Friday, 29 October 2010

Telle est la vie des hommes: the benefits of gloom and doom

I understand that workers at the twelve oil refineries on strike in France have now gone back to work. It is as I predicted a week ago. I cannot claim any credit, however. The fact is that since then the Senate voted in favour of the pension reforms that the strikers were taking action about. And, as the French says, c'est pas la peine de floguer un cheval mort' ... Okay, I made that up, but you know what I mean.

Still, their defeat, and the gloomy look that seems to accompany the Hexagon these days, only brings me back to my theme of a couple of weeks ago: one can only be disappointed by a lack of progress if you have some kind of mystical expectation or hope for its realisation. Gloom is the obverse side of the feeling that we DO indeed have here an abiding city. That at least was what Robert Hugh Benson thought, and he had a lot to be gloomy about!

Still, I want to make a distinction concerning gloom that I think is necessary here on the threshold of November. Whilst gloom can be a thoroughly worldly emotion, it can also be a thoroughly Christian mood. I'm not talking about the capacity for contrition or the necessity to practice it. I'm talking about the association of Christian feeling and compassion. One cannot be compassionate without sorrow. And that is the kind of sorrow which is neither directed simply towards God or neighbour (as is contrition) because of our failings, nor towards ourselves (as in self pity). It is rather something which helps create our solidarity with suffering humanity, and, if we are given this gift, with the suffering God-Man.

This thought goes back to a moment in class with my students this week. At the beginning of the class we had pretty much established that they had no interest at all in French politics or in what had been happening in France. Now remember these are people who have chosen to read French or take a French course during their degree. Subsequently the subject of coercion came up and whether torture could be used on prisoners. 'Right now,' I said, 'as we are sat discussing this issue, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of shivering prisoners across the globe, under one regime or another, just sat in dark cells waiting for their next beating. Is that right? Can the authorities exercise coercion in that way?'

To my distress, what I saw in my students was not the reaction I had hoped for but rather a kind of buffered indifference. Now indifference to physical suffering might seem a lot more serous than indifference to the political passions of others but they have this in common: they both denote an insensibility (which is insensitivity multiplied by wilful ignorance) to the experience which constitutes another person's concerns. Am I over egging this pudding? I don't think so. I happen to think that our culture's capacity to articulate the vicarious and to leave us meanwhile at a safe remove from danger is one of its most poisonous legacies.

Maybe this is just youthful shallowness. Maybe I'm being idealistic. But I only wonder what forces are at work these days that block the development of compassion. Maybe the students are all compassioned-out because of the charity culture. Maybe they just don't care any more after having all done A levels in Hitler Studies (because the sure don't know anything else about history).

In any case, I have decided I shall make it my business to make them all sad in November! It will be good for their souls and it will make me feel that solidarity has some chance in our cold, cold world. 'Telle est la vie des hommes. Quelques joies suivies d'innombrables douleurs,' wrote Marcel Pagnol. 'Mais il n'est pas nécessaire de le dire aux enfants,' he concluded. I rather think I'm coming to the opposite view entirely.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Wine, women and song

My forthcoming marriage necessitates some ritual which I understand is known as a stag night. I'm not sure about this. Only yesterday we learnt in the news that being a stag is not at all what it's cracked up to be. I have no idea of what is actually going to happen. Perhaps it is better like this.

But lo, this morning, in the post comes a letter from my father who has found in the family archives the text of some ancient drinking song which is - and I quote - 'for your batchelor night [...] Or perhaps you would like to sing it to [your fiancée].'

I fear my fiancée's taste in music might preclude the latter possibility. But reading through the text for the first time after many years, I am sure that it might find a place at the two - yes, two, count 'em, two - stag gatherings prior to my nuptials.

I have no control incidentally over these two gatherings which are being organised in the greatest secrecy, so for those of you who will not be attending, I offer you the song now on this blog. The words should be sung to the tune of Men of Harlech.

The public vocation of this blog induces me to remind readers of the damage heavy drinking can to to their physical health and the even greater damage total abstinence can do to their moral health. That said, no scientist ever yet proved that singing about drinking is bad for you!

