Monday, December 23, 2019

Happy Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Nollaigh shona daoibh go léir!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

On The Spaciousness of Life

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

Peter Hitchens's Blog, 16th October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Advent and Excitement

Christmas is a time of excitement. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Back From Tunbridge Wells

I've recently returned from a Thanksgiving holiday spent in Tunbridge Wells, England. It may seem eccentric to go to Tunbridge Wells at all (never mind for Thanksgiving) but I had a good reason for it... my wife was visiting an American friend who lives there. 

We arrived the day before Thanksgiving (Wednesday the 27th) and left the next Monday (December the 2nd). It was my first time outside of Ireland in a long time.

A highlight of the trip, on the very last day, was meeting my friend and fellow blogger Dominic, who writes the Some Definite Service blog. Although we've corresponded for years, we've never actually met face-to-face, and I was delighted to have the opportunity on this visit. Dominic has written an account of our get-together on his blog, which is a great honour, and which I can't hope to improve upon. And his blog is always worth reading-- especially for the original poetry.

Other highlights of the trip included visits to Bateman's, the home of Rudyard Kipling, and to the town of Battle, the actual site of the Battle of Hastings (eight miles away from Hastings itself).

As I've said in previous posts, I'm a lifelong anglophile, so it was nice to be back in England. And rather reassuring. When I go to England-- at least, outside of London-- I realize that England is still England. I visited a village Christmas fair (in a Church of England church), patronised several pubs, and was driven around the Tunbridge Wells area (which is still fairly rural, due to development laws). It is still recognisably the England of P.G. Wodehouse and George Orwell-- more so than the England you see in movies and on television.

I've always found the English landscape to be more cheerful than the Irish landscape. It's hard to explain why. In fact, there is a melancholy underlying both English and Irish culture, but they have a different flavour. English melancholy is stoic and even rather cheerful, while Irish melancholy is lyrical and somewhat extravagant. This, to me, is symbolised in the contrast between the long, dolorous ballads that are the Irish commemoration of war, and the grim and lapidary inscription on English war monuments (which are everywhere, in England).

I was enormously pleased to hear about a newly-founded local debating society for elderly people in the area where we were staying. (I happened to be in the company of a retired person at the time, that's how it came up in conversation.) Two ladies had just come from the latest debate, which was on the topic of the sixties. The next debate would be on political correctness. I think I would have liked to sit in for that one.

Visiting Kipling's home and the Battle of Hastings visitor centre left me feeling a bit dejected about my own general knowledge. Kipling is an author who has interested me all my life (although I realized, rather to my surprise, that I've never read his prose, only his poetry-- just the opposite is true of Michelle). And I've actively studied English history, off my own bat, down through the years. But how little I actually remembered, when it came to it!

There was a particularly magical moment, in Battle, when me and Michelle had climbed to the roof of the Abbey, up a series of exciting stone spiral staircases. From the top, one could view the undulating hills of Sussex and Kent (I presume), and the town centre directly below.  A Christmas fair was in progress in the High Street, and recorded Christmas carols were playing on a loop. The sense of place, of time, and of perspective was delicious.

("Distance lends enchantment to the view" is a phrase usually used negatively, as a reproach to nostalgia. However, I've found it to be true in a very literal sense.)

Here I was, I thought, looking down on a pretty scene of English life. At Christmas, or near it. In the dying days of the 2010's, twenty years after the ushering in of the Millennium. Not very far from a place where a nation's history had been changed forever, in one bloody day.

I remembered the times I had visited England in my twenties. Since then, I had gained Faith, and a wife. On the other hand, I had lost a father-- and I had one particularly sad moment, a little later, when I found myself looking forward to telling him about the trip. But the sadness was not oppressive.

History, memories, hopes, dreams, ideals-- all of them hung around me in the crisp December air, with the landscape of England spread gently all around me, and the fatherly tones of Bing Crosby mingling with the excited squeals of children in the street below.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Fr. Paul Stenhouse RIP

I got some sad news the other day-- Fr. Paul Stenhouse, the editor of Annals Australasia magazine, has passed away. He had edited the magazine (whose long existence, sadly, ends this very year) since 1966.

Annals published a good few of my articles over the last few years-- perhaps ten or so.

I'd never heard of Annals until I got an email from Fr. Stenhouse, asking me if he could reprint one of my blog posts. I gladly gave permission, of course. He invited me to send him more articles after that.

Many of the articles I had published in the magazine were poetry criticism-- something I appreciated, since most editors won't touch anything to do with poetry.

Fr. Stenhouse was obviously a cultured man-- Annals was full of stand-alone quotations from all sorts of books and authors, many of them old and obscure. He seemed especially keen on G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Christopher Hollis.

