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: