I read somewhere that every day one should have an experience drawn from each of the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical realms. For physical, my abilities are now somewhat compromised, but I do still manage to walk two or three miles every day.
For mental, when I have given up trying to figure out what is going on in the world just now, I pursue my more than fifty-year quest to understand the basics of philosophy. The latest iteration of this mission is to work through A C Grayling’s new book on the subject, assisted by various BBC In our Time episodes. For day to day brain lubrication, I do the puzzles in the newspaper. I find that a combination of numerical and word exercises keeps me moderately alert.
Spiritual is problematic. As a committed non-believer in any sort of supernatural existence, experiencing ‘spiritual’ is tantamount to impossible. The nearest I ever came to what I imagine spiritual to be like, was when as a good Catholic boy I used to trudge to mass every Sunday. On the occasions when I was to receive Holy Communion—for which in those days it was required to fast from the previous night—I really did feel a strange ‘otherness’. This I identified as a spiritual closeness to God. It was only many years later that I recognized, during a long and meal-less hitchhike though Europe, that the feeling was hunger …
But emotional is no problem: I turn to music. Wagner’s Ring cycle does it for me, as do Elgar’s choral works, particularly Dream of Gerontius; but for real knock-down, drag out raw emotion, give me Mahler.
Eighteen years ago at the Proms, Simon Rattle conducted the National Youth Orchestra, plus five choirs and eight soloists, performing Mahler’s eighth symphony; total headcount, around 750. It was recently repeated, and is on iPlayer for the next nine months or so. The finale of this work always makes me cry; the combination of the glorious music, the massed voices, and the transcendent words is quite overwhelming.
The latter are taken from the end of part II of Goethe’s Faust. This is not the Faust who gets dragged down to Hell by Mephistopheles—that was part I. Part II is a mystical and epic journey around classical Greece with Mephistopheles in tow. Faust meets various legendary figures including Helen of Troy, with whom he has an ‘intellectual’ relationship; he also encounters fauns, dryads, satyrs, griffins, sphinxes, a chorus of ants, some lemurs, a few early Greek philosophers, and even some plants reciting poetry.
It turns out that Faust didn’t suffer eternal damnation after all, and in the finale of part II he is finally redeemed by ‘The one penitent’—Gretchen. She is/was the virgin he seduced and left to her fate; the angels had rescued her from a condemned cell and conducted her up to Heaven.
The very last lines, sung by the ‘Chorus Mysticus’, are difficult to translate from the German—judging by the five different versions I have read. The English used in the subtitles of the Prom seemed to me to be the least obscure:
All that is past is merely a dream
Eternal womanhood shows us the way
Not PC of course, but it is undeniable that Faust was saved by a woman. If Mahler used the text as a paeon to his beloved wife Alma, he was to be sadly disappointed. Just before the world premiere of the symphony in Munich in 1910, he discovered that she was having an affair with the appropriately named Walter Gropius.
All that aside, and notwithstanding some of the mystical mumbo-jumbo, this was a stupendous performance of a great work; it was made all the more poignant for me by the youth of the orchestra. Simon Rattle told us that their ages ranged between thirteen and nineteen years, and only around 50% of them would become professional musicians. He said something like, ‘I think we can safely leave our future in their hands…’ Amen to that.
This was a reminder that there is real culture and civilization in a world gone mad.
The truth is now out. Mr Johnson, mayor of London, did have an affair with Jennifer Arcuri when the latter’s company was enjoying government grants of thousands of pounds. Furthermore, ‘his office’ smoothed the way for her to accompany him on (government funded?) trade missions for which she was improperly qualified.
I would have thought that for someone in public office with his eye on the top job, even to associate with a person whose previous business partner had been sentenced to fourteen years for fraud was an unwise action.
Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, was prime minister for nine years in the mid-nineteenth century. He was a notorious womaniser, nicknamed ‘Lord Cupid’, and fathered a number of children with various women. Palmerston was a ‘lively, amusing talker’; ‘men and women found it difficult to resist [his] charm’.
Alexander (etc.) Johnson, apparently known to his friends as ‘Al’—but to the world at large as ‘Boris’—has a number of traits in common with Palmerston. He too is charming and amusing, he too is a womaniser and has fathered children with several women—whether or no the popular legend is true that he is not sure how many (women or children ...) And he too is prime minister. But notwithstanding his indiscretions, shouldn’t his private life be his own?
Here’s the problem. Mr Johnson already has a very full record of being ‘economical with the truth’—see earlier posts on this blog: ‘The Johnson Papers’. When very difficult decisions have to be made, how are we to trust the blatantly untrustworthy to make those decisions?
In this country we govern and police by consent. Manchester’s mayor is refusing to obey the law; different Tory MPs are at each other’s throats, and millions of people are desperately worried about their ability to pay the bills with the various levels of lockdown being imposed. What are the chances of many of them obeying the law decreed by Johnson's government when their very livelihoods are at stake? And then there is the awfulness of no deal ‘B*****’ which we are told to expect. Ten weeks to go before Biblical chaos is quite likely to break out at the channel ports.
I can see no way out of this. A government of national unity might help, but who would lead? And the chances of the Tories relinquishing power are zero. Possibly Johnson could resign on health grounds and call a General Election. Somehow I can’t see that leading to a smooth transition.
Palmerston was leading a country on its way to becoming the most powerful in the world. Johnson is presiding over the same country in terminal decline—due in no small measure to his own selfish actions.
Note: this post was written before I had seen the review in Saturday's Times of the latest Johnson biography by Tom Bower—which makes interesting reading ...
In these times when so many items of news stretch credibility to breaking-point, it is quite difficult to believe that the Prime Minister is considering Charles Moore for the chairmanship of the BBC, and Paul Dacre as the new chairman of Offcom.
Putting the fox in charge of the hen-coop just doesn’t seem a strong enough metaphor to describe this astonishing turn of events.
Dacre is the man who put the ‘hate’ into the Daily ‘Hate’ Mail, feeding his readers with anti-EU, anti-immigrant, and anti-BBC stories day after day. Offcom deals with complaints against the BBC among other things. One can imagine the sort of team he would assemble for such a purpose.
Moore has also been drip-feeding xenophobic, anti-European, and anti-BBC propaganda into the readership of the Daily Telegraph. Anyone who doubts that, only has to read the letters’ page. I’ll not criticise him for his biography of Thatcher; by all accounts he did a good job. But not that long ago on Any Questions, he told us that the NHS was the worst health service in the world … I question his political—even mental—balance.
It is clear to many people that the BBC needs a shake-up. They have built up a huge bureaucracy, and their wage structure is an embarrassing disaster. The recent decision to reverse licence-exemption for the over 75s was an own-goal of Biblical proportions, albeit it was essentially forced upon them by Cameron’s government.
The BBC can’t win, of course. Currently, they’re being accused of left-wing bias; I suspect that what they are guilty of, if indeed that is the word to use, is anti-establishment bias. People have such short memories. It wasn’t Thatcher who attacked the BBC and forced the resignation of the chairman and director-general for attacking the government. It was Blair, a Labour prime minister, assisted by his attack-dog Alistair Campbell. That was over BBC reporting on the ‘Dodgy dossier’ on the Iraq 'weapons of mass destruction'. I still recall Campbell ram-raiding Channel 4 news, demanding to ‘set the record straight’ on an alternative national broadcast channel.
The licence fee is the issue. Certainly, defaulting on a licence should be de-criminalised. Critics say the BBC should go for subscription; use the Netflix model. This ignores the fate of many BBC national and local radio channels, which are paid for by the licence fee, but for which a licence is not needed to access. How are these to be funded in future?
Then there is the broader question of culture. Much of the BBC output is current affairs, news, entertainment and sport, as well as general culture. The latter includes drama, music, art, literature etc. Much of this would be lost, as a subscription service would inevitably result in an substantial drop in revenue. Sport in particular, would just go to the highest bidder.
‘Culture’, is a broad church. It includes education and research. Following the subscription model to its logical conclusion, Britain’s contribution to CERN in Geneva, or to space missions, or large telescopes, or the British Antarctic Survey could be made subject to subscription. How many people, in a cash-strapped society, would be willing to contribute to those projects if they had the choice to withdraw?
Thatcher detested the BBC, but had the good sense and judgement to leave it alone, recognising the dangers of meddling. Even Churchill during WWII, did not get his way when Reith, the original director-general, refused to broadcast propaganda he deemed ‘unbalanced’.
I suspect that our main public-service broadcaster needs to be funded from general taxation. Of course, it will then be a hostage to the current government, but then it is already.
What the BBC needs is a tough leader with a clear vision for the future; someone who recognises that younger people are turning away from the licence fee, but understands the dangers of dumping the model. What it does not need is a narrow-minded right-wing zealot, whom, I suspect, seeks to wreak revenge on the organization for speaking uncomfortable truths—of which he heartily disapproves—to power.
