Poem: A Psalm for Halloween, by me

A letter in the devil’s house,
Beside his port and glass,
Might have your name within its lines:
A prison for the passed.

From ghosts to goblins, all repent!
These earthen fields will fade,
And in their place a zombie’s grin,
Outshines the mortal jade.

The human years wilt, darkling babes!
To timeless caves you’ll fall,
Where vampires and witches cry,
Their souls in Torment’s ball.

The path to shameless paradise,
Above those torture caves,
Is drenched in blood from God’s own lamb,
Its pain is all that saves.

Opinion piece: An Atheist Appreciation of Hymnody

I collect religious books. So far, I have three Bibles – one a standard plastic-bound King James, another a hardback, illustrated copy of the same edition from the 1960s, and a third my late stepmother’s New International Version, hardback, and replete with colour pictures – as well as that mini red-leather New Testament and Psalms we Anglicans all received in high school. (Many of my peers defaced theirs, littering the rutted walkway past the playing field with shredded pages, which offended me as a bibliophile, if not as a Christian).

I also have a black-leather Mormon triple (which sounds like a deli sandwich or kinky threesome, but is actually a volume containing the three books of Mormonism: The Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price); a small black leather “Book of Offices” (Christian church services, c. 1930s) and just the other day, a gorgeous, green, hardback hymnbook, containing work by such human luminaries as Isaac Watts, John Milton and William Blake.

Beside these on my shelf is Rupert Graves’ Greek Myths, and on my Kindle are Butler’s Lives of the Saints and a free Koran, translated in the 19th-century by an English Christian priest. (Such older translations have introductions amusing because of the different culture informing them: mine has many offhand remarks about how we should appreciate Islam despite Christianity’s obvious superiority!)

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I also have a Necronomicon, but I’m not sure that that counts as a religious text…

Even militant atheists like Richard Dawkins have accepted the importance of the Bible in understanding English literature; to paraphrase the great man, a knowledge of the former is fundamental to an understanding of the latter; skip to 3:36 and watch until 4:02 in this video for the original quote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0Ks4pCO5O8 As a skeptic who supports the prevalence of areligious (not anti-religious) morals at the state level, I’m fairly indifferent to and even sometimes dubious of theistic teachings.

But as a lover of language and literature, which I am above most else, I wallow in the poetry. Poetry, I think, is a spiritual bath where atheists and theists can soak together in harmony. For instance, whatever I may think about the philosophical and materialistic worth of this psalm by Isaac Watts, a 17th- to 18th-century English theologian acknowledged as the “Father of English Hymnody”, I not just appreciate but adore its literary worth:

“Palm 73, Part 1″

Now I’m convinced the Lord is kind
To men of heart sincere;
Yet once my foolish thoughts repined,
And bordered on despair.

I grieved to see the wicked thrive,
And spoke with angry breath,
“How pleasant and profane they live!
How peaceful is their death!

“With well-fed flesh and haughty eyes,
They lay their fears to sleep;
Against the heav’ns their slanders rise,
While saints in silence weep.

“In vain I lift my hands to pray,
And cleanse my heart in vain;
For I am chastened all the day,
The night renews my pain.”

Yet while my tongue indulged complaints,
I felt my heart reprove, -
“Sure I shall thus offend thy saints,
And grieve the men I love.”

But still I found my doubts too hard,
The conflict too severe,
Till I retired to search thy word,
And learn thy secrets there.

There, as in some prophetic glass,
I saw the sinner’s feet
High mounted on a slipp’ry place,
Beside a fiery pit.

I heard the wretch profanely boast,
Till at thy frown he fell;
His honors in a dream were lost,
And he awakes in hell.

Lord, what an envious fool I was!
How like a thoughtless beast!
Thus to suspect thy promised grace,
And think the wicked blest.

Yet I was kept from full despair,
Upheld by power unknown;
That blessed hand that broke the snare
Shall guide me to thy throne.