The Drinking Song

What's the use of drink tea,
Indulging in sobriety,
Or tea-total perversity,
It's healthier to booze.

What's the use of milk and water,
These are things that never oughta,
Be allowed in any quarter,
Come on, lose your blues!

Mix yourself a shandy,
Drown yourself in brandy,
Sherry sweet or whisky neat,
Or any other liquor that is handy!
There's no blinkin' use in drinkin',
Anything that doesn't leave you stinkin'!
There's no happiness like sinkin',
Blotto to the floor.

Aberration metabolic,
Ceilings that are hyperbolic,
These are for the alcoholic,
Lying on the floor.

Vodka for the arty,
Gin to make you hearty,
Lemonade was only made,
For drinking when your mother's at the party!
Steer well clear of homemade beer,
And anything which isn't labled clear,
There is nothing else to fear,
It's bottoms up, me boys!

Working, living, praying

GOR has published a series of wonderful comments under my post One last thing from Friday, and I refer you thereto. Now, far be it from me to disagree with the venerable GOR who is a faithful, old soul and regular visitor to this blog. Still, I'm not sure he isn't being a little too hard on the Europeans and a little too easy on the Americans.

But that is in a way beside the point. Something tells me the ancient Romans probably sloped off in the afternoon for a snooze, and it didn't stop them from building an empire which, for its time, was something of a minor success. I wouldn't be surprised if the Greeks on the other hand were at their desks by 7am and gave way to breakfast meetings with Spartans and Trojans alike. Nevertheless, sic transit gloria mundi. The fall of empire and the defeat of efficiency are as certain as the call of nature. The second law of thermodynamics has its effect even on culture. While it looks like the French are, technically speaking, lazy buggers, and Americans practically invented the Rodent Olympics - or the rat race ;-) - we still find Prozac is consummed in massive quantities in France and that the Americans gave us the La-Z-Boy. Entropy, moral and physical, is everywhere.

Perhaps the difference lies ultimately in contrary attitudes of soul, and in that respect it might be that neither the French (the Europeans) or the Americans have got it right. My starting is from Pieper: leisure is the basis of culture. That doesn't give the victory to the Europeans, although it does suggest the European vice of vacationing is more like the virtue of leisure than the opposite (just as prudery is more like purity than its opposing vice of laciviousness). Leisure is the basis of culture because we are not machines; our encounter with higher things takes time. It is in the nature of culture to require contemplative space of one kind or another. When Socrates declared that the unexamined life is not worth living, he didn't mean that statistics, pie charts and spread sheets were what we needed (or their ancient equivalent the abacus!).

I suppose this is what underpins the European conviction that the American way is brutalising: brutalising in the sense of rendering us into brutes. But then one could say that what American industriousness highlights is the value of responsibility. Don't get me wrong, I invariably defend American culture against European prejudice. And here is one of the reasons why: the European vacationing culture is in some ways connected to their assumptions about the providential State. Whilst looking like the old European instinct for cultural leisure, it can sometimes take on the dynamic of a child who refuses to be weaned. If the American way brutalises, the European way infantilises. Again, entropy, moral and physical, are lurking in the wings.

We have no control over these things now. Most of us now live in systems which are omnipresent and unavoidable. All I suppose we can do is to steal back from the blackhole of entropy the humanity which brutalising forces drain from us and the responsibility which infantilisation drains from us. Here we are grateful for the private spaces where we can hide away and pray to the Father. And, as John Senior says somewhere, that is our 'agenda' (things to be done): life won't be balanced, whether at work or on vacation, until we pay our tithe of time to God.

Friday, 22 October 2010

One last thing

On my post A funny thing in France, GOR has commented on the work-ethic of the Americans and the work-shy Europeans. The gauntlet is thrown down and I must take it up.

And I will, after I return from my weekend away...

More on Sunday evening ;-)

Various things for the weekend

On his blog Catholic Schoolmaster David Forster has posted a rigorous refutation of an article published in last week's Tablet on Catholic school admissions in Westminster. Apparently, some Catholic schools are so oversubscribed that they wish to apply extra Catholicity tests to their applicants, a move deprecated by the diocese whose position - as I have been able to glean it - is that after the basic Catholicity test is passed (baptism seems to suffice) places must go to those who live nearest to the school. I especially enjoyed this section:

Dispersing Social and Cultural Capital. The idea that, by dispersing the pupils who at the moment are in the "best" schools among the others, that you will somehow end up with greater equity and better standards for all, is so threadbare that I'm surprised it is still being circulated. A particular school builds up standards and traditions over a long period, through the hard work of committed staff and pupils. Reorganizing that school does not result in this human capital being spread more fairly - it largely result in it being lost irrecoverably.

Having worked in both comprehensive and grammar schools, I find this logic very persuasive.

If you're looking for something lighter to read, skim through the fifty funniest jokes which have just been assembled by a group of time-wasting researchers whose grants, I hope, will soon be cut! There are one or two ribald ones, as you might expect, but the list is largely good, innocent fun. My favourite was the following:

I said to the Gym instructor "Can you teach me to do the splits?" He said, "How flexible are you?" I said, "I can't make Tuesdays."

Oh dear!

Meanwhile, I shall be heading off for the weekend to the Cotswolds to meet some friends of my intended. The wedding is just four weeks tomorrow ...

So let me leave you with a wedding joke:

Did you heat about the two TV aerials who met on a roof, fell in love and got married? The ceremony was rubbish - but the reception was brilliant!

Bonne fin de semaine, as they say in France when they're not on strike ;-)

A funny thing in France

Were it not for the nomadic existence I'm currently leading, I could have commemorated yesterday's anniversary with some ceremony. It was in fact the 205th anniversary of Trafalgar Day. I should probably put it down to kismet that I missed the occasion.

But one can hardly wonder about Trafalgar Day without also casting an eye across the channel at our French contemporaries who are striking like a nation full of demented Swan Vestas. Only the French seem to have the capacity for these levels of self-inflicted harm, or for what looks like self-inflicted harm. Perhaps it is a testimony to the degree to which a sense of the collective still exists en France. On the other hand, my suspicion is that the coming Toussaint holiday will do a proper job of diluting union activism. Among the vestiges of Christianity which the secularised countries of Europe have retained, one of the most important is the conviction that nothing must get in the way of having a holiday.

That of course is ironic. In some ways French Catholicism since the nineteenth century has been associated more with bourgeois morality than with Catholic festivity. This is one more example of the way in which a secular environment leads Catholics into a kind of self-protective buffering - ironically one of the predominant dynamics of modernity.

Irony or ironies indeed. One can hardly speak of France and not mention the word. And that too is highly indicative. Irony can be defined in all kinds of ways, but one might say it is the instinct to poke with a sharp stick the humorous gap between pretension and reality. Not all irony is healthy, however. There is a tragic form of irony and a comic form of irony. Bitter irony is a cry of vulnerability, not a compassion but a comodium; the French caught it from Voltaire, and are never far from it. Comic irony, on the other hand, is another kind of self-protective buffering, but very different from buffered bourgeois Catholicism. It is the mood of postmodernism, but is only healthy when it is not a disguise for cynicism.

Where is all this leading (as I so often have to ask when I catch the verbal trots)? Only to showing you that ideals minus humour equals fanaticism, and humour minus ideals equals complacency. And that if you cannot avoid either, it is probably healthier to be complacently fanatical than fanatically complacent. Curiously, if France's petrol stations run dry before the French all then go merrily off on holiday this weekend, the nation will have achieved the dubious distinction of being fanatical and complacent in equal degrees. And why must it happen like this? It's not that the French couldn't achieve another 1968-style revolution. It's just that they couldn't stand another forty years of the preening self-referentialism which the last revolution unleashed. At least that is my fervent hope.

Still, for a nation in which even the secularists are still recovering from the sickness of jansenism, that's probably not a bad place to be.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Father Mildew under threat

I understand that Monsignor Basil Loftus is threatening Fr Mildew with legal action, even though Fr Mildew has apologised for his comments which were hardly actionable in the first place.

I do not know Fr Mildew very well, though I enjoyed his company during one of the blognics he organised last year. That said, while I do not find his waspish attacks on Monsignor Loftus to be particularly helpful, the thought that this gentle man is being intimidated by Monsignor Loftus irritates me intensely. I feel sure Basil Loftus knows very well he is dealing with a benign threat. Who could not? The threat of legal action against Fr Mildew thus makes one wonder what goal Monsignor Loftus is pursuing.

I had the same kind of intimidation from a reader a couple of years ago. Quite ridiculously, he alleged that I was in danger of being sued because I questioned some of his views on Vichy France in a way which possibly intimated that he was anti-Semitic. Before one could say 'malicious action', he was demanding that I consult with my lawyers, and citing cases of successful prosecutions on the internet. I have no idea if these were genuine cases or not. I simply adopted the policy of never responding to his threats. That, in the end, proved to be the best way of dealing with him.

If Fr Mildew is threatened with legal action in the canonical courts, he might of course wish Monsignor Loftus to go ahead. More vigorous men than Fr Mildew would certainly welcome a canonical fight with Monsignor Loftus! Still, we will watch carefully what happens. How very sad when all is said and done.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

A touch of modern superstition

All model moderns pride themselves on their lack of superstition. They eschew irrational manipulation of the cosmos, being content instead with what they hold to be the rational, cosmic manipulation which science and reason have in part secured for them. There is of course a brand of contemporary irrationality which is happy to use the language games of postmodernism to paint a more vulnerable picture of man before the universe, or they would, if they still believed in 'man', which they generally don't! Still, the fruit of western individualism is the sense of our power and control over things, and if over nothing else, then over ourselves. Hmm, or at the very least some power and control over our choices.

This entire position is of course wrongheaded. God alone holds us in the palm of his hand. We can calculate to the nth degree, and generally do. But I not sure that a rational belief in the manipulation of the universe doesn't in itself amount to a new kind of superstition. I'm not thinking here about the coming feast of Halloween (Halloween from Old English grocer's jargon: 'hallow' = hello and 'een' = gullible parent who buys tons of ghoulish sweets and facemasks made from the same rubbery substance for the purposes of entertaining brats on 31 October'). I'm thinking rather that rationalist or materialist reductionism is as poor an account of the universe as any theory of malevolent gods. Worse, it posits a kind of faceless, intentionless cosmos to which we are entirely vulnerable without being at all accountable. Is it clear what I'm saying? This is a kind of superstition. It is the superstition of Stooge who attributes his first vision of Jacob Marley to a piece of hard cheese that he has eaten for his supper.

So, coming to my point, my belief is that the massive, impending public spending cuts, which are going to be announced in less than 48 hours in the UK, will in some ways be shaped by this modern superstitious belief in the righteousness of certain economic mechanisms. I'm all for thrift; crikey, I'm all for closing down a useless education system tomorrow. But the kind of cuts coming will be those that help categorize our goals as a culture and a nation. And, God help us, these goals will once again be defined as the useful, the expedient and the most productive, rather than as anything which might show us to be the free men we hopelessly hold ourselves to be.

Freedom too is a superstition. It hangs in the trees like the agricultural instruments of western settlers the death of whom has left the natives without any understanding of its uses.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Spin ... in every sense of the word

One last word on the university fees issue. I post below a video I saw on Chris H's blog The Sign of the Cross.

This isn't spin as we know it ... unless we're thinking of weather vanes

Here, there and everywhere

Term is now properly underway. I know the impression which many people have of students is that they never do a blind bit of work. The same, it is sometimes thought, applies to their lecturers. I can assure you that the latter assertion is totally untrue, even if the former has some merit to it! This week I have been quite literally here, there and everywhere: teaching, talking, clarifying, liaising, photocopying and generally trying to cast light into minds that are usually murkier than a Chilean mine shaft. Sweat of one's brow and all that.

I had a conversation yesterday which took me back to my thoughts of Tuesday. My interlocutor could not believe the state of education today; the levels of sheer pig ignorance which many attain before entering university is, he feels, startling. I concurred wholly with this observation, but it only underlined what I was trying to say about the Browne Inquiry.

The point is this: education is a function of culture. You cannot separate the two and it's as simple as that. And that is why it is no surprise that if we in the UK live in a consumerist culture and economy, where one in eight pennies spent goes through the coffers of a certain supermarket according to which 'Every little helps', then we will produce a supermarket kind of education system with all its conveniences and inconveniences.

Everything is consumer driven. That is why we are consuming everything, even each other. The only thing odd about Browne's Inquiry was that he tried to spin his suggestions as a 'revolutionary new system', whereas in fact they are the product of a logic which extends from the Bargain Basement to Harvey Nichols.

But why do I get the impression I'm talking to myself on this one?


Speaking of being here, there and everywhere, I'm heading north this weekend for a grand pre-nuptial pow-wow of the parents. I think I might just need a little music to soothe the nerves ;-)

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Clare Rayner, RIP

Clare Rayner, the famous agony aunt, who recently expressed her near-unbounded hatred for Pope Benedict XVI, has died.

To the mercy of God, then, Clare. You and all of us.

Neither a borrower nor a borrower be

I am perpetually suspicious of all economic arguments in favour of whatever. The trouble about economics is that everything you say must be qualified with 'all other things being equal', a condition which rarely, if ever, can be assured beyond the short term. So I cannot help but be suspicious about all the economic arguments that Lord Browne has advanced in favour of the government's lifting the cap on tuition fees for students at UK universities. Indeed, I'm most suspicious about this remark reported by The Guardian this morning:

These reforms will put students in the driving seat of a revolutionary new system. Under these plans universities can start to vary what they charge but it will be up to students whether they choose the university. The money will follow the student ,who will follow the quality. The student is no longer taken for granted; the student is in charge.

One could say the same of a mass-system of buying snake oil. I wonder if before the peerage Lord Browne got experience selling knocked-off knives and forks on a popular market (I mean other than the oil market while he was in charge of BP!). I should of course say 'darn the maarket'

Seriously, I haven't the foggiest whether higher student fees are good or not from an economic point of view. My views on the matter, however, are briefly stated. I find there is everything wrong with making students feel they are the customers and the universities are the vendors. In fact, they already have that feeling because they are acculturated within a highly developed consumerist society. For example, I was eyed suspiciously by new students yesterday as I announced in my draconian manner - hmmm, I recently failed to be hired elsewhere because of my 'draconian manner' - that what we cover in class should not define the limits of what they learn. Yes, I looked into their eyes and saw in some the alarm of customers who, having just shelled out £3500, found they had not bought their degree certificate, or that the rules of purchase did not apply.

But there is another issue here and it is this: the more debt you are in, the more you are beholden to this consumerist culture. The more you have a stake in this tottering tower of interdependent debt, the more your interests lie in propping it up. I'm not underestimating here the power and the potential of debt. Nor am I denying that I have debts of my own! I'm simply questioning the probity of the conditions which its preponderance creates.

At the heart of both my worries, however, is that everything which ties liberal education up to a utilitarian agenda militates against its essential nature. If you want a highly trained, modern citizenry who are all techno-wizards and accomplished consumers, then listen to Lord Browne. If, on the other hand, you want free men - I mean 'free men' in the sense of men made free in themselves by some learning and virtue - then, as the Irish farmer says to the tourist lost in Donegal, 'If I were you, I wouldn't start from here in the first place...'

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Error and Outrage in the Bonkersphere: a theory

I have to be careful what I define as 'the Bonkersphere'! It's what happens to the blogosphere when it goes mad!

But, really, I'm nearly at a loss to know what to say about the trouble going on over at St Mary Magdalen and Fr Mildew. Apparently, Monsignor Basil Loftus, a columnist for The Catholic Times, has had enough of being called a heretic, or having it hinted at that he might be a heretic, or seeing his name discussed in relationship to heresy. And he has threatened legal action against Fr Ray Blake and Fr Michael Clifton if they don't stop it! Fr Blake says he never said it, even if comments on his blog tend in that direction. Fr Clifton is correcting certain blog articles, though I'm sure he still thinks the same thing as he ever did. On the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary, I find myself inevitably drawn to anyone attempting to crush heresy in the Church. But, as the Wicked Witch of the West says, 'these things must be done very caaaaaarrrrreeefullllllyyy'. Let's not fall into some kind of playground, partisan assembly.

