New blog from Richard Greatrex

Windflower is a refined sort of blog. My new blog: http://unsubtlereviewer.wordpress.com/ isn’t. It is for reviews and it is where I can be biased, opinionated and cranky. Please check it out.

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St Michael’s Art Group Exhibition

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This beautiful parish church will become an art gallery for the weekend as a group of local artists from within the nearby villages exhibit their work.

Artists will include:

Tom Campbell, Peter Crawford, Richard Greatrex, Shirley Gyles, Adrienne Hughes, Deb Nicholson, Ann Sargent

Entrance is FREE

Refreshments will be available

and there will be the opportunity to explore this ancient church –

from its Saxon foundations

through the medieval additions

to the Victorian side aisle

and the 21st Century WC.

St Michael’s Church, Main Road, Flax Bourton, North Somerset

A Biased Selection of My Favourite Novels

Not an explicitly religious collection of the books I love, but nevertheless something I thought worth sharing as a snapshot of my reading habits.

The titles in bold are the ‘A’ list of must reads. And this is a totally biased list of the books which have made an impact on me. It misses out many of the ‘greats’ of contemporary fiction, but so be it. It would have included more Murakami but I felt that was ging to make it a little one-sided.

THE LIST

Peter ACKROYD ‘Hawksmoor’. When on form – and this Ackroyd at his peak – he is one of the most chilling writers I know. Hawksmoor was one of the architects charged with rebuilding London post the Great Fire. His architecture was founded on alchemical masonic principles – these involved certain key alignments and certain ritual practices. A detective is trying to unravel a number of deaths and disappearances associated with some of the churches Hawksmoor is charged with building. There is something nasty lurking under almost every page.

James BALDWIN ‘Go tell it on the mountain’. The blues and black pentecostal conversion. Rebelling against the Father made in the image of your father. Or just rebelling against unbending hardline views, whether parental or religious. Pioneering black fiction with an energy and rhythm and a sense of otherworldliness, yet grounded in the dust of the here and now.

J. G. BALLARD ‘Atrocity Exhibition’. Difficult to know which Ballard to pick, so I went for this one as it inspired a Joy Division track. I could easily have chosen ‘Crash’. Both of these books are disturbing dystopian visions of society – scary, sci-fi melded with historical fiction. There are strange conjunctions between sex and disaster, strange obsessions and a weird sense that Ballard’s unreality is actually reality. Perhaps most like the scream you feel emanating from a Francis Bacon painting.

Peter BENSON ‘The Levels’: Brilliant. Best first novel about first love, ever. Perfect evocation of Somerset around Langport, gets the rhines & the willows & the lie of the land spot on. The ending made me shiver & cry – love found and lost in a summer. One moves on, the other stays.

Anthony BURGESS ‘Earthly Powers’ One of those eternally memorable first lines (and this is from my imperfect memory, without looking at the text): ‘It was my eightieth birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had called.’ Seafaring, sex and all sorts of dodgy goings on up back alleys in flea-bitten seaports. Sounds messy, but it is a roistering romp of a novel and I think far, far superior to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (which is also good and worth a read).

Angela CARTER ‘Wise Children’.  AC is a wonderful writer. I could have chosen any of her books – ‘Nights at the Circus’ is excellent and ‘The Infernal Desire Machine of Dr Hoffmann’ might be more your thing – sort of fantasy, almost steam punk but feminist and a smidge sensual. However, I chose ‘Wise Children’ because I love the character(s) of Flora-Dora and the louche and picaresque way their chorus girl story unfolds.

Lindsay CLARKE ‘The Chymical Wedding’. A love story which stretches across two centuries and has an alchemical secret at its heart which may, or may not, prove to be the antidote to modern capitalism. Strange and teasing and intense.

Douglas COUPLAND ‘Generation X’: A key text and a fascinating novel, a game changer and the definer of a generation. A book which made me shiver because it seemed to be peering deep into my soul. And not judging me. All of Coupland is worth reading, but to experience the full on ennui of Gen X existence read this book while listening to Joy Division’s ‘Closer’.

