Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Monday, June 30, 2014

A Little Liberal or a Little Conservative

Ah, liberal and conservative. What loaded words! And how difficult to apply to the messy business of human life!

Nobody ever asks me if I'm a liberal or a conservative. Nobody ever asks me any interesting questions. They ask me how long it takes me to get to work, how many brothers and sisters I have, whether I got out in the sunshine, or whether I've been on holidays. (Answers: I've never timed it, three brothers and two sisters, not if I can help it, and 'no' at the time of writing.)

But if they did ask me whether I was a liberal or conservative, I think I might answer like this...

Economics-- fairly liberal. I don't believe the unregulated free market is a good thing, though I am not anti-capitalism per se.

Gender-- conservative. I rejoice in the difference between the sexes and I hate anything that threatens to erode it. I don't care that much about how much of the difference is cultural or biological.

Freedom of speech-- extremely liberal. There are very few instances where I think the State authorities should intervene to stop a person saying or writing whatever the heck they like. Non-State authorities, like TV stations and newspapers and schools and bookshops, are a different matter-- but I still think they should all be extremely tolerant when it comes to the exchange of ideas. I think 'hate speech' should be legal in most cases. Obscenity, scurrility and profanity is a different matter. I would be much harsher on them.

Guns-- I don't like the idea of guns and my instincts are all for gun control. However, I have heard many strong arguments against it.

Life issues-- abortion, euthanasia, human embryonic research, suicide. Conservative all the way, baby. No room for compromise there.

The penal system-- a bleeding heart liberal. I think incarceration is such a terrible punishment in itself that it doesn't need to be made any worse and should be made as humane as possible. No amount of educational or cultural or social activites can make up for the loss of your freedom and the years torn from your life, even if you fully deserve it. Even if prison was like a holiday camp, it still wouldn't be a holiday camp because you're not allowed to leave.

The death penalty-- liberal. Like the last few Popes, I am against it.

Patriotism-- conservative. I believe in the idea of the nation and I am not a fan of the idea of multiculturalism. I think the onus is on immigrants to a nation to adapt, and not the other way around. And I am not impressed by newcomers who instantly begin to complain about their reception in the land that welcomed them. If I went to live in Japan, I would be highly conscious that I was a guest in somebody else's house.

Language-- liberal. A few years ago, a book entitled Eats, Shoots and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by a lady called Lynn Truss was a smash hit. I read a reply to it entitled The Fight for English which criticized the approach of such "language purists". It was written by a much-published linguist named David Crystal, who (incidentally) is a Catholic-- I just found that out from Wikipedia. (He is described as "a Catholic by conviction". One would hope that was a tautology. I'm not sure what Wikipedia means by it.)

Language changes all the time. That is part of its delight. Standard spelling and punctuation is not a requirement. I don't even think it's necessarily a good thing. I believe that, for instance, "txtspeak" is simply the latest manifestation of language's infinite richness.

The arts-- conservative. I believe that artistic conventions exist for a reason, that they are timeless, and that they are no hindrance to innovation and creativity. Rhyme and metre in poetry, narrative in fiction, representation in painting-- all of these liberate rather than stultify. Formlessness is what stultifies. I believe that the arts exist more for the entertainment and inspiration of the reader, or spectator, or listener than they do for the self-expression of the artist.

Social etiquette-- fairly conservative. I despise foul language and casual references to sex or the eliminative functions. The tone they set is inimical to gentleness and innocence.

Religion-- this is the tough one, isn't it? I would say 'conservative', except that might group me with sedevacantist nutcases. I will have to take the same approach as Bertrand Russell, who called himself an agnostic when talking to philosophers and an atheist when talking to the public. I would call myself a conservative when talking to someone who takes little or no interest in religion, but orthodox when talking to someone who has a deeper knowledge of the issues at hand.

Technology-- fairly conservative. I worry about the influence of technologies. I think the car has been a disaster. Hard to see what can be done about any of it, though.

Drugs-- conservative.

Tobacco and alcohol-- liberal. Yes, maybe they are drugs, but drugs of a very different kind.

Gambling-- conservative. I would happily see all betting shops and lotteries closed down. Especially lotteries. "What would you do if you won the lottery?" is such a tiresome conversational avenue. Do you really need millions of hypothetical dollars or euros to spark your imagination?

Monarchy-- Conservative. I am all for it, though I don't think monarchs should have any real powers. I think they should be almost entirely ceremonial.

Nobility-- Conservative. I am all for titles and hereditary honours. I think they make society more diverse and interesting.

Hunting-- I'm on the fence about this.

School discipline-- conservative. Seeing teachers bullied by students never sat well with me. Not so sure that corporal punishment is a good idea, though-- mostly because I believe it is the quiet kids and not the bullies who will end up getting caned.

Egalitarianism-- liberal, when correctly understood. "Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!" might be altered in our time to "Equality, what crimes are committed in your name!". All kinds of political correctness and social engineering are foisted on us in the name of equality. But none of this changes the fact that egalitarianism is a GOOD thing. Every man, woman and child on this earth is of equal value to every other-- that is, infinite value. I believe this is a spiritual and social issue rather than a political issue. Egalitarianism should be a spirit, not a political programme.

Religious liberty-- extremely liberal. I think exceptions and special privileges and special protection should be extended to religious practices, since religion is of such importance to its practitioners. And I mean serious and established religions, not some joker declaring himself a Jedi.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Spinning and Reeling with Love

While I'm linking to my favourite songs, here is a rather obscure one. But it's definitely one of my very favourite, tippermost toppermost songs of all time.

I'm a massive fan of the US version of The Office. (I like the English version, too, though I haven't watched it in many years. Somehow it seems superseded by the US version.) And one of the my favourite episodes is 'A Benihana Christmas' from that show's third (and best) series. Feel-good festive TV is something that everyone tries to make but that too often feels contrived and cheap. 'A Benihana Christmas' pulls it off superbly. (The Office never made a better Christmas episode, and some of their Christmas episodes are real duds. 'Morrocan Christmas' is possibly the worst example.)

In one scene-- showing a karaoke session as the office party is really taking off-- you hear Creed Bratton, the elderly former rock star who plays a version of himself in the show, singing a snatch from his own song "Spinning and Reeling". It's only a few seconds, but it was enough to make me go looking for it on Youtube. And I've listened to it over, and over, and over. (One Lent, I gave up listening to music, and this was the song I chose to break my Lenten music fast!)

It's so sweet and innocent and simple and fizzy.

Better Slade Than Never

I don't know if my international reader are familiar with the British seventies glam-rock band, Slade. If they don't recognize the name, they will probably recognize their most famous hit, the Christmas fixture 'Merry Christmas Everybody'. (Which is absolutely splendid.)

I am a seventies nut. Slade are distilled seventies.

They have many good songs, but today I've been listening to one of their lesser-known hits: "Thanks for the Memory".

It's subtitled "Wham Bam, Thank You Ma'am", but it's not a sex song, even though Slade liked to throw double entendres into their songs. In fact, one of the reasons I like it is because the lyrics don't seem to be about anything-- just a collection of phrases that seem to go well together, with a few puns thrown in:

Como estas chickadee?
Have a housemaid on your knee
eat an apple every day
An onion keeps everyone away
Have an athlete on your feet
have some honey with your meat
Eat an apple every day
the doctor has got to keep away
He'll tell you
Thanks for the memory
thanks for it all
Wham bam
thank you ma'am
thanks for the ball.

Have a burgular alarm
Have a milkmaid on your farm
can you raise a ballyhoo
If only there's nothing else to do.
Have some butter with your fly
They sald bananas could get you high
Eat an apple ev'ry day
the doctor has got to earn his pay.

(This song is also an example of how censorship can be beneficial, artistically as well as socially; the version they played on TV is different from the album version, and the difference is definitely an improvement. The line 'have some honey with your meat', in the original, was a rather insalubrious sex reference which always makes me grimace when I listen to it.)

I also like the bouncy melody.

Well, this blog needs a break from the heavy philosophical stuff from time to time.

A Thought

Isn't it odd that, in all the Christian world and down through all the centuries, there was never (as far as I know) any attempt to rename the twelve months of the year after the twelve disciples, especially given so many of the months are named after pagan deities?

Twelve months, twelve disciples. It fits so perfectly.

(What you would do with Judas Iscariot would be a problem, of course. One month would have to be devoted to either St. Matthias or some other figure-- Our Lord himself, our the Blessed Mother, or the Trinity, or St. Paul.)

It strikes me as odd, but I quite like the fact that this never happened. I like the fact that Christianity never tried to bulldoze all remnants of the pagan past out of existence, that it was not totalitarian.

Friday, June 27, 2014

A Little Bit of Poetry

I've been rather critical of T.S. Eliot on this blog, taking him as an example of the kind of poetic modernism that I detest. In fairness, I should clarify that I believe Eliot was a poetic genius, and indeed that some of his poetry attains a sublimity unlike that of any other poet. (This might almost be a definition of a great poet. His or her poetry is the best of its kind.)

Recently I've had these lines from Little Gidding much on my mind:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.


These lines haunt me and captivate me. Their power is hard to analyze.

Strangely enough, perhaps, the lines that move me the most (although move seems a strange word, considering the hushed, dreamy atmosphere they evoke) are the second and third lines of my selection:

If you came this way
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season

It would always be the same....

One sometimes encounters the silly claim that great poetry deals with the particular and avoids generalization, vagueness and the abstract. (I remember how the submission guidelines of one poetry magazine asked contributors to avoid 'sweeping generalizations'.) It's one of those theories that sounds good but doesn't bear much scrutiny. I can't remember which poet claimed that the words 'over the hills and far away' were the most poetic in the English language. But I know it was Tennyson who, as a boy, used to stand with his arms outstretched and repeat the words 'far, far away' to himself, over and over again. And what about those incomparable words, 'Once upon a time', or their relatives, 'Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away...'? Rudyard Kipling thought that the most poetic words in all English poetry (jointly with a few from Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan') were these lines from Keats:

The same which oft times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn.


I think vagueness can be extremely poetic, and that much of the greatest flights of poetry are great through an inspired use of vagueness. 'Taking any route, starting from anywhere, at any time or at any season' is an example. When I read these words, or say them to myself, I imagine myself walking to an old church through the crisp air of mid-morning on a Winter's day, my shoes crunching over the frosty grass of a deserted field, feeling that the air is alive with an invisible presence.

The other most magnificent lines in this passage are the ones I have italicized below:

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.


How majestically imperious are those ten words! How pregnant they seem with the atmosphere of the burning bush or the pillar of fire or the Transfiguration! How they stir that depth within all of us-- even the most arrogant and selfish of us-- that craves above else to fall on our knees and worship!

However, even in this brief selection I think there are clumsy lines. In my opinion (and I accept that it might be considered monstrously arrogant to even offer it, but I believe poetry should appeal to the ordinary reader) these lines seem to lapse from poetry to prose:

And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead.

(I understand that T.S. Eliot once claimed that only poets can criticize poetry. C.S. Lewis pointed out the illogicality and circularity of this claim. How is anybody to know who deserves the name 'poet' if nobody else can hope to judge them?)

But the last few lines of the selection are a resumption of interrupted greatness:

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.


I think these lines might be the best expression of that mysterious state which churches and holy places occupy. We find ourselves using the word 'timeless', but it's not quite timeless. Time and eternity seem to intersect there in a very specific and elusive manner. In the same way, such sacred places seem utterly local and utterly otherworldly at once. I feel this most powerfully when I visit (of all places) the tiny little chapel in the Ilac Centre, Dublin. The sounds of the shopping centre outside-- the voices, the footsteps, the music playing over the sound system-- fill the tiny little space. In fact, there are arcade games right outside the door of the chapel. But even the shrill chirps of the arcade games only seem to make the silence and the sense of retreat in the little chapel more powerful.

I've read two whole books of criticism about Four Quartets, the extended poem which includes 'Little Gidding'. Since I found so many passages of the poem so thrilling, I assumed I simply didn't get the parts that left me cold. Well, after reading both books, and after much re-reading of the poem itself, I've come to the rather simple conclusion that some of the poem is magnificent and some of it (most of it) is far from magnificent. I think all the badness of Eliot comes from his obsession with aesthetic and poetic theories, and all the goodness of Eliot is what survived that obsession.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

More Chestertonian Wit and Wisdom

In a post some weeks back, I reproduced the first five columns on the philosophy of G.K. Chesterton that I wrote for The Open Door magazine, a Catholic magazine circulated mostly in county Kildare. I understand they have led to a Chesterton craze and it's pretty much all anybody in Kildare is talking about right now. (OK, not really.)

Here are the next five. I am restricted to 450 words for each article. Quite a challenge for someone as keyboard-happy as me.


Last week, I concluded with this enigmatic quotation from G.K. Chesterton: “The whole of life becomes so very jolly and liveable when once we have believed in original sin.” What could he have meant by that?

Well, our first step in explaining it should be to continue the quotation:

“If we believe (as some, I am told, do today) that every man is born innocent – then I can only say that to such a believer every man must appear a devil. The words of the wildest pessimist, of the wildest diabolist, seem hardly equal to expressing the vastness of that inventive villainy. By what abominable cleverness, by what hateful wit, did that sinless child contrive to twist himself into such a terror as an ordinary man? But if we realize all ordinary men to be at one ordinary disadvantage, how simple all their struggles become! The ordinary man can be considerate towards the ordinary man as one private soldier is towards another engaged against the same enemy. If once men are under original sin, how splendid they all are!”

Chesterton was faced with a timeless problem. Is the world good, or bad? Is man noble, or evil? Which view of the world is correct, optimism or pessimism?

Given his natural exuberance, and his reaction against the fashionable pessimism of his day, Chesterton’s inclination was to rush to the cause of optimism. He sought the good in everything. In his first book, The Defendant, he tried to make the human skeleton a symbol of joy rather than morbidity: “However much my face clouds with sombre vanity, or vulgar vengeance, or contemptible contempt, the bones of my skull beneath it are laughing for ever.” Famously, he urged his readers to take everyday inconveniences (like having to wait at a railway platform) in a spirit of enthusiasm rather than irritation: “An inconvenience is only an adventure, wrongly considered.”

But Chesterton’s sympathy with the suffering of humanity, and his indignation at the oppression of the poor, would never allow him to become a mere champion of the ‘power of positive thinking’. In his Autobiography, he wrote: “What could I have said, if some tyrant had twisted [my] idea of transcendental contentment into an excuse for tyranny? Suppose he had quoted at me my verses about the all-sufficiency of elementary existence and the green vision of life, had used them to prove that the poor should be content with anything, and had said, like the old oppressor, “Let them eat grass?”

The idea of original sin allowed Chesterton to proclaim the infinite goodness of life while still denouncing evil. More on this next week.

..............................

Last week we were looking at G.K. Chesterton’s thoughts on original sin, which Chesterton paradoxically viewed as a ‘jolly’ doctrine. (Chesterton was very fond of paradox. Some critics believe he used paradox excessively. But there is another famous individual who used paradox an awful lot, and who has rarely been taken to task for it. You may have encountered some of this other individual’s paradoxes before. Here is one of them: “Whoever finds his life shall lose it, and whoever for my sake loses his life shall find it”.)

One of the reasons Chesterton accepted the doctrine of original sin was because he believed in fairy tales. No, I don’t mean that he literally believed that Cinderella existed or that Jack climbed up the beanstalk. But his vision of reality was deeply influenced by the stories he heard in the nursery, and he always considered them to contain a deep insight into reality.

In the following passage from his masterpiece Orthodoxy, Chesterton reflects upon the strange conditions that are so often required of the heroes and heroines in fairy tales:

If the miller's third son said to the fairy, "Explain why I must not stand on my head in the fairy palace," the other might fairly reply, "Well, if it comes to that, explain the fairy palace." If Cinderella says, "How is it that I must leave the ball at twelve?" her godmother might answer, "How is it that you are going there till twelve?" If I leave a man in my will ten talking elephants and a hundred winged horses, he cannot complain if the conditions partake of the slight eccentricity of the gift. He must not look a winged horse in the mouth. And it seemed to me that existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that I could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when I did not understand the vision they limited. The frame was no stranger than the picture. The veto might well be as wild as the vision; it might be as startling as the sun, as elusive as the waters, as fantastic and terrible as the towering trees.


Only the sleepiest reader, surely, will fail to hear in this an echo of another story that we are all familiar with: a story involving a serpent, a tree, and a garden.

Chesterton’s belief in original sin was nothing if not personal. A newspaper once asked various writers, Chesterton included, for an essay on the theme ‘What’s wrong with the world?”. Chesterton’s contribution was two words long: “I am.” His wisdom was witty, and his wit was wise.

.........................

In the first seven instalments of this series, I have tried to outline the main themes of G.K. Chesterton’s philosophy: his insistence on the need for wonder and gratitude, his condemnation of pride and his celebration of humility, his defence of the concept of original sin, and the Christian worldview in which he unified all these different threads of thought.

At this point, I think I will step back from this rather academic analysis of his philosophy and take a closer look at G.K. Chesterton, the man.

It seems impossible to separate Chesterton’s thought from his life and personality. Of course, the same could be said of most authors and thinkers, but it seems true of Chesterton to an exceptional degree.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton breathed his last on the 14th of June 1936 and has therefore, effectively, passed out of living memory. But you might think, from hearing his admirers talk about him, that we knew him personally. A gentle light appears in our eyes and a smile plays about our lips as we tell the many famous anecdotes about him. (Perhaps the most famous is the tale of the telegram that he once sent his wife: “Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?”) All these years after his death, Chesterton is loved and cherished not only as an author but as a man—in the manner, perhaps, of a beloved and eccentric uncle.

That famous line from Wordsworth, ‘The child is father of the man’, is unquestionably true of Chesterton. In his Autobiography, which is the last book he wrote (and which I am increasingly inclined to think the best book he wrote) he describes his childhood at length and leaves the reader in no doubt as to its importance for his subsequent life and work.

Chesterton, unusually amongst modern writers, came from a very happy family. As he ironically put it:

I am sorry if the landscape or the people appear disappointingly respectable and even reasonable, and deficient in all those unpleasant qualities that make a biography really popular. I regret that I have no gloomy and savage father to offer to the public gaze as the true cause of all my tragic heritage; no pale-faced and partially poisoned mother whose suicidal instincts have cursed me with the temptations of the artistic temperament. I regret that there was nothing in the range of our family much more racy than a remote and mildly impecunious uncle; and that I cannot do my duty as a true modern, by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am.


A happy childhood, then, but not a dull one. More on this next week.

.................

Last week, after several weeks of an introduction into the thought of G.K. Chesterton, we began to look at the man himself. And we began at the best place to begin, especially in the case of Chesterton—that is, with his childhood.

Chesterton left us a very vivid and lyrical description of his childhood years in his Autobiography. (When I first discovered Chesterton, I would have concurred with the general opinion that his great work of Christian apologetics, Orthodoxy, was the best book he wrote. But I am increasingly of the opinion that this accolade should go to the Autobiography, which he was persuaded to write very shortly before his death. It actually appeared posthumously, and we are very lucky to have it.)

