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A question of questions

Posted on 22 September 2010, 20:48

A question of questions

We’re all looking for answers, but as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot points out to Inspector Japp: ‘To discover the answer we must indeed ask the questions. But more important still is that we ask the right questions!’

I sat with a TV and film agent recently, and we talked about the media landscape. ‘Twenty years ago,’ she said, ‘if you took a book to a publisher, their only real question was this: ‘Is this a good book?’ If it was a good book in their estimation, they tended to go with it. These days, the question is different. Whether it’s a good book is entirely irrelevant. The accountant is now the arbiter of taste and ‘Will it sell?’ the only question in town.

It is good to notice when we exchange one question for another, because it has consequences. Political spin is as old as power itself, but it was New Labour who brought it to our attention mainly because they could think of little else. And so the question uppermost in the minds of the Blair’s ‘sofa cabinet’ was not ‘Will this work?’ but ‘How am I appearing? And how will this play?’ Once the question is changed, all sorts of nonsense is possible. Taking tips from Stalin and Mao, we learnt the art of ‘burying bad news’, for instance, while advisors on drug policy resigned in their droves because their suggestions didn’t ‘play’ well to the electorate. And somewhere along the way, because the question changed, so did the movement; and it may take some time to recover its soul.

Such subtle adjustments are not confined to politics. How often, with a spoken or unspoken change of question, marriages settle for something other than the vision they started out with; with the bar set pretty low. The primary commitment becomes to keep the show on the road; to find an acceptable compromise, and then defend that from attack. I remember a man refusing to even consider his wife’s shabby treatment of another. The marriage pact was more important to him than truth. The question for the couple now was not, ‘What are we creating in each other and in the world?’ but rather, ‘What is necessary for the boat not be rocked?’ Once the second question becomes the law, things both look and feel very different.

Aristotle took 1500 years to make it the Western Europe. The Muslim city of Toledo in Spain, famous for its wonderful libraries, fell to Christians in 1085, and it was only then that these writings from the 4th century BC were discovered. Interest in the books quickly gained momentum, but the University of Paris banned both the public and private reading of Aristotle, for somewhere along the line the church’s question had changed from ‘Is it true?’ to ‘Is it compatible with our present understanding of Christian doctrine?’

As Poirot well knows, it’s all about the question we ask of the material before us. When our question loses its vision, then so does our life. 

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Most haunted

Posted on 06 September 2010, 21:47

Most haunted

I don’t know when you last saw a ghost. But if you feel you’ve been missing out then it’s time you took a trip to the south coast to visit some haunted streets in Brighton.

The Lanes, as they are known, are the oldest part of Brighton. They were once the fishing village of Brighthelmstone, before the royal patronage of the Prince Regent made the town fashionable in the 18th century. Today, the fishermen are gone and replaced by trendy shops - quirky, pink and pricey. But maybe more of the past remains there than we imagine.

Recently, I went on a Lanes Ghost walk. An actor has turned its murky past into a business. He arrives in black Victorian coat and hat, and ringing a bell leads his flock, paying £5 a head, from site to gruesome site. There’s the Cricketer’s pub for instance, a fine hostelry we’re told, and where Graham Greene, in an upstairs room, wrote much of ‘Brighton Rock’. But our interest here is that according to locals, it’s haunted by the ghost of Robert Stephenson, a one-time patron. Robert Stephenson, a former army surgeon, is the most likely identity of Jack the Ripper.

And then there’s the unfortunate John Robinson, who gave a police man a bit of a shock. Robinson was an eighteenth century adventurer and soldier of fortune whose luck ran out in Persia - his eyes were burnt out with hot irons after supporting a failed rebellion. A sympathetic merchant helped Robinson return to England; and the adventurer finally made it back to his home town of Brighton, only to die there. John’s phantom was seen lying in the road by a police officer who was physically sick after looking at his face, and also by a woman, so appalled by the figure’s appearance that she spent a night in hospital.

And we must not forget the Grey Nun of 14th century Brighthelmstone, who fell in love and attempted to elope with a soldier guarding her monastery. They were captured by the Order and the soldier was hanged; the nun’s fate was worse, however. She was bricked up alive in the monastery walls, to die a lingering death, because, we are told, the church did not want her blood on its hands. The Grey Nun still walks The Lanes, revisiting the site of her tragic arrest.

The ghost walk is billed as ‘Frightening!’ as folk do like to be a little spooked; but it’s more sad than chilling. The actor does his best to thrill, playing always for the scream. But really, as the stories unfold, there’s little to do but cry and wonder as unresolved pain makes a nonsense of boundaried time, and walks unbidden through the centuries’ walls in search of relief. 

As the eras melt before our eyes, and past and present unite in strange union, we stand in the eternal now, present with those before us, and with those still to come. It’s a haunting experience, if not the one I was expecting.


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The Only Planet of Choice: Visitations – Many people use the word ‘Alien’ to describe a visitor from outer space. Extra terrestrial is another word, which is rather more user friendly. For the sake of the question and answer format, the word used by the questioner has been left, though even Tom questions our use of‘Alien’. Should we wish to foster openess between all beings of the Universe perhaps we should also look at our vocabulary? In a discussion between Andrew and Tom many years earlier, Andrew had asked Tom about UFOs and whether they were created manifestations. Tom had replied: “Many of the flying things that you call UFOs come from our place, but they come from other places also, and they do come in physical form. But many of them are not physical. They are like your movie screen”. Read here
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