Month: April 2013

Holman Hunt’s Hovel

When I was little, and at Sunday School, I was most impressed by Holman Hunt’s “The Light o3a73c-lotw.jpgf the World”. I used to get the figure muddled up with ‘Good King Wenceslas” as you do when you’re six.
The saintly looking figure, barefoot, lantern in one hand, the halo of a full moon, obviously, is waiting patiently outside, right hand outstretched – the knocking must have been going on for quite some time, given the look of patient resignation. The house itself – rather overgrown externally, whatever vegetation was supposed to curl cheerily round the doorposts seemed badly in need of pruning.

I had always imagined that the interior was like Ratty’s house, or Mole’s, from ‘The Wind in the Willows’, snug and warm, a roaring fire and couple of overstuffed armchairs in a Laura Ashley type print where a weary traveler might sit down and toast his feet. But it’s really not like that at all. The outside is a dead giveaway. Inside, it’s a hovel.

That’s the way some of the great patristic writers spoke about Jesus. They described the heart as a house for Jesus – but a house in sore need of reconstruction and repair. To start with, it’s far too small. If Jesus is going to live here, there will have to be extensions. And it’s all looking pretty rundown. The roof leaks. Mould is growing on the walls. The front door is hanging off its hinges. The wind whistles through cracks round the window frames. There are strange smells in the hallway. Weeds are growing up through the floorboards. Jesus is moving into our hearts not because the surroundings are fit for him, but because he enjoys the challenge of fixing up places like this – a broken-down old wreck of a house.

In recent times- let it be clearly understood, I do not live in a hovel- nevertheless I have been asked to do some fixing up. Those who know me will realize how potentially disastrous such a request might be. First, I have hands like violin cases and have no concept of the correct tool for a particular job, thus might well attempt to screw in a screw with a hammer drill. I bought a small saw on the naïve assumption that I might use it to bisect a piece of wooden flooring and within seconds had bled all over the floor. Several hours later, tasks which an accomplished craftsman would have polished off between a barn raising and a bathroom extension, with blistered hands and a backache worthy of a late trimester pregnancy, the jobs were finished. I gave myself three out of ten for competence and two for artistic impression.

34411-eey.jpgI suppose I ought to be grateful that He who remodels my own muddled, untidy, falling-apart inner life has a good deal more skill than I and is expert at repairing damage howsoever caused with a view to making a habitation fit for a King.

 

Overlapping Ripples

A dead boy and a terror suspect

When a major news event happens, especially one which tears so determinedly into the fabric of our consciousness, we insist on trying to make sense of things and the media tidal wave is often speculative, disproportionate and incorrect. Social media sites have been inundated with grainy photos, half-cooked ideas, sleuthing and speculation which has had the effect of muddying waters already turbulent with passion, casting suspicion on innocent people and providing information that turned out to be nothing more than rumour. I have never really understood why even the professionals like, indeed insist on offering opinion which is so lean and ill-informed unless its only function is to tickle readers’ ears so that they will maintain focus long enough to stay with the story. The horrifying events surrounding the finish line at the Boston marathon took time to unravel and will continue to do so. “Shoot-out, man-hunt, lock-down” are all emotive words, rich in speculative meaning and the two young Chechens apparently at the centre of this tragedy have provided the media with a circus of such phrases. SWAT teams, sharpshoooters and FBI agents have surrounded buildings, police helicopters buzzed overhead and armoured vehicles rumbled menacingly through the deserted streets. But, as yet, although the dust has cleared somewhat and the facts have been established, so little is known about the perpetrators, their motivations or aspirations. They seem not to have been radicalised and if they have, they have been well trained to conceal it. Superficially, they appeared to be two comparatively successful young men trying to make their way in the Land of the Free. Every titbit of information, every scrap of rumour is being mined for meaning. As is so often the case, the truth may never fully emerge. The older brother is dead and the younger, quite possibly the follower, is unlikely to be able to offer coherent and reliable testimony for some time.
Like most people, I find unexplained tragedy difficult to deal with. We share the collective grief, vicariously, as events have unfolded in all their gritty, unpalatable detail. Perhaps we are all  part of the collective, the unconscious ripple of worldwide sympathy that the media reveals to us and to which we respond.

