Books read April 2022

Steven Runciman: The Fall of Constantinople 1453, h/b, London, Folio, 2013   

Historian Steve Runciman
The Fall of Constantinople 1453

Steven Runciman was one of Britain’s most outstanding C20th historians and certainly the leading  historian of the Byzantine Empire and the history of the Crusades. Runciman inherited wealth from his grandfather and so was able to lead the life of a free-lancing scholar after an outstanding career at Oxford where his strength in languages was extraordinary including Latin, Greek, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, Syriac, Armenian and Georgian. He did however hold down  several major roles both in the Second World War and in academia. He was an aesthete and a successful gambler with a strong interest in the occult. He died in 2003 aged 97 soon after a remarkable final journey to Mt Athos, flown in by helicopter!

His in depth histories of Crusades and the final Fall of Constantinople are marked by his more favourable understanding of both Islamic and Byzantine societies than previous scholars and had a significant impact on the way historians now understand Byzantine and Islamic history and the tensions between Western and Eastern European Christians.

The Collapse of Constantinople really began in 1204 when the fourth European crusade against Islam was launched.  Spurred on by  the Venetians the Crusaders entered Orthodox Christian Constantinople and sacked the city with most of its wealth and remarkable artwork finding its way to Venice and elsewhere in Europe. This tragedy markedly weakened the Byzantine Empire which gradually lost more and more ground to Islam including large parts of the Balkans, even laying siege to Vienna itself. By 1453  mighty Constantinople had been reduced to 4,983 available Greeks and slightly under 2000 foreigners ready to face a Turkish army of 80 000 fighting men.

On the water the Greeks were also hugely outnumbered. They had about 23 ships against 130 ships in Sultan Mehmet’s fleet. In addition the Hungarian engineer Orban created the largest cannon yet made for Sultan Mehmet. He had gone first to the Emperor Constatine X1 but his purse was empty and Orban found a better offer. Not one European power came to the Emperor’s aid with the exception of the famous Genoese soldier Giovanni Giustininani who brought with him seven hundred well armed soldiers and fought bravely.

The Emperor’s army fought bravely for seven weeks against these huge odds.  The Sultan’s army battered the walls by day and the Greeks repaired them by night. The Greeks more mobile tiny fleet had the better of the war on the water.  In the end it was a near thing. Some on the Sultan’s side thought that the city was impregnable and they should call off the siege but the Sultan called for one last massive assault. It was unsuccessful and a retreat was being considered when a tiny unimportant side gate in the city wall was left open and the Sultan’s army poured in, overwhelming and slaughtering the unprepared Greeks. The victory was complete and a horrific slaughter and rapine ensued.

Apart from a few far-flung outpost islands the Byzantine Empire was no longer. The Sultan now controlled the whole of the Balkan Peninsular and now the greatest prize of all, Constantinople.  In short time all but three of the Christian churches were converted to mosques and vast numbers of Orthodox Christians either fled elsewhere, changed their faith or were enslaved or murdered. Trebizon soon followed and other Orthodox strongholds followed.  Only Russia stood alone for the Orthodox faith. 

This is a gripping story told without sentimentality or partisanship by Runciman. Once this book gets hold of you it won’t let you go. Orthodox Christianity is gaining ground in the West today..its quiet spirituality seems to refresh after the wearying disputes between disagreeing Christian followers. Who could tell where the next stage of this story goes in our own troubled C21st. 5 stars.

Alan Bennett: The Uncommon Reader, p/b, London, Profile Books, 2008  

Alan Bennett
The Uncommon Reader

Alan Bennett is a multi-talented actor, author, playwright and screenwriter who sprang to fame in 1960 at the Edinburgh Festival along with the gloriously funny trio of Dudley Moore, Johnathan Miller and Peter Cook.  Equally well known is his true account of The Lady in the Van about a fifteen year stay of a woman originally unknown to him who parked her car in his driveway for fifteen years.  The story was made into a very popular movie.

The Uncommon Reader is a gem of a fantasy which has Queen Elizabeth 11 coming across an official mobile library in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and meeting a keen reader Norman from the kitchen staff who is strongly attracted to gay authors. Norman’s passion inspires the Queen to start reading which, in her normal role she has no time for.  Bennett manages to include sixty five authors in this section of the novel along with many humorous insights into both literature and the Queen’s activities.  He manages to do this in such a way that we find the Queen’s behaviour believable.

After Norman’s opponents in the Palace get rid of Norman the Queen begins to consider writing as well as reading and the novel concludes with a fascinating address by the Queen to all of her Privy Counsellors in which she extols the values of both reading and writing to her amazed councillors. 

This is a gentle and thought provoking humorous yarn by a master of the theatre and comedy. 

4 stars. 

Murray Seiffert:  Gumbuli of Ngukurr: Aboriginal Elder in Arnhem Land, h/b, Brunswick East,  Acorn Press, 2011

Dr Murray Seiffert & Gumbuli of Ngukkur

The late Dr Murray Seiffert, who died just twelve months ago, has written an extraordinary history of an Aboriginal young man from tiny Bickerton Island in Arnhem Land who for over thirty years was the priest and leader of the town of Ngukurr, a community which began as a mission station on the Roper River.

Murray and I were friends and colleagues for over fifty years sharing time at Ridley College, teaching in north central Victoria, fellow worshippers at St James Ivanhoe for 17 years and sharing in many co-family events. Murray was an outstanding sportsman, agricultural scientist, teacher, sociologist and theologian and godfather to our second son David. For five years Murray worked with his wife Marjory as the Academic Dean of Nungalinya College in Darwin, during which time he had many opportunities to talk with  Gumbuli and visit Ngukurr. 

Michael Gumbuli Wurramara was only the second Aboriginal man to be ordained priest in the Northern Territory. He was converted by missionaries from the Church Missionary Society working on Groote Island, a large island close to Bickerton Island, east of Darwin. Inevitably, Gumbuli’s story can only  be told by being combined with the larger story of the planting of the Christian Gospel in Arnhem Land.  Gumbuli was born in 1935 and it is not hard to remember that as late as 1930 mass atrocities against Aborigines on the Australian mainland were still occurring. There is a Gippsland connection with the founding of the Roper River Mission (later called Ngukurr). The Gippsland Aboriginal community provided a generous financial contribution to the cost of the boats used to transport the team from Groote Island including Gumbuli which established the original mission on the Roper River. 

Gumbuli’s remarkable forty two year marriage to Dixie Daniels, his quiet but strong leadership style, his courage to face the spiritual dangers of native ceremony, his extraordinary energy to be a priest/town leader/mechanic/ cattle station missionary/retreat leader/daily worship leader, and his own personal faith and commitment both to the Bible’s truth and to Anglican order is exceptional. He was well worthy of his Order of Australia in 2010.

There are many critical issues to be examined in this remarkable history and Gumbuli was in the middle of them. Not least is the creation of the Kriol (formerly Pidgin) Bible. Gumbuli not only spoke good English but was fluent in Kriol, Anindilyakwa and other tribal languages. His encouragement to create a complete Kriol Bible was essential to its final achievement. Other key issues included the ongoing tension between Christian faith and aboriginal ceremony/culture (including the sharp differences between Uniting Church and Anglican approaches to the validity of the  serpent creation story);  the tragedy of native polygamy; the many disputes over alcohol at Ngukurr; the early poverty of Government financial support; the difficulty of maintaining good staff; problems with the police; disastrous floods and droughts and many other challenges. 

One remarkable feature of the story of Australian aborigines accepting the Gospel is the impact of Festo Kivingeri, exceptional Ugandan evangelist and Christian spokesman during the reign of Idi Amin. He came to the Territory and made a powerful impact which Gumbuli and others were able to build upon. 

Murray Seiffert has managed in this book to make everything interesting and one reason, oddly,  is the outstanding documentation. There is barely a sentence recorded that is not footnoted for source. The result is, in my experience, an unparalleled honesty and accuracy in the account of events. Murray’s voice is not intruded on this text…we read the very words spoken by government officials, missionaries, nurses, bishops, and eye witnesses of events and other key figures. The reader does not have to stop and check these comments (although being me I did!), but the detail gave me confidence to know that I was reading exciting history from the hundreds of people actually involved.

Another feature of interest for people my age is the many references to amazing individuals and figures known to me personally or by reputation from my own lifetime! Thus we read of Bishops Clyde Woods, Richard Appleby, Ken Mason, Arthur Malcolm and Philip Freier, CMS stalwarts Barry and Margaret Butler, Gwen and Lance Tremlett, George Pearson, Joy and John Sandefur, Keith Cole, David Woodbridge, Sister Ednar Brooker and many others.

Who should read this remarkable book? Anyone like me who has only been to Alice Springs and Darwin and has only a feeble knowledge of the story of the coming of Christianity to Arnhem Land. It will make you cry and also make you thank God for faithful servants.  5 stars

Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices, Ed. Douglas Cleverdon; Lithographs, Ceri Richards, h/b, London, Folio, 1972 (1954). 

Dylan Thomas
Under Milk Wood

C20th English/Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (he spoke no Welsh) carried this radio play around with him for some seven years before finally passing it on to his friend and publisher Douglas Cleverdon during Thomas’s preparation for his fourth recital tour to the USA. Thomas died in a New York hospital on the 9th November 1953 after falling into a coma. The radio play was broadcast by the B.B.C. on 25 January 1954 with Richard Burton taking the First Voice. The play was acclaimed as a master piece and was awarded the international Italia Prize as the finest radio work of the year. The first full-blown theatre production was staged at the Edinburgh Festival in August  1956 and subsequently in London, at the New Theatre, where it ran for seven months. 

The play describes the thoughts and desires of the townsfolk of the made up town of Llareggub based on the Welsh seaside village of Laugharne where Thomas lived from 1938 to 1940 and to which he returned in 1949.  Several of Laugharne’s well-known characters appear in Under Milk Wood especially the blind old sea captain “Captain Cat”.  Topographically the play is also based on the fishing town of Newquay with its steep street  running down to the harbour.  Thomas lived in Newquay with his wife Caitlin and his children from 1945.

The Radio Play beautifully and humorously portrays one complete day in Llareggub from the early morning dreaming of Captain Cat as he remembers his former girl friend Rosie Probert and his drowned fellow sailors Dancing Williams, Tom-Fred the donkeyman, Jonah Jarvis, Alfred Pomeroy Jones  and Curly Bevan all spring to life as first drowned down to fifth drowned. As Captain Cat wakes up many other voices of the village are heard, the draper, the cobbler, the dress maker, the sweet-shop keeper, Mrs Waldo, Miss Myfanwy Price, the Undertaker, Mr and Mrs Ogmore- Pritchard, Organ Morgan and 61 other voices including the school children and their teacher;  Rev Eli Jenkins and Bessie Bighead. Captain Cat hears them waking up and starting their day, the women gossiping around the town, the children bursting out from school with their bullying and teasing, the two Mrs Dai Bread, the men dreaming of school teacher Gossamer Beynon high heels, Polly Garter and her many lovers, the dreamy afternoon as the sunny slow lulling afternoon yawns and moons through the dozy town…Captain Cat remembers Lazy early Rosie with the flaxen thatch, whom he shared with Tom-Fred the donkeyman and many another seaman…while The Reverend Eli Jenkins inky in his cool front parlour or poem-room tells only the truth in his Lifework—the Population, main industry etc etc finishing each day with his sunset poem:  We are not wholly bad or good

Who live our lives under Milk Wood,

and Thou, I know, wilt be the first,

To see our best side, not our worst…    and gradually,  First Voice proclaims: The thin night darkens. A breeze from the creased water sighs the streets close under Milk waking Wood….

There is sadness and joy in this play for voices; heaving life and fading memories, desires, lusts, burdens, failures, dreams and life ongoing in Llareggub.   I read this play as an old(er) man myself and contemplate life’s passing with all its promise and hopes, hurts and fears, triumphs and tragedies, and as I see one or another folk I have loved pass away.  Dylan Thomas loved life to the utmost and loved a drink too often to live a longer life. But he has given us some amazing poetry and this delightful and endearing radio play.  5 stars.

Tom Wolfe: Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine, p/b, London, Picador, 1990 (1976) 

Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine
Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe was a C20th  American journalist and novelist and a leader in the “New Journalism” of the sixties which intertwined literary techniques with news writing and journalism. Wolfe had an extraordinary gift for uncovering the minutest details of the American spirit from the sixties and into the new millennium. His book The Bonfire of the Vanities, chronicled the social class, greed, ambition and money hunger of America in the eighties and  made him a household name although the film of the novel bombed.

Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter and Vine was Wolfe’s second novel and its various short stories demonstrate his exrtraordinary gifts of observation, detailed analysis, hard-earned knowledge of each subject, and his gloriously outrageous gifts of self-deprecating humour. The book’s title and first story describes a middle aged married New Yorker with children adding up his finances after a cocktail party he gave six weeks ago and resulting in  a series of cancelled cheques which have just come in the mail.  Clutter & Vine was the name of the florists to whom he owed $209.60 and Mauve Gloves & Madmen were the caterers to whom he owed $257.50.  He proceeds to tote up his $1000/month apartment in New York, his rented summerhouse on Martha’s Vineyard, his children’s school and college fees, his recent large dinner parties and much much more. The $ value looks small in 2022 money but the reader feels the pressure rising.

The third story, The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie, describes the experience of an American bomber pilot flying in VietNam towards the end of the war when American losses had begun to reach very high numbers. Whatever views the reader has towards the logic and horror of the war the story of the reality for this two man bomber team leaves one gasping for air. There is no humour in this section!

Another rather sad story covers the inside gen on the creation of commercial advertisements with sports superstars.  Equally troubling is  “The intelligent Coed’s Guide to America”, on how American undergrads responded to the likes of Günter Grass, Solzhenitsyn and Stalinism, Lionel Trilling, Herbert Marcuse’s doctrine of “repressive tolerance” and much more. More humorous but in some ways still rather frightening is “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening” which throws clarifying light on what has recently occurred in the Trump era. Other topics include brief essays on violent crime, “pornoviolence”, teenage sexuality, Funky Chic on early eighties fashion, and “honks and wonks” on New York accents.   While these topics sound heavy and they are, Tom Wolfe manages to describe the action with humour, wisdom and a light touch.  There is so much good that comes out of America…there is also so much we could do without. 

I have never been a keen reader or student of sociology, but if you must go there, Tom Wolfe is the man to help you understand it, in America anyway.   4 stars.