Monday, November 11, 2013

31/10/2013: “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe

We arrived at Number 42; it was All Hallows’ Eve. Trick or treat?
Why does no-one invite vampires to parties? They are a pain in the neck!
Where do mummies go for a swim? The dead sea!
Boom! Boom!
Alas, no sweeties were forthcoming from the resident, hiding metaphorically in the back room with the lights off. However, in keeping with the current book, he produced some Yams to eat with the beverage of choice. As Hallowe’en is a night to remember the dead saints, martyrs and the faithful, perhaps it is appropriate that we read a contrary book that deals with the passing of a period in African culture, with due reference to many unfamiliar customs and personages.
Who was Chinua Achebe, asked our proposer? He was born on 16th November 1930 in Ogidi in the Lower Niger Delta. He was brought up in a community still following many Igbo (or Ibo) traditions that he describes in the book. However, his father (Albert) was a Christian missionary and in 1930 the community was mainly Christian, run by a District Officer .The Colonial State of Nigeria had been formed in 1914 and became independent in 1960, 2 years after this book was published. His literary influences included Conrad, Hemingway and Green, but this is a book written very much from the African perspective. The proposer of the book pointed out that Achebe described later his disillusionment with Conrad’s racism, writing "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'". Achebe sided with the “unattractive beings jumping up and down on the riverbank, making horrid faces.
After writing “Things Fall Apart” in 1956, he completed the trilogy with “No Longer at Ease” then “Arrow of God”, describing the village life as the 20th century progressed.  In 1967 Biafra seceded, with Achebe supporting the new state and taking a post as an ambassador. When the Biafran war ended in 1970, he accepted an appointment at the University of Nigeria. Later he moved to the University of Massachusetts, but returned to Nigeria to become Deputy President of the Peoples Redemption Party. The party was banned following a military coup in 1984. In 1990 he was paralysed in a car accident. Nevertheless he took posts at further US universities. He died on 21st March 2013 in Boston. Achebe is generally regarded as the father of African literature and is a major 20th century figure.
Why did the proposer choose this book? He noted the influence it had had on subsequent African writers, such as Chimamanda Adichie.  He had also spoken to William Boyd about Things Fall Apart after a book festival talk. As one well versed in Nigerian literature, Boyd said this is a truly ground breaking novel showing intelligence, vigour and compassion.
What then was the general view of our group? How can we consider anew a book that is a cornerstone of so many university and school curricula, and has been widely analysed from European, African and many other perspectives for over fifty years? Your daunted scribe noted one web site that gave not only a detailed history of criticism of Achebe and this book in particular, but also listed 55 substantial reference texts, each of which was written by someone surely more learned than the gathered company. Copies are piled high in the local bookshop in anticipation of the next group of university freshers eager to change the world. (Do students still do that, I thought they just wanted a job? Ed.) Another noted that there were 38 conferences on Achebe's work on the 50th anniversary of publication, echoing our discussion of Small World the previous month.
The story revolves around a tragic hero, Okonkwo, a respected warrior of the Umuofia clan, the son of an idle father, and father to a son, Nwoye, whom he hopes will adopt his values rather than those of his father.  Although this book is universally regarded as the great and ground-breaking African novel written from the inside, one suggested it has more general relevance, applicable for example to MacKay Brown’s treatment of Orkney tradition or even the microscopic Pinter plays. This is the general theme of change and threat brought from outside to a relatively closed community. Things fall apart, indeed.
However, the life of the village is distinctly in the African or Igbo tradition, and presented with straightforwardness that does not judge. Some of the rituals and customs may seem less than humane to our European eyes. For example, Okonkwo kills his adopted ‘charge’ Ikemefuna, won from another village, and a great companion to his natural son, on the advice of a village elder and the local deities. Is this civilized behaviour, and if so in whose civilization?  There was disagreement amongst us. Some felt that such a killing was intrinsically bad, but others felt this was making a Western judgment. Certainly, in the UK we retained the death penalty until comparatively recently, so is this so distinct? (“You who build these altars now, To sacrifice these children, You must not do it anymore, A scheme is not a vision”)
The proposer continued serious discussion, noting that the main part of the book has an African rhythm but the end has the tempo of English literature, perhaps coinciding deliberately with the arrival of the colonial power. He saw the book as being driven by the relationships of the main character with the other well characterised residents and incomers. However, he saw the main purpose being to evoke the village and its traditions, to show in a fair way that it was not worse than the colonial power. Is this the case? Certainly individuals within the colonial power, from the clergy to commissioner, were shown as less than perfect individuals, but to what extent is that true of their society?  (In a recently aired BBC programme (see below) one talked of wishing the missionaries would arrive!)
So Achebe paints a rational value system, at least in African terms. Writing from the viewpoint of the natives is not unique. What he is able to do is present a balanced account. He has a beguiling simplicity of language, a similarity in prose style to Hemingway. He explains the simple traditions and superstitions. He makes quite a bit about the rather male or macho style of the main figure in a patriarchal society.
The book is titled after a phrase in a Yeats poem (“The Second Coming”) and it was suggested that Yeats was a significant influence on the book. Yeats thought that one historical revolution of his great wheel would take about 2,000 years and then end in chaos (“things fall apart”) to be followed by another antithetical cycle. Aneche is relating this idea to the destruction of traditional Ibo culture by the arrival of the new culture of the white man. Masks are a major component in Yeats’ philosophy, and masks play a big role in the book. For example, Okonkwo puts on a mask of macho masculinity so as not to appear weak like his father. More literally, masks are worn to transform the elders into spirits (this is perhaps similar to when a judge puts on a wig). And tearing off such a mask triggers the dénouement of the novel. Birds are also used extensively in the imagery of the book, as in Yeats.
Why did Okonkwo commit suicide? (“Things fall apart.”) There were several possible factors, remorse at his killing of Ikemefuna and subsequent depression, the failure of others in the tribe to support him against encroaching colonialism and the consequent passing of their culture, the fact that he had to resort to violence.  One suggested it was self-sacrifice to save the village. Ultimately, he felt he had no choice. Although he was a manly brute, never wishing to appear weak or indeed imitate his father, he kept going back to the cave to consult the oracle. In Yeats’ terms, the character is the struggle between man and mask. Like all of us, he struggles to be consistent.
At this point discussion diverged from the specific to the general. During the 20th century many non-Western countries had experienced a huge growth in GDP, notably China and India. Why had Africa been left behind? Was this the fault of the colonial powers? Many factors were discussed. Was there a lack of a history of advanced development? Do we impose Western standards on what we call development? Was it due to a comparative lack of evolution in education, to climate, to comparative lack of natural resource? After all, coincident with publication of the book oil was discovered in the Niger Delta in the 1950’s and is the main source of African GDP. One member suggested the dominant influence of corruption and indeed Wiki suggests that corrupt regimes and the complicity of multinationals were major factors in holding Africa back. A lack of corruption is essential for society to flourish. Others talked of curiosity, drive, long term strategy and planning, tradition and superstition.  Yet another suggested it was all yet ‘our’ fault. To quote, “Why does the sun never set on the English empire?” “God would never trust an Englishman in the dark”. Boom, boom and thrice boom, and yes Spaeth did say ‘Englishman’, I fear, as we approach the Scottish referendum. Someone stressed that Achebe wrote the book to redress the balance, to put a true picture of African life. “The Empire writes back”.
We returned to more direct discussion of the book. Nwoye questions the tradition of throwing away or killing twins. Some argued that a society that survives has to have survival values, and that twins in general were weaker and so should not survive.  Are all traditions and superstitions against curiosity, and hence against development?
Ah yes, said one, he is depicting the missionary position! Boom, boom, boom and four times boom! Alas my copy wasn’t illustrated but we can but visualize this controversial interjection. It was said that some became Christians because there was something missing in their previous way of life. Many Igbo people did not agree with some of the superstitions (such as the twins) and perhaps saw something in the new Christianity. As one gets older, it becomes more difficult to adapt to change. Okonkwo is straight and traditional, whereas Obierika is much more curious, constantly questioning and ready to survive. Achebe sees himself in the Obierika role. He, like Achebe, displays a combination of pragmatism and adaption.
Turning to patriarchy, Okwonko is loving and feels blessed in his daughters, yet still wishes that his daughter was a man. The attitude to women is ambivalent, talking of men behaving as women as a criticism, yet still loving a daughter, who might better be a man. This society believes in strength in manly ideals. Culture is devious and flexible to survive, BUT culture has to be ambivalent to survive, extolling the virtues of women.
 What of the comparative justice system? Okwondo was exiled. He accepted the guilt, without question. This was a stronger moral code than we have, where our natural reaction is to place the blame on someone else. Read any newspaper or turn on the television! Arguably, the society that is depicted might have flaws, but is not corrupt.
In conclusion, this is a book about a conflict in value systems, each of which has flaws. This is a short, simply written novel, yet very significant This is Achebe’s first novel, and arguably the first great 20th century novel written from an African perspective. Overall it is simple yet profound. There is a very little ‘purple prose’ and this contributes to the book’s strength.
In passing we also noted that the British Broadcasting Corporation had chosen to follow our lead in selecting not just “Things Fall Apart”, but also Richard Ford’s “Canada” (our next book) for discussion in their broadcast of ‘A Good Read’ on Tuesday October 29th 2013. Was this coincidence or are the BBC turning to the Monthly Book Group, who post the schedule on the Goodreads website, for ideas? Judge for yourself, dear reader, but continue to follow the authoritative version.
So we returned to the dark might, perhaps fearful of warlocks and witches.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

