Pointing the finger
Scapegoat: a history of blaming other people Charlie Campbell DUCKWORTH, 240PP, £12.99
■ Tablet bookshop price £11.70 Tel 01420 592974
Brave is the debut author who draws equally from the wisdom of Tertullian and Jade Goody, but then Charlie Campbell, former deputy editor of The Literary Review and overseer of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, is not likely to baulk at the mingling of high and low. That he does so with brevity, wit and a Fortean’s eye for the peculiar serves him especially well.
The scapegoat, this smart little book contends, has been with man since time immemorial. “Whatever’s wrong with us,” Campbell writes, “there might not be a cure, but there’s always a culprit.” Over the course of some 200 pages, he takes us from the arcane rituals of the ancients to a more contemporary range of cruelties, steering his observations towards a sober conclusion in which he asks, “Who is to blame, if not the scapegoat?” The answer, you may not be surprised to learn, is never too far from home. Stern as this may seem, Campbell is excellent company and there is much fun to be had along the way. While the relatively short length affords us only a spry jog through history, this is a surprisingly scholarly affair. The bibliography, in particular, is a hymn to eclecticism: sources cited include Carl
Jung, Andrea Dworkin and a recent translation of the Maleus Maleficarium. The author’s research pays off well and he never misses the opportunity to toss in a salient detail. We get oodles, for example, on the cruel excesses of the witch-hunts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Matthew Hopkins, the self-elected Witchfinder General and scourge of the eastern counties, claimed a personal best of 19 trials in one day (no doubt delivering a guilty verdict for each) and favoured trial by water because it was more cost-effective than commissioning a new set of gallows as he rolled from town to town. Skipping ahead to a rough historical parallel, we also learn that at the height of McCarthyite paranoia, the House Un-American Activities Committee kept a list of suspicious organisations which included “438 newspapers, 280 unions and the Boy Scouts”. Lord Baden-Powell might well have had something to say about that.
While much of the material covered stems from man’s cruelty to man, a particular highlight is the extended discussion of the placing of animals and inanimate objects on trial for their part in public misdemeanours. This provides a welcoming palate cleanser and is home to my favourite sentence in the book: “and that is how to excommunicate an insect”. Cases include the egg-laying cockerel thought to have been in league with Satan and the trial brought by the wine-growers of St Julien against a marauding band of weevils, the conclusion of which is lost to history as the last pages of the court reports have – irony of ironies – been damaged by insects. While many of these reports stem from less enlightened times, we cannot overlook the sad fate of the church bell gracing the Russian town of Uglich, banished to Siberia in 1591 for its part in signalling a failed insurrection and only granted reprieve some 300 years later.
The short duration inevitably curtails some areas of exploration. I would have expected more on the influential work of René Girard, who traces all religion and culture back to the scapegoat mechanism. Campbell’s chapter on the Jewish scapegoat, while noting the deep historical roots of such practices, runs for only four pages. Perhaps Campbell is acknowledging that such material is both all too vast and better suited to discussion elsewhere. Nevertheless, Scapegoat is a welcome and involving read that balances the smart and silly with due care and manages the rare feat of winding up before it outstays its welcome. Nick Garrard
Treasures to intrigue and delight
The Secret Language of Churches and Cathedrals: decoding the sacred symbolism of Christianity’s holy buildings Richard Stemp DUNCAN BAIRD, 320PP, £25
■ Tablet bookshop price £22.50 Tel 01420 592974
It is not clear why the language referred to in the title of this book is “secret” – “sometimes overlooked” might have been a more accurate way of putting it. Or possibly it is simply a misprint for “sacred”. For this is a picture book illustrated by views and details of mostly well-known European churches of all periods and styles, and the language in question is the style and content of their ornament. It is a beginner’s book, but an attractive one: the text is lucid and unpretentious, and the reproductions, mainly drawn from the well-known image agencies, are sharp and clear. Several colour spreads have helpful annotations pointing out the meaning of details of a facade, a mural or a stained-glass window. Where Stemp’s book varies from most other guides is in its determined avoidance of an overall structure that might put these works of art and architecture within a conventional framework. Normally, writers tell a historical story, accompanied by descriptions of developing architectural style; in Stemp’s case the styles comes right at the end.
His idea is to highlight objects – large ones such as entire cathedrals down to small ones such as the bosses on a roof – rather than making them subservient to a story about something else. The narrative in the background is fairly wide-ranging and general: the images are the thing. That’s a purist kind of art-historical approach, and it thus comes as no surprise that Stemp’s career began as a natural scientist at Cambridge, presumably analysing phenomena and things rather than lengthy narratives.
Having presented these features as objects, his next stage is to interpret the words and images that appear on them: this, then, is what he actually means by “secret language”. Here too the examples are chosen from widely different sources –
an Italian fresco precedes a small piece of English stained glass, which is followed by a reliquary panel in Switzerland – so that again the emphasis is on the things themselves. It’s not, then, a pocket-guide type of book that enthusiasts can take with them to interpret what they see in a church: it’s a presentation of the wonderful things that should intrigue and delight.
It’s striking that the Gothic revival, the central event in the modern life of most English churches and many French cathedrals, is dismissed in two paragraphs, and it is a shame that there are almost no new churches in here at all; almost nothing, for example, after a full-page view of Graham Sutherland’s tapestry at the east end of Coventry Cathedral which was completed almost 50 years ago.
There is plenty more where that came from. The small church at Mortensrud, outside Oslo, designed by the Norwegian architects Jensen & Skodvin and built about 10 years ago, positively reverberates with biblical references, from its overall form as a kind of agricultural building – the birthplace of Christ – to the tiny, beautiful details of its reredos with its mementos of Jerusalem. Go and see it. Timothy Brittain-Catlin
7 January 2012 | THE TABLET | 21