“Existential fatigue is the weight of the world on your soul, mind and emotions. A fatigue born of the search for meaning and purpose that your foremothers and forefathers returned to the soil without it wetting their dry tongues and cracked lips.” A little bit flowery perhaps, but I quite liked that part – very tribal.
Continuing the rather doom-laden theme: “This sort of fatigue peels the fear of death from your childish eyes. It hangs you upside down and bleeds the hope, the audacity to dream, and self-confidence from the veins of your soul. This is a form of lynching that allows you to go on living as you’re half-dead. It blinds you with generational anger and places your feet on the red coal of your ancestors’ bones.” There’s a kind of Camus-like absurdist certainty about this which is mildly disturbing. Those who know me will be aware that I have been, let’s say, ‘generationally angry’. I’m angry AT my parents – because of them, if you will, but I don’t carry the same externalised rages as they did.
Boredom is often a result of forgetting to be thankful for what we have. When the mind is in the habit of constantly finding gratification in a future-orientated thought or feeling, the present can never quite feel “good enough.” Not only that, but when we take for granted what we have, we often expect it to be even better than what it is capable of being by imposing our beliefs, desires and expectations on to it. The result is, inevitably, disappointment.
Ingratitude is a frenemy because it fools us (OK, me) into believing that there is something perpetually “better” than what we have, while at the same time causing us considerable present unhappiness.
One solution for ingratitude is stopping everything I am doing for a few moments, savouring my surroundings and forcing myself to think of five things (more or less) that I am grateful for at this moment. The small things, as well as the larger, seemingly more important. Walt Whitman once wrote in “Song of Myself”:
Also – I am such a merciless creature of habit. What If I were to forgo a morning shower and leave it until evening? It won’t materially affect personal hygiene and it breaks routine. What if, instead of choosing which watch to wear, I just didn’t wear one at all?
Please, will someone poke me with the proactivity stick sometimes? If left to myself, I tend to slip into apathy and laziness, basically becoming a slob, which is deeply unattractive both to myself and those around me.
I came across a fascinating phrase the other day – “hedonistic adaptation”, which is the other side of the coin – too much proactivity isn’t necessarily a good idea either. It is a phrase that refers to the pursuit of happiness much like running on a treadmill because no matter how much we get, we aren’t completely happy, and we always want more thus, we keep running and running, seeking for the next ‘hit’. The result is, we get tired emotionally and tired people make mistakes when they look after themselves. The delight of ‘now’ eludes them.
Oh, enough. I am now going to go and live in the present for a while and play with my dog, who completely understands me.
The Cold War ended in 1991, glasnost and perestroika were the new mots du jour. Totalitarianism, we were informed, had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle of the 20th century. We all marched optimistically forward, believing that strong democratic arms would protect us. How wrong we all were. It seems an almost unwavering characteristic of humankind that if progress doesn’t get us, hubris will.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, urbane, unfailingly polite, tough-as-nails Brexiteer has been touted as one third of what some are calling an unholy triumvirate, waiting to catch the headless chicken that the Prime Minister has become. Ministerial inexperience notwithstanding, he could be chancellor, but talk of him becoming prime minister is no longer seen as farcical. He was conjured into being by an eccentric cult of personality with a seasoning of Leftist mirth. It’s like a badly cast spell, but it’s far too late to shout ‘Riddikulus’ with a flourish of our holly wand with the phoenix feather core. In the search for an alternative to a pantomime Prime Minister for someone who could guide the country through its most challenging negotiations since the second world war, we have somehow given allegiance to a person whose views appear to be preserved in amber like the mosquito in ‘Jurassic Park’.
It’s unusual for me simply to follow a stream of consciousness, since it rarely makes for interesting reading. However, it’s snowing, so perhaps I might be allowed a little self-indulgence in light of a changed, almost forbidding external landscape which encourages a paradigm shift in one’s outlook. I found myself slipping under the silent snow-shroud into a small, parallel world. My baby Taylor is always to hand these days – it encourages me to play, to practise, to work out novel little riffs because its three-quarter size makes it very forgiving. I looked out over the cold whiteness – an almost unfamiliar landscape, and picked out the first few bars of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, Christina Rosetti’s incomparable Christmas masterpiece, the bright strings ringing into the snowscape like a suzumushi bell. Meandering further into the romantic poets one cannot fail but to catch something of Rosetti’s contemporary, the morphine-vivid work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning – who was, interestingly, disinherited by her father for marrying the poet and classical scholar Robert Browning – so at least we have this in common. From here, to a film. Two films, in fact, the first from 1951 the second, 1994. It’s rare for me to comment on two separate incarnations of the same film, since each has their own rhyme and metre, YouTube has them both and they make for interesting comparisons. Both won prizes. Terence Rattigan’s stage play ’The Browning Version’ first starred the incomparable Michael Redgrave – Rattigan himself wrote the screenplay – then later Albert Finney. In fact, four additional TV incarnations followed the original.
