For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly

My cat lies to me. I find this interesting.

My cat – our cat, rather – generally eats tinned food, but occasionally we give him cat biscuits. Not very often, and certainly not often enough as far as he’s concerned. He knows where they’re kept; when hungry will often sit in front of the biscuit cupboard giving it meaningful looks, even if he’s got a bowl full of food.

That’s not the interesting thing, though. What’s interesting is that, on several occasions, he’s sat by the back door and mewed to be let out, only to turn back and head for the biscuit cupboard when I open the door for him. The thinking is fairly straightforward, if you think of it as thinking – it goes roughly like this:

This‘ll get his attention!

But there’s an awful lot going on under the surface, particularly when you think that we’re dealing with a cat. How do you get to that thought? Or, if ascribing thoughts to a cat is a step too far, how do you get to that action? It seems to me that any creature capable of doing the back-door feint would have to go through something like this series of steps:

  1. Move (instinctively, or at any rate unreflectively) towards the back door when wanting to go out
  2. Move (unreflectively) towards the biscuit cupboard when fancying a biscuit or two
  3. Observe that move 1 is usually successful
  4. Observe that move 2 is usually unsuccessful
  5. Analyse events involved in successful outcomes to strategies 1 and 2
  6. Identify common factor, viz. getting a human’s attention
  7. Reflect on goals of move 1 and move 2
  8. Identify common intermediate goal of getting human’s attention
  9. Redefine move 1 as move which achieves intermediate goal
  10. Plan to make move 2 more effective by preceding it with move 1, thus getting human’s attention before expressing interest in biscuit cupboard

I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as pretty sophisticated thinking, particularly if we assume (as I think we must) that none of these thought processes are conscious.

Cats: they’re brighter than they look. Or rather, they really are as bright as they look.

Relax and float downstream

Updated 25/11 (third section)

1. And though she feels as if she’s in a play

When I was little, I had an imaginary friend. He used to go with me wherever I went. I used to talk to him inside my head and I knew that he could hear me. And sometimes I’d make wishes, and if I was very lucky he would grant them for me. Then I got a bit older, and I stopped going to church.
– Jimmy Carr

One more religion post, this one inspired by Derren Brown.

On the Fear and Faith programme broadcast last week, Derren Brown induced what he presented as a counterfeit religious experience in an unsuspecting – and unbelieving – volunteer. After talking to her for fifteen minutes in a highly atmospheric church crypt, he left her alone; at this point she felt a sudden urge to stand up and was overwhelmed by a sense of unconditional love, together with the sense that it had been available to her all her life. Some time later, Derren Brown explained how the trick had been worked (with lots of quasi-hypnotic suggestion techniques on his part) and impressed on her that she had done it all herself: the emotion was real, but it was all her own work, with no need to invoke God to explain it.

My immediate reaction was that Derren Brown had completely missed the point of what he was doing. He’d essentially love-bombed this woman, making her feel happy and important; then he’d talked to her about experiences of awe and wonderment, and about the incomprehensible vastness of the universe; then he’d evoked feelings of being cherished, of your life mattering in some absolute sense despite only being an infinitesimal speck within the vastness of the universe. (And then he’d left her alone in a church.) Whatever other NLPish cueing techniques he’d used, just by his manner and his choice of topics he’d steered this woman into feeling ‘religious’ emotions – but they’re emotions which are entirely real, valid and appropriate. You do matter; the universe that surrounds you (in time and space) is vast and incomprehensible; and there’s no better reaction to the massive contradiction between those two facts than a sense of wonder and gladness. So we’ve proved… what?

According to Derren Brown, we’d proved that it was possible to have a religious experience “without God”. Now, Derren Brown was a born-again Christian at one time, so to some extent he knows whereof he speaks, but this strikes me as a bizarre overstatement. For anyone who believes in God, God is in the vastness of the universe, as well as being in that sense of your existence being important and in your reaction to all this. In short, God was there all along. When it comes to the experience of believing in God, on the other hand, that sense of a rush of unconditional love is quite a specific experience; it’s certainly not something believers routinely feel, between one Sunday and the next. What matters in practice is not feeling that God is talking to you, but feeling that you’re trying to talk to God.

Derren Brown (and Jimmy Carr, also an ex-fundamentalist) would probably say that all this openness and doubt and silence is all very well, but it’s not religion as we know it; I could be talking about yoga, or Buddhism at a pinch, but not Christianity. Christianity, surely, is all about knowing that God exists, knowing that God has a plan for you and knowing that God is talking to you from day to day; this is precisely the background faith that Derren Brown’s volunteer didn’t have, which is why we can say that she had her experience ‘without God’.

I don’t know. It strikes me that the knowledge which comes from faith, however certain, is very different from the knowledge that comes from living in the world. Faith is always in dialogue with doubt; if faith-based knowledge was entirely free from doubt it would just be knowledge.

Or is it that simple?

2. And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free

Someone came up to me, and he said to me
I know something that you don’t know.
I was captured by this stance, I gave a second glance
And said “I’ll follow where you go”
– Peter Perrett

This sense of faith as always being accompanied by doubt is what I was getting at in an earlier post about religion. Talking about the idea of religion as a comforter, with particular reference to death, I said

And in any case, just how much comfort can those ‘comforting’ beliefs really be, even if you manage to believe them? I’ve been to a couple of funerals where the continuing existence of the departed was emphasised heavily, and I felt that every restatement was prefixed by a tacit This certainly doesn’t appear to be true, but by God, it’s worth at least trying to believe.

I wonder just how much comfort that comforting knowledge could be – or perhaps what kind of comfort. In the watches of the night, surely the happiest clapper would find it hard to feel any real confidence that God would sort it all out. At my father’s funeral, the vicar told me my father still loved me. I didn’t believe him, but if I had it would just have given me something else for doubt to grapple with. I think what’s healthy and psychologically adaptive about religion is a kind of turning towards something vast and incomprehensible, in a spirit of humility and trust: there’s stuff in our lives that’s beyond understanding, we don’t have to sort it all out, it will be all right. Perhaps explicit religious beliefs – such as the professed belief that my father did still exist, despite all the evidence to the contrary – are a kind of mental exercise: here’s something vitally important to you which absolutely doesn’t make sense, but go with it and it will be all right.

Faith, I think, is always in a dance with doubt. But there are different kinds of dance, and some of them are less healthy than others. Ever since the first of these posts on religion I’ve been thinking I should link to this post; I read it seven years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. The mentality I’m describing goes something like “Something appalling has happened; God let it happen; we can’t understand it but it’ll all make sense some time, and it’ll be all right eventually“. What Justin described in that post is more like “Something appalling has happened; God let it happen; that’s the kind of thing he does, he could do it to us again any time, and we don’t deserve any better“. In other words, instead of opening to grief and bafflement in a spirit of trust, it closes down that grief and makes sense of it – and it makes sense of it by calling it a good thing and bowing down to whatever inflicted it. Doubt is in the dance only to the extent that it’s being emphatically trampled on by faith as it strives for certainty – and since the only things certain in life are loss and death, a God of loss and death is what faith gets pinned on. This is a life-denying, self-abasing, anti-human attitude – and if that was reliably what religion meant, I’d have nothing to do with religion.

Or there’s another form of dance with doubt which can also go under the name of religious belief, although this one takes other forms as well. It doesn’t usually last very long, either; it’s a bit of a young person’s game. I’m thinking of the kind of faith which enacts that doggedly repeated repression of doubt, but in the name of hopeful certainties: as if to say, I would ask questions about eternal life and the Creation and everything, but look – shiny! Everything‘s shiny! The closest I’ve come to this is when I was a novice conspiracy theorist; I fell for the old once you have eliminated the impossible trick over and over again, and found myself clutching some remarkably shiny truths about what was really going on. You can go down quite a rabbit-hole this way, and to be honest it can be quite a trip: the moment that scepticism says Can this be right? It doesn’t fit with how I think the world works, faith counters with Ah, but maybe that’s not really how the world works…, and you’re off again. Believing you’ve tapped into something that’s at once true, comprehensible and important is a heady experience, and letting doubt in on it seems like no fun at all. This kind of faith essentially shouts doubt down, or asks it to wait outside; once the dancing starts properly the faith is liable to collapse.

3. Hold on to that feeling

Sometimes you confuse me with Santa Claus
It’s the big white beard, I suppose
– Elvis Costello

I suppose that combination of true, important and comprehensible is what both these forms of belief share: they both offer truths that make life matter and make it understandable. To put it another way, they both present believers with the contradiction between our belief in our own specialness and the vast indifference of the universe, and they both resolve it. One worldview pictures God as the boss of the world, and from this perspective there is no mystery about why your little life has been trampled on: God did it, because that’s what he does, and he does it because he can. (Besides, who’s to say that you deserved anything better?) The other has God as a Father Christmas figure, with gifts for all the good boys and girls: your life can be as blessed as you feel it should be, and it will be, in the future. Just be good, be patient and don’t stop believing…

It was interesting seeing Derren Brown explaining the characteristics of the religious belief he was going to induce; interesting, as well, seeing how animated he became as he talked about ideas like that of God looking down on each one of us and intervening in our lives. I felt that he, having been a born-again Christian, was harking back to a young person’s religion stocked with shiny, doubt-repressing beliefs: the kind of religion which would interpret the volunteer’s experience by saying yes, that definitely was God’s love you felt, no, it couldn’t have been anything else, yes, that definitely was God actually talking directly to you, absolutely definitely, I wouldn’t consider any other explanation for a moment (and repeat).

If you’re trying to ward off that kind of religious belief, then saying “those are real emotions you’re feeling, but God didn’t produce them” makes a degree of sense – it certainly lets some light in. But if religion is an orientation to the baffling vastness that somehow contains our incomprehensibly significant lives, and if God is a name for that vastness and some people’s experiences of it, then what Derren Brown’s volunteer experienced wasn’t a fake religious experience at all – it was the real thing.

One final analogy, which came to me after I’d read a passage from (bizarrely enough) Derren Brown’s book Tricks of the Mind. Despite (or because of) being an alarmingly proficient hypnotist himself, Derren Brown is very concerned about the ethics of hypnosis, believing that it can do a lot of harm in the hands of untrained or thoughtless users. He argues that it’s essential to talk hypnotic subjects down, so that when they leave they’re in no doubt that they’re no longer hypnotised. You can see his point. A mysterious influence you can’t understand – seemingly preventing you from getting up, lowering your arm, remembering your own name or whatever – is all good fun in a theatre, but it’s not something you’d want cluttering up your mind once you’re back in the real world. What interested me was the comparison which he drew with magic – where, clearly, audiences do experience something they can’t understand and go home without having it explained. Quote:

it seems wrong that the argument that ‘hypnosis isn’t real’ should absolve the hypnotist of all responsibility towards the welfare of his participants. If a hypnotist were able to say to his audience, ‘If you come up, please just play along with everything,’ it might be argued that the subjects should then be responsible themselves. However, given that he is going to manipulate, bully or cajole rather vulnerable people into anything from playing along to really living out what he suggests, and in a way that might be very confusing or unsettling for them, there is a sense in which one should not just immediately decide that he can walk away from any duty of care.

Now perhaps one might argue that according to that logic, a magician should then be held responsible if a participant in a card trick takes the magic way too seriously and loses so much sleep following the performance that he develops an illness. However, this would be a very unusual case, and clearly a reasonable person would not be expected to react in that way. In our hypnosis scenario, though, it is more understandable that a participant might leave the show troubled if handled unprofessionally.

I think what’s troubling about hypnosis, if not handled properly, is that it puts the subject through something which seems entirely real but doesn’t make any sense – and then leaves the subject to try and make sense of it. Magic does something similar, except that it tells the people who experience it, loud and clear, not to worry about making sense of it: it’s just magic. Leaving a hypnotic subject suspecting that she might still be subconsciously under another person’s control – or for that matter leaving her believing that hypnosis has transformed her life for the better – is very much the way those two narrow, doubt-repressing forms of religious belief work. Derren Brown’s scruples about the correct use of hypnosis, as well as being very much to his credit, are of a piece with his opposition to religion, as he sees it. The irony is that the magician – performing the impossible and then saying, You’ve seen what you’ve seen, don’t worry about making sense of it – is creating something much more like what I’d consider a religious experience.

Made a move for chart position

Updated 8/11 (Barnett, Hastings)

Andrew O’Hagan’s been thinking – and talking to people – about the Savile scandal and the larger cultural conditions it grew from. His piece is a bit overlong and, I think, under-edited, but it’s genuinely insightful and troubling for all that. I shall be thinking about this for a while:

The public made Jimmy Savile. It loved him. It knighted him. The Prince of Wales accorded him special rights and the authorities at Broadmoor gave him his own set of keys. A whole entertainment structure was built to house him and make him feel secure. That’s no one’s fault: entertainment, like literature, thrives on weirdos, and Savile entered a culture made not only to tolerate his oddness but to find it refreshing.

And, in particular, this:

Let’s blame him for all the things he obviously was, and blame him for a host of other things we don’t understand, such as how we love freaks and how we select and protect people who are ‘eccentric’ in order to feed our need for disorder. We’ll blame him for that too and say we never knew there would be any victims, when, in fact, we depend on there being victims. Savile just wouldn’t have been worth so much to us without his capacity to hurt.

I don’t know quite what that last sentence means and I’m not sure O’Hagan does either, but I’ve got a horrible feeling it’s true.

A week after writing the above, I saw this from Anthony Barnett which I think joins some of the dots. Barnett starts by musing on the sheer repellence of Savile – the obvious, in-your-face excessiveness of his get-up and demeanour -

Why did ‘we the public’ admire a blatantly bad man? You only needed to look twice at his clothes, his glasses, his conjuror’s apparatus of decoys and diversions, his bling and his shell-suits and cultivated white-blond hair to sense he was repellent. Imagine getting onto a bus filled with Jims grinning with his arrogance and self-aggrandisement.

I’ll come on to “we the public” in a minute – that assumed ‘we’ is one of the weak points of O’Hagan’s piece as well – but I do think this is a real question. Why did people not only tolerate but celebrate such an insistent display of preening arrogance? Did nobody ever ring up and say “About that PA, Jim – maybe something low-key this time, not so much of the gold and leave the cigars at home”? It doesn’t seem very likely – the peacocking was part of what people wanted. Why? Barnett suggests an interesting answer and makes a couple of interesting parallels:

It was thanks to a form of celebrity that shares and rejoices in the whiff of wickedness that surrounds misogyny. The cult (and love) of chauvinist celebrity forgives misdemeanours ahead of time. It encourages men especially to project longings to be outside the law onto the figure of fame. The media may provide the cult’s priests, but the congregation is compliant and provides the energy. Today celebrities seem to build entire reputations on ‘getting away with it’ as ‘we the public’ continue to collude in a worship of strong and powerful men who break the rules.

Bingo – Jimmy Savile’s appeal wasn’t acting like an infantile megalomaniac, it was acting like an infantile megalomaniac and getting away with it. People around him knew that the treatment he was getting was against the rules; they also knew nobody would ever bend the rules for them in the same way, and deep down they wished somebody would. So if he could get away with it, well, good luck to him.

There’s something quite deep-rooted and weird going on here. Jerry Sadowitz’s 1987 crack about Savile – “That’s why he does all the fucking charity work: it’s to gain public sympathy for when his fucking case comes up.” - hints at it but (perhaps surprisingly) doesn’t go far enough. Consider what we knew about Savile before he died:

  • What he was like: flashy, excessive, arrogant, with a one-note act centring on drawing attention to himself
  • What he did: charged large amounts of money for appearing and doing the act
  • How he did it: his own way, for his own price (I don’t get out of bed for less than £10,000) and whatever side-benefits he felt like
  • What he did it for: charity, in particular children’s charities

He demanded attention, to himself as himself – look at me being me, doing the me thing that I do! He was loved and cared for and had to do nothing in return apart from being him, doing the being-him act. He did it however he wanted to, and everyone else had to fit in around him. And he did it for unarguable good causes – not only good causes, but perhaps the one type of good cause that everybody, however hard-headed or mean-spirited, can sign up to. (Famine in Africa? Charity begins at home, I say. Cancer research? Can’t fight Fate, we’ve all got to go some time. Terminally-ill children? Ahhh…) To be loved unconditionally while being an all-powerful egomaniac, and at the same time to be undeniably good – it’s genuinely infantile thinking; it’s how we all think of ourselves, or would like to think of ourselves, between about 18 months and 3 years. Never quite goes away, either – so when we see somebody dedicated to living that particular dream, there is a definite urge to bend the rules of the adult world so that they can get away with it. In its own terms it’s a virtuous circle – the star lives out the fantasy, so we bend the rules for them, so they get away with it, so we bend the rules some more… It’s only when the music stops that we find out what they’ve been getting away with – hence Elvis’s squirrel sandwiches NB check this or Imelda Marcos’s shoes. Or Savile’s victims. Needless to say, there can be an excessive, spectacular edge to the exposure phase as well, as if to keep the roundabout spinning just a bit longer – look what else he’s been getting away with! Which may tell us something about the Duncroft story.

We project our own thwarted megalomania onto stars, I’m suggesting, and part of the process is wanting them to break the rules and get away with it – and indulging them when they do. (You can tell a lot about how loyal a following somebody has from their reaction to brushes with the law. Compare and contrast: Pete Doherty and heroin, George Michael and cannabis, Richard Madeley and Tesco.) There are two worrying aspects to this. One is directly relevant to Savile, and relates to just what people get away with when they can get away with it. The good news is that most people, given the power to please themselves, don’t gravitate to cruelty and abuse – the dressing rooms of the stars aren’t one long Stanford Prison Experiment. But there’s always that possibility, particularly in a culture which positively validates male power over women. The 70s are a long time ago – they seem like a different planet – but that culture and that possibility haven’t entirely gone away.

The other issue, which is perhaps more immediate, concerns what happens when celebrity culture seeps into politics – which is where Barnett’s parallels come in. He points to an extraordinary piece in the Daily Mail, in which Max Hastings settles some old scores. Either that or he really hates his subject:

Most politicians are ambitious and ruthless, but Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. I would not trust him with my wife nor — from painful experience — with my wallet. It is unnecessary to take any moral view about his almost crazed infidelities, but it is hard to believe that any man so conspicuously incapable of controlling his own libido is fit to be trusted with controlling the country.

His chaotic public persona is not an act — he is, indeed, manically disorganised about everything except his own image management. He is also a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates.

Some Tory MPs are so panicked by their standing in the opinion polls that they have persuaded themselves that London’s mayor is the future. On the basis of what, some of us would ask. Boris Bikes on London’s streets? The peerless jokes and bonhomie and TV wizardry? Testimonials from ex-lovers who found him amusing in bed?

Ouch. But then, what’s behind his (clearly quite substantial) popular appeal, if all there is to the man is ruthless egomania and a few good jokes?

A friend said to me not long ago: ‘When will you understand that the reason the young are potty about Boris is precisely because he is not serious, because he treats the whole business of politics as a bit of a lark.’ This is true. I sat at a dinner table last week with three teenagers who expressed near-hero worship for the mayor, and said they could not care less when I suggested that he has less integrity than a City banker.

Boris Johnson was at the Tory conference yesterday for one purpose only — the exaltation of himself. This does not much matter when he is only Mayor of London, but would make him a wretched prime minister. He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect save as a superlative exhibitionist. He is bereft of judgment, loyalty and discretion.

Answer: what’s behind it is… ruthless egomania and a few good jokes. Before Johnson was elected, Caitlin Moran semi-seriously advised voting against him because of the jokes – because, as she knows (and I know) making jokes to order is hard, time-consuming, attention-stealing work, and the time and energy he’d spent dreaming up “Ping-pong’s coming home” could have been much better spent on, well, politics. She missed what now seems obvious – that the jokes are actually a demonstration of how little of his attention Johnson devotes to politics, and that this is part of his appeal. He gets away with it – and a key emblem of getting away with it, in a society where men dream of power over women, is an element of unpunished sexual dominance and deceit. A Boris who didn’t cheat on his wife wouldn’t be Boris.

There’s another obvious political parallel, which Barnett mentions briefly in his conclusion:

the kind of racy ‘reality’ [Savile] personified was an early product of a twisted version of male celebrity culture whose misogyny continues to be celebrated and is seeping into politics.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that this isn’t Italy. There is also growing resistance to such behaviour in large parts of the public perhaps even more than within the elite. We are spitting out the presumptions and arrogance behind Savile and company.

Another political leader who acts like a celebrity; another leader with a ruthless devotion to his own advancement and little or no interest in the substance of politics; another political leader who spends his time making jokes, and let’s not even go into the sexual side of the story. It’s an unpleasant parallel, and I’m less sanguine about what it tells us than Barnett appears to be. If “this isn’t Italy” because of OpenDemocracy and the Guardian, Italy isn’t Italy either: there was ‘growing resistance’ to Berlusconi when he first came to power – in 1994 – and it’s been growing ever since. The trouble is, for every voter who’s genuinely appalled at the tax-dodging, the bunga bunga, the demonisation of the Left and the awful jokes, there’s another who thinks it’s all a bit of a laugh and Silvio’s a sly dog for getting away with it. And, in a democracy, you don’t need to get all the voters on your side; realistically, you don’t even need half. Barnett’s overestimation of the British public reminds me of Leonardo Sciascia’s comments on the Italian Communist Party’s attempts, in the 1970s, to evoke a ‘sense of the State’ in the ruling Christian Democratic party.

Neither [Aldo] Moro nor the party he presided over had ever had a ‘sense of the State’. The idea of the State … had probably only crossed Aldo Moro’s mind in his youth [i.e. under Fascism] … what has attracted and continues to attract at least a third of the Italian electorate to the party of Christian Democracy is precisely the absence in that party – an attractive and reassuring absence – of an idea of the State

Berlusconi offered an “attractive and reassuring absence” on a much larger scale – an absence of morality and seriousness, as well as ethics and political substance – but the approach is basically the same. Ego and cynicism, worn blatantly enough, can take you a very long way; it’s part of the deal we make with the godlike figures onto whom we project our powerlessness and compliance.

So there’s a ‘we’ watching the screens and harbouring dreams of power without responsibility – and there’s a ‘we’ who are “spitting out the presumptions and arrogance” and generally not taking it any more. I think they both exist, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t back the second against the first in a fight. O’Hagan evokes another ‘we’, silent and complicit:

And no one said, not out loud: ‘What’s wrong with that man? Why is he going on like that? What is he up to?’ He was an entertainer and that’s thought to be special. A more honest society brings its victims to the Colosseum and cheers. We agreed to find it OK when our most famous comedians were clearly not OK.

No one said… anything? Up to a point, Lord Copper.

On Have I Got News For You, Ross Noble and Ian Hislop describe Savile as a disgusting sexual predator.

Widely-circulated fake Have I Got News For You transcript refers to Jimmy Savile having sex with twelve-year-olds.

Val McDermid publishes The Wire In The Blood, featuring the character of “Jacko Vance”, a rapist and murderer.

Vance, a former athlete, hung about hospitals and toured towns in a show called Vance’s Visits – similar to the Savile’s Travels radio show.

Val, 57, said: “People often asked me where I had got the inspiration for the character. They never guessed it was Savile. For a start, Jacko is handsome and charming. I assume Savile didn’t recognise himself in that description.”

Val, from Fife, encountered Savile as a young reporter in 1977. She said: “He was a deeply unpleasant man. He was all smiles and laughter for the audience but as soon as we were alone, he was different. Savile was very much in the front of my mind when I was creating Jacko.”

Irvine Welsh publishes Ecstasy, featuring the character of Freddy Royle, a necrophiliac.

Ecstasy is a collection of three short narratives; in the first, “Lorraine Goes to Livingston”, Freddy Royle was a chat-show host and “distinguished friend” at St Hubbin’s Hospital.

In one passage, Welsh writes: “The thing was, Freddy brought millions of pounds into the place with his fund-raising activities. This brought kudos to the trustees, and made St Hubbin’s Hospital a flagship for the arm’s-length trusts from the NHS. All they had to do was keep schtumm and indulge Sir Freddy with the odd body.”

On Boxing Day, Chris Morris announces Jimmy Savile’s death [WAV] on Radio 1.

Jimmy Savile drops dead at the Stoke Mandeville Boxing Day bash – but the patients are far from mourning.

[Male voice]: “The majority, if not all of them, are extremely relieved that he’s now dead, although I suspect that some of them will be sorry that he didn’t suffer a great deal more.”

Lynn Barber interviews Jimmy Savile: I was nervous when I told him: “What people say is that you like little girls.” Savile replies by denying that under-age girls are interested in him:

“A lot of disc jockeys make the mistake of thinking that they’re sex symbols and then they get a rude awakening. But I always realised that I was a service industry. Like, because I knew Cliff [Richard] before he’d even made a record, all the Cliff fans would bust a gut to meet me, so that I could tell them stories about their idol. But if I’d said, ‘Come round, so that I can tell you stories about me’ or ‘Come round, so that you can fall into my arms’ they’d have said: ‘What! On yer bike!’ But because reporters don’t understand the nuances of all that, they say, ‘A-ha’.”

The “newly enknighted” Savile meets Prince Charles, as seen by Private Eye‘s “Heir of Sorrows”:

‘Fascinating. You really must meet Diana.’
Sir James looked momentarily puzzled. ‘Is that your daughter, Your Maj?’
Charles shook his head. ‘No, no, my wife.’
‘No thank you very much, Your Maj. Bit old for me. That’s not Jim’s scene at all.’

What could he mean? Sometimes these holy men spoke in riddles.

Jerry Sadowitz calls Jimmy Savile a paedophile. (In fairness, giving Jerry Sadowitz credit for accurate muck-raking is a bit like crediting Nostradamus for accurate prophecies – you can find something if you look hard enough, but accuracy isn’t really what the act’s about.)

“He knows the answers to life’s great mysteries,
He knows what makes Jim Savile tick.”

– Yeah Yeah Noh, “It’s easier to suck than sing”

Is that no one saying anything, or just no one saying anything “out loud”? And if it’s the latter, what would have constituted saying something out loud – publishing and being damned? Let’s face it, Savile wouldn’t just have seen you in court, he’d have seen you in the bankruptcy court.

I think what’s going on here is that a sense of collective complicity is being stretched to the point where it becomes perversely comforting. If we are all to blame, then we can do something about it; at the very least we can do better next time, and try to stop there being a next time. It’s a reassuring thought: never again! ¡no pasarán!

But what if part of the problem is that there is no “we”? What if some of us were spitting out the presumptions and the arrogance all along – or at least having very bad feelings about them – but our revulsion could only be articulated in undertones and behind closed doors? We might not immediately think of Savile as a powerful man – he didn’t make anything happen on a national scale, or on any but a very local scale – but when it came to his own affairs he was very powerful indeed, in several different ways. As well as being rich, famous and well-connected, he was charismatic, generally well-liked, personally forceful and – in his prime – physically strong; he wasn’t a good man to say No to. Once someone has acquired that kind of power, it doesn’t really matter what “we” think about him (and it usually is “him”); whether we view what he does with indulgent approval or with physical revulsion, he’s still going to get away with it. The “we” of O’Hagan’s diffuse culture of star-worshipping quasi-paedophilia is doing double duty, standing in for the “we” who are able to hold individually powerful people to account. And that “we” – that collective articulation of a popular sense of what’s right and what’s wrong – didn’t exist in the 1960s and doesn’t exist now; tabloid bouts of morality can perhaps be understood as a morbid symptom of its absence, fuelled by bad conscience (I never wanted him to get away with that!).

O’Hagan writes:

Child abuse is now a national obsession, but in 1963 it scarcely came up as a subject of public concern. That doesn’t mean it was fine back then and we were all better off, but it allows one to see how much the public understanding of what isn’t all right, or more or less all right, has changed. There have always been genuine causes for concern, but overall, nowadays there is an unmistakeable lack of proportion in the way we talk about the threat posed to children by adults. (It’s hard not to imagine that the situation has to do with a general estrangement from the notion of a reliable community.)

I think the first part of this is right, and for a much broader timespan than 1963 (which seems to have got into the argument here by way of the Larkin poem). The last, parenthetical comment is pointing to something important too. There are stars, there are individual purchasers or fans, and in between – what? What’s missing seems to be some kind of sense of society as a mechanism – or many different mechanisms – of feedback and accountability. O’Hagan comes close to arguing that Savile and people like him were acting in all our names. Perhaps it’s closer to the truth to say that some of us thought it was all a bit of a laugh – not so much “in my name” as “in my dreams”. As for the rest of us, we might have thought “not in my name”, but we had no way of saying it as a collectivity – and still, perhaps, don’t.

A moment worth waiting for

I’ve been pleased by the response to the last couple of posts, including the corrections to my theology (cosmogony?) offered by a couple of commenters – although they do tend to undermine the argument I was making, so I’m not going to update the post to address them. The second post – the one derived from comments on Crooked Timber – was a bit more uneven; I think there’s some good stuff there (if I say so myself) but also some stuff that deserved the challenges it got from the CT sceptics. I’m going to use this space to think about which was which.

1. The Good Bits (I think)

faith is a subjective response to an experience of the sacred; experiences of the sacred emerge out of collective practices of reverence; and collective practices of reverence are a way of publicly expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing (birth, death, sex, society, the passage of time and so on). Faith is what you end up with, not what you start from.

I think this is true – more importantly, I think it’s the right way round – but it’s only part of the truth; that phrase expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing is carrying an awful lot of weight, and getting a bit squashed by it. And what is the “value” of death? At a subjective level, surely, death is the greatest and most terrible challenge to everything we value, as well as being a universal and inescapable fact. “Expressing a sense of the value” is a coffee-morning phrase for something much more problematic and difficult – “the value of death” cashes in, roughly speaking, as she’s gone and I will never, ever see her again – and where the hell does that leave me?

But that’s also something people do with religion.

What do you do when the old man’s gone -
Do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song -
Do you want to free him?

As if to say, you may be able to get clear of the “old man” (or you may not) – but even if you do you can’t simply let the “real self” out (and you may not want to). … The real oppressions & constrictions (psychological as well as material) and the utopian yearnings for absolute freedom and self-expression – we all carry all this stuff around, and we need somewhere to put it, be it a church, an analyst’s couch or an inflatable Stonehenge.

The thing is, I think that being human is deeply, deeply problematic – why wouldn’t it be? Thinking meat – what’s that about? House a reflective consciousness in a simian brain and you’re bound to get a bit of friction. I think churches are a good place to take those problems and work with them – although not the only place, obviously. Atheists would say that the fact that churches rely on a belief in God is a bug; I think the fact that they house practices that produce a belief in God is a feature, and an interesting one.

“Many ways to God” isn’t some kind of “wouldn’t it be nice if things were nice” rationalisation – it’s what lots of people believe. Lots of devoutly religious people, who sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God – but who don’t find it necessary to believe that God would have damned most of humanity for worshipping somebody other than Jesus, and therefore leave open the possibility that God might have revealed himself in other ways to other people. … We don’t have any business asserting that our beliefs (“Jesus was the son of God”, etc) are factually correct. We have no way of knowing whether they are factually correct or not; we’ll only know for sure when we meet God, by which time it’ll be too late to argue. So we stick to [saying that non-believers are] “incorrect as far as we can see from our imperfect vantage point”.

The idea of holding a belief without asserting that people who denied that belief were wrong provoked a lot of resistance, but I think it’s still a valid point. Saying “I believe X, but I’m not going to say that X-deniers are wrong” is a way of saying that, in a particular (and important) area, it’s not up to me to decide what’s correct or incorrect; I may never know what’s correct or incorrect, or if I was told I might not understand. It’s a Horatio moment – a way of saying that there are more things in heaven and earth than our philosophy dreams of.

One of the most valuable things religion does, I think, is to confront the believer with something they cannot possibly understand. What this is is secondary; what’s important is the feeling of being at the limit of your understanding and being at peace with that. Because life will throw things at you that permanently exceed your understanding, and the ability to be at peace with them will serve you well.

Believing lots of things exposes you to exploitation – believing that your hard work will pay off, believing that your partner loves you, believing that you’re making the right spending decisions. And yet we get through the day. In which context, I like the idea that the word ‘faith’ would have been better translated as ‘faithfulness’. That to me is what ‘faith’ is about – an orientation of trustful commitment towards… something. Something outside ourselves.

This also provoked a bit of resistance, mostly along the lines of “I trust the people who have given me good reason to trust them”. (Yes, I remember being young and in love.) Maybe some people do go through life up- and downgrading everyone they deal with, divulging a bit more or a bit less personal information, allowing themselves a bit more or less spontaneous emotional engagement. I think that sounds like Hell, and I don’t think it’s the way most people live. The belief in God is a lot like the belief that your partner loves you, or that the people you work with aren’t going to stitch you up – it’s not so much a belief as a commitment to choose to believe, an orientation of trustful commitment, extended in the case of religion to the universe and all that surrounds it. And I think there’s something to be said for that.

