Monday, October 1, 2007

And now the end is near

That's all folks!

Occasional lines of random thought will be continued on

Noctem quietam et finem perfectam concedat nobis Dominus omnipotens.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

No apology necessary

In my never-ending quest to avoid becoming a human bonsai - the fate of so many, let's face it - I'm pondering today the notion of apology.

I'm all for 'apologia'. It's a fine literary form. It's the sort of thing that early autobiography slides into, but we can forgive it for all that. When I say early autobiography, I'm thinking of things like CS Lewis's 'Surprised by Joy' or Robert Graves's 'Goodbye to All That' rather than 'Wayne Rooney: My Story' (soon to be retitled: 'Rooney: Fragile Feet'). Newman's 'Apologia pro Vita Sua' must fall in this category, though when I attempted to read it some fifteen years ago that venerable gentleman's dense prose left me feeling stranded. It remains unread even today, although I'm not saying it's unreadable.

Contrition is also good. I'm all for that too. It means taking responsibility. It's also a proof of affection. We're never sorry for breaking the law, as Fulton Sheen observed, but we are sorry - or we should be - when we hurt those we love - or should love: God, family, friends.

But, frankly, I've had it with apologies. We English probably began the rot with our passion for apologizing when somebody - some Noddy! - does something to us. A stranger stands on one's foot, and the English soul to whom the foot belongs squeaks, 'Sorry', as if it's responsible for getting stood on in the first place.

There was all that ecclesial apologizing a few years back - some of it necessary and some of it not! But what about when it referred to things that happened centuries ago? Well, I'm sorry my forefathers in the faith didn't live up to the required standard, i.e. I'm sorry for it, but how can I apologize for it? It's not MY fault! Regret, yes; apology, no! On the same tack I was amazed to learn last week that Denmark has recently apologized for the tenth-century invasion of the British Isles .. Yes, the bastards, that still hurts and it's about time too ... What about them Romans as well? 50BC. We will not forget!

Which brings me nicely to the current kerfuffle - if kerfuffle is the word I want - in the Premier League over referees mistakes. The scene: Sunday, Liverpool v Chelsea at Anfield. Liverpool are one goal to the good. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, referee Rob Styles awards a penalty to Chelsea and they equalize. Result: 1-1 draw, which translates as 1 point for Chelsea, and 2 lost for Liverpool.

Sad. My heart bleeds. But mistakes happen. Referees aren't robots, any more than players are. Players miss passes. Some miss open goals. It's the game. We, and they, live with it. So, why then is Monday's news saturated with reports of profuse apologies from Styles and the head of the Referees' Association (most of whose mild-mannered English members had nothing to do with it)? Ask Styles to hold his hands up by all means, but make him apologize? Oh go on then. And send the little sod to the headmaster's office for a caning at breaktime. That will learn 'im!

I'm ranting, I know. But it all looks like a taste for seeing a humbled man eat yet more humble pie. He knows he made a blooper; why the public sackcloth and ashes? Stevie Gerard, who called for a Styles' apology on Monday, last week threw himself to the ground when an Aston Villa player smiled at him, thus winning a free-kick that gave Liverpool an equalizer. 1 point for Liverpool; 2 points lost for Aston Villa. Are we to expect Gerard to make a profuse apology now? Should the referee whom he fooled make a tearful expression of sorrow for having had the wool pulled over his eyes? Or must we leave it to a couple of modest Aston Villa supporters to bemoan their invidious cries of 'cheat' when Gerard plunged to the ground in an Oscar-worthy dive?

Or is this apology crusade a sign that we want officials to be above the common human lot? And that when they aren't, they must be made to pay a dearer price than the ordinary Joe Blogger? If so, does it go to show that egalitarianism prises honour away from responsibility without surpressing the hierarchy of responsibilities? Or does it mean we now expect the fallible human being to perform as reliably as a precision tool for the precious purposes of our entertainment?

Maybe in the end it's just a sign of what happens to passions when they are sublimated into the bread and circuses of stadia the world over. Who knows, somewhere hidden under the rubble of Rome there could be a bit of wax tablet - Stella Ferialis - relating the fury of the Populus Romanus at the failure of Robertus Stylus, arbiter maximus, to let the lions off their chain at the appropriate moment, thus giving an aging gladiator a ten-yard start.

I suppose if the lions are no longer with us, then we should be grateful. Or maybe, just maybe - given the mauling of Styles in the last few days - the lions are still with us in spirit.

We don't like the blood any more, but we haven't lost the taste for seeing a weaker man get done in.

We're a sorry lot then. Misere nobis, Domine!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The new season

Where did July go to? I only blogged once, though I can assure you I thought about blogging on more than one occasion, rather like one those tired old dogs that begin to rise from their snooze in front of a warm fire only to collapse again in a heap of legs and tail before returning to unconsciousness.

Yes, August is upon us and not a child in the house dressed. But on it roles, as do I, this time into my appointed office in the deathly unhallowed grounds of Reading University. The month ahead is looking promising, with prospect of fair weather - need I say more? - after 15 August (i.e. after the Assumption of Our Lady naturally) and much beavering away in the books, with my eye on the new term's teaching load, thesis corrections, optimistic publication proposals and much, much more, as the glossy magazines say.

The old brain has not been entirely dormant this last month however. I'm now within spitting distance of the end of George Weigel's monumental 1000 page biography of John Paul II. Perhaps like Sir Edmund Hilary or Sherpa Tensing upon the ceiling of the Himalayas, few people have trodden in this place before me. The early chapters are model portraits of the historical, cultural and political scene in Poland pre-1979. The account of Karol Wotyla's life, as a young lad, seminarian and then priest, is also remarkably instructive: intense piety, phenomenal industry, both combined with intellectual equipment of the highest order, and all refined through an adolescence and early adulthood under the jackboot of one vile dictatorship to the west and then another to the east. I found myself warming to the man, having spent many years grumbling about his apparent obsessions with ecumenism.

The later chapters fade a little in their critical depth, veering at times towards the apologetic rather than reflexive. This is not the case every time. Concerning women's ordination, Weigel suggests that JPII's failure to deepen his reasons for rejecting the feminazis' favourite theological chestnut left the field open for further confusion and accusations of chauvinism. Certainly, a rejection of sacramental functionalism and a better clarification of the nature of liturgical semiotics would have been timely and might have helped cut the ground from under the Richard McBrien's of this world. But when he comes to Assisi, Weigel barely begins to get to grips with Joseph Ratzinger's strong objections. We await further development since the latter gentleman is now occupying John Paul II's position.

And so on we go. August is the quiet time in Rome, and I haven't yet breathed a word on this forum about Summorum Pontificum and the Tridentine Mass. But we'll leave that for another time. Corrections beckon, as does lunch and the gentle blue sky which sits rather sheepishly over an otherwise sodden Britannia.

Monday, July 16, 2007


Speaking sportingly, I hate this season of the year and at the same time I love it. I hate it because the newspapers are full of rambling garbage about non-sports like golf (for old men) or F1 (for loonies). Wimbledon is perhaps an exception, especially given the extraordinary match that unfolded at the end of the men's singles. Cricket only merits a mention when it involves real teams (like Australia), rather than non-teams (like the WIndies). Otherwise, we're in a sporting desert.

Still, you cannot have twelve months of continuous football - I'm talking about real football here, the sport in which you kick the ball with your foot and not, Mr David Beckham, about soccer! No, twelve twelve months continual football would have no drama in it, no rhythm, no peaks and no troughs. The reason you have to love the closed season, however, is the same as the reason we love anything subject to the law of delayed-pleasure: anticipation is a cultural mood in itself.

And one thing I find fascinating is how commanding footballing genii - if that's the plural - like Stevie Gerard or Christiano Ronaldo, take time coming back to match fitness. We live in a technological age where the other side of the world is a mouse-click away, but the human race, for better or for worse, remains a fallible vessel of variability. Getting match-fit is not like flicking the 'on' button; it's more like the old wireless set which needed time for the element to warm up. It's like the slow recovery of a dampened down fire. It's the glow of spreading warmth in the chair by the fire after a cold day in the snow.

It wasn't like this in Roy of the Rovers. Nor in politics. Put a lackey in charge of a new ministry and he's already at full match fitness and upsetting people across the world before you've had time to say 'Lick my boots'. But in sport - which even the ancients were interested in - there's some semblance of reality, competition, achievement, failure, drama, retreat, victory. Hmm. Love it.

The closed season in Manchester has been even more interesting than usual. Sven Goran Erickson - lock up your wives and daughters - has come to Manchester City as manager. Man U have bought in a couple of Portguese stars and the pivotal Owen Hargreaves for central midfield. Ricky Hatton, world champion boxer and Man City fan, caused a stir by asking Wayne Rooney of Man U to carry his belt into the ring before the recent pasting of some Yank in Las Vegas. Well, winners know other winners, I must assume!

So, here I am, not quite in pre-season training yet but facing that prospect pretty soon. Another ten days and my 'break' will come to a quiet end, and I'll have to start winding up the old man for a charge at the new season. As Bill Shankley once said, 'Football's not a matter of life and death; it's far more important than that.' Still, life must go on! Roll on 2007-2008!

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Enthusiasm and Brains

A week is a long time in politics, so the old saying goes. Sadly, it is some time now since this dictum has been akin to saying a Ford is a fast car. We have speeded up so much that a mouse click is the only suitable micro-measurement for catastrophe.

