Friday, 26 October 2007

I wish she hadn’t done it! On the outing of Dumbledore

It seems impossible this week not to make some sort of comment on the fact that She-Who-Need-Not-Be-Named has outed Dumbldore as gay. This is one of those events, relatively minor in itself, which I fear will no doubt have major repercussions, some of which are as yet unsuspected.

I have some difficulty in writing about homosexuality. I have very little empathy for it, which makes treating the subject with sympathy difficult. I am also aware it is a subject of enormously strong feelings. Being gay is such a core feature of homosexual people that to be negative about it is seen as a personal attack. It is also a subject of such complexity that it needs careful unpacking; for example are we to endorse even the most promiscuous sort of homosexuality? A blog is hardly an appropriate location for a discussion. Nevertheless I feel that some comment must be made, so here goes.

I wish she hadn’t done it for many reasons. Let me begin with the literary problem. She has effectively added an amendment to the books which now, for better or worse, require their re-evaluation. The pivotal Dumbledore-Harry relationship must surely be now be reconsidered. It is a wise rule that once a book is written, authors leave their finished work to the readers. This has an unfortunate air of ‘Harry Potter: The Author’s Cut.’

Secondly, she has chosen to throw her considerable weight on one side of what is perhaps the biggest and most painful cultural battle of our time: whether homosexual relationships are as equally valid as heterosexual ones. I remind you that this is no light issue: to accept such a legitimisation is basically to reject the Bible’s authority in matters of sexuality. And if the Bible is kicked out of the bedroom, then it will soon be kicked out of the boardroom and the schoolroom. Its authority will be utterly undermined, and all we will have left is some edifying stories and some pious promises. I feel that she has done this because she is a modern Western woman and it’s the thing to do.

Thirdly, and most worryingly of all, she has bought this pained and complex battle into children’s literature. When I taught in Beirut in the early 1980s there was a universal (and generally held) agreement amongst the trigger-happy thugs of the warring militias that the campus of the American University of Beirut was off-limits. In the same way, I think there has been something of an unspoken consensus that it was not right to wage this battle in the presence of children. But at a stroke JKR has brought the war into the school library. I regret this, not because I think the gay rights issue cannot be countered at this level, but because I believe in an endangered thing called childhood in which such matters remain over the horizon. The all too vulnerable area of childhood, long eroded by commercialism, is now threatened by warfare over sexual orientation. (Incidentally, had it been the evil Voldemort who had been outed, then I trust I would have been just as irritated.)

Finally, I regret it for a selfish reason. It makes our lives difficult as writers. Do we now have to declare some sort of affidavit that ‘no character of ours will be subsequently outed’? Let me pre-empt that. Let me say here, for the benefit of my readers and for posterity that no character good or evil I have written of in the Lamb among the Stars books is gay. But I wish I hadn’t had to say it.

Friday, 19 October 2007

A question without an easy answer

This would have been a nice normal teaching week, except that I was summoned for jury service. It is the first time I have been part of a court procedure and I don’t wish to say anything specific, but let me offer an observation.

I was struck by the enormous sense of respect – bordering on awe – that the court seemed to invoke in all of us gathered for the jury service. Particularly when we were assembled in an anteroom next to the court chamber, you could almost feel the mutual unease. Voices were hushed, jokes ebbed away, people seem to look at each other as if seeking reassurance that we were part of the process of judgment and not its object. Oddly enough, it reminded me of a funeral. There are similarities, of course: for those sentenced to prison, lives are shattered and families torn apart in a way that only death exceeds. Anyway, I think we all felt we were in the presence of something of solemn power.

The sense of being in the presence of judgment, perhaps even justice, raised a question. Should we not, at least some time, and in some measure, feel this in church? Of course, we are forgiven in Christ; of course, we come before God not as judge, but as heavenly Father. But have we forgotten the wrath that would have been ours outside Christ? Have we totally forgotten that we have been spared the justice of God?

The question, which inevitably follows is, if that is the case (and I feel that there must be the time and place for such emotions), how do we try and it invoke them? An older generation would have had sermons on God's wrath and judgment. We however, being 21st-century Christians, merely allude to such things in passing, and then, aided and abetted by a worship team, move swiftly on into the happy sunlight of blessings, promise and hope. Something to think about surely?

Incidentally, I have posted a long discussion of allegory on the Speculative Faith website. Have a good weekend,


Friday, 12 October 2007

Technology, Tools and Traps

I have been busy this week, partly with getting hold of the new car. (Very nice, thank you.) But doesn’t everything take so much of an effort these days? The Octavia manual runs to 200 pages and that’s only the English; you are aware how far computers have made inroads into the world of the car.

One other thing that has occupied me this week has been trying to find an online calendar and To Do program that I can access from any computer at home or work and also from my Windows Mobile phone. As you may or may not be aware, there are some very fine products, such as Yahoo Calendar, Google Calendar and a few other things that are great for managing dates and appointments. There are also some very good pieces of task management software, and the one I have got the most mileage out of so far is the splendidly named Remember The Milk. Hitherto I have used Microsoft’s Outlook, but find that it has all sorts of limitations. Currently Google Calendar and Remember The Milk seemed to be the best combination, but transferring dates and times from Outlook into the online Google calendar is far from easy.

Why have I been so anxious to do this? It’s actually a very good question. The first answer is that I want to be able to organise my life, wherever I am. I want to be able to know what I have to do and when I have to do it. I want to be able to click on any computer and be told I have this marking, and this preparation to do. And, I would add, because I am not the most organised of people, this is vital. The reality is, I suspect something far deeper. It is a forlorn, doomed hope that I will find some wonderful piece of software that will actually do the work for me. I live in hope that there will be something that, with a few mouse clicks, will write those references on students, mark those papers and prepare those lectures. I acknowledge the full force of the curse on Adam in Genesis chapter 3, paraphrased from memory thus: ‘from now on, you will only earn a living by the sweat of your brow’. But I live in hope that somehow, somewhere I will find an exception to this rule. Incidentally, this is not why I write books. I write books for the same reason that I scratch my body; it’s an itch that needs attention. But yes, I’d love to write full-time.

This leads me to an intensely valuable piece of advice that I read over 20 years ago, which I share with you gladly in the hope that someone else might find it equally helpful. It was so striking that I can still remember where I read it: it was in an imported computer magazine (yes, they did have them in those days) in Antananarivo, Madagascar. It was a summary of some early work on two sets of managers: one IT literate, and the other IT illiterate. They had followed them for a couple of years to see how they progressed. To everyone’s surprise, the IT illiterates actually advanced faster up the corporate ladder than their colleagues. The reason, the writer concluded, was that the computer literates spent far too much of their time tweaking the software, learning tricks and helping other people sort out computer problems. The IT illiterates simply got on with their job.

Two decades and three or four jobs later, I can only say that this strikes me as being a very profound observation for writers, educators and everybody else. What technology gives with the one hand, it takes away with the other. Somewhere Stephen King talks about he calls ‘the world’s finest word processor: the Waterman fountain pen’. In an age when cars come with 200 page manuals, I know exactly where he is coming from.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Two Problems

Two loose ends this week, neither of which really merits full-blown blog treatment.

The first is that we are finally changing a very ancient number two car for a much more recent Skoda Octavia, which is really rather nice. The Skoda story is interesting. A famous Czech car firm before the Second World War, they became infamous under Communism for creating cars that were legendary for their appalling design and quality. They were so bad that they spawned a whole library of jokes. A sample: ‘How do you double the value of a Skoda?’ Answer: ‘Fill it with petrol.’

In 1991, after the unlamented departure of the Communist government, Skoda was taken over by the Volkswagen group and subjected to a root and branch overhaul. This was stunningly effective, so that now, 16 years later, in Britain at least, Skoda are high on the league tables for innovative, reliable and desirable vehicles. Embarrassingly Skodas have proved to be more reliable vehicles than Audis and Volkswagens.

I mention this here because it seems to me that it would make a wonderful children’s talk in church. Do we not here have a very real pattern of conversion, redemption and New Birth? The worthless delinquent, the butt of endless jokes, taken over and given a brand new life of value? It’s great. But my problem is this: how on earth do I make a talk of it that doesn’t sound like an advertisement?

I have also been thinking this week about fictional characters. Without revealing too much, the reason is that this year I have found myself with a student who genuinely does merit, without any sense of hyperbole, the word genius. His history is that he is exiled from a war-torn Middle Eastern state, passes through Pakistan and ends up in Russia where he learns to play the piano and high-level chess, and masters his fourth language. With his family he somehow ends up in a tiny flat in Swansea, where despite arriving with no English, he soon passes five A-levels with stunning grades. He is now with me cruising through geology with a polite effortlessness as he waits till he can apply to university at 17. He is rarely seen without some learned tome and spends any remaining spare time helping other immigrants. The problem is this. If he were a character in a manuscript, the editor would no doubt observe ‘tone him down, too good to be true’. We must respond: despite being ‘too good to be true’, some things (grace included) are indeed true.