Category Archives: General

Feeling green

Does Ireland deliberately time its referendums to coincide with the Hay Festival? Three years ago we listened to Colm Tóibín rejoice at the outcome of the vote on same-sex marriage, and on Saturday we shared Roddy Doyle’s euphoria at the victory on access to abortion, even though its true proportions were as yet unknown.

On both occasions there was genuine delight from British members of the audience at the steps Ireland was taking, as Doyle put it, to move from the nineteenth century to the twenty first. And at the same time a degree of envy as well. To see our near neighbours awash with the optimism uncorked by progressive change cast a doleful shadow over the situation here. In 2015 we were still reflecting on the sense of national renewal which characterised the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum and wishing the same spirit could somehow be discovered here. This time round we had the even more depressing comparison with Brexit, which seems (to the defeated side in that poll) so insular, backward-looking and mean-spirited.

There was talk of a reverse exodus, with the Irish diaspora flooding home; and reference was made to the number of British people applying to Dublin for passports. ‘Including civil servants,’ Doyle told us with a mischievous twinkle. ‘You should be worried.’

We are.

House rules

On our way back from holiday, feeling not gloomy on account of the weather but favoured by the rain’s perfect timing, we passed a large construction site on which a new housing development was going up. It appeared to be a greenfield project, judging by the wood to one side and remnants of pasture round the edges. I always find it depressing to see yet more of the natural world torn up to meet our needs, and the familiar depression settled over me now. But from that sentiment a well-trodden path winds through the debate on our housing crisis and its possible solutions.

People need roofs over their heads, it is rightly said, the crisis urgent, a solution long overdue. My objections are those of les satisfaits whose own needs have already been met (to which sanctimony our house, being converted from a barn, adds an extra pinch of double-standards). It is also pointed out that the proportion of the country which has been built upon remains astonishingly small (6% in the latest survey). And besides, there is little natural about the British landscape. The field whose fringes alone have escaped this latest uprooting is the result of clearances and deforestation stretching back two thousand years. My lamentations, in other words, delivered from the comfort of a passing car, are crocodile tears. Bring on the diggers. Let new estates rise.

All of which is true, or at least important to acknowledge. My response is an emotional one open to obvious refutation. Will brownfield sites really provide the space we need? Can building upwards be justified after Grenfell Tower? Am I not primarily concerned to preserve my own cosy, semi-rural way of life?

But on this occasion it is not the ravaged greensward that affronts me so much as the giant hoarding which advertises the homes rising from the fertile but expendable mud. To begin with, judging by the dwellings pictured, they do not address the need for social housing, our most pressing area of deprivation, no matter how many rabbit hutches are squeezed, at least notionally, into the plan. Secondly, they conform to all the blandest and most outmoded stereotypes of domestic architecture whose references always seem to be backward-looking, down to the obligatory splashes of Tudor black-and-white. It might serve as a metaphor for the national predicament. Unable to imagine a future for ourselves, we turn to the past for solace and solutions. Thirdly, there is no foregrounding of energy efficiency, two decades after the full menace of climate change became clear. Double-glazing-as-standard is so far short of what is needed it may serve as our epitaph.

Original, environmentally-sensitive buildings with cutting-edge design: are these to be found anywhere? Of course they are. A recent (perhaps still current) series on ITV tours the most astonishing houses in the world, self-indulgent palaces occupied (or sometimes just visited as a second home) by the obscenely rich. The architects, with their Thunderbirds dress-sense and tortoiseshell glasses, talk of inspiration, partnership with the client and innovative materials. Not once, that I have seen at least, does anyone query the lavishing of so much talent and treasure on the foibles of the uber smug and well-heeled. Why can’t the discipline of architecture, and the distribution of wealth, focus instead on the urgent tasks facing mankind in its social and environmental extremity?

Of course, it will be argued that people don’t like modern architecture. Charles Windsor is their guru in such matters, not Richard Rogers. And it is part of my case that architects should descend from their shards and gherkins, their phallic symbols and ivory towers, to engage with popular taste and needs. But in this, as in so many areas, a younger generation is less wedded to convention in all areas of life, only to find its outwardness and optimism squatted on (as in the Brexit vote) by those of greater age and smaller imaginations. It is also true that few of us are educated in or about design. Taste does not arise spontaneously, nor should it be imposed from above. Something so important to both public and private spheres should be on the curriculum along with other forms of creativity and appreciation. Instead of which our schools are being turned into businesses with over-rewarded management, cramped syllabuses and Fordist methods of learning. It is from the visionary, as well as from each other, that we have become, like our houses, semi-detached.

