A nursery for crime: John Le Carré on teaching at Eton!

As part of my ongoing trawl into the literature and culture of the Cold War, I came across this classic description from John Le Carré (nom de plume of David Cornwell) of his 2 years’ teaching at Eton. It is from a collection of transcribed interviews spanning 40 years – which is itself fascinating, because of the sense of development it reveals. You can see how often answers to different interviewers don’t tally, which seems part of a deliberately cultivated air of mystery. Everything he says (no doubt with a perfectly straight face, and undetectable to any unsuspecting interviewer) needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

So it is significant to see both the many years of constant denial and then, at last, his admission in 1983 to having been a spy (to Melvin Bragg no less). When he gave this interview, though, he was still insisting that he was merely working in Germany for the Foreign Office. But his description of the school (if he can be believed!) suggests that he was even better prepared for the work he actually ended up doing. (more…)

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Capturing a legacy: A Portrait of John Stott by his friends

On 27th April, John Stott will celebrate his 90th birthday. In the coming years, there will be a great multitude claiming to be inheritors of the Stott legacy. Just has happened with a towering figure like Bonhoeffer, so will it happen to Uncle John. And it is not as outlandish to put them in the same bracket as some may think. For both, albeit in very different ways and as the result of radically different experiences, made a profound impact on twentieth century (and therefore, twenty-first century) Christianity. Of course, some will pick and choose, some will appropriate its mantle without its substance, while others will wonder what all the fuss is about and doubt whether it matters at all.

Well, I think it probably does matter – not least because not to understand the legacy properly is to open the door to a dishonest, partisan or manipulative abuse of history. It is, in large part, a matter of historical, and indeed Christian, integrity. Therefore, this new book, edited by my Langham boss, Chris Wright, and subtitled A Portrait By His Friends, will play something of crucial role in coming years. This is not a chronological account nor deep historical and theological analysis. Those will certainly come in time (and no doubt draw heavily on Timothy Dudley-Smith’s excellent two-volume biography). This is a collection of sketches by some of those who have been closest to him over the years. Thus it will provide essential insights into grasping his personal (though perhaps not his theological) legacy. It really gives a sense of the man (rather better than the image on the cover!). (more…)

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In the service of his king:What Baldwin hadto do for King John

My parents have been doing what we in our family call ‘rootling’ – searching through family roots, trees and provenance. They’ve been doing some digging on their area in Norfolk and suddenly came across this utterly bizarre little mediaeval detail.

It is a scan from Blomefield’s Topographical History of Norfolk published c1739 – and I can only imagine what must of gone through the learned Mr Blomefield’s mind as he recorded the annual (Christmas, no less!!) duty of Baldwin le Pettour of Hemmingston. I just love the fact that he takes the trouble to include a quote from a contemporary Latin chronicle, just in case we doubted his word: per saltum, sufflatum, et pettum).

The mind boggles about what Baldwin must have initially done to deserve such an honour; or, for that matter, what particularly provoked King John (right) to demand such a duty. (more…)

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Harnessing Nature’s Power – James Watt & The Steam Age

It was slightly surreal – an invitation to a mere blogger, who occasionally and with the reckless confidence that comes only from profound ignorance, dabbles in the realm of science. I guess it was because of past raves about books like The Age of Wonder and God’s Philosophers that someone somewhere had the random idea of inviting me to the press opening of the Science Museum’s new James Watt Exhibition this morning. So I duly pitched up, enjoyed my complimentary coffee and croissant and circulated with the best of them. I listened with interest as the museum boss and then celeb-historian Adam Hart-Davis gave us their three-penny’orth. And then wandered around the new displays – just off to the left of the main Energy Hall on the ground floor – a full 24 hours before it opens to the public tomorrow.

And in the brief time that I could be there, it was great. So I guess if someone goes as the result of this little post, their punt was worth it. The centrepiece is the installation of Watt’s home workshop exactly as he left it when he died in 1819. The Science Museum had gained it, lock stock and barrel, in 1924 – and now it is cleverly set up so that one can walk into it and glimpse the place where this great engineering mind spent his days in retirement. It’s full of bric-a-brac gathered from a life of relentless enquiry and experiment – what Hart-Davis amusingly described as junk – and what fascinating junk it is (it includes the first ever circular saw apparently). The advantage of being a press opening is that we could go behind the glass and look around the exhibit (under watchful eyes of course). Check out one or two snaps I took. (more…)

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Fully Immersed into Babel and Ghost towns: Susan Hiller’s WITNESS & J STREET

Most of the exhibition is bathed in unobtrusive but artful lighting. But then one is led down a dark passage into a pitch-black space, with minimal, if any, lighting. In fact there are a number of rooms like this in the exhibition. But two in particular blew us away. We were at the Tate Britain over the weekend – primarily to see the fabulous Watercolour exhibition (HIGHLY recommended if you get the chance). But we then popped upstairs to the Susan Hiller retrospective. Definitely a mixed bag – but the highlights made the entire Tate visit worthwhile.

Susan Hiller is an American artist who has been working in the UK for years. Her output is immensely diverse – from installations to collections to experiments with colour, video and sound. The two installations which stood out though were the rooms entitled WITNESS and THE J. STREET PROJECT. (more…)

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Society, you’re a crazy breed…

One of the most moving films of recent years has been Into the Wild (dir by Sean Penn). Here are some clips backing the version of Jerry Hannan‘s song Society, sung by Eddie Vedder (who did the whole soundtrack). The song has a bewitching melancholy – but also carries a prophetic voice about the absurdities of western materialism. The film is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young graduate who turned his back on it all, by fleeing into the wonders and brutalities of the Alaskan wilderness.

The film’s agony is that McCandless thought he could be free from a materialistic society by escaping society altogether – only to discover (too late, tragically) that what he desperately needed was not the absence of society, but the reality of a truly redeemed society.


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