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.

 

Advertisements

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.

Fury or Fire

I wrote a piece a while back about the agonies of writing. It’s a savage, rather despondent piece – the link is here for anyone who would like to read it. It’s been quite a grim start to January, so what follows is from a rain-swept and miserable Paris, caught in the fury, swirl and eddy of Storm Eleanor. Happy New Year.

Screen Shot 4.png

Trees uprooted central Paris Jan 3

Henry Miller enjoined the writer to work calmly, joyously and recklessly on whatever is in hand. Jack Kerouac invites him to remove all literary, grammatical and syntactic inhibition and, like Proust, be ‘an old teahead of time’. What a delightful phrase – I so wish that I had thought of it.

So, why this sudden interest in writerly things? Perhaps because in a few days a new book is about to be released on the world which makes something of a mockery of the whole tawdry process. The words do not slip down like a fine Montrachet – instead they scamper insolently past us, daring us to believe them. A tell-all called “Fire and Fury” about Trump’s first year in office is about to shake the foundations of the White House – the revelations come like arrows at Agincourt, thick, fast and deadly.  Despite not having yet been published, the book has its own Wikipedia entry. There’s the odour of a septic tank about all of its fragments, half truths and unsubstantiated conjecture, but, like any septic tank, there’s solid material in there. It’ll sell books but let’s all just calm the flap down before actually believing too much of it. The author, Michael Wolff, has acknowledged in the past that he’s not very good at conventional reporting. Instead, he has the reputation of being able to absorb the atmosphere and Screen Shot 3.pnggossip swirling around him at social gatherings, his bum on a sofa close to the West Wing, from which he can fabricate events as if they actually happened.

His great gift, it has been said is to ‘have the appearance of intimate access’ when the truth is in fact quite the reverse – almost no access at all. He’s an expert, it seems, at manufacturing fictional oaks from factual acorns – real and imagined. He claims, amongst many other colourful notions, that Ivanka wants to be President whereas Donald never really wanted the Presidency. Once he lost, Trump would be both insanely famous and the value of a TV empire he was considering starting would skyrocket. Ivanka and Jared would be international celebrities. Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the Tea Party movement. Kellyanne Conway would be a cable-news star and Melania Trump, who had been assured by her husband that he wouldn’t become president, could return to inconspicuously lunching with a discreetly luxurious circle of friends. Having been told he had won, she burst into tears, allegedly. Losing would have been so very convenient for everybody. But, a thousand tweets later and lurching through a first annus horribilis for the Donald and only a 40% chance, the punters tell us, of making it through a second keeps the gossip columnists wallowing in their self-excreted effluvia and will sell multiple copies of Michael Wolff’s book.
There should be books written about the Trump presidency and the man himself. But, not now and not yet. TheScreen Shot 1.pngre is too much at stake to stoke the furnaces of worldwide ridicule any more than they have already been and the revolving door hiring and firing and murderous infighting simply generates headlines. Of course, it was insane to think you could run a White House without experience, organisational structure or real purpose, led by a man who goes to bed at 6:30pm surrounded by cheeseburgers. The next twelve months are going to be interesting.

Goodbye to All That

Screen ShotRobert Graves won’t mind, since his  1929 masterwork echoes so many of the themes which have been part of the fabric of 2017, like our renewed interest in atheism, feminism and socialism, complete with statistics, flag-waving and Jeremy Corbyn.

Reviewing the year is a troublesome pastime, laced as it frequently is with the strychnine of being a year older and the anodyne of not much caring. For some, an annus mirabilis – witness Donald Trump and Prince Harry. For others, horribilis – me, even. This year, several people have been jerked from my life leaving behind either a breath of fetid air or a whispering of roses. Joyce wrote ‘every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.’ How all the world’s people chatter in our ears, much as we would try to drown them out with our own tuneless singing. We live a short distance from our bodies and come full time we shall one by one all become shades. As I myself grey gently, I reflect on the idea that it might be better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age, with further apologies to Mr Joyce.

