Derren Brown (2021) A Book of Secrets: Finding Solace in a Stubborn World.

I can’t remember very much about Derren Brown’s guide to practicing stoicism in an unhappy world, Happy. This is the follow up. Pretty good fun, more like a chapbook and diary (his father died during Covid). I’ll no doubt forget all the lessons learned here too.

 Stoics taught us fortitude comes from controlling our thoughts and actions. The common mistake we make is to try and manage things we cannot (serenity prayer). Derren suggests, You are not fragile, you have all the resources you need.

Without stoic wisdom, what is our default mode? Mine is to read books and leave the real world behind, or in front, or wherever it goes when you’re reading.

No feeling is final. Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours.

Knowing Everything.

Let everything happen to you.

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

Leonard Cohen Beautiful Losers:

How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?

Hidden Ambiguities.

I remember moments of my own excessive certainty; my many years as a Christian patiently explaining to anyone who would listen how Jesus must have risen from the dead. There were simply no other explanations for the events that took place. P31

Richard Holloway.

Religious mansplaining.

Whenever a spiritual revelation is enshrined in an institution invented to carry its meaning through time it is easy to understand how its guardians can become overprotective of the treasure they are responsible for, especially if their access to the original it theoretical rather than experiential…there is a clear tendency in subsequent generations to overdefine and concretize the original revelation.

Divinise the one to whom the original revelation came.

Cf. political revelations, ‘Marixsm-Leninism’. Maoism, Fascism.

The New Seekers in the early seventies would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. The Seekers, a small Chicago based group that believed the world would end 21st December 1954 at 7am. A flood would wipe out humanity. But they would be saved. Picked up by UFOs with whom they were in contact by psychic links with the planet Clarion via automatic writing.  The group had been infiltrated by social psychologists that monitored what happened next, when the flood didn’t happen and the alien never showed up. The group, like the Jehovah’s before them had given away all of their belongings and removed all metal items from their clothing such as fly zips and bra straps, in accordance with the instructions they had received.  

Tears and disbelief were put aside when a message came through the channel of automatic writing that the group had been spared the coming apocalypse. And because of their belief God had also spared the world.

The believers doubled-down on their belief with an outpouring of evangelism. Much like anti-vaxxers, Trumpism and a belief in QAnon hadn’t been channelled, not be automatic writing, but by Russian state hackers.

Michael W. Miller, writing in the Observer about Janet Malcolm makes sense of this cognitive dissonance by quoting her.

Hypocrisy is the grease that keeps society functioning in an agreeable way, by allowing for human fallibility and reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable need for order and pleasure.  

Aristotle: the good life as principally steering a course between the extremes of temperament. Neither intellectual cowardice, nor plastic New Age wisdom.

We have largely forgotten the role of Fortune in our lives. The Greeks were very keen to remind us. Pride, in our modern mantras, at the mercy of FATE.

Schopenhauer mankind trapped between pain and boredom.

Slippery selves every face having its opposite.

Rilke: People in love are the furthest distance.

Arthur C Clarke (1962) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic [or Star Trek]

We live longer and more happily when we have friends around us.

David Bosiano (2018) Emotional Success.

Prosocial feelings, no man is an island.

Gratitude

Pride in ourself(ves) and others.

Compassion.

John Paul Satre: ‘bad faith’ , an insincere existence.

Nietschean ideal of ‘Become who you are’.

Jonathan Rauch (2018) The Happiness Curve.

Wait, Wait. Wait. Life gets better after your forties.

Paul Harris, American magician: A baby arrives in the world and embarks upon a gradual process of disenchantment.

Busyness. A marker of success. Doing becomes being.

Identity: cognitive dissonance, rationalize and edit out what does not fit in with notions of ourself.

Jim Steinsmeyer, designer of magic and theatrical special effects.  Magicians guard an empty safe. [cf Wizard of Oz, when the curtain pulled a man pedalling a bike and shouting through a megaphone]

Emanuel Levinas: Face to face encounters the bedrock of our existence.

Beauty, striking beauty, causes the body to ache.

Shyness, can make those suffering from the condition (introverts) seem cold and aloof.  Susan Cain (2012) Quiet.

Shyness a fear of negative judgement. 

277 Schopenhauer. Most people discover ‘when they look back on their life that they have been living the whole time ad interim, and they are surprised to see that which they let go by so unregarded and unenjoyed was precisely their life, was precisely that in expectation of which they lived.’

Lorna Byrne (2010) Angels in My Hair.

angels in my hair.jpg

I think I’ve read this good book before. I get that sometimes. Words wash over me and through me and I’m not really reading, although I am. For the record, I read ‘The International Bestseller’ a few weeks ago, again, or not again (as this might have been the first time). Just to remind myself, where I look at words every day, Lorna Byrne sees angels. (I don’t know if Angels is a proper noun, or is it a bit like cows or sheep? No capital letter?) Here’s the rub, I believe she does see angels.

