshall does not dodge the difficult and awkward questions about King. Here he is warts and all: awful administrator, unrepentantly catholic in his view of the church, capable of a withering comment, perhaps at the end of his life blind to his limitations. Something of legend surrounds King no doubt, but no one can deny that he was a saint of God. Edward King pray for us!
Till Darkness Fell:
CR in Africa
Fr Alban Winter CR
Mirfield Publications (2021)
Till Darkness Fell is an account of the Community of the Resurrection’s work in South Africa; it was written by Fr Alban Winter CR in 1962, sixty years after Mirfield first went to the southern hemisphere. It has now seen light of day another six decades later, edited by Fr Nicolas Stebbing CR. The title perhaps suggests its point of departure; it was originally conceived in the light of the workings-out of the full implications of the apartheid that crystallised under the ministries of Hans Strijdom and Hendrik Verwoerd in the years that followed the National Party’s rise to power in 1948.
Out of that context, the chapters of this short book might well be read as a series of charming vignettes of a world long-departed—one of high mass, white habits, and solar topees—or even through a lens of colonial paternalism. Both approaches would be a mistake. The decision of Mirfield to follow the Society of St John the Evangelist and the Society of the Sacred Mission to South Africa set in train a series of endeavours that was replicated elsewhere by its forerunners: an emphasis on rootedness in African soil, a focus on education, and a profound sense of fair play. Alongside this existed an heroic determination to minister to people where they found them: in the countryside, in the mines, and in the townships.
Mirfield’s accomplishments in South Africa and what is now Zimbabwe were as diverse as they were legion. This is a tale of teaching and preaching; of souls won and saved for Christ; of devoted local catechists, on whom every African missionary endeavour relied; of schools, and particularly of St John’s College in Johannesburg—which for years has successfully jostled with Diocesan College in Cape Town and Michaelhouse in Natal to be considered South Africa’s answer to Eton—and of St Peter’s School, which proved honourably and amply that education was for all, until the advent of the legal strictures of a government hellbent on kicking the black African into the dust and keeping him there.
It is also a tale of sacrifice, achievement, and frustration: of plans made, foiled, and transfigured. Mirfield played its part in heady days; when Fr Winter stated that “the Anglican Church is one of the greatest institutions in South Africa”, it was no exaggeration. It was true even as late as 1962, as Archbishop Joost de Blank swept round his Province in purple biretta and cappa magna, blessing as he went and refusing to enter any church that was not open to blacks as well as whites. A year later a stroke invalided him to a canonry of Westminster and an early death, but not before he had written the foreword to the original text, noting that it amounted to “a glorious story, even if it contains some heart-breaks”.
The full record of the stand against apartheid made by the Anglican Church in South Africa is not terribly widely known; to view it only through the work of figures like Trevor Huddleston CR, as distinguished as such work was, is only to see it in part. Fr Winter’s brief testimony opens up further the quotidian witness of those on the ground; it reminds us that, whatever the current prevailing zeitgeist, not every white man went to the colonies to oppress other people. Objective goodness is objectively good, whatever the circumstances of its commission; like so many others the members of CR did their best, for as long as they could.
Apartheid fell in the end, die Here sy dank, but the high doctrine of the Incarnation in which the Church’s unwavering position was planted soon became itself something of a peeling pergola for the beguiling shoots of liberation theology. Without the heterodoxies of John William Colenso, earlier members of the Catholic movement might never have felt moved to board the steamer to help Robert Gray reclaim South Africa for the faith as the Church of England had received it; the kalendar of the Province of Southern Africa now includes Colenso among its liturgical observances. Praise be, though, for the faithful Mirfield Fathers; their work was good, holy, and necessary, and over what came next they had but little control.
This inspiring volume tells the story of righteous stewards who set off from damp and dank West Yorkshire and spent themselves as an offering, pleasing to God, under the burning African sun. With their contemporaries in the other men’s and women’s orders—sent into a vineyard on the other side of the planet from Cowley, Wantage, Kelham, and London Colney—their stories deserve to be more widely known. They were lights of the world in their several generations, till darkness fell.
The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East.
