Poussin and the Dance
National Gallery, London
until 2nd January, 2022
Anthony Blunt – traitor, spy and art historian – had a reputation for great intelligence and a certain coldness. He was the twentieth century’s foremost expert on Nicolas Poussin (1594-1655), an artist often characterised as highly intelligent but with a certain academic coldness.
Which is unfair. Poussin is an inspirational artist. Proust reckoned there was something of Poussin in Turner. There was also something of Poussin in Delacroix, Cézanne, Degas, Matisse, Braque, Seurat, Léger and Picasso. Indeed, there is genuine passion in Poussin. The main head in Picasso’s ‘Guernica,’ one of the greatest twentieth century reactions to war, is derived from a screaming mother in Poussin’s ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ of 1627-8 (Louvre). Nearer home, the National Gallery’s ‘Landscape with a man killed by a snake’ (1648) combines classicism with real horror (and was copied by Turner). Indeed, Poussin was a genuinely varied artist – see the rarely shown erotica in the main galleries.
But it is true that Poussin doesn’t have the love of paint to be found in Rembrandt or Velásquez or Titian. He was an orderly painter, never a loose painter. The control in Poussin’s work drew inspiration from the Italian Renaissance. In his early career he was a devoted follower of Raphael. And his weeping cherubs, as in the Munich ‘Lamentation over the dead Christ,’ (1628) look back to Donatello and Giotto. Still, over the course of his career Poussin’s faces become more impassive. This was not because Poussin was a Claude or a Turner who couldn’t paint faces – his late two self-portraits make that clear – but he needed the pared down, often expressionless faces of (some) classic sculpture because of the complexity of his painting. There is often so much going on in his pictures that to have added in the characterisation of a Raphael or a Titian (another painter he copied and learnt from) would have been sensory overload.
The ‘so much going on’ in his work is one of the problems for a contemporary audience. Poussin’s subjects are usually taken from classical myth or history, and from the teaching of the Church in the Bible and in the sacraments. His work often alludes to or copies famous works of the Classical world and of the Renaissance. He explores how modal theories of dance and music can be reflected in paint and how a sober palette might should be used for high-minded subjects.
That was a rarefied culture in Poussin’s own day and is even more so today. But this exhibition’s curators believe Poussin is ‘worth it,’ and they have designed this show to help us find a way into Poussin’s work. The chosen way is the dancing figures in some of Poussin’s early/middle works. The exhibition relates them to works Poussin was inspired by; friezes of dancers on two kraters (notably the Borghese from the Louvre) and the Borghese Dancers (both the original relief and the seventeenth century copy). There are splendid examples of the drawings and wax figurines which Poussin made as a stage between studying classic models and placing those models in his frieze-like paintings. The drawings and figurines were placed by Poussin on a toy stage on which he moved them so as to manipulate individual figures into a coherent whole, maintaining both the sense of movement and the development of story without creating a mess.
Some of these figurines in the show have been given draperies which help us see why by spending so much effort on the placing of his models Poussin rarely needed to rework his pictures. They also draw attention to the bright, saturated colours which over time more and more characterised his paintings.
These colours are Poussin’s trademark. There is little evidence for them in classical times and their use is bolder than that of most of his forebears and contemporaries. Colour is a key feature of the rhythms in his painting, and along with the flat planes and balanced forms help keep the pictures together while maintaining the flow of movement.
And so successful were the results of Poussin’s method that Matisse borrowed from them for his ‘La Danse’. The best paintings in the Gallery’s show – ‘The Adoration of the Golden Calf,’ (1633/4) ‘Bacchanalian revel before a term’ (1632/3) and the ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ (1632/40) – point in their freshness and the play of their composition to Matisse’s great work. Go and see them for a very special experience.
A HISTORY OF THE CHURCH OF OUR MOST HOLY REDEEMER CLERKENWELL
Shakespeare Editorial 2021 £12.99 (+p&p) ISBN 97818383041
This handsome volume is a credit to all who produced it and, ludicrously underpriced, is a bargain. The Italian Renaissance basilica and the cosmopolitan café culture of Exmouth Market offers more than a hint of a Roman piazza, and the religion in the church would please Pio Nono, if not Pope Francis. Preachers, however, beware. Especially if, like me, you are unfit and suffer from vertigo. Ascending the stairs breathless, emerging into the pulpit almost within touching distance of the ceiling, seeing only the tops of the heads below through a haze of incense smoke, and speaking in an acoustic where words return to you several seconds after uttering the oratorical gems, was disconcerting and dizzying. Descending the stairs wearing vari-focal spectacles was no joy either. There was a price to pay for such high privilege.
Parish histories follow a similar trajectory: some parishes are born Anglo-Catholic, some achieve Anglo Catholicism, some have Anglo-Catholicism thrust upon them. Described by John Betjeman as “fully catholic and never been anything else”, Holy Redeemer is Anglo-Catholic from its nativity; although one crass episcopal appointment in 1986 caused some temporary dilution of the tradition. If that appointment proved unsatisfactory to some, other incumbents proved stalwart in the Catholic faith. Fr Ernest Dawson (the “Red Vicar between 1920 and 1931), sparky, rebarbative, socialist, iconoclastic, energetic, witty, wins the laurel and warms the heart with his observation about “those dreadful rulers of our Church” and their “wicked proposals for reunion with heretics and schismatics which cut at Catholic order and the apostolic ministry”; and his comment that the “Catholic religion … ought to be light amid the darkness, and brightness amid the drabness”.
The notable strength of this fine book is its assured command of a large number of sources from the literary to the sociological and statistical which underpin its narrative. Clerkenwell was known for its industry, in its early days watch and clock manufacture, and for its slums. Various housing schemes and developments over a century provided only temporary improvements before overcrowding and social disadvantage resurfaced. Although the descriptions of inadequate housing stock, whether it be once elegant terrace houses becoming multi-occupied flats or overcrowded tenements are not unfamiliar from similar publications. When presented with such clarity as here, they still retain their capacity to shock.
The social conditions in Clerkenwell, the societal and demographic changes; migration to the suburbs, immigration; industrial and commercial developments; the effects of national policies and local government initiatives (often mitigated by the law of unintended consequences), are all recounted with an assured clarity by a combination of data and anecdotal evidence. All is buttressed by maps and illustrations embedded in the text rather than plates. It is one of the rare examples where photographs integrated in the text are not grainy and dark but are here of fine quality.
St Philip’s Church in Granville Square was the precursor of Holy Redeemer in Exmouth Market. St Philip’s was not as architecturally striking as, what was originally, its daughter church, and is now demolished: institutional matricide. Although the church is gone, its history has been sympathetically recorded here.
Holy Redeemer is an architectural masterpiece and illustrates that Gothic is not the only architectural style to express the beauty of holiness. It has, however, needed much care, attention and repair over the years. Worship and liturgical provision, for which it was built, are nimbly negotiated from Prayer Book Revision to Common Worship. Biographies of the succession of Vicar’s are vivid and judicious in their verdicts. The Sisters of Bethany undertook a great deal of valued pastoral work for most of the church’s history and they figure prominently in the narrative. As do several members of the laity; sometimes a neglected element in such histories. Controversies over ritual and rites, the Church of South India, Methodist Reunion, and the most divisive and intractable, the ordination of women are all dispassionately chronicled. Various half-baked diocesan schemes to close or amalgamate parishes are related in measured prose but without the same cool detachment. The formal union of Holy Redeemer and St Mark’s had folly written all over it and, unsurprisingly, it had to be dismantled. The procession of witless proposals from those bureaucratically minded or who had read a book on How to Close Churches with as much ineptitude as possible seemed endless. The accounts have a grim humour about them.
There are no footnotes. Consequently some quotations are unattributed. One is from a pastoral assistant who is now a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford but he/she is unnamed. Canons of Christ Church are not known for avoiding the limelight. Potted histories, such as SSC, Anglo-Catholic Congresses, and biographies, such as Aelred Carlyle, while accurate, can derail the narrative.
These reservations ought to be seen in the perspective of a thoroughly researched and well-written book. From the Countess of Huntingdon Connexion in an evangelical rotunda to the Byzantine splendour of John Dando Sedding and to its present status as a Forward in Faith parish, Nicholas Riddell has admirably chronicled Holy Redeemer’s history, its triumphs and failures with evident ardour and a pleasingly dry wit. He is not afraid of criticism describing one priest’s action as “uncharitable, unchristian and unworthy”. He also has an eye for telling detail. The Vicarage, when eventually built, had mahogany lavatory seats for the clergy but cheaper wooden ones for the servants.
Diving for Pearls
Exploring the depths of prayer with Isaac the Syrian
Cistercian Publications 2021 £14.41 184pp ISBN 978 0879071639
‘Superficiality is the curse of our age… The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people’. Andrew Mayes quotes Richard Foster from over 30 years ago in presenting an aspiration for deeper living and praying through engagement with seventh century Isaac the Syrian. ‘Diving for Pearls’ picks up on discovery of God and self, drawing on the rediscovery of Isaac’s writings in the Bodleian, Oxford and an antiquarian bookshop in Teheran. With his knowledge of Christian spirituality and experience of the Middle East, Andrew Mayes writes with excitement about this recent discovery. He opens up Isaac as a timely spiritual guide, bringing to us the depth and never fading newness of God in Christ and presents him as an inspiration for the future-oriented journey of faith.