26/9/13 “SMALL WORLD” by David Lodge

 Our book group’s discussion of David Lodge’s satirical campus novel Small World (1984) produced a scenario worthy of inclusion in the novel itself.  It became apparent quite early in the proceedings that the book’s proposer was labouring under the misapprehension that he had asked us to read another novel by David Lodge, Nice Work.  He forlornly brandished the covers of the two books for our inspection, citing an uncanny similarity of appearance.

We had barely recovered our poise after this revelation, and agreed that we would, in fact, discuss Small World, when a late arrival joined the group by taxi from a long luncheon.  In his case, the comic novel he was irrepressibly set on expounding seemed to be Whisky Galore.

Making sense of the ensuing discussion was at times challenging, and to produce a cohesive account of the evening is a task beyond the abilities of this writer.  I will therefore simply outline our more relevant exchanges in the order in which they arose.

David  Lodge’s biographical background was sketched in by the proposer.  Notably relevant were his tenure of a Professorship in English Literature at the University of Birmingham, his additional experience of teaching in American universities, and his literary friendship with Malcolm Bradbury.

There was agreement that the novel, although satirical, was not in all respects an exaggeration of the truth.  There were enough academics and conference-goers in our group with experience of the period in question (the 1970s), to verify Lodge’s portrayal of such events as potpourris of booze, ennui, sex, and tourism.  This was qualified by the lament of scientists present that such was not their way, and that clearly scholars in the humanities were more promiscuous and hedonistic – or at least had more opportunities to be so.

It was observed that universities and academia ran on much more cash-strapped lines nowadays, with attendant pressures on their staff, and that David Lodge was depicting more easy-going times.  

Structure and narrative elements were discussed: one reader pointed out that part one seemed very different from the rest of the novel; another commented on the enjoyable interweaving of different characters and threads; a third on the undisguised use of coincidences (for example Cheryl reading the very book that Persse is seeking).  It was observed that underlying literary references, such as the quest for the Holy Grail, were lightly handled, and exuberant satire was the dominant mode.  Racial stereotyping was commented upon as an easy source of humour.  Overall, one reader felt that Lodge was perhaps trying a bit too hard, and preferred others among his novels, while another thought that this was his best work.  There was some brief discussion of the merits of Nice Work, Changing Places, Deaf Sentence, and his academic book The Art of Fiction.

We discussed the place of Small World within a well-defined genre, the campus novel (although of course the ‘campus’ of this novel is global).  Tom Sharpe, Malcolm Bradbury, Kingsley Amis and Bernard Malamud were invoked.  One reader complained of a certain predictability, but another drew attention to significant differences of approach within the genre.

In so far as Lodge’s characters are used to exemplify different methodological and philosophical approaches to the study of literature, we felt that the satire was quite subdued, and that Leavisite, structuralist, feminist, Freudian, etc approaches were presented with only slight exaggerations.  The function of literary criticism is, however lightly handled, a pervading and serious theme of the book.  We were mostly happy with Philip Swallow’s remarks at the conference as a reasonable everyman’s definition of the function of literary criticism, and one that illuminated our own activity as a group of people meeting to discuss literature.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013


The proposer began with a brief introduction to the life of Samuel Clemens, whose pen name was Mark Twain. ("Mark Twain" was a Mississippi River term: the second mark on the line used to measure safe depth for a steamboat.)
He was born in 1835, and grew up in Missouri beside the Mississippi River.  The two books are set in the period of his own childhood, before the American Civil War.  A particularly relevant biographical detail in relation to Huckleberry Finn is that he studied and worked for four years as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River.
As a child, the proposer had received a copy of Tom Sawyer as a birthday present (at this point another member of the group brandished his copy adorned with a school prize label – apparently in those days it was considered suitable reading for an eight year old!).  The proposer wanted to see if the books conjured up the excitement he experienced reading them as a boy.  (By contrast, another reader referred to his resistance to Mark Twain and also Dickens as a youngster, when they were pushed at him by a well-meaning literary aunt.  He thought however that a big part of the problem lay in the small type of the editions current at the time.)
The proposer also wanted to test our response to the view that ‘Tom Sawyer is great fun, Huckleberry Finn is great literature’. 
In support of the second assertion, he drew attention to the various significant American writers, including Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Scott Fitzgerald, who have praised Huckleberry Finn very highly.  Hemingway accorded it seminal influence: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn.' If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." -- from Ernest Hemingway, The Green Hills of Africa (1934)
The first member of the group to offer an opinion after this introduction swooped like a vulture to a fresh kill.  He had found it a huge struggle to get through Huckleberry Finn and thought the storyline was ‘silly’.  Having got this off his chest, he folded his wings and stuck out his beak defiantly.
Another reader timorously proposed the opinion that the books were so different that they could have been written by different authors.
Someone said how much they had enjoyed the descriptive writing about the river and natural events such as thunderstorms.  He also opined that the river in this book had no real symbolic significance, and no-one challenged this.  (Another member of the group suggested that interesting comparisons might be made with other books about river journeys, such as Heart of Darkness).
  He commented further that It was a picaresque novel, but whereas most picaresque heroes end up by returning home – perhaps wiser than they set out – in the case of Huck he has no real home, and intends to set out into ‘Injun’ territory at the end of the story.  To some degree, the arrival of Tom Sawyer in the latter part of the story represents ‘coming home’ for Huck.
There was a consensus that Huck’s characterization was convincing and sympathetic.  It was pointed out that although he reveals a good heart he does not have the independence of thought to challenge the moral foundation of slavery, or the concept that ‘niggers’ are subhuman.  In this respect however Huck’s attitude is simply typical of the time, and in no way extreme. 
It was pointed out too that Huck himself stood in the position of slave to his father, and that a judge confirmed that he was the property of his father, irrespective of his welfare.  Like Jim, Huck is imprisoned in a cabin, but his escape is masterfully pragmatic, unlike the elaborate nonsense invented later by Tom Sawyer to free Jim.  Tom is in fact a character who doesn’t live in the real world, whereas Huck is very down-to-earth and lives in the moment.  Huck however doesn’t question the superiority assumed by Tom, or query the absurdity of his ideas.
There was general agreement that the last part of Huckleberry Finn greatly overplayed the joke of the elaborate fantasy woven by Tom, and became merely tiresome.  Like Hemingway, most thought that the novel should have ended earlier.   It was noted that there was a three year hiatus in Mark Twain”s writing process, before the ending was written, and we wondered about whether an effective editor would have let the latter part of the novel pass unchallenged.
The preponderance of dialogue in Huckleberry Finn was noted, and its apparent authenticity admired.  It was remarked that the authorial voice in the two books was different: in Tom Sawyer it is Mark Twain who addresses us, in Huckleberry Finn it is Huck.
We kept returning to the characterization of Huck.  His story doesn’t come to a conclusion.  He refers repeatedly to a wish to die, and to his lonesomeness.  He has low self-esteem.  He has no home, he is just running away, and at the end he is still running.  The world outside him keeps encroaching (for example in the persons of the duke and the king, or the attempts of Widow Douglas and Miss Watson to ‘civilize’ him).  And yet he embodies the qualities of boldness, adaptability and quick-wittedness that make up the archetypal ‘frontier spirit’.
We didn’t spend as long on the character of Tom Sawyer.  Essentially a fantasist, the main quality he shares with Huck is that they are both prodigiously accomplished liars.
The violence of Huckleberry Finn was remarked upon, and it was suggested that it provided some historical context for the casual violence and addiction to guns that characterize some elements of society in the USA today.
Another reader admired how both books provided a compendium of contemporary superstitions and ritual behaviours.  (As an example, Huck Finn: “I’ve always reckoned that looking at the new moon over your left shoulder is one of the carelessest and foolishest things a body can do.”)  Both the ‘nigger’ Jim and the boys are full of these beliefs, and it was suggested that for these uneducated characters this network of superstitions filled the place that religion held for some of the white adult characters.
A member of the group interested in the visual arts proposed that Tom Sawyer was like representational art, and Huckleberry Finn was like abstract art– playing with ideas and language rather than too concerned with plot and structure.  There was a general feeling that from a structural point of view, Tom Sawyer was the more satisfying achievement, yet Huckleberry Finn was the more ambitious and stimulating work.
What then of the initial assertion that ‘Tom Sawyer is great fun, Huckleberry Finn is great literature’?
Well, there was more or less unanimity of agreement on the first point, but a degree of dissension on the second. It was felt that Huckleberry Finn had historical importance in its influence on American literature, and was in many respects a very fine piece of writing, but that it lacked the sophistication of the best European novels of the period.  Of course the phrase ‘great literature’ has no precise definition, so this comparison should not be taken as excluding Mark Twain from any pantheon of great writers.
Our conversation began now to wander like the great Mississippi itself around various mudbanks and shoals.  We observed that many aphorisms were attributed to Mark Twain; that his autobiography and other writings showed him in general an astute commentator on American life; that he was lionized in his lifetime and received various honorary degrees.
The games in Tom Sawyer reminded us of our own childhood activities – spud guns, swapping cigarette cards, marbles.
We speculated about colloquial expressions related to the books – being an ‘Aunt Sally’, or being ‘sold down the river’.
We talked about modern versions of slavery, and the rights and wrongs of buying cheap clothing in western countries that might have been produced using child labour or near-slave labour.
We discovered from the vulture, who turned out to have read on the sly Mark Twain’s autobiography, that Twain at first wrote right-handed, and then because of rheumatism, changed to left-handed and finally to dictation.
This led to conjecture about the intellectual and creative significance of left-handedness, and a straw poll in the group that revealed that two out of the nine people present were left-handed, approximately in line with the average for the population at large.
It now dawned on us that we were following a deceptive tributary of our chosen river, or, to use a popular colloquialism, we were up a certain creek without a paddle.  So we closed our dusty school-prize tomes, switched off our i-pads and kindles, and slunk off into the night.

