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Friday, 26 March 2021

There are faces we remember

Any excuse to stretch a point - or a word.

I read recently a rather snooty article on the subject of dinner parties. Apparently, those of a superior class no longer give ‘Dinner parties’ seeing it as something the middle classes do in their desire to copy their betters. They give ‘Kitchen suppers’ instead, and they’re not talking about sitting on barstools in tiny kitchens sucking a sausage roll. To offer a kitchen supper you need a very large kitchen, a long rustic table, Aga of course, and perhaps one or two mud-splattered spaniels owned or if necessary, hired. And God help those who get it wrong. Rebekah Brookes, former Editor of one of Rupert Murdock’s newspapers and a confidant of David Cameron, referred to them as ‘Country suppers,’ which apparently marked her down. Dinner parties, so middle class, so last year.  Country suppers? Tee hee hee. Oh dear. Not quite one of us.

Well, I love dinner parties, and it is one of the things I miss most in the current pandemic. Food and wine are a bonus, but I miss the laughter, the conversation; I miss people’s faces. 

A few weeks ago, we attended a funeral, all of us looking somehow diminished beneath masks that covered each and everyone’s face.  By contrast, a few days later we bumped into two friends we hadn’t seen for a time, in a country lane and without masks.  Throughout a long conversation, I found myself avidly searching their faces and expressions, their tone, and sensed they were doing the same as we talked. The novelty of conversation, the human face.

Something I regret in my past is one misplaced decision. It occurred on my once-in-a lifetime forty-day tour of America. I was so obsessed with the purity of landscape and sky – the big skies of Wyoming, the great Salt Desert, Grand Canyon et al I wanted nothing human to obscure, taint or dilute what I hoped to capture for ever on film. Accordingly, I took no photos of the small and increasingly intimate group I was travelling with. A sensible person would have realised it wasn’t a case of one or the other. A sensible person would have taken photos of both. But sense comes with time and experience. Landscape and parties – kitchen suppers – country suppers, dinner or a Kentucky fry,  it’s always the people that count. 

I plan a year of feasts, to eat, drink, and visually cannibalise faces. I might not say very much, which will be a blessing for many, especially when the novelty wears off and my tongue once again gets the better of my brain. 

Thursday, 18 March 2021

The Hairy One

The ruins of a church built around St Simeon's pillar.

For centuries after Christ’s death, Christians eagerly sought martyrdom, desperate enough to share some of the pain and humiliation of crucifixion. When, however, Christianity became the official religion of the empire they were denied that privilege. Other ways of proving yourself had to be found.

It is hard now to fathom the intensity of faith, which in Christ’s words could move mountains. There are no records of Christians in Syria or the Holy Land moving mountains, but it wasn’t for lack of faith or desire to emulate Christ. For them, the cosmic struggle between light and the forces of darkness were very real, some seeing it as their duty to create a ring of steel, protecting the Holy Land from demonic intrusion. 

Hermit monks settled themselves in mountainous crags absorbed in prayer and contemplation. Deprived of martyrdom, they starved themselves, suffered thirst and prayed whole nights without sleeping. Some went to further extremes, mixing ash in their gruel, living from the waste scraped from their sandals, living like cattle—chained to cowsheds eating grass. One saintly woman confined herself to a cell that had a spectacular riverside view. For the rest of her life, she refused to look out, praying instead to the opposite wall. 

There was fierce competition in the holiness stakes. Theodore – the empire’s most celebrated living saint was a man of awesome holiness. He wore a fifty-pound metal corset, subsisted entirely on lettuce and was thus able to forecast the end of the world

None though compared to the all-conquering Stylites which, admittedly sounds  like some kind of a Motown Band. The first and most famous was St Simeon Stylites (390-459 AD) who spent more than 30 years standing on top of a 200-metre pillar near Aleppo—all the time preaching to the masses below. When not preaching, he did trunk curls repeatedly touching his toes with his head in unnerving repetition.  Eventually the former young shepherd boy degenerated into a withered, worm-infested and fabulously hairy old man known from Britain to Ethiopia as ‘The Hairy One.’ Pilgrims travelled for miles seeking miracles. 

Feeling cheated, the imperial capital felt in need of its own Simeon Stylites and so, a year after his death, a disciple was persuaded to climb a similar pillar on the outskirts of Constantinople. There, Simeon’s disciple spent the rest of his life lecturing the emperor and nobles who flocked around to be suitably chastised. 

Stylites popped up all over the place. There was the not so well known Alypius who stood on top of his platform for 53 years until his legs gave in. He spent the remaining 14 years lying down on his pillar until he died aged 118. 

And then, to confuse things, seventy years later (517 – 592 AD)  another St Simeon Stylites – known as ‘The Younger’ so as not to confuse things. 

He began his career aged seven, marching from Antioch to the Syrian desert. After a year’s training in a nearby monastery he ascended his pillar where he stayed for the rest of his life. 

Plagued by demons, leg ulcers and worse, nothing deterred him; his reward, heavenly visions and huge crowds of pilgrims, lepers, and other unimaginable diseases, all of which he apparently cured. 

Antioch took great pride in him, his pillar seen as a heavenly lightning rod attracting celestial residue. So, ironically, Simeon who’d left Antioch to be alone with God found Antioch had followed him, a burgeoning tourist economy bustling around the base of his pillar. 

It’s hard to imagine anything similar in our present age, though as late as the 1920’s there was perhaps a faint parallel in the American craze for pole-sitting – in most cases associated with advertising. (From the sublime to the worldly) It’s greatest exponent was Aloysius Anthony Kelly, better known as ‘Shipwreck Kelly.’  Kelly began life as an orphan in Manhattan’s ‘Hell Kitchen’ and became the prestige brand of pole-sitting often going on tours. He’s small fry though, compared to his Syrian forbears who stayed on their pillars for years. Kelly’s record was a mere 49 days at 69 feet in Atlantic City. He died, knocked over by a car in 1954 when I was a small boy and Doris Day was in the charts with ‘My Secret Love.’ 

A far cry from Antioch. 

Friday, 12 March 2021

As yet, no loins have been griddled.

The Mustard grain is the smallest of all seeds, but when it is grown it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. Mathew 13.32

 Christ gives two evocative images of Heaven’s intrusion upon Earth, comparing it to the mustard seed that grows into a mighty tree where many birds roost; on another occasion to a pinch of yeast that leavens the bread. You couldn’t get a much tinier seed than twelve disciples living in an obscure province in one of the world’s great empires and bounded to the east by other powerful cultures, never the mind unknown civilisations across the boundless ocean. And yet, within three hundred years it had become the religion of Imperial Rome and continued to spread. 

What’s fascinating is the sheer intensity of belief in Late Antiquity, made manifest in the great cathedrals of medieval Christendom, and the courage, bigotry and intolerance of much missionary activity.

The intolerance had early and understandable roots. The story of Christ is relatively simple, his message beautifully clear—or is it? After his death fierce and dedicated minds grappled with the unknowable in their search for a unified faith. 

Arians, for example, argued that Christ being created by God was necessarily a junior partner, and this opened a real can of worms. Allow another, albeit minor deity then why not, like pagans they felt so superior to, allow a hundred and one others? 

Then in response to the emerging and hard-won orthodoxy that God was three in one— Father, Son and Spirit—even more arguments arose. If God was truly ONE, did that mean ‘the Son’ was not subordinate to the Father as the term implies?

Was Jesus equally God and Man? And how does that work? Was he completely divine without any trace of humanity— his body merely a mortal shell for the Heavenly Spirit that descended upon him at birth or his baptism? Or was He the adopted son of God – flesh and blood like everyone else but no less the Christ for that?

Ah, the subtleties of the human mind. Could his divine and human nature be intermingled like water and wine so as to constitute a single nature, or did the two separate natures of Christ co-exist as separate entities like water and oil? 

At the Council of Chalcedon, a compromise formula was arrived at ie Christ was Truly God and Truly Man. Just that. No explanation. A mystery. But another branch of the church disagreed. The Monophysites argued for one indivisible nature. The church was riven, and bloodshed ensued, neither side giving an inch.  

When the Byzantine emperor, Anastasius, daringly allowed a single Monophysite phrase to be used in the capital’s churches, there were riots. Statues of the emperor were toppled; whole sections of the city were burned, and the head of a decapitated Monophysite was paraded around on a pole to a catchy theological ditty.

The Monophysites were equally intolerant. In Alexandria, where they were most strong, any suggestion that Christ had two natures aroused blind fury. Their Patriarch Dioscorus, less holy man than a Monophysite gangster, was accompanied by black robed enforcers, thugs beating the hell out of any who dissented. When, in 457 A D, the Emperor got round to sacking Dioscorus, his replacement was hacked to bits by an enraged mob who dragged his mangled corpse through the streets of Alexandria.

This mutual intolerance went on for decades, neither side giving an inch. In the C7th the brother of the Monophysite Patriarch had his loins griddled and his teeth pulled out for refusing to accept that Christ was not wholly divine. It may explain why Monophysite Egypt accepted the Arab invasion with some equanimity. As one Monophysite Bishop piously declared the invasion was God’s response ‘to the wickedness of the emperor Heraclius and his persecutions.’ 

It puts our own more mundane but no less heartfelt squabbles in perspective. Then they fought over the nature of Christ, both God and Man.  Now we fight over gender, the authenticity of women, the authenticity of men. Human nature doesn’t change, just the things that excite it. But, as yet, no loins have been griddled. 

Friday, 5 March 2021

Insolent squirrel!

I was down early, rinsing a cup for my morning cup of tea, and happened to glance out of the kitchen window. I expected to see birds – finches, robins, sparrows or one of the two fat pigeons who regularly feed from the bird table. Instead I saw a damn squirrel and realised on the instant that our re-purposed Christmas wreath (our Heath-Robinson squirrel protector) had been circumvented. The squirrel had triumphed. 

I banged at the window. The squirrel ignored me. I banged louder and it turned, seemed to shrug and return to its troughing. I tried all manner of things, jumping and flapping my arms— not a pretty sight—but it didn’t faze the squirrel. I hit the window with a small saucepan, careful enough not to cause a more serious disaster.

 I opened the window—and it turned and just stared. Inspiration struck and I hurled a used teabag but missed and the squirrel returned to its feeding. 

It put me in mind of the Choctaw fear of the black squirrel and their belief in its obsession with ‘eating the sun.’ At the first sign of an eclipse whole tribes would ascend mountain tops making as much noise as they could – dogs barking, women and children shrieking at the top of their lungs, warriors bellowing ‘Funi lusa hushi umpa! (roughly translated: the Black squirrel is eating the sun.) It worked of course, their noise frightening the squirrel away and the sun re-emerging unscathed.

 At least mine wasn’t eating the bird table and I was also afraid of waking my wife or frightening the neighbours. I imagined the squirrel waving me off as I was driven away my men in white coats. Eventually I gave up. A million years of evolution gone up in smoke, a man in his dressing gown trounced by an insolent squirrel. 

*Then I remembered that indispensable adjunct to evolution: Dr Google. Pepper’s the thing, not a withered Christmas wreath. I’m looking forward to seeing that squirrel sneeze. Now I sound like Elmer Fudd.