Thursday, January 16, 2020

Ever-Decreasing Circles

I've been watching Ever-Decreasing Circles, a BBC situation comedy which ran from 1984 to 1989. It's set in the south of England, and its protagonist is a rather uptight, fussy, squeaky-clean suburbanite named Martin Bryce, played by Richard Briers (left, below). He's a narrow-minded man, but idealistic in his own manner-- to the point of absurdity, at times. (In one episode, he discovers that a public right-of-way, long forgotten, runs through his back garden-- and he insists on signposting it.)

The fuel for most of the stories is Martin's jealousy of Paul Ryman, his neighbour. Paul is an easygoing fellow who runs a hair salon, and who seems to be effortlessly proficient at just about everything. He's obviously fond of Martin, but can't help teasing and provoking him.

The main cast is completed by Martin's wife Ann, who sees the ridiculous side of her husband but remains devoted to him, and a couple named Howard and Hilda-- an absurdly lovey-dovey married couple, who take enormous pleasure from their spectacularly mundane lives, and who always wear matching knitted sweaters. For all of Martin's jealously of Paul, the five main characters seem to spend a great deal of their time together, often sitting together in the pub.

The show received good ratings-- twelve million people watched the last episode. However, it doesn't seem to have been repeated very often (if ever) despite being warmly regarded by anyone who has occasion to write about it.

Sometimes it's called a "dark" show. A Guardian retrospective (quoted on its Wikipedia page) says it had "a quiet, unacknowledged and deep-running despair to it that in retrospect seems quite daring." I think this is a huge exaggeration-- at best! In my view, the show is actually very upbeat, especially by the standards of British sit-coms. There is no real antagonist, and all of the characters are likeable and basically happy with their lives. Perhaps a Guadian reviewer is bound to see nothing but repression in stable marriages and ordinary routines? But, then again, that's not the only reference to the show's "darkness" I've come across. All I can say is that I don't see it myself.

It's by no means a hilarious show, or a classic of comedy-- it's no Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses, or Reggie Perrin. But I'd rate it above many British comedies which are more lauded-- Dad's Army, Last of the Summer Wine, The Vicar of Dibley, and so on. It's definitely in the top tier.

I've written about situation comedies on this blog before. I think the situation comedy is an admirable format, one that affords great scope for exploring the human condition and social history. Situation comedies have this advantage over movies and novels-- that, being episodic, they tend not to focus on some major crisis in a person's life. After all, most of life isn't a major crisis. Situation comedies tend to confine themselves to the broad plains of life, where most of it actually happens, as opposed to the heighest peaks and the lowest valleys. This makes them a celebration of the spaciousness of life.

I'm a big fan of English situation comedies especially, and part of this show's appeal to me is its very Englishness. Martin is an English archetype-- rather like a more assertive version of Charles Pooter from Diary of a Nobody. Other particularly English aspects include the English Civil War reenactment in the episode "Cavalers and Roundheads", and the many episodes set in an old-fashioned English pub-- all soft lights and brown, subdued furnishings.

Watching decades-old shows like this always fills me with a sense of nostalgia and anxiety. I'm not sure to what extent this is warranted, or to what extent it is exaggerated.

Sexual mores, for instance, seem to be in a permanent decline through the entire history of television-- a decline reflected in (and undoubtedly encouraged by) television shows. In Ever-Decreasing Circles, there is a constant playful flirtation between Martin's wife and Paul. In several episodes, however, it's shown that Paul (despite being something of a playboy) has not got the slightest intention of seducing her, and indeed greatly respects the integrity of the marriage. In at least two episodes, Howard and Hilda (who are usually comically pleasant) show a determination to shun one or other of the group when they believe adultery has taken place. Although this is portrayed rather comedically, they remain sympathetic characters, and there's no suggestion that they are bigots. On the other hand, when Martin is duped into believing that he has committed adultery (as a prank by a colleague), he offers his wife a divorce-- and this is shown as noble.

Here is another interesting aspect of the portrayal of Howard and Hilda-- although they are shown as blissfully happy, it's very much an old-fashioned marriage where the husband is the authority. In fact, Hilda is shown to be the one who insists on this, despite Howard's occasional reluctance. And this, too, is portrayed rather positively-- quaint, rather than demeaning.

When it comes to cultural standards, as well, I can't help detecting a decline when I watch television shows from previous decades. Again, I don't know if this is real of merely perceived. But, to take an example, in one episode Martin refers offhand to "that Pope" who persuaded Atilla the Hun to turn back from the gates of Rome. I was surprised to hear such a recondite reference-- at least, today I would consider it to be a recondite reference. Was it less so back when this episode was made, or did the scriptwriter just decided to throw it in despite being a recondite reference? It's hard to say.

The same applies to national and local distinctiveness. Do I see signs of their decline everywhere because I am so terrified of cultural homogenization? Or is it really happen? Or is it some combination?

In one pub scene in Ever-Decreasing Circles, the characters are shown to be waiting for the shove-ha'penny board to become available. Shove-ha'penny is a traditional English pub game-- I've never played it myself. When I encountered the reference to it in Ever- Decreasing Circles, I couldn't wondering if this would be a rather archaic reference today. And, indeed, this depressing report from 2009 seems to suggest this is true.

On the other hand, when I visited Tunbridge Wells last year, I was relieved to find that the "good old English boozer" still endures-- indeed, that many aspects of English life which I assumed to be on the way out seem to be in rude health.

So are my fears of cultural homogenization exaggerated? Is it simply that things change, as they have always changed? Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis (Times change, and we change with them) is an ancient proverb-- as well as being Jacob Rees-Mogg's first tweet.

But, even if things have always changed (as of course they have) is the pace of change in our era unusual and excessive?

Big questions, I know. At any rate, I can warmly recommend Ever-Decreasing Circles.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Christmas and New Year Memories

I hope everyone had a good Christmas and New Year.

I had a busy holiday period myself-- a lot of visiting and socialising, at least by my standards. It all seems quite frenetic in retrospect. The mound of books I took from the library went untouched, apart from the one I had already been reading (and that I'm still reading).

It was the first Christmas without my father, of course. I was saddened by that, but it wasn't crippling. I missed him much more in the New Year-- I found myself remembering how he would always say "Next year in Jerusalem". (I presume he simply meant it as an expression of hope for better times.) I said it myself, to continue the tradition.

I wrote this article for the Burkean, which pretty much encapsulates my attitude to Christmas.

I stayed with family in the West of Ireland for some of the holiday. As is often the case, there was an animated debate about religion and politics. Most of my family are left-wing, and look forward to the advent of socialism. I'm not particularly right-wing economically-- in fact, I could join with them in denouncing zero-hour contracts and the gig economy, and supporting nationalisation of utilities. The fault-line between us lay more in our different attitudes to human flourishing. They are more preoccupied with poverty and wealth, while I am more preocuppied with culture, tradition and spirituality.

Of course, bread and butter matters are very important. If you are homeless, getting a roof over your head takes priority over every other matter. Or, as James Connolly neatly put it, "You cannot teach starving men Gaelic."

However, I suppose I would differ from them is that I don't expect (or even aspire towards) a radical transformation of our society-- or rather, the basic institutions of our society. I expect that more would be lost than gained by such a transformation. Nor am I opposed to inequality per se. People talk about a "level playing field", but I am rather of the opinion that "out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be built"-- in fact, I think crooked timber is much more human and comfortable than straight planes. Of course, there are exceptions to this, such as the presumption of innocence in court cases, or the "one man, one vote" system of democracy.

I cherish the vision of Eamon De Valera: "The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit."

I travelled to the West of Ireland on the train, something I greatly relish. I adore trains and everything to do with them, but they were missing from my life for several years. In the last year, I've had a few train journeys and they've always inspired and excited me.

What is it about trains? I've thought and thought about this. Partly it is the seriousness, the purposefulness of rail travel. Trains have their own culture, their own ceremony, their own language. "The train now waiting on platform two...mind the gap...we will shortly be arriving in..." There's also a heaviness to rail travel that I enjoy. I like the thrum-thrum-thrum (or perhaps chug-chug-chug?) that is always in the background as you move. There's something exciting about it, and it fills me with excitement for life itself. I feel I am going somewhere and that life is an adventure.

