Through a glass darkly – 61

Kiev calling – 2

It is going to get a lot colder here in Kiev: temperatures on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are forecast as -9ºC up to -6ºC. And it should be snowing by then. According to the BBC forecast on my MacBook. Which is good news, I think. For the last several days it has been grey and wet, with a mix of sleet and freezing rain. I don’t recall seeing the sun since we arrived.

St Michael’s Monastery

We have been in Kiev for two weeks now. Which doesn’t make me an expert on anything. But we have finally changed some US dollars into local currency, Ukrainian hrivnya if you need to know. Written UAE. Changing money was very straightforward at a little currency shop across the road, with an unsmiling red-haired woman behind a glass screen. No passport or identity document required. And we have ordered several large barrels of water, along with a tailor-made pump, which were delivered this morning by an efficient young man. It seems that no-one drinks tap water in Kiev. And Susie said that it was an unrepeatable pre-Christmas offer. And we have, amazingly, booked some rail tickets to go to Lviv after Christmas. Both the water and the rail tickets were sourced with help from Kate, who has been here at the embassy for three years. And who is a great help and encouragement. Admittedly we only secured the rail tickets [the last seats on the train] at the fourth attempt and with a second credit card. 

A few days walking around the city in the rain gave me a streaming cold; cue much sneezing and a nose running like a mountain stream.  So I stayed indoors for 36 hours, living mainly on tea and paracetamol. Happily I was well enough for the service on Sunday afternoon, but sounded more like Paul Robeson than usual. A small but faithful congregation. The church here uses an unknown [to me] American hymn book. I remember all those old jokes about Britain and America being two countries  divided by a common language. Divided more I think by a common hymnody.

St Michael’s Monastery

Susie has caught my cold this week, and has been staying warm indoors. So I went by myself to carol singing at the Embassy on Monday evening. It was a low-key event with twenty or so people singing carols in the garden, followed by mulled wine and mince pies indoors. The embassy is quite big here, and I can imagine that Ukraine is a challenging posting. It was good to have brief conversations with some of the people there. From which I gathered that the Kiev Anglican church is a well-kept secret. But I hope to be organising a baptism for one of the families that I met on the Sunday after Christmas. It seems that December 25th is not a public holiday in this country. So we will be having our Christmas Day celebration on December 26th.

Walking across town to the embassy was an opportunity to photograph a few of the sights after dark. Which may be when they look at their best ! St Michael’s gold-domed monastery is named after Kiev’s patron saint. The current building [2001] is a copy of the original [1108], which was torn down by the Soviets in 1937.

Andriyivsky Uzviz [Andrew’s Descent]

Andriyivsky Uzviz [Andrew’s descent] is the most picturesque street in Kiev. It is a steep, cobbled street reminiscent of Montmartre. According to legend the Apostle Andrew walked up this hill, erected a cross, and prophesied that a great city would occupy this site. At the top of the hill St Andrew’s church was built in 1754 by an Italian architect, interpreting the traditional Ukrainian design of a five-domed, cross-shaped church.

Andriyivsky Uzviz [Andrew’s Descent]

That’s probably enough guide-book stuff. France 24 mentioned blustering Boris yesterday; only to say that he is deeply unpopular, and that his back-benchers are revolting. Which is not exactly news. But they haven’t yet acknowledged the coming day-night test in Adelaide. I suppose that a French news station has to draw the line somewhere.


Today’s exciting news is that the Tories have lost the by-election in Owen Paterson’s old seat. With an unprecedented swing of some 30%+ to the Lib Dems. And that Boris has taken full responsibility for the result. A rare display of truthfulness ? Yet more good news to celebrate this Christmas.

December 2021

Through a glass darkly – 60


We arrived in this city after dark a week ago. After changing planes in Frankfurt. It took a long time to clear customs as we were behind a sizeable group of  orthodox Jewish rabbis, all wearing long ringlets under black hats, who attracted a great deal of attention from the suspicious officials. I think it must be Hanukah. Christina and Vlad kindly met us at the airport, and we shared a taxi into town to our apartment. We are in Kiev in the Ukraine.

Susie at Maydan Nezalezhnosti [Independence Square]

The apartment is a bit 1960s Soviet style; a square living room, a square bedroom, a miniature kitchen that boasts an induction hob and a fridge, and a small bathroom where a washing machine occupies a lot of space. The lighting is harsh. But the apartment is wonderfully warm. Which is a good thing as it is cold outside; snow earlier in the week, and freezing rain today. We watched with fascination as icicles formed on branches and hand-rails. The apartment is on the seventh floor. It is 108 steps up from the entrance to the building. I know because I count them every time we walk up and down. The lift stopped working on Sunday morning, and although it is now working again Susie is very suspicious of it.

Our building is at the back of a block that overlooks a four lane road. Happily there is a set of lights and pedestrian crossing close by, which enables us to visit the ATB  [small] supermarket on a regular basis. Language is a bit of a problem. Susie is dredging her memory for bits of Russian learnt at an evening class in Oxford some fifty years ago, and she also had a couple of preliminary sessions with our Ukrainian next-door neighbour in Edinburgh. I have signed on with Duolinguo, which is wonderfully encouraging. But I haven’t got much beyond ‘Mum and Dad are over there’. Which limits any exchanges on the street. The Cyrillic script doesn’t help. I can only recognise a limited number of characters. And then I don’t know how they are pronounced.

Trying to work out where we are

On our first morning I was totally confused about directions. We turned right from the apartment, and walked to the nearest metro.  [We thought we were walking towards town, but in fact we were  walking away from it !] From there we took a metro into the centre of town, to the Maidan. For ticket buying and for changing metro lines we were helped by kindly passers-by. No-one had told me that the Kiev metro is probably the deepest in the world. I am well used to the London Underground and the Paris and Brussels metro systems, but here the escalators go down [and up] for several minutes at a time. Long enough for a nervous traveller to recite the Lord’s Prayer in two languages and most of How great Thou art ! I think we are now trying to stay out of the metro, partly for COVID reasons, in order to avoid contact with a lot of unmasked people. 

Sightseeing on Day One was cut short by a phone call from Thamarai [see below] warning of an imminent snow storm. We headed down a very long, cobbled hill, failed to find either of the eating places recommended in Lonely Planet, and eventually fell into a very comfortable Italian basement restaurant. Where we ate very well, and were charged a lot of money by Kiev standards. As the snow threatened we risked a bus journey home, overshot our apartment by at least a couple of kilometres, and walked home in the sleet. Grateful for a warm, dry base.

Sunday morning at Pecherska

Sunday worship is at 15.00h in the German Lutheran Church, a handsome building on the side of a steep hill. Thamarai kindly collected us. He is an Indian, I guess from Kerala, the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, one of the founder members of Christ Church, Kyiv, and currently the Treasurer. It is a small but friendly congregation, predominantly Ukrainian. Christina, who met us at the airport, is the church warden, a professional interpreter; her husband, Vlad, is a lawyer. Sylvia is an American, ordained as a Pastor in the Nazarene Church. Another member, Anastasia, is a potential Church of England ordinand. We are meeting up to talk.  We sang from an unfamiliar American hymn book, accompanied [but not greatly helped] by a professional organist.

