Tag Archives: John Cornwell

2015 favourites

Each December we – that is, me and the Emerging Artist formerly known as the Art Student – compile a list of our favourite books and films of the year. We’ve been caught this year with minimal internet coverage (and maximal sun, sand, beach, bush and rain, especially rain) so we’re running a bit late.

Three movies made both our top five lists:


Testament of Youth (directed by James Kent), from Vera Brittain’s memoir, screenplay by Juliette Towhidi: A World War One film in the year when idealising  Gallipoli  was big in the headlines, it doesn’t focus on the battlefield but on the effects of the war on the combatants and their families and loved ones. It makes a powerful pacifist argument.

Meet the Patels (Geeta Pavel, Ravi Patel 2014): We saw this at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s unlikely to get a theatrical release, but it’s a very funny documentary about match-making among first generation Americans of Indian heritage. It’s really about intergenerational relationships. The EA says it’s a must-see for every parent.


He Named Me Malala (Davis Guggenheim 2015): Another documentary, this one could be seen as hagiographic, but Malala Yousafzai is a remarkable young woman. I loved the way she spoke with the absolutism of teenagehood from a position of influence to tell the president of Nigeria to do his job and ensure the safety of the girls abducted by Boko Haram.

The Emerging Artist’s other two:


Selma (Ava DuVernay 2015): A flawed movie, but it conveyed the experience of ordinary people taking part in Civil Rights marches. The leadership of the march across the bridge was particularly interesting: how to think strategically, resisting the push to be seen to take ‘decisive action’. The filmmakers weren’t given permission to use Martin Luther King Jr’s actual speeches, but the ones written for the film caught his style brilliantly.

 The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse 2015): The humour, the flamboyance, the over-the-topness of it. Kate Winslett was marvellous. So was Hugo Weaving. In fact, there were no weak performances.

My other two:

 Ex Machina (Alex Garland 2015): The thing that stays in my mind is the image of the artificially intelligent creations – a fabulous effect where we see the cogs and wheels whirring away inside what is otherwise a human head. The story worked very well too.


Far from Men (David Oelhoffen 2014): Apart from enjoying the easy irony that there were only men in most of the film (should it have been called Far from Other Men?), I was transfixed by this slow, beautiful film of a pied noir (Algeria-born white Frenchman) escorting an Arab prisoner through the austerely photogenic Atlas Mountains.

The EA’s top five books:

The EA’s reading year was bookended by titles that brought home the harshness of the oppression of gay men and lesbians, even in times and places where one might think it was comparatively mild. Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer deals with novelist E M Forster’s agonising life in the closet, and the part of Magda Szubanski’s memoir, Reckoning, that tells the story of her coming out is genuinely harrowing.

But those books are in addition to her actual top five. Here are those, with her comments:


Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: This is a bracing book that everyone needs to read. We all know about climate change in a general way, and we know that powerful vested interests fight attempts to respond effectively. Naomi Klein gives detail and challenges us not to look away.


Jean Michel Guenassia,  The Incorrigible Optimists Club: A novel about Soviet bloc refugees in Paris at the time of the Algerian War of Independence, this includes a coming of age story.


Biff Ward, In My Mother’s Hands: Excellent memoir of a 50s childhood. Buff Ward’s father was prominent left wing historian Russel Ward, so the domestic story includes elements of red-baiting. But the real power of the story is in her mother’s intensifying irrationality and the family’s attempts to deal with it.


Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City: The birth of liberalism without the US-style individualism. This is not a travel book. It’s very accessible, thoroughly researched history that compelled at least one person to read big chunks aloud to her partner. The history of Europe looks different after reading this .


Vivien Johnson, Streets of Papunya: Vivien Johnson has been involved with the Western Desert artists for decades. An earlier book told the story of the great Papunya Tula artists. This book tells the story of Papunya itself, especially after many of those artists left. Art is still being made there, by a new generation, mostly women.

My top five books:

I read at least 12 books in 2015 that did what you always hope a book will do: delighted, excited or enlightened me, changed the way I felt and/or thought about the world. I whittled the list down to five by selecting only books that touched my life in explicit ways. Here they are i order of reading:


John Cornwell, The Dark Box (2014): A history of the rite of Confession in the Catholic Church. The confessional was a big part of my childhood. I’ve dined out on a story of going to confession with Brisbane’s Archbishop Duhig when I was about thirteen. He asked in a booming voice that I was sure could be heard by everyone in the cathedral outside, ‘Would these sins of impurity have been alone or with others?’ Cornwall’s book felt like a very personal unpicking of that moment and the whole cloth it was spun from.


Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). What can I say? I’m white. In laying out the way a word or phrase between friends or strangers can disrupt day-to-day life, so that the ugly history of racism makes itself painfully present, and linking those moments to the public humiliations of Serena Williams and the violent deaths of so many young African-American men, the book is a tremendously generous gift. It and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me share this generosity of spirit.


David Malouf, A First Place (2015): I haven’t blogged yet about this collection of David Malouf’s essays. It feels personal to me because David lectured me at university, but also because he is a Queenslander, and these essays explore what that means. Even though he is from what we in north Queensland used to call ‘Down South’, these essays fill a void I felt as a child – I was a big reader, but the world I read about in books only ever reflected the physical world I lived in as an exotic place.


