This page is a weblog, consisting of diary-style entries, in which I react to a variety of topics, ranging from politics to music, through to what I am reading and doing generally with my time.
Each entry is displayed in reverse chronological order, which means the most recent one appears first.
Although most posts are textual, photographs and videos are occasionally included to illustrate what I am writing about.
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Sunday 24 October 2021: It’s been nearly four months since I posted anything new on this weblog. That’s quite a time, given my original plan to write new posts regularly and frequently.
What’s happened to make this plan redundant?
A great deal, is the short answer, which added together has caused me to neglect writing posts in favour of doing other stuff, like going away for two fortnight-long bike-riding, church-crawling breaks – one to Sussex (10-24 July), taking in Chichester, Lewes, Worthing and Arundel), the other to Anglesey (1-12 August), visiting Caernarfon, Bangor, Penmon, Portmeirion and Almwch.
Then (daughter) Chloe and her husband, Jonny, with my new, not long born, granddaughter, Renée, all recently arrived from NYC for an extended stay in the UK, visited for a week in September, to be joined for a couple of days by (son) Jake and his wife-to-be, Amanda, coinciding with my 74th birthday on the 11th.
My churchmanship has also proved very distracting: mass on 18 Sundays After Trinity to occupy me, plus nine Saints Days, one of which, on the 28th August, celebrating the life of Augustine, encouraged me to re-read Rowan Williams’s theological study of his work which I liked even more this time round. It’s very good on Augustine’s thinking on language, which is very ‘modern’, suggesting that ‘God talk’ is about ‘wording the unwordlable’.
And other serious books have grabbed my attention, distracting me from writing posts, like Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s unusual year in the life of Dickens (a birthday gift from Jake and Chloe); Frances Wilson’s highly original biography of D H Lawrence, which initially I found a little too idiosyncratic (her use of Dante seemed unnecessary to me), but grew to like a lot after half-way; Ross King’s very unexpected history The Bookseller of Florence; Steven Isserlis’s short engaging companion to Bach’s cello suites; Susan Tomes’s sometimes idiosyncratic history of the piano in 100 pieces; Prue Shaw’s eloquent introduction to Dante’s The Divine Comedy; and the second volume of William Feaver’s hugely gossipy biography of Lucian Freud, which I admit to skimming, selectively picking out those topics from its index that especially interested me. But, then, it is a very fat book at over 500 pages.
I have also struggled to get off my desk a new ‘religion’ chapter, which is the 13/14 of my memoir sequel, Memories are Made of This, which I should have finished ages ago, but found myself bogged down with, entirely because its thesis on the role that poetics can play in making religious language meaningful proved too difficult for me straightforwardly to put down on paper, seriously exposing in particular what I didn’t know about the poetry of each of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins, which I thought I was very familiar with. However, after initially biting off more than I could chew, I managed, thanks to some extra reading, to get the final sections written. Normally, I can draft over 500 words a day. On this occasion, in the later stages, I was reduced to a fifth of that, with much rewriting. Blood out of a stone stuff, in other words. If you’re interested, the whole thing can be read HERE.
My political activism has also kept me away from attending to this blog: a new edition of The Green ‘Un, the village newsletter I write, self-publish and distribute was issued a couple of weeks ago (SEE IT HERE); three Parish Council meetings have required my attention; the Council’s latest bulletin was written and delivered; and I helped coordinate an Eco Fair in nearby Wetherby.
The Labour Party? Nothing much on that front, sad to report. But then its shift back to centrist ways is never likely to sit comfortably with my sort of socialist leftism, though I did do some canvassing in July during the Batley and Spen by-election, which was not a good experience, despite the narrow win which resulted, the bad feeling on the doorstep being palpable at times. I was rarely greeted warmly.
More pleasurable distractions included resuming playing competitive chess, though with very indifferent results (my promotion to the ‘B’ team means I must now play against better opponents than I am normally used to, each of whom this season so far has made my life OTB very hard); watching some dramas on the NTatHome website, including a wonderful production of Sophocles’ Antigone; and listening to eight newly acquired CDs of classical piano music – the best of which I have decided is Víkingur Ólafsson’s Mozart & Contemporaries (DG 4860525). To check my positive assessment of it out, sample some of the disc’s tracks here: https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8935791–mozart-contemporaries
I haven’t been to a single live concert of music for over a year now, deciding that I ought not to with the pandemic still raging, until that is I have had my booster jab which will be in a less than a fortnight’s time, on 4 November.
Saturday 3 July 2021: I wonder when you last, indeed if you have ever, had a literary discussion with your dentist?
I had my first one last Monday morning at Leeds Dental Hospital, where I kept an appointment to have a rear tooth extracted, the second in as many weeks.
Arriving in the small windowless operating room, the surgeon – a man in his late 30s – noticed I had a book under my left arm.
“What’s that you’re reading?”
“It’s a biography of the writer, D H Lawrence.”
“The new one, which I have seen good reviews of?”
“No, not Burning Man (by Frances Wilson), but a much earlier one by John Worthen – D H Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider.”
“Is it any good?”
“Yes it is – a gripping, well written, clear-sighted portrait of a writer who I think has been unfairly treated by modern, especially feminist, critics”.
“But he was controversial – a terrible sexist, often a misogynist, sometimes a fascist, and also an uncritical colonialist?”
“Well, that’s a good list of what he’s been accused of. But, I’m not so sure.
Take the sexism charge. I have always thought his two greatest novels – The Rainbow and Women in Love – are about the independence of women.
True, Lawrence argued that women should submit to male leadership; but he wrote fiction after fiction in which they do no such thing.
Also, some of the most important relationships in his life were with women whose judgments he respected enormously – his mother, Lydia; Jessie Chambers, Louie Burrows, Alice Dax and, of course, Frieda Weekley, who he eventually married.”
“I must look at him again. The last time was in my undergraduate years when I read Sons and Lovers and some of his poetry. Is that where I should begin anew now?”
“Why not. But don’t neglect The Rainbow. I remember reading repeatedly its first page when I first encountered it (in 1968), thinking this is super writing.
And don’t ignore either Lawrence’s essays. Geoff Dyer, a huge DHL enthusiast, has pulled together a wonderful collection of them in his book, Life with a Capital L. They are freewheeling and playful; fresh and forceful; ranging over a heap of interesting topics – the arts, songbirds, morality, obscenity, religion.
And his letters! Lawrence was a tremendous and frequent writer of them. James Boulton has condensed into one-volume a marvellous selection of them. Look it up. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.”
“What then do you most like about Lawrence?”
“That’s a hard one. Certainly, I like his absolute effort completely to become identical with his ideas; to make himself a troubled witness to some of our deepest existential dilemmas, in particular about how best to accommodate love in the face of competing forces to it.
Although Lawrence was not always right, he was mostly honest when writing about himself and topics that interested him and in his dealings with others.
He was no prevaricator. He didn’t mess about. He said and wrote what he meant. His letter to Ernest Weekley (dated 8 May 1912), in which he dares to declare love for his wife, Frieda, and his resolve to extract her from their marriage, for instance, is an astonishing example of his capacity for candid directness: “I love your wife and she loves me . . . I feel as if my effort of life was all for her.”
“You may not like where Lawrence puts you; but you know exactly what that place is.
I have always liked that about him. Indeed, it’s also what I like about a lot of people I know well. And it’s how too I have regularly chosen to live my own life.
No wonder then I keep re-reading Lawrence. For I identify so much with him.
My own ‘outsider’ status frequently articulates with his. And, as in his case, I have been wrongly accused of being sexist! But never a colonialist!”
“Biographies? I do wonder about their reliability.”
“I know what you mean, having read a lot of them over the years. All I can say is that there are good ones and there are bad ones, in terms of how they are written and the sources they draw on.
John Worthen’s life of DHL is very authoritative; while Frances Wilson’s highlights individuals that aren’t prioritized by other biographers.
What they share is a desire to rehabilitate Lawrence’s reputation; to restore him to relevance; and to make his earnestness worth attending to.
They each succeed in my opinion. It’s time the ghost of Kate Millett was fully exorcised, for hers is a very selective reading.”
Sunday 20th June 2021: What does the notion ‘post-Covid’ mean? Does it refer to a time when society can resume functioning more or less as it did before the pandemic because the virus is no longer either present or not a serious threat?
Much of Team Johnson’s rhetoric about ‘Freedom Day’, ‘unlocking society’, ‘getting back to normal’ and ‘re-opening the economy’ implies as much.
Relatedly, the successful rollout of the UK’s vaccination programme provides justification for it to think we can get ahead of, even beat, the virus, thus fully breaking the link between infection and hospitalization, including high death rates, and so confidently resume where we left off.
Certainly, some of the most recent data give good grounds for such thinking.
However, there are also other data – admittedly, not many – that indicate the Delta variant is more resistant to Covid vaccines.
Also, as I write this, the R-number for England is dangerously between 1.2 and 1.4, with the number of new infections growing by 3% to 6% a day, suggesting we are in more bother than the PM is willing publicly to admit to.
Indeed, I am more inclined to believe Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser, who recently said that “the virus will be with us forever”. England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has said the same, warning that Covid illness and deaths will be with us “for the rest of our lives”. Both are also anxious to point out that this year’s global coronavirus death toll is already higher than that of last year.
They each recognise too that the threat of new variants is a very real one because much of the world is likely to remain unvaccinated for many years to come. Currently, only about 10% of the global population has received at least one dose, and there are some who think many people living in low income countries will never get a single jab.
The just-concluded G7 didn’t impress in this connection. Knowing it needed to commit to distribute 11bn vaccines over the next 12 months, it agreed just 1bn.
Near water-tight border controls would get round the problem of importing unwanted variants. But can anyone seriously envisage this government agreeing to implement them?
I am then more inclined to the view that we should stop giving credibility to Johnson’s promise of a ‘Freedom Day’, taking collectively seriously instead the idea that the new coronavirus is here permanently to stay and that living with it requires us fundamentally to re-think how, in both the short and long term, we live, work and socialize with each other so as to best protect everyone from the threat of the disease.
For starters, there’s an urgent need, I think, to facilitate public agreement about the level and type of risks we are willing to tolerate to end or amend restrictions of association.
This means the government should stop forthwith from allowing public health policy to be overly influenced by the economic needs of the entertainment and hospitality sectors. Some pubs and pizzerias may have to close forever. And some sporting events and concerts may be compelled to take place with continuing limited spectator involvement.
This will undoubtedly foster economic hardship, which government will need financially to remediate. It may also have to put in place a national programme of work re-training for those who lose their jobs because of the pandemic.
Either way, we need urgently to have a public debate about what kind of economy is best suited to an age of pandemic, including a root and branch revaluation of different kinds of work, assessing honestly what is essential and what isn’t.
Behind all of this is what I consider to be the defining ideological question of the new pandemic times we find ourselves in – what size and kind of state is needed to facilitate human flourishing?
In the short term, however, we surely must fully think through, and in public, how best to protect ourselves from getting ill with Covid.
Professor Dame Johnson, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, is surely on to something when she says, “what we want is to do the things that least disrupt our lives and minimise the risk of infection. Good hygiene, remote working, mask wearing, not mixing with people when we have symptoms, cycling rather than taking public transport, avoiding needless flights – all these and more should play a part in the post-lockdown world”. And another part must surely entail implementing a permanent fully-effective, nation-wide test, track and isolate system.
While these are good places to begin, the bigger questions of political economy can’t be avoided, to which can be added concerns about how in future we should conduct trade, use land, interact with wildlife and travel internationally.
So far, it is difficult to detect much of an effort among government and opposition to ask them, least of all a desire to implicate the public in arriving at answers.
Thursday 17 June 2021: I wonder what James Joyce, if he had been alive this week, would have made of the fact that on Tuesday evening billions of dollars were wiped off the market value of Coca-Cola following the one-word long snub a celebrity soccer player, Cristiano Ronaldo, gave to one of its products.
He’d surely have thought, ‘what kind of world economy is that? Seems like “shite and onions” to me’.
By contrast, I’m certain Joyce would have been overjoyed to know that Ulysses, his modernist fictional masterwork, and my DID’s book, is still being read and honored 99 years after its publication in 1922.
For yesterday was Bloomsday, which is the only annual commemoration of a fictional date I know of. Are there any others? Let me know if there are.
The sixteenth of June, the day on which Joyce sets all the action of his epic, is today a major literary event, celebrated all over the world, from Dublin to New York and around and down to Sydney, Australia.
And we may well ask, ‘why is that?’, which is really another way of asking just what is so special about Ulysses that causes so many people to want to live inside it for a day each year, whether by selectively reading some of its pages, listening to actors wrestling with its linguistic challenges, tracing the fictional steps of its protagonists through the actual or imagined neighbourhoods of 1904 Dublin, or even eating fried kidneys for breakfast.
Or what causes me to spend so much time, not just reading and re-reading Ulysses, but additionally buying and consulting numerous academic studies of and reference books about it (like Kieberd’s generous Ulysses and Us; Blamires’ brilliant Bloomsday Book; and Gifford’s addictive Ulysses Annotated), including attending associated seminars and subscribing to a relevant journal?
Predictably, there are many reasons why. These extracts from something else I have written about my experience of reading Ulysses give a sense of what my appreciative enthusiasm is all about:
Of all the many books of fiction I own, Ulysses is the one I would never want to be parted from, for reading it enabled me to contemplate experience and transform it in a very special way, initiating fundamental alterations in how I think and act as a result.
As I read it, I regularly found myself having Bloom-like thoughts, wishing I was more like him: able to love without being possessive; to be generous without being prompted; to be magnanimous without being sycophantic; to be sincere without being bigoted; to be strong without being assertive; to be simultaneously highly cosmopolitan and supremely local; and to be practically-minded as well as intellectually driven.
The novel then is a kind of moral primer, with Bloom as ethics teacher, which explains my definition of it as ‘Biblical fiction’, connecting with the comment made about it by one of its most insightful friends, Declan Kiberd, who writes admiringly of Ulysses as a form of ‘wisdom literature’, teaching us how better to conduct ourselves; giving advice on how to cope with grief; and how to be frank about the prospect of death;”. Ulysses thus puts hard and urgent questions to us. It is all-including.
It’s also fabulously well written. Each of its 18 sections has a unique form and linguistic distinctiveness, which include unpunctuated streams of consciousness, sonic experimentations with words and phrases, and a multitude of parodies. Its legion of historical, religious and musical allusions are also totally alluring. After years of studying them, there are still many that catch me out. How did Joyce know all these things?
And the novel is often very funny and satirically insightful. I dare you not to smile as you read some of these – my favourite – quotes from it:
You can’t bring time back. Like holding water in the hand.
Shite and onions …. life is too short.
Don’t cast your nasturtiums on my character.
I’m beholden to you …. May your shadow never grow less.
You know I always had a soft corner for you.
He knows more than you have forgotten.
Death is the highest form of life.
I have the impetuosity of Dante and the isosceles of a triangle.
We can’t change the country. Let’s then change the subject.
Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.
If I have a favourite quotation, it is Bloom’s despairing self-disparaging comment in the ‘Circe’ section:
I am exhausted, abandoned, no longer young. I stand, so to speak, with an un-posted letter bearing the extra regulation fee before the too late box of the general post office of human life.
Reading Ulysses took me out of my comfort zone as an appreciator of the novel, prompting me to reconstruct what I imagined to be its limits, including that of written language itself, and the risks that can be taken with it.
It reminded me too of the constraints of all particular styles of writing, each having its assumptions and limitations.
Joyce also spurred me on, though not for the first time in my life, to break down language in order to scrutinize its relationship to consciousness and reality.
Many years before I properly read Ulysses, Wittgenstein’s philosophy had taught me about the importance of this. To that extent, both novelist and philosopher, in their very different ways, helped me better to appreciate more profoundly than any other pair of writers before or since the poetics and dignity of everyday living and ordinary language.
So, how this year did I celebrate Bloomsday? I re-read Ulysses’ very enjoyable section 12 (‘Cyclops’).
It’s the one in which Bloom goes into Barney Kiernan’s pub. The Citizen, accompanied by Garryowen, his terrifying pet dog, is holding court.
Afternoon pints freely flow and the talk is full of gossip. Bloom pretends to be oblivious to taunts about his wife and supposed win on the horses. The Citizen, in grandiose one-eyed fashion, rants about Irish nationalism and targets Bloom for being Jewish.
Bloom fights back, declaring “Christ was a Jew!”. Garryowen and a biscuit tin chase him out of the pub and down the street.
If you own like me the Penguin Classics edition of Ulysses you can read the Citizen’s hyperbolic version of nationalism (which is akin to the worse kind of Leaver rhetoric) on pages 425 and 427, the last of which includes a very amusing satire based on the Apostles’ Creed. It’s one of a long series of must-read parodies in this section (thirty of them!), each of which has a one-eyed quality, contrasting with Joyce’s persistent two-eyed view of things, which Bloom embraces and for which he attracts a hostile reaction.
Cyclops also includes that famous put-down quote, “A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place” (p.430); and a very funny satire on the pomposity of titles (p.448).
Monday 7 June 2021: Last Friday, at Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City, at near daybreak, just a few minutes short of 5 am, my daughter, Chloe, became a mother.
Weighing in at 7 pounds 13 ounces, her baby, Renée, made Jonny, her husband, a first-time father, simultaneously launching me into grandparenthood.
Nine months ago, I successfully survived a life-threatening heart attack; the same amount of time later, Chloe and Jonny gift me a grandchild, making me both highly delighted and very proud and, God knows, enormously grateful.
The Book of Proverbs says “grandchildren are the crown of the aged”. Approaching my 74th birthday, I can confirm I feel very rounded off. The meaning of Renée – ‘born again’ – is thus very apt.
I will first see and hold Renée in August/September, which is when Chloe and Jonny will next be in the UK.
Meanwhile, I am restricted to photographs and videos, which I am receiving on a daily basis, keeping me well in touch with developments. I like the videos best of all, for they allow me to hear Renée and see her move.
Friday 7 May 2021: Karl Marx was born this week in 1818, on the 5th May.
I celebrated by skim re-reading one of my favourite defences of Marx’s prospectus, Terry Eagleton’s (2011) Why Marx Was Right, which even the Catholic Tablet praised as “witty, polemical, brave, prophetic but, above all, relevant”.
In it Eagleton takes issue with the prejudice that Marx’s ideas are out of date and done with.
Examining ten of the most common objections to Marxism – that it leads to political tyranny, that it reduces everything to the economic, that it is a form of historical determinism, and so on – Eagleton demonstrates in each case what a woeful travesty of Marx’s own thought these assumptions are, making the case for his continuing relevance.
I also reminded myself of what I had written about my own Marxism four years ago in my memoir, Keep on the Move, in which I said this:
The political views I hold are strongly Leftist, possessing traditional socialist and communist characteristics, which explains why I subscribe to a form of political economy that considers the ways goods are produced and distributed within society should be administered chiefly by central government and local communities.
And I am a keen advocate of the principle that wealth and income differentials should never be so large as to prejudice significantly the life chances of any single social class or group of people.
The social and economic hopes that arise out of this perspective inevitably include a utopian prospect that anticipates the bringing about in the UK of an economically egalitarian society, by which I do not mean one in which everyone has the same, but rather one that provides all of its citizens with sufficient means – like a basic income and a decent home – to live in a state of dignity and self-respect; or, slightly to rewrite Marx, one in which each of us, while contributing according to our ability, receives that which is consistent with our fundamental needs.
I am intellectually and ideological a communist because I regard Marx’s central arguments about capitalist economic reality and human flourishing to be both true and prescient.
For sure, many of Marx’s predictions about economics and society have not come to pass – for example, the rate of profit in capitalist societies has not fallen; markets have not always hampered technical progress; the working class has not become totally impoverished; and nor has it been a revolutionary force – but his general forewarnings on the endemic instability of financial capital accumulation and its grossly negative effects on increasing overall inequality surely have.
Wednesday 31 March 2021: It’s been over a month since I last added a post to any page of this website.
This attention lapse was caused partly by a technical problem – WordPress, which hosts it, developed an editing fault which I was unable to resolve quickly – but mostly by a lethargic inability to find sufficient motivation to put pen to paper, despite feeling I ought to.
I have experienced periodic torpors of this sort throughout my life, always immediately following intense periods of study, my last of which took place during the final part of February, when in just over a week I wrote 15,000 words of a new book I am trying to complete, causing me afterwards to lose all drive to write anything new.
This wasn’t writer’s block, for at the time my lapse started lots of ideas were rushing around my imagination which I desired to make sense of by writing about them. It was more that I couldn’t muster sufficient stimulus to make the effort to do so. I felt done for, emptied of enthusiasm .
Being very downhearted generally by what was in the news also didn’t help my motivation, particularly as I reflected negatively on the succession of wrong policy decisions made and directions taken by the UK government over the past twelve months since the start of the Covid pandemic.
These have caused tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, leaving me to wonder pessimistically if the successful vaccine rollout is the great game-changer the PM and most of the pundits say it is.
If you think I am being ignorantly defeatist about all of this, dare yourself to read the last chapter of Failures of State, the Sunday Times’ ‘Insight’ Team’s investigation into Britain’s battle with Covid. It is a shocking critique of government dithering and incompetence.
Reading Failures of State confirmed I am right to have lost all trust in PM Johnson’s judgement, including capacity to calculate accurately how events will unfold.
This isn’t just about me disliking profoundly his ideological preferences, which I do.
It’s also about my negative assessment of Johnson’s character. He seems to have few if any scruples about telling lies and no hesitation in squandering billions of pounds to chums.
How the hell did we get to this? How the heck indeed does a charlatan like Johnson manage to retain the support of the majority of the population, and to such a degree that his party is likely to win well in the upcoming local elections?
Why is Labour and its new leader making such a pathetic impact? Has the pandemic made it near impossible for Sir Keir energetically to oppose and propagate alternatives?
Or is the Tory Party merely riding temporarily the crest of a vaccine wave? Or is it rather winning outright the war of ideas?
Or has Johnson’s clown-like behaviour – gimmicks, bad hair, ill-fitting suits, slapstick and one-line slogans – cleverly charmed a gullible electorate?
Did you notice Edward Docx’s ‘Long Read’ in the Guardian on Johnson’s winning rollout of the virtue of not taking anything seriously? If you didn’t, read it here
Docx tellingly ends his essay with some lines from the 3rd Act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the play’s central character warns of the dangers of allowing clowns to distract audiences with humour while important issues are being settled: “For there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set up some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too; though, in the meantime, some necessary question of the play be then to be considered: that’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it”.
While my Lenten and Holy Week devotions have assuredly helped to strengthen my personal Faith, they haven’t done much to enliven my hopes in the arrival anytime soon of God’s Kingdom – that new otherworldly community of Believers anticipated by Jesus, constituting the spiritual basis of a better way of life than the one we are used to – which seems as far away as ever from being fully or even partially realised.
Indeed, the story of ‘Peter’s Denial’ that features early on in the so-called ‘Stations of the Cross’ reminds me that Jesus’s Ethics are as much disavowed as subscribed to in these post-Christian times of ours.
I thus keep thinking what a pig’s ear we humans have made of God’s covenant. Required by Him to take good care of his created order and each other, what do we do? We mess up badly on both fronts.
This fact doesn’t dent for a second my personal religious sensibility; but it does diminish my confidence in the human spirit to do the right thing.
Humanity keeps promising itself to try harder, but what’s happened around Covid, Climate Change and Inequality tells me it hasn’t learnt how to try hard enough, too often allowing itself to endorse social and political agendas that preserve a status quo which favours the already privileged and powerful.
The nation state and imperial adventurism in particular have surely a lot to answer for where much of this is concerned, explaining why forms of global governance have never been given enough of a chance to succeed.
Undoubtedly, over the years, there have taken place huge improvements in the quality of human life, many of them prompted by important advances in scientific understanding and global cooperation.But these are so unevenly distributed, not to mention secured at enormous cost to life generally, as to make me deeply sceptical of the alleged virtues of what’s loosely defined as progress.
So, while I don’t think we are doomed, there are likely to be some major disasters upcoming soon if certain fundamental alterations are not quickly put in train, notably on making the planet a safer place to live on and simultaneously remediating, globally, the writ-large social, economic and health inequalities which scaringly seem both out of control and beyond the reforming efforts of progressive movements.
Because of the vested interests involved, which centre on the accumulated wealth of corporations and financiers, whose collective power constrains governments to do their bidding, these alterations are unlikely to happen voluntarily.
Rather, most will be forced on humanity by unspeakable circumstance, by which time, as with much of Covid policy in England over the past year, the measures needed will turn up too late to make a positive difference for those already disadvantaged or dead.
While my pen has not moved much over the past 5 weeks, my reading eyes have, and rapidly, entailing revisiting the writings of 2 authors whose work once had a huge and formative influence on me: the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins and the critic, Edward W Said.
I have been intrigued to find out if their sway on me is still as great, even improved. I was hoping too they might raise my spirits.
Edward Said remains as important to me now as he was in 1991, which is when I first encountered and read Orientalism, the book which mostly made his name and reputation.
Published in 1978, it set a big cat among the pigeons, offering a sensationally pugnacious critique of established Western attitudes towards the East.
Said’s case was never watertight; but it was highly persuasive, teaching me then a new, post-colonial, way to study culture, from which I have never fundamentally departed.
And its angry defiance helped to encourage my own when I first read it, also making me feel less down-hearted about being in so many losing minorities when I looked at it again a few days ago. Its last third remains a tour de force – exciting, shaming and challenging.
I was especially reminded of my huge debt of honour to Said last week as I quickly read through a just-published biography of him – Timothy Brennan’s Places of Mind – which charts successfully the various intertwining routes of his complex intellectual development and contribution – as Palestinian activist, literary & cultural critic, intelligent musicologist, orchestra impresario, and radical humanist.
