The individual citizen, the private soul 

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Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop (Belkanp Press, 2014)

This book contains a neat, telling little anecdote from 2001 when a proposed constitution was being devised for the European Union and the issue of the Christian roots of Europe was brought up.

There were vigorous pro and anti arguments- author Larry Siedentop notes the more vehement voices in favour were from Poland and the most vociferous against tended to be France.

The overwhelming feeling, though, he observes,  was more awkwardness than anything else: ‘one of embarrassment, and  an uneasy wish that the question would go away.’

The question did go away, because the proposed constitution was dropped.

It is that embarrassment that I find most interesting.

I think it’s got several sources. One is the largely unexamined assumption by educated Westerners that while Christianity might be part of their heritage it is a heritage which belongs with childhood and should be left in the intellectual kindergarten along with psychological equivalent of fingerpainting and peeing in the sandpit.

But whether or not you’re a Christian believer, Siedentop argues, it is clear that for whatever reason there was a ‘moral earthquake’ shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus.

Christianity, he says,  changed the grounds of human identity because, by combining Jewish monotheism with an abstract universalism derived from later Greek philosophy, it emphasised the moral equality of human beings.

That was new. It meant that the moral equality of human beings  was more important than any social roles they might occupy.

And that presumption of moral equality is at the root of modern secular liberalism.

His argument is endorsed – though Siedentop is not mentioned – in this piece from last week in the New Statesman, which I’m grateful to Philip Matthews for posting on the Twitter.

Historian Tom Holland notes that his own researches into the ancient world showed him the values of Greece and Rome were further from our own than we often realise: he concludes, more or less, that what made the difference, what caused the change, was the ‘moral earthquake’ Siedentop writes about.

Siedentop gives Paul rather than Jesus most of the credit for this, asking rhetorically, at one point, whether Paul was ‘the greatest revolutionary in human history’.

I’m not so sure he gets the balance quite right:  Christ’s instruction, ‘render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto the Lord that which is the Lord’s’  has for a  long time seemed to me to be the most subversive religious instruction in history.

It set up the question of what one does, in fact, owe to the secular authority/state, and what one owes to one’s God/conscience.

Setting that boundary was not just the source of the Reformation but also the Enlightenment and beyond.

I suspect we are going to have to fight that battle again: the information revolution, the tools I am writing this article on and you are reading it on, is increasingly blurring the boundary between what belongs to us as individual citizens and individual souls;  and what belongs to the great collective, whether that collective is the government, Facebook or some other global entity, or just the social media chorus crowd demanding we share our private selves.

But Seidentop –  the first ever holder of a university post for intellectual history in the UK –  is less concerned with this and more with highlighting the debt modern secular liberalism owes to Christian thought.

He points out  that so far as is known, the main themes of the Jesus ministry were repentance, the imminent end of the world, and a God who loved all human beings, including and especially ‘the least of these’.

There was no unanimity at all amongst Jesus’s followers about his mission: some seeing him as a political leader while others believed the ‘kingdom’ spoke of was of a more mystical realm.

Paul took this and fashioned it into something more. Paul turned those teachings into the  ‘moral earthquake’ away from patriarchal family and the tribe as the agency of immortality.

With Paul, individual replaced the family as the focus of immortality.

Paul,  whose writings on Jesus are the earliest we have, translated the word ‘Messiah’ or ‘anointed one’ into Greek – and translated the idea of the Messiah in the process.

When he began talking  of ‘the Christ’  – the son of God who died for human sins and directly offers each individual the hope of redemption, Paul shifted the concept from one who would deliver Israel from its enemies to one who would offer salvation to all humanity. The Christ stood for the presence of God in the world, and offered each individual their own salvation – on an equal basis.

Which is pretty radical stuff.  It was morally radical because it overturned the presumptions of our natural inequality based on social categories.

 ‘For Paul, Christian liberty is open to all humans. Free action, a gift of grace through faith in the Christ, is utterly different from ritual behaviour, the unthinking application of rules. For Paul, to think otherwise is to regress rather than progress in the spirit. That is how Paul turns the abstract and potential of Greek philosophy to new uses. He endows it was an almost ferocious moral universalism.’

