“This world’s no blot for us nor blank, it means intensely and it means good, to find its meaning is my meat and drink.” -an optimistic line from ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’ written by the poet Robert Browning.
Along with Browning’s optimistic view of humanity goes his vivid poetic description of the persecution of Jews on St Bartholomew’s Day. Some groups were human and some sub-human as Nazi definitions of the Jewish race seemed to suggest. Ironical that it happens to be the race that produced more great scientists than the Ancient Greeks, not to mention artists and musicians and many other creative categories. Or did it seem to do so because the relentless nastiness and prejudices of Christians had winnowed the Jewish diaspora down to such a size that proportionately the gifted appeared to be so many more than in other races.
Nevertheless, as the mind wanders through the names of ‘greats’ one cannot help noticing that great thinkers, at least, have thrived through prejudice and hardship. Are these the factors that form greatness? One has often asked oneself this question. Can great poetry only emerge, as Byron contended, from great sorrow? If so, where are the sorrows that will define our race? Are we, as some contend, moving into the next great extinction? If so, what or who will be extinguished? Is humanity about to receive a humongous jolt long before the alien races land to wipe us all out?
I put this particular question because it seems ever and ever more likely that we are going to wipe each other out totally long before any other entity gets a crack at us!
Now is the Christmas Season, the season in which we plead in countless hymns and prayers for ‘Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men’. Our teachers, or at least some of them, used to protest that the second part should be ‘Toward Men of Goodwill.’ I suppose that leaves out those who have not a suspicion of goodwill about anything or anyone-like Ebenezer Scrooge! And, indeed, A Christmas Carol was always a favourite at Christmas, to be pushed to the back of consciousness soon afterwards. As cold winter wore on the family fireside (no central heating in those days half a century or more ago) became the place to listen to granddads telling tales of their war (WW1) and Dads telling theirs (WW2). They always seemed to jolly it all up, the ’Oh what a lovely war’ aspect of the British personality. But every now and then, a tear would fall as someone remembered a mother shooting her daughter in the head for falling in love with an enemy soldier! Cupid is, after all, such a knavish lad! Even those stalwarts who had returned to the home fires determined to put the worst of war behind them couldn’t forget everything.
Each December, for a short while at least, I reflect on the past, the past I have lived through as a child. This year it sprang more readily to mind because of the television coverage of what is happening in Aleppo. Aleppo is special: it is an ancient city,spanning 4,000 years of Near Eastern history and still lived in, with stones still singing of the past, of the trading ships; of the contacts with other lands; of pirates and, for some of us, of Macbeth’s three witches:
“Her husband’s to Aleppo gone, Master of the Tiger…”
“I’ll do and I’ll do and I’ll do,” threatens the hag as she vows to punish the husband for the wife’s refusal to share her chestnuts.
This nasty vengeful streak is we, the human race, today. The horrific destruction of Aleppo reminds me of the bombsites that surrounded us on the way to university classes, or earlier of bomb shelters where we played and pretended………….what? To be on the winning side of course! But each child, each of us in our simplicity realised that, for some to win, others had to lose. So we picked the losers from among us, the ‘Biggest Boy’ usually did the selecting. Until, of course, one day there was a protest. “The same people can’t win every time,” one ‘Einstein in the Making’ declared. “ Oh yes they can,” retorted the ‘Biggest Boy’. And before ‘Einstein in the Making’ could explain the formula that proved that a single entity is not always the winner, he received a sharp slap on the head from the ‘Biggest Boy’ and those of us with a sense of social commitment I suppose took him to the nearby cottage hospital. There he was admitted under observation, in case he was concussed.
Result - ‘Biggest Boy’ received the ‘biggest thrashing’ from his father, the bombsite was put out of bounds and the shelters along with them. ‘Einstein in the Making’ became a hero. This story became one of many that would reappear in the grey cells of memory from time to time. The only tangible vestige, a child’s gas mask shaped like Mickey Mouse!
Aleppo has no Mickey Mouse gas masks if it has no gas masks at all. It stands witness of man’s inhumanity to man. It stands as a shameful reminder of what we have become. The powerful slap the weak into submission and the weak have no defence because those who have the means to defend have vested interests nowadays; and then there is always the ‘hate factor.’
‘We stand now on the bombsite, at the ending of the world.
Look at it now! Look at it now before it’s too late
We murdered so much and couldn’t murder the hate!’