Friday, 18 April 2014

Presidential Politics

Is Jersey moving towards a Presidential style of politics?
 
There are two proposals which give rise to concern, especially in a small jurisdiction, where power is delicately balanced between two bodies - the Council of Ministers and the States Assembly.
 
From time to time criticised, it is the Troy rule which helps to keep the balance between the two and ensures that the Executive cannot run roughshod over the Assembly. There has to be a degree of consensus in the way the States operates.
 
This has, however, been reduced in part by the ability of Ministers to make decisions without having to bring them to the Assembly. It is to the credit of Ian le Marquand that there was a proposition on the introduction of tazers, and a debate by the Assembly. It could quite easily, and quite legally, just slipped through as a Ministerial decision.
 
Ministerial decisions can be viewed on the gov.je website, but you have to go and look for them. It would be helpful, I think, if a list of them were prefixed to Hansard, like the written questions and answers, so that they would be instantly available. Otherwise, they have a tendency - as happened with the change of IT policy - to slip through under the radar, undebated, not scrutinised, and for the most part unreported. This is not good for democracy.
 
The States has the ability for members to bring a private proposition to rescind a Ministerial decision, but this is rare. Guy De Faye's attempt to allow a private developer to dig up private gardens to provide access to mains drains was the last such, and it was slapped down very quickly, But on the whole, decisions are not noticed, not because they are uncontroversial, but because their reach is more global; in the case of Deputy de Faye, it was only the sharp eye of Senator Ben Shenton which prevented it being carried out.
 
Now the Chief Minister has a proposal which would permit the Chief Minister to present the Council of Ministers as a "slate", and on a third rejection by the Assembly, his final "slate" would automatically be approved unless a vote of no confidence was made in the Chief Minister himself; as he would have only just been elected, this is unlikely in the extreme.
 
So the Assembly's ability to decide who is Minister is severely curtailed. I would be in favour of the Chief Minister putting forward candidates individually for election, rather than the Assembly being able to nominate them, but this presents an "all or nothing" scenario, with a force through on the third undertaking. That reminds me of the Parliament Bill which can force legislation approved by the Commons through the Lords, but here it seems to operate in reverse; by giving the Chief Minister this power, it is akin to the Lords being able to force legislation through the Commons.
 
The Chief Minister will also have the power to "hire and fire" or even reshuffle recalcitrant ministers, and alter the remit of Ministries. This is a good deal of power and patronage, and with a newly introduced "collective responsibility", which ensures that the Council of Ministers brooks very little dissent.
 
While it has been the case that Ministers have at times behaved with scant consideration of any opinions or discussion with the Council of Ministers, it is questionable whether strengthening control at the centre is the best way. This opens the way  not to government by consensus, but government by control, where the Minister who steps out of line can be forced into adopting policies foist upon him by a majority of the Council of Ministers.
 
If it had to be unanimous, that would provide better protection, and I could see the point in that. But as it is, it means that power blocks within the Council of Ministers - and this was identified back in Frank Walker's time by Ben Shenton, hardly someone on the left - can push their agenda through. History has demonstrated that given the opportunity, an "inner ring" invariably develops, and to give this more power under "collective responsibility" is a mistake.
 
But now there is a proposal which also gives monetary incentives to appointments. It has been suggested by Senator Philip Ozouf that Ministers should receive more monetary reward for their services than backbenchers. He states: "The current level of remuneration cannot attract individuals to stand for the States and fulfil different roles with different time commitments."
 
Coupled with a power to "hire, fire and reshuffle", this would provide the Chief Minister with monetary incentive as well to keep Ministers in line. In a large assembly like the UK, where most members are backbenchers, that is not so significant. In a small jurisdiction like Jersey, it wholly changes the structure of the States, and upsets how it works.
 
A Minister may work hard - or delegate lots to his or her Chief Officers, and scarcely put in appearances. And yes, I won't but I could name some of the latter, in previous assemblies and the current one. Those in the States probably know who they are anyway. Some Ministers and Assistant Ministers are very diligent; others far less so.
 
