Monarchs Without Borders – The History Behind Best Eight

My new book, Best Eight, is about a royal family of the future trying to use dynastic manoeuvrings to overcome divisions between Earth and settlements on Mars. Unlikely as this scenario sounds, there is plenty of history behind the book’s fanciful future. In our own divided times the UK’s Queen is a source of national pride. We should remember, though, that until relatively recently, the interests of a monarch typically went across borders.

The history of monarchy in Europe has had an international flavour, ever since the Roman Empire collapsed. From the ninth century, a monarch known as the Holy Roman Emperor presided over a loose confederation of European territories centred on present day Germany and Italy. From the eleventh century, the Norman and Angevin kings ruled both England and areas of present day France. From the thirteenth century, the Hapsburg monarchy began to develop, like a multi national company, with branches in Austria, the Netherlands, Hungary, Bohemia and Spain.

I could go into a lot more more complicated detail, but suffice to say the story of European royalty is not about nationalism. In fact a historian with the great name of H.G. Koenigsberger, has come up with the term “composite monarchy” and “composite state” to describe a typical European monarch and their domain.

So for centuries, monarchs had presided over composite states rather than countries. This very much included the UK royal family. Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth II’s great great grandmother, was known as “the grandmama of Europe”. Members of her largely German derived family were present in royal courts across the continent. Victoria’s daughter, Princess Victoria, was actually mother of the Kaiser, the monarch of Germany during the First World War. You’d have thought that such fraternal links would have helped prevent something as terrible as the First World War. And, indeed, once they realised the gravity of the situation, Europe’s royals did try to stop what was happening. But despite a blizzard of telegrams between royal cousins in different countries as war approached, they were not able to resist generals, politicians, arms manufacturers, mobilisation timetables and nationalist fervour whipped up by popular newspapers. The war happened, and by its end the three great royal houses of Europe – the Russian, Hapsburg, and German had all disappeared. The British monarchy only survived by hiding an international nature behind a patriotic disguise. George V identified himself with the wartime lives of his subjects, touring hospitals and arms factories. He changed the family name from Saxe Coburg Gotha to the more British sounding Windsor. Other royal titles also had a make-over. It was a question of here’s a map – choose somewhere British, that’s not too industrial. The Duke of Teck became the Marquis of Cambridge; Prince Alexander of Teck became the Earl of Athlone; Prince Louis of Battenberg became the Marquis of Milford Haven; and Prince Alexander of Battenberg became the Marquis of Carisbrooke.

In this way the British monarchy survived, by denying its reality. That reality had been crushed in the nationalism of the First World War. Monarchy had hardly been a perfect system of government – the Russian royal family acted as autocrats, and the Kaiser has been described as a bombastic sabre rattler, who was too late in his desperate efforts to make amends by using his family contacts to try to find peace. But though governments largely ended any role for monarchy after 1918, previous arrangements were perhaps preferable to what followed. The fall of international kings and queens led on to the rise of nationalist dictators, the legacy of which remains with us in independence movements to this day. It is almost symbolic that the trigger for the First World War was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, by a Serbian separatist.

So next time you see the Queen held up as a national symbol, it is worth remembering that the history of monarchy does not support this. Best Eight is a whimsical picture of the real history of monarchy translated into the future.

Introducing Best Eight

A few weeks ago I posted an article about sending my new science fiction book to an editor at a sci-fi imprint, who judged it as “not science fiction”. Science fiction is a very diverse genre, covering the portrayal of science in the future, and often in the present and past as well, except where it doesn’t involve science at all, as in speculative fiction, alternate history, or in the related category of fantasy. Writer Damon Knight has described this enigmatic type of writing as “what we point to when we say it”. So setting out to write sci-fi only to have an editor suggest that the book does not fall into that category, felt like a kind of achievement in itself. Science fiction is what we point to when we say it, except for that book Martin Jones wrote.

Now, finally, the book is available on Amazon Kindle. And oddly, that experience of not immediately finding a seat in the sci-fi boat is very fitting for what I set out to write about. The novel is called Best Eight, and was inspired by an odd fact I came across whilst idly, and accidentally, watching a documentary about rowing a few years ago. An extremely healthy looking young man was explaining that selecting a competitive, eight person rowing crew was not about choosing the eight best performers on a rowing machine. A good rowing crew is mysteriously more than the sum of its parts. It’s best eight, not eight best. Out of this came all kinds of interesting possibilities. There was potential unfairness in the way a competent rower might possibly be passed over in favour of someone less competent. Equally, there was a sense of tolerance in the way we should withhold judgement about who is worthy and who is not. A narrow definition of merit shuts the door on people who have unexpected things to give.

