Panem et Circenses

Something of a literary romp today.

“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife

Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;

Along the cool sequester’d vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way”

From Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written In a Country Churchyard’.

The heroine of the Hardy novel whose title is taken from Gray’s poem, Bathsheba Everdene, was a wilful beauty who attracted a queue of suitors. She might be described as an early feminist archetype where a woman overcomes in face of all odds. The (seriously yummy) Julie Christie stars in the 1967 film. 

Far From the Madding Crowd (Julie Christie, Terence Stamp)

Despite being filmed in the Carolinas, there was more than a touch of Hardy about both the characterizations and the locations chosen for the movie that everyone seems to be talking about – ‘The Hunger Games’ whose heroine is, perhaps coincidentally, named ‘Everdeen’. 

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games)

Katniss Everdeen is much like Bathsheba, independent and strong, wilfully flouting the rules imposed from above in order to overcome the poverty and hopelessness which is the lot of all who live in the poor mining district known as the Seam. Grime and wilderness give way to glitz and wealth as twenty-four ‘tributes’ or involuntary participants are annually ‘reaped’ from each of twelve ‘districts’ in Panem – or post apocalyptic America – to be taken to the Capitol – more than a hint of Rome here – to fight to the death in a computer generated environment – or arena. The Capitol, a place of wealth, luxury and privilege, instituted these ‘Games’ as an awful annual reminder of the terrifying cost of rebellion.  Only one tribute is supposed to survive. Themes of power and downfall are evident, much like ‘Julius Caesar’, also clashes between vox populi and the grinding might of the State as in ‘Antigone’. Repressive Orwellian control evokes shadows of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. Clever costuming reinforced the poignancy of a sequence where all the children whose names were in the lottery to be selected as a tribute were walking hopelessly and in mute obedience towards the Town Square. It seemed as if they were walking through the gates of Auschwitz, which sent a shiver down my spine.

Those who have not read the trilogy first published in 2008 for a young adult audience might find the plot quite hard to follow – it seems almost assumed that moviegoers are familiar with the scenarios and the movie ends with the end of the first book in the series, so, much like Harry Potter, the audience is left breathless for more. Star-crossed lovers notwithstanding, the male lead looks positively girly alongside Terence Stamp (above). As a film, it was relatively lukewarm in spite of a good deal of gore and screaming, but the promise of darker things to come is intriguing.

Oh. For those unfamiliar, ‘panem et circenses’ was the howl of the Roman mob – ‘bread and games’.


This place enrages. Assuredly it does. Last Sunday, my car went for a service at its usual main dealer. They called me. My car is ready. Khallas. Finish. Hokay. I had hired a new vehicle for the day at a cost of 12KD which I thought reasonable, as the picture shows. Arriving at the garage, the mechanic’s body language was not encouraging. Wordlessly, he led me with crabwise, apologetic gait to the front of my vehicle, apparently carelessly parked very close to another car. The front bumper and radiator grille looked as if it had been gored by a rhino. Pieces hung off it. The manager wrung his hands, telling me that some Syrians had backed their truck into the front of my car after it had been serviced and was awaiting collection. These persons, looking unshaven, shifty and hangdog, had eyes that flickered nervously. I had a feeling that this was not going to turn out well, with civilised exchanges of documents and gentlemanly handshakes. I fought down homicidal temptations. The Syrians leered toothlessly as we all fetched up at the police station. Ha! I have seen laziness, fatuity, incompetence and sheer disregard for the fact that one is supposed to try to act like a public servant, but never simultaneously and never by so many people all at once. The boys in blue sat, or rather, lolled on sofas, watching the TV, clearly peeved that the footie was being interrupted by an Ingleezi in a towering rage who needed their services. Mandoobs brought them Seven-Up and snacks. Their friends joined them. Amidst general hilarity, we were getting nowhere fast and had the sergeant not had three stripes and a sidearm, I might have been tempted to bang his useless, bloated head on his grossly under-used desk.
In the end, the garage showed their magnanimity, repetitiously and at some length, I might add, by offering to repair my car, free of charge. They refused to bodge the bumper with filler, which as anyone who knows me would have realised would have satisfied me completely.  The car’s five years old after all so why the fuss? All that I would have to pay for would be the cost of my hire car. For almost a week. Knowing which battles I could win, I simply paid the rental fee, got into my vehicle with its new bumper and mechanics’ fingerprints and went home, grinding my teeth. I just love it here.

