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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Poetry for Lunch

Apologies to R. S. Thomas for the title - inspired by his poem 'Poetry for Supper'. 

Today I invited a small audience in the Cathedral to enjoy eight of my favourite poems. This was one of a series of informal lunchtime talks we have been offering in the nave on weekdays in summer. The task I set myself was to choose eight poems I might want to take to a desert island. It was no more than an excuse to read aloud and invite others to listen if they wished. The only condition I set myself was that on this occasion, it would all be in English. And that each poem, or extract from a longer poem, would be able to stand by itself.

Here's my A-list with a summary of how I introduced each poem. It's today's choice. It changes by the hour - so much great poetry to choose from. Ask me tomorrow and the list could look quite different. 

1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
How could I not choose Shakespeare? The Sonnets are a wonderful treasury of the ebbs and flows of human love. At our silver wedding celebration 15 years ago, we asked our children to offer readings and one of them chose this famous sonnet about 'the marriage of true minds'. As an encapsulation of love at its most profound, has it ever been bettered? What other writer offers such profound insights into human living and loving? 

2. John Donne, Holy Sonnet 5
'Batter my heart, Three-Person'd God': what a way to begin a prayer! All of Donne's turbulent inner life comes out in this passionate sonnet. Its fusion of the spiritual and the erotic is not what you might expect from a Church of England Dean (of Saint Paul's) but there is no disguising the searing emotional honesty of this great poem. The image of the God who has to take us by force and ravish us in order to make us chaste is both courageous and unforgettable.

3. Ben Jonson, 'On my Son'
I did not know this poem until my son pointed me to it when I was writing my book Lost Sons. It is a moving elegy on the child Jonson lost at the age of 7. I doubt there is any loss in the world worse than losing your own child, and this deeply felt poem is filled with all the sorrow and yearning of a very great grief. He calls his 'dear boy' his 'best piece of poetry'. The poem was the choice of one of the contributors to a remarkable anthology I was recently given, Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.

4. Alfred Lord Tennyson, 'Ulysses'
People don't read Tennyson like they used to, but his poetry is second to none in its 'ear' for the feel and sound of words. Ulysses gazes into the far horizons, reflects in old age on his travels and adventures, and concludes that even in the twilight of our lives, we must go on being pilgrims and explorers. The poem rises to a famous heroic conclusion: 'to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield' - this is the spirit of the true lifelong adventurer. It's a poem to arouse and inspire, at least for me.

5. Gerard Manley Hopkins, 'The Kingfisher'
Hopkins was one of greatest 19th century religious poets. His poetry frequently has a tragic aspect, coloured by the personal sense of unworthiness he carried all through life. But he touches ecstasy too. Here he celebrates not just the natural glory of a creation that knows how to be true to itself, but the glory of human beings where, in his final beautiful lines, 'Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men's faces.'

6. W. H. Auden, 'Musée des Beaux Arts'
I have admired this poem from schooldays. It has been in my mind recently as we have watched the tragedies of the Middle East being played out on our TV screens while we sit in armchairs drinking coffee and stroking the cat. The paradox of how ordinary life carries on while a disaster happens in front of us is brilliantly caught by Auden. Is he saying: recognise the absurdity, but then try to see with a new compassion, so that when life goes on, it is not because we passed by on the other side?

7. R. S. Thomas, 'Via Negativa'
What Hopkins was to Victorian era, Thomas was perhaps to the 20th century. His poetry was honed in the harsh, unforgiving Welsh parishes where he was a priest. His tough writing, so strong on the tension between God's absence and presence, reflects a faith that has to be fought for, but even at its bleakest, there is no denying the conviction that lies at its heart. The negative way of spirituality focuses on what we can't know or say about God which, Thomas reminds us, is just about everything.

8. The Bible, 1 Corinthians 13
You get the Bible and Shakespeare on your desert island, thank God. I chose to read St Paul's great poem about love in the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, thus coming full circle and ending where I began - in the English Renaissance, and with the great theme of love. This is one of the best-known passages in the entire Bible, but it never fails to move me. And because it gathers up and offers all that has lasting meaning in life, it felt like the right place to end. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

J'Accuse!... Cliff Richard: Ordeal by Media

The way Cliff Richard has been treated is shocking. At least, it has shocked me. 

Not only was his house searched while he was known to be out of the country, but the search was conducted under the merciless glare of the nation's media. It seems that the media were alerted prior to the event, though precisely by whom remains unclear. So without warning the poor man is catapulted into headlines that are always hungry to see a celebrity toppled. And this when he has not even been cautioned or interviewed let alone arrested and charged with any offence. He has not been given the chance to offer any defence or explanation in respect of whatever suspicions are held. It is scarcely believable that such a thing could happen so publicly in 21st century Britain.  

Yesterday, my wife alerted me to a Facebook feed about the breaking news. Someone, commenting on the story, announced triumphantly 'I knew it!' You can sense the tone of satisfaction: suspicion confirmed, the worst believed, a reputation sunk. I doubt that a single FB post will inflict much more damage than has already been caused. It's just an indication of how quickly people jump to conclusions and pronounce sentence, a universal human trait to be sure, but magnified hugely by the sheer power and influence of social media.

By coincidence, the story broke on the day I finished reading a novel about the Dreyfus affair. I blogged about it yesterday, so I won't repeat myself. Briefly, what did for the alleged traitor (among other things) was the way in which public opinion was manipulated by a hostile press egged on by people in power who were already shaping the outcome. Dreyfus was perhaps the first person to undergo trial by media in its modern sense. It turned out that he was innocent. But it very nearly meant the end of him. 

Like everyone else, I know nothing about the facts in Cliff Richard's case. My protest is not against the propriety of the police acting on a serious allegation and searching a householder's premises when there are sufficient grounds and it is lawfully authorised. I've no reason to think that due process has not been followed here. But I can't believe that it could ever be right to proclaim it to the media as seems to have happened, and thereby feed a prurient public. It is Cliff Richard's right to be treated like any other British citizen when suspicion is raised: innocent until proved guilty. There are no exceptions to this principle that is so fundamental to our legal system. Celebrities have rights too.

It will take many months, perhaps more than a year, to assess the evidence, pursue other relevant enquiries and come to a conclusion about whether charges should be brought. During this time, Cliff Richard will be in limbo, not knowing what will await him, but under intense public scrutiny and already as good as criminalised by some sections of public opinion. Who knows what that will put him through? It is rough justice to treat a human being with such disregard for his rights, his welfare and his privacy. 

Now South Yorkshire Police are blaming the BBC for this sorry chain of events. Someone has to take responsibility. Who is going to hold their hands up, admit that a terrible mistake has been made and say sorry? It will be too late to undo the mischief they have caused, but it might just help recover our belief that the noble legacy of Magna Carta is not entirely lost.

Geoffrey Robertson QC has stated the issues clearly in an excellent piece in the Independent. You can read it at http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-way-the-police-have-treated-cliff-richard-is-completely-unacceptable-9672367.html

Friday, 15 August 2014

J'Accuse!...Dreyfus and the Principalities and Powers

In 1895 in Paris, Alfred Dreyfus, an army officer, was convicted of handing over French military secrets to the Germans. He was condemned to life imprisonment for treason, was ceremonially stripped of his military rank, his insignia were removed and his sword was ritually broken before he was sent to Devil's Island for the rest of his days. He was 35.

Evidence subsequently came to light that suggested that Dreyfus was not the traitor after all. A new head of intelligence, George Picquart, reported that he had scrutinised the documents on which Dreyfus' conviction had been based, and deduced that another man, Ferdinand Esterhazy, was the spy. However, a re-trial astonishingly affirmed Dreyfus' guilt, a verdict that sent my predecessor Dean Hensley Henson into an 'unspeakable rage'. It took four years of tortuous legal process for him to be pardoned and a further seven before he was officially exonerated. He was re-instated in the army, and served with distinction in the Great War. He died in 1935.

The story is the subject of Robert Harris' latest novel An Officer and a Spy. Not knowing anything about Dreyfus beyond the bare facts of this cause célèbre, I found it to be an absorbing read. As in all his books, Harris, an ex-journalist, researches his material with meticulous care - and in the case of the Dreyfus Affair, there is a lot of it. Harris' makes Picquart his mouthpiece and his use of the historic present (how John Humphrys must hate it!), together with his mastery of the plot's endless twists and turns, makes the novel a superbly vivid read. 

You don't necessarily expect beach reading to be memorable, but (always the mark of a good book) I am continuing to think about its big themes. For make no mistake: this was the most dramatic political scandal in modern France, and one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in western judicial history. It sharply divided public opinion at the time, led to protests on the streets, and even now more than a century later its consequences continue to reverberate in French political and religious consciousness.

Three factors made it so toxic. The first is that Dreyfus was from Alsace. He came from lands that had been occupied by the Germans since the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870. France's humiliation in the generation before Dreyfus was an open sore that was never going to heal (as the Great War demonstrated). So anyone accused of treason in relation to this bitterly hated enemy would inevitably incur huge public wrath. And this was perhaps the first example of an event where the power of 'public opinion' would count for so much.

The second is the conduct of politicians and the military. What came to light during the affair was the extent to which the very highest echelons of the French army had colluded with lies, forged documents and falsified evidence all because of an a priori doctrine that if Dreyfus had been convicted by a military court, its findings had to be sacrosanct. It took courageous 'intellectuals' (a word first coined during this affair) to insist that the conduct of the case raised serious questions about the integrity of the nation's senior leadership. The novelist Émile Zola was in the forefront of this 'Dreyfusard' protest against the corruptions of power and the comprehensive culture of the cover-up. He wrote a famous article that appeared on the front page of a national newspaper, J'accuse! as a result of which he was also arraigned before a court of law. 

But by far the most powerful forces at work in the affair were due to the fact that Dreyfus was a Jew. His conviction played right into the barely-suppressed anti-semitism of the fin de siècle. This ugly strain ran from top to bottom of French society. A torrent of abuse towards Jews was rapidly unleashed, some of it acted out as physical violence. Jews were not only mercenary and manipulating. Dreyfus had demonstrated that they were not to be trusted. Their claims to assimilation as authentic French citizens were exposed as hypocrisy. And even when Dreyfus was reinstated, the anti-Semitic genie would not willingly get back into the bottle, as is evidenced by the treatment of French Jews under Nazi Occupation, and the spate of anti-Jewish episodes that continues to this day. 

So Robert Harris' book, while it doesn't set out to moralise, does offer food for thought about our contemporary society: how we deal with one another as nation-states, how we lead with integrity in public life, our covenant with the armed forces, how we conduct judicial processes, how we listen to victims, and above all, how we handle religious, ethnic and cultural difference in society, especially when it comes to minorities. All this could be said to be about how we 'speak truth to power'. Dreyfus was an historical watershed whose central issues are still very much with us, in Britain no less than France. We need to be vigilant if we care about our values as a nation.

It's amazing how much you can learn from what you read on the beach.