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The Singularity as a plural

26 August 2016

Twice in the last month I’ve heard people speaking on and expounding ideas that were familiar to me, and yet presented in an unfamiliar way.

This morning it was Izak Potgieter speaking on The Singularity, and a fortnight ago it was Jan Kleinsmit speaking about the Sons og God in the Old Testament. What struck me as singular (sorry!) about both was that both speakers relied on a single book by a single author for the ideas they expounded, and presented these ideas as new and, if not unique, at least highly unusual. And though I had been familiar with the ideas for 50 years or more, I had not read, or even heard of, either author or book.And neither speaker seemed to have read or even heard of any of the books that I had read that had made me familiar with those ideas.

Toppies in the aloes outside the windows at TGIF

Toppies in the aloes outside the windows at TGIF

These ideas were presented at TGIF — a weekly gathering at which someone presents a paper on some aspect of the Christian faith or something in culture or society that is relevant to it, and there is brief discussion afterwards. It’s held early in the morning so people who have to work can get to work in time. I’ve been going to it on and off for the last 10 years or so, mainly when the topic is one that interests me. I find it useful because since I retired from the University of South Africa there have not been many opportunities for intellectual stimulation and discussion. For a while it was possible to do it in internet mailing lists and newsgroups, but people seem to have been abandoning those forums for social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, where the exchanges become more trivial and random as time passes.

So I was quite interested to attend these gatherings, and feel like a dinosaur from the prehistoric world, where people were reading and discussing books I had never heard of, and they had never heard of the books on the same topics that I had read.

More toppies at TGIF

More toppies at TGIF

Izak Potgieter referred to a book called The Singularity is near by Ray Kurzwell. At the end of it I still wasn’t clear about what constitutes the singularity he was talking about. He referred to the rate of technological change and developments in artificial intelligence, topics that had been dealt with 30-40 years ago by Alvin Toffler in his books Future shock and The third wave. Coincidentally I had blogged on the topics of consciousness and artificial intelligence only a couple of days before (see Networking and consciousness), and though I did not mention it in the blog post, one of the essential features of the story I took as the starting point was the question of singularities in the topology of networks. I gather that in the story the concept of a singularity has been somewhat oversimplified and is not mathematically accurate, but at least when I had read the story I had some idea of what a singularity is, while I still have no idea of Ray Kurzwell’s concept of a singularity.

Jan Kleinsmit’s topic, of the Sons of God in the Old Testament, deserves at least a blog post, if not a monograph on its own. At one time I was toying with the idea of writing a book on the topic and had got a few rough drafts written, but then a bloke called Walter Wink beat me to it, so I gave that up. But the bare bones of the idea were laid out by G.B. Caird in his book Principalities and Powers, which was published 60 years ago, and were hinted at in the novels of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, and of course go back to St Paul himself, and mediated through Dionysius the Areopagite and others.

War and peace

18 August 2016

Captain Corelli's MandolinCaptain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When this book first appeared in bookshops about 20 years ago I picked it up, read the blurb, and put it down again. One day perhaps I’ll read it, but not yet, I thought.

Then I bought a book called The Modern Library (see What should I read next? | Khanya) and it recommended [book Captain Corelli’s mandolin] as one of the best books published ion the second half of the 20th century. So when I fund it in the public library, I thought it was time to read it. And having read it, I’m very glad I did.

Do I regret not reading it at the time?

No, because when I first saw it in the shops I had not been to Greece. I had read a similar book about Greece in the Second World War, Eleni by Nicholas Gage, but that was non-fiction, as was about the author’s search for the stories of his forebears in north-western Greece. I took it out of the library again when we were about to visit the area.

I’m sure that Captain Corelli’s mandolin is a very good read whether one has visited Greece or not, but having been there, it helps to understand it better.

It is a story of war and peace, hardship and prosperity, and what war does to people and societies. The characters are memorable, the descriptions of both joys and sorrows are vivid. If you read this book, it will give you some idea of what war-torn societies like Syria are going through right now, and what the refugees are fleeing from, and what it feels like to be betrayed by the great powers fighting proxy wars in your home country.

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What should I read next?

11 August 2016

The Modern Library: The Two Hundred Best Novels in English Since 1950. Carmen Callil and Colm T[ibnThe Modern Library: The Two Hundred Best Novels in English Since 1950. Carmen Callil and Colm T[ibn by Carmen Callil

In 2013 we spent R2952.83 on books, including this one at R167. In 2012 we spent R3940.40 on books, and in 2011 R2019.95. But when Val retired in 2014, we could not afford to go browsing in bookshops and just buying whatever took our fancy, so we rejoined the public library.

In 2014 our spending on books dropped to R1653.50, and in 2015 to R50.01. But browsing in a library is not the same as browsing in a bookshop. In a bookshop, the popular books will be stocking the shelves. In a library, the popular books will probably have been taken out by others.

That is where books like this come in. OK, it’s someone else’s choice, and their taste may not coincide with yours, but you at least know that some book lovers think it is worth reading. And, to back it up, at the back of the book are some lists of winners of some of the major literary prizes. And if you don’t find the book in question, another one by the same author might be worth a read.

The authors’ list has descriptions of each book and why they think it is worth reading, so from those I’ve compiled a list, which I take to the library, at least when I remember to.

One of the bloggers on my blogroll, A Pilgrim in Narnia | a journey through the imaginative worlds of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings, says:

I am a list-driven reader. I like logging my works on Goodreads, and use an excel sheet to keep track of the books and essays I read. My bulletin board has certain lists I’m going through: top 20th c. SF books, top 20th c. Fantasy books, Discworld, Harold Bloom’s Essential List, a World Fantasy Conference List, everything C.S. Lewis wrote, and a list of key Christian books. I am slowly going through these lists, book by book, and hope to be done around 2030 or so, provided no one writes anything good between now and then.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I am a list-driven reader, but I do try to make lists of books I’ve bought and books I’ve read, and more so in recent years.

When I was at school my mother used to work for a firm of estate agents and auctioneers, and when she wasn’t busy she used to look at some of the auction lots, which sometimes contained bundles of books from deceased estates, and quite a lot of our books were obtained that way. One of the books she bought was The Booklover’s Record, with the inscription, “To M Norenda, with love from Minnie, 1938”. My mother give it to me, and I added the date I acquired it, 5 January 1956 — I was 14 at the time. It had eight tabbed sections for writing in:

  1. Books recommended
  2. Notes about books read
  3. Books borrowed
  4. Quotations from books
  5. Books lent
  6. Extracts from criticisms
  7. Authors and Publishers
  8. Sundries

I’ve now made many of those sections into fields in a database, in which we’ve tried to record books in our library, books we’ve borrowed from other people and libraries, books we’ve read or want to read, and so on. Like Brenton Dickieson I’ve tried to record some of them on Goodreads, particularly ones that I think friends may be interested in, but most I try to record in the database, and have transferred most of the ones I initially recorded in A Booklover’s Record. There are, of course, some books that the original owner read or had recommended.

In July 1938, for example, the original owner noted having read Insanity fair by Douglas Reed, with the note “Douglas Reed is a depressing ‘European situation’ writer.” Insanity fair is on our shelves too, though a 1939 reprint, and I read it in 2002.

Before computers were available I used to note some books I had bought and read in my diary, with comments on them, and some of those I have also transferred to the database — that doesn’t work too well with GoodReads, which is mostly for current reading. Even with such lists, however, we’ve still occasionally bought books and got home to find we already had a copy. But between the book list and my journal, I can usually check on when I read a book, and sometimes who recommended it to me.

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The cult of Rhodes

10 August 2016

The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in AfricaThe Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa by Paul Maylam
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why am I reading this book?

  1.  Because of the “Rhodes must fall” movement, which began with the demand for the removal of a statue of Cecil J. Rhodes from the campus of the University of Cape Town.
  2.  Because of the rise of Donald Trump in US politics. Cecil Rhodes seems to have been the Donald Trump of his day, an unscupulous businessman turned politician.
  3. Because of family history. At least one member our family, Henry Green, went to Kimberley at the time of the diamond rush, and some of his children were either associates or admirers of C.J. Rhodea and Company, and gave names to their chuildren that reflected this – one child, for example, was named Cecil Leander, and, like his namesakes, he never married.
Protests against Rhodes statues at the University of Cape Town

Protests against Rhodes statues at the University of Cape Town

Concerning the first of these. it is mainly curiosity. I don’t feel particularly strongly about statues of dead politicians, good or bad. Getting uptight about them seems rather pointless to me, and itmight be better to pay more attention to living politicians, who can do real damage, and more rarely, some good. About 20 years ago I was wandering through a park in Klin, in Russia, and there was a statue of Lenin. I suppose on the whole I’d prefer that it not be removed, but should stay as a reminder of history.

The resemblance to Donald Trump is more interesting, because Trump is a living politician who, like Rhodes, seems to have a cult following. According to Paul Maylam the cult of Rhodes seems to have arisen mainly after his death, fostered by his close associates who wrote biographies, and his will, which provided for various things by which he would be remembered, most notably the Rhodes Scholaships. Rhodes’s funeral, too, which was a long drawn-out affair, seems to have been calculated to foster the cult. Trump, on the other hand, seems to have a cult following even while he lives, though it may die down if he fails to be elected as president of the USA in November, and cause him to be no more remembered than Tielman Roos.

I was interested to learn how Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape (a part of the world that Cecil John Rhodes had little to do with) got its name. It appears that they were hoping to get sponsorship from the Rhodes Trust, and thought that calling it Rhodes University would increase their chances. Now that’s like certain sports reports I see on TV, when they say that a certain football team in the English Premier League has been “playing at the Emirates”. I pictured them having a six-hour flight to and from the Gulf, and think they must be pretty exhausted with all that travelling. But no, the stadium is in London, and sponsored by the Emirates airline. So if Rhodes University changes its name and suddenly becomes Nandos University, you’ll know why. The name of the university has little to do with the cult of Rhodes, and everything to do with sponsorship, marketing and branding.

The cult of Rhodes went way beyond the man himself, and was particularly strong in Southern Rhodesia, and Northern Rhodesia, the countries named after Rhodes, which jettisoned his name as soon as they became independent. Some white people in those countries named their children after Rhodes, even though they had no personal connection with him. But this also raises questions that Maylam does not deal with in the book. Rhodesia was conquered by Rhodes’s British South Africa Company under a royal charter, and the company ruled until 1923, when Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing British colony, and Northern Rhodesia became a protectorate. It would be interesting to know whether and how the cult of Rhodes differed before and after this event, but Maylam does not tell us. Another weakness of the book is its repetitiveness. Maylam reiterates the same points in every chapter.

Though Paul Maylam does not admire Rhodes, and disapproves of the cult, his book supports the cult in a curious way, by punctuation. He uses “Rhodes'” for the possessive rather than “Rhodes’s”. In English that form is only used for revered figures from the ancient world — Jesus, Moses, Socrates and so on. Maylam tells us that Rhodes admired classical civilisation, and liked to be identified with it, and his friend and admirer Sir Herbert Baker designed his memorial along classical lines for that reason, and every time I came across the possessive “Rhodes'” in the text I stopped short, and the cult came to the fore. Rhodes would have liked that.

Not all of his contemporaries admired Rhodes, and both his admirers and detractors compare him with other historical figures. As Maylam puts it,

Rhodes has been compared to many other historical figures — Caesar, Napoleon, Cromweell and Bismarck. to name just a few — but, as far as I know, he has never been compared to Shaka, the Zulu king. This would seem an unlikely comparison, and in many respects, it is. But it is not so much their lives that bear comparison, but their legacies and the way in which they have been represented and remembered. Both have come to be viewed in a polarised way, as hero or villain. Shaka has been represented as the heroic nation-builder, but also as a brutal tyrant; Rhodes as the great empire-builder, but also as the ruthles, dictatorial imperialist. Shaka has been revered by African nationalists, but hated by most white colonialists — although some of them have shown a grudging admiration for the Zulu king as a “noble savage”. Rhodes has been revered by imperialists, but loathed by African nationalists — although again there is evidence that some African leaders, especially in the early twentieth centuiry, admired Rhodes as “a great man”.

Some have also compared Rhodes with Robert Mugabe, and Maylam remarks, “Both men can be characterised as arrogant, authoritarian and vain. Both were land grabbers. And both were content to use force and violence to achieve their political ends.”

