Saturday, December 28, 2013

Words Alone are Certain Good

W.B. Yeats wrote:

THE woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy;
Yet still she turns her restless head:
But O, sick children of the world,
Of all the many changing things
In dreary dancing past us whirled,
To the cracked tune that Chronos sings,
Words alone are certain good.

I first read those lines as a seventeen-year-old for whom poetry-- the reading of it, and the writing of it-- was the most important thing in the world, a religion rather than a hobby. I accepted their truth passionately and they became one of my mottoes. (I always had a ton of mottoes at any one time.)

Now, they seem ridiculous to me on a rational level. Words alone are certain good? What about sunlight, laughter, sea-spray, a full moon, humility, the crinkle of silver paper, cinema? What kind of life-hating asceticism posits a medium of communication as the only good?

I've always had this leaning. I have to admit (to my shame) that when I first read about the church-wrecking thugs of the English Reformation, I found something to admire in them. Yes (something deep inside me said), whitewash over all the murals! Smash the stained glass! Break the statues! More glory to the Word of God, to the written word (even if I wasn't so sure it was the word of God at all). I thought it was a positive thing for a culture to draw away from those other ways of representation and concentrate upon writing. I was proud of Ireland for being a country so intensely devoted to the written word (and, before that, to the spoken word.)

Now I see the stupidity of this attitude. Now, I see the church-wrecking thugs of the English Reformation to have been nothing but the purest vandals and yahoos. And I see that the intensified focus upon the Bible which came in with the English Reformation-- which was, indeed, something real-- was ultimately transitory, since the Bible cannot be understood in a vacuum, and Bible study alone cannot replace the lived worship of sacrament and devotion. As St. Augustine said: "I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me".

My sympathy with the iconoclasts was rooted in a reaction that has caused people to reject some element of Catholicism's intricate mysteries and magisterial teaching again and again-- the craving (latent in every human breasts, and often overwhelming) for simplification. So much about Catholicism offends that puritanical attitude within us-- an attitude which is, I think, partly aesthetic-- which hankers for simple and elegant explanations, and simple theories, and simple ways of looking at the world.

I had an email debate, lasting more than a year, with a fellow Catholic who was also a proponent of the free market. He simply waved aside the Church's social teaching and insisted it was not binding upon the faithful. Now, I am always wary of describing my own part in a debate, since people always seem to portray themselves as having crushed every one of their opponent's arguments and left him grasping hopelessly for words. I won't claim that I won this debate (although I thought I did-- but then, I thought I was right in the first place, so I would think that, wouldn't I?)

But what was extraordinary was the sheer passion that my opponent had invested in his beliefs. He was really getting worked up about the matter and the debate descended into sharp exchanges on more than one occasion. (I am happy to say that we are on good terms again, now, though it only happened through letting the matter drop and resuming our correspondence later without either of us mentioning it.)

The other thing that struck me about his side of the debate was the frequency with which he returned to this argument-- "Capitalism is based upon the idea of contract, freely entered into. Nobody would enter into a contract unless it was to their advantage. Therefore, every act of capitalism is to the benefit of both parties, by definition. Everybody wins, nobody loses."

Now, I hope the flaws in that argument jump out at the reader. But that doesn't mean that I don't acknowledge its tremendous strength. Like all fallacies, it contains a big dollop of truth. I am not a cheerleader for capitalism, but that is the truly great thing about capitalism, for all its drawbacks-- that, all things being equal, you have to please the customer to survive.

But I only mention the debate at all as an illustration. I became convinced that my friend was under the sway of this idea-- that it had seized his imagination, with its sheer simplicity and apparent ability to explain all economic behaviour, its promise of simply cutting through so many Gordian knots like the proverbial knife through hot butter.

I need hardly go on to list all the other ideological monomanias that might be motivated by this urge for simplification. I often think that, though Occam's razor-- that is, the preference of a simple explanation over a complex one-- might be a valid principle when it comes to science and physics, the very opposite principle should apply when it comes to all-embracing theories of the human condition and of human society-- and still more, when it comes to sacred things.

But even that is something of a diversion. What I really meant to write about in this post was that, as I lay in bed this morning, I found Yeats's words coming to my mind and couldn't help seeing a nugget of truth in them-- at least, for me. Words alone are certain good. I felt the emphasis upon the "certain". I've been having a wonderful Christmas, but this morning I found myself suffering that strange dizziness I always feel when I haven't written or read much in a few days.

I have come to agree with Samuel Johnson when he wrote, "I am not yet so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of men, and things are the sons of heaven". And yet, raw reality has this disadvantage over writing, and reading-- it is fuzzy, and blurry, and shimmering, and impossible to really seize hold of with both hands. Indeed, life would be a mean business if it was not so mercurial and overflowing and elusive. But a few days of all reality, and of little writing or reading, leaves me feeling cruelly disorientated, and craving the straightforwardness of words on a page.

And now that I have taken a deep pull on my inhaler, I can go back to my Christmas, which has (as I say) been wonderful. It has so far included midnight Mass in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, a church which manages to be grand and compact at the same time. It included a strangely pleasant spell waiting at the boarding gate in JFK airport and watching the customers in a bar right beside it, and looking at the Christmas Eve Mass coverage on the bar television (subtitles handily included, as it was inaudible). Nobody was watching it, but it made me happy that it was on.

It included all the joys of my first married Christmas with Michelle, which seem too manifold and too private to chronicle in detail. But I can't help sharing my excitement about a couple of the Christmas gifts that my dear wife generously gave me. (Yeah, I know Christmas is not about gifts, but these were amazing gifts.)

One is an unbreakable set of metal rosary beads, as supplied to US soldiers by Catholic chaplains (and based on a design by the US Army in World War Two). I have gone through so many rosary beads it's ridiculous, and I find its next to impossible to get a good strong set. You can get a big set, but it's no more likely to be strong. I hope to have these beads to the day I die.

As I hope to have the second gift I can't help mentioning-- a Nativity scene snow globe that captured my heart the moment I saw it. I love snowglobes, and this is the greatest snowglobe I've ever seen. It's nice and big-- my palm would not fit around the globe itself. It's glass rather than plastic. It's set upon a serious-looking pedestal. And the figures are very artistically rendered. (How often have you shuddered at a bad representation of Our Lady?) It shows the manger, Our Lady, St. Joseph, Our infant Lord, a rather happy-looking cow, and a boyish shepherd on his knees.

Its absolutely wonderful, and when Michelle was buying it, a few people in the shop said: "If you decide you don't want it, we'll have it." Sure they would have!

Well, that's me for now. I hope you are all having a wonderful Christmas. Let's keep the twelve days alive!

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Ongoing Scandal of Altar Girls

I just came across this posting on a Catholic forum I sometimes visit:

***The pope called a Synod of Bishops in 1985 to re-assess Vatican II. As I recall they gave a significant thumbs up for the Council. And to my thinking the Pope took more seriously HIS DUTY TO IMPLEMENT VATICAN II.***

And so he yielded to the new teaching (contrary to tradition) of collegiality. Thus he yielded to the bishops when they requested ALTAR GIRLS BE PERMITTED. This was followed within the Church by the abuse (it was not permitted then) of Communion in the Hand. Then when the bishops asked the Holy Father to give approval for Communion in the Hand, he again yielded, while stating "I PERSONALLY AM OPPOSED TO COMMUNION IN THE HAND".

And so, to my thinking, canonization of Pope John XXIII and of Pope John Paul II would be a canonization of Vatican II, and so help significantly to keep the liberals and modernists greatly influential in ruling the Church.

Am I a bad Catholic, that I can't get worked up about this, and that I find such agitation deeply amusing? I receive on the tongue myself but I don't get worked up into a tizzy about people receiving in the hand. As for altar girls, I honestly don't see the harm. If someone makes a compelling argument against them, I would nod my head and say "OK".

I'm not saying liturgy is not important. It is massively important. But this kind of obsessiveness, with all its screaming capital letters, just seems ridiculous to me.

Monday, December 23, 2013

And One More Thing....The Spooky Seasonal Stocking-Filler I Promised

Nightmare Fifty: To Santa or Not To Santa

“Oh, not Santa Claus again” groaned Roger, covering his face with his hands. “Every year. Every single year.”

“The kids are growing up now—“, started Elizabeth, but Susan interrupted her.

“They’re at the critical phase now, Elizabeth”, said Susan, with a weak smile. She found Elizabeth very trying. How did Mark find himself lumbered with such a goose? He deserved better. “Do you want to let religion and superstition in the back door? If you plant Santa Claus in their heads, that’s what’s going to happen.”

“It’s only a tradition”, said Elizabeth, in a small voice. She was intimidated by Susan. She was so smart; an engineering professor. They were all so smart. Elizabeth felt out of her depth. “I don’t want to take the magic out of their childhood.”

“But that’s the problem, isn’t it?”, asked Terry, with his patient smile. “Magic. Are we really going to cripple their imaginations by making them think that the only source of wonder, the only source of awe, is magic? That reality itself can’t be full of marvel?”

Is there in truth no beauty?”, murmured Susan, in a singsong voice that told Elizabeth it was a quotation.

“George Herbert”, said Roger, with a self-satisfied grin.

God, they were all so smart. They were all professors and research scientists and senior civil servants. She was the only trustee of the Huxley School who didn’t have a degree. Probably the only one who didn’t have a PhD.

She tackled Mark about it when they got home.

“Let the school do what it wants”, she said, pouring a coffee for each of them. “We don’t have to follow, do we? I mean, they’re the ones who are always talking about free thought, and the independence of the mind. Honey, let’s have Santa Claus. Isobel is five years old. It didn’t matter so much until now…”

“It’s more than just a school, dear heart”, said Mark, running his fingers along her cheek, and staring into her eyes. “It’s an experiment.”

