Ribera: Art of Violence @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

The first painting in this exhibition of the Spanish Baroque painter, draughtsman and printmaker, Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), is the best, and epitomises Ribera’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera

It is the loving and exquisite depiction of a scene of gruesome violence. St Bartholomew the Apostle is being tied down in preparation for being flayed alive. The figures at left and right stare out at us with leering, evil grins. The saint was condemned, back in Roman times, for refusing to worship a pagan statue, and knocking it down – the head of the smashed Greek statue is beneath his bottom.

On the plus side, this is an enormous and spectacularly dramatic painting, which totally dominates the dark room it hangs in. In this painting more than any of the others on show, you can see the influence of Caravaggio, in the dramatic use of deep jet black over large areas of the canvas, from which the saint’s chest and thighs and right arm emerge with stark clarity, and from which the leering faces of his torturers also loom grotesquely.

Not only that, but the anatomic realism of the saint’s body is stunning, his long left thigh, bony hips, wrinkled belly and detailed shoulder bone, muscle and ligature. Then there is the superbly realistic dark folds of the cloth at bottom right, and the astonishingly realistic Greek statue head. Taken together, all these elements make for a gripping and thrilling visual experience.

And it is an experience, a staging, an enactment. There is no doubting the way that the leering faces pull the viewer in, giving us a sort of central role in the scene, not as passive onlookers but as active participants – and that the whole thing amounts to an artfully staged scene from the great theatre of Christian suffering and redemption.

On the down side, of course, it is also the precise and loving portrayal of an act of unspeakable violence which, if you really focus on the excruciating agony of what is to come, revolts the mind. That is the catch-22 which any fan of Ribera is caught in.

The exhibition

This is the first UK exhibition of works by Ribera, routinely described as a master of the Spanish Baroque. In several places the promotional material and press release they say the aim of the show is to question and reassess the conventional view of Ribera as a portrayer of violent and gruesome scenes of torture.

In which case it pretty much fails, since almost all the material here shows scenes of violence and torture. If, like me, you knew nothing about Ribera before you visited, images of tormented, tortured, tied up and screaming men is definitely the impression you take away.

The exhibition consists of eight paintings and 30 or so drawings and sketches. The paintings show the flaying of St Bartholomew (twice), the flaying of Marsyas by Apollo, women treating St Narcissus after he’s been shot dead with arrows, big portrait of a  skin flayer standing holding a flensing knife and the skin of a man he has just detached from his body. Violence against men, in other words, depicted with astonishing realism and gripping drama.

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

Marsyas and Apollo by Jusepe de Ribera (1637) Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte, Naples

This depiction of Apollo calmly starting to flay the satyr Marsyas is incredibly disturbing. As with Bartholomew, we note the amazing details – the musculature and anatomy of the old satyr is shown in staggering detail, while the pink cloak and seraphic expression of Apollo are as perfect as Titian. Over on the right Marsyas’s wailing fellow satyrs look like characters from Goya.

But then you notice the big red gash at the upper right of the painting, a red wound, into which the calm, expressionless Apollo is inserting his right hand. This appears to be the opening in Marsyas’s flesh which the god will now calmly extend over his whole body, slowly calmly unpeeling the man while he screams and screams.

Beyond flaying

The exhibition includes a section about the importance of skin – both as an organ to all of us, and as a symbolic theme for artists. It contains an anatomical textbook from Ribera’s day, showing a completely flayed man in order to illustrate and explain the complexity of human musculature. Next to this is what I thought was a parchment but turns out to be human skin with emblems tattooed on it, and next to this, some wall labels explaining the cultural significance of tattooing.

This is an example of the way the exhibition attempts to take us beyond the obvious subject of flaying, crucifixion and torture, in order to persuade us that Ribera described these subjects as part of a wider intellectual framework.

This is epitomised by the one painting of the eight, which isn’t about torture. This shows a shabby tramp holding an onion, with an orange blossom and garlic on the table in front of him. It was one of a series Ribera painted about the senses, showing the attributes of the five bodily senses in a manner derived from medieval science and philosophy.

Also non-flaying is the series of drawings Ribera made for students to study from, academic studies of faces, noses, mouths, ears and eyes. These are all done with great skill if, admittedly, a noticeable taste for the grotesque which remind the viewer of similar studies by earlier Old Masters, such as Leonardo.

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © the trustees of the British Museum

Studies of the nose and mouth by Jusepe de Ribera (1622) © The trustees of the British Museum

But the effort to dilute the horror of the main images by persuading us that they are part of

  1. Ribera’s broader artistic activity
  2. 17th century Italy’s wider cultural concerns about the power of the senses and the importance of the skin

is undermined when we move on to the next room, which is devoted to images of men – generally old helpless men, like Bartholomew – tied to trees.

The lucky ones are just tied in painful positions. The less lucky ones have been bound to trees and are being whipped. The really unlucky ones have been tied to trees and are being… flayed alive. The audio commentary astonished me by saying that no less than a quarter of Ribera’s entire surviving output consists of images of men tied to trees.

Mostly these are drawings and sketches, often done in red chalk and, as a fan of draughtsmanship, there is much to admire about the often hurried sketchlike appearance of the drawings which, nonetheless, vividly convey the sense of tied and suffering humanity.

An exception which proves the rule is this rare engraving, showing much more detail than the drawings do.  It depicts, of course, Ribera’s favourite subject, an old man tied to a tree and being tortured. I think the man on the right is using scissors or a knife and has already flayed the skin off Bartholomew’s entire forearm. The man on the left is holding two sticks linked by a fine chain, no doubt some implement of further torture, and is leering knowingly out at us, the same device Ribera uses in the paintings, to implicate the worldly viewer in this appalling scene.

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Martyrdom of St Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1624) etching © The New York Public Library

Note the hand emerging from the clouds and holding a martyr’s crown for the old man. All the consolation a believer needs, though scant consolation for those of us without faith.

Imagine the fuss if an artist of this era had devoted his life’s work to depicting the binding, tying, flaying and torturing of women. Imagine the controversy if a gallery devoted an entire exhibition to the depiction of women being bound, flayed and tortured!

But an artist who devoted his time to the loving depiction of torturing old men, to obsessive reiteration of images of the male body being bound and flayed and hanged and speared? Meh. No problem. Taken for granted.

Dark and gloomy layout

I’ve been visiting Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions for over ten years. The exhibition space consists of a straight line of three smallish rooms, interrupted by a kind of small corridor into the museum’s mausoleum, then three more rooms. And the rooms are generally well lit so you can enjoy the works of E.H. Shepherd or Tove Jansson or Ravilious or David Hockney in a light and airy space.

For this show they have made what I think is the most drastic alteration to the layout I’ve seen. First of all they’ve created partitions with entrances on alternating sides, so that walking through feels like more of a slalom or zigzag between than a stately progress through individual rooms.

Second, all the walls have been painted a very dark grey bordering on black. Third, the lighting has been turned way, way down. It is dark and gloomy throughout. Entering the first room is more like entering a church than a gallery, a Baroque Catholic church in Italy packed with images of torture and suffering.

This layout and design give the big pictures, with their eerie combination of artistically exquisite detail and stomach-turning subject matter, a tremendous impact.

Eye witness to torture

Ribera was born in Spain but moved to Naples (which was under the control of the Spanish crown in the 17th century) where he picked up commissions from church and secular authorities. The Catholic Counter-Reformation (from the 1620s onwards) as a cultural movement, placed great emphasis on the depiction of physical suffering. It coincided with the rise of opera as an art form in Italy. These all tended to a great theatricality of presentation. Caravaggio from the generation before him (1571-1610) was a startling innovator in the art of the dramatic use of light and dark dark black shadow, and it is easy to detect his influence on the best of Ribera’s work.

Given the complex political, religious and cultural background of the times, it is striking that the commentary and wall labels spend less time on his biography than I’m used to, and a lot more time trying to situate his obsession with torture in the wider context of the culture of the day – not only the Counter-Reformation interest in the depiction of suffering and martyrdom, but – as mentioned – an intellectual interest in the workings of the body, of anatomy, the senses and so on. Hence the tramp epitomising the sense of smell, the training sketches of eyes and ears.

But this aim was, for me, once again trumped in the penultimate room by a section about Ribera’s work as an eyewitness to the numerous public hangings and tortures of his day. A huge painting, Tribunale della Vicaria, by an unknown contemporary artist shows the square in front of the law courts of Naples. Initially all you notice is the busy throng of 17th century folk going about their everyday business, from  lords and ladies to beggars via various street sellers and performers. It takes a while before you notice, at the centre of the busy scene, a man dangling from a rope in front of the hall.

Public hangings, executions, burnings and torture were commonplace, and the exhibition devotes this room to a) explaining this fact and b) displaying a series of pen and ink sketches which Ribera obviously made, sometimes in a rush, of these scenes.

He seems to have been particularly attracted to the use of the strappado, whereby a man’s hands were bound behind his back and then strung up from a scaffold. This had the effect of slowly wrenching the arms out of their sockets, causing immense pain. Here is just such a man being interrogated by officials from the Inquisition, apparently drawn from life. Imagine being there. Imagine watching this take place. Imagine hearing the screams.

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Inquisition scene by Jusepe de Ribera (1635) pen and brown ink. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. Photo by Erik Gould

Apparently, earlier critics have accused Ribera of himself being a sadist, with an unhealthy interest in these scenes and an unrelenting focus on sadism. This is the slur which the curators are keen to refute.

I’m happy to go along with their ‘reassessment’, and I read and understood their attempt to put Ribera’s paintings and drawings in a broader artistic, cultural and social context, where scenes of torture were everyday occurrences and scenes of Biblical martyrdom were part of the state and church-approved culture. In other words, it wasn’t just him.

Indeed, the curators include half a dozen prints by Ribera’s almost exact contemporary, the Frenchman, Jacques Callot (1592-1635), from his series, Les Grandes Misères de la guerre, which display comparable scenes of public hangings and torture.

In many ways I preferred the Callot prints because they are more journalistic, detached and show a larger public context. They look, if it’s an appropriate word, sane. Comparison with all the Riberas you’ve seen immediately makes you realise the intensely close-up nature of Ribera’s images. He focuses right in on the guts of a scene, as if you are on stage during a gruesome play, or on the set of a violent movie.

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

The Hanging from Les Grandes Misères de la guerre by Jacques Callot (1633)

So I think I understood the layout and intention of the exhibition, a contextualisation and reassessment of Ribera’s art. And I found the technique of the best two oil paintings, the Bartholomew and the Flaying of Marsyas, absolutely breath-taking.

But, as a normal, liberal human being from the year 2018, I also found much of the exhibition completely disgusting.

Darkness and light

At the very end of the exhibition you emerge through heavy curtains, from the dark rooms full of tortured men, into the sunlit openness of the main Dulwich Picture Gallery and the first thing you see is Thomas Gainsborough’s full length portrait of Elizabeth and Mary Linley. It is quite literally walking out of darkness into light and it feels like walking out of madness into sanity, out of hell and into heaven, from barbarism into civilisation.

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

Elizabeth and Mary Linley by Thomas Gainsborough (1772)

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

In his prime, between 1910 and into the 1930s, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’.

He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles and literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and also wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, which are regularly dramatised for TV or radio. His next most famous works are probably the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill. This fictional book of poetry is described as being reviewed by the king, no less, who uses the pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’ and is described as being a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism. This ‘hammock’ school of criticism gets its name because so many of their reviews start by referring to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon.

I understand how this is a gentle satire on the state of literary criticism circa 1904, and it is sort of funny, in its way, but it requires a bit of effort to cast your mind back to that kind of era and worldview.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were so popular in Chesterton’s day and which is obviously designed to skewer not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all the other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on which proliferated at the turn of the century. Chesterton mocks them all by describing their prophetic predictions, and then extending them to ludicrous extremes.

Then, having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. Which is to make this novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, another grand social prophecy, to set it in the far distant remote year of 1984, and then to assert the simple fact that, contrary to all the predictions of all the so-called prophets… nothing whatsoever has changed!

All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

For, as Chesterton writes, with a broad smile on his face, the people – the uneducated, uninterested masses – have listened to the Great Prophets, have read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives.

They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, from a long list of eligible citizens.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – first sourcing the colour yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, then the colour red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After spouting much inconsequential Latin fieriness, the ex-President walks proudly off into the night never to be met again. I found this scene incomprehensible.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point. He is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new King of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin! He will be King Auberon!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around.He wanders up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with all his strength and honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter with the little boy sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and…? And so when his friend Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later, he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 London boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still King Auberon and still the joker. the 32 London boroughs really have become self-governing fiefdoms and all their officials forced to wear the ridiculous cod-medieval outfits Quin has designed for them.

One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development which he is managing. It is intended to go from Hammersmith up through Notting Hill and beyond but the rulers of Notting Hill are being obstructive. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on – all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by medieval pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens — the Provost of Notting Hill arrives and, at a stroke, reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly seriously!

He speaks medieval phraseology as if he means it. He says ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s silly joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises this chap is none other than the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. His name is Adam Wayne and now, aged 19, he announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. (This is, again, satire on what Chesterton takes to be the absurd pretentiousness of modernist poets and writers.)

Above all Wayne takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence we are shown Wayne canvassing opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour – from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers [I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air] to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours, the blustering, bumbling shopkeeper is a comic staple.)

Anyway, Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that, in his spare time, he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

What a find! A man after Wayne’s own heart!

The Pump Street fight

Anyway, the Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal to let the new road development cut up through Notting Hill put their case before King Auberon for his approval. Specifically the plans call for the demolition of a few buildings in Pump Street. Wayne says no. Led by Buck, the businessmen offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He had intended to create fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when things really do get out of hand.

He hears the sound of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates Kensington Gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, appears a god-like figure, blazoned with light – it is Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker (one of Quin’s friends who we met back at the start of the book), who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into the entrepreneur Buck closing up his shop, and tells him what has happened.

Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts of all the nearby London boroughs, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of them, and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has now become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks and turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness. Intimately familiar with their home turf, the Hillers launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead inserting writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal. Here he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then sets about concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – presumably this is all satire on journalism and newspapers’ readiness simply to invent the stuff they print – when real eye witnesses to the fighting, Barker and Buck, stumble into the offices.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual, comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. “When duty calls”… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles now being fought across the borough, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill.

Meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men each. He now has a substantial force at his disposal. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king suspects not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender.

Buck and his entourage burst out laughing, what a preposterous idea. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army which is standing in the valley below.

Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

Now the novel cuts to twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other London boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge, elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence.

King Auberon is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. He notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the discovery that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance, to want more than the simple Edwardian money-grubbing. Dressing and speaking as medieval burghers and courtiers turns out to be surprisingly liberating.

The king bumps into Barker, who begins explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out. A local inhabitant tells our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. Then the Hillers start singing a martial song of victory — and this pushes the ever-touchy Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps at passing revellers. Some of the other passersby turn out to be from other London boroughs, and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war and so soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about society, class, technology, gender, race, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish or inexplicable – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink their prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this approach much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which mostly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

In these last passages the reader is really challenged.

Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, and quickly relinquishes all contact with reality.

At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character. Repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it until, in finally pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but… symbolic of what, exactly?

I read in the introduction to the book that Chesterton was criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. For example, critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. The book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns which had very much dominated British culture. No fool glamorises that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising it. The book tries to have its cake and eat it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the last battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to be a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story.

‘And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient.

‘There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

The text then takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his own amusement and then forgot about it.

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crashing symbolism) and one of the two voices is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other, that of Wayne.

‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne.

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. And that’s what happens here. Somehow, the very fact that the entire premise of the story was one man’s childish joke — makes its unintended consequences all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – the two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, up until these last few pages, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god.

‘When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace.

‘But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend.

‘Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological or cultural assumptions which underly them are so often hard to understand or sympathise with. Making the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (indeed, whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind.

Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Accidie and world-weariness were clearly common feelings among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind – and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton.

He is eloquent on the sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long, blank streets. Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he often speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of specifically urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

Blankness upon blankness. And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

So although most of the book bubbles with (sometimes incomprehensible) satire and good humour, and then metamorphoses into a hymn to medievalism – nonetheless, not far from the surface and bubbling up in random locations, is Chesterton’s awareness of the bleak boredom of city life.


Related links

Therapy by David Lodge (1995)

One of the depressing things about depression is knowing that there are lots of people in the world with far more reason to feel depressed than you have, and finding that, so far from making you snap out of your depression, it only makes you despise yourself more and thus feel more depressed. (p.107)

This is the story of TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore, who’s riding high on the success of his soap opera The People Next Door. He is the archetypal middle-class middle-aged successful man who has it all – big house, lovely wife, kids launched into life, fast car, successful career, lots of money – but is unhappy and doesn’t know why.

How many novels are written about this figure? If there’s such a thing as the ‘campus novel’, is there the ‘depressed-middle-aged-successful-professional-man’ novel? Maybe it’s the ‘menopausal man’ novel.

A new kind of character

For thirty years (1960-1991) Lodge had been getting into the minds of academics and intellectuals, literary critics and theologians, in texts which were never far from detailed considerations of literary theory, Catholic theology, or sex. Certainly the combination of literary high-mindedness with graphic sexual description is the tell-tale sign of his previous five or six novels.

Which makes Therapy a welcome change, at least initially. The story is told in the first-person and TV scriptwriter Passmore’s voice is refreshingly different in tone and idiolect from anything that’s gone before. Unlike the over-educated but under-worldly figures we’re used to in Lodge’s fiction, Passmore is a convincing portrayal of a much more middle-brow character: more or less the first Lodge character to be interested in sports, to be happily married and faithful to his wife, who swims confidently in the demanding but relentlessly unintellectual world of popular TV. (In the middle section we find out from  his wife that although he attended a grammar school, he was always bottom of the class, and left with just a couple of O levels – p.196)

In an amusing character trait he enjoys looking up words and sharing their definitions with us, and his nickname in the TV industry, since he put on quite a lot of weight and lost most of his hair, is Tubby. All of this is broadly funny in a tolerant, grumpy-old-man kind of way.

Part one (pp.3-129)

The first 129 pages consist of a diary or journal which Laurence starts in order to keep track of the painful twinges he’s getting in his knee. He has a keyhole operation to cure it which, alas, doesn’t work, but the diary goes on to record his visits to a psychotherapist, an acupuncturist, a physiotherapist and an aromatherapist as he searches for a cure to his physical ailments but also, it emerges, the undefined malaise nagging at his soul. He has everything. So why does he lie in bed at nights, unhappy?

His platonic mistress (female best friend) Amy, in London, describes his condition as Angst and, in looking it up, Laurence stumbles across the writings of the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegård (1813-1855). Intrigued he buys some of his works in the Charing Cross Road and begins to explore Kierkegård’s philosophy (as expressed in the great man’s rather confusing works). Ideas around what attitude we should take to life, to decision-making, how to avoid a permanent feeling of dread, how to live an authentic existence. In a biography he discovers how much SK’s philosophy was prompted by the one great love of his life, Regine, who he rejected in an agony of indecision, a moment he regretted for the rest of his life.

A great deal else is covered in this opening part, painting in Laurence’s everyday life and down-to-earth character, from his regular tennis games with friends to moans about his ongoing medical problems, a lot of detail about the different therapies and the idiosyncratic therapists who perform them, the day-to-day business of being married, and quite interesting insights of how his scripts are written, produced, rehearsed and directed into the thirty-minute sitcom which is the basis of his fortune.

But as he becomes more intrigued and beguiled by Kierkegård’s writings, Laurence begins to sound like many another Lodge intellectual, sometimes less a character than an idea with legs. After a few months he has understood Kierkegård well enough to be able to explain to us his rather arcane notion of repetition – that repetition is the ultimate form of existential fulfilment, that in it we find ourselves.

And exposition of this rather abstract idea leads Laurence into an eloquent hymn to married life, to its rhythm and predictability, to the virtues of getting to know someone inside out, relishing their character and tastes and the little things that please them, through the repetition of day-to-day tenderness and love.

Which makes it all the funnier, and the more heart-breaking, when this whole section ends on the bombshell that his wife, Sally, wants to divorce him.

Part two – dramatic monologues (pp.133-198)

Very confidently and amusingly (Lodge has done this so many times before) the entire middle section of the novel is made up of dramatic monologues from the ‘secondary’ characters. We read:

  • A court deposition from Brett Sutton, Sally’s tennis coach. Laurence had begun to suspect his wife of having an affair with Brett, so he starts stalking him, making silent phone calls to him at all times of day and night, occasionally pretending to be Sally’s mother and putting on a high-pitched voice, damaging his greenhouse and then – in the climax of this strand – breaking into his bedroom with a pair of garden shears to cut off his…. ponytail. It’s only when Brett wakes up and turns the light on that a horrified Laurence sees that he is in bed with… his boyfriend. He is gay. He emphatically has not been having an affair with Laurence’s wife.
  • Plump Amy, Laurence’s platonic girlfriend in London, a skilled casting director, explains in a series of monologues (each one representing a session with her therapist) how she hears about the news of the separation, how she comforts Laurence but fears he might now want to sleep with her, and how she is persuaded to go with him on the worst foreign holiday of all time to Tenerife, to the hotel from hell, where they push together the two single metal bunk beds and, despite all his efforts, Laurence turns out to be impotent. In its depiction of Playa de las Americas as hell, this is very funny.
  • Louise, a high-powered Hollywood producer who once, five years ago, on Laurence’s one trip to the States to discuss creating a US version of the sitcom, took a bit too much cocaine in the ladies’ loo and made a blunt pass at Laurence. We hear her phone conversation to a fellow American media woman – frequently interrupted by other important calls from Hollywood contacts – in which she describes her astonishment that Laurence flies out to California, solely to meet her, solely to recreate that long-vanished evening, solely to try and seduce her. She is flabbergasted, gets him drunk, and kicks him out of her car at his expensive hotel.
  • Ollie Silver, the middle-aged producer of The People Next Door, meets an old pal from Current Affairs in the pub and chats about work and especially the problem he has: Deborah Radcliffe the star of the sitcom, wants to leave and he needs Laurence to write her out of the series. But Laurence, caught in his mid-life meltdown, refuses all the suggestions he and the Head of Comedy have made. If he continues to refuse, they’ll invoke his contract, cut him out of the show and hire a more compliant writer.
  • Samantha Handy, the hilariously self-centred young script-editor, hired by Laurence’s lecherous agent, Jake Endicott, visits a work colleague whose mouth is wired shut due to recent dental work, and breathlessly describes being invited by Laurence on a trip to Copenhagen to research his quixotic fantasy of creating a new drama series based on the life of Kierkegård, where she expects to have to sleep with him as a return for his recommending her to Jake – but is surprised when he turns down her increasingly blunt offers. Turns out visiting the sites of Kierkegård’s life make Laurence feel genuinely philosophical, make him think much more seriously about life and the choices you make.
  • Sally Passmore, his estranged wife, meets Laurence’s therapist to emphasise that the marriage really is over, kaput, finished, but finds herself drawn into reminiscing about how they met and the constraints of their very different families in the late 1950s, which drove them to seek escape by marrying.

