Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Howdy doodlings

There’s no fool like an old fool, but youth has the market on being an asshole.

The experience of suffering, mine and others, has never catapulted me into a crisis of faith. The experience of church, however, has been a perennial threat.

Did you hear about the brilliant quantum physicist who was as thick as two short plancks? Yeah, I know, I can see your eyes rolling at such a bohring pun.

No one can both crack me up and piss me off like my wife. Except, of course, God.

My vote for Theologian of the Year goes to – Lila Ames (in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila). Here is Lila on prayer:
  • “She thought, What would I pray for, if I thought there was any point in it? Well, I guess the first thing would have to be that there was some kind of point in it” (pp. 61-62).
  • “And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret” (p. 95).
  • “She meant to ask him sometime how praying is different from worrying” (p. 234).
  • “She said, ‘The best things that happen I’d never have thought to pray for. In a million years. The worst things just come like the weather. You do what you can’” (p. 237).
Some reviewers of Lila have observed that it is a novel without plot. Yes, and so what? As Henry James observed, character is plot.

“The United States of America”: “Well, I spose they had to call it something,” as Doll says (in Lila). Still, it is a cumbersome and colourless name. “Graceland” would have been lovely. “Raceland” more accurate.

What to say to the Religious Right? “Get your fat asses out of my White House” – President Josiah Bartlet’s words in the pilot of The West Wing – still sounds pretty good to me.

L. P. Hartley famously wrote (in The Go-Between, 1953): “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Hell, here in the teenies, the 1950s is a foreign country, and back beyond the 50s, how would we know, temporal xenophobics that we are, enlightened ones patronising or sneering at the olden days of darkness? So a rewrite of Hartley’s aphorism: “The present is a fatuous country; we do things ignorantly here.”

Beware the sentimental politician: his expressions of concern are the cunning performance of a cynical complacency.

The thing I love about Calvinists is the way that they can be so earnest and solemn, and make such ridiculously sweeping statements, about predestination and hell. And Catholics – the way they can be either so devout (as only Catholics can be “devout”) about the sacred or, on the other hand, so insouciant, even irreverent.

On Israel’s “right to exist” –
absolutely, we all should insist;
but for “right of return” –
Palestinians yearn –
we must cry, protest de profundis.

So you believe in the Virgin Birth. So what? And you believe in the Resurrection. Again, so what? The question is: who was the virgin who gave birth, and who was the man who was raised?  And the answer is: Mary, who sang the Magnificat (Luke 1:46ff.), and Jesus, who preached the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20ff.). In the former, Mary says: God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away.” And in the latter, Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor … Blessed are you who are hungry …. But woe to you who are rich … Woe to you who are full.” That woman and that man who said these things – they were the ones who, respectively, gave birth and were raised. Only now do the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection become interesting.

plagiarism: from the Latin plagiarius – plunderer, kidnapper – because words are vulnerable, defenceless; they can be attacked, captured, and abused; their power is their weakness. Like the Word.

Faith expresses itself in the action of love (James 2:17, Galatians 5:6) – nothing extraordinary, mind, let alone heroic, but simply common human decency (from the Latin decere, what is fitting)

People don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change in the same way they don’t believe in senescence. Then the nickel-and-diming starts: on the one hand, arthritis, vision and hearing impairment, memory-loss; on the other hand, extreme weather events. Still, denial persists. Then, before you know it, you’re fucked.

In the UK, with the General Election in May, the main political parties have begun jockeying for position. In addition to Samuel Johnson’s indistinguishable louse and flea – Tories and Labour – there is the bedbug of the Liberal Democrats and the vile tick of UKIP (Britain’s Tea Party light). You might call the Greens, the only party with a moral narrative, a ladybird; otherwise, the wise will vote for an exterminator.

US hegemony over the UK is demonstrated less by the lopsided “special relationship” than by a little American invention which monopolises the market in Britain: the tea bag, which accounts for 96% of all UK tea sales.

Why did God give us bellybuttons (apart, of course, as a salt-holder for eating celery in bed)? To remind us that life is a knot we can never untie.

Here’s an example of contextualisation. Calvin famously described human beings as 5-foot worms: we were both shorter and more appealing in the 16th century. Today he might say that human beings are 6-footish hammerhead sharks: more dangerous than worms, more cranially descriptive – and now facing extinction.

You can tell a lot about a person from what they desire, but I think you can tell even more about them from what they fear.

Contemplative prayer: eavesdropping on the conversation between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For private devotions, one must retire to a special room and close the door. Especially for confession, lest you stink up the whole house.