And for research, when backbenchers put together a proposition, they may spend hours or even days researching, where the Minister delegates to their officials for information for a reply.
 
Ministers have the support of vast army of civil servants and at CEO to do the donkey work - and that's certainly what some of them do or have done in the past. A former Minister once said that that the good thing about being a Minister was that he had to do very little actual work. Most of his work entailed PR, attending meetings with other Ministers and 'briefings'.
 
Now differential salaries would mean a marked change in the balance of power. The ability to "buy" and give patronage is a tremendous stick to keep people in line, and coupled with the proposed hire / fire/ reshuffle powers proposed by the Chief Minister, will concentrate power massively in the centre.
 
I would hope that the backbenchers generally would see this and vote against both propositions. If not, they would effectively put themselves out of government albeit still being part of it - on paper. Their influence would be almost demolished.
 
And of course, let us not forget the allure of power - and financial reward. There will also be an incentive to support the executive by some backbenchers in the hope they too would be elevated to the ranks of the elite at some point - and gain a big increase in salary to go with it!
 
"The reality is that the current single-level salary is not commensurate with levels of remuneration for similar senior posts available in the private or not-for-profit sectors" says Philip Ozouf.
 
When I read that, I think of the "Yes Prime Minister" episode "A Real Partnership":
 
Hacker: Where's the one-page summary for the Cabinet?
Sir Humphrey: The Janet and John bit? Here it is. It's more or less the same as last time. Comparable jobs in industry.
Hacker: On whose salary are the comparisons based?
Sir Humphrey: The directors of BP and IBM, naturally.
Hacker: You don't think that might be challenged as untypical and above average?
Sir Humphrey: No. Of course, we don't mention them by name. Just ''typical industrial firms''.
 
Or indeed, in Philip Ozouf's phrase "similar senior posts available in the private sector"!
 
The States may decide that some States members are "worth more", but I think that to a disillusioned general public, seeing States members pay rise in a recession, and allowances slipped by, the phrases "gravy train" and "snouts in the trough" will be well used come the next election if the States pass this proposition.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Maundy Thursday

 "The 1948 Palestinian exodus occurred when approximately 711,000 to 726,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, during the 1947-1948 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The exact number of refugees is a matter of dispute. But around 80 percent of the Arab inhabitants of what became Israel..Later, a series of laws passed by the first Israeli government prevented them from returning to their homes, or claiming their property. They and many of their descendants remain refugees." (Wikipedia)
 
Thinking about the plight of the Palestinians prompted this poem. The decision to expel them may not have taken place in an upper room in Jerusalem, that is a matter of poetic licence, but it probably did take place behind closed doors.
 
It is one of the ironies of history that the Jewish peoples, in exile for so many years from Israel, should in turn send the Palestinian people into exile, especially as they are genetic cousins. And sadly power games still dominate Middle Eastern politics today, as they did outside an upper room two millennia past.
 
Maundy Thursday
 
Upper rooms in Jerusalem
And behind closed doors
Talking about "us" and "them"
Hate leaves residual spoors
 
Palestine behind barbed wire
An exiled people, driven out
In poverty they live so dire
Why do not the hills cry out?
 
Upper rooms upon one day
Washing feet, a servant song
Another choice, another way
Instead another path so wrong
 
These power games forget the poor
When will it end, and be no more?
 
 
Notes on Genetics:
 
Tomas Rees commented in 2009 that:
 
 "The genetics of Arabs and Jews have been pretty extensively researched. The classic study dates to 2000, from a team lead by Michael Hammer of University of Arizona. They looked at Y-chromosome haplotypes - this is the genetic material passed from father to son down the generations. What they revealed was that Arabs and Jews are essentially a single population, and that Palestinians are slap bang in the middle of the different Jewish populations."
 
"Another team, lead by Almut Nebel at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, took a closer look in 2001. They found that Jewish lineages essentially bracket Muslim Kurds, but they were also very closely related to Palestinians. In fact, what their analysis suggested was that Palestinians were identical to Jews, but with a small mix of Arab genes - what you would expect if they were originally from the same stock, but that Palestinians had mixed a little with Arab immigrants."(1)
 
The geneticist Harry Ostrer showed more linkages:
 
"The Law of Return, the Israeli law that established the right of Jews around the world to settle in Israel and which remains in force today, was a central tenet of Zionism. The DNA that links Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi, three prominent culturally and geographically distinct Jewish groups, could conceivably be used to support Zionist territorial claims -except, as Ostrer has pointed out, some of the same markers can be found in Palestinians, distant genetic cousins of the Jews, as well. Palestinians, understandably, want their own 'right of return'."
Links 
(1)   http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2009/01/shared-genetic-heritage-of-jews-and.html
(2)   http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonentine/2013/05/16/israeli-researcher-challenges-jewish-dna-links-to-israel-calls-those-who-disagree-nazi-sympathizers/

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Side Street Blues

"Jersey's main shopping high street is trading at full occupancy. Footfall is up compared to last year and there are signs sales are picking up.
The Town Centre manager says St Helier is ready for summer visitors and none of the shops are empty. " (CTV News)
 
I have a comment by Adam Gardiner about the CTV article in which the Town Manager said he was very pleased about "full occupancy" in the high street. The full article can be read in the link above. Adam says that:
 
"You will note that the full occupancy to which is referred is limited to 'main shopping street'. It conveniently ignores the rest of St. Helier, and the island which still has many closed shops and others in the throes of closing.  It's like saying there has been no road accidents on Victoria Avenue this week! While that may be true it hardly paints an accurate picture of road accidents in general."
 
"I am sure that we are starting to emerge from the recession, but we still have someway to go yet. The town manager who put out the above suggested footfall has increased on Kings Street/Queen Street is rather guilty of a bit of spin. We are in any event talking about the run up to Easter. So we should be seeing the first tranche of visitors arriving on the island - the visual effect of that may be the perception of more people traipsing our main shopping street but that is a seasonal effect and to be expected. I would be very surprised if say compared to January, February and March we were not seeing more footfall on our 'main shopping street'. I would nonetheless like to know how he actually measures that!"
 
"As they say, one swallow does not make a summer. So what if there is 100% occupancy on King Street/Queen Street. There always was - until GST was introduced and Data Protection and other States bureaucracy started to eat in trading 'bottom lines' of genuine Jersey company's - who have been gradually pushed off our 'main shopping street' and out of business - Amy's being the last. The 100% occupancy on King Street/Queen Street is not that surprising when you consider that vast majority of the retailers are UK owned/operated and therefore zero-rated for tax. They must be laughing. Apart from the jobs they provide, there is, all said and done, very little benefit our economy gets from them."
 
"Not much for the town manager to sing about in my opinion."
 
And here is a comment posted yesterday on my blog about Colomberie, which is also worth noting - Colomberie has always been something of the poor relation to the rest of town.
 
"I have a shop in Colomberie (Snow Hill end) and this street has several empty shops, some show no sign of life, others are being worked on. The Town Parish have managed to reduce its number of parking spaces in town for public use and never seem to replace them. Green Street will soon be out of action due to adding to the floors to accommodate the ridiculously placed Police Headquarters. No other multi storey car park has been build for decades. We are about to lose the Esplanade parking but still no sign of new car parks."
 
"What about free parking on a Saturday or Free-After-Three as used in some UK towns like Chester. We need the government to make town a pleasurable place to visit again so people will think twice before they rush to the hand of mammon (Amazon). They have to do something before we all die off."
 
"And to anyone who keeps trotting out the "retailers have had it too good for years" tag or "rip off Jersey" tag; stop trying to compare a local independent to the largest retailer on the planet, it is not like for like and is unfair on the many fair traders on the island. Us so called "rich business owners" are actually putting many more hours a week into our business than our staff, often 6 or 7 days a week. If we were rich; why would we even be working on the shop floor? Masochism? "
 
Adam Gardiner again:
 
"It is shameful the way Colomberie has been forgotten - pushed onto the back burner. The same is true of other parts of town. Minden Place area for example. If it were not for the Coop, I expect that would have much less footfall in that area. There is a constant exchange of retail premises - and a couple empty as I write. As you say, Bath Street is all but dying too and a wander off the main byways sees even more empty premises."
 
"Relaxing current parking at weekends and after 3pm on a permanent basis is certainly one option that needs looking at as is car parking in general. But that is an altogether different argument - the outlandish rents that are being charged is the main one I feel. Can we regulate them, should we regulate them, what can be done to make rents more realistic?"
 
References
http://www.channelonline.tv/channelonline_jerseynews/displayarticle.asp?id=510557
 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Occupancy in St Helier: Don't Be Complacent

"Jersey's main shopping high street is trading at full occupancy. Footfall is up compared to last year and there are signs sales are picking up. The Town Centre manager says St Helier is ready for summer visitors and none of the shops are empty. Richard Mackenzie says the town is ready for visitors from France and the UK over the summer months. "We're very lucky, we walk along this high street, there's not one closed shop.  "There's a shop waiting for re-development but there's not one closed shop so we're very positive on that." A recent report has just come over from the UK, from Deloitte say that they have one in five shops in the UK high street are closed." (Channel Television News)

That's all very well and good, but move down Don Road, just off the high street, or down Bath Street, around Halkett Place, or any number of the roads which are offshoots from the high street, and the picture is very different. There are empty shops, some of which have been empty for a considerable amount of time.

It's a bit like a human body. Poor circulation tends to effect the extremities first, rather than the heart at the centre. But poor circulation in arms and legs is a symptom which should not be dismissed because the heart is still beating away, in a regular pattern.

So far from sounding a note of triumph, I think the note should be one of caution. The fact that some shop fronts have been empty for over a year, and in one case at least, over three years, should give us pause.

That shop in question is far from the high street, but it is in a fairly good location. It used to be Gaudin's Bakery, and it is next to the Millennium Park. It was empty before the park was built and has remained so; a white boarded up shop front.

The shops around that area have not done particularly well either. Blockbusters is gone, and the shop beside it, having been a variety of outlets – travel agent, furniture shop etc. – has now settled down into that most ubiquitous of outlets – the turf accountant.

The "bookie" seems to be the one shop that is thriving in a recession – there are four in St Brelade alone – but do we want so many of our empty shops to become book makers, simply because they are profitable?

In the actual road beside the park, the same area used to boast a small Portuguese café, and that lease expired in the year the park was completed. The shop front, along with the Le Seeleur buildings next door, remains unused, despite a popular venue for locals – the park – on its doorstep..

That the Le Seeleur buildings remain empty is a scandal. They were gifted to the States, and the States have just sat on them, letting them decay, year after year. Now there is scaffolding on them, but that, as far as I am aware, is just to get them back to a safe state of repair. It is a scandal.

I walked up Don Street, along Burrard Street, along Bath Street, along Halkett Place – there is at least one empty shop front in each street, and some quite large, as well as empty office space – refurbished but vacant. There is not full occupancy.

I do not wish to sound a sour note to the story, but while the high street has no closed shops, stray from there, even along roads just branching off it, as visitors might, and the picture is not so rosy. The high street is a start; it must not be the end. Don't let us be lulled into a false sense of security, and rest on our laurels.

References

Monday, 14 April 2014

A Penny for the Poor?

I have a few items for Monday. First, a note about an independent project called change.je which has been launched to reach out to students, graduates and young professionals and engage them in the political process ahead of this year's elections.

See more at:

If this is something that would interest you, please like, share and follow the following pages on Facebook and Twitter.

You can also find out further information at the following website
And secondly a guest post on the recent rise in States members allowances, and how a changing in Telecoms billing enabled an increase in expenses to slip under the radar, and why this sets a dangerous precedent.

A Penny for the Poor?
by James Rondel

States Members shamelessly agree to a new method of remuneration for IT equipment


This may not be the most important thing that you read about on change.je, and it may well not be the most interesting, but to me, this conflicted and brazen act of self-interest goes some way to demonstrate just what is wrong with our current States Assembly.

So what has happened?

States Members used to have their internet bills paid for them directly, but due to a change to Jersey Telecoms' ("JT") billing system, it is no longer possible for JT to 'void' the bill directly. States Members had also received the use of a States laptop that was "[1]periodically … [up]graded".


Due to the change in JT's billing system, and the fact that the States Remuneration Review Body had already met and made their recommendations for the year, the Privileges and Procedures Committee ("PPC") chaired by Deputy Macon came to the "uncomfortable"[2] decision to divert the £31,000 allowance that was previously held by the IT Department directly into the hands of States Members; providing they requested it.

This begs us two questions to ponder. Firstly, did PPC only realise that JT would be unable to 'void' States Members internet bills after the new billing system was introduced? And could our States Members have delayed any decision making until after the elections in October?


I presume that whilst internet bills would have to be paid during this period, it is questionable whether their technology would have needed a 'periodical upgrade' during this 7 month window.

So why does this matter?

It is my opinion that the actions of PPC, which were endorsed by the Chief Minister, matter for three reasons; Precedent, Accountability and Apathy.

i) Precedent

It would appear that the decision taken to make the £31,000 IT budget directly accessible to States Members sets a precedent 'through the back door' in that far from deciding how best to cover Members' internet expenses, the PPC Committee have decided to do away with the uniformed, and centrally administered States Laptops, and create a situation where it is the individual Member's choice as to how they want to spend their share.

I would assume that the "old out of date laptop"[3] was cheaper to update (periodically) than the £31,000 budget that States Members now have direct access to.

If this is the case, then it is wrong to suggest that it is not costing the tax payer any more money. There is a vast difference between having a set budget, and under-spending, to having an annual allowance being made available to all States Members.

Indeed, in his answer to a written question on this very topic, Deputy Macon conceded that, "To date, 23 States members have requested an allowance, totalling £12,650"[4]. Nearly half of our members have claimed a proportion of their allowance in only a matter of weeks!

If this isn't bad enough, PPC, and the Chief Minister, have inadvertently tied the hands of the States Remuneration Review Body into how their IT expenses should be administered in the future. For those of you who think I have made an assumption, I wager a coffee that the Review Body will not be prepared to reverse the decision, particularly when Deputy Macon pointed out on Facebook that "IT suggested that it would be better for them and States members to get members to buy there own devices [sic]"[5]. There is seemingly neither political will, nor departmental will, for our civil servants to shoulder the responsibility of fulfilling our States Members electronic requirements.

ii) Accountability

Having established why the change has occurred, how much it is going to cost the tax payer, and how PPC have set a precedent for this level of spending to continue, we now need to consider what controls there are in place.

Taking into consideration that this is the same Assembly which selflessly refused to debate the possibility of a pay freeze, due to the inherent vested interest of Members discussing their own remuneration, I was surprised to discover that PPC took to making this decision prior to the next sitting of the Review Body.

I am concerned that this policy has a deficit in accountability. Deputy Macon stated in his answer to a written question that, "Members are not required to prove that the money has been spent on information technology"[6].
Simply put, it is not acceptable to implement such an opaque policy during the era of transparent and open governance. 

The electorate need to be able to see how members have spent which amount on what product.
In the same way that we need to be able to see how decisions are made, and who makes them, we need to be given this information, as it is the only deterrent to corruption.

iii) Apathy

The expenses saga in Westminster is seemingly endless. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, The Right Honourable Maria Miller MP, is the latest in a long line of politicians who have been discovered to have abused the expenses system.

When we couple this with our low voter turnout, and the general apathy towards politics in Jersey, it doesn't take a political scientist to tell you that the decision to hand IT allowances directly to Members, is not going to play well with the public.

Rather ironically the Committee charged with raising voter turnout amongst the populace, is the same Committee who made this decision, and it is the same Assembly who graciously accepted a 10% rise to their expenses allowance in 2012.

I fear that the expense culture is creeping its way into Jersey politics, and that this would be the death knell for the already demoralised Jersey voter.

We need a new untainted Remuneration Review Body that removes any decision completely from the hands of States Members. It needs to be comprised of people from a broad background, and not remain its present retired middle class male demographic. It also needs to be more responsive and engaging with the views of the electorate through mechanisms such as social media.

Until we make these changes our elected representatives will remain figures of ridicule, and I fear that if they retain the new method of claiming IT expenses, it will inevitably lead to a system that will cost more money to the electorate, be open to abuse, and lead to greater despondency amongst voters.

References

[1] Deputy Jeremy Macon, Chairman of Privileges and Procedures Committee, Facebook, 17/03/14, 11:41
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] WRITTEN QUESTION TO THE CHAIRMAN OF THE
PRIVILEGES AND PROCEDURES COMMITTEE
BY THE CONNÉTABLE OF ST. JOHN
ANSWER TO BE TABLED ON TUESDAY 1st APRIL 2014, 1240/5(8228)
[5] Deputy Jeremy Macon, Facebook, 17/03/14, 11:41
[6] WRITTEN QUESTION, Ibid.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Alfred Tennyson, 1809-92: Part III: Marriage and Fame

I've been trawling through the archives at the library again, and in particular for Sundays, "The Pilot" which was the monthly magazine for the Church of England in Jersey for many years. Every month, there would be pieces from the minister of each church, along with various other articles of interest.
 
In 1995, the Reverend Tony Keogh began a series of articles in "The Pilot" under the umbrella title "God and the Poets", beginning with a four part look at Tennyson. I thought it was a shame that it should be buried in the past, so I've transcribed it for my blog. Here is part 3.
 
Tennyson's In Memoriam can be read at
http://www.online-literature.com/donne/718/   
 
And there is a discussion of Tennyson and the poem with Melvin Bragg on "In Our Time" at:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0124pnq  
which can be listen again, or download as Podcast.
 
God and the Poets:
Alfred Tennyson, 1809-92: Part III: Marriage and Fame
By Tony Keogh

After the tragic death of Tennyson's youthful friend and companion Arthur Hallam, he sought solace, not in any out-ward show of grief, but in restless travelling.
 
He journeyed extensively throughout England and Scotland- With his widowed mother and family still at home, he moved from Lincolnshire, with mixed feeling of grief and relief, to Hertfordshire, to Kent and to Cheltenham. He flirted somewhat, wrote verses to attractive women of his acquaintance, but never descended to the low life, though once it was only fear of being seen by some journalist which kept him from going to Holborn Casino, but this, one has to say, was out of innocent curiosity, almost like Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote.
 
His heart seems to have been stolen early by Emily Sellwood, four years his junior, though there were gaps in their relationship. A fairly plain looking woman, she was gentle and good. After a while, she and Tennyson became engaged but the engagement was broken off through her father's opposition and they did not marry until 1850, by which time he was established as a great poet and had been made Laureate in succession to Wordsworth.
 
Prone to depression and a victim of financial mismanagement, he had some severe hydropathic treatment in Cheltenham in 1840, but his poetry rarely faltered. W H Auden summed up his years from his marriage and recognition, "From then on he led the life of a famous author. He bought a house in the Isle of Wight at Osborne, he built another house in Surrey, he went on writing, he visited the Queen at Windsor, he was gazetted to the peerage, he still wrote. On 8th October 1892 he died and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
 
His first child was stillborn. Thereafter, he had two sons, Hallam, called after Arthur, to whom he was particularly close and who become his secretary; and Lionel, who pre-deceased him as a young married man.
 
He was a "Great Victorian" in the charmed circle of Carlyle, Thackeray, Browning and Gladstone. He combined imperial patriotism and loyalty with Dickensian indictment of injustice and the state of the poor. "City children soak and blacken sense in city slime," and amid his hopes of "one far-off Divine event to which the whole creation moves." Perhaps he had some premonition of 1914 and the horrors of our century.
 
Unlike his wife, he seldom went to church. He did not need the benefit of clergy or involvement in institutional religion, sacraments or sermons. In this, he was typical of great sections of middle and upper Victorian society. They often saw the sense of the stability of an established church, but could not always understand what being a member of the Church of England had to do with going to church.
 
He did, however, enjoy breathing in the spiritual and intellectual atmosphere of his time as he did the air of Lincolnshire or Cambridge or the Isle of Wight, and this in the age when bishops and theologians
were at home in the salons. He had a faith which, every now and then, gleamed forth in Christian affirmation, but paid lip service also to Victorian agnosticism and "honest doubt," though his reaction to the modernist crisis of the 1860s was to learn Hebrew.
 
His was an evolutionary creed before Darwin and he wrote of "The Higher Pantheism" for the somewhat curious Metaphysical Society. This poem contains the lines: "Speak to Him thou for He hears, and Spirit can meet .Closer is He than breathing and nearer than hands and feet."
 
His was an inward vision, often blurred through personal sorrow and his struggles with the fact of death and nature, so indifferent and, at times, ruthless. He did not believe in hell and in "The Lotus Eaters," implicitly attacks Christianity for committing some to "endless anguish." Personal relationships were at the heart of the universe and each individual was of incalculable value, in spite of evidence to the contrary. He cherished the hope of immortality, though "dimly." He prayed, though in his last days, he sometimes felt that God was not listening.
 
His belief in prayer was mystical rather than prophetic or intercessionary. After reading his "Holy Grail" to a woman friend, he said that there were moments "when the flesh is nothing to me when I feel and know the flesh to be only a vision. God and the spiritual the only real and true ... depend on it - the spiritual is the real."
 
These are lines written at Aldworth, his Surrey home:
 
"Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower - but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is."
 
That is not dissimilar from a famous passage of Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century English mystic. The Lord showed her "something small, no bigger than a hazel nut lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer; It is everything that is made."
 
Julian's faith is more convincing and deeply Christian. The hazel nut lasts because God loves it. Her work "Shewings" is about the Passion of Christ in which is contained the whole meaning, not only of life, but of the life of God, the Blessed Trinity.
 
Tennyson is not a poet of the Passion, like Herbert or Hopkins, and the Trinity passes him by. The "Holy Grail" contains the precious blood, but this is the mystic prize of the human quest for purity through chastity and discipline rather than the token of the self-giving love of God for human kind, streaming over all the earth, descending into hell, washing away sin, praying to the Father for us.
 
Postscript: I have been asked about books on Tennyson. The most recent and probably the best biography is by Peter Levi, published by MacMillan. There is an excellent book of selected poems in the Penguin Poetry Library Series.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Evensong

A rather sad poem, prompted by BBC Radio Jersey interviews about the growing numbers of older people with dementia.

I have received this comment on the poem: "My poor nan has this condition, I think you have portrayed with dignity the indignity of this dreadful blight to our dear elderly family members who suffer with this relentless disease.".

And another comment from the UK: "It does reflect the agony of dementia... We have just had a course on spirituality and ageing with a very good session on dementia and alzheimers. Would you give me permission to send your poem to the editor of our parish magazine, please? I think a lot of people would feel it reflects their sadness.".

My aunt also had Alzheimer's disease, and it was dreadful the way she lost the ability to read, remember, and what little memory she did have became confused and muddled. It was a cruel illness, and it was so sad to see such a bright intelligent lady lose all those faculties.

In memory of all who are suffering, and their families and friends...

Evensong

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
Memories fading, thoughts do not abide
Neurons failing, speech and language flee
Reaching for help, please abide with me.

My past life is ebbing, going day by day
Childhood is dim, school days pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
Fragments remain, to abide with me

Words go, one by one, every passing hour;
I am aware still, of memory's fading power
And of the future, of indignities to be
So cruel the loss, self awareness lost to me

I fear all foes, my life becomes a mess
All that remains, is tears and bitterness;
There is no cure, doctors have no victory
Motor functions failing, breath is lost to me

Evensong of life, darkness before my eyes
Unfinished symphony, dusk and darkened skies
Personality gone now, self's last shadows flee;
Mourn me, remember, now I am not me.