Too little read, but some marvellous volumes in the mix. The most satisfying were both published by Thames & Hudson: Frances Spalding’s ‘The Real and the Romantic’ and Christopher Neve’s ‘Unquiet Landscape’. There was significant overlap in each – Spalding writing about British art between the wars, Neve focussed on British artistic responses to the landscape – and both were beautifully written, expecting the reader to do so work, but providing much fresh insights interestingly revealed.
The two books by Richard Coles couldn’t have been more different. His exploration of grief, following the death of his partner offers valuable, very personal, insights and could be beneficial reading for many. His clerical detective fiction novel was hampered by a light plot and writing that was either not trying at all or trying too hard.
It was wonderful to read again a clutch of novels by both Alan Garner and Chaim Potok. Both deal with mystery, the other, place and community and both are written with surety and intelligence. It feels as if their work has been wrung out of them, but they have different ways of expressing the intimacy of their work – Garner’s prose is lean, every word pared to necessity, while Potok is expansive, working in circles that draw and ever more detailed web of divine and human connections.
Below is the full list with reviews – some extensive, some very brief.
1. The Tyseley Story, Michael Whitehouse, Lightmoor Press, 9781899889924. Being born and brought up in Hall Green, Birmingham, Tyseley was only three stops away on the local line into the city centre. Dad, being a lifelong railway enthusiast and childhood train spotter (although from LNER served haunts), regularly took me to Tyseley’s Birmingham Railway Museum open days back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While dad loved any steam locomotives he was always keen to impress upon me the pre-eminence of Gresley’s engineering. However, Tyseley locomotive shed revealed the Brunswick Green (or BR equivalent) copper-capped elegance of GWR tapered boilers and I was hooked. I never knew the GWR in its pre-Nationalisation glory, or even steam in BR days, but those were the locomotives, that was the railway company that caught my imagination. Then, years later, when I learnt about the broad gauge and the beauty of Brunel’s (Gooch’s, Dean’s) single driving wheel expresses I was totally smitten.
Strong memories remain of those early open days. A mass of men in gaberdine overcoats, suits and ties, carrying 35mm cameras on leather straps. The ground crunching with black coal, or clinker. The smell of oil mixed with steam. Stands selling railwayana with steam organs, fairground rides and traction engines at every turn. Men proudly oiling 5” gauge models, and me riding on open coaches on elevated circuits of track. And, of course, the locomotives. Prints of Clun Castle and Kolaphur graced my walls for years. I remember seeing Bishop Eric Treacey on the footplate of the Black Five locomotive named after him. If an Anglican bishop was endorsing this love of steam then I, as a devout altar boy, had the perfect excuse to be faithful to two religions. Then there was the day Sir Nigel Gresley (or was it Mallard?) was scheduled to run past at speed on the mainline and we, along with a great cloud of like-minded witnesses high-tailed it down to the locomotive works to try, with small cameras and no zoom lenses, to capture this streak of blue wonder. It was mysterious, magical and arcane – rather like Mass at our inner city Anglo-Catholic Church, where I, as boat boy, was gradually working my way up to becoming head thurifer, much as an engine shed cleaner would progress to fireman and eventually locomotive driver.
So, this book, detailing well those early days of the Tyseley preserved steam organisation, is firstly a trip of pure nostalgia. A relic of childhood. Having only recently laid my father’s ashes to rest in the cemetery just down the road from Tyseley I scanned the book’s photos with half an eye trying to catch sight of him, or even pre-school me, in the crowds. However, there is much more interest in The Tyseley Story than that. Yes, I do have a few grumbles. As someone who was fascinated by the work going on to restore Albert Hall (and who still has the 1970s Hornby loco model) but knew nothing of its transformation into an earlier incarnation, Rood Ashton Hall, until an open day visit in 2013, I would have loved to have heard more about how this original identity was discovered and the decision made to change the name. There are also a few production issues. While much of the prose is of a reasonable standard, because there are different contributors, with some articles taken from other publications, there is considerable overlap. The selection of photos is excellent (I keep going back to them); however the captions are disappointing, being simply repetitions from the main body text, often appearing side-by-side. A thorough copy-edit should have cleaned out these issues and also dealt with the page where words and letters decided to play musical chairs.
These caveats aside – and after thirty years as a bookseller I’m bound to have certain standards – this is a thoroughly informative and enjoyable read. Its strengths, apart from the photographs, centre around the insight it provides into the formation and culture of the preserved railway scene. There have been some huge battles and hurdles for our heritage railway lines and centres to overcome to get started, survive and flourish. I see many similarities with rural churches – with the general society losing touch with the past that these institutions evoke, with aging volunteers, the loss of key workers with key skills, the sense that they are keepers of ancient mysteries, with fresh environmental, financial and pandemic induced pressures. Whitehouse is, however, clear, that (just like our church communities) for railway heritage organisations to survive they must catch a forward-facing vision, one which embraces change, which, in Church terms, seeks to tell the Gospel story for a new generation. You get the feeling that his association – Vintage Trains – and Tyseley Locomotive Works are among the forefront of the organisations that will see steam railways remaining an important, visible and experienceable part of British culture right through the twenty-first century.
2. ‘The Stone Book Quartet’, Alan Garner, Collins, 9780001842892. Four short novels, first published in the 1970s, gathered into one volume that offer pinhole camera-like images of the generations of one family from the mid nineteenth century to the Second World War. Set in the Northwest of England the minutiae of rural life is seen through the eyes of four children on the cusp – of revelation, of adulthood, of purpose, of momentous world change rippling out into the little pools of their patch. We begin with a stone mason, who builds the walls of the parish, both domestic and agricultural – the boundaries that keep us safe and keep us out – as well as the vital architecture of the village – church at one end, chapel at the other. One child rebels from the family trade to become a smith because, as he discerns, at the back of every mason is a smith – the one who makes the tools the mason requires to do his work. At the quartet’s conclusion the last smith damps down the forge fire and locks the door forever. The Second World War is roaring overhead, the speed of change has accelerated, mechanisation has rendered his role redundant. But how will his grandson, who he gifts the key to the forge, find his own way in an increasingly uncertain, urbanised and pressurised world?
These early novels stand in a direct line with ‘Treacle Walker’ and other works of Garner’s late maturity. They display his signature clarity, economy of line, playful use of language, the rolling of dialect, of children’s private speech, their knowingness and their innocence, of old skills and tools that grounded a person in their place, connected them to the land on which they dwelt, the earth that gives and takes away. What’s missing, although there is a sense that it is just around the corner, is the magic naturalism of much of his later writing, the bringing alive of the myths and legends of the land, the genii loci that weave humanity into one fabric with the rest of creation. That extra layer of mythical interconnectedness is wonderful – disconcerting, but wonderful – yet the four novels of ‘The Stone Book Quartet’ prove that even without it Alan Garner is a most unnervingly beautiful, earthed and vital writer.
3. ‘English Grounds’, Andrew Rumsey, SCM Press, 9780334061144. This is a book that plays to my own interests, especially being grounded in place, in parish. As the Bishop of Ramsbury travels around the Salisbury Diocese he observes and muses, often with considerable erudition and evocative, well-placed language. History, pre-history, social, political, natural history all mix in to explore the values that shift or bind society, the units of organisation that are best placed to fulfil the remit of justice, compassion, care, a flourishing future for all. Nature intrudes, or makes its lasting presence felt and mystery edges over the plains. The land – with its own rhythms of centuries, millennia, rises into view time and again as earthing of the essential us. Rural parishes, rural villages are understood as the patient backbone of the Church of England – taken for granted, ignored, mistreated, patronised because they don’t have the flash or the cash of their suburban neighbours, yet without them the whole structure would collapse.
Mixing his wide scope of knowledge and interests together Andrew Rumsey has produced another thoughtful, challenging, book that unpicks and restitches the patchwork of parishes that criss-cross this country, reminding us of the myriad threads intertwined within and between each one to form the cloth, sometimes gaudy, sometimes rustic, sometimes more frayed than functional, that makes up our state Church.
There are some lovely turns of phrase, powerful images, pushing insights, moments where boundaries are reformed or broken. What Arran would make of being included in book titled ‘English Grounds’ I don’t know, and it is a shame that this book has been published by the academic SCM Press, rather than Canterbury Press as a paperback format with a lower cover price which would have opened it out for many more folk to enjoy.
4. ‘On a Glass Lightly’, Simon Whistler, Libanus Press, 9780948921619. Laurence Whistler, brother of the more famous Rex and father of Simon, almost single-handedly rescued the art of glass engraving in Britain. Simon was taught by his father from childhood, and in this book admits to never really feeling as if he was out of his shadow. Laurence died in 2000, and Simon in 2005, of motor neurone disease. Sadly, the art that they revived has few proponents in the UK today and there are no full-time courses teaching it. Which is a shame, because at its best glass engraving is possibly the most liminal of all the fine arts. It simultaneously holds your eye and transports you through into another dimension, space, world.
Simon, who talks of making his living through ‘scratching’ was not just an artist but also a talented professional musician, working for thirty years as a violinist in ensembles such as the English Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Eventually, the call of the glass proved stronger and from the mid-nineties until his death he devoted himself to the art.
Much of this information you can glean from the memoir part of this book, which is both honest and partial. There is much that he doesn’t say about his life, or about what really drew him to keep going with the engraving. As for the work itself, the photography in the book is excellent, but it can never do the pieces justice. You really do have to see them in situ. Many of the smal er pieces – bowls, goblets, dishes and decanters – are in private collections, so not easily viewable, however in his later years Simon focussed more on church commissions. This was something his father (with his help) had done most memorably at the ‘glass church’ of St Nicholas, Moreton, Dorset.
It is hard to describe the work, you really do need to see it. But it is exquisitely beautiful. The bowls and goblets especially make full use of the shape of the vessel and the ability to engrave all round on inside and out to create landscapes that truly transport the eye. Simon Whistler was a wonderful draughtsman with a great love of landscape and architecture who could (painstakingly, one stipple at a time) conjure worlds out of light.
Back in 1993, when we still lived in Salisbury, there was an exhibition of the work of father and son in the city museum, in the Close a few doors along from brother/uncle Rex’s former house. We visited it and were transported by the pieces – although we already knew of Laurence’s work from the examples in the Cathedral. We also heard Simon talking about his work. This must have been just before he went full time. Everything we saw was enchanting on many levels – partly because of its luminosity, partly the virtuosity of technique, but also because there was something deeply spiritual, in the manner of George Herbert, about almost every vessel and window.
5. ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’, Alan Garner, HarperCollins, 9780006742937. First published in 1960, this is the title that opens the Weirdstone trilogy and I believe I have read it before, but not for nearly 50 years. So, maybe that’s why I can’t remember anything about it, just a vague unsettling feeling that there is something nasty lurking in the woodpile. This is a children’s book, but it is Alan Garner, so it possibly isn’t. The old gods of Britain are rising all along Alderley Edge, and two children, booted northwards from their soft southern family life, are caught up in the swirling midst of magic and mayhem. The Edge is pivotal as the balance between good and evil teeters, the land clagging and releasing, breathing its own presence into the bones of the tale. Brutal violence breaks the boundaries keeping the old ways and humanity from meeting, but this isn’t horror, or a thriller, nor could it be easily passed off as British magic realism. Yet there is a hint of that, of the world of myth, of glamour, always writhing round at the edges of daily experience. A gripping, satisfying and discomforting read the more I think about it the more I can see it raises about borderlands, ancient tracks and otherness.
6. ‘The Filthy Quiet’, Kate Noakes, Parthian, 9781912681020.
7. ‘Cape Town’, Kate Noakes, Eyewear Publishing, 9781908998026. Kate Noakes poetry is witty, intense, personal and caught me in the raw several times. ‘The Filthy Quiet’ unpicks a relationship, a tense, brutal unstitching of a life, skimmed with love and soaked in bitterness, but it ends with resurrection, a new love and a sensual, soaring hope. ‘Cape Town’ takes a trip across South Africa zoning down onto tiny details and scoping outwards to encompass land and skyscape. Both collections twist and glow with versatility and vibrancy.
8. ‘The Moon of Gomrath’, Alan Garner, HarperCollins, 9780007127870. Re-reading Alan Garner is a very rewarding experience. Writing of rare quality with no padding and no words out of place.
9. ‘Take this Bread’, Sara Miles, Canterbury Press, 9781848252141. Re-read to create a Lent Course for my new parishes, I found Sara Miles energy, vision and passion as fresh as ever. As she rises to the opportunities of faith and foodbanks she offers a profound and vivid challenge to traditional concepts of Church.
10. ‘Tales of a Country Parish’, Colin Heber-Percy, Short Books, 9781780724973. The Archbishop of York, when discussing the Lord’s Prayer, has distinguished between ‘living in’ and ‘living on’ the earth. ‘Living on’ might imply walking over, trampling, while ‘living in’ has connotations of rooted connection with neighbourhood and landscape. In Tales of a Country Parish Colin Heber-Percy emerges unequivocally as ‘living in’ a corner of the Savernake Forest, his longstanding home and, more recently, his place of ministry. As an accomplished screenwriter who teaches philosophy and metaphysics, he is also comfortable ‘living in’ the worlds of words, images and ideas which infuse his writing with vigour and variety, allowing his parish-centred view to speak to wider horizons.
For many clergy the enforced closure of our churches during the pandemic’s initial phases prompted urgent reappraisal of how we continued ministering, making a virtue out of distance in our contact with parishioners and in the new forms of worship we were busily devising. Colin Heber-Percy saw as vital the maintenance of existing, and the making of fresh, connections with the souls in his care. A daily reflective email became his way of keeping in touch, sharing the pain, confusion and fear of lockdown while offering spiritual support, sustenance and challenge.
This book, described by the author as both ‘a record of a remarkable year’ and ‘a hymn to a holy land’, is the result, split into four sections covering each season. In spending time that sharpened his sense of the sacred discernible in home and hillside, he created relationships that rippled out from his parishes around the world, providing solace to folk quarantined in hotels in Thailand, snowed in above the Norwegian line of the Arctic circle, or recovering from Covid in intensive care. By laying bare his own negotiations through the tangled wires sent sparking by the pandemic, he provided if not a template then a rough worksheet others might use for recalibration and restoration.
The collection encapsulates something of the disconnection and disruption many felt during this year while offering a personal perspective through the lens of the author’s individual specialisms. Initially, the story of his wife’s slow recovery from Covid earths his reflections in the quavering uncertainty we shared globally. A supporting cast of recurring characters, including an adopted stray cat and his unreliable, time-worn Seat Ibiza, provide continuity, alongside a voluminous portmanteau of philosophers and theologians whose insights gently weave a spiritual focus into meetings with potholes, petrol stations and standing stones. Pieces of music chosen to enrich each reflection are suggested at the end of each seasonal section, providing a track-list that chimes remarkably closely with my own lockdown listening. This adds an extra immersive layer to a book which shines with a sense of exploration and generosity towards others, of drawing sustenance from myriad sources while remaining firmly in touch with chalk-encrusted feet searching lost downland tracks. The spirit of Wormingford flows through Colin Heber-Percy’s writing. Long may ‘living in’ be the vocation of all parish priests; indeed, of all who share belief in the incarnation.
11. ‘Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists’, Pallant House Gallery, 9781869827755. Beautifully illustrated, with an introduction by David Attenborough (written many years ago) and an essay by Virginia Woolf, this is not quite the book I was hoping for. In essence it is the guide to a Pallant House exhibition of modern and contemporary artistic responses to the enduring writing of ‘The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne’. The artworks are great – you’ll know many of the names: John Nash, Eric Ravilious, Gertrude Hermes, Claire Oldham, Agnes Miller Parker – and it ties in well with the exhibitions we recently saw at Salisbury Museum, one on twentieth century British wood engravers, the other on Howard Phipps. However, the book quickly peters out, leaving pages of striking, gorgeous contemporary illustrations with only the tail smoke of commentary. It is a shame, I was looking for a meaty dissection of how and why White’s relationship with his patch of countryside and his close, questioning observation of fauna and flora resonates so effectively and so creatively with artists down the centuries.
12. ‘Tattoo on Crow Street’, Kate Noakes, Parthian, 9781910409992.
13. ‘Paris, Stage Left’, Kate Noakes, Eyewear Publishing, 9781911335429. Tattoos are not something I understand, they always seem to be the bruising of fruit, a voluntary descent into brokenness, a clouding of purity, a cock-and-balls scribbled over the page of a prayer book. No matter how shapely, intriguing, cryptic they try to be, they always offend. So ‘Tattoo on Crow Street’, a collection of poems about tattoos spied and drawn off the skin onto paper, is a challenge. But they bloom in Kate Noakes poems, inking in some details, real or imagined, of lives intersecting with hers – whether in a queue or a bar, at the hairdresser’s or on the street corner. ‘Paris, Stage Left’ breathes with personhood of the city as Kate Noakes grows into the veins of its streets and begins to make it her home. Playful, sensual, sometimes steel sharp, these are the chronicles of relationship, where the men she meets always seem to be either ciphers for, or subsumed by the twisting, rain-soaked, wine-cloaked personality of Paris. Both books glistered with a joyous immersion into life in all its variety, sometimes unpicking my eyes to the glitter I tend to dismiss as grit.
14. ‘How Village Churches Thrive’, Robert Atwell (Ed), Church House Publishing, 9781781402191. Hugh Dennis’s carefully constructed foreword to How Village Churches Thrive highlights a major conundrum for rural parishes when he describes evident affection for his local village church without once mentioning allegiance to the Christian faith. Similarly, although conversations on the streets of our benefice often include the question ‘How is the church doing?’, they seldom translate into regular engagement with our work and worship. Clearly, support for church buildings as a key component of what defines ‘a village’ persists, particularly among older residents, while the Church is still cautiously perceived as an institution with a positive impact on community life.
Simon Jenkins, who starkly described the Church of England as ‘the museum of the country’, also stated that in church he experiences only ‘the memory of faith present in an old building’. How Village Churches Thrive offers a practical guide to build on the positives of the former statement, exploring how rural churches can assist neighbourhoods to discover what it has meant, does mean and will mean to be living, connected communities. Simultaneously, through gentle probing and widespread examples of good practice, the book provides a fruitful response to the negativity of Sir Simon’s latter remark.
In ten short chapters, written by a variety of authors with a range of experience, Anglican and ecumenical, it covers ten significant areas – including extending a warm welcome, caring for God’s acre, cultivating festivals, reaching the isolated and communicating effectively. Each chapter begins by flagging up three key learning objectives and provides a brief overview of the subject, a selection of case studies and a collection of ‘Great Resources’ giving further depth and inspiration.
More detailed attention on how increasingly large multi-parish benefices might interconnect and develop as the Body of Christ, with each parish contributing skills, resources and experiences to a growing whole, would be extremely useful. However, this project is a starting point, not a fully formed roadmap for a rural renaissance, and it does a commendable job in offering both space and stimulation for individual parishes, or benefices, to envision imaginative strategies applicable to their own situations.
Having suggested to our benefice wardens and readers that this is an ideal book to work through with a PCC or whole church community, I have received an enthusiastic response and am hopeful that this timely volume will give encouragement and inspiration to many involved with growing vibrant, Gospel-centred communities in rural settings.
15. ‘The Real and the Romantic: English Art Between Two World Wars’, Frances Spalding, Thames & Hudson, 9780500518649. This is a corker. Spalding’s writing style is clear, well-structured and full of authority, easily conveyed. The conceit of dividing between Wars English art into the ‘real’ and the ‘romantic’ works. It gives Spalding space to go beyond realism and romanticism, to crossover modernism, surrealism and developments in more traditional genres and to introduce a coterie of artists – often women – not usually discussed. Strangely, for such a beautifully written book, it ends abruptly, with no real conclusion, but maybe that’s a positive as it is not really pushing a thesis, rather illuminating the range and versatility of art in a particular time frame. I will read this again – it is very readable – as it offers so much insight into painters I thought I knew, and opened my eyes to ones I had not met before.
16. ‘The Exhibitionist’, Charlotte Mendelson, Pan Macmillan, 9781529052749. Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022. A truly terrible read. Not that it was badly written, simply because the characters were all so unlikable. This was meant to be relaxing holiday reading. It wound me up totally. The premise was that a married couple of artists have conflict over each other’s work – the husband always insisting that his career takes precedence, but the wife being the truly talented one. A good starting point, and probably reflecting a near universal tension in artistic relationships. However, husband Ray was so unredeemably horrible, with no saving graces whatsoever, that it nullified any attempt at complexity or character growth. A boorish, neurotic, manipulator, utterly self-obsessed, believing everything revolves around him, he was so vile, so extreme, that any of us who exhibit any degree of such tendencies would fail to see ourselves in such an overdrawn caricature. If his wife, Lucia, was such a good artist – she gets offered the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and is inclined to turn it down so as not to hurt her husband’s feelings – then why didn’t she stand up to him? You don’t get such prestigious commissions if you aren’t driven. Eldest daughter, Leah, does everything her father wishes – she is nothing without him. Younger daughter, Jess, has done the sensible thing and moved far away, but fallen in with an older man who just wants to ape her father’s ‘manliness’. Brother (by a different father), Patrick, is a ghost of a character, slipping through the story like a mist, a damp cipher of unhappiness. And while it is usually interesting seeing how writers handle the visual arts, in this case it is done by pretty much ignoring the art. I’m glad this was a library book – I’ll return it to the ‘Horror’ section.
17. ‘Full Steam Ahead, Felix’, Kate Moore, Penguin, 9781405942304. Felix is Senior Pest Controller at Huddersfield Station on the Trans Pennine Express. She is also a cat with her own Facebook page and an international host of followers. This is the second part of her story, telling more about her relationships with work colleagues and customers, her fame, her lack of success on the pigeon hunting front and how she adapts to being a line manager, responsible for the training for the Junior Pest Controller, kitten Bolt. It isn’t the best of written books – a hard copy edit could have livened up the prose and eliminated some of the more leaden phrasing – but it is an endearing, enjoyable and at times poignant read.
18. ‘Unquiet Landscape’, Christopher Neve, Thames and Hudson, 9780500295472. Landscape, as seen through the eyes of some of my favourite artists – the Nash brothers, Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious, David Jones, Ivon Hitchens, Stanley Spencer. But also many I wouldn’t have put in this context – Joan Eardley, Walter Sickert, Edward Burra, L.S Lowry – and several I knew little about. The writing is intense and vivid, with more than a touch of J.A. Baker, about it. It is so keenly and colourfully observed that sentences drip with meaning and ooze with mystery. There is no attempt to skewer the intangible, rather an elliptical probing of fecund territory and hazy horizons. Christopher Neve speaks from first hand contact with many of the artists and their contemporaries, and from his own work as a painter. His awareness of the limitations of words to describe art and the artistic process helps make this a more satisfying read, one which opens new vistas and allows questions, like colours, to pulse.
19. ‘Coal Black Mornings’, Brett Anderson, Abacus, 9781408710487. When Brit Pop was ascendant in the 1990s I was looking/listening in other directions, moving from No Wave and the Sub Pop label to the genres I was selling as manager of a large Classical Music CD department in a major Southampton bookshop. Oasis, Blur, Pulp and Suede completely passed me by, so while Brett Anderson’s was a name I recognised, his music was not. However, this is a fascinating, quietly written book that charts Anderson’s early life and his development as a song-writer and band member, finishing just at the point when Suede began to get noticed. As such, it details his formation and influences, providing useful material for anyone wishing to dissect his lyrics. He and I would have been living in London at around the same time, although moving in very different circles, and his descriptions of the sights and smells of the less glamourous parts of Greater London ring true. Thoughtful, generous and unmelodramatic, this is a lively, gentle introduction to an interesting life, which got me listening to the first album and, to be honest, I definitely prefer Anderson’s prose to his music.
20. Recently re-read: ‘Elidor’, Alan Garner, Harper Collins, 9780007274789. A bout of covid has given space for some reading, but whether it was wise to attack the ‘low fantasy’ or magic realism of Alan Garner at this time is a moot point. The post war Manchester world of the Watson children is, today, almost as alien and fantastical as the mythic land of Elidor that they find themselves in. However, Garner always finds a way of grounding even the most ‘other’ of his creations in mud-spattered reality, allowing the numinous to shine in the puddles reflecting the sodium glare of a city still teetering in the after effects of war.
21. Recently re-read: ‘The Owl Service’, Alan Garner, Harper Collins, 9780007127894. There is a distinct gear-change in the suspense, the tightness of the plotting and the evocation of the landscape between this book and Garner’s previous novels. There is more lurking menace and more personal tension than before, a greater feeling of outsiders being disrupted by their surroundings and a feeling of inevitability, that increases the eternal sense of jeopardy. Perhaps it is the silvern magic of the Mabinogion that grounds the story of trapped lives playing out an eternal ritual of death and life, or perhaps it is the close-sided landscape that Garner depicts with such precision, that folds over us as we read and draws us into a world and a language that continuously shivers on the edge of the numinous.
22. ‘The Reader’, Bernhard Schlink, Phoenix, 9780753823293. I came to this book without having seen the film version, but was roughly aware of the story. Still, the opening was surprising, swiftly diving into the passionate – on one side, at least – relationship that makes this novel. Essentially a two-hander, seen almost entirely through the eyes of one character, there is a simplicity to the story-telling that belies the moral and philosophical complexities that lurk beneath. I don’t know how much of the gentle flow of the prose is due to the translator, but this is an engaging, warm read with much compassion despite the difficult nature of the subject matter. It is not condemnatory, but neither does it let the horror of the situation, of the raw violence of the concentration camps, that lie at the centre of the plot, be smoothed away. It leaves you with a resolution, of sorts, but also with many questions.
23. Recently re-read: ‘Boneland’, Alan Garner, Fourth Estate, 9780007463251. Did this make any more sense than when I read it the first time? I’m not sure. Did it make the same sense? Probably not. When you are writing about the earth, the elemental, and relating it to consciousness, collective memory, universality and the universe(s), then you need many, many layers. And these are not necessarily to be unwrapped like pass the parcel, as each may itself be woven deep into the whole structure, or may shimmer and dissolve into the air. There is a plot, two plots, and many tales. There is energy, earthiness, unhooking and grounding. There are many, many questions, but few answers – unless you keep looking and are prepared for the answers to keep moving. The weirdstone retains its weirdness right to the end of the trilogy, and only a master writer could do that while also providing, allowing, some sense of conclusion (and beginning).
24. ‘The Madness of Grief’, Richard Coles, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 9781474619622. Bought on publication, I have only just got round to reading it and, as I thought I might, I have struggled to connect with it. Coles and I are both clergy of comparable age who share a first name. But that’s about where the similarity ends. He’s a round-the-world traveller, with a portmanteau of experiences. I’ve not had use for a passport, preferring the quietness of home.
I certainly don’t relate to his experience of grief (which was why the book was worth reading). Yes, I’ve held the hands of my parents as they died, and then led, and preached at their funeral services, vigorously, but decorously, swinging the thurible over their coffins. But there were no tears – people leave your life all the time, death is just one of many ways. No relationship is permanent. Friendship is a strange word whose meaning I haven’t quite figured. Yes, taking my cousin’s funeral this spring was not easy – she was a lovely person, younger than me, with teenage children. She had struggled with an awful illness and the packed church, far way from my home county, was filled with pain and emotion. I felt deeply sad then, as I have at some of the funerals I have ministered at of wonderful, vivacious people, who seemed to be only just getting into their stride. But my sadness has been more about the pain and suffering I witness in those left behind.
His habit of name-dropping people, places and products irritates me intensely. There are times when he just seems like a crass party-crashing celebrity bore, but then he is also thoughtful, insightful, perceptive and, occasionally, witty. His love for David was mighty – is mighty. Whatever words I could use about their love would be inadequate, partly because I’ve never met them, but also because it was a marriage (formally, a civil partnership) and there is a reason why the wedding ceremony is full of symbolism. Words only scratch the surface of such intense, intimate, vulnerable relationships – you have to be in it to understand it. They were obviously immensely joyful together, but also seared with pain. I do get that – the way one partner’s deep-seated, intractable illness of mind, body and spirit can bring out the worst in the other and draw down the doors of the night, daily masking the sun’s warmth and light.
At best this book articulates the lava-like physicality of his grief – whether flowing, coagulating or burning – through incident, tangential anecdote, motes of dust lit by sunbeams and a certain guarded honesty. Guarded, I would think, to protect himself, on many levels, as well as David and his family from too much prying. Perhaps, also there is an elemental need to keep his and David’s intimacy, their being as a couple, private, to preserve some of its vital energy. That feels right, honourable, while also allowing for sincerity in expressing pain, the scream that knows no name, the ululation that usurps breathing, to be made relatable for both those who have felt similar and those, like me, for whom this is foreign territory.
Is it a hopeful book? I think so. Should it be? I’m not sure. Part of the honesty, of the book’s significance, is that the rawness of grief blisters through. This is not about healing, it is more about acknowledging that everything has changed, yet the world keeps on rolling by, and you either find a way to roll with it or you don’t. It is a book worth reading and sharing, but that doesn’t take away from wishing that Richard Coles hadn’t needed to have written it.
25. ‘Lifting the Veil’, Malcolm Guite, Canterbury Press, 9781786224545. A very short book that has taken me a long time to read, and I’m not sure why. My own ennui, I guess. Anyway, this is a poetic plea to take seriously the life of the imagination as part of God’s unfolding revelation. It makes great sense and contains some very thoughtful exegesis. God is creativity, God breathed creativity into us. It is a good thing. something that has a great part to play in our exploration. searching and unravelling of who God is, why God is, what God is in relation to all creation and us. Use it or get crushed by the rigid rules of rationalism.
26. Re-read ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’, Henri Nouwen, DLT, 978023252078x. Once again a challenge, soaked in beauty, clothed in humility and shining with sometimes quiet, sometimes stark truths. Meditations on Rembrandt, his late work, The Return of the Prodigal Son’, the conjoined Biblical parables of the Prodigal Sons and each of the three main characters.
27. ‘Short Stories by Jesus’ Amy-Jill Levine, HarperOne, 9780061561030. Amy-Jill Levine describes herself as a ‘Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian Divinity School in the buckle of the Bible Belt’. She is both a Professor of New Testament Studies and a Professor of Jewish Studies, and she is not one to mince her words. In this lively exploration of nine of Jesus’s parables she breaks open standard preconceptions about first century Judaism, reclaiming the Jewishness of Jesus’s stories. Along the way she is scathing about the uninformed nature of many well-known New Testament commentators, who see Jesus as berating the faith of his fellow co-religionists when she believes he is more often trenchantly calling out social injustice. An important book for anyone who regularly preaches on the parables, which re-energises them with the provocative power that made them so memorable to Jesus’s first hearers.
28. Re-read ‘My Name is Asher Lev’, Chaim Potok, Penguin, 9780140036428. On my third reading of this beautiful and unsettling book I was more aware of the battles that both the young artistic prodigy, Asher’s, parents each face to find their own places in the world. I know some see a bleakness, even an unhealthy obsession in Asher’s pursuit to fulfil his artistic destiny, but that same single-minded determination is at play in each member of this devout Hasidic family in post war Brooklyn. It is a remarkable novel, equal to anything by the better known Jewish-American novelists of Potok’s generation.
29. ‘Back in the Day’, Melvyn Bragg, Sceptre, 9781529394450. The life of Lord Bragg from birth to his decision to accept a place at Wadham College. This is very much a book grounded in place (how often do I say that) and the knowledge that where he was born and brought up is truly home. It is a different world – post war in a working northern town within striking distance of the Lake District. There is so much going on in Lord Bragg’s head, and it is not all rosy – we have intimations of his first breakdown at 13 – but it is colourful, filled with the vigour of the community and the graft of a society that feels quite self-contained. His hard-work ethic is born in this place – not so that he can escape it, but because he wants to do the best he can, while still staying loyal to his hometown.
30. Re-read ‘The Gift of Asher Lev’, Chaim Potok, Knopf, 9780394572123. The second volume in the story of Asher Lev is well worth a read. Lev has been living in France for many years, has grown in fame as an artist, has built a life with his wife and two children and has remained faithful to his Ladover community, even though they are still wary of him. The death of his father’s brother takes him back to Brooklyn, firstly for the funeral. However, his uncle, who had been supportive of Lev’s art, had secretly bought a significant collection of contemporary art, not just his nephew’s work but also all the great’s of the twentieth century – Picasso, Matisse, Soutine, Modigliani,Chagall, et al – that his wife and children absolutely abhorred. Lev can either sell the collection, or use it to buy new works, but whatever he does any profits will go to the Ladover community. This puts him at odds with his family, and the return to Brooklyn stifles his own work. Meanwhile, the Rebbe is growing increasingly frail and there are issues about who will succeed him. As the book unfolds so Lev and the Rebbe come to realise that it is Lev’s family – his father, and his toddler son, who are the chosen ones, if Lev will give his consent. It isn’t quite as beautiful book as ‘My name is Asher Lev’, but it is full of wonderful writing and draws out the story of Lev in a thoughtful and satisfying way.
31. ‘Oil Paintings in Public Ownership: North and Mid Wales’, The Public Catalogue Foundation, 9781909475038. Does exactly what it says, cataloguing every oil (and acrylic) painting in every public institution in this area of the country. Those that aren’t photographed are described. It is a fascinating mix of local portraiture and Welsh artists from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries and contains a significant number of works by Kyffin Williams. A lovely, but heavy books.
32. ‘Murder Before Evensong’, Richard Coles, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 9781474612630. Risible. There might be a good short story in here, just, but it needs someone who can write fiction. That doesn’t seem to be Richard Coles. Coles can write – his book on grief is personal, thoughtful, coherent, vivid and full of interesting images. However, ‘Murder before Evensong’ ditches all pretence of intelligent prose, feels devoid of humour, warmth or anything that you might call ‘characterisation’. A village is roughly drawn, but is subsumed under the lowering influence of the local lord’s estate. Each person we meet is a tracing paper sketch for a cartoon – transparent, faint and devoid of breath. There is a plot, which is might, in the hands of a competent craftsman, have been interesting, but which jerks along with all the finesse of Brunel’s atmospheric railway. The most terrifying moment was turning the last page to find an advert for the next novel in the series. Everything that is good about Richard Coles – his empathy, his humour, his gentle lampooning of the faith he loves and the Church, which hasn’t always treated him well – have all been eviscerated, leaving little but vanity, an unpleasant preoccupation with the gentry and a claggy sense of his own importance.