I enjoy reading on a train, but must admit that I've been frustrated in my recent attempts to do so. Strangers keep talking to me. I find this rather charming in itself, but I would rather read my book. This last time, it was two elderly men sitting opposite us; one who was a fount of knowledge but rather cagey about his own views, and another who had lived into his eighties despite regularly drinking eight pints and nine whiskies, and despite having suffered two heart attacks. He was keen to let us know he disbelieved in all religions, especially after I mentioned I was a conservative Catholic.

On Christmas Eve, myself and my wife observed the Italian-American tradition of The Feast of the Seven Fishes. Regular readers will know how much I relish traditions, and can imagine how eagerly I embraced this one. We had Christmas FM on most of the time, playing seasonal standards. I think it will be weeks before "Feliz Navidad" stops running through my head.

We watched a lot of Christmas movies, as well-- and had them on TV while doing Christmassy things, such as wrapping gifts and putting up decorations.  I was surprised to see that many Christmas movies (shown on the Sony Christmas channel) are explicitly, and even earnestly, Christian. For instance, Wish for Christmas (2016) shows the dire consequences when a vapid pretty girl wishes her parents' Christian faith away, and Christmas Grace (2013) is a tale of redemption concerning two toyshop owners, one of whom is a Christian. Both films were quite corny and cartoonish, but they were also touching and sincere. I think Catholics, especially European Catholics, are sometimes unduly harsh towards mainstream American Christianity. American Christians evangelize the culture in a way that seems to have no parallel elsewhere.

I got a cloth cap from Santa Claus-- what I call a Paddy-cap and my wife calls a "newsie" hat. I was very pleased with this.

At a New Year's party, I recited "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe. I was disappointed, again, that nobody really seemed to listen to the poetry itself-- they applaud the feat of recitation, but say nothing about the poem.

A few hours before, I had the most extraordinary experience. "Live and Let Die" (the James Bond film) was on the television. I was preparing to go to the New Year's Eve drinks, and basically pottering from room to room. Suddenly, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer excitement of life. Images were swarming in my mind-- James Bond, Carry On movies, my horror club, the Christmas crib in a cathedral I had prayed in a few days before, Walker: Texas Ranger, Christmas trees, the train journey to visit my relatives, the bar in Wynne's Hotel in Abbey Street where I'd had a hot chocolate days before.... I found myself feeling a great gusto for life, a tremendous enthusiasm for the decade about to start. Every now and again the sheer richness and privilege of life hits me with this kind of force. Who knows where the great locomotive of history is going to take us all next?

Monday, December 23, 2019

Happy Christmas

I don't expect I'll be posting again until the New Year, so let me wish a very happy Christmas to everyone who reads this blog.

I'm hugely thankful to everybody who reads, comments, contacts me privately, prays for me, and so on.

People keep saying to me this year: "It's going to be very hard without your father at Christmas". It certainly adds a tinge of melancholy to all the Christmas rituals. But it's not as bitter as I feared. In fact, it gives me some comfort to include him. We said a prayer for him as we decorated the tree this year, so that he remained a part of it.

The prose-poem "Death is Nothing At All" by Henry Scott Holland (actually a passage from a sermon), which is often read at funerals, includes these lines which always bring a tear to my eye, and which I enthusiastically affirm with my own heart: Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.

My father loved Christmas traditions, and this blog has its own; my favourite Christmas poem, "The Burning Babe" by the Jesuit poet and martyr Robert Southwell, who was executed in 1595.
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I calléd unto mind that it was Christmas day.

I wrote at length about the poem here. (I must admit the metrically awkward sixth line still makes me wince.)

There is an excellent reading of the poem in this YouTube video.

 Nollaigh shona daoibh go léir!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

On The Spaciousness of Life

So Harold Wilson Day comes round again, now the fiftieth anniversary of Mr Wilson’s appointment by Her Majesty as Prime Minister. I can remember the day, and this is odd because 16th October 1964 is as distant in time from me (as I now am) as 16th October 1914 was from me (as I then was). Even then, the first year of the Great War seemed impossibly distant, a separate age in which men and customs were hardly recognizable. Half a century was far wider than the widest ocean. I could not have begun, as a 12-year-old boy at a boarding prep school on the edge of Dartmoor, to imagine my present self, the country and the world I live in or the things I would have done and seen. The distance is vast in both directions. Life is not short at all. It is astonishingly long.

Peter Hitchens's Blog, 16th October 2014

The above quotation, merely a passing remark by Peter Hitchens, is perhaps the only reference I've ever encountered to something that has struck me for as long as I can remember-- the extraordinary spaciousness and the sheer length of life.

It's true that some lives, tragically, are very short. None of my own five children ever saw the light of day. Untold millions have died in infancy, and in early childhood.

But even as soon as a person emerges from early childhood, life has already spanned an extraordinary number of days, hours, moments, experiences.

It's a commonplace that, when a person looks back at their childhood, it often seems like one never-ending summer's day. I remember, when I was a child, my own past seemed to stretch behind me like a glimmering landscape. Nor can I smile indulgently at this thought, from my perspective today. A child has already lived a long time.

And I had a lively sense of this even as a child. It's hard to put into words, but I can remember frequently being surprised by the thought: "What? There's more?". Life felt like a bag which magically had no bottom.

What else did I expect? Obviously, I knew that the average lifespan extended way beyond what I had already experienced. It's not that I expected to die in my sleep before I reached my teens. It was more a surprise at the abundance of life than the length of it.

One memory in particular occurs to me, in this regard. I could have been anything from three to seven years old, I guess. It was a Saturday morning-- at least, it was a morning with no school.

There was some kind of cartoon on the television which was rather exotic or unusual. Perhaps it was a foreign cartoon, or one based on some work of literature of folklore. It seemed to go on and on, and it jarred me out of my sense of routine. I was sitting on the backboard of the couch, and people were coming and going. Nobody was in a hurry and the morning, just like the cartoon, seemed to stretch on endlessly.

I had a very strong sense, at that moment, of the indeterminacy of family life. What is the purpose of a family? Well, just to be, it seemed. School was for learning, and the hospital was where you went when you were sick, and buses were for getting somewhere, but home-- home was just home.

New stuff kept happening-- stuff that was not expected, or scheduled, or similar to what had happened in the past. Life continued to overflow, to cascade over my existing categories.

This sense of the abundance of life, its overflow, is captured with uncanny accuracy in Louis MacNeice's famous poem, "Snow", especially the middle verse:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

"More of it than we think". Indeed! It's the unthinkability of life that intrigues me and captivates me. It's impossible to survey it, or to get it into one mental frame. Indeed, only a vanishingly tiny fraction of it can be fitted into one's mind at any given time.

I wrote this blog post, many years ago, in an effort to convey something of this sense-- I simply listed many of my own experiences, big and small. It was one of my more well-received posts, in the early years of this blog. (Even my wife liked it, and she can be an exacting critic of my writing.)

I think television and advertising are particularly effective at conveying this sense. One of the reasons I love situation comedies is because they make hay out of life's variety-- especially its mundane variety. (The first example that occurs to me is an episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads in which the two title characters are trying to avoid hearing the result of an England football game, before they watch it on the television.)

But I still feel like I haven't expressed the wonder and strangeness of the thing. Like all great themes, it is impossible to exhaust it.

I like to think of everything that an ordinary human life encompasses. We have all been sick; we have all gone through fads and phases; we have all built model airplanes, or model towns, or model something-or-others; we have all jumped in puddles as children; we have all experienced infatuations; we have all had to wait unreasonable amounts of time in airports, or government offices, or hospitals; we have all woken up from bad dreams; we have all had tricks played on us; we have all been down dark alleys; and so on, and so on, for this list could be extended forever...

And what is true of an individual life is even more true of human life, seen as a whole. The famous motto of the News of the World, "All human life is there", has always thrilled me. So have the oft-quoted words of John Dryden, on The Canterbury Tales: "Here is God's plenty."

