Tuesday, 6 June 2017

First visit to an LDS Church

Hi everyone,

I spent most of the weekend in Melbourne at an SES Unit Controllers' Conference.  I had some time spare on Sunday and so I went to an LDS Church service in Wantirna South, not far from the conference venue.  I hadn't been to one before and it seemed a good opportunity.

LDS Temple, Wantirna South, Victoria, Australia (Image from here)
The congregation could not have been more welcoming.  One of the older gentlemen there (he told me his role but I'm afraid I can't remember) took me in hand.  He introduced me to a number of members of the congregation as well as to the Bishop and Missionaries.  They were welcoming but not overwhelming, which I found ideal.  I happened to have arrived on the Sacrament Sunday, where the bread and water is passed around and members give testimonies about the church and about the Book of Mormon.  In addition a "Sister Alice" was approved by the congregation to be a Sunday School teacher.  Three things stay strongly with me about this part of the service.  Firstly, there were many families there, from babies through to the elderly.  That part isn't new to me: any given Sunday a Catholic church will look the same.  Secondly, everyone was well dressed.  The women and girls wore sober dresses and blouses.  The men and boys wore suits.  I'd opted for Tommy Hilfiger slacks, a white shirt, blue tie and black windcheater, and felt almost slovenly!  This really was different: usually I attend church as neatly as I can, but I've been known to go wearing work clothes stained with mud, diesel and soot.  Thirdly, everyone seemed happy to be there.  Excited even.  The young lady who was appointed the Sunday School teacher positively beamed.

In my Sunday best.
The second part of the service was described as "Sunday School".  Notwithstanding the name it consisted of group scripture study by adults.  The discussion covered the Millennium and end times, particularly as covered by the Doctrine & Covenants.  I noticed that everyone had a keen knowledge of the Bible, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine & Covenants.

I think I was allowed into the third part of the service - the Priesthood Meeting - as a favour.  It sounds terribly catty to say it (and I only mention it because it's a strong recollection) but it was at this point I realised what I could smell: soap.  Every man present was not only clean shaven but seemed clean enough to be performing surgery.  This was appropriate: the discussion finished by noting elderly and infirm members of the congregation who needed help in one way or another.  Everyone was genuinely keen to see that these people were safe, looked after and cared for.  The outer cleanliness matched inner goodness.

The church seemed (I don't say it lightly) like a little vision of heaven.  It was clean.  It shone.  The people genuinely radiated the love believers are called to have for one another and for God.  This fitted: the more I learn of Mormon doctrine, the more I find in it which approaches perfection.  And I think this is why, right now, I doubt it's for me.  I don't belong in heaven, or at least in its earthly analogue.  Everything I know about serving God and loving my neighbour I've learned giving quick and dirty advice in a free community legal centre, or tarping rooves in the rain, or extricating casualties from wrecked cars.  The only things I do which are good involve dirty hands and cut corners.  I think that's why I love Pope Francis' call for the church to be a field hospital.  One columnist has put it particularly well -
One of Pope Francis’s gifts as a communicator is a peculiar feel for the memorable image: .... The most striking analogy in the interview is this: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” No doctor doing triage on a battlefield is going to be fussing about his patients’ cholesterol or blood sugar levels. He is going to be treating major wounds and trying desperately to stop the bleeding.

I think my place is to be where people hurt and where I can help them, and where everything is imperfect and shopworn and down-at-heel and damaged.  I don't think I can serve God and neighbour as well anywhere else as I could do where I am.

There's one other thing.  I wasn't born into my church, but entered as an adult.  If I wasn't caught up by its firm teaching on divorce and remarriage, I might never have thought about leaving it.  To convert out of it feels a little like desertion.  No, actually it feels like something worse: cheating.  I know that my current status is problematic at best.  I know that if I repartner I'm in grave danger of damnation.  That doesn't seem a good enough reason to change my loyalty.  Whatever happens in this world or the next, I will not have dodged the rules*.

I have arranged, despite all of this, to speak to the missionaries in Shepparton next week.  At the very least one should put the question to them and hear their side of the matter.  They're such plainly good people that it would be a sin not to hear them out.  In the end, one must find the best place to serve God and neighbour and act accordingly.  Everything else is details.

* I'm endebted on this point to Camus -
They have wagered on the flesh, knowing they would lose. ... These men have not cheated.  They were gods of the summer at twenty in their thirst for life, and they are still gods today, stripped of all hope.  I have seen two of them die.  They were full of horror, but silent.  It is better that way
Albert Camus, 'Summer in Algiers' (transl. E.C. Kennedy) in P. Thody (ed.), Lyrical and Critical Essays (Vintage Books: New York, 1970), pp. 81, 91-2.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Ten years, new days

Hi everyone,
I'm typing this tonight on 1 June 2017 because I doubt I'll have a chance to do it tomorrow.  I'll cue it to post sometime in the small hours.
This post will go live on 2 June 2017.  June 2nd is my wedding anniversary.  This year would have been (is?) the ten year anniversary.  I'm sitting here typing this and wondering why I'm not reacting to it in any significant way.  I only noticed the date was coming up the other day.  In the last year or two, I've been generally aware of June 2nd in the same general way I'm aware of July 15th (Fall of Jerusalem in 1099) or October 25th (Russian Revolution in 1917).  Since noticing it, I've vaguely thought that I should do something to mark it.  Truthfully, though, I really can't be bothered.  Not in a huffy "letting severely alone" way.  I just can't really give a toss.
I suppose I should mourn in some way the life the ex and I started all those years ago, and the death of all that possibility.  Still, it's been over a long time.  I feel less regret now than ever.  It only recently struck me that after it all went kerplooie, I was entirely cut off by the my children's godparents.  The former in laws (save for the ex's parents) have made little if any effort to stay in touch.  These two points feel oddly liberating.  They are (or were) faithful and committed Roman Catholics, and their repudiation of me so much mocks the sacraments of Communion, Baptism and Matrimony that I feel largely absolved from my obligations of faith to anyone except my beloved daughters.
I have wondered if I am missing the city life I had with the ex.  I suppose I am: after all, I've gone from having a window office in two of these buildings -
Long time readers will know that I previously worked in Bourke Place and the Rialto Tower
- to working here today as a rouseabout -
Shearing shed near Costerfield, Victoria, Australia
It may or may not be significant that today in the shearing shed pictured I was working in the Tommy Hilfiger jeans she wanted me to buy years upon years ago!

The old life is slipping away a little more each time.  I guess I'm OK with that.  God does not intend us to be prisoners of the roads we have travelled.  If he did, He'd never have allowed us to see new horizons.
Image borrowed from Janie and Steve, Utah Trails: Almost Spring in the Grand Canyon

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Into the Tiber and Wading

I mentioned in my last post that I'd been looking closely at the Mormon Church.  The counterpart to that, obviously, would be leaving the Catholic church which I joined ten years ago.  Oddly, this doesn't seem much of a wrench.
It would be a bit of a wrench, of course.  Leaving a church which is such a force for good in the world is a wrench, especially when everything else in your life screams out 'loser'.  On the other hand, I ask myself how I would change if I remained in it.
By and large, I've been tolerably at peace with the church's teaching on marriage and on the position of divorcees.  I'm also conscious that it's poor form to look for reasons to be unhappy.  Yet the more I look at my situation as the 'abandoned spouse', the more disenchanted I become.  It seems to me that for all the episcopal blather about pastoral support, my future in the Church is a choice between two unpalatable options:
  1. If (and only if) I'm prepared to remain alone until the day I die, I can remain a member in full communion with the church; or
  2. If I can't endure lifelong solitariness and repartner, I can remain part of the church as long as I'm content to be restricted to sweeping the church, making the tea, running the errands, and keeping my eyes on the floor during Communion.
When I posed this dilemma in a Catholic group on GooglePlus, a commenter pointed out that the way I've worded (1) is a little unfair.  Rather than being alone for the next fifty years (or until I get hit by lightning; whichever happens first), I'm called to live in chastity and continence.  The commenter was perfectly correct, but I still think my wording was justifiable.  Everyone over the age of about 15 knows that the unique bond of love between man and woman is something different from the love one has for one's friends or family.  The latter is at best an ersatz when it's used to replace the former, and it's deception to pretend otherwise.

The second item is more complex.  No less a figure than Pope John Paul II said
I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life. They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favor of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God's grace. Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope.
However, this help and care always looks the same: Integrating those who are divorced and repartner into the life of the parish means giving them other roles than being a communicant.  It's unlikely those roles can include being on a church committee, or teaching, or being a eucharistic minister or a lector*.  It does mean that priests should "involve them in the charitable works of the Christian community for the poor and needy, and ... awaken the spirit of repentance by acts of penance that prepare their hearts to accept God's grace".  As I said above: making the tea, sweeping the church and running errands. It's terribly hard not to take this as being told "you really do have a place in our community - just don't forget that it is and always will be right at the bottom".

Probably I'm guilty of the sin of pride, but this is why I'm very close to leaving the Church I was so happy to enter. If I stay, I hate the thought of what I'll become after 50 years of negativity and bitterness.


* "However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.": John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, at para 84

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Goulburn, the Tiber and the Great Salt Lake

Hi everyone,

Short update tonight.  It's been a 'kinetic' couple of days.  Wednesday, to Tatura for a cheque handover for SES followed by the Blood Bank to make a plasma donation.  The latter had something of a left field event: because I'd been scrambling to get to things all day, I was still wearing my work clothes, which are by and large grimy, dirty and ragged (typical farm hand!).  Come to find out, it was my 125th donation, and they asked to take a picture of me.  Why did it have to be the day I looked like a man who'd dressed himself out of a brotherhood bin?!?

Thursday I brought mum into town so she could go to the dentist and I could go to the dentist and I could go to the doctor.  I needed a prescription renewed.  Unfortunately my usual doctor was home sick, and so I saw a stand-in who was understandably keen to rattle me through fast so he could see his own patients.  I may need to go back and see my own doctor in due course and have my medication reviewed.  I seem to be having a few days of late when I'm keen to take a double-dose (no, not to try and top myself; only to lift the clouds a bit).  Either that or I can start listening to Little Sarah.

It was a good day and so I went out for a run late afternoon.  While I was running my phone began to buzz with messages as there'd been a callout (a combined assist ambulance / land search job).  I finished my run and drove in.  The team had been well lead and done a great job, so I just waited at the de-facto staging area in case further hands were needed (they weren't).

Friday saw me back in Shepparton to see my new jobsearch provider (I sacked the last one and transferred my file).  God knows if it'll lead to work of any sort.  I'm less than optimistic at the moment.  Just at present, nearly everything I touch in my own life seems to malfunction or backfire.  This may or may not be why I've been feeling a weird pull towards the Church of Latter Day Saints in the last few months.

Perhaps I should explain.  A few months ago I saw a copy of the Book of Mormon at the op shop.  I had a hankering to buy it then but didn't, but the thought of it kept nagging at me.  When I went by the next time, I bought it and I've been slowly reading it.  I'm not completely convinced - yet - that it's divinely inspired scripture.  However, I'm far from convinced that it's a fake.  Even allowing for the accounts of its translation (or composition, depending on one's bias) being embroidered, it would have required Joseph Smith to have an imagination and breadth of vision worthy of Tolkien for it all to have sprung from his brain.  Added to which, it frankly doesn't 'ring' fake (for comparison, try Ronald Weinland's effort 2008 - God's Final Witness).  I've still been feeling a 'pull' in the direction of that church, and the Mormons that I've talked to online simply couldn't be more welcoming.  I've never had any cause to feel not-welcomed by the Catholic Church, save that as a divorcee (which at the moment is a large whack of my identity) you do feel like you're less a member of the faithful and more a problem to be managed.  I guess the thing is that just at this moment, what I want most in life is a fresh start.  The image of the Mormon wagon train heading west to the Great Salt Lake for exactly such a thing has an undeniable appeal.

A Mormon wagon train entering the Salt Lake Valley (Image from here)
I'm sure I'll write more about this in the weeks to come, but right now I'm so badly out of ideas that perhaps any way forward looks good.  And if that way is a challenging one?  I don't think I mind that.  I swam the Tiber once.  Perhaps, despite anything the atlas says, the Tiber flows into the Great Salt Lake.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Cannery Days

Hi everyone,

So I'm out of work again.  "What?  You were even in work?"  This is what happens when I fail to blog for ages.

I picked up some work at the cannery in Shepparton from early March until yesterday.  The work is seasonal and matches the summer harvest season for fruits.  I was initially placed in the peach section for a few weeks, and then I was off for about a month, until last week when I was called back in to work on tomatoes.  Each time I was placed on afternoon shift (that is, 3pm to 11pm).  My role was described as "Knockdown Wash" and was much the same for both peaches and tomatoes: that is, to go to a series of hoses and use them to hose down conveyor belts and machinery so that the produce kept moving smoothly and muck didn't build up.  In each case the challenge was to do this without spraying other people with water by accident,

We couldn't take phones into the factory.  Doing so would have been essentially instant dismissal.  However, the National Archives of Australia have a couple of photographs which are reasonably representative.  The one which most sticks in my mind if this one, of a woman sorting peaches in 1963 -

Sorting peaches before canning, Shepparton Preserving Company
(NAA: A1200, L43906)
It sticks in my mind because the sorting bench in the peach area seems basically unchanged since that photo was taken.  I'm not sure how old the peach slicing machinery was, but it didn't look new.  What did look new was the machinery in the tomato area, which seemed to have been bought from Perri & Catelli in Italy -

Image from here
The work wasn't especially arduous.  A little dull, at worst.  The pay was good.  Every so often I wondered what the people from my past life as a lawyer would think if they could have seen me.  Note: I thought about it, because in an 8 hour shift you have a lot of time to think.  I didn't really give a toss.  It was work and I needed the money.  That's all.

A post shared by Stephen Tuck (@sdtuc2) on

I'm not sure what the next job will be.  Whatever I can find I expect.  There's a climb ahead of me, but at least there's something ahead of me.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The run for Red Cross

Hi everyone,

Finally blogging again.  I've been away a while - I found some work and also found that the time I had available to write mostly went on things that I thought might pay.  I'll catch you up on all of that in later posts.  I wanted to tell you about an interesting run I was on the other week.

If you're linked to me on Facebook, you'll probably remember that I set up a fundraising page. I was going to run the 26 kilometre (16.25 miles) Axedale-to-Heathcote event in the O'Keefe Running Festival in order to raise money for Red Cross.  I completed the run, and I'm very happy to report that I was able to raise $313.00.

This run was tougher than any other race I've entered.  The day started with two emails that I saw as soon as I woke up.  One was an update fron LinkedIn about a former colleague whose career is going great at a time when mine, well, isn't.  The other was an email from the ex (enough said).  Anyway, those emails pitched me into a bad attack of the blues all the way over to Axedale.  Even my tablets couldn't budge it, which is saying something.

 I walked down to the starting point for the race, by the Campaspe River at Axedale.  It was a beautiful, peaceful setting on the O'Keefe Rail Trail.  I dropped off my bag with the nice folks from Athlete's Foot, collected my race bib, and started stretching as the race briefing started.  What was unusual was that I wasn't excited.  The blues were robbing me of any enthusiasm to race.  The only real thought in my head was "I'm here: let's just get the bloody thing done".  I think it's the only time I've ever started a race like that.  The race photo from the start pretty well captures my state of mind (it's also one of the few race photos of me where I don't look like the offspring of a hippopotamus and the Michelin Man).

The trail follows the route of the old Heathcote-Bendigo railway line.  The line was closed in 1958.  As best I could tell, it rose more-or-less steadily from Axedale to Heathcote.  However, you really didn't feel the climb: the railway engineers who built the line had much the same goal as runners today: as many gentle gradients and straight lines as possible.

The blues kept at me through the run.  I suppose everyone experiences depression a bit differently; for me it's mostly physical.  I feel like I'm wearing a kind of harness that straps a 25 kilogram (55 pound) sack of salt onto my chest and back, and as well as carrying the extra weight they squeeze the air from my lungs.  This was precisely the feeling that accompanied me on the run: a crushing extra weight.  I've run in ankle weights before.  I can tell you I'd pick them over running with the blues any day.

The trail ran through the bush around Axedale and eventually began to climb into more open country.  At about the 18 kilometre mark it skirted Lake Eppalock.  Every so often other groups of runners joined us from other events - the quarter marathon and 5 kilometre for two.  The race was remarkably well organized that way, with cohorts not clashing as they merged.  Drink stations were set up about every 5 kilometres which suited me fine.


I crossed the finish line in Heathcote in a time of 2:41:48.  Not my best time, but reasonable given the length of the race.  The end point of the race was genuinely welcoming: fruit and water were provided to runners, and there was a bevy of community groups holding barbeques and selling coffee.  I love this sort of thing that brings towns together.  It was a nice touch that the finish line was marked by miniature pit-heads: appropriate as one of the major sponsors was mining company Mandalay Resources!

Because this was a point-to-point race, the organizers supplied buses to take runners back to wherever they'd left their cars.  The soft chair in the coach felt heavenly.  The blues were still gripping me when I got back to my car.  In a way this was a relief: there was none of the sense of letdown when the race was over.

