I'm not sure what it is about the BBC and the way they do things, and it might be wrapped up in elitism and old-boy networks and all that sort of thing, but undoubtedly when they (it?) go(es) for it... His Dark Materials is the sort of story that you wish you'd thought of, much more so than Harry Potter (despite the commercial success of the latter), because it really is a story that is worth telling. It's also told in a much more compelling way (in the books) and that comes out in both the first series and the current, second one.
What's made me write about it? Well, if you watch carefully and know me well, you may have guessed this already. I had forgotten entirely the character of Mary Malone and was entirely unprepared for the exchange where she asks Lyra what she did before she became a physicist. The idea of a crisis of faith and an abandonment of holy orders - for reasons that I cannot articulate and have never been able to - makes me weep. There is something in me that is desperate for the certainty of faith, and a great chunk of my own writing has been discussing the failed relationship between one of my characters and God. In that context, in the 1540s, in a time when religion was more-or-less a non-negotiable fact of life, the people around him all point him back to God. They talk about faith, and about how God is truly real to them in a way that Strelley, for all his worldly knowledge, cannot follow. To him - and to me - the comfort of faith, the knowledge that there is a something better, is denied.
It would be wrong for me to speak of a crisis of faith in my own life, I think. I have never had it, but there is something, the presence of The Church (or a church, or a churchman) in some of my moments of great distress, a connection that refuses to go away completely. It is as though my atheism is a thoroughly Christian atheism, and this is not entirely helped by my current work situation, because I am reminded of how little most actual Christians (the young ones in particular) know about what their religion is supposed to be about, and I end up getting involved. I'm no Bible scholar, but there are plenty of times when you say things that don't seem to hit home in quite the right way either with the kids or the staff, a lot of whom at least give out that they believe in all the metaphysical stuff.
So here we are, then: I wish I could, in my moments of depression and anxiety (it is very much the first that is the risk at the moment), talk to God, even if it is just to be heard. I could even imagine not asking anything (neither the selfish stuff nor the intercession for others), and just being at ease with the idea that there is a greater power and that my depression is greater than me. But I cannot. God, to me, is a cantankerous being that watches over me and puts obstacles in way, with whom I bargain when I struck by grief or anger, but to whom I do not turn in my joy. And that is it: I do not need God for most of the time. So, when I really do need Him, he is not there.
And why might I need to do such a thing? Yep, my Mallett's Mallet of a brain went straight there as soon as my temperature went above 38, and has stayed there since, including on receipt of my positive test.
We'll leave aside a potentially lengthy and politically sensitive discussion about the potential source of my infection. I actually mean that, because it's not especially profitable to dwell on the decisions made by other people in positions of power and responsibility unless it leads to some kind of reconsideration of those decisions. And me moaning on here is unlikely to get the government to rethink its strategy on schools...
So for the second time in a fortnight I am damaged at least in part by my own misadventure, at least if you subscribe to the line that the protections in place should be adequate to prevent me catching Coronavirus off the kids or another member of staff. I do feel for the much-iller-than-me folk at the Northern General who may have been exposed to the virus as a result of me going to the fracture clinic on Monday, because some of those people frankly did not have the look of 'road to recovery' about them. But I was only ill on Tuesday. This time, unlike the carnage that was testing early on, I booked a test and had it within an hour, and had the result the following morning. Except it was positive, which I honestly was not expecting. Balls.
Fingers crossed so far, though, it's been relatively easy on the symptoms. I'm not well enough to work, but I'm not in hospital dying. I've had enough of hospitals for a while, actually. And to be honest, I'm quite sure they've had enough of me.
Once again the NHS comes to my aid as I do something part-stupid, part-unlucky. Having not crashed my bike for 25 years, I've done it twice in a month. This time, I didn't have a sense that I was definitely going to crash until it had already happened and I had landed heavily* on my right shoulder. Various people stopped to check I was okay, which was nice. My dad - entirely by chance - was running the other way and arrived on the scene perhaps 30 seconds after I had bitten the tarmac. The main response I had at the time was being frankly pissed off that I had gone to the effort of doing some exercise on a miserable Saturday morning and my reward for it was the indignity of falling off and an achy shoulder. Half-an-hour later after an ill-advised ride home, the total lack of any pain-free movement was enough to get me to admit that I probably needed the aid of the medical professionals.
The Northern General is a bleak place in the middle of a balmy summer's afternoon. In the gloomy November drizzle, well, it's certainly not better. I seem to see it as separate from the terrifying place next door - the Longley Centre, is it? - but even so A&E has a sort of desperation about it, especially at the moment as everyone there is nearly as concerned about getting coronavirus as they are about the injury they want fixed. It's also the case that no one is allowed in with you, so it's a distinctly lonely experience as well. The exception being the one bloke who was accompanied by two surprisingly good-humoured coppers, thus giving not one but two overstretched public services something to do. He even puked vigorously just outside the entrance to A&E, making sure it wasn't just the medical and crime-prevention professionals involved, but the sanitary ones as well.
There's a rather deflating moment when the A&E folk behind the desk tell you that they're passing you on to minor injuries, giving you a very clear signal that whilst you may not technically be a malingerer, perhaps 'emergency' is a bit of a stretch. It definitely was at least partly 'accident' this time, though, rather than 'entirely-my-own-stupid-fault' as it has been in the past. The diagnostic process was rapid - I might, ungenerously, have said 'cursory' - and I was off to x-ray for a few minutes with a wonderful comedy duo of radiographers whose machine had developed an idiosyncratic way of repositioning itself that meant that I had to stand out of the way at the side of the room while it did its thing. The x-rays showed a big gap where there should only be a small one between two bones up there in my shoulder, and I was off with a sling round my neck back into the murky drizzle and the words 'torn ligament' to share around on social media.
But the learning process began at home when I realised that without a functioning right hand, there are a number of jobs that I can't do. Lifting the toddler (he's nearly three, and surly and uncooperative at the best of times) is a huge challenge requiring all manner of oaty-bar-based bribery. Opening a bottle of Pepsi Max is next to impossible. Shaving my face...? No chance. Yesterday, with the thing still swollen up and tender, I opted for the weapons-grade painkillers and spent the night dreaming the bizarre dreams that seem to be contained in codeine tablets for some reason. Today, with the swelling down, it's all less intense. I can pick the odd thing up, hold a fork - although not raise it to my mouth; I look like a bad Donald Trump tribute act - and hold my hand out in front of me, although not up to shoulder height. But trying to put a shirt on is agony. Apparently I always put my left arm into my shirt first, because I've made that same mistake a few times now. Right arm first or through the roof when it pulls behind my back. Anyway, all of this is just a little bit of a Sunday evening moan that despite all my best intentions of going out exercising, what I've actually ended up doing is damaging myself. Perhaps there is a lesson in all this: exercise is, despite all the publicity to the contrary, a dangerous business, truly bad for your health.
*Folk who know me will perhaps recognise that no landing I am part of will ever be anything other than heavy; this one was heavier...
It wasn't written this November, but it is something I have written and not yet (self-) published. So here we go:
“This is madness,” Fletcher says, without turning to Strelley. “We don’t even have a side. The rebels would string us up for fighting them in Exeter, and these government soldiers are after our blood too. Well, your blood.”
“So, we just turn around and walk back… to where?”
“Anywhere where there aren’t five thousand armed men within a mile. Home?”
“I don’t have one. Not in London, at least.”
“Come and live with Longshawe and me. King Edward will give you a position. Or Cranmer. Or Somerset.”
“I can’t. I can’t be that close.”
“Edward…” There is a thundering report from a battery of cannon, clouding the battlefield briefly with gunpowder smoke. Fletcher picks up his own thought. “So you will not go to her? You’ll wait for her in heaven but you won’t see her at Hatfield?”
“It’s not for me, is it?” Strelley watches as the smoke clears, and there are gaps appearing in the rebel lines. “She has to think that there is no hope. Then she can be free of me.”
“If I understand you both right, you will never be free of each other.”
“I don’t know,” Strelley says, and he is crying. “For me, I don’t care. I will live. For her, I wish only that she is happy.”
“But, Edward, she thinks the same, doesn’t she? Save you from the hurt, take it on herself… Accept that, then you can decide.”
“You can’t change it. You fell in love with her, and she with you. You can’t just push her away, because she knows you well enough to know that’s what you’re doing. So believe in your love for each other.”
“You wanted me to resolve to stay away from her.”
“That’s never quite what I said. I thought it might save you from yourself.”
“Guy,” Strelley says, “did she send you?”
“You have asked me that before.”
“And you failed to answer the question then.”
“I saw her, before I set out west.”
“And,” Strelley says, eyes narrowing slightly, “did she tell you to bring me back to her? Or did she tell you to keep me away? You have been utterly unreadable.”
“She wants that decision to be yours.”
“I do not want to cause any further hurt.”
“Well,” Fletcher says, “if you think that you are helping her by being here, you are not. She suffers as she ever did.”
“So I am to choose for her, then?”
“No, you are to choose for you. She knows the pain of your absence, only too well. She does not know the pain of your presence, whatever it might be, but she is willing to take that risk. Are you?”
“I understand. Finally I understand. You came, but you were not to tell me what to do, one way or the other.”
“That is it. Your choice.”
“I wrote it down.” Strelley smiles thinly. “My prayer that I would not have to make this choice.
“God, do not call on me to choose: her or not her.
“Let me be, alone, with regret for things not said.
“Should she ask, I do not have the strength to say no.”
You can interpret that headline however you wish. This post is a discussion about the way that Remembrance (and remembrance) takes place, with a diversion into an argument that seems to rile a certain set of people beyond all reason.
Let's start by examining the question of what the right way to celebrate the people who fought and died to preserve the freedoms that we currently enjoy. Celebrate is the right word: I do not mean it in the sense of having a jolly old knees-up in the pub, but rather the act of acknowledgement. How do we sensibly make it a part of our lives in 2020 that in the past some of our ancestors put their lives at stake, and in many cases lost their lives, in order to defeat a terrible, murderous regime? Well, I have a suggestion that might rankle with some. Dressing up as those very people and dancing on the White Cliffs of Dover is not the way to remember the lives lost. The Second World War was not, as far as I can tell, a caper. It resulted in the deaths of getting on for a hundred million people, both military and civilian. It was a rare example of a war with a just cause, although the methods of its prosecution are not necessarily justified in the same way. That it has elevated one man in particular to the status of great hero despite his failure to achieve goodness in a lot of his actions is an anomaly, worth discussing, but not here, except to say that the very celebration of that individual can have the effect of erasing some of the badness just as the victory and the justness of the fight have erased some of the badness of the war itself.
Lest we forget, though, war is not glorious or honourable. It is very rarely undertaken for ends that are unambiguously right and it has not been the last resort of desperation in the past. It results in the deaths and displacement of countless people for whom the political outcome of the war is moot. It asks people who do not want to fight, who do not want to kill their fellow man, to do exactly that. To kill people who may not - indeed, probably don't - share the political convictions of those who made the decision to go to war in the first place. In short, war is to be avoided at almost any cost.
Remembrance is a tricky balancing act, then. People have died so that I might have the freedom to write this piece, to keep Europe free of fascist dictatorships (!), to defend me from the horrors of being a victim of an attack on civilian targets. People have died because of the mule-headedness of politicians. People have died because the ego of individual politicians demanded it. Sometimes, people who were basically good did terrible things to their fellow men, often in the mistaken belief of righteousness, and in some cases what war brought out was a tendency among many people to go along with what they were told or what the mob wanted despite the awfulness. Sometimes people's cruelty and desire for power over their fellow man took over and made them do things that in isolation look frankly unbelievable. Sometimes, people died to save their fellows or in pursuit of victory over a truly terrible enemy. Sometimes, people who did terrible things died at the hands of those who might not have wished it to be that way, but could see no other, better way.
What does all this mean? My choice to wear a white poppy is astonishingly controversial, given that last paragraph. It's also surprisingly controversial given that, by definition, 'all the victims of war' includes those who fought on the side of Great Britain. What seems to provoke anger is that I am actively acknowledging the deaths of those on the other side. Whether that be Germans in WWII, Germans in WWI, Taliban Fighters in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden himself... The argument runs that in doing so I disrespect the people who fought and died on my behalf.
