Monday 22 December 2008

“Uomini siate, e non pecore matte.” (Dante)

“Be ye as men, and not as silly sheep.”

If we needed another proof that man is a brother to the sheep, this week’s news of a twenty-five-year-old song being propelled to number one and two in the UK charts by its fleeting appearance on a TV singing competition, and the simultaneous crowning, on both sides of the Atlantic, of JK Rowling’s book – or, rather, non-book – The Tales of Beedle the Bard, will certainly convince any remaining sceptics.

A bookseller once told me in Sharjah: “If OUP were to publish completely blank dictionaries, people would still buy them.” We live in a society where the name – and the celebrity aura or the brand associated with it – is more important than the content itself. The old medieval idea, nomina sunt consequentia rerum, has been turned into its exact opposite: now anything seems to be stemming from a name. . . and it has no existence if a big name doesn’t bestow grace from above. That’s human evolution for you.

A sonnet I wrote over fifteen years ago – entitled The Sheep – says:

Who does not see being herded as sheer bliss,
noticing life is oh so comfortable
for sheep today? Who does not feel the pull
of blessed bleating self-forgetfulness

on meadows the good shepherd has picked out;
to graze uninterruptedly and browse,
and tamely ruminate, and even drowse
like a domesticated fireside cat.

To live this way – no trouble to be taken,
and with no need for thinking in the least –
I would be happy to be milked and fleeced.

The ancient wisdom’s very much mistaken:
better a hundred years spent sheepishly
than live as lions do one troubled day.
(transl. J.G. Nichols)

At least The Tales of the Beedle, Dawn French’s Dear Fatty and Stephenie Meyer’s books have ensured that sales this year don’t look as bad as they should. But who’s benefiting from it?

Not me – not you, dear Reader – not your children.



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