I've run longer distances than this race.  I've certainly been over harder terrain.  But I don't think I've ever done a race this tough.  Athletes of all stripes tend to use cliches like "digging deep".  This one required me to go on when there was nothing left to dig into.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

A stranger cared enough

On 23 April 2017 I’ll take part in the 26 kilometre Axedale-to-Heathcote race to raise money for Red Cross.  I’m doing this because of a three letters exchanged between that organization and a young woman.

Photographs from the first world war must be seen to be believed.  Once you’ve seen and believed enough of them, they start to numb your mind.  The endless black and white images of mud and destruction shade into one another.  Shamefully, the young men in uniform become indistinguishable one from another.  Different nations can be told apart, perhaps, by the shape of this helmet or the cut of that coat.  But the ubiquitous khaki of the English-speaking nations causes Australians and Britons, New Zealanders and Americans to become a single mass.  Even the most compassionate person tacitly comes to accept Stalin’s cynical observation that the death of a man is a tragedy and the death of a thousand is a statistic.

English, American and Australian troops lunching in a wood near Corbie the day prior to the attack and capture of the German positions at Hamel and Vaire Wood (3 July 1918)
It’s a partial reaction of course, because to men and women of the time every soldier was a son or brother or a husband or a boyfriend.  And as we’ll see, total strangers in the Australian Red Cross cared enough to ensure that every one of their fates was recorded.

On 19 February 1916, farm labourer John William (“Jack”) Tuck enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces.  He was aged 22 years and a bachelor.  He was assigned to the 21st infantry battalion.  On 3 July of that year he embarked on the troopship HMAT Ayrshire for England.  While he was en route, his cousin Henry Thomas Tuck had been killed in action while serving with the 46th Battalion at Pozieres.  It would take a year, but eventually the Red Cross would be able to tell Jack and others of the family his fate.  One of his comrades reported that (1)
Casualty went out to the attack on the 11th August at Pozieres near Chalk Pitts.  He was killed outside the trenches by shell fire.  I actually saw him killed.  He was buried by the 5th Pioneers behind the lines.  There was no mark put over his grave as far as I know.  I was present at the burial.
Jack arrived at Plymouth on 2 September 1916.  His service record notes hospitalizations for different illnesses and that he rejoined his battalion in France on 22 November 1916.  He was returned to England, suffering bronchitis, on 16 January 1917.  He did not return to France until 9 August 1917.  He returned to England on 22 October 1917 after suffering a gunshot wound to the left ankle in the Battle of Broodseinde.  His record is tantalizing about what may have happened while he was in England; when we can say confidently is that he was absent without leave from 15-18 December 1917, and that he returned to France on 1 February 1918 and did not thereafter return to England.

Jack’s battalion was caught up in the German ‘Spring Offensive’ of 1918 and by April of that year he was hospitalized with ‘trench feet’.  And it was then that the care of a stranger came into play.  A note in his Red Cross file dated 28 May 1918 records his whereabouts.  Some person must have enquired after him, because a letter (apparently from the army hospital) to the Red Cross dated 30 May 1918 commences “In further answer to your inquiry for [Private Tuck] – We beg to inform you that …”(2).

After Tuck’s discharge, the 21st battalion fought in the Battle of Hamel alongside newly-arrived American troops.  On 23 July Tuck was wounded by a gas shell.  Five weeks later, he rejoined his unit which then took part in the attack on Mont St Quentin on 1 September 1918 and the Battle of Beaurevoir on 29 September 1918.  On 9 November – with the Armistice only days away – he was admitted to the 3rd General Hospital with influenza.  On 14 November 1918 he died of broncho-pneumonia.

Three Australian officers beside a Red Cross car at No 3 Australian General Hospital (Abbeville, France)
On 4 December 1918 the Australian Red Cross Society in London received the following letter –
56 Overcliff Road
Lewisham SE13
Dec 3rd
Could you please tell me if Pte JW Tuck 5126 D. Coy: 21st Battn AIF France, is on the casualty list.  The last letter I had from him was dated 29-10-18 and this morning I had the last letter I sent him returned marked “not with battn”.  I shall be very grateful if you can give me any information concerning him.  I remain,
Yours truly
(Miss) Gladys Allen
The Red Cross didn’t delay.  By 10 December a note in their file recorded Tuck’s death, and on 13 December 1918 the Society wrote to Miss Allen
Dear Madam,
In reply to your enquiry for 5126 Pte JOHN WILLIAM TUCK. 24th Battalion, AIF.  We much regret to inform you that he died of Broncho-Pneumonia on 14.11.18 at 3rd General Hospital, B.E.F.  Kindly let us know if you wish us to make enquiries for details of his death and burial.
With sincere sympathy
Yours faithfully
(Miss) [signature]
A further letter on 5 February 1919 advised Miss Allen that Tuck had been buried in Abbeville Cemetery.

We can surmise that Miss Allen was Jack Tuck’s girlfriend.  He cared about her enough to write to her between returning to France on 1 February 1918 and his last letter of 29 October 1918, and she cared enough about him to try and find him.  The romantic in me likes to think that she was the reason he went absent without leave between 15 and 18 December 1917.

I imagine that this was a common story.  In each of the belligerents of the Great War there must have been many thousands of young men and young women who met, loved, lost and sought.  Many must have been left wondering what happened to the young man they cared for and asking whether he had been too mutilated on death to identify, or run away, or been taken prisoner.  Why am I raising money for Red Cross?  Because these strangers cared enough about one young man in my family to find out what happened to him.

(1)  Statement of Cpl. S. Mahaffy to Red Cross on 18 June 1917.
(2)  The initial enquiry to the Red Cross has been lost, as has Red Cross’ enquiry to the army and their earlier reply.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Review: Euripides, Alcestis / Hippolytus / Iphigenia in Tauris

Euripides, Alcestis / Hippolytus / Iphigenia in Tauris (trans. Philip Vellacott), (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1974)
When I was a young undergraduate and studying classics, I remember thinking that ancient Greek plays should ideally be read in summer on a beach somewhere.  The culture that produced them, after all, was addicted to life, to sunlight, and to personal wholeness.  Reading this selection of Euripides’ plays I’m even more persuaded that this is the case.

The theme that seems to link these plays is the theme of personal strength.  That is, the strength that comes with self-mastery.  The collection begins with Alcestis.  The play begins on the day on which Alcestis, wife of Admetus, is to die.  She had previously agreed to meet death to save the life of her husband.  Admetus is inconsolable and refuses to set any bounds to his grief (p.71) despite the chorus offering a rebuke (p.55):
Her death, Admetus, is a blow which you must bear.
You are not the first of mortal men – no, nor the last –
To lose a noble-hearted wife.  Consider this:
Death is a debt which every one of us must pay

The day is saved (somewhat improbably) by the arrival of Heracles en route to one of his labours.  Heracles – physically powerful, unsophisticated and earthy – treats the matter simply as a problem to be solved (p.70):
The woman’s newly dead; and I
Must save her, and pay my debt of kindness to Admetus,
Setting Alcestis safe again in her own home.
The black robed king of the dead will come to drink the blood
Of Victims offered at her tomb.  I’ll go there, hide,
And watch for him, and so leap out and spring on him,
And once I have my arms locked round his writhing ribs,
There is no power that can release him, till he yields
Alcestis to me.  And if I miss my prey this time,
If death does not go to the bait of blood, I’ll go
Down to the sunless palace of Persephone
And Pluto, and I’ll ask for her.  And, by my soul,
I’ll bring Alcestis up again, and deliver her
Into Admetus’ hands

This he does, leading to a mildly comic happy ending.  The contrast the play stresses is between Admetus’ inability to master his own grief, and Heracles’ literally Death-defying confidence in his own strength.

Hippolytus covers another aspect of self-knowledge.  The hero (if that is the word) in the title is a young man whose life is dedicated to honouring Artemis, virginal goddess of the hunt (pp.84-5).  He shows little respect – even contempt – for Aphrodite, the goddess of love (in this case, sexual love): “My body is pure … I have no liking for a god worshipped at night” (p.86).  Aphrodite, in revenge, causes his stepmother Phaedra to become infatuated with him.  Phaedra’s secret is revealed to Hippolytus by a servant.  He is incensed and excoriates them both (pp.102-3).  Phaedra, in despair, hangs herself.  She leaves a note accusing Hippolytus of raping her.  This provokes Theseus (her husband) to curse him in a fit of rage, causing Hippolytus to be killed by a bull - that is, a breeding animal.  The play ultimately works as a lesson on self-control, and the lack of it.  Phaedra kills herself to break the grip of an uncontrollable passion.  Hippolytus’ almost fanatical self-control makes it impossible for him to understand the pain his rejection and vituperation causes her.  And Theseus’ loss of self-control leads him to kill his own son.

The collection ends with Iphigenia in Tauris, which shows us the end-stage of self-mastery.  Iphigenia was the daughter of King Agamemnon.  She was to be sacrificed by him to induce Artemis to allow his fleet to leave harbour and sail to the Trojan War.  At the last moment, however, she was taken by Artemis to Tauris where she would serve as the goddess’ priestess, preparing foreigners as human sacrifices on the orders of King Thoas (pp.131-2).  She pines to return to Greece and to see her brother Orestes again.  Iphigenia and Orestes are descendants of Atreus and the nth generation of a family wrapped in a cycle of crime and revenge which has involved cannibalism, incest, curses and more homicides than a season of Midsomer Murders.  Orestes arrives in Tauris, having recently murdered their mother Clytemnestra.  He and Iphigenia recognise each other before he is to be sacrificed.  Through a ruse they escape from Tauris with a sacred statue of Artemis, which Orestes has been tasked with stealing in recompense for the murder of Clytemnestra.

The setting in Tauris and the escape seem to be included for the sake of dramatic completeness.  What is more interesting is the decision of the key participants to renounce vengeance.  Iphigenia helps Orestes to steal the statue (and so free himself of bloodguiltiness for the murder of his mother) when it is within her power to kill him.  She also renounces vengeance of Agamemnon and his posterity for attempting to sacrifice her (p.161):
now my wish is matched with yours – first, to release
You from your torments; next, renouncing bitterness
Against the hand that offered me in sacrifice,
To restore the shattered fortunes of my father’s house.
So my hand would be guiltless of your blood, and we
Could all be saved.
This action ceases the long cycle of violence and ends the curse in which “anger grimly returns, cunningly haunting the house, avenging the death of a child, never forgetting its due” (Aeschylus, Agamemnon (trans. Louis McNiece)).  The end of the curse is made possible by Iphigenia’s innate self-control which allows her to renounce vengeance.

The modern West lives a long way from faith.  Scanning the death notices of most newspapers shows recollections of times spent together and a vague notion that people will ‘meet again’ someday.  Our world may be one from which gods have either been banished or upon which they have given up in disgust.  If the heavens are no longer able to suggest how a person can honourably live their life, then Euripides would be a good place to start seeking a replacement.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Review: Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.

Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (trans. Alastair Hannay), (Penguin: London 1985)

I can comfortably tell you that this is kinda sorta about Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14).  However, that’s about all I can tell you after slogging through the longest 158 pages of my life.
Image from here
I’d love to tell you that this "lynchpin... of the existentialist movement" opened my eyes to a new way of living.  However, I found Kierkegaard almost completely impenetrable.  The problem seems to lie partly in his extremely repetitive use of abstractions and symbols.  He refers constantly to “making this movement” (which I think means ‘making a decision’), “becoming absolute in relation to the universal” (or possibly vice versa), and being a “knight of faith” as opposed to being a “tragic hero”.  If any of these terms were defined, I missed it.  I’m assuming Hannay’s translation is sound and the book is equally inscrutable in Danish.  The editors of Wikipedia seem to think the same, since the article on the book mostly consists of slabs quoted from it.

The other problem is that Kierkegaard seems addicted to changing his style and subject.  You find yourself reading a speech in praise of Abraham.  A bit later you’re reading about whether it was ethically permissible for that patriarch to conceal the intended sacrifice from his family (a fair enough question).  And then for no obvious reason he wants to talk about a fucking mermaid (pp.120-125).  I was disappointed in my hopes that there’d be a postscript telling readers that the whole thing had been 1843’s version of the Sokal hoax.

If you’re a student and you’ve been set this text for a course, you have my pity.  If you’re looking for your next book, save your money.  But if you’re looking for a cure for insomnia, this is it.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Birthday Blues

Some months are poorly named.  February is one of the worst, because it abbreviates easily to "Feb".  The breathy whistle of the "F" sounds like the descent of a guillotine blade.  It slices into protesting flesh in the "e" and comes to a sharp stop on the wooden block of "b" below the neck.  This month takes you another year closer to your appointment with the Grim Reaper.  Vulnerant omnes, ultima necat.

Guyot Marchant, La Danse Macabre (n.pub.: Paris, 1485)
[Image from here]
Grim start to a blogpost?  Sorry about that: I just turned 39 and I'm still in the grip of the birthday blues.  I managed the day well enough last year, which is to say that I cloaked it on Facebook and it passed almost wholly unremarked.  Unfortunately, Facebook seem to have rejigged their privacy settings and the date leaked out before I could re-cloak it.  I know the wellwishers' hearts are in the right place - no doubt in my mind - but I still feel like the amputee who is offered the consolation "cheer up: at least you've lost those last five kilograms".

How about no?
Fuck you very much, Facebook.
I don't think I've felt good about my birthday since 2010.  That was the year Grace and Rachel had just been born and I hadn't yet had an opportunity to fail as a husband and father.  I was still a moderately successful lawyer, and New Orleans had just won the Superbowl.  And every year since then?  On one birthday or another I've been watching my family life crumble to its ultimate failure, my work life morphing first into tragedy and then into farce (at this stage, I suppose one could call it 'street theatre'), and my bag of tricks become thinner and thinner.

I asked Dr Google about this and found that "birthday blues" is actually a thing.  Its advice wasn't especially helpful beyond that point.  To remember positive events in the past and remind yourself of past successes is to whistle past the graveyard when the present mercilessly throws them into perspective.  When you can't even secure work as a factory hand, your university degrees become a mere gewgaw.  Your 'achievements' in SES are just an unusual hobby.  Everything you've ever been or done becomes the contemptible toy of a child.

I don't know what this year will bring, but I can tell you I'm dreading 40 next year.

Monday, 6 February 2017

The leech's eye view

One of the few perks of unemployment is that you get to see life from a different perspective than you would ordinarily.  It's one thing to see it from the perspective of someone in steady employment and when it's happening to someone else.  It's another to see it from the business end of the microscope.

Before today's appointment at MADEC I'd never noticed that you can almost gauge how long someone has been out of work from their walk.  A man (I have only noticed this in men) who is only just unemployed has a purposeful bearing: one could even say active and vigourous.  Someone who has been looking for work for a long time, and has had plenty of knockbacks, has a different stride.  'Ponderous' is the best adjective, whether or not the person is out of shape or not.  Imagine a person who finds that the burden of existence increases by the weight of a five-cent piece (a dime for American readers) every few hours for years.  Still other people (women more than men) develop a thin-to-emaciated look that, rightly or wrongly, one tends to associate with ice addiction.  Their eyes are alert and their movements are quick.  These people tend to find and lose jobs quickly.

Two old men eating soup, by Francisco Goya
(Image from here)
I'd never realised just how remote from the experience of unemployment those working at the coalface seem to be.  At today's appointment I was asked "what work would you like to do".  I could have laughed at the absurdity of the question: my likes and dislikes seem utterly unimportant.  I think I said "well, anything really".  The consultant clearly believes that at some level I have a choice about this.  Her colleague then began to recite to us the jobs ads from last Friday's Shepparton News, and I explained that I'd been through all of those ads and found precisely three from which I was not excluded for want to training or experience.

Shepparton News, 3 February 2017, showing jobs marked off
The only one I could recall immediately was a job as a cleaner.
"Are you going to apply for it?" she asked.
I replied probably not.
"What, so you're not even going to try?"
"Well, I last did that work nearly twenty-five years ago, so I can't imagine I'd be the preferred candidate"
This exchange was enlightening.  If we assume that the consultant was sincere, then finding work would seem to be a kind of bizarre lottery where one's prospects of success increase in relation to the number of tickets one buys even when the odds against you remain stratospheric.  The lesson from this for me is that I don't think I'll again consider I've learned anything much about the human condition from representing injured people.  The gulf in experience is too wide.  I must also doubt how much we can really learn from books like Life at the Bottom or London Labour and the London Poor.

I had also never quite understood how easily you can come to see others as your enemy.  Recently the Australian Broadcasting Corporation covered a story of fruitgrowers in this area facing a labour shortage in the absence of backpackers.  It's no secret that fruitgrowers will also refuse to hire Australians in general and welfare recipients in particular as pickers.  As one has said
Anybody in industry knows that people on welfare, well intentioned as they may be, are not a reliable source of labour to do the hard, low-paying work that is available on farms.
Despite this, the denizens of Facebook were confident that any fault for not having a job as a picker would lie with the unemployed themselves:

After reading things like this I found myself understanding why radicals like Abiezer Coppe could gain a following among the poorest people: faced with a brick wall of scorn and contempt, the only way out can seem to be by waiting for the world to turn upside down.