But this week has been a long time coming, and it seems a long time since Monday already. Tony Blair ended his numerous encores, and took a final bow in the Commons on Wednesday. Gordon Brown ended ten years of nail-biting impatience by moving into the prime ministerial hot seat. And, within forty-eight hours, a plot to welcome the new cabinet with two large nail bombs planted in central London was mercifully averted. This time.

But as Blair is carried towards the Middle East on the froth of popularity, and Brown drifts into Downing Street on a tide of Protestant work-ethic, I’m struck by how perfectly they represent the Gog and Ma-Gog of reform.

The revolutionary of the sixties was the angry young man. Now, of course, anger is a strictly unfashionable passion; the in-thing is earnestness. Tony Blair paved his reforms with the dubious hardcore of good intentions, promising to clean up the nasty little mess left behind by the corrupt Tories. That is why, after exempting Formula 1 from the cigarette advertising ban - at the request of Labour Party donor, Bernie Eccleston, Formula 1 Mogul and millionaire - Blair had to assure us all he was a ‘straight kinda guy’. Oh, well that’s alright then. We baulk at twisted Tory politicians who try to trick us, but straight-kinda-guy Labour politicians can deceive us with our blessing. He was the ‘people’s prime minister’ because he meant well. He stood alongside President Bush in his war on terror and really truly, madly, deeply believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq which could be delivered to the West on scooter in 45 minutes. Oh, and by the way, if hundreds of people die in Iraq every day, we must remember that Saddam has been removed from power. Freedom to be blown up: just like in London. By June 2007, Britain might have been flooded with Tony’s good wishes were it not already flooded with unseasonably high precipitation. His latest mission as Middle East envoy approaches Roy-of-the-Rovers levels of fantasy self-fulfilment. Appointing Tony as a Middle East envoy is a bit like having Sid Vicious as a school learning assistant. Perhaps - let's face it - that is what is wanted by those who have appointed him: I mean, if Good Envoy Tone cannot solve the problems of the Middle East, only war can. How else can we understand such a spectacularly obtuse choice of envoy? I'm sure it's done with good intentions. In any case, Tony’s enthusiasm is like having his political ballies up; nobody can touch him. Let’s hope none of those nail bombers try.

And now for Gordon (queue morose bagpipes) who arrives in what I assume is a Brownian motion, with all the puffiness of a heavily constipated pig and a reputation for elephantine intelligence and porcupine sensitivity. His mantra, as he stood before No.10 on Wednesday was, ‘change, change, change’. Note the chicanery. Ten years of Labour government have put them alongside the Greeks in their contribution to civilization. But we now need change, change, change. Why? Because that is how a massive bureaucracy justifies itself, with ever greater rationalization, even if it makes the appropriate genuflexions towards decentralization. But Brown wants technocracy too; he can ignore the people if their leaders are clever and brilliant … like Gordon himself. Blair belaboured us with his unrelenting goody-two-shoes enthusiasm; Brown will overwhelm us with his illumined, startling braininess. ‘Brilliant intellect’ is one of the de rigueur phrases to be included in all Brown profiles. Blair’s intentions were so good, nobody sound could disagree with them. Brown’s plans will be so clever, nobody sound will be able to naysay them.

So, here we have them, the Gog and Ma-Gog of reform: Blair the demagogue (now, perhaps the oligogue) and Brown the technocrat. Blair means death by enthusiasm. Brown means death by petrifaction.

And this is what freedom means: choosing how you will die. Just ask the people in Iraq.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Rain, rain, go away!

I don't know if this is the end of civilization as we know it, or weather, oops, whether we are all just forgetting how bad an English summer can really be. But, Lord love a duck, nobody can deny that today was the worst summer day ever recorded in terms of rain fall.

I can corroborate this in no uncertain terms. Leaving Fareham at 1.30pm, I fully expected to be back in Manchester and diving into a meat stew and a glass of Shiraz at 7.15pm or thereabouts. Instead of which I was met with a cancelled train at Reading, then shunted onto a train which claimed to be going to Manchester but which only went as near as Warrington. Yours truly was duly stranded until nearly 8.30pm in what can only be described as one of the bleakest outposts of the North West. There was, it seemed, some shades of a reasonable excuse. Vast stretches of the Midlands were under quantities of water unheard of since the days of Noah. But it was no use saying 'I don't care where the water goes if it doesn't get into the wine' since the crowded conditions on the Virgin Voyager - vergin' on the ridiculous, as we say - made it virtually impossible to get near the buffet for liquid refreshments.

((Shudder))! Anyway, I'm back in Manchester and trying to put some sense into an eventful weekend. Expect an update with more cogitations tomorrow.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Cheeky correspondents

A point of order, Mr Speaker, we'll have no cheeky messages please in the comments feature without the means of sending a bit of cheek back in your direction. Richard, who posted on 15 June, please take note!

Service has been resumed

Both of you might have been wondering what has happened to Chesteretté these past few weeks. Of course, neither of you might have been wondering that at all. Theburunderthesaddle might, for all I know, have been like a virtual frontier town, the wind whistling through the old posts, cyber tumbleweeds grouping for protection around my profile description, and somewhere in the distance the sound of a harmonica wheezing out a haunting chorus of Dixie.

But, I can assure you that nothing but the most pressing of responsibilities prevented me from frittering away another few hours of my life on blogspot. Indeed, it was nothing less than the preparation for my doctoral viva ...

... oh yes, the doctoral viva. Hours, days, weeks of feverish and often ineffectual preparation were distilled down to about seventy of the sweatiest minutes I'm likely to endure this side of the Equator during which the two examiners sat themselves just far enough apart for me to feel threatened AND surrounded.

But in the end ... I passed with 'a minor' which means I have to make a few changes to the text and have the thesis rebound before it is finally accepted. My external examiner has suggested one or two interesting pistes I should explore for publication, though I shall not mention them here. I discovered in our discussions that he has himself just secured a contract with Continuum for a book about the English Catholic literary revival (now where did he get that idea from? From his wife, he told me!). (See: That'll teach me to keep my big mouth shut!

Anyway, I passed. Ta daaaa!

So, it's done (more or less) and my first real holiday for about four years can begin once I've handed in my corrections.

It's still the calm after the storm at the moment. I retired to family near Basingstoke on the day and shortly afterwards headed back to Manchester where I was greeted by a victory parade in my honour around Albert Square.

As you can see, Manchester, 'the rainy city', lived up to its name on the day.
And so here I am, back in the bosom of the old Alma civitas, tapping my fingers with impatience and wondering what to do with myself. Role on the next doctorate (and you can take a running jump if you think I'm going to reveal what its about!).

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"The horror! The horror!"

And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain. Yes, my Lyon lectureship is in its death throes. The last rites are being read, people are clamouring to say a sad, final farewell, and soon, I will be on that long journey, that traversal of boundaries fixed as it were from eternity, that tremendous passage that we must all face sooner or later … back to England. The tickets are booked and all that remains for me to do is to get to Lyon Part Dieu in time for one of those fast, smart, comfortable TGVs to whisk me away from this God-forsaken from what has been a warm and tender, albeit temporary, home away from gome among the latter-day Gauls. What else is there to say? It’s galling.

And yet to no place of rest go I just yet. The doctoral thesis having been handed in during April, the summons has now arrived for the viva voce examination in mid-June. It is my firm belief that even as I write, my examiners, Professors Richard Griffiths and Nick Atkin, are sharpening their academic knives, priming their pedants’ pistols, and generally preparing as unpleasant a couple of hours as I am likely to spend on God’s earth. Hmm. And that’s galling too.

And then, no regular visitors to this blog — so neither of you — will have missed my recent reflections on Manchester United’s reconquest of the Premiership. Sad events have since unfolded with their elimination from the European Cup semi-final at the hands of the mighty AC Milan in a display that made Manchester look like a poor pub team in a low-level, Sunday-league cup tie. A similar fate awaited them last weekend at the new Wembley stadium as they lost the FA Cup final to Chelsea, a game which induced a near-fatal state of catatonic boredom in at least two thirds of the 25 million TV viewers. Could things get any more galling than this? I’m afraid they can …

For this evening, in the filthy air of Athens, in an atmosphere thick with Olympian expectations and grimy chlorofluorocarbons, the mighty Milan will take to the field in the European cup final against none other than Liverpool.

"The horror! The horror!"

What is a Man U man to do? Insofar as I am Man U, I would naturally no more support the Scousers than offer an elderly relative in sacrifice to Zeus. And yet as an Englishman, it’s my bounden duty (cue stirring Elgar-like music) to keep a stiff upper lip, hoist the flag and wish Liverpool well against what is after all no more than a team of glorified ice-cream men and professional tumblers.

Still, the horror, the horror. But as I meditate on this dilemma, I learn the sorry news that my one and only Liverpudlian friend is even now, as his team prepare to do battle against the Milanese menace, stranded on Madeira off the coast of Africa, ministering to the needs of some political bigwigs on a spring jolly, and probably unable to watch his team stuff it up the Italians like they did two years ago in Istanbul. Poor fellow. How can one remain indifferent?

