Through a glass darkly – 89

Don McCullin

Don McCullin is a name to conjure with in the world of photo-journalism. In the days when I used to take the Sunday newspapers seriously his pictures seemed ubiquitous. He was quite simply the grittiest, biggest risk-taking, most sought-after news photographer in the world. Seemingly specialising in war zones and human disasters. It seemed that wherever there was fighting and famine McCullin and his cameras were there.

Unreasonable Behaviour 

I’ve been reading McCullin’s 1990 autobiography, a paperback copy which I picked up in the [excellent] OXFAM bookshop in Thame. He grew up in a tough, working-class tenement in Finsbury Park. His father was an invalid and an occasional fishmonger. In the early stages of the war he was evacuated three times, finally to some fundamentalist chicken farmers in rural Lancashire. Unhappily. Back in London he failed the Eleven Plus and went to the local secondary modern school. Schooling largely passed him by. He frequently truanted with a bunch of other boys, many of them destined for borstal, setting up gang headquarters in bombed out houses. His father encouraged him to do drawing for which he showed some skill.

His father died aged forty when Don was just fourteen. There was now no question of art school. As the elder son, he had family responsibilities. He promptly left school and worked as a pantry boy on the LMS dining cars. Angry with God he flung plates out of the train windows as it passed over a viaduct. He spent his first wage packet on a teddy boy suit. He left the railways to work in a cartoon animation studio in Mayfair; but his colour-blindness counted against him. National Service at the age of eighteen  widened his horizons. He served in the RAF, in a photographic unit, and was posted to Egypt and to Kenya and to Cyprus. He emerged from the RAF as a Leading Aircraftsman with an African Service Medal. And spent his savings on a Rolleicord, a twin  reflex camera.  

Going to the Wars

McCullin’s breakthrough came in 1959 when a policeman was murdered outside Gray’s Dancing Academy in the Seven Sisters Road, and he sold some photos of local gang members to the Observer. He was twenty three years old. Shortly afterwards he cut short his honeymoon to head for Berlin to take photos of the Vopos using breeze blocks to build the Berlin Wall, watched by American soldiers with machine guns. Within a few months he was in Cyprus witnessing the awful atrocities committed by both Greek and Turkish irregulars.  “I think I grew up that day. I took a step away from my personal resentments, my feeling that life had been uniquely tough on me … … and taking away my father when I was young. That day in Cyprus when I saw someone  else losing their father, someone else losing their son, I felt that I could somehow assimilate this experience so that my own pity could cease to be personal. And I could say ‘OK. I’m not the only one.’”

And so McCullin went to the wars. In November 1964 he flew into the Congo, and blagged his way unto Stanleyville with Major ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare’s mercenaries.  On a subsequent trip to the Congo he entered illegally from Rwanda to join another group of mercenaries under Colonel  Jean ‘Black Jack Schramme, who were besieged in Bukavu which was presented in the media as a kind of small scale Dien Bien Phu. 

Inevitably McCullin went to Vietnam, initially for the Illustrated London News. In Saigon he checked into the Hotel Royale, run by Monsieur Octavie, a former legionnaire. It was like something out of Graham Greene. McCullin was here when the US Marines came charging up the beach at Da Nang, M-16 rifles at the ready, like a repeat showing of Iwo Jima, to be met by a gang of almond-eyed girls who welcomed their would-be combat heroes with pink and white orchids. Faith in their fire-power and technology made the Americans immune to lessons of the past.

Disillusioned with the Observer, McCullin moved on to join the Sunday Times colour magazine, edited at the time by Godfrey Smith. It was an exciting time offering McCullin a wide variety of projects. Improbably he photographed the Beatles, warming to Paul McCartney and being irritated by Yoko Ono. Even more improbably he went on a photographic trip to Cuba with Edna O’Brien, with whom he fell fleetingly in love. But his speciality was war, and he persisted in returning to dangerous places. He was in Jerusalem in 1967 for the vicious fighting between Arabs and Israelis. Later that year he was in West Africa when the Ibos declared independence from the Nigerian Federation. The French gave covert support to the Biafrans, while the British government, supposedly neutral, pumped large amounts of arms into Nigeria.

The war in Vietnam continued. Forty five newspaper-men lost their lives in Vietnam, including Sean Flynn, the son of Errol, and the photographer Larry Burrows. McCullin flew into Hue, the ancient walled city on the Perfumed River, following the Tet Offensive of January 1968. Combined South Vietnamese and American troops recaptured the city after a month of intense and bloody fighting. During which he greater part of the historic city was destroyed. McCullin was fortunate to survive eleven days in the front line. ”Sometimes I crawled ahead of the phase-line in order to be in a position to photograph the Marines advancing towards me … … [When I came out] I couldn’t speak and felt as if I had aged twenty five years.”  He flies home via Saigon and Paris, where he is caught up with a plane-load of English rugby fans returning from an international match.


By his mid-thirties McCullin had travelled to some seventy countries, many but not all war zones. He travelled in India with Eric and Wanda Newby.  For the Sunday Times he visited cannibal tribes in the rain forests of New Guinea. Off to cover the war in Chad, he meets up in Fort-Lamy with his brother Michael, fighting as a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion. In Cambodia he is wounded by mortar fragments in action against the Khmer Rouge. He becomes great friends with the writer Norman Lewis, and together they make expeditions to visit remote Indian tribes in Venezuela and in the Amazon Basin. He is imprisoned and fears for his life in Idi Amin’s Uganda. For light relief he is enlisted as the official photographer for the supposedly historic meeting between Lord Thomson, the proprietor of The Times and the Sunday Times, and Chou En-Lai. Shortly afterwards he is back in the Middle East with a full Sunday Times team when his colleague Nick Tomalin is blown to bits by a Syrian missile on the Golan Heights. 

By the start of the 1980s things are changing. Harry Evans leaves the Sunday Times for The Times, ill-advisedly as it turns out. Rupert Murdoch, the new proprietor, picks a fight with the printers. And McCullin’s marriage starts to fall apart as he gets involved with a high-powered businesswoman who runs a model agency. “I was less drawn to the thick of the action …  I no longer wanted, if I ever had, to commit a long drawn-out suicide in the pursuit of heroism …  I wanted to live without testing my courage all the time.

Two things strike me as I read this book. First the enormous change that has taken place in the make-up of newspaper colour supplements [weekend magazines]. When McCullin’s report from El Salvador in !982 is spiked [Reagan’s United States feared it could become another Cuba], he realised “policy had started going against too much hard photo-journalism and further into softer areas, like consumer goods and fashion.” Four decades on the Times magazine on Saturdays is a hymn to consumerism and greed; with a predilection for semi-literate celebrity journalists and soft porn. It has become a magazine where McCullin’s work would not be acceptable. Far too disturbing.

The second thing is that, although McCullin over a couple of decades had witnessed more death and despair than most people of his generation, nothing prepares him for the terminal illness of his own wife. Christine is diagnosed with a brain tumour. “Overnight this lovely young woman I had married twenty-two years ago had become a cripple.” McCullin is on an expedition to some remote islands off Sumatra when she is operated on in London. “My confidence started dying with Christine. I realised you could shoot photography until the cows come home but they have nothing to do with real humanity, real memories, real feelings.” When Christine is rushed back into hospital, McCullin is there when the consultant tells her: “I’m afraid I have to tell you you’ve only a short time to live”. His wife dies on the morning of their son’s wedding. McCullin is now [the book was published in 1990] living alone in Somerset with filing cabinets full of ghosts.

I guess it’s a preaching cliche: a thousand deaths are a statistic, but one death is a tragedy. A thought that bears in on me as we prepare for Joanna’s Thanksgiving service in Wycombe next week. I hope to write more about her after that.

