The 12 Days of Christmas
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The 12 Days of Christmas

These reviews were written by members of ChurchCare staff to celebrate the 12 office days of Christmas 2013. They cover everything from classic literature to something a little less cerebral. But whether murder mystery or historical drama, each book features the beauty of ecclesiastical architecture and the unique environment surrounding Britain’s churches, an inspiration we can all appreciate.

20th December - The Murder at the Vicarage

Agatha Crhistie

All is not well in the sleepy village of St Mary Mead. Behind the twitching curtains we discover fraud, theft, embezzlement of collection monies, poaching and adulterous affairs. To cap it all Colonel Protheroe, the unforgiving local magistrate and church warden is found murdered in the vicar's study.

Enter Miss Marple (this is her first appearance in an Agatha Christie novel) who identifies that least seven people in the village had cause to murder the colonel. Nor is the vicar exempt. The story is written in the first person from the vicar’s perspective, who in the novel’s second paragraph, remarks, 'in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service’.

Not so much about church buildings, though an archeologist is among the list of suspects, the novel features services, a fiery sermon, calling on elderly ladies and a new church curate ‘with High Church views and fasts on Friday’ as well as ‘the Guardian and the Church Times lying on the hall table unopened’, so little changes...

Unpredictable until the very end, my advice is to stay focused on the obvious. Pleasing put downs of some rather arrogant types, including a metropolitan male novelist, before Agatha Christie allows her unassuming Miss Marple to triumph over the police and our learned clergyman, who discovers his own little piece of unanticipated good news.

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie, first published 1930, is available in paperback from Harper Collins, price £7.99

19th December - Holy Disorders

(Described by PD James as ‘extremely frivolous’)

Church organists should perhaps read this as a warning about accepting a relief appointment in a cathedral. There could be some strange goings-on.

Detective novels are not my regular reading fare, but I suspect that the genre has moved on quite considerably since Crispin wrote this (published 1946) as of course, have detection procedures – and sometimes this feels like a book of nonsense.

Yet in a sense that is what it is meant to be. Its vintage nature seems to allow that and being slightly ridiculous is its strength, if you can suspend a bit of disbelief. Your imagination is encouraged to visualise scenes, for example trying to get a seat in a 1940s style railway carriage when encumbered with a butterfly net. The main setting is a West Country cathedral city, though there is not much sense of place. The characters are other-worldly – or that may only seem so if you don’t understand all the literary and classical allusions in the dialogue. This is however is an intended part of the gentle humour, part of the tongue-in-cheek characterisation, vaguely reminiscent of Anthony Trollope. Rather than in the cathedral, a lot seems to centre round the local pub, for some reason called the "Whale and Coffin”.

The detective is Gervase Fen, a truly ‘nutty professor’ of English at Oxford, who pursues insects as much as possible criminals, and has little respect for The Yard. The central character though is the composer Geoffrey Vintner who is called in to deputise for the cathedral organist who had been attacked and injured.   More is to follow with a suspicious death in the cathedral – and Geoffrey’s life is in danger from the start.  

However this is not just a trail of clues and their resolution. The reader gets caught up in a romance, and some strange witchcraft activities – perhaps the book should have a health warning for the latter.   And there are other strange undercurrents, including the possibility of espionage.  Plenty of disorders it seems and not too much holiness.   But of course this is not a book to be taken too seriously. You have to bypass some of the rather quaint vocabulary and settle into its style, but then it can be enjoyed with a quiet giggle. And the conclusion is not obvious.

Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin is available in various editions, most recently 2007 by Vintage.

18th December - Murder In The Cathedral 

Murder in the Cathedral is T.S. Eliot's description, in verse drama, of the end of the conflict between Henry II and Thomas a Becket, commissioned by the Canterbury Festival and first performed in Canterbury Cathedral in 1935.

Eliot's play is a short but gripping read, fitting surprisingly well with the novels reviewed here. A murder with no investigation for Adam Dalgleish or Peter Wimsey to run, only a plea from one of the murderers that it was obviously suicide. A story in which Canterbury Cathedral plays a crucial part as sanctuary and as an ideological representation of the whole Church, but with no description of the power and beauty of the architecture: a dismissal of the physical safety given by oak and stone in favour of the greater, but very different, protection given by the Church and by Christ. 

It’s easy to get immersed in the words and the poetry, but the reader is jolted out by the knights' breaking of the fourth wall to plead their case, in prose, directly to the audience. The ideas about human destiny, the turning of the wheel, and Becket’s search for glory, are haunting and disquieting. There is no resolution, only questions.

Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot is published in various editions by Faber & Faber.

17th December - A Month in the Country

It is entirely the wrong time of year to be reviewing this book. A Month in the Country is set in an idyllic mid-century countryside summer, with days of lazy heat and yellow cornfields, buzzing insects and days outdoors. It feels as far away from a wet December as anything could be.

This slim and melancholic story is semi-autobiographical and although it was published in 1980 it looks back to a time now lost. The narrator, Tom Birkin, tells us of a summer he spent in the small Yorkshire village of Oxgodby in 1920. Coming home from world war one, he has suffered traumas which are never explicitly outlined but which affect everything about him, from the way he works to the way he builds relationships.

Tom’s reason for being in the village is to restore a medieval wall painting which has been uncovered in the village church. It has been covered over for centuries and bringing it back requires all his skill and concentration. Within the novel it seems as if this concentration is the very thing which begins to allow Tom to move on, pouring himself into something other than the horrors he has seen. Slowly he begins to integrate into the small community around him, becoming especially close to Moon, a fellow veteran, who lives in the churchyard and tells Tom he is seeking a lost grave. They are both damaged men, both seeking to uncover something lost, both needing time to heal. The gentle warmth of their time in Oxgodby seems the perfect thing.

This is a beautiful story, elegantly written and with touches of humour and flashes of lives which will never be lived in this way again. The church features as a place of respite and healing, a focus for its community and a site of permanence in a rapidly shifting world. It may be that the melancholy of the book is not built in, but rather a modern reaction to seeing so clearly through this window into a gentle past. The horrors of world war one are behind it, world war two not yet dreamt of. It is a point of peace, the fulcrum of a see-saw, frozen forever in a summer time of quiet joy.

A Month in the Country by JL Carr, 1980, is published by Penguin.

If you have uncovered an unexpected Doom or other wall painting, take a look at our conservation guidance here

16th December - The Choir

Reminiscent of an extended episode of The Archers, this book is set in Alderminster, an imaginary Cathedral town, in which the characters are all closely linked to the daily running of the Cathedral and adjacent Choir School. They live a fishbowl-style existence, each knowing each other’s business and all within close proximity to the Cathedral and its close.

St Pauls choristers cropped

I hadn’t read the book before, though I remember watching the BBC adaptation when I was about 10 years old. Reading it now, although I found the self-interested characters unbearable, there were many elements of the book that meant more to me now than they could have done then, having worked in the Cathedral and Church Buildings division for the last three. Mentions of Synod, descriptions of the architecture, the make and number of stops on the organ, as well as my familiarity with the behind the scenes work of The Cathedral Fabric Commission for England http://www.churchcare.co.uk/cathedrals/cathedrals-fabric-commission-for-england.

Whilst the Bishop, Dean of the Cathedral, headmaster of the choir school and head organist become more embroiled in a bitter dispute, I couldn’t help but wonder if access to ChurchCare (www.churchcare.co.uk) could have provided some help with their troubles! Perhaps in the form of advice on grants for the work they carried out to their historic organ http://www.churchcare.co.uk/churches/funding-and-grants/our-grants/organs  or  fabric repair grants to remedy water ingress in the stone vaults http://www.churchcare.co.uk/cathedrals/funding-and-grants or indeed advice on how to open their building to the community both in terms of offering a friendly welcome and how to balance community and worshipping needs under the same roof http://www.churchcare.co.uk/images/Improving_the_visitor_experience.pdf or http://www.churchcare.co.uk/churches/open-sustainable .

The Chapter also sets about on a new lighting scheme for the Cathedral. They want concealed lighting with no dazzle that will ‘enhance the beauty and mystery of the building’. What a pity, they couldn’t have attended this year’s event on lighting in churches and cathedrals http://www.churchcare.co.uk/about-us/past-events/617-lighting-in-church-buildings held in St Pauls, London.

Having access to our sources of funding, advice and events not only could have eased relations between the book’s worshipping and non-worshipping communities, it could have averted the controversial plan to disband the choir and made the novel a little briefer!

The Choir by Joanna Trollope, 1988, is published by Century Hutchinson

13th December - Murder at the College

‘At the luncheon adjournment Hatton remained behind to eat his sandwiches, to read the report of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments, and to meet death’.

