Sunday, January 25, 2015


Once, at the age of eleven or so, I was asked what my favourite word was.  I replied, 'Broadcast'.  I'm not sure how my poor interlocutor responded.  But it came to mind the other day that I would probably give the same answer now.

I think it's a glorious word.  It is Germanic and wholesome, so you can get your teeth into it.  None of those Latinate fripperies!  And it has earthy origins: its eighteenth-century sense was agricultural and referred to the scattering of seed across a wide area (Hence the statue of a sower in the foyer of the B.B.C.'s Broadcasting House in Portland Place in London ).

Yet it fits its modern sense perfectly: it is a majestic word with a majestic meaning.  I think that this is what appealed to me at eleven: there is something magnificent about the apparatus and operation of telecommunications - particularly radio broadcasting - which is distinct from their value as scientific achievements.  Newsreaders drawing themselves up in readiness for their task; towering masts, sentinel over whole counties; and also that grave, unearthly, slightly flat voice of Big Ben - all these lend radio and television a poise and a dignity that I find delicious.  This is not least because it is all for the sake of words, and goes to show the weight they carry.

From the B.B.C. website.
Modern broadcasting has lost much of its majesty, I think.  On the one hand this has to do with the cultural change, of course: viewers and listeners are addressed less formally than before (to say the least!), and no clipped voices have reassured us that 'This is the B.B.C. Home Service' since 1967.  On the other, there is the improvement in the sound and picture quality of our sets at home, to the point at which the speakers might as well be in the room with us.  Undoubtedly this is for the better, but we have lost one thing, perhaps the most majestic of all, and that is the ability to hear distance.  Analogue fuzziness around a voice is proof of the journey it has made: we hear and understand in spite of all the hundreds of miles between transmitter and receiver.  And perhaps there is a sense of one's nation as well, in hearing its length and breadth via a method common to its whole people?

You can still hear distance on long-wave radio; sometimes even further on short-wave.  For us of the digital age it is exhilirating to sense the Shipping Forecast calling across emptinesses of dark sea to trawlers and oil-rigs.  The Internet might supply French and German radio in crystal clarity, but hearing it through a warm fuzz reminds me with a thrill of the real distance between us.  I can imagine how thrilling it must have felt to pick up off-shore pirate radio.  Philip Larkin conveys this feeling wonderfully in his poem, neatly entitled 'Broadcast', in which a concert broadcast on the radio is rarefied by the presence of a friend in the auditorium: 
The glowing wavebands, rabid storms of chording
By being distant overpower my mind
All the more shamelessly, their cut-off shout
Leaving me desperate to pick out
Your hands, tiny in all that air, applauding.
It must have been a strange feeling to pick up the B.B.C.'s signal in occupied France, once Parisian radio had fallen to the foe.  There is a fascinating podcast in French here (with more info. here) about the B.B.C.'s wartime broadcasts in French of defiant songs and sketches, often containing coded messages, and the General de Gaulle's speeches.  The occupiers tried to jam the signal, with limited success.  I wonder how it must have felt - probably unpleasant and intimidating - to hear this radio warfare going on in one's own house.  There must have been some encouragement, however, in the fellowship of many other French households, also tuned in.  Here, once again, is proof of the the power of words, not least when radio writes them in the sky.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


In my first entry, I blurted out that Benedict XVI, Pope from 2005-2013, now Pope Emeritus, is 'one of my heroes'.  But I am a young man in Britain - in the twenty-first century!  Am I mad?  What am I saying?

Well, I probably am mad, but that's a different question from whether, of the prominent figures of the past decade - intellectual, political, certainly religious - Benedict XVI is among the greatest.  He is a man both fiercely intelligent and steadfastly good: Cardinal Joachim Meisner said of him that '[er ist] einerseits ein ganzes Dutzend hochstehender Theologieprofessoren, andererseits ist er so fromm wie ein Erstkommunionkind [He is worth a dozen prominent theology professors and is as pious as a child on the day of his first communion]'.   A good and learned Pope was precisely what was needed in a world - particularly the Western world - laden down by secularism, by materialism, by cynicism, by impoverishment of culture, by faithlessness and by selfishness.