January 2023

Through a glass darkly – 88

In-between times

I woke up this morning, out of a dream set in an unfamiliar village school with Roger Simpson as the head-teacher [God knows why ?], thinking that:  I shall never be happy again. And then I thought, unrelatedly, that today is our 48th wedding anniversary. But celebrations will be limited; as I am back in Chantilly, and Susie is in Watlington staying with Jem and Anna. From where she has just rung me up. Recalling that we spent our anniversary last year flying back from Kiev. I don’t have a photo to mark that, but I’ll paste a photo that Susie sent me recently, taken [I think] at Snake Canyon in Utah in 2016.

The last time I wrote on this blog, I had been commissioned by Joanna to go down to Paris to photograph the Foyer Notre-Dame du Bon Secours, on the southern outskirts of Paris, where she was born in  March 1977. Which led to a long walk across Paris, a city full of ghosts and might-have-beens. But Joanna slipped quietly and peacefully away from this world in the early hours of December 21st, in Florence House hospice at Stoke Mandeville. Susie and I are devastated, and trying to come to terms with a reconfigured world. Her death leaves an enormous hole in our lives. I will write more about Joanna another time. When it is less painful.

Back at Wycliffe Hall in the late 1980s, David Wenham, our New Testament tutor, taught us about Inaugurated Eschatology. That we are living in the In-Between Times, between Jesus’s first coming, the Incarnation, and Jesus’s second coming, the Eschaton, at some unknown future date. The last couple of weeks have certainly felt like that. Joanna left this world a few days before Christmas, but the Committal and Thanksgiving service are not until January 25th. Which is quite a long gap. Susie has wanted to stay close to where Joanna had been, and is therefore staying not far away in Watlington. I decided to return to St Peter’s, Chantilly, wanting to tell myself that I could be of use here. Which may be delusional.

Marking Time in Bucks and Oxon

Buckinghamshire and East Oxfordshire are unknown territory for me. We lived in Oxfordshire for ten years, in Woodstock, but from there we always went north and west into the Cotswolds.  I can’t tell Aylesbury from Amersham from Wendover; and I don’t know the difference between Great Missenden and Chalfont St Giles. High Wycombe must once have been an attractive market town, with the A.40, the London to Gloucester road, going straight through the middle of town. About ninety years ago my father drove up and down the A.40 regularly, sometimes on a motor-bike, sometimes in a bull-nosed Morris, going to visit my mother’s parents who lived in  remote Radnorshire. Fa was station-master at Dolyhir, a long-gone station turned cement works just down the hill from Old Radnor. But Wycombe was ruined by urban planners a generation or two ago; what’s left is an inner city fly-over, a multiplicity of roundabouts, the Eden [shopping] Centre, and a couple of high-rise car-parks. 

Susie knew the road by heart from Wycombe to Stoke Mandeville. And the weather wasn’t conducive to exploring much else in December. It rained pretty much every day while I was in Wycombe. One day Susie and I walked from Boulter’s Lock, just outside Maidenhead, to Stanley Spencer’s Cookham; and then back along the Thames Path along Cliveden Reach. It was very attractive stretch of the river. And also very muddy. Our walking boots, which would have been useful, are of course in Edinburgh.

I’d never really experienced the Chilterns before. Buckinghamshire is full of steep little hills and beech woods. And old churches. And what I think are mainly gastro-pubs. Thame is an attractive town, with an urban park for walking and a choice of cafes and an excellent OXFAM bookshop.  In Princes Risborough we found a high-class shoe-shop with a sale on ! And an excellent cafe. On the other side of the M.40 we had an enjoyable lunch in a village pub owned by a Hungarian. And we looked at the village where Vicar of Dibley was filmed. 

And we went back to Ewelme, where we went into the church for the first time. The church and the adjoining almshouses and the primary school were all founded by King Henry VI, and it is said to be the oldest still functioning primary school in England. St Mary’s Church, Ewelme, has a remarkable chantry chapel, which houses the tomb of Thomas Chaucer, five times Speaker of the House of Commons and the son of Geoffrey Chaucer. And the extraordinarily elaborate tomb of his three-times married daughter, Alice de la Pole, Duchess of Suffolk.

After which Susie and I, and Jem and Oskar, had lunch at The Shepherd’s Hut, trying hard not to remember that we last had lunch there with Joanna and Anna and the grand-children on a very hot day last May.

Going Forwards

That is my least favourite current cliché. Susie is in Watlington, and I am back in Chantilly. I will go back to the UK for the Committal and Thanksgiving in two weeks time, and then return via Edinburgh to Chantilly. Susie’s plans are not yet clear, but she will be in residence in Wycombe to be with Craig and the little girls for February half-term. By the end of February we should both be back in Edinburgh and trying to rebuild our lives. [Though I did have an e-mail last week tentatively asking if we might be willing to go back to Ankara.] But life won’t be the same as it was before.

January 2023

Through a glass darkly – 87 

A day out in Paris

The day started well. A brisk walk of twenty minutes to the station with a glorious red sun coming up over the racecourse. There are roughly two trains an hour, and it a gentle twenty five minutes on the train down into the Gare du Nord. This is where Paul and I arrived on our first visit to France in the summer of 1961. Innocents abroad ! After four years of learning French at school, mainly grammar exercises, and comprehension, and dictées, we were quite unable to communicate with a policeman in order to ask our way to the hostel. [He might not have known anyway as we were staying in a temporary UNESCO hostel in the 13ème down by the Porte d’Ivry. Where we paid 1,60NF for bed and breakfast. It was a long time ago !]

Alésia and Notre Dame du Bon Secours

I knew that a 38 bus would take me across Paris from the Gare du Nord to Alésia. But in the complex of one-way streets, Magenta and LaFayette and Valenciennes, around the station I was completely unable to find the bus-stop. In the end I gave up and took the line 4 metro. Which was quick and easy. But offered less of a view. I came up out of the metro at the junction by the big church of St Pierre du Petit Montrouge, and across the road from the Brasserie Zeyer where Susie and I used to go for Sunday lunch occasionally back in the far-off 1970s.

Joanna had commissioned me to visit the hospital Notre Dame du Bon Secours. To see if there was a blue plaque saying ‘Joanna McDonald est née içi le 10 mars, 1977’.  Not only is there no plaque, but the block in which she was born has been demolished. The chapel remains, but there was no sign of any of the sisters. The maternity unit has been moved elsewhere, and it now seems to be a psycho-geriatric hospital. I made my way down long corridors to the chapel, where a friendly couple invited to join them in reciting the chapelet, a litany of prayer to Mary.

From the hospital it is only a ten minute walk to rue Bénard, and the flat where Susie and I began our married life in 1975. The proprietor was a retired doctor, Dr Adam, who had built this seven-floor block of apartments in 1968. He lived on the top floor, was usually seen in the foyer in a smoking jacket and a hair-net; and his three daughters each had an apartment. The eldest, Danielle, was in the States, in New Orleans, and it was her apartment that we rented on the first floor.

With some trepidation I rang the bell and was invited in by Yveline, whom I hadn’t seen since 1978. She was our neighbour on the first floor, the youngest of the three daughters of Dr Adam. We caught up in an abbreviated way with four decades. Dr Adam was long dead. Danielle died a few years ago of cancer. The middle sister Marie-Jo was still living on the fourth floor. Yveline was a psychologue, now retired who had worked out of a cabinet on the ground floor. The flat was moderately chaotic. She offered me coffee and whisky and lunch, all of which I unthinkingly declined. Her own daughter is unwell too.

Walking the streets

From rue Bénard I walked up towards Montparnasse and then down rue Gaité. It was now a bright, cold day. In the boulevard Montparnasse I paused outside La Coupole, an extraordinary 1920s-style brasserie. I first ate there with my school-friend Clive back in the very early 1970s. He was teaching at Vincennes at the time, at the experimental university later bulldozed to the ground; and brought with him a secretary from the faculty, Marie-Louise Azzoug. I fell in love with over the extended meal, – and never saw her again. [Clive lived in Paris all his life,  teaching at various bits of the decentralised Sorbonne. We saw a lot of him in the mid-1970s and often watched rugby internationals together. He died some fifteen years ago, and his God-less funeral at Père Lachaise on a very wet day, which was also Good Friday, is a grim memory.]

