What do you call a man?

I’ve been acquiring quite a collection of the letters that hospital consultants send to your GP informing them of the appointments you have had with them, their diagnoses, treatments, and discharge notes. Clearly there is a preferred format and style for writing these. They usually begin something like this:

It was a pleasure to meet this pleasant gentleman, who presented with a pain in the lower abdomen that he had had for six weeks, which made walking almost impossible… etcetera.

Some of my favourites include the nurse’s letter which describes me as ‘this gentleman’ in nearly every sentence (I have pretty strong objections to being called a gentleman in the first place: I’m with John Ball on this: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’) when a simple ‘he’ or even ‘Mr Price’ would have sounded less clunky. And most recently, the one which began ‘It was a delight to meet this 70-year old chap…’

Apart from the fact that I’M NOT YET 70, I’M STILL ONLY 69! it sounded like something you might (just about) say but not write, or as if English was not his first language — as it probably wasn’t, in this chap’s case. What you call a man is possibly one of the most awkward idioms to learn in a language not quite your own. Like with my American friends who had learned that ‘bloke’ was a common English term for a man, but hadn’t quite grasped that you don’t use it as a direct form of address, as in saying to a barman “A pint of beer, please. Thanks, bloke.”

In any case, I would propose a different style and content altogether. Something more along the lines of:

Mr Price is a miserable old curmudgeon, whose pleasant and cheerful manner is a mask he assumes to conceal his pain and fear, and the fact that he is really screaming inside…

It would be more honest. But I suppose not entirely the kind of thing you’d want a doctor who didn’t know you to be the first thing they learn about you from your permanent medical records.

A Wedding from Hell

I had one of those dreams that clergy have — even retired ones, it turns out. Forgetting my vow that I would never do it again, I had agreed to conduct a wedding. And like all dream weddings, everything that could possibly go wrong was going wrong.

It was a church I didn’t know. We were conducting the marriage outside the church door, in the very ancient traditional manner. But because the path from the church door to the car park was a long one, all the guests were standing around in the distant car park, and none of them could be persuaded to come any nearer.

Then there was the trouble with the kitten. So I tied a soft toy to a piece of string to distract it; the kitten leaped at it and held fast and was hoisted to the top of the vestry cupboard, about seven feet off the ground, where it stood for a moment in terror before launching itself off and jumping to the ground.

Don’t even get me started on the problems I was having finding the service books. Surely a church where I had been invited to conduct a wedding would have copies of the service? Surely someone would have thought to put them out? Apparently not. It seems highly likely that in this scenario the organist would not have turned up, the marriage registers would be nowhere to be found, the bridesmaids (or even the bride) would throw up in front of me…

But not waiting to find out, I woke up. Wondering how to persuade my Dream Self to take the same vow as Waking Self. And to keep it, too.

A celebration of the female pudenda

The latest edition of New Statesman contains a review of The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, edited by Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton, published by Cambridge University Press at an eye-watering £100. I might perhaps not have read the review, since I’m unlikely to read the book even if some rich benefactor stumped up the price, except that its author is Rowan Williams.

He has clearly read and assimilated the 854 pages of this volume, and knows the subject thoroughly enough to comment on the chapters, gently suggest improvements that might have been made, and list a number of factual and proof-reading errors. I couldn’t possibly argue with any of that.

But what particularly enchanted me was his comment on one of the most regrettable lacunae of the book.

“Strangely, even scandalously, given the justifiable stress on the significance of women writers in the last century or so, there is nothing at all (beyond a single mention of her name) about the greatest of medieval Welsh women poets, the 15th century Gwerful Mechain, author of a delightfully uninhibited celebration of the female pudenda as well as a number of other verses on those primary poetic data, the natural world, eros and God.”

(I’ve researched and added the links for the benefit of those who don’t believe him.)

The former Archbishop’s erudition is beyond amazing; it’s terrifying. Is there anything this man doesn’t know?

False sisters?

We’ve spent this week in Salisbury, staying in Sarum College right in the Cathedral Close. It’s a place I could bear to live, if only I were a millionaire or a former Conservative Prime Minister (Ted Heath had a house here.) The joy of it all is to be able to share in Morning and Evening Prayer, together with a daily Eucharist, in a place of such aweful holiness.

But even holiness has its merry moments that make me smile. Like this morning’s reading from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where he’s going on about his qualifications as an apostle: namely, that he’s suffered so much more than all the self-proclaimed apostles who criticise or oppose him.

He boasts: “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.” (2 Corinthians 11.24-27 NRSV)

Danger from false brothers and sisters? The Greek word translated thus is ψευδαδέλφοις – meaning pseudo-brethren or ‘false brethren’ in the KJV. I can only think the NRSV’s version is its inclusive language policy carried to absurd lengths: I can’t imagine that many of the dangers Paul faced were caused by women (pace The Life of Brian). But that didn’t stop my imagine wanting to discover the story behind these wicked women, these false sisters, who caused the saint such trouble.

Perhaps there’s an idea there for next NaNoWriMo?

In the Salisbury Information Centre

I went into the Salisbury Information Centre just ahead of an elderly lady. While I only wanted to browse and see what kind of information they had available, she had a specific inquiry that she put to the man at the desk.

Concerning the road closures that had been announced for Armed Forces Day on 29th June, when there will be a major parade through the city: What roads are going to be closed, and for how long?

“You’ll have to look on the Council website, we haven’t actually got a complete list here.”

“I’m 95, I don’t have a website,” she replied.

But to no avail. The Council was not distributing a printed list of road closures. The Information Centre could print the website for her but there were about 20 pages of it. They could tell her that the road between where she lived and the city centre would be closed for three days…

“Well, how am I going to eat, then?”

When you live alone, have no car, have to travel to the shops by bus, can’t carry enough provisions for three days — how can you cope with not being able to get to the shops for that long? When you have no computer, no Internet access — how can you obtain even the most vital basic information these days?

It’s a scary glimpse of how modern living marginalises and excludes the elderly. And by the time I’m 95, if I should live that long, it will presumably be even worse, even more difficult.

Politics and the Tao Te Ching

And then there is the other great Taoist classic, undoubtedly the Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching: the Book of the Way and its Power. It also has a lot to say about the conduct of the state, how rulers should rule. Probably the best known aphorism is

“Ruling the country is like cooking a small fish.” (Chapter 60) We take this to mean that those who govern in accordance with Tao should not meddle too much. If you poke a small fish that you’re frying, it will disintegrate. But I think it also means you mustn’t neglect what you’re doing but need to keep an eye on it the whole time, so that you see the exact moment you need to do something. ‘Like cooking a small fish’ doesn’t just mean you leave it alone, as the extreme small-government people might have us believe.

But there’s much more good stuff. (Both the following extracts are from the J. H. McDonald translation) I love chapter 17:

The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.

The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.

Next comes the one who is feared.

The worst one is the leader that is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,

they will become untrustworthy.

The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly.

When she has accomplished her task,

the people say, “Amazing:

we did it, all by ourselves!”

And chapter 18 sounds disturbingly appropriate in our increasingly nationalistic times:

When the great Tao is abandoned,

charity and righteousness appear.

When intellectualism arises,

hypocrisy is close behind.

When there is strife in the family unit,

people talk about ‘brotherly love’.

When the country falls into chaos,

politicians talk about ‘patriotism’.

The version I’m reading at the moment is the more recently published translation by John Minford (Viking, 2018) It’s a bigger book than most versions. The Chinese original contains only 5,000 words. It practises what the Tao preaches about using few words. Minford, however, has chosen to accompany his translation with helpful commentary from some of the great commentators on the Tao Te Ching, especially the River Master and Magister Liu, together with some short Chinese poems that illustrate the theme.

He advocates a slow, meditative reading of the text which he calls Lectio Sinica, a Chinese version of the familiar Christian and monastic practice of Lectio Divina. This commends itself as a useful way of approaching such a strange yet deeply attractive text.

 

Politics and I Ching

易經

I’ve been fascinated by the I Ching for more years than I can remember. Maybe it’s having lived through the 60s and Flower Power and all that stuff, and being intrigued by some of the artistic, literary, and psychological associations like Hermann Hesse, George Harrison, and Jung; but I didn’t start looking at it more seriously until the 1990s. Since then I’ve kept taking it up and putting it down again, frustrated by its opaqueness and, quite simply, its foreignness.

