Fun and a frisson of fear in Mordew


Alex Pheby, Mordew, 2020, Galley Beggar Press.

312 pages
Kindle edition $7.59
Paperback $28
Reviewed by Ted Witham

Alex Pheby’s Mordew is a satisfying fantasy. Mordew (the name is said to be derived from the French mort and Dieu, death and God) seethes with all sorts of life and unlife. There is the Living Mud. There are flukes, non-viable life-forms in the shape of human body parts. Other babies and conceived and born in the normal way by human beings. There are chilling gill men who guard the city’s ports and the houses of the very rich.

A magic glass road leads up from the Slums, through the mercantile section to the Manse where the Master, the creator of this dystopia, lives and weaves his magic.

Nathan Treeves, a boy from the slums, is recruited into a gang consisting of the leader Gam, the Joeys (are they conjoined twins?) and Prissy, whose sister works as a prostitute. Nathan believes they may help him fund medicine for his dying father.

Nathan catches the Master’s eye. We don’t learn the reason for this adoption until much later in the novel. The Master sets Nathan up, under the eye of the faithful Bellows, in luxury in the Manse, where he is educated. The end point of the education is for Nathan to learn the Magic which sustains Mordew and the other worlds.

Where Nathan himself ends up is a surprise, and I am not sure that I liked Nathan’s destination, although the fact that his destructive spree is his destiny is clearly drawn.

The story is fast paced. The many weird and intriguing characters, the vicious Fagan-like Mr Padge among them, help or hinder Nathan on his discoveries.

The last quarter of the book, after the conclusion of the narrative, is a glossary setting out the world of Mordew in detail, how the Magic works, the connection between the material and immaterial realms, the place of time and some of the history of the worlds. I savoured this ‘theological’ section as well, even though it was not necessary to the telling of the story.

If you enjoy dystopian fantasy with a steampunk-like aesthetic, you will find much to like in Mordew.

Blessed are Christians through the Pandemic

We Christians will be stronger and our faith will be deeper – we will be more blessed – because of living through this moment.


Irene Alexander and Christopher Brown (editors), To Whom Shall We Go? Faith responses in a time of crisis, Cascade 2021

Paperback ISBN 9781725289550
Hardback ISBN 9781725289567
eBook ISBN 9781725289574

Available from the publishers, Koorong, or from the authors at holyscribblers.blogspot.com

Hardback $40, eBook and Paperback $25

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Part of us wants to pretend the Coronavirus pandemic has not happened, and that the Church can go back to its old ways after the worst of this is over. I have no doubt, however, that there will be enduring changes, not least in the way Church organisations use technology.

The collective of Christian writers behind To Whom Shall We Go, who call themselves the “Holy Scribblers”, are also convinced of permanent change. Their interest, as shown in this series of eleven essays, is in changes to our spiritual lives more than technology.

The book is loosely structured around the Beatitudes and this structure gives the book an optimistic feel: we Christians will be stronger and our faith will be deeper – we will be more blessed – because of living through this moment. Their grounds for optimism are historical. We have before lived through past pandemics and challenges and emerged changed and stronger.

The authors are an eclectic mix of academics and thinkers who are looking for thoughtful Christian readers, clergy and lay. Two Franciscan Tertiaries, Terry Gatfield and Charles Ringma, are among the contributors. As is always the case with essays from diverse authors, individual readers will find some essays stronger than others. For example, Chris Mercer’s explorations of Desert Father Evagrius’ “eight deadly thoughts” (gluttony and lack of thankfulness for food, sexual lust, sadness, boredom and apathy, vainglory and pride) resonate for me.

I have some quibbles with the structure of the book. Each section gave rise to prayers and questions for reflection. The reflection questions were at the very end of the book. In the eBook format, especially without hyperlinks, this rendered the questions almost useless.