Maylam also makes much of the resemblance of the Rhodes memorial in Cape Town to a pagan temple,

… the colossal bust of Rhodes portrays him as a great thinker — which he was not. He had ideas, certainly, but as some biographers have observed, they were often boyish and immature… locating the bust in a “temple” amounts to the deification of Rhodes — but Rhodes, although the son of an Anglican clergyman, was not a religious person. For many, the near deification of someone who was far from being saintly smacks of idolatry.


Cecil Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town. By SkyPixels - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Cecil Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town. By SkyPixelsOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

G.K. Chesterton, writing in 1912, said,

Rhodes had no principles whatever to give to the world. He had only a hasty but elaborate machinery for spreading the principles that he hadn’t got. What he called his ideals were the dregs of a Darwinism which had already grown not only stagnant but poisonous. That the fittest must survive and that ony one like himself must be the fittest; that the weakest must go to the wall, and that anyone he could not understand must be the weakest.

And perhaps that fits Donald Trump as well.

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The funeral of Philip Mabena

7 August 2016

Philip Mabena died on 26 July 2016. He was a member of the African Orthodox Church (AOC) in Atteridgeville, whose church building we have been renting for our services since the beginning of this year. We have had a long association with the African Orthodox Church in Atteridgeville, as we first visited them in 1989, and their priest at that time, Johannes Motau, sometimes attended Orthodox study groups, and also some services at the Church of St Nicholas of Japan, then meeting in borrowed premises in Yeoville, Johannesburg.

Philip Mabena was one of the leading members of the AOC in Atteridgeville, and was, in a way, the glue that held it together, so though we did not know him well, we have known him for a long time, and so we all went to his funeral. He was a retired policeman, and had been born on 1 July 1932, which surprised me, as I thought he was much younger than that.

I write about his funeral not merely because of who he was, but because, as far as I can determine, the Orthodox Church in South Africa has given very little thought to death and its rituals in southern Africa. Of course the Church has its service books and their rubrics, but many of these are impractical in the circumstances in which Orthodox Christians find themselves here. I have attended many funerals, and served at some, and my observation is that funeral customs vary from place to place and from time to time, and are largely determined by burial societies and funeral directors.

I have sometimes asked about customs that were new to me, and the usual response has been that it is “our culture”, but “our culture” seems to change from funeral to funeral, depending on who the undertakers and burial society are. One constant factor, however, seems to be a printed programme provided by the undertakers, and controlled by a master of ceremonies. The actual church service is fitted into the programme between the speeches. There will be a hymn, and then a slot for Revd X to do the funeral service. What is expected is a short exhortation, to be fitted in to a lot of other items, including clergy of several denominations, regardless of which church the deceased belonged to.

Philip Mabena’s funeral was different, and in its broad outline fitted the rubrics of the Orthodox burial service — it started with a vigil at the house, proceeded to the church for the service, and then to the cemetery for the burial.

This was only possible because Philip Mabena lived within walking distance of the church. Most Orthodox Christians in southern Africa live a long way from the church, and so the service usually satarts in the church, ot in other cases is held at the house, going from there to the cemetery.

At 7:00 am the body was brought out of the house after the vigil, and Deacon Enock Thobela, who is in charge of the Atteridgeville AOC parish, preceded it reading the sentences from the South Sotho Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The coffin was laid down near the gate, and a member of the family said a last farewell, as Philip Mabena’s body left home for the last time. An earthenware pot was thrown on the ground and smashed. The coffin was then put in the hearse abnd taken to the church, with clergy walking in front or alongside. The procession to the church was led by a brass band.

Funeral procession to African Orthodox Church in Atteridgeville.

Funeral procession to African Orthodox Church in Atteridgeville.

At the church the service was led by Bishop Mogano from Krugersdorp, and there were a couple of other priests as well. I was interested to see that
they did the funeral the way we have done it, with the speeches and eulogies built into the service, instead of the other way round, as is often done in other services, where the burial societies and undertakers try to make the service a small part of a larger programme. Also I was the only non-AOC among the clergy — in other cases there are clergy representing the denominations that various members of the family belong to. This was very much an all AOC affair.

The brass band in the church

The brass band in the church

One of the speakers was Sejamotopo Charles Motau, the eldest son of Johannes Motau, a former priest of the church, who was a Member of Parliament for the Democratic Alliance, so his speech took on a political tinge, and politics was in the air, with the results of municipal elections still coming in.

Funeral of Philip Mabena

Funeral of Philip Mabena

When we went to the cemetery, we gave a lift to one of the AOC priests, Don Dlwati from Tembisa, who was a son of the former archbishop of that branch of the AOC, Adonijah Dlwati. There was a huge traffic jam at the gates of the cemetery, which was in Lotus Gardens, over the railway line and the toll road.

Funeral of Philip Mabena, leaving the church after the service.

Funeral of Philip Mabena, leaving the church after the service.

At the graveside, Bishop Mogano was very much in charge of the proceedings, telling which of the priests to say which prayers. As soon as they had filled in the grave, they laid the tombstone, and Bishop Mogano asked me to say a prayer at that point, so I sang “Memory Eternal” in North Sotho.

It was interesting also to see the gravestone laid and unveiled right after the burial. In many cases that takes place about a year after the burial, which means that the family has to go through the whole business of catering for visitors all over again.

As we walked back to the car I talked to the Programme Director, Mr P. Mahlangu, who was asking about the Orthodox Church and was puzzled by the epithets “Greek”, “Russian” and the like, and I explainede to him that we had Greek, Russian, Serbian and Romanian parishes, but it was one Orthodox Church. We returned to the house where there was food, and the brass band played some more.


Over brunch we chatted to Don Dlwati, who had travelled back with us too. I noticed that he was using Baptist and Methodist service books, presumably because the Anglican ones they prefer to use are no longer available. So once again I appeal to any Anglicans reading this, who have any copies of Southern Sotho Prayer Books that they would be willing to donate, to please get in touch with me.

For more information about the African Orthodox Church and its relation to canonical Orthodoxy, see here.


Of whom I am first

3 August 2016

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.

The two kinds of people are those who believe that the world can be divided into good guys (us) and bad guys (them), and those who believe that we ourselves are part of the problem.

A few days ago Jim Forest, of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, drew my attention to a review of a book on the poet Wystan Hugh Auden which put this very well indeed — The Secret Auden by Edward Mendelson | The New York Review of Books:

By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.

On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.

This is something that Orthodox Christians are, or ought to be reminded of every time they receive the Holy Communion, with the prayer that begins “I believe O Lord and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”

CondemnationThis is all too easily forgotten, sooner or later after receiving the holy communion, when we revert to our usual habit of perceiving ourselves as more righteous and less sinful than other people. This habit becomes even more easy to slip into in times or war, or even elections. Right now we are preparing for local government elections in South Africa, and the rhetoric is hotting up, though we don’t seem to be a patch on the Americans, whose rhetoric seems to be even more extreme and vituperative (did you see what I just did there?)

Someone asked (of that saying of St Seraphim of Sarov) “What does he mean by condemn? Does that mean giving constructive criticism too?

When St Seraphim said “All condemnation is from the devil”, he may have been referring to Revelation 12:9-12 “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world” ( καὶ ἐβλήθη ὁ δράκων ὁ μέγας, ὁ ὄφις ὁ ἀρχαῖος, ὁ καλούμενος Διάβολος καὶ ὁ Σατανᾶς, ὁ πλανῶν τὴν οἰκουμένην ὅλην) . The point here is that both the Greek word diavolos (from which the English word “devil” is derived) and the Hebrew word Satan mean “adversary” or “accuser”, something like a prosecutor in a law court, and that is clear in v10 “the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night” (ὅτι ἐβλήθη ὁ κατήγορος τῶν ἀδελφῶν ἡμῶν, ὁ κατηγορῶν αὐτῶν ἐνώπιον τοῦ Θεοῦ ἡμῶν ). The categoriser of our brethren to thrown out, the one who categorised (or pigeonholed) them before God (cf Zechariah 3). The most satanic activity we can ever engage in is the making of accusations.

This is all summed up rather tritely in a saying that has almost become a cliche: Hate the sin, but love the sinner.

One can criticise constructively (or even destructively, if necessary) what a person does, but not what that person is. Judging by what a person is is what is called an ad hominem argument — this person is a bad person, therefore what this person says must be wrong. And so in politics, one may (and sometimes should) criticise the policies of a politician but to condemn the person crosses the line, and puts us on the side of the devil, as St Seraphim points out.

And “Hate the sin but love the sinner” also becomes monstrously hypocritical without the “of whom I am first”. Is Jacob Zuma a sinner? So am I. Is Hillary Clinton a sinner? So am I. Is Donald Trump a sinner? So am I. Is Poroshenko a sinner? So am I. Is Putin a sinner? So am I. Was Tony Blair a sinner? So am I. Was B.J. Vorster a sinner? So am I. Was Adolf Hitler a sinner? So am I.

When, over the next few months, you see (as you surely will)  pictures of any of these political leaders, or others, on Facebook and other social media, with their ugliest possible pictures, and denunciations of their policies, then ask yourself whether those are really their policies, or policies falsely imputed to them by their political opponents or the media. And judge whether the policies are good or bad according to conscience. But if it merely attacks the person rather than the policy, then do not like, do not share, just say a prayer and pass on.

What Auden writes against is the tendency to put wicked politicians (or other kinds of sinners) in a separate category that doesn’t include us. They are mad, insane, inhuman. And it is this putting people in a separate inhuman category that was so characteristic of the devil — the categoriser of our brethren has been thrown out (Revelation 12:10) . When we say that someone is a waste of space, a waste of oxygen, a worthless human being, we blaspheme the God who made them and us.

G.K. Chesterton, a contemporary of W.H. Auden, wrote:

The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor. A Christian may consistently say, “I respect that man’s rank, although he takes bribes.” But a Christian cannot say, as all modern men are saying at lunch and breakfast, “a man of that rank would not take bribes.” For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes. It is a part of Christian dogma; it also happens by a curious coincidence that it is a part of obvious human history. When people say that a man “in that position” would be incorruptible, there is no need to bring
Christianity into the discussion. Was Lord Bacon a bootblack? Was the Duke of Marlborough a crossing sweeper? In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment.

Can I trust Jacob Zuma and his cronies the Guptas? No. Can I trust Donald Trump? No. Can I trust Hillary Clinton? No. Can I trust myself? No. The last sentence in the quote from Chesterton is the most important.

A friend in college introduced me to W.H. Auden’s poem Vespers, in which he expressed the sentiment described in the quotation with which I began this article:

Was it (as it must look to any god of cross-roads) simply a fortuitous intersection of life-paths, loyal to different fibs or also a rendezvous between accomplices who, in spite of themselves, cannot resist meeting to remind the other (do both, at bottom, desire truth?) of that half of their secret which he would most like to forget…

You can see the whole poem (Horae Cononicae) here, or even hear Auden himself reading it, here.

The only daughter (book review)

2 August 2016

The Only DaughterThe Only Daughter by Jessica Anderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four years ago I read an Australian novel about families of Greek immigrants in Melbourne, The Slap. This one is about established Australian families a generation earlier, in Sydney. In spite of the differences of time and style, both books seemed intensely suburban. My wife and I kept comparing them, and we both thought that this one was rather better written than The slap (review here) .

Jack and Greta Cornock have no children of their own, but each of them has 30-something children from previous marriages, some single, some married, some divorced. Jack’s daughter Sylvia Foley (divorced), who has been overseas in Europe for 20 years, returns for a brief visit to discover that her father has had a stroke, and her step-siblings are concerned about what he has left to their mother in his will. Like The Slap it goes into great detail about the minutiae of suburban life, and the concerns of middle-class suburban people, until one discovers that the older generation had a much harder time of it in their youth.

The book has a genealogical table in the front to help one to picture the complex relationship s between the main characters, and I found myself wishing that it also had a map of Sydney, so that one could picture the relationships between the places described, sometimes in great detail.. In spite of this, some details were rather fuzzy and blurred. In The Slap one was not told the ages of several of the children, so it was difficult to picture them. in The only daughter the ages of the children are given, but the makes and models of cars the characters drive around in are not. Perhaps that’s a difference between South African and Australian culture, or perhaps it is a difference between small towns and suburbs. But I recall discussing who was visiting whom because we could see their cars parked outside someone’s house.

Were these the only two Australian novels I had read, I might have thought that all Australian literature was essentially suburban, but a couple of months ago I read The glade within the grove, also set in Sydney (and southern New South Wales), about the founding of a hippie commune.

But the book does give a rather detailed picture of suburban life and concerns in the 1970s.

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