Thurifer considers a scented candle
‘Where do you stand on scented candles?’ The question did not come out of the blue. We were in the relevant section of a leading department store. It was not, however, a subject that had ever engaged my attention. After due, careful consideration, weighing pros and cons, navigating the moral maze, I decided that I had nothing against them, but would prefer pot pourri. An acquaintance of mine, now departed this life, spent an inordinate amount of money on scented candles for himself at Christmas. They may have been effective enough, but never quite managed to disguise the lingering aroma of rampant snobbery, casual racism and venal self-indulgence. I miss him.
23 April is not only the feast day of England’s patron saint, George, but is also taken to be the birthday of William Shakespeare in 1564. He was baptized on 26 April, and it was also the day of his death in 1616. The film All is True, directed and starring Kenneth Branagh, was in cinemas earlier in the year. It deals with Shakespeare’s return to Stratford following the immolation of the Globe Theatre, after which he did not write any more plays. Re-establishing relations with his wife (Judi Dench) and daughters while still mourning the death of his son leads to the unravelling of events of the past. Modern sensibility and its feminist bias centres on his daughter Judith and the true cause of his son’s death. The performances are outstanding, as you might expect from such actors as Judi Dench, Ian McKellen (triumphantly pushing the boundaries of his thespian skills by playing an ageing homosexual, the Earl of Southampton) and Branagh himself. Perhaps the highlight is the touching, extended encounter between the male protagonists with both Branagh and McKellen speaking the sonnet ‘Fortune and men’s eyes’ to each other differently and eloquently. There are self-consciously beautiful country settings: vivid reds, orange, amber, brown falling leaves mirror the autumnal, melancholic meditative quality of the film, as Shakespeare’s life moves into the sere and yellow of life. Branagh’s is a portrait of the outward ordinariness of the upwardly mobile, socially insecure, emotionally confined Shakespeare who was also a man of business, property and a literary genius. Unfortunately Branagh sports a sharp and disconcertingly prominent prosthetic nose, so that the final verdict is ‘the nose has it, the nose has it.’
‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids you killed today?’ ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh.’ These were the simplistic, agit-prop chants of the Sixties voiced by that hippy, dippy generation and which formed part of the soundtrack to my adolescence. Max Hastings, in his monumental, definitive book Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945–1975 chronicles the extended and tragic events that gave rise to those slogans. With admirable clarity and forensic detail he encompasses the geopolitical, international context of the conflict, national politics, and the aerial and hard-fought land battles, almost blow by blow. The cynical realpolitik of President Nixon and Kissinger, the squalid corruption and staggering ineptitude of the Saigon governments, the ruthless totalitarian inhumanity of the communist politburo in the north find their counterpoint in the individual stories of soldiers and civilians caught up in the maelstrom that are moving, often heroic and courageous. The outcome is inevitably bleak. Not only the deaths, the wounds and injuries, physical and psychological, that changed lives, but the loss of the moral authority of a nation and as ‘a grey totalitarian pall’ descended on Vietnam came the bitter aftermath of re-education camps, confiscation of property, and constant surveillance that are the inevitable outcome of a communist ideology: a modern version of slavery. How many millions have died and how many more might do so before communism as an alternative way of organizing human society, on the clear evidence of history, is regarded a ghastly failure?
Someone (was it Karl Marx, or perhaps Groucho?) said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. In The Pendulum Years, the late Bernard Levin wrote of the then Home Secretary Henry Brooke that ‘one of Parliament’s most familiar sights was that of his pasty face over the dispatch-box, explaining away his department’s latest blunder, latest turpitude, altogether unable to understand why one Labour MP described him as “the most hated man in Parliament.”’ Every government seems to have one hapless, accident-prone minister. The sort of minister who awards a contract to a ferry company with no ferries.
‘April is the cruelest month’ wrote T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land. A melancholy prospect for those to whom spring brings light and new possibilities. He apprehends spring reflected through the prism of winter with a sense of yearning and loss, from the perspective of the past and its follies, evoking the pain of memory. Perhaps spring offers uncertainty and unpredictability as well as possibilities, but there may be a worm in the bud, ‘That flies in the night… and… does thy life destroy.’ (Blake) Chaucer in his Prologue to The Canterbury Tales takes a more conventional view: ‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote, / And bathed every veyne in swich licour, / Of which vertu engendered is the flour.’ He sees it as the beginning of the pilgrimage season and as Mary’s month of May beckons our eyes turn to Walsingham, Lourdes and Fatima, singing our Aves.