I recently found this carefully written on the wall of a restaurant toilet in Dundee:

Brexit’ to be followed by Grexit. Departugal. Italeave. Fruckoff. Czechout. Oustria. Finish. Slovakout. Latervia. Byegium. Scotfree….

I’ve no idea where the wit originated but there’s something very Scottish about choosing this method of communication.

This other response to Brexit was sent me online by a Scotswoman:


referring to the Remain vote in Scotland and London. I’ve culled these flowers of wit for St. Andrew’s Day because I think they illustrate my notion that Scots are not especially brave or bright but they just may be the one of the funniest cultures in the world. Now let me qualify that a bit. Without doubt the Irish are the funniest at “laugh till the tears come” humour, just as the Russians are tops for the darkest humour in the world. But Scotland gets the gold for what we would call “pawky” humour, meaning humour that is sly, indirect, and subversive. I admit this claim has been bolstered by hearing a few days ago on the radio the sweet surrealist musings of Ivor Cutler, famous for his saying, “Imperfection is an end; perfection is only an aim.”

I’ve used the word “pawky” which may be unfamiliar to readers outwith (Scots for “outside” of an area) Scotland and Northern England. It derives from  a anglo- saxon word “pauk” meaning a trick or stratagem, and is used to describe a dry and dissident wit. There is also a tradition of savage wit in Scotland, but it is not pawky, which refers  to only to utterances which have a certain lightness and indirection. The pawky person does not charge at her target like a bull, but moves a little to the side, the better to find a weakpoint. When Billy Connolly wants to puncture a kind of pious pity of his Parkinsonism, he remembers his doctor’s advice that in public he could conceal his trembing hands by putting them in his pockets. “But then when I saw what this looked like on camera, I realised it wouldnae work……” The obvious vulgarity of much of Connolly’s wit dsguises its delicate fantasy, its pawkiness.

I grew up in Glasgow with many pawky people, not least the hero of my teenage years, Gibb Gillies, a friend of my family, whose capacity for the sideways look at people and events was a constant delight to me. He was the headmaster of Scotland Street Primary School, and ever ready to test my knowledge.

“Who discovered America?”

“Christopher Columbus,” I answered.

“Did all these Indians live there all that time without discovering it?”


“Was Jesus a Christian?”

“Of course,” I answered.

“You mean he believed in himself?”


“Is Jayne Mansfield a stoatir?” ( Well-built woman)

“Oh aye,” I answered.

“Exactly what is it about her that stoats?” (stots)

I knew the answer to that one but he knew I couldn’t manage the adult langauge to tell him.

The pawky Scot is a bit sceptical about the relics of St. Andrew. Knowing that the Scots  Crown and Clergy were anxious to get into the lucrative pilgrim trade, we realise the sooner or later some bits of some apostle were bound to end up here. We had plenty ordinary second string saints before that, Columba, Aidan, Mungo and the rest, but obviously their dessicated bits and bobs were not good enough to put us in the premier league for pilgrimage, and so they had to be relegated with Andrew’s arrival.

The Reformation Church may have made some mistakes – it wasn’t noted for its lightsome heart or pawky humour- but it surely did get right the notion that the biblical word “saints” meant the whole people of God, as a community and individually. My older friend Gibb who was utterly devoted to children throughout his life, and was prepared to educate me for life in his spare time, is a more relevant saint to me than the good Apostle, who as Simon Peter’s brother was doubtless experienced in shuffling out of the spotlight. Throughout some fifty years of ministry, I’ve served the saints, and although they have been often at odds with me, (and often rightly) I’ve never ceased to see them as holy and to marvel at their gifts. With their own pawky wit they have never ceased to demand that I recognise them, and myself, as ordinary grade sinners, whom only Jesus would recognise as anything else.

Aye, Jesus. That reminds me that I like to think of Jesus as having a Scottish side, and therefore a pawky sense of humour expressed perhaps in calling his flakiest disciple, “The Rock,” or in travestying the judgemental nonsense of Pharisees by a mime of writing in dust, or indeed by healing an apparently dead girl by saying, “Time to get up, my wee dove.”

