It's a good thing that people talk about mental health. In the forty-or-so years I've been going, there has been a shift from dismissing mentally ill people as nutters, through the sympathetic-but-still-not-that-helpful treatment of depression by reminding the sufferer of all the good things about their life, to taking seriously the fact that some people's mental landscape just isn't the same as most others'. You can see it occasionally getting abused, perhaps by the canny schoolkid who blames a perfectly normal teenage lack of interest in doing any work on their anxiety, which curiously enough doesn't manifest itself in any other situation... sometimes it is adults who attach all the ills of their life to their bad mental health, when in fact they contribute a fair number of poor choices. Sometimes the illness drives the choices and it is impossible to tell what the best thing to do with and for that person is. Sometimes, the illness is so pernicious that it convinces the sufferer that he or she has done something deeply, irredeemably wrong, or perhaps convinces those around that that is the next step in its development. So it is a good thing that mental health is not the taboo that it has been even in my memory. It is the same as with the prejudices I wrote about (relatively) recently, that in my lifetime there has been a swing, from openly expressed (my grandparents and even my parents would be openly disgusted by, for example, a gay man even hinting at anything sexual) through to the more covert ("he's gay but he's lovely...", or scouring a list of names, finding anything remotely unusual and commenting on the likely ethnic origin of the person so named), to being robustly challenged at every expression that carries with it some form of prejudice.
Seeing images of the few remaining survivors of the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s should remind us of that progress. It is within my grandparents' lifetimes that people - who might have appeared to be kind, warm, normal, should you have met them on the street - were convinced that an entire race needed to be wiped out for the safety of the rest. The thought that this sort of thing might happen again has always seemed remote, as perhaps the prospect of a second Great War must have done at the beginning of 1919. So it seems that we must guard against it in whatever way we might. I, in my small way, try to educate, civilise and generally improve those around me, by getting them to think, challenging their views where there might be a chance of something constructive coming from it, sometimes by introducing something they hadn't contemplated before - a poem, a painting, a song. I can't help but reread in that sentence a sort of hopeless earnestness, a forlorn, even quixotic idealism that marks me out in some way, probably as a fool. But I will persist in that foolishness, because, for every ten or even hundred people I confuse or frustrate when I insist on showing them something interesting, if just one gets it, then it is worth it. Humans - as I find myself saying a lot, even with the raised eyebrow that I cannot now omit - are the cleverest thing we know about in the entire universe, without (current!) exception. So perhaps we should celebrate the achievements of humanity, focus on what we can do that is the nearly unbelievable achievement of our species, and focus that energy, inventiveness and will on being better, not being richer or more powerful or having more stuff. That's the great sadness of how 'the economy' is measured, for me - they keep going on about wealth, wealth creation and all that. Wealth is not about stuff - although stuff can be wonderful in the right context - but the immaterial wealth of knowing things, being able to be interested in the best that other people have created, that's what wealth is.
And so, a sort of 'share': Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Bruegel...
And Auden (wasn't he a nancy as well, Sir?)...
Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
It's not a proper flash fiction, because it's a letter written by one character to another...
But since it might not make it into the final edit, here's 450-or-so words of Edward Strelley to Elizabeth. Fans of surprises might wish to ignore this post, especially if you plan to read book IV without already knowing most of what happens - unlikely if you read this news page - because it might ruin the suspense... (Suspense... As if!)
Strelley to Elizabeth, Sep 1549
I will not see you again. Not in truth. But in my dreams, Elizabeth, there is still hope. A fool’s hope. A hope that is the same as the one that hopes that when I die, I will stand before God and He will say to me that despite my lack of faith, I was a good man. And I will not spend an eternity in Hell, but rather be welcomed into heaven as a sinner who repents. “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” I wonder if God will allow it: repentance for not having faith in Him when it is no longer a matter of faith, as I stand before Him, blinded by His light.
I pray that He light my way, Elizabeth. Because since I have left you I cannot see an arm’s length in front of me. When my mind is quiet of finding food for the day, or a place to sleep, when I have no longer to look after my body, it is your voice, still and small and calm, that speaks to me, not His. Sometimes I can hear what it says. I can hear you speaking to me, but the words that I hear are commonplace, hiding something that you wish to say. And then I can see your face in my dreams, and I can read that face, but then I cannot hear your words. And when I call out to you, you vanish, replaced by the dead eyes of dead men, staring back at me and judging all the wrong I have done. Your hand reaches, but it does not touch mine. And I wake, weeping, because an inch away in my dreams is worse than half the world in truth.
I will not return to you. I am doubly cursed, banished and watched for by forces that will end my life within a moment should I try. It would have been better for us both, I think, if I had died when I was supposed to have died. Then at least you would be free from that fool’s hope that we might, for an hour, or a day, or a lifetime, be happy. Better perhaps if the plague had taken me instead of Grindal. Better perhaps if those wise counsellors around us had not sought to bring us together. I would offer you advice, to trust in Ascham or Denny or Kat Astley, as they love you indeed. But as I will not send this letter to you, as you will not read these words, I need not.
I loved you desperately, Elizabeth. I love you still.
So Facebook's algorithms have finally got it right, predicting a moment of deviation from my normal path. Yes, it must have been a rather odd confluence of circumstances that put a Daily Mail link in my feed, but - like the fool I am - I clicked on it. It was a write-up of Piers Morgan's most recent Twitter exchange with a bunch of people on the subject of Meghan Markle (and by association Prince Harry, of course). I read the first bit, just to see exactly what was being discussed: Morgan doesn't think that the criticism of Meghan Markle comes from racism against her. That point, in itself, seems a fair one to make. Just because you don't like someone, or you want to criticise their decisions, that does not mean that you are prejudiced against that person. I went through a bit of a crisis of my own liberal values when I took an intense dislike to someone I had met who was (and presumably still is) gay, and because he was so overtly gay, I made the wrong connection and assumed that it was his homosexuality that I didn't like. It wasn't that, of course, but it did take me some thinking to get around to reconciling myself with what I had felt.
So, Piers Morgan may well just dislike Meghan Markle's personality or her decisions. But the extraordinary rant that was the second part of the article I read, which I - not being familiar with the Mail except for the odd story appearing in my phone news feed - assume must have been something he had written for a print editorial, was, as I suggest in the title, ridiculous and terrifying. Piers Morgan has, on account of his somewhat inexplicable presence on daytime TV and the continuing publication of his views in mainstream newspapers (and, probably, because of his participation on Twitter) got the ear of a decent proportion of the people of this country. And if that is representative of what people are reading - in this case about two relatively minor public figures, who have perhaps erred in the timing or the manner of their announcement about their future, but not so clearly erred in the content of it - then I despair, because it is so lacking in nuance, in balance, in any kind of depth of thought about the situation.
But then, nuance and depth of thought are not the prevailing wind of today, not at least in the mainstream of news media and politics. One need only think back to the general election campaign, in which a three word slogan seemed to be the thing that appealed most to the public, for evidence of that. Morgan makes a career, as far as I can tell, of representing the man on the street view, the sort of small-c conservative world-picture that sees the white poppy as a disgrace because it mourns the death of Osama Bin Laden. One wonders if he would maintain that sort of view in private, but the raggedly askew arguments that he brings out whenever confronted with a bleeding-heart liberal suggest that perhaps he really would...
That Claes Bang fella is excellent throughout, swaggering through a range of scenes that at times are about as good as you can get on TV. It's no surprise that anything coming from the pen of Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat is well-written, so in a way that almost goes without saying, but it's worth reiterating. Despite the legions of screenwriters working on high-budget Netflix stuff, a lot of it is pedestrian in the extreme, poorly written and not much more than a vehicle for the sets, the costumes and the set pieces. This production of Dracula has all of that, the sets, the costumes, the set-pieces, but it has a sense of story that is much more complete than a lot of stuff I've started watching. The difference is about caring. The characters don't have to be super-heroes or implausibly good-looking or impossibly dense with back-story to be interesting; that's where The Witcher struggled a bit, in my opinion: the story - of both the Witcher himself, and the 8-episode series on Netflix - is next-to unfathomable without very close watching, almost requiring a pen and paper to figure out what is going on, that it felt hard work at times. Not so Dracula.
The other thing that both of these series do, which is something that is a bit of a modern trope, is wipe out a bunch of promising characters at various points. I thought Mina Harker was desperately under-developed, but other than that, the majority of the players in Dracula were worth caring about. A case in point is the extraordinary Agatha Van Helsing, as played with absolute finesse by Dolly Wells. What a brilliant hero, clever, thoughtful, a non-violent foil to the depraved bloodlust of Dracula himself. In the great tradition of heroes that don't have anything extraordinary about them as people, she is a fantastic part of the story, for whom you are rooting from the start. Despite Dracula's charisma, she is the star, the engine of the drama. In case you're wondering, I enjoyed her a lot.
And did we all enjoy the start of the new Doctor Who? Yes, I did. There's still a bit of a way to go before they reach the effortlessly brilliant storytelling of the David Tennant and Matt Smith eras, but it was still a great way to spend the last Sunday evening of the Christmas holiday. Great stuff from Sir Lenworth Henry, as well, with a great villainous turn, and from the man of the moment Sacha Darwan, brilliantly unhinged as The Master. I look forward to the rest of the series, hoping that they manage to get the stories and the storytelling right.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought