One of the things which always amuses me about Quakers is their disengagement from popular culture. This is not deliberate – we’re not the Amish – it’s just that certain aspects of culture like the obsession with celebrity or memes on social media, pass them by. They are quite as au fait with politics as anyone could wish, but when it comes to the latest trends – nada. Zip, zilch, niente. Not a flicker – so I have to be careful when texting Friends not to use abbreviations like k, btw or np.
So it’s unlikely Quakers would be aware of nom. Having had teenage children, I am only too aware that yum yum has been replaced with nom nom, or sometimes, if a meal is particularly delicious, om nom nom. It’s just as expressive and I guess every generation has to invent its own slang; but what amuses me is that the Quaker committee on which I sit is known as Noms. It’s short for Nominations but it always makes me think of eating something delicious. Yet I doubt anyone else makes that connection.
We had a Noms meeting last night, via Zoom (confidentiality forbids me to say any more) and I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that in many ways I prefer Zoom meetings to real ones. For a start you don’t have to make the extra effort to get out of the house in the evening (which, since I’m obsessively punctual, means that I always overestimate the journey time and arrive too early) you can make yourself a drink without worrying whether your host/ess will have herbal tea or soya milk since you are an Old Fart who drinks no caffeine after midday and no cow’s milk at all; you can check out and go to the loo or scribble some notes or look at your email, all whilst pretending to be fully engaged in the meeting. It’s so much more restful. Plus, if you’ve forgotten to bring something you can just nip upstairs and get it. Then when it’s all over you can just kick back and flip on the i-player without having to drive or walk home. Zoomy bliss.
Sometimes I worry about what kind of person I’m turning into. I’m finding lockdown far too easy;enjoying sitting down of an evening to watch TV or play computer games with The Son; I don’t feel the need to travel or go to the pub or the cinema or a restaurant. Never in a million years would I have dreamed I’d be like this – and sometimes it bothers me that I’m turning into my parents: getting up early, in bed by ten, not going out. Then again lots of the things I like doing have been ruined. Travel is ruined by climate change – I can’t fly with a clean conscience, beaches are spoilt by pollution and litter (and too many people) and even my favourite beach, Southwold, is spoilt by guilt because half the town is now given over to holiday rentals. I love Cornwall but I wouldn’t go there now because a) it’s a long drive on busy roads and b) it’s too crowded. Where is there to go? How can one travel nowadays without causing or witnessing environmental damage?
Answers on a postcard please (now there’s a dated expression).
Two more books have flooded in: the Greek New Testament guide and the Funky Gibbon, so that’s only the atheist one to come, which I shall have to chase up. It is good to know that books can arrive; I was beginning to wonder if they’d got lost in some weird Covid-related sub-ether – not that I know what a sub-ether is, it’s just a phrase knocking about in my subconscious. As I write the hedge man is attacking our hedge with ferocious clippers. He has hay fever so his whirring and shearing is punctuated by loud and irritated sneezes.
We are quite concerned here about Leicester being newly locked down; not that it affects us particularly apart from my mother-in-law living in that catchment area, but because it’s an indication that lockdown is being eased far too soon and that we are in for another spike. I’ve generally always liked and respected the Mayor of Leicester, Sir Peter Soulsby, but he has blotted his copybook somewhat by breaking lockdown to visit his partner and has now claimed that the number of cases in Leicester has been exaggerated. This seems irresponsible to me and his assertion that the numbers are higher because they’re testing more people is worthy of Johnson himself. Do better, Soulsby!
The hedge man being here makes me think of hedge-priests who were a sort of wandering Quaker before Quakers were invented (were Quakers invented? Or were we discovered?) because I guess George Fox was a sort of hedge-priest, travelling from place to place, sleeping rough and insisting on giving his testimony in the churches. I think he must have been something of a pain in the arse, but then lots of these people are – like St Paul, for example – because in order to start something new you probably have to be a grade A PITA. It’s hard to imagine nowadays the sort of bull-headed commitment to a cause which would lead you to sleep in the hedgerows and make yourself universally unpopular, but whatever it is, I certainly don’t have it.