Seventy-seven percent of Americans believe in Angels and I’m not American. Probably ninety-six percent of them voted for the moron’s moron. Around seven percent of the UK population attend Christian worship. We are an agnostic nation, verging on the atheist and that’s just the way I like it. I can witter on about cognitive dissonance, or Schrodinger’s cat, but the truth is I’m with Eva Lowenthal in that I find it quite easy to believe that ‘evil does exist’. Lowenthal was secretary to the Reich Nazi Propaganda Minster, Joseph Goebbels from 1933 to 1945 and she observed first-hand how under the right conditions evil flourishes. I read about how Alabama is trying to shut all abortion clinics and outlaw abortions, even in the case of incest or rape and that to me is an evil perpetuated on poor, mainly, black women. I hear about a five-year-old girl trafficked and taken into care in Glasgow, with no nails, kept in a box and raped. And I want to kill. To hurt. To maim. I’ve no problem believing in the reality of evil. Or even the devil. I’ve got a problem with religion and a problem with God.

Probably, the best definition of religion is the Dali Lama’s, my religion is kindness.

That makes me smile.

Karen Armstrong in her introduction to A History of God, summarises how I feel.

As a child, I had a number of strong religious beliefs but little faith in God. There is a distinction between belief as a set of propositions, and faith which enables us to put our trust in them. I believed implicitly in the existence of God; I also believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the efficacy of the sacraments, the prospect of eternal damnation and the objective reality of Purgatory. I cannot say, however, that my believe in these religious opinions about the nature of ultimate reality gave me much confidence that life here on earth was good or beneficent. The Roman Catholicism of my childhood was a rather frightening creed.

Richard Holloway, like Karen Armstrong, was a cleric and walked away but gives us an insider view of the box-ticking religion. They could no longer trust God and no longer believed in God. Holloway’s favourite novel Andre Schwartz Bartz, The Last of the Just, has a hero Ernie Levy on a train destined for Auschwitz telling consolatory lies to children about the kingdom of God. That sounds like a good fit. A good way of describing religion.

Lorna Byrne, like the fictional hero, describes our world in the opening chapter: ‘Through Different Eyes’.

When I was two years old the doctor told my mother I was retarded.

As a baby, my mother noticed I always seemed to be in a world of my own. I can even remember lying in a cot – a big basket – and seeing my mother bending over me. Surrounding my mother I say wonderful bright, shiny beings in all the colours of the rainbow; they were so much bigger than I was, but smaller than her, about the size of a three year old child. These beings floated in the air like feathers and I remember reaching out to touch them, but I never succeeded. I remember being fascinated by these creatures with their beautiful lights…angels.

I’m not one of those people that can remember being a kid. I certainly don’t remember being in my pram. I can remember being scared of trains coming into Dalmuir station, that somehow the wheels would suck me under. Sorry, no angels, apart from my mum.

Moses and the burning bush. Jesus in the desert. Buddha under the tree. Muhammed in the cave. All saw and heard things beyond themselves. Holloway describes this as a kind of psychosis. Hearing voices and seeing things. What made them real was their ability to convince others that what they experienced was true.

Here’s the testing, here’s the knowledge gained, here is salvation. God does not take kindly to being questioned if we follow the precepts of the Book of Job… Where were you when I created the universe?

Well, according to Lorna Byrne, she was in heaven and she has been tested by Satan himself, she has met with the Virgin Mary and Archangels Michael and Gabriel, been tutored by the Prophet Elijah, she has met the Son of God and I’m sure there’ll be a place in heaven for her.

I’m not too sure about myself and the rest of humanity. We read our own belief into others. I recognise the four horsemen of the apocalypse and the possibility of runaway global warming and nuclear winter. I know that’s an oxymoron. Evil does exist. That I know, I’m not so good at the good stuff. Lowenthal, aged 103, said something quite profound. ‘There is no justice’. She could just as easily be working for the antichrist Trump, bookended by the fundamental Christian Right and Vice President Mike Pence. There, I’ve done it now. A victim of my own verbosity. As soon as you mention antichrist and  Hitler you lose the argument. But here’s the rub again. Hitler could not wipe out humanity. Trump has the devil’s own pride. You don’t have to be able to see angels to notice it.

We can call on The Angel of Belief. The Angel of Strength. The Angel of Courage. The Angel of Miracles. The Angel of Patience. God knows we need a Guardian Angel and all the help we can get to avoid Armageddon. I believe that. The message of religion is quite a simple one. What matters isn’t yesterday, or tomorrow, but now. What matters is this moment. Hope in the now.  May my religion be kindness too.

 

Richard Holloway (2018) Waiting For The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death.

last bus holloway.jpg

Psalm 90:10 King James Version (KJV)

 The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

 

Richard Holloway is in his nineties, a bit older than the biblical fourscore years and he’s still waiting for that last bus. It’s a regular service. If he misses it, another is sure to follow. Life may be an unequal race, but in the end, we all end up  in a dead end. Holloway is agnostic, which means he’s just not sure and if it really matters. I guess that matches my own inarticulate beliefs.

Holloway when he was around my age was Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and even then he wasn’t sure he believed in the risen Christ, or the idea of God. He had doubts, as all good men had. It’s all there in his marvellous biography, Leaving Alexandria.

And he’s written a stack of other books about morality and religion and dabbles in poetry and music. His muse is his life and reading and ‘The Last Bus’ is an extension of Leaving Alexandria, the postscript before he becomes a postscript.

He talks about the faith he had in the pills advertised in Church Illustrated around 1958 that cured baldness, which he purchased, but went bald anyway.  The only known cure after than was combing back to front and trusting in a fair wind and the myopia of others. There’s a metaphor and lesson there somewhere and it is this, the human animal is cursed and blessed with self-awareness and self-consciousness. The secret is acceptance.  The consolation is as we get older ‘vanity and self-consciousness fade away’.  That’s the theory.

More difficult is when we can see the last bus and knowing there’s only one stop ahead of us, there’s no future in front of us and our past is behind us. He quotes Philip Larkin:

‘And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true’.

Holloway calls for gratitude, not for death, but for life and the beauty of the world. His polemic extends to the medical profession who keep us alive when all joy is gone.

When in doubt, make a documentary about is as Louis Theroux does in the state of California and the land of the free, in Altered States, Choosing Death.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bshjrp/louis-theroux-altered-states-2-choosing-death

Here we have a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. We have a man who is grateful for the life he has lived and chooses death and takes the lethal overdose a doctor had provided. He dies with his family beside him. A terminally-ill woman does not take the lethal overdose but dies of natural causes, in other words, cancer. Whether that a better end, who knows?

The ugly face of death is here, in a group called Exit. This is something Holloway recognises in his long years of religious life and strive, the fanatic, who is always right. Theroux follows this man and woman as they prep an elderly woman in a wheelchair about the best way to kill herself. She is terminally ill and has early onset dementia, her life partner, her arms and legs, her quality of life, had died with him.

Theroux is too smug to be a devil’s advocate, but here I felt there were more push factors than the pull of death. She didn’t want to lose her house, she couldn’t afford medical care and her arguments were about money.

Nobody really cares said the Exit advocate, apart from the immediate family of the dying. And he was right, I agreed with him. She’d end up living in a twelve-by-eight room with another resident if she was taken into state care. There’s a lack of light here, but no lack of clarity. His co-Exit partner agreed with him. Her argument was that was just the way it is.

We know that over 600 000 people in the United States last year were made bankrupt because of their medical bills, but that’s when the bad becomes the sad and we’re in the slippery slope argument beloved of fanatics of a different sort. I’ve been reading about how euthanasia programmes in Hitler’s Germany were first set up in hospitals by Himmler and rolled out across the conquered nations for ‘mouths unworthy of life’. This is a dilute Exit version in California and here is the evidence, when we start talking about money, we’re taking about empty mouths. Let’s not kid ourselves and call it something else. Certainty is man’s most dangerous weapon.

But certainty, like black holes and religion is plural and not singular. Holloway quotes the French mystic, Blaise Pascal.

FIRE: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars.

Death’s imperative does not go away and it’s always personal. We’re all waiting for that last bus, if we don’t get hit by a train first. Too late, too late, our regrets take us places we don’t want to go. Holloway quotes the words of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond god, or the ultimate reality will meet us wherever we are and however we have made of ourself.

He gives you time in heaven to do as you please,

To climb love’s gradual ladder by slow degrees

Gently to rise from sense to soul, to ascend

To a world of timeless joy, world without end.

 

 

The Storm That Saved the City, BBC 1, 9pm, BBC iPlayer directed and filmed by Ian Lilley.

strom that saved city.jpg

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09lsq54/the-storm-that-saved-a-city

On the 15th January 1968 winds gusting from 80 – 120 miles per hour hit Glasgow (and Edinburgh, and Central Scotland but who cares about that mob?) Twenty four people lost their life. Tens of thousands more were made –at least temporarily homeless – and there was full employment fixing the roofs of Glasgow for the next two years. One young medic remembers out walking his dog and the dog blowing away. Down Shep! Young fashion designers in their studio flats remember the windows blowing in. All over Glasgow the lights went out. But the message here is something good came from the plight. The 1968 storm put the kibosh on Glasgow Corporation’s plan to knock down most of the city centre and relocate its tenements to the periphery.

Have a wee look and you’ll see a very young looking Richard Holloway talking about the housing problem. Back then the very Rev Richard believed in God. He also believed in housing the poor. It was a Faustian pact. Glasgow Corporation will give the tenant a new house, a slum in the sky or as Billy Connelly said of Drumchapel a graveyard with Christmas lights.

Wee had the wee bit of history. Glasgow at the beginning of the century the fastest growing city in Europe. This was exacerbated by the First World War. More jobs meant a growing population, but with the same number of houses private landlords who owned ninety five percent of the housing stock, mainly in tenement building, decided to cash in and push the rents up 25%. In a free market that makes sense. Some of us might remember that stupid idea of erecting a statue to a woman that helped organise the rent strikes. Red Clydeside and Mary Barbour may go together with the government freezing rent at pre-1914 levels. One of the rare successes at the time. But then as now we don’t need more statues but more affordable housing.

