WHAT WOULD it be like being a reindeer herder in Lappland? The perpetual attraction of some mode of living other than that which is immediately at hand lurks somewhere in human nature, especially at one might be described as the points of transition in life. But then, when properly considered, life itself is one permanent transition period. Indeed, not just life, but perhaps all existence, as I am discovering in the Purgatorio. Having breakfast in Oxford the other day I was informed I should read the Divine Comedy, as Dante’s ideas about the natural order of the universe supposedly coincide with precisely with mine. A few days later, as the sun was shining and giving us a delicious foretaste of spring, I decided to walk across Green Park, up Duke of York Steps, and over to the Piccadilly Waterstones to pick up a copy and have been duly transfixed by it. I am totally ignorant of theology and philosophy, all of which goes completely over my head, but I phoned up Rob, who’s properly clever, and he averred that Dante’s conception of order is based on Aquinas, and Aquinas is absolutely correct, so apparently we’re all quite sound. (Which is a relief).
No, I don’t read Italian, though I do have an occasional peak at Il Messaggero or Il Tempo — I can never get my hands on a copy of Il Foglio, which I suspect might be the most interesting daily newspaper in the world. So I’ve had to put my trust in C.H. Sisson’s blank verse translation — being a Companion of Honour, Sisson had a CH at either side of his family name. Did you know David Hockney has both a CH and an OM? Greedybones! I haven’t seen the Hockney yet, as I am more used to visiting the Royal Academy with an ex-girlfriend who’s a member so we can jump the queue. To my regret, she has moved to Poland (to Gleiwitz, of all places, which any of my fellow devotees of false-flag military operations will recall from the 1939 ‘incident’). Still, I have broken the tradition already by seeing the Hungarian Photography show at the RA with another uni friend who is a fellow Magyar obsessive and frequent drinking companion.
I was disturbed to see the beautiful column dedicated to Prince Frederick which gives Duke of York Steps its name altered by the addition of a pseudo-neon ringlet of blue light midway up the shaft. I think it’s something to do with the Olympics, alluding to the Olympic rings (probably one of the most recognisable emblems in the world) but shorn of any context or guidance it looks a bit silly. The ostensible clash between ancient and modern, however, is one which I tend to find productive, inspiring, and energetic. It’s one of the reason I love Calatrava’s design for the completion of the Cathedral of St John the Divine. Calatrava is one of the best mod architects around: he lacks the egotistical arrogance of the starchitects who are hyperexpressive but with nothing of substance to express. Zaha Hadid’s building will all date horribly, not to mention fall to pieces, while Calatrava’s, I suspect, will stand the test of time.
SOMETHING which came up in conversation twice this week: People today find it so difficult to comprehend moral complexity. No, rather, they don’t even try to comprehend it, they just divvy the world up into the goodies and baddies. (It is a vice particularly found in American thinking and spreads worldwide with the increasing Americanisation of the planet). There are the goodies on one side and the baddies on the other. Syria is a perfect example of this, where William Hague has been so astoundingly foolish as to recognise some farcical ‘Syrian National Council’ as the legitimate government of the country. Assad falls pretty far short of one’s ideal of a modern ruler, but under his rule, Syrians of all persuasions — Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Christian, Jew — occupy positions of importance in government, the military, society, politics, the economy. How long do we expect that to last when the Islamists take over with the blessing of Mssrs Hague & co.? We now see those brave and noble Libyan rebels we were so instrumental in ushering into power desecrating the graves of British soldiers in a war cemetery. It was easily foreseen, the dangers were pointed out beforehand, but The People In Charge exist in a bubble completely disconnected from reality, which they then counterproductively influence for the poorer.
Personally, I wonder if we should just progressively ignore them. The government, that is. What if we all simultaneously stopped paying our taxes? Created complicated networks of mutual support through family, friends, and like-minded people rather than accepting the ever-decreasing largesse of the government handout? An anarcho-Cusackian dream: giving this ugly modern government the cold shoulder. Though it’s perhaps hypocritical of me, working in politics and being a member of an Irish political party, to say so, avoiding politics is much better for one’s wellbeing. I have to maintain a very fine balancing act between information and ignorance in order to be involved without being consumed. Nec tamen consumebatur, as they say.
Despite today’s antipathy to moral complexity, God does grant one little moments of grace and light along the way. A few months ago I found myself smoking a cigarette alongside a Labourite Member of Parliament, and somehow within thirty seconds we got on to the subject of the American Civil War — which is a veritable Marianas Trench of moral complexity. But in this case like instantly recognised like, and we found ourselves agreeing that Abraham Lincoln was a despicable racist and General Lee an outstanding gent. (Or did we just fall into the fallacy of inverting the usual goodie versus baddie thinking?). People forget that Lincoln, like many abolitionists, wanted to prevent the expansion of slavery to new states because they wanted to keep those states white, and keeping them slavery-free also kept them black-free. There’s an aspect of the conflict that pits those who wanted an ethnically cohesive (which is to say, white) industrial democracy against those who wanted an oppressive racially diverse agricultural oligarchy. You won’t find that in American textbooks.
RESOLVED, therefore, that giving up drink for Lent is a wicked and pernicious thing. We all know the trickiness of giving up things for Lent. It is meant to be a sacrifice, a penitential offering for the glory of God. But there are so many things that have silver linings to giving up. Giving up alcohol saves you money and is ostensibly better for your physical health — with the massive caveat that drink is vital to a properly balanced lifestyle.
What’s worse, since drinking is such a social activity, giving up the drink is far too public a penance. Try going out and ordering a soda-water-and-lime: people look at you as if you are mad until you explain you’ve given up drink for Lent. Then they still look at you as if you are mad. The penances from which we get the greatest spiritual reward are the ones we keep to ourselves. I’m sure we all remember the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, with the former’s loud breast-beating and the latter’s quiet prayer.
And then there are civic reasons for very rare exemptions to said penance. An Taoiseach himself, Enda Kenny TD (What’s that? Quit your jeering! Respect for the office, lads, respect for the office…) will be in town on Monday and obviously it would be against protocol not to have a drink at the House of Lords reception in his honour. Will it be wine on offer, or a pint of the black stuff? And if one quaffs enough that one breaks out into song for the Castlebar-lad-made-good, should one sing that old favourite “Take Me Back to Mayo, Across the Irish Sea” (geographically appropriate) or is the more modern Saw Doctors tune “The Green and Red of Mayo” the serenade of choice? These are the questions that plague the modern Gael.
And then a day later there’s an little do at the Embassy (sans taoiseach, je pense). It would probably not be charitable to recall the year the (Prod) Bishop of Southwark got so wasted at the Irish Embassy reception he ended up breaking into some chap’s car and throwing the children’s toys in the back seat around. When confronted by the car owner’s startled question of what in blazes he was up to, His Grace shouted back “I’M THE BISHOP OF SOUTHWARK! IT’S WHAT I DO!” A useful clarification on the role of Anglican bishops in a modern Britain.
So this year’s Lenten observance has, in a sense, been a complete failure. Not that one hasn’t been able to give up the drink, but that in choosing to give it up one has failed on several penitential levels. What’s worse, it now exists merely as an extension of the ego: a Riefenstahlian triumph of the will. One refuses to give up giving up simply because one has issued forth an act of the Self. Totally devoid of spiritual grace! I am working on my spiritual tome: How Not to Spend Your Lent by Andrew Cusack.