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.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Durrell's Alexandria Dissolves

The Times 25 November 2017.

Today The Times, in an article written by Richard Spencer, its Middle East correspondent, roused itself to publish some old news, first reported in this blog over two months ago.

‘Time is memory, they say; the art however is to revive it and yet avoid remembering. You speak of Alexandria. I can no longer even imagine it. It has dissolved.’ 
   - Balthazar speaking at the end of Clea

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Inspired by Greece

The Durrells of Corfu, published earlier this year by Profile Books in London, will be published in Greek translation by Patakis in Athens in 2018.

Patakis will also be launching next year my Alexandria: City of Memory, first published by Yale University Press in London and New Haven in 2004.  It was published in Greek by Oceanida in Athens in 2005; now Patakis are making a fresh translation and are issuing the book as a trade paperback.

These two books, The Durrells of Corfu and Alexandria: City of Memory, are closely associated with one another and with my curiosity about the Durrells as I explain in this Waterstones blog post. It pleases me immensely to see them published in Greece, the country that inspired the remarkable Durrell family and such friends of theirs as Henry Miller.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Hallowe'en Here and There

Friends have sent me photographs of the season. These skulls and bones 
were stumbled upon in a garden in Providence, Rhode Island. 
A café in Main Street, Walnut Creek, California.
Service at a London fruit and vegetable shop. 
Orange and ghostly pumpkins in London.
Pret-a-porter graveyard in Lafayette, California.
Blue-green pumpkin in Providence.
Autumn at Rogers Lake, Connecticut.

London sky.

Friday, 20 October 2017

In and Out of the Roman Empire

The north gateway to Chesters cavalry fort, the entrance to the Roman Empire.

I took the opportunity of my visit to Hexham in Northumberland for the Book Festival there in April to go see the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. I have been along the Rhine, the Danube and the Euphrates and I have travelled up the Nile to Aswan and beyond, but I had never been to the Roman frontier along the River Tyne.

The plan shows the north gateway to Chesters;
the fort is traversed by the Wall which crosses the Tyne at this point.

A few miles north of Hexham are the partly excavated remains of the Roman cavalry fort at Chesters, one of a series of garrisons along Hadrian's Wall which marches east to west across England just north of the Tyne - and which here at Chesters actually crosses the river. The Wall was a retreat of sorts, or a consolidation; the Romans had pushed far further north than that.

Hadrian's Wall crossed the Tyne at Chesters.
It began when Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BC and again in 54 BC during the Gallic Wars; his purpose was to punish those British tribes which were giving support and refuge to the tribes resisting the Romans in Gaul. Ninety years later, in AD 43, during the reign of the emperor Claudius the Romans invaded Britain again, this time to stay and enjoy the agricultural and pastoral wealth of the land.

Demonstration of Rome's long term intentions was given by Agricola, the governor of Britain from 77 to 85, who subdued the whole of what is now England and Wales and established numerous forts as deep into Scotland as Aberdeen and Inverness and even sailed to Orkney and took its surrender, a voyage which incidentally definitively established that Britain was an island.  But the cost in manpower was considerable; altogether the Empire was manned by thirty legions, four of these in Britain alone, whereas the powerful Persian Empire was opposed by just six legions and wealthy and populous Egypt was controlled by only two.

And now, as Tacitus wrote in his history, 'the conquest of Britain was completed and then let slip' when the emperor Domitian withdrew one legion, a short term saving with huge long term costs.

Roman baths overlooking the River Tyne.
Disturbances in the provinces were more than three legions could handle and when the emperor Hadrian visited Britain in 122 he ordered the construction of a wall across the narrow Tyne-Solway isthmus, abandoning everything to the north to the barbarians.  Hadrian's Wall, completed in just four years, was a remarkable achievement, an immense stone barrier requiring the moving of some two millions tons of rock and soil, lined by castles at every mile along its 80-mile length with turrets in between and large fortresses at intervals, and garrisoned by over ten thousand men in all.

The wall marked the northern boundary of the Roman Empire until the legions withdrew from Britain three centuries later.  In that sense it was a success but the cost of manning the wall was a drain on Rome's resources; in 410, the same year that the Romans abandoned the island, Rome itself was sacked by the Visigoths. The Roman Empire in the West collapsed completely in 476.

The crypt of Hexham Abbey is built with stones from Hadrian's Wall.
Now you walk across a field north of Hexham and through the ruins of a gate in the wall of the cavalry fort at Chesters and you are entering the Roman Empire, and returning to the ticket office and the attached café for a cup of tea you leave. In and out of the Roman Empire was never so easy.