Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Moth and Rust

If his recent visit is any measure, the Pope seems to have a bit of a thing about us Brits and our ungodly ways. Still harping on Henry VIII after all these years... Get over it, the Pope! (though I think he was probably mainly thinking about Professor Dawkins, and may have mistaken Christopher Hitchens for an Englishman).

It is true that secularism has made enormous inroads into our national culture. My children are utterly ignorant of even the barest shreds of Christian worship: the Lord's Prayer, for example, is not now taught at school (unsurprisingly, when a fair proportion of their classmates came from Sikh, Hindu, or Muslim families). By contrast, when I was at school, a compulsory morning religious assembly meant that even the most resolutely church-avoidant children (the fathers of several of my friends were communist trade unionists, for example) got a thorough steeping in the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible, and Hymns Ancient and Modern. No bad thing, linguistically.

The main legacy of those years of early morning indocrination is a stock of sonorous phrases, and reflexive associations. At work, I often find myself saying things like "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" and "Let thy yes be yes, and thy no be no"; the younger folk probably think it's Shakespeare. I have no idea why anyone would cast their bread upon the waters, other than to feed the ducks, but the phrase is branded on my subconscious mind, along with all those exotic names our Puritan ancestors used to lift from the Bible and inflict on their children -- "Oi, Abednego and Shadrach, stop tormenting Meshach!"

But, if this is any comfort to the Pope, it is not just Christianity that has faded from the national consciousness. I'm acutely aware that the Western, for example, with all its handy references and tropes, is becoming an unknown genre. On Sundays, when my mother and sister were off at the local Baptist church, Dad and I would settle down to Bonanza, Bronco, Gunsmoke, High Chaparral, Boots and Saddles, Cheyenne, Laramie, The Lone Ranger, Rawhide ... It is astonishing, in retrospect, quite how many Western series were shown in the limited broadcasting time available in the 1950s and 60s.

The cowboy obsession went way back to my Dad's youth, and seemed eternal, a rival set of metaphors to those Biblical ones. The advantages of the Navy Colt over the Buntline Special or the Derringer was the stuff of heated playground debates. Lone Ranger silver bullets and sherriff's badges were given away free in Puffed Wheat, and we collected bubble gum and cigarette cards of prominent cowboys and indians. You could have predicted the nascent hippies because we admired the indians more than the cowboys; I had a deep admiration for the apaches, at least as portrayed in High Chaparral. In later years, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Black Elk Speaks were among my favourite books.

Then sometime in the 1970s someone influential somewhere important got bored with Westerns, and science fiction and police serials took over that important moral low ground where showdowns and roundups had once taken place. My children, whose moral framework and inner arsenal of weaponry have been supplied by Star Wars, not High Noon, do not realise why Han Solo wears that waistcoat or carries his holster laced to his thigh. Does this matter? Times change; the message is much the same. Perhaps someone should have a word with Benedict XVI.

To every thing there is a season. Head 'em up, move 'em out!

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth
where moth and rust doth corrupt

(Matthew 6:19)

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single,
thy whole body shall be full of light.
(Matthew 6:22)

But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness.
If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!

(Matthew 6:23)


Martin H. said...

You made me shiver at the thought of those school assemblies. As for the Westerns, I quickly grew tired of them, preferring almost any B&W British film, instead. An Ealing comedy on a Sunday afternoon, is something I can relate to.

Oh, Alastair Sim, where art thou now?

Anonymous said...

When my Anglican-raised brother was being married in Spain 20 years ago the priest pulled a fast one on this guy he suspected was not in the bosom of Mother church and if he was was probably a Prod, and required him, as if it had been in the plan all along (which it hadn't as they had had a rehearsal) to recite the Lord's Prayer. It was me and my Jewish wife who were able to prompt him for the right words in loud whispers as he faltered terribly. Such was the ubiquity of religious education in our generation (that's Mike's too) even non-observant Jews knew the words of the Lord's Prayer (as for my brother's forgetfulness, it was probably nerves, combined with the suspicion he had been sandbagged by the clergy).

Gavin McL said...

Once upon a time during my caving career we were trapped underground by rising water levels(it was a lot less dramatic than that sounds). With your light turned out the sounds of the cave get turned by your brain into all kinds of things so we decided to sing some songs - the nearest we could get to a song that we all knew all the words was the Lords Prayer.
When I was child I remember visualizing the story line of the prayer and the bit were you ask not to be led into temptation was always played out as family on wagon entering a ranch called "Temptation" with tumbleweed blowing across the range. Prayer and westerns blended together.

Mike C. said...


"entering a ranch called "Temptation" with tumbleweed blowing across the range."

Hey, isn't that the opening to "High Plains Drifter"? They didn't call the Colt 45 "the Preacher" for nothing...

That does seem unfair -- you'd have thought "Ghost Riders in the Sky" would have done as a substitute. Amen and Yippie-Ay-Oooh!


I have to say our school assemblies were quite fun, though I suppose they were very "low church". I think a lot of people who went to my primary school recall Friday afternoon assembly, when we all sang "Now the Day is Over", with great affection. Thankfully, though, this was before the KJV was deemed "too difficult" for young ears.

Ironically, one of the standard examples used in Anglo-Saxon textbooks to show different dialects, etc., is the Lord's Prayer (a text we are all presumed to know intimately)... Now, I imagine, students have to learn that first.


Dave Leeke said...

Funny enough, I used two Westerns today in class: the opening of Leone's "Once Upon A Time in the West" to demonstrate unbearable tension and the opening of Jarmusch's "Deadman" to show time passing. The students were more concerned with whether it's Johnny Depp or not in the latter. It is, of course.

I don't think they really get Westerns. Mind you, most of them had never seen "Jurassic Park" either. But they've all seen every one of the "Saw" films.

Depressing, really.

Mike C. said...


"Dead Man" is a very odd film, isn't it? I can't decide whether it's "so bad it's good" or actually quite good. Great use of soundtrack (Neil Young, I think). The "cannibal" scene is unforgettably weird. But, in the end, WTF??

But, that creaking sign... Unbearable tension, indeed.

Have you seen "Appaloosa"? I'm a big fan of George V. Higgins' crime books, and I was intrigued to see he'd written westerns. They're quite disappointing, but (like so many poor books) they make quite a good film. Viggo Mortensen (who co-stars) is an accomplished and inventive photographer, and self-publishes his stuff in quite nicely put together books, I discovered recently.


Dave Leeke said...

Yes, it is a "quirky" film, isn't it? I quite like it. The worse part for me is the totally unnecessary head-squashing scene. For a start it's bad prosthetics, but I'm generally rather squeamish!

I thought the cannibal scene was funny - again, given a shoe-string budget, the arm doesn't look real. Watching the film again I noticed how important the first dialogue was - the engine driver asking Blake about being on a boat and looking up - of course, it's foregrounding the end. I don't know, I think it's a good film and yes, NY's soundtrack is great.

I'll check out "Appaloosa". A lot of "bad" books can make excellent films. And a lot of good books are usually changed by committees into really bad films.

One day, one day . . . someone will make all of Fleming's Bond books exactly the way they were written. I always thought the BBC might do it.

I'm still waiting . . .

Dave Leeke said...

I meant, of course "fore-shadowing". It's been a long day.

Mike C. said...

"Appaloosa" is a bit of a "Butch Cassidy" for our times (though nowhere near such a ground-breaking film)-- especially in its sense of style and redefinition of Western "authenticity". The wardrobe and props people did a great job.

I'd never have watched it if it hadn't been for the Viggo Cult in our house, following on from the Lord of the Rings. Another bad book that made a good movie... [discuss].


Kent Wiley said...

Discuss indeed. LOTR the book(s) were in the same vein as your most recent post - I Think I'm Going Back(wards). I first read them forty-six years ago, then again some years later, and lo and behold I can't remember a thing about them. But those movie battles and nasty Orcs certainly made a big impression on Peter Jackson - thank goodness. Who can remember the books? Watch the movies instead.

I'm going to have to move Appaloosa up the list. But I never get tired of Once Upon a Time in the West, and currently have Hank's Theme running through my head, after trying to apply it to a short film of the summer family va-ca that I'm working on. Morricone works anywhere, I swear.

Anonymous said...

I think I may have tried the gait of power at the time, but I am sure I also read somewhere that soldiers in the marching armies of old used a peculiar gait, a sort of loping, much longer stride that, if it is true, was better than normal walking for very long distances. Yes, Castaneda does seem fearfully ridiculous, but not so much so that some guy didn't publish a 600 page collection of essays refuting him. Anthropology must have suffered from CC much like modern policing suffers from the "CSI effect". I am sure I did not persist with the gait of power but I confess to being enthralled by CC for most of 1974, aged 19 -- come on, give us a break. Once they said "a man who is not a communist at 20 has no heart, and who is still one at 40 has no head". Substitute for mine and later generations "mystic" for "Communist" and you will understand my defence of teenage fantasies.

Martyn Cornell said...

"… I have no idea why anyone would cast their bread upon the waters"

There's a theory (not mine) that it may have been to make beer.

Mike C. said...


I think I prefer the ducks.

Reminds of one of those cult books, "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross", in which the thesis "Was God a Mushroom?" (as opposed to an astronaut) is advanced at length and in great philological detail. Perhaps there's scope for a beer-based interpretation of the Bible -- was God a cask-conditioned ale?