The Herald's chief book reviewer, Brian Brindley, presents an assortment of seasonal reading
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"No, he's got a book." That snatch of dialogue from Peter Ustinov and Peter Jones illustrates a Christmas dilemma. We have to give a present to the man who has everything; to the woman whose tastes are so finicky; to the spouse who doesn't like what we like. So, in desperation, we think of a book.
That is why the publishers so helpfully swell their lists at this time of year. Then comes a new problem: if we like the book, we cannot bear to give it away; if we don't like it, we are ashamed to offer it.
Sister Wendy Beckett will be familiar front her appearances on television. Sister Wendy's American Collection (HarperCollins, £20) is very well worth having for the sake of its lovely illustrations, all in colour. She takes as her subject six American museums, excluding unfortunately the National Gallery in Washington (home of all
the third-best pictures in the world) and hooray! — the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
She begins with the Metropolitan in New York, which she considers undaunting despite its size, and includes also the famous museums of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Fort Worth and Los Angeles. These are, of course, crammed with treasures, most of them of European or Oriental origin. She throws her net wide, including ceramics, books, ivories, metal-work — and one Japanese garden.
There is a formidable amount of information in this book. Most items are accompanied by little "boxes" in which the biography of the artist is outlined, the subject of a picture explained. or an artefact put into context.
It is unlikely that most of us will cross the Atlantic often enough to visit all these museums for ourselves; Sr Wendy draws our attention to many fascinating details that we might easily miss in a cursory inspection. A book to read, and then to cherish.
The style of Pam Rhodes will also be familiar from Songs of Praise. In Living and Loved — Favourite Churches (Lion Books, £15) she describes 33 places of worship in the United Kingdom. The book is illustrated throughout with colour photographs by John Rogers. Some of the churches are very grand — Westminster and Winchester cathedrals are illustrated with magnificent interior views, but the author is much attracted to the quaint and humble, and there are plenty of tiny chapels with thatched roofs and shutters. My own favourite is the little Catholic chapel made by Italian prisoners of war in the Orkneys, out of a Nissen hut, and furnished with bits of scrap metal and plywood; still lovingly cared for, it is a thing to make the heart wonder and rejoice.
Her style is rather gushing and her bump of credulity large: stories of the sort that circulate in parishes are repeated uncritically. Her own preferences are made clear by a photograph of her own church a happy highchurch Anglican congregation gathered around their vicar, in his eucharistic vestments, in front of the rood-screen. Yes, this is a nice book by a nice person about nice places; it will appeal to nice people.
Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus divided the whole of England into parishes in the 7th century; to a surprising extent their boundaries remain unchanged. Until 1530 this was, of course, the organisa tion of the Catholic Church in England; since then it has been the organisation of the Established Church. There is a certain temporary and ramshackle air to the arrangements adopted by the Catholic Church after the restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850, and there are features of the Church of England which we can admire and would do well to imitate. Anthea Jones, in A Thousand Years of the English Parish (Windrush Press, £25) explores every aspect of this set-up. Dr Jones taught history at Cheltenham Ladies' College, and she is well qualified to make a complicated subject interesting. Her book is generously illustrated with photographs by Glyn Jones.
There are aspects of Church life since the Reformation that will make us wonder, or mock: the education of the clergy, for so long exclusively at Oxford and Cambridge; the definition of the ministry of the Church of England as "at least one Christian gentleman in every parish"; the building of huge (and lovely) parsonages for upper-class clergymen and the wives and children and servants.
IT WOULD ILL become any Catholic to take pleasure in the present troubles of the Church of England. Presumably, in God's good time we shall be asked to resume responsibility for these beautiful parish
churches, to preserve their fabric and contents, and to continue their many good works. We shall have to rediscover the English parochial system. These things are part of our heritage; it would do us good to study them in Dr Jones's book.
1 confess my heart sank when 1 first saw the cover of Mick Sharp's The Way and the Light — An Illustrated Guide to the Saints and Holy Places of Britain (Aurum Press, £15): a eeltic cross silhouetted against a desolate and windswept landscape. "Oh dear," I thought. "another farrago of pseudo-Celtic mysti
cism and neo-paganism". Well, I could not have been more wrong.
