Revolution and Romance

The BBC does a fantastic job bringing culture to the ordinary TV viewer,  from Mary Beard’s wacky-trainer-wearing tour of Ultimate Rome, the Empire Without Limit recently shown on BBC2 to Waldemar Januszczak’s zany tour of the art of The Dark Ages: An Age of Light on BBC4.  Their most recent offering, Revolution and Romance: Musical Masters of the 19th Century  (BBC 4 Tuesday 9pm) features Radio 3 presenter and writer Suzy Klein whose infectious enthusiasm brings this period of change in music history vibrantly alive.  The first episode (broadcast on 31st May) ‘We Can Be Heroes’ can be watched on BBC iplayer.  It’s a feast of well-written commentary, beautiful photography, quality recording and engaging analysis.


Ludvig van Beethoven Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1820

Klein takes us back 200 years to the dawn of the 19th Century when musicians were no longer confined to the concert hall but ‘burst out onto the public stage’ becoming influential in both politics and revolution and earning the equivalent of one of today’s celebrity footballers.  The revolution in thinking and imagination known as Romanticism followed in the wake of the French Revolution and out of this period emerged composers like Verdi, Wagner, Rossini, Liszt, Mahler and Debussy.  The series explores the transformation that took place in the musical world during this century and how and why musicians became national heroes and remain so to this day.  In Klein’s words, ‘Music exploded into life and life exploded into music.’

The Enlightenment order and logic of 18th Century was replaced by an anti-authoritarian chaotic spirit of genius and madness.  The heroic genius of the individual.  We’re told how tens of thousands grieved at Beethoven’s funeral, how musical soirees were born inspired by the music and songs of Schubert, how the lines of art and life were blurred in the works of Berlioz and how the artist and his innermost thoughts and feelings became the focus of musical innovation. We are entertained with anecdotes about Paganini who was thought to have murdered his wife and used her intestines as violin strings; of Rossini who was immortalised in a steak, brioche and fois gras dish,  and of the strivings of Schumann to eschew celebrity whilst married to a virtuoso pianist.

Most memorable is the account of how ‘Lisztmania’ ravaged Vienna in the 1840s as women went crazy for the handsome pianist stealing his used wine glasses and cigar butts.  Klein describes the ‘insatiable public hunger’ for Liszt who was surrounded by fans whilst transported in carriages drawn by white horses.  Wanting to make his imprint on human history, however, he turned his back on celebrity and focussed on his legacy producing what Klein considers his greatest work, the futuristic and atonal Faust Symphony.

Fittingly, Episode 1 ends at the memorials of these greats which stand in Vienna’s cemetery built in 1863.  Here Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss are ‘monumentalised for eternity’ – heroes of their age.

What struck me whilst watching Klein’s documentary was the perennial tendency of mankind to misplace his worship. We are all drawn to adoration of something or someone whether or not we are aware of it.  We worship talent, looks, confidence, success, power, money and those who possess them, that is if we’re not already worshipping ourselves.  When faced with outstanding artistic or musical talent, it is tempting to succumb to envy, idolatry or even depression.  I’ve been guilty of falling into all of these pits at various times forgetting to give thanks and glory to the God who gave the gifts in the first place, who fashioned such beings in the wombs of their mothers and gave them and their gifts to us to enjoy.

This is the discipline of Christian art appreciation at its most basic level.  Engage with the work, marvel at the artistic skill and merit but then look beyond it to the One who created these artists, who never dies and whose surpassing beauty is only dimly seen and heard in their greatest compositions.  Those who attain heroic status in this world do so only for the shortest time.

‘All men are like grass and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall but the word of the Lord last forever.’  Isaiah 40:8



Blogging – One Year On

Roquesreviews reached its first anniversary last week.  On 25 May 2015 my first book review appeared and now here I am a year on, 26 posts later, reflecting on how it’s going.

