Saturday, 18 October 2014

My crack at the normblog questionnaire

One of my favourite bloggers, the late and much lamented Norman Geras, used to have a feature on his blog where he asked people to fill in a questionnaire about their intellectual, sporting, political and cultural influences and passions. I thought I'd offer some of my own answers to the questions, for those who are interested.

Who are your intellectual heroes? > C S Lewis, Roger Scruton, Pope Benedict XVI, Peter Hitchens, Edmund Burke, Alasdair MacIntyre.

What are you reading at the moment? > For pure entertainment, Ngaio Marsh's Death In Ecstasy, an old-fashioned whodunit, and as brainfood NT Wright's Romans For Everyone, about St Paul's Epistle to the Romans.

Who are your cultural heroes? > Inter alia: Vaughan Williams, Thomas Tallis, Augustus Pugin, P G Wodehouse, Patrick O'Brian, JRR Tolkien, JMW Turner, Mark Kermode.

Who are your political heroes? > It’s a tricky business, having political heroes, but the human rights advocate Lord David Alton of Liverpool is a man of enormous integrity, courage, judgment, and decency.   

What is the best novel you've ever read? > I don't read a lot of "serious" fiction, but probably one of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, or perhaps Walter M. Miller's A Canticle For Leibowitz.  I try to reread A Christmas Carol every Christmas. 

What is your favourite poem? > Ulysses by Tennyson.
What is your favourite movie? > Probably It's A Wonderful Life.  A great, great film – sometimes derided for its supposed sentimentalism, but actually a subtle, complex and profound exploration of the quiet heroism of everyday life.

What is your favourite song? > The 14 minute live version of Tunnel of Love by Dire Straits

Who is your favourite composer? > Vaughan Williams

Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major and lasting influence on how you think about the world? > Of several contenders, with nothing much to choose between them, I would probably say either After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre, Roger Scruton’s England: An Elegy, or anything by Peter Hitchens.  

Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you've ever changed your mind? > I’m much more sceptical about the EU, free-market economics and military interventionism than I was a decade ago.

What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to disseminate? > That it is possible to combine traditional Christian beliefs about morality, metaphysics and the supernatural with an acceptance of the insights and discoveries of modern science, including evolution by natural selection and cosmology.

What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat? > It’s a toss-up between three (slightly related) bad ideas: that scientific materialism can tell us all we need to know about human nature and morality; that human exceptionalism is rationally indefensible and a form of unjust discrimination against certain non-human animals; that human dignity is non-intrinsic.   
What is your favourite piece of political wisdom? > "If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’" That’s GK Chesterton. I also like his aphorism that “if men will not be governed by the Ten Commandments, they shall be governed by the ten thousand commandments”.

If you could effect one major policy change in the governing of your country, what would it be? > Just one? Probably massive reform of state education: the return of academic selection in state schools as part of a tripartite system of secondary schooling based on the German model.  

What would you do with the UN? > No idea. Maybe empower peacekeepers to proactively defend innocent people from those who wish to harm them.

If you could choose anyone, from any walk of life, to be Prime Minister, who would you choose? > I’d try and persuade Roger Scruton and Peter Hitchens to take on a job share.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world? > Authoritarian and violently sectarian forms of Islam are a big threat to global peace and security – but an unreflective, domineering and aggressive atheist secularism is a serious internal threat to Western civilisation.

What would be your most important piece of advice about life? > Always be aware when parting from someone you love that it might be the last time you ever see them. Also, spend a decent amount of time seriously investigating, with an open mind, whether Christianity is true.

What do you consider the most important personal quality? > Generosity of spirit, in all its forms.

What personal fault do you most dislike? > Mean-spiritedness, in all its forms.

In what circumstances would you be willing to lie? > Although I can’t quite work out how to integrate it into my generally non-consequentialist moral system, to save innocent life; the usual Jews-in-the-cellar-Gestapo-at-the-front-door type situation.

Do you have any prejudices you're willing to acknowledge? > I have a deep and abiding prejudice against people who speak and write in jargon, clich├ęs, and slogans rather than saying what they mean in plain English.  I tend to assume that if someone isn’t writing or speaking clearly, then either (i) they don’t know what they’re trying to say, (ii) for some reason, they don’t want me to know what they’re trying to say.

What is your favourite proverb? > It's from the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament: "Rebuke a wise man and he will love you".  It is an essentially Socratic point about how authentic wisdom is inseparable from honest self-examination of our limitations and faults.  Being able to accept criticism of your behaviour – without becoming defensive or reflexively counter-attacking with criticism of your own – is a sign of psychological maturity.  
What commonly enjoyed activities do you regard as a waste of time? > Caring about the lives of famous people. Coining neologisms that end in “-phobia”. Being offended.
What, if anything, do you worry about? > Loads of stuff, but in particular my parents’ health as they move from middle age to old age.

If you were to relive your life to this point, is there anything you'd do differently? > I'd take part in more extracurricular activities in college, and give more thought sooner to what I really wanted to do with my life.  I’d also make sure I didn’t lose my 2007 diary.

Who would play you in the movie about your life? > Damian Lewis, who is – allegedly – the world's sexiest ginger man.

What do you like doing in your spare time? > Reading, writing fiction and poetry, running, playing cricket, climbing mountains.

What talent would you most like to have? > I'd love to have an intuitive understanding of the working of machines, especially engines. I love fast cars and motorbikes, but constantly have to remind myself what things like torque and Bhp are. An improved sense of rhythm would also be good.

Who is your favourite comedian or humorist? > P.G. Wodehouse, by a country mile.

Who are your sporting heroes? > Adam Gilchrist, Tim Henman, and Mika Hakkinen; all men who understood that it’s not just whether you win or lose, but how you play the game, and (mostly) conducted themselves accordingly.

Which English Premiership football team do you support? > Spurs

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be? > Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas and Jesus. Or alternatively, George Orwell and the Hitchens brothers.

What animal would you most like to be? > An eagle

What is your most treasured possession? > If we’re talking inanimate objects rather than people, I’m not sure I really have one. My books are quite precious, but I couldn’t pick just one. More likely a memento of my older brothers, Sean and Patrick, who both died young.

If you had to change your first name, what would you change it to? > I’ve always rather liked the name Douglas.

How, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money? > Apart from all the worthy stuff? I'd move to a creaky old Jacobean manor house in a small English village and devote myself to writing in an oak-panelled study. If there were any left over after that, I’d look into vintage motorbikes, boats and a riverfront condo in Manhattan.

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