First Sight, Second Thoughts and Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men

First Sight, Second Thoughts and Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men

For Christmas I amassed a respectably high pile of real books(as opposed to digital; if the books on my Kindle awaiting reading were physical, my bed would be encased by stacks of books) as gifts from kind friends and family. I’ve been working my way through them rather slowly; my concentration at present is rubbish so something has to really grab me to keep me going for more than ten minutes at a stretch.

I’ve also found that however much I value my Kindle, I still definitely prefer the feel, look, smell sound and did I mention FEEL of a real book. Anyway, the last few nights have been spent reading to help me unwind to try to get to sleep, and I’ve just finished The Wee Free men by much-loved author Terry Pratchett. Let me emphasise though: this is not a book review. I will say that virtually everything this man writes is wonderful and this book is not exception. I do wonder at the wisdom (ha! Or lack thereof) of calling this series children’s books, because, like all superb children’s books this can be read by adults with as much pleasure as any of his others.

The plot of the tale is a simple one, and one drawn surely from some of the very oldest of fairy tales, but with any of Sir Terry’s works, do not let the apparent simplicity of plot fool you into expecting a simple book. Or simple characters for that matter because every being in this book has a complexity that bewilders.

There are several things I’d like to share with you from the book. The first of these is perhaps one of the most closely guarded secrets to magic. This is first sight. Not second sight. First sight is seeing what others do not, and that is seeing how things really are. Not how we wish them to be, or how they ought to be. But how they are. This is not easy. For some it’s virtually impossible from years of choosing illusions over reality. For others, it’s what they’ve always done. It tends to make you unpopular.

‘Aye, you’re a born hag, right enough,’ said the kelda, holding her gaze.

‘Ye’ve got that little bitty bit inside o’ you that holds on, right? The

bitty bit that watches the rest o’ ye. ‘Tis the First Sight and Second

Thoughts ye have, and ’tis a wee gift an’ a big curse to ye. You see and

hear what others canna’, the world opens up its secrets to ye, but ye ‘re

always like the person at the party with the wee drink in the corner who

cannae join in. There’s a little bitty bit inside ye that willnae melt and flow.

‘Ye have the First

Sight and the Second Thoughts, just like yer granny. That’s rare in a bigjob.’

‘Don’t you mean second sight?’ Tiffany queried. ‘Like people who can see

ghosts and stuff?’

‘Ach, no. That’s typical bigjob thinking. First Sight is when you can see

what’s really there, not what your heid tells you ought to be there. Ye

saw Jenny, ye saw the horseman, ye saw them as real thingies. Second

sight is dull sight, it’s seeing only what you expect to see.”

The next thing worth hearing about are Second Thoughts. These are the thoughts that are about observing and analysing what you have seen and making good sense of them. There are Third Thoughts too, a voice in your head that does the thinking when you’re too tired or scared or ill to do it. It’s that voice that tells you that even if you don’t think you’re hungry, it was ten hours ago that you last ate and you need to eat NOW. You might call Second thoughts logic and third thoughts the survival instinct.

Books like this have characters who never appear except as memories or dreams but who are vital to the story because they are vital to the main character. The heroine of this tale is nine year old Tiffany Aching, but her grandmother, dead for two years, is here so powerfully she feels alive.

Who was Granny Aching? People would start asking that now. And the answer was: what Granny Aching was, was there. She was always there. It seemed that the lives of all the Achings revolved around Granny Aching. Down in the village decisions were made, things were done, life went on in the knowledge that in her old wheeled shepherding hut on the hills Granny Aching was there, watching.

And she was the silence of the hills. Perhaps that’s why she liked

Tiffany, in her awkward, hesitant way. Her older sisters chattered, and

Granny didn’t like noise. Tiffany didn’t make noise when she was up at

the hut. She just loved being there. She’d watch the buzzards, and listen

to the noise of the silence.

