Saturday, 24 November 2018

Books that make my worldview, #1: TS Eliot's Four Quartets

(For the intro to this series, go here.)

I am not doing this series in any kind of coherent order, but just as it comes. So first up, perhaps oddly, is some poetry. I am not a poetry critic, I am not even very knowledgeable about it, but I offer this as a personal reflection. 

It's often difficult to say with any precision what a great poem is "about"; perhaps if we could do so there wouldn't be any need for the poem to exist. Four Quartets, a cycle of linked poems written by Eliot before and during the Second World War, are preoccupied with ideas that for various reasons I find very resonant: time, eternity, regret, memory, and the struggle to retrieve from the conditions of modernity some ongoing sense of stability, of rootedness and of a place within history. The Quartets appeal to me at least in part because they have given me ways of understanding and shaping and articulating my own thoughts and feelings about these complex themes. They are not easy to read, and defy "understanding" in any syllogistic or mechanical sense, but - crucially - neither are they deliberately obscure in the way of some Modernist works. Eliot is simply striving to do justice to the subject matter rather than being difficult for the sake of it or showing off his own cleverness. The references to Eastern mysticism, for example, are integrated into the philosophical arc of the poem, rather than being casually thrown in as part of a try-hard eclecticism.     

Friday, 23 November 2018

Books that make my worldview: Intro to an occasional series

I liked the idea of writing about a series of posts about some of the books that have shaped the way I understand the world, with a short explanation of how and why. Originally I was going to just do one post but I soon realized that it would be extremely long.

It's worth noting at this point that astute readers will notice a distinct lack of books on economics. This is because, by nature, I am most keenly interested in social-cultural-religious questions, rather than political-economic ones, albeit the line between the two categories is not always clear.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Buildings and the Benedict Option: can our physical heritage help save the faith?

(This post is a slightly amended version of a piece originally published in 2016 on another website, now defunct.)

Within a day’s hike of the house in which I grew up, and in which my parents still live, there are at least four ruined or abandoned churches. A short walk into town from that house takes you past a high flint wall that was once part of a medieval abbey, and over the road from that is the site of a church demolished in the sixteenth century. My father—a retired Anglican priest who likes to keep his hand in—takes a regular service in a church that dates back eight centuries. An hour’s drive across the county brings you to the spectacular remains of St Mary’s Reculver, which was begun almost 1400 years ago after St Augustine converted the Kentish kings at the start of his mission to the Anglo-Saxons.
When I lived in Oxford, it took barely an hour to stroll out along the Thames to the ruins of Godstow Abbey, a nunnery dissolved by Henry VIII which has been gradually falling down for four hundred years since being badly damaged in the Civil War. In the very centre of the city, at St Michael at the Northgate, you could drink coffee and browse books at the foot of a church tower that was completed before the Norman Conquest.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Some thoughts on Peter Hitchens' "The Phoney Victory".

A few not very orderly, and decidedly provisional, thoughts on Peter Hitchens' new book. This isn't, and doesn't purport to be, a complete or thorough analysis. 

Many of the themes developed in this book will be familiar to regular readers of Hitchens’ blog. It is probably best understood as a series of linked essays criticising various aspects of what he has elsewhere called the “Finest Hour Myth”, the popular view of Britain’s role in the Second World War. They touch on, inter alia:

  • ·The wrongness of the (supposedly) popular conception that WW2 was an idealistic war begun with the intent of “defeating fascism” or “saving the Jews”.
  •  The failures and inconsistencies of pre-war British diplomacy and war planning, which led us (in PH’s view) into the wrong war at the wrong time, for foolish grandstanding reasons.
  •  Our incompetent conduct of the actual war, especially the war at sea (this is ascribed to, among other things, cuts to the navy in the inter-war years implemented by one Winston Churchill). Other incidents cited as evidence for Hitchens’ thesis here are the ill-conceived and largely pointless Norwegian operation, which took a harsh toll on the RN destroyer fleet, the Dunkirk disaster (which likewise cost us many fine ships), the chaotic evacuations of Greece and Crete, and the loss of Singapore – in this connection, Hitchens directs particular scorn at those responsible for uselessly sending into danger Prince of Wales and Repulse. He also questions whether it was wise for us to devote huge resources to maintaining control of the Mediterranean and North Africa during 1940, 1941 and 1942, when the Battle of the Atlantic still hung in the balance, and when our forces in the Far East were crying out for reinforcements.

Monday, 7 May 2018

The Catholic Jacobins: thoughts on the Alfie Evans reaction

There was a time, not very long ago, when one of the battle cries of Anglo-American conservative Catholicism was that “Truth is not determined by majority vote!” The phrase is usually attributed to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, though it appears to be a paraphrase rather than a direct quotation (I am open to correction here if anyone has a direct citation). It’s a good line, one which I have used myself. The underlying point – that the eternal verities of Catholic doctrine and ethical teaching cannot and should not be overthrown because they fall foul of contemporary pieties – is a vital one.

