It is said of the human species that in times of uncertainty, metaphorically or literally we have a tendency to ‘run home to mama’. Much as I am appalled by the notion, there may be some tenuous thread of truth here. The Catholics assert that if they have a child up until the age of seven, he is theirs for life, however far he wanders.
Auden’s poem on the fall of Icarus suggests that strange and disturbing events occur against a backdrop of people going about their ordinary business. Nobody would have understood the matrix of events leading up to the fateful journey or heard the stern admonitions of Daedalus, the architect of the Cretan labyrinth, as he counselled his son not to push the envelope and sail so dangerously close to the Sun. A passerby could only have watched either with detached disinterest or with horror as the boy plummeted, like a shot pheasant, into the sea.
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Everybody went home for Christmas. Except me. A friend told the story of an incident in Leeds. She was smoking a cigarette in the street, thoughtfully dropping the ash in a convenient bin. An official-looking individual walked up to her and in a somewhat intimidating manner pushed a small box the size of a large matchbox into her hand, telling her that unless this object was used to collect butt and ash this miniature Stalin was entitled to pursue her – if necessary to a bank – to collect a fine of fifty pounds.
Kuwait isn’t culturally very self-aware, but there are compensations. I can ignore non-smoking signs if I really want to, carelessly forget to wear a seatbelt from time to time and I can very often get away with abandoning my car on the street – we don’t do meters. I remember once in a senior moment forgetting to turn off my car, leaving it running in the street all night and apart from a depleted fuel tank it was as I had left it the following morning. Can’t imagine that happening in downtown Croydon on a Saturday night. But, to sterner matters. The presence or not of street litter is unlikely to be at the top of the agenda for residents of Gaza this evening. If my neighbour’s children consistently threw garbage over my garden fence on an almost daily basis, despite being warned, threatened and told not to, I might be tolerant of childish antics for a time, but after a while, all remonstrance failing, I might then be sorely tempted to have a stern word with parents. If I subsequently discovered that it was at the parent’s instigation that the garbage was being hurled, I might further be tempted to have a friendly word, accompanied by a baseball bat. No matter how well-hidden the perpetrators might be, my determination to winkle them out and have a word would be almost overmastering and to hell with collateral damage. I can understand how the Israeli government is feeling.