Monday, 21 January 2019


Wychwood Circle has always been about breaking down barriers and exploring reality.  From our earliest days we met monthly in Wychwood Library, sharing the space and talking openly about our differences.  Some of us were keen to resist the dualisms which suggest that you must be on one side of the debate or the other; we refused to accept what Nick Baines has called ‘the polarising premises that the ideologues represent as the only options’. 

In June in our remote Cotswold village, we will be discussing ‘Truth and Reconciliation’, a phrase associated with post-apartheid South Africa but not without its resonances in contemporary Britain (or the US or Hungary or the Philippines …).  To help us do so will be someone with personal experience of violence in South Africa, of the sort which some are threatening in our own divided country if they do not get their way.

The devil has the best tunes; do the populists have the best slogans?

One wonders what happened to civilised discourse and moderate opinions.  Is it all about resentment of inequality, distrust or even fear of big business and/or politicians, of national and international structures such as ‘the world order’ which originally grew out of half a century of global conflict? And is it partly a matter of language, the language of division and extremes, of soundbites and slogans? 

Referring to some well-known populists from Trump to Viktor Orban (and some much closer to home), Nick Baines, Anglican bishop of Leeds, suggests some answers when he says:
“Language is key, fear is fundamental, and hope is reduced to instant gratification of visceral demand.”
He quotes Rabbi Sacks who has written that, to gain traction, “populism has to identify an enemy” and then amplifies its claims of victimhood at the hands of that enemy, using language to dehumanise and disrupt. Nick Baines goes on:
 “Reality and rationality are dispensed with on the altar of visceral emotion, as the populists set themselves up against those they decry.  They are ‘the people’; their opponents are – what? Identity politics is not neutral here.”

Identity, economics and gender

As thinking, concerned individuals in our small community, some Christian, some of no particular faith or organised religion, some definitely atheistic, we cannot ignore politics, however uncomfortable it may seem. 

However, we try to go below the headlines and the slogans and in the next couple of months we will consider identity at a local level (including daily violence in Northern Ireland in the Troubles) through Anna Burns’ Milkman; an alternative to the established economic system which some would say has played a big part in the situation we are in (Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics); as well as the big issue of gender, relating it specifically to theology and the male-dominated version of religion which has dominated history to date (March 3rd, Daphne Hampson).

Join us at the February 10th discussion of three books (see below). 

Monday, 14 January 2019


FEBRUARY 10th - Book Discussion

Next month we revert to our original practice of basing our discussion on some reading.  However, to save you having to read them, some kind volunteers have agreed to present three books which can then be discussed up to a point. Some do choose to read the books in order to be fully informed and this enlivens the discussion.  The books are as follows (with links to reviews):

MILKMAN, the Man Booker prize-winning novel by Anna Burns (2018)

DOUGHNUT ECONOMICS, a radical approach to economics by Kate Raworth (2017)

FULL CATASTROPHE LIVING, a book on Mindfulness Meditation by one of its original proponents, Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990)

Please do join us - and bring a friend - on February 10th at 7pm in Wychwood Library. 

Monday, 12 November 2018


Our next event, on December 9th, is a talk entitled 'GOD OF THE GULAG - IS ANY CAUSE WORTH DYING FOR?' which will consider martyrdom both in Eastern Europe and in our own wider context - not least the theme of this year's events: What matters most? 

We are delighted to welcome Charlbury resident Jonathan Luxmoore to address this topic, the subject of his much-acclaimed two-volume study published in 2016. 

JONATHAN LUXMOORE has been Europe correspondent in Oxford and Warsaw for Catholic News Service (Washington/Rome), Ecumenical News International (Geneva) and The Tablet (London) since 1988, as well as a staff commentator for Polish Radio's First Programme and freelance writer for newspapers and news agencies in Europe and the US. 

He was based in Poland full-time from 1988 to 2001, and his coverage of religious affairs during the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe won five Catholic Press Association awards, and the Silver Award from Worldfest Houston for the ABC TV film "A Time to Build" (ABC and PBS TV 1992). More below. 

He read Modern History at the University of Oxford (1976-1979) and studied International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (1986-1989), and has been a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), the Churches East-West European Relations Network (CEWERN) and the International Editorial Board of the journal Religion, State and Society. He was also a co-founder in 1996-98 of the Polish chapter of Transparency International, the world's largest anti-corruption NGO.     

