A Great Book In My Universe

Mostly Harmless

Before reading Mostly Harmless – the fifth and last book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy” – I looked at some reviews written by other readers. Many of them were negative. Douglas Adams was depressed when he wrote it. The ending was terrible. And so on.

Personally, I thought this was a great book. In saying that I refer you to the following paragraph from Mostly Harmless:

“We live in strange times. We also live in strange places: each in a universe of our own. The people with whom we populate our universes are the shadows of whole other universes intersecting with our own.”

We see the truth of this statement every day on the review pages of Amazon and Goodreads. People seem to look out on the same universe. However, there’s a clue to the reality of multiple dimensions in the fact that good books in one universe are bad in another. Mostly Harmless takes – for me at least – a thrilling trip through alternative universes.

Mostly Harmless begins and ends with the story of some interstellar explorers called the Grebulons. A meteorite damages their ship, resulting in the loss of all stored memories. The crew know they set out to monitor something, but have no idea what. By chance, they end up on a planet in the outer reaches of Earth’s solar system monitoring the only material they can find to monitor – TV shows beaming out from Earth. Cagney and Lacey and M*A*S*H seem to be particular favourites. The Grebulons’ situation contrasts with that of the Vogons who hove into view as the book comes to its conclusion. The Vogons know exactly what their purpose in life is. If you compare the clear, small-minded and unpleasant purpose of the Vogons, with the benign TV watching aimlessness of memory-deprived Grebulons, things look different vis-a-vis the aimless TV viewing. The best lack all conviction; the worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats would have said. It’s like there’s an alternative universe where casual TV watching is a deeply meaningful activity, as is reading books that some people think are not very good.

I send this message from my universe to yours – Mostly Harmless is a great book.

Cop Movie Meets George Orwell’s 1984

Fatherland

2017 saw the publication of the 25th Anniversary edition of Fatherland by Robert Harris, which I managed to catch up with a few weeks ago.

Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors. Fatherland imagines what would have happened to history if Germany had won the Second World War.

The story itself has a plot borrowed from Hollywood, starring a talented, world-weary cop who drinks, smokes and works all the time. Naturally his personal life is a mess. American cop movies rely on this kind of ambivalent central character. The law cannot be represented by a monolithic institution imposing justice. In America that would send the wrong message. Instead law has to show itself via a maverick individual, who opposes institutional incompetence or corruption. That idea has been flogged to death in America, where perhaps the idea of the maverick individual has become too powerful for its own good. But in a world where Germany won the war, such a character is perfect in portraying a struggle against an all-encompassing nightmare of institutional corruption. It’s like John McLean of Die Hard finding himself out of his jurisdiction, not in Los Angeles but in the London of George Orwell’s 1984.

Fatherland has interesting things to say about the way people shape history, creating their own alternative narratives. That said, I did find the plot laboured at times, and on occasion the cop cliches came over as, well, cliches, rather than clever commentaries on the difference between a totalitarian and a tolerant society. This was Robert Harris’ first novel, and I agree with his observation in the introduction that he went on to write better ones. Nevertheless, the quality of ideas driving those later novels is also evident here

 

A History of Christmas

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“Snow” at the Dickens Fesitval, Rochester

Many ancient mid-winter celebrations have strong parallels with what we now know as Christmas. Echoes remain of new year celebrations in Babylon and Egypt, mid-winter and new year holidays of the Roman Empire, and Yule celebrations of northern Germanic tribes. These celebrations represented an effort to promote fertility and bring back the sun. Food and drink were common features, and usually derived from sacrificial rites. There were rituals involving fire, lights and evergreen trees. The period from late November until the beginning of January was marked with various holidays. Some people think that modern Christmases start too early, but there is a long history of mid-winter festivals beginning in November.

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The Temple of Saturn in Rome

There are three festivals which are particularly linked with Christmas – Saturnalia, which in the later Roman Empire began on 17th December and continued to the 24th; the Kalends on 1st January; and the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, on December 25th. The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun was important to Mithraism, Christianity’s main rival for the hearts and minds of Europeans in the third and fourth centuries. Both Saturnalia and Kalends required the decoration of buildings with lights and sprigs taken from evergreen trees. People exchanged presents and greetings. When the Roman poet Lucian expressed the spirit of Saturnalia, he could be talking about aspects of Christmas today:

“All business, be it public or private, is forbidden during the feast days, save such as tends to sport and solace and delight… All men shall be equal, slave and free, rich and poor, one with another… No discourage shall either be composed or delivered, except it be witty and lusty, according to mirth and jollity” (quoted in The Englishman’s Christmas by J.A.R Pimlott, P3).

There is little doubt that the mid-winter holiday was deliberately chosen by early Christians as the time for a nativity feast. The idea was to assimilate pagan traditions into Christianity rather than attempting the hopeless task of suppressing them.  The 25th was probably chosen because this was Mithraism’s day of celebration, the idea being to steal the thunder of a rival.

Written evidence of the Christian attempt to assimilate winter festivals actually exists in the history of the English Christmas. Augustine, the Pope’s emissary had arrived in Britain in 597. Soon afterwards he received instructions from Gregory the Great which described how Anglo Saxon mid-winter festivals should be Christianised:

“Because they are accustomed to slay many oxen in sacrifices to demons, some solemnity should be put in place of this… they may make bowers of branches of trees around those churches which have been changed from heathen temples, and may celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting. Nor let them now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but for the praise of God kill animals for their own eating…” (Quoted Pimlott, P6)

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St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury

Christian influence, however, remained superficial until the time of the Norman Conquest. Rites included yule logs, use of evergreens, eating, drinking, and games such as leap frog and blind man’s buff, two recreations which actually originated in ancient fertility customs.  The Chuch made a concerted attempt to move in on Christmas at a conference of the Catholic Church at Tours in 567.  This council designated the Twelve Days of Christmas as the period between the Nativity and Epiphany.  By the 870s, Alfred The Great was insisting that during the Twelve Days, people refrain from carrying out any business.  By 1066 the Christianisation of England was complete and the Twelve Days were the main annual holiday. Scribes of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles had referred to Christmas by name for the first time in 1043, using this term rather than the more usual Mid-winter Mass, or Nativity.

The shape of Christmas was now set until the seventeenth century. It was a time of eating, drinking, good cheer, all taking place against a Christian backdrop. The Christmas story had grown out of nativity plays staged at many churches, most notably the Abbey of St Martial at Limoges in France. There were generally two plays in the Christmas repertoire, one about shepherds, the other involving wise men. These plays merged and some details about Herod and the slaughter of innocents were later added for dramatic effect. Carols derived from singing rites of the mid-winter celebrations. These festive songs were originally condemned by the Church but, as with other pagan Christmas rituals, assimilation was more effective than suppression. Present giving and eating of turkey at Christmas dinner became popular in Tudor times. The turkey had been imported from America by the Spaniards. An exotic and expensive meat, turkey became popular with the upper classes. The rest of society then followed on. Much of the Christmas food tradition we continue today originated in Tudor England.

 

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Public notice in Boston, Lincolnshire, declaring Christmas illegal

Then in the seventeenth century came a festive social earthquake.   Christmas was banned by government decree for about fifteen years. As the puritans won power, Christmas came under increasing pressure. During the Civil War, Parliament needed Scottish support against royalist forces. Part of the price for this support was bowing to demands from Scottish presbyterians that Christmas be stopped. The presbyterians didn’t like all the fun and games, and they also thought that Christmas had Catholic overtones. For some reason their anti-Catholic ire was focused on mince pies! Once royal control had been defeated, legislation was passed banning Christmas in 1644, although it was widely disregarded. Another big effort was made to stop Christmas in 1647. There were riots and general unrest in many parts of the country. The worst disturbances took place in Canterbury on Christmas Day 1647, when protestors took control of the entire city. This was an early manifestation of the major insurrection in Kent in 1648, which actually became part of a second phase of the English Civil War. Cromwell put this last gasp resistance down, and from then on Christmas went into hiding for over ten years. Ironically it was the religious observance of Christmas which was the easiest to suppress. Mark Stoyle has written: “Christmas effectively ceased to be celebrated in the great majority of churches. It is ironic, to say the least, that while the godly had failed to suppress the secular Yuletide festivities which had vexed them for so long, they had succeeded in ending the religious observance of Christmas! (No Christmas Under Cromwell in BBC History Magazine December 2011). Christmas only returned when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.

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Re-enactment of the Battle of Maidstone, during the Second Civil War, precipitated partly by the banning of Christmas

Christmas reformed as a family celebration and remained popular until the early nineteenth century. At this time Christmas began to decline again, designated holidays becoming fewer and fewer until only Christmas Day itself was left. The revival of Christmas coincided with the publication of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in 1843, and the enthusiasm that Prince Consort, Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, had for Christmas. He followed the German tradition of erecting a Christmas tree at Windsor in 1840. In subsequent years the rest of Britain began to follow suit. Holidays started to expand again, and the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 stipulated that Christmas Day and Boxing Day were to be taken as a holiday. Christmas was resurrected as a time of giving and remembering your fellow man.

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Ghost of Christmas Future at the Dickens Festival

Today Christmas is a popular but ambiguous festival. It used to be the case that many would bemoan the lack of religious feeling in Christmas, attacking commercialisation, eating and drinking, and the general lack of substance, even though some of these aspects of Christmas represent its most ancient features. In recent years worries have emerged that Christmas might actually be too religious, in a specifically Christian sense, serving to alienate other faiths. Christmas was originally a tool for the triumph of Christianity over pagan religions, and in this sense Christmas has long been part of a religious struggle. Indeed any and all major celebrations of whatever kind could be seen as a threat to general social cohesion if other parts of the population do not join in.

The ultimately reassuring thing is that midwinter festivals show remarkable similarities in different parts of the world and in different cultures. The midwinter celebration is a way of banishing the cold and hoping for the light, in whatever form you feel it might come.  Happy Christmas.

Reading the World’s Oldest Book

The Epic of Gilgamesh, dating to 2100 BC, tells the story of Gilgamesh, king of the city of Uruk, who, demented with grief following the death of a friend, goes on a journey in search of eternal life.

Andrew George, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, describes how The Epic of Gilgamesh takes us back to the earliest days of writing, which emerged around 3000BC in the Euphrates and Tigris valleys. Humanity’s first cities developed here, writing evolving when the work of administering these increasingly sophisticated societies became too much for human memory to cope with. Scribes then used the resulting cuneiform script to record The Epic of Gilgamesh on stone tablets. This is a truly ancient story, the starting place of literature. The Bible, which in parts clearly owes much to The Epic of Gilgamesh is, by comparison, a recent and somewhat derivative publication.

People designed writing to record life. It is fitting they should use it to tell a story about a man trying to hold onto his life. To read what remains of their efforts thousands of years later is a moving experience. The text is fragmented in places, where time has eaten away at the stone manuscripts. This most revered of stories, stored in ancient libraries ordered by futile royal decree to endure forever, comes to me in shards, partially pieced together. And yet survive it did, writing fulfilling its function to help us hold onto life.

Writing is the defining quality of Gilgamesh’s complex society, a means for people to aspire to a new kind of immortality for their thoughts. There is certainly danger in this development, a sense of vertigo. The friend whose loss caused Gilgamesh so much pain was a man who was the antithesis of the sophisticated city dweller – a man raised by animals. This man, endowed with a sense of natural justice, taught Gilgamesh valuable lessons. This was the kind of instinctive existence that life in the cities with its writing and learning had left behind. Gilgamesh mourns the passing of his friend. He mourns both the loss of the individual and, more symbolically, the natural life he represented. Gilgamesh tries to find a way to escape his own death and the passing of the old life of humanity. While his efforts are frustrated, humanity’s new society ironically seems to offers new ways to preserve experience and guard against loss.

Writing has a resilience that outlasts buildings, walls and statues. The story of Gilgamesh remains for us to read today.

“He came a far road, was weary, found peace, and set all his labours on a tablet of stone.”

Help!

Best album titles. This week – Help!

Cry for assistance, promise of assistance, and title of the Beatles’ fifth album, released in August 1965.

The title track explores the paradoxes that hide in the idea of help. In this song, someone has suffered problems which result in a loss of confidence. Their independence “seems to vanish in the haze”. But if the problem is a loss of independence and confidence, isn’t it possible that help might make the problem worse?

The word help itself also holds contradictions. It can be both a noun and a verb. Help, as a noun, is a thing with a substantial reality. You can offer help in the same way that you can offer someone a chair or a bowl of soup. As a verb, however, help has no such certainty. It could be all good intentions and unpredictable outcomes.

There is a lot of history reflected in the complexities of the word help. There’s all that political struggle between, for example, 1960s prime ministers Mr Wilson and Mr Heath. There are those who want to offer help, and those who think that help might damage our ability to look after ourselves. The contradictions in the word we use to describe assistance, suggest that neither side is wholly right or wrong. The arguments will go on forever.

While they all argue, we can listen to Help! It might seem difficult to see how we can get real help listening to an album. It’s not like someone is going to jump out of the music and provide a cup of tea, or love or money, or whatever it is we might need. Yet the record tells us that real assistance can emerge in unexpected ways.