Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

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 4x4 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. …

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