It did have a noise, up there. Sounds, voices, animal noises floating up

onto the downs, somehow made the silence deep and complex. And Granny Aching wrapped this silence around herself and made room inside it for Tiffany. It was always too busy on the farm. There were a lot of people with a lot to do. There wasn’t enough time for silence. There wasn’t time for listening. But Granny Aching was silent and listened all the time.

When you are a small child, when people ask what do you want to be when you grow up, often what you want to be is a certain person, and those role models are usually initially the people we see on a daily basis: family, teachers, tradesmen. It’s important that we have role models that are the right ones. Growing up is actually more about growing to fit ourselves and a mould that is roughly the right shape is a big help. So many of us grow up trying to fit ourselves into shapes we can never fit into, and emulate people with whom we have no single point that might fit. Granny Aching is a powerful role model for a child like Tiffany; she’s a witch who never wore The Hat or claimed the name and so too is her twentieth grandchild, who has inherited that uncomfortable ability to see what’s really there and examine it with care and some detachment. These abilities stand her in great stead in her adventure but in real life, they are demanding and often isolating qualities. In my post Disneyland and let’s pretend, I explored this a little. But having that strong, solid role model is of such importance that I am considering time travel to try somehow nurture my child-self!

Another aspect of the book that I found extremely interesting was the sense of how much a place was in your bones. The Achings live on a vast area of land known as The Chalk, and have done so for so long no-one remembered a time when they didn’t:

It was actually called the Home Farm. Her father rented it from the

Baron, who owned the land, but there had been Achings farming it for

hundreds of years and so, her father said (quietly, sometimes, after he’d

had a beer in the evenings), as far as the land knew, it was owned by the

Achings. Tiffany’s mother used to tell him not to speak like that,

although the Baron was always very respectful to Mr Aching since Granny

had died two years ago, calling him the finest shepherd in these hills,

and was generally held by the people in the village to be not too bad

these days. It paid to be respectful, said Tiffany’s mother, and the poor

man had sorrows of his own.

But sometimes her father insisted that there had been Achings (or Akins,

or Archens, or Akens, or Akenns – spelling had been optional) mentioned

in old documents about the area for hundreds and hundreds of years. They

had these hills in their bones, he said, and they’d always been

shepherds.”

To have been a part of a land means that the land is also a part of you, and while this has become diluted in our world, it’s probably at the root of a lot of discontent and tribalism. Too many have become detached from their lands. I have lived in a fairly wide range of counties of England in my time, all distinct with their customs and traditions and their bones.

“….and then, like someone rising from the clouds of a sleep, she felt

the deep, deep Time below her. She sensed the breath of the downs and the

distant roar of ancient, ancient seas trapped in millions of tiny shells.

She thought of Granny Aching, under the turf, becoming part of the chalk

again, part of the land under wave. She felt as if huge wheels, of time

and stars, were turning slowly around her.

She opened her eyes and then, somewhere inside, opened her eyes again.

She heard the grass growing, and the sound of worms below the turf. She

could feel the thousands of little lives around her, smell all the scents

on the breeze, and see all the shades of the night. . .

The wheels of stars and years, of space and time, locked into place. She

knew exactly where she was, and who she was, and what she was.

‘I never cried for Granny because there was no need to,’ she said. ‘She

has never left me!’”

To feel so much a part of a land is something is so little understood and undervalued, but it explains a little of how I feel about my country. It may not be the best country in the world, but it is mine and that of my ancestors for as far back as anyone can reasonably be expected to go. I’m beginning to get an understanding of both Motherland, and Gaia our Mother.

To find a set of such important ideas in what is deemed a children’s book gives me great hope. The fact that it’s also a rattling good adventure tale is even more exciting; reading a story is always more interesting than learning a lesson……

Advertisements

Going to the Dark Side ~ villains in the writer’s psyche

 

Going to the Dark Side ~ villains in the writer’s psyche

Having touched briefly on where heroes come from yesterday, my dark side felt neglected and asked me to look at the other side of the coin.

