Politics & Society

Rabbi Lionel Blue chooses his Favourite Books

Rabbi Lionel Blue chooses some of his favourite books. Fans may be surprised by his choices, but one thing is key: a happy ending.

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Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: Why have you chosen that?

Well, first of all it makes me happy. I had to go into hospital to have one of those X-rays that people have. Everyone else got dismissed and was told they were fine, but I was told to come back at two o’clock and not be late, so I came back rather apprehensively as nobody had told me anything about what was happening or what was wrong and I tut-tutted, and finally I grabbed the nurse and said: ‘What’s wrong?’ He said: ‘Well, there’s a big, black something or other on your lung.’ I said: ‘Well, is it cancer?’ He just rushed off and about three quarters of an hour later they told me I could go home, and I said: ‘Aren’t you going to tell me what the black mark is?’ They said: ‘Fortunately, we managed to find an old X-ray of yours at the hospital from years ago with the same big black something, so we think you must have had tuberculosis as a kid and that has calcified.’

While I was waiting I had all my library books in my briefcase and I had to read something. I had the Bible and I had Anita Loos, and I read her and I giggled and giggled and giggled. I always remember her interview on the BBC when she was a very old lady indeed. They asked her: ‘Miss Loos, if you wrote your book again now, are there any changes you’d like to make in it?’ She said: ‘Yeah, these days I’d call it Gentlemen Prefer Gentlemen.

Next book.

This is called A Book of English Belief and it’s by Joanna Mary Hughes. She was my girlfriend – the nearest thing I’ve ever had to a girlfriend – and we nearly got married but didn’t. There were too many difficulties, I think. For one thing I was gay, but what the two of us knew about sex then could have been written on the back of a postage stamp. Of course it was the late 1940s, early 1950s, and things were not discussable at that time. She introduced me to English belief and English religion. I realised I had two inheritances. I had the holy Jewish tradition but also my contact with her made me very English, not just in a superficial sense. I began to realise what English religion and English spirituality was really about.

What is the difference between English belief and English religion?

Well, I think Joanna showed me the most extraordinary range of people, like Sidney Smith who said that paradise was eating pâté to the sound of trumpets, and I fell in love with the poems of George Herbert – particularly the one where someone comes into the room and it’s love itself. Love opens itself to you and says, ‘I’m yours, come and eat with me and you shall never be alone again.’

Something like that happened to me when I was looking after Jewish congregations and I ended up in a little hotel in Germany and everyone seemed to be happy and I wasn’t very well. I was snivelling away in a room and feeling desolate and suddenly that poem came into my head and, instead of being angry with everybody around about, I suddenly felt blessed and that something had come into my life. I had dinner with love and instead of moping I ran back and thought of all the people who needed a phone call from me because they were lonelier than I was.

Do you see that as a particularly English spirituality?

Yes, because all the best English stuff is said so simply with no long theological words or going over the top. It’s gentle stuff. Like Pilgrim’s Progress, because that’s a book which has stuck with me throughout my life. And now that I’m over 80 I’m reading more and more the part where Christian and Christiana are preparing themselves to go across the River of Death and get to the Celestial City, and he gives an account of all the people who are trying to go across that river and the different ways that they approach it. It’s an incredible amount of good sense and observation. There’s lovely lines in it about one really nice chap who looked at the city and the trumpets sounded for him on the other side and a very melancholy lady who wandered into the river crooning tunes and nobody knew what she meant. I went to Bedford and I stood on the banks of the River Ouse, trying to imagine myself as Bunyan looking at the Celestial City and a swan nearly attacked me. Which just shows you. So that’s a book I wanted.

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Then, I suppose I should be ashamed of this but I’m not, I like stories with a happy ending. As a minister you get an awful lot of problems slung at you and the problems can stay in your mind and you can’t get to sleep, so I’ve found that Mills & Boon gave me the happy endings I wanted and I managed to fall asleep thinking that the world might be a much nicer place.

You can’t have all Mills & Boon books. Which one are you having?

The one I’m reading now is Dear Lady Disdain by Paula Marshall. It’s about a very, very wealthy bankeress who is seduced by an upper-class aristocrat, and they are rather like Beatrice and Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing, and they really fall in love as well as lust and it all ends happily ever after with the birth of a child. You can’t fall down on that, can you?

I suppose not. Have you read lots of Mills & Boon?

Yes. I got the idea from a friend of mine, a great rabbi who told me he kept a whole box of forbidden literature underneath his bed. And I said: ‘What is it? Erotica?’ But it was just books with happy endings.

Mills & Boon are all about falling in love…

And happy endings in a kind of Regency world that didn’t really exist. I always liked Jane Austen.

But apart from when you fell in love with Joanna, have you fallen in love often since?

No. Well, yes. But with chaps, and that’s a different matter altogether.

Is it? Why?

First of all it’s a more complicated situation. The love has been real and I’ve been with my partner for 27 years in a faithful relationship, but you have to do much more adjustment. It’s a more difficult fit than a heterosexual one – socially, physically and psychologically. Men are competitive with each other and you’ve got two competitors. On the other hand, if you get through it, you are very strongly attached.

I can’t begin to imagine anything more difficult than a heterosexual relationship! Book five.

This is a book that sent me into religion; a book by Victor Gollancz called A Year of Grace. I didn’t know whether all this religious stuff wasn’t just somewhere over the rainbow sort of thing, and I got hold of this book and I was introduced to it by person after person after person who said it contains the truth. A lot of religious people find books that contain the truth for them. Edith Stein found the biography of Saint Teresa of Avila and said, ‘That is the truth.’ I would say that for me this book is the truth. And I made pilgrimages to the places of the people in the book. I went to the Russian Orthodox Church in Paris to see where Mother Elizabeth had been. She was a refugee from the Russian Revolution who became a nun, and she used to look after Jewish children during the Nazi occupation and she ended up at a concentration camp with crying kids heading towards the gas chamber and she said: ‘I’ll come with you, so it isn’t so bad, and I’ll hold you.’ And she went into the gas chamber with them. When you find a story like that…Then there was a British soldier bayoneting a mutineer in India and the mutineer who was dying said to him: ‘You too are divine.’ The books is full of these stories, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. And I began to see that this was the company of heaven and I wanted to become part of it. This wasn’t a fairy story, this is reality.

Did you already believe in God?

In a certain way, yes, but I wasn’t sure if I was a ventriloquist and my inner voice was a dummy. Then I saw in this book that people had given their lives for this and they had the ring of truth about them. This is the company of heaven. And I wanted to say that line: ‘If you get there before I do, bore a hole and pull me through.’

Do you believe in an afterlife?

When we die I think time and space die with us and I can’t imagine what existence means without that. In this life we already know there’s another dimension to life. A lot of people feel it. Heaven exerts a force like gravity. You don’t see it but it pulls you towards it. Surely. And I think heaven pulls us all towards it. If we consent to let ourselves be drawn we can taste heaven in this life. That is, I think, our final home.

November 25, 2010

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Rabbi Lionel Blue

Rabbi Lionel Blue

Rabbi Blue is a British Reform rabbi, journalist and broadcaster. He was the first British rabbi publicly to declare his homosexuality. He is perhaps best known for his work with the media, most notably ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Rabbi Lionel Blue

Rabbi Lionel Blue

Rabbi Blue is a British Reform rabbi, journalist and broadcaster. He was the first British rabbi publicly to declare his homosexuality. He is perhaps best known for his work with the media, most notably ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.