“An experiment with your daughter?”, asked Elizabeth.

“Don’t put it like that”, said Mark, with a reproachful look. “Lizzie, do you want us to take Isobel out of the Huxley School?”

“No”, said Elizabeth, quickly, looking down. “No, I want her to stay. We’d never get her into another school like that. And she’s made friends. But…”

“But”, said Mark, gently, “if we keep her in it, we have to keep to the spirit of the school. How would it work if Isobel were to tell her friends what she was getting from Santa Claus”—he couldn’t keep the disdain from his voice as he spoke the name—“and all the other kids went home and asked their parents why Santa didn’t visit them?

“Oh, it just seems so wrong, though”, said Elizabeth, struggling to keep from sobbing. “I mean, not letting them have normal books, and not letting them watch cartoons or kids’ programmes, not even letting them mix with ordinary kids. You all talk about how people are tricked and deluded. But who’s deluding who? Who’s keeping who in the dark?”

There was silence for a few moments, and Elizabeth looked away from her husband. She had never gone so far before.

“I’m sorry you feel like that, Lizzie”, said Mark, his voice colder now. “There’s a certain validity to what you say. We are censoring them. But what parent doesn’t censor what their kids are exposed to? Would you let Isobel watch a Rambo film, or a dirty movie? Of, course not. But religion and superstition are just as poisonous. Worse. The real pity is that society is so rotten with it, so that we’re forced to take these drastic steps. Let them grow up free of all that junk. They’ll meet it soon enough.”

“It’s just Santa Claus”, said Elizabeth, almost whispering. “It’s just a story.” She put her coffee down on the sideboard and walked towards the kitchen door.

“Lizzie—“ began Mark, in an exasperated voice.

“Don’t worry”, said Elizabeth. “I’m not going to corrupt your daughter.”

* * * * *
Isobel was sitting up in bed, reading her picture book, The Life of a Tree. It was one of the “good” books Mark had bought for her.

“How is the greatest little girl in the world?”, asked Elizabeth, ruffling her black curls.

Isobel looked up anxiously. “I don’t have to go to sleep yet, do I?”, she asked.

“No, butterfly”, said Elizabeth, perching herself on the side of the bed. “Not yet. How was school today? Tell Mommy.”

“It was OK”, said Isobel. “Mommy, who is the red man? The one we’re not supposed to know about?”

“What red man?”, asked Elizabeth, alarmed and hopeful at once.

“The red man that walks around the school”, said Isobel. “He says we’re not to tell anybody about him. He says it’s his school.”

“What does he look like?”, asked Elizabeth, entirely alarmed now.

“Horrible”, said Isobel, in a soft voice. “He has horns.”


Nightmare Fifty-One: Christmas Morning

Arnold had done his best to keep awake, but by three o’ clock he was breathing softly, one leg jutting out from his Perry the Pirate duvet. Above him, on the wall, a Christmas Countdown chart that he had made himself had crosses in red marker through all the boxes up to December the Twenty-Fourth.

Arnold was dreaming about a Makemate model of Victoria train station. He had been dreaming about it, waking and sleeping, for six weeks now.

Then there was a tapping on the window.

Arnold was a light sleeper. It didn’t take long for his eyes to open. When they did, his heart began to pound

Santa Claus was outside his window, crouched on the ledge.

Arnold was eight years old. He was a bright boy, the top of his class in school, the sort of kid who’d rather construct a model airplane than play with action figures or watch cartoons. But it had never occurred to him to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. He believed everything his parents told him.

He pulled the duvet back, slide from the bed, and hurried towards the window.

Santa Claus was raising a finger to his lips.

Gently, Arnold slid back the hasp of the window, pulled it open, and drew back the thick wine-coloured curtains.

Santa climbed through, slowly. He was dressed just as Arnold had always imagined him, in a bright scarlet suit lined with snowy white fur. His boots were a gleaming back, his beard was as long and as white as any child could demand, and he slung a big green sack over his shoulder.

But he wasn’t as fat as he was in pictures. He had a bulging stomach, but he didn’t have a fat face. Arnold could see that, in spite of the enormous beard.

And he didn’t seem jolly, like Arnold had imagined him, although he was smiling. He seemed nervous. He tiptoed forward and sat on the bed, so gently that the springs barely creaked.

“Happy Christmas, Arnold”, he whispered.

“Happy Christmas…Santa Claus”, said Arnold, also whispering. He was staring at the green sack.

“Arnold”, said Santa Claus, leaning closer towards him. “You’re going to a Christmas Party tomorrow, aren’t you?”

“Yeah”, said Arnold. He could smell Santa Claus’s sweat. “Uncle Oliver’s Christmas party.”

“Uncle Oliver”, said Santa Claus. A broad smile spread across his face, but it wasn't a happy or a friendly smile. “Yes, good old Uncle Oliver. What a wonderful man! A famous man! Arnold, I have a present for you to give to dear Uncle Oliver.”

Santa Claus turned around and reached into his green sack. Arnold wondered if it was a magic sack, because he didn’t have to rummage around at all before he drew out a small parcel wrapped with silver and red striped wrapping paper.

Arnold reached out to take it, but Santa Claus drew it back and raised a warning finger.

“This is a very special present, Arnold”, he said. “It’s extremely important. You must promise me three things, three very important things. You must promise me you won’t open it yourself. It’s only for Uncle Oliver to open.”

“I promise”, said Arnold, peering at the present. The words Uncel Oliver were written on a label on the side, in wobbly writing. Why would Santa Claus spell uncle wrong?

“And you mustn’t mention it to your parents. It’s a surprise, Arnold. Put it in your pocket before you go. Surprises are fun, aren’t they?”

Arnold nodded. Surprises were fun.

“And you have to pretend it’s from you. Grown-ups aren’t meant to get presents from Santa Claus. They get embarrassed. Can you promise me all those things?”

“Yes”, said Arnold, eagerly. “I promise.”

Santa Claus smiled at him, pleased, but a moment later his expression changed to one of horror. And he wasn't looking at Arnold any more. He was staring over Arnold’s shoulder.

Arnold turned around, and cried out in surprise at what he saw.

Another Santa Claus was standing in the middle of the room. But this one looked much more like the Santa Claus in pictures. He was the fattest man Arnold had ever seen; he seemed to fill the whole room. His face was flushed red, his silvery beard reached almost to the ground, and his pink skin seemed to glow.

And this Santa Claus didn't look nervous, or unhappy. Arnold had never seen anyone who looked as merry and as full of joy. It made him want to laugh out loud for sheer happiness.

He turned back to look at the first Santa Claus, and was surprised to see that he didn't look at all pleased to see the newcomer. He had dropped the present on the bed, and was stepping back towards the far wall, his eyes fixed on the fatter Santa. He looked terrified.

But somehow-- and he could never have explained this feeling-- Arnold felt that, if he was the first Santa, he would be scared too.

“Ho, ho, ho!”, cried the second Santa Claus. “Ho, ho, ho!”

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Happy Christmas

I would like to wish all my readers, who I also consider my friends, a happy Christmas full of sweet memories. I probably won't be posting again until after Christmas Day at least (except that remaining festive horror story, which I promise won't be contrary to the good cheer suited to the season).

I also want to thank you for reading. I am never happier than when I am writing and the fact that people read this blog means a lot to me. Nothing in my life requires less motivation than writing this blog. I'm always getting ideas for articles and sketching them out in my head before I even sit down at the computer.

Thanks particularly to everyone who comments, and to those who have responded to my requests for prayer. I often pray for the readers of this blog, both in general and in particular.

Nollaig shona daoibh!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Not Sure What I Think About This

From The Post-Christian Mind by Harry Blamires:

We are always hearing that someone has found himself or herself, got to know himself or herself, learned to live with himself or herself. On all sides people are prating about someone discovering their 'identity', as though one could help having one. A figure famous in the eyes of the media's public will explain how, after some remarkable experience and as a result of some mighty effort, 'I found out who I really am'. Most of us acquire this knowledge before nursery school age. Incidentally, the Christian call to lose oneself stands at the very opposite pole of experience to these truly meaningless slogans.

Of course, Blamire is right to insist upon the death to self, which is a central tenet of Christianity. "He must increase, but I must decrease". "And I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me." "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit."

And yet, I must admit I'd be rather sad if I thought that the whole business of "finding yourself" or "discovering yourself" was nonsensical and anti-Christian. The least you can say for it is that it implies that the meaning of life is something that's not obvious, that requires some exploration and effort to find. In other words, that life has depths, and isn't simply what we see, hear, touch, taste and smell-- not simply what can be stated as a matter of physical or economic or social fact. That the spiritual is real.

I like what Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

...Suppose a person who knew nothing about salt. You give him a pinch to taste and he experiences a particular strong, sharp taste. You then tell him that in your country people use salt in all their cookery. Might he not reply ‘In that case I suppose all your dishes taste exactly the same: because the taste of that stuff you have just given me is so strong that it will kill the taste of everything else.’ But you and I know that the real effect of salt is exactly the opposite. So far from killing the taste of the egg and the tripe and the cabbage, it actually brings it out. They do not show their real taste till you have added the salt. (Of course, as I warned you, this is not really a very good illustration, because you can, after all, kill the other tastes by putting in too much salt, whereas you cannot kill the taste of a human personality by putting in too much Christ. I am doing the best I can.)

It is something like that with Christ and us. The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of ‘little Christs’, all different, will still be too few to express Him fully.