His firm conviction that known sinners and the poor were the preferred subjects of God’s kingdom, may also be called pawky.



The death of Fidel Castro has occasioned considerable comment in our press, much of it vitiated by the narrow perspectives and selective memory of our capitalist culture. Little twerps who have done nothing brave in their short lives are given space to denigrate a man whose greatness is beyond their comprehension. For even if we attribute all the injustices of Cuban life since 1959 to Castro he remains one of the most considerable human beings of the last 70 years. Revolutionary agitator, guerrilla commandant and political leader, he endured countless set-backs, overcame murderous plots, took terrible decsions to preserve the life of his nation, labouring constantly for the social justice in which he believed.img_0171

His politics were determined by events outside his control; especially by the prolonged enmity of the USA and its allies, which nearly destroyed the Cuban economy and led to  Castro’s dependence on the Soviet Union. One can describe his pro- Soviet alliance as wrong in that it gave succour to an odious tyranny, and almost self-defeating in that it tied the survival of Cuba to that of the Soviet Union, which was a bad bet. But if you ask yourself what else he could have done to preserve the Cuban revolution in the face of American opposition, you will find no obvious answer.

His irresponsible foolishness in permitting Soviet nuclear weapons to be placed in Cuba, must also be added to the debit side of his account, although it’s not clear that these were more provocative than the similar weapons the USA had placed in Turkey.

His treatment of dissenters, some of whom were loyal to his social vision, is his most serious discredit, and is typical of one -party states where there is no constitutional room for disagreement. Those who value liberal democracy above all other political goods, will judge his autocracy and illiberalism as a crucial weakness. Those who value the life-chances of men and women and children more highly than any political system, and who notice the ease with which these are diminished by a political system that is porous to capitalism, want to look at the results of Castro’s rule, as well as its casualties.

A state that was described by Arthur Miller as a brothel for the USA, run by a violent dictator with the help of the Mafia, for the benefit his international cronies, in which most people had no access to education or health care, has been transformed into a nation of almost universal literacy and free health care, with the social cohesion to withstand the longest economic boycott in history. By any standards this has been an astonishing achievement of the many thousands of Cubans who have brought it about. They acknowledge however, that Castro’s iron determination agamist the odds, was essential to their success. img_0171

His own speeches and writings prove that he understood the nature of the choices he was making, and did not deceive himself that they were without bad consequences. Perhaps one of the reasons for the length of his speeches was his desire to convince himself that he had been right. In old age however, his relationship with Pope Benedict reveals a readiness to question himself and the roots of his socialism.

I guess I’m saying that our society has almost lost the capacity to see human greatness  in those who do not fit our our prejudices, unless, like Mandela, they are noble victims of our own  oppression. (How many admirers of Mandela supported the anti-apartheid movement?) Castro refused to let his people be victimised and used the means at his disposal to help them flourish.

Castro himself knew and valued the observation of the Christian bishop of Recife, Dom Helder Camara:

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

Fidel Castro was happy to be called a communist.


img_0166The guilty verdict and life sentence passed today on Thomas Mair, for the murder of Jo Cox MP, brings sombre thoughts, not least because rhe murderer shares my surname and nationality. There is something about the face to face stabbing amd shooting of a defenceless person which seems particularly barbaric, although I know that targeted drone strikes are in fact worse. Any butchering of a human being for political reasons diminishes us all.

The crime occurred in the middle of a verbally violent referendum during which certain politicians and newspapers focused on immigrants to the UK in a way that reflected and encouraged the hate felt by significant numbers of citizens towards foreigners. Thomas Mair had studied neo-nazi and other racist propaganda online, but it is reasonable to ask if the public expression of anti- immigrant propaganda by mainstream politicians and newspapers may not have allowed Mair to think that his perverted nationalism was justifiable or even praiseworthy.

The national newspapers especially guilty, namely the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, will of course indignantly deny any responsibility at all, which is what I would expect from irresponsible journalists, and will argue that any restriction on their mendacious propaganda would be be an assault on the freedom of the press.img_0167

I am reminded of Dr Johnson’s riposte to the supporters of American independence. “How is it,” he enquired, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty coming from the drivers of negroes?”

