13 November 2019


David Paul. Illustrated Tales of Lancashire. Amberley 2019.
David Paul. Illustrated Tales of Cheshire. Amberley, 2019.

These two books are from a series by Amberley Press, recounting traditional tales of the counties of England. I have chosen Lancashire and Cheshire as they are the counties where I grew up and heard many of these stories as a child. I was particularly drawn to the tale of the 'Childe of Hale'. Hale is a small village, just outside the boundary of the city of Liverpool, in an area annexed by Cheshire and incorporated into the borough of Halton, although the story is told, correctly in the Lancashire volume of this collection.

I was very tall as a boy (and still am for that matter) and people would say to my mother “he's going to be like the Childe of Hale when he grows up”. Well fortunately I wasn't, because the Childe was reputed to be nine foot three inches (2.8 meters) tall, which even as an adult leaves me a long way behind.

His name was John Middleton, and he was appointed as a bodyguard to the Sheriff of Lancaster, and on being invited to the Court by James I, was challenged by the king's champion, who came off much worse in the ensuing match. John was dispatched back to Merseyside, with a substantial pay-off. He spent the rest of his life rather sadly as a local 'character' and his grave can still be seen in the village churchyard with an inscription recording his alleged height. The picture shows a statue of him in Hale village, by Dana Gorvin

Half a mile from Hale, and just inside the modern boundary of Liverpool, lies a beautiful Tudor mansion, Speke Hall. Nowadays the main disturbances in this otherwise tranquil spot are the planes arriving and taking off at John Lennon Airport (“Above Us Just the Sky” is its slogan), but historically the Hall has also been troubled by a classic 'White Lady' ghost, reputedly the wife of a former owner, a notorious rake, who bankrupted his family, resulting in his wife throwing herself and their baby son into the moat and drowning. Rather spoiling the story, the son is actually recorded as living into his sixties!

The moat now, incidentally, is an attractive grassed feature around the Hall, much enjoyed by visiting children who take delight in rolling down it.

As well as the classic genre of ghosts stories, other tales in this collection and the companion volume for Cheshire, include traditional accounts of meetings with supernatural beings, elves, fairies and the north-west's own species of hobgoblin, the boggart, who could be either a frightening spectre or a cheeky trickster, and is immortalised in the name of the Manchester neighbourhood Boggart Hole Clough.

There are also historical accounts which have entered the folklore of the area, like the 'Cotton Famine' when workers and mill-owners such as William Boardman of the Farington Mill near Leyland, boycotted cotton imports from the slave states during the American civil war. Although this meant many faced destitution, and the mills bankruptcy, they continued their boycott, with Boardman paying what wages he could, even though there was little available work, and cancelling rent arrears to the tenants of their tied cottages.

In Stalybridge, Cheshire, the cotton famine turned nasty, as arguments over the distribution of charitable food tokens escalated into a pitched battle in the streets, with buildings looted and torched, and which was only put down by the arrival of a troop of Hussars from Manchester,

Much of north Cheshire is built on the remains of a salt lake, and salt mining was a major local industry; one mine is still in production. We learn that in the nineteenth century, although many women were employed in salt mines in Worcestershire, there were none in Cheshire, as in order to work effectively a state of semi-nudity was required. Although this sort of thing might be acceptable in Worcestershire it was certainly not tolerated in Cheshire!

Those of us who know the areas will always wish that their own favourites tales were included, and I would love to have seen the story of the Butter Boggart of Old Lostock getting a mention. You can read Peter Rogerson's investigation HERE.

Most of the accounts in both these volumes are of the “once a long time ago” sort of provenance, and although a short bibliography is given, it would have been helpful to know a little more about the source of some of the stories, if the reader wanted to take their interest a little further. One innovation in the books is that the author gives the modern post-code for the location of each tale, allowing it to be viewed on Google maps.

Of course, these are not scholarly works and do not need copious footnotes and references; they are to be enjoyed for the bizarre and entertaining nature of their stories, and the attractive colour photographs and old prints that accompany them. They would certainly make welcome Christmas presents for any Lancastrian or Cestrian with an interest in the strange tales and curious history of their county. – John Rimmer

11 November 2019


Patrick Curry. Enchantment - Wonder in Modern Life.  Floris Books 2019.

As Patrick Curry argues eloquently in his thoughtful examination of the human condition in these challenging modern times, "enchantment is an experience of wonder". This is no mere academic exercise, although he is surprisingly erudite in his choice of texts, writers and cultural icons to illustrate his thoughts on this vital feature of being fully human. Nor is this a fluffy 'New Age' extended essay on how much better this world would be if we were all nice to each other. Much of the material is philosophical or poetic in nature, drawn from inspirational writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Max Weber, and W.H. Auden. Although mainly positive in tone, Curry does not hold back from stating things as they are. He is passionately scathing in denunciation of elements in the present world that seek to enslave the human race as little more than robots.

Almost anything can enchant, given the right circumstances, but experience shows that "some contexts for enchantment are more common than others". Times spent with good friends, special meals, falling in love, or being moved to tingles by a piece of music are examples how almost all of us can rise above mundane existence and feel really alive. Variations include awe, amazement and astonishment. Often these moments provide treasured memories for the rest of our lives, maybe tinged with a trace of sadness or poignancy. They may be hard to define yet what they have in common are their ephemerality. Nothing lasts forever. So, if we can't expect to remain forever in enchantment, how can we fill our lives with more wonder?

All things considered, it is a matter of being open to life and open to others too. One may experience wonder alone, but even then there would be an urge to share it with another. Life has more meaning when we share. The trouble with that thought, as we all seem to find, is that often we have periods when life feels meaningless. In his introduction, Curry admits to having had a fear, bordering on terror, that enchantment is lacking from life. Writing this book was his way of addressing this fear without necessarily analysing it away: "What matters is to work with what you're given, and give something back." -- Kevin Murphy

7 November 2019


Phil Rickman. The Merrily Watkins series of novel:  The Wine of Angels; Midwinter of the Spirit; The Remains of An Altar; To Dream of the Dead; The Lamp of the Wicked; The Secrets of Pain; The Magus of Hay; The Smile of a Ghost; The Cure of Souls; Friends of the DuskCorvus Books.


Breaking new ground here, I think. The Magonian Review herewith edges into fiction, with a due sense of duty to inform and entertain (not necessarily in that order). But rest assured, these particular books are no random choices, being truly Magonian through and through in breadth of subject and implications. That’s my excuse for waxing lyrical about what is in my view simply the best - and surely at least the chunkiest – series of books to read, reread, and lose oneself in.

First and foremost, Mr Rickman has created an utterly believable world you can step into and rummage around, though due to the dark atmosphere of satanic threat and gore-fest criminality you often you wish you hadn’t. Cosy his world ain’t. But when you reluctantly have to get on with that annoying thing, real life, you find you’re still keeping the door ajar so you can nip back from time to time, violent, bloody and above all, sinister, though it might be.

This is NOT Chick Lit, let me reassure you, though the main character is a woman. The only real romance is the author’s obvious passion for the often-bleak Herefordshire countryside and the neighbouring Welsh borderlands. In fact, with themes such as Neo-Nazi Satanists (or are they?), child abuse, implicit necrophilia (or is it?) and Fred West copycats (or are they?), we are in a very gritty world. And right at its centre is Merrily Watkins, C of E vicar and first female exorcist – sorry, Deliverance Consultant - who also happens to be single mum to Jane, the complex teenager with pagan sympathies…

Oh yes, these books are hard-hitting. Oh yes, they’re intricate and packed with characters who you actually look forward to encountering again – such as Gomer, the wiry old plant hire man and absolute stalwart who is easy to love. On the other hand, there’s terror of her retirement home, Anthea (who prefers to be known as Athena), the former intelligence agent with roots in the occult, whose love-hate relationship with Merrily is often a major thread of the stories, and who is less cuddly but more multi-layered and, let’s be honest, more fun than Gomer.

Already I can feel some of you bristling. Ah, the occult! An exorcist! Hmm, you say, outraged - look, I’m a good Magonian sceptic – it’s not for me… Up to you, of course, and after all, fewer circles are more amenable to differing viewpoints than Magonia. But dare I point out that in dismissing the Merrily Watkins books out of hand you really would be missing the point by miles, largely because Rickman’s genius – and I use the word advisedly – lies in the almost impossible balance he almost always manages to pull off between presenting the world of ‘Other’ as real or as…. well, not real.

After all, Merrily herself has that very problem. People go to her because of some deeply disturbing weirdness in their lives, but there is always that underlying profoundly unsettling conundrum. Could this apparent haunting, poltergeist, curse or possession be in any way objectively real? Or could it be the massing of psychological shadows rather than a real spiritual threat? But if it is indeed a manifestation of real tangible evil, how on earth does one little self-deprecating woman, usually with almost no support from the diocese, even begin to fight it? That’s Merrily’s problem. And all the stories hang on that, which is, after all, the classic theme of one little person against overwhelming odds – but the odds here are, perhaps, all the worse for being intangible…

At this point it might be the turn of those of you who quite like serious spooky stuff to turn away, thinking that perhaps in these books anything that purports to be weird will turn out to be not so, a la Agatha Christie in, say The Pale Horse. Smoke and mirrors? Flim flam? But again, not so. Rickman really does leave the question of spooky reality in the air – somehow. Which means you, too, will come back for more.

Only one, as far as I know, of these books, has been dramatized on the telly - Midwinter of the Spirit, starring Anna Maxwell Martin [below, with David Threlfall as Huw Owen], which is a huge shame, as with their highly evocative setting – somehow you only believe the raw and foggy Herefordian weather, not the rare bursts of blue sky heat – and their genuinely relatable, if not always totally loveable, cast of regular characters, it could easily have carved a regular place out for Sunday evening viewing.

The backdrop is Ledwardine, one of the ‘black and white’ villages of the Herefordshire countryside, rapidly being turned into the ‘New Cotswolds’ by incomers from ‘Off’ with their second homes and – almost always – total lack of understanding of the local history. The tension between the traditional and modern communities is palpable: clearly this is something Rickman himself feels passionate about. Usually the cri de coeur is given to Jane, the teenager desperate for a cause – Merrily insists, rather sweetly, on calling her ‘Flower’ - who travels from pagan to sceptic and back to semi-pagan sympathiser via run-ins with TV archaeologists, property developers, conspiracies of fake mediums and Satanists (or are they?), not to mention more run-of-the-mill assorted thugs and murderers. (She also segues from virgin to not-virgin, which is a great relief to her, and possibly to we the readers.)

Jane begins by hating her Mum’s job, screaming at her about being pathetic and embarrassing – Merrily dares to pray in the hotel room they share – and pandering to medievalism. Getting up at dawn to invoke the goddess on the vicarage lawn is surely priceless. But her arguments against organised religion are, believe me, rather sound.

Merrily herself, we soon realise, is prey to all manner of doubts, not just about being the first C of E female exorcist, but also even about being a priest, perhaps even a believer. We learn she had a landmark vision of seeing a ‘blue and gold lamplit path’, with an aura of enormous peace, which helped her into the church, but we often encounter her desperate to recover that transcendent sense of mission, and all too often rising from her knees feeling cold and empty, undermined by the realisation she’d simply been talking to herself.

A young widow – her husband was killed on the motorway with his mistress – she left her career as a lawyer to become a priest. (As Jane never fails to point out, it’s far easier for a widow to enter the church than a divorced woman, which, had her husband lived, she would have been.)

Her only training for her strange, medieval-ish job, was a course in a bleak old house on the Brecon Beacons from Huw Owen, an older man with shaggy hair, a dog collar the colour of bone, and a tendency to get his socks too close to the open fire. He is, I’m afraid, also a comedy Yorkshireman, possibly the only one who actually says ‘’appen’, meaning ‘perhaps’. (In fact, I don’t even recall anyone saying it, halfway seriously at least, in backstreets’ York in the 50s.) But we can forgive him the Monty Python ee-bah-gum – he’s a stalwart with, of course, a complex history, involving shouting obscenities at God. And he’s a great friend and support to Merrily, so we love him anyway, just like we love old Gomer and policeman Frannie Bliss and all the other regulars with their sliding scale of flaws, needs and heroics. (Huw warns her in his characteristically vivid fashion that as far as many creeps that hang around churches are concerned, a female exorcist might as well have painted targets between her breasts. Though he didn’t say ‘breasts’.)

Despite an annoying tendency to dither – Merrily says ‘Erm…’ a lot – her tight-knit support network also includes the imperturbable Sophie, the Cathedral’s guardian, and Merrily’s love interest, the deeply damaged Lol Robinson, a musician and former inmate of a mental institution. If Merrily irritates with her hesitancy, Lol will have you throwing the book across the room. And the two of them together…! Aarrrgh. But rest assured, they finally do jump into bed together – encouraged by Jane – and look set to have, if not a smooth future relationship (this is Lol and Merrily, after all), at least some kind of relationship. Oh please.

Throughout my fervent reading and re-readings, one point niggles more than others, however. It might sound minor, but perhaps it isn’t. While it might be laudable that Merrily, Lol and Jane barely touch alcohol – and rarely go out or let their hair down at all, annoyingly - the fact that they rarely eat is strange and even unsettling. True, they encounter such grisly events on a regular Midsomer-Murderesque basis that they might well be put off their dinners from time to time, but you read even in the absence of bits of bodies or three-week-old corpses how Merrily merely nibbles on a piece of toast, or how Jane makes a few sandwiches that they hardly touch, or how they peck at a salad.

There’s actually more here to mull about than a fear the Watkins women will die of scurvy or anorexia. To me, sadly – and clearly I hate to criticise Rickman on anything much – it all smacks far too much of the kind of sexism redolent in Victorian days, where heroines just didn’t eat. Merrily fits that out-dated pattern perfectly. She is, of course, small, just like all such ‘good’ women. She does that highly unlikely thing and forgets to eat, while in real life anyone doing such a stressful job would be on the Mars Bars and whopper burgers, not to mention the large G and Ts, with wild cries of relief on an all-too regular basis.