2. A little light pushback

“Religion certainly does provide comfort to a lot of people in difficult situations, but does that make it a good thing? Follow the ‘opiate of the people’ analogy – opiates bring vital relief to people in severe pain, but we don’t think being a junkie is a good way to live your life. Perhaps religious beliefs are good to have when you need a comforting illusion, but they’re illusions that should be abandoned as soon as you feel mentally strong enough.”

My answer to this one is that I don’t think religious beliefs are comforting in any easy sense. The most comforting thing I heard from anyone in religious clothing after my mother died was something along the lines of “It’s time to let go” – as if to say, You’ve run into a wall that you can’t get past; perhaps you should turn round now and go home. (Not that going home was just a matter of going home, if you see what I mean.) I don’t think anybody told me my mother was watching over me or that I’d see her again, and if they had I wouldn’t have believed it. Religion, for me, is something that takes you to the very edge of abandonment and despair, and stays with you there.

And in any case, just how much comfort can those ‘comforting’ beliefs really be, even if you manage to believe them? I’ve been to a couple of funerals where the continuing existence of the departed was emphasised heavily, and I felt that every restatement was prefixed by a tacit This certainly doesn’t appear to be true, but by God, it’s worth at least trying to believe. Anyone committed to believing that their departed parent was having a high old time up there, strumming a harp and chatting with Einstein, would also be committed to believing that something that appeared to be unbearable and incomprehensible actually made sense, except that it made sense in some way that couldn’t be understood either. Which isn’t that comfortable a place to be – in fact, I think it’s pretty much on the edge of abandonment and despair. But with a sense of not being alone there.

“Is it really a good thing to be confronted by something you can’t possibly understand? Doesn’t that associate religion rather strongly with ignorance and lack of curiosity? For that hit of blissful non-comprehension, wouldn’t it be quicker just to believe that God made the world in seven days? Never mind that you don’t understand how it happened – it’s a religious truth, so it’s meant to be incomprehensible!”

I’ll take this one on: yes, it is a good thing to be confronted by something you can’t possibly understand. It’s good to look at something you don’t understand and realise you don’t understand it (as distinct from thinking that if you don’t understand it it must be nonsense). It’s also good to learn more and understand more. But there will always be something you don’t understand, and there will always be some things you can’t understand. I think that’s a good thing to recognise. The alternative is to think that there isn’t anything that, in principle, you couldn’t understand. That might work for the law of torts or the Keynesian multiplier, but it wouldn’t do you much good with “why does everything die?”

“Fine, but you don’t need religion for that – just a reasonably well-developed sense of wonder and humility.”

Never said you did need it – just that religion is, often, a carrier of those things.

3. The less good bits

Sometimes what you’re being asked to believe will seem to cut with the grain of your experience of the religion, other times it’ll seem daft, but if the experience of religious practice and community are working for you you’ll tend to go with it. … Of course, in some churches the package of beliefs you’re asked to take on board will included some harmful and dangerous stuff.

That ‘of course’ is doing rather a lot of work – or perhaps it’d be truer to say that it’s avoiding rather a lot of work. There’s a real problem here. I argued that religious ‘truths’ aren’t incompatible with scientific fact, because where they make factual propositions they’re not presented as law-like statements. Nobody’s saying that people who die generally rise again after three days, quite the reverse – Christians believe that Christ’s resurrection was miraculous precisely because it was an exception to the laws of death and decomposition. And it’s these localised, miraculous exceptions – at most – which believers are asked to commit to, and which they grapple with more or less effectively. But there’s no particular reason why the package of religious ‘exceptions’ should be limited to those relating directly to the life of Jesus. What about the plagues of Egypt? What about Aaron’s rod? What about God speaking to Abram? Come to that, what about the creation of the world in seven days? We know that this isn’t how the cosmos looks as if it works, but after all, this is an exception to all those rules…

I haven’t got an answer to this one, except to say that there’s nothing in Christianity to stop you travelling relatively light. Figurative interpretations of the Bible have a much longer history in Christianity than literal readings; by the time you’ve finished grappling with impossible beliefs and finding ways to believe in them, you may well come to the conclusion that God worked in his mysterious way through the Big Bang, the Nile flooding cycle and various other things, and generally kept his powder dry for the big performance in 30 AD. (In the immortal words of Wikipedia: “30 April – After being condemned to death by the Jewish court known as the Sanhedrin Jesus of Nazareth is crucified at Golgotha[citation needed]“.)

I just don’t see the bright line between philosophy and religion  – or between religion and any other set of ideas having to do with morality or ethics. People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not a good way to orient your life. And surely you could say the same of any philosophical position – it’s how you think the world is, irrespective of whether your daily life supplies any evidence of it.

The weasel words here are “your daily life”. Anyone who believes in the ultimate overthrow of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat, say, is unlikely to find much evidence for the underpinnings of this belief in their daily life, but if they follow the news for more than a day or two they’ll find enough. Whether evidence of God working his purpose out will also be apparent is more debatable. Perhaps the point that needed developing here was what was meant by a belief in God, or by orienting your life by way of such a belief. In other words, the question is not whether class struggle is a reality, but whether it’s a good framework for judging whether things are going well or badly. Similarly with a belief in God, and the beliefs that follow from it – above all the belief that humanity was made in the image of God, which makes each human life enormously valuable. And yes, you can find Christians campaigning against abortion on these grounds, but also against euthanasia, against the death penalty, against war, against poverty and political programmes that entrench it. Hence Christian Aid’s marvellous slogan, “We believe in life before death”.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Again, you don’t need religion for any of this (and, again, I’m not religious myself) – you just need a belief in people. But religion is, often, a carrier of that belief.

For me, religion is a way of dealing with the incomprehensible – and sometimes incomprehensibly terrible – facts of human life, a way of honouring things in life that seem to need honouring, and a way of giving due respect to people. Or rather, it’s one particularly specialised example of a family of cultural practices which offer ways of doing these things. It’s not a bad thing.

Falling to bits, gloriously

This post at Crooked Timber sparked an interesting and only intermittently acrimonious debate about whether religious belief is inherently irrational or self-contradictory, and how best to combat religious reactionaries. I got stuck in and ended up essentially playing a Christian on the Internet, despite not being one in real life. It was an interesting debate, though, and really made me think. Here are some of my comments. (Italics are other people’s comments; I’ve included links to their original comments as well as to mine.) Discussion centred on four inter-related topics:

  • the relationship of faith and practice (and by extension the relative importance of the two)
  • the truth-status of religious claims (if someone believes that Jesus was the son of God, are they committed to believing that someone who doesn’t believe that is wrong?)
  • whether beliefs grounded in faith set themselves above rational argument, so that a Christian can always end the debate by saying “it’s what I believe“; and
  • whether reactionary claims made in the name of religion are a good reason for arguing against religion, or (as I argued) a good reason for not doing so.

It’s a bit of a comment-dump – or rather, it is a comment-dump, slightly rearranged – but parts of it may prove interesting.

1. Who are these people and why do they do it?

I’ve been playing with the idea that religion is a practice first, a faith second and a set of factual propositions third. First, you commit yourself to a certain way of living, a certain set of practices (even if that’s no more demanding than going to church once a week and saying ‘Yes’ if somebody asks if you’re a Christian, it’s still a different way of living). Second, in the context of those practices and in the company of others who share that commitment, you experience (or learn to experience) a sense of the sacred, of reverence for something numinous. Third, as part of the work you do to maintain that way of living and recreate that experience, you submit yourself to the mental discipline of believing what your church asks you to believe. Sometimes what you’re being asked to believe will seem to cut with the grain of your experience of the religion, other times it’ll seem daft, but if the experience of religious practice and community are working for you you’ll tend to go with it.The atheist’s view of religion often seems to centre on the third step, which is much the least fundamental. To the atheist’s question You believe that? a Christian will often answer “Well, I try to.” (Spufford: “Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed”, emph. added.) And believing religious propositions can mean grappling with them, trying to make them make sense, rather than simply believing them literally. (It was a Bishop of the Church of England who described the Biblical story of the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones”.)

Of course, in some churches the package of beliefs you’re asked to take on board will included some harmful and dangerous stuff. But there’s plenty of room to argue against those beliefs while still taking religious practice & religious community to be valuable forms of social life and granting some validity to subjective religious experience. You won’t find any stronger opponent of reactionary right-wing Christians than a radical left-wing Christian.

Faith which wasn’t accompanied by the possibility of doubt wouldn’t be faith, it’d be (subjectively) certain knowledge – just as the belief that Christ rose from the dead wouldn’t be at all remarkable if we didn’t simultaneously hold the belief that resurrection from the dead is physically impossible.As for what faith is, as I said above I believe that religious practice comes first, the experience of collective reverence for the numinous second and commitment to factual propositions a slow & often troubled third – as if to say, if worshipping Jesus together with these people works as it clearly does (for me), then perhaps I should take what these people say about Jesus to be true, however impossible it seems. Saying that faith is wrong because it entails believing six impossible things before breakfast didn’t work on Tertullian and it doesn’t work much better now.

It does seem to me that we, human beings, long for meaning, and struggle with an inner chaos of unordered impulses, response and experience, a dream world, we’d like to control, order and (contradictorily) free and express

Reminds me of a couple of lines from Jethro Tull which have lodged in my mind (potency of cheap music and all that) -

What do you do when the old man’s gone -
Do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song -
Do you want to free him?

As if to say, you may be able to get clear of the “old man” (or you may not) – but even if you do you can’t simply let the “real self” out (and you may not want to). I think that’s psychologically quite powerful – and it reminds me in turn of Roy Bhaskar’s strictures on the image of “a magic transportation into a realm free of determination, as imagined by both utopian and so-called ‘scientific’ socialists”, to which he counterposed a project of “transition from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. The real oppressions & constrictions (psychological as well as material) and the utopian yearnings for absolute freedom and self-expression – we all carry all this stuff around, and we need somewhere to put it, be it a church, an analyst’s couch or an inflatable Stonehenge.

This is where Christians and their defenders really annoy me. Sure it is easy to poke holes in the arguments of naive rationalists, but the validity of those criticisms do not justify the jump to “Jesus Christ is our Lord and savior”.

I’m defending Christians, but I’m certainly not advocating that anyone convert – I’m not a Christian myself. I think religious practice can play a valuable part in people’s lives, just as practices like living in a commune, hanging out with artists, writing music, political campaigning, folk dancing and psychotherapy can do for other people. I think all these things can get you to somewhere similar, and that it’s somewhere worth going to; I don’t think you need to be religious to have a “religious experience”. I do think that being religious can be a way of getting there, and that for a lot of people it’s as good as any other, or even better.

the atheist asks why faith and you reply … what exactly?

My one-sentence answer is that faith is a subjective response to an experience of the sacred; experiences of the sacred emerge out of collective practices of reverence; and that collective practices of reverence are a way of publicly expressing a sense of the value of things that need valuing (birth, death, sex, society, the passage of time and so on). Faith is what you end up with, not what you start from.

Now, you can live a happy and productive life without ever going to Midnight Mass, and you can be a devout believer and a horrendous, miserable fuck-up. You can get through life perfectly well without publicly giving value to the big things in life; you can give value to the big things in life in non-religious ways which don’t ‘feel’ sacred; you can get an experience of the sacred without being formally religious. A world without religion wouldn’t be a world without any of the valuable things currently borne by religion. But those things are real, and they are borne by religion.

it seems to me inherently dangerous (because it exposes you to exploitation),

Believing lots of things exposes you to exploitation – believing that your hard work will pay off, believing that your partner loves you, believing that you’re making the right spending decisions. And yet we get through the day. In which context, I like the idea that the word ‘faith’ would have been better translated as ‘faithfulness’. That to me is what ‘faith’ is about – an orientation of trustful commitment towards… something. Something outside ourselves.

Any Christian believes that God sees more and knows more than any human being, including him- or herself. All statements about God are approximations; prayer is an orientation to something unknowable, something outside ourselves. So the truth of a statement like “Jesus is the son of God” is, more or less by definition, one element of a greater truth that we don’t and, as human beings, can’t fully comprehend. For all we know, someone could go through life denying the divinity of Jesus and yet picking up more bits of that truth than a staunch Christian. If that’s a possibility, what sense would it make to say that they were wrong to say Jesus wasn’t the son of God? Christians believe they understand a bit of God’s nature and they believe they’re genuinely oriented towards it, but they don’t know.

The emotional response that the religious experience promotes, on the other hand, is not to feel sad, but rather to feel guilty. To feel like you are a bad, terrible, awful fuck-up of a person, who deserves, who needs to be punished. Any mercy here is, in fact, the tyrant suspending the doom he himself has pronounced.

First off, you’re clearly talking about Christianity specifically, not religion in general. More importantly, while I won’t deny that some churches do put a heavy stress on the experience of guilt, I think it’s actually a distortion of the Christian message, which is much more about forgiveness. Paraphrasing from memory, Rowan Williams said once, “People think that when they leave religion behind they’re leaving sin and guilt, but if you look at the papers you see that sin and guilt and condemnation are alive and well. What people leave behind when they turn away from God is forgiveness, the sense that our sins won’t burden us forever.”

Repentance/forgiveness/redemption is one of the most psychologically powerful and rewarding experiences we go through. And, if the person you’ve wronged will forgive you, so much the better, but what if they don’t – or what if you’ve lost touch, or they’ve died? I think a large part of the appeal of Christianity is right there.

2. Do they really believe all that stuff?

God isn’t an empirically testable proposition, and neither is the Kantian categorical imperative or the emergence of the proletariat as a class-for-itself or the maximisation of subjective utility. I believe that people who find it useful to talk in terms of proletarian self-awareness could in principle find common ground with people who talk in terms of rational utility maximisation, given a lot of work and good will on both sides; I also believe that in practice that conversation tends never to happen, for good reasons. (What is impossible, on the other hand, is finding empirical proof that one set of ideas is the truth about reality and the other isn’t.) I don’t think religious belief is any different.

And yes, that does commit me to believing that common ground could be found between people who find it useful to talk in terms of God and people who talk in terms of a Godless universe, given a lot of work and good will on both sides. In practice, of course, that’s a conversation that really doesn’t tend to happen.

there are some fairly basic propositions that one would have to say “yes, that is correct” in order to be a Christian, and therefore that people who think something different are incorrect

Yes and no – i.e. yes to the first statement, no to the second. The idea that there are many ways to God is very widely held among religious believers – probably more widely than the idea that everyone has to convert or be damned. Even C.S. Lewis, when he wrote his version of the Day of Judgement in the Last Battle, has some believers in the Calormene death-god Tash end up being saved on the grounds that they would have believed in Aslan if they’d had the chance – and his theology wasn’t exactly liberal. Christians know that they’re saved by their belief in Christ, but they’re also aware (well, many of them are) that they don’t know the mind of God and hence can’t know that everyone else is damned.

Aslan judges some [Calormenes] – and not others – to have been good enough to be saved, which must mean that “worships Aslan” isn’t a necessary condition of “good enough to be saved”. In any case, the “sea of faith”/”many paths to God” mentality is very widespread among your actual believers.

Transubstantiation and the resurrection aren’t factual statements about how the world works – anyone who believes in them also knows perfectly well that this isn’thow the world works. That makes religious faith a very particular type of ‘denial’ – a belief that universal physical laws are/were suspended in this one place, or rather a commitment to holding that belief.

Some of the discussion here defends what religion could be, with beliefs that are inconsequential, metaphorical mush, and ignores what (Christian) religion more commonly is, an acceptance of certain claims as boldface “truth”.

Firstly, general physical truths – those fossils actually are relics of Noah’s Flood – are in no way core to Christianity; lots of Christians reject them totally. Reading the Bible literally is a very modern idea. Christ’s Resurrection isn’t really a “boldface truth” – everyone who believes it literally happened also believes it was a unique exception to the boldface truths of death and decomposition. Secondly, holding those two contradictory beliefs together leads directly into what you denigrate as “metaphorical mush”, which is much more common – much more normal – among Christians than you seem to think. If you were to ask a Christian (sympathetically) what they really think happened on Easter Sunday or on the road to Emmaus, I think you’d get a ‘metaphorical’ answer as often as not.

