As the great man's guest must produce his good stories or songs at the evening banquet, as the platform orator exhibits his telling facts at mid-day, so the journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas, and nutshell truths for the breakfast table.
Cardinal J. H. Newman, Preface to The Idea of a University, 1852

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The tree that killed John South

Extracted from The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy 

(Text taken from Project Gutenberg:, but US spelling corrected)

[Marty South] gently approached a bedroom, and without entering, said, "Father, do you want anything?"

A weak voice inside answered in the negative; adding, "I should be all right by to-morrow if it were not for the tree!"

"The tree again—always the tree! Oh, father, don't worry so about that. You know it can do you no harm."

[…]  the tree will do it—that tree will soon be the death of me."

"Nonsense, you know better. How can it be?" She refrained from further speech, and descended to the ground-floor again.

[…] Giles [Winterborne] asked, with some hesitation, how her father was getting on.

He was better, she said; he would be able to work in a day or two; he would be quite well but for his craze about the tree falling on him.

[…]"Father is still so much troubled in his mind about that tree," she said. "You know the tree I mean, Mr. Winterborne? the tall one in front of the house, that he thinks will blow down and kill us. Can you come and see if you can persuade him out of his notion? I can do nothing."

He accompanied her to the cottage, and she conducted him upstairs. John South was pillowed up in a chair between the bed and the window exactly opposite the latter, towards which his face was turned.

"Ah, neighbour Winterborne," he said. "I wouldn't have minded if my life had only been my own to lose; I don't vallie it in much of itself, and can let it go if 'tis required of me. But to think what 'tis worth to you, a young man rising in life, that do trouble me! It seems a trick of dishonesty towards ye to go off at fifty-five! I could bear up, I know I could, if it were not for the tree—yes, the tree, 'tis that's killing me. There he stands, threatening my life every minute that the wind do blow. He'll come down upon us and squat us dead; and what will ye do when the life on your property is taken away?"
"Never you mind me—that's of no consequence," said Giles. "Think of yourself alone."

He looked out of the window in the direction of the woodman's gaze. The tree was a tall elm, familiar to him from childhood, which stood at a distance of two-thirds its own height from the front of South's dwelling. Whenever the wind blew, as it did now, the tree rocked, naturally enough; and the sight of its motion and sound of its sighs had gradually bred the terrifying illusion in the woodman's mind that it would descend and kill him. Thus he would sit all day, in spite of persuasion, watching its every sway, and listening to the melancholy Gregorian melodies which the air wrung out of it. This fear it apparently was, rather than any organic disease which was eating away the health of John South.

As the tree waved, South waved his head, making it his flugel-man with abject obedience. "Ah, when it was quite a small tree," he said, "and I was a little boy, I thought one day of chopping it off with my hook to make a clothes-line prop with. But I put off doing it, and then I again thought that I would; but I forgot it, and didn't. And at last it got too big, and now 'tis my enemy, and will be the death o' me. Little did I think, when I let that sapling stay, that a time would come when it would torment me, and dash me into my grave."

"No, no," said Winterborne and Marty, soothingly. But they thought it possible that it might hasten him into his grave, though in another way than by falling.

"I tell you what," added Winterborne, "I'll climb up this afternoon and shroud off the lower boughs, and then it won't be so heavy, and the wind won't affect it so."

"She won't allow it—a strange woman come from nobody knows where—she won't have it done."

"You mean Mrs. Charmond? Oh, she doesn't know there's such a tree on her estate. Besides, shrouding is not felling, and I'll risk that much."

He went out, and when afternoon came he returned, took a billhook from the woodman's shed, and with a ladder climbed into the lower part of the tree, where he began lopping off—"shrouding," as they called it at Hintock—the lowest boughs. Each of these quivered under his attack, bent, cracked, and fell into the hedge. Having cut away the lowest tier, he stepped off the ladder, climbed a few steps higher, and attacked those at the next level. Thus he ascended with the progress of his work far above the top of the ladder, cutting away his perches as he went, and leaving nothing but a bare stem below him.

The work was troublesome, for the tree was large. The afternoon wore on, turning dark and misty about four o'clock. From time to time Giles cast his eyes across towards the bedroom window of South, where, by the flickering fire in the chamber, he could see the old man watching him, sitting motionless with a hand upon each arm of the chair. Beside him sat Marty, also straining her eyes towards the skyey field of his operations.

A curious question suddenly occurred to Winterborne, and he stopped his chopping. He was operating on another person's property to prolong the years of a lease by whose termination that person would considerably benefit. In that aspect of the case he doubted if he ought to go on. On the other hand he was working to save a man's life, and this seemed to empower him to adopt arbitrary measures.

[…] [Winterborne decided] he would run up to South's, as he had intended to do, to learn the result of the experiment with the tree.

Marty met him at the door. "Well, Marty," he said; and was surprised to read in her face that the case was not so hopeful as he had imagined.

"I am sorry for your labour," she said. "It is all lost. He says the tree seems taller than ever."
Winterborne looked round at it. Taller the tree certainly did seem, the gauntness of its now naked stem being more marked than before.

"It quite terrified him when he first saw what you had done to it this morning," she added. "He declares it will come down upon us and cleave us, like 'the sword of the Lord and of Gideon.'"
"Well; can I do anything else?" asked he.

"The doctor says the tree ought to be cut down."

"Oh—you've had the doctor?"

"I didn't send for him Mrs. Charmond, before she left, heard that father was ill, and told him to attend him at her expense."

"That was very good of her. And he says it ought to be cut down. We mustn't cut it down without her knowledge, I suppose."

He went up-stairs. There the old man sat, staring at the now gaunt tree as if his gaze were frozen on to its trunk. Unluckily the tree waved afresh by this time, a wind having sprung up and blown the fog away, and his eyes turned with its wavings.

[…] "This is an extraordinary case," [Doctor Fitzpiers said] to Winterborne, after examining South by conversation, look, and touch, and learning that the craze about the elm was stronger than ever. "Come down-stairs, and I'll tell you what I think."

They accordingly descended, and the doctor continued, "The tree must be cut down, or I won't answer for his life."

"'Tis Mrs. Charmond's tree, and I suppose we must get permission?" said Giles. "If so, as she is gone away, I must speak to her agent."

"Oh—never mind whose tree it is—what's a tree beside a life! Cut it down. I have not the honour of knowing Mrs. Charmond as yet, but I am disposed to risk that much with her."

"'Tis timber," rejoined Giles, more scrupulous than he would have been had not his own interests stood so closely involved. "They'll never fell a stick about here without it being marked first, either by her or the agent."

"Then we'll inaugurate a new era forthwith. How long has he complained of the tree?" asked the doctor of Marty.

"Weeks and weeks, sir. The shape of it seems to haunt him like an evil spirit. He says that it is exactly his own age, that it has got human sense, and sprouted up when he was born on purpose to rule him, and keep him as its slave. Others have been like it afore in Hintock."

They could hear South's voice up-stairs "Oh, he's rocking this way; he must come! And then my poor life, that's worth houses upon houses, will be squashed out o' me. Oh! oh!"

"That's how he goes on," she added. "And he'll never look anywhere else but out of the window, and scarcely have the curtains drawn."

"Down with it, then, and hang Mrs. Charmond," said Mr. Fitzpiers. "The best plan will be to wait till the evening, when it is dark, or early in the morning before he is awake, so that he doesn't see it fall, for that would terrify him worse than ever. Keep the blind down till I come, and then I'll assure him, and show him that his trouble is over."

[…] As soon as it was broad daylight the doctor came, and Winterborne entered the house with him. Marty said that her father was wrapped up and ready, as usual, to be put into his chair. They ascended the stairs, and soon seated him. He began at once to complain of the tree, and the danger to his life and Winterborne's house-property in consequence.

The doctor signalled to Giles, who went and drew back the printed cotton curtains. "'Tis gone, see," said Mr. Fitzpiers.

As soon as the old man saw the vacant patch of sky in place of the branched column so familiar to his gaze, he sprang up, speechless, his eyes rose from their hollows till the whites showed all round; he fell back, and a bluish whiteness overspread him.

Greatly alarmed, they put him on the bed. As soon as he came a little out of his fit, he gasped, "Oh, it is gone!—where?—where?"

His whole system seemed paralyzed by amazement. They were thunder-struck at the result of the experiment, and did all they could. Nothing seemed to avail. Giles and Fitzpiers went and came, but uselessly. He lingered through the day, and died that evening as the sun went down.

"D—d if my remedy hasn't killed him!" murmured the doctor.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The heel of God

FA cup match against AFC Wimbledon, 2nd December 2012. Jon Otsemobor's goal will live in the legends of MK Dons forever. The fans have dubbed it 'the heel of God'.

Sadly, while I was there and in theory in a good position to see it, such is my slow brain that I didn't spot what he did at the time. I thought we just got a lucky bounce! Seeing it on the telly, or the ITV website, though, it is quite sublime. He's casually walking away from the goal and the ball comes down behind him. A nonchalant flick of his heel and it's in the net.

 PS  I wonder what that AFCW fan is saying, 44 seconds into this clip :-)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Following MK Dons has helped me empathize with AFCW fans

Before Wimbledon landed on my doorstep in Milton Keynes, I was largely an armchair follower of football. I had taken my two young sons to Anfield a few times, but that was never going to be viable, on cost or time grounds, but after going to watch the team 3 miles away (OK, not quite my doorstep) I, we all, were gradually drawn in. And now, eight years on, we're hooked: season tickets and away whenever we can.

One of the MK Dons fans on a one our forums got in a strop when we recently drew against Cambridge City (before we beat them 6-1 in the replay at home) and said he was abandoning the Dons. I don't know whether he was for real or a WUM, but the point is that it set me wondering: what would make me abandon Dons? Would anything make me abandon them?  Certainly not drawing - or even losing - to a team like Cambridge City (I was at that draw and it was fun evening out). I can't see any result driving me away. What about a long-term catastrophic decline in form, dropping down the leagues? To league 2? Not a problem at all, I followed them down there once before. Conference Premier? No, I'm sure that wouldn't be a problem. Conference South? Lower still? It is difficult to imagine, but I honestly think I would now stick with them, because they have become my team. (Though I still follow Liverpool: you don't stop loving your parents because you have children to love too!).

I have thought of circumstances when I would, hopefully temporarily, boycott them, as it happens, but it wouldn't be about achievement. Here's one (and it is in no way a criticism of Swindon Town fans): I would not support the team if we were managed by Paolo de Canio. His open support of facism is beyond the pale.  Note that it is not just that he's a fascist - maybe other people in football are too - I'm not saying the manager has to agree with my politics, but de Canio has brought fascism into football and it is not on.

So that's one thing that would drive me away.  How about this one: how about my team moved away from me, like, say, suppose the MK Dons relocated to, oh I don't know, say, the London Borough of Merton?  Well you've already seen that my reason for following MK Dons was that they were local, so, I don't know, maybe that would be a problem. Well of course it would be a problem, but without being in that situation I can't absolutely declare what I would do.

My point, of course, is that it is my following of the MK Dons that enables me to empathize with the plight of the Wimbledon fans ten years ago.  And, just maybe, it has shown me how in a similar situation I would be following AFCW. How ironic is that?

One final observation for this blog post. We among the MK Dons fans who used to, or still do, support some other team are told we are not 'proper' football fans. But what would be more proper: remaining an armchair Liverpool fan or buying a season ticked at actually watching the MK Dons?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Whom do we remember on Remembrance Day?

At the Remembrance Sunday service this morning there was a lot about "remember with gratitude those who, in the cause of peace and the service of others, died in time of war", and "we give thanks for those who died in the cause of freedom and justice". I think that is wrong, that's not what Remembrance Sunday should be about. If we only remember those who died for those 'good' things (peace, freedom and justice) we'll be missing out most people who have died in war.

The point about Remembrance Sunday is that we remember ALL those who died. One of the tragedies of war is that most people die for no good reason at all.

