New review of Where’s Sailor Jack? : ‘‘…romantic, poignant, and extremely funny, exactly what I want from a family saga.’ – Stephen Carver, Blot the Skrip and Jar It

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Testaments Old and New

My local Church, although Anglican, is evangelical. Nothing wrong in that: the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. If there’s good news to tell, it ought to be shared. The problem for me is in the approach to the source of that inspiration, the Bible.
The great reformer, Martin Luther, felt bound both by the Scriptures and plain reason, but not by the word of the Pope or any Council. He told the Diet of Worms that to do other would go against his conscience. I’m not blaming him for that. Faced by a Church thinking that they could sell indulgences, a return to first principles was sensible.
Quite surprisingly, the early Church Councils, which took such a prominent role in the development of Christian theology, did not formally ratify the 27 books that make up the New Testament. Yet these were being used by the theologian Origen in the early third century. Church councils did not fully catch up until after both the Great Schism and the Reformation. By then separate councils of Orthodox, Catholic and Reformed were needed. So Luther committed no logical inconsistency in seeing scripture’s authority as separate from that of the Church. When he spoke, the authority of the books included had come from early custom and practice.
Is it reasonable therefore to assume that this is the same thing as the working of the Holy Spirit? That’s a very big assumption, one I don’t fully share, thinking that the role of that still, small voice of calm didn’t end at that point, indeed that it can be heard at all points in space and time.
I’ve read some of the hidden gospels that didn’t make the grade. In every case, I can certainly see why they didn’t catch on. There clearly was an attempt to ensure no gnostic thinking was included in the Canon, of which Johannine Christianity, based on John’s gospel, was most aware. The other three gospels are mainly a mix of history and teaching and have used similar sources, with Luke’s continuing into Acts.
John’s gospel has an exalted Christology from its first verse, with Jesus as the Word with God from the beginning. It also has the great ‘I am’ metaphors from Jesus, which surely read as rich theology and not actual words spoken.
Then much of the rest is Paul’s. Paul does not start with a high Christology. He reads to me as an Adoptionist, one who believes that Christ joined the Godhead at his ascension. As Paul examined what that might mean, he decided it needed more. He wrote movingly and beautifully in Corinthians. In Romans, in facing up to the faith and works debate, he is anxious to show that salvation is through faith alone, and that through grace. On the assumption that salvation is required, that appears sound to me, although it then raises the question of what faith and belief are and in whom, which are not for this piece. While attending to this, Paul also ties the reader, if not himself, up in knots about if Christ has fulfilled or abolished the law. On these issues, he clearly does not agree with another contributor, James, who was possibly the brother of Jesus and certainly the head of the early Jerusalem church. Paul did not know Jesus personally and thus unlike Peter and James was not constrained by memories of the historic Jesus. Peter and Paul do appear to have developed an uneasy truce between them. But Paul did lay down some didactic assertions which go beyond anything heard from Jesus, and raise questions as to what authority he should have.
No review of the books of the New Testament would be complete without mentioning Hebrews and Revelation. I find Hebrews the book most in touch with what the Holy Spirit tells me through my conscience, and Revelation as not as good an end to the rich theology of Johannine Christianity as I would have hoped for. Others find it inspirational of course. Yet the provenance of Hebrews is unknown.
What those first Councils did succeed in doing was developing a theology of the nature of the Godhead and of Christ. The council at Chalcedon propounded that Jesus was wholly man and wholly God, a formulation that has proved useful through the ages. The Athanasian creed as used in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer has God the maker of all things; Jesus the only begotten Son of God, begotten before all worlds, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and is the Lord and Giver of Life. The Godhead is thus described as entirely male or perhaps neuter in the case of the Spirit.
This of course is not new. The creation stories in Genesis assume a male God. Jesus clearly called him Father.
I’m not going to attempt as full a critique for this Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. It clearly has far more literary genres within it than the New Testament. There are two separate creation stories in Genesis alone, attributed to Priestly and Yahwist authors by scholars. In addition, two other schools are said by them to be at work, the Elohist and Deuteronomist. My reading always looks for the tension between the priestly and the prophetic epitomised in Hosea 6:6: ‘For I desired mercy and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.’ It still seems in all branches of the Church that there are priests, ministers, elders who prefer the burnt offering of a rule book.
I just offer one example of naive reading of texts leading to an unnecessary conclusion. Ostensibly one hundred and fifty years before Cyrus the Great was born, the prophet Isaiah foretold his birth and name. The fact that the book of Isaiah clearly has more than one author with different styles, and much has been added later is not sufficient to deter the miracle callers. Real faith should not seek a sign.
So at last I reach my purpose in writing this. My local Church is minded to insist on a male lead Minister when the vacancy next arises. A paper prepared by the Rev Andrew Brewerton of Sheffield diocese has been circulated. The main arguments proffered are: the complementary nature of relationships between the members of the Trinity: that man was formed first in the complementary relationship with woman: from the second creation story in Genesis where woman was created from the spare rib, Paul argues that man is the glory of God and woman the glory of man: these patterns are to be followed in Christian marriage in St Paul’s teaching with the husband as head of the wife and the wife a collaborative helper: similarly, that’s how the Church should work, with the Minister a male, the helpers can be female.
I’ll try to show Christian forbearance in responding to this priest-serving construction. Our view of the Godhead is a useful human construct and should be used for no other purpose than in attempting to understand the mystery of God. Maybe we should regard the absence of the feminine within our model as a weakness that needs work. Jesus called God Father as he was totally human as well as divine, and God was seen as male in his culture. The same argument as used by Brewerton against women’s ministry can be used to say that Theresa May should give way to a man in a suit. These are not eternal truths. The Holy Spirit in my conscience isn’t just whispering that they’re wrong.
The physicist in me sometimes solves the paradox of how the quantum wave function is collapsed by suggesting that it only happens once at the end of time, which is also the beginning, the Alpha and Omega. Jesus was wholly man as he lived his life but was in the Godhead as it all started. It’s a fond thought that may or may not have been guided by the Holy Spirit. I don’t see The Dove soaring away, so I’m probably wrong. The Christian message has produced great comfort in life for many and can continue, but to do so it constantly needs to separate temporal from eternal truth. Wiser evangelicals do consider that the Bible contains what is necessary for salvation while not necessarily correct on other matters. It is a wonderful set of books that seeks to raise questions and allows the Holy Spirit to answer them. That Spirit is always at work, in the meadow, at the rock concert, in the Physics class as much as at the Sunday sermon. Keeping women out is an anachronism which makes the Church look mean and foolish, and is not at all Christian.
I do think Paul was right about one thing in Romans. Whether Jesus fulfilled or abolished the law, he didn’t come to add to it. Nothing in the gospels suggests otherwise. The New Testament is not a rule book. And to solve Paul’s dilemma on faith against works, I hope everyone will be saved, with or without faith, the devil included, though none of us deserve it. That does have some biblical warrant, perhaps not enough. Origen hoped for it too. He thought that the brilliant book of Hebrews was from Paul, if not written by him. Maybe Paul had mellowed. Church Councils didn’t. Origen seems to have been anathematised centuries after his death, perhaps for believing that all would be saved or perhaps for seeing Jesus as wholly human as well as divine.