I was too mean to eat at the Coupole, and ate instead at one of the numerous Breton crêperies. And then walked on through Notre Dame des Champs to the Jardin de Luxembourg. This is where Susie and I used to walk in the winter of 1976-77, admiring the beautifully turned out French little children. And trying to pick names for our own not-yet-arrived but on-the-way first child.

After that I walked up rue Soufflot towards the Panthéon. Passing rue Cujas reminded me of the days when OUP was building a relationship with the Library Marcel Didier, who had been pioneers of the audio-visual method of language learning. While we were in Paris Marcel Didier, formerly based in the Quartier Latin, over-extended into a big warehouse down at Palaiseau, which may have contributed to their subsequent demise. Henri Didier, the second-generation head of the firm, offered me a job in 1977. But I was just about wise enough not to take it.

From the Pantheon I made my way down the Montagne Saint-Geneviève to the river for a glimpse of the building site that is Notre Dame. Easily my favourite church in Paris. Joanna brought Amelia to Paris when she was very small and, after lunch at Chez Janou, we walked across here to the Ile de la Cité and took the obligatory photos.

By now I had walked almost enough. But I made my way along the river, round the back of the Palais de Justice [cue images of Rupert Davies as Maigret], over the Pont Neuf and up towards what was once Les Halles. Where Paul and I spent two fruitless nights in 1961 under the mistaken impression that we might make contact with a lorry-driver returning to Marseilles. I photographed the bistro on Place des Victoires for Joanna’s benefit and made my way back to the Gare du Nord.

A city of memories and might-have-beens. And a few ghosts too.

December 2022

Through a glass darkly – 86


It is already more than two weeks since we were at Maredsous for the Men’s Retreat.. The retreat is an Anglo-German affair, embracing men from Holy Trinity, Brussels and from the German Protestant church in Brussels. It owes much to the energy and creativity of my friend Armin, with support from some of his German colleagues. In past years, before COVID, we have had as many as thirty men signed up. This year we were to be twenty, divided equally between the two churches.

The format is much the same from year to year: sessions for input, reflection, and group-work on Friday evening and Saturday; a decent walk on Saturday afternoon; a film on Saturday evening; and a Eucharist on Sunday morning. Before finishing shortly after lunch on Sunday. Past themes have included Male spirituality; Elijah at the mouth of the cave [1 Kings 19]; Friendship; Rock and roles: studies in the life of Peter,  Past films include Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino; On a clear day, set in Glasgow with Peter Mullen and Brenda Blethyn;  Pride; and Brassed Off.

The theme this year was Remembering the Future. We were blessed with glorious autumn sunshine. Maredsous is an enormous Benedictine abbey, built on a hill in the Ardennes. It is surrounded with trees and is good walking country. In past years we have enjoyed Sunday lunch with the monks in their dining hall, reminiscent of an Oxbridge college. But this year we ate only in the guest refectory; the dining hall being closed as an energy-saving measure. We walked on Saturday afternoon up small hills and through immaculate, well-kept villages. The film on Saturday evening was Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. Which I take to be a more-or-less autobiographical look at the early days of the Troubles in the very late 1960s. It’s a good film.

Remembering the Future

We chose the theme nearly a year ago. It borrows a phrase I came across in a book by Herbert McCabe, a radical Roman Catholic theologian from Cambridge. In a book called Law, Love, and Language, published in 1968. [I wonder if the title is a deliberate echo of A.J. Ayer’s  Language, Truth, and Logic.] McCabe insists “the primary purpose of the church is to remember the future”. He identifies Jesus not just as a blueprint for a new kind of society, but as the centre of this new society. The New Testament, and Paul in particular, tells us that as followers of Jesus we shall all share in Christ’s resurrection. And rediscover our identity on the far side of death.

The business of the church then is ‘to remember the future’.  The sacraments are there as symbols of the presence of Christ in a future world. Baptism is not about church membership; it is the sacrament of  the membership of mankind [cf Romans 6:3]. The Eucharist shows the significance of all people eating and drinking together [1 Corinth. 11:26]. Sacraments are the intersection of the present world with the world to come. This is not an individual matter. “Those who share the sacraments form a community, or better a movement, in the world.”

This injunction is reminiscent of Jürgen Moltmann. Who in The Theology of Hope [1967] insists that Christian faith must start with the resurrection of Jesus. “A Christian faith that is not resurrection faith can be called neither Christian nor faith.” But [Moltmann suggests] the essence of the event is the Easter faith of the disciples. “The Christian hope for the future comes from a specific, unique event – that of the resurrection and the Easter appearances of Jesus Christ.” The appearances of the risen Lord were experienced “not as blissful experiences of union with the divine”, but as “a commission to service and mission in the world.

Christian Hope

Faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love” is a familiar verse from Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. But while Christians talk quite a lot about love, which features in  countless sermons [of variable quality] I don’t hear a great deal about Christian hope. An omission which we sought to redress during our time at Maredsous..

Key biblical and theological truths can be a great comfort. But they need to be grasped before adversity comes. One of the books that I read at the beginning of COVID was Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. [As some may know, he is an American; founder of Redeemer group of churches in New York. And is himself terminally ill]. I like to pretend that Susie and I make a point of hearing him preach when we are in New York. In reality we heard him preach in Redeemer Upper West Side on our only visit to that city in 2016.

Keller insists: the best preparation for times of pain and suffering is a rich prayer life. Professor John Feinberg, an American academic and theologian, was a theological student who had written his thesis on the book of Job. But when his wife developed Huntington’s Chorea he wrote: “I had all these intellectual answers, but none of them made any difference as to how I felt.” Don Carson writes that Christians may have some theoretical idea of suffering, but when something jolts us to the core, it is not easy to know how to use our beliefs. In a much cited phrase of CS Lewis: ‘God whispers to us in prosperity, but he shouts to us in adversity’.

Back to the Retreat

Down at Maredsous we looked at our own lives. Armin had organised for us an exercise where we took time to draft our own obituaries; looking back,  and acknowledging both success and failure. And then we reflected, and shared a little, about how the exercise felt. Working in small groups and then in a plenary session. We agonised a bit over the concepts of achievement and legacy. And we recalled the [supposed[ dying words of Dorothy Parker: “Was that it ? “.

In subsequent sessions we looked at some of the Biblical reasons for hope; the glorious visions of the prophet Isaiah:

Behold I will create new heavens and a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered,

nor will they come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I will create;

for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.

I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people;

the sound of wiping and crying will be heard in it no more.

… … They will build houses and dwell in them;

they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit

… … they will be a people blessed by the Lord,

and their descendants with them.” [Isaiah 65: 17 et seq.]

 And the equally wonderful vision of the new Jerusalem in the closing chapters of Revelation:

“Then I saw and new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea … … Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe way every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death our mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” [Revelation 21: 1-4]

And we thought and talked about how this hope affects and infuses our Christian life in this world. I guess it was both comforting and challenging.

High Wycombe

Since Maredsous I have been dashing around in what might be a foolish manner. I flew back to Edinburgh [trouble-free flight with RyanAir out of Charleroi]; dashed down to Wycombe by train to see Susie and Joanna [train three hours late because of severe floods in Berwickshire]; flew to Paris to do locum work at St Peter’s, Chantilly; and am now back in Wycombe visiting Joanna again. 

She has been in Florence Nightingale hospice at Stoke for just over a week. She is wonderfully well looked after there; she looks great; tons of people are praying for her. Craig is trying to do a thousand things, and to regulate the flow of visitors. My sense of Christian hope is under aa lot of pressure. Please pray for Joanna and for us all.

