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Partners in Protest: Life with Canon Collins.

Ostensibly, this book is a biography of John Collins -- universally known to his contemporaries during most of his public lifetime as Canon Collins -- and a very good biography it is. But it is much more than that, for it is also an autobiography of his widow, Diana, so that by the end of the book some readers may feel that they know her even better than they know her husband, John; though that is far from being a criticism. Indeed, in some ways she comes through as the more attractive of the two -- remarkably honest, warm, impulsive, courageous, and loving -- while John, who started his adult life as fellow, dean, and chaplain of Oriel College, Oxford, seems to have retained something of the attitude of an academic throughout his life, defending his passions, which were both fierce and fiercely righteous, against all comers with an unwavering intellectual conviction of their rectitude, which could occasionally bring him into conflict with others. For instance, he fell out once or twice with Bertrand Russell, who was generally in sympathy with his political ideas but not with the Christian beliefs, from which they sprang, while -- at the other extreme -- Geoffrey Fisher, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, shared his beliefs, but was far from happy with what he considered to be his somewhat revolutionary political ideas. But it is invidious to compare John with his wife, for each had their talents and virtues, and they were a rare couple, if initially an unlikely one; and this book is a moving account of their life and work together and their long and lasting love affair.

But, once again, it is much more than that. It is a portrait of an age, a picture of one section of society in this country in the years following the Second World War: a section into which people from very different social backgrounds were brought together, and welded into a loose community of shared -- or, anyway, convergent -- ideals, political aims, and religious beliefs, rather as John and Diana had come together from different social strata -- to the initial dismay of her upper middle class family -- to be joined together in a memorable partnership. To anyone who lived through that time and shared some of its hopes and fears -- the high summer of the Labour Party, overshadowed, as it was, by the fear of a nuclear holocaust and undermined by feelings of shame at the remembrance of injustices inflicted upon many of our fellow human beings in the colonial past and anger at the continuing injustice of apartheid in South Africa -- the picture painted by Diana Collins will be both vivid and painfully nostalgic. It was the age of Protest with a capital P, of Ban the Bomb, of the Campaign for International Defence and Aid for Southern Africa, of Christian Action, and of other similar and generally left-wing movements, many of which were founded by John Collins, and in all of which he and Diana played leading parts, sallying forth from their cloistered and inappropriately conservative headquarters in Amen Court, effectively the Precincts of St. Paul's Cathedral, to wage uncompromising pacific war upon the evils of their world, as they envisaged them. As a result, they were regular recipients of hate-mail and even threats to their lives; they were attacked in and by the right-wing press, by politicians of the same persuasion, and by many churchmen, who regarded them as, at best dangerous dissidents, and at worst crypto-Communists, even though, with almost surrealist improbability, their four sons were all educated at Eton.

But they were also staunchly supported by such people as Stafford Cripps, Trevor Huddleston, Nelson Mandela, Victor Gollancz, J. B. Priestley, Jacquetta Hawkes, Oliver Tambo, Bertrand Russell (most of the time), and many others, who stalk through the pages of this book like actors in a pageant. What future generations will think of them and of the ideals, for which they fought with such courage and tenacity, I don't know; but that future social historians, interested in the aftermath of the Second World War in this country and the ethos of the day, will find this book both a fascinating and an invaluable mine of information is certain. It is a splendid portrait of a -- suddenly and rather surprisingly -- bygone age.
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Author:Bridge, Tony
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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