The Smiling Crocodile: Reflections on Hell

Somebody asked me the other day whether I believed in Hell, inviting me to write about it. An unusually direct question; a bear-trap even and an attempt to answer feels a little bit like sticking one’s head voluntarily between the jaws of Lewis Carroll’s smiling crocodile. I know people whom, I imagine, run with the whole lake of fire scenario, where the flesh consumed regenerates spontaneously to be roasted anew, for eternity. I can only surmise this to be the case since they tend to hold fundamentalist views about other contentious issues of faith. On the other hand, my humanist, atheist and non-theist friends presumably all hold to a spectrum of ideas none of which involve the existence of the entity that is “me” surviving the flames of the crematorium, perhaps tittering quietly behind their hands that thinking about such medieval nonsense is even worthy of the time spent in our comfortably postmodern world. As it happens, and those who know me well will be aware that I do spend quite some time reflecting on such things, my belief system extends beyond the brief candle that is consciousness. Fortunately (or not) I am not alone and people have argued unceasingly about these ideas, for example Swedenborg’s Manichean view of Hell was challenged by William Blake who wrote of the marriage of Heaven and Hell in the early 1790s. So, here’s a first thought. Do I believe in Hell – Dante’s Inferno –  including all the fiery unquenchableness of it all? No, I don’t, since to do so is to believe in a god for whom justice trumps mercy and the permanently sadistic vindictiveness of such a state is not consistent with the actions of an all-forgiving deity. Good enough for Islam’s ‘jahannam’, perhaps, but not for me. The doctrine of hell is one that people write undergraduate essays about and has evolved just like every other doctrine, over time. John Calvin was an expert at putting the frighteners on his hearers even more than the Catholics who sold indulgences. He wrote this in 1559. “As language cannot describe the severity of the divine vengeance on the reprobate, their pains and torments are figured to us by corporeal things, such as darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth, inextinguishable fire, the ever-gnawing worm.” He goes on to describe in blood-curdling detail the consequences of separation from God.  Hearers of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon preached in Connecticut in 1741 unequivocally entitled ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’ apparently clung to the pews for dear life lest the indignation of God sweep them pell-mell into the abyss. I was once asked to reflect on the competing positions of Aquinas and Augustine whether the corporeal body consigned to the Pit suffers eternal anguish or not, an essay that took me rather a long time to write.

The medievals were encouraged to believe that Gehenna was somehow located deep underground, accessed by fiery pits, but I suggest that rather than a spatial location, a place of divinely-imposed torment, perhaps hell is an existential state – the internal condition of the individual in denial of salvific reality and in rejection of any concept of a redemptive relationship. This implies two things, either the resident of Hell believes that redemption exists but he has declined to accept it, or that he does not believe in the existence of redemptive grace at all.

Furthermore, I think hell is subject to kairos, not chronos. It is not just a future state but one which had a beginning and continues in the here and now and beyond. It is the continuation into the hereafter of a present condition of heart and mind, one whose trajectory is anti-relationship, anti-reality which rejects the assumption that the existential reality which we currently enjoy is a prefiguration of something better. C.S. Lewis makes the point that those in hell will have always been there; that hell reaches back to taint all the steps that have led to it, conversely heaven reaches back to redeem all that has gone before.

So, how should we describe ‘hell’? In C S Lewis’ great metaphysical story, “The Great Divorce”, (all here as a pdf), he suggests that by comparison Heaven is a state of greater, more concrete reality. We leave grey, rainy streets with their legions of grumblers and travel to the heavenly country which we discover to be too solid, too real, for the wisps of smoke, the ephemeral shades of the unredeemed to inhabit – they would be pierced by its grass as if by knives and crushed by its raindrops as if by boulders. To be able to live there permanently and make the long journey to the mountains they need to be transformed, become more solid, more real.

Thus, by contrast, hell is a place or condition where one is less real, one’s personality, ability to choose, any joy and all hope is lost. We almost literally disappear in a puff of smoke.

This of course is completely unsatisfactory since it fails to remember mercy which in order to be genuine, must be visible. Aquinas argues that we will rejoice in the justice of God displayed in the cries of the damned. I respectfully disagree.

Finally, had I wanted to insert images of Hell, there are plenty to choose from. However, the image I have chosen is metaphorical – the moon is at the same time in shadow and in the full light of the sun. Let him that has wisdom…


The Forgetfulness of Hummingbirds

Gustave Doré, illustrations for The Divine Comedy. The Fates drink from the river of forgetfulness.

Retired people are supposed to keep mentally alert. It stops us frittering whatever time we have left away as our brain wanders off unbidden into some kind of intellectual no-man’s-land from which there is no return. Some do Sudoku, others crosswords, and some go for long walks with other like-minded people, identifying flora and fauna. In my case, no, thank you, none of the above. I occasionally attempt to solve calculus problems in my head but I don’t really think that counts.

The Internet is a marvellous thing – organic, growing, addictive. It contains about ninety seven percent absolute rubbish – with a hat tip to ‘The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ – a small portion of quite useful material and a minuscule droplet of pure gold. Cats on skateboards fall into none of these categories, neither do pictures of my grandchildren, for whom special circumstances apply.

When I was a boy, I read, stripping the school library bare. From Hesse to Lawrence to Shakespeare – there was a skeleton left of things even I didn’t want to read, otherwise, the place had been systematically plundered. As an adult, I collected books, filling shelves and more shelves with fiction, biography and whatever else caught my eye.

It’s not just interesting but absolutely frightening to observe that the young do not read. Really read. Sit in a corner or under the piano with a book. Holding information for more than a handspan of time, undistracted. Instead, their eyes rarely lifting from the Orwellian screen, they flit from paragraph to paragraph like hummingbirds, attention wandering from one topic to the next, pond-skating on a surface like licking an ice cream cone, bouncing along from one tiny dopamine high to the next. It may be permanently affecting their brain chemistry.

I’m doing a course online, which is hard enough since I have no background in the material so it’s a bit like trying to learn group theory when you haven’t been taught how to add up.  All of the foregoing arose from thinking about a lecture I’d been watching this morning; the easy bit of my course.  The required reading for it reminded me that if I actually want to learn something well enough to reflect intelligently about it, I can’t just skip the hard bits, the bits I don’t like because I can’t immediately understand them. Instead, I have to spend time engaging all my faculties – for me – in silence, reading and re-reading the text so understanding crystallises long enough to think and form conclusions.

There are no easy answers. Successful people have long realised that the Internet is the opiate of the people, the river of oblivion, the Lethe of forgetfulness and most people retain very little from all the clicking and jumping around, instead doing themselves few psychological favours. I have told myself that I am going to buy a few more real books, paper ones, not downloads, that I can flip the pages on, turn a corner down as a bookmark and remind myself of my youth. I think that might be one small way to help keep the craziness and oblivion at bay.


Unbearably Light Relief

It’s getting stupid and claustrophobic out there. I blame Brexit; more specifically the total dog’s breakfast all those on both sides of the House are making of it, thus follows hereinafter ( is this right?) a little light relief.

It has always been a delight to shuffle through the Sunday papers, nodding benignly at the things I agreed with and gnashing my teeth at the things I didn’t. The Kuwait Times was often a source of endless merriment as bootleggers knelt in supplication before their confiscated wares, mostly still in possession of a functional pair of hands. But, it is the Turkey of Mr Erdogan that is the source of amusement today, much excitement to be had as his Government sends its people straight back to the Middle Ages. No passing ‘Go’ and no collecting 200 lira.
The latest thing to be banned by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s excitingly forward-looking administration is the theory of evolution. Children will no longer be taught it. One Turkish newspaper announced that primary school pupils have been given books depicting Charles Darwin as “a big-nosed Jew who enjoyed the company of monkeys”. A pro-Erdogan columnist gives evolution a twist: Darwin was partly right he explained, but had things the wrong way around. Evolution is true, he says, but monkeys are descended from Jews who were being punished for their sins. It’s all there in the Qu’ran, apparently.

Nice to see that bigotry is alive and well all over the place, especially in regard to persons whose sexual preference is not the same as either my own or 90% of the rest of the population. Two evangelical preachers won an appeal this week against a conviction for being horrible to homosexuals in Bristol; the judge had decided that their going round the streets reading blood-curdling passages from Leviticus through a megaphone fell within the law’s definition of free expression of their faith.

Finally, there are Westminster whispers that my personal crush kid, Mozza, aka Jacob Rees-Mogg, the only eighteenth century Tory still in existence might be putting himself up for the Party leadership, thus ensuring a woman, his nanny, becomes deputy PM. He’d know when to use ‘hereinafter’.

All God’s Chillun

Just back. As always, fascination, irritation and sheer undiluted joy in almost equal measure when disembarking on the long, long ski run that marks the entrance concourse to Ben Gurion. Even a visit to the dentist (the only Irish Jew I know) failed to dampen enthusiasm. Much as I love Israel, however, sometimes the second of the three is more pronounced.

I got to interact with quite a wide cross-section this trip and it’s noticeable that so many Israelis are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the religious establishment in general and the Haredi political parties in particular. So, electing someone like the controversial Minister Azoulai to the Knesset, as happened in 2015, was like putting a TV evangelist in the White House. More recently – today in fact, two-thirds of Jewish Israelis oppose the recent cabinet decision to shelve a deal for pluralistic worship at the Kotel. Returning to Minister Azoulai, from my own goyische perspective (all Orthodox can stop reading now, since I clearly know nothing) to suggest as he did that only people who follow Jewish law to the letter – italics mine – can be described as Jewish and described non-Orthodox streams as “people who try and falsify” the Jewish religion isn’t just stupid. It’s short-sighted to the point of ridicule, because it suggested that he alone was the lawful custodian of every jot and tittle – and everybody else was wrong. The clear implication is that only the prayers of the ‘righteous’ are heard and the harder you try to keep the Law, the more weight your prayers have. Relentless davening at the Kotel seemed to have something of an air of desperation to me this time around.

I tend to get on best with the ‘secular’ Jews, the ones who wear Levis and have a sense of humour all of whom were universally welcoming and seemed generally glad to see me. It was nice to get back – despite being housed in an hotel without AC and the relentless pulse from the street musicians in Zion Square. Although I have to confess to getting a bit too superannuated to stay in scruffy hotels without room service, international TV and a shower with multiple functions. Note to self. Save up and next time stay at the King David, or, perhaps the American Colony, where the concierge is a friend and might be able to surreptitiously offer a favourable rate.

The diversity of the place did help to focus a few ideas trawling around in my mind. Religious denominations, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim are both inevitable and, indeed, desirable because our faith is like a fingerprint, shaped by the unique contours of our soul and the tension and counterplay of prayer forms part of its inner fabric. Doesn’t matter how much people bang on about separate spaces on the Kotel for men and women, or whether the Jews can pray on the Temple Mount or, as happened very recently, a Haredi man (this time one of those with the big fur hat) had the temerity to dance with his daughter at her wedding, causing no end of a fuss in the Orthodox press, since you’re only supposed to dance with her if both of you are holding a piece of string. Differences are inevitable because if we all thought exactly the same, we’d all be in love with the same woman. They’re desirable because how else are people to be encouraged to think, reason and debate in free societies, thereby making progress? Karl Barth, the great Victorian theologian wrote at length about the ‘otherness’ of G-d, by which he meant that the behaviour and attributes of the Creator could not simply be explained by childish anthropomorphism; instead the Creator reveals His essence through an ongoing work of rescue – a shorthand for redemption or salvation – outside of and sometimes apart from ourselves.

I’d further ask – if G-d declines to hear the prayers of non-Haredi Jews, where does that leave the rest of us, believers, idolaters, triers, failures, sinners all? I’ve never much liked how people try to categorise prayer, thereby adding to or subtracting from it, from the petitionary Janis Joplin ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz’ to the exaltatory poetry of the Psalms. In their different ways, they are representative of the same thing, the unseen bridge, the gap between the hand of G-d and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

I do rather hope that G-d hears the prayers of the goyim along with all the rest of the hangers-on. All G-d’s chillun. People like me. People like this crowd – the real reason for my trip. Thanks, everybody…

…but not quite.

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 17.01.46I must admit, I don’t often post my colours, since I no longer live in the UK. But since I resolutely refuse to sign up to any political tribe, I found myself rather dismayed to notice that my voting intention was consistent with that anticipated from my peers and generation. Ugh. Belonging to the over-sixties’ ‘disgusted from Tunbridge Wells’  isn’t a place that’s particularly comfortable for a professional bystander like me.

So, what happened? Labour did better than expected because they had a better strategy. They ran a far smarter campaign and, even though the youth vote was “bought” (let them howl and rage, it’s true) with undeliverable promises of free tuition,  the cancellation of student debts etc, overall the Reds were coherent, on-message and smart. May, on the other hand, ran a scattered, messily unfocused campaign that failed to leverage any Tory strengths and had no  message which might have resonated. Nothing about the economic differences between free-market conservatives versus Hugo Chavez socialism. Very little detail on Brexit. Sloppy tactics on how to address the Islamist extremist issue.

That said, sometime this evening, perhaps, it will slowly dawn on all the jubilant Labour voters that, well, they lost. Two million more votes were cast for the Blues than last time. Poor Reds. They didn’t get a majority. They didn’t kick the Tories out. They’re not going to be able to raise taxes on the rich. They’re not going to be able to scrap tuition fees. Corbyn’s banging on about more pay for nurses and renationalising the railways wasn’t enough. They’re not going to be redecorating Number 10. And Jeremy Corbyn will still be standing on the opposite side at PMQs in a rumpled suit reading out made-up emails with questions from imaginary people. If the goal was to keep the Tories out, they failed.

As for ‘strong and stable’ a government that will not raise taxes, won’t be able to start any more wars and allows business to get on with preparing for Brexit, seems pretty close to “stable” if not particularly “strong”.  The alternative, having Corbynistas negotiating on our behalf whilst Diane Abbott keeps us safe and secure, would have been a good deal scarier.


Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 11.14.44It’s curious. For a while now, I’ve put together long posts with careful arguments to make some kind of a point, rather losing sight of why I started blogging in the first place. It began as a kind of Swiftian flypast and, as time passed, I found myself editing, polishing, getting waterlogged in and becoming a slave to my own opinion. So, back to today. What a night it’s been for the Government. The gamble didn’t pay off, did it, chaps. That unassailable lead, evaporating. Promethean hubris “…a night (in which) the fog was thick and full of light, and sometimes voices” giving way to a cold, grey, unforgiving dawn.
Now it’s a soft Brexit and Corbyn yapping like a demented terrier at your heels. Boris the Beast will think about throwing his top hat in the ring for sure, as the Lady wobbles on her Manolo Blahniks outside No 10. And, if the DUP have their way, she might have to go  and fawn as a sop to Cerberus in exchange for their support.

The Conservatives can learn two things. They need to adopt the slogan seen so often “for the many, not the few”. Also, they must learn to listen to the young. Their applecart was almost upset by a concerted media savvy campaign that made them look lumbering, ineffectual and old fashioned. The young decided to get stuck in and make a fight of it. The mantra? “We like Jezza. We don’t like that ‘bloody woman’. They almost got away with it.

A Way through the Wilderness

Wilderness of the Sinai

Some days ago, I wrote about and hence reminded myself of the Chinese curse ‘may you live in interesting times.’ Since then, a ninety five year old Royal retired (finally), a member of France’s political elite with almost no practical experience overcame the wily old vixen of the Right and has the keys to the Elysée Palace and Theresa May looks like she’s going to trample the far Left under her stilettos in early June. Interesting times indeed. However, the mere fact that musical chairs is the jeu du jour in corridors of power is no guarantee that this will result in seismic societal shifts. We are the same people, waiting in the emergency rooms to see a doctor, scraping by in the British drizzle on not very much and enduring the same train strikes as we did last year. We should have learned by now that despite the optimism of the hustings, the flag-waving and supporters’ cheers – politicians always preach to the choir – political change cannot be brought about by politics alone. In Rabbi Sacks’ new book – a tough read around the book of Numbers – he reminds us that it needs human transformation, brought about by rituals, habits of the heart, and a strenuous process of education. It comes along with knowledge borne out of painful experience, preserved for future generations by acts of remembering. The journey through the wilderness is as relevant as a moral achievement now as it was then. How quickly we are inclined to forget, to dismiss history’s roadmaps as irrelevant. If we are serious about change, it calls not only for high ideals but also a way of life that translates ideals into social interactions. Good intentions alone are not enough. You cannot create a democracy simply by removing a tyrant. As Plato wrote in The Republic, democracy is often no more than the prelude to a new tyranny. You cannot arrive at freedom merely by escaping from slavery. It is won only when a nation takes upon itself the responsibilities of self-restraint, courage, and above all, patience. Without that, a journey of a few hundred miles can take forty years. Even then, it has only just begun.

The British electorate might like to bear it in mind.


Skateboarding to Valhalla (Mind the Gap)

We live in uncertain times, socially, politically and culturally.

Screen Shot 2017-04-30 at 21.14.25.pngI read a rather gloomy piece the other day asserting that established denominational churches are closing all over Europe, whereas the mosques are full to overflowing and people often resort to praying in the street. Dire warnings about hijrah followed. I wondered whether the author was suggesting that this was because Islam is true and Christianity is not, and why does the Christian Church seem so powerless in the face of the Mohammedan onslaught? Will a paradigm shift as fundamental as this create cultural fissures, irreparable cracks in the social masonry? A few thoughts, then, as to why this might be happening beginning with the appeal of atheism, the ‘baby and the bathwater’ argument.

Atheism is fashionably postmodern, its high priests and bishops are articulate, verbally persuasive and personable. It ridicules all religions in the assumption that all religions are the same. They are not.  Different faiths make different claims about what is true, and about what is right and wrong and produce radically different societies with very different laws, indeed it seems inconceivable that a country of wealth and privilege like Saudi Arabia can legally behead people for apostasy.  The same is true for different political ideologies: consider the different trajectories of North and South Korea.  Atheists have helped entrench this belief that ‘all cats are grey in the dark’, because to acknowledge material differences between religions would undermine the atheist (and radical secularist) narrative.

It is an increasingly prevalent belief that religion is causally irrelevant. According to this view, religion can be exploited or hijacked as an excuse or an instrument of oppression – such as an ‘opiate of the masses’, but not an underlying cause of anything.  Marxist ideology has made a significant contribution to establishing this belief and in accordance with this assumption, security analysts all over the Western world presuppose that religion per se cannot be the cause of terrorism therefore they assert that terrorists have ‘hijacked’ religion.

Do we all worship the same God, irrespective of what format our religious practices take? My view on this has been published elsewhere, but for argument’s sake some suggest that we do – the assertion that ‘all roads lead to Rome’. Furthermore, if there is one God, why not many? If we believe in the existence of one God then there is little intellectual barrier to our holding to a pantheistic belief that there might be a lot more, much as some hold to the idea of ‘multiverses’ rather than just one Universe. Instead of us all joyously skateboarding to Valhalla, there are thousands of different gods with all their confusing characteristics and making different demands, and the social constructs surrounding them make for very different communities. Islam has no such scruple, submission is the only objective and heresy is harshly punished. Some modern Christian theological teaching buys into a postmodern fallacy that all meaning is in the eye of the beholder, a thesis the Muslim scholar would be appalled by.

It is surprising to reflect on the fact that the Christian Reformation was not a progressive movement; the Reformers’ objective was to return to the example and teaching of Christ and the apostles.  Throughout the whole medieval period reformatio always meant renewing the foundations by going back to one’s origins. I was once told at theological college that Islam needed its own reformation to extract it from medieval, seventh century thinking towards an enlightened and more contemporary worldview. But, the truth is, Islam has had a reformation, beginning in Saudi Arabia with Wahhabism and spawning Al Qa’eda and its many-headed daughters in an attempt to return to the example and teaching of Muhammad, no less radical that the Christian equivalent.

Those who hold that interfaith dialogue is a good thing and generally increases tolerance believe that dispelling ignorance will increase positive regard for the other- the message of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a MockingbirdAlthough it is true that antisemitism or racial hatred, for example, can feed on and exploit ignorance, accurately dispelling ignorance sometimes rightly increases the likelihood of rejecting the beliefs or practices of another rather than the reverse.  For example, it requires a knowledge of the Islamic notion of abrogation in the Qu’ran where early peaceful verses are superseded by their later more aggressive counterparts, which is a much less attractive prospect. Radical interpretations of the Qur’an, such as are used to support terrorism, almost always involve an appeal to a rich understanding of the context in which the Qur’an was revealed, including the life of Muhammad.  On the other hand, many have taken peaceful verses of the Qur’an out of context to prove that Islam is a peaceful religion. The belief that putting something in context will always produce a more innocuous interpretation is not true.  Attending properly to context can make a text even more offensive than it would otherwise have been.

It is illogical to assume that those opposed to a belief are the ones who are most ignorant about it.  Ignorance can breed positive regard for what is wrong just as easily as it can breed prejudice against what is good.

The ecumenical and interfaith dialogue movements historically hold to the belief that everyone is good and decent, and if we just make a sincere effort to get to know someone we will always come to respect them. On a personal level, this may well be partly true but on a societal level is not universal.  Those who have experienced life under evil governments or in dysfunctional societies are shocked at the naivety of this assumption.

Politicians in the West are fond of asserting that extremism is the problem, and consequently moderation is the solution. Warnings against taking things to extremes are as old as Aristotle.  More recently, the idea was promoted by Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer  that mass movements are interchangeable, and an extremist is just as likely to become a communist or a fascist, for example voting interchangeably for either Jeremy Corbyn or UKIP, Sanders or Trump.  He claimed that it was the tendency to extremism itself which is the problem. We are then faced with the notion that ‘moderation’ or ‘laxity’ in belief or practice is undesirable – witness the atavistic aversion the Labour Party has for Tony Blair, the centrist prophet of moderation. The rhetoric of the activist therefore overcomes measured caution and pushes us towards the thesis that ideas that we suppose are good and true deserve unwaveringly committed support, and the best response to bad ideas is rarely lukewarm moderation.

The West, especially Germany, is still enslaved to collective guilt which may underlie Angela Merkel’s open door refugee policy. It is essentially a silencing strategy, sabotaging critical thinking. Hand in hand with this is the ‘two wrongs make a right’ reasoning. Someone says the Qur’an incites violence, to which someone else replies ‘But there are violent verses in the Bible.’  This kind of reasoning is a tu quoque fallacy, meaning you can’t challenge someone else’s beliefs or actions if you or your group have personally ever done anything wrong. A Catholic argues that violent jihad is bad, but someone else  counters that popes supported the Crusades.

Mankind, it seems, has a childlike belief in progress; everything will always get better in the end. This is seductive but false wishful thinking since bad ideas usually have bad consequences – witness Stalin’s purges or Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  In summary, good but flawed societies can easily become disastrously repressive if they jettison good ideas for bad ones, an example being the rise of the Taliban.  Bad situations can last for a very long time, and may very well keep getting progressively worse. It is not true that ideologies or religions will inevitably improve or become more ‘moderate’ as time passes, as if by some magical process of temporal transformation.

The Chinese curse their enemies by saying “may he live in interesting times”. Looking back on these days with the reverse telescope of the future will determine whether we have been cursed or blessed. As the doors on old European certainties are closing, we should realise that a fissure is created in our society and we therefore should make every effort, as on the London Underground, to ‘mind the gap’.


Harmless Blots.

Screen Shot 1Do I have your attention? Yes, I thought so. A commonplace sight along the upper reaches of Agrippas Street is throngs of black clad haredim, eyes downcast as if searching for cigarette butts to collect and reuse. Clearly, they’re feeling tempted by images of scantily-dressed women on sexy billboards or (Heaven forfend) actually walking past them on the street. In order to shield them from the raging temptations for fornication, masturbation or worse, they can now buy special devices to prevent sin-enticing images from sneaking into their peripheral vision. There’s an organization called The Committee for Purity in the Camp which is selling special stickers that the observant-but-easily-vulnerable-to-lady-business can wear on their glasses. The stickers “blur vision of anything beyond the range of a few meters and so diffuse immodestly dressed women to a harmless blot.”  (also cars, terrorists and runaway horses.) If you don’t happen to need glasses, the Purity Committee sells a non-prescription pair with stickers for the soul-saving bargain price of around $32.) What goes around comes around. These devices were on sale a few years ago and now they seem to be making some kind of comeback.  Or, perhaps, the advertising has become insupportably risqué.

Looks like a change of tactics. Rather than the righteous trying to force women to cover up and spitting on children with exposed forearms – yes, it’s true – these blinders place the onus for avoiding temptation where it belongs: on us, gentlemen. If the choice is between harassing women for displaying bare skin and turning men into blinkered carriage horses, we really need to go with the latter. Unfortunately, there’s always collateral damage and there are two unmistakable, equally toxic messages being sent. Firstly, women’s bodies have, it seems, such power to do harm that we men need to partially blind ourselves for our own protection against untrammelled lust. Second, we are totally incapable of self-control; what the eye sees it will possess. Outsourcing willpower to a pair of glasses makes the idea of self-control almost meaningless.

I used to live in Jamaica, and one massive perk of living there (pun intended) was daily exposure to vast quantities of some of the most stupendously voluptuous mammary flesh on the planet. Expecting an image, were you? Go find your own.  Here in France, décolleté is still deliciously and plentifully apparent. One tries not to stare of course, being British and so forth. Nevertheless…

Shooting Fish


Screen Shot.pngC S Lewis capitalized the important things and I have friends who are Writers. Real wordsmiths, their craft broken on wheels of insomnia or the anvils of pain.

I’m not. But, why do I admire those who are? Because they have mastered the art of partial disclosure, giving us a peep inside the labyrinths of their souls as if the reader is an uninvited guest at the party and gets to mill about with everyone else. They write stories, or better, partially shadowed myths, climbing a pole of imagination like an eremite. Having surveyed and described the view from the top, they can no more climb down, nor can they rejoice since in a moment, they can see everything, the good and the appalling under the surfaces of the imaginations.

It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole; of course he is not – which of us is – nor is he necessarily particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process. It eats like rust on chrome, often from within as the author tries to make contact – the perennial question being – ‘is there anybody out there’? He is the recovering perfectionist, prone to anxiety, stumbling around, tripping over his words in the pitiless twilight in search of ‘the great, cold, elemental grace which knows us.’

I never expect to be nourished by my own work – writers don’t write for themselves, or, for that matter, their prospective readers, even if sometimes in craven hunger I binge heedlessly on impurity, sugar or alcohol and expect to be fed and comforted. I am found pathetically eager to serve the greater visionary, the master of ideas who so easily overtakes the frenzied scribbling, the search for the perfection of Heaven. And yet, knowing well that one must inevitably be satisfied with less, only occasionally startled by a rare but refreshing lightning bolt of a phrase. Margaret Atwood once remarked that writing was like shooting fish in the dark with a slingshot. Somebody, somewhere might be pinged into wakefulness, perhaps, but mostly not.

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’. I wish I’d written that.