I was reading this morning a testimony about living more simply, having fewer possessions, less clutter and so on. This is something I generally aspire to and fail at dismally: last night I kept waking up and worrying about the dishwasher which I thought might be blocked (it wasn’t.) I often think of this photo of Gandhi’s possessions when he die
and look around me at everything I own. I imagine Gandhi, for all his virtues, must also have been another great pain in the arse; however committed to non-violence, his wife must have found him a great trial. These great men, important though they were, rarely adopt a consensual approach to anything.But going back to possessions, I think it’s not so much about what you own as your relationship to it. Do you fear losing everything or can you contemplate this with equanimity? It’s an odd thing but I can imagine losing everything we’ve got in storage without being too upset – but take away my dishwasher and I’d be devastated. The thought of all that bloody washing up every day… ugh.
How was your weekend? Mine was – well, it made me appreciate the pleasures of doing nothing very much and not trying to fill the time with Meaningful Activity. Apart from an hour spent on a wobbly phone at Quaker Meeting and a Facetime with family I had no scheduled activities at all. Previously this would have filled me with dread but right now it feels great because I don’t have to do anything except eat, sleep and entertain myself. I can watch the clouds go by or take a walk round the park and look at the blossom (it’s good this year but the magnolias got caught by the frost), I can make pizza and eat it while watching Breaking Bad with my family; I can hang out with Daniel and watch him play – not Animal Crossing, some other game where you make like Robinson Crusoe and build civilisation on an island, only sans Man Friday, I can’t remember what it’s called; I can read another hundred pages of Ducks, Newburyport, and I can garden.
I may not have the greenest fingers and after last year I felt that I’d earned a year off and needed to lie fallow for a while. But in light of potential food shortages that didn’t seem to make sense, so I decided I’d sling a few spuds in tyres like last year and run a few beans up poles and see if anyone saluted them. But could I get any seed potatoes? I could not. B&Qappeared to deny the existence of any such thing (seed potatoes? Never ‘eard of ’em) and sent me instead to some hanging baskets, while Wilko’s merely gave me a box to tick underneath each selection saying ’email when in stock.’ OK then…
But some tasks cannot be ignored. The lawn was screaming to be mown, so I got out the Great Green Goddess and chugged up and down the bumpy overgrown surface grunting bastard bastard bastard as I went. Mowing our lawn is a little like pushing a buggy over sand dunes – if you were trying to flatten the sand dunes at the same time and had to empty the basket every twenty seconds. No wonder this is my least favourite job. I don’t even like the lawn; since half the garden is flagged we never sit on it and to be honest, if things got so bad that the nation got into a dig for victory kick, I’d be quite happy to dig the bastard up and grow stuff on it. Provided I could get the seeds…
Anyway, having done that and tidied up the compost after the depredations of some local badgers, I felt I’d earned a rest. Daniel pruned the bush by the back door and then had a rest with me. That’s one great advantage of this lockdown – we’re spending more time together.
One blustery day Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet set out for a trip around the forest to wish all their friends a Very Happy Thursday. And here I am to wish you the same, only sans Piglet as sadly he is self-isolating.
How are you getting on with the lockdown? For me it’s pretty much business as usual; I get up, do my yoga, make a drink and head for my desk. I work till about 12.30, go for a walk before lunch, read a while, then get back to my desk till around five or six. Evenings are spent reading or watching TV (tonight it will be a live streaming of the National Theatre’s ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors‘ with James Corden.) And yet I miss things – things like not being able to go to the cafe, not going to meetings (or Meeting), not seeing friends, not going to the cinema, not going to the pub or the folk club or Friday Room discussion group, not having a meal out. I may not have had a welter of social events but when you have none at all you notice the difference.
