The Vocabulary of Genius

Being quite good, or even, moderately bad, at most things one attempts  is either a cause for commiseration or an art to be celebrated. My mother used to remark in that particularly snide fashion that sticks like Thai rice in the bowels of memory, in the rare moments that I crept into her consciousness: ‘Jack of all trades’ – then, very quickly, with the trademark sniff – ‘master of none.’

For centuries, cultures have wagged their heads at the generalist – he of the non-specific, butter thinly spread over the entire slice of bread: “Equipped with knives all over, yet none is sharp,” warned the Chinese. In Estonia, it goes, “Nine trades, the tenth one - hunger.”
Not very ambitious thinking, you’d have to agree. Not quite the vocabulary of genius.
I once wrote a piece praising the joys of mediocrity; sometimes I rather wish I hadn’t. So sorry for the slip into narcissism – who else will toot my flute but me? Being interested in lots of different things doesn’t necessarily mean that one isn’t particularly good at any of them, in fact, quite the reverse. Many of the world’s most impactful individuals , both contemporary and historical, have been generalists: Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman – he played a mean bongo – Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Leonardo Da Vinci – his helicopter blueprint actually helped when the real thing came along five hundred years later.

If being a generalist was the path to mediocrity, what about these?  Newton. Galileo. Aristotle. Kepler. Descartes. Huygens. Laplace. Faraday. Pasteur. Ptolemy. Hooke. Leibniz. Euler. Darwin. Maxwell …is there a collective noun for  polymaths? Learning or indeed developing original ideas across academic domains is like travel, it broadens the mind. It seems to then act as a lightning conductor to attract left-field kind of thinking, a probing intellectual workup in the subject’s particular specialism at that time. Newton confirmed the inverse square law for gravitation – twenty years later he wrote a book on optics.

Modern polymaths go against the grain. They capture half an idea at the water fountain, gleanings from cast aside conversations; they build atypical, asymmetric patterns then – and herein lies genius – develop them in the arid space where competition is weak. Elon Musk is primarily an engineer, like half the Stanford graduates who work for NASA. Had he just concentrated on that, he’d be just as well-off as an average NASA high flyer. However, he was able to use his business training as well, hence Tesla and SpaceX. An image search turns up thousands of images of the man, not his achievements, so a gift for self-publishing is a helpful addition. Plus getting stupidly rich.

Being a Jack of at least a few trades seems like quite a healthy option. Being retired often leaves a black hole of guilt – perhaps I should go and learn Icelandic, just because I happen to  have time to do so. (Perhaps I should clean the guttering instead.) I used to spend a lot of time thinking about mathematics and physics – these days, I think about literature, theology, art, music and even poetry sometimes, none of which will, alas, make me rich or extend my Icelandic vocabulary. Nevertheless, what fun to trace out the beauty in the twinkling mathematics of Euler, or the symmetrical, Persian carpet perfectionism of a Mandelbrot set. That satisfaction of completeness where circles become squares. Yes.

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Marching to Zion

6 for artistic impression

The British Labour Party, and in particular its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has become mired in controversy once again, this time over anti-Semitism. First, he praised an unabashedly anti-Semitic cartoon, then was seen in the company of those whose opinions can only be described as ‘non-mainstream’. He claims not to be an anti-Semite, the default position for a good Socialist, but his background in far-left ideology, where the rich and secretive cabal of Jewish bankers props up the cancer of capitalism must surely lurk at the back of his mind, as his defence of a mural depicting Jewish bankers controlling the world clearly demonstrated. As an atheist, he must, of course be an anti-Zionist – the idea of a Jewish land for a chosen people and holy nation is anathema to him. A simple Passover seder with some far-left ‘friends’ with revolutionary opinions casts doubt at the very least on his judgement. Implausibly, his defence was he was there on his own time and in a private capacity, which actually makes it worse. Either Corbyn understood what he was doing by spending Passover in the company of Jewdas, a splinter group which has compared Israel to a ‘pile of steaming sewage which needs to be properly disposed of’ and belittling  the accusation that Labour has an anti-Semitism problem, in which case he is unashamedly malign. Or – let us be charitable – the more likely explanation is that he did not realise the problems that his attendance would cause, at the end of a week in which the story dominated his political life, in which case he is myopically foolish and completely unsuited to the mantle of leadership should the country abandon all hope and elect a Labour government.

But, what is it about the Jews? Originally, relations between the Jewish Christians and the Jews were fairly cordial. The followers of the Apostles, as well as the Apostles themselves, recognised the sanctity of ancient law; they observed the rites of Judaism and as yet had not placed the worship of Jesus side by side with that of the one God. The development of the dogma of the divinity of Christ drove a wedge between Church and Synagogue. Judaism could not admit to the deification of a man; to recognise anybody as the son of God was blasphemy and as the Jewish Christians had not severed their connections with the Jewish community, they were disciplined. This accounts for the flagellation of the Apostles and other new converts, the stoning of Stephen and the beheading of the Apostle James.