An elite provincial’s view of Brexit

I voted Remain. But apart from London, Brighton, a few university towns, and the very centres of Manchester and Liverpool, few others did in England and Wales. The young voters couldn’t even be arsed to vote. To try to revisit the vote now would patronise lower class provincials beyond belief and quite probably cause a hideous backlash. The big issues to cause this vote are how immigration and globalisation has hit the provincial lower class.
You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that for nearly forty years now, little surplus value has passed to the workers. Bryan Appleyard’s piece this week in the Sunday Times described how all the spirit has left his home town of what was a vibrant Bolton. And that’s while producing great comedians and actors. It was my Dad’s home town too, and Wanderers will always be my team. It’s a county borough stitched up in a metropolitan county it doesn’t want to be in. All devolution planned by Osborne is to the big Cities. What the referendum has shown writ very large is that is not the identity of most English. They don’t live in cities, villages, or market towns. They still live in county boroughs, impotent since that Philistine Heath abolished them.
I digress. Brexit will do nothing to stop globalisation. I’m not sure that anything can but an economy mixed between public and private sectors can help. A unionised public sector does give rise to comparators the private sector has to emulate.
Immigration is the other big reason for the Leave vote. I often check out the Bolton News web pages. Like many other parts of the country, the wall to wall complaint is the stretch to public services and the problems of education in a multicultural, multilingual town. I don’t doubt that many do hanker for the culture of the past, but you can’t change people’s memories.It appears that the Brexiteers’ plan is to replace European immigration with people from elsewhere in the world, not what the more racially motivated Brexiteers had in mind.
We now need to make the best of a bad job. The Tories shouldn’t elect Boris, who has shafted his colleagues, and knocked everyone else out of the way like he did that poor Japanese kid playing rugby.Labour has to ditch Jezza. I’d suggest Teresa May and Andy Burnham. If Jezza shows the perils of picking a Geography teacher to be a leader, and Roy Hodgson the kindly House Master, at least Teresa is Head Teacher material. And Burnham has a Leigh constituency down the road from Bolton and knows that the cities are not the people.
After that we can hope that other countries in the EU want to move to an associate level that would best suit us.

Forked Lightning

The air was oppressively humid on the first Friday in July 2015. There was a rumbling followed by a roar. Yes, Richard Shackleton had found something to amuse him in the letter he was reading. His wife, Helen, knew him well enough to know that it would be funny, although it would probably lose a lot in the telling.
“The insurers for the Petty Green Church want us to test that the lightning conductor works, as a condition of renewing the policy,” he said. The conductor ran down from the old metal cross on top of the spire. “Perhaps they want me to shin up there with a nine volt battery and do a circuit test. Or, maybe I can persuade the National Grid to connect one of their high voltage lines to it? Otherwise, we’d better hope the Almighty has it in for someone else.”
Helen smiled dutifully. She’d been hoping for better. But it was their wedding anniversary the next day, July the Fourth, Loss of Independence Day in her life, so she stayed friendly.
“I’m sure you’ll find firms that specialise in conductor testing on t’internet, as your Boltonian chum Peter Kay would say.”
This marriage of laughing-eyed Lancashire man and sharp-edged Sussex woman was rock solid on the opposites-attract principle, which permitted sparks to fly as they made their connection. Richard would give nearly as good as he got, describing Helen’s home county as ‘Upper Normandy’. Nearly 70, Richard was a former investment banker with a conscience. He was now the lay reader who looked after St John’s Church in Petty Green, a Hertfordshire village considered too small to have its own parson. The hub Church for three separate satellites was in the larger village of Monkey Mead, where the Shackletons lived. Helen, 15 years younger than Richard, was less accepting of divine providence – her job as a vet meant she regularly took life into her own hands. Two of their four children had yet to fly the nest of their rambling old home. James, at 20, was a history student. Delightful-mistake Amy, aged 13, was still at school.
The family went out that evening for an Indian meal to celebrate the pre-anniversary. Helen and Richard intended a posh, candlelit meal for two the next night, gazing into each other’s eyes, he rejoicing in her beauty, she counting his wrinkles. The air was getting hotter as the varying-strength curries sank down.
Sure enough, there were storms that night. The sky was so bright from the lightning that it seemed like daylight for much of the time. The thunder rolled and crashed, rattling the windows. The 14-year old family dog, Trotter, sought refuge under James’s bed, gladly granted. Their even older cat, Chloe, snuggled up with Amy.
The sun was shining early the next morning. After a quick breakfast Richard set off for his regular constitutional with Trotter. The dog’s hackles rose as soon as they were outside. Sitting on the gatepost was (as Richard biblically described the beast a bit later to Helen) a large ginger cat, like a leopard, feet like a bear, mouth like a lion. Trotter was a border collie, and had increased the average intelligence of the household since arrival, despite his preference for herding joggers rather than sheep. When younger, he would chase cats but discretion was at this age the better part of valour, particularly with a monster this size.
The cat wailed heart-rendingly at the pair, as they left for their walk, and was still there when they returned. Richard fed Trotter before taking out a bowl of Chloe’s cat food, which Ginger wolfed down. Blown in on the storm, he was desperately hungry. In the house, Helen and Richard exchanged anniversary presents and shared a quick kiss. She came out to examine the cat from hell, and established that he was a neutered male. Ginger lingered at their door all morning. Tough as he looked, he was a pussy-cat metaphorically as well as physically. Once he’d cleaned himself up, Ginger became a strikingly handsome specimen of cathood. He adored young Amy, allowing her to hold and stroke him, hissing only at Trotter and Chloe if they ventured too close. Just before lunch, Helen decided to go to the surgery for her microchip reader.
While she was away, Richard received a phone call from a Petty Green congregation member, who thought he’d seen a lightning strike snake down the church spire overnight, although he could see no damage. Richard promised to gob over to have a look that afternoon. Helen returned from the surgery and soon ascertained that Ginger belonged at an isolated farmhouse a few miles away on the other side of Petty Green. The telephone number for the owner, Joseph Bartram, wasn’t working. A family forum agreed that Helen and Amy would take Ginger back to his home after lunch. James would go with his Dad to see if there was any damage at the Church, in case any lifting was needed. Helen laughed at the idea of God taking the lightning conductor test into his own hands.
“Don’t you go mending things,” she joked. “What God hath put asunder, let no man join together.”
After lunch, Ginger was placed into Chloe’s cat basket with a struggle. As they arrived at the farmhouse, the cat became extremely agitated.
At the Church, there wasn’t anything obviously damaged, but all the electrics had been knocked off, which they took as evidence of a direct strike. Richard planned to arrange for a fuller building inspection later in the week.He would also need to find someone to check the lightning conductor installation, satisfactory as it seemed to have been. The church bell was controlled electronically and proved beyond their capabilities to reset.
“Perhaps as well,” said James. “If there has been any damage to the spire, when it rings it might come crashing down on your head as you’re preaching. Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Richard’s ministry was a permanent family joke. He wouldn’t have had it any different.
Meanwhile, at the farmhouse there was no answer at the door. While Amy talked reassuringly to Ginger, Helen went round the back. She peered through the kitchen window and thought she could see a boot on the floor. Standing on a bucket, she could see much more than a boot. It was a body of an old man, she presumed Joseph Bartram. There was nothing to be done but ring the police, and then Richard. Richard and James beat the police to the farmhouse by a minute.
Richard and James both stayed well away from the body, while Amy demonstrated that she had the constitution of her mother by looking closely. It didn’t take long for the police to believe the reason for them all being there. An occupied cat basket was an unlikely accessory to murder. The pathologist arrived. Further tests would, of course, be needed but death had been several days earlier – a heart attack or stroke the most likely cause.
Ginger was quiet, as if grieving. He must have been locked out of his home since the sad death. He was taken back by the Shackletons and encouraged to go out. He preferred to be in the house, finding a spot to sit by the washing machine, out of the way of the other two pets. Helen said she would advertise for a new home for him in her surgery.
It was a sombre anniversary dinner for Helen and Richard. They held hands on the way back and, once in the car, kissed long and passionately. Death was too final, and they didn’t want to lose each other.
The next morning Richard collected the consecrated items for the communion and drove to Petty Green. His sermon was subdued and downbeat. The congregation prayed for the repose of Joseph’s soul, not that he had ever been to their Church. A middle-aged woman sitting at the back cried softly. She didn’t come forward for the bread and wine. Richard almost sprinted down the aisle at the end of the service to make sure he could have a word with her before she escaped.
She was Joe Bartram’s daughter, Samantha. She explained the police had notified her of his death, as his only next-of-kin, and she had popped into the Church on an impulse having driven up from London to see the farmhouse. His will had been found already, which left everything to her. Joe and his wife had separated many years ago, when Sam was just a baby. She’d never known him. Her mother was long dead.
Sam was a single mother bringing up two kids in a one-bedroom, rented flat. On the night of the storms, she said, she’d had a vivid dream of a “beast from hell” telling her that she was his, the devil’s own, for forgetting her father. She reckoned she would have to sell the farmhouse, so she could buy her own place.
“Why not live there?” asked Richard. “God and the devil can be easily confused in the dark. And you could have that ‘beast’ for extra company. I think the dream was your Dad asking you to look after his cat.”
He told her Ginger’s story while the other congregation members filed out. The Shackletons didn’t have to find a new home for Ginger. A few months later, Sam and family moved into the farmhouse. Ginger was taken back to his old home. He purred like a tractor engine when he arrived.