From the Daily Telegraph: two very great people.
This goodness is all the more remarkable because of the circumstances in which it has been tested, and thereby proved.  When conscripted into the Hitler Youth at the age of fourteen, he risked serious punishment by playing truant.  More courageously still, he later deserted the German army in 1944 and made his way home - where, seeing that Mass was being said in the parish church, and wishing to avoid a commotion, he did not go in, but waited for his family to come out at the end.

His goodness has also been tested where we have all been able to witness it.  The trials and missiles came relentlessly during his pontificate, perhaps precisely because of his intelligence, perception and lucid words.  The architects of not merely secular but anti-Christian society felt threatened by him, as their equivalents had been by St John Paul II, and they responded with falsehood and rage.  Many in the media (though by no means all) treated him unsympathetically, either by action or omission.  Yet he remained patient and steadfast in the pursuit of truth.  He did not flee for fear of the wolves; he did not falter in the face of the 'dictatorship of relativism', and in response to the prevalent belief that the only absolute is 'one's own ego and desires' he presented, again and again, 'a different goal: the Son of God, the true man'.  He has left for us both an intellectual defence of the Catholic faith and an example, itself founded on Christ's example, fit to shine forth in the twenty-first century. 

And he knew about young people. Which other public figure - apart now from Pope Francis -  in our era's vain and brittle superficiality will, for example, begin an address with the simple sincerity of "Dear young friends!", and mean it?  Who else will refuse to patronise them or to water down his wisdom for them?  Who else will, as he did at World Youth Day in Madrid, decline to flee a freak thunderstorm and instead remain with the million-strong gathering of young pilgrims?  And who else knows that this works?  Who would have thought that an uncharismatic and grandfatherly gentleman could earn  these cheers of 80,000 young people (and your correspondent's) in Hyde Park, during the magnificent and unforgettable Papal Visit to Britain in 2010?  It works of course because it is not really about him: he never forgot that he was the servant of the servants of God.  And since what he was bound to teach is as true for the young as it is for the old, he could say with conviction in his introduction to the new Youth Catechism:
"Many people say to me: The youth of today are not interested in this. I disagree, and I am certain that I am right. The youth of today are not as superficial as some think. They want to know what life is really all about."
Vigil at Hyde Park in London, 18th September 2010, on the eve of the beatification of Bl. John Henry Newman.  No relation: he is a Blessed, after all!

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Why this blog and why its title?

The second question is the easier to answer!  The words are a favourite phrase of mine; they come from a prayer written by the writer, theologian, priest and cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890).  I think it is worth reproducing in full:
'God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.
He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work.  I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.  Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.' 
Bl. John Henry Newman: Meditations on Christian Doctrine, Meditations and Devotions, March 7, 1848.
These are wise enough words in themselves, but I have another reason to cherish them.  I heard them repeated by one of my heroes, Pope Benedict XVI (now Pope Emeritus), at the vigil held in Hyde Park before Newman's beatification.
'Here I wish to say a special word to the many young people present. Dear young friends: only Jesus knows what “definite service” he has in mind for you. Be open to his voice resounding in the depths of your heart: even now his heart is speaking to your heart. Christ has need of families to remind the world of the dignity of human love and the beauty of family life. He needs men and women who devote their lives to the noble task of education, tending the young and forming them in the ways of the Gospel. He needs those who will consecrate their lives to the pursuit of perfect charity, following him in chastity, poverty and obedience, and serving him in the least of our brothers and sisters. He needs the powerful love of contemplative religious, who sustain the Church’s witness and activity through their constant prayer. And he needs priests, good and holy priests, men who are willing to lay down their lives for their sheep. Ask our Lord what he has in mind for you! Ask him for the generosity to say “yes!” Do not be afraid to give yourself totally to Jesus. He will give you the grace you need to fulfil your vocation.'
 Benedict XVI addressing young people at Hyde Park, in London, 18th September, 2010.

If it is good enough an idea for these two men, it is good enough for me: that even the hardest and humblest deed can be done in 'some definite service' (a paradox in the best tradition of Christianity, as Chesterton might have pointed out), and is never in vain.

Now I may be misguided in believing that this could apply specifically to my writing a blog about (I imagine) all sorts of things like poetry, culture, music and so on, and I may very much doubt that anyone else's 'definite service' extends to having to read it, but it ought to be good writing practice and a bit of fun.
'I too shall something make,
And joy in the making...'