The plotline is quite beautiful. Andrew Crocker-Harris – thought to have been based on Rattigan’s own teacher at Harrow – is a crusty, ageing classics master at an English public school who is forced into retirement on the pretext of ill-health. In reality, he has become an embarrassing encumbrance, a veteran of a bygone age, an awkward, difficult hanger-on in a place that has abandoned him and moved on, discarding him like flotsam on the beach. Originally a brilliant scholar, his life had, it would seem, been wasted cramming Latin and Greek down the throats of generations of unwilling students. The film, in common with the original stage play follows the schoolmaster’s final few days in his post, as he comes to terms with his sense of failure as a teacher, a sense of helplessness and impotence exacerbated by his wife’s infidelity with a much younger man and the realization that he is despised by both pupils and staff of the school. He was colloquially known as the Himmler of the Lower Fifth because of his unbending humourless discipline and total lack of understanding for the emotional wellbeing of his students.
The turning-point for the cold Crocker-Harris is when Taplow, a quiet, sensitive pupil sees behind the iron-clad facade to the lonely old man beneath. He buys his teacher an unexpected parting gift, Robert Browning’s translation of the Agamemnon, which he has inscribed with the Greek phrase that translates as “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.” The irony of this, the first play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, includes the theme of a faithless wife who plots to murder her husband – a subtlety almost certainly not lost on Rattigan. Crocker-Harris is moved to tears.
Leaving teaching, perhaps for good, perhaps not quite yet, leaves a feeling of emptiness, a hole where something once belonged and has been curiously, inexplicably misplaced. It’s inevitable to look back, more in regret than anger, to one’s own career, remembering who one was able to influence and who simply passed through like an idle wind. No, I was no Andrew Crocker-Harris, fortunately, and needed no kindly student to break into the carapace of loneliness that surrounded him. I have memories golden with age and bright with recollection. My students still think of me and what could be more encouraging as the pages turn and life moves inexorably forward, to have this as the bedrock of remembrance.
I was talking with a friend the other day about perfectionism. It’s not an attribute which is much of a blessing; quite the reverse, it’s a yellow-fevered curse. I remarked that I hated to write in ink as a child, since if I made a mistake I should have to cross it out, spoiling the look of my work. The word processor was a godsend, and I still felt comfortable writing, but in pencil with its eraser immediately to hand. He murmured that this was a learned behavior – I wondered if it could ever possibly be unlearned. I thought not and used to hate myself for apparently preferring the style of my efforts rather than their substance. Such behavior, I reflected, has to do with an insularity, an artificial moat with a personal drawbridge that I create around myself. It reminded me of this:
‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And, therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’
Donne’s work was the inspiration for someone I had last read a generation ago. The great twentieth century mystic, Thomas Merton, used the same wording in the first line to entitle a book of his own. Writing in ‘No Man Is an Island’ he remarked: “The real reason why so few men believe in God is that they have ceased to believe that even a God can love them.” I found myself mentally applauding, followed by cursing myself for believing it. A friend drew another of his works: ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’ to my attention. It’s a Catholic blockbuster, written when everyone’s motivations were being questioned in the aftermath of WW2. In sixteen essays, Merton addresses those in search of enduring values, fulfilment, and salvation in inspiring and compassionate prose; a theme which pursues almost all of us. Merton’s own autobiography ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ tells of the growing restlessness of a brilliant, passionate young man whose search for faith and peace leads him, at only twenty-six years old, to take vows in one of the most demanding Catholic orders – the Trappist monks. And yet, the more he struggles to withdraw from the world, the more he finds himself immersed in it, with its patchwork of imperfections and irritatingly frequent crossings-out.
