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?