Monday, August 19, 2013


The book was “Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity" by Katherine Boo (2012). The proposer had recently become a trustee of a charity operating in India. This book had been recommended as a good introduction to the realities of Indian life.

Katherine Boo, who had recently appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival, was a distinguished American journalist. She had worked for the Washington Post from 1993 to 2003, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service by exposing neglect and abuse in homes for the mentally retarded, and a MacArthur Fellowship. She had joined the staff of the New Yorker in 2003, winning the National Magazine Award in 2004. One of her themes was the contrast between extreme wealth and extreme poverty in American cities.

Following her marriage to an Indian husband, she had turned her attention to India, and specifically to the Annawadi slum in Mumbai next to the airport. She tracked the fortunes of a number of the slum residents for a period of over three years. Although her ability to interact directly with most of the slum residents was limited by language, she was very tenacious, and had gone to great efforts to get things right by employing Indian translators and assistants. She had used freedom of information to obtain access to over 3,000 public records. Her book had won the National Book Award in the non-fiction category.

The book was described as “narrative non-fiction”, but it read like a novel. The proposer found it fast-paced, witty, grisly, and compelling.  He had found it impossible to put down. It was a revelation as it illuminated the scale of poverty, of bureaucratic nightmare, and multi-layered corruption. Extreme poverty is obvious in India, but this showed how people are kept in that state and willing to accept their lot. Yet Boo’s journalistic style, and her ability to conjure up situations perfectly with one well-chosen phrase, made it a quick read.

Everyone found the book extremely readable, even including one who dreaded what calamity was next when picking it up again. Boo was undeniably effective in delivering a crisp and striking narrative, although some found the “journalistic” prose style a little irritating. But even these readers admitted she had a fine turn of witty phrase. She started with gentle irony, for example:

Annawadi sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late

 Now the hut… had a high-status, if non-functioning, refrigerator.

This became a more mordant wit as the book progressed:

That job had been to clean public toilets and falsify the time sheets of his benefactor and other sanitation workers…

Then a doctor entered with the results…Abdul was seventeen years old if he paid two thousand rupees, and twenty years old if he did not.

But humour and wit were not qualities often associated with this type of book. Nor was her welcome lack of sentimentality. Only in her insistence that children told the truth, while adults lied, did she perhaps lapse into romanticizing.

The format of the book – “narrative non-fiction” – was unusual. Most of us had assumed it was a novel, based on research. It therefore came as a considerable surprise to read in the afterword that it was based on real people whose names had not been changed. This required some substantial revision of the reader’s perspective.

This shock at the end certainly gave the book and its issues more impact. But it also raised concern. Why had the writer not used the usual convention of saying that the people were real but the names changed? There might be a good reason for this, but we were not clear what it was. Was it that the web of corruption was so extensive that one or two examples of graft amongst slum-dwellers would not be pursued? That nobody in the slum would read the book – but could you be sure? We worried that heavy-handed retribution might fall on the heads of some of the people whose lives had been dissected.

And what about the feelings of individuals? How might Axa feel about her alleged scams being revealed by someone she had trusted? Or her sex life being broadcast world-wide? Or to work out that much of the information might have come from her English-speaking daughter? We could not answer these questions without knowing the author’s defence, but we did hope that the author had not become another who exploited the slum-dwellers for their own ends.

Most of our discussion, however, focussed on the issues raised by the book, and we benefited from having some extensive knowledge of India within our group. Extreme poverty and hunger were poignantly revealed as the slum-dwellers fought to gather bits and pieces of everyday waste to sell to the recyclers for a rupee or two to keep them fed for another day. And the ghastly environment of the shanty-town with its lake of sewage – but cheek by jowl with the airport and its glittering luxury hotels - was unflinchingly recorded. However, powerful as this was, most of us were well aware, from visits, television or reading, that there was still appalling poverty in India on a giant scale.

What came as a more of a shock for most of us was the extraordinary scale of corruption permeating all levels of society. This was most brutally exposed in the saga of Abdul and his incarceration and torture for a crime he did not commit, with the constant refrain of someone offering to solve the problem if only his impoverished parents could offer them a big enough bribe. Every fine-sounding Indian government initiative to help the poor was subverted by local politicians for their own financial gain. The anti-poverty business was a good one to be in because of the sums of money that could be creamed off. In one of her many bons mots, Boo yokes “politics and corruption” together as one of three possible routes out of poverty (and the one most likely to work).

Occasionally the representatives of western governments and charities flit across the background, depicted as universally naïve and easily gulled into hearing what they want to hear. And, ludicrously, a western-inspired animal rights organisation intervenes in the slum to insist on the prosecution of an owner of horses. But the horses are better fed than the slum-dwellers, who consider the horses the most lovingly tended creatures in the slum. Meanwhile India had said it was now a rich country and did not need any aid from the West.

Equally shocking was the despair. The level of suicide – from self-immolation, rat poison or hanging – was harrowing. She quotes an “ode to low expectations”, a particularly sad Marathi song: “What you don’t want is always going to be with you/What you want is never going to be with you…”

She notes that “for every two people in Annawadi inching up, there was one in a catastrophic plunge.

And in a particularly hard-hitting and radical conclusion she talks about the lack of mutual support and the narrowing of moral imagination in the slum. “Hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional…. The poor took one another down, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.

However………did we accept that her bleak and angry portrayal of slum-life was accurate, and her hard-hitting conclusions fair? Here we were in difficulty in making a judgement. Based on the facts she presented, her conclusions seemed solid to most of us. But we were in the author’s hands in terms of what she chose to show us of the slum-world. Certainly a recently created and large urban slum, with the population constantly changing, and with different religions and different backgrounds, might be less mutually supporting than a rural village or even a South African township. And extreme poverty might challenge most people’s feeling for their fellow human-beings.

But some wondered if Boo had in certain areas overstated her case. Were the slum-dwellers quite as mutually unsupportive as she concluded? Even on the evidence of the book there was not a lot of inter-slum theft or violence. Most of the witnesses in the Fatima case told the truth. And, as she herself acknowledged, there was less religious discrimination within the slum than might have been expected.

And the economy of the slum did function at a certain level, and did support the wider economy of Mumbai. The alternative of giving up and returning to the poverty of the countryside seemed, for most residents, to be even less attractive.

And there was some evidence of Indian government initiatives making progress. For example, the initiative to give the Dahlits priority in university entrance must have had some success to judge from the protests made by other caste groups.

And was the legal system quite as bad as Boo implied? “The Indian criminal system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.” But the fast track system, which she ridiculed mercilessly, had at least reached the right verdict. And many of the faults she depicted – the length of time to reach a verdict, the lack of understanding of what is said in dialect, maltreatment of suspects by the police – could be found in older legal systems much closer to home. And although various intermediaries in search of bribes asserted that lawyers or judges might be bribed, she presented no evidence of any such corruption.

So what hope for the future? One of us with much background in India had put to an Indian think-tank expert the view that corruption was India’s number one problem. The expert agreed, but, depressingly, said he could envisage no circumstances in which it might be tackled. One of the problems was that governments were generally coalitions between a major party (of which there were two), and smaller parties with only a regional or sectional rather than a national agenda. It was common to denounce corruption, but that was the corruption of your political opponents rather than systemic corruption in India.

But was our concern – and Boo’s concern – about corruption just another example of people in the west ignorantly trying to impose our value judgments on a foreign country? Well, that was always a danger, but we remembered the analysis in the “The Undercover Economist” by Tim Harford  (discussed 30/1/08) of how a country like Cameroon failed in economic growth compared to China.  It was not because of lack of entrepreneurial spirit, but because of corruption.

Perhaps we could only console ourselves by taking the longer view. It had taken Britain a couple of centuries to come to terms with the growth of urban slums associated with our agrarian and industrial revolutions. It was 1942 before the Beveridge Report proposed the developed welfare state along the lines we now know. As for corruption, it was 1853 before the Northcote Trevelyan report recommended that merit rather than “patronage, preferment or purchase” should be the basis for recruitment and promotion in the Civil Service.  We still had plenty of sink estates where life could be very unpleasant. In many respects India was now undergoing its own agrarian and industrial revolutions, and it would be naïve to expect them to be able solve the consequent problems overnight.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


The host for the evening introduced “Cochrane the Dauntless” by David Cordingly (2007) by explaining the reasons for his choice. He had first heard of Admiral Cochrane when visiting the famous M.V. Gardyloo in the company of a Government Minister. The Gardyloo was a sewage boat which sailed from Leith and deposited its cargo in the Firth of Forth. During this trip the Captain of the vessel enthused about the life and adventures of Cochrane, and insisted on giving two books from his extensive library to the Minister, who was himself a fan of Cochrane.

More recently the National Museum of Scotland, in partnership with the National Records of Scotland, featured an exhibition about Cochrane’s life and times. That exhibition,  between October 2011 and February 2012, also promoted the book by Cordingly. 

The decision to recommend the book was encouraged by the view that Cochrane was a Scot who had led a quite remarkable life. He had fought highly dramatic battles in Napoleonic times, becoming much celebrated, but had also been accused of conspiracy and fraud. He had recovered to have a whole new and highly celebrated naval career in South America. His life as so exciting that he was the inspiration for much naval fiction, including the work of Captain Marryat who served under him, C.S.Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, and more recently Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey. The Government of Chile was still so grateful to Cochrane that they held an annual memorial service to him in Westminster Abbey. Yet Cochrane was little known to most Scots, and little celebrated in Scotland.

The purpose of the recommendation was therefore to promote Cochrane rather than the book per se. However, the book had the merit of being a serious and properly referenced work of history, rather than the sort of sensationalist work that Cochrane often attracted.

With a number of members on holiday and others committed elsewhere, several of those unable to attend helpfully submitted their views on the book and these helped to stimulate the discussion.

The Group agreed that the most impressive features of the book were the quality and thoroughness of the research. 

However, for some, this was also a negative feature reducing the book’s fictional feel. The lack of speculation about “the why and wherefores” of the action or the absence of “embroidery” around the interpretation of decisions or events was considered by them to have robbed the reader of a better appreciation of the man. One of our absent colleagues commented that he felt that “the man disappeared behind the detail”, while another by contrast suggested that Cordingly might have sacrificed insight in order to achieve an easy read.

The opposing view was that it was a merit of the book that it did not project the author’s own speculations on to his subject, as more populist biographers like to do, but instead recorded what was actually known, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. This group felt that a very clear picture emerged of Cochrane’s strengths and weaknesses.

The initial discussion centred on the reasons for Cochrane’s successes. We identified as important his positive attitude, his innovative and creative approach to problem solving, and his determination to master all of the practical skills/crafts associated with the maintenance and sailing of ships. In addition, his fearlessness and his desire to lead from the front in naval battles were important. He was greatly respected by those who served under him, both because his ships suffered relatively few casualties and because his crew shared in the prize money won through his lucrative actions.  These factors, together with his indefatigable spirit, were considered to be the features that made the greatest contribution to his successes. One described him as an extraordinary polymath, moving from state sanctioned pirate to politician to inventor with varying degrees of success.

The importance of the navy in the war with the French had not been fully appreciated by the group before, but the “piratical” nature of the warfare clearly suited Cochrane’s maverick nature. The Admiralty made the most of this, appreciating his seamanship and his worth to the service, and cleverly deploying Cochrane’s potent mix of assets. It ensured his promotion and marked him out as “one to be watched”. The Admiralty was shrewd, and generally tolerant, in their deployment of Cochrane. They supported him when it suited, but finally closed ranks against him when his challenge to the establishment got out of hand.

We noted that patronage was a major factor affecting progress within the navy, and Cochrane benefited from family - and friends of family - interventions to secure positions at critical points in his career.

