Sunday, 19 November 2017

Advent is for Christ, not chocolate

Advent, the start of the Church year, the period of early December to Christmas is my refuge, much enjoyed by other churchgoers, from Christmas commercialisation. Now we see a new trend for non-religious Advent Calendars. These are filled not with scenes of wisemen, stars, farm animals, donkeys but mini perfumes, make-up, dog treats and chocolates. Some of these cost in the region of £200. There are stacks of chocolate-filled ‘Advent calendars’ in my local supermarket, costing upwards of ten pounds for chocolate weighing barely more than a large bar: not a good bargain for the consumer. More waste paper, more sugar, more looting of Christianity, for profit. What has this got to do with the real St Nicholas of Smyrna?

Eric Fromm identified the core of modernity as the ‘syndrome of decay’ or ‘necrophilia’, the urge to destroy everything meaningful and to crush true life, to turn everything into mechanics without meaning. It is the mechanistic mindset of those unconsciously serving the anti-life force (usually but not always in the form of profit and greed) attempting to make everything the same as it is - and controllable.

Necrophilia is obsessed with destruction, death, dehumanising everything - in order to crush diverse, unique and fascinating life. Necrophilia seeks to transform the organic into the inorganic, to approach life mechanically, as if all people were ‘things’. So all living processes, feelings and thoughts are transformed into the material. What could more transform an idea into a thing than to turn a deep spiritual wonder into a little bite of chocolate, produced by the sweat of the brow of the workers of West Africa?

Perverting goodness, even the whole of Christmas for shareholders' profit, not caring whether it destroys the divine magic is necrophilic. We all know that eating sweets is bad for the body and probably kills you earlier, so what connection has this with the massively pro-life coming of the Light of the World in the ever amazing Incarnation? People, many already overweight, put on even more pounds at Christmas from over-indulgence. Now, that damaging process is starting three weeks early! Turning what is spiritual into what is bodily is integral to Fromm’s definition of ‘necrophilia’.  The aim or necrophilia to kill us all - earlier than otherwise.

Its opposite is ‘biophilia’ : the love of life and the desire to support and promulgate it. What could be more biophilic than The Nativity Story? My advice is be a biophile this Advent and buy an advent calendar with Bible verses.  Resist the star not of Bethlehem but death, by staying thin.

For more on necrophilia and biophilia, see Eric Fromm's book:
Some of his other titles:

Monday, 6 November 2017

Review of film 'Breathe' about service, love, disability - and courage

Scenes from the film Breathe (see link for photos) stay in the mind hours after seeing it, partly due to its truth to the tough life on which it is based.  The story is basically about love, team work and hope overcoming a serious disability, for the most part.

Former Army Officer Robin Cavendish and his new wife Diana, a descendant of Sir Robert Peel founder of the police force, expect a well connected, comfortable life ahead of them, when he is struck down with paralysing polio in Kenya and left on a ventilator, wanting to die.  Diana persuades him to live and then he is determined not to vegetate in a British hospital ward in the early 1960s.

With her 24/7 help, he 'escapes', lives at home in a grand if cold and crumbling former rectory in Oxfordshire, using a ventilator, for 35 years.  With the help of an Oxford professor, they design a wheelchair with ventilator, to set many others free. It is the prototype of the advanced 'kit' that today integrates even the most seriously disabled and uses their gifts.  Professor Stephen Hawking springs to mind.

The difference in the case of Robin and Diana Cavendish is clearly grit, a loving partnership already in place, family support and money. Their families had wealth unlike so many families stuggling with often marginalised disability: but to their credit they used their wealth to help others and their connections to bring in more money.  Their legacy is a trust fund that helps seriously disabled people have real holidays: The Cavendish Spencer Trust.  The lesson from Breathe is:  take risks and even with a serious disability, make your dreams come true.

The film works on many layer. It is nice to look at; it is well acted by young lead actors, especially Claire Foy, as the devoted wife who can easily call forth tearful emotion.  It is also a deeply searing film but one which everyone should see.  One comes out of the cinema thinking: "I can breathe, walk and talk.  What a gift that is!".  One also has a new insight into disability and its effects.

