Anglican Samizdat

January 29, 2010

Conversations with Kingsley Amis

Filed under: Books — David Jenkins @ 4:47 pm

I arrived at Swansea University as a student a few years after Kingsley Amis left, which was a shame because I would like to have met him. I’ve never much cared for the output of his increasingly obnoxious son, Martin who seems to think euthanasia booths for the aged are a good idea. Considering Martin Amis is 60, one would think that the instinct for self-preservation would deter him from advertising such boorish ideas; he grew up in a less civilised time than his father, of course. Kingsley Amis showed little interest in his son’s work, apparently,

Kingsley Amis had a keen eye for the absurdity of the cherished ambitions of the elite, although in his personal life he was not averse to indulging them. His novel “Stanley and the Women” particularly appealed to me; by today’s standards it was rabidly misogynistic – it’s main proposition was that all women are mad, a notion that resonated with me greatly at the time. It must have been a phase I was going through. He didn’t much like Dylan Thomas, but I forgave him that.

I was thinking of plagiarising one of Amis’s bon mots for this blog: “If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing”.

A new book, “Conversations with Kingsley Amis”  has just been published; I am looking forward to reading it (hint for birthday present).


December 3, 2009

Putting Fowler Back in Fowler’s

Filed under: Books — David Jenkins @ 4:38 pm

Oh happy day, there is a new edition of Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage coming out:

H.W. Fowler and David Crystal, ed. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. 832 Pages. $29.95

Henry Watson Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage is an unabashedly prescriptivist tome, which is to say that it doesn’t waffle in describing the right way, and the wrong way, to use English words. The archetypal usage manual, commonly called just “Fowler’s,” was initially published in 1926. It has undergone two revisions since, the product of the first of which, a book judiciously and lightly edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, was released in 1965. F.W. Bateson, the English literary scholar, reflected the general feeling when he wrote that Gowers was “remarkably successful . . . in retaining Fowler’s ipsissima verba while making the minor corrections and qualifications that time has made necessary.”

Similar approbation did not greet the second revision of Fowler’s, published in 1996 and helmed by the late lexicographer and linguist Robert W. Burchfield. John Simon, reviewing that book for the New Criterion, wrote that Burchfield — who before editing Fowler’s had edited both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Cambridge History of the English Language — had “made himself a true citizen of Oxbridge.” “But an ox bridge,” Simon quipped, “can be no better that a pons asinorum.”

The trouble, simply put, was that Burchfield had expunged Fowler from Fowler’s. Gone were some of the original author’s beloved subheadings (“Pairs and Snares” was pared, “Unequal Yokefellows” unyoked) and gone, too, was his jaunty, slightly mischievous, scything-while-grinning tone. Most objectionable was that Burchfield had changed Fowler’s from a prescriptive book to a descriptive one. Usage was no longer to be judged but understood. Entries that had earlier attacked ambiguity, castigated the careless, and lowered the boom on barbarism were suddenly more interested in explaining the origins and development of the English language’s scofflaws than in pointing them out and locking up. The warden had become the prison psychologist.

David Crystal, editor of the rereleased first edition, writes that Fowler “turns out to be far more sophisticated in his analysis of language than most people realize.” What’s more, “Several of his entries display a concern for descriptive accuracy which would do any modern linguist proud.”

November 15, 2009

Noddy was not good enough for the BBC

Filed under: Books — David Jenkins @ 6:45 pm

I remember my mother reading Enid Blyton’s Noddy stories to me when I was very young. She taught me to read for myself quite soon after and fed me a regular diet of The Famous Five, The Adventurous Four and The Secret Seven seasoned with Worzel Gummidge and Just William for variety. As I grew a little older she introduced me to Wind in the Willows – a book that is never far from my affections – and then C. S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, J. B. Priestly, C. P. Snow and others I’ve forgotten. All from the library, of course because she had no money to buy books. In my middle to late teens, in my obnoxious phase (some would say I am still in it), I turned my nose up at my mother’s tastes and started choosing my own authors: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Arthur Koestler, Jean-Paul Sartre, William Golding, Nikos Kazantzakis, Henry Miller, J. P. Donleavy, Mervyn Peake, Soren Kierkegaard, Norman Mailer, Victor Hugo and others now lost in the dusty recesses of my memory. There was no method to my choosing; I simply followed the trail of biscuit crumbs from one author to the next in the hope that he might say something more interesting than the last. I discussed many of the authors with my mother (not Henry Miller) and, returning the favour she did me when I was young, convinced her to read some of them.

Looking back, I realise that I owe my mother and Noddy an inestimable debt of gratitude for instilling in me the capacity to withdraw temporarily from this vale of tears by giving myself unreservedly to a book; there is nothing quite like it.

All of which makes this revelation from the BBC seem particularly stupid:

Children’s author Enid Blyton was banned from the BBC for nearly 30 years because her work was considered “small beer”, archive documents have revealed.

The best-selling writer unsuccessfully approached the corporation several times to get her material on the radio.

Executives considered the Famous Five and Noddy creator “second-rate” and lacking literary value, according to 18 newly released letters and memos.

She first pitched ideas in 1936 but did not appear on Woman’s Hour until 1963.

A memo about a short story stated: “Not strong enough. It really is odd to think that this woman is a best-seller. It is all such very small beer.”

Another simply said “reject”.

Head of the BBC schools department Jean Sutcliffe said in an internal memo dated 1938: “My impression of her stories is that they might do for Children’s Hour but certainly not for Schools Dept, they haven’t much literary value.

“There is rather a lot of the Pinky-winky-Doodle-doodle Dum-dumm type of name – and lots of pixies – in the original tales.”

She added that they were “competently written”

September 30, 2009

Harry Potter does not get a medal

Filed under: Books — David Jenkins @ 11:20 pm

I’ve read all the Harry Potter books and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Their predominant theme is good vs. evil,  and yes, there is magic, sorcery and witchcraft – just as there is in Add an ImageJ.R.R. Tolkien. Although Rowling is not in the same league as C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, I think her books are an entertaining read and relatively harmless; not all agree:

Harry Potter author JK Rowling missed out on a top honour because some US politicians believed she “encouraged witchcraft”, it has been claimed.

Matt Latimer, former speech writer for President George W Bush, said that some members of his administration believed her books promoted sorcery.

As a result, she was never presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The claims appear in Latimer’s new book called Speechless: Tales of a White House Survivor.

He wrote that “narrow thinking” led White House officials to object to giving Rowling the civilian honour.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded for:

It recognizes those individuals whom have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

However much I enjoyed Harry Potter, outside Rowling’s fantasy world, I can’t see him contributing much to culture and nothing at all to world peace, whatever that is. Surely the reason Rowling was not given this award was because it has no relevance to her work. Still, I imagine she must be pretty upset as she ponders the slight on her way to depositing the next million in her local Barclays.

September 14, 2009

Leave my favourite authors alone

Filed under: Books — David Jenkins @ 11:46 pm

I was content in my ignorance; alas, no longer:

Somerset Maugham may be the most debauched man of the 20th century:

Somerset Maugham was well-placed to come up with his wonderful description of the French Riviera  –  ‘a sunny place for shady people’.

The most louche of all the expatriates who congregated on the beautiful stretch of coast between Nice and Monaco before World War II, the prolific writer held court at his fabulous mansion, the Villa Mauresque, in glamorous Cap Ferrat.

Nude bathing parties, drugs, lashings of champagne and nightly seductions of the local lads . . . Almost everyone who visited was shocked by his decadence.

Evelyn Waugh had three homosexual lovers at Oxford:

The novelist Evelyn Waugh had three gay lovers during an ‘acute homosexual phase’ while studying at Oxford, according to a biography.

Author Paula Byrne hails him as a ‘great bisexual’ writer and reveals that he cherished the ‘fully fledged’ affairs.

And William Golding was the Lord of Self Loathing:

When William Golding, the author of Lord Of The Flies, was congratulated by Lord Snowdon for having written The Lord Of The Rings, he failed to find the mistake funny, and that’s very revealing.

For here we have a man who categorically stated “of friends, I have practically none”, who lived in Cornwall “partly to avoid people”, and who, despite a CBE, a knighthood, the Nobel Prize, membership of the Athenaeum, honorary doctorates and a South Bank Show profile, still believed he was excluded from the Establishment. In  other words, he was insecure.

“I suppose that basically I despise myself,” Golding confessed, “and am anxious not to be discovered, uncovered, detected, rumbled.”

Of course, it is well known that Tolstoy lived a debauched life until he was 40; then he married, fathered 13 children and subsequently refused to have sexual relations with his wife because he talked himself into believing he was called to asceticism. Perhaps inconsistency and debauchery are necessary attributes of an interesting writer – although they didn’t do much for Norman Mailer.

June 22, 2009

The Shack

Filed under: Books — David Jenkins @ 10:37 am

I’ve just finished reading The Shack by Wm. Paul Young. It comes with high recommendations from, among others, Eugene Add an ImagePeterson who compares it to Pilgrim’s Progress and from Dale Lang whose son was murdered in 1999; his wife, Diane – a model of grace and forgiveness – stayed with us a few years back when she spoke at a conference in Ontario.

Although the casting of God the Father and Holy Spirit as female and the folksy writing style conspired to put me off the book, in the end I wasn’t put off because the novel tackles difficult subjects with some imagination.

The main themes are coping with evil in this world, in particular the loss of a child, and the relationship between the persons of the Trinity and how that relationship extends to us. Theologically, Paul Young seems to teeter on the edge of universalism and I would like to have seen the devil make an appearance – as it is, humanity gets all the blame for the Fall.

The lachrymose may need a box of tissues since the theme of the novel is emotional and it is dealt with in an emotional way.

So is it a modern Pilgrim’s Progress? Maybe not, but it’s still worth a read.

Update: for another perspective, see John K’s thoughts here.

June 9, 2009

God’s Undertaker

Filed under: Books — David Jenkins @ 12:25 pm

I’ve just finished reading God’s Undertaker – Has Science buried God? by John Lennox. Lennox is Reader in Add an ImageMathematics at the University of Oxford and Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science at Green College. He is also a Christian.

He has debated Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens a number of times and while the debates are always interesting, there is not enough time to meticulously cover the arguments presented in God’s Undertaker.

God’s Undertaker sets out to convince the reader that science, far from burying God, is dependant on his designing intelligence for the laws that make its methodology work. Using his knowledge of mathematics and science, Lennox makes a convincing case for the proposition that far from science and religion being at odds, science provides evidence for a Designer. What are really at war are two world views: the universe has a creator vs. the universe is all there is.

In his writing Lennox is rather like a scientist’s version of C. S. Lewis: complex ideas are explained with a lucidity that makes you think “I should have thought of that”. A very worthwhile read for Christians, agnostics and atheists.

February 14, 2009

Talent Redux

Filed under: Pop-Culture — David Jenkins @ 10:29 am

I have always thought that J. B. Priestley’s view of his own work could well apply to John Updike; not that Updike would have the modesty to admit it. Priestley thought of himself as a talented, but not great novelist.

So while I don’t think that John Updike was a great novelist, I do agree that he was a spiritual failure:

John Updike, who died two weeks ago, was certainly a great novelist; his books are Add an Imageintelligent without being clever-clever, and are highly readable. And he was the only major novelist of recent times who was interested in Protestant theology (a massive plus-point for me). So I ought to be a big fan, and for a while I was, but the more I read, the less sure I became. It perhaps sounds an unpleasant thing to say about a recently deceased person, but I see him as a spiritual failure.

This is somewhat redeeming, though:

But he said some great things along the way, including this nice little anticipation of Dawkins: ‘Among the repulsiveness of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position.’

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