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.