Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Refuge of the Rails

Railway termini are our gates to the glorious and the unknown.
Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine,
to them, alas! we return.
E.M Forster

WHEN I WIN THE LOTTO, I’ve said I would buy an enormous country house. If I did go up to town I’d stay, I think, in a hotel: my usual suite at the Dorchester in Mayfair. I’d not be paying penthouse prices as I am not too fond of floors above, say, the third or fourth. Fairly easy to escape from on foot in an emergency and near the kitchens if one had a hot meal delivered to one's rooms.

Town and country sorted, then. And another thing, while I’m so incredibly well off: I’d like my own private train. My train, which would have several carriages as I intend to be quite comfortable, featuring a few sleeping compartments, a private bathroom (another for guests), a lounge and an office-cum-library. A connected carriage would have staff quarters and a kitchen, and storage. I think this fantasy comes courtesy of Sir Winston Churchill who, I have heard, tootled around the country in his private railway carriage during World War Two. I understand he would dictate letters as he soaked in his bathtub. On occasion, when the train happened to be in a station when he woke in the morning, Churchill would alight and, wearing his dressing gown, look for the newspapers. To be honest, my valet would be doing that for me; I’d feel a right Charlie making my way to W.H. Smith’s in a state of dishabille.

I have been a fan, a fanatic, when it comes to trains from the first moment I rode on one. I was a little boy with my mother’s father and father’s mother, off the coach in the BOAC Terminal in Victoria, London. We walked, with our modest luggage, along to Victoria Station, and bought tickets from someone behind a wicket. Single, child, to Gillingham. The train was not at all elegant, or attractive, and it was crowded. Back in the day the corridor was along one side of the carriages, very narrow, and small compartments branched off that, each seating six fairly comfortably (three facing three). One could slide a door closed and feel quite private. You’ve seen the old movies: the man reading a newspaper, others are smoking, two girls giggling. This is Third Class: the newspaper is a tabloid, the Daily Mirror. You want The Times? Walk along to First Class. Was there a Second Class?

Ninety minutes later I’d rattled into a state of wonder: the things to see inside the train, the actual physical motion and noise as we clattered to the south and east of London, the landscape outside the window which still featured crumbled buildings and craters left over from the War. Absolute magic. British Rail.

As a teenager I enjoyed days off to London by myself on the train. Getting there and back was almost as much fun as the gallery, museum, great church or film I’d see. In the city I’d travel on the Underground. To this day I cannot figure out the London bus system, but can nip about happily on the Tube.

I recall my first trip on a train with a steam locomotive; I was not yet a teenager and felt that it was quite okay to be totally over the moon at the experience. That was in Kent, on the Isle of Sheppey. Years later I took a night-time ride on a steam-driven train in the Rocky Mountains. The Heber Creeper took passengers on a trip from the little town of Heber through the Heber Valley to Bridal Veils Falls, and back again on the same track. The adventure I signed up for with friends was to last three hours, and we were advised to take picnics, and warned that the train (with its open carriages) would be attacked by a band of marauding Indians, who would be driven off by Cowboys called to rescue us, all on horseback. Alas, our train broke down in the middle of nowhere, without hostile savages or a life-saving posse for comfort. We sat in the dark (and surprising cold, never mind it was summer) for several hours. It was after midnight when we got home.

This summer I have taken two steam train trips, one in Yorkshire and the other in Cumbria: all the rattling, the smoke and the smuts from the engine, worn upholstery and weathered woodwork. Fabulous! My private train, however, will not be drawn by a steam locomotive, and my decor will be fabulous in a different way: well-posh.

This past Monday I was off to the Lake District on a tiny cross-country train that pretty much followed Hadrian’s Wall across the north. The wee Northern Express was more like two buses in tandem riding the rails than a grown-up train. The voyage out went off almost on time, a twenty-minute delay. Coming back at night the East Coast train from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, which I had to meet in Newcastle, was well over an hour late. Newcastle Station was bitterly cold with no enclosed waiting room on our platform. The loudspeaker messages in the Geordie dialect and echoing in the very nearly empty station made little sense to me. I had to keep walking to study a digital display screen. The delay was due to “security issues” on the train to the south of us. We shivered and thought “bombs” as one does these days. The Geordie voice repeated regularly his mantra about left packages in the station. They might be bombs. Don't leave any, and don't touch any. Robots will remove and detonate them.

The train eventually arrived and I noted there were not many passengers on it, few got off, only ten, perhaps, got on board. How many people simply go searching for other options? We set off at speed and then, ten minutes later, stopped dead in a dark place. So dark that I’m not sure whether we were surrounded by farmland, woodland or suburbs. We sat there in complete silence for ten minutes, and then a most apologetic voice explained that a train ahead of us, on our rail, had triggered some sort of mechanism which blocked the forward progress of all the trains behind it. Silence. Then a Scottish voice told us he was bringing tea and sandwiches (for a price) from coach B through to coach H, then he was done for the night. For the people up from London, already stuck on board for nearing five hours, one would have thought they’d offer them a free sarnie and soda. Nope.

Ten minutes more and the train began its travels again, remarkably slowly. I wasn’t sure we were moving as distant points of light seemed fixed, even though the carriage seemed to be throbbing a bit.

I had missed two buses that I could have connected with at my station, so I had to call for a taxi. My little dog had been home alone the entire day, and I’d expected to be back before the dead of night set in. Cailean had been in a dark kitchen. The welcome I got was incredible. Some dogs, fed up, might have thought to bite an ankle, but Cailean wagged his tail and ran about like a rat on crack.

Cailean, of course, will travel with me on my train. We might just stop where Cailean’s bladder dictates, rather than where the trains usually pause. Back to Churchill: Besides being somewhat well-known for his train, Churchill had what he called his “black dog” which was his name for the difficult, down periods in what I think we would now call Manic Depressive Illness, or Bipolar Disorder. I have a black dog, and the black dog. And a dream, a fantasy, of a refuge on the rails.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Enter the Whirlwind

Change your opinions,
Keep to your principles;
Change your leaves,
Keep intact your roots.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

I WORE A SWEATER YESTERDAY, as well as my corduroy jacket, and did not feel over-warm. The ghastly metal seat in the Alnwick Bus Station was really rather cold on my backside; I shall soon have to get my winter trousers down from the suitcases atop my wardrobe where I store them for the two or three months that pass for summer up here.

Yesterday’s slight chill is today’s howling gale from the north, and genuine cold. The BBC weatherman used the “F” and “S” words. Ground Frost in Northern England by Friday night, and Snow in the Scottish Highlands by weekend. I live less than 50 miles from Scotland. The first visible sign of winter in Amble is usually an open flat-bed truck come down from Scotland with an unintentional load of snow. I should point out that one’s breath shows in the cold morning air well before the imported precipitation, and I’ve noticed mine as I wait for the car for over a week now.

We had wonderfully coloured autumn leaves in 2008, and then last year, in early September, we had a sudden violent windstorm which withered most of the leaves here on the coast in a day or two. The leaves fell to the ground and blew, I think, into the North Sea before the week was out. They vanished! Autumn’s lease, like that of summer, had all too short a date. One did see some colours in forested areas inland, but nothing compared to 2008. I am watching the plants in the courtyard being blown about; they are somewhat protected. The cables and power-lines above the street are snapping about in the wind, so it’s safe to assume that the bigger trees in town are shaking like a Hawaiian hula-dancer.

There were American and Japanese tourists on the bus yesterday, most of them dressed in summer clothes. Shorts, t-shirts and blouses along with their Foster Grants. The bus hauled a fair number of them from Alnwick (their shopping bags indicated visits to the Castle with its Harry Potter connection and the Alnwick Gardens) over to Alnmouth Village. The usual anxious questions from our visitors: “Are we there yet?” “Will the pubs be open?”

There was an English couple on the bus; I’d guess a husband and wife. Older, dressed for winter, and dressed in rather more formal clothes than the foreigners. I’ll add, to be honest, this couple looked rather shabby, unkempt. They were sat together across and a few rows in front of me in the seats indicated for elderly and infirm passengers. The woman pressed the bell and the couple stood up. The signs on the bus tell us to ring the bell, but to remain seated until the bus stops. I am the only person I know who does that; even the most wibbly of the wobblies insist on rising and making their ways to the door, even as the bus thrashes about. I noticed that the gentleman with his rumpled collar and poorly-knotted tie, old grey-green suit, and a yellow cardigan, had a white stick. He turned back my way, his eyes clamped shut, and it was obvious that he’d come to town without his dentures. His wife called out to the driver: “We can’t see. We want the stop across the roundabout, past the Royal Oak.” They moved along the bus. I knew she’d got it wrong, there is no Royal Oak in Alnwick, it is The Oaks Hotel. The driver brought the bus through the roundabout, which the old lady could sense, and she started calling loudly: “This is the one. This is the one. Stop!” though we hadn’t actually reached the bus stop. She was quite anxious. The bus jerked to a halt and the driver and everyone on the lower deck of the bus watched the blind couple feel their way out of the bus and onto the pavement. Once outside, the man held onto the woman’s arm and began tap-tapping his stick (it was an ordinary walking cane that had been painted white except at the curved handle). They shuffled away, as winter, while those of us on the bus, summer and autumn, rolled on towards Alnmouth.

Weekend before last I went on a day-trip to Bowness on Windermere in the Lake District. Somehow the weather cooperated and we had brilliant sunshine until late afternoon. We’d taken a coach to Haverthwaite where we boarded a steam locomotive and took a really, really slow trip over to Lakeside. In Lakeside we visited an aquarium, and then everybody except me and our coach driver took a steamer down Windermere to Bowness. I opted to do the drive as I do not like boats and with my brother dying in a boating accent last March I’m now totally boat-phobic.

On the train, and during the coach ride around the lake to Bowness, I had some wonderful views of the English countryside. So lush, so green, I have decided that when I win the Lotto I shall buy one of the large estates near Windermere that we passed by. I am wondering, of course, whether all those leafy trees will be as bare as ours in Amble in a matter of weeks. Trees and men are subject to autumn and winter.

On the way back from the Lake District, crossing the tops of the Pennines, we moved slowly through a barren landscape, just low scrub and rocky outcrops. The ubiquitous loose-stone walls were not in evidence, the only barrier between the land and the highway was fencing. There were a very few stone cottages, none looking habitable. A most desolate place. And we passed a small herd of camels. It must be pretty boring up there, even for a camel, as the beasts were standing at the fence watching the traffic go by. The camels would not be surprised by the cars and coaches, for that is their lot by night and day. For me, on the coach, listening to Jefferson Airplane on my iPod, it really was a most unexpected sight to look out at dromedaries. Will they be up there come the snow?

There’s an apple tree in a garden just along the street from my flat. This is the first year in five that the tree is truly burdened down with apples. They are starting to fall, in the grass and some onto the pavement. None are gathered up and I wonder if they are sour. D.H. Lawrence wrote a poem about the falling of apples to the ground in the autumn, making the point that it is only in the fall to the earth and the bruising of the fruit as a result that the seeds inside are released and the cycle permitted a complete rotation. I believe Lawrence was thinking, also, of the advancing years of man, and that it is the ripe, fully mature fruit that gives rise to the new tree in the spring. Lawrence was only 44 when he died back in 1930.

One sure sign that autumn is arriving is The Last Night at The Proms. That was last week. The Promenade Concerts from the Royal Albert Hall in London run through the summer, and some are televised. I rather enjoyed a concert devoted to Doctor Who. I noticed that the audience was more than half young children, nice that many were with their fathers (rather than mothers). I’ve been following Doctor Who, off and on, since the 1960s. I’m more of a fan now than ever. Are my years running in reverse here?

Every year, when it is time for the grand finale of the Proms, I decide I won’t watch as it will be a bit silly with toffs wrapped in Union flags, bobbing up and down to a hornpipe, and then breaking out into “Rule, Britannia” and “Jerusalem”. However, each year I do tune in, just to see who the female soloist will be. The soloist and the conductor always have a chat with the audience on the Last Night, usually something quite amusing.

