2021: please tell me it’s over

Having to write a review of the year is painful as I have to relive it. Lockdowns and quasi-lockdowns reduce the year to a grey goo like an ill-cooked pudding with sudden bitter raisins.

Early in the year COBRA met to discuss what to do about the opinion poll crisis and selected more COVID measures as a fix. They also received a complaint that their name has neo-colonialist pretentions, so the committee was renamed ‘Grass-snake’.

Over in America, the year started with Q-Anoners staging a coo-ee, which was apparently the worst thing ever to happen in that city (and this of a small city which has more murders every year than the whole of Britain has), or at least the worst until the new President was inaugurated a few days later.

Here meanwhile after Grass-snake met we were told ‘Happy New Year – you are all under house arrest’. To be fair, the rule was only introduced on the understanding that it would be ignored, and I could claim a journalist’s exemption, which surely the rules imply if unsaid, but the schools were barred and bolted too, so no relief from loud children.

Members of SAGE complained that the restrictions were not harsh enough, and everyone should have their front door nailed shut, so they cannot go out and look for their wife after her meeting with the professor.

In March a Prince and Princess appeared on trailer-trash TV in America; the less said the better. In the meantime life went on as normal with new, exciting strains of SARS-COVID-19, riots, unsociallysdistanced protests at a school peacefully demanding the dismemberment of a teacher, and Belfast returned to normal, with rioting.

Rioting became quite a fashionable activity in places. Bristol was having another go after its statue-toppling time the previous summer and now any political cause is an excuse for a party with fire-bombs.

In all this, cancel culture went on, becoming the best satire in the house. Who said it is killing comedy when maddened ochlocracy is the funniest thing about?

A fundamentalist breakaway from SAGE was formed, called ‘THYME’.

In May, we were graciously permitted to vote in elections:  in Scotland and in Wales the most hated parties both won power again convincingly – well, we need someone to grumble about.  It has in fact been quite a year for elections: Hartlepool humiliating Labour; Airdrie and Shotts unnoticed; Chesham and Amersham humiliating Boris; Batley & Spen; Old Bexley and Sidcup humiliating the press; North Shropshire sounding a knell. It is a knell still sounding – from Boris flying higher in the polls than Icarus, to falling lower than Icarus. He may take a classical lesson – others of us may consider that Conservatives have been wildly popular, and Boris is no longer a Conservative.

There were some Extinction Rebellion things too, if anyone noticed, and some bizarre people gluing themselves to roads. THYME at least were delighted that blocked roads stopped people meetings or spending money in shops.

There was some sort of football tournament on too: the cheers and the weeping, overheard in every street, told how deeply the two sides in the COVID lockdown debate feel about crowds.

In October and November the jets and vehicle convoys piled into Glasgow. The wisest came by train, as the only way to stop their hubcaps being stolen. Greta flew in of course.  The city was delighted to host such a prestigious gathering – until the townsfolk realised the meeting wanted to stop global warming, when a warmer climate is exactly what Glasgow could do with.

The conference was then blamed for a surge in COVID according to the official government advice panel, now known as ‘HYSSOP’.

Oh, and there was a fuss over MPs objecting to the expulsion of one of their colleagues by a ‘commissioner’ whose academic qualification is a degree in women’s studies from a gym in the Midlands, and another over a post-work party that looked very tame compared with what most of us were doing. Still who am I to accuse?

Now New Year’s parties are legal for 90% of the nation – the tinpot premiers of Scotland and Wales have banned them, so now the pubs of Northumberland and Cumberland, of Cheshire, Gloucester and Hereford are booked solid, and signed have appeared on the Tweed and the Wye saying “Welcome to Free Britain”, and long may Scots celebrate in Nicola’s face. It’s Burns Night round ours soon enough.

Even after lockdowns, masks and madness, this cursed year is not over. The midnight chimes cannot come soon enough.

Tell us art thou he that should come to reign

The hymns sung, the lessons read (but are the lessons learnt?) and peace from toil for a week or two, enjoy the goose or turkey and the cheerful company and try not to think of those alone.

The season quickly moves away from church-going even for church-goers, into the secular holiday, which is much much needed. Even that though expands to worship. Step out of the house into the street, into the fields, and breathe in creation. At this time it is as if the world is being created anew, and it is rustling, changing, living. That is equally the story of the nativity of Jesus, because it is not about that moment of birth, frozen in a moment, but the beginning of the story that grows continually.

We can say that Christ-tide is not about a day or a giant turkey, and equally it is not about the child in a cradle.

The scene of the moment of the miraculous birth is played out year after year, with a babe laid in a humble beast’s feeding trough for want of a cradle, but the story moves on, as he stretched his limbs and his lungs, as he was nursed and fed and grew, with a more suitable cradle and home. He was carried to the temple in Jerusalem. He may have been walking by the time the magi came from the East, and speaking first, unrecorded words, but timing we do not know as the Gospels skip over the time in order to get to the meat of the Good News in his Ministry and the Commission and his ultimate sacrifice. We do not like to think of this at Christmas, though ministers of the Protestant churches, alert to their duty, do emphasise the wholeness of the message to their congregations.

The cattle-trough and the baby are an image of a moment; the charm and wonder of innocence before the challenges begin. It is easy to understand why there is concentration on this one moment, turning the frozen scene into an idol, but it is unhealthy. Wonder at the Son of God lying in a manger, but it is opposing the Gospel to try to keep him there.

Losing believers

In a time of cultural and religious ferment, Thomas Hobbes was aware of how religions seize the imagination of multitudes, and how they fail, back to the Greek cults.

In our day, political ideas and parties have gained fervency in devotion or loathing more usually associated with religion, and the same principles apply to the sudden upwelling of faith in them or its collapse.

For seeing all formed Religion, is founded at first, upon the faith which a multitude hath in some one person, whom they believe not only to be a wise man, and to labour to procure their happiness, but also to be a holy man, to whom God himselfe vouchsafeth to declare his will supernaturally; It followeth necessarily, when they that have the Goverment of Religion, shall come to have either the wisedome of those men, their sincerity, or their love suspected; or that they shall be unable to shew any probable token of divine Revelation; that the Religion which they desire to uphold, must be suspected likewise; and (without the feare of the Civill Sword) contradicted and rejected.

Injoyning Beleefe Of Impossibilities

That which taketh away the reputation of Wisedome, in him that formeth a Religion, or addeth to it when it is allready formed, is the enjoyning of a beliefe of contradictories: For both parts of a contradiction cannot possibly be true: and therefore to enjoyne the beliefe of them, is an argument of ignorance; which detects the Author in that; and discredits him in all things else he shall propound as from revelation supernaturall: which revelation a man may indeed have of many things above, but of nothing against naturall reason.

Doing Contrary To The Religion They Establish

That which taketh away the reputation of Sincerity, is the doing, or saying of such things, as appeare to be signes, that what they require other men to believe, is not believed by themselves; all which doings, or sayings are therefore called Scandalous, because they be stumbling blocks, that make men to fall in the way of Religion: as Injustice, Cruelty, Prophanesse, Avarice, and Luxury. For who can believe, that he that doth ordinarily such actions, as proceed from any of these rootes, believeth there is any such Invisible Power to be feared, as he affrighteth other men withall, for lesser faults?

That which taketh away the reputation of Love, is the being detected of private ends: as when the beliefe they require of others, conduceth or seemeth to conduce to the acquiring of Dominion, Riches, Dignity, or secure Pleasure, to themselves onely, or specially. For that which men reap benefit by to themselves, they are thought to do for their own sakes, and not for love of others.

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Melancholy, Madnesse and the Greeks

The opinions of the world, both in antient and later ages, concerning the cause of madnesse, have been two. Some, deriving them from the Passions; some, from Daemons, or Spirits, either good, or bad, which they thought might enter into a man, possesse him, and move his organs is such strange, and uncouth manner, as mad-men use to do. The former sort therefore, called such men, Mad-men: but the Later, called them sometimes Daemoniacks, (that is, possessed with spirits;) sometimes Energumeni, (that is agitated, or moved with spirits;) and now in Italy they are called not onely Pazzi, Mad-men; but also Spiritati, men possest.

There was once a great conflux of people in Abdera, a City of the Greeks, at the acting of the Tragedy of Andromeda, upon an extream hot day: whereupon, a great many of the spectators falling into Fevers, had this accident from the heat, and from The Tragedy together, that they did nothing but pronounce Iambiques, with the names of Perseus and Andromeda; which together with the Fever, was cured, by the comming on of Winter: And this madnesse was thought to proceed from the Passion imprinted by the Tragedy. Likewise there raigned a fit of madnesse in another Graecian city, which seized onely the young Maidens; and caused many of them to hang themselves. This was by most then thought an act of the Divel. But one that suspected, that contempt of life in them, might proceed from some Passion of the mind, and supposing they did not contemne also their honour, gave counsell to the Magistrates, to strip such as so hang’d themselves, and let them hang out naked. This the story sayes cured that madnesse.

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Lost to translation

Listening to sermons, I occasionally ponder how a particular telling phrase might be rendered in any number of interesting tongues that come across my attention: what is “You brood of vipers!” in Trøndsk or Middle Welsh or Old English? But it has been rendered in all of these, by native speakers. The problem is translation by non-speakers, which is most Biblical translations.

(In the King James Version, the best of translations and closest to the original, it is ‘O generation of vipers!’, which has a subtlety of meaning that needs understanding of the subtle tones within it.)

Think of those intent, Methodist missionaries on faraway Pacific islands, rendering the living words of God into languages of which they had but a beginner’s understanding. More of a challenge: they were translating words for those languages of a stone age culture which had no such words. How do you divide the sheep from the goats for a people who have neither beast, or describe the chariots of the Assyrians resplendent in gold to those without horses or wheels or metal?

Their influence remains, embedded in those languages they took on. Think of Hiram Bingham labouring away to translate the bible into Gilbertese, using (so legend says) a typewriter missing the ‘s’ key so that Gilbertese to this day uses “ti” instead.

The translator becomes the moulder of the language, and not just in emergent cultures. Once there were innumerable German dialects, but in the last four hundred years a single standard: that which was written by Martin Luther. English changed over five hundred years so radically that a paragraph written in the days of King Edgar was incomprehensible in the days of Henry VIII, but then the Prayer Book, the Bible and Shakespeare pinned it down so that our language has barely changed since Queen Elizabeth’s time. The Bible translators chose the words we use. It is just as well that they were poets in their choices.

This is a lot of trust to be reposed in one translator, curbing forever the speech of nations.

How would a mechanically working translator who has come lately to a language translate “γεννηματα εχιδνων”; “O generation of vipers”? Perhaps more easily than some concepts, as family relations are universal amongst mankind. In more complex concepts, he has the temptation to impose his own words, or may be stuck and use the wrong meaning, like the unthinking algorithms of Google Translate.

In the ordinary too, the translator can sap the life out of a language. The most beautiful spoken language, it is said, is Welsh, and Welsh is a living tongue I hear on the streets of the villages below the mountains, but for most it is the language put on road signs that are translated mechanically, into a version of Welsh words and phrases chosen by a committee to represent bureaucratic needs. Can this Committee-Welsh, with set words and phrases and inflexible grammar rules, ever be considered a living language?  Too easily it can become  tomb.

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