Note added 4 October; Excellent news that the appalling Charles Moore has declined the chairmanship of the BBC. Surprising that a person so critical of the Beeb should turn down the opportunity to put his bigoted opinions into practice.
Yes folks, it’s official! The Spitting Image trailer depicts our prime minister, naked, being spanked on the knob by Putin’s knob, the latter gentleman sporting a longer, significantly more impressive love-truncheon than our Boris. The Donald is in there too, and his meat-puppet is nothing to write home about either …
The whole thing is outrageous of course, and I wouldn’t dream of putting a link to it on this post ...
Martin Luther wrote: ‘The best way to drive out the devil … is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bare scorn.’ I’m not suggesting that either Boris or Donald are the Devil—they are far too lightweight for that—but I’m guessing that neither of them likes to be mocked.
Watching this is a real tonic for our times; how can we take these people seriously? And yet there is a deadly serious side to this. Putin appears to regard assassination as legitimate politics; Trump seemed to cast doubt this week on his commitment to an orderly transfer of power, should he lose the election. And as for Boris …
Well, it was the best laugh I have had for a very long time. Well done Britbox!
Note added 25 September: I should have mentioned that the quotation from Luther was lifted from the front of C S Lewis's book The Screwtape Letters, in case anyone should think that Martin Luther's works form part of my regular bedtime reading.
Can it really be true? Has the government of the UK decided not to honour an international treaty that it itself signed not many months ago? We are told that the key aim of the new bill, published yesterday, is to ‘ensure peace in Northern Ireland’. But what has changed since the government signed the withdrawal treaty? If it prejudices safety now, why did it not then?
Is the UK now destined to become a pariah state? How on earth is any other country going to commit itself to a trade deal—or any other agreement—with us, when our government, at will, chooses to disregard its international obligations? And what sort of response might we expect when we start lecturing Russia, or China, or Iran, or North Korea on their disregard for international law?
I had thought that Johnson’s government had sunk low—count the ‘U’ turns this year—but this takes us into the gutter.
Note added 12 September. Even the Daily Telegraph sounds a real note of caution in its editorial today. If Johnson has succeeded in upsetting that newspaper, things really must be serious.
I may finally have found a genuinely readable—and digestible—introduction to philosophy: The History of Philosophy by A C Grayling. It takes me a bit further than the Monty Python Philosopher’s Song, which enables me to memorise some of the more obscure names. The book presents the subject in nice bite-size chunks, and does have some surprises. For example …
Generally, book-burning is the province of those characterised by extreme intolerance; one or two examples from recent history readily come to mind. But David Hume, an Edinburgh man generally regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the eighteenth century, advocated burning books:
‘If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.’
Clearly, a polemic against theology and some of the more rarefied theories of philosophy. Hume’s view encapsulates the ideas of Logical Positivism, a system of ideas advocated by the ‘Vienna School’ in the 1920s and 1930s. Regrettably, that group of scholars were dispersed to the four corners of the earth by the regime that took over in Germany and Austria at latter end of that period, and guess what one of their favourite activities was?
Listen to Michael Morpurgo read his short story, A Song of Gladness, on Radio 4, today, just before 10 o’clock, and I defy you to do so with dry eyes.
It is a prose poem really, and heartachingly captures the spirit of what so many of us are feeling at the moment.
A view towards the north west of a beautiful wheat field near Chelmsford. Just after the picture was taken, the lowering sky was bisected by a large barn owl which swooped down, skimming the crops, looking for a furry meal. As I walked up, a hare loped away through the stalks. In the middle distance, running right to left—hidden in the valley—the river Cam varies from a trickle one inch deep to a torrent, depending on the rain. There are also skylarks, buzzards and Jays, and a magnificent fox, no-doubt interested in the hare.
And Chelmsford Council want to build 800 houses here …
An account of Edward Duke’s bizarre theory of the origin of Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill—and other Wiltshire monuments—is published this month in the Wiltshire Family History Society Magazine. The article was extracted from my forthcoming book on Edward Duke. Download and read the article here: http://www.mirlibooks.com/edward-duke.html
I was just listening to the news on the wireless of Dame Vera Lynn’s death, when the loud noise of a low-flying aircraft caused me to go into the garden. There was a lone Spitfire, flying south quite low; I’m sure to salute her. It was a deeply poignant moment.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs