Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Future of Memory: Remembrance In Years To Come

Courseulles sur Mer, where my paternal grandfather Ivor Gooch came ashore during the invasion of Normandy (taken in 2013).
This post is a slightly amended version of an article originally published in 2015 on another website, now defunct. 

The end of an era

Amid the commemorations of the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in summer 2014 came a poignant announcement: the official disbanding of the Normandy Veterans’ Association. I found this rather sad, not least because my grandfather was a D-Day veteran, who went ashore on Juno Beach with the 3rd Canadian Division.

What the disbanding really emphasised to me is that the Second World War is now a very long time ago. Its beginning in 1939 is further in the past from us than the Battle of Gettysburg was to people in 1939. This may seem like a banal observation, but it has been easy to forget how chronologically distant we are from the war because of its constant, powerful cultural presence in British life.

I suspect though that this presence may, at last, be diminishing. Anyone who saw active service with British or Commonwealth forces in the war is now at least in their late eighties, with the possible exception of some former boy seamen. Within twenty years, we will say the last goodbye to the last veteran of active service in that conflict (we passed that milestone with the Great War in 2009, when Harry Patch, “the Last Fighting Tommy”, died aged 111). Soon after that, the war will pass out of living memory altogether. Already in 2017, you need to be pushing 80 to have any meaningful memory of the years 1939-45.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

English College (II)

A botanist preserving precious seed
of fading species, victim of some bight,
the college now. The threat remains the same,
an ever-shifting but familiar fight:
we bid our Caesars shut the church’s mouth,
compel the knee to Moloch – just the once.
Be still, small voice within, let us be free!
Leviathan, for now, can help us run.
Run swift and heedless from the old hard truths:
that in our pomps we are but dust and earth,
and in our depths that penitence alone
will bring us through the fire to rebirth;
that we are not the makers of ourselves,
Prometheans unbound, each one complete,
but weak and cruel and foolish all at once
tireless in the art of self-deceit.

(This is one of a pair of poems inspired by a visit to the Venerable English College in Rome for the diaconal ordination of a friend some years ago. See the first here)

English College (I)

They know an older England here, and so
have kept the faith with Sherwin’s planted flame,
these men whose exile brings them close to home;
uneasy lies the land from which they came.
These halls preserve the air of long ago.
Of whispered prayers in priest-holes, then the wait
to know if those outside had time to hide 
the Mass-books, strip the altar, stow the plate.
Of lonely abbeys visited at night
by wreckers as reformers well-disguised.
King Henry’s men, their paperwork all square,
five hundred years’ tradition now despised.
Of silent chantries, masses left unsung
below high windows naked of their glass;
despoiled vestments, confiscated gold
and prayer-smooth cloisters overlaid with grass.

(This is one of a pair of poems inspired by a visit to the Venerable English College in Rome for the diaconal ordination of a friend some years ago. See the second here)

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Of bedrooms and boardrooms: sex, money and the limits of freedom

(This post was originally published as an article in 2016 on another website, now defunct. If I wrote it now I'd change some things but it still reflects my overall thinking, more or less.)

A common criticism levelled at those on the political right is that there is a contradiction between on the one hand their preference for maximal freedom in the economic sphere, and on the other a more restrictive attitude to personal freedoms. As the Democrat Josh Lyman says to a Republican adversary in the liberal-leaning TV show The West Wing, “I like you guys that want to reduce the size of government, make it just small enough so it can fit in our bedrooms.”

It’s a good line, but is it anything more than that?

There is actually a strong logic behind the combination of social conservatism and liberal economics, and it is this: if you want a relatively limited state then you need strong families that produce law-abiding, hard-working individuals who look after each other and believe in self-reliance. You need a robust civil society and a population that values self-control, deferred gratification, and restraint. That wise old bird GK Chesterton wrote that “if men will not be governed by the Ten Commandments, they will be governed by the ten thousand commandments”.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Speaking from experience: a note on mysticism and religion

In a recent Twitter exchange I was asked to clarify a distinction that I suggested might exist between religious experience and mystical experience. The context was a tweet by the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggesting that personal experience was an underrated argument for the existence of God.

I’m not sure where I stand on the issue (that is, the persuasiveness of personal experiences as an argument for theism; I’m pretty confident about the existence of God). I’m keenly aware of the limitations of citing one's own subjective experience of a thing as a reason why someone else should accept the reality of that thing, and uneasy about putting too much store in such experiences.

I do, however, want to tentatively make the distinction mentioned above. When people think of religious experiences, they tend to think of an experience that is in some sense supernatural; a vision, perhaps, or a voice in one's head, some great flash of insight or knowledge that seems to have no earthly source. I am sure that such experiences do happen. Those who take seriously the metaphysical and historical claims of Christianity must in principle be open to the idea that God sometimes gives people a glimpse of a world or a reality outside this one, outside the normal world of thought and sensory experience.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Dying For The Right To Say It: What do we talk about when we talk about free speech?

(This post was originally published as an article early in 2016 on another website, now defunct.)

There is a story of a Czechoslovakian dissident who, as Communism began to collapse at the end of the 1980s, was asked what he was most looking forward to about living in a free society. He replied that he was looking forward to being able to sit next to someone on a park bench and say “I don’t think much of this government”.

Free speech has been one of the big cultural flashpoints of the last few years, both here and in the US. What it means; who is entitled to it and under which circumstances; how it should be weighed with other considerations; whether it is always a trump card. All these questions have been widely discussed.

I should lay my own cards on the table and say that I take a maximalist view, i.e. I think that we should have a very strong presumption in favour of the expression of ideas, and a very strong presumption against suppressing, preventing or threatening it.

Free speech, like the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence, is a procedural virtue, which is why fanatics and revolutionaries hate it. In practical terms this means, inter alia, that speakers invited to venues should be able to speak without interruption, harassment or intimidation; that protests against particular speakers – while themselves a form of free expression requiring protection – should not be allowed to become physically threatening. It also means that those who provide spaces for speech and debate should be willing to stand by, and stand up for, free expression of ideas.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Jeremy Corbyn's Dangerous Idea

(This post was originally published as an article in 2015 on another website, now defunct. It now seems relevant yet again.)

Unlike many conservatives, I wasn’t that bothered by Jeremy Corbyn not singing the national anthem. As the columnist Peter Hitchens noted: “The world’s full of countries where you have to salute the leader and sing the party song in public. This isn’t one of them.”

Much more troubling than Mr Corbyn’s aversion to ‘God Save The Queen’ are the remarks he made after the killing of Osama Bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011. Interviewed by the Iranian state broadcaster Press TV, he said:

“There was no attempt whatsoever that I could see to arrest him and put him on trial, to go through that process…this was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy. The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died.”

There are several problems here.

Monday, 22 May 2017

A Grammar Of Ascent?

(This post was originally published as an article in 2015 on another website, now defunct. If I wrote it now I'd change some things but it still reflects my overall thinking, more or less.)  

There are certain genres of article that crop up in the press with great regularity. Dreadful Leftie Hypocrite Sends Kids To Grammar/Private School! is one such. The most recent left-wing notable to be thus exposed was Seumas Milne, late of The Guardian and now in charge of PR for Jeremy Corbyn.

The reaction to such stories tends to be rather muted, not least, I suspect, because rather a lot of journalists (and indeed politicians) who are vocally pro-comprehensive in public are quietly sending their children to independent schools or grammars, or to schools that are comprehensive only in name.

The general shape of the debate over selection has a wearying familiarity. Supporters praise the post-1944 system of state grammar schools as having enabled large numbers of clever but poor children to get a first-class academic education in the state sector, which they would not otherwise have been able to get. They suggest that post-war improvements in access to Oxbridge for state school pupils can be ascribed to the system. Although it’s hard to quantify such a claim, it must contain a certain amount of truth—in just 5 years between 1959 and 1964, the proportion of incoming Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates who had been educated at state schools rose by 11 percentage points, from 26% to 37%.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Book review: "Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction", by Eric H Kline

I enjoyed this, a well-written canter for the layman through an absolutely vast field. The book is divided in two. First, a summary of the development of Biblical archaeology over the last two centuries, from resourceful but not always very expert amateurs seeking to prove the historical truth of Scripture to the hi-tech and professional multi-disciplinary teams of twenty-first century archaeology. These MDTs are no longer primarily interested in establishing the veracity or otherwise of the Bible, but in answering a huge range of questions about how people in the Holy Land lived, fought, worshipped, ate, moved and died between approximately 2000 BC and the late first century AD.

Second, Kline gives us a brief survey of what exactly archaeology tells us about the reliability of the Biblical accounts, with a particular focus on the Old Testament, which is more amenable to archaeological proof or disproof as it covers a much longer span of time and is concerned with kings, conflict, migrations, settlements, conquests etc., in a way that the New Testament isn’t. The NT is mostly concerned with ideas and speech, and with a relatively small number of people who were for the most part socially and politically unimportant by contemporary standards. There are important NT details that can be checked archaeologically – the existence of Pilate was confirmed recently via a contemporary inscription, for example, and a plausible though not definitive identification has been made of the bones of Caiaphas the High Priest – but they are relatively few.

The general impression given is that the OT histories are relatively well supported by the archaeological data, e.g. the Tel Dan Stele that seems to confirm the existence of the House of David, though there is (as yet?) almost no evidence that the Exodus happened in the way that the Bible says, nor does the Israelite settlement of Canaan seem to have occurred quite as narrated. There is still a considerable scholarly debate about how and over what kind of timescale the people now known as the Jews came to inhabit the region in such numbers. That is not to say that the Biblical accounts of those events are entirely unreliable or false, merely that they must be read alongside the historical evidence and with a sensitivity to genre (for example, ancient accounts of battles were not intended to be read as literal descriptions of what had happened). It would also appear, as one might expect, that the Bible accounts become less well-evidenced archaeologically as you get further back into the past, and to semi-legendary figures like the patriarchs.  
The book ends with an entertaining and cautionary coda looking at some of the controversies around Holy Land archaeology, inevitable in such a politically and religiously contested region. One example is the incredible long-running saga of the Ossuary of James, the supposed last resting place of the supposed brother of Jesus. Kline warns us to be wary of non-specialists who come to Biblical archaeology with a clear agenda, as well as the charlatans and conmen only too happy to fake inscriptions.


Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Notes on a detective story binge

Taking a short break from War And Peace, I took advantage of a Kindle Unlimited offer to fill my 
boots with Golden Age classics (and an Agatha Christie short story collection). 

Some thoughts below for the murderati. 

Beware spoilers - in (3), (4), (5), (6) and (10)!

(1) Tuesday 17th January
The 12.30 From Croydon
Freeman Wills Crofts
Very good inverted whodunit. Like other works in the sub-genre, it follows a man who is, at least initially, weak and foolish and desperate rather than wicked. There is something pitiful and very human in Charles Swinburn’s attachment to the obviously unworthy and unpleasant Una Mellor and his determination to hang on to his upper middle-class respectability, at any cost. That’s not to say that Crofts – who was a fairly stern moralist – ever suggests that the murders committed are justified, only that he paints a plausible picture of the kind of thought processes by which a murderer might justify his actions to himself. There is a tantalising ambiguity in whether we are meant to take seriously the purportedly selfless aspects of Swinburn’s rationalisation of the first murder, i.e. his worries that if he does not get the money to save the works from his uncle his workers’ lives will be ruined.