When my book was being published, I asked Fr. Stenhouse to contribute a "blurb". Not only did he read the book, but he sub-edited the entire thing, without being asked. He asked me to give him a call about it-- something I did with great reluctance, since my dislike for the telephone cannot be overstated. But now I'm grateful I got to have a conversation with him, and to hear his voice. He had many useful suggestions to make, and his editorial eye also caught a few howlers. It's thanks to Fr. Stenhouse that I didn't have King Henry XVIII dissolving the English monasteries!

There is also rather a poignant connection with my own father (whose eightieth birthday would have been tomorrow). My father would read the copies of Annals Australasia that I was sent, and he had a high opinion of them, especially the articles on the history of Islam. I would pass this praise onto Fr. Stenhouse, who in turn took to regularly asking after my father. I don't think I ever mentioned his passing to him, though.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. 

Monday, November 18, 2019

Thoughts on Pope Francis

I rarely write about Pope Francis on this blog. His pontificate has become an explosive subject among many Catholics and I hesitate to venture into any discussion about him.

However, I thought I would risk a few remarks today. I'm going to write this blog post in the form of a numbered list, which might be appropriate to the subject-- since my thoughts, feeling and ideas about Pope Francis are often conflicted and confused.

1) Pope Francis is the Pope, the legitimate successor of St. Peter.

2) The role of the Pope, and the deference due to him, is defined thus in Lumen Gentium, the Constitution of the Church promulgated at Vatican II: "Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking."

3) Much that Pope Francis has said and done during his pontificate has caused me considerable alarm, distress, upset, and anxiety. I know I'm not alone in this. In fact, it's probably true to say that many Catholics now feel an habitual sense of apprehension about the Holy Father's next pronouncement or action.

The apparent compromise on the sanctity of marriage in Amoris Laetita is the chief of these, but there have been others. The change in the text of the Catechism regarding capital punishment also bothered me-- not because I am a fan of execution, but purely because it seemed like a contradiction of previously-held doctrine. The Holy Father's denunciation of "proselytism" is also confusing-- what is the difference between proselytism and evangelization? We should "use words when necessary", but when is it necessary, or even permissible?

4) Many conservative critics of Pope Francis say they acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope, but only when he acts in accordance with Catholic doctrine. This, however, seems like an empty formula, as well as a recipe for chaos. If every Catholic could be his or her own judge of doctrine, what would we need a Pope for? Isn't this like saying that you acknowledge a judge as long as he gives the right verdict?

5) Pope Francis often denounces "rigidity" in his homilies. This has become a sort of running joke among conservative Catholics, and we often ironically refer to ourselves as "Neo-Pelagians" and so forth. We also argue that laxity has caused far more damage to the Church than rigidity, in recent decades-- and this seems obviously true to us. Just look at the exodus of priests and the decline of congregations after Vatican II!

And yet, we have to admit...the danger of legalism (and of a complacent piety) is a dominant theme in the Gospels. Since the Scriptures are a living word, can we really write this off as purely historical, referring to the Pharisees and the Sadducees rather than to ourselves? Isn't it fair to say that, on paper, the scribes and priests often seem to have a slam-dunk case against Jesus? Why would this be such a central theme of the Gospels if it was not a continuing danger, relevant after the coming of Jesus as well as before?

6) The lack of charity among both defenders and critics of Pope Francis is lamentable. I have more exposure to his critics, since I am a conservative Catholic myself, and spend much more time listening to conservative Catholics than liberal Catholics. To hear the Pope described as "Bergoglio", mocked, sneered at, parodied, dismissed out of hand whenever he opens his mouth... this is a horrible spectacle.

A conservative priest I much esteem once said to me: "A Catholic should never publicly criticize the Pope." I think that's going too far, but I am more linclined to that priest's attitude than to that of the "Bergoglio bashers".

On the other hand, the defenders of Pope Francis often show a signal lack of charity themselves. They seem to desire "dialogue" and "encounter" with people of all faiths and none... except when it comes to conservative Catholics, who they often treat with a contempt they would never dream of showing to a Muslim, Hindu, atheist, gay rights activist, or pro-abortion feminist.

7) At Corpus Christi this year, I was very moved by a story I heard during a priest's homily, in Dublin's Pro-Cathedral. It concerned a Eucharist miracle which occurred in Buenos Aires in 1996-- a desecrated Eucharist was put into a dish of water and stored in the tabernacle. Upon the tabernacle being opened, it was seen to have become "bloodied flesh". When the bishop was informed, he immediately had the Eucharist photographed and investigated. That bishop is now Pope Francis.

I can't find that this Eucharistic miracle has been officially approved, but it seems convincing. Is it significant that it occurred in the diocese of the future Pope? At any rate, the future Pope's actions in this case certainly show no lack of conviction in the Real Presence.

8) Will Pope Francis's pontificate be looked back upon as a "blip" in Catholic history, a temporary wrong turning? Perhaps. But the current Pope has now appointed many cardinals to the College of Cardinals, and it seems highly unlikely that the next man to walk out on the balcony of St. Peter's will be a much more traditionally-minded Pope. (Unlikely, but not impossible.)

As well as this, when one reads the actual texts of the Pope's documents, homilies, etc. the differences between his pontificate and that of previous popes seem rather less pronounced. And the differences have surely been exaggerated. Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II also had much to say about environmental responsibility, fulfillment of the vision of Vatican II, and dialogue with other religions. Indeed, Pope John Paul II notoriously kissed a copy of the Koran. How does this compare to the presence of Pachama statues at the Amazonian synod?

Let us not forget, either, that the Pope emeritus has repeatedly thanked Pope Francis and affirmed that there is no contradiction between his own pontificate and that of the current Pope. 

9) Having said all this, I find myself somewhat disoriented in the pontificate of Pope Francis. I began to practice my faith during the pontificate of Pope Benedict. Much that I took for granted then now seems less straightforward-- especially, the manner in which we should evangelize and present the claims of the Church. I am more cautious of making a mistake in this regard than I used to be. This makes me less eager to write on explicitly religious or Catholic topics-- or, at least, to depart from the fundamentals.

I am somewhat more inclined, now, to be a Catholic writer on non-Catholic topics, than to write on specifically Catholic topics-- and least of all, controversial topics.

I think it is also true to say that my own faith, as a result of the recent controversies in the Church, has become somewhat more "mystical" and somewhat less doctrinal; more devotional and less intellectualised.

As ever, the thing I am sure of more than anything else in the world is the truth of the Catholic faith-- and, to use the words of the liberal Catholic Lord Acton, that Communion with Rome is "dearer than life".

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

A Farewell to English-- Well, Not Quite....

Recently I finished reading A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon. I'm not going to write about it here; I've realized (from previous posts) that few people share my interest in diary-writing as a topic. However, I did throughly enjoy the book, which was a commentary on the whole phenomenon of diary-keeping, and which took a look at some famous (and, indeed, obscure) diaries from the time of Samuel Pepys onwards.

Afterwards, though, I regretted reading it, for a reason relevant to this post: I've resolved to stop reading books in English, in favour of reading books in Irish, for the foreseeable future.

I've written about the Irish language on this blog before. My feelings on this score are probably best expressed in this blog post.

I've been reading Irish language journals (An Sagart and Comhar mostly) on my tea-breaks and lunch-breaks, during working hours, for several years now.

The importance of reviving the Irish language-- not simply for its own sake, but as a habitat for a distinctive and traditional Irish culture-- seems more and more important all the time. I feel a deep sense of shame that I have reached my fifth decade without ever making a serious effort to master the Irish language. Indeed, it's a shameful failure on the part of almost all Irish people. You can't be Irish in English.

We shouldn't even speak of being Irish-- we should speak of being Gaelic. Ireland is just a physical territory, Gaelicism is an imaginative and spiritual world of its own.

The problem is, I'm terrible at Irish. Yes, I can have a halting conversation in broken Irish, but nothing more than that. I can barely write a sentence without a string of grammatical and spelling errors.

My reading comprehension has come a long way in the last few years, though. My strategy is to improve through intensive reading, before anything else. After all, that seems to be how I learned English (and English was by far my best subject in school). I never really had any abstract handle on grammar (I still don't), but I read and read and read.

So my resolution is that, for the foreseeable future (perhaps forever), my leisure reading will be entirely through the Irish language. 

I'm talking about print here, rather than online. There isn't really much of an Irish language internet-- and, since the Irish language subculture had become overwhelmingly left-liberal by the time the internet came along, it is quite uncongenial to someone of my views.

But, fortunately, I have access to thousands of Irish language books and magazines in the university library where I work. And they long predate the liberalization of Ireland (which was a fait accompli in Irish language circles long before its conquest of the whole nation).

I'm not putting an absolute ban on reading texts in English. However, I need a very good reason to do so-- for instance, research for something I'm writing. (And I mean necessary research, not just background reading-- I'm not giving myself that dodge.)

I'm continually tempted to return to reading in English, not because I don't actually enjoy reading in Irish-- I do-- but because I'm more likely to come upon a book I particularly want to read in English-- like the diary book.

But all the English reading in the world doesn't have the same value as any amount of Irish reading. (The same applies, even more, to speaking and writing in Irish-- though I wonder if I will ever be fluent in writing.)

Although I'm a galloping romantic, I also suffer from a strong streak of scepticism. So I don't make any claims for the Irish language except that it is my ancestral language and that it is lamentably neglected.

I don't believing there's any utilitarian case for reviving the Irish language, or any language. Daniel O'Connell, an nationalist leader of the nineteenth century, notoriously said that: "It would be of vast advantage to mankind if all the inhabitants of the earth spoke the same language." If you share that view, I don't know how to argue with you. (You also give me the creeps, like one of the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)

Having paid my dues to scepticism, I must admit I often have very romantic reactions when reading Irish language texts; particular words and phrases make my blood stir. Is it a stir of ancestral recognition? No, I don't really believe that.

