A Paradox of Cats

24 Mar

We all know that a male cat is called a ‘tom’. Traditionally a female cat was called a ‘molly’, but the term ‘queen’ seems to have been widely adopted these days. I think this is a shame because the term was originally used by breeders and I think cats need breeders the way a fish needs a bicycle. I’d like to see a revival in the use of the term ‘molly’. I think it’s a nicer word.

What’s less well-known is that the collective noun for cats is a “clowder”, or alternatively a “glaring”, but I think the term “paradox” might be more appropriate.

It’s generally accepted that the term ‘pus’ or ‘pussy’, when applied to cats, derives from the name Bastet or Pashti, the Egyptian cat goddess. Oddly enough this term also applies to hares, but, other than superfecundity (the ability for females to bear young sired by more than one male in a single litter), it’s hard to see what the two animals have in common.

Or at least it’s hard to see what they have in common in terms of natural history. In terms of their position in human folklore, cats and hares have quite a lot in common. Essentially they are both considered to be strange and unaccountable creatures. (It’s  matter of fact that wherever we now find a rabbit in modern, sanitized versions of folklore -  eg the Easter Bunny, we would once have found a hare, this is because rabbits look cute and they’re relatively well understood, while hares seem wayward and enigmatic creatures even now.)

I should point out that there is a degree of exaggeration about the position of cats  in both Ancient Egypt and in Medieval Europe. Cats were certainly revered in Ancient Egypt, but so were a number of other animals and arguably some, notably cows, were held in higher esteem.

It’s also true that cats were reviled in Medieval Europe as being the familiars of witches, but once again, a number of other animals, weasels for example, were also seen in a similar light.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that cats do occupy a curious position in many cultures and it’s not just a simple matter of cats being valued in some societies and disliked on others. Traditions within any one culture also vary as to whether or not cats are benign or malign. The only thing that seems to be constant is that cats are never entirely neutral.

An instructive comparison here would be with the position of dogs.

I would never underestimate the bond between dogs and their owners, and dogs have often been vital collaborators in all manner of human activities, but no one seems to feel that it is either good or bad luck to have a black dog cross their path.

Don’t think I’m ignoring mythical creatures like the gytrash, the legendary canine who will doubtless be familiar to readers of Jayne Eyre and the Harry Potter series, but the gytrash is a specifically supernatural creature – who can also appear as a horse or a mule according to the traditions of Northern England, he is not a normal, everyday kind of dog and my point is that in folklore its common for all cats to have a preternatural aspect attributed to them.)

I think part of the reason for this contrast is that dogs and humans understand each other very well, incredibly well considering that they are completely different kinds of species, but this level of communication does not generally exist between cats and humans.

For example, everyone knows that if a cat walks into a room full of people, and there is one person in the room who dislikes cats, the cat will invariably approach that person.

To some this may seem like the natural perversity of the feline, but in fact it’s due to the difference between feline and human body language.

When a human looks at you it is generally an invitation to approach, but part of feline greeting protocol is to look away. So when a human looks away from a cat because he doesn’t want anything to do with it, the cat takes this as an invitation. (Some humans can be stunningly obtuse when it comes to communicating with their dogs, but this kind of generalised misunderstanding simply doesn’t happen.)

So the behaviour of cats can seem unaccountable because we don’t understand then as easily as we can understand dogs.

But even aside from this, cats also have a variety of odd habits, notably that of staring into empty space. And it’s not as though they’re simply gazing absent-mindedly into the middle distance, it’s more like they’re intently watching something incredibly important and fascinating that we can’t see. It’s not surprising that some people think they’re in touch with some kind of spirit world.

So even when you strip away the folklore and superstition, cats are still puzzling creatures. Elegant and comical, intelligent and ridiculous, aloof and affectionate, playful and lethal. Even the lowliest of moggies is a dialectic clothed in fur and whiskers.

Perhaps the simplest way to illustrate this dialectic is to hold a cat’s paw in your hand. (If it will let you).You will find that paw is soft and warm and covered in silky smooth fur. But within that paw there are wicked sharp claws that can slice effortlessly through your skin and what you will also find, if the cat wants its paw back, is that cats are surprisingly strong. (Pound for pound cats are the most powerful of mammals).

Incidently this is the reason why I consider the practice of declawing cats to be tantamount to blasphemy. Aside from cruelty (no vet in the UK will perform the procedure) there is also the fact that cats are climbers and predators and that’s why they have claws. If you want to share your home with a cat, or perhaps more precisely if you want to share a cat’s home, you should accept them as they are, claws and all. If you can’t do that, then get yourself a soft toy and play with that.

So there you have it. Some people can’t understand why anyone would want a cat in their life, others can’t understand how anyone could live without them. No animal loves its creature comforts more, and yet they can tolerate extremes of discomfort. (I have known a cat with a back leg hanging loose and useless due to a compound fracture jump five feet in order to reach a favoured sleeping place, then curl up and purr. After some treatment, he later made a full recovery.)

In conclusion, I would suggest that whether their toms or mollies, mogs or felines, whatever else you might want to call cats, I think the term ‘paradox’ has to apply somewhere and it’s certainly as good a collective noun as any.

Whenever There’s a Doubt (There’s No Doubt).

16 Mar

Every now and then I write something that I think is pretty good.

Sometimes, when I come back to something I wrote some time ago, I still think it’s pretty good.

I also have an interesting and varied collection of rejection letters from a selection of agents, publishers and magazines.

Having become a little discouraged with publishers and agents I indulged in a spot of self publication on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing a while ago.

The advantage of this kind of self publishing is that it costs nothing and you don’t have to slip past someone else’s hang ups to do it.

The disadvantage is that there’s an enormous amount of material out there and it’s no easy thing to get your work noticed by the people who might actually want to read it.

So in spite of a couple of encouraging comments from various people, I would have to admit that so far my career as an author could be described as a bit of a damp squib.

This is largely my own fault. I dislike self promotion and I’m not very imaginative or persistent about it. I also have a bad habit of writing things that are too long, too short or otherwise just not very commercially attractive.

But here I go again.

I’ve written two novels out of a trilogy (the third installment is in draft form but still in need of extensive revision). Having reread (and further revised) the first two I still think they’re pretty good.

So having come to the conclusion that someone else might also think they’re pretty good, I’m going to have another shot at getting them published.

Where to begin?

Well, the traditional place to start is The Writers and Artist’s Yearbook, so that’s where I’ve started. (Call me a traditionalist if you like).

I went through the UK agents section with a highlighter and market out the likely prospects. This gave me a list of 56 possible agents based on what they had to say about what they wanted (or more precisely what they said they wouldn’t consider).

My policy on who to select for submissions is reasonably straightforward. If the agent provides me with sufficient information to be sure that they won’t be interested in my work then I won’t waste my time or theirs. If they provide sufficient information for me to think that they may well be interested in the kind of work I do, then obviously I’ll send them a submission.

If, on the other hand they make it difficult for me to find enough information to make a decision, or if the information they provide is too vague (There is one agent who claims he will consider ‘anything with wit and intelligence’ and as far as I’m concerned he deserves everything he gets – including a submission from me) then I take the view that ‘whenever there’s a doubt, there’s no doubt’ and send them a submission anyway. (See Robert De Niro in Ronin) The agent concerned may be annoyed about this, but in my opinion it’s their own fault for not being specific enough in their submission guidelines.

As an aside, I’d have to say I get a little irritated with some agents (and some publishers and even a few published authors) because of their attitude to unpublished authors.

Essentially I am a little tired of hearing, or more often reading,  complaints about schizophrenics with hypergraphia, hopeless boobs with delusions of talent, people who can’t spell, who don’t understand the basics of grammar and punctuation and won’t do anything about it, people who send submissions in exotic fonts and garish colours or who simply don’t bother to do basic research into who is likely to accept what.

Part of this irritation stems from the fact that I fall into none of these categories, but essentially I get tired of hearing the same gripes over and over again from people who are actually in pretty good jobs and don’t seem to properly appreciate their good fortune.

My suggestion to such people is to try an 8 hour shift in a call centre. I suspect that after this experience their slush piles, or whatever else they’re bitching about, would all of a sudden start to look quite attractive.

Incidently, can anyone tell me what, exactly ‘literary’ fiction is?

I can understand what other genres are because the names are fairly descriptive, so if you’re looking for a western or a detective story, or science fiction, you can be pretty sure of what you’re going to get. The term literary fiction, on the other hand, tells you nothing at all about what the book is about, or what kind of book it is, it simply makes a claim about the quality of the work.

Maybe it would be more honest to call it ‘non-genre’ fiction.

As a matter of fact the only thing I really understand by the term ‘literary’ is that it means that the people who claim to handle it are liable to take a very long time to reply and probably not be very courteous when (and if) they ever do.

So, having had my little rant, I then took a massive trawl through the internet looking for further information on submission guidelines, likes and dislikes etc and this gave me a shorter list of 26 possibilities. (Incidently this represents progress of a sort 2-3 years ago hardly any of the agents listed in the Writers and Artists had websites although most publishing houses did). 

17 of these candidates were willing to accept email submissions (Some actually insist on them, this is more progress, as until recently email submissions were obviously far too hi tech for most agents). While 9 still insisted on postal submissions.

So 17 email submissions later, I have had one rejection (it arrived 2 days after the submission) and 2 acknowledgements. (In previous years I have waited months, sometimes nearly a year to get any response at all from agents). The stated turnaround time  for most of these agents seems to be 6 – 8 weeks (more progress, it’s not so long ago that they were talking in terms of months, one agent even suggested that if no reply had been received within a year, it might be worth making a polite enquiry).

The next step in the project is to print off hard copies of the submissions to the 9 possible candidates who want postal submissions and send them off.

I’ve always tried to ensure that my submissions were of a reasonably professional standard and that any correspondence was courteous (at least on my side). Now I’m trying to be a lot more systematic and even to operate on an industrial (albeit a cottage industry) basis.

I’m hoping that if I do it right this time, maybe I won’t have to do it again.

The Nail That Raises Its Head

15 Jul

The nail that raises

Its head, is the very one

Which gets hammered down.

(©Kenneth Verity 1993)

If you stand out from the crowd, you take a risk. Sometimes you choose to stand out, sometimes you don’t get to choose, sometimes you just stand out because of who you are. Being hammered down may not be a pleasant experience at the time, but it’s worth remembering that the nail is not destroyed by being hammered down. It’s actually fulfilling its purpose.

Maybe you don’t agree with my interpretation of this poem, maybe you do. What you take from this kind of writing depends very much on what you bring to it. (Bit Zen? Maybe not, I’m paraphrasing an idea written by Friedrich Nietzsche).

Some years ago, almost by accident, I bought a book called Breathing With The Mind. It was written by Kenneth Verity and it carries the subtitle Verses in Senryu & Hiaku Style.

(This qualification is important; you can’t really write Haiku in English. The Japanese measure the on represents a sound, so while it is analogous to the syllable in English, but is not the same. It’s a shorter measure. Besides a metre that works in one language won’t necessarily work in another. For example, iambic hexameter is the basis for epic poetry in Latin and Ancient Greek where it works very well, but poetry written in hexameter in English tend to sound ridiculous, hence Pope’s use of hexameter in The Rape of the Lock and other mock epics).

So Verity isn’t locking himself into the rigid structure of 17 syllables arranged in the expected 5-7-5 format (and incidentally the Japanese write their Haiku in one line, not three), but he does respect the discipline and purpose of Haiku and Senryu. (Essentially Haiku tends to be more formal and is usually about some aspect of the natural world. It generally tends to evoke sensory perception. Senryu, on the other hand tends to be less formal, often humourous and usually concentrates on some aspect of human behaviour or psychology.

(A quick search of the Internet reveals that there is something of a ‘Haiku scene’ and, depressingly enough, there seem to be all sorts of factions and rules and all the other weary dross that pops up when a ‘scene’ develops).

So anyway, I opened the book and started to read.

The first verse goes like this:-

Strutting around the farmyard

The cockerel-

When did HE ever lay an egg?

(©Kenneth Verity 1993)

 

Which made me laugh out loud. Possibly not the most appropriate thing to do in a bookshop, but it reminded me so much of someone I knew.

Kenneth Verity, I gather, has studied yoga, meditation, Sufi philosophy and Zen. He’s also apparently an initiate of the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes (How cool is that?).

But that’s not really the point. The point is that this is one of those books that’s been important to me ever since I first picked it up in a bookshop all those years ago.

Other books that have been similarly important to me have included Albert Camus’ The Rebel, the Tao Te Ching and Watership Down by Richard Adams. But I suppose Breathing With The Mind is different for me because it isn’t just a book that I read, it’s a book that I have a sort of history with.

That history started with the unusual occurrence of finding myself in the poetry section of a bookshop at all. For a sometime student of English Lit, I tend to be surprisingly unliterary and I seldom read poetry. As a matter of fact it would probably be true to say that I’m not, generally speaking, a huge fan of poetry, and you could probably argue that I don’t understand it very well.

(I’m willing to make an exception for Gerard Manley Hopkins. He had a real feeling for the shape and texture of words).

I think part of what puts me off poetry is that it often seems to me to be sloppy with gushing emotions and spurious passions and in general it just seems to me like a perverse means of expression. (By which I mean that it’s a means of expression that seems to deliberately obscure about what is supposedly being expressed). Maybe that assessment says more about me than about poetry, but then again whenever you say anything about anything you reveal something of yourself and if you can’t be perceptive or witty then at the very least you can try to be honest.

Having brought my unlikely purchase home, I spent some time reading it. I’d have to say that the verses vary. I found many of them to be witty, insightful, and often very funny, but there were others that didn’t seem to work for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t as good, it may simply mean that I don’t connect with them in the same way or to the same extent.

Having read through the verses I came to the final section of the book which is essentially about composing your own Haiku. This was something new. Someone who writes poetry trying to encourage other people to write their own verse and offering some practical guidelines about where to start.

Naturally, being somewhat conceited, I gave it a try. I won’t bore you with any of my efforts, I don’t think they’re very good, but I did have some fun writing them, and if nothing else the discipline involved in writing Haiku style verse is a good training for developing precision in your writing. A skill that any aspiring writer should try to develop.

Some years after I bought this book a friend of mine was ill in hospital. She was undergoing some pretty aggressive treatment and while on the one hand she needed some kind of distraction, she was also having difficulty in concentrating for any length of time. She’d always been an avid reader so I gave her a couple of books. One of them was a collection of tales about Mullah Nasrudin and another was Breathing With The Mind. I hope they helped.

Unfortunately my friend died and I suppose after she died I could have retrieved the books I had given her. (They were really only supposed to be on loan). But somehow I didn’t quite feel able to do that. So those books went on their way. I don’t know where they ended up, but hopefully they became a part of someone else’s life.

In the time since then I’ve occasionally thought of replacing my copy of Breathing With The Mind, but somehow never managed to do anything about it. Then, finally I bought a second hand copy on Amazon. (It’s still in print, you can buy it new if you want to, it’s just that I’m a little short on spare cash for books at the moment).

So my new, second hand, copy of the book was delivered yesterday and I must admit to a certain trepidation as I opened it. Sometimes when you revisit something you enjoyed a few years ago you find yourself wondering what you’d ever seen in it. On this occasion I wasn’t disappointed. The magic is still there and it looks like I’m back to writing verses in the Hiaku/Senryu style that I don’t suppose anyone’s ever going to read.

So I suppose I’ve come full circle in a way.

If you want to write your own Haiku, or something approximating to it, then try the following.

1/ Look around you. The subject matter will suggest itself.

2/ Try to make a brief comment about your subject. Just a few words will do.

3/ Typically Haiku/Senryu start with an observation and concludes with a contrasting statement. It’s a bit like the punch line of a joke, and it’s the tension between the two parts of the Haiku that is compelling when it’s done well. The Japanese talk of it in terms of cutting.

4/ Rewrite and rewrite again. Experiment with synonyms and then when you think you’re finished, polish it a bit more until you have your seventeen syllables over three lines. (Don’t fret if you’re out by a syllable or two. What you’re aiming for is brevity and precision, as I’ve said before you can’t really write authentic Haiku in English anyway, so your paying respect to the tradition not trying to slavishly copy it.

5/ Read Basho (In English his name sounds as though it should belong to a clown. But there’s a reason why he’s the best-known writer of Haiku in the West. And one of the best loved in Japan).

6/ Don’t worry if you’re not very good. Neither am I. It’s not about being the best, it’s about being the best you can be. Attempting to write Haiku can be as much about sharpening your perception as it is about writing something that might impress someone else.

We can’t all be artists but we can all try to make the best of what we are.

He Died for our Sins?

1 Jul

Part way along Victoria Road in Glasgow there is a building bearing the legend, ‘He died for our sins’. It’s some time since I’ve been in that part of the city, so I could be wrong, but I seem to recall that the letters are picked out in neon lights although I don’t recall ever having seen them lit up.

Given the context, the ‘He’ in this message can only refer to Jesus Christ and the reference to dying for our sins obviously refers to the crucifixion.

I’ve given quite a bit of thought to this message over the years, probably much more than you might expect from an atheist, and I’d like to offer a few of the fruits of that thinking, for whatever they’re worth.

At this point you may want to think about whether or not you want to go on reading because, although it’s not my primary intention to offend anyone, I’d have to be pretty stupid not to recognise that much of what follows is likely to be offensive to Christians.

Or then again you might want to keep on reading. After all, I’m not trying to undermine your faith. (Not that I think I can, or have any right to try). I accept that everyone has the right to believe what seems true to them. But I also think it’s good to examine what you believe and what basis you have for believing it.

There seems to be a general consensus that there was a real historical figure corresponding to Jesus Christ and it seems to be equally certain that he was a religious reformer or teacher and that he was crucified.

He was far from unique in this, of course, crucifixion was a fairly common punishment in the Roman Empire. It was also commonplace in feudal Japan and probably elsewhere as well.

Crucifixion, it also has to be said, is an extremely unpleasant form of execution.

Essentially the cause of death is asphyxiation. When you’re hanging by your arms, the weight of your body acts against the action of the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles, making it very difficult to draw air into the lungs.

As long as you’re conscious you can try to take the weight on your feet, but this is going to become exhausting over a period of time and sooner or later you’ll go back to hanging by your arms and the process of asphyxiation would start all over again. And in the meantime, you would be steadily dehydrating and that on it’s own could cause death in a matter of days.

A curious historical aside is the fact that a Sicilian minor criminal was subjected to a very similar treatment much more recently. His name was Salvatore Lucania and someone decided to string him up by the wrists in a barn, presumably over a business dispute. Just by chance, someone came along and cut him down in the nick of time. After this people called him Lucky. Later on this young man went to the United States where he took the name Charles Brown, but he was also known by the anglicised version of his name Luciano. So he was sometimes called Charlie Lucky, but he’s better known as Lucky Luciano. (A name that Salvatore Lucania, as his mother named him, detested).

So crucifixion is an extremely cruel form of execution and these days, most people, Christian or not, recognise this fact.

What is possibly less well understood is the degree to which crucifixion was also considered an ignominious, even shameful death in the First Century CE.

It’s hard to think of an analogy that really helps to illustrate this point. Time has moved on and we seem to be more given to compassion these days. If we see shame in crucifixion now, it tends to attach more to those who ordered it, or carried it out, than to anyone who suffered it, but that really wasn’t the case for most people during Christ’s lifetime or for some considerable period of time afterwards.

This change in perception is a good thing, it is a definite sign of progress and I’m glad of it. But I think it does cloud our perception of how the Christian narrative of the Crucifixion may have developed.

Picture the scene.

One of the early (and I mean, one of the very earliest) followers of Christ is explaining Christ’s teachings to a potential convert. This potential convert is interested, possibly impressed and becoming sympathetic to the ideas of this charismatic young teacher.

Then he (or she, many of the early converts were women) asks the killer question.

“Whatever happened to Jesus?”

“Well, he was crucified.”

There follows an embarrassed silence.

Why embarrassed?

Well, as I mentioned before, crucifixion was a terrible way to die, but it was also perceived as an especially ignominious way to die.

This is where it’s hard to find a modern analogy. The closest I can think of is being convicted of some particularly loathsome crime, something like child abuse. (Just for the sake of clarity I should stress that I’m not equating anything Christ did or taught with child abuse, I’m simply trying to illustrate the way that crucifixion would have been viewed in the First Century CE).

In fairness I should say falsely convicted on trumped-up charges. Christ may have seemed threatening to the Jewish as well as the Roman authorities, but (aside from the minor matter of that fracas in the Temple with the money changers) I’m not aware that he committed anything that we would now recognise as a crime.

Nonetheless, the reaction of most Roman citizens in the First Century CE to the news that Christ had been crucified would not have been compassion; it would probably have been embarrassment, maybe even contempt.

This is where, Christians would doubtless say, the early Christian would have played his (or her) trump card.

“No, no,” he (or she) would have said. “This wasn’t a bad thing. This is what made Jesus so special and it’s why you should accept his word. He died for our sins. He died so that we could be redeemed.”

Of course I have no idea what the men and women who actually knew and loved Christ while he was here on Earth really thought or felt about his crucifixion. My guess would be that they felt an enormous grief and probably anger at the injustice of the whole thing. I also have no idea whether or not they really believed that he was the Son of God in the sense of being divine (or semi-divine) or if they believed that he rose from the dead.

I do suspect, however, that Pontius Pilate never had any suspicion that Christ rose from the grave.

Far from being the decent, if weak, man of the Gospels, independent historical accounts suggest that Pilate was an Imperial hatchet man sent by Rome to keep a lid on the troublesome province of Judea at a time when the Romans were expecting trouble.

If he’d ever heard the slightest whisper that Christ was alive and well after the crucifixion then I think it’s safe to say the occupying Roman forces would have turned the province inside out with a view to finishing the job they’d started. He would have been peevish enough if one of the thieves had survived, but if a man suspected of threatening Roman authority was believed to be alive after he was supposedly executed, then I suspect he would have gone berserk. (He would have been unlikely to see this as proof that Christ was the Son of God, he would doubtless have seen it as a botched job on the part of the soldiers charged with carrying out the execution).

Incidently, I don’t imagine it would have been impossible to survive being crucified, depending on how long one was left on the cross. Asphyxiation could have produced unconsciousness, even a coma, from which one could recover, if one was taken down from the cross quickly enough, and methods of determining whether or not someone was dead were pretty crude at the time. (Methods of determining death were remarkably unreliable until surprisingly recently, in historical terms. Many Victorians took elaborate precautions to minimise the risk of premature burial).

So Pilate probably never thought that Christ rose from the dead and we don’t know if anyone else did at the time, because no one living at the time left any written account of having done so. (Which isn’t to say that no one did, only that authenticated contemporary evidence is lacking). The detailed accounts we have of Christ’s life come from people who were writing long after the events they were describing.

According to some the Gospel of St Thomas sets down what Christ actually said during his lifetime, but this is one of many non-canonical Gospels, (i.e. those that are not included in the Bible and are therefore not widely known by Christians and are ignored by most Christian Sects).

I have actually read the Gospel of St Thomas and it has nothing to say about the Virgin Birth, or indeed the Resurrection. Nor does it contain any claims about raising the dead, turning water into wine or walking on water. (Why would it? If any or all of these miracles actually occurred then why would Christ boast about them? They’ve been used as reasons for accepting Christ’s teachings, but they’re not actually a part of those teachings. If you think what he has to say is good and wise and gives you something to enrich your life, then why would you need a miracle to convince you?).

So then we come to heart of things.

I’m a storyteller, not a theologian, or a historian and certainly not a Christian.

So what draws my attention are those parts of the Christian narrative where it seems to get itself tangled all up.

One of those places is where the essential nature of Christ himself is discussed. The early Christians took a long time to reach any kind of agreement on this point. Some held that Christ was entirely divine others that he was entirely human. The current position, as I understand it, is that Christ is believed to have been both human and divine.

To me this seems like an uneasy compromise, but I think I can understand why the Church would have settled on it. It’s not about explaining the nature of Christ for the intellectual satisfaction of scholars, it’s about making the story work on an emotional level.

Let me explain.

If Christ was entirely human then his death on the cross was terrible. But why should it be a matter of any significance to anyone other than Christ himself and his friends and family? In what way could it change the cosmic order and redeem all mankind?

There would have to be something very special about Christ in order to make this event sufficient to change the essential position of humanity in relation to God and, presumably, the universe.

(One way to resolve this problem is to claim that there was nothing special about Christ himself and that his resurrection and the redemption of mankind was simply an act of grace on the part of God. But this has the drawback of making God seem arbitrary, i.e. any crucifixion would have done just as well, and it also reduces Christ’s significance. He would become a prophet rather than a saviour).

Another way to address the problem would be to claim that Christ was entirely divine. If that was the case then there would be no difficulty about Christ’s role as saviour. If he’s a God, or perhaps an aspect or an expression of God then nothing would be impossible for him.

On the other hand if Christ is truly divine in nature then his crucifixion would be unpleasant, to a degree, but essentially trivial.

After all, if Christ is a God then he can’t really die and any discomfort he suffers is transient and without any great significance. (This assumes that a truly divine being would actually suffer at all).

So in order to evoke feelings of compassion (and guilt, Christians may claim that Christianity is based on love, but to me it has always seemed to run on guilt in much the same way that bus runs on diesel), then Christ has to suffer agony and death on the Cross. Christ can’t fake it, the suffering has to be real, and that has to be real blood flowing from his wounds. Otherwise the story becomes abstract and, well, anaemic.

But the Christian narrative isn’t just about guilt. As any Christian would tell you, it’s also about hope. It has to be, if the Christian faith was ever going to survive it had to offer something more than just guilt.

So after you’ve been made to feel good and guilty, you’re offered the hope of salvation.

But for that to work, the Crucifixion has to be about more than just one man’s death. As I’ve already mentioned, a great many people have been crucified, so why should Christ’s crucifixion be any more significant?

So in order for the Crucifixion to have a cosmic, as well as a purely human significance, Christ also has to be divine.

But how can you be both human and divine?

I have no idea how much ink (and even blood) has been spilled over this question and, to be honest I’m not that interested. The solutions that have been offered to this question are less interesting to me than the fact that it is raised at all. Why would the founding fathers of Christianity (or God,if you prefer) have created this problem in the first place?

Of course there is another closely related problem.

We’re told that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross has saved us, but just exactly how saved are we?

The Bible tells us that various punishments were heaped on Adam and Eve as a result of The Fall, which were then passed on to the rest of us because of the sinful nature we’ve all inherited.

Eve was told that she would bring forth children in sorrow, while Adam was told that the ground was cursed for his sake and that he would eat of it in sorrow, that it would bring forth thorns and thistles to him, that he would eat bread in the sweat of his face all his days until he returned to the ground.

What this seems to boil down to, making allowances for the archaic language, is that women would suffer pain in childbirth, while men would have to work in order to make a living, that the soil will produce weeds and that we are all going to die.

Well, that was the state of play prior to the crucifixion and it still seems to be the case even now. Where women suffer less in childbirth and where people have to endure less backbreaking toil in growing food it has been the result of human ingenuity over a period of centuries and it seems to have nothing to do with Christ or the forgiveness of God. (Unless you want to claim that developments in science, technology and medicine are God’s means of alleviating the suffering He caused as a punishment for original sin).

Christians would doubtless say that I’m missing the point. They would probably claim that Christ’s mission was about saving souls and not about giving people an easier time on Planet Earth.

Well, maybe.

But if we were all sinful, fallible and mortal prior to Christ’s mission then it seems that we still are and whatever form you think Christ’s Redemption of Mankind actually took, the plain fact is that Christianity tells us that we’re still all in need of forgiveness and salvation.

So even taken on Christian terms, I still have to ask what the point of all that pain and misery actually was? In what way are we any more saved now than we were the day before the Crucifixion?

I doubt if anyone’s going to offer me an answer to that question, but if you do have an answer, I would be genuinely interested in hearing from you.

And I suppose this brings me back to one of the reasons why I find life much simpler and easier than I think I would if I believed in God. Whether or not God is real, the pain of crucifixion would have been all too real and the grief of Christ’s friends and family would have been just as real.

To me that’s quite bad enough if it was essentially an accident of history, the savage outcome of a meeting between religious innovation and military occupation. But how much worse would it be if it was all part of someone’s plan? You’ve got to ask what kind of mind would come up with a plan that inflicted so much misery for so little observable benefit.

And the same basic principle seems to me to apply to a great deal of what happens in life.

If it’s all the result of a confused mingling of cause and effect with no overall plan or purpose, then it’s bearable, more than that, it can be wonderful. You can appreciate the many extraordinary and beautiful things that exist in the universe as being a gift of time and chance. And as for the suffering? Well, that’s just part of the whole thing. You avoid it when you can and put up with it when you have to. No explanation is required.

But if it’s all part of the divine plan then you have to account for how an allegedly benign and omnipotent God could cause, or allow, so much evil in what is supposed to be his creation.

 

Spirit Cat (Part 4)

16 Jun

Stairway to Heaven?

 

The cops were standing around in the street, talking amongst themselves.

The street was on a steep slope down to the primary school at the bottom of the hill and the ground also fell away to one side of the pavement. The houses were all reached by going down a flight of stairs from the pavement to get to the front door.

There was also a longer staircase that led down from this street to the lower level of the next street along. The area was a bit run down. There was moss growing on the walls and there were potholes in the road.

Some of the steps on that long set of stairs down to the next street had been broken loose by local kids rolling an oil drum down them. The people had complained, but the council never did a thing about it. Cut backs, they said. What could you do?

“Same MO as before?”

“Seems like. Bastard comes along with a clipboard. Stands around looking all bothered and confused. The girl comes up and asks what’s the problem.”

“Or she doesn’t and he asks her for directions. Works either way.”

“Whatever. Anyway, the basic pitch is the same. He’s a driver working for a vet. He’s got a poor little kitten in the back of his van. She’s just had an operation and he’s supposed to take it back to this poor little old lady who’s all sad and lonely and worried ‘cause her kitten’s not well.”

“And she couldn’t come and collect it ‘cause she’s not well either.”

“But he can’t find the address and can the little girl help him, I know.”

“What a prick.”

“Well, we know that’s what he pulled on the last little girl ‘cause she told the Female and Child Officer all about it.”

“Lucky the bastard got chased away that time.”

“Neighbours thought they were doing the right thing pulling that dog off him. Soon as they heard what the little girl had to say they were pissed off they hadn’t left him to it. Maybe brought a long a few more dogs to help out.”

“Anyone heard what’s happening with that dog?”

“Well, he had to go to court. Sheriff had a look at him and decided he wasn’t dangerous. No one’s come forward to claim him, so he’s up for adoption.”

“Family going to have him?”

“Seems like. They think the sun shines out of his hairy little arse.”

“Well, wouldn’t you?”

“He’s just a dog, for crying out loud. Who cares?”

“So anyway, forensics have confirmed it was the same bastard as did the kid we found in the park. Is that right?”

“Dead right.”

“So is he lucky finding these kids or is he watching them? Does he know their routine?”

Shrugs all round.

“Pity we can’t ask him.”

“So the bastard makes his pitch and the girl goes with him to look at his map and stroke his kitten.”

“Don’t say it like that. Sounds like a euphemism.”

“Whatever.”

No one felt like laughing.

“So he does what he does.”

“Yeah. He does what he does.”

“But then it all goes tits up.”

“How d’you mean?”

“Well, she says there was this cat. White cat. Sitting right on top of the van.”

“So what? He allergic to cats?”

“Don’t know. Don’t care. All I do know is he doesn’t like the cat. Tries to hit it. The cat runs off and the stupid bastard goes chasing after it. Cat goes down the stairs. Bastard goes after the cat.”

“Never liked cats much. I mean, with a dog you get unconditional love. They treat you like their own personal God. Cats just fucking use you.”

“Anyway, one broken step later…”

“First time I ever saw a plus side to vandalism.”

“You think?”

