18 May 2022

Memories of Canon John Suggit

 Memories of John Suggit

Canon John Suggit celebrated his 100th birthday in 2022, and various people who had known him were asked to contribute their memories of him to a commemorative booklet. Owing to the vagaries of email my contribution arrived too late for inclusion in the volume, so I'm posting it here instead.

1. Introduction

I first met John Suggit in October 1968, when he was Warden of St Paul's Theological College in Grahamstown. Within a couple of weeks of meeting him, I was convinced that he was a saint. To explain this, I need to explain the circumstances of our meeting.

2. Circumstances

In 1966 I had gone to study for a post-graduate Diploma in Theology at St Chad's College, Durham. That had been arranged by the Anglican Bishop of Natal, Vernon Inman, and in June 1868 I had written my final exams and gained the diploma. But St Chad's College had a two-week September term for those of its students who were preparing to ordination in the Anglican Church.

I met Bishop Inman, who was in the UK for the Lambeth Conference, and he said that if I wanted to go home rather than hanging around for the September term, he would try to arrange for me to spend a term at St Paul's in Grahamstown instead. I eagerly accepted, and thought it would be interesting to see how South African theological education compared to the English version.

The principal of St Chad's College, John Fenton, was a fan of Rudolf Bultmann's theology and demythologising the gospel, and though I thought he was a very nice bloke, we did not see eye-to-eye theologically at all. The first essay he had asked me to write was on Jesus and the demons, and after I had read it to him he said I had not told him whether I thought the demons existed, and I had tried to explain to him that, coming from South Africa, with it's demonic system of apartheid, the question of whether the demons existed seemed unreal. When one is run over by a bus in the street, one does not, while lying in the road in pain, start asking philosophical questions about the existence of the bus. As another wise priest said, when I had told him about this, "The question of the existence or non-existence of demons is not important. The important thing is that, whatever demons are, Christ has the mastery of them."

So I returned to South Africa in July 1968, and prepared to go to St Paul's for the September term.

3. St Paul's College in 1968

John Suggit wrote to me and said that he had heard that I had a beard, and that St Paul's had a rule that students were not allowed to have beards. I thought it was a silly rule, but I wrote back to him and said that if one wants to join a Christian community, one accepts it as it is, with all its customs and idiosyncrasies.
I arrived in Grahamstown on 5 October, and immediately went to meet John Suggit. To arrange what I should be doing during the term. I was under do academic pressure, having already written and passed my final exams for the Diploma in Theology at Durham, so he said I should attend ethics seminars and pastoral lectures, and read widely in the college library.

 He asked me about life at St Chad's College, and immediately impressed me as someone who was concerned to do what was best for the students to prepare for future ministry, and was open to new ways of doing things.

The following Monday we met to arrange the ethics seminars and John Suggit asked me to prepare a paper on the ethics of punishment – something I had never thought about before, but there was a new book in the library on the topic, so I read that, and it gave me some ideas, mainly the idea of punishment as being a kind of sacraments. In Anglican theology a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and so punishment, in a theological sense, was an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace.

I was impressed by John Suggit's wisdom in setting that exercise, encouraging the discovery of new knowledge, and the gaining of new insight. A week later I read my paper to a seminar group, but the discussion that followed was disappointing and mainly concerned the relation of law to gospel, and whether one should hand over law-breakers to the police, and rather seemed to miss the point. Nevertheless, I was grateful to John Suggit for setting me that task, and it gave me something to think about.

St Paul's College was not isolated from other currents in life and society. Across the valley was Rhodes University, and the then fairly new University Christian Movement (UCM) was in full swing, with a triumvirate of radical Methodist ministers were trying to introduce the latest Western theological trends to South African students, such as the mainly-American "God is dead" theology. Other Methodist ministers, like many of the St Paul's students, were more interested in a more indigenous South African initiative, A Message to the People of South Africa, published a few weeks earlier by the Christian Institute and the South African Council of Churches. It noted that the official ideology of apartheid was not merely a heresy, but a false gospel; it was not just unjust in its implementation, at was radically anti-Christian in principle. This, it seemed to most of us at St Paul's, was far more significant than the imported American theothanatology being propagated by UCM.

John Suggit was known to the St Paul's students as Fronnie, derived from the Greek word fronimos, meaning mentality, or state of mind. The students seemed to think that it meant over-subtle or devious, but after I had been at St Paul's for 10 days I wrote in my diary:

I suppose I have now been here long enough to make some sort of judgement on the place, and make some comparisons with St Chad's. In obvious things, the discipline here is far stricter, but that doesn't matter, because it is at least a genuine expression of some sort of Christian community. At St Chad's the rules were ignored because there was no cohesion, the confusion and loss of identity, which was the dominant feature of St Chad's, may be yet to come here. St Paul's may not yet have experienced the winds of change, and doubts and confusion that have hit the Church of England. There is some measure of concord between principles and practice, between politics and theology and liturgy.

The Warden, Fronnie Suggit, is also a very good bloke. One cannot say of him, as we did of John Fenton, "White man speak with forked tongue." Fronnie is a man of no guile. His practice reflects his principles. He is gentle, loving and concerned. He takes an interest in people, and tries to understand them. Fenton was remote, insulated by his risqué jokes, and making of outrageous statements without being able to show what they mean in practice. Fenton gives unconvincing reasons for doing things, because you feel that he himself has not been convinced. Fronnie seems to do things only when he himself is convinced about them, and though I think in some things he is wrong, at least his conviction is genuine. That at least makes it possible to bargain, to compromise, to agree to differ. And coming here has also exposed, once and for all, the myth that "overseas" things are better. Certainly St Paul's is better than any theological college I have seen elsewhere. The system may be open to criticism on many grounds, but whatever its faults, it works. More than ever I am convinced that it would be desirable for some English ordinands to come here -- not only because it might broaden their outlook to go to another country (which is the only advantage I can see in sending South Africans to England), but also because they would get a better theological training.

And if, like some students at St Chad's I might say of the Principal, "white man speak with forked tongue", by then I was saying of John Suggit that "he speaks with authority, and not as the scribes."

Not that I disliked John Fenton. He was a very likeable person, and after leaving St Chad's I corresponded with him occasionally until his death, but his theology seemed somehow defective and uninspiring, and in spite of his admiration for Bultmann and Bultmann's supposed existentialism, he would sometimes say some very unexistential things. For example, he once said that he did not believe in the Kingdom of God. So we asked him why, if he did not believe in the Kingdom of God, did he think it important that we attend daily Mattins and Evensong. And his reply was "Because you've got to do it when you get into a parish." And I was sure that John Suggit believed that daily Mattins and Evensong were important because he believed in the Kingdom of God. When worship is divorced from life and genuine faith it becomes of no more value or significance than the musical banks of Samuel Butlers Erewhon.

A few days later, on 18 October, St Luke's Day, when I had known him for just a fortnight, I wrote in my diary:

After supper there was Evensong, and Fronnie gave an address on the new theology of secularisation and the death of God, and pointed out their limitations. I find myself believing everything he says, and he is one of those blokes where it doesn't matter what he says, because if he says it, it must be all right. He is, in short, a saint.

4. After St Paul's

After leaving St Paul's I saw John Suggit quite rarely, either when passing through Grahamstown, or at synods, but on those kinds of occasions there was little opportunity to speak for long.

Stephen Hayes
E-mail: hayesstw@telkomsa.net
Tuesday, 26 April 2022

10 May 2022

The Caliban Shore: anatomy of a shipwreck

The Caliban Shore

The Caliban Shore by Stephen Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There have been many shipwrecks on the coast of southern Africa over the centuries, but only four stick in my mind -the wreck of the Grosvenor on the Pondoland coast in 1782, the Birkenhead just east of Cape Town in 1852, the Dunedin Star on the coast of Namibia in 1942, and the Oceanos in 1991, a little south of where the Grosvenor was wrecked. I learned about the first two at school -- they made it to the history books as being among the most famous shipwrecks on the southern African coast. The wreck of the Birkenhead was famous for establishing the principle of "women and children first", and the wreck of the Oceanos was famous for the abandoning of that principle.

All aboard the Dunedin Star and the Oceanos were rescued. Many of those aboard the Birkenhead died, but their fate was known. But the wreck of the Grosvenor became the stuff of legend, because the fate of the majority of its passengers and crew remains unknown to this day, nearly 240 years later. And that is what Stephen Taylor explores in The Caliban Shore -- what happened to the ship and the people in August 1782. In doing so he reveals some interesting facets of the history of India, southern Africa, and the UK.

The fascination of the story is partly in the mysteries. We quite enjoy watching the TV series Air Crash Investigation, where the interest is in the search to discover what happened and why. It is a puzzle to be solved. Was it a mechanical error or a human error, or an event outside human control, like weather, or a volcanic eruption? If it is a human error, it is sometimes caused by human relations -- what were the relations of the crew members? It can also be poor training and skill. These issues are explored in the TV series in a formulaic way, but in the case of the wreck of the Grosvenor, Stephen Taylor does it much more thoroughly.

We learn something about the economics of India, and especially of the trade between India and the UK, which the British East India Company sought to monopolise, but though it dominated the trade, it did not control it completely. We learn, for example, that of the 740 tons of cargo that the ship could carry, the Captain was entitled to use 58 tons for his own personal trade. The Captain also decided who could be passengers, and how much they should pay.

In addition to the mystery of what led up to the fate of the ship, there is the mystery of missing persons. The fate of the majority of people on board remains unknown. The nearest port where they could hope to get a ship to continue their journey to Britain was Cape Town, 800 miles (1290 km) away, measured by modern roads, but in those days there were no roads for about half the distance. There were young children, pregnant women and sickly old people among the survivors of the wreck, and most of them did not survive the journey, or else gave up.

[author Stephen Taylor] examines all the known remaining records of the event to trace the lives and careers of those who were aboard to ship, to try to piece together what happened to each. Some are known to have died on the journey. Others were abandoned by their fellows in circumstances where they were assumed to have died. The route to Cape Town passed through a war zone; it was the beginning of the 100 Years War between the Xhosas and the Cape Colony, though history usually divides it into nine "Frontier Wars". And the Dutch who controlled the Cape Colony were at war with the British, so British ships did not call there. A few of the survivors managed to get on Danish ships. But some decided to stay put and settle where they were, among the local Pondo people, others may have done so, but it is not certain who they were, or where they settled.

 The news of the shipwreck took a long time to reach Britain, and when it did it was sketchy and gasve rise to sensational and highly speculative press reports. The voyage from Britain to India in  the 1780s usually took 6-8 months. Much was made of the anxiety of the families of those involved, who lacked what the media nowadays call "closure". For many, it seems, the good news would be that their relatives had died, for to be marooned among a strange and unknown people was seen as "a fate worse than death". 

For the local people, the wreck was both an opportunity and a threat. Pondoland had no deposits of iron ore, so people in the vicinity of the wreck, ignoring the castaways and their plight, set about burning the wooden wrekage of the ship to retrieve nails and any other bits of scrap metal they could find. When the castawats tried to approach them, they drove them away, and this was seen and portrayed as evidence of the "savagery" of the local people, though it seems that in our day people who are shipwrecked while travelling from Africa to Europe are treated just as badly by Europeans, who seem to be equally savage, 

With hindsight, and research, Taylor explains this -- August, when the ship was wrecked, was the end of winter. The grazing was poor, the cattle were thin, and the previous season's crops were almost exhausted, so the prospect of 140 uninvited guests for dinner was just too much. Later, when the shipwreck survivors had split into smaller groups, they were treated more hospitably.

Another interesting thing is that the ship carried a report on corruption in the British East India company and its officials. Both the report and the bearer failed to make it to Britain as a result of the wreck. I found this interesting because I studied a related incident in history at university -- the Impeachment of Warren Hastings. This book made a great deal more sense of what he was impeached for and why, and perhaps also helps to explain some events in our own time, when the Gupta brothers engaged in state capture in South Africa, and promoted corruption in business, the civil service and in state-owned enterprises. It seems that the British East India Company was very much into state capture. I'm not sure whether they started it or just passed on what they had received from others, but it seems that the Guptas were heirs of that tradition, and have passed it on to the RET crowd in South Africa.

The books explores the history, the legends and the rumours, and tries to establish, as far as possible, what actually happened. So there is history, an investigation into a shipwreck, a survival story, and a search for what happened to missing persons as well.

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06 May 2022

A Dystopian View of the Generation Gap: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I first read The Midwich Cuckoos, sixty years ago, I thought it was one of the better sf novels I had read. That was so long ago that I'd forgotten most of it except the main plot outline. Now it reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End -- both are about a strange generation of children appearing in the world.

I thought John Wyndham was one of the better science fiction writers, though in re-reading The Kraken Wakes I found it rather pedestrian. The Midwich Cuckoos is better, but still slower paced than I remembered.

What I liked about Wyndham's books, however, is the same thing that I liked about Charles Williams's books - they are set in this world. As with fantasy, so with science fiction, I'm not particularly interested in outer space -- the sf books I've enjoyed most have all been set in this world -- Brave New World, A Canticle for Leibowitz and so on. And I read them all in the early 1960s, and have reread most of them several times since.

But John Wyndham belonged to my father's generation, and now I notice that many popular British novels of the 1940s and 1950s have characteristics that strike me as odd now. Not Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, but John Wyndham, Nevil Shute and others. Apart from all their descriptions of people smoking, they are all conscious of class, and written from a self-consciously upper middle-class point of view, seeing themselves as the "educated class" and the others as uneducated. They often have a Sir Somebody-or-Other in them who is respected for his expertise in a particular field, almost as though one cannot be an expert in anything unless one is a Sir. Wyndham would have been at school during the First World War, and was in the army in the Second, and so in addition to the division between the "educated class" and the rest, there is also a "Service" point of view that the main characters identify with.

Wyndham also now appears to me as sexist, not overtly, but quite subtly so. One of the minor characters in The Midwich Cuckoos has a PhD, and I get the feeling that Wyndham sees her as an oddity. That is a perhaps a generational thing, and perhaps The Midwich Cuckoos and Childhood's End speak of how people of Wyndham and Clarke's generation approached the generation gap.

In my own life, the 1950s now seem a foreign world to me. That was when I was at school, and the adult world of "business" seemed strange and alien to me. My mother used to dress up to go to town, and to go to church, and I hated dressing up, from about the age of 11 onwards. I was most comfortable in khaki shirt and shorts, which we wore at Mountain Lodge school most of the time. Shorts were uncomfortable for riding horses, and at first I went for jodhpurs, because that is what one did, but Mr Groos, who taught me riding, wore riding breeches. But later I found jeans more comfortable. And perhaps our whole generation was like that, because by the late 1960s everyone was dressing as I had imagined I would like to dress when I was 11 or 12.

In 1962 when we went to church in casual clothes people stared at us, but now everyone dresses like that, and most people I know tend to speak rather disparagingly of "suits". The change came between 1962 and 1967, and has persisted ever since. But perhaps Wyndham and Clarke could see it coming in the 1950s, a strange and alien generation of children growing up to become flower children rather than "Service" children. Books written before 1962 have a different style. Nowadays people speak a lot of different generations, giving them letters, X, Y, Z and so on and I have little idea of what they mean. My own generation seems to have no name and no letter. Back in the day of Childhood's End and The Midwich Cuckoos we did have a name, however. Those born after The War were "baby boomers", and we were "war babies", but since the 1950s no one has spoken of that distinction much, yet for me, at least, that distinction is far more real than the XYZ one, which seem quite indistinquishable to me. If one wanted to give our generation a name today, I suppose it would be the Beat-Hip generation, falling between the Beat Generation and the hippies. Roughly the time when "hipster" got shortened to "hippie", and before it go lengthened again.

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04 April 2022

Mukiwa - a white boy in Africa

Mukiwa: A White Boy In Africa

Mukiwa: A White Boy In Africa by Peter Godwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

History can be dull without the personal touch, especially if one wants more than just a bare chronicle of events and dates, and it is books like this one that help to put flesh on the bare bones of history -- a memoir showing how one person and one family were affected by the events.

Peter Godwin was born in what was then known as Southern Rhodesia of British immigrant parents, The country was part of the Central African Federation, which broke up when Zambia and Malawi became independent in the mid-1960s, and Southern Rhodesia became just Rhodesia. Godwin's father managed a factory in the eastern part of the country, near Melsetter in the Chimanimani mountains. His mother was a medical doctor and as a child he often accompanied her on her rounds, helping her to vaccinate other children and sometimes assisting with postmortem examinations. This probably gave him a wider experience of life (and death) than most young children.

Some of the things he describes have strange echoes of my own life. 

A man had reported the deaths of his family as suspicious, and Godwin's mother, the district medical officer, goes to his remote rural home to perform a postmortem on the bodies. The complainant wore torn shorts and a tattered T-shirt with "Things go better with Coke" printed on it. He tells Peter, then a young child, that he suspects witchcraft.

"How?" I asked. "How did they die?"
The Coke man lowered his voice still further, so I had to strain to hear. "It was a spell he said, a spell cast on them by my neighbour, who is a muroyi."
A muroyi was an African witch. They didn't have long noses or warts, and they didn't wear silly pointy hats or ride on broomsticks. African witches were much more dangerous than European witches, and they rode around on the backs of hyenas at night.
"He suspect me of stealing his goat," said the Coke man. "So he cast a spell on my family and they died."

And I was reminded of the time, 45 years ago, that I met a man, Cain Nxumalo, suffering from gangrene, and his family believed that he had been bewitched by neighbours who had accused them of stealing their goat.

There were reminders of more recent times and events, too. 

Easily the single biggest life-saving aspect of my mother's practice was her vaccination programme. It was a long haul, though, to get it going. To start with, the witch doctors were totally opposed to it. A vaccination might initiate rural Africans into Western medicine and help to break down their fear of it. And for every patient who went West for medical treatment there would be one fewer for the nganga. The witch doctors put out the most hair-raising rumours abut the dreadful things that would happen to people who were vaccinated. They would be rendered infertile, they would go mad, they would die a lingering mouth-frothing death.
And one only has to look at the Internet to find similar rumours, spread by people in many Western countries, about all the dreadful consequences of being vaccinated against Covid19.

At the time Rhodesia was a British colony with self-government by a white-dominated parliament, and there were conflicting views of independence. Most whites wanted continued white rule after independence, and most blacks wanted majority rule. These conflicting aims led to a civil war, which becomes the theme running through the book, which dominated Peter Godwin's life. While he was still in primary school the Rhodesian prime minister, Ian Smith, made a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI), thus rebelling against Britain, whose government's policy was "no independence before majority rule" (NIBMAR). As a result, the civil war hotted up, with two African liberation movements, ZANU and ZAPU, fighting against the Smith government and sometimes each other, though they formed a shaky alliance called the Patriotic Front and put the letters PF after their acronyms.

Peter Godwin's parents moved to the other side of the country, and he spent his high school years in Salisbury, the capital. After leaving school he had to spend a year in compulsory national service, and he opted to do it in the police force rather than in the army. But because of the civil war, the police became very militarised, and Godwin found himself caught up in the fighting. Even as a relatively new recruit, he often found himself in a moral dilemma. He witnessed atrocities committed on all sides, and their effects on the victims and wasn't really committed to fight for continued white rule.

After completing his national service he went to Cambridge in the UK to study law, but after only a year returned for his sister's funeral. She had been killed in an ambush by the Rhodesian Army, and since he had returned, the government wanted him to do more national service, but eventually allowed him to return to Cambridge to complete his degree.

When he returned after finishing his studies, Rhodesia had become Zimbabwe, but the civil war continued between ZANU and ZAPU after their alliance in the struggle for independence disintegrated. Now practising as a lawyer, Godwin found himself defending ZAPU members who were accused of treason by the ruling ZANU party,. After the one high-profile case, Godwin became disillusioned with the law, and became a freelance journalist, and covered more of the battles between ZANU and ZAPU, though it was mainly a matter of the Zimbabwe army against civilians in the south-west of the country, Matabeleland, who were suspected by the government of supporting ZAPU.

In all this, Peter Godwin was a witness to a lot of the the fighting, and how it affected ordinary people and families, And so he describes how that turbulent and violent period in the history of his country affected ordinary people and disrupted their lives, both of his own family, and other people he came into contact with, at school, as a policeman, as a lawyer, and later as a journalist. That is the strength of the book. It adds the human touch, and shows the human cost of war and conflict.

A weakness, especially for readers who are not familiar with the wider history of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, is that it does not have enough of the historical background. I have probably given more of the historical background in this review than appears in the whole book. He mentions background events in passing, as if everybody knows what they were.


I knew what he was referring to in most instances, but mainly because about 20 years ago I got involved in the publication of a book on Christian healing ministry in Africa, with a lot of case studies from Zimbabwe, and had to read up a lot of the history to be able to write a chapter on that history to set the healing accounts in their historical context of both church and secular history. That book is African Initiatives in Healing Ministry, and it could do with a few more reviews!

Another weakness, it appears to me, is that Godwin does not give enough of his personal history. Yes, he describes his childhood in great detail, and gives a great deal of detail about the events in Zimbabwe that he was involved in, but when he left to study overseas, we only learn after his return that he had studied law. It would be good to know why he chose that field, in the same way as he told us why he chose the police over the army. Though the book concentrates on the time he spent in the country, at least a page or two could have said something about his studies overseas, He was writing a book, not a play with the scene set in Zimbabwe, so that when the actors were offstage the audience could not see them at all until they reappeared. A book need not be confined to the main setting all the time.

I had other personal reasons for reading this book and finding it interesting. I had several friends and relatives, contemporaries of mine, who grew up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, and I was curious about their life and the kind of society they had grown up in. And, coincidentally, the three that came most readily to mind were all, like the author of this book, named Peter. One was my best friend at prep school when we were aged 11. He was Peter Russell. I met him once later, in London in 1966, where he was training in hotel management. The second was Peter Bridges, who was at university with me, though he did not come back after a vacation, and I was told he had had a nervous breakdown. He was a gentle and innocent soul, and the only person I had ever met who was completely without guile or malice. I was convinced he was a saint, and wish I knew what had happened to him. The third is my second cousin, Peter Badcock-Walters, who has produced illustrated books on some aspects of the wars and violence.in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. One of them is Images of War.

 The three Peters I have mentioned were kind and gentle people, but in the 1960s, when I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg there were a lot of Rhodesian and Zambian students, all white in those days. And what struck me was that, with a few exceptions, like Peter Bridges, the Rhodesian students were far more racist than the South African ones, and many of them vocally professed their admiration for Dr Verwoerd and his policies, which few of the South African students did. And a lot of their attitudes are described in Godwin's book. 

They were also an interesting contrast to the Zambian students. In 1964, when Zambia became independent, each Zambian student received an independence kit from the Zambian government, with a small flag, the words of the national anthem, "Stand and sing of Zambia, proud and free" (which went to the same tune as Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika) and as a group they were given funds to hold a party to celebrate independence, which they did.

Godwin's book is well-written and very readable, and well worth reading for anyone who wants to know what life in war and conflict situations is like behind the scenes and behind the smokescreen of propaganda.

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23 March 2022

Searching for Zion

Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora

Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora by Emily Raboteau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A history of people who are searching for a lost home and for the promised land.

Emily Raboteau, daughter of an eminent historian and herself a student of history, writes a personal and family history as well as a story of people searching for the promised land.

I saw it displayed on a stand of new acquisitions in our local library, and grabbed it. Since the book is an intensely personal one, I'm making this a personal review, or rather reaction, so I'll explain why it attracted my attention. The first thing was the word "Zion". I've been interested in Zionist churches since the age of 14, when I met a Zionist minister who mentored me in the Christian faith, which was then a fairly new discovery for me, having had an almost entirely secular upbringing. So I wanted to see if the book said anything about Zionist Christians (it didn't). 

The second thing that attracted me was the name of the author. I knew of Albert Raboteau, the church historian, who, having been raised a Roman Catholic, later became Orthodox, so I wondered if the author was related to him. It turned out that she was his daughter.

An African-American, of mixed race, she grows up envying her childhood best friend, a Jew, who emigrates to Israel to find her promised land. So she travels to Israel to visit her friend, and see if she found the promised land, and that sparks off her interest in other people looking for a promised land, and what she finds is ambiguous.

The trouble with a promised land it that one usually finds other people already living there, and so it is and was with modern and ancient Israel. Raboteau meets "Black Jews" who came from Ethiopia, and had left Ethiopia because they saw Mount Zion in Jerusalem as the promised land.

But for Rastafarians, Ethiopia itself is the promised land, so her journey takes her to Jamaica, drawn partly by her interest in Bob Marley's music, and the fact that Marley, like herself, was of "mixed" ancestry. Raboteau did not mention in her book, however, that in the end Bob Marley found his personal Zion in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, into which he was baptised  not long before his death. It seems a rather strange omission, given the theme of the book.

Raboteau then visits Ethiopia, and Rastafarian settlements there, and looks at the relations between the incomers and the native Ethiopians. Then Ghana, where many African-Americans, influenced by Marcus Garvey, sought their home and promised land, only to find that most the the Ghanaians saw America as the promised land, and would sacrifice a great deal to go there.

What I found particularly interesting there was her descriptions of different perceptions of history. I've never been to West Africa, but did read something of its history both for a university degree and afterwards. West Africa is where many of the slaves who were taken to the Americas in the 17th to 19th centuries came from. And African Americans, many of whom were descended from those slaves, had n inaccurate perception of the slave trade. 

That was something I became aware of through participating in the question & answer web site Quora, where many of the questions asked about the slave trade showed an anachronistic understanding of history. Emily Raboteau, as a historian, is aware of these attitudes, and examines them critically, from both a historical and personal point of view. The perception of many African Americans seems to be that slavery was a result of racism. But it is really the other way round -- racism is, in many cases, particularly in North America, a result of slavery. The slave trade was in fact an example of entrepreneurship, and slave traders, both black and white, were in it for the money (those words are mine, not Raboteau's, but it is my summary of what she was saying on the subject).

Emily Raboteau returns to the USA, and visits a Neopentecostal prosperity church, which for many black Americans seems to offer a different kind of promised land, exalting exactly the same human impulses that led to the slave trade. And finally she visits the US South, recently ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, where many of her own relatives have become displaced people, but her cousin refuses to speak the language of victimhood and says they are not victims, but survivors.

In reading it, I was reminded of some other books I had read: The long Road Home by Ben Shephard, about people who were displaced after the Second World War, many of whom had no homes to return to. The second is From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple. about following in the footsteps of a couple of pilgrims of antiquity, and visiting the places they visited in modern times. It, like Searching for Zion, bring the personal touch to history, and Emily Raboteau's odyssey is a personal pilgrimage as well as a study of other pilgrims. 

Another book that this one reminded me of was The Anatomy of Exile, which I read just after being deported from Namibia in 1972. That was the second major occasion in my life that I was driven to wonder who I was and where I belonged. The first was when I had to leave South Africa in a hurry to travel to the UK to study in 1966. Themes of home, identity, exile, belonging and pilgrimage became prominent then, but I have dealt with these in other blog posts, like What is African: race and identity.

Other historians, and sociologists and anthropologists have written about displaced people, or people searching for a promised land, or people wondering where they belong, in a dry, objective and academic manner. But Emily Raboteau does not. She looks at the history from both sides, and analyses her own reactions, and this is what makes the book really worth reading. She tells other people's stories well, but gives her own reactions to those stories and weaves them with her own story. People talk about narrative theology; this is narrative history.

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18 February 2022

Midnight for Charlie Bone

Midnight for Charlie Bone (The Children of the Red King, #1)

Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems, from other reviews on GoodReads, that a lot of readers expected this book to be like the Harry Potter books, and judged it largely by comparison with them; they were the current literary sensation at the time this one was published, and it seems to have suffered by the comparison in not living up to some people's expectations, though others seem to have overhyped the comparison.

I didn't have any such expectations, having plucked it off a library shelf and briefly looking at the blurb. I doubt that I'll read any more of the series, because I didn't see any of the others in the library, and |I've never seen any of the others, or even this one, in a bookshop. It did occur to me, after reading a few chapters, that it might appeal to people who enjoyed the Harry Potter books, because it uses some of the same tropes -- boy from dysfunctional home goes to boarding school, makes friends and enemies, drama ensues, often involving magic.

Some tropes may have been inspired by the Harry Potter books -- the lost-in-a-maze one, for example, which appeared in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which was published two years before this one. And I don't think either of them handled it particularly well. In this book it was the denouement, and it was a bit sketchy and could have gone into a little more detail.

Charlie Bone is about 10 years old (his best friend Benjamin Brown has his 10th birthday at the beginning of the book) Charlie lives with his mother, two grandmothers, and a reclusive and eccentric great-uncle. One grandmother, his mother's mother, is kind and friendly and does most of the cooking and housekeeping. His father's mother is cross and grumpy and rather strict, but it is her money that has kept the family going since Charlie's father died when he was two years old.

When the strict grandmother's sisters, the Yewbeam aunts, visit, after hearing that he has a special gift for hearing people speaking in photographs, they decide that Charlie must go to boarding school. Charlie doesn't want to go to a different school from his friend Benjamin, but the Yewbeams hold the purse strings, and get their way.

The main characters are children of 10-11 years old, and the book is clearly written for children of that age or a little younger. I found it an interesting and enjoyable read and I suspect that most kids of that age would too.

Not everyone thinks so, though. If you want negative view of the book, try this review, from a 16-year-old, which is particularly critical of the style. I found her comments on the style interesting, but also rather puzzling.

I have only a few things to comment on, the first being Jenny Nimmo’s writing style. Yes, I understand that this is a fantasy written for children younger than I am (I’m sixteen, by the way). But honestly, this gives her no excuse to write in the way that she does. What is it, exactly, that I am referring to? Simple—and believe me when I say that “simple” is the right word to use in this situation. Nimmo never gives her characters a chance to express themselves, instead speaking in their place and telling the readers about their actions. Never does Charlie “clench his fists and stare ahead through narrowed eyes”. He is merely described as angry. There is no indication of what he does when he’s angry, how he reacts, or even what he is thinking (more often than not). It isn’t only Charlie, however; every character you come into contact with is practically a cardboard cut out with a narrator following him/her around to explain how they feel. Even young children like to experience the characters’ emotions along with them, and Nimmo seems to think that young equals stupid. Along with this, the sentences she uses are awfully short and rather choppy as well. Yes, children are used to reading such things, but taking the content of the Charlie Bone books into account, the kids reading them are at least able to understand what sentence variety is. Meaning, of course, that they should be able to handle it. In my opinion, this book would have been much better had the author allowed her characters to speak for themselves, and if she’d varied her sentences to include compounds.
It makes me very curious to know what that reviewer thinks is good style. I would like to see some examples. Not everyone gives expression to their emotions by actions, gestures and attitudes, and I can't recall anyone who would "clench his fists and stare4 ahead with narrowed eyes". I don't think I've ever clenched my fists when I've been angry. I think there is a scene in the book somewhere where someone rolls their eyes. It's a description that I find rather embarrassing. I don't know anyone who rolls their eyes. Perhaps that gesture is confined to a particular culture. But the biggest puzzle is the criticism that the style is too simple. Perhaps I've been brainwashed by the "plain English| movement, and had derived my notions of good style from crusty old fogies like Fowler and Sir Ernest Gowers. I've also perhaps been corrupted by having worked too long as an editor of academic texts, whose writers are often seem to think that the more difficult a text is to read and understand, the more "scientific" it is, A few of their fellow academics have criticised that view, for example:
The attraction of jargon and obfuscating convolutions can be fully explained by the normal striving of humans for emoluments and prestige at the least cost to themselves, the cost in question consisting of the mental effort and danger of 'sticking one's neck out' or 'putting one's foot in it'. In addition to eliminating such risks, as well as the need to learn much, nebulous verbosity opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they have to say clearly and succinctly (Quoted from Social Sciences as Sorcery by Stansilav Andreski.