Well, I think that decides it: I will watch the match tonight, cheer deliriously for the men in red, and raise a glass in a vaguely Madeiran direction for a poor chap ministering to hearts of darkness instead of watching football like the rest of the civilized world.

Your reward will be great in heaven, as I dare to hope will mine!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Roma victor

This blog is one of many which, this past weekend, was hoping to open its entry with those inimitable words: ‘Annutio vobis gaudium magnum’. ‘I announce to you tidings of great joy’. And so indeed I can, although it is not yet the long-awaited publication of Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio concerning the Tridentine Rite of Mass. The latest rumour — about the thirty-seventh in a most productive line of rumours — now speculates that Benedict will await his return in triumph from a visit to South America next week before publishing probably the most controversial piece of canonical legislation since Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. Watch this space, and Dominus vobiscum, while we’re about it.

No, the ‘gaudium magnum’ of this past weekend was Manchester United’s successful re-conquest of the English Premiership, after four years of playing second-fiddle to Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea. We might perhaps re-brand it the reconquista in deference to José Mourinho’s Iberian origins — that Portuguese gentleman being the now crest-fallen manager of a second-place football team valued in excess of £200 million — although deference is the last thing Man U showed in a season that stands second only to the 1998-1999 Treble for its inspirational levels of passing and attacking football. Alex Ferguson, the old Scots warhorse who has orchestrated the success of Man U over the last 21 years, was as magnanimous in victory as he can be in defeat. Not for Sir Alex the nursery-school whinging of Arsène Wenger, Arsenal’s own Gallic cheval de bataille. Ferguson will have the untold joy of visiting Stanford Bridge on Wednesday evening with the Premiership trophy firmly stuffed in his (probably very large) pocket, but he has promised Mourinho a bottle of his finest from the famed Ferguson cellar, and Mourinho, though hated by the United faithful, is a man not only gifted with a powerful football brain, but also capable of grace in defeat. Indeed, José is fundamentally a good sport, and Ferguson shows him levels of respect that he has long since abandoned in his ten-year rivalry with the catatonically-challenged Wenger.

But what struck me about Ferguson’s post-victory reflections was his almost literary commentary on defeat and victory. ‘José,’ he said, ‘will learn that victory and defeat are to be received in very much the same way. As twins of a kind.’ My quotation is inaccurate but that was the gist. Fascinating. Even reassuring in some ways. The wise words of one who has known both sides of the street, undoubtedly. But where did he get the twin idea from?

I rattled my brains for several minutes, but all I could think of was that awful couple in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. He couldn’t have been thinking of TV’s Gog and Magog, Ant and Dec, could he? God forbid. Then in a flash of something or other this evening, it struck me. Ferguson was not making reference to Alice, even if his best player, Christiano Ronaldo, throws himself frequently to the ground with all the enthusiasm of a connoisseur of rabbit holes. No, Ferguson was probably thinking of Rudyard Kipling and his poem from Rewards and Fairies, ‘If’:

If you can meet with victory and disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same,
[…] you’ll be a man, my son

That’s it! Again the citation is a rough one, eked out of brain cells which clocked off early this evening and disappeared into a soothing bath of Costières de Nîmes (appellation contrôlée). But this is Ferguson all over. Stoicism’s the name of the game. Victory is great; but let’s move on. Defeat is dreadful; but let’s move on. As far as they go, there is sound sense in those words. I don’t care much for the man’s nose, and I find his irascibility very off-putting. But he’s no mean street philosopher, of that there is no doubt.

And so, another 8th May draws to a close. The French have had a bank-holiday today for Victory in Europe 1945. Why don’t we celebrate that in the UK? We surely have more reason to! I’ve been ploughing again through Evelyn Waugh’s Men-at-Arms for the first time in a number of years, and feeling great sympathy for Waugh’s hero, Guy Crouchback, a man marooned by circumstances and an enthusiastic volunteer in search of some purpose, as the events of the Second World War unfold around him. Finally, Guy is left not with the sense of having conquered, like Monty in North Africa, but with a deeper understanding of the individual’s service in the midst of achievements which, on a global scale, can seem ambiguous. When one reflects on the fact that Britain entered the war for Poland’s liberty, and ended the war in a pact with Stalin whose legacy over the Poles was not broken for another forty-five years, one can perhaps understand Waugh’s ambivalence over the victory in Europe…

And treat those two impostors just the same

Well, impostors only from a certain point of view…

As my adorable Polish friend Jolanta would undoubtedly say, ‘Z Bogiem’.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

"And we shall yet drink Christian ale in the village of our name"

I’ve been reflecting on that undeniably sound observation, that it is easier to like someone when you don’t have to put up with them than when you do. It is easier to cosset warm, gloopy sentiments about an individual when they are miles away, than when they are on the spot, getting up your nose and generally making a nuisance of themselves. One can appreciate more readily the fine shades of their personality when removed from them by the kind of distance that separates, say, Lyons from Leicester, than one can when they appear to be buzzing constantly about your ears like a angry Venetian mosquito in a feeding-frenzy.

Perhaps, you will feel, this is the reflection of a misanthrope. Perhaps, you will suspect, this is the philosophy of a Billy-no-mates. It is nonetheless true for all that!

I’m soon to leave Lyons. The end of the school year approaches, and already the English lecteurs are doing the necessary limbering up and stretching before they come under starter’s orders. Interviews are being attended. Plane tickets booked. An industrial quantity of unmarked student work is being attended to, so that in a few brief weeks notes can be emailed to the appropriate secretary just before the airport-bound taxi tootles its horn in front of the apartment door. And soon Lyons will be left behind us, shrouded not only in that cloud of pollution that floats up the Rhône Valley from the chemical plants in the south, but also in those gentle mists of memory that anoint our pummelled psyches with a kind of human analgesic.

Forgive and forget, eh! I still remember one of our teachers promising us in Senior 3 that, in ten years time (so, hmm, approximately 1996), some of us would be parents, some of us would be serious crime victims, and some of us might even be dead. It was the kind of cheery thought which, in the dark, satanic gloom of an Oldham comprehensive school, seemed to lighten the mood just a little. Richard Hicklin, God rest his soul, was the first to go, run over not once, but twice, on a pedestrian crossing on the A633 near Oldham. Legend has it that with all the optimism of his seventeen years he assured the paramedics he would be fine when he reached hospital. He never did. And, we all stood around at his funeral and said what a wonderful chap he’d been, a nice fellow, a dab hand at helping out with the maths homework — even though, being one of the anoraks who played Dungeons and Dragons, he’d never really been ‘in’ with the in-set, nor indeed with the declining, bohemian music-block dwellers. Perhaps at the age of seventeen, forgetfulness of the facts was more jejune hypocrisy than kindly forgiveness, borne of the sense that our feelings ought to have been governed by something more meaningful than the permanent preoccupations of passing adolescence.

Of course, our feelings ought always to be governed by something more meaningful. It is one of the constant challenges not only among the burger wrappers and empty, discarded beer cans of a thousand Friday-evening nightmares, but also among the thicket of professional cares and the cuckoo’s nest of material need.

Chesterton’s answer: we need both the wisdom of restraint and the capacity to last until we catch the second wind.

If we do not fast before the feast, then we will fast after the feast; but someday we will have to fast. Rushing at it all with a kind of psychological promiscuity always leads us into messy psychological divorce proceedings. Just ask the man who has everything. Thus far the wisdom of restraint.

The alternative is not the dullness feared by the hedonist, but the point to which we can be carried if we wait for the second wind — getting there, getting there slowly, and enduring the doubter’s scepticism — the place beyond unpleasantness or numbness where we taste and see…. The second wind:more Indian summer than burp fest.

And so, as I gradually up-sticks and gaze westward-ho, I look forward to looking back with pleasure on my séjour lyonnais, convinced that my happy memories will be due in part to the fact that I no longer live there!

But, I will resolve to look for the second wind when in September my feet wander again over the Oxfordshire Downs and along the lanes of the Vale of the White Horse.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