It is a refreshing book, drawing on Isaac’s maritime, nautical and underwater imagery. All is strongly yoked to Christ’s parable of the ‘the kingdom of heaven as like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it’ (Matthew 13:45). The merchant becomes a diver as this rediscovered Syriac writer explores the spiritual life as less ascent to God and more descent into his ‘everlasting arms’ (Deuteronomy 33:27). Mayes writes: ‘Ascent encourages us to think in terms of hierarchy. The goal is achieving success, spiritual attainment. It also seems to emphasize the place of human effort in the spiritual quest and downplay the role of the divine. The model of descent, rather, leads us towards surrendering, sinking into God, letting go, unlearning…This contrasts with ideas of ascendency and advancement – mastery, conquest of mountains, and yes, prideful achievement. The idea of the elevation of the soul sounds like superiority. We notice a contrast between gritted determination and exertion required in climbing the mountain of prayer and a gentle sinking into the ocean of grace, as Isaac commends. Will we desire to sink or strive? Cling on or let go?’
This inspirational resource complements the aspirations of Christian spiritual writers through the centuries to ‘look up to the Lord’ (Psalm 34:5) with Isaac’s invitation to ‘let go and let God’ built around a vision of God of the depths summoning us from and to our own depth of soul. ‘As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:37). Building on Christ’s teaching about, and provision of, the Holy Spirit’s empowerment and leading, Andrew Mayes opens up faith from Isaac as ‘taking the plunge’ in seeking the depth of God’s mercy, ‘like the wideness of the sea’ (Faber) which counters our narrowness as it warms our hearts. The continual reference in the book to the warm blue seas of the Middle East familiar to both Isaac and its author are an inviting image. ‘Isaac alerts us to both the ever-present pull of this world, with its lure of attachment and the reality that the Holy Spirit is powerfully at work in our lives – we could say, like a powerful life-giving Gulf Stream drawing into its transformative flow our turbulent waters… He speaks of wandering in a sense of roaming playfully and curiously and inquisitively, seeking God amidst the cloudy waters of prayer: ‘For there is a good kind of wandering and a bad kind of wandering. When you are in prayer, do not seek to be entirely free of mental wandering, which is impossible, but seek to wander following something that is good’’.
‘Diving for Pearls’ is a valuable resource, especially for preachers and spiritual directors. It has questions and prayer exercises for individuals or groups at the end of every chapter. As Isaac writes of the pearl of Jesus Christ forming within us: ‘Let us consider as oysters the prayers upon which the intellect alights, the contemplative insights, divine knowledge, wisdom, joy in spirit… The primary pearl is Jesus Christ himself – a deeper appreciation of him’.
AND DID THOSE FEET
The Story and Character of the English Church AD 200-2020
Sacristy Press, pp. viii + 653, £40
This book aims to provide a single-volume history of the Church in (not just of) England, set in its political, social and cultural context, told as a story for the general reader. Such a book is certainly needed. Since the 1973 edition of Moorman’s History of the Church in England historical scholarship has radically altered the picture. And there has been a further half century of history, in which this reviewer has seen the Church of England move from a position of national influence that Archbishop Fisher’s late nineteenth-century predecessors would have recognized to one that is utterly marginal.
Patrick Whitworth brings to the task academic learning, a deep understanding of theology, a wide frame of cultural reference, an eye for the international ‘big picture’, and the ability to tell a story in good, easily readable prose. His book is furnished with maps, notes and an index. But too often he fails to rise above the one-sidedly Protestant perspective on Anglican history and identity that he presumably imbibed at Cranmer Hall, where he trained in the 1970s, and he pays remarkably little attention to post-1980 scholarship.
Things begin to go wrong in the first paragraph. That in 2021 ‘The Church of England is… not quite 500 years old’ would have surprised mediaeval Englishmen, who spoke of Ecclesia Anglicana as ‘the Church of England’, and shocked the English Reformers, who were at pains to stress that theirs was not a new church but the historic English Church reformed. In the second paragraph it gets worse: English Christianity, we read, has three streams: ‘in chronological sequence: the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England and the Independent Churches’. Repeatedly the term ‘Roman Catholic’ is used anachronistically: it was coined, and made sense, only after the Reformation blew the Western Catholic Church apart and the Council of Trent reshaped into a more tightly-bound, reformed entity those parts that remained loyal to Rome: mediaeval Englishmen were neither ‘Roman Catholics’ nor ‘Anglicans’.
Between the Synod of Whitby and the late fourteenth century surprisingly little ecclesiastical history is offered: Whitworth is more interested in kings and queens than in the mediaeval Church. Later mediaeval English theology is examined in some detail, however – albeit with a particular eye to the antecedents of Protestantism. And a chapter on ‘the practice of medieval religion’ is surprisingly positive, Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars having (exceptionally) made its mark. Whitworth is clearly torn, decrying the mass as ‘a piece of visual theatre with questionable theology’ but recognizing that ‘the ending of visual symbols and community events’ at the Reformation ‘drove a wedge between church and ordinary working people’, offering a ‘word-centred faith’ to people who ‘could not or did not read’.
For an evangelical, the Church is a congregation of individual believers; for a catholic, she is first and foremost a structure that, despite all its imperfections as a human institution, is the earthly manifestation of Christ’s body. In the English Reformation the evangelical sees only doctrinal change reflected in liturgical change; the catholic also sees continuity in episcopal ordinations and even more importantly the structural continuity as a body that this apostolic succession signifies. It is therefore not surprising that in this book the continuity of church structures and law is not remarked upon. Yet it was this institutional continuity through a period of doctrinal and liturgical upheavals that made the English Reformation so different from that in most of Protestant Europe: a study that leaves it unmentioned cannot explain ‘the character of the English Church’.
Very little is said about Anglican high-churchmanship: the Oxford Movement seems to come from nowhere and lead nowhere. Attention to the scholarship of the last four decades would have produced a much more rounded picture. From what Peter Lake calls ‘the Anglican moment’ in the 1590s a specific Anglican tradition, distinct from that of Continental Protestantism, developed. The Prayer Book became a focus of popular loyalty (Judith Maltby, Prayer Book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England). Doctrinal and ecclesiological weighting shifted markedly (Anthony Milton, Catholic and Reformed), and this was reflected ‘on the ground’ in cathedrals and churches (Kenneth Fincham and Nicholas Tyacke, Altars Restored).
Eighteenth century Anglicanism was much stronger (and much more ‘high church’) than is generally imagined (see W. M. Jacob, Laypeople and Religion in the Early Eighteenth Century, for example), and the pre-Tractarian Church of England was run by high-churchmen (Peter Nockles, The Oxford Movement in Context). Whitworth mentions none of this. For him, the Church of England in 1714 was ‘a hybrid church, having the inner convictions of Protestantism, but some of the outer ceremonies of Catholicism, although its ritual was much reduced… It was a church reinvented at the Restoration to support the authority of the monarchy…’
Tractarianism not only gave rise to Ritualism from 1860 but also strongly influenced the successors of the old high churchmen. By the 1920s what John Maiden (in National Religion and the Prayer Book Controversy, 1927-1928) calls a ‘centre-high consensus’, occupying the space between Conservative Evangelicalism and Rome-orientated ‘Western Catholicism’, liturgically and ecclesiologically catholic yet influenced doctrinally by liberal Anglicanism, was dominant (and arguably remained so until the 1960s). Whitworth’s summary, that by 1920 the Church of England was ‘divided into three streams: the Tractarian or High Church, which prized the sacraments…; the Evangelical, which placed scripture first; and the Liberal, which placed reason foremost’ is hopelessly simplistic.
This readable re-telling of our nation’s story with special reference to the history and antecedents of Protestantism will certainly appeal to some. However, the need for a balanced one-volume account of English church history, based on the latest scholarship, introducing the general reader to the breadth of the Anglican tradition, explaining its distinctiveness, and giving due weight to post-Reformation Roman Catholicism, the Protestant free churches, and indeed the new churches that developed from the later twentieth century, remains.
Divine Worship: Daily Office
Anglican Use Divine Offices approved for the personal ordinariates in the Catholic Church
Catholic Truth Society, 2021 £45.00
On Saturday 30th October, together with Bishops John Hind and Nicholas Reade, I was in the Ordinariate church Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, Warwick Street, in London, for the ordination as an RC priest of Michael Nazir-Ali, formerly Bishop of Rochester, and a friend for 50 years. It was, for various reasons, a bittersweet occasion for many of us there. Part of the sweetness came from the genuine warmth of welcome offered to the three Church of England Bishops, and the strong affirmation by the Cardinal of Dr Nazir-Ali’s former ministry in the Church of England as having been been made fruitful by the same grace that now gathered him into a wider Catholicism. There was also a recognition of how the Prayer Book Office has been a principle means of grace for Anglican Christians since the break with Rome and as such was to be received by the wider church as part of the process of receptive communion.
And here we were witnessing that reception with our own eyes and ears. The liturgy in use would have been very familiar to any Anglican Catholic brought up in the Prayer Tradition (though less so for those who have always opted for the Roman Rite!). From the use of a familiar Anglican chant for the Angelus, through hymns straight out of the English Hymnal, to the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster coping with the “thees” and “thous” of the ordination collect, rather hesitantly singing the – to us very familiar – setting of the Sursum Corda and leading the Prayer of Humble Access.
In her reflection for the Church Times, Angela Tilby wondered “what Thomas Cranmer would have made of it all: to find his liturgical work preserved by the RC Church at a time when the Protestant English for whom he had laboured, and even gave his life, had (with the honourable exception of the Prayer Book Society) largely abandoned it.”
At the end of the Ordination Mass, the Bishops present, Anglican and RC, were each presented with a copy of Divine Worship: Daily Office, a generous and welcome gift indeed. It is beautifully produced and for those who want a traditional language Office for Matins and Evensong it is superb. I have so far had to chance to only glance at it. It needs a year’s use for a proper review. However, a first instinct was that that in scope and form this is the kind of Office book that the revisions leading to the Common Worship series could and should have aimed for (an opportunity missed) in that it is offered as an ‘all in one’ book with everything needed for the recitation of the daily offices to be found in one place.
So, to the familiar forms of Morning and Evening Prayer are added the Little Hours of Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Compline in the same style. This is welcome although the form of Compline used feels heavy when following Evening Prayer, a Cranmer in which Vespers and Compline were combined The daily lessons are those of the Revised Church of England Lectionary of 1922, and retain their ‘Anglican’ feel through the use of the RSV, rather than the ESV of modern Roman texts. The book is also rich in collects and other material supplementary to the BCP but in keeping with its style, although it is pity that this not carried through with seasonal papers for the little hours .
For any who have been nurtured in the faith through the language and spirituality of the Book of Common Prayer it is heart-warming to find its value, and contribution to the wider catholic church, as a means to holiness and a gift of grace, being affirmed, and encouraged, in this way.
The Monastic Diurnal
The Day Hours of the Monastic Breviary in Latin and English
Saint Michael’s Abbey Press
8th Edition, 2020
There are entire libraries of books about spirituality, classified into various types and traditions. Some are largely speculative, others are practical guides, and some describe and seek to give an insight into living traditions. This however is not a book about spirituality, it is rather a book of spirituality.
Because one can really only hope to begin to understand (or rather, begin to become acquainted with) a tradition of spirituality by encounter. That means living it – or even better, living alongside those who already do so. Saint Benedict, the father of Western Monasticism bequeathed to the Church an entire way of life in his Rule. But whilst we can profitably read that rule and commentaries upon it to gain an insight into the Benedictine life, we only get so close. Then we must begin to pray.
And whilst the best way to become acquainted with the spiritual way of life of Saint Benedict is to spend time living with some Benedictines, this new eighth edition of the Monastic Diurnal allows the owner to experience some of that central core: that is the Opus Dei, the Work of God, which the Saint instructed his monks to prefer to all else.
The book is not the whole of what monks and nuns living the Rule pray – they also rise in the dark to sing the office of Vigils (Mattins). It contains, however, everything else. And yet, it is astonishingly small, truly pocket sized. The reason for this is partly the high quality ultra-thin bible paper on which it is printed, but also the relative simplicity of the Benedictine way of praying the Psalms through the week.
For example, the Psalms for most of the little hours of Terce, Sext and None do not change throughout the week, and Prime, Lauds and Vespers arrange everything else over the passage of a single week (no four-week modern Roman or seven-and-half-week Common Worship psalter here). Of course, it is at that night office of Vigils, not included here, that most of the psalms are said. Another interesting technical detail is that nunc dimittis is not said daily at Compline – presumably demonstrating the antiquity and particular monastic character of the arrangements enshrined here.
Given the laxity now generally given in the interpretation Canon C26 (Every clerk in Holy Orders is under obligation, … to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer, either privately or openly;) this office would surely satisfy; though it is of course intended to be used with the longer scriptural and patristic readings of Vigils. The texts here are printed in parallel Latin and English, and although the English is not intended for liturgical use, readers will find the texts and hymns are quite familiar.
