War memorials, bombed churches and ‘Christian civilisation’

I usually summarise my articles here, but this older one has not had such a summary before now as it predates this blog. As I’ve had cause to revisit it in the process of thinking about London’s blitzed churches in fiction, here’s a digest.

Title: Beauty, utility and “Christian civilisation”: war memorials and the Church of England, 1940-47
Published: Forum for Modern Language Studies 44:2 (2008) 199-211
Read the final version (proofs)

The years following the end of the First World War saw an effusion of memorials to that war, to the extent that scarcely a village, school or regiment was without one. The impression that might be gained from a journey through much of rural England is that the stone cross, placed by the village green, was the predominant form of memorial chosen by English communities after 1918. In contrast (it has been argued) the years after 1945 were characterised by indifference, and indeed hostility, towards the building of further monuments in stone. Nick Hewitt has suggested that this ‘sceptical generation’ desired ‘practical’ or ‘useful’ memorials, such as playing fields, community halls or educational scholarships. The ‘artistic establishment’ was by 1944 out of touch with a utilitarian public. This article considers just this establishment and the part played by the Church of England in its deliberations.

It examines the moment during the last years of the war and immediately after, during which the interlocking ecclesiastical, artistic and governmental establishments began to imagine the general shape of memorialisation, and the part the bombed churches of London and elsewhere might play. It shows that there had been a much more lively debate on memorials than the eventual inventory might imply. Debate centred in particular on whether or not a beautiful but “useless” memorial was an appropriate response and (if it was) in which style it ought to be executed. Clergy, artists and architects and the committees and bodies that facilitated their interaction were keenly interested in the relationship between beauty, utility and the reconstruction of “Christian civilisation”.


Slow scholarship and fast blogging revisited

In 2014 I had a look back at two years of blogging to see whether there was a tension between slow scholarship and fast blogging : that is, does the blog medium tempt scholars into the publication of immature work and hastily formed opinions? I concluded not, but more than two years on, has that changed? Of the seventy posts I’ve published since then, are there any I wished I had shelved?

As usual, there were several posts which were the republications of book reviews and other pieces from elsewhere, and various pieces in the way of reportage: new books from others, exhibitions and so on. There were also a good deal of posts in the way of advertising: new articles appearing, abstracts of forthcoming ones, and so on. But there were some twenty-five pieces which were more discursive in character: essays on everything from social media archiving to clergy in fiction, from user requirements for web archives, to the purpose of religious history. I also broke the habit of a lifetime and wrote an explicitly political piece on the EU referendum, the kind of writing I usually keep for another blog. And by and large, my impression of these remains as it was in 2014, even thought the subject matter has varied. As I concluded then:

There are areas in which my thinking has deepened since the first time I posted about them. But (crucially) that growth in thought has not been away from the initial post, but deeper and wider in the same soil. This is indeed what one would hope would happen – the act of first essaying something here is the stimulus to further thought …. I don’t think there are any posts here which I now wish were not here, and not in the archived version in the UK Web Archive. From the evidence of this blog, at least, there is no contradiction between slow scholarship and fast blogging.

John Fowles’ country parson

Most of the fictional Anglican clergymen in my little mini-series so far have been contemporary; that is, they are characters in stories set notionally in the present in which they were published. Daniel Martin, written by John Fowles and first published in 1977, has an extended vignette on the character of Daniel’s father, a parish priest in rural Devon in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Reverend Mr Martin owes something to Trollope, but bears a much greater symbolic weight. There is the enthusiasm for his garden, and for his collection of controversial religious writings of the seventeenth century, with which he regales his young son. He might have been a collector of butterflies or fossils or the detritus of dead languages: fictional clergy seem often to be antiquarians of one sort or another.

Not unlike Orwell’s Suffolk vicar in A Clergyman’s Daughter, he also disdains what earlier would have been known as ‘enthusiasm’, which he terms ‘demonstration’. ‘If only the good man would rely less on the demonstrative’ he would say of a visiting preacher; a visiting African-American preacher from the nearby US airbase was ‘over-enthusiastic’. In the Reverend Martin’s ‘Platonic notion of the perfect human soul’, any manifestation whatever of strong feeling was wholly absent. This was in part to do with where his real belief lies. Not uncommonly at a time when a clerical career was a predictably secure option for one of the right social stamp, the Reverend Mr Martin was ‘not truly religious’ but a good parish man. ‘His real faith was in order; and his mildly privileged place in it.’

Punch (1841) (14780579884)

A country parson and a pauper (Punch, 1841, via Wikimedia Commons)

Fowles’ portrait of a rural parson bears some similarities with Orwell’s, but its fictive function is quite different. Orwell’s clergyman is a contemporary; Fowles’ Mr Martin is part of a world, the dramatic loss of which is the subject of the whole novel. ‘I disowned all this world for so long simply because I saw it as freakishly abnormal’ Daniel tells us, as narrator:

But I see it now as no more than an extreme example of the general case. My contemporaries were all brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century, since the twentieth did not begin until 1945. That is why we are on the rack, forced into one of the longest and most abrupt cultural stretches in the history of mankind.  Already what I was before the Second World War seems far more than four decades away; much more like the same number of centuries.