Delving a bit deeper, you might say that the aphorism supports a certain elitism; implicit in it is a respect for learning, devotion and expertise, an admiration for those who accept the discipline of “thinking with the Church” and have the humility to structure their lives not according to their own ideas and whims but to the well-worn patterns laid down by the great tradition.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Thoughts on "Brideshead Revisited"

It is hard to know what to say about a work already so admired, so praised, so well-known, and one which is such an utterly conventional choice of favourite reading for an English Catholic conservative Oxonian. But I’ll try. It is undoubtedly, as Waugh intended, a superb literary exploration of the operation of divine grace: Father Brown’s “twitch upon the thread” brings home first Sebastian, then Lord Marchmain, Cara (seemingly), Julia and Charles, and even some of the soldiers whom Charles’ brother officer is surprised to see in the re-opened chapel. It is rich with metaphor and emotional depth.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Book review: Nicholas Crane's "Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Journey Across Europe"

This lovely book narrates one of the most extraordinary adventures imaginable; a walk from Cape Finisterre in north-west Spain all the way to Constantinople – a 6,000-plus mile trek through the mountainous spine of the continent, undertaken continuously over eighteen months, mostly alone, with a strict prohibition on using any means of transport other than Shanks’ pony. Crane has to fend off attempts to get him in cars by, inter alia, Ukrainian border policemen and a Turkish general, and declines to use a cable car in his attempted climb of Mont Blanc.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Escape to the country: is there anything to be gained from fleeing the urban jungle?

(This post is a slightly amended version of a piece originally published in 2015 on another website, now defunct.)

It’s funny the things that catch your attention. A couple of years ago, I read a detective story set in London in 1912. At one point, a policeman walking north through London is said to have emerged into open country shortly after Highgate. Highgate! Nowadays Highgate is about five miles from the northern outskirts of London. Since the beginning of the last century, our capital has spread relentlessly north into what was once Middlesex and Hertfordshire, swallowing up many places which used to be small villages and towns—Arnos Grove, Enfield, Palmers Green, Southgate, a pattern repeated on the east, south and west of the city. This growth of London’s geographical extent, its “footprint”, continued even as Greater London’s actual population went into considerable decline during the four decades after the Second World War. London’s population explosion in the nineteenth century—from about 1 million to over 6 million—did not affect London’s actual area in anything like the same way, presumably because so many of the new Londoners were poor workers and their families crammed into slums, as opposed to the comfortable middle-class commuters in their suburban semis who made up much of the twentieth century growth.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Detective stories read 2017

I read too many detective stories.


The 12.30 From Croydon
Freeman Wills Crofts
Very good inverted whodunit (I’m on a short break from War And Peace, taking advantage of a Kindle Unlimited offer to fill my boots with Golden Age classics). Like other works in the sub-genre, it follows a man who is, at least initially, weak and foolish and desperate rather than wicked. There is something pitiful and very human in Charles Swinburn’s attachment to the obviously unworthy and unpleasant Una Mellor and his determination to hang on to his upper middle-class respectability, at any cost. That’s not to say that Crofts – who was a fairly stern moralist – ever suggests that the murders committed are justified, only that he paints a plausible picture of the kind of thought processes by which a murderer might justify his actions to himself. There is a tantalising ambiguity in whether we are meant to take seriously the purportedly selfless aspects of Swinburn’s rationalisation of the first murder, i.e. his worries that if he does not get the money to save the works from his uncle, his workers’ lives will be ruined.

One thing the book does very well is show, without laying it on with a trowel, how irreparably and inevitably the act of murder separates a person from their fellow humans, and how the demands of conscience are inescapable even for a man who thinks he is beyond the mere bourgeois morality that values each life equally above and beyond utilitarian concerns (I think we might infer Crofts’ low view of utilitarianism from this book). I was reminded when reading of this of how much the spectre of the gallows mattered in creating the dramatic and moral force of the Golden Age mystery. The stakes are very high, and take on a near-religious dimension, when the price of detection for a murderer might very well be an appointment with Pierrepoint – to be followed, perhaps, by an encounter with another Judge, even more fearsome than those found on the bench of the Old Bailey. 

Books read 2017 (excluding whodunits)

The usual short(ish) reviews. It's not been a great year in terms of "serious" reading but I did get through a couple of real doorstops - War And Peace and The Man On The Donkey.

For review of Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, see here.

Detective story reviews here.

The Benedict Option: A Strategy For Christians In A Post-Christian Nation
Rod Dreher
There is a terrible flood coming, and you’re still sitting in your back garden knocking back beers and planning a new extension to your house. That’s the starting point of this long-awaited, endlessly discussed, and oft-criticised book. Rod writes in a chatty and engaging style, weaving anecdote and interview and analysis together to make a very compelling case for his central thesis that we are facing a new Dark Age for Christianity and that traditional believers must act to preserve the faith in an unprecedentedly hostile culture. “Politics is no substitute for personal holiness”, he writes, and this rejection of the religious right’s traditional political approach is the credo underlying the whole book. I have my quibbles with the broad brush presentation of the chapter on how Christianity lost the Western mind, from Ockham to Obergefell, but this isn’t a scholarly book, it’s a book written to be accessible for a wide audience with relatively little historical knowledge. The chapter on the monks of Nursia is particularly fascinating, but there are marvellous pen portraits of all kinds of Christian intentional communities all over the USA. It’s an open question how well Rod’s prescriptions translate over the Atlantic, but we do have things to learn. And I think Rod’s “alarmism”, as it has been called, is more than justified, even if the timescales might be a little longer than he thinks.