a worm’s eye view of Quakers in Britain Yearly Meeting Gathering 2017

 

First, some vignettes.

In the room set aside for crafts, near the YMG information desk and the bookshop, I used to find six or seven women, sitting round a large table piled high with balls of wool of many colours, knitting squares to be sewn together to make blankets for refugees, and softly chatting.  In their quiet work they embodied Quakerism for me.

For my accommodation, I chose to stay among strangers – strangers who quickly became friends.  There were six of us on our floor, four from Pendle Hill Area Meeting, Daniele, a young Italian from Suffolk, and me.  The Pendle Hill four catered for themselves, whereas Daniele and I took meals with hundreds of other Friends, half-board; but the way was open for all of us to get to know each other.

One of the delights of Yearly Meeting is the opportunity to meet old friends and to make new ones.  One of the aims indeed is to build a community.  Although it is not possible to get to know everyone, it is vital to sit with people you don’t know and to make an approach – and hence to learn new things.  In this regard (community building), I think that YMG was a success.

The University of Warwick (the host site) is not situated in Warwick but at the very edge of the City of Coventry.  It is a good location for a large gathering – flattish, fairly compact, and modern (so, fairly accessible for Friends who are frail).  The City of Coventry itself forms quite a contrast.  It is well worth a visit.  It presents a mixture of buildings from various ages – and notably several medieval buildings, which survived the World War Two bombing.  The Friends Meeting House, simple and practical, dates from 1953.  Visiting Friends received a warm welcome (with tea and cake).  I visited the two cathedrals, medieval and modern, for the first time.  In the Chapel of Unity, I found a copy of the booklet that lays out the British Christian Response to the Palestine Kairos document: I found the name of my wife Jane among the signatories, and I felt a thrill of pride.

There were many Quaker visitors from around the world, and guests from other Faith traditions, who appeared very happy to be present and to be able to contribute to non-business sessions.

Indeed, the choice of what one might loosely call “spiritual nurture” sessions (or workshops) was vast, and one had to choose carefully and pace oneself.

I enjoyed the Retreat Lecture, given by my Friend Bronwen Gray, who vividly conveyed the connections between our faith and the principles of good mental health care (seeing that of God in all).  I enjoyed too the lecture by Gethin Evans on the life and work of printer and publisher John Edward Southall (1855 – 1928), who came from Leominster but moved to Newport and vigorously promoted both Quakerism and the Welsh language. (Repeated from the lecture Gethin gave at the 2016 National Eisteddfod.)

Lectures were given in front of much larger audiences: first, the Swarthmore Lecture, by Catherine West MP, and secondly, the Salter Lecture, by Molly Scott Cato MEP.  Both Friends gave good accounts of themselves and made a good case (in my opinion) for active involvement in politics, including campaigning through political parties.  They served as a useful counterpart to the business sessions.

The business sessions.

Sometimes, there were four women (no men) at the table – three Clerks (including Deborah Rowlands), plus Juliet Prager, Deputy Recording Clerk (who alternated with Paul Parker, Recording Clerk).  This seemed right and fitting.  The clerking was of a high standard.

With hearts and heads prepared, we slowly moved forward, on hands and feet, to work out what our involvement in the world  should or might be.  We heard from the Friends that addressed us about movement building and co-operating with other organisations, in the cause of social change.  In particular, points were made about overcoming barriers to working with others, especially when some of their assumptions and procedures are different from ours.

I recollected Minute 36 of YMG 2011 (our ‘Canterbury commitment’) concerning sustainability and also our Minute 36 of 2014 about social justice and equality.  I did wonder whether we were consolidating rather than changing anything.  There was not the thrill created (for example) by the YM 2009 minute on equal marriage; but it is not right to expect great excitement on every occasion.

I appreciated the ministry of a Leeds Friends, who referred to her participation in party politics in her city and her service as a Councillor.  I had wanted to say how much I had enjoyed canvassing in the 2017 General Election, and how this had felt the right thing for me to do, but I was not called to speak.

I was struck by a non-business session in which our young introducers (Rachel Muers and Rhiannon Grant) told us the story behind the eight ‘Foundations of a true social order’ (Quaker faith & practice 23.16).  Despite the passing of a century since, and their male-centred language, the Foundations have stood the test of time; and no way has been found of improving on them.  (They were agreed speedily – during World War One!  Could we produce something so concise and punchy, in such a short time, nowadays?)

A highlight of the business was the oral report of the work of BYM Trustees (backing up the written one), given by Ingrid Greenhow (Clerk).  Ingrid made her points with great wit and enthusiasm.

In conclusion, many of the YMG addresses and lectures can be viewed via the Quakers in Britain website.  Recommended!

 

David Harries

19.08.17

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Liberalism v authoritarianism – comparing 17th century England & Wales with the UK in the 21st century

On 3 May 2017 UK Prime Minister Theresa May made a verbal attack on unspecified critics associated with the work of the European Union.  But is she blaming them for her own problems?  Is attack seen as the best form of defence?

The UK governments of recent years – Conservative-Liberal Democratic, 2010-15, and Conservative, 2015 till now – have been characterised by massive cuts to social expenditure and the demonisation of certain minorities, especially benefits claimants, migrants and asylum seekers.  There have been claims to be liberal but the practice shows features of authoritarianism.  Theresa May was an illiberal Home Secretary (2010-15).  She has advocated the repeal of the Human Rights Act and UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Politicians as a bunch can display, and act upon, both liberal and authoritarian tendencies, at different times.  These have been noted in Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments in recent years.  Insofar as Mrs May keeps championing “strong and stable leadership” (in other words, her own leadership), she can be regarded as authoritarian.  We should learn from history the dangers of “strong” leadership.  There are enough tyrannical leaders around in the 21st century wider world – as there were in the 20th century.

Liberalism is messy – but it offers a better bet to voters than authoritarianism.  Authoritarian leaders find it hard to change course and to learn from criticism; or they change their mind and alter course, opportunistically, and claim they were consistent all the time.  (Remember George Orwell’s 1984.)  Mrs May herself was supposedly in favour of a ‘EU Remain’ vote in the 2016 UK referendum.  But now she is stridently hostile to the EU.  Her position is weak – one against 27!

17th century England and Wales suffered authoritarian rule under Charles I, the Commonwealth (led by Oliver Cromwell) and Charles II – the details varied. The poet John Milton who supported the Commonwealth (not uncritically); and he suffered for this after the Restoration of Charles II.  He went on to write his great verse epic, Paradise Lost.

Interpretations of PL are diverse; and there is controversy among scholars, not so much about the value, but about the arguments.  Is it religious and theological?  Yes.  Is it allegorical?  Maybe, to an extent.  Does it directly reflect the breakdown of the command of the Commonwealth over ordinary people?  Perhaps not.  Is Milton’s God authoritarian?  Milton does not think so – quite the opposite.  Is Satan authoritarian?  Yes he is, while pretending to be democratic.

One idea about PL is that Milton demonstrates in it a circular rather than a linear view of human history.  Consistent with a linear view is the belief (or hope) that humans as a whole are engaged in progress.*  Do not people of a liberal disposition embrace this idea?  The circular model fits in with the idea of repeated falls and rises in history.  Given Milton’s Christian beliefs, human history commenced with the Fall of the rebellious angels from heaven, followed by the Fall of Adam and Eve.

We should recall that Milton believed in mankind’s free will.  So all citizens have to take some responsibility for the politics of their country.

So perhaps the UK is now in a period of decline and fall long and drawn out.  Separation from the EU will probably hasten this.

 

*See: Weston, P (1987), John Milton: Paradise Lost, London: Penguin – pages 25-6.

 

Sparks from the flint – an analysis of Chapter VIII of D H Lawrence’s 2nd version of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’

Introduction

Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is set in 1920s industrial England.  Lady Constance (“Connie”) Chatterley and the gamekeeper employed by her paraplegic husband (maimed in World War One) have an affair; Connie becomes pregnant; by the end, Connie and her lover are pondering their (rather limited) options for the future.  The novel ends with matters unresolved.

Three principal themes are: (i) class divisions, (ii) relationships between the sexes, and (iii) the dire effects of disappointment and frustration with one’s lot in life.  Class divisions affect sexual relationships across the divide – adversely.  They are implicated in physical damage to ordinary working people, through maiming and death for some.  (World War One has done this too.)  They are also implicated in emotional damage – the encouragement of domination on the part of the employers, and the hurting of pride, and promotion of defiance, on the part of the employed.

Three versions

There are three versions of the novel: the third is the best known.

Pascale Ferran’s film, Lady Chatterley et l’homme du bois (2006) is based on the 2nd version of the novel.  This was first published by Penguin in the UK in 1973.  (It is called John Thomas and Lady Jane; but Tenderness would be more appropriate.) 

The main themes and plot are common to versions 2 and 3, as regards the strengths (characterisation and social analysis) and weaknesses (preachiness).  At the same time, there are also important differences, in the nature of principal characters and in details of the ending.  In the 2nd version, for example, the gamekeeper is called Parkin, not Mellors.  By the end, moreover, Sir Clifford remains unaware both of the affair and of Connie’s pregnancy.  Parkin has to go away to find work, and this disrupts the pursuit of his relationship with Connie.

In my opinion, the 2nd version of the novel compares very well with the 3rd.

Relations among the main characters, in Chapter VIII of the 2nd version

Chapter VIII (which corresponds roughly to Chapter X in the 3rd version) covers one day.  It is pivotal in the development of the story, as I hope to show.  It also sheds light on the nature of the four important characters who appear and speak in the chapter:

  1. Connie Chatterley, lonely and isolated, frustrated with her life, before meeting Parkin
  2. Sir Clifford Chatterley, stoical, strong-willed and domineering, frustrated by his disability
  3. Oliver Parkin, solitary, resentful of authority, mistrustful of women but softened by meeting Connie
  4. Mrs Ivy Bolton, Sir Clifford’s live-in nurse and care giver

Mrs Flint, young mother – neighbour and acquaintance of the Chatterleys – also appears.

In the course of the day covered by Chapter VIII, Connie meets and talks to all the others.  I shall examine the viewpoints of each of these four people and how the events of the day affect them.

CONSTANCE (“CONNIE”)

This is Connie’s view of herself at the beginning of the day: “She was miserable and angry with herself, feeling today more paralysed than Clifford.”

Clifford has gone out: she feels she must go out – so she goes to see Mrs Flint.

This is Connie’s appreciation of Mrs Flint and her child: “The quiet female atmosphere, just Mrs Flint and the baby, and the servant-girl, was infinitely soothing.”

And later: “And she was thinking so deeply of Mrs Flint’s baby.  It was a nice little thing, with hair like red gossamer, and such a delicate skin.”

On her way home, Connie bumps into Parkin, with whom she has already had sex twice. He grabs hold of her – she first tries to push him away.  In the event, this is what happens: “Her instinct was to fight him. He held her so hard.  Yet why fight?  Why fight anybody?  Her will seemed to leave her and she was limp.”

Connie lets Parkin take her.  (Does she give true consent?)  In the event, the sex that follows is described by Lawrence in these florid terms:

And then, something awoke in her.  Strange, thrilling sensation that she had never known before woke up where he was within her, in wild thrills like wild, wild bells.

