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Book Reviews and More

In this blog I look at both old and new books, at fiction and non-fiction, at literature written for adults and for children. I write about my books and the ideas that inspired them; I write about the books of others and the ideas that inspired them; I have a reading list to work through but often get sidetracked by new discoveries.

Heidi, the Prodigal Son, and Patience

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The precious book that Heidi receives in Frankfurt contains a story which she returns to time and again: the story of the Prodigal Son. Why should this story, in particular, matter so much to her?

On the face of it, the prodigal son’s experience is utterly different from Heidi’s. He turns away from his father: she is utterly innocent. He spends his money recklessly: she lives in happy poverty. He returns home only when he is brought to his knees: she is desperate to get home as soon as she can. Continue reading “Heidi, the Prodigal Son, and Patience”

Long Live the Weeds

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“Some people are flower lovers. / I’m a weed lover.” So said Norman Nicholson in his poem ‘Weeds’ and I’m with him:

Weeds don’t need planting in well-drained soil;
They don’t ask for fertilizer or bits of rag to scare away birds.
They come without invitation;
And they don’t take the hint when you want them to go.
Weeds are nobody’s guests;
More like squatters.Continue reading “Long Live the Weeds”

Treezilla

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I deliberately don’t often include links on this site because I am very mindful of the fact that “the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it,” as Nicholas Carr puts it in his fascinating book, The Shallows. However, today I’m going to make an exception because I want to mention Treezilla, a project from the Open University and other organisations to map all the trees in the UK.

For some time, we have been trying to identify trees in our local area but Treezilla has given this work a new focus, as we now have an opportunity to add our discoveries to the national map. What a wonderful project for this time of semi-lockdown.

All we need is a tree book and a tape measure (to measure the trunk’s circumference). It’s a science lesson, of course, but arguably the real value of the project is that it forces us to look really closely at what we see everyday. And when we start to look we are always amazed by what we see.

‘Heidi’ – an unschooling Classic? Part 2 – Learning to read

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An important turning point in Heidi comes when in Chapter 10 “another grandmother” comes to visit Clara and Heidi in Frankfurt and shows Heidi a book:

“For a moment or two she looked at it with brightening eyes, then the tears began to fall, and at last she burst into sobs. The grandmother looked at the picture – it represented a green pasture, full of young animals, some grazing and others nibbling at the shrubs. In the middle was a shepherd leaning upon his staff and looking on at his happy flock. The whole scene was bathed in golden light, for the sun was just sinking below the horizon.”Continue reading “‘Heidi’ – an unschooling Classic? Part 2 – Learning to read”

‘Heidi’ – an unschooling classic?

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There is a really interesting passage in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi where Heidi’s grandfather resists the great pressure that is put on him to send Heidi to school.

“I am going to let her grow up and be happy among the goats and the birds; with them she is safe, and will learn nothing evil,” he says.Continue reading “‘Heidi’ – an unschooling classic?”

101 Things to Do With Your Dog – No.1

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I enjoyed this paragraph (and accompanying footnote) from Antonia Fraser’s The King and the Catholics about the great historian, John Lingard:

“Personal details about Lingard indicate a man of benevolence and whimsicality. As fame in his own field came to him, an Associate of the Royal Society of Literature and Corresponding Member of the French Academy, so did fame’s awkward kinsman, public attention. In order to elude publicity, he placed his dog Etna (a poodle) in his window to fool observers, wearing his spectacles and a coat so that travellers could see ‘Dr Lingard at work on his History‘.*”

* A ruse which might not immediately occur to modern historians, but which gives rise to interesting possibilities. [Antonia Fraser’s footnote.]

I should add that this ruse would definitely not work with our dogs. As one of my daughters pointed out, they simply wouldn’t stay still for long enough. [My footnote.]

Edmund Campion and Evelyn Waugh

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The novel is the genre of our age, which means that other types of writing are often quietly ignored. How often does Waugh’s wonderful biography of Edmund Campion appear on reading lists alongside Brideshead Revisited and The Sword of Honour trilogy, for example? However, it was not all that long ago that literature meant so much more than fiction; it encompassed drama and poetry, of course, but also history, homilies, saints’ lives and much more besides.Continue reading “Edmund Campion and Evelyn Waugh”

On Compost, Quarantine Homeschooling, and Home Education

On digging rich earth from the bottom of the compost heap the other day, I couldn’t help but think about education. I’d been working on my compost for a long time and now, at last, when the children wanted to plant vegetables, it was ready to do some good. The work I had put in all those many months ago was now yielding its benefits.

