Through a glass darkly – 29

Commentaries on the way to Glasgow

Susie and I drove to Glasgow ten days ago, to Bishopbriggs to be precise, in a City Car Club car. Possibly in contravention of current lockdown restrictions here in Edinburgh. We went there in order to take two big cardboard trays of biblical commentaries, about a hundred books, to the nearest collection point for BookAid. Which is a charity which collects theological and other books, either for re-sale or for onward shipment to students in the Third World. It feels like the end of an era. From Wycliffe Hall days I always felt that building a library of commentaries was an important part of ordained ministry. And an essential tool in preparing sermons. But now that I’m not doing much preaching, and now that I prepare sermons rather differently, it just seemed like a waste of half a bookcase. And Susie wanted the space for all her clarinet music and paraphernalia.

Colin Bennetts

Mark Ashton, one-time Vicar of the Round Church, Cambridge, once said that he had attended a couple of thousand church services before making a personal commitment. When I became a Christian in my mid thirties, at St Andrew’s, Linton Road, Oxford, it was largely through the preaching of Colin Bennetts, the then Rector. Colin was, to use an expression that I would not have known at the time. a ‘sane evangelical’. He had recently come to St Andrew’s after a spell as Chaplain at Jesus College, Oxford; and he preached on Sunday mornings by taking the lectionary readings [it was the era of Series Three morphing into the ASB], by seeking to explain them in their  context, and then by suggesting ways in which the passages might speak to us today. There was usually a point in the sermon when he would say: “So what might this passage say to us today …”. It sounds basic. But for me it was very effective. One day Susie and I were having lunch with a school-friend, Ian Maclean, who in those days taught French literature at the Queen’s College and who had appeared unexpectedly in the congregation. “What I can’t stand about Colin”, he said to me, “is that each week his sermon is aimed directly at me.” “No, I don’t think so”, I told him; “I think it is me that Colin is getting at.”

Colin Bennetts

Colin became a good friend to Susie and to me, and it was largely at his prompting that I found myself a candidate for ordination training. After surviving the selection process with some difficulty, I trained for ordination at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. By that time we were worshipping on Sundays at the parish church in Woodstock where we lived. The Rector in Woodstock was Edward Gregory Ambrose Wilford Page-Turner. He was tall and good-looking with silver hair, and much loved by some of the women in the parish. But preaching was not one of his gifts. So it was staff at Wycliffe, like Geoffrey Shaw and Gordon Ogilvie and David Wenham, who modelled for me expository preaching, using the pulpit to preach the Word of God, and praying for the Spirit to work among those in the pews. 

It was doing my time at Wycliffe that I encountered Proclamation Trust, led by Dick Lucas and David Jackman, and Evangelical Ministry Assembly [EMA]. I signed up a couple of times for EMA, at St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, and sat through some classic expositions by Dick and others. One of the highlights was hearing John Stott expounding the Book of Acts. [Much of the stuff later appeared in his volume in The Bible Speaks Today: Acts. It’s a very good book, but the danger [temptation] is to skimp on sermon preparation and just to read the stuff out !] But Philip Jensen, the more strident of the two Australian brothers, [Peter had been a curate briefly at St Andrew’s] could make me very cross. And I think I dimly perceived that ‘Death by over-exposition’, a detailed and seemingly interminable examination of each word in the text,  was a sort of predecessor of ‘Death by Powerpoint’ a few years later. 

Dennis Lennon

For complicated reasons when I was ordained in 1988 we came north to Scotland.  I came to Edinburgh to be a curate at St Thomas’s, Glasgow Road, out towards the airport. The Rector, Dennis Lennon, was the best preacher I ever heard. By a country mile. He was certainly a biblical preacher. But not an expositor in the EMA sense. His own model as a student had been Martyn Lloyd-Jones, ‘The Doctor’, the celebrated Welsh preacher at Westminster Chapel. But Dennis’s preaching had been influenced by years with OMF in Thailand and South East Asia, bringing the gospel to peoples of a very different language and culture. He then trained at Oak Hill and did a curacy at the Round Church in Cambridge. He read widely, and had a particular affection for the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar. Other influences included the theologians Karl Barth, Tom Torrance, and Austin Farrer, and George Herbert, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, and Ted Hughes among the poets.

Dennis Lennon with Sonja, and me, 2006

Dennis had a gift for opening up new perspectives on Scripture [“How long do you have to look at a bush in the desert to see that it is burning, but not being consumed ?’] This was the beginning of a [long] evening service sermon, which later reappeared in [I think] The Eyes of the Heart. The message was on the importance of looking hard at things.  I remember his preaching three weeks running, to the consternation of the congregation, on the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, because he wasn’t sure if he was getting it right. The last time I heard him preach was in Lyon in 2001. A few weeks after the bombing of The Twin Towers in New York he preached, memorably, on the story in Matthew 7 of The Two Houses, one built on the rock and the other on the sand. From the outside, there is no discernible difference – until the storms blow and troubles come.

Colin and Dennis were the best two preachers I have heard, and certainly had the most influence on my life. After you get ordained there is of course less opportunity to hear other people preach. Richard Holloway, who was my Diocesan Bishop in Edinburgh, was always stimulating. And often controversial. He came once to Duns and told the congregation: “Here are some words I found recently on a fridge door in New York … I get most of my theology from fridge doors nowadays”.  I think as a more-or-less conservative evangelical, I was a bit disapproving ! In the same sermon he told the congregation, “I’m going to quote some well-know lines from Philip Larkin [‘They f— you up, your parents …], … and I’ll bowdlerise them in case there are any reporters from the Daily Mail here”. The congregation loved it. And loved him. [And there was a reporter there.]

Geoffrey Rowell, who was my Diocesan Bishop in Europe, was a different kind of bishop; he was a Tractarian Anglo-Catholic, most at home in an Oxford senior common room. He was also a different kind of preacher. My feeling was that his sermons, like some Orthodox theology, circled elegantly round a point that was never quite reached or articulated. More positively, on different occasions Peter Neilson, from the Church if Scotland, and David Smith, from ICC, Glasgow, came to preach for us in Lyon. And both were excellent.

Richard Mayabi, with Susie, Lyon, 2008

Through connections with ICC, Richard Mayabi, then the priest of St Jerome’s Anglican Church in Kibera, in Nairobi, came to preach for us. He worked at that time in one of the biggest slums in Africa, and caught our imagination in Lyon as he spoke of a church community that was thriving in very difficult circumstances.

Here in retirement in Edinburgh we worship, when we are not elsewhere, in our local presbyterian church, in the Church of Scotland. Jared Hay, the previous minister, was an excellent preacher. And a very capable exponent of PowerPoint. [He also enlivened a sermon series on Revelation by dressing up as different characters in the story on successive Sundays.] Sadly his successor, though good with people and with children, seems to have little interest in engaging with scripture. I suppose I could have offered him my old commentaries. But I don’t know if he would have had much use for them.

November 2020

Through a glass darkly – 28

The Fall of France

Do not be afraid ! I am writing about history, not current affairs. After reading Alistair Horne’s book on The Siege and the Paris Commune [see TaGD 22], I thought I’d look again at his book To lose a battle: France 1940. But this has gone. Probably a casualty of water damage in the garage. But I did find two books called Assignment to Catastrophe by General E.L. Spears.  The second volume has a Shakespeare and Co bookseller’s stamp, so I guess I bought them when we were living in Paris back in the 1970s.

Edward Louis Spears  had been born in Paris, was brought up largely by his grand-mother in France and Ireland, and spoke French fluently. There is evidence that his forbears were Jewish, something he always denied. Spears joined the British Army in 1906 aged twenty, and was commissioned in the Royal Irish Hussars. He acquired the nickname Monsieur Beaucaire in the Mess, where his unconventional childhood ensured that he remained something of an outsider. Very few military men spoke two languages. [It is said that when General Sir John French spoke French from a prepared text at manoeuvres in France, his accent was so bad that listeners assumed he was speaking in English.] So Spears was swiftly appointed to liaison duties in 1914 between the British and French armies. Although he was initially quite a junior officer, Spears’ liaison work brought him into contact with a host of influential military and political figures; among the French he came to know Generals Georges and Petain and Foch, and Clémenceau; while on the British side he worked with Lloyd George and Douglas Haig, and developed a close friendship with Winston Churchill. After the war Spears published two well received books about his liaison work, became a Conservative MP, first for Loughborough and then for Carlisle, and aligned himself to the so-called Eden group, of Conservative backbenchers who were opposed to appeasement policies.

In August 1939 Spears visited the Maginot Line in the company of Winston Churchill as the guests of General Georges. With the country was on the verge of war the following month he was on a motoring holiday in the Dordogne valley. When war was declared he explored the possibility of returning to service in liaison work but was rebuffed by the War Office. During the so-called Phoney War he and other members of the Eden group pressed for a more energetic government policy; for more robust support for Poland and more vigorous action against Germany.

In May 1940 Germany invades Belgium and France, Chamberlain promptly resigns and Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister. Ten days later Churchill sends Spears to France: “I have decided to send you as my personal representative to Paul Reynaud [the French Prime Minister]. You will have the rank of Major-General.” He looks out the missing portions of his uniform, and flies two days later to Paris in a Bristol Blenheim. The greater part of the two books are a detailed, day-by-day account of Spears’ mission.

The most striking feature of the books is that Spears seemingly knows everyone. It is a small world. Sir Ronald Campbell, the British Ambassador, is a former colleague. A sad-eyed  Reynaud greets him as an old friend; “vous êtes le bienvenu”. General Maxim Weygand, the new French Commander-in-Chief [aged 73], and Marshal Pétain, now Vice-President of the Council [aged 84], are known to him from the First War. [He notes that Pétain a son of Picardy naturally loathes Weygand who was  born in Belgium.] Spears is soon given an office in the French Ministry of War.  He attends meetings of the French War Committee. Georges Mandel, the Minister of the Interior, offers him a frank assessment of the lack of will to  fight in the French Army, and of the low morale of his cabinet colleagues. One of the phrases that recurs in conversations is“ecroulment moral”.  As a welcome break from the prevalent mood of defeatism, Spears enjoys dining with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, now a Captain in the French Air Force, and his cousin “a very charming woman and a friend of twenty years’ standing”.

Spears, a long-time admirer of the French Army, is saddened by their unwillingness to fight. Which brings out all his reactionary prejudices: “Were the weaknesses, the disorders, the lack of leadership and the dearth of fighting qualities, the  result of a dying patriotism, poisoned at its root by political corruption and pacifist-cum-communist slobber ?

The hero of the two books is of course Churchill. He flies unexpectedly into Paris at the end of May, “fresh as a daisy”, and delivers an up-beat message to the Supreme War Council; “Dunkirk has been a triumph for the British Navy and Air Force”.  [Reynaud and Paul Baudoin are moved and grateful, but not all are convinced. “Weygand, face resting on his hands, looked like a dried-up lemon.”] Spears is worried that Churchill will lose patience with the French. In early June Spears goes to see the aged Pétain, who tells him: “this time there are no reserves, vous m’entendez, no reserves at all. It is hopeless – c’est sans espoir.”And the Marshal settles into his armchair and reads him one of his old speeches on Joan of Arc.

Weygand, Reynaud, and Pétain

Spears returns to London to report. He is delighted to fly  in Churchill’s own Flamingo with comfortable armchairs, and dines with the Churchill family,  and a small black cat called Nelson. The situation worsens. The French cabinet decide to leave Paris. On June 11th Churchill, with Eden and Spears and General Dill and others, flies to France in his Flamingo accompanied by twelve Hurricanes. There is a meeting of the Supreme War Council at the inaptly named Château du Muguet, “the sort of building the nouveau riche French bourgeoisie delight in : a large monstrosity of red-coloured brick and stone the hue of unripe Camembert”. Churchill speaks passionately of his confidence in the French military. There is little response from the French, except for the chain-smoking General de Gaulle, newly appointed to the Ministry of Defence. Two days later Churchill flies back again for one final meeting at Tours. But his speeches to the War Council “conveyed no more reality than would have done a reading of El Cid on the wireless to a brawling audience in a Montmartre cafe”. Spears and his party follow the French government south to Bordeaux. On June 16th Churchill sends Reynaud a dramatic message in which he proposed an indissoluble union of France and Great Britain. In the common defence of justice and of freedom, the countries are to share one government, and one war cabinet directing all their forces on land, at sea, or in the air. But it is too late. The following day Reynaud resigns. President Lebrun asks Pétain to form a government. Spears returns to London, hoisting de Gaulle onto the plane with him. They arrive in London for a late lunch at the RAC, and then on to Downing Street for a meeting with Churchill.

It is an old-fashioned book. [It even has sub-headings in the Contents pages and a professional Index.]  And maybe a bit repetitive. It is a book of a different era. Spears had an eye for a pretty girl. He and the aged Marshal Franchet d’Esperey, still in uniform but now in a wheel-chair,  share memories of “la belle patissière d’Epernay”. He casts his eye appreciatively at dinner over Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s cousin. At the Château de Muguet he flirts discreetly with the woman telephonist in the village post office. In Paris he stays at the Ritz and dines there with guests. When they get to Bordeaux they eat in the Chapon Fin. I guess this is not the style of Lord Frost !

Churchill, blustering Boris, and BREXIT

In a week when the disastrous BREXIT saga is approaching yet another deadline, I am impressed at the great lengths to which Churchill went to stay closely linked to France, the other major western democracy. Blustering Boris is a self-proclaimed admirer  of Churchill, on whom he clearly models his public speaking. But Churchill, as this book demonstrates, and as his post-war speeches confirm, was strongly committed to European co-operation. Even at the cost of a potentially significant diminution of national sovereignty. Brexiteers please note.

Churchill’s  views are summarised in a speech made at the University of Zurich in 1946: 

There is a remedy which … would in a few years make all Europe … free and … happy.

It is to re-create the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.

We must build a kind of United States of Europe.

The fall of France in June 1940 was a tragedy which, as this book recounts, the British government of the time under Churchill did its best to avert. At a time when European democratic values were under threat. By contrast BREXIT is a tragedy which the present British government seems determined to inflict upon us. A tragedy which destroys the ideal of European co-operation for the sake of a spurious [and outdated] notion of national sovereignty

November 2020

Through as glass darkly – 27

The smell of corruption

A lot of hard-faced men who look as if they had done very well out of the war,” was [according to J.M. Keynes] Stanley Baldwin’s comment on the House of Commons after the 1918 election. We imagine that he was referring to the greedy manufacturers who found their way into grubby Honours lists, but some people dispute this. When people look back in years to come on the UK’s handling of the COVID 19 crisis, will they say something similar about the current Tory Party ? We have known for a long time that the present government is struggling to cope with the crisis; lack of a clear strategy; ministerial incompetence; divisions within the cabinet; widespread lack of trust in politicians. But to the charge of incompetence we may now need to add corruption

World Beater

The root of the problem is that, in coping with the pressures of the pandemic, the government is now awarding contracts and handing out vast sums of money without any proper [parliamentary] scrutiny. We saw a rehearsal for this earlier in the year with BREXIT. In order to mitigate the potential consequences of a no-deal BREXIT, failing Grayling  at the Department of Transport , awarded a £13.8 million contract to Seaborne Freight ferry company even though it had no ships. In total, £100 million worth of contracts were awarded to three companies – Brittany Ferries, DFDS and Seaborne – but these were ultimately scrapped at an estimated cost of £56.6 million after Brexit was delayed. The Department’s woes did not end there, for it then agreed an out-of-court settlement of £33 million with Eurotunnel, which claimed the rushed contracts had been handed out in a “secretive” way and it [Eurotunnel] should have been approached.

Now the current second spike of COVID infections and local lock-downs is largely a consequence of the abject failure of the £12 billion test-and-trace system.  Which has signally failed to drive down the all-important infection rate. As a result we have a fast-rising number of infections, hospital admissions, and deaths; and widespread economic hardship, mainly in the hospitality sector. But some people are doing well out of this chaos.

Yesterday I talked for a few minutes with one of the staff in our local NHS medical practice. What is very difficult to accept is that the government’s ideological commitment to the private sector has led to some crazy decisions. The mantra of the current Tory government is ‘Public sector, inefficient and bureaucratic; private sector, efficient and dynamic’. But it just isn’t true. There is data both here and overseas that shows that test-and-trace is best handled at a local level. But the government is wholly committed to a centralised system. Though its own figures show that their system reaches only 62% of contacts against 97% for local authority systems. But the £12 billion budget for the centralised system means fat profits for some multinational corporations.

