The War on the West
Harper Collins, 2022
The high-profile political commentator Douglas Murray believes that a cultural war ‘is being waged remorselessly against all the roots of the Western tradition and against everything good that the Western tradition has produced’. His fight-back is a multi-faceted one. The opening chapter sets the tone with an analysis of the response in the United States to the death of George Floyd. Murray fiercely interrogates the assumption that Floyd’s killing was racially motivated, and he lambasts what he sees as a grotesquely exaggerated response. He strongly criticises the response of ‘critical race theory’, which, he contends, divisively betrays Martin Luther King’s dream that a day would come when people ‘will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character’. As the book progresses, Murray goes on to provide further trenchant analysis of related topics, such as the legacy of colonialism, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the movement to bring down statues and other memorials.
Murray calls for a more nuanced historical understanding of phenomena like slavery which, unspeakable as they are, have been practised widely at various times across different cultures. Indeed, Murray points out that some colonialists, such as Sir George Napier in 1840s Pakistan, worked hard to combat slavery and human rights abuses in the countries to which they went. The practical difficulties of reparations and compensation would, in his view, be insurmountable. Moreover, Murray asks, who is helped by the current western tendency for lacerating criticism of itself and of the history that has brought it into being? The answer is that it plays directly into the hands of some of the most truly repressive global players: ‘it is enormously helpful to China today, as it was to the Soviets in the past, to encourage the perception of America as uniquely racist and China as uniquely virtuous’ (p.78).
More positively, Murray also argues that if there is to be an honest evaluation of the western tradition, then it must be balanced. So that whilst, of course, it is right to be conscious of the many sins and shortcomings in the history of the west, we also need a positive appreciation of the many gifts that the western tradition has brought to humanity. This includes not only aesthetic contributions to humanity, such as beautiful cities and incomparable works of art, literature and music – important though these undoubtedly are – but moral ones as well. Murray reminds us that the west (one might add entirely influenced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition) has developed ‘a civilisation in which all human life came to be regarded as sacred, in which people are regarded as beings endowed with innate dignity, in which peace is the normal state of affairs and where wrongs done in the current day can be remedied through the application of the law’ (p. 211).
Murray is predictably rather withering about the tendency of different Christian denominations, our own in particular, to join with alacrity in the general anti-western sentiment. ‘The Church of England,’ he writes, ‘has long led the way in this trend. For a generation, it has found itself in a position of having to apologise for spreading its gospel around the world and being embarrassed by its former missionary zeal. In recent years, it has also decided to take upon itself the most hostile possible critique of itself’ (p. 184).
I believe that a fascinating theological substrate lies beneath the surface of this sharp, though perhaps justified, criticism. I wonder whether the author himself is aware of it, but certainly hope he is. Let me explain…
Like The War on the West, Murray’s former work, The Madness of Crowds (2019) has four main chapters. Between them there are three interludes, in which he takes a somewhat sideways look at a particular issue that has been raised by the main argument. The final interlude in The Madness of Crowds was entitled On Forgiveness. In this section, Murray discussed the uniquely unforgiving contemporary environment, boosted by social media, which ensures that an individual’s past actions or words – even if they have entirely disowned or moved on from them – can never be forgiven or forgotten. Murray pays tribute to the Christian tradition as one which stressed ‘the desirability – if not the necessity – of forgiveness, even to the point of infinite forgiveness’ (p. 182). Now, significantly perhaps, the corresponding third interlude in The War on the West is entitled Gratitude. Here, Murray explores Nietzsche’s understanding of ressentiment: the sense of envy and hatred that leads human beings to say, ‘someone or other must be to blame that I feel ill’. This leads to the desire to tear down, deconstruct and take revenge, and the primary remedy for it is a sense of gratitude for what we have been given. ‘Without gratitude,’ he writes, ‘the prevailing attitudes of life are blame and resentment… Without some sense of gratitude it is impossible to get anything into any proper order’ (210-211).
So Murray has used the same key section of each book to promote two central practices that in his view our society urgently needs to reclaim: 1) forgiveness and 2) gratitude. The particularly striking thing is that if we translate these into theological language (not wholly unwarranted: the book is dedicated to Murray’s godchildren), these themes might be expressed as 1) baptism/penance and 2) the eucharist. By a circuitous philosophical and historical route, then, this secular author has led us to the heart of the sacramental life and of catholic Christianity. The message seems clear for those with ears to hear: beneath the often disappointing institutional surface, the Church bears the most important gifts that can and must be offered in the contemporary cultural crisis, if only we ourselves had the confidence to fully lay hold of them again and confidently offer them to others.
Living well with autism as a family, in society and in church
Deepening understanding of a condition that impacts over a million people in the UK is Cavan Wood’s brief. He does this by taking us through first-hand experience of his son’s autism diagnosis and the subsequent family journey.
Derived from the Greek word autos for self, autism is a term formerly used for people suffering from a developmental schizophrenia, seemingly locked away from reality. Many now view the condition as a spectrum of the ‘neurodiverse’ – those with a with a different way of thinking and behaving – as opposed to those ‘neurotypical’ without autism i.e. the majority.
The author expands upon six behavioural characteristics of the autism spectrum condition: sticking rigidly to routine, resistance to change, displaying repetitive behaviour, challenging behaviour, unusually focused interests, rituals and obsessions and repetitive or stereotyped body movements. Graphically and with sensitivity Cavan Wood charts the many difficulties faced by autistic persons and their circle at home, in education, the workplace and society in general with helpful wisdom on working through these challenges.
The book concludes by celebrating the strengths and joys of autism, with reference to the focus and truth telling of Greta Thunberg. The neurodiverse are less likely to misremember things than the majority who are neurotypical, are more likely to live in the moment than for ‘the next thing’ and many have a welcome lack of cynicism about the world compared to their counterparts.
The title Entertaining Angels picks up on the author’s Christian faith: ‘Just like Abraham, we could meet angels in autistic people, messengers of God who speak the truth and challenge us in many ways. If we embraced that way of seeing things it would be transformative.’ The book ends by taking up that thought with an attempted theology of autism seeing how God ‘disables himself when he takes human form.’
On this account, autistic people can be seen conformed to Isaiah’s prophesied suffering servant Redeemer in being rejected and not understood. The idea of God’s image inside each human being is presented as a clue to affirming our individual uniqueness and overall diversity. This challenges hurtful views of what is normal as well as helping towards redemption, the countering of the bad that is also in humans which is the work of Jesus Christ. Entertaining Angels is an easy read with valuable insight for autistic people and their circles showing also how schools, workplaces and churches can be made friendlier to them.
Alfred Hope Patten
and the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham (Second Edition)
Sacristy Press , 2022
Many readers will be familiar with Michael Yelton’s biography of Alfred Hope Patten and the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. It was reviewed in these pages in November 2006. The Shrine that Fr Patten founded, or revived, that remains a jewel in the Anglo-Catholic crown, celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year. This second edition is a welcome addition to the commemorations. By re-visiting his book and adding material that has come to light since its original publication, he has added another work to his impressive canon of Anglo-Catholic history books and pamphlets. As a lawyer and former judge, he brings an analytical mind, a direct style, and a dispassionate consideration of the evidence. Anglo-Catholic writing can often seem to fall too easily into the realm of hagiography and beguiling romanticism.
He does not bring the story of the Shrine up-to-date. The chronology, as in the first edition, covers only a few years after Fr Patten’s death and deals with the shifts in governance and style brought about by Fr Colin Stephenson. The welcome additions to the original text have been made, in part, as a result of the dedicated work of the Shrine’s Archivist, Isabel Syed, and her husband, Keith, to both of whom Mr Yelton pays due and proper gratitude. Any book of Walsingham that draws upon their knowledge and expertise is immeasurably improved. He has also had the benefit of the book by Fr Michael Rear, sometime Vicar, and now resident in the village, Walsingham: Pilgrims and Pilgrimage.
The lineaments of Fr Patten’s life and achievements, and his character and personality, remain familiar and the new material does not substantially shift our perspective. When, some time ago, naughtily, I tested that by suggesting to the wonderful Betty Howe, a parishioner of St Mary’s who has known every Incumbent from Fr Patten to the present day, that Fr Lingwood did most of the pastoral work in the parish, she replied, in that most beguiling Norfolk accent, derisively and decisively, ‘Oh no. Fr Patten was in charge.’
If, however, Mr Yelton does not bring the Shrine’s story up to the present-day, he does write an additional final chapter, a Retrospective, that provides, what the reviewer of the first edition maintained was lacking, some psychological insight into Fr Patten’s character. That character and personality has remained tantalisingly elusive: austere, disciplined, single-minded, driven, devoted to his parish and to his people; highly-strung, prone to nervous debility and exhaustion. He expended much energy in a series of attempts to establish a communal, quasi-monastic community, but was drawn to solitude. He needed to withdraw from the pressures of communal living and from parish life from time to time. Strikingly lacking in formal education, he occasionally showed an academic inferiority complex and prickly defensiveness. He was respected, loved, revered even. He was immensely persuasive and resourceful, and had a gift for harnessing the energies and talents of many to engage on his great task and bring to fruition his vision. These contradictions, complexities, angularities of his personality make him more human, but not more comfortable. They allow a glimpse behind the glacial mask that looks out so uneasily from many photographs. There is one set of photographs, not in this book, that hints at something positively jaunty and lifts a curtain on something generally hidden and concealed behind a severe public façade.
As Mr Yelton says, if we are to know Fr Patten, despite his aversion from the Latin tongue, we should resort to words used about Christopher Wren and St Paul’s Cathedral, ‘si monumentum requiris, circumspicere.’ For here is the fruit of his vision: here is his legacy: here he restored Our Lady to Walsingham.
His vision of the restoration of devotion to Our Lady is only marginally less significant than the original vision of the Lady Richeldis in 1061. It was in her inspired vision that Our Lady appeared and marked out this small Norfolk village, by God’s initiative, as a holy place. So touched by God was it, that Walsingham did not cease to be a holy place, a place marked out, during the despoliation of a King thirsting for treasure, nor during the protestant aberration of the 16th century, nor during the puritan usurpation, nor during the latitudinarianism of the eighteenth century with only that ‘thin stream of pilgrims.’ Touched by God, this holy ground waited patiently to be re-discovered and recovered by a re-awakened people. It was Father Patten’s singular gift to perceive that and to act upon it.
His imaginative re-creation remains central to an expression of the Catholic Faith in an increasingly prosaic Church of England. Even if his vision was elaborated by a medieval, chivalric, whimsicality that sees the Guardians decked out like bargain-basement Knights and Ladies of the Garter, it continues to evoke our devotion and to command our loyalty. Walsingham is one of the glories of the Catholic Revival in the Church, even if it exhausts the meaning of Jacob’s words, ‘How dreadful is this place.’
Fr Patten may have romanced about a re-creation of a pre-Reformation ideal and create a monastic setting with the Shrine at its centre, but the translation of the image from the parish church was one of immediate necessity to avoid the potential depredations of the Bishop of Norwich. By happenstance, it remains true that one of the enduring strengths of Fr Patten’s creation is that the Shrine is in, and is part of, the parish, although governance is now separated. The Shrine may have been formed in the faux medievalism of Fr Patten’s psyche but it was also a clever, politically acute, ruse to keep it beyond the jurisdiction of an interfering bishop yet remain firmly within the Living. It is that symbiotic relationship that gives it lasting value, rooted, as it is, in the life of the community. Fr Patten’s limited sense of irony may well not appreciate that what was originally a haven from bishops is now awash with them.
Although it may be too soon for a dispassionate assessment, there remains a book Post-Patten to be written. As the Shrine expanded and the number of pilgrims increased from a dozen to several thousands how has that blossoming spread into the lives of parishes? The success of the Youth Pilgrimages has been evident in recent years. Has that been sustained into adulthood? What has been the Shrine’s impact on village life? Village businesses, which were numerous, butchers, grocers, bakeries notable among them, benefitted from the custom of pilgrims and other visitors but, ironically, as the Shrine expanded, its season lengthened, particularly in the years after his death, local trades declined and disappeared. Is that a result of demographic change and larger economic forces? The Shrine has a professional staff and departments that would be the envy of many businesses. Is Fr Patten smiling beatifically or uncomprehendingly? Foolish questions, perhaps. Nostalgia is not what it once was.
A VIEW FROM THE GODS
My mum wanted to teach me to read before I was five in June 1948. But I said I did not want to learn then, because I knew that would be the main task when I went to school after my birthday. We lived in a first-floor flat a street away from the King’s Theatre in Southsea, and there were plenty of old ladies living nearby who were very friendly to a small boy and happy to teach me Patience – turning up pairs of playing cards spread over a table. My dad’s mother had already taken me to my first opera, Carmen, the previous November given by the touring Carl Rosa when I was just a few months older than four. What I did not know then was that her father, who had died only a few years earlier, had been a Royal Marine violinist and had run the music in a Portsmouth Theatre after retiring in 1906 – rejoining the marines when war came in 1914 and teaching violin at the Royal Naval Schools of Music throughout the war.
I only learnt a few years back from another cousin that Boosey & Hawkes consulted him in the 1920s and 1930s on what to pay for string instruments offered them for purchase and resale. He must have been seriously expert. But as he had gone off with another woman when his family were grown up, my dad’s mother never spoke about him to me. We called her not Gran but Ditty, as she and her sisters called each other boys’ names, (and she was Dick which my big sister Jane could not say and turned into Ditty). I never had grandads as my dad’s dad was killed at Gallipoli when he was a year old, while my mum’s committed suicide in a depression in 1931 as he could not find a job after retiring from the RASC. He was in an officers’ rest-home at Osborne House which must have been really depressing back then. His death was in the national press, which shamed his widow and daughters. He was buried on the island. All his last letters were hints of what he was planning – ‘if anything should happen’ they repeat and repeat.
I loved music. But what I specially loved in those post-war years before we moved away from our Pompey flat was the ballet of which I saw a great deal at the Kings (built as a weekly touring theatre by the wonderful architect Frank Matcham in 1908). After 1945 it was the main surviving theatre in Portsmouth where there were bombed sites everywhere near the dockyard. I learnt to ride a bike when I was five, and rode all round the town by myself (traffic was very slight) and I was always wondering what had been there before the bombing.
My first school, run by a Miss Jones, was in a double-fronted house quite near where we lived. My first day there I was put in the room to the right of the front door – which was filled with toys and devoid of teaching. Back home I asked what was the point of going to school? Next day my mum took me and got me moved across the hall to a large room where teaching actually happened. I remember sitting in hot sunlight at a table by the window with a lot of other kids. I picked up reading quickly. But I went to another school in Marmion Road run by a dear old lady called Miss Merrill, and that was much more fun and went well. She wrote quite a lot to my dad about what they should do with me, and a year later or so I started at Seacourt not far from the Eastney Royal Marine Barracks where my grandad had been based in the 1900s. There Mr Tyler started teaching me French and Latin. The most dramatic even of my time there was when a very tall young woman teacher fainted during morning assembly and fell down backwards. I think I’ve never seen anyone faint since, but it certainly made an impression on me.
In about May 1951 my parents and my mum’s mother combined to buy a house outside Portsmouth in Emsworth. We always called my mum’s mother Gaga, though she was actually on the ball about most things. But that move was for me a real disaster as it meant I had to give up ballet class which I had been doing at Miss Mary Tonkin’s school at 11 Merton Road in Southsea for almost three years – and which I loved more than learning the piano from May Miles which was also fun but not physically expressive in the way a young child can make that. I know how upset it made me, but there was no alternative. I just had to accept it. The new Emsworth.home, called Penny House, backed onto a field and the Southern Railway line from Havant to Chichester. I went to my fourth school in Westbourne, called Avington where in February 1952 I still can remember hearing at the foot of the stairs about the death of King George VI. I had no alternative to putting up with what happened. But I terribly missed the ballet class every week. The school in Westbourne was OK. But then I went in for the voice trials at Chichester Cathedral. And I must have outched notes correctly and sung in tune, and I was able to read well. And the ancient organist and choirmaster, Horace Hawkins, the favourite pupil of Charles-Marie Widor at St Sulpice in Paris, gave me a place in the choir. And the rest of my education when I graduated at Magdalen, Oxford, in 1963, was all about choral scholarships and singing in church. And a continually wonderful experience.
Tate Britain, London,
until 18th September, 2022
Tate Britain’s exhibition of the work of Walter Sickert (1860-1942) is a return to form after its Hogarth show. And by chance there are interesting parallels between the two artists. Both were urban in outlook. Both were greatly influenced by their European contemporaries, though Sickert worked to introduce European ideas into Britain while Hogarth presented himself as the artistic embodiment of roast beef. And both painted seamy narratives. Hogarth gave us ‘The Harlot’s Progress,’ a satire on the corrupt nexus of sex and money and power, and Sickert turned the Art for Art’s sake of his one-time mentor Whistler into tarts for art’s sake.
In the spirit of Sickert, the curators haven’t covered up the artist’s failings. We have works by Bonnard and Degas from which Sickert drew inspiration and the comparison shows up Sickert’s poor draughtsmanship and limited use of colour. Comparisons between Sickert’s pictures of Dieppe Cathedral and St Mark’s, Venice, with Monet’s Rouen Cathedral (not in the show) show why Monet was the much greater painter. And a Lucian Freud nude – both he and Francis Bacon learnt from Sickert – is both memorable and precise in a way Sickert never manages. Even when it comes to the gynæcological, Sickert’s muddy colours and thick paint lack the pornographic impact of Courbet or the neurotic energy of Schiele.
So why bother with him?
The last major Sickert show in the UK was at the Royal Academy in 1992. Thirty years later it was interesting to reflect on what still stuck in the memory. It wasn’t his – ultimately condescending – pictures of the working class. However much his subject matter shocked British audiences (though not the French, of course), his working women are sex workers and his working men were down at the pub or Music Hall audiences. Sickert was too much the Bohemian to have much interest in the honest poor. His ‘Ennui’ (represented in the show by one of its five versions) is equally dismissive of the aspiring lower-middle classes.
And thinking back to 1992 show, most of the splayed prostitutes don’t stick in the mind either. However careful Sickert was to include bedsteads and chamber pots, his Camden pictures tend to merge into one. The women are gone to seed. The light is poor. No one is happy or much alive. Only a set of three drawings which suggest coercion and violence stand out for their unflinching take on the possible relations of prostitute and client.
In fact (and is this the actor in him?) with one exception, what really works with Sickert are his Music Hall scenes, the technique of his later works, and his self-portraits. Sickert was at home in the music hall, onstage, off-stage, and with the audience. His ‘Brighton Pierrots’ with its half empty deck chairs and shabby cast points forward to Larry Oliver in ‘The Entertainer’ and ‘Hi-de-hi.’
And Sickert loves the greasepaint. We see actors striking dramatic poses on stage and the gods filled with the workers, musicians in the pit and (possibly) the first painting of an audience for a moving picture show. There’s Little Dot Hetherington and Ada Lundberg, Vesta Victoria and Minnie Cunningham (a study in red to tease Whistler).
The advantage for Sickert of the stage, other than his love for it, was that it provided ready-made compositions. The strong sources of light, the flat backgrounds, the simplified colours all played to his strengths. From here it was a step – an historically important step – to use photographs as the basis for his pictures. He did this frequently in old age and these are the works which stayed in my mind over thirty years. They were, of course, taken up by Pop Art (why does such a brash U.S. art movement have such dull British roots?). They also capture something of the age with Edward VIII looking inadequate and the Second Lord Farringdon looking like what Cary Grant wanted to be.
Above all, the pictures from photographs culminate in one of the finest of his self-portraits, ‘The Servant of Abraham’. Sickert the actor was good at producing Sickert the character. Tate Britain intelligently begins the show with a selection of his self-portraits. The penultimate shows the old artist on the promenade at Brighton, still trying to pick up women, but now with no success. It’s a portrait of the artist few would have the insight or the wisdom to paint.
And the exception to the works which reflect Sickert the actor-artist? A few paint strokes which are his wife-to-be Thérèse Lessore, at a distance pruning in her garden (‘Lainey’s Garden’), the sunlight showing her stockinged legs under a white skirt. A rare and tender moment.
The Southbury Child
The Bridge Theatre, London, until 27 August
When I meet Stephen Beresford to interview him for the Church Times about his new play, it’s all very casual. He’s on his lunchbreak from rehearsal and we find a corner of the room across from boxes of props and furniture ready to make the journey to Chichester for dress rehearsals and previews. Here, in the backstage reaches of a West End theatre, the battered arts industry feels like new birth. A new show has just opened out front, and somewhere else in the same building are auditions for Frozen. I am relieved not to have taken a wrong turn.
Beresford’s last major work was The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre ten years ago, back when Nicholas Hytner weas still in charge there, and now directs. Its cast featured Julie Walters as an ageing hippy mother with two adult children in confused middle age played by Rory Kinnear and the late Helen McRory. There was also a young man called Taron Egerton who’s become famous for his Rocketman portrayal of Elton John.
This new piece is about a vicar, religion, and a funeral. Not particularly fashionable themes. He’s clearly not caught up in the usual mantras for new writing which invariably seem to be about oppressed minorities or structural injustices. No, The Southbury Child is in many ways a satisfyingly old-fashioned play. It has hints of Rattigan and even, in a strange way, Arnold Wesker. It’s brilliantly funny – almost too clever at times – because each character has laugh-out-loud lines. Yet at the same time they are all quite unattractive. Their flaws are obvious and not always appealing.
The main character is (and has to be) David Highland, the vicar, plated by Alex Jennings. He’s all nervy energy and slow-dawning despair. He’s a recognizable clergy type: pastorally articulate, committed to services but wearing it lightly, able to see the absurd in things, serious when required, a little bored and demotivated, settled yet not ready for retirement just yet, but the cracks are beginning to show. Phoebe Nicholls as his wife is equally recognizable: in charge, pragmatic, the dedicated counterweight, a clear clergy spouse. She has some great lines too.
The Southbury siblings are the contrast. Lee is the bereaved uncle, and a coiled spring in Josh Finan’s portrayal. By all accounts his family is dysfunctional, always having rows, and as a result he’s not been parented so doesn’t know much better whilst and deeply yearning for love and security. His sister is Tina and when she finally appears as the grieving young mum, Sarah Twomey’s entrance is tense and tragic. She doesn’t have the words for her misery either, but she knows what she wants – Disney balloons on the altar for her dead child’s funeral – and no understanding of why it wouldn’t be appropriate.
In a very simple way, the play hinges on that one question. Who plans a funeral and how? What is its purpose? Why should it matter? And in a simple way, David the vicar says ‘Death isn’t Disney’. He doesn’t want sugar-coating or saccharine sentiment. Is there also a bit of snobbishness here, because it might also be a matter of taste? Beresford’s explanation is about class, because ‘very often class and taste are the same thing’. So the working-class Southbury family on the local estate with its growing ‘shrine’ to the dead child is at odds. Into this comes the impossible do-gooder Janet Oram (Hermione Gulliford), moved down from London and wife of the local GP. She’s determined to save the family, get ‘justice’ and tell everyone else, including – in fact, especially – the vicar what they should be doing. ‘Do persist with the magnesium, it really does help in grief,’ she tells Tina at one point. When she appears for the funeral she has been forced into wearing a t-shirt with an image of the child, to her obvious and hilarious discomfort.
The problem is that everyone else in the town, represented in murmuring tracks between scenes and on-stage reports of hostility, is against the vicar’s opposition to balloons. It becomes so bad that his expected role at the annual river blessing is in jeopardy for fear of assault, and that rite neatly balances the funeral. Local policeman Joy Sampson (comedy gold in the hands of Holly Atkins) is on hand to help. But by this time a fit young curate has arrived, seemingly parachuted in by the diocese to restabilise things. Jack Greenlees’s strapping Craig Collier is gay and modern, ready to stride through. He has great banter with the two vicarage daughters played with verve and spirit by Rachael Ofori and Jo Herbert. Everything happens in the vicarage kitchen.
Beresford has based the vicar on a real-life cleric, formerly at St Saviour’s, Dartmouth, where he grew up and was a server as a child. I find I have a connection as the vicar of the church where I grew up became the next incumbent there, and whose ministry also came to an unhappy end. A subsequent incumbent was Fr Will Hazlewood, now the Bishop of Lewes.
This is a brilliant play. The second half gets a bit dark as everything piles up like a crash, but the whole thing is real and believable. It asks serious questions, is deeply moving, and most of all gives a thrilling portrayal of church life on stage. What a gift to us all.