Simply: no. Being a pacifist does not mean that I am unpatriotic, although the concept of patriotism itself is far from uncontroversial. Being pacifistic does not mean that I cannot appreciate the sacrifice that some people made - in a context where the decision to be part of the fight was not a career choice - to defend this country and by extension the world against great evil. I can think it sad that someone like Osama Bin Laden had to die for the world to be a more peaceful place; he was still a man, whatever his crimes. In a way, it makes me wish that there was a God who could show him, from the safety of heaven, what great sadness he caused. Who could put an arm around him, and while offering him forgiveness, show him why what he did was wrong. The God that the Bible tells me about would not refuse to mourn for the death of any man, even the greatest of all the sinners. And that - as far as I can tell - is the problem with the White Poppy. That peace requires forgiveness. That the achievement of peace is not about celebrating victory, but about celebrating the end of war. That the red poppy, as it is worn today in 2020, does not make that clear: that remembrance is not about the sacrifice that some made for this country, but that the sacrifice was for peace itself. That is what makes the sacrifice worthwhile. It is not dulce et decorum to die pro patria, but rather for the cause of peace.
The issue has been co-opted by folk who see the white poppy as something that a coward would choose. Well, I am prepared to need to be brave to face the criticism I will attract for this conscious decision to make myself different. It equally attracts criticism of the form: you think you're so clever with your white poppy... I think in some cases this is a cry of anguish, that anyone could have a different view of the right way to remember. In some, it is a more calculated, purely political, act, where pacifism is intentionally and wrongly conflated with other left-leaning political ideals, and where it is attacked from the right as being merely cowardly and not the outcome of deep consideration. Perhaps - and this might be my answer for this year - the thing to do is to wear both, or even a sort of Tudor amalgamation of the two.
In any case, I think that those people who died fighting against Nazi Germany in the Second World War would be disappointed to think that a kind of tyranny of ideas had taken over and that a dissenting view could not be held in public. That, after all, is where it starts to go wrong...
So I'm finally going to find some resolve to be creative regardless of tiredness and all manner of lockdown-based distractions. 'I will be creative' is one of the most useless sentences I can utter to myself (yes, I will sometimes talk to myself; often it's the only way to really assess what my brain is trying to put out there), but the point - that I will do things that enable creativity regardless of the barriers - is not a bad one. So I'm going to go for a scattergun approach to this, and just do whatever my brain wants for however long it can stand it, and then move on. If all the stuff is churning around, at least getting it out will allow the next thought to come. I have written on here about how sometimes I'm not so much writing a scene in These Matters so much as letting it out from wherever it hides/resides in the aether. Well, other things push too, so why not let them...?
Here's a short snippet of something I was working on a long time ago which I have now torn apart to re-write more in the style I have become a bit more accustomed to, namely that all the scenes are written as if they are on TV, so we can't access the internal processes of the characters and have to infer them from the evidence...
“Gaius…” A man in his early fifties speaks as he embraces the young man we have just met. “Tell me he did not suffer.”
“He did not. He was dead by the time I caught up with him.”
“Always… He believed in his own ability to cheat death.”
“He did. I called him back. I told him-”
“I do not hold you responsible. You know that.”
“I do. He wished to be the better brother.”
“And yet… Gaius, your brother accepted you. He accepted you as a brother, as my son.”
“That is a pleasant fiction.” Gaius smiles, pushing the other away from him. The smile twists into tears.
“You are my son. I would stand before the gods and repeat it.”
“And they would remind you of who you are, and who I am.”
“You are Gaius Regulus Albus.”
“You are Regulus Serenus. I am no Roman.”
“Now is not the time to reject the name you took. When you are free from this grief, perhaps then. But not now.”
“I am sorry. For him. For your loss. For my part in it.”
Regulus Serenus tries to smile, but cannot. Gaius Regulus Albus puts his arm around his shoulders, which shake with weeping.
And, while I'm on, something a little bit more familiar:
I look at every face that I pass. I hope it is you, so that I might catch your eye, promise you by a look that I have never stopped thinking about you and I am sorry for all the ways I failed and that I am tearing myself apart wanting nothing more than to sit opposite you and tell you how I have been since last we met. To hear how you have been. To find out that your life has been good, and that I might be at peace because it doesn’t hurt you any longer. To know that you have lived out the things I have always thought best, even if the selfish bit of me hasn’t wanted you to live those things out. That you are able to just be in a world that doesn’t care if I am in it or not.
We both know that it can’t be that way. To even exchange a glance would be to confirm everything that we are both duty-bound to forget. For you to smile at me… It would take us right back to where we once were, and all of the time since we were last together will have been for nothing, because it has not healed the wound at all. So when I look at those faces, trying to find you, I am doing my best not to find you. Not to catch your eye. Not to set it all off again.
I was happier than I knew when I was with you.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought