Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Wall Of Heaven Where The Bad (But Not Very Bad) Are In Temporary Discomfort

Above: Tondal views The Wall Of Heaven Where The Bad (But Not Very Bad) Are In Temporary Discomfort

Freezing fog the last few days, which makes driving to work in the mornings very slow. One of the compensations of being late this morning was that I was able to listen to some of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on Radio 4 (it starts at 9 o’clock when I would normally be at my desk). It is one of the most erudite and intelligent programmes on broadcast media.

This morning the panel of experts looked at the idea of Hell in European culture, from the earliest Egyptian influences to the Greek shadowlands and into the medieval Christian imagination (at that point I arrived at the office and had to switch off). They talked of Dante’s Inferno (from the Divine Comedy) and how Dante was guided by the poet Virgil through the different levels of Hell. This reminded me of when I worked at the J.Paul Getty Museum in Malibu (I was a sort of intern in their Public Affairs office). One of the treasures of the Museum is an illuminated medieval manuscript called the Dream of Tondal.

In this 1470 French manuscript (based on a much older tradition that predates Dante) the young off-the-rails knight Tondal is guided through Hell by an angel, as a warning of what will happen to him if he doesn’t give up his selfish licentious lifestyle. The twenty illuminated images fascinated me and I used to look at them every day (because I was working there I had access to the curatorial departments and could see things close up, even handle them – wearing special gloves).

One image in particular so impressed me that I had a print made of the Museum slide (and have now scanned it in to post on this site – so this image is several generations removed from the vibrant original – copyright held by the J. Paul Getty Trust). It shows the naked knight Tondal being shown The Wall Of Heaven Where The Bad (But Not Very Bad) Are In Temporary Discomfort. Looking back I think I liked it because of its Monty-Python-And-The-Holy-Grail absurdity.

I have a recurring dream (about once a year) that I am in one of those niches on the outside wall of Heaven, detained as one of the Bad (But Not Very Bad). In the dream I am quite comfortable but have to be careful not to move since there is a terrifying drop below me. I suppose there could be worse fates.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

He is just being cruel

The Guardian yesterday reported that Work and Pensions Minister John Hutton is proposing that long-term unemployed people should have their benefit stopped unless they get a job. John Hutton complains that immigrants have no problem getting jobs therefore the long-term unemployed should be able to do the same. He is reported as saying: “If workers from Poland can take advantage of these vacancies in our major cities, why can’t our own people do the same?”

This is an entirely bogus and disreputable comparison to make.

The immigrants who come here are almost always the best people overseas countries can offer – the most enterprising and ambitious. Highly motivated and determined to succeed. Prepared to do whatever it takes to establish themselves, even if it means taking dirty jobs and working long hours.

The indigenous long-term unemployed on the other hand are often late-middle-aged, depressed, de-motivated, usually poorly educated. They have been harassed and humiliated by Job Centre staff, who keep giving them ridiculous hoops to jump through. Often they are just tired of life and don’t see any point to modern consumerist society.

Increasingly we are living in a dog-eat-dog world, and to expect the demoralised long-term unemployed to compete with the enterprising post-war immigrants who have come here is like putting an elderly slow-moving spaniel in the same room as a starving rottweiler.

John Hutton is a cruel idiot to even suggest this proposal.

Except that he isn’t an idiot.

Which means he is just being cruel.

We need to accept that a proportion of the population (perhaps twenty per cent) isn’t going to be highly-motivated and eager to make a success of their lives. They could be anxious worriers, scared of making decisions, have poor social skills, slow learners, perhaps drink a little too much, perhaps just not see the point of “modern” society. They may be literally worthless as economic units, but as a tax-payer (and I pay a relatively high level of tax) I want these people looked after and treated with a reasonable level of respect.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The effect will be to make government services more remote and faceless

There is widespread anger at the government’s proposals to close thousands of post offices. Inevitably the majority of these will be in rural villages. The move is seen as yet another example of the cynical way in which the government is trying to strip resources (police services, Accident and Emergency services, postal services) from rural communities to concentrate them in inner city areas where the core of New Labour’s supporters reside.

The effect will be to make government services more remote and faceless, particularly for elderly people who are unable to travel into the towns.

Mrs Warner did the above floral tribute to the rural postal service using Mrs Welham’s old Royal Mail bike (it’s painted in Royal Mail scarlet and you can see the Royal Mail logo). The display is part of a drive to make the church flowers more relevant to issues in the news. It is unlikely that the government will take any notice of such mild protests (to paraphrase Stalin: How many armoured divisions does the Mothers’ Union have?).

