Category Archives: Reviews

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14 January, Review: Felix the Railway Cat

9781405929783: Felix the Railway Cat

Felix the Railway Cat By Kate Moore, Penguin 2017

Why did I pick this book up? I think it may have been the Huddersfield connection; the story unfolds at Huddersfield Railway station in Yorkshire where I have awaited my connection more than once when visiting family, though I haven’t been introduced to Felix. The last time we were there the weather was telling us to seek shelter, not feline friends. No doubt Felix was warm and snug inside.

This book tells how Felix ‘became the heart of a community’ but the community was there from the start and was drawn closer together by having a station cat. A great deal of preparation and skullduggery went into acquiring a cat. The station manager did not approve but his boss gave the go-ahead when he was seconded elsewhere and he returned to find a fluffy black-and-white kitten in residence, named Felix by vote among the whole station team. We read of adventures and misadventures, of the vet’s discovery that Felix was not a tom cat, but nobody supported changing her name to Felicity. It’s a charming story, well told.

But this is not just about Felix, Rodent Control Officer, nor even the many other duties she undertook, such as reassuring stressed passengers. It is also about the community at the station, staffed 24 hours per day, sometimes working alone, sometimes coming together, but always a team, built up by senior staff looking out for each other and their subordinates, but most importantly, taking care of passengers.

Read this book and you will understand that these railway men and women are dedicated to their passengers and would not lightly be striking and putting services at risk. It is not they who are ‘holding the country to ransom’.

Felix shares her Facebook page with her junior deputy, Bolt. The two of them share further adventures in ‘Full Steam Ahead, Felix’ also by Kate Moore.

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Book Review: Hopeful Eddie is looking ahead

Many readers of this blog will recognise the name Eddie Gilmore. We’ve shared a number of his blog posts for the London Irish chaplaincy and it’s good to have a selection of them gathered together in this book, Looking Ahead with Hope.

It’s a teasing title. No human can look ahead without looking back; try it sometime. The important thing is to believe that we – and more to the point, God – can build on the past. If that’s going to happen we need to get down to the bedrock of grace at work in our lives.

That grace often manifests itself in Eddie’s life in the form of music: singing at his mother’s 90th birthday party or a L’Arche retreat in the French Alps – Eddie was with L’Arche before joining the chaplaincy, the lack of singing as church congregations returned as covid retreated.

Eddie revisits those lock-down days, learning to live with people for 24 hours a day, long walks with family members, open-air conversations with passing acquaintances, the pluses and minuses of communicating by Zoom. We got through, but looking ahead, what have we learnt?

There could have been no singing and no party for his mum’s birthday in lockdown time, which put a stop to many of the chaplaincy’s ministries. Music was important in prison ministries too. The old, well-known songs awoke something in the hearts of the captive audience members, giving hope of another life outside prison. Special food on days the chaplaincy team were able to gather people together: it was in HMP Chelmsford that Eddie learnt to enjoy bacon cabbage and potatoes! There, too, Eddie reflected, that ‘for a couple of hours we’d been fellow human beings, enjoying good food and music, and one another’s company.’ And the musicians were changed by the experience (p73).

This book will inspire you to look ahead with hope, because Eddie Gilmore knows how to look back in gratitude. A Christmas present that somebody you know will be grateful for.

Will Turnstone.

Looking Ahead with Hope, Eddie Gilmore, DLT, £9.99. See the DLT site, where there was a good discount offer as we went to press.

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13 November: A poet on a poet.

by Atkinson Grimshaw

On this day in 1907 died Francis Thompson, aged 47. He had been in poor health after years of sleeping rough and addiction. Wilfrid and Alice Meynell, writers themselves, took him under their wings, found writing work for him and helped him get published, but TB had already claimed him.

This poem is by W. H. Davies, his younger contemporary, who had himself known life on the streets of London and of American cities. He knew of what he wrote.

Francis Thompson

Thou hadst no home, and thou couldst see
  In every street the windows' light:
  Dragging thy limbs about all night,
No window kept a light for thee.

 However much thou wert distressed,
  Or tired of moving, and felt sick,
  Thy life was on the open deck—
Thou hadst no cabin for thy rest.
 
Thy barque was helpless 'neath the sky,
  No pilot thought thee worth his pains
  To guide for love or money gains—
Like phantom ships the rich sailed by.
 
Thy shadow mocked thee night and day,
  Thy life's companion, it alone;
  It did not sigh, it did not moan,
But mocked thy moves in every way.

In spite of all, the mind had force,
  And, like a stream whose surface flows
  The wrong way when a strong wind blows,
It underneath maintained its course.

Oft didst thou think thy mind would flower
  Too late for good, as some bruised tree
  That blooms in Autumn, and we see
Fruit not worth picking, hard and sour.
 
Some poets feign their wounds and scars.
  If they had known real suffering hours,
  They'd show, in place of Fancy's flowers,
More of Imagination's stars.
 
So, if thy fruits of Poesy
  Are rich, it is at this dear cost—
  That they were nipt by Sorrow's frost,
In nights of homeless misery.

From "Foliage: Various Poems" by W. H. Davies.

See also another Welsh Poet, R. S. Thomas, who also observed the difference between the surface and the depths. 

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11 November: The Victory

The grave of a Royal Marine from the Great War, 1914-18.

I was led to Robert Southey’s poem which follows, by this paragraph from one of Charles Lamb’s letters to him. Lamb offers some observations to his friend:

I think you are too apt to conclude faintly, with some cold moral, as in the end of the poem called “The Victory”— “Be thou her comforter, who art the widow’s friend;” a single common-place line of comfort, which bears no proportion in weight or number to the many lines which describe suffering. This is to convert religion into mediocre feelings, which should burn, and glow, and tremble. A moral should be wrought into the body and soul, the matter and tendency, of a poem, not tagged to the end, like a “God send the good ship into harbour,” at the conclusion of our bills of lading.

The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb

A bill of lading is a list of all a ship’s cargo agreed between the Master of the vessel and the shipping line. A little prayer at the end could be sincere or just a form of words, though there was plenty of peril on the sea in those days. But here is Southey’s The Victory. Lawful violence would be the press gang, a posse of sailors who were allowed to abduct men off the street to serve in the wars against Napoleon and other enemies.

I disagree with Lamb on this. I sense the same anger as in Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et decorum est of a century or so later, with the poem building towards its final ferocious prayer which was meant to change human hearts. What do you think?

The Victory

Hark–how the church-bells thundering harmony
Stuns the glad ear! tidings of joy have come,
Good tidings of great joy! two gallant ships
Met on the element,–they met, they fought
A desperate fight!–good tidings of great joy!
Old England triumphed! yet another day
Of glory for the ruler of the waves!
For those who fell, ’twas in their country’s cause,
They have their passing paragraphs of praise
And are forgotten.
There was one who died
In that day’s glory, whose obscurer name
No proud historian’s page will chronicle.
Peace to his honest soul! I read his name,
‘Twas in the list of slaughter, and blest God
The sound was not familiar to mine ear.
But it was told me after that this man
Was one whom lawful violence had forced
From his own home and wife and little ones,
Who by his labour lived; that he was one
Whose uncorrupted heart could keenly feel
A husband’s love, a father’s anxiousness,
That from the wages of his toil he fed
The distant dear ones, and would talk of them
At midnight when he trod the silent deck
With him he valued, talk of them, of joys
That he had known–oh God! and of the hour
When they should meet again, till his full heart
His manly heart at last would overflow
Even like a child’s with very tenderness.
Peace to his honest spirit! suddenly
It came, and merciful the ball of death,
For it came suddenly and shattered him,
And left no moment’s agonising thought
On those he loved so well.
He ocean deep
Now lies at rest. Be Thou her comforter
Who art the widow’s friend! Man does not know
What a cold sickness made her blood run back
When first she heard the tidings of the fight;
Man does not know with what a dreadful hope
She listened to the names of those who died,
Man does not know, or knowing will not heed,
With what an agony of tenderness
She gazed upon her children, and beheld
His image who was gone. Oh God! be thou
Her comforter who art the widow’s friend!

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21 October: the Pilgrim comes home.

Rolling Hills of Iowa by Bill Whitakker

Bill Bryson spent many years living in England, so many that he felt the call to reconnect with his native America, a call he answered by driving across 38 states out of 50. He visited the two Oceans, the mountains, prairies and deserts, until he crossed the border into his home state. A book worth looking out for, an interesting insight into America in its many guises.

It was wonderful to be back to the Midwest, the rolling hills and rich black earth … I passed back into Iowa. As if on cue, the sun emerged from the clouds. A swift band of golden light swept over the fields and made everything instantly warm and springlike. Every farm looked tidy and fruitful. Every little farm looked clean and friendly. I drove on spellbound, unable to get over how striking the landscape was. There was nothing much to it, just rolling fields, but every colour was deep and vivid: the blue sky, the white clouds, the red barns, the chocolate fields. I felt as if I had never seen it before. I had no idea Iowa could be so beautiful.*

Marie Curie said that the present moment is a state of grace, and so it proved for Bill Bryson when the sun came out. But all those moments he documented when his pilgrimage took him through inhospitable landscapes and inhospitable towns, motels and diners, they too were moments of grace – at least when seen in hindsight.

This pilgrim’s progress brought him home. May we be grateful for our holidays and thankful to be able to come home among family and friends. And may we all meet merrily in heaven when our journey is done.

  • Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent, Travels in Small Town America, New York, HarperCollins, 1989.

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24 May: Going viral CVI: A pilgrim feeling very, very exposed.

These pilgrims are somewhat exposed. The woman in the middle at least has long sleeves against the nettles and brambles; the lads behind? Well, they lived to tell the tale. If it’s not nettles or brambles, it will be neck pain or blisters or soakings or sunburn. But pilgrimage can also lead us to friendship, hospitality, service; the discovery of who we are and where we are – eventually – hoping to be.

There seems to be a growing interest in pilgrimage these days, perhaps enhanced by the experience of confinement under covid regulations. Let’s get out of here! i’ll come to Mrs Turnstone’s and my visit to Bury Saint Edmund’s in another post. Here we share a reflection by the designer and tv presenter, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, one of a group of ‘celebrities’ who travelled across Ireland and the Irish Sea as pilgrims to Iona, for the BBC, and following journey of Saint Columba.

He tells Peter Stanford, “I am of a generation that has been war-free, plague-free, difficulty-free for most of our privileged lives, and suddenly here we are facing a plague [Covid], nuclear war [Ukraine] and gas prices going through the roof. We are literally touching cloth for the first time and we are feeling very, very exposed. We have nothing to believe in and yet we have to make some decisions quite quickly because we are running out of time.” (The well-tailored pilgrim, in The Tablet, 6 April, 2022).

Privileged we have been, but this blog does not accept that we have nothing to believe in.

The well-tailored pilgrim

by Peter Stanford

Pilgrimage: The Road to the Scottish Isles is available on BBC iPlayer for ten months.

https://wordpress.com/post/agnellusmirror.wordpress.com/30684 johnson

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12 February, Review: The Lenten Cookbook

The Lenten Cookbook book cover

The Lenten Cookbook, Recipes by David Geisser, with Essays by Scott Hahn

Manchester, New Hampshire, Sophia Institute, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-64413-469-6 

Here is a book of two halves: a series of essays by Scott Hahn on the practice of fasting, especially during Lent, followed by a collection of chef David Geisser’s recipes, mostly meat free but none the worse for that.

Hahn’s essays provide a clear justification for fasting and abstinence: ‘Fasting, and prayerful self-restraint in food choices generally, doesn’t have to be either monastic or a few-times-a-year imposition, but part of the everyday arsenal for spiritual growth (and warfare) available to every Christian.’  (p2) Setting limits on what we eat and drink can help us discern our real bodily needs and improve our physical health, but Hahn sees it primarily as sacrificial: giving up the comfort of abundant good food. Such comfort can delude us into self-sufficiency, leaving little room for our Creator. It needs to be challenged.

Modern life does not lend itself so readily to communal fasting as did mediaeval Christian society, with its shared rhythm of fasts and feasts. I regret that Hahn did not acknowledge how we might learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters observe Ramadan, even when it falls in midwinter or high summer. A young neighbour told me she was going to ‘do the whole thing’ though she was too young to be obliged to do so. She succeeded!

The Western Church has eased its fasting laws since the time of Pius XII, partly in response to present day pressures, partly to address the legalism that had crept in and the dispensations that were often claimed. 2022 may be the time to revisit fasting but we must beware of causing more harm than good, a danger especially of self-designed and self-imposed regimes: one’s own health may suffer and dear ones feel the edge of the penitent’s grumpiness! (p13-15) 

Hahn cites a prayer from the Byzantine rite of Vespers which sums up Lenten fasting:

 While fasting with the body, brothers and sisters, 

let us also fast in spirit. 

Let us loosen every bond of iniquity; 

let us undo the knots of every contact made by violence; 

let us tear up all unjust agreements;

let us give bread to the hungry

 and welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover them, 

that we may receive mercy from Christ our God. (P33)

Hahn commends Lenten “frugality for almsgiving, repentance, preparation [for Easter] and imitation of Christ” (p8) but could have developed further his reflection that frugality should be our attitude when choosing food, even a snack or a drink. (p41) Eating less meat is in itself an act of repentance, of turning away from using too many scarce gifts of Creation. 

And so to David Geisser’s recipes. He begins with a list of dishes fulfilling traditional fasting norms, some free from meat, dairy and alcohol, others with recommended substitutes for them; some of the alternatives are fuss-free and inexpensive, but is it frugal to replace butter with puréed avocado when the fruit is flown from abroad? Is out of season asparagus in any way penitential?

There are dishes we can enjoy with a clear conscience. The baked muesli could be cooking while the oven is on for one of the excellent breads. The ingredients for the potato bread in my review copy do not include potatoes, which is disappointing, I would certainly have tried this! The flatbreads and spice bread would reconcile any carnivore to a bread and soup lunch. Hot cross buns in England, at least, start to appear in the supermarkets around January 1st, and are still on sale well after Easter. They originated as a Good Friday celebratory collation; a spiced, fruited bun with a cross on the top, more recently made of flour paste or marzipan and glazed on turning out of the oven. Geisser’s Swiss versions are quite different and include  one with Rosemary. Rosemary is for remembrance, appropriate for Good Friday, but this particular bun could be served at any time of year.

Carrot  soup with orange is a fine variation; I would reserve a tablespoonful of carrot batons to garnish each bowl. Pink peppercorns are a condiment that would forever hide away at the back of our kitchen cupboard. Coarsely ground black pepper will do. The other soups are worth trying, especially the cream of corn, while the cold tomato soup is one for summertime.

Tomatoes evoke salads and there are tasty salads here but exotic ingredients would have to be replaced. The bread salad with plenty of tomatoes will be tried in this household.

From the collations, or light meals, I will surely be trying the potato pancakes, perhaps using cornmeal instead of semolina; also the bread pudding Carthusian style. The baked vegetables recipe is like one of my wife’s tasty standards, so it is recommended. More of her specialities are mirrored among the main meals: Lentil and Eggplant Moussaka and Eggplant au Gratin. My own favourites include leek quiche – though I have not used saffron – and spinach quiche, which gladly accepts bacon strips out of the Lenten season. Best of the curries I feel would be the butternut squash variety.

I am glad to have seen this book. It is informative and well presented, with colour reproductions of old master paintings and the prepared dishes. Quantities are given in metric units as well as US cups and spoonfuls, so no need to flick back to a conversion chart. I hope readers find inspiration joyfully to fast from Hahn’s essays and to cook frugally but joyfully from Geisser’s recipes.

MMB

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28 October, Laudato Si’ XVIII: The Story of Plastic: a review by Natasha Viegas.


Photo by tanvi sharma on Unsplash
Provided by NV.
We are sharing a column from Saint Thomas’ Canterbury Newsletter by their environment correspondent, Natasha Viegas.

We are at a point in time where we have to start making efforts to reduce the number of plastics we use. The plastic problem is so bad right now, that global warming is getting exponentially worse.Like with every problem we face in life, it is very important to look at the beginning, so that we can reflect upon our mistakes and take important steps towards a better future. 

The Story of Plastic is an excellent documentary that outlines the entire process of plastic production, plastic consumption, and plastic recycling. You can use the link provided, or watch it on the Discovery Channel.This documentary is very informative on every problem that arises from plastics, as well as providing suggestions on how we can reduce usage and help the environment. We need to start now to safeguard our futures and protect this beautiful home that God created for us.

Natasha Viegas

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25 October: Looking ahead with hope.

Not long ago I met a fellow parishioner, now retired, whose view of the world was decidedly pessimistic. The conjunction of climate emergency, introverted nationalism, individualism and any number of other evils had really hit home to this man whose working life had been full of selfless service. Perhaps covid-19 finished off any optimism he might have felt towards his fellow humans.

Another fellow parishioner, whose own working life has been as full of selfless service, is Eddie Gilmore; regular readers of this blog will agree that his outlook is hope-full, so it’s a joy to find some of his writings from the Irish Chaplaincy website in a new book, Looking ahead with hope, soon to be published by DLT.

Eddie does not gloss over the difficulties of the time we are living through but he subtitles his work Stories of Humanity, Wonder and Gratitude in a Time of Uncertainty’, thereby nailing his colours to the mast. This is a beautiful world and we should be thankful for the privilege of living in a time when, for most of us in Western Europe at least, we have plenty. 

We can eat, we can share food in fellowship. In fellowship we can sing and sing together, pray and pray together, walk and make a pilgrimage together. Togetherness and fellowship is a theme of this book, and for Eddie that means being and singing with prisoners and lonely Irish exiles, with friends from his time in L’Arche, with a group of pilgrims brought together as if by chance. It means cycle rides with friends, walking through Kent, or through France and Spain on the way to Santiago.

Eddie’s style is conversational, friendly and respectful to the reader. This is a book to enjoy and to give to family and friends. Happy, hopeful reading!

The Book is released on October 29th and can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher, DLT: https://www.dartonlongmantodd.co.uk/titles/2342-9781913657420-looking-ahead-with-hope

Or from any bookshop (ISBN: 978-1-913657-42-0)

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14 October. Letters of Note: War

A Christmas Meeting

Have we not had enough of war? But it doesn’t stop and it doesn’t stop hurting. We are reviewing this book now to allow you to buy it before November begins. There are thirty mini chapters, hence you could choose to read one per day through the month.

Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note: War is a small collection of letters written during various conflicts from ancient times to 2016 and the Iraq war. There is heartbreak here, to know that many of the fighters, willing or reluctant, never returned to friends and family, or went home changed and traumatised by what they had seen and done. ‘Instead of a yellow streak, the men got a mean streak down their backs.’ (p24) ‘All the wounded were killed in a most horrible way … you will see all sorts of accounts in the papers and no end of lies.’ p102.

These letters bring home the reality in a different way to television news. There are always no end of lies, always men who get mean in order to survive but cannot live with themselves later; fighters who endure shell shock and post-traumatic stress.

There’s a special poignancy about the first Christmas of the Great War, when men from England and Germany came together between the front lines, in all friendship, ‘but of course it will start and tomorrow we shall be at it hard killing one another’. (p80)

Go and buy this little book, read and pay attention. The human beings, the animals, the environment devastated by war are depicted truthfully, for these letters were written not for publication but to friends and family, sons and daughters, mothers, wives and partners, friends on the same or opposite sides; officials to officials.

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

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