Desert Island Books

1 Life and Fate Vasily Grossman

Linda Grant who wrote an introduction to a new edition of Vassily Grossman’s “Life and fate” translated by Raymond Chandler, said that it took her three weeks to read the book and three more to get over it.  It took a lot longer for me to read and I am still recovering.

There is something enduringly magisterial about this epic novel, regarded by some as the finest Russian novel of the twentieth century. In its 800 or so pages it covers what must be the bleakest period in this great nation’s history under the brutality of the soviet and fascist systems.  But it is not a book with a message in the classic sense of the word. The great tyrannical ideologies are almost footnotes in this beautifully woven human story of individual lives caught up in the bizarrest and ugliest of situations and yet somehow demonstrating the integrity of the human spirit, something that the terrible might of evil forces are unable to fully crush. So it is a story of hope. It is also a story of great tenderness.

It moves through Stalingrad on the banks of the Volga, the street by street fighting and the encircled division in building 6/1, to the middle-class home of the scientist and his laboratory comrades. We are in the interrogation rooms, the death camps and the gas chambers. We follow the Führer, though the woods and Stalin is on the line. We travel with the tank corps and the retreating sagging armies.  There are the Russian, the Germans, Armenians, Ukrainians  and the Jews, the Bolsheviks and fascists, All the time the ghost of 1937 is eerily present casting its dark shadow over the conversations and memories and everywhere there is the relentless struggle between the big ideas and the reality of what is happening on the ground.

It is a quite beautiful and inspiring tale.

Much of the novel rotates around Victor Pavlovich, a middle-class theoretical physicist in a power struggle with his colleagues and stressed in his fraught relationships with his wife and daughter, complicated by a secret liaison. Much of his torture, however, was over the conflict between his loyalty to his work, to the purity of science and where it conflicts with the Leninist view of the nature of matter. His careless comments taken out of context, get him into trouble and are used by his enemies to ensure his downfall. In the process of administering his disciplinary case, he has to complete a massive questionnaire which seeks to garner any hint of anti-revolutionary thought or taint. Any connection or sympathy for the exiles or of the purged of 1937 will mean certain exile. When he notes the most casual of links with someone who was arrested, he is seized with a feeling of irreparable guilt and impurity. He prepares to make his confession and He recalls a meeting at which a party member, confessing his faults had said “Comrades, I am not one of us”. It was when he sensed he had lost everything that he gets the call from Stalin. “I wish you success in your work” is the one affirmation that changes everything. The actual work is not defined and only referred to obliquely “A new shadow, still faint and mute, barely perceptible, now hung over the ravaged earth, over the heads of the children and old men. No-one knew of it yet, no-one was aware of the birth of a power that belonged to the future”  (page 751)

There is Grekov the crude but likeable commander of the division in the encircled house 6/1. While there was death and destruction all around he and his men take pity on an injured cat and care for it as it were a child.  The radio operator is the only female in this terrible place and she senses that sooner or later one of the men will make a pass at her. She somehow senses it will be the commander, by the way he looks at her, but she so much wants it to be the young poet Seryozha. Her hopes are dashed, however, when Seryozha is sent out on a raid. The raid, for some reason is cut short and he returns early. They spend the night snuggled up together in their lice ridden great coats and boots and she is still sleeping on his shoulder when the unit reforms in the morning. The commander announces that Seryohza is to be sent back to HQ. This will surely end the promising relationship but in a twist of surprising kindness Grekov tells the radio operator that she should go back too. She is not needed there anymore.  Later when the Commissar comes to relieve Grekov of his position, his unorthodox and anti-soviet tendences have become too much for the authorities, he ask after the radio operator.

“Are there any women in the building?”

“Tell me, comrade Commissar, is this an interrogation?

“Have any men under your command been taken prisoner?

“No

“Well where is that radio operator of yours?

Grekov, bit his lip and his eyebrows came together in a frown.

“The girl turned out to be a German spy.

She tried to recruit me

First I raped her then I had her shot”

He drew himself up to his full height and asked sarcastically

“Is that the kind of answer you want from me?

It’s beginning to seem as though I’ll end up in a penal battalion”

Then there is Sagaydak ruminating on his special role as a newspaper editor. “He considered that the aim of his newspaper was to educate the reader- not indiscriminately to disseminate chaotic information about all kind so probably fortuitous events. In his role as editor Sagaydak might consider it appropriate to pass over some event: a very bad harvest, an ideological inconsistent poem, a formalist painting, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, an earthquake, or the destruction of a battleship. He might prefer to close his eyes to a terrible fire in a mine or a tidal wave that had swept thousands of people off the face of the earth. In his view these events had no meaning and he saw no reason why he should bring to the notice of readers, journalist and writers. Sometimes he would have to give his own explanation of an event: this was often boldly original and entirely contradictory to ordinary ways of thought. He himself felt that his power, his skill and experience as an editor were revealed by his ability to bring to the consciousness of his readers only those ideas that were necessary and of true educational value.”

Novikov the tank comander looks at his men and his heart is warmed:“One soldier was singing; another, his eyes half closed, was full of dire foreboding; a third was thinking about home; a forth was chewing some bread and a sausage and thinking about the sausage; a fifth, his mouth wide open, was trying to identify a bird on a tree; a sixth was worrying about whether he’d offended his mate by swearing at him the previous night; a seventh, still furious was dreaming about giving his enemy – the commander of the tank in front- a good punch on the jaw; an eight was composing a farewell poem to the autumn forest; a ninth was thinking about a girl’s breasts; a tenth was thinking about his dog sensing that she was about to be abandoned among the bunkers; an eleventh was thinking how good it would be to live in a hut in the forest drinking spring water, eating berries and going about bare foot; a twelfth was wondering whether to feign illness and have a rest in hospital; a thirteenth was remembering a fairy- tale he had heard as a child; a fourteenth was remembering the last time he had talked to his girl- he felt glad that they had now separated for ever: a fifteenth was thinking about the future- after the war he would like to run a canteen.

‘Yes’ thought Novikov, ‘They’re fine lads’ “

When Getmanov leaves for the front and has to say goodbye to his family: “He held his hand to his chest, afraid that his booming heart-beats would disturb the children. He felt a piercing ache of tenderness, anxiety and pity for them. He desperately wanted to embrace his son and daughters and kiss their sleeping faces. He was overwhelmed by a helpless, tenderness, an unreasoned love; he felt lost, weak and confused.

He wasn’t in the least worried or frightened at the thought of the new job he was about to begin. He had taken on many new jobs, and he had never any difficulty in finding the right line to follow. He knew it would be the same in the tank corps. But how could he reconcile his unshakable, iron severity with this limitless tenderness and love?

In the corridor he said goodbye, kissed his wife for the last time and put on his fur coat and cap. Then he stood and waited while the driver carried out his suitcases.“Well then” he said – and suddenly stepped up to his wife, removed his cap and embraced her once more. And this second farewell – with the cold damp air off the streets slipping in through the half-open door and blending with the warmth of the house, with the rough, tanned hide of his coat touching the sweet-scented silk of her dressing gown- this final farewell made them feel that their life, which had seemed one, had suddenly split apart. They felt desolate.”

When we think we can’t bear any more we are taken with Sofya Levinton and a young boy David, she has linked hands with, into the darkest hole of the century, yet, even here, humanity shines through. She is as a medic and could have escaped the gas chamber but chose to go with her people and with motherly instincts, though herself a virgin, took the boy’s hand and kept him beside her until he collapsed by her side.

“ Sofya felt the boy’s body subside in her arms. Once again she had fallen behind him. In mine shafts where the air becomes poisoned, it is always the little creatures, the bird’s and mice, that die first. This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her. “I’ve become a mother” she thought. That was her last thought. Her heart, however, still had life in it: it contracted, ached and felt pity for all of you, both living and dead; Sofya felt a wave of nausea. She pressed David ,now a doll, to herself; she became dead, a doll.”

But we are also on the other side with Anton Khmelkov as he expresses his disgust at his co-worker Trofima Zhucheko in his attitude to the gruesome work of closing the hermetically sealed doors. Trofima looked happy and even excited by his work marshalling the columns of prisoners from the railway.

“ What Khmelkov didn’t understand was that it wasn’t Zhuchenko’s greater guilt that made it so disturbing. What was disturbing was that Zhuchenko’s behaviour could be explained by some terrible, innate depravity – whereas he himself was still a human being. And he was dimly aware that if you wish to remain a human being under fascism, there is an easier option than survival – death.”

Towards the end of the story the German company Commander Lenard, following his ragged army in retreat, comes, in the evening, upon a group of his men hacking meat from a frozen dead horse while others in a ruined building were gathered round a fire and a blackened cauldron while a cook prodded the meat with his bayonet

“The light of the evening can reveal the essence of a moment. It can bring out its emotional and historical significance. Transforming a mere impression into a powerful image. The evening sun can endow patches of soot and mud with thousands of voices; with aching hearts we sense past joys, the irrevocability of loss, the bitterness of mistakes and the eternal appeal of hope.

It was like a scene from the Stone Age. The grenadiers, the glory of the nation, the builders of the new Germany, were no longer travelling the road to victory. Lenard looked at these men bandaged up in rags. With poetic intuition he understood that this twilight was the end of a dream.

Life must indeed conceal some strangely obtuse internal force. How was it that the dazzling energy of Hitler and the terrible power of a people moved by the most progressive of philosophies had led to the quiet banks of a frozen Volga, to these ruins, to this dirty snow, to these windows filled with the blood of the dying sun, to the quiet humility of these creatures watching over a steaming cauldron of horsemeat?”

The futility and inevitable demise of all the worlds kingdoms is finally revealed. The utter stupidly and folly of believing that by our skill our dexterity, our ideas, our wisdom our solidarity and our determination we can build a heaven on earth, is inevitably laid bare in time. It is the truth that history always teaches us and one we fail to learn. All that is left, as Grossman sees it, is the individual, their tenacious hold on hope and their modest peculiarities expressed sometimes in inexplicable acts of human kindness.

In my desert island I would want to be reminded of the beauty of the individual and our shared humanity.

A Baby Boomer regrets

Sometimes I feel deeply ashamed at my own generation, the baby boomers, I mean.

