Behind the Times paywall there are some good paragraphs by Philip Collins on Christopher Hitchens. The whole piece (£) is well worth reading and mainly concerns Hitch's refusal of the consolations of religion in the face of terminal illness. But Collins also addresses the charge against him of political apostasy:
[I]t is... Hitchens' late conversion to scepticism in politics that has inspired the scorn of former comrades on the Left. Hitchens, they say, has turned from the idealistic Left to the neo-conservative Right. The most obvious manifestation of this apostasy is his character[i]stically voluble support for the War on Terror and action in Iraq.
Hitchens needs no defence from anyone else but, as it happens, his support for the war in Iraq is entirely consistent with his previous support for the Falklands war and for American intervention in Bosnia. On each occasion he has taken sides against fascism in its various guises. As he said in 2002: "I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials." The better critique of Hitchens is not that he has betrayed the cause. It is that, much like... Tony Blair, his account of global religious conflict reduces a complex problem to a Manichean one. But it is hard to repulse the insinuating thought: what if he's right?
It is also hard - for this blogger, anyway - to repulse the thought that right and wrong on these issues may not be blocks of solid marble, in possession of one set of partisans or another, but parcelled out amongst them - though not necessarily in even proportions, and not necessarily amongst all of them. Collins would, it seems, be receptive to that thought as well, for, as he also writes:
Hitchens has, indeed, moved. He has given up a belief in a political utopia and replaced it with the insight that the combination of capitalism with liberal democracy needs to be cherished and defended. If only Hitchens had a full term to pursue this belief. As he says in Love, Poverty and War: "It is civilisation and pluralism and secularism that need pitiless and unapologetic fighters."
The shame is that it took until the end of his memoirs, which will be in turn too close to the end of his life, before Hitchens stumbled on what he calls his "Hitch-22": that we must commit to our beliefs while remaining sceptical about those who are fired by certainty. The old comrades simply cannot fathom that acquiring scepticism in politics, and in the process throwing off defunct beliefs, is the same process as acquiring wisdom.
I don't myself think all of Hitch's old beliefs are defunct, and I doubt that he for his part thinks so. But the general spirit of these words from Collins is spot on.
Agnes Marron is a person of strange appearance and even stranger views. She is a stranger to tact, discretion and the cinematic oeuvre of Peter Greenaway. She keeps wicket for East Dibsden 2nd XI and cultivates roses. This is her first appearance on normblog.
Why do you blog? > I don't.
What has been your best blogging experience? > You're not listening; I don't blog.
What has been your worst blogging experience? > Watch it, Geras. I won't be made a fool of in front of your readers.
What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger? > Stay out of jail.
What are you reading at the moment? > The Oxford Guide to English Flora and Fauna, Cooking for the Incompetent and Boxing to Win.
Who are your cultural heroes? > Don Stroud, Yakima Canutt and Elisha Cook Jr.
Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you've ever changed your mind? > When I was very young I was an Arsenal supporter.
What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to disseminate? > 'The truth is lying next to you.'
What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat? > 'It's all relative.' There are many people I wouldn't dream of having for a relative.
Which what are you whatting next? > This what and that what.
[After 370 weeks on the trot the normblog profile has gone missing today. However, internet access problems at the new normblog home are, I hope, close to being resolved.]
Lost - that's what I’ve been to blogging these last few days, and I'm here with a word of explanation. Much of the reason is just standard moving-house stuff. You take the order of your life, throw it up in the air, mix it up a little bit, put it all in boxes, then transport it in a truck and disgorge it at the other end - a mountain of boxes in every room. Where to begin? You can work from 6 am till midnight and you've only just begun to make a dent. Everything needs to go to its place and some of these places are obvious; but others of them aren't. Different house, differently designated rooms, so some things that used to belong 'there' don't any longer, or in this house there is no 'there'. Where is to replace the there of old? There are so many things to be assigned, carried, adjusted, taken back to the first room. Hey, where did I put the hammer? What happened to my mobes? And so on.
But quite apart from all that, Adèle and I arrived to one or two difficulties of a fairly major kind, which I won't go into except to say that they have required some resolve and a spirit of fortitude to get through. And then there is the fact that, despite my best efforts in advance of moving, I have a quality of internet access that would madden a laid-back slug, with no interest in blogging: occasional, on-and-off even when it happens, slow to the point of complete stasis on nine out of ten moves. It's enough to make a committed blogger weep.
And yet... committed as I have, for seven years, been in that department, I have not wept. Too much else to do, and I've been enjoying it. No, I'll rephrase that: I've been loving it. Not the inability to blog, but the activity of putting our home back together, in a new and different way, schlepping this way and that, upstairs and down, carrying, unpacking, shelving, arranging, rearranging. A happy coincidence, therefore, that unable to blog effectively, I had something else I really wanted to do, and do non-stop. I found another me, such as used once to exist before normblog. Today's Writer's Choice follows on Friday's normblog profile without a single post in between. Never happened before in the entire history of the world. How long my internet-access difficulties will continue I cannot say, but when they are resolved I should be able to resume something like normal service. We're nearly up and running here, but not quite. Once we are, I know my blogging enthusiasm will return together with the technical basis for putting it into effect - alevai!>
Kay Woodward has worked in children's publishing since text was pasted on to acetate and the screen on an Apple Mac monitor was the size of a Penguin classic. First, she edited illustrated non-fiction, then fiction. And then she did what she'd wanted to do all along - she became an author. Her most recent titles are Stars on Ice and Jane Airhead, which is the story of a girl who just LOVES Jane Eyre – the subject of this post.
Kay Woodward on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
I love Jane Eyre. Not for any grand literary reasons - of which there are many - but because it's simply the best book ever. I first read it when I was eleven, which was... um... ages ago. And since then, I've read my three copies (one 1983 Penguin, one lime-green Penguin and one classy Waterstone's hardback) countless times and watched every film and TV adaptation. Occasionally, whenever I come across a really fabulous book, like William Boyd's Any Human Heart or Graham Swift's Waterland or Julian Barnes's Love, Etc, I'm briefly tempted to say that it's my favourite book, but I know deep down that it isn't. That's still Jane Eyre.
Jane Eyre is the story of a poor, unloved orphan who's been reluctantly raised by relatives that are officially despicable. As soon as possible, Jane is offloaded to Lowood Institution - a charity school that's a hotbed of 19th-century disease, cruelty and death - where she survives thanks to her supreme gutsiness.
After completing her education, Jane Eyre's lack of funds means that she's forced to stay on at Lowood as a teacher. But she has an escape plan and secures a position as a governess to a Mr Edward Fairfax Rochester's young ward. With relief, she sets off to the gorgeously gothic Thornfield Hall to begin her new life.
And then Jane meets Mr Rochester.
I could wax lyrical for weeks about this, without coming close to describing the drama, humour and pure wow of the complex relationship between Jane and Rochester. But Charlotte Brontë does it so much better. Suffice to say that Mr Rochester is charmed by Jane, who manages not to faint with delight in a billowing heap of 19th-century skirts. She is no pushover. In the end, Rochester does win her over. And soon afterwards, his mysterious past catches up with him, everything goes horribly wrong and he loses her again. Jane leaves - her principles allow her no other option. It's all very complicated and totally gripping and I'm not going to go into it further for fear of spoiling the rest of the book for anyone who hasn't read it yet.
Jane Eyre does not star the archetypal heroine. At the beginning of the novel, she's small, plain and very feisty. And by the end, she might be a little taller, but she's still plain (there's no let-your-hair-down-Jane-and-take-your-glasses-off-and-wow-how-beautiful-you-are moment) and she's still feisty. She doesn't suffer fools and she stands up for herself. Jane Eyre is, quite simply, great.
Mr Rochester is larger than life. Loud and unfeasibly grumpy, he's verging on ugly (although I am sure Charlotte Brontë must have been mistaken on this point) and his closet is rammed with skeletons. But he has a wicked sense of humour and a habit of emerging from the mist on a rearing horse. In short, he's fantastic. Step aside, Darcy.
[Am I allowed to digress very slightly by mentioning the BBC's 1983
version of Jane Eyre, starring Zelah Clarke as Jane and Timothy Dalton as Rochester that I taped on cassette - that's audio, not even Betamax - every Sunday evening? Hmm. Thought not. But it made me love the book even more.]
In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë has written a book that is rich with description. The northern setting is beautiful, yet dark and real. Thornfield Hall is magnificently gloomy. I adore the opening scene where Jane is squirrelled away on a windowseat - I still have serious windowseat envy - reading secretly, while the rain batters on the windowpane.
The author whisks her reader through pretty much every emotion in the spectrum. I remember sobbing over Lowood, gasping over Rochester's first dramatic appearance and wailing 'nooooo' over the wedding that never was. (I also remember being seriously puzzled over why everyone kept slurring Sinjin instead of St John in TV adaptations. Why is that?)
Jane Eyre is a book to curl up with on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It's unconventional (and remarkably so for the time it was written), it's filled with surprises, it's bristling with villains and the star is a girl who should probably have been content to sit back and do as she was told. Thank goodness Charlotte Brontë's character didn't do that.
Reader, it's smashing.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]
Miriam Shaviv was born in the UK, and grew up in Israel, the UK, Australia and Canada. After completing an English degree at McGill University, she worked for The Jerusalem Post as parliamentary reporter, feature writer and literary editor. In 2004, she moved back to England on getting married, and joined The Jewish Chronicle, where she edited the comment section and was - until last week - Foreign Editor. She is currently Features Editor of the Times Higher Education magazine. Miriam blogs at Bloghead and tweets at @miriamsh.
Why do you blog? > I used to be able to explain it. It began as a bit of fun when I moved back to England in 2004 and was looking for a job, but I quickly realized that blogging forced me to sharpen my views and I enjoyed the challenge. Nowadays the question 'why' hardly makes sense. I'm way past that. It's an addiction.
What has been your best blogging experience? > Being linked to by Instapundit (Glenn Reynolds) in the early days of my blog. I received so many thousands of hits, in a matter of minutes, I thought there was something wrong with my traffic counter.
What has been your worst blogging experience? > Threat of a lawsuit by a well-known journalist who, bizarrely, believed I had damaged her reputation when I proved one of her interviewees had been lying.
What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger? > Only do it for as long as you enjoy it. Don't feel pressured to post in order to keep your readers happy if you have nothing to say - you will burn out.
What are you reading at the moment? > Atonement by Ian McEwan, That's Not What The Good Book Says by Avigdor Shinan, and Yair Zakovitch (Hebrew) on biblical myths.
What is the best novel you've ever read? > Despite (or perhaps because of) a degree in English literature, I rarely read fiction any more. In recent years, Beaufort, Ron Leshem's fictional account of an IDF bunker in Lebanon, left a deep impression on me.
Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you've ever changed your mind? > The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I grew up as a lone lefty in a right-wing environment, believing it is in Israel's power to deliver peace; but I gradually came to the conclusion that I was wrong: there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side right now.
What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to disseminate? > In my own Orthodox Jewish community, the idea that combining a life of tradition and Jewish law with modernity is the Jewish ideal - not a compromise.
What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat? > That religious faith is a delusion (à la Dawkins).
Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major and lasting influence on how you think about the world? > Pious and Rebellious, a history of Jewish women in Medieval Europe by Avraham Grossman, significantly changed the way I think about the evolution of religion, women's role in religion and the way we record, and distort, history. Turns out Jewish women in the Middle Ages were quite liberated in some ways.
Who are your political heroes? > Despite his manifest failures in domestic policy, I very much admire Tony Blair for having the courage of his convictions in foreign policy, even at the price of his leadership. Similarly, I admire Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper for conducting what I see as a moral foreign policy, despite the political costs.
If you could effect one major policy change in the governing of your country, what would it be? > I would stop protecting the NHS from cuts and subject it far more to market forces. I am constantly appalled by a level of care, and wastage, that would be unacceptable in the other three countries in which I have lived. It needs to be forced to become more efficient.
If you could choose anyone, from any walk of life, to be Prime Minister, who would you choose? > I'd import Stephen Harper.
What would you do with the UN? > It's beyond repair. The word of the 'international community' doesn't mean much if it's dictatorships and human rights abusers doing the talking.
What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world? > Western laziness about defending its own liberty, values and friends.
Do you think the world (human civilization) has already passed its best point, or is that yet to come? > At the risk of sounding cynical, who says we're so civilized now?
Do you think you could ever be married to, or in a long-term relationship with, someone with radically different political views from your own? > Yes. Back when I was a voter for Israel's Labour party, I dated a guy who lived in a settlement. Although we both held strong views, politics were hardly even discussed.
What personal fault do you most dislike? > People who can't spell.
What commonly enjoyed activities do you regard as a waste of time? > Reality TV (with the exception of Wife Swap, a brilliant insight into real people's lives).
What, if anything, do you worry about? > That the UK is not the best place in which to raise my children and that I am living my life in the wrong country.
If you were to relive your life to this point, is there anything you'd do differently? > I'd do another degree. Not sure I'll ever get the chance now.
Where would you most like to live (other than where you do)? > And other than where I have? I've always had a thing for Boston.
What is your most treasured possession? > My 30 diaries, kept, on and off, from ages 6 to 25. I learn something about myself every time I revisit them.
If you had to change your first name, what would you change it to? > My second name, Tamar. I have always hated my first name, which is very old-fashioned, but never had the guts to make the switch.
What talent would you most like to have? > I love cooking and entertaining, but I wish I had a natural flair instead of just following other people's recipes.
What would be your ideal choice of alternative profession or job? > I always wanted to follow in my father's footsteps and head a school, in order to help shape children's educational experience (but never had the patience to put in the years in the classroom first).
How, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money? > I would buy a house in Israel and spend much more of my time there, allowing my kids to become fully immersed in a completely different culture and language, and spending much more time with family.
If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be? > The late journalist Chaim Bermant, whom I never met, although he is related to me by marriage; Jesus; and Tony Blair.
[The normblog profile is a weekly Friday morning feature. A list of all the profiles to date, and the links to them, can be found here.]
Adèle and I are now sitting in an all but empty house and most of our stuff is on the back of a truck. We have a bed, a kitchen table to sit at and a couple of armchairs in the lounge. I'm wondering how it would be if, instead, the material substratum of our lives was still in the house and the two of us were in the back of the truck. Thus does a new venture like this shake all one's settled assumptions and pitch one down the path of adventurous thinking. Yet, strange to relate, despite the emptiness of the house and its echoing echoeyness, I still feel very much at home here. This is not a mere shell; it remains the place of 27 years of life events. Who needs a fridge or a television set when there are the memories? Who needs a ladder, a wastepaper basket, a full-length mirror, green tea, when we've got each other? Who needs a networked computer since the dongle - cringe - came along?
For the second time in my life I am amazed at the strength, the skills and the energies that enable three guys to pack and empty the contents of a large house in just a few hours.
Take the Israeli army. At a single glitzy charity gala in New York earlier this year, an impressive $20m (£12.5m) was donated in one evening by the rich guests. This event was organised by Friends of the Israel Defence Forces, the main US organisation raising funds for Israeli soldiers on active duty, which raised nearly $50m in 2008. Similar fundraising operations exist in a number of European countries, as a recent investigation by the Inter Press Service revealed.
With Israel possessing the most powerful military in the Middle East and one of the richest and best-equipped in the world, many will be scratching their heads as to why the IDF needs "charity". Not only are soldiers the responsibility of the army they serve – and by extension the government – surely the IDF can afford to take care of its own. After all, it swallows up at least 6% of Israel's GDP and receives some $3bn a year in US military aid.
Why the IDF receives charity is because it is Israel's defence against its enemies, and some people think, rightly, that this defence is needed.
Downton Abbey isn't the greatest thing I've ever seen on TV, but I've been enjoying it in a relaxed rather than jumping-up-and-down sort of way. Along with 9.2 million other people, it seems - or maybe that should be 9.2 million minus one. Some have found the series predictable, familiar (£), clichéd; and I'm in no position to quarrel with these judgements. It's all of that. But while ground-breaking drama, drama that is not predictable or any of those other things, is often to be admired and applauded, it would of course be fallacious to infer from this that only the unpredictable and unfamiliar can be pleasing or worth our time. We all have some taste for the predictable, otherwise we wouldn't listen again to music that we love. We'd want a sudden passage of Nirvana (or even the sound of massed lawn mowers) inside a late Beethoven quartet. We'd want 'Good Vibrations' to take an unexpected turn.
Anyway, as always in these matters, to each his or her own. However, I do think exception is to be taken to this additional complaint against Downton Abbey, levelled in today's Times (£) by Sathnam Sanghera. It is that...
... part of the attraction of Downton Abbey, at least on a subliminal level, is that it is almost entirely darkie-free.
Even allowing that among 9.2 million viewers there must be some of whom Sanghera's speculation - for that is all it is - is true, I would say that this is an ungrounded slander against, at least, some millions of them. He just knows (does he?) that most or much of this vast audience would like the programme less should a character be featured in it who was black. Must we, then, also think that most of those 9.2 million viewers are also enjoying Downton Abbey because so far it contains no Jews? Sanghera here comes up with an empty piece of attitudinizing.