An Atheist Christmas Card

A14474.tifI come from a long line of believers. Welsh and Devonian clergymen (and some Lancashire Quakers) on one side, Greek ikon painters on the other. Admittedly, some of the Greek side got into fatal trouble  with Ali Pasha, the Lion of Ioannina, around the time of Lord Byron (ending up, as those in trouble with Ali Pasha often did, in cauldrons of boiling oil), and at least one of the Devon vicars caused a divorce scandal that got as far as the House of Lords. In spite of, or probably because of all that, we haven’t been to church as a family for decades. The last time was one Christmas Eve long before my sister and I had families of our own. I don’t know why we went, really: we were all atheists or at least drifting towards the deep end of agnosticism. Perhaps it was just for old times’ sake, or to hear bells ringing out over the valley. That particular night, the village church had brought in a popular vicar from Plymouth to give the sermon: a dark-haired, red-faced, rotund man bulging with Puritan self-satisfaction. “Birth…” He scowled at us from the pulpit like a constipated Roundhead. “Birth… is a bloody business.” I remember my father raising his eyebrows ever so slightly. That was it. And we’ve never been back.

St George AltarpieceAtheism just hit me one day. A reverse epiphany. I can remember the exact moment when it happened. I was walking down a street in the London suburb of Ealing, on my way to the shops. I must have been around 9 years old – this was a long-forgotten age when 9-year-olds were allowed to wander down to the shops on their own to buy a few sweets or a comic – and it was summer. We’d been visiting my grandparents and there had been a lot of handwringing over my lack of a religious upbringing. I’d been feeling guilty, and a bit scared. It hadn’t been that long since my last visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum and the inevitable encounter with the Saint George Altarpiece, 375 square feet of Spanish Gothic grand guignol, that used to stand at the bottom of the grand staircase, waiting to terrify me. image004-208x300The saint is slaying the dragon in the centrepiece but all around it, people are slaying the saint in various inventive ways, each one more disturbing than the last. I loved – still love – the V & A but the altarpiece always seemed to ambush me. And each time I’d notice a new, horrible detail. George boiled in oil. George dragged behind horses, or crushed, or bisected by two men wielding a planking saw.  It was obviously a cautionary tale but I couldn’t tell what the moral might be. What it seems like now is one of those illustrations  from the manuals that come with dangerous machines: table saws, chainsaws. Except that belief seems to be the dangerous machine in question.

Perhaps the painting was on my mind that afternoon as I strolled along, trying not to step on the cracks in the pavement. At the end of the street I happened to look up at the dark green leaves of a bay tree that grew over the wall at the corner. I looked up, saw the dark, pointy leaves and the blue sky beyond and realised that there was no God up there. No God anywhere. No need for all the suffering and the guilt. All the painted blood that was somehow supposed to be on my conscience. It was an enormous relief. That’s what I remember, as sharp as leaves outlined against the London sky: a sense of infinite space and an intense, almost ecstatic relief.

That Plymouth vicar was right, though, in his way. Life is a bloody business. It’s quite possible that some lucky percentage of a rural Devon church congregation back in the early 1980s might have been deliberately or even accidentally unaware of world events. Didn’t read the paper, didn’t watch the news on the telly. A couple of the people listening to the vicar had never even been to Plymouth, 12 miles away. Hard to do that now, though, in a world where technology conspires to shove everything in our faces, all the time. The information age is an age of focus, of the zoom-in. News is claustrophobic in its immediacy. In that sense, the Saint George Altarpiece is almost modern. There’s no point in looking away because everywhere you look, something brightly appalling awaits the eye. And there’s nothing that requires belief in the sense of faith, because everything is, or appears to be, fact.

So to my surprise, and as an atheist, I’ve gone back to Christian art in search of that sense of space and relief. To the clear colours and pure beauty of the Early Renaissance. To painters like Fra Filippo Lippi and Botticelli and Piero della Francesca, whose paintings open onto more light and depth than any earthly window.Filippo_Lippi_-_Madonna_col_Bambino_e_due_angeli_-_Google_Art_Project Fra Filippo, whom I wrote about in Appetite and who is the subject of my next book, knew pain. He knew horror. By the time he had painted the unearthly beauty of his Madonna with Child and Two Angels, he had been tortured on the rack by the magistrates of Florence. But in the Virgin’s face – possibly the face of his mistress and great love, Lucrezia Buti – there is serenity, unaffected humanity. There is grace.

I find that I spend my life looking. Technology wants us to look. It doesn’t necessarily require us to see. Fra Filippo wants us to see. I think he’s telling us that if we open our eyes, belief will follow. We know what Fra Filippo, the old Carmelite friar, must have believed. But I’ve never felt that he’s telling me what I should believe, unless it’s that beauty transcends everything. He wants to remind us that it’s still there: all that space, all that serenity. The devastating calm of true beauty. Despite all the noise and blood and dangerous machinery. Even for an atheist like me.

A late Merry Christmas to one and all.


Winter Solstice: Lines Of Sight

o-THE-COMET-OF-1858-facebookIt’s stopped raining on this solstice eve so I’ve taken the chainsaw and climbed the hill behind the house. There is a spidery mound of wood in the top field, piled there two years ago when the old banks were tidied up. I’ve finally got round to pulling out the useable stuff to burn in the stove: gnarled, fissured ash limbs, some oak, the fluted trunk of a huge old hawthorn. It’s still quite early but the sun is already half way gone and the light is slanting, long and sharp, down off the moor and into the valley, pouring over the leafless oak woods, turning everything to coppery gold. Samuel Palmer light. He came to Dartmoor in 1858 and painted Comet Donati flaring across the sky. This is a liminal place, the edge of the cultivated land, a threshold. The boundary is just across the valley: a quilt of green fields, a wall, and beyond that, brown grass, heather and granite. Another world.

The banks around me are already crested with thick new growth. The felled trees have been interrupted, not killed. Like the banks, they’ve been here a long time. And the banks have been here a very long time. Sometimes, when a tree falls, huge boulders come into the light, slotted together like cyclopean masonry.

We know how old our banks are, more or less, thanks to Hooper’s Law. You pace off thirty yards of bank or hedge and count the number of different woody plant species you encounter in those yards. By Dr Hooper’s measure, the banks on this hill were built in the Thirteenth Century. Around here the forgotten wall builders are called ‘the old boys.’ This would have been moorland then. The old boys must have cleared this ground with oxen and horses and piled these monstrous rocks up with nothing more than levers and their own strength, pushing into the other world, building new boundaries. If we let it go now, the moors would take it back in a lifetime.

The human landscape around me is older than those old boys, though. Over to the east, the walls make a tighter grid. On the other side of the sunken lane that forms the boundary between farmland and wild land, you can follow these walls – just faint ridges in the heather – uphill until you reach the bones of a Bronze Age village, a pattern of low circles and lines of stones sinking into the earth, still graspable – just – as a place where humans lived three thousand years ago.

Just over the skyline is a complex of stone rows, circles and cairns that those people built for reasons we don’t, if we are absolutely honest, really understand at all. They don’t line up consistently with summer or winter solstices, or with the stars. Some are straight, some wander across the landscape. Since the Victorians, we’ve tried to shoehorn the rows of Dartmoor into any number of theories: druids, ley lines, astronomical calendars, temples, boundaries. Before the Victorians, people just used to grub up the stones and drag them off for walls or gateposts. I used to want to know, quite badly, why the rows were there. I would tramp up the hill with compasses, rulers, even dowsing rods. I never got anywhere. The stones defy explanation. They simply exist, inviting the eye to pick them out among the clumps of gorse and tussock grass. I find I don’t need to know their purpose any more. The row builders knew, and over the years that has become enough for me.

On the western saddle that divides our valley from the one beyond, I can just see the dark hump that marks something much older: what’s left of a Neolithic chamber tomb. It has chamber tombstood there for five thousand years, give or take a few centuries. When the people in the hilltop village looked down on it, they were looking at something as ancient to them as a Norman church is to us. I’d like to think that the tomb builders would have enjoyed this lovely pale light. The oak woods would have been just as golden, five thousand years ago.

The light is beginning to go, seeping out of the sky around the edges, fading to washed out purple. I start the saw again and ring up a few more logs, but it’s getting too dark to be quite safe and my fingers are going a bit numb. Lights are going on in what used to be the old hospital. Built around the turn of the last century to treat tuberculosis patients from Devon and Cornwall, it was abandoned in my lifetime when antibiotics rendered the old fashioned cure of bedrest and fresh air outdated and quaint. Predictably enough it has been developed into tasteful homes now, but when I was a boy I used to wander around in the derelict buildings, poking through heaps of fading chest x-rays and sinister enamelled dishes, wondering how many people had died there. It must have been a good many. The main sanitarium had a long, open veranda where patients would have been laid out on good days. They would have looked directly across the valley to the chamber tomb. On a Solstice evening like this one, they would hmt-233-sea-bathing-hosp-1913ave seen the sun go down behind it. The ones who were recovering, and the dying, wrapped in corporation blankets, bathing in the ancient light.

The sun is almost gone and the shadows are reaching at full stretch towards the east. Across the valley, the walls of our neighbour’s farm and the stones and scrub on the moorland above them are as sharp as lines etched into a copper plate. Everything is resolving into lines: lines of sight, boundary lines. The year is ending, splitting along its alignment. Tomorrow, the light will stay an instant longer.

As the light goes, birds begin to call and fly home. A pheasant starts to chirr down by the brook and a raven, one of the pair who nest in the giant pine which looms over our house, swoops over me, so low that I can hear the wind whispering across her wing feathers. I look up into the sky and see, not a comet, but two vapour trails that have crossed above the valley and painted, with the perfection of coincidence, a vast white X. I bend down to pick up the chainsaw. When I look up again, the lines are already fading.