Mr Rickman, I love you, but please give the woman a slap-up meal and a night down the pub once in a while. Endless pots of tea and packets of Silk Cut simply don’t endear modern female readers. True, we don’t want a sort of clerical Bridget Jones obsessed with men, big knickers and calories, but we don’t want Jane Eyre either. A bit of normal humanity in the kitchen or the pub would be nice, please.

Small she might be, in old-fashioned ‘angel of the home’ mould, but at least she’s by no means perfect. She can be sharp-tongued and even negligent (though usually as a result of fatigue and low blood sugar, it seems: see above). And she is constantly faced with the mix of sociological, psychological, spiritual and criminological traumas that none of us will ever have to face. As Rickman says of her: ‘It doesn’t help that she sometimes has to work with psychiatrists and the police. Or that her employer, the Church of England, is far from free of prejudice, sexism, greed and corruption…’

Indeed, one of the most recurrent themes is the factionalism and back-biting of the Anglican community – even if you couldn’t care less about organised religion, this window into the seething morass of vindictive politics is an astonishing eye-opener and clearly based on inside knowledge.

In one of the early books she is set up by a Tony Blair-like bishop who has no real spiritual belief and…. Well, that doesn’t end well. Some of her fellow clergy are actually atheists. Some have breakdowns and trash their churches. Some have been members of the locally-trained SAS and have roots in pagan soldiers’ cults. Many have simply suffered at the hands of the hierarchy. The background of her fellow priests is in itself a rich seam of dramatic tension, as many of them plot against Merrily and seek to have her ousted from her job.

So, fiction. So, a female C of E exorcist. So brilliant.

This is no ordinary priest. As Rickman notes, ‘Her least favourite word is “pious”.’ And given all the tumult of her everyday adventures, he adds: ‘No wonder she smokes. No wonder she occasionally lapses into language hard to find in the Bible…’

Small wonder, indeed. That’s Merrily Watkins. -- Lynn Picknett

31 October 2019


Nathan Johnstone. The New Atheism, Myth and History: The Black Legends of Contemporary Anti-Religion. Palgrave Macmillan 2018.

The New Atheists is a term coined to described the group of militant atheists that emerged after the shock of 9/11. Comprising the biologist Richard Dawkins, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, the philosophers Daniel C. Dennett and A.C. Grayling, the neuroscientist Sam Harris, the astronomer Victor Stenger, and others, they are known for their particularly bitter invective against all forms of religion. The above claim to stand for reason and science against irrationality and unreason. But while they are especially protective of science, and who gets to speak for it or use its findings, they are cavalier regarding theology and the humanities, including history.

Johnstone is appalled by this attitude. Instead of respecting history and its scholarship, he compares Dawkins, Harris et al to hunter-gatherers. They are not interested in exploring history, but rather using it as a grab-bag of examples of atrocities committed by the religious. In so doing they ignore what historians really say about the events and periods they cite, and retail myth as history. These he regards as a kind of 'Black Legend' of theism, using the term invented in the early twentieth century by the Spanish historian Julian Juderas to describe a type of anti-Spanish, anti-Roman Catholic polemic. He states his book is intended to be just a defence of history, and takes no stance on the issue of the existence of God. From his use of 'we' in certain points to describe atheists and Humanists, it could be concluded that Johnstone is one of the many of the latter, who are appalled by the New Atheists' venom.

One such religious doubter was the broadcaster John Humphries, [left] the author of the defence of agnosticism, In God We Doubt. Humphries stated in the blurb for the book that he considered himself an agnostic before moving to atheism. Then he read one of the New Atheist texts and was so shocked by it he went back to being an agnostic. The group first made its debut several years ago now, and although New Atheism has lost some of its initial interest and support, they're still around. 

Hence Johnstone's decision to publish this book. While Dawkins' The God Delusion was published almost a decade ago, the New Atheists are still very much around. They and their followers are still on the internet, and their books on the shelves at Waterstones. Dawkins published his recent work of atheist polemics, Outgrowing God: A Beginner's Guide a few weeks ago at the beginning of October 2019. He accompanied its publication with an appearance at Cheltenham Literary Festival, where he was speaking about why everyone should turn atheist.

The events and the atrocities cited by the New Atheists as demonstrations of the intrinsic evil of religion are many, including the Inquisitions, the witch-hunts, anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the subjugation of women, colonialism, the slave trade and the genocide of the Indians, to which they also add human sacrifice, child abuse, censorship, sexual repression and resistance to science. These are too many to tackle in one book, and it confines itself instead to attacking and refuting New Atheist claims about the witch-hunts, the medieval persecution of heretics, and the question of whether Hitler was ever really Christian and the supposed Christian origins of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. 

The book also tackles historical movements and figures, that the New Atheists have claimed as atheist heroes and forerunners – the ancient Greek Atomists and two opponents of the witch-hunts, Dietrich Flade and Friedrich Spee. It then moves on to examine Sam Harris' endorsement of torture in the case of Islamist terrorists and atheist persecution in the former Soviet Union before considering the similarity of some New Atheist attitudes to that of religious believers. It concludes with an attack on the dangerous rhetoric of the New Atheists which vilifies and demonises religious believers, rhetoric which could easily provoke persecution, even if its authors themselves are humane men who don't advocate it.

Johnstone traces these atheist myths back to their nineteenth and pre-nineteenth century origins, and some of the books cited by the New Atheists as the sources for their own writings. One of the most influential of these is Charles MacKay's 1843 Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In many instances he shows them to be using very dated, and now refuted texts. With some of the modern works they also draw on, examination shows that often they ignore the authors' own conclusions, which may differ considerably, or even be the complete opposite of their own.

In the case of the witch-hunts, Johnstone traces the oft-quoted figure of over nine million victims to an early nineteenth century German author, Gottfried Christian Voigt, who extrapolated it from the murder of the thirty witches executed in his home town of Quedlinburg from 1569 to 1683. He assumed this was typical of all areas throughout the period of the witch-hunts. The figure was picked up by the radical neo-Pagan and feminist movements of the 1970s. But it's false. The real figure, he claims, was 50,000. And its intensity varied considerably from place to place and over time. The Portuguese Inquisition, for example, only killed one witch c. 1627. In other places, the inquisitors were conscientious in giving the accused a fair trial. Convictions for witchcraft were overturned and evidence was taken to prove the accused's innocence as well as guilt. The Roman Inquisition also demanded the accused to provide a list of their enemies, as their testimony would obviously be suspect.

In regions where the discussion of witchcraft had resulted in the mass trial and execution of the innocent, the religious authorities imposed silence about the subject. Johnstone rebuts the statement of some Christian apologists that the Church was only complicit in these atrocities, not responsible for them. But he shows that they were an anomaly. Nearly all societies have believed in the existence of witches throughout history, but the period of witch-hunting was very limited. The problem therefore is not that religion and belief in the supernatural leads inexorably to persecution, but how to explain that it doesn't. 