Early impressions of Kiev are just glimpses. The streets are very clean, with little old ladies busy sweeping up on Sunday morning. There is a lot of traffic, mainly big, black cars. Big, unattractive Soviet style blocks of apartments are much in evidence. Young people in the city centre are smartly dressed. Most people in the streets and in cafes have an I-phone in their hand. In shops and cafes people pay on their phones. Gullivers is a nearby shopping mall, far superior to anything in Edinburgh, with an imposing atrium. Currently decorated with a Christmas tree and a family of penguins. Escalators take you to a 6th floor Food Hall. Where I think to set up a temporary office. The ubiquitous piped music is uniformly 1940s American, often Sinatra or imitators. Jingle Bells vies with Santa Claus is coming to town.  

With the penguins, Gullivers Mall

After our initial Italian extravagance, we are downwardly mobile at lunchtimes. Guided by Lonely Planet we have discovered Puzata Hata  a chain of Ukrainian self-service cafes which serve an astonishing variety of food without frills. In the absence of language you just point at what you want. It was a bit galling to discover that the Ukrainian name means Hut of the Pot Belly !

Our awareness of the wider world is limited to France 24, a French language tv news station that functions in English.  It is an interestingly different slant on world news, with no mention of blustering Boris and no mention of the cricket. But we are up to date on Macron’s visit to the Middle East and the Pope’s visit to Greece. And there was a fascinating discussion in English by four commentators on the background to the current Russian-Ukrainian dispute. I guess that if Putin’s troops invade, someone will tell us.  For the moment I feel that this is a safe place. I just want to hope and pray that we can be some encouragement to the people here.

December 2021.

Through a glass darkly – 59

We landed in this unfamiliar city after dark … 

Opening Up

No, we haven’t quite got that far yet. It’s just like what they say about London buses. You wait for ages and then two come along at once. This will be my second attempt at blogging this week. Not because it has been a particularly exciting week – though it has been; but in an attempt to explain the recent two month hiatus. As the world started to open up a bit in the late summer and in the autumn,  we had more opportunities to meet up with friends and family, in particular with family. And I spent a lot less time turning the pages of books and writing about [some of] them. 

Two London buses arriving together

It was great to see my two brothers and their wives, Paul and Jean, Peter and Alice, in Scotland in September. It was the first time we had seen them for about two years. And the first time since Peter’s gloomy medical diagnosis earlier this year. They were renting a cottage on a farm down at Kelso. We drove down for a relaxed pub lunch on a grey day in the Borders. And they came up to Edinburgh a couple of days later for a walk in the Botanics followed by lunch at our place. Jamie Oliver’s Baked Chicken [with sweet potatoes, red pepper, parmesan, and cream] went down well. As did Katie Stewart’s old apple pie recipe. Then we met for lunch at The Maltings in Berwick [excellent, thank you], followed by a walk round the Berwick town walls. I don’t think I realised when we lived along the road in Duns what an attractive place Berwick is. Albeit a bit run down. They say that the parish church is one of the very few churches built during Cromwell’s Protectorate.

Paul and Jean, Peter and Alice, and Susie, in Berwick

Another ‘opening up’ treat was going down to see the children at half-term. Generally people wore masks as advised on the train down, except for what was probably a wedding party who invaded the quiet coach at Newcastle. But there were fewer masks in London than in Edinburgh. It was good to see a bit more of the children and grand-children after a long gap. We stayed with Joanna and Craig in High Wycombe, and walked with all the family at Cliveden. Great views across the river. No sign of the Astors, nor of  Profumo and Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. Which all seems a long time ago. And we ate with Jem and Anna and family at Chalgrove, and walked round Watlington on the edge of the Chilterns. Which is Vicar of Dibley territory.

Some of the family at Cliveden

In the middle of November it was time to brave overseas travel for the Men’s Retreat down at Maredsous. Organised once again by Armin Kummer and his helpers from the German Protestant Church. We thought about the notion of sanctuary, and talked about the tension between security and liberty in a time of pandemic. Seeking a Christian perspective. Numbers were reduced because of the pandemic, but it was very good to be back in familiar surroundings of the Abbey surrounded by autumnal forests. In between worship and discussion we managed an 11 kilometre walk on the Saturday afternoon.

Men’s Retreat, 2021, Maredsous

But the bureaucratic paperwork was a nightmare. I am double-jabbed and have had the booster jab, but I was instructed to take an antigen test within 24 hours of arrival in Brussels. Not possible on a feriè [on November 11th]. Returning to the UK was worse. The website is not fit for purpose. And persistently refused to accept my user-name and password. The PLF [Passenger Locator Form] demanded that I book a test within 24 hours of my return. There is a perfectly good NHS Test site near us in Edinburgh. But insists on a commercial test. I booked with bad grace with a company in Northamptonshire, who charged me for a test but failed to turn up on-line on Tuesday morning. It’s probably a scam run by a Tory back-bencher’s girl-friend. Or boy-friend, I suppose. Just a reminder that the whole COVID epidemic has been a cash-cow for many Tory party supporters. [See Private Eye passim.]

All of which makes me wonder how and why we are now abroad again …

December 2021

Through a glass darkly – 58

We arrived in this city last week after dark  … but I am getting ahead of myself.

Sticky wicket in Yorkshire

It is about three months or so since I last blogged. Where has the time gone ? I started to write something about racism and Yorkshire cricket a few weeks ago when Roger Hutton resigned. In the face of accusations of institutional racism. [I assume that Roger Hutton is no relation to Sir Len Hutton, outstanding opening batsman for Yorkshire and England, and captain of the England XI that regained the Ashes in the summer of 1953. One of my childhood heroes, if less charismatic than his contemporary Denis Compton. I have both their autographs in my prized autograph album upstairs.]

Len Hutton, Yorkshire and England

Since then the story has gone viral. Michael Vaughan, has been stood down by the BBC from commenting on the about-to-begin Ashes series in Australia.  And a hitherto unknown Tory peer, who made her fortune in ladies underwear, is facing similar accusations. Attempts to hold institutions, or individuals, to account for historical racism are fraught with problems. But the press are generally happy to make a presumption of guilt.

One of the interesting [to me] by-products of the racism debate took us to Twickenham.  Where supporters of the England rugby team, who are often portrayed as middle-class‘Hooray Henries’ have been happily singing Swing low, sweet chariot for several decades. This Afro-American spiritual was thought to be first sung when the black winger Chris Oti got a hat-trick of tries against Ireland in 1988.  But it is now clear that the song was sung the previous year as a tribute to another black winger, Martin ‘Chariots’ Offiah. In the light of the Black Lives Matter movement that followed the death of George Floyd, the Rugby Football Union has said that is working “to create awareness”.  Which sounds a suitably bland cliche.

Business as usual in the Commons

At one point I also thought of writing something about Owen Paterson. Paterson [b. 1956] was a middle-ranking Conservative Party politician; educated at Radley College [after Ted Dexter] and at Cambridge, who worked for some years in the leather industry. He entered the House of Commons in 1997, and was Secretary of Sate for the Environment 2012-2014. [He was succeeded in the post by the upwardly mobile Liz Truss.] Paterson was the first cabinet minister to oppose the Same Sex Marriage bill, has a long track record as a climate change sceptic, and was an active Brexiteer, who was co-founder of the pressure group Conservatives for Britain.