Living in the countryside and thinking in parallel, I have just acquired a dog. I haven’t owned one for some years – my last was killed in a road accident which was partly my fault and I made a mental note to myself that I wasn’t really to be trusted to have another one. Her presence has dislocated my surroundings. She too has become part of my collective, with her own particular flavour of need and aspiration which I am becoming forced to acknowledge and make room for. Her ripple of existence is impacting my own. And yet, she belongs in the world as much as I do and I find myself with a strange, non-specific duty of care which at present, I cannot explain. I found myself extrapolating from awareness of my own species to a realisation of the deep and impenetrable connectedness of things. Two ducks were chasing each other across the river, one a male the other a female, the one intent on impregnating the other. Thickenings in the new-formed spring tree-growth indicate nest-building. I make no comment on the relative magnitude of the ripples, simply remark that I am a part of this, as is my dog, as are the grief-stricken in Boston and faraway Chechnya.

Social Currency

dcfb3-thfun1.jpgThose who know the small blue donkey that is my usual persona might suppose that I was one of those who cheered, if not wildly then with muted approbation during Mrs. Thatcher’s years at No 10 – prizing the individual over the collective as it did. But I didn’t, surprisingly, even then. Reflecting with the calm perspective of a quarter of a century, my greatest regret is the culture and value set she bequeathed to the nation and, by implication, one of the reasons why I ultimately left it.  To those of you who are tempted to leave this post since it’s obviously going to be yet another of his tedious Eeyore grumps, I’d encourage you to try to stay with me till the end, where the funnies are. Still with me? OK, then, the hard part next. The three bulwarks of Thatcherism: individualism, hostility to collectivism and free market fundamentalism have something missing. The wretched woman simply had no working concept of the social or the intermediate. For her there were just individuals and everything she tried to do was to create the type of individuals she believed would make Britain great again. Napoleon Bonaparte thought similarly.

4c614-coalmine.jpgI was once invited to go down a coal mine. It was dirty, noisy, insufferably claustrophobic, hot and wet. The sheer hostility of the environment bred in the workers a camaraderie and social cohesion which I found quite touching and also deeply challenging. They looked after one another and, as I was their guest, they looked after me, too. They taught me, in the brief time I was with them, a little bit about belonging. It was this – the power of the collective – that Margaret Thatcher came up against and crushed with Stalinist ferocity at what became known as the Battle of Orgreave in June 1984, defeating Arthur Scargill, the most famous Marxist in the country at the time and the president of the National Union of Mineworkers.3f278-org1.jpg The lack of any account of the currency of the social blinded her to the fate of her people. She failed to comprehend that human beings need structures to help and support them especially when faced with stark and frightening economic change. But nobody in the north was offered anything except welfare and indifference. By analogy, in the Church, the prophet shows up as a guest speaker, wreaks havoc for the general good and the pastor goes round afterwards to mop up the tears. Prophecy was there aplenty, pastoral care, none.

It’s ironic, then, that together with Royal College of Art student Liam Hodges, a menswear retailer in the UK has launched a clothing line inspired by the former boss of the NUM. After watching documentaries about the miners’ strikes, and scouring photos of colliery-chic, Hodges came up with a number of pieces, including Scargill’s favourite, a green donkey jacket (for £180).  Heaven alone knows what Barnsley’s most famous son makes of being the subject of a clothing range – let alone one peddled by a Thatcherite retailer who should have received his knighthood for services to the tax-avoidance industry. Perhaps the Iron Lady would have been proud of the free enterprise shown and after her funeral, someone will hit on the bright idea of retro-chic Thatcher hats. At £180.

e2e6d-jof.jpgBy way of a little light relief – always a problem when posts are Eeyore-gloomy – John O’Farrell, a former scriptwriter for ‘Spitting Image’ and guest on ‘Have I Got News For You’  isn’t a bad historian, if revisionism and satire appeal. His ‘An Utterly Exasperated History of  Modern Britain or Sixty Years of Making the Same Mistakes’ is currently providing bedtime sniggering, left-wing bias notwithstanding and Thatcher writ large.  Here’s a review. Brits will get the jokes, Canadians probably won’t.

