The novelist Bernice Rubens died last week. I am trying to keep her here, holding on to the memory of her shoes, the impossibly high red stilettoes she was still wearing when other women her age were having trouble getting around in slippers. She did not wear them Sex and the City-ishly, relishing their expense, their designerishness, or even necessarily their beauty. For all I know they could have been Jimmy Choos or Manolo Blahniks or Mikhail Bakhtins come to that, but she tricked herself out in them in a more comically tacky spirit, as though she'd picked them up in a cheap fetish shop in a Soho alley. That's unless she just knew how tacky I am and pretended, when showing them off to me, that that was where she'd found them. The last pair I recall seeing her in were ankle boots with a heel long and sharp enough to settle every family quarrel in Palermo.
Red, of course. They were always red, the colour of life. These, though, were even redder than usual - a carnivalesque red is the only way I can describe them. But that could be because watching her negotiating them made you think of carnival, hot nights and dark-eyed spangled women on stilts.
It is no disrespect to speak of her in this way. It was her own doing. She would hitch her skirts or roll up her trousers to show you her spiked, incarnadined boots, then she would throw her head back and laugh the most wonderfully complete laugh you have ever heard. A Welsh laugh, a Jewish laugh, a girl's laugh, a woman's laugh, an artist's laugh, a laugh whose affirmativeness would have put Molly Bloom to shame.
And this, remember, was someone who had once won the Booker, that most laughless of all prizes.
This is how I measure loss these days - by the laughter I will not hear again, and by that validation of myself in someone else's laughter (because for me there is, at the last, no other validation that matters), which I must also now survive without. And believe me, to be poorer by Bernice Rubens's laugh is to be poor indeed. So I hold on, at least, to the riotous shoes.
I was in a jeweller's, choosing a wedding ring, when I heard she'd died. My mobile phone rang and I was fool enough to answer it. You shouldn't answer your mobile phone when you're choosing a wedding ring.
At such a time you should cut yourself off from sublunary concerns. But you know what it's like - if you don't answer the phone you might miss Spielberg's improved offer or the people from the Nobel Prize Committee. The punishment for such avidity being that I had to learn about the death of a dear friend while I was choosing a symbol of eternity. On the instant, it seemed the cruelest irony all round. But having slept on it, I feel differently.
The great sacraments belong together. If I think of Bernice when I put the ring on the finger of the woman I love, it will not be morbid; it will, the rather, make the occasion more august.
I don't know what Jonathan Miller would say to such a fancy. His History of Disbelief, which began on BBC4 last week, left little room for sacramental sentiment. Not surprising, given the subject. And given the subject, it was immensely stimulating to keep company with his sceptical intelligence again. Not everyone, clearly, believes that intelligence works well on television; but they're wrong. Nothing better, provided you don't get too cute with the pictures - which this programme occasionally did - than to point the camera at a distinguished mind and allow them both to run. Give me wall to wall Jonathan Miller on telly and I would never leave the house. Not Jonathan Miller dazzling friends with his waspishness - which isn't always a pretty spectacle - but Jonathan Miller addressing the viewer in full consciousness of the fact that the viewer does not always agree with him.
As do not I, for example, though I am no less sceptical about belief. While I sympathised entirely with his descriptions of the alienating effects of the first (and did he say the last?) synagogue he attended, I was surprised that he admitted to no contrarieties of feeling whatsoever, no tugs of loyalty whether or not he believed in a Jewish God. It is admirable not to be tribal, I accept that. Without tribalism, the world would assuredly be a sweeter-tempered place. But it looks cold in there, around the heart, where the companionship of the tribe is not. Unless swapping waspishnesses with other atheists is company enough.
As with tribes without a tribal God, so with religion without divinity. I am not sure what sense it makes to argue for the secularly sacred, but something of mystery and hunger remains however many gods we dispense with. There are more perplexities in earth if not in heaven than are dreamt of in an atheist's philosophy.
Jonathan Miller half acknowledged as much himself before the stained glass of Kings College Chapel, telling us that he didn't believe in the divinity of the Passion, "but would be very impoverished" if he didn't have any of it in his imagination.
"It would be a very thin form of life," he went on, "which didn't have these images." A statement which begs so many questions it deserves a series of its own. Fascinating, I think, the choice of the adjective "thin", for a life lived in ignorance of the Christian narrative. Thin, as in undernourished. Pointing not simply to a space, a lacuna in one's education - as non awareness of any other poetic imagery might be - but to a dearth, an absence of what is indispensable to a full form of life. If we would be "thin" without, what is it exactly we are 'fat' with?
If there is no God, then whence the sacred, and if there is no sacred, how do you explain Bernice Rubens's red stilettoes? Thus do I refute the atheists.Reuse content