Next to Nature

A Lifetime in the English Countryside 

Ronald Blythe

John Murray 2022

ISBN‎ 9781399804677


Ronald Blythe will need no introduction for readers of the Church Times. For more than twenty years he contributed a short weekly article, Word From Wormingford, containing his reflections on life in the Suffolk countryside. They are models of clarity and economy, sharply observed and crisply written.

In November Blythe is due to celebrate his hundredth birthday, and this book is a celebratory selection from these articles, and for those who do not know them the volume will provide a convenient introduction to the work of one of our most distinguished and individual authors. Divided into passages for the twelve months, each section has an introduction by a different writer examining features of Blythe’s life and work.

What is it which makes Ronald Blythe so fascinating? In the first place, he is a born writer, something unmistakeable when we meet it. Then there is his variety. Although he is acknowledged to be our laureate of landscape, his output includes novels, poetry, social history –Akenfield and The View in Winter – anthologies and literary criticism. He is a masterly book reviewer, and the range of his reading is extraordinary. So is the list of his friendships, including the like of Martin Shaw, Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst, E. M. Forster and the artist John Nash, from whom in 1978 he inherited the centuries-old Bottengoms farm where he has lived ever since. In our time of restless population, he remains, like his poet friend George Mackay Brown, who rarely left Stromness, someone who literally ‘knows his place.’

To this might be added his elusiveness. Despite the wealth of anecdotes and observations of people and situations which he provides, he is reticent about his own life. If he is a born writer, he is also a born loner, a species little understood or appreciated. And he has an additional occupation. For a long time he has been a Lay Reader, assisting regularly in the churches where he lives.

His contributions to the Church Times unite many aspects of Blythe’s life, bringing before us the changing seasons with their sights, smells and variable weather. Accompanying them are the changing seasons of the Church year, along with the unchanging procession of births and deaths, the litany of those who live on the earth and finally return to it. 

As might be expected, he looks for the company of others who share his devotion to the English landscape, painters like Gainsborough and Constable, and poets such as Traherne, Hardy, John Clare (whose work he has done so much to promote) and R. S. Thomas. Above all, he turns repeatedly to George Herbert, in whom the pastoral (in terms of both the land and of Church ministry) and the devotional enrich each other.

A true countryman, though, Blythe has no sentimentality about rural life. He knows that it is a story of hardship, of relentless drudgery, frequently of poverty and early death, of labourers at the mercy of climate, landlords and politicians. He jolts us by pointing out that many men of the fields enlisted for the Great War not as a matter of patriotism, but as an opportunity to escape from a crippling existence. So many of them went to lie in foreign soil. Country life can be harsh, even brutal. ‘As a boy, I witnessed an otter hunt – a disgusting business.’

This realism prevents him from sinking into mere nostalgia for a romanticized past, but he can sound that note of wistfulness which has long been the counterbalance to brisk English practicality. Living in a former farm, once noisy with families and now quiet for the solitary writer, he hears the sounds and cries of past generations. ‘But there it is, places of toil fall into idle hands. Children find their way to the village churchyard, farmers’ voices become tangled in the trees, beasts cease to be.’ Things that were and that are come to meet in him.

He has spoken of ‘the pattern which literature, liturgy, the seasons and solitude has made of my existence,’ so what of the Church, which he has served so faithfully? He is unquestionably a Church of England man, neither self-consciously Low nor High, but deeply rooted in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible. Their cadences and phrases rise naturally to his mind. He passionately loves church buildings, their stories and architecture, but never forgets that they stand as witnesses to a living Christian faith.

How he treasures those who are steadily dedicated to worship in these country churches. ‘While allowing that the Church would most probably die out if it was left to Christians like us, we shrink from those who disturb its peace. By nature we are Anglican quietists, treading softly through the beautiful words, advancing and not purposely going backwards, at ease in the maze known as liturgy, knowingly finding our ways about, and happy in these patterns of prayer.’ It is a stability which the wider C of E is losing. And he will not play the congregation numbers game. His three churches ‘are loved and cared for all the year but are only full on great occasions. But who is counting! I am more interested in what is happening.’

Oh, but everywhere statisticians and planners are counting, totting up the services and the worshippers, and country churches in particular are vulnerable to their schemes. What matter that churches may house the love and devotion of the two or three gathered together in Christ’s name, or that a building is soaked in a thousand years of prayer? Money is needed, not for the essential business of putting priests into parishes, but to pay for an ever-increasing army of area bishops, diocesan administrators and advisors. Cash continues to be poured into fresh expressions of nothing in particular, and into Church ‘plants’ whose links with historic Anglicanism are almost non-existent.

Blythe is not afraid to be forthright on this. ‘The Church of England itself needs to take a critical look at its “worship”, for some of what goes on now under this description is beyond belief.’ And he writes words which diocesan bishops and other Church managers should have printed above their desks: ‘It is often the ecologist, rather than the priest, who these days is able to teach the relevance of a pastoral vision. We shall starve physically and spiritually without it.’ He gives us a vital reminder that there is more to the Church’s outreach than work in towns and cities.

Whether by intention or not, Ronald Blythe’s compact messages from Suffolk preserve for us a rich legacy of country life and its customs, much of which has died or is being destroyed. (He has some sharp words for urbanites who move to villages seeking a quieter life and immediately begin transforming them into a copy of where they have left). This volume contains pleasures and insights on every page, though they lead to sombre reflection. Will his future readers learn with bewilderment of how Christianity and country life were once woven so closely together, sharing the rhythms of the year, and will they wonder how such a wealth of faith and tradition could be unconcernedly discarded?

Centenarians are still regard with admiration. Blythe comments on this, ‘it is not wonderful at all – just the persisting heartbeat and life not knowing when to stop.’ Nonetheless, there will be many who rejoice to celebrate such a remarkable writer and man as he reaches his centenary.

Barry A. Orford 


Mary’s Titles

Biblical Reflections on the
Titles of Mary in the Litany of Loreto

Elizabeth Grace Bryson

Westbow Press 2022

ISBN 9781664260047


Elizabeth Bryson came upon the Litany of Loreto whilst a parish pilgrim to The Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham. It planted in her the seeds of an idea, which grew into a vocation to write this book. It has three purposes; to explore the Biblical origins of the titles (51 of them), to seek out the connections with the Blessed Virgin Mary and to reflect on what they mean for individual Christians and church communities in their discipleship and ministry.

In pursuit of the first task not one page of the Bible is left unturned. From Genesis to Revelation Bryson chases down the references with evident joy at new discoveries and connections. The research is thorough and explores the implications of the Biblical languages. As with every aspect of the book the footnotes and references are copious and include dictionaries, academic journals, websites, and specialist Biblical Commentaries.

In seeking out the Marian connections to these titles Bryson refers to Mariologists of every generation from the Church Fathers, through the Reformation period, to Saint John Henry Newman and Saint John Paul II. There is reference to agreed ecumenical statements and the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. The Alpha Course, Nicky Gumbel and Billy Graham all are quoted. There are liturgical references ranging from Orthodox liturgies to the Book of Common Prayer, hymns of every age and style are all brought into play in a total commitment to squeeze out every ounce of meaning.

The more pastoral section of each chapter ‘what does this mean for us?’ is full of practical advice and pastoral experience of the writer who is both a Licensed Reader and an Anna Chaplain. There is a two dimensional response to each new perception of discipleship each title opens up: the personal and the congregational. Bryson asks questions to further prayer, discussion and action.

This book has a devotional quality, it begins in faith and continues in faith and it succeeds in its aim of strengthening faith. It is a result of enthusiasm without limit. The author’s excitement as each horizon of understanding unfolds is palpable. It is quite something to read at one sitting! It has thirty chapters making it an ideal book for daily reading or dipping into. It is perfect for anyone who would like to know more about, and understand more clearly the place of, and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Bryson leaves the reader in no doubt about how wonderful that can be.

Andrew Hawes  


Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: 

The Diaries 1943-57

Edited by Simon Heffer

Hutchinson, 2022

ISBN 9781529151725


The publication of this third volume of the diaries of Sir Henry Channon brings the series to a triumphant conclusion. Channon, like Pepys and other notables diarists, was not in the first rank of public or political figures but was well-placed in the outer circles to observe and record. Pepys the civil servant, Channon, a junior minister, a Member of Parliament, a denizen of ‘high society’, married into and divorced from the aristocracy, an American in contented self-exile from his homeland, an outsider who became a dedicated insider. He was perfectly situated to observe and, more importantly, to record the quiddities of his social and political milieux.

He remains unappealing as in previous volumes. Age has not wearied him dining with panthers in the demimonde nor consorting with le beau mode of high society and the aristocracy. He is as unsparing on himself as he is with others. He describes himself as ‘alone … and depressed tonight; even lonely: I am dissatisfied with my mode of life and ask myself why I am an MP? In fact, why do I do so much that both bores me and for which I am ill-suited? I only like frivolity, mundanities, society and splendour – or else solitude, writing and sex.’ Elsewhere he adds to his list ‘duchesses and the lower orders.’ Sharp comments are balanced, in part, by gushing epithets of love and adoration for others. He could be rhapsodic about some. There are few half measures or bromides in these pages.

The years, however, begin to take their toll; ill-health increases and results in an end to his diary entries for the last eighteen months of his life. He was promiscuous, unfaithful on a dizzyingly grand scale to Peter Coats, not least with the young and handsome playwright Terence Rattigan: ‘his beauty and charm are stupendous; his character for all its sweetness is unreliable and deplorable.’ Channon is portrayed in Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea. There are many other dalliances (he estimates a minimum of 111) in a sordid litany. He was acutely self-aware that he had ‘no sense of sin’ and he could not ‘understand why people should fuss about it.’ 

Over several months, almost daily, he gushes and simpers, feels every slight, real or imagined, as knife wounds. His political ambitions, nor his staggering sense of entitlement (‘a scandal that nothing had been done’) were  sated by his brief tenure in minor ministerial office. Nor, perhaps, by the compensatory knighthood. Had he lived a peerage, for which, pathetically, he yearned, may have been offered. But were there too many skeletons, despite his deft navigation of the underworld of nocturnal adventures and (then) illegal rendezvous? He senses that he may have ‘paid socially and … politically’ by his liaison with Coats but ‘it was worth it.’

However unlikeable he appears in many of these pages, his comments and observations, so many of which turn out to be incorrect, are, nonetheless, rarely less than compelling.

His animus against Winston Churchill remains, until relieved by an occasional note of approval and an invitation to lunch. Channon is not alone among contemporaries intensely to dislike Churchill’s son, the boorish Randolph: ‘exudes poison and hate and poisons London.’ His critical comments do not match those of Evelyn Waugh who, on learning that Randolph Churchill had undergone surgery which had removed a benign tumour, said that it was one of the wonders of medical science to ‘cut out the only part of Randolph that was not malignant.’ 

His pen portraits, often trenchant and slashing, were honestly held. He had a penetrating eye, if not an unalloyed generous spirit. He remained something of an outsider, pinning his specimens and mounting them in the display case that is the diary. One of Channon’s Commons’ colleagues killed in a rail crash is described as a ‘dull, mild-mannered little man, he will be no loss.’ Another is ‘an inert mass of ineffectual monied masculinity.’ Basil Dufferin’s ‘death is a mercy.’ ‘Drunken, diseased, hopeless, feckless, corroded by money, intelligent but no common sense, despicable, revolting appearance’ is very different from John Betjeman’s poetic saraband, ‘Humorous, reckless, loyal – my kind, heavy-lidded companion.’ Maurice Macmillan has a ‘wildly corrupt face [and] an evil reputation.’ General Montgomery is ‘the demagogues God.’ Robert Bernays MP, killed in an air crash, was ‘ludicrously ugly and generally unattractive’ who, twice, with consent, beat Channon, ‘shan’t miss him at all’ and had ‘long ago unloaded him. I detest Liberals.’ 

He had an equal if not greater detestation of socialists. Of Stafford Crips he wrote of him as ‘a horrible old Savonarola … a failure, an anarchist, a bore, a fanatic’ and a vegetarian. His ferocious dislike of Cosmo Gordon Lang is unabated, as strong and caustic as in previous volumes, a ‘horrible, unctuous old fiend.’ He is, on occasion, no less severe on himself, ‘hopelessly frivolous … a great writer … having a brilliant brain with which I did nothing.’

The zenith, or nadir, of his venom (take your choice) is a sustained paragraph of denigration, possibly well-deserved, for his grandmother in law on her death. On the limited occasions when he encounters hoi polloi, such as rare journeys on London Underground, he is unimpressed by and has little sympathy for ‘people sleeping on bunks, miserable heaps of dirty humanity’ as he makes his way to Belgravia. Even with someone he liked, his brother-in-law, he was unsparing: ‘abnormally large and fat, an appalling bore, stupid yet shrewd, uneducated, unimaginative and indolent and yet he had charm and lazy affection.’

As in previous volumes, he is wrong with many of his predictions and analysis of events. In March 1944 he was sure that ‘even the Labour people half admit that [Churchill] has won the next election already’. Labour won a landslide in 1945. He is less than kind to King George VI, even less so to Queen Elizabeth (later The Queen Mother). He is, however, prescient when he records in early 1952 that the King is ‘reported to be going out duck shooting next week – suicidal.’ A week later the King died.  On the succession of Queen Elizabeth II he wrote that she ‘will be a success but not loved’. Prince Philip is more highly regarded but Channon’s great affection is for the Duchess of Kent (Princess Marina). They had lived next door in Belgrave Square until her husband’s tragic death but she is a frequent visitor to Channon and he to her at Coppins. Yet, one of his final comments about her is deeply unpleasant.

If Channon is to be believed some history may need to be re-written, or a footnote included. Duff Cooper (later Viscount Norwich) did not resign over the Munich Agreement as a matter of principle, he was sacked by Chamberlain for scandals that did not make the press. Channon’s assessment after Cooper’s death was one of the most scathing in the book and among many contenders.

Simon Heffer and his editorial team, with the notable assistance of Hugo Vickers, have displayed again scholarship and diligence in abundance. The footnotes are impeccably informative, correcting errors, never intrusive, with the occasional laconic, waspish aside. The footnote to a paragraph of Channon’s speculation about Cabinet changes reads, ‘none of this happened.’ At some 1.2 million words in three volumes, 3000 pages, accompanied by that vast number of footnotes this is a monumental achievement.

Channon chronicles a dying England, as he saw it. He muses that he is ‘bored by pleasure and society but miserable and unfulfilled without it.’ He speculates ‘of what interest can these painstaking pages be to posterity when they chronicle nonentities?’ 




(with notes)

Paula Gooder

Hodder & Stoughton, 2022

ISBN 978-1444792065


This is not a novel. Paula Gooder is clear about this. Lydia is a theological experiment, a companion volume to her previous book Phoebe. A Story [2008]. The story of Lydia takes the reader to page 211. Another 102 pages of Notes follow. Gooder’s intention is to bring the scholarship to life, to take us back to Philippi at the time Paul wrote his letter. We are to read anew the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2.5-11, while following the story of Lydia, the seller of purple cloth, one of Paul’s earliest converts. The Notes win. The narrative of Lydia in Philippi illustrates the Notes, rather than the other way round.

These forensic notes, where no word or verse is left unturned, do tend to hobble Lydia’s narrative; the lecture hall always beckons. This does not leave Gooder the freedom to indulge fully her imagination, thus losing the advantage gained by other practitioners of the genre, such as C.K. Stead in My Name Was Judas and Colm Tóibín in The Testament of Mary. The brilliance of the historical, cultural and theological explanations in the Notes exposes the poverty of Gooder’s prose style. The text overflows with adverbs struggling to convey the moods of the characters who are always ‘chuckling’ to themselves, as do three irritating boys, Rufus, Marcus and Tertius, who get up to all sorts of japes to distract us from our theology. Eyes narrow, birdsong is exquisite, efforts are faultless, dullness is stultifying. 

Characters are hit or miss. Here is Aurelia, a Roman matron who has strayed from Spartacus, wife to Decimus Licinius Crassus. Aurelia loathes Philippi. She enters Lydia’s shop. ‘Aurelia sighed dramatically. “It’s all so tawdry. Come.” She clicked her fingers at the four slaves who were pressed against the shelves of the shop lest they be accused of getting in the way. “We won’t waste any more time.” She looked Lydia up and down as she left, no flicker of recognition showing on her face, despite the many hours that Lydia and John together had striven to present her with their best range of purple.’ 

Yet other characters succeed to great effect. Gooder introduces us to Manius, a Roman centurion with responsibility for crucifixions, who comes to enquire about a Jesus of Nazareth. Slowly, as the suspicions of the Philippi community are allayed, Manius tells them the story of the death of Jesus and the ‘overwhelming bleakness’ of that moment. ‘“You were overheard,” said Clement. “Some of the women who followed Jesus were there. They heard you say ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” Manius was quiet for a while, the moment clearly playing on his mind. “Yes,” he said, “that is exactly what I said.” “But what we have always wanted to know,” said Alexandra, “is what you meant.”’ Manius is later baptised. Such passages, the revelation of forgiveness and the dawning of hope which comes with the delivery of Paul’s Christ Hymn by Epaphroditus, justify Gooder’s brave experiment. Despite the narrative restrictions, the reader of Lydia is invited to read the Epistle at a new depth, and to wonder at how dull we have made these early testaments, and how slow we are to be transformed by them today. 

Here then is another theme in Gooder’s Lydia. Christ’s story became Paul’s story. So Christ’s story is our story. Lydia, the book, constructs the stories of four women, Lydia and the slave girl healed by Paul in Acts, Euodia and Syntache known from Philippians. Their different experiences come through to us, in spite of the limitations (recognised by Paula Gooder) of our twenty-first century perspective. Lydia declares that in our stories we can cross that bridge of time to Philippi and ‘have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus’ [Philippians 2.5]. ‘As [Lydia] prayed a sense of deep peace fell on her. … Everything was exactly the same, yet felt completely different. She knew she was held by a great love, and in that love was perfect peace. In that love she could face the future, whatever it held.’