And each slow dusk the drawing down of blinds

Tremendous events marked Friday evening of this week, although they largely escaped the notice of the wider world more intent on goggling at whatever rubbish was being disgorged by the Friday-night TV schedules. The Basilica of Corpus Christi, the Manchester home for over a hundred years of the Canons of Prémontré (the Norbertines), saw its final celebration of Mass and closed its doors on a rueful congregation largely composed that evening of well-wishers, former parishioners and old friends. The parish, being at the centre of a now largely depopulated district of Manchester, has been doomed for some time.
Well, perhaps such an event is hardly tremendous, especially when compared with the perennial contribution being made to civilization by the Friday night episode of Coronation Street. Still, 'tis a sad, sad day. Several generations of my family on both sides find their names inscribed in the baptismal, wedding and funeral registers of the parish. Only last June, the family gathered there to say a sorrowful farewell to Norbert Sudlow, reconciled to the Church on his deathbed, and brought home to Manchester to be given the final salute by the Canons who share his name. Not long before, it was the turn of Marie Sudlow, wife of Norbert's brother Anthony, to be carried to her eternal reward from under the stunning crucifix that hangs above the nave. A few days earlier, Kathleen, the matriarch of 100 years, had been buried from a neighbouring parish.
But the church still stirs with the passage of yet more ancient ghosts. One of my first memories remains the Requiem of Kathleen's husband, John, whose giddy laugh and bald pate have been inherited by my own father (who also maintains - albeit elsewhere - John's tradition of building the Christmas Crib). Many a Sudlow - or Leyden, Burke and McCarthy, the rest of the clan - walked down the main aisle to exchange marriage vows. Atop the mantle piece in my grandmother's flat sat the black-and-white picture of Kathleen and John on their wedding day with the kindly Abbot Toner. On mantlepieces across the city, there must be myriad similar scenes of Corpus families gathered together underneath the tipanum that greets the visitor at the main entrance.
Many other images of Corpus Christi are merely in my imagination, fading relics of long-gone, half forgotten conversations with Gran Leyden - Billy Gran - a mistress of wistful recollection. So often did we hear the story of how the ghost of the first superior, Abbot Guerdens, appeared in the church's organ loft during the Blitz, that I was vaguely persuaded we had seen him ourselves. Dinner tables still chuckle to the anecdote of John's ceaseless attendance on the dodgy parish boiler, and Kathleen's angry march to the presbytery, bearing a note which stated baldly, 'Dear Father Cross, I have not seen my husband for three days. Shall I send his bed?' or something like that. I suspect the story has been embellished in the retelling!
And so, Corpus passes into history, like a ship over the horizon, rolling under the shadows of a century too young to understand its loss. Without wishing to indulge in the Hegelian mania for plotting historical coordinates, Corpus Christi, once the national shrine of the Blessed Sacrament, has now passed into the eternal moment, the moment captured by the Paschal Mystery of the Mass which plucks the cross from atop calvary and plants it down on any point along the procession of time.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

It isn't safe to give him nuts unless you give him wine!

Several times yesterday, I was asked the question: 'What do you think of the results from the first round of the presidential election?' I am more than usually cautious when broaching the topic of French politics, especially since, as I have noted before on this blog, the French operate on the basis of the truism: 'He who is not my friend is necessarily my enemy'. For a nation that declares itself devoted to freedom and egalitarianism, the French people are more than usually hidebound by the spirit of the closed shop.
Still, all day I fumbled in a kind of mental stuffiness to find the right words to express my feelings on the matter, until, finally, a long dim memory stirred itself into life and these words of Hilaire Belloc came back to me like a breath of fresh air:
The accursed power which stands on privilege,
And goes with champagne and women and bridge
Broke! And democracy resumed her reign,
Which goes with bridge and women and champagne.
Now that Le Pen has had to hang up his pantomimic villain's outfit, the attempt is being made to force it over Sarkozy's head. Segolene's various recent gaffs, on the other hand, have cast her in the role of clown. So, here we go for Round Two on 6th May:
Buttons versus Wicked Stepmother
Cor, that almost makes me feel interested in the outcome. I'm not saying who is who.
On to far more important matters. Yesterday was the Feast of Saint George, and also the birthday and anniversary of the death - yes, he was born and he died on the same date - of William Shakespeare. In a way, I'm rather pleased nobody mentioned it. I'm especially glad nobody dragged it into the commercial filth like Saint Patrick's, although when I commented to the manager of Jonny's Kitchen that his failure to mark Saint George had been noted in the House - J'sK (or should that be J'sK's? Ah, those gerund nouns, Humphreys!) being directly opposite a church of that name, for goodness sakes - he winced at me with the pained realisation of a grocer who has missed a marketing opportunity.
Still, the best way to celebrate it is not to demand that it be dragged down to the level of the shop shelf, but rather to let it rise in sweet song beyond the corrosive embarrassment of a rational nation currently gripped by the battle between Buttons and the Wicked Stepmother. They say video killed the radio star, and my betting is that newspaper killed the para-liturgical song. So, yesterday after supper, filling my glass with French beer, thinking of Henry V and smiling into the sapphire sky of a most unusually hot April evening, I hummed to myself these lines from the pen of who else but Chesterton:

St George he was for England,
And before he killed the dragon
He drank a pint of English ale
Out of an English flagon.
For though he fast right readily
In hair-shirt or in mail,
It isn't safe to give him cakes
Unless you give him ale.

St George he was for England,
And right gallantly set free
The lady left for dragon's meat
And tied up to a tree;
But since he stood for England
And knew what England means,
Unless you give him bacon
You mustn't give him beans.

St George he is for England,
And shall wear the shield he wore
When we go out in armour
With battle-cross before.
But though he is jolly company
And very pleased to dine,
It isn't safe to give him nuts
Unless you give him wine.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Humphrys's Bogies: Here's Lookin' at You, Kid

I am no great fan of the radio presenter and journalist John Humphrys. Mind you, he is probably no great fan of mine either. Humphrys has made something of a reputation for himself as the Rottweiler of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. After one savage mauling of Tony Blair, he was not allowed to interview the Prime Minister for several years. Though normally such a badge of honour would win my respect, Humphrys, it seems to me, makes a heck of a lot of noise while rarely getting anywhere except under the skin of his opponent (oops, interviewees), not to mention his listeners. I cannot deny the entertainment value of Humphrys's disembowling of John Prescott, that arrogant and now discredited enemy of the Plain English Campaign. Yet his duffing up of the bumbling Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor ranks among one of his less glorious moments: less awkward news-hound and more playground-bully.

That said, I have been thoroughly entertained by Humphrys's recent book Lost for Words: The Mangling and Manipulating of the English Language. It joins Lynn Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves as a recent champion of good English in the public square.

Half the entertainment value of the book comes from the same source as Humphrys's reputation as radio performer. He grabs an absurdity or a weakness, and chomps away for all he is worth. He is, for example, particularly merciless with academic language, dancing with hearty violence on this unconscionable passage of nonsense from Luce Irigaray:

Is E=mc2 a sexed equation? Perhaps it is. Let us make the hypothesis that it is insofar as it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us. What seems to us the possibly sexed nature of this equation is not directly its uses by nuclear weapons, rather it is having privileged what goes fastest.

As Humphrys remarks, 'Not even Lewis Carroll would have tried to get away with that'. Indeed, what other speeds are vitally necessary to us? And, if light moves faster, then... it moves faster. It's better not think too much about the 'bleedin' obvious', eh!

Similar and equally deserved assaults are launched throughout Humphry's work on teachers (quoting authentic feedback on a child's work 'I'm sure you could of written it alot neater'), junk mail (quoting the classic, 'As one of our cardholders, I would like to thank you for your custom.'), business jargon (giving instructions about how to play 'Bullshit Bingo' during meetings), and - with refreshing honesty - journalist-speak (according to which emotions are always 'high', doubts are always 'nagging', and warnings are always 'stark'). Humphrys also knows how to be both cutting and wry. In an otherwise very fair-minded chapter on the largely benign influence of American English on British English, he makes the following remark about the use of 'good' as an adverb:

Ask almost anyone under thirty, especially those who aspire to being 'cool', how they are. A few years ago, they would have said, 'I'm well'. Now they say, 'I'm good'. It may be accompanied by a gentle nod of the head and the attempt at a Tom Cruise smile. It makes you want to cuff them smartly across the back of the head and snap, 'Let me be the judge of that, you smug prat!'

As a life-long political commentator, however, he saves his most serious complaints for politicians. Much of what he has to say is summed up in a quotation from William McAdoo (attacking US President Warren Harding) :

His speeches leave the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a straggling thought and bear it away triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it dies of servitude and overwork.

How many political figures could that be applied to these days? Pompous New Labour phrases include the likes of 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' or 'for the many, not the few'. Humphrys - to my horror since it is something I often use - cites the construction 'not only...but also' as classic New Labourese. Not that David Cameron will fail to generate his own thought-manipulators before too long. 'Open mouth-immobilise thought' seems to be the essential tactic.

One last bogey Humphrys identifies, and which is worth mentioning, is the use of 'hurrah' and 'boo' words. These are the kinds of words that demand instant approval and approbation from the reader or listener. This sort of usage has been around for a long while. The almost sacramental power of these words excuses one from any other justification in one's analysis. Scorn or drooling praise can be doled out unreservedly, once these passwords, like conceptual laxatives, have been ingested.

1) Hurrah words:
new, practical, modern, scientific, efficient, progressive, affordable, deserving, natural, authentic, choice, freedom, democracy. Praise these things and everyone sensible must agree with you. Nobody but the foolhardy can possibly utter a word of caution or doubt.

2) Boo words include things like:
old-fashioned, exclusive, angry, privileged, outdated, traditional, religion, custom, virtue. Damn these things, and only the worst reactionaries will crawl out of their lair to demur.

No doubt Humphrys's analysis has its drawbacks. His almost unrelenting pedantry can be tiresome. But he is not above poking fun at himself with genuine self deprecation. He is understanding of those of us who defy the preposition rule in a sentence (which came from Milton anyway, and which should have been killed by Churchill's famous putdown, 'The placing of prepositions at the end of sentences is something up with which we will not put'). And he graciously forgives us when we begin sentences with conjunctions (phew!).

Humphreys echoes a tradition of cautious, thoughtful journalists - George Orwell, Graham Greene, et al. - who ply their trade with words but find themselves in a churning sea of usage, encircled by those enemies of thought, the political manipulators and commercial manglers of language.

I suppose I should be grateful he never turns his guns on bloggers!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Warming to Gore

It is probably the effect of stopping work after finishing a major, mind-bending, nerve-torturing process like the PhD, but I'm struggling to be interested in anything at the moment. I have about five books on the go, all of which have bookmarks at about p. 6, and anything more than half an hour of TV makes me want to sit in a dark room for the rest of the evening.