I like to think of myself as a good person. I might actually BE a good person, but that doesn’t make me the woman without a dark side. A couple of years ago, I got into a rather harrowing battle with someone I’d thought of as a friend; it knocked me rather badly at the time and when the issue was resolved (though the friendship was never restored) I found that though in my own head I was the hero, in the mind of at least one other person, I was the villain. That gave me a pause for thought. Every villain of fiction, film or history is the hero of their own internal story.

When it comes to villains on screen and in books, the more complex the nature of the villain, the more convincing that baddie is for me. One of my favourite villains of the screen is Scorpius from the TV series Farscape, because while initially he seems simply evil, as the story develops, it becomes clear that his evil is mixed with a fairly massive dose of good. He’s far from black and white, and his motivations in doing the terrible things he does are confusing. He’s possessed of some measure of pure altruism, of humanity. In fact, were the story told from his perspective(as indeed it is in one episode) he would be the hero.

For me one of the least convincing villains of book and screen is Lord Voldemort. I am aware that the books were originally written for children and the depth of all the characters increased as the series went on, but that said, even the mitigating factors for Voldemort’s nature were for me unsatisfying. I believe pure evil exists, but it’s incredibly rare, and Voldie’s descent to the dark side is too fast and too complete for me to accept it. At least Darth Vader’s evolution into the Dark Lord took some pretty awful things to bring it about; Voldie’s is unconvincing if you are an adult with some understanding of what makes people tick. You are expected to accept that he was born with a strong tendency to evil and little motivation to resist it.

So, the big question now. Where do villains emerge from? Well, in my experience, they come from my darker side. I feel a shiver of shame in even admitting it; I’ve had my baddies do things that I’d never do, but the fact that I can think of them is proof that perhaps I do have it in me to do terrible things. In one novel I crucified my main character, and I do mean, literally. He had no idea why he was being tortured, and for a guy like him, not knowing why it happened was a huge part of the torment afterwards. But for the villain who did this to him, the motivation was clear and almost pure; in his story, the hero deserved it. In another novel, the roles of hero and villain are deliberately confused for much of the narrative and it’s only in the second half that the real villain starts to emerge, brought to evil by thwarted love and a strange twisted sense of righteousness. Not one of my villains would see themselves in that way; they would always see themselves as the hero of the story.

For me, this fits with my world view that pure evil is a truly rare thing, and that much of it consists of ordinary people getting things wrong. Venial sins of selfishness, minor cruelty, omission of duty, weakness, addiction to power and others wrongs are usually what aggregate to be what we see as evil. Evil is not something that emerges fully formed and ready to roll; it’s something that grows. It was Edmund Burke who said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

Perhaps then this is what fiction is all about; the struggle between good and evil, the hero’s journey and everything else you find in fiction may be the writer’s attempt to understand the darker side within their own psyche and to integrate it in a creative way. I am told that Stephen King, who writes some of the most spine-chilling mainstream horror fiction is one of the nicest men you could ever meet. Many murder and horror writers are described as being lovely people, contrary to the content of their books.

I’d like to think that my own writing has been a journey into understanding and integrating my shadows, but I also hope that the tales I have created on the way with their heroes and heroines, villains and human monsters may help others understand their own psyches, as well as providing a good read or two on the way.

The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.

 

The Collateral Benefits of Misery or Why the Pursuit of Happiness isn’t Good for the Soul.

I’ve had a couple of busy weeks at work, both jobs, and I’ve enjoyed it mostly, even though some of it was stressful. But waking up this morning I felt the full weight of the default depression land on me like a big slobbery dog who’s pleased you’re back. All the petty concerns I’d put on hold while I was rushed off my feet came back and had a pity party in my head. My teaching job is currently in some jeopardy as they are moving premises and it’s going to be a lot harder to get to work; I’ve resolved that the first near miss as a car clips my bicycle signals me quitting. I love teaching, I really do; it’s one of my talents and in many ways, I am wasted where I work. If you’ve seen Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, it’ll give you a clue about my style of teaching; but it also means that even had I the correct bits of paper, I’d be sacked in a week in a state school. So I am on the sharp look out for a new job, one that is year round, and which doesn’t have the substantial drawbacks of my current one (of which I will not speak here)

But my return to sullen misery has woken me up to something that slumbers much of the time. That’s the realisation that even changing jobs, changing homes or whatever significant life change I might sometimes crave is only a distraction from my real work in this world. Six months into a new job, or a new location, and the same old issues come creeping back, like rats who realise the ship was not sinking after all.

That’s a bit of a scary realisation. It means that anything I pursue, success, fame, wealth, whatever holds no power to change anything internally. If I become a NYT’s bestseller, nothing changes. If I get the job that seems to fit every talent or skill, nothing changes. Oh for sure my mood might alter and improve, I might even be happy for a while. But nothing deeper changes.

You see, any real change has to come from within, not from anything external to me. I’ve never been someone who found retail therapy anything other than a disappointment, and while I have certainly chased success as willingly as any writer, I’ve started to grasp the fact that such success does not and cannot make me anything other than momentarily happy. I can see now that my lifelong pro-wrestling match with the Black Dog has saved me some expensive mistakes.

Chasing things because you believe that they may make you happy is a futile exercise, and one that frankly underpins the whole economy of the prosperous West. It is endless and caustic to the human soul, because it is tantalising and drives you on to seek more and more and more to less and less satisfaction, and eventual bitterness.

What then can bring peace to the troubled soul? What can tame the Black Dog and make it an ally and not an enemy?

Well, my current theory is that it is meaning that brings peace. It’s certainly how people survive the kind of catastrophic experiences that send many over the edge and down into insanity.

It’s only a theory but is one borne out by such luminaries as Viktor Frankl, and also by personal experience. I can accept and even value my own sufferings when I realise that they have shaped me to be the person I am now, and the riches of compassion and empathy that have been uncovered within me. They’ve made me a far less selfish person than I would otherwise have been.

Native Americans have a saying, something they speak as a prayer when they enter the sacred space of a sweat lodge. They say, “For all my relations,” as they enter, and by that they do not mean their mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and so on. They mean every one of us humans, and all the animals and trees and plants, right down to the Stone People, the rocks we kick aside and split asunder.

So my prayer today, in honour of all that I have endured as a human and all that I will endure, is that it is done in honour and support of all life, all creation, and that I will find meaning in all.

For all my relations.”

Amen.

To Lie or Not To Lie? The ethics and philosophy of lying

I don’t usually bother with quizzes but this one piqued my interest:

It’s from the Open University and very interesting. I’d be curious to hear which philosopher my readers most closely resembled: for the record, I came out as Aristotle.

http://www.open.ac.uk/openlearn/history-the-arts/culture/philosophy/lie-or-not-lie

Those who at this point launch into Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Song have won my heart forever and a day… unless you are lucky enough to already have my heart,  in which case, sing it anyway!

♪   

Edit for those who are NOT familiar with the song, so that they may learn wisdom:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQycQ8DABvc

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance- by Robert M Pirsig(a review of a classic book)

 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance- by Robert M Pirsig

 This classic icon of twentieth century philosophy is regarded as almost a myth; my daughter’s boyfriend indeed believed it to be an actual urban myth and not an actual book, and I doubt he is alone. First published in 1974, the book has been a corner stone for some of the hippy movement and yet, its subtitle, An Inquiry into Values seems at variance with this. Indeed, one of the central themes of the book, the careful and loving maintenance of motorcycles seems also at variance with the hippy movement too and this is one of the many apparent contradictions this book throws up.

It’s a truly disconcerting book to read, because it fits no genre and it shifts at intervals between both style and format. The book starts simply enough, as an account of a road trip taken across America by the author and his young son Chris, and for a while two friends as well. You get the sense of a fractured relationship between man and boy, in the process of being mended, as well as an uneasy friendship with their two travelling companions John and Sylvia. There is a focus on the minutiae of their daily life, on the mechanics of motorbikes, both of which are at once alien and familiar, that many might find dull or even boring. Persist with them; to some degree these are important background. You’re not reading a simple story.

The narrative shifts to a kind of flashback to a different story, the tale of someone who lost the plot and lost himself in the process. Phaedrus, the man who lost the plot, is central to the whole book, but I shall say no more about him now. It’s best you discover his story for yourself.

The other facet of the book is a kind of overview narration that links together the road-trip with its focus on details and meticulous attention to them with the story of Phaedrus. It’s this aspect of the book that really, really messes with your head. Let me explain.

I was given the book as a Christmas present by my friend J, but like books I know are important, I wanted to read it during a time that gave me both time and context in which to read it. I read extremely fast, but that’s not always a good thing, so I wanted to have an opportunity to read in segments dictated by an external force I had little control over. So I read it during a road trip of my own, this time across France during a work trip in May. This was the same trip that brought back the photograph that rocked my world when I went home, to be seen here. But during the six days I was away, I had a number of times where I did wonder if I might not actually return at all. During the quiet moments during my trip, lying on my hotel bed or sitting somewhere out of the way, in various places like the centre of Caen, in Bayeux, at Disneyland(for about five minutes as I could not concentrate) and most memorably, sitting outside a French hypermarket, I dipped into the book and read.

I sat there, on a marble step, by a display of plants, trying to take in what I had just read. I watched the ants, ferrying food backwards and forwards, and tried to keep my mind from bubbling out of my ears. It felt like an earthquake in my head.

I should talk now about Phaedrus’ knife. It’ll help understand some of the things we talked about.

The application of this knife, the division of the world into parts and the building of this structure, is something everybody does. All the time we are aware of millions of things around us- these changing shapes, these burning hills, the sound of the engine, the feel of the throttle, each rock and weed and fence post and piece of debris beside the road- aware of these things but not really conscious of them unless there is something unusual or unless they reflect something we are predisposed to see, We could not possibly be conscious of these things and remember all of them because our mind would be so full of useless details we would be unable to think. From this awareness we must select and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Once we have the handful of sand, the world of which we are conscious a process of discrimination goes to work on it. This is the knife. We divide the sand into parts. This and that. Here and there. Black and white. Now and then. The discrimination is the division of the conscious universe into parts.” (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p 82)

At this point, or shortly after, I shut the book and stuffed it back into my rucksack and waited till the students came back to meet me. I felt disjointed, and uneasy but in the kind of way that you get when you know you are onto something important but that you need to tread very very carefully. I knew also, don’t ask me how, that my own sanity might well be at risk at this point if I rushed it. These things take time to sink in and you do well not to try and grasp them all in one go. Once, as a student, in a senior common room I had no right to be in but had been invited in by a lecturer in astrophysics, I had Relativity explained to me. For about three minutes, I grasped it but I let it go when I realised I could not hold that concept in my head for long without going slightly mad. I wasn’t ready for it.

So I stepped away that day, because I was working and descending into catatonia was possibly not the best thing I could do at that point. I am still digesting the concepts and the implications of those concepts now. I am no philosopher, in all honesty, but I am a seeker after meaning. This is a book that has given me more tools in my own search for meaning.

And once you get used to the switching focuses on the book, the story itself becomes utterly gripping and strangely moving. You feel for the people(they are not characters, because it’s a true story, in the main) and you hope for them.

I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who wishes to delve deeper into what life is about, but I would also suggest that you give it the time and attention it deserves. It’s not a beach read to entertain you but a book to unsettle and disturb and challenge you.

Are YOU up for the challenge?

 

( for more information about Pirsig and his work, look at  http://www.levity.com/corduroy/pirsig.htm or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_M._Pirsig

The Hero-an analysis

This is an article I posted a good eighteen months ago but bears reposting. I’m too tired and unwell still to write anything new just yet. Hopefully normal service will be resumed next week.

The hero

Once upon a time- that’s how fairytales begin. Or it might begin, in a kingdom far, far away. In days of old when knights were bold… but how old is old in a time when last season’s clothes are absurd antiques and doubts are cast not just on the courage of those bold knights but on everything else as well? The jury is out but the evidence is that they were anything but gentle, and the average modern football hooligan probably has more courtesy and honour. After all, even in today’s allegedly lawless times, it’s not considered honourable or even legal to strike the head from another man’s shoulders. There are some, I admit who practically beg for such treatment but I doubt politicians have ever been popular; the high king’s advisors have ever been known as lickspittles and toadies, and are so today whatever names they bear.

The age of chivalry was in fact a brutal one but pictures are painted and poems penned that portray it in the glowing pink light of artificial nostalgia. But that romantic world has grown brighter than the shadowy one that was real. We don’t want to know about the sweat and the dung, the short brutish nasty lives; we want mysterious ladies in gowns of floating silks. We want a hero whose armour shines and whose sword is never red with the blood of the innocent or of the incidental casualty. We want those rules that can never be kept, to have been kept: a code of impossible honour, a world of justices and joys. And we seek it not in our world now for we know deep down it can never be. So we seek it in the past: an ancient shining past where our dreams might once have been true. Atlantis and Camelot are both children of the same yearning dreams.

There is a Jewish proverb, better a live dog than a dead lion, and it sums up the kind of practicality we have deep down and yet are somehow ashamed of. Running from a defeat is never seen as sensible, practical or even right; we prefer death-or-glory stands to the canny retreat. In cinema, literature and in our view of history, our preference is always for the glorious defeat, the captain going down with the sinking ship, the king dying on a bloody battlefield surrounded by the slaughtered heaps of his faithful bodyguard. We don’t laud those who saw which way the wind was blowing and left before disaster struck; it’s not memorable, it’s not honourable and it certainly isn’t romantic! History and literature are littered with the bodies of lovers who said, “If I can’t have you, then I shall have nothing.” A myriad Miss Havishams wander the corridors of our consciousness, clad in wedding rags and one silk slipper like an elderly Cinderella who never got to go to the ball in the first place. We don’t applaud those who survived, moved on, thrived and found new love. The star-crossed lovers are not Darby and Joan, celebrating sixty years of happy marriage. No, they are the teenage Romeo and Juliet who died at their own hands rather than lose that one bright moment of perfection.

Let’s face it, when it isn’t us, we adore tragedy. I hesitate to say it but that’s why piles of flowers and teddies materialise at the site of an untimely death. That’s why Diana will always hold a place that Camilla never can. Live fast, die young- one way to achieve a kind of cheap immortality. Surviving, moving on, rebuilding simply don’t hold the same glamour. Rags to riches stories only really appeal because secretly we all hope for an equally meteoric fall back to rags. We say. “Oh how nice,” but I’m not sure how often we mean it. There’s almost always a secret shiver of spite and jealousy that quibbles, “Why them? Why not me? I’m as good as they are.” It feels better when we can say from a safe distance from a tragedy, “What a shame! Oh how sad!”

Arthur lies sleeping, our once-and-future king, but we should take great care we never wake him. There’s too much blood-and-guts reality in the true Arthur for us to stomach these days. We’ve grown beyond true monarchy. I’d rather we had our rough approximation of democracy than have the tyranny of the old kings back and tarnish and fray our romantic visions of the past.

But we need heroes- no I shall go further and say we are desperate for heroes. And so we try and create them out of what material we think best: film stars, models, TV celebrities, pop and rock stars, and God forgive us all, footballers. And they fail us and we vilify them for merely being ordinary fallible venial human beings. They disappoint us and yet we create more.

Are there any real heroes left? Any lantern-jawed Lancelots left to charm and enthral us, fallible enough to be likeable but heroic enough to still command our respect and even our love? There are worthy men and women, heroic ones even but they lack that certain something, that magic ingredient that makes them special like Arthur, Gawain, Percival and dear old Lancelot. So I shall have to create my own heroes, spinning them out of my own yearnings and dreams like gold from spun straw. Arthur can live again, a modern Arthur born of this our real world but with some of the glitter and glamour of the Round Table, and his knights and ladies can dance their graceful steps around him. We all need heroes, but these days I prefer to make my own. I’m sorry, but there isn’t a pattern. It isn’t like painting by numbers or knitting. It’s more like freestyle climbing- massive risk taking, surges of adrenaline that might rocket fuel an elephant and the sense when you’ve completed it that you have done something hardly anyone else can do. I admit that failure doesn’t result in a plummet to the death but emotionally it can feel a little like that. And at the end of that creation process, there stands blinking in the sunshine a shiny newborn hero, fresh for a new world but with ancient genes that stretch back into the oldest memory, the oldest stories. We’ve all changed since our first ancestors told tales round the fire at night-so why not the hero too? Because there is something eternal and unchanging about an archetype- the hero simply adapts and grows with the generations but remains in all essentials the dream we all dream: the Hero.

Bigger Fish

I was sitting in the silence of Quaker Meeting this morning, the room suffused with sunlight, the sound of the birds and the aroma of daffodils and snowdrops on the battle-scarred table in the middle. The atmosphere was humming with concentrated, practised contemplation (if meditation were an Olympic sport, Quakers would win Gold every time) and my thoughts had begun to settle after a busy and tiring day in London yesterday, when to my horror my mobile phone began to make its usual unGodly noise. It’s set to make a horrible jangling tune whenever a call comes in or a text is there, and at maximum volume, simply so that in busy traffic or a bus or amid noisy students I will hear it. I flicked the button to shut it up and saw briefly what it was and then shut the phone down.

Later I had a chance to re-read it and it was a forwarded message from a friend I see very seldom, with a message to send on to anyone I considered to be a BEST MUM. Oh, yeah, it’s Mothering Sunday; I have flowers from my offspring to prove it. I don’t by any means consider myself even a good mother, let alone BEST MUM. It’s subjective; my child tells me she thinks I am great.  Since I am the only mum she’d had(or will get) I guess that’s real enough.

I do a lesson on comparatives and superlatives and I always add mentally to anything that says, “The Best——Ever” the words “SO FAR”. Best is subjective and relative after all. 

There’s a scene in one of the Star Wars films where the heroes are trying to escape a hideous sea monster under water when finally the monster is snapped up by an even bigger sea monster and the line that followed has now become a personal mantra:

THERE’S ALWAYS A BIGGER FISH.

When I was a teenager, I was about the brightest and most talented person in my year. I excelled at almost everything. At seventeen I was put forward for the Cambridge entrance exam(long since vanished); all my teachers told me I would walk it. I had some extra tuition in one subject and that was all. I went to one of the bog standard comprehensives, a pretty good school in many ways, but nothing special. I was(with two others) the great white hope for that year. I had my interview, and waited. Shortly before Christmas the letter arrived. It was not what I wanted to hear; they were not offering me a place. I had simply not come up to scratch. I had failed.  To say I was disappointed is an understatement; my teachers all doubly so. If they placed money on me, they’d lost it. None of us got in.

Now with the hindsight of years, I am glad. Life took another path. That experience taught me something very important (well, a lot of things) and one of those things was that even if you are a Big Fish in a small pond, once you are out of your pond, you are going to find there is always a Bigger Fish. There will always be someone who is bigger, better, smarter, more successful….And they don’t always wear a handy placard telling you this. You can find out the hard way.

Some years ago, after a Maundy Thursday service in a cathedral in East Anglia, I got talking with another lady, older than me about how we’d enjoyed the service and I commented it was a pity they’d got the Latin wrong in the anthem in the printed service book. She gave me a strange look and it then transpired that not only did she have a Phd to my humble BA in the subject, she was also on first name terms with my old Professor. Small world, isn’t it, but what struck me was that I had been lucky not to have been in arrogant or boastful mode. I’d met that day’s Bigger Fish and she didnt eat me alive.

It makes me think that I need to be constantly vigilant and aware that while I have gifts and talents, I am nothing very special at all, in the great wide world and that I must take care not fall into my real temptation of thinking myself great when I am really quite ordinary, because in thinking myself great, I automatically make others less.

And not all Bigger Fish are as kind as the lady in the cathedral.