The difficulty many families have faced in recent weeks is that they had no time to prepare for the lockdown, no time to prepare their compost. Educating children at home has been like trying to manure the garden with food waste that has only just been dropped onto the compost heap. So, for anyone thinking about home education, I’d say don’t compare it with quarantine homeschooling. The two are quite different things. Instead, start the preparation work and get ready to garden next year.

‘The Two Fiddlers’ by George Mackay Brown

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George Mackay Brown, as I have suggested elsewhere, is one of my favourite modern authors. Standing apart from the mainstream, he wrote fiction (and poetry) that was powerful, haunting and evocative. This is also true of his books for young readers, such as The Two Fiddlers, which was first published in 1974. In this short review, I will write about the first half of the collection of stories, returning to the second half on another occasion.Continue reading “‘The Two Fiddlers’ by George Mackay Brown”

St Nicholas Owen: Priest-Hole Maker

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St Nicholas Owen was a truly extraordinary figure. Born into a devout Catholic family in c.1562, he became a carpenter, rather than a priest like both his brothers. During the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, he created hundreds of priest-hides (or priest-holes) in the homes of recusant families around the country. Naturally, this was extremely secretive work, so we don’t know exactly how many he made in total. Nonetheless, the scale of the undertaking was clearly staggering. In Harvington Hall alone, for example, there were at least eight hides, the most impressive of which were all made by St Nicholas Owen. Here, for example, is a priest hide within a priest-hide hidden beneath the staircase, the larger room being hidden by the much smaller hide for ‘massing stuff’:Continue reading “St Nicholas Owen: Priest-Hole Maker”

C S Lewis and the spirit of Adlestrop

Something of the spirit of ‘Adlestrop’ can be found in C.S. Lewis’s wonderful novel, That Hideous Strength. As her husband drives off to destruction in a fast car, Jane Studdock takes a very slow train towards her redemption:

“The smoke which our imaginary observer might have seen to the east of Edgestow would have indicated the train in which Jane Studdock was progressing slowly towards the village of St Anne’s. Edgestow itself, for those who had reached it from London, had all the appearance of a terminus; but if you looked a little about you, you might see presently, in a bay, a little train of two or three coaches and a tank engine – a train that sizzled and exuded steam from beneath the foot-boards and in which most of the passengers seemed to know one another. On some days, instead of the third coach, there might be a horse-box, and on the platform there would be hampers containing dead rabbits or live poultry, and men in brown bowler hats and gaiters, and perhaps a terrier or a sheepdog that seemed to be used to travelling. In this train, which started at half-past one, Jane jerked and rattled along an embankment whence she looked down through some bare leaves into Bragdon Wood itself and thence through the cutting and over the level crossing at Bragdon Camp and along the edge of Brawl Park (the great house was just visible at one point) and so to the first stop at Duke’s Eaton. Here, as at Woolham and Cure Hardy and Fourstones, the train settled back, when it stopped, with a little jerk and something like a sigh. And then there would be a noise of milk cans rolling and course boots treading on the platform and after that a pause which seemed to last long, during which the autumn sunlight grew warm on the window pane and smells of wood and field from beyond the tiny station floated in and seemed to claim the railway as part of the land.”

Then Lewis’s narrator begins to draw some conclusions that go unstated in Thomas’s poem:

“Passengers got in and out of her carriage at every stop; apple-faced men, and women with elastic-side boots and imitation fruit on their hats, and schoolboys. Jane hardly noticed them: for though she was theoretically an extreme democrat, no social class save her own had yet become a reality to her in any place except the printed page. And in between the stations things flitted past, so isolated from their context that each seemed to promise some unearthly happiness if one could have but have descended from the train at that very moment to seize it: a house backed with a group of haystacks and wide brown fields about it, two aged horses standing head to tail, a little orchard with washing hanging on a line, and a rabbit staring at the train, whose two eyes looked like dots, and his ears like the uprights, of a double exclamation mark. At quarter-past two she came to St Anne’s, which was the real terminus of the branch, and the end of everything.”  

Adlestrop

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One of the great lockdown pleasures has been digging out old (and sometimes very old) board games and playing them as a family. A new favourite is the wonderfully outdated GWR game, whose board you can see in the picture. The aim of the game, in essence, is to collect lots of stations and then race back to Paddington. But the joy of the game (for me at least) lies in the names. Taking a branch line to Adlestrop, as Edward Thomas knew, is what this game is all about.

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

 

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

 

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

 

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

 

That sense of fleeting, transient, and yet age-old beauty seems particularly apt for these fragile times.

On hirpling and other great words

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Yesterday I reviewed George Mackay Brown’s Pictures in the Cave but I didn’t mention his wonderful use of language. Brown certainly seemed to have some favourite words: “hirpling” appears twice in the book, for example, as does “lucent”. Other great words in Pictures in the Cave include “erne” and “crepitated”. So, with a little help from the OED, here’s a quick guide to those words and their meaning.

To hirple – Chiefly Scottish and northern dialect. Intransitive. “To move with a gait between walking and crawling; to walk lamely, to drag a limb, to hobble. In early use said of the hare.” First recorded use c.1500.

Lucent – “Shining, bright, luminous.” First recorded use c.1500.

Erne – “An eagle.” First recorded use: Anglo-Saxon – Cynewulf Elene 29 Urigfeðera earn sang ahof, laðum on laste.

To crepitate – “To make a crackling sound, to crackle”. First recorded use 1853. (Though the oldest meaning of the word, “to break wind”, was first recorded in 1623.)

Are these lexical choices relevant? Surely they are. Just as George Mackay Brown doubted the value of so much of what passes for progress in technology, so too did he have little sympathy for the view that the novelist’s language should be wholly contemporary. In mining Scots and English for their ancient ore, he was engaging in an act of recovery as much as he was when writing about the Orcadian past.

George Mackay Brown’s ‘Pictures in the Cave’

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George Mackay Brown was a great but under-rated author. Though his last novel, Beside the Ocean of Time (which I wrote about in 50 Books for Life), was short-listed for the Booker Prize, Brown never really received the recognition he deserved for his novels, short stories, poetry, or children’s books. This is a real shame because he produced excellent books in each of those categories. And Pictures in the Cave is a great example.Continue reading “George Mackay Brown’s ‘Pictures in the Cave’”

Squanto Friend of the Pilgrims

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Clyde Robert Bulla has done a fine job of making the story of Squanto, the “Indian boy” who became a great friend to the Pilgrim Fathers, accessible to young readers. The book is intended, I guess, for children aged roughly 6-10 and so both the vocabulary and the structure are kept relatively simple. Nonetheless, the author manages to convey the essential elements of the story in a balanced and age-appropriate way.Continue reading “Squanto Friend of the Pilgrims”

A kind review

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Professor John Sullivan of Liverpool Hope University has sent me this kind review which he wrote for the Spring 2020 issue of Networking, an English Catholic education journal:

Did Jesus go to school? By Roy Peachey (Redemptorist Publications, 2019) Pp.149; £9.95.

This is an engaging, down-to-earth, original, wise and spiritual book about parents, children and education. It has something of value for all Catholic teachers and parents. The topics it touches upon are intriguingly opened up by a series of questions. These include: why did it take three days for Mary and Joseph to find Jesus? Are parents more like gardeners or carpenters? Were Adam and Eve children? Did Jesus go to school? How did he learn? What can Jesus teach us about education today? The author, who has already given us another interesting book on how to transform Catholic education – Out of the Classroom and Into the World (Angelico Press, 2018) – blends reflections on passages from scripture (especially about the early life of Jesus), insights from spiritual reading and personal anecdotes, all related to daily experience of parenthood and being a teacher – about which vocations he offers simple yet profound advice. I was particularly struck by his observations about silence, adoption, the qualities needed by parents, the soul-extending part played in our lives by longing, the Bible (‘a pool deep enough for elephants to bathe in and shallow enough for mice to paddle in’) and time. ‘Neither love nor education can be rushed’ (p.142). Neither can discipleship.

John Sullivan, Emeritus Professor (Christian Education), Liverpool Hope University

G K Chesterton on private religion

“The modern habit of saying ‘This is my opinion, but I may be wrong’ is entirely irrational. If I say that it may be wrong, I say that is not my opinion. The modern habit of saying ‘Every man has a different philosophy; this is my philosophy and it suits me’ – the habit of saying this is mere weak-mindedness. A cosmic philosophy is not constructed to fit a man; a cosmic philosophy is constructed to fit a cosmos. A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun and moon.”

G.K. Chesterton – Introduction to the Book of Job