John Milton is 400 years old this month, and there is justified lamentation that nobody reads him for pleasure. Although Milton is renowned for his learning and complexity, he was also the master of simplicity. Almost my earliest memory of poetry of any kind is singing Milton’s version of Psalm 136 at my kindergarten. ‘Let us with a gladsome mind/ Praise the Lord, for he is kind’, it begins. I liked it, aged four or five, because of its depiction of nature — the ‘golden-tressèd sun’, ‘the hornèd moon that shines by night,/Mid her spangled sisters bright’. (I only wish the hymnal version had included some of the exciting other verses like ‘The floods stood still like walls of glass,/While the Hebrew bands did pass’ or ‘And large-limbed Og he did subdue,/ With all his over-hardy crew’.) Milton’s intellectual sophistication did not prevent his love of the physical, his directness. This Christmas is the right time to enjoy his ode ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’. Here is the winter scene when the pagan spirits are dispelled at the coming of the saviour: ‘So when the sun in bed,/ Curtained with cloudy red,/ Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,/ The flocking shadows pale,/ Troop to the infernal jail…’. Milton wrote the poem when he was just 21.
A City friend sends me an email of an old joke in new form. From internal evidence, I should say it was composed in the late summer. It is called ‘Cows! A cheerful summary’, and consists of a series of definitions: ‘Socialism: You have two cows. The State nationalises one and gives it to your neighbour. Communism: You have two cows. The State takes both and gives you some milk. Fascism: You have two cows. The State takes both and sells you some milk. Traditional capitalism: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull. Your herd multiplies, and the economy grows. You sell them and retire on the income. Lehman Brothers Venture Capitalism: You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at Bear Stearns, then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows. The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island Company secretly owned by the majority shareholder who sells the rights to all seven cows to your listed company. The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more. You sell one cow to buy a new President of the United States, leaving you with nine cows. No balance sheet provided with the release. The public then buys your bull.’
Late last month, two men in Devon were driving back in a 4×4 vehicle from a day’s shooting. They were stopped by police, who breathalysed both of them, on the grounds that the passenger might be over the limit in possession of shotguns. Neither man was over the limit. The law says that if your shotguns are secure and you are not a danger to the public, you commit no offence as a passenger even if you have been drinking. The breathalysing was probably unlawful. But there is said to be a nationwide police campaign to target muddy 4x4s after lunch. This extreme vigilance against any private owner of a gun contrasts sharply with the police’s attitude to their own use of firearms. This month they shot and killed a man, David Sycamore, on the steps of Guildford Cathedral because he was brandishing a replica gun and threatening to kill himself. Earlier in the year, they killed Mark Saunders, a barrister who was drunkenly firing his shotgun out of the window of his house in Chelsea, even though no member of the public was in range. Flying to and from Scotland recently, I took my shotgun in the hold. Before this could be authorised, not only did an airport official have to check my licence and serial number and fill in a form, but also two policemen, both armed with submachine guns, had to be summoned to check the serial number all over again. No one wastes as much police time as do the police.
The story of Barack Obama obviously requires a more heroic vehicle than mere journalism can offer, so I am delighted to have received the outline of an opera on the subject. It is called Obama, ossia L’Avvento del Messia. The lead, Barracco Obama, ‘Redentore del Mondo’, is a tenore miracoloso. The cast includes Gugliemo Priapo, ‘ex-Presidente’ (tenore mentitore) and Sara Palino ‘Governatrice d’Alaska e Reginetta di Bellezza’ (coloratura buffa). The first Act has L’Obama healing lepers, resurrecting the dead daughter of a Washington policeman and singing of how he has released the nation from the tyranny of Giorgio Secondo (‘Dopo si lunga notte’). But Gugliemo and his disappointed wife, Hillaria (soprano ambizioso) are conspiring against L’Obama. After a sub-plot in which Gugliemo is strongly attracted to Sara — a feeling expressed in the quartet ‘Bella figlia d’Alaska’ — the scheming couple, seeking advice from the nether world, summon up the ghost of Giorgio Secondo. He rises through the floor ‘with bloody hands holding his very small brain’, but recommends a spirit greater than he, that of Ruscio Limbago, ‘Bocca Grande’, who prophesies that L’Obama’s days are numbered and that Hillaria will rule in La Casa Bianca, but that it will all go wrong and she will die ‘the same frustrated, bitter woman that she is’. Hillaria listens only to the first part of the prophecy (‘O lieto augurio!’), and contrives an assassination during the State of the Union address in the year of the mid-terms, while the crowd is distracted by Sara Palino twirling flaming batons in the Gallery (‘O belle fiamme’). There are many improbabilities in the plot, but at least the author (name unknown to me) did not stretch credulity beyond its limits and make Hillaria Secretary of State.
On BBC Four recently, there was a documentary involving a well-known leader. He was a man ill at ease with himself, said the programme. After his early victories, he resented the credit and attention going to his nominal superior. He micro-managed. He enjoyed a short-lived bounce when he appeared to have attained victory, but ultimately lost because his methods bled his forces dry. He could not admit that he had ever got anything wrong, and blamed scapegoats. The programme was called Armistice and the leader in question was Field-Marshal Ludendorff, but the reminders of someone else were insistent.
My learned wife has come across a Spanish theologian who claims that on the original Feast of the Epiphany all the tax returns in the Roman Empire spontaneously combusted, symbolising Christ’s cancellation of all debts. A happy Christmas thought.