A while ago we sent off an old chest of drawers to our local furniture restorer. We’d bought it from a barn sale in Vermont years ago because it was solid and extremely cheap. Over the years it had been slathered in so much white emulsion that it could have been cast out of rubber. But it had interesting handles. We brought it with us when we came back to England, but in the relentless damp of south Dartmoor the drawers had stopped opening. We needed the storage. And we liked the handles. So off it went to be dipped and stripped.


What came back yesterday is almost unrecognisable. From under the rubbery carapace has emerged a mid-Victorian American chest in oak with details in walnut and mahogany. Quite an act of vandalism, to start slapping a wet, white brush over all that lovely quarter-sawn oak grain. There’s so much life in wood: it resists being reduced to faux flat pack conformity. But then I found that the painter hadn’t been the first vandal to attack our chest of drawers.

On the top I found what I thought was an old scratch, but looking closer it resolved into two tiny letters. Someone had burned their initials into the wood with something hot. M. A. I have a jeweller’s loup which I found, conveniently enough, on top of a Dartmoor tor. Through the loop, the letters became a pattern of black dots: tremulous and badly formed. A child’s handiwork. And the A has no crossbar. Perhaps the little vandal was in a hurry, or was interrupted. Perhaps, though, it isn’t A at all but Λ, a Greek lamda. 


Could our chest of drawers have belonged to immigrants in New England? Being half Greek, the possibility grabbed me straight away. I grew up listening to stories of the Greek diaspora: lives abandoned, houses on fire, the bodies of loved ones left behind, unburied; new lives begun, grudgingly, in cold, alien countries. If I remember my grandmother’s stories properly, my grandfather had a brother or a cousin in Lowell, Massachussetts who had started a shoe factory. I searched for him last night and with the disturbing power of the search engine found, very easily, a shoemaker with our name living in Lowell in the 192os.

They’d escaped the burning edges of the Ottoman Empire, my family; the adventurous ones, anyway. From Epirus, from Macedonia and Smyrna. My grandfather, Constantine, was the son of a bandit who put him on the back of his white horse and rode down from Kastoria in the mountains to Salonika where the ship was waiting that would take him away. He never saw his father again.

Kastoria family

Constantine was meant to go to India to work for the Ralli brothers, Greek rubber tycoons in Bengal, but he was hijacked by his brothers in Southampton where he was changing ships and ended up sitting in the window of their East End cigarette shop dressed as a Turk and rolling cigarettes. When we go into exile, our identities begin to dissolve in disturbing ways.

I wonder, now, whether M. Λ. was born in Greece or in America, whether his or her faint graffito was a tiny act of defiance. Immigrants were invisible until they conformed: that is what I learned from my grandmother. You raised your children to be as native as you were foreign. I keep thinking of that Λ, and if it represents a secret: the name a child left behind at the front door when she went off to school, the accent stripped away by scowling teachers, by rulers across knuckles. The faint Greek voice, spoken in the head and in the blood, that needed to be let out somehow. So she heats a nail or a shoemaker’s awl in the stove and pricks out two letters. An A without a crossbar. A cryptograph, which holds everything she has left behind. The whole of a vandalised world.

(The family in the photograph aren’t my ancestors, but the man who took the picture, Leonidas Papazoglou, also photographed my family. You can find more of his work here. Be warned: he documented life in what is now Greek Macedonia at the turn of the 19th century during a time of bitter fighting, and some of the images are very gruesome.)

The High Dive


Hello. Welcome to my blog.

Is that what one says? I’m new here.

It feels a bit like Purgatory: neither up nor down. The high dive, halfway along the arc. The wax has melted and the feathers are gone,  but the sea is just the upside-down sky and it isn’t getting any closer. Yet.

When people ask me what I do and I tell them I’m an author, the first thing they say is do you blog? Well, I didn’t. Now I do. It’s been rushing up towards me. Themes to choose, colours to be fiddled with. A one-liner or a Wasteland quote for the header? No, too late…

Here’s who I am. I write books: five novels to date, four dark Medieval romps written as Pip Vaughan-Hughes, one – Appetite – as Philip Kazan. I write about art, food, places, tastes, smells, music. Exiles; cities; people in love, or trying to be. I like the kind of place that Auden describes in Musee des Beaux Arts:

…a corner, some untidy spot                                                                                     Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse    Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

That’s Icarus up there in Breughel’s painting, incidentally: the legs vanishing into that bottle green water. Personally, I find that life gives us both: we’re the dogs living their doggy lives and the vainglorious boy plummeting into the deep, all at the same time.

That being said, I’ll try to keep things interesting. Dog and Icarus, Icarus and dog. Posts may meander around such things as rembetika and the Greek Diaspora, Italian food, the merits of various chainsaws, Tibetan Buddhism, drink, parenthood, Dartmoor weather, graveyards and gardens. Purgatory should be fun. It had better be. We’re stuck in this place for a while.

Wish me luck. I’m new here.