Monday, June 20, 2022

Something New

We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.  

“NIGHT SCHOOL” by Michael Steven (Otago University Press, $NZ25) ; “THE PISTILS” by Janet Charman (Otago University Press, $NZ25) ; “TUNUI / COMET”  by Robert Sullivan (Auckland University Press, $NZ19:99; "SEASONS" by William Direen (South Indies Press, $NZ22); "ANOMALIA' by Cadence Chung (We Are Babies Press, $NZ25);“EVERYONE IS EVERYONE EXCEPT YOU” by Jordan Hamel (Dead Bird Books, $NZ30)


I would not for one moment question Michael Steven’s skill as a poet. He has a strong sense of style and – perhaps unusual for one of his generation -  he is very much committed to more traditional stanzaic forms. His sequence “The Picture of Doctor Freud” consists of six loose sonnets - or at least six 14-line stanzas. “Dropped Pin: Trinity Wharf, Tauranga” takes the same “sonnet” form, as does his concluding sequence “Intercity Bus Elegies”. The sequence “Winter Conditions” comprises five poems in 12-line form. As for all the other of the 33 poems that make up Night School, they are presented in orderly stanzas, sitting like square bricks on the page. Steven composes methodically, corralling all his ideas carefully, even if those ideas are often inconclusive or even despairing.

I admit straight off that up till now I’ve not examined Steven’s work closely enough. When I reviewed on this blog his debut collection Walking to Jutland Street (2018) my comments were regrettably brief, though I was interested in the hard, non-nostalgic view he gave of remembered student digs. I appreciated more his second collection The Lifers (2020), on the whole a chilly and dark view of New Zealand, with much reference to criminality, but redeemed by poems of compassion and showing a broader view of humanity. Now comes Night School, and I’m torn by the thought that we have to take much of it as autobiographical. At least I think we are. How can you critique a man’s confessions? A dilemma for a reviewer.

The title Night School is ironical – there are some poems about attending a literal night school, but the “night” part also suggests the darkness in which criminality happens and young men are “schooled” in the worst habits of society. Night School may very well be called a sequel to The Lifers.  Once again, Steven introduces us to “Dropped pins” meaning always a poem giving close scrutiny to a particular locality with a personal memory. The opening proem “Dropped Pin: Symonds Street, Auckland” puts us in very much the same milieu as did much of The Lifers – gathering of old friends, one clearly living off petty crime and his life going nowhere. There are eleven “dropped pins” in Night School, carrying Steven over much of New Zealand, although Auckland and Christchurch are most often visited.

Two dominant themes run through this collection. One has to do with families and fatherhood and their failures. We have to assume that “The Picture of Doctor Freud” is autobiographical. Steven does insert a little social satire, telling us of his father “He kept us fed in a world of sharks / while suited pig-hunter economists / filleted the country with Bowie knives.” But the sequence becomes a very dark reflection on the sexual life of his grandfather and on his own first adolescent experience of the opposite sex. Also presumably autobiographical, “A Methodist Family Portrait” suggests family violence and the over-disciplined life imposed on his great-grandfather, with a hint that such warped upbringing persisted in the family tree. “The Gold Plains” might begin as a sunset scene, but morphs into a suggestion of an unfulfilled life, especially in terms of fatherhood . Looking back at the sunset, he sees “Somewhere nearby would be the father, / sitting alone in his inherited silence / unable to name the emptiness inside him, / the same emptiness his father endured / before him and was unable to name.” “Dropped Pin: Trinity Wharf, Tauranga” gives a dyspeptic take on Tauranga (the seedy criminal side of it) but segues into memories of a broken home. As for personal background, “Dropped Pin: Addington, Christchurch” is one of his bleakest memories of younger years working in a factory.

The other dominant theme is, of course, drugs. “Strains: White Widow” is a reminiscence of dope-smoking youth. “Papa Jacks” goes into harder drugs. Poems like “Two Wolves” would put you off hard drugs permanently as would “Dropped Pin: Kingsland, Auckland”, but I’m not sure if this was Steven’s intention. There are poems about different strains of weed, the longest being “Strains: Slurricane”; while “The Secret History of Nike Air Max” tells us that wearing this cushioned footwear provided the necessary stealth and silence when pilfering drugs from pharmacies. Steven makes some literary references, though some of them are presented in doped-out form as in the ones on Charles Spear (sort of) and Ronald Hugh Morrieson. There are, it must be added, some poems dedicated to fellow poets, others to people unknown to most.

In the end, what attitude is Steven adopting? Is he presenting illicit drugs as simply a way of life in NZ?  Or is he offering a critique and regretting a drug-messed youth? There are definitely moments where he hints that a less delinquent life might have been desirable. Take “Winter Conditions” which takes a drive through the outer suburbs of Auckland. At first it seems to satirise “square” lives, but then it undercuts itself with the idea that rebellious younger attitudes might have been bogus. Thus: “Most would blindly follow an inherited model:/ careers, mortgages, the trappings of respectability. / That wasn’t for me. I could never roll like that. / What I sought was a kind of psychic repatriation, / some way of harmonising with the ineffable. / Nihilism was chic in the decade we came up in.” Don’t tell me that the underlined part isn’t mocking such perceptions. A similar give-and-take is found in “Animal Kingdom” about being in a prison van and its contents. The title itself subverts the ostensible reportage. “Dropped Pin: Eastern Beach, East Auckland” seems at first to be building up as a schoolboyish ironical critique of a schoolteacher but in the last lines redeems the man. 

Steven’s envoi “Intercity Bus Elegies” is violent and gripping in its profuse imagery, but it comes across as less apocalyptic then disoriented –a generic condemnation of us all. Everything is for the worst and God is either absent or transformed into the rage of a doped-up ranter.

As an Aucklander who also travels much in the Waikato, I read dropped pins about Pigeon Mountain, and Symonds Street and Eastern Beach and East Waikato, but I can only conclude that Steven’s experiences of these places are radically different from my own.

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In terms of style, Janet Charman, in her ninth collection of poetry, makes an extreme contrast with the orderly stanzas of Michael Steven. I remember reading with pleasure Charman’s At the White Coast (2012) and reviewing it for Poetry New Zealand, later designating it as “a loose autobiographical collection written in free verse”. The same could be said of her 2017 collection [Ren] Surrender, reviewed on this blog. Charman apparently always composes in free verse, far from the world of carefully-crafted stanzas. She also follows the now-somewhat-dated preciosity of rarely using capital letters. The first-person-singular “I” always has to be rendered as “i”, because “I” is too phallocentric for this poet, an abominable sign of male dominance and toxic masculinity.

The Pistils is not what I have sometimes called a “concept album” – the type of poetry collection structured around one dominant theme. Rather, as in earlier collections by Charman, it is a collection on very diverse topics and often refreshingly so.

Her opening gambit “high days and holy days” (I’ll stick with lower case for her titles) is a sequence of twelve statements, sometimes a little flippant and/or dismissive about certain public holidays, only occasionally rejoicing. She writes poems about gardens showing that they are hard work and sometimes lamenting the destruction of gardens when new owners take over an old house-and-garden. Perhaps inevitably for somebody in her late sixties, there are poems that recall childhood. “when i was young” makes ironical comment on how differently safety for children is now taken in contrast with the old days. There are reminiscences of the awfulness of schooltime cookery classes and how going to see the panto was like, and was not like, going to church. She lingers on the topic of adults caring for children and the constraints these often impose. Inevitably too, there are poems about ageing, with presumably autobiographical accounts of declining health. “going west” is a generic elegy for the departed. “gracious living” refers to varicose veins, while both “bra dollars” and “clickety-click” introduce a masectomy.

In all this, what we are aware of is Charman’s feminism. Poems, sometimes a little cryptic in expression and larded with mythological references, laud the female body, its gestation and resilience. Read “the gold zipper”  and “because desiring” to see what I mean. The title poem “the pistils” has clearly Sapphic overtones, but is rather muddled as are many of Charman’s statements when she goes grandiose. Pistils are the “female” organs of the flower that produce seeds and fruit and the poem therefore assumes the powerful creativity of women  - hence the cover image of a flower. (A different sort of pistil is encountered in the poem “October garden”). The sequence “thirteen bystanders” speaks of women’s empathy and ability to socialise harmoniously.

However, Charman’s feminism can too easily turn into toxic femininity and snarling misandry as in “My Mister”, though it is hard to make out (so badly is it written) what she is or is not endorsing about the sexes in “womb”. “the holy ghost and the lost boys” is a mash-up of different mythologies again suggesting the redundancy of men. She also takes a pot-shot at James K. Baxter in “The House of the Talking Cat” (note the capital letters for these phallocentric guys) in which he refers to raping his wife. I think we already knew about Jim’s many ethical shortcomings. Oh yeah. There are also the poems where Charman shows how daring she can be. In “selfie” her assessment of her own body includes peeing. “the holy ghost and the lost boys” has “cunts” in it and – gosh, we’re so stunned and impressed -  there’s a poem called “cunt”.

Taken as a whole, The Pistils is an uneven work.“Telethon”, one of her longer poems, regrettably reveals her weaknesses as a poet. With a few decorations, it is essentially a first-person account of the anxiety and eventual relief in having a baby cared-for in hospital… but as poetry it trundles along as a narrative which would better have been presented in pure prose. This is also a case where the absence of conventional punctuation simply creates confusion or at least mystification about something straightforward. Yet by contrast, “classroom” is equally discursive, manages to create a vivid and totally believable scene of primary education as it was. There are lots of ups and downs in this collection.

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Oh for the joy of jumping into something both heartfelt and skilled!! Robert Sullivan’s Tunui / Comet comes with endorsements by David Eggleton and Ruby Solly; and the blurb describes it as” “A marvellous hikoi through Aotearoa today alongside a leading Maori poet”. A bit excessive, maybe, but a reasonable signpost to the contents.

Sullivan, says a publicity handout, is Ngapuhi / Kai Tahu. But genealogically he’s more than that. He also has Pakeha ancestors. This fact he references in a number of his poems. The sequence “Decolonisation Wiki Entries” acknowledge European ancestors and the section of the sequence “Ruapekapeka” mentions a Pakeha ancestor who fought on the British side during the New Zealand Wars.

This is not a trivial point, as he considers much of the history of Aotearoa with an ironical impartiality.

Of course there are stabs at colonialism.

The poem “I wasn’t a poet for writing placenames” purloins the voice of James Cook, who is made to say: “dance’s oil painting stitched me / in a wig with my dress uniform / gold buttoned in some map room / pointing at Australia / yet I could’ve been / dressed for fifty shades of grey / with my fine curls a cut above / bloody run barrels and other / bligh whipping tales about / by severed burial at sea” The “fifty shades of grey” bit sounds like a silly cheap shot, but the poem attacks the pomposity of much imperial historiography. The stupid comments tourists make about Maori sites are chastised in “Rock Art.” Yet when he gets to Parihaka in the brief poem “Feathers”, he quotes both Pakeha and Maori perceptions. The poem “Ah” is slightly ambiguous but is not condemnatory of James Cook’s arrival and what he brought, while “Cooking with gas”, imagines a James Cook who reconsiders his approach to the Pacific and, as well as bringing good things here, wonders if he could have found a more peaceable and conciliatory way of intervening. Sullivan’s sequence “Te Whitianga a Kupe” celebrates both Kupe and Cook. The 8-part sequence “Te Tahuhu Nui” is interesting in that its first section has verses beginning with quotations from Kupe, then examining how his relatives relate to these statements in the way they now recall and discuss things; but later parts of the sequence has him recalling his distant Pakeha ancestors (apparently mainly Scots).