All that said, I've just been jolted out of my temporary moribundity - if I can abuse the English language in that way - by Al Gore's recent film An Inconvenient Truth. At 1h30, it is shorter than most films, but it packs the punch of something much longer. Yet if the film is short, it is nevertheless timely. I suppose we should be grateful if it proves not to be timeless.

My reservations about the film are more cultural than anything else. I cannot be alone in feeling that tinkling piano music or upbeat, driving rock songs are a bit underhanded in a documentary. I liked the fact that a lot of the film simply shows Gore presenting his case to an audience in an auditorium but I won't be the only Englishman to cringe at some of Gore's posturing, especially the largely irrelevant portrayal of the accident that nearly killed his son and the cancer that killed his sister. And I surely won't be the only political cynic to feel that the last person I want a lecture from is a career politician whose digs at the current US administration sound not unlike sour grapes (or they would do, if sour grapes could make a sound). But gradually, the messenger stopped getting in the way of the message, and I found myself warming, somewhat unnervingly, to his theme.

It is amazing how passionate some people can get about this topic. Playing devil's advocate a few years ago during a debate with a group of young Lyceens, I effectively destroyed my relation with them by suggesting that environmentalism is just another means of generating a new market. They wanted to lead me to the guillotine, convinced of that French truism that he who is not my friend is necessarily my enemy. It was easily done on my part. For some reason, these themes simply leave me cold...

...but not Gore's account of global warming. There is some degree of faith required to take the story on board. Once you get down to the fine-grained detail, the consensus that Gore claims exists in the scientific community will doubtless be shot through with hesitations, reservations and vested interests. All scientific positions that could detract from his message are subtly passed over.

But Gore's adept toccata of observations and conclusions, drawn from various fields of science, leaves one with no reasonable doubt about the indictment. Gore gives a precis of the dramatic shrinkage of Greenland's ice blanket, the crack in the Arctic's principal ice shelf, and the major icefield in Antartica that simply melted like butter in a matter of weeks. All these make for an eloquent illustration of the geeky graphs he shows us with temperatures, CO2 emissions and the global conveyor of ocean currents. Yes, he concedes, global warming is a cyclical process, but, he argues, we are now on a trajectory that takes us out of the previous cycle and into unchartered territory. 'Coo', I said, turing to my fellow viewer, 'so it's nothing to do with bovine flatulence after all.'

There is a degree of restraint - I could almost say misdirection - in Gore's depiction of global warming. We see lots of pictures of Chinese factories pumping out noxious gases, and not so many traffic jams in the downtowns of American cities. But at least the statistics seem to be fairly presented, and Gore does not shy away from underlining the US's failure to ratify Kyoto. Whether its ratification by Perdition, Wyoming or Crapville, Rhodes Island - or some such places - deserve the whooping reception they receive from Gore's audience is a matter of debate.

So, all in all, An Inconvenient Truth deserves a good 7/10, as long as such a mark does not contribute to global warming. I'm still waiting for a scientist seriously to take up the late Auberon Waugh's hypothesis that global warming is unquestionably made worse by the wearning of running shoes and the playing of computer games. If you have ever been in an internet salon dedicated to computer gaming, you will know there is definitely something in that hypothesis. Oh, Auberon, where are you when we need you? Hopefully, you are nowhere that is too warm.
Is it me or is it getting warm in here?

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Consummatum est

The thesis is done and at the bindery. I was in the middle of posting on this topic yesterday when my computer crashed, so today's post is but a brief word, hopefully to be published before the hard drive shuts down again.

Anyway, at least with the thesis done, the way ahead looks clear for a couple of months until the Viva voce (the 'defence' as the Frogs so dramatically call it). Reading University have offered me a temporary position for September, and the fog of the last few months can have a chance to clear away.

It's all come a bit to late to allow me to appreciate Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum this year. Still, sometimes we can carry the burdens, and sometimes we must let them be carried for us. The eager and thoughtful students of Blackfriars in Oxford have done some of the carrying for me this week, with their recordings of the most important melodies in the Church's liturgy. God bless Friar Robert Gay O.P. When set to melodies written for Latin, the English words can sound strange. But the sentiments are the same, very much the same, and more eloquently expressed here than anywhere else.

Everyone's world begins with a mystical belief, though not all mystical beliefs are the same, and not all mystical believers realise they are mystics. Still, I've yet to meet a human who makes sense of the world in any other way.

From Good Friday:

From Easter Vigil:

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Manchester and the wearing of the green

Lyon has burst into something like spring these past few days. The sun has risen high enough in the late winter sky to make the city look almost optimistic again in the early morning. Emerging from one of the buildings on the Lyon campus on Tuesday, I was overwhelmed with the smell and the colour of freshly cut grass. And best of all, it is a few weeks now since I saw any bits of dead branch drop off the trees lining Cours de la Liberté and smack a passer-by on the head. A fellow guest at a dinner this week told those assembled around the table that, now winter was nearly over, she would be unhappy again for six months. 'April is the cruellest month', as Eliot said. For me, I have to say the reverse is true.

Green hues and fresh smells remind me ironically enough of nothing so much as old, red-clawed, snaggle-toothed, industrial Manchester. That's youth for you. Sun-splashes under the Lyonnais trees conjure up memories of many journeys down Withington Road on the old No. 42 . It was all grand oaks and rhododendron bushes in that area of the city. Along we would rumble through the now infamous 'curry mile' district, and finally on to the posh, leafy suburb of Didsbury. There, in a hastily tidied spare room, Beverley Reynolds, my guitar guru, would serve me green herbal tea and try to show me the intricacies of Leo Brouwer's Cuban dances while Ben, her scraggy greyhound, lay snoring and farting gently in the corner. The air was green indeed, when it wasn't blue with Bev's swearing at the dog.

It was somewhere in that area where I once visited En Shao who was making his name as a conductor at the time, and studying in Manchester. He had just won a prize for conducting Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, and with all the cheek of my 17 years I begged him to walk me through it since it was a set piece for the Music A Level History Paper that year. He also served me green herbal tea; what was it with green herbal tea in those days? I don't think he taught me much, except that if one went to Budapest one could hear the tunes that Bartok cites being played by buskers dotted around Heroes' Square. It's not impossible of course that he taught me a great deal more and that I was simply too callow to appreciate it all. I'm sure I cited the Heroes' Square story in my examination, along with a lot of rehashed nonsense about Bartok's use of the Golden Mean. In the end I got a 'D', so one way or another it was a waste of a journey, not to mention a waste of a tea bag!

There's no escaping green this weekend. Last night, Bart, the witty Dutch barman in Jonny's Kitchen, was dressed in something that looked like a caved-in green chimney, but which, he assured me, was an authentic Leprechaun's hat. He claimed to be wearing it in the spirit of St Patrick's Day, although the last thing it looked like was an episcopal mitre. In fact, it reminded me of nothing so much as the green attire assumed - come hail, rain, shine, or Leprechauns - by Manchester's own Mrs Rita Rowan on St Patrick's Day. Every year Mrs Rowan, a woman capable of organizing a procession in a small suburban bungalow, would contradict the orders of our parish priest and insist on singing all fifty-seven verses of Hail Glorious Saint Patrick after Mass on the Sunday nearest to 17 March . If you weren't wearing green at the beginning, nobody could blame you for looking an oxygen-depleted green by about verse twenty-three.

My own Irish connexions are rather more dubious. Sudlows started in the village of Rostherne, Cheshire, the northern equivalent of Chelsea, before going to Ireland in the 14th or 15th century. They then appear to have come back to England in the 19th Century, presumably as part of the potato famine diaspora. I'm not sure if this gives us the kudos of being Irish immigrants, or brings us the shame of being failed Cheshire farmers. It probably doesn't matter either way, since we have neither the financial clout of the latter, nor the capacity of the former for extended hymnody.

Emerald green and splashes of sun are these days more likely to make me think of Oxford and many long hours in the Taylorian Institute, about the only library in the UK with a readily accessible and significant collection of the works of Adolphe Retté. There, from the window in one of the hidden back rooms, I could look out onto a leafy, tree-lined St Giles and watch the stone façades of Baliol and St John's glow and then fade in the light of any season. A mere two-minute stroll down St Giles would bring me to The Eagle and Child for a frankly over-priced pint of London Pride, and a few minutes of peace in the corner where Tolkein, Lewis and the other Inklings used to hold court.

Lewis was on my mind recently when someone asked if I might one day write a novel. I don't think I ever will since poetry and essay are more my thing. But if I were to attempt it, then I would look to one of Lewis's characters to take centre stage. I have always been intrigued by Edmund from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At one stage in the story Lewis captures Edmund in a particularly fascinating mood. Wandering among animals literally petrified by the wand of the White Witch, Edmund stumbles across a lion whom he assumes to be Aslan. It's a marvellous psychological moment that deserves better than a few pages in a children's drama. Edmund is frightened at first, and then finally elated. He pulls faces at the lion which of course is now solid granite. He even digs out a pencil stub from his pocket and draws a moustache and glasses on the noble beast's immobile face. His elation, however, is short lived. He can hardly hurt a stone lion, but he realizes, perhaps dimly and slowly, that somehow he has hurt himself.
Edmund has sneered. He has brought together those incendiary ingredients of scorn and fear, and broken himself on something he does not understand. Lewis is a moralist, and so Edmund is alone; that way he can have a dim sense of what he has done. But put Edmund in a group, and what would become of him? He would have all the congratulation of his peers, all the back-slapping reassurance of their equally barren rictuses. He could read in the newspapers about the virtues of defacing statues, and be told to relate his unease to sitting accidentally in dog mess under the stone lions in the park when he was but a small child. But, how would he find the thread again? Hmm, I suppose unless I write the novel, it is not for me to say.