Owen Patterson, former MP

After lengthy investigations, encouraged by The Guardian, Paterson was found guilty of an egregious breach of parliamentary rules by lobbying on behalf of companies that were paying him more than £100, 000 a year. Blustering Boris’s first reaction was to whip Tory MPs in support of Peterson and to attempt to dismantle the system by which MPs’ behaviour is regulated. while a cross-party committee examined the Commons’ standards system with a view to establishing some kind of appeals process. Instead the Paterson case would be investigated by a committee chaired by John Whittingdale, a former Tory Culture Minister.  [A man who was investigated by a former parliamentary Commissioner for Standards over a trip to Amsterdam in 2013, with his then girlfriend, a dominatrix sex worker.] Keir Starmer called Boris’s behaviour deeply corrupt.  Even the Daily Mail called the PM’s behaviour shameless. When even Boris realised that this behaviour was unacceptable, Peterson was dropped quietly overboard. And there are rumours that the Lib Dems have a chance of winning the Shropshire seat at the imminent by-election.

Diaries and Diarists

I guess I’m a sucker for diaries. Other people’s, not my own. I certainly keep a diary, of a kind, and I have diaries dating back to 1987 on the shelf here as well as a couple of schoolboy diaries from the 1950s. But they have rarely been more than appointment books, meetings with people some of whom I don’t now remember. Together with as often as not the Sunday lectionary readings or outline sermon texts. And perhaps a weekly job list with the items crossed neatly through. Which is exactly what my father used to do. He invariably bought a new leather-bound pocket diary in January, and careful transcribed his list of jobs from the previous year. I’m not sure where his diaries are now, so I don’t know whether some jobs simply carried over from year to year.

Chips Channon

I read somewhere a few weeks ago that the three great [English] diarists of the twentieth century were Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, Harold Nicholson, and James Lees-Milne. Channon was an Anglo-American, born in  Chicago in 1897. After the First War he spent two years at Christ Church, Oxford, where he acquired the nickname ‘Chips’ and struck up a close and lasting friendship with Prince Paul of Yugoslavia. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says of him, “adoring London society, privilege, rank, and wealth, he became an energetic, implacable, but endearing social climber.” In 1933, Channon married the brewing heiress Lady Honor Guinness and, after becoming a British citizen in 1935, he became a Tory MP, inheriting the Southend constituency from his mother-in-law, Gwendolen Guinness, Countess of Iveagh. He and his wife were great society hosts and social climbers. In November 1936 his diary records a dinner party at which they entertained Edward VIII, Price Paul of Yugoslavia, the Regent of Greece and his wife, the Duke of Kent and his wife Princess Marina, of whom Channon was a friend and an admirer.

Henry ‘Chips’ Channon

Robert  Rhodes James, who edited an expurgated edition of the diaries in 1967, quotes Channon’s self-portrait, written in  1935:  “Sometimes I think I have an unusual character – able but trivial; I have flair, intuition, great good taste but only second rate ambition: I am far too susceptible to flattery; I hate and am uninterested in all the things most men like such as sports, business, statistics, debates, speeches, war, and the weather; but I am riveted by lust, furniture, glamour and society and jewels. I am an excellent organiser and have a will of iron; I can only be appealed to through my vanity.”  Reviewing the diaries in The Observer in 1967, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote: “Grovellingly sycophantic and snobbish as only a well-heeled American nesting among the English upper classes can be, with a commonness that positively hurts at times. And yet – how sharp an eye! What neat malice! How, in their own fashion, well written and truthful and honest they are!

My edition of Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon is a Penguin paperback, published in 1970, which runs to 500-plus pages. I’ve not looked at it for twenty years. But we are now promised a three volume edition, edited by Simon Heffer, of which the first volume was published earlier this year. The unexpurgated edition reveals that Channon was a promiscuous homosexual whose lengthy affair with the garden designer Peter Coats led to the break-up of his marriage. The exact nature of his friendship with others such as Terence Rattigan and with the Duke of Kent is not clear.

I did look again at James Lees-Milne’s diaries early in the autumn. An incorrigible, self-obsessed, bi-sexual Old Etonian, and a pioneer of the early days of the National Trust, he ended his life living in the strange coterie at Badminton that clustered around the Duke of Beaufort and family. Strangely, I think I may have his autograph too. But more of that another time …

James Lees-Milne, at Badminton

December 2021

Through a glass darkly – 57

Monasteries and Retreat Houses

I spent the middle of last week in a monastery. It was only a couple of nights. We  were staying in St Mary’s, the Redemptorist monastery on the side of Kinnoull Hill, just on the edge of Perth.  My recollection of staying there some thirty years ago, most probably for post-Ordination Training, is that the monastery was cold and gloomy with dreadful food. Now thankfully the accommodation is enormously improved. The rooms ere all en-suite, properly heated and with bedside lights; and the food was uniformly excellent. I think that the community sold a field, presumably for housing, in a highly desirable area, and invested the money in a significant upgrade of the facilities.

St Mary’s, Kinnoull

Down the years I’ve stayed in a variety of monasteries and retreat houses. My first monastery was Mount St Bernard, a Cistercian house in Leicestershire., designed by Augustus Pugin. A group of us went from school, History Grecians who were doing 12th century English monasticism as a special subject for A-level. I remember little about the place; only that we travelled there and back in a master’s elderly van, certainly without seat-belts in the days before Health and Safety. And that the monastic life did not seem very different from the routines of Christ’s Hospital, my boys’ boarding school; a fixed daily routine punctuated by the ringing of a bell.

Mount St Bernard, Leicestershire

When I was an Oxford Diocese ordinand, in the mid 1980s, we were invited to a two night stay in St George’s, Windsor. Even at the time I realised that staying in Windsor Castle, protected by a detachment of Scots Guards, might not be the most appropriate preparation for parish ministry. The main speaker was the newly appointed Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries. When I asked him about the disastrous appointment that had recently been made in our Oxfordshire parish, he made it clear that he regarded such questions as insubordination. The nature of the exchange made me pleased to leave the Oxford Diocese and to come north of the Border for my curacy.

Here in Scotland none of my POT [Post-Ordination Training] sessions were housed in anything like Windsor Castle. My first such event was on Cumbrae, at the cathedral of the Isles. Getting there from St Thomas’, Glasgow Road, involved getting a bus into town to Haymarket, a train to Glasgow Queen Street, walk to Glasgow Central for a train to Largs, a boat to Cumbrae, and then another bus. The building was pretty run-down at the time, the lighting was all 30-watt bulbs, and the teaching input [from a Scottish Bishop] equally dim. Subsequent POT sessions took place at St Drostan’s, Tarfside,  ten miles up Glen Esk in rural Angus, and at Stirling Youth Hostel. St Thomas’s, where I spent two years, relocated its church weekends from Kilcreggan, a shabby Christian retreat centre in the west, to the more palatial surrounds of Crieff Hydro. During our decade in Duns I did an Edinburgh Diocese silent retreat on Holy Island. Walking around the island was wonderful. The input was less wonderful. I met Bishop Richard one afternoon, and was unsure of the protocol for greeting one’s bishop on a silent retreat. He hailed me from several metres away. “Hello, Chris. What do you make of the speaker ? Isn’t he awful !”.

ICS annual Family Conferences alternated between the UK and continental Europe. Fashions change, but most of our home conferences were held at Ashburnham Place, in East Sussex, not far from Battle.  Good grounds, and good cake. Two of our ‘overseas’ conferences were held at the Bible College at Beatenberg, halfway up a mountain in Switzerland. Because I am a complete wimp about heights and mountain roads, I had to wear a face-covering on the short bus journey up from Interlaken West station. But there are superb views from Beatenberg looking south across to the breathtaking mountain panorama of the Three Peaks [Eiger, Mönch and the Jungfrau]. And it is unreconstructed rural Switzerland with cows coming past the college twice a day for milking.