In the Autobiography, this is what Chesterton says of his boyhood:

Without giving myself any airs of the adventurer or the globe-trotter, I may say I have seen something of the world; I have travelled in interesting places and talked to interesting men; I have been in political quarrels often turning into faction fights; I have talked to statesmen in the hour of the destiny of states; I have met most of the great poets and prose writers of my time; I have travelled in the track of some of the whirlwinds and earthquakes in the ends of the earth; I have lived in houses burned down in the tragic wars of Ireland; I have walked through the ruins of Polish palaces left behind by the Red Armies; I have heard talk of the secret signals of the Ku Klux Klan upon the borders of Texas; I have seen the fanatical Arabs come up from the desert to attack the Jews in Jerusalem. There are many journalists who have seen more of such things than I; but I have been a journalist and I have seen such things; there will be no difficulty in filling other chapters with such things; but they will be unmeaning, if nobody understands that they still mean less to me than Punch and Judy on Campden Hill.


Chesterton’s family background was secure, comfortable and happy. His father was ‘the head of a hereditary business of house agents and surveyors.’ The Chesterton household was not especially religious. He was “brought up among people who were Unitarians and Universalists”. But he also wrote that: “The general background of all my boyhood was agnostic. My own parents were rather exceptional, among people so intelligent, in believing at all in a personal God or in personal immortality.”

And yet Chesterton’s mature (and stoutly orthodox) Catholic faith was rooted in his boyhood vision of life. More on this next week.

...................

For the last few weeks, we’ve gone from looking at the ideas of G.K. Chesterton to looking at his life, and seeing how his life influenced his ideas.

Chesterton insisted that the Victorian era, in which he grew up, was not a time of faith as often claimed but was in fact an era of widespread agnosticism. His own family was unusual in practicing a religion at all, although their Unitarianism was a far cry from Chesterton’s eventual orthodox Catholicism.

But there were aspects of Chesterton’s childhood that presaged his future path. One was his tenderness towards the Blessed Virgin.

A lover from his boyhood of the rather risqué poetry of Charles Algernon Swinburne, Chesterton describes how he would deliberately alter those lines of Swinburne that mocked Our Lady when he recited the poems to himself, replacing them with more respectful ones.

I cannot resist quoting in full the wonderful passage from The Well and the Shadows where Chesterton explains the Blessed Virgin’s lifelong significance to him, and the role she played in his ultimate conversion. It is one of the most affecting passages he ever wrote.

Men need an image, single, coloured and clear in outline, an image to be called up instantly in the imagination, when what is Catholic is to be distinguished from what claims to be Christian or even what in one sense is Christian.

Now I can scarcely remember a time when the image of Our Lady did not stand up in my mind quite definitely, at the mention or the thought of all these things. I was quite distant from these things, and then doubtful about these things; and then disputing with the world for them, and with myself against them; for that is the condition before conversion. But whether the figure was distant, or was dark and mysterious, or was a scandal to my contemporaries, or was a challenge to myself--I never doubted that this figure was the figure of the Faith; that she embodied, as a complete human being still only human, all that this Thing had to say to humanity.

The instant I remembered the Catholic Church, I remembered her; when I tried to forget the Catholic Church, I tried to forget her; when I finally saw what was nobler than my fate, the freest and the hardest of all my acts of freedom, it was in front of a gilded and very gaudy little image of her in the port of Brindisi, that I promised the thing that I would do, if I returned to my own land.


Next week, we’ll look some more at how Chesterton’s boyhood influenced his eventual conversion.

Welcome, Crux de Cruce!

For some reason, other Catholic sites (or sites of any kind) rarely link to this one. So I was pleased, and surprised, to see a link in my stastistics from this new blog by a young Catholic. Its approach is calm and reasoned, which is unfortunately not always the case with Catholic blogs (or Catholic writing of other kinds).

Find it here.

I hope it prospers!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

This Looks Like an Excellent Site

Mystics of the Church-- especially the lesser-well known ones, apparently. It also seems scrupulously faithful to the pronouncements of the Magisterium-- no dodgy visionaries, as far as I can see.

I have a hunch that the Church and the world needs mystical saints more than any other kind, right now. We have plenty of social activist saints. I'm not disparaging social activism. But I tend to think the social activism flows from the mysticism rather than the other way round.

A Pentecost (or Whistun) Homily by Peter Hitchens

Read it here. It's eloquent and from the heart and it gives plenty of think about.

I'm honestly not sure what to make about the kind of cultural Christianity to which Hitchens so often, and so nostalgically, refers:

Tomorrow would have been a holiday, and not just tomorrow. The big industrial towns would have held what they called ‘Whit Weeks’, when mines and factories would shut completely. It was the time of year when the poor would traditionally buy new clothes. Christenings and weddings (with much wearing of white, hence ‘Whitsun’) were especially common, which is why there were Whitsun Weddings for Philip Larkin (I’m coming to him) to write about.

I feel the same kind of nostalgia for Irish Catholicism (and, to a lesser extent, for English Anglicanism). I feel it intensely, sometimes overwhelmingly.

I can remember, many years ago, when I was still an unbeliever and would remain one for many years, walking down Grafton Street at Christmas time and hearing, drifting from a shop, the voice Frank Sinatra singing the words: "Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel." At that moment it occurred to me that Ireland had once been a Christian country, that within my own lifetime we had gone from a situation where any given group of people would be likely to contain a majority who accepted the Christian revelation (and where those who did not accept it were at least respectful of it) to one where no such assumption could be made. The sudden sense of loss was devastating.

There's nothing wrong with nostalgia, but in the case of nostalgia for a Christian society I think it's important to distinguish between simple nostalgia-- the kind of nostalgia everybody feels for a collective past, and especially for the festivals and traditions and ceremonies of that past-- and recognition of what was uniquely Christian in that past. I think there is certainly an argument to be made that Christian societies have a specific character which makes them special and admirable-- what comes immediately to my own mind is the importance put upon humility and forgiveness.

Everybody accepts those two values in general, but when it comes to the crunch (to use a cliché I like) it often takes a prior commitment to Christianity to stay true to them, or even to try to stay true to them. At least, it does in my case. I have a very strong propensity to feel scorn for those who antagonise me, or who embarrass me, or who I fear will embarrass me. (For instance, I remember feeling murderous anger towards one particular woman because of the ridiculous and undignified faces she would pull all day long. I was embarrassed for her.) When I was younger (and only a little younger), I would revel in indulging the most vicious thoughts about such people, as a kind of mental revenge for being embarrassed. I still catch myself doing this all the time, but the point is that I catch myself.

I've said this before, but one of the losses of a post-Christian society, I think, is that the concept of a 'loser' becomes more easily bandied about. The basic assumption of a Christian society is that every human being has infinite value, being made in the image of God. The descent from that to a kind of hazy, conditional social solidarity seems, to me, enormous.

Of course, the Christian character of a society is not simply to be seen in the behavior of its members. It's a mood as well, a mood that (surely) has tangible effects. Christmas carols, for instance, have a unique atmosphere. The idea of God becoming the child of a poor family gives a unique flavor to the festival that celebrates that event.

There are other interesting points in the sermon. Mr. Hitchens once more laments the loss of the King James Bible and its replacement by more prosaic translations. I would have wholeheartedly agreed with this even two or three years ago. But since I started reading the Bible on a more regular basis, and trying to use it, I find that it is better to have a Bible in contemporary English. Trying to make a book written in archaic English a part of your everyday life is mentally exhausting. And besides, the writers of the Gospels were not literary geniuses and apparently the original Greek is so idiomatic and so awkward that translators have never dared to render it word-for-word.

Hitchens's final reflection is, to be blunt, bizarre: "I’d add that this, our Church of England, in its modesty and reasonableness, its unmilitant poetic vagueness, what Larkin didn’t quite call ‘that vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to proclaim we never die’, seems to me to offer the best answer available to the certain fury of the atheist and the worldly utopian."

How is it possible to believe this? It seems to an outside observer like me, one who is by no means unsympathetic to the Church of England, that it is suffering an ignominious and undignified rout, and has been for some decades. When it comes to religion, is modesty really reasonable? Or does an institution that claims to possess a Revelation from God all the better for being audacious and, upon essentials, uncompromising?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Don't Mention it, Ma'am

I addressed a female colleague by this honorific today and was told it was "terrible" (not by her but by another lady who was listening.). I call women 'ma'am' all the time. (Women who I know, not strangers.) I see it as a mildly humorous term of respect. I wouldn't mind anyone calling me 'sir'-- in fact, I love it.

I see on the internet, having looked it up just now, that 'ma'am' is disliked because it implies the lady so addressed is old. Sheesh. It has nothing to do with age.

I think it's sad how the little courtesies of life become so fraught.

800 posts!

I just noticed that I've put up 799 posts since October 2011, when I started this blog. So I may as well make this a celebratory eight hundred.

800 A.D. was, of course, the date that Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope. It's also traditionally the length of time that Ireland has been oppressed by the British, ever since King Henry II landed here in 1171. ("For eight hund-ar-ed years...." etc. etc. etc.)

I can't think of anything else to associate with the number. Any suggestions?

I've had 167,166 visitors in that time. I don't know if that's good or bad.

Anyway, thanks be to the good Lord for bringing all those readers to it, and for the robust health of my fingers that continue tapping the words out. And thanks to the readers themselves-- that's you! Thanks!

More of The Snowman: A Horror Story

Chapter Sixteen

Afterwards, Brendan would find it difficult to describe the reaction that had followed the little girl’s words. The closest comparison he could think of was the frenzy in a packed sports stadium when the away team has scored. There was jubilation; there was no doubting that. People were cheering. Probably they wouldn’t have been able to explain why they were cheering, if anybody asked; it might have been the sheer release of tension, the arrival of the event that everybody immediately realised they had been waiting for.

Or perhaps it went deeper than that; perhaps it went deeper than any words could ever explain. Brendan didn’t cheer. But he did feel—in spite of the giant fist of horror that clutched him, as soon as he heard the word “snowman”—as if all his childhood Christmases had come at once.

Years later, one night when he was on his fifth brandy, he described the moment as feeling like death and Christmas morning rolled into one.

The sounds of jubilation were easily outweighed by the sounds of terror. Brendan thought of certain videos he had seen, sickening, shaky home movies of school shootings. All of a sudden, the assembly hall felt like one enormous abbatoir.

Eleanor had her arms around him now, and her head buried against his shoulder. He thought she had fainted, and only realised she was still conscious when he heard her sobbing. Sarah was gazing at the little girl with a little smile on her face, the sort of smile people must have worn when they were walking to the hangman.

And then they heard it; the sound that would haunt Brendan’s nightmares for the rest of his life.

It was the sound of something approaching, along the outer corridor, in the direction of the school’s front door. It might have been an enormous slug, dragging its monstrous weight along the ground. But along with the dragging sound came an unearthly, tantalising hum, a thrumming in the ears that stayed on the very horizon of hearing, like a light flickering miles and miles away.

People were retreating, stepping towards the back of the hall. If there had been corridors for the furthest back to retreat into themselves, there would certainly have been people crushed. But, even as the crowd surged backwards, there was a counter-surge forward. So it continued, eddying to and fro, while the awful sound grew louder. And all the time, people were screaming, groaning, praying and—there was no denying it—laughing and cheering and singing.

It never occurred Brendan to try to escape. He clutched Eleanor to his body, but he was hardly aware of her. He was hardly aware of himself anymore.

By now the direction of the sound was obvious, and everybody’s eyes had moved towards the doorway to the far right of the stage, which had been open. A child’s painting of an angel was hanging just inside it. The picture had always had something strangely disturbing about it, but now it looked like an emblem of apocalypse.

They saw the shadow before the thing itself. It seemed to fill the entire doorframe. A young man in front of Brendan was covering his face with hands and moaning, “Snowman, snowman, snowman.” He heard the same word being repeated through the hall. Now Eleanor was looking up, and the expression on her face showed she had gone beyond fear.

Nothing had ever felt more real, and yet more unreal.

Then it came. It was at least eight feet tall, and it broke through the doorframe with ease. Somehow, Brendan knew that it was the same snowman he had seen in the park, on his way to the Champion. It had been transformed, but its essence shone through all the clearer.

There was no suggestion of arms or legs. Nothing but a round head on top of an enormous oval body, that slid along the carpet as though it was being pushed. It left no trail of snow behind it, either along the floor or on the ceiling that its head scraped.

It had nothing to represent a mouth, or a nose, or any other features besides eyes. But its eyes….its eyes were black holes in its head. Perfectly circular black holes, three or four times too big in proportion to its head, that seemed to be infinitely deep. There was no flicker of light in them, and yet they were umistakeably alive; there seemed to be deeper shadows moving within them. The thing was watching them.

The crowd froze. Even the children stopped crying. Horror itself had turned to ice.

And then it spoke. Not in words, but in vibrations that were felt in flesh and bone. The thing had no mouth, but there could be no doubt that it was the snowman that was speaking. The shudders Brendan could feel in his marrow belonged to the shape standing in the doorway.

“It says hello”, said the girl standing on the stage. Her voice sounded even more masterful now, like an adult pretending to be a child, rather than the other way round.

Nobody took their eyes from the snowman. It had stopped moving. But once against the thrill passed through Brendan’s flesh, the thrill meant the thing was speaking. There was an intoxicating feeling to it; when it spoke, he seemed to see boundless vistas of snowy slopes, and he felt he was seeing the world from which the thing had come. And—in some mysterious way—it felt like a world he had known for himself, thousands of years ago.

“It says that everything is going to be fun from now on”, said the little girl.

A woman turned towards Brendan and Eleanor. She was an attractive woman of fifty or so, wearing a plain black dress, with a string of red beads around her neck and a thick head of curls. She looked at them with the expression of someone lost in a garden centre about to ask a fellow shopper for help; apologetic, deferential, mildly embarrased.

“What’s she talking about?”, whispered the woman. “It’s not saying anything!”

“Don’t you hear it?”, asked Brendan, wondering how the woman could not have felt that rumbling in her bones. “Don’t you feel it?”

“Feel what?”, asked the woman, and now there was an undertone of panicky anger in her voice. “I don’t feel a bloody thing!”

Brendan turned towards Eleanor, who was staring at the woman. “Do you hear it?”, he asked.

“Yes”, whispered Eleanor. She looked like a little girl again. “Right through my body.”

“Me too”, said Sarah. She was smiling, though she seemed terrified, and her face was as white as candlewax.

“I don’t get anything, either”, said a man at Sarah’s shoulder. He looked to have been one of the few people who bothered to go to work that day; he was wearing a navy pair of suit trousers, a crisp white shirt and a burgundy tie. His hair looked as it had been cut that day, and Brendan guessed it always looked as if it had been cut that day. He only had the hint of a chin, and his eyes were steel-blue.

“Maybe it’s making us go insane”, said the woman in the black dress, and the tone of her voice said Maybe it’s making you go insane.

Then Brendan felt the snowman’s speech in his guts again, and a moment the little girl on the stage translated. “Some of you belong to him”, she announced, “and some of you don’t. Some of you are useless. Absolutely useless.”

The girl spoke as though she was chastising her little sister, but every syllable was as sickening as the skid and thud of a car crash.

And then the screaming began again. The first one came from across the hall, but within moments there was a piercing shriek a few feet away from Brendan. A second later he saw what had provoked them.

People were changing. The woman in the black dress was changing.

It was difficult to see what was happening at first. The skin of her face seemed to be thickening, become slacker, darker. He had never seen anything like it; his brain was not used to making sense of such a sight. It was only when he saw brown spots beginning to spread on her neck, and her black hair growing grey and then white before his eyes, that he realised the woman was growing old before his eyes, in a matter of seconds.

Instinctively, his eye searched out the man in the burgundy tie. The same thing was happening to him. His hair had all but disappeared, and his shirt was hanging on his torso as though he had lost a stone in a moment. His eyes had grown watery, and his lips, suddenly thin, were quivering.

People were standing back from both of them, in automatic fear of being contaminated. The man and the woman were staring at each other with panic-stricken eyes, understanding from the sight of another what must be happening to themselves.

The woman started to scream herself, and to clutch at the people around her, as though he was trying to tether herself to the life that was fleeing from her. But the people she reached for pushed her away, one after the other, many of them with angry snarls. Later, Brendan would feel sorry for her. Right now, all he felt was the dread that she would touch him. He didn’t want her to even look at him.

And all the time, she was growing older. By now she was more decrepit than anybody Brendan had ever seen. Her face looked as if it had collapsed into itself, and she seemed three-quarters of the size she had been moments before. Her movements became more laboured and sluggish, and even the desperation in her eyes dimmed. Soon she had stopped thrashing about entirely, and the mania in her eyes had been replaced with an awful, barely conscious apathy.

She just stood there, her mouth hanging open, drool trickling from its corner. She stared into thin air, patently oblivious to everything around her.

Brendan expected her to deteriorate further, like the vampires exposed to sunlight in so many horror films. He found himself wishing that would happen. It would be a mercy to see this mummified creature crumble to dust.

But it didn’t happen. She just continued standing there, swaying on her legs, gazing into nothingness.

Slowly, over minutes, the screaming died out. Brendan looked about him, and saw at least half-a-dozen similar living corpses. The man with the burgundy tie looked like one of the emaciated figures that had been freed from concentration camps at the end of the Second World War. The crisp white shirt and the richly-coloured tie only made the sight more grotesque, more repulsive.

The snowman’s silent speech passed through Brendan’s body again, and the little girl said: “Some people ruin everything. Well, they’re not going to ruin this.

Brendan wondered why he felt no doubt that the girl really was translating the “speech” of the snowman. What she was saying just seemed to fit with the shivers that the snowman was sending through his body. It fitted all too well. And it was all too persuasive, too; for a moment, he found himself agreeing with her last words, and he heard a murmur of approval pass through the hall.

Sarah turned towards him, a little shyly. “What’s it going to do to us?”, she asked, whispering.

“Don’t know”, Brendan whispered back. “I don’t think it’s going to hurt us right now. Why hasn’t it done it already?”

“What can it do?”, asked Sarah, but she looked as though she suspected the answer to that was anything that it wants.

Then the Snowman spoke again, and they felt its words pulsing through them. It was still standing in the same place, staring at them with its hollow eyes. Suddenly, Brendan realised that he could feel coldness radiating from it.

“It says that’s enough for today”, said the little girl. Her voice, clear as a trumpet from the start, now filled the hall as though she had been addressing audiences all her life. “It says to go home.”

There was a shuffling from the crowd, an audible wave of uncertainty and fear.

Go home”, she repeated, waving her little arms in the air again. “Go to the park. Go to the cinema. Go to the swimming pool. Go anywhere you like. While you’ve been here, the Snowman has been making things wonderful for you, outside. Everything is wonderful now. All you have to do is play by the rules.”

The girl pointed towards the far exit of the hall, that Brendan remembered led out onto the yard. It was the door furthest away from the Snowman, and people began to move towards it as soon as she pointed, none of them looking back towards the new lord of Higginstown.

Within twenty minutes, the only humans left standing in the assembly hall were those who had withered so rapidly, minutes before. Some of them were ushered away by relatives, but more than two hundred remained when the throng had departed. They just stood there, blinking and mumbling, barely aware of their own continued existence. The youngest had been born twenty-three years before, and had just bought her second car that month.

Chapter Seventeen

The curtains were decorated like a page from a medieval Koran, in gold and peacock blue. The colours, already rich, were made brilliant by the glow of the early morning sun. Outside, the dawn sky was growing as white as the snow that had finally stopped falling, now that its conquest of the world was complete.

There were no pictures on the lilac-painted walls. A small teddy bear, in the navy blue and colours of Dublin, sat on top of a wall-mounted bookshelf. It had sat there for more than five years.

The curtains looked entirely out of place in this little bedroom. Everything else was almost pugnacious in its plainness, from the bare walls to the well-worn navy carpet. The mug on the low bedside chest of drawers was pure white.
The duvet on the bed was wine-coloured, with an embossed pattern that would only be noticed by an attentive eye.

The curtains had been a present from Lisa’s uncle Harry. She wouldn’t have chosen such fancy curtains herself, but she felt no shudder of distaste when she looked at them. Curtains were curtains.

The door opened, and Lisa—just back from answering a call of nature— staggered back to the bed. She climbed in and pulled the duvet up to her chin, almost violently. Though she was alone, she looked like she was trying to ignore someone who would not stop talking to her.

Her eyes had only been shut for three or four minutes before they opened again. She rolled only to her back and stared at the glowing curtains, knowing that she wasn’t going back to sleep. She’d never been good at going back to sleep.

Right now she really wanted to go back to sleep. The world didn’t make sense anymore. Until now, she’d never realised what comfort she’d drawn from the fact that the world made sense. People did crazy things, but the world wasn’t crazy. People danced naked around standing stones, but the pagan gods didn’t oblige them by showing up.

She’d always been the one who could keep her head. But what was the point of keeping in your head, in a world that had gone insane?

Her eye fell on the teddy bear in the Dublin colours. She had been given that by a different uncle; it was one of the few toys that her parents hadn’t considered ungodly at the time. The truth was, Lisa hadn’t cared. She had never really played as a child; she had played at playing, dutifully. She had sat through hundreds of prayer meetings, dutifully, without even considering—even as a young child—that there might be some truth to the stories of miraculous healing, visions, prayers answered so inevitably that God seemed to be running a telephone exchange. She was twelve of thirteen before she realised that the other people there—some of them, at least—really did believe them. Up until then she thought that it had all been an elaborate, poker-faced game.

Seeing Danny’s hand transformed into a claw had barely dented her faith in common sense. Within seconds, she had convinced herself it had been a shared illusion. What else could it be? But before long, common sense itself had become the merest fantasy, more ridiculous than any amount of charismatic healing or speaking in tongues. What place did reason have in a world where snowmen walked and day never turned to night?

Day never turned to night…the thought made her notice that the light coming from behind the curtain looked like the light of dawn. She clambered out of bed and walked to the window. She reached towards the curtain, but her hand froze before it grasped the thick fabric. Did she really want to see what was on the other side? Anything could be out there.

Annoyed with herself for her weakness, she grabbed the edge of a curtain in each hand and shoved them apart

It was dawn, she saw; the sky was getting brighter. Night must have fallen, after all. When she was asleep. She hadn’t expected to sleep. She hadn’t felt capable of sleep. But sleep had come, as if on schedule. Maybe it was scheduled. Why even pretend she was still in control? Like everybody else in Higginstown, she was a captive. She was a passenger on a maniac train, driven by a snowman who used a little girl for a mouthpiece, and there didn’t seem to be any stops.

But at least she hadn’t been turned into an old woman. That still confused her. Lisa was a sharp girl, and she knew it, too. It had only taken her a few moments to realise what was happening when people in the school assembly hall had begun to age at breakneck speed. Some of you belong to him, and some of you don’t, the little girl had said. Some of you are useless. Absolutely useless.

The people she had seen wither before her eyes—one of them was a local politician, who had been canvassing at their door only a few months before—had all been of a type. She could see just by looking at them; they’d all had the sap dried out of them years before. If there had been sap in them to begin with, that was. There were all the sort of people who would never dream of building a snowman. The sort of people who would consider snowmen a waste of time, a bore.

Lisa had never built a snowman in her life, and had never wanted to. When the Snowman’s enemies had begun to wither, she had been expecting her own skin to tighten and crack, her own bones to shrivel up. Even now she wondered if she had been simply been overlooked. Or perhaps reserved for an even worse fate.

Or maybe—unlikely as it seemed to her—she did belong to the Snowman. That thought was as almost as disturbing as the thought of the glazed eyes and drooling lips of those who had no place in his mad world. Somehow she thought that the Snowman would be an exacting god.

She sighed. At least there was nothing outside the window more disturbing than the familiar blanket of snow. She suspected that this snow never melted, though. Within a few minutes she was dressed and washed, and making breakfast for her mother.

Her mother. Lisa felt the familiar combination of exasperation and anxiety, but exasperation was getting the better hand. Fiona had said hardly a word as they made their way back home, after the weird assembly of the previous day. She had now permanently adopted that glassy-eyed, lip-pursed expression Lisa hated so much. It was the look that showed her mother was determined to milk every last drop of drama from the situation. One might have thought the situation was dramatic enough already, but that wasn’t how her mother’s mind worked. She would be astonished and traumatised in proportion to the events they were undergoing; she would prove that her capacity for trauma was infinite.

Lisa wasn’t too surprised that the milk in the fridge was still fresh. The fridge light had stopped working, but cold air still radiated from inside it. She guessed that keeping food fresh would be the least of Higginstown’s problems from now on.

She filled a tray with her mother’s favourite breakfast—cheese spread sandwiches and strong coffee with only a tinge of milk—and took it to her bedroom. She pushed the door in without knocking, knowing that her mother would never hear a knock if she wasn’t sleeping.

But she wasn’t sleeping. She was lying on her back, staring at the ceiling, with just the expression Lisa had dreaded in her eyes. Her arms were stretched along her side, outside the blankets.

“Your morning call”, said Lisa, determinedly cheerful. “The world might have come to an end but breakfast is forever.”

“Maybe the world has come to an end”, said Fiona, still staring at the ceiling, her voice small.

“Will you sit up for this?”, asked Lisa, ignoring her. She hardly tried to keep the irritation from her voice.

Fiona slowly sat up, as if it required a monumental effort to do so. Her eyes turned to her daughter, but they seemed to be looking through her, looking into God knew what vision of dread. “He’s going to be back, isn’t he?”, she said.

“We don’t have to let anybody in”, said Lisa, holding the tray above Fiona’s lap. “Here, take this”, she said.

Her mother looked at the tray. She looked at it as though she dimly remembered food, but couldn’t quite have said what it was for. After a few moments of this, she reached out and took the tray in her hands, so delicately it might have been an explosive device.

“He’ll get in”, she said. “He’s inexorable. I’ve been lying here, thinking—“

She broke off and took a long draft from her coffee. She closed her eyes as she swallowed. The most frustrating thing, Lisa found herself thinking, was that her mother meant every word she said. She spent her life putting on an act, but all of the emotions she dramatised were utterly sincere. And right now her mother was terrified.

“What?”, asked Lisa.

Fiona looked up from her coffee, and her eyes widened as she gazed into her daughter’s face. “I think maybe we are in hell, after all”, she said. “Maybe Brockmann was right. Maybe I did say no to God.” Her last words were almost a whisper.

Lisa put her hand on her mother’s shoulder, and squeezed it. Usually that made her mother smile, but not now. “Even when I’ve seen a snowman walking, and been sent through the air by a laughing wind, there are some things I can’t believe, and one of them is that Clinton Brockmann is the voice of God.”

Fiona didn’t smile. The faraway look in her eyes only deepened, and she bit her lip. “What about that little girl in the school, though? What kind of a mouthpiece was she? What about Mary Magdalene and Sampson and Solomon and all of the others? God chooses the strangest people to carry His word and work His will.”

It was all Lisa could do to keep a furrow of irritation from her face. She thought all this was over; it was impossible to argue against such anti-logic. It was like trying to punch steam. “The Snowman isn’t God, Mum, and he isn’t the devil either.” Her mother shuddered at the word devil, just like she expected. Let her shudder. She was going to hear this. “Higginstown might not be the New Jerusalem, but I can’t believe it deserves a special damnation all of its own. This is…something different.”

“Hell is refusing God’s grace”, said her mother, with a kind of helpless insistence. She lifted the cup to her mouth again, and took another deep draft, almost absent-mindedly. She looked so frail and doomed, propped up against her pillows like a hospital patient, that all of Lisa’s irritation melted away.

“Maybe hell is going backwards”, continued Fiona.. “Going backwards is sticking two fingers up at God. Like a horse that stops in its tracks, and refuses to carry anymore.”

“We didn’t ask for this”, said Lisa, taking her hand from her mother’s shoulder, feeling suddenly that they were separated by an unbridgeable gulf; that they always had been. Even this room, with its clutter and crannies and thousand shadows, had always made her feel like a stranger.

“Hell is the soul’s choice”, said Fiona, faintly, as though she was musing over some trifing problem. “We’ve always been told that. Maybe we did choose this. Maybe there was some disaster….maybe a meteorite hit us all. Maybe we’re dead, with all our sins on our head.”

“I somehow think hell would be worse than this”, said Lisa, patiently.

“I think this is only the beginning”, said Fiona, looking at her daughter with pleading, little-girl eyes. “Don’t you get the feeling that things are going to get worse? Much worse?”

Lisa hesitated. She did feel that, in the pit of her stomach, and in the cellar of her mind. But she was about to deny it, all the same, when there was a knock at the front door.

It wasn’t a hard knock, but it echoed through the house, empty of all the artificial noises of civilisation; the murmur of television and radio, the humming of radiators, the whirring of computer fans. Lisa was still getting used to that silence.

Fiona whimpered, and her face turned white. “Don’t answer it”, she said. The plea in her voice had become desperate. She grasped the blanket with her free hand, pulling it towards her like a child. “It’s him. He’s never going to stop coming back.”

If this is Hell, what can he do to us?, Lisa felt like asking. But her own heart had started hammering, and her skin felt as tight as clingfilm. An eternity of Danny chasing them seemed hellish enough to her. And, all of a sudden, it didn’t seem such a ridiculous notion.

“I’ll check”, she said, walking towards the closed curtains. They were an electric blue, and had been hanging in her mother’s room for as long as Lisa could remember. But her mother grabbed her arm, gripping it so tight that it hurt.

“Don’t”, said Fiona. It came out like a gasp. “Just….just leave it. We’ll hide in the attic.”

Lisa pulled her arm free, ignoring her mother’s cry as she broke loose. She strode towards the curtains, but instead of tearing them open, she carefully opened a half-inch chink between them.

She put her eye to the chink. She couldn’t see anybody; whoever it was standing too close to the door. It was all too easy to imagine Danny’s face pressed up to the glass, his eyes wide with that awful, devouring stare.

But then the caller stepped back from the door, and looked around him, as if he was wondering whether he should keep waiting or go away. And Lisa felt like she’d been just hit over the head.

“It’s not Danny”, she whispered to her mother. “It’s Sheridan”.

Lisa heard her mother gently dropping the tray down on the bedroom floor, then climbing out of bed with much heaving of blankets and creaking of springs. But by the time Fiona’s feet had touched the floor Lisa had gone to the bedroom door, and within a few more moments she was walking down the stairs, forcing herself not to run.

She wondered how he had known where she lived. A fanciful notion that he’d been secretly fascinated by her all through school, that he knew her address off by heart, was quickly put aside for the more likely idea that he’d looked it up in the telephone book. Lisa fantasised like everybody else, but the fantasies never lasted longer than bubbles in boiling water.

She could hear her mother moving about the room upstairs, getting dressed, her anxieties of damnation cast aside for a little while. Lisa knew she would be immaculately dressed within five minutes.

When she reached the foot of the stairs, she saw that Sheridan was still waiting, his silhouette framed in the glass of door. She always felt a secret contempt for people who suffered attacks of nerves—nothing was worth getting so fraught about—but right now she felt more than a little fluttery herself. Annoyed at her own girlishness, she pushed her jitters down and unlocked the door with a flick of her thumb.

“Hi, Sheridan”, she said, evenly, when the door was opened.

The boy she had spent so long peeking at during school hours was staring at her now, and his face was taut with anxiety. He was wearing the same thick black coat he had worn when he called to the shop, with a dingy-looking brown scarf wrapped around his neck. It wasn’t neatly folded like a cravat, but looked like it had been thrown on while he was leaving the house. His hair was unbrushed, and one side of his face was less well-shaven than the other. She took it all it one glance.

He only nodded for greeting, and asked: “Are you OK? Your mother? After….yesterday?”

She would have been warmed by the question if it hadn’t been asked in such a ritual, desultory manner. She could tell he was burning to ask something else, and only politeness stopped him from asking right away. She could guess what it was, too.

“We’re fine”, she answered. “What about you? Your parents?”

He nodded again, and stepped into the house when she held the door open wider. His gait was less graceful than usual; his self-possession, which had seemed so invincible, seemed to be under considerable strain now.

“I’ve heard things”, he began, his voice heavy with foreboding. “The statuettes I made for you—“

He trailed off, and turned towards her, with hungry eyes. Those eyes still made her feel like she was tumbling. She could see that he wanted her to help him out.

“They’ve come to life”, she said, wondering at how easy it was to say it. But why should it be difficult, in the world they were inhabiting now? “They saved me and my mother yesterday, before….before we came to the school.”

“What do you mean, saved you?”, asked Sheridan, as Lisa pushed the door shut. “Saved you from what?”. But the next moment he heard Fiona’s tread on the steps, and looked up.

Fiona was dressed just as prettily as Lisa had expected her to be, in a silky white blouse and pleated black skirt. She looked as though she’d spent an hour getting ready for a coffee morning. Her mother was no vainer than any other attractive woman, but making a good show for guests was the very first commandment of her decalogue. Even the end of the world wouldn’t change; hadn’t changed it,.

“Hello, Sheridan”, she said. She gave him such a sweet, serene smile that there might have been no Snowman, no fears of Hell, no pursuing maniac who seemed impervious to death. Nothing but a young man paying a social call to a young woman on an ordinary winter’s day. Lisa—to her own surprised—was soothed by the sight of her mother’s smile.

Sheridan himself seemed a little subdued by Fiona’s calmness. He even managed more than a nod this time, saying: “Hello, Mrs. Heffernan.”

“Sheridan heard about the toys”, said Lisa, quickly. “I was telling him how they saved our life.”

“That’s right, they did”, said Fiona. Her face darkened at the memory of Danny, but the shadow passed in a moment, and she was back to being the perfect hostess. “But why don’t we all sit down and talk about it?” She stood at the bottom of the stairs, with her hand on the rail of the bannisters, like a woman on an ideal homes brochure.

“I want to find them”, said Sheridan, still looking at Fiona but no longer seeming to see her. His full lips twitched in agitation. “Before they hurt somebody else. I made them.”

Lisa felt a shiver of admiration at these last words. Sheridan could have been less of a drama queen, but there was something undeniably noble in the way he spoke. He looked as though he’d grown ten years younger overnight, but his nervous boyishness only made him seem—paradox though it might have sounded-- more manful. She had never seen him animated before, and it thrilled her to be witnessing it now.

He turned to her, as if guessing that he was unlikely to get the desired response from Fiona. “I need you to let me into the shop”, he told her. “I have to see if there are any left. I have to destroy them. My mother saw one of them attacking a group of boys, last night.”

“Can’t we at least have a cup of tea?”, asked Fiona, and if Lisa had been less distracted, she would have been amused by the pleading tone in her mother’s voice.

“I have to go there now”, said Sheridan, and his eyes flashed with eagerness. For a moment—just a moment—Lisa felt afraid, looking at him. She remembered that he had created the thing that launched itself at Danny, and suddenly the fact that felt highly disturbing.

But then it had passed, and he was once again the boy she’d adored for the past five years.

“OK”, said Fiona, seeing that their visitor meant business. “But we’re all going. I’m not saying here on my own.” She looked relieved, now that the decision had been made; anything was better, it seemed, than waiting in the house for her unstoppable suitor to come back.

“I’ll get the keys”, said Lisa, turning towards the kitchen, and feeling like her heart was dancing.

Within ten minutes—it would have been less, if it hadn’t been for Fiona’s last minute checking and fussing—they were filing out the front gate, Lisa walking a step or two ahead of Sheridan, and beginning to think that she had fallen into a dream instead of a nightmare. She had already forgotten about how the boy’s eyes blazed, for that fraction of a moment.

Chapter Eighteen

It must have stopped snowing during the night. It was a night that nobody could remember; at a certain time after the great assembly (but then, what was certain about time right now?), everyone in Higginstown had begun to feel overwhelmingly sleepy. Within half an hour, they had sought out their beds, or the closest thing they could find to a bed. Some of the boys, who had spent all evening playing indoor football in the Heart and Soul Sports Club, stretched out in the dressing rooms, with canvas mats spread over them to add to the warmth of their clothes. Those who had flocked to the several pubs in Higginstown—whose kegs, they found to their delight, now seemed to pour forth an endless stream of alcohol—heaped tableclothes and curtains over themselves, lying on cushioned benches, or even on the carpet.

But most—who were too still stunned by the events of the day to feel in much of a party mood-- went to their beds, singly or in couples. More than a few of the couples had been formed that very day. Men and women who had been yearning for each other for years—or who had never met, before finding each other in the ferment of the school assembly hall—now decided to throw inhibition to the wind. Life was horrible unsure all of a sudden, and it seemed wise to grasp pleasure where one could.

One way or the other, within half an hour, everybody in Higginstown was asleep. It was impossible to tell how long they remained like that—it might have been hours or days—or whether night had fallen while there was nobody to see it. But when they woke, day had been replaced by dawn, and the snow had stopped falling.

They had become so accustomed to the snow that its sudden absence felt eery; like walking through a city at noon without the rumble of traffic in your ears. But it was only a pause. Within an hour, the snow reappeared. But this time it didn’t fall. It swirled.

It twisted and turned in the air, sometimes in a frenzy, more often in a ghostly waltz. If anybody had been curious enough to follow the progress of an individual flake, they would have seen that it never touched the ground, never lost itself in the still white ocean that covered the ground of Higginstown. The same flakes were blown hither and thither on the breeze—when there was no breeze they seemed to move of their own volition. They frolicked in an infinity of different combinations, as if rejoicing in their own indestructibility.

