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Creativity, as captured by Lawrence Durrell

The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this – that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side.


David Grossman on consumer society

The values and horizons of our world, the atmosphere that prevails in it and the language that dominates it, are dictated to a great extent by what is known as mass media, or mass communication. The term ‘mass media’ was coined in the 1920s, when sociologists began to refer to ‘mass society’. But are we truly aware of the significance of this term today, and of the process it has gone through? Do we consider the fact not only that, to a large extent, the ‘mass media’ today are media designed for the masses, but that in many ways they also turn their consumers into the masses? They do so with the belligerence and the cynicism that emanate from all their manifestations; with their shallow, vulgar language; with the oversimplification and self-righteousness with which they handle complex political and moral problems; with the kitsch in which they douse everything they touch – the kitsch of war and death, the kitsch of love, the kitsch of intimacy.


Fred Vargas, and the importance of coffee

Last night, Charles had felt her face with his fingers. It had been rather nice, she had to admit, those long hands scrupulously exploring all the contours of her face, as if she were printed out in Braille. She had sensed that he might have liked to go further, but she had not given him any encouragement. On the contrary, she had made some coffee. Very good coffee, in fact. That was no substitute for a caress, of course. But in a way a caress is no substitute for a good cup of coffee, either.


Michael Novak on the Judaeo-Christian roots of modern progress

From Aquinas and the heretics:

Apart from the guardianship of the Church over many centuries, it is hard to see whence would have derived the resources that later gave rise to modern science, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. The fundamental conceptions of progress, truth, compassion, the dignity of the individual, and the centrality of personal liberty on which modern progress rests are rooted in Jewish and Christian beliefs about human nature and destiny.

Isaac Bashevis Singer on literature that lasts

Herman, left alone, sat with his head bowed. He had noticed a copy of the Bible on the shelf near his chair and he leaned over and took it out. He leafed through the pages and found Psalms: ‘Be gracious unto me, O Lord, for I am in distress. Mine eye wasteth away with vexation, yea, my soul and my body. For my life is spent in sorrow, and my years in sighing. My strength faileth because of mine iniquity and my bones are wasted away. Because of mine adversaries, I am become a reproach, yea, unto my neighbours exceedingly, and a dread to mine acquaintances.’

Herman read the words. How was it that these sentences fitted all circumstances, all ages, all moods, while secular literature, no matter how well written, in time lost its pertinence.


THE BURNING TIME Introduction: Setting the scene

Anne Askew was burnt at the stake along with John Lascelles (a lawyer and Gentleman of the King’s Privy Chamber), John Hadlam (a tailor from Essex) and John Hemsley (a former Franciscan friar), on 16 July 1546. A great stage was built at Smithfield for the convenience of Chancellor Wriothesley, other members of the Privy Council and City dignitaries, to watch the burning in comfort. Anne herself, having been broken on the rack, was unable to stand, and was chained to the stake in a sitting position. John Louth, the Archdeacon of Nottingham, who witnessed the execution, described Anne as smiling throughout her torment and looking like an angel, and insisted that, at the moment of her death, there was ‘a pleasant cracking from heaven’. Whether that was the sound of the flames, or summer lightning, or merely a figment of the imagination, cannot now be determined; nor can we know how, or if, the witnesses could actually have identified the precise moment of death.

So what was the terrible crime that Anne was deemed to have committed and that led her to this appalling end? Why was being a ‘Protestant’ or ‘reformer’ considered so heinous, and what was this ‘heresy’ with which she was charged?

A word deriving from the Greek, ‘heresy’ originally meant merely ‘choice’, but by the Middle Ages it had come to mean ‘wrong choice’, especially in matters of religion. In Europe, and particularly Spain, the ‘Inquisition’ had been set up to identify heretics, with the aim of their contaminating heresy being cut out of society, like a cancer. Heretics were given one chance to ‘abjure’ or ‘recant’ – effectively, to make a public confession that they had been wrong, to accept some kind of ‘shaming’ penance (such as standing in front of a church congregation wearing a white sheet or being paraded through the streets on a cart), and to agree to follow ‘orthodox’ belief (‘orthodoxy’ meaning both ‘right doctrine’ and ‘right worship’) from now on. If a heretic, having recanted, fell back into his or her old ways, there was to be no second chance. They were to be handed over by the Church to the civic authorities for punishment – which meant death by burning.

But the nature of what constituted heresy kept changing, particularly in England during the tumultuous years of the mid-sixteenth century. There were several types of possible heretical belief under the respective reigns of the three monarchs which constitute the burning time (the period which saw the greatest number of burnings for heresy) in Tudor England – Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I. Some were based entirely upon interpretations of religious doctrine; some hinged on changes in society and questions of authority and were linked to the increased availability of the printed word; others were dictated by the whim of the individual monarch …

Read more in The Burning Time

1959: Woman Donkey Hours

Outlined against the fields,
inevitable as landscape,
a kerchiefed woman and a donkey
trudge the dusty path, to where
they fight the stubborn earth for food.

Anchoress, she treads her daily silences,
mantras iterating on her children;
she knows no joy in exercise of muscle,
spread of sky or shades of green
on ten-mile tramps each way.

She fills the bag suspended from her shoulder
with twigs for kindling, dandelion and sorrel,
and cuts the donkey’s fodder from the pathside
to stuff the sacks which press against his flanks;
she would not dream of riding him.

When they reach their hard half-barren patch
she pulls the weeds out from the wheat,
clears a space around the beans, then sits;
other headscarves dot the panorama –
one with her, yet utterly unknown.

When sun is hot it scorches them,
when rain is pouring they get wet;
every day the same but Sunday
when she prays for strength from Him
Who made this grand design and drew her in it.

Responsive to the brushstroke of the air,
she feels the varnish drying on the day:
they set off on the backward trail,
his hooves clicking, her boots scraping –
rhythms marking off the hours.


©Virginia Rounding, 1996