Back in Manchester this weekend there is a huge party. The River Irwell will probably turn the colour of Guinness (more than usual, I mean), the Irish pubs will be serving beer with a shamrock shape in the froth, and every individual, be they a failed Cheshire farmer or descendant of 19th-Century Irish immigrants, will no doubt be raising a glass. Even Mrs Rowan, who, in addition to a glass, will be raising a racket. I suppose there are those who might like to draw a moustache and glass on a petrified Mrs Rowan, even though she has more right to celebrate St Patrick than most. But as long as I can go for a drink after the first three verses, I think she can sing whatever she likes on her national feastday.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

On the contrary

As I await the green light from the supervisor to print and submit the thesis, I have been reading the deliciously funny letters of Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor was a strange and awkward novelist of the deep South of the USA, an authentic realist and not, thanks be to God, a materialistic determinist. But her letters reveal a much more bemused and whimsical mind than can be guessed at from her dark novels. Living as a lupus-ridden invalid on a peacock farm in Georgia did as much for her sense of absurdity as for her novelist's eye. Consider this passage about her reading St Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica:

I read the Summa for about twenty minutes every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during this process and say, "Turn off that light. It's late," I with lifted finger and broad, bland, beatific expression, would reply, "On the contrary, I answer that the light being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes".

To get the joke, you have to know a bit about Aquinas's argumentation style, which follows in fact the classic scholastic model. First, introduce your objections with Videtur quod - it seems that. I still think it a hoot that one of the first assertions made by this most pious of intellectuals in his Summa is 'It seems that God does not exist'. This sort of patient reasonableness seems far warmer and kinder than the shrill and brittle voices that howl down Thomas's philosophy. I discover the same thing in Benedict XVI's capacity to spend four pages explaining what his opponent thinks before arguing against it. On the streets, they'd call this 'respect'. In any case, when Thomas has finished elucidating his objections, he turns the argument around with sed contra, 'on the contrary', whence Flannery O'Connor's joke.

Many of the Thomas stories are amusing. Having finally found an answer to a troublesome philosophical problem, he silenced King Louis's banquet hall by absent-mindedly thumping the table and shouting in triumph, 'That's how to answer the Manichaens!' On another occasion, falling once again into a metaphysical revery, he consumed an entire bowl of heavily salted olives that nobody else at table would touch. Curiously, this man who barely noticed what he was eating also composed the Eucharistic poem Lauda Sion, which Dante Alighieri said he would have given his hind teeth to have written.

For me, what remains shattering about Thomas's thought is his capacity to see a distinction that is essential and without which you run into trouble. Nowhere is this truer than in the notion of 'order'. Thomas says quite simply that at a human level order comes from two sources:

- exterior order in law
- interior order in virtue

It is obvious - at least once you have seen it made - but it still passes comment on so much in society. Like all the greats, Aquinas is a perennial contemporary. We live now in the age of societalization where order, and many other things beside, are subsummed into politics. Politicians seem to justify their existence by legislation. Societal problems must be solved by passing new laws. You cannot, of course, argue against the practicalities of organizing a large modern state - even if some people say you can - but it is rarely mentioned that the elaboration and hardening of the means of exterior order often leave interior order way behind. Totalitarianism suppresses the individual but societalization castrates him. Totalitarianism aims to make him into a pack horse but societalization promises to turn him into a sterile mule. Liberty without virtue is the right way to inflate the state. Not even footocracy could save us from that.

The unfashionableness of interior order might have something to do nowadays with the cult of celebrity. The more we have reduced interior order to a puritain indulgence, the more we have become obsessed with superficial physicality. I do wonder whether one of the general psychological consequences of societalization is a greater propensity for vicarious living, inviting us to see in media figures the kinds of individual qualities that order cannot do without. Hero worship in all societies could easily be related to the same thing; it is not necessarily a pathological condition. But I wonder if a society reveals something about itself through the conduct of the individuals it elevates into its avatars. I also wonder if a society also reveals something about itself through the conduct of the people it wants to drag down.

On the contrary, sed contra, I'll stick with my O'Connors and Aquinases. The amused and the absentminded seem so much healthier than the cool and the bejewelled.

Friday, March 2, 2007

A big thumbs down

Poor David Cameron just cannot win the affection of youth. After last week's humiliating pictures of Ryan Florence pretending to shoot Cameron in the back, today's newspapers have published a picture of a cheeky young inhabitant of Jerusalem - where Cameron is currently on a fact finding mission (presumably about oil contracts for when Iran has been invaded and conquered!!!!) - showing him the thumbs down.

How can a man in search of election recover from such blows?

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Manchester: red in tooth and claw Part 1

Blogging has been on the backburner for the last couple of weeks as the final countdown to the submission of my thesis creeps ever closer to single figures. The manuscript goes to my 'super' on Friday this week, and then I only await his green light to send me scurrying around to the printers. For the first two years of my thesis, Professor Knapp chanted the soothing mantra, 'Don't get it right, get it written'. Since last November, he has changed his message to 'Don't get it written, get it right'.

So, in an effort to 'get it right', I have just spent a few days back in Manchester, beavering around the John Rylands Library like a good 'un, in the hopes of putting some order into my chaotic PhD. Manchester, I should say, is also 'my home town', a phrase which conjures up memories of Tom Lehrer,

"I remember Sam, he was the village idiot,
And though it seemed a pity, it was so,
He used to burn down houses just to watch the glow,
And nothing could be done because he was the mayor's son".

Well, we don't remember Sam in Manchester. But we might, however, remember Ryan Florence, the feral youth - or 'hoody', as he must now be known - pictured last week on the front of every tabloid newspaper, pointing his hand like a pistol at the back of the Tory leader, David Cameron, while the latter minced around Ryan's run-down estate thinking of Bold Reforms. Cameron sounds hollow at the best of times, but when one thinks back to his remark made some months ago, that what hoodies were lacking was affection, one can't help wondering if a cynical mind might not now add 'and a real firearm'.

Cameron, give him his due, is right of course. But his laudable calls for the promotion of fatherhood and family - in a nation which this month also witnessed the gunning down of three adolescent boys under 16 - ring hollow when contrasted with his craven genuflections to every socially liberal doctrine imaginable. But, what is a man in need of election supposed to do? Middle England wants all the virtue of responsibility, and all the pleasure of irresponsibility. It wants all the sense of community, and all the indulgence of autonomy. David can tut-tut over all that dreadful slaughter, as long as his solutions don't offend the conscience of social liberalism. Hand-wringing is in, as long as it's only handwringing and worthy resolutions.

Ryans have been living on housing estates or in terraced prisons around Manchester for more than 200 years. I wouldn't be surprised if Cameronesque hand-wringers had also been looking on and tut-tutting at the feral poor for about the same length of time. After all, the first thing disaster attracts is rubber-neckers. The disaster of industrial Manchester was so great, or rather, it's capitalism was so pure - which amounts to the same thing - that even the French refer to it as the 'Manchester school'. Marx parked his broad backside on the benches of Chetham's Library behind Manchester cathedral and dreamt up such solutions as would make thirty million Ukranians in the 1930s wish he'd never been born - that is, if they had the strength to think while dying from hunger. But Marx - let's give the other side their due now - got the 'alienation' bit right. One cannot help wondering what he would make of the spectacle of the equally broad-bottomed conservatives of our days nodding in agreement with him.

The trouble now of course is there is such a perfect collaboration between the 'spectacle' of modern consummerism and the pleasures of its Ryans and Camerons - the Gameboy and the Electionboy - , that one wonders how these two unhappy beings will ever cease their association.
To leave aside that long-term problem for a moment, mention of the French makes me reflect on one consolation Ryan and his Manchester hoodies undoubtedly derived from last week's news: the defeat of Lille by Manchester United, the Red Devils, in the Champions League. What a satisfying thing it was not only to witness the defeat of a French side, but a defeat inflicted with such exquisite Mancunian ruthlessness. And how amused we all were to see Lille's desperate and ludicrous attempts to get the match replayed. Chesterton seized this perennial Anglo-French tension in a matter of lines:

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made.

Funny the differences in the English and French mentalities. The French expect everything to be intrinsically just, and that is why they practically spat their dummy out and almost refused to play on after Ryan Giggs's crafty goal. The English on the other hand see this as a matter of fairplay; if you suffer injustice, well, just get on with it, because one of these days you'll get more than your slice of the cake.

I'm undecided as to whether those possibilities cast any light on the Ryans and Camerons of this world. But I am toying with the idea that a solution might call for the development of a new form of politics: footocracy. Ryan and David can pick their teams and then play 45 minutes each way against each other. Neither would feel alienated, neither would be unfairly advantaged, and both would be knackered at the end - an outcome that would make both the streets of Manchester and the corridors of power a safer place to be.

The only remaining question is: who would play in red?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Bur Under the Conscience

It looks inevitable that this week I will only think about the blog when I have little time to jot down any more than vague ramblings. 'What's new?' I hear you say. Well, okay. It is a fair point.

But in good old blog tradition, let me ramble. The PhD is in a delicate state presently. Monday simply had to be a day of rest, or at least a break from the laborious process of proping up the rushed arguments and wild citations mascarading as proofs in Chapters 1-4. Accordingly I spent most of the day making job applications.

But one bright moment in the fuzzy gloom that has descended on me ever since my glasses needed changing was the rediscovery of Stephen Fry's glorious 'Jeeves' and Hugh Laurie's marvellous 'Bertie Wooster'. Dad's new DVD machine and 20" TV - 20" screen, woooooooooooww - has never seen more worthy service. Goodness, Wodehouse was a philosopher, even if he somehow got embroiled with the Nazis! I must glean some of Bertie's gems and relate them on this august forum, before I return to Lyon on Saturday. Here's one. 'You cannot be blamed for somehow becoming engaged to Honoria Glossop, Jeeves. Honoria Glossop is an act of God'. How very true that sounds, especially applied to certain females!

Another philosopher who has wandered into my life, but who this time was on the Nazis' hitlist, is the incredible Dietrich Von Hildebrand. Here's another worthy subject for more blogging at a later date. You have to admire anyone who was writing about the 'Metaphysics of the Community' in the 1930s, an age when metaphysics was discredited, and community was thought of - bizarrely - as communist. More on him in due course.

Meanwhile, with less than 50 minutes to go before Lent, I must go and mediate on all possible meanings of the word 'repent'. If only it was the same as the Latin 'repente', which is so beautifully rendered in French as 'rapidement'.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Erratic service

The old blog has taken a backseat this week as I travelled back to the UK and began the final push for the submission of my thesis. Still, the old brain (the old Brian) is grinding away in the background, especially with a view to completing the User's Guide to WHY? in the next day or two.

I cannot decide at the moment if the thesis is a new, original and substantial contribution to scholarship, or a total dog's breakfast.

More thoughts on this very soon.

Anyone for some pedigree Chum?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Death, death, death!

Positively my favourite moment in cinema comes from the third part of Lord of the Rings. The Roherim - if that is the spelling - arrive during the battle of the Pelenor Fields (?) before Minas Tirith ... I think Tolkein fans will simply have to attribute my erratic spelling to my virus ... and King Theoden rides along their ranks shouting "death" and touching all their spears with his sword. I know it doesn't quite happen like that in the book, but so what? It is great cinema, and I still remember watching it for the first time, and feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as, to the accompaniment of the folksy violin Rohan melody, the horsemen of Rohan charge to their death or to the destruction of the forces of Mordor.

Death is much in the news at the moment. I refer not to the death everyone seems to be so excited about. I refer rather to the death of Ian Richardson whose demise deprives us of one of the greatest Shakespearean actors since World War II. I was alarmed when I saw his picture, since at first I thought Charles Dance had shuffled off this mortal coil, and that, accordingly, the portrayal of the Dickesian baddy was perhaps at an end. That day will surely come, but thankfully not yet. But what struck me about Richardson's obituary was not his many achievements, but the sheer humility of the man, notably, his avowal that it was Alec Guinness who had taught him to act for the camera.

In the way my mind is wont to wander these days, I took off on a flight of reminiscence about Sir Alec Guinness, whose My Name Escapes Me is No. 2 on my list of all-time great autobiography titles (No. 1 being Eric Sykes's inimitable If I don't write it, nobody will). Guinness made his money late in life thanks to negotiating a royalties deal for his minor role in Star Wars. Musing over the script of the first film, Harrison Ford told George Lucas candidly, 'You can write this shit, but you can't say it, George.' Which, of course, makes Guinness's achievement all the more commendable.

If there is any synchronicity here, it is simply that this is the second time this week I have stumbled across the Guinness trail. I covered a review of David Lean's Great Expectations with my cinema class the other day, in which film Guinness plays Magwitch, if I am not mistaken. And, feeling great sympathy for my students, whose course requires them to watch the appalling Paris, Texas, I recommended Guinness's tour de force Kind Hearts and Coronets in which he plays eight members of the same family, all of whom are assassinated. Death, encore une fois. It is hard now to get the measure of such a thing. I cannot think of any film that even comes close to this vauderville-like capacity for make-believe and acting acumen, all wrapped up in the same performance. Eddie Murphy has since caught the vauderville, but hardly the acting acumen. (Can I have 'acting acumen' or is that forbidden by the Abused Alliterations Act?). I found myself walking away from the cinema class, thinking it was about time I taught the students the expression, 'Mine's a Guinness'.

Which all brings me in another word-association-football kind of way to the news from HQ that my eldest nephew and godson has done us all proud and turned in a sterling performance as Mercutio - Death, once again - in Oldham Sixth Form College's production of Romeo and Juliet.

He's a talented chap, and so, in the time-honoured family tradition, I couldn't resist a swipe at him this evening.

'So', I texted him, 'I heard you died on stage'. And apparently, it just sailed right over his head, for he thanked me in his response.

I'd probably have to be a Richardson or a Guinness to get that line just right.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

You can't hide your tired eyes

The saucer joke of Monday's post was too close to the truth. I am struggling a bit with computer screens at the moment, so probably no more posts until the weekend. I might even have to start printing things to edit them. Imagine going back to paper. Positively medieval!

Monday, February 5, 2007


The landlady mentioned yesterday that she thinks I am losing my marbles (and she only just noticed!). I don't know about losing my marbles but everything is a bit on top of me at the moment. My eyes are going like saucers from staring at computer screens, I've begun eating raw fish, and it is said that ghastly whispers can be heard coming from my room at night which sound like

'Myyyy Thesisssssssssss (gulp).

Time for some Wordsworth, me thinks:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Friday, February 2, 2007

WHY? A User's Guide Part I

There is an urban legend which recounts the story of a prospective student going to sit an entrance examination for one of the Oxford colleges. The professor who set the entrance examination that year was something of a clever-dick, a man anxious to keep the standards in college as high as possible. Accordingly, he pored over the problem he wanted to set the prospective students with more than his usual scholarly assiduity.

When our prospective student opened his paper during the examination, his eyes fell on the following instuctions:

Please answer the question as fully as possible. Ask for extra sheets of paper as necessary.

Question. Why?

Answer. ...


After the examination, the examiner, our clever-dick professor, bowled back to his Oxford fellow's den with something of the effeminate bustle acquired by many disorganized intellectuals. Donning his reading glasses, and opening the first paper in the pile of examination papers (as it happens, the paper of our prospective student), his eyes fell on the following response to his carefully crafted puzzler:

Question. Why?

Answer. ...Why bloody not?


The legend is enticing, although one has to suspect that if it is true, the student in question had already decided he would not go to Oxford and that he might as well pass out of his interview with flying colours (to use those famous lines from the cartoon legionary Beau Peep: 'Have you heard of the expression "with flying colours?'" 'Yes?' 'Well, I have to tell you that you failed "with flying colours"').

There are all kinds of formulations of the question 'why', but the most memorable, at least in the twentieth century are associated with war. I grew up in the age of that anti-nuclear war poster with the mushroom cloud and the word "Why? across the bottom. The one artistic gaff in the Sergei Bondarchuk's wonderful film Waterloo, sees a British Grenadier drop his rifle in the midst of the battle and start running about yelling 'Why?' like some mad Greenham Common peacenik. To be fair, its artistic highlight is also during the battle when the music of a waltz, danced in an earlier pre-battle scene, accompanies a slow-mo passage of Wellington's cavalry at full charge.

Robert Graves did his own marvellous version of 'Why?' in a poem the title of which escapes me for a moment. He takes the Romantic convention of the lonely man wandering in the wood, and blows it to pieces. His lonely man in a wood is a dead 'Boche' whose decaying body has turned green and whose face is a mass of coagulated blood.

But, heck, this is the Internet, and so, in a clickstant, I can find it:

'A Dead Boche'
TO you who’d read my songs of War
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)
"War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:

Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.

Obviously, there are different questions tied up in all these examples, but they all go back eventually to 'why?'

How does one begin to answer such a question? It depends I suppose what level you are speaking about. With minimal technical difficulties, the 'why' of the pathologist is going to come down to about the same, regardless of whether the subject is lying under the sunny canopy of a forest in the Ardennes or on a chilled mortuary slab. The physical 'why' eventually comes down to a cessation of the biochemical system suporting life.

The human or philosophical 'why' is more elusive; of that there is no doubt. The frustration captured by Graves and even by Bondarchuk's Napoleonic peacenik used to be called the 'problem of evil'. It goes a lot further than the battle field, of course, even if its most potent symbols are found there.

But this is a blog, not a thesis, so I'll cut to the chase.

There has to be an answer to 'why?'. How we actually comprehend the answer is quite another matter. Some people regard it as an agnostic mystery that is destined always to be obscure. Others, like me, are happy to confess the mystery, but live, waiting for some kind of understanding slowly to emerge from the sometimes awful silences of God.