So, I wondered, could we stretch this idea out? Let’s think up a bizarre scenario – maybe at some distant time in the future, a King of Earth wants his grandson and heir to extend the monarchy to Mars. The boy is reluctant to face his responsibilities, so the King decides that rowing might instil the necessary grit. Could there be a place in the Oxford Blue Boat for a future prince, who is quite possibly the worst rower at Oxford University? Could there be some way for this unlikely person to be one of the best eight, even if he is certainly not one of the eight best? And so the game was on. The challenge was to find a way for the prince to win a place in the boat and go on to fulfil his destiny. The other challenge was to take a book set in the future, but playing out in the most traditional of locations, and find a seat for it in the sci-fi boat.

To see what happened, follow the link below. Enjoy.

History And Statues According To The Simpsons

The boarding up of a statue of Winston Churchill this week reminded me of an episode of The Simpsons, where clever Lisa is given an assignment to write an essay on Jebediah Springfield, founder of the town of Springfield. The town’s 200th anniversary is only a week away, and all the school children must write about Jebediah. Most children trot out the usual story, but conscientious Lisa goes to the town museum to get extra information. There she meets kindly curator Hollis Hurlburt who shows her the museum’s precious Jebediah exhibits. These include “his fife on which he sounded the sweet note of freedom”, and also his chamber pot. While Hollis is off checking his microwaved jonny cakes, Lisa has a go at playing a tune on the fife, but all she succeeds in doing is blowing out a rolled up sheet of paper, on which Jebediah had written his secret confession:

“Firstly, I did not tame the legendary buffalo. It was already tame. I merely shot it. Secondly, I have not always been known as Jebediah Springfield. Until 1796 I was Hans Sprungfeld, murderous pirate, and the half wits of this town shall never learn the truth! Ha ha ha ha ha!”

History might have the avuncular image of Hollis Hurlbut, but it is a fraught subject. Countries have their national myths, which aren’t the same as history. Problematic statues are only the start of it.

Springfield’s town procession is a bit like a coronation for the UK. Lots of people turn out, children wave flags, and there is a sense of togetherness and celebration. But certain elements of the British coronation ceremony would have made Hans Sprungfeld proud, and would have given Lisa much to worry about. For example, consider the coronation chair, the centre-point of the proceedings, where a monarch sits to be crowned. If you look carefully you will see a big hunk of stone beneath the chair. This is called, rather ostentatiously, The Stone of Destiny. The Stone is actually the great symbol of Scotland. It was taken from Scotland in 1296 when fearsome English king Edward I invaded Scotland, massacring Berwick’s entire population in the process. Edward understood the symbolism of national identity, and taking the Stone of Destiny back to London with him, he made sure that all English monarchs to come would be sitting on Scotland from the moment they were crowned.

Edward dealt out similar treatment to Wales. In 1282 Edward set about subduing Wales and bringing it under English control. He demolished Wales’s equivalent of Westminster Abbey, the monastery at Aberconwy, and built Conwy Castle on top of it. He then gave the title of Prince of Wales to his son and heir, just to remind Wales who was really in charge. I can imagine Lisa Simpson getting up at the investiture ceremony of a modern Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle, and telling people all about it.

But then before we get too down on England, Lisa could also tell you that Wales and Scotland have silly national myths of their own. Wales may talk of struggles against England, but Wales, despite present day assemblies, has never really existed as a centralised country beyond its common language. And Scotland has created myths to make its history look more continuous than it really is. The Stone of Destiny is actually one of these myths. From the thirteenth century Scottish historians were claiming an impossibly early date for the Stone’s arrival in Scotland. The aim was to give Scotland a longer and more impressive history than it actually possessed (see The Invention of Scotland by Hugh Trevor Roper).

Sadly, the function of history is, and has always been, to support the political interests of the present. This is what people are referring to when they talk of “proud” history. The residents of Springfield are proud when they quote Jebediah Springfield, who is supposed to have said that “a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”. But as Lisa discovered with her problematic researches, history is frequently not proud, and using history as a source of national pride or national unity is asking for trouble.

