The last Great Debate of 2008 was about whether the best version of Hallelujah was by Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley or Alexandra Burke.
Personally I favour Handel’s. We sat slumped through a fine London Symphony Orchestra rendition of The Messiah on BBC 4 after Wallace and Gromit on Christmas Day evening (from the sublimely ridiculous to the ridiculously sublime, you might say if you were the kind of person who liked to say that kind of thing.)
The Messiah is perhaps the best argument for religion ever made. ‘Argument’ isn’t the word, of course. The correct response to a combative reading by Richard Dawkins from the Book of The God Delusion, if you were ever on the receiving end of such, would be simply to play the author a recording of I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. After he’d finished weeping at its terrible, transcendent beauty, Dawkins would of course go on to explain about manufactured but nonetheless valuable feelings of immanence and the biological evolution of the brain in all its wonder. The correct response to that would be to put your fingers in your ears and go ‘Lalalala I can’t hear you’. Then tell him to go and spoil some magic tricks or dance about architecture or something.
We need whatever spiritual nourishment the likes of Handel can give us during the Christmas holidays because they are over so quickly and then we have to go back to work. Work is a difficult thing in the aspirational society of today. It pains me to read such fine, fascinating minds as this and this facing the prospect of professional pen-pushing and form-filling with such dread and existential despair, for I know just what they mean. As do we all, no doubt.
Elberry, channelling Wittgenstein, says that true contentment lies in having the luxury or luck to work for a living at the thing that you are good at (eg. Wittgenstein was good at philosophy, which was his career). The problem with this view is that it gives you an excuse to be bloody miserable at work, because while most of us would like to be great philosophers, painters or poets, and indeed may secretly fancy ourselves as such, very few can be. Perhaps the wisest approach to Elberry’s Law then, would be to strive to become good at the thing you happen to do for a living anyway.
Besides, ‘being good at’ something is a dodgy concept. The importance of muddle and chance in any successful life or enterprise cannot be underestimated. Another programme I caught on Christmas Day was Blackadder Rides Again, celebrating the history of that remarkable comedy, which started feebly but then took a quantum leap forward in quality with each of the subsequent three series, ending finally with perhaps the most moving and perfect moment in any comedy yet broadcast, as the characters are mown down in slow-mo on the Somme and their fallen bodies morph into a field of poppies, with twittering birdsong in place of the theme tune. This sequence of rare genius was, it turns out, contrived only by an extraordinary, Casablanca-like set of flukes, accidents and cock-ups. So much for genius.
Always a bit sad, these retrospective shows. The actors look fat or old or both now, and even though they’re mostly all very successful, it’s a reminder of how quickly things pass in this brief crack of light between eternities of darkness. Carpe diem or if you can’t carpe it, at least enjoy the diem you're lumbered with, that’s the moral of the story. Stephen Stills put it best I suppose.
The other moral to be taken from Blackadder Goes Forth is how fortunate we are to be here now, credit crunch be damned. We are, from a historical or global perspective, absurdly and obscenely lucky if we are able to work for a decent wage in a comfy warm office with free tea on tap, snugly cocooned by health and safety laws, offered the opportunity to climb the ladder but knowing that the safety net of welfare is strung beneath, and free to go home at five to beaver away on our blogs. The problem is that instead of comparing ourselves to 99.99% of humanity in all of its sorry, bewildering and meaningless history, we prefer to measure our contentment against the imaginary lives of a handful of heroes whom we envy and worship and, not being like them, we count ourselves cursed.
Pen-pushing and form-filling might suck somewhat, but they ain’t the trenches of the Somme. It’s amazing how difficult it is to gain comfort and consolation from this fact, though it is patently true.
Well, we must all pull together and we’ll make it through 2009 and then on, on into another decade. There’s a door to heaven, if we can just reach the Handel. Here endeth the lesson. Happy New Year. Hallelujah, Amen.