It Ain’t Tosh, it’s Santosh

I know I’m bombarding you with posts at the moment but the brain is very fertile right now and who am I to resist? So as a companion piece or riposte, if you will, to the last post here is a tried-and-tested method of dealing with perfectionism, called Santosh.

It’s a Sanskrit word meaning ‘contentment’ (the very sound of it is comforting, and that’s no coincidence, as I’ll explain) but not the lying-on-the-sofa-watching-TV kind of contentment, if indeed that is contentment at all. No, it’s the contentment that consists in being satisfied with what you’ve achieved, no matter where you might end up. To paraphrase Kipling, it’s meeting with triumph and disaster and treating those two impostors just the same (Kipling was born in India and was very influenced by ‘Eastern’ thought.) Anyway, leaving Kipling on one side for a moment, contentment or santosh is the practice of being content in the moment with what one has achieved. It does not imply self-satisfaction, nor does it prevent future progress; in fact I would suggest that without santosh there is no real progress.

Consider the case of someone (I know wherof I speak) who is overweight and desires to be slim. Their life may be dominated by self-disgust and thoughts of how they would like to look. But far from being a spur to achievement this is an obstacle because acceptance is lacking. Unless you can accept where you are – however briefly – you can’t move on: it’s like trying to find your way somewhere by putting the wrong postcode into your satnav.

Sanskrit is an ancient and astonishing language, and one in which sound and sense work closely together. This can be seen more clearly in the practice of mantra where a word or phrase has a meaning, a sound and an appearance, each of which can be used for meditation.

T-t-t-t-t-that’s all folks!

I miss seeing cartoons on telly.

Kirk out

The Taming of the Shrewd

When OH was little they visualised a shrew being like a mouse with its nose sharpened: I like that idea as it sounds like a good Just So story.  I could even write it: ‘Once upon a time there was a mouse who stuck its nose into a pencil sharpener…’ I won’t go into the misogynistic symbolism of the shrew, but it’s interesting to reflect on the history of the human nose.  Why, when someone is inquisitive, do we call them nosy?  It surely can’t be coincidence that every inquisitive person I’ve ever known (when I’ve remembered to check) has a large or very pointy nose.  I guess it figures that if you’re curious about the world and not afraid to – well, poke your nose in – you’d have a large or pointy thing keeping your eyes apart.  (My nose, in case you’re interested, is not large or pointy but it is hard; a fact OH never fails to point out when assessing my character.)

A propos of this it occurred to me, watching last night’s Louis Theroux  investigation into sexual abuse on American campuses, that he has a very large nose – and there’s no denying that Theroux is an inquisitive person who has made a career out of poking his nose into other people’s business.  He goes to places and asks questions most of us would feel very uncomfortable asking.  In this programme he follows a couple of cases where men accused of sexual assault on campus were acquitted by the courts but found guilty by the university and suspended from study.

The programme puts us the position of a jury hearing from witnesses, Theroux acting as both defence and prosecution.  He is an expert on getting people to talk and allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions.  Of course this is not a trial and what we see is only what the programme chooses to tell us; we have to remember that.


The first guy, an Afghan man who came from a refugee camp to America and made it to Yale, initially appeared quiet and unassuming but later on, doubt was thrown on his story by someone who had previously been an advocate for him.  The truth of these stories is very hard to piece together for the simple reason that only the two people present in the room actually know what happened.  So you have to fall back on who you think is the more credible witness.

I ended up completely changing my mind about the Afghan guy and seeing him as smooth and manipulative; but there’s a wider point here about how you deal with situations where the law cannot satisfactorily establish innocence or guilt.  Rape and sexual assault are horrible things and you can’t help wondering whether the ponderous and long-drawn-out procedures of a courtroom are the best place to establish the truth and dispense justice.  Perhaps for more minor offences we need a different environment, something akin to family courts, perhaps – an environment that’s less hostile and adversarial.  There’s just something a little bizarre on finding a shelf full of files detailing court procedures on whether a man did or did not hold a woman’s hands above her head and stick his mitt down her pants.  It’s not that it’s out of proportion; it’s somehow alien to the original situation.  I don’t mean to trivialise such events which are horrid; I just wonder.

Kirk out

Daffodils are Surprisingly Human

I was looking at the daffs from yesterday as I ate my daffodil-coloured egg-yolk, and all of a sudden I wanted them all to be facing me.  It seemed almost rude that some of the bunch were looking out of the window as I was talking to them, while others were staring at the cooker.  So I turned a couple of heads in my direction and then I felt better – and then it occurred to me to wonder, why on earth had I done that?  It set me thinking…

Daffodils are surprisingly human.  They have these trumpet-like heads which look, as Wordsworth observed, like a crowd of people.  We know his lines too well for them to surprise us, but if you observe a plot of daffs in a high wind they really do seem like a host:

‘When all at once I saw a crowd

a host of golden daffodils.’

Somebody once asked me how those lines were different from doggerel, and at first I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer.  I think it’s true, actually, that at first glance a lot of Wordsworth does seem like doggerel.  He uses deliberately simple – even simplistic – language and fairly basic rhythms.  So how is it different?

Let’s take a few lines of something I consider to be doggerel.  It’s a poem by Pam Ayres.  Apologies to all those who like her, but I can’t stand Pam Ayres at any price, and here’s one which perfectly illustrates why:

The rhythm and rhymes are facile and there’s not an original thought in it – except, wait!  I actually like the line ‘the Abbey seemed a place between the heavens and the earth.’  And the next verse is quite touching as it refers to ‘the saddest thing I ever saw’ which was ‘Prince Charles.  The boy who had to shake hands with his mother.’  But does she mean it to be sad?

It will be objected that these are comic poems and should not be judged in the same breath as Wordsworth.  OK then, let’s consider, say, Kipling.  He had his moments but a lot of his stuff was tub-thumping doggerel in my view.  Take this one, for example:

or this:

So what, then, is doggerel?  I would say that a starting definition is the sacrifice of meaning and feeling to an overall rhyme or rhythmic scheme.  William McGonagall strained every sinew to make a line rhyme with its predecessor, as in this verse from the famous ‘Tay Bridge Disaster’:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,

Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So how can we acquit the divine Wordsworth of the infamous charge of writing doggerel?  Let’s consider the lines we know so well:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

The simile ‘lonely as a cloud’ is too familiar for us to appreciate it, but if you stop and think it’s a good one.  A small cloud in a clear sky can be seen as lonely; it also gives the perspective of the poet looking down on the daffodils.  Then, while he is floating, he is suddenly aware of the flowers: ‘all at once I saw’ – and he takes them in as a ‘crowd’, seeing them together which puts them in opposition to his singleness, his alone-ness (you can tell I’ve got a degree in English).  But the most telling image is that of the ‘host’.  If you look at a large clump of daffodils they really do look like a crowd of heads; it’s a well-observed image, and the words ‘fluttering’ and ‘dancing’ describe exactly the kind of movement that daffodils make.

On the other hand, McGonagall’s poem tells us nothing that we couldn’t get from a newspaper report.  We do not see the bridge or the river; the first is described as ‘beautiful’ and the second as ‘silvery’, a word he always uses to describe the Tay and which is presumably as inexact as it is repetitive.

Kipling’s poem, ‘Cleared,’ however, impresses us with nothing so much as its rhythm.  Di-dum-di-dum-didum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum-di-dum etc etc.  Everything is sacrificed to this rhythm, and everything suffers as a result.  It’s effective as a piece of rhetoric, but as poetry?  Hm.

Well, I’d be interested in your views.  You know what to do…

Kirk out

Here’s today’s poem

(this is not finished yet)

I Don’t Know, I’ve Never Kippled

(to my son)

It’s good to be a man, my son, but better

to realise what it is that you are not

I hope you’ll realise, having read this letter

that genius engenders tons of rot:

Ars longa, vita brevis? Don’t be daft –

It doesn’t hold a candle as a rule;

No genius without penis? How we laughed!

These guys know nothing – send them back to school!

When you can make a shopping list with one hand

and type your magnum opus with the other

Nor think youself embarrassingly unmanned

to imitate the actions of a mother

If you can change a diarrhoeic nappy

and turn to put that nappy in the bin

and turn again to find your baby crappy

and clean it up, and never lose your grin:

If toddler no: 1 is screaming murder

as you get toddler no: 2 to sleep

If you’re not thinking that your life is purdah

If thoughts of drinking beer don’t make you weep:

If you sit down a sec, put on some Dylan

and in that second, lo! the baby wakes

and you can smile and still not prove a villain

You’ll have an inkling of what it takes:

If poems wake you up at 3 am

and, scrabbling blearily for pen and pad

you poke the baby’s eyes instead of them

and still the thought of children makes you glad:

If you can be content to be a man

And say of us, “ma semblable, ma soeur

you’ll come to understand your nature’s span

How small the difference between him and her:

Not to define yourself is very freeing

– and, what is more, you’ll be a human being.

This is of course a parody of the well-known poem, “If” by Rudyard Kipling.

There are aspects of Kipling I deplore, and most of them seem to be exhibited in this poem, hence the parody. When writing the poem I became aware of wanting to present my son with a positive way of being a man, and not being quite sure how to do this. Any thoughts?

PS The title is an answer to the question, “do you like Kipling?”

PPS Not 100% sure about the word “diarrhoeic”, though if it exists, I’m sure at least I’ve spelt it correctly.