But there has to be an answer, even if it difficult to discern. The alternative is simply too terrible to contemplate. This is not because absurdity in itself is too terrible to contemplate. There is no time now to deal with Freud's reductionism about religion, but it can pretty safely be concluded that it is not a flight to an ideal world of childhood; more like an adult opening of eyes to one's own limitations and those of one's existence. Tragedy and comedy either have a hinterland of meaning; or, as for Ionesco, it's all just tragedy in the end, even it it's comedy.

No, it is unthinkable – pace Freud and Ionesco - that 'why?' should not have both a hinterland and an answer. In that case, 'why?' means nothing at all, or at least no more and no less than anything in a universe of absurdity.

And in that case, 'why?', as our prospective Oxford student could have told us, might as well be rephrased:

Why bloody not?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

In medio vitae summus in morte

Amanda Simpson is one of many remarkable people that I have had the privilege and pleasure to know from our former colonies across the Atlantic. A down-to-earth-gal from South Carolina, Amanda is something of a scientific whizz. She used to juggle radioactive nuts and bolts on nuclear submarines in the US Navy, and now teaches nuclear physics or some such ethereal subject, still with the US Navy. She is the kind of doughty person who doesn't mind spending long periods in a long metal tube under water. It takes all sorts, of course, and our Amanda is one of them.

Amanda is also a lapsed atheist. As a Maths major (she would say a Math major, of course) in college, she spent her days working through the quantifiable problems of the universe, and her nights pondering the qualitative ones, a process that ultimately led to her baptism in the Catholic Church probably about ten years ago.

I last saw Amanda in Oxford about fifteen months ago. She was on her way back from World Youth Day in Germany, and I took her on a tour of some of the Oxford colleges (okay, and pubs too, I believe). She is a photo buff and snapped away throughout the tour; here's one she took of the back of my head in Christ Church dining room

Well, who would take a photo of the front?

Not long after she returned to the States, she got engaged to be married to John Bianco. I never met him, but his photo on her website shows a gentle, bemused man with a broad smile and the high forehead of a thinker

The photo turns out to have been taken during John's last Christmas. Amanda posted this message on a message board on Tuesday of this week:

My fiancee, the love of my life, John Bianco died on Sunday of sudden cardiac arrest. We were to be wed in a tridentine high Mass this April. He was 32. We were just having a conversation and he suddenly stopped breathing. I called the paramedics and he was transported to the ER, but there was nothing they could do. I managed to get him conditional Last Rites, but he was already dead when the priest arrived. He needs all the prayers for his soul that he can get. He read this forum nearly everyday and I'm sure he would appreciate all your prayers. I, too, could use your prayers as I struggle to find meaning in all of this. It seems so cruel that God would take him away three months before we were to marry. We all have crosses to bare, but this is one I cannot bare alone. I am struggling to find how this all fits into His Divine Plan. So, I beg all of you, get out your rosaries, if you know priests have masses said for him, offer up your Communions and indulgences, please, please, pray for the repose of the soul of my John. He was a good man, a good traditionalist Catholic, and he will truly be missed. Thank you all. Amanda.

The Lord bless you, and keep you, John. The Lord show his face to you, and have mercy on you. The Lord turn his countenance to you, and give you peace.

I have no news as yet from Amanda but I hope to have some soon.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Coughs of glory

The victories of the weekend have been overshadowed by the dratted virus which is hanging around, rather like a bad smell, or perhaps more like someone unpleasant who cannot take a hint.

Bizarre really; I cannot imagine anyone wanting to share this particular week with me. I am lumbering through a translation which, though not as thankless as some I have done, will remain a major burden until I can get it off my desk. Classes for the second semester began yesterday. I now teach for 7 1/2 hours on a Monday, and I arrived home feeling like a man who'd been run over at high speed by a train carrying extra-large elephants. And every academic book I pick up seems like it should have been central to my thesis and isn't.

There are days, weeks, months like that, but is it supposed to last for years? Reminds me of that scene from Fawlty Towers where Basil is talking to himself:

Basil: 'Zzzzzm'. What was that? 'That was your life mate.' Really? Do I get another? 'No, sorry, mate, that's your lot.'

It will all be over soon, as they said about WWI before Christmas 1914.

Which reminds me - in a "word-association-football' kind of way - that today I learnt where Stanley Kubrick got the name for his film Paths of Glory. The film is a marvellous study based on true events during the First World War. A French general decides to launch his men into a suicidal attack on the German trenches, and when they cannot even get out of their own trenches due to the intensity of the German barrage, the French general orders his own artillery to fire on the French! Covering his tracks with alacrity - I always keep a pot ready for covering mine too - , the general orders large numbers of men to be court martialled for cowardice and shot, though he finally settles for three (all of whom are chosen at random and had fought well during the attack). Kurt Douglas plays their commanding officer, a former barrister, and defends the men, showing up the absurdity of the trial. All to no avail. The whole thing is a stitch up to comfort the pride and blind arrogance of the general, and the three innocent men are taken for execution in what must be one of the most troubling scenes in cinema.

So, whither the title Paths of Glory? It comes, seemingly, from a drawing of the trenches made during the war. Two soliders can be seen face down in the mud, clearly dead. You only see this, however, in the uncensored version. The censored version predictably has 'censored' stamped across it obscuring the two bodies. The drawing is called 'the Paths of Glory'. The irony of Kubrick's title is borrowed, but is no less effective for that.

No paths of glory for me today, and I'm grateful; just a tickly throat, a chesty, weakling cough and dull aches.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The night brought counsel

The virus is still hanging on by the tips of its microscopic fingers. I can feel its nails digging in somewhere behind my epiglotis. Mustn't grumble though. Better things are happening in Lyon than sore throats and cold weather. Perhaps some better things are happening even because of the sore throats and bad weather.

Take last night for example. I awoke about 3am in my chilly bedroom. Being on the north face of our building, my chambre receives the full blast of the icy, continental winds, and so is bound to be cold. That, at least, is how my landlord explains the near-deep freeze temperatures in there. Personally, I prefer to think that if he left the heating on at night, my room might have a fighting chance of being a little warmer.

Come 4am, I decided I had had enough of being frozen to death, and made up my mind to make a rush for the warmth of the kitchen and begin breakfast. Turning to the moth-eaten teddy on the fireplace, left there by a previous occupant of the room - probably carried out with frostbite for all I know - , I said soulfully, 'I'm just going out. I may be gone for some time.'

But that early breakfast brought about something of a miracle. I kid you not. Now in the final weeks of my PhD (or should that be dying embers?) I have been struggling to revise my first chapter, a difficult and knotty excursion into the sociology of religion and the problems of secularization. Two of the brainiest people I know have read it and been defeated by it. The signs were not good. But how was I to change it? It seemed like a well-knitted jumper; start pulling out one thread and the rest could come out too. Or perhaps, just a pack of cards!

And then, over my 4am bowl of coffee and bread, it came to me all in a flash how I could revise the entire chapter: what could be cut, what could be rearranged, what could be reshaped. I spent the rest of the morning putting my inspiration into effect. I'll spare you the details. Read the thesis when it's published (if ever!).

On reflexion, I'm not quite sure what it all shows. Such moments are rare in these big projects. I have been trying to work this out for quite some time but to no avail.

Perhaps it only goes to show the virtues of not putting the heating on at night.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Snow, viruses and 'Die Grosse Stille'

I write today from a snowy, wintry Lyon, peeking out in resignation beneath several layers of extra clothing, and suffering, nonetheless, the sharp stabbing pains of some bloody French virus in the back of my throat.

Oh course, I say it's French, but no virus has a nationality or feels strong national sentiment. They promiscuously mix with any old foreigner who trots by happily minding his own business. So, yes - and this is what I'm driving at - viruses are the original internationalists. The only differences being that real internationalists are harder to swallow, and they can rarely be shifted, not even by a course of diarrhea-inducing antibiotics. We await that particular advance in medical science with, it must be admitted, a mixture of anxiety and not a little excitement. In the meantime, death to all viruses, say I.

Thoughts of the powdery stuff take me back to a film I saw during the holidays, Die Grosse Stille, now released in English as Into Great Silence, a documentary giving an aperçu of the lives of Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse in Savoy. The 'Great Silence' is something of a play on words; there is the magnum silencium of the monastic rule, but also the spiritual peace of souls dedicated to God and which come to maturity in the physical silence of the imposing, Savoyard mountain scenery, broken only by the sound of bells, psalms chanted in the dead-of-night, and the swishing of sandals and robes in the cloister corridors.

There is, however, a remarkable scene near the end of the film where the Carthusians go out for recreation, and set up their own toboggan-run on the side of a steep hill. Then, the Grosse Stille is suddenly rent with screaming, whooping, tobogganing monks, zooming down the mountain with their scapulars flapping in the wind. As I recall the scene, I have to blot out from my memory the gentle, faux-bourdon snores emanating from the friend with whom I was - theoretically - watching the film, and who, being on the better side of a good meal and several glasses of wine, had begun what Carthusians would probably call an 'Apostle's meditation' (cf. the Garden of Olives).

Still, as I recall the scene, I'm persuaded to look with a kindlier eye on the chilly, clear-blue, winter sky and the now crusty, freezing snow along the Lyonnais pavements, knowing that somewhere, some happy monk is probably tobogganing down a Savoyard slope with his scapular flapping in the wind.

I hope he's praying for my virus. It's on death row.