The prayers were crafted along quite traditional lines, so some could be used or adapted, for example, for intercessions at the Eucharist. I found them a bit too stolid, with none of the creativity of the stunningly beautiful prayers of another Australian, Craig Mitchell, in his recent Deeper Water (Mediacom).  

To Whom Shall We Go is a timely book and will stimulate lively thinking about where God is now leading God’s Church.

Short and Narrow: the charming redemption of Silas Marner


George Eliot, Silas Marner, The Weaver of Raveloe, Capuchin Classics, 2009.

Paperback 250 pages

In Public Library System
New from $AU9.99, used from $AU8.99 online.
E-book from $4.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans 1819-1880) wrote Silas Marner as her version of Pilgrim’s Progress. Like Bunyan’s masterpiece, Silas Marner also has the feel of a universal fable, the redemption of a man from desolation to love and riches.

Unlike Progress, however, the characters in Silas Marner are well-drawn and invite sympathy. Knowing how shabbily Silas has been treated and knowing the inner journey of Silas and the nasty young Squire, makes the reader care about the characters.

Eppie, the toddler who appears in Silas’ life after his precious gold has been taken, is less believable as an individual. She is beautiful in body and soul, humble in aspiration and devoted to Silas. But she is lovely because she is so deeply loved by Silas, her ‘Papa’.

The inner journey Silas makes is not like the ‘ascent’ of Pilgrim to the river and the City of Heaven. Nor is it in the tradition of the ‘ascent’ to God mapped by medieval mystics like Bonaventure and Richard of Saint Victor.

Silas’ journey to redemption stays in the gritty reality of Victorian poverty. Grace – in the form of the toddler he names Hephzibah (Eppie) – comes to Silas once and all at once. The name Hephzibah means ‘My delight is in her’, and it is used in the Hebrew Scriptures as the symbolic name for the restored Jerusalem (Isaiah 62:4). The redemption takes the miser, Silas, with his short-sight and propensity to fitting, and teaches him how to love deeply.

Eliot contrasts the emotional and spiritual poverty of his former state with the richness of loving and being loved: the gold is even returned to Silas and secrets, liberating once shared, are brought to light.

Names are important to Eliot: Silas is named for the companion of the Apostle Paul. The New Testament’s Silas and Paul are put in prison and God releases them. God also releases Silas Marner from the darkness of the cultish Lantern Yard and from his self-imposed prison and. Both the New Testament and the village of Raveloe rejoice greatly at Silas’ release.

Is the name ‘Marner’ a reference to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner published 90 years earlier?  

Silas Marner is my introduction to George Eliot. I found the novel charming and satisfying. There is a central goodness in the novel which will be evident to readers whether or not they are Christian believers. But it is ultimately a Christian novel, an exploration of the journey we all in our own ways make in Christ.

Christians and Jews co-existing in Torquemada’s Spain: an intriguing new novel


Michael Lynes, Blood Libel: An Isaac Alvarez Mystery.

ISBN 978-9948258667

Kindle: $1.57, Paperback from $9.99.

Available as an e-book through the Public Library System

Reviewed by Ted Witham

I was intrigued by this novel set in Spain’s Seville at the time of the Holy Inquisition.  Isaac Alvarez is an official in the city. As a Jew who has converted to Catholicism but is still secretly attending Jewish prayers, he and his family are vulnerable to being denounced. 

A boy is murdered, and the story is circulated that he was killed so that his blood could be drunk in some secret Jewish ritual – the blood libel of the title.

The story is told through the written testimony of Friar Alonso, the assistant to Torquemada, alternating with a third person narrative from Isaac’s point of view. This method of telling the story works so that the motivations of both characters can be explored. 

Occasionally this was spoiled by an attempt to be cinematic, for example, concluding a chapter with one-line descriptions of everyone’s predicament. ‘Isabel is locked in her cell. Isaac is in the bar. Alonso is praying in his tiny cell, etc’. As a means of building tension, I found the device superfluous. 