Of course, if you ask for boldface truths and to hell with the metaphor – yes, yes, never mind “in a kind of a way”, never mind “they had a real experience of something”, did he come back to life or didn’t he? – boldface truths are what you’re going to get. All the more so if your starting question was “are Christians so stupid or ignorant as to believe that a three-day-old corpse can come back to life?”

this “many ways to God” thing is trying to have your mushy cake and eat it.

“Many ways to God” isn’t some kind of “wouldn’t it be nice if things were nice” rationalisation – it’s what lots of people believe. Lots of devoutly religious people, who sincerely believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God – but who don’t find it necessary to believe that God would have damned most of humanity for worshipping somebody other than Jesus, and therefore leave open the possibility that God might have revealed himself in other ways to other people.Atheists on this thread seem to be asking whether it’s possible to be a Christian and have both a heart and a brain; when we answer Yes, they say Ah, but we’re talking about being a rigorously consistent Christian. Newsflash – there’s no such thing. Apart from anything else, rigorously consistent with what? There are two separate Creation stories, only one of which features Adam’s rib (the other has one of my all-time favourite lines from the Bible, “In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them”). The Gospels tell three versions of one set of stories and one radically different set of stories; you can’t believe them all, they can’t all have happened. And so on. The Bible, and a fortiori Christianity, isn’t about the-book-is-on-the-table statements of fact.

There are plenty of devout Christians, firm believers in the divinity of Christ, who nevertheless believe that not everyone who doesn’t believe in the divinity of Christ is damned. I can back this up, as well. God is omniscient, we’re not. God sees who he’s admitting to Heaven, we don’t. We can know that we’re saved, which gives us good reason to convert people if we can. However, we can’t know that everyone who misses out on the Good News is damned, or that there’s no other way for God to make himself known to them.

This is perfectly good Christian theology – as well as being a belief held more or less articulately by lots and lots of Christians – and it seems to me that it’s a substantial improvement on believing that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is damned. That belief is a massive stumbling-block for anyone who believes in an omnipotent and benevolent God; in my experience it’s only embraced willingly by people who want God all to themselves and haven’t really got the point of the Gospels at all.

What you can’t logically do, if you believe that Jesus was the son of God, is think that other people believing something directly contradictory to that (ie that Jesus is not the son of God) are also correct. Ergo, they are wrong.

They appear wrong from our vantage-point, which we know to be imperfect. It would be the height of arrogance to say that they are wrong. Besides, what work is ‘wrong’ doing here? There’s been no objection to “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may do just as much good in the world”, or to “I’m a Christian but non-Christians may still be saved”. Why are those acceptable, and yet “I’m a Christian but I’m not going to say that non-Christians are wrong” is the badge of lily-livered pusillanimity that doesn’t deserve the name of religion?

We don’t have any business asserting that our beliefs (“Jesus was the son of God”, etc) are factually correct. We have no way of knowing whether they are factually correct or not; we’ll only know for sure when we meet God, by which time it’ll be too late to argue. So we stick to “incorrect as far as we can see from our imperfect vantage point”. Which is not a “mushy”, “woolly” or “uncommitted” position, although it does have a certain humility.

Do Christians believe it’s possible for people to return from the dead? No.
Do Christians believe that Jesus did return from the dead? Yes.

[NB when I wrote this I'd forgotten all about the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the faithful at the end of days, and was thinking in terms of people coming back from the dead here and now. The physical impossibility of resurrection from the dead is the main point here.]

At the risk of C. S. Lewis-esque reductivism, it seems to me that this contradiction gives you a range of possibilities:

1. Christians are all too stupid to realise it’s a contradiction.
2. Christians don’t really believe it and are all lying when they say they do.
3. Christians are all batshit crazy, only all in the same or similar ways.
4. Christians go through a particular mental process which they call ‘belief’ or ‘faith’.

1. is plainly not true, 2. seems improbable, and 3. is basically a less flattering description of 4. And that mental process is what I’ve been describing.

3. You can’t argue with a Christian – or can you?

Once you have conceded that “I feel it in my heart”, “this makes emotional sense to me” or “this makes me a better person” are adequate justifications for the conclusion that there is a higher intelligence behind the universe or that souls exist, you have given away any intellectual tools to criticize somebody who feels it in their heart that homosexuals should be stoned.

This is an “I refute it thus” moment, surely. If this were the case, the only way a believing Christian could respond to the vilest things done in the name of Xtianity would be to say “who knows whether this is God’s will or not, let us pray”. Fortunately that isn’t the case – there is quite spirited debate among Christians about exactly what it is that God would have believers do in the world. You could say they’re being inconsistent, but I don’t think they’d agree – they’d say they’re witnessing as Christians, and arguing with fellow-Christians is part of that (as it has been since St Paul). You’d end up in the position of an atheist telling religious believers that they’re not religious enough.

you still have not shown me where religions can move beyond arguing, actually resolve their differences and decide on anything unless they refer to a set of otherwise universally recognized cognitive tools that, consistently applied, shows their very religion to be indefensible

I don’t believe “religions” do anything. I believe that Christians can have difficult, intense and productive discussions about what their shared faith requires them to do, and that those discussions can – with some difficulty – be extended to people who aren’t Christians. This obviously means that being a Christian involves more cognitive faculties than direct reference to inward conviction. I don’t accept that using those cognitive faculties would necessarily involve those Christians becoming atheists, for the simple reason that it plainly doesn’t: you can be a Christian and an intellectual. And I don’t think this should surprise us, any more than we’d be surprised to discover that an intellectual can also be a phenomenological existentialist.Your rationalism doesn’t do the work you want it to. You can show (that word again) that pi doesn’t equal 3 and that crop rotation makes sense, and argue those propositions down to number theory & molecular chemistry respectively. You can’t show that “religion is not based on anything more than fantasy”, any more than you can show that to be true of phenomenological existentialism, Kantian jurisprudence or revolutionary anarchism. You can certainly show that you can’t ground religion in scientific enquiry, but nobody here is saying that you can.

Reason is good for these areas where I use it daily, but not for these my cherished beliefs*. Why? Because that is different. It just is

Christians do use reason, they just don’t apply the scientific method to the foundation of their beliefs. Neither do philosophers, political thinkers or anyone else who thinks ethics and morality are worth arguing about. You can’t find the Holy Spirit with an ammeter; you can’t find class consciousness or the Husserlian epoche that way, either. It doesn’t make those things any less real and interesting & worth arguing about, for those who think they’re real and interesting & worth arguing about. (Those who don’t are free to argue about other things.)

I explicitly wrote that there are indeed ways of knowing, if you will, that aren’t scientific in the narrow sense, such as mathematics, deductive logic, moral philosophy, economics, history, art history, etc.

But the thing is, these areas all have more or less well-defined ways of deciding when a proposition is dead wrong.

I just don’t see the bright line between philosophy and religion in this respect – or between religion and any other set of ideas having to do with morality or ethics. People who believe in God think that a belief in God is a good way to orient your life. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe in science or rely on divine intervention to boil a kettle – it means they don’t believe that the fact that science works entails that a belief in God is not a good way to orient your life. And surely you could say the same of any philosophical position – it’s how you think the world is, irrespective of whether your daily life supplies any evidence of it.

There are lots of bad ways to be religious. Elevating revelation over reason is – not always but often – a very bad idea; cherry-picking scripture so as to give your own prejudices divine sanction is a bad thing to do; and treating God like a lucky rabbit’s foot (“please let the bus come now!”) is silly and childish. But it’s possible to argue against all of those things from a religious standpoint, and people do.

4. What about the bad guys?

the fact that religious claims are grounded in something other than rational enquiry doesn’t preclude believers from engaging in rational debate. Arguing that rational debate isn’t consistent with religious belief, and that Christians should therefore abandon either one or the other, is essentially criticising real Christians for not living up to your image of them. In real life the conversation between the liberal believer (L) and the homophobe (H) would go something like this:

H: “Jesus said we should kill homosexuals!”
L: No, he didn’t.
H: “Well, OK, not as such, but he did say [bullshit argument relying heavily on selective quotation]“
L: [Refers back to text and demolishes bullshit argument]
H: “But I just know that Jesus would say we should kill homosexuals!”
L: Well, I really think you ought to consider that you’re mistaken, because that goes against everything we know about Jesus. When did you start thinking this? Are you sure you’re not working out some of your own issues?
H: “But I’ve had a personal revelation! Jesus appeared to me and told me!”
L: I think you need help.

No different from the same kind of argument between a liberal rationalist and a rationalist homophobe – just replace Jesus with Darwin, say.

it remains true that large numbers of people, some of them important, do make truth claims about the state of the world based on their ancient poetry, and try to make life tougher for the rest of us on the authority of these claims. They need to be fought, and if the blowback from that fight upsets the nice club members who don’t actually cause problems for others, I’m genuinely sorry

Those people need to be fought with the “nice club members” on your side. If you’re fighting the NCMs as well, you’re fighting the wrong enemy.

What you need to do is pick your fights. If you’re fighting Creationism, fight Creationism. If you’re fighting sexism, fight sexism. In both cases you’ll have lots of Christians on your side. If you’re fighting the doctrine that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary… er, why, exactly?

Restrictions on abortion? Discrimination against gays? Lots of Christians oppose both. As for televangelists, there’s a reason people like Oral Roberts found their own churches. Campaign against what you want to campaign against, and I can pretty much guarantee that some Christians will be campaigning alongside you. Campaign against Christianity, and not only do you lose those potential allies, you get bogged down in side-arguments with people like me.

If you’re fighting televangelist scumbags, the many, many Christians who (a) believe in the power of prayer and (b) despise televangelist scumbags are not your enemy.

In his statement, [the Bishop of Down and Connor] doesn’t try to make any logical arguments we could address, he just states that abortion is against the teaching of the Catholic Church.

So we say, off the top of my head, “There is nothing in his statement to suggest that closing this clinic would result in better outcomes for women; women desperate to terminate a pregnancy will always find a way, and the closure of this clinic would simply help to drive abortion services back underground. I may not be qualified to argue Catholic doctrine with the Bishop, but I know something about the realities of women’s lives, and I am quite certain that more women – and more children – will suffer avoidable pain and misery if this clinic is closed than if it is left open.”

Or you could say, “Women have a right to abortion services on demand, and no old man in a silly hat is going to tell us otherwise just because some old book tells him so.” Which do you think would go over better to a largely Catholic audience? It’s all about picking your fights, and picking your enemies.

Lots of Christians do believe horrible and hateful things. Somebody once told me that Mother Teresa would be eternally damned unless she converted to the right form of Christianity before she died, the form of Christianity that had got her out into the slums of Calcutta not being the right one. On one level that’s angels on the head of a pin – what happens after anyone dies has never really interested me* – but it could have real effects; anyone who thought having the right beliefs was that important would presumably prioritise funding missionaries over funding famine relief.

So a kind of bigoted narrowness does, for many people, go along with belief in Christianity (go, as they say, figure). But here’s the thing: if bigotry always goes with religious belief and seldom appears without it, then religion’s your enemy. If bigotry sometimes goes with religious belief and sometimes with other beliefs, then bigotry’s your enemy – and un-bigoted religious believers are among your allies.

*In and of itself, that is, as I don’t believe that anything does. I do think what people believe about salvation and damnation is interesting & often very revealing.

To round it off I’ll just borrow a couple of other people’s comments, this time presented without any editing.

Zora 10.07.12 at 11:33 pm

I’m an American Zen Buddhist, in a sangha that doesn’t demand much in the way of faith. I’m not required to believe in a god — only in the efficacy of Zen practice. Or rather, that it’s worth trying out the practice. From that standpoint, the passionate denunciations of the atheists just whiz right past me. They’re not talking about me.

Yet I also find that I can read Christian or Muslim religious writings and say, “Yes, that’s SO.” I take God or Allah as a metaphor for those who need to experience their practice as a human relationship. The emotions evoked by this metaphor are powerful and useful. I recognize them. God is not my metaphor of choice, it does not resonate, but I cannot deny that it works for many people.

Isn’t that what Spufford is saying? That Christianity, as a practice, can cultivate love, compassion, serenity, acceptance of what must be endured. I understood what he said, and agreed — despite starting from an entirely different viewpoint.

Bruce Wilder 10.09.12 at 10:31 pm

The outside / inside dichotomy might be applied differently depending on whether you think the stress, in the OP title — Francis Spufford and the inner life of belief — should be placed on “belief” or “inner life”.

The very notion that the individual might have an inner experience — inalienable, subjective, private and owned — of which she needs to make sense, and which might, despite its seeming material inaccessibility to shared social observation, contain both a longing for, and a means of connection to the whole, of which the individual is an ephemeral part, whether that “whole” is a family, a society, a political state, a living planet or a universe, . . . seems curiously remote from the problems of political deliberation or ethical behavior.

Like others in the thread, I am troubled by the religious grasping at arbitrarily chosen, and apparently loosely held, “beliefs”, and using passionate “faith” in those supposed “beliefs” as a cudgel with which to bully others in various political disputes, or as a personal dispensation from personal shame or ethical responsibility. Putting those resentments against religion aside, the honoring of personal, inner experience, intrigues me.

It does seem to me that we, human beings, long for meaning, and struggle with an inner chaos of unordered impulses, response and experience, a dream world, we’d like to control, order and (contradictorily) free and express. I sometimes make the point in comments, that political arguments often take the form, not of a logical proposition like a syllogism, but of an hypnotic trance induction. We long to be hypnotized, to put aside our rationalizing, defensive consciousness; and, in persuading others, we instinctively play on this longing to be, literally, open to ideas and values.

If I come to the aid and comfort of a friend, who has experienced a tragedy or an accident, I don’t offer scientific analysis. I offer reassurance, touting “beliefs” which are objectively false as factual propositions, but are, nonetheless, aimed at repairing the person’s healthy narcissism. I am thinking of commonplace nonsense, like, “you are so lucky that the accident was not so much worse . . . ” It is important to hear that you are “lucky” — most especially, when you have been confronted with incontrovertible evidence that you are not — that you belong, that you are part of the whole, that you have as much right and purpose in being here, as the rocks, and the daffodils and the bugs and the stars.

We do a lot of this seeking after inner comfort and transcendant meaning, and not just in formally religious settings. I suppose that this is what people are mostly doing in a Tony Robbins seminar. It is why a business executive reads the Harvard Business Review. Maybe, following Aristotle, it is what we find in a great tragic drama. Or, what people seek, and sometimes, find in mind-altering drugs; or at AA meetings. It is what people want from magic or thinking about ESP and extra-terrestrials, or from sexual intercourse. It is what the coach is providing the team every day in practice, and in a pre-game pep talk.

I have listened to religious people, struggle with the concepts, say, of Darwinian evolution, and sense that their concern is that they are being asked to give up some necessary element of a favorite fairy tale, which has helped them find meaning or motivation in the necessary disciplining of their scarier impulses. They really don’t have to do molecular genetics or cure cancer (where factual and theoretical beliefs about evolution might have some purchase), but they do have to refrain from cheating their employers or killing their mother-in-laws, and hide their fear of being cheated by their employers or being killed by their mother-in-laws. If the universe doesn’t have an inherent moral structure of natural law and an all-observing God, well, then how can we justify ethical self-restraint in ourselves or expect ethical self-restraint from strangers?

I’m not always sure what the point would be in engaging people on the factualness of religious belief. I was raised in a Catholic tradition, which, following Thomas Aquinas, regards religious faith as focused on propositions, which are beyond factual refutation or confirmation, by definition. Of course, the bullying — exemplified by claims of papal infallibility — is front and center, as well. And, then there’s the hypocrisy — if that’s even the right word, for the disowned emergence of the darkest impulses — of sexual molestation or Mother Theresa making nice with the dictators of Haiti. The pragmatic case for religious belief or practice seems curiously difficult to put — the bridge to ethics or politics a mirage in the desert’s shimmering distance.

If there’s a king in Heaven high

Attention conservation notice: just under 8,000 words(!) on varieties of religious experience, the size of the universe and the work of Jeremy Deller. Includes three pictures, one audio clip, one virtual gallery link and two hymns. Hat-tip to Ken Macleod.

1. Nobody knows who they were

The other Sunday we went here:


It was just about as good as it looks. It was in Preston, for one day only – the day being the final day of Preston Guild, which we also saw a bit of (although we weren’t around for any of the processions). We booked a holiday in Guild Week the last time it came round – in 1992 – so I was glad that we’d showed our faces this time.

I’ll say a bit more about Sacrilege – the “bouncy Stonehenge” created by Jeremy Deller – a bit later. (If you want to skip straight there, find the next mention of Deller’s name.) Now, though, we’ll break for a hymn.

2. Heaven and earth shall flee away

God is working His purpose out
As year succeeds to year;
God is working His purpose out,
And the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time,
The time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.

I love that hymn. It’s completely barmy, but I love it. There’s that amazing, exorbitant image of the world being completely transfigured by the glory of God – just as wholly, just as ubiquitously as the sea is wholly and everywhere wet. I think what makes this verse really powerful, oddly, is the combination of that visionary image with the calm plod of the first six lines, which take quiet confidence to a new level of placidity: it will happen, it will definitely happen, and what’s more it will happen within a finite, countable period, such that we can actually say that the passage of time is bringing us nearer to the time when it will happen, as it definitely will. Sorry, drifted off there for a moment – when what will happen, again?

When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.

Oh, that. Fancy me forgetting.

The traditional Christian view of time was built on some definite fixed points at beginning, middle and end – all with Biblical warrant. In the beginning, Adam and Eve had sinned and been kicked out of Eden and into the real world, setting the whole thing going; in the middle, Jesus had redeemed mankind through His sacrifice; at the end… well, people weren’t sure exactly what would happen at the end, but it would certainly involve the end of time, the heavens being rolled up like a scroll and so forth. Now, we were somewhere between middle and end. We probably wouldn’t live to see the end, but as long as we died as Christians we could be sure that we would be there on the big day (or end of days). In between death and the end, depending who you talked to, was oblivion (which would be OK) or Heaven (which is nice).

If you took a few steps back from it all, the fixed points looked a bit different: all you really had was the need to put your faith in somebody who lived a very long time ago, to save you from the consequences of something that had apparently been done by somebody who lived an even longer time ago, consequences which would supposedly take effect at some unknown point in the future, almost certainly after you’d died. (The part about you dying, though – that definitely would happen.) As soon as you let doubt in on one corner of that picture, the whole thing goes a bit awry. What strikes me now about that hymn is how blithe its confidence is, how closed it is to any doubt or questioning. God – our God – has a purpose for the world; He’s putting it into practice, and when He’s finished the results will be (literally) heaven on earth; and this is definitely going to happen, possibly quite soon. It’s positively enthusiastic (OED: “Pertaining to, or of the nature of, possession by a deity”; “Pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of mystical delusions in religion.”).

From its tone I assumed initially that the hymn had found its way into Church of England hymnals either from a Methodist source or from even later revivalists, perhaps the Great Revival of the first decade of the twentieth century. I got the period about right, but otherwise my guess couldn’t have been more wrong. “God is working His purpose out” was written in 1894 by Arthur Campbell Ainger, who was a House Master at Eton. There seems to have been quite an appetite for under-the-counter millennialism in the nineteenth-century Church of England; for example, Lewis Hensley’s Thy Kingdom Come O God (1867) doesn’t just see the end of days as coming soon, it asks for it to hurry up (“Apocalypse now, please!”). There’s an anxious edge to Hensley’s hymn, as well as a weary Arnoldian pessimism (“By many deeds of shame/We learn that love grows cold”); his fixation on the end of the world is mildly desperate where Ainger’s is calmly confident. In their different ways, they both have a preoccupation with eternity which seems quite at odds with their comfortable social and theological position (Hensley was Vi­car of Ip­o­lyts-with-Great-Wy­mond­ly, no less).

As for Ainger, among his few other composing credits is “Carmen Etonense”, the Eton school song, whose chorus translates roughly “For as long as England’s shores are bathed in kindly sunlight, let Eton flourish! Eton shall flourish!” “Until the sun goes out” is a curious way to say “forever”; perhaps it was at the back of Ainger’s mind that the heavens would eventually be rolled up like a scroll, and that this would change things even for Eton College. It seems more likely, though, that Ainger saw God working His purpose out and Eton flourishing as very much the same thing. Perhaps the confident tone of the hymn came less from a sense of personal contact with God, more from the sense that Ainger and his class had always been blessed by God and always would be.

To be fair to Ainger, although his socio-cultural situation was more comfortable than most, the security he expressed in that hymn has been available to every other Christian since the second century AD. Existentially speaking, feeling that the whole of human history is put into its proper context by two irruptions of the divine – Christ’s sacrifice (firmly in the past) and the end of days (firmly in the future) – makes quite a comfortable framing for one’s own life. (You’re still going to die, admittedly, but you can’t have everything.) But how would it be not to have those anchor points? Or rather, how would it have been?

3. And Christ receive thy soul

The Harrowing of Hell is a traditional Christian belief; it’s not in the Bible, and can be seen as a bit of folk embroidery to patch up a hole in the Bible story. The thing is, Moses was damned. Great man and all that, met God and took down the commandments and so forth, but if you’re a Christian none of that’s going to get you saved. Faith in Jesus Christ is what you need, and that’s a tall order for people who were born several hundred years before Bethlehem. Bad luck, Moses – for the want of any alternative, he must have been damned to Hell, along with Aaron, King David, Abraham, old Adam and all. Of necessity this wasn’t spelt out in the Bible – the writers of the Old Testament didn’t know they were writing the Old Testament – but it was a logical deduction from the facts of salvation as set out in the Gospels (John in particular). This belief in turn gave rise to a folk belief that, before rising from the dead, Jesus had visited Hell and liberated everyone who was there purely because they were born at the wrong time – everyone who would have believed in him if they’d had the chance, in other words. Hell was ‘harrowed’ in the sense that it was thoroughly searched – combed, we’d say now – for righteous souls, who were permitted to ascend into Heaven.

That’s fine – well, it’s a bit of a hack, but it can be made to work – if you’re talking about a relatively limited number of people and a finite period of time. If you take into account what we now know about the number of different ways people have lived and the number of different places they’ve lived in, it starts to get a bit Horrible Histories…

JC: Greetings! I bring the good news of salvation through My death and resurrection to save all mankind, past, present and-
Aztec Priest: Sorry, could you repeat that? I was a bit distracted, what with all these demons gnawing my entrails and sticking knives in my – Ow! Look, stop that for a moment, will you? Sorry. You were saying.
JC: [sighs] Greetings-I-bring-the-good-news-of-salvation-through-My-
AP: Salvation? You’re going to get me out of here? Good man! I thought Quetzalcoatl would have sorted it out by now, to be honest, but I suppose he must be busy. Hang on, you’re not-
JC: No, I’m not Quetzalcoatl. I’m the Son of God. Well, I say ‘son’, I’m actually God in my own right as well. It’s quite interesting actually, God has three persons but at the same time-
AP: Son of a god? Which one? Not that I mind – if you’re going to get me out of here that is – I’m just curious.
JC: No, no, no, not son of a god, son of God. Look, can we get on with it?
AP: You’re the son of a god who thinks he’s the only one? Sounds a bit weird, but whatever. So which way did you say the exit was?
JC: No, it’s not quite that simple. Look, when you were alive, you didn’t believe in me, right?
AP: I’m not sure I believe in you now, mate. No offence, but the hallucinations you get after a few centuries of mind-numbing torment are something else.
JC: So, OK, you didn’t believe in me, but what I’m interested in now is, were you good?
AP: Well, I was a pretty good Aztec priest. It wasn’t always easy, though – I had to make a lot of sacrifices. Sacrifices! Get it? Oh, suit yourself.
JC: Yes… That’s actually not quite -
AP: No, I know what you mean. I think I was a pretty good bloke, really. Ask these guys, they all knew me. If you can get the demons to lay off long enough, that is. Look, will you stop that? We’re talking!
JC: Oh, this is ridiculous, I’ll never get round at this rate. Hold still for a moment, would you, I’ll just look into the secrets of your heart.
AP: Help yourself – with the work these demons have been doing you can probably see my heart from there already.
JC: Yes… yes… and it’s… yes. What do you know – apparently you’re one of the good ones. Off you go to Heaven. Over on the right – you see that dazzling light? Just head for that and keep going, they’ll sort you out when you get there. Come on, chop chop – I’ve got another three million to get through just in this corner, and that’s not counting the Incas.

The depth of the past, and the sheer geographical breadth of the past, are a bit of a problem for this model, at least in terms of surface plausibility. The problem’s compounded if we take into account the number of people living since the death of Christ who, with the best missionary will in the world, (will) have lived and died without any exposure to the Good News. Presumably they’re also Hell-bound, at least on a temporary basis, and presumably some kind of sorting-out operation will rescue the good ones at the end of days. If you put it all together, an awful lot of people are getting temporarily misfiled, and condemned to centuries or millennia of excruciating torment as a result.

And people aren’t the half of it.

4. O’er heathen lands afar

The observable universe is a sphere with a radius of 46 billion light years. (You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.) There are, on the latest estimate, in the region of 3 x 10^23 stars in the universe. I don’t know what proportion of those are Sol-like, but with numbers that high it doesn’t matter a great deal; even if the proportion’s one in a million, and only one in ten of those stars have small (non-gaseous) planets (which itself is a very low estimate), we’re still looking at a multiple of 10^16 rocky extra-solar planets. Not only that, but the universe is 1.4 x 10^10 years old – ten billion years older than Earth. (Which makes the idea of a ‘year’ a bit notional, but never mind.) Space is vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, and so is time – and my God, they’re full of stars.

What that means, though, is that there are innumerable times and places that the Good News of Christ’s resurrection doesn’t and cannot reach, thanks to the finite lifespan of stars and the limit imposed by the speed of light. As speed limits go, the speed of light is quite a high limit, but it is a hard limit: nothing in the universe can travel any faster. Which has some significant effects.

Picture a star as a dot, and picture a ring around it: we can call that the distance travelled by light in a second. Now imagine a whole series of concentric rings, representing the distance the star’s light will travel in one second, two seconds, three and so on. Now, as simple as it is, that diagram is overloaded – we’re using the distance between concentric circles to represent two different things, the distance travelled by light in a second and the second it takes to travel it. To remedy that we’ll need to use the third dimension: picture those concentric circles coming up out of the paper, each widening circle higher up than the one before. Height now represents time, while the horizontal dimensions represent distance in space. The shape you’ve got, if your visualisation is the same as mine, is a cone. As you move away from the star (the point at the bottom) you simultaneously move upward (the passage of time) and outward (movement in space). The angle of the cone represents the speed of light – the distance in space (horizontal) it can cross in a given time (vertical). Most importantly, light cannot reach any area outside the light cone, because doing so would involve a flatter angle – more horizontal movement (in space) for the same vertical movement (passage of time), which is to say a speed higher than light speed.

In reality, of course, stars emit light in three dimensions; real light cones are four-dimensional and hence quite difficult to visualise. The main point is that any localised event has a future light cone – a region of spacetime which it’s physically possible for information from that event to reach – and a vast region outside that light cone: all the places that light (or radio waves, or by extension any form of information) cannot reach, or rather cannot reach yet. Equally, any point in spacetime (such as the one you’re at now) has a past light cone – a region of spacetime from which it’s physically possible for information to have reached an observer at that point. Anything outside your past light cone can never have had any effect on you. If Mark and Q had been equipped with high-powered radio transmitters, the Good News might have travelled getting on for 2,000 light years by now; that’s quite a long way, but our galaxy is 100,000 light years wide.

Suppose that, a thousand years from now, radio broadcasts from Earth reach a solar system a thousand light years away, one of whose planets supports multi-cellular life. Suppose that an intelligent (and religiously-inclined) species had existed on that planet, but had destroyed itself a couple of centuries earlier, dying unsaved in their millions for want of the Good News. Now multiply out by all that time and all that space. Even if only a tiny proportion of life-sustaining planets harbour intelligent life, the likely numbers of alien civilisations that exist, have existed or will exist somewhere in those 4 x 10^32 cubic light years within the lifespan of the universe are – there’s no other word for it – astronomical. And, given light speed as a hard limit, the proportion of all alien civilisations that can ever be reached by the Good News is astronomically tiny. There will be an awful lot of catching up to do at the end of days; the Harrowing of Hell starts to look a bit parochial.

Not only that, there’s been plenty of time for a star to halt over a stable somewhere else, before we came along – even before Earth came along – and plenty of places where it could have happened. The believing Christian (whose persona I’m borrowing for a lot of this post) would shrug this off: we know it could have happened like that, but we also know it didn’t, because it happened right here, in Bethlehem. But what if we can’t be so sure?

5. You’ll remember Mercury.

As Gary Gutting (via Ken) says, one solution to the problem of evil – the question of why an omnipotent and benevolent God permits pointless suffering – is an appeal to our own ignorance. God, on this argument, is not only all-powerful but all-knowing; our knowledge is imperfect and incomplete, so it may well be that events which make no sense to us have their place in a divine plan. Or, in a stronger version of the same point: we know our knowledge is imperfect, while God’s is perfect; as such we know that we cannot know the mind of God, cannot understand the divine plan. Seeing suffering as incomprehensible, on this argument, is a sign of our humanity; we should not aspire to understand tragic events better, only to be reconciled with them through prayer.

The Harrowing of Hell fits neatly into this framework, despite the sufferings involved being mythical. Being born in the time and place that he was, Moses had no way of knowing the true nature of God; he and all his followers lived all their lives without ever having a full revelation of the divine, and consequently died without being saved and went to Hell. This is an unpalatable thought: surely no benevolent and all-powerful God would condemn the Fathers of the Church to the torments of the damned, even temporarily. (I say ‘temporarily’ – after the first couple of centuries I imagine it wouldn’t feel very temporary.) They would effectively be condemned for being born in the wrong time and place – and, what’s worse, for being born in the precise time and place where they needed to be born in order to lay the groundwork for Christ’s coming and hence fulfil the divine plan. Moses, in short, copped a millennium of Hell for doing everything right.

We can understand this – or rather understand our failure to understand it – by invoking God’s superior (perfect) knowledge: there are things in the divine plan that we don’t understand and never can understand, and presumably this is one of them. (If you think this sceptical argument is unpalatable, incidentally, you’re not alone. From a believer’s point of view it’s very unsatisfactory, not least because it opens up the possibility that the nature of God is unknowable and may be entirely different from what we believe it to be. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the argument was formulated by somebody – David Hume – who was at most a theist. On the other hand, it’s the closest thing I know to a good answer to the problem of evil.)

Now bring all that space and time back in. If a tiny fraction of the planets orbiting other stars have produced or will produce intelligent life, that will amount to millions of alien races – the vast majority of which will realistically never get to hear about Bethlehem, not least because most of them are, were or will be physically incapable of doing so (light cones again). To begin with we can trot out the same response – yes, it seems a bit rough, but there you go, all part of the plan, nobody said the plan would be comprehensible, and so on. But then it gets worse. Think of all those hypothetical intelligent alien races, whether past, future or outside both our light cones. Presumably they have some conception of the divine or numinous – it’d be a sod to convert them to Christianity otherwise – and presumably they’ve made some sort of fumbling semi-contact with the divine and had some sort of glimmers of revelation. (Somebody spoke to Moses in that bush; he still went to Hell.)

Now the trap shuts: how do we know that our revelation was the real and complete one, the one that’s true for all time and all space? The sceptic answers: we don’t know and we can’t know. If we believe in Christ as the incarnate son of God, we’re committed to believing that untold millions of people – and other intelligent beings – lived or will live without any possibility of a true and complete apprehension of the divine. This may seem a bit tough, but our knowledge is imperfect, so we have to trust that it’s all in God’s plan. If we are serious about our belief in the imperfection of human knowledge, however, we have to concede that the Christian’s belief in Christ as the incarnate son of God may not be a true and complete apprehension of the divine. God’s true revelation may have taken place three billion years ago, on a planet orbiting a star in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud; the good Good News may not reach our area until the sun’s a red giant. Christians, as much as Jews or Buddhists, may only ever get a glimmer or half a glimmer of the divine – and this too may be part of God’s plan.

6. “God is dead,” Nick said. “They found his carcass in 2019.”

Still with me? Brace yourself; this is where things get strange.

Hume’s argument from imperfect knowledge has been answered by an appeal to a different kind of knowledge. Human reason may be imperfect, this argument runs, but there’s no gainsaying human experience:

There are two ways to learn that something is possible. One way is to form a clear conception of the possibility. The second way is to discover that the thing is an actual fact. For example, I know that it is possible for bumblebees to fly because I have observed them actually flying. I can know that bumblebees actually fly without first having proved to myself, independently, that it is really possible for them to fly

Similarly, the Christian knows that it is possible for God to communicate with her because she knows it has happened. By happy extension, she also knows that it is possible for the God whose nature we know to communicate with her, and hence that God’s nature is the nature we know. Collapse of stout sceptic.

There are two ways to answer this argument. The short answer – and, I think, the one Hume would have used – is that the argument assumes its own conclusion. What our Christian knows is that she has had a certain experience; when she sets about understanding that experience she’s necessarily thrown back on her own knowledge and reason (including her knowledge of the Christian religion), and we’re back to square one.

Gutting offers a longer (and stranger) answer.

Their confidence in salvation, [believers] say, comes not from philosophical arguments but from their personal contact with God, either through individual experience or a religious tradition. But what can such contact provide concretely? At best, certainty that there is a very powerful being who promises to save us. But there may well be — and many religions insist that there are — very powerful beings (demons or devils) intent on leading us away from salvation. How could we possibly know that the power we are in contact with is not deceiving us?

The inevitable response is that an all-good God would not permit such a thing. But that takes us back to the previous difficulty: there is no reason to think that we are good judges of what God is likely to permit. God may have to allow us to be deceived to prevent even greater evils.

Got that? Direct, immediate experience of contact with God might turn out to be a quite genuine experience of contact with something else. This is a monstrous possibility (literally), but remember, our human knowledge is imperfect; and if our knowledge is imperfect, then God’s plans are unknowable. And, if God’s plans are unknowable, He may make it possible for demonic entities to exist, and for people to make contact with them while believing they’re in touch with God. It’s a bit like the (apocryphal?) preaching of Buddha that Brahma wasn’t the creator of the universe, but a misguided spirit who had come to believe that he was the creator of the universe. Indeed, given that God has all of time and space to work His purpose out, He may make it possible for entire civilisations to gain their only experience of the divine from contact with demonic entities – which would condemn those civilisations to damnation even at their highest levels of religious exaltation. And, if God’s plans are truly unknowable – and what other kind of ‘unknowable’ is there? – we can’t know that our civilisation isn’t one of them. Pulling back out to the cosmic scale, we can’t know that our entire planet – what the hell, our entire galaxy – isn’t doomed to this kind of counterfeit revelation. We can trust that things will be sorted out at the end of days – assuming that at least we’ve got that right – but the God who does the sorting may not be what we expect at all.

We can put the same argument in slightly less alarming terms – and beat a retreat to the short answer – if we say, more simply, that many people through the ages have experienced what they thought to be direct contact with God and been mistaken about the nature of the experience, to put it no more strongly than that. As sceptics, we can accept that God may exist and genuine contact with Him may be possible, while leaving open the possibility that everyone who has ever believed they have made contact was suffering from enthusiasm. We can doubt, if we feel like it, that contact ever will be made from Earth, or from any other planet out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy. (I say “the Galaxy”; obviously I mean this galaxy.)

7. Against principalities, against powers

As I said earlier on, the Humean sceptical argument is unpalatable to believers. I think bringing in deep space and deep time has made it clear just how unpalatable it is. Whether the alternative to a true revelation is the machinations of powers in the air or simple human delusion, the result is much the same. The believer would be committed to holding two mutually antagonistic beliefs simultaneously:

  1. I believe in God: an omnipotent and omniscient being who created the universe, loves His creation, makes Himself known to believers and will grant salvation to them.
  2. I am human, and consequently acknowledge that God’s nature may not be as I believe it to be, God may not have truly made Himself known to me and may never do so, the tenets of my religion may have no connection with God’s true purpose and my faith may not save me from eternal damnation.
  3. But GOTO 1.

So where is all this going? The point is simply this: the version of Christian belief we’ve just ended up with is monstrous and untenable. Hume’s scepticism leaves open the possibility of genuine revelation, genuine contact with the divine, but at the cost of introducing radical uncertainty as to whether any given experience of the divine is that genuine contact – and by extension whether any known experience of the divine has ever been genuine. In the Humean view, it’s entirely possible that nobody who considers him- or herself to be a Christian has ever had a genuine contact with the Christian God, or ever will. Not only is it possible, it’s entirely compatible with belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God, working His purposes out as year succeeds to year. And yet nobody who considers him- or herself to be a Christian could believe that: it would undermine everything they believe.

So where does religion go if we take this argument seriously? I don’t believe that it disposes of religion altogether, although it does make things a bit difficult for certain kinds of religious belief (and not only Christian belief). One possibility is that the divine retreats to a kind of abstract realm of unknowability. God may or may not exist; this or that revelation of the divine may or may not have been valid. Whatever the answer is, though, it can never be proved and will never affect us either way. Hume himself leant towards this position; at one stage he described the argument between theism and atheism as a purely verbal disagreement, or as we’d say a difference that makes no difference. This way of thinking about religion clearly doesn’t include an eschatology – even Hume could hardly miss the Last Trump; more broadly, it tends to erode religion’s purchase on the present-day social world, reducing the numinous to an aesthetic experience and differences of belief to philosophical debating points. In practical terms this may be no bad thing, but it’s a substantial scaling-down of the claims of religion.

Another answer, which I think is more interesting, gives scepticism the field and then goes somewhere different. But first, another hymn.

8. Everywhere all the time

Every star shall sing a carol,
Every creature high or low.
Come and praise the King of Heaven
By whatever name you know.

God above, man below,
Holy is the name I know.

When the king of all creation,
Had a cradle on the earth.
Holy was the human body,
Holy was the human birth.

Who can tell what other cradle
High above the Milky Way
Still may rock the King of Heaven,
On another Christmas day?

Who can count how many crosses
Still to come or long ago.
Crucify the King of Heaven?
Holy is the name I know.

Who can tell what other body
He will hallow for his own?
I will praise the son of Mary,
Brother of my blood and bone.

Every star and every planet,
Every creature high and low.
Come and praise the King of Heaven,
By whatever name you know.

God above, man below,
Holy is the name I know.

“Every star shall sing a carol” (1961) by the great Sydney Carter. Cards on the table, I’m not a Christian, but I think that’s absolutely brilliant – and it points to a different way of dealing with Humean scepticism. The problem that deep time and space poses for believers is the same problem that was originally patched up by the Harrowing of Hell, and it’s the problem of singularity. (The state of being singular, that is. Nothing to do with that singularity.) If there is one true revelation of the divine, what becomes of all those people who could only have a glimmer or a distorted half-revelation? And – the Humean adds – how can we know that we aren’t among them?

Carter’s answer is to reject the premise of singularity. (I don’t know if Carter read much science fiction; you could see this hymn as a riposte to C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, in which the inhabitants of Venus say how privileged Earth was to be the planet Jesus chose.) This hymn – and, from what I know of it, Carter’s own religious faith – points us to a world in which Moses wasn’t damned in the first place, and a universe in which there are many different revelations of the divine. Some of them are false, predictably, but many of them are true – equally true, and true in different ways. Encounters with the numinous then cease to take their bearings from one true revelation, and simply become something that happens to people – and would happen to other intelligent species.

Consistently with this idea of multiple revelations, you could see religious observances in all their variety as just something that people do – or rather, something that societies do, and quite possibly something that the societies formed by other intelligent species would also do. Religions would then be different ways of attending to the numinous things in life, different ways of adopting a reverent attitude to phenomena that deserve reverence (birth, death, community, that kind of thing). As for the experience of the divine, perhaps that could be situated at the end of the process rather than its source: not the phenomenon to which reverence needs to be paid, but an emergent property of the practice of reverence.

9. Sweetness follows

A couple of things follow from this way of looking at religion. Four, to be precise.

Firstly, (almost) all religions are (more or less) equal. If you believe that you should do this when somebody’s born, this when somebody dies and this at regular intervals (weekly, monthly, annual, whatever); if you can look around you, at least occasionally, and see other people who believe the same; and if you believe that those commitments are involved with your relationship with something immaterial or intangible; then the chances are you’re doing religion, practising reverence to things that deserve it.

Secondly, religion is a shared practice of life. Religions may start with a single enthusiast (somebody like George Fox), but they only take root in groups – people who do things together. They grow through groups, as well, or at least recruit through affinity networks. Show me a religion that recruits by ones and twos and I’ll show you a religion that’s either very new, struggling to survive or both. Raymond Williams defined – or insisted on defining – ‘culture’ as a ‘whole way of life’. Religion has something of that quality: it’s part of how people do what they do, together. And, I think, the quality of religious experience comes out of that common practice, rather than being something that existed prior to it and which it was constructed around. Insisting that the religious experience takes priority over the common practice can have some odd results. My mother was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, a Protestant group with strict ideas about most things but not much internal hierarchy. At their communion services, the Brethren would break and share actual bread rather than the wafers they use in the Church of England, this being what the Disciples had done at the Last Supper (“this do in remembrance of me”, remember). According to my mother, one member of their ‘Meeting’ argued that modern English bread was just as inauthentic as the wafers, and that they should be using unleavened bread. He lost the argument, but no matter; from then on he brought along his own supply of unleavened bread, wrapped up in greaseproof paper, and communed with himself.

Thirdly, religion happens (or doesn’t) in the life you’re living. Pace Robyn Hitchcock, it does matter what you was – what you is is what you are, but what you was is how you got here – how you came to be what you is. Are. We think of conversion experiences as wiping previous religious (or non-religious) commitments completely, like a wave coming in and washing away the scribbles on the sand, and I dare say it would feel like that, to begin with at least. Personally I’m a kind of not-quite atheist agnostic, which is a bit of an uncomfortable, liminal position – you could say I’m the kind of person who doesn’t actually believe in anything but doesn’t want to commit to not believing in anything. If I converted to Catholicism tomorrow I can imagine the tide of faith coming in like a comfort blanket. But there are habits of thought I’ve acquired over the years, not to say habits full stop, which would be very hard to shed – and that includes habits which go back to my rather distant upbringing as an Anglican. Like people who settle in rural villages and find themselves referred to as newcomers twenty years later, I’d be a Catholic convert for a long time before I was simply a Catholic. Even then I’d be an ex-Anglican, formerly-atheist Catholic. And that’s a belief system not very far from the one I grew up in; becoming a Buddhist would be the work of a lifetime.

Religion is a big commitment: it takes people sharing ways of living for it to happen; it takes time and patience to make it a reality in your life. Anything short of that is just playing at it. People play at religion a fair bit, if you look around; a lot of what people ostensibly believe in most strongly seems to be awfully dilettante and and-a-pony-ish. The stall at a local church fund-raiser selling prayer flags – how would that work? The woman we saw at a stone circle in Cornwall, staggering and holding her head from the sheer power of the vibrations – didn’t it seem at all odd to her that nobody else could feel a thing? (Then again, as Ben Goldacre points out, electrosensitivity has real and often distressing symptoms; megalithosensitivity may be something similar.)

On the other hand, grumpy sceptical reactions like that often suggest something being disavowed or studiously ignored. I think what’s nagging at me in this case is that (fourthly) playing is really important. Play starts in the ‘potential space’ that infants first start to explore under their parent’s gaze, and it goes on for as long as you’re making new discoveries, learning how to do things, making other people laugh or just messing about with ideas. Play is exploratory; playing is a way of finding new meanings, new connections, new ways to act or live. Playing with religion as such may not be a great idea, if only because it puts the idea of a religion ahead of the practices that make it happen. (Think of that Plymouth Brother with his flatbreads in greaseproof paper; a less earnest approach would, if anything, have cut him off from the rest of the Meeting even more completely.) What does make sense is the idea of playing with shared practices of life – playing with ways (finding new ways) to offer reverence to things, events, experiences that deserve it. And that’s where, at its best, art comes in. Art and religion are quite closely related, in this way of thinking. Art is a way of playing with images, symbols, practices; a way of directing a concentrated, reverent attention to everyday social life; and a way of bringing out the unnoticed meanings of the lives we’ve been living.

10. The marvellous revealed

I’m convinced that Jeremy Deller is a genius. In 2006 he co-curated the Folk Archive, the catalogue of which is now available online as a kind of virtual exhibit. I didn’t see the real-world show, but the virtual gallery is quite wonderful. Head over there now, I’ll just put some music on until you get back.

The Folk Archive

You back? Great. (Good, isn’t it?)

In 2009 Deller organised Procession, a work which I still haven’t made my mind up about – by which I mean that I’m still not sure what it was. It was an artwork in the form of a procession; it was a tribute to the social practice of holding processions; it was a satirical comment on past processions; it was a sincere attempt to envisage a procession for contemporary Manchester; it was all the above. It was a really good procession, in any case. It was led by a Boy Scout band (playing “Hit the North”); bringing up the rear came a float carrying a steel band (playing “Love will tear us apart” – and if you haven’t heard “Love will tear us apart” played by a steel band at the tail of a procession, you’ll have to imagine how good it sounded). In between there were Ramblers, goths, a celebration of fish and chips, a series of hearses carrying floral tributes to defunct Mancunian nightclubs, a group of Unrepentant Smokers… and, as they say, much more. Each group had an embroidered banner in the old style – I worried to begin with that the cumulative effect would make the banners look arch and silly, but they were such magnificent pieces of work that they simply gave greater dignity and impact to the procession, as banners always have done. It was one of those works that look rather weightlessly ironic on paper, but in reality turn out to be powerful and genuine: it was called Procession, and it was a procession. The silliest element was supplied by reality. As well as their own, the Unrepentant Smokers carried a small additional banner with a health warning. I assumed this was a satirical reference to the elf-n-safety hoops that march organisers have to jump through these days, but it turned out that there was no satire about it: the City Council wouldn’t allow them to march unless they carried it.

And did I mention, lots of people came and watched. We all stood, lining the street, and we watched the procession go by. It was great.

It brought people together; it created strange and unexpected moments of beauty; it celebrated the lives people were and had been living. I’m not saying Procession was a religious work, but I do think that what remains of religion – if you forget about looking back to a singular revelation and looking forward to the end of history – has very similar qualities.

As, in its own way, did Sacrilege. One of the starting-points of this post (if something the length of an academic paper still qualifies as a ‘post’) was my perversely-maintained conviction that playing on a life-size bouncy-castle Stonehenge, set up on a recreation ground in Preston, is actually more ritually appropriate – more real – than holding a Druid ceremony at the real Stonehenge. That’s not an entirely serious point – I’ve done one and not the other, apart from anything else – but I think I can make a case for Sacrilege, and one which relates partly to its fairly ostentatious inauthenticity.

Stonehenge, if it’s anything, is singular: we all recognise it, and we don’t know anything else like it. (In point of fact, I’m not sure there’s any other stone circle like it anywhere; those triliths are extraordinary.) This singularity is accentuated by Stonehenge’s close association with Midsummer: not only is there only one Stonehenge, there’s only one time to go there. Stonehenge also tugs us back to a distant past that we know little or nothing about. About the people who originally used Stonehenge, Nigel Tufnel was right: Nobody knows who they were… or what they were doing. Any attempt to recreate the ritual significance of Stonehenge now has to be fairly speculative and voluntaristic; contemporary Druid practice springs out of a prior commitment to a certain kind of religious experience, rather than the experience emerging from a practice and the practice growing out of a shared life experience. They’re playing at it, in other words – and playing seriously, rigidly, adhering to rules they believe were revealed to them and shutting out all non-believers.

Compare Sacrilege. Nothing singular about it: it was set up and taken down in a whole variety of places all around the country. It’s not about the distant past; it takes the very contemporary form of a bouncy castle (so contemporary that I’m too old ever to have been on one before, although for some people reading this they were probably a childhood memory). It’s not about playing by the rules and restricting participation to an elect of believers; it’s about admission for all, and it’s about playing. It’s also – and this is the genius of the work – unavoidably about the numinosity of Stonehenge itself. Play in such a setting inevitably takes on ritual aspects: I set myself to run around the inside of the outer circle touching all the ‘uprights’ once, then do the same around the outside of the inner circle, and by the end I felt I’d done something. (I also felt extremely out of breath. How do kids do it?) Play takes on ritual aspects, and then it sheds them again; I’ve got vivid memories of leaning back against a gently yielding monolith, squeezing between the uprights of a trilith, dropping to a kneeling bounce on the turf, then rolling over and watching the world bounce past… None of this meant anything – it didn’t derive significance from any kind of liturgy – but at the same time it meant a lot. It reminded us of the grandeur and beauty of the stones themselves, and evoked all the rather cliched images of mythic power that they’re linked with. At the same time it drew on the history of non-reverence towards the ancient stones and the contemporary rationality which disregards them, which it at once restated (there’s nothing very reverential about bouncing around Stonehenge) and playfully subverted (there is something irreducibly reverential about bouncing around Stonehenge – and there’s nothing very rational about bouncing, come to that).

The sheer playful excess of the work, combined with the sheer symbolic excess, produced something hilariously enjoyable and powerfully beautiful. As such, what Sacrilege did was something nearly, but not quite, religious; something much closer to Sydney Carter’s idea of religious experience than to traditional versions; and something it shared with Deller’s other work. Sacrilege doesn’t say “the ancients had Stonehenge; we have nothing but bouncy castles; woe is us”. It says “they used to have Stonehenge; we have bouncy castles; what now?” In just the same way, Acid Brass said “they used to have brass bands, we have acid house”, while Procession said “they used to have Whit Walks and Wakes Weeks, we have goths, outdoor smokers and a closed Haçienda”. (I’m very glad that Sacrilege hit Preston in the week of the 2012 Guild, incidentally; if it was a coincidence it was a remarkably good one.) Each time, the work doesn’t assert that this is the contemporary equivalent of that; instead, it brings out the elements of play and celebration in both, then asks, is this the contemporary equivalent? Is this where our contemporary rituals of sense-making take place, where we honour the numinous things in life? Is this where our traditions are being laid down? If so, what do they look like and feel like – how do they honour the numinous and strike sparks off the everyday? And are there any precautions we should be taking?

11. Careful now

Title credits: Trad., Nigel Tufnel, Christina Rossetti, Trad., Lewis Hensley, Edwin Morgan, Philip K. Dick, St Paul, Russell Hoban, Michael Stipe, Peter Blegvad, Dougal McGuire.

Thousands or more

So, what have I been listening to lately? Funny you should ask. Here’s about a year’s worth of recent listening, focusing mainly on new(-ish) releases.

It doesn’t seem very long ago that a friend at the local singaround told me that he was thinking of starting a record label. I thought this was a ridiculous if faintly brilliant idea, and took care to avoid either encouraging him (in case he did it and it was a disaster) or discouraging him (in case he didn’t and it would have been a brilliant success). Well, he did it, and the Folk Police imprint is the result. I think we’re looking at ‘success’. (Artistically, anyway; as I understand it he’s still got the day job.)

One of the first Folk Police releases, Oak Ash Thorn is a collection of Peter Bellamy’s settings of poems by Rudyard Kipling, originally released on two 1970s albums – Oak, Ash and Thorn and Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye. The roster of acts contributing is the proverbial who’s who of contemporary folk: the Unthanks, Jon Boden, Fay Hield, Emily Portman, Cath and Phil Tyler, Trembling Bells… the list goes on. The songs are terrific; the performances are technically superb and the production is pin-sharp.

But what does it actually sound like? I’ve listened to it a lot, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t entirely aimed at me. Take the introduction of Sam Lee’s Puck’s Song. It’s a fine track – Sam’s got an extraordinary voice, and his arrangement is strong enough to influence my own take on the song, more or less despite myself [*]. But he opens the track with a bit of scene-setting found footage – a random bit of speech from Bob Copper, the sound of a lark and a clip of the Coppers singing a completely different song. To me it’s a distraction at best and embarrassing at worst; it just gives me the impression that the artist thinks he’s discovered this amazing new thing called ‘folk music’. This music and its practitioners really aren’t as ancient, or as alien, as all that; I’m only two degrees from Bob Copper myself, and I suspect Sam Lee is too.

Reverence for folk music, that’s what I don’t like – particularly when it takes the form of reverence for folk-rock (Trembling Bells, the Owl Service). It’s noticeable that several artists, the Unthanks and Emily Portman most obviously, take the songs slowly and delicately, without much volume but with a kind of anxious solemnity; anything less like Bellamy’s delivery of his Kipling songs would be hard to imagine.

Pace suffers most of all. Few go as far as Lisa Knapp does with The Queen’s Men – slowing down the song until the tune is lost completely – but most of the songs are taken slower than the originals. (Although Oak, Ash and Thorn and Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye were unavailable at the time this album was made, they have since been re-released – and very fine albums they are too.) Even Rapunzel and Sedayne’s Harp Song of the Dane Women – one of the better tracks here – is taken at walking pace, giving it a kind of incantatory stillness but losing the headlong weirdness of the original.

There is some excellent stuff on this album; Tim Eriksen is on noisy form, Olivia Chaney is in good voice and Jon Boden gives what’s surely the definitive reading of Frankie’s Trade (other readings are available; here’s mine [*]). It’s well worth getting if you know about Bellamy, and a must-have for anyone curious about the Bellamy/Kipling oeuvre. Even the stuff I don’t much like is good, and lots of people will like it more than I do. I guess I just find it a bit, well, polite. (James Yorkston’s Folk Songs album had a similar problem for me; Musgrave [*] shouldn’t be subdued. Brutally murdered, yes.)

You can read much more about this album, and hear the tracks by Jon Boden and Emily Portman, here, and you can buy it here (£10).

My feelings about John Kelly’s second album For Honour and Promotion are less mixed. Not entirely unmixed: I’m less keen than John on songs with lines about “dear old Erin” (By the Hush) or songs in which the singer reminisces about having his way with girls by way of a combination of persuasion and judo: the words “her feet from her did glide” or similar appear in two different songs on this album, which for me was one too many. Also I can’t hear The Days of ’49 without hearing in my mind’s ear what Peter Bellamy (him again) did with it, in comparison with which anyone will suffer. But these are very minor cavils about a truly outstanding album.

John has a rich and expressive voice, accompanied on this album by his own harmonium, harmoniflute [sic], guitar and cittern; he also delivers one song unaccompanied – a superb version of When a man’s in love [*]. Whether you call all the songs on this album ‘traditional’ is one for the taxonomists, but they’re certainly all old; John lists sources including “the Scots Musical Museum (published in 6 volumes between 1787 and 1803)” and “Tipperary man Charles Kickham (1828-1882)”. As you can see from the track listing, there are English and American as well as Scottish and Irish songs here; other sources cited include the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs and the Mudcat Café.

If I start listing particularly good tracks it’ll be hard to stop, but I will mention three tracks with harmonium accompaniment: I’ve never heard a better version of The streams of lovely Nancy [*], and John’s treatments of Greenland Whale Fisheries and Canadee-i-o are a revelation. Both of these songs are taken surprisingly slowly; I’m not sure why this works as well as it does, but I think it’s something to do with the unselfconscious passion with which John delivers the songs (no solemnity here). The Child ballad Mary Hamilton [*], accompanied on cittern, is hypnotically brilliant, gripping the listener despite its considerable length. But if I had to single out one song as the best thing on the album it would be As I was a-wandering (often attributed to Burns, although John’s notes don’t mention this) [*]. Accompanied on cittern, John’s rendering of this song is simply one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard, in any genre.

UPDATE I’m delighted to be able to say that John’s Web site now includes clips of several songs from this album, as well as some from his (excellent) first album. Have a listen.

You owe it to yourself to hear this album if you’ve got any interest in traditional song – and if you haven’t, you should hear it to find out what you’re missing. It can be obtained from John for £10 plus postage; write to harmoniumhero at hotmail dot com.

Back to Folk Police for the label’s very first release, at least according to the catalogue number: Rapunzel and Sedayne’s first commercially-available album, Songs from the Barley Temple. I’ve got another personal connection to declare here, as I know Rachel and Sean personally & have shared quite a few singarounds with them; the night when the lights went out, a couple of verses into R+S’s Green Grow The Rushes-O, will live in my memory for some time.

As will this album, which I played until I’d worn it out with over-familiarity. (I’m planning to go cold turkey for a while and rediscover it some time next year.) It’s wonderful. Some may find the sleevenotes a bit pretentious, and to be honest I may be one of them – when Sedayne describes Porcupine in November Sycamore as an “old-time field holler in the Javanese Pelog mode” I’m left none the wiser, and I could have preferred something a bit more straightforwardly informative (perhaps along the lines of “Robin Williamson didn’t write this, but I bet he wishes he had”). But the song is superb, which is the main thing; on the album it’s 6 minutes 47, and the first time I heard it I was genuinely disappointed when I realised it was ending. (The album closes with a reprise of the song, which doesn’t seem self-indulgent or excessive; it’s just nice to hear it again.)

This isn’t an album of new compositions; only two and a half songs here are originals, while a third – Outlaws – is a setting by Rapunzel of a poem by Bonnie Parker (of ‘and Clyde’ fame). Most are traditional. Some are ‘standards’ (e.g. True Thomas [*] and a terrific Blackwaterside [*]); some are less familiar (Handsome Molly, Katie Kay, Robin Redbreast’s Testament), while one standout track is a highly unfamiliar version of a trad ‘standard’, Jim Eldon’s Owld Grye Song (more commonly known as Poor Old Horse [*]).

The songs were recorded ‘live’ and without overdubs, making for a surprisingly narrow sound palette – ‘surprisingly’ inasmuch as it doesn’t sound narrow! Rapunzel’s banjo, Sedayne’s fiddle and their voices – solo and in close harmony – are supplemented on different tracks by drum, harmonium and overtone flute, as well as by the semi-random burbling of something called a Kaossilator (which can be heard to good effect on Porcupine and Owld Grye). An unpredictable combination of elements – Rapunzel’s pure voice and banjo, Sedayne’s drones and free improvisation, the passion for the old songs which they evidently share – blends to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s a terrific album. Read another review, find out more about Rapunzel and Sedayne, and buy the CD (£10). Incidentally, the vaguely Wicker Man-ish phrase ‘Barley Temple’ has much more prosaic origins; Sean is a demon anagrammatist, and a big fan of a singer who’s already been mentioned in this review.

As it was released in 1993, this album doesn’t really belong in this post, but I’m going to include it anyway. I was slightly into folk back in the mid-1970s but only quite dimly aware of it between about 1975 and 2005; this has meant retrospectively discovering the entire careers of an embarrassing number of quite major artists (notably Nic Jones, Tony Rose, Tony Capstick and of course Peter Bellamy). What’s been even more embarrassing is the realisation that I’ve also missed out on another whole generation of folkies – essentially, people of around my own age, who started working after the Revival had more or less ebbed away, and most of whom are still going. Among whom, Jo Freya.

A caveat of sorts: as you can see from the cover art, one of these things is not like the others. This looks like the kind of generic album which used to be on sale in places like Past Times; this isn’t too surprising, as it was sold through Past Times. Gef Lucena’s Saydisc label produced a number of similar albums, including Traditional Songs of Wales (sung by Siwsann George) and Traditional Songs of Scotland (sung by Ray Fisher). In the case of this album, Gef Lucena was also responsible for the production, the arrangements (on all but one track) and the sleeve notes.

So maybe this album isn’t so much Jo Freya as Gef Lucena And Friends, Featuring Jo Freya. Either way it’s pretty good. It includes 21 songs (count ‘em), covering most of the angles in English song: love (I Live Not Where I Love [*]), war (General Wolfe [*]), love and war (The Green Cockade [*]), religion (The Carnal and the Crane), magic (the Broomfield Wager), sex (Maids When You’re Young), work (Fourpence A Day)… Jo’s in good voice throughout – on some very varied material – and some of the settings, played mainly on strings, concertina and recorders, are terrific. I particularly like the songs featuring Nigel Eaton’s hurdy-gurdy – the thoroughly daft As I Set Off For Turkey in particular – and the unaccompanied William Taylor [*], which was sung and arranged by Jo and her sister Fi Fraser.

This isn’t an album to frighten the horses (or cows); it’s tastefully done, and both the backings and Jo’s vocals sometimes sound a bit reined-in. But quiet and tasteful arrangements can work extraordinarily well in folk – think Shirley and Dolly Collins – and this album includes some really memorable versions of great songs: General Wolfe, Rounding the Horn [*], All Things Are Quite Silent, As Sylvie Was Walking, A Sailor’s Life…

You can see what Jo Freya’s been up to since 1993(!) here. You can buy this album (and much else) directly from her.

Another Folk Police album? Hey, why not.

The Woodbine and Ivy Band are a kind of Folk Police house band; their debut album features ten traditional songs, each with different lead vocalists and very different sonic atmospheres. Some singers – Olivia Chaney, Elle Osborne, Fay Hield, Rapunzel and Sedayne – also appeared on Oak Ash Thorn; others include Jackie Oates, Jim Causley and Pinkie Maclure.

The album that resulted is, frankly, rather special. The producer, Peter Philipson, clearly set the controls for the heart of the Seventies, but without confining himself to the ‘folk’ shelves: the Roaming Journeyman (sung by James Raynard) is essentially “Hawkwind play trad”, while Derry Gaol (Jackie Oates) sounds like a long-lost track from an early Robert Wyatt album, complete with Mongezi Feza-esque overlapping trumpet lines. A lot of work and a lot of listening has gone into this album: no two tracks sound alike, from the tremulous hush of Under the Leaves (Elle Osborne), through the none-more-Wicker-Man Gently Johnny (the Memory Band’s Jenny McCormick), to the kitchen-sink alternative-Christmas-single Spencer the Rover (Fay Hield) [*].

There isn’t a weak track on here; my personal favourite, though, is Poor Murdered Woman [*], in which Olivia Chaney’s beautiful and affecting vocals are perfectly paired with a backing dominated by trumpet and pedal steel.

You can read more about this album, and hear Gently Johnny and the Roaming Journeyman, here. Buy it here (£10).

Folkies are weird. When a (relatively) young and hip band like the Futureheads released Rant – an album of unaccompanied singing, including three no-messing folk songs – I expected it to be greeted with wild huzzas; at the very least I expected an approving nod or two. (Admittedly, folkies aren’t the only people who sing unaccompanied, but we do do a lot of it; I still think it’s the only way to deliver some songs with big choruses, and some solo songs for that matter.) Instead, one of the two folk fora [Lat.] that I frequent ignored it completely – not out of pique, as far as I can tell, but because the regulars genuinely hadn’t noticed it. At the other, it was greeted with a rather ungracious note about how certain traditional songs had become clapped-out and unlistenable through overuse, specifically including two of the three traditional songs on the Futureheads album.

Well, I like it. As well as those three traditional songs – The Keeper, The Old Dun Cow and (hidden track) Hanging Johnny – the album includes four of the Futureheads’ own songs and a scattering from other sources, ranging from Richard Thompson to the Black-Eyed Peas via Sparks (The No. 1 Song in Heaven). (They don’t do Hounds of Love, but you can’t have everything.) As far as clapped-out songs are concerned, incidentally, I do know The Old Dun Cow back to front, but I’d actually never heard The Keeper before I got this album; it may have been done to death in the 70s and 80s, but I wasn’t going to singarounds back then. Nor indeed were the Futureheads.

It’s a nice album. The louder and more aggressive songs perhaps work better – there’s a limit to how much sensitivity and restraint four blokes can deliver – but the arrangements are interesting throughout and the harmonies are spot-on. In conclusion may I say, in my role as an ageing bearded folkie, that it’s an Encouraging Sign when A New Generation discovers (cont’d p. 94)

The Magnetic Fields’ Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a short album consisting of 15 short songs (they range from 2:01 to 2:39). Seven are sung by the songwriter Stephin Merritt, the other eight shared between Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms. A bit more Merritt would have been good – he has a beautiful singing voice. The sound palette is rather insistently synthesiser-heavy; TMF haven’t used any synths for their last few albums, and this is the return of the repressed, or something. According to the booklet there are a whole range of instruments being played here – guitar, piano, autoharp, cello, trumpet, flute, violin, accordion, musical saw… I’ve only been able to make out the first five of these, and some of those have been processed to the point where they sound like synth patches; presumably the rest are even lower in the mix. The dominant sound of the album is the swish, blatt and scronk of the more experimental end of mid-80s synth pop.

But all you really need to know is that there are songs on this album with lyrics like this:

“A pity she does not exist, a shame he’s not a fag.
The only girl I ever loved was Andrew in drag.”

“I’m gonna fly back to Laramie,
Let Laramie take care o’ me till they bury me.”

“Oh if only you were the only boy in town
For then I could not play the field and let you down
I would not go half-mad
For each passing lad
With eyes of blue, green, grey or brown…”

“I have taken a contract out on you,
I have hired a hitman to do what they do.
He will do his best to do his worst
After he’s messed up your girlfriend first.”

Not to mention a brief, sad, funny song called (self-explanatorily) I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh. (If that title on its own makes you laugh, you’ll like this album. It still gets me every time.)