Above: The red letter box was first introduced by Anthony Trollope and went through several design incarnations before becoming standard throughout the country. In tacky London souvenir shops the red letter box is seen as one of the iconic images of the city along with red telephone boxes (designed by Edwin Lutyens) and the clock tower (“Big Ben”) of the Houses of Parliament (designed by Sir Charles Barry). Obviously the models in the picture are of different scales.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Images of scythes

Today I have been thinking about how images of scythes are used in Western culture.

In the summer I had a day’s holiday and got up quite late (10 am). I went round the house opening the curtains, and from one upstairs window saw a small white van parked on our land near the house. I went out to see who it was, and found emerging from a deep ditch a council worker carrying a scythe on his shoulder. He looked like a character from a film by Serge Eisenstein (one of those montages from October where the land workers unite with the industrial workers to storm the Winter Palace). I asked him what he was doing and he said he was part of a council team keeping the drainage ditches clear. Apologies for the lopsided photo.

Above: Sickles and scythes hung up on the exterior wall of a stone barn. The hammer and sickle was adopted as the official emblem of the Soviet Union in 1922, and later became recognised as a communist symbol around the world. The hammer and sickle is meant to symbolise the unity of the peasants and workers (a statue of sickle-weilding workers from a collective farm adorned Soviet Pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition.

Above: stone carving in a dark corner of a cathedral. Azreal, one of the four Archangels, is traditionally known as the angel of death (the grim reaper) and is supposed to be the angel of the Lord who took the firstborn children in the tenth plague of Egypt. Azreal works continually at a great book, listing all the living on the Earth (entering their names at birth and erasing them at death).

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Feature in yesterday's Guardian

You may need to click on the image and then click again (when a square ikon appears in the lower right hand corner) to enlarge it so that you can read it. It's a feature in yesterday's Guardian. I'm posting it here as it is tidier than trying to keep the original cutting.

Friday, December 01, 2006

They have a micro-culture that goes back in an unbroken stream

Church bell, 16th century, at a village in the west of the county (under the internal cliff). The bell was taken down when the bell loft in the tower became unsafe (there are still five bells remaining in the belfry which are rung every Friday evening and Sunday morning). As well as calling the villagers to church services, in medieval times a single bell was rung to announce the angelus (three times a day) and the curfew.

Bells would also solemnly toll to announce the death of anyone in the village – “nine tailors” (tollers) for the death of a man, six for a woman. Dorothy L Sayers titled one of her most famous detective stories “The Nine Tailors”. The expression Nine Tailors also crops up in a limerick, recorded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. There was a widespread belief in the county that the sound of bells could cleanse the air of evil (associated with the miasmic theory of disease). Petitions were made in the 17th century for the church bells to be rung to allay popular concerns (fear of plague, fear of witches, fear of “foreigners” sighted in the district). Betjeman wrote: “The sound of English bells is the music of Heaven itself”.

There is a fraternity among the bell ringers of the county that goes beyond their normal village territories. As a distinct community they have a micro-culture that goes back in an unbroken stream several centuries. And yet so precarious has the rural way of life become that it could all vanish tomorrow (yes, I know I am exaggerating).

Above: The bell ropes, tied up high to prevent any miscreants (particularly children) ringing the bells without authority.

Above: The complicated “changes” are chalked up on a board for the bell-ringers to memorise.

Above: The bell-ringers form a tightly-knit community. They have their own rituals and hierarchies. Their achievements are recorded in plaques put up under the tower.

Act of votive placation

There is concern about the fate of the English cricket team facing the ruthlessly professional antipodeans (with the ironic implication that ruthless professionalism is not really “cricket”). There is anxiety that the Ashes might not be retained. Mrs Warner (who is doing the flowers for this Sunday) has included a cricket themed shrine as one of her famous window ledge displays (why has she done this? - is it an act of votive placation to the sporting muse?).

The church flower rota is an intensely political affair with factions, uneasy truces and unwritten rules-which-must-not-be-transgressed. The Rector refuses to get involved in it. You would have to be very brave (or extremely foolish) to criticise the flowers on your way out after Morning Service (previous complaints: the smell of tuberoses brings on someone’s hay fever, the big display on the chancel step obscures someone’s view from the north aisle, even one extremist who told the Rector that flowers in the church contravened the commandment about graven images).