Wednesday, April 25, 2007


We've fallen in love with a city. Leaving Stockholm was almost physically painful - the beauty, atmosphere, buildings, and of course great SF bookshop made it one of the best places we've visited. The legendary expensiveness wasn't really in evidence - no worse than Paris or London. Well, OK, £4.21 for a pint if Guinness was a bit steep but two pizzas, two beers, garlic bread and salad for £20 wasn't bad. Bishop's Finger seemed like a poplar brew, bizarrely with a low-strength version (3.5%ABV) for sale in supermarkets. The only English TV channel in the hotel was a version of Hallmark showing TV movies and British cosyness like 'Kingdom' but even that was kind of cool.

Have a butcher's at my photos if you wish.

' this wonderful stranger also lies dead...'

Just read The Inclusive God. Reclaiming Theology for an Inclusive Church by Steven Shakespeare and Hugh Rayment-Pickard, as my Easter read. This is one of those books that made me want to punch the air and cheer, out of delight that someone has managed to crystallise and express an approach to Christianity that makes sense, in a coherent and engaging way. 'Inclusive' here means not excluding anyone on the basis of 'mere cultural prejudices'; not as a patronising invitation to outsiders to be assimilated into a power-centre but more as a breaking open to new languages and voices. Here we find an unapologetic inclusivity as passion, central to faith rather than a modern add-on that can be abandoned 'once we have an acceptable quota of lesbian archbishops and braille hymnbooks'.
The book explains itself thus: 'The Church should be inclusive because God is inclusive...We do not believe in 'answers' to life's questions which filter out all the struggles, doubts and unknowing which are at the heart of human experience...The only justification for building an inclusive church is that this is what reality demands of us.'

Thursday, April 12, 2007

At the sign of the Unicorn's Head...

These days, if you fancy reading a fantasy novel, you'll be pretty well-served by the big bookshops. Walk into most branches of the national chains and you'll find whole walls of genre fantasy - trilogies by the yard - and every word of Tolkien endlessly re-presented in new editions. (Must get that leather-tooled box set of 'Unstarted Tales'.)

But it wasn't always like this. Back in the mid-Seventies, finding fantasy was like prospecting for gold before the goldrush - long weary quests for occasional reward (like many of the books that were to come.) Your WHSmiths would have Tolkien himself, but if I'm honest he got pretty uninteresting outside of LOTR itself (specially in the oddly-sized editions of the time, which looked like worthy works for precocious children, printed on cardboard.) There was science fantasy - loads of Michael Moorcock, reprints of ER Burroughs and his imitators. Conan and lesser barbarians (Brak! Thongor! Kothar! Kandar! Kyrik! etc.) flexed their sword-and-sorcery muscles somewhere between SF and adventure. But fantasy of the kind we are now overserved with (I suppose I mean novels of adventure in imagined worlds where magic works) needed seeking out.

And seek we did (me and my pals) - no bookshop, indeed any physical structure which might conceivably sell books, was safe from our search for any volume with a hint of a magic sword or a map printed in the endpapers. (As you can imagine this made us the most popular kids in school - proudly unearthing a copy of George Meredith's 'The Shaving of Shagpat' was a shortcut to guaranteed acceptance and popularity.)

And now and again, if we quested diligently and our hearts were pure, the magic portals would open and we would find - the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. This was a series of 65 paperbacks issued between 1969 and 1974. Given the dearth of new fantasy the series mostly published literary works that were the precursors of Tolkienian fantasy (which is a lousy term but the alternatives are all pretty crummy - 'adult fantasy' sounds sleazy, 'high' or 'literary' fantasy sounds snobbish.) With a unicorn-head logo and some great trippy covers, the series brought us Lord Dunsany, William Morris, Hannes Bok, Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson and many more. I devoured these at the time, lost them all somewhere along the line and am now trying to get them again. Apart from reclaiming lost youth and the sheer thrill of the chase, I particularly enjoy the introductions by series editor Lin Carter - whose enthusiasm makes them the literary equivalent of a double espresso with a shot of mead on the side.

Looking at the row of spines that line my stairs, it strikes me that the Ballantine authors were the real thing - few of them were writing into any kind of genre. And they're a crew of characters - landed gentry, clergymen, scholars, dissolute visionaries, retired adventurers, Board of Trade officials, social activists - with Lin Carter ushering them into the 1970s like a hyperactive Prologue. By comparison today's trilogy-jockeys seem like a pallid breed.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I, Gyrovague

A gyrovague is a kind of wandering monk, one of the 'Four Kinds of Monks' in the Rule of St Benedict:

1There are clearly four kinds of monks. 2First, there are the cenobites,that is to say, those who belong to a monastery, where they serve under a rule and an abbot. 3Second, there are the anchorites or hermits, who have come through the test of living in a monastery for a long time, and have passed beyond the first fervor of monastic life... Their law is what they like to do, whatever strikes their fancy. 9Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.10Fourth and finally, there are the monks called gyrovagues, who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries. 11Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites. In every way they are worse than the sarabaites. 12It is better to keep silent than to speak of all these and their disgraceful way of life... [Quoted from]

I love the language of this passage (which somewhat resembles a Doctor Who script conference). Obviously the gyrovagues aren't being held up as a shining example, so why nail my colours to this particular mast? I guess it's a kind of self-mockery; I may not wander from monastery to monastery but (like many) I have sampled more than one tradition from the spiritual supermarket. Even in my current berth as an Anglican I am relatively rootless - attending my local parish church irregularly, a dormant member of i-church, visiting the Othona Community when I can, still hanging out with Quakers, finding resonance amongst pagans, new agers, liberal Anglo Catholics. But more than that, the quality of being a gyrovagues (hence 'gyrovagueness') has a kind of postmodern tang to it that seemed right for what will be an eclectic blog (if it stutters into life at all.)