(Conversely, I remember noticing in college that "free thinkers" always seemed to think in exactly the same way. And isn't it notorious how all abstract art and experimental literature-- obsessed as it is by rejecting the stultifying weight of the past, and tradition, and convention-- is drearily samey?)

I delight in films like Regarding Henry or The Vow that are about a quest of self-discovery. I adore stories about people seeking meaning in their lives, or reconnecting with their past. I like characters like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation or Seven of Nine of Star Trek: Voyager who are seeking to find an identity. As drama, it is both inexpressibly poignant and endlessly compelling.

I think also of Pope Benedict's electrifying words:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? . . . No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.

Don't all of us, as Catholics, feel the frustration of trying to explain that the Faith is not a strait-jacket, a dead end, a mental prison, but rather the very opposite of all these things? That "thinking with the Church" is exactly what stops us from nose-diving into all the boring and futile pits-- cynicism, nihilism, Pollyanna-ish optimism, hippydom, Epicureanism, existentalism, careerism, libertarianism, and so on ad infinitum-- where we lose any hope of wholeness or sanity or freshness? (Admittedly, this point probably won't make any sense to someone who hasn't felt this already.)

I also feel that the whole notion of self-discovery makes little sense without certain religious concepts, such as the soul, free will, Providence and vocation (I don't understand how their can be a non-religious understanding of vocation).

I'm not saying Blamire is wrong. But I hope he's wrong. It would sadden me to think that the psychological drama of self-discovery-- our own, and those of other people, real and imaginary-- is something we must relinquish as Christians. Or that it has to be something narcissistic or turned in on itself.

Ode to the Sun

I have two small metal file-boxes where I keep all my old writings-- from the handful of English exercises I preserved (how I loved English class!) to the few poems and articles I had published (many in obscure or college publications).

I also kept my poetry manuscripts, which I accumulated over years. I wrote poetry almost every day for years. When I was in my late teens, I worked on individual poems over periods of days. Later, I wrote a poem a day, which wasn't a good idea.

Oh, the effort I put in! And the heartbreak! Labouring (and failing) to have my poetry published in little magazines that had no interest in traditional verse, and that nobody bought or read anyway! All the patronizing rejection letters from snooty modernist editors! I remember I submitted one poem about the death of an old man who is the last veteran of a war. The point of the poem is that this is the day the war finally ends. It wasn't that good a poem, but I was working up to the last line, which I still remember and I think isn't bad:

Disappeared like an echo in silence, or smoke in the air.

The editor rejecting it wrote something like: "It's quite good apart from the last line." Of course. What could be more vulgar than striving for an effect?

To be fair, I have also had my poetry rejected by magazines that are more hospitable to traditional verse (like About Larkin, the Philip Larkin Society magazine, and the conservative First Things magazine), and even by one (The Literary Review) that had a monthly competition explicitly dedicated to verse that rhymes, scans and makes sense. Oh well. Who knows?

Anyway, I was going through some of my old poems and thinking they weren't bad. Here is one-- originally entitled Prayer to the Sun, but then, I wrote it as an agnostic/atheist. It also shows a Larkin-esque dislike for children, which I no longer suffer from.

Ode to the Sun

Oh father of flies and sweat
Creator of loud, litter-making crowds.
God knows I'm in your debt
And love you just as most men love a debtor.
Preserve a decent covering of clouds--
The less you show, the better.

But there are times
I love you more than any pale sunbather
Or screaming child, or ice-cream-filled parader.
A cold white sky
That makes the crowds disperse, and insects die,
And sends the rowdy off to warmer climes--
Oh, then I see your beauty, veiled and shy
As all true beauty is; high and aloof,
Its warmest smile a look of soft reproof.

Come cloaked in cloud, and I will come beneath your roof.

This is Amazing

Newgrange, the five-thousand-year-old passage tomb built so that light floods into the chamber on only one day of the year-- today, the winter solstice. It's one of the things that makes me most proud to be Irish.

I've been to Newgrange twice-- once alone, once with Michelle. It was a very moving experience both times. Even though I recently posted a horror story where Newgrange was the setting for the return of demonic old gods, that was the opposite of the atmosphere I felt there. In truth, felt a strong sense of man's immemorial and primordial orientation towards the transcendent and the divine. It's no surprise, when you stand on a site like Newgrange, to learn that Ireland was converted to Christianity without the need for any martyrdoms.

It also made me feel that it's our age of space-shuttles and television that is the truly barbaric age, since we have lost our awareness of the most important reality of all, one that was so overwhelming to our ancient forebears that it moved them to build a monument which still has us scratching our heads over how on earth they managed it.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Positive for Condom

Computer translations are hilarious. I came across this computerized translation of an article about Cardinal Georges Cottiers, a Swiss Cardinal who suggested that condom use could be morally legitimate if used to prevent the spread of Aids. (Is it Aids or AIDS? I never liked AIDS.)

Here it is:

Once again, a cardinal was positive for condom. In addition to the Vatican's health minister said even now Cardinal Cottier Georges, Theologian of the Papal Household, that the condom in special cases "legitimate" is. A Roman moral theologian had clarified the position of the Church to have sexual intercourse with plastic barriers as early as last week.

Sexual intercourse with plastic barriers, hmmmm. Not sure about that.

But it's not only translat-a-bots that come up with funny stuff. We went to Germany, Austria and Italy on our honeymoon (I thought of beginning that sentence, "My wife and I...", but who else could it mean?) As I was planning the trip, I came across some very endearingly Teutonic English on the tourist websites.

I loved this description of folk theatre in Mittenwald:

Be it lumberjacks, men who loudly crack their whip’s and Schuhplattler a Bavarian folk dance see all of it. When talking about dance the smallest already practice the waltz and the perfect techniques of how to spin the girls around.

While this website for the Hotel Fussen, in its description of the mountainous Allgäu region, has no time for the philosophy of "don't mention the war";

Searching for the perfect place to spend your weekend holiday or your week-long vacation? Why not try going to one of the greatest European regions in Germany, the Allgäu? If you want to be one with nature and at the same time, explore the culture of Germany without stereotyping and relating it to the notorious Swastika, this region in the south-west of Bavaria is the perfect tourism place for you to go to.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It's What You're Used To, Isn't It?

I've been thinking about cinema a lot recently.

I started seriously going to the cinema in 2001. Before that I was literally too shy to walk up and ask for a ticket. (Which may sound ridiculous, but when you're as intensely shy and over-analytical as I was, you anticipate pitfalls everywhere. I never expected anything to be straightforward. I thought there might be some sort of convention to cinema ticket buying that I didn't know about.)

Everything loomed so large for me in those days. I look back on it with a certain gratitude, since so much shyness and anxiety can't help coming with a large dollop of wonder.

I remember just before I started going to the cinema, a woman in the training course I was attending was telling the other trainees about the film she'd just been to see, Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. She remarked that she knew it was going to be a bit different because it was titled Cast Away rather than Castaway. I was terribly impressed by this and thought I would never have enough acuity to be a proper cinema-goer.

I think my long period of not going to the cinema, but hearing other people talk about their cinema-going, has left a lasting impression on me. It means the cinema always seems rather exotic to me, even after seeing so many hundreds of films there. I spent so long outside looking in that I still remain starry-eyed about the whole thing. (It's not the only department of life where I think being a late starter might be a blessing.)

But once I'd started going, there was no stopping me.

Today, I found myself thinking about art-house cinema. The library where I work, as might be expected, has a large stock of art-house films. I realized that, not only do I not like art-house films, but I find it hard to really think of them as films at all. They no more seem like films than ginger ale is ale, or a nut cutlet is meat.

When I hear someone talking about cinema, I prick up my ears. But when they start talking about Italian neo-realism, I un-prick them.

And, thinking about it a bit more, I ruminated on the elements that need to be in place for me to have a satisfying cinema experience, many of them rather at odds with my outlook in most other matters:

1) I expect cinema to be a business. It's a strange part of the pleasure of cinema to know that this story is making a profit, or at least intended to make a profit. It gets by on its own steam. It is a genuine reflection of the popular mind, and of popular taste. A visit to the cinema then becomes an immersion into the spirit of the age, a fascinating mirror of its hopes, dreams, fears and preoccupations, writ large on the silver screen. Story takes on the status of myth-- the tales that ordinary people use to make sense of their reality.

And conversely, when I see (usually in Irish and British films) a caption that announces the help of some arts council or other in making the film, I feel that the experience has been thereby diminished. I am not an apostle of the free market in most matters, but I do incline that way when it comes to cinema.

2) I want the cinema to be impersonal. I do not want a club-house atmosphere. The curious magic of the cinema is, to me, a blend of the intensity of the experience while watching the film, and the indifference of one's immediate surroundings to that experience. When you walk through that door into the darkened auditorium, it should be like walking through a magical portal from one world into another. Outside-- whether that's the cinema lobby, or perhaps the shopping centre or street outside the cinema-- the world is carrying on as always. The whole experience should be like Lucy stepping through the coats into Narnia.

For this reason, I prefer to see a film in a multiplex where the same film is being shown four time that day, along with eight or nine others, than a little cinema where the screening (rather than the film) becomes an event. And art-house cinemas (like Dublin's Irish Film Institute), which often feature events around the movie-- like talks by the director, or a discussion afterwards amongst the audience-- would be completely destructive of this enchanting mixture of intensity and impersonality, event and non-event.

3) I expect a cinema to be comfortable. I want soft seats, clean bathrooms (with soap), and a general air of plushness.

4) I want cinema to be an activity with a strong public dimension-- I don't mean inside the walls of the cinema, but outside them. And it usually is. And that pleases me.

Other people have usually at least heard about the film you're seeing. They've read reviews, they've seen it themselves or they're thinking of seeing it themselves. I especially like it when it's a film most people go to see and have a strong opinion on, like the Lord of the Rings movies. It's a shared social experience, but in a different way from the news or the weather or sporting events, because it's so specific and so concentrated, and it's something you experience individually. And every cinema release belongs, in a very special way, to a particular moment in time, a particular moment in social and cultural history.

5) I expect a movie to use the resources available to it, to exploit the format to the fullest. If I wanted to see a play (which I don't), I'd go to the theatre. If I wanted to listen to radio, I'd listen to the radio. I don't go to the cinema for talking heads. I don't want drab, minimalist sets. I want spaceships, monsters, fantasy sequences, colour, motion, extravagance. I don't think the cinema should be a subdued, low-key experience-- either visually or emotionally. It should be a BIG experience. What's the point of the big screen if you have small pictures on it? Or small stories?

So, given all that, a movie like Cinema Paradiso, which seeks to capture the magic of the movies, leaves me completely cold. What do I know about colorful Italian villagers sitting in a little hall, chatting familiarly amongst themselves as they watch a movie, seated in wooden chairs? What's magical about that? Magical is a well-upholstered multiplex on a Saturday afternoon, with empty seats all around you, and a medium-sized Coke in your hand.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

More Nightmares

Only a few days ago did it occur to me that I should have saved up my handful of Christmas-themed nightmares for this time of the year. After all, I started posting them around Halloween, so it's hardly surprising that they're still coming in December, given that there are a hundred of them. Oh well. But I didn't think of it. And there's only one Christmassy nightmare left, which I will post later in the month.

So here are three non-festive ones. The first is perhaps the strangest out of all the hundred, in that it's questionable whether anyone will find it all spooky. But I was trying to go for different kinds of scare, not just danger and the uncanny all the time. It's not that easy. I also tried to include a fair amount of stories with no element of the supernatural, which were a lot harder than the ones where anything was possible.

The third is pretty weak. I was trying to write the kind of non-picture story that might have appeared in an Eagle or Battle or Warlord annual. But who on earth would get that? And even at that it's not a successful pastiche. Oh, well.

Welcome to my nightmares...again!

Nightmare 47: You’re Aisling, Bronagh

“Just the one night?”, asked the boy behind the counter, in his thick country accent.

“Just the one”, said Bronagh, looking around the reception desk. She had become a connoiseur of bed and breakfasts. Luckily for her, she liked them. Maybe she’d start her own one day, when she’d left the gym business behind.

It was the themed bed and breakfasts she couldn’t stand, the ones that strove for a particular look. She’d stayed in one in Sligo that had a poetry aesthetic. There were even framed poems from former guests on the walls.

But Rockyfields was as unpretentious as its name. Glass models of butterlies stood on the counter. There was a painting of a ship on a moonlit sea on the wall behind. A framed news story commemmorated the local GAA club’s victory in some cup or other, many years ago. A bed and breakfast was supposed to be a home away from home, and who had a themed home?

“You’re up two flights of stairs”, said the boy, never looking up from the computer. “The door with the picture of ducks.”

“Quack quack”, said Bronagh.

The boy barely smiled. “Sign on the sheet there”, he said, nodding his head.

Bronagh signed it. “Do you live here?”, she asked the boy.

The boy—he was a young man, Bronagh supposed, there was no such thing as child labour anymore—shook his head, looking a little surprised. “Nobody lives here but Mr and Mrs Holmes”, he said. “At least, not since Aisling left, and that was long before my time.”

The speech seemed to have taken a lot out of him. He hurried through a door marked PRIVATE, perhaps to recuperate.

Bronagh went upstairs. As she climbed the narrow staircase—the wooden bannisters were polished so brightly she could almost smell the elbow-grease—a strange sense of familiarity came over, so strong it might have been called déja-vu. Even the pattern on the carpet looked familiar.

She was about to start on the second flight stairs when she saw something that made her stop.

It was a framed, black and white photograph on the wall of the landing. It showed a man and a woman, who both looked to be in their early thirties, beaming at the camera. The man was bald with a large moustache and heavy-framed glasses. The woman was rather winsome, with dark hair cut in a brisk style. She had an intense look about her.

Between them, her arms around their shoulders, stood Bronagh.

There was no mistaking it. She had seen many pictures of her childhood- her parents were inveterate camera-snappers—and she recognised her own face at seven or eight years old. But more than that, she remembered the t-shirt she was wearing in the picture. It had a pixellated, space-invaders style picture on the front. She’d loved that t-shirt.

On the bottom of the frame, a brass tag said: Aisling aged seven years, 1979.

When she saw that, Bronagh did something she had never done before, something she never expected to do. She fainted.

* * * *
When she came to, she was lying on a couch, with several pillows under her head. A man was sitting in an armchair beside her, watching her. It was a cluttered, rather stuffy sitting room.

She’d been looking at the man for a few moments before she recognised him. He still had the large moustache—grey now-- but the heavy-framed glasses had been replaced by a more stylish pair. He was looking at her anxiously.

She sat up in the chair abruptly.

“That’s me in the photograph outside”, said Bronagh, limply.

“I know”, said the man with the moustache, with a gentle smile.

“How the hell did it get there?”, said Bronagh. “Who the hell is Aisling?”

“You’re Aisling, Bronagh”, said the man, matter-of-factly. “You’re Aisling. Do you want some brandy? I have a bottle here, just for these kind of emergencies. That’s my excuse.”

He poured her one and handed it to her. She took it without thinking.

“My name is Gordon Holmes”, said the man, staring into Bronagh’s eyes. His own eyes were grey, watery. “My wife’s name is Monica. And she’s….she’s not well. She hasn’t been well for some time. Years.”

Bronagh took a long, very unladylike draft of the brandy. She needed it. Her head was still fuzzy as hell. She heard Gordon’s words as though from far away.

“We...we had a little girl when we were first married. She died before her first birthday. We were advised against having any more. But, in the last five years or so, Monica...well, she’s begun to believe Aisling never died. She’d never really accepted her death….you visited here a long time ago, Bronagh, with your parents. Monica fell in love with you. We took more pictures….Bronagh, will you be Aisling? Please? Will you be Aisling, every once in a while?”

Nightmare 48: All You Can Eat

His mother told George that he wasn’t fat, but what else would a mother say? He wasn’t huge, that was true. Small boys didn’t jeer him. He didn’t have trouble squeezing past other people on a bus.

But, still, George decided, looking at his naked body in the bedroom mirror, he was fat. His stomach protruded, and he had the suggestion of a double-chin.

It bothered him. He was a handsome boy. He was a very handsome boy, and he would have a fine figure, if it wasn’t padded with a layer of blubber.

Girls liked him. Nice girls, too. But not the premier league of girls. Girls like Suzie Morrow. Every time he had gone to talk to her, she had given him a withering look. And he had no doubt that the extra poundage was the reason.

He sighed, looking into the mirror. He could always go to the gym, or take up soccer, or something. But the very thought made him groan. Even walking down the long drive to the school bored him to the tears, and made him feel hot envy of the couple of kids in his class who had their own cars.

There was a rapping on the door. He cursed, and called: “I’m not dressed.”

There was a pause, and then his mother spoke through the wood. “Well, I’m going out for a few hours. You’re on your own, so answer the door. And the telephone. And get some study done.”

He scowled at the door, and replied with one of those inarticulate vocalisations—part grunt, part sigh—that only teenage boys can master.

“Take care, pet”, she said, and a few moments later he heard her high-heels clicking on the wood of the stairs.

He looked at his bed. Textbooks lay open on the mattress, but a car magazine lay on top of them. He hadn’t done any study this term. It bothered him. It was fear, really. Looking in those damned books made him feel stupid and hopelessly behind.

The front door thudded shut downstairs. He pulled on some boxer shorts and a pyjama bottoms, and wandered downstairs, thinking of Suzie Morrow and the Subaru Impreza.

He went into the kitchen and opened the fridge automatically. Oh, there were some of his mother’s cheesecakes...she just kept making them. He cursed her under his breath and closed the fridge door. Well, no more of those for him.

He walked into the living room, watched an episode of The Dead Planet, went back into the kitchen, ate three of the cheekecakes, and washed them down with a large glass of milk.

He was washing out the glass when he noticed the stone man hanging from the curtain rail over the sink.

That was Auntie Prism’s barminess. Prism. Who was called Prism? Of course, his mother had been lumbered with the name Terra, but she’d had the sense to change it to Terri. She hadn’t exactly disowned her hippy parents— George certainly would have— but she hadn’t followed in their footsteps like Auntie Prism did, opening a wacko occult shop and eventually killing herself trying to perform some ceremony involving fire.

He picked up the stone man, for the first time ever. It was crudely carved, but that only gave it a spooky primitive look. Auntie Prism had made it, but it might have been unearthed by archaeologists.

Without planning to, he found himself wishing upon it. The thought just came into his head.

Let me be slim, he thought. Give me chiselled abs. Get rid of all that blubber. In some way that doesn’t involve running around or living like Gandhi.

Then he laughed at his own stupidity, and flung the thing away from him. It struck the window and danced on its string for a few moments.

He went to the fridge, and had another cheese-cake.

* * * * * *
“George!”, cried his mother, stepping out of the living room. “What happened to your face?”

“It’s nothing”, he said, irritably.

“Did someone hit you?”, she asked, stepping closer to him. “And what’s all this stuff?”, she asked, looking down. “All these bags? What are you always sneaking up to your room?”

“I’m making something”, he snapped. “I’m being creative.”

He brushed past her, up the stairs, towards the sanctuary of his room. Who would have guessed that Suzie Morrow would have turned out to be such a psycho? And who’d told her about Alison, anyway?

As soon as he’d locked his bedroom door, he poured the contents of the bags onto his bed. Packets of crisps, bars of chocolate, and tubs of ice-cream rained down upon it. He picked up a chocolate bar, unwrapped it, and devoured it in five gulps. He was always hungry now. Hungry? He was famished, like someone half-starved, though he never stopped eating.

The reflection in the mirror showed a slim, athletic boy— the figure he had dreamed of having. But he didn’t look in the mirror. He hadn’t looked in the mirror for weeks and weeks.

Nightmare 49: Spirit of the Blitz

“The Land of Green Ginger”, said Devon. “What a name for a street!”.

Morris rolled his eyes theatrically. The salt breeze whipped through his long, dishevelled hair. “Are you ever going to get over that?”, he asked his cousin, with a patient smile.

Devon only smiled, his teeth white against his brown skin. He raised the binoculars that were strapped round his neck to his eyes, and looked out to sea.

“You look like a tourist with those binoculaurs”, grumbled Morris.

“Well, I am a tourist”, said Devon, placidly. “All the way from Liverpool.”

They were standing on the balcony of the Hull Museum of Many Cultures. They had spent forty minutes looking through the display stands explaining the histories of Chinese, Irish and Kurdish communities in Hull and Britain. They had tasted biryani and watched a video of a Bar Mitzvah.

“I wish there was a museum about the Blitz”, said Devon, still staring out to sea. “I mean, there were German bombs pounding down right here!”

“Oh, spare me”, said Morris, making a face. “Haven’t we heard enough of that for sixty years? The Blitz spirit! We never closed!”

“Well, what’s wrong with that?”, asked Devon, lowering the binoculaurs.

“It’s all lies, that’s what’s wrong with it”, said Morris. He leaned closer to Devon, his voice rising, a keen light in his eyes. “Do you know, the government tried to stop people from staying in the London Underground during the attacks? But they couldn’t. People were terrified.”

“Of course they were bloody terrified”, said Devon. “The fact that you’re terrified doesn’t mean you’re not brave. I’ve seen newsreels from the time—“

“Oh, that was all propaganda”, said Morris. He was so vociferous now that his salivia showered on Devon’s cheek. “That was all posed. A crowd of grinning Cockneys, mugs of steaming tea in one hand, the other giving a thumbs up to the camera! Britain can take it!”

“Britain did take it”, said Devon, placidly.

“So are you really saying the British are braver than anybody else? Made of sterner stuff, is that it?”

“Calm down”, said Devon, who couldn’t help grinning. “I never said that.”

“Well, that’s the myth that you’re—“ began Morris, but he stopped there.

A noise was coming from the sky above. A drone, growing louder all the time.

Devon raised his bincolaurs and scanned the skies. It took him a moment to find the source of the noise, but when he did, his mouth fell open.

“I don’t believe it”, he said. “It’s impossible. It’s…”

“What is it?”, asked Morris, a little sukily, squinting at the sky.

“It’s a Messerschmitt”, said Devon. “It’s a bloody German bomber! And it’s coming straight for us!”

“Very funny—“ began Morris, but his cousin had already grabbed him by the arm and was dragging him downstairs. The whine of the aircraft’s engines was growing stronger every moment. Morris began to run.

They ran back to the museum café, through the displays of ethnic dress, through the stands detailing the history of Jamaican immigration to Britain, reached the staircase, and pounded down through the third and second floors of the museum. Other people were screaming and running, too.

They had reached the first floor when the bomb hit. Morris was thrown forward, striking his head against the edge of a glass display case. Devon staggered, but stayed on his feet. He stooped down, grabbed his cousin by the shoulders, and began to drag him through the quickly-spreading smoke.

* * *
“The police are still making enquiries into the bomb that devastated the Hull Museum of Many Cultures on Monday morning. Twenty-five people were injured, and one young man is still in a critical condition in Hull Royal Infirmary. Police have made no statement about their suspicions, but there is a speculation that right-wing extremists were responsible.”

Devon laughed bitterly. Right-wing extremists was pretty accurate. He’d made a statement to the police. They’d treated him respectfully, but they looked at him as though he was crazy. And what else could he expect? Who would believe that the last German bomber could turn up almost seventy years late?

“Mr. Bailey?”

Devon turned from the TV. The nurse with the brown curls was standing there, smiling at him. It was four o’ clock in the morning and he was alone in the hospital waiting room.

“I wanted to tell you that Morris is improving. He’s still not out of danger, and he’s in no condition to see anyone, but he asked me to tell you something.”

She cleared her throat, with a look of embarrassment, and gave Devon an awkward thumbs up. “He said that Britain can still take it.”

A Picture of Conor

This is a description of a fairly typical Irish liberal-- at least, one of the better breed of Irish liberal. I'm not talking about the kind of liberal that goes to Atheist Ireland meetings and writes venomous comments under John Water and Breda O'Brien articles on the online edition of The Irish Times. They are not worth bothering about.

Let's call this Irish liberal Conor.

Conor is forty-two years old. He has a wife and a child. He is a devoted father and a good husband. He works as a computer programmer. He's big into movies-- his favourite director is Woody Allen-- and he's also big into music. Morrissey and Nine Inch Nails are amongst his favourite bands. He thinks a lot of the more recent music is rubbish.

His parents were devout Catholics but he never really took it seriously. You couldn't say he lost his faith, since he never had it. Still, he has a lot of respect for religion in general and Catholicism in particular. He doesn't believe in God because, he says, he sees no rational argument in favour of such belief. He has happy memories of going to Mass and he likes hymns, carols, holy statues and church architecture. He think that the Bible has a lot of profound things to say about the human condition, on an allegorical level. He has no problem going to Catholic funerals, weddings and memorial Masses, although he chose not to have his own child baptised. He isn't sure whether he will send him to a non-denomational school or not.

Conor opposes the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality and contraception, which latter he thinks causes immense suffering in Africa. However, he thinks abortion is a complicated subject which is simplified by rhetoric on both sides. And he thinks the same about euthanasia. He himself thinks that both should be available, under certain restrictions, but he thinks it's reasonable for people to oppose them, and sees the danger in euthanasia on demand and abortion on demand.

He thinks that the ordination of women is a matter for Catholics and non-Catholics aren't really entitled to an opinion on it. He makes fun of liberal priests and thinks the Church should have stuck to the Latin Mass and fish on Fridays.

Conor is a feminist, but he thinks that women's liberation and the sexual revolution has had a lot of drawbacks. Though he is in favour of divorce, where marriage breakdown is a reality, he thinks many liberals don't have a deep enough understanding of the havoc it wreaks on children and families.

Likewise, he thinks women have paid a high price for the sexual revolution, as things stand. He is quite chivalrous, and he's appalled by the way women are portrayed in rap videos, on the covers of men's magazines, and in advertisements. He thinks pornography is a growing problem and, although he is opposed to censorship, he thinks schools should try to make teenagers more aware of the distorted picture it gives of women and of sex. He believes that there are differences between the sexes that are not culturally conditioned.

He restricts the amount of television that his little boy is allowed to watch (no advertisements at all), and he intends to keep a tight rein on this in the future. He reads to him every night, and he is very eager to introduce him to classic children's books. Conor believes that the imagination is very important, and that our world of passive entertainment and mass media is in danger of crushing much that is fine in humanity. He uses his mobile phone as little as possible, and he is withering about Facebook, Twitter, reality TV and blogs.

Conor does not join with many of his fellow liberals in rejoicing over the decline of Catholicism in Ireland. He agrees that the Church gave Irish people a sense of meaning in their lives, as well as a moral foundation, and that the disappearance of these things has left a vacuum in Irish society. He thinks ritual, ceremony and tradition are important. He attended a Christian Brothers school, and for the most part he thinks they were good men. He is quick to point out the contribution that priests and nuns made to Irish education, health and social services.

He frequently makes fun of his own liberalism, calling himself an "old hippy". He also makes his fun of political correctness, especially the term "significant other", which makes him cringe.

I think Conor is a pretty realistic portrait. I don't know anyone exactly like this, but he is an amalgam of many people that I do know-- both male and female.

I like Conor a lot.

This is my problem with Conor.

The negative side of Conor's social vision is easy to achieve, while there is no sign at all that the positive side has any hope of being made a reality.

Conor is like the town council that demolishes a three-hundred year old building, promising (and fully intending) to build a museum there, but who runs out of money and ends up letting a fast food restaurant and an underground car-park take its place.

Conor believes in the importance of community, ritual, tradition, stable families, childhood innocence, imagination, courtesy, respect, social bonds, high culture, and folk culture.

It depresses him that the social revolution of the last century, instead of leading to these things, seems to have led to consumerism, individualism, family breakdown, crime, infotainment, alienation, careerism, and a decay of moral and intellectual seriousness.

Conor believes that the "freedom from" aspect of liberalism has been almost achieved, and now the more difficult and important phase-- the "freedom to" phase-- should begin in earnest. This would involve bringing about a society where people can enjoy a truly humane and fulfilled and integrated existence, not simply bread and circuses or endless distractions.

But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, within the resources of liberalism that shows any promise of bringing society even one step closer to any of these things.

Liberalism, though very good at weakening social bonds and overthrowing taboos and customs, has shown no propensity at all to build community, or strengthen family life, or provide a sense of collective identity, or perpetuate traditions, or to establish ritual and ceremony, or to inculcate an idea of sublime. And these were all things that Catholicism (and Christianity in general) did exceedingly well.