Beatenberg, 2013

For several years the annual France Archdeaconry meeting was held in the Maison Diocesaine at Arras, usually in January with snow on the ground. It was a very big, cold, stone building with footsteps echoing along the long corridors. One year we went on an afternoon coach outing to look at bits of First World War trenches. And then the Archdeaconry meetings moved to the Abbaye St Jacut sur Mer, on the Brittany coast in the Côtes d’Armor, and were held later in the year. St Jacut is delightful: the site of a historic abbey which was purchased and rebuilt in 1875 by the Community of Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of St Méen-le-Grand. The rooms are nothing special, but you can walk straight out of the grounds onto the coastal path, which links a number of small beaches that face west towards the afternoon sun.

Abbaye, St Jacut, Côtes d’Armor

My post-retirement time in Brussels introduced me to a variety of Belgian abbeys; to Kortenberg Abbey and la Foresta and Drongen. There was always beer on offer, and I learned that each of the Belgian beers is meant to be drunk out of the appropriately shaped glass. From 2014 I got involved with the annual Men’s Retreat, very ably organised in recent years by my friend Armin, which brings together men from Holy Trinity, Brussels, and the German Lutheran Church. The usual programme is a mix of teaching input and break-out groups, group worship, a Saturday afternoon walk, and a Saturday evening film. Themes have included Journeying, Male Spirituality, [Male] Friendship, and, last year, Elijah’s encounter with God at the mouth of the cave in 1 Kings 19. Films have included Clint Eastwood’s amazingEl Torino, the little-known On a Clear Day, set in Glasgow with Peter Mullan and Brenda Blethyn, and Brassed Off and Pride. Our preferred venue is Maredsous, a 19th century Benedictine foundation set in a thickly wooded valley in the Ardennes.

Men’s Retreat, Maredsous, 2017

SARAC Retreat

I was unsure about the SARAC retreat. SARAC was the creation of the late Ken Gordon, who felt strongly that retired clergy should have some recognition in the Scottish Episcopal Church. He died earlier this year, and it is not clear whether SARAC will survive him. And I was a bit anxious that it would be a very parochial [i.e.provincial] gathering; with a small huddle of retired Scottish Episcopalians swopping memories of ministry in Glencarse and Pittenweem and Blairgowrie.

As it turned out, apart from the speaker, none of the participants were Scottish. We came from Somerset and Yorkshire and Canada; from South Carolina and South London. Gerald had been a priest in a group of parishes in rural Canada, ministering to Inuit peoples and flying himself from one community to another in a single engined plane.  Geoffrey had been an Army chaplain, a Lieutenant Colonel, serving in postings around the world. Iain, our only Scot, had been Archdeacon in the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf for two decades. The teaching input, an arbitrary series of readings from Luke’s Gospel, was a bit random. And we probably overdosed on services, all taken from the 1929 Scottish Prayer Book. But it was good to be in a different setting. And it was very good to have time to walk on Kinnoull Hill with amazing views across the Carse.

The view from Kinnoull Hill


If travel regulations allow overseas travel, I shall be back to Maredsous for this year’s Men’s Retreat in about 6 weeks time. The likely theme will be Sanctuary, in a time of global pandemic. Numbers at the abbey will be strictly limited compared with past years. Two years ago we had to limit numbers to 30 men, and draw up a waiting list. This year it may be only half that number. I am excited at the prospect of meeting up again. But I don’t know what this year’s film will be.

September 2021

Through a glass darkly – 56

Unlike Jonathan Goodall, the Bishop of Ebbsfleet [and a wholly invisible contemporary at Wycliffe Hall in the late-mid 1980s], who has just left the Church of England to join the Church of Rome,  I’ve never had any desire to be a Roman Catholic. Much as I like several Catholic priests, mainly French,  there are aspects of the institutional church that I am very uneasy with;  an underlying misogyny, an over-attachment to clerical garb, usually in funereal black with a Masonic tinge;  and a wholly inappropriate possessiveness towards [and a presumed ownership of] the sacraments.

But, as someone pointed out to me the other day, most of the Christian writers whose works I have appreciated in the past couple of years are Catholics; Hans Küng, Jürgen Moltmann, and now Herbert McCabe. I guess that my reading has always been pretty random. And/or maybe I’ve been reading the wrong kind of Protestants ?

Herbert McCabe

McCabe, who died in 2001 at the age of 74, was a Dominican priest, theologian, and philosopher. After time as a pastor in Newcastle, three years as Chaplain at De La Salle College, and a spell in Cambridge, he spent many years teaching at Blackfriars in Oxford. His lifelong work concerned the study of Thomas Aquinas, and he combined a radical, left-wing approach to political questions [he was a powerful critic of the Vietnam War] with an otherwise orthodox faith. When he died the obituaries said that he was a better speaker than a writer, who produced sparkling sermons but no major books. Thanks to the omniscient Abe Books, I’ve been looking at an old copy of Love, Law, and Language, based on his 1967 lectures at the University of Kent. 

Law, Love, and Language

I didn’t know when I bought the book that it is an exploration of Ethics, based on lectures given in 1967. We did a certain amount of ethics when I was at Wycliffe, taught by David Atkinson who subsequently became Bishop of Thetford. The course, as I recall, consisted of a series of lectures, and the writing of essays on some familiar topics; divorce and re-marriage [only men and women in those days]; the rights and wrongs of abortion; work and unemployment. And the first port of call for most of these topics was John Stott’s 1984 book Issues facing Christian Today, a careful look at questions that face Christians and non-Christians alike.

McCabe starts somewhere else. He starts by identifying three ways of thinking about ethics: as a matter of loving;  as a matter of obeying the law;  as a matter of talking to people.

Situation ethics

He acknowledges that the proposition ‘all you need is love’ is increasingly popular [in 1967] among Christian theologians. Partly because Jesus makes a strong contrast between the gospel and the legalism of the Pharisees.  But, McCabe insists [following Aquinas], Jesus does not set aside the moral law in favour of love. He only sets aside the customs and ritual practices of Israel.

The moral good act is not the act prescribed by some moral law, it is whatever love demands in a particular situation’ is the mantra of situation ethics. But there are major problems with this approach: first, the situationist may be setting aside major moral issues; and, second, he may be allowing concern for people he knows to take precedence over others. “Every moral problem is a problem about who is to get hurt” [McCabe]

Ethics as Law

To be subject to law implies membership of a community. Mankind is thus constituted by biological exchanges and by linguistic exchanges. In a biological community, members seek their own survival and refrain [largely] from killing each other.  Though McCabe, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War comments: “man seems to be the only animal that goes in for infra-specific violence on a really large and destructive scale.”

In a linguistic community, things are not so clear-cut. Road signs may give information [Beware of the sheep] or commands [30 mph]. Laws exist both for my welfare and for the welfare of the group as a whole. Why should the community make decisions for me ? Is it that they are more intelligent ? Or is it the need for predictability. Hence driving on the left, speed limits etc. 

If a linguistic community needs laws, does mankind need laws ? Aquinas sees ‘natural law’ as coming from God; the Ten Commandments are both a definition of man and a revelation of God. McCabe says that natural laws help us to be the people we really want to be. He quotes approvingly [if surprisingly] DH Lawrence: man has a double set of desires, and it is the business of Chief Thinkers to tell us how we ought to want to behave.

Ethics as Language

McCabe insists that language is what distinguishes man from other animals. Communication is in essence about sharing a common life. All shared vital activity is some form of communication. In man communication reaches a new intensity, it becomes language. Learning to live with strangers is a matter of adopting the rhythms of their life. [Wittgenstein: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”] Language is a product of the community, not of the individual. Meanings are ways of being with each other. [Wittgenstein: “To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life”.]

Ethics is almost universally supposed to be concerned with the difference between right and wrong; but McCabe insists that “this however is a mistake”. The purpose of ethics is about “enabling us to enjoy life more by responding to it more sensitively”. Bad cheap behaviour devalues the structures of human meaning.  [Was he anticipating the present UK government ?] Morality is rather the attempt to live our lives in meaningful, deep communication with others.

The word as love

The centre of the gospel is that in Jesus Yahweh communicates himself wholly to us. “The coming of Jesus is not just the coming of a virtuous man; … it is the coming of a new humanity.” Jesus offers himself not just as a blueprint for a new kind of society; but as the centre of this new society.

Resurrection means that, because of his link with the Father in Christ, a man can [re-] discover his identity on the far side of death. In Paul’s writings, resurrection is always about sharing in Christ’s resurrection.

In a striking phrase, McCabe insists, the business of the church is ‘to remember the future’.  The sacraments are there as symbols of the presence of Christ in a future world. Thus baptism is not about church membership; it is the sacrament of  the membership of mankind [cf Romans 6:3]. Sacraments are the intersection of the present world with the world to come. “Those who share the sacraments form a community, or better a movement, in the world.”

The Christian reaches out beyond this world, to a world of freedom  and of real communication between men. The Gospel is not about the soul, not about a private and interior world. Morality is not primarily about sex; not about whether and when people should go to bed together. For McCabe, Christianity is not about proposing a set of moral principles [although such principles are a part of our Christian faith]. “Christianity is essentially about our communicating with each other in Christ, about our participation in the world of the future.” 


I guess I’m still trying to come to terms with some parts of this quite short book.[And I am totally unschooled in both Aquinas and Wittgenstein, who are McCabe’s principal points of reference.] We are given a bigger vision here than those books which rehearse the for and against arguments of key moral issues.  Language is for McCabe clearly the distinguishing feature of humanity. We are all intrinsically in conversation with others, and ethics is what guides our actions and interactions. 

Obituarists say that McCabe was a better speaker and preacher than writer, and that his written output was quite modest. It would be good to hear more [know mpre] of his thinking on the role and nature of the church.  I am both challenged and inspired by the notion that our central business is to “remember the future”. Especially when some churches seem determined to reinvent the golden age of the past. And I suspect that his radical understanding of the sacraments would not have endeared him to the church which he served.

September 2021

Through a glass darkly – 55

Not gone to Birmingham

We should be in Birmingham. Except that we haven’t gone there. We are still in Edinburgh. My younger brother, Peter, has a 70th birthday this weekend. Sadly he isn’t very well: what he thought was long COVID turned out to be a brain tumour. He was bravely going ahead with a party beside the river outside Evesham. But his daughter, Rosie, has diagnosed positive for COVID, and so the party is off. At least for the time being. He’s feeling pretty low at the moment, probably a reaction to hefty doses of radio- and chemo-therapy. Pray for him if you will. And for his wife Alice.

Home in Edinburgh

We were going to stay with my older brother and his wife in Birmingham. But their daughter is in a bad place too, so instead we are unexpectedly at home. I realise that I am not very good at being flexible; at making plans, or in this case altering them, at short notice. But we began Thursday by walking down to Waverley Station to talk to the booking office. It seems that one of the by-products of COVID is that LNER are refunding in full all tickets unused because of illness. Even the cheapo Advance Singles that we had bought. A big Thank You to Kate, the Refund Queen.

Susie below Waterloo Bridge, Edinburgh

In a spirit of adventure we took the far back exit from the station, and came out in Calton Road with a fine view of the neo-classical Waterloo Bridge above us. The bridge was built, or at least begun, in 1815 in order to connect the previously isolated Calton Hill with the eastern end of Princes Street. It bridges what was a steep ravine and the main arch is some fifty feet above the street below.

Calton New Burial Ground with Arthur’s Seat behind

A little further down the street we came to the historic Calton New Burial Ground. This was built as a supplement to Old Calton Burial Ground, and sits on a steep south-facing slope. Near the entrance are the tombs of the Stevenson family of light-house builders, one of whom was the father of Robert Louis Stevenson.  In the top corner there is a romantic looking watch tower, built to deter body-snatchers. The tower was apparently occupied as a house until the 1950s, and was once occupied by a family with ten children. The cemetery offers splendid views south-east over Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament towards Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags.

Calton New Burial Ground with Holyrood behind

A walk round Loch Leven

The following day I took the  X.56 bus across the bridge and up to Kinross to walk round Loch Leven. The circuit is about 19.5kms, depending on which website you believe; plus a bit more for getting to and from the bus stop. The surrounds of the loch are a Nature Reserve, and there is a surfaced cycle path all the way.  Which means rather a lot of lycra-clad cyclists !

It’s an easy, flat walk with a total dénivelage of about 20 metres ! The RSPB information centre and cafe at Vane Farm below Benarty Hill is currently closed pending renovations. But there is a pop-up cafe, which serves excellent coffee together with a fine view over the eastern end of the loch.

Loch Leven from Vane Farm

Apple were doing one of those enormously frustrating things, demanding my Apple user name and password, and a 4-digit code [I don’t have one] before I could open my phone. Eventually I got it to work, to take a few photos and to tell Susie where I was. 

The sluice gate, Loch Leven

It was a busy day at the tiny Scotlandwell airfield with several gliders being towed into the air. I remembered how these silent, silver apparitions used to spook Gus,  our Border collie, when we walked him on Bishop Hill some thirty years ago on the way to Concern for Scotland meetings with Stephen Anderson in Perth.  It’s funny how the second half of the walk seemed significantly longer than the first half. But there was still time for a pot of tea and a chocolate brownie in Kinross before getting back on the bus for Edinburgh.

Scotlandwell and Bishop Hill behind

And I sat on the bus coming home just wondering whether to have a go at [some part of] the Camino [to Santiago de Compostella] next year. Will the daily stages be too long ? Do I know anyone who might like to walk with me ? At roughly the same pace. 

Chris Martin

August 2021 

Through a glass darkly – 54


We had an excellent early summer here in Edinburgh; dry and sunny with the temperature hovering around  23ºC.  Good weather for enjoying the garden. And also for church walks. But now it is raining again. I feel for our children who are heading for the Scottish Highlands in a camper-van. For the little girls the highlight of the week may be an excursion on the Hogwarts Express across the Glenfinnan viaduct. At home I am turning the pages of Abroad by Paul Fussell, a survey of British literary travelling between the wars. Fussell is a North American Professor of English Literature. He wrote a very good book [published in 1975] on The Great War and Modern Memory, looking at the literature of the First World War and its influence on writers that followed.

Paul Fussell: Abroad

Abroad [published 1980] is a slimmer book, a discursive survey of British travel writers between the wars, an elegy for the lost art of travel before it was overtaken by tourism. Some of these writers have more or less disappeared from public view, such as Patrick Balfour and Norman Douglas; Robert Byron, who looked like Queen Victoria and who drowned in 1941 when his ship was  torpedoed on the way to Africa, is remembered only for The Road to Oxiana; and Evelyn Waugh, remembered more as a Catholic apologist and novelist rather than travel writer. 

Fussell notes the emergence of the Mediterranean as the preferred destination for many travellers. Which involved redeeming the sun from the social stigma it had borne in the previous century. When the young Rupert Mayne went out to India, his parents told him that “the three most dangerous things I had to watch out for in the East were wine, women, and the sun.” Ironically these were the very things that drew travellers to the Mediterranean in the 1920’s. André Gide, Hermann Hesse and D.H. Lawrence all wrote of the therapeutic effect of [nude] sunbathing. Cyril Connolly created a sensation in the 1920’s by suggesting that the time for the Riviera was not, as had been previously assumed, the winter season but the very hottest summer months.

Les premiers pas

This is the time of year, perhaps relatedly, when I am nostalgic for cross-Channel ferries. Sixty years ago this month was my first venture overseas. In the summer of 1961 Paul and I spent a month or so working at Battersea Fun Fair making popcorn with a girl called Mary [Ricky Nelson’s Hello, Mary Lou was in the charts at the time]; going home at 10.30pm every night when Goodnight Sweetheart came over the loudspeakers. I’ve never really liked popcorn since. And then it was time to apply for a first passport [it didn’t take so long in those days; I think our applications may even have been dealt with on the spot at the offices in Petty France]; to renew our YHA [Youth Hostel Association] membership; and to buy a train ticket to Paris. And a return boat trip across the Channel. I think we got some traveller’s cheques too. Our budget for three weeks was £15.00 each.

1961 passport

Arriving at the Gare du Nord showed the deficiencies of my five years of school French. We had done endless grammar exercises and vocab lists, dictations and French prose composition. But not spent any time on the spoken language, on speaking and listening skills. Asking the way from a man in uniform [I thought all policemen were gendarmes in those days] was met with a vacant stare.

We stayed in a UNESCO hostel in the Boulevard Emile Levasseur, down in the wilds of the 13ème arrondissement, not far from the Porte d’Ivry. The cost was 1,60F a night for bed [in dormitory accommodation] and breakfast [bowls of what was probably coffee and chicory and buttered baguette].  The exchange rate in those days was about 13.00F to the UK pound. So I guess the hostel was costing us about 15p a night ! But it was a long time ago.

On our first evening we went to a local cafe, bought two glasses of wine at the bar, and took them outside to sit on the terrasse.  Cue an angry exchange with the waiter who was being bypassed. It was a year of tensions in Algeria. The 13ème had a sizeable North African population and we were a bit shocked to see frequent street patrols of French soldiers with sten guns. [This was more than two decades before similar scenes in Northern Ireland.] We spent a day, perhaps two, with Charlie, an Austrian from the hostel, who foolishly larked about shouting ‘Je suis plastiqueur’.

Paris in the 1960s

I don’t remember having a guide book, but we must have had some kind of map. On the first day we took the Métro, noisy trains, connecting tunnels with a warm smell of sweat, dust, urine, and Gitanes, to Palais Royale, the Tuileries gardens, and Place de la Concorde.  We walked up  the Champs Elysées, took the lift to the top of the Arc de Triomphe; and then walked to Invalides. In the afternoon we took the Métro again and climbed the steps to look at the Sacré Coeur. It was a long, hot day. My overwhelming impression was of monumental buildings and very wide roads ! On the second day we did Notre Dame, the Boul Mich, and the Left Bank. Then we slowed down a bit. We spent two afternoons in the Louvre and were a bit underwhelmed by the Mona Lisa. 

Heading for the Med

One of the myths in those days was that you could search the streets of Les Halles, find a lorry with an 06 or a 13 registration [Alpes Maritimes or Bouches-du-Rhône], and secure a one-stop lift down the Mediterranean. Easy ! But it didn’t work. We spent two sleepless nights at les Halles. And discovered that none of the lorries were returning directly south.  Making that discovery cost us two nights trying unsuccessfully to sleep on Paris street benches. Very uncomfortable !. 

Les Halles, 1960s

Our first day on the road, pre-motorway [I think there was a motorway, but not for hitchhikers] took us to Fontainebleau, about 40 kilometres. Fontainebleau was the elephants’ graveyard of hitchhikers in the 1960s. In the morning there were couples and small groups hitchhiking south of the carrefour as far as you could see. A second night in the youth hostel where Paul picked up a flea. Our third night was in the hostel at Dijon. The fourth night we bedded down in a hotel garden at Tournus before the night porter invited us to sleep in the reception area. On the fifth day a young man in a Citroen DS swept us south down the Rhône Valley, round Lyon [of which I remember nothing], stopped to buy nougat at a motorway service area near Montélimar, and eventually dropped us off in Aix. From where we made our way down to Marseille. The Med at last !

We had three days along the coast in La Ciotat, trying hard not to notice the shipyards, followed by two nights in Cassis. On the road we had lived exclusively as I recall off ham sandwiches, made with crisp baguettes and what is now called ‘artisan’ ham. At La Ciotât we lay on the beach every day, all day, covered in a generous layer of brown Ambre Solaire. In the evening we bought eggs in a paper bag, butter cut from a slab and wrapped in grease-proof paper, and giant, mis-shapen tomatoes from a little old woman in an alimentation générale, and ate tomato omelettes. In the evening we played ping-pong in the hostel. Every night we shed a few more layers of skin. Before returning to the beach in the morning.

Cassis was different.The youth hostel was out on the cliffs, quite isolated. It seemed to attract amorous young men with guitars and girls of assorted nationalities. The whole thing was like a prequel for A nous les petites anglaises. We were a bit out of our depth.  There was a long, stony descent to the sea and glorious swimming.

Cassis youth hostel

Homeward bound

Getting home was a bit of a struggle. After nearly three weeks we were seriously short of funds. A couple of guys from Manchester had offered us a lift back north from outside Nimes. We spent an evening at a bullfight at the amphitheatre in Nimes with a predatory gay [the word hadn’t yet been invented], and stayed with him overnight. It was a troubled night, and next day the promised lift didn’t materialise. We made a swift Plan B decision. We bought the cheapest railway tickets that we could identify, took the train to Marseilles, and boarded the express to Paris. Without tickets. It was a very hot day and a very crowded train [French army reserves had been called up because of a crisis in Berlin]. For which reason there were no ticket collectors. Many hours later at the Gare de Lyon we were stopped briefly but made a run for it.

The next day we hitched back to the coast. Our last night in France was in a cinema porch somewhere up the N1. It was no more comfortable than the Paris bench. But the very kind cafe owner next-door brought us coffee and ham sandwiches [again] in the morning, without any suggestion of payment. Later that day we were home in south London, broke and hungry and flea-bitten{Paul] – but happy.


The trip seems a long time ago. I have forgotten a lot, and I remember mostly trivial things. The sound of flipper machines in French cafes. Early Shadows records on French juke-boxes. The idiosyncratic suspension of the Citroen DS. Long straight French roads with three lanes [… one lane in the middle for idiots to kill themselves]. Roads with steep cambers and a mass of loose chippings. The heat of the Mediterranean. The smell of Ambre Solaire. Putting big plastic bottles of Coca Cola in the edge of the sea to keep them cool. The distinctive blue overalls of French railways workers.