Can I say that Sullivan is a realist? Deeply committed to Maori culture and its perpetuation, he is also aware that this country was made as it is by more than one people.

In all this, let me not underestimate Sullivan’s knowledge of Maori lore and foundational stories. “Maui’s Mission”, one of the first and most attractive of his poems, gives a lyrical account of the fabulous raising of the fish and “Homage to Te Whatanui” elaborates on another. Most poems in this collection are in English (as Sullivan says at one point, the language he was raised speaking) but some are bilingual. There are two poems completely in Maori. Please note, too, that Sullivan is also aware of the contemporary urban scene. One of his jauntiest poems “Hello Great North Road” connects central Auckland with  fishing and surfing out on the city’s west coast, and gives the sense of something actually lived.

Some criticisms? As you can see in a quotation above, Sullivan sometimes has the lower-case infection (no capital letters) I’ve noted in another poet in this posting. Sullivan can also sometimes be prosey. “Our Powhiri for the International Students” and “Conservation” are straight prose statements. Even worse “H.G. Wells’” which reads thus “If only I could move forward ten years / in a time machine, bring the family with me / enjoying the government’s successful / reshaping of the education sector / where education is strongly linked / to wellbeing outcomes for all.” It sounds like a-letter-to-the-editor, or a boosting political pamphlet.

But I am nit-picking here. Tunui / Comet is a robust, readable and honest collection and a great pleasure to read.

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    High praise for the smaller presses that produce poetry away from the mainstream of university presses. William (Bill) Direen, resident of Otago, produces Seasons via South Indies Press. I assume that “indies” means independent presses. Seasons presents an almost Thoreauvian statement. But not quite. Direen is not an uncritical observer of nature and into his poetry he inserts the hard shards of reality. Seasons is a poetic diary tracing the turnings of the seasons from autumn to autumn. In a strath an hour’s drive from Dunedin, Direen observes not only the seasons but also the local customs and history. (Yes, not being a Scot I had to look up the word “strath” in the OED and discovered it means a “broad mountain valley”.)

This tracing of a year begins with images of desolation and dereliction:  Lacking its rear wall, / the house makes an unintended loggia. / Starlings have strawed the attic. / Dust and cack covers the joists.” There is midday fog and the dourness of the season. Ditches flood and the town pump fails. But there are also unexpected pleasures in autumn “Late season plums are ripening at their rate, / willow happy birds are eager and sweetened. / Teeth have torn apricot flesh from stone. / When the work is done / we will know apples’ wholeness.”

Then comes full winter. There is a fire alarm and a house burns down. A blind boy plays the piano. There is a wedding. An “eradicator” comes to get rid of a nest of wasps. The contemplation of the stars fuels strange dreams and some mystic conclusions. But we are not gathered into fantasy. There is also hard reality to contend with:  a stand of pines, / their creviced bark dark with moisture. They are waiting for the chainsaw, nothing nobler.” And “A willow is a playground, / a home and a roaming ground. / Birds carol from favourite boughs, / they seek sucking mites that turn leaves red. / Rats sneak around its base…”. Late in the collection there is an awareness of the uncertainty of events, the folly of assuming that history is a neat arrow (“it is always time / to prepare for the worst”). Examples are given of local familial disasters.

Direen, then, is not merely rhapsodising on nature,  but giving a sense of community and its mores.

Do I have any criticisms of his work? Just a few. He does have a tendency to make grandiose statements, as in  We plant seedlings and conserve. / We reduce hard matter and destroy species. / we are lights of simultaneous extinction, / season after season.” Also, I find a forced antiquity in some of his vocabulary, as in lines like “the Southwest is gathering / to benight the sublunary”. Gosh. And, possibly my fault for being a townie who lives far from Otago, I did have to once again resort to the OED to decipher some words. “Summer has ceased its thripping” he writes. How many would know that “thrips” are insects injurious to plants? Or that “myriapods” are centipedes and millipedes, and a “shoat” is a very young pig?

In this I am quibbling. Direen’s descriptions are vivid, if often dour, and Seasons carries the commendable weight of things closely observed. 

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Cadence Chung’s Anomalia comes from another independent press “We Are Babies”, founded by young women and dedicated to publishing the works of women. How ironic the press’s name is meant to be I do not know, but it is focused on youth. The blurb tells me that the poems making up Anomalia were written by Cadence Chung in her last year at high school. Nothing to be sniffy about that. History tells us many great poetic talents flourished first in their adolescent years – Chatterton, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath – so why not celebrate another teenage poet?

And, in terms of poetic form,  Cadence Chung is an accomplished poet. She tries, successfully, many forms  of poetry – free verse; unpunctuated blocks of prose poems; orderly traditional stanzas; poems with cancelled lines; and list poems. The list poem “table of contents”, corralling diverse old things together, is almost a piece of fond nostalgia.

Like others, Chung also writes without majuscules, which occasionally makes for uncertain punctuation. Interestingly, she does not focus on her Chinese ethnicity – I think there is only one brief reference to ethnicity in this collection. Two strains of imagery dominate Anomalia. One is vivisection and the other is youthful desire. In poem after poem, cold vivisection is pitted against living flesh, be it human or animal, and their conflict is never resolved.

