Stoner, by John Williams

I suspect this is an old man’s book. I don’t know that I would have known what to do with it 40 or 20 or even 10 years ago. One reader proposed as an alternative title: Life Sucks And Then You Die. But no. It’s the story of a life shot through with bitter sadness, disappointment, seeming failure, yes. But it’s also the story of a life heroically lived, and lived, as Stoner himself comes to understand, with moment by moment passion, and love. It’s not a sad or depressing book, but one that breathes quiet, considered, hope. And it has one of the best and most moving descriptions of dying (and who can do anything other than imagine what that is like?) that I have ever read.

I especially loved this paragraph:

He had no wish to die; but there were moments, after Grace left, when he looked forward impatiently, as one might look to the moment of a journey that one does not particularly wish to take. And like any traveller, he felt that there were many things he had to do before he left; yet he could not think what they were.

And this, which I guess could be the most important question one could ask oneself about one’s life:

What did you expect? he asked himself.

Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom

Emmanuel Carrère's *The Kingdom*

I’d never even heard of Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom until I found a copy in the religion section of our local (independent!) bookshop. It was one of those “This looks fascinating – must take it home with me” encounters. And having taken it home and started reading, I checked out the review in The Guardian, to see what others had thought of it. The reviewer, and numbers of those who commented on the review, refer to the author’s ‘scandalous narcissism’, which many find truly off-putting. True, it’s a distasteful trait. But in his favour: Carrère does confess that this is a fault of his: a confession you can either find strangely engaging, or even more infuriating. His Ego is the most important thing for him – but after all, isn’t that true about many of the people who write personal blogs, or share their lives on social media? Narcissist he may be, but he’s an intelligent, urbane and interesting narcissist, so I didn’t mind his company for the duration of this read. (Whether I would be able to stomach him in the flesh: that’s another matter.)

So what kind of a book is this, a huge bestseller in its native France? I think we first have to recognise that it is, well, French: the kind of book we hardly have in this country. In France, after all, they respect and admire intellectuals. Whereas in the UK, intellectuals, like any kind of experts, are people our leaders and opinion-formers have taught us to distrust, disbelieve and despise.

The Kingdom is partly a memoir, recording Carrère’s conversion to Christianity in the early 1990s, his years as a devout believer, and his subsequent loss of faith, or at any rate ceasing to be a believer. Yet he is still fascinated, you might even say obsessed, by the New Testament, and by the phenomenon of Christianity. So the main part of this book is a retelling of the New Testament, in particular the early years of the Church, the life and missionary journeys of St Paul, his letters to the churches, and the work of St Luke in being the earliest ‘historian’ of the Church, later author of the gospel that bears his name, as well as (possibly?) other NT books which for all I know no one other than Carrère ascribes to him.

Is it pure fiction? Or can some of it possibly be true? Carrère himself doesn’t claim that it’s all true; only that some parts of it are believed by many scholars, that other parts are more or less speculative, along a spectrum of probable – likely – possible – at least plausible. He draws fascinating analogies with other faith movements in the course of history, notably the growth of Communism. I’m not convinced that the power plays between the Russian communist leaders, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and the like, are comparable with those between Paul and the the leaders of the Jerusalem Church… but that’s the kind of thing I mean. In other words, you may find The Kingdom fascinating, enlightening, giving you lots to think about that you’ve never thought about before. Or just plain annoying, and downright wrong. But dull? No.

For me, it was probably all of those things by turns. Carrère, to my mind, gives too much weight to what Ernest Renan had to say; but then again, that may be something to do with my sometimes sharing the Englishman’s traditional Gallophobia. Here’s my favourite (AKA, least favourite) example, talking about what really happened on the first Easter Day:

When I say that no one knows what happened, I’m wrong. What happened is very well-known, only: it’s one of two different and incompatible things according to what you believe. If you’re a Christian, you know that Jesus was raised from the dead: that’s what being a Christian means. Or you believe what Renan believed, and what reasonable people believe. That a small group of women and men — the women first — deeply stricken by the loss of their guru, started spreading the word that he’d been resurrected, and that what happened next was not at all supernatural but astonishing enough to be worth telling in detail: their naive, bizarre belief that should normally have withered and died with them went on to conquer the world, and is still shared by roughly one quarter of the earth’s population.

Apparently, according to Carrère, ‘reasonable people’ believe something even more unlikely and impossible than believers. But then: I would say that, wouldn’t I?

All in all, this is a book I’m glad to have read and to recommend. I hope you enjoy it, learn from it, argue with it and shout at its author, as much as I did. Most of all, I hope you will stop ad think about it many times as you read it, and then put it down and turn back to the New Testament, to find out what it really says.

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Christus est stella matutina

Today, May 25, the Church celebrates one of our greatest English saints: the Venerable Bede.

Grave of the Venerable Bede

Bede was a true 8th century polymath: monk, scholar, historian (‘the father of English history’) scientist, biblical commentator… As a historian, he was one of the first adopters of the newly-invented use of Anno Domini in recording dates of events. As a scientist, one of the first to note and describe the influence of the moon on the tides, and to compute the date of Easter. His work on this is one of the treasures on view in the library of Melk Abbey. As a biblical commentator, he was quoted as an authority by no less a figure than St Thomas Aquinas.

His tomb in Durham Cathedral is one of England’s Special Places for me. Above it are the words in Latin and English from his commentary on Revelation 2.28, in which Christ in glory promises to give the morning star to the one who overcomes in the Christian life, and keeps his works to the end.

Christus est Stella Matutina,

qui nocte saecum transacta

lucem vitae sanctis promitit,

et pandit aeternam.

(Christ is the Morning Star, who when the night of this world is past, gives to his saints the promise of the light of life, and opens everlasting day.)

Scholar-poet Malcolm Guite has written a sonnet in honour of Bede, using the words of this inscription.

The Morning Star, or Day Star, is a beautiful title for Jesus drawn from 2 Peter 1.19: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.”

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New Zealand: 16. We stand on the Misty Mountains

The next day was the hottest day so far, with temperatures reaching 37° C. This is supposedly unheard of in those parts of South Island: I’ve already mentioned that the hotels down there don’t have air conditioning, on the grounds that they don’t need it.

And we finally got our promised helicopter flight, from Queenstown Airport to the top of the Remarkables. I wasn’t the only member of the group who had been feeling some trepidation about this, even though (very fortunately) it was the day before four British tourists were killed in a helicopter crash at the Grand Canyon, and not the day after… But it was actually a great experience. A short one – which is probably also a blessing.

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The thing that surprised me was that it didn’t feel like we were travelling fast, though it only took a few minutes before we were landing at the top. Yes, there was a slight moment of “Aargh! There’s a mountain side just a few yards to our right…” And here we are:

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Enjoying spectacular and beautiful views of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu

View of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu

Safely back on land and boarded the coach, we continued to Arrowtown, a quaint old gold-mining town, near the river where I had tried my hand at panning for gold a couple of days earlier. It feels like some kind of old cowboy town, with its old-style clapboard houses and street furniture.

Arrowtown Post Office

Arrowtown post box

After lunch we had another long drive on to the Kawarau Gorge, Cromwell and the Lindis Pass – at 965 m above sea level, the highest road we drove over in New Zealand, and so on to the junction town of Omarama, where we were to spend the night at the Heritage Gateway Hotel. There weren’t many places to eat in town (it’s not much of a town) so we all ate together in the hotel restaurant. It was good to share a more communal meal, which hadn’t been a frequent event during our stay. It was also a pleasant summer evening to sit outside with pre- or post-mealtime drinks. Some of our fellow-travellers stayed up to see the stars of the southern hemisphere, including the Southern Cross. I didn’t manage it: after all the early starts and long coach rides I couldn’t stay awake long enough, especially as it didn’t get dark until very late.

Shame. It would’ve been quite a sight.

stars of the southern hemisphere

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New Zealand: 15. Fjord and cave

The next day was another long day on the road which left us feeling tired and irritable. But what a day! An early start meant getting up at 0530 in order to leave the hotel at 0700 for the drive along the Eglinton Valley, and stopping briefly at aptly-named Mirror Lake, to our chief destination at Milford Sound in New Zealand’s glacier-carved Fjordland. Our Lonely Planet guide tells us that “the world-beating collage of waterfalls, verdant cliffs and peaks, and dark cobalt waters is at its best” on a clear, sunny day. “More likely, though, is the classic Fjordland combination of mist and drizzle, with the iconic profile of Mitre Peak revealed slowly through shimmering sheets of precipitation.” Well, we were the lucky ones: the weather was near perfect.

Milford Sound on a perfect day

Lots and lots of photographs as the boat took us along the fjord and as far as the open sea, which we gazed upon, turned about, and returned into the calmer waters of the Sound. Captain Cook never actually discovered it, because his view from out at sea didn’t show it as a inlet at all. He just sailed on by, and missed a treat. “The fjord remained undiscovered by Europeans until Captain John Grono discovered it c.1812 and named it Milford Haven after his homeland in Wales. Captain John Lort Stokes later renamed it Milford Sound. (Source: Wikipedia)

Milford Sound

Apart from the scenery, there were also glimpses of basking seals.

basking seals

This is Alison’s picture. She was convinced that the bird in the background was a penguin. Me, I think it was just one of the seals getting dressed for a fancy dress party.

From Milford Sound, it was south again to the most southerly of all our overnight stays in New Zealand: Te Anau. Here’s where I faced and didn’t exactly overcome, but at least survived, one of my worst phobias. Alison really really wanted to visit the world-renowned glowworm caves. I thought I could do without. I do not like caves. I do not like them, Sam I Am. Perhaps it comes of reading Tom Sawyer as a child – those nightmare chapters in which Tom and Becky get separated from everyone else and are lost in the caves, and become convinced they’re going to die, and when they do eventually see a fellow-human being, it’s the terrifying Injun Joe… It’s the darkness, the sense of millions of tons of rock over your head… And don’t even get me started on the thought of potholing, and the crawling through narrow tunnels not even on hands and knees…

(Quick break till I stop hyper-ventilating and the panic ebbs away…)

But in the end I went because Alison wanted me to, and she wanted to see the caves so much. It was worth a visit. But it was terrifying too: the noise of the rushing water, the walkways over drops into the abyss. Strangely enough, the glowworm part wasn’t alarming at all, even though it involved getting into a small boat on an underground lake (by this time, thankfully, we were away from the rushing of mighty waters), and then being moved along in total darkness by the guide pulling on a rope or wire or something. And then suddenly there are the lights of these strange creatures hanging in the blackness above and around you. It’s like nothing on earth. Naturally you can’t take any flash photos because it scares the poor worms to death, so you’ll either have to go there yourself, or do an image search (try Te Anau glowworm caves) with your favourite search engine. (Incidentally, I am currently using Startpage because it is “the world’s most private search engine”, and it also lets you view images, a feature that Google has just removed.)

I have faced one of my worst fears (-ish) and have survived.

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New Zealand: 14. Lord of the Rings. Etcetera

When we got back from New Zealand, we wanted to watch or re-watch some of the films and TV series set in NZ, to enjoy memories of the places we’ve been. So we started with Top of the Lake on Netflix, filmed in and around Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu.

Let’s just say, it was a Disappointment. New Zealand noir just doesn’t suit our memories of the place. No doubt there are paedophiles, rapists, drug-crazed incestuous hippies, bent coppers, murderers, and gangsters in New Zealand. But thankfully we didn’t see them; and the country also prides itself on having relatively little crime. But apart from the crime, we couldn’t make much sense of the characterisation and motivation in the story. One minute people are having a violent showdown; the next they’re somewhere else entirely, and behaving as if nothing has happened. One minute they’re fighting and saying it’s all over between them; the next we see them having sex (again). I think there has been a second, more recent, series. We might give it a try, sometime. We’re a bit like Homer Simpson about that. Doh!

In TOTL, Queenstown is described as a “millionaires’ playground”. Which may be true. But it was still a great place for lots of other people who aren’t millionaires. There was so much to see and do, that our itinerary allowed us a “free day” there, to make our own choice from the smörgåsbord of possibilities. Alison and I had already, the previous evening, enjoyed our first meal in a Vietnamese restaurant – which cheered us up after our gruelling day on the road. On the “free day” we went different ways. Alison chose the Kiwi Birdlife Park, where she actually saw some kiwis in their special nocturnal environment. I opted for one of Nomad Safaris, which was not quite the all-LOTR safari that most of our little group of 5 were hoping for, but was very interesting all the same.

It took in Skippers Road, the “most dangerous road in New Zealand”,
Skippers Road warning

a single track dirt road winding up into the hills, with seemingly impossible passing places and sheer drops to the side. It’s the old road used by the gold prospectors of the New Zealand Gold Rush. One of those rides where you’re willing the driver to keep his eyes on the road, not keep looking round to see how his passengers are enjoying themselves… where you feel yourself automatically leaning away from the cliff edge as if you could stop the landrover from falling off the road…

It also took us to Arrowtown, one of the old gold rush towns, and to the Arrow River to try our own hand at panning for gold. Me, I didn’t find any. But Paul did: he held his speck of gold like a mote of dust on his fingertip for about 5 minutes before it somehow disappeared. The end of another wonderful fortune. Apparently there are still real nuggets to be found up there. But not very often.

And yes, we did see a couple of places which Marcello the driver claimed had been used as settings in the filming of LOTR. Of course, the whole amazing range of The Remarkables, which feature so often, snow-covered and in summer, as the Misty Mountains. But also, the bend on the Arrow River which had been the Ford of Bruinen, where Frodo escaped from the Black Riders…
The ford of Bruinen
the path near Arrowtown which had represented part of the Gladden Fields…
The Gladden Fields
the place where Aragorn fell in the battle with the Warg Riders… (You have to use your imagination here: it’s the little edge just beyond that clump of trees in the foreground.)
where Aragorn fell

But really, the landscape is so splendid that it’s easy to imagine yourself there in the story. I don’t know how much Peter Jackson has been worth to the New Zealand tourist economy. Much more than his weight in gold, I would think.

After the tour I met up with Alison at the Kiwi Birdlife Park, and we took the Skyline gondola to the top, to enjoy the view of the city, the lake, and the mountains. Selfie!
selfie on the skyline gondola

And in the evening, another of Queenstown’s attractions: a cruise on a 100-year old steamship, the TS Earnslaw, which took us to the other side of the lake for an evening meal and a demonstration of sheep-shearing. The excursion includes some olde-time community singing on the way home. Hmm. My old dad would have loved it.

And here’s a thing about South Island. We had saved our warmer clothes, thinking it would be cooler when we got this far south. Instead, they were “enjoying” unprecedented temperatures in the high 30s C. Hotels in South Island don’t have air-conditioning: they never need it. So we had a few nights of poor sleep because of the heat. A problem we had not expected.

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New Zealand: 13. What was your favourite place in NZ?

Favourite place in NZ?

Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu

The following morning dawned bright, warm and sunny, and we were hopeful that we’d be able to get up on the glacier this time. We walked round the corner to the Helicopter Line, where once again we were allocated to the groups, given our wristbands, reminded of the safety procedures (Never approach a helicopter from the rear; don’t try and open the door yourselves, our crew will help you out when it’s safe…) This time we made it across the highway and through the short stretch of bush to the actual landing site. We even saw a helicopter coming in to land at the far end of the open ground. And then the message came over the phone: Cloud has come down, it’s too dangerous to fly, flying cancelled until further notice.

Apparently this is common, even normal. Fewer than 50% of people who book a helicopter flight up onto the Franz Josef glacier actually make it up there. And there would be another opportunity for a helicopter ride later in the tour: just not onto the glacier.

So it was back to the coach, and on the road again. It’s 144 km from Franz Josef down to Haast, described by Denis as the most remote settlement in New Zealand. And the west coast of South Island is the wettest part of the country, with up to 7 m (that’s seven metres) of rain annually. It felt like quite a lot of it fell during that morning1, during which we stopped to have a quick run through a bit of rain forest to see one of the waterfalls.

running through New Zealand rain forest

Rainforests don’t have to be tropical: there are temperate rainforests too, of which those in this part of New Zealand are typical. They are like nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced before.

From Haast the SH6 takes you inland up the Haast Valley, and over the alps again, then south among some of the glacial lakes of South Island. Lake Wanaka on our right, then Lake Hawea on our left, and so down at last to Queenstown, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. It’s 248 km from Haast to Queenstown: this was a long day on the road.

So: what was my favourite place in New Zealand? There are so many candidates, so many wonderful sights and scenes. But I think I’d have to say, Queenstown. Not because it’s the birthplace of (commercial) bungee jumping, or a favourite centre for lots of other extreme sports that you have to be mad to pursue. Just because it is an almost unbelievably beautiful setting, a charming small city with so much going on, and set in the midst of scenery that looks like it’s straight out of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Which is because so much of it was used by Peter Jackson when he made the film.

How can you not love a place with sunsets like this?

sunset on Lake Wakatipu

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  1. Though actually we were very fortunate throughout our time in South Island, that it didn’t rain as much as it might have done. ↩︎