Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Happy Birthday Molly Carlson!

I would like to wish a happy birthday to Molly Carlson, a long-time Stateside reader of this blog and a friend I've unfortunately never met. Her comments always illuminate this humble corner of cyberspace and I often think they are more interesting than the posts they follow!

Happy birthday, Molly! You probably won't see this today, so I'll say, hope you had a wonderful birthday!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mystery Tour: Chapter Three

The bad weather was not a passing squall. Fifteen minutes later it had only increased in intensity.

“Funny thing is”, said Karla, addressing the air, “today was meant to be mild. According to the forecast.”

“Really?” asked Helen. “I heard that it was going to be stormy.”

“Hang on” said Karla, reaching into her pocket and taking out her mobile phone. It was a rather snazzy-looking smartphone, that looked as though it might be able to do everything short of instantly translating your conversation into Japanese. She swiped her thumb along its screen, but a look of frustration passed across her face.

“Dammit” she said. “I can’t get a signal. How about you?”

Helen produced a rather smaller and less advanced phone from inside her jacket. A little bit of prodding provoked much the same expression as Karla's. “Nothing. Must be the storm, I guess.”

Karla looked at Laurence. “You?”

“I don’t have a mobile telephone” said Laurence. “I hate them.”

Karla rolled her eyes a little. “One of those guys.”

“And who would those guys be?”

Karla didn’t answer. She looked out the window. “I don’t imagine we’ll have much touring if this doesn’t clear up.”

“I’m surprised how fast we’re going” said Helen. The bus seemed to be moving almost as fast as it would be moving in good weather, and in light traffic.

“Maybe we’re on a quiet road”, said Laurence.

With that, the intercom crackled. A bubbling sound and a slow, steady drum-beat filled the air of the bus. Laurence thought he recognised it from somewhere.

“That’s ‘The Monster Mash’ “ said Karla, with one of her sudden, dizzy smiles.

Over the intercom, Skull Face began to sing along with the first words of the song. He did a perfect Borris Karloff impression. He had a fine singing voice, too.

Karla and Helen laughed out loud. Karla’s laugh was no silvery tinkle, but loud and deep. Her shoulders shook as she laughed.

“Join in”, urged Skull Face, when he reached the end of the verse.

Karla and Laurence took up his suggestion straight away. They both knew the words off by heart. Helen obviously didn’t, but waited and then joined in the chorus eagerly enough. All the time, the hail and the rain battered on the sides of the bus, and the wind howled furiously.

Suddenly, Laurence felt happy. Ridiculously happy. Was it just because he was sitting opposite Karla, who seemed more desirable to him every moment? Was it the storm outside? (He could never remember a time when he didn’t love storms.) Was it the song, which had always been one of his favourites? Or the sudden, conspiratorial sense of companionship that seemed to have sprung up inside the bus?

All of these things, doubtless. Less than an hour ago I was planning to kill myself, he thought. Not for the first time in his life, Laurence was struck by the sheer randomness of human existence.

The song came to an end, and Skull Face asked: “How about another blast of that?”

“Yes!” Karla shouted at the top of her voice. It echoed through the bus, despite the noise of the storm outside.

Laurence and Helen laughed, and a few moments later the sound of the bubbling cauldron came over the intercom again.

That’s when Laurence saw it.

He had turned to glance out the window, and an electric shock passed through him. The sky had turned green.

It was a livid, glowing green, utterly unnatural looking.The rain looked as though it was green sparks thrown off by a green fire.

And, suddenly, despite the water streaming down the window, he caught a glimpse of something outside—a human figure, some twenty or thirty feet away from the bus. A figure in a hooded cloak, walking very slowly towards them.

And then it was gone. Not only the figure, but the colour of the sky. It was the same charcoal grey it had been a few moments before.

But there was more to the experience than what Laurence saw. It was what he felt, too. The sight filled him with a sense of horror, but it was a very particular sort of horror. It wasn’t the sort of horror he’d felt the time he was convinced he had cancer, or when he was being bullied at school. It was...

Well, it was exactly like the horror he’d felt when he’d discovered scary movies, as a very young boy. It reminded him of that cardboard cut-out advertisement in the video shop window, all those years ago. The one showing a gnarled hand rising from a freshly-dug grave. The one that he couldn’t stop going to look at it even though it made his heart pound and his whole body feel chilly. It had the same flavour.

It was a horror that went much deeper than the fear of danger...and one that, somehow, called to him.

“What’s wrong?”

He turned. Helen was watching him, keenly.

“Nothing” he said.

“You look like you…saw something” said Helen. “You jumped.”

For a moment Laurence thought of telling her the truth. But only for a moment.

“Nothing to see out there”, he said, with a smile.

Now Karla was watching him, too, curiously. She had stopped singing along with the Monster Mash. But Skull Face’s voice still came over the intercom, singing with gusto.

“What's this guy’s name, anyway?” asked Laurence, eager to change the subject. “He never told me.”

“I did ask him” said Helen. She gave a rather quizzical smile. “Mr. Ferryman. That’s what he said.

“Oh, please” said Karla. “That is so lame."

“It’s what he said.”

Laurence was barely listening to them. His heart was thumping, and his skin was goosepimpled all over.

He remembered a story he had read when he was thirteen or fourteen, one that had always stuck with him. It was called ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ and it was written by Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of the American Civil War who’d written a dictionary full of cynical definitions, and who eventually disappeared in Mexico.

The story was about a soldier of the American Civil War who was caught by the other side and escaped just as he was about to be hanged. For the entire story he was on the run from his would-be executioners, and towards the end it looked like he was going to get away...then came that sickening twist, where it turned out he had been hanged after all, and the whole story had been a hallucination running through his mind in its last moments, as the noose squeezed the oxygen from his brain. (Not long afterwards, Laurence had seen the film Jacob’s Ladder, which had used pretty much the same twist...but which still managed to trick him.)

The memory of the story gave him a heavy feeling in his stomach, like he’d swallowed a bowl of ball-bearings. What if he had gone ahead with his decision from earlier, after all? What if he was hanging by his neck from the rod in his wardrobe now? What if all this was the last pyrotechnics of his dying imagination?

He looked at Karla, who was still talking to Helen. He noticed her high forehead, her ever-so-slightly frazzled hair, her rather strong jaw-line. And, of course, her full figure, which was rather fuller than would be deemed ideal in many, if not most, eyes. It was almost ridiculous— Karla was his dream girl from head to toe. Was it because he was actually dreaming her, along with all of this?

His eyes turned to Helen. He wondered why he would dream a middle-aged academic.

But he only wondered for a moment. The motherly way she had looked at him, a moment before—what was it, except the fantasy of a young man who had never really had a mother? Whose own mother had tried to murder him before she murdered herself, when he was only a baby?

All this cameraderie, this storm, the bus that had pulled up just at the right moment—wasn’t it all too good to be true?

And with that, they came to a halt. Laurence, pulled out of his reverie, realised that the wind had gone from a howl to a sigh, and the rain and hail had stopped pounding against the bus.

Skull Face-— Mr. Ferryman, that was—- came through the door of the driver’s compartment, and once again clapped his hands-— a little more gently, this time.

“First stop, ladies and gentleman. The rest of your life begins now, if you dare to step outside.”

Jabbing the door that opened the bus’s door—for the first time, Laurence noticed that it had the Evil Eye painted on it—he descended the steps with a boy’s eagerness, and jumped onto the ground outside. Laurence could hear the soft thump as his feet landed.

The three passengers rose from their seats, rather warily. Laurence gave a small bow, smirked, and waved his hand with exaggerated chivalry.

“Thank you kindly, sir” said Helen, with a smile. Karla said nothing as she stepped past.

He followed the two ladies down the steps, curiosity driving his speculations out of his head—or out of the forefront of his mind, anyway.

It was cold. Not bitterly cold, but several degrees colder than it had been before he’d boarded the bus. A gentle drizzle was still falling.

They were standing in the middle of a broad country road, hedged in by trees on either side. Lights were scattered none-too-plentifully along the horizon in front of them. Laurence could hardly imagine a place that had more of a middle-of-nowhere look about it.

“Where are we?” asked Karla.

“Now, now, now” said Mr. Ferryman, clapping her lightly on the shoulder. “What kind of mystery tour would it be if I told you where you were? After the happy accident of that storm, too.”

Karla smiled at him, and Laurence felt a twinge of jealousy. She hadn’t smiled so sweetly at him.

“What are you going to show us?” she asked, folding her arms, and shivering a little. “A haunted pot-hole?”

Ferryman laughed, and so did Helen. “No”, he said. “I have something better than that. Follow me.”

He turned, and began to stride forward, at a surprisingly rapid pace.

“Where’s the fire?” whispered Helen, as they started to follow him. They had to trot to make up his head-start.

Karla took her mobile phone from her pocket, and swiped her thumb across its screen. She cursed under her breath.

“Still nothing. What the heck? Helen?”

“Oh, come on” said Laurence. “Don’t those things ruin the mystery? Wouldn’t it be more fun just to switch them off?”

“Hey, screw you!”, said Karla, smiling and flipping him the finger. “Helen?”

“No” said the older woman, tapping at her own device. “Nada. Maybe there’s no coverage out here. Maybe it really is the back of beyond.”

“Maybe Mr. Ferryman here has some kind of jamming device” said Laurence. “Ever think of that?”

“Hmmm” said Karla, looking towards the tour guide, who was still striding some distance ahead of them. “Could be. But would it work so far from the bus? Hey, Ferryman!”

Her last two words were shouted, and sent echoes all through the lane. Ferryman turned to look over his shoulder at her, but kept walking. He didn’t even slow his pace.

“What’s the deal with our phones?” Karla called to him, lifting her own phone in the air. “Why won’t they work? Is this something you’re doing?”

“I know nothing about phones” said Ferryman, shrugging, and turning away again. “They aren’t a part of my world.”

“Oh, great” said Karla, looking at Laurence. “A kindred spirit for you.”

Laurence smiled. “I wish all the portable telephones in the world would stop working.”

“Do you, now?” asked Karla, sliding her own back into her pocket. “How very...different of you! You must be a very interesting and special person. I bet you don’t watch TV, either. And...do you sleep in a teepee, by any chance?”

“I have TV in my teepee” said Laurence. That made Karla laugh, rather reluctantly. “You must come and have a look, some time.”

“Totally, dude”, said Karla. “Aha!” she cried, lifting her arm and pointing past their guide. “I think I see our first port of call.”

There was a church visible against the darkening skyline. It was a small church, with a broken cross above it—one of the arms of the cross was missing.

“If anybody does have any orthodox religious tendencies”, called Ferryman, looking back over his shoulder again, “especially of the Judaeo-Christian variety, this might be a time to brace yourself.”

“Hey!” said Karla, pointing above them now. “Look! Bats!”

Laurence looked up, just in time to see a small flutter of bats scurrying over them.

“I love bats” he said, truthfully.

“Me too” said Karla.

“Me too” said Helen.

All three of them laughed, and for a moment Laurence felt just as absurdly happy he had felt at the beginning of their sing-along.

Silence fell between them-- a comfortable, companionable silence-- and a few minutes later they had reached the church. The evening had grown very dark, but Ferryman produced an electric torch and shone its beam upon the building.

It was a small, stone, disused church, square and Romanesque. The windows and entrance had been boarded up with rusted metal sheets. Weeds and moss grew between the stones of its fa├žade.

It was completely covered in graffiti. And not just ordinary grafitti, but the most obscene and frenzied graffti Laurence had ever seen in his life. There were crude, cartoonish pictures, as well as words—all of them breathtakingly crude and vicious.

“Oh my goodness” said Helen, in a whisper.

“Behold how gods die”, said Ferryman. His tone was both solemn and full of relish.

“Oh, please” said Karla. “God isn’t dead because some vandals write some dirty words on an old church. Is this what you brought us here to see? Because, if it is, colour me unimpressed.”

“Oh, this is nothing” said Ferryman, lowering the torch. “Our first stop is next door. In the cemetery.”

And, with that— as soon as he had spoken the last word— a woman started screaming, at the top of her voice, in the middle distance.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Thank You

I feel in a strangely retrospective mood today and I found myself feeling especially grateful for the readers of this blog.

The act of writing is so important to me. Under the desk at which I'm writing this, there are two metal file-boxes which contain English exercises from school, manuscripts of old poems, clippings from newspaper letter pages, college newspapers, community magazines, literary magazines and assorted other printed matter, all of which contain something or other written by me. They are pretty much all I have kept from most of my life. That, and a few souvenirs, like the miniature packet of playing cards that was in a Christmas cracker I pulled with my mother two months before she passed away.

Writing has always seemed solid and real to me in a special, unique way. I remember, seven years ago, I attended the thirtieth birthday party of a fellow I'd known in school. I came away from it enormously distressed-- everybody seemed so casual about the passage of time, the fact of experience, the journey of life. Never in my life did human existence seem more of a 'casual comedy' than that evening. I couldn't sleep. I ended up walking around my neighborhood by the light of the dawn. I only managed to quell my agitated feelings by promising myself I would write a cycle of novels in which I would capture my entire life experience-- not literally, but in a fictionalized manner. That is the novel which turned out to be The Bard's Apprentice, a novel I serialized here, and which readers of this blog received very kindly. (The idea of the novel cycle went by the board-- thankfully!)

Not only does writing seem solid and real to me, but putting thoughts and experiences and ideas into written form seems to give them a reality that was only latent in them before they were written down. Writing seems to make things more real. I agree that seems a little crazy, but there you go. Isaac Asimov said that he thought through his fingers. Sometimes I feel I live through my fingers. Which might sound more anti-social and otherworldly than I mean it; I'm not at all dismissing the importance of life experience, human relationship, and so forth. These things are utterly crucial and what life is all about. But somehow they seem to become more palpable, more vivid, more themselves when they are 'processed' through writing about them-- directly or obliquely.

Anyway, I am far from being a confident person and I don't have a whole lot of confidence in my own writing. So having an audience, and one that is indulgent of my meanderings into different genres and formats, means the world to me and has made me a bit more confident. (Would you be insulted if I said you feel like my 'home crowd?') I also appreciate the prayers that were offered whenever I asked for them. Life has been a very bumpy ride recently and it meant a lot to be in the prayers of people who, in many ways, know me better than many of those who interact with me regularly in person. I pray for you all too.

So...thank you. Very much.

Mystery Tour-- Chapter Two

There were only two other people on the bus.

It was a fairly typical bus, aside from its horror props. There were perhaps forty seats, which were well upholstered and cushioned. (They were all coloured red with a pattern of little black bats worked into them.) The curtains on the windows were designed to look like cobwebs. An eerie green light shone on the ceiling. It was a little bit roomier than most buses Laurence had been in—and he had been in a lot of buses in his time.

A door separated the driver’s section of the bus from the rest of it. The wall dividing the two sections was covered with a montage of horror images—skinny hands extending from open graves, full moons, Grim Reapers—against a dark blue background.

The other two passengers were sitting near the front of the bus, not beside each other but in consecutive rows.

One caught Laurence’s eye immediately. She was an attractive young woman, of a similar age to himself. She had shoulder-length black hair, a red t-shirt with a picture of Snoopy on it, and jeans. She was, as he thought appreciatively, nice and curvy. She had a bit of acne around her chin, which didn’t make her any less cute in Laurence’s eyes.

The other passenger was another woman, who might have been in her fifties or perhaps her early sixties. She was wearing a dark brown dress and a black cardigan. She had a thin, sharp face. Her hair was grey-blonde and short. She looked to Laurence like she might be a university professor, or perhaps a retired university professor.

Both of them smiled politely as Laurence sat down, opposite the cute girl. “Hi” he said to both of them. “Are you both free vouchers too?”

The cute girl nodded, and the older lady said: “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” Skull-face had disappeared into the driver’s section, closing the door behind him.

“My name is Laurence.”

“Karla” said the cute girl, in an impeccably Dublin accent. “And no, I’m not Swedish, or Scandinavian. My parents just liked the name.”

“Helen” said the older lady.

“Doesn’t seem to be very many people taking advantage of the offer”, said Laurence, looking at all the empty seats.

“Uh-uh”, said Karla.

“Well, I got on first” said Helen. “And that was on the other side of the city. He’s only stopped for both of you.” Her voice only made her seem more like a university professor; it was, as people said, an ‘educated’ voice.

“That’s a bit odd” said Laurence. “I wonder why?”

“My guess”, said Helen, “is that this is a trial run and he only wants a small audience. If he mucks it up and he has a big audience…”

“Right” said Karla, nodding. “Right.”

“Unless there are more to come” said Laurence, but at that moment the door of the driver’s section opened.

Skull Face stepped out, and clapped his hands together enthusiastically. The clap was surprisingly loud, like a boxing glove hitting a punch bag. He clicked the door closed behind him. He had to crouch a little inside the bus.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome!” he cried, extending his arms as far as the bus would allow him. “Welcome to the fright of your lives!”

“Only three of us?” asked Helen.

Skull Face shrugged. “We are most discerning about our customers”, he said. “Also, this is the first try-out of our Dublin tour, so we are happy to invite only a very select audience.” Helen nodded, looking satisfied that she had guessed right.

“How long does it last?” asked Karla.

“As to that, young lady” said Skull Face, leaning towards her a little, his voice dropping, “there is no easy answer. Time is so mysterious.”

“Well, I need to catch the last bus tonight, unless you’re going to drive me all the way home to Fairview” she said, with a little smile.

Skull Face laughed. It was a deep, good-humoured laugh. “Well, in non-subjective terms”, he said, “you should be back in Dublin city centre by six p.m. Last stop O’Connell Street.”

Laurence had no objection to sitting opposite Karla for a little over six hours. And maybe their acquaintance would not end there, either.

“What I don’t understand” said Helen, “is how you can have a regular mystery tour. Surely a mystery tour is a once off?”

Skull Face smiled. He had, appropriately enough, a bonily handsome kind of face—large, like the rest of him, and with a powerful nose, cheekbones and chin. He reminded Laurence of King Henry VIIII.

“Well, that is part of the mystery” he said, with a playful smile. “Now, before we start, may I ask a few questions?”

“Shoot” said Karla.

“Is there anybody here with a history of heart problems?”

There was no response, and Skull Face nodded briskly. “Very good. Is there anybody here with orthodox religious beliefs of any kind?” He was still smiling rather playfully, but the question seemed serious.

This time there was a longer silence, and Helen said: “I’m not sure you’re even allowed to ask that.”

Skull Face laughed, with amusement that was obviously genuine. It struck Laurence that he still hadn’t told them his name yet.

“No? Well, that is something we’ll have to look into for future tours, then.”

“Not that I mind answering”, said Helen. “For me, it’s a simple 'no'. I was raised a Quaker, but I don’t have any beliefs.”

“No beliefs at all?” asked Skull Face, raising an eyebrow.

“Not religiously speaking” said Helen. “No.”

Skull Face turned to Laurence. “How about you, sir?”

Laurence shrugged. “I’m on the same page”, he said. “Put me down as an agnostic, I guess.”

“What’s the point of this question?”, blurted out Karla, sounding less than happy.

Skull Face turned to her and examined her expression in silence for a few moments. Finally he replied: “It’s a matter of tailoring the experience. There are some things I wouldn’t try with a true believer.”

Laurence wondered if the others found that statement as perplexing as he did.

“Well, I’m not telling you something so personal” said Karla, with a small frown. “It’s nobody’s business but mine.”

“Madam”, said Skull Face—and this time the formality did not sound cheesy or theatrical, but sincere--- “let me apologize. To offend you was the furthest thing from my mind.”

“I’m not offended one little bit.” She smiled. Boy, she had a sweet smile. “I’m just not telling you, that’s all.”

“So be it”, said Skull Face. “So be it. We will work our way round it, I suppose. That only leaves the matter of your cards.” He reached into the folds of his cloak, and distributed three plastic cards to Karla, Laurence and Helen.

The first thing that struck Laurence about the card was how cold it felt to the touch. Hard and cold. So much so that he thought it might be metal, but its flexibility was more like plastic.

