Where we are‎ > ‎

South Africa


10 November 2009

Vespers and Slava


St Nicholas Church just before the beginning of Vespers

On Saturday evening we celebrated Vespers at the Church of St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton, Johannesburg, followed by our family Slava.

Unfortunately our parish priest, Fr Athanasius Akunda, was not able to be present, as he bhad to attend a meeting in Nigeria, and his connecting flight could not get him back in time. But Fr Pantelejmon Jovanovic, of St Thomas’s Serbian Orthodox Church in Sunninghill kindly agreed to come to serve Vespers and the Slava, assisted by Deacons Nektarius and George.


At Vespers, during the singing of Psalm 103/104, the priest says the Vesperal prayers in front of the holy doors

The choir then sing Psalm 140

Lord I call upon Thee, hear me
Hear me O Lord…
Let my prayer arise in thy sight as incense
and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.

While this is being sung one of the deacons censes the church.

Then there is the entrance procession with the lighting of the lamps, with the clergy and altar servers goign round the church in procession, carrying lighted candles, and the ikons are censed, and the deacon censes the altar


The entrance at Vespers: Deacon Stephen Hayes, Deacon George Coconos, Priest Pantelejmon Jovanovic, Deacon Nektarius Ritson

while the choir sings the ancient hymn:

O gladsome light of the holy glory of the immortal Father
heavenly holy blessed Jesus Christ
Now that we have come to the setting of the sun
and behld the light of evening
we praise thee Father, Son and Holy Spirit
For meet it is at all times to praise thee
Son of God and giver of life
Therefore all the world doth glorify thee.


St Nicholas Church Choir

At the end of Vespers the priest (Father Pantelejmon) gives the blessing


Father Pantelejmon gives the blessing at the end of Vespers

The clergy come into the nave of the church, where a table is set up with things for the Slava and the family members gather round.



The clergy come to a table in the nave, where things are set out for the Slava

On the table is the ikon of the saint of the day. in this case St Michael and the Bodiless powers of Heaven. This is the day on which we were received into the Orthodox Church 22 years ago, and so we observe this as our Slava.


The table prepared for the Slava

On the right of the table is the Slava Kolach, a special loaf of bread to commemorate the living members of the family. On the left is Koliva, the main ingredient of which is boiled wheat, to remember the dead members of the family. There is a small jug with wine.


The priest blesses the Slava Kolach

The priest blesses the Slava Kolach, and then cuts it at the bottom, crosswive, and  pours wine into the cracks. Then the family, together with the priest and deacons, turn the bread, “walking” it on their fingers, while the choir sings the wedding hymn:

O holy martyrs who fought the good fight and have received your crowns
Entreat ye the Lord, that he will have mercy on our souls.
Glory to thee, O Christ God, the apostles boast, the martyrs’ joy
whose preaching was the consubstantial Trinity.

Rejoice O Isaiah, a virgin is with child
and shall bear a son Emmanuel
He is both God and man, and Orient is his name
Magnifying him, we call the Virgin blessed.

When this hymn is finished, the priest breaks the Kolach with the host, matching the halves so the top sides of the Kolach are on the outside. He then kisses the bread and offers it to the celebrants saying:

Priest: Christ is in our midst!
People: He is and always shall be.


The blessing of the Slava Kolach

At the end we sang “Many Years” for the family, and all those who had the names of angels — our son Raphael (Jethro), who took the photos, and members of the congregation Gabriel and Gabriella.

9 November 2009

Tshwane Peace Group

On Friday evening Val and I went along to a meeting we had been invited to. We had little idea what to expect, except that the speakers would be conscientious objectors from Israel, and someone who had been involved in the civil wars in the DRC.

It was a very informal gathering, and the Congolese speaker did not turn up, but was replaced by Cori Wielenga, who spoke about her experiences doing peace education in Rwanda following the genocide there 15 years ago. And a guy called Yuval spoke of his experiences as a conscientious objector in Israel. He said that there were many conscientious objectors who refused to fight in the occupied territories of Palestine. What he said sounded like a rerun of South Africa during the 1980s, when the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) started 25 years ago. Yuval had been tried before a military court and sent to prison three times. The conscientious objectors there call themselves Shministim, which refers to the highest class in high school, because on leaving school they are conscripted into the Israeli army. You can read more about the Shministim (including Yuval) here.

Some people at the meeting had been involved in the ECC, and had refused military service at that time, and recalled their own experiences of those days, and the similarities with the current situation in Israel.

It was a very interesting evening, and we found we knew some of the people there, so it was good to catch up with old friends. We also agreed to keep in touch, and to arrange future meetings. We have established an electronic contact point for the Tshwane Peace Group (which we called it for want of a better name), and anyone living in or around Tshwane who is concerned about peace is welcome to join in (for anyone who doesn’t know, Tshwane is a new megacity, formed in 2000, that covers most of northern Gauteng, which incorporated 13 former local authorities, the biggest of which were Pretoria, Centurion and Akasia/Soshanguve).

One of the things I recalled, while we were reminiscing about the bad old days of the “total onslaught”, was that 30 years ago I had a look at a war memorial in the churchyard of St Peter’s Anglican Church, Vryheid, in northern Natal. Two sides had the names of people in the district who had been killed in WWI and WWII. The other two sides, with many more names, even back in 1979, commemorated those who had been killed in the war on the “border”. The government at the time was trying to hide the number of soldiers being killed in that conflict, but the memorial told its own story.

The government at that time was trying to hide where they were fighting — not on the “border”, but South African troops were involved in an invasion of Angola. Back in WWII, when many luminaries of the National Party did not want to fight in “Britain’s war” (they overlooked the fact that it was actually Poland’s war) members of the SA Defence Force were not required to serve outside the country. The volunteers who did wore red shoulder flashes, which made them liable to be attacked at home by fascist mobs. But in Angola, the “voluntary” nature of service “beyond the border” was overlooked, and conscripts were sent there willy-nilly.

But what gave many of the conscripts the biggest problem was not service beyond the border, but when they were sent to the townships (“deployed” is the current milspeak buzzword) and told to fire upon their fellow citizens. The “border” became extremely elastic, both ways.

But the South African invasion of Angola, like the contemporary Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, had the effect of bringing down both governments: the National Party regime in South Africa and the Bolshevik regime in the USSR collapsed, with somewhat opposite effects. South Africa was put back together again after apartheid, while the Soviet Union fell apart under the influence of ethnic nationalism.

Now the Brits and Americans are in Afghanistan. Unlike the South African government in 1979, they (well the Brits, at least) make no attempt to hide the deaths of soldiers, and last week a whole day on Sky News was devoted to reruns of six disembodied pairs of feet emerging from a cargo plane, eventually being revealed as carrying a flag-draped coffin. The fact that some of the coffins were draped in the Union Jack and others in English flags shows that it wasn’t just re-runs of the emergence of the same body. And all the TV reporters wore red poppies, though it was long before Poppy Day — TV presenters appear to be decorated for the occasion earlier and earlier, like the shops putting up Christmas decorations in October.

Bishop Alan puts it rather well on his blog Afghanistan and Remembrance:

On a micro- scale our forces are doing what they are being asked to do, whatever the cost. However, the bigger macro aim is unclear, and nobody is hearing a clear or convincing answer to the question of what our macro-aims might be from the politicians who put our troops in danger in the first place. Simply asserting it’s all somehow vaguely necessary, without explaining what and why, is not enough. Those making big sacrifices, along with the rest of us, deserve better. Perhaps greater clarity is unachievable for as long as the Americans don’t know what they’re trying to achieve there either.

In South Africa the “border” war is over, but the xenophobic violence in Tshwane in March and April last year shows that there is a need for peace education right here at home, and the attitudes that lie behind the violence, that are stirred up by unscrupulous people for their own ends, are what led to the genocide in Rwanda.

6 November 2009

Recent reading: Ulysses

Ulysses Ulysses by James Joyce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is one of the books that appears on lists of “books you ought to read before you die”, and “greatest novels of the 20th century”.

I can’t remember where and how I acquired my copy; I’ve had it for years, and it’s been on my “to read sometime” mental list ever since then. As time passed, I became more aware of the possibility of dying without reading it.

Another reason for reading it was that I did English I at the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal) in the 1960s. The English Department at that time was thoroughly Leavisite, and a friend of mine who was doing English Honours (a post-graduate course) was told by a member of the department that he should not read Ulysses because “it will blunt your critical faculties”.

The same friend also remarked one day that he had seen a copy of Ulysses on the professor’s desk, and we wondered if he had confiscated it from a student to protect his critical faculties.

So I thought that my critical faculties aren’t going to be much use to me when I’m dead, so I’ll take the risk and try to read it before I die.

I have to say that I was underwhelmed.

I debated whether to give it two stars or three, and eventually decided on three because I admired Joyce’s ingenuity, though without really appreciating it. When I think of great novels of the 20th century, I think I agree with the hoi polloi rather than the lit crit crowd, and would give Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings first place.

Ulysses is usually classified as a “modern” novel, and I suppose in a way it is. The height of literary and artistic modernity was after the First World War, and that’s when it was written. There was the Bauhaus school of architecture and all that kind of thing.

But it is written about a day in 1904. That was before my marents were born. That was when my grandfather was getting married. So the people in the book are of the vintage of my grandfather’s older brother. It was the Edwardian era, which seems altogether remote. Though I didn’t live through it, I have the impression that the world before the First World War was utterly different from the world that followed that conflict. It was a different culture, a different landscape. Russia, the largest country on earth, was under Bolshevik rule. Clothes were entirely different. Motor vehicles and aeroplanes were no longer experimental toys for the rich, but became part of everyday life.

So Joyce was remembering a vanished past when he wrote Ulysses, and as I read it, I was trying to imagine it in its setting, the Edwardian clothes and attitudes, and all that went with them. Joyce experimented with new techniques of writing, new ways of describing things. In that his novel marks a break with the past, but one can admire his technical artistry without really appreciating it. For a “modern” novel I prefer Sartre’s Nausea. At least it is set in modern times. OK, 1904 isn’t exactly premodern, but still.

View all my reviews >>

3 November 2009

The pitfalls of web mail

Yahoo! seem to have the knack of putting their collective foot in it.

I was checking my Yahoo profile, wondering why the picture had disappeared from it, and why some users of YahooGroups mailing lists I run were being told suddenly that they were not authorised to post.

Then I saw they offered to import addresses from other providers, and thought I would try that, since I haven’t updated my Yahoo contacts list for three years or more.

They had a third party to do the transfer.

The third party asked a few questions:

  1. Do you want us to tell everyone you’ve switched to a new Yahoo address? (No)
  2. Do you want to change all your e-mail to your new Yahoo address? (No)
  3. Do you want to copy your address book to your Yahoo address? (Yes)

So what do they do? They do 1, which I did not ask them to, and did not do 3, which I did ask them to do. They sent a message to everyone in my Gmail address list, telling them I have a “new” Yahoo address, and asking them to change to that in their address book.

I do not have a new Yahoo address, I have a very old one, which I’ve had since 1996. I found Yahoo mail very unreliable, so I switched to Gmail for web mail. At one point, in 2006, I lost access to my Yahoo address for 6 months, and could not log in to it. When access was restored, all my archived mail had been deleted (that happens if you don’t log in for more than three months). Since then, about 99,5% of the messages at my Yahoo address have been spam. I read it about once every 3-4 weeks, and delete the accumulated spam. So if you send me a message to the Yahoo address, I’m not likely to read it soon, and it might not stand out from the spam, so I might inadvertently delete it and never read it.

For web mail, I still prefer Gmail to Yahoo because:

  1. It has a less clunky user interface
  2. It puts the signature at the end of the message where it belongs — Yahoo have taken to putting it at the beginning.
  3. It has a much more efficient spam filter — 99,5% of my Yahoo mail is spam, 99,5% of my Google mail is not spam
  4. Yahoo have proved unreliable in the past, and I don’t trust them since the time that my Yahoo  mail didn’t work from July to December 2006 and they lost all my archived messsages

So now I had to send messages to all the people in my Gmail address list to tell them that the message they had received about my change of address was a hoax, and that they should not put my Yahoo address in their address books, because if they sent me a message there I might inadvertently delete it along with all the spam.

It was easier said than done, because there were errors in the Gmail address list, and I’d got up to “L” in the alphabet when Google informed me that I’d sent too many messages already, and must wait 24 hours before sending any more, as part of their anti-spam policy. So now the people from M to Z are sending me messages to say that they have changed my address in their address books. They’ll have to wait for tomorrow for my message informing them that it was a hoax, and they shouldn’t bother to change it, or rather, they should go through all the bother of changing it back again!

And, what is more, the hoax message sent out by Yahoo’s third-party group Trueswitch, was sent out with Lazy HTML. Lazy HTML is a trick used by spammers and distributors of malware. Some legitimate organisations, who don’t know any better, also use it for newsletters and things like that. But legitimate or not, I delete them unread, because my mail reader is set not to display the links.

This is the message my mail reader displays when I receive messages with Lazy HTML:

Message contains potentially dangerous “Lazy HTML” data

This message contains data that includes references to items that are not present on your computer — typically graphics or frames stored on a remote system on the Internet and accessed using HTTP URLs.

This type of message, called “Lazy HTML” can represent a privacy or security risk, for the followingt reasons:

  • It can be used to send information about you without your knowledge, including the fact that you read the message, when you read it, how often you read it, whether or not you forwarded it, your computer’s IP address and more.
  • It can be used to download unauthorised programs to your computer. This is a common vector of attack for viruses and Trojan horses.

Pegasus Mail protects you completely from any problems associated with this kind of data, because it never downloads remote-linked items by default. A side-effect of this is that that remote-linked graphics in the message will display as grey boxes in the Pegasus Mail message reader.

So instead of trying to puzzle out what might be in the grey boxes, I just delete it unread. Trueswitch sent out a hoax spam message in my name to everyone on my Gmail address book, when I specifically hadn’t asked them to, and used the spammers trick of writing it in Lazy HTML.

So if you’re on Yahoo, and you see tempting offers to import your address books from elsewhere via Trueswitch, be very, very careful. And be prepared for some unasked for and unexpected consequences. It’s not simple like importing it into Facebook or MySpace (though even that has dangers), but does much more.


2 November 2009

Culltural rituals and globalisation: Hallowe’en and Slava

Eroticdreambattle – Not Paella: “In Leeds, the Muslim kids went trick-or-treating with witches’ hats over their hijabs. It was unspeakably cute.”

I once knew a couple of American kids in Namibia (now comfortably middle-aged) who were discussing what they should do about Hallowe’en. They realised that Hallowe’en was not big in Namibia. None of the other kids at their school were doing anything about it, and it did not seem to be important to them. They realised that they could not go around trick or treating, because nobody they went to would have a clue what they were on about. And at that moment they were very aware that they were far from home, far from their familiar culture.

I suppose it is the absence of familiar cultural rituals that makes people, particularly children, feel alienated in a strange culture. There was another American family in Namibia with a much younger child, about two or three years old, and the older children eventually did some Hallowe’en things for him. He was too young to miss them, but the older ones may have thought that it was part of his cultural heritage that he perhaps needed to know, for when the family returned to the USA.The parents may have thought so too.

The only thing that I knew about American Hallowe’en rituals back then came from American comics, Peanuts was one, where Charlie Brown was obsessed with a great pumpkin and the moon, and Nancy and Sluggo, who spoke about carving faces in pumpkins. Our pumpkins don’t lend themselves to that kind of treatment. American pumpkins seem to be round and yellow, ours are flat and white. I suspect that that was the limit of knowledge of most people of my generation in Southern Africa. I was Anglican back then, and I was also aware of Hallowe’en in a more generalised Anglican sense — a major saints day, observed with a First Evensong. In some parishes the First Evensong was quite a solemn affair, observed with incense, and the singing of long hymns like For all the saints who from their labours’ rest which had a kind of bitter-sweet joyful sorrow to them.

The golden evening brightens in the west;
soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.
Alleluya! Alleluya!

It was sung to the grand music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, with loud organ twiddly bits between the verses. It also has echoes of Frodo Baggins leaving the Shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings. That was my main association with Hallowe’en, and another was Charles Williams’s novel All Hallows Eve, which features two dead girls, one bound for heaven and one for hell.

It’s a little bit different now, but not much. South Africa has some awareness of Hallowe’en, manifested by posters advertising (adult) fancy dress parties, and an increase in the number of slasher movies shown on TV. But still no trick or treat, and certainly not for children.

But on Saturday we’ll be having our own alien cultural ritual, our family Slava.

Slava (which means “praise”) is a Serbian custom, unknown even to most other Orthodox. We were introduced to it by Jonathan and Vera Proctor, who were in our parish about 20 years ago, when Jonathan was completing his degree studies in South Africa. He’s now a priest in the USA, and his wife Vera is of Serbian ancestry, and so they had a Slava, and invited fellow parishioners to attend. Many Orthodox Christians celebrate name days (rather than birthdays). That is the day of the saint whose name they bear. But the Serbs had the Slava, which is a kind of family name day. It falls on day of the saint on which the first members of the family were baptised. It commemorates the family becoming Christian. It recalls the living and the dead members of the family — the living with the Slava Kolach, a special kind of bread, and the dead with koliva, the main ingredient of which is boiled wheat, to remind us of what our Lord Jesus Christ said, “except a corn of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains a single seed, but if it dies it becomes many” (John 12:24) and also I Corinthians 15:37-44. And the hymn of the Dance of Isaiah from the marriage service is also sung, as a reminder of the importance of the family.

At the time it also seemed appropriate for Africa, where traditionally the living and the dead of the family have been seen as one spiritual community, and so we adopted the Slava as a family custom too. Our Slava is the feast of St Michael and All the Bodiless Powers of Heaven, which falls on 8 November, because that was the day in 1987 on which we were received into the Orthodox Church. And, perhaps also appropriately, we were married on 29 September, which is the Western equivalent, the feast of St Michael and All Angels, commonly known as Michaelmas. This year, therefore, it will also be the celebration of our 35th wedding anniversary. In the Orthodox Church every saint’s day has the equivalent of the Anglican “First Evensong” the night before, because the liturgical day begins at sunset, so Sunday Vespers is sung on Saturday evening, and that is when we have our Slava.

I’ve written elsewhere about what has been called “cultural appropriation” — where Christians observe Ramadan, and perhaps where Muslim children in Leeds observe Hallowe’en. Is keeping Slava in South Africa an inappropriate form of cultural appropriation, or is it inculturation? Time will tell.

29 October 2009

Miscellany: church photography, snoopers, writing, privatisation

This morning I had to take my son to the Pretoria Showgrounds on the other side of town to write an exam. To fill in the couple of hours while he was writing, I decided to visit an old friend in West Park. I couldn ‘t quite remember where he lived, so I drove around looking for the place. I wasn’t in a hurry, because my friend wasn’t expecting me, so I just drove around slowly, looking at a part of town I don’t know very well, and enjoying the spring greenery and the jacaranda blossoms.

I passed a Dutch Reformed Church, built in the 1940s style of golden face bricks. Back in the 1940s these churches were ubiquitous, and there must have been one architect who produced the plan in three varieties, small, medium, and large, or as they say nowadays, large, extra large, and super large. Now the design has been superseded; in the late fifties it was replaced by a design with a roof that dipped in the middle, and nowadays each congregation seems to employ its own architect. But I thought I’d take a photo of the 1940s design, as it was the symbol of a period.

So I pulled up a side street and stopped next to the church, and took a photo on my cell phone. I hadn’t even finished when a man in a minibus pulled over onto the wrong side of the road behind my car and asked if he could help me. I said no, I don’t need help to take photos with my cell phone. Then he demanded to know why I was taking photos of the church. I thought he was rather rude. If he wanted to know, he could introduce himself and say why he wanted to know. South Africa is no longer a police state, and hasn’t been for more than 15 years. And even when it was, as far as I know there was no law against taking photos of churches, but mainly such things as police stations and military installations.You meet some funny people.



Dutch Reformed Church in West Park, Pretoria

Anyway, the church is a sort of octagonal design. I once read an article that explained the rationale behind the design — its purpose was to ensure the closest rapport between the preacher and the audience by getting as many people as close to the preacher as possible.

I went on to see my friend, who was convalescing after a stay in hospital. It was good to meet him again after several years, and I told him about a book I had been planning to write, on the charismatic renewal movement of the 1960s and 1970s, as a result of my discovery that most church histories of the period did not touch on it at all. I began to do some research on it, with the idea of writing a book, and discovered that there really was a conspiracy of silence about it. Someone told me that John de Gruchy, a Congregational minister and lecturer at the University of Cape Town had written a book, but it had not been published, apparently for political reasons.

Finally I managed to get hold of John de Gruchy himself, and he very kindly sent me a copy of his manuscript, written 25 years ago.

I read it, and thought I’d better abandon my project right away. John de Gruchy had already written the book I had hoped to write. I was absorbed; it was like a page turner novel. I couldn’t put it down. OK, not everyone might find it so exciting, but it was the story of my life and times. And I couldn’t write a book, because most of it would consist of citations of an unpublished manuscript by J. de Gruchy.

Then John suggested that I should edit his manuscript, add to it, bring it up to date, and that we should then try to find a publisher and publish it under both our names. That sounds good to me, as my last project of a joint work is now with the publishers, with just the proof reading to go on my part, so as one project ends, another begins. I told my friend about it, and will visit him again tomorrow to get some material for the book from him — my son has another exam tomorrow.

Then driving home, I noticed that not only had our rubbish not been collected for the last two weeks, but all the other dustbins were standing outside, overflowing. Is it a strike? No, a neighbour tells me. The city council of Tshwane has failed to pay the contractors.

Oh, how much better things were before the Reagan/Thatcher years and the mania for privatisation! One of the jobs of the local municipality is rubbish removal and processing. They really should not be contracting it out. It’s part of their core business, whether they like it or not.

To paraphrase Blake…

Bring me my row of big round stones
Bring my barricade of burning tyre.

Let the service delivery protests begin.

21 October 2009

Anglicans and Orthodoxy

The news that the Roman Catholic Church has set up a new mechanism for receiving disaffected Anglicans has caused a bit of a flurry in the Christian blogosphere. The Orthodox have also been talking to disaffected Anglicans; recently Metropolitan Jonah, of the Orthodox Church in America, addressed a breakaway group, the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).

As a former Anglican I’m quite interested in such things, but I do not think that the Orthodox should be actively proselytising among disaffected Anglicans. If God should choose to interest such Anglicans in Orthodoxy, it’s another matter, but before we urge such people to join the Orthodox Church, we should first make sure that they undertstand the differences between Anglicanism (in its huge variety) and Orthodoxy. It will do no one any good if they join the Orthodox Church for the wrong reasons.

The Ochlophobist: on recent Anglican matters….: points out some of the pitfalls, not least of which (in the case of ACNA) is the following:

I have another worry about the ACNA. Many of the groups within the ACNA are made up of a lot of folks who stayed in ECUSA through WO, Spong, and outright heresy and left only after an openly homosexual bishop was ordained. The ethos of the ACNA is not traditional. It is not catholic. It is white, middle class Republican – Dobson in vestments. It is moralist. Heck, these folks promote on their own website the fact that they are ‘conservative’ and ‘biblical’ on the issue of homosexuality. Their ecclesial identity is tied up in the fact that they reject the Church blessing homosexual unions. Friends, that may be correct but it does not have staying power, and it does not necessarily make a person or group somehow a more significant candidate for communion with Rome or Orthodoxy than another person or group. To pursue them on the basis of their manner of conservatism is the sort of demographic association seeking that political parties make use of, but going after particular religious groups because of their cultural conservatism strikes me as a rather repugnant form of evangelism. It reeks of that peculiar pathetic display of religious forms that feel increasingly isolated culturally and so desperately want a few more friends on the playground of culture.

It reminds me of a Pogo comic of some years ago, The Jack Acid Society Black Book, a satire on a right-wing American group, the John Birch Society. In the comic someone asks the founders of the Jack Acid Society, Deacon Mushrat and Molester Mole, what the Jack Acid Society stands for, and gets the answer “We won’t stand for much, believe me.”

I may be wrong, but groups like ACNA, and their supporters, manage to give the impression that they are more united by what they are against than by what they are for, and in this case it seems to be anti-homosexuality, or, as some like to call it, homophobia (dreadful word!) [1] And, as the ocholophobist points out, they appear to have been willing to condone far worse errors.

[1] As a language pedant, I tend to think of “homophobia” as meaning “fear of the same”, the kind of person contemplated in the Gilbert and Sullivan song:

And the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone
every century but this and every country but his own

In that sense, the opposite vice to homophobia is xenophobia. I realise that those who use the word do not mean this, but I’m still reluctant to use such a barbarous nelogism.

19 October 2009

Recent reading: To dream of the dead

To Dream of the Dead To Dream of the Dead by Phil Rickman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is more of a “what I learned from this book” than a review.

It was about ten or twelve years ago that I picked up one of Phil Rickman’s books (it was Crybbe or Candlenight), concluded from the blurb that Rickman was a British Stephen King wannabe, and bought it for some light reading and comparison. After reading those two, in whatever order, I read The chalice, and decided that Rickman was better than Stephen King, and started looking out for his books. Whenever I see one I haven’t read, I buy it. I don’t wait until I have enough money, because I know if I come back later, it’ll be gone, and I won’t see it again for a year or six.

Those early novels were supernatural horror stories, and as Stephen King’s novels in the same genre give some insight into small-town America, Rickman’s give some insight into small-town Britain. What was quite interesting, too, was the way that some characters carried over from one story to another.

I’ve long been a great fan of Charles Williams, and Phil Rickman’s novels were the nearest thing I’d seen to Charles Williams in 60 years. I began to entertain hopes that he would develop into producing the same kind of supernatural thrillers that Charles Williams did, several notches above the horror novels of Stephen King.

A new character who showed up as protagonist was Merrily Watkins, diocesan exorcist (or rather, “deliverance consultant”) for the Anglican Diocese of Hereford. She and her daughter Jane (who has neopagan leanings) are interesting characters, and one who has carried through from earlier books is Gomer Parry, the plant-hire man (I must remember someday to look up in a dictionary to find out what a JCB is).

But my hopes of a new Charles Williams have been disappointed. Merrily Watkins has been exercising her deliverance ministry less and less, and has been turning into an amateur detective, a younger version of Miss Marple. And in this book, she loses even that role, and she is being nudged aside as protagonist by Detective Inspector Francis Bliss of the West Mercia police. The “Merrily Watkins” books are on their way to becoming conventional whodunits.

One thing that struck me about this one was the use of “form” as police slang for a criminal record. I first noticed it last month in a whodunit by Peter Robinson Cold is the grave, and then in a couple of other British whodunits, and now in a Phil Rickman book. Perhaps it’s appeared before, and I didn’t notice it, but its appearance seems to mark the final tipping of Phil Rickman’s books into the whodunit genre, with the supernatural thriller element being peripheral. It’s a bit disappointing.

Nevertheless, I did learn something from the book, and indeed from most of Rickman’s books, and that is something of the flavour of British culture and local politics in the early 21st century.

I first encountered British culture when I went to study in Durham in the 1960s. And 1960s British culture as I experienced it then was marvellously captured in the novels of Peter Tinniswood, A touch of Daniel and I didn’t know you cared. A generation later there have been huge changes, as I noticed when we visited Britain in 2005, after nearly 40 years. It was like time travel, being transported to a different time, with the cultural changes only vaguely glimpsed in newspapers and on TV, but captured quite faithfully in Phil Rickman’s novels. And it is perhaps this that makes them different from run-of-the-mill whodunits. In other crime fiction one notices technological changes — the use of computers, cell (mobile) phones and DNA testing. But apart from that there is very little of culture. Rickman manages to capture something of the culture, and to help one interpret it. The relations between “incomers” and local people, for example, and the migration that helped to explain why we managed to travel through the West of England, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, and never heard an accent from those places until we visited my Hayes cousins in Cambridgeshire. Everyone seemed to speak with Estuary accents.

Rickman manages to capture something of this, and so this makes his books a little more than the average whodunit.

But I still hope that in his next novel Merrily Watkins will move back into centre stage in her role as deliverance consultant rather than amateur sleuth.

View all my reviews >>

18 October 2009

Visiting bishop

Bishop Milutin, of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Australia and New Zealand, visited St Thomas’s Church in Sunninghill, Johannesburg, for their patronal festival last weekend. Bishop Milutin has been Bishop of Australia for three years, and after visiting Serbia, returned to his diocese via Africa. It was his first visit to Africa, he said, and he has now been to all continents.

Bishop Milutin of Australia and New Zealand with Metropolitan Seraphim, Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, after Vespers at St Thomas's Church, Sunninghill, 17 Oct 2009

Bishop Milutin of Australia and New Zealand with Metropolitan Seraphim, Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, after Vespers at St Thomas's Church, Sunninghill, 17 Oct 2009

After Vespers on Saturday evening, which was also attended by Metropolitan Seraphim, Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and clergy and laity from various parishes, Bishop Milutin showed a film on the life of St Nikolai Velimirovic.

18 October 2009

Vanishing articles

The following missiological articles will be disappearing from the web on 26th October 2009. Read them while you have the chance.

Most of them were originally published in Missionalia, the journal of the Southern African Missiological Society (SAMS).