Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Chinese in World War I

A few years back I wrote an article about Lu Zhengxiang, the Chinese Prime Minister who, after leading the Chinese delegation to the Versailles Peace Treaty, became a Catholic monk and priest.

I've now come across this excellent presentation about the Chinese Labour Corps during World War I which puts some of his life in context.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Tolkien and the Great War

With events to commemorate the start of the Great War underway across the world, the BBC have produced this feature on Tolkien and the war.

For the definitive guide to Tolkien and the Great War, one should turn to John Garth's excellent book.

P.S. Other projects have been keeping me busy of late and so this blog is likely to be updated only fitfully for the time being at least. Apologies to anyone who has been waiting for updates.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott recently spoke about being a novelist and a Catholic. It's pretty short and you might end up hitting your head against the desk when you hear one or two of her points but it does at least give us an insight into some of the ideas that feed into her books.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Tolkien and Beowulf

With the news that Tolkien's translation of Beowulf is about to be published (see article here), I thought it might be worth returning to the original. 

There's an interesting parallel text version here and, if you want something a little more visual, a good cartoon version here. What I like about this cartoon is that it retains the alliterative verse so you can really hear the original. It also resists the temptation to throw in gratuitous sops to modern audiences.

I've looked at the Sutton Hoo discoveries with my classes and then looked at the last few lines of the poem. We'll also have some fun with the language.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Great Book and Film Recommendations

It's difficult to find good book lists. Either they're too long or they go into a huge amount of detail. So I was delighted to find this list of books and films on the website of the wonderful Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family

What's particularly interesting about this list is that it is related quite explicitly to research on St John Paul II's Theology of the Body (or Catechesis on Human Love or the Anthropology of Love). I would have thought that the books and films recommended here would be particularly suitable for 15 years + 

Saturday, 10 May 2014


Oasis Journal (from Cardinal Scola's Oasis Foundation) is a real find. It's a great read and it's also a great-looking journal. This is one that looks good on the shelf (and off the shelf too).

The current issue deals with some important issues which I'll return to in another post, but you can also read at least some of the Education issue here.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Hitting the Nail on the Head with G.K. Chesterton

"Most modern history, especially in England, suffers from the same imperfection as journalism. At best it only tells half of the history of Christendom; and that the second half without the first half. Men for whom reason begins with the Revival of Learning, men for whom religion begins with the Reformation, can never give a complete account of anything, for they have to start with institutions whose origin they cannot explain, or generally even imagine. Just as we hear of the admiral being shot but have never heard of his being born, so we all heard a great deal about the dissolution of the monasteries, but we heard next to nothing about the creation of the monasteries."

An extract from St Francis by G.K. Chesterton, published in 1923.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

A Time to Keep Silence

There are times when the outsiders' perspective leaves the reader with a sense of being slightly short-changed, but there are also occasions when the outsider is able to communicate what he sees with as much (or more) clarity than those on the inside. Take Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time to Keep Silence, for instance, a great book about monasticism from an acclaimed travel writer.

This passage gives a sense of what you are given in the book as a whole: "Listening to the singing of the Hours in the language of fifth- or sixth-century Western Christendom, one can forget the alterations of the twentieth and feel that the life-line of notes and syllables between the Early Church and today is still intact: that these, indeed, might have been the sung words to which King Aethelbert and Queen Bertha listened when St Augustine first set foot in the Isle of Thanet."

What we have here is a sympathetic author who a) writes beautiful prose b) understands and appreciates the Church's continuity c) to many students' delight, writes a book that weighs in at under 100 pages. 

But those same students might find these 95 pages lexically challenging. Take this extract from page 36: "Tierce ended, the officiating monk entered in his vestments, and the deacon and sub-deacon, the acolytes and torch-bearers. They genuflected together, and the Mass began. Every moment the ceremony gained in splendour. If it was the feast of a great saint, the enthroned abbot was arrayed by his myrmidons in the pontificalia. A gold mitre was placed on his head, and the gloved hand that held the crosier was jewelled at the point of the stigma and on the third finger the great ring sparkled over the fabric. The thurifer approached the celebrant and a column of incense climbed into the air, growing and spreading like an elm-tree of smoke across the shafts of sunlight. The chanting became steadily more complex, led by a choir of monks who stood in the middle of the aisle, their voices limning chants that the black Gregorian block-notes, with their comet-like tails and Moorish-looking arabesques, wove and rewove across the threads of the antique four-line clef on the pages of their graduals. Then, with a quiet solemnity, the monks streamed into the cloister in the wake of a jewelled cross."

Not that the comparative complexity of the language should be a reason to ignore this book. Rather, in much the same way that the author had to adjust himself to the monasteries in which he stayed, so too do we, his readers, need to adjust our reading to his language. Just as he had to adjust to the pace and rhythm of the monasteries in which he stayed, so too do we need to adjust our reading to the pace and rhythm of his prose. Just as there is a time to keep silence, so too is there a time to read slowly.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Hero on a Bicycle

Shirley Hughes is best known for her Alfie books for toddlers but she recently wrote a book for older children which is well worth reading.