Dog Days

On Petty Common, it’s six o’clock in the morning on the second Saturday in July, 2016. Alexander Baldock, former investment banker and Oxford rugby blue, wearing the business clothes he’d put on four days ago, and with a hangover as filthy, peers at the dried grass roof above him. With walls made of hacked-down branches, this must have been built by an ex-serviceman sleeping rough, he reckons, or maybe by some enterprising kids as a den.
A few miles away in the village of Monkey Mead, benign Boltonian Richard Shackleton, his wife, the savvy and spirited Helen, and fourteen year old daughter Amy were eating breakfast. They’d already fed their menagerie, including their ancient Border Collie Trotter. It was the day of the St John’s Church Summer Fete in Petty Green, a few miles away across the common, where Richard was the lay reader. His morning occupation was setting out tables for picnic lunches and putting up stalls. His main helper was to be his twenty-one year old son James, yet to surface from the depths of his bed, a history student, whose studies had not entirely prepared him for the morning’s endeavours. The equipment to be erected was mainly from pre-history. James had been selected by Richard on the principle that one pressed man was worth ten volunteers, particularly as otherwise the volunteers would have come from the congregation. Helen had a morning’s surgery at her veterinary practice. With no-one left at home, she was taking Amy with her.
Richard had nominated Helen and her veterinary nurse Lucia as judges for the dog show, the conclusion of the Fete. When Richard had mentioned the show to Brian Atkins (the vicar of the Monkey Mead church to which St John’s was a satellite), Brian had said with a shudder that he tried it once. He’d said: “Never again. The dogs were fine, the humans just horrendous.”
Petty Green had been buzzing for days with the news about Alex Baldock. He’d disappeared since losing his job at National Bank earlier in the week. His vivacious wife Victoria and pretty little daughter Laura were frantically hoping for news. Richard, an ex- banker himself, knew Alexander from then and, although the family occasionally went to church, still thought him a chancer. Bertie Baldock was a large shaggy animal of mixed heritage, whose best hope if he came was for Scruffiest Dog.
Amy brushed Trotter lovingly to show that scruffiest dog wasn’t his category before she and Helen left for the surgery. Trotter pulled Richard across the Common for his morning walk, through bushes of burs and bobbles, undoing Amy’s good work. They walked across the path between Monkey and Petty Commons.
Alex leaves his lair, not sure what to do. Should he go home? He can’t face that. He’s attracted to the railway bridge. There’s a train coming. He puts his hands on to the top of the wall, about to ease himself upwards when he hears a voice shouting, “Trotter, this way lad.” Alex hides behind bushes.
Trotter and Richard returned home from their botanical field trip about an hour later. The monster from the deep, James, emerged to tuck into a doughnut in preparedness for the challenges ahead. He’d also been volunteered as keeper for the beat the goalie competition. Richard and James drove over to Petty Green with goalposts hanging out of the boot.
The weather was set fair. They put up the old wooden trestle tables as well as one or two more modern plastic ones. The latter proved the more difficult, with James jamming his fingers and Richard banging his knee. The splinter count from the wooden tables exceeded these minor mishaps. All the stalls were in place by the time parishioners started arriving with cakes, jams, bric-a brac and assorted tat. Older women with arthritis and failing eyesight brought knitwear for sale.
The big problem in putting up the bunting was that help was now at hand in the form of helpful parishioners, literally pulling in different directions. Few were capable of climbing the stairs at home, let alone a ladder. But miracles can happen, and twenty minutes later the adornment no fete can be without was fluttering in the gentle breeze. The final task was to erect the enclosure for the dog show. Again James was in the wars, hammering his thumb as he banged in the last stake.
Alex continues to walk down the path, and sees a rope dangling from a branch with what looks invitingly like a noose on the end. Bigger children use it as an improvised swing.
Folk from all around turned up for the Fete. Helen, Amy and Trotter came with a big picnic. Dogs were everywhere. Lunch went rather well, with little waste of food after the canine clearance service kicked in. In the afternoon, the stalls were well patronised. James’s sore thumb meant that most boys managed to score a penalty past him and win a lollipop.
Half an hour before the dog show was due to start, Victoria, Laura and Bertie snook in. Even the dog looked like he had a blotchy face from crying. Victoria had been in two minds whether to come or not. As senior churchman present, it was Richard’s job to take Victoria to one side. They went into the church porch. “I think he’s done something stupid,” she sobbed. “He’s not used to failure.”
Big strapping guy that Alex was, she clearly feared suicide. Richard tried to console her, although he was concerned too. He’d made a call to an old colleague in the week and had found out that Alexander had been sacked on the spot for a bad compliance breach. His career in the City was over.
Alex is too heavy for the rope. He crashes to the ground as it breaks. In relief, he at last decides to go home to face the music. He decides to go via the quiet of the church to plan what to say to Victoria, having forgotten there’s a fete on. And here is the place where hopes and fears turn into reality and become history.
A dishevelled Alex walked into the porch. He looked like he’d been on a bender to end all benders and then had walked through a hedge backwards. He now had to face the music without any plan. He simpered to Victoria, “I didn’t know how to tell you.”
Victoria lost it. She punched and slapped him about the head several times, shouting, “You stupid pillock, I thought you were dead,” before throwing her arms round his neck and kissing him. “The stupid job doesn’t matter,” she whispered. “You do.”
Outside, the great oaf Bertie broke free from Laura and ran into the porch barking wildly. He gave Alex a much needed wash. Laura screamed with joy as she chased after him and saw her father.
Richard tried to leave but Alex made him stop, saying: “You’ll know already that that I’ll never get another job. I bet they’re all gloating at National. I’ve wrecked every damned thing.”
Richard knew Alex to be right about the reaction at the bank. His contact at National who had given him the lowdown had not been sympathetic. Then he looked at Victoria, Laura and Bertie standing by their man.
“You’ve wrecked nothing,” he said. “Victoria’s right, the stupid job doesn’t matter one bit. Look at what these three think of you. You’ve done the important things right. So get yourself a job that means something.”
“Who’ll have me now?” Alexander asked.
Richard thought quickly. “You did Maths, didn’t you? The world’s crying out for Maths teachers, especially ones who can do Games as well, even if it is rotten rugby.” Richard was a football man. “Come on, Bertie’s looking forward to the dog show.”
They trooped to the show ring. Richard picked up the megaphone to welcome everyone and to introduce Helen and Lucia as judges. Neither Trotter nor Bertie were in the first group for Best Small Breed, the yappiest category both for dogs and owners. When the judges preferred the Yorkie to the Bichon Frise for the gold rosette, the owner loudly claimed that it was a fix because the Yorkie used Helen’s surgery and his dog didn’t. This wasn’t a lone voice.
In the second category, Best Large Breed, as the dogs paraded Helen, combative as ever, asked if anyone wanted to bribe her. Amy was accompanying Trotter and offered Helen a dog biscuit. She’d inherited Richard’s peacemaking skills. A beautiful Vizsla won the prize, not one of Helen’s clients. The judges didn’t give Bertie anything in the Crossbreed group, as they had other plans for him.
Slowly they worked through the categories. The last three were Scruffiest Dog, Golden Oldie and Best in Show. Laura insisted that her father accompany her around the ring. Helen announced that not only had Bertie won Scruffiest Dog but that Alex had won scruffiest owner, and she pinned a rosette to his lapel. The humiliation was complete. That was when he decided that he would become a Maths teacher. He grinned sheepishly as Victoria stroked their triumphant mutt, Laura dancing in delight.
Helen then mellowed enough to give only silver to Trotter in the Golden Oldie, behind the pushy Bichon Frise, who was much younger. Amy understood why that was. The Vizsla uncontroversially won best in show.
The proceedings ended. Alex shook Richard’s hand warmly as the Baldocks left. The tables and stalls were taken down The bunting was left up to brighten the rest of the summer.

