Balaam’s Ass

Last weekend saw the annual animals’ Christmas service at St Michael’s Church, Totnes.   This year, the church was full: I was told there were twice as many people as the previous year, and every pew seemed taken by women, men, children and animals – mainly dogs.   There were a lot of dogs.   There was also a cat, several chickens, and a gerbil.

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My grandchildren brought their hamster, who stayed quietly in a red plastic box until his appearance under the lid attracted the attention of the dog in the pew in front.  My brother Richard and sister in law Jacqi brought the family donkey, who refused to enter the church through the front door and had to be brought in through the back.   Donkeys are traditionally known as humble and reticent creatures.

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There were readings and short talks by representatives of animal charities and supporters of the homeless, who frequently have a canine companion.  The minister spoke about the place of animals in the network of human life and relationship, especially as a source and object of affection.   The animals kept quiet during the spoken parts of the service but the dogs appeared to take the hymn ‘O come all you faithful’ as a command: they  barked and howled in a cacophonous crescendo.  Jacqi (who is Mayor of the town) recited The Owl & the Pussycat with my brother, her consort.

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It was an unusual service, but the church was unusually popular that afternoon.  The phrase ‘vernacular theology’ came to my mind, a phrase which, according to Nicholas Watson, professor of English at Harvard University, was first used in the sixteenth century.

Watson argues that, in thirteenth century England, medieval Christianity, an ‘elite, small-group religion’ with an emphasis on contemplation and theory, gradually accepted that, in order to include the common people, religious instruction had to take place in the vernacular.  In this process, according to Watson, the biblical figure of Balaam’s talking Ass took on symbolic meaning as a figure for the vernacular. Watson suggests that the phrase ‘vernacular theology’ contains liberating connotations of accessibility, free expression, and even democracy.

Perhaps something similar was happening in twenty-first century Totnes.

We should not bomb Syria

Bombing in Kobani, Syria

Bombing is indiscriminate. It kills civilians: men, women and children. Those traumatised and bereaved by our bombings will become recruits to Daesh if only because they are the dominant power in the region.

Bombing Syria simply to join forces with our allies is not a rational approach to solving the conflict.

The bombing will only add to the mayhem of a war of tribal and ideological conflict and revenge. Our own revengefulness will only exacerbate this.

As the situation deteriorates, the power of Daesh is likely to increase. There is no way to ensure that “moderates” will win the day. There are no moderates in this situation.

Further bombing will further destroy what remains of civil society in the region. This will make the process of recovery and restitution even less achievable than at present. We have no plan for restoring civil society in Syria. Our bombing will enlarge the vacuum that Daesh will fill. We must learn from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Bombing will also increase the number of people fleeing to seek refuge in other countries, including our own.

The way to peace is to refuse to arm any of the parties fighting in Syria and to use strategic means to resolve the conflict. This will mean putting people on the ground – not just soldiers but intermediaries: a United Nations peacekeeping force including members from Muslim countries. Any plan must be rationally evaluated to ensure it will not exacerbate the situation.

Flying to Galway

Recently I was invited to examine a doctoral thesis at the National University in Galway, Ireland. I looked forward to this for weeks as it seemed something of an adventure as well as a duty. I had never been to Galway although I have frequently visited my brother and his family in West Cork: he has painted there for more than thirty years.

While preparing for the viva voce, I found myself preoccupied by the simple logistical task of getting to Galway. Travelling to Ireland, a country very near yet across a turbulent sea, never seems quite straightforward. Moreover, the phrase “flying to Galway” jostled in my brain with “sailing to Byzantium”. I could hardly be described as a tattered coat upon a stick, but Yeats was younger than I when he wrote his poem, and I half hoped that the journey would be somehow transformative.

My previous journeys to Ireland have usually been memorable if only for their discomfort. For many years I used to catch the “express” bus from Bristol bus station that toiled along dark, damp Welsh roads to Fishguard, arriving at 3 a.m. for embarkation onto the Fishguard-Rosslare ferry. Whichever direction one was travelling, concern about migration and terrorism seemed always to be on the British side. Before being allowed to board the ferry, bemused bus passengers were directed into a large, bare security room where we had to walk in a circle while being filmed by a video camera and observed by armed guards.

The advent of affordable flight – Ryanair and easyJet – has much reduced the popularity of the bus journey.  I had no doubt that I was going to fly to Galway, but by which route? There is an airport at Galway itself, but this no longer operates a passenger service. The most direct alternative flight from Bristol was to Knock, about 35 miles north of Galway. There are only two flights a week, but I could arrive a day earlier than necessary, reread the thesis in the hotel, and see something of the area before returning to Britain.

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The 50 minute flight from Bristol to Knock was calm and sunlit above a virtual sea of small white clouds. As we descended, I saw a scattering of buildings across the green landscape. As we got closer to the ground, there seem to be no habitation at all. The plane landed abruptly, hitting the runway hard and slowing to a halt.

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Knock airport was built at the instigation of a priest who wished to encourage pilgrims to visit the shrine of the Virgin Mary, who appeared to the faithful at Knock church in 1873. As I left the plane, I saw an enormous statue of Mary overlooking the runway, which is carved into the encroaching Irish countryside in a way that appears barely finished. A large poster in the terminal building celebrates the airport’s ambition to act as a hub of communications between New York to the west and mainland Europe to the east, Knock apparently being the central point and the Atlantic strikingly foreshortened.

The stopping bus took an hour and forty minutes to Galway. The passenger next to me struck up a conversation and blessed me when he left the bus. My hotel was off the main road, on the outskirts of the city. Spacious and modern, it could have been in London or New York, apart from the same-sex couples who sat holding hands in the lounge. In some respects, social mores in Ireland have changed astonishingly, although not necessarily in ways the priests would have wished.

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I spent much of the next day re-reading the thesis but took time out to walk into town along the main road. In terms of traffic and townscape too, Ireland has joined the modern world. I could have been almost anywhere on the globe as I walked along a four-lane highway of crowded, shuffling traffic surrounded by retail parks. In the town, hoping to buy a coat to protect me from the cold of what was nonetheless a bright day, I made the mistake of entering a subterranean shopping mall where the stores were nearly all national and international chains, the walkways too narrow and the displays too bright.

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My day at the University was delightful. The viva voce examination was delayed because the other examiner had an earlier meeting with a government minister about a history text he had recently published; it was good to hear that government was taking a interest in the scholarly function of the academy. The utilitarian, vocational view of higher learning may not yet have affected Ireland as it has the UK. Over lunch we discussed the Rugby World Cup, which was starting the following weekend, and the Michael Fassbender Macbeth, which I went to see in the local cinema that evening.

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It was the next day – a Saturday, my last day in Ireland – that I felt I understood something of Ireland’s version of modernity. Sheila Gallagher showed me the tiny house that was the childhood home of Nora Barnacle, wife of James Joyce and inspiration for Molly Bloom. Sheila and her sister bought the house in 1987 and have preserved it to convey vividly the life of a large family in two small rooms. The house contains several photographs of Nora Barnacle, Joyce and their companions, some taken on holidays abroad which clearly took Nora well away from her humble Galway origins. Standing in the cramped house, one room above the other and an outside area little larger than a single bed, it was easy to remember that the Irish are no strangers to austerity. Walking with Sheila through the older parts of Galway, I was struck by the combination of traditional street life – performers, buskers, sellers – and non-traditional same-sex couples embracing and holding hands. In Galway, I was at one moment on a Los Angeles highway; at another, in a living museum of the traditional harshness of Irish life; at another, in an embrace of new freedom in relationships. It was an invigorating experience.

Why people have voted for Jeremy Corbyn

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2m_noI’m writing just before the announcement of the result of the Labour Party leadership election.  Press and politicians continue to express astonishment that the Blair project is so strenuously rejected by the many people who are voting for Jeremy Corbyn. One of the attractive features of Corbyn is that he proposes to listen to the wishes and concerns of those whom he represents. Six years after coming into power, Blair led the UK into a war which was patently unlawful and unjustified. Two million people – approaching 2% of the population – protested outside the Houses of Parliament. I was one of them and I wrote this poem at the time. Just as the unwarranted attack on Iraq has led to unprecedented strife, chaos and bloodshed in the Middle East, Blair’s collusion with George W. Bush, in the face of all plausible evidence, is now reaping the whirlwind for the Labour Party. We want an administration that will respect the needs and wishes of the people of the UK and the wider world.

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Why I am voting for Jeremy Corbyn

The tone of political utterance matters.

Mainstream Labour politicians express astonishment that Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leadership is gaining so much support. Tony Blair, Jack Straw and others have expressed apocalyptic fears of the effect on a Corbyn leadership on the electability of the party. His popularity, some say, must be the result of infiltration. Private Eye have an amusing take on this:

PE_Corbyn1I have just received an email from one of the candidates for deputy leadership. It begins:

Your ballot paper to decide who you want to be Labour’s next leadership team is already on its way to you. It’s an important decision.

This message is sent to people who have already joined the Labour Party or become registered Labour supporters. Do they need to be persuaded or patronised? It ends with a PS after the candidate’s signature: “Your vote is important. Please use it.” This repetition of a call to act is, of course, a technique used by charity and other marketeers when writing to prospective supporters or customers.

I left the Labour Party in 1997 when I heard Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell speaking in a knowing way about the Labour brand. The marketing metaphor seemed inappropriate as it positioned the electorate as consumers to be manipulated. The neoliberal omens were not good.

After eighteen years of Labour and coalition administration, we are imbued in market culture in education, health and other public services. The situation has not reached quite the point I encountered recently in the USA, where I had to listen to an advertisement before making a domestic phone call. Yet the overall spirit of our culture is that everything has to be sold. In a strange application of post-modern philosophy, reality has disappeared. All that matters is advertising and appearance. Political candidates present themselves rather than their policies.  Again, Private Eye catches the zeitgeist:

PE_Corbyn2Corbyn doesn’t present himself as having particular qualities or capacities, as is the tendency of the other candidates’ manifestos.  His prose is more impersonal as he calls for “a fairer, kinder Britain based on innovation, decent jobs and decent public services”.  “Kinder” and “decent” are not part of the current political lexicon. Corbyn draws on a long socialist tradition of critiquing the influence of a market economy. Writing in 1817 about the effect on human life of the new manufacturing system, Robert Owen argued:

All are sedulously trained to buy cheap and to sell dear … and thus a spirit is generated … destructive of that open, honest sincerity, without which man cannot make others happy, nor enjoy happiness himself.

Writing in the current London Review of Books, David Runciman distinguishes between expressive and instrumental theories of voting. The former is based upon voters’ signalling who they are and what they value. Most of Corbyn’s supporters will be expressive voters, whereas those on the left who oppose him may be instrumental voters who fear that, under his leadership, and following his philosophy, Labour will never regain power.

But they may be wrong. Recent history in Scotland, Greece and elsewhere speaks of the power of popular movements and radical (yet long-established) ideas of social change. The Corbyn phenomenon is much larger than the charisma of one quietly spoken man.