It really is upside down

Closing entry

Friday, December 19, 2008

Visit my new blog.

Enough is enough. I've had it with reproaching myself for never updating this site. If you're still visiting - thank you. And please check out the above link.

I hope I've learned something from this first attempt. The new site is:

  • easier to maintain and update - I don't have to type HTML if I don't feel like it;
  • accepts comments, anonymously if you want, although please give me some kind of clue;
  • more up to date, providing a "feed" if you've got the software to monitor it;
  • easier to link to - you can link to individual articles, which is a function at least one person has specifically requested.

The new site uses pseudonyms for any real life characters. I go by the name of "Vet", for reasons you can probably work out if you care; S-C is "Susan", S-H "Sarah". They're the same people - all I'm trying to do is make us harder to Google.

I do hope to see your comments there. Lack of feedback makes it very hard to maintain a blog; so please visit and use the comment function, once in a while.

Early entries:

Once again: thank you for reading. Be well. I hope to see you soon.

And Merry Christmas to you.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Seems like a lot of bad things have happened since I left home. A few weeks ago I was mourning the loss of Humphrey Lyttleton; before him, there was George MacDonald Fraser and Dave Allen. But this weekend, I had incomparably the worst news yet: Dick, the cat who lived with me for more than 14 years, has died.

"He was the best of cats, he was the worst of cats..."

No, that's not true. He was the most beautiful of cats, to be sure -- but that hardly works the same way. One person dubbed him "Satan-cat", after encountering an unwanted gift in his shoe one morning; but Dick treated the slur with the disdain it deserved.

"In the beginning, Dick created the heavens and the earth."

That's closer to truth. But I don't want to talk about philosophy here. I want to talk about my cat. I just don't know how to begin. How about the Greatest Book Ever Written(TM)?

"In a certain small town in England, which I do not wish to name, there lived not long ago a cat -- one of those who have always water in the bowl, a sunny resting place, a clawed sofa and the run of the house."

No, no reaching literary allusion is going to do justice to Dick. He was his own creature.

From the first moment I saw him -- a bundle of dark fur on a dark sofa, almost invisible until he opened an outsized, needle-filled pink mouth to hiss at me -- I was captured. He was a tiny kitten when we first got him, timid and fearless, fragile and indomitable. When I was trying to teach him not to bite, I once batted him so hard that he literally tumbled, end-over-end, down the full length of the bed and off the foot, only to leap straight back up to return to the game.

As a kitten, we dubbed Dick "preternaturally clever". I don't remember, now, what feat of intellect earned him that title, but I still believe it to this day.

People who think they know about cats will often talk about the hunting instinct: the irresistibility of toys such as a laser pointer or a motorised mouse, the foods that Eight Out Of Ten Owners prefer, the territorial drive, leadership of the pride. But people who really know about cats, know that all of this is just so much bovine manure. Cats don't follow rules, not even the one about not following rules. And 'instinct' is, if anything, a lesser factor in their actions than it is for most humans.

Take mirrors, for instance. It took him maybe five minutes to master the magic of mirrors, after which he never gave them a second glance. More humans should have such instinct. Or toys. He was a serious-minded cat; it was hard to distract him, even with such supposedly sovereign lures as catnip or a pocket torch.

Or, to take a more practical example, doors -- a barrier designed by humans, more or less explicitly for the purpose of being impassable to animals. I well remember the time we tried to make him sleep downstairs, putting two closed doors between him and the bedroom. It took him less than twenty minutes to get through them both.

In temperament a philosopher, Dick loved to sit by me, feeding me ideas as I engaged in battles of wits with the television or the Internet. When there was news or opinion that had me foaming at the mouth, he would shrug them off. In a foolish world, he said in the language of silence, what can you expect but folly?

By spirit, however, he was a lion. In Hitchin he would prowl through the long grass of the unkempt gardens, collecting burrs in his luxuriant coat and, I presume, seeking some warm spot to doze the day away and dream of the Serengeti. In Bath, he would sit on the deck and roar across his territory, a blood-curdling yowl that must have had small animals a mile away shivering in their burrows. There he began to grow more sociable, often putting in an appearance for visitors -- to their unqualified delight, for as even the cat-haters admitted, he was truly beautiful: a supermodel among cats.

A free spirit, he took care never to be taken for granted. I remember stocking up on brands of cat food he liked, only to see him turn his nose away from them day after day. I remember experimenting with sounds I could make, to see which ones would attract his attention; he would look around suddenly if he heard a new one -- but only once. In 14 years, I must have worked through a hundred ways to call him, none of which worked if he didn't want to be called. I remember walking down the wet street in my slippers in the small hours, peering hopefully into other people's gardens, trying to find the little bleeder before I locked up for the night; returning, at length, cold and wet and heavy of heart, to find him sitting noncholantly on the dining table.

But he did have habits. In general, he would come to bed sometime after me, when my body warmth had had time to seep through the duvet, curling up in the warmest stable spot he could find. On weekend mornings, he was the alarm-clock of last resort -- he'd get up and begin his morning round of the house about eightish, and if I was still in bed by the time he finished -- roundabout nine-thirty -- he'd come and drag the covers off me and walk on my face until I took the hint.

When I left the UK, I bequeathed Dick to my parents, who have kept him this past three and a half years. Thus I know he was well cared for in his retirement. But this weekend, I had the phone call I have long dreaded: Dick died, peacefully in my mother's lap, barely hours before the vet was due to arrive to put him down.

Dick was my dearest companion, friend and confidant. He stayed with me, caring and holding me true through my darkest years, giving me, day by day, the push I needed to get on with tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Until someone marketed the paw-operated can-opener, I knew I would always have a reason to keep going. Thankfully my life is no longer so bleak; but this weekend, one of its warmest and brightest lights blinked out.

Lie dry, rest robbed, my beast.
You have kicked from a dark den, leaped up the whinnying light,
And dug your grave in my breast.

-- Dylan Thomas

Small-country news

Thursday, May 8, 2008

I think I've mentioned before what a small country New Zealand is.

I mean, it's not Liechtenstein-tiny. There's room to lie down without getting wet, and there's more people here than, say, Bikini Bottom. But on a scale of 1 to China, it's no more than a two, two-point-five tops. Or to be more objective, about the size of Ireland.

But Ireland is part of Europe: there's 150 million people, speaking a dozen languages, living within two hours' flight from Dublin. Fly two hours from Auckland, and your chances are slim of finding anything that speaks more than 'dolphin'.

As an immigrant from a biggish country, I never stop noticing this effect, in differences with varying degrees of obviosity1. One of the most obvious is in our national news. It's not so long since "Cat stuck in tree" made headlines for the best part of a week (culminating, you'll be relieved to hear, in the joyous "Cat coaxed down from tree with Marmite").

And although there's "big" news too -- today's Herald front page, above the fold, features both the Myanmar disaster and the economic pinch on the home front -- it's not unusual to see stories that wouldn't look out of place in a small-town newspaper.

Which brings me, via one of the most tortuous introductions I've ever written, to today's news. A couple who had been married for 61 years died within half an hour of each other on Saturday, despite being in completely different places and quite unaware of each other's health at that moment. It's one of those eerie happenings that seems, to the impressionable (viz, me) to suggest something more than mere chance.

The religiously inclined may chalk it up to Providence, or whatever alias they're using for it at the moment. Sceptics can write it off as coincidence. But I'm not convinced by either explanation. It's one of those anecdotal cases that seems, to me, to cry out for speculation about forms of connection or communication that simply don't fit into our current scientific models.

"Poor chap", you may be thinking. "Only a few years away from the world, and already he's thinking like a hick." And you may be right. I'm a news junkie by inclination, and the sheer isolation of this country drives me crazy sometimes. But when you're not bombarded with "news" every day, you tend to develop a slower, more reflective mode of thinking, and that's what I'm offering you an insight into now.

You're welcome.

[1] or, if you must, obviousness.

How writing has ruined religion

Friday, May 2, 2008

As a child I had several books of "mythology". Greek myths, Norse and Teutonic myths, British myths -- I loved these stories, and the idea that people had once really believed in these figures, or that they might have roots in real events, made them all the more exciting. You wanted to know about how Tyr lost his hand, the name of Achilles's mother or why Merlin disappeared from Arthur's court, I was your go-to guy. You can imagine how popular that made me.

Later I encountered other versions of the same stories. The recent (execrable) movie Troy shows the city besieged and falling within about ten days, rather than ten years. The (much better) Excalibur shows Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone -- contradicting the version I learned, in which these were two different swords.

Sometimes these differences would bother me. "That's wrong", I'd say. "How could Mordred raise an army while Arthur and his knights were still in charge? They have to bugger off somewhere to give him his opening." And anyone who overheard would be struck by my wisdom and insight, and would hang around me waiting for more nuggets to drop from my lips. It was embarrassing.

But gradually I came to realise that I'd misunderstood the nature of "myth". The storybooks I'd had as a child were stories of mythology -- but as soon as I, in my childish thirst for truth, began to think of them as "authoritative", they ceased to be myths. It's the nature of myths that they have no authoritative version, but are told and retold in many different forms by different people.

And therein lies their value.

Myths are vehicles for debate. They explore human nature, particularly those strange moral questions that can't be addressed within the confines of reality -- questions about conflicts of loyalties, about destiny and free will, right and wrong. Such as "What would you do if you knew your son was going to kill you?" That's a sound mythic staple, from Chronos to Oedipus. The story of Narcissus is a moral tale on the pitfalls of beauty; Orpheus and Daedalus show the limitations of talent and genius. Using these figures, it becomes possible to explore the edges of morality, the cases where our normal everyday instincts of right and wrong begin to break down.

Nowadays we use fiction, particularly science fiction, for this purpose. But even with the requirement of originality, we still use the same archetypes and plotlines. Myth is simply a way of sharing characters between storytellers, reusing the same figures so that the audience already knows their background.

So with all of these stories, their power -- their entire raison d'etre -- is to be retold, over and over. If you have an idea about what it would be like to be immortal, put it into the mouth of Tithonus. If you want to argue that tactics are more important than brute force in war, tell the story of the wooden horse. If a woman were impregnated by an animal, how would we treat the offspring? Let's talk about the Minotaur. Or, more practically, how important is it to punish the wicked and spare the innocent? That's a question that turns up time and again, and brings me -- via such examples as Noah and Lot -- to the Bible.

When a collection of these stories was compiled into the Torah, they changed -- in much the same way as when I absorbed those other tales as a child. Suddenly, there was an authoritative version. Instead of being retold, now you could read it, and the version you read would be the same as what your father and your teacher had read before you. Now, instead of philosopher-artists recreating their own versions, a new breed of scholars appeared, whose strength was in exegesis rather than storytelling. And thus religion as we know it was born.

The notion of constancy, or continuity, is enormously important in this kind of religion. When, roundabout the sixth century AD, some Jewish scholars decided to add vowels to their written language, it never even occurred to them to change the actual text of the Torah. But it was permissible to annotate it. And so they added vowels as decoration to the text, without touching the sacred characters themselves.

Contrast this attitude with the older, pagan attitude to their holy stories. When some Icelandic skald composed The Flyting of Loki, it never occurred to anyone to take it literally. After all, it would be silly to imagine that the poet was actually present in Valhalla to take down the exchange of insults between the gods in some kind of runic shorthand. The intended audience appreciated it for what it was: a tally of the defects and follies of the gods' characters, expressed in a creative form. The idea that it was "true" in a literal sense, or that these were the actual words spoken by real figures, would have struck them as absurd.

But the Bible changed all that. The story was written down, it was unchanging, it was constant. No longer a vehicle for debate, it became instead a subject of debate. And this changed the character of the stories themselves, from myth to history. It makes no sense to ask of a myth, "Is that true, is that right, is it exact?" But write the same story down, and that becomes a valid, even obvious, question.

And once the question is asked, what can the priest say but "Yes"? Oh, they can -- and for centuries, they did -- equivocate, talking about deeper truths and hidden meanings, but in the end they are inevitably forced into giving a simple answer to what should be a very, very complex question. And at that point, intellectual decay sets in: their religion ceases to be a living, moral debate, and becomes something hidebound, sterile and increasingly irrelevant.

I'm not sure exactly when this happened to Judaism. I'm told that books were still being added to the Hebrew Bible as late as 450BC, and possibly much later, which suggests a living tradition at least up to that point; but by the time of Christ, the springs of Hebrew prophecy were officially dry. What was written, was written; and what wasn't, never would be as far as the Jewish faith (lampooned in the New Testament figures of the Pharisees) was concerned.

The Pharisees of the New Testament (which, it should be noted, are not necessarily representative of their faith -- possibly Jesus was unfortunate in those He encountered, or possibly the Gospel-writers are simply unfair) insisted most rigorously on the letter of the Scripture. If you wanted to find a loophole in God's laws, you had to justify it with a text from elsewhere in the same law; arguing from common sense or simple justice would get you nowhere.

Jesus was having none of this. Every "jot and tittle" of the Bible would stand, He said, but there was no monopoly on its interpretation. For my money, Christ's great contribution to religion was this insight: that text has to be interpreted, not followed blindly or, if you'll pardon the pun, religiously. The whole of the law and the commandments, He said, could be boiled down to just two strictures: "Love God and love your neighbour". Everything else was mere elaboration on those basic themes.

When Jesus spoke against the "Pharisees", He nearly always lumped them together with "scribes". And what is a scribe, but someone who places their trust in the written word? Jesus Himself rejected writing as a medium for religious teaching. He chose to teach purely in spoken form; there's only one mention of His writing anything, and nobody at the time seems to have thought it was important to preserve that writing. (There's an Orthodox tradition about what He wrote, but it's just that -- a tradition. Nobody claims it's "true".)

And so Jesus taught -- using stories -- using, to put it bluntly, fiction. Take the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-8). Jesus describes a situation, establishes characters, puts words into their mouths. Now, according to Christians, this is God Himself speaking; but (I believe) not even the most rigorous literalist insists that these must have been real characters who really existed. We understand that this is a story, but its point is no less valid for that. To this day, preachers (and rabbis, and for that matter the teachers of all religions I'm aware of) do the same thing.

Yet somehow, the literalists don't extend that license to the Bible's authors themselves. Every word that (the writers traditionally identified as) Moses, or Samuel, or John wrote must, surely, be the unvarnished truth -- to suggest otherwise would make them liars, and cast doubt on their whole testimony. Although when Jesus does it, that doesn't make Him a liar. Erm...

So, as a thought experiment, let's try dispensing with that assumption. What if Jesus didn't actually teach that parable at all, but it's invented and put into His mouth by Luke to illustrate what he's learned of Christian teachings? In much the same way as Plato, for instance, uses the character of his mentor Socrates to express his (Plato's) ideas in dialogues. What difference would that make to how we view the Bible?

It would mean that the Bible is a starting point for debate, not a final argument. Luke may have been divinely inspired, but he was not God and he was not infallible.

This argument is anathema to most Christians. If the Bible can be "wrong", then what can we really believe, what can we rely on? If the Bible can be "wrong", then why should we take any notice of it at all?

The answer to both questions is: we should believe what the pagans believed; we should believe what we are persuaded or shown to believe. If the Bible's arguments seem, to us, to be true, then we should accept them until something better is offered. If not, then we should assume that they were written by human beings with less complete information than is available to us, and even if the authors may not have agreed with us, nor would they have stuck blindly to their own version in the face of contradictory evidence.

But it's all up to us. It's our decision. To pretend otherwise is simply "bad faith", in every sense of the term.

"It's your job and you wanted it."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The above title is a line from the very first episode of Yes, Prime Minister, the popular British sitcom that ran from 1986 to 1988. The imperturbable civil servant is instructing the incoming prime minister of his responsibilities, specifically the procedure for destroying the world if he feels like it.

("What if I were to get drunk?" "On the whole, it would be safer if you didn't.")

It's something I often wish I could say to politicians, as they duck and weave to avoid the responsibilities of their office. Managers too. I've seen them go to astonishing lengths to avoid taking the decisions for which they are responsible. And yet they can't bring themselves to delegate the power to someone else.

Take Iraq, for instance. Seldom does a week go by without someone, probably General Petraeus, saying that the Iraqi politicians are shirking their hard decisions. I just want to slap him. "Last time Iraqis took hard decisions, you killed them. Now you're standing behind them with an army while they try to work out what you'll allow them to do. You've made it abundantly clear, in word and deed, that they're Not Allowed to decide anything that you don't like, so why not just cut the crap and YOU tell them what you want them to do?"

"A free Iraq will fight terrorists rather than harbor them", President Bush said this week, echoing — inadvertently, I'm sure — the age-old controversy about free will versus divine omniscience. If it's free, how can he possibly know what it will choose to do?

But the president throws the word "free" around like a talisman. In a way, it is. "Freedom" has been the unifying theme of the Republican party for as long as I can remember. A search for the word on the Republican National Committee's website yields 1020 hits; the same search on gives two results. (Well, on the first attempt it gave me a server error, which I thought was kinda poignant.)

Sartre called freedom a "burden". But Sartre never had 100,000 armed men telling him he was free. Then he'd have known what a burden really was.