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True Stories and Other Essays by Francis Spufford 

05 January 2018

Taking the battle to the atheists . . . and other essays. John Arnold highly recommends this engaging writer

THIS IS a collection of 37 essays and reviews, all previously published between 1993 and 2015, selected by the author and representing his main enthusiasms. Those who are already fans of his will be pleased to have these pieces gathered together in hard cover, to Yale’s high standards of presentation. For others, it would make an ideal introduction to the work of one of our most engaging contemporary writers.

Spufford is immensely well read; and the well-read readers of the Church Times will enjoy spotting the many allusions to the Bible and the liturgy, as well as to other literature. He writes as a Christian, and many will turn first to the apologetic section “Sacred”, in which he takes the battle to the new atheists.

“Dear Atheists” is quite winsome, attempting to catch flies with a teaspoonful of honey rather than with a bucketful of vinegar. “Contra Dawkins” is, as its title suggests, more combative. It was delivered as a talk at which Dawkins was present and due to speak. My only regret is that his reply is not included here.

Spufford writes appreciatively and perceptively about C. S. Lewis. He makes the point that his apologetics, especially Mere Christianity (which my Roman Catholic colleague in the chaplaincy at Southampton University used to use with lapsed RCs to good effect in the 1960s) worked, because he was able to re-call his hearers to half-remembered Bible stories and Sunday-school hymns. Now, even the simplest elements of Christian culture can no longer be evoked, or taken for granted. We need a different strategy.

Spufford hints at a possible, more imaginative, approach when he approves of Lewis’s move from polemic to fiction, from Miracles to the ever popular Narnia books. I remember being entranced by the finesse and delicacy of Lewis’s lectures on Renaissance literature at Cambridge in the 1950s, and alienated by the comparative crudity of a tub-thumping talk at Westcott House, and the casual hurtfulness of his put-down of a questioner.

Spufford cites Tolstoy, where the same contrast can be made between the enchantments of War and Peace and Anna Karenina on the one hand, and the banality and oversimplifications of his pamphleteering on the other. Already in 1888, Matthew Arnold, in Essays in Criticism: Second series, had pleaded with Tolstoy to turn away from apologetic and return to writing novels.

The point about being able to refer to what is already known applies also to Spufford’s writing. I enjoyed most the articles that triggered old, even childhood, memories — for example, of Polar exploration. As a young boy I met Lieut. “Teddy” Evans, the last survivor of Scott’s tragic expedition, and read Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. Spufford brought long-buried memories back with Proustian intensity. The same goes for his evocation of the Soviet Union at the height of its power and optimism in the section “Red”; and, among the reviews in “Published”, the pieces on Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and One Thousand and One Nights.

I was less taken by the articles on science fiction and applied science, much as I admire his spirited attempt, as an Arts man, to get to grips with the second of the two cultures; others will enjoy them more. My least favourite was “Responsible Fiction, Irresponsible Fact”, an apologia for “the peculiar blend of the fictional and the documentary in my book Red Plenty.”

To criticise it runs the risk of producing A Review of Reviews of Reviews (as in 1066 and All That); but it takes too far the element of self-consciousness, of an exceptionally acute mind scrutinising itself, which is otherwise such an attractive feature of his work.

In “This Grand Cause of Terror” he lets us into the secret of his own engagement in “a ceaseless low-level effort to keep refreshing the unpredictability of the surface of language”; and he concludes with a quotation from The Devil’s Elbow, “Why do I write? Because this state of liquefied, complex concentration, however faintly and dimly I’m able to perceive it, is the greatest pleasure I know.” No wonder his day-time job is teaching writing (at Goldsmiths, University of London). May we look forward to his own Essays in Criticism: Second series?


The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham and a former Secretary of the Board for Mission and Unity.


True Stories and Other Essays
Francis Spufford
Yale £20
Church Times Bookshop special price £16

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