The opening poem “abstract” is somewhat ambiguous in meaning. At first it seems to be protesting against vivisection and cold scientific calculation, but it then adopts a more cynical tone about what human behaviour is anyway. Is this irony… or adolescent bravado? The poem “warning note” again uses the imagery of vivisection, but in this case it is purely metaphoric – it is the verbal and physical “vivisection” that a man practises on a young woman as he tries to seduce her. He is, in effect, mentally trying to strip her apart. This depressing scene contrasts with another image Chung is keen on, the flowers with their sexual organs blatantly on display. Botanical nature does not use devious stratagems to mate. Later, “notes for new recruits” brings in the image of vivisection when two girls sleeping together are – again metaphorically - wrenched apart by cold implements. And thus it continues in “the specimen to the scientist” and “the scientist’s notes” and “the scientist to the specimen". Chung observes closely species that fall apart naturally, as in her frequent references to cicadas losing their exoskeletons. Their living disintegration is nature’s form of vivisection. Elsewhere, with images of  killing spiders, and verdant fields  damp and mushy… slick with ants”, Chung is never rhapsodising nature.

Yet in the poem “anatomy”, there is featured a “dandelion fluff” which radiates a very human desire for love or at least recognition “trying to find / a home somewhere, a place to seed / and stay, all i want is for someone / to divide me into neat parts and lay / them all out, so i can see / the pesky veins that cause my blood / to swim, the blushing heart that / tries to love more than it can chew through”.

What, in the end, does all the imagery of vivisection and desire amount to? Sorry to play Dr. Freud, but I find it hard not to relate it to the adolescent’s first serious attempts to measure the world; to try to work out his or her place in the world. Fitting together the broken pieces left by vivisection relates to a search for identity; and the desire is, again like most adolescent thoughts on the subject, really a desire that is not yet fulfilled. It is interesting that Chung references the kokako’s mournful cry in the bush and the kakapo’s boom – both of them suggesting a desolate loneliness. Here stands the young person looking somehow for love. “rise”  comes closest to being a love poem, but draws back with a wariness about other people. Similarly in “the anomaly’s love poem” there is a wish for love but a wariness about being diminished by it and categorised by a potential lover. Categorisation is also found in “curio cabinet” while “home” aches with desire for family and friends. Full adulthood is not yet here, and there is intense self-consciousness, especially in the poem “magnus opus” which seems built on acute adolescent fear of how other people are assessing you. I am not being dismissive when I say that many of Chung’s assertions and images suggest an intelligent adolescent trying to define herself, most apparent in the poem “what I want” where each line ends “give me”;  and even more in “boy scout” where “i wanna be told of my merit / to hold it in my hands / i wanna be told i deserve the world / and that everything is out here for me to discover.” And “i want” turns up again and again in the poem “belated wishes”.

I have no intention of being condescending. Cadence Chung has a great talent and skill with words. If she has the outlook of a sophisticated adolescent, she has the perceptive intelligence of an adult. I’d say just the same about Rimbaud, Thomas, Plath and the gang.

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            And a third book from an independent press, Dead Bird Books, Jordan Hamil’s Everyone is Everyone Except You.

I found it very hard to engage with this collection. Okay the author is a relatively young man. But, regardless of what three over-enthusiastic “critics” say on the back cover, Everyone is Everyone Except You is so drenched in self-pity that sounds like a whiney fourteen-year-old’s view of the world.  Crawl your way through it and you find the standard whinges. Decaying masculinity rusts in a shed; families break up but don’t want to talk about it;  influence by, and simultaneous revulsion from,  religious education; a poem “Good kiwi lad” telling us of repressed gayness; “God doesn’t watch you anymore” seems to be essentially about masturbation guilt. Yep, we really are into pubescent angst, folks.

The self-pity ramps up when we have sections headed “Everyone is having sex and meaningful relationships except you” and ”Everyone will succeed in their endeavours except you.” The final poem in the book “Human Resource” gathers together all Hamel’s declared negativities. True, there are attempts to be ironic about it, as in “The Jordan Hamel Committee of Failed Relationships” which basically says I’m a loser and will continue to be so. And of course there’s a lot of specific sex talk, typical of those who have just found out a few things about sex.

The reverse of the self-pity coin is, of course, grandiose day-dreaming. Consider  “I’m falling in and out of love” which includes the lines “I want / strangers who meet me in passing at parties / to decide upon request / that yes they would die / to save me from a minor inconvenience”. Perilously close to death-bed fantasies, this belongs to an age-group even younger than a whiney fourteen-year-old.

I found only a couple of poems in this collection that almost meant something: “We are the happiest couple at the party” at least includes a comical string of improbable situations; and “When you take the Netflix account with you” verges on valid satire.

The blurb tells me that Jordan Hamel was at one time a Poetry Slam champion. It figures. Slam events feature the same barrage of semi-coherent statements which might seem interesting when heard in live performance, but come across as  inane on the printed page.


Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.      

 “DOMINION – The Making of the Western Mind” by Tom Holland (first published 2019)


In reviewing Tom Holland’s Dominion – The Making of the Western Mind I am breaking my own code. This “Something Old” section of my blog is supposed to concern itself with books first published four or more years ago, and here I am reviewing a book first published a mere three years ago. Oh well!


Tom Holland’s long and compendious book has received much attention and – given that it has a very Christian message -  has gained praise from many unexpected quarters. Be it noted that, while first released as Dominion – The Making of the Western Mind, it was also published under the title Dominion – How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.