“Well, see for yourself.”

 

 

He was sprawled across the stairs; head tilted at the wrong angle. His cold, dead eyes staring into eternity. The Nightmare Man. Nightmares over.

And as he lay there unmoving, growing ever colder against the concrete, a sleek white cat approached him, sinuously weaving her silent path towards him.

When she came to a point where she could look down into his face, she sat down, her neat white paws placed with precision together in front of her. She stared at him. Her yellow green eyes gazing intently into his empty sightless eyes. Softly she began to purr.

Spirit Cat (Part 3)

9 Jun

The Nightmare Man

 

 

Fuck it, his leg hurt. And the back of his hand itched and burned where it had been scratched.

Where the hell had that cat come from, anyway? The dog probably belonged to a neighbour or something. It didn’t belong to the family. He’d watched them for long enough and he knew they didn’t have a pet.

Well, maybe a goldfish or a hamster or something, he’d never been in their house, so how would he know? What he meant was they didn’t have a dog, he’d have seen them walking it. Or a cat, he’d have seen them let it in or out the window or something.

What they’d had, and what he’d wanted, was the little girl. She was the right age, blonde hair, blue eyes, soft skin, pink and soft little lips. Just exactly right.

So where the fuck had that cat come from?

Didn’t matter. He’d got away clean. They might get fingerprints or hair and fibre or whatever, but it didn’t matter because he wasn’t in the system. He’d never been arrested, never been printed, photographed or anything. And they sure as hell didn’t have his DNA.

Well, maybe they had it now. In fact he was pretty sure they would have it now. He’d seen the tent in the park and all the cops moving about. The ones in uniform, the ones in the white suits, the ones in plain clothes. They hadn’t seen him, of course, he’d been invisible in the crowd, but he’d seen them.

So they’d have his DNA and his fingerprints, and probably hair and stuff as well. They’d have got it from the grave.

They’d have his DNA from this morning too. He’d shed enough blood when that fucking dog had bitten him, so if they had their eyes open they’d see fresh blood at the scene and they’d take a sample. They’d compare it with whatever they’d taken from the park and they’d know it was him again.

But so what?

They couldn’t find him.

He was like a disease, but in a good way. He moved about unseen, unheard, completely unnoticed. You only knew where he’d been because of what he left behind him. He was the Nightmare Man. Used to be he had nightmares himself. Now he gave them to other people.

So they’d know it was him, but they wouldn’t know who he was or where to find him, because none of what they had would lead them to his door. So fuck ‘em. He was blowing in the breeze, just like a disease.

Anyway, he needed to find another girl. And this time he’d make it perfect. Better than before. Because before had been okay, but it still wasn’t good enough. He needed more. He needed it to be perfect and he couldn’t stop until it was.

So he’d have to carry on.

Anyway, he had a couple of candidates lined up. Not fully developed, but well on their way.

As far as he was concerned they were projects. Works in progress. They were just raw material for him to work with, not children. Not really human at all.

He would pick them out, drawn by their bright eyes and clear soft skin. The delicate fragility that just invited you to do them some harm.

At first they were just faces in the crowd. Then he would track them down. He would find out where they lived, where they went to school. Who else was in the house, what their routine was like. He enjoyed all that stuff. It was good steady work and it gave him a lot of satisfaction.

And as for the payoff?

Well, he’d put in all that effort so he might as well get something out of it. After all, he’d earned it, hadn’t he?

He thought back to the way he’d started.

There’d been nothing major to begin with. Just petty stuff. A way of hitting back. A way of making his mark. Of getting back at everyone else for their indifference. He’d hated being invisible back then. Now he liked it.

He’d started by watching people. Watching them when they couldn’t watch him. It had made him feel powerful. It made him feel good.

But it hadn’t been enough, so he’d tried taking trophies. It had started with items of laundry taken from washing lines. Underwear mostly.

That was safe enough and it gave him something he could keep. Something to collect. Well, everyone needs a hobby. But he’d still wanted more, so he’d started breaking and entering.

He’d been an opportunist then, just nipping in and out as and when he could, but the opportunities didn’t come as often as he’d liked so he’d had to start making opportunities for himself.

He wasn’t very sophisticated in his technique, he knew that. He couldn’t have picked a lock to save himself. But you didn’t really have to. Not if you had a secluded place. You could always find a way in if you took your time. People were so careless. Thick, the lot of them.

But he’d always been careful to make sure there was no one in when he’d tanned the place. Last thing he wanted was a stand up fight.

Of course some people had dogs, and dogs were a nuisance.

They weren’t much of a deterrent, though. All you had to do was break a window, then shove your arm inside, wrapped a thick towel. The dog would grab you by the arm, but its teeth couldn’t get through the towel. And while it was busy chewing cloth, you gave it a couple of sharp taps on the head with a claw hammer, and that was it. No more dog, no more barking and you were in and doing whatever you wanted.

And of course, once he’d done that, once he’d killed the dog and left it’s corpse bloody on the carpet, he knew the truth.

Watching was okay. Stealing was fun. Smashing up someone else’s stuff was good for a laugh, but it was all just kid’s stuff. It was just for fun. Killing things was the real deal. It was what he really wanted to do.

Of course dogs weren’t ideal. They had big teeth and they barked a lot and most of them had owners.

Cats were easier. They were smaller and quieter and they liked to stray so even if they did have an owner it would take time for anyone to realise that their darling little moggy was gone.

So why step up. Why take children?

Well, there’s only so much fun you can have with a cat.

And anyway, the preparation was good. There was this theatricality to it. No point in just jumping out from behind a tree like the bogeyman. You had to work out your story, get your basic pitch straight, then work through the permutations, all the different things they might say, questions they might ask, objections they might make. You had to anticipate the countermoves and think about how you could deal with them.

It was just like playing chess.

Except he’d always been shit at chess and he was good at this.

But anyway, you had to get in character. It was like being an actor. And when it was all in place, you were ready to do your little turn.

But your basic pitch had to be pretty good to start off with. You had to be inventive. Kids these days were too sophisticated to go for the old ‘you want to come and see my puppies?’ routine. Animals still worked, though. Kids love animals. But you had to come at them sideways, so they didn’t see you coming. That was the skill.

The line he’d worked out was that he was working for a vet and he was taking a sick little animal back to its poor little old lady owner. He couldn’t find the address and he was already late, so could the little girl help him? Could she come and look at his map for a second? It would only take a moment and he’d let her stroke the little kitten if she liked.

The van was just along the street and it wasn’t like she was really going away with a stranger, was it? She was just going a bit down the street and helping a nice man to take a sick little kitten back to a poor little old lady.

Complete ballocks, of course, and no one over the age of ten would go for it. But then again he didn’t want anyone over the age of ten, so what the fuck?

And as for that bloody cat?

Well, so what? It was a one off. So was the dog. No way would anything like that ever happen again. The chances against ever seeing either of those dumb animals again was a million to one. At least.

 

Spirit Cat (Part 2)

2 Jun

SOCO

 

The Scene of Crimes Officer was wearing her white suit in order to avoid contamination as she took a swap of the bloodstain. The uniformed cops called her SOCO for short.

“Think you got something there?” one of the uniformed cops asked.

“Well, we’ll get DNA, if that’s what you mean?” she told him. “Don’t know if it’ll tell us anything useful, though.”

“It’s his blood though. Kid swore to it. The dog took a lump out of him and that’s where he bled.”

SOCO sighed. They never seemed to learn. DNA seemed to have become some kind of talisman for them. It never occurred to them that having a sample of DNA was all well and good, but you needed something to compare it with before it could help you. If the sample didn’t match anything in the database then it would be useless to them. It might become useful once they had a suspect, but first they’d have to find the suspect. This sample of DNA wasn’t going to help them do that all on its own.

“Bastard had it away on his toes while they were trying to get the dog under control,” the uniformed cop added.

“Well, don’t be too hard on the dog,” SOCO replied. “He might have done us a big favour here.”

“Oh, I’m not complaining. He scared the bastard off. Far as I’m concerned he earned his doggy biscuits for today.”

“You think he’s a stray?”

“Probably. No one round here knows him. No collar on him, although you can see he’s had one from the fur on his neck. We took him over to the kennel. They’ll have to put him in front of the Sheriff, of course.”

“Then what? Needle in his vein?”

“Not if the Sheriff decides he’s not dangerous.”

“And then what? They keep him for a week and then put him to sleep?”

“You want him?”

“When the hell am I ever home to look after a dog? Bloody shame if he gets put down, though.”

“I doubt that’ll happen. They’ll check him for a microchip, of course. But they won’t find the owner. My guess is he’s been dumped. That’s why he doesn’t have a collar any more. So they’ll have to re-home him. I think the little girl’s family might have him.”

“So they bloody should. Give him a medal.”

“Think he’d prefer a lamb chop.”

She went back to her work.

“I mean he’s not a vicious dog. Not really,” the uniformed cop continued. “Dog handler had no bother with him at all. Half in love with the little bugger, she is. The neighbours say he calmed right down as soon as the bastard had gone, didn’t cause a bit of trouble after that.”

When she’d secured her swab against contamination the Scene of Crime Officer took it back to her car.

Sitting in the bonnet of the car, she found a snow-white cat, sleek and quite comfortable in her fur and whiskers.

The cat was staring at her with that eldritch intensity that only cats can muster. She had a neat little pink nose and pink inside her ears, but her eyes were a curious colour, somewhere almost exactly between yellow and green. It occurred to the Scene of Crimes Officer that artists probably had a word for exactly that colour, but she had no idea what it might be.

“You were at the park, the other day, weren’t you?” she said to the uniformed officer.

“Where we found that grave? The little girl? Yeah. I was on the tape.”

“You remember a cat at the scene?”

“Not really. Just a bunch of sick wankers wanting to watch the show for free. Should’ve been selling tickets, for fuck’s sake.”

SOCO reached out her hand towards the cat, but it simply put its ears back and hissed before running away.

There had been a cat there all right. SOCO remembered it well. It’d been inside the tent they’d used to cover the shallow grave. She’d shooed the cat away, terrified that the scene might be contaminated.

The cat had left all right, but not in any great hurry and it’d left a good, solid, hiss behind it.

It was the eyes that SOCO remembered. Narrow, vicious little eyes. No fear in them at all. Just pure distilled hate.

Had the cat known the little dead girl? Maybe been her pet? But that was just silly. Cats don’t behave like that. They don’t stand guard over the body of a dead owner. A dog might do that. They could be incredibly loyal to their owners, even when the owners didn’t deserve it. But cats are different. They’re mercenaries. If they don’t like your house, they just pack their hankies and leave.

No, obviously the cat had just wandered into the tent out of sheer curiosity, and then it had objected to being moved on. That was all. And if you think there’s any more to it, you’re just losing the plot. Big time.

(To be continued…) 

 

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