Fr Ray is, I think, an innocent party in the matter; caught in the crossfire more than anything else. Fr Clifton must carry more responsibility, especially since he regularly labels Monsignor Loftus 'Lofty' or 'Basil Brush Lofty'. I don't see exactly how this helps. As for Monsignor Loftus, I would have thought a man so proud of the achievements of Vatican II would have been more sensitive to the scriptural injunction of Saint Paul not to take disputes betwee brothers before the civil courts. It's one thing to be insensed. It's quite another to be insensible.

This spat illustrates two of the deep wounds which Yours Truly happens to think afflict the Church at the moment: the first is the banality of error, and the second is the banality of outrage.


The banality of error is a sin against truth. Under the reign of individual expressiveness, the principle of individual sincerity has reached such ludicrous proportions that there seems to be a common habit of collective eye-closing to the punctured tyre of doctrine. Sometimes, this is manifested not in sloppiness about doctrine itself, so much as by sloppiness about doctrine in the concrete life of the Church. I read recently the text of a blessing given to an ecumenical team of university chaplains which talked about their working 'in the Lord's vineyard'. Well, I have no doubt that God is not hampered in the means he uses, though his choice of certain means (the visible Church) is already a sign of what he does. But to speak like this about parallel ministries is equivocation of the highest kind. Any minister for whom the doctrine of the Eucharist (which makes the Church and which is confected by the Church) is a dead letter is more likely to be damaging the vineyard than labouring in it.

What Monsignor Loftus's opinions are I have little idea. I have read some of his articles but without a text to hand - and I can find none on the internet right now - I can hardly even begin to comment. I simply remember his recent letter in The Tablet about the possiblity of abortion in a case where an expectant mother's life is under threat. There he wrote:

Is a victim allowed to take the life of an aggressor in order to save his or her own life, even if the agressor had not formed, or had been unable to form, an aggressive intent? If so, would not a foetus whose objective aggression was threatening the mother's life, be in the same moral/legal position as an unwitting aggressor , or an aggressive child or mentally defective adult?

I'm not sure what shocks me more: the crystal-clear logic or the overreaching vacuity dressed up as moral argument ... unless Monsignor Loftus is actually suggesting that we stand in the same life-giving relationship to a mad attacker as a mother to her unborn child. This is a kind of methodology which is able to wear scholastic clothes as a veil for wild conclusions that are closer to sophistry than to wisdom.

The second wound I see here is the banality of outrage. I've spoken about this before. Passion and rage seem to be the default mode of hard conservatives and traditionalists alike. But it unsights us spectacularly. Which poet was it who wrote that 'we can hit and miss like pride' (no prizes there, and he's only a poet to some)? The antidote to lack of care for the truth is not outrage at that lack of care. Outrage is only a mode; it is not a method. And when it is treated as a method, it is a dangerous tool.

I'm working on a theory here that goes something like this. Modern religious discourses are not peaceable like Christianity, but passive-aggressive like Relativism (even when they are not in themselves relativist). That is why reaction to them must not resort to the aggressive potential of our fallen condition, but to the truth in charity of the Christian condition. Of course relativism and aggression are kissing cousins; there is no outrage like a liberal scorned.

Let me restate the case: our fallen condition tends to violence which is only perfectly healed by Christ. The false cures, on the other hand, follow one of two paths: the first is the channelling of aggression through ritual (and this is found in paganism and some secular religions) and the second is the repression of aggression through fuzzy Christianity. You know what I mean by fuzzy Christianity; we see it all the time. In the name of charity we are asked to lay down our arms, and forbidden to pick them up again when it is clear we are in danger. This results in the kind of deeply absurd churchmanship which tries to impose silence on those who object to Masses for openly defiant homosexuals.

The challenge of meeting the second false cure (the fuzzy Christianity) is not to rebut it with the first false cure (aggression through ritual) but with Christ: doing the truth in charity.

And everything else is of the Bonkersphere.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Prayer request

I have received this message from Irish blogger Michael Campbell, and pass it on tel quel.


Dear all,

I am sorry if you have already received this in another area, but we
are as a family trying to cast the net of prayer as wide as possible,
as events over the last week have prompted me to seek urgent prayer
for my brother, Duncan who is 30 years old.

A post that is on my blog at

is reproduced here,

Duncan - a brother in torment

Further to my post about the rescue of my brother, Duncan, from
Slieve Donard, I am asking for prayers for him. This evening the
emergency doctor was out to him because his GP was sufficiently
worried about him.

Unfortunately, the emergency doctor said that he didn't feel able to
section Duncan tonight as he didn't know him well enough.

As we left him this evening, knowing that his own GP will be out to
see him in the morning, I said to our other brother Peter that Duncan
really didn't look like, or even sound like my brother Duncan. It is
obvious that he is currently tormented by something. Whether he knows
what that is and cannot say, or whether he just does not know is not
something that we will get to the bottom of quickly.

The net of prayer has been cast wide and far, and I ask that anyone of
faith, reading this, prays for him too. If you are, please either
comment on here, or send me an email to so that we can
work out how far and wide this has gone - perhaps in this there will
be some comfort for the family, if not for Duncan himself.

My mother has sent a text message wide and far, and I leave you now
with her words

"Please pray for Duncan. In very bad shape. Luckily helicopter was
available to search Slieve Donard late on Friday. Crew able to tell
mountain rescue where to look. Took much talking down* but although is
in bad way, we do at least have him. Mary."

* at the time that Mum wrote this she believed that he had walked down
the mountain, I am lead to believe that in fact he was brought down by
stretcher by Mountain Rescue as he refused to come - and had taken an
overdose at the summit of the mountain.

Thank you very much.

Prayers for mum, and all of the family would be appreciated as well,
but principally for Duncan.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Have blog, will travel

I've rarely known a period like the one I'm traversing. No sooner am I in the holy land of Mancunia than I must sally forth again - is sally connected to salir in Spanish? Just a thought - to return to the south in search of food, lodgings and work. I'll be back here again in ten days to introduce the future in-laws and outlaws. I should invest in bungee cord shares or something.

I don't object to the travel. It's the cursed necessity to be alert and working when I get to my destination which I resent. Tomorrow I will meet new students in the afternoon. I could have fun, I suppose, and set them all a spot test, but I understand that's not in the spirit of Freshers Week. Spoilsports!

Speaking of spoilsports, I cannot help reflecting that the people who will be most affected by the announcement today that child benefit will be stopped for those earning over £44K or thereabouts are all the traditionally-minded families I know whose husbands have just about clawed their way up to the £45K mark so that they can afford to have one wage earner in the house, leaving their wives free to raise the children and not leave their education in the uncertain and even dangerous hands of the teaching classes. Thanks, Osbourne.

Of course that is perhaps an example of what we can call pre-emptive appeasement. Whether it quiets the souls of those whose jobs and pensions are just about to go west in the Comprehensive Spending Review is another thing. But then we cannot afford to pay ourselves more than we earn ... unless we are talking about investment bankers whom we cannot afford not to pay more than a dozen of us on average earn every year, for fear they will bugger off to parts foreign ... or so we're told.

Still, all the more reason for us to trust in Providence. How else can we face rapacious Britain?


I just realised that the removal of child benefit is not based on household income but on individual income. So that means if mum and dad work and both earn, say, £42K, they will retain child benefit; if mum stays at home and dad, on £44K, goes to work, they will loose their child benefit. The excuse for this stupidity is that means testing would create a complex system. Better just to lop off the branch completely.

That of course is what rule by elected government is about: the avoidance of complexity. Meanwhile, I understand the City will pay out £7 billion pounds in bonuses this year, or £70K average per head.

Somewhere, something does not compute.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Which hospital bed are you in?

Sorry about the short interlude to this otherwise babbling brook of verbal doodling. Normal service is now resumed ...


I was writing only a few days ago about the Christian roots of this nation. The pope talked about them during his visit. You only need to totter down your local high street to find them sticking out of many doors. Even the Sunday opening hours are a vestige of a once Christian rhythm belonging to our public life in this country. Of course such roots are now somewhat wilted, a little dried out; maybe we should say gnawed away. Still, there they are. There is no use denying it like secular Canutes ordering the Christian tide to retreat. Hmmm, maybe that's not the best image, especially since the Christian tide is more likely to be outgoing than incoming. I'm not foretelling the action of the Holy Ghost. Merely commenting on the dimming of the day.