Hero on a Bicycle is set in Italy during World War II and features a Catholic Anglo-Italian family who are, rather unwillingly, drawn into helping the resistance. I won't give away too much of the plot but if you want to read another review from a Catholic perspective that tells you more, click here.

Unlike Hilda van Stockum's The Winged Watchman, this is not a book that is suffused with Catholicism - it seems to be Catholicism from an outsider's perspective - but it is a book which takes the Faith seriously and respects it.

I shall be recommending this book in conjunction with Road to Valor, about another Italian Catholic hero on a bicycle. 

Monday, 31 March 2014

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Forget the play. Forget the film. Forget, if you can, the songs. Read the book.

It's great.

And it's surprisingly innocent.

There's no ratcatcher here, and no children being snatched from their parents. Quite the opposite. As Frank Cottrell Boyce points out: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is "one of the very few stories in which the whole family goes off on the adventure – usually children have to be sent away to school or evacuated or bereaved or fall through a time vortex before an adventure can start."

So Chitty Chitty Bang Bang really is a book for all the family. And if you want more, Frank Cottrell Boyce has now written three sequels.

If you want a sample, you can read the first chapter of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again here.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Divine Comedy

BBC Radio 4 begins a new dramatisation of Dante's Divine Comedy today at 3pm UK time. It's asking a lot to dramatise it in 3 one-hour episodes but I suppose it's asking a lot to fit a journey from Hell to Paradise into one poem.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Beauty in Education

I realise this might sound like special pleading because one of them mentions my talk in Oxford on Saturday but Stratford Caldecott has a particularly interesting set of posts on his Beauty in Education blog at the moment. The article on Education and Evangelization (with the full version here) is especially good. I hadn't come across this G K Chesterton line before, for a start: 

“Is ditchwater dull? Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.” 


Wednesday, 26 February 2014


While I'm on the topic of Radio 3, I thought I'd mention this week's series of programmes about Forgiveness. On Friday it will be the turn of Catholic poet Michael Symmons Roberts.

And if you need more reasons to listen to Radio 3 (or equivalent Classical Music stations in other countries), just listen out for the number of references to the Mass, the Stabat Mater, the  Salve Regina ... in short, to core elements of the Faith that are simply absent from most people's lives. It's not the only reason to listen to Radio 3, of course, but Catholicism does still have a formidable presence in Classical Music

Sunday, 23 February 2014

El Sistema

There was an interesting discussion about Venezuela during BBC Radio 3's Music Matters programme yesterday. Since this blog deals neither with politics nor with music (for the most part), I'll steer clear of most of the details but the discussion of El Sistema (which has brought us Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra) reminded me of this article by James MacMillan about El Sistema's Catholic roots. You can hear Jose Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, speaking about some of his beliefs here.

The programme also addressed the issue of Richard Strauss's links with the Nazi regime by talking to Christoph von Dohnanyi, one of Strauss's great interpreters, who came from a solidly anti-Nazi family. It raised some hugely important questions which von Dohnanyi dealt with movingly, though there is undoubtedly more to be said. What are we to make, for instance, of Strauss's Alpine Symphony, which he considered naming Der Antichrist? Ideology matters in music as well as in literature but maybe a composer's (or an author's) ideology can be trumped by the audience's (or reader's).  

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Claude McKay

According to the Poetry Foundation's useful website, the poet and novelist Claude McKay "continues to be associated with the phenomenon known as the Harlem Renaissance, though he lived outside of the country for much of the period, and has found new audiences among readers of commonwealth literature and gay and lesbian literature."

He should also find new audiences among readers of Catholic literature because, as this article shows, McKay ultimately left behind communism, Islam and other interests and became a committed Catholic. You can read some of his poems, including some of his late Catholic poems, here.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Oxford Talks

Second Spring is holding its second Interfaith Colloquium at St Benet's Hall, Oxford on Saturday 1st March from 2-5pm. There are going to be some interesting speakers, and I'm giving a talk as well.

The theme of the afternoon is Humanising Work and here's the blurb:

Secularization poses a challenge to religious believers in the practice of their professions, more so as the dominant view creates an environment hostile to traditional conceptions of morality and even social order. Are these conflicts inevitable? What kind of public engagement with these issues would be most fruitful? 

In this series of colloquia, Christian and Islamic thinkers engage in a conversation about notions of society, the secular, and the human vocation. If “the greatest single antidote to violence is conversation” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), such initiatives may make a contribution to the development of a culture of peace. 

2:00 – Crafts: Karim Lahham (Tabah Foundation) 
2:30 – Architecture: Warwick Pethers (Gothic Design Practice) 
3:00 – Teaching: Roy Peachey (Woldingham School and Cedars School, Croydon) and Dr Talal al-Azem (Oriental Institute and Pembroke College) 
4:00 – Discussion: chaired by Stratford Caldecott and Karim Lahham

If you're interested in coming along, it's free admission. For further information contact secondspringltd@gmail.com

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Four Quartets

Jeremy Irons is going to be reading possibly the greatest poems of the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, for BBC Radio 4 on Saturday afternoon. An added bonus is that they are being introduced by Catholic poet, Michael Symmons Roberts, Catholic politician Lord Alton, and Gail McDonald, an expert on Eliot's poetry.