The second thing that struck him about the card was its appearance. It was basically silver, but the entire card had the iridescence of a holographic strip. It shimmered different colours as it moved, and different images appeared—now it showed a skeleton, now a crescent moon, now a curved dagger.

Written across the front of the card, in silvery script, was his name: “Laurence Mortimer Cahill”. Skull-Face had asked him to fill out a basic registration card before he had come aboard. There was no other text.

“Some kind of…loyalty card?” asked Helen.

“That, and more” said Skull Face. “When you take a Monstrous Mystery Tour you don’t just become a customer. You become…part of the family, I suppose. Treasure these cards like you treasure your lives.”

The phrase, hammily delivered as it was, seemed grimly ironic to Laurence, considering the decision he had reached earlier that day.

“What can we get for them?” asked Karla, with a hint for avidity.

“Everything short of salvation” said Skull Face.

Karla gave him a sharp look. “What, though?”

Skull Face raised a hand in the air, airily. “All sorts of things. Free admission to over a hundred establishments. Concessions. Food and drink. Most importantly, an ongoing relationship with Monstrous Mystery Tours.”

“Well, do you have a list?” asked Karla, a little bit suspiciously. She seemed a lot more inclined than Helen to look a gift horse in the mouth.

“Not a full one”, said Skull Face. “We can speak again about this at the end of the tour.”

“So we can’t use them during it?”

“Believe me, Madam”, said Skull Face, whose good humour did not seem in the least bit dented by Karla’s pushiness, “all your needs will be catered for throughout the tour. Including your deepest need, which is the need for awe and wonder and dread.”

“Good” said Karla, evenly.

Laurence noticed that the homeless lady to whom he’d given two hundred euros (what was he thinking?) was standing outside the tour bus, staring into the very window opposite him. He thought she was staring at him until he remembered that the glasses were dark from the outside. Even from inside, they had a greeny tinge. She wore a look of deep confusion.

“Well, in that case, we are ready to begin”, said Skull Face. “Prepare for the tour of a thousand lifetimes.” He clapped his hands again, to similarly resounding effect, and disappeared into the driver’s cabin.

As soon as the door to the cabin had closed, the wheels began to move.

“Well, you know how to speak your mind”, Laurence said to Karla, giving her a smile which he intended to be flirtatious.

In return, she gave him a quick frown utterly devoid of flirtatiousness. “Yes, I do” she said. “Don’t you?”

“No” said Laurence. “It’s not something I was ever especially good at.”

“More fool you”, she said. Unexpectedly, she did flash him a smile now—although it still didn’t seem in the least bit flirtatious.

At that moment—more suddenly then Laurence would have thought possible—the wind began to howl.

“Holy cow” said Helen. “Sound effects and all.”

“That came out of nowhere” said Karla.

They were moving through the city quays, where shops began to be replaced by pubs and business offices. Laurence saw a mother wrap her arm around her little daughter’s shoulders as the wind buffeted them both, even pushing them backwards a few steps.

A few moments later, rain and hail began to pelt against the windows, and against the side and roof of the bus. It was a non-stop barrage, and its thud-thud-thud filled the inside of the bus.

“Holy cow” Helen repeated. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

Rain was streaming down the windows in such quantities now that it was impossible to make out anything beyond them except patches and light and darkness. Laurence also noticed that the evening seemed to have grown significantly darker in a matter of seconds.

The intercom crackled and Skull Face’s voice filled the air. “Just the right weather for the scariest day of your lives”, he said.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A New Horror Novel-- Mystery Tour

I've serialized pre-written novels here before but here is the first chapter of a new novel. I wrote this yesterday. I might finish the novel or I might not. Tell me if you think it's worth continuing with. It's been brewing in my mind for ages, although the plot has taken very different forms.

Chapter One

Between carrying his cup of hot chocolate to the balcony table and draining its last dregs, Laurence had decided to end it all. The decision came to him as coolly as a decision to…well, a decision to buy a cup of hot chocolate.

He wasn’t cool or decisive by nature. Usually, he fussed over every decision, every commitment. He worried and obsessed and vacillated.

But he was so, so tired. So tired.

He looked into the crowd below and marvelled at the utter exhaustion that he felt. Not a physical exhaustion, but an emotional one. But it went even deeper than emotional. Spiritual? The word made him cringe, but that’s what it amounted to.

Down below, people hurried and sauntered and queued, catching trains and getting off trains and waiting for trains. They all had somewhere to go, somebody waiting for them. Or if they hadn’t, then they anticipated having them in the future. The world ran on optimism, but Laurence’s reserves had run out.

He reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out two letters, two letters he had read over and over again in the past four days.

One was on headed paper and printed. He almost knew it off by heart. Now he merely scanned it, his eye skipping from one all-too-familiar phrase to the next: “Four years of excellent service as a teacher...unfortunate that a single incident…though you were undoubtedly provoked....reputation of the school…wish you all the best in your future career…”

As for the other letter, he could not even bear to read it a second time. Rather than being printed, it was written in the slanted, elegant handwriting that he knew so well. Its tone and its content was very different to most of the letters that he had read in that handwriting.

Suddenly, without premeditation, he tore both of them in half, then into smaller pieces, feeling a strange sense of relief as he did so.

He was still exhausted, but the grief seemed to diminish with every rip that he put through the paper. When they were ripped into pieces too tiny to be read—and who would want to read them, anyway?--- he rose from the table, feeling even more calm and resolved than before.

The weight of the past had lifted, but where was his future? He couldn’t see any. He was too tired for a future. Twenty-seven years of age, and he felt older than Methuselah.

Attention, ladies and gentlemen, the train to 3:35 train to Cork is now boarding…

He walked down the marble-effect winding stairway to the ground level of the train station. This had been his favourite place to come for tea since he’d come to Dublin to start college. He savoured the excitement of people coming and going, new stories beginning.

And all that would still go on, he thought to himself, as he made his way to the exit. The end of his own life seemed like a little thing to him right now. The great world would go on its way. Trains would arrive, trains would depart.
Epidemics would break out and then dissipate, because there were always enough people left living for the world to go on. There would be wars and rumours of wars, and then there would be movies and novels written about those wars, long after the blood had dried.

The world would not pause to notice the disappearance of Laurence Cahill. At another time, that thought would have depressed him. Now it made him feel strangely cheerful.

It was a dark November evening, a little past seven. He made his way to Trevelyan bridge. The rush hour was long over and there was not much traffic, wheeled or human.

“Spare some change?”

He looked down. A young woman, sitting with a blanket over her legs, was leaning against the parapet of the bridge and lifting a paper cup to him.

“Sure”, said Laurence. He took out his wallet, opened it, and glanced inside. There was a little over two hundred euro. He took it out, rolled the notes together, and dropped them into the woman’s cup while she stared at him. One last dramatic gesture. Why not?

She stared at the money in her cup for a few moments, and then looked up at him in suspicion. Then her hand moved like a stage magician’s, and the money disappeared under the blanket.

“Thanks”, she said, matter-of-factly, still looking at him guardedly.

Laurence nodded. What had he been expecting? Tears of gratitude? That would have just embarrassed him, anyway.

He walked along the bridge, staring into the bottle-green Liffey water, glowing with reflected light from street lamps.

The idea of climbing up onto the parapet and jumping into the river appealed to his sense of drama. But what would it actually be like—dying that way? How long would it take? How much would it hurt?

As he stood there, a bus pulled up alongside him.

It was a bus unlike any he had ever seen before. For a start, it was painted black—with red streaks of painted ‘blood’ running down the side. There were pictures of vampires, werewolves, tombstones, and other horror effects scattered here and there over its exterior. The windows were blacked out.

The door had opened, and a man in a black robe and hood, and with a face painted to resemble a skull, extended a card to Laurence. He was one of the tallest men Laurence had ever seen.

He took the card. It was red with splotchy black lettering and a drawing of a spider’s web in one corner. MONSTROUS MYSTERY TOUR, it announced. ONE FREE TOUR.

“What have you got to lose?”, asked the man with the skull-face. Probably a trained actor; he spoke with a deep, rasping voice.

“Why are you giving them out free?” asked Laurence.

“Promotion, isn’t it?” said Skull-face, his English accent creeping into his theatrical voice now. “We guarantee you’ll be back. The Monstrous Mystery Tour”—he rolled his r’s—“is so frightfully good that we expect that you’ll tell all your friends, too.”

“New thing, is it?”

“New to this territory”, said Skull-face.

Laurence fell silent. He had always had the kind of politeness—or was it just weakness?— that made it difficult to decline anything.

But it was more than that. He was a horror fan. His collection of scary movies ran into the hundreds. Anything with a
horror theme drew him—though it usually disappointed him, too.

And besides...this bus had pulled up beside him just as he was wondering what it would feel like to drown. Laurence was not religious—despite his love of horror, he didn’t really believe in anything supernatural, and if there was any kind of God he was sure it wasn’t the God of church, mosque and synagogue—but he could never shake a belief in something like Providence. Things happened for a reason. Sometimes. Maybe.

That very moment, he decided two things. First, that he was going to ride this mystery tour. Second, that he was going to go on living.

For the time being, at least.

“Sure”, said Laurence, stepping towards the bus. “I’ll give it a go.”

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Long Time No Write

Apologies for the lack of posting recently. There are lots of reasons for it but partly it's because I feel like I am at a cross-roads in terms of my writing. I've still been writing my Catholic Voice articles, and my little weekly articles on Chesterton in The Open Door magazine. I also post a lot of thoughts on Facebook (which is very tempting, since it provides an immediate outlet and feedback) and on the Irish Catholic Forum.

I have to admit that, right now, the thing I'm most excited about is hymn-writing. I have a lifetime's experience of how heart-breakingly indifferent the world is to verse of any kind, for the most part. (The kind reception my poetry has received amongst readers of this blog being the solitary and glorious exception.) But when verse of any kind does gain an audience, it seems to mean so much more to people than does prose.

I attended my cousin's funeral yesterday. He was not religious, so it was a secular service, but it included several poems-- Longellow's 'Hymn to Life" and Shakespeare's sonnet that begins "That time of life thou dost in me behold..." It also included the songs Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Days by The Kinks (the latter being one of my own favourites), which are also a form of verse.

The experience also made me more conscious than ever of how brief our lives are-- even when we attain old age, which my poor cousin tragically did not-- and how little time we have to use whatever talents we possess for the glory of God. Eternal rest grant unto Him, oh Lord. May perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.

The hymn that I posted below has actually been put to music, by a lady who came up with a very beautiful air. I haven't had permission to make it public, though. But the experience of having my words set to music was very encouraging in itself.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

I Saw Twelve Candles Shining

(If you like the words of this hymn, and you are a musician and would like to try putting an air to it, please contact me.)

I saw twelve candles shining by Our Blessed Lady's Shrine
Twelve candles shining in the gloom, and one of them was mine,
And I knew that in God's Heaven they would still more brightly shine
And I knelt and prayed beside their holy light.

I knelt before that holy light, I looked into that holy light
I felt God's grace upon me by those candles' holy light.
Outside the evening gathered in, and I was tired from woe and sin,
But Jesus came to meet me in those candles' holy light.

I saw twelve angels carrying twelve prayers before the throne
Twelve prayers made to the Triune God, and one prayer was my own.
I looked into Our Lady's face, our Saviour's flesh and bone,
And her smile was gentle in that holy light.

Her smile was gentle in the light, her eyes were shining in the light
Mary our Mother held me by those candles' holy light.
The rain began to fall outside, and I was cold from all my pride
But the Holy Spirit warmed me in those candles' holy light.

I saw twelve candles flickering, so sad a sight to see,
Twelve spirits troubled by the world, and one of them was me.
But our Blessed Mother whispered: "There is peace eternally
In the land that lies beyond this holy light."

"The way is lit by holy light, the beacon is this holy light,
God's Kingdom is more peaceful than these holy candles' light.
This world is passing like a dream, but look and see the dawn's first gleam,
Your Father's Kingdom shining from these candles' holy light."

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Thoughts on All Saints' Day

Here is a piece I wrote last All Saints' Day, and which got a better reception than almost anything else I've written.

And today, on All Saints Day, I pray for all my intentions, and all my readers' intentions, to my usual roll-call of saints; Saint Patrick, who is (believe it or not) rather neglected by the Irish except on one day of the year; Saint John Paul the Second, who shines all the brighter the more time goes by since his pontificate; Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, the great lion of orthodoxy; Blessed John Henry Newman, not officially a saint yet but one in my eyes; St. Secundius, first bishop of Armagh (Maolsheachlann means 'follower of St. Secundius'); St. Padre Pio, of course; Our Lady, the greatest of all the saints; the twelve disciples; St. Augustine; St. Oliver Plunkett, another Bishop of Armagh, and the last Catholic martyr in Britain or Ireland.

And there are others, too. That's the great thing about the saints. There are so many!

I have often asked my readers to pray for me, or for particular intentions. Today (and indeed every day), if there are any intentions you would like me to pray for, or would like to ask other readers of this blog to pray for, you are welcome to leave them in the comments.

(Incidentally, I've heard that some comments get 'eaten' when readers try to submit them. This also happens to me on other blogs. I don't know how to correct it, but I've taken to copying my comment before I submit it, in case it goes into the the great digital limbo.)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

More Poems from the Past

It's been a while since I posted any poetry. Here are some more of my old ones, from 2005. I haven't written any poetry in months. I must get back to it.

Toothpaste

Squeezing the last bit out, she realizes
She bought this tube the morning that he died.
An hour before the worst of all surprises
Life had to throw at her. His face was twisted.
As he lay dying, she tried to decide
On regular or minty, unassisted.

They shopped so differently. She bought the cheapest
Of everything. He paid no heed to cost.
Of all the darks she'd known, this was the deepest;
But morning birds still sang exultantly.
How could they understand what she had lost?
She'd need new toothpaste. Toilet paper. Tea.


Flexitime

When everyone else is braving the rush hour roads
She sits and scans report after report.
We live such hours like camels bearing loads
But still distort

The record, memory, so they don't appear--
It emphasizes mornings by the Seine
Blackberry-picking, some far-distant year,
The moon in a country lane.

But lying in hospital beds, standing in queues,
And traffic jams all vanish in life's stream.
We battle time with what poor arms we can--
With memory and dream.

On an Old Man Who Didn't

When you begin to reminisce
About your 'good old days'
I squirm at your invented bliss
And advertiser's praise.
But still I listen just to please
And why should I condemn?
I know the doors, I have the keys,
But I will not open them.

I will not turn the lock to show
Your treasury's a hoax--
Extinguishing your eyes' soft glow
With cruelly called-for jokes.
I finger with fake ecstasies
The glass you call a gem.
I know the doors, I have the keys,
But I will not open them.


Twelve Dozen Men Bad and True

The plaintiff and defendant look the same.
They even share a name.
He stands accused of failure, cowardice
And ratting on his friend in second year.
But there is much to set against all this--
An inner certainty of righteousness
And being vaguely special.

Brought to hear
His case, twelve dozen men both good and true
(Men meaning women, too).
Blood relatives, blood brothers, bloody cows
And goddesses and cards-at-Christmas friends.
Consider his unpalatable spouse;
His four failed driving tests, and how he tends
To fumble the baton of conversation.
In mitigation
His parents loved his sister more than him.
His daughter thinks he's God Himself (she's ten).
He knows all about wine
And still calls on his senile Uncle Jim.

The jury find
The accused not innocent. He is consigned
To endless years of wondering the real
Opinion we have of him.

No appeal.


The Doll's House

Holly has seen the Aurora Borealis,
The Parthenon, and tigers in the wild
But thrilled to none of them the way she thrilled
To find a doll's house standing by her bed
One Christmas morning when she was a child.
That hour was Eden, Paradise unspoiled;
Inside that perfectly proportioned palace
Were tables set, and bedrooms carpeted
And that elusive beauty only shared
With Wendy houses, ships in bottles, and
Toy train stations. What furniture compared
In beauty, with these pygmy plates and chairs?

All raw reality is barren till
The soul has worked it, ordered, loved, distilled--
The real world is raw material
Only a shadow to the world we build.

Two Hundred Thousand Visitors!

To my surprise, I noticed today that my all-time visitor statistic has just broken the two hundred thousand mark-- two hundred thousand and seventy-nine, to be accurate. (I wouldn't want the seventy-nine to feel left out.)

I knew that this was coming up, but I didn't expect it to happen so soon. It caught me on the hop.

So today I thank every single person who has visited my little corner of cyberspace. And I thank the Holy Spirit for blessing this blog and ask Him to watch over it into the future.

To be honest, I'm not mad about the title of this blog, after a fifth of a million visits. I wish I'd picked something different. 'Irish Papist' is very bland. I might change it. Or I might not.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Some Model Essays. At least, MY Idea of Some Model Essays.

I took down my recent (and incomplete) series on the pleasures of the essay, because nobody seemed to be reading it. However, a reader was kind enough to contact me about it and to ask me what essays I had been planning to write about.

So I hunted them up for her and sent her the list, and I thought I may as well reproduce it here. Yes, there's no Hazlitt, Montaigne, Belloc, Addison, Samuel Johnson, or any of those other venerable names. And yes, that is Dirk Benedict, AKA Face-man from the A-Team. This is my list.

Nor is it a My Favourite Essays list. If I were to compile such a list, I would have to include G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. I can't think of one particular essay that I would pluck from Chesterton's work, and most of Lewis's are not available on the internet. This is just a list of some of my favourite essays, using a broad definition of the term 'essay'.

Edward Feser: Why are Universities Dominated by the Left?

Edward Feser: The Metaphysics of Conservatism (There's some pretty dense philosophizing in this one-- nothing too difficult, but if you don't like philosophy you might give it a miss.)

Dr William Lane Craig: The Absurdity of Life Without God

Dirk Benedict: Lost in Castration

John Stuart Mill: Mental Breakdown, and Poetry (technically, an extract from his Autobiography, but what the heck)

Barbara Mikkelson: New Coke

Mark Shea: What's the Matter With Me, Anyway?

George Orwell: Can Socialists Be Happy?

Peter Hitchens: How I Found Faith

Thursday, October 23, 2014

More Wit and Wisdom from Mr. Chesterton

I've posted the latest five instalments of my Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton column from the Open Door magazine on the blog of The G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland, here.

They may only be 420 words each, but I try to make them filling.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Should We Have Scientific Proof that Prayer Works?

Here is an answer in the negative by the Oxford philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne. It's a response to a scientific study of prayer on behalf of hospital patients, which showed no correlation between prayer and recovery. This passage is especially well-put:

"Suppose that I am a rich man who sometimes gives sums of money to worthy causes, and that I am very well informed and I know just how useful (or not) different gifts would be. I receive many letters asking me to give such gifts. Some foundation wants to know if there is any point in people writing such letters to me - do they make any difference to whether I give money to this cause or that? So the foundation commissions a study. Many people are enrolled to write letters to me on behalf of several causes rather than others in order to see whether subsequently I give more to those causes rather than to the other causes. In fact, let us suppose, I am normally moved by such letters; I think that the fact that many people take the trouble to write to me on behalf of some cause about which they care a lot is a reason for giving to that cause. But I now discover why I am suddenly bombarded with a stream of letters on behalf of certain causes; and I realise that on this occasion, unlike on other occasions, the letter writers have no deep concern for the causes for which they write. So of course on this occasion I pay no attention to the letters."

Monday, October 20, 2014

Who Goes Here?

I often wonder who reads this blog, aside from those who comment and whose names (or aliases) I know. It's a rather funny (but pleasant) feeling, to have your words up on the internet and to know that anyone anywhere in the world might be reading something you wrote while you are asleep, or eating a chocolate bar, or watching Star Trek.

I often wonder how strange it must be to be a writer like Stephen King and to know that lots of people are reading your books at any given moment of the day.

I found myself wondering today if any agnostics or atheists regularly (or even irregularly) read this blog. I know my (internet) friend Johnny Stephens used to, and he described himself as an undecided, but I haven't heard from him in a good while.

Of course, everybody is welcome to read. I started this blog in order to defend the Church from attacks in the Irish media and on the Irish internet. I didn't stick to that purpose for very long and soon I was putting all sorts of stuff on it-- essays, memories, jokes, stories, poems. It makes me happy that they've all found readers. I no longer think of the blog as having a single purpose, any more than friendship has a single purpose, or a joke has a single purpose.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

That Christ is Proclaimed In Every Way

Recently I found myself reading a series of magazine articles on the life of Christ, and I found myself thinking, once again, what a wonderful thing it is that this story is so endlessly told, retold, analysed, celebrated and discussed.

The words of the Blessed Virgin's Canticle are relevant here: "My soul magnifies the Lord." (It's also translated "glorifies", but I personally prefer "magnifies".) I've always found these words thought-provoking. How can we magnify the Lord? How can we add anything to what is already perfect and infinite? Of course, we can't, in strict terms; but it's the great privilege of being in this earthly state that we can, in a sense, add to the glory of God, by praising him and seeking to serve Him.

We can even (to turn to my particular topic) "magnify the Lord" just by talking about Him, writing about Him, thinking about Him. I realise that I'm on shaky ground here and I am aware of all the warnings in Scripture about the dangers of pious lip service: "Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of Heaven", and "Faith without works is dead." (James 2:17). I don't want to suggest that words or gestures are enough, or that words and gestures that are belied by unchristian behaviour are not scandalous.

I will, however, risk suggesting that talking about God and Christ and other sacred matters is a good thing in itself. As is writing about them, singing about them, painting pictures inspired by them, and so forth.

That's one defence I make for having this blog in the first place. I'm not a theologian, or a Scripture scholar, or a priest, or anything but an ordinarily-informed layman. I don't even think I'm a particularly good Catholic. But I think the sheer profusion of Catholic blogs is a good thing-- a wonderful thing, in fact. To regret the amount of Catholic blogs in cyberspace would be like regretting the number of daffodills in a meadow, or regretting the number of stars in the night sky.

And I do think the profusion of Catholic blogs (and other websites) is a form of evangelization in itself. If people take the trouble to write so many millions of words about the Faith-- unpaid, for the most part-- then doesn't that suggest to the casual browser through cyberspace that the Faith is a vibrant force today?

I am a contrarian by nature and I generally like doing exceptional and unusual things. And, in some ways, being a traditionally-minded Catholic in today's society is rather a contrarian stance. But, when it comes to the defence and proclamation of Catholicism, I have no desire to be unusual and every desire to be 'mainstream'. The more people there are agreeing with me in this regard, the better. I am always happy to hear someone is a faithful Catholic. And, if someone is not a faithful Catholic, if he or she disagrees with Church teaching in some way, but still considers himself or herself Catholic, I am happy for that much. And if a person does not call himself or herself a Catholic, but still goes by the name of a Christian, I am happy for that-- and so on, through all the degrees of Christianity, until we reach the atheist who respects Christ, as opposed to the atheist who derides him.

I would always rather hear the name of Christ invoked than not invoked. Many Christian shake their heads over televangelists and 'prosperity gospel' preachers like Joel Osteen, whose preaching seems 'Christian' only in the most tenuous and nominal way. Many people think it would be better if such preachers were to drop any pretence of Christianity at all. I can't agree. I might be wrong, and I am open to correction, but I tend to think it's better to have even the tiniest tincture of Christianity than no Christianity at all. I think nominal Christianity is better than no Christianity. Of course, I wish all Joel Osteen's admirers would drop him and take up a more serious form of Christianity; but I'd rather they went to a Joel Osteen service than to no religious service or (would-be-religious service)of any kind.

The same consideration applies to the arts. When I hear that some post-modernist artist has mounted some hideous and tasteless display (use your own imagination, or your own memory, to supply the details), and includes some form of Christian iconography, and further suggests that his work is informed by a deep Christian faith-- well, I regret the "art", and I regret the blasphemy if there is any, but I don't regret that he is inspired, in some way, by Christ. I am pleased that he is proclaiming Christ in some way.

I treasure the story-- not a famous story, though it should be-- from G.K. Chesterton's Autobiography: “A solemn friend of my grandfather used to go for walks on Sunday carrying a prayer-book, without the least intention of going to church. And he calmly defended it by saying, with uplifted hand: ‘I do it, Chessie, as an example to others.’ " (If that story doesn't make you smile, I don't know what's the matter with you.)

It stirs my imagination, perhaps like nothing else, to think how deeply-- and how widely-- the story of Christ has influenced the human race. How many hymns? How many books? How many statues and murals and canvases? How many lectures? How many tracts? How many millions of homilies and sermons? How many today? How many this very moment?

We very often hear writers and speakers express the wish that we could rediscover the freshness of the Gospels, that we could encounter them as though for the first time, as though we knew nothing about them. I can understand why someone would wish this, but personally I feel blessed to be reading the Gospels through twenty centuries of what I might, without irreverence, call hype.

When I read the Gospels, I am always aware of the contrast between the matter-of-fact, sparse nature of the narratives themselves and the unthinkable number of commentaries that have been made upon them, lives that have been inspired by them, movements that have grown out of them, works of art that have drawn on them, debates that have raged around them, depths that have been discovered in them, doctrines that have been crystallized from them. That, to me, gives them a unique flavour, a unique atmosphere.

In my view, there are two valuable aspects to the vast amount of writing and speaking and other forms of reflection upon the Gospels (and, indeed, upon the whole Bible, and upon Christianity in general) that has filled the world since the Word was first proclaimed. The first and more obvious aspect is the analytical one. If a priest is delivering a homily upon the story of the Prodigal Son, and he points out to his congregation that the father goes out to meet the returning son, and this mirrors the way God actively seeks to reconcile us to Him rather than waiting for us to approach Him, this is a form of analysis. If a newspaper writer takes a particular story that happens to be in the news and reflects on it in the light of a New Testament passage, this is a form of analysis.

But the other aspect of any reflection upon the Gospel, and one that might not occur to us most of the time, is the contemplative or meditative side. While the priest is delivering the afore-mentioned homily on the Prodigial Son, and while our conscious minds are preocuppied with the point he is making, a deeper and less conscious part of our mind is contemplating the parable-- just holding it in our attention, letting it seep into our souls, immersing ourselves in it.

This is the principle upon which the rosary works. Contemplative prayer is difficult because our mind gets antsy and restless. It always wants to be doing something. The rosary gives us the individual prayers to focus our conscious minds upon, while the deeper part of our mind is meditating upon the Annunciation or the Descent of the Holy Spirit or whatever mystery we happen to be praying.

What exactly this meditation does is harder to describe. I suppose whole books could be written about that in itself. Speaking for myself, I would say that it gives a kind of glow to its subject. It plants it in our imaginations, in our souls.

For this reason, I think that even the dullest homily, the most pedestrian article in a Christian newspaper, or the most witless Catholic blog post has a positive value. They fix our attention, in some way and in some degree, upon Christ. And as St. Paul wrote: "Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition...What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice."

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Mansions of Memory

I've just finished reading Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. It's a book I read in my twenties, and which rather disappointed me, since I was expecting the archetypal university story and it isn't a university story at all. (Whenever anyone refers to an idyllic view of university life they always speak about 'dreaming spires' and Brideshead Revisited.) In more recent times, I felt I should give it another chance, as it is considered one of the great Catholic novels in the English language-- or perhaps the greatest Catholic novel in the English language, since I can't think of another more celebrated example.

Well, I enjoyed it a little more, though I'm still not bowled over. Along with many readers, I'm bothered by Waugh's snobbery-- not for its own sake, but because he seems to give some kind of spiritual significance to good taste and elegance. Nor does the story ring very true to life to me. I know scads of baptized Catholics who don't show the slightest sign of being haunted by the faith from which they've turned away. And having a Catholic upbringing doesn't seem to make all that much difference when it comes to this. I have no doubt that there is a supernatural grace to baptism and confirmation, but I don't think it operates as obviously as it does in Brideshead Revisited. Perhaps Waugh had to exaggerate it in order to dramatize it.

In any case, I think I might be prejudiced against Waugh because he is one of that trio of Catholic fiction writers before whose shrines every thinking Catholic is expected to burn incense-- Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Of them all, Waugh is the only one who has given me any pleasure at all. That might make me a philistine, which doesn't bother me very much. (I should also admit that Graham Greene did give me some pleasure, through the title of his book of film criticism, Mornings in the Dark-- which I haven't read, but may yet.)

That's all by the by. The reason I mentioned Brideshead Revisited is because one particular passage-- in which Waugh is describing a passage on an ocean liner-- got me to thinking about memory, about the flavour of particular passages of time in our lives, and this thought has been haunting me ever since.

We live our lives a day at a time. This is a very pedestrian observation, I know-- but, somehow, when I think about it, it seems very odd. On any given day, we are inhabiting an island of consciousness, surrounded by an ocean of sleep. And each day has a unity of its own-- a unity of mood and atmosphere, as well as of circumstances-- no matter how various the events of that day. (I guess one of the reasons that my favourite film of all time is Groundhog Day is because few films have paid such attention to a single day-- even if it happens to be a day that is being repeated over and over, with variations. How it continues to be the same day is an interesting philosophical question.)

I find it our attitude to days fascinating. Days are the small change of our lives. We spend them heedlessly. Rather than disapproving of this, I find it inspiring. The idea that you should live each day as though it was your last sounds good as a slogan, but seems to miss the whole point (so to speak) of days. The point of days is that there are lots of them. Obviously this is not true of people who are in the last stages of terminal illness, or facing imminent death for some other reason. But most of human life is not spent in such a condition. Even people who die tragically young experience more days than they can remember-- nobody could give a day-by-day account of their lives, even if they started from the dawn of the age of reason. Even very old people have an indefinite number of days before them.

I'm not sure that living each day to its fullest is a good idea-- not if we take 'fullest' to mean 'busiest'. Would a lifetime of busy days really be living life to its fullest? What about lazy days, dreamy days, humdrum days? What about sick days, indeed? Would a person who quite literally never had a day's sickness, who never spent a day 'laid low' in bed, be a lucky person? I think few people would answer 'yes' to that.

A few years ago, in winter-time, a female friend of mine had a very traumatic break-up and told me she was going to ignore Christmas that year. I have always been a devotee of Christmas, and at that stage of my life I was particularly intent upon making every Christmas as Christmassy as it could possibly be-- a determination that can be very stressful. So her declaration shocked me, but even then, I think I felt strangely attracted to the idea of just skipping Christmas-- for once. We have enough Christmasses to afford it, and Christmas will happen with us or without us. We can talk airily about the 'year we didn't bother with Christmas'. I'm not exactly sure why I find this such a pleasing thought, at this juncture in my life, but I do-- even though I remain a fervent lover of Christmas.

We live a day at a time-- and every day has its own unique flavour. (I'm listening to music on 'shuffle' while I read this, and 'Days' by the Kinks has just started playing.) What gives a day its flavour? The weather. The time of year. The news. Work, or school, or its absence. The people we're spending it with. Travel. Physical location. Mood. Drama of one kind or another. Of course, the list could be expanded forever.

There are days, like September 11th 2001, where the entire world (or most of it, anyway) is focused upon one particular public event. I'm glad those days are exceedingly rare, somehow-- and not only because they are usually tragic events that create such a sensation. (The last one I can think of is the day that Robin Williams died-- or, rather, the day after he died.)

I started out writing this post about memory, but I find myself hundreds of words in, and having concentrated entirely upon the idea of days. I suppose it's because that's how we tend to classify our memories. When people are recalling a memory they say I remember the day that or That was the day when or It was a snowy morning. These little scene-setting phrases always give me a thrill. I suppose I am writing this post to analyse and try to understand that thrill-- the same thrill I felt when I was reading Waugh's account of a stormy day on an ocean liner.

I also like the idea of in-betweeny days, and I suppose this is part of why the passage in Brideshead Revisited appealed to me-- since days spent crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner is about as 'in betweeny' as you could get (although, of course, in the novel they are very consequential days indeed). In my experience of life the in-betweeny days are often the best days. 'The morning after the night before' (one of my favourite phrases) is usually invoked as something seedy and depressing, but I've personally found that the mornings after the nights before-- and the days before-- are the most delicious, in the same way that re-heated leftovers are often the most appetizing food.

The first example that occurs to me is one from a whole twenty years ago. I was a keen follower of the Irish national soccer team back then. (As were most of Ireland, since they were experiencing a lot of success.) The day before, Ireland (or the Republic of Ireland, as I should specify) had qualified for the 1994 World Cup in America with a dramatic 1-1 draw against Northern Ireland. The Republic equalized late in the game and, until then, it seemed as though they were going to be eliminated. There was a good deal of ill-feeling; the Republic had beaten Northern Ireland 3-0 in a previous qualifier, and the Republic's fans, rather unsportingly, began to chant "There's only one team in Ireland." So passions were running high. To a teenage boy these things are a very big deal.

Well, the memory that I am recounting is not that, but rather, the very next day. I remember myself, my brother and my cousin sharing a copy of The Irish Press between us-- we unfolded it into its separate pages, and then swapped them about, reading the various reports and analysis of the previous day's match. It may be a strange memory to pick out of almost thirty-eight years of life, but it strikes me as a perfect example of an in-betweeny kind of day. It's a very cosy memory.

Another memory that strikes me is a conversation I had in college, towards the end of my time there. It was in journalism college and at this stage I knew I was not going to be a journalist. (Though I do write for a Catholic newspaper now, so I suppose I did belatedly become a sort of journalist after all, even if it's not my profession.) I was speaking to a class-mate who was, in contrast, already writing front-pages stories for a Dublin daily paper. We were alone in the college's radio studio. He told me that he was so exhausted from all the reporting shifts that he'd been doing that he was looking forward to just switching off and watching television for a day. I found the idea of such an in-betweeny day extraordinarily appealing.

Another memory of an in-betweeny day; discovering the website Snopes, which has articles about urban legends (and which is extraordinarily well-written), one Christmas time, and reading article after article after article, for hours and hours, while drinking Coke. This was soon after I'd begun working in UCD; it was around the time I went to my first library Christmas party. Somehow, the fact that the memory of the Christmas party is stuck to this memory of reading Snopes for hours makes it less anti-social than it might have been otherwise.

Another memory of an in-betweeny day, and again around Christmas-time; it was two or three days before Christmas, and I had gastroenteritis. I wasn't allowed to eat anything for two days, but I cheated by sucking lollipops. I was reading All's Quiet on the Western Front. I was sitting in the living room and the Christmas tree was up and decorated. I had reached that age where we feel ashamed to be childishly excited about Christmas. My cousin (who also featured in the above memory) was in the living room. My father asked him what he was getting for Christmas. "Bills", he said; because he had just entered adulthood. "Maybe you should give them back to Bill", said my father, and I remember thinking even then how better a witticism it would have been if he'd asked what presents he was getting for Christmas. But here I am, remembering it some two decades later.

"All our yesterdays", Macbeth says, "have lighted fools to dusty death". A wonderful line; but we die anyway, whether our lives are mundane and quotidian or not. And part of me thinks that we are most fully alive, not when we are scaling the Himalayas or witnessing history unfold before our eyes, but when we are cutting and pasting pieces of paper into a scrapbook while watching repeats of sit-coms in our pyjamas.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

On a Positive Note

I know I spend a lot of time on this blog (and elsewhere!) complaining about modern hymns, and I can almost hear the eyes rolling as I do so. So today I'm going to confound you all and say something nice about a modern hymn.

I'm just back from Sunday Mass, where there were a couple of nice surprises hymn-wise. The first was that the organ-player somehow made a muddle of the responsorial psalm (which is always a song adopted from the Psalms), and the choir were left singing unaccompanied for most of it. It sounded a lot better that way than it usually did-- but I didn't think it would be a good idea to suggest that they should drop the organ for all future hymns. The organist might not have shared my enthusiasm.

Secondly, there was one modern hymn, sung afte the final blessing, which I thought was actually quite good. It's not the first time I've heard it, though I haven't heard it in a while. It's Come to the Feast of the Angels by Liam Lawton (as I've just discovered), and I hope it's fair use to reproduce the lyrics here:

Will you come to the feast divine?
Bread of the earth and fruit of the vine.
Come and taste the heavenly wine
Welcome the lost and the stranger
Come to the feast of the angels.

Make of your hands now a humble cradle
As once I came to a humble manger
Make of your hearts now a lowly stable
Now be born again.

Will you come to the feast divine?
Bread of the earth and fruit of the vine.
Come and taste the heavenly wine
Welcome the lost and the stranger
Come to the feast of the angels.

I quite like the air as well, which can be heard here.

I'm not saying this is a great hymn, mind you. It definitely has its flaws. The line "Welcome the lost and the stranger" seems badly out of place to me. It's fine metrically, and I like the stress rhyme of "stranger" with "angels." But the song is in the form of an invitation to the listener; mixing it up with an injunction to "welcome the lost and the stranger" is too much of a digression in such a short verse. (I suppose it could be a greeting: "Welcome, the lost and the stranger." But, even if that was what was intended, it sounds all wrong.)

Also, "make of your hands now a humble cradle" assumes that you receive the Eucharist in the hand. I don't, and I actually wish nobody else did, either (though I certainly don't judge those who do, or think myself superior).

But, aside from those complaints, I like the simplicity and even the stiffness of the lyrics. "The feast divine" is an appropriately dignified inversion. The parallelism of "Bread of the earth and fruit of the vine" is pleasing and has a Biblical air. And "come to the feast of the angels" is a magnificent line. ('Angel' happens to be my favourite word.) I realise that angels are incorporeal beings and that they can't eat in a physical sense, but we're obviously not talking about a big nosh-up here, anyway.

It doesn't bother me at all that this is a 'happy clappy' hymn. I even like that it is a 'happy clappy' hymn. I think it is entirely seemly for Christian hymns to reflect the whole range of the spiritual life, just as the Book of Psalms does. Happy exuberance has a place, just as high solemnity does.

No doubt next week it will be back to "He sent his son Jesus to set us all free, and he said, 'I'll never leave you, put your trust in me'..."

These terrible hymns depress me so much that I've seriously thought about going to another church for Sunday Mass. I rejected the idea, though, after mulling on it for some time. I am a fervent localist and I do think parish loyalty should count for a lot.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Selection Box

Distracted by other things, I've had less time for this blog recently, and my idea for a website, though not exactly shelved, is at least on hold.

But I've found myself thinking of this blog a good bit in the last few days, and of particular things I wrote in it. I've been writing it for a good few years now, and I'm very grateful for the reaction it's got. I'm especially grateful that, no matter how adventurous or reflective or digressive I grew, people kept reading. And-- risking a thunderbolt striking me down for my pride-- I'm quite proud that I didn't confine myself to polemics or reactions to the news, or to popular culture, but actually branched out and tried to be thoughtful.

As I've said many times before, what pleases me the most is that my poetry got a good reception. (After a little while-- the first few poems I posted didn't go down well at all, and I was rather crestfallen, but I'm glad I persevered.) Probably everybody who writes at all considers himself or herself a poet, above all else. (Indeed, perhaps we are all poets before anything else, whether we write or not.)

But, in terms of prose, I like to think of myself as an essayist, and my favourite posts to write-- and the ones where I felt I articulated something worth articulating-- were in the form of essays.

So, not knowing how active I am going to be in the immediate future, I am putting up my favourite of the essay-style posts I wrote over the years, with an emphasis upon the older ones. Maybe newer readers might like to come on them, and maybe older readers might like to revisit them.

And thanks for visiting!

Star Trek, Faith and Conservatism. Why a conservative Catholic like me would not only enjoy Star Trek: The Next Generation, but find much of it in harmony with his view of the world.

Does Technology Destroy Wonder?

Why Groundhog Day is the Best Movie of All Time.

A three part post explaining why I am a traditionalist conservative, which had at least one fan:

Why I am a Traditionalist Conservative (1).

Why I am a Traditionalist Conservative (2).

Why I am a Traditionalist Conservative (3).



An essay on television, the good and the bad.


Why Didn't C.S. Lewis Become a Catholic? Published in Annales Australasia magazine.

The Contradictions of Modern Life. How it seems to me that so many of the ideologies and practices of modern life are self-defeating.

Our Avenue. Why I think we should be patriotic about even the smallest places.