Why there’s still room for philosophy, theology and religion in a contemporary fiction, family saga novel

My book has sold pretty well. It’s had lots of nice things said about it. It was of course self-published. I could come out with the usual guff as to why I preferred that route, but rightly you wouldn’t believe me. I tried loads of agents. A few commented on how well written the book was, but “it wasn’t for them.”
Both my editor and my subsequent publicist think two inter-related issues were the reason for this. The first was my age and background relative to the readers employed by the agencies. I’m seventy and if metropolitan at all, only by default. The second was the inclusion of philosophical and religious issues in a humorous and poignant family saga. A novel is not now expected to carry this baggage. No matter how non-judgmentally I had written this, “it wasn’t for them.” No matter how much the literary canon is full of such musings, with only a few decades ago Graham Greene’s catholic guilt and the like being mainstream, “it wasn’t for them.”
I was writing about provincial early baby boomers, who are now approaching old age and the prospect of death with the anglican innocence their mental life has always occupied. If I were not to have included these thoughts I would have been unfaithful to them. As much the last Victorians as the first boomers, they have grappled with the twentieth century and reached a liberal, tolerant world view. Religious considerations play a full part in that. The century has produced so much suffering and pain to challenge faith, but they see their own long lives as more blessed than cursed.
The main characters, having been grammar school and university educated, also have a good grasp of the intellectual developments of the century in philosophy and science. They understand the fundamental lack of determinism in the wave equations which not only Schrödinger’s cat should fear and that Gödel has demonstrated there to be no ultimate explanation available in any equations. They thus want to consider if the physical and mental are so inextricably linked as present orthodoxy has it. And so do many real people of their and subsequent generations. It isn’t irrational to examine if metaphysics and religion can say more. It’s only in a story that this can be done.
Feedback from younger folk suggests that some do feel confronted by the ideas in my book, despite the open way they’re presented. In most cases, they’ll say it’s not the world they’re inhabiting. To them religion is archaic, about ritual or illiberal fundamentalism. It does not spring from philosophy. Challenging that isn’t why I wrote the book, but it’s a good reason to read the damn thing.
A novel must be entertaining. The several hours needed to go from cover to cover are a long time to be bored. Nobody has said they were as they read this one. They identify with the characters, they’re amused by the dialogue, and they’re caught by the story. That’s what real life is about too.

Working class males and the Victorians

Not for the first time, I read a happening journalist decrying 50+ year old white guys the other day, with a commentary on the under-achievement of white, working class youth in another article. As I hawked my novel Where’s Sailor Jack? round literary agents, too many of them appeared to share that mindset. They were young, female and metropolitan.
I’m white, male and 70+. My grandparents were manual working class with my parents making modest strides into the lower middle. None of my grandparents, male or female, would have had the vote before 1918, which I think has some relevance to the rest of this piece. I was born in 1945 as the war finished to a rationed world in a northern village, living in terraced house with an outside lavatory. I use that word not because I’m posh but that I still can’t bring myself to say ‘loo’. It represents to me people further into the middle-class than I was, although I know that to others it’s ‘naff’ for entirely the opposite reason. Sadly the word ‘bog’ no longer seems to have any currency. My early years were not hardship, just much less materialistic than what has followed, and they were soon to be an asset. Grammar school, Oxford University and a good, lucrative career came along, and now a prosperous retirement.
For people my age, the sixties seemed to be the first time when the lower class had a real shout. I didn’t expect it to be the only time. Men prospered more initially than women in Harold Wilson’s white hot heat of the technological revolution, with science and engineering at that stage their preserve. The big liberal issue was racial intolerance and the white lower classes were soon accepting of this agenda, evidenced by interbreeding on a significant scale. The sexual revolution just appeared to happen as other constraints were abandoned. Women’s equality lagged civil rights by nearly a decade. The lower class exuberance and energy of the sixties scene was mainly male with the pop groups but Dusty, Cilla and Twiggy were in it.
When women’s lib did arrive it always seemed to me more middle class than what went before it. Since then, for the working class, the last fifty years have seen intelligent jobs in engineering all but disappear and their culture in music, the arts and literature be taken over by the metropolitan blob.
So much so that while white, working class, male under-achievement can be argued to be the biggest social problem in the country other perhaps than terrorism, there is little pressure to do anything about it on either side of politics. Do you think that the centenary of universal male suffrage will get many fanfares?
I ended up self-publishing. The story including not only some business but also science and religion without the necessary sneer was palpably a problem for the agents I tried. In these areas, they all seem to be insufficiently well-read to know how trite and intellectually weak the present orthodoxy is. I can understand that Larkin’s 1963 doesn’t count as the start of the modern age for them the way it does for me. Despite our modest beginnings, they rightly think that my cohort have taken more out overall than we’ve put in. But that does not apply going that bit further back. My parents had the depression and the war to contend with; my grandparents had both those, plus another much worse war and the black hole of a social structure from which there was little escape.
All voices raised against the prevailing group-think are made to seem reactionary. I don’t believe anyone could fairly make that critique of my novel. Present thinking is good for neither social continuity nor cohesion. A voice old enough to have known and liked Victorian grandparents which accepts that many older people today are doing too well and that today’s young, at least those without affluent parents, are getting as bum a start in life as their great-grandparents did, should be heard. It’s time these class considerations got a look-in and not be out-trumped by race and gender equality. Am I turning into a Marxist?

Howard Marks

Howard Marks has died. I was up at Oxford the same three years as he was, 1964 to 1967, both of us reading Physics. Howard would walk late into the Clarendon Laboratory as the coolest guy in town, carrying his guitar case rumoured to contain the meaning of life inside. As the least hip kid imaginable, I’d carry on measuring the wavelengths of the Sodium D lines or whatever.
I read Mr Nice years later and realised that he was one of the good guys. Journalist Lynn Barber has written about him as a lover at that time. She described how all the northern grammar schoolboys at Oxford were virginal in their innocence back then. That was very true, but not for the want of trying. We didn’t have the savoir to have the faire checked out. I’ve never quite understood how Howard was so savvy so young, perhaps not a trait he always managed to carry with him through life.

Justin Welby

Justin Welby has received well-deserved plaudits for the gracious way he had handled the news of his father’s identity. He has demonstrated how the Christian spirit is interpreted in the Church of England, indeed how the Holy Spirit is felt by Anglicans. But I have a problem. In the excellent interview he gave to Bryan Appleyard for the Sunday Times, his most theological comment was: “I know that I find who I am in Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.” As a cradle Anglican who still attends Church, I do not nor never have felt that. I can’t rule out the genetics. I feel my father in me in many of the movements I make, and see them in my children. I hear my mother’s voice above the babble of today’s orthodoxy. I hear my ancestors in what I read. To this, I add the story of my life that I tell to myself, including time and place, the people I’ve known, the influences I’ve encountered, the good and bad events, and I try to miss nothing out. I don’t see Christianity as a reductive religion. I’m a Lancastrian, physicist, baby boomer Anglican, who’s had a rich life and who’s travelled through life with many people I have nothing but affection for. If there’s a eternity, I don’t see how I’ll recognise them if they’ve changed too much. In my novel, Bob Swarbrick wants to meet Jesus in a heavenly pub, have a game of dominoes with him, everybody get merry and JC himself join in with ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’, Mary Magdalene on the harmonium in a low-cut dress.
I think the theologians call that a low Christology, Jesus as wholly man who became God as the first fruits of the harvest that could include everyone.

Life science certainty

I always watch Alice Roberts’ programmes on television. They are invariably well-made, and I found The Incredible Human Journey essential viewing. She upset me a bit recently when she tweeted: “I get really confused when churches ask me to give lectures because they’re looking for an ‘ecumenical’ approach. Perhaps they’re confused.” I don’t know if the double use of ‘confused’ is deliberate, but the remarks weren’t designed to be friendly to those who’d approached her. I’m not blaming her for not fancying an evening in a draughty church hall, even with a lukewarm glass of prosecco afterwards, but I don’t think that was her problem. She has no need for their hypothesis.
I’m not a life scientist. Prior to a long business career in the electricity industry I read Physics, and at the end of my career did a Divinity degree. I would readily admit to the usual physicist prejudice of thinking the life sciences to be a branch of librarianship. No doubt my medical friends would respond that physicists, along with theologians and businessmen, are neither use nor ornament, a charge I would find difficult to resist. Back in the sixties, when quantum mechanics was still hip, I can remember my delight in deriving uncertainty and exclusion principles with digitised quantum energy levels from continuum wave equations. I would never stand on firm ground again, but I am a cradle Anglican. Later I was to read how Gödel had effectively shown that no finite mathematical system could contain its entire explanation. Even Stephen Hawking now thinks that there will not be an ultimate theory of everything with a finite number of principles. Despite the ingenious ways that mathematicians find of dealing with infinities in their equations, I still think that the concept of a physical infinity is incoherent. Gödel agreed with this, preferring to take the infinite outside the system.
That’s not the same as postulating a loving, personal God. I do think that an intelligent being similarly standing outside the system could view the development of reflective beings that we humans have become as remarkable.(And our dogs too, I’m not being exclusive!) But does that imply purpose? There is no explanation that comes close to a justification to humankind for the sheer volume of sentient pain from natural and moral evil. If there’s a God he certainly doesn’t appear almighty. Yet without those tectonic plates shifting, would there have been the background for us humans to evolve in the Rift Valley?
I’m not a full dualist in the philosophical sense, as I feel the mental and physical worlds meet on edges, which I guess makes me a dual-aspect monist. I don’t give too much agency to the mental, accepting that I usually seem to do whatever’s convenient and then repent, but I don’t discount the possibility. As a physicist, it’s difficult not to see scientific explanations as reductionist, given our use of mathematics, even when the equations don’t reduce. Yet there is a world of virtues, perhaps also vices, which cannot be put into Maths. Life scientists do at least usually work in language, if not one readily available to the amateur. Perhaps they never feel that their discipline can’t contain its own answers.
There have been some strange coincidences in my life. My father was a keen amateur cricketer back in Lancashire. Just after the war, he clean bowled five batsmen in five balls to win the game. In 2011, on the thirteenth anniversary of his death, my youngest son George did just the same bowling for his Hertfordshire School Under Fifteens. My howl of disbelief and delight could have been heard back in Lancashire. Just coincidence, say some. But there’s no way they’ve assessed the probabilities, and no way I have the data to do so either. If they did, their statistics would look at the possibility of it happening to anyone, I’d look only at the possibility of it happening to me, thus probably shifting the odds against by millions. Others say it’s in the genes. Maybe, though I never bowled five straight in a row in my life and George had been all over the place until that final over. It’s like humour, if you ask why it’s funny, it no longer is.
My novel Where’s Sailor Jack? has a set of events that come together at one critical juncture. It’s a happy outcome for one, an engineer, who then declares all equations to be maya, the truth but not the whole truth. OK, the story line was contrived by me, though I never quite felt I wrote it. The philosopher Charles Taylor sees our sense of self as the story we tell ourselves about our lives. That’s why I wrote a novel. I do need a hypothesis. Dylan reckons that the devil rules the world, and God is the judge. I’ve no better explanation. To mean more, our stories need a loving God. In mine, he’ll have everyone in his eternity, the devil included.
I’m happy to drink the prosecco. The Communion wine is even better.

He is risen indeed

He wakes up. It’s dark. There’s a crack of light coming in from behind the stone. It must be morning. He puts his finger to the stone. It rolls away easily, making the earth shake. Two angels are outside with a robe. This is what he expects. He changes out of the linen clothes and folds them neatly. He nearly forgets the head napkin. He goes into the garden with the angels and watches as Mary Magdalene looks in the tomb. He sees her run back to fetch John and Peter. They come, and go back home scratching their heads. Mary stays around. She sees the two angels by the tomb. She tries to talk to them through her tears. She turns to see Jesus, without knowing who it is. He must look younger, he thinks. He calls her by her name. She recognises him, rushing to give him a hug. He asks her not to touch him this side of Paradise. “Go to my brethren and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.”