Abiezer Coppe, A Fiery Flying Roll (n.pub.: London, 1649)
If I've learned anything from watching Time Team, it's that you can tell a great deal about a culture by what it throws away.  When I look at many of the unemployed in a MADEC office, I understand our own culture less and less.  How profligate are we that we allow so many healthy bodies and working brains to go unused?

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Sir John de Mandeville hits the Road: Skirza to Blair Castle

Three hundred and fifty-four kilometres down and the trip was going remarkably well.  In the span of a few weeks John de Mandeville and Nostradamus had jogged and pedalled the distance from John o'Groats via Skirza to Tayside.

The rolling country of the north had become the rocky hardness of the Cairngorm Mountains, testing their energies.  On the plus side, it had also prevented them getting separated: the bicycle was scarcely faster than running up the hills.

Cairngorm Mountains [Image from here]

Both John De Mandeville and Nostradamus were finding the twenty-first century reassuringly familiar.  When they had stopped in Kingussie, they had heard Bob Marley's crowd-pleaser "I shot the Sheriff".  Nostradamus had always found the English office of "Shire Reeve" or "Sheriff" rather baffling.  Who, after all, would have thought it sensible to combine the jobs of collecting taxes and keeping the peace?  In his view it was a guarantee that both tasks would be done badly.  That someone would shoot such a pesky official was completely predictable.  Clearly officialdom agreed, since they were more concerned with the killing of the deputy. 

Image from here
They weren't sure, however, about the Highland Folk Museum.  Both had imagined a museum of Highland folk - perhaps ones who had been enslaved and now were required to do Highland Things for public edification; perhaps they would be taxidermied.  De Mandeville had been very excited by the idea of a museum that had borrowed ideas from the Great Khan and Ivan the Terrible.  They were a little disappointed when the Guidebook told them
Here, among exhibits showing all facets of the past life in the Highlands - dress, furnishings, etc. - is a replica of the 19th-century farm-shed and mill of a crofter*
Nevertheless, both were happy to give the museum operators the benefit of the doubt: the museum title was clear that they'd wanted to take their artistic bearing from Vlad the Impaler even if the visiting public had wanted something more genteel.  Clearly the future was another country.

Highland Folk Museum [Image from here]
They had broken their journey in Newtonmore to hear Mass and get refreshments, and this was where they had discovered newspapers.  They found these a thoroughly delightful innovation.  Nostradamus had been drawn especially to the finance pages.  The seers who filled these columns were as intent as he was about predicting the future.  They, however, were even more impenetrable than his most difficult quatrains:
The fund will initially pay 5p of income per £1 invested, while the current £9.6bn Woodford Equity Income fund initially targeted 4p for every £1 invested.
After the first year the new fund will aim to deliver 20pc more than the yield of the FTSE All Share index, the benchmark for British companies.**
Why had he not thought to write like that?  He could had thousands more readers and much less risk of being burned at the stake for witchcraft.

St Bride's Church, Newtonmore [Image from here]
De mandeville was more struck by news of the king of New Outremer (as he assumed the lands across the Atlantic must be named).  An elected King had always seemed to him a thoroughly good idea - the Holy Roman Empire usually had effective and skilful rulers - but he was could not fathom why a king named "Trump" would be elected.  These moderns had translated the sacred scriptures, and their Bible in English expressly warned that
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (1 Cor. 15:52).
In his view, electing a king named Trump was asking for trouble, especially when he seemed to sound a couple of times a day:
His firm view was that the British people would have been much safer to stick with the reassuring sonority of the Vulgate: In momento in ictu oculi in novissima tuba canet enim et mortui resurgent incorrupti et nos inmutabimur.

The road south had taken them as far as Blair Castle in Tayside.  This was much more to their liking.  The guidebook enthused that -
The ancient home of the Dukes of Atholl, Blair Castle dates from the 13th Century, although its appearance has changed considerably over the years.  In 1269 the Crusader Earl of Atholl complained that during his absence John Comyn had started to build a castle at Blair.  The foundations of the present Cumming's Tower probably date from this time, although the tower itself has been rebuilt several times.  In 1530 the 3rd Earl built the Hall and the vaulted rooms beneath it.
In 1652 the castle was captured by Cromwell's troops and held for eight years until the Restoration.  More violence was in store for the castle in the 18th century - although Queen Anne had made the 2nd Marquess Duke in 1703, by 1745 the only member of the family to support the Hanoverians was the 2nd Duke, Lord James Murray.  The Jacobites, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Duke's exiled elder brother, marched on the castle and occupied it, and in the following year the Duke's younger brother laid siege to the castle - the last castle in the British Isles to be besieged.
Because of the extensive damage caused by the Jacobite attack, the 2nd Duke decided to remodel the castle completely in the Classical manner - between 1747-58 the battlemented turrets and stepped gables were removed and sash windows put in.  But in 1868, when the Gothic style had once more become fashionable, the 7th Duke employed David Bryce to restore the castle to its former appearance.
The interior of the castle still retains its classical scheme of decoration.  The rooms contain some fine furniture - including Chippendale and Sheraton cabinets displaying a collection of Sevres pocelain - paintings, among them works by Lely, Hoppner and Zoffany, and many items of embroidery, lace and jewellery.  Collections of weapons and armour reflect the history of the castle and the military campaigns of successive Dukes***
The coming and going of armies was familiar to both men.  De Mandeville's life (such as it had been) had overlapped with the Hundred Years War; Nostradamus' with the metastasizing bloodshed of the Italian Wars.
Blair Castle [Image from here]
Neither could have been called bellicose, exactly, but they had a different view of war to moderns.  Wars were a prerogative of princes.  Destructive, heartbreaking, murderous and as obdurate as weather.
Lastlie stode warre in glittering armes yclad,
With visage grim sterne lokes and blacklie hued;
In his right hand a naked sword he had
That to the hiltes was all with blood imbrued
And in his left that kinges and kingdomes rewed
Famine and fire he held, and therwithall
He rased townes and threw doune towres and all****
They were lamentable, no question, but it was as pointless to imagine a world without war as a world without kings.  The late afternoon sky turned the colour of blood above the battlements.  De Mandeville reminded Nostradamus of his most famous quatrain:
In the year 1999 and seven months,
From the skies shall come the king of terror,
The Mongols’ mighty leader to raise again,...
The prophet interrupted him: "Before and after, Mars shall reign at will".  Both men looked wearily at the castle.  The peace of the modern world seemed a very flimsy thing.