Having had flu for the past week – it does seem to take longer these days – I found myself almost Trappist-like, disengaged from the world, the drawbridge of my mind pulled up, no sallying forth for a time into the wide, wild hurly-burly. I used the opportunity to revisit Rav Cohen’s classes at Harvard on Judaism and Christianity as well as other inquiries which, had I been well, I would have dismissed as being too time-consuming or nothing more than irrelevant busyness. And yet, actually stepping away into a degree of solitude had the effect of leading me towards engagement with people and things, instead of the reverse which looked as if it might have been a much more probable outcome.
Being almost a professional, if frequently reluctant, spectator, it’s often all too easy to watch, then criticise. Theodore Roosevelt wrote “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
We – or rather I – must learn to engage, emotionally and spiritually with the grime of my surroundings, jaggedly imperfect and flawed as they are, trying, even when I might fail, attempting even when the outcome is uncertain. As Merton wrote “A man who fails well is greater than one who succeeds badly.”
I haven’t written a film review for a while. Probably because I haven’t been to the cinema a lot – today being an exception – on a damp Thursday on the Champs-Elysées.
It’s all so very improbable. Gary Oldman, wolfish and saturnine, to play Winston Churchill, ponderous, overweight with jowls like an English bulldog? Surely not. He’s played Sid Vicious, Beethoven and Lee Harvey Oswald. But, what a spectacularly understated piece of casting – the Churchill to end them all, with apologies to John Lithgow and others. Hand over the Oscar now.
“Darkest Hour” is set in the months after the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, as Hitler’s Wehrmacht overran Belgium and trampled ruthlessly into France. As the seemingly unstoppable Nazi forces advance, and with the Allied army cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the leadership of the newly-appointed British Prime Minister, a phoenix rising from the ashes.
The power play is between the terminally sick Neville Chamberlain, pain-wracked and ageing, the barely concealed appeasement of the nearly-leader, Lord Halifax and Churchill himself, set in a dark, monochrome London, full of men who smoke, urgently murmuring in brown, panelled rooms.
Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife, (Kristin Scott Thomas) the ballast in the thinking of a sometimes tortured mind was calm and sensible in contrast to Winston’s terrified but hugely competent secretary-typist Miss Layton (Lily James) who’s almost his muse when crafting his great speeches.
The acting talent of the Great Man himself doesn’t pass unnoticed. “You need to reply to the Lord Privy Seal, sir”. Winston’s response, in his pink dressing gown behind the toilet door: “I am sealed in the privy, sir, and I can only deal with one shit at a time.”
The film is claustrophobic, mostly, set as it is in war rooms and corridors of power. There are some memorable interactions at the Palace with a rhotacic Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, in stark contrast to Winston finding himself interacting with the common people who help him make up his mind as he decides to travel to Westminster by Tube.
No blood, guts, sex or glory, but a riveting insight into how a great leader shouldered the responsibilities of war. 9/10.
I wrote a piece a while back about the agonies of writing. It’s a savage, rather despondent piece – the link is here for anyone who would like to read it. It’s been quite a grim start to January, so what follows is from a rain-swept and miserable Paris, caught in the fury, swirl and eddy of Storm Eleanor. Happy New Year.
Henry Miller enjoined the writer to work calmly, joyously and recklessly on whatever is in hand. Jack Kerouac invites him to remove all literary, grammatical and syntactic inhibition and, like Proust, be ‘an old teahead of time’. What a delightful phrase – I so wish that I had thought of it.
So, why this sudden interest in writerly things? Perhaps because in a few days a new book is about to be released on the world which makes something of a mockery of the whole tawdry process. The words do not slip down like a fine Montrachet – instead they scamper insolently past us, daring us to believe them. A tell-all called “Fire and Fury” about Trump’s first year in office is about to shake the foundations of the White House – the revelations come like arrows at Agincourt, thick, fast and deadly. Despite not having yet been published, the book has its own Wikipedia entry. There’s the odour of a septic tank about all of its fragments, half truths and unsubstantiated conjecture, but, like any septic tank, there’s solid material in there. It’ll sell books but let’s all just calm the flap down before actually believing too much of it. The author, Michael Wolff, has acknowledged in the past that he’s not very good at conventional reporting. Instead, he has the reputation of being able to absorb the atmosphere and gossip swirling around him at social gatherings, his bum on a sofa close to the West Wing, from which he can fabricate events as if they actually happened.
His great gift, it has been said is to ‘have the appearance of intimate access’ when the truth is in fact quite the reverse – almost no access at all. He’s an expert, it seems, at manufacturing fictional oaks from factual acorns – real and imagined. He claims, amongst many other colourful notions, that Ivanka wants to be President whereas Donald never really wanted the Presidency. Once he lost, Trump would be both insanely famous and the value of a TV empire he was considering starting would skyrocket. Ivanka and Jared would be international celebrities. Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the Tea Party movement. Kellyanne Conway would be a cable-news star and Melania Trump, who had been assured by her husband that he wouldn’t become president, could return to inconspicuously lunching with a discreetly luxurious circle of friends. Having been told he had won, she burst into tears, allegedly. Losing would have been so very convenient for everybody. But, a thousand tweets later and lurching through a first annus horribilis for the Donald and only a 40% chance, the punters tell us, of making it through a second keeps the gossip columnists wallowing in their self-excreted effluvia and will sell multiple copies of Michael Wolff’s book.
There should be books written about the Trump presidency and the man himself. But, not now and not yet. There is too much at stake to stoke the furnaces of worldwide ridicule any more than they have already been and the revolving door hiring and firing and murderous infighting simply generates headlines. Of course, it was insane to think you could run a White House without experience, organisational structure or real purpose, led by a man who goes to bed at 6:30pm surrounded by cheeseburgers. The next twelve months are going to be interesting.
Robert Graves won’t mind, since his 1929 masterwork echoes so many of the themes which have been part of the fabric of 2017, like our renewed interest in atheism, feminism and socialism, complete with statistics, flag-waving and Jeremy Corbyn.
Reviewing the year is a troublesome pastime, laced as it frequently is with the strychnine of being a year older and the anodyne of not much caring. For some, an annus mirabilis – witness Donald Trump and Prince Harry. For others, horribilis – me, even. This year, several people have been jerked from my life leaving behind either a breath of fetid air or a whispering of roses. Joyce wrote ‘every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.’ How all the world’s people chatter in our ears, much as we would try to drown them out with our own tuneless singing. We live a short distance from our bodies and come full time we shall one by one all become shades. As I myself grey gently, I reflect on the idea that it might be better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age, with further apologies to Mr Joyce.
What didn’t happen this year? An invasion by extraterrestrials? Scotland didn’t win the Six Nations? What did happen then? Did we all drift into a coma, awakening in some foreign place, inconveniently stiff and cold like a Minnesota dumpster, clutching an empty bottle and wondering where it all went? A reminder then, lest we forget. On January 20 a Republican billionaire was inaugurated as US president, vowing: “America first.” He didn’t really want the job, especially in light of allegations that the Russians meddled with the election. He sets out his stall by pulling out of international agreements on climate, free trade, immigration and UNESCO and making up new words like ‘covfefe’, despite the negative press, thus sparking a nationwide game to try to guess what he really meant. I favoured ‘coverage’ at the time. On December 6, he sent shock waves around the world as he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He could have just asked the Jews. An interesting, if somewhat unorthodox opening, as a chess journalist might have remarked.
On March 29, London launches herself off the Brexit cliff, hoping the parachute will open on time, as voted in a referendum nine months earlier. Endless TV shows revisit the possibility that the electorate was basically stupid, ignorant and jingoistic and had they known what they were voting for they would certainly have stayed, huddled behind the towering ramparts of France, Germany and, oh, yes, a few other hangers-on. Fuelled with hubris, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives suffer a major setback and lose their majority in a snap election on June 8. Her supporters snarl and turn on each other, inexorably drifting rightwards while Brussels and London squabble about divorce, specifically its cost. The Labour opposition, now proto-Marxist to a man, sits a distance away from the campfire like a wolf pack in the night, licking their collective lips, waiting to attack. Meanwhile, a youthful Emmanuel Macron and his elderly wife sweep the Socialists into oblivion as the Elysée Palace falls to a pro-European centrist with good taste in suits. Speaking of which, an American actress is joining our own Royal Family – keeping HRH Prince H orf the streets of Mayfair and Las Vegas and into connubial bliss on the same afternoon as the FA Cup Final – bit of a clash there for his older brother.