What didn’t happen this year? An invasion by extraterrestrials? Scotland didn’t win the Six Nations? What did happen then? Did we all drift into a coma, awakening in some foreign place, inconveniently stiff and cold like a Minnesota dumpster, clutching an empty bottle and wondering where it all went? A reminder then, lest we forget. On January 20 a Republican billionaire was inaugurated as US president, vowing: “America first.” He didn’t really want the job, especially in light of allegations that the Russians meddled with the election. He sets out his stall by pulling out of international agreements on climate, free trade, immigration and UNESCO and making up new words like ‘covfefe’, despite the negative press, thus sparking a nationwide game to try to guess what he really meant. I favoured ‘coverage’ at the time. On December 6, he sent shock waves around the world as he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He could have just asked the Jews. An interesting, if somewhat unorthodox opening, as a chess journalist might have remarked.

On March 29, London launches herself off the Brexit cliff, hoping the parachute will open on time, as voted in a referendum nine months earlier. Endless TV shows revisit the possibility that the electorate was basically stupid, ignorant and jingoistic and had they known what they were voting for they would certainly have stayed, huddled behind the towering ramparts of France, Germany and, oh, yes, a few other hangers-on. Fuelled with hubris, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives suffer a major setback and lose their majority in a snap election on June 8. Her supporters snarl and turn on each other, inexorably drifting rightwards while Brussels and London squabble about divorce, specifically its cost. The Labour opposition, now proto-Marxist to a man, sits a distance away from the campfire like a wolf pack in the night, licking their collective lips, waiting to attack. Meanwhile, a youthful Emmanuel Macron and his elderly wife sweep the Socialists into oblivion as the Elysée Palace falls to a pro-European centrist with good taste in suits. Speaking of which, an American actress is joining our own Royal Family – keeping HRH Prince H orf the streets of Mayfair and Las Vegas and into connubial bliss on the same afternoon as the FA Cup Final – bit of a clash there for his older brother.

The Saudis and the Iranians have not been playing nicely together. Attack and counter attack have reduced Yemen to cinder and ash, each blaming the other. The North Koreans love their fireworks and have launched a few of them this year – much to the annoyance of their immediate neighbours and also the Americans who feel threatened for the first time in half a century. Seventy-three coalition partners committed themselves to the goal of eliminating the threat posed by ISIS and have already contributed in various capacities to the effort, to the end that ISIS has been almost completely wiped out, so one less piece of good news for arms manufacturers.

Trying to look on the bright side is often as ineffectual as it was in ‘Life of Brian’. Chechnya still imprisons and tortures gay men, Assad is still in charge in Syria and quite possibly possesses a chemical arsenal to use on his own people. Fanatical Muslims still try to stab people, drive cars on the pavements and blow themselves up at pop concerts. Fires take lives from the Bronx to Grenfell Towers.

But, hope springs eternal and the tabula, sodden with the lachrymal effect of too much Hogmanay alcohol, is washed clean, tomorrow becomes rasa, available anew to write our hopes and dreams upon. May yours be bright and full of promise.

 

 

 

 

Peace and War

Screen Shot 4

HMS Queen Elizabeth, June 2017.  Cost: about £4 billion

It’s that nostalgic time of year again when we are supposed to look back – hopefully not in anger, but frequently in regret – to the events of the last twelve months.  For some, this year has been a valley of Achor, a year of hope dawning, new beginnings. For others, loss, deprivation, refugee camps and unremitting terror.

Since early man began acquiring possessions, there has grown up with him the oldest technology in the world – the art of war – and 2017 has not escaped its ravages. We who are relatively untouched by violent conflict would do well to remember that with the crisis in Syria, who tops the fatality list for the third year running, the almost total defeat of Islamist militants in Iraq and the international ongoing stand-off in Afghanistan, it can sometimes feel like the whole world is at war. The sad reality is that this is in fact almost universally the case, according to a think-tank which produces one of the world’s leading measures of “global peacefulness” – and it has been suggested that things are only going to get worse. Given that violent conflict already costs nearly 13% of world GDP, this is not good news.