Perhaps the best way to experience "God's plenty" is to browse a bookshelf, especially in  a second-hand bookshop. Here is a book about stamp collecting, here, an anthology of amusing epitaphs; here, a critical work on the plays of Samuel Beckett; here, The Book of Mormon; here, a collection of political cartoons from the nineteen-eighties; here, a book of golfing anecdotes.

This rejoicing in the abundance of life is one of the reasons I am a traditionalist, and a nationalist, and a social conservative. Life is bewitchingly diverse even at its most monotonous. But why should we let it become more monotonous? Why should we not strive to preserve the differences?

National differences, for instance. National differences give rise to an endless range of other differences; national cuisine, national humour, national literature, national sports, national habits, national politics, and (once again) so on, and so on, and so on. What beautiful words, "and so on!" Eroding national differences made be done in the name of greater diversity within that nation-- but, as many people have pointed out, the diversity between nations, which seems a more meaningful diversity, is reduced.

Fifty million people, when divided into a multiplicity of languages and cultures and political systems, enrich the world more than fifty million people living the same way of life. A house is made bigger, more spacious, by being broken into rooms.

Then there is the difference between men and women. How many poems, songs stories, jokes, dances, customs, and so on, have been generated by this difference? Given this, how can anyone wish to diminish the difference between men and women? Even when it is a matter of correcting an inequity, is it so unreasonable to ask whether the correction might bring more loss than gain into the world-- into the drama and colour and variety of life?

Then there are traditions; Christmas, Halloween, sporting events, general elections, April Fool's Day, Guy Fawkes Day, Thanksgiving-- these also throw additional flavour into the mix of life, creating associations and atmospheres all their own. This is why I am such a fervent advocate of traditions. I think they make life bigger, wider, more spacious.

But enough. My theme has defeated me. The spaciousness of life is a subject too spacious for my keyboard.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

My Submission on Hate Speech

Here is my submission to the public consultation on the proposed hate speech legislation.

Tomorrow is the last day to make your submission, and you can (and should) do so here.

A chara

I would like to make a submission to the consultation on the introduction of legislation on hate speech. I have read the document "Review of the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989".

In my view the 1989 Act is a sufficient safeguard against one person's free speech impeding on another person's rights-- indeed, I believe it already goes too far.

Of course there is no absolute right to free speech. Few people would claim that there is such a thing. But the restrictions on free speech must be severely limited themselves, and should especially not be open to abuse by the powerful, or by any faction. The term "hate" (which your document specifies is used in its ordinary sense in the 1989 Act) is vague enough to allow virtually any application. It is all too easy for disagreement to be branded as "hate", especially as a tactic to silence one side of a debate. And we see this happening time and time again.

The same problem would apply to any alternative term, such as those the document suggests-- hostility and prejudice.

Your document complains that there have been too few prosecutions under the 1989 Act. This is a rather chilling attitude to take. Is the government actually looking for an excuse to suppress free speech, and seeking a legal instrument to use in doing so? Surely it is a good thing that few individuals have been found guilty of incitement to hatred?

Let us turn to the basic premise that "hate" should be open to prosecution.

One of the founders of this Republic, Patrick Pearse, very famously said: "I hold it a Christian thing, as O'Donovan Rossa held it, to hate evil, to hate untruth, to hate oppression, and, hating them, to strive to overthrow them." The Act prohibits incitement to hatred against a group on the grounds of race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origins, membership of the travelling community or sexual orientation. Is it really the case that no reasonable, fair, responsible criticism might be made against perceived tendencies amidst such groups? Are not white people routinely held up for criticism in the media, for instance? Is the same not true of Catholics, and of men? I personally think such criticism goes too far, and is indeed "likely to stir up hatred". All the same, I believe the authors of such criticism should have an absolute right to express it.

Let's take some examples. I am a conservative Catholic male. I can easily imagine a militant feminist atheist launching a tirade against Catholics as such, and against men as such. Indeed, they are published daily. Should this be prohibited? Absolutely not.

