Monday, December 31, 2007

All Things Made New

The flesh I live in is beginning to show its age; I am reminded constantly of the fate of the meat I inhabit – connective tissue disconnects, circulatory systems choke, respiratory systems expire. Everything dims, fades. We are indeed 'not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven'.

But I realise that my duty is not to this flesh, or to the pattern of this world, but to what the flesh can do in this short span of time. Man, since the Fall, has always had to work; it has become the means by which he lives out his redemption and the means by which salvation can be glimpsed (though not attained, since that is by the grace of God). And that is why there is nothing better than to work with one's hands and lead a quiet life.

I remember the days in which power burned bright and attracted us, as moths to a flame. But the power doesn't last, the glory does not glow, the only things left are the strong metals left after the refiner has done his job. It is the fate of men to strive for the useless and worthless, only to realise that they grieved the God they claimed to serve. It is a hard thing, that.

And yet, there is the promise of a newer time, not necessarily a better age, but a time for peace and the breaking of spears. Rain and tears, blood and fire, ethanol and poetry, tea, coffee, chocolate, mercury, ruthenium, stone and glass, steel and pain. All these things run together and are one. One day we shall sit in the Eternal City, wondering why we thought of Rome as such. One day we might be elevated to a state besides which our current state is mephitic.

I look out of the window and see the rain that has not come and the fire that is yet to come alive. The exultation of angels is in the air, and the exaltation of the lowly things is on its way. I am happy, glad, makarios. The best is yet to be.

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Sunday, December 30, 2007


Tonight I turned my face to the wind and the rain. And I thought of ravens and ships and storms and the face of God. It is times like this, near the turning point between the years, when the fabric of reality has worn thin and has not been resurfaced, that one feels the immanence of the numinous.

Perhaps one of the songs that captures this odd sense of loss and future loss is Billy Joel's The Downeaster 'Alexa'. As Ambrosius said to Brian Duffy in The Drawing of the Dark, "Much has been lost, and there is yet much to lose." I've appended the lyrics to Alexa at the bottom of this post.

It's all about the Sea and an honest living, you see. The Sea, in my context, is my professional environment. Metaphorically, I was brought up in four generations of those who laboured at sea to make a living for themselves and others. As BJ puts it, "I was a bayman like my father was before..." and his father before him, and even before that, but it's a case of "...can't make a living as a bayman anymore..." Simply put, you can engineer it so that there are more people working in the industry, but if the industry is bust, it's bust. Kaput.

I spent a couple of hectic months writing about this sea. At the end of it, I was happy to have written something. But the sense of fin de siècle creeps up on you. It is like the end of the 'long 19th century', that curious period from about 1776 to 1918, in which British power oscillated from world-spanning and all-conquering to fragile and on the verge of extinction without knowing it. The French called it la Belle Epoque – but they would, of course.

I feel that the Sea, as my ancestors – my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents – knew it and loved it, is gone. Its waters recede, just as the Sea of Faith does in Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach. Soon, the age of post-postmodernism, of a deliberate attempt to destroy the things of faith, will launch its eagle-taloned bid to strike and seize the heart of the world. That is what struck me tonight as I dreamt thoughts of ravens harrowing an eagle in the purple skies of the night, as the wind flung the rain like spears against the tall towers of my life.

Yes, "There ain't no future for a man who works the sea / But there ain't no island left for islanders like me..."


The Downeaster 'Alexa' by Billy Joel

Well I'm on the Downeaster "Alexa"
And I'm cruising through Block Island Sound
I have chartered a course to the Vineyard
But tonight I am Nantucket bound

We took on diesel back in Montauk yesterday
And left this morning from the bell in Gardner's Bay
Like all the locals here I've had to sell my home
Too proud to leave I worked my fingers to the bone

So I could own my Downeaster "Alexa"
And I go where the ocean is deep
There are giants out there in the canyons
And a good captain can't fall asleep

I've got bills to pay and children who need clothes
I know there's fish out there but where God only knows
They say these waters aren't what they used to be
But I've got people back on land who count on me

So if you see my Downeaster "Alexa"
And if you work with the rod and the reel
Tell my wife I am trolling Atlantis
And I still have my hands on the wheel

Now I drive my Downeaster "Alexa"
More and more miles from shore every year
Since they told me I can't sell no stripers
And there's no luck in swordfishing here

I was a bayman like my father was before
Can't make a living as a bayman anymore
There ain't much future for a man who works the sea
But there ain't no island left for islanders like me...

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Godfather II

When I was young, I used to read a true classic of the British New Wave of Science Fiction. It was a tatty little periodical called 2001 A.D.. One of the linchpin characters in that periodical was a lawman (the word is used broadly here) named Judge Dredd. The learned (well, at least skilled with implements of violence) judge was famous for the saying, "There's no justice; there's just us."

Along the way, I learnt the subtleties of shifting the letters in a sentence just a little bit. It's called adjustment for a simple reason; what is just is exactly so ('just so') while what is unjust is not quite right. What is adjusted is made more correct; what is justified is made fully correct.

And so one day, when I came across the phrase 'in justice we trust', it was the work of moments to rearrange it to say, 'injustice, wet rust'. Years later, reading Tim Powers's Dinner at Deviant's Palace, I would come to appreciate this more. Then, I would have thought I had reached the limits of my appreciation.

In the last three years, 2005-07, I have come to understand that the ability to appreciate injustice, irony and idiocy all at once is something you shouldn't take for granted. Occasionally, that rare ability might yet be called upon to serve its time. Perhaps, "There's no service; there's 'serve us'." Or more amusingly, perhaps I have become happy just to watch the show as it goes on, all the while thinking of King Lear, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. All of these are about fatherhood, kingship, and the madness of crowds.

Which brings me to the fact that it's almost the end of the year. Not all the news is bad, silly or peculiar. Some of it is touching, perhaps a little sentimental, perhaps sharing a bit of romance. I remember feeling sad about my godson for a while and thinking of my role as a godfather. Well, I've made contact with him again. He and my god-daughter, lovely young people, are West Coast artistic types through and through, with a liberal and liberating intelligence that I'm happy to admire.

And so it goes; some triumphs, some disasters, and over it all, the sense that the overwatching Spirit does indeed make all things good in time. I look forward to the year ahead. I trust all will be well, and even if not, that it really is. To the young people of the First (you know who you are), and those of the Second who succeed them, I can only think of one wish: "May you have light upon your way sufficient unto the finding of your home."

God bless you all.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Bookbinding (2007/C)

Ah, the end draws nigh. It's almost the cusp between two years again, as the mandible said to the maxilla. I think there might be a bumper issue of Bookbinding in the offing, as I've actually had a little time to read more books.

Yesterday was a good day for books though. A little book on 'Linking Schools, Turning Nation' or something like that made its debut. I think I had something to do with it. Maybe 15,000 words? Haha. It's been good, it's been good.

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Yes, occasionally the grey side of me surfaces here and I actually post stuff I have written. It's a terrible failing, I know. I realise that most of my readers hate the stuff and I am not delivering something they want to read.

Well, I'm amenable to criticism as always. There'd be no point otherwise, since this is not really a vanity press. Keep it cleanly critical. And I will try not to offend your sensibilities so often.

Someone once asked me about a poem I wrote and why I wrote it. That poem can be found at this post. Well it was written over a period of four years really, with very small amendments over that time. It was written for an old friend, who is sadly no more with us.

But hey, in this postmodern world, criticism seems to stand on its own without biographical context. I hate that perspective myself, hence my need to develop a context in most of my posts. Ah, that's the paradox: the more you know, the less the text alone speaks to you. So where is the balance point?

I don't know. Why should I? It's poetry.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007


When I was a far younger person, I was taught to follow a parry with an immediate riposte, with extension if necessary. This is fine with bladework. But the thing to note is that sports are not always the best metaphors for life; and sports may sometimes be the worst metaphors for life. We talk of 'moving the goalposts' or 'overcoming hurdles' or 'running with the ball', not realising that 'covering your bases' and suchlike can actually lock us into patterns of inappropriate behaviour.

I remember that as I grew up, and even later, when the Eternal Hoodlums gathered, that I used to parry with immediate riposte all the time. In social conversation, this tends to lead to the feeling that your tongue is sharper than necessary, that you are too 'quick off the mark', that you are glib, affectless, demanding, rude. I have never had a stutter. I have often listened to others in the same way that a duelist observes an opponent.

It is not the best paradigm for conducting one's social affairs. And over the years, I adopted that paradigm less and less. Then I became a teacher, only to discover that being a teacher is sometimes like putting a target light on over one's midriff. There were always junior versions of the hellhound I used to be, all trying for a chunk. To my horror, the old skills came back. Like bicycling or swimming, when required, they returned with a semblance of the old facility.

I learnt to suppress the urge – to not parry, bind, riposte in response to every innocent or ignorant jab. And there came a time when I learnt to listen without sporting metaphors running through my head. The problem, perhaps, is that most men do indeed have those metaphors in a dominant role, whether they like it or not. Other kinds of listening tend to be thought of as feminine, or unnatural, or manipulative, or deceptive.

It's a problem indeed. But again, as the years go by, I become less and less concerned. I am me; this blog an extension of my hand, of my mind. What I show is part of what I am; it is never the whole simply because one is never wholly and fully committed along exactly one dimension of movement. But it is I who am here, displaying his ignorance and his laziness, his charm and his strength, his faith and his weakness, his learning and his folly.

What that makes me, I don't know. I care about what it might really make me, but I care not so much about what people think it makes me. I don't need assurance about who I am, or speculation as to who I might be – what mythic stereotype, what Freudian type or Rorschachian inkblot, what Jungian archetype best symbolises me – I am amused by it, sometimes confounded or rebuked. Most of all, I am me, human in weakness, steadfast in duty, simple in virtue.

It isn't what I grew up with, but it is what the good ladies taught me in the very beginning of my career. I never forget, though, that sometimes I am horrible in arrogance, dangerous in wrath, blind in obstinacy, erratic in execution. I can always try to be better, and I can always hope that God judges mercifully. And I rest in that, not because my conscience is clear, but because my conscience is satisfied; satisfied with the idea that some day I will receive both just reward and just punishment, modified by whatever grace is given to this poor soul of mine.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007


In sanity did Kublai Khan
A stately pleasure throne decree.
Where else could secret river run
Without distaste of everyone
Down through the sewers free?

Twice five miles of fertile ground
With pungent odours girded round...


Toilet humour, I'm afraid. I don't know why I keep thinking of cisterns. If I find out, I'll say so in the next post.

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I normally post book reviews over at Bookbinding. But I'd just like to mention Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith, which I finished reading in those spare moments of fatigue in between Christmas shopping, walking around in a daze, eating too much, and sleep. Just a quick mention, I promise. Here goes.

It's an excellent book about pagan attitudes to the Ülltide season, in a way. But it is heartwarming, funny, and about people who aren't very good at understanding people, as well as people who understand people too well. It's the latest installment in the Discworld collection, specifically the books about the Lancre witches and Tiffany Aching (and her friends the Wee Free Men).

There. Have fun! And a merry Christmas to you all.

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In The Bleak Midwinter

It's Christmas today, and I am joyful. I count my blessings, and quickly run out of tally-marks. I sleep with a clear conscience about the practice of my calling, my profession, my gifts. And all that despite what has probably been the most stricken Christmas I've had for a long while. It takes a lot of patience to continue holding on against the madness of crowds; I can only thank God that my weakness is occasion for His strength. And so I leave you with two pieces, both of which speak to me of the heart, of healing, of hope and high honour. The first is Christina Rossetti's In The Bleak Midwinter; the second is the ancient traditional carol, The Holly And The Ivy.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.


The Holly and the Ivy
Now both are full well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The Holly bears the crown.


O the rising of the sun,
The running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir,
Sweet singing in the choir.

The Holly bears a blossom,
As white as lily-flower;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To be our sweet Saviour.


The Holly bears a berry,
As red as any blood;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
To do poor sinners good.


The Holly bears a prickle,
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
On Christmas Day in the morn.


The Holly bears a bark,
As bitter as any gall;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ,
For to redeem us all.


The Holly and the Ivy
Now both are full well grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The Holly bears the crown.


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Monday, December 24, 2007


I am a very small Prometheus
with my limited foresight;
I am a fire thief, a lone wolf
making safe the domestic.

I am a very small Atlas,
better a single mercenary;
I save the sum of things for pay,
and yet I bear my own burden.

I am a very small Icarus,
the wax upon my wings
gives way far too soon before
the wind beneath them rises.

Nobody sees my passing.
For I am tiny, very small,
a little chain-gang sergeant
of the subatomic scale.


Zechariah 4:10 — "For who has despised the day of small things?"

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Personal Anthem

Over the years, I've accumulated a lot of songs that play in my head at the oddest of times. Some are sacred, some get my blood pumping, some of them act as a source of irony in dark times, some of them give me the kind of strength that ignores coercion and the abuse of power.

Tonight I heard one of my old favourites, a song which reminds me of my days as a reckless young man with much to play for and little to lose (well, that's what I thought then, in the ignorance of youth). The song is David Foster's St Elmo's Fire, performed by John Parr. The words go like this:

St Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion)

Growin' up, you don't see the writing on the wall
Passin' by, movin' straight ahead, you knew it all
But maybe sometime if you feel the pain
You'll find you're all alone, everything has changed
Play the game, you know you can't quit until it's won
Soldier on, only you can do what must be done
You know in some way you're a lot like me
You're just a prisoner and you're tryin' to break free

I can see a new horizon underneath the blazin' sky
I'll be where the eagle's flying higher and higher
Gonna be your man in motion, all I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where my future's lyin', St. Elmo's Fire...

Burning up, don't know just how far that I can go (just how far I go)
Soon be home, only just a few miles down the road
I can make it, I know I can
You broke the boy in me, but you won't break the man

I can see a new horizon underneath the blazin' sky
I'll be where the eagle's flying higher and higher
Gonna be your man in motion, all I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where my future's lyin', St. Elmo's Fire...

I can climb the highest mountain, cross the wildest sea
I can feel St. Elmo's Fire burnin' in me, burnin' in me

Just once in his life a man has his time
and my time is now, I'm coming alive

I can hear the music playin', I can see the banners fly
Feel like you're back again, and hope ridin' high
Gonna be your man in motion, all I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where my future's lyin', St. Elmo's Fire

I can see a new horizon underneath the blazin' sky
I'll be where the eagle's flying higher and higher
Gonna be your man in motion, all I need is a pair of wheels
Take me where my future's lyin', St. Elmo's Fire

I can climb the highest mountain, cross the wildest sea
I can feel St. Elmo's Fire burnin' in me
Burnin', burnin' in me, I can feel it burnin'
Oooh, burnin' inside of me...


You can see how that kind of song might make a young man feel great about life. But now, looking at where I am and what I do, I can't help but feel a certain nagging irony. St Elmo's Fire, that phosphorescent lightning found on ships at sea, is now just a faintly glowing cavalcade of odd fires in random directions to me.

The problem that I see is one of creeping irony. This comes from the combination of an active sense of humour, a working environment in which things sometimes do cock up but everything is made to look great, and a reasonably intelligent mind able to put many things together into a whole and fairly accurate picture. After a while, everything inspiring sounds vaguely ironic. It's worse when people distort the sacred and powerful for purposes of expedience: I remember posting about such distortion here.

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Word of the Day: Rogation

The Latin rogaré, 'to raise (one's hand) in a linear direction', has an interesting and ambiguous past. It is unclear, to begin with, whether the word should imply a reaching out towards somebody/something, a reaching out to provide, or a reaching out to receive. At the same time, the Indo-European root of this word is also the root from which words like 'reign', 'rule', 'ruthless' and 'rectitude' appear to come from.

The English word 'rogation', of ecclesiastical Latin descent (i.e., from rogationis), refers to the ancient practice of conducting a prayer walk for supplication, thanksgiving, and the theurgic invocation of protection and blessing around a piece of land. Early Protestants frowned on this 'Papist practice', but their theological descendants are perfectly cheerful about this practice of pagan origin. It remains to this day enshrined in myths about boundary-marking and the annual practice of asserting one's rights by the 'beating of bounds'.

What's interesting about this idea of 'rogation' – to reach out, to raise up, to give or to receive – is the addition of prepositional prefixes to give a whole range of related words of decidedly curious diversity. There are quite a number.

'Derogation' refers to the lowering of rogation; it implies a turning away of the hand, thus demeaning or lowering the worth of a relationship (or the person involved in the relationship) or transaction (or the object involved in the transaction). Words that are derogatory (such as 'idiot' or 'moron' under current usage) are intended to demean or to frame someone in poorer light.

'Abrogation' refers to a rogation that is denied or cast away; it implies a breaking of a relationship, a termination or other voiding of contract, a crossing of lines not meant to be crossed. To abrogate a treaty is to render it void by transgression or fiat. An act of abrogation is not a friendly one.

'Prorogation' refers to the act of extending a hand further; in the past, this was understood to be a request for further rights, or the extension of a time limit or other constraint. At present, this word seems to imply the extension of something held over or held in abeyance; to prorogue a point of discussion is now to hold it over till the next meeting.

'Surrogation' (more commonly known through the word 'surrogate') refers to the act of placing one hand beneath another, thus substituting that which is already in place with something of the same capacity or ability. Of course, in actual fact, this often meant substituting the left hand for the right hand (in a right-handed person), vice versa for a left-hander.

'Interrogation' refers to a double act of asking and receiving in order; when one is interrogated, the interrogator is reaching out and expects to be responded to. Hence, the word has come to mean 'questioning' – and by extension through the long and dark history of various inquisitions, 'putting to the question'.

'Supererogation' refers to the act of granting more than is requested or doing more than is needed. The hand reaches out and receives more, does more, or gives more than it is expected to do. It also refers to the practice of abundant generosity in service or in giving to those in need. It can be used of divine grace which blesses or forgives the unworthy.

'Prerogation' (more commonly known by its result, a 'prerogative') comes from the idea of holding out one's hand in advance, thus perhaps 'cutting the queue' or receiving something by interception or preemption; of course, it can also imply giving out something to someone before you give it to others. A prerogative is something that is granted to a person which is not granted as freely to others.

'Arrogation' (more commonly known through the French-English 'arrogance') refers to the act of raising one's hand to seize or to bring something towards oneself. This applies to rights, objects, privileges, wealth, status or anything else which might be conferred or bestowed. It presumes and assumes in the presumption, so to speak.

I am sure that my readers can find more examples. What I find interesting is the idea that old verbs, with roots in languages which no longer exist as such, can have so many useful descendants. Time brings variety; however, only when the root is useful and well-supplied (and capable of manifold prepositional extension) does that variety thrive.

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It is the tenth month, but actually the twelfth; it is the day of the dead, and yet it is about sleep; it is cold, seen in frost and mirrors, and yet the warmth of fires and companionship. This is December, nor are we out of it. For every ten words, only one survives; for every ten pages of shattered sense, one will say something.

The new booklist is out, at Bookbinding. If I had had another 24 hours, I would have put a few words about Frank Beddor's The Looking Glass Wars in – it is as fantastic a retelling of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as Gregory Maguire's Wicked is of The Wizard of Oz.

I have grown old. It is no longer a world where one could rely on verity and be taken seriously. It is one where everybody invents their own truths, and so it is not one, but many. It is all Copenhagen writ large, with Einstein not taking Bohr's advice. And so I leave December to the burial of the dead, to the spirit of Phlebas the Phoenician, and to the bitter meetings of Titania with Oberon. What else can be done, when truth is fallen under the feet of the High King's horses in the granite of Babylon?

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Isn't This The Carpenter?

The Christmas season is a time for reflection. I don't mind reflecting about the Christ as a baby in a manger, but I am inevitably led down the corridors of thought towards His life and work. I wrote this short piece a while ago, immersed in the ideas of work and professionalism.


There are lots of modern professions mentioned in the gospels: tax collecting, law, carpentry, building, teaching and money-changing are some of them. Most of us, if asked to talk about what professional qualifications Jesus had, would talk about Jesus the carpenter – but that’s not the whole story.

The only verse which mentions this is Mark 6:3. Matthew 13:55 has the people referring to Jesus as “the carpenter’s son”. We should probably draw the conclusion that Jesus, as Joseph’s legal son, was an apprentice carpenter. Being the sort of person he was, he would have been a good one. Yet, the whole New Testament doesn’t say anything else about carpentry, and Jesus the carpenter is someone we can only make assumptions about.

Perhaps Jesus the lawyer also comes to mind – Jesus, conducting brilliant defences and legal expositions against repeated accusations and traps made by Pharisees. The questions he tackled are relevant to us today: Matthew 12:1-14/Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6/Luke 6:1-11 and Luke 14:1-6 have questions regarding the extent to which the law should control our behaviour; Matthew 19:1-12/Mark 10:1-12 are about divorce; and Matthew 22:15-22/Mark 12:13-17/Luke 20:20-26 are about taxation (a topic on everybody’s mind these days, which means that you should read what Jesus had to say about it).

Among the many professions though, Jesus was first of all a teacher. There are almost 90 verses in the Gospels which refer to Jesus as teacher. When he was in Jerusalem, he taught every day (Matthew 26:55, Mark 14:49, Luke 21:37). As in everything else, Jesus was good at teaching. He taught with amazing authority and gave good answers. Other so-called teachers of the law hated him and denounced him, but even then, some gave him positive reviews (see Mark 12:28-34 for one occasion). Mark 12:37 says “the large crowd listened to him with delight”.

This, then, is one reason why I am a teacher. Although I’m no master of the Law, I can learn many things about being a professional from Jesus. Like others who are lawyers and practitioners of healing arts, I can look in the gospels for concrete examples of how I should work while carrying out my professional duties. How to use a good analogy without carrying it too far, how to focus attention with a single statement, provoke listeners to think, make sure they remember, motivate an audience, give a well-structured lesson — all these things are found in courses taught at Institutes of Education; but they were also demonstrated long ago by the Master.

Professional attitude, professional conduct, professional lessons. As my grandfather once told me, “If you’re going to do anything, ask yourself this question: How would He have done it?” There are lots of books on how people should teach. If you want to read them, go ahead – but never forget that Jesus was a teacher too.

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Word of the Day: Chiliarch

It's a sudden hankering for fast food, namely the fantastic chili that used to be on offer at places like Wendy's, and perhaps even the somewhat (these days) desiccated meat of the golden arches, which brought this word to mind. I can just imagine what it evokes in the gluttonish soul of my compatriots: chili-arch, king of capsaicin and oral terrorism.

But the word is a wholly different one, pronounced in the Greek way "kili-ark'. It denotes a master of a thousand men, a responsible leader with both martial and civil duties, able to help and to command in both war and peace. Alexander the Great used to deploy five to a battle unit: an infantry brigade of 5000 men marching with a common leadership of five chiliarchs under a single warleader.

It isn't much of a WotD, I guess. The Hierophant told me to choose more interesting words. Ah well. I can't help it; I have days in which a word like zeugma is of great import, and others in which the word is more like bungalow – a great import from another tongue, but much less interesting.


Thursday, December 20, 2007


I was asked the other day what paradigms I employed to make sense of the world. It's a good question. I routinely make use of three perspectives, all of which are found in one particular book of the Bible.

1) There need be no guarantees of causality. Things happen. Deal with them. Some can be constrained by logic and some may seem to fit laws based on observation over time. If the model works, it works. How come it works? We've no idea.

2) There need be no evidence for God. No direct evidence, anyway; most of it is circumstantial, ambiguous, oblique, apparently misleading, impossible to confirm. If the evidence were irrefutable, then human existence with logical free will is incompatible. We'd be angelic beings: knowing the truth, we'd have to stand against it deliberately in order to exercise will. God stands on His own merits and need not convince us of them.

3) There is no need to convert anyone. We are called upon to be witnesses, not transmuters. The Spirit handles conversions. We are only brokers, instruments, conduits. And if we're not believed, so be it.

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Merge & Whelm

It's interesting to look at water as you stand at the terminus between salt and sand. You watch the white wheat shift, and learn that is silicon dioxide, polymeric, hugely macromolecular white dust – sand, sand, sand. And it comes to you that there are words for what you see as the water covers the sea, as the salt covers the sand.

The word 'merge', from Latin mergitur, meant originally to dissolve or fully sink something into a liquid. For example, the motto of the city of Paris, 'Fluctuat nec mergitur', means 'she is not overwhelmed by the waves'. To merge (or 'immerse') something is to make it disappear into a fluid medium. From this we get 'submerge', implying something vanishing beneath a surface (not necessarily into it) like a submarine.

We also get 'emerge', which is the reverse process – something arising from a liquid or fluid medium. An emergency, therefore, is an event arising from the fluid environment; it is implicitly sudden, it is something demanding a response.

But as you ponder 'merge', you also see 'whelm'; the word is Old English, perhaps of Teutonic origin. It means 'to cover completely', and (strangely enough) is thus the source of the word 'helm' – something that covers completely. To whelm is to submerge totally, and by extension, drown. To overwhelm is to do that conclusively and excessively, while to underwhelm probably means that you haven't done it enough (or enough to ensure drowning).

Some might think, therefore, that 'helm' (head-covering) leads to 'helm' (as in 'lead' or 'direct', or a source thereof). This is unfortunately not so. The 'helm' that refers to steering a ship or guiding an enterprise comes from a different word which means 'handle' – as in the handle of a rudder or tiller.

In the meantime, it's difficult having to cope with situations in which the helm is insufficient – in either sense of the word.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Word of the Day: Diphthong

A diphthong, for students of language, is of course a harnessing-together of two pure vowels to form a gliding vowel sound. Examples like /aɪ̯/ as in eye, a combination of "a-" and "-i", are common; also /aʊ/ as in cow, a combination of "a-" and "-oo". The word, as in many words which contain the sounds 'ph' (phi) and 'th' (theta), is Greek in origin. It is easy to remember its meaning by association, diphthongos means "two-toned" in Greek – a state that a person quickly assumes if going for a dip in a thong.

One of the things which most riles me, though, is the pronunciation that people give to two words in particular. One has a diphthong whose order is commonly reversed, the other has a simple vowel converted egregiously to a diphthong. These words are suicide and dissect.

Suicide is commonly pronounced "swee-cide" by all kinds of people; to them I suppose it rhymes with 'seaside'. But a careful inspection shows the "u" sound comes before the "i" sound. It should be "soo-i-cide". The same people say 'intuition' correctly, but pronounce 'tuition' as "tyoo-shen". It pains the ears, and is terribly inconsistent.

Dissect is often pronounced "dai-sect", especially by medical students, who should know better. But the word is clearly constructed 'dis-' + '-sect' – i.e., to separate into parts. The correct equivalent of "dai-sect" would be bisect – to divide into two. In this case, the simple vowel /ɪ/ has become diphthongized to /aɪ/. This too is pain and suffering.

Then again, I have often observed why I like the name Abraham as it is pronounced in English. It is one of those rare instances in which the same symbol (the 'a') is used for three different sounds in ONE word. Hebrew is more consistent, with Avra'am, each 'a' being the sound /a/. Much better!

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The Hundred: Zeist

There is always the faintest whisper, the final thin gleam of reflected light, which betrays the nearly perfect ambush. With Zeist, there is nothing. For Zeist is treachery made into a tool of death. It often manifests as a thin blade, perhaps a modern foil, or a broadsword of mysterious aspect, or a sabre built for a halfling. Sometimes, it is another weapon from another age; it can be arquebus or bolas, blowpipe or crossbow. In all aspects, it is silent and difficult to see; I have seen it as an icepick before.

In the great myth-cycles, the hero is betrayed by the weapon more powerful or more corrupt than he; sometimes, the hero is corrupted by the power given to him by it. There is none of that here. Zeist works only for those with only the slimmest chance of salvation, or for those who by its use will stand to lose such chances. It is a tool that corrupts the corrupt, and helps the evil along their road to a deserved doom.

Zeist is sentient; it has a peculiar empathy which arouses the worst and most craven impulses of the impromptu murderer. Whether a replacement killer or a substitute assassin, the weapon works to ease the path towards the breaking of contracts and the bending of words. The success of the slayer depends on the degree of deceit he has used, urged gently upon him by the quiet empathy of the instrument in his hands. The wielder will talk to Zeist more and more; while it will never be 'my Precious' to him, it will be 'my Friend' or 'my Companion-in-Adversity'.

The fate of the one who handles it is terrible indeed; slowly, he will come to fear betrayal. He will come to sense treachery in every act and a traitor in every situation. And when Treachery has come to the end of its working relationship with the man, it will take his life when he least expects it – perhaps on the day that he essays to shave with a naked sword.


Monday, December 17, 2007


This is the title of the fourteenth anthology of Ted Hughes's poetry. The English poet laureate was always at his best looking into the deep mythical world of the animal kingdom, whether in short stories on the creation of animals and birds, or on the majestically indifferent solipsism of a hawk roosting. Hughes was, and remains, a source of my own writing inspiration. You will find direct echoes of his work in my online poetry cycle, Two Ravens, although of course he was not one much for the ravens, preferring other corvidae.

Wolfwatching, however has specific resonance for me. It was first published in 1989, around the time I finished my first year in the local university, and it immediately became the companion to my online life in the networks that existed at that time. Few people caught on, but the wandering wolf was a creature straight out of Hughes. The title poem hit me hard; it portrays an old wolf and a young one. The old one is already ruined by time in the zoo; the young one is confident of his powers, but he will be ruined too. Here are excerpts:

...     And here
Is a young wolf, still intact.
He knows how to lie, with his head,
The Asiatic eyes, the gunsights
Aligned effortless in the beam of his power...

He's hanging
Upside down on the wire
Of non-participation.
He's a tarot-card, and he knows it.
He can howl all night
And dawn will pick up the same card
And see him painted on it, with eyes
Like doorframes in a desert
Between nothing and nothing.

Reading that poem again and again, I knew that young wolf was who I was. To some extent, it is still that wolf I am sometimes, confined in a system that is slowly leaching the iron vitality from me. What use is the totipotent package that is the heritage of wolves, the nobility of the pack, the steel intelligence and the relentless vision? No use at all, the poet seems to say, and yet, perhaps between nothing and nothing, there is a solution – or an absolution.


Note: Students of war poetry might want to compare and contrast Hughes's Anthem For Doomed Youth, also in this volume, with Wilfred Owen's poem of the same title. It is an interesting exercise.

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Lessons And Songs

In front of me is parchment, thick material with old writing on it. Some of it goes back a long way, for we are looking down the wrong end of the telescope, into the cold days of 1980, in a land of mist and rain. In the English class, the poets come and go, speaking of more of Breughel than of Michelangelo.

Our teacher makes us read Dylan Thomas. It is my first introduction to the Voice of Wales. It will not be my last. The poem we are reading is The Hand That Signed The Paper, and it goes like this:

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose's quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.

The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor pat the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.

It carries a lesson I will bear for the rest of my life. From that day on, I know that the pen is mightier than the sword. My worst enemies will come at me not with might of arms, but along rivers of ink; with penmanship, not pikemanship. And to resist I will need to learn about words as well.

Yet, a sheet of paper has two sides. The defence of vulnerability is the greatest shield of all, for the fully vulnerable is like a cloud; you may pierce it in many places, but you will not hurt it at all. The barrage of words hurled against the invading force is a counter-attack, not a defence. You cannot make a bow a defensive weapon, no matter how hard you try, no matter what philosophy shapes your action and response.

If you will build a city on a hill, and hedge it around with the engines of defence, those who seek entry may hurt themselves. A city on a hill cannot be hid. Should you then eschew defence? No, but you may post a sign here and there: this is a friendly city, but do not seek to invade or invest, for we are a power under orders from Authority. And yet, there will still be accidents. You may make reparation, but there will always be bitterness. This I have learnt as well.

I too have been hurt before. But there is one precious thing I have learnt, a third lesson. The attempt to bear no ill-will is nothing unless you bear good-will. It is hard to attempt it; it is also hard to believe in it. But after 1981, when she told me what was right but hurt me anyway, I learnt that it is always for the best. You must not hate and you must ensure you do not seem to hate; you cannot completely love, when it is not returned; you just get on with it, for you are you.

And yet, who are you? How do you know? It is the reason we are told to consider ourselves with sober judgement – for Romans 12:3 is as important as the previous two verses, if not more so. It introduces the rest of the chapter, verses 4-21, the evaluative canon with which each of us can judge ourselves and not impose the wrong kind of judgement on others.

For in the end, while there is an objective truth, we are commanded to discretion and sober judgement from a subjective viewpoint. How else can it be, when we do not know except through a glass darkly? Wisdom requires that we discern, describe, distill – and on occasion, dispel, destroy, despair. We seek to approach the objectively true, but there is only one singularity, one point from which all things are objective, and that is God's perspective from infinity and eternity.

From this, I have learnt a fourth lesson: I will always bear faith with my friends, but it may not be the faith my friends desire. I will not abandon them even if they think I have. And I may not act even when they feel I should, because it is a matter of my own judgement, flawed or not. Inevitably, I will lose most of my friends. We all will. Yet, this is the way God treats us too; He will abandon us if we deny him, but He does not abandon us for lack of belief. In times like this, I read II Timothy 2 again and again; it comforts and warns me, as all scripture does.

So here we are. We see subjectively, but judge as best we can. And where our judgement fails, we will suffer for it. But only for a while; for in the end, all things are made new, all things are made clean. At the end, we will rise, we shall be changed, we shall be made incorruptible. There are no tears beyond the end of things.


I was at a wedding this weekend. Rather oddly, I felt, the wedding ended with an arrangement of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Pie Jesu, which is a conflation of the traditional Requiem's Pie Jesu and its Agnus Dei. One doesn't normally think of a requiem as wedding music. And yet, thinking of the god-daughter and listening...

Pie Jesu,
Qui tollis peccata mundi,
Dona eis requiem;
Agnus Dei,
Dona eis requiem

I felt my weariness lifted as I heard the venerable words and translated them: "Merciful Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest; Lamb of God, grant them rest eternal." She who sang had a voice sufficiently beautiful for the task, sweet and deep enough to bring out the sweetness of the truth in those words. What I like about the Lloyd Webber arrangement is the deliberate way in which the seven syllables of the third and fifth lines pace out the idea of a deliberate grace. And I remembered 'sempiternam' in particular from ancient Latin lessons; it is a hybrid of 'semper', which is 'always', and 'aeternam', which is 'forever'. Always and forever, O Lord, grant us rest.

It is my wish for a troubled world, and the people of that world. It has always been my wish, above all human strivings, ambitions and desires. Kyrie eleison!

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Hundred: Virakhene

This is a well-polished sword, perhaps a ceremonial blade to the untrained eye. But the Marshal of the East, by virtue of his office, must wield Virakhene because of its history. For Virakhene, 'Fearbringer' to the Chaos hordes, is the ritual weapon of the law, of the sun, and of the terror that strikes by day.

What are its powers? The Fearbringer is a Maker's tool, made to serve the worthy and disdain the craven. It makes obvious the appearance of courage in the holy and brave; it makes obvious the sensation of fear in those who fear such. Its touch fixes the quality of randomness in the things of this world; its radiance burns against evil like a silver flame. In battle, it blinds the undead and suppresses the most lethal fires of chaotic evocation. In peace, it demands fairness in negotiation and the disposition of spoils.

With such gifts, it is tempting to say that Virakhene is not a chivalrous weapon, or to wonder why it is given only to paladins to bear. But the fact is that its greatest gifts preserve the justice of the trial of battle; evil magic fails against its wielder and the undead have no power over him by charm or curse. His bravery is not enhanced, but it becomes clear to others; his fear is not diminished, but it becomes equally obvious to those who watch him. If these properties should shift the tides of war, it is not because it changes the one who bears the sword.

And that is the nature of the Maker's tools: they do not change the balance of the world, but they make it easier to perceive and to bear.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Hundred: Zunamondin

From afar, this weapon is an ill-crafted object of wrought iron, perhaps a blank pallet of crude steel or something cheaper. It is only when you come closer that you begin to feel the first pricklings of a terrible unease. For you will see that it is perfectly smooth along its length and width, like a pure archetype in darkness. And something is calling to you, in the depths of your being, saying that it will divide bone from marrow and self from self.

For Zunamondin (the etymology of its name is unknown) is the Glaive of the Void, a trump of the Fifth House and an artifact of another realm. In its true shape, it resembles a flamingo, a sun, a matchstick, a mushroom. It is hard to say what it is, but about a handspan beyond its perfectly sharp tip is something so small it shouldn't exist – a singularity bound by the High Art of the College of Stars.

The trump, you see, hides its own trump. In the right context, it is an ace of the highest order, and its name is Destruction. It is said that the owner of Zunamondin is the spirit named Azrael; it is also said that the owner of Azrael is the spirit named Zunamondin. For all we know, the two are one, and maybe more. The person who wields this artifact should read the Book of Swords, for the instructions given therein regarding the care of safety and the burden of ownership are accurate and invaluable for the preservation of one's sanity and physical integrity.

The Glaive is easily summoned or invoked; its spoken name is potent magic. It comes from a time before the written glyph, and so runes and such have no effect upon it. Similarly, its name may be written freely without geas or binding. Most often, it takes the form of a longsword, perhaps a katana, or a weapon of equivalent class and status. If it has a discernible hilt, quillons or other appurtenances, they are often in a subdued but capable metal such as brown iron or green steel.



I had an amusing disconnection from technology today. I hadn't charged my cellphone, the power was cut from about 8.30 am to 5.30 pm, and I had a wedding (and the consequent dinner) on. I was AFK a lot, in other words.

The stuff people send you when you are AFK is very interesting. I am certain I lead a less interesting life than many people think I do. I quite enjoy it though when people send me messages like, "No way are you that old, surely you have MSN or something!" or "You really ought to log on more often. I have not received a reply for two days, and it's quite urgent." or "Hey! Guess what! Our book is coming out 28th December!"

The pleasures of not having to reply to a whole slew of stuff, simply because you were not around to receive it, are vastly underrated or unknown.

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Friday, December 14, 2007


Musical leanings occasionally produce sufficient pressure for one to sit up, look around surreptitiously, and do a memetic exercise (or should that be psychomimetic, haha!) based on '23 things about yourself'. Random stuff follows; beware!
  1. I'm a midnight child. The dark has never held fear for me, and if you examine the 'font colour' tags you will see my favourite colour a lot on this blog.

  2. I teach biblical studies. My youngest student ever was aged 4 and my oldest, about 55.

  3. The cello is my favourite musical instrument; it seldom gets out of hand, and it takes a bow easily and without a fuss. It is mellow, sometimes yellow, and quite a fellow. Lovely voice, beautifully melancholic.

  4. I belong to several professional organisations, all with the acronym ACS. Some are linked here. I mention this because those are my mother's initials as well.

  5. I have never dated someone of the argent, bezants vert persuasion before.

  6. My favourite prophet is Jeremiah, he who was imprisoned in a cistern for his pains.

  7. I have a great fondness for rough-cut potato chips, or crisps even, with bits of skin on.

  8. I have been to Uzbekistan; Tashkent, to be specific.

  9. I found out I could read Catalan when I visited Andorra.

  10. One of my favourite words is 'baryon'; it sounds somehow Germanic, Hebraic and Hellenic all at once.

  11. Over the years, I have specialised in teaching communication engineering and computer science.

  12. My blood type is O, which means I am not as biologically specialised as some people I know.

  13. I love animals who can be independent while living within pack or clan structures. Cats, wolves, for example.

  14. I have two nieces. It is tempting to call them 'niece' and 'niecer'. Except that I once worked in an organisation called NIECER.

  15. Science has always been one of my favourite subjects. I was just never any good at it in school. Used to get 20s and 30s when the maximum score was 100.

  16. I'm a carnivore by nature. I can eat huge amounts of lamb, mutton, beef, venison, and pork, and other meats as well.

  17. My favourite poet has a surname that is ten letters long.

  18. If I hadn't been a teacher, I would have been a lawyer. Some say a rabbi. Ha.

  19. I have a catalogue of all my books. It informs me that I have 6803 books on the shelves at the moment.

  20. My first science fiction novel was Arthur C Clarke's Islands in the Sky.

  21. I once consumed a Big Mac™, a large fries and a Coke™ in forty-seven seconds. Burp.

  22. I was born in a former swamp, my flat is in a former swamp, and I am often swamped.

  23. The first poem I ever memorised was William Blake's Tyger.

Why 23 things? I don't know. But here is a link which might be of interest. Enjoy!

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The Hundred

In the stories of all the worlds, there are tools which shape and change the nature of reality. Some do this by forcing acquiescence, some do this by being immutable while their surroundings shift around them. In the realm of the Thunderbird, there are roughly a hundred of these, and each has its own intrinsic properties – you can tell them apart from what they do (and perhaps, who they are) regardless of form or substance.

In Celtic myth are always four things: a sword, a spear (or staff), a stone, a cauldron. These correspond with the modern card suits of Spades (espada is 'sword' in Spanish), Clubs (or Staves), Diamonds (or Coins), and Hearts (or Cups). The motif of four entities is repeated throughout most of Indo-European culture, of course; in the realm of the Thunderbird, four is just the first of a sequence that includes six, eight, twelve, twenty and a hundred.

And so, as the inspiration strikes me, I shall endeavour to catalogue the Hundred in all their myriad forms – for a myriad is ten thousand, and that is a hundred hundreds.

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Dear Mainspring,

It has been 20 years since our last date. Remembering the people we used to be, not yet fully formed and still a little adolescent, is a pretty awkward but amazingly funny experience. Of course it would never have worked out; we used to say that sometimes a little wistfully, perhaps with a tinge of fear that it might have. But now, being older and somewhat more knowledgeable (even if not necessarily wiser), we are pretty certain of that.

I forgive you the sushi chef and the leopard-skin print and the other odd outrages of life. I forgive you the moments of peculiar behaviour (ah, you SC/S7 girls!) and decidedly eccentric rambling. I can only hope that after 20 years, you do the same sort of thing on your side.

It's at this point that I realise I don't know where you are, or what you're doing, or even if you are still alive (morbid thought). But that being so, remember only that we were once fond of each other and now that is no more than a souvenir on the old shelves of the past. And you know, of course, that we are free. Except for silly moments like this, which clutch at us but cannot take hold.




Thursday, December 13, 2007


By nature, as often confessed before, I am a creature of wrath and pride. Not anger or arrogance, those more human shades of infamy, but ira and superbia, as the ancients used to call them – two of the seven deadly sins. By faith, as I have made thanksgiving for many times as well, I am a creature in whom these natural urges are balanced by the temperance of patience and humility, sometimes bitterly imposed upon this mortal soul. The ancients would have called me a creature of bile, both choleric and melancholy; but as we know, all this classification is twaddle – after all, the two are opposed, so how should it be so?

And yet, when faced with students who prefer not to learn their lessons, one is tempted again. It is a mortification to my flesh, the returning realisation that one is not immune to sin, although one may have been justified by faith. The instinct to wrath is the worst in my family; the men all have it to a large extent. The instinct to pride is a bad complement to it: in wrath, one is oft tempted to use one's intellect as a bludgeon rather than a rapier, but in pride, one is tempted to use it both ways, to pierce and wound as well as to bruise. The phrases, 'a sound thumping' and 'a good thrashing' come to mind, with attendant shudders and a sense of sadness that one should think of them in the first place.

And so, one smiles a lot, and trusts by faith in one's calling and the One calling. But on some days it is very hard. Very hard, dolorous almost, painful, and wrenching to the soul. The natural self is quite a beast to ride. Sigh. But otherwise, how could one be tempered? Certainly not by losing one's temper through distemper or intemperance. Certainly not by taking apart the works of other men in order to establish one's own. And certainly not by allowing the spleen to override the brain.

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Truth (Sir Wolff's Version)

They have convened again. Sir Wolff has been placed in the dungeons for a week, with only the water on the walls for drink. Then they have washed him, and clothed him, and allowed him the bare honours of his rank. So he is too weak to wear his armour, but they have mounted it upon him; he is too weak to bear the sword of his fathers. So they have given it to him. That is a mistake.

Kneel, recreant. What do you say is truth? Quid est veritas?

What you call truth is what you have invented. It is a cloth you have woven upon the sticks of reality.

See, murmurs one to another, the black hoods rustling amongst the Magistratum, he continues to defame.

You say we invent the truth? That we weave what is not true?

No, I say that what you weave is what you call the truth. You summon it to you, you bind it, you name it 'truth'.

And do you think, sieur, that it is not?

How could I think that it is not when it bears that name? The Magistratum publishes it, and hence it is truth.

Do you mock us?

I am too weak to mock you. See how I am faint as unto death beneath the heavy burden of my armour? I have had nothing but God's dew to drink in all these seven days.

They laugh among themselves. One says, perhaps he thinks he is Elijah come again.

Why do you still bear a sword in the presence of the Magistratum?

I am too weak to bear a sword. It has the might of my fathers in it unto the third and fourth generation. My hands quiver as if palsied, for I am unworthy in my strength.

But it glows, and he raises it up, says a grey voice.

Aha, but I did not say the sword was too weak to bear me! And its name is Perdurias, for it is that which lasts long after all else has fallen to dust.

Alarm. Consternation. And through it all, the serene visage of one who knows his Master, and has long learnt not to fear the end.

'Est vir qui adest' was the answer Pilate failed to see,
says Sir Wolff to himself, quietly.


"God is my Master," the Patriarch said. "It makes for simplicity. I commend it. For that is your trouble, isn't it?"

– Dorothy Dunnett, Caprice & Rondo

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Wanderer wanders wearily.
Where wolflord walks, winter whispers.
Where women wail, wise watcher will wait.
Which witch wants what?
Warrior wearing white, wield weapon with wariness.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007


What is symbolic is not parabolic or hyperbolic. The three words are similar in some ways but very different in others; 'symbolic' means 'thrown together with', while 'parabolic' means 'thrown alongside' and 'hyperbolic' means 'thrown above'. The difference between the symbolic and the parabolic is the hardest to see, but it can be likened to a darts competition in some ways.

If some equally flighted darts are thrown together at the same time, follow the same paths and land in the same small group, one of those darts can be used as a proxy for the rest; it is symbolic. If some equally flighted darts are thrown at different dartboards set up in parallel, their general direction is the same, but the exact groups are far apart. A parable is therefore a lot like a shadow which moves in concert with the original; a symbol is an image that represents other things according to convention. With both, as with hyperbole, great care is required for proper usage. Of course, a hyperbolic dart would totally miss the target and land above it.

It's a similar problem with 'catabolic', 'anabolic' and 'metabolic'. 'Catabolic' means 'thrown apart'; you might imagine a ball of little pellets scrunched together which falls apart in flight. 'Anabolic' means 'thrown into togetherness' (I would have said 'thrown together' but that might have looked too much like 'symbolic'); you might imagine a barrage of pellets which when thrown fall into a neat little lump. 'Metabolic' means 'thrown with transformation'; you might think of a magician's trick in which a ball is thrown into the air and turns into a bird.

At this point, leaving the list incomplete since the point is largely demonstrated, it has become obvious that the '-bolic' part of the word represents the verb, 'to throw'. The first part, modifying the relationship between things thrown, must be a preposition. And thus endeth an impromptu lesson in Greek.

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Monday, December 10, 2007


The ancients made a virtue of simplicity. Traces of this remain even in this age of complexity; when a scientist or mathematician says a solution is 'elegant', it might mean 'symmetrical', 'solves more problems than it creates', or 'easily understood'. Most often, 'elegant' is 'simple' of sorts – lacking complexity of form while containing depth of meaning.

Theology is a simple discipline in any religious context; if the faith is beyond apprehension, or beyond the exercise of simple reason, it necessarily discriminates against the simple and casts doubts on its own claim to universality. Christianity, with its priesthood of believers, can make at least that claim; Science, in that sense, can also do that. If the theological or logical complexity is too great, the body of practice must be too arcane to be universal.

This is a fundamental paradox that strikes at the heart of claims to perfection. If a body of practice or belief is perfect, it must be accepted completely by everyone – the Baldur principle. If it is not, it is not yet perfect. On the other hand, if it is universally accepted by any possible measure and by every possible adherent, it becomes axiomatic – and thus is no longer a justified body of belief or practice, but part of the system by which other things are justified.

The consequence of this situation is that all religion is flawed, unless a specific case of religion can be shown to meet the test of universality. If it does, it is no longer religion, but axiom. The only way to resolve this is to begin with axioms. The first axiom of a religious universe cannot be, "There is a God." We have to begin at the simplest level, by assuming that things exist, and that causation is possible but not necessary for all things.

But if we do that, then there is no necessary conclusion. Which means that if we live in a religious universe, we either have to accept God-who-is-not-axiomatic, or leave logic out of it. It all leads me to believe that God is impugned by atheists for the simple reason that He cannot be dealt with in a comprehensive way. He's beyond comprehension of any sort (although not apprehension in all its myriad ways), which is either a cop-out, or the greatest truth of all.

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Matter Arising

Sir Wolff lies abed, exhausted from his labours in the name of the Order. He feels more worn from the ministrations of the Magistratum than anything else though. As he had once told the Grand Inquisitor, he would do his duties for free; for meetings and all the other claptrap, he would take thirty pieces of silver a year.

And in his bed, toiling against invisible restraints and the daemonic influences out of Kadath the ancient, Sir Wolff finds himself talking into the darkness.

Sir Wolff, are you threatening us with your consecrated blade?

No, I am not, your Eminences. I am but a landless knight, and my blade is old.

The truth is that the blade you wield was consecrated by the Order and belongs to us, does it not?

It is true, your Eminences, that my blade was consecrated by the Order. Bishop William himself sealed it to holy service. But the blade does not belong to you. It is my inheritance.

How shocking. Do you say that a consecrated blade of the Order does not belong to the Order's Magistratum?

No, your Eminences; I say that a blade consecrated by the Founder may not be bought by the Magistratum.

Muttering. The Grand Inquisitor's lips curl.

Sir Wolff, it may not be bought because it is the property of the Magistratum. We are the true heirs of the Founder, in law, and in spirit, and in truth.

My lords magistral, this is a claim of truth. We can test such claims. Will you face the Sword? It has two edges.

You will not hold a bare weapon in this room.

No, I will not, your Eminences. But the Word is the Sword; the Sword is the Word, and it is naked at all times. It is a fire, and I cannot hold it and live. You have called it, and it comes eagerly forth. Will you not speak to Truth, and let Truth speak to power?

You are dismissed! Sir Wolff, take that thing out of the room. Now!

Wolff smiles. For a moment, the silver in his teeth seems to glimmer. He is unarmed, as always, but suddenly, he seems like an army, a host in the moment before the bloodletting begins.

Are you dismissing me from the Order, my lords? For I can no more take Truth out of the room than you can take the room out of Truth.

No, of course not! You are a loyal servant of the Order, we all know this. But your behaviour is inexcusable and your manner is insolent!

I look to the hills, your Eminences. If there can be excuse or explanation for my behaviour, it can only come from the Maker himself. When the matter of His Truth arises, nothing will stop it. It makes me free, my lords, free indeed.

Sir Wolff stalks off, and suddenly, he is in his bed again. It is morning, and he has slept through the night. He smiles, and in the corner of his tiny cell, the naked blade of his forefathers laughs.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

Being the Account of a different Seeing, and not an Explanation of any sort.

It is a great road, this parade of iron chariots and masters of sophistry and lore. Along it is a grand canal, bearing the debris of sudden squalls and human unconcern. This road runs from the North of my land to its centre, and I live along it; it is lifeblood to many, and through it, my land hangs pendant from its mother. This is a second Lyonesse, another City of Lions sprung fishlike from the sea.

Behind it, another world lies, where the College of Dragons teaches the true Art, and numbers are but one way of truth among many. Another world, where the fates of dwarves and dragons are inextricably entwined, and the speaking of stones is a higher tongue than the yapping of men.

Two worlds crossing, conjoint and trembling at the threshold. In one, I am sorcerer, keeping myself both celibate and wise. In the other, I am speaker-to-gods and assassin, knowing myself neither celibate nor wise. In both, there is the Road, and people travel upon it, filled with thoughts of trade and wealth, life and death – and sometimes, with no thoughts at all save the continuous striving which binds them to the Universe.

I am the Wanderer. Let me tell you of the path I trod, and the world as I have seen it. Let me show you a place where the lines which part the worlds are crossed, and how.


Sentinels guard the sky now, where before there was only the white shore and castles to be built, before they took unclaimed sea, and stole from it land for a million souls. I used to live there, in the East of this country, on the coast which is no more. With great old seeing-glass I saw the ships pass by with all-mysterious cargoes. They spoke with me, and the fragments of my thoughts in their songs remain, thinned by wind and memory:

Under the sky
walks he now on the sand
a great reaver
to the fragile river
of life at the terminus
'tween wet sea and sand.

The multitude
borne on a rustling wind
crackle their limbs
in stalk-eyed eddyings
running light
on the grains:
little old men of age largely unknown
rhyming in ancient tongues.

Hard shell, go well.
My careless feet conceal
a heart which goes
with the many dwellers
on the sand-surf-swell.

Then came the war-machines of that ancient time, and there was war between Land and Sea; the Land was victorious, and the dwellers on the terminus were drowned and buried: to this day if you dig hard enough, you may find their pathetic remains at the feet of the tall towers.

Thus passed the first world, traveller, if you seek such again, know that the terminus abides, as always, between the salt- water and the sea-strand.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007


I am watching my left hand draw while I write with my right. It is fascinating in a 'last moments before the truck hits you' kind of way. Over the years, I've accumulated many readings on mind/body dualism, the place of spirit and soul, stuff like that. But when I watch my left hand draw (apparently without conscious connivance), while my right hand types with full obeisance to my conscious mind, I am enthralled, disturbed and vaguely pleased.

I had two ambidextrous grandfathers and so far every single test of my 'hemisphericity' – that odd left-brain vs right-brain concept – shows that I am neither. But perhaps, it is not 'neither', but 'both'. Perhaps my left and right hands really do not know what the other is doing, save through the apperception of my divided brain. Does the left half of my brain talk to my right half much? Or is it merely some kind of sinister dexterity at work?

I am reminded of that famous Escher print which shows two hands apparently drawing each other on some kind of paper manifold. I am also reminded of Castrovalva, the Escher print which shows a universe collapsing into itself without its inhabitants realising it. And when I am reminded of such things, I realise that most cities of light and darkness are illusions, with the clearest and most potent being models of Yeats's passionate intensity – Babels in potential – and the most umbral and sinister being models of the system of the world. And that is it for the world; its right hand is order, its left hand is chaos, and all of it is secularity, all of it on both hands.

So what of the new Jerusalem? Is it built with hands or works or the feet of them who come bearing the gospel of peace? No, it descends, as the Jacobean translators had it, "out of Heaven from God, having the glory of God." And of course, in the middle of it is the Tree of Life, once denied to Adam and Eve and their descendants – but not forever and ever.

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Friday, December 07, 2007


Beneath the arc of sky
Are me, myself and I;
The world that fails my eye,
Beyond me as I lie.

Above the high frontier,
Where music fails the ear
Are things which should be dear –
If only they were here!

Beneath the things I hold –
Material things and cold,
And things both new and old –
I feel the hidden gold.

And comes the bright flame now
From where, and when, and how
Did you this thing allow
I do not ask; I bow.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Apocalypse Lost

For some time now, I've been wanting to assemble a collection of media that would be a retrospective of the Cold War. It does indeed date me, to be thinking of it; there are many alive today who were born after the Berlin Wall came down. But every now and then I see a fragment of my imaginary media collection, and I think of war, and peace, and how it was to grow up in a world dominated by the threat of – no, not war, but ultimate destruction.

Here are some of the fragments which have passed through my hands recently. I am not going to link them, for in the days of the Cold War, things were retrieved in the old, difficult, paranoid ways.

1. 99 Red Balloons (Nena): This song was a sort of a one-hit German wonder, originally composed by Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen (music) and Carlo Kagres (words), and translated into English by Kevin McAlea. It's a vision of innocence, pulp fiction, and sudden death. Red balloons, indeed.

2. Forever Young (Alphaville): Another German group, and the year was 1984. This is an elegy to the end of the Cold War, written as if from the viewpoint of a peculiar madness which cannot quite grasp that the whole conflict is over.

3. Fallout and Fallout II: These computer games epitomised the post-apocalyptic CRPG. Built on an engine which would one day be utterly familiar to players of Diablo and suchlike, Fallout took you from a deeply buried underground colony in search of spare parts for your water supply and ended with you making the world safe(r) from insane cyborgs. The sequel was even better!

4. We Didn't Start The Fire (Billy Joel): This song, a collection of seemingly haphazard historical items, concealed a whole cornucopia of meaning, the least of which is the idea of, "Well, then. Who did?" The driven rhythm matches the lyrics in winding up the listener. It's a great adrenalin-boosting track.

5. Dinner at Deviant's Palace (Tim Powers): It looks and feels like post-apocalypse novel written as fantasy. It's a gritty and painful bildungsroman, if you like. But mostly, it's a great story in a barren land.

6. A Canticle For Liebowitz (Walter Miller): Another novel, this one dealing with the nature of religion after the apocalypse is some time gone. Rather moving, has a sequel which doesn't quite make it.

And that's it for now.

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It was so cold that I awoke in the night before the dawn. I went up to the hills, as always. I stood in a high place, remembering that I was lowly and of humble birth. Around me, the damp wind swirled. I could smell the heather, and I knew that many before me had felt the touch of the wet, and many after me also would.

I realised that in this world of the new, most people confuse that which is made with the skill that makes it. In my time, craeft meant the art of making, the art of definition and persuasion which turned the unformed into the thing desired. A windcrafter practised windcraft, twisting the tendrils of the wind into useful work. A woodcrafter practised woodcraft, turning the raw wood of a certain kind of tree into an object of beauty or of use (or both).

I practised aircraft, for my dominion was that of air, unmoving and almost intangible, yet susceptible to sudden impetus or compression. People jeered at me for a pilot, but I never was nor would be one. I made things of air. Castles and armies, fantastic beasts and tiny animals, these were my craftworkings.

In this world, it is not a useful skill. And so, as glorious Ursula of blessed memory advises, I fold my hands and sleep, for aught else is pointless.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Cold, wet, watery; which is to say: it is cold, the cold has resulted in a huge amount of precipitation, and on this planet, that precipitation is mostly water. And then it petered off. Now, it is cold and wet, but less watery. It will not be dry tonight.

I'm opinionated about education. I believe I have the right to form those opinions, keep those opinions, develop those opinions, and attempt to inflict them on people as a form of testing. Opinions are opinions, but when used as the basis for policy, it is good that they are tested. Some opinions are clearly wrong in certain circumstances; it is clearly not right to say that not all opinions are clearly wrong. Some opinions are more important to some people; that is, having greater import and significance; and some opinions are less important.

The reasons one might believe in this are simple: everyone practises a sort of ranking. This is a consequence of neurobiology; certain sounds, sights, and stimuli are responded to more sharply than others. It is like blue light and red light. Building from this fundamental truth, it becomes obvious that some news items, some effects and affects, some consequences of policy are of greater import to some people. Can it be said that this is clearly the case of certain matters?

Yes, I believe so. Time and time again, in any belief system, one is told that X is fundamental to belief, or that Y is of key importance, or that Z1 and Z2 are the greatest and second greatest commandments. Hence, if you have a belief system, it might be true (by fiat, or by acclaim, or by authority, or by necessity, or axiomatically) that something in it is of greater importance than all other things. If I were a Christian, for example, I might consider this to be more important than any kind of worldly knowledge or wisdom: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and your neighbour as yourself."

Why would I do that? Because, according to my putative belief system, the author and completer of my faith said that these were of paramount importance in the context of commandments. If I want to be true to the system, I have to believe that in any discussion of commandments (i.e. things we are told to do), these are the most important. And so on.

There is a dangerous trap in postmodern thought (although not all of it) which begins with saying that all viewpoints are equally non-definitive. This might be true, charitably speaking, but it is not the same as saying that all viewpoints are equivalent or identical or equal; in content, authority, utility, economy, and other qualities, they will be of differing value.

Think on these things, said the apostle. Think.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Rook and jay, crow and raven, we sat and feasted on dragon and phoenix and rare meats. It has been a long time since the ancient fellowship was first convened in 1989 (or thereabouts). We had different names then; we have different names now – but the fellowship remains. Here is an account.

Over the years, we have been Man-in-Grey, Hunt-for-White-Lion, and many other life-brooches of the Aesgarnir. We "have seen the Eternal Footman... snicker," and we are not afraid. We know that we too have an eternal existence, whether in roles or at play or in the communion of the sanctified. And we partake of a brotherhood that has not been sundered for twenty years.

What a gift! What a life!

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Patience is a virtue. It is one I largely lack except through the intervention of the Holy Spirit; my ancestors would concur and sympathise. When patience is exhausted, one can allow it to recharge or draw on the infinite supply. But in this world, the infinite supply will not easily fit the mortal frame. It is not a perfect distribution.

So, faced with magpie approaches to the work of ravens, one tends to reflect on the different shades of corvid meaning, and take pleasure in the fact that black does not distract.


Monday, December 03, 2007

Nine Muses (Redux)

Very amusing situation, a who-are rather than a who-is. Lunch with Morningblade and Paladin beckoned. And amongst the chaos and everything, comes the question, "Who are the Nine Muses you wrote about?"

Well, I must confess that I did a direct translation from the Greek texts, which accounts for the names and iconography. While I was doing that translation, nine very specific young ladies came to mind, all of whom (sadly) are not much longer for the Age which is soon passing. So I did have images about who they might look like, but I must stress that the goddess-phenotypes and goddess-archetypes all came first.

It just so happens that they resemble nine young ladies whose acquaintance I am honoured to have had. And that is all there is to it. I suppose that they young men of that cohort might be able to guess which ones, and I would probably acquiesce to the issuance of model answers. But again, I say, girls are girls; goddesses are goddesses; and you really should not confuse the two on pain of mortal agony and terror.

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Mockery And Judgement

I remember that in late 2004, I was being pilloried for the contents of this blog. Those contents are still there for you to see, if you're wondering why this should be so. At that time, I remember distinctly the phases of emotional sensation that passed through me.

First, I was amused. I could not believe that people were reading it the way they claimed they were. I could not believe that rational people could do that, anyway. It did not help when the Inquisition got its facts wrong. But then, they were the inquisition, and I was being put to the question. Lesson: the Inquisition cannot bear to be wrong.

Secondly, I was furious. I could not believe they were charging me on the basis of their misinterpretations. I could not believe that they were actually taking a line of peculiar interpretation, applying it in defiance of all hermeneutic principles of analysis, and using it to club me over the head and gag me. Lesson: the Inquisition will always claim the higher ground.

Thirdly, I was defensive. Perhaps, this was my undoing. I believed I was perfectly right in what I had said, that there was no wrong in it. And in a technical sense, I was indeed right. However, I learnt something. If the Inquisition could be misled, it must indeed be true that what I had written was misleading. Lesson: the Inquisition are people too.

Fourthly, I was repentant. If I had misled anyone, no matter what they were or who they were, I was guilty. Whether the rational man-in-the-street, so beloved of law and criminal justice, interpreted me correctly or not, the fact remained that at least three people were confused and two angry about it. Lesson: the Inquisition sets the tone, regardless.

And so, I stepped down from any authority of position I held. I could not totally divest myself of personal authority or the authority of skill and knowledge, but I voluntarily and in a spirit of reconciliation stepped down. I apologised to the community, and I meant every word of my apology. And there the matter rested for a while. But in my heart and mind, I remembered one last lesson: the Judgement of Gamaliel.

In Acts 5:17-42, the apostles were arrested for preaching about Christ. I claim no such apostolic status, and neither was I blogging about exalted matters. But the principle of Gamaliel's judgement remains the same for all unclear and ambiguous cases of new social phenomena: "And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God."

I make no such claims, I say again, about apostolic legacy. However, I would put these questions, given the opportunity, to the Inquisition: Did you apply the principle of Gamaliel's judgement to my case? Has my blogging enlightened or darkened the world of men? Why did you think what I said was harmful despite the fact that at least one of you admitted it was truth?

The fact is this: God is not mocked, or deceived about the truth – what a man sows, he also will reap. The whole lesson of this episode, for the Inquisition as well as for myself, can be found in Galatians 6:1-10. I fully expect to be rewarded or condemned accordingly. In the meantime, I also know that this applies to all of us, every man and woman alike. God have mercy on us all.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who indeed watches the watchmen? This question is most relevant in today's world, especially in societies ruled over by the elite, the intellectuals, the wealthy, the power-brokers, technocrats, or self-constructed meritocrats. For this Hugo Award-winning novel, the only graphic novel to be on Time magazine's 100 Best Novels since 1923 list (and ranked FOURTH!), is all about that kind of thing, and the decisions that the mighty among us might make.

It looks like the movie is on track! I cannot wait to watch it. But I have to. Sigh. Who can wait for the Watchmen?


Note: There are many annotations of Watchmen. Many of them are useful. Here's one.

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Elvish Metrics

What enters your mind when someone asks you about elvish music? On different days, this produces different responses from me. Some days, I think of Enya and other Celtic music; specifically of Clannad and Enya's sister, Moire ni Bhraonain (Moya Brennan). Some days I think of Shakespeare's proud Titania, ill-met by moonlight, and her brooding spouse, Oberon – A Midsummer Night's Dream is surely one of the classics detailing the odd relationship between humans and faerie.

I think it is Julian May's fault when I think of the Londonderry Air, that infamous and terrifyingly sad beauty of a tune, whose most famous lyrics are found in the song Danny Boy. Tolkien, of course, is an inevitable comparison; but his music of the elves is hardly detailed, and composing in Quenya and Sindarin (let alone translating such compositions) is beyond most people.

Once in a while, you dig up the darndest things though. Here is an unusual poem. It seems to be written in some sort of metric, much different from the Londonderry Air's lyrical More interesting is the way the stanzas are chained; while there is a rhyme scheme of the abab sort, on closer inspection, it is actually abab bcbc cdcd dada, with the last line of stanza being echoed as the first line of the next. The last line is identical with the first, thus completing the chain.

Elves, it would seem to the anonymous author of this verse, are logical aesthetes; they craft beauty into objects with an internal logic, a recognisable structure with a fixed pattern. In like vein, it is interesting to look at the other works I've mentioned and try to figure out what kind of elves would have crafted such music or poetry.

Then again, you might end up with some sort of faerie vegetable. I speak, of course, of the awfully old chestnut: elvish parsley, king of rock-and-roll.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Wu Liao

无聊-ness is a peculiar state of mind. It is not the kind of wuliao-ness spoken of by my friend the Hobbit in his memorable noodle-bingeing multicultural healthcare article here, but it is one that is most common to humans at certain times in their lives.

But it is certainly a state in which life seems to have had the essential sharpness and acuity of vision leached out of it for a while. And all you want to do is sit around and play endless computer games instead of do meaningful stuff like reflect on the state of education in a small island city-state, wonder why you are paid so little to do so much, or make money by investing in Siberian metal ore mines. I could be checking on the current situation in my workplace, while others are on holiday and not checking such things.

Instead, I'm blogging. And enjoying myself reading about the quest for the next England manager. And thinking about the Treaty of Tordesillas, José Mourinho and Rafa Benitez. And eating good bread with good ingredients. And other meaningless stuff like that. Especially the careful preparation of ingredients – the right colour of the peppercorns, the correct shade of the truffles.

Sometimes, I pity those of my colleagues who have more meaningful lives...

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