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Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Wisdom of John Steinbeck (and my wife)

There can only ever be a certain number of extraordinary people in the world. I'm lucky enough to be married to one of them.

Not only is Jilly an incredible wife, she is my best friend. Thoughtful, giving and incredibly unselfish, she has also been granted a towering intelligence that reveals itself not only academically but empathetically, creatively and in terms of so-called 'parallel intelligence' being the ultimate multi-tasker.

She has been described by more than one senior colleague in terms such as 'the greatest natural teacher I've encountered in a lifetime in the profession.' Never has the phrase 'Those that can, do; those that can't, teach' been more comprehensively disproved. Jill could have been anyone, been anything and done it better than anyone. It has been to the great benefit of thousands of pupils that she chose to do the job that she loves.

It has been the greatest gift in my life that she loves me and my three sons (from a previous marriage) so unreservedly. Quite simply, I do not deserve her.

Of course, she is also the clumsiest person I have ever known; capable of falling over fresh air. And she is incapable of closing drawers and cupboard doors behind her. She infuriates me constantly but it is a small price to pay.

Obviously, being a Scottish man, I don't tell her enough just how much I love her; certainly never in the manner of the words I've just written and even they do scant justice to how much she contributes to the lives of those closest to her.

I'm incredibly fortunate that she loves me but, from today, I'm being forced to share her with John Steinbeck. She has fallen head over heels in love with the American writer on the basis of a letter she discovered today. I can almost understand. It is a great letter. In fact, it's heart-breakingly perfect. So perfect that I've raised Steinbeck into the pantheon of extraordinary people alongside Jill. So perfect, indeed, that I'm going to share it in its entirety below.

It is a letter he wrote in November 1959 to his friend, politician Adlai Stevenson, just after Americans had discovered their favourite TV quiz shows had been rigged for some time. His concern about the moral bankruptcy of the country is palpable.

I hesitate to make party political points but as you read the letter perhaps you might reflect on how it applies to our current circumstances and what we can all do to improve the quality of political debate, political engagement and of our democracy.

New York
Guy Fawkes Day

Dear Adlai,

Back from Camelot, and, reading the papers, not at all sure it was wise. Two first impressions. First, a creeping, all pervading nerve-gas of immorality which starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices both corporate and governmental. Two, a nervous restlessness, a hunger, a thirst, a yearning for something unknown—perhaps morality. Then there's the violence, cruelty and hypocrisy symptomatic of a people which has too much, and last, the surly ill-temper which only shows up in human when they are frightened.

Adlai, do you remember two kinds of Christmases? There is one kind in a house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence. Once I gave my youngest boy, who loves all living things, a dwarf, peach-faced parrot for Christmas. He removed the paper and then retreated a little shyly and looked at the little bird for a long time. And finally he said in a whisper, "Now who would have ever thought that I would have a peach-faced parrot?" 

Then there is the other kind of Christmas with present piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says—"Is that all?" Well, it seems to me that America now is like that second kind of Christmas. Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick. And then I think of our "Daily" in Somerset, who served your lunch. She made a teddy bear with her own hands for our grandchild. Made it out of an old bath towel dyed brown and it is beautiful. She said, "Sometimes when I have a bit of rabbit fur, they come out lovelier." Now there is a present. And that obviously male teddy bear is going to be called for all time MIZ Hicks.

When I left Bruton, I checked out with Officer 'Arris, the lone policeman who kept the peace in five villages, unarmed and on a bicycle. He had been very kind to us and I took him a bottle of Bourbon whiskey. But I felt it necessary to say—"It's a touch of Christmas cheer, officer, and you can't consider it a bribe because I don't want anything and I am going away..." He blushed and said, "Thank you, sir, but there was no need." To which I replied—"If there had been, I would not have brought it."

Mainly, Adlai, I am troubled by the cynical immorality of my country. I do not think it can survive on this basis and unless some kind of catastrophe strikes us, we are lost. But by our very attitudes we are drawing catastrophe to ourselves. What we have beaten in nature, we cannot conquer in ourselves.

Someone has to reinspect our system and that soon. We can't expect to raise our children to be good and honorable men when the city, the state, the government, the corporations all offer higher rewards for chicanery and deceit than probity and truth. On all levels it is rigged, Adlai. Maybe nothing can be done about it, but I am stupid enough and naively hopeful enough to want to try. How about you?




  1. Clever letter. But then he was a very clever man.

    I have long dismayed of Christmas. Working in the poorer areas of the town, I've seen people break their backs to try to provide some kind of Christmas for their kids. But of course it is never enough, because today, regardless that much of the stuff is made in sweat shops in India or China, everything that kids want costs a packet. So parents borrow. And because they don't have bank accounts they borrow from sharks, like Mr Cameron's friend who owns Wonga and advises Mr Cameron on business.

    Some times they are still paying for this Christmas when they have to borrow for next Christmas. I'm not a Christian, but I'm dubious that this any part of Christ's teaching.

    And amazingly every year there is someone who demands that the Christmas celebrations in town be called Winterval, so as not to offend Muslims (who aren't ever offended), and there are, in turn, people who get bent out of shape about how awful this is; how disrespectful to Christ... but fail to notice that the poor are being exploited in a way that would break Christ's heart.

    This year, as most years, I was lucky enough to receive many lovely presents, but the nicest for me was a gift which in no way was intended as a Christmas present. It came in late November, from the mother of one of my friends who lives in a small town in Bulgaria. It was a relatively small, cheaply-made calendar in which every month there was a beautiful picture of a Bulgarian garden. My friend's mum, whom I have never met, saw it in a shop and thought of what her son had told her of me... (that I love gardens and gardening with a passion) and so she bought it for me.

    That's a real present. When he gave it to me, I cried.

    Before I close, I'd like to say that that was a touching tribute to your wife. You are a very lucky man.

  2. tris,

    I'm also not a Christian, indeed I'm a non-believer, and I completely get your take on non-Christian Christians. Some of the nicest people I've met in my life have been believers but I can also place in that group some of the nastiest, pettiest, most judgmental and vindictive folk I've ever had the misfortune to come across.

    I have also seen those two extremes amongst the members, activists, representatives and supporters of all the main political parties - my own included. I hope the Steinbeck letter makes all of us sit back and think about how we conduct ourselves - particularly in the time between now and the independence referendum.

    And you're so right about two things: often the most important gifts are the ones that showed thoughtfulness rather than bulging wallets and I am a very lucky man.

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