What you want… what you get

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Public Image Ltd, Bristol O2 arena, May 2018

When John Lydon takes the stage wearing chef’s trousers, a loose white shirt, dark weskit and round pebble glasses it looks as if Father Brown has just been booted off Masterchef. Combine that with one guitarist who reminded reminiscent of a cross between Phil Jupitus and Alan Yentob, another who seemed to be channelling a super-skinny version of Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds and a drummer who looked like everyone’s favourite retired football hooligan and I began to wonder what we were in for. Would there be any of the wire-whipped ire of the Sex Pistols, the insidious, needling subtlety of Metal Box, the outright black chanting rage of Album (or Compact Disc/Cassette, whichever format you prefer)?

From the opening chords of new track ‘Warrior’ it was obvious why Lydon works with this iteration of the band – they are his peers, a close-knit coterie of quality musicians who play with grit and grime and virtuosity. The sound was tight, loud, hard, punching and fearsome. Perfect for a predominantly male crowd whose average age would have been pushing 50 – this was a band who have lived a bit, seen the ups and downs of life, probably knew something of the perils of mortgages, babies and settled domesticity that were the mainstay of much of their audience’s daily round.

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Newer material predominated the first half of the gig, much of it culled from the last studio album. What the World Needs Now is not an immediate ‘wow’ of an album, it doesn’t grab with innovation, it doesn’t reverberate with spiked fury, it doesn’t spit on the grave of its musical antecedents. But it s a grower, filled with passionate, barbed, provocative and socially grounded songs. The flabby complacency of contemporary Western society still pushes Lydon to jab and stab. Live ‘Double Trouble’, ‘Corporate’ and ‘Spice of Life’ stand out, with ‘Shroom’ providing a suitably gobby, potty-mouthed dissing of bland cosiness with which to close down the encore.

Mixed in, and making up much of the latter half of the night, were the hits – ‘Rise’, ‘Black Rubber Bags’, ‘This is not a Love Song’, ‘Public Image’, all elicited an enthusiastic sing-along response from the crowd, including me. I guess ‘Rise’ with its reprise ‘anger is an energy’, is still the track that appeals most to me – but it seems to hit the spot for many others as well. I would have been disappointed if it hadn’t been played, but then, looking back, that’s part of my own complacency – the new material has its own vivacity and bite, it matters to Lydon the way this world is destroying itself, he is still a prophet crying in the wilderness, an outsider who calls out the hypocrisy of a world where business is king and individuals, especially the hard-pressed and hard-up are fodderstompf.

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Despite the fact that Lydon is himself in the business of entertainment, plying his trade with gigs and merchandise, he does come across as a man of integrity – although maybe that’s what we want to think – one who still wants to subvert the rules, sometimes just for the sheer fun of it, sometimes to make a trenchant point about the cruelty of civilisation. Mayhap he and Father Brown aren’t that far apart – they might even agree on some of the sentiments Lydon expounds in ‘Religion’ – both not afraid to stand up publicly for their beliefs, both prepared to be countercultural, both gifted preachers trying to reach beyond the faithful to change the world. However, I doubt whether Father Brown would end a sermon with a chorus of ‘bollocks, its all bollocks’.

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Watching them pass like clouds in the sky

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It is nigh on a month since I went to the Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith gig at Bristol IMAX. The LA based composer (that’s Los Angeles, not Long Ashton), was performing her 2017 album The Kid on her modular system Buchla 100 synthesiser. As a backdrop to her music the huge IMAX screen was used to show Sean Hellfrisch’s elemental and immersive visuals.

For swathes of the audience who gathered around afore and aft the performance, the Buchla 100 was the star. Devotees of arcane technology stood, glegging reverently at its sinuous collection of wires and cables; its solidity and early sci-fi appearance offering both an unearthly and ancient aura.

Smith opened with a diffident and slight introductory welcome, but turning to the Buchla transfigured her into a Tardis manipulating timelord, pulling plugs, switching sockets, tapping keyboards, singing along gently, but with evident enjoyment, to her own tracks. The music and visuals flowed seamlessly together, perfectly instep, each illuminating the other and the gig’s fifty minutes speed by as we were drawn deeper and deeper into a vision that was cosmic, atomic, cellular, human.

Hellfrisch’s visuals were like finding yourself inside a 1970s lava lamp nestling inside a kaleidoscope. Blobs were forming, flowing, dividing, growing, joining, splitting, expanding over and over. Shapes slipped and slid, multiplied, chained, dripped and ran like code down the screen. Colours swirled as cells, spheres, drops formed and reformed, replicated, twinned and twined, pulsing, pumping. If the structure of Smith’s album is about the formation of a child from conception to the acceptance of mortality, as I have read elsewhere, then these visuals were a perfect accompaniment – synthetic in their production but organic in their display.

Initially, they mirrored the early division of cells, later they were more like synapses firing, neural pathways forming, organs growing, developing, aging, thoughts snapping through the brain, or the body. They gave a sense not simply of physical growth but also of thoughts blossoming into ideas, into character, exploration of the world leading to self-awareness. Maybe that’s reading too much in – but not if you are listening to Smith’s music at the same time – especially if you can recall the titles of the tracks as you are hearing them.

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The synthetic nature of the visuals’ creation might have tended towards a mechanistic view of person – the popular perception of the mind as a machine, a super sophisticated computer, which can be observed and dissected with each form and function fully understood – in much the same way as the post-show audience was keen to unpack the mysteries of the Buchla 100. But the music mitigated against this – it told a different story, possibly because it told a story which wasn’t reducible to linearity. Perhaps the visuals looked like machine code, but they were also more amorphous, more cloud-like, splitting and dividing in unexpected ways. The titles of some of the tracks are reminders that consciousness is relational, it is collaborative, it is a story with flow and development, it cannot simply be reduced to mechanism, just as the notes on a stave cannot completely define music which floats and flows, sparking fresh ideas and associations. Smith has created music that shimmers with the ethereal, swirls with unearthly delights but which is grounded in the messy complexity of human being.

And that’s a big part of her story. The Kid is an impersonal title for an artwork that explores what it means to be a person. The tracks talk about embodiment, about learning, following, finding a place in the world, and discovering distinctiveness – which can lead to loneliness, or to intimations of mortality. Does the Buchla 100 exist simply on its own, an independent unit with no reliance on any other instrument, or does it require external input – electricity, someone to play it? Would Smith’s music be meaningful without listeners? It might exist without them, but would it have value without anyone, anything to hear? But if her concept is personal, is it also individualistic? Does it follow the prevailing ascendency of individualism? Possibly – it is a single artist’s creation using a single, unusual instrument. Possibly not – it has become fully realised through collaboration with a fellow artist, playing it live risks, or invites, the interactions of an audience – coughing, clapping at inopportune moments, sighing, shifting in their seats, tapping along to the rhythm, or even silently processing and reimagining the material offered.

Both music and visuals are carefully controlled in their production. Perhaps that is a clue to an isolated interiority, a need to be in charge, to command the conformity of the external world to the individual’s need. Yet this is music whose layers slip and slide – controlled, yes, but running across a multiplicity of levels, growing more like a corkscrewing honeysuckle putting out myriad side shoots than a landscape bisected by the regular lines of telephone poles. The same applies to the morphing, splitting, shifting visuals, and when you throw in Smith’s extempore live vocals you find control unspooling. The album is called The Kid, which is generic, instead of the more individualistic ‘Young Kaitlyn’ because connectedness, society, the network of ecological inter-reliance is at its heart. More than that, and I think the visuals were vital in making this clear, body and mind are completely enmeshed – there is no mind body dualism here, learning comes through the body as much as the brain. The flowing, oozing lava lamp forms, the splitting, re-joining, grouping, ungrouping, regrouping cells, were as much about the whole body growing, reshaping, exploring and redefining its place in the space of existence as they were about the mind stretching towards maturity (or even puberty).

That struggle towards maturity is often said to require an acceptance of your own mortality. On the final track, ‘To Feel Your Best’ Smith sings: “I’m gonna wake up one day and you won’t be there/’Cause I care that’s why I stare… I’m gonna miss, miss, miss, will miss your face.” Is this the knowledge that signifies the end of childhood? Perhaps that is how Smith sees it. Closing the album here is possibly a self-conscious acceptance that every project has its limits. Mortality is the absolute limiter. Accepting it acknowledges the finitude of our power, recognises that our attempts at control can never fully succeed.

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One of the tracks is titled ‘In the World, but Not of the World’, which, with its echoes of the Christian Gospel of John (Chapter 17, verse 16) raises theological implications. I’m probably completely wrong to associate ‘the kid’ of The Kid with Christ, but it is interesting to make that connection. I’m writing this during the ten days between the two Christian feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost. Pentecost is seen as the more important event – the moment when God’s Spirit breathed through the rag-tag of Jesus followers and sent them out from the protection of a locked room into the furnace of the Roman controlled world to tell the story of God’s eternal connectedness with each individual and every aspect of creation. The Ascension is the final chapter in the Resurrection story – the physical removal of the resurrected, but still physical, body of the living Jesus from earth to heaven. It is a dramatic, perhaps ungainly (especially the way it has been depicted by Western artists) reminder how every speck of human vitality, every scintilla of human vulnerability has been shared by God in Jesus and, in this moment of ascension, is taken into the very heart of God.

If you are not a person of faith, then mayhap you can discern in this an image of our interconnectedness. Then Hellfrisch’s visuals and Smith’s music might work on a cosmic level, describing, perhaps the creation of stars, the division of bacteria, the roiling boil of the primeval soup, the rootedness of all creation in the pin-prick point just before the moment of the ‘big bang.’ But, in the connectedness with God made manifest in Jesus, Christians might also find comfort and inspiration that God takes utterly seriously everything that makes us ‘us’. That includes the mess, some of it grubby, some sensuous, some creative, some destructive. God absorbs it all into the Godhead and so changes it all into something new, something transfigured.

Ultimately, it might be that Smith’s work is about much more than development – there is the continuity of growth but also the transformation that comes with engagement beyond the self, the joining up of all the neural, social, ecological, international networks that take us beyond the individual into a wider, broader, more complex, more enriching sphere of being. And in live performance, in conjunction with Hellfrisch’s film, she draws us, through the minutiae of the images and her silken layering of sound, beyond the linearity of a child growing and into a space where every note crackles with the possiblity that all moments might be one moment and all matter one matter.

Music 2017

1. Elwan, Tinariwen, Wedge

2. The Kid, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Western Vinyl

3. American Dream, LCD Soundsystem, Columbia

4. Modern Kosmology, Jane Weaver, Fire Records

5. Masseduction, St Vincent, Lorna Vista Recordings

6. Blue Lips, Tove Lo, Universal

7. Out in the Storm, Waxahatchee, Merge Records

8. Dark Days + Canapés, Ghostpoet, Play It Again Sam

9. Piano is Evil, Amanda Palmer, 8ft. Recordings

10. Hitchhiker, Neil Young, Silver Stars and Bars

2017 was a year filled with music. Listening to every piece listed in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die was the big project for the year. To some extent it was an impressionistic listen – randomly working through one album after another with nary a break in-between. Pause, reflect, get on with the next entry. It was great for filling in gaps, for confirming prejudices and occasionally for challenging them. The huge variety, of music, lyrics, stories, artists, was heartening. The odd discovery made the whole project worthwhile, the tying together of genres and bands enlightening. I’m glad I did it, but I won’t be doing it again. However, I have annotated the book with albums I shall revisit in a more leisurely way.

All this historical dabbling made for little time for new music. I only managed three gigs – The Jesus and Mary Chain, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Goldfrapp. Each had a new album to promote (the BRMC one is an early 2018 release), so plenty of music from these as well as the backlist. Seeing the JAMC so long after their glory days was a gamble and one I wasn’t too confident about once I had heard the new material, which seemed to be a weary self-pastiche. Live, they were OK, anything from Psychocandy was bound to be special, even if the execution was a touch ponderous, but the new songs were forgettable.

BRMC played the gig I had hoped for from JAMC – alert and angry, tight and varied, potent and airborne – it was an excellent mix of old hits and new tracks, corporate noise and mellower solo performances, all delivered with intensity and conviction. A week later and it was Goldfrapp, sold out, packed but with a gentler vibe. I had been listening to the new album, Silver Eye, quite a bit, and enjoying it – partly because it is pretty much more of the same and what Goldfrapp does, they do very well – so was filled with high expectations for the evening. I wasn’t disappointed – much new material but all the hits that mattered as well, even if I did record them upside down on my phone – delivered with sensuous skill and clear delight. Alison Goldfrapp commanded the stage performing how and when she wanted, proud of the new songs but also blasting through the hits with celebratory vigour. It was a cracking gig, only slightly dampened by the two hour wait for a bus home.

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New music listening was mostly crammed into the last two months of the year, although I had picked up on Elwan back in the early spring and kept going back to it. Even without knowing anything of the background to Tinariwen, Tuareg musicans who have been working together for years and were forced out of their homes in Mali in 2012 by Islamic militants, there was something hypnotic and compulsive about the music. I love the mix of scuzzy Western guitar fuelled rock with more traditional sub-Saharan rhythms, visions and aspirations. These are songs of lament, loss, defiance, both communal and individual, contemporary psalms, grounded but with spirit.

Modern Kosmology 1Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Kid is probably my second most played album of the year. That’s partly because her style of electronic layering works well with sermon writing. This puts her in the same category, for me, as Juliana Barwick and Grouper, but really her music on The Kid has kinship with Goldfrapp, combining both a quirky accessibility with a more nuanced vision of growth and humanity. There are echoes of Tomita and Jean Michel Jarre alongside an organic exuberance which is immensely affecting and enjoyable. Modern Kosmology, by Jane Weaver, feels like a close cousin to Smith’s work, which is probably why I like it. Again, there are hints of Goldfrapp, indeed they are strong at times, building into an album that is more overtly dance than meditative swirl, but still with a reflective anchoring.

I most surprised to hear from LCD Soundsystem again, I thought that James Murphy had laid the project to rest. Even more surprising and pleasing was the strength of American Dream, which mixes together all those wonderful musical references, which have long been a Murphy staple, to create something both fresh and knowing, invigorating despite its underlying cynicism. At his best Murphy’s sound is off-kilter Teutonic and in this, which is some of his finest work so far, Can and Kraftwerk seem to have melded with late David Bowie into an extended riff on the morality of mortality. There is something nostalgic about listening to American Dream, but nothing like that which comes from Neil Young’s Hitchhiker, which is recorded in 1976 but never before released. Young and just an acoustic guitar is often a winning and wondrous combination. Yes, just about all these songs are well-known in other versions, often heavier, more rambling, but here they stand up on their own as masterful mini-stories.

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There was a time when my reading switched from literary fiction to crime thrillers. I didn’t feel any connection with contemporary literature, it didn’t seem to touch my life, or expand it. Crime fiction was about a puzzle and a good story, so satisfied my need to read but not any desire to explore. At the moment I’m in a similar place with contemporary music. Little of what new or established male artists, with a few exceptions such as Nick Cave and Michael Gira, are producing seems to affect me. I can’t find common ground with most bands, they are not speaking to me neither are they speaking about me. So I’ve switched to listening to many of the young female bands and artists, especially those of Scandinavian origin. Again, there is no connection between me and these millennials, their lives are foreign to me, but their music appeals in its innovation, energy, ennui, mix of dark introspection, fierceness, skill and celebration. St Vincent’s Masseduction, like Laura Marling’s almost equally fine Semper Femina, is subtle, deep, serious, sad and yet also fizzing with life, exuberance, passion, challenge, while Tove Lo is just plain raunchy on Blue Lips, a reprise of last year’s Lady Wood, that is sensual, charged and yet also emotionally draining. Waxahatchee, who’s music I’ve followed for a while, pushes that blending of the internal and the external further. Out in the Storm builds from fine song-writing into a swirling, dirty rock ride, excoriating a dead relationship, escaping from the slough of post parting blues.

Piano is Evil

Like Neil Young, Amanda Palmer released two albums in 2017 and also like him, one, Piano is Evil, is pretty much just her and one instrument, this time a piano that is hammered, banged, pulverised into compliance with dense and angry song-telling. This is the stripped-back version of her 2012 album Theatre is Evil, and the excising of the big band type production benefits the songs hugely, giving her space to inhabit them and let the sheer bloodiness of life, love, loss pour out compulsively and comprehensively.

Finally, Ghostpoet, who, in his themes of immigration, intolerance and strangers in a strange land, takes us back to the beginning and Tinariwen. Dark Days + Canapés was a bit of grower for me, requiring several listens to begin to warm to it. The world, according to Ghostpoet, is not a happy place – immigrants drown desperately trying to bring their families to lands that offer work and opportunity, relationships curdle, social media blocks out reality and fantasy leads us further and further away from making a positive difference to the physical environment. The lyrics are taut, fragile without being frail, finely attuned to the music which slips through a Bristol trippy vibe (that I was only ever marginally aware of) into a more funky mix ameliorated by drainpipe black Goth guitars which scratch the stories of alienation and attrition under the skin. It is not an easy album, but it is a discerning one that deserves attention.

From the desert to the sea via bedrooms, bawdy, birth, bigotry and break-up, there has been much worthwhile to listen to in 2017’s music. Without the blessing and curse of 1001 classic albums to plough through, I am looking forward to exploring new creations in 2018.

He’s not appreciated (some thoughts on Mark E. Smith)

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For someone who is avowedly Northern-phobic, Manchester bands have been forcefully influential. Topping the list would be Joy Division’s sublime deconstruction of raging youth, followed by New Order, the Stone Roses, Buzzcocks and then, above the Smiths and their greyly romantic explorations of gauche ennui, The Fall. The Fall, a band so necessary that if they didn’t exist you’d have to, well, you’d have to do what Mark E. Smith was forever doing: invent, destroy, re-invent, destroy, renew, destroy, create them again.

Listening to Live at the Witch Trials is a very different process from hearing Unknown Pleasures. The Fall challenge at every level – sonically, linguistically, on stage and off – never explain, never back down. Through Martin Hannett, Joy Division turned anxiety and anger into a carefully crafted elegy for doomed youth. Ian Curtis railed at his own weakness, Mark E. Smith raged against the futility of everything. Curtis cultivated his own outcast persona and couldn’t handle the loneliness, Smith curdled pariah status into an art form.

Joy Division produced only two studio albums – Unknown Pleasures and Closer – both are so tight, so stacked with musical and lyrical layers, so desperate and so crystalline in their beauty that they still speak with an impotent potency today and have been hugely influential on great chunks of Western popular music, post post punk.

The Fall have released over thirty studio albums and while, perhaps, three of them – Live at the Witch Trials, The Infotainment Scan and This Nation’s Saving Grace – may be described as classics, with others – Hex Enduction Hour, Bend Sinister bubbling under – and many more becoming contenders for single tracks or the individual impact they’ve had on listeners, it is perhaps the profligacy of their offerings that is as important as the quality.

I say ‘they’, but the Fall, was, of course, Mark E. Smith and anyone he was still talking to at the time. Just as he subverted song structure, melody, the entire notion of the pop song, so he deconstructed the ‘group’, taking apart the integrity of a team working to project a vision, and replacing it with the cult of the charismatic leader surrounded by disposable workers. The Fall was the private out-working of one man’s mind: his loves and hates, his paranoia and his prejudices, his thinking and his fantasies, his dolour and his humour.

Like the Biblical Fall, that bends humanity out of the star seeds of divinity into the muck of mortality, The Fall have always been the jawbone of an ass with which to strike the straw man of manufactured pop. Mark E. Smith has been an absolute necessity for the music scene. If he hadn’t have been the man he was, made the music he did, then popular culture would have been infinitely weaker, less valuable, less influential, less vital and varied. His influence was attitude as much as style. Do what you want, when you want, how you want. Create because that’s what you want to do, not because there is a deadline or a deal. Say what you want to say, be who you want to be, don’t compromise, don’t provide your own commentary – just put out there whatever you want and let it be.

The scabrous, scarifying, sound of The Fall was just too off-melody for many tastes. Perhaps it took Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine to give those complicated tunings and caustic multi-layerings the twist of uncommercially commercial ravage. Perhaps it was Jarboe or Diamanda Galas who had the strength to turn Smith’s rambling non-singing into utterly original, primal, dark beauty. Perhaps it was Michael Gira who best translated the whole essence of Smith into a sacred behemoth, a spiritual scouring, a rampant and vicious casting of the money lenders out of the Temple. Perhaps it was Billy Childish who, above all, took the Smithsonian work ethic to heart and has just done whatever he has wanted to do, whenever, with whoever, as often as possible and just thrown the results out into the open to see what sticks – ‘The day I beat my father up’ is almost classic Fall.

In a violent and disintegrating world the death of Mark E. Smith is not the biggest news. But his was a prophetic voice, in the sense that it stood outside of the mainstream and offered a cracked mirror back onto a society sweating under the tyranny of status and possession. We need artists of his energy, his single-mindedness, his bloody individuality, his tenacious work practice (if not his human resources skills), his fire and ire to keep the rest of us from arid complacency. Without them our arts, and perhaps even our society shuffles another swaying step closer to plastinated sterility.

Yes, Smith would have hated a piece of writing like this. But so be it – not everything went his way, and maybe the blessing and the curse of social media is that we can all be grumpy old men.

Recently Read 2017

Books 2017

Only 44 books read in 2017, which is a little disappointing. Partly this came from writing more, partly it was from listening to so much music (see book 44.), and partly it came from attempting to be gregarious and chatting to various folk on the bus in the morn. However, I still managed to work through a fair number, and had more to review professionally. Book of the year would be Thomas Dilworth’s David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet, which vividly introduced me to an artist of whom I was previously only dimly aware.

  1. Parrot and Oliver in America, Peter Carey, Faber, 9780571253326. Good start to the year. A rolling ride through the Frenech revolution and nascent American nationhood with a presumptuous French peer and a cantankerous English servant. Swelling with muck and shining with a multifarious cast of the pinched, the punched, the pretentious, the political, the put-upon, the proud, the pretty, the prodigal and the prodigious, this is a very long and highly readable road-trip tale that is fun and frank and frolicsome from start to finish.

2. Too Brave to Dream, R.S. Thomas, Bloodaxe Books, 9782780373072. Two classic art books by Herbert Read were found on the bookshelves of R.S. Thomas. Inside were three dozen previously unknown poems, each a direct response to a painting in the books. Published here are the poems with the reproductions of the paintings as Thomas saw them in Read’s original books. The juxtaposition of paintings and poems is revelatory. In themselves the verses are minor additions to the Thomas canon. Short, quirky, sometimes just the breath of an idea. But alongside the art works, both light up with fresh colour, depth and insight. This is a fascinating book and one that I am very glad to have found.

**** Too Brave to Dream set me a challenge for the year, and I sat down with an art book from my own shelves, about the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and took an artwork a month to write a poem about. You can find the rather mixed results elsewhere on this blog. ****

3. A Good Year, edited by Mark Oakley, SPCK, 9780281077038. Bishops and archbishops writing about the different seasons of the liturgical year. Hearing from some of the new bishops who are women – Libby Lane, Karen Gorham, Sarah Mullaly – and from some of the more established liturgical writers such as Rowan Williams, Stephen Cottrell and Stephen Conway, means that the mix is fresh and the insights tread a broad path. Justin Welby writes thoughtfully on Lent, Rowan Williams is excellent on Christmas and Sarah Mullaly drew me into a good Advent. But, but, but, there is no chapter on Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time, green time, makes up a good proportion of the year. The preconception is that this is the time when nothing happens. Yet that is so wrong. Ordinary Time includes the Transfiguration, the Assumption, Harvest, plus all those wonderful and inspirational (or weird) saints’ days, and if you include the red Sundays we tend to call the ‘Kingdom season’ then there is Christ the King, Bible Sunday, All Saints’ and All Souls’ as well. I’m sorry, but without Ordinary Time this is only half a book. Worse than that, ignoring Ordinary Time reinforces a false view of worship that God is only worth praising, seeking, serving in the high days of the year.  Badly done Canon Oakley, badly done.

4. The Way of Christ-Likeness, Michael Perham, Canterbury Press, 9781848259010. Sadly, it looks as if this will be Bishop Michael’s last book. Here is a thoughtful and helpful distillation of his deep liturgical knowledge covering the key seasons of the Christian year – Lent, Holy Week and Easter. There is much practical and spiritual information in here to help people, clergy and worship teams especially, create transformational liturgies. It wasn’t an eye-opener for me, rather a refresher, making me think again about the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of the worship I am used to creating and leading during this time, teasing out some of the important details and giving a fresh perspective on some of the most ancient of services. I particularly enjoyed his suggestions for how to make the most of the Great Fifty Days of Easter, the time I always feel gets the least attention, when the joy of the resurrection should be bubbling over in our worship and in our lives.

5. Singing God’s Psalms, Fred R. Anderson, Eerdmans, 9780802873217. When the going gets tough go back to the psalms. Wise words from a tutor to Fred R. Anderson who, after years in ministry, experienced the inevitable ‘dry’ patch when burnout beckoned. So he turned to the Psalms and, being a musician, gave himself the challenge of re-translating them in a metrical form that could be set to common hymn tunes. Great idea and the result is a collect of psalms to fit the Revised Common Lectionary. Sure Watts and Wesley and others have done this in the past, but these fresh versions have a more contemporary feel and work well as part of the liturgy. They are accompanied by a meditation on each psalm which is less of a reflection and more of a brief overview of the context for the verses. Great idea, which has many uses.

6. Craigie Aitchison: Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné, Andrew Lambirth, Louise Peck, Royal Academy of Arts, 9781907533471. Crucifixions and Bedlingtons, sometimes in the same luminous print, each with a simplicity of form, vibrancy of colour and studiedly artless balance that resonates with mystical profundity. There are hints of Indian colourists channelled through an afterglow of Howard Hodgkin. Interesting essay describing Aitchison’s print process and an illustrated catalogue that fair buzzes with energy, tenderness and spirit.

7. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Haruki Murakami, Vintage, 9780099488668. Satisfying my Murakami lust for a short while, this old collection of short stories doesn’t disappoint. Sure, a handful of the stories got worked up into novels, but much is fresh and startling. There is the usual mix of hyper realistic attention to detail and quirky, disturbing strangeness that twists and buckles reality. In the concentrated short story form Murakami asks tough questions about who, or what, we really are, what drives us and what makes existence tolerable or worthwhile.

8. Dirty Glory, Pete Grieg, Hodder, 9781473631700. An easy reading style with a tough message for any Christian who is wonted to separate prayer from action or prayer from the dirt of daily living. The jet-setting I found hard to take – how to destroy the planet singlehanded. But the power of prayer breaking out in ‘boiler rooms’ all around the world post 9/11 was compelling and challenging. Grieg’s trust in Christ is immense and the results impressive, but this is not a book about sitting on deserved laurels but a call to action.

9. Dancing Standing Still, Richard Rohr, Paulist Press, 9780809148677. Starting with Archimedes’ saying ‘give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world’, Rohr makes a passionate and persuasive case for prayer – deep, contemplative prayer that goes far beyond the ego of the individual – as an integral aspect of an engaged and active life that builds the Kingdom on earth. Rohr is hard-hitting about the failings of the Church to move people beyond their own ‘I’ to the one-ness with God that cuts away personal desire, fear, hatred and rules-based belief. A challenging read – much like ‘Dirty Glory’.

10. The Summer Book, Tove Jansson, Sort of Books, 9780954221713. I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy this, but I had heard good things about it and thought I’d give it a go. My feeling was that it was going to be like jazz – noodling all over the place and going nowhere, neither novel nor memoir, with no plot or focus. But I read it in almost one sitting and could see myself going back to it and meditating over short passages for long periods of time. The construction is painterly, with much attention to fine, impressionistic detail on a broadly sketched in canvas. A young girl with her silent father and her elderly grandmother spend their summers on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. The girl is exploring the world, emotion, relationships. The grandmother is winding down from life, memories, health. The father goes fishing and never speaks. He is a cipher, an archetype in the strong silent mould. It might be that he is not important. But he might also be the physical manifestation of the girl’s musings on God. Hers is the animating spirit of the piece. The grandmother is the prime creator, tired but caring for her world. The girl’s name is Sophie but it is the grandmother who imbued her with puckish wisdom. Gently stirring – quiet, understated and powerfully observed.

11. Hanging by a Thread Samuel Wells, Canterbury Press, 9781848259072. Short and sharp – 60 pages for £7.99. Is it worth it? Well, last year SCM published Walter Brueggemann’s equally short ‘Into Your Hand’ at the same price and was so struck by it that I shall read it again this Holy Week. Sam Wells book isn’t quite as forceful, until the last two chapters when he explores two films (both of which started as books) – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas. At this point his exploration of the questions of the Cross comes into stark and potent focus. I shall read the rest of the book in the light of these final chapters. Wells ends up underscoring that Emmanuel, God with us, is what Good Friday is all about. The Cross is not something God does for us but with us. As the title of Rowan Williams Holy Week focussed book for this year is God With Us I shall be interested to see how the two intertwine.

12. The Pattern of Our Calling, David Hoyle, SCM Press, 9780334054726. This is a well written theological book, carefully thought through, using language precisely, with clear explanations, a quiet lyricism, profound imagery, gentle humour and just enough authorial vulnerability to shift the book from the academic to the pastorally grounded. In essence this is a great overview of priestly ministry, exploring how it has changed and developed over the last two thousand years through the writings of key thinkers such as St Ireneaus, St Ignatius of Antioch, St Cyprian,  St Gregory of Nazianzus, St Gregory the Great, St John Chrysostrom, St Clement, St Ambrose, Richard Baxter, George Herbert, H.P. Liddon, John Keble, Charles Gore, Roland Allen, John Fisher, J.B. Lightfoot, Wesley Carr, Michael Ramsey, Robin Greenwood and John Pritchard. Yes, this isn’t a purely dispassionate text, it does have its own slant, which comes alive most tellingly when describing Michael Ramsey’s theology of priesthood. For Hoyle leadership is only one element of many in what it means to be an effective priest. Actually, I’m not sure he would be happy with the word ‘effective’ – too clinical for something which is so amorphous. You don’t have to be a leader to be a priest, but leadership might be what some communities require. Others will benefit more from a facilitator, a liminal guide into the mystery of faith and meeting with God. This is a vital book for anyone in ministry or contemplating the priesthood. I recommend it thoroughly and shall read it again.

13. The Things He Did, Stephen Cottrell, SPCK, 9780281076239. The last book in Cottrell’s Holy Week trilogy is actually the first, describing the events leading up to Good Friday. As ever the writing is gentle, introspective, looking in at the thoughts, actions, reactions of the disciples as well as exploring Jesus’s own understanding of the events unfolding around, to and through him. This doesn’t have the depth of insight, or the poetic imagination of The Things He Carried but it is still a book to ponder on as it opens out the multitude of vested interests, weaknesses, greed, intolerance, fear and misunderstanding that brought Christ to the Cross. The questions at the end of each short chapter bring the action back to us – what is our part in this story?

14. The Innocent Eye, Marion Whybrow, Sansom and Company, 9781900178969. An overview of primitive and naïve painters in Cornwall, especially Alfred Wallis, Bryan Pearce and Mary Jewels. Just noticed this book, which had been sitting on my shelves for ten years. Fascinating read about Wallis, the seaman who took to painting in retirement, using offcuts of cardboard and decorating paint to create a vast body of seascapes. And Pearce who was born with a genetic condition that caused phenylketonuria that impeded his brain development. He worked within his own parameters to produce a very distinctive and enigmatic oeuvre. His work, like Wallis’s is highly sought after. Mary Jewels doesn’t quite fit in with Wallis and Pearce. She was educated with a more middle class background and her work is neither naïve nor primitive, but it is individual, unconventional, finding her own depth and vision without recourse to art school disciplines.

15. God With Us, Rowan Williams, SPCK 9780281076642. If you are searching for a clear explanation of the meaning of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, both in history and today, then this book is a great starting point. ‘Clear’ does not mean simplistic, as ever there is great depth to Rowan Williams writing, but it is a pertinent overview of the various New Testament and historical theologies of both the Cross and Resurrection. However, it is at its most apposite and striking when discussing their value for us now. Worth reading for the last chapter alone, which became a major influence on my Easter morn sermon. The theme of God with us that Samuel Wells explores in Hanging By a Thread is amplified by Rowan Williams to make it clear that while God never abandons us and walks with us, God also works through us and the Cross is an integral part of who we are as Christians.

16. Stations of the Cross: Then and Now, Denis McBride, Redemptorist Publications, 9780852314722. A very powerful book, accessible but with potent spiritual and practical application. I like to find a book to mediate on during the Maundy Thursday Watch, and this was just perfect. A modern rendering of the traditional set of fourteen stations of the Cross is drawn alongside striking contemporary photographs, some which will be instantly recognisable, that depict the injustices, the crucifixions we put people through today. So, in no particular order, for the deposition we see a Turkish police officer cradling the limp body of three year-old Syrian-Kurdish boy, Alan Kurdi, drowned reaching a beach on Kos; for the moment when Christ is stripped bare the accompanying image is of emaciated naked men lining up for the gas chambers in Auschwitz; alongside Veronica wiping the face of the struggling, cross-bearing Christ is Saint (Mother) Teresa working with and for the poorest in Calcutta society. If you need to look again at the traditional devotion of Stations with prayerful contemporary resonance then I highly recommend this book.

17. Paul Nash, edited by Emma Chambers, Tate Gallery, 9781849764353. What an amazing artist Nash was – the Tate exhibition really hit the spot for me – I was bowled away by the breadth and spiritual depth of his work. This, the accompanying book, contains a crackling collection of essays that really do add much more to the exhibition, giving fresh colour and vigour to the work. I loved it.

18. Splash of Words, Mark Oakley, Canterbury Press, 97818482546888. Cracking work, Oakley – an immensely perceptive introduction to the intertwining of poetry and faith is followed up by a canny exploration of a marvellously varied collection of poems from a variety of cultures and faiths. Invigorating and exciting.

19. Volunteer Revolution, Bill Hybels, Zondervan, 9780310257110. Hmmm, I might be missing something here, but this was a slim volume stating the blinking obvious and then throwing in so many ‘here’s how we built a mega-church’ anecdotes that it becomes very difficult to translate any insights to much smaller communities with far fewer resources.

20. Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History, Janina Ramirez, SPCK, 9780281077373. Neat, sweet, erudite and pacy – this is a smart overview of the genesis and history of Mother Julian’s groundbreaking work on spiritual growth. Rather like the BBC TV programme it accompanies, this is a very useful layperson’s guide to one of the most important English texts.

21. Cuckoo: Cheating By Nature, Nick Davies, Bloomsbury, 9781408856581. You know the story – cuckoo’s song heralds spring, cuckoo’s behaviour offends all with parental inclinations, but here it is told with verve and plenty of fascinating scientific knowledge. Davies wears his learning lightly and tells the tale of his work, and others, in discovering the complexity of the cuckoo’s story with delightful joy and energy.

22. Cathedral, Raymond Carver, Vintage, 9780099530336. Do not read these carefully crafted short stories if you are feeling blue. These tales of small town American ennui are gritty and closely descriptive. They pull you into a stifling world of loss and losers that even the fuzzy ending of the last, the title story, can’t fully erase. Well written but sad.

23. Ragnarok, A.S. Byatt, Canongate, 9781847670649. Having already read Jeanette Winterson’s contribution to Canongate’s ‘Myths’ series asking well-known authors to retell famous mythic stories, I was keen to see what Byatt would do with the Norse tales of the end times. Her sinuous description is lushly evocative while also spiky, dark and threatening. Her dismissal of the Christian story as a pale player in the mythic pantheon is poorly argued from the most simpering version of Margaret Tarrant’s Jesus Christ from Somerset, but her celebration of the elemental potency of the Norse sagas is both and chilling and timely as today declarations that we have triggered the sixth great epoch of extinction abound.

24. David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet, Thomas Dilworth, Jonathan Cape, 9780224044608. The best book I have read this year (so far), an absolute gem and an eye-opener. Before reading this beautifully presented and wonderfully illustrated biography (who’s only faults are the shabby quality of the binding and the occasional sloppy proofing error) all I knew about David Jones was that he had spent some time working with Eric Gill and that Rowan Williams profoundly admired his work (using it to illustrate Tokens of Trust). I thought he was Welsh, but it seems his background was more complex than that – London Welsh might be more correct – yet he did have a deep affinity for Wales and its people. What I knew nothing about was his war service, surviving in the trenches right through the First War, or the power and influence of his poetry – Stravinsky, Eliot, Henry Moore, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney and many others were all in awe of his modernist verse. I remembered that he was a Roman Catholic, but I hadn’t picked up that he was an Anglican convert, nor that his faith influenced everything he did. It was a faith that he tested and probed and that provided a vital bedrock for his existence. The range and versatility of his work, as well its detail, delicacy and depth are outstanding and Dilworth’s descriptions of the quality and influence of his poetry have led me to it (review to follow). What makes this all the more remarkable is that Jones’s home life was pretty desperate throughout his post-war life. Constantly in poverty, with poor health, agoraphobic, suffering from what would now be diagnosed as PTSD, often in love with many of the lovely, intelligent women around him (especially the wives of his friends), yet never able to make love, he moved to and fro across London from one seedy lodging to another. There is a tangible sadness about his life, and the way that he is currently hardly remembered (a bit like Graham Sutherland) despite the quality of his work. Exploring his art and poetry opens up a wholly fresh aspect of modernism, one which is intimately bound up with the sacramental. Dilworth is a Jones expert, with many specialist books to his credit, who writes well, if occasionally a trifle archly. His passion for his subject is well-founded and communicates strongly from every page. If at times it feels like a one man crusade to champion Jones’s place amongst the first rank of British twentieth-century artists, poets and writers then, on the strength of the evidence he puts forth, I think he is fully justified.

25. Raptor: A Journey Through Birds, James Macdonald Lockhart, Fourth Estate, 9780007459896. This book has won several awards and rightly so. While on one level it is a descriptive trip around the UK in search of the fifteen birds of prey found here (excluding the wintering-only Rough Legged Buzzard) this is also about much more, including habitat and our changing relationship with the land. Woven throughout are snippets from the life of William MacGillivray, Scottish ninteteenth century naturalist, artist and inspiration for the famous chronicler of US bird life, James Audubon. Lockhart writes with an easy style, knowing his subject well, conveying his obsession with following the birds about with gentle humour, getting under the skin of MacGillivray and his youthful plant collecting walk from Aberdeen to London. There is a great deal going on in this book, and the birds don’t always stand clear – but that isn’t a bad thing. It is more that Lockhart shows how each species is integral to its environment and that exploring the nature of theses isles isn’t about tick boxes for fauna and flora spotted, being, more holistically, an understanding of the complex relationships and equations that make ecology sing.

26. Hopeful Imagination, Walter Brueggemann, Fortress Press, 0800619250. Published in 1986, but still absolutely relevant to today, this subtle, thoughtful, searching and stimulating exploration of exile and prophecy. Brueggemann outlines the exile of the Jewish people in 587 BCE, with the Temple burnt, Jerusalem destroyed, the Davidic throne broken, the best of the people taken into captivity and the remnant left with the scorched earth. He shows how Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Second Isaiah are prophets charged with a tough task – to convince people that God has not abandoned them, is working through the nations of Babylon and Persia to create a new relationship, a new Israel that will grow from the exiles, when they return, not the remnant who think of themselves as the faithful ones. Freedom, courage and imagination are required to break free of the past and understand that one comes next is new, different but no less of a true relationship with a faithful God. He demonstrates that the position of the church today, in a culture and society that is alien to the values of God as Israel regarded Babylon and Persia to be, also requires breaking free of old certainties and a mythical rosy past to die and rise again in a new relationship of hope.

27. Follow Me: Living the Sayings of Jesus, Ian Black, Sacristy Press, 9781910519448. This could become an excellent complementary resource for developing a life of discipleship. Many will be familiar with Black’s lyrical, perceptive collections of intercessions. This much shorter book presents eight chapters covering communion, service, love, forgiveness, possessions, prayer, sacrifice and mission. While there is nothing exceptional in what is said about each subject, Black nevertheless writes with a quietly elegant clarity that allows him to raise multiple points swiftly and precisely; and through contemporary illustrations that acknowledge the intricacy and untidiness of our daily lives, show how Jesus’ words and actions still have much to teach us. Chapters conclude with a tightly focused, expressive prayer and a series of discussion prompts comprising particularly incisive questions, very challenging for an individual to explore on their own, but perfect for group study. This material might even form the basis of a valuable sermon series, using the questions to stimulate whole-church discussion and incorporating the prayers into the liturgy.

28. A-Z of Discipleship, Matthew Porter, Authentic, 9781780784564. Twenty-six pithy chapters alphabetically arranged to introduce subjects such as ‘B is for Bible’, ‘K is for Kingdom’, ‘W is for Worship’ and so forth. Light on jargon but rich in anecdote, the intention is to provide a snapshot of foundational topics, with guidance in good practice for those wishing to grow their commitment to Christ. Every section closes with an action and pointers to prayer which firmly introduce the disciplines of daily Bible reading, prayer and spiritual reflection along with practical engagement in the work of the Church. Sometimes this approach, by its very brevity, can slide towards a paternal didacticism, which not everyone will appreciate, while simultaneously raising as many questions as answers. Drawing on writers ranging from Polycarp to Bill Johnson, however, Porter clearly moulds his material to serve as a taster for a deeper quest to be more fully explored with the guidance of a supportive Christian community.

29. World Without End, Thomas Keating, Bloomsbury, 9781472942487. In the midst of conversations with film-maker Lucette Verboven that make up this book, Cistercian monk and founder of the Centering Prayer movement, Thomas Keating, declares that ‘God is becoming everything at every nanosecond of time and wants us to join him in that adventure’. Now in his nineties, Keating’s health is unsteady, so Joseph Boyle, Abbot at their Colorado monastery, adds an extra voice to this short and spaciously laid-out series of interviews. The book will have slight value for anyone familiar with Keating’s core works such as Open Mind, Open Heart, but it provides a useful and lively introduction to his thinking, and especially to the concept, though not the detailed practice, of Centering Prayer. Wherever Verboven’s questions probe, Keating steers back towards the mystical revelation, drawn from Teilhard de Chardin, that Christ is present at every moment in every particle of creation; his is ‘a cosmic body that extends throughout the universe’. Such an approach produces a deep impact on our perception of discipleship: a practice of silent, open attentiveness to the intimate presence of God will shape a path of simplification in our personal lives, alongside action towards others that is receptive, peaceful and self-forgetful.

30. Secret Passion to Noble Fashion: The World of the Portrait Miniature, Ann Sumner & Richard Walker, Holbourne Museum of Art, 0951757431. Portrait Miniatures, especially British ones from the seventeenth to the late nineteenth century, are an absolutely fascinating art form which double up as unique snapshots of social life, fashion and sentimentality. This book is in effect the catalogue of a 1999 exhibition. The collection exhibited contained over one hundred miniatures from a private collection. The anonymous collector was obviously someone of wealth and discernment because this is a remarkable assemblage of absolutely top quality miniatures by some of the most highly renowned  artists. What is even more amazing is that the collector had his entire first collection stolen and had to start again from scratch. Portrait miniatures are pictures I have begun collecting in a very modest way and the insights given in the opening essays about the changing role of the miniature in society, the artists, the styles and the collection were riveting and informative. Quite a beautiful little book.

31. The Holbourne Museum, Scala Editions, 9781857596656. This book length museum guide contains a number of fascinating articles, not just about the genesis of the collection and the museum but also about the various constituent parts of the collection as they are laid out in the current building. I was most interested in the portrait miniatures, but the whole place is packed full of beautiful and elegant items which are photographed in great detail for the guide. The chapters describing the history of the collection and the way it has outgrown its buildings was enlightening. although I’m still not convinced by Eric Parry’s 2002 extension, but then I don’t think there is any architecture post 1950 that I like.

32. Maverick Mark, Bonnie Thurston, Liturgical Press, 9780814635520. Like Morna Hooker’s classic The Message of Mark’ this is a swift but hard-hitting ride through the shortest Gospel. The Mark that Thurston portrays, with much scholarship and conviction, is a person not willing to compromise, whose portrayal of Jesus and the disciples is of a leader and movement that requires total commitment, commitment at a level that far exceeds that given by the majority of Christian’s today. Discipleship is a way of living that impacts on every aspect of who you are and what you do. This is a quick read but with many profound implications for anyone wishing to be a follower of Christ today. Powerful and astute, I highly recommend it.

33. Loving Luther, Allison Pittman, Tyndale, 9781414390451. Having recently read an article in the Church Times about Katharina von Bora, the nun who became wife to Martin Luther, I was keen to find out more, so when I was given this novel at the Christian Resources Exhibition I quickly gave it a whirl. I suspect that I am not the target audience for this romp through a dark and bloody upheaval in European history, but I feel that it captures well the spirit of the times and especially the essence of the character of Katharina – a strong-willed and intelligent woman who had to work hard to find her true calling and the right outlet for her gifts. This is my one concession to the celebrations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation as it is a revolution I am, at best, ambivalent about. I’m more aligned with the Eamon Duffy view of the Reformation – that it threw out as much that was good in religion and society as it did the bad. The primacy of the ‘word’, which ushered in the Enlightenment, is something which I am deeply suspicious of (despite being a bookseller). As for Luther himself, I’ve always seen him as a baddie, but then I carry a quote of his in my Bible – ‘This is the glory of faith, simply not to know: not to know where you are going, not to know what you are doing, not to know what you must suffer… and captive to follow the naked voice of God. Faith goes forward, whatever the outlook.’ If the events recounted in this novel are correct then, in her bumpy ride through life, Katharina found out the truth of these words.

34. In Parenthesis, David Jones, Faber & Faber, 9780571315796. Some might find a 187 page poem appended by 25 pages of explanatory authorial notes rather too much to take, however, that would mean missing one of the great jewels of twentieth century poetry, an intensely powerful evocation of the stark mix of the visceral and the mundane, grinding routine punctuated by stabs of ultra-violence that made up trench life in the First World War. It was only through reading Thomas Dilworth’s biography of David Jones earlier in the year that I came across his poetry and I am so glad to have found it. At its best, Jones’s fine art – his engravings, paintings and drawings – convey a sense of liminality, of borderlands, of thin places where different realms seep through to the here and now. Without romanticising the soaking, brutal lot of the mass of ordinary foot soldiers he time and again draws in oblique allusions to the great legend cycles of the British Isles, alongside the eternally rolling routine of the Mass and Divine Office.

Jones was that foot soldier, serving the duration of the war, living through the cattle-like conditions and the casual sacrifice of so many for so little. It could be argued that the rest of his life was spent trying to deal with the trauma of war service, and in that he would not be alone among his generation. But where he is possibly unique is in his mind’s ability to make connections, to draw, from Malory and the Mabinogion, from the Crucifixion and the host raised in Thanksgiving, not pretty excuses for war, not a redeeming beauty of blood congealing in muddy pools, but deep sense of time torn, humanity slipping and sliding through a dangerous schism in reality, a brutal tearing apart of the very nature of personhood, community. Jones’s soldiers are Everymen, jittering across the duck boards and slithering through the borderlands of life and death, stillness and destruction, ennui and bloody engagement. He bends and shapes language into a stream of thought that has echoes of Joyce and Eliot while being also entirely his own, free floating through concepts, theology, legend but rooted, grounded squarely in the helplessness of the individual faced by national, political, hierarchical idiocy and muscle-flexing intransigence. This is wonderful writing, powerful and human, transcendent and corporeal, elegiac and elemental. A true classic.

35. (Re-read) Living on the Border Esther de Waal, Canterbury Press, 9781853119620. Of we go to liminal lands, the thin places where life and death, divine and human merge and emerge renewed, refreshed, changed. Normal rules don’t apply here – think of the wild Borderers, the tribes who place their priests on the edges of the community, wiggling line that demarcated Wales from England and where you were never quite a member of either place. Lovely book, deep and easy, open and porous, poetic and allusive.

36. The Wild Geese of the Newgrounds, Paul Walkden, Friends of WWT Slimbridge, 9780956107008. Here is a border land, the space where estuary meets land, water slides into mud, into grassland. The place where every autumn the wild geese gather and every spring they depart for other lands, their other homes, their breeding spaces. Geese whose numbers rise and fall with the direction of the winds, the warming of the environment, the availability of safe places elsewhere. Geese whose gaggles and flocks may always turn up a treasure – a rarity or an old-stager coming to rest one last time. In this short, factual account of Sir Peter Scott’s vision becoming reality of a wildfowl reserve coming reality on the banks of the Severn there is so much hope, so much inventiveness, so much human love for the otherness of life. It is a charming, if all too brief read, brought up from the prosaic by anecdote and Sir Peter’s own illustrations.

37. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J. K. Rowling, Bloomsbury Publishing, 9780747546290. The only one in the series I hadn’t read. It is good – short and tightly plotted, clear and with a gripping, twisting story that moves the over-arching tale along very nicely.

38. Miniatures in the Wallace Collection, Stephen Duffy and Christoph Martin Vogtherr, The Wallace Collection, 9780900785832. Gorgeously illustrated with a mass of information about a truly stunning collection, here are miniatures on snuff boxes, on pendants, in lockets, depicting whole families, copied from great masters, copied from each other, miniature landscapes, miniatures as erotic art. More, please.

39. The Gilbert Collection: Portrait Miniatures in Enamel, Sara Coffin and Bodo Hoffstetter, Philip Wilson Publishers, 9780856675331. Here they are, more portrait miniatures, but this time almost all in enamel, which gives stronger colours and images less affected by the light than watercolour on ivory or paper. So, these are jewels that glisten and glow, tiny entry points into over worlds, lives, marital transactions and mourning. Some amazingly over-the-top frames and mounts, but none can detract from the star quality of the images they contain.

40. Custard, Culverts and Cake Ed Cara Courage and Nicola Headlam, Emerald Publishing, 9781787432864. The ‘dum-de-dum’ beat of ‘Barwick Green’ – theme tune to Radio 4’s The Archers – was my womb music, my mother being an inveterate listener. As a Birmingham boy, the fictional county of Borsetshire seemed to me both beguilingly local and bewilderingly other. Now, as a rural parish priest, I still discover Ambridge resonances in village life which, if the latest Archers’ scholarship is anything to go by, might possibly be creatively interpreted in the light of faith and ministry.

The programme has numerous well-organised, vocal followers, who are internet savvy and not shy to voice their opinions on the show. There are dozens of fan sites, especially on Facebook, and, yes, I am a member of many of them. Now established as an interdisciplinary ‘scholarly wing’ of avid listeners, the ‘Academic Archers’ connects researchers and subjects in surprising ways. The group explores a virtually inexhaustible supply of germane issues from a academic perspective by taking Ambridge as a paradigm for contemporary village life. From the negative aspects of competing at flower and produce shows to the absence of primary education in the programme; from cake consumption and the health of village residents to Ambridge’s response to the catastrophic floods of 2015; and from kinship networks to coercive control and prison diet, this intriguing collection of the most recent conference papers, presented in Custard, Culverts and Cake, captures both the inventiveness of current debates and their relevance to the ever-shifting pattern of twenty-first century rural life.

True, Ambridge is (allegedly) a fictional, dramatic setting; but in the breadth of the analysis contained in the twenty-four papers presented here, the Academic Archers successfully illuminate some of the complexities of communities where many of us minister. In ‘God in Ambridge’, rather than addressing the pressing issues of how small village churches and multi-parish benefices can maximise their missional resources, Jonathan Hustler uses The Archers as a valid field for testing practical theology in a rural context. With reference to specific situations, such as replacing a herd to provide milk in lower quantity but higher quality, or abandoning intensive, chemical-dependent soil fertilisation in favour of herbal leys and no-till agriculture, he raises wider questions about our relationship with God and creation.

However, it is the long-running, convoluted and, at times, unbearably painful storyline concerning Rob Titchener’s abusive control of his wife, Helen, that focuses much abstract observation down into the mess of daily life. When vicar, Alan Franks, tries to minister to the disgraced and wounded Rob he finds it impossible to reach this self-proclaimed outsider. Alan’s struggles to deal with the restrictions Rob’s intransigence seems to place upon what he believes to be God’s limitless grace were played out on prime-time radio, tackling faith matters over several episodes in a way that most soaps would eschew. Perhaps this is why, as this book reminds us, The Archers may still have value as a tool for theological and pastoral reflection.

41. Flying Under Bridges, Sandi Toksvig, Sphere Publishing, 9780751531336. This wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. I was hoping for a witty biography, but it is actually a sharply perceptive murder un-mystery. Characters are mainly female and some contain elements that you might expect have been drawn directly from Toksvig’s own experience, but they are drawn with clarity and complexity, bringing to life a story of middle age ennui and unravelling that leads to a modicum of self-knowledge and confidence, even in the midst of incarceration at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

42. Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami, Harvill Secker, 9781911215370. Another satisfyingly unnerving set of short stories that dip back and forth through borderlands of mind and place, creating characters who are viscerally ethereal and shimmering with reality. As ever with Murakami nothing is quite as it should be, everyone and everything teeters on the brink, slipping over the edges of normality and sliding back into clockwork regularity.

43. Charcoal Joe, Walter Mosley, Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 9781474604512. An Easy Rawlins novel, full of hard characters living hard lives, a twisty plot, familial jeopardy, beautiful women, ugly killers, plenty of greed, ingrained racism and tough morality. Great to meet again some familiar folk who bring a smoking, crackling, sensual energy to a violent, brutish world.

44. 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, Ed Robert Dimery, Cassell Ilustrated, 9781844038909. And I did. Listened to the whole 1001, read the reviews explaining why these albums had been chosen and obviously disagreed with much of the selection. Yes, even though they had tried for inclusivity, it still felt as if there was a white, male, rock bias. Yes, the 1950 starting point meant the best of the blues were left out. Yes, the majority of albums which I didn’t already know I probably won’t play again. Yes, some of my heroes got short shrift, especially Michael Gira. But I learnt much (although listening/reading at this pace I might not have retained much), I found some new favourites, I joined some of the dots in my popular music education and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge the book presented.

December Poem

Chagall Le viellard et le chevreau v2

The Old Man and the Goat

Bottle-green was his coat but
the bottle was empty –
no milk of sweetness or human kindness,
no divine munificence,
maybe no divinity to be found
at the bottom, the middle, the uncapped top
of his life-sized bottle.

A goat and an old man alone in the stained snow.
Atonement frozen in the act of release,
sins dis-remembered,
family dismembered, a pogrom, a feud,
a cutting off or a cutting out.

No sheep in this scene, just a goat,
squatting in sinistral space,
a sign of things to come:
landmarks shorn of significance by snow fall,
an old man emptied of all identification,
sliding into winter dormition.

Today, nursing homes are chilled by blizzards
of those same bottle-empty stares,
when families do not visit
and the single chair, in the cubic room,
stripped bare of all personality,
becomes the last stop on the road
for a thousand old men,
bereft even of a goat for warmth and stimulus.
Frozen faces, frozen fingers, frozen memories,
lying down in submission, awaiting total whiteout.

Le vieillard et le chevreau/The Old Man and the Goat
Marc Chagall, 1930

 

November Poem

'Cap de pagès català

Head of a Catalan Peasant

Blue washed, bird crossed sky,
fills the space we call a face,
soaks up the heavens,
and saturates fields strewn with pimpernels.

Barretina bags the crown position –
diminutively demonstrating the dominant identity –
while a line takes an eye out to stalk the cerulean field
which may be iris deep in dreams
or the hint of a blink
from a pagesos bored
with the questing corvid scratches
of pen, ink, brush and pigment.

Tête de paysan catalan/ Head of a Catalan Peasant
Joan Miro, 1925