Arguably as relevant as they were when they were first published in June 1942, C.S. Lewis's views on standing up to aggressors and on appeasement make for interesting reading today. Equally thought provoking are his ideas about civilisation, as, in true Lewis fashion, he broadens his canvas through a Chestertonian use of paradox.
"Perhaps civilization will never be safe until we care for something else more than we care for it. The hypothesis has certain facts to support it. As far as peace (which is one ingredient in our idea of civilization) is concerned, I think many would now agree that a foreign policy dominated by desire for peace is one of the many roads that lead to war. And was civilization ever seriously endangered until civilization became the exclusive aim of human activity? There is much rash idealization of past ages about, and I do not wish to encourage more of it. Our ancestors were cruel, lecherous, greedy and stupid, like ourselves. But while they cared for other things more than for civilization – and they cared at different times for all sorts of things, for the will of God, for glory, for personal honour, for doctrinal purity, for justice – was civilization often in serious danger of disappearing?"
I must confess to having a bit of a soft spot for Big White Guy. Not least because of the way he has battled through everything life has thrown at him – from being born a Canadian to losing his personalised Octopus card – without any perceptible effect on his sense of humour.
What next, I was wondering? Well, I don't know how to put this delicately so I'll plunge straight in. Someone in the smallest room in the BWG homestead has been responsible for the mother and father of all blockages in the plumbing.
At first BWG did what any good Canadian would do and blamed the Americans ("I thought it was the septic tank"), but those toilets, they'd just keep on "backing up". Not only that, they showed they could play the blame game too by "pointing to something in the pipes".
Not one to ignore the promptings of his septic tank, BWG opened the offending pipes and bingo! there lay "the problem"” in all its glory (or should that be ignominy?). Never a man for half measures, BWG unleashed his high-powered hose and blasted the offending ordure to smithereens.
If they ever come to make a movie of BWG's life, sewers and all, its just got to be The Turd Man.
I just looked at the list of friends of a facebook friend - I was that bored ... okay, no I wasn't, I clicked on the photos of the pretty ones - and, anyway, I was immediately confronted with this invitiation to "poke Karen".
What I want to know is how can I do that if she won't give me her mobile. Bloody tease!
Shortly after publication of the book that was both to make him famous and to become something of an albatross around his neck (he once wrote that his science fiction book Perelandra was worth 20 Screwtape Letters), C.S. Lewis wrote a piece for Time and Tide – a high-brow magazine of the day, in which a large number of his pieces, including some poetry, were first published.
"First and second things", as the article is called, is actually more than a title for a 5-page essay; it is a theme that runs through everything Lewis wrote. By "valuing too highly a real but subordinate good", he argues, we invariably lose that good. It is only when we put first things first that we that we can get second things – "thrown in", as it were.
Lewis uses a couple of examples to carry home his point before putting his "law of first and second things" into words:
"The woman who makes the dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication … every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made."
What better way to round off a weekend spent cheering Ian Poulter to victory at the Hong Kong Open Golf than a spot of dinner at Italiano’s in Sai Kung (20 Yi Chun Street; 2792-9528)?
The disappointment my daughter felt at missing out on watching her golfing hero and fellow Arsenal fan as a result of being stuck in a run of four consecutive days of dress rehearsals for her school production of Grease was eased somewhat when she was offered the choice of nosherie and plumped for this place. Apparently, one of her schoolmates had repaid the maitre d’ for helping him with his Food Tech project by going back to eat with a couple of fellow fifth-formers and the reports coming back to our "Sandy" had been positive.
I must say that overall it was pretty good. Open-fronted, so you get quite an airy ambience if you sit downstairs, the service (from Dev and his staff) is friendly and attentive, always a pleasant change from the Hong Kong default of rushed and/or over solicitous.
We ordered a couple of starters to share between three: tomatoes & buffalo mozzarella and buffalo wings. (We must have been influenced by the morose-looking beasts that were crapping on the pavement as we drove into town on the Sai Sha Road.) For mains we went for Saltimbocca di Pollo (recommended if you want your chicken with a bit of a punch), Fettucine Carbonara (no complaints here) and a half portion of ribs (ditto).
With two beers, a fruit punch and a banana milkshake, the bill came to HK$720. A good place to go if you fancy a bit of a (non air-conditioning induced) chill.
Well, excuse me slipping into the vernacular, but who'd a thunked it? More Hong Kong Jockey Club members getting caught with their fingers in the till. (They're lucky they're not in Iran; otherwise, they'd have been caught with their stumps in the till. Boom! Boom!) The Hong Kong Jockey Club stables are beginning to make the Augean stables look like the squeaky clean streets of Singapore by comparison.
No sooner has the dust settled on the case of former Wheelock chief John Hung, whose latest attempt to wriggle out of his guilty verdict by quibbling over the meanings of "agent" and "principal" was given short shrift by the Court of Appeal last month, than three more of the Club’s power-brokers, or Voting Members, are nabbed by the ever so slightly kinky ICAC for allegedly "conspiring to solicit and accept bribes to expedite applications from would-be members".
With the charge for fast-track membership being as much as HK$900,000 (US$116,000) a time, and with 20-odd aspirants queuing up (or perhaps not – this is Hong Kong after all) for the right to stick a Jockey Club badge alongside their Guangzhou license plate on their black Mercedes S500, you would have thought that the Jockey Club hierarchy would be eager to stamp this kind of thing out and change the way in which members are brought in.
Not a bit of it.
In an excellent, and very wry, piece, David Webb draws attention to the potential for abuse of the Jockey Club’s membership mechanism, whereby only 200 Voting Members can nominate Full Members. (If three out of 200 have been, allegedly, caught with their snouts in the nose bag, that represents 1.5% of the number, and which organisation would countenance such a proportion of criminals among its decision-makers? And how are we to know that this is not the tip of the iceberg, especially with each membership swapping hands for upwards of a million dollars?)
As usual, the Webbmeister has solutions:
"The club should invite sealed bids from individuals who wish to join. Each bidder would state the price they are willing to pay for membership, and enclose a deposit. The club would then accept bids in descending order of price until the quota of memberships is exhausted. In order to avoid 'winner's curse', clubs can use a uniform price auction in which all the successful bids pay the same price as the lowest successful bid. There should be no subjective qualifications for admission. No nomination requirements, no requirement to be 'the right sort of fellow'. If there are any requirements at all, then they should be objective, such as not having a criminal record, if that is thought undesirable."
Ouch! Having paused for effect, Webbie continues:
"HKJC's M&A [Memorandum & Articles of Association] allows for multiple categories of members. Its directors are known as Stewards. There cannot be more than 12 Stewards, each elected for a 3-year term. They must all be Voting Members, and they are elected only by Voting Members. There cannot be more than 200 Voting Members, and the Voting Members are elected by the Stewards.
This circular system is basically a club within a club. Only the 200 Voting Members can vote at general meetings, so all the other 13,000-odd 'Full Members' are in fact not very full members - they have no voting rights and no say in who runs the Club or how it is run. You might say they are Half-full Members, or Half-empty Members, depending on your perspective."
What can a mere mortal add? Well, only perhaps to note that the Hong Kong Standard itself appears to be getting into the Christmas spirit early, giving us this immortal line in their report:
"A source said [those arrested on bribery charges] are in their 70s and 80s and have maintained low profiles."
Somehow, even allowing for the local propensity for showing off, one can't say one is entirely surprised they're not shouting it from the rooftops.
There's a bit in the dire Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps where the Michael Douglas character says no one understands what the hell a derivative is or how it works.
With the NW, SW and SE extremities of the European Union vying with each other to see who will can go under first and stay under for longest – thank goodness Finland has Nokia and pine trees – as the pan-Germans threaten to pull the plug, step up one Olli Rehn, the EU economics commissioner, who himself hails from the land of the naked snowboarders.
I'm not sure what Olli studied at school, but it certainly wasn't English. For his latest impression of King Canute, Olli melds Einstein and Sartre with disturbing results.
"I want to call on every responsible European to resist the centrifugal tendencies and existential alarmism."
It's comforting to know that the continent's fate lies in such a tutelary pair of manual appendages.
In 1942, a 43 year-old English academic shot to fame with the publication of a short book called The Screwtape Letters. Five years later his picture was on the cover of Time magazine. Since his death on the day on which John Kennedy was murdered, sales of his books have skyrocketed, with 100 million copies of his children's books alone having been sold worldwide. Hollywood has made filmed versions both of his life and of his children's books.
Taking the form of a correspondence between a senior devil and a trainee, much of the power of The Screwtape Letters is derived from the many ways in which a skilful and witty writer like Lewis can exploit a scenario in which everything is inverted since it is presented from the infernal point of view. Thus, the senior demon Screwtape, who holds an administrative post in the Lowerarchy of Hell and is ultimately responsible to Our Father Below, must ensure that his nephew Wormwood keeps the human he’s been assigned to look after away from the clutches of the Enemy (i..e. God).
Here's an extract from Letter XI, in which Screwtape has some lessons for his nephew on laughter:
"Humour is for the English the all-consoling and the all-excusing, grace of life ... A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a joke ... Flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.”
I have to say it was a proud day for me yesterday when I discovered that this site is the number one choice for Irishmen (and women) searching for "Vote Wagner".
And people are – in their tens of thousands. Voting for Wagner, that is. And it's not just disgruntled Paddies who are putting their weight behind a man who is apparently so obnoxious that he was kicked out of the X Factor house. Across the Atlantic, American website "Vote for the Worst" is joining in the fun.
Originally set up as an opportunity for discerning viewers to "embrace the suckiness" of American Idol, the show that catapulted nerdy Shatinner William Hung to stardom opposite Hong Kong icon Nancy Sit Ka Yin, the website encourages tactical voting for the acts "the producers are rooting against".
But, that's just half the story, since, in fact, of course, the self-same producers – and their tools, the judging panel – are the very people who put talentless, but "eccentric", individuals like Wagner through a series of auditions and "boot camps", because they understand that no one in their right mind is going to watch 30 two-hour-long programmes consisting merely of decent singers who aren't good enough to have made it professionally showing us why on a weekly basis.
Here's arguably Wagner Carrilho's most execrable performance: "Viva Las Vegas" followed by "The Wonder of You". The King, or whoever is actually in his grave, will just be pleased he checked out before Simon Cowell arrived on the scene.
Catholic priest Thomas Law Kwok Fai has been making quite a name for himself after his comments to journalists at a Halloween party. In response to a question from a reporter, who asked "Should we be scared of devils?", Law responded as follows (thanks to my wife for the translation from the Cantonese):
"If Li Ka Shing comes tonight, he will definitely be scared to death. He will be scared about the last few years of his life. If this 'Over-exaggerrated-sized flat' arrives tonight, he’ll be scared to death. If Café de Coral [AKA Executive Chairman, Michael Chan Yue Kwong] arrives, he’ll be more scared. These are the 'real' man-eating devils."
Picking up on the Nazi theme introduced by Gunlaw in a comment on yesterday's offering, here's an extract from a talk given by C.S. Lewis seven weeks after the outbreak of the second world war, called "Learning in war-time":
"I believe our cause to be, as human causes go, very righteous and I therefore believe it to be a duty to participate in this war … we have a duty to rescue a drowning man, and perhaps if we live on a dangerous coast, to learn life-saving so as to be ready for any drowning man when he turns up. It may be our duty to lose our own lives in saving him. But if anyone devoted himself to life-saving in the sense of giving it his total attention – so that he thought and spoke of nothing else and demanded the cessation of all other human activities until everyone had learned to swim – he would be a monomaniac. The rescue of drowning men is then a duty worth dying for, but not worth living for. It seems to me that all political duties (among which I include military duties) are of this kind. A man may have to die for his country: but no man must in any exclusive sense live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering unto Caesar that which of all things most emphatically belongs to God: himself."
I am reminded of Lewis's near contemporary George Orwell, who also understood the charitable, one might almost say, chivalrous, aspect of love for one's country:
"By 'patriotism' I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people." ("Notes on nationalism")
"And no wish to force even on oneself," as Lewis might have added.
My mole at the University of Hong Kong – which, with its policy of recruiting top Mainland talent, is soaring up the world rankings faster than a Roman Catholic bigwig appeasing Hong Kong's richest man – has drawn my attention to a lecture being given there next Wednesday by one Rune Elvik.
Besides sounding like one of Tolkien's invented languages, Elvik is a "political scientist from the University of Oslo", and the proud possessor of no fewer than three doctorates, putting him right up there with the psychiatrist at Fawlty Towers.
The title of his talk, "Paradoxes of rationality in road safety policy", refers to situations "in which conflicting choices can both be defended as rational". This is contrasted with the "ideal of perfect rationality", where "it is always clear that only one situation to a problem is rationally justified and no other solution can be claimed to be rational".
Seven points of banality laced with gobbledegook later and I was pining for a bit of Karl Popper:
"I am a rationalist. That is, I am trying to stress the importance of rationality for man. But like all thinking rationalists, I do not assert that man is rational. On the contrary, it is obvious that even the most rational of men are in many respects highly irrational. Rationality is not a property of men, nor a fact about men. It is a task for men to achieve – a difficult and a severely limited task. It is difficult to achieve rationality even partially." (Knowledge and the Mind-Body Problem, p. 134)
So true - I just have to think of my wife. Anyway, perhaps in his capacity as "chief research officer in charge of risk analyses", Drs. Elvik would like to take a ride along the Tai Po Road to Milestone 5, where vehicles travelling south on two lanes towards Lai Chi Kok take a left-hand bend to discover that the carriageway is reduced to one lane, with notice being given only after the bend and about 80 metres from the roadworks. I don’t suppose it takes multiple PhDs to work out that road signs should be aimed primarily at those taking a route for the first time and not those who have taken it before.
Even Einstein himself, though, would have his work cut out to effect a change in the mind of Hong Kong Government civil servants – dwellers in a parallel universe perfecting the "ideal of perfect rationality".
I'm blaming The X Factor. A man knows he's facing early-onset Alzheimer's when he cannot tell his Queen of Soul from his Roberta Flack, his Say a Little Prayer from his First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. But he knows he's all but ready for directorships in multiple Hong Kong property companies when he loses the ability to use Google. So far as I know, they haven't yet developed a Viagra for that.
In case anyone should think the protest movement that threatens to crown a fat and lecherous Brazilian (is there any other kind?) as the winner of the seventh series of the "talent" show is the only manifestation of discontent with the Cowellisation of the music business, along came the front man of a band called Jamiroquai, one "Jay Kay".
Now, Jay Kay doesn't need the publicity that appearing on the show gives fading middle-of-the-road songsters – his band's just gone to number one in the Netherlands – so before he trod the glittering X Factor boards last week he spilled the beans to The Sun, the organ that specialises in stripping anything that moves, Emperor or not, of its new clothes, especially if the imperial attire comes with a 36E cup.
"They're fucking useless," opined Jay Kay of Cheryl Cole and Dannii Minogue, which seems a pretty fair appraisal to me of their singing abilities.
He wasn't finished, though.
"I mean you look great and I'd like to fucking shag you but that's all," he continued, giving a clue as to why the girls stayed seated when he had finished his song, rather than giving the customary standing ovation accorded to guests on the show.
Okay, I may not be as liberal as the next guy, but I find that kind of talk disgraceful. Talk about the dumbing down of the UK. Doesn't Jay Kay realise that "fucking shag" is tautologous?
There can't be many proper first names (I'm not counting stupid attention-seeking ones like Brooklyn, Prince or Rihanna, or those that have effectively been put out of circulation for ever like Adolf) which elicit just one person out of the 100 billion that have graced the planet. But one of those must be Aretha, synonymous with the American soul singer by the name of Franklin.
This week's compulsive Saturday night viewing that has replaced culture in Britain, The X Factor, featured not just some of the direst singing you could imagine (courtesy of a Tesco checkout lady from Ireland and a dirty old man from Brazil), but also a turn from a former odd-job man called Matt Cardle, who did his version of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"* and did it very nicely too.
Meanwhile, music lovers continue to rage against the Simon Cowell machine by once again voting for the execrable Wagner in sufficient numbers to keep him out of the bottom two in the public poll, thereby ensuring that the Brazilian is kept away from the judges, who would be certain to boot him out.
Here he is butchering a couple of Elvis numbers:
* Thanks to Mister Bijou for pointing out that Roberta Flack sang "First Time", not Aretha Franklin.
Commenting on the ever present antagonism between the self-proclaimed elite who owned a bit of land and the rest of the population who didn't, Plato writes in the Republic that every city consists in fact of "two cities at war with each other" – the oligarchs and the democrats.
Plato appreciated that one of the main problems with giving people the vote is that they won't always vote the way you want them to, are full of prejudices and irrationality, and have a habit of promising to vote one way and then vote the other. Hence, the Holy Trinity of smear words that Americans of a liberal persuasion are fond of levelling against those who don't agree with them: Moron, Bigot and Liar. (I was going to say "of a liberal and tolerant persuasion", but it didn't seem to fit.)
In The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, Christopher Lasch quotes with approval Washington Post journalist E.J. Dionne, who reckoned that "popular attitudes contain more common sense than the rigid ideologies that dominate public debate. They are often ambivalent but not necessarily contradictory or incoherent".
Popular attitudes towards Simon Cowell's brainchild The X Factor, now in its seventh season and still pulling in audiences of between 10-19 million people, may well be described as ambivalent. The show is so staged you're never quite sure whether what you're watching is a genuine disagreement between the judges or a cynical attempt to boost ratings and advertising revenue and swell the Cowell coffers. (Do you notice how the ambivalence vanishes as soon as you put it into words. The reason why the Basic Law was never put into words that anyone can understand was so that it should retain its ambivalence and ambiguity in perpetuity.)
I must confess to being ambivalent about The X Factor myself. On the one hand, watching it on a Sunday evening on YouTube is a family ritual. Scarcely has an "artiste" started to sing than one of us (usually me) is sounding off about this, that or the other. There is so much to comment on that someone with just a soupcon of discernment and a modicum of musical knowledge is provided with enough material for a conference.
Of course, this is exactly how Cowell wants it. He wants people watching at home to feel superior to the wretched acts, he wants people sitting at home to feel superior to the even more wretched judging panel (consisting of the only woman in the world that can make Kylie Minogue look deep, a tattooed Geordie who became famous for marrying a footballer and maintained her celebrity by divorcing him, a 56-year-old Irishman with the maturity of a preschooler, and old Svengali himself).
This year, though, I reckon Cowell may have met his match in the anti X Factor movement that despises everything the sappy show stands for.
Playing the role of Trojan Horse is a middle-aged Brazilian lothario now living in Dudley by the name of Wagner Carrilho. You don't need to be Einstein to understand that the thinking behind allowing him to get through the various preliminary rounds was that he should provide the comic relief that proved so popular last year when it was embodied in the shape of Jedward, teenage twins from Dublin with bad hairdos and the kind of "top-of-the-morning" charm that rubs very thin after the first encounter.
Whether Wagner will prove to be Cowell's Waterloo or not by actually winning the show, this year's interminable offering (they're only down to the last ten and the whirligig won't stop spinning until 12 December) may be remembered as the one where, following Peter Finch in Network, British people rushed to their windows and screamed over the sound of car alarms going off, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore". For, as one YouTube commenter put it, "Wagner winning would legitimise the illegitimate".
Here's the man himself with his version of Carl Orff's "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana and Meatloaf’s "Bat Out of Hell":