The feeling of warmth I experience when reading Irish language texts may have several explanations.

It might be pure nostalgia, pleasant associations from my school days. (My schooling was almost entirely through the Irish language, which makes my ignorance of it even more shameful.)

It might be (and actually, I know it is) a sense of cosiness from inhabiting, as long as I am reading, a smaller cultural universe. So many books have been published in English! It can be dizzying. Irish language culture is on a much, much smaller scale-- a more human scale, perhaps.

And then there is the warm glow that I always experience when I feel I am swimming against the tide.

I am only a nursling when it comes to the Irish language-- still-- but even that is no bad thing. It is like discovering the world afresh-- learning a new word for a familiar thing is, in a way, experiencing the familiar thing for the first time. It is rather like the section of The Magician's Nephew when the protagonists witness Narnia coming into existence.

But there's a long, long way to go, and I don't know if I'm ever going to get there.

The Pleasant Joys of Brotherhood

The Pleasant Joys of Brotherhood

by James Simmons

I love the small hours of the night
When I sit up alone.
I love my family, wife and friends.
I love them when they're gone.
A glass of Power's, a well-slacked fire,
I wind the gramophone.
The pleasant joys of brotherhood
I savour on my own.

An instrument to play upon,
Books, records on the shelf,
And albums crammed with photographs:
I céilí by myself.

I drink to passion, drink to peace,
The silent telephone.
The pleasant joys of brotherhood
I savour on my own.

This is a poem I came across in The Oxford Book of Comic Verse, which I received as a Christmas gift in my late teens. I've never been able to find it transcribed on the internet (and I hope the estate of James Simmons won't come after me for remedying this).

I never knew anything about James Simmons until I looked him up on the internet just now. He was a Derry poet and musician who died in 2001. This lyric is sung to the air of "My Lagan Love" (which I don't know) and you can find recordings of it on the internet.

This poem appeals to me as an introvert! I love people, but I sometimes prefer to love them in their absence.

There is a footnote in The Oxford Book of Comic Verse explaining céilí as "a friendly visit, a social evening".  I would have thought Irish music was essential, but I may be wrong.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Wayfarer in a Pub

Reader, what do you fret about?

I don't mean for yourself. I'm not talking about your final examinations, or your love life, or your bank balance. I mean, what social trends do you fret about? What are your worries for society?

Because I think most of us worry about society, and that our social philosophies can (to a great extent) be boiled down to our worries for society.

Now and again I seem to glimpse the world through the eyes of a progressive, and I realize that they actually fret about society collapsing into a racist, sexist, theocratic dystopia where secret police bundle "minorities" into vans and take them to concentration camps-- or some similarly lurid scenario.

This seems absurd to us. But then, I think such anxieties-- anxieties regarding social trends-- are very often irrational. In fact, I will willingly accept that my own anxieties regarding social trends are often irrational.

Here is one example, which may or may not be irrational.

For as long as I can remember, I have felt a very deep anxiety at the loss of what I might best term "folk culture". Perhaps I might also use the term oral culture. Or cultural memory.

In fact, it's very hard to come up with an appropriate term, because what exactly it is that I'm anxious about is hard to define-- though it seems very clear to me.

Perhaps a list of things towards which I feel protective, or nostalgic, might explain it:

Skipping chants. Ghost stories. Folk ballads. Street games. Parlour games. Card games. Local sayings. Riddles. The widespread use of literary and poetic and Scriptural quotations. Amateur dramatics. Shadow puppetry. Regional accents. Proverbs. Sing-a-longs. Stories around the campfire.

I think you probably understand what I mean now.

But it's very hard to know what collective term to give such things, or what to take as a defining characteristic, or even what they can be contrasted against.

I could try "oral culture", but this doesn't really cover it. Oral culture involves the transmission of culture orally. But take the example, for instance, of some kids improvising their own sport, using whatever equipment they have to hand. This would be an example of what I mean, but it can't be called oral culture.

Or take the example of somebody quoting a speech from Shakespeare, in an everyday context. This also fits, but it's not oral culture per se. It's written culture that happens to be expressed orally.

Sometimes I've defined this thing (whatever it is) against the mass media. I've defined it as everything which has been eroded, and continues to be eroded, by the radio, the television, the cinema, and the internet. The phrase "making your own entertainment" is often used in this context.

But that's not really it, either. Card games, for instance, are not really a case of people making their own entertainment-- there's not much imagination or creativity involved-- but they somehow seem to fit in this category. To me, at any rate.

And many of the media that existed before radio and television were pretty rubbishy. Music hall, for instance, seems to have been a tawdry form of entertainment, without much artistic or social merit. The same is true of a lot of print culture which preceded radio and television. "Penny dreadful" magazines were trashy by any standard, it would seem. (I've never actually read a penny dreadful, but I have looked through some popular magazines that predated radio and TV. Some of them were just as trashy and trivial.)

The wonderful website TV Tropes has an interesting page called New Media are Evil, which gives examples of the anxieties that greeted every new media as it came along, all through history.

As the page puts it: Almost every new medium of communication or expression that has appeared since the dawn of history has been accompanied by doomsayers and critics who have confidently predicted that it would bring about The End of the World as We Know It, by weakening the brain or polluting our precious bodily fluids.

The same thing has happened to basically every type of media in history, making this trope as old as mankind itself. Writing itself was hugely suspicious for example, as people feared that it would cripple the ability to memorise things, as this was now no longer needed, as everything could be written down.

Silly, right? And yet... I can't help feeling that there was considerable justification to even this anxiety, and that something is lost when a society passes from an oral to a written culture.

Something is obviously gained, too. In fact, most people who love books would agree that far more is gained by the spread of literacy than is lost. 

But...something is lost. Modernist literature, for instance, could never have arisen in an oral culture. Perhaps what is lost in oral culture is a kind of innocence. (My own theory is that all art becomes decadent the further it is removed from folk culture.)

Whenever a new cultural medium comes along, I would argue, something is lost as well as gained. And with some media, we might argue, more is lost than is gained.

For instance, I believe the introduction of television was cataclysmic to social and cultural life-- while, at the same time, I am fascinated by the history of television itself. (Peter Hitchens writes a brilliant and depressing chapter on television in his masterly book The Abolition of Britain.)

What about the internet? Well, it could be seen as an improvement, in that it is less passive than the media which dominated immediately before it-- television and radio. One might argue, as well, that it is a corrective to the homogenizing tendencies of TV and radio. Instead of millions of people watching the same show, you have millions of people writing their own blogs, participating in obscure internet forums, and pursuing the most arcane interests. That's a good thing...isn't it?

And yet, and yet....a young relative of my own admitted to me that he found it difficult to read books, since he was so unused to reading text without a light glowing behind it. I was touched and saddened by the admission.

So, although I cannot find an adequate term to describe the thing towards which I feel protective, I need to use some term. I will go with "folk culture".

Here are the characteristics of "folk culture", in this sense. These are tendencies rather than absolutes, and not all of them apply to every case:

1) It is non-technological, or minimally technological.
2) It is traditional.
3) It is national, regional, or local.
4) It is performed to small groups which are physically present, rather than to a mass audience across space and time.
5) It is participatory, rather than passive.
6) It is non-commercial.
7) It is improvized, rather than standardized.

I really do fret a lot about the loss of this "oral culture". I seem to encounter examples of this loss all the time-- although I am aware of the phenomenon of "confirmation bias", and realize my view may be excessively gloomy, that things might not be quite as bad as I fear

Be that as it may, I feel an obligation to protect and propagate "oral culture" in my own small way. This has led me to various efforts, but the effort I am going to write about in this blog post is my effort to memorize poetry.

I recently wrote an article on the decline of poetry for The Burkean. In this case, I am sure that the decline is a real decline, and not an imagined one-- and I give arguments for this in my piece.

So for a good many months now, I have been putting a corpus of poetry to memory. It's not the first time I've done something like this-- I've memorized quite a lot of poems in recent years, from the same motives-- but, inevitably, they have faded from my mind. I came to the realization that I had to keep them fresh, by constantly revisiting them.

In my teens, I had a great memory for poetry. I memorized poems without even trying. Since my twenties, however, it has required an effort. (The amount of effort depends on the poem-- in fact, I believe that the ease with which a poem sticks in one's memory is a good sign of its merit as a poem. Great poems almost brand themselves upon the memory.)

I started out simply memorizing poems I loved, and then I decided to start trying to memorize a poem (or passage from a poem) from every notable poet. My idea was that, one day, I would be able to say: "Name any poet and I'll recite a poem by him or her"

This is the list I have put to memory so far:

Death of an Irishwoman by Michael Hartnett 
Snow by Louis Macneice
The Fool by Patrick Pearse
Ulysses by Tennyson
The Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon
“Our revels now are ended...” by William Shakespeare
"All the world’s a stage...” by William Shakespeare
To Helen by Edgar Allen Poe
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow...” by William Shakespeare.
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats
“Ay, but to die…” by William Shakespeare
Lines Written on Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth
The Wayfarer by Patrick Pearse
The Kraken by Lord Alfred Tennyson
The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
A Birthday by Christina Rossetti
Heraclitus, by William Johnson Cory
The Owl by Lord Alfred Tennyson
The Planster’s Vision by John Betjeman
“No Longer Mourn for me When I am Dead…” by William Shakespeare
Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night by Dylan Thomas
“That Time of Year Thou Mayst in Me Behold” by William Shakespeare
“Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds” by William Shakespeare
“My Mistress Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun”, by William Shakespeare
“When I Consider How My Light is Spent” by John Milton
““Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth” by Arthur Hugh Clough
“The Burning Babe by Robert Southwell
Remember by Christina Rossetti
“Ring out, wild bells” by Lord Alfred Tennyson (from In Memoriam)
The Song of the Strange Ascetic by G.K. Chesterton
Forget Not Yet by Thomas Wyatt.
The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe
September 1913 by W.B. Yeats
The Workman’s Friend by Gem Casey (Flann O'Brien)
If by Rudyard Kipling
When I was One-and-Twenty by A.E. Housman
"Loveliest of trees, the cherry now..." by A.E. Housman
Annus Mirabilis by Philip Larkin
Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
An Irish Airman Foresees his Death by W.B. Yeats
How Do I Love Thee? by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
"Yonder see the morning blink..." by A.E. Housman
"Under the wide and starry sky..." by Robert Louis Stevenson
"Into my heart an air that kills..." by A.E. Housman
Peace by Henry Vaughan
She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron
Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost
John Anderson my Jo John by Robbie Burns
When He Who Adores Thee by Thomas Moore.
Golden Stockings by Oliver St. John Gogarty
Ringsend by Oliver St. John Gogarty
The Return by Thomas Traherne
Shakespeare by Matthew Arnold
Ode on a Snowflake by Francis Thompson
Adelstrop by Edward Thomas
Ozymandias by Percy Shelley
The Fisherman by W.B. Yeats
The World’s a Stage by Hilaire Belloc
“Among the crooked lanes..” by James Thomson.
“When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces...” by Charles Algernon Swinburne.

"The Raven" is the longest poem in this list, at one hundred and eight lines long. I'd actually memorized it before, some years ago, for the sole purpose of reciting it at a dinner party. (I switched the lights off and held a candle in my hand, as I recited it. The sense of drama was punctured somewhat when I tried to blow out the candle before the final "Nevermore", but struggled to do so). Then it faded from my memory. However, it was easier to memorize again, since I had memorized it before.

I decided "The Raven" would remain the longest poem in my repertoire, my "party piece". I actually recite it to myself, silently, every morning, to keep it fresh. It doesn't take that long.

I've noticed another benefit to having a body of poetry put to memory-- it's quite comforting. The mind (indeed, the world) can be a chaotic place-- having a refuge of structure and form is soothing.

I've had opportunities to recite the poems on my list, and here I come (finally) to the real subject of this meandering blog post.

There have been a lot of get-togethers in my extended family recently. Mostly (though not exclusively) these have been on the occasion of family deaths, including the death of my father.

More recently than that, my cousin passed away-- a relatively young man, in his early fifties.

Since Irish nationalism is deeply embedded in my extended family, there is a tradition of singing Irish folk ballads at get-togethers. My father himself had an apparently limitless fund of these. He would quite often toss off a verse of a ballad and then remark, casually: "I haven't even thought about that song in forty years."

Once, some years ago, my wife asked me to sing her a song. I realized I couldn't think of a single song I could sing her. When I told my father this, he said: "You should be ashamed of yourself." I agreed, and I was ashamed of myself.

So I felt a mixture of admiration and envy at my extended family, that they had such a wealth of patriotic (and other) ballads on the tips of their tongues.

However, at the recent get-togethers, I made a troubling discovery: they actually don't have them on the tips of their tongues. Not anymore.

Even the older ones-- men and women in their sixties or seventies, who had participated in innumerable sing-alongs over the years-- had trouble remembering the lyrics of most of the ballads they sung. They had to consult their smartphones for many or even most of the lyrics. As for the younger members-- those in their twenties and under-- they had no songs at all.

There was much lamenting of this fact. A member of my family who is very progressive, and frequently argues against my own social nostalgia, was particularly outspoken. She said: "Remember the days when we used to sing without any phones, actually remembering the words?" She was disdainful of anyone resorting to a smartphone-- although she had to do it herself, when joining in with some songs.

My father never learned how to send a text or navigate the internet. Perhaps that is why his memory for ballads never decayed. I think he was better off.

As is usual in such occasions, each member of the party was implored to sing a song. When my turn came, I suggested I would recite a poem instead. (I "haven't a note in my head", as the saying goes-- and I had already been building up my repertoire.) I recited "The Wayfarer" by Patrick Pearse. Pearse was the leader of the 1916 Rising against British rule in Ireland, so it fit the patriotic mood of the evening, although it is not obviously nationalistic:

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun,
Or some green hill where shadows drifted by
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.
And then my heart hath told me:
These will pass,
Will pass and change, will die and be no more,
Things bright and green, things young and happy;
And I have gone upon my way

I was nervous I would forget some words, or stumble over them, but I didn't. I recited it slowly, and gained in confidence as I went along. To my great surprise, the pub went silent, and lots of people beyond my own party were listening. There was even a round of applause from people I didn't know. It gave me a thrill.

Afterwards, we adjourned to a house until the early hours of the morning, and I recited some more poems: "Death of an Irishwoman" by Michael Hartnett, "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon, and "The Fool", which is another poem by Patrick Pearse.

I even joined in the communal singing this time, although I also had to look at lyrics on a smartphone.

I've stopped memorizing poetry now-- I'm intensifying my efforts to improve my grasp of the Irish language instead, having decided that the Irish language is even more important than poetry. That gives me plenty of scope for memorization. However, I'm still keeping my repertoire of poems fresh in my mind. I carry the list in a notebook, and mentally recite a few every day.

Am I alone in my concerns for "oral culture"? Do other people fret about this? I don't know. I wonder. Even finding words for these concerns, finding terms for what I am talking about, has been difficult. And yet, I would like to think I am not alone.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

My Lighthouses Series in Ireland's Own

If you buy the Halloween special of Ireland's Own, you can read the first in my series of articles on Irish lighthouses, about Wicklow Head.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

How Can We Foster Vocations?

Here is an article I wrote recently for the Catholic Voice newspaper (which is published by the Lumen Fidei Institute).

Friday, October 11, 2019

My Latest Article in the Burkean

I have an article in The Burkean, an online conservative magazine published by Trinity College students, on the decline of poetry.

You can read it here, if you are so minded.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Remembering the Philip Larkin Society Forum

Sometimes I like to use this blog to memorialize something which would otherwise go unmentioned on the internet-- for instance, this blog post on the Allen Library project library, where I did a training course in 2001. I was pleased when that post received several comments from people who'd been involved with the Allen Library in some way.

Recently, it occurred to me to write a blog post about the Philip Larkin Society Forum, on which I was active for a few years-- perhaps two or three. It has disappeared almost without a trace now-- I can only find a handful of references to it on the internet, all of them oblique.

Philip Larkin was, of course, a British poet, novelist, and librarian who died in 1985. He is famous for his melancholy, his traditional verse, his unfashionable conservatism, and his fear of death-- amongst other things.

I'd been a fan of Philip Larkin since I encountered his poetry in The Palgrave Treasury of Golden Verse (an updated edition, of course), which I read very slowly and very carefully over several months in my teenage years.

It seems to me as though the popularity of Larkin has burgeoned all through my lifetime. He was never by any means obscure-- he turned down the Poet Laureateship, since (being a curmudgeon) he feared it would make him even more of a public figure than he already was. But his star seems to ascend higher and higher all the time, to the extent that he now seems accepted as the outstanding British poet of the twentieth century (which he was)-- despite his unfashionable poetry and politics.

But before I continue on the subject of Larkin, a word about internet forums.

Internet forums seem to exist somewhat outside the pale of intellectual or cultural respectability. It's not that people are ashamed to contribute to them, exactly, but they seem to be viewed (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson on the subject of landscape gardening) as "rather the sport than the business of human reason".

And yet, participation in internet forums is quite often mentioned as an important stage in the development of somebody's opinions-- especially when it comes to people around my age, who are rather conservative or right-wing in their views.

What value has all this writing on the internet? I was always reluctant to mention anything I had written on the internet to my father, since he seemed quite disapproving of it (at worst) and dismissive of it (at best). And yet, he eagerly read anything I had published in print. And people in general seem far more respectful of printed writing than of writing in cyberspace.

But surely they feed into each other? I'm sure that the thousands upon thousands of words that I've typed on the internet-- on this blog, on internet forums, on Amazon reviews, on social media, and in so many other places-- have made me a better writer, and helped me to develop my thinking (such as it is). In fact, I often find my mind returning to debates and discussion on the Philip Larkin Society Forum, in the faraway days of yore.

Don't get me wrong-- as a traditionalist, I think it's only right that time-hallowed formats such as the magazine and the book should enjoy a prestige greater than an internet forum or a comments section on a blog. But that doesn't mean we should be completely dismissive of writing on the internet.

I discovered the Philip Larkin Society page almost as soon as I started using the internet, around 2001. (Actually, I first logged onto it on the half-an-hour "internet time" we were allowed in the Allen Library, which now seems rather quaint.) But I didn't start posting there until around 2005, and I think it was around 2005-2006 that I became a regular. I was one of about half-a-dozen regulars, along with a larger group of semi-regulars.

Philip Larkin's poetry was the primary subject for discussion, of course. But we also discussed other poets, other literary topics, and pretty much everything and anything.

I was feeling quite depressed, at this time of my life. I felt I was drifting, and my self-belief and self-esteem were in the basement. I was also feeling depressed about society and culture. I was becoming increasingly conservative, but I had no religious faith.

This last characteristic was one I shared with all the forum regulars. They were all atheists and unbelievers. The only religious member was a semi-regular, who used the name "Goofy". I remember, in one discussion, he asserted that he knew God existed. This baffled me, although I rather envied him.

Larkin, as I have mentioned, was noted for his fear of death. (His later masterpiece "Aubade", in particular, articulates his terror of extinction: "Nothing more terrible, nothing more true". Religion was "That vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die.") I remember one discussion on whether Larkin's poetry provided any kind of comfort or meaning in the face of mortality. One regular described a recent brush with the Grim Reaper. The consensus seemed to be that poetry provided some comfort, but very little.

I think it's fair to say that everybody on the forum shared a rather melancholy disposition-- not surprising, considering the rueful tone of Larkin's poetry, where even the flashes of sublimity are only highlights against a general gloom. (Larkin famously said that deprivation was to him what daffodils were to Wordsworth.)

However, not everybody on the forum was conservative-- most seemed apolitical, and somewhat fatalistic, while others even leaned to the liberal side. My own conservatism was deepening every day. I had reached a kind of futile anti-industrialism similar to that of D.H. Lawrence (whose book Apocalypse I'd read on a visit to the North of England-- I have happy memories of reading it in the deserted lounge of a hotel called the King's Arms, in Richmond North Yorkshire, while drinking brandy and Cokes). Pretty much everything about modern society was shoddy and contemptible, I'd decided. All modern history was a chronicle of social and cultural decline.

All these years later, I've come to see this outlook as sterile, a dead end, even self-indulgent. This is why I become fatigued by right-wing Catholics who see nothing but weakness and compromise in Vatican II. Repudiation is easy, even when it is dressed up as the loftiest idealism and fidelity. Ultimately we must find something in the world as it is to affirm.

But I digress...

Goodness knows how many thousands of words I poured into the Philip Larkin Society forum. All of the regulars seemed to be somewhat abashed at their presence, since each of us would intermittently bid adieu to the rest...and yet we kept coming back.

Perhaps the most memorable contributor was a chap who went by the name of Cojones. He insisted that Larkin was the only poet worth bothering with. He even questioned whether the rest of us actually enjoyed poetry by other poets, as we claimed to. I know he sounds like a troll, from this description, but I don't think he was. I think he was absolutely sincere. At one point, when somebody offered "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" as an example of a wonderful line of poetry, he claimed to find no merit whatsoever in it!

He'd discovered Larkin as a teenager, by walking into a room when some of his poetry was being broadcast on the radio. He was a gloomy chap. At one point, he commented that he never expected to have another relationship. But this was rather part for the course. We were all gloomy.

He did make one very profound observation, however, once which has always stuck with me. It was during a discussion of W.B. Yeats, whose poetic pre-eminence I was forever advancing. He said that he didn't like Irish writers, because they were always trying to hard to be Irish, or trying too hard not to be Irish. I think this is one of the most penetrating critiques on Irish literature I've ever heard (although I've come to believe that there's nothing wrong with "trying to be Irish", any more than there is with "trying to be human", or "trying to be Christian". I try very hard to be Irish, and one day I hope to succeed).

The forum could be surprisingly rough. I was mocked when I admitted to a taste for the verse of Edgar Allen Poe, and also when I wondered if Shakespeare's sonnets were not overrated. (I haven't changed my mind on either of these subjects.) On another occasion, I had the temerity to plug an early blog of mine, on which I'd posted some of my poetry. Some time later, one of the regulars took a savage swing at my efforts. I found this devastating at the time.

(However, I was no angel myself, and perhaps this was revenge for the time I responded to a long, thoughtful post he had written with a one-word profanity ("B*****ks!"). I thought I was being funny, and that the joke would be obvious-- after all, it was the kind of thing Philip Larkin might write in his infamously scurrilous correspondence with Kingsley Amis. But he didn't see the funny side of it. Yes, I was a rather less refined character back in those days...I had not yet discovered G.K. Chesterton.)

Oh, the hours I spent working out my thoughts on that forum! I can still see its green type  glowing against a white background, with the inky image of a frog at the top. (The Society’s emblem is not, as one might suppose, a toad, but a drawing of the small jade frog which Larkin kept as an ornament on his desk...).

Eventually, the forum was taken down while the website was being redesigned. I think this was against the background of some controversy, something to do with changes of personnel in the Society itself-- I heard murmurs. When it eventually returned, months or years later, it included a new forum-- but this one, sadly, was stillborn. At intervals of months, I would think to look in on it. Only one of the regulars posted there, and that was seldom indeed, as nobody responded to his posts. The party, such as it was, was over. Now even that forum has been taken down.

I often wonder what has happened to all the regulars. I see one, who posted using his real name (as did I), quite active on the internet. I sent a Facebook friend request to someone who I thought might have been one of the others, but it was not accepted. I know one regular died in the twilight days of the forum-- in fact, close to his own end he admitted (in poignantly poorly typed words) that it was one of the few pleasures left to him.

I hope the rest are still alive, and doing well. I remember one of them, after a rather bruising response to one of my posts, told me that it was not delivered without affection. I look back on them all with affection, too. "What will survive of us is love."

(I contributed a commentary on Larkin's early poem "The School in August" to the Society website, for their regular "Poem of the Month" feature, in January 2006. It's still there, and I'm still quite proud of it.)