Is that kind of complex writing what is needed for ten-year-olds? 

So while I didn't think the sty;e of Midnight for Charlie Bone was outstandingly brilliant, I didn't see anything particularly wrong with it, nor with that of the Harry Potter books, and both were a considerable improvement on Enid Blyton, which several generations of kids have enjoyed.

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05 February 2022

The Spire

The Spire by William Golding
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not sure what to say about this book, except that it reminded me a bit of Malone Dies, which I re-read last year. 

I kept thinking I was missing something, and went back to read certain bits, and then back to the beginning to see if I could pin it down, but I haven't been able to so far. 

One of my first impressions, when I started reading it, was that it was a kind of parable for the Covid pandemic. The builders kept warning the dead, ?Jocelin, that it was not possible to build such a spire on such shaky foundations, but he urged them to go ahead anyway. And I thought of Donald Trump in the USA, telling people that it wasn't serious, and that anyway a vaccine would soon be developed that would solve the problem, and when the vaccine was developed, many of his supporters refused to take it. It seemed to be that kind of folly. 

Experts on writing fiction (often self-proclaimed experts) warn against including too much of the backstory in a novel -- get on with the action. But reading The Spire I keep wishing for more of the backstory. Jocelin thinks about his angel, his demon, a witch and other things, as if the author expects readers to be familiar with the background, background that I seem to have missed on my first reading, and am still missing in the second.

Eventually there is some kind of commission of inquiry, and they tell him that he can go back to the deanery, where he goes, apparently to die. Other than that, we are not told their findings. Is he still dean, or has he been replaced? But he goes to his room, like in Malone Dies, but keeps getting up and wandering around, and eventually gets taken back to bed to die. Like Malone.  

What have I missed?

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29 January 2022

Wildlord -- another novel in the tradition of Alan Garner


Wildlord by Philip Womack
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second novel I've read this month that seems to have been written in the tradition of the early Alan Garner, which is what I was hoping it would be after reading about it on Twitter. The first was Wildwood by Helen Scott Taylor, with the review immediately preceding this one

In this story Tom Swinton, an orphan, is invited by his uncle to spend his holidays on his farm in Suffolk, and he is keen to go, because the alternative is to spend the holidays alone at the empty school, even though he has never met the uncle. When he arrives, he is met by a strange taciturn boy who seems to be his own age, and a somewhat more talkative but equally strange girl. His uncle, and the house are more strange still, and seems almost paranoid about setting up magical barriers to keep some fairy-like creatures at bay.

The more he learns about the place and his uncle, the less Tom likes it, and Tom wonders whether it might not be better to spend his holiday at school, but then there are obstacles to his leaving. His uncle seems to have invited Tom there for a sinister purpose, though it is difficult to find out what that purpose is, but Tom also discovers that he had magical powers of his own, which seem to run in the family. The only think that seems normal abut the place is the dog, which helps to keep Tom sane, and he also receives some support from a human girl who had joined the fairy-like Samdhya people.

I had to order this book specially, because the local bookshop did not stock it, but I learnt of it through a favourable mention on Twitter. Those who enjoyed the Harry Potter stories and early Alan Garner stories might also enjoy itmight also like it. It's a good and exciting read, though I thought some of the scenes at the climax were a bit over the top, and debated whether to give it four or five stars, but in then end thought it deserved five. 

I might have made more comments on the story, the plot and the characters, but I see that there have been very few other reviews, and so I'll save that kind of discussion for when more people have read it.

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06 January 2022

Wildwood, a novel in the tradition of Alan Garner


Wildwood by Helen Scott Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More than fifty years ago I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, and went on to read his other children's books, and wished he'd written more, or that someone else would, and now someone else has. This book is certainly in the same genre, though see below for a discussion of what exactly that genre is. The protagonist, Todd Hunter, is a teenager, but the story had more in common with Alan Garner's children's novels than his teenage ones like The Owl Service and Red Shift.

Todd Hunter's father has been missing for five years, and he doesn't get on well with his mother's new boyfriend, so when the rest of the family go to spend their holidays with the mother's boyfriend's family in France, Todd goes to stay with his paternal grandfather in a small Cornish fishing village. There he hopes to learn more about his father, and even perhaps to learn something about the mystery of his disappearance.

Todd's grandfather John runs a grocery shop, in which Todd helps out occasionally. There are few young people of his own age in the village. He meets a rather unpleasant boy of about his age, Andrew Bishop, who, like Todd, doesn't get on with his stepfather. But soon after Todd's arrival, Andrew disappears, and Todd discovers his body at the foot of a cliff. The police rule his death accidental, but Todd suspects that he was murdered by his stepfather, perhaps reflecting his dislike of his own stepfather, and decides to investigate Andrew's death on his own. He also meets a teenage girl, Marigold, whom he finds quite attractive, but is rather wary of, because he discovers that her mother is reputed to be a witch.

Before he has been in the village a week, Todd find himself investigating several mysteries -- his father's disappearance, Andrew's death, and a cult of the Green Man, which several people seem to be involved in. He also befriends an artist, Shaun, and his pet dog Picasso. Shaun, like Todd, is not originally from the village, and sometimes Todd finds his outsider's point of view refreshing. The longer he spends there, the more he feels he wants to get out, and the more he learns about the place and its history, and the activities of its present inhabitants, who seem determined to keep him there forever, the more he wants to leave.

I found it an exciting book, full of unexpected plot twists, though towards the end some of them became too inconsistent and inexplicable, with some characters shifting a bit too rapidly back and forth between loyalty and betrayal to be convincing.