December 1st, 2022

Through a glass darkly – 85

Joanna McDonald

I’ve been meaning to write something for several weeks. For various reasons I’ve written very little since the summer. At one point I was going to write something about Guerrilla Warfare, triggered by finding a book of that title in a charity shop in Morningside. The book, a 1940s Penguin Special, is by Bert ‘Yank’ Levy, whom I only know as a name from the Spanish Civil War. He served in the English Battalion of the International Brigades as a machine-gunner; and later worked as an instructor under Tom Wintringham in the Home Defence training unit at Osterley Park. I did wonder for a bit whether guerrilla warfare was the right response to the Liz Truss government. But then they blew themselves, and the country’s finances, up in a spectacular manner.

I also planned to write something about Christian Hope. Which was one of the central themes of the annual Anglo-German Men’s Retreat, down at Maredsous in the Ardennes, a couple of weeks ago. It was a really wonderful two days. We spent most of Saturday morning thinking about our obituaries.Followed by meaningful and supportive discussions about living and dying. Glorious sunshine on the Saturday as we walked in the local countryside. Rather better food in the refectory, with an excellent choucroute.  And I discovered how to turn the heating in my bedroom, so that I wasn’t cold at night. I hope to write more about the Retreat in a week or two.

But the person that occupies most of my waking thoughts and virtually all of my prayer life is my lovely and much-loved daughter Joanna. As Dave said to me recently, we only have a limited emotional band-width. Some people reading this may know that she was diagnosed with cancer in the bowel and cancer in the liver in the middle of August. After a long-awaited family holiday in France, she  underwent the first two tranches of chemotherapy in September. While I was away doing locum work in Chantilly. She coped well with the chemo. But was in hospital for a few days on a drip for an infection. And then early in October she went back into Stoke [Mandeville] for an emergency operation following a blockage in the bowel, It was a bigger intervention than I had realised. And in recent weeks she has found it very difficult to regain energy and strength.

Last week she was dehydrated and went back into Stoke last Thursday, six days ago, for IV re-hydration. Susie has been living down in Wycombe for several weeks. I went south to see her on Friday, an interminable journey because of severe flooding in Berwickshire. And I was delighted and mighty relieved to see her looking and sounding very well at the weekend. But they took further CT scans on Saturday and Sunday, and they didn’t like what they saw.

Since Monday afternoon she has been in a hospice at Stoke. The staff are lovely. Her church, King’s Church, Wycombe, have been wonderfully supportive of Craig and their two girls in practical ways.And they have been praying their socks off.. As have a host of friends around the world. She is the best and the most beautiful and the bravest daughter in the world. And my eyes fill with tears as I write that.

November 2022

Through a glass darkly – 84

The Briefing

In the house in which I grew up, in Southfields in south-west London, there was a badly framed print on the wall. It was called The Briefing, and bore the signature Frank O. Salisbury. The print showed a group of  Second World War RAF pilots in flying dress gathered around a briefing table. They are being addressed by a tall officer smartly dressed in RAF blue. The pilots are more casually dressed in flying jackets with big stand-up collars, some with scarves knotted around their necks, some with forage caps, One of the pilots leaning over the table was my father’s cousin, Sid Fox, who had been killed over France in the war. But my father was invariably vague about his family and that was all the information we had.

The Briefing

In the fullness of time I inherited the print, and it hung in a new frame on the wall in The Rectory in Duns. A year or two later I bought my first Apple Mac, and took my first faltering steps into the world of the internet. Thanks to the meticulous record keeping of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I soon discovered  that my  father’s cousin, Sidney Horace Fox, DFM, had died on Sunday, October 25th, 1942, aged 27. He was a pilot, no. 61467, of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve; a Squadron Leader in 103 squadron when he died. For someone who had started  the war as a Sergeant-Pilot he had received quite rapid promotion.

I knew virtually nothing of Sid’s family. The Commonwealth War Games Commission confirmed that he was the son of James Richard Fox and Annie Fox of Woking, and the husband of Bessie Gwendoline Fox also of Woking. His father, my Great-Uncle Jim, I dimly remember as a little man with a fierce moustache waxed to two points. His mother, Great-Aunt Annie lived to a considerable age, surrounded by numerous children and  grand-children. I dimly remember taking my parents to her funeral in Woking Crematorium in the early 1970s; and my father, who was an only child, met a number of relatives whose names he couldn’t remember. What impressed me most, my father said, was that Sid had gone to school with Alec and Eric Bedser; twin cricketers for Surrey and England, both of whom featured in my schoolboy autograph album.

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Sid Fox was buried in the communal cemetery at Nant-le-Grand; a village 12 kilometres south-east of Bar-le-Duc in eastern France. We were living at the time in Duns in the Scottish Borders.But I carefully downloaded the information and pasted it to the back of the newly re-framed print. 


By the summer of 2001 Susie and I were living in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. In May 2001 we drove north to an ICS Family Conference in the Netherlands, passing quite close to Bar-le-Duc; and we stayed overnight in Joinville, a sleepy but attractive little town on the banks of the river Marne. The next day, a Saturday, was free for exploring.

Nant-le-Grand, 2001

We found the village at the second attempt.  Nant-le-Grand is a tiny village, a few miles off the busy N4, in the rolling hills east of St-Dizier. It wasn’t clear what is anything we might find there. But the woman we spoke to was both welcoming and well-informed. Yes, of course she knew where the English airmen were buried. The cemetery was just east of the village on the road to Maulan. The graces are just inside the gate on the left. The graves were looked after by the people of the village. The people had conducted a hasty funeral for them during the war when the plane crashed. There were five graves in the cemetery. And the person who could tell us more about the story lived down the road in Ligny-en-Barrois. He was a collector of Second War memorabilia, a dab-hand with a metal detector, ad the curator of a private museum in Ligny.

After a lot of knocking on doors we found the man we wanted, M. Francis Guénon. He was an indefatigable collector of militaria with a particular interest in the crash sites of military aircraft. Soon we were seated in his kitchen, welcomed by his long-suffering wife, as he leafed through his collection of A4 files. Yes he knew the plane that Sid was piloting. It was a Halifax of 103 squadron, shot down on the way to a bombing raid on Italy by a Messerschmitt 110  night-fighter based at St Dizier. A man who still lived in Ligny had seen the aircraft came down in flames before it crashed into the hill above the church at Nant-le-Grand. 

From Francis Guénon I learnt that there had unusually been a crew of eight in the Halifax. And suddenly I heard the word survivant. Four of the crew had got out by parachute, though one of them had landed in a tree and was hanged in his straps. Sid Fox as pilot had gone down with his plane. But there were three survivors whose addresses Francis would give me. From his scrapbooks he showed me a photo of the 1942 funeral service, conducted at the church in Nant-le-Grand hastily before the German authorities arrived. And the scrapbooks also contained a newspaper cutting that described a 40th anniversary thanksgiving service attended by members of the French Armée de l’Air, by two of the survivors, and by members of the family of the dead men. Thanks to Francis I knew more about the life and death of a family member whom I had never met. 

The Survivors

In the summer of 2001 I wrote to two of the survivors. Within a few days I had a phone call from Rowland Maddocks, who as Flight Sergeant Maddocks had flown as Bomb Aimer in the Halifax which Sid Fox had been piloting. We met later that summer in the bungalow on the outskirts of Moffat where he lived with his wife. ‘Lofty’ Maddocks had been a regular member of Sid’s crew in 103 Squadron. The night on which the plane was shot down would have been their last op together. Maddocks had been recommended for a commission and was in the process of being transferred to Fighter Command OTU, as an instructor under Wing Commander ‘Sailor’ Malan. And the squadron itself was due to stand down, in order to convert to Lancasters.

