Chariot of Fire

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I went back to college the other night. There was a lot going on, a contest between a prophet of the Lord and the priests of Baal. Baal’s priests couldn’t get their fire to light to consume the sacrificial bull, whereas Elijah was so cool, he got his people to soak the pyre, dig a trench around it and fill it with water. Then he called on God to accept the sacrifice and Whumpff!  The bull was incinerated, to the dismay and confusion of the priests of Baal. We used to light fires on May Eve, the month of Baal tine. We consigned spuds to the embers. The Lord God of Israel would have refused the blackened offerings, but we munched them anyway. Baal might have been glad of them, as things didn’t work out too well for him. You have to marvel at Elijah’s confidence and certainty. People with such certainty are scary people. Take the prophets of Baal and let not one of them escape you. Bring them down to Kishon’s brook and there let them be slain.  There is a terrible modern ring to all that, especially in The Middle East. Israel is just as much in the news today as it was in Biblical times.

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Of course there were no pyrotechnics the other night. The Great Hall of what was once my college, is now The National Concert Hall. Margaret and her friends were singing Mendelssonh’s  Elijah. They filled the hall with mighty harmonies. It was, literally, a resounding triumph. The rafters trembled. A boy soprano stood up and faced the audience with extraordinary confidence, a precious commodity, invaluable in one so young. The mind wanders along by ways. Suppose Elijah’s fire had sputtered out. Did he ever suffer from doubt? General Gordon faced down the fanatical followers of The Mahdi with a swagger stick and force of personality. They killed him anyway.

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As my daughter was driving, we poured a libation or two at the interval, in honour of Elijah’s victory. This was a library in my student days. There was no great light shining above us then. There was definitely no bar.The Phantom of the Opera used to swing from chandeliers like this.  Why?  I always feel a small temptation to leap across the gap and shout defiance at the upturned faces below. But I suffer from slight vertigo and I have no cloak. You would be disgraced, in the chandelier swinging trade, if you had no cloak. I fear that I would come down in a shattering tintinnabulation of crystal into the room below. What an entrance! I like to think that I would be cool enough to sit up amid the wreckage and order a gin and tonic. I was never that cool. A fellow student once told me that he admired my quiet reserve and confidence. He misread the situation, mistaking inarticulacy for inner calm.

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The choirs returned, filing in, like the Bolivian soldiers in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. (Newman and Redford, personifications of ‘cool’.)  The choir meant business. The orchestra returned with their heavy artillery. We were transported again to an ancient conflict between gods and prophets. I looked around at all the changes that had taken place since the time when I sat in that hall, scribbling desperately at exam time. The college was always undergoing renovation. The hall, a remnant of a great Victorian industrial exhibition, was cold and shabby. His word is like a fire and like a hammer that breaketh the rock into pieces. There was always hammering. A century’s worth of dust and soot drifted down on the scribblers below. Fountain pens became chimney brushes. There was a rhythm to it all: blow; write; wipe the nib; mutter; try to blank out the noise; concentrate. There was one student endowed with the confidence to stand up and shout: “Eff that bangin’…” He spoke for all of us. I love the tympani, the sounding brass, the strings, the deep, brown notes of the cello, the soaring voices. My soul was uplifted, as was Elijah in a fiery chariot. He had earned it. The choir earned their ovation. No dust descended.

Eric von Daniken was a popular purveyor of pseudo science in those days. He ‘proved’ to his own satisfaction and to the satisfaction of many, that the ancient gods and heroes were intergalactic travellers. Chariots of the Gods. Elijah was taken away in a rocket ship. It’s obvious, isn’t it?  There were flames coming out of his chariot. History is Wrong. What did I tell you? One afternoon in what was once The History Library, where the Treaty Debates took place in 1921 and 22, a lecturer produced a transistor radio and put it up to the microphone. ‘This is more important than any lecture,’ he announced. It was a live broadcast from Cape Canaveral of John Glenn orbiting the world . He flew with the confidence born of training and meticulous preparation. He flew for four hours and fifty five minutes, lighting up the darkness as he crossed the sky. Our hearts were lifted with him. He was no god but he was every inch, a hero. He still is. I remembered him the other night and raised a glass in his honour.

lo, there came a fiery chariot with fiery horses and he went by a whirlwind to heaven.

All credit to those who played a part in his flight, to Felix Mendelssohn, a son of Israel, the conductor, the musicians and singers who brought wonder and harmony to that old, dusty hall.

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Eyeless in Gaza

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John Foster Dulles gave us the concept of brinkmanship: ‘The ability to get to the brink without getting into the war, is the necessary art.’ I recall a critical cartoon of Dulles as a blind man groping his way to the edge of an abyss. It was captioned Eyeless in Gaza. That was during the Suez invasion of 1956. It was Milton’s phrase for Samson…’eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.’ Samson brought the roof down on the Philistines and incidentally on himself. The devotees of God/Jehovah/Allah/Ra/Ammon/Baal/Moloch/and many more, have been particularly busy in the Middle East, for the last 5000 years or so. Milton singled out Moloch for special mention…’Moloch, horrid king, besmeared with blood of human sacrifice…’ The followers of Moloch gave their first-born children to the god, through fire. Has anything changed? Possibly, just for good measure, the children of others are offered also.

Moloch must be smiling. The shells rain down on the children of Gaza. The rockets of the weaker side, the Palestinians, (Philistines/Pelasgi, sea people) fuelled by hatred and despair, score infrequent hits on Israeli towns and psychological hits on Ben Gurion Airport. It is a recurring obscenity, without pity or magnanimity. Those who suffered the Holocaust, say ‘never again’. Their vision is one-sided. By ensuring their own security they store up years of future conflict for their children. Their great war hero, Dayan, wore a black eye patch. Arafat, it is said, kept one hundred young girls in readiness to act as suicide bombers…’my army of roses..’  This region is called The Holy Land, for God’s sake.

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On a beautiful sunny day I brought my four year old grandson to the playground. It was full of young parents and children, with a few grandparents, here and there. They have their uses. He lay on the wheel and travelled all around the world. The wheel is powered by parents and grandparents by turns. He went to The North Pole and America and Poland and Ireland and Australia, until, like Samson, I ran out of steam. There is a notion that playgrounds are places where children play and parents relax on the benches and smile benignly. It’s not so simple. The price of peace and harmony is eternal vigilance. The big children must not trample or push the smaller ones. The small ones must not climb beyond their ability or wander behind the swings. The adults are on their feet all the time. It is an exercise in tolerance and co-existence. You may not strike or abuse the parent or grandparent of some other child. There may be a need for negotiation and voluntary rules. The playground is no place for brinkmanship. {Dulles believed that as long as nuclear weapons remained in the hands of  ‘the good guys’, there would be world peace, under the threat of mutually assured annihilation.}

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We sat on the seat dedicated to Percy French, where he was inspired by the view, to write his famous song, The Mountains of Mourne. There was a fog so we had to be contented with singing a few  bars about the invisible mountains. It is a song of an exile longing for home. We went to watch the swimmers. We met a man whose four-year-old grandson is coming home from Australia. He is very happy about that. We had ice cream (obligatory) from the little shop on the harbour.

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We climbed the steps to the lighthouse and saw thirty seven jellyfish and a floating crab. We went to see the memorial pole, dedicated to those lost at sea. Tragic deaths but accidental. The names are inscribed all around the pole, stories of long ago and not so long ago. He had to climb the pole. It’s a tradition. When he is big, he told me, he will climb to the top. If you reach the top, you can make a wish. What else could you wish for your children and grandchildren, but peace and safety? What can you see from up there, Alex?

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It was a perfect morning.

When we came home the news was that Moloch was still smiling; the bombs were still falling on schools and hospitals and on children playing on the beach. The rockets were still flying. There is no vision beyond the next salvo. An eye for an eye, as the old adage has it, leaves everybody blind. What did Ariel Sharon see, as he lay all those years in a coma? What did Moise Dayan see with his dark eye? Is Yasser Arafat enjoying the fruits of his labours in Paradise, with all those virgins? God help the poor virgins and God pity the children.