Let us go

Walking through the park in the beautiful yet eerie stillness of the morning, the words to Psalm 122 come to mind. I know them off by heart and recite them to myself. I also know them in the 1620  metrical form. We sang it as children to the 18c tune St Paul  with the almost clumsy double note at the end of the line in the second verse, to cope with the extra syllable. I remember singing it on one summer Sunday morning  on the Isle of Muck. We had travelled earlier in a launch from our home in the nearby island of Eigg and scrambled over the slippy rocks to be treated to tea and fresh scones before making our way up to the school building. Through the tall windows behind the make shift pulpit, some sheep had left off their grazing to stare at the strange creatures standing inside singing. Somehow the relevance of the psalm, with the tribes gathering in Jerusalem and the houses packed together, so far away in space and time was quite lost on me. But today they have a special resonance.

The Psalm moves beautifully and quickly from the first person to the second to the third and then to the destination the home of the King. “I was glad when they said to me let us go to the house of the Lord”. It is full of movement in a single direction, a going up, a coming together, a closeness, a sense of belonging, and a sense of security, prosperity and of peace. You know that the Psalm writer is not describing something ephemeral, virtual or abstract. He is not talking about an idea, but an actual physical event and the joy that the invitation gives him.

Deprived of that special blessing, meeting each week together in church, I feel the loss so keenly today. This absence makes the heart go much more than a little bit fonder and the virtual replacements only make the longing for the reality that bit more intense.  We have a weekly digital service and a sermon from one of the finest young preachers I know and afterwards we have digital coffee in cyberspace with our online home group. It is astonishing what technology has achieved and the blessings that can come from it, but it just doesn’t compare.   

And I wonder why the church has, without, it seems any protest or question, followed the government instructions, cancelled services and closed buildings and so easily surrendered this most precious thing.   It is not, of course, surprising that a secular government would view these gatherings as an unnecessary luxury in a crisis, while bicycle shops, pet shops, DIY  centres, and off-licences on the other hand, are seen as essential to life. It is surprising, that the churches themselves think so too.

Still, in the vacuum, with social distancing, in the new normal, I will pray for the peace and security of Jerusalem. “For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your good”

Learning to read

We were three, siblings, stretched out in an orange tent with the rain, which never seemed to stop, hammering on the flysheet and taking every opportunity to get inside when the wind brushed the sheet against the inner lining. We were on a return visit to the island we grew up on, discovering how small it had become and how wet the ground was, thick with bracken and long grass.  This was the second of three visits for me each with its own magic (https://crawfordmackenzie.net/2013/09/26/46/). Mercifully the temperature had dropped and the midges had disappeared temporarily. And so the time waiting for a window in the weather was spent drinking coffee, and making the best of the mouldy bread the shop had sold us. When it was bought, the previous day, in the dingy tin hut half a mile away, I clearly heard someone say from the back “well they’ll eat it if they are hungry”. So we amused ourselves with a bit of singing and talking about words and language. They were, that is, I was listening.  I had learned the art of keeping quiet. There is a proverb about that: a fool who holds his tongue can appear wise.  But generally, it was because I was out of my depth

I was a late developer, a slow learner. Always have been. I discover things late in life that others take as second nature from nursery school. Even today when I find that all of my architectural contemporaries have retired long since, I am only now beginning to feel that I getting the hang of it. I could put my slow learning down to the fact that my education hiccupped from school to school as our family moved around the country. I could blame it on being at the tail end of a large family. When it came to me, my parents were so engrossed in the trials of the others that they were exhausted and left me to my own devises. I could blame it on other things too, like being mildly dyslexia when the words and letters seem to jump around on the page, but the truth is it was more likely to be laziness. But I knew how to not look lazy by busing myself with other things, rather than the thing I was supposed to be doing.