Julian Browning


The Hardest Problem: 

God, Evil and Suffering

Rupert Shortt

Hodder & Stouchton 2022

ISBN 978-1399802710


We often seem to assume that the reason people don’t come to church is primarily to do with the quality of the welcome they receive: if this could just be better then more people would come. This may be the case, but at least as important are some more fundamental reasons that keep people away. Pre-eminent among these is the ‘problem of evil’ – of how a God whom we believe and teach is loving and good can permit suffering and evil not only to exist but sometimes apparently to triumph. This ancient question raises its head in a variety of different guises and is surely one of the two main reasons why people resist the Christian faith. (The other, more modern and surely less serious one is the perception that ‘Science’ has somehow disproved religious belief.)

Rupert Shortt, a journalist, theological writer and biographer of Archbishop Rowan Williams, is a sure-footed guide to this terrain. In this short, engagingly written but also challenging book, he ranges widely over the ways in which the phenomena of evil and suffering have been approached, such as the stirring response of Jonathan Sacks to the question of where God was at Auschwitz that God had been there ‘in the words “You shall not murder”. He was there in the words “Do not oppress the stranger”, in the words, “Your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground”.’

Correctly, however, Shortt does not try to provide a simple answer to the problem of evil. Such an answer would necessarily be inhuman in the face of the enormity and mystery of human suffering. As an illustration of this, Shortt describes how experiencing the death of his wife Joy Davidman led C.S. Lewis to repudiate his earlier confident assertions about the problem of suffering. As Shortt describes it, ‘The Problem of Pain (1940) sees misfortune in scientific terms as a puzzle to be solved. A Grief Observed (written in 1960 in the aftermath of Davidman’s death) sees it as a mystery to be lived with’. 

Shortt takes in insights from a wide range of authors, and gives more extended treatment, among others, to Iain McGilchrist, René Girard, Rowan Williams and Vernon White. Indeed, the book could be used as a short and accessible refresher course in the philosophy of religions, covering as it does questions such as the arguments for the existence of God, the way we understand miracles and the efficacy of intercessory prayer. In none of these does he attempt to land some knock-out blow on what Angela Tilby in her commendation of the book describes as ‘the casual atheism of our age’. Certainly he reminds us that it is legitimate to ask questions about theodicy, not least because they are asked in the Scriptures themselves: notably in the book of Job, the psalms and by Jesus himself on the cross. There can be no simple and glib answers in this area, but Shortt demonstrates that the Christian faith can provide not a neat set of bullet points to rebut such questions, but a wealth of resources to engage with them more deeply.

At the heart of our approach to evil and suffering is the understanding of God that we bring – and here Shortt takes up the theme of a former work, intriguingly entitled God is No Thing. Guided by St Thomas Aquinas and indeed the whole mainstream Christian tradition, he reminds us that God is the ground of all being, and not (as is often assumed) another being in the universe who is much larger than the others but unfortunately happens to be invisible. Thus, when it comes to considering the problem of suffering, the Christian tradition does not see Him as ‘a capricious wand-waver in the sky’ or a ‘celestial CEO, jostling for power with other actors. ‘At root the Christian claim is that God remakes human nature from within, by defenceless love, rather than by producing a banner in the heavens inscribed “I’M HERE YOU IDIOTS”.’

Ultimately, as the final chapter on Atonement and Providence reveals, the answer to the problem of suffering is found not in human ideas or verbal formulations, but in Jesus, the living Word of the Father. Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, gives not a simple answer to the ongoing questions about the presence of evil and suffering in the purposes of a loving God – no such answers are ever available. But for his faithful people his death and resurrection none the less provide a unique and living reference point: a wider context within which to view the often inexplicable presence of so much evil and suffering in the world: ‘… if we are able to look laterally at events that don’t have an obvious connection, and then triangulate them with Christ’s Passion and conquest of death, a purpose may indeed emerge’.

Edward Dowler



The Transformations of John Donne

Katherine Rundell

Faber, 2022   

ISBN 978-0571345915


This exhilarating study of the poet, priest and sometime Dean of St Paul’s is written with vigour and panache. The writer is more than a little in love with her subject, and doesn’t mind letting the reader know; but this authorial affair with the long-dead Dean is born of the axiom that the biggest sex organ is the brain. Donne, Katherine Rundell suggests, is someone for whom ‘thinking hard and fast’ is a sensual joy akin to sex itself, and we suspect that what is true for the subject is true for the biographer as well.

Rundell writes extraordinarily well, with fresh and arresting turns of phrase on every page, so it is not surprising that she has such sympathy with someone who interpreted (and created) his own reality through language. Rundell regards the love poetry (in her words, ‘the most celebratory and most lavishly sexed poetry ever written in English’) as composed not in pursuit of conquest, nor in retrospective enjoyment of it: the verse was all, written for Donne’s own satisfaction (could he ever be satisfied?) and that of his young lawyer-about-town friends. And she brings out superbly well Donne’s utter scorn for the second-best in writing, for tired verse or hackneyed prose. Here was an inventor of forms, a coiner of new words, a man who could pack a few lines so tightly with meaning that you feel on reading that it might at any moment literally burst – an image much too lazy for Donne himself to have written, I know. 

At the heart of this book, less a conventional biography than a series of pen-portraits of its subject at successive ages and stages of life, is the thesis that the traditionally bifocal way of seeing Donne – the young Jack and the mature Divine – is much too limiting: he needs to be understood as by way of multiply reimagined personalities and in pluriform roles. For readers unfamiliar with the detail of the life, there are intriguing chapters on Donne as failed adventurer and unsuccessful diplomat. Aspects of his financial dealings with his daughter Constance reveal what the author calls ‘thoughtlessness and cruelty.’ Donne certainly exemplifies in his own life the observation which, Rundell proposes, was never far from his thinking – that human beings are ‘a catastrophe and a miracle.’ The chapter on Biathanatos – Donne’s treatise on suicide – reminds us that this poet who took such intense joy in the sheer astonishment and miracle of being alive deprecated the merciful act of tugging on the legs of a criminal condemned to death by hanging, because the punishment ought to be as painful and prolonged as possible. 

The last third of the book, on Donne as Dean, preacher, and contemplator of mortality, especially his own, draws us deeply into the making of his soul. Donne, says Rundell, is at his most remarkable as a preacher when he speaks about how very hard it is to see God at all. He is, she says, the preacher for those who make their way to God in ‘gestures, symbols, flickers, errors.’ In the sermons there is plenty of horror: the world is full of things that kill you, and the human body is little more than decomposing matter, corrupt, decaying, one with the earth which will receive it. But everywhere, joy breaks out, and Donne (Rundell reminds us) directs a lengthy diatribe against St Basil the Great on account of the latter’s hostility to laughter. And for all the horror, at the heart of Donne’s preaching is a deep sense of the worth of every human life: for Donne, the human animal, Rundell writes, is worth attention, awe, and love.

The final chapter (bar a postscript) on Donne and Death is particularly gripping and Rundell writes superbly well, on the final sermon, ‘Death’s Duel,’ with its haunting sentence, ‘There in the womb we are taught cruelty, by being fed with blood.’ This startling lens through which to view the life of the unborn child’s dependence for nutrition on its mother takes us right back to the author of The Flea, and whose mind is never far away from bodies – needy, hungry, desiring, decaying and ultimately destined for glory. Can there ever be a better reflection on mortality and immortality than those extraordinary words from the last sermon: ‘There we leave you – suck at Christ’s wounds and lie down in peace in his grave, till He vouchsafe you a resurrection.’ 

This is a wonderful study of Dr Donne, short enough to be devoured at one sitting, but full of insight and genuinely exciting to read. Footnote One: Rundell is very good at lists (see, for example, page 254). Footnote Two: Rundell quotes Donne on marriage, which is ‘but a continual fornication sealed with an oath.’ LLF, take note.

Jonathan Baker


There is some current discussion about what a Christian country is. And whether we (the UK) are any longer a Christian country, as population figures show the numbers attending church or calling themselves Christian continue to decline. Perhaps (in this respect) one little question of relevance might be: in how many families do the kids say their prayers out loud every night?

When I was little and we lived in a Southsea flat, I mean in 1946 and later till May 1951 when we moved out of Portsmouth to Emsworth, my mummy (as I called her) would hear my prayers as I said them out loud. And when we started having in our flat first a French girl called Lydie Ehretsmann from Thann in Alsace in 1947, followed by a succession of Swiss girls mostly from Burgdorf to help my mum not just looking after me (my big sister Jane was boarding at the Royal Naval School, Haslemere) but also helping cook for us – though not cleaning which Mrs Fosbrook did – they (Dora, Susie, Jacqueline, Marthe) would listen instead.

My prayers always started with the words of a hymn I knew by heart, ‘Jesu, tender Shepherd hear me, Bless thy little lamb tonight; Through the darkness be thou near me, Watch my sleep till morning light’ The two following verses with their mention of death and heaven I don’t think I said. Mary Duncan, its author, died at 26 probably of consumption as they called TB. After which I said a lot of ‘God bless daddy’, followed in order by other loved relatives (not including grandfathers who were both dead long before I was born and therefore not discussed or referred to as far as God was concerned).

I would kneel by my bed and fold my hands. I think we used to say our prayers by our beds when I first went as a boarder to the Prebendal School, the choir school in Chichester, in May 1952. The idea that God could take responsibility while we were asleep was very comforting. We did also go from time to time to the dockyard church. Not very often. And opposite us lived the Reverend John Beloe and his family who was a vicar of a church nearby, and who also had a sandpit in his garden.
I started having piano lessons when I was six, and a piano arrived in our first floor flat. My musicality and love of music were not in question. But I’m not sure how taken I was with the piano at that stage, though my dad’s mother took me to a couple of piano recitals at the South Parade Pier concert hall, I think. Later I had to accompany the hymn at morning assembly at the Preb. We never as far I recall went to the cathedral in Portsmouth, which was where my dad’s father Jim (killed at Gallipoli) had sung tenor a lot in the choir when it was just St Thomas’s Church. The idea of singing was not something I really considered, obsessed as I was much more with dancing.

My parents had a story they often repeated, that I’d burst into tears when I went with them into Winchester Cathedral aged three – because it was so enormous. I do not recall this. But in February 1952 I was prepared to sing ‘There is a green hill far away’ at the voice trials for the Chichester Cathedral choir – to be a probationer there. I also had to pitch notes correctly and demonstrate how well I could read words in the Bible. (As it happened, I was destined to win the Chancellor’s reading prize later on at the Preb, as well as the Weston Speech Prize every year I was at Hurstpierpoint College from age 14 to 17.)

Anyway, I was offered a place as a probationer, as was Peter Spence who wrote (much later) the telly series To the Manor Born (with Penelope Keith, Angela Thorne and Peter Bowles). He was one of three sons whose father worked in advertising on the Daily Telegraph (I think). His older brother Robin became a don at Cambridge, and his twin Christopher founded the London Lighthouse. Peter didn’t last in the choir. As the organist whom we always called Hawkie (and who had been Charles-Marie Widor’s favourite pupil at St Sulpice in Paris before 1914, and was probably the finest organist in the country) told my parents in 1956 when I was head chorister, ‘I haven’t the time to teach the boys. They either pick it up, or they’re out!’ Peter never became a chorister – when one got a surplice and joined the ‘apostolic’ dozen who sang in the choirstalls on either side of the Chancel. But so what! The school itself had good teachers, including its head in 1952-3 who taught Latin and was a sort of part-time priest-vicar – a bit of a beater too, and somewhat interested in checking how well the older boys were sleeping in the medieval Long Dorm, as a result of which he was sacked in August 1953 and replaced within four weeks by a fine French teacher and former Chindit Guy Hepburn whose wife also became matron.

When I was at Chichester, the choir had no countertenors; they had been called up in 1939 and replaced by excellent women. Monica Head had the higher, lighter voice of the two, and Eve Salwey (who also taught us English extremely well and had been married to a Canon who had died) with a richer more Ferrier-like voice. After I left in July 1956 with a choral scholarship at Hurstpierpoint College, Eve married Canon Powell who had been headmaster of Epsom College. In my day the Close was full of married residential Canons such as Lowther-Clarke who had edited Liturgy and Worship in the mid-1930s. Dean Duncan-Jones’s son Andrew had been head of the Preb, married the matron, and then left with her. His dad had during the war doubled being Dean and HM of the school. There was something practical and sensible about Chichester in those days. Walter Hussey, who became Dean in 1955 after Duncan-Jones’s death, was a very different cuppa – though a very nice man whose Northampton curates included a man who was my chaplain at Hurst for a couple of years.

Chi was not male-only when I was there. But what about girls singing in cathedral choirs, or forming a girls’ choir? The truth is boys benefit from working hard and we worked a lot harder in the 1950s than any cathedral choristers do now – as we had very short holidays and sang for weeks after the school had stopped teaching lessons – during times that we called ‘the choir hols’ when in fact we were still doing our professional singing work. We sang till January 6 (the Epiphany Procession) when the Dolmetsch family from Haslemere came and played four different recorders in our procession round the cathedral before we could go home for two weeks’ holiday. At the always movable Easter we stayed till Low Sunday a week after it, and then had two to three weeks’ break. And in the summer we were there singing till August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, and got about five weeks’ summer holiday. It was a job and we were professionals. At Westminster Cathedral, where I was the countertenor for nearly four years, we had only three weeks off a year.

Boys’ treble or alto voices have a sell-by date. Girls’ voices simply continue to mature. Boys need to work. Girls’ voices are just a slightly earlier more delicate version of their potential adult voices. It is misleading to think everything chaps do, ladies can too. Different understanding, different social awareness! Equal when it comes to interpretative ability and understanding – though from a different viewpoint.

Church music from European countries including our own, and Catholic as well as Protestant, includes some of the greatest musical masterpieces there are. It matters profoundly. Much of it was intended for boys’ voices from the 12th century on. Plainchant – a glory of the church – is wonderfully sung by the sound of boys. No doubt it is also fine in some abbeys with nuns singing. But boys’ voices break. What they offer is not for ever. And mixing the efforts of boys and girls does not suit the church music genius. Some traditions are worth preserving. Their loss would matter. From the late 17th-century on, girls’ voices have more and more often a great role to play. Wait for the one, but don’t abandon the other. If religion ceases to convince, cathedrals will still matter for the genius and vision they present.

Understanding has subtlety; it is complex and varied. As is music. These are great human arts. Do not put them at risk of disappearing. Our hearts need them. 

Tom Sutcliffe





Tate Modern, London

until 12th March, 2023


There is no accent on the ‘e’. Apparently Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) didn’t use one and this is the preferred family spelling. Which gives the curators an opportunity to wallow in self-abasement – we are all wrong! The artist himself proves a hard nut to fit into today’s assured public morality. When one of the show’s commentators asks ‘How do you just see the formal qualities of a painting or the scholarship or the invention [Cezanne’s] work evokes without foregrounding [the] history [of slavery]?‘ the answer for the painter himself is ‘Very easily.’ Cezanne was a radical painter but politically an anti-Dreyfusard (along with Degas and Renoir). There’s not much evidence that he wished to be a Communard of 1871 (he avoided conscription and stayed painting down in the South). And a man who in his latter days attended Mass daily is not likely to have been influenced by progressive nihilism or Barthesian textual deconstruction (had it existed in the nineteenth century). Part of the ‘enigmatic’ quality of Cezanne is that he is a founding figure of twentieth century Western Modernism. At the same time he was very different from today’s progressives who see everything as political. How could a provincial bourgeois Catholic – who to his death recognised God as the one true creative – be such a great and radical painter?

In his own day, perhaps the best place to begin to understand him, Cezanne was considered socially uncouth. He admitted to a shyness which meant he wouldn’t paint from live nudes but used photographs of nude figures (the outstanding example in the show of this practice is New York MOMA’s ‘Nude Bather’ which brings together an almost Grecian purity of form and confident bearing with a very nineteenth century moustache). He wanted to astonish Paris with an apple, but was never really a metropolitan (he saw himself as part of a Proveneçal tradition which included Pierre Puget and Joseph Léon de Roland de Lestang-Parade [me neither]). And his relationship with women, as suggested by his early paintings and by his occasionally-sometimes marriage, may have been misogynistic. Cezanne was not a charismatic or sociable artist like Manet or Picasso. 

What he was was a painter. One of the strengths of this large and generous show (though it’s a much cut-down version of the Chicago original) is the number of paintings once owned by other painters: Pissarro (who was both Jewish and Cezanne’s mentor), Monet (who collected more of Cezanne’s works than any other artist), Matisse, Picasso, Degas, Gauguin, Renoir, and the later Jasper Johns and Henry Moore. 

Painters saw something in Cezanne before the art buying public did (and bought before his work became very expensive). For example, the show has a large number of preliminary drafts of bathers and of the very thickly painted works of Cezanne’s early and middle years. These were criticised by contemporaries and critical opinion hasn’t yet taken them to its heart. But his fellow artists bought them. As Pissarro put it, anyone can see the defects in these works, what is more important is their charm.

The charm and decorative quality of Cezanne’s work – he liked to paint beautiful scenery – is surely at the heart of his appeal, rather than his formal adventurousness. And this show has a representative selection of the many, many landscapes and still lives Cezanne painted in Provence. In these works, the use of colour rather than line to provide form, the little slab-like dabs of colour, the wide range of oil finishes from thick to almost the transparency of water colour, the parts of the canvas left untouched, the two dimensional character which shows the paintings are paintings and not reproductions of apples and oranges and trees and boulders, and the sheer number of different versions of the same views and still-life objects make up the familiar Cezanne style.

But there’s more to Cezanne than that. In the first posthumous show after his death (Paris 1907) the critic Maurice Denis wrote how Cezanne was part of the great tradition and that he developed that tradition by cutting away at it. An analysis of that cutting away, driven as it was by a strong personal sensibility and a precise eye (even the most loosely painted works have details of, say, a mark on a lead roof), is a good way into Cezanne’s method. But that only gets us so far. In the end we’re left asking, in the words of Renoir, how does he do it? Cezanne himself didn’t know. All that repeated subject matter shows he needed to get the painting right, even if he (and we) only knew what that right looked like when he saw it.

This show doesn’t solve the ‘enigma’ of Cezanne, but it gives us a grand opportunity to explore and enjoy that enigma. 

Owen Higgs