Holland’s central thesis is essentially a very simple one – the Western mind (meaning the mind of people living in Europe and in countries that have been influenced by Europe, or dominantly settled by Europeans) has been largely shaped by Christian thought. For most of approximately 1700 years – since Constantine legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire – the Christian faith dominated Europe, and despite all the persecutions, wars of religion, pogroms and other gross injustices that were perpetrated in Europe when it became known as Christendom, the essential teachings of the New Testament still endured and guided thinkers and philosophers. This was true even of those who were at odds with the ecclesiastical order. Indeed many who attacked the church were acting on Christian precepts. Until very, very recently, few people would have disputed this claim. Christianity made Europe what it is. But in an age of “secularism” (a very ambiguous word), it is often claimed that Christianity is so much in decline that it no longer influences the way Westerners think. And this is what Holland refutes. As he interprets it, underlying even movements that regard themselves as secular, agnostic or even atheist, there is still a large residue of Christian thought, assumptions and attitudes. In many respects, those in the West who decry or belittle Christianity are still acting on precepts which grew out of Christianity.

To orient you, let me explain that Tom Holland divides his lengthy treatise in three.

Part One he calls “Antiquity” taking us through pre-Christian Athens and Jerusalem, the origins of Christianity and its spread (with an emphasis on Saint Paul), the establishment of an orthodox creed, how heaven was conceived, how far early Christian missionaries went, the doctrine of charity and then, in the early 7th century, the barrier that was raised with the advent of Islam. I confess that I found this part – the first 180 pages of Dominion – to be the hardest to read, not because it was difficult to read, but [I beg your pardon for saying so] because it was all familiar to me from my own time taking a degree in, and then lecturing in, early Christian history. So we are taken through the development of a monotheistic belief among Athenian philosophers and the gradual development of God among the Jews. The Jewish religion was the first to favour the poor as opposed to the powerful. With Christianity there came a proclamation in universal terms of favour of the poor and weak over the rich and powerful. It is in the hard development of Christian orthodoxy that one has to wrestle with thinkers like Origen and Arius and the extremely puritan Donatists before we reach the Nicene Creed. There is the matter of charity, and the conflict between Pelagius who says human beings are perfectible by their own will; and Augustine who says human beings are inherently flawed. There is the influence of Manicheanism  with its dualistic ideas. Holland also notes the primal split in early Christianity between those who see faith having to work in the world and those who believe faith can be practised only by withdrawing from this world – the hermit or monastical impulse that will appear again and again in Christian history. “Throughout Christian history, the yearning to reject a corrupt and contaminated world, to refuse any compromise with it, to aspire to a condition of untainted purity, would repeatedly manifest itself.” (Chapter 4)

 But in all this, Holland emphasises the universality of Christianity’s claims and the message that all human beings are equal – breaking with Classical pre-Christian societies

Part Two Holland calls “Christendom” from the early Middle Ages on, when the Christian faith dominated Europe, with missionaries like Boniface converting the pagan Saxons, but with the threat of an expanding Islam conquering Iberia and leading to the long Reconquista. And it is while examining the Middle Ages that Holland makes it clear there have been many “Reformations” in Christian history, for the church always has to be reformed. One of the most important was when Pope Gregory VII introduced a reformation as he faced off against the Emperor (heir to Charlemagne) and established an essential separation of church from state by making the appointment of priests and bishops the province of the church alone. In an age when the first universities were developing from church schools, it began to be more fully understood that faith could be harnessed with reason. (Peter Abelard is referenced.)There was also the codification of church law which, though often reviled in much later centuries by those opposing church and faith, still became the template for later legal codes. Aquinas was one of the leading lights in this. But, as Holland interprets it, the more the faith was codified, the more people were excluded for their heterodoxy. And this meant the beginning of persecutions and the licensing of the first inquisitors. Holland discusses the persecution and ghetto-isation of Jews and the crushing of the Cathars or Albigensians.

But there is an up-side to Medieval Christianity, both before and after the split between the Catholic West (Rome) and the Orthodox East (Constantinople). Although recent authors often emphasise the limited status of women in the Western Middle Ages, Holland reminds us that the sexual mores of pre-Christian Rome offered very little status for women: “A sexual order rooted in the assumption that any man in a position of power had the right to exploit his inferiors, to use the orifices of a slave or a prostitute to relieve his needs much as he might use a urinal, had been ended. Paul’s insistence that the body of every human being was a holy vessel had triumphed. Instincts taken for granted by the Romans had been recast as sin.” (Chapter 11; Page 263) Holland correctly notes that the church’s insistence on monogamous marriage actually raised the status of women in that the husband was called to be faithful. Also marriage was no longer seen as an alliance between families but as a matter of free choice … not that (in the dynastic and familial marriages that still took place) this precept was always honoured… and of course the down-side was that “aberrant” people, such as homosexuals, were severely punished. There was a war on sodomy.

An apocalyptic sub-culture in Christianity meant there were always those who believed their actions could trigger the second coming of Christ. Such apocalyptic upheavals happened at the time when the Catholic church was at a low ebb, its authority compromised by the split between a pope in Rome and an anti-pope in Avignon. In this time, Jan Hus in Bohemia was really the first “protestant” in anything like the current meaning of the word, rebelling against the Catholic church and gaining a large following for his reformation. But such radical changes always bring out extremists; and Holland speaks of the Taborists, also in Bohemia, who believed Christ was coming and who waged war against both Hus’s followers and Catholics. There was much bloodshed before they were defeated. In a way, this was a forerunner of what happened (with the wars of religion that followed) when Martin Luther inaugurated what is usually regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Holland see Luther’s reformation as a necessary part of the Christian tradition – like Pope Gregory VII’s reformation centuries earlier. But he is aware that Protestantism tended to be fissiparous, rapidly splitting into separate and sometimes mutually-hostile churches (Calvinist, Lutheran, Anglican etc.). And again there were extremists, hated by both Catholic and Protestants, like the violent Anabaptists who again had apocalyptic beliefs and who again were expunged in bloodshed.

In his presentation of Luther (in Chapter 13), Holland tends to go easy on him, under-stating his violence in encouraging war against rebellious peasants ; but in Chapter 15, he at least notes that Luther’s antisemitism was even more extreme than the medieval antisemitism that had preceded it. Also, despite his largely Anglican orientation, Holland is very even-handed in presenting Catholicism  and Protestantism (the Eastern Orthodox churches have lesser space in this book). Spanish conquistadores took over most of South and Central America, often enslaving the peoples they conquered; but many Catholic authorities protested about this and the cardinal Bartolome de las Casas wrote one of the earliest condemnations of slavery. Galileo (whom Holland does not depict in a particularly favourable light) was condemned to house arrest for his novel cosmology; but the Jesuits were very advanced in the astronomy they taught and brought to China. As Holland puts it “Natural history had revealed itself to be nothing if not Christian through and through” (Chapter 14, page 343) And the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, also in China, was one of the first to pioneer “inculturation” – that is, teaching Christianity in ways comprehensible to a specific society.

So we come to Part Three, “Modernitas”, being basically the last three centuries, and it is here that Holland is most insistent in his basic theses – first, that there are repeated patterns in Christian history; but second, and far more important, that Christian precepts still underpin Western civilisation, even if they are not always recognised.

The Puritans of England, and of their colonies in what later became the United States of America, were very much like the Donatists of many centuries earlier, who insisted on strict, unerring righteousness, often not making allowances for common human weaknesses.

But, says Holland, many Puritans connected reason to the light of God and as such, opened the way for more free thought and emphasis on personal conscience. Thus, says Holland, in the beginning of the so-called “Age of Enlightenment”, many who now protested against organised religion were actually following a Christian tradition. The Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza had been expelled from the synagogue for his heterodox thought about God. Holland says his ideas were very much influenced by Quakers and other current Protestant thinkers. Holland even manages to present the sceptical anti-clerical Voltaire as a Christian malgre lui because, like Christians, he sought a universal, rational faith. He scores a palpable hit when he discusses the leaders of the French Revolution and their heirs who, scorning the centuries of Christian “superstition”, claimed to adopt the Classical antiquity of Greece and Rome as their models while devising their Declaration of the Rights of Man – a plan for universal human rights. It took a very questionable character – the Marquis de Sade – to point out correctly that those hallowed ancient Classical societies were slave states with absolutely no conception of human rights, no sense of the equality of social classes and a strong preference for the rich and powerful over the poor and weak. The Marquis de Sade himself delighted in the thought of wanton power over the powerless, but he was admitting that the notion of universal human rights emerged from those superstitious weakling Christians. Even more embarrassing, unacknowledged, the framing of a legal system by the revolutionaries leaned heavily on despised Catholic canon law.

Holland notes, correctly, that Christian concern was involved in such things as the ending of suttee in India, the end of the Atlantic slave trade and diplomacy to encourage Muslim states from slaving.

By the early 19th century, many anti-Christians in Europe were embracing “secularism” (laicite if you are French). But Holland notes: “The great claim of what, in 1846, an English newspaper editor first terms ‘secularism’ was to neutrality. Yet this was a conceit. Secularism was not a neutral concept. The very word came trailing incense clouds of meaning that were irrevocably and venerably Christian. That there existed two dimensions, the secular and the religious, was an assumption that reached back centuries beyond the [Protestant] Reformation: to [Pope] Gregory the VII, and to Columbanus, and to Augustine. The concept of secularism – for all that it was promoted by the editor who invented the word as an antidote to religion – testified not to Christianity’s decline, but to its infinite capacity for evolution.” (Chapter 17, Page 411)

Speaking of another form of evolution, Holland notes (correctly) that Darwin’s thesis of natural selection was not wholly opposed by Christians, but did cause Christians to question what the moral and ethical results of Darwinism would be: “Nervousness at the idea that humanity might have evolved from another species was not bred merely of a snobbery towards monkeys. Something much more was at stake. To believe that God had become man and suffered the death of a slave was to believe that there might be strength in weakness, and victory in defeat. Darwin’s theory, more radically than anything that previously had emerged from Christian civilisation, challenged that assumption. Weakness was nothing to be valued. Jesus, by commending the weak and the poor over those better suited to the great struggle for survival that was existence, had set Homo sapiens upon the downward path towards degeneration.” (Chapter 18, Page 425)

This, says Holland, was very much the thesis of Friedrich Nietzsche in his hatred for Christianity: “Concern for the lowly and the suffering, far from serving the cause of justice, was a form of poison. Nietzsche, more radically than many a theologian, had penetrated to the heart  of everything that was most shocking about the Christian faith. ‘To devise something which could even approach the seductive, intoxicating, anaesthetising, and corrupting of the symbol of the ‘holy cross’, that horrific paradox of the ‘crucified God’, that mystery of an inconceivably ultimate, most extreme cruelty and self-crucifixion undertaken for the salvation of mankind! ” Like Paul, Nietzsche knew it was a scandal. Unlike Paul, he found it repellent. The spectacle of Christ being tortured to death had been bait for the powerful. It had persuaded them – the strong and the healthy, the beautiful and the brave, the powerful and the self-assured – that it was their natural inferiors, the hungry and the humble, who deserved to inherit the earth. … Christianity, by taking the side of everything ill-constituted, and weak, and feeble, had made all humanity sick… The weak had conquered the strong; the slaves had vanquished their masters…” (Chapter 19, pp.448-449)

In effect, in Europe concern for the welfare of the poor, the sick, the weak and the mentally feeble was born of the Christian concepts of universal humanity, of a God who favoured the poor, not the powerful. There would be no universal charter of human rights without this underpinning. It was no accident that, whether intended by Darwin or not, the new science did lead to eugenics – mainstream among biologists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – and ramped up racism in its rigorous categorising of human groups as inferior and superior. Raw power and brute force were virtues in rising totalitarian states. 

Yet says Tom Holland, the Bolshevik desire to make heaven-on-earth in one fell swoop, whether Lenin and his cohorts realised it or not, was actually rooted in failed Christian-inspired apocalyptic movements. The desire for all things to be held in common could be found in the Acts of the Apostles and other seminal Christian texts. Of Lenin’s programme, Holland writes: “Communists who insisted, in opposition to Lenin, on working alongside liberals, on confessing qualms about violence, on worrying that Lenin’s ambitions for a tightly organised, strictly disciplined party threatened dictatorship, were not truly communists at all – just a sect. Sternly, like the Donatists, the Bolsheviks dismissed any suggestion of compromising with the world as it was. Eagerly, like the Taborites, they yearned to see the apocalypse arrive, to see paradise established on earth. Fiercely, like the Diggers [radicals in 17th century England], they dreamed of an order in which land once held by aristocrats and kings would become the property of the people, a common treasury. Lenin, who was reputed to admire both the Anabaptists of Munster and Oliver Cromwell, was not entirely contemptuous of the past. Proof of what was to come were plentiful there. History, like an arrow, was proceeding on its implacable course. Capitalism was destined to collapse, and the paradise lost by humanity at the beginning of time to be restored. Those who doubted it had only to read the teachings and prophecies of their great teacher to be reassured. The hour of salvation lay that hand.” (Chapter 18, page 442) There was some Christian inspiration in the foundation of the officially atheist Soviet state.

There was much paradox in the Christianity of the 19th and 20th centuries – the religion was brought to Africa and other non-European countries, by colonialists, many of whom were interested in exploitation and power. Yet the message of Christianity was a universal one, not a perpetuation of one ethnic or racial culture. It was Nelson Mandela, a month before he was inaugurated as president, who celebrated Easter by saying “Easter is a festival of human solidarity, because it celebrates the fulfilment of the Good News! The Good News borne by our risen Messiah who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind.” (Chapter 20, page 488) It was assumed by many non-Christian Europeans that when colonial powers left Africa, Christianity in Africa would collapse because, they assumed, it had flourished only because Africans wanted to associate with those colonial Europeans who were in power. In fact the opposite happened. In Africa, Christianity boomed once the colonial powers had gone – often distinctly African forms of Christianity – as it is a universal religion that does not favour particular tribes or tribal gods. A further paradox was that there are now far more practising Christians in Africa than there are in Europe.

As you will have seen in this summary of Dominion, it is a long and detailed book (to be precise 525 pages of text, before about 70 pages of references, bibliography and index, in the paperback edition I’ve been reading).  But I always give a warning about books that cover so much ground – over 2,000 years of it in this case. They tend to simplify or get some details wrong, perhaps missing nuances that specialists would notice. (See on this blog reviews of, for example, Jerusalem the Biography  and Voltaire’s Bastards ). To give some examples – none of which damages Holland’s overall thesis. He tells us that Cathars / Albigensians were simply practising a primitive form of Christianity. I’m pretty sure that many scholars would still see the Albigensians as a dualistic movement, quite a distance from orthodox Christianity – which of course does not justify their being persecuted. He treats extraordinarily briefly such matters as the Crusades and their impact. When he talks about the coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxons, he focuses on Theodore, the second Archbishop of Canterbury rather than Augustine, the First Archbishop of Canterbury. (In fact Augustine of Canterbury gets no mention.) Also, he credits Puritans, Quakers and Baruch Spinoza with connecting reason to the light of God and as such, opening the way for more free thought and emphasis on personal conscience. But surely the most influential proponent of these concepts in the 17th century was the French philosopher Rene Descartes with his (religiously inspired) rationalism. Descartes gets no mention… but I guess no book can mention everything.

Rounding off his thesis in his last chapter, Tom Holland claims to see distinct a Christian heritage in the current compassion for refuges and also in the Me Too movement of women (especially in the USA) who are repelled by the assumption that males should use them as playthings or chattels, violating their bodies against their will. In effect, he suggests, that after decades in which hedonism was promoted, there is now a backlash as there was when Christians in pagan Roman and post-Roman times denounced the abuse of the body.

Says Holland “Christianity, it seemed, had no need of Christians for its assumptions still to flourish. Whether this was an illusion, or whether the power held by victims over victimisers would survive the myth that had given it birth, only time would tell. As it was, the retreat of Christian belief did not seem to imply any necessary retreat of Christian values. Quite the contrary. Even in Europe – a continent with churches far emptier than those of the United States – the trace elements of Christianity continued to infuse people’s morals and presumptions so utterly that many failed to detect their presence.  Like dust particles so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye, they were breathed in equally by everyone: believers, atheists, and those who never paused so much as to think about religion.” (Chapter 21, page 517)

I think it is irrefutable that Christianity informed the nature of Western civilization more than any other movement. But in these last words, I regret to say, we find Tom Holland’s Achilles heel. Let’s put aside the fact that there are still millions of Europeans for whom Christianity is an important and living thing. Surely those, perhaps the majority, for whom Christianity is now merely “dust particles so fine as to be invisible to the naked eye” are informed by Christianity less than they are by other belief-systems – political parties, consumerism, hedonism, activism in many causes etc. etc. And if that is the case they are not Christians. There’s a little bit of whistling in the dark to find dim traces of Christianity in them.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.    


