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J Whitgift "J Whitgift" (London)

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Hate: My Life in the British Far Right
Hate: My Life in the British Far Right
by Matthew Collins
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.11

8 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Could have been excellent, but too bogged down in technicalities, 30 Sep 2011
The rise of the far right in Britain is one of the most worrying features of our early 21st century political system; whether it's the rise of the English Defence League, or the BNP gaining seats in the European Parliament. What Collins' book does is to unpack, through the means of autobiography, what draws people to the far right, how the world of the far right is split by inter-nicene bickering and how political violence sits at the centre of this political world.

Unfortunately Collins' book is only of limited value in exploring this world. It is not Collins' literary voice (South London) that is the problem, though I do find it irritating, rather the main problem with this book is the assumption of in-depth knowledge of the far right world of the 1970s-90s and its conflicts. (Like the Trotskyite left, the far right spends more of its time fighting internal battles than it does those it sees as its enemies*. A good example would be the battle throughout the period between the National Front and the BNP and various factions within each party). Descriptive terms such as `Political Soldier' movement litter the text, but will mean little to many readers. Likewise the reader is expected to know many of the names of senior BNP/NF members, which also litter the text. Much of this is highly technical and can leave the reader (including myself) scratching their head.

This is very much a book for the technician wishing to understand the far right world of the period and for readers of `Searchlight' magazine rather than the general reader. A real shame, as this book could have more impact if it wasn't so technical, but rather spent time explaining what the various terms and ideas under discussion in the text.

* The 'Peoples' Front of Judea' sketch from 'Monty Python's Life of Brian' is a spoof of this world.

Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe
Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe
by Charles Freeman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 23.64

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good narrative history, but lacks in-depth analysis, 29 Sep 2011
Relics are an endless source of fascination, both to the faithful who revere them as holy objects and to those of no religious persuasion who are either drawn to them or repelled by them. Indeed this timely tome, published to coincide with the British Museum's exhibition of religious relics, demonstrates our continued fascination with the numinous, in this secular age.

Freeman offers us an overview of the history of relics from the early Christian period through to the European Reformation, charting both the cults with surround them and the way in which they were used for political purposes by rulers and invaders. However, this is, in many respects, its downfall. Rather than offering an analysis of the cult of relics, Freeman offers a narrative and political history of early and medieval Europe, placing relics at the heart of the medieval religious and political worlds. Often we are treated to stories of particular relics, their movements and how they were used by rulers and Popes in their quest for power. However, what we do not get is an analysis of what this means, both for the cult of relics or how their meaning (and use) changes over the 1,500 years between the death of Christ and the Reformation.

That is not to say, however, that the common man is ignored by Freeman. As with Eamon Duffy's bottom-up approach to the history of the Reformation (`The Stripping of the Altars' and `Voices of Meribath') which counters the magisterial, top down approach (e.g. MacCulloch's biography of Cranmer or Owen Chadwick's book on the Reformation), Freeman explores what relics mean for both the common man as for the ruler. Relics, are not after all simply a history of the powerful, but of how the common man interacts with relics (and as such, the numinous).

My other complaint is that the chapters are far too short (typically 15-20 pages each), meaning that subjects such as the role of relics in medieval France or Venice are touched on only lightly, interspersed as they are with vignettes how a particular relic came into the hands of a Bishop/ King and how it was subsequently used.

This is not to say that this is a bad book, or bad history - far from it. Freeman does something which few academic historians (other than say Diarmaid MacCulloch or Eamon Duffy) seem able to do, that is produce a good, readable academic history on a particular topic, especially a religious topic. Too often such texts are either dumbed down, or unreadably dense, making for difficult reading, even for the informed layman. Rather Freeman treats his readers with respect and thus makes for an enjoyable and informative read!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 30, 2011 10:05 AM BST

As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson
As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: The Impossible Life of Mary Benson
by Rodney Bolt
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 17.60

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All families are psychotic, 28 Sep 2011
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`All families are psychotic' so runs the title of Douglas Coupland's story of the Drummond family, yet it might so easily have been the title for Bolt's biography/ portrait of Mary Benson, the wife of Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson, and by extension, that of her Edward and their children. All in their own way were brilliant, yet each was deeply eccentric or disturbed in some way. And the thesis of Bolt's book is that it is probable that Mary Benson herself was probably a lesbian, forming deep quasi-sexual attachments to female companions, both during the life of Edward and more significantly afterwards, but she is also the strongest member of the Benson clan, both psychologically and physically, outliving both her husband and some of her children.

