Saturday, 22 December 2007


Oh dear. My recent rants about religion have led at least one reader to conclude I am an atheist. Far from it. I am descended from a long line of Methodist lay preachers. One of whom was so friendly with John Wesley that when he came to preach in my family home at Stourbridge in Staffordshire so many people wanted to hear him they could not all fit in the ground floor of the house.

My ancestor hit upon a typically Skidmorean solution. He carved a hole in the kitchen ceiling, stood Wesley on the table so that his head peeped through into the bedroom above and directed the overflow to listen to him there. Another ancestor held towpath services for bargees, which led to him being called the Bargeman’s Bishop.

My favourite ancestral story concerns the more exalted branch of the family who held the living of Abbey Dore in the Golden Valley. One of them appointed a vicar who was only five foot tall and could not be seen over the rim of the pulpit. My ancestor, disturbed by being sermonised by a disembodied voice, tried to persuade him to stand on a box. The tiny vicar refused because it was not consonant with his dignity.

The ancestor was Charles II’s ambassador to France at the time but that did not prevent him from giving most of his attention to the pulpit dispute. His refusal to learn French obviously reduced the time he had to spend on official duties.

Far from being anti-religious, I have worried about religion for most of my life and have only recently come to a conclusion that satisfies me. I have never shared the belief that the more science discovers about life, the more difficult it becomes to believe in a creator. Quite the opposite. I read in the Daily Telegraph of new mathematical theories which suggest that, in the very beginning, there was a void that possessed energy but was devoid of substance. “Then the void changed, converting energy into the hot matter of the big bang. But the team suggests that the void did not convert as much energy to matter as it could, retaining some, in the form of what we now call dark energy, which now accelerates the expansion of the cosmos.”

The story (DT 22.11.07) described a basic tenet of religion. The doctrine of my old friend Hermes Trignegustus, who said in the 2nd century “God is a sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.”

Or of Zen Buddhism. Witness Huang Po’s description of Zen in the 9th century: ”All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind beside which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible. It has neither form nor appearance. It does
not belong to the categories of things which exist or do not exist; nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old. It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces and comparisons. It is what you see before you. Begin to reason about it and you at once fall into error. It is like the boundless void which cannot be fathomed or measured.“

In the 17th century Sir Thomas Browne wrote in his “Religion of a
Doctor”: “I believe that a common spirit infuses all mankind. It is the spirit of God. It is the spirit which lay on the waters and by its heat generated the world and all creation... the Holy Spirit. The Universal Spirit of the Pagan.”
Another thing I learned recently was that we all carry two strands of genes, the purpose of one strand being to repair any malfunctions in the other. It is difficult, given those facts, to subscribe to the philosophical assertion, the incorrigible proposition “there is no plan, no scenario, no libretto”.

The simple truth, as I see it, is contained in the four fundamental doctrines at the core of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Perennial Philosophy’, which he says all religions share. The first is that the phenomenal world of matter and individual consciousness is a Manifestation of Divine Ground. The second is that human beings are not only capable of knowing the Divine Ground: they realise it by direct intuition. Thirdly, man possesses a double nature, the phenomenal ego and an Eternal Self, the spark of Divinity within the soul. Fourthly, man’s life on earth has one purpose: to identify himself with his Eternal Self and so come to intuitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.

I don’t believe in God as Father Christmas, presiding over a Celestial Eisteddfod where everyone, clad in Druidical nightshirts, incessantly plays harps and you can’t get a drink. I don’t believe in miracles, biblical assertions. And if there is a Day of Judgement, I will stuff my fingers in my ears so that I cannot hear the heavenly trumpet and refuse to take part.

Like Oscar Wilde said to Robert Ross, “When the Last Trumpet sounds, Robbie, let us pretend we do not hear it.”

I hope I make myself clear?

A DROP IN THE OCEAN …………………………………………………………

During World War 2, my friend George Thomas was a wireless operator in a bomber. He told me that on one occasion his aircraft was returning from a raid with so many holes in the fuselage that the pilot suggested, as they approached the coast, they should all jump out before they fell out.

George, who had a great talent in these matters, parachuted into the paddling pool of a holiday camp. The moment he touched water, the rubber dinghy he carried strapped to his back inflated, upending him so that he was floating like an upturned tortoise.

That wasn’t the worse thing, George told me. He said the dinghy contained a large capsule of purple dye which was designed to explode and mark the position of the evicted airman in a vast sea. In the confined area of a paddling pool it emitted a dye of such intensity, George said, he felt like a DFC on a purple velvet cushion.

And there was worse to come. At that stage of the war, he told me, scientists had perfected a small radio beacon which was strapped to the chest of air crew and was so sensitive that on impact an aerial shot up and the equipment issued a loud intermittent bleep.

So there he was, up-ended, circling a tiny azure paddling pool, with his chest making rude noises.

But not even that was the worse thing, he told me (and at this point his voice always shook with suppressed emotion). Over the sound of the radio bleeping he could hear cheering and a ripple of applause. Turning his head, he saw that the pool was ringed by excited children, some of whom were waving paper flags, which he said was very touching.

This went on for some time before a large Yorkshireman in a red coat waded into the pool and pulled George to the safety of the bank. He introduced himself as the camp manager and said, “I dunno know oo tha art, but I’ll tell thee what. If tha can come and do that every Saturday there’s a fiver in it for you.”



A Vicar wrote to the News Chronicle:
“If golf is allowed on Sunday, then cricket and football, tennis, bowls and darts must also be sanctioned and Sunday in Aberystwyth will outdo Paris.”

Sending me this cutting from his Oxford college, the late Professor E. M. Hugh-Jones wrote of the occasion when ... “Gerard Fiennes was walking with the station master along the front at Aberystwyth and an RAF plane flew over on parachute exercise. The first failed to open and the poor man plummeted into the sea. ‘Eh indeed,” remarked the stationmaster, ‘nothing opens in Aberystwyth on a Sunday.’”

May I take the opportunity of hoping, against all the odds, that my readers will have a Happy Christmas and a Prosperous and Healthy New Year? Just don’t bet on it.