But, about their relationship, Connie acknowledges her ambivalent feelings:

When she woke to herself, she knew life had changed for her.  Changed with him.  And she was afraid.  She was afraid of loving him.  She was afraid of letting herself go…..Ah, she adored him!  And she longed to abandon herself to the luxury of loving him.  At the same time, she mistrusted yielding to her lover.

Connie is changing, and she realises that she is changing:

She was full of a strange triumph, and a sort of glory of new pleasure.  She could still feel the echoes of the thrill of passion in her blood, ebbing away down all her veins like the rich after-humming of deep bells.”

Connie has a new aspiration: “And she felt sure she would have a child, a baby with soft live limbs, ensheathed in her own life.”

At home, Connie sees Clifford with new eyes:

And she thought, suddenly, what a queer rapacity there was in his naked face and his alert cautious eyes….He no longer cared about persons.  It was the mines that occupied his attention, on them his will was fixed.  He was going to pull them out of the depression: he was going to make money.

CLIFFORD

Clifford has an inkling of changes in Connie and her drift away from him.  First, he notices her inattention to his reading out loud to her (one of their habits):

The reading finished.  She was startled.  She looked up, and was more startled still to see Clifford watching her with a faint, cruel smile in his eyes.

The growing gap is reinforced when Connie goes to bed and wishes Clifford “Good-night!” (only):

As she spoke, she drifted dreamily nearer the door.  She was going without kissing him good-night.  He watched her with lynx eyes.  Even that she could forget!  And he was too proud, too offended to remind her.  Though the kiss, indeed, was but a formality….He could not make love to her! and therefore she was withdrawing every tiny show of love.  She forgot, no doubt.  But the forgetfulness was part of the whole intention….Ah well! he was a man, and asked charity from nobody, not even his wife.

Clifford takes comfort in cherishing his master-servant (child-mother?) relationship with his nurse, Mrs Bolton:

But after all, Mrs Bolton was his best tonic.  She did not understand the awfulness of his mental condition, as Connie did, therefore she was the best help….His dread was for the night, when he could not sleep.  But now he would ring for Mrs Bolton, and she would come in her dressing-gown….strangely girlish and secretive, and talk to him, or play chess or cards with him.

PARKIN

Parkin shows evidence of obsession with Connie, and possessiveness.  When he bumps into Connie, on her homeward walk, he shows anger at the thought that she might be avoiding him.  “You wasn’t slivin’ past and not meanin’ to see me, was you?” he says, challengingly.

In the event, he is implicitly forgiven for his forceful manner, as the sexual act turns out to be satisfactory for both of them, this time: “We came off together that time,” he says to her.

At home, later, Parkin finds that he cannot sleep: “He was unsettled, in a ferment.”  He goes for a night walk, with his dog.   His steps take him to the Chatterleys’ house.  Looking up at it reinforces his desire for Connie, sleeping within:

He went slowly up the incline, towards the house, hoping for the woman.  It was a necessity that he should see her, should come to her, should touch her, if only for a moment.  If he found his way into the house! – or if he made her know he was there! – or if he waited, waited, waited for naked day.

But Parkin realises the “futility of his yearning”: so, “he turned away, slowly, ponderingly, despairingly”.

Parkin, moreover, worries about the strength of the relationship with Connie and about his obsession with her.  His pride and his need for independence come through, in his thoughts: “A man must not depend on a woman.”

MRS BOLTON

Mrs Bolton already has suspicions about Connie, arising from the recent change in her.  On Connie’s arrival home from her walk, they talk, and Mrs Bolton thinks:

The eyes of the two women met, Mrs Bolton’s, grey and bright and cool, Constance’s, bright and burning.  And with the infernal instinct of her kind, Mrs Bolton knew that Constance had a lover of some sort.  She had suspected it before.  Tonight she was sure.  And a curious pleasure, a satisfaction almost as if it had been her own lover, leaped up inside her.  Only the question began to burn in her mind, who was he?

Again, later:

Tonight, at the back of her mind, she was continually wondering whom her lady had found for a lover.  There seemed no gentleman possible.

She does think of Parkin, but rejects the idea:

There was Parkin in the wood, of course!….But then her ladyship would never stoop to him!….He might be attractive to a low sort of woman, if any one could stand his overbearing, nasty way.  But for a refined woman, he was just a snarling nasty brute.

Does Mrs Bolton show insight into Parkin’s character, or prejudice, or indeed both?

Mrs Bolton follows up her critique of Parkin with an unflattering observation about “refined ladies” in general and Connie in particular:

Still, you never knew!  When women did fall, they sometimes liked to fall as low as they could.  Refined ladies would fall in love with niggers, so her ladyship might enjoy demeaning herself with that foul-mouthed fellow, who would bully her the moment he got a chance.  But there, she’d had her own way for so long, she might be asking to be bullied.

Later, still awake, she spots Parkin as he approaches the house in the dark – seeing but remaining unseen.  Her suspicion is confirmed.  Her thoughts, now, mark the end of the chapter:

And Mrs Bolton….saw him turn and disappear.  Yes, he was gone!  And his going made her more certain than ever.

“Well, would you ever now!” she said to herself, dazed with sleep.  “And not a young man either!”

Conclusions and Questions

Is Lawrence obsessed with sex?  Does the reader appreciate Lawrence’s style, when he writes about sex, explicitly?  This is a matter of personal preference, perhaps.

Is Lawrence hostile, not only to class divisions and conflict but also to the sexual morality prevailing in 1920s England (which condemned sex outside marriage)?  I think so.

Are Lawrence’s characters rounded?  Do they change?  Do they arouse understanding, or even sympathy, in the reader?  Are there ambiguities?  Can Parkin (for example) be seen from more than one point of view?  Can they all be true?  Yes, he is hard at times, gentle at others.  (Is there a history behind his hardness?  Yes.)

I believe that in Chapter VIII Lawrence portrays his main characters’ profound feelings and thoughts, especially about their relations with each other, very well indeed.  He is very good at conveying the tensions inherent in the relationship between Connie and Parkin – the forces pushing them together and those wrenching them apart.  On the personal level, both have ambivalent feelings – each wishing to yield to the other, and not wishing to yield, at one and the same time.  True to life, no doubt.

 

 

 

 

 

The Uses of Satire in 21st Century

Is satire of any use?  Does it change anything?

Sometimes real events appear to stretch the capabilities of commentators who wish to address through criticism, invective, ridicule or, indeed, satire.

Satire has a very long history. Numerous definitions of it are available.  Many literary or dramatic productions have satirical elements or passages.  The boundaries are blurred at the edges.  I take it that cartoons can be satirical: when they address individuals, they probably qualify as lampoons rather than satires: I rely on the definitions cited below.

I would like to refer to two definitions of satire, as they are insightful, in my opinion.

In his famous dictionary (1755), Samuel Johnson noted the definition from the Latin ‘satira’ and defined it as:

A poem in which wickedness or folly is censured.  Proper satire is distinguished, by the generality of the reflections, from a lampoon which is aimed against a particular person; but they are too frequently confounded.

 

The aim of satire is clear.  The literary nature is given as the mode of expression.  Verse is preferred to prose.  (Discuss!)

 

Secondly, I refer to the 1946 MA thesis of a Mr E L Watrin, student at Loyola ir

 

(See: Watrin, Eugene L., Absalom and Achitophel in the Light of the Scholastic Canons of Aesthetics (1946). Master’s Theses. Paper 417. http://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_theses/417 Accessed 7 Feb 2017)

In his thesis, Mr Watrin examined the nature of satire in general and John Dryden’s 1681 verse satire in particular.

Dryden’s long poem fulfils the criteria of Samuel Johnson’s definition, as it is in verse, and it is aimed at a particular time, place and group of people (England’s powerful men – mostly, those in government).

One of the clever aspects of the poem is the parallels Dryden establishes between the English of his time and the Jews of the 2nd Book of Samuel in the Bible.  Hence, King David represents King Charles II and Absalom (David’s illegitimate son) represents the Duke of Monmouth (Charles’s own illegitimate son).  And so on.

The poem still meets with admiration among scholars.  But few people today know much about this part of the OT, nor late 7th century English history, nor John Dryden, let know Absalom and Achitophel.   (I shall comment on this, below.)

I proceed to Mr Watrin’s carefully considered definition of satire:

As a working description which can serve as foundation for further explanation we might say that satire is literature written to reform or improve, rendered effective by rhetorical devices. Or….satire is a literary production in which the correction of abuse is the principal form, and the rhetorical devices which add brilliance to this first form are the secondary forms. The three notes which characterize satire are the literary manner, the corrective purpose, and the use of rhetoric. The first distinguished it from the sermon or oration, the second from comedy, and the third from impassioned diatribe. [page 31]

This definition permits the inclusion of prose satire, so long as it reaches a high literary standard and uses rhetorical devices.

The trouble is that, generally, satire’s edge loses its sharpness with the passage of time.  The writer presupposes that the reader or audience will understand who or what the targets are.  As time passes, many issues which give rise to satire become footnotes in history.  It takes a great writer to produce something that lasts and that gives delight and perhaps instruction to later generations.  Who fulfils this criterion?

I would put forward a few names: Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), George Orwell (1903-1950), and Dario Fo (1926-2016). (Not meant to be an exclusive list.)

Swift

Jonathan Swift was a prolific writer of satires.  He is best remembered nowadays for his Gulliver’s Travels (1726 and 1735)The precise historical background is lost to today’s readers, in the absence of footnotes.  However, readers can make their own connections to abuses of the present day.

Fo

Dario Fo has been a prolific and popular writer and indeed multi-tasker.  His Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Morte accidentale di un anarchico) (1970), for example, albeit constructed as a farce, satirises police corruption and illogicality, mercilessly and (I think) effectively.

Orwell

George Orwell is still widely admired – but particularly for two works.

Animal Farm (1945) is extremely well constructed. It is clear and concise.  It has a strong internal logic.  It makes a clever use of allegory: the animal characters are endowed with human traits. It is funny, but the humour is bitter.

The satire is upon totalitarianism.  It appears that Orwell was thinking of Soviet-style communism; but it my opinion it can be applied to fascism too.

Some of the phrases have become well-known quotations, for example: “Four legs good, two legs good,” and its distortion into “Four legs good, two legs better”, and “All animals are equal,” which is twisted into “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”

A warning from history!

I do not see Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four/1984 (1949) as a satire.  Whereas Animal Farm starts on a heroic note and ends in a dystopia, 1984 presents the reader with an ongoing dystopia. It can be seen as a second take on the end situation depicted in Animal Farm.

Many of its concepts have entered the language, for example, “Big Brother” and “Newspeak”.  “Newspeak” has relevance to the 21st century, as today we hear talk of “fake news” and “post-truth” – in other words, lies.  (I note that Rudyard Kipling, in his poem If, spoke of: “the truth you’ve spoken/Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”!  Identify the knaves!)

George Orwell has been read continually from the 1940s up to 2017; and his reputation as a writer-critic is secure.  His books have not dated.  Totalitarianism has not disappeared.

On the whole, I believe that satire does not, in itself, cause political change; but it tends to raise the awareness of readers and audiences of the issues that impinge upon them (whether short or long term).  It acts as a corrective to lies and misinformation. It still has its uses.

 

 

 

 

 

Dulness, deceit and dunces; populism, priorities and prophecy

Populism and priorities

I used to think that populism was a good thing – the will of the people.  Now I have doubts.  It seems that populism represents a series of reactions to single issue problems.  It is likely to result in inconsistencies – trying to have your cake and eat it.  Object to wind turbines but still expect a cheap, reliable supply of electricity, for example.

“The language of priorities is the religion of socialism” – Aneurin Bevan (1949).  One could say, indeed, that the language of priorities is the language of politics.  But the present UK government chooses to underfund and to undermine public services.  Its priorities lie elsewhere – the maximisation of private profit.  The result is the concentration of wealth in a few hands.  (Trickle-down economics does not work.)

The world in 2017

I move on to British trade and foreign policy.  HM Government aims to abandon close ties with our European neighbours on our doorstep and to seek trade with countries far away.  The promises of success appear very dubious.

Today, Europe (including the UK) finds itself situated (sandwiched) between two powerful countries – Russia and the USA – between Putin and Trump – populist leaders.  Shouldn’t this be a factor in UK policy making?  Isn’t the UK safer, anchored in Europe?

Satire and prophecy

Satire appears inadequate to tackle this situation.  Over the centuries, satirists have bent their bows and let arrows fly.  Their admirers smile.  The people in power, targeted, ignore them or retaliate.  As time goes by, later readers fail to understand the context of the satire unless supplied with explanatory notes.

Despite this, I feel moved to draw upon satire – in particular, that of the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744).  I see parallels between his world and ours.

I refer to Pope’s long polemical and satirical poem, the Dunciad, where Pope creates a mock anti-goddess, who he calls “Dulness”.  She represents trends in society, politics and the media towards obscurantism, selfishness, greed, cliquishness and monopolisation of power – a dystopic vision of a world governed by dunces.

I associate ‘Dulness’, indeed, with certain 21st century trends, for example, “post-truth” and “fake news” (also known simply as lies).

The poem

Here I quote from the beginning and end of the final version of the Dunciad (1743), which depict first the return and then the ultimate triumph of Dulness, in 18th century London:

                            In eldest time….

Dulness o’er all possessed her ancient right,

Daughter of Chaos and eternal Night:

Fate in their dotage this fair Ideot gave,

Gross as her sire, and as her mother grave,

Laborious, heavy, busy, bold, and blind,

She ruled, in native Anarchy, the mind.

Still her old Empire to restore she tries,

For, born a Goddess, Dulness never dies.

 

[Book I, 9-18]

 

         She comes! She comes! The sable Throne behold

Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!…

Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;

Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!

         Lo! Thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;

Light dies before thy uncreating word:

Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;

And Universal Darkness buries All.

 

[Book IV: 651-656]

 

Evaluation

 

In my study of the writings of Alexander Pope, I rely largely on a slim volume of literary criticism (1989), produced by David Fairer, now professor of 18th century literature at Leeds University. In his chapter on the Dunciad, he comments: “In the world of Dulness there are no objective standards, no structures of ideas against which to measure the truth” [page 154].  (Does this sound familiar?)

 

David Fairer concludes his chapter with a warning:

 

Increasingly, we are coming to understand how the mad visions of the few, combined with the passive mindless of the many, could conceivably bring the end of the world.  The prophecies of The Dunciad are coming close to us, and it is becoming easier to discern a relationship between a pacifying mass culture (….), the growth of mass movements (….), and the concentration of power in the hands of a few charismatic leaders (….).  The pseudo-energy of Dulness, with her flagrant appeal to selfish instincts in the guise of freedom….is a principle which is still alive, and still threatens us. [Page 158]

 

Conclusion

 

David Fairer’s book was published in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and the old Cold War was coming to an end, and optimism pervaded the world.  See where we are now!

 

Pope’s and Fairer’s words are prophetic, indeed, and worth heeding.  We ignore them at our peril.

 

References

 

Butt, J (ed) (1963), The Poems of Alexander Pope (one-volume), London: Routledge.

 

Fairer, D (1989), The Poetry of Alexander Pope, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

 

 

 

 

Militarism, pacifism, Christianity

Events in the UK in 2016 make me think – particularly Brexit (a horrible new word) and the vote in Parliament in favour of a replacement for the current Trident submarine system.

Brexit means a sovereign nation state disentangling itself from an international alliances – against the worldwide trend.

Trident replacement also means a sovereign state trying to assert itself as a global power – in a changed world.

One excuse for Trident replacement is the assertion that it forms a UK contribution to NATO.  However, whatever the UK provides is dwarfed by the US contribution.

The building, testing and maintenance of nuclear weapons systems is extremely expensive – billions of pounds.  (Will the cost go up?)

This policy has been kept up since the end of the Second World War.

I would argue that the costs associated with nuclear weapons has distorted the UK economy all this time.  Compare the more prosperous Germany, which has no such weapons.

(The economic record of West Germany and subsequently the reunited Germany has been far superior to the UK’s.  The UK has suffered successive devaluations of its currency, with no visible long term benefit, whereas West Germany periodically revalued – upwards – the Deutsche Mark.)

UK policies are characterised by militarism – they rest on the belief that war, and preparedness for war – is an acceptable way of solving conflicts.

I wish to step back in time for a while.

In the 1930s, in the UK, success stories include the defeat of home grown fascism and the acceptance of refugees (many of them Jewish, many of them children).

In the 1940s, after long struggles and much shedding of blood, fascism was defeated in Germany, Italy, Japan, etc.  A case can be made that here, militarism worked.  Once defeated, resistance by the fascist elites crumbled; and democracy was installed (with a great degree of success).

The nature of war has changed.  Recognisable front lines have gone; guerrilla tactics and terrorism are prevalent; that the great powers rely heavily on air strikes (bombing both the armed and unarmed on the ground).  The world is flooded with so-called “small arms” and indeed BIG arms too.  So if a former imperial power, like the UK, or a current economic and military power, like the USA, invades a country, they run great risks of being confronted by Kalashnikovs and more.

The practicality of militarism is called into question.  (Have we realised this yet?)  As for Trident, is it really a cold war weapon?  Is it a useful response to the threats we all face, in 21st century?  In particular, does it help us counter terrorism?  I think not.

It is fair to recognise that governments have the responsibility to use ‘reasonable force’ (UK courts pay attention to this) to maintain law and order (‘the Queen’s peace’) at home.  Indeed, many people who work in the public sector play some role in this (eg social workers, myself included).

The picture, beyond the borders, is less clear.  For example, one of the duties placed on the UK’s Royal Navy is the protection of British trade, ie that carried by the Merchant Navy – this can be a long way from home.

So much for practicalities.  What about the ethics of militarism?  Is it compatible with (for example) Christianity?

To go to the root of Christianity: the teaching of Jesus is pacifist.  Consider the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew and Luke).  We should allow for the fact that the Gospels do not provide a political manifesto, nor (in my opinion) a clear answer to every detailed moral problem that arises today.

One aspect of Christianity is other-worldliness.  Militarists constantly argue that we have to live in the “real world”.  (A counsel of despair.)  In other words, war will be abolished when all lay down their weapons.  Till then, “if you seek peace, prepare for war.”  An excuse or a reason?

If militarism is essential to the maintenance of “law and order” between nations, then the corollary is that Christianity, as it has been handed down to us, is imperfect – idealist and not realistic.

One can argue that when Christians were a minority, in the Roman Empire, governance was not an issue for them – they were the governed.  (And they had to decide when to conform to Roman rule and when not to.  Saints Peter and Paul tried to give guidance on this.)

Eventually, of course, Christians (genuine or nominal) found themselves in positions of power, in many countries, and in many times.

This is the point where I need to refer to the conventional wisdom that the first duties of the State are to safeguard its population, internally and at its borders.  I also need to refer to the idea, concocted by theologians, of the “just war”.

It is virtually impossible to wage a “just war”, especially today.  No state or alliance can be sure that a display of its fire power will result in a conclusive military victory.  Recent history differs significantly from that of the 1940s (see above).

I worry that, once one steps into the arena of governance, backed up by force and the threat of force, it is not clear where one should stop – where the line should be drawn.

I also fear that, if one possesses military might, then one may be tempted to use it.  (Every challenge is like a nail; and the military response will be like a hammer.)

Self-restraint on the part of a government is required. Sometimes, members of the public, media moguls and populist politicians will demand the opposite.  I do not see the development of Trident as an example of self-restraint.  And I have grave doubts about other systems too.

Self-restraint is the watchword.  It is the best concept I can offer at present.

Building Bridges after the UK referendum

The Britain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has put out  a statement:

The outcome of the European Union referendum and the campaigning that led up to it have shown up and sometimes exacerbated divisions within and between our communities.

There is now great need for bridge-building, for reaching out to one another in love, trusting that below the political differences lie a shared humanity and a wish for flourishing communities.

Inequalities run deep in society and some are exposed by the vote.

Quakers in England, Scotland and Wales are committed to working together and with others – including Quakers cross Europe – for a peaceful and just world.  In the coming year our Quaker Yearly Meeting will focus ob building movements with others locally and globally.  We refuse to prejudge who is or is not an ally.

Turbulent times can be frightening, but the Spirit is a source of strength for all, in guiding us in who we are and what we do.  We take heart from the knowledge that with change comes opportunity.  We will look for creative ways to find common cause, to listen, to influence and to persuade.  As the status quo is shaken we and our neighbours must look to one another for support, wisdom and above all else ways of healing divisions.

 

 

 

United Kingdom and European Union

Britain and the European Union – the future

Well, the future remains uncertain.  (I remain dismayed by the referendum result.)

The background.

Many UK voters have been expressed worry about, even opposition to, high levels of immigration.   (Many live in areas of low immigration!)  Some politicians have responded to this by supporting the worried voters.   The alternative approach is to deal with social needs vigorously.

Are we witnessing the result of long-term scapegoating of non-Britons and the EU?  Doesn’t nationalist populism rise in times of economic depression?

What have immigrants done for us?  Well, the Huguenots, the Jews, the Irish, the Italians, etc, etc, have helped to build Britain and make it what it is, eg by starting businesses, working in the public sector, etc.

Surely, the shortages in social goods (access to General Practitioners, social housing, etc) are the result of government policies (bad decisions), continued over many years.  These policies should be reversed.

“Affordable” housing = rented housing- well, it should be.  Build, build – fund, fund.  A good investment, a social good.  Make renting respectable, a genuine alternative to buying with a mortgage.

The private rented sector has grown exponentially.  Rents are high and going higher.  The public bill for rent support climbs too.  The money that goes into landlords’ pockets could be put into bricks and mortar.  And the quality of private sector properties varies a lot.

Another social evil is 21st century poverty.  The job market has changed.  Many jobs nowadays are insecure.  Many people draw benefit payments while working hard in low-paid jobs.  Much pay goes on rent, which makes for a low disposable income.

UK and EU

At the moment, the British Government is on the horns of a dilemma: access to the single market versus control over immigration (ie from the EU and non-EU countries).  We can’t have one without the other.

The options.

1 Parliament delays UK departure from the EU, to such a point where the idea fizzles out.

2 The UK rejoins the European Free Trade Association and stays in the European Economic Area, and negotiates with the EU and third parties, as required.

3 Chaos: uncertainty, decline, divisions in society.

Conclusion

We in the UK have been badly led and poorly served by our elected representatives.  The school report reads: “Could do better.”

Christopher Marlowe and Christian morality

Introduction

Christopher Marlowe lived from 1564 to 1593.  Rather than examining his life, I’ll look at some of his literary output, which includes seven plays.

The plays

Dido, Queen of Carthage is based on Virgil’s Aeneid, Books I, II and IV.  Edward II, Tamburlaine Parts I and II and The Massacre at Paris are historically based.  Doctor Faustus is based on legends about a 16th century magician.  The Jew of Malta is loosely based on history – the Turks’ unsuccessful attempt to conquer the island in 1565.

None of these plays is a comedy.  The term “morality play” would fit most of them, insofar as they portray an ambitious, aspiring man, who achieves short-term goals but loses all and dies ignominiously in the end.

There are very few characters in these plays who evoke our sympathy: those who do include Queen Dido, Abigail (daughter of Barabas, the Jew of Malta), and Zenocrate (wife of Tamburlaine).  (All these ladies, moreover, die on stage.)

Some of the plays are seldom performed; but seeing the Royal Shakespeare’s 2015 production of The Jew of Malta has prompted me to put down some thoughts on issues raised by this play and two others by Marlowe.

Editions

For my reading, I have used: J B Steane’s Christopher Marlowe – The Complete Plays (Penguin, 1969), H J Oliver’s Dido Queen of Carthage and The Massacre at Paris (Revels Plays, 1968), and J R Siemen’s Jew of Malta (3rd edition, New Mermaids, 2009).

Argument

Marlowe has a keen eye for conflict between social groups, based purely on religious differences, where the more powerful group oppresses the less powerful one.

The Massacre at Paris

The play is set in late 16th century France, at the time of the wars of religion, in particular, the period from 1572 to 1589.  It portrays a series of incidents where Roman Catholics mercilessly slaughter Protestants (also called Huguenots).  The Catholics are led by members of the royal family, especially the prominent and ambitious Duke of Guise.

The Duke vows: “There shall not a Huguenot breathe in France”; and he proceeds to carry out this threat with alacrity.  He overreaches himself and is murdered, on the orders of King Henry III.  Finally, Henry himself is assassinated: with his dying breath he names Henry King of Navarre (a Protestant) as his successor.

The play may seem to favour Protestantism, but mainly it can be seen as an attack on religious fanaticism.

Tamburlaine Parts I and II

This pair of plays dramatises the battles and conquests of Tamburlaine (Timur Lenk), the usurping King of Persia, in the late 14th century.

In the subplot of Part II, Orcanes, Emperor of Natolia (Anatolia, Turkey), makes peace with Sigismund, King of Hungary, his enemy, in the context of the threat from the east of the all-conquering Tamburlaine.  They both swear to keep their truce “inviolable”.

However, Sigismund and his allies soon decide to break the agreement, on the grounds that the Muslims are “infidels”, that treaties with them are not binding on Christians, and that, as the Turks are now turning round to face Tamburlaine, an opportunity presents itself to attack them.

The furious Orcanes tears up the articles of peace; battle is joined; the Christians are defeated.  Sigismund dies of his wounds, belatedly expressing regret for his “accurs’d and hateful perjury”.

This subplot can be seen as conveying the playwright’s condemnation of religious prejudice and the use of such differences to justify treachery.

The Jew of Malta

When this play was first published, in 1633, it was called The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta.  It is a tragedy, indeed, for the many characters who lose their lives.  It can be categorised as one or more of these: a savage farce or a morality play or a revenge play.

Barabas, the Jew of the title, is a successful ship-owner and trader, who loves his wealth (“Infinite riches in a little room”).  As for people, he is concerned only about himself and his daughter, Abigail.  It matters little to him that the Knights of St John of Jerusalem rule over Malta, so long as a stable peace permits the carrying on of business.

The spring that sets the play in motion is the arrival of a Turkish embassy in Malta, demanding payment of arrears of tribute.  Ferneze, the Governor, states that the Christians of the island do not have the resources to pay up, so he looks to the local Jews (and especially Barabas) to supply the necessary funds.  He adds insult to injury: he denigrates the Jews, calling them “infidels” and “accursèd in the sight of heaven”.  He implies that the Turks’ demand for tribute is divine punishment for the authorities’ toleration of the Jews.  Barabas argues back, eloquently, but to no avail.  For his pains, he is dispossessed of his house and of his wealth (apart from the part that is hidden).  He curses his tormentors and plans his revenge.

The political leadership not only picks on a defenceless minority community, it also permits the operation of a slave market.  So another defenceless group is made to suffer.

The religious men – two friars, Jacomo and Bernadine – are little better.  Each hopes that his own order will benefit from hearing Barabas’s confession of his sins and from baptising him as a Christian (never carried out, in the event).  The editor J R Siemon comments: “The thrust of the passage is that each friar naively believes himself in favour with Barabas and, hence, in line for his wealth” (page 88).

And when Abigail utters her dying words – “Witness that I die a Christian” – Bernardine comments: “Ay, and a virgin too, that grieves me the most” (Act 3 Scene 6, 40f).

Barabas himself is transformed from a self-serving accumulator of wealth into a ruthless, boastful murderer.  He is involved, directly or indirectly, in various deaths – of the blameworthy and the innocent (including his own daughter).  Eventually, overreaching himself, he is caught in a trap of his own making and dies, hoist on his own petard.

A parallel with Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is this: Barabas and Shylock are the only Jewish men that feature prominently, as the others are minor characters.  (Their daughters are unlike them.)  Their misdeeds are their own and not those of the Jews in general.  This point is relevant to a discussion of signs of anti-Semitism in either play.

The Christians, then, do not come out of this story at all well.  The Turks – albeit briefly sketched – come out better.  The Jewish men, other than Barabas himself, are given little to say or do.  And Abigail is a sympathetic character.

Conclusion

The Jew of Malta is a savage farce, on the basis of (a) the series of Barabas’s cunning stratagems and (b) his witty running commentary upon them.  It is a morality play, ie about moral living, with the twist that both moral and immoral people are vulnerable to the leading character’s plots.  It is also a revenge play, as Barabas is a self-avenger, who (a) retaliates against those he perceives as enemies and (b) dies himself in the end.  (Compare Kyd’s Hieronimo, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Middleton’s Vindice.)

Marlowe gives us an object lesson in the nature of discrimination and oppression, and the consequences.

Whatever our differences, we should all be humane.

David Harries

May 2015

 

 

‘Food Banks Are Not Enough’ – poverty and inequality in the UK today

A few score Friends attended this conference on poverty and inequality.  It was organised by Central England Quakers, and held in Birmingham, on 29 November 2014.  It consisted of talks, discussions in workshops, and informal discussion.

The stimulus for the holding of the conference was Central England Friends’ concern about the growth in the UK of poverty and inequality.  I am glad to say that the two were seen as linked.  (Apart from absolute destitution, I wonder whether you can have poverty without inequality.)

Members of other agencies helped run the day: Equality West Midlands and Housing Justice (the latter a national Christian charity).

At the outset, we were reminded of Quaker history: reference was made to our Statement on Inequality (April 2014) and, further back, to our ‘Eight Foundations of a True Social Order’ (1917) (Quaker Faith & Practice, 23.16), which includes the following:

The opportunity of full development, physical, moral and spiritual, should be assured to every member of the community, man, woman and child.  The development of man’s full personality should not be hampered by unjust conditions nor crushed by economic pressure.

How true, even today!

In the morning, we heard a talk by Suzanne Ismail, a member of staff of Quaker Peace & Social Witness, whose remit is economic justice.  (In her talk she referred to co-operation with other movements, eg Christian Aid, Church Action on Poverty, and Fuel Poverty Action).

Suzanne reminded us that inequality declined in the UK between 1937 and 1977 but since has got worse, so that the UK has become one of the most unequal members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (with the USA, Chile, Turkey and Israel).

Most Friends, she said, are concerned about this social change, and some are very angry about it.  She argued that inequality adversely affects people’s ability to relate to each other.  Inequality makes us want to buy more things, to keep up.  There is also a connection with sustainability: consumerism destroys the planet.

What can we do?  There are various sources of inequality and therefore various focuses for action.

  1. Re the social security system: undo the harm being done to it, and improve it. (Let us have a grown-up debate.)
  2. Re the tax system: deal with tax dodging, which is costing the Exchequer billions of pounds.
  3. Promote the Living Wage, especially as (a) Chief Executives’ pay has risen astronomically while (b) minimum wage jobs are not a gateway to better paid ones. (Quakers as employers, please note.)
  4. People on low incomes pay a lot more for basics, eg fuel (note pre-payment meters), so we need a fair market for good and services.
  5. Companies can sign up to the Fair Tax mark, to show that they pay the taxes they owe.

Have we, and the wider citizenry, the political will to campaign for change?

Later, I attended two workshops: one on income inequality, the other on housing and benefits.

As regards the first, I found myself in a sub-group looking at “high pay”.  We were asked to discuss whether a maximum income could and should be imposed on UK residents.  We thought not, but that progressive taxation was one day to deal with excessive pay.  We thought that it should become socially unacceptable, (disgusting, even) to command high pay.

Alastair Murray, of Housing Justice, introduced the afternoon session I attended.  He said that the UK housing market is dysfunctional – but not for everyone.  Private wealth has been promoted, at the expense of the public good.  Unfortunately, housing is not a very live election issue.

Alastair declared that we can build more homes, to meet the need, if we want to (and there is enough land).  He painted a sad picture of what many of our fellow citizens have to endure: poor quality housing stock, overcrowding, insecurity of tenancy, and very long waiting lists for social housing.  He argued that, in the private sector, landlords have the power, rather than their tenants.

What is to be done?  These are some of Alastair’s suggestions:

  • Form or join a Housing Action Group
  • Free up empty spaces, eg rooms above shops and in other premises
  • Use church land and property for affordable housing (the Faith in Affordable Housing project)
  • Form a housing co-operative
  • Increase Council Tax bands (unchanged for many years!)
  • Improve tenants’ security of tenure (as Shelter advocates)
  • Support the Homes for Britain Campaign (homesforbritain.org.uk)
  • Note Homelessness Sunday (18 January 2015) and Poverty Action Sunday (15 February 2015).

Alastair recommended some websites: whobenefits.org.uk and housingjustice.org.uk .

In the final plenary, mention was also made of a Fabian pamphlet, A Convenient Truth, by R Wilkinson and K Pickett (a follow-up to The Spirit Level): this can be accessed on-line via fabians.org.uk .

I left with two feelings: (a) that we can all do something; and (b) that we who chose (or were chosen) to attend the conference, while well-informed and passionate, are not poor or homeless ourselves!

David Harries

3 December 2014