‘A man may fight many battles and never die, unless it be the will of God that he die.’—Sinbad
‘Trust in God, but tie your camel’s leg.’—The Prophet Mohammed
In the present pandemic—and panicdemic—I’m increasingly grateful to those responsible for the set of beliefs I’ve built up through life, but equally find myself under attack for holding them. They are nonsense, it seems, and I’m not taking the crisis seriously enough, because it’s real and we should all be terrified. The history of humanity, according to these people, is one of ignorant darkness (spiritual faith) followed by the dawning of light (science).
One wonders, if that is the case, why there has been such a rise in diseases linked primarily to scientific and technological advance (cancers, for example, or stress-related illnesses, if not COVID-19 itself) and why, in this age of the science of the mind, so many people are unhappy. If the Age of Miracles is dead, then it’s science which has killed it. One can read Anglo-Saxon texts written before the Middle Ages in which miracles were dealt with in a matter-of-fact way: two companions were going to visit the Archbishop of Canterbury, for instance, when they came across a man crushed by a falling tree; they brought him back to life, then all three continued on their way to have tea with the Archbishop.
Of course, the present all-pervading secular mindset makes the recorder of this event a liar or fantasist. But there is no pretence in the story, no indication of exaggeration or embroidery, or even of monetary gain, which would mark it as suspect. Because it doesn’t align with the sneering scepticism of the modern age doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Another objection to a belief in spiritual solutions is that I myself have fallen seriously ill many times, occasionally nearly losing my life, from whooping cough at the age of 2 to tuberculosis at 13, all the way through to the Legionnaires’ Disease I caught in North Korea a couple of years ago. I’ve even survived a murder attempt.
But it’s not that I’m ungrateful for the medical staff who have been instrumental in saving my life—I’m only saying that they wouldn’t have been able to do it if my number had been up. The fact is that I’ve survived: as Cormac McCarthy suggests, everything is on a binary switch, which makes a miss as good as a mile (though near misses should cause pause for thought). Of course, no-one should tempt fate (or ‘the Lord’) by deliberately not reaching a compromise with worldly conventions—even Jesus paid his Council Tax—and for this reason I’m happy to keep washing my hands, wearing a mask, etc.
One might, considering this, wonder why the Christian religion isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do, at least based on the thrust of the Gospel, which focuses on healing the sick and raising the dead as principal occupations for the believer.
The answer is contained in the word itself—religion is not spirituality, but a collection of rituals designed to represent spirituality in a worldly form. This has resulted in the case of Christianity with its becoming big business early in its transmission, and cutting spiritual corners increasingly as it progressed. Women priests were abolished, to encourage conversion of those following patriarchal religions, and once the Roman Emperor was converted it allowed the Church to commandeer the Roman roads as business routes and send the Roman army against the followers of the rival belief system—the Gnostics, or monks—and either bring them to heel or eradicate them. One profound difference between the Christians and the Gnostics was that the Christians preached that heaven was in the future, the Gnostics that it could be found in the present moment, without priests.
An exception to the grinding worldliness and lack of faith of the religion I was brought up on has for me been the Christian Scientists, who are probably as close as you’re going to get to the original Gnostics (though they themselves don’t seem to think so). You can’t become one—correct me if I’m wrong—unless you’ve proved you can heal somebody. I became a fan when I witnessed a quite astonishing healing of someone close to me, but less of a fan when I needed them later in life: some practitioners were charging ludicrous fees. I’ve just looked on the Christian Science website just now and their advice, I’m glad to say, concurs with the sensible opinion of any believer: the prayer that reduces fear brings out one’s natural immunity to disease and heals the symptoms of disease.
Another belief I hold, again previously mentioned in this journal, is that globalization, global capitalism, globalism and the so-called global village—call it what you will—is universally, fundamentally, wrong.
This needs some explanation. While spiritually everyone is equal (albeit at varying stages of spiritual development) and should be treated as an equal despite, say, their animosity, in the finite physical world, held by many to be the devil’s province or the solidified crust of the universal spirit—my own opinion being that the so-called devil is simply selfishness—nation states, tribes and individuals need to be respected.
After all, they have arisen for reasons which, though worldly, are crucial: geographical, religious, cultural and so forth. Each is not (as the globalists suppose) different because of ignorance, but rather that they contribute to humanity many positive facets that would otherwise go neglected. They allow in sum a cubist tapestry of existence, valuable in the multiple perspectives they give on the world.
Thus the nation state contains the richness of the ethnicities, tribes or social groups it encompasses, while these groups in turn contain individuals who, each one of us unique, adds a piece to the jigsaw puzzle of what is.
The arguments about globalization go back to the 18th Century and the philosophes. To put it very crudely (I’m remembering this from a secondary source) the cynic Voltaire thought that a pan-global trade was necessary for human beings, as it would satisfy their inherent greed and selfishness, while keeping war in check since that would threaten mutual self-interest. Wealth would filter down all echelons of society this way. Rousseau, on the other hand, thought the outcome would rather be the merchant classes keeping hold of the money and the system functioning off the backs of the poor. Adam Smith agreed with Voltaire and wrote The Wealth of Nations; I didn’t, and voted against Brexit, TTIP and the European Superstate with (thanks to Merkel at the time) unfettered immigration.
One thing Rousseau might have mentioned was the way global capitalism would collapse like a house of cards (or maybe more appropriately a Tower of Babel) once an effect both predictable but deliberately ignored—the propensity for a worldwide plague thanks to massive migration and neglect of borders—came into being.
Being self-isolated, as we currently are, such a collapse is all too evident. We are told to shop online. Hypocritically, perhaps, with my opinions about globalization, I have an Amazon account. Bezos’s outfit was happy to accept our order for a food delivery, offered us slots, then made it impossible to take any up. When I pointed this out to a representative of the behemoth I was told I should have known that Amazon wouldn’t deliver, Amazon respected the fact that their delivery drivers were too afraid to drive their vans, and was met with disbelief when I suggested it would be good professional practice to post a notice on the website saying that Amazon Fresh was suspended.
Returning from Morocco, where Moroccans seem so proud of their nation, once again throws into relief how wretchedly this country has lost all sense of pride and patriotism, subsumed as it is into the septic sludge of greed and trash culture. The media have gleefully replaced the language of great literature with the lowbrow dialect of American capitalism, to the point—and I think it’s deliberate and financially based—where the BBC and Sky, as well as online media, share a diction that indicates we are no more or less than the 51st State. I’ll write again on this topic, but in brief the evidence is that the English Language is going the way of Greek when it became a lingua franca under Alexander the Great, but unlike the Atticists who opposed Greek’s debasement, there appears to be no-one who cares about, or even notices this trend. I’m told it’s not important, but how any nation expresses itself is crucial.
It’s the same with the way we’ve sold off the family silver: other countries protect their iconic brands as part of the national identity, but not us, whether it’s Cadbury’s, British Steel and the old ones, or newer ones whose owners fall over themselves to sell out to Coca-Cola: Innocent, Costa, even the London Eye. We pretend we are the ‘only truly global’ nation, but that is not how others see us.
Just for once we were on a package, taking in Marrakesh, Rabat, Casablanca, Meknes and Fez. We’d been touring for three days when we reached the Granary in Meknes which, to our astonishment, closed the door in our faces. Two police in a nearby car waved us away. It was then our guide, a Berber both arrogant and sly—he praised the pirates of the Barbary Coast, who were in fact slavers, for their vengeance for the deportation of Moors by Ferdinand and Isabella—told us our trip was curtailed, turned round the minibus and took us back on a six hour drive to Marrakesh the way we’d come.
There we kicked our heels for a couple of days under virtual house arrest in a hotel, not knowing what was going on, while, living locally, he went home. We managed to get some information from other groups, whose reps were paying them regular visits until, only after prompting from two fellow travellers, we were messaged by our guide that we would be put on a plane to Birmingham. He did, of course, turn up at the airport for his tips. I know: Judge not, less ye be judged. But his patriarchal nastiness towards Larissa gave me pause when considering just how positively prevailing national traits should be described: this is the flip side of what I said above and the argument for the enlightenment which globalism supposedly brings.
Travel broadens the mind, they say. This may be true for considerate travellers, but mass tourism does not. And one thing the guide did say effectively undermined the prevailing capitalist (i.e. American) philosophy: ‘There’s no point imposing one one country another country’s ideas—unless the second country is ready it will not work, but can only have a negative effect. Change is a slow process and must come from within.’ What is really required is broad education in all nations, through the principle of replacing an empty mind by an open one, and that way we might guarantee peace between nation states.
The journey from Birmingham to London by coach, despite giving us the opportunity to visit several shops, yielded no milk, but luckily a kind couple from York shared theirs with us.
As soon as we could we visited a supermarket the next day, having been unable to find anyone to deliver. The first bus driver wouldn’t stop for us, presumably because we were wearing masks. Once we got there we to found shelves bare of rice, pasta, cook-in sources, potatoes, washing powder and just about everything else that didn’t carry a premium price. There were three staff members guarding the toilet roll aisle, distributing one pack each to shoppers.
Then I realized that the rhyme I’d written three weeks previously, despite my original reservation that it only recorded the words of one person and might be construed as far-fetched, had come true. Here it is again in its second draft—there’s no point improving it further because events have overtaken it—and how:
Coronavirus: The Man in Norwich Market, 28th February 2020
His voice was loud but strangely thin
And you had to look twice for its origin:
Between stalls, face pallid, head close-shaved
Or perhaps balding, thirty-odd years in age,
Small in stature, eyes of greyish stone,
Milking attention right down to the bone.
‘I’ve seen the movies, how them mobs treat you
In these pandemics: smash yer door in two,
Do terrible things to yer kids and wife—
And to protect me an’ mine I’d gladly do life.
We’re out in the sticks, a twenty mile run,
So for our protection I bought the shotgun—
Said it was for rats—’cause nowadays
Yer can’t trust no-one anyways
In this world where dog eats dog eats dog.
‘I’ve trained for this time, I won’t tell a lie,
And I’ve seen on the news how them sods panic-buy,
Like gannets they flock, take all for their selves,
Like a locust plague, leavin’ bare shelves.
So when I’d got the window boards, nails,
The booby-traps, the mornin’ stars, flails,
I thought how much food and drink we’d need
For all them months when we’d be besieged
By rabid gangs of the hungry, diseased,
In this devil-take-the-last-man world.
‘So I bought 100 tins each of beans, toms and Spam,
Fifty boxes of Pringles and a big Spanish ham,
All the pasta and spaghetti they had for sale—
And fifteen six-packs of Lidl’s best ale,
Giant cans of fruit for the kids’ five a day—
Cost me an arm and a leg when I came to pay—
But as I filled up the van it occurred to me
That when the lecky was gone we’d still have to see,
So I got 100 candles so we could sit up at night
‘Cause that’s the one thing that’s needed, the light,
In this survival-of-the-fittest world.
‘Now of course I feel sorry for yer old Gran,
But it’s natural selection, all part of the plan
Of Darwin: Mother Nature always culls the least
Able, like lions take the trailing wildebeest;
And what doesn’t kill yer makes yer strong—
Puttin’ wellie in the old gene pool ain’t wrong,
Gives the next generation braggin’ rights,
Somethin’ to justify all of them fights
In this world which looks after Number One.‘
The brevity and uncertainty of the Moroccan tour produced a single idea for a poem which I may or may not develop (I also came up with a malicious version of Simon Armitage’s ‘It ain’t what you do but what it does to you’—’To be read in a lugubrious voice’—which I’d be well advised to keep to myself):
Marrakesh 18th March 2020: The One that Got Away
It came in a flash at the start of the tour:
The plane had just landed in the dark town
When out of the haze as our vision came clear
A picture emerged in the blink of an eye
Of something I knew I’d have to record;
Something as soon as a pause would allow
Unencumbered access to notebook and pen,
Before it dissolved in the train of events—
Something incongruous, a sleight of the mind,
A glance, perhaps, of some custom or lore
So small in its greatness as to constitute
A significant touchstone or augury,
Or the elusive sound of a long-lost chord,
A ghost on the edge of perdition,
This thought still persists like a fading dream,
Or the name of a star on the tip of the tongue,
With an aftertaste tingling with strangeness
Which nothing that followed could quite surpass:
The Berber script alongside the French,
So alien, as from light years away;
The man with goats’ heads hung from his bike
Annoyed that our interest was piqued;
A stork feeding chicks on her huge Afro pile
Glimpsed through the ogive lighting a tomb;
The Dutch bar bikes in the workshop’s front
Adapted as travelling teashops;
Casablanca’s design as a spider’s web
And the mec at its heart we invited for tea,
Who said the wealth he needed all lay in his mind
Before shamelessly begging for change;
Bougainvillea cascading down ochre walls
In colours not yet graced with names,
In generosity no man could bestow;
The cafe that barred us in case we were sick
But let us drink on the plantpots outside;
The girls in front of the warning signs
Selling henna pour le COVID, garanti;
The Granary scheduled as the next Meknes stop,
Whose door was shut in our faces
While contemptuous policemen gestured us home;
The blue-tape cobweb in the Pharmacie
Hung with signs of Gardez vos distances.
And as we stare from the hotel window,
This comfortable gaol singing with birds
Each trapped like us in a fancy cage,
Considering if ever we’ll again see home,
I wonder if the image so easily lost,
Through its absence rather than meaning,
Were not an omen of something to come;
Or something already arrived.
Finally, when I woke up this morning as a leper in seclusion another sketch for a poem came to me:
Old Age is a sly volcano,
A pyroclastic flow
Which seals with its cold tephra
The contortions of one’s life
In all the mistakes and triumphs
Recorded in its lines;
Are the proportions of excess and lack
In permanence, for all to see
The life you’ve led
In naked judgement.