Sunday, 24 January 2010

A time too short to make a world-without-end bargain

I have three minutes, three minutes, to write something and then I have to get down to work. Got a big deadline for next Saturday. The biggest deadline yet, as a matter of fact. My book manuscript goes to the publishers on Monday 1st February.

Actually, what I'm most looking forward to when the job is done is the chance to be normal again ... Okay, well, at the very least the chance not to have to feel I need to work six days a week, with a few hours on a Sunday on the grounds that it isn't servile work.

Maybe at that time The Sunday Morning Soapbox can expand a bit, perhaps even go to a quasi-daily. I will need all the mental fresh air I can find. We'll see. The first priority is actually to get some real fresh air.

Grrr, I have now been typing for four minutes, so I shall slip away, possibly to return later with more news (grrrrrr, five minutes!).

Sunday, 17 January 2010

What do you read, my Lord? Words, words, words

I've been visited by a phantom book flogger who thought it a great idea to post an advert for his book. He said his were considered Catholic writings and that lots of clever people were saying nice things about him. He was also related to someone famous, which must be an incomparable advantage in convincing the punters to buy your books.

I welcome people's engagement on here, as I would welcome them to my dinner table - if only I could fit you all in - but when they come around doorstepping like a 1950s hoover salesman, it just brings out my inner bouncer. He can write to me if he thinks this is unfair.


In other news, I've been thinking about The Sound of Music all week. Well, I've been going through a stressful time of late, and these things happen. Now, I know what some readers are thinking, and I forbid them to think it. Stop it, right now! His name will not be mentioned here, at the risk of bringing out once again my inner bouncer.

But the reason I've been thinking about it, is that watching it again after all these years has convinced me it is not so sweetie-pie nice after all. I know we all have this image of the so-clean-you-could-operate-in-her-apron nanny Maria, played in the film by Julie Andrews, but as I sat and watched it this time, what I kept on noticing was the portrayal of darkness.

No, not in her! Of course not. Well, I'll come back to that. But the main characters are surrounded by largely compromised, selfish individuals who are all guilty of one betrayal or another. I had not remembered how Max's open jokes about making money were not actually funny at all, but representative of the kind of unveiled cynicism which invades as it disarms. The countess to whom the Captain nearly gets spliced is not only unctuous to the point of needing a Tyrolean dancer's slap in the face; she's a wicked-witch figure who breaks Maria through subterfuge and deception. Hans, the baddy telegram boy, we're all familiar with of course. But he's more than a traitor to Liesl; he's the image of the boyish prig whose desire for recognition - a desire known to all boys, as well as to prigs - has, like a star-struck lover, fatally crossed with the political ascedency of first-class shits.

Oh, but the critics will say, this is simply the old fashioned device of baddies versus goodies. And of course the goodies win, as they stroll over the mountains to Switzerland. But this is to miss some of the most interesting psychological contours of the film. The Captain and Maria are both people who have been lying to themselves; lying perhaps out of a sense of self-defence - the Captain in his widowhood (or does a man have a widowerhood?) and Maria in her vocational idealism - but lying all the same. And, so the conquest of bad in the film is not merely contained in the escape theme; nor even in the obvious love theme; but rather in the discoveries which Captain and the Maria make about themselves:

Somewhere in my wicked, miserable past,
There must have been a moment of truth.

Okay, this is not Shakespeare, but who cares? Shakespeare wouldn't have cared for a start. But I find this an engaging thought, not only because of the light it casts on the relationship of insight and moral decision, but, probably more so, because of its corollaries; it is not the moments of truth in my life that I worry about - I'm grateful for them! - so much as the moments of falsehood. The moments of falsehood start us along paths at whose beginning we catch a delicate thread of ourselves and begin a slow, unravelling process. And then when the winter bites, we find our garments - our integrity, our authenticity - have gone.

In this song, the implication seems to be that finding love is a reward for doing good. But I think that is a moot point. Maria sings, 'Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.' Sound metaphysics, let it be noted. And, I think, classic moral sense. It is the moments of truth that somehow facilitate the subsequent possiblities of insight.

I wonder whether religious people are less likely to see this theme. There is a sound philosophical suspicion which contests the impossibilty of knowing the truth of things - the grand comfort blanket of the modern age - but this is too easy a formulation. Whatever the knowability of Truth, the truth about oneself is often buried in rubble, disguised by the myths we invent in self-defence, or else - to take up my earlier image - has been left back along the road where we snagged our honesty on a thorny convenience.

And that is why the moment of truth in the past - is this the moment of our childhood? Bernanos certainty thought so as he sought to remember 'le petit enfant que je fus' - is so important. You not only need a compass - the Truth - to navigate, you need a fixed point on the horizon. And that moment of truth, le petit enfant que je fus, might be the only fixed point in a world torn by earthquakes and terrors.

So, now, go and listen to the song, and no singing along!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

A black and white case

I am still struggling to decide whether all this snow in the UK is doing us any good or not. I have heard say that it's proof against the global warming theory, but I'm afraid that is rather short sighted. The fact is southern Europe is getting the mild winter we normally have and we are getting this icy stuff off Scandinavia (which is fast going down in my opinion).

On the one hand, the snow has brought out things which we were quite happy to have left in the closet. One example is the dreadful capacity we have for scaring ourselves senseless through the media. But that's not all. Think about this. The lack of grit for roads and the potential problems of gas supply show exactly what kind of a penny-pinching nation we have become ... not that it has done us any good in the long run either. We are a beanocracy, i.e. run by the beancounters who are as mean-spirited as Chesterton's Grocer:

God made the wicked Grocer
For a mystery and a sign,
That men might shun the awful shops
And go to inns to dine;
Where the bacon's on the rafter
And the wine is in the wood,
And God that made good laughter
Has seen that they are good.

All that said - and it is already quite a lot - the snow has definitely brought about something which you rarely witness in the suburbs where I live: people have started talking to one another ... cheerily ... as if they are mental patients - errr -normal, well-balanced and full of community spirit. Okay, a lot of the comments are about the weather, but that is what were famed for talking about. But this is fascinating really. Bad conditions force people to be attentive to others. Difficulties experienced by everyone tend to drive us out of our shell. Empathy becomes imaginable once more. There are connections made which our normally self-contained lives do not otherwise allow.

Of course, I speak as a suburbanite. These things have probably never been forgotten in some places. In others they probably shade quite easily into the vices of community life .... the gossip, the peer pressure, the long-term grudges. But how refreshing all the same. Is it better to have a grudge against someone rather than be practically ignorant of their existence, rather than being in a position to take any responsibility for them? Some would say a grudge is at least proof that you once cared!

Add all that to the possibility of a few days extra away from the office, and I think you'll agree we should welcome these vile conditions with open arms. God bless global warming if this is what it means. Perhaps Hippoyte Taine was right to some extent: our geography and weather have a remarkable capacity to shape us, not because we're determined like sugar and vitriol - pace Taine - but because it gives us other choices to make. And who is to say that Britain is not in need of other choices than the ones served up by our godforsaken, consummerist beanocracy?

Bless the weather that brought you to me, as the drunk with an untuned guitar once sang.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

As through a glass darkly

I have pretty much missed Christmas this year. A day at my brother's for Christmas, and the rest has been work, work, work. I'm looking ostensibly fatter, not through over indulgence but as a result of my sedentary profession which keeps me chained to desk, computer and library shelf for many hours at a time. My one consolation has been ploughing through the first season of The A Team which I picked up for a song at HMV (and, no, I've never been asked to sing before in a shop. Very odd). Somehow it's not as good as it was twenty-five years ago.

I'm not complaining. There are much worse ways to spend your Christmas after all. At least I didn't spend mine in a stable. And whilst nobody gave me gold, frankincense or myrrh, the pressies weren't half bad either (John Martyn and Martha Wainwright CDs, fine whisky, some wine).

Still, I'm always struck by that image from Eliot's The Wasteland about laying out 'food in tins'. If he'd have written it another seventy years later, I wonder if Eliot would have expressed the same sense of dislocation through the image of frosted double glazing. I know I am not alone in feeling that everything surrounding Christmas these days drowns out the carols, makes it difficult to catch the sense of wonder and drama that hides within the nativity, leaves one feeling as removed from the mystery as one is from the cold snow on the window ledge outside. I'm sure that is why I resent New Year so much, and why I would rather go to bed before midnight. No Scrooge I. No killjoy neither. But what on earth does New Year mean without Christmas? It is 2010 of what exactly? Of what exactly ... if you think Christianity is a myth? And so I, a believer, baulk at the implicit hypocrisy of it all. To the public mind, it's about as significant as May becoming June (a moment we know to be thick with meaning, but that is for another post).

Of course on the other hand it is precisely the inconsistency of the human being, our ridiculous inability to remember ourselves from one end of the week to the other, that excuse these omissions. Of all the images of Christmas the one I feel closest too at this stage in my life is the straw. And in all the vulgarity of the Xmas season, in all the Crimbo-tinsely-sparkling empty chinging of the tills, and the silly countdown to another calendar year, the amazing thing is that there is still the chance to press one's nose against the frosted double glazing and watch and glimpse the truth beyond the pane.