Sadly very little is written about former Archbishops, by way of biographies. Often they are treated to a lengthy biography, usually by another cleric (or in the case of E W Benson, by one of his sons) immediately after their death and then they are forgotten, remembered only in memorials in Canterbury Cathedral and in entries on Wikipedia. Even less well remembered are their wives, who mainly sit in the background, supporting their husbands in their ministry. The joy of Bolt's book is that it takes both a critical look at the Archbishop, identifying and naming his mental instabilities and illnesses, which include depression, and allowing us to see how his forceful personality influenced and controlled his child bride from a very early stage.

Mary Benson, having been betrothed to E W from a very early age, only comes into her own in old age, having lost her husband (and some of her children) along the way, the earlier part of her life having been controlled and formed by E W. From and early age her life was no longer her own, so in later life she is able to become her own person. However, with the death of the Archbishop comes the loss of all status associated with his position (the Archbishop at this stage, in order of precedent, was the highest commoner, higher in precedence than all but non-Royal Dukes), a fact bought home to her when she attended William Gladstone's funeral and realised that whilst everyone identified Mrs Gladstone as William's wife, no one had associated her with E W. Yet she remained a friend a confidant of Queen Victoria.

Ultimately Bolt's biography is a joyful and fascinating portrait of Mary Benson's life (and by extension those of her children). It opens up for us a life which would otherwise have been eclipsed by that of her husband, and for that alone Bolt is to be congratulated. What it also does is offer us an insight into the life so often described by Trollope, but from the position of Mrs Proudie, rather than that of Archdeacon Grantley.

Jesus: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Jesus: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
by Richard Bauckham
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.38

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Owes more to the SCR than to the general reader, 26 Sep 2011
Richard Baukham's very short introduction to Jesus is a bit like the proverbial Curate's egg; good in parts, bad in others. It is good in that it provides a succinct overview of the life and teachings of Jesus, from a Christian perspective, focusing on his life (and historical context) and the theological implications of his claim to be son of God. Where it fails is in its attempt at the very beginning of the book to explain Baukham's (somewhat controversial) thesis that the Gospels are drawn from eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus and his disciples, as opposed to theological traditions which were built up and developed by the Early Church.

Anyone expecting an introduction to Jesus would expect there to be a description and exploration of the key facts; this is achieved in the book. However, the lengthy exploration of Baukham's thesis at the beginning of the book, in the section on sources, means that the non-theological reader is put-off at the first hurdle. (This section would have been much better placed at the end of the book, as an appendix for the interested reader). Linked with this is that when Baukham outlines his theory of nature of the Gospels he sets up `straw men' (the `Da Vinci Code' and the so called Gnostic Gospels) in order to knock them down to prove his theory. In addition to which he mentions John Allegro's somewhat controversial (read bizarre) and certainly non-mainstream theory that Jesus was a magic mushroom ("The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross") - a theory very much of its time and hardly relevant to this text. This overuse of academic hyperbole means that the views of his opponents (those who support the `form criticism' model of reading the Gospels) are easily discounted, something which is better left to the theology seminar (or the Senior Common Room) rather than to an `introduction to ...'.

My hope had been to use this text as the basis for a Church discussion group. However, given the layout of the text, with the section on sources and how to read them, means that this text is less than suitable for such a group discussion. That said it is an interesting text (for someone with more than a passing interest in theology and Christology) and I will be reading Baukham's much longer work, `Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony' by, in which he sets out his theory of how the Gospels should be read as eyewitness accounts.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 23, 2012 4:31 PM GMT

The Importance of Being Awkward: The Autobiography of Tam Dalyell
The Importance of Being Awkward: The Autobiography of Tam Dalyell
by Tam Dalyell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 20.61

22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Drops names like confetti, 7 Sep 2011
I had high hopes for Sir Tam Dalyell's Bt. autobiography. Renowned as one of the late-20th Centuries great parliamentarians (like Tony Benn or Edward Heath), my hope was that Sir Tam's reflections on his life story would off some insight into both the man and his life both in and outside Parliament. However, what we have is a text in desperate need of both a good proof-reader and editor.