Stan Grant, Talking to My Country (2016): I was privileged to read this ahead of publication. Stan Grant is a distinguished Australian TV journalist. This book, part memoir, part essay, gives a vivid account of growing up Aboriginal. It includes the most powerful account of a ‘mental breakdown’ I have ever read, not as a medicalised episode of ‘depression’, but as the result of generations of pain inflicted by colonisation refusing to stay at bay.


Jennifer Maiden, The Fox Petition (2015): I love this book in all sorts of ways. I love the way the image of the fox recurs – a literal fox, a fox as in Japanese folk lore, Whig politician Charles Fox. I love the chatty voice, and Jennifer Maiden’s trademark linebreaks after the first word of a sentence. I love the argumentativeness. I love the playful, almost silly, resuscitation of the distinguished dead to confront those who claim to be inspired by them. I love the way Jennifer Maiden makes poetry from the television news the way some poets do from flowers.

And now, on to 2016! I’m already about eight books behind in my blogging.

John Cornwell’s Dark Box

John Cornwell, The Dark Box (Profile Books 2014)

1781251088 In Ken Loach’s movie Jimmy’s Hall, the Communist hero visits his arch-enemy the parish priest in the darkness of the confessional and asks for advice on how to deal with the Pharisees who encourage oppression of the Irish poor. The priest, outraged, exclaims: ‘This is sacrilege!’ Jimmy shoots back, ‘I’ll tell you what’s sacrilege. You hate more than you love.’

At the beginning of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary we see a priest in extreme close up as a voice from the other side of the confessional grille announces the intention to kill him in revenge for sexual abuse committed by another priest.

It’s unlikely that the writers of those scenes, Donal O’Kelly and Paul Laverty for the first and John Michael McDonagh for the second, had read The Dark Box or even knew much of the history it recounts. An Irish Catholic childhood would provide more than enough acquaintance with the confessional box as symbol of pervasive clerical power. But this book could have been written as an explication of these and similar scenes.

It actually was written as an explication of the experiences of generations of Latin Rite Catholic children in the first six decades of last century. (I believe it was different for the Maronite and other rites.)

The practice of frequent sacramental confession was introduced at the Catholic Reformation, in the mid 16th century. Under pain of excommunication and hell all Catholics who had reached the ‘age of discretion’ had to confess at least once a year. In large part this was to strengthen priests’ hold over their parishioners’ inner lives, with the aim of detecting and deterring heretical tendencies. At about the same time the confession box was invented, reputedly by St Charles Borromeo, as a way of preventing priestly abuse of the intimacy of Confession – you could tell your sins without the priest recognising you in the dark or being able to touch you through the separating wall. John Cornwell argues persuasively that it also fostered an approach to morality that was individualistic, introspective and divorced from the narratives of people’s lives – which is pretty much the approach that was taught in the schools of my childhood.

In the 16th century, the age of discretion was generally taken to be somewhere in the late teens. It was Pope (now Saint) Pius X in the early 20th century who decreed that Catholics must make their first Confession at the age of seven. To put it crudely, 17 was too late if you were going to get a solid grip on people’s minds, and steel them against the amorphous threat of ‘Modernism’ – which seems to have been a word for openness to current philosophical and other thinking.

Cornwell spends a lot of time on the link between child sexual abuse and Confession as it existed from the time of Pius X to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. First, the ultra private nature of the confessional provided opportunity – though paradoxically it was when priests began hearing confessions in places other than the box that opportunity increased, as his personal recollections attest. More interestingly, though, Cornwell argues that the training that had grown along with the practice of confession created a skewed understanding of human sexuality among priests. He quotes extensively from the text books used in British seminaries for the first half of the 20th century: homosexuality was seen as mortally sinful but rated a very brief mention; rape was a mortal sin but not much discussed; child sexual abuse wasn’t mentioned; masturbation was also a mortal sin, possibly worse than rape for reasons I can’t bear to repeat, and discussed at length.

Through it all, priests were to see themselves as the authorities. As children they had recited laundry lists of sins; now they had more elaborate laundry lists and a host of arguments they could rationalise with. Nowhere was there room for thinking about life as it is lived.

Catholics of my generation sometimes swap stories about childhood confession. The word for ‘sex’ was ‘impurity’, for example, and what was a seven year old boy to make of the information that if he touched his ‘private parts’ except for bathing or peeing purposes he risked burning in hell for eternity? I remember curling up with embarrassment when I went to confession with the Archbishop of Brisbane in the early 60s, when I was perhaps 14. The Archbishop had a deep, loud voice, and when I confessed to impure acts (a term that covered everything from pack rape to a cheerful roll in the hay, but in my case meant touching my own erect penis – and I do mean just touching), he rumbled for the whole cathedral outside the box to hear, ‘Alone or with others? And how frequently did you do it?’

It’s a dark kind of joy, but a joy all the same, to have history’s unforgiving light shone on this part of my childhood. I recommend the book to anyone who has a close relationship with a Pre–Vatican Two Latin-rite Catholic.