On the other hand, it has meant less time spent organising for meetings and Meeting and discussion groups and seeing friends. So what have I been doing with my time? As I said, I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel; I promised (or threatened) a review and I will get to that in due course; I’ve also been reading a Paula Hawkins novel (she of ‘Girl on a Train’ fame) which is deeply, horribly yet fascinatingly dystopian and of course I am still ploughing on with Ducks, Newburyport (only 350 pages to go…)And on Britbox we’ve been watching Rev, which has to be one of the best sitcoms ever. I also chat to my friends online and get frequent phone calls from friends (and Friends).I attended my first online Meeting yesterday via Zoom, which worked quite well, all sitting in silence in our own houses… Oh, and I nearly forgot – I’ve started learning ancient Greek! I can now recite the alphabet from memory and write a few actual words (shut up about your bloody evening classes Gerald!)
So that’s me. What have you been up to? Let me know – I’d love to hear.
I mentioned yesterday that one of the books I’ve been reading is in the genre of Mormon crime fiction (though Mette Harrison may be that genre in its entirety.) As a fellow Goodreads reviewer commented, His Right Hand is very badly written, the narrative is interrupted by large swodges of exposition and if I could critique it in one phrase it would be the time-honoured show don’t tell. Harrison never passes up the opportunity to explain Mormon history (less is more might be another useful phrase) and dialogue is strewn with so many of these snippets that to read it is like navigating an obstacle course. The main character also has long and rather irritating periods of self-analysis in which she alternately considers it her responsibility to leap in and sort things out and feels guilty for everything that goes wrong; both equally unrealistic postures.
Basically, it’s a murder mystery set in a Mormon community not far from Salt Lake City. A prominent member of the church is found murdered and – here I could warn of spoiler alerts but you’re hardly likely to read it so I won’t bother – in this seemingly perfect family all is not as it seems. Not only is the deceased legally a woman though living as a man (the transgender narrative pursues me everywhere) his wife is not the sweet submissive woman she appears. There’s a gay extra-marital affair and an illegitimate daughter as well as another gay son, all fuelled by more batches of cookies than you could ever wish to lay eyes on, baking cookies being the denominator of femininity in this community. But what kept me ploughing through this was not so much the plot as the insight it afforded into Mormon society and the slow revelation that those inside it care far more about maintaining the structures than about maintaining the people. There are complex layers of authority and what we in the Society of Friends would call oversight, but they have more to do with policing than caring, and they don’t shrink from casting out those who do not conform.
I can’t recommend this book as a novel, but I guess if you’re interested in finding out where Mormons are at, it’s as good a guide as any.
Now: it has just come to my attention that I started this blog intending to write about something else altogether. Synchronicity, when things pop up in a random sequence of coincidences, is something I notice from time to time. You may be thinking of a song you haven’t heard for years, switch on the radio and there it is. Or you might be talking about a person you haven’t seen since childhood and they pop up on Facebook. That sort of thing. It seems to mean something but since Jung first came up with the idea, nobody has been able to say precisely what; and so it was that having picked up this book without any idea of the theme, I also picked up Conan Doyle’s Study in Scarlet. Though both are crime novels, the settings (Baker St and Utah) could hardly be further apart. Or so you might think; yet turning to the rarely-dramatised Part Two of Conan Doyle, what do we find? ‘The Country of the Saints’ in which an as yet unknown character finds himself in Utah and meets the caravan led by Brigham Young. This turns out to be a lengthy back-story to the main murder. Who’d have thought?
I mean, what are the chances of picking up two crime novels more or less at random – in the UK – and finding they both have a Mormon theme?
And how am I doing with watching less TV? Not so bad; last night I read for a bit, then got the keyboard out and played before watching a couple of episodes of Doc Martin. Then reading some more before bed. Total viewing time: 1.5 hours. Not too bad.
It’s natural to one of my generation that anything absurd or strange immediately recalls Python, and this one also serves as a timely tribute to Terry Jones (video unavailable but watch this instead, it’s really funny.) Those of you not of a religious bent (no pun intended, I don’t do that sort of thing) may have scrolled through the recent announcement by the Council of Bishops without it touching the sides, but it took many of us by surprise and I have taken the time to respond to this helpful blog post which explains some of what’s going on.
Basically I’m thankful not to be an Anglican any more because I no longer have to wrestle with dogma and creed. Quakers have always taken an approach to change which is both thoughtful and fluid; we are therefore able to respond to social change without feeling hidebound by doctrine and I’m happy to say that Friends embraced the rights of gays and lesbians as early as the 1970’s. There are a number of sections in Quaker Faith and Practice which deal with this. But if you’re an Anglican (this goes double for Catholics)you have to wrestle with a creed and doctrines that most of us now find outdated and irrelevant, and square the impossible circle of holding on to tradition whilst engaging with society at the same time. It simply can’t be done. So what’s a bishop to do?
I have no idea, but the Bishops’ statement does not seem helpful – but to be fair it does seem to have been more cock-up than conspiracy, at least according to this Church Times article.
What do you think? Perhaps it could not matter less to you but there are gays and lesbians (incredibly) still in the church who will be deeply affected by this debate.
Well, I just don’t know where the Church of England is at right now. It seems to have got its cassocks in a twist about sex (again) in the context of civil partnerships and come up with the spectacularly retrograde advice that sex is only between a man and a woman, and even then they have to be married. So just in case you’re unsure, sex before marriage is out, sex outside marriage is out, and sex if you’re in a gay or lesbian marriage is out. Sex is also out if you’re in a civil partnership but not married. Clear? Basically if you’re not sure, don’t do it. It all sounds a bit like this to me.
What’s not at all clear is where the hell this is coming from. It seems to have come out of the blue and to run counter to the cautious, slow-moving liberalism of recent decades. I wouldn’t say I’ve been following the C of E’s deliberations closely but I do keep an ear to the ground and I’ve heard no rumour of this at all, nor can I find any articles or interviews yet which enlighten me.
You’re probably thinking this couldn’t matter less in your life, and you’re probably right – but it matters to a lot of people. About eighteen months ago I went to the best church service I’d ever attended, a Pride celebration in the parish church of Loughborough. It was fantastic, and in stark contrast to this, probably one of the worst services I’ve ever attended. People felt included and accepted; there was a real sense of communion and love. Instead of people crying outside the church there were people being celebrated within it. This church statement basically tears all that up, because if gays and lesbians can be married but can’t have sex they can’t be fully married.
At the moment I can only speculate on where this is coming from. Is it an attempt to appease Catholics or hard-liners within the church? Or has some faction or other has got hold of the decision-making process? I don’t know. We shall see how these things unfold.But these problems always arise when you have creeds and dogmas. I’m happy to say that Quakers have accepted gays and lesbians as full members with the same rights as straight people ever since the 1970’s. We don’t have a top-down approach to change but a thoughtful, consensual, across-the-board process in which everyone can take part.
Quakers are famous for not having leaders: in a Meeting everyone is equal and even though some people have jobs to do which might make them seem important (like Elders and Overseers, Clerks and Treasurers) it is not in fact seen in that light, nor are people allowed to continue in post longer than three years (renewable for a maximum of another three) so that they don’t become identified with that post or build some sort of power base. It’s a bit like politics in a way, except that you can’t keep being elected time after time and there are no elections anyway.
But the Labour leadership race is very definitely an election and now that the rules have been established, each of us needs to think about who will get our vote. The obvious successor to Corbyn in terms of policy is Rebecca Long-Bailey; however I had already decided not to vote for her (for reasons I’ll come to in a minute) and this decision has been compounded by her support for nuclear weapons – or at least her refusal to rule it out. As a lifelong campaigner against these actual (as opposed to imaginary) weapons of mass destruction I could not vote for someone who declares a readiness to use them.
So who am I supporting then? At the moment I’m going with Emily Thornberry, though if she fails to gain enough support in the early stages I’ll switch to Keir Starmer. Why?Well, various reasons. First, we need someone with heft and experience. Thornberry has been in parliamentsince 2005 and has been a Labour member since she was 17. She has been Shadow Foreign Secretary at a time when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary and challenged him in an informed and thorough way. This experience would also stand her in good stead as Leader of the Opposition. Her socialist credentials are generally sound and I believe she has what it takes to unite the party. Much as I supported Corbyn there is now a general perception both within and outside the party that we need a broader appeal. This does not mean a return to Blairism; neither Thornberry nor Starmer are anything like Blair but they have the heft and experience to knock out the Tories. Thornberry also has the virtue – if you want to see it that way – of being female and it remains a bone of contention that whilst the Tories have had two female leaders we have yet to elect one. For deputy I’m going for Angela Rayner.