Pale around the Gills

One of those odd coincidences occurred recently which set one thinking about an issue raised by two, otherwise unrelated events. On the day we visited the museum in Ditchling, East Sussex I happened to finish reading Falstaff, the novel by Robert Nye, and both experiences set me thinking about morality in art.

Ditchling Common was the home, for a few years, of the community of craftspeople and makers led by Eric Gill. Gill’s genius as an engraver, designer of typefaces and sculptor has been tarnished, to put it mildly, by revelations about some rather less savoury predilections, which included having sex with one or more of his daughters and trying it on with a dog. It is an old dilemma: should we countenance the work of someone so compromised or order its removal from public view? In favour of leniency it may be argued that Gill’s lettering and engraving (including many war memorials) are beyond reproach, anonymous when encountered and too widely disseminated to be recalled like a faulty car part. His sculpture, meanwhile, is largely religious in flavour (he was a fervent if oddball Catholic) and may serve the useful, if unintended purpose, of debunking that sort of piety. In fact, apart from diary entries, only a few, rarely-seen drawings of his daughter hint at something off-colour and theirs would be a relatively minor loss if we decided to avert our eyes. Even in this case, however, a more adult approach would surely be to trust one’s own judgement and immunity to being depraved.

To these specific circumstances may be added a more generic defence. The dead lie outside our jurisdiction. By deleting their work (even supposing that were possible in Gill’s case) we would be punishing not them but ourselves. Instead, cases like his might be used to investigate the pathology of genius and perversion, extremes of the human spirit still insufficiently understood.

There rests the case for a kind of suspended sentence where posterity is concerned. The trouble is, given the peculiar nastiness of child abuse, even I am not totally convinced. The sexual predators recently exposed are not able to continue their careers in a part of life kept separate from any moral or criminal offence. In such cases the awfulness is the man. Can something similar not be applied retrospectively when the miscreant is immune to censure or due process? Or would that result in galleries being half-empty, libraries with closed doors?

Which brings me to Nye’s brilliant, innovative novel. First published in 1976, it purports to be Falstaff’s own account of his life using what appears about him in Shakespeare supplemented by much highly impressive research. The exaggeration and self-mythologising are rampant, blatant and explicit by turns, much of the obscenity concerning his exploits with an (in modern parlance) under-age niece. One commonly-used (and often self-serving) mitigation of inappropriateness is that it dates from, or refers to, an earlier time when the moral climate was different from our own. In a case such as this, however, the question arises: which timeframe are we talking about?

In the fifteenth century child brides and the debauching of innocence were commonplace. By our own standards, life was brutish and short. Women and girls were chattels or vessels for men’s pleasure and progeny. In a work of fiction is it not possible, even praiseworthy, to make this clear, or should my pleadings be dismissed as the speciousness of a man who enjoys reading dirty books?

The second context is that in which the book first appeared. Here a different set of considerations apply. Nye was writing less than twenty years after the Lady Chatterley trial, when Britain’s old obscenity laws bit the dust. People were still testing the boundaries of what was possible or artistically justified. And the emphasis on liberation, sexual and otherwise, ushered in by the 1960s had yet to give way as a prevalent cultural force to materialism and personal greed. In his writing Nye was an innovator, as I shall shortly explain; but he was also a creature of his times, both empowered and constrained by commercial reality and cultural assumptions. To break moulds is still to be defined by them.

The third epoch is, of course, our own, when a character like Falstaff – rumbustious, licentious, self-aggrandizing – is more likely to be seen through the prism of male entitlement. The books exist, there is no going back on that; but it is unlikely we shall see a new edition while justice is still being sought for the victims of sexual abuse. We read or view or listen with current events looking over our shoulders, and it is impossible to read the passages regarding Miranda, the niece, without wincing at their impropriety. But two things redeem Nye’s project, both of them entirely in keeping with the times. Firstly, the women he writes about are endowed with agency, as current jargon would have it. Miranda herself, and Doll Tearsheet the bawd, are strong, feisty and, yes, lusty characters not passive victims of Falstaff’s appetites. Secondly, none of it is true – and not just in the sense that this is a story. In Sir John, Nye gives us an early and almost unmatched instance of the unreliable narrator, since established as a staple of the post-modern novel. Not only is this clear from what we know of the man from Shakespeare’s plays; the book contains a clever device which enables someone to contradict what the old man is saying. True, the passages involving Miranda can still cause offence as male fantasy, with possible implications for the author’s state of mind. But, like any great work of art, his book exists in the unique space it has made for itself, at arm’s length from its creator and from reality while embracing and, for this reader at least, enriching life.


Half Marx

Recently I came across the following words by Karl Marx, quoted in a local campaign against the bigoted, insular spirit of our age:

“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit,  the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes.  This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

In the interests of relevance, ‘this antagonism’ is glossed as hostility towards immigrants and refugees. So far so good. However, being unfamiliar with the passage, I carry out an internet search and find the source to be a letter written in April 1870 whose context and purpose do not translate so neatly to the present day.

To begin with, the antagonism referred to by Marx was directed not towards immigration in general or other races per se, but quite specifically at the Irish. The difference may appear small but it troubles me. Regarding accuracy as optional or inconvenient is a slippery slope. Putting words into someone’s mouth invites the charge of deceit, diverting attention from the argument being made. Of course, there are similarities between the two cases. The Irish had been driven from their homes by poverty and famine, both consequences of British rule, enabling parallels to be drawn with some forms of modern immigration. But only some. Lumping together refugees, economic migrants and targeted recruitment is a tactic of the Right designed to replace analysis with antipathy. Fudging those distinctions helps no one, even with a better end in view.

Secondly, the encouragement of hostility to which Marx refers had a no less particular motive. The ruling class derived much of its wealth, and therefore power, from estates in Ireland and feared being dispossessed by a nationalist government in Dublin, thereby losing their hold on England as well. By rousing popular opinion against the Fenians, landlords contrived to make the proletariat complicit in its own oppression.

Or so Marx contended. I am neither equipped nor inclined to argue the point, although his apparent conflation of aristocrats and capitalists makes for good polemic and bad history. No, what concerns me here is its application to the present day, when the forces ranged against social democracy look somewhat less monolithic. The pulpit, in the form of organised religion, is at worst timidly conformist while many voices, ranging from Pope Francis to individuals in the Church of England, cry out against the injustices being perpetrated in the name of patriotism and self-interest. Meanwhile the modern equivalent of ‘the comic papers’ are generally progressive in their attitudes, and liable to be lambasted for it by the Daily Mail. In fact, the cultural establishment is mostly at odds with modern populism, whose cheerleaders claim the status of insurgents against an out-of-touch elite. In other words, the picture is more complex than in Marx’s time and the Left has no monopoly on claims to victimhood.

Nonetheless, large sections of the print media do incite hostility towards ‘the other’ just as they have always done, to sell papers and advance their interests more generally. But here, too, a change has taken place since Marx’s time, when their aim was to defend an entrenched position. Now their project is to bring about a re-ordering of the world, overturning the gains that have been made in tax-funded public provision. Once again, the Left is forced into the unaccustomed position of defending aspects of the status quo while its opponents don the mantle of insurgency that appeals to the discontented. Historical analogy is all well and good, but luxuriating in the certainties of the past is seldom a recipe for clear thinking.

Perhaps I am making too much of this, the differences between then and now only of academic interest. But we live in febrile times when fake news, post-truth politics and Twitter blurts are threatening to swamp mature, fact-based deliberation. All of this has been widely lamented, but with little sense of how the tide can be stemmed. And because it is hard not to become infected, with social media appealing to our worst instincts in this regard, there is a danger that discourse on the democratic left (which has form of its own when it comes to loose talk and conspiracy theories) will slip into the same bad habits, taking things out of context, fighting liar with liar. The best riposte to the forces of Trumpery is being more accurate, thoughtful and precise than before, even at the expense of rhetorical effect. Better to err on the side of pedantry than be dragged down to their level.

[Note: see here for the full text of Marx’s letter.]

John Berger

The death of John Berger has robbed us of a serious, penetrating and original intelligence, at a time when such qualities are sorely needed. The range of his work, as revealed by obituaries and other articles celebrating his life, came as a surprise to me, a reflection on my own laziness, no doubt, but also on our culture’s antipathy to the intellectual, which was the reason he took himself off to France. The piece I know best, because it was personally useful, is A Fortunate Man, the study he wrote of his doctor in the Forest of Dean. I started reading this in connection with the family history I have been writing, in the first volume of which our GP has a walk-on part. I was looking for perspective on that first generation of NHS doctors: what they made of their new status and of the ordinary people now entitled to call on their services. But Berger’s account steadfastly refused to be what I expected, going its own way with a doggedness that seemed ideological yet responsive to the subject. One passage comes to mind, where he takes apart the notion of common sense on which the doctor’s patients (I almost said parishioners) based their view of the world. It made me think of my father, of whom the same might be said, and of how I could make that point without coming across as superior or judgemental. Berger avoids those twin perils by dint of a head-scratching kind of honesty one can imagine being turned on himself. There is no room in this aesthetic for special effects which is why I never entirely warmed to his style. Its brow is always furrowed. There seems little evidence of delight in language. But that is because the purpose is always paramount: thinking one’s way behind the surface of things and challenging others to follow. It is our loss if we only look at the sky when there are fireworks.

Reading A Fortunate Man made me see that my treatment of our family doctor had been superficial, his reappearance in the second volume capable of something more interesting and significant. In the process, it may not be an exaggeration to say that Berger changed my ideas about what it means to write. Having always thought about this in terms of self-exposure – how much to reveal, what distance to keep from the subject and from the reader – I now see it as a means of self-realisation, an opportunity to make a statement about who one is that rarely occurs outside the realm of artistic expression. Secondly, but tied up with this, I had been struggling with a definition for the path my own work had taken, away from fiction, which I expected to be my trade, and towards something more fact-based, if still hopefully creative. Unwilling to privilege either of these directions, still less to let one of them go, I seized on Berger’s notion of storytelling as a means of bringing them together.  Storytelling has become very fashionable recently, with cafés devoted to the craft and open mic slots at festivals. Unkindly, I think of it as the literary equivalent of Morris dancing, a slight embarrassment however ancient its roots. Needless to say, however, the author of G and The Seventh Man had a more serious object in view: storytelling as praxis, as a means of making us engage more deeply with the world and what it means to be human. That my projects, ostensibly so unrelated as to seem haphazard, might follow his example by sharing a principled approach or concern has had a profound effect, altering the way I view every word as it appears on the page or screen. It may even qualify as inspiration, although, in keeping with the spirit of the man, I am still thinking about that.

Virgin territory

I read in the Guardian that a potential asset swap between Vodofone and Liberty Global, the owners of Virgin Media, has been shelved. Their failure to agree has caused Vodofone’s share price to fall although some kind of merger is still on the cards. This item of news appears in the business pages, a section of the paper I usually skip; but the article is accompanied by a picture of Usain Bolt who never fails to catch the eye. It comes from the Virgin Media advertisements in which he appears wearing football kit and twirling a ball on his finger. Some of the television commercials feature walk-on parts for Richard Branson from which it seemed reasonable to assume that he still owned the company. Now I discover that it has been bought by a multinational.

Does this matter? After all, what they are getting for their money has always been more important to consumers than the technicality of who owns the brand. Takeovers and mergers are defended as a sign of the market rationalising production and supply. So what if the new proprietors of Virgin Media bought rights to the original merchandising – and Branson’s continued endorsement? They are ensuring access to customer loyalty and offering a better service in return.

This kind of argument is beloved of business schools, stock exchanges and management consultants. But I speak as someone who likes his money to follow his conscience. My pound is red, green and grey, a colour scheme ill-served by the present dispensation – likewise democracy, the environment and other absentees from the bottom line.

Globalisation, the predominance of finance capital and the latest surge towards concentration of ownership have created a layer of corporate reality more removed from the everyday experience, let alone control, of ordinary people than ever before. I might disapprove of a company’s activities – selling formula milk to African mothers, for example – but if its involvement with other products is concealed how can I exercise my right to boycott its goods? What guarantee do I have that the profits earned on my purchases are not finding their way through the labyrinth of corporate ownership to a mogul who finances climate change denial, for example, or backs a political party I disagree with? Perhaps, coming back to Virgin Media, I have bought into the mystique of Richard Branson as a free-wheeling Everyman who stands up for the little guy against the business establishment and believe that buying my internet connection or TV channels from him is a vote for home-grown talent and the spirit of free enterprise, when in reality he has sold out to a vast holding company whose controlling interest seems to be American.

Of course there is usually something in small print on the contract or tin. And it is possible to research online although in my experience only Wikipedia provides an objective (but not necessarily accurate) account of a company’s background and structure. But all of this is hard work: who has the time? It is far easier not to worry; to gratify what the adverts say are my needs and desires without reference to where the money is going; to get the best deal and treat the consequences as something beyond anyone’s control, like the weather or fate. Why bother about accountability when you can have a few pounds off your wifi connection? Let the planet go hang: I can watch X Factor on my phone.

Comrade robot

The estimable John Lanchester has been at it again – reading things the rest of us are too dense or lazy to wade through then writing about them in the London Review of Books. This time the subject is work and the threat to employment from robots and computers. In fact the real targets are the ones he skewered in previous essays on the financial crisis – the incredibly rich who will at the present rate become even more incredibly richer. But more of that in a moment.

The evidence for the trends Lanchester itemises is compelling: the rate of growth in processing power and in the profitability of companies working in that field (with Apple’s latest, record-breaking profits still fresh in the mind); studies which predict with convincing levels of detail the types of jobs that will be replaced by machines (mostly unskilled or semi-skilled, you will not be surprised to hear); particularly egregious examples of automation such as the Kiva robots in Amazon’s ‘fulfilment centres ‘and Google’s driverless car.

Fortunately Lanchester returns unscathed from his visit to Geekland and puts all this gadgetry and wirelessness into unfashionably human and historical terms. The direction of travel being taken by the world economy threatens to bring about extremes of unequal wealth that make our present dispensation seem fair and even-handed. More, that bitch who worked for Margaret Thatcher has returned. I mean Tina (There is no alternative), whose message dominates the headlines and the airwaves. But Lanchester points out a fly in the neo-liberal ointment. Whereas societies have adjusted to previous spates of technologically-driven job losses by creating new opportunities and having time to smooth the transition, the next round of blood-letting may prove too much, too fast for even our comatose populations to stomach. And in any case, Lanchester asks: who will buy the products of this new industrial revolution if so many people are made poor?

A number of thoughts occur. Firstly, haven’t we been here before? The central contradiction in capitalism pointed out by Marx goes as follows: if capital reaps all the surplus value and labour goes begging there is insufficient demand for the goods created. A number of developments put off that crunch point, imperialism for starters, then democratic socialism’s efforts at redistribution: but perhaps now we are reaching point where the chickens finally come home to roost.

Secondly, whatever happened to the dialectic? The Chinese (and the Russians before them) thought you could go straight from feudalism to socialism, skipping the bit in-between, only to find this wasn’t possible. Similarly the strain of anarchism I used to espouse believed the state could be made to wither away without needing its commanding heights to be seized by a vengeful proletariat. I still have my copy of Post-Scarcity Anarchism by Murray Bookchin which reckoned the bourgeoisie had created the pre-conditions for communism even before computers shrank from the size of restaurants to lunch boxes. Might this yet come to pass or must we still endure the violence and power-grabbing of revolution?

The trouble is we lack persuasive visions of what a better future might look like. Lanchester invokes William Morris, but if he is known at all it is mostly as the name behind some nice wallpapers. Marx himself died without giving a clear picture of where we should be heading, so that when his disciples got the chance to implement his ideas, most notably in the Soviet Union they made a virtue out of the need for a wartime command economy. In more recent times arguments for the Left have been driven from mainstream culture. The message, therefore is clear. As well as the activists who work to bring about change we need theorists to show us how  superfast processing and robotic drudges can be used to make society more, not less democratic. And we need dreamers to imagine a new world worth struggling for.

The man who put the ‘sod’ in ‘episodic’

In an article reviewing recent books about Lucien Freud, the novelist Julian Barnes draws a distinction between two types of people: the ‘episodicists’ and the ‘narrativists’. The former are unable or unwilling to accept connections between events, still less their own responsibility for them. The latter recognise and act upon such linkages, accommodating limits to their personal desires. With respect to their work, argues Barnes, artists fall inevitably into the second camp as each brushstroke, note composed or written word affects and is affected by those around it. Their private lives may be different. Freud, with his insistence on being ruled by impulse unconstrained by obligations to others, notably his countless children, was the episodicist par excellence; a controller, in another of Barnes’ binaries, who used sex as a means of enforcing submission in women. That is if we believe his unlikely confidant, the bookie Victor Chandler. ‘Talk to Victor’ says the latter’s current series of advertisements and Freud, it seems, often did.

What is at stake here is the old question of whether an artist’s personal life has anything to do with his or her art. Barnes’ hero, Flaubert is quoted approvingly in the negative: ‘I have no biography’. And he is right to point out that the subjects of past portraits and the character, even identity of their painters have been lost sight of without preventing us from judging the pictures on their own merits. Additionally there is the well-known tendency of works of art to take on a life of their own. Once exposed to public and critical reaction the artist’s intention when producing them is easily overtaken by the effect they have on others, who may be in a better position to glimpse the personal and social forces flowing through the work but may equally twist it to their own ends or misunderstand it entirely. Either way, the artist’s take on what they have produced becomes one of many voices competing for attention and in those circumstances his or her biography might be thought of as less important.

Thus if we were to come across Freud’s paintings without knowing who he was what would be left is the impression made on our senses by the splayed nudes, blotchy skin and general air of hateful but forensic curiosity. It is a palette and a world view that demands attention for its brilliance, singularity and lack of compromise. You cannot gaze on the results without experiencing a degree of stress to your own fragile sense of hopefulness and well-being.

But the question can be turned round. In the unlikely event hypothesised above, the onlooker’s curiosity would be aroused with regard to the person, evidently male, who produced such images – the misanthrope who sees ugliness everywhere except in horses, the seer with such insight into the human condition. The artist’s processing of reality is not sufficient in isolation. The relationship between creator and creation absorbs us at least as much. That, presumably is why museums and galleries cannot help speculating about the medieval man whose sallow flesh and piercing eyes transfix us anonymously, or the artist behind the striking but unattributed crucifixion; and why, in the literary sphere, we continue to scratch the itch that is Shakespeare’s personality.

At its most shallow this focus on the person responsible for what we are looking at, reading or listening to approaches celebrity culture or the values of the auction room, where a signature is what determines when the gavel falls. More genuinely it is concerned with the act of transubstantiation whereby a person’s nature and experience generates something external to themselves, be it image, song or piece of prose. And that concern is extended to the people who nurtured, influenced or even hampered the talent in question. Creativity is so important to our conception of ourselves as individuals and collectively that it matters whether it is won at the cost of ruthlessness towards others.
Freud was at least true to his episodicist nature, refusing to indulge the cult of fame or notoriety that was eager to attach itself to his name. The paintings were events, isolated and moved on from. He took no responsibility for what people made of them. Now that he is gone however our fascination with him is all that remains: there will be no more canvasses. If, as a result he seems overly pathological to some it cannot be unrelated to the story of himself and his times, any more than the revelatory candour praised by others can be innocent of his remorseless attitude towards those he fucked, fathered and drew. In any case, how can we not want to know what makes someone dwell upon the deceit of human flesh when another story can be told, of its brief perfection – if only in the hope of proving him wrong?

Of course Barnes’ two categories are at opposite ends of a spectrum which, as with most ranges of behaviour we move along for our own comfort and convenience. So it must be when responding to art. That means not divorcing the work from the life as a matter of principle or judging one by the other in a moralising way, but holding them in suspension alongside each other. It is a form of critical multi-tasking that chooses whether to ignore the artist’s character, erect memorials to their victims while still saluting their victory – or rule that the paint, music or words are more tainted than even genius can allow. As details of his career continue to emerge the second category is the best Lucien Freud can hope for – not that he would have cared.


Another Christmas Day begins with the wind taking a breather outside and no sign of a flood. It is noticeable how often we have used the’ biblical’ to describe conditions this week. Somehow neither the colloquial nor the scientific feels up to the job. ‘Storm’ fails to convey the violence of the gales, rain and hail or the sense, abetted by previous incidents that these are the birth agonies of a new and less favourable order; while ‘extreme weather event’ wears a white coat when the dress code is defiantly party frock or gloomily sackcloth and ashes.

That people who regard themselves as atheists or agnostics can still make use of religious references is part of the cultural as opposed to meteorological transformation we have been going through. Regret is still voiced that the traditional pieties of Christmas have been lost sight of; and certainly their obliteration by the cargo cult of i-phones, tablets and the like is ugly to behold. This time, it seems Man really has bitten the Apple. But in many houses, including ours the things being celebrated are no less sacred, even though they are detached from dogma. Love for one’s family, generosity of spirit, the sharing of food in the harshness of midwinter, not to mention peace on earth and goodwill to all men – these have been hijacked by religions and made to seem inventions of some holy book but are in reality human values or aspirations arising from the experience of life. And if Christmas is the occasion when their secular nature comes to the fore that is only what Christians did with the pagan practices they overthrew, using the days, rituals and architecture they found in place to imbue new orthodoxies with old habits of mind and belief. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

Of course whatever new synthesis of past wisdom and present understanding emerges will in no time seem preposterous to some and in turn be superseded. That is the way of things. Meanwhile, until that new formulation emerges and an alternative greeting hits the spot I am delighted to wish anyone reading this (itself some sort of miracle) a merry Christmas. Now, where’s that turkey…