Roberston DAVIES ‘The Cornish Trilogy’ especially volume 2 ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’. I’m a great fan of RD. The best Canadian novelist after Margaret Attwood.  He is a very painterly, almost academic writer, and his books tend to be based around rarefied campuses, but there is something playful, other-worldly and rather exciting, in a gentle, almost underhand sort of way, about his writing. ‘What’s Bred in the Bone’ deals with some wide-ranging subjects, from strange beginnings to Nazi Germany to learning how to restore and eventually fake medieval paintings. It also includes a dwarf and a square-jawed fraulein who seems to be incredibly sexually attractive yet also bordering on the ugly. Every couple of years I re-read the whole of RD’s oeuvre.

Alice Thomas ELLIS ‘Fairy Tale’: I love ATE and was chuffed to find one I hadn’t read in the library. Excellent as ever. Magic realism in Wales. Which is a very sensible place for magic realism to be. Tightly written, sharp observation, sardonic wit, neat plot and a great cover.

Adam FOULDS ‘The Quickening Maze’: Or, quite simply, the madness of John Clare. Lovely evocation of Clare’s Northamptonshire and a lush, but disquieting way of entering into the strange world of one of our most misunderstood poets.

Albert FRENCH ‘Billy’: Civil rights (or the lack of them) in the deep south – a sort of slightly more emotional version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ with little black boy Billy on trial for the murder (in self-defence) of a white girl. The electric chair looms over proceedings and it is a bit of a teary book, with only the merest hint of redemption.

William GIBSON ‘Neuromancer’: It is dark – technology is not the saviour of humanity that Apple would have us believe – and it is a masterpiece of a type of sci-fi that is all too close to being tomorrow’s reality. If you’ve not read it you really, really must.

Sue Monk KIDD: The Secret Life of Bees. Came to this late, loved it. Deep South, Civil Rights Era. Shades of Flannery O’Connor in the voice of the white narrator. Full of bees, faith, hope and not a little charity. It is a bit schmaltzy, but I’ve read it twice and found it to be an excellent book for our reading group.

Naguib MAHFOUZ ‘Wedding Song’: Arabic novels aren’t so easy to find and Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which makes him doubly unusual. I guess you could say that this is a short novel in which nothing much happens, but that would be unfair. Instead it is best to describe it as elegantly immersing the reader in the minutiae of Arab daily life and the little intimacies that make a relationship succeed or fail. I’ve read it several times – so it must have affected me in some way.

Toni MORRISON ‘Jazz’: I think this is a better novel than ‘Beloved’, it has lyrical power that brings extra pathos to the darkness of the story. It is 1926, jazz is flourishing in the city but for its black practitioners there is still hostility, injustice and the slavery of the American legal system. Love takes root in this bare soil, legends are explored and crimes disfigure any fleeting happiness.

Walter MOSELEY ‘RL’s Dream’. Moseley’s crime fiction is must for me. He has built up a roster of fallible, iconic and potent black characters who range across the fifties to the present dealing with the vicissitudes of life in the hostile US. HOWEVER, this is not crime fiction. This is, in a subtle way, a beautiful and sexy and sad exploration of the blues and the power of the greatest and the most mythologised bluesman of them all – Robert Johnson.

Haruki MURAKAMI ‘After Dark’ – wow! I came late to Murakami after all the literary bods had picked over his emerging oeuvre, but now I can see why such a fuss has been made about him. Lovely intense and thoughtful writing mixing reality, super-reality and magical-reality in a gentle, layered and open-ended story. Brought to mind echoes of dimly remembered William Gibson novels but this Murakami is certainly not sci-fi or even cy-fi.

Haruki MURAKAMI ‘Kafka on the Shore’. Once again brilliance outshining brilliance. Deep, dense, intense, horribly scary, super-realist and magic-realist. Tangibly frightening and frighteningly tangible. Lush, lonesome and lubricious. Filled with talking cats and murdered cats and chords from another space or time or dimension or dislocated maw. Beethoven and Haydn, Schubert and Prince all pierced with a gaze as black as a corvid’s eye.

Haruki MURAKAMI ‘Norwegian Wood’. Oh, yessssssss. Yes, yes and yes again. This is brilliant writing. Spare and lean in descriptive and dialogue terms but depicting deeply drawn characters. Who are not characters, they are people who I came to care about, to know and to know that I didn’t know. An undramatic yet unsettling plot, an intensity of perception that transfers from author to characters to readers, a way of writing that is distinctive but unshowy: these all add up to one of the best novels I’ve read in years. Don’t see the film first – it is merely a series of postcards from the book.

Norman MACLEAN ‘A River Runs Through It’. One of my favourite books ever. A novella and a small collection of short stories. Mclean was a professor of English in the US, but this was his only work of fiction and it is based heavily on his early years. There is a good film of the novella, but the book needs to be read as a whole. Employs the spare style of US male-orientated fiction, but with no hint of bravado or glorification of the macho. It is also a tender and doomed love story, a great introduction to fly-fishing and a glowing evocation of the Rockies.

Vladimir NABAKOV ‘Pale Fire’. Clever writing, unsettling and dark. A book within a book as the final poem of the murdered poet John Shade is prepared for publication, with a commentary and notes by his infamous editor, whose character is as important, if not more so than the actual poet. I’ve not read ‘Lolita’ – the subject matter is too distasteful – but even so ‘Pale Fire’ is one of the twentieth century’s most important novels. I can’t say I enjoyed it but I did appreciate it.

Flannery O’CONNOR ‘Complete Short Stories’: Brilliant writing – every word counts and needs to be mulled over. Evocative of the US south, full of faith but, oh, every story seems to have a really downbeat ending.

Caryl PHILLIPS ‘Cambridge’: Beautiful, elegaic, poetic. Short book, took a while to read because the language was so rich and resonant. What was unsaid being as vital as what was said. Educated black slave in the Caribbean meets his doom. Educated white daughter of England is unable to save him.

Mervyn PEAKE ‘The Gormenghast Trilogy’: this is a huge fantasy trilogy that creates its own world, full of strange folk who slowly develop from ciphers into characters. There are some amazing setpieces and plot twists which stick in the mind but the third volume is incomplete and of a quite different nature form the rest – more sci-fi with a sexual angle – and doesn’t provide a satisfactory resolution.

Chaim POTOK ‘My Name is Asher Lev’. I keep coming back to this novel, I keep recommending it and I keep finding people who profess it to be one of their favourite novels. My readers group were so enthralled by it they all went out and bought the sequel (see below). Post-war Brooklyn. An Orthodox Jewish community trying to make sense of the holocaust and bring the survivors home. Toddler Asher is a born artist in a community where art is verboten. The descriptions of his talent are outstanding, the descriptions of family life, the faithfulness of the believers, the tensions between the parents (mother trying to find her own way in a patriarchal society, father being the Rabbi’s right-hand man and possible heir), the incomprehension of them all at Asher’s artistic genius, the wisdom of the Rabbi in sending him as a pupil to a fellow (renegade) Jewish artist and the resulting Brooklyn Crucifixion painting are truly beautiful. Yes, it is full of religion, but it is also chock full of art and is a deeply moving and inspiring (as in you want to go out and express your own meagre talent as an artist) book.

Chaim POTOK ‘The Gift of Asher Lev’. Sequel to the first book, it goes far more deeply into the consequences of Asher’s decision to fulfil his genius in the company of Picasso and his contemporaries while trying hard to remain faithful to his religion and his community. It finishes the story beautifully, gives you much more to remember and is one of the few sequels that really works.

Mordecai RICHLER ‘Solomon Gursky was Here’: A novel I read over and over. Supposedly comic – certainly lively, a Jewish family in Canada tracing a mysterious ancestor who was a self-styled rabbi and hero of the Inuit people. Elements of the Wandering Jew myth coalesce with the history of exploration in a book which ranges through time and reality with an energy that infects every place where the eternal ancestor lands.

Philip ROTH ‘The Humbling’ – a tightly written and neatly resolved short novel which, despite the twist of male fantasy in the plot (involving a blocked actor’s final relationship with a woman who is a lesbian and 25 years his junior), holds together remarkably well including just the right amount of pathos to be credible without being maudlin. It continues the exploration of the aging male which has dominated much of Roth’s later writing but without the heart-wringing heaviness of earlier novels. There has to be one P. Roth on the list, he is a brilliant writer, diving deeply into the male psyche.

Jean RHYS ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. Sort of the odd one out in this list – from a generation earlier than most of the rest of the titles – but one I’ve read again and again. The story of the first Mrs Rochester, a Caribbean setting that is made tangible, heavy, scented and oppressive. Short, memorable and charting a very real and yet surreal path to madness.

Luis SEPULVEDA ‘The Old Man Who Read Love Stories’. Short, amazing, tight, beautiful. An old man who reads love stories in the Amazon. Can’t say much, but it involves the hunting of a killer ocelot and is full of the scent, sweat and mud of South America. This book really touched me when I first read it, I have lovely memories of it – but haven’t found a copy since.

Patrick SUSKIND ‘Perfume’. A beautiful translation of the smelliest book ever. The evocation of scent is incredible (the film is crap). This is a deeply disturbing book. The plot is about a perfumier who will do anything to create THE scent which will drive the whole world wild for him.

Rose TREMAIN ‘Restoration’. The second smelliest book ever. Tales of a doctor trying to keep on the right side of the political players in restoration England. Loads of mud, muck and poor sanitation, but loads of fun, written in a style that feels authentic period without ever descending to chocolate box ‘merrie Englande’ and with a healthy dash of raunch.

Alice WALKER  ‘The Temple of my Familiar’. Lovely writing, great characterisation, challenging text. Being neither womanist nor black (if that is not a tautology) it gave me as a European, white male a great deal to think about. A reversal of all the history and religion I have been taught. ‘The Color Purple’ is great, but this is better – more interesting, more challenging. Ranges between time and space and different levels of reality which could be hauntings or collective consciousness rising to the craw.

Sarah WATERS ‘The Night Watch’. I love all of Waters work, although I think ‘Fingersmith’ is the weakest, most show-offy, a first novel setting out the author’s stall. ‘Affinity’ is probably her spookiest and most unsettling book but the ‘Night Watch’ is the most human, the most moving and extremely well-written.

Jeanette WINTERSON ‘Written on the Body’. Philosophical, poetic, Sapphic and sensous, this is a laying bare of the impulses, desires and desirability of erotic love in an inventive, tender and un-self-consciously clever story about illness and the body. She writes so well in an artlessly artful way.

Holy Week Devotions

Walking the Way of the Cross in the form of fourteen Stations, or images, around a church or churchyard is an ancient practisc of pilgirmage for those who are unable to visit the Holy Land. It follows Jesus’s journey from the Last Supper, through his arrest and trial, crucifixion and death, burial in the tomb and eventually (in some versions) his resurrection.

It builds upon the Holy Week (or Great Week) liturgies which have historically taken place in Jerusalem and which were recorded by the Spanish nun Egeria in her ‘Travels’ around 381AD. By the time Egeria came to record these liturgies they had been in existence for many years – worshippers travelled around the city experiencing the events of Jesus’s last week in the places that thet happened and at the times they were believed to have happened. To follow Jesus on the Way came to be a major pilgrimage in the lives of the faithful right across medieval Europe. However, the Crusades put a stop to all that. So the Fransicans came up with the idea of fourteen points, or Stations which could be postioned around a church picturing the key moments on Jesus’s journey to the Cross. This form of devotions has remained popular today and is an important way for many Christians to walk with Jesus during Holy Week.

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St Francis Roman Catholic Church in Nailsea, North Somerset, has a very distinctive set of wooden stations set against the windows all the way round the church. Every Monday in Holy Week churches of all denominations in the local area are invited to participate in this moving and sometimes harrowing journey with Christ. This year I was kindly asked to provide the meditations. Having photographed the set of stations and chosen the Biblical texts to match them I then wrote a series of texts and prayers about charcters or episodes in each picture which especially spoke to me.