The legacy Brennan outlines strengthened my long-held view that literature is an important co-creator in establishing a fairer society and world, confirming Said as a political truthteller of the first order. Re-reading him last week thus helped to dissolve my inertness, causing me to get going again.
Here’s a quote which particularly reactivated me. It’s extracted from a long interview conducted by Tariq Ali with Said in June 1994, who at one point asks about the extent to which it is possible to be a successful transgressive critic during highly reactionary times.
Said is unequivocal:
“No matter how one feels oneself to be up against the wall, with no option but to submit . . . there’s always an opportunity to formulate something different, and so not either to remain silent or to capitulate. . . . Because if politics is the art of the possible, it’s the role of the intellectual always to be asserting alternatives.”
I was once lucky enough, in 1992, to attend a public lecture Said gave at Warwick University, where I was then working. I briefly got close to him at the reception afterwards, though not sufficiently proximate to be able to speak to him.
Said’s lecture on that occasion, which was eloquently delivered to a tightly packed lecture theatre (every seat was taken, with members of the audience sat on the aisle steps and all around the raised lectern, making the event seem like a rally), was about the social and political role of intellectuals, anticipating the content of his BBC Reith Lectures on the same topic that he gave a year later which argued in favour of their importance in giving voice to an “independent critical consciousness”.
Those attending the lecture knew they were in the presence of greatness.
And Said knew he was ‘being great’, for he played up to the crowd brilliantly, soaking up its adoration and returning it in kind.
Although he was by then fatally ill with cancer, he never for a second showed he was. He self-presented as being full of life.
Is Said the last of the ‘celebrity intellectuals’? Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall and Christopher Hitchens used to draw the crowds. Terry Eagleton still does; and Tony Giddens as well. Noticeably, and regrettably, all men.
But I can’t easily identify others. Can you? Niall Ferguson? Lynne Segal? Martha Nussbaum? Thomas Piketty? Rowan Williams? John Gray? Jacqueline Rose?
In a future post I will say a few things about the continuing influence on my thinking of Hopkins’ Christian poetic aesthetics, which Said also admired.
This is of special interest to me, given that, unlike Hopkins, and unlike myself, Said was a secular humanist, although always very respectful of religious sensibility and theological writing.
Indeed, while never an orthodox Believer, Said ambiguously held out the possibility he might privately be an unconventional one.
Wednesday 17 February 2021: This morning I ‘attended’ the live Ash Wednesday Mass streamed from York Minster.
Normally, I don’t get much out of such broadcasts.
Today’s was a huge exception: the internal architecture was splendid; the 8-part choir was superb; the lections were each read well; the prayers were very relevant; and the homily was spot on.
Why some hostile humanist-secularists want to see an end to such things strikes me as bizarre, given the glowing contribution they make to our common culture; bit like wanting to ban poetry, it seems to me.
Deciding that today’s service is a foretaste of what is to come, I have resolved to attend virtually at the Minster for each of its Sunday observances in Lent.
Each of these services, I have discovered, has a theme:
Sunday 21 February: Prayer
Sunday 28 February: Service
Sunday 7 March: Stewardship
Sunday 14 March: Hospitality
Sunday 21 March: Living a Christian Life
My only complaint about this morning, and it is a very mild one, was the decision not to give a lectern-airing to the prescribed Psalm for today – No.51, vv.1-18.
And, if it had been down to me, I would have opted for John rather than Matthew for the Gospel reading.
But, then, John, next to Mark, is my favorite Gospel, which means my preference on this occasion can be easily ignored.
In any event, each of this morning’s prescribed Gospel readings (Matthew, 6, 1-6, 16-21 & John 8, 2-11) deal with the same theme: the need to avoid hypocrisy and public displays of piety in one’s devotions.
It’s just that I think John’s story of the woman taken in adultery does the theme the best justice. I also like the reference in it to Jesus ignoring his accusers by writing with his finger in the sand. Lovely touch, that, I have always thought.
Psalm 51, meanwhile, which is normally sung at Vigils/Matins on Tuesdays, is to do with the experience of personal guilt, making it, I guess, a very apposite one to kick-start Lent with.
Its author feels unclean (“wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions are ever before me”, vv.2-3); he asks to be renewed in every part of his life (“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit in me” (v.10); daring finally to instruct God not to abandon him (“Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation . . .” (vv.11-12).
The Psalmist’s audaciousness at this point in his song reminds me of George Herbert’s, as expressed in his famous poem ‘Discipline’ – “Throw away thy rod/Throw away thy wrath: O my God/Take the gentle path/For my heart’s desire/Unto thee is bent/I aspire to a full consent.”
Monday 15 February: Yesterday, the Anglican church celebrated the last Sunday before the Season of Lent, which formally starts on the 17th, Ash Wednesday.
The CofE also designated the 14th February Racial Justice Sunday.
Archbishop Welby wrote and delivered a special prayer to coincide with it, which is just as well as one year ago he said at the Anglican Synod that the CofE is “deeply institutionally racist”.
His prayer this year refers to “the sin of racism” and how Jesus “broke down the walls that divide”.
Archbishop Welby’s prayer is spot on, for the statistics don’t flatter his church: while BEMs make up 14% of the UK adult population; less than half that figure are CofE regulars; fewer than 5% of Anglican bishops are Black; while only 4% of its priests are.
All of this dire state of affairs is written up in Azariah France-Williams’ hard-hitting, Ghost Ship, which is a dreadfully embarrassing book about the extent and prevalence of racism in the CofE.
Whatever the merits of the actual case, there are hints too of it being implicated in the way in which the Diocese of London treated the Revd Jarel Robinson-Brown over his ‘cult of Captain Tom’ tweet.
Robinson-Brown was probably imprudent to say what he said, but his ‘lynching’ by the media after he had publicly apologized ought not to have been aided by the authorities in his diocese, as reported by The Church Times, (12 February, p.4).
It is surely worrying that, after 25 years, which is how long Racial Justice Sunday has been calendared by the CoE, the church has still not adequately answered its own prayers about it.
Two of yesterday’s lections reinforce the point.
Cally Hammond’s survey of them in The Church Times puts it better than I can: “For the second Sunday in a row, Jesus is revealed as the ‘image’(icon) of God (this week in 2 Corinthians, 4,4; last week, Colossians, 1,15). That is the measure to apply to all else that we learn about him”.
It also must surely be the measure against which to evaluate my own conduct and that of the church, not just concerning racism, but generally.
By ‘image of God’ (imago Dei), I understand Paul to be referencing the idea that we are each created in the ‘likeness’ of God, possessing potentially what He embodies, which is Goodness and Love; and that Jesus is an astonishing, unique even, embodiment of the same qualities: “a man entirely for others, the one in whom Love has completely taken over, the one who is utterly open to, and united with, the Ground of his Being” (John A T Robinson, Honest to God, p.76).
Thus regarded, Jesus’s example radically discomfits my own and the church’s.
The confirmation of Jesus’s ideal state is what the Gospel for Today (Mark, 9, 2-9) is surely all about.
It tells the story The Transfiguration, spelling out the truth about Jesus, revealing fully and vindicating totally to the three witnessing disciples, Peter, James and John, his identity as the Son of God.
Although the story causes problems for the modern reader – its sensational nature seems to counteract common sense, despite the fact that such physical transformations are not at all unusual in our increasingly God-emptied universe – Mark was unaware of them when writing his Gospel, which would have been read to early church congregations populated by people who took such occurrences for granted, as I do two centuries later.
Cally Hammond captures well the story’s significance, writing “Peter, James and John glimpsed a truth sufficient to sustain a life’s discipleship . . . The rest of us see it through their eyes, with all the self-questioning that encounters with divine truth awake in us.”
Genuinely, to acknowledge the importance of Racial Justice Sunday the church then needs to confess its racism more and promptly do something about it.
Archbishop Welby’s new Anti-Racism Task Force is thus on-notice.
PS . . .
I have discovered a remarkable spiritual autobiography – the Victorian English naturalist Richard Jeffries’ The Story of My Heart.
First published in 1884, it has long been out of print, which is a huge shame, I have decided, for its atheistic survey of Jeffries’ direct encounter with the natural world – land and seascapes – is profoundly religious.
Jeffries has an overwhelming sense of the presence of the Beyond pressing upon him through earth, sky and sea, and above all through the rays of the sun: “All the glory of the sunrise filled me with a broader and furnace-like vehemence of prayer” (p.27).
Reading The Story of My Heart I was forcibly struck by this thought: that the God of conventional theism must be transcended, for it is far too small: “All we know of the truth is that the absolute truth, such as it is, is beyond our reach. God is not one of the poles of traditional theism, but transcends these inevitable finite distinctions” (Nicholas of Cusa, 1401-64).
Friday 12 February 2021: Can you translate this Chinese greeting into English – 祝你牛年吉祥?
If you can, you will know it means, “I wish you a lucky Ox year.”
For today is the first day of the Chinese New Year, which in 2021 is the Year of the Ox.
Within China, regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of New Year vary widely, though the evening preceding New Year’s Day itself is frequently regarded as an occasion for Chinese families to gather for the annual reunion dinner.
It is also traditional for every family thoroughly to clean their house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for incoming good luck.
Another custom is the decoration of windows and doors with red paper-cuts and couplets. Popular themes among these paper-cuts and couplets include that of good fortune or happiness, wealth, and longevity.
Other activities include lighting firecrackers and giving money in red paper envelopes.
One superstition associated with Chinese New Year concerns scissors. Using them on the day itself is thought to bring bad luck.
For the northern regions of China, dumplings feature prominently in meals celebrating the festival. They often serve as the first meal of the year, either at midnight or as breakfast of the first day.
Normally, hundreds of millions of people usually make the annual trip home to see family over the new year break in China, in what is often referred to as the world’s largest annual mass migration. For many of China’s 280 million migrant workers it is the only chance all year to see their families, including children left in home villages while they earn a living in the cities.
The Covid pandemic has put a halt to much of that. The number of trips made on the first day of this year’s China’s new year travel period has dropped by nearly 70%.
Government restrictions and enticements not to go home for the holidays have had their effect. The state broadcaster CCTV said air and rail travel was down by about 80% and road trips by about one-third.
The only occasion I have celebrated Chinese New Year in China was in 2012 during my residency at Chongqing’s Southwest University.
Its date that year was Monday 23 January; and it was the start of the Year of the Dragon, which was designated an ‘unlucky’ year, while this year’s Year of the Ox is styled a ‘good’ year – a year betokening “strength and determination”.
I have very fond memories of that day 9 years ago. A handful of my doctoral students at Southwest, who had not gone home for the holiday, called on me in my office to take to me to a ‘dumpling lunch’, which they had organised in my honour. It was great fun, not least because I learnt how to prepare and serve different kinds of dumplings.
Today, then, I will think fondly of the PRC, entirely because, as I make clear in my essay ‘On China’ (read it here), I have huge affection for it.
This however does not stop me being one of its critical friends, which is why today I intend to read further two recently published books on the PRC which aren’t at all afraid to ask some awkward questions about its current direction of travel: Edward Vickers & Zeng Xiaodong’s (2017) Education and Society in Post-Mao China and Willy Wo-Lap Lam’s (2018) edited collection, The Routledge Handbook of the Chinese Communist Party.
Sunday 7 February 2021: In the church calendar, today is Sexagesima Sunday – two weeks before Lent, eight before Easter Sunday.
Bach’s three surviving cantatas, BWV 18, 181 & 126, which he wrote for today, respectively in 1713, 1724 and 1725, are recorded on JEG Disc 10.
This morning’s lections (Common Worship Lectionary, pp.446-448) must be a priest’s delight, as together (from Proverbs, Colossians & John) they add up to a unified/profound statement about God and Jesus and about the Meaning of Everything, making them an inspirational source for writing the best possible homily. Today’s Psalm adds icing to the cake.
A prefect set, in other words!
And my favourite.
I will say more about them in a second, after I have reacted to several messages of concern about my health.
Various people have commented kindly & worryingly on my very early hours writing: “don’t you ever go to bed?!”; “please get some rest.”
They needn’t fret, for they have forgotten I have just graduated from the University of Feline with a very good honours degree in Living Like a Cat – a BLLC – which has enabled me, among many other things, to acquire a new understanding of the meaning of ‘clock time’.
Professor Mills, my personal tutor, does not wear a wristwatch. And why? Because she lives her life according to ‘cat time’ not human time, which means she naps whenever it takes her fancy.
Same now with me.
Lockdown is also partly to blame too for this lifestyle change of mine, I guess, for it has caused me not only to lose all idea of what time in the day it is, but even what day of the week I am experiencing! And as for the date? Forget it. Forgotten it. But, most of this is down to Professor Mills. What a teacher!; what an influence!
Will I ever revert? Is there any need to? Dr Mills says there isn’t.
Now for those lections, though I feel called first to say a thing or two about the Gospel prescribed for Candlemas, which I overlooked to remark on when it was read – during last Tuesday, 2 February.
It’s from Luke (2, 22-40), which tells us the story of Jesus’ ‘presentation in the temple’ (page 432 in the Common Worship Lectionary).
Although this story centers on Jesus and his family, several individuals – Simeon and Anna – have interesting walk-on parts in it.
Each is waiting. They are ideal observers, standing in for everyone, including therefore me.
And they’ve each been waiting a lifetime.
For what, exactly? For the full manifestation of God’s presence in human history, is the answer. For a sign of ultimate meaning.
Then, out of the blue, unexpectedly, they spy Jesus, and they decide – ‘This is it!’: “For my eyes have seen your salvation”, says Simeon (v.30), “this child is destined for the falling and rising of many . . . a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (vv. 34 & 5).
The Gospel for Candlemas teaches me this: that epiphany is over; that I must turn away from Jesus’ birth story and concentrate on his adult life and ministry; that I must begin anew.
The snowdrops in my garden, acting as harbingers of spring, are a sign, I have decided.
But how, and in what ways exactly?
The upcoming season of Lent will surely help me to find out.
And today’s lections will keep me focused as I do so.
What a fantastic set they are! My favourite set, as I’ve said above.
They include, to start, Proverbs 8, 22-31, popularly known as Wisdom’s Second Speech, which is a hymn of self-praise to that which holds everything together.
Wisdom originated before creation, we are told – “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago” (v.22); she was there at creation itself – “When he marked out the foundations of the earth, there I was beside him” (v.29); and I was pleasing to his eye – “I was daily his delight, rejoicing him always” (v.30).
Then Psalm 104, 25-37 – which is a further hymn of praise to the meaning of things – “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom (that word again) you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (v.25).
A fragment from Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae follows (Colossians, 1, 15-20) – another hymn, the so-called Christological Hymn, which is arguably one of the apostle’s most memorable statements about Jesus’ identity and significance: “he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation . . . He is before all things – all things have been created through him and for him . . . For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell” (vv.15, 17, & 19).
All of this reminds me of that bit from Louis MacNeice’s famous poem ‘Meeting Point’:
“God or whatever means the Good/Be praised that time can stop like this/That what the heart has understood/Can verify in the body’s peace/God or whatever means the Good”
And, to end, the Gospel – and what a Gospel for the day – the grand opening of John’s (1, 1-14): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory . . . “ (vv.1 & 14). The Word, like Wisdom, is the principle that underlies the universe – it is its signification.
Even BWV 181 gets in on the act: “The Word discloses to us the powers of this and of the future life” (2nd recitativo).
As does this famous Charles Wesley hymn, often sung on Sexagesima Sunday – ‘Christ, whose glory fills the skies . . .” (NEH, 234).
Saturday 6 February 2021: It’s fair to stay I am not finding being in lockdown at all difficult, entirely because I am undertaking it in a very comfortable environment, with Kathryn and a cat for good company, where I am able to pursue activities which normally add lots of value to my life: listening to recorded classical music, reading books, writing essays and adding posts to this website.
Indeed, lockdown is allowing me to spend even more happy times in my very pleasant hinterland.
It’s why retiring was such a blessing because it allowed me fully to carve out a better way of being a ‘worker’.
I am then not at all bored at the moment; and I don’t miss seeing, even chatting to, people because that’s not what I do much of the time anyhow.
And I have been able to keep all my committee stuff going using Zoom.
Even my love of playing chess has not taken much of a knock, having just acquired a new fit-for-purpose computer which is helping to train me to be a better player.
Living in my head is making the whole process of lockdown a very easy one, in other words, excepting not being able to go to church, which I am missing a lot.
And, unlike many, I don’t have to worry about either going to work – as I’ve said, I am fully retired – or having enough money to live on as I am nicely pensioned.
Don’t think, please, that I am being smug saying any of this.
I’m just remarking that this relatively well-off member of the educated middle-classes has nothing to complain about, which makes it all the more difficult for me to listen sympathetically to people like me moaning and groaning about their circumstances. “Oh, for goodness sake!”, I say behind my hand, as I listen unsympathetically to them, “get over to Harehills in Leeds and see how the other 90% are making out”.
Lockdown is for me a kind of convivial house arrest, reminding me of how two heroes of mine successfully managed the real thing, which in each case wasn’t a pleasant experience.
On the contrary, for both, it was deeply troubling and often hard-going because they were each really in jail and in life-threatening circumstances.
They never read each other’s stuff, but Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist intellectual, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the expert German Christian theologian, had one huge thing in common: they were imprisoned by fascists for their beliefs and actions.
In April 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazi authorities on suspicion of comparatively minor offences.
Their investigations however revealed he was involved with the Abwehr, an underground anti-Nazi group, which had recently organised an unsuccessful attempt on Hitler’s life.
Bonhoeffer was linked with this conspiracy, charged, tried, found guilty, then executed by hanging in April,1945.
So, for two years, Bonhoeffer was incarcerated in a succession of Gestapo prisons, during which time (curious to me) he was allowed to write long letters home and to one very special friend, and to have books brought into him from outside.
These letters were sometimes accompanied by ‘notes’ about mostly theological topics.
An edited selection of these letters and notes was published as a slim book in 1953, quickly becoming a best-seller. It’s been reprinted 7 times since.
Bonhoeffer’s letters/notes are remarkable for their subtlety and warmth.
Never once do they express complaint, which is all the more remarkable because Bonhoeffer must have known early on that the chances of him getting out of jail were slight. I think he knew from the start he would never go home, that even he would be executed.
There are many remarkable theological insights in Bonhoeffer’s ‘notes’ – about how better to conceive of God; about what a Christian life ought to amount to; about why the de-mythologisers have got it wrong in their commentaries on the Gospel stories. He also sets down a very optimistic prospectus for the church.
All the time, Bonhoeffer read, studied and wrote, and listened to classical music on a battered radio. He also prayed and worshipped.
There are in his letters numerous moments of expressed huge kindness directed at members of his family, which include the text, dated May 1943, of a remarkable sermon on the occasion of his best friend’s marriage.
Gramsci’s time in jail predates Bonhoeffer’s.
Mussoloni, anxious to shut up his communist-inspired agitations -Gramsci was a radical and unafraid journalist – had him arrested in November 1926.
After being convicted for treason, Gramsci spent the next 8 years behind bars.
For a reason I can’t understand, he was, like Bonhoeffer, allowed to read books in jail – trunk-loads of them.
He read, and he read; and he wrote and he wrote.
The result – his famous Notebooks, which range over topics which even today his discussions of read like profound and prescient good sense: on the role of the intellectual; on education and culture; on the state and civil society; on self-criticism; on continuity and tradition; on hegemony – and that’s not the half of it.
And then there are Gramsci’s Prison Letters, written mostly to his family – his wife and his children and his mother.
When these are not being witty and ironical, they are insightful, charming and loving.
Like Bonhoeffer, Gramsci never once lets imprisonment prevent him from being a caring character.
How did he put it in his essay in the Notebooks on Machiavelli’s politics: “I’m a pessimist of the intellect, while being an optimist of the will”?
Not hard to see the relevance of all of this for lockdown 3, is it?
[I have run out of steam, which means I will add my promised post about Candlemas sometime tomorrow.]
Friday 5 February 2021: I haven’t posted a ‘First Thought’ for four days, entirely because I have been totally distracted by a heart-felt need to complete writing a draft of an essay based on my experience of working and living in the PRC ten years ago – as a visiting academic at Southwest University, near Chongqing.
Because it’s one of the largest urban metropolises in the world, Chongqing is clearly marked on the map displayed below. See if you can find it.
‘On China’ will eventually appear in a collection of my essays (13 of them) – Memories Are Made of This – which I plan to self-publish in June.
The Preface for this collection can be read here
A lot of ‘On China’, which draws on primary sources and not just textbooks, notably a weekly diary I kept when I was at Southwest University and copies of e-mails I sent home, is to do with countering the negative image the PRC currently suffers from in the West, explaining also why its way of life, as I briefly experienced it, had such a positive and enduring impact on my character development.
Towards the end of ‘On China’ I write this about all of that in a section which explains why, if I was a younger person, I’d happily live in the PRC:
“And why would I like to live in the PRC? Because I would enjoy and find fulfilling immersing myself in a way of life which reflects particular virtues I value greatly and wish I practised more, which include fidelity, righteousness, propriety and reticence, which of course are all derived from Confucianism and not Marxism.
I could of course work hard to live my life more in the light of these virtues without having to emigrate to the other side of the globe to be associated with them.
It’s just that I think I’d be more influenced by them if I lived in China, among its people.
And I’d prefer to be socialized into them in the context of a country hell-bent on developing itself in a way that stresses meeting collective social needs at the expense of the consumer demands of individuals.
I am not naïve about this, however, for many of the Chinese like to consume as much as we do.
What I sense though is that they do so with at least half a glance sideways away from selfish ends, which tend to be totally to the fore in the Western way of life it calls ‘normal’ which increasingly I find hard to accommodate.”
At the essay’s start, I anticipate this attitude, writing this:
“What I learnt is a lot of positive things, all of which reinforced my long-standing admiration for a country whose history and achievements, particularly over the last forty years in lifting so many tens of millions out of absolute poverty, have regularly left me impressed, not just because I am a Marxist activist-intellectual who subscribes to a utopian socialist outlook, but because I am always on the look-out for examples of how this might be realised in practice.
While I know full well that the PRC often fails fully to live up to its professed communism, this does not, for me, render its efforts in that direction null and void.
I am well into approximations, even poor ones, providing they are moving in a direction I broadly approve of.
This attitude, just in case you’re wondering, also applies to my membership of the Church of England.
It used to underpin my links with the British Labour Party, which I no longer consider is moving in a direction that is sufficiently socialistic to warrant me giving it my, even qualified, support.”
To read ‘On China’ in full, click this link
It’s proving a good read among some of my regulars, one of whom said this about it:
“David, I’ve had a wonderful morning on this! Perhaps I’m not a good critic because I largely agree with your perspectives about China, given the reservations you set out at the beginning and near the end.
Your essay style of writing works very well, and the diary and e-mail entries enhance it nicely.
Your reported interactions with individuals are touching, and the way you describe China’s effects on your own personality and morality is very convincing.”
To illustrate aspects of my China furlough, I have attached to this post 2 photos taken during it.
One shows a copy of the ‘business card’ I had made out in the UK and which I distributed during my stay. The first line of Chinese characters is my name.
The other photo shows me being appointed a Visiting Professor at Southwest University.
My Mao jacket turned a few heads on that occasion, you might like to know, because no one in the PRC hardly wears one these days!
The other person in the photo? She’s the Secretary of the Local Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Without her recommendation, the appointment would not have been made.
The Party is rarely actually seen in China, but it is always there or thereabouts. And its influence is pervasive, but not always as intrusive as some in the West think.
Tomorrow, I will catch up with some comment on things that have happened during my period of silence, including the church’s celebration of Candlemas on 2 February.
But, before that, why not have a go at this short quiz, which mostly requires you to answer either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’:
Sunday 31 January 2021: Today, the church celebrates the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, the last Sunday before Lent’s pre-season gets underway, which is 4 Sundays away, starting on the 21st February.
Always at this time in the liturgical year I select, by way of advance preparation, a devotional text for Lent, which this time is Stephen Cherry’s just-published Thy Will be Done, which is series of short meditations – 36 of them – on different aspects of the Lord’s Prayer. It looks good, for I have given it a short test run.
This Sunday, Epiphany thus ends officially for the church. It turns away from the celebration of Jesus’s birth and looks forward towards to his adult life and ministry and all that that meant then and means now.
It is then, for the church, a time of endings and beginnings.
This morning’s lections reflect this transition.
Revelation (12, 1-5) is an astonishingly graphic visionary portrayal of Jesus’s entry into history; Deuteronomy (18, 15-20) rehearses the important role of and need for good prophets and prophesy; and Psalm 111 gives thanks for God’s “marvellous works” (v.4).
The Gospel for the Day (Mark, 1, 21-28) seals the deal.
Most of the Faithful reading it, I find, focus most of their attention on the miracle it records – Jesus’s first – giving insufficient consideration to the stress the evangelist places on Jesus’ authority, which he shows off, not just in his ability to heal, but in his extraordinary ability to teach well, which leaves those who listens to him awestruck.
In this connection, it is surely significant that Mark does not tell l us what Jesus is teaching about. His concern is to showcase Jesus’s pedagogical brilliance which he sees as sourced by God.
Like today’s effective teacher, we are shown a Jesus who does not act in an authoritarian fashion; rather he commands the attention of his listeners because they discern that he knows what he’s talking about: “he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (v.22).
There is thus an authenticity in Jesus’ efforts, which is self-evident to all those who encounter him. He speaks directly and decisively.
The exorcism reported in today’s Gospel is thus best regarded as the flip side of this tendency.
The two surviving Bach Cantatas for today, each composed in 1724, are BWV 81 & BWV 14. They are on JEG CD7.