Dear Khatia Buniatishvili

I apologise for my profound ignorance. My wife and I are dedicated aficionados of both classical music and jazz. My wife teaches piano and is very astute at judging technique. As for me, not being a musician in any sense of the word, I simply go along for the ride. Our ignorance comes from the fact that, until a few weeks ago, we had never heard of you, even though we thought we knew all the great virtuosi. We now know that you were born in 1987, which makes you 35; that you are Georgian – as I might have guessed, since your name ends with -vili; and that you were only in your early twenties when you were signed on by a prestigious recording company. Now you are constantly in demand in live performances and apparently each one of you recordings sells in the hundreds of thousands. In other words, in classical music, you are a major star. Silly us for not knowing.


We discovered you when I was doodling around on Youtube looking for something entertaining before we went to bed. I found you solo-ing in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in front of a French audience in Lyon. My wife and I were immediately rapt. How skilled you were. The speed and dexterity of your fingers on the keyboard. And the awareness we had of the punishing your fingers must be taking, especially in those very percussive parts of the score. Again and again and again you must have rehearsed all this, punishing your fingers with every note. What strength and fortitude you must have. We were glad to notice in one close-up that your fingernails were cut very short and unsullied by nail polish. You fingers would have been in constant pain if you’d been playing with longer nails. Musically, it was excellent and extraordinary.

But, dear Khatia, we were also aware of your beauty. Your glossy black hair, your olive complexion, your perfect nose and eyes, the brash red lipstick. I can’t remember if it was my wife or I who first said “She’s gorgeous” or “She’s beautiful” but in the course of your performance, we each said the same sort of thing many times.

And we were aware of your performative-ness. 


Khatia, you are as much actress as virtuoso pianist. In the soulful and slow moments, you sway and close your eyes, as one who is basking in the aethereal beauty of the score. In front of your audience, you are playing the role of being carried away by the music. In the moments when you hands are still and only the orchestra is playing, you look across to the conductor and the large bank of musicians, not as one who wants merely to be sure when she comes in to play her next note, but as a connoisseur who is appraising, with approval, her fellow musicians. You are performing perfectly the role of being exported to another region of appreciation. And of course there is what is apparently one of your trademarks. As you lean over the keyboard, you let your beautiful, glossy ringlet-ed swathe of black hair fall down over your face, momentarily making you a woman of mystery. Then, when the score perks up and becomes more lively, you toss your head back and the glossy, ringlet-y black hair flies back into place – a manoeuvre exactly like Rita Hayworth tossing back her hair in a much-appreciated moment in Gilda.  It’s sexy as hell, Khatia, and you know it.

Speaking of sex, that very low-cut dress. Those amply-displayed, eye-catching bosoms. In your acting you are selling your sex as much as your music.

Am I a dirty old man for pointing this out? Am I a censorious male chauvinist denigrating a great musician? No Khatia. My wife and I couldn’t ignore your theatrical technique and admired your brashness as well as loving the music. But we did gasp a little at your next performance which we saw the following night.


This time you were playing, in front of an Israeli audience in Tel Aviv, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Tchaikovsky is always sobbingly soulful, and this is one of his sobbing-est, perfect for your theatrical skills, as was your encore which was the most solemn and sombre of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, slower in pace and allowing you to lay off the percussiveness a bit. The closing of the eyes, the swaying, the admiring looks at conductor and orchestra, the beautiful hair falling down over your face and then swishing back in place with a toss of your head. All played perfectly. Yet you sold sex even more insistently than you did in Lyon. This time you were wearing a dark blouse, but semi-transparent leggings letting us see your beautiful legs and thighs almost up to the reproductive parts of your anatomy. You were a spectacle as much as a sound. Yes, we again admired your beauty and loved the music you [and the orchestra] were making, but we couldn’t help laughing a bit at your attire, even if it did make me nostalgic for youth a bit.


You do know what you’re doing Khatia. And of course you do know what is appropriate for your audience. For on the third night of finding you on Youtube, we saw you performing at a music school in France, before an audience of quite young children and their parents. This time, still gorgeous, you were attired more modestly with no arousing flesh on display, and you were playing without an orchestra but with your older sister Kavanta, one year your senior and with looks as attractive as yours. You shared the piano, first playing a composition for four hands by Franz Schubert; than collaborating on six of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. I’m sure either of you  could have played these dances solo, but you took the right side of the piano and your sister took the left side and the music was wonderful.


So what am I saying to you Khatia? I’m saying that we both know even classical music is a branch of showbiz and its performers act out roles. But you act your part more blatantly than most. Your gestures, your movements, your glamour, your sex and sex-appeal. I understand that in some quarters you have been severely criticised for this. You have been berated in the Guardian for your “barnstorming technique”.  On line I have found one pundit who hates you so much that he sets out to prove you are a dreadful pianist. He is of course wrong. Musically, your performances are delightful, invigorating, and attractive to large audiences.

I could daydream about you, but I know what I have seen is a persona, and not you. And whenever I see so great and young a performer as you, I think of time’s winged chariot. Soon you will be in your forties, then fifties, then sixties and older. I’m sure that you will still be the great pianist you are now, but the sexual attractions will have to be severely modified unless you wish to court ridicule.

Khatia,  my final word on you is what I once said about Renee Fleming – how unfair it is of Nature to make some people both so talented and so beautiful.

Sincerest good wishes 

An Admirer