This meant that, below the surface social roles and divisions of labour, there is a shared reality: ‘the human capacity to think and to choose, to will’.

Siedentop then takes the reader  from Paul through the Gnostics, onto Augustine,  and through to the medievalists such as Abelard,  Aquinas, and Ockham, right  up to the edge of the rise of the Enlightenment and modern liberalism – where he stops.

The epilogue,  ‘Christianity and Secularism’   which summarises his arguments, is worth reading alone.  Christian ‘moral intuitions’ –  his phrase – and way of thinking, thought patterns and habits of mind, (my way of putting it) lead to liberalism and beyond, to the modern, secularism of today.

Indeed there is a delicious irony in the fact that the pattern by which liberalism and secularism developed between the 16th and the 19th centuries follows the pattern developed by canonical law between the 12th and 15th centuries. The sequence of argument, Siedentop says, is extraordinarily similar.

That sequence begins with the insistence on equality of status of all human beings, with this idea based on a range of basic human rights. It concludes, he says, with the case for self-government.

The war between religion and secularism is ‘an intellectual civil war’ because of the shared moral roots of their arguments.

‘Why do Europeans feel happier referring to the role of ancient Greece and Rome than to the role of the church in the formation of their culture?’ he asks, rhetorically.

Secularism, he says, is our belief in an underlying, moral equality of humans, and this belief implies there is a sphere in which ‘each of us are free or should be free …it is a sphere of conscience and free action.’

This ‘central egalitarian moral insight of Christianity’ is its legacy to the world.

Finally  he argues the failure to understand the shared moral root with Christianity means there is a tendency to underestimate the moral content of liberal secularism.

That underestimate leads, he concludes, to modern ‘liberal heresies'”.

The first of these is to reduce liberalism to merely the freedom to make a buck, and, more generally, ‘a crude form of utilitarianism’.

The second is a retreat into a private sphere of family and friends at the expense of civil spirit and political participation, something which ‘weakens the habit of association and eventually endangers the self-reliance which the claims of citizenship require.’

In his final sentence he asks ‘if we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?’

I’m not so sure about that ‘shape’ – it’s a bit too evangelical for my tastes.

But we need, I think, to better understand and appreciate the depth of our own moral tradition – not to convert or ‘shape’ others in any way, but to understand what shaped us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thought for the Day – Spilt Religion

‘By the perverted rhetoric of Rationalism your natural instincts are suppressed and you are converted into an agnostic. Just as in the case of the other instincts, Nature has her revenge. The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way. You don’t believe in God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth. In other words, you get romanticism. The concepts that are right and proper in their own sphere are spread over, and so mess up, falsify and blur the clear outlines of human experience. It is like pouring a pot of treacle over the dinner table. Romanticism then, and this is the best definition I can give of it, is spilt religion.’

 

T E Hulme

 

 

Clive James, Philip Larkin, Anthony Powell, religion, days, and flapping ideologues

James, Dessaix We are often told that the next generation of literati won’t have private libraries: everything will be on the computer. It’s a rational solution, but that’s probably what’s wrong with it. Being book crazy is an aspect of love and therefore scarcely rational at all.’.

My first introduction to Clive James, apart from a snippy reference to a review at the start of one of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs*, was his television shows in the 1980s. Have to confess I wasn’t a fan. That was a mix of cheap laughs and often a slightly sleazy air.

They was also his poem on the Charles and Diana wedding, which quite embarrassing.

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s I came across a piece of his about poet Philip Larkin, who I just had discovered.

It was like finding that Krusty the Clown was, in real life, Montaigne**.  It was perceptive, it showed things I hadn’t noticed, it was wity, humane,intelligent.

James is now dying of leukemia, and it is this death sentence which hangs over much of his latest works – it is there, of course, in the title, which has a dark pun.

And he is not going quietly:  commendably though, rather than rage he is writing, writing, against the dying of the light.

Some people parade their learning. James tended to take his on night manouvres with the Panzerdivision. If he could draw a reference to sesquipedalian continental writer, some obscure Russian, it seemed he would do so at the drop of a quotation mark.

Life, and the wisdom which comes with not only experience but the ability to learn from experience, has seen him tone this down. A bit. The learning is sill very much present: one of the favourite recent additions to my bookshelves is his  magisterial Cultural Amnesia, which is full of obscure byways and is one of those books of learning which are a joy to dip into from time to time.

But he has learned not to overdo it.

“The critic should write to say, not ‘look how much I’ve read,’ but ‘look at this, it’s wonderful'” he comments towards the end of Latest Readings. Theres a rueful, if implicit, acknowledgement of follies of younger years there.

The critic should also, of course, send you off to check out his subjects. On the strength of reading James – not only here, but more recent pieces in the Guardian – I’ve had another bash at Conrad. Apart from “doing” Heart of Darkness at Uni, I have read little of his work. I picked up ‘Nostromo’ at a second hand store in Auckland, back in Uni days in the late ’80s but struggled with it and it was a book which was, amongst others, wiped out in The Great Sandringham Road Leaking Roof Catastrophe of 1992.

But when James writes, as he does here, that he first read it full of admiration for both Conrad and himself: Conrad for his moral scope and himself for his endurance in actually managing to read the thing, it struck a chord with me.

 

“Perhaps to induce self-esteem in the reader had been one of the author’s aims. There are those who believe that Wagner made Siegfried so wearisome because he wanted the audience to admire themselves.”

He has more time for Conrad now – and on James’ recommendation, I’m currently about half way through Under Western Eyes. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, it reminds me of some of William Golding’s later writing. It’s hard work, but its also difficult not to persevere. There is something about it which draws the reader on – well, this reader, anyway.

James quotes Samuel Johnson, approvingly, on the way language changes and notes the man famous, amongst other things, for writing a dictionary wrote as if language is an ever-changing thing. Johnson was not trying to resist this, but make sure that as it changed it did not become corrupted.

“That our languages and perpetual danger of corruption cannot be denied; but what prevention can be found? The present manners of the nation would deride authority and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.”

All he needed to add was that unless you can criticise yourself you’re not a writer, James adds.

James remains impressed with Anthony Powell: and, sorry, but I’ve never managed to get beyond a few dozen pages with A Dance To the Music Of Time, despite having several bashes at it. But I loved James’ characterisation of Powell’s writing which, he says, ‘sometimes piled on the subtlety to the point of flirting with the evanescent’.
This is, I think, the crucial attributes of a great critic: the ability to write enjoyably about something the reader may not like and may even have no interest in. (In the New Zealand context, Diana Wichtel – like James, a television critic – in the Listener falls into this category. I enjoy reading her columns about tv programmes I have never watched and have no intention of doing so).

And on Larkin – who features, as he so often does, in James’ work, – he defends the poet against the backlash which followed the Andrew Motion biography in 1993 and the revelations Larkin was, in his private life, something of a porn-loving creep.

As James writes now,

‘The turmoil of his psyche is the least interesting thing about him. His true profundity is right there on the surface, and the beauty of his line. Every ugly moment of his interior battles was in service to that beauty.’

He is right about the first claim. I am not so sure about that last sentence though. Sometimes the  point of Larkin is where the ugly moments obtruded on the beauty, especially in some of the ‘High Windows’ collection, not to mention some of the works which were left unpublished until after Larkin’s death.

 

Mention of Larkin brings me to Robert Dessaix’s memoir, What Days Are For.

I’ve never heard of Dessaix, but the title is the first line in a Larkin poem and when I saw it on the pile at good ol’ Unity Books, I swooped.

The poem, in full, is here:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

It has been one of my favourite poems since coming across it sometime in my 20s. It’s message seems to me to be you have to live the life you have got: ‘days’ does not refer to a 24 hour period but a much more broad thing, they are simply ‘where we live’.

The last four lines are marvellous. There is something risible about the image of the priest and the doctor. The ‘doctor’ here, I am sure, is not a medical person but an academic, an ideologue.

And like the priest, the ideologue comes running over the fields, all flapping coat and wagging finger, telling us how to solve the question of life with their pat answers.

Dessaix – like James, an intellectual Australian – wrote the book while recovering from a medical mishap and pondering the Meaning Of It All.

His life appears somewhat abstract: he has a (male) partner and their life together, as depicted in the memoir, appears to be very much of the mind. It is in some ways enviable but in other ways there seems something curiously airless and un-grounded about it all.