Saturday 30 January 2021: I am happy to report that progress in writing ‘On China’, an essay I plan to include in a new collection of such writings in a new book I am pulling together, and whose drafting I announced a couple of days ago, is very advanced – and so well that I think I will have it off my desk within a few days.
Drafting it so quickly is entirely a product of a reinvigorated interest in all things China, including attending to many of the items in my large collection of relevant books, a focus of my thinking which I had neglected a bit in recent times.
Not anymore, for I am very fired up, barely able to hold myself back, wanting to get on with it all as speedily as opportunity allows.
The prose is fiercely leaking out of me; and the content is almost writing itself, aided a lot by re-looking at and enjoying some of the photographs I took during the two lecture tours I completed in China just over ten years ago, which include the one of the little boy shown below – six-year old ‘Peng’ – who I met during one of the several school visits I made at the time. You see him here, in a highly concentrated state, practising writing his Chinese characters.
Peng and I hit it off really well, as a story in ‘On China’ shows.
I keep wondering what he’s up to now, having grown into a teenager of 16 years.
Is he still showing all that early promise which I witnessed in his class? What future is he looking forward to?
To give you an idea of how the essay as a whole will read, here is its first page, which sight of now hopefully will encourage you to read it all when it’s finished:
“This essay is less about China, and more about how I experienced it when I lived and worked there for two extended periods – the first between November and December 2011, the second in April/May the following year, on each occasion based at Southwest University, near Chongqing, a huge inland metropolis, where I lectured and supervised, mostly graduate students studying for masters and doctoral degrees in education, and visited various elementary and secondary high schools, most of them urban, a few in the countryside.
So, while this essay includes a fair amount of historical and contemporary allusion, including ideological commentary, its chief aim is to convey my emotional reaction to these exposures to China, seeking to make known both what they felt like and something about what I learnt as a result – about modern China and about myself in the process.
What I learnt in each respect, it will soon be discovered, was a lot of positive things, all of which reinforced my long-standing admiration for a country whose history and achievements, particularly under communist rule, have regularly left me impressed.
This essay however is not some kind of apologia for China, although I anticipate those people who instinctively don’t like its ways will read and object to it as such.
Look, I am fully aware of and very unhappy about what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989; I object profoundly to the anti-democratic crackdown tendencies in Hong Kong and elsewhere; I wish China would leave Tibet alone; and I am highly critical of those government detention centers which has resulted in the arbitrary internment of nearly a million Uighurs in Xinjiang Province.
But none of this results in me calling into serious question the huge social and economic achievements of China, least of all to think badly of its people.
Nor does it lead me decisively to disparage its chosen way of governing itself, which eschews Western notions of liberal democracy, privileging one-party authoritarian rule instead.
On the contrary, as I will explain and illustrate, where China’s people are concerned, I have benefited enormously from their kindness, generosity and understanding, and to such an extent that each has had very good effects on my own character development.
And my experience of one-party rule, manifest in my day-to-day dealings with officials of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), was never felt to be oppressive, least of all burdensome.
On the contrary, it was often associated with kindly support and other acts of superior generosity, as I will illustrate in what follows.
Surprisingly, given my normal anti-Tory sentiments, I thus go along very much with the former Chancellor George Osborne’s assessment, expressed shortly before President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK in 2015, that it’s important for the latter and China to “stick together””.
The essay includes answers to 4 questions:
1. Would you, David, like then to live in China?
2. Does China’s serial infringement of international human rights law, and relevant associated protocols, render suspect your admiration of its social and economic achievements?
3. What about freedom of speech in China, David? Don’t the strict limitations imposed on it make you feel very uncomfortable? The litany of censorship is unrelenting, isn’t it? You surely can’t approve of that?
4. And what about religious adherence in China, David, which is allowed, but within strict limits. Are you really OK about that?
Thursday 28 January 2021: This post is what I call a ‘bridge’.
It doesn’t so much comment on anything – although there is a bit of that – as provide a statement of where I am up to with things, by way of signing off a recent phase of activity and anticipating a new one.
Yesterday, I wrote nothing for First Thoughts, entirely because I was fully engaged for much of it completing an annual task which requires my full undistracted attention, for getting anything wrong while doing it can be highly consequential.
The task? It’s drafting and sending off to artists’ agents the contracts for their clients’ concerts for the next season’s programme of events of the Ilkley Concert Club, of which I am Secretary.
Get a detail wrong of what in effect are legal texts and the business of the club can be badly disrupted.
So, I must get right all dates, all aspects of the programmes to be performed (easy to make an error here), and all fees. A zero in the wrong place …. You can imagine.
Most of the time is taken up checking over and again that I haven’t got anything wrong.
I spent the best part of the day, and much of the evening, working on these contracts – 9 of them. I didn’t finish until just after 10pm. I was at it, mostly uninterrupted, for 7 hours.
Hurray, they are now drafted; and they’ve been sent off.
Of course, an agent can refuse to sign and return a contract because s/he doesn’t think it includes a commitment what was previously agreed, and vice-versa.
And this does happen, albeit not that often. And that’s fine.
But it’s when I get a detail wrong of what was agreed over the phone between the planning sub-committee and the agent that I feel a bit of a twerp.
This has happened, again not that often. But I think it won’t at all this year, because I have checked and checked, thus preserving my hard-earned reputation among the agents for accuracy.
It sounds as if I don’t like this task, and in a fashion I don’t.
But there is an aspect of it which pleases me a lot, apart from wanting to do my best for the club: it gives me the opportunity to make contact, though once-removed, with musicians whose art I admire a lot, normally from a huge distance.
So, yesterday I was making indirect contact with Paul Lewis, arguably one of Britain’s finest classical pianists; Leon McCawley, another exceptionally good pianist, the Doric String Quartet, a very highly regarded string ensemble, the German baritone, Benjamin Appl, and the cellist Natalie Clein, all of whose recordings feature significantly in my collection of CDs.
Between drafting one contract and the next, I took time out to resume reading several of the books I am currently working my way through, the chief of which is Barack Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land.
I have talked about this memoir in an earlier post – the one for Friday 4 December 2020.
My fears expressed then were largely confirmed after reading its Chapter 22 yesterday, which deals with the aftermath of the banking crisis of 2007/8.
In an email I sent yesterday to a friend, I expressed my growing irritation with this best-seller, which the majority of reviewers seem totally disabled from criticising:
“I will be interested to learn what you make of BO’s survey in Chapter 22 of what his administration did after the 2007/8 economic crisis – the so-called TARP.
Me? I think it is a very inadequate one, which fails totally to address the severe criticisms made of it at the time, & not just by Lefties like me.
Obama’s first-term economic stimulus package was anaemic, in my opinion.
As it was said at the time – “It bailed out Wall Street, but not Main Street”. (See this hostile analysis: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/secrets-and-lies-of-the-bailout-113270/).
Insufficient stimulus to the real economy led to big Democratic losses in the 2010 mid-terms, the Occupy Wall Street movement on the Left, and Trump’s populist takeover on the Right.
But it’s not possible to say these things about BO’s presidency, I find, for his term in office is regarded by many of the Liberals I know who champion it as mostly a success story which can’t be queried.
A Promised Land is a finely written story. No doubt about that.
But, if I was an American student of economic policy during the BO Years, I wouldn’t go to its folksy accounts for illumination.
I also keep wondering – is this typical BO discourse: smooth, personable, even seductive, but too often empty of deep analysis about those big moments of crisis with which he was involved?
But I can’t ask that, can you I? Bit like swearing in church!”
No such dilemma while reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, which I first came across nearly 40 years ago, thinking then that it is a landmark text.
The blurb on the book’s back cover accurately says why:
“One of the great classics of prison literature Letters and Papers effectively serves as the last will and testament of the Lutheran theologian, DB, executed by the Nazis after incarceration in Berlin’s Tegel Prison. Acute and subtle, warm and perceptive, yet also profoundly moving, the documents collectively tell a very human story of loss, courage, and of hope.”
Looking forward, having got off my desk the text of my latest essay, ‘On Covid-19’, which you can read here, I plan, today, to begin a new one with the title ‘On China’.
This will be a first-hand account of my experience of living and working in China for two extended periods in 2011 and 2012.
The plan is not to write an essay about China, though that aspect will inevitably feature, but more about how it positively impacted on me at the time in terms of personal sensibility, and still does.
Stories involving myself rather than secondary-sourced analytics will thus be the hallmark of this essay.
I am looking forward very much to writing it. I anticipate it will largely write itself.
The next month will also be given over to continuing activities that always feature in my schedules – maintaining my biking fitness; practising to improve my chess; keeping up with new classical music CD releases; and following through the lections prescribed in the Anglican lectionary.
Tuesday 26 January 2021: It’s no secret that my politics are well to the Left.
I’m a proud self-proclaiming Christian Marxist, having been so for most of my adult life.
I make this clear on the Homepage of this website, where I point up various things I have written over the years to explain why I subscribe to a version of utopian socialism.
Because my ideological orientation is not mainstream, it has often provoked a hostile reaction from people who make up the majority.
The result is that I have, for most of my adult life, been on the side of losing minorities in most of the political debates I have joined, of which there have been many. Maybe too many!
This political journey of mine has therefore inevitably and often been bumpy, sometimes very hard going.
But, I have kept battling away, through thick and thin, carrying in my head this sustaining motto, which is lifted from The Pink Floyd classic rock song, ‘Hey You‘:
“Don’t help them to bury the light. Don’t give in without a fight. Open your heart, I am coming home”.
That bumpy road has also occasioned a multitude of insults, some explicit, the majority more subtly undermining.
This extract from my memoir, Keep on the Move, sums up well the experience:
“A lot of my life as a political activist has been spent miserably at the margin, a place the political Right, both within the Labour Party and outside of it, seems to know little or nothing about, chiefly because its devotees superiorly assume they have, without the need for much argument, the monopoly of truth about most of the big social issues of the day. I have thus always been irritated by the knowledge that some versions of Conservatism are considered almost true by definition by those who advocate them. This presumptuousness is frequently reinforced by a political discourse which specialises in denigrating my own. While theirs is said to be the voice of political ‘moderation’ and ‘broad-mindedness’, mine is labelled ‘hard’, ‘narrow’ and ‘extreme’. How they get away with this cynical sleight of hand is one of the less written about features of the workings of ideology, I have decided. For what is ‘narrow’, least of all ‘extreme’ and ‘hard’, about championing greater social and economic equality, more meaningful work for the majority, decent housing for the homeless and an education and health service which privileges the many and not the few?”
I am just describing here, please note. I am not moaning, which means I don’t want anyone to be sorry for me. As if anyone would, anyhow.
I don’t want pity either, for I freely chose the political-ideological bed I now lie on, and for good reason, including studying hard many of the great works of socialist literature, notably Marx’s Capital.
And I am glad I did, which means I came ‘home’ politically a long time ago, and I am very happy with where this has landed me, finding largely beside the point the prospectuses of social democrats, Centrists and liberals, thinking they are a large part of the problem and not remotely a route to its solution.
Most of my political opponents don’t like to hear that, forgetting that I don’t like listening to their outlooks which I consider dangerously wrong-headed.
As I write on my Homepage:
“Insofar as I am a utopian socialist, I regard as Rightist folly liberal and social democrat efforts to reach a sympathetic understanding with neoliberal financial capitalism, entirely because its inexorable logic, entailing the pursuit of private profit over collective well-being, occasions resource wars, global warming, gross inequalities of income and wealth and periodic economic crises.”
Moreover, when it comes to Centrists telling me what kind of political economy they want UK society to adopt, they often don’t have much to say, other than vague things to do with fairness, dignity, openness, and tolerance, which any progressive would be happy to endorse. A good-bad example of this at the moment is Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, which it’s hard to say what it stands for, other than making itself more electorally appealing.
Or, when Centrists do say what they want, it’s clear to this Marxist that its economic policies assume a form of capitalist realism which I want to see done away with and replaced by a de-growth approach which stresses the common ownership of the means of production.
Their “what matters most is what works best” form of policy-making thus leaves me totally cold, as does its view of the political process that exalts it as “the art of the possible”, forgetting that it was an arch conservative – Otto von Bismarck – who first coined this expression, which I find extraordinarily limiting, even reactionary.
Just look where ‘the art of the possible’ has landed humanity in the current age of pandemics and an over-heated planet. Not a great place, I am thinking.
Many of my opponents also like to give me lectures about electoral appeal, forgetting that I have door-stepped for Labour for over 50 years.
Tax reform? School structures? Privatisation? Homes?Employment? Health? Wealth and Income and Wealth Distribution? Defence?
You name it, my opponents don’t have much by way of detail to say about any of it.
Certainly not of the kind I itemise at length in my memoir. Look up my list of preferred ‘socialist taxes’, for example.
The same, I find, is a feature of the liberal outlook found presently in the US following Biden’s victory last November.
Of course, it’s marvellous that Trump lost. But what do Biden’s liberal supporters want him to do in the next four years with Trump now out of the way?
I’d love to know, in this connection, what all those entertainment A-listers who publicly, even flashily, endorsed Biden’s campaign – Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande and Madonna – want him to effect now he’s in the White House, other than to foster a more polite form of political discourse and help to ‘unite’ a people divided.
I mean, what do they, and America’s liberals generally, make of Biden’s promise to a room full of elite Manhattan donors in 2019 that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he became president – which was a bit of a noxious thing to be caught saying, it seems to me, given that the top thousandth % in the US has as much wealth as the bottom 90?
Some things surely must change? But what exactly, and to what extent and through which means? Neither Bruce nor Tom is forthcoming about this, or anything come to think of it. And, “hey, Madonna, didn’t I read somewhere in those Paradise Papers that you are a bit of a US tax dodger? Only asking”.
For sure, signing up again to the Paris Accord and to the WHO are important.
But that’s not remotely heavy-lifting, is it?
Where’s the economic vision in any of that?
Will Hutton, one of the UK’s leading social democrat moderates, writing the other day in the Sunday Observer said this:
“A national emergency requires an emergency response, hence there are already discussions with Congress over a $1.9tn package to boost the incomes of the less well-off so hard hit by Covid. Beyond that, there are ambitious targets for a makeover of the US’s decaying infrastructure and to build a stakeholder economy – qualifying the privileged interest of shareholders, promoting the pursuit of purpose over profit and strengthening trade unions. This is radical centrism.“
Is it? I’m not so sure myself.
Back in December (on the 12th), I posted a critique of Timothy Garton Nash’s recently issued progressive apologia for liberalism, which includes many policies I can easily support, particularly those which help to make society more economically equal.
Garton Nash’s policy set also noticeably has many things in common with Biden’s, which means, I conclude, it suffers from the same damning weaknesses, which I expressed then in these terms:
“Whatever form it takes, I am always struck by the way that supporters of liberalism seem unable to come to terms with the fact that the kind of fair and flourishing society they rightly want to see exist is actually impossible in the absence of a fundamental alteration in the grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power which neo-liberal capitalism produces, entailing super-rich financiers and their institutions being illiberally dispossessed. Don’t they realise that only a major economic crisis, requiring for its resolution a new kind of state – a socialist, not a liberal, one – is likely to provide the necessary means to encourage the development of the sort of egalitarian society they desire? So, Garton Nash’s embrace of a Left-leaning policy agenda can’t ultimately be taken seriously because his kind of liberalism doesn’t challenge and seek radically to get at the roots of the crisis presently engulfing capitalist societies, which are to do with a flawed political economy that always makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.”
Monday 25 January 2021: Today, the Church celebrates the Conversion of Paul (Saul).
In Scotland, it is ‘Robbie Burns Night’.
Because I am a bigger fan of Paul than Burns, I will use this post to comment only on his contribution.
Paul’s conversion, which is normally dated sometime between AD 34 and 37, was, according to the New Testament, the exact moment in his life that led him to cease persecuting early Christians and to become a follower of Jesus.
The event is discussed in two of Paul’s Letters and in the Acts of the Apostles.
Chapter 9 (vv.3-9) of Acts tells us the most detail.
It says that Paul was on his way from Jerusalem to Syrian Damascus with a mandate issued by the High Priest to seek out and arrest followers of Jesus, with the intention of returning them to Jerusalem as prisoners for questioning and possible execution.
Paul’s journey is interrupted when he sees a very bright light, out of the source of which, having fallen off his horse in a state of surprise, he hears what he discerns to be a divine voice calling him radically to alter his ways: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? For I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” Paul rises to his feet, only to discover that the light has blinded him, a state he stays in for three says, while abstaining from all food and drink.
There are many works of art that depict Paul’s conversion moment. The painting by Caravaggio, currently housed in the Odescalchi Balbi Collection in Rome, which is pictured nearby, is the one I enjoy looking at the most.
But what is one to make of this story?
I suppose the first thing to say about it is that labelling it a ‘conversion’ is maybe a tad anachronistic, even misleading, if we think of it in terms of a change from one religion to another.
Christianity was not at this stage a distinct religion in the modern sense of the word, but rather a sect within Judaism.
A complete change of personal direction, prompted by a sense of ‘being called’, might be a better way to describe what happened, which is my preference.
It’s a story about reversal, isn’t it?
I don’t know about you, but I am fascinated by quick reversals of this sort, not least because I have never experienced one. Indeed, I don’t know anyone who has.
My decisions to become a Christian, to follow a career as a teacher rather than a priest; to leave the CPGB and join Labour; to get together with Kathryn, and to be Confirmed last year were not sudden, out of the blue, ones; nor were they ‘revelatory’ in the way Paul’s moment of realization was.
Each crept up on me gradually, as a result of immersion in the issues surrounding them. I made myself ‘ready’ for reversal over an extended period of time.
For sure, there was an instant when a decision was made – but this was the culmination of a process, not an isolated occurrence.
I often wonder if this was in fact the case with Paul, and that what we read in Acts is not so much made up, but an embellished narrative designed to bring out the drama of his change of heart. Who knows? It’s not clear.
One thing I think I do know about all of this is: such reversals are linked strongly with a realization that one has been guilty of self-deception – that an aspect of one’s life, previously pursued without critical reflection, is misconceived or based on false impressions, and needs altering.
I had one such reversal last September, when on its 4th day I suffered at home a heart attack, which almost killed me.
The fitting of two stents put me right.
Well, not exactly, because data about my physiology revealed me as a very over-weight man, whose extra unneeded baggage had been a contributing factor in triggering the heart attack.
To put it in a number – my 14.5 stones worth of weight had put my heart, which is atrial fibrillated, under far too much strain.
But I had ignored this, thinking falsely that I was in ‘good shape’, believing the falsehood that, given my teetotal, exercise-permeated life-style, that (to quote my ex-wife, Penny) “I was the last person on earth likely to have a heart attack”.
How wrong could I have been?
I was also guilty of deceiving myself about the exercise aspect.
OK, I went out on the bike every now and then; but not regularly, and not in any concerted fashion. I talked ‘biking’, but I didn’t really do much of it.
Time to reverse all of that, I decided, as I recovered in Harrogate General, which is what I have done, losing over 2.5 stones in weight in less than 5 months, thanks to Kathryn’s helpful guidance, and getting back on the bike properly, with regular and frequent conviction. The result? I feel the fittest I’ve been in years – & I mean years, like a decade and more of them.
Another reversal worth reporting is my recent conversion to Green activism. For years I have banged on about the importance of the Green agenda, without really doing much to address directly its concerns. I have talked Green, but I have not done Green nearly enough, as both my children rightly say of me.
Time to alter all of that, I decided earlier this month. But how?
Do something local, I thought, using your role as a Parish Councillor to get things going.
Which is what I have done, the details of which you can read about at GREENING KIRK DEIGHTON PARISH COUNCIL, which is a set of proposals I have put up for discussion at the next meeting of the PC in March.
This year then is my Green Year! Hold me to account for it, please.
Encourage me as well. I will need this.
Sunday 24 January 2021: Liturgically, today is the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany.
Regular church goers will be very familiar with the Gospel for Today – John 2, 1-11 – because it tells a story they were brought up on – the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding he is attending in Cana.
A couple have just been married, and the guests at the ceremony are celebrating the fact at a reception.
It’s all very carefully choreographed, until the worst thing imaginable happens – “The wine gave out [and] the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘they have no wine’” (v.3), which contains an implied plea on her part, ‘Son, can you help?’.
Well, we know what the evangelist says Jesus does – and it is only John who does the telling, because the other three gospel writers don’t record the story – he miraculously restores wine to six stone jars, which up to that point had been sat idly by full of water. And we are talking here about one heck of a transformation – for each jar holds “20 or 30 gallons” (v.7). That’s a lot of wine!
Non church goers will be familiar with this story too, because, in my experience, it’s one they particularly like to tell back to me to explain why they can’t take seriously the historical truth of the Gospel narrative: “That couldn’t have happened, David; it’s made up; it’s barmy. How can you believe such nonsense?”.
Well, for starters, I don’t believe it literally happened as John says it does. In fact, that’s not the point of the story, as I interpret it, as I will make clear shortly.
Indeed, I always say to my doubting friends this: “stop reading the story as if it’s part of some kind of historical record; rather, read it as an allegory.
Merely reciting the story and finding fault with its supposed facts isn’t good enough.
Instead, decipher, elucidate, decode, and read between its lines – that is, try, sympathetically, to discover the meaning and significance it had for John and the early church, rather than use it as a battering ram against my faith.
You wouldn’t do that with other allegories. So, stop doing it with this one. The fact that you refuse to, I have decided, says more about you than it does about the story.
You want to find fault, and it provides – you falsely think – ammunition for your purpose, which is to render Christianity as bogus.
Come on, give me and yourself a break on this.
But, and here is a paradox, as I have already said, I actually agree with you – “it couldn’t have happened”, though it’s important to know that John and his readers probably thought it did, because transformation miracles, of which this is a standard example, were accepted as, well, not exactly everyday events in their time, but not that exceptional either.
I’m guessing, but I suspect John also knew a bit about Hellenistic religious traditions when he wrote up the story, inasmuch as they attribute such miracles to Dionysus at certain shrines.
And he most definitely would have known the story found in today’s reading from the OT (Genesis, 14, 17-20) in which the figure of King Melchizedek of Salem features who, we are told, “brings out bread and wine” (v.18).
John’s story, then, has a backstory of its own, which helps to explain both its form and content.
But the crucial thing is to elucidate the story’s meaning – to expound its significance.
Focusing exclusively on its ‘facts’ is limited, even lazy thinking. Do some theology!
If you did, you’d discover some things you haven’t noticed before, and 2 in particular:
Reading the story often elicits another negative response: “That’s no way to talk to one’s mother! I mean to say, Jesus seemingly telling her (in v.4) to mind her own business is a bit harsh, even very disrespectful, don’t you think?”
Well, it would be, if that’s what he did. But, if you read the story in its original Greek version, it’s clear that Jesus is not telling his mother off.
The words actually suggest he is saying something like this: “Mother, you don’t actually have any claims on me. I am now my own person, which means I will decide what’s the best thing to do here, not you.”
This then is a highly symbolic moment in the story, pointing up a key aspect of Jesus’ identity which John is anxious to put over to his readers: Jesus’ authority derives from the sense he has of being God’s spiritual son, not from literally being Mary’s.
A final thing about this story. One of my favourite Christian existentialist philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard, once reacted to it by saying “Jesus turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has been turning wine into water”.
I agree with him, writing this once: “the church’s conservatism on many key social issues, including wealth and income inequality, and its archaic, gender-exalting, patriarchal doctrines, make me regularly one of its fiercest critics. The fact that certain individual clerics have championed a social justice agenda and spoken up for gender equality and supported the rights of gays does not alter the fact that the church is viewed by me too often as fundamentally a reactionary force in society.”
So, why am I a confirmed member of it, I hear you asking.
My answer goes like is: “I am a member of the Labour Party. I attend its local meetings; and I campaign for it during local and national elections, knowing full-well that it is not really a socialist party, wishing it was, but knowing too that it’s where politically I most belong and am giving the best of welcomes, even in my contrary bloody-mindedness.
I feel much the same about the Anglican Church. Its actions at times frustrate me hugely, but it’s where I most feel ‘at home’ spiritually – in particular, its forms of worship, particularly as enacted at St Wilfrid’s in Harrogate, offer me a very special way of expressing fully my faith and drawing massive inspiration from it.”
Being unable, because of lockdown, properly to attend there and receive Mass is thus a huge hardship. Streamed services simply do not ‘work’ enough for this Believer.
They wouldn’t have worked for Bach either!
Which is why I am glad he has left four cantatas, composed in Leipzig between 1724 and 1729, to help me to celebrate the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany – BVW 72, 73, 111 and 156.
They are recorded on JEG’s box set – on CD 6.
I especially like two moments: Track 9 – which is an inspirational bass aria from BVW 73 – and Track 17 – which is the sinfonia from BWV 156, taking in a 2.5 minute long adagio for concertante oboe, with string accompaniment. It’s beautifully familiar, because Bach used the music for it in his later concerto for harpsichord, BWV 1050. I admit to liking much more the cantata version.
There are easily available lots of YouTube videos of these moments if you want to listen to them.
Saturday 23 January 2021: Today’s post is about memory, specifically about my positive involuntary recollection yesterday of three matters which meant a lot to me at the time I first thought of them, and, I discover, still do.
1. I bet you’ve had the experience of going to a library in search of a particular book, only to come away with several others that you come across by accident which positively catch your eye, and which you then borrow instead.
Well, something like that happened to me yesterday while searching for an old email which I sent 5 years ago.
Rather than find it, I came across an exchange of correspondence, dated February 2014, which I’d long sadly thought I’d lost, but which happily caught my eye, allowing me to restore it to one of my Outlook folders.
The occasion of this exchange was completing an essay review of a music book which I had taken with me as part of my reading supplies on an extended study sabbatical to Lanzarote, where I had taken up residence in Playa Honda, living in a very small seaside bungalow a few doors away from my dear late friend, Christopher David.