I wanted to know more about what lies at the root of this affirmation of life (for most of the film). Was devoted Diana expressing not just her love for Robin, but a Christian faith? We know that Robin (who got the MBE as a disability campaigner and died in 1994) was an atheist, which explains the painful situation of how he decides to act on bleeding from the lungs caused on stants ventilation for 35 years.  Should he have acted differently?  What does telling the final part of the story do for severely disabled people today, with less support, feeling more of a burden on meagre resources? Does it weaken their position? We know that Diana was against how Robin reacted - which for me suggests her life is founded on her faith.

If Diana (who surely also deserves the MBE) is a believer, and her love and energy comes from that, surely that should have been stated?  We are called to gloify God, not ourselves (not that she is doing that herself).  It is her Eton-educated, producer son, Jonathan, who made the film, telling his parents' (mostly) inspiring story.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Motiveless Killer

At school, at French 'A' Level, I was forced to read the novel, The Stranger by Albert Camus in French. My sophisticated French teacher taught me the creed of 'Existentialism', a repulsive French theory about life being totally pointless, which is what the ‘Enlightenment’ became among some French intellectuals, during the 20th century. After all, once you discard belief in God, what is there but 'nothing'? Camus denied that The Stranger was about Existentalism, but no one told me, at the time. Maybe studying it was just an excuse for the State to teach us contemporary French philosophy?

Its antihero is an amoral, sensual white French Algerian, Meursault, who lacks any sort of feeling for anyone. He is bored to death with life. If you want an example of someone without a soul, Meursault is your man. One day, just because he is irritated by the heat and sun, he shoots dead an innocent Arab. He is completely detached from life, from morality and all responsibility. He is not just 'dead', Meursault is a modern savage. Yet, disturbingly, the novel describes him as if he is 'everyman'.

I wondered why my teacher had given me this text, at fifteen? Was it to tell me that life was pointless, to try to stop me trying to make (moral) sense of it? Or was it to tell me that I must acquiesce in the savagery of the twentieth century, a century of two World Wars and a Spanish Civil War, in which Europe's advanced industrialised nations had nearly destroyed themselves. Surely, the view goes, these brutal wars had ‘proved’ that man is uncivilised, that there is no God upholding a moral universe and that fundamentally our actions do not matter....

I guess my stylish teacher was a committed atheist because in my view, no Christian teacher would have chosen this as an exam text. However, in French literature, with the exception of Hugo and a few other writers, there is little choice because much of it is purely 'secular' (a mild way of putting it). Nevertheless, I was quite angry about being given this book to read. We should have had free choice about the texts we were given to write about, at that age, not plunged into cynicism about life, from the start. It took me years to fully throw off 'Existentialism'.

After the tragic events in Las Vegas this week, I suddenly remembered Meursault: the motiveless ‘existential’ destroyer. Was he more relevant than I thought? Is Meursault the total stranger in our midst, now? Was this book horribly prophetic?

Friday, 18 August 2017

Film Review: 'Dunkirk'

‘Dunkirk‘, directed by Christopher Nolan is about Operation Dynamo (May 1940), the rescue of 330,000 stranded British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. It is told, supposedly, from the point of view of British troops and pilots.  As a military exercise, it was the reverse of D-Day, without suitable landing craft.

The Moonstone used in the film took part in the 1940 rescue
By Foxy59 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

This rescue gave rise to the Churchill's dramatic and morale boosting 'we shall fight them on the beaches' speech. The evacuation prevented many men spending the war fighting disease and likely death in Nazi factories, labour camps and mines (as happened to the 40,000 British soldiers left behind). It is a film that is short on dialogue and over-reliant on sustained sounds and explosions but Dunkirk veterans say it is technically and visually realistic and highlights the pointlessness of war. ‘The Moonstone’ and twelve other little ships featured were actually at Dunkirk in 1940.

Watching it on a large screen, I certainly tasted something of the narrow and terrifying reality. However, this film does not tell the most moving part of this classic and spiritual story. Instead, it reflects a narrow and deChristianised (postmodern) viewpoint which strips truth and meaning from our history. Complaints that 'women and ethnic minorities do not feature' in it sound like political correctness - but actually they are not without validity. Unknown actors play ordinary ‘Tommies’ portrayed as ‘everyman’ who are focused far too much on ‘personal hygiene’ issues (for my taste). They are seeking every way to ‘sneak’ home, when in fact, the majority of soldiers patiently stood in British queues waist deep in the cold sea being bombed. The lead actors seem unsympathetic characters, needlessly unheroic - a bit of an insult to the memory of so many noble sacrifices.

The film completely lacks the Christian element in William Wyler’s ‘Mrs Miniver’ made in 1943 (see the pastoral speech that was reproduced as real propaganda during World War Two). 'Mrs Miniver' starred noble-faced, Presbyterian actress Greer Garson married to Walter Pigeon who sails in the ‘little ships’ to save troops from the beaches. Without this willing 'Dunkirk spirit', the soul of this story dies.The real Dunkirk story lies in two moving things which are the quintessence of truth about Britain:
  • Britain is defended (by God, according to Shakespeare) through the ‘wall’ of the sea and its islanders are good sailors, as a result; 
  • historically, Britain has survived major threats to its continuance from Europe through exercising faith and prayer. 
I believe that the Dunkirk National Day of Prayer, called by the King George VI, changed the course of the entire war at this darkest hour of the Dunkirk 'encirclement'. As an apparent outcome, Hitler (totally inexplicably) halted his relentless ‘blitzkrieg’ tank divisions from advancing towards the Channel ports and driving the French and British into the sea; bad weather diminished the German aerial bombardment of the beaches; then it cleared just in time to let the little ships through to the French beaches sailing on a glassy sea. The God of weather and perfect timing seemed to intervene, as during the Armada. A film can convey the reality without ‘the soul’, miss the real point by telling half a story.

The real power and meaning of this story is: hidden power in weakness set against strength'. This is a Biblical principle (2 Cor 1.4 - 'when I am weak then I am strong') because God works in the world apparently ‘weakly’ so that He gets the glory. Weakness is symbolised by:

  • the terrified, hungry, cold and feeble men up to their necks in the sea just holding on against the might of the ruthless Nazi 'war machine' prepared to dive bomb lines of men trapped on jetties; 
  • the little pleasure boats and paddle steamers risking the dangerous and changeable English Channel and a fierce aerial bombing
  • the humanity of the decision to risk the defence of the whole island to save just 200,000 fellow islanders stuck a few miles across the English Channel.
This last point is the strongest one made by the film:  it is explained that Churchill had expected to save just 30,000 men (out of 330,000) and possibly preserve a limited number of Spitfires and Navy ships for the subsequent Nazi onslaught on Britain itself. In fact, around 250 precious aeroplanes were lost defending men on the beaches at Dunkirk and 226 vessels, plus a massive amount of hardware and supplies, were forfeit. The film’s message conveys humanity and hope -  that people matter more than machines even when your back is up against a wall. But the wider story is also missing:
  • the heroism of those (British and French) who were ordered to ‘fight to the last man’, holding off the German advance from the beaches. They are not featured but we owe so much to them in making time for the full evacuation. 
  • an insight into who it was, in the Admiralty, who thought of the ‘miraculous’ plan of using small boats. I'd like to think it was a ‘brainwave’ coming out of The National Day of Prayer for Dunkirk (but I may be wrong). 
  • how the Dunkirk rescue was conducted from The Dynamo Room inside the White Cliffs of Dover. 
The vision of 'Dunkirk' may be hyper auditory, hyper visual and hyper realistic but it is far too narrow in its imaginative, spiritual, emotional scope - and therefore in its relevance and humanity. It is probably better to watch the warm Oscar winning ‘Mrs Miniver’ (only available from Amazon). There is also another film that could be made about the power of prayer ‘at the eleventh hour’. Having said, that if one wants to taste the full horror of war and witness the despicable inhumanity of mankind, see 'Dunkirk' at an iMax cinema (but also take earplugs!).

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Grandfather's message about gardens

I'm creating a garden around our new patio, hanging baskets and laying rolls of lawn. This piece of earth was a dark wilderness, with strange dappled light and unforgiving shade. So though the space has opened up to the sun, I plant with caution relying on elegant ferns that thrive in lowish light.

As it nears completion, my grandfather’s love of gardening comes often to mind. Like us, he lived in a bungalow. One of the cherished memories of my childhood is being shown his chrysanthemums and then inspecting his concrete garden plaque with this very famous quote. It was favoured by thousands of veterans of World War One.

garden.jpg(from Our Daily Blossom - link below).The source poem is "God's Garden" lines 13–16. Poems, by Dorothy Frances Gurney (London: Country Life, 1913).

He drew our attention to the plaque every time we visited him. It was one of his two messages to us, as children. The other one was "Enjoy your childhood : these are the best days of your life".  Even at eleven and an atheist, I knew the author was a Christian, so I wondered why my apparently unbelieving grandfather so admired it. It was never clear to me whether he was telling us about cherishing nearness to God, or the joys of gardening! Children should ask these questions at the time or they will never find out. Though brought up within a vibrant church, my grandfather went through the full horrors of World War One, and as a result probably lost his faith. He was a socialist local councillor in the 30s, but became disillusioned with left wing politics and what he saw as selfishness and financial greed. When I knew him, he voted Conservative. I never recall he went to church, but possibly, at heart, he wished he still did.

Sadly, the faith of that whole European generation was shattered by the industrialised slaughter of World War One. In early December our family reaches the centenary of his walk, aged nineteen, towards enemy machine guns in a field in remote France. Austrian gunners mowed down his entire troop of Welsh Guards, some of whom died singing hymns of unbroken faith. He survived, though badly shot, by falling into a shell hole and admirably staunching the profuse bleeding of his double wound. The arrival of a tank at dawn, then a brand new British invention, saved him. Did nearness to God in a garden somehow keep faith with the Welsh who died singing out their faith? At any rate, it is a kind of victory over the darkest days of the 20th century.

These lines were written by the daughter of the vicar of St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London, granddaughter of the Bishop of London, Dorothy Frances Gurney a poet and hymnwriter. She wrote them in the visitors’ book at Hammerfield, Penshurst, Kent a house about five miles from where we live now. Part of that house was marketed last year as having a 'delightful', if now neglected and overgrown garden. No one says in the particulars, that the garden once inspired the famous poem.

Her poem, 'God's Garden', sees God as a creator of the Garden of Eden and envisages how The Almighty enjoyed His evening walks in it; then He broke His heart to heal our soul in the Garden of Gethsemane. I particularly warm to her perception that bird song is expressing mirth and that the sun brings healing if not actual pardon (only accessible through the Cross).

Gardens are powerful in terms of rest and healing, reflecting heavenly relief from pain and stress. Healing is a key activity of the compassionate Divine presence. Personally, I feel closest to God in nature, when gazing on remote mountain peaks - but then I have never, until now, had an English garden to sit in. One must reflect, in tranquil gardens, on Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God”.

The genius of this poem is that it sees the Divine in the accessible and commonplace and in 'this moment in time'. It recalls for me what T S Eliot says in the soothing (and believing) 'Four Quarters': "Now, and in England" (Little Gidding). Sitting in a garden in the Garden of England (Kent), with sun and birdsong is an experience close to heaven.

Thank you, Dorothy and grandfather : message understood. Sit, live and mediate in an English garden (and buy the plaque).

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Rare Elizabethan mansion: Cobham Hall

We spent Bank Holiday Monday at The Leather Bottle, Charles Dickens’ favourite pub in Cobham near Rochester, Kent and touring Cobham Hall. The Hall is only open on selected days as it is a private girls' school.

Cobham Hall is a vast and outstandingly beautiful red brick mansion in a large park, built in 1584, a combination of Elizabethan, Jacobean, Carolean and 18th Century styles. When new, Lord Brooke, Lord Chamberlain, with the power of censorship, in Shakespeare's time, lived here. A smaller house had been visited by Elizabeth 1st in 1559. Henrietta Maria and Charles 1st spent their honeymoon night at Cobham Hall. Royalty down the centuries have been entertained here, most recently Edward VIII.

Mistresses of Cobham Hall included Frances Stewart better known as 'Britannia' on the old penny coin. She was the pin-up of the Court of Charles II, married the Duke of Richmond and lived at Cobham Hall, without succumbing to the ardent pursuit of Charles II. Samuel Pepys thought she was the most beautiful woman he ever saw:  she clearly lived, while her husband was alive, in one of the most beautiful houses in England. Her face as Britannia was struck on coins and medals by the enamoured King. It was on the 50p piece in 2005.cobham1.jpgStuart.jpg

Britannia, mistress of Cobham Hall, Francis Stuart, Duchess of Richmond by Peter Lely - Royal Collection, Public Domain

The house is H-shaped, with Elizabethan wings. The central section contains the Gilt Hall, by John Webb which was in place by the time of Frances Stewart. We had tea and cakes in the stylish, ducal Gilt Hall to celebrate my cousin’s birthday. The whole Gilt hall celebrates music. Below, right, is the musicians' gallery.
Further rooms were later decorated by James Wyatt in the 18th Century. There is an Italian carriage or two seater ‘chariot’ dating from 1721, which for its complexity and weight was a tight squeeze.
The artworks are mainly copies, the originals having been sold fifty years ago, when the Earls of Darnley moved out, to national galleries, to the Royal Collection in London or overseas. Charles Dickens regularly walked through the grounds, cutting through on his semi marathon walks between from his house in Higham (Gad's Hill) to Rochester. He had a key to the grounds as a close friend of the 6th Earl of Darnley.

In 1883, England cricket captain Hon. Ivo Bligh, later the 8th Earl of Darnley, led the victorious English cricket team against Australia and brought home ‘The Ashes’ to Cobham Hall (which may in fact be ashed from the library hearth, the urn having been dropped. The Ashes (of bats) were awarded to him by an Australian lady, Florence Morphy from Melbourne who later became his wife, the Countess of Darnley and doyenne of magnificent Cobham Hall. I was not surprised to find that the entire Hall was used to tend Australian wounded during World War One, its beauties comforting men after Gallipoli.
Australian Florence Morphy who became  mistress of Cobham Hall Morphy.jpg
The Blighs, Earls of Darnley enjoyed the lovely library (which we all expressed the wish to live in) with its door disguised as bookshelves i.e fake book spines - a crafty technique that Dickens imitated in his own study at nearby Gad’s Hill (but all his titles are amusing, or puns). Dickens knew this library well, being a close friend of the Earl and they drank together at the Leather Bottle, in Cobham village. There is original Regency wallpaper in one state bedroom and a plethora of breathtaking Flemish 17th century marble fireplaces (late Elizabethan) some with the artist’s head and a possible death mask of Mary Queen of Scots in marble. These fireplaces are the glory of the internal parts of the house.

The exquisite Tudor external and inner courtyards have great, if eccentric charm. Actually, they show lack of a proper understanding of classical perspective before Inigo Jones was sent to Rome by the Earl of Pembroke to measure the proportions of fallen classical columns and get perspective 'right'. He did this for the first time in The Queen’s House in Greenwich and then in The Banqueting House, Whitehall. Cobham Hall demonstrates native British architecture (brickwork) at its very best and it is breathtaking. The ruling Tudors and nobility were not ashamed to build in the underlying clay of the South East and to add imposing gatehouses, entrances and cupolas. The imaginative Tudors and Elizabethans 'fantasised' in red brickas below:

The gardens, landscaped for the 4th Earl of Darnley by Humphrey Repton are being restored by the Cobham Hall Heritage Trust. The Gothic Dairy, The Pump House and some of the classical garden buildings are also being renovated. The Landmark Trust aims to renovate and rent out the tumbled down Gothic Dairy by Wyatt, where 18th century Countesses made cheese like shepherdess Queen,  Marie Antoinette. The grounds can be visited on open days  (£2.50 for gardens only) and yield many delights for the lover of nature, especially in spring, when the gardens and woods are resplendent with bluebells daffodils, narcissi and a myriad of rare bulbs.

  • Cobham Hall is only open to the public on certain dates. Guided tours of the house cost £5.50. 
  • For public opening times see the website of Cobham Hall School.
  • For holidays in historic buildings, see The Landmark TrustFor a video of the renovation of Cobham Dairy see here
  • A fully clothed and impressive wax effigy is the intended monument of Frances Stewart ('Britannia') shown at the bottom of this web page for Westminster Abbey where she is buried with her husband.