Generally, the story is professionally presented and edited; a pleasure to read, and a delight to be so carefully taken into 15th Century Spain just at the moment when Inquisitors like Tomas Torquemada were breaking down the fragile peace between Spanish Catholics, Muslims and Jews.

I look forward to reading more of Señor Isaac Alvarez as his work takes him closer to King Ferdinand in the next in the series.

Trust and Obey – leaders in the Australian Army


The Association of the U.S. Army, Trust and Leadership: the Australian Army Approach to Mission Command, University of North Georgia University Press, 2019

Reviewed by Ted Witham 

All organisations have leaders who organise and inspire their members to promote the mission of the organisation. Leaders should be accountable for their work as leaders continuously improving their actions.  

Trust and Leadership explores how well the leaders in the Australian Armed Forces have used the official doctrine of mission command. The concept is that leaders should provide orders that clearly state the end result of their troops’ activities. Junior leaders are left free to work out the methods and tactics by which these effects will be reached. The principle is that the closer they are to the action, junior officers will have a better understanding of the situation on the ground, so are the best to decide how to carry out the superior’s orders.  

This book is a series of essays arranged historically from World War I to disaster relief in Queensland in 2012.  The authors are both academics and officers providing a breadth of commentary from the practical to the theoretical. It’s worth noting that some of the serving officers who wrote these essays also have academic qualifications, resulting in a thoughtful and authoritative account. 

The thesis of the book is that the concept of ‘mission command’ has been used by officers since Gallipoli, even before the term entered official policy. Australian soldiers should be adept at taking responsibility at their level, partly because of the Australian character and its scepticism towards authority. 

This willingness of soldiers to forge their own way turns out also to be a weakness. The account of the 2RAR Battalion in Afghanistan is searingly honest. Colonel Chris Smith describes the disbelief of a few soldiers when he attempted to enforce discipline. Their passive-aggressive response to his orders arose from the soldiers’ sense of entitlement to conduct themselves as they saw fit without supervision. ‘It seemed as though some were confusing mission command with “hands-off” leadership,’ Col. Smith comments. (p. 291 Advanced Reader’s Edition).  

In recent weeks, Australians have been shocked by accusations of murder and mistreatment of Afghan prisoners by Special Services troops. These allegations have of course coloured my reading of Trust and Leadership. Is it possible that these attitudes towards mission command and supervision by superior officers created the culture in which crimes could be committed? I hope that leaders’ role in these prosecutions will be carefully examined by the prosecutors, otherwise the concept of mission command will itself be bankrupted.  

As a (retired) leader in church organisations, I found Trust and Leadership to be a helpful analysis of the role of leadership to embody the purpose of the organisation and to inspire others to work towards that purpose. In reflecting on leadership, former Archbishop Peter Carnley AO used a similar concept of ‘subsidiarity’ (decisions to be made at the lowest level possible).  If this book helps our armed forces to continuously improve subsidiarity, it will have served a useful purpose.  

World War 2: Just War or Just Lies?


Peter Hitchens, The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, I.B. Tauris 2018.

Hardcover 288 pages

ISBN 9781788313292.
In Public Library system.
$27 online. Kindle edition $19.98

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Peter Hitchens knows this book will create controversy. His basic argument is that World War 2 was not a simple victory for the ‘Good Side’: it was both more complex than that and more ambiguous.

Hitchens is a journalist, the brother of the late and more famous Christopher Hitchens, who, unlike Christopher (author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) has made the journey from atheism to faith. The focus of this book is to make moral judgements about a war that has been lauded and romanticised as a victory over evil.

He cites the fire-bombing of German cities, Rostock, Dresden, Hamburg and Berlin, as an example of the moral wrong committed by Britain. He shows that killing many human beings was the explicit, if secret, policy of the War Cabinet.

He demonstrates that, as a tactic to improve the chances of victory, it was a failure. Even British high command after the war rated the bombing as ineffective. British bombs were both inaccurate and the German people, like the British, were not so easily cowed. In any case, the bombers targeted poorer areas, where resistance to the Hitler regime was most likely to reside.  

Hitchens worries that people will respond, ‘Well, it wasn’t as bad as the Holocaust,’ as if comparing it to a worse evil justifies the action. Hitchens clearly believes that the deliberate slaughter of 6 million Jews is immorality at its very worst, but that doesn’t make the deliberate murder of hundreds of thousands of others good.

Hitchens salutes the bravery of the men who operated the bombers: it is their superiors who conspired in their headquarters to fire-bomb cities whom he censures.

Similarly, the British were complicit in the forcible removal of Germans from Central Europe after the war. Many hundreds of thousands of German women and children died in this act of essentially ethnic cleansing. Some were even forced into Auschwitz two weeks after its liberation. Some were simply lined up at the edge of villages and shot.

Hitchens also debunks the myth of the ‘special friendship’ between the USA and Britain. In fact, the United States demanded that Britain’s gold should be shipped to the States. All of Britain’s reserves ended up in Fort Knox! The USA consistently acted in its own interests and stripped Britain of its imperial power.

Even the Resistance fighters and their supporters in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) played little part in the winning of a war. At the most, the SOE was a declaration that Britain was still in the fight. Hitchens laments the romanticisation of the SOE in much contemporary fiction, not to doubt the bravery and skill of individual operatives, but because of their irrelevance to victory.

While Churchill’s determination to fight the evil of Nazism is recognised, Hitchens is clear-sighted about other decisions of Churchill: the disastrous withdrawal from Malta, his insistence on keeping troops and boats in the Mediterranean and refusing all help to Singapore. It was certainly not Churchill and the British who kept the Japanese enemy out of Australia!

Hitchens concludes,

‘Learning of these events after decades of ignorance, I felt deep shame, combined with immense gratitude for the fact that I live on an island which has for many centuries been safe from invasion, subjugation and arbitrary rule. It is this fact that has kept me safe from suffering and from committing the crimes of war, not any virtue of my nation. It should not keep me from acknowledging that the 1939-45 war was morally far more complicated and compromised that I – a more than usually well-informed citizen – had been led or allowed to believe.’ (219)

Hitchens’ honesty will not be greatly rewarded, but we learn from history only when we know it to be truth. Britain needs to have a complete, not romantic, understanding of its relationship with Europe as it withdraws from the European Community.

The lesson of the book is that all of us need to question war: there may be times when war is necessary, but it is never good. And it is only all of us acting together as an informed citizenry that can call our leaders to account for their false narratives of good versus evil.

A courageous book, accessible in style and well worth reading.

Discoveries before The Second Sleep


Robert Harris, The Second Sleep, Knopf, 2019, 320 pages.

From $23 online. Kindle $AU 4.99

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The Second Sleep is set several centuries into the future after the great collapse of civilisation. A powerful – and fundamentalist – church has taken power while England has returned to pre-industrial conditions: there are no cars, and therefore roads are poor. The fastest travel is horse-back.  Village life centres around small-scale horticulture, providing just enough for the villagers.

A young priest is sent to a tiny village in Exmoor to bury the parish priest who has died after decades in the same parish. He discovers a world of secrets, from the housekeeper’s relationship to the old priest, to the illegal search for evidence of pre-collapse civilisation.

Many of his discoveries take place between the first and second sleeps, as people have reverted to the pre-electric light habit of having a period of waking between two stretches of sleep. ‘The Second Sleep’ begins to take on more meanings as the novel progresses.

Robert Harris is known for his novels of Ancient Rome (Imperium, Lustrum, Pompeii) and of institutions under stress including the army and the church (An Officer and a Spy, Conclave).  He writes page-turners, and his writing is simple and clear. You feel the mud and slush of unpaved streets and the smell of animals sharing living space with humans.

