Saturday, 1 June 2013

My Guru

When I was young, a lot of my friends were drawn to Eastern religions. Some took to wearing orange, which would have been a step too far for me, (my dear, I look utter death in orange), even if the whole movement had been less patently a scam. Others went off to India - and still do from time to time - to visit 'ashrams' and be blessed by 'spiritual masters'.

One such pilgrim told me what is actually quite a good story, (which I'd love to believe - and almost do), about visiting a blind healer, who sat behind a desk and as each person shuffled past him, (there was always an enormous queue to see him), grasped their outstretched wrist and took their pulse, handing out advice based on what he'd divined from their heart beat.

My friend visited him one afternoon and then, just for the hell of it, went back again a few days later. The healer was sitting just where he'd been on her last visit, his eyes closed, never looking directly at his clients, (he was supposed to be blind, but, in the face of my doubting questioning, my friend insisted that, even if he hadn't been, he certainly never glanced at the passing crowd or even opened his eyes). When my friend offered her pulse for a second reading, the healer took it and said, without an instant's hesitation, 'You were here last week. I've already told you what to do.'

Anyway, leaving that story aside, I don't believe in exotic answers to Western problems. I think we have perfectly good sages of our very own. One of them, possibly the greatest of the lot really, was William Shakespeare, as I was reminded today when I went to see a film of the Globe's production of Henry V (which was superb - Jamie Parker, who I saw years ago playing the young Hal, has grown into the role as the more sensible adult Henry, and the whole production, directed by Dominic Dromgoole, was outstanding. [You can catch it again tomorrow; I highly recommend it.])

Shakespeare, somehow, knew everything, and each time I see one of his plays, some new facet of his omniscience is revealed. What I noticed this afternoon in Henry V, during a discussion about who bears responsibility for injury suffered during the carrying out of someone else's orders, (most particularly, in the context of the play, whether a King must bear on his conscious the deaths of all those he sends into battle who do not return), was a speech, from a minor character called Williams. It conjures up the human cost of war and yet is almost a throwaway in the midst of the play rather than, as it would be for most other writers, its central core, its one major perception:

"But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs, and arms, and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, We died at such a place, some swearing, some crying for a surgeon; some upon their wives, left poore behind them; some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left: I am afear'd, there are few die well, that die in a battle: for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument?"

"When all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day." What an image. And made entirely out of ordinary little words. Marvellous. Shakespeare, I worship you.

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