Secularization and Snowmen

The high point of the week for my children was the opportunity to build two snowmen and – this year’s innovation – a snow dog. A low point was the moment when they realised that those same snowmen (and dog) had begun to melt, the  first signs of terminal decline coming when the coal eyes and nose fell out.

Inside the house it was easy to miss that crucial moment. From a distance, eyes and nose still seemed to be there, the cavities being smudged black with coal. A closer inspection revealed the sad truth. And worse is still to come: as I type, with the temperature rising, limbs are starting to sag and heads, no doubt, will soon begin to roll.

There are two reasons why, sadly, I won’t be able to use this image of secularization in my PhD (on secularization and contemporary fiction). The first is that neither snowmen nor snowdogs are standard features of doctoral theses. The second is that the image doesn’t wholly work because it is grounded in an assumption of inevitability. Snowmen are built and snowmen melt. There is no other way. However, the secularization thesis no longer holds sway in the academy because secularization is clearly neither inevitable nor unstoppable. If anything is melting, it is the secularization thesis itself.



Intriguing news about J.D. Salinger’s books

We learn today that J.D. Salinger’s son and widow are working hard to publish the books he wrote during the last fifty years of his life. As became painfully apparent when Harper Lee agreed to allow Go Set a Watchman to see the light of day, publishing so many years after the event can be a perilous business, so let’s hope that Salinger fans won’t be disappointed. (In fact, what the publication of Go Set a Watchman revealed, above all else, was the importance of a good editor. The person who pulled To Kill a Mockingbird out of Go Set a Watchman deserves a Nobel Prize.)

However, it might be different with J.D. Salinger if only because he was such a restless writer. He was in search of something, or someone, he never quite found in his published works. I would be surprised to discover that the restlessness ever came to an end but the journey, the quest, could well throw up some fascinating surprises.

Time off

“When Augustine was ordained presbyter in the African town of Hippo in 391 one of the first things he did was to ask for time off – time to devote himself to intensive study of the Bible.” (R.P.H. Green in the introduction to St Augustine’s On Christian Teaching, OUP 1997)

I now wonder whether I should have done the same when I started teaching Theology A Level.

Ronald Knox on the current crisis

Of course, Ronald Knox didn’t have a view on the current crisis. Nevertheless, what he said in a series of sermons to schoolgirls during World War II (later published in The Creed in Slow Motion) was extremely prescient:

“What holds up the conversion of England, I always think, is not so much the wickedness of a few Catholics, as the dreadful ordinariness of most Catholics. There is a temptation for us, simply because we belong to a holy Church, just to sit back and be passengers, and say, ‘I’m not going to bother about being anything above the average; I leave the Church to do the holiness for me.’ But we have got to match the Church, you and I, to wear her colours. And when we say, ‘I believe in the holy Catholic Church,’ we mean, among other things, ‘I believe holiness is a good thing; that holiness would be a good thing for me.'”

Putting the World Back Into World War I


History is never as straightforward as we might like it to be. Take something as straightforward as the dates of the First World War: 1914-1918. We all know that. Except that the peace treaties that officially ended the war were signed in 1919. And labourers continued to die while doing battlefield clearance until 1920.

And where was the war? We often speak as if it were fought exclusively in Belgium and France, but the first shot of the war may well have been fired in Togo (or Togoland as it was then). What’s more, there were battles across the globe from Qingdao to Gallipoli, as can be seen in this map.


Burial sites are particularly useful in helping us rebalance our accounts of the war. There were 51,442 burials in Iraq, 18,841 in India, 14,851 in Egypt, 3,001 in Australia, 2,467 in Nigeria, 1,936 in Malta, and 1,118 in China.

And 1 in Togo.

History is never as straightforward as we take it to be.

All at sea

160 of the 168 headstones at the St Etienne-au-Mont mark the graves of members of the Chinese Labour Corps. So what about the other eight?




Three merchant seamen and five members of the South African Labour Corps:


These men represent the many thousands whose contribution to the war effort is still largely forgotten today.


St Etienne-au-Mont


On just about the only dreary day we had last summer, I visited a small war cemetery in the village of St Etienne-au-Mont, just outside Boulogne-sur-Mer. Of the 168 graves there, 160 mark the last resting places of members of the Chinese Labour Corps. 


It was a moving experience, walking among the rows, paying homage to the dead one hundred years after the end of the Great War. Except, once more, the dates on the gravestones told a different story. Half the labourers who were buried in that cemetery died after Armistice Day. Half the labourers were unable to enjoy the peace. The war, for them, went on and on and on.

The Joy of Palindromes

After graduating from university, I worked for a while in a night shelter for homeless men, where I met some very interesting people, one of whom called himself Midnight. He was often aggressive and sometimes violent, so I tended to keep my distance. Eventually, though, we discovered a shared interest: palindromes.

“Ah, Midnight!” I would greet him. “I’ve got a good one for you today: level.”

“Ah, good one, good one,” he’d reply. “I’ve got one too: radar!”

And so we went on, not exactly becoming friends but at least finding a reasonably peaceful equilibrium.

I was reminded of Midnight the other day when reading Paul Virilio of all people. In the middle of a discussion about speed and war, he dropped in a great palindrome I’d not come across before: Esope reste ici et se repose – Aesop stays here and rests. Virilio’s point was that “today no one stays at rest, all is in flight and is displaced in a strange inverse transmigration. The habit of returning to our source, of rediscovering our origins, our ‘identity’, suddenly seems an absolute necessity.”

This argument, in turn, reminded me of Great Expectations and the palindromic Pip Pirrip and who went on a palindromic journey away from the marsh country, down by the river, to London and then back again. Unlike many of us today, Pip recovered the habit of returning to source, though he had to shed many prejudices before he could do so.

As Judy Wajcman points out in Pressed for Time, attitudes to time, speed and mobility changed dramatically in the 19th century so that, for Pip before he learned his lesson and for many of us today, “voluntary mobility, like speed, is seen as a social good, while fixity becomes associated with failure, with being left behind.”

As he so often did, Dickens skewered these industrial assumptions, with the palindrome being one of the tools he used to show the joys of being left behind and of returning to where we started.

A multi-national search


Researching the Chinese Labour Corps during World War I is bound to force you outside narrow national boundaries.

Some of the best work on the Chinese in World War I has been done in France, with Li Ma’s book in the picture above being particularly good. It should also go without saying that Chinese authors and publishers, such as the Shandong Pictorial Publishing House, have produced really interesting books.

More challenging for Anglophones are some of the wonderful books published in the Netherlands, including the beautifully illustrated memoirs of Gu Xingqing, a translator with the Chinese Labour Corps.

There is also some interesting material online, with this website providing a good introduction.