9th December 1994 at 00:00
Weighing in at almost a kilo and more than 600 pages, The Stripping of the Altars by Eamon Duffy (Yale Pounds 10.95) is no mere stocking filler. An account of the ways in which Christianity was practised in England in the years 1400-1580, it presents a wealth of fascinating detail about festivals, church services and parochial life.

What Dr Duffy makes quite clear is that there was little popular support for the Reformation and the destruction of the visual symbols of the Catholic faith. Lay people invested lavishly in their local church buildings; stained glass windows and the celebration of the liturgy brought colour into their lives and the church calendar pointed the year from Candlemas to Christmas.

Dr Duffy is a Roman Catholic but not too partial; he has drawn on a vast range of sources to produce an account which tells us everything from how the ploughman learned his pater noster to the ways in which the mystery plays were produced - together with distressing accounts of Protestant vandalism. It will be a most valuable source book to all students of the period.

There is a nice dry wit in My Secret Planet (Penguin Pounds 6.99). Denis Healey has had the happy idea of surveying "the books in my life" - and so producing a book that is half anthology, half autobiography (an idea that could make an interesting classroom project). He takes a thematic approach that is only partly chronological. "Boyhood" and "Oxford" are followed by "The Arts", "Nature" and "The Spirit".

Healey has read widely through his life: one can imagine similar volumes by other MPs being extremely thin and boring but his one-time cabinet colleague Roy Jenkins also has "background" as is evidenced by Portraits and Miniatures (Macmillan Papermac Pounds 12.99), a collection of his less ephemeral journalism and speeches. Yes, there are several pieces on politics and politicians but also well-turned essays on "The Idea of a University", wine, London clubs and newspapers.

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