Notre-Dame de nos jours

Amongst the most misused words in the English language, ‘miracle’ must come pretty high up the list. There are few miracles, but we’ve just seen one. Experienced fire crews and numerous amateur commentators, media pundits etc were all pretty sure that the Notre Dame conflagration would effectively destroy the building,leaving it at best a stone shell. Yet here we are, the morning after:



It could be a lot, lot worse. It is frankly amazing that the stone vaulted ceiling is still mostly there – a tribute to medieval masons and the laws of physics.


However it was caused – and the media did their very best to avoid even hinting at arson – the outpouring of genuine horror and sadness was actually very heartening. Lots of staunchly irreligious people could sense what a loss this could be – and nothing to do with ‘artworks’, ‘treasures’ and all that. Most visitors don’t go near that stuff, they’re there for the building and its implacable spiritual presence.

I spent time working in a Parisian hospital in the 80’s – free accommodation and free food. It is the only place that I’ve worked where I was asked how I wanted my steak done at lunch (it was always rare, whatever I asked for), and everyone had a glass or two of red wine before the afternoon’s work. Great days.

As such I went past Notre Dame frequently, and I often dropped in. It’s a curious mix of taking it for granted whilst ‘routinely marvelling’ at its wondrous features. Not unlike living in Manhattan or the Piazza Barberini, but with that added, yet incalculable supernatural dimension.

Despite the scrum of far eastern tourists snapping away at the back during mass, it is a profoundly spiritual building, as any church should be. The extra bit that the confirmed secularists get right is that it does represent the soul of France. The wider picture that affects all of us who embrace the concept (which is a real thing, whether you admit it or not), is that it is at the heart of Christendom, a word that the modern world tends to loathe. The French liked to style themselves as the ‘eldest daughter of the Church‘ (despite the vindictive behaviour of the French state over many years) and it’s reflected by the numerous comments on Twitter and elsewhere, in claiming that the apocalyptic images of the spire falling at the start of this Holy Week, constitute a message to the citizenry and to the Catholic Church in general. Maybe they do. It certainly felt that way.

The further miracle is the avowed determination to rebuild that was immediately evident. Good for Pinault and  Arnault. The misunderstanding is when people talk about the cathedral being irreplaceable. It’s handy that the shell – and more – is still standing, but if the building is considered in the context of its function and daily activity (not the tourism), then it is indeed replaceable. A vibrant church does not need 800 year old timber beams. That kind of thinking is in many ways unhelpful and a sideshow. To pretend it’s the same as the already ruined Palmyra, or that it’s all about the 800 year old stained glass (as various people that I know have been doing) is entirely missing the point.

I note that Peter Frankopan proposed to his wife in Notre Dame. I also proposed in Paris – in a less iconic setting, I admit. Everyone who has visited the cathedral remembers it in their own way.

La Descente du Saint-Esprit ~Heures d’Étienne Chevalier, by Jean Fouquet, c1450 (now at the Met in NYC)

I was there in Holy Week in 1986, and thought I’d go to confession. Many of the big churches have confessions in different languages. The sign above the confessional, somewhere down the south aisle, indicated that the priest was a typically brainy Jesuit – I think there were 11 or 12 languages offered by the one person. There were two people ahead of me, so I figured that it wouldn’t take terribly long. The first guy went in, half an hour passed. Another 10 minutes, then he came out looking somewhat worn by it. Had he committed murder perhaps? The next lady went in, this would be quicker. Forty minutes later she too virtually staggered out. In I went, with my modest list of offences. I was also given forty minutes of a mixture of soul baring, benign inquisition and almost psychoanalysis. This was nothing like what I was used to. I left the confessional as a cleansed soul and mind, if a little shaken.