The result can be found on the blog radinaceonline, starting here:

http://radianceonline.wordpress.com/2012/04/02/nailsea-stations-of-the-cross-2/

Please feel free to use these words and prayers for your own private deovtions and I hope that in some small way they will enable you to walk more closely with God.

Richard Greatrex

Up and Running

The first A Great Read micro-site bookshop is now up and running. Running quite slowly at the moment with some technical issues to be ironed out, but the general impression is pretty good and the church seem to be very pleased. We are aiming at 500+ titles in a 3.6 metre run, plus wafers, Bible reading notes and a separate card bay.

It has taken a while to get here and now we need to make sure that all potential customers know that we are trading. We sent out 1700 emails last week to key customers of both A Great Read and former Christian bookshops in the area. However, Bath Abbey also did an email blitz the day before saying that they were THE Christian Bookshop in Bath. Good for them for trying. But we probably already have a wider range of books and will have a much wider brief for resources.

Next week I will be there fulltime and then recruiting for a full team of volunteers will start – to allow me the freedom to be helping other churches build their own tailor made bookstalls or micro-sites.

Meanwhile, plans for a Bristol site are moving slowly forward. It will be amazingly exciting if we get the church venue we are negotiating on. A self-contained shop adjacent to a church café in a prime situation. The focus for this shop would be Faith and the Arts, so that while it would have space to stock all the normal resources of a Christian bookshop, as well as secondhand books, it would be specialising in the interface between faith and the visual arts, music and literature.

 Richard Greatrex

Windflower Books working with A Great Read Ltd

The news is out that Windflower Books and A Great Read Ltd are working together to build a new model for working with churches: http://christianbookshopsblog.org.uk/2012/02/16/microshops-the-way-forward-for-the-uks-christian-bookshops/

Richard Greatrex will be working with A Great Read, initially for the a 3 month period, to set up micro-site bookshops in local churches. If the project gets off the ground with sufficient vigour then Richard will remain to oversee, service, train and encourage. The potential for development is huge and the interest so far has been great.

But while Richard and the team at A Great Read are initially concentrating on sites within and supported by churches they are also very much aware of the unique ministry of high street Christian bookshops which are not affiliated to any church or denomination. So, they will be looking at further innovative ways to reach out to those many customers who need resources but are not keen to cross the threshold of a particular church.

The Word: Written on the heart or wiped from the screen?

The weekend I was made redundant from Christian bookselling I was at the Swan Theatre in Stratford watching David Edgar’s play ‘Written on the Heart’. There was a fractious symmetry in the events taking place on both the theatrical stage and on the floor of the shops I served. One day I was witnessing the sheer bloody vitality of the written text – the battles fought over translations of the Bible in the creation of the King James Version. The next I was pulling books from shelves and boxing them up to be warehoused. Here was a tangible and painful sign that the printed text was no longer king, the bookshop, like the library, was no longer a place of pilgrimage, the book as a repository of information was no longer a sacred and venerated object.

The King James Version of the Bible has never been my favourite translation. Of course there are times when I have revelled in its language – the compound verb ‘loving-kindness’ still  has a particular unsurpassed resonance for me – but at others I have been stupefied by the tongue-twisting pile-up of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. I can admit to its crucial place in our history as a pivotal work in the maturing of both the protestant English church and the English language while at the same time retaining a deep distrust of its ancient manuscript credentials which render it inadequate to me and many other Christians as a true reading of the Word of God.

The same reservations I feel for the text seem to have been carried over in society to the mode of transmission itself – the printed book is giving way to an electronic ghost of its own  corporeal form. Despite many misgivings we are urged to see the rise of the e-book as not a loss but a gain, not depriving but enriching. It opens up new vistas for communication, new opportunities for evangelism, new ways of connecting with more people, more personally.

However, losing the physicality of the printed book is having repercussions in society as drastic and far-reaching as the invention of the printing press. Not only is text becoming more ephemeral – only lasting as long as battery-life, the chip it is stored on or until the electricity runs out – but text is losing its sacred nature. If it can be written over, erased and redacted at the stroke of a finger then much of its potency and authority is swiped away. If Moses received the Ten Commandments written on an Android tablet universal access would have depended on which version of the operating system it was formatted for. And how long would it be before the edited version went viral – ‘thou shalt commit adultery’ – with no chance of recall as with the Wicked Bible of 1631? Post-modernity’s credo of no meta-narratives is still in the ascendancy – the Reformation and the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the primacy of the word is in disarray – there is a paradigm shift in the exploration of texts that relies not on text in original context but text conceptualised to fit a plethora of contemporary contexts.

Which leaves the doctrine of sola scriptura searching for a new direction to counterbalance contemporary society’s profound dissatisfaction with a single over-arching authority. Of course, such developments provide opportunities for new expressions of faith. A revisiting of the power of symbol and action to convey aspects of the numinous is resurgent and suggests one way to draw the amorphous spirituality underpinning the lives of many into a Christocentric focus.

The decline of use of our libraries is a result of this fall from grace of the printed text. With so much of the traditional reference and entertainment aspects of the library now available online the whole establishment is under attack. Austerity struck councils see slashing the library budget as a fair reduction in what is deemed to be a non-essential service. Would you prefer not to have your bins collected every week on not to be able to pop up the road to borrow the latest blockbuster paperback? If it is true, as some statistics suggest, that the average number of books read per person per year is four then libraries, and for that matter, bookshops,  are very low on the list of social priorities.

Following the First World War, when church attendance began to decline steadily and severely, libraries took up part of the role formerly held by churches as the repository of the folk culture and knowledge for a locality. They became vital centres for community activity and education, the noticeboards of a neighbourhood. But the fracturing of society, which the individualistic policies of the Thatcherite governments of the 1980s and early 1990s did much to exacerbate, coupled with the rise of web-driven social networking within a global context, has rendered libraries as obsolete as the concept of a local community which they were founded to serve. They are proving to be extremely susceptible to closure by cash-strapped authorities and while their passing is mourned by a vociferous and insightful minority the majority has long since ceased using them and either stopped relying on print media or turned to the internet for access to reading material.

The issues driving libraries to the brink of extinction have doubly affected our bookshops whose reliance on market forces rather than the benevolence of councils acting in the public interest has made them intensely vulnerable in an retail environment which is withdrawing from the high street. Even some of the famous independent bookshops which once seemed to be deeply embedded in their local community have disappeared and the massacre of the chains has continued apace since the fall of Dillons in the mid 1990s.

Which leads us where? To a society that looks for intellectual sustenance, entertainment and information not in books, not in bricks and mortar public repositories but in the new online space. It is unfair to call the networks and communities formed by social media ‘virtual’ as if that is inferior to ‘physical’, geographically grounded ones. It is true to say that some of the aspects of what we have previously called ‘community’ are not so evident in these new emanations. But we need time to allow them to develop and to allow ourselves to adapt to new realities. There will be a place for bookshops for many years to come – in smaller numbers than before, probably on a smaller scale and with the uniqueness of each more easily definable than in the past – but their existence will depend on their adaptability to a swiftly changing market. Whether more than a handful of monumental libraries will exist in twenty years from now is impossible to tell, but their slide out of fashion is an opportunity for churches to reclaim the position as the social hubs for their communities – virtual, local, denominational, generational and political – as they seek to re-interpret and re-present the unchanging heart of the Gospel as a still point in a turning world.

Finally, we have moved way, way beyond the situation where the scholars, clerics and politicians behind the King James Bible were able to write on the hearts of the majority of the people one translation of Scripture, one model of faithful adherence to God’s Word. We are surrounded by a myriad of translations, they are out in the world each engaged in an aspect of God’s work. Now is the crucial time for all churches, denominations, scholars, preachers, teachers, missionaries, workers and believers in the Christian faith to find ways of ensuring that they do not create a babble of competing heterodoxies but instead develop a sustaining, engaging, inclusive and flexible orthodoxy which remains true to the resurrection message of Christ.

Richard Greatrex