The Second Sleep is a compelling novel of the new genre of cli-fi (climate science fiction). Itis a meditation on our world on the brink of great destruction, perhaps brought about by climate change, perhaps not, and our values of freedom and progress.

Harris makes no final judgement as to which is worse, our world or his dystopia, but The Second Sleep is an appeal to maintain an open society in which power is shared between citizens and not centralised in a power-hungry institution.

It is also a novel of finding love and the difficulty of holding onto love in a repressive society. After a slow start with the characters, I enjoyed the priest Fairfax, his Lady, Sarah Durston, and Captain Hancock.

The Desires & Disappointments of Being a Missionary: Betty Hay TSSF

Missionaries, especially those in the tradition of Betty Hay, leave the comfort of family and home culture to carry the Good News to people in different places and of different cultures and make sacrifices and are prone to deep disappointments.


The recent death of Betty Hay in Denmark is an important milestone for Australia’s Anglican Third Order Franciscans. Betty was the first Tertiary to be noviced in the Australian Province in 1958. Her admission to the Third Order took place while she was a missionary nurse in Papua New Guinea.

It seems appropriate to re-publish my review of Betty’s memoir, named for the call-sign of their plane and the initials of her vocations: Nurse, Pilot, Missionary.

+++

Betty Hay tssf, November Papa Mike: Nurse, Pilot & Missionary, 2014.

ISBN 978 1 74052 315 8

Available in paperback (200 pages) and hardback.

Reviewed by Ted Witham tssf

We Franciscan Tertiaries should pray for missionaries. Our first Aim is to make Our Lord known and loved everywhere, and praying for missionaries is an expression of our solidarity with others working to make our God loved and known.

Missionaries, especially those in the tradition of Betty Hay, leave the comfort of family and home culture to carry the Good News to people in different places and of different cultures and make sacrifices and are prone to deep disappointments.

The late Archdeacon John Wardman is mentioned favourably by Betty Hay in this fascinating memoir. Preaching on the 50th Anniversary of his priesthood Fr John expressed intense disappointment and sadness at the doors closed to him when he wanted to return from Papua New Guinea to parish ministry in Perth. I felt blessed by his honesty and tears in the pulpit.

Betty Hay, too, shares not only her deep desire from early in life to be a missionary, but nearly burst with disappointment when, after only four years, her fragile health forced her to withdraw from the rigorous mission environment. Like Fr John, the drive to share the Gospel did not stop when Betty came back to civilisation: she continued to work strenuously, first to support the logistics of the mission work from Port Moresby, and then, on return to Victoria, as a Child Health nurse.

Betty tells her story charmingly. Born in Western Australia, she grew up near Perth and trained as a nurse. As the vocation to the mission field started to grow, Betty realised she needed more training than Perth could then provide, so moved East, where she accumulated every nursing certificate available, a pilot’s licence and married her flying instructor.

Betty and Bob applied to ABM for missionary work as a couple, and ABM placed them in the north of PNG. The building of the health service offered by Bob and Betty alongside a small team was an extraordinary feat.

Betty describes in fascinating detail her treks into the highlands on foot and by canoe, her living conditions both on her journeys and at the mission. Their wide skill sets of both pilot-nurse and engineer-pilot were stretched by God’s grace to meet the needs of both locals and ex-pats.

I did wonder how well prepared the missionaries were to understand and work with the local culture. For example, Betty over-rode the custom of not naming children and insisted on being told the name of each child she cared for and recording it.

The Australian Province of the Third Order marks its beginning from the time that Betty started as a novice in the Third Order in 1958. Her memoir is a wonderful illustration of one Tertiary’s long journey making our Lord known and loved, living simply and in harmony with others.

Testing faith


Christos Tsiolkas, Damascus, Allen & Unwin 2019,
ISBN 9780760875091, 423 pages.