JANINE DI GIOVANNI
Bloomsbury, 2021, Pp. xiv+240 £14
In 1997 William Dalrymple published his travelogue, From The Holy Mountain, interweaving the history of Christian communities throughout the region with his own personal experiences as a student. It is widely seen as an elegy to Eastern Christianity, even then considered to be on its deathbed. In the 25 years since Dalrymple’s book, the Middle East has descended into flames. The Baa’thist state in Iraq has been supplanted by unleashed demons, Syria consumed by the twin flames of authoritarianism and Islamism, Palestine squeezed by both Zionist expansion and Islamist governance, whilst Egypt has lurched from authoritarianism, to Islamist supremacism, and back to authoritarianism.
This is the context in which Janine di Giovanni has written The Vanishing. A highly-decorated foreign correspondent and devout Roman Catholic, di Giovanni has distilled her decades of reporting from the Middle East to explore how Christians in the Holy Land have survived. She also writes in a second, important context: that of the isolation and uncertainty brought about by Covid-19, and how the eternal words and actions of the liturgy have brought her hope during the pandemic.
The book is divided into six sections, beginning with an Introduction which sets out di Giovanni’s motivations for writing, provides a brief discussion of the recent history of Christians in the Middle East, and draws parallels between religiously-motivated conflict in the 1990s Balkans and the experiences of Christians in the Levant. Four chapters follow, each focused on a location in which di Giovanni has lived and worked.
The first is Iraq. Following a brief history of Christianity there, she focuses on personal encounters with individuals who have called Iraq home. The breadth and depth of her time in Iraq is evident, as she recalls meetings with a broad spectrum of ecclesiastical hierarchy and ordinary laypeople during the last twenty years. Interspersed with her personal experiences are illuminating discursions on the socio-economic status of Christians under Saddam, the threat that emigration poses to the continued existence of educated Christians, and astute descriptions of the minutiae of Christian life in the Levant: crosses overtly tattooed onto wrists, the decoration of ancient monasteries and the hospitality extended to all during religious feasts. Importantly, she allows these Christians a direct voice. She quotes them verbatim often, and never allows her analysis to drown out the experiences of her subjects.
The second chapter is situated in Gaza. Di Giovanni recounts encounters with both foreign clergy who minister to Gaza’s Roman Catholic population, and with people such as Elham Fara, the female organist of a Roman Catholic church. She does not shy away from describing Israeli policy towards Gaza as brutal and heartless, detailing how Israeli Defence Force policy maims and kills Gazans. In the ongoing conflict, Gazans are killed in disproportionate numbers compared to Israeli fatalities. She also criticises the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, accusing them of venality and illegal violence.
The key scene in di Giovanni’s Gazan chapter, and indeed the narrative which is really at the core of the entire book, comes not in the tale of a Christian but that of a Muslim. Omar al Khatib is beaten by Egyptian police, imprisoned, denied a passport by the Palestinian Authority and refused help by Hamas. His crime? Winning both a Chevening Scholarship and a Fulbright Scholarship, prestigious university awards designed to reward potential leaders of civil society around the world. Omar is a victim of the same forces that also persecute Christians in the Middle East: radical Islamism, faceless authoritarianism, and state sanctioned violence. In such desperate circumstances, the success of individuals like al Khatib is the true victory to be celebrated.
Violence and dispossession characterise all of di Giovanni’s subsequent chapters. Her account of Christians in Syria explains how many felt forced to choose the Scylla of the regime rather than the Charybdis of the revolution. Di Giovanni explores varied Christian communities including the Armenians and the Greek Orthodox, cutting across historical periods, and attending to the nuances of social class in the present. The same is true for her chapter on Egypt, which shows how both wealthy and poor Coptic communities experience modern-day Egyptian life.
The Epilogue summarises the primary motivation for the book: a hope that its people “would never disappear”. Di Giovanni frequently records the words of individuals from precarious communities, enabling their memory to live on. But while the ‘vanishing’ of this book’s title may indeed be happening, it also repeatedly demonstrates the resilience of Christians in the Middle East. Christians are not alone in this, and her book is a call to recognise that other religious groups, and many inhabitants of this region, also face desperate, ongoing persecution.
