Monday, December 30, 2013

Anne Tyler

It's a long time since I read The Accidental Tourist, by Anne Tyler - although I had some further dealings with it later when it was used in The Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray, as the basis for writing your own novel. Ray, I think, failed to get to grips with the actual structure of Tyler's novel, which wasn't, to my mind, nearly as straightforward as he made out.

You'd be hard pressed to pin down the way Tyler's books are structured, I think. In reading them you feel as though they just evolve, and that there's very little planning. But I suspect this isn't actually the case. However Tyler plans and writes her books, you always feel as though you're in the presence of someone who knows exactly what they're doing. The books may feel as though they have the randomness of life about them, but in fact they're much more carefully worked out than that.

I've read three of her books in the last couple of months - two this month, in fact. The Beginner's Goodbye, Noah's Compass (which doesn't appear to have a compass in it, though I may have missed it), and just finished yesterday, Back When We Were Grownups. All three have a main character who's having to find him or herself at a certain point in time, sometimes after a crisis, but not necessarily. There may or may not be a 'happy' ending, but there is generally a satisfactory one, though that may not be one that entirely satisfies the reader....even if it satisfies the character in the book. Things in Tyler's books don't always work out in ways that other writers might work them out.

Apart from this thematic use of a character who's lost their way and needs to find how to move forward, Tyler's books excel in detailing daily lives, making the mundane somehow luminous, bringing the ordinary into focus and showing that there's very little that's actually ordinary in this world. She also surrounds her main characters (heroes or heroines would hardly be appropriate for these people, though they do have a kind of heroism about them) with a wonderful array of family members, and occasionally with friends as well. Family is big in the Tyler world; they may not be likeable people always, but they're fully there. Back When We Were Grownups begins with a chaotic family picnic in which Tyler manages, somehow, to distinguish three stepdaughters and a daughter, their various husbands or partners, and their various children, and an aged uncle, and not lose the reader in the slightest. It helps that many of them are known by peculiar nicknames. Later on we have aunts, uncles, former lovers and husbands and more. There is a wonderful range of characters here.

It's intriguing, that as a woman writer, Tyler so often allows her female characters to be bitchy and sour, particularly those who are daughters (or stepdaughters) of the main character. These women seem to have a kind of dissatisfaction around their lives, in spite of the fact that they're well off, they have good children, and husbands who care about them.  Tyler never tells us what their problem is; she just allows these women (and they appear in all three of the books I've just read) to reveal themselves as self-centred even while they're supposedly caring about the main character.  It seems to be the women in the child-rearing generation who are most like this; the main characters sometimes have a sister or two who aren't quite so up themselves. One of those even marries the builder who rebuilds part of the main character's house in The Beginner's Goodbye.

And that's another thing: builders, electricians, plumbers and other tradesmen have real lives in these stories. Though the main characters are often a professional cut above these people, they connect with them, and often seem to be the people to whom the tradesmen will open up their lives. I think that's unusual in many modern novels, where tradesmen, if they appear, tend to be very much relegated to the periphery. 

Then there are the children: while the vast array of children in Back When We Were Grownups tend to morph a little when seen en masse, many of them have enough scenes on their own or with a sibling or cousin to give them their own presence in the story.  And there is often an isolated child who is difficult to coax out of his shell: Noah, in Noah's Compass, is one such, or Peter in Back When We Were Grownups, who turns out to be very intelligent, and not at all the problem that his stepmother makes him out to be - she's one of the selfish generation, of course.

I've got two more books by Tyler from the library at the moment; the librarian brought them up from the stack along with the one I'd asked for, and I thought I might as well have them all. I'll be interested to see how they compare to the four I've read.

Thursday, December 26, 2013


One thing about picking up movies or TV series from the library is that you're never quite sure what will come to hand. There are all the common titles, of course - heaps of them - but many of those we've seen and don't want to see again, and others are ones we don't want to see at all.

So you have to take a risk, sometimes, and just go for something completely unknown, like the Soi Cheang film, Accident. Who's Soi Cheang? Well may you ask. His full name is Pou-Soi Cheang and he's a Hong Kong film director, assistant director, screenwriter, script supervisor, and actor. He directed Accident, and even though the fact that it's a film made in Hong Kong might lead you to believe it's going to be some cheesy, stunt-filled piece of fluff, it actually turns out to be a classy thriller. 

It has a sharply-written script that only gives away its secrets gradually.  It has a couple of truly surprising twists, and an ending that turns everything on its head.  As we watch we think we understand what's going on, and the characters themselves believe they know what they're about.  And then it all starts to unravel, both for the characters and the viewer.  

Primarily the film concerns a team of four, three men and a woman, who work together to produce accidents that cover up murders. These accidents are highly complicated and involve split-second timing to work. (In retrospect, they also rely on not a few coincidences, but let's not concern ourselves with that, as the film doesn't.) After an accident involving an unidentified woman at the very beginning of the film, we're led into a complex and puzzling sequence in which a man, held up in traffic, is killed in a 'freak' accident. We learn that he was a triad boss, so we don't feel too badly about his death. The team gathers together after the accident to debrief, and the young and handsome boss of the group complains about 'Uncle', an old man who has left a cigarette butt behind at the scene - which the boss has picked up, to avoid leaving any trace of the team's presence. This is the first indication that things might not be going well.

A second murder/accident is planned: a middle-aged son wants to get rid of his elderly and crippled father, who, as far as we can tell, has the son under his thumb, especially financially.  The team don't ask why he wants to murder his father - that's not their business, although as it turns out, it might be wise if they did know. This second murder seems almost improbable in its execution, but worse, it turns into an even more improbable additional 'accident' that may or may not be an accident, and in which one of the team is killed. Is someone else playing them at their own game?  Is it insurance agent the son keeps visiting over the next few days and weeks? 

From then on things get complicated, for the characters and the audience. Not complicated in the sense that we don't understand what's happening, but more in the sense that we have to keep questioning our assumptions about what we've been told. Cheang continually presents us with options - are we reading the story correctly? (There's a short sequence towards the end where we discover that not only are we reading things wrongly, but the main character is too.) He uses dazzling film techniques based on the best masters to present the story, and to continually undermine everything. 

Hitchcock is one model - there are Rear Window and Vertigo echoes throughout - but other more recent directors are summoned up as well. Cheang has learned from the best, and incorporated these lessons into a masterly style.  Cheang has been an actor in around forty films, though seldom in leading roles. He's worked as an assistant director on another thirty, and directed sixteen. The man is busy. Yet Accident shows no sign of a man in a hurry: every detail is important (though we don't always pick up on the details at the time) and shot after shot shows a director who has an eye for the right angle, the right framing.

Yes, looking back on the story there are things that are a little impossible, but in the course of the movie - as is so often the case with a film or a play, where we just accept that what happens makes sense - you take these events as right for the occasion.  The actors bring an intensity to their performances that carries us through the sticky bits, and visually the film is outstanding - another way in which we're distracted from any anomalies in the storyline.

By all accounts, Accident is one out of the box for the Hong Kong movie industry. It's certainly worth checking out.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Forsyth on Liberal Christianity

Nearly every week in the ODT there is an article on the Opinion page from Ian Harris, a man who follows in the line of thinking of Lloyd Geering, and the Sea of Faith school of thinking (someone once said to me that they had their name the wrong way round; it should have been Faith at Sea).

Harris comes from the liberal Christianity approach, a line of philosophical thought that has been around for a good 150-200 years, and which has systematically cut the life out of Christianity, until it's a virtual corpse. They are good people at heart, except that their heart isn't quite in the right place. And because they use the same words as Christians, but mean something different (in fact can often mean several different things with one word) they're hard to pin down.

I've been reading a good deal of P T Forsyth recently - you'll find plenty of extracts from his work on one of my other blogs, The Daily Writer. Forsyth bore with the liberal thinking that went on in his own day - the late 19th century into the early 20th - but he saw through their philosophy. To give you an example of his thorough thinking in this regard, I'm going to quote a longish extract from his book The Cruciality of the Cross. This will give you not only an example of his thinking, but will clarify why he believed liberal Christians had got it wrong.  This extract begins on page 64 of the New Creations Publications edition. (I've included some paragraphing to make it a bit more readable on the computer screen, and you'll have to excuse the gender-biased language.)

"Let us see exactly where the point is, and let us be quite fair to the kind of liberal religion in view. It does not, of course, exclude God. It does not say that the religious development of man is a smooth or an automatic thing. Progress still needs the help of God, or whatever stands for God. It needs even the act of God. The origin of faith within man is an act of God. But the point is that this act is not a revolution in man, not a new creation, not a regeneration, not an absolute redemption but only a release, an impulse from God, the extrication of our best, a delivery of the innate spirituality and goodness of man with which history is in travail until now.

It is not a salvation from death but only from scanty life. [Love that use of the word, scanty!] There is no real critical life-and-death catastrophe in the moral history of the race; but what we have is a deep consistent progress, harmonious on the whole, each step attaching to the step before. We have the happy perfecting of those decent, just, or tender instincts which are the original righteousness of human nature, the gradual surmounting by moral culture of sense and self. God is our helper and no more. He is not [in] a real sense, but only [in] a figurative sense, our Redeemer. He helps us to realise our latent spiritual resources and ends. There is no break with self and the world, only a disengagement from an embarrassing situation.

[Having now summed up liberal Christianity, he continues] It should be clear that this is another religion from that of redemption; and it has no room or need for atonement. And if it be true, then Christianity is not so necessary as we were led to think. Its whole complexion has changed. Nothing so very serious has taken place. Things can be bad enough, but no so bad as all that. Human nature is very mysterious but there is nothing marvellous, miraculous, in God's relation to it, nothing perilled on an eternal edge, nothing like a new creation, nothing that needs much penetration or agony of holy thought.

Incarnation becomes a metaphor. These greatest words are felt so great and useful because they can be made to mean anything. Well, faith in the incarnation is bound to become a metaphor, and to sink, if we count it mere theology to take it seriously that God was in Christ reconciling the world [a reference to one of Forsyth's all-time favourite verses, from 2 Corinthians 5:19], and to press on to understand the mighty God thus hallowed in the atoning cross. It is bound to sink, so as to become the incarnation of man instead of God, if in the cross we see but the extreme suffering of the most loving man instead of the supreme act and victory of the most holy God.

If Christianity do [sic] not make a revolution in human nature we make a revolution in Christianity. A religion centring wholly in the graciousness of Christ, or His submission, or His spiritual insight can be no foundation for a commanding ethic or a triumphant faith. It lacks the virile note. Christ did not come as a grand spiritual personality, but as a Redeemer. It was not to spiritualise us that He came but to save us. Moral verve is bound to relax if the religion of the cross become but a hallowed addition to life's spiritual interests or touching moods, if we do not carry the stamp of moral crisis and personal decision for death or life. Ethic is bound to grow less strenuous, even while we bustle about ethical conduct, if the sublime ethical issue of the universe is not the marrow of our personal divinity and the principle of our personal religion.

We can find a strong foundation only in that centre where the holy God both bears our load and performs His new creative act. If in the cross we have but the greatest of love's renunciations instead of the one establishment of God's holy will, if we have but the divine Kenosis and not also the divine Plerosis, then the sense of God's presence in the cross, and in the Church, and in the world's moral war, is bound to fade." 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Destroying art

This shows how thick I can be. It never occurred to me till just now that the 'c' in cello is pronounced differently to the 'c' in cellophane. No wonder my Turkish student who's learning English throws up his hands in despair at the way we change the sounds of both consonants and vowels. There are good historical reasons for why we pronounce some words one way and some another, but they're not much help to us living in the present.

The other day we had a typical example: he asked me if got was pronounced as good. In know-it-all fashion, I said having two 'o's in a word meant it was a long sound, so good was pronounced as goooood, and got as a simple got. (That's not actually how I said it, but that's the gist of it.) And then I realised we had just read the word flood. Where is the long ooooo sound there? Pooooooh. 

I only got onto all this good discussion just now because I was looking up references to cellos in my clippings. I actually wanted to find cello case as a phrase, but it wasn't there, though of course both words were there individually. And while I was skimming through the clippings I found one on the composer John Jeffreys. A friend of mine had lent me a book of songs by this composer early in the year, and I played through a number of them. They were handwritten (and photocopied) rather than engraved. Jeffreys himself had done the writing, and was an exceptionally neat scribe.

Most of the songs seemed to be for the tenor range - which is why my friend had the book of course, he being a tenor. Apparently the English tenor Ian Partridge is amongst those who have striven to bring Jeffreys' name back into focus again. Jeffreys, who died in 2010 at the age of 82, wrote in a style that was regarded as too traditional, and his music went out of favour. However, if the songs I played through are anything to go by, 'traditional' is hardly the word. There are plenty of interesting chords and the vocal lines requiring someone who knows what they're doing. One writer describes Jeffreys' style as 'overtly romantic and non-modernist, very much in the tradition of Delius, Warlock and Vaughan Williams.'  Well, they're all still going strong.

Anyway, this going out of favour so discouraged Jeffreys that he destroyed copies of a symphony, two violin concertos, a cello concerto (that was how I came across the clipping again), a string quartet, a piano sonata, and some 200 songs. That's some reaction against being not in favour.

Fortunately at some point he'd tape-recorded most of the songs, and, in a better mood at a later time, he was able to reconstruct these. Some of his orchestral music is still available, on a disc called Idylls and Elegies. You can hear a 90 second sample here. It's far too short a sample.

I can't imagine destroying your own music, except for stuff that you know in your heart of hearts isn't worthy of being kept. Destroying it because you don't think people appreciate it isn't wise. None of us know our own value as a composer or writer - we may have some sense, but it takes acknowledgement by a wider world to get perspective. Problematically, that perspective may wax and wain in our own lifetime, if it comes to fruition at all. Van Gogh is the well-known example of someone whose art was not at all appreciated while he lived, and a number of other writers and composers never saw their work printed or performed while they were alive. As an artist you may have to suffer that indignity too. All you can hope for is that your heritage will live once you're gone.

130 pages into The Luminaries, and...

I'm a 130 pages into The Luminaries and am tossing up whether I want to spend another longish patch of my (reading) life on the rest of it. The character who opened the book has made no further appearance for getting on for a 100 pages, or so, and the character who took over from him, (Balfour) ostensibly telling his story with interruptions, somehow managed to tell a story long enough to last the entire night, and yet little real time passed.

At present two more characters have appeared, and are discussing yet another facet of the mystery that pervades the book, but I'm a bit lost as to what the mystery is actually all about because each new character adds another mystery to the original one, and I'm losing track of what belongs where. This would be okay, perhaps, if there was only another 100 pages to go, but at this rate I'll sink deep in the mire of mysteries without being able to make sense of a thing. Perseverance may help, I guess. I'm a bit concerned to read in one of the reviews that some of the mystery elements are left hanging loose by the end. That doesn't grab me, if I've waded through 800 pages, and find not enough explanation. Perhaps Catton is hoping I'll have forgotten about these loose ends by the end. I remember in the first of Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland St series that there was a very odd little patch where he seemed to be interested in a man walking around on the outside of a building (the details have grown a big vague), and the action seemed to be connected to one of the main characters. But then this aspect of the story was dropped completely, and never heard about again. No one mentioned it in passing even.

Then there's the astrological stuff, which apparently gives considerable structure to The Luminaries, and has been commended by some reviewers (I've been reading more reviews of the book today than the book itself, trying to see if it's worth continuing on). So far I haven't figured out how the astrological stuff makes any difference to the story as a whole, though one particular reviewer seemed to have it all worked out. (Don't ask me who...I'd have to go back and find it again.) The same reviewer lauded the idea that each successive section of the book should be half the size of the previous one, and while this may have something to say about the book as a whole I can't quite see that it adds anything to the story. When I was first trying to write novels I used to think it was great to have some such structure behind everything, either because someone else had done it, or because it proved my literary worth and would no doubt impress publishers. In fact these things usually got in the way of actually writing the book. Now Eleanor Catton may have much better motives for what she's done - being a much more intelligent writer than I am (she has to be: she's written a complex 830 page book for starters, something I couldn't conceive of attempting, and has invented epigrammatic sayings which give the appearance of deep thought about the human condition) - but I'm struggling a little to see the point. Maybe, again, if I persevere, I will.

Then there's the way in which she describes people's personalities, sometimes at length. (She describes a lot of things - clothes, rooms, the state of Hokitika - and describes them well.)  This works up to a point, but as many contemporary writers have found, characters tell us far more about themselves when they speak, and when they react to other characters, than when they're described. As soon as you start describing a character, not just their clothing and build, but their state of mind, I find I switch off - I want to discover the character for myself, and you have to have a very good reason to tell me lots of stuff about a character. If it's not immediately relative to the scene he or she is in, then I'll forget it before I've turned the page. This doesn't just apply to Catton's writing - it applies to any novelist who wants to give me a page of descriptive stuff before letting the character open their mouth. One of the reviewers says that as the book goes on, Catton describes less and less and gives us fewer and fewer of her epigrammatic statements about life. So perhaps I need to get through the first 360 pages before I'll discover a change of pace.

Some of the best writing in the book so far has been between Balfour and his politician friend, and then between Balfour and the clergyman. There's some cut and thrust at this point (still some epigrams and some descriptive interior stuff, but not quite so much), and at this stage it felt as though the book was moving forward. But other dialogues seem to falter, because we can't quite see the relevance. The dialogue between Balfour and the Maori, Tauwhare, seems included mainly to make a point about race relations, and however fascinating it may be, would Balfour really stand out in the pouring rain in order to have the conversation? Yes, it does add a bit of knowledge about the deceased person, Crosbie Wells, so maybe there's some point to it. I'm sure there's some point...

Well, I've kind of convinced myself to continue, and since somehow I managed to get a copy from the Library not that long after the book was published, perhaps I should make the effort.....

Update: I never finished this book. In fact I don't think I went back to it again, having better things to do with my life. The Book Editor of the Otago Daily Times, on the other hand, read the thing twice!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Inspector Montalbano

We've been watching the first episodes of the outstanding Italian TV series, Inspector Montalbano. When I say 'episodes' I'm actually referring to full-length TV movies; the episodes run to about 100 plus minutes each.

They're set in Sicily in the fictitious town of Vigata, and feature the blunt and muscular character of Montalbano, a man who admits that he's better at being in charge than deputizing, and who, in spite of his gruff exterior, has a solid emotional core. He runs his troop of underlings with an iron fist, although his lieutenant, Fazio (Peppino Mazzotta), knows that much of his behaviour is bluff. On the other hand, he's quick to complement those who do well - though the complement may be somewhat backhanded.  He has little time for superiors who don't do their job well, and is more likely to insult them as kowtow to them. He can interview a suspect to the point where the person finally gives way and reveals that they truly are the murderer, something Montalbano will have known all along. And he's not above bending the official rules in order to allow someone to go free who shouldn't get into further strife, or to investigate a person's apartment while the person is actually there (or even when they're not there!).

Luca Zingaretti was born to play the role it seems, and certainly he's spent a good few years at the sharp-witted detective, from 1999 to 2013, in some 26 stories. His longsuffering girlfriend, Livia, is played by Katharina Böhm, an Austrian actress. Though Böhm appears to speak the lines, she's in fact voiced by an Italian actress, Claudia Catani. They're supported by a marvellous cast of regulars and one-episode actors, and the production values are superb, the photography in particular.

We've got a 3-DVD set out of the library of the first episodes. I don't know whether there are more available but we'd be happy to watch them if there are, English (sometimes odd) subtitles and all. Subtitles mean you have to concentrate more than usual - especially at those times when the Italians are explaining at an express train speed, and the subtitles are barely keeping up with them.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Two more movies

We've watched a couple of old movies on DVD this last week: The Quiet American, and Billy Liar. I'm pretty sure I saw the second movie when it first came out, but it meant nothing to me when I saw it tonight, so perhaps I didn't.

The Quiet American has an immensely subtle performance from Michael Redgrave as a character we never really get to like much: he’s a whiner, and selfish, and uninvolved in what goes on around him. He has a sarcastic tongue (not entirely surprising, given that Audie Murphy, the American of the title, waltzes in and takes over Redgrave’s woman).

Audie Murphy is a bit flat in it, even some of the lines coming across as not being given much meaning.  It's an odd role anyway; he comes across, mostly, as a pretty good sort of fellow – though we never quite find out what it is he’s supposed to be doing to upset the Vietnamese so much, to the extent that they murder him. By all accounts, in the original Graham Greene book, he's a different kettle of fish, and the movie changed this and a number of other things. The dialogue in the movie is very good, courtesy Joseph Mankiewicz, but it's quite a static film in many ways, and full of mysteries that we never quite get to grips with. 