My Little Purple Notebook. About the little moments of wonder in everyday life that surprise us and stick in our memory forever.

What's New about the New Testament?
On the atmosphere of freshness and vigour that seems to hang around Christianity, even after all these centuries.

Campaigns I Wish Existed, including the campaign to protect lunch-time.

The Humility of Organized Religion.

Two Tugs on the Heart
. Or why I love and hate modern, suburban life.

Why Mammon Needs God.

Remembering the Allen Library. A phase in my life recalled.

Thoughts on the subject of debates. Better than it sounds, I think.

About my name.

Thoughts on All Saints Day.

My ideal of what a man should be.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Religion for Agnostics

I started going to Mass a few years ago. I'm not good with dates, but I think it must have been some time in 2009. (I still have an email exchange from June of that year with David Quinn, of the Iona Institute, in which I was asking why Scandinavia-- a bastion of secularism-- seemed to have suffered no ill effects from its irreligion. I presume I wasn't attending Mass at that time, since I declare myself unconvinced by Catholicism in the email. It's a strange sensation, reconstructing your own recent history as though it's the records of some ancient civilization.)

At first, I attended Mass on Sundays only, and I think it took me a few years before I started attending more often. I've never quite become a daily Mass-goer, but I'm not too far off. (Having a daily Mass in UCD, during term, makes this pretty easy.) This despite the fact that I very often get bored at Mass and that I find prayer and adoration difficult. I genuinely wonder whether my Mass-going is simply some kind of compulsion, like an obsessive-compulsive's handwashing, a ritual that I have to fulfil at the risk of feeling guilty. I've even wondered if I derive any actual spiritual benefit from it. I hope I do.

But one interesting aspect of being a frequent Mass-goer-- or even a weekly Mass-goer-- is that you find yourself recognizing the Scripture readings from previous years, or from even more recently. I don't have much of a head for Scripture myself, and I often feel ashamed that unbelievers and nominal Catholics can quote chapter and verse of the Bible better than I can. (And as for Protestants-- let's not even go there, as they say.) All the same, it does begin to sink in, month after month. I find the next line of the responsorial Psalm coming into my head, without having to look at a misallette.

This kind of familiarity, when you think about it, is something very intriguing. When you hear a story for the hundredth time, you hear it in a very different way to when you hear it for the first time. Or the twentieth time, for that matter. You can't help going deeper into it-- not necessarily in the sense of finding new meanings or new dimensions to it, but simply in the sense of penetrating more deeply into its atmosphere, its essence. A story (or a saying, or a poem, or any other text) may seem duller to us after we've encountered it for the first few times, but if we keep on encountering it-- well, then, the process seems to reverse itself and all of a sudden it seems more vivid rather than duller. It's a phenomenon a little like that of getting a second wind.

In the case of the Bible, this phenomenon is intensified, because most of us grew up so familiar with sayings and parables of Jesus that we can't remember ever hearing them for the first time. They were always there-- in both a personal sense and a historical sense. Phrases like Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof are so ancient that they are older than the language in which we speak them and read them.

And the ancientness of Bible texts become even more striking when we compare them to other revered cultural icons. Take, for instance, the Beatles. The songs and story and images of the Beatles seem so foundational to popular culture, and to culture in general, that it's difficult for me to imagine a time without them. But my own father, who is by no means superannuated, can easily remember hearing the Beatles for the first time. (It was 'She Loves You' and he heard it outside a music shop. He thought it was a joke, he said, since the refrain was so simplistic.) I think about this with a kind of wonder. The cover of Abbey Road, the chorus of 'Yesterday', the acrimonious break-up-- these were not things that happened when the sun and the moon were forged, but belong to living memory.

But the Bible, and the words of Jesus-- these are what the story of the Beatles feels like, in terms of primordialness. Except more so than we can imagine. In a sense, the words of the Bible are older than anything else in the world. They are older than the pyramids of Egypt, because they have remained alive through all these centuries, while the pyramids belong to a dead religion and a dead culture. They are older than the mountains and the stars, because the age of the mountains and the stars are measured in inhuman tracts of time, while the life of Bible is measured in human experience-- the only duration that really means anything to us. (What is time, after all, if there is nobody to experience it as such?)

I think I'll break there for tonight. I started this as a post about the reasons that Christianity, and our Christian heritage, should matter even to an agnostic or an atheist. I bit off more than I could chew. I'll come back to it soon.

Friday, September 19, 2014

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The ellipsis above represents the silence on reponse to my request below.

So, I'm not sure an interactive portal is going to work. I'm now thinking more of a website where I give a daily digest of the blogs and news on the Irish Catholic web.

Maybe.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Help Me Out, Buddies

So you remember that I recently posted about a new website I'm thinking of putting together, a kind of portal for the Catholic laity? (For non-Catholic Christians as well, and for priests and those in consecrated life as well, but primarily for the Catholic laity.) And remember my appeal for help with the technical side? Well, a reader has very kindly contacted me and is giving me invaluable advice on how to navigate this aspect of it.

So I am appealing now for content. I really hope that this portal will take off and that readers will contribute to it. But I can't start off with blank pages, and I don't want to start off with everything being written by me. (Nobody wants that!)

Therefore, dear reader, I am asking you to think about contributing some writings of your own.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am hoping to have a section where Irish Catholics recount their own experience of being Catholic in Ireland, whether that comprises seventy years since they came into the world as cradle Catholics, or seven months since they came to embrace the Faith. I'm hoping that these accounts will be personal, reflective, digressive, and idiosyncratic-- although they can be just the opposite, too. They can be a grand overview of a life's experience as a Catholic in Ireland. They can be nostalgic pen-pictures of long-ago First Communions or religion classes in school. They can be gritty accounts of crises of faith or of bereavement. They can be essays about the author's difficulties with Church teaching. (Although I intend this portal to be faithful to Catholic orthodoxy, I have no problem carrying material from a different perspective.) In other words, they can be as broad or as specific as you like.

Related to this, I hope to have a 'conversion stories' section, containing testimony of those (like myself) who have not practiced (or held) the Catholic faith all their lives but who have come to believe in it. Everything I said above applies here.

I also hope to have a Sacred Art section-- a section for original poems, hyms, drawings, paintings, photographs and any other works of art which explore our Catholic (and Christian) faith in some way. Again, there are no rules oor requirements. (Apart from obvious ones, like nothing downright obscene or blasphemous.)

Finally, you can put your name to anything you contribute, or you can go with an alias, if you prefer.

So how about it?

Monday, September 15, 2014

My Wife Wants to Buy an Irish Island

And I think it's a brilliant idea. Please have a look (and pass it on if it captures your imagination.)

I could really do with an island. Help us get an island!

More Chestertonian Wit and Wisdom

I continue to publish my bite-size weekly articles on Chesterton in The Open Door magazine every week. Here are the latest few instalments.

The Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton

In this series, we have been looking at the ideas of G.K. Chesterton, the great Catholic writer and thinker. Some people were so important to Chesterton’s life and work that we have to take a look at them, too. So far we have discussed his wife Frances and his friend Hilaire Belloc. This week we examine his relationship with George Bernard Shaw.

Shaw and Chesterton were friends, but it was a strange kind of friendship. They disagreed about almost everything. Shaw, though not an atheist as is commonly believed (he described himself as a mystic) had little time for traditional religion. (When Chesterton converted to Catholicism, Shaw said: “Gilbert, this is going too far”!) Chesterton saw himself as a defender of the common man, while Shaw said: “I have never had any feelings about the English working classes except a desire to abolish them and replace them with sensible people.” Shaw believed in eugenics—the selective breeding of humans in order to create a superior race. Chesterton hated this theory so much that he wrote a book called Eugenics and Other Evils.

But in spite of all this, they remained on very good terms. Chesterton wrote an entire book about Shaw—- reasonably enough entitled George Bernard Shaw.

Chesterton thought that the key to understanding Shaw, and his distance from the traditions and instincts of ordinary humanity, was that he was a son of the Protestant (or post-Protestant) elite in Ireland. In a memorable passage, Chesterton contrasts this with the ordinary Irish people:

The average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth; he is close to domesticity because he is close to the earth; he is close to doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual because he is close to the earth. In short, he is close to the heavens because he is close to the earth. …Mr. Shaw has no living traditions, no schoolboy tricks, no college customs, to link him with other men. Nothing about him can be supposed to refer to a family feud or to a family joke. He does not drink toasts; he does not keep anniversaries; musical as he is I doubt if he would consent to sing. All this has something in it of a tree with its roots in the air.


“Close to the heavens because he is close to the earth”. The sentence almost encapsulates Chesterton’s vision of the good life. We will say more on this subject next week.

Last week we completed our brief foray into Chesterton’s biography. We will return to his life later on, but for now let us journey once again into his writings.

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There are many people who have never read a single book, essay, story or poem written by Chesterton, but have encountered his writing all the same. This is because G.K. Chesterton was a master of epigram. His epigrams, witticisms and paradoxes are endlessly quoted in books of quotations, newspaper articles, speeches, on coffee mugs—- pretty much everywhere, actually.

I once encountered the claim that GKC was the most quotable author ever. This is exaggerated praise. Oscar Wilde, Samuel Johnson and Mark Twain eclipse him. Nevertheless he certainly deserves to be listed with them.

His most famous quotation is, paradoxically enough, something he never said at all. It is this: “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything.” Chesterton expressed this idea many times, but nobody has been able to find these words (or anything closely resembling them) amidst the vast archive of his published work.

Chesterton didn’t just come up with witticisms for their own sake. In fact, in his book Heretics, he wrote: “Mere light sophistry is the thing that I happen to despise most of all things, and it is perhaps a wholesome fact that this is the thing of which I am generally accused. I know nothing so contemptible as a mere paradox; a mere ingenious defence of the indefensible. If it were true (as has been said) that Mr. Bernard Shaw lived upon paradox, then he ought to be a mere common millionaire; for a man of his mental activity could invent a sophistry every six minutes. It is as easy as lying; because it is lying. “ Chesterton used epigrams to tell the truth as he saw it, not for a cheap laugh.

