Let's start by saying that I haven't posted in a couple of months, and that has pissed me off royally. I have wavered between lacking the motivation to write, lacking the inspiration to write and being too tired. I have those periods of ten minutes where I feel all-conquering, when my brain is (genuinely) firing and I feel connected to the creative bit of me that has written three books, nearly completed the fourth, and begun work on the sixth. And then it fades again.
So here we go, with a view perhaps to getting the fingers and the brain working again, here's a short review of Old Mortality, a book which has been on the shelf in its Oxford World Classics version for a good fifteen years, but never been opened before. I do love a good Tale of my Landlord, and this one has all the classic tropes in equal measure. There's the slightly unconvincing hero, who is principled enough to be on a side, but not so much that he appears a fanatic; the beautiful woman who lacks any real substance as a character; the much more interesting serving girl who, one feels, Scott had a much better time writing and a much more convincing feel for; and the various partisans, ranging from the unhinged priests and murderous war-leaders at one end to the occasional appearance by the real nobility.
There's the unrest-in-Scotland storyline, in this case around the continued fight between those Scots who wanted to get rid of the bishops and those who didn't (ish). Scott's interest in Scotland's history is like Dumas' in French history, with that same drive to tell the story without making the history the main point. Old Mortality is a decent story, but reading it later than others, I find it suffered more than many of Scott's novels from the invented characters not having any great personality. That is what Dumas does spectacularly well across the board, his additions to the historical record being absolutely worth their time 'on the page', and the history bent to the story. Neither of these great historical writers is especially careful with the actual history, as it goes, with both allowing themselves a bit of freedom to move things around. But where Scott inserts a 'hero' with accomplishment and some skill at management, Dumas' heroes - the best of them, but also most of the less well known - are altogether more romantic. Morton is a good man. D'Artagnan, who fails to be good on several occasions, is a great one, and it is this that elevates Dumas' best works above Scott's. Separately, D'Artagnan's story is very much his own, intertwined as it is with those of his three great friends, and with the French history of the time. Scott's story is that of the Killing Time, Drumclog and Bothwell Bridge, with Morton inserted to try to find a coherent line for a novel.
So Scott - to me, at least - seems to have produced the novels that Maquet, the man who fed Dumas a lot of the inspirations for his best stuff, would have produced. Good stories, told well, but that is all. Dumas was a different class altogether, a story-teller of utter magnificence.
So let us let Dumas have the last word:
"Moral wounds have this peculiarity - they may be hidden, but they never close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain fresh and open in the heart."
Regular readers will know that when I am writing frequently, a decent part of it gets on to here in some way, shape or form, so paying for a paperback or an ebook (or, waiting until I remember to make it free when I can) is basically nothing more than a gesture to remind me that it could be a job rather than a hobby. Having said that, I understand that sales drive more sales, so if anyone is feeling both generous and flush with cash, investing the relatively tiny amount in a Kindle eBook makes more difference than you might imagine. You can even read the book for nothing if you have that Kindle Library thing, and frankly I don't care about royalties but I would like more readers!
Anyway, for free, as always on the blog, here's an excerpt from what I'm currently working on in Book VI.
“Passage to Rome?” Thomas Gilbert looks from Guy Fletcher to James Longshawe and back again. “It’s him again, isn’t it? What has he done this time? Gone before the Pope and told him that God isn’t real?”
Fletcher smiles. “We need him.”
“Jesus Christ Almighty!” Gilbert sighs. “It must be something awful, then.”
“Politics.” Longshawe says, looking at Fletcher in a way that suggests the younger man is leading this negotiation, and the elder is following his lead.
Fletcher nods. “Politics.”
“Gentlemen,” Gilbert says, “it might be worth reminding you that there isn’t a thing goes on in this city that I don’t know about. Now before I allow you to bring Strelley back here, you will tell me what problem exactly you think he can solve. I would hate for him young Strelley to be fed his own balls by Our Lord and Master Northumberland for no good reason.”
Longshawe again looks to Fletcher, who nods slightly. Longshawe begins, “the King is not well. Perhaps he will not live out the year. He will not produce an heir of his own.”
“So I hear. But how,” Gilbert asks, with a sardonic smile, “Is Strelley going to solve that problem? Steal him a child to present as his own? Shave off his beard, dye his hair red and pretend to be the King?”
“We seek his wisdom. His counsel.” Fletcher almost doesn’t look at Gilbert, but he can see that the merchant is now smiling broadly, almost laughing. Fletcher, unperturbed, continues, “He will want his revenge on Northumberland. He at least can work against the Duke without breaking any oath of loyalty or damning his future should he fail.”
“He’s not going to kill him, is he?” Gilbert feigns shock. “I have almost grown fond of the miserable old bastard.”
“Gilbert,” Fletcher says, “Despite all of this,” he gestures at the merchant, indicating him and his conduct in this conversation, “we value your discretion. An Englishman heading off to Rome might attract the attention of the authorities. They might even conclude that the messenger is a secret papist, with a mission to the Bishop of Rome. That, as it stands right now, is not something to be caught doing.”
It's been a slog. I've never really had or understood writer's block until around two years ago, and I have made precious little progress with book IV - or as it shall henceforth be known, Truth to Power - or with any of my other writing, including this very blog. But - and given what I have written about how these stories come out, this is significant - the characters have started acting out their scenes in my head again. They demand to be written, when they come, and they have started to come again. Oddly, a lot of the stuff that is coming is material for book VI, but it does allow me to get back in touch with my story and start to finalise the endings of the fourth book. Why straight into six? Well, there's a gap of story that needs to be told, but for whatever reason it isn't yet fully formed.
So, let's have a little more of the beginnings of book VI, this time with some familiar historical faces involved:
"The King is dying?”
“You and I both know it is a sin and a crime to compass the death of the king, Doctor Cranmer. You should be careful whom you allow to hear you say such things.”
“Your Grace,” Cranmer says, resigned, “it is not the death of the King that concerns me. He will be welcomed by God into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“Ah,” the Duke of Northumberland replies, with a raised eyebrow, “so it is the sister that concerns you.”
Cranmer thinks for a moment before speaking, using the pause to look Northumberland in the eye. Northumberland gives him a forced, wry smile. Eventually, Cranmer settles on the right words. “The sister cannot be queen. This we both know.”
“But she would be queen, were the king to die without an heir.”
“I never thought I would curse Queen Catherine. Nevertheless, this is her doing.”
“It is complicated, as you know.”
“Legally, perhaps. For you or I, morally too. But not for the people. Mary is Henry’s daughter, and that is all there is to it.”
“So is Elizabeth. She might be more suitable.”
“Your Grace is sorely mistaken if you think to bend Elizabeth to your will.”
“You are correct as always, Doctor Cranmer,” Northumberland says, allowing himself a short, bitter laugh. “My son has not made so much progress with her as I would wish.”
“She still pines after that boy?”
“You would do well not to recall his name in my presence, My Lord Archbishop.”
Cranmer smiles back at the frowning duke. “He still thwarts you even now? He has not been in England for three years or more.”
“No, he has not,” Northumberland says. “Enough of him, and of Elizabeth. There are others.”
“I understand that she is even more fervent in her beliefs than your Godly self, Thomas.”
“That she may be. But she is still a woman. Not even a woman, a girl. You cannot put her on the throne, Your Grace.” Cranmer dwells on the title, avoiding using Northumberland’s Christian name. “Not even you can put her on the throne.”
Once again, I write to you knowing that you will not read these words. I have spent the years thinking of you each day, looking at every face I pass knowing it is not yours but hoping nevertheless. Hoping to share a word with you, to explain, to hear your voice speak to me of times past. And though those times were not happy, save for a few moments of clarity between us, wishing to live their promise, their hope, again. I have travelled the world, searching. Not for you, I know well enough where I could find you. But for a way to navigate the endless days that are without you, without hope of you, and without that part of me that always stays with you wherever you are and wherever I am. I do not wish my life were at an end as I perhaps once did. I do not for a moment think that I should be reunited with you in Heaven. The more I see of the world, the less I think of God, the less I think that He has put us asunder, and the more I think that there is no force for good or evil in the world, just people and their choices. Would I choose differently were I to have the chance? Sometimes, I think not, because then I would not have lived those moments that we shared. Sometimes, I think so, because then you would not have suffered as you did. If God is as the Bible tells us, am I then Job? If it is so, He chose the wrong man. I do not have the faith to say that God is good. If I be wicked, woe unto me; and if I be righteous, yet will I not lift up my head. I am full of confusion; therefore see thou mine affliction; For it increaseth. Thou huntest me as a fierce lion: and again thou shewest thyself marvellous upon me.
He does not listen to my prayers. I have stopped making them.
It's been next-to impossible for me to write for a while. That's been to do with tiredness, mental and physical. It's been to do with a total inability to focus on anything creative. It's been a long time since I've had it in me to even think about sitting down and trying to pull these thoughts out of my head and put them on 'paper'. And so with even the smallest amount of energy and motivation, it's time to do it. Even if it's just to scribble a few thoughts down here.
It's been a very odd couple of months, during which the England men's football team have come within a whisker of actually winning something, we have been told that the the Coronavirus pandemic is over despite cases rising to over 50000 a day, and the situation in school has gone backwards and forwards from 'we're nearly there' to 'we're more or less back where we started'. It would be nice to feel that those who had found themselves in positions of power and responsibility at the helm of the country had something other than their own self-interest at heart, but today's news certainly suggests otherwise. It'd be nice to feel that the people of the country weren't somehow drawn to the promises made by these same people.
My fingers are crossed that the summer holidays are the beginning of this renewed freedom that we're supposed to be about to enjoy. I can't help but feel that this may be over-optimistic. Like so many things, you get told a time when it'll all be over, and sometimes that changes part-way through the time. It was going to be Christmas, for example, and then we spent the following three months in a hard lockdown. And sometimes it's for the protection of vulnerable people... As a school teacher, of course, we get the hardest of hard lines on the protection of the vulnerable, which is sometimes exactly what is needed to keep people safe. My current school, by way of an example, asks that its teachers don't have social contact with their former students for a full three years after they have left. It might seem extreme, especially to those of an earlier generation or to those whose environments are less strict, that those who have finished their A levels shouldn't meet those who led them through for a pint in the pub. But the rules don't exist to police those situations. Sometimes, though, all the rules and the professional standards don't keep the student or the teacher safe from the harms of what is, in between the dull bits (and there are dull bits) a real high highs and low lows environment. Sometimes, the rules and the professional standards actually amplify the harm. It's been a great pleasure and privilege to spend some time with truly wonderful people at school, and it would be reasonably accurate to say my life's work has been to shape them into decent, caring, thinking humans.
But it's the holidays, and to be fair, that's the reason most of us do this job in the first place. Could do with being a bit less warm, though.
Sometimes I find myself wishing I was normal. Usually when some hilariously unpredictable accident has befallen me... I would even go so far as wishing that my house could be normal, given that it seems to be capable of going wrong in ways that defeat even the professionals when it comes to putting them right. Sometimes I wish my brain was a bit more normal, with a few less of the defects that it carries which make it difficult to live day-to-day... But 'normal' has nothing to do with it, in reality. All I'm feeling is that other people don't show me those bits where they're frustrated by inexplicably complicated and irritating things like fixing a boiler. I think becoming a teacher was quite a significant step in changing how I viewed the world - as a teenager, I think probably I thought my world was richer and more complex than that of others because I was clever - allowing me an insight into how it is to be other people, although the ones in question are generally quite young.
Trying to explain to kids who think of themselves as normal how other people are different to them, why that matters, and how that should make the (supposedly) normal kids behave is a serious challenge. Much like the self-proclaimed no-nonsense anti-woke GB News, kids set themselves up as arbitrators of normality (and, perhaps, acceptability) and use their own standards to judge others. These kids see the world only through their own eyes, and then come from that viewpoint to question who others are. It's an insight into the world at large to see kids say things that they can only possibly have heard from parents or peers, because kids don't develop prejudices on their own. In fact, little kids seem to be the most accepting and kind people when it comes to difference, and as far as I can tell it takes effort to make people notice and care about how others are different. Sexuality and gender identity seem to be massive triggers to people of a certain ilk, those who like to say how the world should be, who cannot or will not grasp that others really are different and it isn't just a wind-up.
