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When we were on retreat recently I was reading Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, by Augustine Thompson, OP. It sets out to be a historical reconstruction of his life, based on a huge number of historical studies over the last few decades. It’s not written with a destructive spirit, as if Thompson were trying to debunk the often beautiful mythology that has grown up around St Francis over the years. But it is trying to discover the authentic heart of the man, and the life that is presented here is both simpler and much more complex than the standard biographies that are based uncritically on much later and less reliable sources.

assisi

Many things struck me and stayed with me: How Francis’s conversion was inseparable from his first-hand experience of war, violence and imprisonment when he went to battle as a young man; the relationship between psychological trauma and spiritual awakening and healing.

Those beautiful stories about Francis walking into a church and hearing the gospel call to poverty and radical discipleship are true. But they were not the scripture readings of the liturgy of the day. There was a tradition of Christians coming to the priest for guidance, and asking him to him to open the scriptures three times at random, and in this way picking three passages from the bible that would somehow cohere and provide direction for the one who asked. This is how the Lord spoke so powerfully to Francis about the call to evangelical simplicity and obedience.

How difficult his gradual conversion must have been for his family. His father comes across not as a worldly tyrant but as a concerned father who doesn’t know how to react to his son’s apparent psychological disintegration and the consequent implosion of his family business.

How unsure Francis was about his new way of life. It’s very clear from this reconstruction that when he first went to see the pope to have his ‘rule’ approved he had no intention to preach. The preaching mission came from the pope, and he followed it obediently.

It’s true that poverty was a central theme in Francis’s vision and lifestyle. But according to Thompson it was not the theological key. Francis, according to the historical sources, spent far more time preaching and teaching and sometimes writing about the Holy Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood than he did about poverty. He was captivated by the idea that Christ was present in our midst in the Mass and in the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacles of every Catholic church throughout the world. He showed the utmost respect to Catholic priests, fully aware of their weaknesses, because he believed that they represented Christ sacramentally for the Christian faithful.

He was horrified when he came across a church or chapel that was in a state of disrepair. It he found any altar linen that was dirty he would take it away to wash it. If he found any sacred books that contained the scriptures discarded on the floor he would put them in a more worthy place. When we hear that Francis was called to rebuild/repair God’s church we often think that this was a metaphor for a spiritual renewal of the church, which of course it was in many ways. But we forget that Francis’s first concern, which never left him, was to make the actual church buildings into sacred spaces that would be worthy for the liturgy and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

And I learnt how much Francis suffered, especially in the last years of his life through sickness. I knew this already, but the extent of the suffering comes across in this biography: the discomfort, the heartache, the sheer agony that Francis often lived through. He was a broken man at the end, but a man fully alive. The joy and the simplicity are there, but in this book they shine out of a very earthy humanity.

I’m not saying these are the central themes of the book or of St Francis’s life. They are just some of the ideas that made an impression on me that hadn’t come across so strongly in other biographies I’ve read. It’s a fascinating book – do read it yourself.

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I’m near the end of Robert Harris’s early novel Enigmaabout the World War II code breaking operation at Bletchley Park. I’ve stayed with it, but it’s not one of his best. As a thriller, it’s too clunky; the romance is unbelievable; and he doesn’t give you enough geeky detail about the machines or the codes to make them half-comprehensible without doing some extra research. So if you want a historical thriller by Harris I’d recommend Fatherland or Archangel, both of which play with counter-factual history: what if Hitler had won the war, what if Stalin…I won’t say any more!

And this morning I read that they have just discovered a coded message in a Surrey fireplace that was probably on its way to Bletchley Park but never got delivered. It was filed in a small red capsule and attached to a carrier pigeon, sent from Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, during the D-Day invasions. The poor bird possibly got lost or disoriented and stuck in the chimney. You can read the full report by Hannah Furness.

Here is the code, which hasn’t yet been broken:

AOAKN HVPKD FNFJW YIDDC

RQXSR DJHFP GOVFN MIAPX

PABUZ WYYNP CMPNW HJRZH

NLXKG MEMKK ONOIB AKEEQ

WAOTA RBQRH DJOFM TPZEH

LKXGH RGGHT JRZCQ FNKTQ

KLDTS FQIRW AOAKN 27 1525/6

Isn’t it amazing that pigeons were a key part of the war efforts, in this case because there was a radio blackout for the D-Day invasions.

The Royal Pigeon Racing Association believe the bird probably either got lost, disoriented in bad weather, or was simply exhausted after its trip across the Channel.

Due to Winston Churchill’s radio blackout, homing pigeons were taken on the D-Day invasion and released by Allied Forces to inform military Generals back on English soil how the operation was going.