After Lisa gets an F for her essay, Jebediah Springfield Super Fraud, she forces Hollis to admit that he knew the truth of Jebediah all along. He confesses to removing offending evidence, and agrees to help Lisa stop the town procession. But when it comes to it Lisa cannot bring herself to ruin Springfield’s fun. She marches with everyone else in the celebration. Poor Lisa. What would you do? We face the same dilemma. But you can be sure of one thing – if you base your personal identity on Jebediah Springfield and the place he represents, then at some point Jebediah will turn out to be Hans Sprungfeld, and the place he symbolises will disappoint and become meaningless. It is better to base your identity on who you are, rather than on who you think somebody else is.

Daisy Jones & The Six – Work With Others And Be Yourself

Daisy Jones & The Six is the story of a 1970s rock band who, amidst major relationship dramas and substance abuse, make Aurora, one of the decade’s greatest albums. After starting the book, I was soon thinking of parallels with Fleetwood Mac, who like Daisy Jones & The Six had lead singer and writing responsibilities shared between a man and woman in a fraught relationship. Both fictional and real bands had famously solid rhythm sections, and a talented, down to Earth female keyboard player, in a difficult romantic entanglement with another band member. And of course Fleetwood Mac suffered, fought, partied, drank, snorted, and wrote their way to the Rumours album of 1977. A quick check on the internet revealed interviews with author Taylor Jenkins Reid which confirmed the link.

The book is an interesting reconstruction of a band making a successful album, the story told from the varied points of view of musicians, technicians, managers, wives, children, photographers, accountants and rock journalists. Creating a massively successful album involves a lot of people. Does it happen because one person imposes his or her creative vision; or because others are allowed to shine, bringing many talents into play? Both alternatives seem to happen at the same time, in a way that cannot be planned for. The book’s fictional Aurora album is something that people strive to achieve, but which happens almost by accident. And even if a turbulent group of people make an album that they are pleased with, is the audience going to like it? Musical preference is highly subjective. By bringing all these factors together via many voices, Daisy Jones & The Six does catch the spirit of an intense collaborative effort where an evanescent chain of events leads to something which is greater than the sum of its parts.

While the book is very good in its exploration of the nature of a complex creative endeavour, if I was to quibble I might suggest that the fictional project itself is perhaps a weaker aspect. Compare for example the name of the album Aurora with the name of the real album Rumours. The title of Fleetwood Mac’s most famous album is deceptively simple, introducing its collection of songs in terms of the kind of hearsay which by its very nature is enigmatic, and which invites people to read their own concerns into them. Rumours circulate in times of trouble, and you never know where you are with them. Aurora by contrast is the sort of title which sounds impressive, but which is kind of straining for significance. And the fictional band name, The Six, does not compare well with Fleetwood Mac. The name of the real band is less literal, and has a pleasing rhythm to it. Now, I accept that no author would be able to recreate a hit album in book form, but it might have been better to leave the Aurora album more impressionistic.

Apart from that, I enjoyed Daisy Jones And The Six, a perceptive study of what it’s like to try and create something great in partnership with other people.

Zuleika Dobson And The Populism Of Book Reviewing

Max Beerbohm’s novel Zuleika Dobson, is the story of a beautiful woman who makes Oxford’s entire male undergraduate population want to die for her. Now I know this sounds like an unlikely scenario, and many reviews focus on this. Even the story’s narrator seems to suffer a crisis of confidence when faced with the logical conclusion of his tale. So what does he do? Naturally, he takes advantage of Oxford’s links with the study of classical antiquity, and does a deal with a couple of Greek gods. Stay with me here – he talks Zeus and Clio into upgrading his investigative abilities. They confer upon him the ability to swoop about the place, seeing a story from every angle, like a kind of mythical drone camera.

Still with me? If you are, I think this piece of classical whimsy actually has a serious point. It is, in fact, a way of bringing our attention to the way we happily accept bizarre conventions, like that of an omniscient narrator who, aside from an ability to travel anywhere, also has access into people’s thoughts. Never mind about the practicalities and privacy issues, readers just accept this curious arrangement.

