Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Eric Gill, Mary Magdalene, Dorset House and This and That

Nuptials of God by Eric Gill. 
At about the time The Quest for Mary Magdalene was published, just before Easter, I was emerging from Marylebone Railway Station and took the opportunity to cross over Gloucester Place to Dorset House.  An art deco block of 185 flats built in 1934-35, Dorset House is now a Grade II listed building on account of its architectural interest.

The Gloucester Place entrance to the art deco Dorset House, which I photographed in March this year.
Part of this interest is that the entrance on Gloucester Place is carved with reliefs by the outstanding British sculptor, designer and printmaker Eric Gill (1882-1940).  Several of Gill's plates depicting the crucifixion and resurrection appear in my book.

Eric Gill: the Crucifixion.
But there was also another reason why I wanted to have a close  look.  I had once driven past Dorset House in a taxi with an acquaintance who pointed to it and said 'My grandfather owns that'.  'My uncle built it', I replied.  My uncle was the civil engineer responsible for the construction of Dorset House. And he employed my father, then in his early twenties, as his foreman.

I recently came across a photograph of my father standing at the Gloucester Place entrance of Dorset House in 1935 and I wanted to visit the exact spot. 

My father at Dorset House 1935.

The same spot in March 2016.

So there he is, my father at the Gloucester Place entrance to Dorset House in 1935.  And behind him are the reliefs by Eric Gill. And here is the photograph I took of the same spot at Easter 2016.  There is a satisfaction in connecting the past with the present, of joining the two in one's own moment.  And there is my father, in the photograph, and in my memory, but when I stood at that spot my father was not there.

Mary Magdalene enters the empty tomb, by Eric Gill.
As for 'this and that', Eric Gill is a wonderful artist. He did the reliefs on the outside of the BBC's Old Broadcasting House.  And he did the Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral, the chief church of Roman Catholicism in England.  

Gill's Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral.

Gill carving the reliefs on the exterior of the BBC's Old Broadcasting House.
Gill also made love to his daughters and screwed his dog. When this was discovered in Gill's own diaries after his death it made certain art lovers squirm. Apparently art becomes unacceptable when the artist's behaviour is unacceptable. But the Roman Catholic Church says that man is man and art is art and they have declared that Gill's Stations of the Cross will stay where they are and receive your prayers.

To the further confusion of art lovers and others, Gill's daughter has said that she did not object to her father making love to her, nor did her sister. We are not sure about the dog.

Hot Off the Press: The American Edition of The Quest for Mary Magdalene

Hot off the press.
Harper Collins in New York have sent me a first copy of their edition of The Quest for Mary Magdalene.  Not a proof copy; this is the real thing.  In the US it has gone straight into paperback.  Publication date is 24 May.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Hatchards on Piccadilly

I was in St James and Piccadilly the other evening looking at shoes and books and fountain pens.  They appeal to me because they are among the finest artisan manufactures and they are more or less affordable everyday things.

It pleases me to wear a well made pair of leather shoes, to choose my fountain pen and nib and ink for the day (usually several fountain pens a day with a variety of nibs and coloured inks), and to turn over the pages of a handsomely produced and well written book.  I have been a publisher and a writer and an accidental collector and I have enjoyed learning about paper and printing and binding.

Hatchards on Piccadilly
The other evening after window shopping at Cheaneys in Jermyn Street and Penfriend in Burlington Arcade it also pleased me to walk into Hatchards on Piccadilly, the oldest bookshop in the United Kingdom, and to see that The Quest for Mary Magdalene, the book that I had newly written, a book that was still coming off my keyboard and out of my hand-written notebooks just over two months ago, was on the central table by the door.  What pleased me was the magic of it.  That something inside my head was now reproduced and made available to anyone with the curiosity and a few quid to pick it up.  It is something like baking bread.

The Quest for Mary Magdalene on the front table at Hatchards, Piccadilly.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

All-Singing, All-Dancing Goddess of Light: Review of The Quest for Mary Magdalene in The Spectator

Mary Magdalene: all-singing, all-dancing Goddess of Light

With little to go on, says Nicola Barker, Michael Haag has cunningly constructed an imaginative, sympathetic portrait of the seductive ‘13th disciple’

The Quest for Mary Magdalene: History and Legend Michael Haag
Profile, pp.£15.99, 352, ISBN: 9781846684524

Many of the great faith narratives (the Holy Quran being a notable exception) are clumsy, rough-hewn things; makepiece amalgams of different texts from an abundance of sources that have been gradually hacked together over hundreds — sometimes even thousands — of years. Most have been found useful or resonant (spiritually and politically) at various stages in history, and some have been purposefully engineered (by individuals or institutions with agendas — their motives pure or otherwise). Eventually these fragments become embedded into a whole — a unity. A consensus is reached on what, fundamentally, works. This process is essentially pragmatic. How the interested individual chooses to approach such constructions can also be based on pragmatism (a person can still claim to be a Christian without actually believing in the Resurrection, say), but many (the ideologues, the purists) prefer to believe that the Bible (for example) is Divine Truth and so adhere slavishly to every word.

In Michael Haag’s deliciously seductive and thoroughly readable The Quest for Mary Magdalene: History and Legend he engages with these thorny issues with an immense heartfeltness and an admirable lightness of touch. Haag is a natural storyteller, a delirious wrangler of old facts into new and fascinating forms. His areas of interest (over 12 books) are the medieval and classical worlds, with a hefty dose of Egypt thrown in for good measure. His political/spiritual inclinations appear very much Christian in nature but with a giant dollop of radicalism and scepticism flavouring the stew.
And what a stew it is. Bearing in mind that Mary Magdalene is only mentioned by name 14 times in the New Testament, and is completely ignored by the Bible’s most important contributor, Saint Paul, Haag still, nonetheless — by dint of a heady combination of pure zest, great imagination and refreshing irreverence (even, to be honest, sheer willpower) — drags her, kicking and screaming, into the very heart of the Biblical narrative. He still leaves a little bit of elbow room for God and Jesus (of course), but Mary, in his cunning and capable hands, becomes an all-powerful, all-singing and all-dancing Goddess of Light, a second Isis: ‘the watchtower, the lighthouse, the beacon’.

How on earth does he manage this on what scant sources he has? With great guile and dexterity. With many slightly clunky flourishes. By telling familiar stories and then cheerfully repositioning the Magdalene at their centre. But there is considerable subtlety here, too. The way Haag uses place, naming, linguistics, geography and his impressive Greek and classical learning to further his argument is, at the very least, diverting, at best, strangely beguiling.

The big issues surrounding Mary Magdalene (13th disciple or whore?) are dealt with admirably, and Haag’s analysis of the impact of Hellenism on Mary and the entire Biblical milieu is (for me, at least) fascinating. Is this a book for someone who knows a great deal about the subject already? Possibly not. Susan Haskins’s excellent (almost canonical) Mary Magdalen: The Essential History covers most — if not quite all — of the ground traversed here, but is Haskin’s work as rugged and naughty and, ooh, sexy as Haag’s effort? Uh, no.

Because Haag is like a brilliant (if slightly unscrupulous) impresario who picks out a girl (any girl — it doesn’t matter — so long as her bone structure is adequate) then transforms her into something quite new. He starts off gentlemanly in his defence of the Magdalene’s honour, but then leads her (and the reader — via Gnosticism, Origen, the war over Mary between the Dominicans and the Cathars) into some pretty unchartered Da Vinci Code-style territory, replete with all the necessary death and sex rituals (‘Jesus a Bastard, His Mother Mary an Adultress’, being one subtitle of note).

Haag always remains reasonable and measured, though. To the idea that the destruction of the Magdalene’s reputation throughout history is due simply to misogyny, he responds:
To say that the depreciation of Mary Magdalene has been caused by a conspiracy of men against women might be missing the point. Rather, Mary Magdalene has fallen foul of a profound argument over the apprehension of the divine, in which the established, ritualised and hierarchical Church requires that God should be mediated through itself, whereas everything about Mary Magdalene suggests a more immediate and personal experience of the divine.
There is a danger that this book may leave some of its more querulous readers feeling slightly grubby, since surely the true joy of any great Biblical character is that very little, on paper, can allow the serious devotee to feel a great deal. The imagination thrills to the mystery. Faith exists in the gaps.
Did I finish Haag’s book loving the Magdalene more now than I did before (and I do love her, dearly, although this love is chiefly vested in her tantalising ambiguity)? In a word, no. Did I scoff, blink, start, chew anxiously on my thumbnail as I read? Absolutely. Did I learn anything? A great deal. Did Haag’s quest end in my own Holy Grail? Nope. But precious few quests do. You still gain plenty on the journey, though.

Nicola Barker’s novels include Wide Open, Behindlings, the Man Booker-shortlisted Darkmans and, most recently, The Cauliflower.

To go to the review on The Spectator website click here.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Proof Copies of the American Paperback Edition of The Quest for Mary Magdalene

Today I received proof copies of the American edition of The Quest for Mary Magdalene to be published in paperback on 24 May by Harper Collins.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Sunday Times Review of The Quest for Mary Magdalene

'In a narrative as clue-rich as a thriller', Mary Magdalene emerges from the pages of this 'well-researched and page-turning history' as 'an independent woman of radical beliefs'.

    - Bee Wilson, The Sunday Times review of The Quest for Mary Magdalene

Click to enlarge.

The last column can be read by clicking here.