Conor is a well-meaning, idealistic, serious-minded fellow who can never bring himself to see that the world he is helping to bring about is the very opposite to the world of which he dreams.

Good Letter in the Irish Times Today

Sir, – To dress up what has happened to this generation of Irish people as the mere “hedonism” and “maturity” of “a tearaway teenager”, as Una Mullally has done (Opinion, December 16th), is a grevious understatement. The state of mind behind the self-indulgent, celebrity culture that has us dependent on foreigners to keep the holes-in-the-wall open over the past number of years has much deeper roots in our society than that.

The basic motivating force behind the bankrupting of this country was the self-obsession, self-absorption, self-indulgence and self-aggrandisement of the most powerful and most influential in our society.

The message blasting out of our TV screens and our social media day in day out was one that said the way to get ahead was self-exaltation, destruction of the self-esteem of everyone else in sight and exultation in the difficulties of “whingers” and “losers”.

To add insult to injury the mantra being put out now is that “We are all to blame”. – Yours, etc,


Shielmartin Drive,

Sutton, Dublin 13.

I'm tired of hearing about the collective madness of the Celtic Tiger years. I didn't buy any overseas properties. I didn't take out any loans. Like many if not most Irish people, I didn't join in the celebrations of our newfound wealth. I remember, at this time, sitting in a pub with a friend and complaining about all the things we were losing, including the appreciation of little things. "That's a bit of a cliché, isn't it?", he replied. (That's my friend. He tends to make a withering remark about anything you say. Kind of drives me crazy sometimes.) But he was right. It was a cliché. Lots and lots and lots of people did fret about how the fairy gold was corrupting the soul of Ireland.

But I'm even more interested in his words about "destruction of the self-esteem of everyone else in sight" and "exultation in the difficulties of 'whingers' and 'losers'".

There are two words which, for me, describe two awful toxins in the bloodstream of modern society. One of the words is "cool", and the other word is "loser".

The notion of "cool" must be one of the most destructive-- perhaps the most destructive-- in contemporary society. In one fell swoop it attacks innocence, spontaneity, reverence, heartiness, respect for tradition, meekness, humility, contentment and so much more. Although it is a famously vague and elusive idea, it tends to be antagonistic towards anything that is old, anything that is not flashy or spectacular or slick, anything that requires us to be unselfconscious and unembarrassed and child-like, and anything that requires deference towards authority, custom, or the preferences of others. Sometimes it tries to incorporate things that are not slick or cynical-- as in the current fashion for "ugly Christmas sweaters". But this is usually in an ironic, smirking manner. Of course, it is often hugely enthusiastic about things which are most unapologetically traditional, like Gregorian chant or Aran sweaters. But it despises more familiar and workaday traditions, like the rosary or the Angelus bells or the Irish language.

But I find the term "loser" even more objectionable. I hate it even when it's being used by people with whom I am in sympathy-- the Catholic free-sheet Alive! often describes atheists as losers, which I find obnoxious and stupid.

People often wonder what difference Christianity makes when atheists and agnostics are usually good people (insofar as any of us are "good people"-- a doubtful proposition in itself). What difference does being a Christian make, when Christians often don't seem any better than anyone else?

It's a vast subject, and one I could write thousands of words upon. But one important and subtle difference is suggested by that word, "loser".

A non-religious person can safely despise anybody they want to. They can speak of them and think of them like so much human garbage. And they do. I think you only have to watch modern television comedy to realize this. Shows like The Young Ones, Bottom, The In Betweeners, Alan Partridge, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Beavis and Butt-Head, and many others all contain characters which the audience are encouraged to regard with unmitigated ridicule and contempt. I think this sort of cruel humour becomes much more prevalent as society loses its Christian character.

One film that I saw recently in the cinema stands out in my mind, in this regard. It was The Other Guys, starring Mark Walhberg and Will Ferrell. It was actually a well-written and amusing film, but one recurring joke that left a sour taste in my mouth featured a group of homeless men who were shown as enthusiastically having orgies (with each other) in a car belonging to one of the principal characters. Because if you're a homeless old man, well, what chance have you of physical intimacy except with another homeless old man? And why wouldn't you go for that? And what could be more funny to everyone else?

No matter how far Christians fall short of their stated beliefs, they are still committed to the idea that every human being is a child of God, an immortal soul who is infinitely loved by Him, and should be infinitely loved by them, too. We are also committed to the idea that nobody is ever beyond forgiveness and redemption-- not even rapists or child molesters or war criminals, or any of the other transgressors on whom it is socially acceptable to wish the most lurid punishments.

God knows Christians fall short of these ideals-- I struggle with anger myself, and I often find myself feeling the most harrowing rage towards people who cause me embarrassment. But the point is, I have to consciously try to push this way. I can't let myself go, I can't luxuriate in it. And I think that makes all the difference.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hilarious line from Peter Hitchens's Mail on Sunday Article Today

"The day is coming when the only people in Britain who want to get married will be lesbian clergywomen."

Here's the whole thing.

The Bard's Apprentice-- Down for Essential Repairs

Unfortunately, my serialized story The Bard's Apprentice is down for repairs. Antaine pointed out a few minor flaws in the narrative, such as a new character appearing out of nowhere, and other characters swapping names in a promiscuous way. I could plead artistic experimentation, but I'll come clean and admit they were honest gaffes and I'll have to run my eye over the story more carefully. It's so long since I wrote it, I honestly can't remember who the character who is introduced so unceremoniously is supposed to be.

I suspect it was a result of renaming characters and then forgetting to change all the mentions of them.

Fox, Grandy, Jasma and company will be back!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Deliciously Irish Notice in The Virgin Mary Church, Ballymun

It was a list of "Mass Times over the Christmas".

(Non-Irish readers may not be aware that Irish people love to pepper the definite article everywhere. "His mother" or "your mother" becomes "the mammy". "Getting ready for dinner" becomes "getting ready for the dinner". And, if you run into somebody the morning after a big night out, and might reasonably expect them to be worse for wear, the customary salutation is: "How's the head?")

Thursday, December 12, 2013

All This Writing About Movies...

...put me in the mood for the cinema. So tonight I went to see Saving Mr. Banks, the Tom Hanks-starring film which tells the story behind the making of the Mary Poppins film. It's a lot better than it sounds. It's a solid, adult, bittersweet, well-crafted drama-- the sort of film that's rarely made for a purely grown-up audience-- and it scores a four on my now-famous spreadsheet. And it's a hell of a lot better than Mary Poppins, whose appeal I could never see. As Dr. Johnson said, not worth going to see, but definitely worth seeing.

The Bard's Apprentice Chapters Two and Three

Rolling on with the next couple of chapters of The Bard's Apprentice, my unpublished fantasy novel. I think my Hundred Nightmares, the short-short horror stories I've been publishing on this blog, are the most adequate fiction I've written. I'm not so confident about The Bard's Apprentice, which is rather too talky, especially as it goes on. But what the heck. Here's the next two chapters.

Chapter Two

The anger disappeared from the old men’s faces at once, replaced by curiosity. Nobody ever knocked at the door of the Spiral room. Fox had stopped doing so years ago. The only other person who came in was Goodfellow, Grandy and No-Sooner’s friend. They were the last three Spiral players in the city, now.

Jasma came into the Spiral room before dawn, to clear out the bottles, sweep the carpet and do what other little tidying was required. She started work very early (once again, by choice), while Fox and Grandy were sleeping. Jasma disapproved of Spiral. There was very little of which Jasma did not disapprove.

“Come in, then”, called Grandy, with a quick glance over the position on the Spiral board.

The door opened, and it was indeed Jasma standing there. The girl was as thin as a sapling, with a face that would be quite pretty when she smiled. She had straw coloured hair and a pink complexion. She always wore black.

“What is it, Jasma?”, asked Grandy, after several moments during which the servant girl just stood in the doorway, looking from No-Sooner to Grandy.

She cleared her throat-- it was almost unknown for Jasma to be nervous-- and she said, “Someone called at the door”.

“Didn’t I tell you to turn everybody away, except for my friends?”, asked Grandy, frowning.

“He says he is your friend. No, actually, he says you were friends with his father. And his father’s name was…”

“What?”, asked Grandy, more softly than he usually spoke, after Jasma fell silent for another few seconds.

“I can’t remember”, she said, abashedly. Before Grandy could fume at her, she quickly added: “He’s hiding from the police. He begged me to let him in. I didn’t
know what to do. I was scared he’d attack me. He looks like he might be holding something.”

As soon as he heard this, Fox froze. He lived in perpetual fear of intruders. Grandy was hale enough, but he was an old man, and although Jasma’s constant scrubbing and stirring and laundering had given her a strong hand (as Fox had learnt painfully), she was still a young girl. People imagined big houses to be full of treasures. They would presume they were hidden and kill them for keeping them secret.

This time there was no reassurance from the adults. Grandy and No-Sooner looked almost as anxious as Fox.

“Call the police”, whispered No-Sooner. He had risen from the table, and knit his fingers together nervously. But he did not look panicked, and his voice did not waver. That felt Fox feel a bit better.

“Since when have you become a supporter of the police?”, asked Grandy, staring at the open door as if he expected the intruder to rush through it.

“I can’t stand chicken”, said No-Sooner, with the ghost of a smile, “but I would rather eat it than starve to death”.

“The police are thugs”, said Grandy, shaking his head with determination. Grandy was unlikely to look upon any suggestion favourably-- he liked ideas to come from him-- but he seemed even more stubborn that usual now. “All of the good ones were sent to the borders to fight. Only the dregs were left here, the ones who are no use as soldiers but have an appetite for beating helpless victims. Giving him up to them is like throwing him to rabid dogs. He may be innocent. Just as likely as the other way round”

No-Sooner nodded thoughtfully, rather grimly, as if he would like to disagree with Grandy but knew that he was right.

“I remember his name now”, said Jasma. “It’s Piper”.

No-Sooner and Grandy looked at each other, and there was something in their eyes that Fox couldn’t read, but that he didn’t like.

“Wasn’t he one of the men you had executed?”, asked No-Sooner.

“Yes”, said Grandy, and Fox could never remember him speaking so softly. “Piper, Cruxable, Antly, Jorter and Merryway. I’ll never forgot those five names.”

“Executed?”, asked Jasma, in her husky voice. “You?”

Normally Grandy would have scolded the girl for presuming to ask a question, but now he hardly seemed to notice who was speaking. “Yes, me“, he replied, almost dreamily. “Forty-three years ago, seventy miles from Lonelyhill. “

“There was a rebellion in the area, and some of the construction workers wanted to join. The others were wavering. If they had joined the rebellion, all of the engineers and educated men we had-- me included-- would have been slaughtered. We only had a few guns, for defence against wolves, and the men were a leaf’s-breadth away from turning.

“So you shot them?”, asked Jasma, her eyes glassy and her mouth slack.

“Aye”, said Grandy, shaking his head at the memory. “I shot them myself, with these two hands.” He raised his workmans’ hands, tough with years of hammering and wrenching.

“If he hadn’t”, said No-Sooner, looking from Grandy’s hands to Jasma, “neither of us would be alive today. And probably, the province would have fallen to the rebels. We had an enormous amount of gunpowder with us. And money, and food. Of course, it’s going to fall soon anyway.”

“Every year saved from anarchy is worth it”, muttered Grandy.

“I’m scared”, said Jasma, looking at Fox, appealing to him against the calmness of the old men. Fox was shivering, and Jasma’s fear only made him feel worse.

“Send him up, Jasma,” said Grandy. He looked at Fox then, for the first time since the servant-girl had knocked. “But take the boy away first. Go into one of
the other rooms, Fox, and wait till you hear voices in here. Then go downstairs, and get out of the house. Go to Goodfellow.” Goodfellow lived two streets and fifteen minutes’ walk away, in a strange house called Marvel House.

“I’m scared”, said Fox, though he could hardly push the words through his throat, clogged by fear. “I’m scared for you, Grandy.”

“An old man’s job is to die”, said Grandy. “Take him away, Jasma.”

No-Sooner said something as the servant bundled Fox through the door, but Fox was too scared to take it in.

She led him by the hand around a corner, into an empty room with a few boxes of clothes in one corner. “Don’t make a noise”, she said, almost ferociously, and she pushed him towards the boxes. He sat down on them, feeling more abandoned and scared then he had ever felt before.

Then she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, pulling his head towards her so hard that it hurt his neck. “God bless you, my love”, she said, through tears. With that, she turned around briskly, and marched back to the door. She had never shown him the slightest affection before, and it made him feel even more bewildered. And more scared.

The door snapped shut, and a wave of dust rose from the floorboards. They were scratched and worn, and the paint of the room-- a dirty white-- was peeling. He wondered what this room had been used for in the past. It was one of those rooms he felt strangely sorry for; places so far away from life, from action and drama.

But the only emotion he could feel right now was panic.

He stood there, listening to children bickering in the street and birds carolling in the sky, until he heard foosteps coming up the stairs. Two sets; one light and the other slow and heavy.

He could see the criminal in his mind. He had long, matted sandy hair, thick tanned skin and a dangerous, reckless grin playing around his lips. Such people didn’t feel fear, or regret.

The door of the Spiral room banged shut. Fox knew that was Jasma, making sure he knew what was happening.

He heard the cry of a little girl drifting from the street. “Only one go! Only one go! My turn!”

Then voices came from the Spiral room, the raised voices of Grandy and No-Sooner, and the deep voice of the stranger, that seemed more like a vibration in his bones than a sound in his ears.

He counted to a hundred, then to another hundred, and he carefully opened the door. That was a bad idea; it creaked loudly as he pushed. Wishing he’d just shoved the thing, since it could hardly make more of a racket that way, he stepped lightly along the hallway, hearing Grandy’s voice as he passed the door of the Spiral room.

“The common people know what you’re about very well. That’s why they curse you. And they’re right to curse you.”

He had already moved too far to make out any words by the time he heard the stranger’s angry retort. Would Grandy really provoke the man into killing him? Was he so proud, so stubborn as that? He hurried quicker with every step, hurring down the staircase. He was already too far away to hear any voices. Or had they stopped? Was the fugitive coming after him?

When he reached the bottom of the staircase, he could see the muddy imprint of the criminal’s boots on the hall tiles. They seemed enormous to him, and like a scar ripping open his entire world.

He took his bottle-green coat from the rack, carved in the image of a goddess with eight arms, and eased the door open. It was a dull afternoon, and the children outside were back to their skipping game.

“Longfingers wears a raggedy gown
Longfingers’ beard is long and brown
Longfingers takes away the boy
Who makes his mother fret and cry.”

He watched them for a moment, remembering how long he had wanted to join in their games. Already it seemed like an incredibly childish desire. What did things like that matter, now?

He ran down the narrow, rough stone pavement, unnoticed by the other children. Most of the houses in Prodigal Street were at least four storeys high, and had rich curtains in the windows, crimson curtains for Sacrifice Week. This was when all those who had died for the Empire were remembered. The old men even stopped playing Spiral for the Hour of Honour.

There were a fair few people about; mothers walking children, and servants on errands. Fox found himself wondering how they could be so calm, when his entire life was collapsing. How could they not know? How could even the stones and the clouds not know?

His legs pumped like train pistons and soon he was at Marvel House, the odd-looking house painted in a bewildering array of colours, with no two windows shaped differently. Grandy said it was a monstrosity. Fox liked it.

He gave a series of sharp taps on the front door, broke off for a moment, then repeated the tattoo. No other knock would bring Goodfellow to the door. Spiral players didn’t like being bothered.

As he waited, he thought how strange it was that he had expected Grandy to die every day he could remember, but now that it seemed likely, nothing could be more shocking. Would life always be like this? Was there no way of being ready? He thought these things in the manner an eleven-year-old thinks them, thoughts that he could never have put into words, but that were lying perfectly formed below the surface.

The torture finally ended, and the door creaked open. Goodfellow was standing there, in a violet house-robe, his usual impish smile on his face. It disappeared as he soon as he saw Fox.

“What’s wrong, boy?” he asked, his eyebrows raised in surprise. Goodfellow was always kind to Fox, but he never used his name. He seemed to think him too young to warrant a name.

Fox tried to speak, but only tears came. He tried again, and realised how hopeless it was. But already, Goodfellow had put his arms around him, and dragged him into the house. He heard the door catch shut behind him. The hall was dark, but he saw a room bright with firelight further in.

For a moment he felt a crazy fear that the criminal was there, too, but that passed in a moment. He had to help Grandy and the others. That was the only thing that mattered.

He was standing before the fire, and Goodfellow was giving him a deep cup. The scent of hot, sweet tea rose from it. Fox raised it to his lips, and drank every drop in three gulps.

“Now, speak, boy”, said Goodfellow, when he put the cup down. He did not have to look down at Fox; they were already on eye-level. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s a criminal in the house….he has Grandy and No-Sooner. And Jasma.”

“A criminal?”, asked Goodfellow, raising his bushy eyebrows
“He’s…Grandy shot his father. For being a rebel”. Suddenly it was not hard to speak at all. Suddenly his mind was entirely clear. He told Goodfellow everything, without stumbling or stopping.

When he was finished, Goodfellow said “I have to go over there, right now.” He looked more serious than Fox had ever seen him before; he almost seemed like a different person.

Panicking at the thought of being alone, Fox started to say, “But--. He had no idea what the was going to say next.

“I have to, boy. Don’t you worry. Nobody knows you’re here, and nobody can get in when you lock the door”.

But Fox wasn’t worried about any of that. He was worried about being left without grown-ups, who had always been around to reassure him.

“You can watch what’s happening through the Proximator”, said Goodfellow, seeing that he was still worried. “I’ve showed you how to use it, haven’t I?”

“Yes”, said Fox, watching Goodfellow as he moved about the room. He had already put on a heavy fur coat, and now he went to a chest of drawers and took out something that made Fox’s skin go tight with fear. He had never seen a real one before, only pictures of them in The Memoirs of Josper Stronghouse. It was a pistol.

“What’s going to happen?”, he asked, wanting Goodfellow to tell him that everything was going to be all right.

Goodfellow looked at him as he thrust the pistol in the coat of his coat. He looked confused, surprised, as if he was in a dream and expected to wake up from it any moment. “Just stay here, whatever happens”, said Goodfellow, and then he had left the room. Fox heard the front door slam behind him.

Chapter Three

Marvel House had a winding staircase, painted in the colours of the various Spiral boards. The staircase itself was built to look like the swirling figure painted on each board. The house had been built by Goodfellow’s father, who had remained at the Spiral board when the Full Moon Riots had swept over the city, sixty years ago. When he was younger, Goodfellow had hated the game. He moved to the Glassy Isles to become a tea shipper, and made a small fortune. But when he returned home, he fell in love with the game he had once hated, and his father died a happy man.

Fox walked slowly up the stairs, trying to calm his nerves with every step. It would take Goodfellow an age to reach the house, he knew. Everybody he knew moved slowly, and old people seemed to move slower than was possible. Even Grandy.

An old man’s job is to die…

The Proximator was in a room of its own, on the third floor. The walls were covered in black curtains, and there was nothing else in the room beside the enormous machine Goodfellow had bought last summer. Proximators had been all the rage at that time.

Fox pulled on the strings that opened the huge curtains, unveiling the observation window. He put his eye to the eyepiece—he did not have to adjust the height, since Goodfellow was so tiny—and found it focused on a bird’s nest in a tree some five streets away. He reached out for the dials that lay under the eyepiece, swivelling the barrel of the Proximator so that it focused on his house.

The window of the Spiral Room was without a curtain, as always. Grandy liked to look over the landscape as he pondered his moves. Relief flooded through Fox when he saw there were still four figures standing in the room.

He twirled the dial again, zooming in closer. There was a momentary blur, and then the image sharpened. He always found this a strange sensation; to
know something was far away, while his eyes were telling him a different story.

The criminal was standing by the door. He was a tall man, but he wasn’t the scarred, burly thug that Fox had imagined. He was rather thin and frail-looking. He looked perhaps forty years old, and his skin was pale to the point of sickliness.

He was holding something that—to Fox’s joyous relief—did not seem to be a weapon, though he didn’t know what it was. It looked a little like a jewel, but it filled the criminals’ whole fist. It was purplish in colour, but it did not sparkle, and its surface seemed rough.

Grandy was standing with his back to the window, his hand on his hips, all defiance. Jasma and No-Sooner were standing between them, Jasma almost against the wall, No-Sooner not much further from it.

Now and again the criminal lifted his arms, in a pleading gesture. He seemed torn between anger and shame. He wore a brown leather jacket and tan trousers, and his clothes looked very old.

Fox felt as if reality was buckling beneath him. He had often worried about Grandy dying, about what would happen to him then. But that was part of the normal course of events. He had never expected something like this, when all his life was in doubt every single moment. Life was not supposed to be so full of dreadful possibilities.

Time passed, with groaning slowness. They continued to argue within the Spiral room. Jasma cried for a little bit and then stopped, looking angry at herself. Sometimes the tension between Grandy and the criminal seemed to relax, so that they might have been strangers having some heated but polite discussion about politics. Fox even saw the criminal laugh at one moment.

Then, at last, Goodfellow came into the room, but something was wrong. He was not holding his pistol, and his face was white.

In a moment, he saw why. Behind him came three policemen, in their black blazers and gleaming helmets. They were carrying pistols, and the one in front—a fat, red-faced man with a thin moustache—was smirking in a way that made Fox want to moan with fear. The guilt-crow must have noticed something as it was leaving. It was said that they could sense guilt.

The criminal had retreated into a corner of the room, so that Fox could only see his shoulder and arm. The police had their pistols pointed at him, though they didn’t seem about to shoot, judging from the expressions on their faces.

Then something unexpected happened, something that shocked Fox. Jasma stepped between the police and the criminal. She looked confused, almost dazed, like someone who had woken up all of a sudden. A look of intense anger passed over the faces of the policemen, and Fox thought they were going to shoot.

But then something even more unexpected happened, something so extraordinary that Fox couldn’t possibly have expected it. There was a flash of purple light that drowned all the figures in the room. It was not a blinding flash; it probably wouldn’t have been noticed by someone passing in the street below. But there was something weird and unearthly about the light. He had never seen anything like it. It was too deep, too rich. It was disturbing, but beautiful.

And when it was gone, there was nobody in the room. Only the purple rock lying on the floor.

Fox stood at the Proximator for a few moments, unable to move or even to think. He wondered if it was possible for them all to have rushed out of the room, but he knew that had not happened. There just wasn’t time. The Spiral room was not large, but the flash had passed in less than a second.

Fox was astounded, but he was a boy, and nothing seemed entirely impossible to him. He stood still for perhaps half a minute, as if paralysed, but a moment later he was rushing down the stairs.

He forgot to close the front door of Marvel House, but that didn’t matter. Goodfellow would never enter it again. It lay undisturbed for three days, before the street urchins noticed that nobody was leaving or arriving, and that the windows were not lit at night. They lost no time in making it their den, the capital of their own wild society; a capital that only fell when the Empire itself was swept away, some five years later.

But Fox did not think about Marvel House as he raced to his own house. He thought about the purple flash, and his mind raced through all the stories and rumours he had ever heard, every tale of witchery and enchantment that Jasma had told him as she stirred the afternoon porridge, or darned stockings. People often disappeared in those stories, but they were never seen again. And they disappeared because they wanted to, not because—because they had been taken.

Perhaps they had disappeared altogether, into nothingness…

Or perhaps, he thought, as he raced into his own street, not even noticing the stares of two young women out for a stroll, perhaps Grandy had been responsible? He knew so much. Maybe he knew more than Fox had ever imagined.

By the time he had reached the front door, which was hanging open, he had almost convinced himself that Grandy was behind the flash and the disappearance. He was running so hard that he tripped over before he reached the staircase, grazing his knee and wrist on the tiles. It hurt, but it didn’t slow him down.

As he reached the third floor, it occurred to him that there might be more police in the house, but he didn’t feel the slightest twinge of fear. All he wanted now was to find out, to know where Grandy had gone.

But when he reached the Spiral room, he found no answers.

The purple stone was lying in a corner of the room. Strangely, it looked smaller and more insignificant, seen close up. He picked it up rather cautiously, expecting it to be hot. It wasn’t. It felt even rougher than it looked. It felt full of bumps and irregularities and jagged edges. But he liked how it looked and it felt. He felt strangely reassured by it.

But what had happened? His heart, beating furiously after his run, began to slow down. He realised he had a pain in both sides. He stood for a minute or two, pulling air into his lungs, his body demanding a rest while his mind continued to go full speed.

When he was recovered, he looked around the room, searching for any clue to what had happened. In his heart he hoped to find some token left by Grandy; perhaps a few words he had managed to scribble, while the police were pointing their pistols at the criminal.

But there was nothing except what had always been there; the table with the bottles, and the Spiral boards, and underneath it the red metal box of records.

It had been Grandy’s most precious possession. For a moment, Fox accepted what he’d really believed since he saw the disappearance—that Grandy and the others were dead—and his heart was seized with pity and despair. Not for Grandy, strangely, but for the red box lying under the table. It had been Grandy’s dearest hope—his only hope, really—that the game would live on after him and all his friends had died.

Fox looked at the board, and nothing in his life had ever seemed as sorrowful and forlorn as the pieces standing motionless on its surface, abandoned by the players. Images passed through his head, of men and women dressed in old-fashioned clothes, playing Spiral in elegant rooms while dawn lit the sky outside. He imagined how the game drew them from day to day, a reason to live as much as any wife or child or cause.

The death of a creature often seems sadder to us than the death of a man or woman. We know we’re going to die, but what can a dog of a cat know about death? Nobody would ever play Spiral again. That seemed more tragic to Fox than the fall of an Empire. All the ghosts that hovered around the Spiral board, happy ghosts returning to the place they loved most of all, were about to flicker out. Grandy’s and No-Sooner’s and Goodfellow’s included.

He turned back to the metal box, drawing it out from under the table, determined to carry it everywhere with him, until new players could be found. But once it was secure in his hands, another strange thing happened. He was
surrounded by a deep purple glow, and when it passed he found himself somewhere else entirely.

Puerile, Point-Scoring Letter in Today's Irish Times

From a John A Kehoe, of Castleknock:

Sir, – It is surely ironic that the release on December 10th of the further audits by the National Board for Safeguarding Children established by the Catholic Church (Home News, December 11th) should coincide with World Human Rights Day. While the Vatican in 1990 with great alacrity signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, being the fourth chronologically to do so of the 193 signatory states, it was merely symbolically, but not altogether successfully, trying to bolt the door well after the horse had gone. – Yours, etc,


LLM (Human Rights),
Roselawn Road,
Dublin 15

This is the kind of letter that, to me, seems no better than chanting, "Nya, nya, nya, the abuse scandals." Mr. Kehoe thinks it is ironic that the release of the audits should coincide with World Human Rights Day. I don't think this is so very extraordinary. You couldn't stick a pin in a calendar these days without hitting the International Day of Something or Other. It rather devalues the whole idea of World Days. (Which don't greatly appeal to me anyway. I would happy to fill every week of the year with holidays and festivals, but World Days and International Days are the most dreary things imaginable.)

Also, the letter doesn't really say anything new. It says that the Vatican signed the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child while the whole child sex abuse scandals were beginning to emerge. I've never heard a Catholic deny the seriousness and the awfulness of these scandals. The Church has apologized for them time out of mind. It doesn't undo the damage, but surely there has to be a point where a religion that has existed for two thousand years and which comprises hundreds of millions of members ceases to be defined by the misdeeds of a few, at one moment in its history. The audits to which Mr. Kehoe refers acknowledge that the Church is now taking the question of child protection very seriously.

Nor do I see why it's ironic that the Church should sign the Convention of the Rights of the Child. It has been a staunch defender of the child's right to life-- its most fundamental right-- and it has given practical reality to the rights of millions of children to education and healthcare.

But this is just point-scoring, too. What good is point-scoring? Where does it get anybody? It could go on forever, like a table-tennis game between a pair of robots.

It's almost impossible to have a serious and mature discussion about Catholicism in this country. People who are measured, thoughtful and fair when it comes to most subjects become petty and spiteful and irrational when it comes to the Catholicism. It's weird.