Do I look like a young Jeremy Corbyn?

The Church Fathers, brimming with Pauline fervour, added fuel to an already out-of-control fire. Justin Martyr, in his ‘Dialogue with Trypho’ argued that the Jews were originally selected because of their lack of spirituality – they needed the constraints of the Law to keep them in line. He blamed them for rejecting Jesus as Messiah and asserted that the destruction of the Temple was God’s punishment for such rejection. If this sounds strange, it was not so long ago that Pat Robertson blamed the AIDS epidemic on the sin of homosexuality.

By contrast, Rabbi Tarfon who lived and worked between about 70 and 135 CE was equally forthright. writing at a time when Christianity was considered to be a rather bizarre offshoot of conventional Judaism, he said ‘the Gospels must be burned, for paganism is not as dangerous to the Jewish faith as Jewish Christian sects. I should rather seek refuge in a pagan temple than in an assembly of Jewish Christians.
If nothing else, the current debate has raised awareness in a Gentile population of the depth of animosity that still exists towards the Jews, as well as clearing away some of the muddled thinking where anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are conflated. At best, it will sharpen minds to the historical realities of anti-Semitism, at worst, it will provoke another Kristallnacht.

Stories of Doubt and Hope

Which way?

Reading newspapers encourages a rather juvenile partisanship where we seem to almost develop  crushes on particular journalists whose work we agree with and wordsmithing we like – regardless of gender or pulchritude . It’s impertinent to name names, so I won’t. It’s customary for some of them to write something ‘religious’ and even those specifically tasked to do so tend to be vague about  matters where they have to nail a particular theological position to their masts because if they’re a bit too strident , evangelical even, they get in trouble with their editor and have to endure raucous jeering in the comments section. But, at least they get to ask the hard  questions and  therefore, as their readers, so do we.

It’s Easter – or Eostre – again so if there were a day in the year on which cultural Christians might think about the possibility of eternal things, it would be today. Easter Day and the week running up to it tell the central story of our civilisation, a story of suffering, humiliation, redemption and ultimate triumph. Many people believe fully in the revealed truth of that story, others hold their doubt uneasily. One Passover, Douglas Murray (The Strange Death of Europe) once – rather rudely, I thought – asked a rabbi:  would he agree that a fair proportion of his congregation did not believe in God? Demonstrating a masterly ability at wrong-footing, he replied calmly, “Oh most of them, I expect.”  I know a lady who attends synagogue with scrupulously virtuous regularity who unhesitatingly admits to her non-belief.  As those of us from a Christian background arrive at one of the holiest days in our own tradition, if so many dared to be honest, they might cough sheepishly and say the same. We reluctantly belong without believing.

Screen Shot.pngAll surveys show a sharp decline in traditional Christian religious belief in Britain. In the 1980s, 40% of our population said they were Anglican Christians, mumbling ‘C of E’ when fillling out a form at the hospital. Today the figure is 15%. In her history of religion in Britain since 1945, the sociology professor Grace Davie identified our preferred practice of “believing without belonging”. But over recent decades Britain’s Christians have increasingly shown themselves disinclined either to belong or to believe. We don’t believe in God, don’t go to church and decreasingly wish even to acknowledge membership of that funny little club. Yet our awkward attitude towards our historic faith often asserts itself, usually frivolously, at this time of year since we seem to belong to a culture that has little idea of what to do with Easter other than to  give chocolate rabbits to children. Over recent years, however, if we’ve kept on top of the cultural tensions that fuel our thinking, this humanist-atheist view of modern liberalism has taken rather a beating. More and more of us have travelled around the world and noticed what some religious leaders had unpopularly insisted: that what we have developed in western Europe in our culture of rights, including human rights, is not just historically unusual but unusual at this present moment. Today, there is a growing admission that what we have did not emerge from nothing but grew largely from the philosophy and foundations of the faith we’ve all spent recent decades shrugging off. Whether we like it or not, we have embedded in the warp of our own intellectual history truths we’ve spent a long time either excusing, denying or resisting: that our political liberalism, sensitivity to racism and homophobia, our acceptance of others – the laissez-faire we enjoy – and even the existence of a welfare state derive not from lofty enlightenment but from our faith. Perhaps we are Christians whether we like it or not, having a hard time, as Bob Dylan remarked, accepting things that overwhelm us.

Many devout Christians will be attending church this morning. But what might be the approach of those who cannot literally believe or are actively disinclined to believe, but who are just as much products of Christianity as a rabbi’s congregation are products of Judaism? Not all doubters and non-believers adopt the sneeringly hostile stance towards their historic faith that celebrity atheists do. Although some believers may scoff, and other atheists may frown, to have some engagement with the Easter or Passover narrative is not only to seek a relationship with our past but to engage seriously with the questions of our present and future. There’ll be those who brave the crowds and squeeze into a pew this morning – were I robustly healed I would have been among them – joining the ones who are not believing, and not quite belonging. But are not filled with rejection either, instead making room for hope.

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

Screen Shot

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.

Screen Shot 1

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.

Failing Well

I was talking with a friend the other day about perfectionism. It’s not an attribute which is much of a blessing; quite the reverse, it’s a yellow-fevered curse. I remarked that I hated to write in ink as a child, since if I made a mistake I should have to cross it out, spoiling the look of my work. The word processor was a godsend, and I still felt comfortable writing, but in pencil with its eraser immediately to hand. He murmured that this was a learned behavior – I wondered if it could ever possibly be unlearned. I thought not and used to hate myself for apparently preferring the style of my efforts rather than their substance. Such behavior, I reflected, has to do with an insularity, an artificial moat with a personal drawbridge that I create around myself. It reminded me of this:

 

Rangitoto Island, Auckland NZ

‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And, therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

John Donne

Donne’s work was the inspiration for someone I had last read a generation ago. The great twentieth century mystic, Thomas Merton, used the same wording in the first line to entitle a book of his own. Writing in ‘No Man Is an Island’ he remarked: “The real reason why so few men believe in God is that they have ceased to believe that even a God can love them.” I found myself mentally applauding, followed by cursing myself for believing it. A friend drew another of his works: ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’ to my attention. It’s a Catholic blockbuster, written when everyone’s motivations were being questioned in the aftermath of WW2. In sixteen essays, Merton addresses those in search of enduring values, fulfilment, and salvation in inspiring and compassionate prose; a theme which pursues almost all of us. Merton’s own autobiography ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ tells of the growing restlessness of a brilliant, passionate young man whose search for faith and peace leads him, at only twenty-six years old, to take vows in one of the most demanding Catholic orders – the Trappist monks. And yet, the more he struggles to withdraw from the world, the more he finds himself immersed in it, with its patchwork of imperfections and irritatingly frequent crossings-out.

Having had flu for the past week – it does seem to take longer these days – I found myself almost Trappist-like, disengaged from the world, the drawbridge of my mind pulled up, no sallying forth for a time into the wide, wild hurly-burly. I used the opportunity to revisit Rav Cohen’s classes at Harvard on Judaism and Christianity as well as other inquiries which, had I been well, I would have dismissed as being too time-consuming or nothing more than irrelevant busyness. And yet, actually stepping away into a degree of solitude had the effect of leading me towards engagement with people and things, instead of the reverse which looked as if it might have been a much more probable outcome.

Being almost a professional, if frequently reluctant, spectator, it’s often all too easy to watch, then criticise. Theodore Roosevelt wrote “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

We – or rather I – must learn to engage, emotionally and spiritually with the grime of my surroundings, jaggedly imperfect and flawed as they are, trying, even when I might fail, attempting even when the outcome is uncertain. As Merton wrote “A man who fails well is greater than one who succeeds badly.”

 

 

 

Darkest Hour

I haven’t written a film review for a while. Probably because I haven’t been to the cinema a lot – today being an exception – on a damp Thursday on the Champs-Elysées.

Romeo y Julieta, with owner.

It’s all so very improbable. Gary Oldman, wolfish and saturnine, to play Winston Churchill, ponderous, overweight with jowls like an English bulldog? Surely not. He’s played Sid Vicious, Beethoven and Lee Harvey Oswald. But, what a spectacularly understated piece of casting – the Churchill to end them all, with apologies to John Lithgow and others. Hand over the Oscar now.
“Darkest Hour” is set in the months after the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, as Hitler’s Wehrmacht overran Belgium and trampled ruthlessly into France. As the seemingly unstoppable Nazi forces advance, and with the Allied army cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the leadership of the newly-appointed British Prime Minister, a phoenix rising from the ashes.
The power play is between the terminally sick Neville Chamberlain, pain-wracked and ageing, the barely concealed appeasement of the nearly-leader, Lord Halifax and Churchill himself, set in a dark, monochrome London, full of men who smoke, urgently murmuring in brown, panelled rooms.
Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife, (Kristin Scott Thomas) the ballast in the thinking of a sometimes tortured mind was calm and sensible in contrast to Winston’s terrified but hugely competent secretary-typist Miss Layton (Lily James) who’s almost his muse when crafting his great speeches.
The acting talent of the Great Man himself doesn’t pass unnoticed. “You need to reply to the Lord Privy Seal, sir”. Winston’s response, in his pink dressing gown behind the toilet door: “I am sealed in the privy, sir, and I can only deal with one shit at a time.”
The film is claustrophobic, mostly, set as it is in war rooms and corridors of power. There are some memorable interactions at the Palace with a rhotacic Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, in stark contrast to Winston finding himself interacting with the common people who help him make up his mind as he decides to travel to Westminster by Tube.
No blood, guts, sex or glory, but a riveting insight into how a great leader shouldered the responsibilities of war. 9/10.