***

For those interested, Watts appears in the green hardback hymnbook I mentioned earlier, pictured below:

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Those numbers in bold, above and slightly to the left of each hymn, call back to me those pulpit-plaques containing number cards for the hymns of the day. They’re as Anglican as public houses and nightclub fights…

“Palm 73, Part 1″ alternates beautifully between eight and six syllable lines, the latter following the former to create, alongside an ABAB rhyme scheme, an ebb-and-flow rhythm. Narratively speaking, it’s also a splendidly self-contained little religious fable, with some very strong, potent, even menacing images, my favourite being that of the evil man on a “slipp’ry place,/Beside a fiery pit”. (By the by, those apostrophes which replace letters, used to cut down a word’s syllable count for the sake of rhythm and meter, are all but gone from recent poetry, which I think is a shame.)

Actual sacred texts, meanwhile, also have their share of alluring poesy. One of my favourite descriptions of Satan is “the stealthily withdrawing whisperer”, a name he’s given in Sura (chapter) XIV – http://www.infoplease.com/t/rel/koran/sura114.html – of the Koran, which is like one long poem, Allah’s prophet Muhammed perhaps being more of a poet than a storyteller. The book is filled with charming poetic images, many of which depict Hell in a way grand enough to rival other religions’.

The constant political dramas surrounding religion blinds a lot of atheists, I think, to the literary worth of western and middle-eastern mythologies. If you leave politics aside (a thing I suggest people do more often) what you’re left with is some stunning poetry. If we can read and celebrate Homeric poetry without starting wars over whether Zeus exists, or what his message is, we shouldn’t gag our own rich cultural heritage.

Here’s another psalm by Isaac Watts, from which the fourth verse, beginning in 1757, is often omitted. This, I think, is a sin, because it’s a splendid verse which holds the poem’s strongest, strangest imagery. As a lover of horror and the macabre, I can ask little more of my literature:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

To Christ, who won for sinners grace
By bitter grief and anguish sore,
Be praise from all the ransomed race
Forever and forevermore.

***

Personally, I’d love to live in a world where people with Marilyn Manson CDs can also own books of religious poetry, as I do, with no-one thinking that strange. There was a great Welsh poet (and priest), R. S. Thomas, who once said this of his joint careers: “Some people were curious to know whether I did not feel some conflict between my two vocations. But I always replied that Christ was a poet, that the New Testament was poetry, and that I had no difficulty preaching the New Testament in its poetic context.”

That quote surmises everything I’ve been trying to say in this essay better than I ever could, even with a thousand more words. Christ was a poet. As was Muhammed, Joseph Smith and all the other prophets. No matter how dubious their teachings and lives might have been, they had a rhetorical gift which shouldn’t be forgotten, by believers or atheists. (Incidentally, Thomas was a Welsh nationalist who despised what he perceived as western greed and supported the bombings of English-owned holiday homes, evidence that extremism is by no means just a Muslim quality.)

So, in conclusion, let us return to that spiritual bath, Poetry, hand-in-hand and with songs in our souls, united not by ideology, but by beauty.

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Hymnbooks: not just for hurling at pedestrians anymore!

A mere thought: Sacred Ignorance (FCKH8)

I don’t normally do this, but on Facebook I wrote a rant about FCKH8’s now infamous “Potty-Mouthed Princesses Drop F-Bombs for Feminism” video – which you should probably watch first; it’s only two-and-a-half minutes long: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqHYzYn3WZw – and thought I’d share (an embellished and lengthened version) here:

“How about we teach boys not to fucking rape?!” How about we teach adults not to expose children to rape statistics? That might be useful. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing edgy or positively powerful about little girls saying “penis” and discussing how likely it is that they’ll be raped. That’s just gross and amoral on a Jimmy-Savile-meets-anal-polyps level.

Isn’t youthful ignorance still sacred to anyone? Isn’t teaching girls (and boys) how to paint a picture, write a poem, read a book, perform an experiment, roast a chicken, grow a flower, think about nature and the universe etc. more important than teaching them that they’re walking dick-holsters?

Perhaps this is a controversial statement, but while children should probably be taught the “good touch/bad touch” dichotomy, they shouldn’t have much of a conception of what rape, torture, cruelty and injustice is. There’s too many children who know about such things, from the ranks of third-world militias to families or homes which just don’t care about them. No other cause could get away with the crass and exploitative tactics employed by FCKH8 in their video.

‘Hey, you should fucking vote Conservative, in case the fucking immigrants face-fuck me and my fucking 6-year old friends, motherfucker!’

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‘Here’s a thumbs up for my fine British bitches!’

‘Hey, you should fucking vote Labour, because the only people who want to fuck your immature fucking faces are the fucking Tories; amifuckingright, Bethany?!’ *Bethany gurgles in her pram*

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‘You GET that dick, Bethany!’

If those two hypotheticals made you feel queasy, well, now you know how a lot of us felt when we saw FCKH8’s video. We get angry at religious types for this sort of intellectually predatory behaviour – picture a roomful of children being taught by a smiley, white-bearded, bespectacled preacher to deny evolution – yet when feminists do it it’s all in the name of goodness. Bullshit. An end can’t always justify a means, and I say that as someone with liberal views.

When Hit-Girl swore like a sailor in the movie Kick-Ass, it was funny, because she was in an obvious perversion of reality and not being used as a political tool by, again, adults exposing her to rape statistics. When these girls swear, it’s just kind of… sad.

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‘FUCK hate! But YAY exploitation!’

Book review: The Big Four by Agatha Christie

As any serious reader of hers can tell you, Agatha Christie couldn’t write thrillers. Her area was domestic murders in tidy living-rooms, performed by devious monsters usually acting alone or in pairs. Though she wasn’t a notable prose stylist – publishing at a rate of about one book a year, her writing isn’t very textured – she was a master of plot and caricature, populating ingenious stories with witty little character sketches.

Thrillers, however, were beyond her abilities, even though she tried them at various points throughout her life. Her scope as a storyteller, I think, just wasn’t large enough to encompass governments and secret societies. Couple this with her extreme political naiveté, conservatism and even racism (this book breaks one of Ronald Knox’s “ten commandments” for detective fiction, that no cheap Chinese caricature be used to add superficial atmosphere) and you’re left with possibly her worst novel, The Big Four.

Possibly taking a hint from Sax Rohmer, creator of Asian master-criminal Fu Manchu, the book follows Poirot and his Dr-Watson, Captain Hastings, as they unravel the plans of Li Chang Yen, a mysterious Chinese figure also known as Number Four. He leads the titular Big Four, a quartet of megalomaniacs; Number Two is an American, symbolised by a dollar sign, two stripes and a star (Christie’s Americans always amuse me; for one thing, they all have names like Abe and Elmer, and smoke fat cigars).

Number Three is a Frenchwoman. (Symbolised, I assume, by some onions, a baguette, and a note of surrender.) Number One, however, is a totally unknown master of disguise, present whenever a gruesome murder occurs. There’s lots of murders in this book; so many, in fact, that I half-realised how it was tied together before knowing: it originated as eleven short stories which were then boiled into one narrative.

Sadly, the transparency of this is a major flaw. The individual murders and their investigations are somewhat compelling; for instance, an early case involving a leg of mutton, bloody footprints and some figurines is clever in Christie’s usual sleight-of-hand way. But when presented as one plot, with a supposed mastering force, the novel grows monotonous in the extreme, especially when you realise that said mastering force will never be adequately explained. (We don’t get to know any of the “four” that well.)

Furthermore, Christie’s attempts at thriller-like adventures, in the style of such pulp magazines as Black Hand (which is name-checked here), are just silly. If a scene in a Chinatown basement, riddled with divans, trapdoors, secret exits and chain-smoking Orientals, doesn’t make you wince, you’ve a more credulous heart than I. Christie was probably trying for a Sherlock Holmes-type appeal, but the lack of depth and texture strangles that.

Also, Holmes isn’t Poirot. One can imagine Holmes climbing ivy-caked walls, disguising himself as his twin and jumping off of trains at the last moment. To picture our favourite fat little Belgian doing that, though, is absurd. Christie might as well have cast Miss Marple as Indiana Jones, high-kicking Arabs while her glasses-on-a-chain fly, before rescuing her flowered hat at the last moment. You wonder why this didn’t occur to Christie.

Although, as author Robert Barnard (A Talent to Deceive: An Appreciation of Agatha Christie) observed in his summation of this book, it “was cobbled together at the lowest point in Christie’s life, with the help of her brother-in-law.” Clearly, then, like James Dean wearing leather to church, The Big Four was destined to be bad. Even Mark Gatiss, whose unenviable task it was to adapt it for an episode of David Suchet’s Poirot, called it “an almost unadaptable mess of a book”.

The only way it might have been saved, in my opinion, is if it stayed as eleven short stories, all published in one volume; omitted Poirot and Hastings in favour of, say, Tommy and Tuppence, the married sleuths whom Christie used for some of her thrillers; and revised the ending so that the big four remain shadowy (as well as removing some truly awful James Bond stuff, including, so help me God, a mountain lair with a secret boardroom).

The Big Four is a profoundly terrible book, unworthy of Christie and Poirot. At 160 pages it’s blessedly short, shorter than Christie’s usual length of around 300. If it was any longer it might be unreadable. The characters are stick-figures, the plot makes no sense (really, none, if you think about it, which I don’t advise) and the action-thriller elements howlingly bad. Christie was a great storyteller – read something like Appointment with Death if you want proof of that – but Robert Ludlum she weren’t.

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A mere thought: Mary Poppins theories

Cracked recently shared a theory about Disney’s 1964 classic, Mary Poppins: http://www.cracked.com/article_21552_5-famous-movies-with-political-agendas-you-didnt-notice_p2.html

That theory, which you need to read before understanding the rest of this post, stretches things a bit. Mary Poppins takes a lighthearted and whimsical approach to a lot of serious issues, like greed (“Fidelity Fiduciary Bank”), poverty (“Feed the Birds”), and class inequalities (“Chim Chim Cher-ee”).

One could spin an equally convincing theory that the film is about the working-class learning their place; after all, doesn’t chimney-sweep Bert feel “lucky as lucky can be” to be covered in soot and at the service of his social betters, and isn’t a nanny’s whole purpose, as expressed by the children in “The Perfect Nanny”, to please the offspring of the rich, regardless of her own qualities?

The final scene, where Poppins humbly submits to being forgotten, could also be interpreted in such a fashion, just as convincingly as any feminist interpretation. Regarding Mrs. Banks, I don’t think Disney’s guilty of disapproving of feminism so much as just treating it humourously, as, again, it does with class issues. Mrs. Banks isn’t a stupid or nasty person in the slightest; she merely strikes an odd balance between Victorian wife and Edwardian progressive.

As for Mary Poppins being presented not as a working-class woman but a perfect caregiver, that, I think, has more to do with Disney’s greater emphasis on magic and fantasy. Poppins isn’t a real human being; she’s an angel come down from the clouds to bestow grace on a dysfunctional family.

I don’t think she’s even a representation of womanhood; she’s more a mythical creature in the Disney film. After all, the film isn’t really about her; it’s about Mr. Banks and his redemption. She’s just the channel through which that redemption comes.

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She also has a stare which can freeze a man’s sperm.

Poem (by me): The Vanished Scholar

dedicated to the heroes of Lovecraftian horror stories, and their writers

The bedding rots in a tidy stupor;
its tenant, a scholar, of no repute in
circles far and wide, vanished in the dark,
hid simply, like an elder’s carnal sin.

His room, a dirty house its mere keeper,
looks out upon an alley and its grime,
one window of those where poor scholars live.
The normal world without, and its walking slime.

What pain our scholar felt before he left!
The daily grind of humans and their talk…
So when a world beyond opened its door,
all he did was pack his books and walk.

Book review: A Christmas Beginning by Anne Perry

I sometimes think Agatha Christie ruined mystery fiction for me. She wasn’t a poetic writer, but her skill as a puzzle-maker is incomparable. Her plots are almost always unpredictable, and populated with simple, eccentric personalities who stay by your side every step of the way, yet still beat you to the answers.

The other “Queens of Crime”, who wrote in the genre’s early to mid 20th-century Golden Age – Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham – range between boring and unreadable for me. Sayers was a better prose stylist than Christie (or any of them) but I find her stories tedious and embarrassingly twee. (Lord Peter Wimsey, anyone?)

Marsh is also an okay stylist, but desperately dull. (I still recall The Nursing Home Murder as one of the flattest books I’ve read.) Allingham I haven’t read in a long enough time to pass judgement, though I don’t recall being gripped by her work. Christie, on the other hand, for all her snobbery and untextured prose, gripped.

This brings us to Anne Perry, an English author of historical mysteries. Her novella A Christmas Beginning, part of her Christmas series, paints beautiful pictures of rural Victorian Wales, and rich personalities responding to an oppressive social structure. In literary terms, she’s a better writer than Christie.

Yet the mystery she builds isn’t anywhere near as ingenious as those in Dame Agatha. Perhaps ingenuity isn’t the point, though. I once saw an interview with Perry where she mentioned choosing detective fiction because it gave her a formula with which to arrange her characters and themes.

Other modern crime writers, like Val McDermid, have said similarly. The genre gives you a detective, suspects and a corpse. In other words, a main character, supporting cast and motivation for them all to be around each other. The question, therefore, is whether Perry uses this formula as a springboard to something great.

In my opinion, she does. A Christmas Beginning is a great book, pitched somewhere between Georgette Heyer and Thomas Hardy. On the Welsh island Beaumaris, Inspector Runcorn, a Londoner, is holidaying. He unexpectedly meets Melisande, a widow who, despite her brother John Barclay’s disapproval, once helped him solve a murder.

Any hopes for a pleasant reunion, however, are dashed when Runcorn stumbles across the local vicar’s sister, fatally stabbed in the graveyard. She was, apparently, a spirited and independant woman, whose refusal to settle down into an arranged marriage strained the community’s patience.

The book’s tone is melancholic, though populated by warm and loving, or just likeable, characters. The only thoroughly detestable one is John Barclay, a cruel, self-involved snob whose surface courtesies mask deep contempt for those around him. He was, it seems, competing with a local aristocrat for the late woman’s hand.

Perry’s exploration of social issues is deep and serious. In the vicar’s sister she paints a portrait of a woman oppressed by an archaic social code which demands obedience from her, at the expense of her autonomy and happiness. She is, essentially, a prisoner, having been deprived of the chance to learn a trade and thus dependant on men.

Despite this, she was defiantly individualist until the end. Her sorrows are reflected in Melisande and other women Runcorn meets in the course of his investigation. Perry is a brilliant painter of history; Beaumaris comes alive with windswept hills, quiet churchyards and rich Victorian personalities.

The mystery proceeds at an orderly pace, and given its realist ambitions doesn’t end in one of those shattering Christie denouements. Dark revelations, however, do emerge and are surprising. Perry doesn’t shy away from subjects which writers living in the Victorian era could only have hinted at.

So, while she may not be Agatha Christie, she is Anne Perry, which is more than enough for this reader, who likes being led into the past. For a fireside read with strong characters, evocation of place, dark secrets and a happy ending, A Christmas Beginning is highly recommended.

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