Friday, November 26, 2021

The Law of Human Nature

This is another post of quotes from books I've read recently. These two occur early in C S Lewis' Mere
Christianity, which I've certainly read a couple of times, if not more. It isn't always an easy book, and you wonder, when the first sections were broadcast as talks, how the listeners were able to keep up. Plainly they did, and the enthusiasm for the talks was such that they were very quickly published in the form of three separate pamphlets, and then into a single book. This book remains one of the top-selling Christian books of all time, and has been instrumental in changing the lives of many a reader. 

The law of gravity tells you what stones do if you drop them; but the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not. In other words, when you are dealing with humans, something else comes in above and beyond the actual facts. You have the facts (how men do behave) and you also have something else (how they ought to behave). In the rest of the universe there need not be anything but the facts. Electrons and molecules behave in a certain way, and certain results follow, and that may be the whole story.* But men behave in a certain way and that is not the whole story, for all the time you know that they ought to behave differently.

Notice the following point. Anyone studying Man from the outside as we study electricity or cabbages, not knowing our language and consequently not able to get any inside knowledge from us, but merely observing what we did, would never get the slightest evidence that we had this moral law. How could he? for his observations would only show what we did, and the moral law is about what we ought to do. In the same way, if there were anything above or behind the observed facts in the case of stones or the weather, we, by studying them from outside, could never hope to discover it.

A little later he says:

Do not think I am going faster than I really am. I am not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology. All I have got to is a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong. I think we have to assume it is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know—because after all the only other thing we know is matter and you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions. But, of course, it need not be very like a mind, still less like a person. In the next chapter we shall see if we can find out anything more about it. But one word of warning. There has been a great deal of soft soap talked about God for the last hundred years. That is not what I am offering. You can cut all that out.

I love that last sentence! Imagine hearing that while you were listening to the broadcast; it would make you sit up suddenly. 



Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The commonsense of ordinary people


A few weeks back I finished reading Jason Riley's biography of Thomas Sowell, entitled
Maverick. It's a great book, and full of quotable things that are especially relevant to our current times. I'm going to go back through my Kindle highlights over the next period of time, and add some of the highlights to this blog. Here's the first:

His early struggles to make a life for himself meant “daily contact with people who were neither well-educated nor particularly genteel, but who had practical wisdom far beyond what I had,” he recalls. “It gave me a lasting respect for the common sense of ordinary people, a factor routinely ignored by the intellectuals among whom I would later make my career. This was a blind spot in much of their social analysis which I did not have to contend with.”

I know some fine academics, people who are attuned to commonsense of ordinary people. But of course, we all know and hear of academics who are not! 

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Finding ideas

As someone who writes day in and day out, I sometimes have to stop relying on the muse and resort to a more pragmatic approach to idea-finding. One possibility is to work through the 10 tips in Howard Scott’s Finding article ideas without leaving your desk.  Mr Scott listed these 10 tips way back in a 1993 Writers Magazine, and I wrote them down for a rainless day.

First, he says, ask: What if? What if I did such and such? Hmm. There used to be a columnist in New Zealand’s Sunday Star Times who wrote just such an article each week. However, he actually did the things he wrote about, setting - or having others set - often absurd challenges which he then turned into a column. But since Scott talks of finding ideas without leaving the desk, I think we can put that suggestion aside.

The second approach is to consider your latest rants. Here's this week's.  Is it surprising that our society is becoming more violent when abortion is considered 'safe' as long as the mother is okay - even though the safety of the person within is violated?

Too complex for a short blog post.

Observe an object, says Mr Scott, or a process. Don't just observe; think about it.

Well, I've sat here observing my computer screen for several minutes while my wife and son debate the rules of draughts behind me. Gritting my teeth and turning my ears off hasn't helped. The whole point of this exercise is to assist me, not frustrate me.

Next. Read news stories; pause over something that interests; what further questions or reactions? Hmm. A cellist in a European orchestra due to play Peter and the Wolf quits her job because she feels wolves are being discriminated against in the story.

This ranks alongside the ill-considered removal of a Pinocchio mural from a children's hospital wall. Adults' screwed-up notions being foisted on children who think political correctness has something to do with keeping your elbows off the table. (Whoops, this sounds more like a rant.)

Mr Scott next suggests I should find a new angle on an old article. I have enough trouble trying to find an angle on most of the ideas I do have without going through the process twice over.

I once wrote myself an enthusiastic maxim. Every idea has two outlets. Sadly, my brain has found the effort of forever conceiving twins quite unsustainable.

Next on the list. Reverse the popular notion - what if the opposite were the norm?

This is rather like lateral-thinking Edward de Bono's creative notion of using the word 'po' when you

Edward de Bono

make a statement that's norm's opposite.  'Po - planes fly upside down.' In Mr de Bono's books this approach always works - within minutes. My lips say 'Po,' however, and my brain says, 'Pooh.'

Talking of Mr de Bono, have you noticed that as time went on all his books said the same thing? The only difference was they got longer.

Back to Mr Scott. Use your friend's experiences, he says. Though I have tried this, I think it's a good way to have no friends from whom to glean experiences, eventually. One of our friends, for instance, complained that the only time I mentioned her family was in relation to toilets.

On to the next.

Recycle old ideas, says Mr Scott. This is certainly very ecological, but I'm not sure if people want to hear my thoughts on slaters (or wood lice) again, even if I approach them from a different angle.  (Say, upside down.)

Mr Scott gets desperate by this time and recommends for number nine: Try to come up with an answer to a silly question. Hmm, what about: Why are some people so masochistic they try and write a blog post a day? Is that question silly enough?

And finally, he says, think of something you're curious about and ask questions. Okay…

What does it mean to poke mollock? Does anything rhyme with orange, or month? Why isn't there a word in the English language for the back of the knee?  Is there a word in any language for the back of the knee?

Well, well, these idea-inducing tips work after all.

This piece was originally written for the now defunct site, Triond, around 2007/8, at a time when I was 
writing blog posts much more frequently. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

100 things to do...

