Hark! The silent night sings

Well, it’s been a year since I last posted here. A year that has been awful for me personally, for half of the UK, for much of Europe, for half of the USA and for the world in general, if more particularly for fans of David Bowie and Prince.

But amid all the upheaval, strife and division, some things remain constant. Yes: the High Wycombe Salvation Army Brass Band is again at Marylebone Station. And yes, it is still playing out of tune. And yes, the same undimmable light still shines in the eyes of the Sally Army lady collecting coins under the destination board.

And as we near the end of 2016, some apsects of life and of the world appear as urecognizable as the brass band’s carols. With my family now divided and the country seemingly going through the same kind of separation I feel like everywhere I look there are irreconcilable differences between people who still have to work together to keep things going.

Being in the position of meeting predominantly remainer “truther”s in real life and predominantly leaver “post-truther”s online, I have strong sense of the alienation from each other that the two sides feel. It has been obvious for years that there is a large section of society that has no sense of being represented by representative democracy and used the opportunity of the June referendum to scream its outrage. It is perhaps only now becoming apparent how frightened those of us whose world-view has actually been represented fairly well by our minority-elected representatives (however much we complain about them) should be. We have much to lose, many long-suppressed fears to face and a desperate need to work out how to live in a new world that presently makes no sense to us; those who voted to tear down our Safe European Home may make themselves worse off in the short term by doing so but they have faith that they will be rewarded in the Brexit afterlife and find a world in which they feel more of a sense of belonging.

In my own life, I have many fears about the loss of people and comforts I had grown used to and – undoubtedly – taken for granted. The silent nights when I find myself completely alone can be terrifying and I know I have many changes to make to deal with my changed world. But I also understand why the others felt the need to pull that former existence apart and that they can see positives for the future. Those are the snowdrops I also have to look for through this winter.

Shortly before the trauma of separation I had spent two weeks in Canada on business. This was possibly the most disorienting period of time I have ever experienced, in which I felt more isolated, detached (possibly due to an almost complete lack of sleep), lost and – sadly, and in every sense – incompetent than I could have anticipated. Shortly after the trauma I found that I had failed in a significant work venture and, more disturbingly, that none of the colleagues who had been encouraging me in this venture had expected me to succeed anyway. As the mornings and evenings became ever darker, so did my little world. So now, with bleak midwinter only two weeks away, it’s time to make some effort to keep warm enough to reach the turn of the year and look for those snowdrops of hope.

Among the brass band’s curiously confused tunes there is one that stands out as not belonging to Christmas. Perhaps they’re not playing this at all – perhaps it’s just my imagination imposing some kind of order on the random notes – but it seems like a hymn I remember from childhood (and more recently from my brother-in-law’s wedding) is interloping:

No charger have I, and no sword by my side,
Yet still to adventure and battle I ride.
Though back into storyland giants have fled
And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead.

So, as we head into 2017, life and job have to be made to work. There is no giving up: the needs of my children are still my main responsibility, the success of other work ventures is still what I am paid to achieve … and there is no pretending that there are no more battles to fight.

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See Amid the Bleak Midwinter

As I walked from Bloomsbury to Marylebone late this afternoon there were small patches of slush on the pavements, suggesting that there must have been a brief snowfall earlier. Despite this, the general conditions were as mild and moist as they have been for much of December to date.

On arriving at Marylebone Station, however, I found in progress a brave attempt to evoke some Christmas spirit. The High Wycombe Salvation Army Band had assembled outside Patisserie Valerie to cheer weary travellers with their renditions of favourite carols.

Sadly, the nine merry gentlemen awaiting God’s resting possessed considerably more devotion than musical skill, to the extent that some carols were barely recognisable and their use to attract monetary donations resembled piracy on the middle Bs. The occasional music-lover passing by found it impossible to resist wincing.

Under the departures board stood the Sally Army lady with her collecting tin, singing and bobbing along merrily, caring not at all that the band was playing out of tune, wishing the donor of each 50p a smiling and sincere “Merry Christmas!” I very much doubt that she cared whether it was snowing in Marylebone: in her heart it was Bleak midwinter in royal David’s city and the herald commuters sang glory to her ever-reborn king.

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Agnosticism and the general election

At least twice a year, Match of the Day presents me with an unwanted spectacle: Manchester United vs Chelsea. In other words, a match that I desperately want both teams to lose.

The approaching general election doesn’t offer quite a perfect analogy, given that there is one team that I want to lose more than I want the others to, but it’s still an event that should arouse passions but actually only arouses fatalistic indifference. I sometimes feel like Bernard Baruch, who famously said “Vote for the man who promises least. He’ll be the least disappointing.”

I’m reluctant to place any faith in opinion polls, having been permanently scarred by the experience of 1992, when the polls predicted a hung parliament and we actually got a fairly large Conservative majority that led to the most dysfunctional, inept, but irremovable government in my lifetime. However, I was slightly cheered by this morning’s headline stating Britain set to face weeks of political paralysis after election poll. Its suggestion is that, if current opinion polls are accurate (a very big “if”, we must remember), the numbers of seats held by various parties may make it impossible for any party – or combination of parties – to form a government for several weeks. As the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 defines a very limited set of circumstances under which a second election may be called, there could be no majority government for several months. This occurred in Belgium for almost two years in 2010-11. Needless to say, the country suffered no ill-effects.

The only situation in which the government can’t cause any harm is the situation in which there is no government. While constitutional procedures mean that there is always a government – in the sense that government departments are always able to conduct business and there are always ministers acting on behalf of the crown and accountable to parliament – if that government has no parliamentary majority it will be unable to introduce new policies to cause the kind of damage that they inevitably wish to.

When all is said and done, I hate the team in blue a bit more than I hate the team in red. However, that impossible option of both teams losing is one I continue to hope for.

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Anno Domini MMXIV

I recall, as a child, considering the year 2000 to be impossibly remote. I would be 37 years old: grown up, possibly with children of my own, and living in some marvellously futuristic world as described on Tomorrow’s World. Now, as 2000 has long receded beyond the range of my rear-view mirror, further significant dates should probably be considered.

As everyone is aware, 2014 is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, also known as the “Great” War and, with contemporary naïveté, “the war to end wars”. It is to be hoped – perhaps vainly – that the commemorations will recount the political context and goals of the war as well as the sacrifice made by young men (and their families) who truly believed they were fighting and dying for their country. The social consequences of the loss of so large a proportion of a generation are, of course, hugely important in the shape that Europe took in the middle decades of the twentieth century. The Downton Abbey world contracted sharply as heirs failed to return from the war and the supply of domestic servants was restricted owing to the demand for labour in essential industries. Although, as George Orwell described in The Lion & The Unicorn, the rigid social hierarchy didn’t disappear and the living conditions of working-class people improved only slightly, if at all, during the years immediately following the 1918 armistice, the make-up of the population and the structure of society had changed to a degree barely seen since the Industrial Revolution or the Black Death. The cemeteries of Normandy and Flanders are the most visible and moving memorials of the War, but school children should learn that its outcomes are apparent in many features of current western European society, as well as in the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East.

It is perhaps worth remembering that 2014 is also the fiftieth anniversary of the commencement of the first mass vaccination programme against polio. The World Health Organization set a target in 1988 for the eradication of polio by 2000. Although this target was missed, eradication of polio had come very close by 2012. Unfortunately, the actions of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers, who posed as vaccination workers to trace Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, caused participation in vaccination programmes in Pakistan and Afghanistan to become impossibly dangerous for health teams and the security personnel who protect them. As a result, polio is re-emerging in Pakistan and important momentum has been lost in the fight against a preventable, paralysing disease. As always, war has consequences beyond the numbers of dead and wounded in the official statistics. When we reach 2054 and look back on 100 years of the fight against polio, the influence of war will again be a significant factor.

I probably shan’t be around by then, of course. While Tomorrow’s World might have promised us endless leisure and personal anti-gravity transportation, it never promised immortality.

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Asclepius Trismegistus

I have spent quite a bit of time recently trying to block adverts on Facebook. This isn’t just a manifestation of my loathing for the advertising industry: it’s actually an attempt to try to help Facebook make money out of advertising. I figured if I blocked the adverts for things I’m never going to buy (like new cars, timeshares and the services of ambulance-chasers), the slots would be freed up for adverts that I might actually click on. However, no matter how often I select the options to hide all adverts for peddlars of dodgy financial services and fraudulent pseudo-medical products, they keep reappearing. I suspect that I’ve tried to block all of Facebook’s advertisers and they keep putting unwanted adverts on my screen because there are no reputable companies selling useful and responsible products/services among Facebook’s advertisers.

One thing did strike me while I was performing myCaduceus pointless task, namely that all of the organizations advertising pseudo-medical products illustrate their adverts with the caduceus. This symbol – a pair of snakes coiled around a winged staff – represents the staff of Hermes in Greek mythology. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, was known as Mercury to the Romans, and he became associated with both the planet and the metal of the same name during the middle ages. Mercury had a particular significance to alchemists, with mercury being one of the elements that held the greatest fascination for them. The coincidence of the carrier of divine wisdom, the celestial body with the shortest orbit and the quicksilver metal sharing the same name no doubt contributed to alchemists’ fascination with Mercury. It was no accident that the – possibly mythical – author of the sacred texts of alchemical mysticism went by the name of Mercurius ter Maximus: Hermes Trismegistus.

Of course, the symbol the snake-oil sellers think they are using is the rodAsclepius of Asclepius. This symbol – a single snake coiled around a crude wooden staff, was wielded by the god of medicine and healing. While Asclepius is widely regarded as emblematic of medical wisdom, it should not be forgotten that he was slain by Zeus as punishment for raising Theseus’s son Hippolytus from the dead in return for gold. On the day that the UK’s National Health Service is replaced by a network of private clinical commissioning groups, it might be timely for British doctors to meditate on Asclepius’s fate. However, the distinction between the medicine of Asclepius and the occult practices of the Hermeticists should be borne in mind whenever one sees an advert illustrated with the caduceus.

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Bäumedämmerung

Like Wotan, after his overthrow by Siegfried, I recently dismembered an ash tree. Unlike Wotan, I didn’t fell the tree completely, nor did I cut it into logs and pile them around my palace as kindling. Possessing neither a palace nor a decent axe, this wasn’t really a viable course of action. I don’t imagine Wotan was much worried about violating the terms of his house insurance, either. No, the Salopesche was severely pruned but still stands, and the combustible boughs & branches are carefully stored in the garage to dry for responsible use as firewood next winter.

But this particular ash might be one of the lucky ones. Dismembered it may be, but it will grow new limbs in the spring and be in better shape as a result. For many ashes a fungal twilight is imminent, brought about by Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus (Chalara fraxinea), the pathogen causing ash dieback.

Ashes are the third most abundant deciduous trees in UK woodland, after oak and birch. Ash dieback does not only threaten woodland, however: the threat to garden trees is also being taken seriously. While measures to avoid injury and damage from fallen trees are sensible, there doesn’t appear to be much that can be done currently to contain the spread of the disease. Predictably, the government’s plans include appointing a “tree tsar”: wishing to give the impression of doing something by giving a nonsensical title to some high-profile person rather than consulting appropriately with researchers and practitioners who have a sound understanding of trees and fungal disease transmission. One must assume that Alan Titchmarsh won’t be a candidate for the sylvan tsardom, although he would undoubtedly be a better appointment than the glove-puppet environment secretary, Owen Paterson.

Ash

Wotan, of course, ignited the felled Weltesche to burn down Valhalla, thereby bringing to an end the rule of the Gods. It is unlikely that ash dieback will be a major factor in the Conservative government’s annihilation at the 2015 general election but the sick and dying forests might be a suitable metaphor for the state the country will be in. I can only hope that my ash tree is still standing then.

 

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The Day I Didn’t Find A Fiver

I have spent most of my life with a song stuck in my head. Not just the one song continuously, you understand: that would have led to more obvious signs of psychosis than I actually display. No, the song changes pretty frequently, but there’s always one there.

A couple of weeks ago, I found my daily actions accompanied by an unbroken loop of The Motors’ 1978 B-side, The Day I Found A Fiver. Not an easy one to explain, as I hadn’t heard it for 34 years and didn’t like it even then. With a lyric consisting of only five lines, it’s quite an irritating song to have lodged in one’s working memory and I was forced to wonder why this wretched bit of long-expired pub-rock was trespassing upon my frontal & parietal lobes.

Then it struck me. In Spar. While receiving my change from a small purchase, I commented to the grim golem behind the counter that the change from a £10 note seems always to come in coins these days: one hardly ever sees a £5 note unless one is an avid Monopoly player. The occasional one that does appear in a shop till is crumpled to such an extent that it can only be assumed that its previous owner was so afraid of the possibility of physical contact with a shop assistant that he had to roll his currency into a ball and fire it across the shop through a pea-shooter. Is there a sinister design behind this, I wondered. Has the Bank of England decided to phase out the fiver and therefore restricted its supply so that we grow so used to its absence that we don’t miss it when it’s withdrawn? But no: I recalled a story I read in some highly reliable source (somewhere on the nutternet) that said the Bank was actually printing huge numbers of fivers but couldn’t get them into circulation because the great majority of cash dispensers/ATMs only dispense £10 and £20 notes. It doesn’t explain why there are none in shops’ cash registers, unless those armoured trucks that deliver the morning float to each shop are actually stocking up from a hole-in-the-wall en route, but it does explain why no more come into the shop from customers’ pockets.

Meshuggah helpfully gave me detailed directions to an ATM that does dispense £5 notes. I replied that one of the machines on the university campus where I work also holds them, on the assumption – I suppose – that students will never have enough money in their bank accounts to allow them to withdraw £20 notes. If one could only work out, then, where students spend their cash, one might discover the great hidden hoard of sequestered fivers. Right, I’m off to Starbucks & Domino’s to seek out the treasure. When I find it I might go and buy a second-hand copy of Approved By The Motors and hope that a better song drives the dratted Fiver from my brain.

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