If as historians we are to see the 1939-45 conflict and the period afterwards until the early 1970s as the key period in the secularisation of Britain (and the 1950s as an Indian summer of Christian observance) then the Reverend Mr Martin is to be read across that divide, a fictive emblem of a lost world.

[‘The umbrella’, in Fowles, Daniel Martin (London: Triad, 1978), pp.82-98.]

We all lost the referendum on the EU

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have steered clear of political topics before now, wanting it to remain a vehicle for my professional writings, either on history or on digital scholarship. I’m making an exception for the recent referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union and here’s why.

Politics involves spin, a certain amount of exaggeration, the presentation of the most favourable interpretation of a situation. We understand this, I think; and (as Evgeny Morozov has argued) political life is probably impossible without it. In order to carry large groups of people with them, politicians must be able to make broad claims, about political philosophy and the likelihood of certain future events. That they are open to dispute is no intrinsic difficulty.

I voted Remain, and believe the result to be potentially catastrophic for the UK, and potentially very damaging for the rest of Europe. However, the Remain camp were certainly guilty of some exaggeration in some cases, about the potential economic meltdown that Brexit would cause (although as I write the FTSE 250 share index is more than 10% down in two days’ trading, and the pound at a 30-year low against the US dollar.) However, I think the conduct of the Leave campaign is of a different order.


Time after time, Leave campaigners made verifiably untrue statements about the present situation, and about clearly known facts about the future. Penny Mordaunt MP, a minister of the Crown, repeatedly insisted on live television that the UK would be unable to veto Turkish membership of the EU, a matter publicly contradicted by her own party leader, the Prime Minister. And this was not a momentary confusion: the same claim is made by the poster below.


I could multiply example after example of these, but will rest with the worst of them all: the £350million figure that the UK supposedly pays to the EU budget each week. Journalist after journalist challenged the number over several weeks, as the true figure after the rebate the UK receives is about half that. Time after time the Leavers insisted on it, even after the UK Statistics Authority, about as impartial as they come, expressed disappointment that the figure was still being used, and that to do so ‘undermines trust in official statistics’. But no, still the posters stayed up, and there it was, still on the Leave battle bus as they arrived for the big debate at Wembley Arena 36 hours before polls opened.


I shall not go into the way in which these and other claims have been breezily disowned in the days since the result, in a show of reckless frivolity that characterised the campaign generally. My point is that this kind of downright lying poisons the wells for the whole of our political culture, for everyone, whether you voted Remain or Leave. It further fuels precisely the cynicism about politics that seems to have behind some of the paranoid rumours that circulated before the vote that it might be rigged. And it adds to the righteous anger of many of the 48% who are disappointed by the result, but might have accepted it otherwise. I wish I had a easy remedy: a way to repair the damage done to the fabric of our public discourse, but right now I don’t have it. Leaver or Remainer, we all lost on Thursday.

Reading creationism in the web archive

In recent years, anti-evolutionist thinking has attracted some attention in the news, mostly because of the role of some Christian free schools in teaching anti-evolutionist ideas alongside or in place of evolution. Anti-evolutionist ideas are however by no means new, and have been a durable minority view in some of the churches, picking up speed from the 1960s onwards. (Although the term ‘creationism’ is colloquially used to cover all the particular variants of this thinking, I use the more general term ‘anti-evolutionist’ here.)

It is not always easy to gauge the strength of the movement, but the archived UK web allows a new angle of view on the question. In theory, the web allows minority views to flourish in proportion with their intrinsic attractiveness and plausibility, no longer constrained by the high barriers to entry to traditional publishing. And in the absence of publicly available web usage statistics for the main sites, it is possible to analyse the structure of links to these sites as a proxy measure of attention (both positive and negative.)

Using the Host Link Graph dataset, available from the British Library, I extracted all the unique hosts that had been found linking to any one of four prominent anti-evolutionist sites at any point between 1996 and 2010. Then, using both the live web and of the Internet Archive’s interface at http://archive.org, I examined each host in order to categorise it, which I was able to do for 91% of the results. One immediate point to note is precisely how many “false” results there are. A large proportion of the hosts (34%) are categorised as Other, most of which were links associated with search engine and other directory-type sites, rather than from any host representing an autonomous actor in the field. Excluding these as well, the analysis of the remainder is shown below:


Of the remainder, 39% are the sites of individual congregations. A full analysis of these sites (39 in total) is yet to be done, but the majority are independent evangelical churches, with a handful of Baptist churches. They include very few indeed from Anglican, Roman Catholic or Methodist congregations. Given that at the time of writing the Evangelical Alliance has a membership of 3,500 individual congregations, the magnitude of these numbers suggests that anti-evolutionism is a minority view even amongst evangelical churches.

As might be expected, a significant proportion (17%) are other anti-evolutionist sites; a later post will explore the nature of this particular network. Interestingly, few inbound links are from secularist organisations, other than the British Centre for Science Education which exists to document (and counter) creationist ideas. Once data is available for the period after 2010, it may be that this interest grows as the schools controversy mounts. There are also very few links in from the mainstream media, which might also be expected to grow after 2010.

A complaint often heard from anti-evolutionists is that the scientific “establishment” does not engage with the critique of evolution which is being offered. That claim would seem to be confirmed here, as both the proportion and absolute number of inbound links from academic domains are also very small.

In sum, this data would suggest that between 1996 and 2010, British creationism was talking largely to itself, and was mostly ignored by academia, the media and most of the churches.

You can download the data, which is in the public domain, from here . Be sure to have plenty of hard disk space as, when unzipped, the data is more than 120GB. The data looks like this:

2010 | churchtimes.co.uk | archbishopofcanterbury.org | 20

which tells you that in 2010, the Internet Archive captured 20 individual resources (usually, although not always, “pages”) in the Church Times site that linked to the archbishop of Canterbury’s site.


(i) that a host “abc.co.uk” held the same content as “www.abc.co.uk”.

(ii) that the Internet Archive were no more likely to miss hosts that linked to these sites than ones that did not – ie., if there are gaps in what the Internet Archive found, there is no reason to suppose that they systematically skew this particular analysis.

(iii) that my sample of four target sites was reasonably representative of the movement as a whole. It is therefore possible that the profile of inbound links is very different for another hosts of the same type.

(iv) the analysis does not include cases where a site moved from one host to another during the time period. The host URLs used are those in current use, and so if another host linked to a previous host and that link was not subsequently updated, then that linkage will not be recorded in this data.

(iv) that the inconsistency in deduplication at the British Library noted here does not affect this analysis.

What has Christianity ever done for us ?

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed as part of (or in lieu of) a sermon at the church of which I am a member, Chichester Baptist Church. The subject was ‘What has Christianity done for our society?’ which needs to be read as if it were the famous Monty Python line “what have the Romans ever done for us”

At one level, I was delighted to be asked to be part of this. I think that the churches have often struggled to find a way to use the historical expertise that they often have locally within congregations, as well as nationally. I was delighted to be of service in this way; and the feedback was so good that I am contemplating a short course of evening classes for the church members to follow it up.

At the same time, if you were to listen to the podcast below, you will hear the sound of a Christian historian crossing from the safe ground of the academy, to the altogether more risky territory of relating Christian history to the present concerns of a lay audience. Given the need to say general things across a very long period in a very short time, expert listeners will also find that almost everything I said could be challenged or qualified in some way. However, I still think that despite this, it was a useful exercise, and so I make it available here. I’m on from about 7 minutes.



Summer 1914: an exhibition

While in Paris last month I had the chance to visit the splendid exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, on ‘Summer 1914’ (Été 14), which reflects on the First World War, as do so many other events and exhibitions at the moment.

One can feel the early signs of over-exposure to WWI, with a number of months still to go until the anniversary of the outbreak on 28 July. Nonetheless, I wanted to draw attention to this stunning exhibition. Its effect is sobering, melancholy perhaps, and the effect is achieved without any of the usual props and devices of Grand Guerre remembrance, and is all the more effective for it. Without a trench or or a mannequin in uniform to be seen, it weaves its spell.

It is confined in scope to the period immediately before 28 July, and the few days that followed, and succeeds triumphantly in evoking a civilisation sleep-walking into a catastrophe that only a few could imagine, and that only dimly. In the long summer of 1914, travellers still took the Chemin de Fer du Nord to resorts such as Boulogne-sur-Mer; paysans continued to make hay while the Parisian elite partied in the parks; and a Frenchman won the London Marathon. Not all is calm –  suffragette agitation is one sign of gears grinding – but Europe’s interlocked monarchies had, it seemed, little to fear from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – a little local difficulty.

Even once war had begun, this exhibition shows all sides marching resolutely backwards into the conflict. There are manuals of troop movements here, cavalry techniques and siege warfare, reflections on colonial wars past. Old understandings of old enemies are pressed into service again: one cartoon shows Thor, the ‘most barbarous of all the gods of the old Germany ‘(‘la plus barbare d’entre les barbares divinités de la vielle Germanie.’) There was also a revival of older Christian means of sanctifying the fallen, a cult of martyrs ‘pour le patrie’ and their ‘glorious mourning’.

As one might expect, interweaved with the diplomatic correspondence and other official documentation are sources from writers and artists: Romain Rolland, André Gide, de Chateaubriand and others are represented here. But the exhibition neatly avoids any easy implication that artists were any more perceptive of the horrors to come. Thomas Mann could write in 1914 of a coming war as ‘une purification, une libération’, even an immense hope.

If you were to find yourself in Paris before 3 August with a couple of hours to spare, don’t miss this exhibition.