"Let's get going".

* Automobile Association, Treasures of Britain (Drive Publications: London, 1977), p.259
** Laura Suter, 'Woodford to launch higher income fund paying 5pc', Telegraph, 4 February 2017.
*** Auto. Assoc., Treasures of Britain, p.89
**** Thomas Sackville, 'A Myrroure for Magistrates', in John Hayward (ed.), The Penguin Book of English Verse (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1956) p.7

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Sir John de Mandeville Hits the Road: John o'Groats and Skirza

This wasn’t fair.

When you’re dead, they’re supposed to leave you alone aren’t they?  And he was more than just dead.  He was a figment of a forger’s imagination.  And he’d been enjoying slipping into ever darker obscurity.  But then some bastard of a writer had yanked him back into existence, given him a map, a guidebook, a bicycle and a pair of Nikes and then stood back to watch the fun.
It wasn’t fair.

Sir John de Mandeville looked grumpily at the North Sea and checked the map again.  John o’Groats to Lands End on foot and by bicycle, with a travelogue on the way.  And his speed would be controlled by what his author managed to run, walk or cycle in reality.  Why a writer should choose such a convoluted way of framing a story was anyone’s guess, he thought.  Still, he couldn’t complain too loudly.  He only existed at all because a fourteenth-century writer had prepared his own pastiche travelogue and attached the name “Sir John de Mandeville” to it.  He owed his life to dodgy authorial choices.  Now it was time to pay.
He wasn’t at all certain about his travelling companion.  He found he'd been paired with Nostradamus.  This wasn't the worst match that could have been handed to him.  For one thing, the man knew how to treat the plague (possibly useful, possibly not).  For another thing, he was usually thought to be able to foresee the future (Mandeville had some doubts on this score).  By comparison, Dante had a reputation as a difficult travelling companion:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge couldn’t stop in a town without finding a drug dealer, and Christopher Marlowe couldn’t leave a town without finding a whorehouse.  And François Villon couldn’t speak English but that never stopped him picking fights with the first local official he spotted -
Au Cappitaine Jehain Riou
tant pour lui que pour ses archiers
je donne six hures de lou
qui n'est pas viande a porchiers
prinses a gros mastins de bouchiers
et cuites en vin de buffet.
Pour mangier de ces morceaulx chiers
on en feroit bien ung malfait*

Nevertheless, Nostradamus had his drawbacks.  He tended to spend a lot of time staring off into the distance.  He also seemed to find it impossible to answer a question in anything less than a four-line verse of dubious meaning.  Mandeville expected to find this immensely annoying very soon.  Still, he had another go.

"Hey Nostradamus - do you want to run or cycle for this first leg?  We'll have to take it in turns
"When the fish that travels over both land and sea / is cast up on to the shore by a great wave, / its shape foreign, smooth and frightful. / From the sea the enemies soon reach the walls." **
"Yeah, you're going to be running".

John o'Groats wasn't the worst place to set out from, at least.  The town itself was unremarkable; if it hadn't been the northernmost inhabited part of Britain, it would have been even forgettable.  The suspiciously convenient yPhone he had been given told him that -
In 2005, a popular tourist guide, Lonely Planet, described the village as a "seedy tourist trap" and in 2010 John o' Groats received a Carbuncle Award from Urban Realm magazine for being "Scotland's most dismal town".

Although this information came from Wikipedia, which he was finding was as reliable (and compiled in much the same way) as the travelogue to which he owed his existence in the first place.
John o'Groats from the air
By Madras9096 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Over Nostradamus' complaints, Mandeville detoured them to the first Point Of Interest the guidebook suggested in the vicinity, a broch (Iron Age fort) at Skirza.  The guidebook advised -
Standing on a narrow spur of cliff above the sea, the approach to the broch from the main cliff-top is protected by a wide ditch.  There is a wall, very thick in proportion to the enclosed space, the one being 14 feet thick and the other some 22 feet across.  The entrance is on the seaward side of the building and there is some evidence of minor additional structures.  It is an Iron Age dwelling***
The broch looked its vast age: somewhat dilapidated, somewhat worn, and yet timeless.  The stones and earth and grasses had a sense of waiting about them.  They expected the tough, durable men who made them to return and seek protection.  The pyramids had no greater craving for the future.
Broch at Skirza (Image from here)
"You look into eternity, Nostradamus.  Nothing to say to these ancient stones?"
"A scythe joined with a pond in Sagittarius / at its highest ascendant. / Plague, famine, death from military hands; / the century approaches its renewal."**
"This place will be safe from the scythe then?" asked Mandeville, but the prophet said nothing.
"Time to go".
Mandeville wheeled the bicyle around.  The gears clanked as they began the first leg of the long journey south.
* "And to the captain, Jean Riou
as much for him as for his archers
I give the meat from six wolves heads
(which is no food for swine-herds),
snatched from butchers' dogs
and cooked in lousy sour wine.
For tasty morsels such as these
a man would go to any lengths
François Villon, 'Le Testament' (trans. A. Bonner), in The Complete Works of François Villon (Bantam: New York, 1960), p.81.
*** Automobile Association, Treasures of Britain (Drive Publications:London, 1976), pp. 433-4