Girls in Mitres

Pastoral Care
Watched The Iron Lady the other night. Meryl Streep as more Thatcher than Thatcher. Which got me wondering if this silly nonsense about women bishops and inevitably archbishops was going to have to stop. The top job is up for grabs again, somebody has to sort out the mess and since Lady T is a bit past her sell-by these days, how about an all-female shortlist?
A few suggestions for Prima Inter Pares…
 Mother Teresa: saintly, appeals to those with Roman sympathies, and with undeniable global appeal. Has the added advantage of being dead, which means that she’s unlikely to say anything off-the-cuff which can be misquoted by broadsheets and twisted beyond recognition by headline writers.  
Dame Edna Everage: great to have a candidate from the colonies, I mean, the Worldwide Anglican Communion. Dame Edna has charisma, wisdom, insight and great hair which would go really well with purple. Church flowers would never be the same. Hang on a minute. He’s a bloke isn’t he!  Trying to sneak his way on to an all girls shortlist! First they dress in women’s clothes, then they try to take a woman’s job! Perhaps alternative oversight and a church all to themselves is the only way to keep the testosterone in order. Oh, yes. There is one. It’s called Rome. 
Jordan: the ideal candidate if the C of E wants to carry on being fractious and bickering, as nobody will be remotely concerned about falling out with her. After all, you have to cross Jordan to get to the Promised Land (tee hee). Might be some problems getting the vestments to fit. Upside: imagine kneeling in front of her for a blessing. Steady, boys… 

Marge Simpson: presides over a nominally Christian household whose members argue constantly and which persistently ignores the ways of the Bible-believing family next door. Bingo. Great role modelling. There might need to be a mitre extension to accommodate the hair, but it’s the right colour and a small price to pay. A minor concern might be that she’s still not managed to get her infant daughter to talk. She’ll face the opposite problem in the C of E, which is getting fully grown men to shut up.

This does not include me.

Lambeth Walk

Taxi !

Her Majesty the Queen is now accepting CVs from interested applicants for the shortly to be vacated position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Though no prior archepiscopal experience is necessary, applicants should be strongly motivated to maintain a robust status quo, with a proven ability to lead or at least offer a bit of direction to a worldwide communion, work with dangerous animals (including women, evangelicals, Anglo-Catholics and tabloid journalists), at least offer to single handedly reform British society, and generally please everyone at all times, especially Muslims. Experience in performing high profile weddings and presiding over Lambeth Conferences is highly desirable. The successful applicant will almost certainly be required to relocate and should look good in purple. Bearded candidates are especially encouraged to apply – a spokeswoman from Lambeth Palace said “Make no mistake. In this race, the beard is king.”

For full details of emolument, including travel and baggage allowance (a wife is a positive asset) health benefits  (including dental), superannuation, and free accommodation,  please contact

The Church of England is an equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate on the basis of race or sexual orientation. Quite the reverse, as it happens. Druids, shamans and others from minority fringes are  encouraged to submit applications. Women need not apply at this time.

Shortlisted candidates will be informed via Facebook and interviewed on Skype.

Walls and Storms

What an interesting week it’s been. Those who follow this modest effort will have completely lost interest by now and moved to more immediate and appealing places. Like Twitter or other people’s Facebook walls;  an irony here – let him that hath wisdom… This was the week when all the inflatable egos, including my own, had an entire stage all to themselves, especially built in the Embassy gardens, with full-on light show and sound environment, to put on ‘A  Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Every luvvie for miles was in it and I found myself, alarming and unsettling as it seemed, very much at home. Whatever they were doing allowing flatfooted amateurs like me on to a professional stage still fills me with a sense of gaping wonderment. Three nights of performance later, adrenalin and probably many other ‘ins’ draining between my toes, I can’t help wondering whether people were just ‘kind’. Rodney Kingstone once wrote “It is better to be kind than right” with which I have to agree.
No longer being twenty five and rippling with well-trained muscle, the part of Oberon was not, inexplicably, offered to me, so I didn’t get to snog  (a rather yummy) Titania.

The parts of the Rude Mechanicals or Workmen, rough Athenians all, allow for disproportionate clowning and,  since they’re not supposed to be able to act, some Thespian latitude is often granted to them. On the last night, undecided between rough Bristol or even rougher Bethnal Green, Tom Snout or Wall fluffed his final speech, tripped over his costume which had a mind of its own, constantly attempting to slither off his shoulder and he waited a bit too long for the music to stop – it didn’t in the end. He caught sight of the producer/director – She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, for whom most of us would walk over hot coals, standing akimbo at the back in full frontal sight, illuminated like Cleopatra within an archway. His bowels turned to water and the rest is history. 
There’s a sense of loss when the Company goes its separate ways. I haven’t been on the stage for a long time, and I had forgotten. Many were discussing the next project – a tribute show commemorating the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic – which I can’t be part of since I shall be out of the country. Additionally I have – shall we say – gone walkabout as far as St Paul’s is concerned. At least for a time.  Just for a change, I don’t feel remotely guilty. Daisy Mae would be proud of me.
All of these things are mirrored by the dust storm which currently rages outside. 

Red sand means it’s blowing in from the North, clogging throats and vision – turning the environment into a moonscape, alien and otherworldly. Familiar things are clothed in darker light and well-known landmarks obscured.

Plus ça change…

Flummery and Wonk

There are times, I must confess, that the thought of driving golf balls through the picture windows of theological tradition is really quite appealing, not least because of the effect it might have on all those nice people drinking Earl Grey in the living room.
You may ask, what has prompted this outburst?
Icons. That’s what. Along with all the other flummery and wonk that passes for real spirituality. The Church which I attend – I really can’t bring myself to use the word ‘my’ – has gone through a small paradigm shift due in part to the presence of a new locum priest who is undoubtedly comfortable operating in the rarefied and lofty heights of a more Anglo-Catholic tradition and perhaps also to the unspoken needs of a preponderance of worshippers. Smoking handbags, chalices, chasubles and claustrophobia about tidies it in my undoubtedly low and beetle-browed understanding. Which brings me to icons. On sale everywhere, from anything from a few euros to put on the dashboard to millions of dollars. Pictures of Slavic saints or Russian Maries holding improbably angelic offspring to which veneration is frequently offered.  I am reliably informed that the Orthodox make quite a big deal about bowing and other forms of veneration. I was once in the impressive St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg and attempted to calculate how many people had kissed the feet of  a saintly statue on display there by how worn away its foot had become.
Is it OK not to bow? I received a degree once from a member of the Royal Family. Could I bow? Young Conservatives did, their Tory noses scraping the carpet. Could I? Not a bit of it. A courtly inclination of the head and eye contact. I genuinely understood the meaning of ‘stiffnecked’. Comparatively little work revealed the following:
Usually, the word ‘bowing’ references the bowing of the head, sometimes the bowing of the body and, like Baskin Robbins, there do seem to be a number of different preferred flavours, dependent on circumstances. It is almost always done in the context of worshipping God (Gen 24:26, 48, 52; Ex 4:31; 34:8; 1 Chr 29:20; 2 Chr 20:18; 29:30; Neh 8:6) and is frequently combined with a word translated as “worship” so that often you find the phrase “bowed their heads and worshipped.” There is only one time where it is questionable, in Num 22:31 it is used in reference to bowing to an angel of the Lord. The angel seemed to see the funny side and does not rebuke Balaam, who fell flat on his face. Apparently, there was some aspect of “worship” in this, but is not stated as such, the poor man was scared witless, in all probability. But, bowing to altars, kissing saints, I’m puzzled by the relevance. When I look at a stained glass window or a Renaissance painting with a scriptural theme, it seems easy to me to resist the temptation to bow to it, or even attempt to kiss it, however glorious the interpretation. My Bible is of value to me, but I draw the line at slobbering over it. Kissing this icon of St Xenia of Petersburg, or indeed gazing at it for any length of time, a modern rendition being pictured, seems a bit more than flesh and blood can stand. She was, it has to be said, widowed at 26 and, grief-stricken, gave everything she owned away, hence the somewhat lugubrious face. An Orthodox homily on icons invited me to consider replacing the bumper sticker ‘have you hugged your kid today?’ with the equally pithy ‘have you kissed a saint today?’ Er, no.
It would, I suppose not be unreasonable to simply say to me ‘why not just leave it out? Clearly, you’re unmoved by liturgical beauty, so leave it to those who are.’ Ah. Because it’s replacement theology, that’s why. Not in Vicar school terms, but because it replaces a dynamic, living vibrant faith relationship with God, often difficult to pursue and maintain with a convenient cardboard cutout. At best it’s laziness, at worst, idolatry.