The book seems to be only available on Smashwords,  and if you like juvenile books with adventure, mystery, ghosts and a touch of supernatural magic, it's definitely worth a read. You can see a fuller description on the Smashwords site here.

As I said at the beginning, I thought this book would appeal to people who liked Alan Garner's children's books. I would say that this one is roughly in the same genre. But what genre is that, and how does one describe it? On Smashwords, Wildwood is described as "Y/A Paranormal" and I don't think I've ever seen Alan Garner's books described as "paranormal" before. I have written a couple of children's books in the same genre, and described them as "children's adventure/fantasy", though one of my reviewers did classify one of them as "paranormal-fantasy". In adult books with similar themes, the novels of Charles Williams have been described as "supernatural thrillers", but never, as far as I am aware, as "paranormal".

The problem here seems to be that for many people "fantasy" implies that the story is set in a location out of this world, and these stories are not (with the partial exception of Alan Garner's Elidor). The problem with "paranormal", for me at least, is that it evokes images of movies like Ghostbusters, and rather misguided attempts to measure spiritual phenomena with material instruments, like using a photographic light meter to measure the light from the transfiguration of Jesus, or parlour tricks like Uri Geller bending teaspoons.

Anyway, whatever you want to call this genre, I like it, and am glad to see other people writing it, and hope to write some more in it myself.  Another book in the same genre is The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, which I had read a few months before reading this one. As I explained in my review of The Dark is Rising, one of the things I didn't like much about that book was that the protagonist was not really human, but had superpowers, and there is a hint of that in Wildwood, where we are frequently told that Todd Hunter has a "hunter's instinct" that makes him different from everyone else. It's one of the reasons I gave the book four stars rather than five, not because it makes it a bad book or anything, but the star rating is subjective, how much a particular reader likes a book, and I don't much like books where the protagonist has superpowers, even when, as in the case of Todd Hunter, they so often fail at a critical moment.

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01 January 2022

The Plumed Serpent

The Plumed Serpent

The Plumed Serpent by D.H. Lawrence
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


A long rambling waffling book about two men who found a neopagan religion in Mexico and an Irishwoman who marries one of them, and spends half the book trying to decide whether to marry him, and the other half wondering whether she ought to have done so.

Kate Leslie, a wealthy middle-aged Irish tourist on holiday in Mexico, meets a Mexican general, and his friend, a wealthy landowner, and goes to visit their part of the country, where she extends her stay indefinitely. She helps to rescue the landowner from some would-be assassins, and is asked to marry the general and join the pantheon of their neopagan religion, in which the landowner is Quetzalcoatl, the eponymous plumed serpent deity, while the general is Huitzilopochtli. Kate is ambivalent about her assigned role as divine consort to Huitzilopochtli, and remains so to the end.

There are some good descriptive passages in the book, but they are spoilt by going on for too long, being repetitive, and eventually becoming boring. Lawrence seems to get carried away by his own verbosity, and doesn't know when to stop. And the descriptions of the neopagan religion also become very preachy, overdone and boring (see what I did there? That's one of Lawrence's little tricks -- as I repeated "boring", so Lawrence repeats key words in his descriptions).

So why, if it was so long-winded, preachy and dull, did I bother to buy and read this book?

The answer goes back to my youth in the early to mid-1960s, when I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. The university English department had made its own literary neopagan religion, in which D.H. Lawrence was the chief deity, with a supporting cast of Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Shakespeare, and their very own incarnate Huitzilopochtli, H.W.D. Manson, the greatest playwright since Shakespeare. I didn't earn any brownie points with my tuto, Christina van Heyningen, when I said that I liked Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Eugene Ionesco better than Manson's The Counsellors.

But I still thought I ought to read at least one D.H. Lawrence novel to see what all the fuss had been about, and I picked this one because it was exotic, at least to Lawrence, and wasn't full of coal mines, the English Midlands, and the early 20th-century working class. 

 As Kate is indecisive throughout the book, Lawrence (or at least his characters) can't make up their minds and they often expound inconsistent ideas, as does Lawrence when giving his omniscient narrator's opinion. The white and the dark-skinned races should never meet, and should have their own religions, their own cultures, their own way of life -- "own affairs" as the old apartheid ideology used to put it. But this will eventually lead to a new man, with new blood and all will be one. Oh yes, there's lot about blood in this story. It's a very bloody book, starting from the opening bullfight scene and drifting off into the obscure philosophy about how white blood and black blood should never mix, but will eventually become one, or something.

White blood is superior to dark blood, but the time of supremacy of dark blood is coming. And aristocratic blood is better than the blood of peons. Lawrence appears to believe in a kind of Nazi uebermensch:

The star which is a man's innermost clue, which rules the power of the blood on the one hand and the power of the spirit on the other. For this, the only thing which is supreme above all power in a man, and at the same time, is power; which far transcends knowledge, the strange star between the sky and the waters of the first cosmos; this is man's divinity. And some men are not divine at all. They have only faculties. They are slaves, or they should be slaves.
Read it quickly, and it can sound profound. Read it paying more attention, and its profundities are as empty as those of the Unman in C.S. Lewis's Perelandra, and the only bit that actually says anything, other than meaningless symbols and abstractions, is the last sentence: Lawrence believes that some men are born slaves and others are born masters, and that's as it should be. It was probably passages like this that led some critics to say that Lawrence was being fascist here. But half the book is like this -- boring pretentious pseudo-spiritual twaddle.

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