Rowwland ‘LOftty’Maddocks, 2001

Of the shooting down there was little to be said. The Halifax had left Elsham Wolds with a full bomb load and extra fuel for a raid on Milan. As they began climbing towards the Alps they were jumped by a Messerschmitt 110 night-fighter. The plan was a flaming torch within seconds. Maddocks’ subsequent story is told in Artist in Adversity [published by the Dumfries & Galloway branch of the Aircrew Association]. He was taken prisoner and spent three years as a PoW. ‘Lofty’ Maddocks remembered Sid Fox as a fine man and a fine pilot. But was unable to make contact with Sid’s family after the war, when he moved to Edinburgh to set up the new company of Maddocks and Dick, suppliers of regimental and club, striped and crested ties.

Later in the summer of 2001 I heard from the second living survivor from the Halifax. Bert ‘Dizzy’ Spiller, then Warrant Officer Spiller, had been the navigator in Sid’s crew. ‘Dizzy’ Spiller evaded capture, and with the help of the Roman Catholic priest in St. Dizier had made his way to Paris. There he was taken under the wing of the celebrated Comet Line, who arranged for him to travel by a roundabout route to Bayonne. From there, as Parcel 82, he was escorted by the legendary Dédée de Jongh and the redoubtable Basque guide Fiorentino across the Pyrenees into Spain. The story of his evasion and of his adventures is told in Ticket to Freedom [pub. by William Kimber, long O/P].

In his letter Bert Spiller told me that Sid was “a good man, a flyer’s flyer; I was privileged to be in his crew”. He was also able to tell me that a Rod Weale, one of Sid’s great-nephews, had researched The Briefing a few years earlier, and had produced a booklet summarising his findings, about the history of the painting and the stories of the people depicted in it. And a subsequent e-mail produced an address for Rod Weale, then living in the Canary Islands.

Commemoration events

Later in 2001 I was delighted to make contact, successively, with Rod Weale in Tenerife; with Aileen Weale, his mother and Sid’s niece, living in Surrey; and finally with Wendy Jackson, Sid’s daughter, born five months after her father’s death, now living in Peterborough. In conjunction with Rod I organised a 60th anniversary act of remembrance in the church in the tiny village of Nant-le-Grand. To which a variety of people came from England, including relatives from Sid’s crew who had never been to Nant-le-Grand before, and some thirty air cadets from 103 Squadron together with their officers. And my mother came too, at the age of almost 90, about a year before she died; and she met Sid’s sister, Olive, whom she had last seen in London in 1942 ! A bilingual service was held in the church on October 25th, followed by a laying of wreaths in the cemetery, with speeches from the Mayor and other dignitaries; followed by a reception given by the commune in the Salle Polyvalente; followed by an informal dinner in the evening in Au Gourmet Lorrain

Remembrance Service, 20022

Ten years later there was another Service of Remembrance. At which there were fewer people from the UK, but an assortment of French representatives from both the military and civil authorities. We stood in the rain in the cemetery, sheltering under umbrellas, as more speeches were made and more wreaths were laid. Sadly I can’t at the moment retrieve photos of either of these events. I am not sure exactly what is happening this year. But I have just exchanged letters with Wendy Jackson, and out thoughts will be directed towards Nant-le-Grand tomorrow.

Remembrance ceremony, 2012

Sid Fox, bomber pilot

After the war Churchill and others were conspicuously silent about the achievements of Bomber Command.  Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the obstreperous head of Bomber Command, complained vigorously that his men didn’t get proper recognition for their wartime efforts. “People didn’t like being bombed, and therefore they didn’t like bombers on principle.” There was, rightly, much debate about the morality, and the effectiveness, of Harris’s Area Bombing tactics.

But there is no doubting the bravery of these airmen. Don Charlwood’s No Moon Tonight [pub. Goodall Publications, 1984] is a moving account of what life was like at Elsham Wolds in the winter of 1942. Charlwood was an Australian navigator, trained in Canada, flying with 103 Squadron in a mixed [Anglo-Australian] crew.  His book offers a telling picture of how it felt for an inexperienced crew to be going out night after night to well-defended targets, such as Essen or Dusseldorf or Berlin. Charlwood records that during his first 4 months with 103 Squadron no crew completed their tour of 30 operations; and that very few survived beyond 10 ops.

By October 1942 Sid Fox was an experienced and respected leader. Don Charlwood, who knew him, writes of “the narrow-eyed, panther-footed squadron leader … his step was soft and full of spring … the DFM ribbon commanded our immediate  aspect. DFMs were not given for nothing, nor did many sergeant-pilots become  squadron leaders.” We shall remember him and his crew tomorrow, the 80th anniversary of their being shot down.

October 2022

Through a glass darkly – 83

A quartet of gifts

I don’t like being given gifts of books as a general rule. I buy plenty of books for myself, almost invariably second-hand. And sometimes people give me books which I then feel somewhat reluctantly that I have to read. But for my birthday this year, back in July, I was given four books, one of which was a complete surprise, and the three I’ve read are all excellent.

East, West Street

This was the surprise, both book and author completely new to me. The illustration on the cover of the Penguin edition looked unpromising, and I wasn’t immediately sure whether this was a novel or not. [I don’t read much fiction. Except le Carré. See below.]

East West Street

Philippe Sands is apparently a well-known human rights lawyer. The inspiration for the book is a trip to Lviv, in western Ukraine in 2010, to give a lecture at the university.  His visit encourages him to delve into the hitherto unknown history of Leon Buchholz, his maternal grandfather, whom he knew only as an elderly, rather private refugee in Paris, living in an apartment near the Gare du Nord. Sands is an extraordinarily diligent researcher, and he uncovers a fascinating story. 

Leon’s parents were part of an extended Jewish family from Lviv, his father an inn-keeper. The family roots were in nearby Zolkiew. His only brother, Emil, was killed fighting in 1914, and his father, Pinkas, died shortly afterwards of a broken heart. Leon aged ten and his mother moved to Vienna, to live with his sister, Gusta, married to Max Gruber. After his studies Leon lived the life of a single man-about-town in Vienna. Following the Anschluss many Jews tried to emigrate. His brother-in-law’s business is confiscated by the Nazis without compensation. In December 1938 Leon secures a visa and leaves Vienna for Paris, leaving his wife Rita  and their small daughter behind. After leaving Vienna, he never sees any of his extended family again. They all die in Nazi camps. Lots of questions remain. Was Leon in a gay relationship in the 1930s with his best friend ? Why did his wife and baby stay behind in Vienna ? How did the baby [Sands’ mother]  manage to arrive in Paris in July 1939 ? Accompanied by whom ?  What connections were necessary to allow Rita, a registered Jew, to leave Austria in October 1941? 

The story unfolds gradually, and leads into other stories. Two other men who grew up in the same culture and who studied in the same city became lawyers. One of them Hersch Lauterpacht, became a Professor of International Law at Cambridge, and was largely responsible for developing the notion of ‘Crimes against Humanity’ employed at the Nuremberg trials.The other, Rafael Lemkin, emigrated to the United States and was responsible for developing the notion of ‘genocide’.  Which also featured, less prominently, at Nuremberg. Sands traces people who knew them and speaks to their descendants. And he traces too the family of Otto Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was a loyal friend of Hitler; and who in 1939 became Governor-General of Occupied Poland and the Fuhrer’s personal representative for the Polish Occupied Territories.  It was Frank who was ultimately responsible for the murder of millions of Jews and of Poles in eastern Europe, including the death of Leon’s entire family.  Frank was put on trial at Nuremberg and subsequently hanged.

Nuremberg trials

The common  thread in these stories is the city of Lviv, known at the time as Lemberg. [According to a man I met in Chantilly the French version is called Retour à Lemberg.] A city which Susie and I were delighted to visit in January this year. It was the capital of Galicia, a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, containing a rich mix of  Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. It is a fascinating city, stuffed with historic churches and cobbled streets, coffee shops and chocolate makers. And it has a totally different feel from the more Soviet style Kyiv. But there are no Jews left there now.

Susie and two Ladas in Lviv

Mission in Contemporary Scotland

On a different tack, this is an important book by Liam Fraser, a young-ish Church of Scotland minister. Since the 1970s Scotland has moved from being a Christian to a post-Christian society. Now 93% of Scots do not attend church.

Dr Liam Fraser

Historically the Church in Scotland was linked to the Crown. The Scottish Reformation of 1560 separated Scotland from Rome; and created an enduring divide between Protestant and Catholic Scots. The Reformation gave rise to the parish state. In Scotland “every part of society had to conform to the faith taught by the Kirk”.  The Church had a monopoly on education; was the enforcer of morals; and the provider of upkeep of the poor. And, Fraser notes “this enculturation of Christianity in Scotland bore much fruit”.

The ‘parish state’ was undermined between the late 17th and mid-20th centuries by two key facts: schism, and economic affluence. “The Reformed vision of Scotland as a godly nation, where kirk and people were one, died on May 18th, 1843” with the Great Disruption.

The Kirk had little to offer to contemporary youth culture. Growing affluence led to a less restrictive form of morality. The BBC ceased to uphold traditional Christian values.  The duplication of church buildings after 1843 led to what Robin Gill calls ‘the empty church’ phenomenon. And with the advent of the Scottish Parliament, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland lost its role as a kind of surrogate parliament.


Fraser distinguishes two kinds of church: a. inherited, communal, and institutional, where worship is just one thread in community life; and b. voluntarist, associational, and congregational. The traditional denominations belong largely to the first kind; and a growing number of evangelistic and charismatic communities to the second kind. The first type of church will be less focussed on conversion and evangelism.

Community is essential for people to hold onto the faith. Why then don’t church communities work ? Fraser suggests that church plants in new housing areas are culturally isolated. Church without Walls recognised that the primary problem of the Church of Scotland was its prevailing ‘church culture’; traditionalism and clericalism. But CWW was squashed by vested interests in the Church of Scotland and a refusal to invest in new training structures.

Fraser is more positive about Mission Shaped Church, and the Church of England’s Fresh Expressions. Which now make up 15% of the Church of England congregations. One aspect of their success is the emphasis on worship. “If worship is dowdy and passionless and irrelevant, then non-Christians will think the Gospel is too.”  Fraser offers Messy Church as an effective fresh expression; possibly the only initiative that has reached unchurched families. The future will be a mixed economy [Rowan Williams] of traditional and fresh expressions of church. Fraser uses stark language: “The creation of fresh expressions is analogous to the Church sending out lifeboats from the sinking Titanic, allowing the people of God to survive their impending disaster


I have come back from Chantilly with what feels like jet lag. But is more probably an incipient cold.  So I have been treating myself to a read of Silverview, the first posthumous le Carré book, assembled for publication by one of his sons.  It is an absolute delight. The book’s narrator, Julian Lawndsley, is an ex-city high-flier, who has opened a bookshop in a small seaside town. But after a couple of months his life is disrupted with the arrival in the shop at closing time of Edward Avon, also known as Teddy. Edward is a Polish emigré who lives in a big house on the edge of town, and who claims to be a school-friend of his late father. Edward persuades Julian to contemplate a Festival of Literature in the basement. For which he will supply ideas and computer back-up. 


Teddy is sparing with information about himself. But enlists Julian to take a message to an unknown woman [lover ?], at the Everyman cinema in Belsize Park. And later invites him to dinner to meet his Deborah, a noted Arabist and supposed former head of an international think tank, but now dying of cancer. Meanwhile the intelligence service’s Head of Domestic Security, ‘Proctor the Doctor’, is investigating a major leak of classified information. Proctor’s interviewing of two retired intelligence colleagues is a comic masterpiece. As the threads come together in a tense climax, no-one is quite what they seem to be.

John le Carre

This is vintage, late flowering le Carré. He continues to write like a dream. Especially dialogue. It isn’t perfect. The opening chapter is a slow burn. The men, and the characters in le Carre are predominantly men, are more convincing than the women.  The book has echoes of his earlier work. The [eventual] Middle Eastern thread recalls the theme of Little Drummer Girl. The machinations within the secret service, and the conflict between conscience and duty to the Service, are reminiscent of A Delicate Truth. With which Silverview has affinities;  it is not clear exactly when the new book was written. The seaside town setting, and the brief sketch of Julian’s reprobate father, bring back memories A Perfect Spy, le Carré’s most autobiographical [and arguably best] book.

Now that I’ve finished it, all too soon, I want to start reading it all over again. It’s a bit like the fish pie we had for lunch; autumn comfort food. When I retire, I’m going to sit down and re-read all the le Carré books. And write something about Love and loyalty in the le Carré corpus.

October 2022


Yes, I’m aware that there are only three books here, not four. The fourth book is Patrick Marnham’s life of Jean Moulin. Which I look forward to reading.

Through a glass darkly – 82

A mini-break in Laon

I have just had 36 hours away in Laon, in the département de l’Aisne. It is a striking city, the medieval town perched on top of a steep hill that rises abruptly a hundred metres  above the plains of Picardy. With the very distinctive silhouette of its enormous Gothic cathedral. I remember driving past it back in the 1980s, on the way to Geneva, and thinking that I must go and explore the place one day. Susie and I stayed there  couple of times on the way up and down to Lyon; once in a featureless Première Classe or similar at the bottom of the hill; and once in a rather splendidly old-fashioned hotel in the centre of the medieval town.

Laon cathedral

Laon was the capital of France under the Merovingians, the long-haired kings,  les rois fainéants. About whom I know nothing at all. [My dwindling awareness of medieval European history only starts with the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800.] And it remained the capital city under the Carolingians. The city contains a good number of medieval buildings, including the cathedral and the abbey church of Saint Martin. In the 12th century the School  of Theology under Anselm of Laon was one of the most distinguished in Europe, and pupils included the young Peter Abelard.

Laon Cathedral was built in the 13th and early 14th centuries, on the site of an earlier church that was burned to the ground during the Easter Insurrection of 1112. It is an early example of the Gothic style that originated in northern France, and is more-or-less contemporary with Notre Dame in Paris. Although the cathedral suffered some damage during the Revolution and again in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, it survived both the more recent world wars unscathed.

In Laon I was staying in the B&B Seraphine, which turned out to be a genuinely old house in the rue Saint Martin, very close to the centre. Difficult to access because there are narrow streets and an elaborate one-way system. My room was up three flights of stairs in the attic, complete with wooden beams and an uneven stone floor. But very comfortable.

Maison Seraphine

On the Chemin des Dames

My main reason for going was not to see Laon itself but to explore the Chemin des Dames. This is a distinctive limestone ridge which runs east-west for some thirty kilometres just south of Laon. It is a noticeable feature amid the flat plains of Picardy. It acquired its name in the eighteenth century when the two young daughters of Louis XV, Adelaide and Victoire [known as les Dames de France] travelled along it regularly by carriage to visit Françoise de Châlus, countess of Narbonne-Lara, and onetime mistress of Louis XV. The count had the road surfaced, and it is now the D19.

The ridge has obvious strategic importance, and has been the site of much  fighting down the years. In 1814 Napoleon’s troops defeated an army of Russians and Prussians at the battle of Craonne. The site marked by a statue of Napoleon gazing impassively at the neighbouring field. 

Napoleon monument

A century later the ridge was the scene of much fighting during the First World War. The German armies withdrew to this area early in the war, after their retreat following the first Battle of the Marne. in September 1914. This was when French troops were rushed to the front in 600 Paris taxicabs, requisitioned by General Gallieni. [It seems that the taxis left their meters running, and the French treasury subsequently reimbursed them to the tune of some 70,000 francs.] There is a very striking monument to this battle, a menhir some 20 metres high, with a skin of red granite and a frieze depicting a group of French generals and an outsized Joffre and an outsized poilu. The monument is badly signposted and little visited, down a minor road just north of Sezanne, overlooking the Saint-Gond marshes where much of the heavy fighting took place. When the German  withdrew they dug in on the Chemin des Dames ridge, which saw some of the earliest trench fortifications which came to define the years that followed.

Monument to the Battle of the Marne

In April 1917, after Joffre had been limogé, Robert Nivelle ordered a major offensive between Reims and Soissons, that he calculated would end the war within 48 hours.  Details of the plan leaked to the Germans, bad weather caused a postponement, and the offensive was a damp squib. The ridge had been heavily fortified by the Germans, who had installed artillery and machine gun posts in the  numerous caves and tunnels excavated by the limestone quarries. On the first day of the attack the French took 40,000 casualties. Over the following two weeks of the battle the number of casualties rose to over 270,000. Such high casualties for minimal gains were seen by the French public as a disaster. Nivelle was forced to resign, and there was a growing problem of mutiny as the French troops refused to go back into the trenches. Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun, was summoned to take over and restore order. Some 630 men were sentenced to death, but only a small proportion were executed. [I had assumed that the intensely anti-military, Stanley Kubrick film Paths of Glory was based on this episode. But I am not sure if that is the case.] After the failed offensive the Germans remained in possession of the ridge.

There are an extraordinary number of monuments and cemeteries the length of the ridge, British and German as well as French. At nearby Berry-au-Bac there is a National Tank Monument, marking the spot where French tanks were first used in an organised way, not wholly satisfactorily, in April 1917. In Buttes Wood, just south of La Ville-aux-Bois, there is a monument to Guillaume Apollinaire, the French writer and Symbolist, who suffered a severe shrapnel wound there in 1916. [He never fully recovered from his wounds, but subsequently died of Spanish flu.] At the eastern end of the Chemin des Dames is the Plateau de Californie, the scene of heavy fighting in both 1917 and 1918. There is a high wooden platform commanding extensive views over the plain. A little to the west is the statue of Napoleon. And then a striking Monument aux Basques, in memory of the many soldiers from the south-west who fought and died here. Alongside it is a modern wire sculpture, created I believe by Jean-Pierre Rives, in memory of the rugby players who died on the Chemin des Dames. One of the very first casualties here, killed in September 1914, was a young Scottish international, Ronnie Simson, of Blackheath and Scotland. On the centenary of his death teams of players from Blackheath and London Scottish travelled to play against a local selection; and the following day there was a commemorative event at the Basque Monument.

Basque monument

The major tourist attraction on the Chemin des Dames is the Caverne du Dragon, the Dragon’s Lair. The Visitors’ Centre is a modern glass and concrete building, erected over the entrance to the Carrière de la Creute, a former limestone quarry which had been worked since the 16th century. There is no admission for individuals because the complex is too dangerous. But there are guided visits during the day, which descend some fifty feet below the surface and which give a good idea of what life was like in this network of tunnels; used as command centres, machine gun nests, ammunition dumps, and field hospitals, as well as shelters for the troops. The very well-informed guide told us that there were many kilometres of such tunnels beneath the ridge, and that there were times when different parts of the network were occupied by both French and German troops. A cave lit with soft red lamps is said to symbolise the spirits of the dead. The walls of the tunnels are littered with military fragments and period graffiti. The guide said that local farmers uncover several tons of military debris every year.

Monument to the rugbymen

It was cold down in the cavern. And it was good to come back up into the centre and into the fresh air. I bought a Chemin des Dames hoodie. But I’m not sure when I will wear it.

September 2022

Through a glass darkly – 81

Salut de Chantilly

I am writing this from Chantilly, where I have been since the beginning of September, doing a locum chaplaincy at St Peter’s, Chantilly. There has been an Anglican chaplaincy in Chantilly since the early 19th century, established to serve the needs of the English-speaking community who came here to develop the horse-racing industry. A neo-Gothic church, very English in style, was built in 1865 on land gifted by the Duc d’Aumale, the 5th son of King Louis-Philippe. The Duc d’Aumale [1822-1897] was fabulously wealthy after inheriting 66 million livres and the estate of his god-father, the last Prince of Condé; and was very fond of England where he spent nearly thirty years in exile at Strawberry Hill, outside Twickenham, after the revolution of 1848.

Not the rectory

In 1973 the Intercontinental Church Society renewed their patronage of St Peter’s, and have been involved in the recruitment of a succession of full-time chaplains. In 1991-92 a Church Centre was built on the plot adjacent to the church; with meeting rooms, a lending library, a kitchen and an office on the lower two floors, and an apartment for the chaplain on the upper two floors. More recently various fund-raising initiatives have enabled work to be carried out on a new drainage system, the introduction of a new heating system, and other work on the church roof and the church interior. So the building is in pretty good shape.

Sometimes locum clergy can feel under-employed during the week. [My annoyingly not-quite omniscient MacBook has just corrected that to scum clergy !] But life here has been busier than I had anticipated. On alternate Sundays there are two morning services: a 1662 Prayer Book Communion, and a Common Worship Service of the Word. In addition to the Sunday morning services, there have been a bring-and-share church lunch, invitations to dinner and to lunch, a Service of Prayer and Reflection following the death of Queen Elizabeth, a slightly fractious Church Council meeting, and a Golden Wedding celebration. And also the funeral of John, the Church Treasurer, and most recently two days of church opening for the Journées de la Patrimoine, which coincided with a church book and cake sale. And on Sunday evening I was invited to a splendid Son et lumière, recounting some of the history of the Duc d’Aumale and the chateau.

St Peter’s Church, Chantilly

Sarah Tillett, the previous chaplain, came to the end of her fixed term appointment in July, and she is now walking the Santiago de Compestella. The latter years of her chaplaincy were not entirely happy. Here, as in other chaplaincies in the diocese of Europe, there are two rather different models of church life. First, there is the idea that these chaplaincies should be gatherings of [elderly] expat Anglicans, who meet for mutual encouragement and support around the Book of Common Prayer, and who are keen to maintain [or recreate] the church of their childhood.  [I know who a man who, a few years back, was encouraged to go to the Anglican Church in Lyon because “you meet a better class of person there”.  But there is another model, which sees these churches as essentially gathered, multi-cultural and multi-confessional congregations, that bring people together from a wide variety of backgrounds in order to worship God in English, which might be a first or a second, or even a third, language. Both these descriptions are caricatures.  It is easy to say that the congregations should be both … and, and not  either … or. But it is easy to see how tensions arise. Which then affect such issues as liturgies, hymnody, the arrangement of the church pews etc.

Journées de la Patrimoine

Back on the home front

As I’ve been here in Chantilly, I have missed much of the national outpouring of grief and thanksgiving that followed the rather sudden death of the Queen. Had we been in Edinburgh, I think I would have attempted to witness the lying in state. I have never thought of myself as being a royalist, but at our service here on the day after the Queen died we gave thanks for her seventy years of dedicated service to her country, for her accumulated wisdom and her love of peace, and for her shining Christian faith. She was, I guess, the most prominent Christian leader of her generation. At the service here in Chantilly I recalled standing in the rain in Trafalgar Square as a seven-year-old on the morning of her Coronation. And then rushing home to watch the events on a neighbour’s tiny black-and-white television screen. It may have been the first time that I saw a television set. And I remembered too meeting the Queen at the National Bible Society of Scotland in the 1990s. And my mind going totally blank when she asked me a question.

The death of the Queen understandably dominated the British press. But I see today that Lis Truss’s government {words that I might have hoped never to write] are going to address the burgeoning economic crisis by tax cuts for the wealthy and by abolishing the cap on bankers’ bonuses. Trickle-down economics has always been a complete myth.. This may be the first government of my lifetime that doesn’t address the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, and that has abandoned any pretence at levelling -up.

More bad news

Susie is not here in Chantilly. The reason for that is that our lovely and much-loved daughter, Joanna, was diagnosed with cancer in the bowel and in the liver on August 18th. Since when she and her family have had a long planned holiday in a gite down near Beziers. And she has returned, and embarked on an initial three months of chemotherapy. It is a devastating blow for her and for all the family. I haven’t wanted to post a blog in recent weeks because I don’t like writing this down.

Joanna and Susie, Normandy, June 2022

Joanna and Craig and their two daughters are warmly supported by members of their church, King’s Church, Wycombe. And by a wide group of friends. And they are being upheld in prayer by their own church, and by groups of praying friends elsewhere in England and in Scotland, and also here in France and in Belgium. Susie is close by, staying with our son and daughter-in-law in Watlington, not far away in Oxfordshire. I am here in Chantilly until next week, and then return by train to Edinburgh. Plans are constantly under review. We pray on.

September 2022

Through a glass darkly – 80

State of the Nation

The UK is not currently in a good place. Lots of things are going wrong at the same time. First there is a huge cost-of-living crisis. Relatedly inflation is now running at 10% and is forecast to hit 15% sometime next year. Interest rates have gone up in the past few days. Not that there is any corresponding rise in income for savers. [That’s us.] But it does mean a hefty monthly increase for mortgage-holders [both our children]. Energy prices have spiralled in the past 12 months; and the OFGEM price-cap will rise again in September, and at at three-monthly intervals thereafter.

It is the holiday season and all known forms of transport are suffering cancellations and delays. Heathrow and other major airports are cancelling flights. The cost of flying from Heathrow to Edinburgh is currently running at about £950, and involves changing planes in Paris or in Brussels. Gatwick Airport ran out of water a couple of weeks ago. We know that the train is a better bet environmentally. But assorted rail unions are running a series of one-day and two=day strikes which are forecast to continue into the autumn. As post-COVID lockdown holidaymakers head for the Channel in their cars, there have been unprecedented delays at Dover with both cars and commercial vehicles backed-up for miles on the M2. 

Off on holiday

How are our politicians coping with this chaos. Boris evidently feels he is on gardening leave. He is said to be on a honeymoon in Slovenia with is current bidie-in. Since his not-quite resignation, his only reported activities have been a delayed wedding reception at the home of a wealthy Tory Party donor, and preparation of a resignation honours list. Which will send the unspeakable Nadine Dorries and a gang of equally unsuitable cronies to the House of Lords. [There is a theory that ‘Mad Nad’ is being elevated so that Boris can then inherit her ‘safe seat’ when he loses his current more marginal one in Uxbridge.] 

At a time of unparalleled financial woes, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is also on holiday. No, it’s not Rishi Sunak these days. It’s Nadhim Zahawi, a 56-year-old Kurdish property millionaire, under investigation by HMRC for tax evasion and other suspicious dealings.  But don’t worry. A Treasury spokesperson said that he is looking at his screen ‘on a daily basis’. Probably placing bets on Pop Idol which has made him a lot of money in the past. What about the Minister for Transport, that juvenile lead Grant Shapps, another man with a very iffy business past. [Which he has sought to airbrush from his Wikipedia entry.] No-one knows whether he is on holiday or not. But it doesn’t seem to make any difference as far as our transport problems are  concerned.

Sunak v. Truss

What passes for political activity during what the papers used to call the silly season is an interminable set of ‘hustings’ at which Rishi Sunak and Lis Truss are concerned to sell themselves to tiny groups of Conservative Party members around the country.. ‘Swivel-eyed loons’, as a former Conservative cabinet minister described them.  In this travesty of democracy the next Tory Party leader, and more significantly our next Prime Minister, will be elected by a small group of people, who make up less than 0.5% of the electorate. Not only is this a tiny group of people. But there  is data that shows that they are wholly unrepresentative of the country whose leader they will elect. They are predominantly white. They are predominantly above average age. [I don’t necessarily quarrel with either of those things.] They are not interested in ‘levelling up’. They have no interest in foreign affairs. They are agreed that we have ‘too many immigrants’. They are opposed to gay marriage. They hark back to the ‘great days’ of Margaret Thatcher. They can’t understand why Boris was forced to resign. Their views are largely set by the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

Return of the Premiership

So – in order  to suck up to this tiny unrepresentative minority, the two candidates seek to outbid each other in ludicrous claims. We know that Rishi Sunak is a posh Wykehamist, married to a fabulously rich wife who is a serial tax evader. I don’t dislike the man. And I think he is honest about the country’s economic woes, and that he is right to warn against increased borrowing in order to finance uncosted tax cuts. But, given this government’s stated commitment to ‘levelling  up’, there is something deeply repugnant about his boasting to Tory party members about diverting funds from urban priority areas to Tory-voting councils. In Tunbridge Wells of all places.  

As for Lis Truss, the notion that she is fit to be Prime Minister is simply risible. She is charmless, wooden, and clueless. As her former Cabinet colleagues noted, her ambition has always outstripped her ability. She thinks she is Mrs. Thatcher re-incarnate. But in reality she is more like Marine Le Pen. She claims broad support for her much-heralded tax-cutting programme. But her only supporter is the maverick Cardiff academic Patrick Minford. A life-long admirer and personal friend of Margaret Thatcher. [I was at Balliol with him, but we never spoke.] Lis Truss speaks disparagingly about her old school, Roundhay a former grammar school in Leeds, which was judged ‘outstanding’ at its last OFSTED inspection in 2013. But it was good enough to get her into Oxford. [Yet another politician who read PPE.] And she now seems to think that sending all bright children to Oxford or Cambridge will be socially beneficial. And the academic year will start in January. Her other headline attracting policy initiative was to suggest that civil servants outside London and south-east England [teachers, nurses etc.] should all have a pay cut. This policy was enthusiastically talked up on television by the Minister for BREXIT Opportunities, the insufferable Jacob Rees-Mogg. A man who responded to BREXIT by moving all his family’s trust funds and inherited wealth out of the UK into an Irish bank.

I watched the first televised  ‘husting’. The only thing that the two candidates could agree on is that all the troubles at the port of Dover were “nothing to do with BREXIT”. For the Tory Party members, BREXIT is an article of faith. The idea that it has been an unparalleled act of political, economic, and cultural self-harm is beyond their comprehension. We know nothing of the candidates’ views on environmental matters and global warming. Nothing about how to deal with plastic pollution. Nothing about combatting falling educational standards. Nothing about how to recruit and train more hospital doctors and nurses. Nothing about cleaning up Britain’s rivers. Nothing about how they will deal with Russia. Or China. [Truss’s much vaunted trade deals, e.g. with Australia, have been cut-and-paste’ affairs which sold out on British farming and agriculture.]


I won’t go on. It’s too depressing. Let’s try and end with some good news. Ships laden with grain and oil are finally leaving Ukraine.For Turkey and for Italy.  In a deal negotiated by the United Nations. The England ladies football team did good. Cue lots of media references to ‘the Spirit of 1966’ and all that. [Sadly the few survivors of that team all now have dementia.] I walked on the John Muir Way last week. By the sea.  Susie and I had lunch the other day at The Loft Cafe in Haddington. Which does the best Ploughman’s Lunch I know.  It is a vintage year for Scottish strawberries. They are of excellent quality, and the only thing that has gone down in price this year. We saw the Soweto Gospel Choir at the Fringe a couple of days ago; huge energy and lots of noise in the amphitheatre at New College on The Mound. And I am going to Be Bop a Lula at the Brunton Hall in Musselburgh tonight. To see Billy Fury and Buddy Holly, and Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochrane. Who said nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

Rave On, in Musselburgh

August 2022