The Librarian, by Salley Vickers

My favourite fictional work about librarians is A Month of Living Vicariously, by Tony Price. It’s the novella I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2011, and it has so much of myself in it, that there’s no way I couldn’t love it like a child of my own. I truly think it’s the best thing I’ve written for NaNo, and every time I read it in the months after November 2011, it cheered me up and made me laugh. (Available in PDF format on request!)

But Salley Vickers’s latest novel is much better, of course. And it made me cry, which is always a good sign, and made me feel good at the same time.

It’s the story of Sylvia Blackwell, an idealistic recently-qualified librarian who takes up an appointment as children’s librarian in East Mole, in the year 1958. We follow her trials and tribulations as she works to share her passion for books, and for encouraging children to read and love them, in the hostile environment created by her boss, her neighbour (who happens to be chairman of the Libraries Committee), the local middle-class ladies, and an education system that fails 75% of children, before they even start secondary school, by making them jump through the 11+ hoop. (I challenge anyone who reads this not to share the author’s conviction that the 11+ is iniquitous and barbaric: how can we still countenance it in so many parts of this country?)

Sylvia succeeds spectacularly, and she fails. She falls in love and has a hopeless affair with a married man. She moves away from East Mole. She has changed lives for ever.

I won’t give away anything about Part 2, the last 40 pages; but I hope you will read them and weep, too. The final Author’s Note by itself is worth the price of the book (which is in any case a modest £8.99).

You should read this book,

  • if you love books, libraries, or librarians
  • if you are grateful to librarians or have ever been one
  • if you share the author’s rage at the closing of public libraries, and the damage being done to future generations by the policies that have led to those closures
  • if you remember the 1950s, or want to know what they were like
  • if you just want a great read

Thank you, Salley Vickers!

Comprehending God

Accompanying today’s Moravian Losung, these words of Paul Gerhardt:

Ich sehe dich mit Freuden an und kann mich nicht satt sehen; und weil ich nun nichts weiter kann, bleib ich anbetend stehen. O daß mein Sinn ein Abgrund wär und meine Seel ein weites Meer, daß ich dich möchte fassen!

Now, that’s what I call a hint of the greatness of God, glimpsed in worship. It kind of knocks a lot of Hillsong offerings off the board.

At the Book Launch: Haunted by Christ

We were invited to attend the launch this afternoon of Richard Harries’s new book Haunted by Christ, sub-titled: Modern writers and the struggle for faith. In the fifteen chapters of the book, Harries discusses the work of twenty modern novelists and poets, for whom God has been a reality, or a nagging presence which they have been both attracted to and / or repelled by, and how they have dealt with this ‘haunting’. The wide-ranging list of writers includes Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Stevie Smith, Samuel Beckett, W. H. Auden, William Golding, R. S. Thomas, Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown, Elizabeth Jennings, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Shusaku Endo and Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis and Philip Pullman, and Marilynne Robinson.

The launch event was held in the chapel at Harris Manchester College in Oxford, and was attended by a large number of friends and fans of the former Bishop of Oxford (which includes ourselves!) among whom were people we got to know during our time in Marston, whom it was good to see again. Former archdeacons and area bishops, bishop’s chaplains and diocesan officers, college chaplains and principals, occasional clergy (like ourselves…) and other friends. It took the form of a conversation between +Richard and Jane Shaw, the recently appointed principal of Harris Manchester College, followed by a time for questions and contributions from members of the audience. Philip Pullman (a good friend of +Richard’s) was there and asked an interesting question about how we should respond and what we can possibly do, about the present alarming state of the world.

The whole discussion was erudite, civilised, humane, stimulating – so much more than most contemporary discourse in the Church or just in society generally. I felt nourished, intellectually and spiritually, in a way I haven’t felt for a long time. I look forward to reading the book – and perhaps reporting on it here. Many thanks to +Richard and all those responsible for the event.

Answering Giles Fraser

Actually, I really want to like Giles Fraser. He has often written insightful, thought-provoking articles in the Church Times and the Guardian. He took a principled stand in the whole affair of Occupy St Paul’s. He seems like an all-round good guy. So I really can’t understand why he is so adamantly pro-Brexit.

Since yesterday’s March for a People’s Vote:

he’s been tweeting and retweeting this kind of message:

What 700,000 said to 17.4 million: “we know best”.

But what do the People’s March have to say to those who voted Leave because they felt profoundly unattended to? Just more of the same?

Less a demo, more a Waitrose queue.

One of his retweets (not Giles himself) describes anti-Brexit argument as

“smug, patronising, neoliberal middle class pish”.

Let’s leave aside the snide gibes about the middle classes. Do they mean anything more than “These are opinions that I don’t like, that are held by some educated people that I want to feel superior to”?

Here’s what I want to say:

Passionately wanting to Stop Brexit does not mean we don’t care about the people who felt the Referendum was their big chance to stick two fingers up at the whole Establishment, the whole political system that has ignored them and simply not worked for them. Yes, these people have been profoundly unattended to; that is a shame and a scandal that ought to be addressed; the Governments of Right and Pseudo-Left that have ignored them for the last 40 years should not be forgiven; the works of those Governments (austerity, privatisation, under-funding of the NHS, failure to regulate banks, or to deal with inequality, or to redistribute wealth through just taxation) should be undone.

But all those things are not the fault of the EU! Indeed, if we had been more like France and Germany and the Netherlands and Denmark and other countries in Europe, instead of constantly bleating and whinging and making out that we were a ‘special case’, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Our country and society and political system are seriously broken and ought to be mended. But you don’t mend a broken leg by cutting it off. We won’t mend a broken United Kingdom by cutting it off from the body of Europe, which is its best chance of health and improvement.

And, “What 700,000 said to 17.4 million: “we know best”?” I think we were saying, “We believe we know better?” So what? Perhaps we do know better? The great idea of democracy is that every person is of equal worth and their vote is equally important. But some things are too important to be left to that kind of a vote. I wouldn’t want the plan for my brain surgery to be determined by a majority vote of the whole hospital staff: I’d want the experts to say and do what needed to be done. I’m not talking about a General Election here: the choice of a Government is relatively trivial in comparison. (Though it beggars belief that, like turkeys voting for Christmas, the majority still votes for Government by the rich, for the rich; and that we cling to First Past The Post, in preference to a system that gives more weight to every vote cast.) Suppose we had a referendum on capital punishment? We won’t have one, for fear the majority would vote to restore the death penalty. The view of the people who are (or have self-appointed themselves as?) people with a better-tuned moral compass, is that that result would be just plain wrong.

I believe the EU referendum was similarly ill-judged and produced a similarly wrong result. When the majority of educated economic opinion (though God knows I’m no lover of the hierocracy of a priesthood of economists), of EU opinion, of world opinion, was that Brexit was / will be catastrophically wrong, a kind of national and economic suicide – then we should let our future be guided by that educated opinion, rather than by people’s general and justified dissatisfaction with how our Governments have been doing.

I think Giles Fraser is wrong about Brexit. Middle class or not, I still believe staying in the EU is the best future for all of us, in the UK and in Europe. And our best hope of establishing a more just, fair, social democratic Commonwealth for our nation.

Playing with God

Playing with God

Last week I spent four days on retreat at Mucknell Abbey. Why does a retired vicar even need a retreat? I hear you ask. Isn’t the whole of his life one long retreat? Well, yes and no. I may be much more the master of my time, than I was when I was a working vicar; but there are still all sorts of ways in which the business of ‘everyday living’ can feel as if it gets in the way of being able to think about God, and spend as much time thinking about God, as you might like. Also, I’ve found myself spending the odd idle moment asking myself, What am I actually supposed to do, now that I’m nothing but some superannuated old priest?

Mucknell Abbey is one of my favourite places to be in the whole world. Just a few miles from Worcester, it’s the home of a community of Anglican Benedictines, men and women, who devote themselves to living and praying according to the Rule set out by St Benedict 1,600 years ago. They used to be at Burford Priory, but when that property became too expensive for them to maintain, they sold it and moved to their new, purpose-built monastery, in 2010. There are 12 members of the community, including two novices, and their number is sometimes augmented by a few ‘alongsiders’: young people who have chosen to share the community’s life for a short period of time. If you want to know more about them, have a look at their excellent website.

The Oratory, Mucknell Abbey

Staying at Mucknell, even for just a few days, is a spiritual tonic. Sharing in the community prayers six times a day (I never managed the seventh, the Service of Readings at 6 a.m. each day), enjoying their simple but ample (mostly vegetarian) meals, and lots of hours to read or think or wander around the grounds up there on their windswept hill.

Perhaps I hoped for some dramatic revelation, a flash of light and the voice of God telling me exactly what I have to do. One always does hope for that. Or maybe not. Instead of that kind of drama, something much better happened. In my thinking alone, and my reading and praying, and the Offices, I began to discern a common theme, which was about God being present, and near. (In fact the Rule of St Benedict has a lot to say about God being present everywhere and anywhere.)

You know how it feels if you’re in the same room as someone you really love and admire but you maybe don’t know very well – perhaps a celebrity or popstar or some other kind of hero – and they look at you, and your heart jumps? It was a bit like that. I got the sense that God was there, and that God looked at me. Not with reproach or blame or anything scary like that – it would be possible I suppose to feel terrified by the thought that God was looking at you. No, this look was with interest, and love.

While I was away, Alison posted a picture of her visit to youngest grandson Jerm. It somehow became a lovely kind of icon for me, that described my week at Mucknell. In this icon, God is represented by Alison, and me by Jerm. We’re involved together, we’re looking at each other, we’re playing together, we’re having fun.

That’s kind of how the spiritual life should be. Hang it all, that’s how life should be, and how St Benedict sets out to regulate it so it can be. Living with God, being with God, sharing God’s deep joy in all things. I’m really hoping to bring that sense home with me and hold on to it as the special revelation that God did indeed give during my retreat.

Lewis: Wild Justice

Lewis: Wild Justice

Thanks to the magic of Netflix, we’ve been enjoying our way through the nine series of Lewis. And – dare I say it, for it sounds very much like heresy – I enjoy it more than I do Inspector Morse. I mean, I love John Thaw as Morse: I love his love of music and his disapproval of freemasons, I can smile at his curmudgeonabliness, (I’ve been known to get a bit grumpy myself, just occasionally), I can tolerate his constantly falling in love with unsuitable women, many of whom have a habit of ending up dead. What I found increasingly annoying was the running gag of his stinginess, never paying for a drink and expecting Lewis to pay every time. Robbie Lewis is altogether a much more likeable character, and I especially like the developing dynamics of his relationship with Hathaway, which so often reminds me of me and my brilliant curate.

Last night’s episode was Series 5 Episode 2, Wild Justice. I think this may be my favourite episode ever. It has just about everything, recycling many of the well-worn themes and conceits of all these dramas ‘inspired by the works of Colin Dexter’. Set in St Gerard’s, a mad religious institution in Oxford, where the crazed ‘not monks, they’re friars’ are all ferociously reactionary and resistant to, especially, the idea of women priests. The sinister Italian Father Mancini reads from Dante’s Inferno (in Italian) to the dying nasty English millionairess. The first victim is a black American woman bishop, so suspicion naturally falls on the mad misogynistic friars. There’s the woman academic, a specialist in Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies, which provide the manner of death for all the four murders that reveal Oxford, yet again, to be the Murder Capital of the World. (“Four murders in five days, Robbie!” exclaims Chief Superintendent Innocent. She should surely be used to it by now?) There’s the bitterly contested college election for the post of Vice Regent, where the (male) forces of reaction are pitted against the (progressive) women candidates. There’s the former violent criminal transformed by the love of a good woman into a gifted best-selling writer. There’s the woman who, aged 10, committed a gruesome murder, now grown up and given a new identity, and astonishingly transformed into a gifted academic. There’s the posh wedding reception held in the stunning new atrium of the Ashmolean Museum. There’s a kind of reference to two paintings by Fra Angelico that were discovered in Oxford shortly before the episode was filmed. And perhaps best of all (because I don’t remember this happening anywhere else in the whole oeuvre)

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

it was the butler who did it! in revenge for the long-ago murder of his grandparents, by the now-rehabilitated child murderer.

Really, how could you not love all this? We may not yet have had The Kiss (that comes a bit later in the series); but I’m sure you can see why I love this one so much.

Missing: Victorian Librarian

Somewhere high in the Austrian Alps there may lie the body of a librarian, for that is where Robert Proctor was last seen, at the head of the Taschach valley, on the morning of Sunday, 6 September 1903.

How could anyone resist an article with an opening sentence like that? The article, by C. J. Wright, entitled The Missing Librarian, appears in the latest issue (no.59) of Slightly Foxed, which subtitles itself ‘The Real Reader’s Quarterly’. If you have never read Slightly Foxed, or are not yet a subscriber… WHY EVER NOT? Of all the publications I subscribe to or have ever subscribed to, this is the only one – the only one – that I read, without fail, from cover to cover. It describes itself as:

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach. Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine.

And it is just what it says on the tin. It’s a constant source of discovery and delight. I used to think I would need to search out and read every single book its contributors write about, which would have proved a challenge when so many are now out of print. And yes, it has introduced me to lots of previously unknown books and writers I have since enjoyed. But that’s no longer essential: it’s often sufficient to eavesdrop on the enjoyment of the article writers, some of whom have indeed come to feel like fascinating friends. (If I have one small niggle about them, it’s that so many do seem to be the product of a private school, or at least a boarding school, education. But we can’t all be State-school kids, I suppose.)

And for this particular retired vicar, in whose breast still beats the heart of a librarian, how could I not be intrigued to read of a colleague who met such a mysterious fate over a century ago? According to Wikipedia, one of Proctor’s friends thought the missing librarian may have committed suicide up there above the Taschach valley. But C. J. Wright leaves the mystery much more open. Perhaps in the far future, a few thousand years hence, his frozen and preserved body will be found, like that of Ötzi the Ice Man, and the mystery of his death be finally resolved. But perhaps it’s more fun that it’s not.