Acceptance of things because (a) lots of people do them, (b) glamorous individuals are seen doing them, and (c) they have been done for a long time, is a major feature of Zuleika Dobson. Oxford is a good place to set a story exploring this aspect of human nature, because it’s a university town with celebrities, lots of traditions where things are done a certain way because they have been done that way for a long time, and a population of young people looking for a lead. All these factors conspire to make Oxford’s undergraduates plan to do something very stupid for very stupid reasons. The ensuing events might seem farcical, but they serve to demonstrate an important reality. Zuleika Dobson was published in 1911. Within three years, millions of young men from Britain and Europe would allow themselves to be led into a terrible war.

That is really the end of my review. Zuleika Dobson was an interesting book, elegantly written, making interesting points about the malign power of crowds. But the second part of this article, if you wish to read on, is my thoughts on whether you should be taking any notice of my views in the first place. Zuleika Dobson makes the point that people can make bad decisions when part of big groups, and that individuals make wiser choices. But in recent times, the celebration of the individual viewpoint has become problematic. After all, we are now in an age of populism.

Populism puts too great a value on individual opinion. If you happen to think 5G masts spread viruses then you can broadcast that message. In the age of the internet, anyone has a platform to say what they think. The idea of worthy individuals standing against the crowd has taken on a different feel, after being hijacked by populist politicians. Donald Trump, for example, even as president, presents himself as the individual voice of truth standing against the dark apparatus of state. Maybe today the value that we place on the individual voice has itself become degraded, a habit, which we parrot unthinkingly, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

So where does that leave us? As far as book reviews are concerned, I would say that a truly personal reaction to a book is always worthwhile no matter who you are. I don’t think it is the case that literary education, or a gift of insight from the gods is needed to be a book reviewer. It’s great to have everyone contributing their thoughts on Amazon and Goodreads – much better than relying on the literary critic of The Times. But the thing is, a good review will have an aspect of challenge to yourself, making you look carefully at your own assumptions. Some learning will take place, even if it doesn’t look like learning in an academic sense. The fact that the review is your individual opinion is not enough by itself. For example, I wrote an initial version of this review where I said that Zuleika Dobson was insightful in the way it portrayed the value of not following the crowd. But there was something in me that wasn’t entirely happy with that, some niggle that wouldn’t leave me alone. So, dammit, I took the review down and wrote it again, to try and explore my misgivings. That’s what I think you have to do with a book review. You have to be true to yourself in a disciplined way. Populism is not like that, because it’s lazy. Many populist positions are emotional reactions rather than thought-out conclusions. And it’s this thoughtless emotionalism, disguised as brave individualism, which could very easily lead to a lot of people doing something very stupid for very stupid reasons.

That’s me doing my very best to be true to my feelings about Zuleika Dobson.

All The Prime Minister’s Men and Women – How Would Woodward and Bernstein Write About The UK’s Covid Response?

I rewatched All The President’s Men last night, a great story, about two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post in 1972. Following a complex chain of evidence, they uncover a plot coordinated by President Nixon, to destroy his political opponents, and cover up the effort to do so.

I found myself wondering how Woodward and Bernstein would write about the current plight of the UK….

On the 5th May 2020, the UK death toll from covid 19 became the highest in Europe. The reasons are complex, but they include, according to The Times, a lack of preparedness, resulting from the fact that since 2016, government business has been paralysed by Brexit. According to the Times, recommendations of an exercise testing UK resilience to a pandemic were pushed aside in favour of frantic efforts to deal with the possibility of a no deal exit from the EU. Additionally you could suggest that following the 2019 election, politicians selected for crucial cabinet positions, won their offices thanks to their position on Brexit, not because they were the most competent candidates available. Brexit also damaged recruitment and retention of EU workers in the NHS.

So this is the crime if you like. Then comes the cover up. How do you turn a disaster partly caused by nationalism into a national celebration? Well, the first thing you can do is find people who can be emblems of national pride, preferably with a military background, harking back to the victories of wartime. You make those people the object of charitable giving, and celebrate the achievement of large amounts of money raised. Then you start a regular street celebration. Ostensibly this recognises the work of health care workers, but also functions as a unification exercise, complete with naming and shaming of non-participants, as has happened in our local area. A minute’s silence is a similar device, originally instituted in socially turbulent times after World War One – the primary purpose of which was not remembrance, but powerful, symbolic social cohesion, where non compliance can very easily lead to group shaming. This combination of emblematic individuals, street celebration, and mass silence, all gives the impression of national unity and achievement, in place of national disaster.

Now I’m not saying that if I were Bob Woodward I could attend clandestine meetings in late-night multistorey carparks, in search of clues leading to the person responsible for this elaborate and subtle cover up. Yes, the government organise mass celebrations and silences, but it’s people themselves who make them happen. Yes, the newspapers supporting the government and its agenda choose individuals of symbolic national pride for their front pages; but they only focus on these individuals because they attract readers. In the last analysis this is a conspiracy produced by a majority of the population.

Bob Woodward’s car park contact told him that the Watergate conspiracy went everywhere. The UK’s situation is similar, except there is no final author of the plot. This plot goes everywhere – to the people at the top and to millions of other people as well.

I obviously don’t want to make anyone feel worse than they already do at this dark time. It is very tempting to cling to anything that makes us feel better. But if we are to make wiser choices in the future we need to be clear about what has gone wrong now. There should be no cover up. The editors of the Washington Post knew that when they ran Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate stories in 1972. We have to be brave enough to run similar stories in 2020.

A Story About Providing PPE To A Nursing Home

This detective story started with a Facebook appeal from a nursing home in Surrey for Personal Protective Equipment. The home had two patients with confirmed covid19, and two other probable cases, but the staff had no medical gowns.

My wife came up with an idea. She had heard about a recent Panorama documentary investigating PPE shortages, which mentioned a firm that made an offer to supply the NHS, but received no government response. Their product, seemingly unwanted here, had been going out to America. Perhaps if we rang this firm…

We watched the Panorama episode and duly discovered that the company ignored by the UK government, was called TLX Ltd of Bolton. So I picked up the phone and rang TLX. It turned out that TLX make breathable membranes, insulating materials, and fabric for medical gowns, but not the gowns themselves. A helpful TLX receptionist gave me the number of Macdonald and Taylor Ltd of Warrington who they supply with PPE fabric. At Macdonald and Taylor I talked to the production manager who said that there was heavy pressure on supply, but yes he had five boxes of gowns he could courier out over night.

I rang the nursing home, gave them a phone number and contact name at Macdonald and Taylor, who could provide 125 gowns. This sounds a lot, but as these items are single use, does not represent many days supply. At least it was something.

So that’s one example of how PPE is currently being provided for nursing staff in the UK. There must be a better way.

The Moviegoer – Posh Literature Meets Cop Movie

The Moviegoer is the debut novel of Walker Percy, published in 1961. The central character is a 29 year old stock broker, named Binx Bolling, living in New Orleans, somewhat traumatised by his experiences as a solider in the Korean War. He is trying to make sense of his life, but resists the efforts of other people to do this for him, in terms of jobs or relationships. His contradictory struggle unfolds through days at the office, flirty trips with secretaries to the Gulf coast, visits to the cinema, and a relationship with an extremely troubled cousin.

So what to make of it? You could take the intellectual approach and note the author’s interest in existentialist philosophy, which basically means that his central character faces experience unencumbered by creed or doctrine, accepting confusion and disorientation as he tries to work things out. Alternatively you could think of Binx in terms of a character from the movies he frequents. Let’s think of a movie about a cop – unconventional, probably battling a drink problem, regretting a messed up marriage, and on his last warning with his exasperated commanding officer, who sees the man’s qualities, but jeez, he’s hard work. 

Binx Bolling is really a kind of philosophical version of the wayward but talented cop. Yes, he has problems, but his unorthodox approach allows him to see things from a different angle, noticing details missed by his more straight-up-and-down colleagues. The cop picks up clues to a difficult case: Binx picks up clues to the spiritual conundrum of how to make sense of his life.

Occasionally I did feel the writing verged on the pretentious and condescending, particularly in sections mentioning films. This was odd as Binx seems to love going to the cinema. We don’t hear much about individual films, and what we do hear is often flippant. For example, getting to the end of the book, Binx summaries The Young Philadelphians, seen on his last cinema visit:

“Paul Newman is an idealistic young fellow who is disillusioned and becomes cynical and calculating. But in the end he recovers his ideals.”

I think we’re supposed to feel that The Moviegoer is much too subtle to be reduced to this sort of trite moralising. However, I actually do think a film – a cop film of course – can give us a sense of how Binx gets on with his search for meaning. You can wonder whether Binx makes sense of his life in the same way that you can wonder whether Catherine Tramell was guilty or innocent at the end of Basic Instinct – hard to tell in both cases. The Moviegoer has airs and graces, but – and I don’t mean this critically – it’s as American as the Hollywood films it references. Binx looks for meaning and doesn’t find it in the easy American categories of religion, good jobs, money and family. He is a lost cop, a good drunk and a bad husband, who bends a few rules, only so that a vague sense of justice, rather than a clear seat of regulations, wins out in the end.

A Story About Raising Money For The NHS

In the UK general election of December 2019, a majority of people voted for a Conservative government, partly because they wanted to leave Europe, and partly because they were reluctant to pay higher levels of tax. But a few months later, when the NHS became even more obviously vital than it always is – during the coronavirus pandemic – people were willing to give tens of millions of pounds to NHS charities, via a range of individual human faces, celebrity and otherwise. Giving money in this way is different to contributing to a faceless tax system. There is now an individual human face and a story to tell. Never mind that the money is coming too late, and cannot be efficiently planned for, as with regular tax income. During the 2019 election the attitude to taxation amongst certain sections of the press was summed up by The Mail on Sunday, which was sanctioned for falsely claiming that Labour was planning to scrap capital gains tax relief on main homes. Now the same tabloids which supported Boris Johnson against parties that apparently wanted to take all your money in tax, can show front pages with headlines about generosity.

People love to focus on an individual to tell a story. Tax systems are hard to tell stories about. Any large scale system requires a specific angle if you’re going to get a narrative out of it. Strange as it may sound for a writer to say, not everything needs to be a story. It makes more sense to pay tax into the NHS than give to NHS charities. Charity tells a story, but this story is inefficient and unpredictable in the way it provides resources. Note all the companies that have stepped up to produce protective equipment, who nevertheless find that there is no organisation to feed their products into. The greetings card company my wife works for took to producing face shields, only to find that emails to government offering these products went unanswered.

As a writer I do of course know the power of stories, to explore and share aspects of human experience in an empathetic way. After all, who can understand all the statistics of hospitalisations and deaths, without hearing about some of the actual people involved. However, like any other power, there is the potential for misuse. Charity efforts are of course laudable, but the fact remains that decisions taken and votes cast in 2019, resulted in frantic preparations for a no deal Brexit, which by diverting money and time, damaged the capacity of the UK to respond to an unexpected emergency. Stories of charitable success ultimately serve to distract from bad choices involving underfunding, and excessive and unwise flag waving during 2019.

As a writer I say – beware the story, which like any other medicine can have side effects.

Death Comes For The Archbishop – Humane Reading For Polarised Times

Death Comes For The Archbishop, published in 1927, is a kind of Western, describing life on the American frontier in the later 1800s. The heroes in this book are not a couple of cowboys, but a Catholic bishop and a priest who are attempting to establish a diocese in New Mexico, recently ceded to the United States by the Mexican Republic.

In a normal Western, the frontier is a lawless wilderness, where outlaw gangs roam, and sheriffs attempt to impose rough justice. In Death Comes For The Archbishop, two missionaries – a couple of religious sheriffs – arrive at a frontier, which is not nearly as new and wild as it seems. There are native peoples here with ancient settlements and indigenous religious traditions much older than the Catholic Church itself. In some ways the Church is a new influence imposed on an ancient land.

The new sheriffs approach their mission in different ways. The priest, Father Vaillant is straight forward in his attempts to spread the word. His friend, Bishop Latour, is more complex and thoughtful. He values the presence in New Mexico of traditions much older than the one he represents, and has a general sympathy with many views that might seem different to his own. For some of his followers, “there was one Church, and the rest of the world was infidel”. But for Father Latour, the most senior Church official in the territory, things are not like that. As just one example, he takes an interest in the wooden saint figures displayed in many local houses, and notes never seeing two alike. Some of his flock “will not accept two ideas at once”, whilst their wooden religious images indicate as many different ideas as there are individuals to hold them. This is the sort of fundamental contradiction that Latour appreciates, allowing him to gain the friendship and respect of all kinds of people.

Given the book’s title, I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that the bishop dies in the end. But when he does so, he is remembered as a good man rather than a good Church leader. He is open, tolerant, wam and thoughtful. His priest friend, Father Vaillant, so much more straightforward in furthering the interests of Catholicism, is by no means depicted as an unsympathetic character, but it is Latour who becomes the archbishop, the leader of the Church. He becomes leader not by setting his organisation’s interests above all else, but by seeing those interests in the context of the wider world.

This is a humane book, from which we could learn much in our polarised times.