It is a terrible generalisation, I know, but it is true that we have never had it so good.  We didn’t know war other than in far off places. While in early years things could, by today’s standards, be spartan, we had enough to live on and we could see the steady growth in wealth, comfort and convenience with a spirit of optimism that things were on a general trend upwards. We thought that was a given. We had education and it was free. We learned to read and write and count and think things out for ourselves. We had the sense that if you were reasonably bright and worked hard, the opportunities were immense. You could pick your career path. If you scored on the results you could go to college and the state paid your fees and provided you with a grant. It was real money and it could buy things. When you reached the end of your course and graduated you could choose where you wanted to work. There was the astonishing advances in medicine and the health of the population. You could live longer, into your 70’s and 80’s with a level of fitness unknown to those who went before. There was structure and order and you generally believed that the authorities were benevolent, could be trusted and had your best interests at heart. Above all there was a sense of freedom. Provided you avoided what was specifically prohibited, you could do what you wanted. Yes, there was social mores and traditions as well as stigmas but generally you were free. We never had it so good and we took it all for granted.

Now, in a few short years, a few careless decades, we have thrown it all away. Turns out we didn’t do all that well with what we have been given and what we have bequeathed to our children is of questionable value. Most of the framework of our society has slowly been dismantled, the baby with the bathwater, in the long march through the institutions and the theft of individual freedoms, those freedoms that were fought for and died for, carelessly frittered away, sold off for a mess of convenience, comfort and an easy life. It’s been going on for quite a wee while and we’ve hardly noticed it, so when it came to the final push, the final turn of the screw, the time when the liberties we thought we had would be taken away from us, it was done in a stroke, in the fog of a pandemic, under the cover of a heath crisis.  We didn’t believe it would be possible and we still don’t believe it. Most people I speak to think that once this is over, we will get back to normal. No, we won’t. Those in charge have made that clear. This is not a conspiracy theory.  They have told us. It will be the “new normal” and if we didn’t know what the “new normal” will be, well we know now.

Time was when the rule of law could be understood, when the individual was free to make their own choices, movements and associations in the clear knowledge that there were certain lines where certain actions were prohibited and a transgressor would face the consequences of flouting them. The law applied to everyone and no one was above it. In other words, you were free to do what you wanted, write want you wanted and say what you wanted within clearly defined boundaries. Now it has flipped to a controlled society when you are only allowed to do what is permitted and what is permitted is decided, it could be said, by a small number of elites with almost no effective scrutiny. Why, before embarking on some perfectly normal human activity, quite sensible people will now ask “ Are we allowed to do this”.  On the face of it, you could say there is no difference between the two systems. It sounds a matter of semantics, but there is a world of difference. One is freedom the other is tyranny.

I fear that what we are bequeathing the next generation will be a cross between a third world country and a socialist nightmare. The only people who seem to see this are those who have experienced it. The people I have met in Africa, Peru, Nepal and Haiti who know what it is like to live in a country where the focus of each day is survival understand this. My friends from Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, whose parents experienced life under authoritarian regimes, understand it too.

Now I could be wrong. I could be quite wrong. It could be that when the curse of the virus has past, we will return to the life we knew before and continue on our path through the sunlit uplands to our promised land. But I am not counting on it. There are dark days ahead and I feel ashamed at what we have done.

This is the Time

We didn’t get round to doing it, but we had a plan to put a jar in the middle of the table for our evening meal with our international family and every time someone mentioned covid, they would have to drop a coin in. If we did, we could probably have paid for 3 new nightingale hospitals by now, though it turns out that they haven’t been much use despite the £220m price tag.It’s a good time for dodgy deals and backhands. It’s a good time to bury bad news. But its also a good time to take stock and make resolutions and mine, in the coming year, will be to speak no more of viruses and lock-downs, of self-isolating, social distancing, and transmission and these arrrgh rates. Data, Percentages and graphs will be out too. But before then, with a few hours left, it would be good to look back and see if we can make any sense of what happened in this year. This then, by definition, is my personal view. Inevitable there are more questions than answers.

The Barmy Professor

One of the most interesting characters in the whole episode is Professor Neil Ferguson who gave a revealing interview to the Sunday Times last week.  He had disappeared off the scene for a while, following his “error of judgement”, but now back in the centre among the coterie of advisers with the ear of government. He was apparently told to keep a low profile until the thing had blown over, which says so much of how important he must have been to the decisionmakers. It was what he said about how they came to the idea of nationwide lock-down, that was so telling.  They saw how the Chinese had adopted it first in Wuhan and later across the country but they didn’t think such a method would work in a western democratic society. Astonishingly it seemed to work in Italy and so could be tried out here too. So, this was how the mass psychological, economic & social experiment was launched on an unexpecting population, without any real idea of where it would lead or if it would in fact work. It had never been done before and while there was, and is, no evidence that it had any effect, it had to be the only way and so it became the only way. The decision was a binary one. Either this or let the virus rip, our hospitals will be overwhelmed and thousands will die. At the early stage the Prime Minister was unsure and hinted that, while it was done in other nations, this was not how we did things here. We don’t coerce the population in this way, we respect the people and always assume that they would act responsibility. But for whatever reason, he wobbled and the rest is history.

The Lapsed Believer

Having grown up with a more or less general respect for authority, with the feeling that those who knew all the facts, those who understood the reality of what we were facing, those who were intelligent and experts in their field, would be best placed to make the proper decisions and I should go along with that. It might be a military response to terrorism or austerity to a financial crisis. What did I know about viruses, pandemics, terrorism or economics after all? Yet, I was not totally naïve. I knew that politicians have their own agenda and their own self-interest, and like the rest of us are proud, lustful and prone to corruption and deceit, but on those big issues, I had to trust that they would get it right and I would, in the end, give them the benefit of the doubt.  That was what I believed at the start and I suspect most people felt the same. And so, the first weeks and early months of lock-down were rolled out and, for me it was a welcome sabbatical. It was warmth and light and green in the spring and early summer with birdsong and clear blue skies. There was time with family and new pursuits there was a wholesome feeling that maybe this was a good thing. Goodness me it may even be the answer to global warming and climate change.  In reality, however, it was little more than a middle-class indulgence, all the sounds of destruction havoc and the crumbling of society were out of earshot. Isolated in your own cocoon, the sights of suffering were kept conveniently out of sight.  We were kept separate from the horrors of single parents with difficult children cooked up in tiny flats when the playgrounds were chained off.  We didn’t realise how close so many were to a mental health disaster when isolation would tip them over the edge. We didn’t think what the long term effects of wholesale house arrest would do to a population. There were dissident voices, of course, but they were the lunatic fringe – the David Ickes and the Piers Corbyns of this world, the rabid Brendan O’ Neil, the doom merchant Peter Hitchens and the wacky James Delingpole. But with each week, as the thing progressed, as the goal posts moved, as the serious voices, many from the scientific community and the legal profession, starting articulating another different and compelling story, one which was pretty much side-lined and silenced when it could be, my doubts grow and my trust dissolved. The long spiral downwards increased with the wilder claims, the overegging of the statistics the graphs and the gobbledegook, the ladling on of fear, the more and more bizarre restrictions, the ludicrously unachievable aim of controlling a virus, and the absolute unquestionable righteousness of the cause.  I started to see that those guys on the fringe turned out to be right all along, and I was wrong.

The Supine Mass

Without really taking it in, we were being progressively dehumanised and infantilised and like the boiling frog we didn’t realise what was happening before it was too late. This phenomenon is very hard to explain or understand. Why is it that perfectly intelligent people can resort to following crazy and foolish half thought up rules that turn common sense completely on its head? One of the most bizarre concerns someone we knew who called on a friend recently and suggested going for a walk. While they lived a short distance from each other the council boundary divided them and the law prohibited moving from a level three zone even if into another of the same level. They did decide, however, to have their walk, but as the boundary ran up the middle of a road, and to keep to the rules, they ended up walking on opposite pavements and carrying on a disjointed conversation across the traffic. Despite the stupidity our friend went along with it not to upset her companion. This sounds like a crazy made-up tale, but it was true.   Why is it that sensible and reasonable people, not only follow the rules, but go way beyond them?  I am thinking of mask wearing in the street and the open air.  Do people like the feel of breathing their own CO2? Have they just forgotten to take it off after leaving the shop? Is it a fashion statement? Is it a badge or a statement of solidarity? Who knows?

The Great Conundrum

From the beginning I have wrestled with this one. How is it that, in the face of an unparalleled assault on personal freedom, the people who I thought would be the ones who would defend that freedom, to the death, if need be, had suddenly become quiet and compliant?  Why were they so relaxed when a right wing and a nationalist government used fear to control the population in an astonishingly effective way and why were no alarm bells ringing? That fear-monger was the official policy, as it was in Germany, is now clear. Where did the rebels and the activists go when democracy morphed into authoritarianism? I have no easy answer. Perhaps they were never really true rebels. Perhaps they had a secret liking for authority. Perhaps they believed that totalitarianism was the only way that utopia could be achieved and that perhaps it needed a worldwide system of control to bring about the long sought-after world where peace and justice would reign and the planet saved from disaster? If so covid-19 might just be the thing to usher in this new normal and the great reset.

The World-wide Phenomena

One of the most persuasive arguments that would convince you that lock-down was the only proper response to the pandemic and the most difficult one to reason with, if you were against it, was the fact that almost all nations adopted the same principle.   They can’t all be wrong, could they?  But truth is, yes, they could all be wrong.  If, however, we start to see possible collusion and coordination between governments over this, we are into the area of conspiracy theories and dark forces.  That’s pretty hard to swallow and yet, and yet we can’t shake the feeling that we have not heard the whole story and there is something that they are not telling us, possibly for fear that it would create a mass panic. The possibility that it could be a military grade virus leaked from some research facility is still perfectly credible.

The Bleak New Year

Unlike all the positive things people were saying with comments in Christmas cards that came through our door, I couldn’t buy into the prospects of a bright future once this “horrible” year was out of the way. The great war was meant to be over by Christmas, this one is set to have no ending. I can’t get excited about the vaccine either. The way it was heralded as the great saviour was disturbing and equally disturbing how soon the caveats were pulled out: It might not stop you getting the virus, it might not stop you spreading it, it hasn’t been tested on pregnant women, it shouldn’t be given to people who might have an allergic reaction, it hasn’t yet been licensed and, the most disturbing one, the manufactures are immune from prosecution if anything goes wrong. Not exactly something to fill you with confidence. So, the prospects for a New Year are pretty bleak and it is hard to be positive about, or get a good feeling about where this is all leading. In Scotland, we have elections in May but politically there is no other voice, no real opposition here nor in Westminster and no genuine party willing to stand and say “This must stop”. No one with any power is willing to shout “This should never be tried again”. The Church, where hope should shine, reimains strangely quiet.  

So as the hours and minutes tick away, (it’s already New Year in Christmas island), the streets eerily quiet and the only sound we hear is the crumbling of hope in the face of crippling debt, the loss of thousands of businesses, mass unemployment, stunted education and the terrible damage of this awful experiment, it is time for action. It is time for resolve and for devotion. And my new year’s resolution? It can be only one thing. It is to pray and devote myself to pray, to encourage others to pray alone or together, in groups or two and three, and not to give up until the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.  

Crawford Mackenzie

Going Along with the Charade

It is the end of our service of worship, on a cold, wet and miserable afternoon already getting dark, when the kindly steward, in an almost embarrassed way, encourages us to move on, not to mingle and talk, to get out of the building as quickly and as orderly as we can, while maintaining social distancing, and they begin the task of re-sanitising the building, wiping down every surface and door handle and spraying each chair. The air is now filled with that funereal alcohol scent, and I am wondering what has happened

This time last year it was different. The building was full with 250, maybe more, worshippers, some crowded up in the gallery, a disparate group of all ages and backgrounds from all continents in the world, babies and children, young families, students, internationals and a sprinkling of octogenarians. Sunday mornings, in the past often carried a cloud for me, one I only recognised when it lifted. I had probably gotten used to it. But in these last years I would wake up thinking “Yes! It’s Sunday, this is the day the Lord has made” and worship with our local congregation, ten minutes’ walk away, was always something to be eagerly looked forward to. It was the highlight of the week.

There was the praise, often led by a skilled and sensitive band, not in your face but enough to encourage you to sing your heart out. There was the psalm singing. The unaccompanied assorted voices in harmony, giving fresh articulation to these ancient songs that together cover every emotion and every struggle and have been the hymn book of the church for centuries. The music would fill the marvellous acoustics of the place, be lifted to the roof and beyond. Some joined with strong voices in perfect pitch, others that wee bit out of tune and the odd baby crying, but together, and as one. There was the public reading of scripture, with different voices and intonation, the cadence and the droll. There was the pastoral prayers and prayers for the world led by individuals each with their own insight and burden and there was the preaching; that mysterious thing, that reaches down to the basics, cuts to the bone, that challenges, encourages and comforts, that something that only comes from this Holy Word inspired by the Holy Spirit. Being present there is something I would not miss for the world. The after-service atmosphere was a buzz of conversations, introductions and welcomes, small groups in laughter others sharing news, some in silence, others distressed being comforted and the little adoring crowd around a new baby.  There was so much going on.

Now all that has changed. Yes, we still have the public reading of scriptures and prayers and yes, we still have this Word preached but it is now a pale shadow of the real thing. It is almost a caricature of worship. We are restricted to an arbitrary 50, we have to book in advance and it feels like we have been bombed. The main doors are wide open to let fresh air in, even though the interior space is massive. There are signs everywhere and tables with sanitisers at each entrance. But what distresses me most is the people. They seem to be sanitised out of existence: spaced out, distanced in isolated groups and hidden behind masks, the kind that bank robbers, hangmen and terrorists wear. And, yes, the surgeons and the dentist too, reminding you of the anxiety that grips the stomach on the examination couch or chair when you hear the words “This may hurt”. It is not just the wearing of a mask which, for me at least, is a really unpleasant nausea inducing experience, but it is seeing people you know and love and care about, peering over this awful piece of cloth, no matter how tastefully decorated, with frightened, suspicious, puzzled and sometimes scary looking eyes. It is dehumanising and humiliating.  I wonder what on earth we have come to and who on earth is behind it all?

Before being hustled out of the church, we share a few words with a friend. It is hard to hear at a distance and without the benefit of reading lips. She is a clinical phycologist and can’t talk about her work, but she did say tellingly that referrals to her service had more than double in the past months and this is just the beginning. They are gearing up for a tsunami of cases. In the row behind, someone is distressed and crying but we can’t console her. We have to pass bye on the other side. We are helpless. We have just listened to an astonishing sermon on the humanity fo Jesus, by what must be the finest of preachers, yet we can do nothing. All our caring instincts are stifled by the dead hand of authoritarian folly. So, we leave the building, torn apart. And I am angry.

I am angry: that we are putting up with this insanity, while the vulnerable suffer, angry that we bow to the authorities’ strictures, even although we know that they are patently useless and do terrible harm, angry that as a church we have not been able to make an effective challenge to the restrictions, angry that we allow our leaders in government to continue to meddle and micromanage the minutia of our lives, quite oblivious to the destruction they are perpetuating.  

I am angry, but it is not about me. It is not about my family. It is not about my tribe. It is not, even about Christians or the church. This is not persecution. No, this is an onslaught on our humanity that affects us all. It is a mass social experiment which has never been tried before, with little thought or imagination of what might be the consequences. And you would not need much imagine to see that launching a programme of fear, denying person -to-person contact, isolating individuals and mandating all sorts of ridiculous behaviour, for whatever noble reason, will not end well.

And it is very hard to make any meaningful protest. I have tried. Believe me, I have tried. I have written to my MP my MSP to the first Minster to the Clinical Director. On the rare occasions when a response is given it is the predictable repeating of the dogma and no engagement with the question. Even on my one excursion onto BBC’s Any Answers radio programme, Anita Anand ticked me off, politely of course, as she would, for even questioning the rationale for lock-down. “If we don’t,” she said, “people will die”. I felt as if I was a selfish swine, a heartless heretic and a covid denier all rolled into one.

My best friend tells me to let it be. “you can’t do anything about it, so don’t waste your time fretting over it”. There is a lot of wisdom there, still the burden for my area of responsibility can’t be so easily ditched.  I will go along with the charade until I can see a way out, always hoping that there is some creative solution that will cut through the madness. If there is an original idea out there, I could use it right now.

But another Sunday has arrived and it will be our last for some time as the doors are shut again. So much for a route map out of “lock-down”. This one goes round in circles as we are softened up for a new totalitarianism.

I feel quite dizzy.

Crawford Mackenzie

Why we shouldn’t follow the science

The phrase has bothered me since I first started hearing it and I despair when I hear it repeated. Despite there being no such things as “The Science” it is used with painful regularity and has more than a hint of religion about it. What you follow is often your idol and maybe your god. That could be anything. Most likely it will be yourself. But to make “Following The Science” a specific policy of government should send alarm bells ringing. The desire to follow what Churchill called “perverted science” came to a horrific conclusion in the 1930s and we seem to have forgotten that. Many have already pointed out that Science is, anyway, not a thing that speaks or gives direction or knows the way and the idea of following it is plain stupid.  By definition it is never settled but is always on the move.  It is, of course, a discipline, a method of exploration, observation and investigation and it is rooted in a kind of believe that there are patterns to be found, that there are discoveries to be made and there are reasons why things are the way they are.

Science is a wonderful thing. As a 15year old I thought that I was destined to be a scientist. This was due, I realised afterwards, to having an amazing inspirational  teacher. He gave us enormous freedom in the lab which would never be allowed now-a-days . He would often leave us to work on our own. On one occasion we manufactured something I think was ammonium sulphide which stank the whole school. We had got accustomed to the smell and were quite unaware of where it had travelled, until staff came to find out. On another occasion we rigged up a complicated apparatus with, test tubes, beakers and Bunsen burners. I don’t know what we were trying to do but it exploded and carried everything to the ceiling and crashed back down on the bench just as the teacher returned to the class. Amazingly no row or reprimand followed, with unnerving calm he said “Well you’ll know not to do that again” and we cleared up the mess.

I have also had the privilege of knowing a few scientists from different parts of the world some involved in cutting edge research in life and other sciences. I listened two Phd students, both mathematicians chat on a long journey in a minibus talk about a professor who they knew. It was fascinating how their conversation about mathematics was often punctured with the word “Beautiful”. He was a beautiful professor, they both agreed. The idea that maths could be beautiful was beyond me but I believed them. I have sometime tried to ask the researchers what they were doing but very quickly realised that I could not begin to understand. Still I have enormous respect, and nothing but admiration for those working on the edge of knowledge and what through great skill, rigour and determination they are able to achieve and discover

But the fear that it has become a religion with its own dogma and one that has to be followed is very worrying. When we see how opposing voices offering different perspectives are dismissed and treated like heretics who need to be silenced, we get the strong impression that the subject is not up for debate. It is settled we are told. The way that the cogent case put forward by the Great Barrington Declaration for herd immunity and against lock-down, was summerly dismissed by the health secretary, made this very clear.  No attempt was made to reason with the arguments or respond to Professor Gupta’s detailed rebuttal and the put-down was, on the face of it, crass and ignorant. I really don’t know about such things but I do know, what the secretary didn’t seem to know, that malaria is not transmitted by human to human contact but by a mosquito. I suppose the problem is you cannot argue with a dogma. And it may well be impossible for politicians to climb down and finally admit that they were terribly wrong, before the full extent of the disaster is revealed. The trouble is, it is already being revealed and the politician’s keep on digging.

Murder most Foul

I remember it very clearly. It was Friday night. I had spent the evening in the school hall with the Boys Brigade. It was my brief flirtation with a uniformed organisation. I was a lance corporal and I was learning about marching and polishing shoes and buttons. The uniform was a simple a pill box hat with the company’s number, a white sash and a belt. It was the belt which fascinated me with its rich leather and the brass buckle that clipped into place. At school the boys used it for fighting. They swung it at each other. Mercifully it seldom hit, at least I never saw a strike, but it looked lethal. Polishing brass was always interesting and rewarding.  When my older brother  came home for a break in his military training as well as teaching us to march in formation and hold a wooden gun, he taught us how to polish buttons, how the fabric of the jacket was carefully protected by  a piece of stiff card with a slit cut in it and how the dull metal, with a splash of Brasso and a quick rub, could be made to shine like gold.

That evening we left the hall and took a lift in a landrover, it wasn’t far from the village, to our home and I remember sitting in the back with the tarpaulin flapping with its mica vision panel and red rear lights reflecting across the spray from the road.  I stepped off the back plate and ran up through the gate to the house. The lights in the hall were on and my father called through from the back. “President Kennedy’s been shot”

Most of my generation, in the western world, will be able to tell you exactly where they were, what they did and who they were with on that day. It was one of these moments where it seemed we were all tuned into the one thing at one single point in time.  Over the years people have responded in different ways. For Bob Dylan, it took more than half a century before he was able to put together a song, but it has been worth waiting for.  “Murder most foul” belongs to the genre of contemporary ballads that Dylan is by far the maestro.  The way he soaks himself in the event, feels for the time, understands the emotions of the actors and weaves a tale referencing a collage of connections is masterly. Like “Tempest” on the fate of the Titanic,or “Across the green mountain” for the American Civil War he never preaches or moralises. He avoids any political point or message but simply lays it out and leaves you with the story crafted in scores of layers.

A ghost gave us the title and it is a strange song in many ways because you would be hard pushed to identify a particular tune. Yet it is a song, not a poem or piece of prose, and sung over rolling piano arpeggios and soothing violins with simple chords. There is only a hint at verses, ending with the title and it is a series of couplets. The opening immediately draws the listener in.

It was a dark day in Dallas, November ’63
A day that will live on in infamy
President Kennedy was a-riding’ high
Good day to be living and a good day to die

This one event in history must have produced so many conspiracy theories. It was possibly even the event that invented the genre. Dylan merely hints at versions of it but he doesn’t lay it down. There was something going on and we never knew exactly what it was.

What is the truth, and where did it go?
Ask Oswald and Ruby, they ought to know
“Shut your mouth,” said a wise old owl
Business is business, and it’s a murder most foul

Most of the references are to music and songs, film and popular culture and these are meshed together with quotes from speeches, Zapruder’s film, the voices of the assassins and the shooters, the back and forth all along the way down Elm street, from the grassy knoll, the underpass Parkhill hospital and airforce one with the signing in of the new president.

Hush, little children, you’ll understand
The Beatles are coming, they’re gonna hold your hand

I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age
Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage

The dreamlike sequence with characters appearing in cameo roles slipping out and in, paint a picture of the movement from life to death in slow motion. The mix runs in a stream of consciousness through the mind of a dying man and plants the thought that here there was something more than a man that was dying.

The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son
The age of the Antichrist has just only begun”

Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel
It is what it is, and it’s murder most foul

Even the way the song continues long after you think it should be finished gives it a disturbing edge in what becomes a long fade out. Here there is no sudden cut and then silence, but a slow winding down as if holding on to life till it disappears, trying hard to make meaning of these final moments. In this, the dying man is making up his own playlist of songs he wants to hear and in the final twist, referencing the song itself.  It is very deep and terrifying.

Play “Marching Through Georgia” and “Dumbarton’s Drums”
Play darkness and death will come when it comes
Play “Love Me Or Leave Me” by the great Bud Powell
Play “The Blood-stained Banner”, play “Murder Most Foul”

Crawford Mackenzie

Bare Existence

Some folk who have seen and read my posts over recent times have complained, probably justifiably, that I am stuck on the one issue, becoming angry, repeating myself and maybe becoming a bit boring. After reading the open letter to our leaders in the UK yesterday, I realise I need say no more. The letter says it more clearly that I could. This is the text. The highlights are mine

To: The Prime Minister Boris Johnson, First Minister Mark Drakeford, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill

Dear Prime, First and Deputy First Ministers,

As church leaders from across the four nations of the UK, we have been deeply concerned about the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic across society. We have carefully followed government guidance to restrict its spread. But increasingly our concern relates to the damaging effects of anti-Covid restrictions on many of the most important aspects of life.

Our God-given task as Christian ministers and leaders is to point people to Jesus Christ, who said he came to bring ‘life in all its fullness’. Therefore we are troubled by policies which prioritise bare existence at the expense of those things that give quality, meaning and purpose to life. Increasingly severe restrictions are having a powerful dehumanising effect on people’s lives, resulting in a growing wave of loneliness, anxiety and damaged mental health. This particularly affects the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society, even as it erodes precious freedoms for all. In our churches, many have been working tirelessly to provide help to those most affected.

We entirely support proportionate measures to protect those most vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2. But we question whether the UK Government and the devolved administrations have it in their power either to eliminate this virus or to suppress it for an indefinite period while we await a vaccine. And we cannot support attempts to achieve these which, in our view, cause more damage to people, families and society – physically and spiritually – than the virus itself.

The public worship of the Christian church is particularly essential for our nation’s wellbeing. As we live in the shadow of a virus we are unable to control, people urgently need the opportunity to hear and experience the good news and hope of Jesus Christ, who holds our lives in his hands. The supportive relationships that churches nurture between people are vital, and simply cannot be dispensed with again without significant harm. And most of all, we know that regular gathering to worship God is essential for human life to be lived to the full.

We have been and will remain, very careful to apply rigorous hygiene, social distancing and appropriate risk assessment in our churches. As a result, church worship presents a hugely lesser risk of transmission than pubs, restaurants, gyms, offices and schools; and it is more important than them all. We therefore wish to state categorically that we must not be asked to suspend Christian worship again. For us to do so would cause serious damage to our congregations, our service of the nation, and our duty as Christian ministers.

We therefore call upon the Westminster and devolved governments to find ways of protecting those who truly are vulnerable to Covid-19 without unnecessary and authoritarian restrictions on loving families, essential personal relationships, and the worship of the Christian Church.

Yours faithfully,

Rev A Paul Levy, Minister, Ealing International Presbyterian Church, London
Rev David M Gobbett, Lead Minister, Highfields Church Cardiff, Wales
Rev Dr William JU Philip, Minister, The Tron Church, Glasgow, Scotland
Rev David Johnston, Minister Emeritus – Presbyterian Church in Ireland 
Rev Dr Matthew PW Roberts, Minister, Trinity Church York, England

Parker House Prison

Dundee is a city of roundabouts or circles as they are called here and quite a few now have interesting planting designs. One of the best was the roundabout at the top of the Marketgait which over a few years had an astonishing display of wild flowers. It was so gorgeous to look at that it you wondered if it might precipitate an accident, when the driver’s eyes strayed too long on the startling yellows, warm oranges and the fluorescent blues. On the north west side of the roundabout was an awkward shaped piece of land with a steep slope up to Barrack Street and the Victorian towers of the Royal Infirmary.

Some years ago, Abertay university, looking to expand their student accommodation, put forward a proposal to build on the site. It was a creative and adventurous development and the initial idea was for a student residence of 4-5 storeys which would sit neatly under the hill, respect the wooded area and frame the towers and spires of the hospital which had a whiff of Oxbridge about them . Somewhere along the line the idea was changed and a planning application was lodged for a structure almost twice the height (some ten storeys) which hid the hill and obliterated all but the central tower of the hospital with its delicate cupola. The Council planning authority wisely refused the application but it was appealed and when the university threatened to leave Dundee and find a home in Arbroath or Forfar, the council buckled and the development was allowed to proceed.

The concrete block, known as Parker Halls, staggers round the corner, clutching the hill and was clad in dull grey ribbed sheeting with random splashes of insipid orange on the rainshield. The result, accommodation for hapless student of Abertay University, is an anonymous building from anywhere despising landscape and history. It is a sorry and cautionary tale which has been repeated in so many of our towns and cities, when a powerful institution threatens and bullies the duly elected representatives of a community into forcing upon them a wholly bad decision.

Abertay University, like so many other universities may well be facing its demise as a consequence of the current crisis. Many international students are already leaving and with them the income that has sustained these institutions in recent times. Who knows what will happen in the years ahead, but the city will be left with an outrageous white elephant and a public eyesore which the beauty of the wild flowers will be hard pressed to mitigate.

From the start, locals felt it looked a bit like a prison. In the strangest of ironies, today, it is.

Crawford Mackenzie

The Lord and the Man

I was never a fan of Andrew Lloyd Weber. With Tim Rice there was a sharpness about his work, but on his own it lost the appeal for me. I think it was the creepiness of the “Phantom” that turned me off and any interest was finally dashed with the sickly slimy “Cats” that destroyed, for me T.S. Elliots, enchanting collection of poems. I still have the battered copy and can recite many of the poems by heart.  It is always a matter of personal taste of course and I know other folk who love what he does. I am also not a wholly committed fan of Van, the man, Morrison but I know many people who love him too and if I had the time and the inclination, I guess I could be converted.

But my admiration and respect for both of these men has grown in my estimation, when I hear how they have broken their self-imposed silence on all things political to challenge the status on the nightmare of lock-down and stand against Coronaphobia.  Lloyd Weber has been campaigning passionately to get theatres opened, highlighting the foolishness of the restrictions and Morrison has taken to releasing three songs without mincing his words. You can do that, of course, in a song, and he does.

No more lockdown/No more government overreach/No more fascist bullies/Disturbing our peace/ No more taking of our freedom and our God given rights/pretending it’s for our safety/when it’s really to enslave/ No more lockdown/No more threats/ No more imperial scientists making up crooked facts/ No more lockdown/No more pulling the wool over our eyes/No more celebrities telling us/ Telling us what we are supposed to feel

Granted it doesn’t look like a great lyric but the song isn’t out yet so the maybe the music will carry it.

He, like Lloyd Weber is simply speaking from his own sphere and for live music and theatre. Whether you think that is all that important or in any way a priority is a matter of opinion but they have every right and maybe duty to speak out when few in the “industry” do. In his defence Van Morrison said “I’m not telling people what to do or think, the government is doing a great job of that already. It’s about freedom of choice, I believe people should have the right to think for themselves.That doesn’t seem all that controversial, but the Northern Irish Health minister Robin Swann does. He describes Morrison’s intervention as “Dangerous”, instead, he suggests he should concentrate on singing songs about saving lives.

When a politician in government thinks that singing songs about freedom is dangerous, we should be worried. It maybe gives a pointer to where all this is heading.