For somebody wishing to incorporate some form of prayer into their daily life with an eye to the spirituality of Saint Benedict, this small volume would be ideal. And if you find that your office book is not really designed to be carried around with you, and that whilst convenient to ‘do it off the phone’ you find that it is just not the same (it isn’t), this could be for you.
Prison Journal Vol 1: The Cardinal Makes His Appeal
Prison Journal, 2: The State Court Rejects the Appeal
George Cardinal Pell
(1: 2021, 978-1621644484;
2: 2021, 978-1621644507)
The facts are these. Convicted on the 11th December 2018 on five counts of child sexual abuse, and sentenced the following March to six years imprisonment, George Cardinal Pell served 404 days in solitary confinement before his conviction was quashed in the High Court of Australia on the 7th April 2020. While he was in prison, Pell kept a diary which was subsequently prepared for publication in three volumes. The third and final instalment is soon to be published; Volume I appeared in print early in 2020.
Volume One of Cardinal Pell’s prison diary will forever remain a Proustian part of my experience of the first, great and grim Lockdown of 2020. The first entry in Pell’s journal is dated 27th February 2019, and the lockdown began (you will recall) on the 23rd March 2020. Quickly, I was reading the Journal in, as it were, ‘real time,’ but a year after the event. The liturgical season intensified the sense of prison memoir on the one hand and real-time lockdown on the other: Lent, Holy Week and Easter.
Pell’s daily compositions move back and forth from spiritual and theological reflections, often rooted in the Breviary readings of the day, to the progress of his case from conviction to appeal (the first unsuccessful) and the daily routines, trials and occasional blessings of prison life. One of the features which makes the diaries compelling is Pell’s consistency; the prose is equally direct, transparent, guileless, whatever the subject matter, whatever the challenges of the particular day or moment. Not that there is no intensity of thought or feeling, for there is plenty: but there is an equanimity, and therefore a deep sense of trust in God which is powerful, which is (in my judgement) a real example of heroic virtue expressed through fortitude.
Here is the end of the entry for Shrove Tuesday 2019 (the day before engaged with Job, Sophocles and the problem of God’s love and human suffering):
‘Obtained a broom and swept my small cell. The paint is still chipped on the floor, there is no curtain, and the open toilet is a bit more than a metre from me as I write, but this is home for the moment.’
And here is a longer description of the prison quarters which are home, from the entry for ten days later:
‘My cell is about 7 or 8 metres long, more than 2 metres wide under the opaque window where the bed is; a good bed with a firm base, a not too thick mattress, sheets, etc…a basin with hold and cold water…and a very strong shower recess with good hot water…It is very cosy, with all essential services to hand like a Chinese apartment of some underground Church members in Shanghai that I visited.’
A good bed, a firm base, a strong shower, very cosy: it is via this willingness to be grateful for what is, an expression of gratitude which is unforced and unselfconscious (expressed plainly, an Anglo-Saxon voice), as much is in the writing which deals with biblical or spiritual themes, that the depth of faith becomes apparent.
Not all in the diaries, of course, is about the minutiae of prison life, the furnishings in the cell, the exercise yard, or the prison gymnasium; far from it. Pell’s mind is capacious and his hinterland extensive. He reflects on history, literature (he reads War and Peace in his cell) and politics (not least UK politics, pro-Brexit and dismissive of the ‘Remain’ parliament.) The state of global Christianity in general, and Catholicism in Australia (and the West) in particular, receives much attention. Pell’s diagnosis and strategy is in a sense simple: more ‘Gospel’ Catholicism, as he calls it; vigorous orthodoxy, confidently taught. This comes as no surprise. But nor does Pell simply repeat conservative slogans. There is imaginative and critical engagement with Scripture and a willingness to ask fundamental questions about life and faith – there is humility in the face of the mystery of God. It is refreshing to be reminded that immersion in, and obedience to, the Tradition is not the same as fundamentalism and Biblical literalism.
The diaries will startle, and occasionally offend, and in the second half of Volume II the tone is often noticeably sharper. ‘Trump…has slowed down the anti-Christ in the US,’ (27th September 2019); students should be encouraged to do lots of sport, in order to stop them having time to listen to lies about climate change. There is also a noticeable emphasis on Pell’s plight as one of vicarious suffering; some will find this problematic, yet it seems to me undeniable that in some sense Pell was being made to bear the consequences of the failings – perceived or real – of the Catholic Church in the eyes of many, and their fury with its institutions and its clergy.
In the end, it is the striking admixture of the material which makes these diaries so compelling. An old man potters about tending a small bit of garden and practising his ping-pong; then you remember who this is, and where he is, and why he is there. The religious content is always helpful, neither showy, nor glib, nor banal. These books are a worthy and lasting addition to the library of spiritual autobiographies.
A final quotation with which to end. Reflecting on the text, ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’ Pell writes, ‘My efforts, such as they are, were designed to help us plead not guilty to that implied charge…And we don’t know how the Son of Man will react if and when he finds little faith, except that he will be merciful.’ Amen to all of that.
HENRY ‘CHIPS’ CHANNON:
THE DIARIES 1918-38
Edited by Simon Heffer
Hutchinson, 2021 £35 1024pp
HENRY ‘CHIPS’ CHANNON:
THE DIARIES 1938-43
Edited by Simon Heffer
Hutchinson, 2021 £35 1097pp
Henry ‘Chips’ Channon was an American of substantial independent means, naturalised in the United Kingdom, married into the aristocracy and even more wealth through the Guinness family, was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative member for the spousal family constituency of Southend-on-Sea, and rose to the ranks of a junior minister. He was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office R. A. (Rab) Butler.
In the roaring Twenties and subsequent Thirties, he was prominent in High Society and its hectic social whirl. His next-door neighbours in Belgravia were the Duke and Duchess of Kent. His closest friend (and more) was Prince Paul of Yugoslavia. It was a heady round of constant activity: luncheon, dinner and supper parties, balls, receptions, peppered with theatre and opera, and house parties at weekends. Grand and titled ladies ‘groan under the weight of their jewels’.
Volume 1 catalogues this extensive social life, the licit and the louche. It opens in 1918 with him serving as honorary US military attaché in Paris. At one dinner he is seated between Marcel Proust and Jean Cocteau; at another party he is with Mrs Keppel and Talleyrand’s niece. In Volume 2 the next war attenuates the hedonism somewhat but not entirely. These diaries, and a third volume to come, provide one of the most vivid, well-written and compelling portraits of any age and aspects of English life in almost forensic detail. He brings the advantages of an outsider’s eye that, despite his immersion in the society and culture, maintains a degree of detachment.
A redacted and truncated edition of the full manuscript, edited by Robert Rhodes James, appeared in 1967, when many of those who featured in the diary were still alive and when deference, discretion and reticence had not entirely disappeared from public life. Simon Heffer, and his accomplished team, to whom he pays properly generous tribute, have been exemplary. The critical apparatus, the footnotes (with many lapidary gems among them), the biographical detail and the historical accuracy are beyond praise. This is, therefore, a ‘publishing event’. The first version had been heavily edited (and sanitized) pre-Rhodes James by what Heffer describes coyly as ‘Channon’s close companion Peter Coats’ – that’s partner, in modern parlance. They met in 1939 and when Channon died at the age of 61 in 1958, Coats inherited them. (The Wolfenden Report of 1957 led to the decriminalization of homosexuality ten years later.)
There is a paradox at the heart of the Diaries. On virtually every significant political event or crisis, in his assessment of his contemporaries, he is unfailingly, unerringly, on the wrong side of history. He championed Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson. He attended the Munich Olympic Games in 1936 and was in thrall to the Nazis and Hitler. He admired Goering and, inexplicably, Ribbentrop, when he was Ambassador to the Court of St James, who graced Channon’s table. He was in the first rank of appeasers. He would willingly have betrayed Poland. He was convinced of German victory, particularly during the Blitz in which his house was hit and, it would seem likely, would have collaborated in that event. Yet the diaries remain worth reading.
He is not an attractive individual. His insouciant sense of entitlement, snobbery, casual anti-Semitism, sympathy to fascism were not uncommon, nor was his sexually indiscriminate private life. (The Foreword by his grandchildren contains an ‘editorial integrity’ trigger warning.) Yet, compared with some of whom he writes, he is, mutatis mutandis, a continent knight in shining armour. His wife was a promiscuous nightmare. His oleaginous younger friend, the insipid journalist Godfrey Winn, was a sponger, to take but two examples among many. Even when Channon is potentially at his most sympathetic in his love for his son, Paul, the “Dauphin”, it is too often expressed in nauseatingly extravagant terms that hover on the unhealthy; and, after the boy’s evacuation to Canada and the USA, he disappears from the diary for months on end.
His great political hero was Neville Chamberlain whom he referred to as “God”. A mere smile, en passant, from him was enough to throw Channon into paroxysms of teenage ecstasy. Chamberlain could do no wrong. His deification of Chamberlain was matched by his demonisation of Winston Churchill about whom he is never more than minatory. Churchill can do nothing right in Channon’s eyes. Even the speeches that have survived the test of time left Channon unmoved, and a few were unrecorded by him. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth fare little better, so beguiled was Channon by the Duke of Windsor. He was right, however, to discern qualities in Field Marshal Wavell that eluded Churchill.