Sometimes you have to shout to be heard, but what you shout is inevitably a distortion of what you would otherwise simply say.

Oh dear. It looks, folks, like we’re going to have to add an 8th “I-am” saying to John’s Jesus: Je suis Charlie.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Remembering the New Year: in which our author crashes his bicycle, loses his memory, and gets it back again

It was a splendid way to see the New Year in, a day not to be remembered.

I spent New Year’s Eve on a yacht on Sydney Harbour. There was food and wine. There was music. We saw the fireworks and a stunt plane flying loops over the harbour and a parade of boats lined with yellow lights that glittered on the water. Someone went below and produced Christmas lights and we strung them up along the bow rails. I recall children playing checkers and photos of a wedding and a woman from Shanghai.

From the dock I walked to Kings Cross station, past hungry faces and the din of nightclubs and a woman in high heels, who might have been a man, asking people as they passed if they were looking for a good time. Call me old fashioned, but at that hour of the night I am never looking for anything except whisky and sleep.

At first light I pulled on cycling clothes and left to meet my friend. We carried the mountain bikes on to the train and took the train to the Blue Mountains. There is a fire trail that brings you down to the little village at the bottom of the mountains. I love the village because of the pie shop there and the park where I took my children when they were young. We left the train and rode our bikes down the trail. It is good to start a year like this, with a friend and a bicycle. I am told the ride was very beautiful.

Not far from the end of the trail, my friend sat me up on the ground and asked me who I was. Because I did not know the answer, I joked that I was the King of France and that my subjects would be along presently to help me up. For the past few days I had been reading Huckleberry Finn and I was up to the part where Jim and Huck meet the two hobos who pretend to be an English duke and the King of France. Though I couldn’t have told you my name, not if my life depended on it, I remembered enough of Huckleberry Finn to impersonate one of its characters and to find it very funny.

“Yes, my friend, it is too true – your eyes is lookin’ at this very moment on the pore disappeared Dauphin. Looy the Seventeen, son of Looy the Sixteen and Marry Antonette. Yes, gentlemen, you see before you, in blue jeans and misery, the wanderin’, exiled, trampled-on, and sufferin’ rightful King of France.”

The neck brace was uncomfortably hot. But I was glad to study the painted green vines, with leaves and flowers, on the ceiling. When the nurse came back, the one who looked like Frank Sinatra, I asked if it would be too much trouble for him to write the 86th chapter of Moby-Dick on the ceiling above my bed. It is the chapter where Ishmael expounds the unique advantages of the whale’s tail. “Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate a tail.”

I told my friend that St Augustine had once lain in a bed like this with the penitential psalms written on the ceiling so that he would arrive in the next world with a face still wet with tears. The psalms are an excellent choice for a dying man. But I was not dying, only knocked about the head and raving mad, so a ceiling scrawled with Moby-Dick would serve my purposes just fine.

Ninety-nine times I asked about my children.

Then I worried that I would not be able to read the ceiling if my glasses were broken. For those who live by reading, nothing in the world is so alarming as the thought of broken glasses. And yet – I cannot explain the miracle but only report it – although my head was bruised and my face was scratched and my helmet had seen better days, the glasses were as good as new. Eagerly I put them on and looked up to read the ceiling. But there was nothing written there after all, and the nurse had gone away.

I have been writing a paper for a theology conference and I was worried that I would not be able to remember what it was about. I wondered if I would have to start the damn thing all over again. I wondered if I would have it ready in time. I wondered if I would recognise my name when they called on me to get up and speak. Then I thought, everything will be all right: my friend Oliver will be there: I’ll ask him to kick my shins under the table when they say my name. And I’ll just have to hope I can remember enough about Shakespeare to say all the right things.

Then slowly, as if waking after long sleep, my life’s deep hurts came creeping back into my mind. Memory laid its bitterness upon my heart, so that when I waked I cried to sleep again.

“A woman had a lost coin. She searched for it with a lamp, and unless she had some memory of it she would not have found it. For when it was found, how could she have known that this was it, if she did not remember it? You have dwelt in my memory ever since I learned to know You, and it is there that I find You when I remember and delight in You” (Augustine, Confessions).

What struck me – apart from a rock on the head – is the things that still come vividly to mind when all the essentials are gone. Name, age, date of birth, place of residence: all vanished. What I remembered was American fiction. St Augustine. My friends. The need to read and write. Also the words to Bob Dylan songs. Forgetting who you are is not so bad when you can lie there singing “It Ain’t Me Babe” over and over in your head.

But never fear, reader: the bicycle is fine! And after a square meal and a good night’s sleep, my brains are working pretty good again too. I tried them out by writing this. It’s not exactly Mark Twain, but then neither am I. I know that much now.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The year of many movies

You know me well enough by now, reader, to know that I am pretty fond of books and reading. Since I was four years old I have never wanted anything out of life except to read all the books in the world and to add a few more to their number. You will never hear me say a bad work about books. I like people too, naturally – but the thing I like best about them is the books they write. In my heart of hearts I have always felt that anything else a person might do in life is trivial by comparison to those two mighty feats of the human spirit, reading and writing. In my eyes, the science of space travel dwindles into insignificance compared to what Milton wrote about travelling through space. I am glad and grateful for technology, of course I am. I am not one of those backward unadventurous souls who would use last year's computer or quibble over the expense of a few billion dollars per annum on space programs. Technology, I salute you! All I'm saying is that if (God forbid) a thousand years from now NASA and America itself have vanished from human memory, whatever kind of human beings are left on earth will still be reading Milton and marvelling at his description of the sight of our planet as seen from space:
And fast by hanging in a golden Chain
This pendant world, in bigness as a Starr
Of smallest Magnitude close by the Moon.
So please, reader, do not reproach me when I tell you that in this year of our Lord 2014 I have nourished my spirit more on images than words. If the IMDB records are correct, I have seen one hundred and thirty films this year – more than Milton ever saw in his whole life! I watched a lot of movies I'd never seen before and I watched a lot of old favourites again too. Babette's Feast I saw this year for the seventh or eighth time. Annie Hall and Bicycle Thieves I saw for the fourth or fifth time. The big themes of my Year of Many Movies were (a) early films, especially romance and comedy, (b) Italian neorealism, (c) anything with James Cagney in it, and (d) Hitchcock.

Early in the year I had youthful aspirations to watch all of Hitchcock but I got sick of it after the first dozen or so. To be honest, it was Psycho and North by Northwest that ruined it for me. Those famous Hitchcocks get a little bit worse every time you see them (North by Northwest could be used as a textbook study in bad plotting), whereas his great films from the 1930s and 40s get better every time. My favourite is his first (1935) version of The 39 Steps, a perfect film that seamlessly combines suspense, comedy, and romance. By the start of the 1960s all the comedy had drained out of Hitchcock's spirit, which is a shame for everybody.

Anyway in the interests of sharing useless information over the internet, I have copied below the list of movies I saw this year with my ratings out of 10.


FILM
YEAR         
RATING

1920
10

1921
9

1922
10

1923
8

1924
10

1925
10

1927
9

1927
10

1931
8

1932
6

1932
9

1933
6

1933
9

1933
9

1933
8

1934
9

1934
7

1935
10

1936
9

1936
9

1938
7

1938
8

1941
9

1941
9

1942
7

1943
9

1943
9

1944
8

1944
10

1945
7

1945
8

1946
10

1946
8

1947
7

1948
10

1948
10

1948
8

1948
9

1949
9

1949
6

1949
7

1950
10

1951
8

1952
9

1953
9

1953
8

1954
9

1955
10

1955
10

1955
7

1955
9

1956
8

1957
10

1957
10

1958
9

1959
7

1959
7

1959
10

1960
9

1960
8

1960
8

1961
9

1961
10

1962
8

1963
8

1964
10

1972
8

1973
10

1977
10

1979
9

1987
8

1987
10

House of Cards (UK TV series)
1990
9

1997
10

2006
7

2009
9

2011
10

2012
5

House of Cards (US TV series)
2013
8

2013
8

2013
9

2013
10

2013
10

2013
7

2013
8

2014
6

2014
8

2014
7

2014
6

2014
10

2014
5

2014
8

2014
7

2014
6

The Newsroom (TV series, season 3)
2014
7

2014
6

What's that you say? You want some highlights? OK then! The funniest movies I saw this year were The Navigator (1924) and The Seven Year Itch (1955); the scariest was Nosferatu (1922); the best love story was Sunrise (1927); the best thriller was The 39 Steps (1935); best gangster films were White Heat (1948) and Rififi (1955); best TV series was Scenes from a Marriage (1973); best war movie was Battleship Potemkin (1925); best film about religion was Elmer Gantry (1960); best courtroom drama was Judgment at Nuremberg (1961); most mind-bending was The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920); and the best new movies I saw were Ida (2013) and Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

And in case you are starting to doubt my commitment to The Primacy of the Written Word, let me add one more highlight: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore, a beautiful tribute to the power of books and reading. It's a short film available on YouTube. Watch it! Show it to children! Send the link to your librarian! And then go watch some more movies.

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