Mick Sharp is an archaeologist and a very good photographer. He has a genuine interest in the lives of the saints, and the places where they are buried or venerated. There are many lovely photographs; most impressive are some of the restored shrines in Anglican cathedrals — votive candle stands seem to be a compulsory furnishing these days! A good test is his fair and level-headed treatment of Walsingham. The photographer in him is obviously very taken with pictures of Gothic ruins against flaming sunsets. There is a useful gazetteer, accompanied by a map: a good present for a young person interested in backpacking around Britain in search of holy places.
A welcome stocking-filler would be The English Angel (Windrush Press, £12), a book of photographs by Peter Burton and Harland Walshaw. All sorts of winged creatures are here: angels stretch their wings across medieval rafters; portly cherubs weep on the tombs of portly landowners; seraphim dance in paint and stained glass. One lady angel displays not only wings but
ample breasts. Most of those angels are, appropriately enough, placed high up in the buildings they adorn; they may easily be missed by the visitor, and are hard to study with the naked eye. Notable among them is the recent Angel of the North, which stands face-to-face with Epstein's great St Michael on Coventry Cathedral.
pEOPLE LIKE to receive anthologies of prayers at Christmas, especially elderly and house-bound people. Frank Colquhoun's Parish Prayers (Hodder and Stoughton, £10.99) is not quite one of those. It was first published in 1967, and here makes its first appearance in paperback. In those days both modern language and the Prayer of the Faithful were novelties: intercessory prayer in the Catholic Church was offered largely in the context of Benediction; in the Church of England the custom obtained of saying prayers on all sorts of miscellaneous subjects at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer. For over 30 years wellthumbed copies
of Canon Colquhoun's useful book have reposed in the stalls of countless clergy, who have been saved from embarrassment by its thoroughness; his 1,798 prayers cover every possible eventuality.
The language used is "traditional" — i.e. God is addressed in the second person singular, and other grammatical complications flow from this. It is hard to see how these prayers could be used in Catholic worship today; apart from the obvious incongruity, they would show up the shoddiness of our official texts. But I think there are many people who would be glad to address God as 'Thou" in their private devotions, especially if they could be helped by noble language and robust and unsentimental thoughts.
All too often one of the low points of our liturgy is the Prayer of the Faithful, which can be repetitious, confused, soppy, and ungrammatical. Perhaps it would be a good idea to put this book into the hands of those who prepare such prayers, not to use verbatim, but as an example of what intercessory prayer can be like.
More in the usual mould is Great Christian Prayers (Hodder and Stoughton, £9.99) which is a book of prayers, one (or two) allocated to each day of the year. ft is avowedly a modem imitation of an singularly elegant little book of 1898, Great Souls at Prayer by Mary Tileston, of which a copy was given to my sister by her high-church headmistress when she left school. The compilers, Louise and R T Kendall, are a husband-andwife team, both involved in the ministry at the ultraCalvinist Westminster Chapel.
They do not, of course, eschew the rich inheritance of Catholic spirituality from the primitive Church and the Middle Ages; how could they? And there is plenty of Newman. But the only 20th century Catholic I spotted is Mother Teresa; their perspective is uncompromisingly Protestant. You wouldn't wish to give it to a Catholic friend, but it would be a kindly present for an evangelical, who might thereby be introduced to specimens of Catholic devotion.
In preparing this review, I was driven back to Great Souls at Prayer, it is indeed a first-class book, and lovely to handle. I wish someone would re-print it just as it stands.
Quite different is Letters From the Heart (Blake, £6.99) compiled by Fr Michael Seed, an enlarged edition of an earlier book. Fr Seed, eminence grise de nos jours. is reputed to know everyone; and from the list of his contributors it appears to be true. Mother Teresa and Cardinal Hume, Tony Blair, the Dalai Lama, Prince Rainier — all have responded to his invitations to write what they think heaven is like.
I intend no disrespect to Fr Seed in saying that the contributions are variable in quality. The book is a valuable document for other reasons: the affection in which Fr Seed is obviously held by many friends; and, for me, the different styles of writing paper used by his correspondents. Every parish priest ought to be given a copy for Christmas. It is, however, not exactly a book for the prie-dieu: more for the bedside table, or a select shelf of little books in the bathroom.