Essays in Idleness



From the profane, to the sacred; from mere prats to holy fools: today we embark on Passiontide. It is the fortnight victory march to Easter, not around but through the enemies of Jesus. Father Hunwicke in his fine Mutual Enrichment blog set the beat in his post on Friday (“Strong women”): trochaic tetrameter catalectic, in its joyous truncation. He is discussing, of course, hymns such as the Vexilla  regis and Pange lingua of Venantius Fortunatus, composed for the Merovingian court at Poitiers in the sixth century; and the Pange lingua in which that beat is echoed by Saint Thomas Aquinas, in rhymed accentual, seven centuries later.

As Father Hunwicke explains:

“What is interesting here is that this metre was used by writers such as Menander in Athenian New Comedy for scenes that are pretty nearly slapstick — Aristotle called it kordakikoteron or ‘tending to a lively vulgarity’. Caesar’s soldiery chanted their ritual abuse at him (to avoid the risk of the Gods taking offence as he rode in triumph) in this metre. …”

Generally, we are sober at the approach of Death, and in churches the spirit of austerity is shown by the veils thrown on the altar Crucifix and all other images — until they are lifted in the Easter Vigil and the bells ring out. The fullness of Passiontide was alas suppressed in the Novus Ordo, but fortunately the Vetus Ordo is in course of being restored, and our hearts are free no matter what nonsense we must endure in the Bugnini chapels. The Death of Christ is certainly approaching, and observed, but with this signal qualification: He is going to defeat Death.

Hence that paradoxical joy in the battle as we, His soldiery, fall in behind Him.

Attention, please. In the Old Mass something else is happening today. The plurals that dominated the chants through Lent tip decisively to first person singulars — from the voice of congregations to the voice of Christ Himself. Lead, kindly light.

April foolishness

Though I grant it is a profane, not a divine commemoration, we who are fools have a special attachment to this date, and are bound to celebrate it somehow. The first fool was Adam. The second was Eve. More than one hundred billion have followed, by the best cumulative estimates. We are by now a biological force of some magnitude and antiquity. My own memory of some foolish pranks, timed for the first of April — together with the subsequent punishment for them — fills me with a contemptible pride. For the truth is, I am still capable of mischief.

As a sub-editor on daily newspapers, in years now long past, I never let the anniversary pass without an attempt to “craft” some item for publication, that would be false yet strangely plausible. Also, cruel in some way (short of physical injury), towards one despised entity or another: usually some fellow fool. Twice I came near to being fired, for my efforts. My last inspired an editor to warn all staff, that anyone who tried that again would indeed have to find another job. (Soon he was trying to ban smoking, too.)

The trick is in the elaboration. Be an industrious journalist, and invent more than one source. Accentuate the gravity.

The most ambitious essay in foolishness I recall, was most of my life ago, at the long defunct (and still lamented) Bangkok World. We (I had accomplices) ran a feature story purporting that Pablo Picasso would unveil a big mural in a local art gallery that day. The work, which could be interpreted as a sequel to Guernica, would be a protest against the War in Vietnam. In this pretentious article, full of art-critic jargon, signed by an imaginary French intellectual, we explained its aesthetic importance in Picasso’s unfolding oeuvre. We said it had been meant for a launch in Saigon. However, the Vietnamese authorities had denied Picasso a visa, and so it had been shifted to Thailand, the nearest alternative venue. The gallery we selected was a nasty little place in “Siam Square,” which sold factory-painted portraits to tourists — of bug-eyed children, and underdressed young ladies, done with acrylics on black velvet.

As a finishing touch, we then planted a paragraph of “breaking news,” in spot red ink, in a bottom corner of the front page. This simply stated that Picasso and his wife Jacqueline had arrived at Don Muang airport, on Air France flight whatever, amid a crush of reporters. Seeing this, and fearing they had missed a big story, we hoped the wire services would pick it up, and in the absence of any other information, plagiarize our spoof.

Sure enough, the morning of April 1st, a fairly large crowd was gathered outside the gallery. We booked a photographer to take pictures of all the fools, and a flatfoot to record their comments. Gentle reader may imagine the chief editor’s response; but it was nothing compared with the publisher’s.

Ah, the good old days, when fake news might have a humorous component. It is all so grim today.