 

 


Grating Britons

I don’t normally pay much attention to UK politics, principally because I don’t live there any more and there’s scandal aplenty here in France to activate whatever sense of outrage I have left. However, sometimes something so appalling occurs that it forces me to notice a reality which might in other circumstances pass me by. Such has been the case in Britain in recent days. A man called Mick Philpott, unemployed father of 17 children, has been jailed for life for burning six of his children to death in their own home. It appears that, while possibly intending to save them once the fire was started, Philpott lit it because he wished, apparently, to persuade the local authorities of his need for more commodious living accommodation to maintain his prodigious and promiscuous lifestyle. In particular, he appeared to wish to continue to produce the children which, thanks to the state of welfare and state benefits in the UK, he saw as cash cows – each additional child netting over $80 a month additional income. By taking his obligation to provide off his shoulders, disincentivising him from working and encouraging him financially to have as many children as possible, the welfare state – while hardly encouraging him to kill his children – most certainly did encourage him to live a life of indigence, irresponsibility and moral squalor. The very possession of a welfare system, almost by definition, however, makes it virtually impossible to draw moral limits around it even when as now it is at the point of almost unsustainable overreach. Debate has become rancorous, nasty and ill-tempered and the more liberal academics or right wing politicians with little experience of the harsher realities of poverty attempt clumsy commentary on social engineering, the worse it gets. America is on the cusp of the same learning curve and they would do well to examine the example set by their European counterparts. Fortunately, there aren’t too many like Mick Philpott who shamelessly exploit systems designed to cushion the poor and vulnerable and I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened to him had he conducted himself this way under a Thatcher Government. Yet, here we are, twenty-five years on in the hands of a clone, a post-Thatcher lookalike in several disturbingly familiar ways, where these same poor are being squeezed and punished for the fact that they have been unable to find suitable work, and the same old problems of twenty five years ago are resurfacing.
The death of the iconic Baroness Thatcher at the Ritz Hotel has been met with a vast and almost certainly disproportionate amount of press coverage, street parties celebrating her death – in my view, unnecessarily tastelessly –  with people singing ‘Dead, dead the witch is dead’, from the Wizard of Oz, through to rather more restrained political commentary, much of which offers parallels between her uncompromising grocery and housekeeping fiscal policy and the no-nonsense, squeeze-the-poor-but-keep-the bankers’-bonuses approach in today’s Westminster. Some people are saying there’s not much to choose between them.
In the 1980’s, satire was richer than now. The Spitting Image puppets introduced a whole generation to a comedic look at Westminster, and no bad thing it was. I revisited a few of the better episodes and realized that I knew by name all the members of the Cabinet, their portfolios, their alleged strengths and weaknesses. As political commentary, it was unsurpassed. Here’s a clip. For those less familiar with the late 20th century, Nigella Lawson’s father is the fat bloke with black hair with a pencil in his mouth.
As an afterthought, the Net is alive with those who propose behaving badly at her funeral – the very worst and most tasteless kind of protest best left to the likes of Westboro Baptist. Much as one might have disagreed with the policies she enacted – ironically the aspirant middle classes benefited most at the expense of the poor many of whose livelihoods were systematically dismantled – wearing smiley faces and turning their backs as the coffin passes is simply in the worst possible taste. Britons allow it because it’s a free country and one can pretty much say whatever one bloody pleases, but rights and responsibility are equal partners. Adolescent jeering mostly from those who were in nappies or earlier during her time at No 10 is disgraceful and really rather sad. Finally, after the tragedy at the Boston Marathon yesterday, everyone will be scurrying around feverishly to ramp up security. Would I go if I were near London? No, I wouldn’t. Not because I’m afraid that some manic jihadist wants to kill me, but because the old lady, iron or not, should be allowed to retire, hors de combat, with neither fanfare nor tears. 

