Monday, January 27, 2020

The Cross-- Chapter One of an (Almost Certainly) Never-to-be-Finished Novel

A few years ago, I started writing a novel called The Cross. I wrote six chapters of it, including a bit of Chapter Seven. 

A few people have read what I'd written so far. I got some very positive feedback.

Ultimately, however, I decided not invest any more effort in the novel, and it's almost certain I'll never return to it.

Life is so short and there are only so many things one can focus on in that limited time. At the moment (at least as far as my cultural or intellectual energies are concerned), I'm concentrating on improving my knowledge and grasp of the Irish language. Indeed, that is where the very ideas and impulses dramatised in this abortive novel have led me, at this point. 

I believe there are some worthwhile things in this novel, which make it worth blogging even though it breaks off at chapter seven. I hope I'm not deluded! 

Chapter One

“What on earth is that?”, asked Holly, pointing.

Dean’s eyes followed her finger. Embarrassment struck him.

“Oh that...that’s just a piece of rubbish I picked up…”

But already, Holly had stepped into the garden shed and pulled out the clumsy, handmade cross. She stood it upright on the garden path, gazing at it with complete absorption. The top of it stood a little higher than her head.

“Where did you get it?”

“Oh….at a craft fair….”

“What did you pay for it?”

“Ten quid, I think.”

They stood there awhile in silence, staring at the cross. It stood a little under six foot. It was made of chipboard, with a figure of Jesus daubed in black ink upon it. His arms and legs were too long, and the face was barely sketched in. It was not at all heavy.

“I can’t believe you’re throwing everything else out, and keeping this.

Dean laughed. He laughed more around Holly than he laughed around anybody else.

“I can’t really bear to give it away. I’ve had it six or seven years now. I thought it was the weirdest-looking thing I’d ever seen, when I first laid eyes on it. I think I felt sorry for whoever made it. Who else was going to buy it?”

“You’re such a softie”, said Holly, smiling with amusement, as she swivelled it around to look at the other side.

Such a bewitching smile, he thought, watching her. Holly was a rather short young lady, with shoulder length dark-brown hair, and a girlish figure. She was pretty, but not exceptionally pretty. Right now, she was wearing a pair of jeans and a grey Chicago Bulls sweater. Nobody would give her a second look in a crowd, but Dean thought she was the closest thing to pure goodness he’d ever met.

“I don’t see any signature”, she said, in her musical Kerry accent.

“There isn’t any. I’ve looked for one, too. I have no idea who made it, or where it came from. It was a charity craft fair and all the stuff was donated.”

The sound of children playing drifted from another garden, far away. Dean realised that he felt more contented, more light-hearted, than he had for a long time. He’d always liked garden sheds. There was something very simple and calming about them. He liked this time of year, this time of day, and the sound of children playing. More than anything else, he liked being around Holly.

The cross itself added to his good mood. The very clumsiness of the thing had always appealed to him. In a world of mass production, its roughness and lack of finish made it stand out.

Holly seemed to like it, too. She was running her hands along its length, dreamily.

“Seems a shame to throw it in a garden shed”, she said.

“You’re right. Let’s bring it inside. After all, there’s plenty of space.”

Holly laughed again. Despite being a petite girl, she had a hearty laugh. He liked that. “You’re right about that. I never suspected you’d be bitten by the minimalist bug.”

“Neither did I”, said Dean, taking the cross from her and carrying it the short distance to the back door. Holly carried a stack of movie magazines, the only thing she’d wanted to keep from the garden shed. They stepped into the kitchen. Dean propped the cross against the wall, and strode mechanically to the kettle.

“Well, there’s one thing you couldn’t get rid of”, said Holly. “How many cups of tea do you think you drink a day?”

“They used to give out tokens with packets of tea-bags when I was a kid”, said Dean. “If you got some phenomenal amount, then you could win a car. I think maybe that stuck in my head and I’ve been trying to win the car ever since.”

“Even though you couldn’t drive it”.

“One thing at a time”, said Dean. “You know, thinking of those old ads makes me melt with nostalgia.”

Everything makes you melt with nostalgia”, said Holly. “A twenty-five year old shouldn’t be so nostalgic. Save that for when you’re an old man.”

Dean looked over at Holly, who was sitting by the kitchen table, her hand still stroking the arm of the cross. Whenever he tried to speak to her about nostalgia, about his interest in the Ireland of previous decades, she was completely uninterested. She made fun of him, gently, whenever he launched into a rhapsody about some old show like Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, or about Irish street ballads.

But one of the things he loved most about her was that she looked as though she had walked straight out of the past-- the nineteen-thirties, or the nineteen-forties. Oh, she wore fashionable clothes, and listened to modern music that Dean couldn’t stand, and all of that kind of thing. But she also radiated an innocence that didn’t seem to exist, in the twenty-first century-- in women or in men. He had never heard her say anything crude, or anything cruel.

The very expression on her face always seemed strangely out-of-time-- the sort of expression that would be more suited to a smoky, black and white photograph from a hundred years ago. It was too gentle for the second decade of the twenty-first century.

“Well, I may never be an old man”, said Dean, handing Holly her tea and pulling up a chair at the table. “I had the nightmare again last night.”

He spoke lightly, but a look of anxiety passed over Holly’s face. “The fellow with the gun?”, she asked.

“Yeah”. Even in the brightness of the morning, he felt a distant echo of the dream’s terror. “And, once again, I can’t remember who it was. Every single time I dream it, I recognise the gunman. Or I think I recognise him. But when I wake up, it’s gone.”

Holly didn’t speak. She still looked anxious.

“Always the same thing. I’m in a living room, a living room with a large mirror over a fireplace. There’s some kind of chanting coming from a radio. I see the gunman  shoot somebody else, right in front of me. Then the he turns to me, raises his gun, laughs, and shoots. And then I wake up.”

“That’s awful”, said Holly. “I think you should speak to somebody about these nightmares.”

“You mean, a psychiatrist?”

“Well, a counsellor of some kind.”

“A counsellor? Really? I’m sure she’d tell me that the gunman represented my inner demons, or maybe my internalized anger, or something like that.”

“And maybe she wouldn’t”, said Holly. “A counsellor was very helpful to you before.”

Dean said nothing, taking a long sip from his tea instead. Holly had spoken softly, because she knew how sensitive a subject this was. He told very few people about his teenage problems. He’d spent too many years of his life believing he was crazy-- being told he was crazy--  to want to dwell on them.

“Well, if I keep having them, I’ll think about”, he said. “Hey, do you want a biscuit?”

The subject was soon changed, and in a few minutes Holly was laughing again. When she laughed, Dean felt giddy. Did Holly have any idea that he felt more for her than friendship? Whenever he thought about this, he felt strangely ashamed. He was lucky to even have her as a friend; she was too good for him, he thought. It was silly to think she might think of him as anything more than a friend.

They finished the tea, and carried the boxes of books, DVDs and magazines to Holly’s car. There were five boxes.

“You really want me to take all this stuff?”, Holly asked, one hand on the cover of the boot. “Last chance now.”


“Even the comics from your childhood? I mean, my nephew will love them, but you’ve told me so often how much they meant to you…”

“Well, I’m not twelve years old anymore”, said Dean. “It’s time for me to let go of all that stuff.”

Once again, there was concern in Holly’s eyes. “What does that mean? Why is it time? What are you going to do?”

Dean smiled, hoping to reassure her. “It’s just time. I don’t know. I can’t explain it. All I know is that I’ve felt, over the last week or so, that I should get rid of all the stuff that’s cluttering me up.”

“The stuff that’s cluttering you up?”, Holly asked, looking towards the house. “You’ve left barely anything except the kettle and that cross!”

“Bit of an exaggeration.”

“Yeah, well….I hope you’re not going into some kind of….some kind of downward spiral. I know you’re depressed about the contract coming to an end, but there will be other jobs. You’re a good teacher. I have a feeling you’ll land a serious job soon.”

“I believe you”, said Dean, although he didn’t. He grabbed the lid of the boot, and pushed it down, emphatically. “Look, I’m not depressed. I’m not about to jump into the Liffey. That’s not my style at all. I’m actually feeling strangely excited these days.”

“Oh yeah?”, asked Holly, a whimsical smiling touching her lips. “You’re feeling excited?”

“Yeah”, said Dean, a little embarrassed. It was true. He was feeling strangely excited, at the oddest moments. “So don’t worry. Take my boyhood treasures without a qualm.”

“Alright, then”, said Holly. “I’d better fly. I’ll talk to you soon, Buddha.”

As the car pulled away, Dean waved and wondered why she’d called him Buddha. He was getting a little chubby, for sure. Not fat, but definitely carrying some extra weight. Then he decided it had probably been a reference to Zen Buddhism, a joke about his newly-found minimalism.

He walked back to the house, drinking in the softness of the autumn sky. Yes, this was his favourite season. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. Had anyone ever written a better line of poetry than John Keats’s evocation of autumn? Soon the fireworks would start going off, in the long build-up to Halloween.

Back inside the house, he walked from room to room, noting approving how his footsteps now echoed in some of them.

There was very little left. No television. No radio. No computer.  (After all, he had a smartphone if he really needed to use the internet.) The only books were a Bible, a dictionary, and various volumes that had been given to him as Christmas and birthday gifts by his parents and his grandmother. He’d kept his back issues of his favourite magazine, Erin’s Pride, and that was about it when it came to reading material.

The only picture left hanging was one that Holly had given him once, as a “thank you” for a favour. It was a sentimental painting of the Virgin Mary pointing to her heart. Her heart seemed to be floating outside the middle of her chest. It was girded by a belt of white roses, and flames sprang from it. Behind her, the sun was setting on a silver sea. Doubtless the painting was “kitsch”, but Dean liked it. He liked it because Holly had given it to him, but also for its own sake.

Rather awkwardly, he crossed himself and said the Hail Mary before it.

Dean didn’t pray very much. He was a religion teacher, but he didn’t pray very much. He was also an English teacher. He read all the time.. The contradiction bothered him, sometimes. An English teacher should read. A religion teacher should pray. But a few minutes a day was the extent of his prayer life.

What would Holly think of that, he wondered? It had been so typical of her to buy him a holy picture as a gift. He faith was as much a part of her as her accent, her eye colour, or the way she walked. “I’ve been praying for you a lot”, she would say, as naturally as any other person might say I was watching the news last night. Nobody would ever call her a Bible-basher or a holy roller. But-- other than his own grandmother, Fran-- Dean had never known anybody so deeply religious as Holly. It was part of what he loved about her.

But what about his faith? He stood there, still looking at the schmaltzy picture of the Blessed Virgin, and wondered how much faith there really was in his heart and soul.

He went to Mass every Sunday, and every holy day. He read religious books-- now and again. He prayed-- now and again. But sometimes he wondered if he really believed.

When he prayed, he felt as though he was talking to himself. When he received Communion, he told himself it was the body and blood of Jesus Christ, but did he really believe that in his heart? He wasn’t sure.

And yet, for all that...he knew which side he was on. He was on the side of religion. He was against the people who attacked religion-- the humanists, the atheists, the scoffing professors, the smart-alecky liberals, and all the rest of them. He was on the side of Catholic Ireland. He was on the side of his grandmother saying the rosary in her front room. He was on the side of old men lighting candles before some kitschy shrine. He was on the side of Christmas carols and holy wells and streets named after saints. He was on the side of innocence, simplicity, reverence, faith.

But the question remained...did he actually believe? Did he really believe in angels, demons, miracles, and all that? Did he believe something actually happened when a priest said: “I absolve you of your sins”, or “This is my body, this is my blood?”. Did he really believe that his parents still existed, after their deaths?

If anybody asked him, he would say “yes”. But when he asked himself...well, he couldn’t give a confident answer.

His mind turned to the questions that Holly had been asking by the car. Why had he been seized by this sudden desire to give all his stuff away? Why did he suddenly feel his possessions were weighing him down? He’d been a clutterbug all his life. Why on earth would he do a complete about-turn at the age of twenty-five?

He didn’t know. That was the honest answer. And really, was it all that strange? He’d always been the kind of guy who went through crazes and phases. He’d had his photography phase, his fishing phase, his soccer phase. In his late teens he’d even had something of a Left Bank, bohemian phase. He’d been a vegetarian for six or seven months, many years ago. This decluttering was just another….thing. They had to be got through, that was all.

And what about the excitement he’d told Holly about? (He’d never say these things to anyone but Holly.) Well, that was there, too. Even before the urge to get rid of stuff. He thought it had come to him for the first time at Connolly train station, standing at the train platform, waiting to say hello to a friend arriving from the country. Just looking at the screen of arrivals and departure, at all the people coming and going, made him feel extraordinarily excited, as though he was on the brink of some great adventure. And this feeling had surprised him many times since then...looking at the wind whirling autumn leaves along the street, or watching the rumble of traffic in the morning, or seeing a pretty face in the street. He felt like there was a wind blowing behind, about to sweep him away….

All of it nonsense. Some quirk in his body chemistry, no doubt. As meaningless as his nightmares of a gunman. But there was no reason he shouldn’t enjoy these fits of exhilaration, when they came. They might even motivate him.

He walked upstairs, went into the bathroom, turned on the taps, stepped into his bedroom, grabbed a few copies of Erin’s Pride from his bedside, and within a few moments he was luxuriating in the hot water, flicking through the pages of an issue from 1995.

Could anything beat reading in the bath? He didn’t think so. The front door and the back door were locked. He was expecting nobody, and nobody was expecting him. Nobody in the world was concerned with him right now.. No blank gazes from indifferent teenagers, slumped over their desks. No small talk from colleagues about traffic congestion, the news, or anything else. Not even the mild sense of anxiety, of being open to inspection and judgement, that he felt standing in the queue at the supermarket. He was invisible, invulnerable, deliciously safe.

He flicked through Erin’s Pride. The magazine had barely changed at all in a hundred years; short stories about chaste love affairs and harmless village eccentrics, nostalgic articles about agricultural fairs and trips to the cinema as a child, features about golden age Hollywood movies stars...this, too, made him feel deliciously safe. He didn’t like the Ireland of the present. He didn’t like gangland killings, foul-mouthed comedians, constant media attacks on priests and nuns, crass entrepreneurs treated like demi-gods…no, he didn’t like any of it….

After a few minutes, he tossed the magazine aside, laid back in the tub, closed his eyes, and began to day-dream. Images passed through his mind. An old grainy photograph of a fiddler in Erin’s Pride….the thought of the locked door….the simple beauty of a garden shed...Holly’s smile…

He had begun to doze off when he distinctly heard these words, in a low male voice: Take up your cross.

He started up in the bath, his heart pounding.

After a moment’s hesitation, he stood up, grabbed a nearby towel, wrapped it around his waist, and stepped towards the door, which was three-quarters closed. He swung it fully open, felt a wave of adrenalin wash over him, and saw…

Nothing. There was nobody in the hall.

For a moment, he wondered if someone might be downstairs, if someone might have broken in. But only for a moment. The voice had been low, almost in his ear. It had either been someone standing right beside him, or….

Or he was hearing voices. Again. Like he had when he was a teenager.

No, he thought. It was just my imagination. I was half-asleep. I was dreaming.

He stood there, his heartbeat slowly returning to normal, his rational mind gradually winning over his moment of panic. Yes, that was it. It was just a dream, the beginning of a dream. No need for panic. Absolutely no need for panic whatsoever.

He’d just finished tying the belt on his bath-robe when the doorbell rang.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Ever-Decreasing Circles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Christmas and New Year Memories

I hope everyone had a good Christmas and New Year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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