Tag Archives: God

Soap-Star Philosophy

Soap-Star Philosophy

I heard him, on the radio;

soap-star, icon of the nation,

talk of his belief in reincarnation.

 

Over fifty years a central character

in the soap-opera beloved

by the nation.

 

In his eighties, now, but looks

thirty years younger.

He must know his onions;

not the sort to make a blunder.

 

“Of course I believe in it” he said,

to his doubting inquisitor.

“After all, it’s the only way

it all makes sense.”

 

And, for a brief moment,

I understood what he meant.

That our lives are not freely given;

our lives are merely lent

to us, like books; on loan,

from God the librarian.

 

And who knows what could happen,

what could befall those books?

They could be lost, forgotten,

accidentally dropped in the bath.

And what happens then?

What aftermath?

 

A measure of fairness, surely;

there must be some recompense.

For, after all, it’s the only way

it all makes sense.

British actor William Roache is famous for playing the part of Ken Barlow in Coronation Street, which is the most popular soap-opera on British television.  He is the only actor who has remained in the series from the very first episode, in December 1960.  I happened to hear an interview with him on the radio, a while ago, in which he discussed his belief in reincarnation.  What particularly struck me was the calm, matter-of-fact way he said that anyone with common sense should realise that reincarnation was “the only thing that made sense of it all”.  I have recently become aware of the fact that William Roache is quite notorious for holding some rather outlandish beliefs, but, at the time I heard the interview, I just thought of him as quite an intelligent, articulate individual.  Of course, it would be nice if everything to do with “Life, the universe, and everything” did make sense.  I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that, unfortunately, it doesn’t. 

 

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Fish Friday

Fish Friday

What cook worth his salt could contemplate

putting such an array on a plate?

 

A dribble of peas, a pitiful puddle;

his mind must be a mushy muddle.

 

The cod in batter is so dry,

it petitions a tear from my eye.

 

And what can be said of the chips?

Triple-fried? Just read my lips.

 

St. Peter risked life on the seas,

for victuals so different to these.

 

This shrivelled, misshapen cod;

a fist in the face of God.

 

How can I bring myself to eat

this farcical Fish Friday Treat?

Regular followers of this blog will know that I frequently write poems provoked or inspired by food and drink.  Recent examples of this are poems about cherry tomatoes and peach schnapps.  The Song of the Cherry Tomato was intended to celebrate the delicious nature of such miniature tomatoes, and the ease of eating them.  Fish Friday, on the contrary, was provoked by one of the most disappointing meals I’ve ever been served in a restaurant.  I’ve always enjoyed eating fish and chips, and have written poems on the subject before.  There’s something about the connections with fish and the Christian religion, together with the habit of eating fish on a Friday, that tend to generate poetic imagery.  I would have liked to have written in a more celebratory tone, but the food that was offered to me on this occasion was so awful that I was left with no alternative.

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Cathedral

CATHEDRAL

Here it stands;
a monument to time
(which doesn’t
actually exist,
by the way;
or so the particle
physicists say).
Imposing edifice,
coated in grime.

Admiration and wonder
are compelled;
how medieval
masons understood.
The cavalcade
of blood and thunder
it has withstood.

Symbol of what
still, stubbornly, persists;
Larkin’s “brocade”:
patterns of belief,
transcending mortality,
love and grief.
All for something else
that doesn’t exist.

My views on the immense subject of belief in God could be summarised as essentially atheistic, with a tinge of agnosticism.  I am basically convinced by the scientific, rationalist explanations of the workings of the universe, without the necessity for the idea of a God, and am not convinced by the arguments of any religion I have so far come across.  There remains, however, a vestigial sense of awe and bafflement; a feeling that we simply don’t know the answers to the “how?” and “why” of the universe, and that anything is possible.  Also, of course – as Professor Joad* used to say – it all depends on what you mean by “God”.

All this came into play in the composition of the poem “Cathedral”.  Living in Peterborough I have always had, at the back of my mind, the need to write a poem about the cathedral, but have lacked the particular inspiration to do it.  I finally got around to it – curiously enough – due to a combination of a reinvigorated interest in local history and some recent books on particle physics.  Lovers of Philip Larkin will recognise the line “Larkin’s brocade” as a reference to his wonderful poem “Aubade”, where he compares religion to a moth-eaten brocade.

(* Professor C.E.M. Joad was a prominent member of The Brains Trust: a highly popular programme on BBC Radio in the 1940’s and 50’s.  He became famous for prefacing his answers to almost any question with “Well, it all depends on what you mean by . . . “, which became one of the first modern catchphrases).   

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Woman in a Hijab

WOMAN IN A HIJAB:

The young woman in the house opposite me
has changed her appearance, radically.
She formerly wore jeans, normal attire;
coloured her hair, regularly.
She now conceals her body and head
In anonymous robes; the once-bright
hair now covered by a hijab.

I watch her, this morning, in bright sunlight.
I watch, as she spends an hour or so
pushing her little girl, on a bike, to and fro;
carefully watching her child’s transition
from three wheels to two. Almost as vital,
this transition, as the one from crawling
to first, unsteady steps. Those miraculous
first steps, that no robot can replicate.
For each time a foot is thrown forward
into mid-air, it is supported, enveloped
on its way there. Unconscious expression
of self-belief, on which we depend,
providing relief. A silent, invisible,
benevolent breath, sustaining us all,
from birth to death. I watch the young
woman gazing down at her child,
encouraging her bravery; giving her
the necessary invisible breath
of support, enabling the miracle
of walking, of unsupported cycling.

The same benevolent emanation of love
she believes she receives from her deity above.
On-going now; continuing after she’s dead,
beaming down on her radiant, covered head.
She pictures herself receiving a nod
of affirmation, from her new-found God.

I’ve been enjoying watching the Channel 4 TV series “Humans”, which ended last week, apparently having become one of the channel’s most popular-ever series.  For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it was a science-fiction/fantasy tale involving android robo-servants called “synths”, and the characterisation and acting was so well-observed that you really believed these androids had human consciousness.  Despite the appealing nature of the story, however, I remember reading recently that no robot has been invented so far that can replicate the way we humans walk.  Apparently, the simple act of walking is a kind of miraculous event, defying all probability.  I was thinking of this a few days ago, while I was watching a neighbour pushing her young child on a bicycle.  It was this, combined with the fact that the neighbour is a young woman who seems to have undergone a recent religious conversion, that led to the above poem.

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Please God

 

 

 

 

PLEASE GOD:

Please God, save me from this!
Please God, I’ll do anything!
How often in your life have you said this?
What are you really saying?

An unhappy schoolboy; eight years of Hell
at Catholic grammar school. I remember so well
that daily bus journey, a mobile prison cell.
Sealed within its confines for an hour each way;
a dreaded entrance, blessed exit to each day.
Increasing terror, mounting desperation,
as the bus approached its termination.
Like Dostoevsky in front of the firing squad,
willing to do anything; promising God
a life of devotion, forsaking all doubt.
Only God could save me, show me the way out.

Please God, save me from this!
Please God, I’ll do anything!

Bitter irony in this fervent plea;
my heartfelt plea to God.
This desperate plea, to save me
from the very emissaries of God:
the sinister, black-robed “brothers”,
who did not spare the rod.

Please God, save me from this!
Please God, I’ll do anything!
How often in your life have you said this?
What does it mean? Are you praying?

It was thanks to the late lamented British writer/philosopher Colin Wilson that I first came across the story of Dostoevsky and the firing squad.  In one of his philosophical essays, Wilson recounted how the Russian writer, sentenced to death for anti-Tsarist activities, had been lined up in front of the firing squad, then reprieved at the last minute.  Wilson was using the story to illustrate his ideas about how we routinely undervalue our existence, allowing our “robot” to take over, and only being shaken out of our passive boredom by experiences like the one that happened to Dostoevsky.  In my case, it reminded me of an unhappy period in my youth when I had dreaded going to school, and would have given anything to escape it. 

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Sacraments

SACRAMENTS:

My “First Communion”; lost, in the mists of time.
“The Body and Blood of Christ Our Lord”
made little impact on me, apparently.
What remains, strongly, in my memory
is “The Holy Sacrament of Confirmation”.
Not the ceremony itself, just the walk back home.
My white-clad form, cradled in sunlight;
the footpath, devoured by my eager tread.
We were “Soldiers of Christ” now; armed for the fight
with missals, and little red catechisms.
But no martial thoughts in my ten-year-old head.
No conflicts of belief, religious schisms;
just a haze of effulgence, confirmatory light.
We’d been let home early; I should be there by three.
I wondered what Mum had got for my tea.

My poem “Sacraments” is, I think, pretty much self-explanatory.  My mother was a devout Roman Catholic, and did her best to inculcate a similar devotion in me.  She was, however, always fighting a losing battle in this.  Apart from a juvenile flirtation with the idea of becoming a priest, in my early ‘teens, I never expressed any serious interest in Catholicism, and became a “lapsed” Catholic in my late ‘teens.  The sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation were supposed to imbue us with spiritual sustenance, but sustenance of a more corporeal nature always had a greater interest for me.  The line from The Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread” was obviously more relevant to me at the time.

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And Now I Lay Me Down

A radio programme I listened to a few days ago, about the life of Blaise Pascal, reminded me that I had written a poem in which “Pascal’s Wager” makes an appearance.  Pascal (1623-62) was a French mathematician, physicist and philosopher, chiefly known, these days, as the author of the “Pensees” – an acknowledged literary/philosophical classic.  His “Wager” is a metaphysical argument that goes, briefly, as follows: We don’t know if God exists or not.  Nevertheless, we can ask the question “Is it better to believe in the existence of God, or not?”  Pascal’s answer: “If God exists, then it is clearly better for us to have believed in God; infinitely better, given the prospect of eternal bliss for believers, and eternal damnation for non-believers.  If God does not exist, then we lose nothing by our mistaken belief.  So belief is the dominant strategy; it can win, and cannot lose.  The wager is infinity to nothing.”

There are, of course, many criticisms of this argument, which I do not intend to discuss here.  My poem “And Now I Lay Me Down” came about when I started asking myself why , on going to bed at night, I had started remembering the prayer my mother had taught me to recite, as a child.  The “Wager” is alluded to because it deals with primary thoughts and fears that I had categorised and parcelled-up as “child-like” and presumed I had forgotten about long ago.

AND NOW I LAY ME DOWN:

And now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray The Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray The Lord my soul to take.

“Now I want you to listen.  Say after me . . .”
I whispered it, dutifully, every night.
Like confessing sins; obligatory, right.
Thirty two syllables; four lines of eight.
A way to avert an unnameable fate.
An incantation; a magical spell.
As long as I uttered it, all would be well.
Later, much later, scales fell from my eyes.
Holy baloney!  A tissue of lies.
The scorn, the arrogance, of teenage years.
No longer a child; no more childish fears . . .

Thirty two syllables; four lines of eight.
Osiris assesses the soul by weight . . .

Fifty years or more, lying dormant in my brain.
Now, unbidden, they rise up again.
The rough magic of childhood has been abjured.
But Pascal’s Wager: shouldn’t one be insured?
Lame joke; dark humour, pitched against my plight.
Child-like again, in the dwindling light;
fearing the impending, unending night.

 

 

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Food for Thought

I’ve written quite a few poems about the pleasures of food and drink, and I’m quite unapologetic about that.  Poetry can address the most mundane subjects, just as it can the most high-flown, spiritual musings.  Occasionally, you come across a subject that has potential for combining the material and the spiritual, as in my poem “Food for Thought”, where a humble fish supper is the starting point for nostalgia and thoughts about religion.

John Donne wrote some of the greatest poems on the subject of religion; one of them being his Holy Sonnet “Batter my heart, three person’s God”.  Towards the end of “Food for Thought”, there is a blatant reference to Donne’s sonnet.  My apologies to the shade of John Donne, but I just couldn’t resist it!

FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

Fish supper tonight; I have been enticed.
The Chinese chippy; its friendly hubbub,
wafting aromas, glowing bright lights.
I stand in the queue; people come and go.
Memories of childhood flicker and flow. . .

I knew, every Friday, going home from school,
what awaited me, glistening, on a plain, white dish.
Week in, week out, an unbroken rule.
Unwritten, understood: it would be fish.
Cooked by my mother’s fervent, Catholic hands;
pure, white fillets of haddock or cod.
As clean, as virtuous, as Sally Army Bands.
Wholesome, nutritious; an offering to God.
Jesus and fish, I could understand.
The disciples, fishermen of Galilee.
Peter and the others, harvesting the sea.
Loaves and fishes fed the five thousand.
But bread and wine as Christ’s body and blood;
(the priest got the wine, to savour and taste;
we got “The Host” of cardboard and paste.)
that was a problem, never understood.
In no way did this artifice fill my need.
“Transubstantiation”, indeed!
When Host met tongue at communion rail,
all faith and belief would begin to fail. . .