Back in 1968 20 000 homes were falling into such disrepair as to become uninhabitable with another 100 000 homes needed immediately. What this documentary doesn’t mention was local authorities were paid to buy wholesale and reach for the sky. More government money was available for high rise and the higher the high rise the greater subsidy. It made sense to bid high. Economic sense. Ironically, those houses that were rarely homes, such as the Red Road flats were knocked down. But the problem remains. We need more affordable homes. This may be a pat yourself on the back documentary. We lucked into saving the Glasgow we loved. But ask Richard Hollow and I’m sure he’s say the problem is still with us. Glasgow is not Miles Better unless you’ve got dosh. We’re still the heart-attack capital of Europe and those in the poorest schemes have a life expectancy of around sixty-five. Let’s not get above ourselves with the plaudits. What did we save and for whom?

M. Scott Peck (1983 [1990]) People of the Lie. The Hope of Healing Human Evil.

cartoon trump.jpg

I sped read through the 309 pages of this book in two sittings. It didn’t take me long. I’m good at that kind of thing, but I’m not sure if good is the right word. I read lots, but remember very little. M. Scott Peck is of course better known for his ten-million bestseller, The Road Less Travelled. Yep, read that too. Writing this now I can’t remember a word of it, but I’m guessing it’s full of folksy wisdom.  Americans love that kinda shit. As a lapsed Catholic I can’t say I’m immune either.

Scott Peck is a psychiatrist, but he’s also a Christian. He believes in the risen Christ. The flip side of this is the devil, Satan, who has fallen from grace. He wasn’t sure about that archetypal character. As a scientist and a Christian he looked at the evidence. You’ve guess it. The devil does exist he concludes and evil is a real force. He offers some case studies of people he feels are evil. And touches on the use of exorcisms to drive out the devil. He believes a very small number (my analogy would the around the number of what can be truly called compassionate conservatives) have something inside them which is not of them, which is fundamentally evil. The old argument of whether a person is mad, bad, or sad when they commit crime finds Peck siding with the rhetoric that some people really are bad, or in this case evil.

What I found interesting was this book written in the early eighties describes the American President Donald J Trump to a tee. Remember those games you played when you were younger when it was shown conclusively that by allocating Hebraic letters and mixing them with Greek numbers to Hitler’s name and finding conclusively it matched the number of the beast, as did, Emperor Nero. Peck does much the same thing here, but he does it blind. At the time of writing Donald J Trump was a multiple bankrupt who cheated and lied his way into maintaining the front of a business tycoon and property-estate entrepreneur encapsulated by the vainglorious Trump Tower. Now, of course, he’s the American President and more importantly Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Emperor Nero could only burn Rome. Trump can burn the world.

Peck offers as a case study of group evil the Vietnam war in general and, in particular, the case of My Lai, in a morning1968, and the cover-up which happened almost immediately afterwards. Anyone that has been watching the series on Vietnam, as I have, know that neither President John F Kennedy or his successor the Texan Lyndon B Johnson  believed in this war, but they admitted privately that to say so would end their hope of becoming President. Richard M Nixon was of course asked to stand down because of the lies he told about Watergate. These Presidents look like rank amateurs when placed next to the father of lies Donald J Trump. The coming war with North Korea is based on the same great lie. As one veteran said I killed one human, after that all I killed were gooks. The metrics used in Vietnam was the number of bodies killed. Some soldiers kept human ears as trophies. What Peck doesn’t say is most of the Task Force Baker had taken turns raping their young female victims before killing them. Most of the men serving that day got away with their crimes. Gooks don’t count. Demonization of the other is the first step in the murder of the soul.

Peck’s first case study is titled ‘The Man Who Made a Pact With the Devil.’ I guess there’s a similar story in Stephen King’s Needless Things.    An innocuous old man sells people exactly what they want. Trump has been selling fear and hatred for a long time now and drawing evil to him like a magnet. His lies got him elected to the highest office in the land.

Pecks gives us a loose definition between those that are mad, bad and sad.

If people cannot be defined by the illegality of their deeds, or the magnitude of their sins, then how are we to define them? The answer is by the consistency of their sins. While usually subtle the consistency of their sins. This is because those “that have crossed over the line” are characterized by their absolute refusal to tolerate sense of their own sinfulness.

This is something Richard Holloway the agnostic former arch-bishop talked about. Those who are narcissistic enough to believe they are always absolutely right and have a God-given right to do exactly what they want, are absolutely wrong. The problem here, of course, Trump would rather see the world burn than admit to getting things wrong. There’s a race running between his impeachment and him ending it all with a bang. God, I hope, is on our side and if He’s not available, perhaps we should phone Stephen King.

Andre Schwaz-Bart (2001 [1959]) The Last of the Just.

last of the just.jpg

I heard about this book in a kind of roundabout way. Richard Holloway had given a reading at Dalmuir Library and this was one of the books he said he re-read every few years. Well, that was good enough for me. I finally got around to reading The Last of the Just and was not disappointed.

Where is God? That is the question this book asks. In the final chapter, the narrator of the biography of Ernie Levy, the last of the just men, is in a sealed freight car travelling from Drancy to Auschwitz. He cradles a living corpse the body a young boy. A fellow passenger, a doctor, who is doing her best to relief the suffering of the children digs her fingernails into Ernie’s flesh and tells him the child is dead.   He rocks the child’s body, insists the child is merely sleeping.

‘Madame,’ he said finally, ‘there is no room for truth here.’

Where is God?  March 11, 1185 in the old Anglican city if York, Bishop William of Nordhouse sermonises and shouts to the mob below: ‘God’s will be done’.  Mobs have arms and legs and one voice and what has become, through the ages, a familiar refrain: Kill the Jews.

Rabbi Yom Tov Levy, one of the Just Men, gathered his followers and urges them to commit suicide: ‘God gave us life. Let us return to him by our own hands…’

Familiar lamentations. ‘ “When an unknown Just [Man] rises to heaven,” a Hasidic story goes “he is so frozen that God must warm him for a thousand years between His fingers before his soul can open itself to Paradise.”’

Is God a lullaby? Prayer books and Talmudic texts littered the Levy house in Stillenstadt. The infant Ernie learns his prayer at the feet of his ancient grandfather and Just Man, Mordecai, who has fled the pogroms in Zemyock, and followed his son, Benjamin, into the safety of Germany, Nazi Germany. There is no telling on which male child God will bestow his blessing and consolation of becoming a Just Man. He works in mysterious ways.

Is God a dream? Ernie seems to think so. The delicate little blonde girl, Fraulein Ilse, his classmate, who looks like a picture of a medieval princess, he gets to kiss and kisses him back. A Judas kiss.

Does God stand outside Drancy? Paris offers respite and God seems to be smiling on the Levy’s. Nazi Germany has been left behind. Even Grandfather Mordecai finds work and they have enough to eat and the French pastries are to die for. But Nazi Germany follows the Levy’s to Paris. Ernie a Jewish German joins a foreign division of the French army to fight against Germany, the country of his birth. He is one of the few survivors. God, he believes, has given him more lives than a cat. For a time, he imagines himself a dog and eats only raw meat. His marriage to Golda lasts but one night. He presents himself at the gates of Drancy, as a Jew, demanding entry. His love has no end.

Does God exist? Ernie cradles Golda’s broken body in the boxcar on the way to the concentration camp. His voice is a consolation to the children and his fabulous tales of the kingdom that will come, a balm to their spirit. When Doctor Mengele tries to send him right, he corrects the medic, he will go left with the broken and the old and those who do not want to die and demand the lie that the shower heads contain water. ‘Breathe it in,’ Ernie tells them. The last of the Just does not need to know that God exists, he needs to know suffering exists and he too must endure it and be broken too.

John Cornwell (2015) The Dark Box. A Secret History of Confession.

the dark box.jpg

I was looking for a review I’d written for John Cornwell’s autobiography Seminary Boy, a fabulous book, but it seems I haven’t written it. Nor have I written a review for The Hiding Places of God (Powers of Darkness, Powers of Light). An unsettling book. These are sins of omission. Ah, you may ask, what do you mean by sin? That’s really the crux of this book.

My personal definition of sin is selfishness. Selfishness in thought or deed or word. That may sound vaguely familiar. I’m a Catholic and, in an earlier incarnation, was even an altar boy. I’ve got a whole Cathedral inside my head of rote learning and memes for every eventuality.  Non-Catholics can take a shortcut and watch Jimmy McGovern’s Broken series (I watched the first one). There is a better self, somewhere inside me.   The quote by Aristotle taken up as a mantra by the Jesuits,  ‘give me a boy at seven and I will give you the man’ couldn’t be more apt. Michael Apsted’s  7-UP series was based on that premise and it did show consistently that this was the case. Sin, John Cornwell, tells us is derived of the notion of being ‘wide of the mark’ and the priests in his book, generally, are very wide of the mark. It’s no coincidence that the Irish priests on Craggie Island in Father Ted came in three recognisable stereotypes, old and alcoholic, Father Ted, a bit cynical and not yet alcoholic and then there is bumptious Dougal. Cut off from life and childhood and the outside world is something Cornwell is familiar with, a process Richard Holloway also writes about. It’s unnatural enough to produce a generation of sexual predator priests protected by the Roman Catholic hierarchy. And Cornwell has personal experience of being groomed to be abused. He outlines how it happened in his autobiography and here. The sickness in the Roman Catholic Church is systemic and derives from a hatred of the human body and a plague of priests steeped in hypocrisy and schizophrenic thinking. It wasn’t me that done it but the devil made me. God will forgive me, as long as I confess my sins.  Michael Foucault argues in History and Sexuality,  Confession shaped the modern perception of sexuality.

Take, for example,  Maria Goreti murdered by a lodger, but at least she died a virgin. Rape is a sin against chastity. A far more serious sin is the sin of masturbation. ‘Pullito’.  I, of course, have never masturbated, but I have had a few wanks. Pope Pius XI also warned against the dangers of motion pictures. This was before Dirty Dancing, but of course, any kind of dancing was frowned upon, a breaking of God’s rules. A model priest was someone like the ascetic parish priest of Ars, near Lyon, Jean-Marie Vianney. Born in 1786 Vianney heard tens of thousands of confessions and had preternatural knowledge of who was going to hell. He could tell who the masturbators where before they dared open their mouths or their flies. My favourite story of Vianney was his believe that the best thing to do to stop hungry children stealing apples was cutting down all the apple trees, which he did. Some priests attempt to, or have, cut off their penis.  God likes virgins. So it seems do many priest, based on the premise that you can’t hurt an altar boy because they are the equivalent of Barbie’s Ken.  Adam and Evil in the garden. I’ll let you guess which of the sexes was evil. The Virgin Mary balances that out. Cathars of course thought the Virgin Mary sprang from Jesus’s ear. I’m not sure how that worked. I just hoped it wasn’t a sexual thing.

Cornwell calls for the sacrament of Confession to be brought into the modern world. Children should not make their first Confession when they have no idea what sin is and therefore have as much chance of committing a sin as a banana. Childish innocence should be cherished.   He doesn’t hold out much hope of that happening. And I’m with him on that one.  I also think there is a role for the confessional, but I’m not sure how it would look or how it would work. But I’m willing to be proved wrong. As the agnostic Richard Holloway has consistently argued the most dangerous man is one who refuses to believe he might be wrong. Fundamentalists are Us.

Richard Holloway (2004) Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning.

looking into the distance.

Richard Holloway’s Looking in the Distance, predates, his classic autobiographical account, Leaving Alexandria of leaving the Anglican church, where he was a Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity, which is quite a mouthful for an agnostic.  This is a short volume. A working out of ideas, a companion piece to Godless Morality, which I’ve not read and not likely to read. It reminds me a bit of the kind of chapbooks properly brought-up, young, women such as, Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland kept in Northanger Abbey. A personal note of things they should know and others should know that they know. If that sounds old fashioned then Richard Holloway is old fashioned and so am I. My reviews tend to remind me what I’ve read and what I thought of it. I’d forgotten, for example, I’ve read Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. My memory is appalling. I write something down and forget what I’ve written and what I thought of it. There’s a bit of showing off, as well, of course, but since nobody reads my reviews I’m quiet safe. The problem for me is time. If I continually review books and films I’m not writing fiction and that’s what I choose to write. But it’s not that simple. Reading is the engine of writing.

The polymath Umberto Eco tackled the problem of memory in his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The protagonist Yambo has had a stroke and he has to reconstruct himself from the books he’s read and the early films he saw. Memory is who we are, he is told.

Memory can be beautiful…Someone said it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura, it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original.

Holloway makes the point that there comes a time when most of our life is behind us. Death is not on the horizon, but waiting to tap us on the shoulder. In the first part of the book he begins with Still Looking and quotes Vasili Rozanov:

All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.

Holloway deserves tremendous respect. Most folk make a ghetto of their lives. To turn aside from a role he has carefully crafted and grafted and  saying,  no, I no longer believe in religion, or god, is courageous. It sets an example. The example of Jesus is one that the moron’s moron, the American President, pays lip service to. In books such as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist the counterweight to capitalism is nationalism and religion based on Calvinism and the gospel of Holy Willie’s Prayer.

O Thou, who in heaven must dwell,

Wha, as it pleases best thysel’.

Send ane to heaven and ten to hell,

A’for thy glory.

And no for ony guid or ill

They’ve done afore thee!

I bless and praise thy matchless might,

When thousands thou has left in night,

That I am here afore thy sight,

For gifts and grace,

A burnin’ an’ a shinin’ light,

To a’ this place.’

Robert Burns delighted in undermining class and religion pomposity. It’s not surprise that his poem To a Louse, takes place during a Kirk service, but could just as well have been the inauguration of the 45th American President.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An’ foolish notion:

Holloway sees that hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. Morality can be complex or it can be a simple precept based on the notion of doing unto others what you would (or would not) do to yourself, which is the footstool of all the major religions. The authority he quotes and the question he asks comes from the Russian novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Karamazov Brothers and the character Ivan:

Tell me honestly, I challenge you – answer me, imagine you are charged with building an the edifice of human destiny, whose ultimate aim is to bring people happiness, to give them peace and contentment at last, but in order to achieve this it is essential and unavoidable to torture just one little speck or creation, the same little child beating his breasts with his little fists, and imagine this edifice to be erected on her unexpiated tears. Would you agree to be the architect under these conditions?’

To move away from Holloway’s creed, this is familiar Stephen King territory. Would you, for example, murder Hitler in his crib?

Thomas Piketty Capital  quotes Balzac to suggest inequalities are so entrenched that if in order to move up someone must be harmed or murdered, would you allow it? Eh, aye, probably, is the same answer as those Christian folk that mourn 22 children murdered in Manchester, but Mail-hate cheerleaders are  quite happy for over 200 folks to drown in the Mediterranean in the same week.

Holloway has something to say about fundamentalism and it applies equally to Trump supporters as it does to the Sunni (Saudi sponsored) branch of Islam in which ‘the gates of interpretation is closed’. ‘Immobolism’ Holloway calls it. What he means is Holy Willie is right, to a god given right,  and you are wrong if you believe otherwise. For Holloway there is nothing more dangerous than a fundamentalist. This book was written pre-Trump Presidency. Such an idea then would have been laughable.

Moral relativism. I had to think of an example for this. It comes from another Scottish writer, John Buchan, The Herd of Standlan. The irony here is the author of the First World War bestseller The Thirty Nine Steps later became a Conservative MP, but in this short story a humble Scottish shepherd, has a choice, whether to let go of the hand of Mr Aither and let him drown or hold on, even though he’s got a broken arm and might drown himself. The shepherd does hold on, or there’d be no narrative, but later regrets it, because Mr Aither, goes onto become Lord Brodaker and a prominent Scottish Tory.

‘I did what I thocht my duty at the time and I was rale glad I saved the callant’s life. But now I think on a’ the ill he’s daen’ to the country and the Guid Cause, I whiles think I wad hae been daein better if I had just drappit him in.’

Imagine you’re holding onto the hand of a young Donald Trump, he’s at his mother’s old croft, would you drappit him in?

 

Growing up in Scotland, BBC 1, director and writer Liam McArdle.

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08gd0gc/growing-up-in-scotland-a-century-of-childhood-series-1-1-education

This is fantastic viewing. I wasn’t about in the 16th Century when John Knox thought it a good idea that every village and every Kirk should have a schoolteacher, and every child should be able to read god’s word in the bible as a bastion against Popery. Until fairly recently that was the model of schooling for many children in Scotland and can be viewed through the prism of novels such as Sunset Song and characters like Chris Guthrie. The people that owned the land, owned the people on the land, then as now, but they added value to their subjects by education. This is not a new idea. Sam Wilkin, Wealth Secrets of the 1%, shows how around 115BC Roman slaves were educated to what would be considered nowadays ‘professional’ level and ran the equivalent of vast conglomerates, because educated slaves could be sold for more and gave greater value to their owner. This may explain how Scotland, a little drip of land in the Atlantic, produced so many wealthy and world leaders, but let’s not forget the role of British Empire, with many Scots as administrators.  Andrew Carnegie is another example, born and in Dunfermline in 1835, his upward trajectory to becoming one of the richest men in the world from humble beginnings has its roots in village schools, but also in the decline of handloom weavers and the movement from the land of the majority of the population to urban centres. This is shown graphically in a number of ways. Legislation dating back to 1872 that all children between the ages of 5 to 13 must attend school and must receive an education, which would be provided by the parishes and later by local authorities. With the population of Glasgow growing faster than that of London or any other metropolis, Tureen Street accommodating 1200 pupils was built in Carlton’s East End in the nineteenth century, but before the school was finished an even bigger school, St James’s was being built 150 yards away. These were ‘temples of learning’. But the writer James Maxton, the son of two schoolteachers, noted something that was picked up by recruiters in the Boer War and The First World War, out of 60 youngsters Maxton took for physical education lessons, only 30 could push their knees together. Rickets and disease was the bed companions of the urban poor and this was reflected in the school intake.

Richard Holloway remembers school as being something done to you. Rote learning and the tawse. Every teacher had one and the programme takes a step back into history and visits Lochgelly, were tawse making was an industry. I must admit I couldn’t quite work out how schools would work without pupils getting the belt. It seemed to me then a rather stupid idea to outlaw it. I’m sure if the current 680 000 pupils in Scotland had their phones and tablets taken off them and were made to walk to school and thrashed soundly every day we would have a more disciplined society. Don’t think North Korea, with more rain, but my schooling forty years ago.

The darker side to education is also touched upon Holloway and by the former Machar Liz Lochead. Protestants went to one school, Catholics went to another. This to me is an anomaly that needs to be changed. And private schools which feature here (a measly £36 000 per annum, per pupil) those social carriages of the rich, should be shut down, not expanded. But I understand why there were Catholic and Protestant school. Hate. In 1918 there were 450 000 Catholics in Scotland, most of them if propaganda was to be believed, living in a single end in Glasgow. Kirk run schools didn’t want them and Catholic charity schools tended to be substandard and their pupils received substandard teaching. The riches of local authorities were thrust upon Catholic schools and they have flourished, and their pupils have flourished, having a better educational record than their Protestant counterparts. But I’d argue their time has past. We are a secular society. No more Catholic or Protestant schools. Certainly no more tax breaks for the private Edens of the upwardly mobile. Just schools. And anybody that suggests that we should go back to testing and the eleven plus, really should watch this programme.  Didn’t work then. Won’t work now, but as we know it’s not about that, it’s about saying my children are better (and more deserving) than yours.  In the competition for top university places and jobs every little bit does help. That saddens me, but I can see through it. It’s here. Watch this programme.

Richard Holloway (2012) Leaving Alexandra. A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. Richard Holloway (2016) A Little History of Religion.

I guess I should review these books individually, but it’s my blog, I have god-like powers and can do anything I want. I asked Richard Holloway to sign my book, which is his autobiographical writing, when he visited Dalmuir library. He asked me what I wanted him to write in the flyleaf, I said that book you were talking about earlier, Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just because I wanted to read it. I’m with the Society of Friends on this one, no kowtowing. No bended knee. Books are holy things. But what they mean that’s a mystery. Perhaps a blessed mystery.

A Little History of Religion has the merit of being little.  There’s not a lot of love there, references to divine love, followed by divine genocide, but the common feature of both books is a movement from faith to doubt. Richard Holloway is a prolific author. He is a former Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity. A theist believes in God. An atheist doesn’t believe in God. And an agnostic believe in both view. I’m a bit like that, only worse, or better, depending on your point of view. Richard Holloway’s autobiography, in particular, is a beautiful book because it is true. True to who he is now and compassionate towards who he was. Wisdom often takes a lifetime. Perhaps it never comes. And some religions that believe in the merits (and demerits) of reincarnation believes it may take lifetimes. I’m in no hurry to find out the truth.

The commonalities of both Holloway’s books are a belief not in doubt but in faith. The most dangerous kind of hate is certainty. The latest example is Trumpism, a back to the wall beleaguered party that triumphs against all the odds. This is combined with revanchist call for revenge against all those against them. Mary Queen of Scots for example had John Knox and his followers singing outside her window and shouting you’re getting it hen, as soon as we’ve got it. And they were right, but it took three blows of the axe, making her suffer first. She was going to hell anyway, or heaven, if you were a good Catholic.  The Plains Indians danced their feet off, but the white man wasn’t covered in ash, although Holloway does acknowledge buffaloes did come back, not so the Indians. Of course, the Palestinians on the West Bank shouldn’t be there because God bequeathed that land to the Israelites and everybody else is an interloper, because God can’t be wrong and no international laws or treaties can make that right. The Promised Land means The Promised Land. Move pal. Or else.  Just the same as Trump can’t be wrong because he is considered so right about making America great again. Anybody that have doubts is getting it. First on the hate list, China, second, Russia, next up the rest of the world. On bended knee we must come and return to a past that never existed to pay homage.

It’s not Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao or indeed Emperor Nero that provides the template for certainty among uncertainty but Nick Bostrom in his book Superintelligence. When the robots or whatever you want to call them figure out –very quickly – that the humans they are ostensibly serving aren’t very smart then they become gods. But even Gods have uncertainties, moments of doubt. These superintelligent robots will use all the earth and its distant stars capacities to reduce uncertainty to a point where it becomes absurd, in human terms, not that there will be any need for humans. But all religions are absurd, but they have a logic to them.

Holloway preaches a message of love. A parable he frequently uses is the parable of the blind man and the elephant. I attributed this to Rumi, but I may be wrong. Each clutches a trunk, an ear, a leg and describes what they feel and what they see. All are telling the truth of what they perceive. But when partial truth become the whole truth each sect goes to war over their vision and allows no dissent. A tusk can never be an ear, because God does not allow such things.

Note the righteousness of religion. It can never be wrong, because God cannot be wrong. A tautology that is rarely taught. Another parable Holloway is fond of is the Good Samaritan.

A man fell among thieves who left him naked and unconscious on a dangerous and deserted road. A priest came along followed by his assistant. They were good men who wanted to help, but their religion prevented it…Next along is a Samaritan, one of the races Jews were forbidden to associate with. His religion has the same prohibitions as theirs.

Both men are religious in their own one, but only one is compassionate as God is compassionate. And it’s a common refrain in Holloway’s writing, ‘the institution that claims to represent God can easily become God’s greatest enemy’. Amen to that.

Another parable Holloway favours is Matthew’s parable of workers in the vineyard all coming at different times and being paid the same rate of pay. God’s like that Holloway is saying and we don’t really understand Him (although He might be a She, but is never an It). If you don’t believe me, he says, read Job. According to scripture God gets into a bet with the devil and lots of bad things happen to Job, including losing his wife and family, all his wealth and suffering from endless and painful diseases. What makes it worse is ‘Job’s comforters’. They seem to have all the answers, but when God appears he’s not happy (God is never happy, or he doesn’t appear) and his standard stick is ‘my wrath is kindled against you and your two friends…’ I guess that means hell and everlasting damnation. But God is good to Job. He stops torturing him. And he gives him a new family and even greater wealth. Holloway is good at this bit. Basically, he’s saying what anyone with common sense would say, ‘fuck off, god, I liked my old family, even the smelly dog.’ And I’m with Holloway with this one if Abraham agreed to sacrifice his son, well, there’s something a bit sick about that.

Holloway’s call for a godless morality might be beyond us, for the very good reason we might not be here much longer. I don’t believe in the rapture. I believe in the apocalypse of greed and gross stupidity. Oh, well, I guess, our parents have been saying the same things for years. Things ain’t the way they used to be. I’m sure I’ll look good as a dead person. Go on, with your god-like powers, use that line from The Life of Brian. ‘We’re all individuals!’

Voice from the back of the crowd, ‘I’m not.’