The book? It was the then not long-published Music in the Castle of Heaven by the leading English Baroque conductor, John Eliot Gardiner (JEG).
It’s a long (over 600pp) study of Bach’s church music, notably his masses and cantatas. Part history, part biography, it is mostly about the music.
I read it in a highly concentrated 4 days. I was knocked out. It was the best thing of its kind I’d ever encountered, an experience supported by being able easily to access via the internet all of the music it discusses.
As so often happens, I felt a compulsion to make sense of the book and my experience of reading it by writing an essay review, not for publication, simply something for myself – a record of sorts. You can read what I wrote by clicking this link EARTHLY REQUIREMENT MEETS HEAVENLY DETAIL
Having written the review, I shared its text with several music mates, one of whom, Stephen Ward, thinking it was pretty good, recommended I should send it to JEG, to find out what he thought of it.
After some hesitation, encouraged by the fact that I wasn’t initially able to locate Gardiner’s email address, I did just that – I sent the review to JEG, not thinking for a second that it would elicit a reaction from him.
What did I know, for almost by return JEG wrote back:
Dear Dr Halpin, this is just to say thank you so much for sending me your review. I’m immensely flattered by all the signs of your approbation, as well as your clear understanding of my underlying purpose in writing on such an incredibly difficult subject. I particularly welcomed your endorsement of my footnotes: of course, they are not obligatory, but I put them there to stimulate discussion, to suggest to the reader other avenues of research, and to provide a wider framework for the non-specialist to latch onto. I would welcome the opportunity to talk further with you about the subject matter and to pursue some of the other issues that you raise, should the opportunity arise. In any case, please accept my warm thanks for your appreciative critique. Regards, John Eliot Gardiner.
What about that, then?
Although I have not taken up since Gardiner’s generous invitation, entirely because he flatters too much my knowledge of what he knows a lot about, I am pleased he thinks he might learn something from my insights, knowing full well he wouldn’t. I am an appreciator, not a musician or a musicologist.
However, a good recollection about music, don’t you think?
2. And here’s another one which re-entered my consciousness yesterday. This time, it centres not on classical music, but a rock-pop example.
Most days, I bike exercise indoors using an interactive turbo. I’ve done a lot of this over the years, especially during the cold winter months when it’s sometimes hard to get outside and do the real thing. Turbo riding can be very boring. And it’s easy to become under-motivated when you do it.
However, the boredom can be fended off and the will to ride hard can be enhanced by pedalling away with a thunderous beating sound in your ears, communicated in my case through a pair of headphones.
Yesterday, I used an old Pink Floyd album for this purpose – their iconic ‘The Wall’, which was released in 1979, near coinciding with my 32nd birthday, half a lifetime ago. Somehow, I didn’t think a Beethoven or Schubert piano sonata quite fits the bill.
A track from ‘The Wall’ that particularly caught my attention was ‘Hey You’, and these words from it: “Hey you, don’t help them to bury the light. Don’t give in without a fight”.
You can listen to it here
You bet, I thought, as I listened, reminding me as I did so of that famous expression about keeping one’s head up in politics when the going gets tough, “Don’t let the buggars get you down”.
I won’t; and I don’t.
3. During the year ‘The Wall’ was released, I read a theological book, which at the time had a huge and positive impact on me – John Robinson’s (1973) The Human Face of God.
Robinson, formerly the Bishop of Woolwich, at the time, was a controversial figure in the Anglican church, having published ten years earlier his Honest to God, which many considered heretical, entirely because it posited a conception of God and Jesus’ identity that eschewed literalism and an emphasis on the supernatural.
Robinson’s was an existential-phenomenological theism, not a God in the Sky one. He also dared to argue that “Christ is bigger than Jesus”. You can easily imagine that upset a lot of traditional church members. Not this one.
This is the theme also of The Human Face of God, which is a much more developed survey of Robinson’s outlook.
Flicking through The Human Face of God yesterday evening, for no other reason than I had come across it by chance earlier in the day, I noticed on page 16 some of my under-linings, completed over 30 years ago.
I was pleased to think, as I looked at them anew, that I still consider the words of Robinson I highlighted all those years ago as ones which still matter to me.
Robinson draws attention to a notice he once saw on a church billboard: “Christ is the answer”, it said, prompting him to ask, “Yes, but what is the question?”
I like that challenge, I thought to myself – both then and now – reminding me of something Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and my favourite theologian, said the other day: “Christ may indeed answer our questions, but he also questions our answers”.
Memory can sometimes play tricks on us.
No doubting that.
But, on some occasions, particularly during certain involuntary moments, as Proust reminds us in Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time, it can reveal “the essences of things”.
I like to to think this happened a bit to me yesterday, pointing up the truth of that popular song about nostalgia, ‘Memories [good ones] are made of This’.
Friday 22 January 2021: Are you, like me, a cat lover?
I ask because today’s post is about how cat lovers can learn a thing or two from the cats they live with, who in my case is ‘Millie’.
I have decided that Millie’s solitary nature successfully mirrors my own, suggesting she can teach me a lot about how better to live.
That’s certainly the social philosopher John Gray’s view, who writes, “living with cats opens a window into a world beyond our own, teaching us something important about what it means to be human”.
He explains how in his just-published book, Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life, which you can read about here
Most cats are content.
Millie is, that’s for sure.
Each day, she quietly sits and lays down all about the house, moving calmly from room to room and her favourite places in them, and without a care in the world.
Always fully absorbed in the present moment, she breaks off from her routines only when she’s hungry, at which moment she steals off to the utility room to have a snack, which Kathryn has carefully put out for her.
What a life!
Her philosophy? To meet each day positively as it comes.
So, in radical contrast to me, Millie, as far as I can tell, does not intensely speculate on her inner life. And she doesn’t worry herself one bit about public affairs, least of all political ones.
I can’t remember the last time I saw her reading a newspaper.
Unlike me, Millie does not then struggle to remake herself each day.
She is complete unto herself.
And she is happy to be herself, whatever.
Makes sense, eh?
Perhaps I should follow Millie’s example more. Perhaps we all should.
Specifically, maybe I should stop fretting as much as I do about what’s going on in the world; stop being so furious all the time about particular matters and certain people – the dangerous incompetence of the PM, bankers’ pay, Richard Branson, the Beckhams and Bill Cash – which I can’t ultimately do anything about.
And possibly I should stop trying so hard to improve myself?
Millie doesn’t try at all. She’s happy literally in her own skin.
“When I play with my cat”, Montaigne wrote, “how do I know she is not playing with me?”
The answer – he doesn’t and never could know, which is why I am beginning to think Millie is trying to tell me something about how I might live a less harassed and preoccupied life – be more like me, she’s saying.
What a fine well-being philosopher Millie is, don’t you think?
She’s following Plato’s example, of course, whose memory I brought to mind the other day during a conversation with Kathryn, who was expressing frustration about having to accommodate further to more Covid restrictions as imposed by lockdown No.3: “Of course I must adhere to what is required, but I feel as though I am living in a cave sometimes”.
Unlike me, Kathryn misses a lot seeing her mates face-to-face, and also popping into Leeds and Harrogate for a bit of retail.
“Mmmm, a ‘cave’, you say. How exactly do you mean?”.
“Well, I feel hemmed in . . . restricted . . . and massively house-bound. I want to get out more – to meet people and do things. I know I will soon enough, but soon can’t be quick enough.”
“Have you read Plato’s Republic?”
“Once, but ages ago. How’s that relevant?”
“Well, in The Republic, Plato describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. They watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and give names to these shadows.”
“These shadows are the prisoners’ reality. But they are not accurate representations of the real world.”
“Through words spoken by Socrates, Plato explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all. A philosopher aims, he says, to understand and perceive a higher level of reality.”
“So, what are you saying? That, if I become a philosopher, I won’t feel so hemmed in during lockdown?”
‘Well, not exactly. What I am saying rather is that, if you refuse to accept the reality of lockdown, finding special ways to break the ‘chains’ it imposes on your room for manoeuvre, you may land in a place that is not so hidebound and restricting.”
“Like all those interests and hobbies you have – practising your piano more; reading the next book club text; and picking up your Italian from where you last left it off.”
“What does Millie think?”
“She agrees with me, for she is, like Plato, a philosopher.”
“Good plan, then.”
Thursday 21 January 2021: Before I get properly started today, when I will focus positively on the form and content of Biden’s speech yesterday, allow me to tell a little story from my past working life as a prelude to talking about a different topic.
While at UCL, not long before I early retired, I was required to move out of my large office into a smaller one: “Professor Halpin, I hope you don’t mind too much downsizing in this way?”. “Not at all, I don’t need a large room to think big thoughts. Indeed, I know a few people in this faculty who have always enjoyed large offices, but only very rarely think of big ideas in them”.
Some very short books are like that, aren’t they, as I tried to show in my list of ‘slim pickings’ on 13 January? Remember?
This morning, I want to add 4 further short books to that list:
19. Mona Siddiqui’s How to Read the Qur’an (103pp) is a clearly written and very sympathetic introduction to one of the world’s great holy books. One reviewer says it is “enlightening and inspiring”. That’s my view of it too.
20. Anthony Giddens’ Runaway World: How Globalization is Shaping Our Lives (97pp) is the text of his 1990 Reith Lectures. For sure, it is now a bit dated, and shaded out hugely by current pandemic-associated events. But the chapters on ‘tradition’, ‘family’ and ‘democracy’ still work. In these lectures, Giddens shows off well his ability to use abstract social theory in a very accessible and helpful way.
21. W Ellwood Post’s Saints, Signs & Symbols (85pp) is a compact handbook of the main symbols used in the Church. Full of good line-dawn illustrations, it’s a tiny gem, which I always carry with me when I go church spotting.
22. If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to read James Joyce’s Ulysses, and want to have another go, then Spark Notes’ small guide (99pp) to its text is a good companion.
And how is one to comprehend the latest UK Covid numbers? 1800 people died of the disease yesterday! 1800! The 2nd worse daily death rate, from the disease in the world! The worse? The USA.
Me? I am as angry as hell about this, reacting furiously to the folly which is our government which failed to take the right and brave decision over Christmas, which ought to have been to lock it down completely.
Instead, colluding with silly popular sentiment, it made the wrong call, relaxing the lockdown rules, resulting now in 1000s of unnecessary deaths and an overwhelmed NHS.
Starmer, making the right call at the time, was cynically mocked by our PM for doing so: “He wants to cancel Christmas!”, Johnson sarcastically shouted back at him in the Commons.
You couldn’t make that up, could you? If only Johnson had! If this really was a war, our incompetent PM would surely be arrested and tried for culpable homicide.
Biden’s speech? Undoubtedly, a good one, don’t you agree? His focus on national healing and unity contrasted hugely with Trump’s “American carnage” speech for an “America first” agenda.
One can’t reasonably expect Biden to touch every important base on such an occasion, which means I excuse him from saying nothing about Europe or transatlantic relations generally. And nothing about the ME either.
Another time; another place.
“Over the centuries, through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we have come so far. But we still have far to go. We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. And much to gain.”
The task ahead for the new President is surely huge, and maybe beyond him or any leader.
The gross inequalities the US has happily grown in the name of its ‘dream’ (Crisis 3 of the 6 Bideb indentified in his speech) have come back fiercely to bite it.
I keep thinking in this connection that the US is at a crucial tipping point in its history.
In the next fifty years, or less, it could go under. Things are that bad, in my opinion, and right across the piece.
Biden’s task is thus the equivalent of trying to nail a large jelly to a stone wall.
Truly, I wish him well, and hope he succeeds.
But I am sceptical, entirely because I regard Biden’s brand of Washington Liberal politics to be a significant part, the cause even, of many of the crises he knows need to be confronted.
The paradox is that the followers know this only too well, which means they won’t be going away any time soon.
Finally, a photo I rather like, hoping you might too.
It shows a small wood carving, the image of which sits on my desk, reminding me daily better to live a life in which prayer is not an after-thought.
Tuesday 19 January 2021: With so much of our lives currently being lived virtually, I am beginning to get confused about what is ‘real’ in my version of it.
Just look at the number of things Kathryn and I have been up to in recent days as we accommodate further to our continuing lockdown world, all of which were undertaken on-line rather than literally, that is, in-person & off-screen, as in pre-Covid times:
Kathryn, using Zoom, ‘attended’ the village book club and a rehearsal of the Wetherby Choral Society.
I played and drew a game of chess on Chess.com.
I recorded the minutes of a committee meeting of the Ilkley Concert Club, which I joined via Zoom.
I used the same platform to take part in a meeting of the village Parish Council.
I went for a bike ride around NY’s Central Park c/o Zwift,
I ‘attended’ a Bach solo piano recital, which was live-streamed from the Wigmore Hall.
I used Team Viewer to consult my local PC repairer, who mended a printer glitch at a distance.
I ‘attended’ Mass at St Wilfrid’s in Harrogate, using its live-streamed facility.
I anticipated joining an extra-mural class at the University of York, again using the Zoom platform.
And, so it goes on …..
And, then, to confuse me further, I am increasingly perplexed about time or, more specifically, how I conceive and organize it.
So, while I have always lived odd hours – working into the night, sleeping in the day, etc – this has become very exaggerated during lockdown, during which I am finding it hard sometimes to know when night-time begins and day-time ends.
The result? I go to bed at all hours, getting up even earlier than I used to. And Kathryn and I stay up similarly viewing box sets. We didn’t used to do that.
I imagine this must be how Millie, our pet cat, operates: sleeping in the day when it suits her; wandering likewise around during the night, napping when it suits.
I am thus not just living more and more virtually these days; I am doing so, it seems, in a feline kind of way.
What does all this mean? What are the long-term implications?
Will I revert back to the old ‘normal’ once this awful phase of the pandemic is over?
Somehow, I don’t think I, or anyone else, will – well, not entirely. New habits are being formed, aren’t they? The old ones are fading?
Who, though, knows what will happen, for the future can’t be predicted?
Which is one of the themes I am following up in an essay I am presently writing – ‘On Covid-19’ – the first part of which you can read here
My new virtual bike riding experience may be a guide of things to come – in my case, that is.
I really like Zwift, enjoying very much how it works.
Have a look yourself, via this youtube video, bearing in mind that it was made before Zwift was fully launched, which means it doesn’t include the new stuff about the routes I mention in the next paragraph.
Using Zwift, I get to ride virtually actual routes, some of which, like Central Park, London Loop, Harrogate Circuit and Inner-City Paris, I have ridden in real time.
The Zwift versions of these routes are amazingly realistic, and when I ride them the platform monitors my performance – average speed, power output, distance, elevation – making me wonder if I ever need really to ride them again. Maybe the form they take now is their new reality?
Could that be the same for much else in my long list of virtual experiences recently undertaken, albeit diluted in certain ways that render them genuinely socially-interactive?
Do I really have to travel by car to and from Ilkley – a round trip of near 60 miles – physically to attend and minute a meeting which I can easily join and very efficiently take part in virtually from my desk at home? The emissions and time-wasting involved don’t bear thinking about, do they?
Maybe ‘virtual’ is not so ‘nearly’ as it has previously been assumed.
What do you think?
Sunday 17 January 2021: I am beginning to wonder if I could have made it as a monk.
For, here I am, at near 4.00 am, enthusiastically sat at my desk writing this, the hour at which, if I was a Benedictine, I’d be struggling out of bed to attend Lauds, which normally begins at near first light.
The Psalms sung at the Lauds Office focus on preparing for and rejoicing at the coming of the sun (Son).
Overall, its flavor is one of joyful anticipation.
So, a good way to start any day, don’t you agree, and not just for monks?
There are five ‘Laudite’ Psalms: 50, 66, 148, 149 and 150.
I especially like 50 and 148: “The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting” (50,1); “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights” (148,1).
Why am I up so early? The usual first thing restlessness is the reason.
Once I am awake, which is VERY early most days, I get very agitated about the need I feel fairly soon to get up and get on. The more I fret about this, the harder it is to regain my sleep.
So, what do I do? I more often than not do just that: get up and get on, knowing that near lunchtime I will slump in my study chair and catch up the sleeping time I missed earlier on.
This is a habit of a lifetime. Not healthy, I know. But what am I to do about it?
Today’s post is very ‘Laudite’, for its focus is on hope – about anticipating a bright future – helped along by reference to some of today’s lections for the Second Sunday of Epiphany, accompanied by the three cantatas Bach wrote for it: BWV 155 (1716), BWV 3 (1725), BWV 13 (1726).
The concept of hope is one I have studied and written about a lot, including a book, which you can find the details of on the ‘Literature’ page of this website, where it is highlighted.
Hope and Education (2003) is about a particular vocabulary of hope – utopianism.
I am an unashamed utopian, if you hadn’t noticed, though not of the naïve, unrealistic kind, which my book explains.
My utopia book has a cover I have always liked, and which I was instrumental in designing. It’s based on a small painting of David Hockney’s, ‘Sunflowers of Hope’.
One or two of my mates have said to me: “Sorry, David, but I haven’t read your book, but I do love its cover.”
Today’s collect sets the tone: “Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new, transform the poverty of our nature”. Psalm 96, which follows, reinforces it: “O sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord, all the earth”.
Then Isaiah (60, 9-22), who spells out why it’s important to live a life that knowingly encompasses good and bad times: “Your sun shall no more go down [on you], or your moon withdraw itself, for the Lord will be your everlasting light” (v.20).
The morning’s anonymous Epistle – to the Hebrews (6.17-7.10) – is a masterpiece of early Christian homiletics, embracing a highly effective exhortation: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (6, 19).
And, to end, the Gospel of the Day – Matthew 8, 5-13, which tells the famous story of Jesus healing a nameless centurion’s servant, or is it his son? It’s not clear. Whatever, the commander is a supplicant. He has observed Jesus going about his ministry. He is impressed by what he’s seen and heard.
But, more, he has faith – a hope – that Jesus can help him. “Only speak the word, and [I know] my servant will be healed”, he says (v.8).
Jesus is impressed by the soldier’s trust in his powers, which he immediately acts upon, with success: “Go, let it be done for you according to your faith. And the servant was healed in that hour” (v.13).
It’s not the reported miracle that impresses me here; it’s rather the confidence expressed by the centurion that Jesus can perform it, revealing a level of hopefulness which I want to see reflected in my own life, particularly at this time of pandemic.
Those Bach cantatas? The words of BWV 155 certainly connect with today’s theme: “I am very anxious for comfort” (opening recitative); “You must have faith, you must hope” (the first aria/duetto); and the final choral: “do not let yourself shudder”.
And some of the words sung in BWV 3 articulate as well: “The flesh is weak, yet the spirit is willing. So, help me, You, who know my heart” (soprano in 1st recitative).
And those of BWV 13 most certainly do: “I am hopeful in my pain, for God can turn the wormwood sap quite easily into wine of joy” (2nd recitative).
If you own John Eliot Gardner’s box set of these cantatas, then the disc to listen to this morning is No.5.
And, to end – a main prayer for today, which I have lifted from my indispensable book of prayers – Eamon Duffy’s The Heart of Pilgrimage. Written by St Ephrem (306-373), with Epiphany in mind, it includes this line: “May darkness flee from the world”.
Postscript: I have begun writing a new essay, ‘On Covid-19’, the introduction to which you might be interested to read. It can be found here
Saturday 16 January 2021: Yesterday, I told you about Ireland and Covid-19.
Today, it’s the situation in New York City I want to react to.
NYC is a city I know well.
I have visited it at least 6 times – mostly for work purposes when I was a university academic; on other occasions to holiday with my nephew, Ben, who lives there permanently, with Trish and their daughter, Stella, in Manhattan, not far from Central Park.
They don’t live too far away either from my daughter, Chloe, and her husband, Jonny, who rent an apartment in the same area.
Ben has lived in NYC for over 22 years; Chloe and Jonny for just over two.
Always when I used to stay with Ben, I would find time to bike around Central Park with him, usually very early in the day – from about 5.30am, when it’s traffic free – at which time we’d complete three circuits of its main 6 mile-long loop.
We are each ‘serious’ roadies. Ben, though, is by far the more expert cyclist – quick and strong – while I am the novice grinder who he coaches and encourages. My only excuse is that I am over 20 years his senior.
The route around CP is one then I know very well.
Elsewhere, I have described the experience of biking around it in these terms: “Starting at the Fifth Avenue entrance of CP, the loop includes a sweeping descent around Harlem Meer, a sneaky climb through North Woods, and a final dash past the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The road surface is near perfect. The only difficulty is avoiding jay-walkers, other bikers, joggers and skate boarders!”
I was to visit Chloe and Jonny last June (4th to 10th). But Covid-19 put paid to that.
I am hoping to make the trip next August, not least to see my new and first grandchild, who will be born the previous June.
But will I get there?
Everything of course depends on how the pandemic pans out.
The story of Covid-19’s spread in the city is sadly a very grim one.
Here is part of the New York Times’ account of it:
“At least 93 new coronavirus deaths and 5,885 new cases were reported in New York City on 14 January.
Over the past week, there has been an average of 6,198 cases per day, an increase of 47% from the average two weeks earlier.
Many of the neighbourhoods with the highest number of cases per capita are areas with the lowest median incomes and largest average household size.
The biggest hot spots included communities in the South Bronx, north and southeast Queens, and much of Staten Island.
While age is a major factor in who has died from Covid-19, neighbourhoods with high concentrations of black and Latino people, as well as low-income residents, have suffered the highest death rates.
The city saw a steep decline in new cases from a peak in early April, but it is still not close to being back to its former loud bustling self.
The frontlines of the Covid-19 fight have moved from ICU’s to wards, where patients face lengthy recoveries.
And summer will be unlike any other in recent memory, as the pandemic has led to the cancellation of most summer programmes for children and public pools will not be reopening.”
The number of NYC deaths attributable to the virus currently stands at just under 40,000, which is half the number of fatalities in the whole of the UK.
While London endures an infection rate of 1K cases per 100K people, and the island of Ireland 1.5K, Manhattan’s measure, the least infected area of NYC, is 4.3K. Blimey!
Help though is round the corner, because a vaccine rollout programme for NYC has begun.
However, it has a long way to go. As I write, less than 900K New Yorkers have had their first jab.
Am I worried for Chloe and Jonny and for Ben and his family?
I would be dishonest to say I’m not, despite saying under my breath, “whenever has worrying about anything improved the situation?”
But they are sensible and socially responsible people, which means they won’t, like me, take unnecessary risks, making me feel confident they will be alright.
Even so, a hard time lies ahead, for them and for everyone else in NYC, and for some more than others.
Having decided to stay in touch with the Covid-19 data for NYC, I am also better placed than if I was ignorant of them to imagine empathically what’s happening there, even to pray more honestly for things to improve.
I don’t then subscribe to the principle that ‘ignorance is bliss’.
Quite the opposite where this pandemic is concerned, for it is ignorance that first initiated and subsequently prompted its spread.
But, equally, it doesn’t help collective morale to dwell all the time on the negatives.
‘Shooting for the moon’, even so, is surely daft, and ultimately counter-productive.
‘Everything in proportion’ are thus my watchwords, though it’s fair to say I am furious about the way particular governments have mishandled events, which takes in the administrations in each of the UK, Ireland and NYC.
Friday 15 January 2021: Today, let me tell you about Ireland – in particular, allow me to inform you about how it is meeting the challenges of the pandemic, which are as great there, maybe more so, than they are here in the UK.
Ireland is a nation with which I identify strongly, as a chapter in my memoir testifies, which you can read here
My late father, who in 1912 was born into a peasant farming family (the next photo shows the house where this happened), was an Irishman – specifically an Irishman from Co. Waterford – who, in 1931, aged 19, exiled himself to England, to escape poverty and seek employment.
He was not the only one that year who did this, or before or since.
For, as another, much more famous, Irish exile, the literary critic, Terry Eagleton, once said, “no experience has been more native to Ireland than leaving it”.
While Dad left Ireland, I have spent much of my adult life trying to get back to it, more often in my imagination, than in reality, it has to be said, because I wish I visited more often than I do. Once every other year is not enough!
I can’t fully explain this ‘yearning to return’ feeling of mine, other than to remark that Ireland is always where I feel very much at home; and it’s also where I want to end up, having advised my English family that it is in the Halpin grave, situated in Rathgormuck, that I want my ashes to be interned, preferably after a Requiem Mass in its local church.
My ‘getting back’ to Ireland has taken many forms.
I have studied its history closely, as the photo immediately above, which shows some of my Irish books, indicates.
And I am a keen appreciator of its cultural, especially literary, legacy. Joyce, Beckett, Friel, McGahern, Heaney are much read and studied by me. Joyce’s Ulysses is one of my obsessions.
And I follow closely Ireland’s current affairs, especially political ones, tuning in regularly to live relays of the proceedings of Dáil Éirann and RTE news.
I also read each day the headline articles and associated op-eds in The Irish Times, to which I have an on-line subscription. And, to cap it all, I am a fully paid-up member of the Irish Labour Party.
As one of Ireland’s favourite sons, Conor Cruise O’Brien, might say of me, I am thus deeply “involved in the Irish situation”.
And, yes, I do have an Irish passport, using it as often as chance allows to visit my large extended family which lives in and around Clonmel in Co.Tipperary.
I guess the only aspects of Ireland with which I do not closely identify are its folk music traditions and drinking Guinness.
The former does not easily please my ear; the latter is off-limits because I am teetotal.
I make up for these aberrations by being a keen follower of hurling, as was Dad, who first taught me about the sport.
So, what’s the ‘Irish Situation’ where Covid-19 is concerned?
This is the Irish Times’s most up-to-date version of events, published last night:
“A further 28 deaths of Covid-19 patients have been reported by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet). This brings to 2,488 the total number of deaths in the pandemic.