Dave Freeman, the man who wrote the book, 100 Things to Do Before You Die, died after completing only around half of the list.  Ironically, he died not while doing one of the many adventurous things he wrote about, but at home, after falling and hitting his head.    

This book, and all the imitations of it, from 500 CDs You Must OwnBefore You Die, (what happens then?) to 1001 Movies to See Before You Die, all assume a long life, as well as plenty of money and spare time. 

For people who don’t regard death as the end of everything, such lists might not be so relevant, but for people who believe this life is all there is, then perhaps these lists gain importance. Regrettably, making collections of escapades or movies or music is never going to be completely satisfying. You’re always going to be worrying about the things that aren’t on the list. And whether, like Freeman, you’ll actually make it to the end of your inventory. 

And it also depends on whether you can afford to contemplate starting any one of these lists in the first place. For most of the world’s population, managing to get to a recent movie is an achievement, hearing good music is a privilege, and travelling to places you want to go (rather than just places you can afford) is a luxury.   

In the movie, The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson challenges Morgan Freeman to live out the dreams he’s written on his bucket list – the list you make before you kick the bucket. But Freeman could never afford to do some of the things he’s listed, and it’s only because Nicholson is a multi-millionaire that they can manage to set off at all.    

There’s some hint in the movie that a certain degree of realism needs to come into achieving things on a bucket list. A certain degree: the two characters have been through cancer treatment but appear to suffer few ill-effects from their scampering around the world. (That is, until both of them die at the end of the movie.) 

But apart from health, there’s the difficulty of up and leaving family, or jobs, or responsibilities. The people who make these lists often seem to have a casual attitude towards the more stable aspects of life 

I think most of us could come up with a list that would be far more satisfying (and far cheaper) than the 100 Things/Die type of list, if we thought about it.     

For example, a list with just one item in it: One God to get to know before you die.  

Or a slightly longer but still manageable list: 3...5...7 family members to make up with before you die.

Or a list that takes a bit of stepping out of the comfort zone: 95 homeless people in my town to help before you die. 

These may not at first seem to be exciting and adventurous.  But I’m sure you’ll get a lot more long-term satisfaction out of achieving them.

 


Image by aga2rk from Pixabay 

This piece first appeared on the now defunct site, Triond, in 2008

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Describing - or not describing - your characters

Today I came across this piece I'd written back in 2004, and never seem to have done anything more with. If nothing else it's fun to read how different writers describe their characters: 

A character in a recent* Tim La Haye novel is described as ‘a hunk with dark hair.’  This may not be La Haye’s fault, since he regularly uses other writers to fill out the details, but it’s symptomatic of the weak descriptions prevalent in many current popular novels.

Here’s another from a recent thriller: ‘Linda. Soft, beautiful, generous, and solid, his backbone for three and a half decades.’ Solid? 

Many writers tend to avoid describing characters these days, partly a result of fashion, and partly a result of the ‘show, don’t tell’ school of writing, whereby they reveal their characters through dialogue and action. But an author who can give us a succinct description of one of their creations, adds something to the reader’s imagination.

Consider Agatha Christie’s first description of Hercule Poirot: ‘He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side.’

Dorothy Sayers’ detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, fares worse: ‘His long, amiable face looked as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola.’ Looking at the various images of Wimsey, from drawings to TV performances, no one seems to have achieved anything like this wonderful description. 

Chesterton manages to describe Father Brown in endless ways, but here are a couple: ‘there shambled into the room a shapeless little figure, which seemed to find its own hat and umbrella as unmanageable as a mass of luggage.’ [He had] a breathless geniality which characterises a corpulent charwoman who has just managed to stuff herself into an omnibus.’

P G Wodehouse not describing a minor character: ‘There is no need to describe Teddy Weeks….a sickeningly handsome young man, possessing precisely the same melting eyes, mobile mouth, and corrugated hair so esteemed by the theatre-going public today.’

One of my favourite character descriptions comes from Middlemarch. George Eliot gives us more than a page on Sir James, so it’s difficult to pull out any particular piece, but here goes: ‘a man’s mind – what there is of it – has always the advantage of being masculine – as the smallest birch tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm – and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality.’ Fortunately, Sir James turns out to be worth more than this description of him. 

Likewise, Annie Proulx in The Shipping News builds up a picture of her main character paragraph by ruthless paragraph: ‘A great damp loaf of a body. Head shaped like a crenshaw,** no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the colour of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.’ It’s almost as if she didn’t like him very much.

And finally, Shakespeare on one of his favourite characters, Falstaff: ‘that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swoln parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years.’

* 'Recent' in 2004, that is. 

** A variety of melon, apparently. 

It's probable this piece was originally intended as a column for the NZ Anglican magazine, Taonga. Those columns were published under the heading of The Juggling Bookie. 






Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Goodbye to the Counterfeit Queen


Thanks to Dollen 

With great reluctance, I'm abandoning my children's fantasy, The Counterfeit Queen. It would have been the third story in a loosely-connected series. I love what I've written so far, and feel very loathe to abandon it, but I don't want to spend what's left of my life on a story I can't get to function properly. 

I'm abandoning what is now the third draft and the longest - so far. In this draft the story isn't even half over yet, and already it's longer than my three previous kids' books. This draft differs substantially from the two previous drafts, which both differed considerably from each other. That's not to say they weren't all telling the same basic story, but the hero became a heroine, three main characters (or was it four?) got whittled down to two, and innumerable scenes came and went. The villain lost her substantial magic power - which might have been a mistake - but to compensate she increased in cunning. The plot, by the time the third draft was in process, was increasingly complex, as was the world-building. The complexities required more complexity as I went along, until my poor little brain couldn't keep up anymore with the politics, a possible rebellion, hints of racism and dozens of other things. 

Worst of all, I'd never been able to persuade my usual co-writer to like the original idea of the story. This is my co-writer in the sense not that she writes any words but that she acts as sounding board, discussion maker, checker of plot-holes, suggester of wackier ideas than I often have, and a person with a sharp eye for inconsistencies. Without her assistance I've had to work even harder to overcome difficulties, and I think that in itself has been wearying. 

Not that the previous books we did together didn't have their complications. The third book we worked on, which wasn't part of the 'series,' was also written and rewritten, but at least it moved forward. This one has been like pushing one wall in a room outwards, one strenuous step at a time, which required the two adjoining walls to stretch further and further without breaking. 

That's not to say the writing didn't flow, and didn't continually bring up interesting details as it went along. The writing was enjoyable; the plotting and all the rest of it not so much. 

Incidentally, in a rough count of how many words were written in either drafts or notes for this book, it comes to around 260,000. Quite a few for a book that should have been around 30,000 to 40,000 words. 

So it's off to something new, something different altogether. In spite of reading what seems like endless books on the how to plot and how to construct and how to do this or that when it comes to writing, I think I'll stick to my mostly tried and true method of just starting to write and see where that takes me. I know this is the method used by plenty of good writers; some of them get the story functioning from early on; others, like me, usually have to write draft after draft along with copious notes before the finished product arrives. 

So it goes, to quote Kurt Vonnegut - who was also a writer of many drafts and a tendency to discover the story as he went along. 

Monday, July 26, 2021

Ministry of Advice

 If I have a fatal flaw in my character it is an inability to pass by a piece of paper with words on it. I have to read it - even when the print is upside down. 

Consequently, I misread a missive the other day and thought that a new ministry had been created: the Ministry of Advice

The mind boggles (well, it would boggle if it knew how. Boggle is a variation of Bogle, I find, and an archaic version of Bogey. A bogey is a mischievous spirit, which may explain the loss of innumerable golf balls.) 

Anyway, one wonders what the Ministry of Advice would advise on, since the Department of Internal Affairs seems to be the place to get answers to legislative matters. Might the MOA, for instance, replace those agony columns in magazines? 

"Dear MOA, my boyfriend says my zits drive him crazy. He says he can't make up his mind which to squeeze first, them or me. What should I do?" Signed, Helpless and Confused. 

"Dear Helpless and Confused, we must first point out that no one in this nation should consider themselves helpless and confused. The sense of purpose and direction of this nation's leadership is such that it has taken the people from the doldrums of international debt to recovery in a matter of a decade, and now all citizens can be proud that they are part of a movement which will raise the level of opportunity, finance and welfare far above that experienced in any period since this country was colonised.

"Therefore, since his country cannot be classified as beyond help, no individual member of the nation can be classed as helpless. Confusion we find is a matter for the Ministry of Health, however, and we have referred the relevant section of your letter to them. 

"Boyfriend under the terms of the Act (section 205, paragraph 9a) is not only a relationship of degree that cannot make claims having no foundation in fact, it is a relationship that is not yet a relationship, as 'boyfriend' has no legal or legislative status. Therefore you are no obliged to take this person's statement as being in any way true for yourself. We would suggest you get a second opinion, one that will hold valid in a court of law. 

"Furthermore, we can find no mention in parliamentary proceedings to indicate that minute growths on the skin can cause any kind of delirium, dementia, derangement, lunacy, mania, or state of unsound mind. This would incline us to the conclusion that the 'zits' are not responsible for the state of your boyfriend's sanity, and we have thoughtfully passed on your letter to the Ministry of Women's Affairs, which is well able to deal with inaccuracies of thought, counterfactual opinions and specious solecisms by members of male sex. 

"It is our opinion that many persons in this country are in a state of indecision, and this in spite of the consistently straight-as-an-arrow approach to leadership our beloved leaders take. We admit some bewilderment therefore when you say that your male associate is unable to make up his mind regarding a certain process of compression. 

"From where we sit, at this point in time, with all things being equal, and considering all options, we believe that an undeviating procedure is the prerequisite in this particular case. Your acquaintance of the masculine gender should take pen and paper and, sitting at a desk, write out an order of attack. 

"Depending on the number of skin eruptions involved, he may have to work out at which point of the facial features he is going to begin. Only when he has dispensed with each outbreak, will he find it sensible to pass onto the next stage - embracing your person. However, stage one of the plan may take some time. We do not suggest you fret unnecessarily until it is completed. 

"We have enclosed a large number of Government-produced pamphlets showing how to occupy yourself during such a time. We hope these, and the advice contained above, will assist you with your request. 

"Yours sincerely…."

This was originally published on a now defunct site, Triond. 

Listless and listful

English lacks a number of what could be quite useful words, particularly in the suffix departments labelled, ‘ful’ and ‘less.’ (That’s ‘full’ to people in the USA.)

Just to take an example, think of the word, ‘wrongful.’  We use this in relation to a person being unjustly arrested. Surely the word should be ‘wrongless.’  If you’ve done nothing wrong, then how can your arrest be described as wrong-ful?

We think of certain kinds of marriage as ‘loveless.’ Why then don’t we call those marriages that last for 50 or 60 years – you know the Darby and Joan kind that get reported in the paper – as ‘loveful?’ What about the person who wins several prizes at once in Lotto? Isn’t he luckful? (If ever I have occasion to possess a Lotto ticket, I can always be described by the more familiar luckless.) 

And don’t we often wish politicians were more speechless than speechful, and would let us have a truthful earful? 

Isn’t it curious that we describe certain kinds of sunless rooms as airless, when in fact only a vacuum can be airless. All rooms are airful, though not all are sunful. 

One of the most commonly used adjectives is ‘awful,’ which is a shortened form of what used to be a word of great strength: ‘awe-full’, meaning full of awe. It would be far more accurate to describe most awful things these days by its opposite. We should be using that awkward little squashed down word, ‘awless.’  

Turning to another awless area of life, dentists must be pleased that we are toothful rather than toothless. Equally chiropodists should be pleased with footful people – even if they are wearing footless tights or fingerless gloves. (Actually haven’t you thought how much more couth it would be to give someone a fingerful rather than a fistful? Though I’m usually pretty fistless when it comes to such occasions.) 

I’m sure the peaceful would like to see a lot more hateless people around them, while most mothers would be grateful for willess children, rather than grateless and wilful ones (when you use the word ‘willess’ however, you can see why it’s never really made the grade. And should it be spelt with two ‘l’s or three?) 

Actually I was being truthless when I said I’d made a lengthy study of this matter. These endful curiosities first distracted me in the middle of listening one morning at church to an otherwise interesting sermon. 

It was there that I saw that we’ve managed to retain some twin words. Even in our less than Godful society we still have sinful and sinless, faithful and faithless, graceful and graceless, joyful and joyless, fearful and fearless. 

How come all these kept their opposites, when lustful has no lustless, or topless no topful, or bottomless no bottomful? (The mind boggles.) 

I guess they were successful instead of successless. 

PS.   Thanks for my daughter’s listful help. 

This was originally published on a now defunct site, Triond. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Anglian Worms

 This item first appeared on my old WorkReport.blog back in 2011. Unfortunately, like everything else on that blog, it was deleted summarily by the company who ran it. I've included it here because it's linked to from another blog. 

Anglian Worms is a small business run mostly by Amanda Jennings on an industrial estate some eight miles past Fakenham in Norfolk.The business works out of a couple of former Nissan huts.

Amanda’s been running the business for around 18 months, and is only now beginning to make some profit out of it. She has a farming background, and says farmers in general are helpful to one another when it comes to problems and difficulties. Worm farmers, though, are keen on keeping their secrets.

The first ‘hut’ has an office, small worm plastic boxes, larger wooden-encased sections, and a lot of horse manure. Plastic sheeting heats up the manure and cooks it, making the process of breaking it down a good deal quicker.

In the second hut there are some twenty large boxes set on the concrete floor. They were built by her husband (who’s a farmer) and are around three metres by two. A few thousand worms live in each of these - and multiply.

Like any business, the biggest issues come with the marketing. (Though the physical work involved in worm farming is considerable too). Worms can be sold to fishermen - via fishing shops - to home gardeners, and in some other areas. However, getting a foothold in these areas is a major task, one that’s still taking up a good deal of Amanda’s time. With the increase of interest in things ecological, however, she seems to be in the right business.

Worms don’t need much looking after: watering when it’s warm, and feeding. In Anglian Worms case the food comes from a combination of the horse manure and peat. The heavy work is in turning the horse manure, filling up the boxes, and packing.  Hardest of all is sorting out worms from the peat/manure mix.   This is done by hand, one or two worms at a time.

Having the large box containers on the ground brings problems in terms of needing to bend over and reach down to get the worms. If she was starting again, Amanda says she’d make her worms more accessible.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Procrastination post one hundred and something

I'm typing up an old handwritten journal from 2005 at the moment and just came across a section that struck a real chord. It says:

“I could probably get on and do some more of the novel, but it’s near ten, and I don’t know if I want to get onto it tonight. Apart from that, it’s not warm in here, and I’m in the middle of a bit I’m not enjoying much…although at least I’m writing it. I went back and began the sequence I’d missed out earlier because I couldn’t work out how to do it. It wasn’t nearly so hard as I thought. In fact, it’s never the writing that’s hard, it’s the getting started, and yes, I know I should write at least five minutes if nothing else, but five minutes is never enough to get into it.”

Note all the excuses: too late in the evening, not warm in the room, writing a section I’m not enjoying writing, five minutes isn't long enough to get started. 

On the other hand, note that I was still writing the bit I wasn't enjoying - when I wasn't procrastinating. Furthermore I'd gone back to a section I’d missed out before, discovering I’d worked out how to do it in the meantime. (I think I'm talking about two different sections here in the journal, but I might not be.)

Perhaps seemingly least, but not necessarily: It’s better to write for five minutes than for no minutes.

Procrastination is my biggest problem. One excuse I didn't use here is: 'I don't know if it's worth carrying on with this book because I've had so many problems with it.' But problems are part and parcel of putting a story together, especially if there's anything complex in the plotting. I've had immense problems with the latest children's story I've been writing for what now seems like years. And have solved most of them eventually. No doubt, since I'm probably only halfway through it, there will be more problems to come. 

Anywho, I'm impressed with my younger journal self; I was 60 at the time. I was prepared to keep on writing through a section I wasn't enjoying. Not that this meant it wasn't a good piece to work on, but that it was hard to write. 

And it's also encouraging to see that I'd sensibly had left a section aside when I couldn't sort out how to do it - this required guts on my part because I don't like leaving (writing) things undone. even now. But better still, the problem with the section, whatever it was, actually got solved by the fact of leaving it aside. 

Lastly: it's better to write for five minutes than not write at all. Why, do you ask? I'm sure you already know the answer, but I'll jot it down anyway, as a reminder to myself as much as anything else. It's better to write for five minutes, because once we've got into that five minutes, we usually carry on writing, and not only does more get done than we anticipated, we remember how much we enjoy the sheer fact of writing...



Monday, May 31, 2021

The Juggling Bookie: Remembrance of Faces Past

I first became enthused about remembering people’s names when I read an article in the Reader’s Digest - an entire book on memorization had been condensed into a mere three pages.  

The article claimed you could recall people’s names by associating the uniqueness of their faces with some related object. Perhaps, I thought, this would help me keep track of who my customers were. But when I looked for the complete book at the library what did I discover? The last borrower had forgotten to bring it back.

Fortunately this is a subject on which there are plenty of books, so I borrowed something else. 

I discovered that this association method is a common memory trick, but I also discovered that it’s very difficult to make conversation with a complete stranger while simultaneously focusing on their facial features.

Suppose you meet a Mrs Burton. You may note that her furrowed brow resembles her namesake Richard in his latter days. Your brain cells may connect this to craggy Welsh mountains or coalminers’ safety helmets or How Green Was My Valley.

But while you’re doing all this mental leaping and bounding, Mrs Burton may be wondering whether you’re an unenthusiastic conversationalist, or merely someone who’s on too much medication.

And six weeks later she’ll be startled to be addressed as Mrs Green, or even Mrs Taylor. 

Then there’s Mr Brown, a man who hasn’t a single outstanding feature about him. Peering at his face is like looking for an oasis in the Sahara. The likelihood is that in future meetings you’ll call him Mr Bland.

Anyone who’s had to attend any sort of gathering will have noted how hosts insist on introducing you to people in an offhand way, tossing in a word or two about them, and then dragging you off to meet someone else. Or they throw a roomful of faces at you and say, “Let me tell you all these peoples’ names.” And, encouragingly, they add, “Of course you’ll forget them anyway.”

Worse, even in Anglican circles, where tradition ought to reign, people no longer introduce others by both Christian and surnames. It becomes a major undertaking to hang hooks on a succession of Georges, Bills, Bobs and Brians, let alone Claires, Susans, Gillians and Joans. 

Having practiced hard at home, I know that the memory system works - and my brain knows it too. But given the opportunity to multi-task, my brain prefers to sulk.  

 Perhaps I’ll have to adopt the irritating approach someone recently used at church, on me. During our conversation, while I struggled to scan his face for spots or scars, cleft chins or twitches, this new acquaintance hammered my name onto the end of every sentence. 

I have no idea who he was. But at least I remember who I am.


This piece was originally intended for the column in the NZ Anglican magazine, Taonga

The Juggling Bookie: Bookaholic

Hi, my name’s Mike Crowl, and I need to confess that I’m a bookaholic. I don’t have any control over this - it isn’t helped by the fact that I have to work in a bookshop. My life has become unmanageable.   Well, it’s not my life so much as my bookshelves – they’re unmanageable.  

Can I blame them for my condition? Oh, I can’t. 

I’m told that a Power greater than myself can restore me to sanity, but the problem is, I’m sort of working for that particular Power, because it’s a Christian bookshop…

So it’s His fault. Oh, I can’t blame Him either.

Apparently I’m supposed to turn my will and life over to the care of God - as I understand Him.    Hmm, according to what I do understand, He’s infinitely superior to me in every respect, so I only understand a little bit of Him. No excuse, huh?

I need to make a searching and fearless inventory - of my bookshelves. This should be fun! Oh, you mean I need to do it now, not when I’ve finally read all the books. Actually I may not read them all – I’ve only just caught up with one I’ve had for thirty years.          

I have to admit to God, and myself, and to another human being, the exact nature of my wrongs. The trouble is, that the bloke I share my shop with is a secondhand bookshop dealer, and he’s even more of a bookaholic than I am. My wife reads books; my Aged Parent reads books (some of them several times over); my children read books. Oh, what shall be done with me, wretched man that I am! 

Am I entirely ready to have God remove my defects and shortcomings? Does this mean I have to send all these books to the local secondhand dealer? But I work with one!

So I need to make a list of all persons I’ve offended by lending books to them? Does anyone remember who they lend books to? Shouldn’t I be asking all my friends why they haven’t given the books back to me? 

I’ve got to make direct amends to such people where possible? Have I got to pay them for borrowing my own books off me? 

Right, so I need to make a personal inventory. Right, so I spend several weeks putting all the books on my computer and then I’ll know who’s borrowed them. Oh, I don’t think I’m quite getting the picture here – and I’m not sure how some of this stuff is helping me with my problem. 

Okay, so I’ve had a spiritual awakening as a result of following these steps, and tried to carry this message to others…but, just a minute, if I tell them I’m a bookaholic, will they still buy any books from me? 

Maybe I need to join a different group – like a monthly book reading club.


This piece was originally intended for the column in the NZ Anglican magazine, Taonga


The Juggling Bookie: Reading long books

Classic long books are full of great things, rubble and trivia – and most deserve to be read more than once. 

This year I became a member of the I’ve-read-The-Lord-of-the-Rings-twice Club, though I must admit it was a struggle. I was determined to re-read it, having what I thought were fond memories from thirty years ago of my first reading, and inspired by the three movies, but it turned out to be a sometime exciting, sometime turgid, sometime overblown, sometime extraordinary book. With songs. 

I’ve also discovered that I’m an honorary member of the I-don’t-seem-to-be-able-to-finish-a-book-by-Thackeray Club. Neither Becky Sharp or Barry Lyndon have managed to entice me beyond the half way mark. Something more interesting has always turned up, and these two languish unacknowledged in their peculiar long-winded story-telling.


Victor Hugo
Did I mention that I’m also a member of the I’m-practically-the-only-person-you’ll-meet-who’s-actually-read-Les Miserables Club? I began this book in the summer holidays one year and couldn’t put it down. I have to admit that I skimmed one of the ‘essays’ that Victor Hugo scatters throughout the book, but apart from this I read it thoroughly. The story is full of coincidences, the pursuit of the hero by the detective is interminable, the characters manage to be involved in revolutions and the Battle of Waterloo, and yet you take all this in your stride because the author grabs you by the hand and whisks you along. Grace and forgiveness permeate the story, and the last couple of hundred pages are so gripping that at the time I read them everything else in life went on hold: wife, children, sunshine, picnics. 

Last year I read The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s as if, as I get older, I need to take an annual journey into some huge novel, in order to say I’ve done it, or just to prove I can stick with it. This book, like many of Alexandre Dumas, was hastily written, with some sections thrown together months apart. There’s no doubt it’s badly plotted (a colleague wrote the outline, apparently) and it has a long digression in the centre. The hero is a strangely uneven character, some of the characters behave very oddly, and yet it’s extraordinarily enjoyable.   

When these 19th century serial writers are at the top of their form, they plunge your imagination into what is best about storytelling. At their worst you have to keep reminding yourself that they wrote to horrific deadlines and had to get something out to their readers, even if that something was mostly padding. (Dickens seems to be one of the few serial writers who was able to overcome this problem by his sheer genius – and humour.)

I’d love to sit down and read some of them again: the Anthony Trollope Barchester series, many of Dickens’ best novels (I’ve read Bleak House twice – which has one of Dickens’ more sympathetically portrayed Christian characters in it), and Middlemarch, that wondrous achievement of George Eliot’s, which wasn’t produced in serial format, and which she abandoned after writing some hundreds of pages, and began again.* 

But will I live long enough?  

This piece was originally intended for the column in the NZ Anglican magazine, Taonga

* I have lived long enough to read Middlemarch again; there were some disappointments, some oddities, and quite a bit of enjoyment. I've written a rough review on Goodreads which I'll add here:

My memory of this book was that it was terrific, and a wonderful read. Well, I was younger then, and something about it must have clicked with me to think so.

This second time round, I found some of it turgid, to say the least. I didn't enjoy Eliot's author comments much, although they, like everything else, improved as the book went on. I found it took a long time to get moving, and yet the last 100 pages or so are top notch, moving along faster than you can keep up. It's as if she spends most of the book setting things up, and then all of it comes to a great climax at the end. It's just that the setting up is long-winded.

I didn't enjoy her minor, representative characters who she introduces into certain sections as a kind of chorus on the events. Apart from their general meanspiritedness, they all sound much the same, and you feel there might have been a better way to do this. Compare these to minor characters in Dickens, who often outshine some of the leading characters!

Sometimes she explains her characters far too much, and doesn't give them room to explain themselves - which they certainly can do, when allowed. However, these explanations are interesting for their psychological insight, and are certainly ahead of their time, coming closer perhaps to Henry James in their style.

I wonder how many readers over the years have breathed an enormous sigh of relief when the abominable Mr Casaubon dies, somewhat prematurely, and alone. Now, you think, things will improve for Dorothea. Nope, they don't much, and in fact things go far downhill for several of the characters before the book ends. But Eliot doesn't leave us at the bottom: perhaps improbably she lets Mary Grant and Fred Vincy marry; Fred never really seems to have changed, although Eliot claims he has. She finally allows Will and Dorothea to marry, which is a relief, too, but Lydgate and his self-centred wife are condemned, you might say, to struggle on for two or three more decades. Not everything can be solved in this particular world.

The book is about a lot more than the married lives of its characters: politics and reform, medicine in a time of transition, money and greed, Christianity and the lack of it. There are almost too many subjects for one book. But at least it has a heroine with spunk (even if she is missing for chapters at a time in some parts of the book) and a few men who are mostly her equal. None of your wishy-washy Dickensian heroines here...!

The Juggling Bookie: Eidam on Bach

Earlier this year I came across Klaus Eidam’s biography, The True Life of Johann Sebastian BachEidam uses the word ‘true’ to show he’s dispelling the myths that other, older biographers have cluttered up the facts with.

Why read about Bach? Well, in recent years I find I’m playing his music more and more – and enjoying it. I was introduced to him some forty-five years ago by a teacher wise enough to believe that students should get to know great music even if it didn’t necessarily enthral them. The teacher recommended laying out good money on the two volumes of the 48 Preludes and Fugues, and I did. I learned a few scattered pieces, sight-read those I could get away with (without the teacher knowing) and ignored the rest. But it was like puddling in Bach’s paddling pool, rather than swimming with him in the ocean.

The two volumes travelled with me to England and back, lost their covers, and occasionally got a dusting off - mostly to see if I could still get my fingers round their intricacies.

But now, in my grandfather years, I’ve begun some dedicated work on these astonishing compositions, and the effort’s been rewarded so mightily all I can do is enthuse about their creator.

There are passages in Bach when you feel as though you’re doing a kind of knitting – except Bach never bothers with plain and purl.There are places where you think the piece should finish, but the grand old genius frolics on for another dozen delectable bars. Sometimes he stops right in the middle of something and hives off in another direction, at a different tempo, and with different material. How unbaroque! 

There are bars when the clashing chords are so twentieth-century you ask: did he know he was preempting Stravinsky or Messiaen? Sometimes he’s so intent of keeping the various ‘voices’ running that he’ll swap them back and forth between the hands until the brain goes into meltdown. (Eidam says Bach could effortlessly hold half a dozen different ‘voices’ in his head, being thoroughly aware of them at all times.)

Or he writes passages of astonishing mathematical structure, taking a subject and playing itself against itself, upside-down, back to front, slower, faster – and not just one voice against another, but several together. (He often improvised in such a way without blinking an eye.)

And then there are the sublime moments. In the middle of something that’s already taken wings he opens a window to heaven – just for a couple of bars. You wonder if God hadn’t elbowed him aside - ‘Excuse me, Jo!’ - and written those bars himself.

I recall one particular Bach orchestral concert in London. There was a moment in the evening when the musicians, the audience and the angels took off, skimming along Bach’s great river of joy in such a way that forty years later I still get emotional at the thought of it.

What a man!

This piece first appeared in The Juggling Bookie column in the New Zealand Anglican magazine,TaongaIt was written in 2005 

 

 

The Juggling Bookie: Mr Beaver and Books

 If you’re going to complicate your life, make sure you do it thoroughly. July and August this year were jam-packed with complications.  

I’d been asked to take the part of Mr Beaver in a full-length adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. July was rehearsal month, with five performances in the last week. I haven’t acted in a play for at least thirty years, so not only did I have to learn a heap of lines, I had to work out how to build a character from scratch, how to relate to other people on the stage, and how to ignore the fact that during the performances various close relatives sat scrutinizing my every move.

To my surprise, I was able to forget who I was and become exuberant and eloquent. Furthermore I shared with around fifty people that wonderful sense of being part of something larger than myself, and actually did the thing well enough to impress the aforesaid relatives.

However, as soon as the play was over, I went straight from that euphoric state into intensive preparations for shifting our shop, and then into the hard work of the shift itself. All within a fortnight.