26 posts doesn’t sound very impressive, does it?  That’s an average of two a month which, given that the posts are mostly book reviews, is reasonable.  Not a complete disgrace anyway.  But is anyone actually enjoying the blog?  Social Media has been my main source of  readers but to be honest, though there have been a good number of visits and views, the likes can be counted on two hands and that’s pretty dispiriting.  Is there some coffee I need to wake up and smell here?

Cup of coffee

Reluctant to quit,  I’ve been doing some research. I recently stumbled upon WordPress’ ‘Blogging Fundamentals’ course which advises posting answers to various questions whether you’re new to blogging or have been at it for a while.  Today I’m focussing on this one:

Why are you blogging publicly instead of keeping a diary?

  • Predisposition
    The main reason is that I love writing.   Secondly,  I love reading.  The third reason is that I’m a Christian and I want to serve God with these two passions.  So I review the books that have touched my heart and mind in the hope that you might read them too and be encouraged and stimulated whether you share the Christian faith or not.  I keep a diary too as it happens (and have done since the age of 11) but the diary cannot by definition be a blessing to another.   It’s private.  And I want to bless others with my writing not store it up for myself.
  • Inspiration
    I was a late starter when it comes to literature.  It wasn’t until my ‘A’ levels that I really got going and became an avid reader.  Up until then I’d existed mostly on a diet of ‘Malory Towers’ and ‘Flambards’.  Then two English teachers and a friend studying art history, in their very different ways, inspired me.  I discovered Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera, Iris Murdoch, Jean Rees, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster – the list goes on and on and despite a rejection from Oxford University I went on to study English at St Andrews… and read on.  I enjoyed writing about the books I was reading and have kept records ever since.
  • Conviction
    In the last couple of years I’ve been learning how the Lord can use literature (and the arts more generally) in the life of a believer to his/her own, and others’ encouragement.    Novels, music, paintings and films are not the big bad distraction from the Gospel that I’d always feared but are part of what is sometimes called ‘Common Grace’.  (I’m not talking about ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ here).  What I really want to do by writing this blog is to bless others, Christian or not, by sharing my thoughts on books (and the occasional painting or other art form) and how they have helped me understand and love Jesus more.

My prayer is that you will be helped or encouraged by what you find here.  It will then all be worth while.


‘Words, words, words!’

It’s easy to get into trouble these days, especially for what you say.  Political correctness has gone frankly bonkers to the point that if you believe that something is right or wrong you’d better not say it or you’ll get labelled  with the ‘f’ word – ‘fundamentalist’ and ostracised accordingly.

One of the things that you really can’t say any more without making people nervous is that, the Bible, that great work of 66 books of historic narrative, wisdom, letters, poetry and prophecy, is inspired.  By God.

The word ‘inspired’ is in itself inoffensive.  We’re happy to use it to praise a person’s writing or affirm his or her ideas but say that another work of literature, the Bible, is inspired, and by God to boot, and we get very jumpy and nervous.  I suppose we just don’t like what it says.

The verbal inspiration of Scripture is a doctrine I struggled with for a long time, partly because I somehow got the idea that if the Bible was the most important book in the world then I shouldn’t spend any more time reading other books, which, for a book addict was a real problem.  I’ve got over that now.

Strangely, help with this verbal inspiration thing came from the world of art – another closet passion.  The following works of art illustrate the doctrine and also shed light on its truth.


Caravaggio St Matthew and the Angel

This is a painting by Caravaggio, called St Matthew and the Angel which dates around 1602. I love how humble the gospel writer, Matthew, is here in this painting, needing the Spirit to move his very hand. I think the artist found it easier to paint an angel than the Holy Spirit but the point is clear! God is inspiring the words Matthew writes.


Caravaggio The Inspiration of St Matthew

This is another by Caravaggio entitled, The Inspiration of St Matthew.  Here he comes across as more confident with his pen poised in his left hand but no less attentive to God’s voice as he turns his ear to what the Spirit is saying. There’s a sense of urgency in his writing. He hasn’t even taken the trouble to sit down properly on his stool so eager is he to get God’s words down on paper.

2 Timothy 3:16 puts it like this: ‘All Scripture is God-breathed’ literally breathed out by God and 2 Peter 1:20 and 21 makes the same point:

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Peter is saying that the writers of Scripture, referred to here as ‘prophets’ which included all the Old Testament prophets, didn’t make up what they wrote themselves. ‘Prophecy never had its origin in the human will.’ Rather, God was the initiating author, speaking through what the men were writing. ‘They spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’.

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Tending your spiritual garden

cbc52efbd7712e8683433bef588aab46It’s summer time. The strawberries are ripening and thrush and robin barge the queue for the cherries on the trees.  In their abundance these seeded delights seem to call out ‘Are you bearing fruit too?’  echoing Christ’s words to his disciples in John 15.  ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.’

A plant, if it is to thrive needs to grow its roots deep into the nutrient rich soil in which it has been planted. And that soil will nourish and strengthen it to become the fully blossomed beauty that it was meant by God to become.   The man or woman of faith is like the plant.  As a plant yearns for water, minerals, oxygen, light and sugar, we, in our right mind, yearn for the Word and Spirit of God.  And as a plant yields its fruit in season, we can hope to live out lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control as our Father does His gardening.

A newly planted dwarf cherry tree requires a surprising amount of water each day to keep it growing.  Great care was taken when we planted ours that a suitably deep hole was dug, that it was wide enough for the roots to arrange themselves comfortably and that the soil was the best we could afford.  It was then lovingly watered and we hired someone to continue the job while we were away.  The result?  Cherries.  Lots and lots of big, beautiful, fat, juicy cherries.

My bible sits on my kitchen table daily but I don’t take care nearly as much as I could to ensure that my plant, the life I’ve been given, is daily nurtured and saturated in its riches.  So it is no surprise that irritability and impatience are more in evidence than the fruit that God desires.    If I am to grow, I cannot afford this summer to neglect my spiritual garden; and I can’t hire anyone to do the job for me either.

The believer will not grow by roaming around looking for his food as an animal does.  Our food is always right in front of us, found in exactly the same place every mealtime. ‘So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.’  Colossians 2:6

So as I prepare for a feast of summer reading, I hope I’ll be wise enough to keep feeding on His Word.

‘Out of the ordinary every day’

Eric Ravilious
An Exhibition at The Dulwich Picture Gallery

Eric  Ravilious, (‘tweed clad, fair-haired and hesitant in speech’) was a lesser known British artist and designer whose short life (1903 to 1942) ended aged 39 on active service during the height of the Second World War.     Ravilious joined the Royal Navy as one of the first Official War Artists during which time his watercolour technique blossomed.  I came across his work for the first time during a recent visit to The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London where an exhibition of his watercolours was in full swing. A previous exhibition in 2003 at the Imperial War Museum was a turning point in appreciation of the artist.

The Waterwheel

The Waterwheel

His life and works are covered in a beautifully produced catalogue of the current exhibition.  (It runs until the end of August 2015).  Written by James Russell who has already published works on Ravilious, we learn about his background, his brief career and his relationships with fellow war artists such as  Paul Nash with whose style Ravilious has much in common.

Dangerous Work at Low Tide

Dangerous Work at Low Tide

Previously known for his book illustrations, wood engravings,  murals and his designs for Wedgwood ceramics he is now attracting attention with his depictions of the more tangential activities of war and his nostalgic portrayals of an England that the war changed for ever.

The Causeway, Wiltshire Downs

The Causeway, Wiltshire Downs

In an article in The Observer on 14 May 1939, journalist Jan Gordon commented that each work ‘appear[ed] as something magic, almost mystic, distilled out of the ordinary every day.’  His ability to perceive the beauty and significance of individual moments in time is hinted at in a remark made by art critic and writer John Rothenstein.  ‘From time to time he would smile as though at something distant.’

