Thursday 30 September 2010

Those spooky but wonderfully inexplicable moments of foreknowledge.

I'm sure that just about everybody gets a random thought about something in advance of unexpectedly experiencing it. Yesterday afternoon I was sitting here at the computer when the memory of an old 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' TV programme popped into my mind, ostensibly for no reason at all. I must have seen it in about 1960 and have certainly never seen it again. It concerned the macabre tale of a man who was thought to be dead but was actually alive and conscious, though showing no external signs of life. Various people (hospital staff? Undertakers? I can't remember) were discussing him and how to dispose of his body. In a voice-over he expressed his helpless horror at seeing and listening to them and his intense frustration at not being able to indicate that he was, in fact, still alive. Just when he was on the verge of giving up, one of the staff in the room notices a tear running from his permanently-open, weeping eye. That is the indicator that saves him from, literally, a fate worse than death. So after momentarily reflecting on this story for just a few seconds I dismissed it from my mind.
Then this morning I take the top book from my pile of 'still to read' (about 20 books currently). It's a Stephen King compendium of 14 short stories entitled 'Everything's Eventual'. I read the first story, called 'Autopsy Room Four'. Imagine the shiver up my spine when I find not only that it consists of a very similar situation to the TV programme which I'd been thinking about, though set, unsurprisingly, in an autopsy room, but in an afternote to the story, King actually mentions this very Hitchcock TV programme of 50 years back which had just popped into my head yesterday. (Incidentally, he says that the actor playing the subject was Joseph Cotten, a name which, at my age then, wouldn't have meant anything to me.) What a weird feeling it was! It makes one stop and ask oneself "Just what is going on here?" But at the same time as it's unsettling, it's also satisfying and intriguing.
The argument against the significance of such events is that one thinks of so many things, several hundred in the course of one day alone, that it's hardly surprising that now and again a seemingly random thought is bound to correspond with a later-occurring experience.
An even more spectacular incident happened for me when I was once in Amsterdam when, for reading material, I'd taken with me a single-volume Shakespeare play (as one does), this one being Richard II. Before going out to see the then new film of D.H.Lawrence's 'The Rainbow' (released in that city before it opened in England) I read a passage from the play which included the use of the word 'camel' and in an annotated explanation at the bottom of the page I learnt that the word, as well as being the hump-backed ruminant creature, also meant a stout kind of rope. Reference was made to Jesus' saying that "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven" (apologies if I haven't got the wording exactly right), which makes more sense when 'camel' = 'rope' than the animal trying to get through that minuscule aperture. (Since then the situation became more confused when I learnt that one of the city gates of ancient Jerusalem had the nickname of 'The Needle's Eye' because it was so narrow and low. So who knows now to what Jesus was actually referring? But, depending on the interpretation, while one is pretty difficult to achieve, the camel-animal going through the eye of a sewing needle is, if it needs saying at all, impossible. So, having just read that information about 'camel' and 'rope', I put the book down and went out to the cinema. When the film started, the very opening scene was a church service with the preacher declaiming from the pulpit "It is easier for a camel to pass through......" More shivers down the spine. Spooky or what?

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Another trite statement from a politician.

The recently elected leader of the Labour Party (of whom I have some, but not too many, hopes for the future) has just said in a radio interview that he doesn't believe in a God. Hooray! That makes two out of the three leaders of our main political parties who have declared themselves as atheists - and the Prime Minister himself only seems lukewarm, declaring that he doesn't regularly practice his (Anglican) faith - in stark contrast to our last two P.M.s, thank goodness. But then Ed Miliband goes and partly spoils it by saying that he has "a deep respect" for those who do have faith. Why do they always say this? One might respect those same others for different reasons, but what is there to respect about those who hold to a system of beliefs for a Supreme Being for which there's no demonstrable evidence? - and furthermore, these latter individuals almost invariably claim that they, as opposed to non-believers, ought to be given special privileges for having these bizarre views. This thing about having 'profound respect' is such a banal and silly statement to make, as though they were explaining that their non-belief is not something that should scare believers. When was the last time that a religious person declared the same level of 'respect' for a non-believer? Offhand I can't recall it ever happening. It's almost as though the atheist ought to be the apologetic one and the theist has not only no explaining to do but even considers himself as intellectually 'superior' and demands to be regarded as so. Sounds like double standards to me. High time for a fight back. Let's call a spade a spade!

