Archive for February, 2012

It must have been in about 1971 that I was in Ireland, visiting my wife’s parents.  We used to go there once or twice a year in those days, and I got to know the locals quite well.  One evening in winter we were with old Michael and Katie (of the MacCoilidh family) in their marvellously warm living room in their little cottage by the main road.  Someone (not me) suggested that we ought to be singing so as to bring cheer to the bleak frosty night outside.  That was a cheap trick because none of those three would be the first to sing a single note ; and so I was obliged to go through my entire repertoire – all borrowed from the Dubliners –  and all of which I faithfully murdered, in both tune and word.  But nobody cared for the musical niceties ; the point was that we had a wail of a time.

After a while, old Michael rose from the fireside.  He was a short man with jet-black hair and blue eyes ; he was wiry and as strong as a typical farmer of those parts.  He said little, but always his words were kind ; and always he had a ready smile.  And always he was rather shy.  So now, having risen from his chair he stood, slightly bow-legged in the way of farmers, by the door to the scullery and back garden.  As if he was not sure of what to say next, he tapped me on the shoulder and beckoned me to follow him.  Into the pitch-black of the garden we went, Michael leading and me not having a clue of where we were or where we were going.  Utter darkness.

“I expect ye’ll want to pay a visit,” he whispered when we were out of earshot of the ladies inside.  “Come, follow me.”

After a few more yards, took my arm so as to point me in a particular direction.  “There, now, this is the place, d’ye see?”

Actually, I couldn’t see anything.  But, by following the sounds of my host, I probably managed to do the decent thing ; but I shall never be sure, because Michael was far, far too much of a gentleman ever to remark on another gentleman’s bad aim in circumstances such as these.

All this came to mind a month or two back, when I was reading the adventures of a Victorian parson who was the incumbent of a remote country parish.  In those days, ordinary country people had no inside toilets ; indeed, they had no proper toilets at all.  It was the task of the man of the house to dig the pit that the entire family would use for their convenience.  The procedure was quite simple : when the stench of the pit became obnoxious, he would dig another and use the rubble to fill the old one.  And, if he failed to maintain these arrangements, he would soon have the parson on his doorstep to read the Riot Act to him.  Wives knew how to make good use of parsons in those days.

And all this came to mind again yesterday, when I read of the doughty Indian bride who refused to live with her husband until he provided a toilet fit for a lady to use.  Of course, he protested.  He couldn’t see why his new wife shouldn’t just use the ground in some corner somewhere – just as he did.

Well, she wasn’t having that!  “I want a proper toilet,” she demanded ; and vowed to stay at home with her parents until the man of her dreams came up with the goods.  I couldn’t help wondering how different her life would be if she had a good, old-fashioned Victorian parson to turn to.  He would soon have had that idle young man busy digging a proper pit ; he would probably have boxed his ears as well.

Now, I don’t know what life is like in a poor village in India ; I can only guess.  But, thanks to the country parson, I do have an idea of what poor country people are like.  He describes the poor people as being very poor indeed.  But they were so often very far from being pleasant.  They (both men and women) tended easily to violence and drunkenness ; and, of course, idleness.  Their children were often disastrously neglected and abused.  What the poor people needed, almost more than anything else, was leadership ; for they were incapable of improving themselves.  And it was generally the parson who provided that leadership, assisted by whomever he could recruit.

Also, with people such as these, a deal of bossiness was needed, for the poorest of people lack the discipline needed to lead useful lives.  They lacked both discipline and knowledge.  One has to admire the country parsons ; after all, nobody forced them to devote their lives to the poorest.

I imagine that parts of rural India are not much different from rural Britain in ages past.  But, that example of the bride and her lavatory remind me of the great differences between Oriental thought and Western thought.  Of course, we are not supposed to make unfavourable comparisons, are we?  We are supposed to be all relativistic and multi-cultural.  But the old complaint, that the East is fatalistic, has truth in it I think.  Does this explain the poverty in an ancient civilisation (like India’s) where almost fantastic degrees of wealth have been enjoyed by the elite for so long?  How do we explain an ancient country very rich in minerals, in agricultural land, in abundant fisheries, having such abject poverty in its midst?

Can it only be a lack of leadership?  Or is it more to do with aims?  After all, to be a leader, one must not only be bossy ; one must have a clear idea of where to go ; and an idea of how to get there.

And what about Katie and Michael?  For all I shall ever know about that dark night, they might have had the most resplendent toilet facilities in all Ireland – perhaps it was just that the light bulb had blown.


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I have never been an habitual reader of the Bible.  This is a failing, I know, but my carelessness goes back to my childhood, at a time when I suppose I identified the Bible with school assemblies – and I more or less hated school.  It is the same with our great authors – Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, et al ; I associate them all with school, and I have more or less ignored them all until comparatively recently.

As a result of all this, I am not like a cradle Christian, and for that I am somewhat grateful for my early life.  I am grateful not least because I spent so much time trying to make sense of the crazy world of the adults in my life that I became insatiably inquisitive about all things.  But, most of all, I became inquisitive about people and what makes them tick.  In other words, I am religious without being hampered by religiosity.

Of course, much of what I learned came from books ; for it’s all very well to observe behaviour in order to learn, but it is vain to try to invent theories that explain that behaviour without reference to greater minds who have given the matter more thought.  And in the course of my explorations, I have learned that it is also vain to trust the theories of others uncritically.  There are few experiences more depressing than a correspondence or a conversation with someone who quotes Shakespeare by the yard or the Book of Genesis by the metre ; or a blogger who pastes whole column-feet from Wikipedia.

With regard to my approach to learning, I recently came across two kindred spirits, and I stress that they are both far more clever than I ; and the second of those spirits is possibly far more clever than most people give him credit for.

DH Lawrence is not particularly well-known for his philosophy and his religion.  But I do recommend his very last book, published a year after his death.  It is called Apocalypse.  In it he addresses the meaning of the book, and compares his understanding with the many other opinions that have flourished since the earliest times ; opinions which range from the scholarly to the downright loony.  I have skimmed through Lawrence’s Apocalypse, as I usually do with a new book, and have only just begun to read it.

In the Introduction, there is a quotation which caught my eye : Lawrence wrote this :-

I am no ‘scholar’ of any sort.  But I am very grateful to scholars for their sound work.  I have found hints, suggestions for what I say here in all kinds of scholarly books, from Yoga and Plato and St. John the Evangel and the early Greek philosophers like Herakleitos down to Frazer and his ‘Golden Bough,’ and even Freud and Frobenius.  Even then I only remember hints – and I proceed by intuition.

Now here we have someone who is no mere book-learner.  He gathers information and proceeds to think about it ; and from his thinking he receives trustworthy intuitions – spontaneous realizations about the meaning of what he has read.  He does not feel bound by what he has read, but uses his readings as a springboard to deeper understandings.  He is a true seeker of knowledge.

Also he writes elsewhere that you can divide books into two classes : those that do not bear re-reading : and those that do.  A good book, he says, will offer new revelations at each successive reading.

Now all this is just what I should have said if only I had Lawrence’s skill with thoughts and words.  For, surely he is right on both counts.  For books by even the great writers are not there to be taken at face value ; they are not there to be slavishly believed and slavishly quoted from.  Even the greatest books are there to be intelligently interpreted and re-interpreted ; this is the secret of their greatness ; this is the seat of their power ; this is the key to the evolution of human consciousness.  Any other approach comes close to idolatry.

But there are limits to interpretation.  The aim is to allow the meaning of the original text to evolve ; to keep its spirit alive ; for it is the spirit that gives the text its life.  The aim is not merely to change the meaning of the text, for that is not evolution, but substitution, and that is likely to end in meaninglessness. I regret that many interpreters make that mistake.

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Atop the lonely mountainside
There sits a lonely child ;
The chill that penetrates his bones
Makes hard his soul and wild.

He thought him freedom he would find
When once he broke him free
From labours of the rocky climb.
But it was not to be.

Thirteen long years of study toiled
To learn the ways, the thought
Required ; that adults said they knew.
He sees that all was nought.

The liberation promised him,
By those whom learning thralled,
Scant record left ; now he could see
That ignorance him walled.

Forlorn he sat, that lonely youth,
Beside a wind-stripped tree,
His intellect was numb with cold
His mind and soul agree.

The wide warm world before him spread
Beneath his rocky perch ;
So many things unknown to him
Appeared in mists to search.

‘Twas there the knowledge that he sought ;
A-far from barren prose ;
‘Twas there the brooks of living flowed,
Where dwells the summer rose.

There, too, the creatures of the wood
Are born to roam and fly
According to their natures’ will,
So free from pedants dry.

How, far below, each lifesome thing
Did raise its smiling head !
Their gazes turned to meet his eye
And sullen hues were shed !

High-hearted now, he raised his soul.
Or did his soul raise him?
He cared not which nor gave it thought,
Such joy did fire his whim.

And with his soul, he raised his eyes
(Or did his soul raise them?)
And saw, above the kindly mist,
A sight worth more than gem.

A mountain tow’rd afar from where
His climb had left him sad ;
All clad in green and topped in white,
All for the new-woke lad.

Resolved he was, from that point on,
Exploring for to go ;
To seek belov’d enlightenment
And cast away his woe.

‘Begone!’ he cried as down he swept,
By rock and thistle foul,
Forever down to that old ground
Where doubts went cheek by jowl.

‘Let come that light!’ he cried again,
As through the town he sped,
“Which melts the gloom of pallid thought
Where doubt and dust are bred.’

Behind him left he bricks and slate
And streets of tarmac black ;
Such speed he had that all was blur,
No thought of going back.

Now on he raced, by path and lea,
Towards the vista seen
To offer promises of joy,
Of treasures bright and keen.

‘Cross moor and hill, through copse and fen,
By dells’ and dingles’ charm,
The young man scythed his merry way.
And learned he nought of harm.

His tomes were but a mem’ry now,
His pains a source of strength.
Long dreary hours of classroom talk
Were shrunken in their length.

So here at last, in Nature’s arms,
The spring of all that’s wise,
He felt he had come home at last,
Had won a mighty prize.

‘Mid scents and sounds, and colours soft
He felt the taste, the zest
Of perfect peace, once only dreamed.
So laid him down to rest.

Jamie MacNab 2012

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