Baroness Dido Harding and her associates

The appointment of Baroness Harding to run the test-and-trace system is indicative of the issues. She is no doubt a very nice lady; good with animals and children. Her background is in corporate management; McKinsey, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Talk-Talk, where there was a massive hack of confidential customer information on her watch. For which she acquired the label, Dido, Queen of carnage. She was made a Conservative peer in 2014 by her friend David Cameron.

Baroness Harding

One of her other roles is to sit on the board of the Jockey Club. In March this year, when leading epidemiologists were arguing for a public lock-down, the Jockey Club went ahead with the lucrative Cheltenham Festival. Some 200, 000 punters packed into the race-course and onto the terraces over three days. It is now acknowledged to have been a super-spreader event, causing a significant spike in infections.

The Jockey Club is also closely involved at Newmarket, where the local MP is Matt Hancock, the hapless Health Secretary. Media reports suggest that Hancock receives very substantial financial support from wealthy people in the horse-racing business. “I’ll always support the wonderful sport of horse racing”, gushed Hancock in his election address.

One of the Jockey Club’s big annual events is the [Randox Health] Grand National. Earlier this year the government paid Randox, a global healthcare firm,  £133 million to develop COVID testing kits. Owen Paterson, a former Conservative minister, is employed as a consultant by Randox for a fee of £100, 000 a year. Did he facilitate the deal ? No-one knows. In July the government withdrew the kits from use on the grounds that they might be unsafe. 

The names of Harding’s team  at Test-and-Trace were not initially made public. It has since emerged that they include former executives from Jaguar Land Rover and Travelex, and Waitrose, and [surprise, surprise !] from Talk-Talk and Sainsbury’s. And the team also includes one public health professional. Some people can’t obtain tests. People who need tests are directed to centres at the other end of the country. Test results have been lost. Others have been sent overseas for analysis. As of yesterday, only 15% of tests are completed within 24 hours. Blustering Boris concedes that “there is some room for improvement”. The system is clearly a shambles. And Harding has been been rewarded by being made head [concurrently] of the National Institute for Health Protection.

The way I see it, if the Government doesn’t reward failure, who will?’


Staff in the NHS which struggles for cash may well wonder why consultants are reportedly being paid £6,000 a day to advise on the test-and-trace system. And why SERCO, for example, was awarded a £410 million contract with no competitive tendering and no penalty clause. [SERCO’s chairman is the grandson of a former Conservative prime minister and brother of a former Tory MP.] Is there no scrutiny of the way in which contracts are awarded and vast sums of money spent ? Well, yes. But the United Kingdom Anti-Corruption Champion since 2017 is John Harding, former McKinsey consultant and back-bench Tory MP. And the husband of Baroness Harding.

Cronyism has been endemic in the Tory Party for a long time. When the Royal Mail was privatised George Osborne’s best man, Peter Davies, was head of a hedge fund which made £36 million from the privatisation in under six months. Now PPE Medpro, a company that was incorporated in May this year with capital of £100 and no experience in the field, was awarded a contract, without tender, for £110 million of PPE. The company’s  only qualification being that it has substantial links to Tory peer Baroness Mone and to Tory party donors.


Tragically, it looks increasingly as if the COVID 19 pandemic has become a profitable cash-cow for Tory-linked private firms.  And a great opportunity for the government to pursue its ideological obsession with outsourcing wherever possible to the private sector. Blustering Boris claims to be a One Nation Tory with a commitment to levelling up. From here it looks more like a policy of robbing the poor to pay the rich. And their families and friends. 

October 2020

Through a glass darkly – 26

Generally I don’t read a lot of theology. Perhaps not as much as I should. But I’ve been reading an excellent new book [published this year] by David Smith: Stumbling towards Zion: Recovering the Biblical Tradition of Lament in the era of World Christianity. It’s quite a long title, but the book itself is a manageable 130 pages plus two appendices and a wide-ranging bibliography. The book comes from Langham Global Library in a sombre cover, which reflects a part of the content.

Before going further, I should declare an interest: I have known and appreciated David for some three decades, since the time when he was Principal of Northumbria Bible College, in Berwick on Tweed, and we were along the road at Christ Church, Duns. During that time he has encouraged me to do some serious reading, and to think more widely and more creatively about ministry and the Christian faith. He encouraged me to sign up for the MTh course on Mission in an Urban World at ICC, Glasgow, 2006-09, on which he was the lead tutor. During that course he led the cohort study visit to Nairobi, which was an eye-opener for several of us coming from a very different church culture here in the UK. David preached for us at Duns and then again at the Lyon Anglican Church, always offering us a new and different perspective. He has written several challenging books, including Mission after Christendom, which I found immensely helpful. And he and Joyce were good friends to Susie and me; before Joyce’s untimely death in 2014.

As the title suggests, the new book is about the way in which we present ourselves and our lives to God in worship and prayer. David has a gift for bringing together biblical exegesis, a wide variety of theological writings, many from outside Europe, and his own personal experience. In the preface, David recounts how his wife Joyce’s suffering and death from a brain tumour brought him a renewed appreciation of the biblical tradition of lament. Too often the contemporary emphasis on celebration in worship  ignores the real suffering and struggles of people within the congregation, and also the crises that threaten the future of our world,. This seeming indifference to many of the serious issues that threaten our planet undermines the credibility of our faith.

Back in 1981 Robert Davidson wrote a book called The Courage to Doubt: Exploring an Old Testament Theme, which highlighted the tradition of lament in the Old Testament. The book resonated with David at a time when he was experiencing reverse culture-shock after years of teaching in Eastern Nigeria. “How could the Christian community be so relentlessly happy and untroubled in a world filled with injustice, oppression and violence ?”  In the university world of Aberdeen, David met people who were alienated from institutional Christianity but keen to ask profound questions about the meaning of human existence. Claus Westermann wrote in his work on the Psalms: “Praise can retain its authenticity and naturalness only in polarity with lamentation.”

The disappearance of lament was particularly strange at a time when historians, looking at two World Wars and the Holocaust, were labelling the twentieth century as ‘the age of catastrophe’.

When David travelled to Pakistan in 2017 to lead studies for poor pastors from the Sindh, he was guided to offer reflections on the story of Job; “the clearest expression of the counter-testimony of Israel” The book of Job first describes the external events which devastated Job’s life, and then the internal anguish which followed. Alienated from his dogmatic friends, Job reveals an awareness of other human beings whose lives have been marked by oppression and injustice [24: 1-22]. And he also recognises that much of this evil and injustice has human causes. In his response [42:7-8], God seems to reject the theology of the ‘comforters’; and hints at God’s own struggle to restrain the powers and evil and to bring about the promised healing of a broken world.

Job and His Three Friends , Artist: Tissot, Photographer: Richard Goodbody, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York

Where Job reveals the depths of spiritual crisis in the life of an individual, Lamentations reflects the impact of catastrophe on an entire community. The repeated cry of the desolate survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem is that ‘there is no-one to comfort them’ [Lam 1:9, 16, 21; 2:9; 3:8, 44]. This is a very contemporary message. Kathleen O’Connor notes “for the survivors of civil wars, destroyed cities and genocides, for refugees, and for those who subsist in famine and destitute poverty, the poetry mirrors reality with frightening exactitude”. A sentiment echoed by the Filipino scholar Federico Villanueva. Ironically Lamentations is best known to many for the verses that mark the sudden appearance of hope in chapter 3 [Lam 3: 22-24]. Verses wrenched inappropriately from their context. But David acknowledges that light can break through at the darkest moments; close encounters with death or wickedness can provide the soil in which faith comes to birth.

It is sometimes assumed that lament has no further place after the coming of Jesus. Not so. Commenting on the birth narrative, Ulrich Mauser contrasts the peace of God with the Pax Romana, in the name of which Jesus was executed. Mauser insists that peace on earth is initiated by Jesus, but it has not yet conquered the world. Salvation is both now and not yet. The gospels are “not fairy stories in which a paradise restored is offered without regard to competing and hostile realities”. The public horror of the Cross left Jesus’s supporters weeping and wailing [Luke 23:27]. David argues that “there is a danger that we move too quickly from the cross to the empty tomb with the result that theology becomes associated with abstract theories of atonement  which are invariably divorced from the harsh reality of the historical death of Jesus at Calvary”.

David draws attention to Easter Saturday, to the reality of “that long, desolate Sabbath” which bisects death and resurrection; which is too often ignored as a meaningless hyphen. He sees the Grunewald altar-piece in Colmar as a visual aid for the Easter story. Contemporary, western culture is often marked  by despair and a sense of abandonment. So,  So, David concludes, “the gospel  …  must be shared, not with a triumphalistic spirit, but with humility, compassion, and a transparent honesty concerning faith’s own struggles with the tragedies that persist in an Easter Saturday culture”.

In the latter chapters, the book encourages us in our prayers to go beyond a passive acceptance of what the world gives us. And to ask questions which demands answers. When Christianity comes to be influenced by Greek philosophy, we come to Aristotle’s concept of God as “the unmoved Mover”. Jewish writers complain that this is a betrayal of the Hebrew scriptures. And their complaints are echoed by Third World theologians whose thinking owes nothing to the Graeco-Roman culture. The Japanese theologian Kitamori, writing after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is critical of a theology that emphasises God’s transcendent glory, but which is “deaf to the cries for justice in a world where power is often used in ways that are oppressive and destructive”.

Lamentations 2

Bonhoeffer, awaiting execution in his prison cell, wrote that rather than looking for the intervention of a supremely powerful deity, “the gospel directs us to the powerlessness of God”. Subsequently, Moltmann’s writings have placed the cross of Jesus at the heart and foundation of the knowledge of God.Hisemphasison the crucified God has struck a chord with many uprooted people in the Majority World. Christianity is ceasing to be a western religion. Slavery was a cause of trauma for many, deeply religious African peoples. African-American spirituals frequently return to the crucifixion; for Calvary resonates with their own lives.

In the final chapter, David sees a convergence between the Biblical tradition of lament and the emergence of a world Christianity. He suggests that Orthodoxy and Catholicism and Protestantism are all essentially local forms [inculturations] of the Christian faith. And that the emergence of new forms of faith in the global South will mean an end to the [old] Christendom model.  As Kenneth Cragg wrote [back in 1968]: “As the Christ of Galilee and Jerusalem in New Testament times become the Christ of the Mediterranean, of Athens and Rome, so the Christ of the West must become more evidently the Christ of the world …”.  The hope is that this emerging world Christianity will grow into a multicultural community in which the interaction of praise and lament sustains the hope of shalom and healing for a broken world.

Patmos Christian Fellowship, Kibera, 2007

David’s experience of church in the Majority world makes him hopeful. He cites Emmanuel Katangole, who believes that the public expression of pain and loss throughout Africa can give birth to an alternative vision for the future of that continent. But the church in the West must both share in that and learn from it;  “the refusal of lament at such a time as this would be a symbol of apostasy on the part of the comfortable and wealthy church of the Western world”; and all the more because the example of Christianity in the Majority world offers a new and deeper grasp of the gospel.

Born from Lament


Stumbling towards Zion is a challenging book. Not because it is difficult to read. It isn’t. But because it challenges some of the things we too often take for granted in our faith journey. And in our comfortable [middle class] church life. Our tacit acceptance of things as they are. And our ignorance of what God may be doing elsewhere in the world. On a personal note, I was immensely grateful to spend more than a decade in a gathered, multi-cultural, multi-confessional church in the Diocese of Europe. With a significant proportion of Africans, nearly all of whom were refugees. Many of whom had painful stories to tell. But I am embarrassed to recall that we were criticised by one of our bishops for “not being sufficiently Anglican” in our church culture ! 

October 2020

Though a glass darkly – Index 1-25

This is just for my own benefit, to allow me to see what I’ve written over the past 6 months. In case I wake up one day and get it into my head that I’ve written War and Peace.

0. Getting Started March 2020

  1. Gratitude, and Desert Places March 2020

2. Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads March 2020

2. The daily round March 2020

3. Cold Turkey April 2020

4. Dem Bones  The Easter Message Easter Saturday 2020

5. COVID 19: Bouquets and Brickbats April 2020

6. Tim Keller: Walking with God through Pain and Suffering May 2020

7. Spotlight on dark happenings May 2020

8. The Missing Centuries: E.L. Woodward’s History of England May 2020

9. Postcards from Normandy May 2020

10. Life in lock-down June 2020

11. The Scottish Episcopal Church June 2020

12. Jürgen Moltmann: Theology of Hope June 2020

13. Donna Leon’s Venice June 2020

14. Out to lunch July 2020

15. Being Seventy Five July 2020

16. Albert Camus: The Plague [La peste] July 2020

17. E.L. Woodward: History of England, part 2 July 2020

18. John le Carre August 2020

19. Blustering Boris August 2020

20. Theodore Zeldin: France 1848-1945 August 2020

21. Going North September 2020

22. Alistair Horne: The Fall of Paris: the Siege and the Commune September 2020

23. Going back up north September 2020

24. Why American Christians vote for Trump October 2020

25. Gordon Ogilvie, RIP October 2020

October 20th, 2020

Through a glass darkly – 25

Gordon Ogilvie RIP

Susie, Gordon, & Sylvia at St Andrews, 2015

Gordon Ogilvie died on September 29th, at the age of 78. Gordon and Sylvia had both been living in a care home in St Andrews since the start of this year. He died of a heart attack, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and with Lewy body dementia [LBD]. Susie and I hope to attend the funeral in St Andrews at the end of this week. Provided that we can safely do so within the parameters of the current Scottish COVID regulations.

We first met Gordon and Sylvia at St Andrew’s, Linton Road, Oxford at the beginning of the 1980s. Susie and I were [becoming] new Christians. Gordon had come from being Vicar of New Barnet to become Director of Pastoral Studies at Wycliffe Hall. Not always a very rewarding role. He was, I think, the first member of staff at Wycliffe who had not trained there as a student. If that suggests that Wycliffe was a bit in-bred in those days, then I think that is probably true. But perhaps no more so than any other Anglican training college. When I consulted Gordon a few years later about the idea of my training for ordination at Wycliffe, he was characteristically guarded. But this may have been more about me than about Wycliffe.

This is not the place for a full cv. [Even if I was sure of all the facts.] I believe that Gordon grew up in Glasgow, that he went to church at St Silas’s, and that his first degree was at uni in Glasgow, where he was involved with the CU.  And then he went south to train for ordination at the London College of Divinity, before it grew into St John’s, Nottingham.  Prior to New Barnet, Gordon did his curacy at Ashtead, in the Guildford Diocese. In 1989 he moved on from Wycliffe to become first Priest-in-Charge and then Team Rector at Harlow New Town, in the Chelmsford Diocese. And in 1996 Gordon moved to his final job as Archdeacon of Nottingham, in the Southwell Diocese. He retired in 2007, after which he and Sylvia returned to Scotland to live in St Andrews.

My memories are of an engaging character, always well informed, a good and thoughtful preacher, a sometimes quizzical look, and a good friend. As I discovered when I consulted him about applying to Wycliffe, his responses were often elliptical. If you asked Gordon the test score, his reply might well encompass a short history of the rules of cricket, a sketch of the architecture of the pavilion where the match was being played, and a summary of the five-day weather forecast for the area. But the score would come. Eventually. Anyway we talked more about rugby than cricket. Early in our acquaintance he came to preach at the Christmas Eve, midnight service in Woodstock, where we then lived, and where preaching was a bit perfunctory. [A polite term.] But Gordon preached a scriptural, expository sermon of some twenty five minutes, and the congregation grumbled a bit at being home later than they had anticipated. A year or two later I recall his helpful expositions of 1 Peter at the Wycliffe Wednesday afternoon Communion services.

Gordon’s extra-parochial activities included a major involvement with Grove Books, alongside Colin Buchanan, [his successor as Chair of Grove Books was Bishop Robert Innes];  patronage work with Simeon’s Trustees over many years; and support for the church in rural Uganda. Which stemmed from a continuing friendship with a former student at Wycliffe. During the Wycliffe years Susie and I went with him and Sylvia on a long day’s outing to Brussels to try and sort out a Rwandan visa for him. We had, as I recall, breakfast at La Légende in the rue de l’Etuve, and lunch in Aux Armes de Bruxelles; and, visa secured, Gordon drove home rather fast in the fog. Word was that he really liked fast cars. Did he perhaps have a day in an E-type Jag for his 60th birthday ?

Gordon came and preached for us at Christ Church, Duns, recognising an Old Hutchies’ tie in the congregation. [It was a visitor.] He preached in Lyon too, and played the piano for us there.  And he was the main speaker at an ICS Family Conference at Le Pas Opton, a rather chilly camp-site and caravan park on the west coast of France. After his retirement in 2007, we met up periodically with Gordon and Sylvia in St Andrews, sometimes for golf, and in Edinburgh, once at Murrayfield but more often for lunch in a Thai restaurant. And in latter years for a meal at South Queensferry. 

Gordon and Sylvia, and CM, St Andrews, 2015

Perhaps related to his patronage work, Gordon had a near encyclopaedic knowledge of Church of England clergy. I would mention names to him sometimes, and he would effortlessly supply dates and parishes. He liked detail and getting things right. When he came to stay in Lyon the book that interested him most was Hart’s Rules, an authoritative reference book and style guide published by the Oxford University Press.

I guess that under COVID guidelines there will only be very few people at the funeral. But there is talk of a thanksgiving service at a later day. We shall miss him. Meanwhile I reflect that Gordon would have been an excellent Bishop of Glasgow. Certainly better than all those that I can remember !

October 2020

Through a glass darkly – 24

A few months ago a friend who was reading this blog asked me to address the glaring question: Why do so many American [evangelical] Christians vote for Trump ? 

Nuns with the Little Sisters of the Poor give a thumbs up at a National Day of Prayer event with President Donald Trump and other religious leaders in the Rose Garden at the White House, in Washington, May 4, 2017. At the event Trump signed an executive order aimed at easing restrictions on political activity by tax-exempt churches and charities. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

I didn’t rush to respond; partly because I don’t know the answer, and mainly because I don’t know enough about the States.   [My direct experience of American churches amounts to one Sunday morning at Redeemer Upper West Side, New York, some five years ago. Tim Keller was preaching, and he was excellent. And one Sunday morning, a week later, at First Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado. Which was rather less rewarding.] So, I don’t really feel equipped to tackle a question that puzzles many Europeans. But I did read something recently that throws some light on the question.

I was reading the new book by David Smith: Stumbling towards Zion. The central theme of the book is the disappearance from western church worship of the biblical [Hebrew] tradition of lament, and the rediscovery of this tradition by churches emerging in, for example, the global South.. It’s an excellent and challenging book, and I hope to write more about it in a week or so. If we accept David’s main thesis, it helps to explain why in the very healthy, non-denominational church my daughter and her family attend, it is always Easter morning. There are lots of people, and lots of young people; there is a good praise band, and even better coffee. And the church does valuable work in the local community through links with people like CAP [Christians against Poverty]. But the emphasis is constantly on praise and the victory of the empty cross.

David’s book notes that after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the centre of gravity of the nascent Christian world moves from Jerusalem to Rome. From the Jewish world to the Gentile world. And by extension Christianity develops within Greek thought and culture rather than in Hebrew thinking. In consequence some of the Hebrew tradition about the relationship between God and his creation, God’s dealings with men and women, is lost; and God is described by Aristotle as “the unmoved Mover”. Greek thinking acknowledges God as the supreme being, a God of power and might. But God is now seen as remote and impassible. For Tertullian, writing in the 3rd century, since God the Father was without passions he could “not suffer with the Son”; while even “the Son is unable to suffer in virtue of his divinity”. As David notes, the idea of an omnipotent deity who is unable to feel the misery of others [in, for example, the death camps and repeated civil wars and genocide of our world] is quite simply a betrayal of the God of Israel who was profoundly engaged with the struggles and suffering of his people.

As he awaited execution in his prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote that “God had allowed himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross”. Bonhoeffer encouraged us to see that the gospel directs us, not to expect the dramatic intervention of an all-powerful deity but,  to reflect on the powerlessness of God as demonstrated in the suffering of Christ. This theme is developed by Jürgen Moltmann whose writings have been concerned to place the cross of Christ at the very centre of Christian thinking and belief.

What has this got to do with President Trump ? Press reports suggest that his reading skills [and his attention span] are limited, so he is unlikely to study German theologians. In fact I suspect that his Bible knowledge is equally limited. [His closest biblical model may be the golden calf of Exodus 32. Or possibly King Nebuchadnezzar who, in Daniel 3, orders all subjects to prostrate themselves before the golden statue.] Trump is by all accounts a greedy, boastful narcissist with a limited understanding of the world and a greatly inflated idea of his own abilities. But he presents himself as a Christian, more recently as a Presbyterian, and as a Pro-Life candidate, which plays well with his supporters; and he has spoken very positively about some Christian leaders. His Christian faith makes him anti-Muslim. He seems to think that his recent experience of COVID was a gift from God, although he made it clear that he himself had taken the initiative by nudging God in this direction.  A few months ago, faced with street protests in Washington running out of control,  he cleared the streets with tear gas and stage-managed a press conference in front of St John’s Episcopal Cathedral, with a bible [unread] in his hand, to demonstrate that he was God’s man and God was on his side.

What sort of God could that be ? It may well be that Trump’s understanding of God was significantly shaped by Norman Vincent Peale, whose church he attended as a young man, Peale is a controversial figure, who exercised a fifty-two-year ministry at Marble Collegiate church in New York City. He is best known for his advocacy of the Power of Positive Thinking,[the book which was published in 1952 reputedly sold 5 million copies]; he was a 33º Scottish Rifle Freemason, a personal friend of Richard Nixon and his family, and was eventually awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan for his life-long services to theology ! His writing and his preaching seem to blend a defective theology with a defective psychology:

One of the most powerful concepts, one which is a sure cure for lack of confidence, is the thought that God is with you and helping you. This is one of the simplest teachings in religion, namely, that Almighty God will be your companion, will stand by you, help you, and see you through. No other idea is so powerful in developing self-confidence as this simple belief when practiced. To practice it simply affirm “God is with me; God is helping me; God is guiding me.” Spend several minutes each day visualizing his presence. Then practice believing that affirmation.”

In other words, God is an all powerful deity ‘out there’, and he will help those who help themselves.  This is not so different from the prosperity gospel; give your lives to the Lord and he will bless you richly, in this world. It is a seductive message, but one which has nothing to say to those living with sorrow or a sense of failure. I am reminded that when Margaret Thatcher spoke to the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1988, in what became known as The Sermon on the Mound, she insisted that Christianity was about [personal] spiritual redemption, and not about social reform; and she seemed to quote approvingly from St Paul, ”If a man will not work, he shall not eat”.

We always appreciated newly-arriving Americans in the church in Lyon; they were generous with their time and money and energies. Many shared an individualistic, self-starter, can-do, get stuck-in philosophy. So I suppose that many such Christians may vote for Trump as a strong man; someone who will defend them against leftist revolutionaries and Islamic terrorists. They believe that St Paul taught us that God ordained leaders to preserve civil order,  and they approve of Trump’s stance on abortion, and school vouchers, and religious liberty. And no doubt on gun control. Or rather the lack of it.

The downside is that there is no indication that Trump’s beliefs allow for a suffering Christ or an in-dwelling Holy Spirit. I suspect that he thinks the crucified Christ is ‘just a loser’. Like people that pay their taxes. Or lose their jobs because of corporate restructuring. Or the 200,000 Americans who have died so far of COVID 19. I very much hope that he loses the forthcoming presidential election. I don’t have a lot of faith in Joe Biden, who sounds a bit sleepy and a bit slow. But I think that [almost] anyone would be better than Trump.

October 2020


If any American reads this and thinks that I am wrong, please feel free to say so.

Through a glass darkly – 23

May or September are [said to be]  the best months for visiting Scotland. After a couple of distinctly autumnal weeks we went north in mid-September more in hope than in expectation. Or to be more precise we went north in a dark red Kia Ceed [they dropped the bizarre apostrophe in 2018]., rented from a friendly garage in Dalkeith. As any septuagenarians reading this will know, hiring a car gets more difficult when you reach seventy-five. Either the answer is a straight ‘No’, or you get landed with a substantially hiked insurance cost.

There were tedious queues on the A9 north of Perth, where they are working on dualling the section towards Dunkeld. But fortified by coffee from the excellent Birnam Arts Centre

Susie, Birnham Arts Centre cafe

cafe, we were in Inverness by the middle of the afternoon. We had booked B&Bs in Inverness and two subsequent stops, but I hadn’t realised that in these COVID times you need to book ahead for meals too. We walked along the river into town, and eventually got a table at the fifth place we tried. It was an Indian restaurant  which was refurbishing, but was serving meals in the adjacent cafe.


Confession. We gave church a miss on Sunday morning. [The last time I was in Inverness on a Sunday, I tried with difficulty to find an evening service. Eventually I was directed to the Episcopal cathedral, where I was part of a congregation of four and the service was in the Gaelic !] Instead we had booked a visit to the Culloden Visitors’ centre- advance booking now essential at National Trust properties. The centre didn’t exist when we were last at Culloden. Now the panels tell the story of the background to the 1745 rising, the Hanoverian story on one side, the Jacobite story on the other. The Jacobite army, exhausted after a fruitless night march and hungry because of inadequate provisioning, was destroyed on Culloden Moor in April 1746 by the Hanoverian army under the Duke of Cumberland.


[John Prebble tells me that Cumberland was younger than I had realised. And he seems in some ways to have  been a model for the current Prince Andrew.] After a rather slow tour of the exhibition it was good to walk on the battle-field; the lines of the opposing armies marked with flags, and memorial stones showing where the clan chiefs fell. 

In the afternoon we visited Fort George, also booked on line. It is an impressive, stone-built eighteenth century barracks, one of a series of Hanoverian military bases [Fort George, Fort Augustus, Fort William] which were built after the 1745 uprising. The Fort sits on a neck of land at the narrowest point of the Moray Firth, looking across to Rosemarkie and Chanonry Point. It contains the Highlanders’ Regimental Museum; dress uniforms, sepia photos, and medals from assorted highland regiments. All fascinating if you like that sort of thing. Which I quite do.

Fort George

Then on north to Sutherland, named Suôrland [Southern Land] by the Norse in relation to their settlements in Orkney and Shetland. Our base was Armadale House, a Victorian B&B close to the sea, run by Detta, originally from Groningen but who has lived here for the past two decades.

Armadale House

This is rugged, thinly populated country, with a sprinkling of chambered cairns, standing stones, hill forts, and deserted  settlements. It sprinkled with rain on Strathy Point, where we failed to spot the whales. But the sun shone on the sea at Torrisdale Bay at Bettyhill. A plaque on the disused ice house overlooking the mouth of the river Naver told us that as late as the 1960s almost a thousand salmon were netted here on a single day. 

Sutherland is strongly associated with the Highland Clearances of the early nineteenth century, when villagers were driven off their crofts by landowners who wanted the land for sheep farming. The villains of the story are traditionally the English, epitomised by George Granville Leveson-Gower[1758-1833], an Old Etonian, English aristocrat, landowner and politician, said to the the richest man in England. In addition to his extensive land-holdings in Staffordshire, Shropshire, and Yorkshire, he acquired vast estates in Scotland by his marriage to Elizabeth, 19th Countess of Sutherland. As part of the ‘improvements’ to the Sutherland estate hundred of villagers were forcibly evicted in Strathnaver by Patrick Sellar, one of the Duke’s factors. Bad things certainly happened in Strathnaver, where people were treated cruelly. But it is now generally recognised that the clearances were at least in part the work of the clan chiefs and of incoming Lowland Scots. [Interestingly, in the light of recent controversy about public statues, there is a 100 foot high monument to the Duke of Sutherland on top of Ben Bhraggie, a prominent hill overlooking the village of Golspie in eastern Sutherland. And for a decade or more there have been campaigns to demolish the statue and replace it with a monument to the victims of the Clearances.]


We spent a day meandering down Strathnaver, starting with the deserted clearance village at Aberlochy. Then a roadside monument commemorating the first gathering of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (Princess Louise’s), known after  Baklava in the Crimean War as ‘The Thin Red Line’.  Then a stone marking the grave of the ‘Red Priest’, an eighth century priest killed by Viking raiders, sometimes identified [wrongly] with Saint Maelrubha. the Irish monk who founded the monastery at Applecross.. Nearby, in a clearing in woodland, what is said to be the Red Priest’s dwelling is in reality a Neolithic chambered cairn. Lunch was a picnic in Naver Forest, and we walked up to Rosal, one of the larger clearance villages set on a hillside above the river.

Rosal Clearance Village

We came home to Armadale via The Flow Country, a rolling expanse of peatland and wetland, the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe. It is both a significant wildlife habitat and a major carbon store.

Later in the week we drove west, through Bettyhill and across the causeway at Tongue. A combination of staycations [an ugly neologism] and promotion in recent years of the North Coast 500 has led to a significant increase in visitor numbers. We drove round the bottom end of Loch Eriboll in a procession that included five camper-vans and two Aston-Martins with the hoods down. And we failed to spot where we rough camped forty-plus years ago  [see TaGD – 21].

Pete’s Beach

In Durness both Smoo Cave and the John Lennon Memorial Garden  [he came here regularly for holidays as a child; and there is an ongoing debate as to whether Durness inspired the song In my life] had both attracted a bunch of camper-vans. We went straight on to Balnakeil where I played golf [very badly] on the nine-hole course overlooking the sea, the most northerly course in the UK; and afterwards  we had a hot chocolate from the reputed Cocoa Mountain in the Balnakeil Craft Village.. All melted chocolate and cream and calories.

Balnakeil Beach

Our final two nights were at Laide on the edge of Gruinard Bay. We visited the North Sea Convoy Museum at Aultbea. Susie’s father, George Malloch, was a very young medical doctor on the North Sea Convoys, but rarely spoke about the experience. And we re-visited the excellent Inverewe Gardens, a two thousand acre botanical garden created in the 1860s by Osgood Mackenzie and his daughter Mhairi.

Inverewe Gardens

And I played golf again at Gairloch in the sunshine, rather better this time, or at least not quite so badly as before, on the charming nine-hole course tucked in behind the beach. And Susie finally swam in the sea at Mellon Udrigle.

And now we are back in Edinburgh again, grateful for a trip away. And wondering when we might get a chance to go away again. Probably not in the near future in view of the rampant second wave.

September 2020

Through a glass darkly – 22

After finishing the Zeldin book [see TaGD – 20], I thought that I would look again at Alistair Horne’s book The Fall of Paris: the Siege and the Commune. Horne was a journalist, biographer, and European historian, who died in 2017. 

My copy of the book first published in 1965 is a bit water damaged after a long spell in the garage. Unfortunately the subsequent two books in Horne’s trilogy, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 [1962] and To Lose a Battle: France 1940 [1969] have both disappeared; I think they too both succumbed to water damage.

The Siege

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was a disaster for the French. In July 1870 France declared  war on her neighbour; partly because the countries fell out over the vacant throne of Spain, and partly because France felt threatened by the growing power of Prussia. On July 28th Louis-Napoleon rode forth in command of his armies. Within six weeks the divided French armies were defeated on both sides of the Vosges, at Woerth and at Spicheren; Bazaine’s army was besieged at Metz; MacMahon’s army surrendered at Sedan; and Bismarck imposed harsh terms on Louis-Napoleon who was sent into imprisonment in Germany. The Prussian armies under Moltke advanced  rapidly on Paris, and by the end of September the city was under siege. It was now cut off from the rest of France. “It is in Paris that the beating of Europe’s heart is felt”, wrote Victor Hugo, a vigorous septuagenarian, “ Germany extinguishing Paris … Can you Germans become Vandals again; personify barbarism decapitating civilisation.”

General Trochu, aged fifty-five, had been recalled from an obscure command in the Pyrenees to form the new XII Corps, and then to become Military Governor of Paris. When in September amid chaotic scenes at the Hotel de Ville Gambetta, standing on a window sill, proclaimed the Republic, the post of President was offered to Trochu. Who accepted it with no great enthusiasm. The city of Paris was surrounded by an enceinte wall, some thirty feet high, divided into ninety three bastions linked by masonry ‘curtains’; and behind the moat were a chain of powerful forts equipped with powerful guns. The line of forts filled out a circumference of some forty miles. Within the city there were some 60,000 troops, some of whom had escaped from Sedan and elsewhere. And there were, very soon, some 350,000 members of the National Guard; a great mass of untrained [working] men, attracted by the pay of 1.50 francs a day, and the right to elect their own officers. Notionally Paris was a powerful armed fortress. But there was no strategy as to how their considerable assets were to be managed. Trochu himself was a military theorist rather than a man of action. Washburne, the American Minister, who was received by the new President in his slipper and dressing-gown, thought “he did not look much of a soldier”.

Prussian siege guns

All one ever remembers of the siege of Paris are the balloonists and the rats. Balloons had always been a French thing. Since De Montgolfier’s first hot-air balloon of 1783; a perilous device in which the passengers had to stoke a fire of straw and wood directly below the highly inflammable paper envelope. When the siege of Paris began there were only seven existing balloons, but a series of balloon making workshops were set up across the city and a highly profitable Balloon Post was established.

Balloon factory

Balloons took off at the rate of two or three a week, either from Montmartre or from outside the Gare du Nord. The problem of course was this was a one-sided means of communication. And that the balloons were blown to every corner of France. When the idea was mooted in September of ballooning a delegate to Tours, Gambetta, the Minister of the Interior, was one of the few volunteers. Gambetta left Paris on October 7th and after an eventful flight arrived forty-eight hours later in Tours where he declared himself Minister of War. Altogether some 65 manned balloons left Paris during the siege; six landed in Belgium, four in Holland, two in Germany, one in central Norway, and two were lost at sea. The knowledge that the city was not entirely cut off from the rest of the world served to restore some Parisian morale.

As half-hearted attempts to break out of the city failed, the lack of news was replaced by a lack of food. Hunger became a real problem. Goncourt noted “People are talking only of what they eat”; and found Théophile Gautier lamenting that “he has to wear braces for the first time, his abdomen no longer supporting his trousers”. Cheese, butter, and milk were all little more than a memory; the cattle and sheep had vanished from the city; and fresh vegetables had run out. The zoos were forced to surrender their precious inmates: Hugo was sent some joints of bear, deer, and antelope by the curator of the Jardin des Plantes; and two young elephants, Castor and Pollux, were bought by Roos, the wealthy proprietor of the Boucherie Anglaise. Horse-meat became commonplace, as even valued race-horses ended their days at the butchers. Horne records that the signs ‘Feline and Canine Butchers’ made their debut. The journalist Henry Labouchère reported without comment that he had met a man who was fattening up a large cat for Christmas Day, intending to serve it “surrounded with mice like sausages”. The rat was the most fabled animal of the Siege of Paris, and from December a good rat-hunt was a favoured occupation of the National Guard.

German bombardment of the southern forts began in January. The nightly bombardment did relatively little damage, but there was great anger when six small children were killed by a single shell. Fuel shortages in the winter months, malnutrition, and diseases, both smallpox and typhoid, began to take their toll. Another projected sortie at Buzenval failed dismally, for which the leadership was violently criticised by the Mayors, led by Clemenceau of Montmartre. While the pious Trochu prayed for deliverance, his influential deputy, Favre, now favoured capitulation. On January 27th Favre secretly met with Bismarck in Versailles to negotiate a cease-fire, pending the drawing up of a definitive peace treaty.

The Commune

Favre’s armistice was received in Paris with a mixture of rage and stupor. Needed foodstuffs poured into the city, but Republican Paris felt betrayed by the capitulation, and further betrayed by a February election which resulted in an overwhelming victory for the ‘list for peace’. A rift had opened up between Paris and the provinces, and this was aggravated by every step taken by the new administration headed by Thiers. On February 26th, the day that Thiers signed the Peace Treaty, mass demonstrations of the National Guard erupted across the city, and two hundred cannon were hauled from the artillery parks to Montmartre. An attempt by the French Army to retrieve the cannon failed, and General Lecomte and the elderly General Thomas were lynched by an angry mob. When Clemenceau saw what had happened he burst into tears; the only time the tough doctor-politician wept in public until the victory of 1918.

The government move on Montmartre and the killing of the two generals took everyone by surprise. But a group of National Guards led by Brunel marched on the Hotel de Ville, and, as the gendarmes and government troops melted away, 20,000 National Guards took possession of the building. As the government withdrew, legal authority in Paris passed to the Mayors of the twenty arrondissements. Heated discussions between the Comité Central and the mayors ensued, fighting broke out on the streets of the city, the rift between Paris and Versailles widened, and on Tuesday, March 28th, the Commune was officially declared at the Hotel de Ville.

Now that our Commune is elected”, wrote Corporal Louis Péguret of the National Guard, “we shall await with impatience the acts by which it will make itself known to us. May God wish that this energetic medium … will procure for us genuinely honest and durable institutions”. All Parisians wondered what the Commune would do. In fact, what was the Commune ? Contrary to what many bourgeois believed, it had nothing to do with the Socialist International. The Commune came to power in 1871 with no ideology and no programme; other than looking back over its shoulder to 1793. There was certainly a sense that the working class had been swindled out of their inheritance of the Great Revolution. It was born partly out of general discontent with the poor social conditions under the Second Empire. “What is it to me”, someone asked in Goncourt’s hearing, “that there should be monuments, operas, cafe-concerts, where I have never set foot because I have no money ?” And there was also an element of demanding municipal independence for industrial Paris from the rest of predominantly rural France. In consequence the Commune was invariably riven with disputes between Blanquist socialists and radical Jacobins; between anarchists, intellectuals, Bohemians, Gambettists, and disgruntled petit bourgeois. 

Disunity was the death of the Commune. The brave and capable Louis Rossel, a professional soldier, son of a Breton father and a Scottish mother, was appointed Minister of War, but was soon accused [wrongly] of treachery and deposed. A Parisian mob tore down the massive Vendôme Column erected by Napoleon I on the sight of the former equestrian statue of Louis XIV. The Paris house of Thiers was demolished and his belongings and works of art were carried away by the mob. Raoul Rigault the unsavoury Police Chief ordered the arrest of a number of ‘hostages’ including the Archbishop of Paris. Clemenceau and his fellow mayors, and other bodies including the Paris Freemasons, tried to open negotiations between Paris and Versailles. But all failed. Thiers’ unvarying response was: “Do you come in the name of the Commune ? If so, I shall not listen to you; I do not recognise belligerents … I have no conditions to offer”.

On May 21st Government troops entered the city through an unguarded gate at Point-du-Jour. Ten days of bloody fighting followed. A frenzy of energy seized the Commune and hundreds of street barricades were thrown up as the Versailles troops advanced steadily through the west of Paris. Small pockets of Communards fought bravely. Rumours of mass terror spread swiftly through the city’s inhabitants. It was widely believed that an army of pétroleuses were at large in the city flinging fire-balls through the windows of bourgeois houses. On the evening of May 24th the aged Archbishop of Paris and four other priests were shot in La Roquette prison. National Guards ripped open his body with bayonets, and threw it into an open ditch at Père-Lachaise cemetery.

The Communards were forced back towards Montmartre and towards Belleville. The leaders of the Commune were falling. The sixty-one year old Delescluze, moral leader of the Commune, an old style Jacobin, now dying of consumption, made his way to the Avenue Voltaire dressed in top hat, black trousers, and frock coat with a red sash round his waist; and was promptly shot on an abandoned barricade. There were savage killings on both sides. Many captured Communards were shot on the spot. The Prussians obligingly moved up 10,000 troops behind the Communards’ rear to cut off any possible escape eastwards. On Whit Sunday morning, May 28th, Thiers’s army moved in for the kill. On that day when they discovered the unburied body of the murdered Archbishop, 147 captured Communards were lined up and shot against the eastern wall of the cemetery.

Government soldiers advancing into Paris to suppress the Commune, 24th May 1871. The Paris Commune was established when the citizens of Paris, many of them armed National Guards, rebelled against the policies of the conservative government formed after the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The left-wing regime of the Commune held sway in Paris for two months until government troops retook the city in bloody fighting in May 1871. From a private collection. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

On June 22nd the Paris-Journal implored:  “Let us kill no more, not even murderers and incendiaries !  Let us kill no more !” The remaining Communards surrendered. But casual, incidental killing continued for several days. The estimated number of deaths during La Semaine Sanglante varies wildly. But responsible historians suggest that between 20,000 and 25,000 people were killed. Far more than in any battle of the Franco-Prussian War. Far more than were killed during the Great Terror of the French Revolution. All this killing in a city that had regarded itself just a short time  earlier as the very Citadel of Civilisation.

The myth of the Commune

The siege of Paris fundamentally altered the balance of power in Europe; France was diminished alongside a resurgent, and united, Germany. And would not be restored until she regained the surrendered industrial areas of Alsace and Lorraine. The consequences of the Commune are harder to identify. The social achievements of the Commune during the brief two months of its existence were minimal. Frankel, one of its leading reformers, could point only to the abolition of night-work in Parisian bakeries. 

But out of the fabric of the Commune Karl Marx created an enduring myth. In his powerful tract The Civil War in France, written from a safe distance away in north London, Marx celebrated the French working class as “the advance guard of the modern proletariat”. Marx’s whole-hearted support for the Commune split the International movement down the middle. On the one side, the nascent, moderate British Labour Party and the German Social Democrats; on the other, Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks. The widely-read pamphlet transformed Marx from being an obscure German-Jewish professor to being the ‘Red Terrorist master-mind’. He helped create a heroic Socialist legend. The Mur des Fédérés in Père-Lachaise,  where the 147 Communards were shot, is the focal point for left-wing demonstrations on May 28th every year.

The story of the Commune inspired a host of writers, including Emile Zola, Arnold Bennett, Jean Vautrin, and Umberto Ecco; and a variety of playwrights including Brecht and Adamov. I was fascinated to learn that, among the Commune inspired films, there is a 6-hour epic  [unwatchable ?] by Peter Watkins called La Commune, shot in 2000 in a deserted factory on the outskirts of Paris. In a distant echo of the Commune balloonists, Alistair Horne notes that in 1964, when the first three-man team of Soviet cosmonauts took off, they took with them three sacred relics; a picture of Marx, a picture of Lenin, – and a ribbon cut from a Communard flag.


Is there a museum in Paris dedicated to the history of the Paris Commune ? If so, I have never seen any mention of it. And the Institut Français in Edinburgh hadn’t either. If anyone who reads this knows better, do please let me know. I’d definitely make a pilgrimage to go and see it.

September 2020

Through a glass darkly – 21

Going North

Scotland is a bigger country than many people realise. And crossing the country is not quick. To get from Edinburgh [where we live] to Wick, not far from John o’Groats, a distance of about 260 miles, is a minimum of five hours driving, and takes roughly eight hours by train and bus. To get from Edinburgh to Durness, on the north-west coast, on public transport takes two days; a bus to Inverness on the first day, and then train and bus onwards the following day. I did the journey two years ago in the early autumn testing the limits of my Senior Citizen [free] bus pass. 

We are going up north again shortly. The plan is to have a couple of nights in Inverness, then three nights at Armadale up on the Pentland Firth, and then two nights at Laide, on the west coast near Gairloch. It will be the first time since lock-down began that we will have been beyond Edinburgh and the surrounds. And it will be the first time since 1974 that Susie and I will have been together north of the Great Glen, the geological fault line that runs south-west from Inverness on the Moray Firth to Fort William at the head of Loch Linnhe . The glen which contains Loch Ness and which separates the North West Highlands from the Grampians.

On our original trip north we hired a brown Ford Escort somewhere in Edinburgh and set off with an ageing tent intending to travel anti-clockwise round the north coast. It was about forty years before the creation of the North Coast 500. Before we started I had to go and buy an anorak on Princes Street; as an ignorant southerner I didn’t realise that Scottish summers are rarely warm and dry. I think we also went to ASDA to buy provisions and a small camping stove.

It didn’t seem sensible to camp in Aberdeen. So we stayed at the Treetops Hotel, and got up early in order to visit the fish market before breakfast.

Susie at Aberdeen Harbour

Aberdeen is where Susie had been at uni [curiously we both have Master’s degrees from Aberdeen], and so for her it is a place of memories. [I guess we all have some attachment to cities/towns where we were at uni. Back in the summer of 1964 I spent a couple of lunchtimes walking in St James Park with the wife of the Bulgarian press attache, who told me what  an attractive town Sofia was; as she described it, a cross between Heidelberg and the stage-set for The Student Prince. When I got there a couple of months later it looked more like Cumbernauld New Town.] And it didn’t seem sensible to camp in Inverness either. We stayed in a hotel on the edge of town, of which I remember only that it had a tartan carpet, tartan wallpaper, and a matching tartan ceiling. Or maybe the tartans didn’t match. It was a pretty gloomy place.

Then on north. We had coffee with Susie’s cousin Charlie in Evanton. We stopped in Lairg to buy a copy of The Times; it might be the last opportunity for some time. I think the headlines concerned a major storm in the Irish Sea which had severely disrupted the Plymouth-Fastnet yacht race. In which Ted Heath was a competitor.  On a minor road ten miles south of Ben Hope,  we stopped to look at the impressive ruins of Dun Dornadilla. A bit further on we got out of the car to look at Ben Hope, thereby inviting half million midges to share the car with us.

Near Ben Hope

And then, as it started to get dark, we pitched our trusty tent on a gentle, grassy slope overlooking the waters of Loch Eriboll, a deep sea loch on the shores of the Pentland Firth. It was where the remaining German U-boat fleet surrendered in 1945. It was apparently known to British servicemen during the war as Lock ‘Orrible, on account of the frequently inclement weather. But I didn’t know that at the time.

When we woke up at about four o’clock the next morning, water was streaming through the tent. We had no built-in ground-sheet in those days. So the water simply flowed in under the walls at the top end of the tent and out at the bottom. We put a very wet tent in the car, retrieved our belongings from the shallow stream, and went in search of breakfast in Durness. Or more precisely in the Craft Village at Balnakeil; a collection of local enterprises housed in the huts of what had originally been built after the war as an RAF early warning/listening station. 

Phone box on Loch Eriboll

It took two or three gusty days camping at Sheigra to dry out the tent. We swam a couple of times, bought sausages and a frying pan in Kinlochbervie [the pan stayed with us for years, the sausages didn’t], and failed to walk the four or so miles to the famed Sandalwood Bay. After that we put the tent away in the boot. We stayed in the Summer Isles Hotel at Achiltibuie, which at that time had quite an elderly clientele, many swathed in tartan rugs. The proprietor was Robert Irvine, an ex-actor, who wore knee-breeches and buckled shoes,. His daughter was Lucy Irvine, the author of Castaway [later filmed by Nicolas Roeg with Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe]. Much more economically we stayed in an isolated caravan, next to naval gun emplacements overlooking Loch Ewe. The owners were reluctant to let us away, preferring not to handle money on the Sabbath. After which we rushed to Eilean Donan to take photos of sunset over the castle, and took the ferry across to Skye, Where we stayed in a very run-down caravan in a field somewhere near Portree.

Eilean Donan Cstle

Things looked up when we had a night at Kinloch Lodge Hotel at Isle Ornsay. It was newly-opened in 1974, very comfortable, very luxurious, with an excellent restaurant. [Claire Macdonald subsequently became a well-known cook and cookery writer.] We ate well, and then made the mistake of doing some serious malt whisky tasting in the bar with the Portree dentist. Which made it difficult to face the black pudding at breakfast. After that we took the ferry back to Mallaig, and made for Arisaig. Alistair at Port na Doran, where Susie’s family had camped for many years gave us one of his vans, and a message to ring a number in London. So we spent the next morning in the Arisaig phone box, clutching a handful of pennies and trying to make a person-to-person call to someone in London.

Sunset over Eilean Donan

It was a good trip. Which had lasting consequences. Susie and I got engaged while we were at Isle Ornsay, which was a big plus, though we have not drunk whisky since. And the phone call was the offer of a job in Paris, where we spent the next few years. Happy days !

September 2020