You know how you can look at everyday objects for years without wondering why they are as they are? Nicholson Baker wrote an entire book (Mezzanine) on the subject of Things You Look At Without Realising; such as how the hand belt on the tube escalator goes a bit more slowly than the steps so you have to adjust your hold every twenty seconds; or how many times the bag containing your lunch is folded over, or the degrees of difficulty in getting a straw to puncture a thin round section of a carton – all these things the mind notices but doesn’t dwell on – because there’ll be another one along in a minute.
I used to be a bit like that in church services; there’d be something I’d want to think about, like the turn of phrase in a reading (why does it say ‘believe on’ instead of believe in? or the vellum-like texture of the hymn book covers or the font of the prayer sheet) but there wouldn’t be time to reflect on that because something else would happen to drive it out of your mind. Sure, you could sit there for an hour pondering the unique shine of a brass lectern with the light coming through stained glass – but it’s not the Done Thing and besides, it seems a little pointless to spend the time doing that when you’ve gone for the service (come for the service, stay for the hymn-book covers…) Which is why I like Quakers – a while ago I was staring at a mural of seagulls without a single thought in my head, and suddenly it occurred to me that each bird was at a slightly different angle from the others, yet they were all flying together as a group. This gave rise to some thoughts about individuals within the Meeting, in that each of us has our own ‘angle’ but we fly together as a group – and I stood up and gave this as ministry.
I’ve forgotten now what this post was going to be about. Oh yes, I just realised as I was gazing at the things I have plugged into USB’s on my laptop, that they have the same symbol on them. I’m sure you know it; it’s like an unravelled wand of Caduceus and denotes wires plugging in to something. It seems utterly right; yet I don’t know why. Why should that particular design be chosen to indicate plugging in?Yet somehow as you look at it, the thing seems right.
Anyway wish me luck darlings. NaNo starts on Friday and I’m not remotely ready.
This morning I was, against my better judgment, listening to ‘In Our Time.’ It’s not that I dislike the adenoidal tones of Melvyn Bragg – I used to enjoy watching him on t’telly – it’s the programme itself. Somehow they always seem to take an interesting subject and turn it into something dull and ponderous. And I particularly dislike the ubiquity of the historic present (‘Napoleon sees his opportunity and grasps it’, ‘Henry desperately wants a son’) as if this can substitute for interesting narration. But this morning I was grabbed by the subject because they were talking about a theory of child-centred education.
Oo, I thought, I wonder who they’re talking about? It could have been John Stuart Mill or John Holt but it turned out to be Rousseau and my heart sank because, must as I admire his ideas on education they are very definitely For Boys Only. Surprise, surprise, girls must have a completely different system because well, we’re just not that bright, are we? And you know how emotional women get – we just wouldn’t cope (see this explanation.)
But it gets worse – for it transpired (and this I didn’t know) that in doing this ‘great’ work, Rousseau completely abandoned – yes, abandoned – his wife and their five children. I was outraged to hear this, and it reminded me of Enid Blyton and how she neglected her own children in order to write for other people’s. Her elder daughter commented on how confusing it was to read her mother’s descriptions of reading them bedtime stories – all completely fabricated as no such thing ever happened.
Should I be surprised? Is it a general – nay, invariable rule that people who bang on about something don’t actually practise it themselves? Can you think of other examples? Or perhaps counter-examples? Well, I have one – no, hang on- two. I was reading this morning about how St Francis not only preached against the Crusades but went to the Middle East to show friendship and solidarity with Muslims there. When Christians deviated from the gospel he was always ready, not only to point this out but actually to do something about it. As for Gandhi, the ways in which he married practice and preaching are well-known – and as a Quaker I ought to know that Friends aim to put everything we believe into practice.
So what is going on with these others, Rousseau and Blyton et al? Dickens was another case in point; a campaigner for children’s rights who neglected his own family. So is there some kind of philosophical point we can extract from this? And if so, what is it?