Data Mining

According to the Harvard Business Review, when it comes to making sense of vast amounts of complex data, time is really on our side. It’s a simple concept, one that everyone understands: an action starts, then eventually stops. The distance or the event horizons between those two points convey information – information about then, about now, and about the differences between the two. Being ‘away’ generates vast amounts of data, some of which is valuable, most is not. It takes time to sift through the mountainous piles. Like a poker hand, you have to know what to throw away and what to keep.
When I was at school, geography was one of those grey, indifferent subjects which had to be endured between more interesting activities. I never really was able to get to grips with it probably because my geography teacher was away scaling some impossibly difficult Himalayan peak and the substitute was a squat little Welshman who usually taught PE and coached Rugby, about which he was passionate. Lessons could therefore be fairly easily diverted from the main theme as long as Rugby, particularly Welsh Rugby was under discussion. En passant, we learned about the Steel Company of Wales, if memory serves, which was about as much use as Urdu For Dummies and I left his class no wiser whether Ougadougou or Wolverhampton was closer to Wales. My knowledge of longitude therefore did not extend very far and even as a young  adult I can still recall thinking that New Zealand was a rather jolly little place just off the coast of Australia, within sight of land, rather like the Isle of Wight and easily reached by ferry. 

I imagined it to be populated by dark-skinned, muscular individuals with tattoos – I’d seen ‘The Piano’ after all – with a few white people courtesy of Captain Cook, and quite a number of sheep. Rolling hills and Middle Earth, with quite a good Rugby team, which would have pleased my old geography teacher.
Anyone who has ever booked flights on the Internet will know that there is a malevolent faerie employed by the travel companies whose single job description is to change the numbers. Burrowing in the undergrowth of a million flights and connections one has no sooner tagged and bagged a particular flight than when the site is revisited five minutes later, the flight originally advertised at $1650 has unaccountably been repriced at $3480.  I wondered what extras one gets for this additional amount. A seat, probably. We were committed to visiting only two destinations, Shanghai and Auckland. 
How we got there was a matter for the relevant faeries and their interns, of whom there are thousands, I’m certain, to sit down in the ether somewhere and hammer out an itinerary for us which didn’t cost a king’s ransom, nor involve twenty-six hour stopovers in Kazakhstan. We did make several fortuitous stops in various exotic locations, some with friends and some without. Singapore was one, if memory serves. I think we went to Sydney also – I have a photograph of me beside the Opera House – and we entered Hong Kong as we left it, in the middle of a violent thunderstorm.

When I look at friends’ Facebook interactions, and observe the strong ties they have with members of their families, I realize how conspicuously absent my own is. There is a black hole sometimes where others place the ‘family’ totem. I know it is there and have reconfigured the emotional software to skate around it, much as one might ski around a crevasse which you know is there and all you have to do is avoid it. My personal history has much to do with this and those who know me will understand why. I don’t necessarily envy such connections, for to do so one would have to have intimate knowledge of the object of such envy. I don’t envy the driver of a Bentley, since I’ve only ever seen one from the outside – I have no idea what it feels like to put it in gear and drive round in it. We were met at Auckland airport by a woman I had last known when she was a child. I wondered how we would greet one another. Yet, strange and perverse are the rules of family engagement, here was someone who thought like me. There was a thread, a bridge of some kind which joined us. It didn’t bind us together suffocatingly as two sheaves of wheat – it seemed ephemeral and without substance, yet strong, reaching across years of separation and growth in different directions to allow the unspoken to be perfectly understood and feelings to be calibrated with uncanny accuracy. To my surprise, I found this strangely comforting.

Before we left France, I wondered about her husband, the man with whom she had moved across eleven time zones. I wondered whether he would be ebullient, larger than life, obnoxiously full of backslappery and beery bonhomie, anxious to make me feel at home. Or, would he take a mutinously silent dislike to me, resenting my presence? Turned out I was enriched and blessed by our meeting. I sensed strength and quiet purpose about him – a man who says what needs to be said with clarity and quiet grace. I liked him immensely.
The notion of being a grandfather had always filled me with some degree of horror, since persons of this kind invariably have hairy ears and poor dress sense. It was therefore with some small relief that I met a small boy, my grandson, for the first time, who is the calmest child I have ever come across. I wondered whether he would either throw his arms round me or hide under his bed. Fortunately, he did neither. We sat together sometimes, he and I, sorting Lego into colour coded piles or looking at insects through a small plastic biotrope. He seemed to be OK with that, as was I. 

Far Away

Shanghai in the mist

A month is a long time in the blogosphere. The world rolls forward, news happens, fades and is replaced, screaming headlines washed away in diffuse watercolour ripples of words and opinions. I’ve been away, as most people who know me will be aware. There’s something self-indulgent, even tasteless, about writing a travelogue, since it proclaims to whatever friends you might have left  that you’ve ‘been somewhere’ and they haven’t which drives people into paroxysmal envy or downright disgust at your narcissistic insecurities which suppose that anybody might be remotely interested. Travelling is disturbingly unpredictable and anxieties rise simply because they do things differently in foreign parts. Returning to France is an like an anchor, where the familiar sits comfortably, like a good sofa where I get to sit and think. People groups carry their own unique cultural stamp and it is all too easy to form opinions which can develop into a form of xenophobia, almost racism, just because the unfamiliar is not like we do things at home. There is a large part of me that is a diarist, chronicling events precisely and sequentially but if I did I would find myself missing the significance of the random. Our thoughts do not fall neatly into well-ordered piles, so much of what follows is unapologetically tapestried.

All-pervasive

The Chinese were literate, numerate, architecturally and scientifically sophisticated when  Saxon tribes were slaughtering each other in battles of attrition. They spit loudly and frequently from the windows of their cars and in the streets, preceded by gravelly hawking, grating against the more restrained European sense of propriety, perhaps in response to a society governed by a secretive, shadowy elite without whose patronage and influence nothing gets done and because of it the workers are kept in their place. Chinese society has, decades afterward, still not recovered from the staggering waste of human resources after the Cultural Revolution. The homes of the bourgeoisie were pillaged and vandalised – even toilet seats and bookcases were removed and hurled into the streets  – and people were sent in their millions for re-education in the country, a process which consisted of mindless manual labour and relentless, repetitive exposure to the Thoughts of Chairman Mao, who is still regarded as an almost godlike figure. His statues are still to be found in Shanghai flea markets – his podgy little hand outstretched. He has earned the dubious reputation of presiding over the greatest social disaster of the twentieth century – Stalin killed his millions, Mao his tens of millions – the lowest common denominator established was at the time considered the only panacea for starvation and wretchedness,leaving behind a people who obey instinctively and ‘follow the panda’ in well-organised, manageable groups. And yet, it’s interesting to detect,underneath the veneer of conformity that is so characteristic of Chinese society, a smouldering, almost palpable resentment, a sense of internal dislocation from the groups in which they are forced to participate. 

There is a sense in which China is at a point of inflection – the middle classes, vibrant, wilful and more outspoken than formerly, growl mutinously under the sternness of their rulers, corruption is on an epic scale and environmental degradation is horrendous – small children wear ‘Hello Kitty’ facemasks routinely. The collective, nevertheless, is still the primary social lever – in aeroplanes people chatter loudly like starlings, oblivious to the discomfort felt by individuals – after all, what do they matter anyway? Yet, for them, such behaviour is normal in its indifference. They push against one, the envelope of personal space is different. Their hospitality is, however, generous to the point of embarrassment – we were invited to a private dinner party in Shanghai by a well-known artist and the dishes just kept coming.

By contrast, Australians are characteristically brash, mostly. Signs on bars proclaim ‘we’re open till we’re shut’. Sydney isan easy, relaxed town where the second and third generation of risk-takers from Europe have carved out a life for themselves in the rough sandstone of the bush with initiative, ability and flair. Singaporeans are tight, disciplined and impossibly clean, even by my standards. They wait patiently at the ‘don’t walk’signs, without a vehicle in sight. Small boys attend taekwondo classes accompanied by their nannies, walking through districts named and organised by decades of British influence, or, perhaps imperialism. Hong Kong is exciting,rich and brassy; China meets Park Avenue with more Bentleys per square kilometer than anywhere else on the planet. 
Normally, I like to post pictures, but on this occasion I won’t; instead posting them all at a later date. The ones I have are a metaphor for how I felt at the time. But, more of this later.