The Oxford Handbook of the Reception of Aquinas
Edited by Matthew Levering and Marcus Plested
OUP January 2021
In academia, as in life, things come into and go out of fashion. Just as the ‘70s were defined by flairs, so also were they defined by Arendt’s On Violence, Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, and the end of the London Positivist Society. In the 2020s, what has become really trendy of late is what we call reception history. In most disciplines, there is a canon of major thinkers and writers, mostly thought of in glowing terms, and reception history asks why they got to be the canon, rather than anyone else. Why do we remember Mozart over Salieri, or even over Charles Mingus? Why do we all love Van Gogh when he wasn’t much of anything in his own day? Why does Shakespeare get to be ‘the best’ playwright, when most people don’t read Marlowe? Certain people get to be remembered by history as geniuses, but it’s not always obviously the case that they are so much better than anyone else. Given the power often invested in ‘the canon’, and the authority vested in its members, it seems right to critique why history gives us winners and losers, and worry about what that might mean today, as well as to give us access to an awful lot of other excellent people who haven’t been so lionised; the point of reading Marlowe isn’t to disparage Shakespeare, but to enjoy Marlowe, after all.
Aquinas was, after all, a somewhat controversial figure in his own time, partly on account of how deeply he depended upon Aristotle, and partly as a result of the (frankly pointless) squabble for academic dominance between the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Indeed, a number of scholars (including myself) think that the Paris Condemnations of 1270 and 1277 mean to proscribe some Thomist theses explicitly, with then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Kilwardby being quite explicit in his prohibition of some parts of Aquinas’ corpus at Oxford. Others came out in defence of Fr. Thomas; he was a contemporary theologian treated with very much the same (dis)respect as any other, and yet now he is thought of as the defining thinker of Medieval and Catholic theology, even having the Summa Theologica placed on the altar at the Council of Trent. The interesting question is how he got to be so dominant.
It is to the absolute credit of the editors of this book that they managed to find so broad a collection of contributors. These handbooks are really designed as extended special editions of journals, being composed of a collection of papers around a theme, and built to be dipped into by readers, rather than consumed cover-to-cover. For such a book to work well, it has to cover a lot of ground, giving a reader at least a good starting point on an issue, and at most a grasp sufficient for improving day-to-day understanding. The sheer breadth of topics allows this collection to perform its duty with aplomb. Papers come from Protestant and Orthodox theologians as well as Catholics, and considers receptions of Aquinas all the way up to about 2020, when this book was being written. It is a complete overview of how one of the most influential thinkers in the Western canon got to be so influential. The depth and breadth of this handbook make it an impressive achievement.
Perhaps the only real drawback of this book is that it is a handbook. As an object, it is not really designed to be read cover-to-cover whilst sitting on the train, so much as it is to be a treasury of papers which you can use in interpretation (Richard Cross’ paper on Aquinas’ reception by Scotus and Ockham has already made its way into my doctoral bibliography). You really ought to dip into this, draw out what you need, and then get on with using it, rather than trying to go through the whole thing. Of course, if you really are deeply interested in how Aquinas has been received as a topic by itself, a cup of tea and this book and you’ll have yourself a time, but it is most useful in explaining and understanding the odd takes on Aquinas picked up by schools of thought through time. A particularly good example of this is the paper on how Aquinas was received by Luther, which is a particularly insightful look into the specific squabbles of the Reformation, and how they have continued to inform both Lutheran and Thomistic views of the other group, which can often be inaccurate. If nothing else, this book is an incredibly detailed and careful look at how we don’t understand each other.
I really can’t fault this book for anything. It is an incredibly well researched and put together collection of studies that explain exactly how the most famous Catholic theologian got to be the most famous Catholic theologian. It can be critical of both Aquinas and those who have received him, and is an invaluable look at the way our own theological loyalties can lead us to misunderstand people with whom we should really be close allies. If you want to understand why you think Aquinas thinks what he does, or why friends and rivals alike assume certain things about him, you could do an awful lot worse than picking up a copy of this Handbook.
A season of expectation and preparation
This is certainly a year for quality over quantity. There’s a distinct attentiveness to Christmas in this year’s crop, perhaps because last year’s felt so different, and art is key to three of the books too. Keeping a holy Advent, marking it with more than the avalanche of activity which Christmas the feast brings about, has become more challenging. These volumes, each very good in their own way, are recommended and may help make the season this year a little more special in the light of eternity.
Henry Martin’s Alongside – Reflections on Jesus’ Struggles and how he meets us in Our Struggles (DLT, £12.99) was published just before Lent this year. A devotional companion of ‘daily readings suitable for Lent, Advent, or any time of the year’, it draws heavily on his time as chaplain at HMP Strangeways in Manchester. An Introduction followed by six parts each look at different struggles for Our Lord (family, friends, religious people and structures, crowds, destiny, and not the things with which we struggle ourselves), then two different reading plans for Advent and Lent. The daily chapters are short, bracketed with Scripture, questions for reflection, and a prayer. It’s a brilliant book. Even the most hard-boiled reader cannot fail to be moved by Martin’s insight and pastoral experience. He writes fluently and without baggage, and because of this what he has to say is interesting. His references are stimulating and though this genre can be a little prone to over-sharing, his personal material is both gentle and helpful, making him an ideal guide through any season like the best spiritual directors. It can certainly be read individually and would work equally well in a group context. Retreat leaders might also find it useful.
The Archbishop of York’s Advent Book 2021 (something new?) draws on the work of Evelyn Underhill with thoughtful comment and analysis by the Australian academic Robyn Wrigley-Carr: Music of Eternity – Meditations for Advent with Evelyn Underhill (SPCK, £10.99). Underhill once commented “The Church of England is a respectable suburb in the City of God,” and her genteel, courteous spirituality is probably ripe for rediscovery. If so, Wrigley-Carr is surely the most qualified to lead this and is doing much to revive interest in Underhill’s work, who died in early 1942. Evelyn Underhill was certainly polite but that didn’t stop her from being robust and even challenging. During her last Advent, just months before she died, she reminded her prayer group that God does always come to his people but if we are too busy then the harder it will be to hear ‘the barely audible music of God’s loving presence…the Spirit’s whisper’. This is what it means to ‘keep ourselves carefully tuned in, sensitive to the music of Eternity’. The four parts deal with: Prevenience (Welcoming God’s Coming); Advent (Awaiting God’s Coming); Emmanuel (Recognising God’s Coming); and Holy Living (Embracing God’s Coming). There’s a lot in here and each chapter concludes with discussion points and a prayer. Robyn Wrigley-Carr has arranged the material deftly and sensitively with an appreciation of sacraments too, particularly in the final part. It’s solid and highly recommended.
Gregory K. Cameron, Bishop of St Asaph in the Church in Wales, for An Advent Book of Days – Meeting the Characters of Christmas (Canterbury Press, £9.99) has returned to the medieval idea of the ‘books of hours that brought together prayers for the noble patrons who commissioned them…numbering the days from the beginning of December until Christmas’. As he admits, ‘this does not entirely match the season of Advent’ and ‘the intention is to revisit each of the characters that make up our Christmas story, and to discover what we know about them, and the stories we tell about them’. Each chapter has a charming icon-style illustration (seemingly by Cameron himself) and the characters include the obvious names (the BVM, Joseph, Gabriel, Zechariah, John the Baptist) alongside thematic ones (Nazareth, Annunciation) and even some alternatives or surprises (St Lucy, St Nicholas, even King Herod). It’s a different way in, even though the emphasis is more on Christmas than the bigger themes of Advent, and helps to engage with the numerous personalities and encounters which the season ushers in, often through great flood. He has intelligent and interesting things to say. Anyone preaching during December or producing parish notes on any of the characters and feasts should have this. It would also make a nice gift and is attractively produced on quality paper.
Amy Boucher Pye has also come up with a four-part, 25-day structure for Celebrating Christmas – Embracing joy through art and reflections (BRF, £9.99) with the suggestion it be used prayerfully for the ‘divine seeing’ of visio divina – ‘a time of gazing at a painting and asking God to speak to us through it’. The illustrations are by her father, Leo Boucher, based in Minnesota, so a transatlantic project and ranging across Symbols of Christmas, the joys and sorrows of Christmas, He is Jesus!, and God becomes man; discussion points for the four sections are at the end of the book. Each day features an illustration, personal reflection, and prayer. Not everyone will take naturally to the author’s autobiographical musings, but collectors of anecdote and family story will enjoy them. Handsomely produced with good design, and between hardback covers, this is another good addition to the season and enhances the variety of resources available.
Art lovers will fall with eagerness and gratitude like Magi on The Art of Christmas – Meditations on the birth of Jesus (SPCK, by Jane Williams. In a simple, square format it follows Williams’s previous volumes The Art of Advent and The Art of Holy Week & Easter (both SPCK). Twelve chapters feature a Scripture reading, a painting, and a meditation. This clear, fuss-free approach pays dividends as it helps to focus the eye, heart and mind on both the story and the visual interpretation of Old Masters. (On p.53 she has a mosaic of the Three Magi from Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna which clearly inspired Gregory Cameron to produce his own version for the Advent Book of Days above, with her own endorsement of that book on the same cover.) Jane Williams is a dependable writer of substance with an instinct for spirituality and holy living. Again, this is highly recommended for preachers and would equally work well as a devotional companion. Noting how ‘that tenderness between the baby Jesus and Joseph flows from a virtuous circle of respect and affection’ in Guido Reni’s St Joseph with the Infant Christ is but one example of how this is ideal for visio divina too.
Jo Swinney’s The Whole Christmas Story: An Advent adventure through Genesis, Revelation, and points in between (BRF, £8.99) is another conventionally structured Advent book but with Christmas always in its sights. Four parts – Made whole, Broken, Waiting in hope, God among us, Redeemed life – gives the joined-up picture all the way through to the Epiphany and all the Scripture readings are from the Old Testament; the reflections are direct and Bible-study standard. This is original and creative, and the book itself came from a place of profound tragedy: in the middle of writing it, in October 2019, her parents suffered a car accident in South Africa which killed her mother along with two of their friends, and severely injured her father. Advent has taken on a new resonance because ‘My mum loved Christmas’ she tells us in the Introduction, and ‘Christmas without her is never going to be the same’. This is deeply moving and a stark reminder of how Christmas and Advent, which the commercial world has made such a secular prelude, can be so difficult. ‘One thing I know: the Christmas baby has given me a sure and certain hope that one day I will see her again and we will be together in the unveiled presence of the triune God,’ she writes. ‘As Zechariah said after the birth of his own miraculous son, John, Jesus has given us ‘salvation through the forgiveness of [our] sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death’…This is the context. This is how the whole things makes sense.’
No Time To Die
Certificate 12A, 2021, on general release nationwide
This article contains spoilers
You know that things are different now when one of James Bond’s first lines, spoken kindly, is ‘Now, we’re not going to have a row, are we.’ Sean Connery might have spat out those words while twisting the girl’s arm behind her back; Roger Moore might have said them disarmingly as Jaws or some other cartoon henchman advanced towards him. But Daniel Craig says them to Madeleine Swann (the first and possibly last love interest for 007 inspired by À la recherche du temps perdu) in a moment of genuine domestic contentment – the last for Bond since, well, the last since George Lazenby drove away with Diana Rigg in a 1969 Aston Martin DB5 in the final scene of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And we know how that ended.
The fingerprints, and the soundtrack, of OHMSS are all over No Time To Die: you can read the two films typologically, the latter interpreting and fulfilling the former. This is surely some sort of tribute to George Lazenby, the only single-appearance movie Bond thus far, discounting David Niven’s comedic parody, the first ‘Casino Royale’ way back in 1967. Lazenby’s performance was panned but the film is now widely regarded as one of the best in the entire franchise. Lazenby (who went on to appear in the outrageous Kentucky Fried Movie in 1977) described Bond as a ‘brute,’ with whom he wanted nothing more to do. ‘Peace, that’s the message now,’ he said. Craig’s Bond, at least by this, his fifth, and final, outing is no brute. Still chiselled but chastened, still unbelievably fit, strong, agile; yet unmistakeably older. Unafraid to kill. But no brute.
It’s not only OHMSS which is lurking everywhere in the shadows of No Time To Die. It’s easier to name the Bond films which are not quoted, referenced, suggested somewhere in the nearly 2¾ hours of this film than to identify those which are. The cumulative effect is, well, Proustian. The villain Safin’s island base takes us right back to Dr No’s lair in the very first film, 60 years ago. The garden planted with poisonous vegetation in You Only Live Twice (property of Ernst Stavro Blofeld under his alias of Dr Shatterhand…Shatterhand was an early working title for NTTD) gets a look-in. Portraits of former M’s (not just Judi Dench but also, pleasingly, Bernard Lee and Robert Brown) hang on the walls of British Secret Service headquarters. Once we get into referencing the Daniel Craig films, the crossovers, back stories and the relentless drive for narrative continuity become overwhelming. It was enough of a thing when Sherriff J.W. Pepper (the irresistible George Clifton James) appeared in Live and Let Die followed by The Man With The Golden Gun.