All very persuasive and entertaining, sometimes very funny.

Part three (pp.201-282)

Back to Laurence’s diary, recommencing on Tuesday 25 May, and almost immediately he reveals that he wrote the dramatic monologues listed above, as an exercise for his therapist (and Lodge’s joke at the reader’s expense). Unexpected as this twist is, I think it ultimately detracts from the novel. It would have been far more interesting to have been the genuine views of all these characters. Knowing they were done by him somehow narrows them.

Barely has Laurence explained this, than he tells us he’s been musing more and more frequently on his first girlfriend, Maureen Kavanagh, back in impoverished south-east London where he grew up, and this is the pretext for a freestanding section, titled ‘Maureen: A Memoir’, which makes up most of this part.

It is a long section (pages 222-258, inclusive), quite a change of tone and a complete change of setting: from the heady delights of Soho’s medialand circa 1993, to schoolboy days in black-and-white post-war Charlton, 1952, with our hero attending Lambeth Merchants’ grammar school, playing in the school soccer team, and doing a star turn at the Catholic youth club dances, holding his Maureen tight as they smooch to Nat King Cole.

Maybe this whole section – presumably indebted to Lodge’s own upbringing at the same time and in the same place – is intended to be a symptom of a man unable to face his life in the here and now, escaping back to idealised memories of halcyon innocence. But it also reads like a stand-alone short story which has been inserted, not totally convincingly, into the longer text. Also, it reworks themes familiar to any reader of Lodge: the precocious 16-year-old echoes the identically aged protagonist of Out of the Shelter; the link between teenage Catholicism and sex are unhappily present throughout his work.

The story itself starts out as the sweetly innocent romance between Laurence and local Catholic girl, Maureen. After a year of catching trams to school at opposite stops, they finally bump into each other and speak, and then Laurence starts attending the Catholic youth group in order to be close to her, especially at the Sunday night dance (supervised by a priest). And then he gets to accompany her on the 15-minute walk home. And then they kiss, a radiant memory. And then a little more than kissing. And touching. And every week thereafter, a little further, until Laurence attains every schoolboy’s Holy Grail and, in the cold damp area under the steps to Maureen’s house, he gets to feel the curve of her teenage breast. Eureka! Which goes on for several weeks.

But then they both become involved in the Church Nativity Play in which Maureen is cast as Mary. The priest directing it emphasises to her that she must not only play the role she must pray the role, aspiring to be as chaste and pure as the Virgin. And so she shyly and embarrassedly asks Laurence to stop, to stop the fondling and the kissing. And he is angry.

And I was embarrassed. I felt increasingly like a voyeur at the violation of a teenage virgin. After the slow, sweet build-up, the story unravels quickly from that point onwards. As they go on to perform in the Nativity play, Laurence puts increasingly genuine contempt for his one-time sweetheart into his performance as Herod. And as soon as the productions are finished, he publicly humiliates Maureen, quits the Catholic social club, gets a job in a West End theatre, and quickly leaves his boyhood world behind.

Now, 40 years later, as he continues using the journal to search his soul, he realises he is still haunted by his heartlessness. On the spur of the moment Laurence revisits his childhood neighbourhood, tracks down the house where he grew up, then Maureen’s house and then the Catholic church which oversaw the youth club. Here he meets the modish young priest struggling with Excel spreadsheets, and makes enquiries. Turns out Maureen married the director of the youth club nativity play – Laurence’s much despised rival, Bede. Further investigation turns up that this rather pompous young man went on to become a civil servant in the Department of Education, ultimately playing a key role in the implementation of the new National Curriculum.

So Laurence rings Bede up out of the blue and goes to visit him in his plush home in Wimbledon. Here he discovers that Bede and Maureen’s eldest son was recently murdered in Africa. And for this and other reasons Maureen, still a devout Catholic, has undertaken the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

And, on impulse, his present life in ruins, seeking, searching, yearning for the certainty of those vanished days – Laurence decides to track her down.

If all this feels rushed and against the grain of the leisurely and fairly comedic opening sections, that’s because it is.

Part four (pp.285-321)

He tracks her down. He spares no expense driving up and down the autoroutes of southern France and Spain, stopping at every pilgrim’s lodge, searching for her name among the registers of overnight guests. He eventually finds her trudging along a busy A road, weary and foot-sore. After her initial amazement, she allows him to take her bags to the nearest hotel, but she insists on walking. And quite quickly he falls in with her plans, driving her backpack ahead to the nearest town, then walking back to meet her, as she slowly, painfully completes every step of the pilgrimage.

Lodge includes a lot of tourist colour, describing the landscape, the other pilgrims, the lodges and rest-houses, as if he himself has done the route or researched it pretty thoroughly. It has stopped in any way being a detached, amusing comedy. It feels more real and urgent than that. She is not the trim schoolgirl of his memory. She is a baggy, paunchy, wrinkly, tubby middle aged woman gone to seed. But it doesn’t matter to Laurence, driven by his obsession.

Finally, when Maureen has walked all the way to the cathedral and taken part in the necessary rituals and then attended the big celebration Mass – finally they repair to a swanky hotel where Laurence finally gets to make love to her (he had been offering to all the time, but she had refused while she was making pilgrimage). And thereafter, like spring chickens, like fit young 20-somethings, they make love every siesta and every night. He offers to marry her but she says, No, she must go back to Bede.

And so they make their respective ways back to London. In a tearing hurry Laurence drives up to Rummidge to try and effect a reconciliation with his wife, but she says she has now fallen in love with another man and slept with him. Game over.

As the book ends Laurence explains that the problem with his sitcom, about the actress leaving – that was all sorted out; the money is still pouring in; he’s now the best of friends with Bede and Maureen, he’s going to move to Wimbledon and join the golf club; and he and Maureen still enjoy fairly regular ‘siestas’, her ongoing marriage to Bede not appearing to trouble her at all. And the problem with his knee, which prompted him to start the journal? All cleared up, old boy. Maybe there is something in these pilgrimages.


Conclusion

There is something profoundly wrong about all this. It is fine for Lodge’s characters to fall in and out of bed with each other when they are in one of his obvious comic-fantasies. But the backdrop to this encounter is Laurence’s genuine cruelty of 40 years ago, Maureen’s bereft mourning for her dead son, the complex and real damage this has done to her marriage to Bede, and the long, agonising, physically draining experience of the pilgrimage, not easy for an out-of-shape housewife in her late 50s.

I just don’t believe a woman like that would simply open her arms and say Yes to sex. And that they would then shag like teenagers every afternoon and every evening. It feels too much like male wish-fulfilment, the need of Laurence’s penis over-riding every other real-world consideration.

From the moment in Part Two that he introduced the Maureen memoir, it began to feel like a different novel from the first half, one dealing with potentially much more serious and upsetting themes. And yet it is embedded in the increasingly inappropriate chatty, upbeat tone of his middle-brow TV scriptwriter. Subject matter and tone feel at odds.

And the facile capitulation of Maureen to his childhood fantasies – seems too much like fantasy, in the negative sense. Or that the fantasy seems cheap and easy, compared to the short but powerful scenes about the son’s death and the pilgrimage itself. These threads hint at the much deeper complexity of human nature, at enduring issues of tragedy and loss, of age and decay, of lost loves and lost hopes – which can’t just be reconciled and sorted out with a few fancy meals and improbably athletic sex in an expensive hotel room.

It feels like Lodge’s comic instincts do a disservice to his deeper intuitions about human nature.


Social history

Lodge’s previous novels are all very specific about their location in time, and all contain references to contemporary events (in the case of How Far Can You Go? almost obsessively so). Laurence’s diary commences on Monday 15 February 1993 and the last entry is on September 21.

The advantage of the diary format is you can make passing comments on anything which takes your fancy without disturbing the flow of ‘plot’ (if there is a plot). Thus Laurence bolsters the ‘realism’ of the text by including numerous references to contemporary events and trends:

  • global warming (have we really been worrying about it for 20 years?)
  • British Rail introducing the irritating phrase ‘station stop’
  • the well-publicised case of Jamie Bulger, abducted from a shopping centre and murdered by two young boys on 12 February 1993
  • on the train to and from London he works on his laptop computer (the etymological dictionary says the word was first used in 1984)
  • he hears about the death of Bobby Moore (24 February 1993) on the evening he’s gone to see Reservoir Dogs, and contrasts the dignity and heroism of the footballer with the cynical, squalid hyper-violence of the Hollywood movie
  • Diana’s Squidgeygate tapes are in the news, making him feel sorry for the Royal Family
  • the Serbs are bombing Sarajevo
  • John Major has the lowest popularity rating of any Prime Minister since records began

This deployment of background chronology has been Lodge’s practice since his earliest novels, but I question why. Ezra Pound said an ‘epic’ is a poem with history in it, and proceeded to shove his long poem, The Cantos, full of historical references, but himself ultimately judged the poem a failure, because of its lack of coherence.

Something similar is going on here. The history has to be woven into the pattern of the narrative. The history has to engage with the plot and the characters. Just noting what’s on the radio or in the papers that day – Jamie Bulger, John Major, Sarajevo – certainly matches the story against a chronology of the times – but it doesn’t integrate history into the narrative, doesn’t dramatise it. The two strands run on parallel lines without ever touching.


Mid-life crisis

Thirty seconds on the internet showed me that novels about a middle-aged man who feels he’s missing something is a well-established and thoroughly defined genre – the ‘mid-life crisis novel’ – and that Therapy is routinely included in them.

Nat King Cole – Too Young

This is one of the songs to which the 16-year-old Laurence dances with his childhood sweetheart, all those years ago, back in post-war south-east London. My mother (same generation as Lodge) had a big collection of original Nat King Cole records which my Dad bought her, and which I inherited.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic accord.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

Paradise News by David Lodge (1991)

The classic Lodge novel features an academic, often a bit fusty and behind-the-times (who at various points will give us potted and very readable summaries of his or her intellectual work) – taken out of their comfort zone (generally spirited abroad) – where their horizons are widened and their beliefs put to the test, where their lives are somehow transformed (like the characters in E.M. Foster’s Italian novels.)

Paradise News is a variation on these familiar themes: Modern, agnostic Roman Catholic theologian Bernard Walsh comes from a large Irish Catholic family and teaches at a theological college but no longer really believes in God. One day out of the blue he receives a phone call from his auntie Ursula who is dying of cancer in distant Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to fly out to see her and bring his father – her brother – John Walsh, with him.

The novel is divided into three parts but is, in practice, a story of two halves: the first two-thirds of the 360-page novel is rather downbeat and depressing; the last 80 pages or so transform it into something rich and deep and moving.

Paradise promised

Parts one and three are told in the third person by a detached narrator. He takes us into the mind of Bernard, a typical Lodge character, highly educated and articulate, with a very low ability to make decisions or live. Bernard was the gifted son of Irish working class parents who showed especial religious sense from the first and was given the best of everything. Bernard passed easily from seminary school into the priesthood and from there into theological teaching. But when he was eventually given the opportunity of being a parish priest he slowly realised his faith had evaporated. For a while he thought he was in love with one of his parishioners who made a pass at him, and this made his exit from the Church unnecessarily messy, attracting bad publicity from the press and breaking his parents’ hearts.

When we meet him he is working as a part-time lecturer in theology, earning a pittance and living with the heavy sense of failure: failure in religious belief, failure in career terms, a failure to create a loving relationship with a woman, most of all a terrific failure to his family, themes rammed home with repeated small turns of phrase sprinkled throughout the text:

‘The baggage of guilt and failure he had brought with him to Hawaii (97)… His sense of his own inadequacy (102)… he was left with a residue of guilt to add to the heap he had already accumulated (142)… Failed again (157)… Feeling pretty dismal and depressed myself (160)… Why do I so often have the feeling of being a ghost these days? (165)…  ‘

Bernard journeys from Rummidge (the fictional version of Birmingham which has featured in Lodge’s previous four novels, the city where Lodge spent his entire academic career) to the run-down suburb in south-east London where his ageing Dad lives (Lodge was born and raised in south-east London) to collect his reluctant Dad and both catch a flight to Hawaii.

This introduction takes up the first 100 or so pages and allows Lodge:

  • to paint in the background to Bernard’s rather woebegone life, his loss of nerve when he was offered a woman’s love, his sense he has let his orthodox family down by ending up a mere part-time lecturer, detail of the decline of his faith via various modernising theologians
  • to comment in that oh-so-English, so middle-aged way, about the ghastliness of modern life – the horrible canned music, the sentimental movies, the crowds, the noise, the pollution
  • and to begin to depict ten or so other, essentially comic, characters at the check-ins and departure lounges of the various airports and on the flights and at the hotels, who we are to meet again and again through the narrative

A gallery of minor characters

The inclusion of a cross-section of his fellow travellers to Hawaii is a repeat of the technique perfected in How Far Can You Go? and Small World, of cross-cutting at speed between short, half-page vignettes featuring the generally comical mishaps of secondary characters. It adds texture to these minor figures, depth and variety to the fictional world of the novel, and directly or indirectly fleshes out the book’s themes:

  • the Best family, constantly squabbling among themselves, headed by irritable Mr Best who is routinely threatening to write to the authorities about whatever latest rip-off or holiday disappointment they are subject to
  • Russ Harvey, a bumptious trader at an investment bank, who’s come on honeymoon with his new wife, Cecily; unfortunately, Cecily discovered at the wedding that Russ had slept with a colleague from work and is thus in an epic sulk from the moment we meet her till the very end of the book
  • Sidney and Lilian Brooks who’ve flown all this way to meet their son Terry, whose career as a photographer is thriving in Hawaii
  • Terry Brooks and his boyfriend, Tony – it comes as a devastating blow to his father to discover half-way through the novel that Terry is gay
  • Brian and Beryl Everthorpe (we met Brian in Lodge’s previous novel, Nice Work, where he is the scheming number two to the protagonist, Vic Cox, and leaves Vic’s company, Pringle and Son, to set up a sunbed rental firm)
  • Sue Butterworth and Dee Ripley, two girls on tour who are out for a good time

Towards the end of the middle section of the novel Lodge deploys an entertaining passage made up entirely of postcards and letters from each of these characters, snapshots of their different styles and mentalities, humorously revealing their everyday concerns. It is very well done, like the excellent letters section of Changing Places, showing how effective and completely domesticated what were once considered avant-garde experiments can be in the hands of a contemporary and essentially comic novelist.

Chief among these secondary characters is another academic and – in a familiar pattern – a far more go-ahead and successful one than the main character (compare Changing Places where the gung-ho American critic Morris Zapp contrasts with the pallid, ineffectual Brit, Philip Swallow). The alpha prof in this novel is Rupert Sheldrake, an anthropologist studying ‘the holiday’ as a social and historical phenomenon. In a rather glib analogy he compares the modern package holiday to aspects of medieval religion: the pilgrimage to distant lands, collecting souvenirs/relics, the compulsory visits to notable sights/shrines. It is no accident, Sheldrake points out, that the package tour took off just as organised religion went into decline.

I had a sense of déjà vu about this character and his insights about the modern holiday. A decade earlier, in How Far Can You Go?, the character Ruth had similar thoughts upon visiting Disneyland:

It struck Ruth that Disneyland was indeed a place of pilgrimage. The customers had an air about them of believers who had finally made it to Mecca, to the Holy Places. They had come to celebrate their own myths of origin and salvation – the plantation, the frontier, the technological utopia – and pay homage to their heroes, gods and fairies: Buffalo Bill, Davey Crockett, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. (How Far Can You Go? 1981 Penguin paperback edition, page 178)

And the entire premise of Small World is that the world of academic conferences is like the world of medieval romance, full of knights (academics) on pilgrimages to foreign places. A sense of a theme being recycled…

Nonetheless, when he pops up the reader raises a cheer: Sheldrake knows how to work the system, his research topics are carefully calculated to secure funding from the tourism industry, he flies everywhere first class for free, is put up at the best hotels and – when we see vignettes of him interspersed among the other characters – is always sipping champagne, eating at the finest restaurants or furiously jotting down notes. He is, at least to begin with, the Morris Zapp of this novel, the winner, the man who – in contrast to the grumpy, failed, self-accusing Bernard – always flourishes; whose intellectual discourse is flashy and superficial and therefore perfectly suited to these vulgar, gaudy, greedy times. He is, to begin with, the principle of energy in what is otherwise a rather downbeat story.

Paradise lost

The novel offers, in a typically Lodgean programmatic kind of way, a number of deconstructions of the notion of ‘paradise’:

  • The academic Sheldrake, whenever we meet him, is actively gathering material for an academic paper showing how the notion of ‘paradise’ doesn’t exist; is a garish fiction created and marketed to the gullible masses.
  • Yolanda Miller, a long-time resident of Waikiki, tells Bernard that ‘paradise’, when you actually live there, is boring. Not least because its original history and culture have been obliterated by American consumerism.

‘Paradise lost?’
‘Paradise stolen. Paradise raped. Paradise infected. Paradise owned, developed, packaged, Paradise sold.’ (p.177)

  • Bernard sees for himself the grim underside of ‘paradise’ when he takes a tour of care homes trying to choose one to move his dying aunt into – shabby, urine-smelling places populated by senile, demented, drooling, incontinent old-timers.
  • And lastly and most devastatingly, Bernard spends the middle part of the book writing a long diary or journal trying to explain to himself how his own career as an outstanding seminarian, pupil and then teacher at a leading Catholic college, fizzled out – trying to fathom how and when he lost his faith, how he stopped believing in the gospel, the good news, the paradise news (p.190).

From all directions, then, the paradise news is – there is no paradise.

Grumpy old man

Lodge was 56 when this novel was published, and his protagonist is meant to be only 44, but both character and author seem taken aback by lots of aspects of modern life: Bernard has never heard of or seen a stretch limo before; he’s never heard the word ‘paramedic’; he’s never heard of a champagne cocktail or sushi; he is surprised that a hotel clerk fills out a form instead of filling it in; when a waitress outs down the food and says, ‘There you go!’ he asks where? Admittedly, Bernard has lived the sheltered life of a seminarian, but nonetheless, it gives Lodge the author ample opportunity to register the relentless disappointments of modern life.

The roads are always packed; whether in London or Honolulu you get caught in traffic jams; flights are delayed; taxi drivers charge a fortune; American medicine is prohibitively expensive; Hawaii is buried under high-rise hotels; all the tourist attractions are cheap and tacky; the whole place is pervaded by pounding rock music.

Everything is too big in this country: the steaks, the salads, the ices. You weary of them before you can finish them. (p.162) There was always that sense of unspecified lack or longing in the warm humid air of Waikiki. (p.264)

In conclusion – For the first two-thirds, this is quite a depressing book. Lodge’s world-view, the rhythm of the sentences and paragraphs, feel as tired and dispirited as his depressed protagonist. Gone is the exuberance and comic invention of Changing Places or Small World. Now it is a big world and it is all too much.

But in the last third of the novel the story takes a dramatic turn, a descent into more serious terrain which leads, unexpectedly, to a kind of secular resurrection.

Sexual healing

Bernard falls in love (Lodge’s heroes always do). Hopelessly head-over-heels in love with an experienced American divorcée, Yolande Miller. And she is a therapist, a counsellor.

It turns out that the middle section of the novel, the journal or diary Bernard has been keeping – which includes details of his several dinners with Yolande and his feelings for her interspersed with raw autobiography detailing his progression through seminary school, his loss of faith and his abortive relationship with a fat, infatuated parishioner – it turns out that this text is destined to become a forlorn love letter to Yolande.

Late one night, a bit tipsy, before he can change his mind, Bernard drives round and posts it through her letterbox. Next day she meets him and, instead of flinging it in his face and laughing, says she understands. And promises to heal him. Heal him sexually and psychologically. It is an amazing break for Bernard, for the story, and for the reader, a break or rupture in the seamless discourse of depression and disappointment which had dogged the story.

And so over a course of days in his darkened hotel room, Yolande takes him carefully, tenderly, lovingly, through the process of becoming comfortable with kissing, then stroking, then caressing, then petting, then arousing and then making love to a woman. All things this repressed celibate priest had never imagined possible. (pp.266-78) This sequence is genuinely moving, tender and compassionate.

Paradise regained

But what of dying aunt Ursula? Well, once he’s arrived in Hawaii, a lot of the novel is concerned with Bernard slowly getting to know and respect his aunt. He helps her leave the dingy care home she was trapped in, takes over her finances and arranges for her to stay somewhere much nicer. And in the course of their long conversations, once she is sure she can trust him, she tells him she was abused as a girl, aged 7. It made her incapable of sex, incapable of being close to a man, destroyed her marriage and ruined her life.

Her brother – Bernard’s father – didn’t do it, but knew about it. That was why he was so reluctant to come to Hawaii, suspecting some kind of confrontation was inevitable. And why, after he is knocked over by a car in a minor accident soon after their arrival, his Dad is keen to stay in his hospital room and put off any meeting with his sister.

In a converging plot line, Bernard’s difficult sister, Tessa, who disapproved of the whole trip, suspicious that Bernard is only going to wangle Ursula’s inheritance – goes bananas on the phone when she discovers their father has been in an accident.

Tessa has had lots of children in the Catholic manner, one of whom, Patrick, is severely disabled and she has martyred herself to look after him. She is an angry woman. Bernard is just beginning to blossom from the sexual healing described above when he is horrified to receive a telegram announcing that Tess is on the next flight out. He panics that she will ruin everything, his intimate afternoons with Yolande and the planned reconciliation between John and Ursula Walsh, before it even happens.

But it all works out. Turns out Tess hasn’t come to ruin everything, but because she has discovered her husband, Frank, is having an affair with a pretty receptionist at work. She has just walked out and said, you look after the kids, you look after Patrick, you see what it’s like.

During some tricky conversations between grown-up brother and sister some home truths are uttered. She tells Bernard he was always their parents’ golden boy; the girls had to snatch their knickers down off the clothes horse whenever he was about in order not to give him impure thoughts; he got the best clothes and new shoes when the other siblings had to make do with hand-me-downs; he even got the best cuts of meat off the Sunday roast.

Bernard never knew any of  this and is stricken to realise how much his parents, and his other siblings, stinted themselves so he could progress his career. Only to watch him abandon it all…. The devastation… Brother and sister talk long into the night and come to a better understanding of each other…

Then they jointly stage-manage the meeting of Ursula and John Walsh, trundling their wheelchairs together on a terrace overlooking the sea, then tactfully leaving them to discuss the long-ago abuse which has haunted both of them. It works. Ursula has her say, and John apologises, and Ursula forgives him. Later, as Bernard drives her back to her hospital, Ursula says she could die happy now, could fly right off a cliff as the native Hawaiians said the soul does, her mortal body crashing on the rocks, her spirit rising up to heaven.

The low mechanicals’ party

The penultimate scene is the end-of-package tour party, held in a hotel complex of truly stupendous ostentation and vulgarity, where the plotlines of the lesser characters are all neatly tied up. The whole thing feels very like a Shakespeare comedy in its division into ‘serious’ main characters, and walk-on minor, comic roles. And in the way the entire narrative is comic in structure – all conflicts are reconciled and harmonised – giving a very satisfying sense of completion, even if, page by page, the book is not that funny, far less high-spirited than its predecessors.

Thus Terry’s dad is reconciled to his gay son when Terry and Tony rescue Russ after the latter got knocked unconscious by his own surf board and nearly drowned. Not only that, but the accident had the hitherto-alienated Cecily running up the beach screaming to give her unconscious husband the kiss of life, and they, too, are reconciled. Brian Everthorpe entertains everyone with his awful home movies of the holiday and (almost) everyone drinks and is merry.

Epilogue

In the final scene, Bernard is back at his theological college, where he has now been given a full-time job, and it opens with a couple of pages of his (very thought-provoking) lecture on the modern theology of paradise (as so many Lodge novels contain papers and lectures of unashamed intellectual content).

He has patiently been taking a weekly call from Yolande in Hawaii as she tries to decide what to do with her life, whether to go ahead with divorcing her unfaithful husband, whether to stay in Hawaii or come to England, and whether she loves Bernard or not.

Finally, he receives a long letter from her and goes to sit in the college garden as the sun comes out and the birds sing. (The setting is very similar to the vision of university life as utopia which is the setting for the happy ending to the previous novel, Nice Work.) Yolande has made her decision. She does love him. She has booked a ticket to fly to Rummidge to be with him this Christmas. Bernard folds up the letter and walks into the Senior Common Room with a broad smile on his face. ‘Good news?’ asks a colleague, indicating the letter in his hand. Yes, replies Bernard. Very good news. Paradise news.

Conclusion

So the novel feels as if it has taken on board all the negative aspects of modern life and the human condition – from traffic jams to environmental degradation, from failed relationships to sexual abuse, from disappointed hopes to aborted ambitions – gathered together and dramatised all the most powerful arguments against the possibility of paradise – and overcome them.

It is still possible to live well. It is still possible to love. It is still possible to overcome ancient pain. It is still possible to be redeemed, here and now, to be among the chosen, to enter paradise in this world.


Related links

Hardback edition of Paradise News

Hardback edition of Paradise News

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance.
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic accord.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins.
1995 – Therapy
2001 – Thinks …
2004 – Author, Author
2008 – Deaf Sentence
2011 – A Man of Parts

The Power and The Glory by Graham Greene (1940)

This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven. (p.125)

In 1938 Greene was commissioned by the publisher Longman to go to Mexico to report on the revolutionary government’s repression of the Church and anti-clerical pogroms. The trip produced the factual travel book, The Lawless Roads, published in 1939, and the novel The Power and The Glory, in 1940.

A worldview finds a home

God, Greene must have been thrilled to bits when he saw Mexico. In London or Brighton, in a sensible well-organised civilised and boring country, Greene’s bleakly pessimistic worldview combined with his fondness for an atmosphere of menace and fear often seem more than a bit ludicrous.

In revolutionary Mexico, on the other hand, the sense of life’s futility, its cheapness, squalor and poverty, along with a constant menace from the revolutionary authorities, streaked through with a melodramatic heroism of the repressed Catholic church – this is the world he had been looking for, had been expressing in fiction for a decade – and it actually existed!

I’ve argued that his previous books had been themes and worldviews in search of a plot which could justify them – the bitterness, the horror and the menace expressed by characters and narrator in his first half dozen or so novels never really being justified by the small-scale, petty and often silly plot structures.

Here, in the brutal, poverty-stricken, violent, repressive, godforsaken south of Mexico, he found the living embodiment of everything he imagined, everything he loathed and feared and hated and which his fiction revels in: life at its most squalidly cheap and nasty; a cast of vicious, pathetic, defeated human animals set against a pitiless and abandoned landscape.

The Power and The Glory is routinely described as Greene’s first great novel. I am arguing it is ‘great’ because he has finally found a subject which justifies his obsessions and the bleak, cold-eyed style he had developed to express them.

As a small example: in these early novels the characters often feel uniquely cursed, as if they carry a blight, an evil fate around with them, like Pinkie in Brighton Rock or D. in The Confidential Agent who, as I’ve noted in a post on that novel, repeatedly uses the word ‘infection’ and typhoid to refer to himself. But the whisky priest is finally a character who can really justify the solipsistic self-pity so many Greene characters feel, for the army starts taking hostages from the poor villages where he passes and shooting them if no-one will betray him.

Nobody would stop him, saying a woman was ill or a man dying. He was a sickness now. (p.64)

He alone carried a wound, as though a whole world had died. (p.68)

A virtuous man can almost cease to believe in Hell, but he carried Hell about with him… Evil ran like malaria in his veins. (p.176)

Plot

There is no plot. The unnamed whisky priest has been hiding for ten years (!) while his colleagues are either shot by the authorities or give in and marry, abandoning their vows. The army, led by the unnamed lieutenant, are after him but not very hard.

For most of the novel there is no sequence of events linked by meaningful interactions, or unfolding of a plot. It is not even a chase, more of a trudge or traipse or godforsaken stumble through the jungle and landscape of southern Mexico in which the priest has encounters with various people. He covers hundreds of miles from the banana port where he tangles with Mr Tench the dentist, to his home village of Concepcion where the peasants are desperate to get rid of him, to some place where he sees the child (Coral) he fathered illegitimately – thus, oooh, placing himself in a state of mortal sin – then crossing some river, getting latched onto by a probably criminal half-breed, then on to the capital where he buys wine only to see it drunk by idiots and gets thrown into a squalid prison cell stuffed with crims, then back to the mud village.

Maybe it’s intended as a kind of parody of the Stations of the Cross but it’s more like Waiting For Godot in that, at every one of his stopping points he loses a belonging: his missal, his smart clothes, his wine, finally the last scraps of writing he has. He staggers blindly scores of miles accompanied by an Indian woman he can’t communicate with, who’s carrying the corpse of her three year-old son, murdered by some Yankee gunshooter. Slowly, steadily the protagonist is humiliated and stripped of all dignity until he is reduced to a bestial level, sucking the moisture from his wet trousers, fighting with a crippled dog about a bone with some raw meat still on it.

The text is divided into four parts, the first and longest two describing his steady deterioration on the run. In part three there is an interlude: he stumbles over a civilised plantation run by two German Lutherans, where is is fed and rested and recuperates. He is given money and food and is actually on the mule which will take him north to the city in the next state, to safety and lights and civilisation, when the mestizo from earlier in the novel appears like an evil daemon to tell him the Yankee gunshooter is lying dying and has asked for confession. He knows it is a trap, but the whisky priest goes, nonetheless.

It is a trap – the Yankee is there but dies absurdly without giving confession or receiving the last rites. In every possible way Greene makes his priest a failure. The army lieutenant, who was lying in wait, takes him back to the capital, they have some pseudo-philosophical discussions, but then the priest is locked in a cell to drink the last of the brandy and cry with fear.

Part Four uses the same technique as the final part of A Gun For Sale, namely it’s a short round-up of the fate of all the minor characters in the text: which has the modishly distancing affect of showing that life goes on (in what Greene sees as its silly tawdry way): Captain and Mrs Fellows bicker about whether to go back to England; the unnamed peasant mother finishes reading the life of a young martyr to her impressionable children. The heart of this alienation or distancing technique, is that Mr Tench the dentist who we met on the first page, is doing dental work of the chief of police at the moment the whisky priest is executed, and we witness the execution through his eyes, as he looks down from the chief’s office into the courtyard.

And in the final paragraphs, late one night, to the house of the believing woman, arrives in the final sentences of the novel – another anonymous priest. The Church’s work goes on! Although I didn’t enjoy a lot of what went before, the sheer theatricality of these final passages and the boom boom ending give a rewarding sense of completeness.

Characters

Greene is skilled at creating vivid characters with deft pen portraits of their physical appearances.

The lieutenant walked in front of his men with an air of bitter distaste. He might have been chained to them unwillingly – perhaps the scar on his jaw was the relic of an escape. His gaiters were polished, and his pistol-holster: his buttons were all sewn on. He had a sharp crooked nose jutting out of a lean dancer’s face; his neatness gave an effect of inordinate ambition in the shabby city. (p20)

The Chief of Police came breezily in, a stout man with a pink fat face, dressed in white flannels with a wide-awake hat and a cartridge-belt and a big pistol clapping his thigh. He held a handkerchief to his mouth: he was in distrees. ‘Toothache again,’ he said. (p.21)

The old man sat [the renegade priest] on a packing-case in the little dry patio. He was very fat and short of breath; he panted a little as if after great exertion in the heat… He wore only a shirt and trousers; his feet were bare, but there remained something unmistakably clerical in his manner. Forty years of the priesthood had branded him. (p.28)

[The mestizo] was wearing a shirt, a pair of white trousers, and gym shoes through which one big toe showed – plump and yellow like something which lives underground. He scratched himself under the armpits and came chummily up to the priest’s stirrup. (p.86)

On the first floor a man dressed in formal dark trousers and a white skin-tight vest came out of a bedroom with a towel over his shoulder. He had a little grey aristocratic beard and he wore braces as well as a belt. (p.106)

Theology and existentialism

I’m not interested in the Catholic ‘theology’. In Greene’s hands it’s mostly morbid self-pity dressed up as principle. Eg:

Why should anyone listen to his prayers? Sin was a constriction which prevented their escape; he could feel his prayers weigh him down like undigested food. (p.151)

‘Theologically’, I think this is meaningless. Dramatically, it is yet another of the thousands of ways, of phrases, Greene uses to make the priest feel sorry for himself.

I was more struck by the way the novel creates an archetypal landscape, a symbolic landscape, depicting man’s abandonment in a godless universe etc, a very existentialist notion, very of its time, very dated. And an idea, like many of the others in the book, which is rammed home by repetition.

He bellowed after [the departing boat], but it wasn’t any good: there was no sign of a [anaesthetising] cylinder anywhere on the quay. He shouted once again, and then didn’t trouble any more. It didn’t matter so much after all: a little additional pain was hardly noticeable in the general abandonment. (p.18)

He knew what it meant: the ship had kept to timetable: he was abandoned. (p.19)

Their little shameless voices filled the patio, and he smiled humbly and sketched small gestures for silence, and there was no respect anywhere left for him in his home, in the town, in the whole abandoned star. (p.30)

There was a sense of abandonment, as if he had given up every struggle from now on and lay there a victim of some power…(p.96)

It was an odd thing that ever since that hot and crowded night in the cell he had passed into a region of abandonment… (p.147)

It was loneliness he felt now – even the face had gone, he was moving alone across thatblank white sheet, gong deeper every moment into the abandoned land. (p.157)

His head drooped between his knees; he looked as if he had abandoned everything and been abandoned. (p.205)

Greene manufactures characters by giving them a handful of fictitious memories which the text then adverts to again and again to create a spurious sense of personality. Something similar might be said of the ‘themes’ of the novel: that repeating them is an attempt to deepen them, to give them more meaning. Not for me. They remain outdated clichés, like Dickens’ sexless heroines or Fielding’s hearty squires: they are sociological constructs of the era – the conflicted 1930s – which we look back at with interest and detachment.

