Brief Histories

The Champs-Elysées is quite crowded on a Sunday afternoon, but the cinemas are not. Fewer than thirty people were in the theatre for the Theory of Everything, despite five Oscar nominations,  the story of Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde the arts student he fell in love with whilst studying at Cambridge in the 1960s. 

Hawking was a bright but unfocused and rather socially inept student of cosmology, scraping into Cambridge and given just two years to live following the diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease when only twenty-one. 
The trailer shows his first major fall, a real smackdown on an unsympathetically hard surface in a Cambridge quad. The story follows the love story between himself and fellow Cambridge arts student, Jane Wilde. Over the course of their marriage, we watch Stephen’s body collapse as his academic reputation soars, and fault lines were exposed that tested the boundaries of their relationship and dramatically altered the course of both of their lives. There’s not a lot of physics – it really isn’t a quantum mechanical primer – the stuff about black holes is fuzzily vague and the blackboard equations aren’t on-screen for long enough to check their accuracy. It’s a good people drama, a bit schmaltzy and Britishly uptight, a nice glimpse of what Cambridge might have been like in the late 1950s. The male lead – who was he again – is definite Oscar bait and Jane’s primly C of E middle classness evoked a personal shudder or two.

Jane and Stephen

I did find some of the editing bizarrely careless and they took a few serious liberties with the history of physics. Jane scribbles her phone number on a napkin and thrusts it into Stephen’s hand after a party. The 0223 prefix written on the napkin didn’t take effect until some time later. There’s a beautiful image of the two of them at a May Ball where Sagittarius is clearly visible in the starlit firmament, impossible to see at that elevation and time of year. Irritatingly, when the family goes to Bordeaux on holiday, they seem to have bent time a little too far, driving a model of car that was not released until five years later. 
Hawking, like so many scientists, is brilliant when addressing the “what” and the “how”. He is on less certain ground, however, when talking about the “why”.  He cannot explain where the laws of physics came from or why they work, neither can he explain his faith in the non-existence of the afterlife, for example and attempting to do so via reductio ad absurdum uses metaphysics rather naively. Science is universal, faith is of necessity personal. He asserts his uncomfortable atheism early in the film and one can’t help but wonder whether as his ideas hardened into a more securely held and more strident version, that this in part contributed to the failure of his marriage. OK, enough nitpicking. Six and a half out of ten, a 2:1 but not a First.

Funny! Ha, Ha!

This post is part of a piece to be published under a pseudonym.
Longer ago than I care to remember, I lived in a place called England. One or two of you might have heard of it. It’s overcrowded there and it pours with rain. Rather a lot, as it happens. With a name like Peregrine, of course, this should come as no surprise – not the rain, but my birthplace. My dear old mother, not, I have to admit, the sharpest chisel in the toolbox, adhered to the delusional belief that if she gave me what she perceived to be a name redolent of wealth and privilege, I might somehow in my maturer years actually get to move in such exalted circles myself. The result was, people used to make faces at me at school and call me ‘pelican’ and I still catch the bus home at night. The neighbours often remarked, in the words of Mae West, that “she should have thrown me away and kept the stork.”
But, back to England and my mother. She had a phrase – used tiresomely often – from which the title of this little offering is taken. She used to say… “Funny! Ha, ha!”. This was as close as she ever got to a breath of sarcasm, to which my father, a self-made man who worshipped his creator and, well-trained Pavlovian that he was, would rumble “No. Funny peculiar” from behind his newspaper, to gales of merriment underlain by the grinding of my pre-adolescent teeth. Which probably accounts for the horrendously awkward overbite which I now have the misfortune to suffer from.
Never let it be whispered that old Perry has a political bone in his body. I haven’t, and the thought of tramping about waving some species of placard bearing some outrageously simplistic meme does turn the old stomach a bit. Especially when accompanied by large women wearing glasses with a revolutionary gleam in their eyes and a hedonistic desire to be hauled off to the calaboose by the local constabulary. Nevertheless, in common with what appeared to be half the population of the republican Shangri-La where I now make my home, in response to the well-documented incidents in Paris, where people were actually killed because of a cartoon, I turned up the other week, and milled about anonymously for a bit, more out of idle curiosity than anything else to see what all the fuss was about.
A fat French bloke
Now, I want you to hear me clearly. In the soul of every Frenchman is the instinct to do two things. First, to pee wherever he pleases, whether in a public place or not and second, to think, say and even draw whatever he likes. It’s generally believed that this is called Free Speech.  You may not agree that this image of the grossly overweight French actor Gérard Dépardieu with the caption “ can Belgium welcome all the cholesterol in the world?” – he left France to live in Belgium in order to reduce his tax bill – is remotely amusing, but some people think that the right to say it is the important thing. It pokes fun at Mr Dépardieu’s excess poundage and it ridicules his decision to leave for a cosier fiscal climate.  The joke is supposedly satirical. The Purists among us refer –rather grandly – to Satire as a ‘genre’ of literature or art, in which all manner of vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to wider issues in society.
On the other hand, so my mother told me, satire is when people poke fun at their elders and betters to make a point and is a nasty, low form of gutter entertainment much like watching people being torn limb from limb in the Roman amphitheatres. She once referred me to this, without a flicker of expression.
We do live in an age of the quick-fire riposte, the headline tweet, the unforgettable meme. It’s never been easier to show off our satirical skills on social media and magazines. No, I’m not going to draw a cartoon, although we might notice that just about every newspaper known to mankind has a resident cartoonist. Perhaps a statistician might disagree, to which my response would be in the words of the anthropologist and literary critic Andrew Lang: “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts – for support rather than illumination.”For myself, I’ve always rather admired those who use the written word, irony and sarcasm with the skill of a master fencer but whatever happened to the art of the glorious, perfectly timed, off-the-cuff insult?
Before the English language got boiled down to four-letter words and textspeak and emoticons were a figment of depixellated imagination, you duelled verbally with the satirist at your peril. Imagine this, in the British House of Commons. A Member of Parliament once said to Benjamin Disraeli: “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.” Not a bad opening gambit, but what about this for a response: “That depends, Sir,” said Disraeli, “whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.” Disraeli clearly had what Walter Kerr once described as “delusions of adequacy.”
Winston Churchill was a master at the put-down.  The playwright George Bernard Shaw was no admirer of the Great Man but it was politically expedient to include him. “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one.” Bernard Shaw wrote. Churchill’s response was masterly: “Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second, if there is one.” After the performance, he might have quoted Groucho Marx: “I’ve had a wonderful evening. But, this wasn’t it.”
“He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire” Churchill once remarked in reference to Sir Stafford Cripps, whose Marxist sympathies brought WSC out in a rash. He might have come up with this on the same subject, but it has been attributed to the American lawyer and wit Clarence Darrow: “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”
Writers are often the most scaldingly abusive about fellow-members of their profession – after all it is their job to use words in ways others might shrink from.  William Faulkner was quite scathing about Ernest Hemingway, being quoted as remarking: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway, not slow to respond, replied:  “Poor Faulkner. Does he think big emotions come from big words?” Hemingway might easily have been the butt of Oscar Wilde’s famous funereal quip: “he had no enemies, but was intensely disliked by his friends.”
One of these days, I might get around to writing a book, as long as I can find a way to get over the suicidal disappointment of rejection from any and all publishers who might receive an unsolicited copy. Imagine how one might feel if Moses Hadas, the American teacher and classical scholar upon receiving one’s manuscript had replied: “Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I’ll waste no time reading it.”
Returning momentarily to Oscar Wilde: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”  So, this might be a good time for me to go, too. If I have upset anybody, by word or implication, I am sorry, perhaps I have Van Gogh’s ear for music. If I have, in the words of Mark Twain, “why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?”  Say something!


Ah, Praxis

Satire, together with mindless slaughter, is quite popular these days, or “trending steeply”, as we technophiles are apt to put it, so in the timeless words of Monty Python, “…and now for something completely different.” 

I went to an Alpha Course launch party last night including free wine and nibbles. I was made to wear a name badge; in light of which, I found myself musing on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant instead of watching the video, a kind of reverse praxis. It left me thinking that church needs remodelling to improve user experience, like Facebook. In the grand and relatively newly-discovered liberal belief system, the spiritual equivalent of the Sky Fairy, there’s no such thing as a silly idea, just an idea whose time has not yet come. And, ideas that never will be because some hegemonic pensioner has blocked it at the committee stage. Not forgetting, of course, ideas that just piss people off. So, here’s a few suggestions of my own.
Bring your own pebble
Liturgical clog-dancing to a trance-like, hypnotic beat to encourage the practice of inner spirituality. This to include pebble-holding with closed eyes and Theravada chanting. Once a month, replaced by Adult Church with mud and optional wrestling.
Much noisier worship, to include throwing paper aeroplanes in the shape of doves to encourage younger worshippers. This to include a visit from the liturgical panda, complete with mitre, when passing the Peace – an idea I got from visiting Disneyland – there’s a nice ecology tie-in here.
Replacing the prayers of confession with a short aromatherapy session, so everybody feels better about the things they’ve done wrong without getting all grovelly about it. As an incentive, a points system for sin, in the style of traffic violations, including public naming, shaming and in serious cases, tarring and feathering. Might be an opportunity for a bit of interfaith dialogue, instead of a prayer closet at the end of the service, a shari’a court could be made available to implement punishments.
All female church greeters to be dressed in matching bikinis in colours consonant with changing liturgical seasons, to give people the impression that they’re visiting Abercrombie and Fitch.

This is a work in progress, really, so I welcome ideas from kindred souls. Or not.

Je Suis Charlie. Love From Paris

Sundays are usually quiet in Paris. Church bells ring. Pedestrians reclaim the streets, mothers with push chairs and fathers holding the hands of their sons. It’s peaceful, the parks and gardens of the City of Light are tranquil in the soft winter morning light. But, not today. Paris saw a gathering of Biblical proportions, numberless, as people converged on the Place de la République in Paris in the biggest turnout since the end of the Second World War. I had read somewhere that one was supposed to say a special prayer if a congregation of Exodus magnitude gathered. I didn’t know the prayer, so I said the Shema. Twice, just to be sure.
The concept of ‘laïcité’ runs through French veins as freely as the Beaujolais. Shooting people in the vain, futile hope of deterrence only serves to rouse a leviathan. Which was indeed roused today. Arriving early at the Place, the flow rate was slow, determined and inexorable, a lava of people, adults and children, mothers, fathers, grandparents, old men on crutches. Most were displaying the ubiquitous ‘Je Suis Charlie’ slogan, either hand-scrawled with a crayon, printed on a scrap of paper or on a T shirt. Even the aging, bored prostitutes off the rue St Denis managed a little more than their customary encouraging smile having caught sight of the logo worn by so many. The world was there. Leaders of nations linked arms, Hollande a few down from Netanyahu, Cameron and Merkel, a nervous Abbas close by. Armed, flak-jacketed gendarmes, police and soldats patrolled watchfully. This was a day for the French and those who support them. Transport over the whole region was free in an attempt to persuade people to leave their cars at home. And they came. La Marseillaise was sung, shouted and bawled tunelessly, flags were waved, women wearing hijabs clutched their ‘Charlie’ signs in French and Arabic to their chests. And, yes. The Jews came too. In their thousands, some climbing on to Léopold Morice’s iconic statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, waving their flag. In Le Marais, this afternoon, all seemed normal, people going about their business on the first day of the week. What can I, a Gentile say to you? “Be not afraid?”. No, because I am not on the front line – the supermarket killer went after you, specifically, not me. But, if enough people say “be not afraid” and stand shoulder to shoulder with you, protected by a bulwark of democracy and freedom of thought that the barbarian, with all his guns, rage, and shabby rhetoric, is unable ultimately to penetrate, we can say with you: “No. We will not go quietly into the night.” We too can take as our own the words of the Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

Sirens and Blood

Final moments of the hostage crisis at a kosher supermarket in Vincennes
Central Paris yesterday was wound up like a watch spring. It was a day of sirens, helicopters, news bulletins; police cordons and anxious crowds; of young children led away from schools to safety. Police vehicles moving at very high speed eastwards and the closure of the eastern Ring created road and rail chaos, impacting almost everyone. It was a day, like the previous two, of blood and horror in and around Paris, one that ended with France unsure whether this drama is now truly over or a predictor of more cultural, religious and political violence to come. Twin co-ordinated operations at the kosher market in eastern Paris and the industrial park near Dammartin-en-Goële to the north-east resulted in the efficient dispatch of those who clearly preferred martyrdom to surrender at a cost of several innocent hostages’ lives in addition to the carnage at Charlie Hebdo the day before. The killing of a dozen people in Wednesday’s attack has prompted an outpouring of tributes from cartoonists around the world, flooding the Internet with images ranging from the elegiac to the scabrously rude. If, as some have suggested, this was indeed France’s 9/11, perhaps the shock was so much greater; the violence having come from their own, French-speakers, market-grown terrorists, speaking the argot of the heavily-immigrant banlieues as well as the French of Voltaire.
CH has always been at the sharp end of political and social satire and its origins were in the ‘do it because we can’ mentality of the 1960’s French radicals who went further than anyone else to lampoon, ridicule and poke sharp sticks at almost everyone who set themselves up as a target. Most are either offended or amused – precisely the intention of the cartoonists since that is the purpose of satire. But, disturbing and hitherto unanswered questions remain. If Muslims in general are offended by caricatures of Mohammed, how far are the rank and file prepared to go? Despite much soothing platitude from senior imams last night, distancing their version of Islam from the bloodshed and carnage, it would seem that for some, mere offence is not enough and they invoke darker passages in the Qu’ran and the hadiths to support their view. One hardliner refused last night to unilaterally condemn the CH killings – invoking a verse from the Qu’ran inviting those who ‘insult a prophet’ to be killed. But to whom is this verse addressed; to other Muslims, the kuffar, or everybody? Because the Muslim response to it matters. If the kuffar, he is ignorant of his blasphemy and should not therefore be held responsible. If to the Muslim, he should know better than to be rude about one whom his faith teaches to love more than family. Indeed, to which ‘prophet’ does the verse refer?

Istanbul – outside the French Embassy
Questions that should have been asked months ago now clamour for answers. How did the perpetrators slip the intelligence net? How large and how organized is the radicalized part of France’s Muslim population, the largest in Europe? How deep is the rift between France’s secular values, of individual, sexual and religious freedom, of freedom of the press and the freedom to shock, and a growing Muslim conservatism that rejects many of these values in the name of religion? And how can the rift be bridged, if at all by politicians who do little but bleat forlornly about unity?

Fearless Disrespect

After the firebombing in Nov 2011

Twelve dead. Four injured, so far, and a crowd, all holding pens, is growing in number in the Place de la République. Indeed, all over France, people are spontaneously gathering, as the murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo seep into people’s consciousness and which might well be a 9/11 moment for the French, striking as it does at the heart of what François Hollande described as ‘la liberté’. Tomorrow is a national day of mourning. All the French magazines are producing parody Charlie Hebdo black covers – from both right and left. The Islamists have seriously miscalculated the political reach of the satirists, who are hugely popular in France. It is a deep irony that one of the murdered cartoonists was Georges Wolinski, a Tunisian Jew, half Sephardi and half Ashkenazi.

100 lashes if you don’t die laughing

They didn’t kill randomly; Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch had planned this for months taking revenge for perceived slights on the Prophet. Like everyone else, the images of people bursting in to the office waving AK47’s and screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ in front of a few old guys sitting round a table having a meeting is repellent. These killers, however, were calm and deliberate. They knew who they were coming for. Because some people think it’s not OK to publish satire and especially not OK to be provocative about the Prophet of Islam. We have news for you. Satire – the poking fun at authoritarian figures – which in free societies, people do – is a healthy form of freedom of expression. Nobody gets killed, nothing more sinister happens than a few ruffled feathers, but the point and the protest has been made. I rather wonder what the world would think if the Swiss Guard besieged the offices of Charlie Hebdo because it had been rude about the Pope.
Ironically, Michel Houllebecq’s new novel “Submission” was published in France today. It is a fiction (let’s be clear) about a futuristic France under Muslim control and he is now under police protection since the cover of his book appears, not unsurprisingly, in the most recent edition of Charlie Hebdo. The book has sparked fierce controversy. Laurent Joffrin, editor-in-chief of left-leaning French newspaper Libération, argued that the novel “will mark the date in history when the ideas of the far-right made a grand return to serious French literature”.
“This is a book that ennobles the ideas of the Front National,” he added. Alain Jakubovitch, president of the anti-racism group LICRA, added: “This is the best Christmas present Marine Le Pen could wish for.” Whether the Far Right ideology has mass appeal or not, the Charlie Hebdo outrage will do little to weaken it. Not since ‘The Satanic Verses’ has there been such a resurgence of interest. Salman Rushdie, its author, released the following today: “Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason when combined with modern weaponry, becomes a real threat to our freedoms. He is quite right if he describes religion as being deaf to entreaty, debate and dialogue, which militant Islam does quite well.
He continues: “This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.”
‘It’s hard being loved by assholes’ RIP Cabu
I hope he does not only defend the ‘art of satire’, worthy as such a defence is. Satire gives us a virtual platform, a soap-box on which we can stand like an actor on stage. People can throw virtual cabbages at us as much as they like.  However, defence of those whose freedom of speech is either trampled upon or physically threatened is a prime directive in a free society.  First Amendment freedom without responsibility, however, is damaging and counterproductive. Some universities are so morally compromised by the relativism that they have preached for so long that they are becoming incapable of hearing a view they do not agree with without riot and protest in the meetings. Jewish students, in particular have been shouted down and not given the courtesy of a hearing.
Rushdie goes on to say “‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”
And, he is right. Furthermore, if a God needs murderers to stand up for him, he’s not worthy of people’s worship.