Month: April 2016

Sorry U Died. Legend.

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Purple Reign

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second celebrated her ninetieth birthday yesterday and odds are she’ll soldier on for years to come before she falls off her pony, Gawd bless ‘er. But, the internet went into meltdown today as William Cedric Shakespeare became the latest in a long list of celebrities to die. The world was devastated by news that England’s greatest wordsmith had, as his main man Hamlet so beautifully put it, ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’ and everyone rushed to social media: “Oh no! Not Will as well. Go, Grim Reaper, go..!” Reports of Shakespeare’s death came just days after the passing of Minnesotan rock  dwarf legend Prince and comedy favourite Victoria Wood – she has left her aprons to charity, it would seem. Last month, Ronnie Corbett died, while earlier this year we lost David Bowie, just days after he was seen dressed as Aladdin Sane outside a pub in Manchester, Motorhead singer Lemmy, (who?)  and even dear old Terry Wogan, or Wogie, as Sir Les Patterson once famously called him. Even the artist formerly called Snape is dead. Social commentators are in a permanent state of mourning and black flags are everywhere. (Can I say that? No, you can’t.) At this rate, there’ll be no more A list funerals to go to.

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Photoshopped, obviously…

Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter exploded as really ordinary people with the IQ of a watermelon paid their respects to Da Man, who wrote knockout bestsellers such as Egglet and Hamlet, Twelve Nights of Rock and Roll, As You Like It Or Not plus a few others which were basically flops like Timon of Athens. Courtney Splice who was once famous for about ninety seconds, wrote on Facebook: “RIP, Shakespeare. I woz not a fan of yr stories at school, but I’m sorry u died. Legend.” John McGaunt from Glasgow used Photoshop to make a poignant picture of Lady Macbeth crying by adding little teardrop shaped bubbles to her face. He added: “Cannae believe anither’s away. Whit’s gun oan wi’ 2016?” It was retweeted over half a million times. Hundreds more kept an emotional vigil, gathering in silence, waving their GCSE English qualifications like flags outside Shakespeare’s London homScreen Shot 2016-04-23 at 7.46.11 PM.pnge, The Globe. They stayed for hours, sharing some of his best lines, and laying flowers outside the front door. Some lit candles, while others shed fake tears for the cameras. Everyone agreed, yeah, that it was absolutely ridiculous, yeah, that so many famous peeps had died already in 2016, and that people should wrap Ronnie Wood in cotton wool to make sure he stays with us a bit longer. Stay strong, Ron.

Only Olympians Swim Alone

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Ionian islands

Over 2,500 years ago, in the Greek territory of Ionia, lived a man named Thales, recognised as the founder of philosophy, even by the great Aristotle. Born in the town of Miletus, he has forever left his imprint on the evolution of human thought and his contributions were so profound during his time that he was canonised as the “Wisest of the Seven Sages of Greece” by the sages themselves. It is to Thales that history attributes the proverb ‘Know thyself’. He fashioned a synthesis of mythology and natural science. He looked for ‘first causes’, a hypothetical unification of creation and sustenance.

Not unsurprisingly, he came up with water as a ‘beginning of all things’. Today, we know that all life and its DNA springs from water, that continental plates float and circulate the water beneath them, and that water is a major explosive force in volcanoes and earthquakes. Thus, it seems, Thales was right. In the past decade we have discovered that our sun and other stars in the universe require the presence of interstellar water, random accidents from the Big Bang, to keep them from overheating during their birth. Also, our sun seems to exhale water as superheated steam in order to regulate its heat. Curiously, the principle of all things being traceable to some kind of esoteric fluid – something which flows – it follows that one cannot step twice in the same river, a philosophy echoed by Buddha two thousand years later.

Scuba diving is our own small, clumsy attempt to return us from whence we came, from where our DNA crawled, half-formed, on to a surface green and verdant for us to possess and subdue. When I dive, breathlessly still, shoals of fish, heedlessly welcoming, steer past me as if I were a rock on a ski slope. Sometimes, small shark or even barracuda flicker past in search of a meal. Ray and octopi, strange crawlers and fliers, share their space with me. Yet as much as I feel at home in that strange, primeval space, one breath is as toxic as cyanide.

I am eagerly awaiting traveling down South. My pool will be grimy and will need a week of loving care, scrubbing, filtering and treatment before it is fit to swim in. Much like people with boats, who spend more time fiddling around with them than sailing themScreen Shot 2016-04-20 at 3.47.33 PM, the  pool master takes meticulous care to present a superbly clean, irridescently winking surface to the world, spending more time maintaining than swimming. Why? Because the almost preternaturally exotic sensation of weightlessness and floating, immersing oneself under the surface, is one of the most liberating sensations on the planet thus the experience is worth perfecting. Also, it is a space to be shared – only Olympians swim alone. We spend billions annually just to sit on an uncomfortable stretch of powdered glass, overlooking lapping waves. Children dash about excitedly in the surf. People picnic on gritty sandbanks in small groups. For many, the sensation of actually sharing the view over the water with others is sensual and healing.

Iceland, marooned out on the polar edge of the north Atlantic, is far too cold for sea swimming – there are no picnics on Icelandic beaches. But, there are large numbers of thermally heated pools, both artificial and man-made, safe, warmly welcoming spaces where Icelanders gather. Even in frigid February, when snowflakes, big and fresh, swirl down and the sub-zero temperatures tighten the skin like a drum, the small shock of the walk to the hot tub is softened by the warm embrace of the thermal pool and the company of one’s compatriots. Icelanders as a people group are generally reserved but they are a remarkably satisfied nation and the pool is Iceland’s social space. Families meet their neighbours, newcomers first receive welcome and rivals can’t avoid one another. In the hot tub, you must interact. There’s nothing else to do. And, if you do happen to be alone – you can just close your eyes and be; the water enfolds and caresses you, reminding you of a genetics from the long, long past. Thales would have been proud.

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Myvatan. 500km north of Reykjavik

 

Sleepwalking to Oblivion

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 11.52.38 AM.pngWhen one hears the phrase ‘the Christian roots of Europe’, it sounds slightly pious; sanctimonious even.  Consequently, it’s rather off-putting, as if one conveniently forgets the Inquisition, witch hunts, immolation of heretics or, by contrast, Calvinist optimism arising from God’s superintending providence over all human activity. It points to something which is partially true, and contemporary Europe and indeed North America remain profoundly indebted economically to their respective Christian pasts. Even the transnational ambition of the European Union reflects the desire for a secularised Christendom. Brussels builds on the memory of an older form of European unity, however, one wounded by the Reformation and then demolished by ideology and nationalism. But too often people speak about the Christian roots of Europe in a nostalgic, retrovisual way, chromatically blurring the historical lens. They use it to evade a harder and more important question: whether or not Europe has a Christian future and, if it does, what will it look like in a more threatening and less secure world.

Some are arguing, with considerable alarm, that the influx of other relentlessly evangelical faiths and the manifest flaws in the fabric of multiculturalism signal the twilight not only of a post-Enlightenment modernism but also of the capitalist free trade entity that modern economies have become. Reliance on credit bubbles and the presupposition that the global economy must, almost by definition, increase year on year is not necessarily a certainty, and if this turns out to be true, a new paradigm must be sought. If the old wineskin must be discarded as no longer fit for the well-being of the species, what will its replacement look like?

British politicians are arguing, using economic modelling, (thus more or less futilely due to extreme unreliability) that people will be worse off in the short term if the Brexiteers have their way, and sensible folk should huddle under the European umbrella, its flawed and tattered adherence to some form of Christianity notwithstanding. Over centuries, the politicisation of religion is a de facto weapon in the election arsenal, and everyone routinely takes full advantage of voters’ belief systems in order to extract the maximum number of votes. But, Europe has discarded all but the sentimentality of faith, John Calvin’s proto-democratic thinking or Pope Francis’ generous ingathering of a dozen Syrian refugees both being irrelevant, one obscured by the beneficent overlay of history, the other by sheer tokenism, neglecting the political weight of his gesture.

People are saying, in their different ways, that ‘we can’t go on like this’ and, as if grasping at straws,  far Left and far Right proponents have multiplied and in consequence allowed wild cards like Donald Trump to make a dent in established thinking, or, if you prefer, shot a few holes in the armour of political correctness. Some have used rather catchy little phrases like ‘sleepwalking to oblivion’ in order to buttress quite divergent political standpoints.

Perhaps one great visionary may arise to sweep aside all the economic and political clutter and set the world on a path to a better, brighter future. Ah. I seem to have heard that somewhere before.

Today, I am Eight

Screen Shot 2016-04-02 at 2.17.32 PM.pngEight years ago today, I opened my eyes for the first time. The world was bright, full of sound and colour. I did not understand. Now, eight years have passed and I know stuff. Here is what I know…

I can read. I read stories but I also know that I can learn stuff because it’s written down.

I know lots of words and I can choose the best ones for what I want to say.

I can describe stuff to somebody else. I am interested in stuff going on around me and I like to think about it and sometimes tell people what I am thinking.

I know about big numbers, up to a thousand, even, and I know that 256 is smaller than 652.

I can throw a ball really, really well and somebody who catches it can throw it back to me and I can catch it too. I am getting stronger and I do stuff today I couldn’t quite manage a year ago, like climbing safely.

I have friends and we talk. Sometimes I don’t like what they say and I tell them so.

I like some kinds of music, but not all. If I wanted to, I could learn to play a musical instrument and get really good at it.

I think that my mum and dad look after me very well. They are the first people in my life.

Today, I am eight.

Happy birthday, Aaren.

