On the whole, it has been a good year. In terms of my writing aspirations, two articles and one book published. I'm unlikely to equal that any time soon. But in the spirit of looking forward, welcome 2014...
The Winter Solstice is usually on 21st December; sometimes it falls on 22nd. It is the formal beginning of winter and is the shortest day. In fact, perusal of the almanac shows that within a minute or so, the days 18th to 25th December are of a similar length. Furthermore, sunrise and sunset are skewed. The sun continues to rise later in the day until around 1st January; whereas the earliest sunset occurs around 13th December, after which it starts to get later.
I read somewhere that Christmas Day, 25th December, which used to be a pagan mid-winter festival, is the first day after the solstice when the days are detectably longer.
In any event, we are now marching inexorably towards summer, and it can’t come soon enough for me…
Today is the shortest day. I have never looked forward to a Winter Solstice as much as this one. Let us hope the weather is kind in 2014.
The auguries are not good though; it's wild and woolly out there, and my walk through the fields to the Writtle coffee-shop was disrupted earlier in the week because the river had flooded the footpath.
I have just finished reading That Hideous Strength, the third in C S Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. Lewis calls it a fairy-tale, and it is a bit like Frodo Baggins and Gandalf stray into Narnia and help Aslan defeat the White witch… Having said that, I think it is a good read and a remarkably ‘modern’ novel, not squeamish about sexuality, and making free use of the word ‘bucking’ in place of the adjectival form of the ‘F’ word.
A N Wilson calls it the least successful and most self-indulgent of the trilogy, and although ‘Christian’ in its message, the hero and heroine are non-believers. The primary test for me though, was that I finished it, and although it is not as perfect as Out of the Silent Planet, I think it works. Also, as Wilson observes, it is remarkably prescient in its anticipation of environmental issues and Science and Engineering out of control.
Last week at the National Archives, I was struggling with Chancery records from the 1820s. These documents, hand-written on heavy paper, three feet wide, some of them six feet long, contained the submissions to the Court of Chancery. They came in a grubby roll, more than a foot in diameter, and judging from the filthy string used to tie them up, had not been opened up for examination this side of the reign of Queen Victoria.
I was musing on the costs of the Court of Chancery; it was the real villain in Dickens’ Bleak House, where the case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce dragged on for generations. Chancery was a so-called court of equity, the refuge of a wronged litigant when he had no recourse to statute or common law. It has been said that "...two centuries before Bleak House, Chancery became synonymous with expense, delay and despair..." Looking at the great pile of documents before me it, became clear that just the cost of preparing the submissions must have kept a whole army of clerks in expensive, full-time occupation.
I seem to have made a writing career chronicling Victorian miscarriages of justice. Miscarriages mostly, it has to be said, due to the judiciary themselves. In both of the cases I have researched, Chancery played a greater or lesser role. Thank goodness it’s not like that anymore.
Then, on Friday, I went inside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. The building(s), a sort of Victorian Gothic Ruritainian palace, were opened by the Queen in 1882 and little seems to have changed in the 130 years since. I was there because the wills search room has relocated to one of the courts from Holborn during some refurbishments.
Court 38, in the West Green Building, is almost as far from the entrance as it is possible to get, but the helpful enquiry desk provided a set of printed instructions for finding it; "Go to the rear of the main hall...Go through the central arch...Go up a few steps...turn left etc..." I found the West Green Building, although I did have to ask a lady barrister at one point because even half a page of instructions were not unambiguous...
I located the will I was after, and it was then necessary to go to the fees office to pay the copying charge. They provide a map to show you how to get there, via two courtyards and past the coffee shop. In this way I had the opportunity of walking around most of the ground floor.
The internal architecture of the RCJ is about as bizarre as the outside, and with the old-fashioned notice boards, the brass fittings, the extravagant tiled floors and the endless cloister-like corridors, it is difficult not to believe that you have been transported back to Victorian times. This impression is only reinforced by the occasional view of barristers scurrying about in their atavistic get-up, with horse-hair wigs, gowns and tabs over a winged collar.
And, God save us, there is still a Chancery Division in the Royal Courts of Justice!
Perelandra, the second of C S Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, is as disappointing as Out of the Silent Planet is excellent. Once more the hero is Ransom, this time transported to Perelandra (Venus) by Oyarsa, the arch-angel of Malacandra. Perelandra is a (water) Garden of Eden, complete with its Eve (the Green Lady) and the Devil in the form of Professor Weston - one of the men who had previously kidnapped Ransom and taken him to Malacandra. Ransom has been sent to prevent the Fall. There is an ‘Adam’, The Lady’s ‘King’, but he hardly figures in the plot.
In the first book, as A N Wilson observes, the Christian theology does not ‘wage war on the story’; in Perelandra, it positively beats the reader about the head with a blunt instrument. Only two outcomes are possible; either submit to the polemic, or put the book down and do something else. I chose the latter, with the book about half read (I have read it before). That was a pity, because Lewis’s descriptions of Venus, with its floating islands and extraordinary plant and animal life, are about as good as one gets in a science fiction novel. Clearly though, he allowed his fervent Christian ideology to overrule his artistic judgement. The turgid and opaque theological arguments in Perelandra may go down well in an Oxbridge common-room, but there are infinitely subtler ways of achieving the same objective with the reading public, as the first book clearly demonstrates.
I spent a very pleasant lunchtime on Tuesday with John Tobias, who tried manfully to teach me history when I was at Gunnersbury Grammar School for boys in the 1950s. Gunnersbury, a Catholic school, was run like a cross between a boot-camp and a Jesuit seminary. Corporal punishment, The Whack, was handed out as easily and frequently as capital punishment in the 17th and 18th centuries, and was administered with equal enthusiasm, on the buttocks, with a thick rubber strap, The Tolley.
At Gunnersbury, boys had two options: either they shone academically, or they excelled at sport. (A very few did both. They were the superstars.) Otherwise, and I was an ‘otherwise’, they were largely condemned to the scrapheap. Admittedly I was extremely lazy, but Gunnersbury was supposed to be a very good school - I should have presented a challenge; instead the school utterly failed with me.
I always remembered John Tobias though, ‘Toby’, as a nice gentle man, unlike the majority of the other masters, for whom classroom duty seemed to be a chore to be got over with the absolute minimum of effort. He did not send boys for The Whack, instead he tried to engage their enthusiasm with his own passion for his subject.
Some of the teachers were hardly better than sadists. I remember ‘Father’ Chapman with no pleasure at all. He used to teach us Latin, and on one occasion lifted me up by my right ear for some minor infraction. Chapman eventually became headmaster.
I have seen it written somewhere that Gunnersbury regarded itself as a minor public school. Certainly it advertised itself as fee-paying during the war, and although I won a scholarship there, I know that the parents of at least one of the boys in my class were paying fees for him.
I attended a reunion of old boys for the first time recently, and although it was enjoyable I felt a slight feeling of fraud about being there. We remembered the jolly japes and the nicknames of the masters: Patch (he had a port-wine stain), Slasher (he looked like a teddy-boy), Jock (Scottish), Lighning O’Shea (he had a stutter), Dicky (Father Doyle) and Chippy (Father Chapman). But it was not a happy time for me. I was hopeless academically and I detested sport; on one occasion on the rugby field the games master, Wally ‘Slasher’ Cain, decided that I was too clean – naturally I avoided scrums or any other nasty and dangerous contact with the other boys. Slasher detailed two boys to drag me, face down, through the mud until I was sufficiently dirty. And people wonder why I detest rugby.
I did have one single moment of glory though. We had a poetry competition when I was in the second year, 1957 or 1958 it must have been. I recited The Lion and Albert from memory, attempting to imitate Stanley Holloway’s accent. There was only time for me to relate the first few verses, but while the judges were deliberating who had won, I was invited on to the stage to recite the entire piece.
Mr & Mrs Ramsbottom’s son Albert has been eaten by a lion at Blackpool Zoo, and the magistrate has decided that nothing can be done. He addressed the Ramsbottoms:
…He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms,
Would have further sons to their name.
At this mother got proper blazin’
“And thank you sir kindly!” Said she.
“What spend all our lives raising children to feed bloody lions, Not Me!”
I sat down to thunderous applause from the masters as well as the boys. Actually, in the original Stanley Holloway version, I think the word used was "ruddy". But rising to the occasion I extemporized, and got away with it.
So yes, my only memorable achievement at Gunnersbury Catholic Grammar School, was to say “bloody”, in front of the entire school, to universal approbation.
I have just finished reading Out of the Silent Planet again; in my opinion, C S Lewis’s finest book. I first heard it serialized on the ‘wireless’ in the 1950s. Something about it captured my imagination, and I have read it many times since. It is a sort of ‘comfort book’ for me.
Out of the Silent Planet is a beautifully crafted science fiction novel. It is a moral tale of good and evil; clever and intelligent, sad in some places but never sentimental. The hero, Ransom, is kidnapped and taken to Malacandra – Mars – with the intention of offering him as a human sacrifice to the Sorns, huge humanoid creatures, in exchange for ‘Sun’s blood’ – gold. It turns out that the Sorns are acting under instruction from their spiritual leader, the invisible to Ransom, Oyarsa, who simply wants to know about Earth.
Actually, I think the novel is rather clever – much cleverer, for example, than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with its Christian allegory disguised wafer thin. As A N Wilson says of it in his biography of Lewis, into the book is woven ‘…straight Christian theology. [but] The theology does not wage war on the story.’
These days C S Lewis belongs to everyone, with his Narnia stories and tales of his readings, along with J R R Tolkein, the ‘Inklings’, at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. Indeed the meetings of the Inklings have been woven into at least one episode of Lewis, the TV detective series set in Oxford.
But speaking as one who does not espouse Christian dogma – possibly a result of having had to endure a series of Catholic schools with nuns who would have given Vlad the Impaler a run for his money – Out of the Silent Planet comes remarkably close to being a very successful polemic for Christianity, and does give me pause for thought.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs