History Lessons

What will be said, in the future, about the events of the twenty first century?

We still read, write and discuss wars and atrocities of the past. It is constantly said that the ghastly horrors of The Holocaust should never be allowed to happen again. We think that we’ve made progress and we’ve moved on. There are historical novels detailing civil wars, world wars, unspeakable acts perpetrated by countries against others, individuals against their own nations, extremist religious groups against innocent fellow countrymen, random acts of cruelty and subjugation. Movies are made-sometimes heroic, sometimes merely grisly.

Getting towards the later part of life leads to a lot of reflection, which can be irritating for younger generations but is inevitable. They’ll be doing it, too when the time comes.

I remember how horrified and frightened my mother was at the end of her life by the news that an Australian nurse working in Saudi Arabia had received the punitive sentence of some extreme number of lashes. It was more than twenty years ago. Supposing she were around today to learn that dozens of children and teenagers have had their lives and the lives of their families destroyed by a random, pointless deed?

I also remember that Offspring 2 was at uni in London during the events of the July 2007 tube and bus bombings. I was at work on that day and only discovered during a coffee break that the atrocity had occurred. I remember the feeling of terror and foreboding as I tried to reach her by phone and the powerful waves of relief as I finally heard her voice. She’d missed the events by an eyelash, returning to fetch forgotten keys and then attempting to catch a later train. She was stranded but alive. It seemed all that mattered then.

How easy it is to say, ‘We will not be cowed. We will not be threatened and forced to change how we live!’ These are the words of those untouched by the violence and loss.

But the lives of those whose children or parents are lost or maimed have been changed for ever.

There is less of my life in front than behind now. My concerns are more for those generations below mine; with how their lives will pan out and a part of me wants to know how it will be for them in the future. Looking at history in terms of human nature I think it unlikely that there will ever be true ‘peace on Earth’. More probable is the likelihood that climate change will have escalated and usurped human nature in terms of threats.

But what will be learned in history? Because the world seems incapable of learning anything from history so far…

 

About ‘Nora Webster’

I just finished reading Colm Toibin’s ‘Nora Webster’. Although a companion book to the more commercially viable ‘Brooklyn’ which was made into a film, I found it an altogether more thoughtful and evocative novel.

Set in early sixties Ireland, it is the story of widowed Nora’s journey into some kind of independence and happiness following the death of husband, Maurice.

At the beginning of the novel I felt that Nora’s conservative, narrow way of life had everything to do with her staunch Catholic background but as I read on I began to see that the era in which the story is set was itself an era of conservatism. This will resonate with anyone who was born in the fifties as I was.

The story plays out against a background of the Irish troubles, when TV news footage impacts on Nora’s family life in their jittery responses and constant anxiety.

Nora struggles with bringing up her four children, with money and with every decision, since during her marriage she’d looked to teacher husband, Maurice to decide everything. ‘What would Maurice do/say/choose?’ she asks, constantly. My own mother was the same, an unwaged housewife, leaving every decision for my father to make. Her views, like Nora’s were my father’s views. We all holidayed in his preferred destinations, bought things when he wanted them, agreed with his political viewpoint and his wellbeing was paramount in the family. This, I believe was commonplace in the post-war era.

Nora’s children are her preoccupation, a constant worry as she has to find a job and keep it under some trying circumstances. At first she either relies on advice from family or makes knee-jerk decisions which she then regrets. But gradually she learns to trust her own judgement and gains confidence. She finds joy in the appreciation of music and takes singing lessons.

The older of Nora’s sons exhibits behaviour which we would now realise is autistic, being disruptive in class and obsessing about photography. The behaviour deteriorates in the time after Maurice’s death. One of her daughters, Aine becomes involved in the struggles and the other, Fiona, a student teacher wants to spread her wings and spend money that Nora doesn’t have.

Most of these difficulties are likely to plague any single parent today. Juggling the needs of a family and the imperative to hold down a job is a tricky business. The problems that Nora experiences are no more trivial for the children being older.

Nora is a complex character, reserved but at the same time feisty. I liked how she stood up to a difficult manager at work and manoeuvred herself into a better position. She is constrained by her religion and influenced by the religious figures in her life. In many ways this is a feminist novel. I wish I could say that life is completely different for women today but there are still too many outstanding inequalities to address.

Who wouldn’t want a Wacky Wedding?

The story that grabbed most of my attention this week was the Pastafarian wedding. This was held in New Zealand, at the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The wedding was conducted on a pirate ship with guests and groom in full pirate regalia and the bride sported some groovy headgear featuring a colander.

This is impressive. Not only has the couple flouted tradition and stuck a finger up to the fantasy of organised religion but the wedding has been sanctioned by the New Zealand government to boot! From what I can gather, Pastafarians believe that one may as well have faith in a deity that formed the Earth from pasta and meatballs as one that accepts the dead coming back to life or getting seventeen virgins for becoming a martyr.

I would think this couple stands a very good chance of having a prolonged and happy married life which, as we old marrieds know is enhanced by retaining as much of a sense of fun as possible and lacing the union with a healthy dash of cynicism.

Husband has his own theory on the subject of weddings and marriage [from observation rather than any rigorous scientific study]. It is that there is a direct correlation between amount of money spent on ‘The Day’ and duration of marriage. This is to say that more money=less years of matrimonial bliss. This may come some way towards explaining why the cost of our own nuptials amounted to the princely sum of thirty five pounds [exactly the price of the marriage license]. We rose, dressed [in clean, but previously worn] outfits, drove to the register office, met the two friends who’d been coerced into witnessing and did the deed.

The meeting with the [somewhat bemused] registrar was a little tricky due to his producing a small cushion for us to deposit the rings. Husband [pre-Husband at this time] looked bewildered and told him we didn’t have any rings. I feel I showed great presence of mind at this point by offering to use the ring I’d used for my first wedding. This isn’t as bad as it sounds because it had been my paternal grandmother’s ring and although I’d used it for my first marriage I had simply transferred it to the other hand when all turned to ratchet. It had only, now to be returned to my ring finger. The ceremony lasted all of fifteen minutes then we were off across the road to the pub, where my friend unveiled the secret objects she’d been carrying in a supermarket carrier bag-a cake plus a carving knife.

We returned home, married, to prepare for a proper knees-up that evening. It just happened to be my birthday. In spite of spending the princely sum of thirty five pounds we have managed to stay married-for a whole thirteen years-not the accumulation many of our peers have amassed but creditable for ‘second-time-rounders’.

Laugh and the World Laughs with You?

An old man goes to a church, and is making a confession:Man: “Father, I am 75 years old. I have been married for 50 years. All these years I had been faithful to my wife, but yesterday I was intimate with an 18 year old.” Father: “When was the last time you made a confession?” 

Man: “I never have, I am Jewish.” 

Father: “Then why are telling me all this?”
Man: “I’m telling everybody!”

Is this religious joke offensive? It might be deemed by either Catholics or Jews to be so, although I doubt it-because all of those of Catholic or Jewish faiths that I have ever known have had mature, balanced senses of humour. All of them would be able to enjoy, share or even initiate a joke about their own religion and I believe people of the Jewish faith, particularly are fond of Jewish jokes.

The world has experienced a dispiriting couple of weeks. The ghastly events in France, more grim action in Belgium and Germany.

In Saudi Arabia a perfectly peaceful man who wished to share his views has not only been imprisoned for them but is to publicly flogged every week for months. Again in Saudi Arabia unseasonal snow has led many to commit the sin of having fun by constructing snowmen. The building of snowmen is now forbidden. If you were to read this in a satirical magazine it would be funny, but it isn’t-it’s true.

In Nigeria such horrendous atrocities have been committed in the name of religion that it is difficult to believe humans can have wrought them.

To me, a sense of humour is one of the most basic qualities of humanity. One of the fundamentals that sets us aside from the animal kingdom and makes us recognisable to each other. Aside from crying in order to address its most pressing needs, a baby’s first communication is generally a smile, followed swiftly by laughter.

The ability to be self-deprecating, to not only participate and enjoy in a joke against yourself, your appearance, your age, your gender, your disability or your race but to tell one; this must be one of the most engaging aspects of any personality.

Whatever has happened to the world? Have vast swathes of people had sense of humour amputations? Or has some odd mutation taken place that has resulted in them being born without it?

Nevertheless there are still many brave, balanced, intelligent people prepared to satirise religions, and still some who will joke about their own faith-even Islam.

For myself, I am an atheist. If anyone wishes to joke about atheism I would be delighted. I take my atheism very seriously, but not as seriously as my dedication to humour and to humanity.

Worldly Troubles? I blame God…

                When my brothers and I were small children we were sent to Sunday school. We would begin on Sunday mornings by undertaking a thorough cleaning of our shoes [in my case it was most likely Clarks sandals with the cut out flower in the toe] then have to walk down through the village to the church and into a small section of the vestry where we would listen to Bible stories and sing along to a hymn:

                ‘Jesus bids us shine with a steadfast light

                Like a little candle burning in the night

                In this world of darkness we can shine

                You in your small corner

                And I in mine’

was a favourite.

                The best part of Sunday school was the stamp, gravely distributed and stuck on to a card as proof of attendance.

                My parents did not accompany us to these privileged gatherings, preferring to stay at home and enjoy the Sunday morning free of us-and who can blame them? My father was, in those days an occasional Church goer. But my mother was an unabashed, self-confessed atheist- brought up a Catholic, schooled in convents where [allegedly] she was beaten with a rubber slipper, until all vestige of religious belief was truly eradicated.

                Having learned at Sunday school that life after death was a trip to heavenly paradise I would sit on my mother’s lap and seek reassurance from her that this was assuredly the case, only to be told that death was ‘like a candle being snuffed out’. There was that candle theme again.

                The hypocrisy of sending us to Sunday school whilst admitting died-in-the-wool atheism appeared to present no qualms for my mother. Presumably the opportunity to off load us for a morning was compelling enough to overcome them. In any case my father put in a sporadic appearance at church at that time.

                Some years later, long after I’d begun to acquire my own lack of belief an aunt wrote to tell me it was time for me to become ‘confirmed’-an undertaking I took very little time to decide upon. I wrote back [extraordinarily politely for a mardy teenager] explaining that I didn’t know if I wanted to be a member of the Church of England-or indeed any church, come to that.

                Later still, when my own children came into being there was pressure from family members to have them christened, as I had been. I held out. They might want to be Buddhists, Hindus or atheists. Who was I to choose a religion for them?- And if I did, what was to stop them from rebelling, as all self respecting teenagers should?

                Because that is what I find baffling about indoctrination. Yes, small children are little sponges who soak up knowledge, skills or gobbledegook indiscriminately, only to rage against everything they’ve been taught as soon as a hormone raises its head above the window sill. So how come fervent devotion to religion is still rampant in the world, causing mayhem, war and suffering? And what ‘God’ would allow it all to happen?

Literature, Religion and the Other Thing

                We have come to Ireland, just as I am reading Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’. Set in London, against the background of 1976’s long, hot summer it is the story of an Irish family’s struggle with the disappearance of the patriarch, a plot device that serves to bring together the disparate adult children with all their demons including abortion, infidelity and dyslexia. When we travel I like to read a work of fiction that relates to the location I’m in, such as ‘Winter in Madrid’ by C J Sansom, when in Spain last year, although the selection of reading material is sometimes by design but more often by accident.

                The summer of 1976 stands out in my memory as no other for its exceptional heat-wave that seemed to last forever. I was working in Putney, London, in a special school-the best teaching job I ever had. There were 12 children in my class in a purpose built school made almost entirely of glass. The kindly, avuncular head teacher insisted we take our children out on to the grass under the trees each afternoon to avoid overheating so we decamped into the al fresco, where I then acquired the best tan of my life, and all before the holidays.

                It shames me to say I’ve only ever been for a short visit to Dublin before, despite my advanced years and the proximity of the emerald isle, but at least I’ve got around to it now.

                For a small country, Ireland seems to have produced a huge number of literary giants; James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, Maeve Binchy, Samuel Becket and Oscar Wilde, to name a few. It makes me wonder if one’s origins need to be rooted in a country with a strong history of religious conflict, poverty, oppression and hardship in order to be able to achieve success in writing. But perhaps I’m merely using lack of robust historical identity as an excuse for my own shortcomings!

                We spent our first day striding out on the coast path in a warm breeze, along strands of boulder strewn beaches in the company of seabirds. There were few other walkers, except for a couple we passed and exchanged pleasantries with. “Bless St Steven for the good weather”, the woman exhorted, startling me with this first glimpse into the Irish psyche. Later we came to ‘Our Lady Island’ where there was a special well and a shrine. Turning inland I was struck by the plethora of lurid, newly built bungalows, personalised with eccentric faux period features-stone cladding, gable adornments or pretend Georgian windows. A considerable number featured white, plaster columns at the door. Perhaps some salesman with an eye for the main chance had passed that way? Despite their proximity to the coast, none of the bungalows actually faced out to the Irish Sea for a stupendous view, although judging by the number of crumbling stone piles littering the countryside a sea view must once have been a desirable aspect. Tractors outnumbered cars by about five to one here in the lanes.

                Passing through the countryside and the villages sweeps me back in time, as in New Zealand, to my fifties childhood, when there was a village garage, a dairy, a rustic barn of hay bales and an overgrown churchyard, although without the eternal summer!