Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Opaque Window: a fable

People live beside an ancient wall. In the wall is an aperture, a window, which has great cultural significance for them. Many of them gather regularly to stare at the window, an odd practice, as all the panes are opaque; you can see nothing through it, though it does, to a very slight degree, admit light, at certain times.

These are the times when the people most like to gather at the window, because it glows dimly in a mysterious way which they find profoundly moving – they tell themselves and each other that this is why the window is revered as the foundation of their culture.

A strong tradition has grown up of drawing life-lessons from the window in the form of stories or sayings; they are the sort of thing the people take comfort from when they are troubled or perplexed or grieved.

The window itself is sacred: you have to be specially ordained to be allowed to touch it, and even then it must be done with the utmost reverence – this applies particularly to the glass panes. The frame, which is said ‘once upon a time’ to have been very plain, has over the years, as an expression of people’s piety and reverence, become increasingly ornate, decorated with carvings and gilded with real gold leaf.

(This practice occasionally causes friction among the faithful, and from time to time a puritan party holds sway, and they insist on getting everything back to its original unadorned plainness, though this only lasts for a time before it begins to accrete new ornament)

One night, when no-one is around, a young child rubs one of the sacred panes with a wet finger and creates a streak in the age-old layers of dirt. Through the streak he glimpses a sliver of light. Fascinated, he carries on till every pane is clear as crystal and he sees through them against a background of velvet darkness the slender crescent of the moon and a myriad stars.

He gazes in wonder till he feels sleepy and goes off to his bed.

Next morning, the people gather and gaze through the window in utter astonishment at the sun rising on a beautiful landscape. Their understanding of the window and their culture is transformed.

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The Bonfire of Responsibility

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The thing about systems is that they are designed to work as a whole, each component interacting to produce the desired effect. To interfere with one part is to throw the whole out of kilter.

If it is your job to make hard decisions it is wise to consider and indeed consult the opinion of those who will be affected by them; but making the decision still remains your job, not theirs.

That goes to the heart of the awful slow-motion train-wreck that we in Britain are presently witnessing, where a government, shamefully aided and abetted by the leader of the Opposition, is in the process of railroading through both Houses of Parliament a bill which, given a free vote, they would certainly reject.

At this point, we might expect the comic figure of Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg to pop up and start trumpeting about ‘the will of the British people’ and how it ‘must not be thwarted’.

A compounding factor in this disaster* is the inability of people like Mr Rees-Mogg to tell the truth. Each time he or anyone, in discussing the European referendum, utters the phrase ‘the will of the British people’, he should be gently stopped, and told to say instead ‘the will of a large minority of the electorate at a time when the majority did not vote to leave Europe (and those who will be most lastingly affected – the 16-18 year olds – were excluded from the process).’

I grant it is neither as catchy nor as resounding as ‘the will of the British people’ but it does have the advantage of being an accurate statement of the truth, which ‘the will of the British people’, in this context, is not (something that Mr Rees-Mogg and his like know perfectly well – hence their unwillingness to discuss the point).

But Jacob Rees-Mogg, like Mr Punch, is not easily suppressed. Up he pops again and tells us that the government agreed that it would be bound by the result of the referendum, so it is a matter of honour, of keeping one’s word, of honouring a pledge made to the British people (and so on, and so on…).

But it is none of those things: it is, on the contrary, a complete abnegation of responsibility – shirking, in plain terms. To begin at the beginning: a thing is either binding or it is not; if it is not, no amount of saying that it is will make it so. ‘Binding’ in this case means ‘having the force of law’ – in other words, you would be breaking the law to go against it.

As was made plain in the House of Commons Briefing Paper (no. 7212) that set out the scope and powers of the European referendum, ‘The UK does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented, unlike, for example, the Republic of Ireland’. To have such a binding referendum would require new legislation : Parliament would have to pass a law to make it so; that is how the system works.

It does not work by the government saying (as it has done here) ‘this does not have the force of law, but we will treat it as if it does.’ You cannot treat something as a law: it either is or isn’t.

The reasoning that underpins this is worth examining. While the laws of physics – gravity, for example – have actual force and cannot be defied, the laws of the land are conventions – they only have such force as we agree to allow them (which is why they have to be backed by sanctions with a police force and courts to enforce them).

This act of endowing the law with compelling force is really a transfer of responsibility, largely for practical purposes: it saves us making our mind up in every case individually if we have a rule that we agree to apply in all such cases. Naturally, we want to think carefully before transferring power to an order of words in this way, which is why we have a system of parliamentary scrutiny before any legislation is passed.

And this means that, where something is not the law, the responsibility for deciding what happens in that case must lie elsewhere. In the matter of the European referendum, that responsibility lies with parliament, which has a duty to take full cognisance of the result and act accordingly, in the best interests of the whole country, now and in the foreseeable future (that’s their job, what we elect them to do). Yes, I know – tedious, boring, grown-up. But this is not a game show.

To put it in terms that even Jacob Rees-Mogg can understand –

A harassed mother of seven children, at the end of her tether because they are all squabbling as it is raining and they were going to have a bonfire, says ‘Right! we’ll have a vote – whatever the majority of you want to do, that’s what we’re going to do, all right? Only no more squabbling!’

Two of the children (twins) gaze round-eyed but say nothing. Two vote to watch telly and have the bonfire another day. The remaining three vote to have the bonfire now, indoors, on the living-room carpet.

Hands up all those who think mum is obliged to start gathering combustible material on the carpet?

*and with the continuing rise of Marine le Pen towards the presidency of France and the hitherto-unthinkable possibility that one of the two main foundations of the European Union will be removed (with others surely following), I grow fearful that it will be disastrous, not only for us, but Europe and ultimately the world. I hope I am wrong.

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The Partygoers

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[This story was originally published in 2014 by the Sarob Press, in The Book of Shadows 2, their second anthology of MR James sequels by various hands. This version has been slightly modified to make it easier to read aloud. There is a link to a spoken version, and some notes at the end reflecting on the ‘morality’ of the story. My thanks to Katie Pamment for the slightly sinister picture of me at the Edinburgh Bavarian Christmas Market in 2012 that provides the heading]

[Here is a link to a spoken version of the story]

Had I been another sort of man, I would have laughed in his face; it might have been better if I had, for both of us.

Professor Bentley was a rackety sort: he occupied the chair in Paranormal Studies which no one with any reputation would touch with a bargepole. The chair had been funded with a bequest from a notably eccentric alumnus, quite possibly as a joke, but the Vice-Chancellor was unwilling to turn it down, though many of us protested that he should. It had done the University’s standing as an academic institution no good at all – “laughing-stock” was a term frequently employed – but as the Vice-Chancellor was keen to remind us, it brought “much-needed income” and “a significant boost to student numbers” .

Bentley’s students, I have to say, were among the silliest young people I have ever encountered. An unusually high percentage of them were nubile young women whose chief attributes were giggling, squealing, and showing their magnificent teeth – which was not unconnected with the fact that Bentley ran a TV show as part of his course. This went out on one of the higher-numbered channels and consisted of visits to supposedly haunted sites by a crew consisting of Bentley, a number of squealing students, and a monosyllabic cameraman given to outbursts of foul language at moments of excitement. It was mostly filmed using night-vision equipment so that everything was tinged with ghastly green. It purported to be ‘a serious attempt to document any sites in England associated with paranormal activity.’

Of course everyone in the College watched it, though few would admit to it. Nonetheless, I was surprised when Bentley turned up in the School of Mediaeval Studies, asking for me by name. I would not call him an attractive man: he walked with a stoop and had lank dark hair that fell over his face so that he was always having to brush it away. His students credited him with “an intense stare” which I suspected was augmented by coloured contact lenses. He had a nervous manner and an odd way of speaking, very precise and clipped.

“I’m just working out next year’s schedule,” he told me, “and I wondered if you could point me in the direction of any likely mediaeval sites.”
“Do you want ones that come with any particular history?”
“Preferably not – even if there is, I’d rather not know it. We want to go in clean, without any preconceptions. More scientific that way.”
That was the point where I should have laughed, I think. It would have saved us both a deal of trouble.

My difficulty was that I didn’t know what to make of Bentley. He seemed so devoid of any sense of irony that I thought it must be a pose – that while we took him for a fool, he was really making fools of us. That was the certainly view of my colleague Cusiter, a profound cynic: “you may well mock Mr Bentley,” he told a young man who was doing just that, “but if you ask me, he does very nicely out of it.”

The notion that Bentley was a consummate charlatan, a species of satirical performance artist sending up the pomposity of academia, was certainly more entertaining than the possibility that he might actually be as he seemed. He claimed never to have read any book of fiction – “and certainly not ghost stories” – and to have been raised by parents whose scientific materialism denied the young Bentley not only the consolations of religion, but anything at all that in their opinion smacked of “fantasy” – which is to say, about ninety percent of the standard adolescent diet. In consequence he was – or claimed to be – wholly without imagination.

“Might I ask why you are particularly interested in old sites?” I enquired.
He looked at me with some surprise.
“Why, because they are the most likely to be haunted.”

I should add, at this point, that Bentley’s approach – on the evidence of his TV programmes – was conventional to the point of stereotype. Ghosts were sought in graveyards, old houses and picturesque ruins, or else in natural sites that had some ancient pedigree – the Druids, the Romans, or Bronze-age settlements. A key concomitant of ghosts, evidently, was their antiquity (It was, as the cynical Cusiter observed, “Just the sort of thing the Americans lap up”).

“I suppose,” I said, “that you expect these places to be haunted by ancient ghosts?”
“I try to keep myself free from expectations,” said Bentley, primly. “But it would be logical to expect ancient ghosts in ancient places.”
“So where do the modern ghosts go?”

I will admit I said this out of mischief, purely for the sake of observing Bentley’s reaction. He cocked his head to one side, then to the other, as if to convey that he was considering the matter from every angle. An odd look of rapture crept over his face that put me in mind of Keats: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken”.

Modern ghosts?” he breathed. “Do you know, I really hadn’t thought about that – where do they go, I wonder?”

And I wondered, not for the first time, how I could possibly take this man at face value – he must be having me on; the alternative was too depressing to contemplate. So I did what one does in these circumstances: I joined in the game. With an equally straight face I said:

“M.R. James had some ideas on that, I think.”
“M.R. James?”
“A fellow mediaevalist. He wrote ghost stories as an entertainment, but I think he must have known about it from personal experience. Listen to this…”

I made a long arm and reached down my edition of James’s Collected Ghost Stories, and read out a passage from “After Dark in the Playing Fields”:

“I find I do not like a crowd after dark – for example at the Fourth of June fireworks. You see – no, you do not, but I see – such curious faces: and the people to whom they belong flit about so oddly, often at your elbow when you least expect it, and looking close into your face, as if they were searching for someone – who may be thankful, I think, if they do not find him. ‘Where do they come from?’ Why, some, I think, out of the water, and some out of the ground. They look like that.”

I fixed him with a gaze that I hoped matched his own in intensity.

“That has the authentic ring, don’t you think? That change of person… ‘You see – no, you do not, but I see’ – it has the effect of a mask slipping momentarily, does it not? And the tone of it is quite different from the rest of the piece, which is a jokey sort of thing, not even a proper story. It’s very much ‘tacked on’, as if James felt compelled to say it, regardless of how it fitted – he even makes a point of separating it in the text. It is like some truth blurted out unintentionally.”

Bentley gave a low whistle: I could see he was impressed, or pretending to be. Just for the fun of it, I pushed things a little further.

“James’s thesis is more credible than the conventional one, I think – after all, why would the dead haunt deserted places, ruins and the like? Would they not be much more likely to seek the company of the living? Especially random crowds of strangers where they might pass unnoticed?”

Bentley nodded his head excitedly. I felt the urge to keep going.

“And here’s another thought – have you ever considered the custom of issuing formal invitations to parties? Where does that come from, I wonder?”
“What do you mean?”
“Only that immemorial tradition of the threshold as a barrier which spirits cannot cross – they have to have been invited in. And a party is just the sort of miscellaneous gathering the dead might be drawn to – lots of ‘life energy’ as you might say – intimacy among strangers. You go to parties to meet people, don’t you? Perhaps in former times they were more alive to the possibility that the wrong sort might get in – hence the practice of issuing formal invitations.”
“I’d never thought of that – it’s entirely possible!”

I’ve often found that flights of fancy flourish where there is a receptive audience.

“Then there’s that passage in the Gospel,” I found myself saying, “ – I don’t suppose you’re familiar with it, with your upbringing?”

He shrugged; I searched behind me for a New Testament.

“Here it is: ‘And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment: And he said unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ The savage hostility of that! It’s really chilling, when you consider that only a few minutes before he was issuing a generous invitation to all comers. Clearly there were some guests that were not welcome under any circumstances.”

I don’t know what I hoped for: in a curious way, it was a kind of flirting – you know, when you’re both talking about one thing and meaning another. If Bentley had been a woman, I’d have looked for something in the eyes, some signal in his look that contradicted what his lips were saying, reinforced, perhaps, by a twitch at the corners of the mouth – a mutual recognition that we were playing a game. At the very least there would have been some ambiguity in his response that hinted at more than was actually being said – but there was nothing. He stayed resolutely in character, the unimaginative man surprised by a new idea.

“You really have given me a lot to think about! Thank you!”
“Well, let me know how you get on,” I said. “Perhaps we should start going to the same parties?”

But even that parting shot elicited nothing more than a smile and an enthusiastic nod.

*****

By an odd coincidence, the next time I saw Bentley, it was at a party. He was unusually animated, as if drink had loosened his tongue. He was deep in conversation with some three or four others I didn’t recognise: I don’t think they were students – certainly they were not the usual sort that Bentley was seen with. They seemed to take a great interest in what he was saying, stooping down and looking up into his face. The posture was oddly familiar, but it took me some time to recollect where I had seen it before: a teacher, a woman, talking to a pupil who was intent on avoiding eye-contact – whenever he fixed his eyes on the floor, she would hunker down and look up into his face, forcing him to meet her gaze. There was an element of coercion in it.

I did not see Bentley leave. Neither, it appears, did anyone else. The police questioned everyone who had been at the party; everyone they could find, that is. Bentley they found in a drainage ditch, face down in a foot of water. No one could account for his being there: it was some way out of town and entailed a journey of at least three miles to reach it, across rough terrain. I told the police about the people I had seen with him at the party, but I could not pick them out from any of the pictures they took of those attending. The verdict when it finally came was misadventure: there were no signs of violence and the alcohol levels in the body, though high, were not excessive. Aside from the central mystery of how he got from the party to the distant field unobserved by anyone, and why on earth he was there at all, there was no reason to think it other than an unfortunate accident.

I saw no cause to mention to anyone the conversation I had had with Bentley, and once I had overcome the initial shock of his death I persuaded myself that there was no reason for me to make any connection between the two – in any case, what connection could there be?

I did not think I had let the incident affect me unduly till one day, shortly before Christmas, a colleague asked if I would be attending a seasonal gathering that evening. “It’s just that I haven’t seen you at anything this term – have you become a hermit?” I mumbled something about being absorbed in research, but once I was alone I reflected that – without any conscious decision – I had indeed avoided all but the smallest, most intimate gatherings since Bentley’s disappearance; certainly I had gone to nothing where I could not be sure beforehand whom I might meet. That evening’s gathering, which followed on from a carol service, was of quite the opposite kind: anyone could go and many would, since the standard of hospitality was excellent. I saw that there was no avoiding it: to do so would be to open the door to the irrational.

The carol service, in the college chapel, affected me unexpectedly. I am used to the warm fuzzy feel-good sentiment that goes with candlelight and gothic vaulting and soaring boy sopranos in white surplices transforming banal lyrics into heart-stirring sound, but this was quite different: for the first time in my adult life, I desperately wanted it to be true that the people that walked in darkness had seen a great light. Looking at a wavering candle, I recalled St John: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it – but even as I thought it, the flame guttered and went out.

When the service drew to a close I felt a great reluctance to leave; but the throng pressed about me and I was carried out into the dark. A voice spoke at my elbow and, looking sharply round, I was relieved to see the colleague who had spoken to me that afternoon.

“You decided to come after all! I’m so glad. Remarkable crowd in tonight – the season draws them, I suppose. And the promise of free drink, of course.”

I heard myself laugh and make some fatuous rejoinder. After all, why should I not enjoy myself? ’tis the season to be jolly: nothing banishes morbid fancies like a glass or two of good wine in convivial company. I brushed away all thoughts of Bentley and the yearning I had felt in chapel and set my face firmly to make the most of the evening. What nonsense it all was, I told myself, catching sight of one of the Fellows, a prominent secularist, in jovial conversation with the chaplain, a glass of wine in one hand, the other gesturing extravagantly with a mince pie: there was a man whose example I would do well to follow.

“There’s a man who knows how to enjoy himself,” someone said, right at my ear, but I could not see who had spoken – the way he seemed to voice my thought gave me a momentary qualm.

I reached for a second glass of wine but the tray was whisked away; as I turned in annoyance a man beside me said, “Here, let me offer you this,” and held out a large glass of dark wine. I took it and drank gratefully, aware at once that it was something out of the common run. “Remarkably good, isn’t it?” said the man. He turned to someone at his side and said, “I was just introducing our friend here to this remarkable vintage”. The man nodded and held up his own glass in toast. “To the pleasures to come!” he said.
“That’s a fine toast,” said a third voice, at my shoulder. “I’ll drink to that!”

The volume of sound in the room had increased, so that I was aware of the conversation going on around me, but could not make out the detail of it: when I felt that words were addressed to me, I made what I thought was a suitable reply, though I could scarcely hear myself speak. In any case, it hardly seemed to matter – my new companions, who evidently knew one another, were engaged in that sort of swift flowing exchange where the topic is batted back and forth, skilfully caught and passed on to the amusement of all; only I felt a little left out, being unable to follow exactly what was being said, yet glad to be included in the general bonhomie. It was like being swept along on a powerful tide.

I came to myself on the brink of a dark drop. Half a step further and I would have fallen into a deep canal lock. It was sheer-sided and ill lit. I doubt if I should have managed to get out of it. There was no one with me, and the only sound was the fall of water leaking from the lock-gates. It was an utterly deserted spot. How I came to be there, I have no idea.

I would like to interpret the fact that I was left on the brink of the water and not in it as a warning, rather than a foretaste of what is to come. I remain watchful and avoid gatherings of any sort; I am careful whom I invite to cross my threshold – but I fear it is only a matter of time.

FIN

Here is a link to a spoken version of the story

A Note

[What prompted me to print this story was coming on this note, while searching for something else – I think I must have written it soon after I finished the tale:]

Reflection on ‘The Partygoers’ – it had not struck me how important to the story is the fact that the narrator thinks he is just making something up when he pulls together the idea of invitations, the wedding garment, and so on – he gives his imagination free rein, and does so also with a mischievous and mocking purpose – his impulse to laugh in the man’s face reveals an unpleasant streak, and what he actually does is also unpleasant, though with some excuse – he thinks Bentley must be ‘taking the piss’, so resolves to do the same – but Bentley is actually an innocent, not so much a dimwit as a man blinkered by an undeveloped imagination; and the narrator exposes him to danger…. there are actually two kinds of ‘inviting in’: the narrator, in giving free rein to his imagination, and for no good purpose, allows in those things that can be pictured as prowling around outside, seeking entry – and that is repeated in the party, where we have an enactment of what the narrator has imagined: the ones against whom the door should have been barred have been allowed in, and wreak havoc.

There is sin – transgression – on the part of the narrator, and as a result, the innocent suffer, and we must suppose that he will too… what is his transgression? It is twofold, I think: there is a want of charity in his treatment of Bentley, to whom he attributes the same base motive he finds in himself – he mocks where he should help, or at least be kind. Yes, I suppose that is it, really – at the heart of the tale is his unkindness: by attributing a doubtful motive to Bentley, he gives himself licence to treat him unkindly – so we have to wonder how far he is genuine in suspecting Bentley, and how far he is simply looking for an excuse to be mean to him. I was going to say that his free imagining is the second fold, but I see now that that is the equivalent of the door opening downstairs in Casting the Runes – the process has already begun.

This foreshadowing of the event strikes me as important – sin, perhaps, is an inviting-in of what we should keep out; and the ideas that come to the narrator’s mind (he feels inspired, remember – as if it is coming from elsewhere) when he starts being unkind to Bentley are the means by which entry is gained…

Now, I did not think of any of this in writing the story, and indeed the ideas and connections (between the James paragraph, the notion of invitations, and the wedding garment) came to me unbidden, much as they did to the narrator (I can only plead that my motive was not unkindness) and if you had asked me at the time I might have thought it something of a weakness – these were things I wanted to get in to the story, but had not supplied a satisfactory mechanism to explain them (one could imagine a more studied version, in which these are actually furnished, like the James quotation, from books – i.e. not the NT (as happens in the story) but rather someone who connects the wedding garment with the idea of invitations, and has put all that in a book) – but such an explanation would weaken the story, and to some extent diminish the narrator’s culpability – it is he who makes the connections, and effectively conjures up the partygoers – and in fact I now realise that the ones James encounters on the playing fields are looking for just such as the narrator – they are seeking ‘a way in’, looking for someone susceptible, someone who will let them in…

 

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