The Greene Creeps

Greene is never happier than when nosing out pain and suffering and humiliation and shame and embarrassment and squalor and seediness and sexual failure and bitten fingernails and balding scalps and bad teeth and then recklessly using these as ‘proof’ of the whole universe’s beastly heartlessness.

[His father’s dental cast] had been [Trench’s] favourite toy: they tries to tempt him with meccano, but fate had struck. There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. The hot wet river-port and the vultures lay in the wastepaper basket, and he picked them out. We should be thankful we cannot see the horrors and degradations lying around our childhood, in cupboards and bookshelves, everywhere. (p.12)

It infuriated [the lieutenant] to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy – a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew. (p.25)

The novel gives hundreds of instances, great and small, of people’s shabby physical appearance and sordid behaviour. A high/low point in Greene’s love of the squalid is when the priest is stuffed into a prison cell crammed with people and reeking from the overflowing bucket of faeces, and he hears the unmistakable moaning of a woman as somewhere in the filthy stinking darkness a couple have sex.

Details

I don’t much like the lengthy theological self-pity, and find a lot of the dwelling on squalor so pathological as to be unintentionally funny. But what I enjoy most about Greene’s novels is the attention to detail: the deft character creation from a few strokes, the handful of details which create a locale, the steady stream of arresting details. Details expressed in clear, uninflected language, details which leap from the page carrying complete conviction, details which indicate how deeply Greene has imagined the scene.

Suddenly, out of the forest, a hundred yards away, an officer rode. In the absolute stillness you could hear the creaking of his revolver-holster as he turned and waved. (p.72)

A rout of pigs came rushing round the corner of a hut, taking no notice of anybody. The soldier finished his puttee and stood up. The sunlight coming up above the forest winked on the bottles of the gaseosa stall. (p.77)

The mestizo watched the mules pick their way along the narrow stony path with a look of wistful greed; they disappeared round a shoulder of rock – crack, crack, crack, the sound of their hooves contracted into silence. (p.184)

As Evelyn Waugh pointed out: Greene has a very unsensual use of language, no particular use of symbolism, no unusual vocabulary. All is plain and blunt and limpid. It is the arrangement of the aperçus, of the detailing, their quick juxtaposition, the lack of linking passages, almost like cuts between shots in a movie, which give Greene’s prose its imaginative power.

Related links

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Power and The Glory: illustration by Paul Hogarth

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Power and The Glory, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)

Was there no escape – anywhere – for anyone? It was worth murdering a world. (p.92)

Writers of the 30s

The English writers of the 1930s were defined by the fact that they missed the Great War which nonetheless ruined their world.

Born in the 1900s they were at school when masters and older boys and older brothers went off to fight and die. They were raised in prep schools and public schools which still indoctrinated all the values of the late Victorians, in which Kipling was God: to be born an Englishman was the luckiest fate in the world, for we ran the greatest Empire the world had ever seen and deserved it because we were gentlemen who played the game, ie cricket and rugger, and believed in honour and duty and self-sacrifice and decency.

This generation (including the poets Auden 1907 and Spender 1909 and MacNeice 1907, the novelists Isherwood 1904, Waugh 1903, Upward 1903, Orwell 1903 and Greene 1904) reached maturity in a world in chaos as the economic consequences of the peace produced crisis after crisis in Weimar Germany and Europe, the consequences of the Russian revolution spread communist and socialist ideology around the globe, the Western world seemed weak and feeble and then, with the great crash and Depression of the early 1930s, it really seemed as if everything the West stood for, all the values their parents and teachers had inculcated, had turned to dust, and they were left abandoned without any workable beliefs in a world permanently in crisis.

The search for belief

Thus it is a well-known cliché that the writers of this decade were all, in one way or another, in search of some kind of value system to replace the schoolboy Imperialism which had proved so inadequate. Innumerable memoirs of the decade repeat the truism that, to many intellectuals it seemed as if the only choice lay between Marxism or religion, and that religion not the milk-and-water Anglicanism of their school days, but full-on, ideological Roman Catholicism. Both were rigorous worldviews demanding lifelong ‘commitment’. Those who chose Left included the circle around Auden, the ‘Oxford poets’, all left-leaning, contributing to Left Book Club etc. Orwell became a famous left-wing journalist and went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

On the Christian front, T.S. Eliot, the granddaddy of Modernism who had given the great panorama of waste and futility which so many saw in the post-War period its typical expression in his Modernist masterpiece The Waste Land, surprised everyone by converting to a High Church form of Anglicanism in 1927. Evelyn Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930.

Graham Greene pre-empted them both by being baptised a Roman Catholic on 26 February 1926.

Religious belief – or organised despair?

A lot happened in the world during the 1930s but you’d never know it from Greene’s novels which focus on the same themes obsessively: the world is a battlefield of all against all without meaning or purpose in which there is no beauty or truth but absolutely everything is shabby, seedy and sordid, a world of mass-produced tat in which everyone seeks to exploit or hurt everyone else, in which no-one is happy or fulfilled since everyone is confused, lonely, abandoned, trailing memories of having been bullied and beaten at school, all to the soundtrack of cheap popular songs and the meretricious glamour of the ‘flickers’.

Brighton Rock is no different. It is an orgy of squalor. But, if you’re interested in Greene’s Catholicism, it is arguably his first overtly Catholic novel. There are Catholic characters in his earlier novels – maybe Minty in England Made Me is portrayed in most depth – but the two lead figures in Brighton Rock are very much Catholics, the teenage psychopath Pinkie and the innocent girl Rose he pretends to love solely so she doesn’t implicate the gang in a murder. Their Catholicism builds from scattered references in the first half to a crescendo of theology as the couple marry and then fornicate in a state of mortal sin – thus scoring double on Greene’s ever-active Sin-ometer.

Seediness, failure

The funfair seaside world of Brighton is a gift for Greene, allowing him to contrast the supposed gaiety and good times of ice creams and amusement arcades with the unremittingly seedy and squalid reality of his poor characters’ lives.

‘Waste not, want not,’ Ida said gently, taking in the details of the bony face, the large mouth, the eyes too wide apart, the pallor, the immature body… (p.74) Mr Corkery wore a blazer with a badge and a stiff collar underneath. He looked as if he needed feeding up, as if he was wasted with passions he had never had the courage to express. (p.75) The inspector looked old and tired and shy. He had tried to hide a tin of fruit drops behind a telephone and a manuscript book. (p.77) Spicer’s hair was thin on top, dry and brittle under the dandruff. (p.85) There was Rose, dressed to go out in a shabby black straw which made her face look as it would look in twenty years’ time, after the work and the child-bearing. (p.86) [She took off her hat] her mousy hair lay flat on the small scalp: he watched her with distaste. (p.88) Hundreds of feet below the pale green sea washed into the scarred and shabby side of England. (p.88) He looked at the mousy skull, the bony body and the shabby dress – and shuddered. (p.90) She got up and he saw the skin of her thigh for a moment above the artificial silk, and a prick of sexual desire disturbed him like a sickness. (p.92) [Mr Prewitt the corrupt lawyer] showed his tartar-coated teeth in a fatherly smile. (p.118)

Blame sex

It is the nearest Greene comes to a joke that the teenage psychopath Pinkie comes from a slum neighbourhood in Brighton named Paradise Piece.

The houses which looked as if they had passed through an intensive bombardment, flapping gutters and glassless windows, an iron bedstead rusting in a front garden, the smashed and wasted ground in front where houses had been pulled down for model flats which had never gone up. (p.90)

But his disgust and the repressed sexuality which can only express itself in violence, in razoring people, killing them, pushing them over stairwells or throwing acid in their faces, are all attributed to his bed being in the same room as his parents’ bed, and his seeing his parents have sex every week throughout his childhood.

‘Saturday’, he thought… remembering the room at home, the frightening weekly exercise of his parents which he watched from his single bed. That was what they expected of you, every polony you met had her eye on the bed… (p.90)

Then, using the ‘memory technique’ I’ve described in another post, Greene refers to this scene – what Freud called the Primal Scene – repeatedly. In references varying from a paragraph or a sentence long to just a few words, Greene uses it to convey how Pinkie’s violence and hatred is fuelled by the memory, and, at a deeper level, to create the character of Pinkie. Pinkie’s consciousness is the obsessive repetition of the scene.

He didn’t want that relationship with anyone: the double bed, the intimacy, it sickened him like the idea of age. (p.101)

He knew what was expected of him; he regarded her unmade-up mouth with faint nausea. Saturday night, eleven o’clock, the primeval exercise. (p.128)

[visiting the ruined slum] … the room where the Saturday night exercise had taken place was now just air. (p.140)

‘You can’t teach me the rules,’ the Boy went on with gusty anger. ‘I watched ’em every Saturday night, didn’t I? Bouncing and ploughing.’ His eyes flinched as if he were watching some horror. (p.164)

[Pinkie] heard the stealthy movement of his parents in the other bed. It was Saturday night. His father panted like a man at the end of a race and his mother made a horrifying sound of pleasurable pain. He was filled with hatred, disgust, loneliness: he was completely abandoned… (p.186)

Sex and violence. Violence arising out of repressed and perverted sex. Spicer’s ex offers herself in the back of a car and Pinkie’s rage knows no bounds for he simply doesn’t know what to do with a woman and this enormous, humiliating frustration vents itself as the wish to hurt someone. ‘He was like a child with haemophilia; every contact drew blood.’ (p.150)

Greene makes it personal, psychological, Freudian assumptions that lie behind Pinkie’s monstrous character. That Pinkie and Rose are poor, coming from Brighton’s appalling slums, is an aspect of their lives described – and conveyed through the depressing visit to her parents – but not offered as an explanation for their behaviour. Psychology, religion, sex, these determine Greene’s characters – not class, money, power.

Plausibility

I don’t find any of these early novels believable. The plots seem limp and contrived. They are at the same time melodramatic and strangely flat, uneventful. I didn’t for a second believe Krogh as a portrait of the CEO of a multinational company, he just read like another Greene lost soul, uncomfortable at the opera, out of his place at cocktail party discussions of art, I didn’t believe he’d hire a loser like Anthony Farrant or that, just a few days later, he’d acquiesce in his murder. All the events in England Made Me seemed contrived solely to provide a neat, cynical plot; the novel seemed like an absurd confection.

Same for the domestic melodrama of Battlefield, where all the characters have the same monotonous thoughts about the futility of life, and the climax – the shooting which goes wrong – is there solely to symbolise the pathos of human failure rather than anything which might actually happen.

Similarly, in Brighton Rock, it is impossible to take the characters seriously. An atmosphere of rather farcical grand guignol is built up around characters who remind me of the Ealing comedies or Carry On films. In all of these novels it seems to me Greene can’t find the situations or plots on which to convincingly hang his two standout attributes: his miserabilist worldview and his striking way with description. These early novels amount to a worldview in search of a plot.

Some people find Brighton Rock a powerful thriller but, having met some hardened criminals, I find it impossible to believe.

  • I don’t understand the motive for the gang killing Hale (it is given on page 130, that Hale was ‘A dirty little journalist who played in with Colleoni and got Kite killed’ but this doesn’t work).
  • I don’t understand how they actually kill him to make it appear due to natural causes.
  • I don’t believe a 17-year-old could run a gang of adult crooks – especially as he seems so maladroit, his solution to every little problem being to kill someone, and the whole point of the novel is how quickly he fails.
  • There’s little description of what the gang actually do to justify them being a gang at all apart from worry about the consequences of killing Hale. There are some references to gambling at the races, but it isn’t really explained or shown.
  • The whole plot hinges on one of the gang continuing to hand out Hale’s secret cards after they’ve bumped him off in order to give themselves an alibi. But this gang member is seen by the 16-year-old waitress in the cafe. She can prove it wasn’t Hale and so could tell the police that Hale must have been murdered before that time and that this member of the gang must be somehow involved. This spurs Pinkie on to seduce her and then marry her so she can’t testify against her husband. It all seem ludicrously contrived. There’s no real sense that this is how criminal gangs operated in the 1930s.

If it wasn’t for the pervasive mood of squalor and futility and the one sickening scene at the races where Pinkie is himself razored, it could almost be a children’s adventure book.

Greene’s descriptions

What is believable, what gives his excessively morose worldview its plausibility, what redeems the catchpenny plots, is the incredible amount of observation and detail Greene crams into the text. Page after page of clear-eyed, disenchanted description which, for some reason, I find more rich and striking in Brighton Rock than any of the previous books.

A mounted policeman came up the road, the lovely cared-for chestnut beast stepping delicately on the hot macadam, like an expensive toy a millionaire buys for his children; you admired the finish. the leather as deeply glowing as an old mahogany table top, the bright silver badge; it never occurred to you that the toy was for use… A man stood by the kerb selling objects on a tray; he had lost the whole of one side of the body: leg and arm and shoulder, and the beautiful horse as it paced by turned its head aside delicately like a dowager. (p.12)

It is a key part of Greene’s style to use objective correlatives, to find descriptions which embody his characters’ moods, which both embody and create, perpetuate, the ambience of a world abandoned by God, in ruins, populated by failure and anomie.

An old man went stooping down the shore, very slowly, turning the stones, picking among the dry seaweed for cigarette ends, scraps of food. The gulls which had stood like candles down the beach rose and cried under the promenade. The old man found a boot and stowed it in his sack and a gull dropped from the parade and swept through the iron nave of the Palace Pier, white and purposeful in the obscurity. (p.131)

Roman Catholicism

Catholicism is a fascinating theology but as an ethos seems to have a very detrimental affect on people’s characters, being more or less a practical demonstration of Freud’s notion of ‘repression’, the repression of instinctive drives which results in neuroses, obsessions, unhappiness. On the up side, the compensation appears to be the belief that you are the centre of the universe and that God the Creator is riveted by every motion of your immortal soul. Comforting. Because Catholic belief lists so many ways to sin, it invests what other people, we infidels, think of as harmless everyday acts, with a vast supernatural significance, enough to satisfy even the most monstrous narcissism.

Catholic belief – maybe especially for converts like Waugh and Greene – is thus a way to fill with meaning an otherwise terrifyingly meaningless world. So, on a mundane level, Pinkie marries the simple-minded Rose in a hurry, purely so she can’t testify against him in court. But Rock is sometimes described as Greene’s first overtly Catholic novel because the actions and thoughts of the two sorry protagonists are invested with the garish lights of a melodramatic theology. Because neither of them took confession before taking the sacrament of marriage Pinkie and Rose are, technically – and what else is Catholicism if it isn’t an enormous textbook of technicalities – commiting a mortal sin.

[I didn’t confess, admits Rose.] I went away.’ She said with a mixture of fear and pride. ‘We’re going to do a mortal sin.’ The Boy said with bitter and unhappy relish,’It’ll be no good going to confession ever again – as long as we’re both alive.’ He had graduated in pain… He had a sense now that the murders of Hale and Spicer were trivial acts, a boy’s game, and he had put away childish things. Murder had only led up to this – this corruption. He was filled with awe at his own powers. (p.167)

In the old days, it occurred to him, you signed covenants like this in your blood. He stood back and watched Rose awkwardly sign – his temporal safety in return for two immortalities of pain. He had no doubt whatever that this was mortal sin, and he was filled with a kind of gloomy hilarity and pride. He saw himself now as a full-grown man for whom the angels wept. (p.169)

It seems to me it’s not only Pinkie who thinks dragging Catholic theology into the story will invest him with a spurious maturity and significance – but also the author. From this novel onwards Greene and his fans are able to say that, even if the plot and the characterisation are often not entirely credible, well, he’s got the weight of two thousand years of Catholic theology to dignify his novels, to lend them depth and resonance. It seems, to me, to be cheating.

The Catholicism allows Greene to invest what had been tawdry from a mundane point of view, with the new and sinister glamour of sin. Sin!

She took off her hat, her mackintosh – this was the ritual of mortal sin: this, he thought, is what people damn each other for… ‘It’s Saturday night,’ he said with a bitter taste on his tongue, ‘it’s time for bed.’… Shaken by a kind of rage, he took her by the shoulders… he pushed her against the bed. ‘It’s mortal sin,’ he said, getting what savour these was out of innocence, trying to taste God in the mouth: a brass bedball, her dumb, frightened and aquiescent eyes – he blotted everything out in a sad brutal now-or-never embrace: a cry of pain and then the jangling of the bell beginning all over again. ‘Christ,’ he said… He felt an odd sense of triumph: he had graduated in the last human shame – it wasn’t so difficult after all… he had a sense that he would never be scared again. Running down from the track he had been afraid, afraid of pain and more afraid of damnation – of the sudden and unshriven death. Now it was as if he was damned already and there was nothing more to fear ever again… This was hell, then; it wasn’t anything to worry about; it was just  his own familiar room… (pp.180-182)

And much, much more in the same vein. Greene’s Catholicism doesn’t redeem anything at all. It is deployed as a tactic to give his protagonists’ tawdry doings – and therefore the entire text – an extra level of meaning. It doesn’t lead anywhere. It resolves nothing. It is a kind of God porn, leaving the reader in a continuous state of theological arousal.

He heard a whisper, looked sharply round, and thrust the paper back. In an alley between two shops, an old woman sat upon the ground; he could just see the rotting and discoloured face: it was like the sight of damnation. Then he heard the whisper, ‘Blessed art thou among women,’ saw the grey fingers fumbling at the beads. This was not one of the damned: he watched with horrified fascination: this was one of the saved. (p.97)

Greene’s interpretation

In chapter 12 of volume II of Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene, he discusses Greene’s anger at the way the 1943 stage production of the book changes his meaning. I had thought the character of Ida, the plump, bossy woman who determines to track down Hale’s killers (ie Pinkie’s gang) and who drives the story forwards to Pinkie’s eventual death, I thought she was a good person. Apparently not. Greene wrote an outraged note to the play’s director.

‘The idea is that Pinkie & Rose belong to the real world in which good & evil exist, but that the interfering Ida belongs to a kind of artificial surface world in which there is no such thing as good & evil but only right & wrong.’ (the Life of Graham Greene, volume II, p.163)

I understand the theology of this but find it shocking as a real belief. It is a form of Platonism: this world is a spume, a dream, a fantasy, a bubble, compared to the True Eternal World of Forms or God’s Love. Pinkie and Rose, because baptised and educated in Catholicism, are playing their parts in that eternal world. Even though evil and sinful people, they have the benefit of being Roman Catholics and therefore true human beings- whereas Ida belongs to the shallow, empty world of the atheists and agnostics and humanists.

It is rather terrifying to realise how completely religious believers can dismiss the good, moral, altruistic behaviour of non-believers, as somehow trivial and insignificant, as unreal and therefore unworthy, compared to their own potentially wicked and evil, but somehow more real and therefore more valid, actions.

And this, from Greene’s own pen, is the meaning and intent of the novel.

Related links

1961 Australian pulp cover of Brighton Rock

1961 Australian pulp cover of Brighton Rock

The movie

The theatrical production was adapted for the screen, featuring many of the same actors from the stage, notably the 19-year-old Richard Attenborough in his breakthrough role as Pinkie.

Greene’s books

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

A History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede (732)

Bede’s life

Bede was a monk who spent most of his life in the monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and its companion monastery, Saint Paul’s in what is now modern Jarrow, both situated in the Dark Age Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

He lived from 672-735. The honorific Venerable (as in ‘the Venerable Bede’) apparently derives from the tombstone erected some years after his death.

Bede was fortunate in that his monastery was run by the enlightened abbot, Benedict Biscop, and his successor, Ceolfrith, who both encouraged his historical studies.

It also contained probably the most extensive library in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Thus encouraged by kind sponsors and in a uniquely well-provisioned environment, Bede began to write, and went on to compose some 40 works, including commentaries on numerous books of the Bible, a life of St Cuthbert, lives of famous Saxon abbots, and so on. (He usefully provides us with a list of his works.)

But Bede is best-known for his masterpiece, regularly described as the first and greatest work of English history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). I have the old 1955 Penguin translation by Leo Sherley-Price, who translates the title as A History of the English Church and People.

Bede is called the Father of English History for several reasons:

  • He checked his sources, requesting documents and information from libraries in all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, correlating documents against each other, enquiring of eye-witnesses or descendants of eye-witnesses wherever possible. He clearly lays out his methodology in the introductory letter, and thus established a tradition of scrupulously checking the facts.
  • He describes in wonderful detail a period – from the Roman departure 410 until his own day, the 720s – for which we have pitifully little alternative material. Without his history there would be a big hole in our knowledge of the period and, since this was when our country was founded, he is an invaluable source for the earliest years of our nation.
  • Bede’s whole conception of History is wonderfully rounded. At a time when his contemporaries were struggling to produce the blunt line-for-each-year Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede set the events he reports in the contexts of Papal, European and wider British history, going backwards and forwards in time to situate events within broader historical themes as well, of course, as setting everything he describes within the overarching framework of God’s great redemptive plan for Man.

Structure of the Ecclesiastical History

The work is divided into five books, each of which covers a certain period. But the more important division is of each book into 30 or so one- or two-page chapters. These focus on one incident or theme (the miracles of so and so, the death of one bishop, the succession of another, and so on) and were obviously designed to provide good, practical meditations for his (entirely religious) audience to hear read out loud and ponder.

Leo Sherley-Price

Sherley-Price’s prose translation is crisp and brisk, presumably a faithful translation of Bede’s practical style. But the most striking thing about this translation is Sherley-Price’s attitude: he is himself a devout Christian and his beliefs come out in the introduction and (brief) notes, in a way a modern writer would not permit themselves. Thus his note on Pelagianism:

Pelagianism, ‘the British heresy’, denied the reality of original sin, and affirmed that man could attain perfection by his own efforts, unaided by the grace of God. This misconception is still strong today! [emphasis added]

In the introduction he gives a stout defence of miracles and the presence of the miraculous in the History:

Even when ruthless pruning has greatly reduced the number [of plausible miracles in the text], there remains an indissoluble core that cannot be explained by any known natural means, and attributable solely to the supernatural power of God displayed in and through His saints. And this is as it should be. For a true miracle (and who may doubt that such occur?) is not due to the supersession or inversion of the natural laws of the universe ordained by the Creator, but to the operation of cosmic laws as yet unrealised by man, activated by non-material forces whose potency is amply demonstrated in the Gospels. (Introduction, page 30, italics added)

These are confidently Christian words from a pre-1960s era which, in its own way, seems as remote to us today as Bede’s 8th century.

But the most telling sign of their datedness is, I think, not his Catholic faith as such – there’s no shortage of relic-kissing Catholics in 2013 – it is that Sherley-Price tries to make a rational, scientific distinction between improbable or forged miracles, and those which are undoubtedly the real thing. He thinks it is worthwhile to make this distinction and, in so doing, sounds like a member of the Brains Trust, like a reputable academic wearing a tweed jacket and puffing a pipe, debating atheism and belief with Bertrand Russell;he sounds like C.S. Lewis in his apologetic works, naively confident that you can reason someone into belief.

Our understanding of texts and discourses has leapt forward massively in the past 60 years.

The miraculous in Bede

In my opinion, Sherley-Price is missing the point by his nitpicking. The miraculous is the element in which Bede lives and breathes. God is all around him and his angels regularly appear to the people he is describing, to people he actually knows, with important messages and predictions.

Bede’s world is full of miraculous recoveries, holy rescues and blessed cures because God’s angels and saints are continually battling demons and spirits, the forces of the Old Enemy, who are at work everywhere and in everyone.

The miracles in Bede aren’t incidental; they are symptomatic of a world utterly drenched in the presence of God’s powers. To try and unpick the more likely from the less likely ones is to misread the coherence of the imaginative world, the worldview, the psychology, the culture which Bede inhabits. It is to apply absurdly flat and literalistic criteria to a world of wonders.

It is like undertaking a scientific assessment of which bits of magic in Harry Potter might actually be feasible. You are missing the point; the point is to abandon yourself entirely to the endless wonder and richness and unceasing miraculousness of Bede’s world, a world in which God always helps his saints and always punishes his sinners.

Some miracles

  • Book I, chapter 7 St Alban, sentenced to execution by the Roman authorities, can’t cross the packed bridge into Verulamium, so the river blocking his way dries up just as the Red Sea did. As the executioner decapitates Alban, his own eyes pop out.
  • I, 17 as Germanus sails to Britain, devils raise a storm and the ships are in peril of foundering so Germanus prays and sprinkles holy water on the waves, which puts the demons to flight and the storm passes.
  • I, 18 Using relics he’s brought from Rome, Germanus cures the blindness of a tribune’s young daughter.
  • I, 19 A fire threatens the house where Germanus is staying but he calls on the Lord and the flames turn back. Demons throw Germanus off his horse and he breaks his leg. In a vision an angel raises him and lo! his leg is healed.
  • I, 20 Picts and Saxons invade but bishops Germanus and Lupus organise the Britons into a defensive force. They call on the Lord and leap out of hiding shouting so effectively that the Saxons and Picts all run away, many of them drowning in the river.
  • I, 21 Germanus heals the crippled son of the chieftain Elaphius.
  • I, 33 The priest Peter is drowned off the coast of Gaul and buried by the locals in a common grave but God makes a bright light shine over the grave every night until the locals realise he is a holy man and bury him properly in a church in Boulogne.

The power of Christianity

The miracles are just the most striking way in which, for Bede and for all the early missionaries, bishops and believers he describes, Christianity works. It is better than paganism because its believers wield the real power which drives the universe, not the foolish, deluded voodoo of illiterate peasants who believe in amulets and spells and worship stones and trees.

For many profaned the Faith that they professed by a wicked life, and at a time of plague some had even abandoned the Christian sacraments and had recourse to the delusive remedies of idolatry, as though they could expect to halt a plague ordained of God by spells, amulets, and other devilish secret arts. (IV, 28)

Christianity is the Real Thing, it is the real magic that pagans only pretend to harness.

Believers in it win victories and become kings or emperors (as Constantine famously won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge after invoking Christ’s name), they heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons and do battle with devils and quench fires and bring down rain and make the crops grow. It is all the supernatural things paganism falsely claims to be – except it actually is.

Crediting witnesses, believing in miracles

Bede goes out of his way to tell us that he has many of these stories from people who knew the saints in question, that he personally has listened to their stories of angelic visitors and wrestling with devils and curing the sick and of coffins which magically resize themselves to fit the bodies of deceased saints.

An old brother of our monastery, who is still living, testifies that he once knew a truthful and devout man who had met Fursey in the province of the East Angles, and heard of these visions from his own mouth (Book III, chapter 19)

I have thought it fitting to preserve the memory of one of these stories, often told me by the very reverend Bishop Acca, who said that it was vouched for by some very reliable brethren of the monastery. (IV, 14)

Among those who told me this story were some who had actually heard it from the mouth of the man to whom these things happened, so that I have no hesitation  about including it in t his history of the church as it was related. (IV, 23)

My informant in all these events was my fellow-priest, Edgils, who was living in the monastery at the time. (IV, 25)

Even if we disbelieve every story, we are impressed by Bede’s conception of the historian as one who seeks out eye witnesses, who listens, who writes it down.

Anyway, even our sceptical age is alive with urban myths, and still suffers from the profound irrationality and credulousness of human beings. There are still people who under stress clutch any straw, who pray and promise God they’ll believe in him, who believe it was their prayers that saved the plunging plane or their sick relative or clinched the extra-time winner.

But we also know about the Somme, the Holocaust, about 9/11, we know that vast massacres occur and no-one is saved and God is nowhere to be seen.

Personally, I apply David Hume’s Calculus of Probability to all accounts of miracles. Is it more likely that the vast and universal laws of Nature were suspended, often for childish and petty ends? Or that the people who claim to have experienced a miracle, simply have a need to appear important, or are propagandising for their faith, or are naive and credulous?

It will always be the latter. An entirely rational assessment will always militate against miracles. But where, then, is the point or pleasure in reading Bede or indeed any other Christian literature?

For me such Christian literature can still be immensely rewarding, you just have to suspend disbelief. You just have to make the effort to cast yourself back into that mental world. Indeed, that is precisely the point of reading old literature: to expand your mind.

Some more miracles

  • Book IV, chapter 28 Cuthbert makes spring water appear on a barren hillside and crops to grow out of season.
  • IV 29 Cuthbert prophetically foretells his own death.
  • IV 30 Eleven years after his death Cuthbert’s body is found to be uncorrupted, soft and sweet.
  • IV 31 Brother Baduthegn suffers a paralytic stroke but drags himself to Cuthbert’s tomb where he dreams a great hand touches his wound and he awakens healed.
  • IV 32 Hairs from Cuthbert’s corpse cure the tumour on a brother’s eye.
  • V 1 The hermit Ethelwold calms a storm threatening to drown some monks.
  • V 2 Bishop John cures a dumb, scrofulous servant.
  • V 3 Bishop John cures Coenburg, a sick serving girl.
  • V 4 Bishop John cures the thane Puch’s wife.
  • V 5 Bishop John cures thane Addi’s servant.
  • V6 Bishop John cures a brother who foolishly races a horse, falls off and cracks his skull.
  • V 8 Archbishop Theodore foresees his own death in a vision.
  • V 9 Holy Egbert plans to evangelise the Germans but is prevented by God who sends visions and a storm.
  • V 10 Two missionaries to the Old Saxons are murdered by pagans but their bodies are washed upstream and a light shines over them every night till their companions find them and give them decent burial.

And so it goes on… To try to weight up the ‘valid’ miracles from the ‘invalid’ may be an interesting academic exercise but is pointless. Take out the miracles and there’d be nothing left. The entire story of the growth of the English church is, for Bede, miraculous and made up of miracle piled upon miracle.

Therefore, we should embrace the supernatural elements of Bede’s history unquestioningly, both as a vital component of his worldview, without which his whole history is pointless; and also because of the sheer pleasure it gives. How wonderful to live in this world of angels and demons! Surrender to its visions and what a wonderful, informative, imaginative, delightful book this is!

But what did the pagans believe?

Notoriously,and tragically, Bede (like all the Christian writers of the Dark Ages) tells us almost nothing about what his heathen and pagan opponents believed.

Worshiping trees, stones and rivers, wearing amulets and slaughtering horses seem to be part of pagan belief but we only glimpse these as throwaway asides. There are only a few exceptions, a few places where Bede paints a ‘conversion scene’ and allows us to see what the pagan worldview actually consisted of.

The most famous is in Book II, chapter 13, where King Edwin of Northumbria has already converted to Christianity but needs to take his nobles with him. He convenes a council (AD 627). They are sitting in the king’s large hall, illuminated by a huge fireplace and maybe other torches, but with glassless windows. And one of the king’s thanes uses their setting for a famously beautiful metaphor of human life.

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement and went on to say: ‘Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.’

Yes, but what were they converting from? Bede doesn’t sully his book by telling us. Probably the mere act of writing down pagan beliefs would in some sense validate them. It might even conjure them up. Best left unmentioned, undescribed.

The conversion of King Sigbert of the East Saxons

There is another exchange, less poetic but, I think, more revealing in Book III, chapter 22:

About this time also, the East Saxons, who had once rejected the Faith and driven out Bishop Mellitus, again accepted it under the influence of King Oswy. For Sigbert their king, successor to Sigbert the Small, was a friend of Oswy and often used to visit him in the province of the Northumbrians. Oswy used to reason with him how gods made by man’s handwork could not be gods, and how a god could not be made from a log or block of stone, the rest of which might be burned or made into articles of everyday use or possibly thrown away as rubbish to be trampled underfoot and reduced to dust. He showed him how God is rather to be understood as a being of boundless majesty, invisible to human eyes, almighty, everlasting, Creator of heaven and earth and of the human race. He told him that he rules and will judge the world in justice, abiding in eternity, not in base and perishable metal; and that it should be rightly understood that all who know and do the will of their creator will receive an eternal reward from him. King Oswy advanced these and other arguments during friendly and brotherly talks with Sigbert, who, encouraged by the agreement of his friends, was at length convinced. So he talked it over with his advisers, and with one accord they accepted the Faith and were baptised with him by Bishop Finan in the king’s village of At-Wall, so named because it stands close to the wall which the Romans once built to protect Britain, about twelve miles from the eastern coast.

In the context of the Dark Ages this is gold dust. How fabulous to be told so much detail about these obscure kings, Oswy and Sigbert, about social intercourse between the kings of these early English kingdoms, about the relationship between a king and his advisers, about the geography of the region.

Christianity trumps paganism

But the core of the passage is the absolute crux of Bede’s History – the sheer majesty and breathtaking sweep, the intellectual, moral and imaginative scale and thoroughness and universality of Catholic Christianity compared with the thin, local, petty, shallow gods and practices of paganism.

For me this one chapter shows how Christianity was a VAST improvement on the limited, dark, unintellectual world of the pagan gods.

Miracles and all, if you compare the intellectual coherence of Bede’s position with the worldview of the pagan Poetic Edda, Christianity wins hands-down for its scope and thoroughness.

Thor throwing his hammer at giants is for children, the Last Battle between gods and giants is a fable for fatalistic warrior-kings.

Neither can stand comparison with the wonder and coherence of the Christian notion of one, all-powerful, all-loving Creator, with his flocks of angels ready to help the mightiest king or the lowliest serf to lead a more holy, just and – ultimately – satisfying life.

One by one, the kings of Dark Age Britain who Bede describes, realised this mighty truth and bowed to the inevitable.

Little was Bede to know that just 60 years after his death in 732, furious straw-haired pagans were to appear from across the sea and do their damnedest to destroy everything he and his brothers had built up. But that is another story…

"The Venerable Bede Translates John" by James Doyle Penrose (Wikimedia Commons)

The Venerable Bede Translates John by James Doyle Penrose (source: Wikimedia Commons)


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