We have lived in France twice since then; in Paris in the 1970s, and more recently in Lyon. I’m sorry not to be going back there just yet.

August 2021

Through a glass darkly – 53


We are officially in transition. Blustering Boris has rolled the dice and, under pressure from libertarian back-bench Tory MPs, has decided to scrap all domestic COVID restrictions; goodbye to face coverings, and hello again to indoor gatherings and night clubs. Unsurprisingly COVID infection numbers are doubling every week or so. The numbers of those pinged to self-isolate is going through the roof, and it now includes Boris and Rishi Sunak since the new Health Secretary went down with COVID.  Sajid Javid was an odd appointment: he seems to know [and care] more about the state of the economy than the nation’s health. The general consensus is that hapless Hancock’s very public fall from grace lets a lot of people off the hook. Boris can now blame bad decision making throughout the epidemic on the departed Hancock. While not having to summon up the strength to fire him. And Hancock himself, now said to be living in a very small bubble on the South Coast with Mrs CocaCola, may no longer have to answer questions about cronyism, and the way that contracts for PPE were awarded to his family and friends [and local pub landlord].

Domestically transition has not made an enormous difference to us. We have had Susie’s cousins to tea, new friends to dinner, and an old friend from Balliol and his wife to lunch. Much of the eating taking place in the garden. Summer has arrived with long days of sunshine and temperatures climbing steadily to around 23ºC. Since the tempestuous rains that have devastated parts of Belgium and West Germany have not [yet] arrived, we are into regular watering. I see that the German floods are described here in the press as ‘biblical’, a word otherwise not much in use.

Outwith the house I have been out a couple of times with a walking group from St Peter’s. The first outing was to a corner of the Pentlands that was new to me;  a circular walk from the bus terminus at Torphin, across the former golf course, round Torduff and Cubbiedean reservoirs, now both disused, and back again past Torphin quarry. Then last week we walked on the south Fife coast, from Elie to St Monan’s. It is just over two hours on the X60 bus to Elie, across the bridge and through a succession of little Fife villages, but thereafter a glorious walk by the sea.

Elie beach

Elie is a distinctly classy place, full of dignified, second homes for Edinburgh folk. More than a decade ago I applied, thoughtlessly, for a post-retirement job there, as non-stipendiary Rector of Elie and Pittenweem. We had been ten years or so in Lyon, and thought that this might be a way of getting back to Scotland while Susie’s Mum was still alive in Edinburgh. We came over from Lyon, and were graciously put up in a B&B and taken out to dinner by a couple of families on the Friday night. That was the best bit. The following day we were shown the church at Elie, a tin tab dating from c. 1908.

Elie church

There was a harmonium played by the last Rector but two. His wife turned the pages, but “he wouldn’t play any of those modern choruses”. They couldn’t remember when they last had a baptism. The subsequent interview went badly wrong. I did a presentation on how to grow a small congregations. Which didn’t provoke much interest. They asked if I would be bored there. I think I said that I would enjoy walking the coastal path with a dog. They asked about midweek activities. I suggested maybe a prayer meeting  No great interest. Then a Midweek Communion. No real response. With a bring-and-share lunch to follow. Hmmm. Finally I suggested that we might have a midweek group on How to die graciously ?. That was really the end of the interview. And I went home, chastened but happy, to Lyon. With hindsight I think that was ‘failed transition’. 


In his On being a Christian [see TaGD 47], Hans Küng suggests that novelists and poets often have a deeper insight into Jesus’s person and ministry than theologians. In this connection one of the books that he mentions is Barabbas, a novel by the Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist. I had never heard of the book nor of its author [the book won the Nobel prize for literature in 1951]. But thanks to Abe Books I was able to track down a second-hand copy in North America. Barabbas is the notorious prisoner released by Pilate at the demand of the crowd [Matthew 27: 11-26]. Lagerkvist tells us the story of the man whose life was exchanged for that of Jesus, and begins with the crucifixion which Barabbas witnesses with his own eyes on the hill of Golgotha. It is quite a short book, written [or at any rate translated from Swedish] into uncomplicated English.

Barabbas is quite simply a man condemned to have no God.  Although, as Christian readers of the book, we might feel that God is calling him directly on numerous occasions. His response to the crucifixion is to get drunk with strangers in a tavern. One of the women speaks of the crucified man, who mixed mainly with the poor and promised to open the kingdom of God even to harlots. And she recalls him telling a story about people invited to a big wedding feast. The following day he meets a big, red-haired Galilean man, who speaks of the coming of a new age, and of his guilt about having fled the Master in his time of trial. But Barabbas is recognised and driven away.

Anthony Quinn as Barabbas, 1961

The next day Barabbas witnesses the stone rolled away and the now empty tomb. He encounters a girl with a hare-lip who was evidently a follower of the dead man, who whispers to him ‘The saviour is risen’. And of his injunction ‘Love one another’. A few days later he sees the same girl down by the Dung Gate, her sallow face turned to the light, witnessing to her Lord and Savour. The girl is prosecuted for blasphemy, and Barabbas watches with horror as she is led to the stoning pit. After dark he retrieves her lacerated corpse, and carried it across the desert of Juda to lay it, guided by the old man hermit, in the grave  beside the body of her dead child.

The following years are uncertain. Barabbas is a changed person. No longer the bold, reckless leader of a criminal gang. Now he is given to just sitting, staring into space. And then he disappears.

Some years later Barabbas is a slave in the Cyprian copper mines, a hellish existence that only the toughest survive. He is chained day and night to a tall Armenian with protuberant eyes. Sahak is a follower of the crucified rabbi. He is astonished, and envious, to learn that Barabbas had seen God and witnessed the events at Golgotha. He secretly shows his slaves’s disc to Barabbas, inscribed with the sign of the crucified one. And he engraves the same symbols on Barabbas’s disc.

Now Barabbas knows that he too is God’s slave. But it is not a straight-forward journey. The two slaves are released from the darkness of the mine to work in the fields. They have escaped from the hell of the underground. But they are no longer able to pray together. As they had done down in the mine. One day they are summoned by the Roman Governor. Sahak refuses to renounce his God and to swear allegiance to Caesar. Barabbas equivocates. He is commended by the Governor for his good sense. But he is also forced to witness the crucifixion of his [only] friend.

The story ends in Rome. The governor retires and takes certain slaves with him. Barabbas gets to hear of the meetings of the brethren, the followers of the Master. One night he gets lost in the darkness of the catacombs. The realm of the dead. Out of the darkness come tongues of fire. Is it the Master’s return ?  The book ends in the prison under the Capitol. The Christians who have been accused of starting the great fire are prisoners, and Barabbas is with them. In the prison he meets again the now white-haired Galilean, to whom he tells his story. The older man senses his unhappiness and refuses to condemn him for his lack of faith.

And they are led out to be crucified …

I have always been a bit dismissive of historical fiction. Hilary Mantel’s Booker-Prize-winning novels have never attracted me.  And back in the 1960s. I never wanted to read Morris West’s The Steps of the Fisherman. But I am glad to have discovered this book. The biblical background is accurate. Lagerkvist’s account of Golgotha and of the empty tomb sounds right. The red-haired Galilean is clearly Peter. The fate of the girl with the hare lip is similar to the story of Stephen’s martyrdom. The mysterious gap in the history of  Barabbas recalls the period of three years [Galatians 1] that lapsed between Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road and his going up to Jerusalem to meet with the disciples.

The dominant theme of the book is Barabbas’s equivocation. Is Barabbas a man condemned to have no God ? Christos Iesus is carved on the disc hung from his neck, but at key moments he cannot affirm his faith. Once released from the darkness, he cannot pray. He can only say ‘I want to believe’. Which in my experience is the situation of many people in our world today. And I would want to be guided by the aged Peter’s refusal to condemn him. André Gide, who contributes a preface to my Vintage paperback edition, finds an ambiguity in the final words: “To thee I deliver up my soul”. To darkness ? Or to Christ ?


Barabbas, the 1961 film

It seems that there is a 1961 film of Barabbas, with a screenplay by Christopher Fry and [uncredited] Nigel Balchin with Anthony Quinn in the title role. And Harry Andrews as Peter. It might be fun to track down a copy somewhere. But meanwhile I am going back to Musselburgh for another dental appointment, and then to have lunch with David Smith in Glasgow, and to walk from Haddington along the river to East Linton. All while the sun is shining !

July 2021

Through a glass darkly – 52

Hebridean diary

Starting with the full Scottish breakfast

Huge skies and a constant driving wind. We have been in the cottage for four days. Leurbost feels a long way from Edinburgh. The Outer Hebrides, Na h-Eileanana in the Gaelic, are a 130-mile long string of islands off the north-west coast of Scotland. They were once known as The Long Isle. But they comprise, from the south, Barra, then South Uist, Benbecula, and North Uist, which are connected by causeways, and finally Harris and Lewis, two parts of a single island but with separate identities. We arrived by boat on South Uist from Mallaig.and then drove north.

Arriving at Lochboisdale

After a night in Lochboisdale we didn’t really do justice to the Uists. The main road up the spine of the islands is the least interesting feature.The more attractive part is the machair, the strip of grasses and wild flowers along the western [Atlantic] coast. But we pressed on, heading for the CalMac ferry across the Sound of Harris from Berneray to Leverburgh in South Harris. Leverburgh is named after the English William Lever, the first Lord Leverhulme, who bought the South Harris estate in 1919 with ambitious plans to develop a major fishing centre. But after Leverhulme’s death from pneumonia the project collapsed and the village and production facilities were sold. From Leverburgh the road runs up the west coast of Harris, past the word class beaches of Scarista and Luskentyre. But our glimpse of enormous golden beaches was cut short by lowering, dark clouds and driving rain. Tarbert, the biggest township on Harris, is closed on Mondays. Or it may just have been that everyone was watching Scotland v. the Czech Republic. [For Scottish soccer fans, it’s the hope that kills you.] Beyond Tarbert the road climbs through the mountains of North Harris with spectacular views of the sea loch below before the long descent into Lewis

Callanish is a dozen  miles away.The standing stones at Callanish are a major attraction. The main site comprises a stone circle surrounding a central monolith, flanked by an avenue of parallel standing stones. All this is set on a shallow hill overlooking Loch Roag. The stones may be contemporaries of, or possibly, predate, Stonehenge. 

Stones at Callanish

It is thought that the stones were erected roughly 3000 BC, possibly for ritual purposes; but the site was abandoned between 1000 BC and 500 BC. The stones were only discovered in 1857 when more than a metre of peat was excavated.  We were pleased to walk some 5 km to the nearby sites, Callanish II and Callanish III, before the rain came down. Happily the Visitors’ Centre serves excellent coffee, as well as bacon and black pudding rolls and haddock goujons.

Callanish stones

Half an hour away, down a long single track road are the famed beaches of UIg. This is where the Uig chessmen were found in 1831; a hoard of some ninety artefacts, mostly chess pieces carved from walrus ivory.  There are differing stories of how the hoard was discovered. The majority of the pieces are now in the British Museum, which believes they were made in Trondheim, in Norway. A smaller number of pieces are in the museums in Stornaway and in Edinburgh. A hitherto unrecognised piece emerged in Edinburgh in 2019 and was sold at auction for £735, 000.


From the postcard I had imagined that they were about 2 metres high. But in reality they vary between about 4 and  10 centimetres. The wind blew mightily as we walked by the sea. Outside the community centre there is a bust of Leif Eriksson, a Viking explorer who reputedly sailed to North America in the 11th century, several centuries before Christopher Columbus. The community cafe has a good reputation, but is open only at lunchtime on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. We were there on a Wednesday ! And there is an attractive, new fish restaurant with views out across the sea. But it is only open in the evenings, and when we called was booked for the week ahead


On the west coast, driving north from Callanish, we visited the Gearannan Blackhouse Village. Lewis folk lived in these long blackhouses for centuries, stone walls and thatched roofs, heated by peat fires. It was a primitive existence, without running water, based on subsistence farming and handloom weaving.  The crofting community at Gearannan survived until the 1970s, and the houses are now maintained by a charitable trust, who run a small museum and cafe, and have restored some of the houses as self-catering accommodation. 

Gearannan Blackhouse Village

A few miles up the road is the Dun Carloway broch, built on a small hill overlooking a sea loch. Brochs are mysterious phenomena, circular, windowless drystone towers  built in the iron Age with a double skin of walls rising to 8 or 10 metres. They may have been defensive structures offering protection against [Viking] raiding parties. It is thought that there might have been several hundred brochs scattered across Scotland, particularly up the west coast and on the islands, but many are in a very poor state of repair.. Dun Carloway is one of the better survivors, though necessary restoration work means that the walls are currently encased in scaffolding.

Dun Carloway broch

On our last day in the cottage we drove to the northernmost tip of the island, to the lighthouse on the Butt of Lewis. According to the Guinness Book of Records this is the windiest place in Britain. The 37 metre red brick lighthouse , designed  by one of the Stephenson family, stands 52 metres above the sea, as waves roll endlessly in from the Atlantic. 

Butt of Lewis

The township of Nis, at the northern end of Lewis is the setting for Peter May’s Hebridean trilogy; the community where Fin Macleod grows up with his first love Marsaili and his schoolfriend Artair; and the community to which Fin returns after the death of his child in Edinburgh and the breakdown of his marriage. May writes convincingly both of the harsh nature of the Hebridean landscape, and of claustrophobic relationships within the small island communities. So I had assumed that he was a Lewis man. But, as we discovered from staff at the Stornaway Museum, that is not the case. Peter May, who has lived in France for many years, was a journalist, born in Glasgow, who first came to the Hebrides as a writer on Machair.,  a highly successful Gaelic language television series. It is difficult to understand that The Blackhouse, the first book in the Hebridean trilogy, was initially turned down by a variety of British publishers and was first published in France in a French translation, in 2009. The two following books were published in 2012 and 2013.


I began writing this in the cottage at Leurbost. On our last morning, amazingly the wind died down a bit, and the sun came out, and we had breakfast on the table outside the backdoor. On what you might almost call a patio.

On the Ullapool ferry

And for the crossing back to Ullapool the sea was totally calm, and we sat on deck in the sunshine as if returning across the western channel from Brittany.  Then I was savaged by a bloodthirsty mosquito in Poolewe. But that is another story …


June 2021