Will it batter my heart, this oleaginous cod?
I anoint it with condiments; can of beer for
libation.  Insert a mouthful; await revelation.

It tastes of grease and salt; but what it tastes of most
is paste and cardboard: it tastes of The Host.

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Litany

My mother died a few years ago, just a couple of weeks ahead of her 90th birthday.  She was a fervent believer in the Roman Catholic faith, and brought me up to follow the same beliefs.  She was saddened, I know, when I “lapsed” – as teenagers often do – around the age of seventeen or eighteen.  I think she hoped I would return to the fold at some stage, but she made no attempts to harass or cajole me, and left me to my own devices.  She must, eventually, have resigned herself to the fact that I had lost all belief in Catholicism and showed no sign of returning to it.

“Litany” describes what I witnessed, purely accidentally, on one of my last visits to see her.  It was intensely personal and private, and there was no way I would have published anything about it whilst she was still alive.  I felt compelled to write about it, however, and now, years after her death, feel more at liberty to publish it.  I say I was compelled to record the experience, and I think, in essence, “Litany” is, perhaps, not so much a poem as a factual record or documentation of what I saw and heard.

LITANY:

I walk up the stairs, my footsteps faltering,
as I hear murmuring.  Lulling, lilting,
softly-spoken monotone.  My mother’s
voice.  I pause, near the top of the stairs.
I am hidden from her, here.  Her voice
emanates from one of the bedrooms.

“Cyril.  Wilfred.  Arthur.”  Her voice is soft,
rapt, meditative.  “Tom.  Lillie. Gerard.”
I peer round the edge of the bannister.
“Margaret.  Harold.  Jimmy.”  She is sitting
on the bed, gazing into space.  “Sheila.
Mr Wagstaff.  Barry.”  Most of the names
are known to me.  Relatives.  Friends.
Most of them are dead.  Some are living.

I retreat behind the banister.  I am
surprised, perturbed.  I am witnessing
a sacred act.  There is a solemnity,
a rhythmic intensity, to her
intonation of these names.  She is
threading an oral rosary.  Studding
the names, like beads, into the air.  Her voice
caressing the vowels.  Her eyes visualising
the vocals.  Her manner as devout
as if she were at the church she has
attended almost every Sunday
in her eighty-nine years.

It is not for me to ask why.
Not for me to witness this.
Not for me to wait to see
if my name is included
in her litany.

I silently descend the stairs.

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Communion

Religion seems to be dominating the news at the moment.  Last week, the eyes of the world were focused upon the inauguration of Pope Francis at the Vatican.  Today, as I write this, the airwaves – at least here, in the UK – are monopolised by live coverage of the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.  In a fascinating new book – “Religion for Atheists” – Alain de Botton argues that the cultural manifestations of religion: the art, music, rituals, literature, architecture, have much to offer, even to the non-believer.  As a lapsed Catholic myself, I must admit to finding some of de Botton’s arguments persuasive (I can also recommend his other books “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and “The Consolations of Philosophy”).  On the other hand, it is undeniable that religions have had disastrous consequences, as even a cursory look at human history reveals.

My schooldays were, in general, a time of misery for me, due to the ministrations of malicious, black-robed Christian “Brothers”.  Partly as a result of that, I have no liking for formalised religion to this day.  My poem “Communion” is a brief – though pungent – attempt to express some of the dichotomies and hypocrisies of established religion.  [The word “tawse” refers to the leather strap that was frequently used to enforce “discipline” in the days of corporal punishment.]

COMMUNION:

Bread and water, blood and wine,
flowing from the font divine.

Words murmured, gaze intent.
Heads lowered, soft assent.

Tongues receptive, doubts healed.
Thoughts deceptive, minds sealed.

“Crack!” of tawse, encrimsoned skin.
Rigorous laws enforced therein.

Immaculate deception, bred into belief.
Fallible conception, ceaseless grief.

Font divine, endless slaughter.
Blood and wine, bread and water.

 

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