Thursday 23 September 2010

Why are so many modern novels over-written?

I've just finished Jonathan Kellerman's 'Therapy', an L.A. detective murder mystery (2004). Not a terrible book - I've read plenty better, and also a good few far worse. At 550 pages it demands a lot of one's time and (a common criticism I have of a lot of contemporary writing) I can't help feeling it would have been vastly improved by being half the length, while still retaining its salient plot developments. To get down to specifics, do we really need to know in such fine and extraneous detail what characters look like and are wearing at particular points? - both men and women! What does it achieve other than slowing the reader down having to get through all the unnecessary excess 'fat'. One example towards the end:-
He looked to be around thirty, with long, wavy, brown hair parted in the middle, had on a grey shirt under a cracked, brown leather jacket rubbed white at the pressure points, rumpled beige cargo pants, white running shoes.......(yawn!)
Now what would be wrong with - "He looked about 30, long brown hair and wore a leather jacket and cargo pants."? There you are. It's all we need to know, perhaps even more than is necessary - and it doesn't slow down the action nor lose any atmosphere. I'm only surprised that the author didn't also go on to describe the colour of his underwear!
And why do we have to be told exactly what they are eating all the time? Does it really matter? Where's the relevance to the story? None. If it's junk food, fine, it's junk food. If it's in a restaurant I don't want to know of what each course consists.
I wonder if all this padding is deliberately to make the book longer and so give buyers a feeling of getting their money's worth? (Do long novels sell better than shorter ones?) Otherwise wouldn't the editor and publisher recommend pruning the manuscript offered? There may be something in that, as books of under 200 pages long are often priced the same as one which is two or three times the length.
Anyway, I got through it all after several sittings, but found my impatience to reach the end was getting the better of me and reduced any enjoyment that I was getting, though there wasn't much of that anyway. (Oh, those days when one could read a complete novel in just one sitting of two or three hours!)

Well, I've already started my next book, a re-reading of Roddy Doyle's 'Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha' which I first read in 1994 a year after it had won the 'Booker' prize (Britain's most prestigious annual award for new fiction). On first reading I just couldn't get onto the writer's wavelength though this time, after 50 pages, it's going a bit better. But in any case, at a mere 280 pages long, it should be a relative 'breeze'!

Sunday 19 September 2010

My faithful and very dear friend, Blackso

Now what must be at least 11 years old and just showing signs of starting to slow down, Blackso is always appreciative, never takes me for granted, allows me to pick him up and cuddle him, rubs against me even when he's not wanting to eat, will sit for long periods on my lap purring contentedly or napping (and sometimes snoring). On the other hand, my other cat, Noodles, will do or let me do none of these things, only taking an interest in me when he wants something - but is just as fascinating nonetheless. But Blackso, with his overt affection, is a cat-lovers' dream - and I dread thinking of the day that's going to come when it's all over, for whatever reason. So I return the favour by showing my appreciation for him every single day while I can.

Friday 17 September 2010

Some reflections on His Hole-iness' visit to the U.K. (so far)

I'm feeling aggrieved, disappointed, surprised and dismayed at how much adulation the Pope is getting here on the second day of his four day-visit. This was largely unexpected and, sadly, it's giving great satisfaction to the throngs of the 'faithful'. The BBC in particular is giving his visit saturation coverage - totally unwarranted as it's officially a 'state-visit' by the ruler of a really tiny state. They certainly wouldn't be giving a visit of, say, the King of Monaco anything like the same coverage, even though the latter is much larger than the Vatican City. But of course Pope B. is also considered a 'pastoral leader', so that gives added 'oomph' to his physical presence and means that we British taxpayers, whether we like it or not, have to fork out for the costs of his protection, something which, apparently, God himself is unable to provide. The BBC is, irritatingly, largely portraying 'His Holiness' as a misunderstood, though gentle and loveable, even cuddly, old man. Still, it's not over yet and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Papa Benedict will reveal his true, unacceptably intolerant colours soon. He's already come very close to that in sternly warning against a 'new and aggressive secularism and atheism' which needs to be confronted and defeated. The logic of this is, of course, that secularism and atheism are, at best, undesirable, and at worst, downright evil. Indeed, this morning I was appalled on hearing a female member of this morning's service congregation gushingly saying, without even being challenged, that one "needs 'faith' in order to be good", the inference being that having 'faith' is a pre-requisite to benevolence - a sine qua non, if you will. So there's never ever been one good person who didn't have a 'faith'? What utter tosh! Furthermore, which particular 'faith' does one need? All the major religions conflict with each other on a large number of issues. Even Christians can't stop squabbling among themselves - and within the very same branch of Christianity, too - but their leaders and spokespersons don't seem to want to talk about that. It's not mentioned that, for instance, although Islam holds Jesus Christ to be one of Allah's true prophets, not a single strand of Christianity gives Mohammed any status at all, either blotting him out of history or when he is mentioned, condemning him as being in error or blasphemous. Similarly, Buddhism is considered as a respectable religion although it doesn't believe in a Creator or a worshipful, interventionist Deity. Or Hinduism, with its range of gods and goddesses displaying a spectrum of characteristics, some positive, some negative, or sometimes boiled down to a trio of god(desse)s or, ultimately, one single hermaphroditic god/dess with multiple personalities some of which are disposed towards evil. And exactly which 'faiths' are included as acceptable? How about the Moonies, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientology, Paganism, Shamanism, Voodoo, Rosicruciansim etc? (Is Astrology okay?) No, it seems that the greatest hostility is reserved not for those beliefs which in another time would have been condemned and persecuted as evil heresies, but for those who profess not to believe in any of them. Very strange.
So the 'Holy Father' continues going here and there, wagging that Papal finger at us for not allowing religion to discriminate in the ways that he wants, while making soothing assurances that the Church is 'doing penance' for the child-abuse scandal. What form exactly does this 'penance' take? Silent reflection and prayers for forgiveness to the 'Big Boss upstairs'? Big deal! (but very humbling, no doubt) Why not show real, positive contrition by handing over the Vatican's records to the civil police authorities? It's not good enough to respond by saying that most of the guilty or suspect priests are dead now anyway. Even if there is just one suspect figure still alive who is not yet known to the police, that has got to be sufficient reason to hand them all over - and anyway I'd bet that there are still a number of Vatican staff alive and working who were part of the disgraceful cover-up and who surely must now also be prosecuted. But, of course, that is just what the Church authorities are most afraid of - the coming to light of yet more damaging revelations! I wonder if all those who are supporting the Pope's oh-so-contrite attitude by saying that it's all history and that we now need to 'move on', would be so forgiving if one of their own relatives were victims, still living with their own mental life-sentences and scars.
So do we really need 'faith' then? No, especially not when the justification is simply and literally beyond all belief!

Tuesday 14 September 2010

'Metropolis' - latest restored version

It was encouraging to see a large cinema about 80% full as early as 11 a.m. today for this showing of the 1926 Fritz Lang film - newly restored at 2 hrs 25 mins to almost original length, following the discovery of a near-complete, but damaged, copy of the film in Buenos Aires. Of course one can nowadays smile at the absurd melodrama, the histrionic gestures (though as it's a silent film, that's understandable) and the simplistic portrayal of 'mad', and see the film as little more than a museum-piece, but visually it really does retain its grandeur - and now with a consistent orchestral soundtrack added, which I found much preferable to that rather odd, though not totally unsympathetic, electronic backing by Giorgio Moroder when a shorter version of the film was released in 1984 (which I actually saw in Munich). But this new version is likely to be the closest we'll ever get to Lang's original conception. It finished this morning to general, well-deserved applause. A rare and memorable cinematic experience. Great stuff!

Sunday 5 September 2010

When our beloved pets pass away.

It's now over six hours since I read two distressing blogs about a dog and a cat passing on. This affected me so deeply that I still feel 'bruised' inside. I always find it so easy to identify with others in this situation.
Anyway, not wishing to dwell unduly on the profound sadness of such circumstances, it got me thinking of a certain event in my early schooldays which left a mental 'scar' on my sensitive mind.
I would have been 9 years old and our teacher for that year was the eldest (and sternest) of the teachers in my primary school. (The school headmistress was a nun, as was the most senior teacher. The remainder, apart from two men, were all lay women and all, incidentally, unmarried.) I'm not sure how the subject arose, but it was probably during a religious class when this class mistress asked the class as a whole "What's the difference between humans and animals?". I recall vividly a ginger-haired boy putting up his hand. "Please, Miss. An animal has no soul." The mistress allowed a slight smile of satisfaction across her wrinkled face "That's right. An animal has NO SOUL!" she said, slapping down on the desk to emphasise the last two words. I was stunned. I don't remember anything that came after. I think she coldly moved on to the next subject as though what she'd just said was of no great import, while I sat there flustered and wondering - "But that means if they've got no soul they can't go to heaven. There can't be ANY animals in heaven, then." (As long as I can remember, I've always been an avid animal lover, coming from an animal-loving family, though out of the seven members it was my mother and myself who were the most fond of them. By the time I was at the age of this 'discovery' we'd already have had two or three cats.) I think this little incident - 'little' in terms of time, major in terms of effect - was the first time that I'd experienced real conflict between myself and the religion I was being taught. I'm pretty sure I thought that if there are no animals in heaven then I didn't want to go there either. I wanted to go where the animals went.
Right through my life I can never understand the dismissive attitude nearly all religions have towards animals. In my re-reading of the Bible, for instance, at the beginning of Leviticus, it tells how animals (cattle, goats, lambs etc) are to be sacrificed and their bodies to be burnt as 'a sweet savour to the Lord' (re-translated in the New English Bible as 'soothing odour to the Lord'). Clearly this God has such 'refined senses' that He requires men to slaughter blameless, sentient beings and dispose of their corpses by fire so that he can delight in the 'aroma' so produced. Strange that if He likes it so much, the Almighty is unable to conjure up the equivalent sensation by Himself. And, to add a further absurdity, if priests or common men commit 'sin' they are to offer up the prescribed number animals in sacrifice to atone for their own misdeeds. WTF! It's not the animals fault, for goodness' sake! Yes, such a 'compassionate' God - NOT!
Throughout my life I've been accused explicitly or by implication of caring more about animals than humans, and more than children in particular. That's unfair and untrue. I cannot bear to witness deep grief for anyone, man or beast, having to switch channels if there's footage of, for instance, the recent floods in Pakistan. I find it impossible even now to watch re-runs of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (There was a 2-hour TV documentary here on the event just a couple of nights ago. Couldn't watch it! Too under-the-skin!) But when it comes to animals too few societies and countries recognise their true value and worth - and the fact that they feel pain, distress, fear etc. There are just too many countries that have no laws at all against animal cruelty. And there are too many religions which continue to peddle the primitive belief that animals are there to be 'used' - actually put here by a 'God' for that very purpose.
But I will concede one admission. I do find animals generally easier to get on with than any human being that I've personally known - and I know for a fact that I'm not the only one.