Speaking earlier this month, Mr Martin said: “It’s a real mystery and I cannot wait for the secret message to be decoded. It really is unbelievable.”

It is thought that the bird was destined for the top-secret Bletchley Park, which was just 80 miles from Mr Martin’s home.

The message was sent to XO2 at 16:45. The destination X02 was believed to be Bomber Command, while the sender’s signature at the bottom of the message read Serjeant W Stot.

Experts said the spelling of Serjeant was significant, because the RAF used J, while the Army used G.

Pigeon enthusiasts – commonly known as “fanciers” – have called for Mr Martin’s mysterious military bird to be posthumously decorated with the Dickin Medal; the highest possible decoration for valour given to animals.

The dead pigeon was likely to be a member of the secret wing of the National Pigeon Service – which had a squadron of 250,000 birds during the Second World War.

They can reach speeds of 80mph, cover distances of more than 1,000 miles and are thought to use the Earth’s magnetic fields to navigate.

Secret messages, unbreakable codes, privacy, encryption – it’s all as relevant today as it was in 1944.

As a child I used to love stories about messages being put into bottles on desert islands, cast onto the oceans, and picked up hundreds of miles away. It’s incredible that you make this connection instantaneously now with billions of people through an internet site, a blog post or a Facebook update. A tweet, in effect, is just a message scrawled on a desert island only without the bottle.

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I love the new statue on the fourth plinth. It is well worth a visit whenever you are passing through central London.

Ostensibly, it’s about innocence, joy, hope, and (as one of the artists says) ‘looking to the future': a young boy, slightly older than I expected (is he about six or seven?), leans back in delight on his golden rocking horse, held in suspension before he lunges forward again.

But there is the rub: ‘looking to the future’. What future? It’s impossible not to compare the rocking horse with the military horses that adorn various other plinths round London, and with George IV’s horse on the third plinth just the other side of Trafalgar Square. And that sets up three implicit meanings to the statue that perpetually jostle with each other and create an incredible hermeneutical tension.

Is it saying: Forget the military heroism, the cult of the strong leader, the violence of war – there is something simpler and purer here, the innocence of childhood, which should lead to a brighter future without the disfigurement of war?

Or is it saying: Look at the heroes around you, the iconic warriors, and all they have done – for good or for ill. Look at them, and see how they were once as innocent as this young boy. See how innocence can be corrupted. See how quickly childhood disappears.

Or is it saying: Look at the heroes around you, the warriors, the liberators, the tyrants, the demagogues, the nameless horsemen who have led others into battle over the centuries. Look at them, and see how they were never innocent, because their aggression and their posturing started in the nursery, when they played at soldiers, and when their mock heroics – like this rocking horse moment – cast a psychological mould and set them on a trajectory that would lead to a thousand battlefields.

In other words, do you see in this boy an innocence that need never be corrupted, or an innocence that will one day be tragically corrupted, or a faux innocence that hides a corruption that has always been there and will one day wreak havoc?

In theological terms: Do you believe that there is no such thing as the Fall (that we live in and will continue to live in a time of Original Blessing), or that since the Fall we are prone to corruption and affected by it in different ways depending on our circumstances and our reactions, or that we are fundamentally corrupted by the Fall and without innocence or hope from the very beginning?

In psychological/sociological terms: Do you think that the harm we suffer or do is avoidable, or the inevitable result of our nurture, or the inevitable result of our nature?

Is it anti-war or pro-war or pre-war or indifferent-to-war or post-war or just a boy on a rocking horse?

Aside from these slightly heavy puzzles and provocations, it is an absolutely beautiful object, a joy to behold! And if you want to forget all the references to war and corruption and the Fall and just enjoy it as a celebration of the innocence of childhood – that’s fine…

Some words from Mark Brown’s article:

The 4.1-metre golden boy was unveiled on the fourth plinth on Thursday to whoops, aahhs and confused looks from foreign tourists in passing coaches. The reaction from Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset was one of immense relief.

“You’re not allowed to make tests, so it is a bit of a gamble,” said Ingar Dragset. “It’s installed the night before – it’s nerve-racking.”

The boy’s formal name is Powerless Structures, Fig 101, and he sits on top of a plinth designed to host a bronze equestrian statue of William IV by Sir Charles Barry, which was never installed.

More than 170 years later the boy becomes the latest in a series of contemporary art commissions that has included Marc Quinn’s pregnant Alison Lapper and, most recently, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare.

The statue was unveiled by Joanna Lumley who said she was thrilled to be revealing what was a “completely unthreatening and adorable creature” to the public.

