It’s not new for readers to be confronted by tales of young Irish women enslaved and raped by their drunken and misogynistic fathers or brothers. Neither is it a revelation to hear about a young woman fleeing across the Irish Sea to England. And there are many books where ‘Sunday mass is the ‘moral censor and the emotional comforter for all of us’. Phyllis Whitsell’s books are different because they are based on herself and her mother: a history painfully lived and then painstakingly researched both around Birmingham and in Tipperary.
Community nurse, Whitsell, knowing that she was adopted, decided, aged 23, to find her mother, Bridget Mary. When she found the woman known as Tipperary Mary she nursed and supported the ‘bag lady’ over the course of many years. Wearing her uniform, and seeming to be an outreach worker, Whitsell was able to give informal succour to her mother without revealing what their true relationship was. That’s quite an extraordinary story and is told in Whitsell’s memoirs, My Secret Mother and Finding Tipperary Mary.
In the epilogue to her latest book, A Song for Bridget, Whitsell summarises her years caring for her mother and explains that Bridget Mary never fully understood that her nurse was Phyllis, herself a mother to three children. Bridget was befuddled by alcohol and onsetting dementia so was unable to take her place in the family. But at least this meant that she could not compute the death of her own son, Billy, from a heroin overdose.
Whitsell is at pains to counsel the reader about prejudicial attitudes towards addicts, explaining that behind every case ‘there is emotional and psychological pain and trauma’. Her compassion is unstinting towards the birth mother who handed her over to an orphanage at nine months. There is no shadow of blame or resentment in her attitude and this might be because her adoptive mother Mary Bridget was able to fill the void left by the loss of Bridget Mary.
Whitsell opens A Song for Bridget with a letter from herself, ‘Little Phyllis’, written, on February 22nd 2018, to her late mother. In it Whitsell explains to her ‘dear Mum’ how over nine years, as she ministered to cuts and bruises, she also listened to ‘snippets and anecdotes’ which were ‘the fragments of your story’.
Welding them together with, ghostwriter Cathryn Kemp, Whitsell presents an organised account of Bridget’s chaotic life. It is endearing that the co-authors adopt the first person for their account as if they are offering understanding even in the way they structure the narrative.
It is hard to believe that the ‘roaring drunk’, pub-brawler was once a nine-year-old child racing down the streets of Templemore on her way back from school. Facing Bridget at home was a cold range and no smell of bubbling vegetable stew. Upstairs her mother had just given birth to a fifth child, Philomena. Soon after that Bridget was removed from school to look after her baby half-sister. She loved Philomena and many years later named her own daughter, Phyllis, after her.
The story that Bridget Larkin told Phyllis Whitsell is one of cruelty and treachery. Every family member either willingly or unwillingly deserted the young woman. The Catholic Church and other institutions removed child after child: Kieran, Phyllis, Angela, Billy and Jimmie. All the babes were taken from Bridget’s protesting arms. But one returned to her and offered the love and care that she needed. That was Phyllis Whitsell and this account is the final chapter chronicling the life of Tipperary Mary.
Whitsell, P. with Cathryn Kemp. A Song for Bridget. 2018. Mirror Books.
A version of this review was first published in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 5th May 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.
First Confession: A sort of Memoir by Chris Patten
Chris Patten, long-serving Conservative Member of Parliament, Home Rule Secretary of State in Northern Ireland, ex-governor of Hong Kong and now Chancellor of the University of Oxford is, perhaps, an enigma. Whenever there seems to be a pigeonhole in which to slot him a ‘but’ appears. He just is different from his friends and colleagues. He is a grandee who isn’t grand. He is a Conservative but not right wing. He is liberal but not a Liberal.
Great grandson of Patrick from County Roscommon, Patten was born in 1944 in Greenford, West London, where he and his elder sister were brought up in modest surroundings. It would appear that it was his brain that launched Patten on his route to success.
He won scholarships to school and university. There he was taught by excellent teachers and became a passionate historian. He admires cleverness and often comments on colleagues who are really clever, or, indeed, not as clever as they think they are.
In 1965 he chose to work for the Conservative Research Department turning down a job as a graduate trainee at the BBC. Everyone thought he was foolish. But, between graduating (Balliol College, Oxford) and this decision Patten had won the Coolidge Atlantic Crossing Fellowship and spent a year in the US ending up fund-raising for a Republican mayoralty campaign in New York. Politics had found its way into his blood and was not going to budge. In spite of this infestation Patten still looks to history rather than political philosophy to define his views.
For Patten, the concept of Conservatism comes from Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s rejection of the French Revolution. He endorses Burke’s ‘opposition to utopianism and political blueprints’ and his objection to an ‘excessively rationalist approach to life’. This latter is important to Patten who was raised as a Catholic and is still practising. He feels that as a society people should respect their forebears and traditions in addition to looking forward to the future of their children. He sees these values as within Burke’s ideals of ‘patriotism, defence of the Crown, country and national interest’ as well as ‘defence of property and of order’.
Another of Patten’s heroes is the long-serving Conservative minister, Rab Butler, who ‘never quite became Prime Minister’. Patten thinks that Butler ‘should have got the job’. This is often mooted about Patten himself: ‘the best Tory Prime Minister we never had’. He underlines the morality and charitableness of Butler, describing him as a ‘consummate man of public affairs’ and quoting Butler’s claim that he knew ‘how to govern the people of this country’. Patten would probably apply a similar description to himself.
Perhaps the most interesting phases of Patten’s career are the two spent in Belfast. The chapter detailing these is named Crazy Irish Knots. As usual he introduces his analysis of the political situation with a potted history culminating in the 1916 Easter Rising which, he says, looked to the Northern Irish like ‘an Irish and Catholic stab in the back’. There was, after all, the First World War to be fought.
Patten felt that the North had ‘turned its Britishness into a sacred identity that most of the rest of Britain could barely recognise or comprehend’. He was uncomfortable with this and is disturbed now to see a rise of Nationalism in Great Britain and other parts of the world. He is scathing about most of the political behaviour on both sides of the border during the twentieth century, although he also acknowledges mainland culpability. The Northern Irish were not that keen on Patten either, when, with his British Irish Heritage and Catholicism, he took, in 1983, the post of Parliamentary Secretary.
It sounds like quite a fun job – apart from the guilt of raising the ‘Peace Wall’ by one and a half metres. He says he ‘built houses, opened health facilities, conserved buildings, ran a railway and spent the public’s money pretty well’. There were difficulties over the nomenclature of ‘Stroke City’. On Patten’s watch the city, remaining Londonderry, found itself inside Derry District Council. Stating ‘you could not make it up’ Patten adds wryly that he was rebranded too: ‘the Minister of Treachery’
In 1997 Patten returned to Belfast to become chair of the Independent Commission of Policing in Northern Ireland. This was to prove a more knotty problem. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was regarded as Protestant and Unionist. Patten was asked to develop a police force which ‘is seen as an integral part of the community as a whole’. Only 8% of the RUC were Catholic then but 20 years later 30% of the officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland are, more closely reflecting the proportions of the population. Other than balancing recruitment Patten felt that ethos and symbols were central. Badges were redesigned and union flags removed from police stations. Crucially this controversial work was conducted without security, as Patten and his fellow commissioners relied solely on the word of ‘paramilitary terrorists on both sides’, as they visited villages and towns up and down the country and listened to local views.
During a long career Patten worked in many countries and was involved in many conflicts including, when he was a commissioner of the EU, the Balkan War. He worked with China when he was governor in Hong Kong. He worked with American diplomats. He is, he acknowledges, clever and well-informed, although reiterates that he has often met people who are his superior in both these assets. It is worth reading this book as its author sheds light, from a well-versed position, on many of the global political events of the second half of the twentieth, and the first 17 years of the current, century. He seems a thoughtful and reflective man, moderate and deeply suspicious of ideologies and bandwagons.
Using this experience, as well as his historical knowledge, Patten feels able to make strong generalising statements. Bracketing his work in Northern Ireland with his efforts in the Balkans he states ‘identity conflicts, like most others, require for their settlement a combination of force and politics’. He thinks that in ‘Northern Ireland there would never have been peace had not the terrorists in both communities come to understand that the British security effort was not going to run out of patience and energy. Second, in a big conflict, Europe had to work hand-in-hand with the United States. Europeans could not operate on their own’. Reading these words it is clear why Patten is unhappy with the current situation in global politics.
Patten abhors Brexit and despises Trump. Like many people he feels that everything on which a relatively peaceful world order was based is being undermined. He thinks that lies and mendacity have trumped good sense and collegiality. He despises the tool of referendum as oppositional to democracy, ‘substituting crude majoritarianism for discussion and compromise among those we elect to give us the benefit of their judgement’.
Closing the book with, at 73, a meditation of his life as a Catholic, family man, as well as a British European liberal international Tory, Patten has only one great regret: ‘the result of the EU referendum and what it tells us about the populist perils here, elsewhere in Europe and, alas, in America too’. He ends with the hope that Britain, Europe and America do not fragment what has been ‘one of the most peaceful, prosperous and increasingly tolerant periods in history’.
Pattern, C. First Confession: A Sort of Memoir. Allen Lane. 2017.
When visiting Listowel Writer’s Week in 2013, Irish Australian writer Thomas Keneally spoke about his book The Great Shame which chronicles the shameful transportation of Irish famine victims, petty criminals and political activists in the nineteenth century. One of these was his own ancestor, a Fenian named John Keneally, from Newmarket, Co. Cork.
If the author had returned to Kerry’s literary capital for the 2017 celebrations he would have read from, and spoken about, his recently published Crimes of the Father. Set in the 1990s, mainly in Sydney, it deals with the growing realisation by the Australian secular and religious worlds of child abuse and cover-up behind the lychgates of the Catholic Church.
In the Author’s Note to his latest novel Keneally refers to that week in Listowel recounting how he felt that the West of Ireland had, more than Australia or America, turned its back on their church. He thinks that demands on worshippers in Irish parishes were heavier than elsewhere because of De Valera’s religion-based social structures. Priests submitted their flocks, not only to rigorous daily devotional practices but also restrictive life-style regulations. When parishioners discovered that many church leaders, both local and national, were ignoring the rules and/or colluding with abusers they forsook their daily masses.
Irish Australians were slower to reject Catholicism suggests Keneally, because, in the face of imperialistic prejudice against their inherited Irishness, they clung to the vestiges of the old country including its religion. They had also been told stories of starving Irish Catholics who refused to convert to Protestantism during famine years and thus were denied life-saving victuals. It would be a betrayal of these devout forebears to reject Catholicism.
Crimes of the Father, a novel about clerical child abuse is a passionate treatise. There is an indignant campaigning tone to the writing which, while engaging the reader, reflects Keneally’s deep ongoing disappointment with some aspects of his church. He feels that many senior churchmen in the upper echelons of the organisation have lost touch with Christian principles as well as with their flocks. His own work on the other hand presents as brave and honest.
Born in Sydney, Keneally was, himself, a seminarian. Much of the book’s narrative and some of the characters are versions of real events and real people on the periphery of Keneally’s life. The main character in Crimes of the Father is Frank Docherty, also, a former seminarian. Docherty, having been expelled from his Australian bishopric, for expressing anti-apartheid and anti-war views, has spent most of his adult life in an order in Canada. There he became an expert in paedophilia in the Catholic Church and, as a trained psychologist, counselled both the victims and the abusers. He was commissioned to study the problem for the rather more liberal and pragmatic church hierarchy in Canada.
The novel begins in 1996 when Docherty returns to Sydney to lecture at the Council of Clergy, and to see his elderly mother now living in sheltered accommodation. His aim is to return to the city of his birth, if he can persuade the Archbishop to allow him to reengage with his parochial duties in the Congregatio Caritas Divini.
One of the anxieties that Docherty expresses is that the Australian church, through a structure called In Compassion’s Name, continues to cover up abuse and to pay off victims in exchange for their silence. Instead the Catholic Church should inform the police of allegations against individual clerics to prevent the whole ecclesiastical institution becoming poisoned.
Eventually, Docherty warns, in Australia and elsewhere, the civil arm of nations will intervene, investigate and punish illegal acts. The ‘opprobrium’ of the crimes would taint all Catholic priests. To some extent this is what happened in some countries, including Ireland.
Much of the novel is taken up with an account of a ground-breaking case in which Devitt, a now adult survivor of a particularly egregious offender, takes the Australian Catholic church to court. Much of the trial centres on whether it is possible to sue the trust and trustees of the church’s assets. Docherty feels uncomfortable, seeing church lawyers and churchmen yet again allow legal niceties to overshadow the true issue – that of predatory and serial child abuse being enabled by clerical authorities.
Docherty concentrates, in particular, on what he names the two c’s: confession and celibacy. The point that he makes about celibacy is that it is an unnatural regime for most men. He feels that sexual desires demand an outlet. He provides, from his studies, a figure of over 60 per cent of priests admitting to sexual experience and draws the conclusion that if that number volunteer their transgression then of the silent remainder some must also be guilty of breaking their vows.
One of Keneally’s objections to his own training at the seminary was that he was encouraged to objectify 51 per cent of the population as evil temptresses. His character, Docherty, suggests that many priests who might have homosexual leanings forced themselves to retain a sort of psycho-sexual immaturity. This, of course, made them unhealthy emotionally and unable to counsel their parishioners effectively. Some priests felt forced to have the only ‘safe’ sex possible in their roles – that of raping children. If reported, which was unlikely, it might not be believed; if believed it probably would not be punished or made public. Instead offenders were moved to other locations in which they resumed their nefarious activities.
In Crimes of the Father Keneally suggests that for some priests the confessional box became a grooming salon. One character describes it as a ‘dating agency’. He mentions a ‘predator quizzing him about sins that he had never heard of’. The priest was introducing his charge to masturbation and would later give a personal demonstration and encourage mutual participation.
Docherty suggests that the shame of sexual practices, forbidden by the church, sometimes prevented the children from exposing their abusers. In addition these priests were able to absolve the child victims of their carnal sins before visiting their own, carefully selected, confessors for absolution.
Crimes of the Father is not a light read in any sense of the word. The hardback, at nearly 400 pages, is hefty but more than this the novel deals with a very serious subject. There is no attempt to ease the difficulty of understanding complex legal and religious concepts and there is no attempt to shy away or avoid descriptions of rape and assault.
Keneally is keen to probe the psychology of those, within the church, who abuse or condone abuse. The novel can therefore be read as a piece of expert evidence contributing to the debate about how Catholic priests, at all levels of the hierarchy, reacted to what Docherty’s mother refers to as ‘kiddy-fiddling’.
Currently, Keneally is what he describes as a ‘cultural or delicatessen’ Catholic. He was driven to this not only by the church’s attitude to abusive priests as detailed in this novel but also by the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in 1968. Pope Paul VI confirmed that only abstinence and the rhythm method were permitted as contraception. This conservatism threatened the allegiance of many practising Catholic married couples throughout the globe.
It’s encouraging to note that after he left the seminary Keneally began a successful career as a writer publishing the first of 31 novels in 1964. He was married to Judith in 1965, he has two daughters and is now a joyful grandfather of four.
Keneally, T. Crimes of the Father. London: Sceptre. 2017.
—. The Great Shame and the Triumph of the Irish in the English Speaking World. London: Penguin Random House. 2000.
This review was first published on pages 33 and 34 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 28th October 2017.
Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident by Peter Stanford.
Peter Stanford’s name will not be unfamiliar to readers of the Telegraph or the Guardian/Observer, as both titles publish his work. He seems to specialise in writing on religion, particularly Catholicism; writing obituaries, particularly those of Catholic prelates; and writing about prisons, particularly in terms of the Longford Trust and penal reform.
Stanford lives in North Norfolk and attends mass at his local Roman Catholic church. Communion is administered by an ex-Anglican married priest. The celebrant preferred to convert to papacy rather than work alongside women priests and bishops in the Church of England. Stanford’s biography concerns another man of principle, although it was papal abuses against which Luther stood firm.
The introduction plays on the legend that Luther’s career in the church began when he was terrified, having been caught out in the open by a violent and cacophonous thunderstorm. He was so frightened that he promised Saint Anne, the Holy Virgin’s mother, he would become a monk.
Whilst dismissing the credulity of the tale, Stanford creates, for himself, an elaborate conceit: he is in Wittenberg, soaked to the skin by a storm, sheltering in a doorway, sequestering a Playmobil model of Martin Luther in his drenched pocket. He is then welcomed – even though a Catholic – into Luther’s own church, the Stadtkirche, by the Lutheran Rev. Cliff Winter from Wichita, Kansas. You couldn’t make it up. Or could you?
Whatever the accuracy or exaggeration of the story, it’s a good one and a warm reception to a text which looks like it might be quite challenging. Lucas Cranach’s 1529 portrait of Martin Luther, which graces the cover, shows a serious face with thin determined lips. We know that Luther’s life will be a series of acts of courage resulting in privation and excommunication. There won’t be many jokes along the way. Well, have you heard the one about the Diet of Worms?
Luther’s ideas contributed to a century of religious wars followed by centuries of internecine conflict, culminating in 1999 with the ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification during the Catholic-Lutheran talks at the Vatican. Justification by faith was the central issue for Luther: faith, or love of and belief in Christ, was the only way to salvation. The ‘95 Theses’ is a list of short debating points on the subject of indulgences.
Luther was disgusted by the contemporary habit of buying indulgences. These, sold by the church, could be used to ensure one’s own, or a loved one’s, place in heaven. But Luther believed that indulgences had no power and were corrupt. When Luther’s ‘95 Theses’ arrived in Rome the Vatican was using the money raised to build St. Peter’s. Luther suggests that Leo X, who was as rich as Croesus, should pay for the cathedral himself. That is the content of thesis 86.
Luther also took exception to four of the seven sacraments. He approved of the Eucharist, of child baptism and of confession. These three he thought were the only ones coming directly from Christ. Also they bring the believer closer to God. Additionally they cannot be manipulated by powerful priests. Confirmation, marriage, holy orders and extreme unction did not make the cut. As can be seen these excisions would have reduced the role and power of the Catholic clergy.
Leo X dismissed Luther’s ideas and refused to enter into discussion or debate. Demands were made that Luther recant and when he did not he was excommunicated in 1521. Frustrated and disappointed, Luther and a growing band of dissenters broke free of Roman Catholicism and set up the Lutheran Church.
What is there to celebrate in 2017? According to Stanford, Europeans owe Luther a ‘debt’ because he broke ‘the stranglehold of the late medieval Catholic Church over all aspects of life, religious or otherwise; for his championing of ideas of individual responsibility, freedom of conscience and worship; and for showing how powerful, well-entrenched elites can be confronted and vanquished, if only you have the courage’.
Wittenberg is getting itself spruced up to welcome, this coming October, international visitors on the 500th anniversary of the legendary nailing of ‘95 Theses’ to the church door. This might not have happened – printing presses were Luther’s preferred medium.
Visitors won’t get to hear one of Luther’s, two thousand, sometimes ‘sublimely beautiful’, sermons. But they will see Cranach’s vast altarpiece, with Luther, disguised behind a beard, taking the Eucharist at the Last Supper! It’s a metaphor, I suppose. Although, Stanford suggests that Luther was, even in his lifetime, seen as important as one of the apostles. Apparently, Luther’s riposte was that he was nothing but ‘a stinking afterthought’.
During the celebrations, the congregants might hear a service in English or German. That was another of the great achievements of Luther’s life: the translation of the Bible from Latin into the vernacular. This is good as it means people will be able to understand the special prayers, prepared for the occasion, by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.
One prayer hopes that there will be time ‘to experience the pain over failures and trespasses, guilt and sin in the persons and events that are being remembered’. Are those being remembered people like Martin Luther and Leo X?
Another reads, ‘Thanks be to you for the good transformations and reforms that were set in motion by the Reformation or by struggling with its challenges’. Well, it may not have the beauty or poetry of the language of the King James Bible but you can see the point. The prayer acknowledges Luther’s achievement in starting a movement that, even though it did not intend to, might have saved Roman Catholicism from entropy.
Stanford extols work done by the scholar, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to be Benedict XVI. As pope, he spoke in 2008 at St. Peter’s, Rome saying ‘Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ, and this suffices. Further observations are no longer necessary. For this reason, Luther’s phrase “faith alone” is true’. This was an extraordinary, and long overdue, acknowledgement of Luther’s argument. All he ever wanted was debate and discussion but he was vilified and hounded.
In 2010 Benedict visited a sacred place. It was a ‘former Augustinian monastery, at Erfurt’. Luther was a scholar there. The Pope said, ‘We should give thanks to God for all the elements of unity which he has preserved for us and bestows on us anew”. But Luther remains excommunicated. Would he mind?
Stanford wonders what Martin Luther might have thought of the Catholic Church today. He feels that Luther would have admired the way that the Catholics have reformed themselves from within. It has taken generations but finally, Stanford suggests, they have arrived at a solution not unlike Luther’s recommendations 500 years ago. He says that Luther was ‘a man for his own age, but also for every age since, right up to the current day’.
Stanford is an excellent writer able to explain theology and present it as exciting and vibrant. He also finds some jokes.
Stanford, P. Martin Luther: Catholic Dissident. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 2017.
A version of this review was first published on pages 34 and 35 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 15th July 2017. It is reproduced here by permission of the editor.
Carrére states that ‘things of the soul, the things involving God embarrass me’ but, there maybe other things that should embarrass him more.
This is an extraordinary book. Carrère subtitles it ‘a novel’ but its form has been described as biographical non-fiction written in the first person. Essentially it is a history of early Christianity. Three of the first century characters are named Jesus, Paul and Luke. The narrative is interwoven with Carrère’s 21st century first person voice – it is as if he is in conversation with the disciples. It’s compelling and unsettling.
The Kingdom gives an account of the Damascene Conversion. It has a long section on Luke, who seems to be Carrère’s favourite chronicler. The Gospel of Luke tells a familiar story but Carrère’s apparent intimacy with the narrator is achieved through comparison of available sources/translations and especially a close investigation into style. Carrère gets really excited because at two points in his gospel Luke changes from the third person to the second person. So what was an account of Paul’s travels talking about ‘him’ or ‘them’ becomes ‘we’. Luke is there with Paul apparently. Carrère enjoys speculating about that.
Secondly Carrère is interested in what has been omitted as well as in what has been recorded. In all four gospels there is only one half sentence that suggests that Paul was imprisoned in Jerusalem for two years. Here Carrère uses his knowledge to imagine what Luke did with those 24 months.
Extracts of reviews printed on the blurb are apostolic in their reverence for The Kingdom. Julian Barnes , who clearly read the novel, published in 2014, in its original French, calls Carrère ‘the most important writer in Europe’. I had never heard of him until the book editor at the Irish Examiner sent me a copy to review. Since I completed my review of The Kingdom I have looked at others, see works cited below. All the ones I have read are by men.
They notice, as I did, Carrère’s narcissism but not so much his misogyny. The choices of subject matter, characters, sources, attitudes and style are all overtly male. Although there are strong women in Carrère’s personal life they are under-represented, indeed absent, from The Kingdom.
What embarrasses Carrère is that for three years, from 1990, he was ‘touched by grace’. During that period he became a fervent believer, filling notebooks with daily thoughts stimulated by reading the Gospel of John. He attended mass every day, took communion and made confessions.
Bookending his devout episode Carrère, a French intellectual and urbane Parisian, is more at home with works of philosophy, psychology and literature such as Nietzsche, I Ching, Kafka and Homer. But, in order to write The Kingdom, Carrére had to research Christian exegesis, as he had previously done in the early 1990s, for his own spiritual purposes.
Working over recent years on The Kingdom has, says Carrère, been like writing an early Philip K Dick novel. In the story a child is born to a virgin. The boy’s father is an invisible god. After being killed by rational unbelievers the prophet is resurrected and promises eternal life to those who believe in him.
Members of his sect spread the word throughout the world and establish one of the great, and most resilient, religions. For Carrère, who currently presents himself as sceptical and agnostic, this sounds like science fiction. Maybe that’s why he calls The Kingdom a novel?
Carrère is open about himself, his thoughts and his behaviour. It is shocking to read his self-deprecatory account. He is selfish, self-indulgent, self-revelatory, self-loathing and self-aggrandising. It’s all about him in a way that I find deeply repellent but at the same time I also feel that I may know him better than any other human being, other than myself. He holds nothing back, stating that he ‘loves himself to the point of hatred’.
I cannot condemn him though as I think this level of honesty should be applauded, unless, of course it is all an enormous confidence trick. Maybe, that’s what he means when he calls The Kingdom a novel? Perhaps this soul-baring, breast-beating Emmanuel Carrère is a self-created fictional character and if I were to visit the author in his apartment in Rue des Petits-Hôtels I would find someone completely different.
Interestingly the narrator has two amazing and loyal friends. He mentions others but it’s these I covet. His godmother, Jacqueline, both loving and challenging, is a constant figure in his life. She, it is, who when he reaches the slough of despond in his early 30s, guides him into Catholicism. She provides an extensive reading list, and, as necessary, reassurance. She warns him of the perils he will face in his pilgrim’s progress.
Jacqueline has a lovely flat in Rue Vaneau, full of beautiful things, like a sanctuary for the soul. If she were still alive I would like to go there. She is ‘well versed in Oriental wisdom and yoga’ and thus is able to provide spiritual leadership in a number of ways. She is a mystic who steps in when therapy and analysis fail Carrère. At the point just before he finds his faith, he remembers, ‘just being me became literally unbearable’.
The other thoroughly desirable companion is Jacqueline’s other godson, Hervé. He is a one-on-one friend with whom Carrère has, for 25 years, spent a fortnight at the end of every summer. They sojourn in Valais, Switzerland and walk and sit for hours in silence. Beyond these trips he and Hervé rarely meet. But Hervé, whose own notebooks juxtapose the words of Christ ‘with those of Lao-tze and the Bhagavad Gita’, is ‘the least fanatic of human beings’. He sounds really great.
There is one episode in The Kingdom which I found especially distressing. Carrère and his first wife, Anne, need a nanny for their two small boys. I am not sure what Anne’s work might have been but Emmanuel was in the habit of going to the office everyday to write screenplays or fiction. The new nanny, whose sole advantage is that she might have been employed previously by Philip K. Dick, is left alone on her very first day. Both parents exit the apartment leaving a baby in a bassinet.
What ensues is shocking and I would say that if it had been part of my experience of parenting I would have been too embarrassed to make my negligence public. For Carrère, however, the embarrassment comes not from his behaviour in the rational world but in his short-lived relationship with the Lord.
N.B. If you are interested in reading about Emmanuel Carrère I urge you to start with two articles in the Guardian. Robert McCrum writes that Carrère is the ‘most important French writer that you’ve never heard of’. Tim Whitmarsh is entrusted with the same paper’s review of The Kingdom. There is also a brilliant piece by Wyatt Mason for the New York Times Magazine.
Carrère, E. The Kingdom: A Novel. Trans. John Lambert. Allen Lane. 2017. Print.
Mason, W. ‘How Emmanuel Carrère Reinvented Nonfiction’. New York Times Magazine. 2 Mar 2017. Web. 3 Mar 2017.
McCrum, Robert. ‘The Most Important French Writer You’ve Never Heard Of’. Guardian. 21 Sept 2014. Web. 3 Mar 2017.
Whitmarsh, T. ‘Review Emmanuel Carrère The Kingdom: the man who invented Jesus’. Guardian. 24 Feb 2017. Web. 3 Mar 2017.
A version of this review first appeared on April 15th 2017 in the Irish Examiner on pages 33 and 34 of the Weekend Section.
How is it possible that I have never heard of this wonderful writer? I came to this novel, unenthusiastically, having just completed Sebastian Barry’s superb Days Without End. I have long been a fan of Barry’s work and have read almost everything that he has written. On the back cover of Barry’s 2005 novel A Long Long WayFrank McGuinness says that Barry ‘writes like an angel’ and I agree with that. McGuinness adds that Barry is ‘on the side of the angels that fell’.
But I have now discovered that Aslam is Barry’s equal: he too ‘writes like an angel’ and ‘is on the side of the angels that fell’. I will be putting his four previous novels on my birthday list. If you look at the video below of the choir at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge you will see, between one minute 14 seconds and two minutes 12 seconds, a sort of representation of the regiments of ‘angels’ who fell in the First World War, and are currently falling all over the world, in its various theatres of war, as well as in so-called peaceful democracies.
The Golden Legend, deals directly with angels. Or, at least, the angel Gabriel. Gabriel ‘from heaven came’ and visited Mary, mother of the Christian God, to impregnate her; he visited the Prophet Mohammed to dictate words of the Koran. An equivalence, the liberal thinkers among us – leave Trump out of this – might think. But, now, to The Golden Legend.
For Pakistan born, Aslam, who was brought up and educated in the north of England, paper is the “strongest material in the world. Things under which a mountain will crumble, you can place on paper and it will hold: beauty at its most intense; love at its fiercest; the greatest grief; the greatest rage”.
Paper is literally at the centre of the novel, which opens in the home of Nargis and Massud, architects who live and work in a defunct paper factory now converted into their home/work space. Surrounding this edifice is the city of Zamana, an Urdu word meaning period, era or age, pulsating with the noises of modern and ancient Pakistan. One sound is that of the loudspeakers, in the multiplicity of mosques, which, as well as emitting the muezzin, are being violated by a mysterious broadcaster who, night-by-night reveals the scurrilous secrets of citizens. Vigilantes punish the accused, especially Christians, especially women.
The former factory, however, is set in an oasis of bright fertility: an orchard, largely developed for cheap housing, but leaving a demesne of trees; almond, rosewood, mango, silk-cotton and coral. From the beginning the novel seems surreal, juxtaposing calm with sudden violence, silence with cacophony, cleanliness with filth.
Nargis and Massud’s vast library contains two elaborate and ornate Wendy House-sized miniature mosques, both reproductions of cathedrals/mosques which served in different ages, as places of worship for both Christians and Muslims. Nargis and Massed use them in the winter months as small studies; easily heated in the freezing space. In the summer they are winched up, towards the high ceiling, hanging, floorless, above the dwellers. Elsewhere in the house, huge, spread, swan wings are pinned to the pink wall alongside the wings of a golden eagle, a parakeet and other birds. The house is full of ‘intense’ beauty and provides a crucible from which the architects can create more beauty in an ideological attempt to fight, as Aslam himself does with his art, the evil of the outside world.
It is not magic-realism: it is Aslam’s portrait of a world in which all that exists is extreme. Social and religious hierarchies are fiercely maintained, with the Christians, including two other central characters, Helen and Lily, as the butt of prejudice; their blood thought to be black, not red. Nargis thinks “everything this land and others like it were going through was about power and influence. All of it. And these struggles of Pakistanis were not just about Pakistan, they were about the survival of the entire human race. They were about the whole planet”.
Life is precarious amid frequent acts of sectarian violence. Vicious assaults against vulnerable flesh come from the most unexpected sources and are perpetrated against gentle and educated characters as often as not. There is no sense that those who might be considered liberal, rational and moral are thought of as such by their neighbours.
Strangely, the most shocking knife slashes are directed at a book from the Islamic section of one of the city’s oldest libraries. This book is ‘That They Might Know Each Other, words inspired by a verse in the Koran. A meditation of how pilgrimage, wars, trades and curiosity had led to contact between cultures’. This book, written by Massud’s father, contains reproductions of iconic art.
The first page to be vandalised contains an image of the Prophet Mohammed receiving a revelation from the angel Gabriel. ‘He perforated the face with the steel tip, and then the blade continued upwards through the angel’s headdress, the various ribbons and gems. Continuing, it cut into the sky full of gold stars’. The congress between Christianity and Islam is severed in an act of ‘conscienceless temper’.
Later, and, seemingly whilst Nargis is lying, sleepless, in bed, the entire book is ‘razored’ into pieces.
In an act of indefatigable hope and unremitting courage Nargis begins the task of sewing, her needle threaded with shining gold, the 987 pages back together. She is performing her own version of the Japanese process of Kintsugi. “The art of mending pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. The logic was that damage and restoration were part of the story of an object, to be accepted rather than concealed. Some things were more beautiful and valuable for having been broken’.
In The Golden Legend, Aslam opposes the vituperative Pakistani laws of blasphemy with his call for the freedom of language, both written and spoken, especially when uttering words of love. He, like Nargis, is trying to accept and restore damage. He states that when he starts writing a novel, “I begin to think … beyond the despair, what is the moment of hope?”
Aslam, N. The Golden Legend. Faber & Faber. 2017.
Barry, S. A Long Long Way. Faber & Faber. 2005.
—. Days Without End. 2016.
An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner‘s Weekend Section page 37 on 8th April 2017.
See also is a short piece by Aslam which describes his working practices.
Reclaimed, by Irishmen such as Yeats, from the canon of English Literature, Jonathan Swift has become an icon of Irishness and Stubbs’s book provides an insight into the Dubliner who insisted he was English.
In his introduction to this excellent biography John Stubbs is at pains to point out the complexity and contradictions in both the character and the life of Jonathan Swift. Like Yeats, who was born two centuries later, Swift believed in the desirability of a pastoral society run by landed gentry and the Anglican church. He abhorred the burgeoning urban financial centre of London, almost as if its participants were usurers in the temple. Ordained in a high church tradition, Swift despised low, dissenting, Protestantism, as well, of course, as Catholicism.
Arriving from Dublin to London in 1710 Swift, at 43, soon became an important ‘spin doctor’ to Queen Anne’s chief minister, Robert Harley. His work consisted of briefing against members of the former Whig government, which he did with alacrity and vitriol. These unfortunates included the victor of the Battle of Blenheim, the Duke of Marlborough; the former Lord Treasurer, Earl of Godolphin and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Marquess of Wharton.
Speaking with a patrician voice from which nearly all traces of Irishness had been meticulously eradicated and wearing the orthodox dress of a clerical gentleman, Swift’s impressive public persona disguised altogether another personality. Known to intimates as Presto, Swift was an incorrigible mischief-maker. There were many more than one Swift.
