A Far Cry from Christmas
The Occasional Didymus
by John Moat
Cover: Black-browed albatross flying over south Atlantic Photograph: Daniel Cox/Photolibrary
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Illustration: John Moat
Men behaving badly require a governess.
WE DON’T WANT nuclear energy, but we do have pressing need of those deep-earth repositories designed to safe-keep incalculably noxious material for a minimum of a hundred thousand years. Twenty centuries of research have failed to come up with anywhere else sufficiently out of the way for the secure impoundment of sacred texts.
Sacred texts? Yes, as opposed to holy texts. Holy texts are the ones like the Song of Songs, the poetry of Rumi, the Rãmãyana, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and that little poem by Ralph Hodgson that begins:
‘Twould ring the bells of Heaven
The wildest peal for years
If Parson lost his senses
And people came to theirs…
These texts are what Ivan Illich called “convivial tools” – they promoted happiness and a universal coming together which (and we don’t need Eric Fromm to point this out) is a good thing. The sacred texts that need to be put out of the way are on the other hand divisive, encourage men in particular to behave badly, and are much more common. They all hotline from God whom they generally concur is a Bloke in the Sky who is unlikely to forgive you for anything, least of all noticing he’s a dead ringer for Rupert Murdoch with a white beard. If you suppose this commonality might underwrite universal accord, you’d be wrong. Each claims to offer its subscribers ‘chosen’ status, advancement and unrepeatable perks both on Earth and afterwards in an upmarket form of the Club Med in the sky.
Sounds harmless, but actually it’s not, because the blokes who get paged by the hotline then put on strange hats or turn their collars around and declare this or that patch the Holy Land that anyone in his right mind would die for.
Holy Land, oh boy! Some of us might think that if we cleared away the brigades of men behaving badly, the Holy Land would no longer be featured by some trumped-up rock, or mountain or island or football stadium, but by the entirety of not our but this jewel-like planet that belongs to the universe – and I know a couple of bugs, a butterfly, a toucan and a whiting that tend to agree with me.
Oh Lebanon… I was in Lebanon in 1963. My mate and I hitched from Beirut to dreamy Byblos, and then back and up scented mountains to see the cedars. A young nun went out of her way to hand us each the fullest orange we’d ever tasted. A man giving us a lift took us to a sublime shepherd’s stone cot near the snowline where we slept in a room through which tumbled an icy brook and whose window looked down over that most beautiful land to the distant sea. I remember us thinking it an enclave of civility and peace.
Next day, we hitched on into Syria. The driver who picked us up wore the smile of a djinn one felt a shade unsure of. He explained why we were certain to be killed… if the Muslims thought we were Druse or Christian, if the Syrians thought we were Jordanian, if the Sunnis thought we were Shi’as, if the Arabs thought we were Israelis, if almost anyone at all guessed we were English… He told us on no account to enter Damascus: people the day before were being strung up on the street… and then he ran through the list of possible causes again.
We crossed into Jordan, made our way to Arab Jerusalem and after a day or two, on to Galilee to put our feet up beside the lake. The first night we had supper in a café, and a robust, informed waiter pointed across the water to the Golan. “That’s where Jesus drove the pigs into the water. But the pigs came back!” The Holy Land. Boy, oh boy!
Ah, time for negotiation – thank God for the United Nations. “Good point, Mr Bolton – we’ll stop killing children from Friday.” A moratorium, of course! Men behaving badly. And what about women? Isn’t there anything they could do? Miss Burge would have known what to do.
When I was five there was a war on. My father did the manly thing and got himself killed. My mother, sister and I tried to get on without him. Our circumstances were such that my mother was able to engage no less than a governess to keep us in line. Miss Burge. Miss Burge didn’t believe in negotiation. I guess she knew that negotiation was merely a way of accommodating existing bad behaviour: no solution, and no substitute for “Behave yourself at once!” When I did something unrepeatable, Miss Burge led me by the ear to the bathroom and told me to sniff the ammonia bottle. Phew! You try it. I’m not sure that Resurgence approves of a detergent – I mean deterrent policy. But it works. Or it worked with me.
And my point is that there may be something special in a woman’s way of handling things firmly because the very next week on the way back from feeding the chickens, I proposed to her. To be honest I think I caught her on the rebound. Anyway it never came to anything and she died a spinster. But the climate had changed. The ammonia went back on the shelf. Now, when the unrepeatable happened she would simply say in an astringent tone, “You will kindly stop doing that!” And I would stop.
So there you have it: men behaving badly require a governess.
“Stop it! Would you kindly stop it!”
John Moat is a painter and writer. His most recent book is Hermes & Magdalen.