Lumley said the plinth was great because it gets people talking. “What I love about this plinth, which is extraordinary because it’s empty, is that everybody is waiting to see what comes next … and everybody becomes an instant art critic. Everybody knows what should be there, what’s better than last time, what’s marvellous, what’s wonderful, what’s dreadful.”

Michael Elmgreen said it was deliberate that you have to walk around the square to meet the boy’s eyes and to see his expression – he is looking away from George IV “because he is afraid of him”.

While the other statues in the square celebrate power, this work celebrates growing up. He is a “more sensitive and fragile creature looking to the future”, said Elmgreen. The hope is that it might encourage people to consider less spectacular events in their lives, ones which are often the most important.

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My bedtime reading for the last few weeks, between Teresa of Avila’s Foundations, has been Max Hastings’s All Hell let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945. It’s almost too disturbing to read late at night, which is why I moderate it with some Carmelite spirituality.

No-one would deny how much the Allies suffered in the Second World War, on the front line and at home; but what comes across to me from the global perspective that Hastings offers is the breathtaking scale and unimaginable horror of war on the eastern front, as the Red Army clashed with the Nazis. I was mostly ignorant of this whole reality, and over-influenced by the British/American perspective.

I won’t try to summarise the book. If someone has asked you for a late Christmas present suggestion then get it for yourself. But here are a couple of statistics that made me stop in my tracks about war in the east.

On Sunday, 23 August, the Germans heralded their assault [on Stalingrad] with an air raid by six hundred aircraft: 40,000 civilians are said to have died in the first fourteen hours, almost as many as perished in the entire 1940-41 blitz on Britain [p308].

By the end of 1943, the Soviet Union had suffered 77 per cent of its total casualties in the entire conflict – something approaching twenty million dead [p395]

And to put in perspective the relative Allied losses:

The Soviet Union suffered 65 per cent of all Allied military deaths, China 23 per cent, Yugoslavia 3 per cent, the USA and Britain 2 per cent each, France and Poland 1 per cent each [p324].

Hastings is at pains to explain that you can’t compare one form of suffering with another, and that the knowledge of someone’s tragedy on another side of the globe does not in any way diminish or trivialise your own. But the scale of tragedy on the eastern front almost defies comprehension.

Part of the interest of the book lies in how Hastings manages to weave personal accounts of the war into the overall story, without ruining the flow. So in the midst of a section about grand strategy there are illuminating human passages from a letter sent home from the front line, or a diary found in the rubble of a besieged building.

I don’t know enough about the war to judge his judgments, but it’s a gripping story, and a sobering reminded of the tragedy of war. Despite the stories of heroism and daring, very little romance remains – at least in my own mind.

Here is the blurb from Waterstones, if you need any more persuading:

A magisterial history of the greatest and most terrible event in history, from one of the finest historians of the Second World War. A book which shows the impact of war upon hundreds of millions of people around the world – soldiers, sailors and airmen; housewives, farm workers and children.  Reflecting Max Hastings’s thirty-five years of research on World War II, All Hell Let Loose describes the course of events, but focuses chiefly upon human experience, which varied immensely from campaign to campaign, continent to continent.  The author emphasises the Russian front, where more than 90% of all German soldiers who perished met their fate. He argues that, while Hitler’s army often fought its battles brilliantly well, the Nazis conducted their war effort with ‘stunning incompetence’. He suggests that the Royal Navy and US Navy were their countries’ outstanding fighting services, while the industrial contribution of the United States was much more important to allied victory than that of the US Army. The book ranges across a vast canvas, from the agony of Poland amid the September 1939 Nazi invasion, to the 1943 Bengal famine, in which at least a million people died under British rule – and British neglect. Among many vignettes, there are the RAF’s legendary raid on the Ruhr dams, the horrors of Arctic convoys, desert tank combat, jungle clashes. Some of Hastings’s insights and judgements will surprise students of the conflict, while there are vivid descriptions of the tragedies and triumphs of a host of ordinary people, in uniform and out of it.  ‘The cliche is profoundly true’, he says. ‘The world between 1939 and 1945 saw some human beings plumb the depths of baseness, while others scaled the heights of courage and nobility’. This is ‘everyman’s story’, an attempt to answer the question: ‘What was the Second World War like ?’, and also an overview of the big picture. Max Hastings employs the technique which has made many of his previous books best-sellers, combining top-down analysis and bottom-up testimony to explore the meaning of this vast conflict both for its participants and for posterity.

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Look through any current affairs section in your local bookshop and you’ll find a pile of books that should really be classified under ‘future affairs’, dabbling in the science/art of futurology, and claiming to predict what the world will be like in ten, twenty or a hundred years’ time.

George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years is one such book that I’ve just finished reading. I don’t know anything about him, or STRATFOR, the ‘preeminent private intelligence and forecasting firm’ that he founded. But it’s a provocative read, partly because so many of his predictions go against the prevailing wisdom you find in the media. This is because, he claims, the underlying issues are always geopolitical, which ends up meaning geographic and demographic; and there is a sort of destiny to the way nations will relate that arises from their geographical strengths and vulnerabilities, and from their demographic profiles.

China, for example, is not going to be a major player in the twenty-first century, despite the present economic boom there. That’s because most of the country is inaccessible to the outside world; only the Eastern seaboard cities will be able to flourish – and they won’t want to be shackled by the centre forever; and the one child policy has created an aging population that won’t have enough younger people to sustain it.

The United States, instead, which everyone thinks is in decline, is actually only at the beginning of its world dominance – according to Friedman. That’s because, to vastly oversimplify,  it’s the one country that can continue to dominate (economically and militarily) both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And dominating the world’s oceans matters more than any other single political or technological asset.

The US-Jihadist ‘war’ is just a small distraction that won’t figure very heavily in the history books; there will be a new cold with Russia, as it reasserts its Eurasian dominance; and the real geopolitical conflict towards the end of the century will be between the States and a resurgent Mexico.

And while everyone else is worrying about the population explosion of the coming decades, Friendman believes that the most significant geopolitical fact of the next hundred years will be a global population implosion, together with the resulting scramble to attract the ever-decreasing numbers of available migrant workers, and the development of new technologies to cope with the declining availability of labour.

You can buy the book and disagree with him to your heart’s content! But it’s interesting to note, in the news just over the last few days, reports of a possible economic bust in China, and of a reverse trend in Mexican immigration into the United States, as people move back home to benefit from the vibrant Mexican economy…

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Very nearly a masterpiece – if you have any doubts about the power of cinema or whether film is the highest form of civilisation known to humankind, you need to see the re-released version of Apocalypse Now on a very large screen straight away.

I kept thinking, ‘How did he do this?’ The cinematography; the set pieces; the editing; the music. It’s breathtaking. It’s a long time since I have giggled with sheer delight at the audacity of  someone’s film-making.

What’s it about? War in general? The Vietnam war in particular? Madness? Morality? The risk of playing at God and thinking someone to be God and knowing that someone is not God? Possibly. Especially in Brando’s speech about the power that lies in the hands of those who are willing to dispense with moral scruples. Or is it about film itself?

This would have been Hitchcock’s answer: Film is not about anything – it’s not the content or meaning that matters – it’s the involvement of the viewer in the unfolding of the film itself, the momentum of desire and longing, the desperate need to know and arrive, and the delayed gratification of a story that is constantly twisting out of view.

It’s only the last half-hour that doesn’t quite work – too slow and too introspective. But then I’m not sure where else Coppola could have gone.

Do see this film on the big screen. It won’t be around for long. Here are the London listings for the next week.

PS – It was a joy to see this at Screen 1 of the Cineworld, Haymarket, just down from Piccadilly Circus, which is a huge old-fashioned screen with its proscenium arch still standing – such a change from the local multiplex.

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What do men really want? Not (apparently) beautiful women, fast cars, and an endless supply of free beer; but a life of duty, service, and self-sacrifice.

Robert Crampton wonders why the contemporary Western male is not happier than his father or grandfather, when he is ‘richer, safer, healthier, more long-lived, with a huge choice of leisure pursuits, lifestyles and material goods’. The answer, at the risk of oversimplifying, is that he is looking for happiness by seeking pleasure, rather than by cultivating virtue. He is following the path of Epicurus rather than Aristotle. And it isn’t working. ["What really makes men happy?" by Robert Crampton, The Times Magazine, 27/11/10, p54-59]

Live for today, the mantra that dominates our culture, simply does not work for most men. Men want to live for tomorrow. Men need goals, plans, causes, beliefs, structures, direction. Men are not natural Epicureans. Men crave the virtue Aristotle espoused.

That virtue can be found in small, everyday ways. The morning that I came into work to start this article, one of my colleagues, Jo, waylaid me by my desk. “Robert,” she said, “you strike me as a man who might have a screwdriver in his desk.” “I haven’t, I’m afraid,” I had to say. “What do you need a screwdriver for?” “My glasses have gone floppy,” said Jo, holding out her specs, the arms of which had indeed gone floppy. “Give them here,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do.”

I spent the next ten minutes experimenting with various tools attempting to tighten the screw at the side of Jo’s glasses, trying out in succession a penknife, teaspoon and paperclip in lieu of what was actually required, a tiny Phillips screwdriver. Eventually a bent staple fitted the screw head and gained traction. Thirty seconds later, Jo’s glasses were no longer floppy. She was duly grateful, I went back to work in a glow of satisfaction, of wellbeing and, yes, of happiness.

Why did this small action make me happy? Partly, but only partly, because Jo’s a woman and I’m a man. Partly my happiness came from sticking at a slightly awkward task, seeing it through, finding a solution. Partly it came from working with my hands, which I rarely do. And partly – mostly, I think – I derived a degree of pleasure from the fact that they were someone else’s glasses. I’d done a no-strings favour. Jo had asked for my help, I’d been able to oblige. Nothing in it for me. Except, happy as it made me, it turned out there was.

It’s not just about doing little favours and getting a glow of satisfaction from them. It’s about the whole direction of one’s life.

Men have an immense capacity for self-sacrifice. Not just a capacity, I would argue, but a need. Not all men, perhaps. But most. Male self-sacrifice is there in many of the key stories and myths of our culture, from the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae to the Battle of Britain.

For most of human history, what it has meant to be a man has involved self-sacrifice. Not only the patriotic self-sacrifice of war, also the peacetime sacrifice of doing a demanding, possibly dangerous job to provide for others. Or devoting yourself to a political, social or religious cause. Or simply having children and taking full responsibility for their welfare.

But these days, most men don’t dedicate themselves to creating Utopias, and aren’t involved in wars, or mining coal, or deep-sea fishing, or striving to lift their families out of poverty. All of which is a good thing.

A lot of men reach middle age unmarried and without children, which isn’t such a good thing, in my opinion – not for society, not for them. The reason married men are happier than bachelors is not, as in the caricature, because marriage allows husbands to grow lazy while a wife runs around for us. It’s the opposite: we’re happier because we’re almost certainly, to some degree or other, acting for someone’s benefit other than our own. I became a father at 33, which seems young from where I am now. Even so, I wish I’d done it sooner.

And it’s not just that we have lost the plot as individuals. The reason we have lost the individual plot is that we do not have the social networks there to remind us what really matters.

Our fathers and grandfathers had institutions to cultivate their virtue for them: the Church, the Army, early marriage, a lifelong, cumulative career building towards expertise and respect, a trade union, a political cause, an extended family network. Such bonds have either been loosened, or are gone.

In losing their access to these institutions and beliefs, men lost something else, too: the company of other like-minded men. A couple of generations back, men would work and play exclusively with other men. We did that too much. Now we probably don’t do it enough. Many of my contemporaries socialise with their partners or not at all. They have friends, but they are in some way estranged from them.

I like these ideas. But I’m not convinced by Crampton’s solutions. He wants us to live sacrificial lives as if we were living for a higher cause (with all the generosity and virtue that our grandfathers brought to their own causes), even if we are not sure about what the foundations of our own convictions and goals are. In the absence of God he appeals to conscience. It’s certainly better to follow your conscience than not to follow it. But I don’t think you can serve your conscience. It’s your conscience that helps you to serve and give your life to something that is more important than yourself: your family, your friends, your country, your God, those in need, etc. Conscience is a means to an end. But what if you have no identifiable end?

See what you think of Cramptons concluding remarks:

So what is to be done? Join the Army? Downshift to the country and become a lumberjack? Some things you can’t control: you can’t rustle up a morally bombproof cause like the defeat of fascism to fight for. You can’t start believing in a God whom you don’t think exists. You can’t go back to the days when your grandfather dedicated himself to lifting his family out of poverty. But what you can do is take the elements worth preserving from the institutions and activities and beliefs that we have lost and put them to work again.

You don’t have to be a labourer to spend time working with your hands. You don’t have to be a soldier or a sportsman to be fit rather than fat and lazy. You don’t need to be an intellectual to read a decent book. You don’t need to pretend to be thick and crude when you’re not. You don’t need to be a hero to take some responsibility for the world around you. You don’t have to be a revolutionary – it’s better if you’re not – to make that world a better place in small ways. You don’t have to be a monk to spend time alone to work out what you think about something, and what you need to do.

And you don’t, of course, need to be a believer to live according to a moral code. Most surveys conclude that the devout are happier than the faithless. It’s not clear why that is, but it might be because the belief that you are being judged by a higher authority is a superbly moderating influence on male behaviour. You don’t have to call that higher authority God. You can call it conscience. Pretty much everybody has one. When we live in rough accordance with our consciences, we’re happy. When we don’t, we’re not.

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