Although marrying neither, he had two close lady friends at this time – one in Dublin, ‘Stella’ (Esther Johnson) and one in London, ‘Vanessa’ (Esther Vanhomrigh). His comportment towards them was respectful and he relied on them for intellectual as well as emotional support. Another, darker side of Swift emerges too – consorting with prostitutes and his scurrilous writings, such as ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’: a poem dealing with, among other sordid matters, the odours and stains of feminine underwear.
Swift was a stickler for personal hygiene; a habit unusual for the period and he exercised regularly, walking and riding. But his health was not good, suffering as he did from debilitating deafness and often confined to bed by extended fits of vertigo and tinnitus. This ailment was to plague him until the end of his life; exacerbated by several strokes which left him mute as well. But before Stubbs reaches the endpoint he offers over 600 pages documenting Swift’s political and writing career, his avoidance of marriage and his position as a revered Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.
Obfuscated by lack of evidence, and the differing stories that Swift himself told, is the strange mystery of Whitehaven, Cumbria. As an infant, it seems, Swift was taken, perhaps kidnapped, by his wet nurse, to the small English port. He stayed there for some years, maybe two, maybe three.
On his return, his father having died before his birth and his mother now impoverished, Jonathan was brought up in the Dublin household of his Uncle Godwin. He seems to have been denied affection but was, unsurprisingly, precocious.
It is tempting for biographers and critics to apply modern psychoanalytical techniques to Swift’s life and work and to trace his peculiarities to early emotional trauma, or indeed, a position on the autism spectrum. Medical approaches have suggested that he suffered from syphilis, contracted from streetwalkers. Although, as his father is recorded to have died from this disease it may be that it was congenital. Stubbs, like others, indulges in this kind of speculation but always gives the caveat that these conclusions are anachronistic and thus unreliable.
Nevertheless it is disturbing to read that after an inauspicious start in life the boy went sent to boarding school in Kilkenny aged “about six”. It is difficult to see how the child, Jonathan, could become an emotionally stable adult.
With an education in the classics under his belt Swift arrived at Trinity College, Dublin in 1682. According to his autobiographical accounts he did not prosper and contemporary college records show many instances of the undergraduate being fined for misdemeanours. The ‘Presto’ side of his character was in ascendant.
In 1689, just too early to take his master’s degree, Swift, along with many other students and faculty, fled to England. The Williamite war had revived, among Protestants, fears of a massacre similar to that carried out by Catholics in 1641. Now 21, Swift became secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat, who was to familiarise the young man with the mores of English society and politics.
By 1692 Swift was in possession of an MA from Oxford although he had to wait until 1702 to attain a doctorate in divinity from Trinity in Dublin. In between he took holy orders in the Church of Ireland and was allocated a parish north of Belfast Lough. At this time, and in this location, the role of the Established Church was under siege from Ulster Presbyterians.
In 1696 Swift, perhaps bored and disillusioned, returned to the hearth of Sir William at Moor Park in Surrey. When his mentor died in 1699 Swift was left adrift until becoming private chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, who was immediately appointed as a lord justice in Ireland. Swift reluctantly returned to the city of his birth. Here he pursued his clerical ambitions; the path was rocky but eventually he found himself with a seat as a prebendary canon in St Patrick’s Cathedral.
For the next few years Swift continued to hold onto his benefices in Ireland, as well as his position in the retinue of the Berkeley. He travelled to and from England crossing the Irish Sea, always expecting it to swallow him whole. He rode and walked in both countries, visiting his parishes, his relatives and his patron.
He rescued ‘Stella’ from a life of drudgery by settling enough money on her for a move back to Ireland with her friend, Miss Dingley. The two ladies would discreetly follow Swift on his parochial journeys, providing him with companionship. Life was not really too unpleasant.
Then began, in 1710, the four influential years in London. In 1713 Swift was offered, and accepted, the post of senior priest in Dublin, that of Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Strange though it may seem he was disappointed by the appointment, having wanted a prestigious deanery in England. But on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, and the subsequent rise of the Whigs, Swift knew that it was time to go back to Ireland.
Thus Swift’s entered into the church and state politics of his homeland. A nostalgia for an English-country-garden-like Ireland enthralled him. He longed for a “romantic Ireland” that was not “dead and gone” but one that never had nor could exist. Instead he had to engage with the realities of the rise of the Non-Conformists and the Catholics, and to rail against the inadequacy of English policies towards her Irish sister.
He felt obliged, however reluctantly, to rebel against his beloved England, which had served him literally, as well as metaphorically, as a nursery. Ireland, who had birthed and educated him, could now reclaim her son, and, eventually, place the great satirist at the centre of her literary heritage.
Irish-born Stubbs, is well placed to write Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, as he studied English at Oxford and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. Historical and political context encourages a greater understanding of Swift’s work and detailed analysis of this work reinforces comprehension of the man. Although 25 pages of notes exemplify his academic background, Stubbs has an accessible style and writes beautifully.
Stubbs, J. Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel. London: Penguin Random House. 2016.
An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner, Weekend section pages 33 and 34 on 18 Feb 2017.