Culture, Cathedrals and Connections
07 September, 2021
Kathryn (CEO), Kevin and Kate (CSTG Consultants) chat about their favourite summer reading…
Many years ago, I read Ken Follet’s masterpiece ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ about the interwoven lives of those involved in the building of a cathedral in a fictional town of Kingsbridge in the 12th Century. Over the summer I have been reading the rest of this epic series. The Evening and the Morning, a prequal is set during the time of Viking invasions and tells the story of the development of Kingsbridge. The last one, which I am just finishing, A Column of Fire is set during the 16th Century reformation and is full of political and religious intrigue and conspiracy!
However, the one that stood out for me was World without End. The mix of religion, politics and the messiness of society during the Black Death was fascinating. Even more poignant I felt as we live through another pandemic. Whilst realising that the book is fiction, I found the relationships between the different elements of the church fascinating (priors, bishops, monks, nuns, priests!). The impact of the Black Death on progress in terms of medicine, in particular the wearing of linen face masks, was very striking. However, the theme which encompasses the whole book is one of good overcoming evil – eventually! A theme which will be familiar to many who are familiar with stories from various worldview traditions passed down through the generations.
If you don’t have a Kindle beware, these are heavy tomes rising to over 1000 pages each! So perhaps for the October half term break….
Border Country by Raymond Williams was published in 1960, two years before I was born, and I still recognise the world it depicts (with altered cultural inflections: it’s set in working-class Wales, I grew up in working-class Merseyside). One critic described it as one of the most moving and accomplished novels of the twentieth century, written anywhere by anyone. I came across it by accident, discovering that Williams had written novels when reading his cultural and educational theory.
Border Country is about a village, Glynmawr, and within it, a family, the Prices. Harry, a railway signalman, suffers a stroke, and his son, Matthew, a lecturer, is called back from London. Conversations and memories uncover the detail and meaning of experience: counting the money, tampering with the schoolmaster’s cane, the General Strike of 1926, landscapes, births, deaths, and realisations. Details are meanings: “But a father is more than a person, he’s in fact a society, the thing you grow up into.” The twentieth century probably stretched this, but the novel is ambiguous about it (Matthew doesn’t inherit Harry’s work but inherits him in other ways).
I won’t spoil the story, just recommend the book, a fictional working-out of Williams’ principle that society is the positive means for all kinds of development, including individual development. I enjoyed it hugely, and it got me thinking about what learning is, at which point, I’ll stop!
You might not expect me to describe Shuggie Bain, the 2020 Booker Prize winner by Douglas Stuart, as ‘uplifting’ and ‘beautiful’. You might be aware that the book recounts a few years in the life of Shuggie, a young boy growing up in poverty in 1980s Glasgow, with his alcoholic mother Agnes, his siblings and grandparents and various feckless, unreliable men. Despite the bleak backdrop of deprivation, violence and want, there are so many moments of hope and humour.
At the heart of the book is the tender love of a little boy for his mother. Despite everything, Shuggie loves his mum and she loves him. We look through Shuggie’s eyes and realise that he doesn’t see what we might see as adults. Shuggie is profoundly connected to Agnes. He delights in her good days, is resigned to her bad days and simply takes on the responsibilities of a young carer, as so many young people have to do. Caring for Agnes is part of his connection to her. In her way, Agnes shows Shuggie what love is. Agnes accepts Shuggie for who he is, but more than that, she delights in him. Agnes and Shuggie’s mutual knowledge and acceptance of their true selves is what will stay with me long after finishing the book.
The story takes place between inner-city Glasgow and the liminal, half-abandoned housing ‘projects’ on the city’s edge. I read the book on my commute through my own changing landscape between East London and the Essex coast. I have been left with a sense of the resilience and strength of children as they find their way in the world. It is a hard read at times, but also unexpectedly funny and hopeful, and does what a good book should; takes you to a time and place you cannot visit otherwise. I would like to meet Shuggie and Agnes and spend the day with them, I think we would have a lovely time.