His books include The Vatican and the Red Flag: The Struggle for the Soul of Eastern Europe (London/New York 1999), Rethinking Christendom: Europe's Struggle for Christianity (London 2005), and Szepty Boga (Krakow 2016 - in Polish). His two-volume study of communist-era religious persecution - The God of the Gulag: Martyrs in an Age of Revolution, and The God of the Gulag: Martyrs in an Age of Secularism - was published in 2016 by Gracewing. 

Please join us at Wychwood Library on Sunday 9th December for this special event. 

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Ugly populism, and rationality threatened by emotion? THE POST-TRUTH ERA

The subject of Evan Davis' book on Post-Truth came up earlier this year on this blog and on November 11th we will explore his ideas more fully.  Not everyone will have read the book but it will be presented to the group prior to a discussion.

The expression 'post-truth' seems to have arisen in 1992, though George Orwell would tell you that there was a strong premonition of the phenomenon as far back as the 1930s ('Looking back on the Spanish Civil War', 1942). According to Matthew D'Ancona, 2016 was the year which definitively launched the post-truth era. The word was Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year in 2016, defined as short-hand for 'circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief'.  

The Victoria and Albert Museum has an exhibition "The Future Starts Here" and among the exhibits is a leaflet produced for the 2016 referendum.  It carried the NHS logo - though it was neither produced nor sanctioned by the NHS - and it encouraged people to vote Leave "to help protect your local hospital".  The curators of the exhibition have headed the leaflet as 'post-truth propaganda'. 

Hot on its heels seems to be the concept of 'fake news', which handy term seems to allow anyone to say anything for political ends without fear of being shown to be wrong: the facts will just be dismissed as 'alternative'.  Lord Hall of the BBC said recently that the expression has "given street cred to mass disbelief".  He said: "It threatens people everywhere.  For democratic government to be legitimate, it needs not just the consent of the people, but their informed consent." 

Another scary word is 'disinformation', which Pope Francis has described as 'snake-tactics' (referring to the serpent in the garden of Eden), "that sly and dangerous form of seduction that worms its way into the heart with false and alluring arguments".  Not just in politics or on social media but even at the heart of academe, fears have been raised that the quest for truth is being undermined.  Earlier this year, British universities were challenged by a pro-Brexit MP to reveal the content of their lectures, lest a good word might have been said for the anti-Brexit case.  George Orwell must have felt distinctly restless in his grave. 

Matthew D'Ancona, a former editor of The Spectator who beat Evan Davis to it with his own 2017 book, Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back is worth quoting in this context: 
We have entered a new phase of political and intellectual combat, in which democratic orthodoxies and institutions are being shaken to their foundations by a wave of ugly populism. Rationality is threatened by emotion, diversity by nativism, liberty by a drift towards autocracy.  
What this all adds up to is a basic mistrust across our society and D'Ancona argues that 'powerful counter-narratives' will be required to defend the truth. Some  have hoped that these false narratives will be counteracted by a deeper, powerful narrative (Bishop Michael Curry offered one such at the royal wedding in May) so that we can somehow counter the destructive culture of post-truth.  What would be your counter-narrative? 

Do join us on November 11th at Wychwood Library as we discuss this topic along with two others suggested by books which participants will bring along and introduce (see previous post, below). 

Sunday, 7 October 2018



Wychwood Circle started out as a monthly discussion based on some agreed reading and occasionally we return to that format. This time, as a departure from the norm, we are selecting several books and inviting people to come and present them - which we hope will nevertheless give rise to some interesting discussion. For those who prefer to come forearmed the 3 books under discussion will be the following - click on the title for a description and/or review: 

The author is Franciscan priest (with more than a passing knowledge of psychologist Carl Jung) and founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation Richard Rohr.
Described by Huffington Post as 'timely, riveting, enlightening and necessary', the book is by American-Iranian Reza Aslan

by economist, journalist and broadcaster Evan Davis.

Intimate knowledge of these texts will NOT be required.  Someone will describe the main ideas.  But you may wish to dip in ahead of November 11th in order to be as well informed as possible. 

Wychwood Library 7pm - 9pm November 11th 2018