He shows that the Church moved from a position of initial scepticism towards full scale belief over a period of centuries. The witch-hunts arose when maleficium – black magic - became linked to heresy, and so became a kind of treason. As an example of how secular and political motives were also involved in the denunciations and trials, rather than just pure religious hatred, he cites the case of the priest Urbain Grandier. Grandier's case was the basis for Aldous Huxley's novel, The Devils of Loudoun, which was filmed by Ken Russell as The Devils. Here it appears the motives for the trial were political, as Grandier had been an opponent of the French minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Johnstone also considers that as secular societies have also persecuted those they consider to be politically or morally deviant there exists in humanity a need to persecute. This means finding and identifying an anti-group, directly opposed to conventional society, whose existence and opposition demonstrates the value of that society.


The medieval persecution of heretics may also have been due to a number of causes and not simply due to the malign attitudes of religious believers. There was a period of nearly 700 years between the execution of the Roman heretic, Priscillian, in the fourth century and the revival of persecution the early eleventh. This arose in the context of the emergence and development of states and the expansion of papal and royal power, which involved church and crown extending their power over local communities. At the same time, the papacy attempted reforming the church, at first in response to popular demand. However, it was then faced with the problem of clamping down on some of the popular reform movements when they threatened to run out of its control. 

As the case of the Waldensians shows, the line between orthodoxy and heresy could be an extremely fine one. Johnstone also raises the question here of whether one of the most notorious medieval heretical groups, the Cathars, ever existed at all. It is possible that their existence is an illusion created by the categories of heresies the inquisitors had inherited from the Church Fathers. These were forced onto a group of local communities in the Languedoc, where popular piety centred around the Good Men and Women. These were highly respected members of the community, who were believed to live exemplary Christian lives. They were therefore due proper respect, which to the inquisitors looked like heretical veneration.

Hitler's Christianity is also highly debatable. The little reliable testimony states that he was indeed Roman Catholic, but doesn't provide any evidence of a deep faith. He certainly at times claimed he was a Christian and was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs. But an examination of some of these quotes shows that they were uttered as a rebuttal to others, who stated that their Christian beliefs meant that they could not support Nazism. This raises the question of whether they were anything more than a rhetorical gesture. There is evidence that Hitler was an atheist with a particular hatred of Christianity. This is mostly drawn from his Table Talk, and specifically the English edition produced by Hugh Trevor-Roper. The atheist polemicist, Richard Carrier, has shown that it is derived from a French language version, whose author significantly altered some of the quotes to insert an atheist meaning where none was present in the original. However, Carrier only identified a handful of such quotes, leaving forty requiring further investigation. Thus the question remains undecided.

Johnstone also examine the Nazi persecution of the Jews from the point of view of the theorists of political religion. These consider that humans are innately religious, but that once secularisation has broken the hold of supernatural religion, the objects of veneration changes to institutions like the state, free market capitalism, the New Man, Communism and so on. Those who follow this line differ in the extent to which they believe that the Nazis were influenced by religion. Some view it as a hydra, whose many heads stood for Christianity, but also Paganism in the case of Himmler and the SS. But underneath, the source of the real religious cult was the race, the nation and Hitler himself. If these theorists are correct, then Nazism may have been the result, not of a continued persecuting Christianity, but of secularisation.

He also considers the controversial view of the German historian, Richard Steigmann-Gall, whose The Holy Reich considered that the Nazis really were sincere in their Christianity. This has been criticised because some of the Nazis it examines as examples of Nazi Christian piety, like Rudolf Hess, were minor figures in the regime, against vehement anti-Christians like Alfred Rosenberg. He also shows how the peculiar views of the German Christians, the Nazi Christian sect demanding a new, Aryan Christianity, where Christ was blond and blue-eyed, and the Old Testament was to be expunged from the canon, were similar to certain trends within early twentieth century liberal Protestantism. But the German historian's point in writing the book was not simply to put culpability for the Nazis' horrors on Christianity. He wanted to attack the comfortable distance conventional society places between itself and the Nazis, in order to reassure people that they couldn't have committed such crimes because the Nazis were different. His point was that they weren't. They were instead uncomfortably normal.

The New Atheists celebrate the ancient Greek Atomists because their theories that matter is made up of tiny irreducible particles, first put forward by the philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, seem so similar to modern atomic theory. These ancient philosophers believed that these alone were responsible for the creation of a number of different worlds and the creatures that inhabited them by chance. 

Some of these were forms that were incapable of surviving alone, and so died out. Thus, they appear to foreshadow Darwin's theory of Natural Selection. New Atheist writers bitterly attack Aristotle, whose own rival theories of matter and physics gained ascendancy until Atomism was revived in the seventeenth century. The natural philosophers behind its revival are credited with being atheists, even though many of them were Christians and one, Pierre Gassendi, a Roman Catholic priest. Their Christianity is thus seen as nominal. One also takes the extreme view that Galileo's prosecution was due to his embrace of the atomic theory, rather than his argument that the Earth moved around the Sun.

But scholars have shown that the ancient atomic theory grew out of particular debates in ancient Greece about the fundamental nature of matter, and cannot be removed from that context. They were very different to modern atomic theory. At the same time, they also held beliefs that are to us nonsense as science. For example, they believed that the early creatures produced by atoms were fed by the Earth with a milk-like substance. They also believed in the fixity of species. Even where they did believe in evolution, in the case of humanity, this was more Lamarckian than Darwinian. Aristotle's views won out over theirs not because of religious narrow-mindedness or ignorance, but because Aristotle's had great explanatory power. 

The scientists, who revived it in the seventeenth century, including Boyle and Newton, were sincere Christians. They believed that atoms created objects through divine agency because the ancient Greek explanation – it was all chance without a theory of momentum – genuinely couldn't explain how this could occur without God. As for Galileo, the historian who first suggested this extreme and largely discredited view, believed that he was a victim of papal politics, and that there had also been a party within the Vatican and the Church, which supported his theories.

Discussing the two witch-hunters celebrated by the New Atheists as atheist, or at least, Sceptical heroes, the book shows that this was not the case. Dietrich Flade seems to have been accused because he had fallen out with an ecclesiastical rival, Zandt, for being too lenient on the accused witches. But he also appears to have been protected by the church authorities until the accusations of witchcraft by accused witches became too many to ignore. 

The other Sceptical hero, Friedrich Spee, was a Jesuit priest, who became convinced of the innocence of those accused of witchcraft through attending so many to the stake. He then wrote a book condemning the trials, the Cautio Crimenalis. But he was no sceptic. He believed wholeheartedly in witchcraft, but considered it rare. The use of torture was wrong, as it was leading to false confessions and false denunciations of others, which could not be retracted for fear of further torture. Thus the souls of the innocent were damned for this sin. But while good Christians were being burned as witches, many of the witch-hunters themselves were in league with Satan. They used the hunts and baseless accusations to destroy decent Christian society and charity.

But if the New Atheists are keen to ascribe a wide number of historical atrocities to religion without recognising the presence of other, social and political factors, they deny any such crimes can be attributed to atheism. Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in God, and so cannot be responsible for inspiring horrific acts. Johnstone states that in one sense, this is true, but it is also a question about the nature of the good life and the good society that must be constructed in the absence of a belief in God. And these become positive ideologies that are responsible for horrific crimes.

Johnstone goes on from this to attack Hector Avelos' statement that the Soviet persecution of the Church was only a form of anti-clericalism, which all societies must go through. Johnstone rebuts this by describing the process and extent of Soviet persecution, from the separation of church and state in 1917 to the imposition of atheism by force. Churches and monasteries were closed and religious objects seized and desecrated, religious believers arrested, sent to the gulags or massacred. These persecutions occurred in cycles, and there were times, such as during the War, when a rapprochement was made with the Orthodox Church. But these periods of toleration were always temporary and established for entirely pragmatic and utilitarian purposes.

The goal was always the creation of an atheist state, and they were always followed, until the fall of Communism, by renewed persecution. The wartime rapprochement with the Church was purely to gain the support of believers for the campaign against the invading Nazis. It was also to establish state control through the church on Orthodox communities that had survived, or reappeared in border areas under Nazi occupation. Finally, the attack on the clergy, church buildings and religious objects and even collectivisation itself were done with the deliberate intention of undermining religious ritual and practice, which was considered the core of Orthodox life and worship.

Sam Harris has become particularly notorious for his suggestion that atheists should be trusted to torture terrorist suspects because of their superior rationality and morality compared to theists. Harris believed it was justified in the case of al-Qaeda suspects in order to prevent further attacks. But here Johnstone shows his logic was profoundly flawed. Torture was not introduced into medieval judicial practice in the twelfth century through bloodthirsty and sadistic ignorance. Rather it was intended as a reasonable alternative to the ordeal. Human reason, and the acquisition of evidence, was going to be sufficient to prove guilt or innocence without relying on supposed divine intervention. But the standards of evidence required were very high, and in the case of a crime like witchcraft, almost impossible without a confession.

The use of torture was initially strictly limited and highly regulated, but the sense of crisis produced by witchcraft resulted in the inquisitors abandoning these restraints. Similarly, Harris' fear of terror attacks leads him to move from reasonable suspects, who may well be guilty, to those who are simply members of terrorist organisations. They are fitting subjects for torture because although they may be innocent of a particular offence, through their membership of a terrorist organisation or adherence to Islamist beliefs, they must be guilty of something. Finally, Harris also seems to see Islamism as synonymous with Islam, so that all Muslims everywhere are seen as enemies of the secular Western order. This is exactly the same logic as that which motivated the witch-hunts, in which witches were seen as the implacable enemies of Christian society, and so exempt from the mercy and humane treatment extended to other types of criminal.

From this Johnstone then goes on to consider how the New Atheists' image of atheism and the process of abandoning belief in God resembles religious attitudes. Their belief that atheism must be guarded against the dangers of falling back into religious belief mirrors Christian fears of the temptation to false belief, such as those of the Protestant reformers towards the persistence of Roman Catholicism. At the same time, their ideas of abandoning God and so attaining the truth resembles the Christian process of conversion and membership of the elect. And the vitriol directed at the religious for continuing to believe in God despite repeated demonstrations of His nonexistence resembles the inquisitors' attitude to heretics. Heresy differs from error in that the heretic refuses to be corrected, and so must be compelled to recant by force.

The book also shows the dangers inherent in some New Atheist rhetoric about religious believers. This runs in contrast to much New Atheist writing, which is genuinely progressive and expresses real sympathy with the marginalised and oppressed, and which advocates trying to see the world through their eyes. But no such sympathy is granted religious believers. They are described as children, who may not sit at the same table as adults. Or else, following the logic of religion as a virus, proposed by Dawkins, they are described as diseased, who do not realise that they have been infected and even love their condition.

Bringing children up religious is condemned as child abuse. A.C. Grayling is shown to have a utilitarian attitude in his own advocacy of secularisation. He first states that he supports it for creating multiculturalism, but then contradicts himself by stating that he looks forward to it undermining religion. This was the same attitude the Soviets initially adopted towards religion. When it didn't disappear as they expected, they resorted to force. Peter Boghossian wants atheist 'street epistemologists' – the atheist version of religious street preachers – to attack believers' religious beliefs in public. They are to take every opportunity, including following them into church, in order to initiate 'Socratic' discussions that will lead them to questioning their faith.

Johnstone states that this is an implicit denial of theists' right to conduct their private business in public without atheist interference. It's in line with the New Atheist demands that religion be driven from the public sphere, into the churches, or better yet, the home. The metaphor of disease and infection suggests that what is needed is for religious believers to be rounded up against their will and forcibly cured. It's the same metaphor the Nazis used in their persecution of their victims. 

He quotes the atheist philosopher Julian Baggini, who is dismayed when he hears atheists describing religion as a mental disease from which believers should be forcibly treated. As for the statement that religious upbringing equals child abuse, the seriousness of this charge raises the question of how seriously the New Atheists actually see it. If Dawkins and co. really believe that it is, then their lack of demand for state intervention to protect children from indoctrination, as they see it, from the parents shows that they don't treat child abuse seriously.

The New Atheist rhetoric actually breaks with their concrete recommendations for what should be done to disavow believers of their religious views, which are actually quite mild. This is what Johnstone calls the 'cavalierism of the unfinished thought'. They may not recommend coercion and persecution, but their rhetoric implies it. Johnstone states that he has discussed only one of several competing strands in New Atheist thinking and that there are others available. He concludes with the consideration that there isn't a single atheism but a multiplicity of atheisms, all with differing responses to religious belief. Some of them will be comparably mild, but most will involve some kind of frustration at religion's persistence. He recommends that atheists should identify which type of atheist they are, in order to avoid the violent intolerance inherent in New Atheist rhetoric. This agrees with his statement at the beginning of the book, where he hopes it will lead to an atheist response to religion which is properly informed by history and which genuinely respects religious believers.

The book is likely to be widely attacked by the New Atheists and their followers. Some of its conclusions Johnstone admits are controversial, such as the view that the Cathars never existed, or that the persecution of heretics was an integral part of the forging of the medieval state. But historians and sociologists of religion repeatedly show that in the persecutions and atrocities in which religion has been involved, religion is largely not the only, or in some cases even the most important reason. Johnstone's views on witchcraft is supported by much contemporary popular and academic treatments. His statement that the figure of over nine million victims of the witch-hunt is grossly exaggerated is shared by Lois Martin in her The History of Witchcraft (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials 2002). The Harvard professor, Jeffrey Burton Russell in his Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1972) also shows how Christian attitudes towards witchcraft passed from the scepticism of the Canon Episcopi to belief as the responsibility for its persecution passed from the bishops to the Holy Office.

Early law codes treated maleficium – black or harmful magic – purely as a civil offence against persons or property. It became a religious crime with the development of the belief that witches attended sabbats where they parodied the Christian Eucharist and worshiped Satan. A paper describing the scrupulous legality and legal provisions for the accused's defence in the Roman Inquisition can be found in the Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic In Europe IV: The Period of the Witch Trials, Bengt Ankerloo and Stuart Clarke eds., (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press 2002). Other writers on religion have noted the similarity between the late medieval and early modern witch-hunts and paranoid fears about Freemasons, Jews and Communists in later centuries, including the Holocaust, Stalin's purges and McCarthyism. They thus see it as one manifestation of the wider 'myth of the organised conspiracy'. See Richard Cavendish, 'Christianity', in Richard Cavendish, ed., Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Orbis 1980) 156-69 (168-9).

The Soviet persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church is described by Rev. Timothy Ware in his The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin 1963). Ludmilla Alexeyeva also describes the Soviet persecution of the Orthodox Church, along with other religions and national and political groups and movements in her Soviet Dissent: Contemporary Movements for National, Religious and Human Rights (Middletown, Connecticutt: Wesleyan University Press 1985). R.N. Carew Hunt's The Theory and Practice of Communism (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1950) shows how leading Communists like Lenin believed atheism was an integral part of Communism and the Soviet state with a series of quotations from them. An example of Lenin's demand for an aggressive atheism is his speech, 'On the Significance of Militant Materialism' in Lenin: Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1968). 653-60.

It is also entirely reasonable to talk about religious elements and attitudes within certain forms of atheism and secular ideologies. Peter Rogerson in many of his well-reasoned articles in Magonia pointed out how similar some of the sceptics' attacks on superstition and the supernatural were to narratives of religious conversion. His attitude is shared with some academic sociologists, historians and political theorists. Peter Yinger's section on 'Secular Alternatives to Religion' in The Religious Quest: A Reader, edited by Whitfield Foy (London: Open University Press 1978) 537-554, has articles on the 'Religious Aspects of Postivism', p. 544, 'Faith in Science', 546, 'Religious Aspects of Marxism', p. 547, 'Totalitarian Messianism' 549, and 'Psychoanalysis as a Modern Faith', 551. For some scholars, the similarities of some secular ideologies to religion is so strong, that they have termed them quasi-religions.

While some atheists resent atheism being described as religion, this term is meant to avoid such objections. It is not intended to describe them literally as religions, but only as ideologies that have some of the qualities of religion. See John E. Smith's Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Macmillan 1994). New Atheism also mimics religion in that several of the New Atheists have written statements of the atheist position and edited anthologies of atheist writings. These are A.C. Grayling's The Good Book and Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist. The title of Grayling's book is clearly a reference to the Bible. As I recall, it caused some controversy amongst atheists when it was published, as many of them complained that atheism was too individual and sceptical to have a definitive, foundational text. In their view, Grayling's book showed the type of mindset they wanted to escape when they left religion.

The fears of the terrible potential consequences of New Atheist rhetoric despite the avowed intentions of its authors is well founded and timely. There have been sharp complaints about some of the vitriolic rhetoric used to attack particular politicians in debates about Brexit which has resulted in assault and harassment. At the same it was reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes spiked after the publication of Boris Johnson's column in which he described women wearing the burqa as looking like letterboxes. Neither religion, nor secularism and atheism should be immune from criticism. But Johnstone is right in that it should be correctly historically informed and careful in the language used. Otherwise the consequences could be terrible, regardless of the authors' own humane feelings and sympathies. -- David Sivier

29 October 2019


Sharon Wright. Balloonomania Belles; Daredevil Divas Who First Took to the Sky. Pen and Sword History, 2019.

We should all be familiar with the foundation myth of Magonia. According to Jacques Vallee’s Passport to Magonia, in the late ninth century the pitchfork-armed peasantry of a town in the south of France captured three men and a woman who ‘fell from the sky’ in a mysterious craft. Bound up, they were due to be stoned by the angry mob, until the respected Archbishop Agobard of Lyon intervened and saved them from certain death.

The archbishop dismissed the crowd’s insistence that the four strangers had fallen from the sky, saying they were “plunged in great stupidity and sunk in depths of folly” to believe such nonsense that ships flew in the sky from the land of Magonia.

Nearly a thousand years later, virtually the same scene was repeated. In 1783, the inhabitants of another small town near Lyon were terrified by a burning spectre which descended into the fields nearby. This time there were no strange people involved and the locals were content just to watch the ‘ship from the skies’ burn away, as they assumed that the end of the world was upon them. This was one of the Montgolfier brothers' first hot-air balloons.

A few weeks later a young professor called Jaques Charles released a balloon over Paris. He had inadvertently used the more efficient hydrogen gas to lift the balloon rather than the hot air from a straw fire that the Montgolfiers had used, because he had read a misdescription of the details of the earlier flight. When his balloon landed a few miles away from Paris the locals were not so sanguine as the Lyonnaise , and set upon the ‘monster’ with knives, muskets, rocks and pitchforks in the manner made famous by the inhabitants of the Simpson’s Springfield.

Despite these setbacks the craze for ballooning soon swept France and, after a pause so as not to be seen too eager to emulate our cross-channel neighbours, Britain as well.

Ballooning soon became a fashionable pastime, and a hugely popular public spectacle. Most balloon ascents were made from pleasure grounds like London's Vauxhall Garden, and were cheered on by thousands of paying spectators. The enthusiasm was so great that sometimes a delay to the balloon's ascent would trigger a riot by aggrieved spectators feeling they had not got their money's worth.

The promoters of the displays were not slow in catching on to the idea that any popular spectacle could only become more popular if attractive young ladies were involved with it. And if a whiff of sexual scandal could be introduced, so much the better, especial as the whole idea of ballooning seems to have been surrounded by sexual innuendo in the popular prints.

One victim of such innuendo was Letitia Sage, who should go down in history as the first Englishwoman to fly, but whose initial ascent over London was overshadowed by salacious gossip.

On the 29th June 1785, Mrs Letitia Sage, an actress described as 'well formed' in contemporary accounts, ascended in a balloon built by the Italian ballooning entrepreneur Vincent Lunardi, in front of a crowd of 100,000 people at St George's Fields in Southwark. She was accompanied in the balloon's basket by a Mr George Biggin, one of the financial backers of the enterprise.

All went well until at one point part of the equipment in the balloon came loose and Letitia knelt down to fasten it. Her sudden disappearance below the side of the basket led to immediate speculation. As the author says: “Her achievement was overshadowed by scandalous gossip, what exactly was she doing on her knees as she and Mr Biggin were flying over Piccadilly . . . the problem was that as soon as balloons reached Britain men began taking bets on whether it was possible to have sex in them.” The supposed sexual exploits of balloonists soon became the subject of lampoons and scurrilous cartoons.

Although at first female balloonist were encouraged by promoters to give a saucy frisson to the audience, women soon began to seek out the excitement of flight for its own sake.

One such was the French balloonist, Sophie Blanchard. She was introduced into the sport (or art, or whatever you might call it) when she married the already famous professional balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard, but very soon was a celebrity in her own right, becoming in 1805 the first woman to fly solo. A small and timid woman, terrified by sudden noises and fearful of accidents in the street, she blossomed into a totally different personality when aloft

Following her husband's bankruptcy, she developed her solo performances using small and smaller gondolas under the balloon until she was standing just on a tiny platform. To spice up her performances even more she took to setting off fireworks from her balloon, to the delight of the vast crowds who came to see her. The combination of fireworks and a frail hydrogen-filled fabric balloon came to its inevitable conclusion when her craft exploded and she plummeted to her death.

She lies in the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris beneath a memorial depicting a balloon in flames, with the words “Victim of her Art and Intrepidity”.

Throughout the nineteenth century more and more women took to the skies as the ballooning craze progressed. Some were working class girls like 18-year-old Jane Stocks, who left her job as a domestic servant to take up entertainment ballooning. Gaining fame for surviving a dramatic crash on her first ascent, she suffered a series of disasters throughout her career – not of which seemed to discourage the crowds who came to gawp, or indeed the lady herself. She eventually faded from the scene after missing a performance by taking too long over a cup of tea.

But is was not just starry eyed young women who were drawn into the world of ballooning, and the sport became fashionable among the fashionable classes. The author's chapter title 'Hampers and Champers' perfectly summarises this side of the story!

At the same time that these intrepid adventuresses were flying in, and plunging from, balloons in Britain and France, there were parallel activities in the USA, including riots by disappointed punters and daring lady aeronauts.

In 1825 a ‘Madam Johnson’ of uncertain, possibly French, origin was the first woman to fly in the United States, but was soon followed by many native-born women. These included figures such as Leona Dare, ‘The Queen of the Antilles’, noted for her ‘iron jaw’; part of her act being to perform acrobatics supported from the trapeze beneath her balloon only by her teeth. Parachuting from balloons was a favourite activity with American female aeronauts.

One such was the interestingly named Mrs Van Tassel. In 1888 she foiled an attempt by Los Angeles police to prevent her from what they considered certain suicide, by bringing her performance forward as they raced to stop her, leaving them staring skyward at the ascending balloon, one hopes scratching their heads in bafflement in the approved Keystone Cops manner! The name Van Tassel raises the intriguing possibility that this adventurous lady was the mother or aunt of another individual with a consuming interest is skyward travel, Mr George Van Tassel of Integratron fame.

As the nineteenth century closed the balloon was being used for more practical matters than mere entertainment, particularly its military possibilities, although there were still many women keen to demonstrate their skill and agility in daredevil displays, and in the first years of the twentieth century it even became a tool for distributing suffragette propaganda across London. Eventually of course the balloons were overtaken by the development of powered heavier-than-air flight, although some of the balloonists took to the new invention with enthusiasm.

One of the last lady balloonists, Dolly Shepherd made her first balloon flight from Alexander Palace, north London, at the age of 16, and enjoyed her last aerial adventure in a flight with the Red Arrows aerobatics display team in her nineties!

It has always struck me that the technology involved in ballooning in its pioneering hot-air days, is not particularly complicated. All the materials to construct a hot air balloon existed from pre-classical times, and there seems to be no reason why the Romans, say, could not have created a viable craft. Perhaps those ninth century visitors from Magonia had discovered the secret, but after their narrow escape decided to abandon any further experiments!

Some people have suggested that the creation of the Nazca Lines in Peru may have been directed from a hot air balloon, and a ‘Kon-Tiki’ style balloon was manufactured from materials available in the area at that period, which flew successfully.

Reading about the activities of balloonists in the USA at the end of the nineteenth century, raises once again the question of whether the 1897 ‘airship wave’ may not have involved an actual real airship to account for at least some of the cases. There certainly seem to have been plenty of inventive balloon builders around in the USA at that time, including some experimenting with guidable powered craft. Just possibly . . .?   -- John Rimmer

23 October 2019


Paul Murdin. The Secret Lives of Planets. Hodder and Stoughton, 2019

Paul Murdin is a policymaker for the UK government, a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and also a commentator for the BBC. He draws on a lifetime of astronomy, which manifests in this clearly written description of the wonders of the universe.

The author takes you on a journey through space in a splendidly detailed and informative book that gathers together all the latest research to tell the history of our solar system. He describes how all eight major planets have been born from violence and how they grew up together to become living, breathing worlds - and how they're set to fade away as they age. He also talks about moons, stars, comets, and asteroids.

The book begins by describing the outdated reasoning, from only a few centuries ago, that the solar system is perfectly regular, running predictably like clockwork. The wondrous disposition of the sun, planets, and comets could only be the work of an all-powerful and intelligent Being. According to Newton, God orchestrates the movements of the planets and other bodies within the solar system and controls them through the Laws of Gravity. This has become known as the 'Divine Watchmaker' argument.

Many believe that the quantum-mechanics revolution of the 1920s is settled science I am not of that mind, and there may be other alternatives. The standard quantum model only allows us to know either the position or trajectory of a subatomic particle — not both at the same time. Calculating the orbits of planets' behaviour is in the short term predictable but as the author relates "in the long term, depends so much on the initial state that you cannot calculate in the long term". He continues: "The displacements in position that arise as a result of slight initial displacement grow uncontrollably".

He then compares this theory to the methods of meteorologists who usually can predict the weather, more or less accurately one day or even a week ahead. However, in the well-known adage, they cannot predict how air disturbances from the flapping wings of every butterfly in Brazil can affect where a hurricane will strike Florida next year. This tiny unknowable 'Butterfly Effect' has completely changed the nature of long-range weather forecasts. There are simply too many unknown variables that come into play and increase over time. These are highly complex matters, but I found to my pleasure that the author is adept at explaining them in uncomplicated terms.

He informs us that there are 3,800 planets known in orbit around stars other than the Sun, known as exoplanets and there are more than 2500 other stars with planets orbiting them in our galaxy discovered so far. There are likely to be many more planetary systems out there waiting to be discovered!

The eternal question of the possibility of extraterrestrial life is put in perspective by Murdin as he states "The bottom line is that our solar system has no parallel among known planetary systems. Astronomy has no fully accepted explanation for this yet."

Planets are the main result of a process in which large bodies that had solidifies from a disc of material that originally surrounded this Sun as it was forming, the so-called "solar nebula". The asteroids, comets and other orbiting bodies were detritus leftover from this process and fragments created since that time by collisions of asteroids. This helps put Pluto in a new light as being more detritus than planet.

A new definition was adopted in 2006 which ruled out Pluto as a planet, as to be a planet an object has to have enough of a size that it has cleared out of its orbit of other bodies, and has to dominate the orbital zone that it inhabits. Pluto does not  qualify: it crosses Neptune’s orbit and orbits among other TNO's (Trans-Neptunian Objects), so is regarded as a "dwarf planet". The asteroid Certes is also regarded as a dwarf planet.

Murdin continues in a light-hearted manner describing Mercury as "bashed, bashful and eccentric”. This airless planet and its cratered surface speaks of a cosmic bashing known as the Late Heavy Bombardment. About 3.9 billion years ago, and is also the shyest planet, hard to inspect closely even now with our technology of the Space Age. It hides in the skirts of the Sun and is difficult to see so near to the bright sunlight, peeping out briefly from time to time.

Mercury was the messenger from the gods, fleet of foot: it is the fastest planet in orbit, it revolves around the Sun in only 88 days, as against Earth's 365. Greek astronomers had two names for Mercury: Apollo and Hermes, as the period of visibility of Mercury is different from its orbit and they assumed there were two planets. It was Pythagoras who pointed out in about 500BC that the two were identical.

Space-probes that even just orbit Mercury have difficulty coping with the Sun's heat, so surface landers or rovers cannot operate there, as most materials would melt or decompose at Mercury’s equator and so far nothing feasible has been found that would be viable. As an aside, reading this book made me think is there mercury on Mercury? I discovered “At Mercury's temperature, mercury the element would likely be vaporised, but cinnabar, the mercury bearing ore, could potentially be found in its crust.”


I was interested to learn that three hundred pieces of the Moon have been found that fell to Earth after being knocked off the Moon’s surface by the impact of asteroids. The oldest lunar rocks are those collected from lunar highlands, lighter areas of the Moon. Individual rocks from the lowlands, the dark maria, have ages that seem to cluster between 3.85 to 4 billion years old, which was when they last solidified. It appears therefore that the crust of the Moon was strongly heated 3.9 billion years ago.

Sheffield University astronomers suggested that after the Moon had first solidified about 4.5 billion years ago, asteroids heavily bombarded its surface for 200 million years and re-melted it. This event was known as the 'Lunar Cataclysm' (an early name for the Late Heavy Bombardment); but the reason the bombardment happened is as yet unresolved.

Murdin then explains how simulations - calculations about a large number of possible scenarios of various degrees of invention - are important to astronomers to understand their own theories about the birth of our universe. The most interesting scenario for the Late Heavy Bombardment has been put forward as a result of what is known by astronomers as the “Nice Simulation” describing an event at happened in the first billion years or so of the history of the solar system. At that period it was like a gigantic game of interplanetary billiards or pool played by hyperactive children let loose around a pool-table. This Nice simulation is one of several calculations of how the planets might have interacted, at the stage when they had just formed in the solar system.

Murdin goes rather poetic: “There was at that time a counter-factual future life for Earth, in which the Earth became an interstellar planet roving around the Galaxy like a lone coyote on the icy, vacant prairie” explaining that this did not happen to our planet but it may well have happened to one of Earths former neighbors. Although the Earth was not ejected from the Solar System in this chaotic period in its development, the Earth shifted its orbit back and forth towards and away from the Sun. Our planet ended up in the so-called 'Goldilocks Zone' (not too hot, not too cold) of the Solar System, which made the evolution of life possible, purely as a matter of luck.

Finally, we (Earth) are battered and punched into shape! In Murden's lively description: “Asteroids were pulled and swung out of their orbits, heaved about by massive effects of Jupiter and Saturn. Some asteroids, jaywalking across the more orderly circular paths of planets, fell on planets, especially those inwards towards the Sun, like Mercury”. They pounded their surfaces, making craters – perhaps this was the event that we know as the Late Heavy Bombardment."

Throughout the book, the author presents thought-provoking questions on what distinguishes an asteroid from a meteorite, which is the only planet named after a Greek, rather than a Roman God and which boasts of a Volcano 100 times the size of Earths largest and much more.

He takes us on a venture through all our planets and the space in between, this mysterious journey is very eventful and exciting and rewarding. I am impressed by the publisher's production, the book has a very cool cover and the paper feels luxurious, there are many colour images, and the price makes it most  accessible. An excellent book both for the amateur stargazer, as well as the more academic reader.  –  Gerrard Russell

14 October 2019


John Wade. The Golden Age of Science Fiction. Pen and Sword, 2019.

Science-fiction from the nineteen-fifties was where it really began for many people. There were sci-fi themes and films around before World War II but the genuine science and the real-life drama of such a gigantic conflict tended to overwhelm fiction. With the nightmarish global war behind them, the type of folk who looked upward and outward for inspiration soon began to discover a genre that both captured and nurtured their imaginations. 

Books, comics and films were soon published in order to cater to this burgeoning audience. Some publishers even had specific science-fiction lines, such as Gollancz Science Fiction. Whether it was truly a Golden Age compared to today’s seemingly limitless flood of sci-fi films, e-books and graphic novels is another question. However, it seems that the fifties was the beginning of mass science-fiction fandom.

John Wade is an author whose specialities are photographic history and techniques, along with social history. He has been a freelance photographer and author for forty years. The Golden Age of Science Fiction is, according to the author himself, a personal journey through the stories of his youth. Although there are many American shows and publications mentioned, the lion’s share tend to be British. Regardless of nationality, Wade refers to films, books and comics, some of which were more accessible than others. The chapters are divided into Radio, Television, Film, Books and, finally, Comics and Magazines.

Such luminaries as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, John Wyndham and Arthur C Clarke are brought into focus. Films, including The Day The Earth Stood Still, Godzilla and the atmospheric Forbidden Planet are covered. There are even such rough diamonds as Plan Nine From Outer Space. Television programmes include US offerings recycled from comics, such as Superman and Buck Rogers, whilst the indefatigable Nigel Kneale gave the UK rather a lot of Quatermass

What has passed down to us with more difficulty are the radio shows. Journey Into Space, The Lost Planet and Dan Dare were all broadcast at this time. Firmly aimed at younger audiences than today, comics and magazines captured extraordinary and out-of-this-world tales (literally, in many cases) to pass onto a rapt audience. Here we find titles such as The Eagle, Galaxy, Nebula and somewhat surprisingly The Dandy!

Considering that this is a personal journey, and not a book that claims to examine or summarise the period, it covers some mainstream areas, particularly in respect to authors. There seems to be a boyish exuberance bubbling under the narrative. Wade clearly loved these strange tales from the past about the future, and it shines through every page. The unfiltered love attached to boyhood memories is what he is showing us here. Despite the subjective approach, there is a form of organisation at work. Facts are researched and presented. There seems to be a surprising amount about the radio series Journey Into Space, but before mainstream television ownership, the radio enraptured audiences in a way that seems strange to us now. There are many illustrations, mostly in colour, to transport the reader back to that bold and vivid period of visions of the future. There is no bibliography, but there are picture credits and an index.

This, then, is not a scholarly book or a reference work, although it has many fascinating snippets of information about a time when science-fiction began to move into the limelight. Communist scares reflected in body-snatching films, adventure stories set on Mars or in outer space and reflections of future technologies, many of which have been achieved or even surpassed by now. It is a labour of love, beautifully illustrated and worth owning just for the sheer pleasure of dipping into now and again, and as a reminder of how energetic the depiction of our future used to be. – Trevor Payne.