Civilisation, Catholicism and Syphilis

I tend to avoid historical, bloated vacation sagas – after all, who could possibly be interested in where I have been and what I’ve been up to for the last fortnight or so. There’s a certain rather metallic hubris in asserting my superiority over you – the “I was there and you weren’t” kind of bragging – that makes all normal people reach for the vomitorium, or make not particularly subtle comments about sunburned necks and how very painful they must be.
It began well enough, I suppose – the flight times allowed some leeway on stopover times – and we spent a deadeningly quiet evening in downtown Washington, only marginally more exciting than watching silver tarnish. The Big House – the one about which Bob Hope once said he’d never be President because his wife didn’t want to move to somewhere smaller – was tastefully floodlit and guarded by armed soldiery with ‘Secret Service’ prominently visible on the Kevlar and crowds on Penn Ave were conspicuous by their absence. The T shirts and other politically spiteful memorabilia on sale at Dulles were worth a wait in the departure lounge, however.
Cancún is a feisty, colourful place, divided into the glitzy resort all-in vacation residences and very modest hotels and hostels to cater for the backpackers and fixed budget types, us, in other words. Car rental was a surreal wait for over two hours in conditions more usually seen in the Gobi Desert. After an hour or so, I wanted to kill someone, preferably myself. I thought it ironic that nobody had bothered to put screen wash in the car. After the first few stops – two days in each and a drive down the eastern spine of the Yúcatan peninsula – they did begin to look a bit similar; “boutique” being the prevailing descriptor. Each had a pool with varying degrees of cleanliness and pet iguanas of variable sizes. These are spectacularly ill-tempered and repellently ugly, looking as if they are refugees from ‘Jurassic Park’, which, in a sense, they are.
One rather more upmarket residence had a massive bed, TV and kitchen, Netflix on demand and almost a walk-in fridge.  I could happily have stayed for a month. Another, a rather rural establishment, locked the dogs in a compound at night lest they be attacked by jaguars.
The scuba diving off the long north south reef is supposed to be the second best in the world, surpassed only by the Great Barrier Reef in eastern Australia. It was evident that the reef head had been badly damaged, with less species that could be seen off Eilat. Diving pelicans were abundant and turtles could be seen on payment of a fee. A long, sleek barracuda glided morosely past me, with a flicker of interest in its flat, dead eyes.
We post-colonialists tend to forget that only 500 yeas ago Hernán Cortés came, saw, and thirteen years later, conquered, bringing civilisation, Catholicism and syphilis to a proud, well-ordered society, which had developed counting methods, the use of zero and business arithmetic long before the Arabs, and whose ancient  beach side temples were a fascinating glimpse into a culture which used  human sacrificial appeasement to keep the gods sweet.
Pure blooded Mexicans have almost Peruvian features, dark olive skin and a proud bearing, courteous and measured, evidenced by a quite unexpected lack of mania when behind the wheel of a car.
I was also fortunate in seeing a few places off the tourist track, in particular, the hospital at Valladolid, a well-ordered little place with proper checkerboard blocks and streets. Was it pleurisy? Apparently not. Pneumonia? No. Turned out after ultrasound to be acute pyelonephritis which feels like your kidney is being torn out by the talons of a malevolent dragon. Three days later I was well enough to no longer feel as if I was being electrocuted. Armed with enough antibiotic to slaughter the folic acid metabolism of legions of bacteria festering in the urinary tract and enough opioid analgesic to enable me to float pleasantly above the world, I am now realising that my body thinks that it is 4am. ‘Night, all.

Existential Fatigue

Screen Shot 2.pngIt’s snowing again outside, which is inconvenient for most people here but for me it provides me with the opportunity to look out at the world with fresh eyes. There’s nowhere to go at the moment, the narrow island road is sheet ice and the temporary car park is a quagmire. Finding stuff to do is the single most important occupation for people like me to prevent their descent into an abyssal of navel-gazing wrapped in a black cloak of boredom, accompanied by ambiguous fatigue. I was always told as a child that I should have no time to be bored, my days instead should be filled with wholesome purpose and activity, all else being sinfully slothful. What a shame. Chronic boredom has been an awkward little companion that I’ve carried around for a long time, sitting on my shoulder whispering nothing in particular into my ear. Sometimes, it feels like a piece of chewing gum, spat out and discarded, that has the nasty habit of lodging itself under the shoe of my life, making everything so wretched and annoying. Wherever I walk, it’s as though I’m always aware of this imperceptible presence that sullies the experience of whatever comes next with its infuriating stickiness. Burrowing down into some psychobabble the other day – how else does one spend one’s time –  I came across the phrase ‘existential fatigue’. I wasn’t altogether sure what it meant, so looked it up:

“Existential fatigue is the weight of the world on your soul, mind and emotions. A fatigue born of the search for meaning and purpose that your foremothers and forefathers returned to the soil without it wetting their dry tongues and cracked lips.” A little bit flowery perhaps, but I quite liked that part – very tribal.

Continuing the rather doom-laden theme: “This sort of fatigue peels the fear of death from your childish eyes. It hangs you upside down and bleeds the hope, the audacity to dream, and self-confidence from the veins of your soul. This is a form of lynching that allows you to go on living as you’re half-dead. It blinds you with generational anger and places your feet on the red coal of your ancestors’ bones.” There’s a kind of Camus-like absurdist certainty about this which is mildly disturbing. Those who know me will be aware that I have been, let’s say, ‘generationally angry’. I’m angry AT my parents – because of them, if you will, but I don’t carry the same externalised rages as they did.

Reading on: “It’s the kind of fatigue that shows you the naked and grotesque difference between perception and reality and inverts both.  You are now not sure whether it is you or the world that has gone crazy.” Some truth there – Nietszche would have agreed, but he was insane so his opinion can’t really be trusted.
So, this post is, if you like – or even if you don’t – my attempt to speak a new language to articulate the discomfort, to crystallise fleeting moments of possibility and so internalise intuitive truths. Against all odds, we – even I –  persist in our/my search for meaning and purpose in a world increasingly bankrupt of both. So much for definition; what about solution?

Boredom is often a result of forgetting to be thankful for what we have. When the mind is in the habit of constantly finding gratification in a future-orientated thought or feeling, the present can never quite feel “good enough.” Not only that, but when we take for granted what we have, we often expect it to be even better than what it is capable of being by imposing our beliefs, desires and expectations on to it. The result is, inevitably, disappointment.

Ingratitude is a frenemy because it fools us (OK, me) into believing that there is something perpetually “better” than what we have, while at the same time causing us considerable present unhappiness.

One solution for ingratitude is stopping everything I am doing for a few moments, savouring my surroundings and forcing myself to think of five things  (more or less) that I am grateful for at this moment. The small things, as well as the larger, seemingly more important. Walt Whitman once wrote in “Song of Myself”:

“There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”

Also – I am such a merciless creature of habit. What If I were to forgo a morning shower and leave it until evening? It won’t materially affect personal hygiene and it breaks routine. What if, instead of choosing which watch to wear, I just didn’t wear one at all?

Please, will someone poke me with the proactivity stick sometimes? If left to myself, I tend to slip into apathy and laziness, basically becoming a slob, which is deeply unattractive both to myself and those around me.

I came across a fascinating phrase the other day – “hedonistic adaptation”,  which is the other side of the coin – too much proactivity isn’t necessarily a good idea either. It is a phrase that refers to the pursuit of happiness much like running on a treadmill because no matter how much we get, we aren’t completely happy, and we always want more thus, we keep running and running, seeking for the next ‘hit’. The result is, we get tired emotionally and tired people make mistakes when they look after themselves. The delight of ‘now’ eludes them.

Oh, enough. I am now going to go and live in the present for a while and play with my dog, who completely understands me.


Subway Walls

The Cold War ended in 1991, glasnost and perestroika were the new mots du jour. Totalitarianism, we were informed, had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle of the 20th century. We all marched optimistically forward,  believing that strong democratic arms would protect us. How wrong we all were. It seems an almost unwavering characteristic of humankind that if progress doesn’t get us, hubris will.


It’s becoming almost passé to assert that at this moment in history, it is democracy itself that finds itself battered and weakened. For the 12th consecutive year, according to Freedom in the World, countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains. States that a decade ago seemed like promising success stories—Turkey and Hungary, for example—are sliding into authoritarian rule, indeed Turkey was for some time knocking with some optimism on the door of the EU.
Once the world’s bastion of liberal, democratic values, Europe is suffering what Douglas Murray has called a “strange death“, again having to confront demons it thought it had laid to rest. The old pathologies of anti-Semitism, populist nationalism, and territorial aggression are threatening to tear the European postwar consensus apart. The shallow disingenuousness of the leaders who pushed for the seismic upheaval known as “Brexit” is becoming more obvious daily as the British Government wallows in a quagmire of indecision largely of its own making while tens of thousands are still slipping illegally into Europe and many hover like bedraggled vultures around the Channel ports in hope of making passage to Eldorado, just across the water.  How is it that a vast migrant wave is exacerbating tensions between Europeans and their Muslim minorities?  Why is  anti-Semitism rearing its monstrous head again, causing Jewish schools and synagogues in France and Germany to become fortresses? How have Russian imperial ambitions been so easily able to destabilise nations from Estonia to Ukraine? It has been many years since 9/11, the day the world shifted on its axis and we’ve all learned a few dangerous Qu’ranic verses. Even the American president with a simple mantra of “America First” is now threatening to abandon America’s traditional role as upholder of the liberal world order and guarantor of the continent’s security, Europe has grown rich and decadently fat and may be alone in dealing with these unprecedented challenges and  unexpected crises.
Declining birth-rates, mass immigration and cultivated self-distrust have converged to make Europeans virtually incapable of arguing in their own best interests, instead kowtowing to the completely fictitious deity of political correctness. They have become incapable of resisting their own comprehensive change as a society, instead watching helplessly from the touch lines as the defeat of their hitherto unshakable certainties looks more and more likely. The unequivocal failure of multiculturalism, Angela Merkel’s collapse on migration, the lack of repatriation and the Western fixation on postcolonial guilt have caused some to redefine their priorities – in short – make a U-turn. Merkel herself made a significant speech in Davos at January’s meeting of the World Economic Forum, effectively back-pedalling on her previous open-door policy: “Polarisation is something we see in our country (as well), which we haven’t had for decades,” she said. She laid the blame on the lingering effects of the euro-zone debt crisis and migration and some German voters believe that other European countries were overly benefiting from Germany’s prosperity. Additionally, a “great influx” of migration made some Germans feel something was being taken away from them. When this is combined with unemployment, there is “a very poisonous mix” that creates social divisions, Merkel said. She didn’t go as far as to say she regretted that Germany welcomed the migrants, despite the toxic politics that followed. What she failed to offer were workable solutions – perhaps because there are very few to choose from, most being either unpalatable or unworkable.
Trevor Phillips, who had until recently been Britain’s foremost advocate of multiculturalism, recently remarked that “for a long time, I too thought that Europe’s Muslims would become like previous waves of migrants, gradually abandoning their ancestral ways, wearing their religious and cultural baggage lightly, and gradually blending into Britain’s diverse identity landscape. I should have known better.”
Yet, their very insistence on separateness may be their Achilles’ heel. Parallel societies are a poor short-term fix and almost certainly cause increased polarisation and the formation of undesirable, often violent ghettos. No immigrant population in the history of the world has succeeded in replacing the host’s culture with its own – unless by force of arms – so Europe may yet be safe, at least for a while. Thus far, we have the law on our side and it should be used effectively. One of the best outcomes of Brexit is it returns to us our ability to do just that. We should take comfort in the belief that the words of the prophets are still being written on the subway walls and their warnings should be heeded.

Jacob’s Ladder

British politics has never been so toxic. It’s like pouring cheap hard liquor down our reluctant throats and expecting us to swallow without spluttering. The Left and the Right polarise like a horseshoe, their wild opinions meeting at the edges of reason. “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out”: the muttered incantation of the emperor in Robert Graves’s ‘Claudius the God’ seems dreadfully apposite, almost predictable,  even.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, urbane, unfailingly polite, tough-as-nails Brexiteer has been touted as one third of what some are calling an unholy triumvirate, waiting to catch the headless chicken that the Prime Minister has become. Ministerial inexperience notwithstanding, he could be chancellor, but talk of him becoming prime minister is no longer seen as farcical. He was conjured  into being by an eccentric cult of personality with a seasoning of Leftist mirth. It’s like a badly cast spell, but it’s far too late to shout ‘Riddikulus’ with a flourish of our holly wand with the phoenix feather core. In the search for an alternative to a pantomime Prime Minister for someone who could guide the country through its most challenging negotiations since the second world war, we have somehow given allegiance to a person whose views appear to be preserved in amber like the mosquito in ‘Jurassic Park’.

We no longer have the luxury of certainty, no longer the indulgence to laugh at or dismiss the politically absurd, just in case an extreme  anachronism really is elected. Every scuffle in the Conservative party is another round of Russian roulette for the country, except nobody knows if the chambers are empty or not. With Brexit, the unthinkable is not only thinkable: it is entirely feasible. Jacob Rees-Mogg is beginning to experience a few slings and arrows, sharply barbed, attacking not only his politics but his style. He has been variously described by his detractors – he seems much too polite to have enemies – the mildest being ‘not genuine’. It gets a bit more vituperative: ‘He epitomises a certain kind of public school snob and was called out on his fakery at the kind of school where they can detect such snobs. (I suppose this refers to Eton which goes to a lot of trouble to not be snobby and upper-crust) There are always a few of them about. ‘Let’s ‘impress the plebs,’ they say. That’s not to say he isn’t intelligent but he has made a living from impressing the upwardly-aspiring middle classes who think he’s ‘class.’’ (Not entirely, dear boy, but you are craning your neck a bit, so it’s hard for you to see the forest for the twigs, y’see.) ‘He’s good at it but is only an imitation of the ‘real thing; – think Alec Douglas Home. The latter was the real thing.’  ADH’s aristocratic bearing earned him a few brickbats – Harold Wilson came across much better on TV and  JRM is a sharper version of Jeremy Corbyn. Another descends to this: ‘There is simply nothing gracious or laudable about Rees-Mogg, with his antediluvian views on women, the poor, the ordinary struggling citizen, the other, in fact anything beyond the narrow purlieu as seen from the leaded windows of his agreeable country pile.’ (Envious? Moi?) ‘Look at his appalling reactionary record on just about every social issue of the past two decades. Good manners come cheap (they don’t, actually) and just because he is an obsessive monomaniac (like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Gandhi…) with a sly, cunning and manipulative streak (oh, now,  downright nasty) does not turn him somehow into a morally upright and credible candidate for the leadership of a parish council, let alone the government.’ (I wouldn’t trust Jeremy Corbyn to run a bath, personally.) ‘He has no experience of leadership, and is most certainly a hateful, deceitful and divisive figure.’ Something similar was said about Enoch Powell, if memory serves. ‘The only plus to him ever succeeding Theresa May is that he will hopefully bring the civil war within the Tory party out into the open and take the entire ship of fools down with him.’ Petulant leftie ranting laced with ad hominem bile at its very worst, I think.
Rees-Mogg is climbing the ladder, either by default, invitation or by deep and Machiavellian design nobody yet knows. His star is rising not only because he seems to be the only plant capable of flourishing in the toxic Brexit soil, but because there is something, in these base political times, genuinely transcendent about him.
With thanks to Guardian and Times commentators. Also, Harry Potter.

The Browning Version

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Frosty wind made moan.

It’s unusual for me simply to follow a stream of consciousness, since it rarely makes for interesting reading. However, it’s snowing, so perhaps I might be allowed a little self-indulgence in light of a changed, almost forbidding external landscape which encourages a paradigm shift in one’s outlook. I found myself slipping under the silent snow-shroud into a small, parallel world.  My baby Taylor is always to hand these days – it encourages me to play, to practise, to work out novel little riffs because its three-quarter size makes it very forgiving. I looked out over the cold whiteness – an almost unfamiliar landscape, and picked out the first few bars of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, Christina Rosetti’s incomparable Christmas masterpiece, the bright strings ringing into the snowscape like a suzumushi bell.  Meandering further into the romantic poets one cannot fail but to catch something of Rosetti’s contemporary, the morphine-vivid work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning – who was, interestingly, disinherited by her father for marrying the poet and classical scholar Robert Browning – so at least we have this in common. From here, to a film. Two films, in fact, the first from 1951 the second, 1994. It’s rare for me to comment on two separate incarnations of the same film, since each has their own rhyme and metre, YouTube has them both and they make for interesting comparisons. Both won prizes. Terence Rattigan’s stage play ’The Browning Version’ first starred the incomparable  Michael Redgrave – Rattigan himself wrote the screenplay –  then later Albert Finney. In fact, four additional TV incarnations followed the original.

The plotline is quite beautiful. Andrew Crocker-Harris – thought to have been based on Rattigan’s own teacher at Harrow – is a crusty, ageing classics master at an English public school who is forced into retirement on the pretext of ill-health. In reality, he has become an embarrassing encumbrance, a veteran of a bygone age, an awkward, difficult hanger-on in a place that has abandoned him and moved on, discarding him like flotsam on the beach. Originally a brilliant scholar, his life had, it would seem, been wasted cramming Latin and Greek down the throats of generations of unwilling students. The film, in common with the original stage play follows the schoolmaster’s final few days in his post, as he comes to terms with his sense of failure as a teacher, a sense of helplessness and impotence exacerbated by his wife’s infidelity with a much younger man and the realization that he is despised by both pupils and staff of the school. He was colloquially known as the Himmler of the Lower Fifth because of his unbending humourless discipline and total lack of understanding for the emotional wellbeing of his students.

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One or two might recognise this…

The turning-point for the cold Crocker-Harris is when Taplow, a quiet, sensitive pupil sees behind the iron-clad facade to the lonely old man beneath. He buys his teacher an unexpected parting gift, Robert Browning’s translation of the Agamemnon, which he has inscribed with the Greek phrase that translates as “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.” The irony of this, the first play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, includes the theme of a faithless wife who plots to murder her husband – a subtlety almost certainly not lost on Rattigan. Crocker-Harris is moved to tears.

Leaving teaching, perhaps for good, perhaps not quite yet, leaves a feeling of emptiness, a hole where something once belonged and has been curiously, inexplicably misplaced. It’s inevitable to look back, more in regret than anger, to one’s own career, remembering who one was able to influence and who simply passed through like an idle wind. No, I was no Andrew Crocker-Harris, fortunately, and needed no kindly student to break into the carapace of loneliness that surrounded him. I have memories golden with age and bright with recollection. My students still think of me and what could be more encouraging as the pages turn and life moves inexorably forward, to have this as the bedrock of remembrance.