It  makes for bleak reading, but only eleven out of a total of one hundred and sixty two countries covered by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s (IEP’s) latest study were not involved in conflict of one kind or another in the last twelve months. Worse still, the world as a whole has been getting incrementally less peaceful every year since 2007 – sharply bucking a trend that had seen a global move away from conflict since the end of the Second World War. But, it’s really just about following the money. Factories in Sardinia routinely package bombs and other paraphernalia of warfare like Amazon deliveries and blithely ship them to Jeddah where the Saudis load up the warplanes and drop the ordnance on Yemen – in violation of all human rights legislation.

Screen Shot 3

Syrian refugees, border of Macedonia and Greece.

Neglecting the fact that war is good business for some, we might ask the moral question, ‘why do we fight?’  If there is a thread running like a shameful scarlet ribbon through mankind’s seemingly unslakable thirst for the blood of his enemies, it must be this. From the first moment we declared ourselves owners of something, whether land, material wealth or property, somebody else has wanted to take it from us and we have had to learn to fight to keep it. Riches are gained at someone else’s expense and kept by making sure that others are disempowered so they do not represent a threat. In the modern world, where colonial activity is considered undemocratic, one might imagine that conquest as causus belli could be relegated to the dustier and more shameful pages of history. And yet, we persist, more so than ever before, it would seem. Modern warfare, adjudicated by the UN, takes the peacekeeping initiative and conflict and land-grabbing on an historical scale is simply not tolerated in the modern world as Saddam Hussein found out to his cost.  Instead, people find something else to fight about. They fight over ideas and belief systems instead where the need is less for boots on the ground and more for drones in the air. Our media overwhelm us with footage from any one of a dozen theatres. We can cherry-pick a smorgasbord of slaughter from Nigeria to Syria, to Libya and Iraq and watch it live. We, the bystanders, both appalled at the consequences and relieved not to be part of them, align ourselves, or not, with protagonists on either side, either because we support the ideas they seek to spread or resent their attempts to spread them.

How little, I wonder, have we actually learned since the time when war as a glorious fight for liberty can now so much more easily be seen as a desperate and feral struggle for survival, mostly by people who, if given a choice, would never have wanted to go to war in the first place.

As we say farewell to another year, we all still hope for the magical paradigm shift, as if we could wake up from a bad dream and realise the futility of never-ending, Orwellian conflict and the ability to turn our backs on it forever.

 

Joy to the World. Once More.

The story is told of a little boy, terrified as the bombs rained down, who was told by his mother that if he believed in Jesus everything would be OK. His nanny, the Prussian Fräulein who brought him up, gave him a beautiful carved knife that made him feel safer than his prayers ever did.

Established churches are presiding over the greatest haemorrhage of congregants for hundreds of years. The Pope is retreating into his Jesuit cave, secure in infallibility and the authority of two thousand years. Welby, the well-intentioned, primus inter pares, is presiding over an Anglicanism riven with schism and dithering,  slithering  into indecision because nobody can agree whether queer is sinful or women bishops are a Good Thing.

Screen Shot 2

Hillsong Sydney December 2017

And yet, there is a willingness to believe. Modern churches with lights and bands, spectacle and motivational speakers are mushrooming. Outfits like Hillsong put on an annual event which may be more attractive to a modern worshipper. It’s spectacular, inclusive and youthful. And yet, the numbers of non-aligned, the unbelievers, the dazed, confused or indifferent, continue to rise because in the clamour for our attention, there are precious few still, small voices.

Atheists seem to be the flavour of the decade, indeed, so far, of the millennium. Faithfulness in its original meaning sounds quaint and stiff, like Victorian moustaches.

Screen Shot 3

Hillsong Sydney December 2017

Our celebrity culture has no room for faithful people, especially Christians; only Islam appears to enjoy that privilege in our brave, new, postmodern world. In 1966, Time magazine shocked its readers with a cover that asked whether God was dead. Henry Luce, the media influencer par excellence, the man who shaped what America read and the owner of the magazine which dared to print such blasphemy, died soon after.  Was there a hidden message? But Luce was a devout Christian and a great believer in the Almighty, unlike the late Christopher Hitchens, whose favourite targets were priests, Mother Teresa and God, a Christian God whose followers turned the other cheek, so Hitch could slap that one as well. I wondered if his antipathy had something to do with the fact that his mother entered into a suicide pact with a defrocked clergyman and Hitchens blamed God for the loss. The Hitch had comparatively little to say against Allah or indeed Mohammed because he knew the latter’s followers didn’t take kindly to cheap remarks against him, consequently he tended to keep his powder dry, reserving his grapeshot for softer, less totalitarian targets, with a few notable and quite delicious exceptions.

Hitchens despised Christmas celebrations, describing them as ‘the collectivisation of gaiety’ and ‘compulsory bad taste’, a view with which I have to admit to having some element of sympathy. In the social constructivist’s view, these days atheism gets you in through the front door whereas Christianity is reserved for the tradesman’s entrance. Hitch hated the ‘confessional drool’ that families mailed to each other, especially all those simple people who believe in love, forgiveness and angels from the realms of glory.

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is an atheist who is, I have to admit, hard to dislike, perhaps because he comes across as quintessentially British and even if you foam with rage at some of his opinions, they are usually presented with a quite charmingly reasoned diffidence. He’s an expert at Socratic questioning – a useful skill when debating against people who don’t really know what they are talking about. The first modern to go atheist and announce that God had truly fallen off His perch was Friedrich Nietzsche, who later on “lost his reason”, I think it was described as. In fact, he lost all grip on reality and trotted willingly into the fruitcake zone, from which he was never to emerge. Given his views on the press and mass culture leading to conformity, mediocrity and the decline of the human species, whatever would he have made of the Kardashians?

What of the others; John Stuart Mill, Voltaire…so many. Even Freud and Picasso, both quite crappy human beings if history is to be believed, were atheists, as were French fries like Michel Foucault – not the pendulum guy, the one who died of AIDS – H.G. Wells. James Joyce and Philip Roth. One thing all these talented writers and thinkers supposedly had in common, apart from their disbelief in the Almighty, was great physical ugliness. That being so, I myself should be down there among the catamites and the howling. What a cheap shot that was.

But, we continue to ask certainty of ourselves in an increasingly uncertain world. The bedrock of belief has shifted to be replaced with a quicksand of situational ethics. The existentialist theologian Paul Tillich wrote that to believe that God is active at all times, being ‘out there’ somewhere, dwelling in a special place and being affected by events, is a shallow supposition: ‘Literalism deprives God of his ultimacy.’ That’s where ‘there is no God’, the cry from the heart of those who have lost a loved one, comes from and also the weary old chestnut that you need God in order to be good. No, you don’t. God is what makes us understand the difference between good and evil, to paraphrase C S Lewis who understood better than almost anyone else the value of myth.

Charles Darwin – what irony as the father of all the confusion – said he believed in God. Most really intelligent people hold to some kind of belief in God, or are at least prepared to entertain the possibility of His existence, as have most world leaders in the past. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that ‘all men are created equal’ he called the proposition self-evident. It was a very Christian thing to say because not all men are created equal. What he really meant was that they have equal rights under God, and it is only a Christian God that ensures that such rights can be protected. As we watch what radical Islam is doing to its adherents, how it has cheapened life to the extent that people drive into traffic, attack armed men with knives or volunteer to blow themselves up in order to get rice and virgins, then compare that to Christianity. The idea of the preciousness and equal worth of every human being is largely rooted in the life and work of the Nazarene whose birth is celebrated by unbelievers too. Have a very happy Christmas, defend the faith and, if necessary, carry a knife.