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The Gift

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Anthony Trollope: Power, Land, and Society 1847 - 1980

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Saturday, 8 December 2018

Seagulls, chips and the question of God.

I read of a man beating a seagull after it stole one of his chips. He grabbed the bird by its legs and bashed its brains out on a brick wall. In the great scale of things, pretty small beer. Far more evil things go on in this world, but whether it’s seagulls or holocaust an assertion is made – an act of faith as much as anything else: There cannot possibly be a God to allow such things.

Without doubt, the holocaust and similar events far transcending the fate of a seagull have turned many into atheists. They pose the question:  how could God allow such a things to happen? And by doing so suggest that the presence of evil negates the existence of God. They highlight the apparent contradiction of God being both all-powerful and all good ie if God allows evil, he can’t be all good and, on the other hand, if he’s unable to prevent evil, then he can’t be all-powerful.

The traditional answer is that we were created with freedom of will and with it the responsibility of moral choice. We can choose to do good or bad things. Like bashing in the head of a seagull.
But, one could argue, there is nothing to stop God extending a feathered hand and protecting that seagull. The man lamenting the loss of a chip was given the choice to do a bad and foolish thing, but the seagull didn’t suffer from it.

The question then arises, what would happen if there were no evil in the world? And, on a social and political level, the further question. Who gets to define what is evil? — a pertinent point when drugs, microchipping and the possible spread of the Chinese concept of ‘social value.’ We all ready accept ‘credit scores,’ why not ‘conformity scores.’  Of course, if we were robots the concept of good and evil would cease to exist. We would do as we were programmed to do, truly ‘following orders.’ And in an alternative universe, God could have created us so. But creatures stripped of meaningful choice cease to be moral beings.

So, back to this world and the feathered hand of God protecting innocent seagulls. (Well, not so innocent. It stole a chip.) Where would it stop, this interventionist God? Are we to be protected from every consequence of a bad or foolish decision? From the consequences of every natural disaster or virus—God, clad in Lycra and cape, zooming from crisis to crisis? And if we lived in a world without crisis or challenge or meaningful moral choice, what exactly would we be?

Saturday, 1 December 2018

The Tennessee Cheese Wars

A few nights ago, I had the devil’s own job getting asleep. It happens now and again, usually in the small hours of the morning between two and four, so perhaps I should qualify that by saying ‘getting back to sleep’. No problem getting there. Returning is the problem. And I’m desperate to return, if only for the dreams.

Last night I dreamt of the Tennessee Cheese Wars. My wife, usually less trusting, asked me whether there ever was such a thing. No, I said. I’m fairly sure that there hasn’t. Then again, who knows in the future? Was it prophecy?  This world is getting crazier by the minute, and I might well head a flotilla of Tennesseans, furiously paddling canoes burdened with Edam and Camembert pursued by lactose starved, tomahawk waving Indians.

But those nights I can’t return to my dreams . . . I just lie there an hour or more, switching from one side to another, checking the clock, and uttering that age-old prayer: ‘Why me Lord?

I want to go asleep, and the process is akin to a slow moving football match. . . the goal is in sight but I’m shadowed by a tenacious defender. However I weave and twist and turn, it’s always there, soft and black and blocking my route.

 The worst bit of all is being on the verge, and in my experience there are two kinds of verge: the ‘cliff edge’ verge when you feel you’re so near the edge… you just have to roll off…and then some invisible but bloody-minded membrane bounces you back, and you open your eyes—shut them again quickly to find the cliff edge has vanished.

The other verge is what I term the ‘hammock.’ As the name suggests, you’re lying there comfortably warm when the bottom slips away taking you with it. That’s my favourite, the one I normally go to sleep by—but rarely at 2.39 in the morning.

On this particular night, seeking verge after verge, I finally got up 4.49 in the morning. It was fairly pleasant at first—a warm fire, hot tea and a third rate Stephen King book ‘Bag of Bones’. By ten in the morning I was a wreck and went for a bath.

That was weird in itself. I never have baths—well at least rarely—but there I was, lying in hot water and wondering what I was doing there. On the floor, I noticed a supermarket magazine – the Waitrose Weekend. Well, it had to be better than sitting in hot water staring at tiles. On balance, it was. I read Mariella Frostrup’s take on the menopause, Fi Glover’s opinion – I’ve forgotten on what, and learn’t many interesting recipes: sausage rings soaked in cider, stuffed with chopped apple and pine nuts, the best way to cook salsify, a recipe for Larb noodles with passion fruit chilli dressing, another for Hoisin Tofu and rice burritos. I was on the verge – the cliff edge one—but the water was cold and I got up.

I’ve kept the magazine for the next time I’m awake at 3.25.

Friday, 23 November 2018

A shiny mess of Potage

The Victorian philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore was once asked how much he was worth. His answer surprised the questioner who thought he must be worth much more than the answer given. Sir Moses replied that he hadn’t been asked how much he owned, but how much he was worth, and that he had given the sum he gave to charity each year. The message being, your worth should not be measured by what you own, but by how much you give away.

Christ would agree, deeming an impoverished widow putting a mite in the collection box as more worthy of merit than the rich man who gave a hundred times more. She had given all she had.
In the same vein, Jesus tells the story of the man who discovered hidden treasure in a field and who sold everything he had to buy the field and its treasure ie Heaven. He advised another to give all he had to the poor and follow him. Observing his reluctance, he observed how hard it was for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Sir William of Anhalt  took the lesson to heart, giving everything he had to the poor and himself becoming a beggar.

On a more trivial note, I experience just how hard it is to divest yourself of property every Christmas. Each year I give a sum of money to the Salvation Army, and every time I look at the amount given and compare it with what I spend on myself or on others. It usually resolves itself in the question: do I really need that extra bottle of malt? And each year the kingdom of Heaven holds its breath for the answer.

The message so far is about something greater than yourself, in this case Heaven, which for those who don’t believe can be reduced to what is right. The question is whether the EU can be equated with Heaven.

The Bible certainly didn’t approve of Esau who sold his birthright for a mess of potage, and I’m reminded of it when I hear the CBI obsessing over profit margins in arguing the case for remaining in the E U.

When I was young, we knew who ‘The Man’ was. You saw no demonstrations supported by big business, Goldman Sachs, George Soros, J P Morgan, the CBI and high finance in general. You saw no demonstrations in support of the establishment. And yet that’s precisely what we’re seeing now - which is strange, because the big corporations and lobbyists operate in the interests of profit, not people carrying blue banners covered in stars.

This was something the Labour Party once recognised and Corbyn remembers.

Brussels creates an illusion. With unlimited money, marketing expertise and a bought media, it exploits and harnesses idealism. In reality it is an undemocratic, bureaucratic and protectionist cartel working in the interests of global capitalism, and in Britain – but not Italy or Greece – we seem to be witnessing Turkeys voting for Christmas.

Europe is dressed up as something bright and shiny, much as in earlier times, we bedazzled those more primitive with baubles as a prelude to robbing them of their lands – or their birthright. It’s why history is important. When its rewritten or diluted or becomes something to be ashamed of, a birthright becomes disposable, perhaps sold for a shiny mess of potage, certainly not Heaven.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Clinging to a cliff by her fingers.

Like many, I was glued to the televised Parliamentary debate and the later televised appearances of Theresa May as she tried to sell the unsellable – that is of course until the vested interests tell us it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.

 Neville Chamberlain at least had his moment of glory when he flew home from Munich to cheering crowds, an appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, and a Daily Mail headline lauding him as one who ‘brings to Europe the blessed prospects of peace.’ And then, as now, (under its new editor) the Daily Mail pontificated that those who opposed this view were deluded or ambitious, self-serving wreckers.

Many pay tribute to May’s fortitude expressed in grotesque facial contortions and the stoicism of the condemned; a woman playing King Lear, only in this instance the whole nation shares in the tragedy with all exits closed. It’s here I confess that if in some bizarre fantasy I found her clinging on to the edge of a cliff top by her fingers, my first impulse would be to jump on them. Quick and clean, not prise them free one by one – for then I might have second thoughts.

I have a strong moral censor, which holds me back from my baser desires. I’d remind myself that she was once a daughter, held and doted upon by loving parents and one presumes currently the apple of her husband’s eye. She is a person pursuing her own fate – which is great if it didn’t involve everyone else. That’s the thing about politicians; they know what’s best for everyone else. The litmus test is their use of the word ‘people’. Whether it’s Lenin or May (there’s a combination) Corbyn or Macdonald, what ‘the people want’ or the variant 'decent hardworking people' almost always coincides with what they want, and it's why it is hard to feel any sympathy for them when things go wrong. They put themselves up there. Let them get themselves down while we cope with the mess.

Meanwhile, there's a woman up their clinging to a cliff by her fingers.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Vauxhall Field

Walking to Monmouth is always a pleasure. People nod and say hello. This is almost the first thing I see on leaving the house 

Twenty minutes later I'm in Vauxhall Field, dog capital of Monmouth. 
Vauxhall Fields changes with the seasons and has a mystery all of its own. It’s hard to believe it’s only five minutes walk away from Monmouth Town centre and that in the late C18th it was laid out as a Pleasure Garden by a Mr Tibbs of the Beafort arms and named by him after the more famous Vauxhall Gardens in London. Monmouth never lacked ambition.

Early morning mist from the Kymin.
Spire of St Mary's

It hosted the Monmouth Races until 1933 and was for a time the centre of National Hunt racing. It has hosted the Wales International Kite Festival, steam rallies, dog shows, an annual fair, and hot air balloon flights. Most days it’s a place where people walk their dogs  and one can only hope that, after an unsuccessful attempt in 2011, housebuilders don’t get their grubby hands on it.

And then frost and gloom and autumn mists

When you see the field like this, it’s easy to slip in time to 1233 when the field hosted the Battle of Monmouth* on the feast of St Catherine* (25 November)
Henry III had some admirable qualities but had an unfortunate penchant for French favourites, in particular the Poitevans. They cluttered up the court, hogging all the best positions and keeping good Englishmen out. A rebellion was predictable, and Robert Marshal 2nd Earl of Pembroke duly obliged. Allied with Welsh princes, who were in it for what they could get, he besieged Monmouth Castle. 

The Battle, as described by the Chronicler Roger of Wendover, in his Flores Historiarum took place on this very spot – the most exciting thing to occur there before a bi plane flown by lieutenant Fox landed on it in 1912

For those desperate to know, the rebels won, and Wendover’s account can be read below.

Prior to the Battle,  the man in charge, John of Monmouth, reputedly ran away,and the defence of the castle was left to the mercenary Baldwin III Count of Guines and a garrison of Flemish and Poitevins. Baldwin, not realising the full force of the rebels sallied forth:

(Robert Marshal met them head on.)  He...kept them at a distance, brandishing his sword right and left, and struck down whoever came within reach, either killing them or stunning them by the force of his blows, and although engaged single-handed against twelve enemies, defended himself for a length of time. His enemies at length, not daring to approach him, killed the horse he rode with their lances; but the Marshal, who was well practised in the French way of fighting, seized one of the knights who was attacking him by the feet, and dragged him to the ground, and then quickly mounting his adversary's horse, he renewed the battle... At this juncture... a cross-bowman amongst the Marshal's company, seeing his lord in danger, discharged an arrow from his bow, which, striking Baldwin, who was dragging the Marshal away, in the breast, entered his body, notwithstanding his armour, and he fell to the earth believing himself mortally wounded... Whilst these events were passing, news had been carried to the Marshal's army of the danger he was in, on which they marched with all haste to his assistance, and soon put his enemies to flight. A bridge in the neighbourhood of the castle, over which the fugitives hoped to make their escape, was found to be broken, on which great numbers of them threw themselves into the river and were drowned with their horses and arms; others, having no means of escape, were slain by their pursuers, and some were made prisoners, and few of those who had sallied out from the castle returned safe."

* There was of course a less significant Battle of Monmouth fought somewhere in the colonies.
* St Catherine's feast day is still celebrated by the Girls School in Monmouth. Pupils and teachers in gowns walk from the school to St Mary's church - perhaps without a glance at the field where a battle was fought.