Through a glass darkly – 47

Deaths column

We have just lived through a week of mourning following the death of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. As many tributes emphasised, the Duke of Edinburgh, the longest living consort in British history,  lived an exemplary life of public service. He was, as the Queen herself has told us, a rock and support to the Queen through almost seven decades. Unlike some royal figures elsewhere [Spain, Thailand] and unlike too many of our politicians, he was a man of decency and integrity. I am too old to have been involved in the Duke of Edinburgh awards, and, while I once met the Queen, I don’t think that I ever met the Duke.

Other people continue to share their memories of the Duke of Edinburgh and to write obituaries. But I would like to pay tribute to another ninety-year old who died this month who had a more direct influence of my life. Hans Kung was a Roman Catholic priest and theologian who died at the beginning of April at the age of 93. Kung was a one-time friend and near contemporary of the German theologian Josef Ratzinger, and they worked harmoniously  at the University of Tübingen in the 1960s. But they came to hold very different views on the church of which they were a part. Kung remarked in 2013 that Ratzinger, who had now become Pope Benedict XVI, was “living in the Middle Ages”.

Hans Kung

Hans Kung was born in Sursee, Lucerne, in Switzerland in 1928. He studied philosophy and theology at the Gregorian College in Rime, was ordained in 1954, and was appointed Professor of Theology at Tübingen in 1960. In 1962 he was appointed by Pope John XXIII as peritus, as the youngest expert theological adviser to the Second Vatican Council. At Kung’s instigation, Tübingen recruited another peritus, Josef Ratzinger, as Professor of Dogmatic Theology.

In 1963 Kung made a tour of the United States, lecturing to enthusiastic university audiences on ‘The Church and Freedom’.; and he received the first of his many honorary doctorates. In a reception at the White House, President J. F. Kennedy introduced him to group of politicians saying “this is what I would call the new frontier man of the Catholic Church”.

Hans Kung

But in the late 1960s and beyond Kung came increasingly into conflict with the church hierarchy. In a book published in 1971 Kung called into question the [nineteenth century] dogma of papal infallibility. He also expressed doubts about the practice of celibacy, proposed opening up the priesthood and the diaconate to women, and wrote that that certain current Catholic practices “contradicted the Gospel and ancient Catholic tradition and ought to be abolished”. In December 1979 Kung was stripped of his licence to teach as a Catholic theologian. He thereby lost his position in the theological school. But he continued to teach as Professor of Ecumenical Theology at Tübingen until his retirement in 1996. He also lectured widely overseas, and he wrote an impressive  number of books; on the Christian life, on Freud and the problem of God, on Christianity and world religions, on the theology of Hegel, on ethics, on Judaism, on euthanasia, on the Catholic Church, on science and religion, and on Christianity and Islam. 

I have been looking again at Kung: On being a Christian [published in  1974], one of the first Christian books which I ever bought and read, back in the early 1980s.

On being a Christian: The horizon 

The introduction clearly states that the book is intended for those who believe but feel insecure in their faith, and for those who are at a loss between belief and unbelief. In Part 1 Kung engages in dialogue with contemporary, humanist culture. He acknowledges that man wants to be fully human. He notes that the great figures of terror in recent history, Stalin and Hitler, were programmatic anti-christians. He insists that Christians can be humanist and humanists can be Christians. But he asks whether the contemporary modernisation of Christianity, where worship too often abandoned both liturgy and theology, is a sellout of the gospel. Is there  a danger that ‘the Church has lost its soul’ ? Against such criticism he writes: “In the long run it is impossible, even for the Catholic Church, to serve, for the delight of a few aesthetes and philanthropists, … as a museum of Christendom.”

Kung: On being a Christian

Kung celebrates modern advances in science, technology, medicine etc. But insists that science and technology cannot  be the key to man’s happiness. Technology cannot be a substitute for religion. Equally he rejects Marxism as a credible explanation of reality [a Weltanschaung]; noting that Marxist-Leninist practice led directly to authoritarianism, intolerance, and totalitarian attitudes. 

Kung approvingly quotes Eugene Ionesco, who wrote in 1972: “People are going round in circles in the cage of their planet , because they have forgotten that they can look up to the sky …” There will always be religion, just as there will always be art. The perennial dilemma is the relationship between faith and reason. Can man only know God if God takes the initiative and makes himself known ? The idea of biblical revelation.  Or can man only believe in God if he has already known God by reason ? This question leads Kung into a detailed philosophical excursus. In which he writes approvingly of Kant’s ‘postulation’ of God deriving from man’s  self-understanding as a moral, responsible being.

In the final part of his scene-setting introduction Kung addresses the question of Christianity and the other world religions. He anticipates later writers like Lammin Sanneh by noting that “several centuries too late …  the attempt is being made to liberate Christianity from its European-American, Latin-Roman wrappings”. If all religions contain truth, what makes Christianity the truth ? He agrees with modern theologians who believe that men can attain salvation in other religions. But, he insists, “the question of salvation does not make the question of truth superfluous”.

On being a Christian: The distinctiveness of Christianity

Kung emphasises that Christianity is founded on Christ, God’s last and decisive ambassador. Being a Christian does not just mean standing for all that is true and good and beautiful. It means a belief that Jesus is decisive and definitive for man’s relations with God.

But the question then is:  Which Christ ? We have the Christ of piety, the “holy infant so tender and mild”. We have the Christ of dogma, whose nature caused such problems for the Church Councils [as they sought to define Jesus in terms of Hellenistic thought]. We have the Christ of the enthusiasts, from flagellants and Anabaptists of the Middle Ages to modern day charismatics and Pentecostals. And there is the Christ of literature. Here Kung notes that writers can often be “more alert, more perceptive, and more sensitive than the theologians”.

Kung emphasises that Christ is a historical person, not a myth. But he acknowledges the uncertainties: Bethlehem or Nazareth ?; the nature [and the historicity] of the gospels. Kung notes the Protestant emphasis on the Bible; the Orthodox emphasis on tradition; the Catholic emphasis on the Church. He argues for a combination of faith and of knowledge. He recalls that Jesus was a Jew. And he regrets the historical hostility between Jews and Christians. He acknowledges the real theological differences, but welcomes the contributions of Jewish scholars to understanding Jesus.

On being a Christian: The Program

Jesus did not belong to the ecclesiastical and social establishment. Jesus was not a priest. And he was not a theologian. His style of teaching is popular and direct. He preaches that the Kingdom of God is imminent; it will come, not as judgement, but as grace for all. Not only sickness and suffering, but also poverty and oppression, will come to an end.

The Jesus of the gospels is not the sweet and gentle figure of hymnody. He is not a prudent diplomat. In the gospels he is an unarmed, itinerant preacher and a charismatic healer. He preaches a non-violent revolution. Not as a monastic retreat from the world. Was Jesus an Essene or a Qumran monk ? Kung demonstrates clearly that Jesus was very different from these dualist ‘sons of light’. Equally, he is very different from the pious legalism of the Pharisees. “Pharisaism lives on in Christianity … but it is contrary to the spirit of Jesus.” 

The central cause of Jesus is the kingdom of God; a kingdom of love and joy and peace. Jesus expects the kingdom to come in the immediate future. Does this promise of the kingdom still hold good after two millennia ? It will not come about by social revolution.

Jesus’s miracles cause more problems for modern man than his teaching. The miracles are not scientifically tested documentaton. The healing miracles often involve curing the possessed; the exorcism and defeat of devils. Some of the miracles may be anticipated portrayals of the risen Christ. The word used in John’s Gospel is signs. In that gospel the different signs point to Jesus as ‘the bread of life’, as ‘the light of the world’, as ‘the resurrection and the life’. What is demanded is not faith in miracles; but faith in Jesus. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

Jesus expects [demands] a fundamental re-orientation of man’s life towards God. This is metanoia, translated as repentance but meaning conversion. Based on an unshakeable confidence in God; which is described in the Old Testament as faith. Humanity replaces legalism. We are to love God, and to love our neighbour. And our neighbour is the person who needs our love. This love will involve forgiveness, without limits; and service, that is humility; and renunciation. Jesus has a particular concern for the weak, the sick, and the neglected; for woman, for children, and the poor.

Jesus got involved with irreligious and immoral people; tax collectors and sinners. Table fellowship meant more than politeness; it meant peace, trust, fraternity. Must the sinner first make an effort to receive grace ? For Jesus grace comes first; acceptance comes before repentance. 

Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom. He did not found a church. His disciples are a mixed bunch; we are not even sure of their names. Their role is to be ‘fishers of men’.

The Gospels all point towards Jesus’ death. Things changed when he went up to Jerusalem. Jesus was baptised, but neither he nor his disciples baptised before Easter. Kung is not worried whether the Last Supper was a ritual Passover Meal [as Mark says] or not [as John says]. His violent end was the logical conclusion of his proclamation and his behaviour; he was seen as a heretical teacher, a false prophet, a blasphemer. Jesus’s death on the Cross suggested that the Law had conquered. The peculiarity of his death is that Jesus is forsaken by men, but also totally forsaken by God.

On being a Christian: The new life

It is only after Jesus’ death that this new movement started. After an [apparent] complete failure and a shameful death, emerges an explosive message and a new community in the name of the defeated leader. The earliest New Testament writings [Paul’s letters]  never mention the virgin birth, nor the descent into hell nor the ascension, but firmly proclaim the resurrection of the crucified Christ as the centre of Christian preaching. Jesus is a living person, encountered by his disciples.

Kung notes: this is a work of God; his being raised [passive] rather than his resurrection [active]. He insists that both resurrection and raising are pictorial, metaphorical terms. In Luke’s gospel and in Mark’s supplement the Easter appearances and the ascension take place on the same Easter Day. Only Acts of the Apostles mentions forty days between Easter and Ascension; forty being an important Biblical number. Again, it is from Acts that we have the story of Pentecost [50th day]. Which was celebrated in the first 3 centuries only as an extension of the Easter celebrations.

Kung notes the development of the Easter tradition. And that Paul makes no mention of the empty tomb. But Kung insists that the empty tomb does not by itself prove the resurrection. The Easter faith is oriented to the living Jesus himself. “Without Easter there is no Gospel … no faith, no proclamation, no Church, no worship, no mission to Christendom.”

Jesus’s death on the cross remains problematic. There is a diversity of interpretation at many levels. The distinction between ransom, representation, and sacrifice [Passover, covenant, expiatory sacrifice] is blurred. The work of Jesus on the cross was interpreted in the Latin West by means of juridical concepts; the need to restore God’s honour, to make restitution. “The idea of the death on the cross as an expiatory sacrifice, understandable enough for Jewish Christians at the time, is only one and not the most important model for the interpretation of that death.

Kung explores the link to suffering. The book of Job is about the incomprehensibility of God in time of suffering. Jesus does not explain suffering, but endures it to the end.His death only acquires a meaning with his resurrection to new life with God. Suffering, even though it can seem like being forsaken by God, can also become the point of an encounter with God. The Christian looks in suffering to the one who secretly sustains him even in nothingness, loneliness, and despair.

Kung looks in detail at the birth narratives. And notes that extraordinary events are traditionally associated with the birth of the founders of religions. “Today it is admitted, even by Catholic exegetes, that these stories are a collection of largely uncertain, mutually contradictory, strongly legendary, and ultimately theologically motivated narratives, with a character of their own.” 

The Virgin Birth presents a particular problem. The emphasis moves from virginal conception to virgin birth. “Both doctrines had something to do with the negative valuation of the sexual act on the part of the Fathers of the Church.”

The veneration of Mary is relatively recent. The efficacy of praying through Mary comes from the 12th century. The dogma of the immaculate conception dates from 1854; the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary dates from 1950. From the time of Pius IX the popes have promoted Marian devotion. Marianism and papalism go hand in hand, and give each other mutual support.

On being a Christian: Community of Faith

The Bible did not drop out of heaven [unlike the Koran]. The books of the Bible were written and collected on earth. Which explains the shortcomings and mistakes, confusions and concealments. “I do not believe first in Scripture … I believe in God who revealed himself in the history of Israel … and finally in a liberating message in the person of Jesus.”

The Holy Spirit is unintelligible to many people today. He is the Spirit of God himself, self-bestowing but not controllable, life-giving, a source of power. The Latin Church proclaims the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son [filioque]; the Eastern Church proclaims the procession of the Spirit from the Father through the Son. “An unnecessary controversy.” Kung insists that any formulation of the Trinity must not cause us to  abandon the monotheistic faith.

For Kung the church is simply “the community of those who believe in Christ”. He notes that the Germanic language words [German kirche, English church, Swedish kyrka] derive [not from curia, as Luther supposed] from the Byzantine Kyrike, meaning ‘belonging to the Lord’. But the Romance languages [Latin ecclesia, Spanish iglesia, French église, Italian chiesa] derive from the Greek ekklesia meaning ‘assembly, called out from’. 

What is the relation between the local church and the universal church ? Kung insists: “The local church is the the church and can fully represent the cause of Jesus Christ.” The church is the whole community of God’s people; offices and office-bearing are not important. There is no need for a priest as mediator. The church should be a community of brothers and sisters; it cannot be a patriarchal power structure. It is better to speak, not of office, but of ministry. The word ‘priest’ is never used in the NT for those who exercise a ministry in the Church. 

Paul writes of charisms which [given by God] serve the congregation. He never speaks [in authentic letters] of ordination nor or presbyters. But, after Paul’s death, institutionalisation could not be avoided. With the emergence of presbyters and bishops. “It cannot be maintained historically that the bishops in a direct and exclusive sense are the successors of the apostles.”

Does the Church need a universal leader, a Pope ? Roman Catholic ecclesiology has always been reactionary and hierarchical. Hence the 1870 definitions of papal primacy and papal infallibility. While the Catholics venerate the Pope, the Orthodox venerate tradition, and Protestants the Bible. There have been parties in the Church from the time of Corinth. The Church must exist to serve the surrounding society. “There is nothing about the Church which perfect, which is not imperilled, fragile, questionable, which is not constantly in need of correction, renewal, and reform.”

On being a Christian: Practice

People can be put off by the Church; “an unevangelical and externalised ritualism which is still tied to the medieval, baroque tradition … to a rigid, authoritarian, unhistorical, unbiblical textbook theology.” But, Kung insists, breaking away from the church leads only to isolation, or to a new institutionalising. In a renewed church, bishops would be appointed openly by clergy and laity; equally the pope would be elected by clergy and laity; priests would be allowed to marry if they so wished; and women should be given dignity, freedom, and responsibility. In spite of the forces of resistance and inertia, we must not give up.

On being a Christian: Being human and being Christian

Being a Christian is not just about self-denial and self-renunciation. It is about a new orientation, a new approach to life, with Jesus as our guiding principle and our living model.

What is ultimately important ? Churches influenced by Calvin have stressed the importance of ‘works’ in everyday life. Which has led to an emphasis on achievement; and seeing man as an economic unit. Kung insists that this attitude is a threat to man’s humanity. “A man can be a marvellous manager, scientist, official, or skilled workman, be generally credited with playing his part brilliantly, and yet fail completely as a human being.

Christian freedom means freedom  from dependence on the false gods which drive us on to new achievements: money or career, prestige or power, or whatever is of supreme value for us. We know that life has a meaning not only in successes but also in  failures.

Finally, Kung offers suggestions as to what Christian freedom means in our culture:

*  willingness to renounce rights without compensation

*  willingness to voluntarily use power for the service of others

*  willingness to practise freedom from the consumption of possessions

Consumerism is self-defeating.  “New needs are created as soon as the old ones are satisfied … luxury goods are classified as necessary consumer goods.” Uncontrolled economic growth widens the gap between rich and poor countries; and creates feelings of envy, resentment, and hatred, and also despair and helplessness.

In summary, to be Christian means to be fully human.

By following Jesus Christ, man in the world of today

can truly, humanly live, act, suffer, and die

in happiness and in unhappiness, life and death,

sustained by God and helpful to men.”


A better global order

I first read this book in the 1980s. It was the second Christian book I ever bought. [The first was by Don Cupitt ! A friend at St Andrew’s, Linton Road, made a telling comment about ‘baby and bathwater’.] Re-reading it, I am hugely impressed by both the breadth and the depth of Kung’s writing. Back in the 1980s and again now I find this book a magisterial and engaging account of the Christian faith. Written for the most part in accessible language. [Though I am not sure about ‘theonomy’.]  And I am very struck by the way in which Kung anticipates stuff  [other books] that I have been reading during this past year; he touches on the problem of suffering, on the dangers of clericalism, the origins and nature of Marianism, the meaning of the Cross, and the need for the church to escape from its medieval, Latin-Roman wrappings. It is easy to see why the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy were so disquieted by him. But I was saddened to see a shabby obituary of Kung in Echoes, a Roman Catholic forum, written by George Weigel, which accused Kung of being an anti-papal show-pony. The truth may be that, as the Church Times obituary noted, he was a Roman Catholic and he was a distinguished theologian. But he was not a Roman Catholic theologian. 

April 2021

Through a glass darkly – 46

The Water of Leith

The Water of Leith is a small river that flows from the outlying village of Balerno to the south-west of Edinburgh, on the edge of the Pentlands, down to the Forth at Leith. Leith most probably derives from the Brittonic word meaning ‘damp’, while ‘Water’ here indicates a large stream, something between a burn in size and a full-grown river. There were once some eighty mills on this stretch of water, producing flour, paper, woollen and linen cloth, spices, and snuff, none of which survive. The Water of Leith rises at Milestone Rig in the Pentland Hills. From Balerno down to Leith there is a walkway beside the river for walkers and cyclists. It is a little bit more than thirteen miles. Last week as the lockdown restrictions ease, it seemed good to go back and walk it again.

Getting started, near Balerno

Balerno to Slateford

After changing buses in an almost deserted Princes Street, I took the 44 bus out to Balerno. Access to the walkway is next to the High School. The early miles are quite rural.  The water runs between wooden banks a bit below the A70, the Lanark road, but largely hidden from the road itself. The first landmark is Currie Kirk, an eighteenth century building in a delightful setting, with Calvary crosses and a Knights’ Templar gravestone in the graveyard.

Currie Kirk

Beyond Currie new housing is much in evidence. A dense estate of new houses with miniature gardens has been built right to the water’s edge. A further development with a decorative water wheel sits below a thundering bridge which carries the southern bypass across the water. 

At Colinton the remains of the station are visible. The station was opened in 1874 by the Caledonian Railway, offering mainly a freight service for the local mills but also carrying passengers in and out of Princes Street. Access to the station was by steep steps known as Jacob’s Ladder. The last passenger train ran in 1943, and the station officially closed after nationalisation in 1949. Beyond the rains of the station a curved tunnel is liberally decorated with graffiti.

Spylaw Park on the right contains the rather grand Spylaw House, built by a wealthy mill-owner, which was briefly a youth hostel before being converted into [luxury] apartments. Steps on the right lead down into Colinton Dell and Craiglockhart Dell. But two bridges in Colinton Dell are currently closed, so I carried on to join up with the Grand Canal. Turn right along the canal, cross the aquaduct, and you arrive at the Water of Leith Visitors’ centre at Slateford. Roughly halfway. The centre sells maps of the Water of Leith and good coffee. But is currently closed.

Slateford to Stockbridge

Beyond Slateford is a relatively dull patch, the pathway flanked by a graveyard and some extensive allotments. You leave the water briefly to cross Saughton Park, and then recross to the east bank as the new-ish stretch of path skirts west of Murrayfield stadium. I look at the stadium wondering how Scotland managed to beat both England away at Twickenham [for the first time since 1983] and also France in Paris [for the first time since 1999], but then lose, very narrowly, at Murrayfield to both Wales and to Ireland, games which they could [and perhaps should] have won.


The pathway crosses the Corstorphine Road at Roseburn, and the Water of Leith then runs through a deep, wooded ravine that skirts round the west end of Edinburgh’s New Town. It is one of the most attractive sections of the walk. The bronze figure in the water below the National Gallery of Modern Art is one of six installations by [Sir] Anthony Gormley. They are called Six Times; I don’t know why. Shortly afterward a boardwalk leads into Dean Village, a higgledy-piggledy collection of odd-shaped houses with grey slate roofs that fall down a steep slope to the river and then up the other side. Expensive cars parked on double yellow lines hint at gentrification.

Dean Village

The water pours noisily over a broad weir while Dean Bridge, built by Thomas Telford in 1823, carries the road 100 feet above the water. One of the characters in the Peter May Lewis Trilogy is forced as a young boy to risk his life squeezing vertiginously across the outer parapet of the bridge. A little further on is the elegant St Bernard’s Well, built in 1789, a miniature temple on Doric columns; and then a flight of stone steps leading you up to Stockbridge.

St Bernard’s Well

Balerno to Stockbridge is about ten and a half miles, and Leith is only another three miles further. But the sky had turned dark grey and the wind was cold and gusty, so I bought two pieces of banana cake from Soderbergs [excellent] and came home on the bus. Leaving the rest for another day.

Stockbridge to Leith

I re-started two days later at Rosewell again, a bright and sunny Good Friday. There were more people and more dog-walkers on a bright morning. Beyond Stockbridge you can see the backs of elegant, stone-built New Town terraces.  Across the water there are views of The Colonies, eleven parallel terraces laid out in 1861 by the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Association, with the intention of providing affordable home ownership for respectable artisans. Each terrace consists of two stories with outside stone stairs leading to the upper ‘cottage’. I don’t think that there are many artisans living there now.

Near Stocbridge

At Canonmills the pathway rises to cross another busy road. A south-facing bench in St Mark’s Park was a good place to stop for a coffee break and to ring Susie. The final mile or so takes you through a light industrial area past the backs of some scruffy buildings in Bonnington. And then opens out into a broader riverside walk. Leith has been reinventing itself for a long time, and may shortly be further connected to the city by an extension of the tram system. People formed distanced queues for carry-out coffees and sat dangling their legs over the water on The Shore. It all looked very attractive in the sun. One of these days it will be possible to eat there again.

Nearing The Shore, Leith

April 2021

Through a glass darkly – 45

The Christmas Truce

When I was writing about the international working class movement a few weeks ago [TaGD – 36], I regretted that international solidarity died with the outbreak of the Great War. When many of the delegates at the meeting of the Second International in Brussels in July 1914 rushed home to join up in their respective armed forces. And I made reference to the French film Joyeux Noël; a fictional reconstruction of the unofficial Christmas Eve truce of 1914, when front-line troops clambered out of their trenches to share greetings and drinks with their enemies; to play football and celebrate Christmas together. 

No Man’s Land, Christmas 1914

It is often said that the Christmas 1914 truce was a fairy story, like the Angel of Mons, a journalistic invention. And when people acknowledge that something did happen, it is often dismissed as a very small affair. Which was disowned and much frowned upon by senior officers on both sides. In order to try and establish the truth, I’ve been reading a [second-hand] copy of Malcolm Brown & Shirley Seaton: Christmas Truce: The Western Front, December 1914. The authors are both television journalists and military historians. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Richard Holmes said: “It is unlikely that this fine book’s account of the truce will ever be bettered.”

The run-up to Christmas 1914

Although historians now tell us that the First World War was ‘inevitable’, it didn’t seem that way at the time. Harold Macmillan, then an undergraduate at Balliol, wrote many years later:

Had we been told, when we were enjoying the carefree life of Oxford in the summer term of 1914, that in a few weeks our little band of friends would abandon academic life for ever and rush to take up arms, still more, that only a few were destined to survive four years’ conflict, we should have thought such prophecies were the ravings of a maniac.”

The early weeks of the war were full of action and movement: the indecisive encounter at Mons, the  long retreat, the turning of the tide on the Marne, and the first attritional battle of the war on the river Aisne. After which the British Commander, Sir John French, wrote to King George V:  “I think the battle of the Aisne is very typical of what battles in the future are most likely to resemble … … The spade will be as great a necessity as the rifle”. So in the closing months of 1914 the two armies dug in where the last attacks and counter-attacks had left them. And long lines of trenches appeared across the terrain of France and Belgium, sometimes no more than fifty or even thirty yards apart. The enemy was so close in some places that you could hear him talk. As the weather deteriorated the trenches turned to mud, and the principal struggle was against the conditions rather than the enemy. Arthur Pelham-Burn of the Gordon Highlanders wrote in December to a school-friend:

I used to think I  knew what mud was before I came out here, but I was quite mistaken. The mud here varies from 6 inches to 3 and 4 feet, even 5 feet, and it is so sticky that, until we were all issued with boots, my men used to arrive in the trenches in bare feet.”

Closeness bred curiosity about the enemy. Which was a powerful motivation in what followed. What was the German soldier really like ? Was he the archetypal enemy with his spiked pickelhaube helmet, his barbaric record in Belgium, and his hymns of hate ? Was he happy to be there fighting for the Kaiser ? Coping with the rain, the mud, the lice, and the rats ? Or would he rather be home with his loved ones in the equivalent of ‘Blighty’ ? Imprecisely there developed  a kind of comradeship with the enemy, which no civilian could properly understand. Rifleman Leslie Walkinton of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles, looking back years later, wrote:

We hated their guts when they killed any of our friends, then we really did dislike them intensely. But otherwise we joked about them, and I think they joked about us. And we thought, well poor so-and-sos, they’re in the same kind of muck as we are.”

Hostilities grumbled on with occasional spasms of activity, artillery fire, frequently limited on the British side by a shortage of shells, a certain amount of sniping, and trench raids that too often resulted in death or injury without yielding much advantage. Andrew Todd of the Royal Engineers wrote a letter home which ended up in The Scotsman:

Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that the soldiers in both lines of trenches have become very ‘pally’ with each other. The trenches are only 60 yards apart at one place, and every morning about breakfast time one of the soldiers sticks a board in the air. As soon as this board goes up, all firing ceases, and men from either side draw their water and rations. All through the breakfast hour, and so long as this board is up, silence reigns supreme …”

According to Brown and Seaton, such breakfast truces became an accepted ritual on many parts of the Western Front throughout the duration of the war. Other minor acts of fraternisation included lobbing across tins of bully beef or jam or biscuits, and some reciprocal hymn singing on quiet nights.  Captain C.I. Stockwell of the Royal Welch Fusiliers noted in his diary that a German soldier in the facing tenches who spoke excellent English revealed that before the war he had been the head-waiter at the Grand Central Hotel.  A trooper in the Scots Greys had a shouted exchange with two Germans who had worked in a hairdressers shop in Princes Street in Edinburgh.

Maconochie’s Army Stew

Christmas Eve 1914

On Christmas Eve there was a curiously prophetic article in The Manchester Guardian:

It will be strange if one of those truces tacitly arranged by the men and winked at by the commanders does not occur tonight in order that, if possible, the Germans may find something to take the place of Christmas trees and the English something to take the place of holly in the trenches … … For the longer the troops lie over against each other in trenches there grows up a friendly interest . This however does not interfere with the business of fighting.”

December 24th was ‘very quiet’ on the front occupied by the Royal Welch Fusiliers. South of Armentières a German band was playing hymns in or near the trenches all the afternoon. Near Pont Rouge the 133rd Saxon Infantry Regiment  posted lighted Christmas trees on the breastwork of the trench, and began to sing old Christmas songs, ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht and O du Fröliche. Private Albert Moren of the Royal West Surrey Regiment recalled the singing years later: “I shall never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my life. I thought what a beautiful tune.”

Near Ploegsteert Wood Private Tapp of the Royal Warwicks watched as a sergeant made his way into No Man’s Land, and returned with cigars and cigarettes  which he had exchanged for tins of Maconochie’s and a tin of Capstan tobacco. Together with an offer from the Germans not to fire until Boxing Day. A little way to the north the Seaforth Highlanders shared in some competitive carol singing with the Germans opposite, and then climbed out of their trenches to share conversation and cigarettes in front of the barbed wire entanglements.

Major Buchanan-Dunlop of the 1st Leicesters, a committed Christian and an old boy of Loretto, wrote to his wife to tell her that he had organised a select choir of officers and men to sing carols to the Germans, who then responded with carols of their own. This exploit made him briefly famous as ‘The Major who sang Carols between the Trenches’, which later got him into difficulties with the military authorities.

Major Colin Napier Buchanan-Dunlop

Christmas Day 1914

Christmas Day dawned with light mist and a hard frost. British accounts suggest that again the Germans made the first overtures of goodwill, as they had the night before with their carol singing. Numerous local agreements were made for the burial of the dead  whose bodies lay in No Man’s Land. The Revd J. Esslemont Adams, a Free Church minister and Chaplain of the Gordon Highlanders, agreed with the local German commander for burial of the dead, after which there would be a short, shared service with the reading of the 23rd Psalm and prayers in both English and German. Second Lieutenant Arthur Pelham-Burn of the Gordon Highlanders, who intended to train for the Anglican ministry, wrote about the service at Fleurbaix to an old Lancing school-friend: 

We then had a wonderful joint burial service. Our Padre arranged the prayers and psalm etc … … They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry. It was an extraordinary and wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other  … … Yes, I think it is a sight one will never see again.”

Christmas Day, 1914

Other burial ceremonies involved fewer people. North of Ploegsteert Wood some Germans helped dig graves for two dead Frenchmen. At Bois Grenier seven stretcher-bearers, all wearing Red Cross armbands, were allowed by the Germans to bury dead British troops who had been lying behind German lines. As well as burial of the dead, men from both armies met together in friendship and good humour to celebrate Christmas in their own particular fashion. Second Lieutenant Bruce Bairnsfather of the Royal Warwicks, destined to become a celebrated cartoonist of the war, stated that “there was not an atom of hate on either side that day”. Up and down No Man’s Land gifts were exchanged: bully beef, Maconochie’s stew, Tickler’s jams, cake, biscuits, tea and Christmas puddings were offered by the British; cigars, sweets, nuts, sausages, sauerkraut, cognac and schnapps were offered by the Germans in return. Buttons and cap-badges were valued souvenirs. It was a day of instant friendships. Photographs were brought out and admired.

There was much photographing on Christmas Day 1914, enemy photographing enemy, soldiers standing cheerfully side by side. There was a general regulation against taking photographs while on active service, and a crackdown on cameras in the trenches began shortly after Christmas. But papers like the Daily Mail were offering payments for war photographs throughout 1915.

Christmas Truce, 1914

It has become widely accepted that a central part of the Christmas truce was a game of football between the English and the Germans. [Which the Germans presumably won ?] Football, or ‘footer’, would certainly have been the game of choice for the fraternising soldiers on both sides. Private Tapp of the Royal Warwicks wrote that: “We are trying to arrange a football match with them for tomorrow, Boxing Day.” But there is no evidence that such a game took place. And the ground between the lines was certainly in no fit shape for any serious game of football.

… and after

Rifleman Bernard Brooks recorded in his diary: “The Germans wanted to maintain a partial truce until the New Year, for, as some of them said, they were heartily sick of the war, and did not want to fight; but we were due to leave the trenches … and insisted on the truce ending at midnight … Death and bloodshed would once more reign supreme.

On Boxing Day there was a reluctance in many sectors to get back to fighting. But General Horace Smith-Dorrien, after a visit to the trenches, circulated a memorandum to all commanders in II Corps which pulled no punches:

“”I was shown a report from one section of how, on Christmas Day, a friendly gathering had taken place of Germans and British on the neutral ground between the two lines, recounting that many officers had taken part … … This is only illustrative of the apathetic state we are sinking into … illustrating that any orders I issue on the subject are useless, for I have issued the strictest orders that on no account is intercourse to be allowed between the opposing troops … … To finish this war quickly we must keep up the fighting spirit …”

General Horace Smith-Dorrien

As the foul weather continued at the start of 1915, so did the war. There was no large-scale fighting on the British front until the costly Battle of Neuve-Chapelle in March 1915. But for many units the Christmas truce was now slipping back into history.

There is a suspicion that certain units were punished in some way for their participation, by being taken out of the line as untrustworthy. But Brown and Eaton find no evidence for this. Nor is there any evidence for the idea that Saxon regiments were sent to the Russian Front for fraternising.

In January the New York Times broke the story under the breezy headline, FOES IN TRENCHES SWOP PIES FOR WINE.  The story reappeared in England in The Daily Sketch with several photographs captioned TOMMY’S TRUCE BETWEEN THE TRENCHES. A thoughtful leader in the Daily Mirror commented that it was hard “to keep up the gospel of hate when chance throws men into companionship of toil and danger”. When a photograph of Major Buchanan-Dunlop appeared in the Daily Sketch under the caption MAJOR WHO SANG CAROLS BETWEEN THE TRENCHES, Generals Smith-Dorrien and Ingouville-Williams were both furious. But there was no court-martial and no reprimand. [Buchanan-Dunlop survived this war and the next, and died with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1947.] But it is believed by his family that he failed to receive the DSO  he wold have been awarded because of his involvement in the truce.


Was the Christmas truce a significant event, or just a sentimental aside in the dialogue of war ? A boyish prank ? An end-of-term bit of fun ? In a debate in the House of Commons in 1930 the Liberal MP for Banff, Major Murdoch McKenzie Wood, who had been at the front in 1914 with the Gordon Highlanders, made this comment:

In the early stages of the war, at Christmas 1914, I was in the front trenches, and took part in what was well known at the time as truce. We went over in front of the trenches, and shook hands with many of our German enemies. A great number of people think we did something that was degrading … … The fact is we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired. For a fortnight that truce went on. We were on the most friendly terms, and it was only the fact that we were being controlled by others that made it necessary for us to start trying to shoot each other again.”

The song of the Christmas angels was “ On earth peace to men on whom [God’s] favour rests”. Or, as Private William Tapp of the Royal Warwicks put it: “… it just doesn’t seem right to be killing each other at Christmas time”. 

Amen to that.

March 2021

Through a glass darkly – 44

A Journey towards the Cross

We are rapidly moving through Lent towards Passion Week and Easter. Lent is, as preachers often tell us, a journey towards the Cross. In both Christ Church, Duns, and in Lyon we often arranged things so that Easter Day was an all-age Family Communion service. Which called for some creativity in our presentation of the Easter message. But which rarely provided an opportunity for a more in-depth exploration of the Cross. So it seemed a good time to have another look at Jurgen Moltmann, this time at his 1972 book, The Crucified God.

This book, as Richard Bauckham acknowledges in the introduction to my 1974 edition, is a theological classic; theo-logical in that it is concerned with who God really is. It takes up theology in the light [in the shadow?] of the Holocaust. It is about God’s impassibility. The book is about the cross of Jesus, and his apparent abandonment by the Father. It asks the question: ‘Who is God in the cross of the Christ who is abandoned by God ?’

Jürgen Moltmann

The Crucified God

In the preface Moltmann acknowledges that the cross cannot be loved. But he insists that the church and the theologian must try to understand the crucified Christ in order to show the world the freedom he offers. The church must demonstrate what it really believes about Jesus from Nazareth who is crucified under Pontius Pilate; and what practical consequences we draw from this. Where his earlier book Theology of Hope [see TaGD – 12, June 2020] began with the resurrection of the crucified Christ; this book looks at the cross of the risen Christ. “Unless it apprehends the pain of the negative, Christian hope cannot be realistic and liberating.”

The Cross is the central symbol of the Christian church. Christianity has been described as ‘the religion of the cross’. What does that mean ? We have too easily turned the scandal of the cross into a theory of salvation. The symbol of the Cross points to God, “who was crucified not between two candles on an altar but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong.” But as the church grew it left the cross behind, and gilded the cross with the ideas of salvation.

The idea of following Christ has been neglected in particular by bourgeois Protestantism; it no longer recognised the suffering church, the church of the martyrs. 

The word ‘theology’ does not appear in the Bible. The theology of the cross originates with Paul; in 1 Corinthians 1 he develops his understanding of the Cross, which, though a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Greeks, becomes for believers the power of God for freedom. The theology of the Cross is central to Luther’s thought; contrasting it with the theology of glory of the Catholic church.

Questions about Jesus

Christian faith is essentially a profession of faith in Jesus. So – the first task of Christology is to determine ‘Who really is Jesus of Nazareth ?’ But the more the early Church emphasised the divinity of Jesus. the more difficult it became to hold that that the Son of God was of one substance with Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate. Consequently a mild docetism runs through the Christology of the early church. That Jesus was not quite fully man.

The current Christological question, Moltmann insists, is more about the true humanity of Christ, about his awareness of God, and about his inner life.  In modern Jesuology the attention is turned away from his suffering and death and concentrated on his life and teaching.

Moltmann wants to engage with the question asked by Judaism; the Messianic question ‘Are you the One who is to come ?’ is the earliest question asked about Christ. The Bible brings an eschatological awareness into the world; the universe longing for redemption becomes a future hope. “Faith lives by the anticipation of the kingdom through and in Jesus.” The Christian answer is that God brings the sinner, whether Jew or Gentile, to repentance through his suffering in the cross of Jesus.

Who do you say that I am ?’ is the question is not only asked by others of Jesus, but by Jesus  himself. When the disciples proclaimed the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, they were proclaiming the future of the crucified Christ. Christianity looks forward to the new age and the new creation, in which the crucified Christ can no longer be a scandal and a foolishness; because he is the basis of the proclamation ‘I make all things new’. [Rev. 21.5]

The Way to the Cross

How did Jesus who preached become the Jesus who was preached ? What is the relationship between the primitive gospel of Christ and the historical Jesus ? Paul recognised the danger of preaching about a spirit in the heavenly world, which is why he preached Jesus crucified. The preaching of both Jesus and of Paul is eschatological preaching; but where Jesus preaches the kingdom of God, Paul preaches the righteousness of God.  Jesus speaks of the dominion of God which is to come; Paul speaks of the dominion of God which has already been inaugurated in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The eschaton changes from the future to an event which has already begun. The essential Christological question is “how the dead Jesus became the living, the crucified became the resurrected, and the humiliated became the exalted”. And Molmann concludes “the basic problem and the starting point of theology is the scandal and folly of the cross”.

Paul Gauguin: Le Christ Jaune

The death of Jesus is the consequence of his earthly ministry; and how his ministry was received and understood by the Jews and [differently] by the Romans.

For the Jews Jesus was a demagogic false Messiah, a blasphemer. First he set himself over and above [the contemporary  understanding of] the law. Further he withdrew from the circle of John the Baptist: both preached that the kingdom of God was at hand. But where for John the Baptist this meant judgement; for Jesus the kingdom came as the unconditional and free grace of God. Jesus rejects the notion that the kingdom is for the righteous, while there would be judgement for the unrighteous. The theological dispute with the Jews is between the gospel and the law.

But Jesus did not undergo the punishment for blasphemy which was always stoning. Jesus was crucified by the occupying Roman power. This was the punishment for rebels against the Imperium Romanum. Bultmann writes: “What is certain is that he was crucified by the Romans and thus suffered the death of a political criminal … … it took place because his activity was misconstrued as a political activity.” Moltmann goes in detail into the question as to whether of not Jesus was a Zealot. And emphasises that there was undoubtedly a political dimension to Jesus’s ministry.

Albrecht Dürer

But neither Jesus’s theological conflict with Judaism nor his political conflict with the Roman Empire can explain the inner pain of his suffering and death. The synoptic gospels agree that Jesus’s death was troubled; “he was greatly distressed and troubled” [Mark 14:33].And the words of the dying Jesus [from Psalm 22.2] are “My God, why has thou forsaken me ?”  NB Luke omits these words, and replaces them with the confident utterance of the Jewish evening prayer, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit”. For Jesus the torment on the cross was his sense of abandonment by God; something that took place between Jesus and his Father.

Every Christian theology must come to terms with Jesus’s words on the cross. Moltmann insists: “The cross of the son divided God from God to the utmost degree of enmity … …  The resurrection of the Son abandoned by God unites God with God in the most intimate fellowship.

The Resurrection

In early Christian tradition there is no dispute over the resurrection. Talking historically about ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ binds him to his past; talking eschatologically about ‘Christ’ looks to his future. 

The disciples knew of the resurrection through the ‘appearances of Jesus’. And/but there are no witnesses to the process of resurrection from the tomb. Resurrection is not just revivification. Resurrection means a new quality of life which no longer knows death; “Christ being raised from the dead shall never die again” [Romans 6.9] It means the annihilation of death. Resurrection conforms to the Jewish apocalyptic promise that, at the end times, God would raise the dead; and thus demonstrate his power over the power of death. This is not the ‘language of facts’; it is the language of faith and hope, the ‘language of promise’.

The early church understood the resurrection as a preparatory act by God for the good of themselves and the whole world. An early form of confession is : “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures … “ [1 Corinth. 15.3-4]  Very early on the community understood that this was an event ‘for us’. Moltmann insists that this is not just about expiatory sacrifice: it is rather a sign of the coming, redeeming kingdom. “He died ‘for us’ in order to give us, ‘the dead’, a share in his new life of resurrection, and in his future of eternal life.”

The earliest Easter message is: “You killed him, but God raised him up” [Acts 2]. The Easter story is very similar to the Exodus story: God brings freedom to his people, first from a tyrant, and then from the tyranny of death. In their theology of the Passion, both Paul and Mark understand that the God when raised him from the dead was equally the God who crucified him and was crucified.  So, Moltmann concludes: “In the passion of the Son, the Father himself suffers the pains of abandonment. In the death of the Son, death comes upon God himself, and the Father suffers the death of his Son in his love for forsaken man.”

The Crucified God

To what degree is God affected by Jesus’s death on the cross ? Moltmann insists: “the death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology”. He rejects the phrase the ‘death of God’, preferring to talk of ‘death in God’. God’s sharing in the sufferings of the cross is a complete rebuttal of the impassible god of the Greek philosophers. This understanding is developed in and through the trinitarian doctrine of God. 

Chapelle de Trémalo

Moltmann suggests that many Christians fail to grasp the Trinity; their belief is little more than a weakly Christianised monotheism. But to understand the Cross, it is necessary to talk in Trinitarian terms: “The Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son.” It is an event [exchange] between the Father who forsakes and the Son who is forsaken; the Father who loves and the Son who is loved

A God who is conceived as omnipotent and infinite cannot be the God who is love in the cross of Jesus. God is not only other-worldly but is also this-worldly.

Anyone who suffers without cause thinks that he has been abandoned by God. In these circumstances, the God of theism cannot help; he can neither love nor suffer. But a trinitarian belief draws us into both Christ’s forsakenness and God’s love. “God is, God is in us, God suffers in us ” The theology of the crucified God leads to a significantly changed anthropology. Abraham Herschel writes about the pathos of God; describing the way in which God is affected by human events and suffering in history. The Bible speaks of God’s lamentation and sorrow over Israel in exile. He is present with them in their suffering. There is a striking example in Elie Wiesel’s book Night about his experience of Auschwitz. When the SS hang two men and a boy in front of the whole camp, a voice cries out asking where is God. “And I heard a voice within me answering: ‘Where is he ? He is here. He is hanging on the gallows’ …” Moltmann insists: any other answer would be blasphemy. 

Stanley Spencer

God himself creates the conditions for communion with God through his self-abasement in the death of the crucified Christ, and through his exaltation of man in the resurrection of Christ. This is anticipated in the primitive creed in Philippians 2. The God-forsaken man can accept himself where he comes to know the crucified God who is with him and has already accepted him. A theology after Auschwitz may seem impossible to those who are stuck with a simple theism. But, as Moltmann concludes: “God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God – that is the basis for a real hope which both embraces and overcomes the world.”

Going forwards

In the closing chapters Moltmann begins to enter into a dialogue with Freudian psychology, and with psychotherapy. And he looks too at the relationship of the Christian faith to secular, political movements. Again he emphasises the importance of the Trinity.  Politico-religious monotheism was overcome by the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Which insists on the essential unity of God the Father with the incarnate, crucified Son in the Holy Spirit. The crucified God is a stateless and classless God. But he is the God of the poor, the oppressed, and the humiliated.

The real presence of God liberates us from the vicious circle of poverty; frees us from the vicious circle of alienation; and liberates us from the vicious circle of meaninglessness and of god-forsakenness. He comes to us in the figure of the crucified Christ who gives us courage to be. 


I’m not sure whether I’ve done Moltmann’s book justice. Reading the book has certainly reminded me that I have never wanted to be a theologian. And I’m well aware that ‘theological’ is sometimes used in a derogatory sense; meaning arcane or of limited value. But I am grateful that Moltmann is forcing us [me] to think more deeply about the mystery of the Cross. He is wanting us to discard the notion of a remote and impassible deity. And encouraging us, against the gloomy backdrop of the COVID pandemic, to reflect on the secure basis for our Christian hope.

March 2021

Through a glass darkly – 43

The Story of 25 Eventful Years in Pictures

One of the books that has been sitting in our porch waiting for the charity shops to re-open is a picture book published by Odhams Press to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V.  It contains some 400 pages of sepia photographs from the period 1910-1935. For each of those years there is a one page summary of Principal Events followed by a dozen or so pages of photographs, and the last 40 pages are given to ‘Style and Speed through 25 years’. It is a fascinating collection, both for the photos it contains and for what is omitted.

The book was given to me by some 60 years ago by Uncle Bill and Auntie Se, who died within a few months of each other in the very early 1960s. In retirement they shared a large house in Bradford-on-Avon with my maternal grandparents. It was a highly unsuitable house for old people, and not a very happy arrangement. Se, short for Selina, after whom my mother was named [to her great chagrin], was one of my grandmother’s three sisters, who all grew up at Fownhope outside Hereford. She married Bill Hucker, a railway guard from Shropshire. Uncle Bill fought through the whole First War on the western front, and lived to tell the tale. Except of course that he never spoke about it. The silk postcards which he sent home were made into a rather crude fireguard, and now hang on our sitting room wall. I keep promising myself that I’ll sign up to an ancestry website and see if I can learn something of his military record.

Uncle Bill’s silk postcards

History in the making

There’s not a lot of text. But what is there seems to have been written largely in capital letters:

Never since the world began has so much been achieved, such an abundance destroyed, so many hopes denied, as in the fleeting span of the last quarter-of-a-century. Each year in the reign of King George V has been an act in a drama almost incredible in its speed, intensity, and incident. They have been tremendous times … Progress has bounded ahead with awesome purpose, smashing ruthlessly the conventions of centuries”.

The royal family

As this is a Silver Jubilee souvenir book, pictures of the royal family are prominent.  The first double-page spread is of George V and Queen Mary surrounded by their five, almost grown-up, children. This is followed by a double-page spread of Edward VII’s funeral procession; Edward’s favourite charger is led at a walking pace with boots reversed in the stirrups, and George V rides by the side of the Kaiser, who is carrying a Field-Marshal’s baton. George V’s coronation in 1911 looks to me not unlike Queen Elizabeth’s coronation not quite fifty years later. In July 1918 a royal group celebrate ‘Their Majesties’ Silver Wedding’. 

King George V and his children

The Whitehall Cenotaph is unveiled by King George V on Armistice Day 1920; followed by the state burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. Princess Mary marries Viscount Lascelles in Westminster Abbey in February 1922. The Duke of York married Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at the Abbey the following year. The Prince of Wales tours India and Japan. And on his return  is pictured lighting the Toc H Lamp of Maintenance at a rally at Albert Hall.

Queen Alexandra, the Queen Mother, died at Sandringham in November 1925. In April 1926 the Duchess of York gave birth to a daughter, Princess Elizabeth. In 1927 the Duke and Duchess of York open the new Parliament Buildings in Canberra, “the magnificent new capital of the Commonwealth”.

In February 1929 the King is pictured recuperating at Bognor [Regis] after a serious illness. Later that year the Prince of Wales is pictured visiting miners and their families in the depressed areas.

The King recuperating at Bognor

In November 1934 Prince George, the King’s youngest son, marries Princess Marina of Greece.

War and politics

In January 1911 there are photos of the Siege of Sidney Street, in East London, with the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, taking command of a detachment of Scots Guards. June 1914 has photos of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, and of Prinkip, his Serbian assassin. Some predictable Great War photos follow: Sir John French arriving in boots and British army warm at Boulogne; an extraordinary photo of the German  infantry sweeping across open fields in Belgium; Scottish troops being rushed forward on London buses to the Marne; Kitchener’s iconic poster, ‘Your country needs you’. [Who was it said ‘An undistinguished general, but a great poster’ ?

The German army invades Belgium, 1914

Later war photos are more sober: early gas masks at Ypres in April 1915; digging trenches on an exposed hillside at Gallipoli; Kitchener on the deck of HMS Iron Duke in June 1916, a few hours before his death; stretcher bearers at the Battle of the Somme; horses knee-deep in mud on the Western Front; merchant vessels torpedoed by German submarines; wounded British troops on the Menin Road; a field of casualties blinded by poison gas; a biplane being launched at sea for the first time. And finally German officers carrying a white flag approaching the Allied lines, and huge crowds celebrating the end of the Great War on London streets.

Away from the war there is a dramatic photo of crowds fleeing from a hail of bullets in Petrograd at the start of the Russian Revolution. Photos of a studious Trotsky and a hard-eyed Lenin sit next to a group photo of the Russian royal family, assassinated at Ekaterinberg in July 1918. 

De Valera is pictured taking the salute of the Sinn Feiners. The Irish Free State comes into existence in December 1922. In January 1924 Ramsay MacDonald becomes Prime Minister, and there is a photo of Britain’s first Labour cabinet. Needless to say they are all men. And not young.

In April 1926 the miners go on strike. There are empty railway trucks and striking miners playing cards. In London volunteers drive trams and buses, and Special Constables are enrolled.

When the Labour Party takes office for the second time, in 1929, there is a photo of Miss Margaret Bondfield, Minister of Labour, the first woman to hold a cabinet position. In August 1931 there is a great financial crisis, and a run on sterling and British funds. King George returns from Balmoral. Ramsay MacDonald forms a new National Government.

The new Shakespeare Memorial Theatre is opened at Stratford in Aril 1923. Broadcasting House, Portland Place, opens the same year. The huge Masonic Hall in Great Queen Street, London, is opened in July 1933 by the Duke of Connaught. In the same month the King and Queen open the King George V graving dock in Southampton, the largest dry dock in the world.

In 1934 the Labour Party take control of the London County Council for the first time. They inaugurate a number of progressive measures, including healthcare in elementary schools. Later that year free milk is provided  daily for school-children.

In September 1934 occurred one of the worst disasters in mining history; nearly 300 miners lost their lives at Gresford Colliery in Wales. There is a photo of a volunteer who risked his life to recover the 234 bodies that had been sealed into the pit.

Gresford Colliery disaster, 1934

In March 1935 Sir John Simon and a youthful Anthony Eden are photographed at a meeting in Berlin with Herr Hitler, as they begin discussions on the European situation.

Exploration and shrinking world

Early in the book, in 1910 is a photo of the Wright brothers with Mr Horace Short, taken at Eastlands Flying Ground, England’s first aerodrome. Captain Scott’s tragic journey to the South Pole features in 1912. Later the same year the Titanic strikes an iceberg on her maiden voyage. [Katharine Minchin whom I used to visit at Cruxfield in Berwickshire in the 1990s remembered seeing the Titanic on her maiden voyage off the coast of southern Ireland.]

The Titanic sinks, 1912

In July 1919 Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Brown made the first Atlantic crossing by aeroplane, from Newfoundland to Clifden, Ireland; in the same month the airship R.34 flew from East Fortune airfield, Edinburgh, to Long Island, and then back to Norfolk; and later the same year Captain Ross Smith and his brother, and two companions, won £10,000 by making the first flights from England to Australia. They left England on November 12th and arrived in Darwin on December 10th. The first London-Paris air service was inaugurated  in July 1919. The world’s largest airship, the R.38, broke up in flames over the Humber in August 1921, with the loss of 44 passengers. 

In February 1928 Mr Bert Hinkler made a record flight from England to Australia, arriving in Port Darwin after 15 days. [He disappeared 5 years later trying to improve on his record.] Also in 1928 the Italian General Nobile flew over the North Pole in an airship. It crashed the following day. London’s first airport, at Croydon, was opened in May 1928.

The tragic disaster of the airship R.101, which crashed and caught fire at Beauvais, France, in October 1930 with the loss of 48 crew and passengers, led to the abandonment of all airship construction by Great Britain.

, The British airship R101 after having crashed at Beauvais, France, 5th October 1930,
killing 47 people, showing only the twisted framework and a body being removed from the scene

In 1932 there is an aerial photo of the Sydney Harbour bridge, the new wonder of the world. “It is the largest single span bridge in the world … made entirely of British workmanship and materials”.

In April 1933 two British aeroplanes overfly and photograph Mount Everest. In October 1934 there is an England-Australia race with a prize of £10,000 and a gold cup. It is won by a British pair who complete the flight in 2 days and 22 hours.

The place of women

The first prominent woman is Edith Cavell, pictured with her two setters, shot in Brussels in October 1915. On the Home Front women assume new roles: land-girls working in the fields; a milk-woman with her cart; a woman bill-poster, exhorting men to ‘Do it now’; women driving ambulances, attending to factory furnaces, and heaving sacks of coal. Captioned: “Doing Men’s Jobs and Doing Them Very Well !” Viscountess Astor takes her seat in the Commons as the first woman MP in December 1919. In April 1926 a young American, Gertrude Eberle, is the first woman to swim the Channel. She breaks the existing record by about two hours. In May 1930 Amy Johnson flies solo to Australia in just under three weeks.

Gertrude Eberle, , 1926

Sport and leisure

There is steady advance in motoring and motor transport; in 1920 the first filling station opens at Aldermaston in Berkshire. In April 1923 Bolton Wanderers beat West Ham United 2-0 in the first Wembley FA Cup Final. Later the same year [Sir] Jack Hobbs makes his hundredth hundred in first class cricket. During the summer of 1926 England finally regain the Ashes from Australia. Jean Borotra, the bouncing Basque, wins Wimbledon wearing a beret. In the summer of 1930, a young Don Bradman, scores 334 at Lord’s; following his record score of 452 not out the previous year.

Jean Borotra

In 1934, unprecedentedly, Great Britain wins both the man’s and women’s single titles at Wimbledon; Dorothy Round is the women’s winner, Fred Perry the men’s champion.


Now that I’ve looked at the book again, I may save it for one of the grand-children rather than let it go to the charity shop. Three things strike me after looking through the book.

First, I am a bit shocked by the time perspective; to realise that as I was growing up I was quite close in time to some of these events. When I started at secondary school in 1956, that was only thirty years on from the General Strike, forty years on from the Battle of the Somme. But now the First World War is over a century ago. And the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street is already more than forty years ago. As remote now, as the Great War was when I was younger. And for our grandson, aged six, the First World War is now as remote as the Crimean War was when I was his age.

Secondly, I realise that this book covers the first twenty-plus years of my father’s life; he was born in London in 1909. But I have no idea how he experienced or responded to any of these events. I don’t know whether he attended the Wembley Exhibition of 1924. I don’t know whether he was a schoolboy supporter of a football team. Or whether he ever watched first-class cricket. I don’t know whether he had any vestigial recollection of the reporting of, say, the Russian Revolution. Or of the first Labour Government. I don’t know whether he had any interest in these air pioneers as they set records for flying across the Atlantic or to Australis. And it is certainly much too late to ask him. Do we talk to our children and grand-children enough ? And what about ?

Thirdly, I think about Uncle Bill, dead for the past sixty years. And I wonder how he survived life in the trenches. I’m going to start by looking for his army record on one of those ancestry websites. I think I at least owe him that.

March 2021

Through a glass darkly – 42

On the home front

Susie and I are grateful to have had our first COVID jab, with the Oxford AstroZeneca vaccine, at the beginning of February. I know it doesn’t work, apparently, in France and in Belgium, but there is no prospect of our being there in the immediate future. Friends in continental Europe are envious, and perhaps a bit amazed, at the speed of the vaccine roll-out here in the UK. And the success of the vaccination programme has given blustering Boris a bit of a bounce in the polls. Helped by the fact that Sir Keir Starmer, though a credible politician and a considerable improvement on Jeremy Corbyn, has all the charisma of yesterday’s porridge. 

I am pretty sceptical about the government’s willingness to claim credit for the vaccination programme. Which probably owes more to the dedication of NHS staff assisted by a large number of volunteers. And I think it needs to be underlined that Boris and his government are seriously failing in other areas. The consequences of BREXIT continue to cause alarm. As CAP [Christians against Poverty] underlined this week, the financial hit consequent on the COVID pandemic is not shared equally across the population.

The consequences of BREXIT: the fishing industry, and Northern Ireland

Fishing played a surprisingly prominent role in the BREXIT negotiations. One of the bizarre images of the campaign was Nigel Farage and Kate Hoey sailing up in the river Thames in a trawler. Boris echoed their slogan in promising to make our coastal water “a sea of opportunity”.  Three months on the reality is that most of Britain’s fishing fleet is tied up in port, unable to go to sea because their profitable markets in the EU are blocked off by Whitehall bureaucracy and red tape.  Post-BREXIT arrangements have meant a dramatic increase in the amount of paperwork before British shellfish can be exported into the EU. For Scottish fishermen Boris has delivered a deal that is even worse than the widely unpopular Common Fisheries Policy. 

Fishing boats tied up at the village of Tarbert in Argyll & Bute

The situation in Northern Ireland is worse.  The Northern Ireland border was the great BREXIT lie. Boris told the taoiseach that there would be no border in Ireland. He then told North Ireland’s unionists that there would be no border in the Irish Sea. At the same time he told everyone who was listening that he would leave Europe’s customs union. The policy was self-contradictory, a messy fudge, a Johnsonian untruth.

Now that the UK is refusing to regulate a customs border in Belfast, Brussels is understandably angry. Since Christmas there have been problems with food supplies getting into Northern Ireland and empty shelves in supermarkets. The sticking-plaster response of the UK government is to extend, without consultation, the length of the initial transition period. Which amounts, in current journalistic parlance, to kicking the can down the road. At some point Boris must decide whether to erect a customs barrier round the six counties of the north, which would be a clear breach of the Good Friday agreement. Or to erect a customer barrier round the Belfast docks. The first option would be a logistic and emotional nightmare, and would probably drive the north’s eventual reunion with the south. Barricading the Belfast docks would enrage the Conservative party’s Unionist allies. And violence would no doubt follow. A decision will have to be made. But, as we know, Boris is not very good at decisions. A northern Irish telecoms engineer has just been upgrading our broadband connection. His comments on the present mess were unprintable. Sadly, since he was from Donegal, they were also largely incomprehensible.

In recent days that undiplomatic ex-diplomat David [Lord] Frost  has complained of the EU’s continuing ill will towards Britain. The EU’s attitude might of course be an understandable  response to the relentless mixture of half-truth and belligerence with which Frost and his political boss conducted the BREXIT negotiations. There is no reason why the EU should make it easy for Britain to leave. Versions of the Northern Ireland problem have existed ever since partition in 1922. The issue was exacerbated by Boris’s instance on leaving the customs union. Frosts’s haphazard negotiations left a range of issues unsolved; Scottish fishing, the status of the financial institutions, policing and terrorist information exchange, cultural exchanges. Britain could leave the customs union. Northern Ireland realistically could not.

Levelling up

When he became PM, one of Boris’s frequently repeated promises was that of ‘levelling up’. He presents as an inclusive, one-nation Tory. But we all know that the UK is increasingly two nations; rich and poor, north and south, employed  and jobless, pro- and anti-BREXIT. To say nothing of pressures on the United Kingdom: the coming [May] independence referendum in Scotland;  growing discussion of the possibility of a united Ireland; and even some noises about Welsh independence. Sadly, if predictably, the levelling up seems to exist only in Boris’s campaigning speeches. Money is available for consultants to work on the failing Test and Trace system, and to renew the decoration of their Downing Street apartment in accordance with Carrie’ expensive tastes. And to ‘help out’ with urban regeneration in a few Tory constituencies. But there is no aid money for struggling Yemen. Not enough money to give NHS staff their previously agreed pay rises. And no mention in Rishi Sunak’s budget of Social Work, another area where Boris promised major new initiatives. Which are now forgotten.

Steve Bell cartoon

Who gets the money ?  The Community Renewal Fund

In theory the Community Renewal Fund [CRF] exists to accelerate the promised levelling up. But in Sunak’s recent budget it transpires that a significant proportion of the areas selected to receive this money are not notably deprived, but that the vast majority of them are represented by Conservative MPs. Similar concerns have been expressed about two other funds intended for similar purposes. There is a fund specifically for urban areas that need a helping hand, but 39 out of the 45 places that the fund supports have Tory MPs. 

The shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, said that the allocation of these funds “must be done transparently, fairly, and with a say for local communities … but Ministers’ murky decisions to prioritise wealthier areas are anything but fair or transparent.

Rishi Sunak has not yet been willing to outline the formula by which CRF funds are allocated. It is shocking that Richmond-shire in North Yorkshire, Sunak’s own constituency, a markedly wealthy area that attracts the well-heeled retired middle classes, has received money from both funds.

House for rent in Richmondshire

Last November Parliament’s spending watchdog raised serious concerns that the distribution of the £3.6 billion of town funds was politically motivated. The cross-party public accounts committee said it was “not convinced by the rationales for selecting some towns and not others” when the first money from the fund was distributed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) in 2019. A MHCLG spokeswoman said that allocation of funds took into account things other than deprivation measures. And that statement certainly seems to be true ! Like, ‘Are they our people ?

Who get money for what ?  Test and Trace

For the past year a motley collection of Tory ministers have stressed that the government’s priority it to tackle the COVID pandemic. We have often been behind the curve. But ministers insist they they will do ‘whatever it takes’. And Rishi Sunak has been spending [public] money on a hitherto unimaginable scale. This has been particularly true of our test and trace system. We all remember that last year Boris promised a world-beating Test and Trace system. Which would be run, as a token of his commitment, by his old chum and Tory peer [Baroness] Dido Harding. It emerges today that Test and Trace have currently spent the eye-watering sum of £22 billion. But, according to a report today by a cross-party group of MPs, there is no clear evidence that the scheme has contributed to any significant reduction in the corona-virus infection.

Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves said the report shows the significantly outsourced system has “failed the British people and led our country into restrictive lockdown after lockdown”. She said that: “It underlines the epic amounts of waste and incompetence, an over-reliance on management consultants, … while ministers insist our NHS heroes deserve nothing more than a clap and a pay cut.”  Lord Macpherson, a former Treasury chief, tweeted that the Government’s flagship £22 billion Test and Trace programme “wins the prize for the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time.”

Who doesn’t get the money ? Yemen

Last November the UK ditched its policy of spending 0.7% of national income on overseas aid, a key promise in the party’s 2019 general election manifesto; supposedly to help pay for the coronavirus crisis at home. At the time the Tory MP Andrew Mitchell called Rishi Sunak’s foreign aid cut a ‘shameful mistake‘ that will make Britain ‘less safe and less prosperous’.

Now tens of thousands of lives will be lost as a result of cuts to the UK’s aid budget, according to the chief executive of Oxfam. Oxfam is one of more than a hundred UK charities that have written to the Prime Minister condemning a government decision to cut aid to Yemen. The UK says it will now give £87m in aid to to Yemen having previously promised £160m in 2020 and £200m in 2019.

War-damaged Yemen

Meanwhile, a leaked document says civil servants have discussed reducing aid to Syria from £137m pledged last year to just over £45m this year. In South Sudan, spending could drop from £110m to £45m, while aid to Libya could be cut by 63% and Somalia by 60%.

Oxfam chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah, one of the signatories of the letter to the Prime Minister, commented: “The UK government has been proudly leading the effort to provide humanitarian assistance in places like Yemen. It’s a betrayal of not just the promises we made to the world’s poorest and most needy. It’s a brutal betrayal of British values. It’s an undermining of this government’s stated aim to be global Britain  … …  And arguably, worst of all, it’s a particularly callous decision because this government has actually increased the sales of British arms to Saudi Arabia which is a party to the conflict (in Yemen).”

Who get money for what ?  Refurbishing bits of Downing Street 

Those with long memories may remember the furore caused when Derry Irvine, the first of Tony Blair’s Lord Chancellors, spent £59, 000 on hand-made wallpaper for his grace-and-favour apartment. [The same man who in a recent speech described the COVID pandemic as “a unique financial opportunity”.] This sum seems relatively modest compared with the reported £250,000 that Carrie Symonds is reportedly spending on refurbishing the Downing Street flat. Reports stress that she has “exquisite taste”. Even the Daily Mail is excited about the costs. Who is going to pay ? There is some doubt as to whether the Johnson-Symonds family budget will stretch to meeting the full cost. Especially after they have paid the cost of making good the damage done by their dog at Chequers. So the latest wheeze is to set up a privately-funded, not for profit organisation on the lines of Jackie Kennedy’s White House Historical Association. 

Downing Street decorators

According to the Daily Mail, Boris was present when a plan was mooted to ask Tory donors – including environment minister Lord [Zac] Goldsmith, a close friend of Carrie Symonds, controversially ennobled by Boris in 2019, and billionaire JCB construction boss Lord Bamford, to contribute to the costs. The same source reports that there is some concern among some senior Tory figures over whether it was ‘appropriate’ for party funds to be used ‘in effect, to subsidise the Prime Minister and his partner’s lifestyle’.  Sir Alistair Graham, the former head of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, described the plans as “monstrous”.

It appears that the couple have also enjoyed an estimated £12,500 of food deliveries in Downing Street, delivered to the back door, from a luxury organic farm-shop owned by Lord Bamford’s wife. 

There is of course ample opportunity in these arrangements for blatant conflict of interest. Two chandeliers for a knighthood ? A month’s supply of smoked salmon for a peerage ? Meanwhile a reported £2.6 million has been spent turning the basement of 9 Downing Street into a suitable setting for White House style press conferences. Another of Boris’s ‘vanity projects’. It hasn’t been used yet. Maybe Boris is starting to realise that public appearances where he constantly refuses to answer questions are not an electoral asset ?

The unknown-to me Lib Dem MP Daisy Cooper said: “This is nothing more than an expensive vanity project and is just more evidence that this government’s priority is spin, not substance … … the prime minister himself said that he ‘owed his life’ to Covid doctors and nurses but now he’s happy to see frontline nurses take a real-terms pay cut, whilst he gets a flashy new TV studio”


I could go on. But it’s too depressing. If John Moore reads this, he will no doubt say that it is our Christian duty to pray for leaders, even including blustering Boris and his colleagues. And I’m sure that he is right.  I think I’ll go and cheer myself up by reading Jörgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. Of which more in due course. Disgracefully I have lost my current bible-reading notes, so I am reading Moltmann as a Lenten penance. It is good stuff  But it is hard work. He reminds me why I have never aspired to be a theologian. 

March  2021

Through a glass darkly – 41

Rayner Unwin’s report [as a school-boy] on The Hobbit

George Allen & Unwin

After not quite five years at Pergamon Press [see TaGD – 37], in January 1972 I was invited to join George Allen and Unwin as one of their Sponsoring Editors. There was no merit in my appointment. I was approached by Allen and Unwin with a view to taking over from Victor, one of my predecessors at Pergamon, who was leaving them to work for Charles Levinson, Secretary General of the IMF in Geneva. So it was an inside job. I drove over to Hemel Hempstead for a formal meeting with Rayner Unwin and Charles Knight. Rayner Unwin was the son of [Sir] Stanley Unwin, the energetic founder of the family firm. He was the Chairman of A&U, the senior figure at the London office in Museum Street. Charles Knight had apparently been Stanley’s one-time office boy. He was Managing Director in charge of the Hemel Hempstead office, which included production, sales and marketing, accounts, and warehousing. The A&U warehouse was a talking point in the book trade; all orders were dispatched on the day they arrived. This was the wondrous achievement of a former management consultant who had now moved on to CUP.

I think I may have thought that I had ‘arrived’ in publishing.  A&U certainly promised to be in a different class from Pergamon. The eponymous George Allen was a Victorian craftsman and engraver, who became a friend of and assistant to John Ruskin; and when he took to publishing Ruskin’s works were a major part of his business. Stanley Unwin [1884-1968], was an energetic, entrepreneurial publisher, who began work with his publishing uncle T.Fisher Unwin, but then bought George Allen & Co. in 1914. George Allen and Unwin had been one of the most successful London publishers during the middle years of the century; the firm’s authors included Bertrand Russell, R.H. Tawney, and Sidney Webb. They also published books of eastern philosophy including works by Mahatma Gandhi. The early years of the publishing house were solid rather than spectacular.  Then, according to office legend, when the unknown J.R.R. Tolkien [1892-1973] submitted the manuscript of The Hobbit in 1936, Unwin paid his son Rayner one shilling to read and comment on it. Rayner’s enthusiastic response encouraged Stanley to publish the book. In due course Lord of the Rings followed, and was published in three volumes in 1954-55. Lord of the Rings became immensely popular in the 1960s on both sides of the Atlantic, and its sales accounted for a significant chunk of the staff’s profit-sharing bonus. 


Personally I find Tolkien unreadable. I gave away my signed copy of the Lord of the Rings. [I think my daughter has it in High Wycombe.] There is a lovely story told by Humphrey Carpenter in his book The Inklings. A group of academic friends that included Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams used to meet on Saturday mornings in the back bar of The Eagle and Child, known to Oxford alumni as The Bird and Baby. And read their work in progress. It was all tweed jackets and draught beer and pipe smoke. Tolkien produced a bulky manuscript from his bag, an early draft of The Silmarillion, and started to read from it. When he paused for breath a voice, probably Charles Williams, was heard to say: “Oh no, not more ‘effin elves !”.  

The other big post-war best-seller had been Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition. Kon-Tiki was an enormous success, selling almost half a million copies in hard covers. Both Tolkien, now retired, and living in Bournemouth, and nearing the end of his life, and Heyerdahl were regular visitors to the Museum Street offices.

Thor Heyerdahl: The Kon-Tiki Expedition

It all started well enough. My office was a glass-walled cubicle in the A&U offices, just across the road from The Museum Tavern and just down the road from the British Museum. I inherited responsibility for a list that embraced management, trade union studies, social studies, media studies, and a few assorted bits and pieces. Compared with Pergamon I at least understood the contents of some of the books that I was working on. And in marked contrast to Pergamon, Allen and Unwin was very much on the visiting list for American publishers passing through town. Not that any of them seemed very interested in my bit of the list. It was standard policy for Sponsors to be given a company car, usually a Ford Cortina. [It was said that Charles Knight’s brother had the Ford dealership in Hemel Hempstead. Which may or may not be true.] I asked for, and  was given, a Fiat 124 in Monza red. The colour was the best thing about it. The clutch fell apart within a year. And since I was living in London SW19, it was generally faster and cheaper to take the underground via Earl’s Court  to Tottenham Court Road rather than fight my way through Clapham and Vauxhall in the rush hour.

It seems to be standard for publishers to tell stories about their predecessors. I certainly read Stanley Unwin’s classic The [Half] Truth abut Publishing. With mounting horror. He was clearly a man of great energy with a beady eye for figures and a concern for the bottom line. It was said that Lord of the Rings had been published at his insistence on a profit-sharing contact; meaning that the author was paid nothing until the initial production costs had been covered. And thereafter he shared the profits equally with the publisher. Which would have made Tolkien a rich man, and would have lost Allen and Unwin a lot of money. In latter years Sir Stanley travelled round the world more than once, taking great trouble to visit remote bookshops who might owe the firm some money. It is difficult to know where frugality becomes meanness. In his book The Publishing Unwins, Philip Unwin recalls that Stanley always insisted on buying [cheaper] season tickets on the trams at the Frankfurt Book Fair. And on saving any that were left over for the following year. Is it Philip Unwin or someone else who tells the story of Sir Stanley berating his office boy for buying him an iced bun “full of expensive air” instead of something more plain and wholesome ?

Along with Victor’s list I also inherited his advisor. Malcolm was  an OB [Organisational Behaviour] specialist who taught at the London Business School, but his eye ranged far and wide over the academic world. He wrote to me at least once a week with a list of of mainly junior academics whom I should contact, expressing interest in their research and making encouraging noises about the possibility of publishing their work. Some were no doubt flattered. And some even replied. We would meet for lunch every two or three weeks, next to the phone boxes on Gerrard Street being a regular meeting point. And I also drove with Malcolm and his French wife to Geneva for a meeting with Victor and with Charles Levinson, now an A&U author. On the way out to Geneva we stayed at the Hotel du Cheval Blanc in Langres, the birthplace of Diderot, the encylopaedist and philosopher. Of the meetings in Geneva I remember nothing. On the Sunday I had my first glimpse of the lovely lakeside town of Annecy. We came back via Paris, staying in a small hotel on the Left Bank, and trying to pin down a couple of potential authors at UNESCO.

For the next eighteen months I chased up a lot of manuscripts and had lunch with a lot of authors. In London I ate most frequently at the Spaghetti House in Sicilian Avenue, who did an excellent antipasto misto and equally good profiteroles. I once went there with a visiting author from Sheffield who mistakenly ordered lasagne after the generous plate of antipasto, but couldn’t finish it. More exotically I had lunch a couple of times at Blooms, almost certainly salt-beef, with Bill Fishman of whom more anon.

Bill Fishman

Most authors were pleased to come to London. But I also went to visit people, usually academics, involving trips to Oxford, to the University of Kent at Canterbury, to the University of Essex, and to Cardiff and to Edinburgh. In January 1973 I went somewhat improbably to the Theatre Royal at Stratford-on-Avon to see the pantomime along with the School of Management from the Cranfield Institute of Technology.  Was the Professor of Marketing wearing an IS [International Socialists] badge ? And, if so, why did I not ask him about it ?

It all ended in tears. As things in publishing often do. Where did it go wrong ? Partly I suppose I never really put my own stamp on my list. The management stuff frankly bored me. A journalist came to see me from The Times, and I airily told him, “Of course no-one actually reads this kind of stuff. But ambitious managers like to have these books on their shelves.” It may well have been true. But it didn’t look good when I was quoted verbatim in his subsequent piece the newspaper. 

I remember going to Cardiff to talk to the author of a very dull book on The National Giro. [What other kind of book could there have been ?] But I was more interested in meeting up with an old man, who had had his balls shot off in the Spanish Civil War, and who was now writing his story in an exercise book in pencil. When I arrived he made me tea in a jam-jar,  keeping it warm next to the coal fire. Sadly his memories were unpublishable. I might have been able to turn it into a book, but it required more work and time than I could give it. All I could do was buy him a pie and a couple of pints in the pub, after which he went to visit his aged wife in the psychiatric hospital.

In a similar vein I went north to Edinburgh, travelling on the sleeper and staying a night or two at the NB, the Scottish Baronial hotel over the station. I think two people at the university were offering us something on AI [Artificial Intelligence]. And a lecturer at Heriot-Watt was writing something for our management list. I didn’t know Edinburgh at all, and he kindly gave me a guided tour which included driving me round Arthur’s Seat, which I can now see from my window. But I was much more interested in meeting up with Mrs Nan Milton, who was offering me a life of her father, John Maclean, schoolteacher, revolutionary socialist, and legendary Red Clydesider; who was named by Lenin as the People’s Commissar for Glasgow. We had tea at the NB, but it was a very thin manuscript and no book ever materialised. 

So, I didn’t really fit at Allen and Unwin. And the firm was in a state of flux too. The small group of men who had built A&U in the middle years of the century were growing old and retiring together. The market for their kind of general books was changing, if not declining. There was a growth in academic and educational publishing. But A&U’s marketing and sales departments were not really geared for that form of publishing; they were still thinking in terms of trade reps visiting shops to gather pre-publication orders. Rayner Unwin was urbane and friendly, but a somewhat remote figure. And there was a growing dis-connect between the activities of the sponsoring editors in Museum Street and what was happening up at Hemel Hempstead. In an attempt to regain control of things, a new layer of senior editors were brought into the firm. I found myself now reporting to Morgan,  a grey-faced, academic economist with a mournful Welsh accent. I resigned and was happy to walk away with six months, tax-free salary. Within a decade Allen and Unwin was taken over by Bell & Hyman. Who in turn  sold them to Harper Collins, who in turn sold the academic list to Routledge. Allen & Unwin lives on only as a [successful] publishing house in Australia.

East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914

I have few memories and no contacts from those years. For a bit I was in touch with Bill Fishman, whom I got to know through the Acton Society. Bill was a historian, the son of East End Jewish immigrants, one-tine schoolmaster fellow at Balliol, where he was a great admirer of Richard Cobb, the anarchic historian of the French Revolution. Bill was a revolutionary socialist, an expert on the history of immigrant communities of London’s East End, who led guided tours of the local streets featuring the stamping grounds of Jack the Ripper.  [And not just stamping.] Bill was writing for us, albeit rather slowly, a book called East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914. When I left A&U he took the book elsewhere and it was published eventually by Duckworths. I still have a copy on the shelves here. If lockdown persists, I’ll get it down and have a look at it.

February 2021

Though a glass darkly – 40

The Mediterranean

For me the words ‘The Mediterranean’ are wonderfully evocative. Heat, sand, sunshine, the smell of sun protection cream and of Gitanes; the clink of ice-cubes in pastis or in citron pressé. I’m not sure how much the images owe to Scott Fitzgerald or to Françoise Sagan. And how much to my own memories. I first saw the Mediterranean in 1961, at La Ciotat, east of Marseille, having hitched across France with my older brother. We stayed in the youth hostel, smeared ourselves with thick, brown Ambre Solaire, lay on the beach all day, and shed several layers of skin by night. Over the years I’ve stayed at various times at Vsar, on the Istrian peninsula, where Susie and I spent a delayed honeymoon staying with Bostjan;  at Taormina, staying with Saro’s parents; at Cassis, at Peniscola, at Cavalaire [where we swam reluctantly alongside a dead rat], at San Pedro Pescador on the Costa Brava, at Beziers-Plage, and in Nice. The last time we stayed on the Mediterranean we were doing a [not wholly satisfactory] locum chaplaincy in Ibiza a few years ago.


David Abulafia: The Mediterranean in History

With snow and ice outside I’ve been reading this book which I was given by Mike and Wendy for my birthday last year. It is a sumptuous illustrated Thames and Hudson book; more suitable for skimming the pages than for reading. It tells me that the term ‘Mare Mediterraneum’ only came into existence in the sixth century. The Mediterranean climate is essentially hot and dry summers; warm and wet winters. It includes both the driest place in Europe, Almeria in south-east Spain; and the wettest, Crkvice in Montenegro. Throughout its history there has been a population shift from mountains to the coastal settlements. Watercourses run typically only during the rainy season. There are small and beautiful deserts, in Spain and on Crete.

Of the staple crops, olives and some vegetables are native. Wheat and barley were introduced at an early age from the Middle East. Vines were imported from central Europe. Centuriation was the Roman practice of dividing land into exact squares. Cultivation terraces are the most characteristic feature of Mediterranean landscapes. Mediterranean peoples generally settled near water sources. In the absence of springs or wells, water was stored in stone cisterns. The Mediterranean with jagged promontories and few natural harbours was dangerous for ancient shipping; as Xerxes and St Paul both discovered. Piracy was a hazard, on land as well as at sea.

The first trading empires and the battle for the sea routes

How languages developed and how different ethnic groups emerged in Italy, Spain, and Greece remains a mystery. Concentrated settlements, the earliest cities, are found in the Levant and in Anatolia, from about 10,000 to 7,000 BC. There were four ‘Bronze Age Empires, c.4,000-2,000 BC’: Hittite Anatolia, Pharaonic Egypt, the Minoan Aegean, and Mesopotamian civilisations. Of these Hittite is the least known. The Mycenean and Phoenician trading networks were the first to master  the Mediterranean.

At the end of the Bronze Age several powerful states in Greece and Anatolia, the Hittite Empire and the Mycenean kingdom, all collapsed. Greeks began settlements on the shores of Asia Minor. The emergent powers were the Tyrrhenians of the Aegean and the Phoenicians. The Phoenician trading model and their maritime trade routes were rapidly imitated by the Greeks. By the eighth century BC Corinth had come to occupy a dominant role. These commercial links did much to diffuse Greek culture as well as goods. There were trade wars between Greek cities snd Carthage and Syracuse. But a giant was emerging from the Italian peninsula.

The creation of Mare Nostrum: 300 BC – 500 AD

Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BC. After his death Macedonia and Egypt struggled for control of the eastern Mediterranean. But  the clash in Sicily with the Phoenician colony of Carthage led Rome into becoming a major sea power. “In response to their rivalry Carthage created an army, which invaded Italy and came close to conquering Rome, and Rome in turn created a  navy.” [Geoffrey Rickman] By 146 BC Rome had become dominant; and Roman forces destroyed the city of Carthage in the west and Corinth in the east. When Octavian defeated Mark Antony at the great sea battle of Actium [off the west coast of Greece] in 31 BC, Rome annexed Egypt; and the circle of Roman control of the Mediterranean was now complete.

Under the rule of Imperial Rome the whole Mediterranean was united for the first [and last] time. Between 200 BC and 200 AD the volume of sea traffic had an intensity that would not be matched again for a thousand years.  For the Romans the sea was ‘Mare Magnum’, or Mare Internum, or simply ‘Mare Nostrum’ [the ‘great sea’, the ‘internal sea,’ or ‘our sea’]. 

Mare Nostrum

Roman sea trade was exemplified by cabotage, tramping from port to port. Which necessitates harbour or refuges every 50-70 kms. Rome in the time of Emperor Augustus had an estimated population of 1 million, demanding the import of massive amounts of grain, oil, and wine from all around the southern Mediterranean. Navigation was customary from May to September; the winter was a closed season for sailing. Rome had long made use of the natural harbour at Puteoli in Campania. But the Emperors Claudius and Trajan subsequently built a huge, artificial harbour near the mouth of the Tiber. And the Romans built a number of smaller harbours, close to settlements, around the Mediterranean; in southern Gaul, in Spain, and in the eastern Mediterranean.

As the Roman Empire came under attack from the barbarian invasions from the north, large-scale trade on the Mediterranean collapsed. The population of Rome fell rapidly, to around 300,000 by AD 450. The imperial court retreated from Rome to Milan, and then to Ravenna, sheltered behind protective marshes. Such trade as continued was small scale cabotage. By AD 500 the situation in the Mediterranean was very different: “not because the sea was divided off at any point but because the changed world was no longer a cohesive unit”.  [Geoffrey Rickman] The Roman Empire, described as ‘built on water’ was gone. The Mediterranean sea was no longer a Roman lake.

Trogir, Dalmatia

The Mediterranean breaks up: 500-1000 AD

After the Roman Empire in the west came to an end in 476, new invaders, the Lombards, came to dominate the Italian peninsula. From the early seventh century Muslim forces swept across the eastern Mediterranean, and on across north Africa and Spain before being defeated by Charles Martel at Tours in 732. In the ninth century the Mediterranean began to suffer incursions by the Vikings. The Byzantine Empire was increasingly threatened, first by the Bulgars, a Turkish people; and then from the north by Scandinavians who had settled along the Dnieper river, known as the Rhos, who attacked Constantinople in 860 and again in 1043. As the Byzantine Empire loses ground, the emergent powers are the Christian cities of Venice and Pisa and Genoa.

Rumeli-Hisari, The Bosphorus

A Christian Mediterranean 1000-1500 AD

During these five centuries of the Middle Ages the expansion of the Western powers was balanced by the decline of Muslim power in the Arab countries; but also by the rise of Turkish power in the Ottoman Empire. It was the initiative of the Italian merchant republics that brought a new stimulus to Mediterranean trade. Traffic was mainly consumer goods and raw materials; but also slave trade, and luxury items – silk, spices, perfumes, precious stones and pearls.

The Albigensian Crusade brought the northern French into Languedoc. For the first time French royal authority reached the Mediterranean; and Louis IX built the new town of Aigues-Mortes. Developments in Italy took on a new character with the creation of the Norman kingdom of Sicily. The growing strength of the Western powers contrasts with the increasing debility of the eastern Mediterranean states. The Crusades mark the start of European colonisation in the eastern Mediterranean. With ports at Acre, Tyre, Beirut, Tripoli, and Antioch. Pilgrims and crusaders chose to take up residence in the newly created kingdom of Jerusalem.


The Black Death swept through the Mediterranean in 1347 and 1348, killing a third or more of the population. Christopher Columbus’s setting foot in the New World in 1492, and the circum-navigation of Africa, thus reaching India, by Vasco da Gama six years later, gave rise to wider trading horizons; and threatened to undermine the Mediterranean spice trade.

The Mediterranean as a battleground for the European powers: 1700-1900 AD

In the eighteenth century Islamic power in the Mediterranean declined. In 1768 France purchased the island of Corsica from Genoa [Napoleon Buonaparte was born the following year.] In 1797, Venice, a long-standing centre of trade and power, lost its independence. And in 1797 Napoleon, after conquering northern Italy, decided to attack Egypt.

In August 1798 a British fleet under Nelson defeated the French fleet at Aboukir Bay, off the coast of Egypt. The battle decisively affected Mediterranean history for the next century. From 1798 to the post-1945 decline of British naval power the British navy dominated the Mediterranean. Which was now the front line in a clash between two imperial powers’ struggle devised by strategists in distant, northern capitals. The Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 gave Britain Malta and the Ionian Islands to add to Gibraltar. In the 1830s France occupied Algeria. [By 1846 there were 108,000 French troops in Algeria.] In 1859 the Suez Canal was a joint Franco-Ottoman enterprise, but in 1875 the British government bought the shares of the Ottoman Khedive. In 1882 Britain invaded Egypt and established a protectorate there [though this was not confirmed until 1914].

The world of Islam was in retreat. The British Navy dominated  the Mediterranean.

A globalised Mediterranean: 1900-2000 AD

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the total expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor by the new secular Republic of Turkey; and the forced repatriation of Turks from Greece and the Greek islands. The First World War also ended Ottoman influence in Palestine and Syria. These countries were entrusted to Britain and to France by the League of Nations. The French believed in exporting French civilisation across the Mediterranean. So Algiers became a French city on the edge of Africa. But the Algerian Civil War, 1954-62, ended with Algerian independence; and with a mass migration of French Algerians to France, especially to Montpellier, and Marseille and Toulon.

The major consequence of the Second World War was the creation in Palestine of a Jewish state, Israel. It was originally sanctioned on the basis of a two nation state, Jewish and Arab. But after 1948 fighting the Palestinian Arabs fled into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Soviet support for the Arab world was demonstrated by their funding for the Aswan Dam. Nasser championed the cause of Arab unity. But the Six Day War in 1967 was a massive humiliation for the Arab world.

The conflict between Israel and the Arabs is not the only source of tension in the Mediterranean at the end of the twentieth century. There is an unresolved tension in Cyprus between Greece and Turkey. And the tiny territory of Gibraltar continues to sour Anglo-Spanish relations.

Cultural tranformation

Until the end of the nineteenth century the Mediterranean was a place for travellers, not tourists.

With the development of the Cote d’Azur at the end of the century the coast around Nice and Menton became a playground for the rich. Things changed after the Second World War as travel became easier. The real transformation came with the advent of the aeroplane and charter flights. Britain led the way because there was no direct rail link to the Mediterranean. Thomson Holidays began charter flights and package holidays to Majorca in the 1950s. Palma is now one of the busiest airports in Europe. And tourism now accounts for 84% of Majorca’s economy.

Holiday-makers were not generally in search of culture. A deep Mediterranean tan became a badge of prosperity and health. The supposed immorality of the bikini led Franco’s Spain to ban them from beaches. There was a culture clash about [lack of] clothing between liberal France and the more conservative countries such as Catholic Malta or Muslim Tunisia.

Two inventions, as far apart in technology as can be imagined, have transformed the relationship between the Mediterranean and northern Europe in the second  half of the twentieth century: the aeroplane and the bikini”.  [David Abulafia]


Hotel Les Roche-Blanches, Cassis

One of the idle pleasures during this time of lock-down has been planning trips that we are not currently able to make.  So I planned for myself a hybrid day on the shores of the Mediterranean, limiting myself to places where we have been. Breakfast will be on the terrace of the San Domenico Palace Hotel in Taormina. With splendid views out across the Ionian sea, and the rooms [converted monks’ cells] evoking memories of Edward VII and of Audrey Hepburn. After breakfast some gentle exercise: walking from Soller up through the olive and orange groves to Fornalutx, often described as the prettiest village in Mallorca. Coffee in the square and time to buy an artisan T-shirt. Lunch caused me much debate and head-scratching. But I have settled for Trogir, which we visited all too briefly driving up the Yugoslav coast many years ago. Jack Cuddon, who once taught my brother English, describes it as a “small medieval town of tanned and weathered stone, congested with palaces, monasteries, and churches”. The afternoon would be mainly for swimming and sun-bathing. Probably at Vsar, further up the same coast on the Istrian peninsula, trying to avoid the sea urchins.   And then dinner and overnight at Les Roches Blanches in Cassis. It is ridiculously more expensive than when I once stayed there. But the setting and panorama across to the port are splendid. So – dream on. In the real world we are planning to book a Car Club car later this week and drive out to a cafe in East Lothian. Which will be good. But not quite the same.

February 2021

Through a glass darkly – 39

Out of my comfort zone

In 1982 I travelled outside Europe for the first time; two weeks on a market research trip to Jakarta, followed by a few days in Singapore. Before I left I called at Blackwells in Oxford and bought a street map, a Falk Stadtplan, of Jakarta. The map showed a lot of canals; and, knowing it was a former Dutch colony, I thought it might be a bit like Amsterdam. Jakarta was a revelation: I was staying in a very comfortable, high-rises hotel, the Sari Pacific. Any clothes left on the floor were immediately carried away and returned washed and ironed. In the bar attractive hostesses rushed up to take my order and offer me cigarettes and bowls of peanuts. But outside the hotel, beyond the hooting traffic of Jakarta’s one dual carriageway, the people lived in great poverty. And the canals that looked so attractive on my map were more-or-less open sewers, from which people drew their drinking water and in which they washed their clothes and bathed their small children. As a newcomer to the Third Word I was quite shocked. And uncomfortable.

Jakarta ‘canal’

Some of that memory came flooding back recently as I read Mike Davis’s book Planet of Slums. The book came out in 2006, and I knew of it from reading for an MTh in Mission in an Urban World at ICC, Glasgow,in 2006-08, but I’d never read it before. Some of the statistical information is now two decades old. But the book, like my visit to Jakarta, made me feel uncomfortable. Or, to put it differently, it made me feel too comfortable here on the south side of Edinburgh,

Davis: Planet of Slums

Much at the time the book was publishedthe urban population of the world was bigger than the rural population for the first time. The speed and scale of Third Word urbanisation dwarfs that of Victorian Europe. In the twenty-first century we have new megacities with populations of 8 million plus, and also what are called  hypercities with more than 20 million inhabitants. In addition there are new urban networks and corridors; e.g. the Gulf of Guinea, and the Pearl River [Hong Kong] and the Yangtze River [Shanghai] deltas. At the same time we have increasing inequality between cities of different sizes and specialisations.

There is no correlation between the economy [wealth] of the city and its population. “Over-urbanization is driven by the reproduction of poverty, not the supply of jobs.” Africa’s slums are growing at twice the speed of their cities. Between 1989 and 1999 an incredible 85% of Kenya’s population growth was absorbed in the densely packed slums of Nairobi and Mombasa. “Instead of light soaring towards heaven, much of the twenty-first century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.

The Prevalence of Slums

Slums are characterised by an amalgam of dilapidated housing, overcrowding, disease, poverty, and vice. Residents of slums form 6% of the urban population in developed countries; but 78% in the least developed countries. Davis estimates that here are more than 200,000 slums on earth, ranging in population from a few hundred to more than a million. Some slums have long histories, e.g. in Rio de Janeiro; but most mega-slums have grown up since the 1960s.

More commonly population growth has been in slum communities on the periphery of Third World cities. Essentially squatters occupy no-rent land of little value. But even peripheral land has a market value; and entrepreneurs acquire property rights on undeveloped land and sub-divide them. “Pirate urbanisation is, in effect, the privatisation of squatting.” Much of the scholarly literature concentrates on squatters and ignores renters. But large peripheral slums, especially in Africa, are made up of an elaborate network of kin networks, tenure systems, and tenant relationships. The common reality in Nairobi’s slums is tenancy and exploitation. As the slum periphery grows, urban waste and unwanted immigrants end up together, creating such infamous places as Smoky Mountain, Manila.

The Treason of the State

Why did slums grow so fast in the second half of the 20th century ? Partly because European colonial powers had denied native populations the rights of land ownership and permanent residence. Until 1954 Africans were not allowed to live permanently in Nairobi. The colonial norm was ‘white cities, black home-lands’. In Africa, India, Burma and Ceylon the British refused to provide sanitation or basic infrastructure to native neighbourhoods.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The main barriers to urban growth were removed by colonial counterinsurgency and by national independence. Partition in 1947 and its consequences drove millions into slums in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Karachi, and Dhaka. Colonial warfare in Algeria 1954-61 displaced half the rural population. In sub-Saharan Africa people from the countryside began pouring into the cities soon after independence. The slum was not the inevitable urban future. In the 1950s and 1960s Third World leaders like Nasser and Nehru and Sukarno all promised low-cost housing programmes. But, apart from Singapore and Hong Kong, most governments soon abdicated from any responsibility for combatting slums and redressing urban marginality. 

Middle-class ‘poaching’ of state-subsidised housing became an almost universal problem; in Algeria and Tunisia, in India, and Nigeria, and Mexico. And urban elites and the middle-classes in the Third World have been extraordinarily successful in evading municipal taxation.  Both poaching and fiscal bias underline the lack of political clout of the poor. With a handful of exceptions, “the post-colonial state has comprehensively betrayed its original promises to the urban poor.”

Illusions of Self-help

In the 1970s the World Bank under Robert McNamara increased its global efforts to improve [not to replace] the slums. Massive programmes were launched, e.g. in the Philippines and in India. The international aid institutions largely by-passed the national governments in order to work with NGOs [of whom there are now tens of thousands in Third World cities].  But observers are sceptical as to the effects of the World Bank/NGO approach, which produces some local success stories but leaves the vast majority of the poor behind. The poor are unable to access their notional wealth [land] because they do not possess land rights or property titles. But where land-titling is achieved, many tenants are unable to pay the additional taxes that follow. 

Pirate urbanisation led to slumlordism and to absentee landlords. Land ownership is concentrated in the hands of a small number of families. “Nairobi’s slums are vast rent plantations owned by politicians and by the upper middle class.” Illegal speculation in urban peripheral land has become a major source of corruption in China. The golden age of squatting was over. by 1990. In its place the urban fringes are being systematically developed by corporate firms, legally or illegally.

Kibera, Nairobi

Harassment of the urban poor

Many Third World governments are locked in conflict with the urban poor. There are frequent forced evictions to make way for highways and luxury compounds. In the Philippines under Imelda Marcos thousands of people were forcibly cleared from the parade routes of vanity projects and celebrity visitors. The modern Olympics have a dark history. For the 1936 Olympics the Nazis ruthlessly purged slum-dwellers from much of Berlin. For the 1988 Seoul Games tens of thousands of slum-dwellers and squatters were forcibly relocated in Seoul and Injon. 

During the 1970s it became commonplace for government everywhere to justify slum clearance as a means of fighting crime. In Egypt Sadat wanted the centre of Cairo to be replanned to allow more effective control and policing. In China large-scale slum clearance was co-ordinated with the repression of street vendors and informal workers. From the 1990s there has been an explosive growth in gated, closed suburbs in Third World cities. This ‘architecture of fear’ is commonplace in the Third World. But also apparent in South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, and the United States.

Slum Ecology

An informal settlement outside Buenos Aires is built “over a former lake, a toxic dump, a cemetery, and in a flood zone”. Squatters have settled on swamps, floodplains, volcano slopes, hillsides, and rubbish mountains. In Caracas slum housing is built on unstable hillsides and in deep gorges in a seismically active area. Mania slums are subject to frequent flooding. In the Third World slums that lack drinking water or latrines are unlikely to be covered by disaster insurance.

Nigerian slum

Human excrement is a universal problem. This was the major source of cholera and typhoid  outbreaks in Victorian England. “Constant intimacy with other people’s waste is one of the most profound of social divides.” Post-colonial regimes inherited enormous sanitation deficits which very few have been prepared to confront or remedy. In Kibera and other slums the residents rely on ‘flying toilets’, plastic bags thrown onto the nearest roof or pathway. Jakarta, despite its glitzy skyscrapers, depends on open ditches to dispose of its wastewater. Exercising bodily functions in public is a humiliation for anyone, but in particular it is a feminist issue. Pay toilets are a growth industry throughout the Third World but the [relatively low] user costs are prohibitive. 

Every day around the world, writes Eileen Stillwagon, “illnessses related to water supply, waste disposal, and garbage kill 30,000 people and constitute 75% of the illnesses that afflict humanity.” The ubiquitous contamination of drinking water by sewage and waste defeats the  desperate efforts of slum-dwellers to practise basic hygiene. Water sales have become a growth industry in poor cities. The people of KIbera pay five times more for their water than American citizens. 

SAPing the Third World

SAPs [Structural Adjustment Programmes] were the ‘big solution’ of IMF and the World Bank. As the IMF turned its attention to the problems of Third World countries, it imposed conditions [i.e. structural adjustments] `in return for its lending. These SAPs amounted to a poisoned chalice of devaluation, privatisation, the removal of import controls and food subsidies, enforced cost-recovery in health and education, and a ruthless downsizing of the public sector. 

In Africa the cost of structural adjustments was the collapse of manufacturing, drastic cuts in urban public services, soaring prices, and a steep decline in real wages. Globally indices of inequality reached record heights in the 1980s. In Africa and Asia urban families tried to send dependent members back to the countryside where subsistence was cheaper; thus creating divided families and increased marital breakdown.. And ruthless competition has become the norm in the informal economy for market women and street vendors. Rather than see their families destroyed, slum-dwellers in the late 1970s and 1980s  resurrected the classic protest of food riots.

A Surplus Humanity

Davis concludes:“instead of being a focus for growth and prosperity, the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trade.” Informal work accounts for the majority of jobs in Third World cities. In most of sub-Saharan Africa formal job creation has virtually ceased to exist. Child labour and other forms of exploitation have become the norm in Third World cities. In Dhaka nearly half the boys and girls aged 10 to 14 were in informal work. One of the biggest employers of child labour is the Indian city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, where the carpet factories employ 200,000 children under the age of 14. Another major employer is the city of Firozbad, also in Uttar Pradesh, where tens of thousands of children work in glass factories in dreadful conditions.

The most ghoulish part of the informal economy is the surging world demand for human organs, After breakthroughs in transplant surgery in the 1980s, the impoverished periphery of Chennai [Madras] has become world renowned for its ‘kidney farms’. Slum-dweller families sold their kidneys for local transplants or for export to Malaysia. In ore recent years the Cairo slums have been mined for human body parts. Most of the clients are wealthy Gulf Arabs.

Kinshasa has become a vast broken city; wrecked like the rest of Congo-Zaire by kleptocracy, Cold War geopolitics, structural adjustments, and chronic civil war. The Mobutu dictatorship was a monster created and sustained by Washington, the IMF, and the World Bank.. “The child witches of Kinshasa, like the organ-exporting slums of India and Egypt, seem to take us to an existential ground zero beyond which there are only death camps, famine, and Kurtzian horror.”


So, the book makes for uncomfortable reading. It is a wide-ranging, pessimistic survey of the world’s slums, set within a Marxist framework. I suppose that a criticism of the book is that, for all the plethora of statistics and academic studies, there is little empirical data here. The slum-dwellers themselves are largely silent. And the book does not explore where hope might lie. 

To put it differently, what is missing is a Christian perspective. But there are some signs that many slum communities are aware of the possibility of a better life, and are working and praying to that end. It may be indicative that in Kibera there are more churches than there are toilets. 

Patmos Fellowship, Kibera, 2007

In his book Seeking a City with Foundations [pub. IVP, 2011], David Smith surveys a broad swathe of literature that treats the birth and growth of the city. He traces the evolution of the city, and of the idea of the city,  from the primitive urban culture of pre-patriarchal Mesopotamia, by way of the Industrial Revolution in 19th century Glasgow, and by way of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities and Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse, to today’s impoverished slums of the global south. The underlying question is the search for meaning.

In the second part of the book, David Smith notes the extraordinary growth of [mainly Pentecostal] churches across the global south; and he calls for a prophetic theology which will demand both deep repentance from the wealthy and privileged world [i.e. us], and justice and dignity for the people trapped in Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums.

Since big things have small beginnings, I know it’s time to send another cheque to TEAR Fund.

TEAR Fund publicity

February 2021

Through a glass darkly – 38

Sometimes I think that if I weren’t a Church of England vicar [retired], I’d be an anarchist. Not of the balaclava-wearing, window-smashing kind. And certainly not of the gun-toting, Trump-supporting, libertarian kind. But I can certainly believe in a society where power is devolved to the local level; where, in the absence of multinational companies, a man’s products are directly exchanged for what he needs; and where relationships are organised, not in terms of social media, but  in small units such as the workshop and the family. Plus blustering Boris and his cronies would be out of a job.

POUM militia

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was the first I’d ever heard of the Spanish Civil War, and I’ve always had a soft spot for photos of the POUM militia setting off for the front. So, after reading his book on The Second International, I’ve been reading James Joll’s book on The Anarchists. It was published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1964, and the dust cover of my copy has half-tone photos of William Godwin, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Kropotkin, Michael Bakunin, Federica Montseny, and Emma Goldman. Anarchist legends. None of whom are smiling.

Joll: The Anarchists

You are miserable isolated individuals. You are bankrupt … Go where you belong , to the dustbin of history”. Thus Trotsky’s denunciation of his Menshevik opponents in October 1917. This is how Marxists look at history; the revolutions which failed are blind alleys. The anarchist movement was a product of the 19th century. The anarchists tried to destroy the increasingly powerful, centralised, industrial state. The anarchists combined a belief in the sudden, violent transformation of society with a belief in the reasonableness of men and the possibility of human perfection.

Joll notes that there have always been movements against established authority; and that these movements generally arose in times of rapid social and economic change. For example, he points to Thomas Müntzer, an ex-priest, who became a revolutionary leader in 1525, the year of the Peasants’ Revolt; and to the Anabaptists, who proclaimed a revolutionary republic in Munster in 1533-35.

Anarchism was also influenced by the Enlightenment; a belief in man’s reasonable nature, and a belief in the possibility of intellectual and moral progress. Anarchism contains an internal clash; between the religious and the rational temperaments, the apocalyptic and the humanist. 

Eighteenth century thinkers who were precursors of the anarchists include Rousseau with his belief in the Noble Savage. Man is inherently good, but is corrupted by institutions. Thus William Godwin [b.1756], who believed that justice and happiness are indissolubly linked. Property is a fundamental cause of discontent and of crime. Therefore property should be abolished. “I am bold and adventurous in opinions, but not in life”, said Godwin.  He was accused of treason by Pitt’s government. But his views had little impact. “Godwin remains an admirable example of the philosophical anarchist, a reminder of what anarchism owes to the Enlightenment”.


Pierre- Joseph Proudhon [b.1809] is the first and most important anarchist philosopher. He was from a lower middle-class family in Besancon; apprenticed to a printer and entirely self-educated. All his life he was an unremitting propagandist and a tireless critic of the existing society. Proudhon envisaged a society in which a man’s products would be directly exchanged for the goods that he needed. Government would be needed only to usher in the new society. Society would be based on small units, the workshop and the family. “To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated … … by men who have neither the right nor the knowledge nor the virtue.”

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Proudhon was not blind to the weaknesses of the workers. He believed in the need for moral reform within each individual. Which brought him nearer to a belief in God than most anarchists. He thought that society might be transformed by peaceful means, and feared that revolution would create a new tyranny. The experience of 1848 left him disillusioned and in deep gloom. He became a fierce critic of the dictatorship of Louis-Napoleon.

Differences between Proudhon and Marx, then a struggling German journalist, anticipated the divergence of thought between the French and German working-class movements. Marx was a better economist and a better philosopher. Proudhon a better phrase-maker; e.g. ‘Property is theft’.

When the First International was founded in London in 1864, the French delegates at the meeting were disciples of Proudhon. But they found themselves at odds with the centralised discipline that Marx was seeking to impose. This tension was reflected later in differences between the French and German working-class movements at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Bakunin and the Great Schism

If Proudhon provided most of the ideas that inspired the anarchist movement, .Bakunin provided an example of anarchist fervour in action. Born in 1814 into the Russian provincial nobility, Bakunin came to Paris in 1840. His thinking was neither subtle nor original; but he expressed himself through acts of conspiracy and revolt. His belief in the revolutionary potential of those who have nothing to lose is strikingly different from Proudhon’s ideal of the self-educated, self-improving peasant. All his life he saw himself as a great conspirator; at the centre of a web of clandestine organisations. From 1851 to 1857 he was in prison in Russia. In 1857 he was banished to Siberia, from where he escaped in 1861. 

Michael Bakunin

Bakunin learnt terrorism from the younger revolutionary Sergei Nechaev, a fellow Russian who had escaped from prison to Geneva. From Nechaev Bakunin learnt the doctrine of le propagande par le fait, which was central to anarchism for the next 30 years. Bakunin was involved in working-class politics in Switzerland, while maintaining contact with revolutionaries in Russia, Italy, and Spain. He shared a friendship with Garibaldi. Like Marx [and unlike Proudhon] he was a convinced  materialist. His founding of a group called the International Social-Democratic Alliance was viewed with great suspicion by Marx and Engels. Who sought to destroy his influence in the International.

Marx advocated state communism based on a centralised, disciplined party. Which was anathema to Bakunin who envisaged a free association of independent communes. “I detest communism”, said Bakunin, “because it is the negation of liberty, and because I can conceive of nothing human without liberty”. And again: “The communists believe that they must organise the working -class forces to seize political power in states. Revolutionary socialists organise in order to … liquidate states”. As Joll comments, communists have owed their effectiveness to their ruthless discipline; while revolutionaries, such as the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, have failed to survive.

Terrorism and Propaganda by the Deed

The Paris Commune left its mark on European politics for thirty years. For the revolutionaries it was yet another revolution that had failed. In industrial  northern Europe the workers began to look increasingly to well-organised political parties or disciplined trade unions. But in the more backward countries, such as Italy and Spain, the belief in direct action never died.

In Italy the doctrines of Bakunin were always more popular than those of Marx. In Italy they developed the idea of ‘propaganda by the deed’.  In 1878 there was an attempt to assassinate King Victor Emanuel II. Within a few months of similar attempts to assassinate the German emperor and the king of Spain. There were frequent attacks on prominent people between 1880 and 1914. The anarchist movement existed on two distinct levels: leaders such as Kropokin and Malatesta, who produced pamphlets and philosophical works; and small groups determined to carry out acts of violence. When in 1894 President Sadi Carnot was stabbed to death in Lyon, by a young Italian anarchist, the climax of a series of terrorist attacks, the police were finally obliged to take action against everyone who was suspected of anarchist views.

It was during these years when ‘propaganda by the deed’ was making anarchism notorious as a creed of revolutionary action that the thinkers of the movement were trying, not wholly successfully, to turn it into a respectable political philosophy”.  [Joll]


One of the most influential thinkers in the closing decades of the century was Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist who settled in England in 1886. He was a respected and much-loved figure; a friend of William Morris; and of trade union leaders like Ben Tillett andTom Mann. Kropotkin had seen in Russia that revolution involved violence and terror, both of which he intensely disliked. For Kropotkin primitive society meant, not Hobbesian conflict, but an innate sense of co-operation and mutual aid if men were left uncorrupted by government. Again and again in his writings he comes back to Darwin’s example of the blind pelican whom his comrades kept supplied with fish.

For Kropotkin what was needed to put into practice a morality without obligation or sanctions was a new economic order, which would allow man’s good instincts to flourish. To achieve this goal a revolution was necessary to produce what Kropotkin called ‘anarchist communism’. In this new order, there would be no private ownership; everything would be freely available to him who needed it. Curiously he saw the British Life-Boat Association as a model society.

The Revolution that Failed

The Russian Revolution, like 1789 or 1848 or 1871, left the anarchists disappointed and disillusioned. Kropotkin was a fierce critic of Lenin: “At the present moment the Russian revolution … is perpetrating horrors. It is ruining the whole country  `It is annihilating human lives.” In 1917 the anarchists were divided among themselves; and powerless against the bolsheviks. “Liberty”, said Lenin, “is a luxury not to be permitted at the present stage of development.”

The Russian Revoution, 1917

Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman arrived in Russia in 1919, after being deported from the United States. They were shocked at the imprisonment of so many Russian anarchists, and at the refusal of new government to release anarchists to attend Kropotkin’s funeral in 1922. Berkman noted: “Dictatorship is trampling the masses underfoot. The revolution is dead, its spirit cries in the wilderness.” Such criticism estranged them from many associates on the left.

Anarchists in Action: Spain

Anarchism became a mass movement in Spain: because it was a backward country; it had a weak government; there was a huge gap between rich and poor; and there was a rural population living at close to starvation level. In Spain the appeal was primarily to the most depressed people – the landless farm workers and small peasants.

After Franco’s revolt in July 1936 anarchist leaders and the CNT took control of Barcelona. During that summer Catalonia became virtually an independent state. [Andalusia, the traditional home of rural anarchism, had been swiftly conquered by Franco’s troops.] But putting anarchist principles into practice in the middle of a civil war was immensely challenging. The anarchist character of the CNT and FAI columns diminished as the war demanded greater discipline and control. The anarchists agreed to share power with the socialists and the Catalan government, but relations with the socialists and the communists continued to deteriorate. In April 1937 civil war broke out between the anarchist POUM and the communist-led PSUC. When Caballero’s government fell, the new government declared POUM illegal and arrested many anarchist leaders. “The failure of the anarchist revolution, the powerlessness of anarchist ministers, and the threat of repression after the Barcelona fighting, all revealed that the anarchists were as far from realising their dreams as ever.

POUM militiaman


The warnings of anarchists that Marxism would lead to dictatorship and new forms of tyranny have been proved right. But the idea of a ‘morality without obligations or sanctions’ is hugely attractive, as is a society without government or governed; and such ideas will have disciples on every generation. Which I guess is for me the fundamental attraction.

But, as repeated failures culminated in the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, it became clear that putting anarchist principles, themselves often inconsistent, into action was extremely difficult. Anarchists rejected the conventional political processes, but were unable to envisage an intermediate stage between existing society and the total revolution of their dreams. They [we] know the kind of ideal society to which we aspire. But it is not at all clear how to get there.

February 2021