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Archive for October, 2012

The Big Bad Wolf, the Human Capacity to Deceive, and the Case of Jimmy Savile

In recent weeks many of us have been shocked by the case of Jimmy Savile and the BBC, and wondered how someone who did so much good in the world could turn out to have such a dark side.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by Gustave Dore

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by Gustave Dore

The case of Jimmy Savile should make us all look with new eyes at the cult of celebrity, at the nature of good and evil, and at the capacity of human beings to appear as Angels of Light and yet to have dark hearts beneath.

Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness explores this, as does Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

This is what celebrity is all about: people who seem to be, who look and sound and do good. And we so much want to believe in them.

So many people were hypnotized for so long by the power of Savile’s Celebrity Personna, and his Good Works.

Today I learned on the Radio 4 Today Programme that Philip Pullman is re-telling 50 Grimms Fairy Stories. Neil Gaiman was also in the studio to discuss the archetypal appeal of fairy stories. Why do fairy stories work? Neil Gaiman gave this as his number one reason:

Fairy stories warn us “There are monsters out there.  Beware of strangers – beware the wolves in the  wood.”

Running through archetypal story structure, we find wolves in sheep’s clothing, fair maidens who turn out to be evil sorceresses, beautiful queens who are power-hungry murderers.

These characters form part of  the “giant glorious background clutter we carry with us into adulthood”, says Neil Gaiman.

In the case of Jimmy Savile, and in other notorious cases in recent years, we have seen cunning people playing with and subverting the English tendency to say something and mean exactly its opposite, conveying this purely through subtle changes in tone of voice.

I’ll never forget somebody I met years ago (working at the BBC)  saying in my presence, “I am a black hole in the spiritual firmament.” We were all sitting in a recording studio, making a programme for religious schools radio about the Iona Community. This colleague was a great character, probably one of my favourite people in the office:  funny, colourful, down-to-earth, with a subversive sense of humour.  “If holy people see me coming in on the radar,” he went on, “they’ll say: ‘Watch out, there’s something alien coming in here’.”

We all laughed, and later I wrote it in my journal, I was so amused and intrigued by his words.

Of course he was probably joking.

But so did many many people persuade themselves Savile was joking. So did Fred West convince neighbours and acquaintances he was joking. So did Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, convince work colleagues he was joking.

Convincing yourself people are joking is an excellent way to avoid responsibility to follow the promptings of your first instinct.

Of course these are exceptional cases, and there is  a very high probability that when my amusing work colleague spoke those words, it could simply have been a theatrical way of saying, “I’m not religious”. Or it could have indicated bad feelings about himself arising from negative messages received in childhood; or it could have meant that he knew he had done – and perhaps continued to do – bad things that we didn’t know about.

Should not reasonable people be able to see “something alien” coming in on their radar?

Many people were blind to that “something alien” in Jimmy Savile.  Human beings have a vast capacity to deceive.

What is your take on this? Please share your thoughts on the case of Jimmy Savile, or any reflections arising from it.

The Heavenly Choir, Voices of Lothlorien, and Glimpses of Eternity

The most profound emotions, the deepest experiences of the human spirit may be evoked by the sound of a heavenly choir.

Choir of Angels (credit: crossfiremc.com)

Choir of Angels (credit: crossfiremc.com)

There has often been debate about which is the greatest musical instrument. And of course each of us will have different favourites. It has been said, for instance, that the grand pipe organ is “the King of Instruments”.

But I believe the greatest musical instrument is the human voice.

The other day I listened to a heavenly choir – the Armonico Consort – sing some of the most sublime choral music ever composed in St Mark’s Church, New Milverton, Leamington Spa.

As I listened to Barber’s Agnus Dei, and Allegri’s Miserere Mei float through the church, I heard with new ears, and saw with new eyes.  I’ve been going to this church for 14 years and had not previously realised quite how beautiful it is. The power of the music had opened up not only the sense of hearing.

Why do we respond so instinctively to the sound of those voices?  Because, I suggest, they give us a glimpse of eternity.

Whenever a film director wishes to evoke in the audience pity, grief and sorrow, or joy, bliss, peace and gladness, the best choice of background music is that provided by a heavenly choir.

In the first part of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, we find this used to good effect on several occasions.

When the Fellowship of the Ring meet Haldir of Lorien, we hear the first long sustained notes of those ethereal voices. The Lady of the Wood is waiting. The Lady Galadriel appears, and the voices of the heavenly choir crescendo.

In Lothlorien, again the massed voices are heard in the background, an aural tapestry evoking mystical power, visions, prophecy, wisdom, insight.

And at the end of the film, they are heard once more, immediately after Frodo has turned to his faithful companion and said, “Sam, I’m glad you’re with me.”

Here, the heavenly choir evokes values like love, loyalty, courage, determination, self-sacrifice.

In the bible we find these words: “God has written eternity on our hearts”.

I can affirm this by personal experience, again and again throughout my life.

Please share your thoughts on this. Have you too experienced the sublime through music? And do you too have a strong sense that God has written eternity on your heart?

Beyond The Scream of Edvard Munch, into Reflections on Identity

The other day I was reading through the typescript of the novel I wrote about my university life, finished a few years after I graduated:
 it was called “A Degree Without Honour“.
The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Scream by Edvard Munch

I had some astonishing shafts of self-knowledge from it… things I was entirely unconscious of whilst writing it. I was trying to see what I could learn from it, though I admit I meant initially to pick out a passage which might help in my current novel.
But then the ms had to be put away in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet again – I could bear only so much of delving into the past like that!
Anyone reading an old journal, or looking through old photos, might feel the same.
The sometimes unwelcome light of self-knowledge, in extreme cases, may make us feel like the tormented figure in the famous painting “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.
 

“The Scream” is uncomfortable viewing. Through his art, Munch’s fascination with self-image, and obsessive self-expression are themes that still resonate today.

It occurred to me, that humans desire more than anything else, “to be known”. The current passion “to become a celebrity” and for social networking are just two of the many contemporary phenomena that express this.

But we can bear only so much knowledge – either of ourselves, or of others.

As I read in a recent article on “The Scream” from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity, we seek “an identity that gives us a unique sense of belonging and a connection to others. Knowing this, in modern life, truly sets us free.”

Childhood Imaginary Worlds

When I was a little girl, my friend Alison and I created imaginary worlds.

A map of the imaginary world "Coneland" created by Alison & Sheila as children

A map of the imaginary world “Coneland” created by Alison & Sheila as children

One of these was the land we named “Coneland”. We wrote stories about the royal family of this land; at the bottom righthand corner of the map is the palace and the royal park, situated of course in the capital city, Coneington.

Alison is now a gifted textile artist who regularly exhibits her work in London and throughout the UK. Early expressions of her creative imagination may be seen in the worlds we designed before the age of 10.

Among the most famous examples of imaginary childhood worlds is that composed by the Bronte sisters, “Gondal”. Emily and Charlotte and their siblings actively worked on the complicated fantasy world of “Gondal” for 16 years, and some of their creations at this time may be seen in the Bronte Museum at Howarth in Yorkshire.

Painting of the Bronte sisters by Branwell Bronte

Painting of the Bronte sisters by Branwell Bronte

Of course, the artist Grayson Perry is well known for his childhood teddy bear Alan Measles, who was “the dictator and god of the imaginary world” in which Grayson Perry dwelt throughout his childhood (and of course well into his adulthood!)

In 1979 an author called Robert Silvey wrote a letter to “The Author”, a journal published by the Society of Authors, in which he invited contact from anyone who had created imaginary worlds in their childhood. He was gathering material for a book which was to be An Enquiry into the Imaginative Worlds of Childhood.

Alison and I sent off copies of our material; pictures and maps, a description of our imaginary world, the land of “Coneland” and its inhabitants.

This is an extract from Robert Silvey’s reply:

 “It’s so interesting having two perspectives on this same ‘paracosm‘ (as we call it). The first thing that struck me about the map of Coneland was the similarity of the outline to that of the New Hiniwan States of which I was for some years the President. I suspect that this similarity has something to do with the dimensions of foolscap paper!”

Sadly, Robert Silvey died before completing the book.

But it remains true, as he said in his original letter to “The Author” magazine, that “had it not been for the subsequent fame of the Bronte sisters, no one would ever have heard of Gondal or Angria. Yet they were not the first, not will they be the last, children whose fantasy-life takes the form of an imaginary world.

Did you ever create imaginary worlds during your childhood? And how has that influenced your adult life and vocation? If so, I’d love to hear from you!

 

Special Time, Ordinary Time, and the Time the Weeping Angels Snatch

Who’d have thought there’s a connection between emigrating to a far country, and being snatched by one of Doctor Who’s greatest foes: the Weeping Angels?

But I believe there is.

"I'm the doctor" by MagicMoonCat on Deviant Art

“I’m the doctor” by MagicMoonCat on Deviant Art

The Weeping Angels played a vital role in the plot of the latest Doctor Who Episode, “The Angels Take Manhattan”, during which we, and the Doctor (played by Matt Smith),said goodbye to two beloved characters, Amy and Rory, played by Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan.

And I believe the reason why the Weeping Angels grip us is because they concentrate two of our greatest fears: Being Snatched Away, and Being Left Behind.

weeping angel

weeping angel

Even when a family member who emigrated to a far country comes back home to visit England, it’s never the same.

The reason why is this: the time she spends here is Special Time.

And the time which the Weeping Angels snatch is OrdinaryTime.
Ordinary Time, Now, which can never be regained.

I lived and worked in Australia for four and a half years before returning to live in the UK. And during the time I was there I had a strange feeling, that I was existing in some kind of afterlife, in “the spirit world” – and that life back in England was “life on earth”.

I mention this because I think it feeds in to what I’m saying about the Weeping Angels, and the haunting power of what they do, and why the idea of them has such a grip on the imaginations of millions who watch Doctor Who.

The Weeping Angels snatch you away from your ordinary time, now, and steal all the energy you would have used to live in that time – and they transport you back to some period in the past.

I can imagine the creator of the Weeping Angels, Steven Moffat, standing in a churchyard or cemetary perhaps, and thinking about people who are snatched away.

Then he would have looked at a statue of a weeping angel, and thought: What if it dropped its hands and looked at me, and our gaze met? And that was all that was needed for me to be snatched away?

In fact, the story he tells is that he stood before a shackled gate, through which he could see a weeping angel statue in a graveyard.

And he still can’t understand why his idea touched so many people so deeply.

In moments like that, in the unconscious, far-reaching ideas are born.

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