I’ve been many times since. A few years ago I was at the first mass on Sunday – walking across the Pont des coeurs in a virtually empty cityscape. Mass was moderately busy and the tourists were few and far between. At the distribution of communion, two eucharistic ministers were assisting the priest, one on each side of the main aisle. A Japanese couple were queueing for communion, but it gradually became evident that they weren’t familiar with the process, and were almost certainly not Catholics. The girl was respectful, but the man attempted to take the host away, then reluctantly ate it as indicated by a plainly furious eucharistic minister. I thought he was going to punch him, he was so righteously angry. And he was right to be so, having been unwittingly dragged into a possible sacrilege. That was the spirit of Charles Martel, and I have to say was entirely appropriate and admirable. That is, I hope,the spirit which will be stirred by the events of the last 24 hours.

Both these vignettes are the real Notre-Dame in my mind. One of the greatest ever loci for focussing on man’s relationship with God. They are variations on themes that have been repeated over the last 800 years, from when the new cathedral was not far from open fields, and visible from tens of miles away across the plains.

The magnificent rivals such as the nearby Eglise Saint-Eustache will stand in perfectly well, while the reconstruction gets done properly. And just maybe some good will come from all this.

Paris in 1615. Notre-Dame dominating, yet no distance from open farmland




Poetry corner: Loss

…more than you realise…

I recently lost a very close relative, in tragic circumstances. Without getting into the details, one of the things that I found hard initially was how to express the loss and the grief, and indeed how to celebrate their life. There is obviously no one way to do this, but poetry is certainly in there. The permanence of the written word and the associated opportunity to ponder and slowly assimilate what’s happened and how best to encapsulate who that person was in life is actually a great relief, I found, and in a way a joy to experience.

Some years ago I attended the funeral of a young man who’d taken his own life. It was a harrowing, if beautifully conducted event. His mother’s parting words to us were “please don’t forget him“. A profound plea, that reflects how quickly we often move on, partly I think to protect ourselves.

In any event, poetry plays its role in such remembrance. It avoids the impermanence of a memory that gets pushed out of our crowded minds, and goes far beyond the intrinsic flippancy of the now routine social media tributes.

My relative had a long affinity with some Marvel characters – don’t be surprised, the now ailing Stan Lee was a gifted storyteller, with a deep understanding of human frailty and human nobility. He had for years loved the Silver Surfer, both as a character and in pretty much all of the multifarious Marvel output that involved the erstwhile Norrin Radd (though much better in print than in the movies). So had I. I think our mutual feelings about the Surfer arose from playing Top Trumps, with the ace card being the one in the picture above (click on it). That little piece of prose is perfectly weighted to express the character, and in some ineffable way, the possibility of life after death**.

It reminded me, sharply, of a few phrases that many people will know, often from a vague memory of Ronald Reagan pitching it perfectly in his speech after the Challenger disaster in 1986. It was written, like so much of his best stuff, by the wondrously gifted Peggy Noonan – still around today. She however was on this occasion merely the messenger. The poetry came from John Gillespie Magee, a Canadian airman who died in 1941, aged 19. His father brought the poem to the public’s attention, and I’m being entirely unoriginal in presenting it here – it’s already extremely well known. Nevertheless, I make no apologies for so doing. It easily transcends cliche and corniness, and keeping that image of the Surfer in mind, it performed the great service of helping to deal with a devastating loss, for which I am truly thankful.


Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.


**…even if, as is the case with me, you already do believe that there is an afterlife. It’s a question every one of us will have asked, and will continue to ask.

Ash Wednesday

I usually blog on this with a painting – Goya, Bruegel, Spitzweg (genius) and more. I was prompted today to look at Rembrandt’s** late work, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which, if you know the parable, is highly apposite for Lent. Wikipedia is good on this. Kenneth Clark called it “a picture which those who have seen the original in St. Petersburg may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted” –  a fairly high bar, I’d say.

Henri Nouwen had a more overtly human and religious take on it, expressed very poetically: “Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home”

We’ve all been there, and we will be again.

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1668. The Hermitage, St Petersburg


**The Knife is in awe of a few painters, Rembrandt is one of them: 1, 2, 3, 4

How to write (an occasional series: 1)

I have in the past lauded Kevin D Williamson of National Review Online, for his remarkable ability to marshal facts, argue his corner and knock out umpteen witticisms in extraordinarily concise and punchy prose. Possibly his most famous knockdown was his commentary on the now annual State of the Union address, but it’s one of many. Here’s the opening:

The annual State of the Union pageant is a hideous, dispiriting, ugly, monotonous, un-American, un-republican, anti-democratic, dreary, backward, monarchical, retch-inducing, depressing, shameful, crypto-imperial display of official self-aggrandizement and piteous toadying, a black Mass during which every unholy order of teacup totalitarian and cringing courtier gathers under the towering dome of a faux-Roman temple to listen to a speech with no content given by a man with no content, to rise and to be seated as is called for by the order of worship — it is a wonder they have not started genuflecting — with one wretched representative of their number squirreled away in some well-upholstered Washington hidey-hole in order to preserve the illusion that those gathered constitute a special class of humanity without whom we could not live.

It’s the most nauseating display in American public life — and I write that as someone who has just returned from a pornographers’ convention.

He had, too.

That was more than three years ago, and this week Brendan O’Neill (1, 2, 3 ), hero of free speech and independent thinking courtesy of Spiked Online, has his say in the Spectator, on Blair’s possible Brexit comeback. It has a similar ‘oomph’. Here’s the opening:

Here they come, Tony Blair and his tragic chattering-class army. The former PM, whose rictus grin and glottal stops still haunt the nation’s dreams (well, mine anyway), is on the march with his pleb-allergic mates in business and the media. Blair and the Twitterati, linking arms, united in their horror at the incalculable stupidity of northerners and Welsh people and Essex men and women and other Brexiteers, their aim as clear as it is foul. They’re here to save us from ourselves. ‘Tony Blair is trying to save Britain from itself’, as one report put it. Excuse me while I pop an anti-nausea pill.

Yes, Blair, the political version of Michael Myers, the nutter in the Halloween movies who just cannot be slain, is back. Again. Remember when PMs were dignified and would bow out into their cobwebbed corner of the Lords when it became clear the British public had had a gutful of them? Not Blair. He’s considering a return to the frontline of politics, according to reports, because he wants to halt Hard Brexit. He feels so ‘passionate’ about this, he says, that ‘I almost feel motivated to go right back into it’ — ‘it’ being politics, public life, our daily lives. Make it stop, please

I doubt that he’s the sort that would accept a knighthood, but if he maintains this standard (he will)……

Snappy dresser O’Neill

Easter Saturday: there is a great silence on earth today**

I’ve posted on this four times previously (1, 2, 3, 4), in part because it’s such an intriguing day.  Bryan Appleyard tweeted 3 years ago: Easter Saturday, a catastrophic, hopeless day of no hope. Some say all Beckett’s work takes place on Easter Saturday. I guess that hopelessness is how it felt back then, around 1984 years ago. But if you’re a believer it’s different – you know what’s coming. This astoundingly good Mantegna painting sums up the Appleyard view…

Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, 1480. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

……it looks to be all over. But the mysterious activities behind the scenes, so to speak, on this Saturday are Christ entering hell, as seen in this engraving, also by Mantegna. Note that Christ is trampling down the gates of hell, with the souls in limbo waiting expectantly through the open door…

Mantegna, Descent into Limbo, ~1475, V&A collection

..and you may ask what that’s all about? I went into the background to it here. It’s decribed in the Catechism as the “last stage of Jesus’ messianic mission”, to “preach even to the dead”. It’s produced some pretty flamboyant painting, such as this derivation of Rubens, Bosch and other Low Country painters…

Jan Brueghel the elder, Rottenhammer, Christ’s Descent into Limbo, 1597. Mauritshuis, The Hague

Easter Saturday then is quite a day. The transient attempted secularising of Easter makes no difference to these awesome traditions and beliefs. Here is a fine blog post on the Limbo thing and its depiction, if you’re interested, and also a great study of the ‘Appleyardian’ view in painting.

** the title is from the famous and highly poetic sermon of Melito of SardisSomething strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.












In a week when Barack Obama is conducting a farewell tour in the Far East, and commendably visiting Hiroshima whilst thus far avoiding the outright apology urged on him by Guardianistas (though not this one)and their US equivalents, it’s worth contemplating what an astonishing achievement the US Pacific campaign was.

This very brief introduction by the finest of popular historians, Victor Davis Hanson, gives a flavour of the challenge, unprecedented then and now.

The Knife has a particular fascination with the unbelievably intense combat of the battle on Tarawa, but really that gruelling pattern of fighting was repeated countless times in tiny islands over a mindbogglingly huge area of ocean, punctuated by occasional colossal naval and air battles. The ‘Greatest Generation‘ epithet is not remotely overstating it. They’re still out there, people like Buck Miller.

Who was responsible for the victory? Lots of people, but in terms of the actual strategy and combat, the admirals cited by Hanson take most of the credit. The more you read about them, the more in awe one becomes of their legacy. One might expect admirals, like many surgeons (this one included), to have occasional ego issues.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey was an unpredictable hot headed man with a very pointed degree of aggression and an ability to rub everyone up the wrong way.  As his communique said at the conclusion of hostilities “Cessation of hostilities. War is over. If any Japanese airplanes appear, shoot them down in a friendly way”. However, when asked years later about the campaign he disarmingly stated:

There are no great men, just great challenges which ordinary men, out of necessity, are forced by circumstances to meet.

Not bad, for someone who had a lot to boast about.

His colleague, Admiral Raymond Spruance took it further, possibly claiming a title as the first ‘slacker’ admiral in the process, despite being a superb and calm leader in times of crisis:

“When I look at myself objectively, I think that what success I may have achieved through life is largely due to the fact that I am a good judge of men. I am lazy, and I never have done things myself that I could get someone to do for me. I can thank heredity for a sound constitution, and myself for taking care of that constitution….Some people believe that when I am quiet that I am thinking some deep and important thoughts, when the fact is that I am thinking of nothing at all. My mind is blank.

Wonderful, on many levels.




A polymath’s* notes on War and Peace

In a huff: Napoleon on the Borodino Heights. Vereshchagin, 1897. State Borodino War and History Museum, Moscow

When renaissance men of the stature of Simon Schama (who is also an idiot), Clive James and Philip Hensher (1, 2) have recently opined on the topic, it seemed only appropriate for me to add my bit. These are some of my thoughts on the book, I haven’t yet seen any of the TV or film adaptations.

1.Stick with it, the first 50 pages or so are the hardest. Use the footnotes etc if your translation has them

2. Large parts of it are essentially an upmarket soap opera. This is not intended to demean it, or the reader. It makes it a very compelling tale.

3. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina trick of being able to inhabit the female mind is a wonder.

4. I read the superb Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, but it’s generally held that none are bad as such, though Maude and Briggs are probably the next in line. Comparing them all is a sport in itself.

5. It can be difficult to read in the bath, especially in hardback.

6. Having recourse to a map and  historical summaries (eg. for Austerlitz and Borodino) is a smart idea. Various paintings (eg, by the mighty Vereshchagin, are remarkably vivid)

7. My translation kept the French bits (a lot), which is fine if there are footnotes on the same page. It’s actually a neat way of reutilising your school French again.

8. Despite the book’s length, Tolstoy knows how to avoid fatiguing the reader. His chapter lengths are perfect, like Dickens. Compare that with alleged masterpieces of European literature which are exhaustingly indigestible like Broch’s The Death of Virgil. To quote DJ Enright:     Could it be that what a flow of lyrical speculation needs is precisely to be interrupted from time to time by the unlyrical and the known? And can a technical advance be “genuinely” an advance if its prime effect is to produce unreadability?

9. The two consecutive chapters ( Vol IV, Part 1, ch XV; XVI  ) on the effects of impending death on the dying person are quite phenomenal. I have seen variations on this many times in my career. It is simply brilliant, Tolstoy’s insight and powers of expression are so far ahead of nearly every other writer.

10. What has been described as Tolstoy’s take on ‘historical determinism’ was an unexpected feast, for me, of clear eyed thinking. The great man rips apart the idea that individuals create history according to any sort of plan, and he does it with the driest and wittiest of prose, even in translation (see 4).

Here’s a typical example (Epilogue Part 2, ch VII):

For reasons known or unknown to us the French began to drown and kill one another. And corresponding to the event its justification appears in people’s belief that this was necessary for the welfare of France, for liberty, and for equality. People ceased to kill one another, and this event was accompanied by its justification in the necessity for a centralization of power, resistance to Europe, and so on. Men went from the west to the east killing their fellow men, and the event was accompanied by phrases about the glory of France, the baseness of England, and so on. History shows us that these justifications of the events have no common sense and are all contradictory, as in the case of killing a man as the result of recognizing his rights, and the killing of millions in Russia for the humiliation of England. But these justifications have a very necessary significance in their own day.

You’ll find it at various points:

Vol III  Part 1  ch I

Vol III  Part 2  ch I; XIX; XXVIII, Part  3  ch I; II; V

Vol  IV  Part 1  ch IV; V; VI, Part 2  ch I; II; XVIII; XIX  Part 3  ch I; XVIII; XIX

Epilogue – all of Part 2 (ch I-XII). If I had to select the single most telling and representative  part of this dense and closely argued polemic, I would say it’s ch III of this absorbing afterword

You have to interpret historical writing, however brilliantly done,  with a degree of skepticism after Tolstoy, it’s always “too early to say”.

Tolstoy continues this reflection in his honest and occasionally amusing appendix to the whole novel, drawing on his own military experience (which shows throughout the book) in the Crimean War.

11. Napoleon does not come out of it too well, whatever his abilities to galvanise and lead. To quote: ..that most insignificant instrument of history, who never and nowhere, even in exile, displayed any human dignity, whereas General Kutuzov is an inscrutable,unfussy Russian hero with a magisterial historical insight

12. It’s probably wise to take claims of finishing it quickly, or reading it umpteen times, with a bucket of salt (see below, from comments after a Guardian article)

13. Tolstoy is a master psychologist. Not a speculative ‘filling in the plot with the character’s thoughts’ writer: his understanding of his characters, and of humanity in general, is pretty awesome.

14. Tolstoy is not overtly interested in erotic love per se. His numerous insights into love relate to the meeting of minds and a supernatural, religious bonding with a nod to physical attraction. The most bodacious female character Princess Helene does not get a good rep. The book is not a bodice ripper, though I imagine the TV people feel they have to push that line a bit.

15. When people complain about the ending, I’m not sure what they mean. The fictional narrative ends earlier than the whole novel, but Tolstoy’s occasionally complicated discussion of necessity v freedom in defining history and historical thought is really pretty good, and relates beautifully to all that has gone before. The very last two paragraphs are truly magnificent.

16. It’s not just hype. This might well be the best novel that you’ll ever read.



Schama, in the FT “the next time will be my ninth” etc

…and back to the Guardian….



*…this is not necessarily true


Easter Triduum 3

Nikolai Ge, Heralds of the Resurrection, 1867, Moscow Tretyakov Gallery


Nikolai Ge was a successful Russian realist painter with elements of symbolism and expressionism. His portraits are terrific, notably of Tolstoy, but he majored in religious themes and his Easter pieces, such as Christ with Pilate (Quod est Veritas) and Golgotha are superb. His Calvary in the Musee d’Orsay is quite stunning.

The Easter Saturday interlude

Peter Howson, The Harrowing of Hell
Howson is a Glasgow trained painter with an extraordinary life story.  A lot of people find his works a bit too brutal and ‘excessively’ religious. He’s a real artist though, and achieves real recognition – Manhattan exhibitions and all that.

Today is the mysterious Easter Saturday. From the famous ‘ancient homily’ said to be by Melito of Sardis, in the Office of Readings:

Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.