Some of my favourite Chesterton epigrams: “An inconvenience is only an adventure, wrongly considered.” “Charity is the imagination of the heart.” “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” “Marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honour should refuse.” “We do not want a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world.” And perhaps my favourite: “There is nothing wrong with the whole modern world except that it does not fit in with Christmas. The modern world will have to fit in with Christmas or die”.

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Last week I wrote about G.K. Chesterton’s almost endless fund of epigrams, which are constantly being quoted by writers and speakers of every kind. This leads us on to a related topic, which is Chesterton’s use of humour.

G.K. Chesterton was certainly a comic writer, but he seldom confined himself to purely comical subjects. He wrote about the whole human drama, from the most trivial subjects to the most serious. Nevertheless, he always wrote with a light touch. Readers of Chesterton will often find themselves laughing out loud while reading an essay on Thomas Aquinas, political economy or the philosophy of history.

C.S. Lewis, who was deeply influenced by Chesterton’s writings, described Chesterton’s use of humour thus: “His humour was of the kind I like best – not “jokes” imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humour which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the “bloom” on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly.”

Chesterton was sometimes criticised for writing about solemn subjects in a jocular tone. He defended himself with another of his famous epigrams. He explained that ‘funny’ was not the opposite of ‘serious’—the opposite of ‘funny’ was ‘not funny’.

Indeed, Chesterton’s philosophy of humour was central to his whole philosophy of life. He used to image of a man running after his hat to explain how laughter contains a deep insight into reality. The man, he explained, has an immortal soul and is made in the image of God. The hat is simply a dumb object. For man, with an immortal soul, to be at the mercy of matter in this way was inherently ridiculous. (And, of course, this applies to more important things as well—as Chesterton put it, a man running after a wife is much more ridiculous than a man running after a hat. The bigger point is that man is only ever ridiculous because he has a soul.)

Not that Chesterton lamented this ridiculousness. “Being undignified”, he wrote, “is the essence of all real happiness whether before God or man. Hilarity involves humility; nay, it involves humiliation.” We are happy when we are undignified because, for a moment, we let go of our pride; and pride is what makes us miserable.

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As we saw last week, Chesterton used humour even when discussing serious matters. He was a defender of humour. He was also a defender of ugliness.

Chesterton’s defence of ugliness began early in his career, in his first proper book, The Defendant: “The highest and most valuable quality in Nature is not her beauty, but her generous and defiant ugliness. A hundred instances might be taken. The croaking noise of the rooks is, in itself, as hideous as the whole hell of sounds in a London railway tunnel. Yet it uplifts us like a trumpet with its coarse kindliness and honesty…Has the poet, for whom Nature means only roses and lilies, ever heard a pig grunting? It is a noise that does a man good—- a strong, snorting, imprisoned noise, breaking its way out of unfathomable dungeons through every possible outlet and organ.”

Chesterton’s defence of the ugly is really just another example of his tendency to defend the ordinary and mundane against the refined and rare. Perhaps the funniest instance of this is his response to the following rather uncharitable poem, written by Frances Cornford:

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the field in gloves…?

Chesterton wrote a verse entitled “The Fat Lady Replies” (‘old Dutch’ is slang for ‘wife):

Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves as such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

A few other things Chesterton defended: Cockney wit, sight-seeing, detective stories, celebrating birthdays, and the right of the poor to spend lots of money on a funeral. He stood for the mob against the snob.

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I finished my last article by saying that G.K. Chesterton was always on the side of the mobs rather than the snobs. In his day—- as in our own—intellectuals and artists tended to despise the recreations and ways of life of ordinary people. ‘Suburban’ had become a term of derision. Chesterton himself moved to the suburbs—the town of Beaconsfield, just outside London at that time—- and celebrated suburban life, just as he celebrated newspapers and detective stories.

One of the collections of Chesterton’s essays that were published in his lifetime bore the title The Common Man. He never tired of defending the common man, but he was also quick to point out that ‘common’ did not mean ‘average’ or ‘ordinary’ or ‘mediocre’. As he put it in a study of Charles Dickens:

The common mind means the mind of all the artists and heroes; or else it would not be common. Plato had the common mind; Dante had the common mind. Commonness means the quality common to the saint and the sinner, to the philosopher and the fool; and it was this that Dickens grasped and developed. In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens. And everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody.

However, many people in Chesterton’s day had set themselves against this ‘common mind’—- mostly bohemians, revolutionaries, intellectuals, and philosophers. The idea had become popular, in such circles, that a poet or a novelist or a thinker was great because he saw things in a different way to the rest of mankind, because he was unconventional. Chesterton thought differently:

If a man is genuinely superior to his fellows the first thing that he believes in is the equality of man. We can see this, for instance, in that strange and innocent rationality with which Christ addressed any motley crowd that happened to stand about Him. "What man of you having a hundred sheep, and losing one, would not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which was lost?" Or, again, "What man of you if his son ask for bread will he give him a stone, or if he ask for a fish will he give him a serpent?" This plainness, this almost prosaic camaraderie, is the note of all very great minds.

How ironic that Chesterton, so utterly eccentric, should have been the great champion of the common man!

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In the last week or so, I’ve been reading through a couple of G.K. Chesterton biographies, and it occurs to me that this might be a good topic for this week’s article. My hope is that, if this column has been your introduction to G.K. Chesterton, I might have motivated you to go to the library or bookshop and to read Chesterton for yourself. Of course, when we really like a writer, we are just as eager to read about him (or her) than to read his original works. So, as well as giving you a heightened interest in this column (!), I expect that reading and loving Chesterton will almost inevitably make you seek out his biographers.

The first thing to be said is that the best biographer of G.K. Chesterton is G.K. Chesterton himself. The Autobiography is one of Chesterton’s best books, perhaps his very best. If I may be autobiographical myself for a moment, I can remember reading it (not for the first time) when I was recovering from a mild illness, and going through a pretty powerful fit of ‘the blues’. It cheered me up immensely—the reader can’t help ‘catching’ Chesterton’s immense gusto for life, his fathomless sense of wonder. It was the last book he wrote, appearing after his death. Reading it is like sitting beside some wise, jolly, peaceful old man and soaking up all his stories, observations and lessons.

After the Autobiography, the best biography is undoubtedly Gilbert Keith Chesterton by Maisie Ward, published in 1953. Maisie Ward had the incomparable (and now impossible) benefit of actually having known Chesterton. She writes about him with affection and loyalty, but with no excess of reverence. The chapter on the Chestertons’ marriage is especially insightful.

The next best biography is probably Ian Ker’s massive G.K. Chesterton: A Life (2012). This is certainly more comprehensive than Maisie Ward’s slim volume, but written with much less flair. Be prepared to skip—- Ker seems to want to chronicle Chesterton’s every train journey and dinner party for posterity. But when he writes about the deeps rather than the shallows of Chesterton’s life, Ker shines.

Finally, William Oddie’s Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, which appeared in 2008, charts the development of Chesterton’s ideas until the year 1908. (A second volume is planned.) Oddie trawled Chesterton’s mountains of surviving papers to research this one, and it shows. Not good as an introduction, though—save this for when you are heavily into Chesterton!

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This week I am off to a wedding in Switzerland.

So, not having enough time to write more than few lines, and having the subject of matrimony on my mind, I thought I would step back this time and let Chesterton speak for himself. The following passage, from his book What’s Wrong with the World, surely contains some of the wisest words ever spoken on the subject of marriage. And the principle applies not only to marriage but to many other social institutions, too.

The principle is this: that in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. The joy of battle comes after the first fear of death; the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him; the glow of the sea-bather comes after the icy shock of the sea bath; and the success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon. All human vows, laws, and contracts are so many ways of surviving with success this breaking point, this instant of potential surrender.

In everything on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage when no one would do it, except for necessity or honor. It is then that the Institution upholds a man and helps him on to the firmer ground ahead. Whether this solid fact of human nature is sufficient to justify the sublime dedication of Christian marriage is quite an other matter, it is amply sufficient to justify the general human feeling of marriage as a fixed thing, dissolution of which is a fault or, at least, an ignominy. The essential element is not so much duration as security. Two people must be tied together in order to do themselves justice; for twenty minutes at a dance, or for twenty years in a marriage In both cases the point is, that if a man is bored in the first five minutes he must go on and force himself to be happy. Coercion is a kind of encouragement; and anarchy (or what some call liberty) is essentially oppressive, because it is essentially discouraging.

If Americans can be divorced for "incompatibility of temper" I cannot conceive why they are not all divorced. I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.


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As I mentioned last week, I’ve been travelling (with my wife) on the European continent. We attended my niece’s wedding in Switzerland, after which we went on to Evians-les-Bains in France, where the mineral water comes from. My wife had been there eleven years before. As an American, it was her first foray outside her home continent.

So this week I’ve been thinking about travel, and—- being a Chesterton fanatic—- I never think about anything without having Chesterton’s words on the subject echoing in my mind. In his essay ‘The Riddle of the Ivy’, he describes a conversation (presumably fictional) in which he tells a friend that he is travelling around the world to get to Battersea—which is where he happens to be at the moment:

"I am going to Battersea," I repeated, "to Battersea via Paris, Belfort, Heidelberg, and Frankfort. I am going to wander over the whole world until once more I find Battersea. I cannot see any Battersea here; I cannot see any London or any England. I cannot see that door. I cannot see that chair: because a cloud of sleep and custom has come across my eyes. The only way to get back to them is to go somewhere else; and that is the real object of travel and the real pleasure of holidays. Do you suppose that I go to France in order to see France? Do you suppose that I go to Germany in order to see Germany? I shall enjoy them both; but it is not them that I am seeking. I am seeking Battersea. The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land.”

This motif—the idea of somebody setting out on a long journey, whose ultimate destination is the very point from which he started—occurs quite often in Chesterton’s work.

For a man who did not value travel for itself, Chesterton was quite well-travelled. His travel books include The Resurrection of Rome (in which he recounts meetings with Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI), Irish Impressions, The New Jerusalem, and-- most famously-- What I Saw in America. I will write about Chesterton’s American impressions in next week’s column, but I can’t help closing with his brilliant comment on the lights of Broadway: “"What a glorious garden of wonders this would be, to any who was lucky enough to be unable to read”.