The Revd Victor Whitchurch (pictured below) served as a member of Oxford Diocesan Advisory Committee, possibly from soon after it was set up in 1916. He was one-time chaplain to the Rt Revd Charles Core, Bishop of Oxford, and served in parish ministry in Blewbury and Aylesbury.

The Revd Victor Whitchurch

Whitchurch found time to author crime novels, of which this is one. The setting of a murder in a DAC meeting in an Oxford College – readers are left to guess which one – is an unlikely setting for a book that was reprinted at least seven times. Was this due to the author’s reputation as a writer or a surprising level of interest in DAC work?

The description of the progress of a DAC meeting, the matters that were dispensed with quickly and those that occupied much of the Committee’s time are familiar. The absence of photocopying and electronic documents means that documents have to be read by members present at the meeting, slowing the pace and leaving more time for convivial chatter. Some concerns don’t change, and much of the plot revolves around the difficulty the Committee has with the design for a new stained glass window, the appropriate way to judge it, and a desire to encourage new, fresh, designs balanced with a need to respect an historic setting that is also a place of worship.

The progress of the criminal investigation is familiar, with a detective inspector being called from London, and frenzied consultation with ‘Bradshaw’ to test a theory about the suspects movements. All is well written and keeps the reader engrossed. An enjoyable read.

Murder at the College was published by The Crime Lab, London, 1948.

12th December - The Warden

Those familiar with the Ecclesiastical Exemption (Listed buildings and Conservation areas)(England) Order 2010 will know that the regulation of places of peculiar jurisdiction is nothing new.   The Warden is based on the real dispute surrounding the scandal at the Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty in Winchester, where the warden led a life of luxury, but the almsmen for whom the hospital had been founded continued in their noble poverty.

St Cross becomes Hiram’s Hospital, where the Warden, Mr Septimus Harding, enjoys a sinecure living so he can play his cello, publish his music, give pastoral care to 12 elderly residents, and be Precentor at the cathedral.  Litigation and then finally his own conscience force him to resign the wardenship and accept a lesser living.   He is the character in the book with which the reader has the most sympathy, unlike of course the wily Archdeacon Grantly, whose cries of ‘Good Heavens!’ can move a whole synod. 

The best things in life are free, so why not enjoy Christmas by downloading The Warden, sitting by the fire, and transporting yourself to the world of Hiram’s Hospital, Sir Abraham Haphazard QC, Plumstead Episcopi, and the united rectories of Eiderdown and Stogpinigum.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope, 1855, is available to download free from www.free-ebooks.net/ebook/The-Warden/pdf/view

11th December - The Nine Tailors

On a visit some years ago to the bell chamber of St Albans Abbey, the group was firmly assured that bells could not possibly kill you, and yet the vice-captain of my home tower, who's already shot his hearing on a rifle range, wears ear muffs if he attempts to record the bells. So what to make of it? And what to make of a re-reading after a long distance of time of Dorothy Sayers' detective novel, The Nine Tailors?

Lord Peter Wimsey must have been so familiar to her readers that new readers to her work through this novel have to build up his character - all of her characters in fact - on speech and actions alone. Is this why there have been few, modern-day TV and film adaptations since the mid-1970s perhaps? Wimsey and Bunter curiously remind one of Wooster and Jeeves but in the former there is greater intelligence, if bored, which is deployed in criminal detection. This novel pairs Wimsey with Superintendent Blundell, a brighter than average foil. Where Wimsey shines is in his skill at bell-ringing - not just the skill to step in and do a nine-hour peal after a break away from regular ringing but also to understand the mechanics of change ringing. The books parts and chapters are all headed with quotations from a number of manuals well-researched by Sayers. So do bell-ringers solve the mystery quicker than the rest of us?

But it's not just the bells that dominate, there is also a necklace recalling Maupassant's sad little story, although the gems here are real and turn up, retrieved by the ever-resourceful Wimsey. Is there anything he hasn't done or cannot do? A criticism sometimes levelled at Sayers was that Wimsey is too perfect, too good for his own boots. The characters that emerge fully rounded from the book are the Revd Theodore Venables and his wife, as well as some of the Hardy-esque bell-ringers. Venables' absent-minded academic whose pastoral care is exemplary, as in the marshalling of the village towards the end of the tale, is lovingly portrayed.

Perhaps the limelight goes to the church and the landscape. Fenchurch St Paul could be one of almost any number of East Anglian churches, although the lofty tower would be just as at home in Somerset. It stands on a slight eminence in one of the most contrived landscapes in England, and from the beginning of the novel the flatness, the dykes, the straight roads and the vast areas of water are omnipresent. Sayers delineates a desolate place with bells, threatening, or some of the novels mysteries would be less interesting.

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers, 1934, is published by Gollancz.
Want to know more about looking after the bells in your church? Our guidance is available here.

10th December - The Pillars of the Earth

Pillars of the Earth cover

Those curious about the lasting appeal of cathedrals to the non-churchgoing public would do well to read Ken Follett’s revealing introduction in later editions of his 1989 best-seller The Pillars of the Earth. Growing up in a Plymouth Brethren household with no exposure to the architectural glories of historic church and cathedral buildings, Follett made his own discoveries as a Pevsner-equipped adult and became fascinated by the lives of the people who built the great structures. He nurtured the idea of his cathedral novel for many years while becoming a highly successful thriller writer.

Pillars, set in the period of the Anarchy in the mid-12th century, and World Without End, its sequel set some 200 years later around the time of the Black Death, each trace the development over several decades of the town of Kingsbridge (somewhere around Marlborough in Wiltshire), its monastery and its cathedral, and the fortunes of the associated families. The research is solid: reading the two novels introduces major historical themes such as differences between the earlier and later ‘middle ages’, the impact of the Black Death on the position of the peasantry, the workings of trade and the role of the Church, monasticism and the monarchy. At the same time the language is simple and readable, in a modern idiom – no pseudo-archaic dialogue for Follett’s characters.

As well as conveying vividly how the cathedral – and other medieval structures such as looms, mills and bridges – would have been conceived and constructed, Follett depicts his characters in many situations remote from our modern experiences, such semi-starvation, giving birth in the open, enjoying getting up in the small hours for church services, fleeing rape, fighting in battle and killing in self-defence. However he admits he found the devout and ‘cheerfully celibate’ clergyman Prior Philip, one of the heroes of the first book, personally difficult to identify with. Details of diet, dress, weaponry, medical treatments and sleeping arrangements are also carefully covered, although readers have identified a few anachronisms.

As would be expected from a master thriller writer, the construction is drama-packed, with cliff-hanger chapter endings, episodes of violence and eroticism that the more sheltered reader might find disconcerting, heroes and heroines in peril and a couple of memorably psychopathic villains who might just have strayed from the pages of a Nazi-themed drama, shedding their SS uniforms on the way.

Although too long and saga-like for those whose primary interest is cathedral-building, these are gripping reads for those who enjoy blockbusters and have a sense of history – and for those who lack the latter, reading them might just develop one.

The Pillars of the Earth (2010 edition) and World Without End (2012 edition) by Ken Follett are published by Pan Macmillan, priced £8.99 and are available direct from the publishers: click here

9th December - England's Cathedrals by Train

I consider myself fortunate in having a job which takes me around the Church of England’s cathedrals, almost invariably by train. Cathedral cities are notably well connected to the railway system; splendid stations such as York on the East Coast route embody the values of the early railway age where the prosperity and status of cathedral cities was only starting to be overtaken by that of industrialised towns.

Retired army officer Murray Naylor’s enjoyable new guide explores some of the best routes between England’s cathedral cities and explains what happened in the Beeching era to erode, but by no means destroy, this heritage of connections. His deep knowledge of the railways is complemented by well researched pieces on each of the 33 cathedrals featured; an introduction from railway-loving former Archbishop of York, David Hope, confirms his credentials. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the National Railway Museum has its home in York, the Church of England’s ‘second city’.

This book would make a fine present for a railway enthusiast with time to travel – possibly recently retired. Printed as a quality hardback, it seems rather heavy to be carried around as a travel guide, and might work better in ‘coffee table’ format with really good photographs (cathedrals featured would surely be happy to supply them), more quotes and interviews from cathedral people and more of the entertaining railway ephemera images supplied by the National Railway Museum. I could see such a volume selling well there and in cathedral shops – and even inspiring the creation a TV train-travel series.

England’s Cathedrals by Train (2013) by Murray Naylor is published by Pen and Sword Books, priced £25, and is available direct from the publishers: click here

6th December - Dissolution

C J Sansom’s first published novel has just been re-issued in a new tenth anniversary edition. It commences the Shardlake series of mysteries, which overlap in time with Hilary Mantel’s later Wolf Hall and its successors. Dissolution is narrated by the likeable hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, an admirer and occasional employee of Thomas Cromwell’s, like him of humble origins and protestant sympathies.

We first see Shardlake and his servant Mark making the difficult wintry journey from London to investigate the murder of one of Thomas Cromwell’s Commissioners early in the dissolution of the monasteries, in 1537. Their destination, Scarnsea Priory, is based on Lewes Priory in East Sussex but Sansom sets it in marshes somewhere nearer Rye – the politically crucial early surrender of Lewes Priory to the Commissioners takes place in the course of the tale.

Sansom’s imagined Scarnsea has a bleak and oppressive atmosphere, reminding us of how old and decayed many monastic buildings must already have been by that time. All the same, rebuilding is still going on, despite financial difficulties, and the author dissects the tensions between the monks and between the Priory and the townspeople. His descriptions of the Priory are so closely based on archaeological evidence that even unresolved questions, such as whether there were doors on the monks’ latrines, play a part in the story.

A sensitive and humane soul, Shardlake finds his assignment increasingly troubling, but is determined to reach the truth. After a dramatic climax the answer shakes his moral certainties. His final visit to Scarnsea, with demolition and despoilment in full swing, leaves his commitment to Cromwell also in question. As a present-day Lewes resident I have often wondered what the townsfolk must have felt when the Priory was being comprehensively undermined by Cromwell’s imported Italian demolition engineers, and Sansom provides one answer.

His sustained feat of imagination is all the more impressive for having pre-dated the reconstruction drawings produced for the Lewes Priory Trust as part of the opening-up to the public of the Lewes Priory ruins in 2010. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the ruins are now brilliantly brought to life by the interpretation boards of Andy Gammon, reconstruction artist who is also working for Rochester Cathedral.

Dissolution (2013 anniversary edition) by C J Sansom is published by Pan Macmillan, priced £8.99 and is available direct from the publishers: click here

You can read more about Lewes Priory and see the reconstruction drawings here. The site is free to visit and wheelchair-accessible.

5th December - Death in Holy Orders

Another Adam Dalgleish mystery, another few days of only slightly-predictable joy as the gently paced mystery unfurls. James doesn’t write thrillers, she writes mysteries, albeit bloody ones with murder and motive. Death In Holy Orders is no exception, set in St Anslem’s, a throwback Anglican theological college where ordinands still wear monkish robes and respect for your betters is order of the day. And yet one student has already died in mysterious circumstances, buried beneath a crumbling cliff. And whilst Commander Dalgleish looks into what happened, Archdeacon Crampton, a figure much revered if not universally loved, is brutally murdered in the church.

James has dealt with religion before – she is perversely both for and against it. She is a conventionalist and conservative at heart, her sympathies always with the establishment. Yet religious fervour is used in more than one book as a motive for the strangest behaviour. In this James shows that she knows people – the staid trappings of the ordered church are very different to a personal passion which might out itself at inappropriate moments and startle passers-by. James is also a supporter of class distinctions, which mainly appear through the medium of hot drinks – coffee made from freshly ground beans is always “excellent”, whilst the lower orders make do with instant. Tea is reserved for appropriate times in the afternoon and milky drinks before bed. There are worse ways of stereotyping and those who know the character of Dalgleish will forgive him this built-in snobbery.

The plot of Holy Orders carries on at the pace of life in a monastery – slow, steady, get there in the end. There is an unfortunate Dan Brown-style revelation part way through, which turns out to form only a minor part of the eventual denouement. But as ever with James it is the people she creates who capture your attention. Beautiful, repressed Raphael, conflicted and angry, hindered rather than helped by his exquisite face, described as belonging to another age or perhaps another world. Father John, a convicted paedophile trying to live out the rest of his tortured days in solitude, given an unusually sympathetic rendering. And Dalgliesh and his team, finding in the quiet of the college space to reflect on their own lives and the place of faith within it. There is even a hint of a love story, as the stoical Dalgliesh meets beautiful, brilliant Dr Emma Lavenham for the first time. Although they do spend the night together it is safely in separate beds (or rather a bed and an armchair), all handled with the greatest of delicacy.

This book won’t change anybody’s life. But it’s steady and interesting, showing off James’ great knowledge of life in the English countryside. Despite being really quite recent, it feels old in morals and values, sometimes brazenly judgemental of the way the world has fallen. Yet despite all this it is hugely enjoyable to read. If only to find out, in the end, whodunit.

Death in Holy Orders by PD James, 2001, is published by Faber & Faber.