Thursday, 2 July 2009

Just my usual bad-tempered moaning

1. Piety
A journalist friend of mine is doing Guardian stuff in Italy this week, and got something in the paper the other day, which I think is quite impressive of her. The story is that apparently the pope has decided that the bones they found a while ago in Rome are those of St Paul. It struck me how very odd it is that this seems to me of no religious significance whatsoever, although it's a nice historical curiosity, while to many people officially of the same faith this would be a Big Thing. Sometimes I feel very isolated in my (dour but honest) Protestantism, because all Christians in Cambridge seem to be Anglo-Catholics or Catholics and very interested in bones and vestments. It often feels like there are many ways in which Protestantism has more in common with atheism than with Catholicism -- or at least, with certain types of honest atheism, rather than the pious kind. I suppose that's a rather disrespectful way to refer to both Catholicism and pious atheism. But piety has been getting me down a bit recently: the piety of the Guardian; the piety of academia; the various different conflicting pieties of what Cambridge is All About. So many of my conversations seem to involve a mutual pleasant outrage about this that or the other. I have to take a fair share of blame for this -- it's become a sort of conversational ploy I've fallen into, for when you want to have one of those conversations which is more about chatting than about anything you actually say, like the human equivalent of searching another chimpanzee's back hair for fleas. It would be a habit worth breaking, if only I were better at real conversations.

But I'm also pretty certain that piety is necessary and important in some sort of stripped-back way. I read some stuff not long ago, probably on the graun website, where people were talking about the pervasive nature of superstition these days. One example someone had was that he would offer a cardigan around at a lecture, getting people to raise their hand if they were prepared to wear it; and then see how many hands went down when he told them it had once belonged to Fred West "even when he told them it had been dry-cleaned". Another example was people being less willing to throw darts at a dartboard when it had a photograph of a baby's face on it. I don't think that either of these are actual examples of superstition at all. I don't want to wear Fred West's cardigan; it's not because I think it's imbued with evil such that I would become a sleep-walking murderer or some such like in a Simpson's Treehouse of Horror episode, it's because the things he did were so truly foul and terrible that I would not want to have any association or symbol of that about me. I would prefer not to pierce a photo of a baby's face with darts, not because I think that in a voodoo-esque way some baby somewhere will feel transferred pain, but because it would be a symbolic act of violence against a child, and tasteless. I don't think either of these things are illogical, once you accept that we are quite symbolic creatures. Maybe I'm not quite right in labelling them as piety either; what I mean is a sort of quiet respect given to things which deserve it. I wouldn't like to be among the people who didn't feel a little distaste for wearing Fred West's cardigan, dry-cleaned or not, or who stabbed pictures of babies' faces without a second thought.

A related annoying thing in the Guardian was a piece saying that we're all pagans now. Apparently to be a pagan you just have to believe that there is a higher power or powers; and revere nature. This is clearly nonsense -- for one thing it would make my mother the world's first Calvinist pagan. She doesn't like church buildings, and says she could never feel closer to God in a cathedral than in a wood. She's currently wrestling with her conscience about whether she can remain a member of their local church when it spends so much money on building maintenance and so little on people, and if she had her way the churches of England would be torn down or handed over to some government heritage body and the actual church, the people, freed to meet in community centres, or parks when it was sunny. I think this would be both great, and a terrible shame -- a respect for buildings where people have worshipped for centuries is a piety I'm not quite ready to abandon. But just imagine a church without flower-arranging rotas -- it would probably immanentise the eschaton.

2. Still, life goes on.
Despite all this, life still has good things to offer. For example, would you like your business card lasered onto a piece of beef jerky? Of course not -- why on earth would you? But I feel that the possibility enlarges mankind.

Also the new Dizzee Rascal/Calvin Harris collaboration can be heard here, via popjustice, on Zane Lowe's radio show. Dizzee Rascal always cheers me up -- I love to think of it all from the perspective of his school-teachers.

Plus talking of conversations, there's a certain aged but eminent emeritus professor who has become increasingly physically frail, and very quiet in conversation. But the other day at lunch he was suddenly much more like his old self. I asked him how he was finding the fish. "My fish", he said, "is delish!" Ah, I said, but how was his baked potato? "My baked potato", he replied at once, "is only so-so." It made me immensely happy. I couldn't have written out the entire course of that conversation beforehand, and I hope his better spirits continue.


  1. "Screw die-cutting. Forget about foil, popups, or UV spot lamination. THESE business cards have two ingredients:
    Why has no one thought of this before? Genius.

  2. It's simultaneously entrancing and revolting, like all the best things about the modern world.