So, I switched on my telly, dialled up the BBC, and listened to some rather nice pieces by Richard Strauss. The soloist this year, American Renée Fleming, was splendid, dressed up like a ship of state and beaming.

There were Union flags aplenty, and a good many English, Welsh and Scottish national banners. I’m not too good on flags of the world, but did spot a Canadian flag and some from “down under”. Ms Fleming had a small “Stars and Stripes”.

And the audience sang along with “Jerusalem” and not just in the Albert Hall, but in vast crowds outside in Hyde Park, and in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, as well as at other venues in England. I used to sing Jerusalem at school; it was the only hymn we always sang loud enough for our tetchy Headmaster. Listening to Jerusalem the other night brought back the springtime of my life, when grass was green and tides were high. Now, summer is falling behind and autumn is upon me. My mother died in the autumn, 28 September 1992, when she was in the autumn of her life, aged 65. I tried to sing along with Jerusalem the other night, startling Cailean. It comes with too many memories now, which well up as tears. I wonder if William Blake ever wrote of England’s bleak and wintry land.

As I sit here, minutes from midday, the sky has clouded over completely. The wind seems wilder than ever, I can hear it booming in the rooftops, my chimney and fireplace played like an enormous musical instrument. There are the first bullets of rain on my windows.

The few flowers left by my kitchen door tend to be blue: lavender and hydrangeas and small blossoms that froth from my plant pots. Bees are fond of blue flowers, so there are still some of those around. Where do the honey bees go in the winter? Where will the people play?

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Revolution Counter Revolution

And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the Sabbath day that which is not lawful?
And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him?
How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the showbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?
And he said unto them, The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath:

St Mark 2 : 24-27
Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.
St Mark 2: 28

THE MASTER OF THE HOUSE sat at the western end of the very long table, his wife sat at the other end, facing him over the top of a silver cockerel centrepiece. The guests sat along the sides, facing each other. It was the mistress who was situated near the switch hidden under the carpet, and she could depress this with her foot and alert Dinah in the kitchen to the needs of the diners.

The courses were brought out, plates and platters and cutlery delivered up and removed, all controlled by the bell. Dinah prepared the food and served it silently, and the dinner table conversation was not interrupted. Dinah wore a uniform and soft-soled shoes so as not to disturb anyone.

I had fairly long and shaggy hair, and a reddish beard, and tended towards inexpensive clothes seen on sale in shop windows anywhere from Hamilton's Front Street to a High Street in England, and dear ties from Liberty of London’s archival collection.

The hosts’ daughter had invited her boyfriend, who was my close friend, and a few others to dinner. We had started the evening with drinks on the patio below the swimming pool, water splashing down through a dolphin's open mouth into a small fish pond. The younger folk chain-smoked and talked politics a little and Jesus a lot, and then moved on to Virginia (Woolf) and Tom (Eliot) and Vincent (van Gogh) who we all knew on a first-name basis.

We painted and wrote poetry. Pictures and words that seemed rather over-interested in embryos unborn and also adults in the womb, and angels falling, head first, to the Earth. I do not recall pictures of well-born, upstanding, healthy children or men and women. I cannot recall any angel rising to an occasion. Our pictures and words turned everything upside down. The colours tended to swirling purple and scarlet backgrounds and pasty flesh. Our generation was seeing this, I appreciate now, looking at old album covers. We painted and wrote with loud music playing, the sleeves of the records littering the rooms. I dare say much of the music was dark and mysterious at the time. Revisited, the music just might have been muddled.

I don’t ever recall drinking beer with my friends. It was not that I disliked the taste (I still cannot stomach it), we simply did not drink the stuff. We drank spirits, fancy cocktails if we could locate a bartender, Bacardi and Coke if we were at home. We did drink and drive. I never thought twice about hopping on my scooter after several lethal swizzles and some pills.

The first time I voted in a General Election (this in Bermuda) I went to the campaign headquarters of the political party that could best be described as Conservative in Britain, or Republican in the USA, after the polls had closed, and waited for the results to come in. No computers, no texts, just telephone calls from the counting places on the Island. And at some time after ten o’clock that night the man who would be Bermuda’s new Premier came into the room where many of us had gathered and said we had won. Actually, he seemed to be using the “royal plural” it seemed to me then. The man was not only the new Party Leader, but the first black Premier in Bermuda’s history. The whites had elected him in an unequal electoral system, the blacks did not celebrate. My father and my mother’s parents were not terribly fond of people of colour and did not know what to think.

In Bermuda, about forty years ago, the names of the ruling families were the same as sixty, eighty, a hundred, two hundred years ago: White families with considerable business interests, from banking to law to clothing to fine crystal. If you look at the roll in Bermuda’s current government, those same surnames appear. But something has happened: The leaders are black, they are the descendants of the slaves owned by the former white leaders, slaves who took their masters’ names. The blacks ruling Bermuda now are, for the most part, of a political sort that one might call Labour in the UK, or Democrat in America. That said, it should be pointed out that the successive black Labourite governments of the last thirteen years in Bermuda have lived well. Champagne Socialism in its most simple form. A small and newly privileged ruling class literally drinking champagne and having a Party-party at every opportunity, never mind recession or political morality. The only way such a clique can remain in office is to keep the voting population naive, to fool most of the people all the time.

In the past decade Bermuda has lost its tourism industry: The lovely hotels have gone and now cruise ships stop briefly so that passengers can buy a t-shirt manufactured in China and a fridge magnet, and go to the beach by bus if the weather is good (and if the buses are running). Something else has happened: Bermuda is now convulsed by gang warfare. In the eight months since 2010 began, seven people have been shot to death on the streets of Bermuda, over twenty have been shot and have survived (many others have been attacked with knives and machetes and clubs). I shall note that all of these deaths and gunshot victims have been black, and the generally younger men brought before the courts charged with gun-related crimes are also black. The witnesses, many of whom refuse to give evidence, seem to be black.

Before that dinner party so many years ago, my hosts had parted company with their cook, Dinah. I am not exactly sure what the reason was, whether there was any real fault or problem. My friend, back from boarding school, had found herself having to pitch in at home when it came to mealtime; it was all a bit chaotic. One day my friend telephoned me and asked if I would go with her to try and locate Dinah, she had no telephone, I'm not sure we knew her surname, but someone had come up with an address that might be helpful. Off we went on our mopeds and ended up in a neighbourhood that I’d not been in before. Bermuda was segregated in many ways then, not the least in housing. We were where poorer people of colour lived. We parked on the street and walked up to the door of a white house and knocked. Dinah answered the door. I had not met her before, and I stood back. My friend had a short conversation, then, all smiles, walked over to me and said Dinah was returning to work for her parents. Immediately.

The older folk must all be dead now, and the neighbourhood where Dinah had lived is now a no-go zone for not only whites, but for anybody who might be on the wrong side of the local gang.

I was very much a New Labour supporter back in 1997, and recall how thrilled I was when Tony Blair swept into office. It had been time (and then some) to get rid of the Tories. Of course, Blair let many (most?) of us down badly. I was certainly glad to see the back of him. Sadly (but not surprisingly) his successor, Gordon Brown, was just as bad as Blair. It was time to vote Labour out in 2010.

I tend to like the “outs” and hate the “ins” when it comes to politics. I do not like our Conservative-Liberal Coalition Government. However, for want of a better system, we had to vote Labour out to get rid of Gordon Brown. As E.M. Forster said: "Two cheers for democracy."

We had Beef Wellington at that dinner party I began this piece with, the wine, red, was an Aloxe-Corton, and we had brandied cherries over ice-cream for dessert. When it came time for coffee, the mistress of the house shuffled about in her seat. She seemed a bit agitated. Finally she called out towards the door to the pantry: “Dinah, are you there?” Dinah came through. The switch under the carpet had jammed; the bell had not rung in the kitchen. It’s always something.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

In Madness, Religion and Love Timing is Everything

If I revealed all that has been made known to me, scarcely a man on this stand would stay with me. And, Brethren, if I were to tell you all I know of the kingdom of God, I do know that you would rise up and kill me. Joseph Smith Jr.

THE FIRST BOOK I EVER OWNED was a small children’s hymnal from the bookshop in Canterbury Cathedral; my two grandmothers had gone there on a day trip. It was dedicated to me with both of their signatures - Nan Eldridge and Grandma Lancaster – and dated shortly before my third birthday. That book went into storage in Bermuda five years ago, in the bottom of an old shipping container, in a field that I believe has since flooded. I don’t expect to see it again. The memory, however, is fresh. I can still recall the rough paper and very simple illustrations with but touches of colouring; the United Kingdom may well still have had rationing of paper and printing supplies held over from the War years.

I was given two other books of a religious nature as soon as I could read; I was quite proficient by the age of five or six. The red and blue books had effusive Christian stories and testimonies, illustrated with photographs of famous paintings, rather than with all-new, dedicated artwork.

We sang “Jesus Loves Me” at pre-school, and once I was in primary school we sang from a Church of England songbook specially condensed from the large, heavy "Hymns Ancient and Modern" we used at church and Sunday School. At day school we sang responses and chants and prayers in the morning Assembly. Volume was everything: We were never praised or upbraided for our spiritual dedication and devotion, but if we failed to make a loud noise (joyful or otherwise) we were blasted by the Headmaster.

Church, Sunday School and day school were racially segregated. In case you don’t know, Jesus is a white English bloke who spoke and wrote Shakespearean English. This was confirmed to me a few years after I graduated from grammar school, perhaps by an unlikely source. Joseph Smith, the Mormon Founder and Prophet, saw not only Jesus, but God the Father, and they were both white and spoke perfect English in the style of the original King James Version of the Bible. The young Mormon Elders used flip-charts with gloriously coloured pictures of the wonderfully white Jesus.

The characters in the Book of Mormon tend to be represented as very handsome and muscular, in clothes that are a touch Arthurian. It’s all a bit gay. The Mormon Church’s illustrators may have been of that generation that went to gladiator films in the 1950s, and enjoyed “Camelot” secretly. I know it sounds a bit bizarre, but in Camelot...

Joseph Smith was in his early teens when he saw Jesus and God the Father while out praying in the woods. In 1820, where the boy lived, there were any number of religious revivals. Joseph said (years later) he had asked, in prayer, which of the churches in his neighbourhood might be the right one. Down came Jesus and God! “None of them!”

Three years later, Joseph had an angel beam into his bedroom one night. As the little farmhouse was crowded, I never quite understood how only Joseph saw and heard the Angel Moroni as he dropped through the ceiling.

Moroni told Joseph about some golden plates on which was inscribed a book written by Moroni’s father, Mormon, a warrior and prophet of olden days in the Americas. Apparently, Joseph was taken to see the plates which were buried in a stone box on a hillside in New York State.

Years later, Joseph gets to take the golden plates home and he translates some of them using a seer stone inside a hat. Looking into the hat at the stone, the words on the plates would appear. God does work in mysterious ways, of course!

More important, as Joseph Smith is translating the Book of Mormon, he has continued, steady visitations from angelic gentlemen that I, for one, knew from my earliest Bible stories. John the Baptist, Joseph Smith related, conferred an Aaronic or Lesser Priesthood on him. Later the New Testament apostles we know as Peter, James and John supervised the transfer to Joseph of the Higher Melchizedek Priesthood.

When the first Mormon temple is built in Kirtland, Ohio, any number of angels turn up. In fact, on the day of the dedication people outside of the temple saw angels walking along the rooftop.

Of course, the Mormons are more famous for polygamy, what Joseph Smith called Plural or Spiritual or Celestial Marriage. He denied having taken more wives than his first, Emma Hale. After Joseph had been assassinated in 1845, Emma also claimed that her husband had never had other wives than herself. The evidence to the contrary is exceptional. The Prophet wrote directives that he received from God, published as “Doctrines and Covenants”, and they clearly indicate that plural marriage is the only way one can become a candidate for godhood. Mormons believe, by the way, that men who do what the Prophet commands can become gods (with their many goddess-wives).

If Joseph Smith had over thirty wives, one would have expected a fair number of little Smiths apart from those he fathered with wife Emma. DNA tests have so far suggested that none of the women thought to have been Joseph’s spiritual wives had his children. A recent article does point out that Dr John C Bennett, M.D., may well have been the Polygamists’ Abortionist in the early 1840s when he was Joseph Smith’s Assistant Prophet. Bennett was such a sordid man, within and outside of the Mormon Church, and I’m wary of anything to do with him. Scruples he was certainly short of.

Many of Joseph’s so-called wives ended up married, sealed, to his successor, Brigham Young, and some had Brigham’s children.

It almost amuses me, as an outsider, to see the effort the present Mormon Church puts into supporting and opposing certain controversial social issues. In the early 1990s, while I was living in the south-west corner of Utah, the local Mormon chapels organized groups to regularly cross the state border into Nevada to spy on an “adult bookstore”. The church members claimed that Utahns were crossing over to visit the Pure Pleasure emporium for whatever might be going on there. The spies sent by God would note the license plates from Utah in the parking area outside the bookstore and attempt to name and shame. The Brethren in Salt Lake City claimed that this was not a church-sanctioned activity, this spying, but the rota lists were worked out in the Mormon meeting houses.

In recent years the Mormon Church has opposed, but claims not to have ordered active opposition to, same sex partnerships. I’m not exactly sure how the business of legalising anything gets done in the USA, there’s always a judge to send something back. Apparently, some states have legalised what the papers tend to call “Gay Marriage” and some states have not passed a law enabling it. Some states want laws absolutely prohibiting it. We have gay partnerships here in the UK, but I don’t know much about all that. I suppose if two men, or two women, want to be legally bound together, it’s their business. It does mean one has to consider children and various legal rights. I honestly think people should marry if they intend having a family, and a man and a woman seems like the best option. Should we be arguing with biology? But, more important, should one argue with love?

Did Joseph Smith love each and every one of his 33 wives? Did Brigham Young love each and every one of his 55 wives? Or is the business of spiritual wifery just that, a business? Can one indeed become a God with but a single wife? Has there been another revelation to change the unchangeable word of God? The Mormons did make a change to the Divine Rules and Regulations in 1978 when an influx of converts in Brazil and other South American countries could not be sorted clearly into white people (like Jesus and the Mormons) and black people who had been forbidden entry to the Mormon temples and to any office in the Church hierarchy. In 1978 the doors were opened to people of colour. More than a few white Mormons walked out in protest.

One hears from Mormons that angels continue to visit the Earth. Long-dead people also drop in. The veil is awfully thin. A rather fanatical Mormon who eventually went off his nut told me that at least one Mormon temple had a bedroom for Jesus to rest in when he was in town. The Mormons call each Temple “The House of the Lord” and my over-enthusiastic friend indicated that a house is a home.

Do I think Joseph Smith saw angels, Jesus, God the Father? Do I think Joseph saw the words written on the golden plates when he put a pebble in his hat and placed his face into the hat to keep all the light out so that he could see the text reflected on his seer stone? I’m not sure, because I know people who see and hear things that I do not. One might call people schizophrenic because of the voices they hear, the visions they have, and they might be psychics. In fact, schizophrenics are more believable than psychics, are they not? A schizophrenic is not likely to ask a hall full of people if anyone has a relative called Tom (or is it Ted?) who has passed over, as a psychic surely does. A schizophrenic will say he has been up all night talking to Moses, who is dictating a better translation of the Pentateuch. It might even be a work-in-progress in a jotter. Perhaps a schizophrenic is a genuine psychic.

Might Joseph Smith have been a schizophrenic as a psychic? If one strips away the fairly obvious nonsense, the copying, the sales talk, the expedient, there is the “problem” of Smith’s writing and lectures (he had most of what he preached written down, some of it is fantastic). Can a man really stare into a darkened hat and dictate a book? An ordinary man. Or is this all the work of what some might call a madman (and a current following of nearly fourteen millions)?

Are the Scientologists and the Moonies any madder than the Mormons?

Can we take as the Word of God anything that comes from a hat? Really? And where is that hat now? Where are the peep stones? Who is in contact? How?