Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?

No one feels comfortable about the Book of Job. A book which provides the most memorable lines of the Church of England funeral service is not going to be cheering. It culminates though in a breathtaking sweep over creation and the might of God, and leaves open the most joyous wonder we have.

Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? (Job 34:31)

First cast your eyes to the unfathomable wonders of the universe, as far from human experience as imaginable. but all in the hands of the God of Israel. Even the pride of modern cosmology can only look. It has found a twist to the passage: the Pleiades are indeed bound by the sweet influence of their gravitational fields; but the stars seen as Orion’s belt are moving apart – the Lord can loose the bands of Orion, and has done. Is this a joke, planted so as to be understood only a millennium and a half later?

From the heavenly, Chapter 34 descends to the forces of natures, then the familiar beasts:

Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion? or fill the appetite of the young lions, When they couch in their dens, and abide in the covert to lie in wait? Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat…

Creation, the stars, the great waters and clouds, lions, the wild ass, the unicorn (possibly a rhinoceros), the horse, the ostrich, the peacock.  They are all part of the same world, and what is it which separates us ultimately from the beasts, who share our world, our flesh, our needs?

Then in chapters 40 and 41 there are the greatest and untranslated beasts:

Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox. Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron.

Perhaps behemoth is a buffalo or a hippopotamus or an elephant, but it seems real, and of immense, unimaginable strength. And of course:

Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn? Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee? Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever? Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?

The beasts of the field and the sea can awe man through the force of their power, by even their power is petty compared with hands which formed stars. Bodily power is a mere faint reflection.

This picture of the unspeakable power of the leviathan made its name a mythological entity in the unreformed Middle Ages or as representing the Devil.  There is a carving on a church in Derbyshire showing Christ battling the leviathan – it is the church in which Hobbes lies interred. From this idea of leviathan as representing unspeakable power, Hobbes chose it as a byword for the power over all enjoyed by the state. Will he make a covenant with thee? Wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?

If the lesson we start to take away from the Book of Job is that Job was wise and righteous and his friends foolish and unseeing, these last chapters are written as the Lord’s rebuke to Job for his inadequacy. That is not to say the  friends were right, but that all were incapable of seeing the things of God, that any man would be so incapable, and really the rebuke of Job can only be for his yielding to the temptation to think he can start to understand. That  in any case is how I read it, but I am not capable of understanding, any more than Job; far less than him indeed.

The picture is of beasts, from the powerful down to humble. What divides us from the beasts is less than we might want to imagine. We are in body animals. Only insight is different, or the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge perhaps. It is not through nature but from our organised society that we have everything. Job first mourned the loss of his children and his property, but without the common power of the common-wealth, the common state, there is no property and nothing to stop anyone taking what they want, or killing to get it. He lost greatly but “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The head is still spinning with the tour of the universe, but stop and think of what it means. From stars at incalculable distance, bound and loosed at will, through the elemental forces and every swimming, flying of walking thing upon Earth and Job should worry about his troubles?  But then God is speaking, addressing what he has said, and God blessed him with those comforts he has lost, and new ones he is to gain. Man is is such a trivial  thing in the depths of the majesty of the universe, so weak compared even with fellow creatures around him – and yet God speaks to him. ‘What is man that thou art mindful of him?’ as the psalmist asks. Forget the starts and the  ocean and the tempest and the great beasts – ‘that thou art mindful of him’ – that is the greatest wonder.

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Masked unmasked

I think some people must like wearing a mask, maybe even getting a perverse thrill from it.

There was a time, when it was all novel, that a particular sort of person, and we all know them, would wear a plague mask aggressively, as a statement of their assertion of a moral superiority. The same people would theatrically cast their hands in front of their faces and cross the road on encountering a fellow human being. Before the epidemic, people rarely crossed the road to avoid me outside election campaigns.

There are fashions in masks, as there had to be, with ladies wearing masks to match their dresses, and businessmen in black masks matching their suits. A few medical masks persist, and I do not know if that is because they are easy to grab, or because wearers think they are somehow more ‘proper’. The muzzles are disappearing though. Masking is a minority pursuit.

It is wearing off. You still see people driving while masked, alone in their own car – is it superstition, or just  that they never take it off? On the London Underground there is still a command to go masked, and just over half of passengers do so on the morning; few in the evening. Even London Underground staff don’t bother – although reading station announcements though a muzzle would not help anyone.

This is a happier land being relaxed. We like a bit of panic and peril to add spice to life, but life must go back to normal. The disease has not gone, but it is no longer frightening:  you used to hear someone had got the Wuhan flu and pray for them in case it was their deathbed, but now we are vaccinated anyone still getting one of its 57 varieties will be assumed to have a snuffle if that.

This makes the recent scenes in Europe so bizarre. Riots, streets burning, a rebellion against lockdown – when lockdowns here seem unthinkable. Cities across Europe have deserted streets even as the shops were hoping to trade for Christmas, while our cities are buzzing. There is no excuse for violent scenes, even if the anger is understandable. Rotterdam, considered such a libertarian city that crime is a way of life and chuckled at, now has orders stay inside and fester, and that is intolerable, and in The Hague, and in Belgium too the story is the same.

The thing about the Netherlands (and its spawn, Belgium) is that while in form they are liberal and democratic, that is barely felt on the ground the way we understand it.  Those systems have succeeded in the principal aim of enfeebling the country to make it no threat to their neighbours, but the governing classes are far from the people their actions affect. The nation is disaffected: the rioting is just an outburst of a frustration that has been building for a generation or two and now finds its last straw. Perhaps the Dutch government is starting to fear the fate of Johan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary, who angered the people, so that he was seized by the mob in The Hague, murdered and dismembered  in the crowd (and allegedly subjected to cannibalism). Let us hope the winter calms the rioters’ ardour before they get such ideas.

All that is a world away though from the British experience.  We walk free, we laugh at the petty admonitions still proclaimed at us from dumb boards. Those Tube trains, once echoingly empty, now have standing-room only again. The city streets are packed, and the tills are ringing. Best of all, faces are smiling.

The fate of the European countries can only be speculation. (Perhaps their governments will run up so much debt from the endless lockdown that they will go bankrupt and a British consortium can buy them up cheap in a fire-sale. A private company ruling such countries could hardly do worse than their government have done.) Here, we are thriving, and as long as politicians are not swayed by panic then we will continue to lift, or will if taxes come down.

The masks are a sign of the the old epidemic which has passed. they mark imprisonment by fear. If they are of use, very well – wear it. They are a still vanishing phase, ebbing away. Ultimately, you have to be the change you want to see, and I want to see normality.

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Song of the Exile

The painful loneliness of the exile, the wanderer, the rootless man, are staples of literature across the ages. It is the subject of perhaps the most beautiful poem in the English language, albeit Old English. A man can be lonely even in a city of five million people.

The exile is now all too common, fleeing from lands which were once home, that can never be homelike again, or seeking a better life amongst the wealthy nations. It is now a dull cliché to say it takes a village to raise a child – really it takes a co-operating, integrated society of common understanding to carry anyone through life in comfort and sanity, and an exile outside a society to which he truly belongs is lost.

Living life and keeping your mind on the level is hard enough at the best of times in a complex, modern nation, but where there are no social bonds and understandings it is near impossible. There are frequent complaints that immigrants clump together in separate societies within society, but that is exactly what you would expect, what is necessary.  If I were to find myself in exile, however much in comfort, perhaps owning a farm in Kenya, in the Rift Valley (well, a man can dream) then I too would seek out fellow Britons for company, to share what we all understand. What is more, I would need to keep reaffirming who I am: I expect that I would become a British stereotype, suddenly taking an interest in the cricket scores, insisting on having tea at exactly 4 o’clock, with scones at the weekend, and following all the detail of news from home.

For the wanderer in Britain, cut off from his homeland, the surrounding society is very strange. He must cling to what he was and emphasise it far more than he would have done at home. The Syrian who was a nominal Muslim in the streets of Aleppo becomes the emphatic Mohammedan in London or Liverpool. In Aleppo once… but now here and less himself by striving to be more himself.  It is a story told over millions of souls.

In Liverpool, we do not know what went through the mind of a young Syrian man at the weekend. He came from that destroyed society where evil is the norm, and may inure any receptive heart to atrocities. He came from a destroyed society into another and was here a rootless exile. They say he was confirmed  Christian in the cathedral but then reverted: did he nominally convert to cheat the asylum system, or genuinely seek to accept Christ to attach himself to the society he had joined, only to swing away again in reaction?  Perhaps he was yoyoing back and forth and his action was an attempt to make an end, stability in death, and maybe to get into heaven by breaking a side window? Who can ever tell. Even the foulest crimes are lurking in the human heart awaiting release when the society that restrains them is snapped. The song of the exile is a lament and it can grow into a scream.

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Matt Hancock book exclusive

Matt Hancock’s How I Won the COVID War, out soon: a thrilling read. Page after page of revelations: ‘If I were to get on top of this one, I’d have to work fast. I took lessons from Neil Ferguson’.

‘I was going to get down to it – if it took all-night sessions with staff, I was up for it.’ ‘It was a fearsome projection: I was facing a massive hump in the summer.’

‘It was vital that people stay at home unless needed: even my wife could no longer join me at the office in the evening, and I had police posted just in case.’

‘This is an international problem – I was discussing Uganda into the small hours. How I kept it up, I’ll never know.’

The book is not out for a few months, but the extracts are revealing. Getting through on tiny scraps of data, bearing a hunch and carrying it through, following tiny clues, hacking phones, bribing publishers and getting the ghost-writer drunk  – that’s how exclusives are made. What I found was less exciting than I thought: here was Matt, plain Matt Hancock, just as pointless and self-absorbed as he always seemed. If you want drama and fantasy, you have what he thought of himself.

Worth and Dignity

The Value, or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power: and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependant on the need and judgement of another. An able conductor of Souldiers, is of great Price in time of War present, or imminent; but in Peace not so. A learned and uncorrupt Judge, is much Worth in time of Peace; but not so much in War. And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the Price. For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselves as the highest Value they can; yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others.

The manifestation of the Value we set on one another, is that which is commonly called Honouring, and Dishonouring. To Value a man at a high rate, is to Honour him; at a low rate, is to Dishonour him. But high, and low, in this case, is to be understood by comparison to the rate that each man setteth on himselfe.

The publique worth of a man, which is the Value set on him by the Common-wealth, is that which men commonly call DIGNITY. And this Value of him by the Common-wealth, is understood, by offices of Command, Judicature, publike Employment; or by Names and Titles, introduced for distinction of such Value.