Archive for the 'religion' Category

Tom Holland: Dominion

February 12, 2020

91jqczH5FaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    This is a very thought-provoking and demanding read. There is an interesting trend in recent history-writing to not merely regurgitate, repeat, or go over the same ground again in the same way, but to seek new angles and perspectives on old material; sometimes this can be perverse and gratuitous, but it’s often enlightening how it can suggest connections not previously made, and explore a different narrative. It seems obvious to me that such enterprises cannot and should not exclude or over-write conventional histories, but that they do offer illuminating possibilities…

Holland sets out to show how Christ and Christianity shaped and made the West, and allowed the West to shape the world in its image; in some ways this ties in with what I’ve always known as ‘cultural Christianity’. Initially he surveys different Middle Eastern peoples and their gods, and their attempts to explain the cosmos and find a sense of order and meaning; there is the gradual evolution of the idea of evil being in the world because of people ‘disobeying’ the gods. For the Jews, this explained their plight, and in addition it was all the fault of a woman…

Holland also enlightens us on the complex development of the Hebrew Bible, and it was helpful to be reminded of how monotheism itself took time to evolve: there are numerous references to a multiplicity of gods in the Old Testament.

When we get to New Testament times, the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ message was underlined by Paul, and it is at times mind-boggling to see unpicked and laid out clearly the gradual development and articulation of a Christian theology over time. It was certainly not a coherent totality from the outset as some would like us to think.

Although Holland attempts a flowing narrative of the development of specifically Christian thought and practice, I didn’t find it completely coherent, particularly in the way he develops a particular strand thoroughly in a chapter and then leaps ahead to a completely different starting-point for his next chapter. This disjointed effect was initially quite annoying and had the effect of negating the sense of continuity he wanted to show.

We see clearly how the new religion was quite rapidly militarised and identified with secular power, which was a major factor in the unification of Europe over the centuries. As time passes we see the monumental struggle between royalty and papacy, the increasing corruption of the Church, the separation of church and state, the institution of clerical celibacy, and the crystallisation of the idea of sacred and profane. Where everything becomes totally warped and light-years away from the original, simple message of Jesus is, of course, in the way that religious power came to fear and then to seek ruthlessly to extirpate all possible signs of disagreement, independent thought or unorthodoxy, under the label of heresy.

Holland also shows how the religious regulation of marriage was about controlling sexual appetites and expecting men to be monogamous as well as women; this was to lead to individual ‘rights’ moving to the foreground, as well as creating the modern concept of the family. Here his analysis is newer and more interesting, I think. The labelling of same-sex pleasure as sinful and evil is a specifically Christian development, too.

Luther’s challenges reflected the angry mood of the times across Europe, and ushered in the mood of individualism in questions of religion, salvation, interpretation of the Bible, and these anarchist tendencies are shown leading to everything flying apart; certainly the contrast between the highly centralised Roman Catholic Church and the plethora of different Protestant churches and sects reflects this. Secular power eagerly colluded in the inevitable transfer of authority from church to state; Luther was driven to compromises very quickly, and we are in the transitional state which eventually, after much warfare and slaughter was to lead to the toleration of the individual’s right to worship where, when and how they pleased; from these originally religious beginnings was to flow the concept of ‘human’ rights as espoused in the French and American revolutions.

In the wider world, as the dynamism of Christianity led Europe to colonise large tracts of the world, it saw other belief systems as replicas of its own, and so non-Christians were made to identify with ‘a’ religion: thus Holland sees Judaism and Hinduism, for instance, as externally imposed categories. Ultimately the narrative takes us to the development of international law, another Western concept which, as we can see, is not necessarily accepted by all peoples (nor by the USA when it doesn’t suit!).

As we move closer to our times, Holland shows how Marx’ communism goes back to the early Christian communities’ sharing of goods and property, how the Nazis’ anti-Jewish ideology was spawned by Christianity, and how the roots of the messages of Martin Luther King, the Beatles and the summer of love may all be traced back to such earlier roots. The other important point he emphasises is the fragmentation of Christianity into liberal and evangelical camps, both of which lay claim to authority from two millennia ago. I have still not thought through his interesting parallel between Protestantism as a fundamentalist approach to faith, and Muslim fundamentalism…

Holland’s narrative of how all these developments ultimately flow from Europe’s Christian history is convincing to me, but I am not a professional historian, so I would be interested to hear historians’ take on his book. I find myself wondering where the tipping point was, at which the Christian West had so much the upper had that it was able to more or less shape the entire world, in terms of conquest, empire and industrial revolution. Equally, what might have prevented it, and would that have been a good or bad thing? There is an imperialism in the West seeing its values and beliefs as universal, its way of looking at the world as the only valid one and expecting all cultures to worship at its altar. Christianity comes across as an enigma, a hydra, and the roots of the Western control of the entire world…

2019: my year of reading…

December 30, 2019

I’ve not done anywhere near as much reading this last year as I normally would, for a number of reasons, and recently have not felt able to settle down to anything as demanding as a full-length book, so for the last couple of months it has been magazines and online articles, mainly. I have acquired 30 new books this year – so some success on cutting down how many I buy – disposed of a good many more than that, and actually read 53 books in total, so just over one a week. I never imagined the total would drop so low…

I realise on looking through my reading log that I’ve spent a fair amount of time re-reading this year. At the end of 2018, I began working my way through the novels of Philip K Dick again, and got about half-way through them before I got side-tracked; I also re-read some Raymond Chandler, some Garrison Keillor and quite a lot of Ursula Le Guin, prompted by her death earlier in the year. Her work remains as powerful as ever for me, in many different ways. I’m looking forward to tacking her epic Always Coming Home next year.

Why so much re-reading? Looking at my shelves I see that there are so many old favourites still there, which have survived the annual cull of books which head their way to Amnesty International, and I feel drawn to revisit them, and the pleasure I recall in the past. I used to have the feeling, “well, I’d like to re-read that one day…” and move on; nowadays, something follows that thought up with, “get on with it, then!” So I have.

Like many of you, I have a fair number of what might loosely be called “coffee-table books” in a dismissive sort of way: I mean the kind of large format, illustrated books that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a cover-to-cover read, but are for deep browsing; I’ve spent a good deal of time revisiting those this year, too, especially the ones on travel and exploration. Very satisfying.

But it hasn’t been completely a year of re-reads. New discoveries have included R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – there seems to be a good deal of First World War fiction out there that I still haven’t discovered – and John Barton’s marvellous book on the history of the bible, which I really enjoyed and found very thought-provoking, too. And I really liked the French writer Gilbert Sinoué’s Le Livre de Saphir .

Now we come to statistics and awards. For some reason – and I do wish readers would enlighten me – the most popular post of the year by far has been my brief and instant reaction to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Wound in Time, which she wrote to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War. Other posts on poems from that war have also been pretty popular, along with my thoughts on Ismail Kadare’s novel about Stalinism in Albania, Le Grand Hiver. I’m pleased to be reaching such a wide variety of readers, and I still wish I head more from you…

My biggest disappointment this year has been my re-reading of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series; I wish I hadn’t bothered and then I might have retained more of my original admiration for his achievement. When researching for the post I just published on him, I noticed there were some prequels and linked short stories, which I will not be bothering with.

Once again, there is no award for weirdest book: obviously I’m not reading weird books at the moment…

I’ll give Philip Pullman my award for best new novel for The Secret Commonwealth, the second in his Book of Dust series. It is on a par with the first one, and I know I’ll have to wait another couple of years for the last in the series.

I’m cheating a bit here, but my award for best novel goes to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which is coming up for a re-read pretty soon, so that I can dig a bit deeper than just the plot, and admire what she has done in writing a sequel to a novel no-one imagined there could ever be a sequel to. It’s clever, it’s serious, it’s thought-provoking, and for me everything that a good novel should be.

I haven’t read a great deal of non-fiction this year, but John Barton’s A History of the Bible was outstanding in its erudition, its clarity and its honesty. He isn’t afraid to dig deeply or to ask awkward questions, and yet the Christian scriptures are not diminished or undermined by his forensic examination.

Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad is easily my Book of the Year: it’s not a new novel, having been written before I was born and published in a number of incomplete versions in Soviet times. What we finally got this year was a very careful edition which is probably as complete and as accurate as can be with a work completed in such challenging circumstances, excellently translated and introduced, and superbly annotated: a work of love by Robert Chandler. It’s the prequel to the astonishing Life and Fate, which has rightly been called the twentieth century’s War and Peace. Only a Russian could have written it, and it is a tragedy that the horrendous experience of Russians during the Nazi invasion and occupation is not better known and understood in the West.

I wonder what next year will bring? So far, press articles about what’s coming up in the next few months have been rather unpromising. And I don’t have any particular plans in terms of what I want to read, although I am currently enjoying re-visiting old favourites, so there will probably more of those…

The Name of the Rose – TV series

December 14, 2019

Well, I finally watched the last episode of the internationally-produced series of The Name of the Rose. I’m glad I made the effort to stick with it – I nearly gave up after two episodes – and yet it was a very flawed production.

What worked? We did get a very detailed picture of the awfulness of the Inquisition and how it worked, and the casting and acting of Bernardo Gui the Inquisitor was superb. I was chilled a couple of years ago when I toured the Palais des Papes in Avignon, and there high up on the wall in one of the huge rooms was inscribed ‘the Inquisitor Bernardo Gui used to sit here’. Generally the casting and acting was good: I wasn’t too enamoured of the young Adso of Melk, but William of Baskerville excellently played, far surpassing Sean Connery’s effort in the earlier film of the novel.

More attention was paid to the scope of the original novel, which of course is rather more easily done in an eight-part series than in a feature-length film.

And yet… The set of the abbey itself I found rather cheap and tacky. Much of the earlier film was shot in an around a well-known, real abbey (Kloster Eberbach) in Germany; this studio set failed to convince, and the library was particularly poor, I felt.

The screenplay was a very unbalanced version of the novel. And for such an intricate and carefully composed text as The Name of the Rose, I think that really matters. What spoiled things most for me was the way that, gratuitously, the Adso story was expanded, and the ‘romance’ with the heretic girl was developed in completely unconvincing ways, with the novice heading out into the countryside for secret assignments with her. Eco’s version in the novel is much briefer, and far more convincing as an integral part of the story and of Adso’s life: it’s a brief, one-off sexual encounter where he is seduced and experiences the pleasures of the flesh as a youth. That experience clearly marks his life; the girl is burnt as a witch and there is also a cruel message in that for him. The earlier film remains true to the novel; in the TV series there is a very long rigmarole involving another woman stalking the Inquisitor, and rescuing the seductress, and yet Adso just leaves her then… what? I’m afraid the producers just wanted there to be more female interest that Eco had not provided, so they invented it – badly.

Similarly, the labyrinth that is the library in the novel is an integral part of the plot and the detective work, as well as a metaphor; this was very much sidelined and then rushed through in the final hectic episode. And the whole matter of the nature of the mysterious book that monks would kill for is also sidelined, whereas it’s at the core of some of the key theological arguments that run through the book: did Christ ever laugh? Is laughter a necessary part of human existence? Again, a rushed and nodding gesture in the final episode only. I also felt that the detective work by William and Adso was rather underplayed, only allowed to intrude occasionally rather than developing in any connected way. Why did the producers think Eco named his protagonist William of Baskerville, for goodness’ sake?

Even the title of the novel itself, which Eco links into the scholasticism of the mediaeval era in which he sets the novel, is glossed over almost incomprehensibly in the final seconds of the series: you’d miss the allusion were you not familiar with the novel. And finally, the framing of the entire novel by the aged Adso as he nears the end of his earthly life is lost, given up, when that shift in the closing pages of the novel is so powerful in drawing all the strands of such a complex story together.

It’s a little trite to say that perhaps some stories cannot successfully be filmed, but, after two very different and imperfect versions, perhaps this has to be the verdict on Eco’s finest novel, and for me, one of the best ones of the last century.

Richard Holloway: How to Read the Bible

December 11, 2019

81puXaJNn2L._AC_UY218_ML3_    Here’s a radical approach to the Bible from a former Bishop of Edinburgh whose autobiography impressed me; it won’t be to everyone’s taste, and I’m not exactly sure I’d describe it as a ‘how to read’ guide either, but it was very thought-provoking. If you want something with more detailed and specific guidance, then I suggest The Thoughtful Guide to the Bible, by Roy Robinson.

Holloway outlines the various complexities of the text, especially of the New Testament and the questions about authenticity; he accepts the current areas of doubt, indeed finding no fault with the notion of God as a human creation to explain our existence, an idea which makes increasing sense to me, indeed which I find very helpful. The more I read, the more this man’s open-mindedness astonishes me. All thinking about God, he points out, is an unavoidably human process, so he sees the Bible as revealing things about the nature of humanity.

The particular issues he raises about the New Testament centre around the idea that a major enterprise of Christianity has been the inserting of ideas from a later perspective into the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament): the New Testament can thus be seen as prophecy historicised. He also notes in detail its impact on women.

In the end Holloway comes across as increasingly philosophical and less religious in his approach, more distant from any recognisable Christian church than I’d have expected. I like his global approach here, and found him particularly interesting when he explored the agendas of the different evangelists as they compiled their different versions of the Jesus story. I had previously been aware of this idea, but he clarifies and explains the differences and inconsistencies in their accounts. What is clear is that he can explain and accept these inconsistencies without seeing them as threatening or undermining the underlying message or teachings, and I’m with him here. Paul is also clearly contextualised, and Holloway provides a clear sequencing of the different New Testament texts as early Christianity developed: I’d never realised, for instance, that his letters pre-date the gospel narratives…

Short and eminently readable, I’d recommend this to open-minded believers and non-believers alike.

On translations of the Bible

December 8, 2019

I’ve written elsewhere about what I like reading in the Bible and what I avoid or find tiresome. This post is by way of reflecting on the question of translations, and I will start by emphasising that I am no expert in any area of the field of biblical studies or translation, just that I have read the Bible through several times, and that I read a lot of literature in translation.

Raised a Catholic, the version available to us was the Douay-Rheims version of the late 16th/ early 17 century, pre-King James. I recall it being a bit wooden and styleless in the reading, and later discovered that what I had been reading was in fact an 18th century revision. I gather that the original translation was made to counter the very Protestant Geneva Bible, which was the one that Shakespeare would have been familiar with.

As Catholics we were obviously discouraged form reading the 1611 King James or Authorised Version – in fact, in those long-ago days it might actually have been forbidden! However, in my later years I have grown to like and appreciate its literary beauty. A good deal of this classic version was in fact lifted from William Tyndale’s much earlier translation, for which the poor fellow ended up being burned at the stake. Equally, some parts are indebted to the Catholic translation I mentioned earlier; certainly James I’s committee of translators had it to hand.

If we wanted something in accessible language, we had the one-man translation produced by Ronald Knox earlier in the twentieth century; I remember it read well. It has now been almost completely forgotten, but what an achievement, to have produced it by oneself. Still, Luther, St Jerome and others can also claim to have done that.

I recall from my schooldays the enormous publicity given to the publication of the New English Bible in the late 1960s, and remember large displays of it in the largest bookshop in the centre of Nottingham: you could have the version with or without the Apocrypha included. That was always a difficult point for Catholics, in that non-Catholic Bibles almost always had various books Protestants deemed non-canonical removed. Apparently this decision happened early in the 19th century with the growth of the British and Foreign Bible Society, responsible for translations into so many foreign languages as part of the Empire’s missionary work. Surely economics had something to do with it…

The weird thing about the New English Bible, as I discovered when I read the New Testament, is that, although it’s a good, modern translation that read and flowed easily, especially aloud, the translators had decided to retain old-fashioned ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s in certain places, particularly when prayers were translated. Very quickly that came to jar, and was one of the things that were changed when the version was updated as the Revised English Bible. I wouldn’t say that the NEB has vanished without trace, but its popularity was short-lived, although it has recently been reprinted.

The most interesting development for Catholics was the appearance of the Jerusalem Bible in the mid-1960s, an English version of La Bible de Jerusalem produced by the renowned Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem. It was, however, a translation from the French, and the New Jerusalem Bible twenty years later was a much more thorough and careful rendering into English referencing the original texts, and very quickly become respected by Catholics and non-Catholics equally, for its readability, scholarship and the quality of the detailed notes in the full version. Both versions were unusual in adopting ‘Yahweh’ as the word for ‘the Lord’, an attempt at replicating the unspoken Name in Hebrew. However, Benedict XIV disapproved of this, and the recent further revision – the Revised New Jerusalem Bible – has removed it, along with much of the very useful contextual annotation, and at the moment it appears that it’s the New Jerusalem version which will remain the gold standard. It’s the one I have grown to use and appreciate over time for many different reasons and the one I shall stick with, although there are times when it’s the traditional King James version that does it for me.

What makes a good translation? You get an artificial sense of reverence through the archaisms of the King James Bible, with its echoes of Shakespeare’s language (and no, there is no evidence of his having been involved in the translation) and a sense of tradition. On the other hand, it’s difficult for many people to follow nowadays. A modern translation needs to be readable, yet to avoid slang, colloquialisms and other modernisms which would detract from its quality as a ‘holy book’, a scripture. It needs not to be rooted too much in the English of a particular decade or it will date very quickly and sound awkward (perhaps the failing of the NEB) so translators are aiming for a certain timeless quality as well as enduring accessibility. And it also needs to read aloud well. All in all there are a lot of criteria to address. And this is perhaps why there have been so many attempts in recent decades, with no single version standing out far above the competition.

It is interesting that a single Catholic and a single Protestant English version lasted though three centuries, and that only in the twentieth century have there been so many different attempts to ‘modernise’, to ‘update’, to ‘make more accessible’. Some of there have been gimmicky, some crass, some appalling. I can see arguments for being able to read the Christian scriptures in a more modern English – and then I realise that nobody has advanced a similar argument for Shakespeare’s plays. But I also accept that that is a ridiculous comparison.

Have you a preference? For which translation, and why?

Corn in Egypt…

November 17, 2019

For some unfathomable reason, you wait ages for something decent to watch on TV – no, I’m not a streamer, except for catch-up TV – and then two all-time favourites come along at once. For me this has happened recently with the arrival on the BBC of The Name of the Rose and His Dark Materials. Neither has finished yet, so immediate reactions only for the moment, and more detail later.

The European co-production of Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel The Name of the Rose is definitely over-the-top. It’s one of my top novels of all time for its combination of detective story with astonishing erudition and philosophy, and so I have very high expectations. I was initially shocked when the film of the book, with Sean Connery in the lead role, first came out, but grew to like it, in spite of its limitations: Connery was extremely effective as William of Baskerville, the settings were stunning and the basic detective plot was well-presented, though obviously in a two-hour film all the philosophical and religious subtlety largely went by the board.

We now get an eight-part series, some six and a half hours. The set of the monastery I’m afraid I find tacky: the appearance from the exterior is of a cheap polystyrene model. The casting is superb, especially of the monks and inquisitors, a combination of unworldly weirdness and the sinister. William of Baskerville is again supremely effective, as he needs to be. More of the complexity of the novel’s plot is retained, there is more of the religious debate of mediaeval times, and the library is particularly well-created, and although I’d have liked less gloom and half-light throughout the production, I can see that this reflects those times well.

My main gripe is with the changes: a whole new plot-stand developed to incorporate romantic and sexual interest, with two comely females roaming the landscape and one of then entwining Adso, William’s novice, at far too great a length. Partly this is also to develop the background of the heretical uprisings of those times and add a bit more blood and guts, but the producers have taken liberties with Eco’s briefer, more subtle and more sordid presentation of the temptations of the flesh. Equally, I have no recollection of a dubious past for Adso and his potential to be a spy from the original novel. I had been tempted to give up after the first couple of episodes but didn’t, after it seemed to be getting into its stride, and will see it through to the end.

The long-awaited series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has begun very well for me, apart from the surfeit of generic sludgy mood-music, which seems to be the current fashion with TV producers. The original film of the first novel, with its clunky American title, was reasonable but eminently forgettable (I’ve actually managed to lose my copy of the DVD). Here we are instantly transported into the parallel universe, and rapidly encounter the several strands of the plot, although the fiendish Mrs Coulter is saved for the second half of the first episode. The setting is utterly convincing and the daemons are really done very well. I admired the way, too, that the multiracial and multicultural casting seemed so natural, and was momentarily taken aback not to have realised this potential when reading and listening to the original novels.

Lyra is really good: there’s the naturalness of a child on the verge of adolescence that I imagined might be very hard for an actor to capture. Lord Asriel was much more swashbuckling than the novel had suggested to me, and that also worked very well.

I’m not yet sure about the pace of the production, having only seen the first episode, which was very hectic, fast-moving, action-packed as a way to get the series off to a good start; my recollection of the novel was of a rather slower world than our own, but I recognise that all sorts of things shape our initial impressions of texts, which, once grounded, are hard to shake off. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest. One doubt I have, and which I can’t pronounce on, not being a child, is how accessible this production will be to children or adolescents: I think one of Pullman’s greatest achievements with the novels was his appeal to both younger and older readers…

Richard F Burton: Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina

September 17, 2019

Many years ago I read Richard Burton’s Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina; recently as I’ve been travelling, I had the Librivox recording to listen to in the car. It is an astonishing work. Burton was a Victorian traveller, a polymath; at school we heard of him because we discovered his translation of the Kama Sutra

Non-Muslims are not allowed into the holy cities of Islam; in Burton’s day, discovery would have meant his death. He took the disguise of an Afghan and performed the Hajj along with many other Muslims, and was not detected. He describes the journey and the places, the food and the people in minute detail, a great achievement given that making notes and sketches and diagrams was a difficult and dangerous undertaking, too, when you are always under the watch of fellow-travellers. His knowledge as detailed in the book is positively encyclopaedic: all the religious sites are there, the practices, rituals and the necessary prayers. I do not imagine anything is missing, at the same time realising that much will have changed in the more than century and a half since his intrepid undertaking. And I do not know if there is a contemporary account to match and equal his.

Why did he do it? Because it was there? Real interest in Islam and the culture and way of life of the desert Arabs and Bedouin is there, and he was certainly not the first to travel widely in those regions; he regularly cites his predecessors. Several times in the Personal Narrative he makes it clear he is a Christian, that is, that he has not converted to Islam. And yet, he performs all the prayers and rites, apparently he was circumcised too; he knew a number of the languages of the region… and he is always reverent and respectful towards the Islamic faith. I am in awe, as well as confused by his motives and beliefs.

I also admire the Librivox volunteers who produced this recording. A number of them are non-native English speakers, which can make for tiring listening and vexing mispronunciations, but many of them make up for it by their familiarity with Arabic, for Burton’s account is peppered with Arabic words and phrases, both in the text and the footnotes, and every one is faithfully retained in the recording, and (to this non-Arabist) seemingly well-pronounced. However, it was Victorian practice when writing about sexual habits and activities to do so in Latin, and I’m afraid the garbled renditions of the volunteers made these possibly interesting extracts unintelligible…

Richard Holloway: Leaving Alexandria

August 19, 2019

5115JQXvznL._AC_UY218_QL90_  I very rarely read biographies or autobiographies, mainly because I’m busy leading my own life. However, I recently read an article in The Tablet (one of the more interesting weekly magazines at the moment) by Richard Holloway, and was prompted to get a copy of this book, which tells the story of his finding and losing faith, up to the time where he resigned as Bishop of Edinburgh.

I was gripped at the outset by his description of life in what I would describe as an Anglican junior seminary, because there were so many reminders of my own Catholic upbringing and schooling. The early part of his life and ministry can only be described as very High Church or Anglo-Catholic: he talks of ‘mass’, and goes to confession and participates in the evening service known as Compline…

The tone is not what one perhaps would expect of a one-time senior clergyman. The genuineness and honesty of a good man, and a real thinker shine through; he’s extremely well-read, as the literary references and notes show. I liked him for his liking of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Philip Larkin, both of whom speak to his religious condition at different times, and for being a solitary walker, too.

We read of his growing spiritual crises, with belief or lack of it in the Resurrection, and ultimately in God; for him, agnosticism is learning to live without an answer. In our unreligious times he makes a clear case for a place for religion in people’s lives, and certainly reminded me why, though largely rational myself, I cannot go with those who decry all religion as mere mumbo-jumbo and pixie dust. We are formed by our earliest experiences, and if they are shaped by religion, some need of spiritual consolation is, I have come to feel over the years, both inescapable and not something to be ashamed of. For Holloway, the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty: where you have certainty, you don’t need faith. This I found comforting!

Ultimately Holloway became ever more political and radical and questioning, until he reached a point where he felt he had lost his faith, and resigned his position. Having come to believe that religion certainly was a human invention, he wondered if perhaps God was, too. This is where he chimed in with where I have reached: out of our spiritual needs as humans, we make God after our own image. I can completely understand Holloway’s still being religious, and wanting religion to be there as a space for people to wonder and listen.

In many ways an unexpected pleasure of a read.

Ten of the strangest books in my library – part two

August 17, 2019

The Index of Possibilities

I haven’t looked at this for years: it’s a relic from my hippy days, a British version of the famous Whole Earth Catalog, an encyclopaedia for those alternative times, with pointers and links to all sorts of esoteric stuff, as well as the very early green movements, different spiritualities and radical therapy. It was a bible and an eye-opener for me back in my younger days.

Road Atlas of the Soviet Union 

Back in the days of the Soviet Union and its other socialist allies, consumer goods were in very short supply; this caused problems if you wanted a present for someone. You might have a really good idea of what you’d like to give, and no chance of buying it. Which is how I ended up with a road atlas of the Soviet Union as a present from a relative at some point in the 1970s. The idea that I’d ever get to drive on any of the roads in that country was a bit of a joke for starters. Then you think of the size of the country and regard the slimness of this volume and you get a better picture of the problem. Vast tracts of the country do not appear at all. Secrecy? No, just no roads at all. In some regions you can see a single road that proceeds for hundreds of miles, before stopping, ending: you make that journey all the way to the back of beyond, before realising that you then have to turn around and return the exact same way… Truly, this is a surreal book in so many ways.

I love it; it’s a very well-worn and well-used companion to travel books about Russia, and I supplemented it with a larger more general and larger scale Soviet atlas a decade or so ago

Sunday Compline

This is the slimmest volume in my library. I’ve written about my love of this religious office which brings the day to a close here. And, although I have a great nostalgia for the vanished Latin services and rituals of my childhood days – not out of any sense of belief, but for the spiritual feelings they still awaken for me – this is in English. Way back in the mid-1960s, shortly after services were done into the vernacular, a version of compline appeared, a decent translation using the same music, and there was a phase in the Catholic life of England when this service was much performed in churches. Only a couple of years ago I tracked down this copy at a secondhand bookshop in Edinburgh, and was happy to pay ninety times the original cover price to own it. It’s a nicely produced and illustrated booklet, the same as the one we used to use all those years ago.

Baedeker’s Northern Germany

In the days when travel was a serious business and involved careful planning, Baedeker’s guidebooks were a must. This one is pre-First World War, and I originally bought it for its marvellous maps, but it’s also a mine of useful information about places that were formerly part of Poland and would become again after the war, as well as places that eventually became part of People’s Poland after 1945. The maps of Danzig (as was) I found very useful when reading Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, following Oscar’s adventures and peregrinations around his home city. There was also a Baedeker’s Russia from 1914, which was never widely distributed or sold because war broke out; it’s now one of the rarest travel guides there is, fetching hundreds of pounds and more. This, and the bizarre Nazi vanity project that was Baedeker’s Generalgouvernement (a tourist guide to the rump state created from the remains of Poland as a dumping-ground for unwanted people and site of extermination camps), are, fortunately, available free on the marvellous Internet Archive website.

Vassily Peskov: Eremites Dans Le Taiga

I was astonished when I originally came across a reference to this story, I think via a link to the Smithsonian website: a small family of Old Believers, a Russian sect, had lived completely apart from the entire world, in the depths of Siberia, for over forty years, leading a hand-to-mouth existence, when Soviet surveyors noticed signs of life in a remote area thought to be uninhabited. The story of the family’s existence and survival is almost beyond belief, and yes, I know that Russia is a truly enormous country, but to have vanished for so long in the twentieth century! The account was written by one of those who re-discovered and helped the family, and yes, I found it in French first…

Bonus: English as She is Spoken (A Jest in Sober Earnest)

Many years ago there was a concert interval talk on Radio 3 featuring extracts from this truly crazy book, which is a phrasebook and guide to conversation in English for Portuguese students, written at some point towards the end of the 19th century. The only problem is that the Portuguese author didn’t actually speak English, but somehow complied the book using a French phrasebook and a dictionary: a very high percentage of the English phrases therefore verge on complete drivel, and the book is a hoot. I found a reprint a long while ago and look through it for a laugh every now and then; if you’re interested it’s downloadable from the Internet Archive.

Ten of the strangest books in my library – part one

August 15, 2019

Liber Usualis

This is a very thick and weighty tome, originally published, I think, for use in monasteries. It contains the music for the main services, in plainchant four-stave notation. I bought it many years ago, not for the music but for the texts of various now long-lost Latin services, and it’s supplemented by a copy of the Tridentine Missale Romanum with Latin rubrics, and also a copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible.

Adolf in Blunderland

This satire after the manner of Lewis Carroll, complete with Tenniel-style illustrations and reworkings of almost all of the songs from Alice, mocking the Nazis and their leaders, is from the mid 1930s, obviously in the days before the real dangers of the Nazi project were clear to many, and knockabout humour was thought sufficient. I bought it when I was still at school, with five shillings – a sizeable sum in those days – of my pocket money. Unfortunately, even though I’ve looked after it carefully, it is showing its age.

Zbior Nazwisk Szlachty

You wouldn’t have expected the Polish communist authorities to have allowed the publication of such a facsimile, of a book which originally appeared in 1805 and is an index of the names of the Polish nobility. It was a gift to my father, which I inherited – our family name is in the book, and it’s a genuine one rather than one from the days when everyone was scrambling to have a gentrified name; it also means we have a coat of arms. Before you all grovel at the thought of my greatness, I should point out two important details: firstly that the nobility was abolished in 1919, and secondly that it was the name that was important, not wealth or property. A peasant could have a noble name, which brought respect and standing along with it, just as it did to a rich man. If you were among the 25%+ of the nation with a name, you could theoretically take part on the election of the king. Yes, you read that right…

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (along with Pliny’s Natural History, Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah, and The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition)

I’ve had a soft spot for Isidore for a long time, long before the Vatican named that early encyclopaedist patron saint of the internet. In that curious time known as the Dark Ages, after the disappearance of the Western Roman Empire, monks sought to preserve knowledge, and Isidore complied twenty brief books of etymologies in which he attempted a taxonomy and collation of everything that was known. He ranges widely through arts and sciences; everything looks to God, and the gaps are haunting and the naivete charming or amusing at different times. As we now know, Arab savants also preserved and built upon the knowledge of the ancients, and two of the other texts I mention offer knowledge from their perspective, from mediaeval times. In our days, when we think we know so much, and with such certainty, I find it humbling and refreshing to see the sum total of knowledge, and the picture of the world from the viewpoint of an ancient Roman, a seventh century Spanish monk, or an Arab scientist. Perhaps far in the future, others will look back at our days and our learning and interpretations in a similar way…

Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward (my edition)

I’ve written about the weirdness of this edition here. I commend the utopian vision to you as an interesting and curious read: the idea of a socialist United States is a marvellous one, but still as far off as it was back in 1887.

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