There is no point in reading these diaries if you are offended by privilege and currently unacceptable social, cultural and political opinions, that causes the present generation to swoon or spit internet venom. Channon was a man of his time, class, social background and cultural milieu. Like many of us he broke conventions when that served his self interest, not least in his sexual proclivities. However, as the portrait of an age, of a ruling élite, of a society and of a people, these diaries are important evidence and are aids to navigate the past which is a foreign country of which we can know something.
Although often wrong, his perspective is worth having. He sees strengths in his friends and weaknesses in his enemies. His judgements are often sharp but rarely vituperative. There is one notable exception. He retained an especial loathing for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, predominantly for his rôle in the abdication of Edward VIII and, in particular, for Lang’s ill-judged wireless address in its aftermath. Channon rarely misses any opportunity for slashing abuse. However, the description of Lang as an “hypocritical, sodomitical, old ecclesiastic” may be, possibly, an adjective too far.
Quentin Blake’s A Christmas Carol (Pavilion, £12.99) is a delight to behold. Full-folio hardback, with a festive red and white cover, it reproduces the full Charles Dickens text with a good number of illustrations by Blake in both colour and black and white. The domestic scenes and the depictions of Spirits are particularly good. It’s an ideal version to enthuse children about the tale and one of those books you will want to keep, hold onto, and re-find each year as the great day approaches.
A veritable Christmas Cracker comes in the form of News of Great Joy: The Church Times Christmas Collection (Canterbury Press, £18.99/£15.99), a collection of features from the annual Christmas double issue over the last 20 years selected by Hugh Hillyard-Parker. Here is Jane Williams on the Great O’s of Advent, Andrew Davison on the Incarnation, Howard Tomlinson on the original Truro Nine Lessons & Carols, poems, sketches, art, theology, history. Why is it worth having? Preachers in search of a different angle this year, or anyone wanting to look up an aspect of the Advent, Christmas and Epiphany seasons, will find it invaluable. It’s a thoughtful compendium of well-written pieces to enrich private study and public worship alike.
Judith Herrin’s Ravenna: Capital of
Empire, Crucible of Europe (Allen Lane/Penguin, £12.99) won the Duff Cooper prize and is a magisterial history of this pivotal city for East and West, ancient and modern. At a time when travel has been so restricted, Herrin transports the reader to a different time and place with imagination, originality and flair – ‘that Holy City’ in the words of Oscar Wilde ‘where Dante sleeps, where Byron loved to dwell’. It’s scholarly and also rather wonderful on the church politics of the day.
Many of us have to sit on committees, boards and bodies so John Tusa’s On Board: The insider’s guide to surviving life in the boardroom (Bloomsbury, £20 available online for £14) is a fascinating volume from the former managing director of the BBC World Service and the Barbican Arts Centre, who also set up BBC World Television. More than that, his portfolio has also included trustee stints at the National Portrait Gallery, the ENO, British Museum, Wigmore Hall, University of the Arts and others; they are detailed in dedicated chapters, illustrating pitfalls, pratfalls and problems. He makes the valuable point that though most of the organizations were arts sector, ‘there is no difference between governance on a corporate board and arts board’. Indeed, they are perfectly complex in their own right and effective governance requires much more than legal compliance; human psychology can also play a major part. Tusa joined the NPG in 1988 when the Reverend Professor Owen Chadwick was chairman.
Sometimes referred to as ‘saintly’, Chadwick was a subtle and consummate politician. No one could write church history without picking up some of the historical tricks of argument, persuasion and manipulation. As a later colleague described him: ‘He was a great cleric, an incredibly worldly cleric, who managed in a holy way to do exactly what he wanted to do’.
Vignettes such as these and the author’s insightful style make for very enjoyable reading.
Poem: The Darkling Thrush
Thomas Hardy, 31 December, 1900.
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Possibly better known for his novels, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) had written poetry since his early 20s although his first volume was not published until 1898, in part thanks to his commercial success as a writer. He gave up novels for good when there was such an outcry over Jude the Obscure (194-5); apparently Bishop How of Wakefield even burned a copy. Hardy then concentrated solely on his poems, including an outpouring after the death in 1912 of his first wife, Emma, despite their unhappy marriage. His taut rhymes and sprung rhythms looked forward to the 20th century, moving away from Victorian floridity, to find a new relationship with nature and creation.