In Eric Ravilious we find an example of how the artist perceives beauty in the seemingly mundane.  This is a gift but it is also a discipline.  The discipline of ‘standing and staring’  instead of rushing about so ‘full of care’ that we miss the visual delights laid before us.

Train Landscape

Train Landscape

In the 1940 watercolour Train Landscape there is one such example how Ravilious notices his surroundings with an almost ‘mindful’ immediacy, an achievement in itself given that the view from the window could have been missed in a moment.  The fabric of the seats is vivid enough to feel as is the leather window strap and the wooden panelling.  Outside the window the chalk figure of the white horse is almost lost from view before the rest of the wintry English landscape fills the carriage windows.  How often do I barely notice my surroundings preoccupied with the invasive lens of distracted thoughts?  A painting like this one makes me envious of the beauty that Ravilious could find in such an un-astonishing scene.  He seems to be inviting us to wake up and notice the beauty of the ordinary that surrounds us.

This beauty that Ravilious perceived and shares with us points to a greater and more perfect reality, one unmarred by the horrors of war or damaged by change.  The beauty of heaven.  Might it be that artists are experiencing a longing for this perfection whether consciously or unconsciously?

C.S. Lewis speaks powerfully of the desires that such beauty stirs in us in his essay The Weight of Glory:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located
will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.
These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.
For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
I think this is why I always feel so full of ache after leaving such exhibitions.  The longing for heaven has been stirred again, if I could only recognise it.   What I need to do is to remember not to fall into the trap of worshipping what I’ve just experienced but to remember that it is not the thing itself; only ‘news from a country’ I have yet to inhabit.

A Portrait of Nina Hamnett, The Courtauld Gallery, London


Roger Fry (1866-1934)

This painting caught my eye on a recent visit to The Courtauld Gallery.  I was drawn by the elegance of this serious and intelligent looking person.  With her dated roll neck sweater and a-line skirt sporting what would today be considered a ‘bad’ hair cut, she nevertheless carried a beauty despite the almost skeletal bone structure of her cheekbones and wrists and the self-protective posture. Born in Wales in 1890, a Bohemian artist and writer, Nina Hamnett was not exactly what you’d call an example of godliness.  She was a flamboyantly unconventional, sexually liberal divorcee who suffered from alcoholism and died after falling out of her apartment window and being impaled on the railings below.  Her last words are said to have been: ‘Why don’t they let me die?’ To discover that this woman endured such a painful life makes the portrait that much more moving.   But what is it that makes it beautiful?  Might it be that Nina Hamnett was, as the bible puts it,  made in the image of God; was ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ and was one of the Creator’s ‘wonderful works’ (Psalm 139)? Perhaps this is what Roger Fry has unwittingly captured in this portrait.   How much more does God see in us the potential for beauty that lies behind our brokenness and shame.  How might our portrait appear the hands of the Divine Artist?

‘The most reluctant convert in all England’

999999C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
by Alistair McGrath

Reviews of this most recent biography of C S Lewis published early in 2013 abound, so why bother reading another? Because this is not a review in the typical sense but rather an overview, such as one might share with a friend, accompanied by some personal comments on how  the book impacted my own thinking.

Given that Alistair McGrath is at times critical of A.N.Wilson’s own 1990 biography of C.S. Lewis, it is striking that the front cover of the new edition includes this deferential comment from the earlier biographer: ‘There have been plenty of biographies of Lewis…but I do not think there has been a better one than Alistair McGrath’s.’  What humility!  I’ve not read A N Wilson’s biography but I wholeheartedly agree with his verdict on McGrath’s.

Tim Keller is also spot on when he says that the book is ‘filled with information based on extensive scholarship but is nonetheless extremely readable’.  It is exactly that.  In fact, I could hardly put it down.  But this was perhaps due to the fact that in this biography, I finally found that the two worlds that I love, literature and Christianity could be happily reconciled instead of fighting with one another as they have done in my mind since my own reluctant conversion at university. Continue reading