The first part of the book, looking at Sir Tam's antecedents as Baronets and residents of the House of the Binns (his ancestral seat) is both self-indulgent and uninformative, mainly because Sir Tams writes as though he were authoring a `who's who' guide. Too many times we are treated to sentences which run along the lines of `Sir X, who was my tutor/ doctor/ cook and who would later become distinguished Professor/ House Master/ Surgeon to the Monarch etc.' (Many of these descriptions are up to a paragraph long, meaning that the book becomes more of a biographical dictionary than an memoir and loses much of the sense of the narrative). It would be fair to say that not many people will have had the opportunity in their lives to have met so many august personages and with his constant name dropping (like confetti at a wedding) it gets rather tiresome after a while.

At other times we are expected to have a working knowledge of the Scottish nobility, e.g. we are informed that Mr X is one of the Caithness X's, as though this is famous family, known to all. This style may be Sir Tam's own, he was after all brought up as a member of the Scots nobility in pre-war Scotland, however, a good editor would have been able to iron out these stylistic problems, as well as cutting back on the name-dropping/ mini-biographies, as mentioned above.

Another problem with Sir Tam's book is the tone of his writing - there is far too much descriptive memoir, but little or no reflection or regret. Sadly this means that Sir Tam comes across as being self-satisfied rather than as someone who is reflecting on a life well lived. For such an evidently intelligent man, this is quite a let-down and for a book whose retail price is 25, unforgiveable. Whereas Sir Tam may have been a great Parliamentarians of our age, he will not be remembered as a great writer of autobiography, as say Tony Benn or Stephen Fry have been and I fear his book will rapidly be relegated to the remainder book shops/ second-hand book shops of Westminster.

The Radleys
The Radleys
by Matt Haig
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

9 of 15 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Mediocre - A middle-class novel for middle-class folk, 12 July 2011
This review is from: The Radleys (Paperback)
Vampires (and in particular urban vampires) have become the new black. Go into any bookstore and look under `Horror'* and you will find hundreds of vampire novels, whether they be straight horror novels, or what is now termed "dark fantasy" (or to put it more cynically, `Mills and Boon with fangs'). And yet none have bettered Bram Stoker's `Dracula', either for horror or for simple and stark narrative, a must for any horror novel. Matt Haig's novel is a contribution to this ever expanding bibliography and like so many others, his is a second rate contribution.

It starts off well - the premise is a good one. A vampire family, living in Bishopsthorpe (a village on the outskirts of York). Rather than live as bohemian bloodsuckers, they instead choose to live as `abstainers', eschewing human blood and instead favouring a mediocre form of middle-class suburban life. However, a crisis involving their daughter leads them down paths they'd rather avoid. If the novel had stuck to this premise then it might have worked. Unfortunately Haig tries too hard to make the whole novel middle class, whether it is the badly written (and slightly pseudy writing) or the fact that nothing truly exciting (or horrifying) actually happens, a complete faux pas for a supposed horror novel. This truly is a mediocre book.

Matt Haigh's first novel, `The Last Family in England' was perhaps his best one and he should have stopped there - it's been downhill from there in terms of his writing. If you want a vampire novel then go back to `Dracula', it's the best by a long mile. If you want a mediocre, middle-class, middle-England novel then go with this one. And if you enjoy it, perhaps you should then go to the "dark fantasy" section for some more and leave the horror novels section free for the real thing.

* The bookshop from which this novel was bought had placed it under `horror'.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 4, 2011 12:57 PM GMT

The Early Church (I.B Tauris History of the Christian Church)
The Early Church (I.B Tauris History of the Christian Church)
by Morwenna Ludlow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 21.52

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A lightweight text: good in parts, but skewed westwards, 11 July 2011
Ludlow's contribution to the IB Taurus history of the Church is a worthy one, it provides an interesting and readable account of the first 5-6 centuries of the Early Church. It has the advantage of being more up to date than, and being more readable than Henry Chadwick's own history of the Early Church published as part of the Pelican (latterly the Penguin) History of the Church series. And yet it is also a flawed text, flawed not in its method but because it is lightweight and concentrates all too easily on the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, thus ignoring the expansion of the Church into Asia and the Far East, something highlighted by Samuel Hugh Moffett and latterly by MacCulloch in his masterful (if exhaustingly lengthy) `History of Christian: The First Three Thousand Years'.

To its advantage it is very readable, unlike Chadwick's book, which whilst a classic has become dated, both in content and writing style - it was, after all, first published in the 1960s. Ludlow's book also covers a lot of ground in an accessible way, allowing the reader to explore further as they wish. And yet this is also to its disadvantage, a two edged sword which cuts both ways if you will (see below).