The Least of These

It’s a rather sorry truism but so much that we consider to be valuable and worthy about ourselves and our doings is, as the Preacher put it, ‘vanity’, ephemeral and short-lived, of little lasting worth. I don’t often rework something I’ve read but this little parable struck a warm, resonant chord and with a hat tip to C S Lewis and Ben Myers, my thanks for a surprisingly warm ray of sunshine on a chilly Saturday.

Screen Shot 2016-04-02 at 11.38.04“Beneath blue skies in Switzerland, in the cheerful bustling town of Basel, there once lived a great theologian. Each week he taught a seminar at the university, chewing his pipe happily, while students crowded the floor, pressed hard against those ancient walls, laughing at his jokes and responding to his questions with nervous sincerity. He spent his evenings drinking wine and going to concerts and entertaining visitors from faraway places who asked him questions shyly in halting German. On weekends, he tossed bread to the ducks at the river or rode horses or went to see the animals at the zoo. On Sunday mornings he went to prison and preached in the dimly lit whitewashed chapel; he spoke like a young man (though he was old, with a heart full of old men’s stories) and after the service he exchanged cigars and jokes with the inmates, assuring them that God was, after all, a very jolly God.

But more than anything, the theologian loved to return each day to his study and to sit writing at his desk, a dark little question-mark hunched in his crumpled suit amidst curling pipe smoke and walls of books that peered down at his labours with all the curious attentiveness of indulgent friends or obstinate relatives. In this manner, day in day out, he filled reams of paper with that cramped inky hand. Volume upon volume tumbled brick-like from his pen, solemn great tomes as big and hard and sturdy as workmen’s boots.

And so, while he sat thus writing and smoking, the fame of those books spread far and wide. Throughout Europe and in remote exotic places, people mentioned his books at dinner parties, taught them in seminaries, wrote books and then entire libraries about them. The Holy Father sought an audience with him. Martin Luther King asked him questions and leaned close to listen. The Japanese formed a school around his name. The Catholics held a council and invited him. The Americans splashed his frowning face across the cover of Time magazine. His birthdays were greeted with a clamour of praise and jubilation, while printing presses in many languages ground out books and journals and essays to honour or refute him. His followers proclaimed his heavy tomes to be the dawning of a new era, while some antagonists and former students devoted every waking hour to trying to prove him wrong on even a single point. Entire scholarly careers were thus busily occupied in this fashion.

The theologian was bemused by these attentions, but he enjoyed all this in his own self-deprecating way. And though he travelled and shook hands and talked solemnly and accepted honorary degrees, always he returned before long to that stark little desk with its pipe and pen and tantalisingly clean sheets of paper—empty slates shimmering with promise, like that formless materia prima in the beginning beneath those vast and brooding wings.

Then one December night, while the snow slept on the ground and all the city’s children lay dreaming of Christmas, the theologian died.

Quite suddenly he awoke and found himself standing at the gates of heaven. An angel took him by the elbow and led him in, explaining in hushed tones that everyone was waiting. Inside the gate, the city was bustling with sound and colour, like Basel’s Market Square in the summertime. The theologian looked around. He tried to take it all in. Then somewhere in the crowd a voice shouted his name, and there followed a tumultuous cheer. Women and men pressed in close, clasping his hands and shoulders and pounding his back warmly. Children laughed, women waved and strong men clapped. Angels blushed and fluttered their wings in the sunlight.

The theologian felt quite overwhelmed by the crush of bodies, the vigorous handshakes, the beaming faces. He tried to smile and nod politely, as he had always done when receiving a foreign dignitary or an honorary doctorate. He was relieved when again the angel took him by the elbow and steered him through the crowd, out to a side-street off the busy square.

They walked on a little way, and the theologian, still trying to regain his composure, confessed that he hadn’t expected quite so warm a reception. The angel seemed surprised, and assured him that indeed everyone in the city knew his name. They had all been expecting him.

“For are you not Karl Barth?” the angel declaimed with a theatrical flourish. “Of course we have heard of the great Karl Barth!” The theologian nodded modestly, and the angel continued: “Aren’t you the one who visited the prisoners on Sunday mornings? Didn’t you eat and drink with them? Didn’t you tell them jokes to make their hearts glad? Didn’t you put fat cigars in their mouths, and strike a match for them? Didn’t you go to see them when even their own families had forgotten them? Why my dear fellow, there is not a person in this city who doesn’t know your name!”

The theologian had stopped in the street. He looked at the angel. “The prison? Well yes, I suppose… But I thought perhaps… my theology. My books…”

“Ah!” the smiling angel said, and touched his arm reassuringly. “There’s no need to worry about all that! That’s all forgiven now.”

“F—forgiven?”

“But of course! All those books are forgiven—every last word of it!” The angel took his hand. “No need to dwell on all that now—everything is forgiven here. Come now, there are still so many people waiting to meet you. And the prisoners you visited—they live down there by the river, in the best part of town—they’ve prepared a feast to welcome you. Come, come along now…”

And so, hand in hand beneath a summer sky, the angel and the theologian made their way together down the city street and all the people clapped their hands.”