Which is not to say his book is not a thought provoking and enjoyable read.

He ponders a visit to the sub-continent, wonders about the attractions of India and in particular its religions have for well heeled Westerners.

He writes of “middle-aged women with Alice in Wonderland hair from Melbourne and Milwaukee…in search of the spiritual moment that will last a lifetime (too misquote Casanova)” – a few men and crushed linen pants and no socks, Suede and scarves, but mostly woman.

‘What is the attraction of Indian religions for Westerners? What is it the cast the spell? It’s got something to do with the way they can claim not to be religious as such I suspect. “Oh it’s not a religion it’s a way of life “– how many times have I heard that?’

 

He also points out acidly the gods of the region are a long way from the Judao-Christian God – at least, a long way from the watered down version of God taught in many churches.

He doubts anyone would speak of ‘love’ in a Kali Temple in the way the term would be used in a Christian church. Gods and the Indian imagination are much more ferocious, he writes.

There is not the message that all will be well  (Dessaix puts this in italics) which is familiar to the sort of Protestant churches he recalls from his youth.

One of his companions who has a Tamil background suggest that this sort of thing and what he calls lovingkindness   (again the italics are his) is a bit middle-class and sentimental when applied to any sort of God. Lovingkindness along with disinterested courtesy and altruism is he argues a western luxury born of economic security.

The Greek gods ‘had no time for mercy or compassion either: Zeus and its progeny are as stony heart as earthquakes and thunderstorms.’

But then so is the God of much of the old and new testaments. While Dessaix quotes almost rapturously Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians

 

‘though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not charity I am become sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing’.

he also points out the stony judgementalism of much of the Bible – and not just the Old Testament, either.

 

‘On Judgement Day, if I’m not mistaken, on his right hand will stand those who gave them something to eat and drink when he was hungry and thirsty, gave them close to put on when he was naked, and visited him when he was sick and imprisoned… On his left however will stand those who gave you nothing to eat or drink, did not close, and did not visit him when he was sick and imprisoned. They will be cast into everlasting fire. This now seems a bit over the top. He was about to be betrayed and killed when he made that threat, and he knew it, so he was understandably a little overwrought, but all the same the punishment does not seem to fit the crime.’

He muses this diatribe is not about just being nice to each other anymore than Hinduism is, although it largely was when he was growing up. It is about seeing Truth face-to-face, and the need to be empathetic in doing so.

‘… Go out of the way to put yourself into the shoes of others, unlock your heart as you look into their ears, and do whatever you can to ease their wretchedness. And in blessing you will be blessed.’

There is a whiff  of Hindu Darshan, in this, he notes.

There are other – often highly tangental but nevertheless enjoyable – asides.

Dessaix defines a masterpiece as a book you’ve never quite finished reading, which strikes me as being uncomfortably, if amusingly, accurate.

He suggests romantic love as being ‘often barely sexual at all when it first strikes, except very late at night and very early in the morning’ which doesn’t strike me as being particularly accurate at all, but then, we all have our own different experiences in this area.

He visits Damascus in Syria, sits at a cafe, sipping a banana milkshake in the street  where a blinded St Paul is reputed to have been taken to refuge by his companions.

He meets an English tourist who is pondering doing the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. He cheerfully says he’s not a believer and hasn’t been since nine has done it before wants to again because he likes to feel linked into something.

That striving for some sort of  ‘linking into something’ seems, in fact, to be the book’s main undercurrent.

And he reads  David Lodge’s novel Deaf Sentence , in which the narrator quotes Larkin’s Days.

He doesn’t find the poem disheartening or depressing even though he is aware Larkin’s poems tend to be on the dolorous side.  The scurrying priests at the end he says look like clowns, and could even be a bit on the macabre side – what is he seeing here? Death in a gown?

‘That would be more in keeping with Larkin I suppose. We live in days not in Hobart or Hull or in this year all that year or even lifetimes or eras let alone “in the moment” or even in God’s timeless gaze. We live in” our own succession of days”. Learn to value that’. 

 

Again, the italics are his.

There is much to value in both these books.

 

 

 

* James had reviewed, otherwise favourably, a previous volume and commented the work was not historically accurate and Milligan took grave offence. I will return to the Milligan books another time: for now it is worth noting Milligan did not hold a grudge, as his subsequently published letters shows.

** Ok. Slight exaggeration at both ends of the scale.

Terry Pratchett, writing, and God

There’s a feeling that I think is only possible to get when you are a child and discover books: it’s a kind of fizz: you want to read everything that’s in print before it evaporates before your eyes.


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I suspect author Terry Pratchett, somehow, kept this kind of fizz in his heart when
he wrote. It’s an excerpt from his recent collection of non-fiction, A Slip of the Keyboard.
 Pratchett seems to have maintained within himself how it felt to be a child – a knowing, clear-eyed child, for all that. In another piece in the same collection he writes of his first visit to a department store, at the age of around five: “I remember it in colours so bright that I’m surprised the light doesn’t shine out my ears.”
We lose one of the funniest, deep, thoughtful and above all humane authors of our time.
It is rare to get those qualities all together. Often funny is not humane or particularly deep. Deep and humane is often a bit po-faced. 
But with Pratchett, you can get shrewd and often sharp insights into the human condition, next to bad puns or references to old-and-sometimes-a-bit-dirty jokes. 
He was, proudly, a ‘fantasy’ writer – the only one, personally, I’ve ever bothered with (Tolkien, who inspired him originally, left me cold).
But he could be very sharp about such literary distinctions. ‘Magical realism’ he says in one of the pieces collected in A Slip of the Keyboard is a  term ‘invented by critics to describe fantasy fiction written by people they were at university with.’ 
And he makes what should be – but isn’t – the fairly obvious point that all fiction is fantasy.
‘What Agatha Christie wrote was fantasy. What Tom Clancy writes is fantasy. What Jilly Cooper writes is fantasy – at least, I hope for her sake it is.’
The problem many have had with him is not so much that he is a fantasy writer, he suggested: ‘as a genre fantasy has become quite respectable in recent years. At least it can demonstrably make lots and lots and lots of money, which passes for respectable these days. But I’m a humorous writer too and humour is a real problem.’
That problem is people – well, the kind of people who tend to sit in literary judgment – can  be a bit overly straight-laced and frightened of not being taken seriously, so they confuse humour with not-being-serious. 
The problem is we think the opposite of funny is serious. It is not. As GK Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of funny is not funny, and the opposite of serious isn’t serious….
Humour has its uses. Laughter can get through the keyhole when seriousness is still hammering on the door. New ideas can ride in on the back of a joke, old ideas can be given an added edge.
This isn’t the only time he cites Chesterton: to those who deride his books as escapism, or worse, and bad for children,  Pratchett returns to Chesterton’s insight into a child’s world. 
The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragon can be killed.
 And since Chesterton’s time, Pratchett notes darkly, we have learned many of the dragons are in our own heads. 
Pratchett’s Discworld novels are set on a world that is ‘a world and a mirror of worlds’ –  and sometimes the mirror, as is the nature of mirrors,  shows things we would rather not be shown.
There is evil: Carcer, the villain in Night Watch, is pure gleeful psychopathy (and what a great name for a villain  – evocative of cancer and something coldly, viciously knife-edged).
There are torturers in several books: it is part of Pratchett’s clear-eyed, unsentimental look into human nature that their workplace has coffee mugs with ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps’ etched around them. 
There is – whisper this – the death penalty – Carcer is hanged, in the end, and in a sidebar to one of the Lancre witch novels, the villagers hang a child killer after the deeply, fearsomely moral witch Granny Weatherwax delivers the judgment ‘finish it with hemp’.
But when the villagers pronounce  ‘justice was done’ she wheels on them for their smugness, telling them to go home and pray to whatever gods they believe in it is never done to them. 
Ah, yes. Gods. There are plenty of these in Pratchett’s Discworld – many are rather common, living it up in their celestial realm known as Dunmanifestin’. There is the ‘Oh God’ of Hangovers, and various gods which are vaguely Scandinavian, or at least north European, turn up in several books, generally not really knowing what is going on. 
Gods are mostly, in Pratchett’s Discworld, bumbling and careless of the people who worship them. This is, again, an example of both Pratchett’s wisdom, humour, and humanity.
Perhaps the most explicitly theologically focused of the Discworld series, Small Gods, contains a desert to where gods who are no longer worshiped are banished. The more true believers a god has, the greater the creature they can manifest themselves as.
The great god Om, who supposedly has an entire, viciously theocratic state of Omnia worshipping him, manifests himself only to discover instead of some fearsome beast he is a rather slow, one-eyed tortoise. 
Only one, decent and earnest but rather thick monk, named Brutha,  genuinely believes: everyone else just believes in the terror which will come their way if they are suspected of heresy. 

And then there is neighbouring city state of  Ephebe, which is like a parody of our vaguely received ideas about Ancient Greece: the place is full of philosophers leaping out of baths or arguing in pubs. 

The greatest of these philosophers is Didactylos, who lives in a barrel (both the name and the residence are neat historical jokes) and who describes his philosophy as

 a mixture of three famous schools—the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans—and summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, “You can’t trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so let’s have a drink. Mine’s a double, if you’re buying.”

 Hogfather, a kind of satire on Christmas, climaxes in an exchange about why beings such as the Hogfather,   Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, gods and demons, have been invented by humans.
It is significant who the question is asked of: Death. 
It is one of Pratchett’s best jokes-that-is-more-than-a-joke that Death – who talks in a VOICE OF DOOM LIKE THIS – is one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire series: he has a huge, if puzzled and often inept, care and concern for humanity.
Sensible Susan, his granddaughter, wants to know why people need such beings: Death’s reply shows he has learned a few things in the course of his work.
The exchange makes explicit what is implicit in much of Pratchett’s work and  is worth quoting in full.
HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. 

AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”


MY POINT EXACTLY.

The A Slip of the Keyboard collection, mostly of unpublished articles and lectures, also has a magnificent short piece on ‘The God Moment’ written after some British newspaper suggested he had found God. 
“I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist.’
Pratchett has though always refused to join the ‘religion is the cause of most of the wars/torture/etc.’ school of thought. 
While not believing in ‘big beards in the sky’ he was brought up in a traditional Church of England home, ‘which is to say that while churchgoing did not figure in my family’s plans for the Sabbath, practically all the ten commandments were obeyed by instinct and a general air of reason, kindness and decency prevailed
…possibly because of this, I’ve never disliked religion. I think it has some purpose in our evolution. I don’t have much truck with the ‘religion is the cause of most of our wars’ school of thought, because in fact that’s manifestly done by mad, manipulative and power hungry men who cloak their ambition in God.

But he wrote of recent moments of feelings of transcendence, of ‘the memory of a voice in my head, and it told me that everything was okay and things were happening as they should. For a moment, the world had felt at peace.

Where did that come from?
Me, actually – the part of all of us that, in my cause caused me to stop and listen in awe the first time I heard Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alum…’
 
‘When the universe opens up and shows us something, and in that instant we get just a sense of an order greater than Heaven and, as yet, beyond the grasp of Hawking.
 It doesn’t require worship but I think rewards, intelligence, observation and enquiring minds.
I don’t think I’ve found God but I may have seen where gods come from.

A bit surprised by a hunger

 

Poem for Sunday – from the determinedly irreverent Philip Larkin
 Church Going
Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new –
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?
Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,
A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Ghosts of Christmases past….

Ghosts of Christmases past:

As a kid: my siblings and I had what today would be seen as a fairly churchy upbringing, I suppose, but it didn’t seem that way at the time.
And it was the sort of churchy upbringing they don’t seem to do now …these days it seems either bible-worshiping (as opposed to God worshiping) threat-laced sermons, which do seem to fill the pews; or cringing apologetic ‘Jesus was a Jewish prophet rather like Karl Marx’ sort of thing.

There was little of that. We had the Sunday School thing, which was mostly about Jesus, and some songs which even I could tell, at that age, were pretty dire.

Church was as much a social thing as anything else: most of the churchgoers were farmers and the catch up chat on the forecourt after each session was often longer than the formal part of the proceedings. This gave me my first exposure to what I call the ‘Farmer Farewell’ – this begins when one of the parties says ‘Well, better be going’ and then thinks of something else to talk about. Departure takes place a minimum of 40 minutes after the first utterance of ‘well, better be going’ and in severe cases can be over an hour.

Back to Christmas…There was a sense of wonder, and it wasn’t just to do with the presents. It did provide, I suppose, an experience of something transcendent. It was there in the carols, especially. There is, in all the Christmas story’s sheer unlikelihood, something wondrous. Also there was a very tall Norfolk Pine on the edge of town which used to be decorated with lights. It was an awesome sight for a kid – and I use the word ‘awesome’ in its true sense.

Mind you, by the time I reached Bible Class I was starting to wonder about a few things. This is not the time or the place to go into my own religious crises which blighted my mid-20s… but I will say one thing: a pre-Christmas reading in front of the whole church perhaps did not help.

It was not standing up and speaking in front of a whole lot of people. Yeah, I was a bit nervous about that, but not excessively. I’d overcome my stammer by this point, and besides, I was related to most of the congregation. Some of them more than once. And of course there was a script. From Matthew, from what I recall. No, the bad bit was…well, I agreed to do the reading when the minister phoned and asked – the minister was a great guy, btw, a very open and practical man, so I’m not blaming him. But when I went and looked the bit he wanted me to read, it was about how Mary, despite being unmarried, got told she was going to have a kid. Now, I was 15 or 16, a fairly self-conscious age. And it seemed every second word in this passage was virgin. I got through the reading OK, I think, but rather rushed it.

Later Christmases:
Down with flu, Christmas Eve – proper flu, the aches, the temperature, the hot and cold sweats…in my small shoebox flat in Whakatane and wondering whether to can the four-hour drive for a family get together in Waiuku. It was a marginal call – until the landlady’s bloke turned up to mow the lawn. My head was already throbbing and I decided, I’m out of here. Hopped in the car, stopped off for a fruit juice at the dairy in Kopeopeo and then on out of town.

Just past Whakatane Board Mills the can, which I’d sat next to the gearshift, rolled under the car pedals. I swear I’d never do anything this stupid if I’d been well, but anyway, instead of pulling over I reached down to hook the can out, and as I did so the car drifted into the oncoming traffic.

By pure chance the vehicle I hit was another car – in front of it was a logging truck and behind it was a mini-bus, and if I’d hit either of those I wouldn’t be here now. As it was a loose seatbelt meant my head smacked into the side of the car as the car spun about 270 degrees on impact. Christmas dinner saw me with concussion to go with the flu.

Nepal, Christmas 1998. Walked into a village after dark on Christmas Eve. It was already pretty cold. We got to the park checkpoint -at the far end of the village – and were told none of the guesthouses in town were open, (we were trekking out of season) although there were people at one of them.

We back tracked down and knocked. The door opened on and empty dark dining hall and, behind that, huddled over a fire, the family. We plonked down in the dining area and I got out some Christmas cake Mum had made and given me before I left. Handed it around. Fruit cake never tasted better. We were pretty bushed, and cold.
The family gestured to us to come into the kitchen area and scrunched up for us so we could share the warmth of the fire. A nice feeling; we shared dhal baht for dinner and crashed out. Early morning looked out the window and saw the Annapurnas covered in snow.

Trekking later that day saw us cresting a ridge and looking up across a landing strip and up towards Manang and to the mountains behind, (see photo) and the pass we planned to go over. The landing strip was to see an emergency flight out a few days later, but that’s another story….

Christmases 1986 and 1987 – my postie years, working out of the old Auckland Central Post Office and studying part time at Uni. Used to tear around the walk to make lectures in time. This meant half walking, half running about 12kms with a load on my back, six days a week. I’d just love to be that fit again.

Christmas was more leisurely (no lectures to worry about)…we had to finish the walk and go back into the Post Office between 2.30-4.30pm to do extra sorting. The overtime was absolutely brilliant. Some of the afternoon sorting was pretty random, because we’d all meet in a pub in Commerce St after we finished our walks, have a pub lunch and a few jugs.

Some people were great. A woman on Richmond Road always used to leave a beer, some Christmas cake and a chocolate bar in her mailbox for the postie at Christmas.
One Saturday I had, in my parcels, some kids book or toy which played ‘Jingle Bells’. Batteries had definitely been included, unfortunately. The destination was at the bottom of Hamilton Rd in Herne Bay, and every time I moved, it seemed, this parcel would start playing.

Which meant the dogs heard me coming a long way off. Saturdays were always worst for dogs because people would be home to let them run around. Bastard Dog Owners.

Also that first year one of the posties got her holiday pay ripped off. She’d left her bankbook – remember bankbooks? – under the seat in her car. Car got nicked and not only did they get the car they went straight to her bank and got all her holiday pay out. Overtime and all.

She was devastated; we had a whip round for her and people chucked in heaps of cash.

Week after Christmas she’s doing her deliveries in Pompalier Tce and sees her car parked alongside one of the houses….nips into the nearest phone booth and calls the cops. Got the car back, I think she even got her money back. Or maybe the bank coughed because they should never have handed over the cash from a woman’s bankbook to a couple of blokes. Anyway, just remember the fluke that the thieves were on her walk. Good one, Santa.

Easing back….

Eased myself back into the year from the holid…I mean, the getting-rained-on-while-staring-at-the-teev season.

A lot of people seem to have got into religious issues over the past six weeks or so. The Richard Dawkins book seems to have sparked a lot of it.

Cactus Kate kicked it off..can’t get a very good link but its at the bottom of this page; Russell Brown had a different toke, err, I mean take, here; and David Farrar had a go at the Anglican bishop’s ‘lets have a church without any religion’ approach here.

I’d do something in depth on this issue myself, but maybe another time. My only comment at this stage is that I can settle the old argument whether God is male or female.

Definitely male. There’s a passage in Isaiah which goes ‘My bowels shall sound like harp’.

Think about this for a minute. Fart jokes in the Bible?

God HAS to be a bloke.

Read good books for Christmas though. Biography of Kingsley Amis, excellent! Martin Bywater’s ‘Big Babies’ was a big disappointment. He makes some good points, about how
some aspects of modern culture is teaching people to behave like children and not take responsibility for themselves. But it reads like what it was – a newspaper column stretched out to book length. You need to go deeper for a book.

Spent some time driving along listening to National Radio’s Matinee Idle session in the afternoons, with Simon Morris and Phil O’Brien. This was excellent, not the usually predictable NatRad fare, but a lot of unusual music.

One song called ‘Atilla the Hun’ (which seem to owe a musical debt to the Kinks’ ‘Wish I Could Fly Like Superman’ but that’s by the by).

The chorus of ‘Attilla the Hun’ went

“Atilla the Hun,
Atilla the Hun
Now there was a boy who knew how to have fun.”

These are not sentiments one usually associates with National Radio.

Most places I stayed over the break had UK TV, which was often excellent. Haven’t seen ‘The Sweeney’ for years, probably since it was originally screened in the late 1970s.

It was one of those violent cop shows, although the show which really attracted a lot of people’s ire for violence was ‘Starsky and Hutch’.

‘The Sweeney’ was not criticised in the same way, even though it was just as violent. I suspect this was because (a) it had good actors (John ‘Inspector Morse’ Thaw and Dennis ‘Minder’ Waterman).

Also, it was British violence. All the difference in the world.

The teev also had re-runs of ‘Only Fools and Horses’. Now, this could be pretty hit or miss: the good bits were very good, but there was a lot of naff stuff as well.

But, given the paucity of good weather, and the lack of anything else on in the evenings, all I can say is God Bless Hookie Street.

Oh, and too many motels no longer have teapots. Come on, people! Some of us still like to start the day with a nice cup of English breakfast.

Muslims, virgins and dried fruit

I’ve just been sent another screed on the whole Islamic suicide bomber thing.

It has given me food for thought.

It touches upon the whole promise that if young Islamists become martyrs they go to paradise and get to shag 72 virgins.

It also trots out the line many of us have heard before, that there was some sort of misunderstanding and that ‘virgins’ is actually some sort of dried fruit.

Virgin – dried fruit – hey, it’s a mistake anyone could make.

It does though underline what many critics of Islam say – that it’s a very anti-women religion.

What’s in it for the women suicide bombers. I wonder? The chance to shag 72 fumbling, nervous, overheated and overexcited young men? I can see many having second thoughts.

A choice between that and 72 dried fruit and a lot of women I know would take the additional fibre.

If the dried fruit were covered in chocolate – something like those chocolate raisins Heards used to sell – it would be no contest.