The danger with any history of Christianity is that its expansion is viewed as being mainly westward, creating a vision of Christianity as being a Western faith, associated with the declining Roman (and Byzantine) Empire(s) leading onto the rise of Papal power and the beginnings of Europe. However, Christianity was not, for the first few centuries, limited to those West of the Caucasus. There is strong evidence to suggest that Christianity (often Oriental or even heterodox forms of Christianity) reached India and China during the first centuries of the Common Era. Yet this is mainly ignored by Ludlow's text, as it has been by many other historians of the Church. Sadly Christianity died out in the Far East, yet its memory still remains, whether in architecture, or in ancient buildings, now reused for other (religious) purposes.

Admittedly the Taurus history of the Church is made up of a series of short books (of no more than about 250-300 pages per volume), which limits the amount that can be written and the amount of consideration that can be given to history and theology. However, the danger in emphasising the rise of Christianity in the West is that it emphasises the `West against the Rest' narrative which has been highlighted in Huntingdon's oft disproved thesis of the `clash of civilisations'.

There is a need for a good history of the Early Church which covers both the Eastward and latter Westward expansion of Christianity, following on from MacCulloch's own book, which of course was an overview. Sadly this is not that book, but it remains a readable and accessible overview of the Early Church, albeit from a western perspective.

Reverse in Ministry and Missions: Africans in the Dark Continent of Europe: An Historical Study of African Churches in Europe
Reverse in Ministry and Missions: Africans in the Dark Continent of Europe: An Historical Study of African Churches in Europe
by Israel Olofinjana
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.05

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An important book, but reads like an undergradyate dissertation, 10 July 2011
Rev Israel Olofinjana's book should have been an important one. The subject it discusses is certainly an important one - the history and ecclesiology of Black Majority Churches (BMC) in England. However, it fails on a number of levels. The first is that the subject seems to be treated like the subject of an undergraduate disertation. There is a great deal of food for thought, but much of it is left unexplored. There are also a number of unsupported suppositions which speak more of Olofinjana's own personal theology than they do of proper theological, historical or sociological method. Finally, the book is far too short for its price. The book (excluding bibliography and glossary is only 74 pages long, much of which is taken up with long biographical lists which add little to the text).

On the plus side, Olofinjana's book offers an interesting and readable introduction to the MBCs, their history and how they have become a part of the Church scene in England. This is an important area of work, as someone who works and worships in an area of London which has a high percentage of first generation west African immigrants, BMCs are an important part of the life of the Church. How congregation members interact (and utilise) the services provided by both the historical Churches and BMCs is an interesting area of study. However, Olofinjana only gives this area a cursory overview. Which to my mind is one of the principal failings of the text.

Theologically the book focuses on how BMCs differ from the hitorical Churches, emphasising such areas as a "prosperity gospel" reading of the Christian message, linking this to Liberation Theology and liberation struggles (a unsuported quantum jump I can see no reason to support). Olofinjana also falls into the right-wing narrative that the Christianity is somehow being sidelined in Western (and in particular British) society. This is an argument that owes more to the Daily Mail than it does to serious theological consideration. Historically Christianity has had a favoured status in Britain, over the past-100 years this status has gradually been eroded meaning that Christianity has become a faith in the marketplace, not a monopoly - a good thing in my opinion as it allows the Church to be able to do what is should be doing, sharing its message. It is not, as Olofinjana seems to believe a failure, in my opinion.

Finally the book ends on a case study of Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) and its founder, Matthew Ashimolowo. Whilst KICC offers an interesting case study of how a BMC was planted and has grown over the past 19 years, the study ends up in partiality when reviewing the way in which the Charity Commissioners handled their investigation into Ashimolowo and KICC. This neither helps the narrative of the book or to understand KICC.

Sadly this book could have been so much better. Being such a big and important study it needs far more attention and space than Olofinjana has been able to give it and an much expanded text would be of far more use than the meagre fare we are given here. This is a fascinating and important subject which the historical Churches need to grasp if they are to work with the BMCs operating in their area. I hope that Olofinjana is able to take the opportunity to both expand this text and iron out some of the problems identified in the current text.

The Established Church: Past, Present and Future (Affirming Catholicism)
The Established Church: Past, Present and Future (Affirming Catholicism)
by Mark Chapman
Edition: Paperback
Price: 14.84

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In defence of establishment, 13 Jun 2011
Over the past few decades there has been considerable criticism of the establishment of the Church of England, whether from within (from people such Bishop Colin Buchanan) or from without. In our current times there is also little comprehension of what establishment actually means (other than for the sight of Bishops, the Lords Spiritual, sitting in the House of Lords). The recent criticism of the comments made by the Archbishop on the `big society' are an example of how little understood the role of established Church is with the English constitution.

This new pamphlet by Affirming Catholicism goes some way to filling this gap in our knowledge, albeit with a polemical edge. The pamphlet explains how important establishment is, not just to the Church of England (who is often its most vocal critic), but also to those non-Christian faiths who find their own freedom of conscience protected by the fact that England has a nationalised Church. Because it exists, it puts religion in the market place of ideas, whereas in those societies where secularism is enforced by Constitutional Law, freedom of conscience or expression is often severely curtailed (e.g. as in Turkey or France, both of whom have very restrictive Laws on the wearing by Muslim women of the various forms of Islamic head-coverings).

My main criticism of the pamphlet is that it is perhaps too modern and therefore misses some of the points of establishment. By focusing on our own situation, it fails to deal with some of the theological implications of establishment for the Church, such as the notion that the Parish clergy have the `cure of souls', that is the responsibility for the education of and the duty care of care of those living within the Parish, whether or not the recipient wants this care. There is also the implication that the Church of England is The Church in England, it is not a sect or a denomination, or even a Church in a religious market place, rather it is The Church (a definite article), established by and in the Constitutional Law and settlement of England. (This will be perceived as arrogance by many, but does not remove the implications for both the Church and society).

I would recommend this book to any ordinand in training, or indeed anyone interested in the nature of the Church of England. However, it needs to be read in the context of a wider understanding of the nature of the Church in and of England and this country's constitutional settlement.

Carte Blanche: A James Bond Novel (James Bond Novels)
Carte Blanche: A James Bond Novel (James Bond Novels)
by Jeffery Deaver
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.59

7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bond updated, 10 Jun 2011
The Bond novels are very much of their time. (Sebastian Faulks' failed attempt at writing a Bond novel set within the old certainties shows how much the genre needed updating). They relate to a by-gone era of gentleman spies fighting off evil (and often vulgar) Cold War enemies in a bid to save the West from the ravages of the Soviet Empire.

'Carte Blanche' does what Faulks failed to do. It places Bond in an up to date context, fighting modern baddies within the context of post-Cold War era/ at the close of the War on Terror period, which marks the meta-narrative of our own era. This Bond has to deal with the globalised world, in which crime is international and in which food poverty and cyber crime are greater threats to international stability than they have been before.

Bond too has been updated, though he has not transformed into a metro-sexual of the new Millennium. Rather he retains his image as a rough diamond, ladies man, but one who is more cultured and one who understand that women aren't there to be used and then discarded. He is also more fallible than he was under Fleming's pen (though the image of the almost-indestructible Bond owes more to the movies than it does to the books!) As the books made clear, Bond is all too human and feels pain (both physical and mental), in `Carte Blanche' he has nightmares, a reminder that he, like us, is human.

Much of Fleming's work was based around Fleming's own experiences the second world war, his own prejudices and his own self-image (or how he felt he should be seen). Ultimately Bond became stuck in the mid-1960s, in need of rescue by Daniel Craig in 'Casino Royale' (perhaps the best Bond movie ever made, most certainly the one closest to Flemings' original works).

In writing this novel, Deaver has clearly spent a lot of time understanding British culture and the mechanisms of British Government/ Whitehall meaning that he misses many (though not all) of the bear traps which American authors fall into when writing about Britain. And this is important. Bond has always been a British phenomenon, despite the amount of interest shown in it by those across the pond. Unlike many modern American authors who believe that American citizens and spies have (or should have) carte blanche to carry their weapons and kill whilst in foreign territories - James Rollins is a good example of this. This Bond becomes embroiled with and tied up in matters relating to how a spy/international hit man has to work with officers from other jurisdictions.

I am mystified by the criticism that 'Carte Blanche' has attracted from its reviewers - it is a far better (and far better written) novel than much of what is on the market at the moment, including Fleming's original Bond novels. This then is an intelligent, well written novel, for our uncertain times. It has retained much of the ethos of Fleming's Bond, but with a modern twist (and humour). A welcome addition to the Bond corpus.

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