And still I come back to it, and have a modest collection of different translations and books about it. I’m attracted to it not as a book of divination… who really wants to know what will happen, especially at this moment in history? It will be bad enough to find out when it actually happens. No, what appeals to me is the sense that it speaks with a voice of wisdom, a very different kind of wisdom from what we’re familiar with in the West, although often saying many of the same kind of things. It has a lot to say about how to develop moral character and right behaviour: how to study to become a better person; and I like that.

But still, much of what you find about it in books or on the Internet seems either mad, or unnecessarily esoteric, or alternatively just plain trivial. What has changed in the most recent time, has been coming across the idea that I might actually read it. (I know, I’m slow on the uptake… But the Changes don’t reveal their deep secrets to the person in a hurry. I think.)

Thomas Cleary, in The Taoist I Ching, insists that you cannot make any sense of this book, if you have only a limited knowledge of it, and this is especially true of any random approach (such as, only reading the hexagrams that result from some random process, whether counting yarrow stalks or tossing coins).

“Therefore, the first step is to read the book in its entirety, without pausing to judge or question, just going along with the flow of its images and ideas. … Ancient literature suggests reading one hexagram in the morning and one at night. At this rate, this initial phase of consultation can be completed in approximately one month. This may have to be repeated one or more times at intervals to effectively set the basic program into the mind.”

In fact, on this first read through of the 64 hexagrams (Book I in the Wilhelm/Baynes version), I’m going faster than just two chapters a day; I can come back to that more leisurely approach later. But the overview is already yielding wonderful nuggets: not least the quaint old-fashioned ideas that moral character is important; that it’s especially important in people with power and influence in the state; that everyone has a responsibility to cultivate it; that things go badly for everyone when moral character is lacking – especially aomng the people in power.

Take, for example, the Image of hexagram 12, P’i / Standstill (Stagnation):

The hexagram for this is ䷋: made up of the trigrams Ch’ien, the Creative, Heaven over K’un, the Receptive, Earth. These are complementary realities, but in this particular arrangement they are pulling away from each other, rather than working together, hence the idea of Standstill or Stagnation. (Don’t worry if this is all Chinese to you: walk with me for a while.)

The text for the Image reads:

Heaven and earth do not unite:
The image of STANDSTILL.
Thus the superior man falls back upon his inner worth
In order to escape the difficulties.
He does not permit himself to be honored with revenue.

And the commentary begins:

When, owing to the influence of inferior men, mutual mistrust prevails in public life, fruitful activity is rendered impossible, because the fundaments are wrong.

It seems to me you could hardly find a more accurate summary of Brexit Britain, and what’s wrong with the state of our nation and politics at the present time. People have simply lost all trust in our political class because the perception is that they are morally inferior people. It used to be the case that society, schools, the whole process of education and upbringing, taught that you should regard it as a moral duty to use your skills and gifts for the general good, not just for your personal advantage. Especially if you enjoyed any kind of privilege or position: and even receiving a free secondary, let alone tertiary, education, was an enormous privilege, bringing responsibility with it. Certainly that’s one of the things were were taught at my local grammar school, even if the invisible sub-text was that we would possibly be called upon to govern the Raj (or whatever the 1960s equivalent of that was) under the supervision of the gentlemen whose privilege had been to enjoy a public (sic) school education. This is no longer the case. The antics of the entitled classes, as exemplified by the Bullingdon Club and its many wannabes, is enough proof. The popularity with the Tory Party of the unspeakable Boris Johnson, and the absurd and terrifying likelihood that he will soon be Prime Minister, confirms it.

And all the while I’m sure there are many, many people in pubic office, perhaps even in Parliament, who really do have a notion that they are there to do good and to work for the common good. It’s just that their efforts are made invisible by the greed and wealth of those among them who continue to vote for measures that oppress the poorest and most vulnerable, and make their lives a misery. Theresa May appeared to say the right things when she spoke of making Britain a country that worked for everyone, but most of the policies of her Government shouted the opposite, and much louder. Francesca Martinez spoke for many, and earned the applause she received, when she said on Question Time that the Tories have blood on their hands, because their austerity policies have been a direct cause of 130,000 deaths.

There is much more in the I Ching about how rulers in particular, and all people in general who seek to live in wise harmony with the universe, should fashion their lives. Sadly, I doubt if the Boris Johnsons of this world and all those who admire them, so much as give a damn.