Because of a considerable rent increase, we’ve had to move our shop from Dunedin’s main street to a site which, while it’s only a block from our old location, isn’t quite as accessible. We not only lost our street frontage – we went upstairs. Shifting thousands of books, as well as heavy shelving and other shop furniture up twenty-six stairs is an energy-challenging exercise, even with the help of a large number of volunteers.

We last shifted four and half years ago, and weren’t planning on moving again in a hurry. Loathe to vacate, I didn’t organise this shift as well as the previous one, and when, on the Saturday, I finally stood in the midst of a sea of boxes and shelves all thrown together higgledy-piggledy into a room I’d thought previously was more than spacious, my brain said, ‘I’m out of here,’ and refused to function.

Nevertheless, with a little forceful encouragement from my wife, my brain returned to its normal working habits, and we began the task of putting things where they were most likely to spend the next stage of their lives.

Now I had to play the part of The Manager, a role that doesn’t allow for time off in the dressing room.  And while all of us, volunteers and staff, had a sense of being part of something much bigger than ourselves, I don’t think ‘wonderful’ came into it.  

Equally, I’m not sure that on this occasion I managed to impress the rellies as well as I did in the play.    Playing yourself isn’t half as entertaining as playing a Beaver.

This piece first appeared in The Juggling Bookie column in the New Zealand Anglican magazine,TaongaIt was written in 2005 


 

The Juggling Bookie: Christian Booksellers

It pays for Christian booksellers to have a couple of side talents: being able to pick winners at the races, for one, and being able to juggle.

They have to have a nose for up-and-coming winners, or, as they’re called in the trade: the ‘latest trends.’ In my decade or so of being a Christian bookseller, I’ve seen several trends push to the top of the pile, including a Feminist trend, a Spirituality trend, a Spiritual Warfare trend, and, perhaps most famously, a Celtic Christianity trend.  

I remember when you could put the word Celtic in front of anything, and people would lap it up. Celtic Christmas music? Yep, there are still a couple of those albums on our shelves. But what about, How to Celebrate a Celtic Ascension, or the Celtic Book of Herbs and Garnishes, or Bible Stories for Little Celtic Ears?  

I’m kidding. Though people have thought OC Books was short for Outstanding Celtic Books.)*  

Now the latest trend is Postmodernism: Postmodern Evangelism, Postmodern Preaching, and how to find the real gospel in The Simpsons, Harry Potter and The Matrix. Alternative Worship is only a neck behind. Hmm, I see that the slow starter, Islam, is coming up fiercely on the outside.

Booksellers juggling in their shops might keep the punters amused for a time, but I really mean it to represent juggling our customers’ broad-ranging requirements.

Evangelicals like to see Philip Yancey’s mop of curls displayed foremost in the window, with John
Piper and John MacArthur - in solid dark suits - holding up his arms on either side. Liberals demand that John Shelby Spong get pride of place, even if he did borrow Luther’s famous catch phrase for his latest novel (sorry, biography).

The feminists will want to know why Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza haven’t got the window to themselves, while the End Times patriots will be sure the Last Days have come if you haven’t got all of the Left Behind series on a massive display-stand just inside the door, and additional copies in precarious stacks on the counter.  (Having feminists in the window may also give them cause for concern.)

HillSongs will be blaring from speakers at one end of the shop while Taize sings demurely (and occasionally out of tune) at the other. 

Woe betide if you’re a new Christian, or worse, a Seeker. The overwhelming range of material catering for every species of Christian - except those who don’t yet know anything - is likely to send them back to Whitcoulls for a no-frills no-pictures NIV.   

No doubt Christian Booksellers throughout history have always had to deal with a broad range of tastes: “Got the latest Manichean in yet, mate? I’ve done me dash with those Gnostic novels.”

This piece first appeared in The Juggling Bookie column in the New Zealand Anglican magazine,TaongaIt was written in 2003, and was the first column under the Juggling Bookie masthead.

*Otago Christian Books

Image courtesy Penguin Random House


The Juggling Bookie: Christianity in Movies

 At the time the NZ Catholic’s film critic, Graeme Evans, reviewed Dogville, I hadn’t seen the movie. Nevertheless I was puzzled about his claim that “conventional religion is now regarded as box office poison,” and that the only way in which film-makers can present religious content is by disguising it, and ‘conning the audience.’ 

Well, I’ve now seen the movie, been surprised, shocked and amazed by it, and perplexed that anyone could miss the point that the main character, Grace, suffers increasingly as she offers (Divine) grace to the most ornery collection of villagers you’ve ever seen. (People have missed the point, however: some reviewers saw it as an attack on America.) 

Dogville, which hasn’t been widely distributed in NZ, requires its audience to spend most of the film thinking about what they see. No easy three-point sermon here. 

In the last couple of decades, theology has increasingly been debated in movies, many of them made in Hollywood. 

Leaving the oddball Christian connotations of The Matrix trilogy aside, there are plenty of other movies dealing with religion, God and spirituality, often with a Christian perspective.    

Some of them are fantasies, such as Jim Carrey’s two movies, The Truman Show and Bruce Almighty.    (Carrey’s Liar, Liar is another moral movie.)  

I delighted in the way God was presented in Bruce Almighty. His He has sense of humour is infinitely more subtle than Bruce’s, He has wisdom, wit and compassion, and you have no doubt He knows what He’s doing. 

Then there’s Brother, Where Art Thou?, which in spite of being based on Homer’s Odyssey, not only has a river baptism scene early in the piece and a redemption scene much later (in the midst of a Ku Klux Klan meeting, no less), but sports a one-eyed prophet (Cyclops – he turns up in Dogville too) who sets the main character thinking very seriously about God’s providence.    

The peculiar Keeping the Faith dramatizes the moral dilemmas of a Rabbi and a Catholic priest.   The Rabbi comes off as the lesser moral character, seeming to have no compunction about making mad passionate love to a woman he’s not married to, while the priest actually struggles to overcome the same temptation.  

There’s the very strange Dogma, which for all its crazy casting, foul language and off-the-wall moments, still asks solid questions about why humans are offered grace, and why Christ should have died for them. (God appears in two guises in this one, alongside angels, demons and a very strange toilet monster. Don’t ask.) 

And there’s The Man Who Sued God. If you can get past Billy Connelly’s foul-mouthed leading character, you’ll find the film is interested in matters much deeper than whether the insurance notion of ‘an Act of God’ has any real meaning.  

Finally, there’s Signs, in which Mel Gibson makes a better case for belief in God, perhaps, than he does in The Passion. 

Disguised or not, con-job or not, spirituality no longer seems to be box-office poison.


A scene from Dogville


This piece was written for The Juggling Bookie column in the New Zealand Anglican magazine,Taonga, in 2004, but possibly not published at the time. 


The Juggling Bookie: Dancing


Courtesy Daily Mail

For almost as long as we’ve been married, my wife and I have said, We must learn to dance.  For years we’d watched dancers sail round the floor with the easy grace of Rogers and Astaire while we trailed behind holding each other tightly in case we fell over.

Last year we began dancing classes. Coming in a bit late, at week three, we found the other learners still trying to get their feet to do as they were told. Without looking at them. While smiling.   

We thought it would be really difficult, but soon discovered it doesn’t take a lot of talent to dance. Most people can move in time and get the steps right. It just takes practice.

We assumed at first we’d learn enough to get us into the Rogers/Astaire mode, but no: we were learning Round dancing. (That’s right, as opposed to Square.) Round dancing uses common steps like the Cha Cha, the Rumba, and the Two-Step - but only as a basis for an infinite number of variations.  And in order not to have to remember the sequence of all these variations, a caller tells you what’s coming up next, and you get on and do it. 

Thus, allied to the art of keeping your feet from tripping over themselves - or your partner’s - is the art of remembering what these variations require you to do. Many of the names bear little relation to the movement you perform. Though in the Fence Line you stretch your arms out before and behind, in the New Yorker you fling your outside arm back and your inside foot forward. It’s easy once you know it, but the reason for the title is lost in the mists of choreographic history. 

The movements for The Sliding Door, The Scissors and The Hitch (not hitching your trousers up, gents) relate to their titles, but the Fan moving into the Hockey Stick is a bit of a conundrum. 

In the early weeks, connecting the intended movement to their arcane names wasn’t too difficult. But when we got to the Two-Step, we found variations piled on variations. There’s the basic box-step, and the reverse box, then ‘progressive’ boxes (which is a misnomer), left boxes (which go full circle) and a broken box - which isn’t. It’s both frustrating and enlivening, and shows that old brains are as good as new ones at learning. If you practice!

However, the problem with practicing at home is finding enough room. The earlier dances we learnt didn’t move too far from their starting place, but the Two-Step grazes all over the field. By the time we’ve done an eight-step Crab Walk, we’ve squeezed through the door of our lounge and out into the hall. The following steps take us to the front door; in the wintertime that’s where we stop, and go into reverse. 

Maybe in the summer we’ll open the door, trip lightly down the path and out onto the street where there’s not only plenty of room, but possibly a ready-made audience.

This piece first appeared in The Juggling Bookie column in the New Zealand Anglican magazine,TaongaIt was written in 2004


 


The Juggling Bookie: Invisible

Ghost writers used to be invisible. Consider the Holy Ghost Writers who ‘took dictation’ from God for the biblical canon. Most were swept into the ranks of Anon, or worse, had their books named after someone else. 

Back when this column was written I surfed the Net to see if being a Christian ghost writer was a common trade, and found one called Charlene Davis. Charlene (who, to keep the record straight, is a Christian writer rather than a Christian ghost) used to run a site called busymomsrecipes.com. At that time it had an interactive CD containing 42,000 family recipes; a downloadable e-book: Make Your Own Gift Baskets!; and generous five-days-a-week Tips For Busy Moms!  

All accompanied by exclamation marks!!

Now when you try and link to busymomsrecipes it seems to take you to some dark place on the Internet. 

One of Charlene’s ghost-writing ventures was: The Ultimate Baby Naming eBook – its ‘proper’ author was Jesse Horowitz. The book, we’re told, contains the 21 Biggest Mistakes To Avoid in Naming Your Baby!  (“How to make absolutely certain that you’ve considered all possible religious interpretations of any name before deciding on it…”)   And a foolproof, new way to choose the perfect name for your baby!!   

Charlene is also an editor. I’m sure she’s pleased that editors, like most ghost writers, are invisible. One of her recent jobs was: Confessions of a Womanizer! by Stephen E. Chatman.  (Note her influence in the exclamation mark!!)

On her site Stephen E. Chatman made the following claim: “Ordinary men can't compete [with me] because I am not a regular adorer of women. I am specialized, a champion of sexual desire.”

Hmm. Such comments make me, as a man, want to be invisible.

I said earlier that invisibility was the main trait of ghost-writing. No more.

The famous Left Behind series had a very visible ghost writer in the person of Jerry Jenkins. It appears that Tim Lahaye’s contributions to this series consisted of the original idea and thirty-page outlines for each book, or approximately one thirteenth of the total series. Lahaye’s name sold the books, but the person who did the hard graft was Jerry Jenkins.

Lahaye expanded his outlining skills. Babylon Rising was the first of a new series that would be “a little
lighter theologically,” with an archaeologist hero similar to Indiana Jones.

Then the visible ghost writer was Greg Dinallo, who is mostly known for several fast-paced Cold War thrillers written around the early 90s. Whether he suited Lahaye’s fastidious readers is another matter: the comment of one reviewer regarding Dinallo’s own novel, Red Ink, is a little ominous: ‘I would have preferred if this book had been written in invisible ink.’

Maybe there’s something to be said for being unacknowledged, after all.


This piece first appeared in The Juggling Bookie column in the New Zealand Anglican magazine,TaongaIt was written in 2004. The version above has been updated.