Unlike a previous Beloved Leader, who had Alistair Campbell strapping him into the jacket with the arms that go round the back and declaring ‘We don’t do God’, the Northern Reader is happy to tackle this one head-on. Fear not: this is not suddenly going to transmogrify into one of those rather earnest and evangelical blogs with which the aether is awash – sorry if you write one, and I’m sure it’s lovely, and I hope you find it jolly comforting, but never forget that I’m British, which means (praise the Lord) genetically incapable of discussing or even mentioning matters of faith without practically passing out with the terrible toe-curling embarrassment of it all. As it happens, I went to a convent school in infancy, which has left me with a somewhat generalised sense of God as a pleasant chap with a beard who models his appearance, and especially the beard, and his air of slightly anguished worry about us all and what will become of us on Dr Rowan Williams. It also left me with a conviction that the key to religious education is colouring. A non-Catholic, I was barred from the exciting-sounding Catechism classes (have you noticed how religions really enjoy banning, excluding and keeping all the buns for themselves?), and accordingly spent many a happy hour peacefully colouring pictures of the saints while our teacher read aloud to us. What she was reading – and I have checked on the internet to be sure that yes, this book really did exist and no, it is not some subtly satiric invention of mine – was Wopsy the Guardian
Angel by Gerard Scriven. Wopsy – what a great name – was a trainee GA, I think, being inducted into his life’s work (I have no information on the longevity of angels and am not about to get into a discussion about it now, however much you beg), which was – and times have changed so much that I hesitate to tell you this – Saving Little Pagan Babies in Africa.
No, I think our bookshelf this week will be better off with Salley Vickers. Miss Garnet’s Angel was her first novel. She writes with immense subtlety and precision, on top of which the book is set in Venice, so I can’t think why you wouldn’t be rushing to find it if by some mischance you have not already come across it. And then there is her thoughtful and humorous Mr Golightly’s Holiday. I do not wish to give too much away to those of you who have reading this as a pleasure still to come, so let it suffice to say that its subject, and hero, fits with our theme this week. I loved it and I hope you do too.
Giovannino Guareschi makes it into the NorthernReader Hall of Fame for having been imprisoned in the cause of free speech. He also wrote the Little World of Don Camillo books (Mondo Piccolo: Don Camillo), which began to appear shortly after the Second World War and reflect the polarised world of post-war Italy, with the Catholic church wading in against the Communists. When the Communist Party was more or less wiped off the face of Italian politics in the 1948 elections, Guareschi turned his satirical pen on the newly-triumphant Christian Democrats instead (they were the party with leaders such as Aldo Moro and Giulio Andreotti, who attracted international attention in ways that did not flatter their poor long-suffering country. The 2008 film, Il Divo, will tell you all you need to know about Andreotti, and is a must-watch). The Don Camillo books are simple to the point of being simplistic, but they have a cheerful rugged charm and a strangely credible voice of Christ coming from the crucifix in Don Camillo’s church. They also now have an historic interest as a reminder of the turmoil of post-war Europe and the dangerous possibilities of further fragmentation and violence. Worth reading now, then, if only to remind ourselves how fragile a peaceful Europe is and how suicidally half-witted we would be to flounce off.
The God of Christianity doesn’t turn up all that often in fiction, presumably because he has more pressing matters in hand. Quentin Crisp, the author of The Naked Civil Servant, was an advocate for a little bit of humility in prayer, pointing out that God probably has more urgent things to deal with than whatever it is that you so desperately want tonight (lottery win? Your maths teacher to be taken ill before you have to hand your homework in?). But the gods of ancient Greece simply adored the limelight and were happy to be stars of stage and screen. High on the list of the joys of reading The Iliad and The Odyssey is the depiction of the Olympian gods and goddesses as a bunch of brawling, psychotic, sulking, sex-obsessed, petty and petulant spoilt brats for whom immortality means never having to grow up. You can see why the people who invented them went on to invent democracy: at worst, rule by the people for the people couldn’t be worse than the hereditary principle when applied to congenital drunks who never die. Adam Nicolson recommends the translation of the Iliad and Odyssey by Robert Fagles, and that’s good enough for me. Happily, Fagles’ is the current Penguin translation, and therefore affordable and readily available (from a good local independent bookshop, please: Cogito, of course, if you’re lucky enough to live in this part of the forest).
Almost godlike in his creativity, Douglas Adams came up with well over a hundred minor characters who make fleeting appearances in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels. Among them is the philosopher, Oolon Colluphid, author of Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes, Who Is This God Person Anyway? And Well That About Wraps It Up for God. Quite. But I still have some sense of my nice bearded chap, sitting there well-meaningly worrying about us all, and – and this is the important bit – giving us the chance to do the best we can. And, unlike a distressing number of believers of all faiths over the years, God himself/herself/itself is, in more of Douglas Adams’ well-chosen words, Mostly Harmless.