How is it, I would ask, that we hear the loudest yelps for freedom of speech coming from those who demand the silencing of “radical narratives” and of the propagation of “non-British values”. I certainly have no sympathy for the so-called “hate preachers,” who encourage gullible young men into risks they do not take themselves and into atrocities that the noble Qur’an condemns. But the same analysis that links Islamic hate speech with Islamic atrocities, must also link nationalist hate speech with nationalist atrocities such as the murder of Jo Cox.

Of course, hate speech of all kinds is readily available on the internet. Some would argue that as we cannot control what is communicated online, there is no point in controlling the content of newspapers. I disagree. I think that whatever is openly displayed for public use should be subject to a prohibition of language that arouses hatred or degrades any citizen. Applying such a law to internet as well as newspapers TV and Radio may be difficult but surely not impossible.

A public prohibition of abusive language including serious swearing, in all media, would be an assertion of courtesy and reason and a refusal of brutal irrationality. It would go against the bullying spirit of our time, but might be none the worse for that. It would also implement the teaching of Jesus:

img_0168“You have heard that they said, Thou shalt not kill. And if anyone does kill he must answer for it to the court. But I say this to you. Anyone who is angry with his brother shall answer for it to the court; and anyone who calls his brother worthless will answer to the Council, and anyone who slanders his brother will answer for it in hellfire.”

Jesus knew the connection between verbal abuse and violence. A stricter law against hate speech in all media might be a fitting memorial to Jo Cox.

I owe this challenging title to the great Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Footballl Club, who was being interviewed about his antagonistic relationship with Jose Mourinho now manager of Manchester United. Mr.Wenger was prepared to admit some responsibility for the antagonism, while nevertheless keeping the moral high ground. “Yes, I have made mistakes,” he admitted, “even Jesus made mistakes, no?” I have no wish to pursue the similarity between Wenger and Jesus, except to note that it may explain Wenger’s liking for a robe-like coat that almost touches the ground. But I would like to take up his common sense observation about Jesus, which mevertheless runs counter to most Christian theology about Jesus.img_0163

Indeed most people brought up on traditional Christian teaching about Jesus will have experienced a slight sense of shock at Wenger’s casual assumption that Jesus could go wrong. What, the Son of God, the precious Word of God, go wrong! It’s the sort of utterance that in earlier centuries would have had the boys from the Inquisition, or from your local Kirk Session (I would rather have faced the Inquisition) knocking at your door. For of course the Son of God is sinless, he can’t make mistakes, otherwise how could we be certain of our salvation?

The Gospels are not concerned to depict Jesus as sinless, although they never in my view deliberately show him making a mistake or doing something wrong.  Nevertheless we may ask whether the deliberate neglect of his parents shown by the boy Jesus when he went to the temple, the impatience he showed towards Pharisees, the Jewish racial prejudice he displayed towards a Canaanite woman, his conviction that he had the right to alter the law of Moses, whether these actions and attitudes were not at least mistaken, if not actually wrong.

Classic Christian theology was concerned to deliver a credible doctrine of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity, the divine Son of. God, incarnated as a human being Jesus of Nazareth, whose human self had to be provided by virgin birth from a woman herself conceived without taint of sex. These theologians imagined that sex inevitably communicated the sin of Adam and Eve, so it had to be avoided at all costs in the divine incarnation, and even more, in the life of the Son of God. Yes, Jesus was a complete man, which meant he had a penis, but don’t you ever think that this organ became erect, or provided him with even the teeniest, weeniest, twinge of sexual pleasure, certainly not! You disgusting pervert, how can you even think of such a thing! The divine willie was, if we are to believe St. Augustine, unlike all other willies in the history of the world, totally under the control of Jesus at all times, so that it would only have been erected if he had, God forbid, instructed it to be so. You may think I’m exaggerating, but no, it’s true that grown men (and yes, it was almost exclusively men) argued about such matters, and even tortured people over them, in the centuries when the classic doctrines of the church were hammered out. They wanted to make Jesus into a person with two natures, divine and human, which were not confused or intermingled but neverthless united in Jesus, the Son of God. It’s not really surprising that any image of Jesus as a credible human being was mislaid in the process. img_0164

So let’s tease out the notion of a sinless person who never made mistakes or did wrong. Children are taught by their parents, which involves getting things wrong before they get them right. A perfect human child would of course not go wrong but only right, which in fact means he would not need to learn from parents, but would know the right way. Toilet training comes to mind. Jesus never had accidents, or like some children, shat himself with undiguised glee, but would have put all nappy manufacturers out of business, if he had taught the trick to others. And of course sometimes parents, even virgin mothers, will be mistaken in their guidance. In Jesus’ case he would have known and automatically corrected any mistakes. Surely as perfect Son of God he didn’t have to learn to walk, but was able to do so, as soon as it was expected of him. Did he ever quarrel with his brothers and sisters, who were not like him divinely conceived. Dod he ever raise a hand in anger? Indeed, was he ever angry? Now there’s an issue; he does seem to have been angry at the Pharisees. He said they were fit for hell, and compared them to white-washed graves, which does sound a little unjust particularly when he was condemning a whole group of people. Our cunning theologians however say that the anger does not come from the human Jesus but from his divine nature which articulates the wrath of God and cannot of course be wrong.

The problem with the doctrine of the sinlessness of Jesus is that it springs from an inadequate view of moral perfection, which excludes wrong attitudes and actions from the perfect life. The most perfect people  I know have made mistakes and done wrong, but they have learned from these and grown into a wholeness of character in which they do wrong very seldom. Their knowledge of their past  wrongdoing also gives them humility and a kindly understanding of the wrongdoing of others. I guess Jesus was like this rather than like the saints who feared contamination by the world. Perfection in my book, means a capacity for continually learning goodness from other people, the created universe and from God. If not, how could we learn to be  like Jesus? If not, what would be the point of the “imitation of Christ”?

img_0165The logical answer given by some theologians is that of course we cannot learn pefection but must be born again through the spirit to share in the divine life of Jesus and of the Father. They called this theosis, becoming like God. I see the point of this theology and admire its scope and severity, and for a moment I’m tempted to dismiss all this blog as crude, worldly, banter which cannot conceive of either the corruption of human nature, or of the divine perfection that rescues us. Tempted but not convinced, for in all its logic this theology does scant justice to the human capacity to learn or to the one who taught perfection, the Rabbi from Nazareth who ate and drank with sinners and “learned obedience through suffering.”

So for the moment at least, I can declare myself a Wengerite in theology.



Today I read the words of my title in a new book by John Berger, entitled Confabulations. He is a great master of writing, and more than that, of understanding.  He has written splendid novels, searching essays on visual art, and incisive provocations on politics. He is now quite old, but he continues to communicate the wisdom he has discovered.img_0160

If you haven’t read him, you’re missing one of the great thinkers of our time.

The phrase I’ve stolen occurs in an essay on Charlie Chaplin, which I enjoyed because in my family I’m always having to defend him against people who prefer Buster Keaton. The full version of the phrase is: “in Chaplin’s world,  laughter is the nick-name of Immortality.”

Berger relates the flowering of Chaplin’s comic art to a childhood in which he learned the great lesson of poverty, that you can expect to be humiliated time and time again, and you probably won’t be be able very often to get revenge. So you have to learn to bounce back up, to dance, to weave around the bully a spider’s web of impossibly delicate scorn, to be repeatedly resurrected as the same indomitable victim, turning rage into an improbable laughter.

You can see why that laughter, which expresses the intelligence and courage of the victim and pricks the balloon of power, you can see why he calls it the nick-name of immortality. It has of course nothing to do with the casual and brutal laughter of normal comedy, which often mocks the victim, but is more akin to the ancient tradtion of the fool, who is the only one at court allowed to speak the truth to power. But these are licensed jesters, fed by the same bullies they mock.  There are however the geat unlicensed jesters of history, such as Aristophanes, who pointed out 2500 years ago exactly how women could stop war. (Guess) Or Diogenes who lived in a tub and told Alexander the Great to get out of his sunlight. Or St Francis, who by having nothing saved his church from ruin while undermining its institutional corruption. Or Jesus who joked that you could stop war easily by loving your enemy, and that if you liked the great gulf between yourself and the poor, you would find yourself on the wrong side of the great gulf between heaven and hell, where your ass would be fried.img_0161

This profound wit that knows the weakness of power and the power of the weak is completely without shallow optimism: it knows that wars will continue, conquerors will throw their weight around, the wealthy will exploit the poor, comedians may end up on crosses. But that doesn’t shut it up, as it continues to point to the emperor’s nakedness, and to punch holes in the fabric of oppression so that the light can get in. Even perhaps to punch holes in the fabric of death, so that the life can get in.

Yes, above all it knows that life does get in, that is it gets into us poor creatures so that we can rediscover the ordinary miracles of life around us, in the curious cocked head of the jackdaw that walks on my neighbour’s roof, in the choked voice of the widower as he speaks about his wife’s scolding, in the way the teenaged schoolgirl pulls the ear of the boy who was patting her rump, in the quick hands of the mechanic who puts new tyres on my car, in my joy at the prospect of seeing an old friend on Sunday, these mortal things that are nevertheless the stuff of eternity, when they are liberated by laughter.

Sometimes political writing seems to assume that most people are selfish and that there’s very little point in appealing to their altruism, because it may not exist. This leads to the conviction that only power can achieve any degree of justice, ignoring those who used to be referred to as “people of goodwill.” In the absence of goodwill, I believe, not much justice will ever be achieved, because  small good things provide a basis for the larger ones.

“A small good thing” is the title of a marvellous story by Raymond Carver, in which a baker offers the bread he has just baked as a small good thing to a couple whose child has died. It is amongst the greatest things ever to have been written by an American  because it expresses a profoundly democratic kindness.

There are traditions of civic kindness in the UK which should never be ignored in political thinking.


The lady who often serves me at the till in Tescos is a skilled first-aider who works with St John’s Ambulance to provide effective help at one of the local football stadiums. She does this with great cheerfulness, relishing the responsibility and the chance to use skills that are not often called upon in her daily work at Tesco. She is proud to be offering this unpaid service which is in no way inferior to any paid service that could be provided.

There are many similar traditions. I was talking last week to a man whose son is one the local lifeboat crew. He reminded me that not only does the crew give their work free of charge, but that the Lifeboat Association has to raise the funds for the vessels, which cost in excess of £1m. Many lives are saved every year. The mountain rescue service is another example of skilled labour proudly given for free. The Citizens Advice Bureau could not begin to provide its vital service to people in need without its trained volunteers.

I use the word traditions of these and many other forms of voluntary service because each one has a history, a modus operandi and an organisational structure  which expresses a distinctive ethic, reminding citizens that there are some things that money cannot buy.


A local lawyer surprised me recently with an account of the quite extensive work that her firm does free of charge because it is for public or indiviidual good. She indicated that colleagues valued the opportunity to do such work, and gave it as much energy and skill as any paid assignment. This is a crucial benefit in situations where legal skill is essential but cannot be afforded.

There are other professions and trades who contribute free labour for specific causes. I know a medical doctor who provides a months work free of charge every year to a hospital in central Africa. He says it allows him to remember why he became a doctor.


I detest the paid fundraisers used by large charities. The use of them signals that the charity in question has lost its vision. But here, at Sainsbury’s today,  is the man whose son is quadraplegic raising money for a small local charity that arranges holidays for such children. He is very grateful for the NHS but knows there are things it can’t do. He and his wife manage to find time from the ceaseless tasks of caring for their lad to administer an imaginative ancillary service, that requires substantial funds.


People say the old neighbourliness is disappearing but I saw countless instances of it in a Dundee housing scheme, where mums would provide free child care for other mums in difficulty. An older woman coming back home from hospital was overwhelmed with neighbours bringing her cooked food. Another older woman took into her house a boy whose parents had thrown him out after he was caught sellong drugs.

People who do these things are the salt of the earth, preventing society from becoming altogether rotten, and showing that kindness is possible, real and beneficial. They create hope that justice also can be done, for justice is more than kindness, but never less.

I share the sense of shock that Donald Trump won the election, but I do not share the common liberal opinion, that he is stupid. I thought all along that he was fighting the precisely right campaign to catch the votes of those who have decided that their relative disadvantages in life justify a general hatred towards those they see to be the cause of their discontents,  namely, foreigners, fags, uppity women and  those they call the elite. Trump spoke always with an eye on approving, encouraging and justifying that hatred. Even the accusations levellled at him of sexual abuse of women might well have been planted by himself or his close advisers, since I’m sure they helped win him votes.NPG x19133; Jan Christian Smuts; John Maynard Keynes, Baron Keynes by Unknown photographer

The real cause of their many perceived disadvantages,  mamely the normal working of a capitalist economy, was pointed out clearly by only one politician, Bernie Sanders, the socialist defeated for nomination by Hillary Clinton. After his defeat, his analysis of what ails America was consigned to the waste bin by the main campaigns. It would have been interesting to say the least, to have seen some of the simmering anger direccted at the  bastions of the capitalist system, the banks, the multinational corporations, the stock exchanges, not to mention the vast army of accountants, lawyers, politicians, and media people, who in return for getting their snouts in the trough, serve Mammon. Unfortunately this has not happened. Even more unfortunately those who are most disadvantaged will find that if Trump wants to help them, he will be unable to do so, as he is allied to the interests that are screwing them and opposed to the kind of state interference that might assist them. He may, it is true, provide more employment opportunities by a programme of infrastructure renewal and controls on trade, but any benefits will be offset by the effects of his tax cuts for the wealthy and his support of the petrochemical giants. Unless of course, he is sincere in his desire to help and learns how to do it.

But he will also have to deal with the hatred he has encouraged and from which he has benefitted. It will not have been assuaged by dumping Hillary. The animal will demand food, again and again. Once Mexicans are repelled, what other foreigners will have to go? Once abortion has been made more difficult, will gays have to be cured by electro- convulsive therapy? Once Muslims have been baptised or banished, is it time to have a look at these pesky Jews? Once hatred has tasted blood, it’s hard to put it back on pet food.

In  Britain, as in Europe, right wing populism is on the march, most of it better informed than Trump’s supporters, and therefore potentially more dangerous. They too know the value of encouraging hatred. img_0155

If we are opposed to all this, what should we do?

I cannot speak for traditions of which I am ignorant, but only for my own, namely Christian Socialism, which adds to the imperatives of the Christian tradition, the analysis of social economy pioneered by Marx, as altered and developed in the tradition of democratic socialism throughout the world.

In obedience to Jesus, we must refuse all hatred, although we must become more expert in understanding it and its causes. We must be very aware of those groups calling themselves Christian who arouse hatred; we must call them out, and if they see nothing wrong in it, we must ask the support of the world church to declare them heretics. We must show ourselves  capable of building diverse and inclusive communities which refuse all hatred. This won’t be easy, because some of our congregations are not at all diverse. We must be prepared to change in order to become more than birds of a feather flocking together.

Intellectually we have to become much tougher. Good socialism doesn’t inculcate an ideology, it demands that people look at the facts which are concelaed or distorted by capitialist ideology. It wants people to see the world as it is, and their own true place in it. If we owe that place to exploitation, we must recognise this and take action. We must not be content with charitable responses to injustice and need, but cooperate with those who suffer from them in fighting them. We must appreciate the value of communal solutions and refuse those which meet our individual need only. Above all, we must recognise that “we are many, they are few” if we make common cause with brothers and sisters round the world, through churches, trade unions, NGO’s, professional associations and the like.

That’s a lot of work, but none of it is impossible and all of it is exciting.

img_0158As I say, I can only make suggestions for my tradition. The food bank I support is run by Muslim people and distributes to non-muslims. It is called, “Taught by Muhammed.” I am sure that true Islam has much to contribute to opposing the forces of hatred. My local Sikh temple with its open kitchen and fellowship is already breaking down barriers. Green politics, of which I am an ignorant admirer, will surely develop its own relevant opposition to those who hate their own planet. And so on.

Maybe the value of Donald Trump’s win is to convince those who thought a liberal consensus was enough justice, to think again.



img_0152Yes, I suppose I agree with Scottish and English footballers wearing poppies at their match on Friday, but I do not agree that the poppy is not a political symbol. It used to be a-political, I think, as long as you weren’t a Kraut or a Nip, but in the last five years it has become a symbol above all of a kind of politics that elevates the UK, excusing all its crimes and glossing over all its current contributions to international disorder, at the expense of Johnny Foreigner, especially if he lives or works here. Hugh McDiarmid once said that Scotland would not be free intil the last minister was strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post. I do believe that the UK will never be sane until the last right-wing bigot is buried with the last copy of the Daily Mail protruding from his mouth. Of course I hasten to add that Jesus loves even right-wing bigots, but He is famous for being less particular than most of us.

If the poppy is simply a symbol of remembrance, then it becomes important to remember our dead accurately. So, our soldiers were never in the first instance meant in any conflict to “lay down their lives” but rather to kill our enemies. Given that in some instances our enemies were intent on doing serious harm to our population, killing them looks like an efficient way of stopping them, but why do we not remember therefore, our “heroic killers”? Doubtless because any such description brings us too close to the messy business of war, which has nothing to do with poppies falling from a corniced ceiling. Paddy Ashdown reminded a radio audience at the weekend rhat once signed up in the armed forces men and women have no choice about what they do. They obey orders, that’s it. If the orders are wise, they will kill lots of enemies by blowing their bodies to bits; if unwise, they are likely to suffer the same fate. img_0152

And then of course, accurate remembrance must include the facts of the wars into which our armed forces were ordered. The 1st World War was a contest  of great armed powers jockeying for position in the world. The 2nd was a war against a vicious fascism, which initially had the support of many right- wing people in the UK. So I can see its necessity and worth. But when I ask why my father fought in Burma, the answer is not so much that the Japanese were fascists, as the fact that they threatened the British empire and interests in the far east. Hardly any of the wars since can be justified by the need to defend our population against attack, and even when that motive was alleged, as in the case of Saddam’s supposed ability to attack us in 45 minutes, the allegations were exposed as lies. The history of our use of our armed forces offers no grounds for assuming that they will only be ordered to kill enemies who want to do us harm, and plenty evidence that they will used to cover up the political miscalculations or to assist the upward mobility of our rulers.

That does not detract from the courage of our armed forces, who must obey orders,  but it does raise questions about the motives of those who scream about remembrance but do not want us to remember too accurately. Their desire for pompous, sentimental pageantry which costs us nothing, is miles away from the real experience of the combatants in our wars, who often ended up with greater respect for the opposing combatants than for their own generals.

“Good morning, Good Morning,” the general said

as we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of them dead

and we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack

as they trudged up to Arras with rifle and pack.


But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

( Siegfried Sassoon)

Accurate remembrance is also an issue for the Christian Church, whose most basic act of worship obeys a command to “Do this in remembrance of me.” One way of reading the literature of the early church is that in time followers of Jesus became dissatisfied with the brief and pious phrases, that Jesus died for sinners, or for our sins, or our salvation, or for the New Covenant, and wanted to insist on a more detailed remembrance of his life, his teachings, his controversies, his arrest, his torture, his crucifixion, his agony, his death and burial. They knew this was a dangerous memory because it pointed away from the description of Jesus’ death as a divine transaction, towards the fear, loathing malice and treachery of the religious establishment of his people,  and the cowardice of his closest disciples. Those details which were enshrined in the second generation of  Christian writings, namely the Gospels, are much less comfortable for believers, and for religious amd civil powers, than the  conventional formulas found even in St Paul’s letters. Those who receive the dangerous memory of Jesus, are faced with questions about religious arrogance and state brutality, not to mention the silent complicity of bystanders in atrocities they might have prevented.img_0152

Wilfrid Owen brings the memory of the war dead and the memory of Jesus together in his great poem, “On a Calvary near the Ancre”

One ever hangs where shelled roads part;

In this war He too lost a limb.

But his disciples hide apart

and now the soldiers bear with him.

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest

and in their faces there is pride

that they were flesh-marked by the Beast

by whom the gentle Christ’s denied.

The Scribes on all the people shove

and bawl allegiance to the state.

But they who love the greater love

lay down their lives, they do not hate.

Owen could write with integrity about lives laid down, because he knew in his own men what terrible pain and courage that act involved. I don’t suppose his poem will be read at Saturday’s Remembrance Lite tm or at many Remembrance ceremonies round the country on Sunday.









I’m not sure where the the title phrase originated. In its Scots use, “tae gie something the body swerve”, it means to avoid or evade anything from a dish on a menu to a man or are woman you don’t fancy. The image may arise from football, rugby, ballroom dancing, wrestling, or the Cheltenham Young Ladies’ Guide to Preserving Bodily Integrity on the Tube.

img_0147But maybe, just maybe, it was carried into modern speech by the Scottiish tradition of classical studies from the great Latin poet Lucretius. As all readers of his epic poem “De Rerum Natura” / “On the Nature of Things” will be aware, Lucretius wrote of how the universe is composed of atoms, and everything in the universe of combinations of atoms. But he notes that if the motion of atoms was completely regular they would fall separately through space and never collide with each other, so that nothing complex would exist. He therefore posits an irregular motion that moves atoms from a regulat path, and calls it “the swerve” (clinamen in Latin). This allows some indeterminancy into what would otherwise have been a completely determined and unproductive universe. If we are tempted to laugh at this notion we should remember that modern physicists have postulated a similar force which they call “inflation” to explain how the perfectly regular outward explosion of energy from the Big Bang produced the irregular clumps of energy which became stars and galaxies and bloggers.

Of course,  in Lucretius the body swerve produces rather than avoids collisions, but his delicate phrase might have been coarsened over the years of its journey through Scottish culture.

The interesting thing is that most ancient and modern conceptions of the universe recognise order, limit, regularity, and law as observable properties of the universe, enabling human beings to make accurate predictions about its behaviour, while also recognising that complete predictability leaves no room for the novelty which is also observable. So the ancient Epicurean model of the universe requires a swerve, particle physics requires the indeterminancy of fundamental particles, and cosmology requires “inflation.”

The biblical account of creation in Genesis shows how the forces of chaos, the primeval ocean and the darkness are not abolished but incorporated into the world in partnership with their opposites dry land and light, as sea and earth, day and night. The wise creator does not try to obliterate his  enemies but invites their cooperation. This builds a creative chaos into the order of creation, which amongst other things permits the freewill of human beings and all the trouble that brings  with it. This is the Bible’s version  of Lucretius’ swerve. Without the risk of disorder, there can be no order that permits its constituent bodies any room for manoevre, any initiative.

The swerve of thought

In the biblical account this permissiveness of the creator allows human lawlessness  and evil, which almost drive the creator to abandon his orderliness and let the forces of chaos destroy creation (The Great Flood). When this tactic fails, God is shown to have learned his lesson: if he wants a universe with a “swerve” that permits life, he must work by persuasion rather than power, which in turn means starting with one person, namely Abraham. The Christian story admits that without the swerve and the evil, there would be no Jesus. That leads the medieval carol writer to say, “Blissid be the time that apple taken was” which theologians called the doctrine of the Felix Culpa, the fortunate fault.

There are days when I wish there was no swerve, no indeterminancy, no disorder, no freewill, no evil. One of my dear ones is again afflicted by acute psychological illness, friends struggle with frailty,  Donald Trump is ahead in the USA election. I would certainly like to give all of that the body  swerve, but I am reminded by my foray into Lucretius and  Genesis, that my own ability to think, judge, decide and act are dependent on the fundamental indeterminancy that Lucretius calls “the swerve,” and the Bible depicts as God’s partnership with chaos. Perhaps the Latin poet can have the last word today:

Quo magis in dubiis hominem spectare periclis
convenit adversisque in rebus noscere qui sit;
nam verae voces tum demum pectore ab imo
eliciuntur et eripitur persona, manet res.
So it is more useful to watch a man in times of peril, and in adversity to discern what kind of man he is; for when at last words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off, reality remains.

Book III, line 55–58.