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Customer Review

on 22 October 2007
Betjeman couldn't decide if he was a religious man or not. From his student days onwards he was always a member of the Church of England; he was also active on various parish councils, but he was constantly assailed by his own rationalism. What bothered him most was the question of what might happen to him after he died: it was an ugly choice - annihilation or hell.

In this amazing book, composed of almost 30 radio talks that he gave towards the end of his life, Betjeman finally found a way to come terms with the Church - by exploring it through the medium that he felt closest to: poetry - or, more exactly, the religious poetry of the hymn.

How did hymns come to be written? Who wrote them? What do they mean for the Christian faith? Over the course of three years, Betjeman looked at 200 of the nation's favourite hymns, which he arranged into 28 groupings, to show how words - and the music that goes with them - reaches and answers a need in the human soul in a way that nothing else can.

Hymns were written - over four centuries - by individuals who not only had nothing in common but might have been sectarian enemies. And yet the hymns they left behind sit beautifully together in the Church's many hymnals - testimony to the fact that beyond our personal struggles and enmities, there is a beauty and a unity that will not be suppressed by human failings.

This, as Stephen Games shows in his stunning introduction, is what Betjeman discovered while working on these scripts and what helped him come to terms with faith at the very darkest period in his life.

"Sweet Songs of Zion" is a fabulous book - and one made up of material that, until its publication, was still unheard of among Betjeman lovers and scholars alike.

No one can understand Betjeman, or fully enjoy him, without reading it - and it forms a spectacular finale to Stephen Games's two previous collections of his prose work: "Trains and Buttered Toast" and "Tennis Whites and Teacakes".

This is a must-read - and the perfect gift, Christmas and otherwise, for years to come.
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