Toffee Drummond stood watching it for fully ten minutes. He was a believer in looking. All through his life, he had amused and exasperated many friends and acquaintances by stopping in the streeet, or in the middle of a field, or even half-way across a lake in a rowing boat, just to stare at whatever had taken his fancy. Often it was something as apparently unremarkable as a colourful hanging sign. Or a set of initials carved in a tree. Or a butterfly.

For a moment he stopped wondering what force had gripped Higginstown, and was happy to contemplate the drifting, eddying snowflakes.Moments like these, he often thought, were the best that life had to offer. But it was their nature to pass. He shook his head and passed on.

He wasn’t sure what he was looking for. He had set out this morning with no clear purpose. His feet had led him to the park where he had first glimpsed the Snowman; where the thing had taken shape under his direction, under his very hands.

Had he felt a foreboding at that time? Some presentiment that he had brushed aside so swiftly that he had barely noticed it? His mind was troubled for a moment, but only a moment. Toffee’s memory had been all but infallible since childhood—he had often wondered what it felt like to forget things, like other people did—and he knew he hadn’t felt the slightest touch of dread.

He had built a snowman, to please some children. The thing had come to life, somehow. Somehow it taken control of Higginstown. He had seen much in his life, and heard of a thousand times more, but he had never seen or heard of anything quite like this. He was already marshallling all his thoughts to solve the problem, but wasting energy on baseless guilt had never been his style.

He knew one thing, though. He was afraid. He was more frightened than he had ever been in sixty-eight years of life, and he’d had a gun pointed at him more than once. He’d danced with death several times—in the most unlikely of circumstances— but this was something worse than death. Death was part of the natural order. This thing, whatever it was, didn’t so much as tip its hat to the natural order.

He was thinking of a conversation of he’d had once, on the bottom deck of a ferry from Wales to Dublin. It was a conversation with a man who worked part time as a house-painter and part time as a bank robber (he’d made no bones about his profession, recognising that Toffee was a safe pair of ears). He’d gone on to describe something even more intriguing than bank-robbing, though; he swore he’d once seen a statue of a World War One soldier climb down from its pedestal in a small town in Yorkshire, and chase him through the deserted town centre.

Toffee had heard no more than that, since he’d been called away by another acquaintance—a loud, red-faced pharmacist who’d just spotted him. The bankrobber had moved to another table, suddenly looking embarrassed, as if realising how absurd his tale must have sounded. He didn’t look in Toffee’s direction again, and Toffee knew it would be pointless trying to get him to take up the threads of his story. He listened to the pharmacists’ accounts of new paracetemol regulations instead; in its own way, it was as every bit as interesting as moving statues. But right now, he wished he’d tried the bankrobber again, and left the pharmacist sitting alone.

He was turning the long-ago incident over in his mind, wondering if the man might have been telling the truth, when he saw someone he recognised. It was a woman in her forties, sitting on a park bench, watching a little boy playing with a plastic toy that seemed to be a cross between a lion and a space-buggy. It was the woman and boy who had been with him when the snowman was created. They hadn’t seen him yet. He walked towards them.

“Hello, Marcus”, he said, folding his arms behind his back, wearing the solemn look he always wore for children. He remembered, better than what most, what it felt like to be a child. He remembered especially how tiresome the teasing of adults had been. Sometimes he thought only children could be fully serious.

Marcus looked up. It was a bright, easy look. He looked happy; in fact, he looked more than happy. He looked contented.

Shauna smiled when she caught sight of Toffee. There were half a dozen emotions in that smile, but pleasure in seeing Toffee wasn’t one of them.

He sat beside her on the bench—spreading his long coat under him to keep the seat of his trousers dry—and smiled at her as though they were the oldest of friends. In truth, he hardly knew her at all. He’d first met her when he offered to help her carry some bulging shopping bags off the bus. She’d been overflowing with gratitude, and whenever she saw him after that—in the library, in the supermarket, or here in the park—she’d stopped to talk. A little at first—she wasn’t a chatterbox by nature—but bit by bit she opened up, remembering what it was like to have somebody listen to her. A hungry, eager look would come into her face when she caught sight of him. He saw that look on many faces.

There was no such hunger today, though few people would have noticed the coolness behind her welcome. The smile was a little too keen, the gaze a little too direct. And when Toffee sat beside the woman, she stiffened for a fraction of a moment, before leaning forward and grasping his arm in her hand.

“How are you, Toffee?”, she asked, giving him her sweetest smile. “I thought it was so brave of you to get up on that stage.”

“I hope you mean brave, and not stupid”, he said, pleasantly.

She laughed, a little less cautious now. “Maybe it’s the same thing”, she said. “Do you know who that little girl was, Toffee?”, she asked now, watching him more keenly.

Toffee had already been asked that question a half a dozen times since the assembly. “I do, as a matter of fact,” he said. “Her name is Naomi Eglinton, and her mother owns a sports shop in Tallaght.” He smiled ruefully. “She’s the sort of kid who’s always had the newest and best of everything. Bright, too. Always with a gaggle of girls around her, and always top of the pecking order.” He sighed. “The sort of kid who’ll be a success all her life—who’ll walk into jobs, and cliques, and the hearts of certain sorts of men—but who’ll never recapture the glory she had when she was eleven.”

“That was a terrrible thing that happened to those people”, said Shauna, looking across the park at a boy and a girl who were walking across the snow, hand in hand. “Horrifying.”

There was no need to be more explicit; those people had almost become the recognised term, in whatever time had actually elapsed since the Snowman had brought them to a premature old age.

Shauna had spoken softly, with obvious sincerity. But she might have been talking about victims of a hurricane or an earthquake; she spoke in the stony tones used for what a secular age still called acts of God.

“Maybe they deserved it”, said Toffee, casually.

Her head jerked towards him, and her eyes widened. She looked at him as though he was a stranger who had brushed against her in the street. “Toffee!”, she said, with a mixture of shock and reproach.

“None of them were not exactly popular”, said Toffee. He’d never played poker—there were easier ways to make enemies, if he wanted to do that—but he probably would have made a killing at the game. His face said exactly what he wanted it to say, and right now it showed no hint of craft. “They were the kind of people who drag other people down. That’s what everybody is saying.”

“Well, they didn’t deserve that”, said Shauna, with a shudder in her voice. But beneath the shudder there lay a hint of grateful agreement: They weren’t exactly innocent, either.

“How is Marcus reacting to all of this?”, asked Toffee, lowering his voice. The boy was playing further away now, singing to himself, apparently oblivious to the two adults.

Shauna looked at her son, and her eyes seemed to darken and blaze at once. “It’s hard to say”, she murmured. “Kids seem to be able to deal with these things better than adults, don’t they? I mean, nothing seems impossible to a child. They believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and the things under the bed, so why would they be surprised by a talking snowman?”

And she looked away again, back towards the young lovers, who were now only a tiny pair of figure on the horizon, almost hidden in the whirls of snow.

“Don’t you wonder what’s going to happen now?”, Toffee persisted. “With Marcus, I mean?”

Shauna didn’t turn to face him again. Her expression was as frozen as the landscape. “No”, she said, after a long silence, whose purpose might have been to get Toffee to speak again. “There’s no point thinking about it. But it has to be better than what was going to happen, doesn’t it?”

“Ah”, said Toffee, brushing some snowflakes from his trousers. It might have been construed as agreement. “Aren’t you frightened of the Snowman?”

The woman shrugged now, and folded her arms across her body, to keep out the cold. But there was something defensive about the gesture, too. She dipped her head a little. “What’s the point?”, she asked. “I’m sick and tired of being afraid. I’ve had enough of it.”

Shauna spoke in a North Dublin accent, like most of Higginstown’s population; like Toffee himself. Most of the time the edge was taken off it by her careful enunciation—she obviously took pride in being well-spoken—but the words enough of it came out as though from the mouth of a street urchin.

Now Marcus walking towards them, as though he had sensed they were discussing him. He was looking at his mother with the calculating look of all children who want something. When he reached the bench, he asked—with one look at Toffee, as if for moral support—“Can we go home and have some roober tart?”.

Woken from her sombre thoughts, Shauna gave Toffee an amused look, and then frowned at Marcus, with the kind of mock severity that would fool only the most gullible of kids. “Rhubarb tart? What makes you think I have any rhubarb tart?”.

Marcus shrugged, which might have meant either I don’t know or Do we have to go through this stupid charade? He widened his eyes and held his arms to side, to look as childish and appealing as possible.

Roober tart, thought Toffeee, who found himself craving some, too. The river of life flowed on through all sorts of weather, that was for sure.

“Oh, all right then”, said Shauna, pulling the band of Marcus’s hat a little further down over his forehead. “Do you want to come and have some, Toffee?”

For a moment Toffee considered it. He could already taste the melting, golden sweetness of pastry and the mild bitterness of rhubard in his mouth. It brought back memories of childhood, which had been coming thick and fast today.

But the invitation hadn’t sounded exactly heartfelt—more like a polite goodbye—and besides, he had things to do. He wasn’t sure what exactly, but he was sure he had things to do. He’d often shirked work, but he’d never shirked responsibility. And today he felt responsibility pressing down on him like gravity on the crumbling masonry of some old ruin.

“My mouth waters, ma’am”, he said, bowing his head a little. Shauna beamed, looking almost as pleased with him as she ever had been. “But even when time seems to have stopped, duty calls.”

“What sort of duties do you have today, Toffee?”, asked Shauna. Her smile didn’t fade, but there was a flicker of suspicion in her eyes.

“The duties of a man of leisure”, said Toffee, rising from the bench. “They’re never-ending, I assure you.”

Shauna laughed, easily now. “Enjoy them”, she said. “See you soon, Toffee”.

Toffee turned to Marcus, and raised his open palm to his temple in a stiff salute. Marcus returned the gesture, awkwardly, but with a pleased grin. Boys liked salutes; that was an eternal truth.

“ Till we cross paths again”, he said, with a brisk wave to both of them, and continued on the way that he had came.

Enjoy, Shauna had said. It might have become Higginstown’s motto. The first shock had quickly been absorbed, or so it might seem. The park was far from empty. There were many parents beside Shauna bringing their children out to play. School had been postponed indefinitely, and even this late in this life, Toffee couldn’t help feeling a certain conspiratorial pleasure. He’d shirked school as often as he possibly could, and wished he’d shirked it more often.

But it wasn’t just parents and children. Nearly every park bench seemed to have been occupied by young lovers. Most of them didn’t even look up as Toffee passed by. They were teenagers for the most part, too hot-blooded to care about the cold. Toffee guessed there were plenty of older lovers indoors. He had already noticed that the circumstances had an aphrodisiac element to them.

At least three kids passed him on skateboards--- one of them went tumbling head-first when his skateboard skidded on the icy surface of the path. He was only saved by Toffee’s quick reflexes. The old man grasped his arm just as his board shot out from under him The boy—who Toffee had seen buying crime magazines in the local shop, but who seemed particularly mannerly—was grateful, but didn’t seem in the least bit shaken. He tore off down the path again, as soon as he was finished thanking Toffee, every bit as quickly as before.

Of course, the trouble-makers were out and about, too; gangs of youths in their sports clothes, crew cuts and pinched expressions. They seemed to gravitate towards parks especially; everything associated with innocence and pleasantness, such as playgrounds and bandstands, seemed to draw them. Toffee couldn’t help tensing as he passed a huddle of them. He had thrashed their type many times, in his youth and his prime, but he didn’t fool himself that he could do it now.

He knew how to bear himself, though, and they didn’t smell any fear as he passed them. There were a few jeers, but they weren’t directed at Toffee. It was just the ritualistic jeers these kids engaged in; they traded insults as he had traded comics in his childhood. Toffee wondered why they even sought out a companionship that was so devoid of friendship.

He left the park, and moved down Jenkins Avenue, where every house seemed to have an extension, a patio or a pigeon-loft. At least two of those had been prematurely aged by the Snowman lived in Jenkins Avenue. Toffee wondered what was going to happen to their houses. Probably they would soon become haunts for the sort of tracksuited thugs he had just passed.

He still didn’t know where he was going, or what he was going to do. He was pacing all the corners of his mind, scanning through almost seven decades of experience and reading and listening, searching for weapons against an all-but unknown enemy.

He was going to need allies, he thought, as he turned into Jenkins Drive, which was empty apart from one Jack Russell terrier gnawing at something beside a front gate, several doors away. He was an old man, not a hero. But who was there that he could turn to?

His mind flicked through names and faces like a chess player considering his moves. Some were rejected in an instant. With others, he took a few moments before he hit on some fatal flaw. He was beginning to despair when he remembered a youngish man he had seen behind the bar of the Champion, only a few nights ago. A passably intelligent, imaginative-looking fellow. He looked hotheaded, too, and given to self-pity, but that didn’t matter all that much. What did matter was that he also looked as stubborn as a pitbull; the kind of man who would stick with a lost cause just to spite fate.

As soon as Toffee had decided that he was the first one he needed to find—Brendan, that was the chap’s name—the Jack Russell rushed towards him, barking like it was rabid. Toffee raised his cane instinctively, but when he looked down at the dog it almost dropped from his hand.

It was no ordinary dog, he saw. The Snowman had obviously not confined his acts of transmutation to the people in the assembly hall. And—whatever else might be said about the new would-be master of Higginstown—he obviously had a keen idea of poetic justice.

The thing had the body of a Jack Russell, but the face…the face was a horrible (who could ever describe how horrible?) cross between human and canine. It was bare of fur, and it had a tiny human nose and mouth. It bared baby-teeth at him, rather than fangs; the puniness of those teeth was both pathetic and horrible and once.

It snarled at him with more hatred and fear than any dog, no matter how vicious, could ever have achieved. Toffee recognised the face, even now. This thing had once been a rather sweet and eccentric boy, before he had plunged—or been pushed—into madness.

“Oh, Danny”, he said, sadly, but he kept his cane raised, and the dog cowered from it. “What happened to you?”.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Very Important Announcement

I've just decided my three favourite films of all time, as of now:

1) Groundhog Day (I can't see this ever changing, though who knows?)

2) You've Got Mail.

3) The Way, Way Back.

After that, there isn't really a clear number four.

I've heard that this sort of list-making is a very male thing. I'm not sure if that's the case. People are sometimes bemused at my own propensity to make lists like this, but I can't help it. They make themselves.

I think, at this stage in my life, I would describe my favourite sort of movie as "a realistic fairy tale". I want it to be set in the ordinary, everyday world (even if it involves the supernatural, like my favourite film) but to have as idealised a picture of that as possible. Although The Way, Way Back is fairly gritty in some ways, but ultimately I think it's an idyll.

Feel free to weigh in with your top three, top five or top ten movies....I'm always interested. (Why don't people make small talk about interesting things like this, rather than the weather or your route to work or what you had for lunch?)

Huffing and Puffing

I see from the front page of The Irish Times that the Government is planning on introducing plain packaging for cigarettes. This bothers me. I've never so much as taken a puff on a cigarette in my entire life, but I believe that the campaign against smoking has become excessive and hysterical.

That's not the main reason for my irritation, however. It's the fact that the two brands of advertising which had most going for them-- alcohol and tobacco advertising-- are being more and more suppressed, while the crassest and ugliest forms of advertising are allowed to proliferate simply because the products advertised are, supposedly, less detrimental to the public good.

Tobacco advertising was often highly tasteful and artistic. I remember, in college, writing an assignment about a magazine ad which showed an enormous packet of cigarettes floating in a park pond, while the usual strollers and dog-walkers passed by and stared at it with mild interest. It doesn't sound like a promising advertisement but it was surprisingly pleasing to the eye, and the captured a sedate 'morning in the park' atmosphere very skilfully. And the surrealism, instead of seeming bizarre and grating, was nicely done, almost like a Magritte painting. It all had a sepia-golden glow about it.

And, in general, tobacco advertising aimed for an image of refinement and distinction that gave rise to advertisements with rich colours, reflective atmospheres, and mellow imagery. There was rarely anything flashy or loud about it.

Cigarette packets, as well, are usually pleasing and restful to the eye. You'd think that would be the case with all packaging, which is after all intended to make us buy stuff. But it's not. (Or, rather, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. I like walking down the tea and coffee aisle in the supermarket, since the packaging of those products is so restrained and warm and cosy-looking, usually conveying an idyll of domesticity.) But a lot of packaging is hideous-- eye-bruising colours, cartoony pictures, no attempt even made at artistry or pleasantness.

And this is just packaging. TV and radio ads are often offensively crass and tacky. Why are betting shops allowed to advertise if tobacco manufacturers are forbidden? At least you get something if you buy cigarettes, or alcohol. Betting shops encourage people to almost literally throw away money. How is that socially desirable? And their advertising is much, much worse than cigarette and drink advertising.

Why is car advertising seen as morally unproblematic? How many people are killed in car crashes a year, and how many people are killed indirectly by the sedate lifestyle that driving encourages? Car ads usually appeal in the most vulgar and silly way to the most squalid sort of aspirations-- the desire for a status symbol, in particular. Car ads are odious.

All in all, why is advertising not considered more of a matter of public interest, and why do we confine our concern to the products advertised? A smoker is only harming himself, or (at most) those in his immediate vicinity. But we all suffer from tasteless and obtrusive advertising. I am not ant-advertising, but I think it deserves to be more of a matter for public debate.

My Letter in the Irish Times Today

Sir, – Donald Clarke’s latest column (“If you don’t approve of the church then don’t take part in its rituals”, Opinion & Analysis, June 7th), takes the guise of an appeal to his fellow unbelievers not to take part in the rituals of the Catholic Church if they don’t believe in them.

He does, however, manage to get in the usual sideswipes against the church, such as a passing mention of its “sex-hating doctrines”.

The Irish Times now has Fintan O’Toole, Donald Clarke and Eamon McCann serving up regular dollops of anti-Catholic and anti-Christian invective. All of this is “balanced” by the lone voice of Breda O’Brien.

Your newspaper has the right to take whatever editorial line it chooses, and your columnists have the right to express their opinions as they see fit.

However, if The Irish Times has any serious commitment to fairness, it must make more of an effort to represent the huge proportion of the Irish people who are not convinced by the rather hysterical polemics of Messrs O’Toole, Clarke and McCann. – Yours, etc,

MAOLSHEACHLANN

Ó CEALLAIGH,

Woodford Drive,

Clondalkin,

Dublin 22.

Here is the link.

It seems to me that that Irish anti-Catholicism is getting coarser and more stupid all the time. Fintan O'Toole is an old-school Irish anti-Catholic, perhaps in the style of a Sean O'Faolain-- cultured, educated, occasionally gracious, appreciative of the existential mysteries that organised religion seeks to address. At the bottom of the scale there's Donald Clarke, whose writing never shows the least flicker of originality or open-mindedness, or the slightest awareness that there are depths to the human condition that can't be captured in a slogan. I don't know where I'd put Eamon McCann.