It's incredibly tough to offer anything useful or insightful that either hasn't already been said by someone cleverer and more invested than me when it comes to the current debate about whether Maya Forstater was in the right or not. But it is possible to say with some clarity that both feminism and trans rights seem to be losing out as a result: as far as I can tell, the forces of conservatism (and Conservatism) have muscled in on the story, and positioned themselves on the side of 'common sense', which seems to basically say that trans women are sufficiently deviant to not deserve human rights. The left - bollocksed by the fact that it spiritually agrees with both feminism and trans rights - is fucked beyond belief, because it can't pick a side without dropping the other. It's worth repeating that those who threaten violence and abuse - on whichever side - are a problem. Even if you find old-fashioned feminism anti-trans, threatening people with violence (and frequently sexual violence, of all the ironies) doesn't improve the situation. My guess is that the feeling of power that comes with threatening violence is attractive to people who haven't had a voice, or who haven't felt represented. Identifying as part of a group seems to be comforting, especially when a person doesn't have a clear idea of their own what exactly it is they are: somehow these other people have worked out what I am and given it a name, which is great. Now I belong.
The saddest thing, to me, is that a lot of vulnerable, confused young people get caught in the crossfire. Adults teach their kids to hate or to despise difference, and that 'it just isn't normal'. Well, perhaps it isn't. But it requires a great deal of spiritual strength to accept other people's differences regardless of how strange they might seem. And I'm sad to say that I don't always think I'm able to make my influence stick, but I think fondly on all those occasions where maybe I helped someone to be just that little bit kinder. The future is dark, the present burdensome... Only the past, dead and buried (ish), bears contemplation.
It's a pretty clear message that I have, and in writing it I'm certain that the people who most need to read it, absorb it, and act on it will not be doing so:
Be excellent to each other.
Five words that encapsulate the central core doctrine of what I stand for, what I try to do when I am in a position of responsibility for educating young people, what I try to embody (without always being successful). It's at the core of Christianity, properly conceived, and whilst I don't pretend to understand the religions in anything like the same depth, it's a teaching that sits at the centre of Islam and Judaism as well. Here's the thing that seems to get missed, though. God might well have His chosen people, and if He does, good for them. But from what I understand of God (or Yahweh, or Allah), being one of the chosen people doesn't come with a right to blow up all the others who don't belong. I can't help but feel that some of the people who have lost their lives to conflict in the Israel will stand before God, see Him shaking His head at the needless loss of life, and weep at the senselessness of the fighting. And that's regardless of which side they were on, and that's regardless of whether they were combatants or innocent bystanders.
Part of the problem is the very real pressure to pick a side, and to have a justification for it. That has been intensified by the looming presence of social media in people's experience, where nuanced argument is conspicuous by its absence, and by the mob mentality of people in general but in particular on such platforms. I am no historian of the Middle East, but I can say with confidence that the answer to the conflict there will not be found by looking back and figuring out who really ought to be there. I can further say that conflict - whether political or military - does not seem to have much of a positive history when it comes to sorting out social, economic and moral problems. So the route to peace won't come from victory, but from the recognition that what real victory is - grandstanding aside - is an answer in which people co-exist without the need to re-contest the outcome at any opportunity.
The same goes for Northern Ireland, Brexit, whatever. As a kid, I remember being asked the question about holiday destinations - where would I like to go and where would I not like to go? And my response to the latter (I have no memory of my response to the former) was to say that I would not like to be on holiday in Northern Ireland, because people there seem to shoot each other quite frequently. The people of Northern Ireland, the UK, Ireland, the USA - whoever has a stake and whoever has any power - bear a responsibility, and that is to get right first an attitude to the conflict that is one of improvement and peace, not victory in some cause. That justice for terrible actions past might not act in its familiar way is a worthwhile price to be paid for preventing terrible actions not yet done.
And when it comes to this country and its future? I suppose my sensibility is clear enough, and my voting preferences would be so to those who had a sense of who I am. The very nature of political parties seems to be that none quite embodies my view on how the country should be run. Indeed, the desire for power in and of itself should be a fair warning. My hope is that the era of everyone being able to publicly express an opinion drives a move towards something like a coalition of government in people's interest and with their blessing. But it seems that people's attachment to their opinions is too big a barrier. And their attachment to power, in some cases.
I had the title in mind when thinking a bit about Boris Johnson and the various news we've heard in the last couple of weeks about things that he has probably done wrong (accepting money to pay for decoration) but that we have not yet had confirmed one way or the other. You can tell that something has been done that, if it gets out, will get great mileage for any anti-Johnson sentiment, and particularly in the week of local elections, it seems that all manner of lying, part-truth and ignoring the question is being deployed to try to spike this particular gun. What's really interesting about the whole story is that, in the grand scheme of things, the money spent on doing up what is inevitably a temporary residence for the occupant is trifling. It's not a small sum in the context of salaries, wage increases and benefits, but it's a small sum in the context of the untold millions spent on enriching private interests out of the public purse (probably). Why has this one got traction, where any number of reasonably clear-cut corruption stories have not? Is this the work of Dominic Cummings, manipulating newspapers behind the scenes?
Well, get ready for an analogy.
Lots of folk were disappointed by last night's relative sedate ending to Line of Duty. I thought it was spot on, and the reason is basically that the story of corruption within the police is pretty much analogous to the story of corruption within the current government. You're never quite sure who is at the root of it, and indeed when you get your answers it turns out that there's a lot less planning and infrastructure to the whole thing and a lot more making-it-up-as-you-go-along. Twitter exploded with a bunch of people feeling cheated of their mastermind, their supervillain. What we wanted was Dominic Cummings, scheming and twisted, up to his eyeballs in evil. What we got instead was a mixture of incompetence and greed. Boris Johnson. A man who clearly had the right stuff to make progress in his chosen field, despite a series of warning signs being there all along. A man who has a record of being involved in corrupt practices, but which seem to have been overlooked by the people doing the promoting. What the fourth man lacks that Johnson has is limited to a belief in his own divine(ish) right to be in charge. Johnson, as far as I can tell, simply can't compute that there are people out there who have principles other than their own enrichment, empowerment and glorification. He can't see why, when it comes to rules, they should apply to him; the rules exist to govern the common man, not him. And that is the problem currently: he is in charge of deciding what to do about forthcoming enquiries into his own behaviour. If they conclude that he has broken the ministerial code (as the one into Priti Patel's conduct as Home Secretary did, in fact, conclude) he is free to follow what is now established precedent and simply state that the conclusion of the report is wrong (as he, in fact, did in the case of the Priti Patel enquiry). It doesn't need hidden laptops and re-routing through Spanish IP addresses to stink of corruption, and even if Patricia McDonald (or James Cleverly, take your pick) is there to constantly remind us that there is no evidence of institutionalised corruption, you just know there is.
So Boris Johnson is like Donald Trump in that set of ways at least. A chancer who believes that every decision made was rather the result of inherent superiority than a system stacked in his favour. Someone for whom criminality is a concept that only really applies to others, those governed, rather than those doing the governing. What is astonishing is how each has risen to wield power in the way that they have. We can only hope that the beginning of the collapse of Johnson's power is near, because that drive to decouple the machinery of state that prevents those doing the governing from doing so in their own interests alone has already had a profound effect. It is easy to sneer at Conservative voters, particularly the ones who would be better served (in a variety of ways) by a more left-leaning administration. It is easy to caricature them as immigrant-hating, as Union Flag worshipping, as infuriated by those scrounging of the benefits system. But that hides the real truth. People seem to vote Conservative not so much because they want to be represented as they are, but that vote is cast as if they had reached their idealised version of themselves. It is as if they imagine themselves to be a part of the club that really holds them outside, needing them to achieve its power, but discarding them mercilessly once it is achieved.
What do you do? My approach so far has been to do what I can by teaching people to be good, and hoping the rest looks after itself...
It's a tough one, this. I've just had a fortnight's holiday, so it might seem a bit ungrateful (if that is indeed the right word) to say that I am tired. But I've also had some form of illness that isn't Covid-19, because the series of tests that I've done have all come up negative. And whilst it hasn't ever been quite so debilitating as the original CV-19, it has been hard to look after all the small people in the house with swollen throat glands preventing me sleeping. So there you go.
But things are changing in the world outside, and that's helping. It's brighter, things are growing in the garden, and we can get outside more often. We've even played football in the park. Unbelievably wholesome, as was the trip to the swimming pool this morning. There's something odd about the lack of people there - the atmosphere at Hillsborough is dependent on it being slightly too busy - but at least we were there, doing that 'pure fun' thing I've written about on here before. It's a welcome distraction from the oncoming storm of rubbish that will undoubtedly accompany this next half term in school, where we attempt to assess the kids without making them do GCSEs. You'll be surprised to learn that our assessments resemble the GCSE exams in a lot of important particulars, except for the fact that we have to mark the bastard things ourselves. Ho hum.
I am still missing the creative writing that just isn't happening for me at the moment. I'm desperately hoping that the inspiration will come, or the willingness to write rubbish, or the energy, whatever it is, without me having to do anything else. It feels as though over the last couple of years the characters that spoke so loud to me, the scenes that appeared in my head and wrote themselves, the desire to unload all of that onto the page, in short, my writing, has gone quiet, disappeared to some distant place that I can't quite access. I'm not sure what I'd do to get it back, but we'll see over the course of the next couple of months whether a more definite return to normal - with a bit more of a certain trajectory, we hope - signals that return.
I want to find that closeness to my story again... I'm not sure how to go about it.
Well, yes, bent coppers, of course those. A good story, told in a compelling way. Watching the old Line of Duty is a kind of privilege, because you already know it's good, and because I didn't watch it the first time round, I genuinely don't know what's going to happen. Except that I have started watching the new ones. And I seem to remember watching series 5. So I'm about as confused as I would be otherwise...
And the old Doctor Who, which stands up better than I remember at the time. There's a lot of exploration of the psychology of being old and having seen lots of different and difficult things, which is challenging for the 9-year-old watching them with me! Having said that, they stand as quite good story ideas, and they retain some (but not all) of the clarity of telling the story that the earlier revival era series definitely do. So why does that matter? I don't watch massive amounts of TV, as it goes, a lot of what I do watch is desperately nerdy and to be found on YouTube, and absolutely does not set out to tell stories. So when I do watch TV, I want something that is both engaging and relatively effortless. Except that for some reason, I have happily engaged with Line of Duty as I did with things like The Witcher and The Mandalorian. What's really interesting is how infrequently there is any exposition in well-written TV (or films, or anything really), precisely because 'well-written' amounts to being able to tell a story without crowbarring in the explanations of why things are happening as they are.
That's what you're aiming for, I guess, when you tell a story. The confusing thing about real life is that the plot isn't obvious, often doesn't move along for days or weeks or even years at a time, and it can impossible to tell whether you're a bit-part player or the central character. In a way, it doesn't matter. There are theories of consciousness that basically suggest that all consciousness is can be contained in the idea of telling a story, and that memory and consciousness are near-enough one and the same thing. It certainly doesn't feel like that to be alive, in that it definitely hurts at the time you injure yourself and not it's not only when you're constructing the narrative later that it has its effect. But there is something real enough about the idea that 'I' is just a series of stories that you remember about yourself. The terrifying and deflating prospect that reality is nothing more than those stories is perhaps softened by the notion that every now and again, you make a connection and you share a little bit of your story with someone else. These shared experiences, be they moments, or something more lingering, are what life seems - to me at least - to be for. And even if they come to an end and can't be recaptured, the memory of them lives, and is not diminished by time or distance. They say that time heals all wounds, but that's nonsense. Time lets you focus your recollections of the bits of the story that were pleasant or better. The hard bits are still just as hard when they come back. I don't care if that is sentimental, and I don't think it is. It's what makes it possible to live through the dark moments, because there is a bit of me that can hold on to the light, even if it lies in the past and not the present.
As for the future? If you're read this blog before, you know what's coming; Wait and Hope!
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought