As the white smoke rises from the Sistine Chapel and Pope Francis emerges into the public gaze, now seems a good time to draw readers’ attention to David Lodge’s How Far Can You Go?, one of the wittiest and most intelligent novels ever written about Catholics and Catholicism. Although published in 1981, it’s set in the 1960′s, when the Church was riven by a simmering dispute between traditionalists and modernisers, with the question of sex at the heart of the crisis. For a while the modernisers seemed to in the ascendant, only to have their hopes dashed. Sounds familiar?
Here’s an excerpt:
In the early nineteen-sixties, however, [the modernisers'] main hope was that the official Church would change its mind on birth control; that they would wake up one morning and read in the papers that the Pope had said it was all right for them to use contraceptives after all. What a rush there would have been to the chemists’ and barbers’ shops, and the Family Planning Clinics! In hindsight it is claer that this was a fairly preposterous expectation, for such a reversal of traditional teaching would have dealt a blow to the credibility of papal authority so shattering that no Pope, not even Pope John, could reasonably have been expected to perpetrate it. Miriam [one of the group of young Catholic friends in the novel] was right: instead of waiting for the Pope to contradict his predecessors, they should have made up their own minds. This in fact they did, in due course, but it took a lot of misery and stress to screw them up to the point of disobedience. In the early nineteen-sixties they were still hoping for a change of heart at the top, at least in favour of the Pill, to which, some progressive theologians claimed, the traditional natural law arguments against artificial contraception did not apply.
In other respects the Church undoubtably was changing. Ope John, against all expectations (CARETAKER PONTIFF ELECTED, Angela and Dennis had read on newspaper placards when they returned from their honeymoon) had electrified the Catholic world by the radical style of his pontificate. “We are going,” he declared, “to shake of the dust that has collected on the throne of St Peter since the time of Constatine and let in some fresh air.” The Second Vatican Council which he convened brought out into the the light a thousand unsuspected shoots of innovation and experiment, in theology, liturgy and pastoral practice, that had been buried for decades out of timidity or misplaced loyalty. In 1962, Pope John actually set up a Pontifical Commission to study problems connected with the Family, Population and Birth Control. This was encouraging news in one sense, since it seemed to admit the possibility of change, but disappointing in that it effectively removed the issue from debate at the Vatican Council, which began its deliberations in the same year. Pope John died in 1963, to be succeeded by Pope Paul VI, who enlarged the Commission and instructed its members specifically to examine the Church’s traditional teaching with particular reference to the progesterone pill. Catholics, especially young married ones, waited impatiently for the result of this inquiry.
Meanwhile, other changes proceeded at a dizzying pace. The mass was revised and translated into the vernacular. The priest now faced the congregation across a plain table-style altar, which made the origins of the Mass in the Last Supper more comprehensible, and allowed more of the laity to see for the first time what the celebrant actually did. All masses were now dialogue masses, the whole congregation joining in the responses. The Eucharistic fast was reduced to a ngligible one hour, before which any kind of food and drink might be consumed, and the laity were urged to receive communion a every mass — a practice previously deemed appropriate only to people of great personal holiness and entailing frequent confession. Typical devotions of Counter-Reformation Catholicism such as Benediction and the Stations of the Cross dwindled in popularity. Rosaries gathered dust at the backs of drawers. The liturgy of Holy Week, previously of a length and tedium only to be bourne by the most devout, was streamlined, reconstructed, vernacularized, and offensive references to the “perfidious Jews” were removed from the prayers on Good Friday. Ecumenism, the active pursuit of Christian Unity through “dialogue” with other Churches, became a recommended activity. The change of posture from the days when the Catholic Church had seen itself as essentially in competition with other, upstart Christian denominations, and set their total sumission to its own authority as the price of unity, was astomishingly swift. Adrian,looking through his combative apologetics textbooks from Catholic Evidence Guild days, before sending them off to a parish jumble sale, could hardly believe how swift it has been. And from the Continent, from Latin America, through the religious press, came rumours of still more startling innovations being mooted — married priests, even women priests, Communion in the hand and under both kinds, inter-communion with other denominations. “Liberation Theology”, and “Catholic Marxism”. A group of young intellectuals of the latter persuasion, based in Cambridge, founded a journal called Slant in which they provocatively identified the Kingdom of God heralded in the New Testament with the Revolution, and charcterized the service of Benediction as a capitalist-imperialist liturgical perversion which turned the shared bread of the authentic Eucharist into a reified commodity.
These developments were not, of course, universally welcomed.
Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963):
Touch it: it won't shrink like an eyeball, This egg-shaped bailiwick, clear as a tear. Here's yesterday, last year --- Palm-spear and lily distinct as flora in the vast Windless threadwork of a tapestry. Flick the glass with your fingernail: It will ping like a Chinese chime in the slightest air stir Though nobody in there looks up or bothers to answer. The inhabitants are light as cork, Every one of them permanently busy. At their feet, the sea waves bow in single file. Never trespassing in bad temper: Stalling in midair, Short-reined, pawing like paradeground horses. Overhead, the clouds sit tasseled and fancy As Victorian cushions. This family Of valentine faces might please a collector: They ring true, like good china. Elsewhere the landscape is more frank. The light falls without letup, blindingly. A woman is dragging her shadow in a circle About a bald hospital saucer. It resembles the moon, or a sheet of blank paper And appears to have suffered a sort of private blitzkrieg. She lives quietly With no attachments, like a foetus in a bottle, The obsolete house, the sea, flattened to a picture She has one too many dimensions to enter. Grief and anger, exorcised, Leave her alone now. The future is a grey seagull Tattling in its cat-voice of departure. Age and terror, like nurses, attend her, And a drowned man, complaining of the great cold, Crawls up out of the sea.
Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in - Evelyn Waugh
Most of the people whom Wodehouse intends as sympathetic characters are parasites and some of them plain imbeciles, but very few of them could be described as immoral - George Orwell
Wodehouse is back on TV (BBC 1, Sundays), in the form of the Blandings stories about Lord Emsworth, his fearsome sister Constance, the ambitious secretary Baxter and Emsworth’s prize sow, The Empress.
Those of you not already aux fait with the Wodehouse oeuvre will have gathered just from the above, that this is pretty lightweight stuff, completely devoid of any pretensions to social commentary or psychological insight. It’s pure entertainment and – more to the point – pure escapism.
Wodehouse’s published writings began in the very early years of the last century and continued right up to his death in 1974, when he left an unfinished manuscript that was published posthumously as Sunset at Blandings. But (as Orwell pointed out) the world of Wodehouse was outdated even by the 1920′s: Emsworth was a throwback to a bygone Edwardian age and Bertie Wooster really died in the corner of some foreign field round about 1915.
Wodehouse’s reputaton has by now just about about recovered from his appalling misjudgement when, living in France in 1941 and having been interned by advancing German forces, he agreed to broadcast some lighthearted “chats” on Nazi radio. These were apolitical in tone and content, but naturally laid him open to the charge (made most forcefully by ‘Cassandra’ of the Daily Mirror) that he’d been a willing tool of Goebbels’ and had agreed to broadcast in order to get himself released. George Orwell considered Wodehouse to have acted like a bloody idiot, but wrote an essay (In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse, February 1945) that strongly defended him against charges of treachery. It turns out that the British authorities reached the same conclusion, but decided not to tell him, and Wodehouse spent the rest of his days brooding in self-imposed exile in America.
When considering what was undoubtably a dreadful error on Wodehouse’s part, it is worth remembering that he was the creator of Sir Roderick Spode, a thoroughly unpleasant bully and demagogue who turns up in several of the Wooster stories, described as “founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a fascist organisation better known as the Blackshorts.” Not conclusive proof perhaps, but pretty persuasive evidence that Wodehouse had no love of fascism.
But why on earth would any person of even vaguely leftist inclinations actually enjoy these farcical tales of dotty aristocrats, domineering aunts and over-privileged wastrels?
The sheer escapism has a lot to do with it: I know that I am very far from being the only leftie who’s found solace at Blandings Castle and/or the Drones Club when life’s become difficult one way or another. Then there’s the sheer craftsmanship of his plots, and -especially – his use of language.
When Bertie Wooster describes “Aunt calling aunt calling to aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps” you know you’re in the hands of a writer of comic English to rank alongside Wilde and Dickens. Which, come to think of it, may be why BBC 1′s effort on Sunday was just slightly disappointing: the irreplacable descriptive and narrative voice of Wodehouse himself was missing.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales were first published on December 20th 1812. To mark the 200th anniversary of the publication the BBC ran a series on the tales which examined them from various angles – as expressions of nationalism and psychological states, feminist interpretations and so on. The tales have mutated in all sorts of ways – bowdlerised for children’s editions, cutified by Walt Disney, rewritten by Angela Carter.
When I was child I had a big format picture book of them which had been published in 1966. The tales still contained cruelty which would be thought unsuitable for children today e.g the wicked queen in Snow White being forced to dance in red hot iron shoes until she was dead, Cinderella’s sisters cutting off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper and the wood-cutter opening up the wolf’s belly to rescue Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, then sowing it up again with stones. Also Rapunzel had twins before she was married.
My favourite story was, and is, The Youth Who could Not Shiver. The Youth in it has heard of people shivering with fear in graveyards and other creepy places, but has never felt it for himself. So he goes about the world saying continually “Oh, if I could but shiver”. People get him to sit under a gallows where seven hanged men are swinging, or to watch three nights in a heavily haunted castle. .
“When midnight came, a ringing and a rattling noise was heard, gentle at first and louder and louder by degrees; then there was a pause, and presently with a loud outcry half a man’s body came down the chimney and fell at his feet. “Holloa,” he exclaimed; “only half a man answered that ringing; that is too little.” Then the ringing began afresh, and a roaring and howling was heard, and the other half fell down. “Wait a bit,” said he; “I will poke up the fire first.”
When he had done so and looked round again, the two pieces had joined themselves together, and an ugly man was sitting in his place. “I did not bargain for that,” said the youth; “the bench is mine.” The man tried to push him away, but the youth would not let him, and giving him a violent push sat himself down in his old place. Presently more men fell down the chimney, one after the other, who brought nine thigh-bones and two skulls, which they set up, and then they began to play at ninepins.
At this the youth wished also to play, so he asked whether he might join them. “Yes, if you have money!” “Money enough,” he replied, “but your balls are not quite round”; so saying he took up the skulls, and, placing them on his lathe, turned them round.
“Ah, now you will roll well,” said he. “Holloa! now we will go at it merrily.” So he played with them and lost some of his money, but as it struck twelve everything disappeared. Then he lay down and went to sleep quietly.
On the morrow the King came for news, and asked him how he had fared this time. “I have been playing ninepins,” he replied, “and lost a couple of dollars.” “Have you not shivered?” “No! I have enjoyed myself very much; but I wish some one would teach me that!”‘
This tale is comic, and I do wish some film company would turn it into a spoof horror movie. The Youth is a really attractive figure, being so fearless and matter of fact when confronted by supernatural terrors. The ending is good too. The Youth wins the Princess, of course, but she and her chambermaid finally get him to shiver by natural instead of supernatural means.
However, I was put out to find out in the series that that the Nazis picked up Grimm’s tales for propaganda purposes e.g. by giving the wood-cutter in Red Riding Hood a Nazi armband. The Youth Who Could not Shiver was a Nazi favourite. Of course they missed the point of the story, which they turned into Nazi uplift.
“Paul Diehl’s 1935 adaptation of this story . . . was one of a range of silent short films made for the Reichstelle für den Unterrichtsfilm (State Office for Educational Films) and widely shown in German schools. The scene of the night in the castle, though it follows Grimm closely in parts, shows clearly this altered ideological orientation. The youth, now given the name Hans, is swift and violent in his dispatch of a variety of grotesque creatures. He skewers one on a fork and holds it over a flame. He fastens a cat in a vice, cuts its head off, and tosses it into the moat. Unlike the written text, in which the youth feels sorry for a dead body and tries to warm it up, Diehl presents him as pitiless. Since the film has no sound-track, teachers could talk over it and impose an interpretation: children were taught that the action in the film symbolized the necessity for German fearlessness in stamping out enemies of the state (Jews, gays, Gypsies, non-Aryans). In 1937 the film was given a gold medal by the government department for which it was made. Nine years later, however, a Unesco commission, charged with the task of de-Nazifying the teachers and materials that were to be employed in post-war German schools, came to a different verdict: ‘Though there is nothing that is specifically subversive in this film, there is much that is typically Nazi in outlook, with its approbation of killing and force, coupled with callousness.’ The film was therefore suppressed, and is today little known, despite the technical proficiency of its animation.”
Among all their other barbarities, the Nazis had no sense of humour and no idea how to read.
The great jazz trombonist, arranger, composer and teacher Bob Brookmeyer died just over a year ago. As well as his musical accomplishments, he was a fine essayist, blogger and writer of what used to be called (back in the days of LPs) sleeve- (or liner-) notes. Someone really ought to publish a collection of his writings. In the meanwhile, here’re the sleeve-notes from Stretching Out, an album he recorded with Zoot Sims 54 years and one day ago:
These days, everything’s got science; or cellophane; or it’s frozen, ready to be popped into your old oven; or it’s safe for the kiddies and grandma too — the story is too familiar to all of us to tolerate much reiteration, but Jim, they never have been able to isolate SOUL long enough to deep-freeze it for storage and shipment. In fact, sometimes it seems like they forgot what it was, is and must be to the human heart and mind in our tin-soldier and popgun world. These men on this record know about that and some more besides and you can belive that if you will.
One of the saddening and, to my mind, tragic oversights of this evening’s “jazz” audience is their slavish, slatternly devotion to the immediate and the topical. The eternal seems to be too sticky a substance to mess with — it doesn’t wash off the hands very easy and so I guess people must really want to feel, for the first time, really clean, or sterile, or be in the swim, or hep or maybe even hip if they are some down kitties. Not me, thanks. There’s a lot of dirt, grime and sadness in life, perhaps more than many can cope with but it’s there, right under the edge of the carpet and behind the mirror, under your fingernails and betwixt your pearly teeth. And along with the sour you can have your sweet too, plenty of it, but that sugar doesn’t mean beans without you have some salt to let you know which is which. Admirably stated by Ferd “Jelly Roll” Morton in a letter to his sister, to wit; “you got to take the bitters with the sweet” ( Mr Jelly Lord by Alan Lomax, Grove Press and the best book on jazz ever written). So, three long cheers for sadness that is blue instead of yellow, men that can admit to some real joy and know the hearse is parked just ’round the corner and above all, those gents that can say it all in that huge 4/4 beat that makes even this tired old correspondent “glad all over”, Orphan Annie’s old truism. By the way, did they really grab Daddy Warbucks on back income tax?
This all wouldn’t have been possible without Harry Edison and Fred Green, you know. They know as much about the kind of music that I feel as any men who ever lived. They have earned — with no catawauling about travel, working conditions, the plight of the “jazzman” in America today, and related rot — the respect and love of many musicians and listeners, especially those who were around to sop up that great Basie band in the early ’40s. They are, truly GIANTS: yesterday through, and inclusive of, tomorrow. Not an awful lot of that calibre here anymore mbut they’re enough. Ed Jones, Hank, Persip, Zoot and Cohn are of the same mind about this too, so if you all can’t agree in the world who is right, we’ll wait for you to catch up if you’ll hurry.
The album was recorded at Nola’s penthouse on a Sunday afternoon in December and it was fun, fun, fun and happiness. What I wouldn’t do to play with a band like this every night! Ah well, back to the workroom and some more of that score paper so have a good time at the funeral and a good day to all – BOB BROOKMEYER
Valerie Eliot died on 9th November. She was T S Eliot’s second wife. His first marriage to the unhappy and disturbed Vivienne Haigh-Wood was wretched.
“To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.”
"My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. "Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. "What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? "I never know what you are thinking. Think." I think we are in rats' alley Where the dead men lost their bones. "What is that noise?" The wind under the door. "What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?" Nothing again nothing. "Do "You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember "Nothing?"
He married Valerie, his secretary, when he was sixty-eight and she was thirty. He dedicated his only tender love poem to her.
A Dedication to My Wife
To whom I owe the leaping delight That quickens my senses in our wakingtime And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime, The breathing in unison Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other Who think the same thoughts without need of speech And babble the same speech without need of meaning. No peevish winter wind shall chill No sullen tropic sun shall wither The roses in the rose-garden which is ours and ours only But this dedication is for others to read: These are private words addressed to you in public.
I googled for a copy to paste and found it on a site of readings for weddings. The arcane modernist wrote a poem that anyone who has been in love can understand.
(A piece about the disappearing breed of literary widows here.)
Distinguished literary critic James Wood at a kitchen-table kit. I’m a big admirer of Wood’s literary criticism – any drummers around to say what they think of his drumming? Should he stick with the day job?