Dappled things

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All photos: Alan the Wordsmith: this was my garden, once

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:                                                                                   Praise him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty – a celebration of the mixed up, unpredictable, complex, contradictory, confusing, riotously crazy world we live in. He put a religious slant on it. I don’t. But it speaks loud and clear, whatever your starting point.

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Life is complicated. That’s it. Might as well get used to the idea. For most of us that takes the best part of a lifetime, certainly has for me. Nothing, nowhere, no one is perfect, and it’s frequently desirable – I would say essential – to believe two or three contradictory things at the same time. I would have hated that idea once. I love it now.

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One of the more uncomfortable periods of my professional life was when I was working directly to a President and a Chief Executive who both believed passionately in sinless perfection: the trouble was, their ideas of what that actually was were markedly different. The result: I was frequently caught in the crossfire, unable to please both at once so usually pleasing neither and criticised by both. Uncomfortable, I developed certain practical coping strategies. One year, having just had draft 14 (I mean it) of the organisation’s Annual Report rejected outright, I went away and dredged up draft 3. They found to their astonishment, and even more to mine, that it was exactly what they had both wanted all along. Judging that to be enough happiness for one day, I sent it to the printers before anyone could change their mind. It was nominated for a design award. The moral? If you’re responsible for a piece of published text, keep every single variant and recycle them shamelessly. Let’s hear it for word processing and a capacious hard drive!

Le mieux (I’m writing this in France) est l’ennemi du bien, Voltaire is supposed to have said, and truer words were never spoken. It’s enough to be good enough and, though the quest for perfection is a fine thing, it should remain just that – a quest. Maybe we’re condemned to search endlessly for the Garden of Eden, but if we found it the first thing we’d do, for sure, would be to introduce a snake. That will not change.

Glory be to God for dappled things. Nothing needs to be a single colour, and things of beauty – plants, birds, animals, fish, landscapes, music, poetry, films, human beings – are invariably the better for being more than one colour at the same time.

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With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim. Why bother being one or the other when you can be both at the same time? The idea is not new – it occurs in all great literatures in all ages, and throws profound light on human nature and the human condition. I’m happiest leaving supposed certainties to lumpen politicians and others who are terrified of ever admitting that the world can be seen from more than one (their) angle – the irony being that they themselves fall into ambiguity as soon as they pretend to answer a question.

You could consider Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, written right at the end of his life, as a fearful mishmash. It contains some of his greatest – and that means seriously great – music, but then he throws in children, infantile jokes, cutesy animals, racial stereotypes, pantomime villains, extravagant scenery and some daft ideas. It jumps from one to the next and never really hung together for me, but I get it now:

“There it is”, he says, “this is life – rich/poor, noble/base, spiritual/earthy, posh/ordinary, religious/humanistic, clever/stupid, chaste/horny, serious/funny, elevated/homely, good/evil” and so on – nothing is simple, throw it all together on the stage and make of the whole thing what you will. It’s not going to get less complicated, so enjoy the contradictions and celebrate them. Oh and, by the way, music is the art that resolves all, heals all: music which, supremely among the arts, most readily expresses ambiguity.

Glory be to God for dappled things.

That’s more than enough philosophy for one post. A practical thought? Well, Mozart wrote The Magic Flute at breakneck speed so, in the words of the great American humorist James Thurber, “Don’t get it right, get it written”. Words I have repeated, most of all to myself, for the greater part of my professional life. I recommend them: life isn’t predictable, it will never be perfect, and that’s just great.

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