I'm mumbling away here to myself on these topics because I am about to begin another term of teaching in a British university. The students are settling in as I write. Correction: many are sleeping off the excesses of last evening, the first in the round of Fresher Parties. But then what on earth have they come to university for?

Okay, that's unfair. Few students ever turn up with a single agenda. Fewer still perhaps turn up knowing what their multiple agendas will be. It all has something to do with how we raise our children these days, and with how we acculturate them into British society or into western civilisation.

And there's the rub. To be acculturated means to be in a particular relationship to a culture, to be in the process of acquiring membership by the forms and processes that accompany cultural integration. I think that is part of the reason behind my growing feeling that such integration is only ever partially possible in our day.

Why? Because by the time our students arrive at university they have already largely acquired the criteria by which they make their choices about what to seek. Usually, these criteria are unconscious or hardly conscious. You have to look for them like you look for fossils, embedded into the rock of a personality which is already settled to a great extent. And the criterion by which choices are made these days is to be found in the several forms of individual expressiveness which they have learnt are the legitimate ones.

This is how I explain to myself my students' obsession with outcome over process. If they could buy the degree fresh off the shelf next Monday, how many would choose not too? I just wonder. You cannot ask them the question directly, because they would laughingly deny any interest in buying a degree. I look rather to how they treat the several intermediate targets which come between entry and exit: how do they learn week by week, do they grasp the questions which are embedded in the subject I teach, do they even care about them, and have they woken up to the world beyond the double-glazed, carpeted, mental lounge from which very often they gaze out on a world which, shockingly, does not share their priorities?

Do I sound negative about my students? I'm not at all. I try to respect them. I think it indispensible for most that they know I try to like them. I think I am just being realistic about what this project of higher education means.

I'm also thinking along these lines since I'm reading the memoirs of Patrick Leigh Fermor. I'm sure Fermor was an exceptional case; his writing is certainly exceptional. But along the highways of Europe, as a young, vagrant backpacker avant la lettre, he kept himself entertained by endlessly reciting all the snatches of poetry, song and prose his education had given him. There he was, this young man of nineteen, mouthing sonnets of Shakespeare, verses of Horace (in the original Latin), rhymes from Du Bellay, and a hundred other things besides. He relates how later on, as a soldier on Crete, with a German general under his custody, he connected suddenly in a quiet moment with the enemy when they found they both knew the same Latin verse about seeing snow on the mountain tops. How surprising the moments of human connection.

So what's my point? My point is not that I think my eighteen-year olds should be all like Patrick Leigh Fermor. But I could wish for them they felt something that Fermor felt, i.e. a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves, a sense that their education taught them to appreciate how it feels to walk in another man's shoes. They could have acquired this in some other way, not through refined high culture, but through a low culture that was still rich in human sensibilities. How on earth, I ask myself, are they supposed to learn that in an age of me, me, me, the X-Factor, the public sex lives of celebrities, and the society of consumer spectacle?

But isn't this also the age of charity? Maybe it is, on the industrial scale of Red-Nose Day. But is is also the age in which we are much more likely to have nothing to do with our neighbours (I hold my hands up incidentally) who are much more difficult, albeit immediate, objects of our charity. It is also the age in which leading national agony aunts can so misrepresent what charity means that they argue on national television that abortion can be an expression of what the mother thinks is best for an unborn child (I saw and heard it with my own eyes on the BBC this morning). We are relating to each other like the patients in Baudelaire's hospital. Relief is what we seek, more than happiness.

So, term will begin again, and I will face my next cohort of consumers. Will I be able to try acculturating them to my little area of western civiliation? Will I have to plant the dynamite that blows up the rock and allows them to examine the criteria they have brought with them? Is it possible to turn a shopper into an adventurer? Is is feasible to offer something else other than an off-the-peg and ersatz version of learning?

The answers begin a week on Monday ...