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.