Of minor prophets and their prostitute wives

I tend to have about 3 or 4 books on the go at any one time. I tend to start with good intentions, to read one book thoroughly cover to cover, to persevere through the boring bits before beginning another one. Kind of like when you feel guilty for skipping past track 5 (I never knew what it was…) on Astral Weeks, just to get to Madame George. (NB if none of you have experienced such ‘artist loyalty’ guilt, then do not panic. You are indeed one of the sane ones and should get a certificate or a stamp to prove it for future reference).

But I always fail and end up giving up on such fine and virtuous books such as Paradise Lost in favour of the new Harry Potter or another sustained attempt at the first chapter of Mere Christianity. And so I end up with 4 books on the go, and always one as the runt of the group, at the bottom of the pile and neglected. Only read in moments of true virtue and commitment, ‘one chapter I suppose…’

I’ve started a new phase of buying second hand books. For lots of reasons, but mostly by necessity of books being hard to get and expensive in NZ. For the bargain price of 12 bucks I got an original Mark Twain book (the innocents abroad) published in 1869 and looking for all the world like a church of Ireland prayer book. From an age when all books looked like the church of Ireland prayer book. This has been the runt of the pile for 6 weeks or so now.


Anyhow, it’s basically a travel book. Like a Bill Bryson or something. I thought sarcasm and irony were purely 20th century inventions, but it appears they were alive and well in the 19th. However it was a slightly different age of travel, when a European excursion was a 6 month affair, involving your own ship and available only to the well-to-do of the population.

What is remarkable is how little anything seems to have changed. Now I know reading 19th century travel books is hardly keeping up with the times, but it seems even then people were visiting the tower of Pisa and being accosted by gypsies on the way back to town (as happened to me in 2000). That people still visited Paris and the Louvre (without the funny glass pyramid or the Da Vinci Code associations). That guides still hoisted themselves on poor unsuspecting tourists and told lies about common attractions in poor quality English (and of course Americans still pay heftily for the privilege…) That people still visited Rome and marvelled at how man is so keen to preserve legacy and prestige while the beggars lined the gates to the churches.

All this as a build up to two quotations, just cause they made me laugh out loud by myself – a thoroughly pleasant experience and recommended to all.

On visiting the ruins of ancient Pompeii and seeing the frozen figure of a Roman soldier still at his post, unflinching at the onslaught of the lava:

“Let us remember that he was a soldier – not a policeman – and so praise him. Being a soldier, he stayed – because the warrior instinct forbade him to fly. Had he been a policeman he would have stayed also – because he would have been asleep.”

And the following reflection on Rome and history:

“After browsing among the stately ruins of Rome, of Pompeii, and after glancing down the long rows of battered and nameless imperial heads that stretch down the corridors of the Vatican, one thing strikes me with force as it never had before: the unlasting, unsubstantial character of fame.

Well twenty centuries later and what is left of these things? A crazy inscription on a block of stone, which stuffy antiquaries bother over and tangle up and get a bare name (that they spell wrong). What may be left of the great General Grant’s (American Civil War leader and 18th president of the US) name in 5868 AD, possibly:

Uriah S Graunt – popular poet of ancient times in the Aztec provinces of the United States of British America. Some authors say he flourished about AD 743, but some say he was a contemporary of Scharkspyre, the English poet and flourished about AD 1328 – some three centuries after the Trojan War, instead of before it. He was famous for writing, “Rock me to sleep Mother”.

These thoughts sadden me. I will to bed.”

Woodsy tells me one day everything will be recorded, (with advances in technology), every conversation and action, not for any nefarious purpose but simply because we can. And that the record of all our lives will be held on something the size of a grain of sand. Something like that anyway, I wasn’t really listening…

Though, despite the internet and the digital camera and the proliferation in media and storage and the simple availability of recorded history and culture, despite all this I’m not sure we’ve learnt too many lessons, we’ve still got beggars on the streets, humanity obsessed with power, money and prestige and we’ll probably still have “another century spent pointing guns at anything that moves” and post-modernity has grown up and given birth to a generation with this question on their lips:

“and each morning she wakes with a dream to describe
something lovely that bloomed in her beautiful mind
i say, “I’ll trade you one for two nightmares of mine,
I have somewhere I die, I have somewhere we all die

but then night rolls around and it all starts making sense
there is no right way or wrong way, you just have to live
and so I do what I do, and at least I exist
what could mean more than this?
what would mean more, mean more?”

Conor Oberst – Bright Eyes

These thoughts sadden me. I will to bed. Make your own mind up whether they’ve got it right.

I’ll leave you with some Pedro just to point you in the right direction (Hint it’s all in the title of the song, know your Bibles people…)

“all the time you were burning my letters
you were only acting the part
you think without me you’ll get on much better
but you don’t even know your own heart
come home, darling
come home quickly
come home, darling
all is forgiven, so come home quickly

i treated you as if you were a princess
you treated me like a cop
i gave you boundaries to save you from certain death
dangling from the end of the rope

come home, darling
come home quickly
come home, darling
all is forgiven, so come home quickly

but you’re still playing for a love you’ll never find
outside of these arms of mine

the whole town is one step behind you
with the hang man on call
they’ve got the judge and you’re convicted without a plea
darling, they will listen to me
darling, they will listen to me
darling, they will listen to me”

Pedro The Lion – Of Minor Prophets and their prostitute wives

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August 2007

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