Which is not to say we shouldn't also, and especially, remember those who died for good causes. But the purpose of, and the wonder of, Remembrance Sunday, is that we remember the horror of all the people who die in war.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

MK Dons 2, Oldham Athletic 0 (first league game of the season)

The early season matches in glorious sunshine have a character of their own, and there's something particularly pleasing to win in the heat of the summer.

So it was today, though maybe a bit too hot, especially in the new location of the OfTheNewCity family season tickets. We've taken advantage of the changed pricing to move from The Cowshed to the East Premium: better view (from the middle of the side) but less atmosphere, and full sun on our faces for the whole 2 hours. Especially noticable since the hot weather has appeared from nowhere this weekend, after a miserable summer.

So the Dons trademark passing football under Karl Robinson paid dividends today, though neither of the goals came from the patient passing moves. One was from a corner: perfectly headed in by Darren Potter. The other was from a passing move, but it was a fast break of passes that finished with Daniel Powell taking it across the goal mouth and struck powerfully from close range.

Oldham had the ball in the net but it was disallowed by the linesman, for offside. Oldham fans were furious but I gather that was because they don't understand the offside rule. One of our defenders was behind the Oldham player, but David Martin wasn't, so there was only one defender between the attacker and the goal, it's just that it wasn't the goalie. The viciousness of the Oldham fans invective at linesman was not edifying, and the Dons fans chant of 'We love you linesman, we do; oh linesman we love you' probably didn't do him many favours!

The one downside to the afternoon: Antony Kay sent off after the final whistle. Apparently he'd reacted badly to an Oldham elbow in the face.

Oh yes, and the other unfortunate thing about the afternoon is that I am currently suffering from a 'frozen shoulder' so it is agony if I raise my arms in excited celebration when we score. But I'll happily put up with that for the sake of the club.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's fear of death

Another in my (very) occasional series on death. Here's Dietrich Bonhoeffer writing later in life (apparently when he was about 26) about himself as child:
He liked thinking about death. Even in his boyhood he had enjoyed imagining himself on his deathbed, surrounded by all those who loved him, speaking his last words to them. ... To him death was neither grievous nor alien. He would have liked them all to see and understand that to a believer in God dying was not hard, but a glorious thing. [...]

Then one day he had a grotesque idea. He believed himself to be suffering from the only incurable illness that existed, namely a crazy and irremediable fear of death. The thought that he would really have to die one day had such a grip on him that he faced this inevitable prospect with speechless fear. And there was no one who could free him from this illness, because in reality it was no illness, but the most natural and obvious thing in the world, because it was the most inevitable. He saw himself going from one person to another, pleading and appealing for help. Doctors shook their heads and could nothing for him. His illness was that he saw reality for what it was, it was incurable. He could tolerate the thought for only a few moments. From that day on he buried inside himself something about which for a long time he did not speak or think again. His favourite subject for discussion and for his imagination had suddenly acquired a bitter taste. He spoke no more about fine, devout death, and forgot about it.

From Eberhard Bethge:Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A biography. Revised Edition Fortress Press 2000
A vivid account of what Julian Barnes calls le reveil mortel.

(As I am sure you know, Bonhoeffer was a liberal Christian theologian. His opposition to Hitler got him jailed and, for his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler, he was executed in 1945, aged just 39. The accounts suggest he faced death bravely.)

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

I'll be joining the Church of Christ the Cornerstone for the Good Friday midday service in Midsummer Place in the Milton Keynes Shopping centre today.

Good Friday has been an irreducible core of Christianity for me. The thing that remains when I stop believing anything else.

Standing among all the shoppers thinking about the suffering of the world, our - my - material wealth at the expense of other people, the poverty and injustice that need not exist, the destruction of the planet, the mind-bogglingly incomprehensible inequalities. For this and for so many other reasons, being human is, or ought to be, unbearable. I think it would be literally unbearable if we could truly conceive it. Somehow Jesus's death on the cross acknowledges all this, and, well, it doesn't make it OK, but it allows us to acknowledge it and hold on for the hope of Easter.