The other film, for me, hasn't fared too well over a period of time. One of the many naturalistic movies that came out in the sixties, such as Look Back in Anger and Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner, to name just two, it features an excellent cast, every one of whom is spot on...except Tom Courtenay. Courtenay's performance now seems very mannered, very over the top, especially since he's surrounded by a bunch of old actors (and some younger ones) who might well have stepped straight in off the streets of whatever unnamed Northern town they're supposed to inhabit. Certainly Billy is supposed to be a dreamer and a bit of a young man not really grown up, but apart from the brief moments when he angrily shoots people - in his imagination - his dreams are all too other-worldly to really be of use to him. And given the chance to go away with Julie Christie (you have to ask what she really sees in him and why she would want to marry him) he blows it at the last minute, and returns in preference to the safe world he's grown up in, where he can be angry at all the muttonheads around him while still dreaming his dreams - with himself at the centre. The ending is perhaps right for the character, and yet it's unsatisfying. He's such a selfish twerp you wonder why he doesn't actually take the chance to up and leave. 

Wilfred Pickles and Mona Washbourne are marvellous as his parents, Gwendolyn Watts and Helen Fraser are the two markedly different 'fiancees', and Leonard Rossiter and Rodney Bewes also appear. John Schlesinger was the director.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

You Can't Take It With You

Last night I watched - for the first time, I think - the 1938 movie, You Can't Take It With You. I've had a DVD of it for some time, but apparently have never got round to viewing it! Though it's based on the stage play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, it substantially changes a number of things, drops some characters, adds others, and in general makes a much more successful fist of things than if it had stuck to the layout of the original play.

A good deal of the original script survives, especially in terms of the main characters, but the snobbish and extremely wealthy Kirbys are given a much greater amount of screen time than they get on stage, and this adds strongly to the contrast between them and the eccentric Vanderhofs. In this version, Mr Kirby, a ruthless businessman, is about to take over entire blocks of the city in order to build a massive munitions factory.  In the process, a whole community will be torn apart. The only thing standing in his way is Mr Vanderhof, who refuses to sell his house - it's right in the middle of the proposed development. Apart from the romance between Kirby's son (James Stewart at his gawky best) and Vanderhof's granddaughter (Jean Arthur, not as dizzy as in some of her comedies) the film focuses on the contrast between Kirby and Vanderhof's philosophies of life: the latter is content to live with what he has, and to enjoy life; the former can only see life in terms of making money, and lots of it, yet he enjoys it not at all, and is told at one point he has stomach ulcers - though he claims it's merely indigestion.

The eccentric Vanderhof family look a little unlikely these days, and the idea of them just surviving on next to nothing, and welcoming others into their home to do the same, was probably somewhat improbable even when the film was made. However the point of their eccentricity is that they're not driven by ambition, or money, or any of the other things that give people emotional disease. Furthermore, in the film at least, they express a certain kind of Christian ease with the world, and it's notable that people flock around them (Vanderhof himself in particular) because there is a kind of charisma about them. Vanderhof even walks (or rather limps - he's sprained his foot) into a busy office and persuades an unhappy worker to give up his job and do what he really enjoys doing - making crazy toys.

Mr and Mrs Kirby live the life of wealth - he is full of greed and ambition and ruthlessness; his wife is a snob who's only hobby is spiritualism. This 'hobby' is trounced soundly by one of the Vanderhofs at a later stage of the movie as being nonsense.

It would be interesting to know how much input director Frank Capra had into the script. Though it's credited to Robert Riskin (who collaborated on several Capra movies), it seems as if Capra may have had a great deal to do with the structuring and characterization.  The film is full of typical Capra touches and scenes, the sorts of things that couldn't have been added at the last minute.  These include the hectic night court debacle with four attorneys turning up to defend the Kirbys (who've been arrested along with all the Vanderhofs), a host of reporters getting wind of the story, a crowd of the Vanderhofs' friends and neighbours - who at one point pass the hat around raucously to fund the Vanderhofs' fine - and the arguments and interactions between all the main characters. It's the kind of thing Capra revelled in, and did very well.  He seemed very capable of directing crowd scenes in which every person visible has a part to play, rather than just being in the background, and of bringing chaos to the screen without losing his audience.

The film is probably more Christian in tone than the play. Twice Vanderhof prays a grace before a meal, and on both occasions (addressing God as, 'Well, Sir') his prayer is simple and humble, showing a willingness to go along with the Lord's plans rather than his own. The parable of the wise man who built on a rock, and his opposite, the foolish man who built on sand, is brought to mind frequently, even though it's never overtly stated. There's a sense that everything happens according to a plan rather than randomly in spite of the chaos of the household, and there's a wonderful ease amongst the characters who live in the house - even though some of the things they do are basically pointless. Vanderhof's daughter (Spring Byington) spends her time typing plays - because a typewriter turned up one day.  Her own daughter, played by Ann Miller, spends her time dancing - yet she's not very good at it, and never will be. Her husband enjoys printing things, some of which are misinterpreted as revolutionary - he also plays the marimba, accompanying his wife at the drop of a hat. Byington's husband, and the iceman who arrived one day to deliver ice, and never went away again, spend their time in the basement making fireworks for the sheer pleasure of it. Two black servants seem as relaxed around the place as anyone. Though they're still servants, they have as much honour as anyone else.

Vanderhof is played by Lionel Barrymore, that bastion of many movies of the period, and member of a well-known theatrical family.  He was only sixty at the time - Samuel S Hinds, who plays his son-in-law, was two or three years older than him. Edward Arnold (who once supposedly said, in regard to not losing weight, "The bigger I got, the better character roles I received") is Mr Kirby, and he brings a great subtlety to the role, which may well have been expanded to fit his talents.  Incidentally, the theatrical poster pictured above must rank as one of the worst in terms of disfiguring the actors' faces. Most of them are unrecognizable.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Grimhilda! the ebook

Well, it's taken a lot longer than I intended, but the ebook of Grimhilda! is almost ready for publication. Just a few aspects still to be dealt with and then it'll be off to Amazon Kindle for them to do their bits of sorting out, and the book will make its way out into the wider world.

I had intended that the book would be ready last year, not long after the musical was presented, but it turned out that adapting a stage script and turning it into a novel was a bit more of a task than I'd imagined. The first draft was very close to the stage script in many ways, and I had to rethink things, expand my view and get away from what I'd been watching night after night on stage.

Then procrastinations set in, and delays caused by 'more important things' and so poor old Grimhilda! mark two went on the back-burner again. It's been her major failing in life.  She first turned up in the world over thirty years ago, and had a struggle to come to full term, as it were. Anyway, after many fits and starts she's just about there.

I just clicked on the #Grimhilda on Twitter, and was surprised to find that someone had sent this tweet back in November:
24 Nov
Con ganas de que sea maňana para volver al escenario ! ;

Unfortunately the instagram link no longer works, and the Spanish (I think it's Spanish) translates as something along these lines - according to one translation site:

Wanting to make the morning to return to the stage!
With the desire to be wholegrain to return to the scene !
With desire of which it is maňana to return to the stage!
I like the middle one best. Of course, it could be that I'm getting a Spanish site to translate Portuguese or some other variation of the tongue. 
@emarina14 supplied a photo - of herself, presumably - as Grimhilda (I guess!). I hope she won't mind me copying it here.  This is a more conventional witch than the one who appeared in our show - or is imagined in the book.

I don't think there's any connection with our musical/book, though it's intriguing to come across this all the same.  Here's a picture of our Grimhilda [Helen Wilson], as she appeared in the Dunedin production: 

I've just looked up that other hashtag #TeatroGuimera. Apparently this theatre is located in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands (Spain) is the oldest theater in the Canary Islands. So at least I was right about the language. Here's the theatre's own page.
Anyway, back to the book.  It'll be available - at least initially - for Amazon's Kindle, so you'll be able to read it on any of their devices, or on the iPad, or on most smartphones.  That should cover a few bases! 

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Seeking the truth

In the ODT a couple of days ago, Educationalist Jeff Smith is reported as urging graduates to 'seek the truth, but also to follow "your own path" and strive to help others.' 

But the headline quotes him as saying 'follow own path' to truth, which was what caught my eye.  Apparently Prof Smith gave the graduates the same advice he gives his own children, 'Beware of people who know the truth.' Which presumably includes Prof Smith, so he added, 'pay attention to his advice only "if it rings true for you."'

Ah, the old postmodern proverb, 'What's true for you isn't necessarily true for me.'  It's touted as a tolerance point of view, but as we know, if anyone crosses those who follow this line, it's soon obvious that what is true for them is the truth.

Prof Smith carries on: 'In this world, people will profess to own a little corner of the truth, and sometimes they will try to convince you that your own life will be better if you follow their path. But you've got your own path to follow. It may take a bit of clearing at times...trying to see just where the path is taking you.'

Okay, so firstly, people in this world (I'm not sure what other world Prof Smith has experience of) will profess to own a little corner of the truth. Hmm. Nope, people profess to owning the truth, not just a little bit of it. That's why there is conflict. As for following a path that you have to clear, I'm sure it's all a metaphor, but according to Prof Smith we have to see where this path takes us. Just a minute, who laid out the path that we have to hack our way along?

The report ends with him saying, 'Your graduation today does not mean you've found the light at the end of the tunnel. It means you've found the tunnel.' Sensible enough comment. But the last line in the report says, 'the truth was "way down there somewhere."  Um?  Sorry, where are we talking about exactly? I'm lost in metaphors here...

What Prof Smith is talking about, I think, is having a philosophy of life. That isn't necessarily the same thing as searching for truth.  And as far as I can see it, truth, if the word is to mean anything, is truth, not what I might think is the truth.  Either a thing is true or it isn't. Truth is one of those words that's entirely itself and not something else. Whatever isn't truth is not the truth. Anything that we don't know is truth is speculation about the truth.

Truth is an objective thing, outside me. We've so bamboozled ourselves in the last hundred years or so with ideas that might or might not be the truth, that we don't know what the word really means anymore.  As far as I can see, you can bang your head against the truth as much as you like and say your truth is what you make it, but at the end of the day, the truth is the truth.

In this world, gravity is a particular truth (its rules are different in other worlds, but they still hold true). The truth that is gravity in our world will make sure that you fall heavily if you fall, and the farther you fall the worse it will be for you.  You can jump off high buildings if you like, expecting to overcome gravity, but all that will do is get your name in the Darwin Awards (where there are plenty of examples of truth doing its thing).

The idea that we should beware of people who 'know' the truth is in part the cause of much of the problem with education these days. Children are told to query those in authority, with the result that they learn nothing that is true, and plenty that's only half-truths. Outside school, they challenge authority at every point, though most of them eventually learn the truth that what authority says goes, like it or not. They soon learn that in the real world truth means working a full day, being honest in your dealings and a bunch of other things adults take for granted - after a bit of experience. You can buck against these 'truths' but in the end they come back to bite you.

The graduates Prof Smith was talking to will discover this too, probably sooner than they'll discover what's down that path they're going to hack their way along. But they'll discover the truth more quickly if they listen to people who've already been around a while, ones who've thought about the truth for a few decades, and have managed to get a grip on it, rather than those who blithely say that what is true for you may not be true for me. Ignoring what people have already learned throughout history and trying to start from scratch is a very slow process, and a very long, dark tunnel.

An article detailing another address has appeared in the ODT since I wrote the above. Intriguingly, the speaker in this address, Sir Peter Gluckman, says that science by itself is not the answer.  I could name a number of people who think that science is the answer to everything, so it's good to see someone with the kudos of Sir Peter be forthright about this. 

One of his statements was paraphrased in this way: The processes of science were designed to develop 'relatively reliable knowledge about the natural, built and social worlds.' The only other sources of knowledge were ultimately those of 'belief or dogma' but science alone could not create policy decisions or in medicine or public health, he warned. And science itself was 'never complete.'

I think there may be an unnecessary 'or' between policy decisions and in medicine.

Click here

I remember being told some years ago now that to write click here in a blog post was really old hat, and rather amateurish, and that you should make the need for clicking more informative, more inviting, and less obvious.  Curiously enough, in spite of that advice, and its apparent authority, writers of blog posts and articles on the Net still use click here ubiquitously.  (Ubiquitously is one of my all-time favourite words, but it's not as popular on the Net as click here. Actually ubiquitous is far more popular than ubiquitously - but I digress, though before I do, how this for a sentence: When looked for with proper binding, the previously ubiquitous pentaquarks disappeared.)

This click here will take you to the full transcript of Joss Weldon's Equality Now speech. I'll let you discover now what equality he's discussing.  

This one is self-explanatory, as some click heres are(Click here to read the profile on Smashwords in Forbes Magazine).  This heads in the direction that the original 'authority' expected - the one I mentioned in the first paragraph.

You can Click here 2013-07-07 to listen to Nadia Bolz Weber's sermon on What a lousy idea it is for other people to be the source of our peace. Weber always has something edgy to say in her sermons.

And finally, here's a long introduction to a piece by Karl du Fresne, which ends with a definite click HERE:
Karl believes that the Australian ownership of most of our newspapers has significantly contributed to the decline, but he also blames the ‘feminisation’ of media content. “Before the feminist lynch mobs assemble, I should explain … it’s not female journalists I’m concerned about – far from it – but the creeping feminisation of newspaper content. By this I mean the increasing proportion of newspaper space devoted to ‘soft’ topics – fluffy human interest stories, gossipy items and lifestyle-oriented content better suited to women’s magazines. Some call it latté journalism. In metropolitan papers especially, café reviews and profiles of celebrity chefs, fashion designers, baristas and TV personalities have displaced investigative reporting and traditional ‘hard’ news about events and issues of importance.” To read Karl’s excellent analysis, click HERE.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


One of my favourite writers on weddings...she also produced pretty much the best book I've read on the process of writing...and I've read quite a few.

Everyone in the family was more joyful and excited and anxious as the wedding day approached. That's what's so touching about weddings: Two people fall in love, and decide to see if their love might stand up over time, if there might be enough grace and forgiveness and memory lapses to help the whole shebang hang together. Yet there is also much discomfort, and expense, and your hope is that on the big day, energy will run through the lightest elements and the heaviest, the brightest and the dullest, the funniest and the most annoying, and that the whole range will converge in a ring of celebration.

Anne Lamott in Plan B

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A near-zero waste lifestyle

Some weeks ago there was a report of a Dunedin woman who claimed to produce just a half a chip packet of household waste a month.  I find this hard to believe, unless she's keeping stuff that we would regard as waste (and if so, what's she doing with it?) or else she just doesn't buy anything that comes in a packet. 

I was thinking about this again today, and decided to make a list of the things that I couldn't recycle, or re-use (and believe me, we're pretty good at both recycling and re-using around here...and hoarding).  Here's today's list, which I don't think is necessarily indicative of what we throw out some days.

Sheet of baking paper used for cooking scones
Milk bottle lids
butter wrapper
part envelope with cellophane in it x 2
cellophane around The Warehouse advertising
foil package for soup
package of food flavouring
empty frozen pea package.
Okay, perhaps that's not a huge quantity of waste, but if I had a similar quantity each day I'd be hard pressed to get it all in a half a chip packet at the end of the month. 

Ann Dennison, who's become the 'Dunedin City Council's poster girl for waste minimisation,' doesn't buy bread in bags (we re-use ours to pick up our dog's poo when we're out walking).  She is 'a semi-vegetarian, [and] takes a jar with her when she gets fish from the supermarket and buys only tin or glass containers.' Okay, that's fair enough. So obviously she doesn't buy frozen vegetables (we usually keep some on hand for those days when we want a change from fresh ones); she doesn't drink soup from packets, or use flavouring that comes in packets. What does she do with the cellophane from window envelopes?  What happens to the paper that goes round the butter?  It's hardly in a state to be recycled. 

I'd be interested to know more, but the article is very short on details. There's a good deal about the philosophy behind her approach to waste, but not much about how she does it.

I think the hardest stuff to deal with is the packaging that comes round items like batteries, or electrical goods, or tools, or household appliances.  All of these are well and truly overpackaged, and very annoying to open, as well.  But none of these get a mention in the article. 

Photo courtesy of Phillip Jenkins

Friday, November 29, 2013


Ibanez RG8 review at Musicians Friend. Excuse the lack of an apostrophe in that previous sentence, but I'm just copying what someone else has given me, and the someone else obviously doesn't know about apostrophes...or doesn't care. They're obviously of the grammatical school that goes along with this line:
Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit when its not needed.
Talking of apostrophes, did you know that there's an ebook-selling company called, 'txtr The apostrophe is part of their title, weird and all as it seems. Apparently they're a German company originally, but there's even a branch that sells books with NZ prices applied to them. I'd never heard of them until just now...and I've no idea why they'd use the apostrophe in such an odd way.
I made a fuss in the first paragraph about the lack of an apostrophe, but it seems there's an ongoing push  to get rid of the thing entirely, partly on the basis that in speech we don't make any indication that we're using apostrophes at all. (Perhaps we should 'click' our tongues?) I remember writing a column about this years ago: it certainly makes reading more difficult, however, because certain words, such as cant have a different pronunciation when the apostrophe is removed - on the page - though context will usually tell you what word is intended. And the idea that the apostrophe is a waste of time isn't new.  Way back in 1902 George Bernard Shaw (who always considered himself a forward thinker in terms of spelling) wrote: "There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli." As forthright as Shaw's statement is, I'm not sure that apostrophes can really be classified as bacteria, and who would regard the use of apostrophes as a 'trick?'  There's an interesting article in Slate magazine giving some background to the ongoing debate about, and the history of, apostrophes. Seems they're not as longstanding a fixture of the English language as we thought.

Apostrophe, as a word, has often been used in a different sense entirely, one that we now consider archaic.  Here's Charles Spurgeon writing, and using its different meaning: "Thrusting, thou hast thrust at me." It is a vigorous apostrophe, in which the enemy is described as concentrating all his thrusting power into the thrusts which he gave to the man of God. According to one online dictionary, Spurgeon is using the word in this sense: The direct address of an absent or imaginary person or of a personified abstraction, especially as a digression in the course of a speech or composition. I've come across this usage regularly in Gilbert and Sullivan's operas, but here's another example of just such a usage, which was common in the 19th century: On finishing school at 16,in spite of a threat of disinheritance from her grandfather, a state senator, Antoinette joined her uncle's stock company, billed as "The youngest female star in America." When the company played New York in 1906, she [was]called "the sweetest, most piquant ingenue Broadway has seen for many long months." Her stage personality was "distinct," her acting "clever and winsome," and her beauty "such as the poets apostrophize."
Anyway, to get back to the contemporary meaning of apostrophe, here's an example of its complete misuse from the NZ Herald. This advertisement was the subject of much rubbishing on Twitter back on the 18th of August this year. 

Keen-eyed readers will note four incorrect uses of the apostrophe. There's also a word missing in the first sentence, a stylistic misuse of the number five, and, according to Vaughn Davis, @vaughndavis, one questionable sentence. I'm not sure which one he's referring to, however. 

Oh, for the days of proofreaders!  [Yeah, go on, I bet you can find a misuse of something in this post too!]

Slipping, sliding away

One of the things I dislike about getting old is losing elasticity. There's nothing much you can do about it; even spending all day at the gym won't stop muscles from becoming less springy and vital (I haven't actually tried this, but I suspect it's the case). Things just wear out, and you kinda have to get over it, I guess.

I remember seeing the fourth in the Indiana Jones series of movies - which was made much later than the others, at the time Harrison Ford was around 65 or 66 - and noting that when he was required to leap upwards from one crate to another, he plainly found it difficult. Why they didn't use a double I don't know, since he was seen from the back at that point, as I recall. But I sympathised with him not a little.

Recovering your balance is part of this issue. A while ago my wife and I (and the dog) went for a walk and found ourselves, somewhat by accident, walking alongside the railway track at Caversham. The path, such as it was, was fairly rough, overgrown and brambly. We decided, on hearing the train coming along the track, that it might be wise to move up the bank and away from the tracks. I headed up first, full of my usual youthful confidence, grabbed at a bush to haul myself up, missed my hold, tumbled backwards down the slope, with my head towards the tracks. It wasn't that I was in any danger of being run over, but it was embarrassing being seen sliding headfirst down an easily-climbed slope by a trainful of passengers. My wife was more concerned than I was; I hadn't actually done any damage to anything except my dignity.  It didn't help that I was trying to hold the dog's lead at the same time, and wasn't sure where he'd got to in the melee. 

What was painful to discover, however, was the fact that I just didn't have the means to avert the fall. In the past, once I'd lost my grip on the bush, I would have saved myself from falling by swivelling my body around, or doing some other adjusting manoeuvre [manoeuvre isn't a word I can ever spell easily]. That just didn't happen.

Yesterday, while I was out weeding the garden, I banged my head on one of the struts that support one of the two heat pump machines we've got outside. Why these struts have to stick out and catch unwary elderly people I don't know - it's not the first time I've been caught. Fortunately I had my hat on and that saved any really serious damage. I think.

The problem was that instead of reacting by stepping backwards without any problem - except that of saying Ouch or something equivalent - I toppled backwards, couldn't recover my balance, and fell into a gooseberry bush. Yup, a gooseberry bush, which obliged me by prickling me wherever it could. In the past I wouldn't have come into contact with the bush, and I wouldn't have yet again lost my sense of dignity (not that anyone else was around). But for some reason known only to my legs, they just gave up the fight and dropped me in a heap. Very unfriendly of them, though perhaps the fact that I've been running and walking on them for nearly 70 years has something to do with it.

One could offer the advice: don't grow old. However, like it or not, I have, and plainly I'm going to have to work out ways to avoid sliding, falling, banging my head or otherwise damaging myself. May take a bit of effort.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


The musical instrument we know as the didgeridoo has enough alternate names to keep you thumbing through your musical dictionary for days. I think my favourite is the almost unpronounceable ngarrriralkpwina - unpronounceable by me, of course, and others of my ilk who don't speak any Aboriginal tongue, least of all that of the people of Anindilyakwa.

Another interesting point about the didgeridoo is that there is a considerable gender-bias in relation to it. In some parts of Australia Aboriginal women are not allowed to play it, but this doesn't apply to all Aboriginal people, and hasn't always been the case in the places where it's now frowned on.  Some Aboriginal men are disturbed by non-Aboriginal women playing the instrument, but again this seems to be not a universal rule.

Most of us will remember that the now-maligned Rolf Harris played the instrument, and popularised it to a great extent, but he's by no means the only non-Aboriginal to do so. Seemingly trombonists, especially jazz trombonists, make good didgeridoo players.

Another intriguing facet of the didgeridoo's history is that it's been used as a means to help people who have trouble breathing while sleeping, and who tend to snore loudly. The breath control required to play the didgeridoo is such that it strengthens the air passages.

So there you go. The things you find out on a Thursday morning.....

Photo courtesy of the Swagbucks blog.


My wife and I were babysitting our three Christchurch grandchildren over the last weekend (with a day or two on either side), and on Tuesday we returned to Dunedin.  Not having had lunch, we stopped in Temuka, a little town we usually bypass. Apart from having visited the Temuka Potteries in the past, I don't know that we've ever stopped there before. Anyway we made our sandwiches and munched them while standing next to the car in a side street. My wife was keen to go and have a look at the op shops, but only one of them was open. However, before we got that far, we came across an antiques shop - spread over two frontages - and in the window was a painting.


The painting was of a saxophonist, and its official title is Blowing in the Wind. The artist, Colin Higgins, was in the back of the shop; he was just on his way next door to his gallery-cum-workshop which is at the back of the second shop, through a 'library' of books (administered, apparently, by one of my old customers from OC Books days, though I didn't see him there).  Hopefully you're still with me...

Anyway, we had both been smitten by this painting, something that's unusual - I mean for both of us to be equally taken by an artwork. We asked the price. He named it, but said he was happy to negotiate. We said we'd have a think about it, and wandered around the shop checking out stuff: some pre-loved Temuka pottery, some other new pieces by a local potter and other items typical of an antique shop. But we couldn't concentrate on any of this: the painting kept working its way around in our heads.

We strolled next door, into the other shop. Wandered through into the library part, and then into Higgins' gallery. Unlike some painters, he doesn't seem to stay with one particular style or focus. Some of the paintings are surreal, along the lines of Dali; some are satirical, almost like a cartoon; some are more in the line of sketches (and there were quite a few actual drawings as well as paintings); and there were various other pieces.  I find it a bit of a mystery when an artist sticks obsessively to a subject: Ewan Mcdougall, for instance, always paints clownish stick figures in garish reds, greens and yellows. Always. Karl Maughan (whom I used to always think was surnamed Maugham) paints gardens full of rhododendrons.  They're lovely, but that's seemingly his sole focus. Higgins is rather more eclectic in subject matter, as these examples show, and as I've indicated.

The saxophonist continued to keep on drawing us back. Neither of us could put our finger on what it was that was special about him: perhaps it was the look of pure heaven on his face; perhaps it was the face itself - not particularly handsome, just ordinary, but fully at home with itself. The pinstripe suit was intriguing, as were the pink tie and handkerchief - there's an incongruity about them, being out in the open air. The blowing trees were reminiscent of those seen in other paintings, where the wind has blown so severely for so long that the trees are virtually horizontal.

Finally, my wife and I checked out with each other what we thought we could manage to pay...if we bought the painting. Whatever we paid would be pure indulgence; we very rarely buy paintings at the drop of a hat, though we have some original art on our walls. We suggested a price to the artist. The artist negotiated with himself - more than with us, I think - and agreed. Deal done. Just like that. He wrapped up the painting, we made room for it in the car and everyone was happy. Well, we certainly were.

Anyway, here's the saxophonist. Isn't he great?  (I hope my photograph has done him justice.)

I think he has a companion: the violinist seen on the page I mentioned earlier - scroll down until you find her - is also out in the wind, her hair even wilder than the saxophonist's, and she's also intent upon her playing to the extent that she's seemingly not aware of anything but the music.  Hopefully she's also found a home where she'll be happy....

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Faith in fiction revived

I was given Alexander McCall Smith's latest book, Trains and Lovers, to review a few days ago.  I'm a great AMS fan, but not of everything he's written. And unfortunately this book just doesn't cut the mustard. The review will be out in the Otago Daily Times soonish, so you can read what I thought then.

After that disappointment it was great, by happenstance, to pick up Anne Tyler's most recent novel, The Beginner's Goodbye at the Library yesterday. I finished it tonight. (It's just under 200 pages, but this was the hardcover version, making it easier to read.)

What a contrast! Where AMS writes a story that skims the surface, Tyler gives us characters with depth, and the humour is a delight too. The only book of Tyler's that I've read, I think, is The Accidental Tourist, which I really enjoyed. I have a funny feeling there was another one, but I can't remember anything about it, and am not even sure if I finished it. I also think it might have put me off reading any more of her books, which is a pity.

Tyler's story is about grief - the narrator's wife has died recently, and the book is essentially about him learning to move on again. It's a slow process, and the book could have been very gloomy. Instead, Tyler manages to write in such a way that we're fully involved with the narrator, and even though at times he's a bit of a prig, we still empathize with him, and not just because his wife has been killed in a rather odd accident.

There's a great deal of humour and warmth in the book, a delight in life even in the midst of a tragedy, and the very strange 'fact' that the narrator's wife suddenly starts appearing again after she's been dead for a year. Tyler can draw a character in a few words (AMS's characters, in his latest book, are scarcely drawn at all), and she can also keep on adding layers to characters we thought we'd got to grips with.

The story seems to meander, yet every step in the story is in its right place, and everything works together to form a pleasing whole. It's quite revived my faith in fiction!  :)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My experience of reading P T Forsyth

I attended a quadruple book launch tonight at Knox College, having been asked to say a few words on the experience of reading P T Forsyth, who is the subject of two of the books, both by Jason Goroncy. (Kevin Ward is the author of the other two books.) 

I felt a bit ill at ease amongst a bunch of academics, and having decided to speak without reading from notes, since I assumed that the other speakers would also do so, was surprised to find that all five of them used notes extensively, even though all of them are University level teachers. Well, there had to be an odd man out somewhere.

Anyway, it was never intended to be a long speech, and it wasn't. In fact, I probably missed out some things I intended to say, and muddied the ones I did say. Never mind. I don't claim to be good at speaking in public - I thought of trying to act the role of myself as a public speaker, but I'm not sure that I got there. This post then, is an attempt to tidy up what I really would have liked to say.

So...P T Forsyth - the emphasis, I think, is on the second syllable: For-syth. (Much more Scottish that way.) I'd never heard of Forsyth until a couple of years ago, perhaps, and even then only came across him on Jason Goroncy's blog, where he now has his own subject heading. At first I got the impression that he was some old fogey of a theologian that Jason had cottoned onto; I didn't realise at that point that Jason had two books in the pipeline focusing on Forsyth, and more than that, had done his thesis on him, and more than that still, was virtually one of the world's experts on him. Read his first book on Forsyth, called Hallowed be Thy Name, and you'll see what I mean. Jason has a breadth of understanding of both the man and his theology that's occasionally mind-blowing. Well, actually mind-blowing most of the time.

Anyway, I kept noticing references to Forsyth on Jason's blog, and occasionally read a quote from Forsyth that was included in a post. And then there was more and more about the man - mainly because Jason's book was coming closer and closer to being published, and he was doing a good deal of promotion for it - naturally. But I still didn't take much notice of Forsyth himself, or of what he'd written. The first time I actually copied anything from Jason's blog (onto Evernote, my clippings 'file') was in July this year, when he wrote about the second of his two Forsyth books: Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History: notes from the pulpit ministry of P T Forsyth.  Something in that post clicked with me, and I began to sit up and take notice of the old theologian. (Not Goroncy, Forsyth.)

Then, two or three months ago, I was trying to work out a better theology of the atonement - not by myself, but in relation to arguments that had surfaced twice on the Net in regard to it over a couple of weeks. I spoke to Jason about it and he suggested having coffee and talking, and when we did he handed me a copy of Forsyth's The Work of Christ, and suggested I read it. I took it away, and did read it - some of it twice (and because of the nature of Forsyth's style, some of it more than twice; I'll explain why in a minute).

It was exactly what I needed. It wasn't as if Forsyth was coming up with a completely new theology of the atonement - there's no such thing, really - but he brought such clarity and such a personal viewpoint to what he had to say that it was as if I was getting hold of it for the first time, and in a way that was immensely satisfying to my miniscule theological brain. He also clarified the whole aspect of God's holiness - something that's exceedingly important to him - and the place of Christ in the whole business - another one of his great themes. In doing so it helped open up for me a different way of thinking about Christ, something that I've also needed to do for many years.

Forsyth isn't an easy writer to read (though Jason says that the more you read him the easier it gets). I can't quite put my finger on the reason for this, but I wonder if it isn't partly the fact that he's Scottish. I have the same problem with George MacDonald, another Scottish writer. Both of them use the English language in a way that's slightly odd. It's something about the sentence construction, I think, rather than the words they use, because these are straightforward enough in general. MacDonald is perhaps more difficult than Forsyth; some of his sentences verge on unintelligibility as he leaps from thought to thought. Both he and Forsyth seem almost to turn the sentences inside out, put things back to front from your normal expectation. It's impossible to describe, but no doubt someone more able than yours truly could do it.

However, I worked hard at reading The Work of Christ. Fortunately Jason gave me a copy rather than lending me one; it's now littered with markings. I wrote notes on some sections as I read them, and even though it felt at the time as though I wasn't grasping what he had to say, it seems that I did. He's obviously a better teacher than I suspected. The way he hammers home a point works; he revolves around and around it until he's sunk it in. As I think about other theology in the course of my normal reading/writing, I find Forsyth's name keeps coming to mind, and what he said about matters.

And while I was reading The Work of Christ I also began to read Jason's first book, Hallowed be Thy Name. This is quite hard work too - for me. I'm not incapable of reading theology, and taking in theological terms, but it makes my brain ache a bit at times. Still reading the two books in tandem meant that I was cross-referencing Forsyth's thinking, and this was immensely helpful.  Of course Jason's book is about much more than the Forsyth's view of the atonement, but everything in his book connects, so that you begin to feel you're getting to know how Forsyth looks at things. I've got a long way to go yet, but it's an interesting journey.

Forsyth doesn't like to give concrete examples; you might almost say he writes at a kind of abstract level. Some things, which are probably unexplainable, he doesn't trouble himself to explain. At least not in The Work of Christ. I'm the kind of reader who needs some 'pictures' to get a hold of, some stories to back up the theology. As far as I can remember there's only one story in the whole of The Work, and it's a vivid one about a railway worker who saves two trains from colliding by lying down between the tracks and manually working the switch, when the lever that should do the job has jammed. But having used that story, Forsyth then proclaims, pretty much, that it doesn't suffice for what he's trying to say.  And he's right. But for the kind of reader I am, it's a help in terms of feeling as though there was something to hold onto in the book.  (Incidentally, he also says at one point that if you haven't bothered to do some philosophy then it won't be surprising that you don't understand theology.  I thought this was just a little sniffy of him, but I jotted a note on the page about it, and carried on reading.)

Theological writers in general, I guess, don't tend to make connections with the down-to-earth. That's perhaps not their job, but it may also explain why I've found some of them very hard work. Newbigin, whose book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, I re-read this year, is an exception; he beds his theology in the real world in a way Forsyth doesn't appear to do. However, I may be being unjust to Forsyth. At least, while he sometimes appears to use some words in a different way to the rest of us (which may be a result of his philosophical training), he doesn't change their meaning entirely. I remember reading a small amount of a book by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and being astonished by the cavalier approach she seemed to take to the English language. Words changed meaning at the drop of a hat, as far as I could tell. 

Forsyth is consistent in his use of language, at least. You just have to work out why he's using a particular word ('moral' was one I kept tripping over) in such a way. Once you've got hold of that, you can keep moving forward. 

Well, this was intended as a kind of statement of what I would have said if I'd had plenty of time at the Book Launch, and had brought notes with me that were clearly written out. So if you were at all bamboozled by my speech earlier, hopefully this will help make more sense of it.