The Saudis and the Iranians have not been playing nicely together. Attack and counter attack have reduced Yemen to cinder and ash, each blaming the other. The North Koreans love their fireworks and have launched a few of them this year – much to the annoyance of their immediate neighbours and also the Americans who feel threatened for the first time in half a century. Seventy-three coalition partners committed themselves to the goal of eliminating the threat posed by ISIS and have already contributed in various capacities to the effort, to the end that ISIS has been almost completely wiped out, so one less piece of good news for arms manufacturers.
Trying to look on the bright side is often as ineffectual as it was in ‘Life of Brian’. Chechnya still imprisons and tortures gay men, Assad is still in charge in Syria and quite possibly possesses a chemical arsenal to use on his own people. Fanatical Muslims still try to stab people, drive cars on the pavements and blow themselves up at pop concerts. Fires take lives from the Bronx to Grenfell Towers.
But, hope springs eternal and the tabula, sodden with the lachrymal effect of too much Hogmanay alcohol, is washed clean, tomorrow becomes rasa, available anew to write our hopes and dreams upon. May yours be bright and full of promise.
It’s that nostalgic time of year again when we are supposed to look back – hopefully not in anger, but frequently in regret – to the events of the last twelve months. For some, this year has been a valley of Achor, a year of hope dawning, new beginnings. For others, loss, deprivation, refugee camps and unremitting terror.
Since early man began acquiring possessions, there has grown up with him the oldest technology in the world – the art of war – and 2017 has not escaped its ravages. We who are relatively untouched by violent conflict would do well to remember that with the crisis in Syria, who tops the fatality list for the third year running, the almost total defeat of Islamist militants in Iraq and the international ongoing stand-off in Afghanistan, it can sometimes feel like the whole world is at war. The sad reality is that this is in fact almost universally the case, according to a think-tank which produces one of the world’s leading measures of “global peacefulness” – and it has been suggested that things are only going to get worse. Given that violent conflict already costs nearly 13% of world GDP, this is not good news.
It makes for bleak reading, but only eleven out of a total of one hundred and sixty two countries covered by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s (IEP’s) latest study were not involved in conflict of one kind or another in the last twelve months. Worse still, the world as a whole has been getting incrementally less peaceful every year since 2007 – sharply bucking a trend that had seen a global move away from conflict since the end of the Second World War. But, it’s really just about following the money. Factories in Sardinia routinely package bombs and other paraphernalia of warfare like Amazon deliveries and blithely ship them to Jeddah where the Saudis load up the warplanes and drop the ordnance on Yemen – in violation of all human rights legislation.
Neglecting the fact that war is good business for some, we might ask the moral question, ‘why do we fight?’ If there is a thread running like a shameful scarlet ribbon through mankind’s seemingly unslakable thirst for the blood of his enemies, it must be this. From the first moment we declared ourselves owners of something, whether land, material wealth or property, somebody else has wanted to take it from us and we have had to learn to fight to keep it. Riches are gained at someone else’s expense and kept by making sure that others are disempowered so they do not represent a threat. In the modern world, where colonial activity is considered undemocratic, one might imagine that conquest as causus belli could be relegated to the dustier and more shameful pages of history. And yet, we persist, more so than ever before, it would seem. Modern warfare, adjudicated by the UN, takes the peacekeeping initiative and conflict and land-grabbing on an historical scale is simply not tolerated in the modern world as Saddam Hussein found out to his cost. Instead, people find something else to fight about. They fight over ideas and belief systems instead where the need is less for boots on the ground and more for drones in the air. Our media overwhelm us with footage from any one of a dozen theatres. We can cherry-pick a smorgasbord of slaughter from Nigeria to Syria, to Libya and Iraq and watch it live. We, the bystanders, both appalled at the consequences and relieved not to be part of them, align ourselves, or not, with protagonists on either side, either because we support the ideas they seek to spread or resent their attempts to spread them.
How little, I wonder, have we actually learned since the time when war as a glorious fight for liberty can now so much more easily be seen as a desperate and feral struggle for survival, mostly by people who, if given a choice, would never have wanted to go to war in the first place.
As we say farewell to another year, we all still hope for the magical paradigm shift, as if we could wake up from a bad dream and realise the futility of never-ending, Orwellian conflict and the ability to turn our backs on it forever.