Some of our group considered Cochrane a flawed man, impulsive and reckless in both his deeds and in his total disregard for the establishment and authority. He was motivated by money to an excessive degree, no doubt reflecting his financially insecure upbringing. He also displayed a degree of paranoia on many occasions.

But we all marvelled at Cochrane’s resilience, deeply hurt by the stock exchange scandal. His move to South America, where he helped to liberate Chile, Peru and Brazil from their colonial masters, salvaged his pride and cemented his reputation as a great naval commander.

The group debated the reasons for British naval advantage at this time. Factors such as the design of ships and the quality of their build, the standard of equipment, the quality of training and tactics were all suggested as contributing factors. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, superiority came from the organisation and control exercised by the Admiralty itself. A combination of a skilled workforce, documented rules, slick processes and effective communication systems were developed, managed and deployed to great advantage.

Moreover, the financial model, which was built on the proceeds of the capture and disposal of enemy assets, was able to sustain the necessary scale and quality of the shipbuilding and ship repair industries to support the British fleet.

The conversation drifted into a discussion about other notable Scottish persons who, like Cochrane, had not been given credit for their achievements in Scotland. Adam Smith and James Clerk Maxwell were the first to be identified, but a virtual tsunami of names followed and the discussion lost coherence as differences of view emerged.

In order to remain united we returned to Cochrane and confirmed that with only one exception the entire group enjoyed the book. All were impressed by Cordingly’s research, but many wanted to learn more about the man and his relationships.

One member observed that it was a good idea to introduce a book about someone everyone knows a little about but not enough. Having read and discussed the book, I suspect most of our group would agree that they now know a little bit more about Cochrane, but not yet enough.

Sunday, July 21, 2013


He – the Cardinal, at his suburban Palace – introduces the book to the Council of Lords. It is “Bring up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel (2012), the second instalment of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. He has read both it and its predecessor “Wolf Hall” twice, enjoying them enormously, and finding them compelling despite their length. Mantel is one of the very small group of writers to win the Booker twice.

He hands round for our delectation some delicious salmon and bread rounds prepared in the famous Palace kitchens.

He – the Cardinal – is interested in the technicalities of how she writes and develops her narrative. He asks how we got on with the constant use of the present tense? Some commentators such as Philip Pullman are critical of the vogue for its use, arguing that present-tense narrative has a limited range of expressive use. He – Pullman - concedes that even writers such as Bronte and Dickens have used present-tense narrative, but in these cases it gains its effect by contrast with past-tense narrative.

We are happy with the present tense in this book. Perhaps the problem is that a success such as "Wolf Hall" breeds many imitators. In this case we love the immediacy and freshness of the book, her skill in judging pace, and the intensity of the drama.

He – the Archbishop of Brighton, resplendent in a tabard emblazoned with Brighton colours – wonders why the Cardinal chose the second and not the first book. “Has the Council found it difficult to start with the second?” He –we – maintain that this is not a problem. For “Bring up the Bodies” contains sufficient summaries of the previous plot to be self-standing. Indeed some of us are now reading “Wolf Hall” second, and without difficulty. “We shall therefore soon have both a trilogy and three separate books” the Archbishop concludes, with the finality of a dungeon door closing.

He – the Earl of Lancaster – now raises a quizzical eyebrow. “Does it matter if the history is inaccurate?” This question, a fox in the henyard, sets the Council aflutter. “We are judging the book as literature not history. Shakespeare’s histories are riddled with inaccuracy, but we think no less of them” is one response, which attracts some nods. But he – Lancaster - continues to chase the hens: “So what if the novel is about an entirely fictional set of characters? Would it be as good?” ….. “Ahhh ……well maybe not …part of the pleasure of the books is the sense of her trying to turn the bare bones of historical events into real life, into thinking and feeling people with their motivations….it gives it more resonance”… “Okay I agree...if just invented, the characters would be less complex.

He – we – the Council - like the hypnotic, meditative rhythm of the book. It is a sort of stream of consciousness technique, but much more disciplined than earlier examples. The narrative and characters emerge clearly from what is revealed of Cromwell’s mind, and not a word seems wasted (although not all say the same of “Wolf Hall”, which some feel is the lesser book).

Mantel’s force of historical imagination is remarkable as she conjures up a complete sixteenth century world. She has immersed herself in an enormous amount of research, yet the narrative never flags or becomes weighed down by excessive detail. And we are fascinated by the way the thread of international politics is woven into the narrative.

Her Tudor world is tangible in all its sights and smells. We love the poetic language, the observation of the natural world, the evocation of the changing seasons, the mists off the Thames in the morning. “When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it." And it is a remarkable tribute to Mantel’s force of imagination that she only uses imagery – similes and metaphors – which draw on the actual world of the sixteenth century. "Sampson laughs; it is a clerical laugh, like the creak of a vestment chest”.

 So a magnificent tour de force….but, hark, are there dissenters knocking at the door? Some are irritated by all the qualifying of who “he” denotes. “Why not just say Cromwell rather than ‘he – Cromwell’?”  Ah well” intones a defender of the Blessed Hilary – “ but if she just said ‘Cromwell’ you would lose the sense of being inside his head. In “Wolf Hall” there was said to be too much ambiguity as to who ‘he’ was, hence the clumsy device of qualifying “he” in the second book.


“Any more dissent?”

He - le Seigneur de la rue de Pâques - confesses he finds the character of Cromwell less than coherent, despite the endless detail. It is a bold attempt to give a more sympathetic take on Cromwell. But somehow this thoroughly decent Cromwell with whose thoughts we engage, with his twenty first century consciousness and hand-wringing liberalism, does not square with the ruthless vindictiveness of the man who brings Anne and sundry courtiers to the scaffold. Yes, the emphasis on the brutality of his childhood is an attempt to construct a character comfortable with brutality, but it does not really hold together. One possibility is that the author is showing Cromwell’s self-deception, but that does not cohere either.

Other members of the Council bang their goblets down and rise to dispute this stain on the reputation of the embookered Mantel. He - Lord Shyberry Excelsior – sees Cromwell as the classic Machiavellian. Thus – taking into account Wolf Hall – he manipulates Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall to serve himself, Henry, and to revenge himself. Does it not make it more enjoyable to read when he is given a twenty first century consciousness? And do not even the worst monsters such as Hitler show sentimentality towards their family and pets? Perhaps he was not sadistic as such, but not at all concerned by procuring executions if they helped Thomas Cromwell achieve his objectives.

He - the Cardinal - points out how much space is given to Cromwell’s redeeming features. He may be cold-blooded, but he is sorry for Mary, and pleasant to Jane Seymour for no reason other than sympathy. And he was very loyal to he – the other Cardinal. Cromwell is fine as long as you are the right side of him. There is also a mystery about what went on in Europe - about how Cromwell  makes the transition from abused child to the man who returned from Europe with such a wide range of skills and knowledge as to seem almost superhuman.

He - his emissary il Marquesa di Val Porcino from Lazio – takes a more charitable view. Cromwell is a man who has risen from nothing by means of his wits, and needs to protect his back in the wolf-eat-wolf world of the court, where whether your neck stays attached to your head depends on the latest whim of Henry. Cromwell’s behaviour is determined simply by an attempt to give Henry what he wanted – he was not a cruel man as such. If you do not give the King what he wants, or if his whim changes, your neck ceases to be attached to your head. And even the King’s erratic behaviour can be partly defended by the power of contemporary religious belief, and the King’s view that his failure to produce a son must mean that God disapproves of his marriage.

He – the Marquess of Lothian – feels Cromwell is intelligent, highly manipulative, and completely immoral in pursuing his ends.  The fact that he has a caring side makes his ruthlessness even starker. Cromwell is a very damaged character, whose traumatic childhood led him to behave in such a sinister way. He is cruel psychologically – he puts people through great stress. And he succeeds only too well in ridding Henry of his wife and generating vast sums of money for the king and for himself. Moreover, given the limited amount of known historical fact, the portrait of Cromwell rightly leaves quite a bit to the reader’s conjecture.

The King’s Apothecary  puts his finger on a passage which he feels sums up Cromwell well:

How [he] has achieved such his present eminence is a question all Europe asks…No one knows where he has been and who he has met…He never spares himself in the king’s service,...and makes sure of his reward...He has a way of getting his way, he has a method; he will charm a man or bribe him, coax him or threaten him…he will introduce [him] to aspects of himself he didn’t know existed. He is not in the habit of explaining himself….Whenever good fortune has called on him, he has been there, planted on the threshold, ready to fling open the door to her timid scratch on wood...

What he  - the Archbishop of Brighton - sees is a multi-faceted portrait of Cromwell built up from snippets of his past, and a Cromwell who can only take decisions on the basis of what will help him survive. But he – Brighton – also draws attention to the Cromwell who is the “founder of the modern state”. He gives Parliament a constitutional role in the break with Rome, and modernises religion with a bible in English and the dissolution of the monasteries. At the same time he shows humanity with pensions for monks and the first introduction of poor relief.

So despite living inside Cromwell’s mind for hundreds of pages there are many different Cromwells who populate the minds of the Council. (Rather too many Cromwells methinks for your indefatigable scribe to follow). One of the reasons for the ambiguity is that Mantel shows very little of his reflections before he launches into action. In “Wolf Hall” she describes him as inscrutable, and even has him suggest that he does not understand his own motivations. And what historical evidence there is suggests a man of exceptional ability, and a man of great contradiction and complexity. Perhaps the third volume will clarify matters.

But the Council uniformly approves of the portraits of Henry and Anne. Anne is shown as shrill, manipulative and ambitious; she only achieves dignity in the lead up to her execution. Henry is shown as someone who wants to do manly things, and, sometimes, to do the right thing, but whose good intentions are easily over-ridden by self-deception. By the end of the book his powers are clearly waning, and he appears a weak bully.

And the Council of Lords are unanimous that “Bring up the Bodies” is a relative rarity amongst Booker winners in being completely deserving of the highest accolade.

He – the King’s Apothecary – then shares with us a few medical secrets from the King’s bedchamber about his virility or lack thereof, and some choice medical details about the scaffold. He – she, Mantel – is not reticent about scaffold gore either. As Margaret Atwood puts it: “Mantel generally answers the same kind of question that interest readers of court reports of murder trials or coverage of royal weddings.”

He – me, your scribe – finds all this talk of the scaffold unsettling. Idly fingering the back of my neck, I reach out for another salmon delicacy to distract me. Looking at it with relish, I then notice how cleanly severed the bread is. And the pink and white tracery reminds me only too clearly of Anne Boleyn’s final morning….

Then the drawbridge is lowered and the Lords thunder off back to the city.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


“Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt” by Richard Holloway, was published in 2012 by Canongate. Richard Holloway was the Bishop of Edinburgh from 1986 to 2000, and therefore this book was of special interest to our Edinburgh-based book group. Indeed, several of our members had encountered him either socially or professionally, and one had been a member of his congregation.

For any Sassenach reading this, I should explain that Richard Holloway was a Bishop in the Scottish Episcopal Church. This is a completely different church from the Church of Scotland, which is protestant (Presbyterian) and does not have any Bishops at all. Neither of these churches is the same as the Church of England. And although the Episcopal Church has some of the ‘bells and smells’ associated with Catholicism, it is not the same as the Roman Catholic Church, which by the way is also alive and well in Scotland. The Scottish Episcopal Church believes, however, as the Roman Catholic Church also believes, in the doctrine of apostolic succession, whereby the Bishops are in a direct line of succession from the apostles.

It is useful to know the religious background of Scotland before tackling the book, as much of Holloway’s memoir is about the author’s struggle to reconcile religious doctrine with his own observations of people and society. As somebody said, religion in Scotland can get you into trouble from childhood onwards. One member recalled his own childhood.  If you are an Episcopalian, Protestants think you are a Catholic and beat you up, and Catholics think you are a Protestant and beat you up. You can’t win.

Yes, religion is complicated in Scotland, and the Scots take it seriously; they attend church more than the English and they have more denominations of Christianity. Visitors to this part of Edinburgh are surprised to see that in one location, a crossroads known as ‘Holy Corner’, four denominations of Christianity are represented by a church on each corner.

The member introducing the book said it was about ‘Richard Holloway and his soul’, and the work of a great spiritual intellect, yet written in a gentle and engaging style. We nodded in agreement. He pointed out that the author had insisted the book is not an autobiography, but a ‘memoir’.  He went on to say that the book was controversial, but one of our group took issue with that. Well, Holloway himself had obviously been a controversial character, as his frequently-expressed views were not always orthodox, but the book did not seek to be controversial. It merely wrote down the author’s thoughts and experiences on religion, God and people.

This man had, after all, been thinking and writing about Christian doctrine for nearly 50 years. He held strong positions on such matters as the ordination of women and marriage of homosexuals, in fact all the issues which have been tearing churches apart for the last few decades.  For much of his life Holloway had championed these ‘progressive’ causes, and had thus run up against hostility from his parishioners and some of his fellow clerics.

But to begin at the beginning. Holloway was a working class boy, brought up in the small Scottish town of Alexandria, near to Loch Lomond. It is an unremarkable town, with only one notable building - a magnificent Victorian edifice that was once Scotland’s first motor car factory. The building was later converted into a torpedo factory, and is now rather ignominiously converted into a series of cut-price shops. His childhood was unremarkable, going to the cinema, trips to Glasgow, learning about sexual matters the hard way, walking in the hills.

Although his parents were not religious, he sang in the local church choir. He says it was not the ‘wee church’ that he fell in love with, but what it pointed towards (the idea of an ‘elsewhere’). He became an altar boy, and from there at the tender age of 14 he left Alexandria (hence the book’s title) and went to Kelham Theological College to train for the priesthood. He describes the regime of cold showers, with the frequent taking of mass and the long periods of quiet contemplation and prayer.

During the holidays he goes home and helps with the harvest, encountering Brenda the Land Girl from Glasgow, and has a sexual awakening. He writes touchingly about such things, and is often extremely funny when speaking of intimate human encounters. Later, back at Kelham he talks to the beloved Father Peter about the biology of sex; Peter gives him the impression that God himself regarded the whole business of sex as regrettable and wished that he’d invented a less troublesome way of guaranteeing the continuance of the species. Holloway becomes rather interested in sexual matters, as any enquiring lad does at that age (but most of us don’t write it down in a book, and we especially might not write it down if we were connected with the church in some way).

One way to read this book was to take its main theme to be ‘does God exist?’. But this was too simplistic; the real theme was ‘how does a man of God (or any man) deal with his doubts about the existence of God?’. Or, more broadly, he was trying to find out who he was.  Many of us know that struggle. The author points out that theists and atheists have more in common with each other than they do with agnostics; the analogy is with the chess board being black and white, never grey. We were reminded of previous book we had read: Chris Mullin’s A View From the Foothills (2009). Mullin was an extremely able Member of Parliament who did not quite fit the role he had been given. We also recalled Bishop of Woolwich’s Honest to God (1963), and the preaching of David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham.

Someone once told him, ‘Richard, the trouble with you is that you publish every thought you have’. Why did people write such books (he’s written 28)? Was it narcissism? Not in this case. Was it a way to apologize to those people he offended? No, at least not entirely. It was mostly to help him set his thoughts in order, a well-known path to self-knowledge. One conclusion was ‘being who we were, we were bound to act the way we did.’

Perhaps writing a book like this is cathartic, like a Confessional. He stands naked before his readership, just as Alan Ginsberg the American poet of the 1950s is said to have stood naked before his audience. But does he reveal everything? There were large areas where he did not go: his family, his experiences in Africa for example.

We found it hard to understand why he accepted the post of Bishop when he was so unsure of his beliefs. He should have stepped back from the opportunity. Parishioners entrusted their spiritual welfare to him, and he may have let them down. Was he too self-indulgent? He was certainly politically naive. But wasn’t Jesus like that? Both Holloway and Jesus felt their place was with the poor, the sick, the outcasts who could not help themselves.

What does it mean to be a Christian and did Holloway even qualify? Simply to behave like Jesus and to follow Jesus’s teaching is only a part of being a Christian. You can follow Jesus’s teaching as summarized in the beatitudes by becoming a socialist or a social worker, yet not be a Christian.

It seems to me that to qualify, under the doctrines of all Christian denominations, you have to believe that Christ was the son of God, and that he was crucified to save mankind, and that he resurrected and ascended into heaven. But isn’t it too much to ask modern people to believe? Isn’t that like believing in fairies and Santa Claus, and do Christians today really believe in all that?  On page 156-158 he explains how he struggled with one of the centrepieces of Christian doctrine, the Resurrection, and how he felt on the first occasion he had to present an Easter sermon.  For him, Jesus did not physically rise from the dead and ascend into heaven. It was impossible. Rather, the Resurrection was a metaphor for the possibility of change and renewal.

Then he moves on (page 159) to ask what happened before the Big Bang. Of course, science cannot tell us. Some Christians say it proves that science has somehow failed in this crucial area where Christianity provides an explanation, i.e. God. Holloway does not say that, simply that we have to learn to live with uncertainty, it is a part of the state of being. I love this stuff.

At this stage in the evening my thoughts were disturbed by a dreadful rasping noise, which I first took to be the heating system about to explode.   But no-one else seemed concerned. Then I realized the dog was in the room, and considered that the sound must be the beast’s snoring. But no; our host stood up, and walked across to that dark part of the room. ‘Anyone for coffee?’. The rasping had only been the coffee machine.

Yes, the book has humour, lots of it. For me, the funniest part was his experimental talking in tongues to a complete stranger, a young woman of Chinese appearance, at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. She fled.

The writing was sometimes poetic and profound:

Religion’s insecurity makes it shout not whisper, strike with the fist in the face not tug gently with the fingers on the sleeve. Yet, beneath the shouting and the striking, the whisper can sometimes be heard. And from a great way off the tiny figure of Jesus can be seen on the seashore, kindling the fire’.

The final chapter ‘Epilogue’ includes his thoughts during a walk in the Pentland Hills to the south of Edinburgh.  He raises massive issues for all religious people:

Was religion a lie? Not necessarily, but it was a mistake. Lies are just lies, but mistakes can be corrected and lessons can be learned from them. The mistake was to think religion was more than human. I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, a work of art – an opera – and could be appreciated as such. The real issue was whether it should be given more authority over us than any other work of art, especially if it is the kind of authority that overrides our own better judgements’. 

The book was certainly thought-provoking. We admired the fluency with which the author expressed his deepest feelings. You do not have to be a Christian to be moved by this book; it is surely one of the most engaging books to have been written in 2012.