Saturday, 17 March 2018

The Durrells Third Series Begins This Weekend

Almost by stealth, though eagerly awaited, the third series of The Durrells has suddenly been announced to begin this Sunday evening on ITV.

The year is now 1937 in Corfu. For full biographical background on the family during this period read The Durrells of Corfu.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Mary Magdalene Film by Michael Haag in The Times

How faithful to the Bible is the film Mary Magdalene?
Michael Haag, author of The Quest for Mary Magdalene, examines Garth Davis’s film

This film presents Mary Magdalene as a young woman who leaves her fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to join Jesus, who teaches forgiveness and love in his mission to bring about the Kingdom of God. With the disciples she follows Jesus to Jerusalem, where he cleanses the Temple of money lenders, declaring that the Kingdom of God is not to be bought and sold. Fearing that Jesus’s actions will incite a popular insurrection, the authorities arrest and crucify him. “You are my witness,” Jesus has told her, and Mary, alone of the disciples, stands at the cross till the end. But it is not the end, as Mary understands when she goes to the tomb on the third day and finds it empty.

Yet, although Mary Magdalene stands at the heart of one of the great spiritual stories, she was sidelined and ignored by the new religion promoted by the 12 male disciples and for 1,500 years the Church even slandered her as a whore.

It is a story, the film-makers say, that sheds light on contemporary issues of equality and feminism. Going back to the original texts, the canonical gospels and also the gnostic gospel of Mary Magdalene and reading them afresh, the film-makers have set about getting closer to Jesus’s message by retelling events from the female perspective of Mary Magdalene.

Yet much is down to how the sources are interpreted, the film-makers admit; and they are storytellers after all, not theologians. That leaves the question: is their version of the story well-founded and believable, and does it succeed in rescuing the lives and spiritual quest of Jesus and Mary Magdalene from centuries of denial and distortion?

Mary Magdalene is a spiritual film, not a religious one; the spiritual sense is immediately conveyed by the landscapes and the silences. It is a gentle, understated, sometimes slow-motion film, its characters moving against a vast and dramatic landscape, shot in Sicily. This is also a love story of a kind, which is maybe why people prefer to think of Mary Magdalene as a slip of a girl and not a matron decades older, which is quite possible; the gospels do not say.

Mary Magdalene at the Last Supper
It comes as a surprise in the film to see Mary Magdalene sitting with Jesus at the Last Supper.

In each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) Jesus shares the Last Supper with “the twelve”, while the Gospel of John mentions the disciples without giving a number. In none of the gospels is there mention of anyone else being there, but there may have been more, and there would have been servants bringing the food and wine. There is no reason why women should not have been partaking of the dinner along with other followers of Jesus; this would be entirely normal for a Passover Seder, at which women would be expected to play the same role as men and additionally light the candles.

This is a reminder that if the gospels fail to mention Mary Magdalene at a scene it does not mean that she is not there. And here at the Last Supper and elsewhere in the story there are very strong reasons why Mary Magdalene should be there.

Who was Mary Magdalene?
Probably in a bid to make a contemporary point about women’s oppression, the film opens with Mary Magdalene, a young woman from a simple fishing village, accused by her family of bringing shame on them and being possessed by demons for refusing to marry.

“If there is any demon in me,” says Mary Magdalene in the film, “it has always been there.” But Jesus tells her otherwise: “There are no demons here.” And to her family’s demand that “God made you to be a mother”, Mary Magdalene replies: “I’m not made for that life.” Instead, Jesus tells her, gently baptising her in the waters of the Sea of Galilee, “you’ll do God’s will”.

But the Gospel of Luke tells us she was anything but a poor bullied village girl. From the beginning she was a great benefactor of the Jesus movement.
Many in those days believed that the moment of judgment was near. But now Herod Antipas, who was ruler of Galilee and Perea, had just cut off John the Baptist’s head, the event that impelled Jesus to take up John’s cause and preach his ministry of universal salvation through baptism. Bypassing the rituals of the Temple in Jerusalem and its priests, who were widely seen as substituting religiosity for an authentic relationship with God, baptism meant a new start, a rebirth. Baptism was an innovation for all, especially for women, who were treated as marginal by the Temple and the Torah.

Mary Magdalene, who had once been afflicted by seven demons, suggesting a severe spiritual crisis, devoted herself to this cause. Jesus and the 12 disciples had to be fed and cared for as they travelled around Galilee, and it was Mary Magdalene, along with Joanna, the wife of Chuza, steward of Herod Antipas, and a number of other women who, as Luke’s Gospel says, “provided for them out of their own resources”.

So Mary Magdalene, who is always mentioned first among the women, was wealthy and probably high-born and certainly independent and kept company with Joanna, a Galilean aristocrat who had defected from the court of Herod Antipas, and the like. Together they had sufficient means to keep Jesus’s mission on the road and to help to maintain an unknown number of wives, children, aged parents and other dependent relatives left behind when the disciples “followed him”.

Rivalry between Peter and Mary Magdalene
Peter, who left his wife and mother-in-law behind when he followed Jesus, was one of those disciples who depended on Mary Magdalene’s support. But it is not for that reason that throughout the film Peter demonstrates an antipathy towards her. It is her favoured relationship with Jesus, a spiritual communion.
Much of the story in the film is told in silences. “Is that what it feels like to be one with God?” Mary Magdalene asks Jesus. In the silence you can hear God, Jesus tells her.

But Peter is more down to earth and also he is jealous. “It is not right that he has raised you up to lead us,” Peter says to Mary Magdalene.

This intimacy between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, and Peter’s rivalry, is barely evident in the canonical gospels. It is found in gospels of similar date and known as gnostic gospels, among them the gospel of Mary Magdalene, that took a radically different view of Jesus and salvation; it was neither his death on the cross nor his resurrection that mattered, rather his teachings, which he instilled in Mary Magdalene.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem and attacks the Temple
What mattered to Jesus was not the Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem during Passover by Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, rather the practices at the Temple and the behaviour of its priesthood. According to the three synoptic gospels, Jesus went to the Temple straightaway where he violently cast out the money lenders and others who were selling there; they had turned this “house of prayer”, said Jesus, into a “den of thieves”, reports the Gospel of Matthew.

“God’s kingdom is not to be bought and sold,” cries Jesus in the film.

After his symbolic cleansing of the Temple, Jesus taught there daily, and crowds of people came to hear him. But by what authority did he teach, the priests wanted to know, to which Jesus gave them to understand that his authority, like that of John the Baptist, came directly from Heaven; he was asserting direct communion with God, a free worship of the heart unmediated by the priesthood and their rituals.

He was talking of that vision of the divine that he would share with Mary Magdalene in the gnostic gospel of that name. “You are my witness,” Jesus tells Mary Magdalene in the film, speaking of his love of God that would condemn him to death.

And then the gospels tell us that “the chief priests and the scribes the same hour sought to lay hands on him” and “sought how they might kill him”.

Were it not for the Gospel of Luke, where he mentions those women who travelled with Jesus around Galilee and financed his ministry, we would not have heard of Mary Magdalene until the day of his death. She seems to appear in the gospels out of nowhere, the chief witness to the crucifixion of Jesus and to the events that follow, after the 12 disciples have run away. But the film rightly makes clear that Mary Magdalene has been there all along, witness to the ministry of Jesus and his closest companion.

“And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.” This is Mark’s Gospel telling about Mary Magdalene and the other women visiting the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. But they found the tomb empty and “they trembled and were amazed”.

And there at Mark 16:8 is where the original version of Mark’s Gospel ends. The oldest of the canonical gospels ends with nobody seeing the risen Jesus; Mary Magdalene and her companions see only the empty tomb. That is the amazing and frightening event.

But 200 years or so later the gospel was extended and 12 verses were added. This is the version of Mark found in Bibles today. The extended version ends with Jesus appearing before his disciples and telling them to “go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

This command by the resurrected Jesus is known as the Great Commission; it is the basis for the dispersal of the apostles from Jerusalem to found the apostolic sees and with it the principle of apostolic succession, which is the fundamental building block of the hierarchy of the Church.

This was not the message that Mary Magdalene knew, not the love and forgiveness that led to the Kingdom of God. For Mary Magdalene, in the original version of Mark, the amazement and fear she felt in the empty tomb was the awe one feels in the presence of the divine. No appearance of Jesus, no palpable resurrection, no touching of wounds, no ascension into heaven, no sitting on the right hand of God, no Church hierarchy nor threat of damnation was required. Jesus had said, and Mary Magdalene understood, that the Kingdom of God is all around us; it is waiting for us to enter if we know how. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

In the film, when Mary Magdalene tells the disciples about the empty tomb, Peter says they will now go into the world and preach the word. To which Mary Magdalene replies, “I will speak his words” — his words of forgiveness and love. Her reward has been to be denounced by the Church as a whore.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Durrell Family Book Covers

Originally The Durrells of Corfu had two different covers, one for Profile books showing photographs of the family, another for Waterstones bookshops designed like a 1930s travel poster.

From now on there will be only one cover, the blue vintage-style travel poster design.

Now the only cover version.

As it happens the cover of Margo Durrell's book Whatever Happened to Margo, which is published later this month by Penguin, has now likewise been given a vintage 1930s feel.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Real Mary Magdalene

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in the film to be released before Easter.

The real Mary Magdalene was wealthy, high born and prominent among the disciples - so why was she portrayed as a fallen woman for 14 centuries? 

Michael Haag explains in The Daily Telegraph.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Maria Madalena

Michael Haag's The Quest for Mary Magdalene is published this month by Zahar in Brazil.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Beast from the East

The Beast from the East passes gently through my garden.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

On and On and On with The Durrells

The Durrell family arrived in Corfu in 1935.
In an earlier post I suggested that The Durrells, which will broadcast its third series this spring, might run for five series in all.  This is because the Durrells arrived in Corfu in 1935, the new third series is set in 1937, and the family did not leave the island until the outbreak of the Second World War two years later in 1939 - therefore a series per year.

But now further publicity is hinting that The Durrells could continue beyond Corfu and well into the war and maybe well beyond that.

In fact Callum Woodhouse who plays Leslie says he sees no reason why The Durrells cannot 'carry on forever, really'.

'On and on and on and on', says Callum Woodhouse, who plays Leslie.

The whole story before, during and after Corfu.

Monday, 5 February 2018

The Alexandria Quartet: 'most beautiful prose of the twentieth century'

View across the Eastern Harbour by Michael Haag.

Irish novelist and Man Booker prize winner John Banville counts the Alexandria Quartet among the best books of the twentieth century.

'As fiction, these four novels — Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea — are post-Romantic piffle, but as a celebration of a city and a distillation of the "spirit of place" they are without peer, with some of the richest, most beautiful prose written in the 20th century.'

Click here for more.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Bitter Lemons: A Good Read

A good read.

The position of the acropolis is admirably chosen, standing as it does above the road at the very point where it turns inland from the sea. Priest and soldier alike would be satisfied by it. From the summit the eye can travel along the kindlier green of a coast tricked out in vineyards and fading away towards the Cape of Cats and Curium. 

 - Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons

Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Durrells: Third Season

A romantic moment between Louisa and Spiro.
ITV has begun promoting Season 3 of The Durrells. The broadcast date is not yet announced but on form its six episodes will start in late April, early May 2018 in Britain and autumn 2018 in America.

Intriguingly the link says ‘The Durrells writer Simon Nye has promised “some exotic new animals” in the upcoming third season, which will be set in 1937’.  But the Durrell family continued to live in Corfu throughout 1938 and well into 1939, so does this mean we can expect a fourth series and maybe even a fifth?

Friday, 12 January 2018

Mary Magdalene: Her Story Will Be Told

The film Mary Magdalene will be released in March this year, the advance poster announcing that 'Her story will be told'.  It is one of the great stories and I will be interested to see how it is told in the film.

Meanwhile I have told her story in my book The Quest for Mary Magdalene.

Here is the official trailer for the film.

And here is a review of my book in The Times.

The Quest for Mary Magdalene is published by Profile Books.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Life After Corfu: Whatever Happened to Margo?

Whatever Happened to Margo?, Margo Durrell's account of her life in Bournemouth after Corfu, will be published by Penguin on 26 April 2018.

Penguin blurb:

In 1947, returning to the UK with two young children to support, Margaret Durrell starts a boarding house in Bournemouth. But any hopes of respectability are dashed as the tenants reveal themselves to be a host of eccentrics: from a painter of nudes to a pair of glamorous young nurses whose late-night shifts combined with an ever-revolving roster of gentleman callers leading to a neighbourhood rumour that Margo is running a brothel. Margo's own two sons, Gerry and Nicholas, prove to be every bit as mischievous as their famous Uncle Gerald - and he himself returns periodically with weird and wonderful animals, from marmosets to monkeys, that are quite unsuitable for life in a Bournemouth garden.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Orthodox Christmas 2018

Coptic worshippers at Orthodox Christmas midnight mass last night
at the Cathedral of Christ's Nativity east of Cairo.
Last night the Orthodox Church round the world, in Greece, in Russia, Ethiopia, Egypt and elsewhere celebrated midnight mass on the eve of Christmas Day 7 January 2018.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

New Year's Eve Along the Jurassic Coast

New Year's Eve 2017 at Sidmouth along England's Jurassic Coast.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Christmas Eve London

 Walking home after midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

Sunday, 24 December 2017


From The Quest for Mary Magdalene by Michael Haag:
Mary the mother of Jesus appears primarily in chapters 1 and 2 of the gospels of Matthew and Luke which tell the story of the nativity and the infancy of Jesus – the virgin birth in a Bethlehem manger, the shepherds in the field, the star in the east, the worshipping magi – a story entirely ignored by the gospels of Mark and John which begin with the baptism of Jesus the man by John the Baptist.

Various scholars, among them Geza Vermes, a leading authority on Jesus, consider the birth narratives as legendary and say they were added to Luke and Matthew at a later date.  These nativity stories, which in any case contradict one another (for example Matthew has the Holy Family, fearful for Jesus’ life, fleeing Bethlehem to Egypt, while Luke has them returning to Nazareth after spending forty days peacefully in Bethlehem and Jerusalem), are unsupported by the other two gospels.  Mark and John say Jesus came ‘out of Galilee’; Mark makes no mention of Bethlehem while John does not contradict the assertion of the pharisees that Jesus was born in Galilee, not Bethlehem (John 7:41-42).  Apart from these birth and infancy chapters of Matthew and Luke, Mary appears in the gospels only seven times, five of those times described as the mother of Jesus but otherwise unnamed, and once in Acts. 
Three of the references to Jesus’ unnamed mother relate to one event which is described in Mark 3:31-35, Matthew 12:46-50 and Luke 8:19-21.  Jesus has been healing and preaching and driving out devils and has attracted crowds of people up and down Galilee, but his friends and family fear that he is deranged and possessed by Beelzebub and they come for him.  Instead he dismissively waves his mother and brothers away, saying his true mother and brothers are those who do the will of God. 
The fourth time when the mother of Jesus is mentioned but not named is at the marriage of Cana where again she makes a nuisance of herself and Jesus turns on her and says, ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ (John 2:4).  For other reasons the marriage at Cana (whose marriage is it?) is an important event and will be mentioned later. 
When she appears at the crucifixion in John 19:25 she is likewise not named, only identified as the mother of Jesus.  John is the only gospel which has Mary at the crucifixion of Jesus; she is not at the burial or the resurrection at all.
Mary the mother of Jesus is however named in the gospels of Mark and Matthew when villagers in Galilee are irate that Jesus should be preaching at their synagogue.  They believe him to be a carpenter, or the son of a carpenter, from Nazareth and do not realise that he is a rabbi: ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?’ (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55 also mentions Mary and her sons by name but makes no mention of her daughters.) 
And finally Mary the mother of Jesus is mentioned by name in Acts 1:14 at Pentecost where after the resurrection the Holy Spirit descends upon those in the Upper Room. 
Mary has the distinction of being the mother of Jesus, but there is nothing in their relationship to suggest that she had any understanding of what he was about.  In the end there was a reconciliation of sorts when according to the gospel of John, though no one else, Mary came to see Jesus hanging on the cross and he acknowledged her with his dying breath, saying ‘Woman, behold thy son!’ (John 19:26). 
In contrast, Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ constant companion throughout his ministry in Galilee and helped organise and finance the scores of people involved in his mission to heal and bring salvation to the sick and the poor (Luke 8:1-3).  She came with Jesus to Jerusalem, witnessed his crucifixion (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 20:1), watched to see where his body was laid (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47), returned to anoint him on the third day and witnessed his resurrection from the dead (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1, 16:9; Luke24:1; John 20:1, 20:11, 20:16, 20:18) – fourteen mentions of Mary Magdalene by name, as well as other mentions, as when she is included among ‘the women from Galilee’. 
Readers will be familiar with the notions of Mary the mother of Jesus as a perpetual virgin, the perfect mother and the Theotokos, ‘the mother of God’, of having been conceived immaculately, of ascending into heaven, of being an intercessor between God and man, the one who knows the deepest human suffering, the woman always gentle and obedient to God’s will.  But nothing of this model of the ‘perfect’ woman is found in the Bible where she is a somewhat irritating woman who has no comprehension of what her son is about; instead she is an invention who belongs entirely to later centuries, a relatively minor Biblical figure who was transformed into a major cult – while Mary Magdalene, the woman who knew Jesus, was turned into a whore.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Fortnum and Mason's Christmas Windows 2017

The Advent calendar.

As I do at this time of year I passed by Fortnum and Mason which has been decorating its windows at Christmas for over three hundred years and continues to present the most imaginative windows in London.  The theme in 2017 is ‘Together We’re Merrier’.

To illustrate this message, Fortnum’s has brought together a cast of fanciful characters starring in a narrative of Christmas moments across the eight windows of its Piccadilly facade, from the opening of an advent calendar to the dressing of the tree and the popping of the champagne cork.  

Animals and inanimate objects come to life,
all working together to make Christmas happen. 

The wolf regales the sheep with song.

The endless feast.

The popping of the cork.

A cosy tale by the fireside.

An elephant, a lion and an ostrich deliver hampers
via rocket ship to the ends of the earth.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Lawrence Durrell's Diary and Rough Notes Cyprus 1955

Durrell's daughter Sappho features prominently.

Sold at Sotheby's, London, today at well above the estimate.  I wonder who got it.

The Penelope in Sotheby's description is not Durrell's daughter
who was only 15 at the time and not in Cyprus.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Durrells and Corfu Tourist Services

Spiro takes Margo, Gerry and Louisa for a spin in his Dodge.
Corfu Tourist Services was founded by Michalis Chalikiopoulos, the son of Spiro 'Americanos', famous as the taxi driver, mentor, protector and friend of the Durrell family when they came to live in Corfu in 1935. Still family-run today, Corfu Tourist Services is the outfit to contact if you require knowledgeable assistance when planning a visit to Corfu, and also their website provides an interesting account of the relationship between the Chalikiopoulos and Durrell families - illustrated by their own delightful collection of photographs.

Fun with a gun: Pat Evans, Larry Durrell, Spiro Chalikiopoulos
and Leslie Durrell. Pat (called Peter in My Family and Other Animals)
was Gerry's tutor for a while and had a broken romance with Margo.  

The story of the Durrells and Spiro is told in my book The Durrells of Corfu.