It is entirely reasonable and legitimate to address criticism (or even hostility) towards a group, even when it is addressed to "fundamental aspects of a person’s identity which cannot or should not be changed or concealed".

To take my own example again. I am a Catholic, and my religion comes under the heading of categories protected by the current Incitement to Hatred Act. Your document suggests my religion is an aspect of my identity which "cannot or should not be changed". I agree, given my own beliefs, that my religion should not be changed. However, is is really unreasonable for an anti-religious atheist to disagree with this? Shouldn't such an atheist have a right to try to change my religion, even if it involves expressing a hateful attitude to that religion? Of course he should.

Similarly, shouldn't a Muslim or a Jehovah's Witness or an Evengelical Christian have the same right: to seek to change my religion, even if in doing so he express a hatred of the Catholic Church? Of course he should. An Evengelical Christian who believes the Catholic Church is leading innumerable souls to Hell is, by his own lights, demonstrating love and concern to Catholics in denouncing it.

The examples I have taken deliberately run against the grain of most discourse on "hate speech". For everybody knows that this legislation will be used to target particular viewpoints and groups: namely, conservative Christians, social conservatives, nationalists critical of mass immigration, critics of Islam, and so forth. There is such a wide scope for interpretation of the term "hate" that it makes such abuse inevitable, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that this is the very purpose.

There should be no legislation against "hate speech" or "hate crime". Laws against explicit incitement to violence, and against violence itself, should be entirely sufficient in themselves

If a man calls for another man's face to be punched, and a third man acts on the suggestion, the situation can be judged without any reference to colour, nationality, religion, race, sexuality or membership of the travelling community. If a man calls for the faces of a whole group to be punched, the same should apply. Should it matter whether that group consists of Christians, Greenlanders, red-heads, or disco dancers?

Any expression of animosity short of explicit incitement to violence should not be legislated against at all, and should fall within the category of free speech.

I oppose this propose legislation with all my heart. I think it would be the most oppressive legislation in the history of the State. If such legislation is introduced, I hope that it is rendered unworkable by popular opposition.

Many thanks

Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Advent and Excitement

Christmas is a time of excitement. 

In my late teens, I felt rather ashamed to be so excited about Christmas. I thought It was time to grow up, to become blasé about a season that was really meant for kids, after all.

Thankfully, I'm long past that. I realize now that the excitement of Christmas always went deeper than Santa Claus and gifts and holidays.

Excitement seems to be intrinsic to the season. The very air seems shivery and tingly. The glow of lights against the darkness seem to be announcing something, promising something.

The world honours Advent even without using the name. This is a time of anticipation, of joyful waiting, of vigil.

I've known sad and lonely Christmases-- or, at least, Christmases where I felt sad and lonely. This sense of excitement is still there. It's something outside ourselves and our particular situation in any given year.

This sense is most palpable in Advent, but I think it's always there in human life-- that it underlies the human condition itself.

Human beings seem to be oriented towards something wonderful, something beyond wonderful. I think this is at the root of all utopianism and all revolutionary ardour. It is a misdirection of a cosmic longing towards the realm of the merely political.

Tennyson wrote of: "That far-off, divine event to which the whole creation moves". I'm not sure this sense has ever been better described.

Pope Benedict wrote: "Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched…"

Perhaps C.S. Lewis had the greatest success in trying to convey this excitement, especially in his celebrated homily "The Weight of Glory". Elsewhere, Lewis evoked it thus: "The longing for that unnameable something, the desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of, The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves."

We find a refraction of this yearning in romantic love, and the desire for romantic love. Don't most people yearn to give themselves utterly to some other human being? But, even when we attain this, we realize it is beckoning us on to something even greater.

We find it in art, and patriotism, and our life's work, and in a multitude of other things. But always it seems to be pointing onwards, ever onwards.

The Old Testament is a book full of breathless excitement and extravagant imagery, especially in the readings from Isaiah that we hear at Advent. It all ends in the Nativity scene-- a climax that seems disappointing, in human terms, but that actually exceeds all that was promised by the prophets.

And here, too, the excitement is not once-for-all but expanding, deepening, promising ever more.