Arthur: And what
happened to the earth?
Ford: It’s been disintegrated
Arthur: Has it?
Ford: Yes. It just boiled away
Arthur: Look, I’m a bit upset about that.
Ford: Yes, I can understand.
Flash and me and Darren and Keith hired a little pleasure boat at Inverness,
and spent a week tootling down the Great Glenn, across Loch Ness, Lock Oich and
the imaginatively named Loch Lochy.
Flash and I flew from London to
Scotland. That meant on one day I traveled on a train, a car, a bus, a plane
and a boat.
Scotland is very pretty. There
are hills and lakes.
One night, we tied up at mooring
point a mile or so from the nearest village. There was no artificial light. We
couldn’t take our eyes of the stars (until it got too cold and we went into the
boat and drank whiskey and read poems out loud out of a book). It surprises townies that the night sky
has stars in it.
According to the guidebook, you
could drown the whole population of the world in Loch Ness, three times over.
Somewhere in its murky depths there hides a Monster.
Never mind the scenery, the
whisky, or the stars. It’s the Loch Ness Monster that keeps the tourist
business going. Souvenir shops offer you soft-toy Nessies (usually
sea-serpents) or china ornament Nessies (usually plesiosaurs). Dumnadrochit has
got a large fiberglass plesiosaur in front of a mocked up boat, so you can show
your friends a photograph of you with the Monster. As you sail through the lock
system into Fort Augustus, there’s a topiary of the monster and a little baby
Flash explained that in Scots,
you can’t mistake the word “Lock” for the word “Loch” because “Lock” is
pronounced “lok” whereas “Loch” is pronounced, er, “clorrk”.
It only takes two people to pull
a little boat through a lock, so while Darren and Keith held onto the ropes, me
and Flash jumped off, walked into the canal-side pub (the Loch Inn, ho-ho)
downed a quick pint, and rejoined them on the other side.
It was September, so the weather
wasn’t perfect but we didn’t have any thoroughly washed out days. There’s a
snapshot of the three of us looking very drenched by a very disappointing
historical monument. (An ancient
well where the dismembered heads of seven people who had been executed in some
blood-curdling highland feud were washed before being presented to the clan
The worst disaster occurred when
we thought it would be a Good Idea to take the boat out into the middle of the
lake while Keith was preparing a good healthy English cooked breakfast. The
first time a teensy tiny little wave struck us, he poured a – fortunately not
very hot pan -- of cooking oil over himself.
The charter company set Fort
William as the limit of how far we could take the boat. It was Tuesday. A nice
enough medium size town, containing the one good pub we found, name-check the
Goose and Gruel. It’s the place you go if you want to climb Ben Nevis. We
didn’t. We did visit the Ben Nevis whisky distillery, however. Not a whisky
drinker myself, but I forced myself to try the free samples.
We took a taxi back to the
marina where we’d left the boat.
“Och, have ye heard the news?”
said the driver “Apparently, an aeroplane has crashed into a big hotel in
We only had a radio to
communicate with the outside world. But then one would automatically turn
to Radio 4 in a crisis in any
case. When we turned on, there were car bombs going off all over America and
tens of thousands were dead. Canary Wharf had been evacuated. Things only
gradually got back to normal. I am happy to say that I still haven’t seen the
footage of the tower collapsing.
I was going to use the word
“stunned” to describe our reaction. Perhaps “embarrassedly not sure how to
react” would be more honest. Since none of us on had friends or relatives in
New York we turned off the radio and carried on with our holiday. There didn’t
seem a great deal else to do.
There was an American family
we’d passed in a couple of locks, with a star and stripes tied to the back of
their boat. We noticed they’d lowered it to half-mast.
Last February, I lost a very
close friend in a pointless futile stupid railway accident. That’s left me a
bit mixed up over how to mentally process big disasters. I’d been through the
experience of seeing a news report of a major accident, saying “tut tut, how
terrible” and finding out twelve hours later that there was a real person involved.
It would be nice to say “and that made me feel much more Christian sympathy for
the horror stories coming out of New York”, but it actually just made me want
to switch off. Must then a Christ perish in torment in each age for the sake of
those with no imagination?
I think the media actually does
very well at bringing minute-by-minute reporting of major events. In the old
days, the morning papers were history’s second or third draft: by the time you
heard the news, it had been tidied up. Journalists knew the facts before they
reported them. Live news creates a weird immediacy, despite its inaccuracy. Fog
of war – conflicting reports – “something terrible has happened, we don’t know
what the details are yet”—too early to speculate. Real life must be very much
But after a few hours, it very
rapidly reverts to normal; human-interest items about children who have lost
parents and arty photos of the fire brigade raising the Stars and Stripes.
Would the girl who lost her fiance be any more traumatized if he’d slipped on
the steps outside his house and broken his neck? But because he perished
publicly, her grief is News.
I know what they were doing and
I don’t blame them for it. 6,000 dead is just a number, they want to put a
human face on it. But it has the effect of assimilating the shock into an
easily digestible narrative:
tragedy as soap opera. At some level, those of us who weren’t directly
involved were enjoying it. God help us, we were.
“We are all Americans now,” said
one commentator. I was at college in Brighton when the IRA came within a
hairsbreadth of assassinating Mrs. Thatcher; one of those rare moments when
strangers are allowed to talk to each other, even if it’s only to look down at
the paper and say “Tut tut, nasty business.” People stood on the beach and
gaped at the wreckage of the Grand Hotel. A man with one of those RAF moustache
accents said “You a Tory supporter, then?” and I said “No, but that’s a bit
irrelevant, isn’t it?” -- as if my opinion of the Falklands War or the Miners
Strike might have any effect on my opinions of the moral wisdom of putting
explosive devices in hotel bedrooms.
My opinions on the U.S foreign
policy, the middle-east situation, George Bush’s brain-power, globalization and
the fact that Starbucks make crap coffee remain precisely where they were on
September 10. But that’s a bit irrelevant, isn’t it?
The most moving sound image
which Radio 4 piped at us was the Queen’s guards playing the Star Spangled
Banner outside Buck House as part of the changing of the guard; and the mainly
but not entirely American voices singing the words. The cynic in me knows that
“the Queen’s” decision to change the ceremony was really the result of a press
adviser who wanted to make sure that she didn’t fumble the ball like she did
when Di died. But it was very moving, nonetheless.
We can’t do patriotism; we
aren’t allowed. At about this time of year, there is a minor classical music
concert in the Albert Hall. Tradition dictates that the second half includes
Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance and a silly medley of English Sea Songs,
culminating in Rule Britannia. And every year, I mean, every year, without
fail, there is a minor controversy about whether these songs are a bit
bellicose and jingoistic and it wouldn’t be better to sing “I’d Like To Teach
the World To Sing In Perfect Harmony” instead. This year there was even more
mumbling. As it happened, the little American conductor with the line in weak
jokes replaced Land of Hope and Glory with Ode to Joy but still let the
multitudes belt out Jerusalem and everyone went home relatively happy. But one
couldn’t help comparing our embarrassed confusion about patriotic traditions
with the purity and wholeheartedness of that of the Americans.
The Vicar preached an entirely
adequate sermon about Recent Events in the World. He said that it reminded us
of the frailty and contingency of human existence; he said it reminded us of
the weakness of human endeavor compared to the will of God; he said that if we
put our trust in God rather than towers made by men, that, in the long run,
even in the face of terrible events, we would be OK: that death needn’t be the
final and total evil. He pointed out that in the Psalm, where it says “God is
our refuge” the word “refuge” means literally “unassailably strong tower.”
All doubtless very true.
But it struck me that all he had
really done was use an “item in the news” as a sermon illustration: rather as
if he had drawn an moral point out of England losing the football (don’t set your
hearts on human heroes, they may let you down) or, less likely, England winning
the football (press on towards the goal however hard it seems.)
And that, one feels, is what a
lot of people have been doing: like any big event, it can’t just be a Terrible
Thing which happened: it has to be a metaphor of Titanic proportions; onto
which we gradually project meanings. Sensible meanings, if we are C of E
vicars; mad ones if we are Richard Dawkins or Pat Robertson. There are crazed
fundamentalists on all sides. (Tony’s “reorder the world” speech reminded us
that it was possible to be a well meaning liberal and a crazed fundamentalist
at the same time.)
It’s unlikely that “Why does God
allow bad things to happen” was at the forefront of the congregations mind. If
we regarded “the problem of evil” as an impediment to Christian belief, it’s
unlikely we would have been in church in the first place. The issue that we
could have done with guidance on was, I thought, more practical. “What’s the
Christian response to evil? Should
we try to forgive the people who did this terrible thing, and encourage our
leaders to turn the other cheek? Or should we rather take up arms against Evil,
and prepare for a Holy War? Great
Christians have taken both
positions. And if a Just War it is to be should we regard it as a Crusade
against Islam, or merely a crusade against a minority of bad people? Or perhaps
a police action against one Evil person? But if it is a war against bad people,
why these bad people in particular; why not a never-ending theocratic war until
a holy world government ushers in the Millennium?”
Answer came there none.
Someone said that reacting to a
terrorist is rather like smacking a naughty child. You know that he’s trying
deliberately to provoke you, and in reacting, you are in one sense, giving him
precisely what he wants. But if you don’t, then he smashes up your house.
There’s no doubt that the point of a terrorist attack is to provoke a
retaliation, to make the target behave like the wicked oppressor that the
terrorist believes him to be. (Now we see the violence inherent in the system!
Look at me I’m being oppressed!)
But in one sense, what else do you do?
As a dyed in the wool liberal
with dangerously pacifist tendencies; I would like to hear a good deal less
about good wars, about how we are going to defeat the forces of evil and make
the world a good and happy place and a great deal more about straightforward
retaliation. Swift retaliatory justice, annihilating the perpetrator of the
atrocity, in so far as we know who he is, and indeed where, taking out as many
civilians and tacit supporters as happen to be in the way – nuke the whole
country if you like, I don’t mind. It may not be an ideal solution, but it
seems to be morally straightforward, in a brutal, Old Testament way. I can
understand the morality of “If you kill our citizens, we will kill you”. It has
limits. A blood-letting , some mourning, and we get back to normal. But a
general war against terrorism – or, in some views, against evil in general –
seems too open ended. It could go on forever. Millions could die. And it’s a
blank check to give power to our rulers. Of course we aren’t going to be too
critical of them during a crisis; but don’t let it go to their heads, otherwise
the crisis could mysteriously drag on for ever and ever, with more and more of
our liberties being eroded along the way.
And so everything gets back to
normal; my holiday is over; there are reports of bombings on the news and some
vague mutterings about anthrax in the stock exchange. It’s not even very
interesting any more. Just some dead people in a foreign country; a subject to
write about; slag off the clergy, maybe a parenthesis or two about Tony.
It’s been a standing joke in
this column for years that half the readers are a mysterious alien race called
“Americans”. I drop in friendly little asides about how “my readers” won’t pick
up on the irony or understand my references to English literature. Assuming
that they exist it would have been nice if I’d been able to think of something
better to say to my Americans readers beyond “sorry”. Humankind cannot bear
very much reality.
You could drown the whole
population of the world in Loch Ness, three times over. Somewhere in its murky
depths there hides a Monster.