So I was listening when my brother was demonstrating how contemporary language was a poorer thing quoting almost verbatim from an essay by George Orwell “Politics and the English language” where the writer compares a modern day example of what a passage from Ecclesiastes might sound like compared to the King James authorised version.  This was nothing new. My siblings would spend hours of an evening discussing and laughing in a literary world which I could never connect to. I seldom got the jokes and the references went over my head. When I even interjected, I realised it was a tactical mistake, as my ignorance was mercilessly exposed. I remember coming back from school during the holidays having spent some time in the library. I had discovered Steinbeck, traveller’s stories in soviet Russia and China and the war poets. I was taken with the romance of the revolution in Cuba and the accounts of Castro and his band of guerrillas working their way through the forests, their affinity with the peasants and the victorious ride into Havana. Sitting around the Rayburn in the kitchen I chanced my arm and tentatively introduced my leftist views. It was a bad move. I was totally out of my depth and quickly, though kindly, my theories were shown to be the half-baked ideas that they were.

It was all about reading, you see. I was not just behind I wasn’t on the same road and, strange as it may seem, I have only recently learned how to read. Of course I learned at school and of course I have read throughout my life, but never in a serious way. I read because I had to and sometimes to explore some fancy. The new experience, however, was a growing curiosity to dig and explore the stories and ideas to get to the heart of the thing and think through what this meant to the very business of living.   The other thing that may seem strange is that I came to this new experience after learning to read the Bible.  I wrote about this at https://crawfordmackenzie.net/2016/05/02/a-purposeful-habit-4/.

Now there are late developers then there are late developers, and it is hard to describe the wonder of this discovery so late in life. Being able to light upon books written with intellect and wit, with economy of language, knowledge and experience and a pursuit of wisdom. These have generally lent more on the non fiction rather than the fiction side, but not exclusively so. Today I am half way through an 850 page Russian novel, smuggled out to the west in the 80’s and printed without the author being able to make his final changes to it.  It is a quite astonishing work, a beautifully told tale, full of realism, pity and at times latent horror but shot through with the tenderest humanity.

It took me a long time to find what I couldn’t see or share in all these years ago, but I am glad I did.

The Scream 5: Lies, damn lies and statistics

I have always had a problem with numbers and I take most statistics with a pinch of salt.

While the figures themselves may well be accurate, where they come from, how they are achieved, what they did and didn’t cover and how they might me massaged, renders their usefulness questionable and the comparisons made to draw conclusions often worthless.

Nothing could be truer that in our own situation. The government sees fit to make daily pronouncements of cases and deaths. This is immediately a problem because these announcements are not made under normal circumstances so we have nothing to compare it with. We don’t have daily announcement from the government to say how many people die of road deaths or drugs overdose or accidents at work for that matter, so we have no way of measuring how big the things is. We could find out but that is not as easy as it seems. We need the experts in these things and they can run rings round us, as we know.

Even the way the pronouncements have been made makes you wonder. Astonishingly, well into the thing, we found that, Oops, figures outside hospital were not included so the reality will be much higher. Then we learn that the figures relate to those dying with and not necessarily those dying of , and we may never know the actual truth here. To my mind, all of this makes the stats pretty much meaningless.

And then there are the graphs, which are designed in such a way to show what the creator actually wants to show. To confirm the theory. No one produces graphs to show that their theory is bogus.  It seems that scientists with their models have decided that there will be a peak, so the graph shows a peak. They decide there will be a flattened off, so we see that too. People now suspect a second peak, so the graphs will no doubt show that in time. People have done the same with hockey sticks.   It is not that I don’t believe it. I do.  But I am sure it is not the whole story and only part of the story given out to make a specific point. The point I suspect is to drum home the message to stay at home and keep your distance.

Only time will tell if this action was prudent or foolish, but I have my hunch and I have to say I trust that more that statistics.

The Scream 4: Hud and the doctrine of social distancing

I remember watching Paul Newman in the 1963 western “Hud”. It wasn’t a western in the classical sense and the kind of film that would probably have only a passing interest to me, but there was something about it that struck a chord.  It was a simple tale that centred around the conflict between a principled father and his rebel son, on a cattle range, facing a foot and mouth crisis. It was the tragedy of the required slaughter of all these fine animals because of the deadly infection that had to be rooted out. But the real poison and disaster was what the rebel son had brought to his family. When the whole heard were ushered into a giant pit on the farm, under the watchful eyes of the authorities, the Rancher and his men fired their rifles repeatedly into the herd until the last animal was dead. At this point the youngest son turned to his father and said “That didn’t take long Pap” and the father, reflecting on the years of hard labour, skill and diligence that had taken to build his prize herd, replied with these tragic words. “No, Son, killing is easy”.

My genuine concern is that the government’s shut down of social life, which is unprecedented and powered by fear and a good dose of panic, will have far greater damage than any virus could have caused. The term “social distancing” is itself a misnomer. It is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing social about keeping your distance from others. It is anti-social.  It may be thought of as a temporary thing, but it has all the signs of permanence and even if the rules are relaxed, the damage has already been done. The “normal” social relationships will take decades to recover, if they ever do.

One of the most depressing thoughts was that the social convention of shaking hands may be lost forever and all physical human contact restricted to a small group of family and intimate friends. To the rest we smile and bow from a distance. No we know that the virus will not be destroyed, that it will probably mutate into something else and always be with us, so the fear of being contaminated or passing it on, could well  be the death knell for the most beautiful and simple expression of trust between two human beings.  

Destruction can be quick. Building takes time. We are in danger of destroying one of the most precious things in our society by preaching this doctrine of social distancing.

The Scream 3: Going to war

When you take your country into war you must first decide if you are likely to win it. If the odds against success are great then it’s probably wise to think again. Peace with its inevitable compromise might just be the best option. When you drag the country into a “lock-down” you should know how to come out of it. The inability of our government to know how to do that, must be one its most damning shortcomings.

The Scream: 2 Without a whimper

It is Sunday and I wake up like a child on Christmas morning. “This is the day that the Lord has made let us rejoice and be glad in it.” It is the Lord’s day. It’s not mine; It’s not ours; it is his day. But it is a day he has given us for our good and for our pleasure and we find our true satisfaction and true joy when we worship him. Because that is what we were made for.

Just to take the time to sit and read the Bible, the psalms, proverbs and the gospels and let the words sink in, so that they soak our whole being and we begin to voice some of our deepest thoughts and desires in prayer. The embers of a dying fire are once again revived and we see things so much more clearly. We remember who we are and we know who we belong to. There is nothing quite like it.  

But…. Today has to be different. The special joy of meeting with God’s people: the motley crew of polished stones and rough diamonds, the children and pensioners, the individuals and the small families, the artists and poets, the teachers and electricians, the carers and surgeons, the geeks and luddites, the visitors from all continents, the confident and the not so sure…..in the public reading of scripture, the drawing together of pastoral prayer, the rapt attention on the preaching of God’s Word and the singing… the singing together with voices in glorious harmony rising up, it seems, to heaven… all of that will be missing today and I am bereft.

Totalitarian regimes have been trying for centuries to close churches. Strange that in one swoop our government, and others, have achieved that with barely a whimper of protest.

The Scream: 1 “Working from home”

When you can’t do anything else you can scream and this my scream.

“Working from home” is something of a fallacy and if we didn’t know that before, we know it now. It is only people who are not in touch with reality who would think that it is actually sustainable.  And before anyone jumps on me, I mean paid work, work that is needed to make a living to provide for you and the ones you love and work that drives the economy and makes it possible for us have buses and trains and roads and homes and sewers and running water and electricity and laws and defence and postal services and care services and social services and health services.

I would probably be classed as someone who “works from home” because that is where my studio and office and base is. It is where I have my drawing board propped up with bricks. But I can’t work from home in the middle of an indeterminate government shut down. The working from home aspect quickly dries up. For me, it did within a week. I can’t visit a building site because they are closed, I can’t inspect or survey a building because that involves a non-essential journey, I can’t get responses from builders who are shut or consultants who are on furlough and I can’t get paid for work that I can’t complete. The reality is that “adjusting to working from home” actually means giving up on actual work.

I am fortunate. I am at the end of my career and possibly facing retirement sooner than I think. I get a government pension, I am not on my own, I am married, our children and grandchildren do not depend on us. We have a house and we don’t have a mortgage. There is even the suggestion that as a self-employed person I could get the relief that the chancellor has promised.

Still I want to scream.

The Lock-down

For anyone who has had a connection with a prison establishment the term “Lockdown” will carry a lot of resonance. It is an emergency procedure where inmates are literally locked back in their cells to allow some form of order to be restored. Why the government and the media and everyone else, it seems, have adopted this term in the Co-vid crisis is intriguing. It is not a lockdown. Any locks that are thrown are done from the inside of people’s homes. No one, other than those in secure institutions, are actually locked down.

But when words are used and given creative new meanings, it is inevitable that we smell a rat. We have George Orwell to thank for that. When specific instructions and guidance is given by experts, by people who know, to the rest of us, plain folks, it is inevitable that I become cynical.  I have my big brother to thank for that.

Of course, there are other terms that could have been created for the effort, so why this one? Could it be that it carries a barely concealed hint of authoritarianism? After all, while a government’s chief responsibility is to protect it’s citizens from bullies within and without, the lure to control them must be a very persistent and powerful one.  A compliant controlled population is easy to manager especially if you get them to do what you want them to do. If you can get people to stay in their houses then at a stroke it deals with a whole host of policing issues, crowds, football hooligans, protest marches, music festivals and religious gatherings.  It must be very seductive. And I must be very cynical.

But I do wonder if anyone has actually thought of the effect this kind of language might have on the population? I wonder if anyone has actually considered where this most unusual and probably unprecedented action will lead? I wonder if anyone actually knows what it means to force social beings, who thrive by the interaction with others, in a whole network of relationships, not to be social? Well we should do. We have plenty of evidence of what happens to human beings when they are forcibly placed in solitary confinement. It destroys the person. It could be the most inhumane form of punishment. And has anyone thought about how humiliating is to have work and being able to work but being prohibited from doing so because your work is considered non-essential. The fact that it is the way you provide for your family seems not to count. That the government will offer compensation for employed and self employed, who are affected, sounds good, but it only rubs salt in the wound. Being paid not to work is the final straw.  And of course, the real tragedy is that we cannot know for certain if these extreme measures will actually make any difference at all.

As for me, I am enormously privileged. I share this large house with two others and we get on well. We have a garden front and back and 100 yards from a beautiful garden (which the authorities would find difficult to seal off). I work from home and have done for many years and I know how to organise my time. I have many interests and ploys and can easily be absorbed in them. So, it is easy for me. I am sure it is also easy for those who have made the decision to force the shut-down but I shudder to think of what it will mean for possibly the vast majority, those in cramped accommodation in high rise flats with young children and those coming to the end of their lives to spend these days in solitude estranged from those they love. It sounds like a particular cruel form of punishment. It is not of course, but it sounds like it and calling it a “lock-down” reinforces that.

There does seem to be a complete disconnect from the middle-class office workers retiring with their laptops to the leafy suburbs and those who actually work in manufacturing, agriculture, construction or the energy industries- ie the ones who actually power the economy and who now are told that there work isn’t really important. And this is where the divide is so scary, because if the economy is driven on the rocks then all the services fail and the biggest gobbler of public finance, the NHS, will be the first to suffer. So to protect the NHS we may actually be dealing it a death blow. It’s all been said before, of course, and better.  

It is tragic and I hope I am wrong, but I genuinely worry that the treatment might end up killing the patient.

Crawford Mackenzie

“But I am Free”

A HIDDEN LIFE

It is a week or so now since I watched Terence Malick’s “A hidden Life” but it still haunts me. It must be among the finest films I have ever seen. It moved me deeply. Like all great works of art it strikes in lots of different levels and like all great works of art it cuts to the core of things. It digs deep into the struggle of the human heart with what must be one of life’s greatest dilemmas.

James Macmillan has said that listening to music involves sacrifice, but watching a film like this involves sacrifice too. It is not the ticket price or giving up an evening but the demand to sit for three hours in silence and simply absorb the work in its entirety. Many may find the length and the apparent slowness of the action, the long scenes and the minimal dialogue wearisome. Half way through, that thought also crossed my mind, but by the end I realised it needed all the time. It needed the long shots to communicate the anguish of the story It needed the space to let the thoughts sink in and the economy of words meant that when words were spoken, they were deeply significant and profound.  

The cinematography alone was breath-taking. The stunning landscape of the Tyrolian Alps with their crazy spiked peaks snow-capped and bathed in beautiful sunshine or clouded with forbidding skies and thunder. The sloping land with the constant, digging, planting and harvesting barley, turnip, tending goats among the simple dwellings and outhouses, grinding wheat with children playing in the cornfields. It was an idyllic scene. The human love and joy in the family that spread out to the community was portrayed with a delightful tenderness. Even the shadow of what was to come was treated with such sensitivity that in so many ways it seemed perfectly reasonable. The soldiers the the town major, the local priest and even the villagers who turned against them with their ugly glances, spitting and the children throwing stones, were not evil, but people with their own demons to fight, their own families and lives to protect.   

The music throughout, sensitively and beautifully arranged under the hand of James Newton Howard with pieces from Handel, Gorecki and  Pert woven seamlessly into the whole provided the backdrop

The towns and prison courtyards with all the of skilfully underplayed. Malick understand more than most how the greatest impact is achieved with the merest hint. There was no gratuitous violence or sex which under another director’s hand would be exploited. You don’t need to be shown everything. The brutality was clear and the passion real.

The principal actors: August Diehl as Franz Jägerstätter and Valerie Pachner his wife Franziska (Frani),

along with the supporting cast, none of whom were known to me, worked with astonishing skill and sensitivity drawing you directly into their anxious internal struggle in what can only be described as an exquisite performance. They are totally convincing and believable. Erma Putz, Jägerstätter’s biographer who based her account on his letters from prison has said that it was an accurate representation of the principal characters from what she learned from the letters and directly from Franziska.

Many, I am sure, will use the film to support some current political stance and point up the dangers of populism and xenophobia. Others may take it as a statement on conscientious objection. There may be something in that, but I saw it as something much deeper and altogether more significant. For me it was about that undervalued virtue of Integrity, the cost and the ultimate sacrifice to be true to the lord of your life.  Jägerstätter’s issue was not over military service or war but in swearing allegiance to another God. That was where he could not go.

Despite all the persuasive arguments arraigned against him: From the mayor of his town, “You are worse than our enemies. You are a traitor”, the local priest, “Have you thought about the consequences of your action?.. Do you know what this will do to your family?. Don’t you know that you will almost certainly be shot?…your sacrifice will achieve nothing.”. Just say the words, God knows what is in your heart”, the Bishop “St Paul told us to be subject to the governing authorities whoever they are…your loyalty is to the fatherland” The atheist inmate “Your God doesn’t care. He didn’t even listen to his own son”

His own family, his mother , his sister in law and even his wife at one point offers him, a little shyly, a possible way out. From the plausible, the reasonable to the aggressive and dismissive each charge must have shot arrows into his heart. After almost each accusation he remains silent, as if accepting that it may be true, but that make no difference. Before his court appearance his solicitor is frustration and bewilderment offers him the easiest way out. “Just sign here and you will be free”  Frantz responds which for me are the most revealing words in the whole film  “But I am free”.

Crawford Mackenzie

The western mind

History has to be more than just a catalogue of events with dates, and kings, battles, revolutions, the rise and fall of civilisations and the ideas that inspire them. It has to be a story. The clue is in the name. Tom Holland has written a great story of western civilisation, (Dominion – the making of the western mind) stretching across centuries from antiquity through the Romans and the Greeks to the liberal democracies of the 21st century. It is a beautifully woven story with the characters, kings and emperors, dissenters and prophets, philosophers and generals, tyrants and bishops all stitched together in a wonderful tapestry.  All the twists and turns of the story the refining, realigning, reforming, and the waves of understanding bear down on the irresistible conclusion that it is Christianity, more than any other, that has made the western mind what it is. It has been the root of western civilisation, the structures the culture, the arts, the engineering, the science and the philosophy. The conclusion, that the western mind has been forged in Christianity, a world view different and distinct from any other, having at its core the outrageous and offensive idea that the God would become a slave and face, without protest, the most brutal and ignominious death, has all been said before, of course.  It is not new.

Larry Siedentop “The invention of the individual – the origins of western liberalism” and Theo Hobson “God created humanism- the Christian basis of secular values” amongst many others, I am sure, have made the same point but Tom Holland has set it out in what is a delightful read. He races through the centuries lacing the stories to together, yet providing enough time to pause and describe the scenes in a way that  you almost feel you are there: with Boniface on the banks of the river Bourne,  with the Dominicans at Chiaravalle, with the diggers on St George’s Hill, and watching the tortures, the hangings, the immolations and standing near enough to hear the terrible sluice of the guillotine.

Then there are the characters: Aristotle, Augustus, Paul, Constantine, Augustine, Gregory, Martin, Origen, all the way to Orban and Merkel.  Knowing who is likely to enter on the stage provides an interesting game. When will Martin Luther, or Voltaire or Freud appear? And you can indulge in a wry smile when you scent their appearance. In one chapter, Holland introduces us to Otto Dix who carried both a copy of the Bible and Nietzsche (The Gay Science) with him in the trenches and imagines him surveying the landscape “turned to mud and ash and littered with the mangled bodies of men” and how he would “shiver before the possibility that there might not be after all any redemption in sacrifice” with Nietzsche ringing in his ears “Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying god? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? – for even gods putrefy! God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” After taking time to explore the work of this the bleakest of philosophers,  Holland leaves us at the end of the piece with just a hint of where it is going “Meanwhile, in basements stale with beer and sweat, men with strident voices were talking about Jews”  

Because it is such a wide subject and stretches across centuries it will no doubt be an easy target for criticism. There will be whole areas that will be ignored while others are laboured on. Even the fact that it is easy to read would inevitably lead to it being dubbed populist and not a serious work. Well, I am not a historian and cannot say, but he seems to me to have a wide grasp of history, of the Jewish and Christian scriptures and a clear grasp of philosophy, and, he knows how to write. The style is appealing. The chapter headings with places and dates, the linking of themes and so much ground covered with a crisp economy of words.

The sharpest criticism seems to be over his instance that the western values came solely from Christianity and this is hotly contested, notably by AC Grayling.  The point made is that the virtues and values were not exclusively seen in the Christian world but were clearly existent in older societies, which predate Christianity. They are universal and that Christianity has no monopoly on them. From my point of view this is a sterile argument. If you believe that God created the world and human beings uniquely in his image, it is no surprise to find that people from any background culture or society wherever they may have lived, quite unrelated to any other civilisation, can still embody and express wisdom, kindness to strangers, a spirit of hospitality and a genuine respect for the other.  These attributes have still come from the creator God. The Christian position is that all of the wisdom, all of the virtues, all of the goodness , all of the truth and all of the life have been uniquely revealed in just one person – Jesus Christ.

Tom Holland keeps his own personal beliefs pretty close to his chest. He has sought to keep the writing of the story as impartial as possible, but recognises, at the end, that with Christianity, it is not possible to be neutral. “To claim as I most certainly do, that I have sought to evaluate fairly both the achievements and the crimes of Christian civilisation is not to stand outside its moral framework, but rather as Nietzsche would have been quick to point out – to stand within them.” This then is the thesis and it is hard to argue with.