A total of 26 of these deaths occurred in January, while the dates of two deaths remains under investigation.
Nphet also reported 3,955 confirmed cases of the disease, bringing to 163,057 the total number of cases in the Republic.
The 14-day incidence of the disease now stands at 1,497 cases per 100,000 people nationally. Monaghan has the highest county incidence, followed by Louth.
Of the new cases, 1,210 are in Dublin, 456 in Cork, 235 in Louth, 221 in Meath and 218 in Limerick with the remaining 1,615 cases spread across all other counties.
The R number in Ireland now stands at between 1 and 1.3. Meanwhile, in the UK, it is currently hovering around 1.2.
Clonmel, which is where my favourite cousin, Alice, lives, has about 890 cases per 100K. In central Dublin, the figure is almost three times as much!
By yesterday afternoon, 1,789 Covid-19 patients were hospitalized nationwide, of which 169 were in ICU. 154 additional hospitalizations occurred in the previous 24 hours.
The penetration of the virus throughout all ages of the population is a particular cause for serious concern.”
An implementation plan for rollout of vaccines was published just before the Christmas break.
About 15 million doses are on order, more than enough to vaccinate the entire population.
The logistics involved are as complex as they are in the UK, where just under 4 times as many people will need to receive a jab.
This month and next, a weekly supply of 40,000 doses will be used to vaccinate health staff and residents and staff in care facilities. Both these groups should be vaccinated before the end of February.
Ireland, then, is in a slightly worse state than the UK, with sadly a less well-funded and efficient national health service to fall back upon.
They have in common the failure of government sufficiently to be aware that relaxing lockdown over the Christmas holiday was a very bad idea.
They were each warned of the their folly, but chose otherwise, thus putting public health at risk.
Cancelling Xmas would have been the far better course. But, no, that wasn’t populist enough.
Am I angry? You bet I am.
Click here to read how Ireland’s coalition administration completely messed up on this front.
Team Johnson, as I’ve said, did too.
Now both the UK and Ireland are each paying the price for such foolishness.
Thursday 14 January 2021: What a pair of photographs, eh? The military camping inside and standing guard outside Washington’s Capitol Building reminded me of that joke made last week by a Brazilian journalist: “Is it true – that America has invaded itself to protect democracy?”
Now there is the impeachment process.
Despite not wishing Trump well, I am heavily conflicted about it, coming down on the side represented by some on the Left who think it’s a bad idea.
I have 5 problems with the process:
1. The votes in the Senate aren’t there to win, which means Trump will come out of it claiming he’s been exonerated and the victim of a witch hunt.
2. Technically, from a legal point of view, it is not clear to me how the charge of incitement can strictly be ‘proven’ in a court of law.
3. The Democrats will look like grandstanders and revenge-takers.
4. Although claims of fraud in the election are not technically part of the process, Team Trump will surely draw them into the mix in marshalling his defence, thus fuelling the already existing conspiracy theories that the election was stolen.
5. And, in the unlikely event of Trump being convicted, Biden will probably pardon him, making the ‘guilty’ decision look daft.
Democrat Senators are at their worst in matters like this, I find – pompously strutting their moral and democratic virtues at every opportunity in TV interviews and on chat shows when what they need really to focus their full attention on at the moment is working out with Team Biden how to win more important votes down the line.
The impeachment thing then is ‘bad politics’, in my view, but almost perversely the DP prefers to practise them than get on with the ‘real’ job.
It occurs to me that this process is thus a typical form of displacement activity. Or, worse, an indirect demonstration that Democrat senators collectively don’t know how best to help Biden govern, who actually doesn’t need Trump to be convicted to be able effectively to get on with the job of running one heck of a messed up nation.
Wednesday 13 January 2021: I love reading books; and I love buying and owning them.
I have been reading and hoarding them in huge numbers since I was in my teens.
I have written about all of this – about my life in books – here
Being employed as a schoolteacher and subsequently as a university academic, roles that required me to read a lot, was thus a huge blessing, even a gift. I felt like those pro soccer players who say, “I can’t believe I get paid for doing something I like doing so much”.
Reading is as much part of my life as breathing. Arguably, it sustains me as much.
Books though are not just where I go in search of pleasure, inspiration, insight and information; they are where I travel in my imagination to escape; to be distracted; and to find a friend.
Reading has thus made me who I am.
But that’s not the case for everyone.
Indeed, for some, reading books is not a pleasure; or, if it is, it’s an occasional, fleeting one, engaged in mostly at weekends or while on holiday.
This is especially so for people who live very busy lives, say as parents of young children and/or as workers in fields where reading books is not part of the job.
And then there are people who focus in their work on a highly specialized field of activity, which requires them to read books, but only those to do with it, making it hard for them to find time to ‘read around’, which is what they’d like more to do.
I have a good friend who says as much about his own life in books: “David, you’re lucky. Nicely retired , with time on your hands to use as you please, you jump from book to book, topic to topic, without a care in the world. Me? I don’t have that luxury, though often I wish I did.”
This got me thinking.
Specifically, it got me thinking about making up a list of very short books which such people might like to read, but which wouldn’t take up too much of their time if they did – books about a wide-range of topics, taking in the arts, music, architecture, fiction, Ireland, chess, poetry, theology, politics and economics.
I have read all the books on the list that follows, some during 2020, all of which are not much longer than a hundred pages, some a lot less.
Inevitably, they connect with my own interests, which are unlikely to be those of the majority.
Despite that, there may be something that catches your eye, causing you to think, “Mmm, I might give that a try.” You might also think: “Yes, I have read that one, and maybe ought to again”.
Here then are 18 ‘slim pickings’ I like:
Let me know what you make of my list, adding to it short books that you’ve read which made a significant impact.
Monday 11 January 2021: I shouldn’t have used it two days ago, and I apologize for doing so.
‘Virtue signalling’ is a pejorative neologism. Worse, to quote one of my critics, it’s a “lazy way of sneering at the active”.
Its overuse as an ad hominem attack during political debate has also surely rendered it a meaningless buzzword.
Whatever was I thinking of in using it? Not much, is the answer.
Zoe Williams, writing for The Guardian, says it’s the “sequel insult to champaign socialist”, a notion that leads naturally into me considering another objection made to several of my posts in recent days in which I have been less than enthusiastic about Joe Biden.
“Aren’t you being too hard on him”, said another critical reader. “OK, you object to his Centrist, social democrat outlook, but don’t you have one as well. You’re an active member of the Labour Party, for goodness sake!”
This is true. I canvass and leaflet for Labour candidates in national and local elections; I serve on CLP general committees; I vote in NEC and leadership elections; and I attend Annual Conference.
But there is an element of ambivalence and compromise at work here, sometimes explicit opposition.
There always has been since I first joined Labour over 50 years ago, in 1970, on the bounce from being a member of the CPGB.
Nurtured initially towards the end of my school days, at which time I was introduced to The Communist Manifesto, I have, unlike the majority of Labour’s members, always been a theoretical Marxist.
As a result, unlike them, I am disabled from reaching any kind of sympathetic understanding with neoliberal financial capitalism, entirely because I consider its inexorable logic, entailing the pursuit of private profit over collective well-being, occasions resource wars, global warming, gross inequalities of income and wealth and periodic economic crises.
Further, I hold to the view that capitalism must ultimately be replaced by something altogether different, specifically a mode of social life characterized by fairness, equality, cooperation and the promotion of the common good.
The Labour Party goes along with much of this in theory; in practice, particularly when in government, it doesn’t, reaching its acme during the Blair Years, the political-economic outlook of which entailed a host of accommodations with the imperatives of capitalism, reproducing and further increasing as a result the consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of a minority.
New Labour confirmed that there is no parliamentary road to socialism, a conclusion I first reached in 1965, shortly after reading Ralph Miliband’s (1961) classic study in the politics of Labour. The last chapter of this book has a title which says it all for me – The Sickness of Labourism.
A similar sickness pervades the Democrat Party in the USA, implicating Joe Biden, its successful candidate in the just-concluded Presidential election.
The chance of him fundamentally challenging the ‘inexorable logic’ of capitalism I consider to be near zero, which is why I will not be holding my breath anticipating he might.
It isn’t going to happen, not least because Biden is a product of the very capitalist state I want to see undermined and replaced. He will reproduce and reinforce that state, causing little elementary alteration in how it functions in terms of redistributing significantly power and wealth in favour of the less well off.
Undoubtedly, he will be a breath of fresh air, fostering a less nasty form of politics in society at large, which I welcome. But all the other stuff is totally off-limits for him. He can’t affect it because his party’s donors won’t let him; and it’s not anyhow in his political DNA.
But here’s an odd thing: if I had been a resident citizen of the US last November, I would have campaigned to get him elected, for the simple reason that the alternative was so very much worse. Pragmatism, not ideology, would have been my justification.
The same applies to my membership of the Labour Party, and my activism among its ranks.
For, I prefer Labour governments to Tory ones because they are more likely to identify and seek to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of society; and I remain a member of the Labour Party, not because I think it will ever on its own inaugurate socialism, being neither radical enough nor sufficiently Leftist to achieve that, but because its philosophy is amenable to influence in that direction; and because, in tandem with other progressive forces in society, it is a party that might one day be a key catalytic agent for political and economic reform along socialist lines.
As Nick Cohen, the Sunday Observer journalist, says: “Its engine is usually chocking; its exhaust is usually spewing; its passengers are frequently stabbing one another in the back; and its driver is often heading at full speed in the wrong direction. But … it’s all there is.”
Well, not entirely, for there is the Green Party to bear in mind, a movement of ideas which increasingly attracts my attention and sympathetic support.
Reading its 2019 General Election manifesto made a huge impact on me, so much so that I wished Labour had included some of its New Green Deal measures in its own, including: spending £100bn a year to cut emissions; removing fossil fuels from the economy; introducing a universal basic income; building 100 thousand zero-carbon homes; and dedicating £2.5bn on new cycle routes.
While such measures were not absent in Labour’s prospectus, they weren’t foregrounded as much as in the Greens’.
Although not an after-thought, climate emergency policies are not the starting point in how Labour makes its pitch to electors. Indeed, Labour, behind its hand, thinks they put too many voters off. The Greens think differently, arguing that electioneering must stress campaigning that mobilises both the vote and the transformation of voters’ thinking.
I agree with this, which is why I have decided to have my cake and eat it – specifically, to continue to help Labour to elect MPs and councilors – especially to work for Alex Sobel, MP for Leeds NW – while simultaneously dedicating more time and effort to ‘greening’ my local parish council on which I serve.
A briefing paper issued by Friends of the Earth helpfully identifies a list of winnable actions I might undertake: actively support planning applications for new renewable energy in my area; encourage reductions in local pesticide use; buy green products; designate further safe walking and cycle routes; use the Neighbourhood Plan to require new homes to be energy sufficient.
All of this is achievable, don’t you think?
It also underscores what I said at the start.
For I am not here virtue signalling.
Indeed, I would feel insulted if I was told I was.
I’m rather putting myself up to do something, which I want to be held to account for in the years ahead.
Saturday 9 January 2021: ‘Being prepared’ is a key facet of how I conduct my life.
But is it always a good idea?
A conversation with a mate of mine many years ago alerted me to a drawback.
Together, we were on route by car to see a production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which was being staged at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.
During the journey, we talked about the play, with me making various detailed references to its actual text.
“You’ve read it, then?”, my mate asked. “Yes, I regularly read beforehand texts of plays I am about to see.” “Really? Is that because you are fearful you might be surprised?”
I suppose it might be. There’s also a feeling that I like to be as fully immersed in a play in advance, thinking this will enable me to attend to it better.
I do something similar before I go to music concerts: I listen to CD recordings of the works that will be performed, even reading up a bit about them.
And I always do something like it before attending Mass, making sure I have read and studied in advance the service’s prescribed lections, which in the Anglican communion are carefully set down in its Common Worship Lectionary.
Saying that justifies to me my prep for tomorrow, when my home church, St Wilfrid’s in Harrogate, will draw its congregation’s attention to the story in Matthew’s Gospel about the baptism of Jesus.
But, before that, there will be the Collect for the Day, which focuses on the “born again” consequences of religious conversion.
That’s followed by a famous reading from the OT – Isaiah 42, 1-9 – which concludes with these words, which bring me up straight: “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”
And then the Psalm – No.29 – which always features during the early day Vigils/Matins Office on Sundays in every Benedictine house.
When I recite it at 10.15am tomorrow, I will reflect on the fact that the monks will have sung it 4 or 5 hours earlier. It includes these lines, which I think are rather charming: “The Lord makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.”
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles is next (10, 34-43). While it specifically takes up the baptism theme, it is this short line from it, quoting Peter, which I will focus on in my meditations: “God shows no partiality.”
Then the most important reading – the Gospel for the Day, which tomorrow is taken from Matthew (3, 13-17).
It’s short – a mere 8 lines. But it packs in a lot to ponder, not least this question: why did Jesus submit to baptism?
The fact he did was a bit of an embarrassment for early Christians: if Jesus is the ‘one’, why does he go through with a ritual which suggests he might not be?
Or are we being invited to consider that what Jesus is up to here is an act of identification?; that is, he repents his inadequacies to demonstrate both his humanity and his willingness to share in ours. That’s anyhow how I interpret it.
I have always thought too the story illustrates Jesus’ growing awareness of his religious vocation.
I felt something similar on the occasion of my confirmation.
Hymn-singing in church is prohibited during the pandemic, which is why I listen instead to the religious music of Bach as a substitute.
One of the cantatas he wrote to coincide with tomorrow’s date in the liturgical calendar is BWV 154. Because it’s by Bach, it has many fine moments, some of which you can listen to here
To end this latest post of mine, here’s a photo I’d like to share with you.
It shows Kathryn holding her 2nd grandchild, Georgie, born 4 days ago.
In these challenging times, it’s a reminder ……
PS My previous post about the riots in Washington continues to attract responses, several of which yesterday refused completely to take me at my word about my views on Trump. And they also don’t like what I say negatively about Biden.
Mmmmm, what’s going on here? Maybe it’s because they take exception to the fact I am not easily impressed by their version of virtue-signalling, which contrasts very much with my own.
Just why are so many Liberals seemingly disabled from finding fault with their heroes? On the Left, we do it all the time with ours!
First, it was Barack, now it’s Joe.
In reply to their objections, I have added some new bits to the post below.
Friday 8 January 2021: Yesterday’s post elicited a lot of traffic. Most of it broadly supported my version of events, but there were several reactions that didn’t.
The chief worry my critics expressed about my perspective was they thought it seriously underplayed Trump’s roll in encouraging the violence.
Allied to this objection was another one concerning my less than hugely enthusiastic welcoming of Biden’s election as President, which I had revealed in earlier commentary.
Surely, I was told twice, I ought to be pleased the US now has as its President a person whose personal virtues and decencies outstrip totally those of his predecessor.
The first objection, I have decided, was provoked by my inability to express myself sufficiently well, leading me now categorically to state that I do think Trump was highly instrumental in encouraging the violence in Washington.
Indeed, given my well known extreme Leftism, I am critically aware of the extent to which Trump’s presidency has been, throughout its duration, characterised by nastiness of one sort or another, including racism and misogyny. He’s truly a shockingly awful individual. Period. Indeed, how could a person of the Left like me think otherwise?
The same question might also be asked about some members of our political establishment. Just what was Michael Gove and Boris Johnson thinking of when each made strong efforts to court Trump? Nothing sensible, that’s for sure.
I know the ‘special relationship’ is an important one; but a certain amount of critical distancing is not incompatible with it.
On the other hand, which is not another way of saying ‘but’, there are surely legitimate questions one can ask about the degree to which Trumpism is as much a symptom of America’s current malaise as its cause.
That is to say, it is reasonable to ponder whether the kind of anti-democratic politics Trump fosters arises out of and articulates with structural and cultural features of the USA’s civic and political landscape, suggesting that an over-emphasis on critiquing who Trump is runs the danger of not thinking sufficiently about what America has become, with surely his help, but not entirely.
Liberals, I find, go in a lot for the former, which isn’t exactly heavy lifting, while skating over consideration of why the kind of society they like so much leads to over 74 million Americans (= 47% of the popular vote) throwing in their lot with a person they despise and who stands for a way of life they hate. There is something going on here which needs looking into.
An op-ed in the Guardian says this at one point, making a point I go fully along with: “Trumpism is not an aberration, but a mass phenomenon. Trump greatly expanded his base between 2016 and 2020, adding more than 10 million votes to its total. He expanded into places and demographic constituencies thought to be closed to him. No other Republican presidential candidate could have done this. And it was achieved precisely through the same means that led to the spectacle in the Capitol. To hope that Joe Biden can defuse this by restoring civility and bipartisanship to Washington would be unforgivably complacent.”
A similar tendency, I find, is apparent in how the majority of Leave voters are regarded by some Remain ones, which is very negatively, with more than a hint of disdain, morphing into a failure to listen to their frustrations, and how they might have contributed to them. I have written about in my essay ‘On Brexit’, which can be read here
On Biden, I stand full square with those who rightly praise his personal decency and high moral probity, which is infused with a strong Christian faith, his adoption of which impresses me greatly.
On the other hand, again not a ‘but’, it doesn’t seem to me to be unreasonable to ask if he has the capacity adequately to address the huge social and economic problems which presently undermine the credibility of the so-called ‘American Project’, notably those to do with economic and social inequality, which have reached startlingly dysfunctional levels.
Specifically, will he and his team set in train measures to help heal America’s economic and social divisions?
It’s not possible here to elaborate with chapter and verse my deep reservations about this possibility, except to say that, when I examine Biden’s record in public life, especially during the period when he was Vice-President to Barack Obama, I don’t see much evidence of him being an ardent champion of the needs of the less well-off.
So, while I applaud Biden’s high moral decency, and welcome unreservedly his presence in the White House, I am anxious he does not have the necessary political efficaciousness to make a significant difference in terms of implementing necessary reforms. I want to be wrong about this, which is why I welcome evidence from readers who think differently.
In this regard, I am reminded of two British Labour politicians who I admire hugely. Clem Attlee was a thoroughly decent man who altered for the better the course of British life in radically profound ways. Tony Benn was a very decent man too, but he achieved tangibly very little in terms of helping to put in place reforms that significantly altered the quality of people’s lives. Unlike Attlee, he failed to marry high moral principle with significant reform on the ground.
Will that be Biden’s legacy too, I am left speculating. We’ll see. Let’s hope I am mistaken.
Thursday 7 January 2021: The rioting at the U.S. Capitol yesterday was shocking to behold. No question about that.
It’s not possible then reasonably to defend it.
Rightly, prominent leaders in the US have condemned it, including President-elect Biden and two of his predecessors, Bush and Obama.
The latter said “history would rightly remember the violence at the Capitol as a moment of great dishonour and shame for the nation”; the former that he was “appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders. This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic – not our democratic republic”.
Comment from the rest of the world was equally hostile. “We have witnessed an attack on the very fundaments of democratic structures and institutions,” said Peter Beyer, the German government’s coordinator for trans-Atlantic affairs. “This is not merely a U.S. national issue, but it shakes the world, at least all democracies.”
Jeremy Hunt, our former Foreign Secretary, said on Twitter that Mr. Trump has “shamed American democracy, but he is not America.”
The ‘this is not who we are’ theme was repeated with huge regularity on US media outlets, even Fox News.
This is surely true, in the sense that the rioting was promulgated by a mostly male Rightist minority, which included many white supremacists and a few anti-Semites.
However, questions remain: to what extent was its behaviour the extreme end of a spectrum of opinion that has considerable traction in America’s civil and political society?; while Trump’s provocation aided and abetted what happened, what is the broader political context of the rioting?; has America created the very social and economic conditions that provoke some individuals to think they can legitimately take action of this sort?
While it’s not appropriate to crack jokes about what has happened, I confess to smiling a bit behind my hand at what Felipe Neto, a popular Brazilian political commentator, said: “I’m waiting for the USA to invade the USA so it can re-establish democracy.”
And as I read former President Bush’s statement, I wondered: is this the same politician who in 2002 included Iraq as part of an international “axis of evil”, which subsequently backgrounded his country’s ill-judged invasion of it?
The US needs to look more self-critically at itself, I am thinking. Not all is right in the republic. On the contrary, a lot isn’t.
It’s almost become its own worst enemy, which talk about ‘this is not who we are’ unhelpfully sidesteps consideration of.
Tuesday 5 January 2021: in these challenging pandemic times, a more light-hearted post than the ones I mostly write is needed, I have decided.
This brief one is about one of my hobbies – listening to classical, specifically piano, music.
Two of my favourite pianists celebrate their birthday today: Alfred Brendel is 90; Maurizio Pollini is 79. I have always wondered if they send each other a greetings card. Probably not.
I shall celebrate their birthdays by listening to some of their recordings, of which I own a lot.
But which to choose? Hard.
I think for Pollini it must be something featuring him playing Chopin, whose works he has brilliantly championed throughout his long and distinguished career. The Polonaises, perhaps?
And for Brendel? Surely a Beethoven Piano Sonata; or maybe something by Schubert?; or Liszt? Difficult.
The other bit of good piano news to report today concerns Angela Hewitt.
Just under a year ago, she lost one of her favourite pianos – a unique 4-pedal Fazioli – which she considered her “best friend”, after it was dropped in a removals accident. Beyond repair was the outcome.
Well, she has just taken delivery of a replacement, hand-built for her by the Fazioli piano makers based just outside Venice.
The new instrument she says has “huge sound, but also great delicacy and range . . . I have a new piano and a whole new new world”.
To celebrate her good fortune, I will listen to the recording she made on her old Fazioli of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It’s a cracker! One of my favourite CDs, in fact.
Sunday 3 January 2021: While this time of pandemic is deeply troubling, worrying about it doesn’t get one very far.
That’s the theory, anyhow, reminding me of that moment in the 2015 Steven Spielberg spy-exchange movie, Bridge of Spies, when Mark Rylance’s Rudolf Abel says as much to his lawyer, James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks: “Aren’t you worried that you might lose your life?”, asks Donovan. “Would it help?”, Abel replies.
Even so, I am finding it hard presently not to be fretful about the course of the pandemic, even while knowing there are two Covid-19 vaccines available which offer light at the end of its deathly tunnel.
For I am concerned that the programme for their roll out is turning into another Johnson-inspired fiasco – that, again, he has over-promised, fostering false optimism as a result, while failing to put in place the means effectively speedily to get sufficient numbers inoculated.
As of today, less than 4% of the 30 million people who urgently need the jab, during what is now a very high surge of infections, has had it (people over 80, care workers, front-line NHS staff); supplies of the jab and vials and syringes to make use of them are not anywhere near the anticipated level; there aren’t enough trained jabbers effectively to administer it; & the logistics of calling people in to have the jab are proving hard to effect because they weren’t anticipated.
This couldn’t be made up, I have decided.
So, I am worried – specifically, I’m anxious that the PM’s ambition to achieve 2 million jabs every week will not be realised any time soon, when that is what is required if the country is to get itself out of the severe jam it now finds itself in.
Attending my church, St Wilfrid’s in Harrogate, this morning, where I commemorated the Epiphany Story (Christmas 2), on this occasion virtually, using its streaming facility, however, helped to dilute my anxieties. The more I worship and pray, the less I seem to worry”. Click here for today’s pew sheet.
On the other hand, I don’t subscribe to Martin Luther’s attitude: “Pray, and let God worry”.
Apart from this injunction seeming to entail a form of buck-passing, it’s also not what I understand God does.
If the Bible is our guide, God doesn’t worry about us. Certainly, I can’t find a single reference in it suggesting this is one of his priorities or that it should be one of ours.
Akin to Rudolf Abel, God advises us rather to spurn getting worried. Matthew 6, 27 is typical: “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”.
Eschewing worrying about us, God instead calls, encourages, supports and reassures. Via our consciences, he also reminds us of how better to live our lives.
And, at St Wilfrid’s this morning, I got on the end of a fair bit of all of this: the collect reminded me that Jesus is “alive and reigns within me”; the reading from Ecclesiasticus (24, 1-12) told me that “before the ages, in the beginning, God created me, and for all the ages I shall not cease to be”; the Psalm (147) confirmed that God has “strengthened the bars of my gates”; and the Epistle (Ephesians 1, 3-14) told me that Jesus has “made known the mystery of God’s will”. Meanwhile, today’s Gospel (John 1, 10-18) reinforced that last fact: while “no one has ever seen God”, Jesus, it says, has “made him known” to me.
And that was before the Divine Sacrament was celebrated to consolidate the process!
But, maybe, there is still a sense of worrying I ought to attend to.
In field sports, of which I do not approve, just in case you’re wondering, ‘worrying’ is a term used to describe the persistent actions of hounds as they hunt down their quarry.
What this suggests is that it’s important in my own life to persevere – remorselessly to ‘hunt down’ solutions to problems rather than run away from them. I like to think God might approve of that.
While there isn’t to hand an Epiphany-specific Bach cantata, Paul McCreesh has produced an excellent reconstruction on CD of a Bach-like Epiphany service “as it might have been celebrated” at the time, in his church, the Tomaskirche in Leipzig, around 1740.
In this recording, McCreesh combines one of Bach’s Lutheran masses (BWV 233) and various cantatas, hymns, organ pieces, bells and other components to devise an imagined service for Epiphany.
It’s rather lovely, I think.
You can listen to excerpts here
Friday 1 January 2021: For many, the first few days of January are when they structure the future by writing entries in fresh New Year diaries.
It’s also the time when they look back on the previous twelve months, assessing how they’ve passed, personally and generally, wondering relatedly what the next immediate period presages.
That’s what I intend to do in this post.
Much of 2020, for the majority, has been about accommodating the strictures of the pandemic.
For lots of people, this has entailed unemployment or reduced working hours, associated losses in earning power, increased debt, food poverty, and restrictions on leisure opportunities, including spending time with friends and family. For so-called ‘key workers’, it has frequently resulted in long shifts, often in health-threatening environments.
The transmission of the virus has also focused a sharp light on prevailing inequalities; in some cases, it has exacerbated them. Existing billionaires made themselves richer on the back of its spread; while world stock markets roared ahead, ending 2020 up 13%.
Hardly any of the bad stuff I’ve just mentioned directly impacted negatively on me. While I haven’t been able to experience any live music, other than of the streamed variety, or play much competitive OTB chess, or go regularly to church, my life otherwise has been lived mostly as I would like, entirely because how I usually pass the greater part of it – reading books and writing, listening to recorded music, riding my bike – has not been significantly interfered with.
Also, my home is spacious and comfortable, which means being socially-distanced inside it hasn’t been a burden, not least because I share it happily with Kathryn and a pet cat.
Being able to access a decent-sized rear garden has made the process even easier. And I have highly agreeable neighbours, with whom I have talked regularly over the hedge.
I am also pleasingly retired, enjoying secure finances and several pleasant voluntary roles – I’m a parish councillor and Secretary of a Concert Club – both of which I have continued happily to fulfil thanks to Zoom and email.
Very representative of the privileged class to which I belong, I have thus been protected from the worst social and economic effects of Covid-19.
And, typical of like-minded socialists and most liberals, I have concurrently been appalled by the way the government has failed adequately to keep safe those who are not similarly blessed, particularly the precariously employed; those who live in inhospitable rented homes; those who are resident in care homes; and those whose treatments for underlying health conditions have been side-lined. Children have also fallen behind in their lessons – and too often gone hungry. People of all ages have additionally endured loneliness or violence at home.
The Tory’s furlough and rent holiday schemes were welcome; but its scatty indecisive thinking about lockdown and procurement failures over PPE, conjoined with the incompetent introduction of an effective test and trace system, resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths.
In both managing the pandemic’s impact and leading the country through it, Team Johnson accordingly passed few tests.
Instead, it made too many bombastic and reckless guarantees – “sending the virus packing in 12 weeks with world-beating moon-shots” – rather than taking timely effective action to halt its spread.
In 2020, we were then consigned to government by an ineffectual gaggle of mediocre, entitled-embracing politicians, whose handling of the Brexit process during it equally lived down to worst expectations.
For sure, its trade deal with the EU, agreed in the nick of time, was better than no deal. But, that’s not saying much, for it constituted a huge deceit, to the extent that it will almost surely inflict most of the costs the PM denied it ever would.
Johnson’s promised ‘levelling up’ economic reforms are likely similarly to add up to very little. It’s not that expressions of the need for them are ill-advised; it’s more rather that their implementation, assuming they are redistributive, would be out of character for this kind of Tory government if they took place, which means they won’t.
Mind you, a singular lack of imagination is evident in how other political leaders in the UK thought about the future in 2020.
The pandemic wrought major changes – in home working; in ways of learning in schools and colleges and universities; in the role of the state, which grew massively in size and impacted hugely on daily life; and in how people spend their spare time and money generally. The entertainment industry and hospitality sector will surely each never be the same again.
But our politicians were disabled from thinking creatively about the implications of all of this, inanely predicting a return to a form of normality that has either disappeared or doesn’t deserve to be restored because it was part of the problem in the first place.
Don’t they know that Covid-19 is nature’s revenge on the way the human species has mistreated and exploited it? Our sense of what is ‘normal’ is an issue not a solution, least of all a desired end-point and exit strategy.
My eyes rolled then when I heard a few of them the other day talking glibly on the radio about “when the pandemic is speedily over”. Really? Global pandemics are the new norm. We need to get used to living with them.
They didn’t say much convincingly either about the continuing challenges of climate change. True, the ‘sustainability’ word was regularly used, including the expression ‘lower-carbon society’, but it was hard to conclude they weren’t being uttered routinely. I also noted that the declared need for new ‘green technologies’ was always tied to the questionable notion of ‘economic growth’.
Maybe I should have been pleased that the climate change debate had achieved near mainstream status. But I wasn’t, fearing serious collective inaction in the short time available, when it is speedy progressive global policies that are required.
I thus held out few hopes for COP26, even as I gladly acknowledged that 2020 was a record year for renewable energy installations, largely motivated, mind you, by investors keen to cash in on the new money-making opportunities provided by the climate crisis.
2020 wasn’t therefore experienced by me as a year in which many politicians engaged in much fresh thinking on society and economy, least of all the climate.
On the contrary, in contrast to a host of liberal and socialist public intellectuals and their allies in the press, the hopes for the new year were overly linked by most of them to the successful rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine, which it’s assumed will put right much of what’s gone awry, waned or died out, despite the fact it will take at least until next Spring for it to create sufficient immunity throughout the UK, assuming a new strain of the disease, plus wider global mutations, doesn’t render it ineffectual beforehand.
Reinforcing this sceptical attitude of mine, I heard news on the last day of 2020 that there are already vaccine shortages in the UK, including problems in staffing adequately the programme to distribute it.
And, while I joined my friends in cheering heartily the defeat of Trump in the US presidential election, I was unable to imagine that his successor, Biden, who I regard as a very dull, even reactionary, politician, would make much of a difference in terms of progressing America towards a more equal society. If he couldn’t do it working alongside Obama, why should I be confident he could do it on his own, especially surrounded by an administration largely staffed from his earlier time in the White House? I wasn’t.
I felt much the same about Keir Starmer, the new leader of one of the two Labour parties to which I belong, who compared in my estimation very unfavourably with Alan Kelly, the principal of the other one of which I’m a member in Ireland.During 2020, the latter pushed very hard up against the Republic’s coalition government, offering policy alternatives in the process. Starmer, by contrast, while undoubtedly very seriously forensic and effectively managerial at the Commons despatch box, rarely acted as a lightning rod for new ideas. I can’t recall a single one of consequence.
Maybe he will declare his hand more in 2021. I’m not counting on it. His priority is tallying, I decided, not mobilising – strategic not political. An op-ed published in the Guardian’s first edition of 2021 summed up exactly what he ought to do, but probably won’t:
”Labour needs to wake up and offer an alternative future to contest the Tory narrative – one that amounts to more than just better welfare and more administrative competence. Labour could start by being nostalgic not for a Tory past, but a Labour one: of greater equality, of common purpose, of strong trade unions, of rising wages, of meaningful work. Labour could embrace the idea of a refreshed democracy, of really taking back control – of an anti-elite politics rather than a reheated technocracy. It could once again become the party that offers a national, collective critique of the elite and its power – as it was from the 1930s into the 1970s – and propose a policy of national reconstruction and equality. Labour should be the party that speaks in realities, not in celebratory fantasies, and seeks to create a truthful democratic politics, which is essential to any real programme of progressive change.”
I thus ended 2020 in a very ‘Eeyore’ political mood, which, regarded superficially by my critics, seems oddly disarticulated from my normal utopian socialist outlook. I like to think it was a product of it.
Their more optimistic outlooks on the other hand struck me as a mixture of naivety, liberal wishful thinking and armchair philosophising, adding up to a version of capitalist apologetics.
They denied this, of course. But what other conclusion was it possible for me ultimately to reach about their essentially neo-liberal visions for the future, which I don’t share one bit? As I write on the Home Page of this website:
“Insofar as I am a utopian socialist, I thus regard as Rightist folly efforts to reach a sympathetic understanding with neoliberal financial capitalism, entirely because its inexorable logic, entailing the pursuit of private profit over collective well-being, occasions resource wars, global warming, gross inequalities of income and wealth and periodic economic crises. So, rather than accommodate and sustain the ideal of society as a kind of universal market, which is the way of many social democrats I know, I hold to the contrary view that it must be replaced by something altogether different, specifically a mode of social life that is characterised by fairness, equality, cooperation and the promotion of the common good.”
At a more personal level, 2020 required me to accommodate the absence of two long-standing and much-loved friends, each of whom died towards the end of 2019.
Christopher David and Patrick Eavis, both of whom I first met and worked with in Bristol in the 1970s, were very important personalities in my life.
Christopher was my ‘pastoral’ mate; Patrick my ‘pedagogical’ one. The former sustained me emotionally; the latter encouraged me intellectually and professionally.
Each then was a significant piece of my mental furniture, which now I cannot re-arrange and benefit from. (These two links offer separate appreciations of their importance to me: Christopher and Patrick)
The knowledge that there will be nothing more, nothing new, from either of them often left me bereft and distracted in 2020, though I did evoke each in my imagination from time to time, having intense monologic discussions with them in my head about this and that.
One of them was to do with my decision in 2020 to be confirmed as a member of the Anglican communion. This was a matter of huge concern to me, which inevitably I did not take lightly.
It’s one I had been building up to for over forty years. I had prevaricated; ignored the call; and invented all sort of useless excuses for not putting myself forward.
Encouraged by a friend, to whom I will always be grateful for his support, I took the plunge, had classes, and made my promises, since when I have not looked back, only forward.
I felt a kind of home-coming as a result. The Anglican Church’s traditions are ones I have long felt comfortable with, and my local church, St Wilfrid’s in Harrogate, which practices a ‘high’ form of liturgy, is well suited to the kind of religious piety my faith leads me to want to adopt. I explain why in the introduction to the ‘Church’ page of this website.
My new faithful embrace of the church undoubtedly provided support during two serious illnesses to which I fell victim in 2020.
In April, following a long bike ride, at home, I had a mild stroke – a ‘TIA’, in the jargon. I recovered quickly, failing however to realise sufficiently that what had happened to me was a serious wake-up call.
For, a few months later, in September, I was further struck down, again after exertion, by a heart attack.
One of my heart’s main arteries was not working efficiently. This was trickier than the TIA, potentially life-threatening, despite not being a full-blown cardiac arrest.
Blue-lighted to hospital, I was, immediately on arrival, rushed to surgery. Two stents later, I was resident on the general ward getting over the procedure, from which I began quickly to repair, though often painfully.
Within three days I was back home, where I was lovingly cared for by Kathryn, whose huge efforts on my behalf were stunningly effective and reassuring.
My faith helped too, providing a calming anchor as I grappled, without even a hint of fear, with the prospect I might not survive.
All the signs at the time in fact were that I did not really think this was likely. Sat up, while recovering in my hospital bed, one of the nursing staff querulously commented on the large number of books I had brought in with me. “Ah”, I said …. “it’s a good sign, don’t you know, indicating I am optimistic about the prospect of having plenty of time left to me to read them”.
On the other hand, I am not foolish enough to think my life is not now severely constrained in terms of how many years of it I have left to me.
I am, as its said, well and truly in God’s waiting room. That though doesn’t worry me. What does is failing to make the most of each day that remains.
In that connection, I have always thought of myself as a kind of pilot light, which I must make sure ignites a big personal fire each day.
So, my heart attack did not cause me to think more about who I am and how I live and where I want to go, which is what I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember, though it did kick-start a new way of eating, which has had the very positive effect of enabling me to lose a lot of superfluous weight, like two stones of it. The next photo, taken a few days ago, shows the result.
Nor did it give me an excuse to think anew about the big stuff – like what is the boundary between life and death. I do that habitually, without needing cause.
I guess what it did bring about is a greater tendency to live as fully as I can in the present, including paying far more attention than hitherto to marvelling at the simplest of things – trees, birds, chats with family and friends – which have become very precious to me. I have written a separate essay about all of this, which can be read here.
Thinking ahead to 2021, I am left finally to ponder what sort of fires I will ignite with my pilot light in the next twelve months.
New Year’s resolutions have never been my thing, entirely because they seem to me to be mostly about stopping rather than doing things.
I want to be more positive, which is why I plan to invest less energy in working for the Labour Party, with which I have become increasingly disillusioned, and revert to doing many more things for Green causes.
I will also continue to engage fully with the ‘Irish Situation’; fulfil entirely my obligations to the Ilkley Concert Club and local Parish Council; continue to study hard; worship and pray better; and attend lovingly to the family and friends I care about most.
Significantly, in my 74th year, in early June, I will hopefully become a grandparent for the first time.
This is a huge happening for me to anticipate and engage with. I intend to do so with maximum enthusiasm and loving care for my daughter, Chloe, who will gift me a new life to look out for. A lot then to go on living for.
A bookish post-script
At this time of the year, many of the broadsheets publish lists of what prominent individuals identify as their most liked books of the previous 12 months.
Not to be outdone, even though I never bother to read what is in these lists, here are a few of my ‘best books’ from last year:
The biography which engaged me the most – John Cornwell’s Newman’s Unquiet Grave.
The novel I was most (re)gripped by – John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
The poet I most happily rediscovered – George Herbert, thanks to Jane Fallon’s Heart in Pilgrimage.
The music book I appreciated above all others – Laura Tunbridge’s Beethoven: A Live in Nine Pieces.
The politics book that most turned me inside out – Michael Lind’s The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Metropolitan Elite. Peter Geoghegan’s Democracy for Sale: Dark Money & Dirty Politics was also up there.
The devotional text that helped sustain my faith the most – Mark Barrett’s Crossing.
The philosophy book which I liked reading the most – Miles Hollingworth’s Ludwig Wittgenstein, which is a staggering achievement.
The history of art book that completely opened my eyes to a new way of seeing – James Hall’s The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History. Diana Darke’s Stealing from the Saracens was a close second.
The drama script which made me appreciate better a much-loved play, which I thought I knew well, but clearly didn’t sufficiently – Conor McPherson’s perceptive adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
And, to finish on a negative note, the sociology book whose pretentious and ultimately empty social theoretical analyses I found the most impossible to finish reading and wish I’d never bought – Andreas Reckwitz’s The Society of Singularities. Quite dreadful stuff, which sadly confirmed my view that sociology has lost its way.
Saturday 12 December 2020: The latest edition of Prospect (Winter Special, 2021) takes stock of the present state and future of liberalism.
Its survey includes a finely-written long essay authored by the political philosopher, Timothy Garton Nash, whose books and opinion-pieces I have always found worth spending time on.
His subject on this occasion is one I have read a lot about in recent years, leading me to conclude, as he does, that liberalism is currently in deep crisis, from which it will struggle to recover.
For, under liberalism’s Centrist/Social Democratic watch, various democracies have slid into oligarchy and populist demagogy; and neo-liberal capitalist economies have encouraged huge inequalities of income and accumulated wealth, while failing to eliminate poverty.
Liberalism’s promise of widening prosperity and increased upward mobility was scuppered by the financial crisis, and few answers worth bothering with have since been found with its tool kit of ideas. Centrist free market apologists such as Tony Blair and his ilk are out of step with today’s new times.
Why elements in Starmer’s Labour Party want to revive New Labour’s version of political economy thus escapes me. Too many voters feel and were betrayed by it.
Garton Nash discusses all of this with typical lucidity, concluding with a very Leftist agenda for liberal renewal grounded in a revitalised emphasis on equality and solidarity.
His prospectus, which you can read in full here, is similar to the one outlined by Adrian Pabst in his 2019 polemic, The Demons of Liberal Democracy. There are also links with what was once (9 years ago) popularised as ‘Blue Labour’, which can be read about here.
I have a huge problem with both their approaches, which begins with me asking – “hasn’t all of this already been said and written about, and much earlier, by socialist intellectuals and activists, whose outlooks liberals have regularly ridiculed and with which they badly clash?”
But, more to the point, why do Garton Nash and Pabst think it is politically likely that capitalist states in the West and elsewhere will willingly embrace an ideological and economic agenda of the sort they each advocate that is ultimately inimical to their long-term survival?
Whatever form it takes, I am in this regard always struck by the way that supporters of liberalism seem unable to come to terms with the fact that the kind of fair and flourishing society they rightly want to see exist is actually impossible in the absence of a fundamental alteration in the grossly unequal distribution of wealth and power which neo-liberal capitalism produces, entailing super-rich financiers and their institutions being illiberally dispossessed.
To that extent, Garton Nash’s politics is naively unpolitical.
Doesn’t he realise that only a major economic crisis, requiring for its resolution a new kind of state – a socialist, not a liberal, one – is likely to provide the necessary means to encourage the development of the sort of egalitarian society he desires?
So, while he is arguably right in theory, Garton Nash in practice ducks all the big questions. His embrace of a Left-leaning policy agenda is mostly defensive. It can’t be taken seriously because his kind of liberalism doesn’t challenge and seek radically to get at the roots of the crisis presently engulfing capitalist societies, which is to do with a flawed political economy that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Sunday 6 December 2020: The end of lockdown allowed me this morning to attend, for the first time in four weeks, Holy Mass at St Wilfrid’s, on the occasion of the Second Sunday in Advent.
I enjoyed the service enormously: an excellent homily, which identified themes from the readings (‘wilderness’, ‘repentance’ and ‘striving’), drawing out their implications for personal faith and Christian practice; wonderful singing from the small choir, particularly of the Agnus Dei; a fine Psalm (85); and a good collect and intercessional prayers. Receiving communion, even in a Covid-secure fashion, was all I hoped it would be.
The Old Testament reading, taken from Isaiah Chapter 40 (vv.1-11), was famously familiar: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God . . . A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’”. I could hear Handel’s Messiah worming away in my head as it was read from the pulpit – listen for yourself (first 2 tracks) here
Isaiah reminded me that my task and calling during Advent is to ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ – specifically, to conduct myself in such a fashion that bears witness to Jesus’s moral example, about which an interesting new book, authored by the atheist philosopher, Julian Baggini, has just been published, which I brought to mind as the service progressed. For details of it click here
Moved by Jesus’s gifts as a moral teacher, but sceptical of his divinity, Baggini advocates a demythologised version of Christianity which leaves out all the supernatural bits.
I can go along with much of this, not least because Jesus’s Godliness does not, for me, crucially hang on his alleged ability to perform miracles.
It’s confirmed rather by the manner in which he sensationally embodied Goodness and Hopefulness, each leavened by Self-Giving Love, which is far more miraculous than being able to calm storms.
In my theology, Jesus’s ability to perform wondrous acts is a consequence of his Godliness, not proof of it.
He is God’s ‘son’ because he is intimately related to the Good, which is God (“God or whatever means the Good/Be praised that time can stop like this” – Louis MacNiece’s ‘Meeting Point’).
No wonder then that those who encountered Jesus during his brief adult life were regularly moved beyond comprehension by his capacity ruthlessly to expose their own moral limitations, causing several of them immediately to worship him.
Ethics, as Baginni rightly tells us, are autonomous; but their Source, on this understanding, isn’t.
It is instead omnipresent, providing illumination, not explanation.
Baginni misses this trick. Most people’s atheism does, I find, failing to appreciate the religious implications of the moral call of conscience, which (to quote Origen) “is the chamber of justice”.
John Henry Newman agrees, rightly sensing God’s presence in its testimony: “He says to me, ‘Do this, don’t do that’ . . . It carries with it its proof of its divine origin” (from Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine).
This morning’s Gospel, the opening verses of Mark’s, gets straight into it – “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. No gentle introduction. The good news is here. It requires my attention, and a response. The message is unambiguous. Mark’s book is therefore a story of ‘regime change’ (Rowan Williams – Meeting God in Mark, p.7) – I am invited immediately to deal with the challenging presence of John the Baptist, who calls me to give up my bad ways and follow Jesus’s good ones.
There is no time to cogitate. Drop everything. Follow him without hesitation. Wait upon him, rather than wait for him. That’s the message of Advent.
It’s also the message of the cantata that Bach composed in 1716 for Advent 2: BWV 70, the opening chorus of which is very excited and full of anticipation – “Watch! Pray! Watch! Be Prepared at all times”. Listen to it here (from 5.35).
And while I wait, as this morning’s Epistle tells me, I must “strive to be at peace, without spot or blemish” (2 Peter 3, 14).
Origen though had the last word this morning: “The Kingdom of God is not a location, but a state such that when a man prays he is praying for the Kingdom of God that is within him, that it might rise, flourish and reach its full growth.”
Saturday 5 December 2020: In the interests of fairness, it’s only right I draw attention to the positive take on Biden’s victory which Georgetown University’s Professor E J Dionne outlines in his essay just posted on the Social Europe website. You can read its full text here
His conclusions coincide very much with the criticisms that have been made of my largely pessimistic version of events, which concludes that progressives will wait in vain for a Biden presidency to deliver significantly on reforms which they champion, especially greater economic equality.
These two quotes from Dionne’s essay give a good idea of its overall argument:
“Biden’s victory has made the world safer for democracy and democratic values. It suggests there is nothing inexorable about the rise of the far right and points to coalition-building opportunities for supporters of progressive policies, on climate, equal rights and the economy.”
“In defeating Trump, Biden struck a blow against the rise of authoritarian populism. . . . The coalition Biden built modelled what the centre-left could accomplish elsewhere.”
Biden’s room for manoeuvre, which will be heavily constrained by reactionary Republican majorities in both the Senate and Congress, and the continuing huge presence of Trumpism itself in the country at large will surely make it hard for him to make much of a difference.
It’s also not in Biden’s political makeup. For he is a restorationist more than a transformer, a tendency already reflected in the appointments he has so far made to his administration, which include mostly ‘continuity’ individuals.
Friday 4 December 2020: About this time of the year my children usually ask what book I’d like them to gift me for Christmas. I have identified the first volume of Barack Obama’s just-published memoirs – A Promised Land.
Obama’s book is enjoying mostly good reviews. Typical is The Sunday Times’ evaluation, which says that its account of the first three years of his presidency is “delivered with a literary panache that few politicians have equalled”. The Sunday Observer is similarly positive, describing Obama’s story as “poetic and deeply introspective”.
An exception however is Gary Younge’s review in the Guardian (click here to read it). While Younge says that A Promised Land is “well-reasoned, well-written and insightful”, he concludes it is “incomplete, leaving out too much to give a clear view of Obama’s first term”.
The Chicago-based Marxist journalist, Paul Street, while similarly critical, goes a lot further, characterising Obama’s record in office as lamentable and reactionary.
His critique of the former president’s memoir and of ‘Obamanism’ generally – as set out in an essay of his on the CounterPunch+ website, dated 23 November, and in two associated books – is vituperative: “I have read enough of the 44th president’s fake-poetic prose to last a lifetime. He’s a conservative wolf wrapped in deceptive faux-progressive clothes. No more, please!”.
When he’s not being nasty, Street does list a number of Obama’s alleged ‘failures’ which surely require successful rebuttal if he is to continue to be regarded as every liberal’s favourite.
Did Obama compromise serious efforts to set binding carbon emissions at Copenhagen? Did his cheap-money policies, inaugurated to remediate the negative impact of the 2007/8 banking crisis, fuel inequality and rises in property prices and other assets? How really ‘affordable’ is Obama’s Affordable Care Act? Did he take a badly mistaken course in dealing with the civil war in Syria? Did he inappropriately extend and increase America’s drone attacks programme?
Although these aren’t unreasonable questions, I find that liberals struggle to ask them, appearing reluctant to subject Obama to the level of scrutiny that the power he once held demands.
Indeed, they give me the impression of always being more liable to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, which can’t be right.
Now why is this? Are we witnessing here a further example of that wishful thinking phenomenon I wrote about on 26 November?
Specifically, is the liberal desire to give Obama the benefit of the doubt the product of a desperate need to portray a version of good leadership, coinciding with the former president’s exercise of it, in terms that accord with an idealised vision of what ought to be the case, but rarely is?
In other words, is the ‘good’ Barack Obama significantly a liberal construct, which he successfully plays up to, the nature of which makes it easy to distinguish him from the ‘awful’ Donald Trump, with whom, in policy terms, he may actually have more in common than liberals are willing to acknowledge?
Sunday 29 November 2020: Today, which is the First Sunday in Advent, inaugurates a time of expectant waiting and preparation for both the celebration of Jesus’s Nativity and his return at the Second Coming.
The Gospel for the day – from Mark 13,24-37 – describes the latter in apocalyptic terms – clouds descend, the sun darkens, the moon ceases to give light and stars fall from the night sky. This incendiary account anticipates a dramatic visitation.
If taken literally, which I don’t, there’s the danger of using Mark’s vision, which is underpinned by a passage in Daniel (7, 13-14), as justification for waiting passively on the inevitable to arrive, rather than actively seeking ways to make things better in the here and now.
I regard Advent then as not about the end of times, but as a fresh start for all time – the beginning of a new year for the Christian Church and a period during which I should “keep awake” (v.37) to the changes needed to mirror more adequately God’s immanent arrival and His continuing return.
This is not about being hyper-vigilant; it’s about instead identifying specific and very practical ways in which I can in the weeks ahead and beyond best represent the moral call of Jesus’s ministry.
Indeed, Jesus’s reference in today’s Gospel to the fig tree’s seasons (v.28) reminds me of the importance and potential of personal transformation.
So, rather than use prayer during Advent and at other times as a way of asking God supernaturally to intervene and improve things, I must deploy it rather as a means to activate my conscience – God calling on me, rather than me on Him – to make a practical difference for the better, and in two ways in particular: selflessly attend to and help specific individuals whose lives are presently troubled and over-burdened (beginning with Alexandra, Alan and Wendy); and contribute positively in tangible ways to the conduct of public life (starting with fully attending to my responsibilities as a Parish Councillor and getting on speedily with my duties as Secretary of Ilkley Concert Club).
To do so, I am telling myself, will help prepare for Jesus’s ‘return’, while simultaneously do justice to his immanent arrival.
One of the cantatas that Bach composed for the First Sunday in Advent, 1724 – BWV 62 – which is a personal favourite, offers musical encouragement, for its opening chorale is a grand harkening.
You can listen to it here: “Now come, Saviour of the Gentiles, Known as the Virgin’s Child; All the world marvels that God has ordained for Him such a birth.”
And my devotional book for Advent – Carys Walsh’s Frequencies of God – which is “a daily walk through Advent” accompanied by the poetry of R S Thomas – also gets things nicely underway with a set of reflections on the latter’s ‘The Coming’. This poem marks both the beginning and the end of my journey – heralding the incarnation (“And God held in his hand a small globe/Look, he said”) and anticipating Jesus’s crucifixion (“On a bare hill a bare tree saddened the sky”).
Friday 27 February 2020: This morning I am struck positively by the life of Paul Moore, whose death is acknowledged in a generous obituary published in today’s Guardian. Click here to read it.
Paul, who? He was the HBOS whistleblower who in 2009 pulled the plug on its unscrupulous lending policies and aggressive sales culture which contributed so much to the economic meltdown of 2007-08.
The written evidence Paul submitted in 2009 to a Treasury Select Committee investigating the banking industry was devastating, exposing a set of operations that were largely about “me, more and now, in which GDP and continuous economic growth were the only mantras.”
Paul subsequently wrote, “we need to rebuild public policy around the financial sector in a way that not only serves the real economy but also the common good of humanity.”
The obituary tells us Paul paid a heavy price for his whistleblowing.
For after being sacked by HBOS because he wouldn’t go along with its unethical ways of working, he failed to secure regular employment elsewhere in the banking industry; and afterwards had to cope with bouts of severe depression.
Motivated by high principle, which was infused by a strong Christian commitment, Paul then was a brave man, sacrificing his own security and health for the welfare of others. It can’t have been easy for him.
Arguably, he did more to expose the moral failings of the modern financial sector than a room full of Marxists like me. I take my hat off to him.
Thursday 26 November 2020: From the start of his 2020 campaign, Joe Biden insisted that President Trump was an aberration; that his norm-breaking, race-baiting tenure is anathema to the US national character: “It’s not who we are”, he repeatedly said, “not what America is”. But is Biden right? Indeed, are leaders of other nations empirically correct when they similarly invoke performative patriotic assessments of this sort?
Or, are they simply instead rhetorically contributing to the conditions needed to change what they think their countries have turned into, which they don’t approve of, to become what they wish they were like?
Relatedly, I am wondering too if the ‘way of life’ that each of America and the UK lays claim positively to espouse is anything more than a shared historic fiction, even a form of wishful thinking or contrived exceptionalism?
Sarah Churchwell’s essay on the just-concluded US presidential election published in last Saturday’s Guardian Review got me thinking about all of this. (You can read it here)
At one point, Sarah says this: “Over the last four years, many have acknowledged, however reluctantly, the ways in which Trump’s presidency is symptomatic of entrenched maladies in the American body politic: his divisiveness, rage, dishonesty, greed, double-dealing, dishonour, puerility, truculence, fragility, narcissism and paranoia, all characterise American society today.
Trump’s exceptionalism is also American: the rules apply to everyone but him. Trump is all of America’s worst qualities, the nation’s id come to roaring life. If Trump is symptomatic of America’s diseases of power, then his compulsive dishonesty might be the most revealing pathology of all. The US is a chronically untruthful country, deceit written into its very framework. The constitution contains explicit protections of slavery, but never uses the word ‘slavery’, a deeply mendacious deception that eventually became a collective self-deception. The declaration “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” was written by a man who enslaved men he did not consider his equal, and became the foundation of a country that incessantly declared its belief in truth and justice while enslaving and oppressing much of its population.”
To rewrite Sarah, I am wondering if Boris Johnson’s rule is symptomatic of entrenched maladies in the English body politic – that is, his dishonesty, narcissism, xenophobia, populism, fragility, and racism mirror accurately how a large proportion of the English think and act.
If I am right, Team Starmer has a huge task ahead of it to undo the damage.
Saying “this is not who we are” won’t cut it, that’s for sure, for in many ways this is exactly who the English are, at least in some parts of the country.
And it’s not clear to me that focusing on Johnson’s incompetence over the pandemic will cut it either.
The Tories have an 80-seat majority with no general election due before 2024, by which time his failures in 2020-21 will surely be largely forgotten in a post-pandemic society in which the majority of people have resumed a ‘normal’ way of life.
True, there will be high unemployment, particularly among young adults, and related hardship, but this will only be experienced by a minority, whose plight will be camouflaged by a variety of high-profile levelling up initiatives.
Or am I being unduly pessimistic, even cynical?
Wednesday 25 November 2020: I wonder, did you, like me, find an angry mood taking you over this morning as you read today’s Guardian Leader on the Grenfell inquiry?
Its opening paragraph says it all: “So now we know. The suppliers of the cladding system used in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower are greedy cheats who put sales before safety. Jaw-dropping evidence at the public inquiry into the disaster from key witnesses who worked for the insulation manufacturer Celotex, and emails sent by employees at the cladding company Arconic, have put beyond doubt what many survivors believed they already knew: these companies knew that what they were doing was dangerous and they didn’t care.”
Was Grenfell “a discrete failure of corporate culture and regulation? Or do businesses do this kind of thing all the time?”
My answers are: No, and too many do, and get away with it.
It’s surely time it was all swept away. We must stop pandering to ‘business’ and worshiping at the altar of ‘growth’. And when residents complain, they should be listened to more.
Sunday 22 November 2020: Today, which is the Feast of Christ the King, comes at the end of Lectionary Year A, anticipating the season of Advent, which starts next Sunday, 29 November, ending on Christmas Day.
Year A, during which Gospel Readings have been mostly from Matthew, gives way to Year B, where the focus will be on two Gospels – Mark’s and John’s.
That pleases me a lot, as it was studying Mark’s Gospel for ‘O Level’ that first introduced me to reading the Bible theologically; and it was John’s Gospel that I subsequently worked through for ‘A Level’. I have always found the way Mark tells the story of Jesus the most stirring and affecting of all the Gospel accounts; while John’s is the slower and more reflective version of all of them. Mark and John thus nicely complement each other.
But, today, Matthew Chapter 25, which has featured throughout November, still holds my attention. This morning’s reading from it – verses 31-46 – reminds me on this special feast day that Jesus’s kingship is not to be understood in any worldly/temporal sense.
His monarchical power over me is conceived in ethical/spiritual terms, for I am his favoured subject to the extent I do what is morally right by other people on behalf of God: “Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me.”
Matthew 25 is also all about preparedness – specifically, about watching out for Jesus while one waits for his ‘return’.
The first century church understood this literally – as a second physical coming.
That’s not theologically the sense I make of Jesus’s ‘return’, which in the 21st century I think of as a huge metaphor, denoting a process and not an event, whereby his ministry progressively makes itself increasingly felt as humanity embraces its meaning and significance – a form of realised eschatology, if you like, rather than an ‘end of the world’ moment.
But, however Jesus’s ‘return’ is interpreted – literally or metaphorically – the question remains: what is it effectively to wait upon and watch out for him?: “Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew, 24, 42).
John Henry Newman, in one of his famous Oxford sermons, tells me: “He watches for Christ who has a sensitive, eager, apprehensive mind; who is awake, alive, quick-sighted, zealous in seeking and honouring Him; who looks out for Him in all that happens.”
Newman is pointing up the need for me to wait then with religious and moral purpose.
Beckett’s Godot, by contrast, illustrates how not to wait. Vladimir’s waiting time is not the time of a life, but just of one day; the time of Pozzo is measured just by his immediate circumstances; while the slave-philosopher, Lucky, bemoans the way in which man wastes and pines his life away engaging in an ad hoc mixture of sometimes momentous but more often casual activities.
Newman is different. He challenges me to wait watchfully in a fashion that does full justice to Jesus’s calling – that I should do his will, privileging it more than my own. Watchful waiting of this kind is a thus a vocation, and not a casual or indiscriminate use of my time.
Tuesday 17 November 2020: There’s ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, apparently, by which I mean there is the prospect of a vaccine for coronavirus being available soon, and more than a billion people being immunised by the end of next year.
Do you believe this? For sure, I want to, but somehow I have doubts, as does the Guardian’s Zoe Williams, who wrote in this morning’s edition, “I have no confidence at all in the government’s ability to deliver a vaccination programme; all I can envisage is a vast contract delivered to some second-cousin-by-marriage of a minister, who reveals at the last moment that they don’t know how to keep anything refrigerated to -70C, but somehow that’s now the National Audit Office’s problem and they’ve walked off with the cash.”
And there will be a lot of cash to be had in this process, won’t there?
At £38-£45 for a course of two shots, Moderna’s vaccine for example is going to make a lot of it for a few people. Pfizer’s, at £30 for two jabs, will not be far behind.
But, I mustn’t be cynical, despite wondering if the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, will profit from a reported surge in the share price of Moderna, one of the biggest investments held by Theleme Partners, the hedge fund he co-founded before becoming an MP. At the last count, Theleme’s investment was worth over £377m.
Maybe this time the government will get things right, assuming of course that the bio-tech companies involved have not been over-hyping their breakthroughs in order to attract investors and contracts. Now, they wouldn’t be doing that, would they?
I’m confused by the PM’s comment that he’s “as fit as a butcher’s dog”. The allusion to a butcher’s dog, as I understand it, is to a dog that would be expected to be very well fed from scraps. Why that is considered to epitomise fitness isn’t clear, as it might be thought more likely that the dog would be more overweight than fit. Maybe Johnson’s comment is a further example of his well-honed inability to talk sense.
Monday 16 November 2020: Yesterday was the 2nd Sunday Before Advent. If lockdown had not prevented me from attending morning mass at St Wilfrid’s, I would have heard read to me there the Gospel for the Day – Matthew 25, 14-30.
This Reading instructs the Faithful, using Jesus’s famous Parable of the Talents, in the importance of working hard at their Christian commitment.
Those who make good use of Jesus’s gifts, the Reading tells us, will enter the ‘eternal life’ of the age to come; those who don’t, won’t.
It’s a hard message, reinforced by that oft-recalled cryptic comment at the end: “For to all those who have, more will be given . . . but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (v.29).
Hard though this sounds, there’s a huge truth standing behind Jesus’s words, I find, which has application not just to the Christian life, but to life generally: if you don’t make the most of what you’ve got, you run the risk of losing what you already possess. On the other hand, if you seek to maximise that which you have, even it’s very little, you’re likely to increase your potential and live more satisfactorily as a result.
And I’m not talking here of course about making a financial profit. I’m referring rather to abilities and skills.
Jesus then is telling us to maximise our opportunities and not waste them, which may entail taking a few risks. Good advice!
It’s a message of his I have taken very much to heart all my life, even until now at near its end, with the result that I have made much more of myself than I and many others ever thought at the outset was possible.
I have then never hidden my ‘talents’ “in the ground” (v.25). I have instead made the best possible use of them, and the result hasn’t been that half bad.
Sunday 15 November 2020: Two good questions were posed in today’s Sunday Observer: will coronavirus mark the ultimate triumph of predatory capitalism? Or will that brief glimpse of a more communitarian, more sustainable, way of doing things that we had in the spring help us to imagine a different world?”
Although pessimism is not a luxury anyone on the Left can rightfully embrace, it’s hard, I find, not to be dispirited about what our post-pandemic life will be like in terms of it taking on a very different hue from what previously was accepted happily by the majority as ‘normal’.
My chief fear is that, once a vaccine for the virus becomes widely available, and people are able as a result to begin to resume some form of normal working, eating out, going on holiday, seeing friends and family, and buying stuff, the huge death rate caused by its spread and the role played by Team Johnson in mishandling its impact will each recede in the collective memory, allowing the Tories to regain lost popularity and look forward to holding onto power in 2024.
For sure, many people will not resume fully their working lives as before; and a significant number will not have a job even to go back to; and many small businesses, especially in the hospitality sector, will not have survived; and there will be a huge public debt to pay off.
But will this add up to an overall sense of dissatisfaction, sufficient to herald noticeable structural reform?
My inner Eeyore suggests it won’t.
Okay, some things will be different. People won’t fly as much; some office blocks will be rendered surplus to requirements as more people are told to work from home; public transport will be used differently; and there will a deep recession to accommodate, the impact of which will be felt most by the less well off.
But will any fundamental differences be evident? – like in how we value and pay for essential services, and address inequalities generally; in the resources made available to the health and care sectors; in how we think about sustainability; and in our imaginings of what life’s about, including what counts as meaningful work and what an economy is for, other than to make a profit and grow GDP?
For a survey of possible scenarios, each written up by a Left-wing thinker and activist, and edited into a forthcoming collection – Everything Must Change! – with accompanying video, click here
While I find these scenarios worth anticipating, I think what is likely to happen is largely a replay of the old normal.
Changes at the margins will certainly be evident, but none significantly to be seen at the core.
Things of consequence will thus mostly stay the same. Inequality will not be majorly addressed; the wealth of the 1% will be protected, even enhanced. The capitalist state will ensure that.
So, while I’d love to think that in a post-Covid Britain we will see the demise of neoliberalism, the more likely tale is that the free-market will survive largely intact, aided by centrist social democratic Labour opposition which believes in it as much the Tories.
But, what do others think?
Saturday 14 November 2020: I’ve been reflecting on how politically angry I have become.
A review in today’s Guardian puts into words how I feel.
Underlying my outlook is an “iceberg of rage and frustration” – rage at the place political moderation (politics conceived as “the art of the possible”) has taken us; frustration that the Left seems incapable of developing and mobilising opinion behind a populism of its own.
I suppose this is why I just feel totally disabled from imagining that the likes of Biden and Starmer will make much of a difference.
Each seems to me to be trapped in a world of ideas that have helped significantly to constitute the crises we face.
So, being encouraged by a few of my mates ‘strategically’ to identify the kind of ‘small wins’ and progressive ‘discursive shifts’ each might foster just leaves me cold, hence that ‘iceberg’ of emotions I have.
No, it’s worse – such an approach sounds like a re-cooked version of moderation to me – a miserable apology for protest – which I now believe is totally beside the point.
What’s required instead, I have concluded, is uncompromising opposition.
It all needs totally calling out, without qualification, and opinion mobilised in new ways, prompted by new ideas.
And to be told this would spell electoral disaster misses my point.
If the ideas were compellingly articulated and enthusiastically communicated they’d prove attractive. I am convinced of it.
Instead, what do we get from Sir K? Stress on “family, community and nation”. And from Biden – a “linking of hands” across the social divide.
For goodness sake, we surely need to be saved from such drivel. Just look where it has brought us!
Friday 13 November 2020: I’m coming to the time in the year when I conduct a summary audit of what the past twelve months have brought me and been like.
On the reading front, I’ve got through the usual high pile of books – biographies (Wordsworth, Dickens, George Herbert, Beethoven, Ernest Bevin, Tippett, Eric Hobsbawm, Lucian Freud, Susan Sontag, John Henry Newman), political studies (populism, post-capitalism, Brexit) and music memoirs (Schiff, Hough).
Shamefully, I have read few new novels, and only a little poetry.
However, I did re-read John Steinbeck’s 1930s classic, The Grapes of Wrath, which had the same huge emotional impact on me as when I first read it in the Sixth Form in 1965 – it “ripped my nerves to rags”. Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph ‘Migrant Mother’ (1936) captures its mood exactly.
What I have got around to more are devotional texts, which both before and after my Confirmation at St Wilfrid’s in September have been a rich source, helping me to develop further my faith.
Benedict’s Rule, and commentaries on it, have been to the fore here, though my favourite faith book of 2020 is the one I am currently reading – Cary Walsh’s Frequencies of God, which is a series of reflections on Advent based on the poetry of R S Thomas. It’s a gem.
My most liked chess book of the year is Barry Hymer & Peter Well’s Chess Improvement, which is less about how technically to play better, and more about how a player’s mindset influences their approach to the game.
The pandemic has inevitably played havoc with my usual frequent attendance at music concerts.
While I have sought out lots of streamed substitutes, particularly ones put out by the Wigmore Hall, these inevitably haven’t been as good as the real thing.
Nor has my excessive buying of CDs (lots of Beethoven, given his 250th anniversary), though the purchase of a new high-end amplifier to play them through has made my whole collection of recordings take on a fresh lease of life. The new sound is brighter and more detailed than the old one. Piano music particularly is shown off well.
My CD of the year is Igor Levit’s (2020) box set of the ’32’; second best is Inbal Sergev’s (2015) recording of the Bach Cello Suites.
Two serious health scares – a TIA in March and a heart attack in October – reminded me forcibly that I am, aged 73, in God’s waiting room.
On the other hand, each underscored my normally high motivation daily to live life to the full, including, very importantly, make the most of my friends, my family and my relationship with Kathryn.
I have also renewed my effort to live more healthily, beginning with a huge drive to lose weight. I had fooled myself into thinking that regularly going out for a bike ride is all I had to do to keep fit.
As for writing, I have completed two new essays – one on dying, the other on Brexit – which form the core of a new book (Memories are Made of This) I plan to complete early in 2021. To read the book’s Preface, click here
My personal politics at the end of this year are less in a state of flux as infused by gross impatience and a hard Left unwillingness to compromise.
I’m wondering if this is to do not just with the nature of the awful problems we face as a species, which seem intractable – economic and ecological – but with the fact that my energy to help sort them is speedily diminishing.
My mood is not helped by thinking that the likes of Keir Starmer and Joe Biden are unlikely to take things quickly and positively forward.
While neither is a bad person nor a weak one, each does not strike me as possessing the necessary vision to move things fundamentally to a new level. The centrist prospectus each advocates will get solidly in the way of that.
Thursday 12 November 2020: In my post yesterday I overlooked to mention one other criticism that has been made of my take on the outcome of the US presidential election, which says I “have a problem with working class voters who do not support Trump”, amounting to (I think I have got this right) a premature dismissal by me of their electoral significance.
If I have given that impression, then I wish I hadn’t, because I do think the motivations of these voters are noteworthy and need to be taken into account in evaluating what happened last week.
However, what I do have a big problem with is getting my head around the fact that huge numbers of working-class voters – White, African-American and Latino – didn’t vote for Biden. (I have a similar problem with understanding why so many working-class voters in the UK’s GE last December didn’t vote Labour, switching allegiance to the Tories, particularly in the so-called ‘red wall constituencies’.)
What’s going on here? Why didn’t Biden’s version of Centrism appeal to so many working-class counties last week? Why did they find Trump more to their liking? Am I right to conclude – as I do in an earlier post – that Trump’s working-class supporters, particularly those in precarious forms of employment or none, found his messaging on the economy more compelling than Biden’s? I think I am, you see.
And what lessons should Starmer’s Labour learn from the US election? Sir Keir says that, to succeed electorally in 2024, Labour must, like the Democrat Party, enjoy across the board popularity, failing to appreciate that currently the Democrats don’t remotely command the sort widespread support he thinks they do.
Ben Davis, writing in today’s Guardian, is on the same page as me about all of this:
“The current iteration of the Democratic coalition should be terrifying to anyone with Leftwing policy goals or anyone who wants to see Democrats win elections. Biden’s coalition was whiter and wealthier than any Democrat’s before.
Biden’s winning margins depended on suburban voters who were entirely motivated by personal animus towards Trump, who voted Republican down-ballot and will certainly be voting Republican in future elections.
After buying into the mantra that turning out working-class voters was an impossible Bernie Sanders fantasy and messaging had to be tailored to wealthy suburbanites, Democrats were entirely caught off guard by massive turnout among working-class voters of all races, who voted Trump at higher rates than any previous Republican has achieved.”
Ben concludes with this assessment: “Democrats are now staring down the barrel of a future where Republicans have a real foothold among working-class voters, including non-white voters.“
“For the Left, we now have to confront a Democratic party where a real organized segment of its base has material interests opposed to any redistributive policy.”
“This election has proven the moderate suburbanite strategy is unsustainable.”
“The only path forward for the Left is one of confrontation with the Democratic establishment and a message of economic populism aimed at working-class voters of all races.”
“This election proved that workers vote; it’s the Left’s task to capture them.”
To read all of Ben’s article click here
Aditya Chakrabortty, writing in the same edition of the Guardian, raises similar concerns to mine and Ben’s.
What follows is extracted from his op-ed, which can be read in full here
“Trumpland is more than an imagined community. It has its own society and economics and politics – and they barely resemble the rest of the US. The 477 large and densely populated counties won by Biden account for 70% of America’s economy, according to new calculations by the Brookings Institute; Trump’s base of 2,497 counties amount to just 29% (a further 1% is still to be counted). Brookings describes Trumpland as “whiter, less educated and … situated in the nation’s struggling small towns and rural areas. Prosperity there remains out of reach for many”.
“These people haven’t been left behind so much as cut loose from the US. Between 2010 and 2019, the US created nearly 16m new jobs, but only 55,000 of them were suitable for those who left school at 16. Inequality this deep is not just economic, it is social and psychological.”
“This is where Biden’s kumbaya politics, all his pleas to Americans to join hands and sing, looks laughably hollow. You can’t drain the toxicity of Trumpism without tackling the toxic economics of Trumpland.”
And for as long as Trumpland exists, it will need a Trump. Even if the 45th president is turfed out, he will carry on issuing edicts and exercising power from the studio set of any TV station that will have him.”
So, to return to my starting point: there is, I think, a problem with the working-class vote.
But it’s less to do with understanding why it holds up in some places, but more with working out why it doesn’t in others, particularly where you might reasonably expect it to.
Does the Democrat’s failure to win over the hearts and minds of so many working-class voters point up weaknesses in its messaging, which Labour in the UK, if it’s not careful, might repeat to their cost in 2024?
Wednesday 11 November 2020: Because I am trying hard to keep my daily posts short and to the point, it’s important they are understood for what they are and what they are not.
They are brief provocations; they are not developed analyses, though facts, figures and histories do lie behind them. (This post, having written that, be forewarned, is not a short one!)
Earlier posts, in which I expressed reservations about the implications of Biden’s victory, have elicited accusations that I am a sore winner, even a bit of an ‘Eeyore’.
Others have gone further, accusing me of failing “strategically” to see the bigger picture; while a few have said my evaluation that a Biden presidency will not add up to much is “distorted”, chiefly because it is overly “one dimensional”, focusing too much on matters to do with domestic political economy at the expense of foreign affairs, which are likely, they tell me, to be majorly redialed with Trump gone. I have also been castigated for underplaying the positive cultural consequences of Trump’s defeat, particularly for race relations.
I am happy to give ground on some of this, especially on the foreign affairs aspect, where it’s possible Biden will do much to reboot the rules-based international order and foster a return to consensus-building on such issues as the climate crisis; but not so much as to cause me to abandon my first-blush negative assessment about what he will achieve at home.
Indeed, reading and finding agreeable George Monbiot’s op-ed in today’s Guardian has renewed my confidence in my original position. Have you seen it? If you haven’t and want to, click here
I go along with George’s view that there is no unity to be found with the billionaire oligarchs who presently bankroll the Democrat Party; that Obama’s attempt, with Biden’s help, to reconcile irreconcilable forces between 2008 and 2016 gave Trump his opening; that their economics in that period eroded workers’ rights and environmental standards, simultaneously widening inequality, further concentrating wealth in the hands of the 1%.
I haven’t the space to demonstrate that George is right about all of this, but the relevant data are compelling I find.
Which is why I didn’t party in the street celebrating Biden’s win, for I did not perceive in it signs that his presidency will alter things that much domestically, particularly where the economy is concerned. To put it bluntly: I think the poor under Biden will get poorer, and the rich richer.
And Biden agrees with me! Last year, as George reminds us, he was asked by some of his party’s richest donors how any plans he might have as president to tackle inequality might impact on them. They were concerned about potential threats to their wealth. Joe reassured them, saying they weren’t to worry as “no one’s standard of living will change; nothing would fundamentally change”. That sounds to me like one heck of a large defeat before Biden’s even got started.
Also, underpinning those party-goers’ pleasure in Biden winning the presidency I fear is political naivety about Trump’s defeat – specifically, a misunderstanding about why his appeal this time might not have been sufficient for him to win, but was more than enough to increase his popularity.
A huge number of voters, don’t they know, looked at Trump and did not see the wicked man they did.
Rather, they saw a man whose incoherence was interpreted as a mark of unpractised honesty; whose ignorance was a symbol of accessibility; and whose vulgarity was a sign of a willingness to shake things up and to take on the country’s leadership class.
That, I predict, won’t fundamentally alter with Biden in the WH, unless he articulates a narrative of reform, coupled with significant measures for change, which renders Trumpism unattractive.
My critics need then to tell me what they think that narrative should look like, including what “small wins” they realistically anticipate occurring over the next four years. Do they think Biden’s proposed ‘stimulus package’ will seriously benefit the less well-off, assuming Senate approves it, which is unlikely? Will his plans to increase unemployment insurance get past the same barrier; or will, as I think is more likely, the Republicans block it as well?
Someone who has spelt out an alternative narrative from a Marxist point of view is Charles McKelvey. Writing on the CounterPoint website he says this: “It comes down to this: if we don’t understand Trump to be a symptom, we will be missing the lethal disease we are collectively afflicted with. If we don’t understand that the current political, social and economic order is pathological, we will, by falling in behind Biden’s prospectus, merely perpetuate its cruelty by actively or tacitly giving it a veneer of credibility. . . . Progressives need a discourse that explains and invites. And they need a political theory and practice that challenges the political establishment and the corporate elite. The Left has the duty to propose an alternative to the Trump project, addressing the concerns and anxieties of the people that fed the rise of the Trump project. The Left must avoid the temptation of merely dismissing Trump supporters for their supposed racism. The nation can move beyond Trump only by taking seriously the concerns of Trump’s followers, and leading them in an alternative, better direction.”
If you want to read the detail of Charles’ analysis, click here
George Monbiot is less optimistic than Charles, thinking we may have “to recognize the possibility that US politics, given how beholden it is to the power of money, might not be fixable.”
Sadly, I am coming around to that conclusion, suggesting I am more than a “bit of an Eeyore” – I am rather a complete one.
Tuesday 10 November 2020: I wonder if other people are as intrigued as I am by a story doing the rounds which says that conservative elements within the Democrat Party are blaming the likes of AOC & Bernie Saunders for the party’s weak showing in the Upper and Lower House elections.
These elements are saying that their brand of ‘socialism’ put voters off. AOC is saying the exact opposite.
Biden of course could sidetrack such sentiments by giving each of them, and other progressives, like Elizabeth Warren, jobs in his administration.
Is that too much to hope for? Probably, I’m thinking, as it would be out of political character for a politician whose career is noted for its ‘ordinariness’. As a veteran Biden hand once remarked, “Joe disappoints everyone. He’s an equal opportunities disappointer”.
Monday 9 November 2020: Keir Starmer, writing in the Guardian today (click here), says Labour, to succeed electorally, must appeal to voters across the social divide.
But citing Biden’s Democrats as an example of how successfully to do this is surely way off target.
Biden’s appeal was disproportionately felt by relatively well-off, white-collared, well-educated, comfortably-housed suburbanites.
If Sir Keir goes down that route in 2024, he’ll lose badly, won’t he?
Labour surely needs to reconnect with the marginalised and economically left behind, beginning with northern Leavers, while simultaneously persuading the ‘Anywhere’ class that it won’t lose out. But that’s not feasible, is it?
For it’s not possible to be all things to everyone without looking and sounding vacuous, suggesting that Labour should concentrate on just being ‘Labour’, seeking to persuade a majority that its distinctive vision – about inclusivity, equality and fairness- is better than anyone else’s.
Sunday 8 November 2020: Because I need today (which is the Third Sunday Before Advent) to concentrate on thinking about church-related things, in particular reading and studying the relevant Gospel (Matthew 25, 1-13), further comment on the US presidential election must be put on hold.
However, I’d like still to draw attention to an op-ed published in the Guardian yesterday in which Thomas Frank offers historically-informed insight into why the Democrats need to think hard about how best to prevent a recurrence of Trumpism in 2024, simultaneously constraining its influence in the intervening years.
If you missed Frank’s piece, you can read it here
The core of Frank’s argument is an assessment of how the Democrat’s rightward – Third Way – shift over the past four decades paved a path for Trump’s rise; and that if the latter is not to retain significant traction in the public consciousness, the Democrat Party must convincingly reconnect with the aspirations of ‘ordinary’ working class people whose interests it has neglected, leaving the Republicans to fill the void. (It occurs to me that there may be implications here for how the British Labour Party rebrands itself between now and the next General Election.)
I am impressed by Frank’s analysis, not least because it indicates a broad direction of travel for ‘healing America’s divisions’ which he sees as being related to making the Democrat Party more socially inclusive, appealing as much to non-graduate blue collar workers as highly educated white-collar ones .
It also articulates with Naomi Klein’s scepticism about the significance of Biden’s narrow victory, which she doesn’t interpret in comprehensively positive terms, arguing that he and his party need to embrace more Leftist views to consolidate their success. Her version of events can be read here
This quote from Klein’s piece gives a flavour of what to expect if you decide to read it:
“This should have been a sweep. It should have been the sweep that we were promised. And the fact is, the Democratic leadership bungled it up on every single front. It wasn’t just a mistake. They did not want to offer people what they needed, They are much more interested in appeasing the donor class than they are in meeting the needs of their constituents, who need them now more than ever.”
Friday 6 November 2020: Before I get properly started on making further comment on the US Presidential election, I want to say how impressed I am by the way in which the votes cast in it are being counted.
Okay, the process is proving frustratingly slow; and the systems seem woefully old fashioned; but it all appears measured, objective and ultimately trustworthy, which is a lot more than can be said for many of the statements put about by politicians and activists, and not just on the Republican side.
The election campaign has been characterised by mis-information, attack ads, incoherent public protests and biased TV news reporting.
The count meanwhile has been characterised by a determination to get things right.
I’d like to think I can achieve as much in what I now write, which is a further think-piece about the state of America’s politics.
The US presidential election just concluding has confirmed my view that American political culture is dominated by reactionary sentiment, extending across the Democrat-Republican divide.
Underpinning this view of mine is another one: that because both the Democrat and Republican parties are such staunch defenders of the economic status quo, acting as enthusiastic cheerleaders for corporate, hyper-capitalization, it is near impossible for America realistically to consider, least of all implement, economic models that don’t do the same.
In Britain, the opposite prevails, albeit within limits. Indeed, socialists enjoy a degree of respect in the UK; in the US, they are vilified as ‘un-American’. In the past they have been threatened with isolation, even criminalisation.
Those who didn’t vote for Trump earlier this week were not then supporting an alternative to the kind of economics he most admires, entirely because Biden’s version of political economy is not significantly different from his.
What caused so many voters to side with Biden had possibly more to do with character and style, leavened by a feeling that he would manage the pandemic better than Trump.
I don’t get the impression that economic vision played much of a part in their decision. But I may be wrong about that. Am I then missing something?
By contrast, the chief reason why so many people – particularly the less well-off, including many Blacks and Latinos – voted for Trump was because, rightly or wrongly, they believed in his economic messaging. (I have also got into my head the idea that many Latinos in Florida voted Republican because of their visceral fears of Cuban and Venezuelan-style socialism which Trump maliciously associated with Biden’s prospectus. Is that plausible?)
I suspect that Trump’s economic narrative broke through more to the less well off because he made promises about increasing job opportunities, both in the manufacturing sector and in the countryside, that spoke directly to their poor economic life-chances. Am I right?
While these promises were empty ones, they weren’t perceived as such by the urban and rural less well off, many of whom judged badly the capacity of a Biden presidency to deliver effectively anything different. And who can blame them, given Obama’s poor record in bridging the rich-poor divide. True, Biden won back from Trump several ‘working class’ Mid-West states; but it was a very close-run thing in each of them.
This presidential election for America’s working classes was thus less about ‘culture’ – though this was undoubtedly a factor – and far more about livelihood, including, especially for the most marginalised, a desire to feel more included and less left behind. (There are parallels here I think with those who voted Leave in the UK’s referendum on continuing membership of the EU.)
It’s true that many Americans, as it has been put to me, “hate the very air that Trump breaths”. But almost as many don’t, including a significant minority (43%) of female voters, a fact that well-educated liberal suburbanites often can’t get their heads around because their cosmopolitan mindsets and better-off life trajectories won’t allow them to.
But the huge paradox here is that these two sets of voters are not radically that far apart, to the extent that each occupies merely a different position on the same Right-Centre continuum.
Thus, while I agree anti-Trump sentiment in the US “goes deep and wide”, it does not add up to a challenge to the economic status quo, which is why I regard US politics as fundamentally a struggle over different versions of economic conservatism.
The socialist congresswoman AOC may have over 2 million followers on social media, but less than a quarter of Americans, according to a recent poll, have a favourable opinion of her economics and her views generally.
Such indicators mean I don’t buy straightforwardly into the ‘America is Divided’ narrative.
Its neoliberal economic substructure, to defer to Marx, seems remarkably consolidated to me, which is why the socialism of an AOC cuts little or no ice beyond her immediate circle of supporters.
What really divides America is the horrendous gap between its haves and have nots, which its economic substructure continuously reproduces.
So, much of the argument about America’s ‘culture wars’, I am beginning to conclude, is a diversion that aids and abets a conservatism which does not want seriously to address the country’s social and economic inequalities. The latter is the huge elephant in America’s room.
Against all odds and reason – despite the impeachment, the pandemic and the associated economic depression – Trump managed to persuade nearly half of those who voted to vote for him.
The anti-Trump ‘blue wave’ of the 2018 midterms has thus been revealed, not so much as the crest of a deep and progressive sea change, but as the usual back-and-forth of the same old conservative political tide.
For this reason, I won’t be holding my breath that Biden will make that much difference domestically once he takes office in January. Where foreign policy is concerned, I am more positive.
For sure, Biden accumulated more votes than any other previous incoming President; but Trump’s reinforced popularity, which amazingly increased in size since 2016, resulted in him garnering more votes in this election than Obama ever did in each of the two he won. That can’t be discounted as an aberration.
To imagine Biden will make a huge difference at home – specifically, help to heal an economically divided America by levelling up incomes and wealth – is, I believe, to underplay the ideological conservatism of both the party he is beholden to, including its billionaire donors, and the country he leads. It also ignores Biden’s record, which is not peppered with efforts to reign in the privileges of the 1%.
The poor, I predict, will therefore just get poorer while he is president, as they would, of course, if Trump had been re-elected.
America’s style of doing capitalist economics, which both Biden and Trump champion, and which implicitly their supporters endorse as well, is not conducive to making its civil society a fairer one.
Sadly, as things currently stand, AOC and her kind are fighting, largely on their own, an almost losing battle.
Thursday 5 November 2020: Although it’s still not possible confidently to say who has won the US presidential election, it’s increasingly looking like it will be Joe Biden.
My early nervousness about the outcome, thinking that too many pundits were too easily exaggerating Biden’s lead in the polls, now seems justified.
The pollsters, as in 2016, have then some big questions to answer, including the one that suggests they didn’t survey a sufficient number of Trump’s core vote, who maybe refused to cooperate with their data collecting efforts. What do other people think?
Regardless of the final outcome, there is surely no disputing the fact that Trumpism lives on. Biden’s win, assuming it is one, is a victory, but not a triumphant one.
Martin Kettle’s op-ed about the election in the Guardian today (click here) includes a number of assertions which make a lot of sense to me, particularly this one: “the white working class voters in the rust belt and upper-midwest states who delivered victory to Trump in 2016 have not changed their minds”; “[like last time] they felt ignored, their jobs and communities had gone, they thought others – including foreigners – were getting too good a deal, and they wanted someone to speak for them. And the Democrats seemed to have stopped doing that”.
Kettle also says this: “Trump’s much stronger than predicted showing . . . tells us that the determinative experience in this election was not Covid-19 or the death of George Floyd. It was the economy and the enduring trauma of the 2008 financial crash and its inequalities.”
This conclusion of Kettle’s is reflected in a just-published survey showing that the economy was the biggest issue on electors’ minds when they voted.
For sure, there is a ‘culture war’ underway in America, but it’s less than clear to me that this election has been a proxy for it, as some of my mates and many pundits keep telling me.
What was were deep concerns, expressed by millions of people on low incomes or with no job to speak of, about their lack of economic agency – do I have a job?; does it have any prospects?; will I keep it?
Trump’s substantial appeal was not then much to do with identity politics, though this did feature, but only as background.
What mattered far more were the promises Trump made to working-class voters – both in the cities and in the countryside – whose jobs, lives and communities have been devastated by the decline of manufacturing and huge downturns in the US’s rural economy.
Because this will continue, Trumpism will retain significant ideological traction.
One friend tells me that Biden will have nonetheless a serious mandate based on the huge size of his popular vote, forgetting that Trump’s share of it is not that far behind. I may be wrong, but I think I have read somewhere that more people voted this time for Trump than they ever did for Barack Obama.
To be certain, Biden will sound and act more responsibly on the world stage; but he won’t, I predict, make much of an impact on the domestic one.
It doesn’t help that Biden is an astonishingly ordinary politician, without a serious record of public achievement. Trump has no civic record to speak of either; but he is not ordinary.
And, let’s face it, Biden was (to quote Fintan O’Toole in today’s Irish Times) “a relatively weak candidate in this election, an old-fashioned Irish pol who harked back to an era of centrist consensus that has long gone.” His grandfatherly appeal to decency and empathy accordingly failed to challenge sufficiently the passionate intensity of Trump and his fans.
Friday 30 October 2020: I am struggling to get my head round the fallout from the publication yesterday of the EHRC’s report of its investigation into the extent of antisemitism in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
One thing is clear: the report is damning, finding the LP responsible for unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination, with evidence of interference from its then leadership team in the complaints process.The Party, under Keir Starmer’s leadership, has rightly accepted the report’s findings, resolving fully to put in place its recommendations.
Corbyn is less unequivocal, challenging the perception that the Party is riven by anti-Jewish sentiment, stating that “the scale of the problem [has been] dramatically overstated for political reasons by [his] opponents inside and outside the party, as well as by much of the media”.
For saying as much, Corbyn’s membership of the Party has been suspended, pending an investigation. Unsurprisingly, he has said he will stand his ground and vigorously contest the decision temporarily to revoke his membership.
But how justified is Corbyn’s suspension? His views that query the prevalence and extent of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Party aren’t particular to him, originating also from academic sources that aren’t one bit anti-Semitic, like for example the (click) Glasgow Media Group
Are these sources “part of the problem” (Starmer); “in denial” (Rayner), possessing a “blind spot” (Hodge)? Surely not.
What I am sure of is that the dramatic move against Corbyn is a gift to the Tories. For an example of how some of its supporters are making cynical use of it, click here
At a time when Labour should be focused on Team Johnson’s incompetent handling of the coronavirus and Brexit, it now finds itself embroiled in a major internal row. You couldn’t make this up.
Corbyn however should have seen this coming, making his determination to say what he did profoundly ill-judged from a political point of view, quite apart from any other.
Also, those on the Left of the Party, of which I am one, need to be doubly careful how they conduct themselves in the days ahead. For attempts to foster support for Corbyn that use the language of witch-hunts will rightly appear shrill and unintelligent. Momentum saying it would “not take attacks on the Left lying down” is the politics of the nursery as far as I am concerned.
For sure, there is a legitimate struggle within the Party over ideas. There has been for all of the many years – over 50 – that I have been a member of it.
For a short while, Labour, under Corbyn, took an explicit Leftward, quasi-socialist, turn; under Starmer, it is reverting more to type, reinventing itself as a social democratic, pro-capitalist party, despite the fact that its Rules say it’s a ‘socialist’ one.
Briefly, the Left was dominant; now it isn’t. I accept that, entirely because it’s what a majority of the membership seem to want.
Corbyn and his allies should as well, which means they must stop trying openly to fight internal battles that currently can’t be won.
It’s crucial for both sides of the current dispute to bury all hatchets, as a precondition for enabling the Party to develop a compelling post-Covid narrative – one suited to protecting the interests of society’s less well-off – which is sufficient to take power in 2024.
On the other hand, if such a narrative is not forthcoming – and there are few obvious signs currently that one is under development – then it may be necessary for Lefties like me to relocate.
In that connection, I often muse that, if I could be a member simultaneously of two parties, I’d subscribe to the Greens as well as to Labour.
But Labour’s Rules don’t allow that, of course. What they don’t prohibit however is learning from other movements whose prospectuses are more progressive than its own.
Thursday 29 October 2020: Although I am still daring to think optimistically that Biden will easily defeat Trump next week, a few sneaking doubts still linger in my imagination about the outcome.
What if the polls are wrong? What does all that pre-voting really add up to? What if there is a huge ‘Trump Rush’ on election day?
Writing in the NS, Peter Wilby rehearses concerns about how some of the ‘swing states’ – like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida and Ohio – will finally lean. To read his analysis, click here
Lisa Lerer, Political Columnist of the NYT, is equally questioning. Read her piece here
A collection of Letters to the NYT published yesterday, on the other hand, mostly mirror my original optimism, though a few cast doubt on it. Read these letters here
Friday 23 October 2020: charges of degeneracy and abusive conduct have been flying around the House of Commons this week. On Wednesday, No.10 was criticised by one member of Labour’s front bench for its “immoral plan” to deport foreign rough sleepers; later that same day, Labour’s motion to extend free school meals over the holidays to stop children going hungry was easily voted down against the backdrop of howls of disapproving protest from the opposition benches; then, on Thursday, Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, was forced to apologise for calling a Tory MP “scum” during a debate over coronavirus restrictions, for which she was rebuked by the Deputy Speaker – “We will not have remarks like that under any circumstances,” said Dame Eleanor.
While I am not persuaded that the government’s decisions about either foreign rough sleepers or free school meals had much to do with morality, thinking rather each was the product of an attitude about how best to use public resources, it is clear to me there was in each case a competing ideological issue at stake about what constitutes fairness, modishly redefined these days as “levelling up”.
Team Starmer and Team Johnson simply don’t agree on what’s the best way forward, each having very different visions about how better to make society more equitable – the former thinking this can be achieved via increased state involvement, the latter through maximising free market activity and ‘trickle down’ redistribution.
I know where I stand on the matter, which is not on a higher moral plane, but instead on a superior political-economical one that queries the role ‘growth’ plays in decreasing income and wealth inequalities.
The evidence shows clearly growth never has or can have the benefits its advocates assume. It always makes the rich a lot richer and the poor relatively poorer.
As for Angela Rayner’s outburst, it’s clear to me she should not have used the ‘scum’ word. Such abuse never wins arguments.
On the other hand, Dame Eleanor needs surely to sound a little less pompous, for she must know that calling out someone as scum in the Commons is par for the course in a debating chamber where misogynist comment and other forms of verbal nastiness is a way of life. For sure, Angela shouldn’t have lost her temper; but who can blame her for being so annoyed, given the context?
It’s possible of course to deploy scorn with huge ironic effect, as the Telegraph’s Hugo Gurdon once did: “Mr Blair is a man of hidden shallows”; and Charles Kennedy about his predecessor as LibDem leader, Paddy Ashdown: “If you’re calling him, please leave a message after the high moral tone”; and John Major about the garrulous Neil Kinnock: “His speeches go on for so long because he has nothing to say, so he has no way of knowing when he’s finished saying it”; and Norman St John-Stevas on Margaret Thatcher: “The Immaculate Misconception”.
And here, via YouTube, is the major part of a speech recently given on the US presidential campaign trail by former President, Barack Obama, which is brilliantly abusive about his successor, Donald Trump. As you would expect, Obama is too polite to call Trump scum; but he pulls few punches nonetheless:
Thursday 22 October 2020: the good news today is the report that over 50 million voters in the US have pre-voted – that’s just over a third of all of those who voted in 2016.
Why is this ‘good news’? It’s ‘good’ because it’s estimated that well over 60% of these pre-voters have voted Democrat, suggesting a comfortable victory for Biden in two weeks time, even with a possible ‘red rush’ on polling day itself. But am I getting ahead of myself?
The bad news coming out of Ireland is that its Covid ‘test & trace’ system is finding it hard to keep up with the country’s dangerous rise in new infections, making its new lockdown measures difficult effectively to implement.
Meanwhile, in the UK, how serious should we take the warning of a government scientific adviser that tens of thousands of deaths are now “inevitable” in a second wave of covid infections? Is the NHS shortly to be under severe strain? I fear that it will be. I think I know who is to blame for that, and it isn’t either Andy Burham or Angela Rayner.
My son rightly will celebrate his birthday today. As he does so he might reflect on the fact that, according to James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh (1625-56), God created the world in 4004 BC at 6 pm precisely on the 22 October. Now, if he believes that, he’ll believe anything!
Tuesday 20 October 2020: a story in yesterday’s Guardian about Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – a favourite play of mine – is exercising my thoughts. Click here
The Beckett Estate rigidly prohibits public performances of the play in which female actors play any of its parts.
While I respect totally the Estate’s desire to protect Beckett’s exactness, I just do not understand why it thinks the message of Godot can only be communicated by a cast of men. This makes no artistic sense to me.
A piece published in the Daily Telegraph agrees. To read it click here
Monday 19 October 2020: Two comment pieces in today’s Guardian have caught my eye. The first by John Harris points up, as I did a couple of days ago, the class aspect of the government’s ‘war on Covid’ – “This crisis has broadly separated us into the exposed poor and the shielded rich”. Click here
The other piece by Nesrine Malik is a forthright critique of the kind of patriotism presently in vogue in political discourse, and which I have frequently been urged by my political opponents to adopt, always against my will: “What passes for patriotism for too long in this country is a form of chauvinism – an attitude that defines itself by who it excludes rather than by who it brings together. . . . Sometimes loving your country involves kicking up a fuss.” Click here
I also thought Dom Flint’s letter made a lot of good sense. Click here
Well, I was wrong about Ireland’s decision about how best to suppress the spread of Covid-19 infections – for it has gone for Level 5 restrictions, which will entail a 6-week long nation-wide lockdown, including: only essential retail to open; no visitors in homes/ gardens; no organised indoor gathering; no matches, except for elite sport; schools to remain open; pubs & restaurants: take-away/ 15 max outdoors; stay within county except for work/education/other essential purposes.
I also didn’t see coming the huge size of Jacinda Ardern’s win for Labour in NZ’s general election. For sure, I anticipated Labour being the biggest party; but I did not think it would secure an overall majority. Ardern’s deft handling of the Covid-19 outbreak clearly earned her the trust of New Zealanders. Boris Johnson beware.
In her first term as head of a coalition government, Ardern, however, struggled to enact the transformational change she promised voters in 2017. Her socially-conservative, coalition partner, NZ First, put paid to that. A pledge to build 100,000 affordable houses, for example, came badly unstuck; similarly, her promise radically to reduce child poverty remains that – a promise, mostly unfulfilled.
Freed from the requirement to make stifling agreements with opposition parties, Ardern now has a mandate to do what Labour wants on her terms, though it will be interesting to see if she invites the Greens (10 MPs, 7.6 of popular vote) into her new government, particularly as they are in favour of a new wealth tax which Labour is very lukewarm about.
Britain’s Labour Party is surely looking on with interest, because it winning a post-Covid general election in 2024 will be one thing, successfully dealing subsequently with the disease’s economic aftermath quite another.
Voters in NZ have thanked Ardern for keeping them safe; but will they be as generous next time round if there aren’t obvious signs that her government has dealt well with repairing NZ’s damaged fortunes?
Team Starmer will surely be worried on her behalf, anxious to have in place itself a compelling plan to deal with ours long before voters go to the polls in 4 years time.
The signs about all of that at the moment are not good, for Sir Keir is yet to say anything of consequence, least of all original, about economic policy. His “jobs, jobs, jobs” is a slogan not a programme.
Saturday 17 October 2020: It’s six weeks since my heart attack, from which I am making a good recovery. Several friends have expressed surprise that an exercise-conscious, teetotal, non-smoking person like myself should have had one.
They have a point, but there is a more than likely genetic influence which their quizical evaluations ignore. For on the male side of my Irish ancestry there is a succession of people who have died of heart disease, including my father.
I’ve also always had problems – also probably genetically sourced – in keeping my cholesterol level down, despite strictly following relevant diets. Taking a statin each day has therefore become a way of life!
The first 3 weeks after getting home from hospital were challenging, as my body awkwardly adjusted to the stent procedure which put right two arterial blockages, causing me regular disabling spikes of chest pain, some of which forced me to lie down for extended periods.
But all of that is now behind me, apart from some minor displaced aching in my upper back. I rarely now take a pain killer. And I have resumed exercise, including going for local walks, the longest of which takes me into nearby Wetherby and back, a journey of about 4 miles.
I haven’t however been out on the bike. The plan is to launch myself into that in 3 week’s time – slowly and gradually, beginning with short and easy sessions on the turbo. Ideally, I’d like to be out ‘on the road’ by Christmas.
Otherwise, apart from avoiding lifting anything heavy, I am doing most other stuff: car driving, vacuuming (!), clearing up generally, changing sheets, reading, writing, going to church and listening a lot to classical music CDs on my stereo when I’m not tuned into Radio 3.
I am also eating differently, having adopted a very heart- healthy diet, all organised by Kathryn, which is causing me to lose weight – 11 pounds so far – which has considerably improved my BMI. Her role overall in helping along my recovery can’t be over-estimated. She has been the most caring of people, at much personal cost to herself. I am indebted totally to her, as I am to the NHS, whose staff in Leeds GI’s cardiac unit were extremely effective in speedily treating me after admission. The team work on show during the keyhole procedure was very impressive.
Is it premature of me to imagine that Biden will easily beat Trump in 18 days time? With nearly 20 million votes already cast, and with polling data indicating that Biden’s lead nationally has settled into double digits (15 points in one poll), including being ahead in many of the swing states, all the signs are pointing towards a humiliating defeat for the incoming President. That would be the best of results. not least as it would constrain Team Trump from initiating legal action in the event of a very narrow outcome.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, this weekend, the coalition government is divided among itself about what step immediately should be taken to curb rising Covid-19 infections – currently, 172 per 100,000, which is half the rate in Leeds, where there are strong intimations of a severe lockdown being introduced sometime soon.
Ireland adopting a 6 week-long Level 5 nation-wide lockdown is a possibility. This would require people who can to work from home, not to travel to other counties and to stop visits to other households. Bars, cafes and restaurants would be told not to open; and all organised indoor and outdoor events would be proscribed.
I predict the government will not go down this route, fearing the economic effects which some coalition ministers consider will make it very hard for Ireland to remediate successfully its growing deficit, both next year and beyond, causing widespread austerity, including a radical lowering of people’s living standards. Ireland’s dilemma is thus similar to ours.
Friday 16 October 2020: I have decided that one way of interpreting the standoff between Team Johnson in London and Team Burham in Greater Manchester is to view it as a form of class war.
For without additional financial compensation, moving Manchester into tier 3 will surely have terrible negative effects on its economy, causing many workers, already on poor wages, to suffer even more following the temporary closure or permanent removal of the hospitality businesses which employ them.
The city’s furloughed workers, many of whom earn little more than above the minimum wage, will receive just two-thirds of their previous earnings. Those who get laid off will be left dependent on Universal Credit, which guarantees the median single worker without children only 30% of their former income (a level that will fall to 23% if planned cuts proceed).
Locking down Manchester will make its poor poorer. Its Mayor is then right to stand up for them; and to wage class war on a central government that is trying to gaslight communities into accepting that rising unemployment and poverty alleviation is not its responsibility.