Madeleine Davies

Archive for 2011|Yearly archive page

The magic of reality

In Faith on December 11, 2011 at 6:28 pm

A friend once told me that there are two sorts of people who read books by Richard Dawkins – people who already agree with him and people who will never agree with him. I suspect he may be right.

I am probably in the latter camp. But I loved reading “The Magic of Reality”. It is a brilliant introduction to science. If you, like me, managed to get through five years of science at school without ever really understanding how rainbows come about or why the earth orbits the sun as it does, then you will by the time you close this book (I would like to cut out and frame the pictures by Dave McKean).

Dawkins intent is to show his readers the magic of reality – a magic he describes as “poetic” (“deeply moving, exhilarating: something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more fully alive”). This he achieves, writing wonderful explanations simple enough for a 12 year-old to grasp, without ever patronising his audience, all in a way which conveys his passion not only for his subject but for communicating it to young minds.

W H Davies lamented that “we have no time to stop and stare”. Dawkins wants to show us that what we stare at becomes even more wonderful if we understand it. “Rainbows are not just beautiful to look at,” he writes. “In a way, they tell us when everything began, including time and space. I think that makes the rainbow even more beautiful.”

Contrast is key in this book. The scientific explanation and the view it offers us is not just beautiful, it is more beautiful than the other windows through which you might look at the world or the vistas they open up. “Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world, supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison,” Dawkins asserts. “The magic of reality is neither supernatural not a trick, but – quite simply – wonderful. Wonderful, and real. Wonderful because real.”

Which begs the question – how do we define real?

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Emperor and Galilean: review

In Miscellaneous, Theatre on June 15, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Watching Emperor and Galilean, an Ibsen drama about one man’s struggle with the cult of Christ in the 4th century Roman empire, one thought was persistent. Why is Jordan Knight, the high-pitched pin-up from 90s boyband New Kids on the Block, running around the Olivier?

This probably says more about me than the National’s production or its (very talented) star Andrew Scott. I was a big fan of the boys. Still, I remained oddly unmoved throughout the three hour performance. Which is saying something considering the amount of shouting, crying and skin tearing that goes on.

I’ve been trying to decide whether it would be fair to say the whole thing was a bit overwrought.  It was certainly quite shouty (have you seen the bit on Friends where Gary Oldman teaches Joey that to enunciate is to spit? You could see a LOT of spittle flying from row C).

I’m not sure the problem is peculiar to the production. The play itself is hugely serious, tackling philosophical themes though portentous lines delivered by characters in various states of emotional crisis. Ibsen called it “A World-Historical play” and also his “most important”. It is enormously ambitious, covering 12 years of history during which Julian, the man who will become the empire’s Emperor, evolves from pious Christian convert to a deluded warmongering tyrant intent on possessing the very souls of his people. It asks all sorts of questions. What was lost when Christianity replaced paganism? What belongs to Caesar and what to God? (Matthew 22 v 21 is quoted A LOT) Are human beings just pawns in a divine plot to see Christ glorified?

All of which are good and interesting questions. I was particularly struck by a scene in which Julius rails against the “Thou Shalt Nots” he associates with Christianity and his rage at those who tell him that his murdered wife is now Christ’s possession, too pure to stay with him on earth. His vision of the new cult emerging is an ugly one but one which probably persists today – hollow eyed ascetics longing for martyrdom. The play stands in a grand tradition of tragedy – the bloody fatalism of greek dramas and the enigmatic but over-reaching Shakespearian hero. 

(Also, Iain McDiarmid is brilliantly creepy as the mystic Maximus-think the witch in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves with a beard).


The shouting is relentless. And there is so little variety of pace or tone. Just a constant cranking up of violence, emotion and volume which, for me at least, meant it threatened to rush headlong over into farce. The lady next to me let out a slightly frustrated sigh as yet another very loud rant filled the stage. It’s never a good sign when you are rolling your eyes rather than wiping them during a mad crying session on stage.

Ibsen’s original play is a nine hour epic so perhaps an uncut version would allow for greater variety of tone. Maybe even some lighter moments – Maximus writing stuff in egg yolk for instance or Julius having a bit of a mumble.  Maybe, but I suspect trying to recall the lyrics to the Kids’ hit parade would still have been a necessary distraction and a welcome relief from the Oldman-ing.

Taking on a psychologically crushing God

In Faith on May 23, 2011 at 6:22 pm

On Friday I heard a lecture entitled “Terrors of body and soul: crises of conscience 1550-1650”, delivered by a brilliant Oxford scholar Elizabeth Hunter. Quiet at the back.

Her paper explored the impact of the doctrine of predestination. Predestination in this context is the theory that, before the beginning of time, God chose a select few for eternal life in heaven, with the remainder of humanity destined for hell. As Hunter’s paper showed, it was a teaching that, while intended to provide reassurance of salvation, left many people tormented by the conviction that they were reprobates headed for hell.

To Christians today this sort of anguish might sound alien. Much Christian teaching today centres on the certainty of eternal life promised to Christians. Yet anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the afterlife remains hugely present both within and without the church. In recent months it has also been the subject of intense debate. The publication of a new book by Rob Bell, an American pastor, who suggests that contemporary teachings about heaven and hell may be wrong, has caused great controversy.

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Manufacturing depression

In Health on April 2, 2011 at 3:29 pm

At the age of 30 Gary Greenberg found himself on the floor, watching dust specks float through sunbeams for hours, “racked by some unspecific pain”. Newly divorced, it did not occur to him at the time – 1987 – that he was suffering from what was later diagnosed as depression.

Manufacturing Depression is his account of his search through history for the origins of both his diagnosis and the cures recommended by doctors. But this is not a self-help book or even, primarily, an autobiography. Greenberg believes that the medical industry has acquired too much power over our lives – “the power to name our pain and then sell us the cure one pill at a time.” He writes to expose, seeking to illuminate a climate of opinion – that depression is a chronic disease that can be treated through medicine – that has become “as invisible to us as the sea is to fish”. What he uncovers is difficult to ignore.

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Of Gods and Men

In Films on March 7, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Living as we do in a largely secular society, martyrdom is an act that feels distant, frightening, alien. Dying for your beliefs is the stuff of classical drama, an act that has always posed difficult questions about morality and motives. In our horror of death and doubt about what lies beyond it, martyrdom can feel like a sort of stubborn nihilism, a morbid denial of the beauty of life on earth.

It remains a fascinating subject for film makers, but often in a historical context (A Man for All Seasons tells the story of Thomas More whose refusal to renounce his catholic faith results in his execution at the stake) or as an exploration of the dangers of extremism (Three Lions, Chris Morris’ black comedy about an inept gang of suicide bombers, presented its antiheros as tragically misguided, young men who ultimately falter before the enormity of the sacrifice asked of them).

Yet throughout the world people continue to die for their faith. This week Pakistan’s only Christian minister was assassinated after opposing the country’s blasphemy laws.

“As a Christian, I believe Jesus is my strength,” said Shahbaz Bhatti on a recent visit to Canada. “He has given me a power and wisdom and motivation to serve suffering humanity. I follow the principles of my conscience, and I am ready to die and sacrifice my life for the principles I believe.”

Such principled faith, lived out with integrity and courage to the very end, is incredible to us. But how to explain it?

What is clever about Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois’ film about a group of monks who choose to remain in an Algerian monastery despite the immediate threat of attack by Islamist terrorists, is that it combines depictions of the beauty of life and the longing to hold on to it with an exploration of the faith that can sustain people willing to sacrifice it.

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So lovely to see this

In Health on March 1, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Just over two years ago I left my job at Breakthrough Breast Cancer where I had been project manager for a campaign called The Service Pledge for Breast Cancer. I spent three years visiting breast cancer units across the UK, researching what patients thought about their experience and then working with the specialist nurses and other staff to try and improve it. I loved the job. The changes made were not always massive. I remember at one unit they installed a beautiful picture designed to look like a view of the countryside in the room where women underwent scans, just so that you didn’t have to stare at a blank wall during the process. Read the rest of this entry »

Keeping the faith in our precious NHS

In Health on February 26, 2011 at 4:08 pm

If the Health and Social Care Bill currently being scrutinised in Parliament is passed, it will mean some wholesale changes to the NHS. Nicholas Timmins, public policy editor at the FT, believes the NHS is set to become “much more like a regulated industry of competing healthcare providers”. Ed Miliband has described the reforms as “experiments in right-wing ideology”. But should the public be worried?

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Hello Cleveland!

In Miscellaneous on February 1, 2011 at 7:45 pm

In between watching The Seven Samurai (very good) and eating Heinz tomato soup (even better) I have started a blog. My first proper piece, which I’m about to upload, is all about the NHS – our national religion according to Nigel Lawson. You might find it interesting if you’ve been following the Government’s plans to shake up the NHS. Later on I expect I’ll write something about my latest encounter with Japanese cinema. So far the hero has chucked some rice balls at a thief, a blind monk playing the lute has been (slightly rudely) sshhed and a plan is forming to defend the millet harvest. Exciting times.