a road not taken

Lately I have been reading some of the wartime letters of Dorothy Sayers — who, I have just learned, pronounced her name to rhyme with “stairs” — and have been constantly reminded of something that I wrote about a bit in my Year of Our Lord 1943: the complex network, centered of course in London, of Christians working outside of standard ecclesiastical channels to bring a vibrant Christian faith before the minds of the people of England in the midst of war. People like J. H. Oldham and Philip Mairet and, perhaps above all, James Welch of the BBC — who convinced Dorothy Sayers to write the radio plays that came to be called The Man Born to be King, recruited C. S. Lewis to give the broadcast talks that became Mere Christianity, and commissioned music from Ralph Vaughan Williams — ended up having an impact on the public face of English Christianity that was enormous but is now almost completely unknown.

At one point in researching my book I thought seriously about throwing out my plans and writing this story instead — but I couldn’t bear to let go of the fascinating interplay between ideas being articulated in England and their close siblings arising in the U.S., especially in New York City.

I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned it here before — a quick search suggests not — but I have long dreamed of writing a book called Christian London: a history of the distinctive and often profoundly influential role that London has played in the history of Christianity. However, no one I have spoken to about this project — my agent, various editors, friends — has shared my enthusiasm. I might write it one day anyhow, and if I do, people like Oldham and Mairet and Welch will be major characters in one chapter.

a clash of cultures in London

Bridging Home, London, 2018 © Do Ho Suh

but how far Underground?

This is amazing. Daniel Silva has created a series of maps showing just how far underground any given station of the London Underground is. Note that the brown dotted line traces the changes in ground elevation, while the blue line below shows the depth of the railway. Some of the lines (like the Victoria, above) maintain a general consistency of depth in relation to the ground, but others don’t. Silva has created a simple representation of what had to have been some very complicated engineering decisions.


(click photo for details)

Portobello Road Market (1960s)

Norman McCaskill

Norman McCaskill

London’s “nightmare scenario“

Before Britain voted last summer to leave the European Union, Crossrail was conceived for a London open to the world and speeding into the future. Now, with Brexit, the nightmare scenario is that this massive project, to provide more trains moving more people more quickly through a growing city, ends up moving fewer people more quickly through a shrinking city.

– The New York Times. A lightly-trafficked London train system strikes me as the least likely ”nightmare scenario” ever (also, from a visitor’s point of view, one of the least nightmarish).

the Lego offices in London 

London Bridge 

Imagined reconstruction of old London Bridge; pencil drawing by Paul Stroud

There’s an argument on the Wikipedia page for the story of Dick Whittington and his cat about whether young Whittington could have heard the ringing of the Bow bells from Holloway. Sometimes I love Wikipedia. Also, that delightful story is a rare example of a genuine folktale arising almost in modern times – possibly as late as the early 17th century – and based on a well-known historical figure. 

Gog and Magog, Guildhall, London


We’re in a society that thinks entirely about faith, because of our sense of encroachment by Islam, and our defiance against that because we have our own way of being, which of course is based in Christianity. But no one is Christian. So we’re trying to defend an ideal which we can’t really define ourselves, which we almost entirely don’t believe in. And we’re coming up against something which is quite overwhelming and encroaching and dictatorial – some aspects of Islam – and yet at another level, there’s something so beautiful and glorious about it. And so I feel as if this conflict is entirely about faith, and yet the one thing no one wants to talk about is faith.

Nicola Barker

theatrical memories

Recently, Teri and I have been watching both Victoria and The Crown — an interesting pair of experiences which I may say something about in a future post — and one of the pleasures of both series has been Alex Jennings, who in The Crown plays the oleaginous and embittered  Duke of Windsor (i.e., the abdicated Edward VIII), and in Victoria plays the oleaginous and manipulative King Leopold of Belgium.

All of which reminds me that I first saw Jennings in 1990, at the Phoenix Theatre in London, playing Hjalmar Ekdal in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck alongside David Threlfall’s Gregers Werle. It was a magnificent production, and one of the reasons I remember it is that Teri and I had an extremely intense argument about it on our walk back to our hotel in Bloomsbury. All I can remember about the debate is that she thought the production was weighted towards the perspective of one character and I thought it was weighted towards the perspective of the other — which suggests that it was actually an ideal theatrical endeavor, capable of producing very different reactions in equally intelligent and attentive viewers. Even now I remember with great vividness the set, and a handful of crucial scenes.

I had already seen Threlfall on TV, in his amazing performance as Leslie Titmuss in John Mortimer’s Paradise Postponed — I can still see him in my mind’s eye, a working-class boy listening with passionate intensity to the radio and trying to mimic the BBC announcers’ intonations (in the days before the BBC thought it should represent the varieties of British speech patterns) — but Jennings was new to me, and was simply electric as Hjalmar. It’s so good to see him still at work.

The London Necropolis


The Museum at war

The British Museum:

Britain officially entered the First World War on 4 August 1914. This is a look back at some of the measures the Museum took to cope with the threat of war.

During the First World War there was a new wartime threat – the air raid. Early air raids were carried out mostly by Zeppelins (airships), as few aeroplanes had long enough ranges to be effective or the ability to carry worthwhile quantities of munitions by 1914 and 1915. This archive photograph shows how objects in the Museum were protected against German air raids. Many of the large sculptures were too heavy to move and were protected in situ. The Egyptian gallery is eerily quiet, with the sculptures hidden away behind walls of sandbags.

This work is by war artist Henry Rushbury, who was 25 when war broke out. He served as an aircraft mechanic with the Royal Flying Corps (precursor to the Royal Air Force) during the war and earned the rank of sergeant. In 1918 he was invited by the Ministry of Information to become an official war artist, and sent out to depict scenes of life in London. He produced a series of drawings of the British Museum, showing the ‘sand-bagging’ of antiquities as a defence against German air raids. In this scene three sculptures in the Egyptian gallery have been surrounded by sandbags – Rushbury has labelled them as Amenhotep I, Amenhotep III and the goddess Sekhet.

The most important portable antiquities (such as the Rosetta Stone) were transferred to a station on the newly completed Postal Tube Railway, 15 metres below the surface of Holborn. Bombs did land on Holborn during the war, but no objects were damaged. Books, manuscripts, prints and drawings went in fifteen van loads to the National Library of Wales in their new buildings at Aberystwyth. This was such a westerly location that the threat of air raids was substantially diminished – aircraft at the time did not have the range to fly a return mission this far from the continent, and there were few strategic targets immediately nearby.

No damage was inflicted on the British Museum during the First World War, with the nearest bombs being dropped on Smithfield and Holborn.


The ancient Greeks saw the Celts as warlike peoples whose strange customs set them apart from the civilised Mediterranean world. Writing around 60–30 BC, Greek historian Diodorus Siculus described Celtic peoples wearing horned helmets into battle.

This helmet was cast into the River Thames over 2,000 years ago, perhaps as an offering to the gods. It was dredged from the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge in the early 1860s. It is the only Iron Age helmet to have ever been found in southern England, and it is the only Iron Age helmet with horns ever to have been found anywhere in Europe. Horns were often a symbol of the gods in different parts of the ancient world. This might suggest the person who wore this was a special person, or that the helmet was made for a god to wear. The helmet is made from sheet bronze pieces held together with many carefully placed bronze rivets. Its swirling decoration may have carried hidden meanings.

Ancient Greek warriors wore less elaborate headgear, like this helmet. Greek writing can still be understood, unlike the enigmatic Celtic designs on the horned helmet.

Horned helmet. River
Thames near Waterloo, London, England, 200–100 BC.

Greek helmet.
Olympia, south-western Greece, around 460 BC.

See these amazing objects in our exhibition Celts: art and identity, until 31 January 2016.

from an intricate hand-drawn map of London

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