But is No Time To Die any good? Of course it is, the first 30 minutes among the very best of any James Bond film of any era. Daniel Craig really is outstanding; so is the music, so is the scenery. The creepy homage to Silence of the Lambs with Blofeld in his prison cage is a stand-out moment. Ben Whishaw’s Q is inspired. But there are some problems. One is (and I’m not the only person to say this) that it is difficult to believe that Léa Seydoux (who is unarguably beautiful) is the answer to Bond’s betrayal at the hands of Vesper Lynd/Eva Green in Casino Royale. That was surely the most crackling, most convincing relationship between Bond and a woman in any of the films, and it is difficult to feel the chemistry between Craig’s and Swann/Seydoux as getting anywhere near it. A puzzle, rather than a problem, is the much-vaunted contribution to the script made by Phoebe Waller-Bridge; if she added some jokes, they are very well hidden.
No, in the end, the problem is…well, the End. This article is headed ‘spoiler alert,’ but you’d have had to have spent the last six weeks on retreat on Mount Athos not to know by now. Where do we go from here? Bond is…dead. Surely. Completely dead, dead and in pieces. Yes we all know that The Man With the Golden Gun (the book) begins with Bond’s obituary. But it’s one thing to get washed up in a Japanese fishing village with a convenient bout of amnesia; quite another to be blown to smithereens. What happens now to this warrior against evil (has no-one else noticed that the villain is called Lucifer, er, Lyutsifer Safin) who self-sacrificially lays down his life to save the human race? James Bond shall return, said the final credits. Thank you Daniel Craig, thank you for every moment. But, when Bond does return, can we put down Proust, quietly forget about the daughter, and pick up Ian Fleming again?
Song of the Valleys:
Welsh priest who survived Covid releases heartening hymn book
Fr Paul Bigmore almost lost life last year through severe COVID pneumonia and spent three weeks in hospital. In spite of ongoing complications, he has marshalled his musical talent and experience to release a new hymn book in the hope it will inspire others facing difficult times.
His new book and fourth volume, Reflecting on a Journey, is dedicated to all who have died of Covid throughout the UK his and includes a “Covid” hymn in grateful thanks for those who helped him pull through. It was launched by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, and the former Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, in Fr Paul’s hometown of Port Talbot last month.
Among the new hymns are fresh verses for traditional, much-loved hymn tunes including Christmas carols, such as Away In A Manger and Hark The Herald Angels Sing, and Welsh favourites such as Maesgwyn and Gwahoddiad.
“I hope this book, Reflecting on a Journey, will heal the wounds of broken people by singing with our hearts to God in prayer,” says Fr Paul, who pioneered the successful Music in the Community initiative to revive community singing in the Rhondda Valley during his years as vicar of Ynyshir. “It has been a dreadful time for everyone – we have all suffered in some way because of the pandemic. Hymn-writing is my great love and passion and this book is my way of thanking people for their kindness to me and offering them hope, love and light as they too face difficult days.”
A performance of the Covid hymn, called Giovanna, performed by pianist Zoe Smith and soprano Jess Robinson at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, is available on YouTube.
The Covid hymn – Giovanna
Lord graciously come
With arms outstretched
To heal the soul from pain.
And in this world of troubled minds
Christ’s loving hands will guide.
In times of torment and of fear
The path of life has changed
With God alone and faith secure
The cross of Christ proclaimed.
Give faith kind Lord
In times of need
To all who search for you.
And in those moments of despair
Christ’s faithfulness will sustain.
The light of Christ
Shines through the storms
And calms the waves of life
Let peace return, good Lord we pray
To all who dwell in you.
New Carols for Christmas from John Rutter
Composer and conductor John Rutter CBE has released five new Christmas carols in time for Advent. The carols have been recorded by The Cambridge Singers and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and conducted by John Rutter. ‘I Sing of a Maiden’ will be the first new Christmas release recorded by John himself since A Christmas Festival in 2008. The five new carols for Christmas 2021, recorded in St John’s Smith Square, are: Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen, I sing of a maiden, Joseph’s Carol, Christ our Emmanuel and Suzi’s Carol.
“I have been composing and arranging Christmas carols ever since I was a teenager and hardly a year has gone by without adding a new one or two to the list,” John said. I Sing of a Maiden brings together four of my latest composed carols, together with a recent arrangement of the lovely old German carol Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen. For this new recording it was a pleasure to reunite with my own Cambridge Singers, joined by our good friends the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. We hope it will bring seasonal cheer to all those who have enjoyed our previous Christmas albums – and perhaps win some new friends too.” Read more at johnrutter.com.