From $AUD19 online, Kindle edition $AUD 16

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Christos Tsiolkas tells the story of Saint Paul in such a gritty fashion that I nearly gave up on the novel several times. It is not for the faint-hearted. Greek-Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas is known for his hard-hitting and relentlessly honest writing. The Slap, a suburban novel exploring whether adults other than parents can administer corporal punishment, provoked controversy.

Tsiolkas’ previous novels, including Barracuda and The Slap, have been turned into movies. I wonder whether anyone will dare to make Damascus – The Movie. The novel skates on blasphemy – not a new charge against Tsiolkas – and its depiction of the brutality of the pagan empire surrounding and threatening the early Christians is sickening. The love between Paul and Timothy, and between Timothy and Thomas, is at the least obsessive, if not outright sexual. This factor alone will make it difficult for many Christians to accept the novel.

Three axes explore the different directions in which the early church was developing: Paul and Timothy represent the more orthodox view, that Jesus is the Saviour, that he has appeared after the resurrection, and that he will return soon and take into the resurrected life all the baptised.

Paul and Able (as Tsiolkas names the ex-slave Onesimus) represent the dilemma faced by the early church when Jesus does not return. Able believes that the Christians should ditch this teaching, and also baptise infants.

The third axis is Timothy and Thomas. This represents the view of some early Christians that Jesus was a great teacher and prophet who died – end of story. (Tsiolkas confesses in the afterword that this is closest to his view.)

The conflicts between these emerging theologies drive the story.

There are underlying themes that are common to Tsiolkas’ other work. The intense relationships between the men in the story reflect Tsiolkas’ own struggles with sexuality. The severity of a faith which requires its apostles to forsake family is portrayed fiercely. The treatment of the refugees who pour out of Judea after the destruction of the temple resonates with today.

I would not recommend this novel to fellow-Christians unless you really want to be challenged. It may be the book for a friend who is amoral and extremely secular, a lover of the violence in the Vikings series or Game of Thrones. Damascus has a depth and a challenge to believe that is absent from those.

Whoever reads Damascus will be moved and outraged. It will divide readers. Any novelist that can achieve those outcomes so forcefully is to be respected!

My novella The White Dove reviewed


My friend and fellow-author Philip Bodeker has reviewed my novella, The White Dove, obtainable through Smashwords.

THE WHITE DOVE.  (Ted Witham) Underground resistance in wartime France

From the small country town of Kojonup in Western Australia, where she has learned to handle wheat, sheep, trucks and guns, Emily Collins travels to France, marries into aristocracy and becomes involved during World War II, smuggling Jews and stranded Allied airmen across borders.  In a cat-and-mouse pursuit across France, avoiding murderous French Vichy “milice”, The White Dove is whisked along secret pathways and escape “pipelines” to meet trusted anti-German conspirators in quaintly named French farms and villages.

Through shocking tragedies, lost loves and secret meetings our Australian heroine is propelled in breathtaking escapades towards an escape route through the High Pyrenees mountains into Spain. Her skills in French dialects and Latin are invaluable as she encounters country folk and then a Franciscan religious community where she assumes the guise of a Franciscan nun.

Much of her story is possibly foreshadowed in the life story of The White Dove’s author, Anglican minister, scholar and languages lecturer Ted Witham, who like Emily was raised on a wheatbelt farm, studied French and Latin at the University of Western Australia and was educated at an elite Perth school.

The story doesn’t end at the Pyrenees. A family farm ownership dispute follows her across France, but is curiously solved by none other than family friend John Curtin, who after her return to Australia has become Australia’s Prime  Minister.

Emily’s skills and resistance experience now make her an ideal choice for Britain’s Special Operations Executive, or SOE, where she becomes part of the secret spy operations centre at Bletchley. A flickering romantic attachment with a rescued British airman during their initial escape across the Pyrenees reignites as the two become part of her final spy mission.

Review: Philip Bodeker.