‘Witty’ is one word for writing like this, but I don’t think Noël Coward [*] ever had this kind of emotional range; there’s frustration, bitterness and rage in these songs, as well as multiple shades of love and lust. This is great songwriting; even the slightest songs give you something to think about, and the best wring your heart out. Another time more acoustic instruments would be good, and more vocals from Stephin, but still – a fine album.

Have I mentioned the Folk Police label recently? They’ve got a compilation album out, you know. No, not that one; this is an album associated with a one-day “Weirdlore” festival, which was scheduled earlier this year but unfortunately didn’t happen.

“Weirdlore: Notes from the folk underground”: what’s that about? Nobody seems entirely sure. What you get here includes three songs about witchcraft, one about shape-shifting, one about tree-worship and one about moss. One song is about Grendel and one about Loki; there’s a song in Cornish and an instrumental with a title in Anglo-Saxon. So that’s ‘weirdlore’ for you, perhaps.

The CD booklet includes some rather unhelpful stuff about what this genre isn’t, which sometimes gives the impression of being written by people who don’t actually like folk: this isn’t “the narcissistic mid-Atlantic songwriter strummery, the same-old same-old bearded Folkistani clichés or the Coldplay-with-banjos syndrome”, nor is it “over-serious wickermania, twee faux-pagan pholklore and retro-folkadelia” (Ian A. Anderson). May I also add that these aren’t folk singers “sitting in a dilapidated pub somewhere churning out endless verses about someone with a stupid name getting garrotted” or “bottom-of-the-bill nobodies, with a battered acoustic guitar, bleating on about their crummy lives”; nor indeed are they “Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling et al pick[ing] up multiple Mercury and Brit nominations along with their royalty cheques” after making music that “has, wincingly perfectly, been dubbed The New Boring.” (Jeanette Leech)

For me all this prompts two questions: “so what do you like?” and “are you sure you ought to be listening to folk music?” Call me excessively logical, but it seems to me that if I wanted to hear music that couldn’t be confused with ‘bearded Folkistani clichés’ and ‘endless verses about someone with a stupid name getting garrotted’ I’d be best off avoiding English traditional songs altogether – and if I didn’t want to hear anything even slightly resembling ‘narcissistic mid-Atlantic songwriter strummery’ from ‘bottom-of-the-bill nobodies with a battered acoustic guitar’, cutting out songwriters playing acoustic guitars would be a good move. (And if I really hated “twee faux-pagan pholklore and retro-folkadelia” I probably wouldn’t listen to many songs about witches and moss.) The thing is, there’s an awful lot of music out there that passes the no-beardie, no-strummery, no-faux-pagan tests with the greatest of ease: I’ve listened to a lot of Underworld and cLOUDDEAD in my time, a great deal of Faust and Soft Machine, and a fair bit of Bach. So why on earth should I listen to folk, if most of it’s so bloody awful?

What seems to be at work here is a rhetorical device that people often use to promote a new variety of something to a sceptical audience, outflanking the punters’ resistance by endorsing their prejudices instead of challenging them – “Don’t like folk? Think it’s tedious rubbish? Well, you’re right – most of it is tedious rubbish! But not this kind of folk…” (See also BrewDog.) I think it’s a really bad idea, on more than one level. Most obviously, it’s not doing any favours to all the other folkies in the world; you’re either on the bus or yah boo sucks, boring same-old twee Folkistani nobodies! (See also BrewDog.) I also think it’s not a good look on an emotional level: it’s based on maintaining a constant level of negativity, with every blessing offset by a curse, instead of trying to move the conversation away from what’s bad altogether. Plus it plays havoc with your critical vocabulary: once you’ve come out with blanket condemnations like the ones I’ve quoted, what will you do if you hear an unknown singer-songwriter with an acoustic – or a bearded folkie doing a full-length Young Hunting [*] – and you actually like what you hear? (Answer: you’ll probably end up using the word “different” a lot, falling back if necessary to regroup at “indefinably different”.)

On a more positive note, Ian Anderson describes music of the ‘weirdlore’ school as “diverse, original, fascinating and occasionally delightfully eccentric stuff” which is “indefinably [sic], umbilically connected to our sometimes odd English folk traditions or reflect[s] their spirit”. So I guess that’ll have to do: it’s all different, it’s original, it’s indefinably umbilically connected. Weirdlore: it’s new, it’s interesting, it’s vaguely sort of folk…ish.

I should probably review the album, shouldn’t I? There’s a fair amount of reverence on display here, unfortunately. Unlike Oak Ash Thorn, there aren’t many acolytes in the temple of folk-rock on this album, but there are several people who have looked back a little further – to West Coast psychedelia, to Roy Harper, to Nick Drake, to early Jethro Tull (sorry, Ian) and especially to the Incredible String Band. There are a few introspective finger-pickers, singing about who knows what; then there are those three songs about witches, along with several others whose sound can only be described as “wifty-wafty”. Several of the contributors here seem to have watched The Wicker Man a hundred times without ever getting as far as the last scene. (Christopher Lee’s the villain, people! It’s a horror film, not a holiday programme!) Moving up the scale a bit, there are some acts – Wyrdstone and Foxpockets in particular – who are basically doing interesting variations on indie; I’d give them a Peel session, or whatever the equivalent is these days.

And then there’s the really good stuff. In roughly ascending order: Pamela Wyn Shannon‘s Moss Mantra is hypnotic, magical and rather funny – although, given that it comes from an album called The Phantasmagoria of Plant Mantras, not all of these effects may have been intended. Alasdair Roberts‘s Haruspex of Paradox – the song about Loki mentioned above – is entrancing; it very nearly justifies that awful title. (Let’s not revive prog, eh?) Hora by the wonderfully-named Boxcar Aldous Huxley is a rackety rendition of a traditional Eastern European dance tune, featuring klezmer-ish clarinet and musical saw. (‘Hora’ is a style of dance – it’s a bit like calling a track Jig.) It sounds great – reminiscent of Barry Black, one of the great lost albums of the 90s – although the folkie old fart in me can’t help thinking they’d sound even better if they put some hours in, found some dancers to play for and did it properly. (My daughter, who dances to this kind of thing, heard it and said “yes, if you sped it up it would sound like a hora”. Out of interest, I’ve tried speeding it up using Audacity; about 60% faster, it sounds terrific.) Harp and a Monkey are an odd band, who seem to look back to an altogether different corner of the 1970s. Forty years ago the Northwest of England was awash with folk acts, mostly playing working men’s clubs, with a bias towards jokey and local material. This was where Mike Harding came from, not to mention Tony Capstick and half a dozen other ‘names’ who you probably wouldn’t have heard of. Singing topical and political songs in their own accents, with a folkie d-i-y vibe (a child’s xylophone is a central part of their sound), Harp and a Monkey seem to evoke that lost period in British folk and bring it into the twenty-first century. Unusually, on this album they perform a traditional song – the shaggy-dog story/dirty joke The Molecatcher. They claim, scrupulously, that the chorus and some of the verses are their own additions; I would never have known. A terrific rendition – more please. Sproatly Smith are a wonder and a mystery; I don’t know who they are, how many of them there are or what they play. The image which came to mind on hearing their Rosebuds In June, and which has refused to be dislodged ever since, is “it’s like something from the Wicker Man, if the Wicker Man had been a 1960s children’s TV series about time travel”. On reflection… yep, that’s precisely what it sounds like. Finally, there are Rapunzel and Sedayne, appearing for the fourth(!) time in this post, and on this occasion playing an absolute blinder. R+S excel themselves with The Innocent Hare – a lolloping, languidly exuberant reading of a hunting song from the Coppers’ repertoire. Sedayne’s fiddle and the interplay of his and Rapunzel’s voices have never sounded better; it’s a wonderful track. (The hare gets away, in case you were wondering; the hunters give up, go off to the pub and drink her health (hares are always female). Happy ending!)

My advice? Bearing in mind my own strictures on people who accentuate the negative, let me just say that an EP consisting of the six tracks listed in the previous paragraph would be worth a tenner of anyone’s money. (It would also have a much more cohesive sound and feel than the full album. Just saying.) All that and another nine tracks, several of which are thoroughly listenable (I am available for ads and poster campaigns), and some of which you’ll probably like more than I did. Yours for £10 from Folk Police.

When it was released last year, every review of King Creosote and Jon Hopkins’ Diamond Mine seemed to include the word ‘folk'; one even described the songs as ‘typical folk songs’. This sparked off the original idea for this post, which was going to set Diamond Mine alongside John Kelly’s album and perhaps one of the Folk Police ones, with a view to working out what ‘folk’ meant in this context.

Then I forgot all about it, and ended up writing a review of eight different albums without even mentioning this one.

First things first: the first song on this album genuinely sounds as if it could be a traditional song, or at least a song written in the neighbourhood of traditional songs. At least, it does to begin with:

Today John Taylor starts his month away
On a boat 110 miles East of Aberdeen
A dozen men, thirty days with 24 hours in each
Of shattered boyhood dreams and not much sleep

I’d much rather be me.

No! Tell us about John Taylor! Tell us about the life of a North Sea fisherman! Don’t tell us how you feel about it all – why would anyone care how you feel about it all, especially when all you can think of to say is that you’re glad it’s not you? We know that already – that’s practically the entire point of telling us about a hard life like John Taylor’s, to sympathise with him, praise his fortitude and endurance, and thank the Lord it’s him going out there and not us. “I’d much rather be me” – is that it? Is that the depth of your imaginative identification? What a falling-off – a verse and a chorus and we’re out of Shoals of Herring territory and into me-me-me. Bloody singer-songwriters…

Such were the thoughts that went through my head, particularly when KC got through the second verse and embarked on a ruminative section built on the tried and tested “I’d much rather be me”.

Hey ho. There are seven tracks on this album: an opening instrumental, John Taylor’s Month Away, then four deeply personal songs written in chains of semi-private semi-metaphor (“For after our accident we lost our no claims/And now I hate those pastel shades”). The last song, closing the album, is the shortest and simplest, and perhaps the best:

It’s your young voice that’s keeping me holding on
To my dull life, to my dull life

Beautiful and affecting. And this is, above all else, a beautiful album. KC’s voice is the voice of an angel, and Jon Hopkins’s arrangements and production are elegant and sometimes startlingly inventive. (My Blackwaterside is heavily influenced by the production of Your Young Voice.) The whole album has a still, untroubled atmosphere; songs emerge from the hush and gradually merge back into it. But the songs themselves – wordy, playful, always spoken by an “I”, always addressed to “you” – have more in common with the songs on the Magnetic Fields album than with any of the traditional songs I’ve mentioned. (The situations in the Magnetic Fields songs are fictionalised vignettes described straight, in the show-tune style; the KC songs take real situations and describe them opaquely, in the singer-songwriter style. But the two forms are very closely related: they’re both about revealing while not revealing, and in both cases what’s being revealed and not revealed is an emotion felt by the writer.)

Interviewed in 2008, James Yorkston disclaimed the label of ‘folk’ for his own work:

Folk is a word that means something different to practically everyone you ask, from the music in the fields passed down from mouth to ear to all the different music that’s out there. For me the word “folk” has always meant traditional folk so for me the word “folk” doesn’t describe what I do because I write pop songs, even though they’re not very popular. One may say it’s folk and that’s one’s opinion and that’s fine but it’s not my opinion, folk has always meant traditional folk. It’s not a big thing, it’s not a war cry or anything.

To put it another way, if Diamond Mine is folk, then ‘folk’ means two completely separate things. It’s simpler and more straightforward, surely, to say that KC also writes pop songs, even though they’re not very popular. Still – nice album.

So, to sum up, “Buy my mate’s records.”
– Not entirely! Four of these nine albums are on the Folk Police label (and I paid for all of them except Weirdlore). Hand on heart, the Woodbine and Ivy Band and Rapunzel & Sedayne CDs are great albums; the other two I didn’t rave about particularly. The one album you should get before any of the others is John Kelly’s.

He’s not a mate as well, by any chance?
– Well, I know him to talk to. I’m more of a fan.

While we’re doing Qs and As, what’s so great about all this traditional stuff anyway?
– I always say it’s the words, which may explain how I can rave about John Kelly and Stephin Merritt in the same post. Listening back to some of these songs, it occurred to me that that’s literally true – often what anchors a song in my mind is a single word, usually one that’s not quite right. Boney’s Lamentation: “We marched them forth in inveterate streams“. Inveterate streams! The Innocent Hare: “Relope, relope, retiring hare!” Relope! More generally, what you get quite consistently in traditional songs is turns of phrase which snag in your mind because they’re just rhythmically and musically perfect. The Innocent Hare is full of them; a favourite of mine is “Go tell your sweet lover the hounds are out”. Why ‘sweet’? Why does ‘sweet’ make it such a good line? Lines like this have been polished through repetition and re-remembering over the years – polished till the pebbles shine.

The songs aren’t all that great, though. And they haven’t all been preserved through oral transmission for any length of time, for that matter.
– Everyone’s a musicologist all of a sudden.

No need to get narky. I’m arguing with myself, remember.
– I’m hardly likely to forget.

Yes, well.
– Moving along. There’s obviously something about the impersonality of traditional songs – the way that they’re not in the singer-songwriter style – that appeals to me. This may not apply to anyone else, but then again it may: I suspect that once you’ve got the taste you never quite go back. But I think what I really love about folk music is that it’s a participative art form, based on a collective sharing of the material: Jo Freya sang William Taylor, so did John Kelly and so have I. They’re totally different renderings – they even have different words and tunes to some extent – but it’s the same song. And the song’s still there for the next singer to pick up. That’s the real point of all those asterisked links up there; they’re not (just) a cheeky attempt to drive traffic to my 52 Folk Songs site. Everyone can contribute; everyone can do the very same songs. Folk is really unusual in this respect. When singers contribute to an album of songs by Leonard Cohen, you get a Leonard Cohen tribute album. When singers contribute to an album of traditional songs, you get a folk album.

And what do you get when one person records a traditional song every week for a year?

52 Folk Songs, of course. Six download albums are now available, with two more to come; some of them are quite good and all of them are remarkably cheap.

Moving along… Final question: why now?
– The idea for this post has been buzzing around for a while, which is probably why it’s ended up being so long. It had to be written now because I’ve just succeeded in tracking down a copy of the Magnetic Fields’ monumental triple album 69 Love Songs – in name at least, a definite influence on my own project – and expect to be immersed in it for some time. Which means it’s going to be Goodbye, Piccadilly, farewell, Leicester bloody Square on the trad front for a while.

You think it’s going to be good, then?
– I already know five of the 69 songs, and three out of those five are among my favourite songs in the world. I think it’s going to be good.

– Or too much.

Come write me down

There’s a particular form of serendipity that comes from learning something in one area which resolves a puzzle, or fills a gap in your thinking, in another area entirely. It’s all the more serendipitous – and pleasant – if you didn’t realise the gap was there.

This line of thought was prompted by this piece on the excellent FactCheck blog, which made me realise that I’d always been a bit dubious about the notion of “policy-based evidence”. OK, it’s a neat reversal – and all too often people who say they’re making evidence-based policy are doing nothing of the sort – but is the alternative really policy-based evidence? Doesn’t that amount to accusing them of just making it up?

Thanks to Cathy Newman at FactCheck, I realise now that I was looking at this question the wrong way. Actually “policy-based evidence” means something quite specific, and it hasn’t (necessarily) got anything to do with outright fraud. Watch closely:

Iain Duncan Smith has been celebrating the government’s benefits cap. Part of the welfare reform bill, state handouts will be capped at £26,000 a year so that “no family on benefits will earn more than the average salary of a working family,” i.e. £35,000 a year before tax.

Today, the work and pensions secretary was delighted to cite figures released by his department which he said were evidence that the policy is already driving people back into work. Of 58,000 claimants sent a letter saying their benefits were to be capped, 1,700 subsequently moved into work. Another 5,000 said they wanted support to get back into work, according to the figures.

OK, this is fairly simplistic thinking – We did a new thing! Something happened! Our thing worked! – but it’s something like a legitimate way to analyse what’s going on, surely. It may need more sophisticated handling, but the evidence is there, isn’t it?

Well, no, it isn’t.

In order to know how effective the policy had been, we would need to know the rate at which people on benefits worth more than £26,000 went into work before the letter announcing the changes was sent, and compare it to after the letter was received. But those figures aren’t available.

“[These figures do] not reveal the effect of the policy,” Robert Joyce, senior researcher at the Institute for Fiscal Studies told us. Mr Joyce went on: “Indeed, this number is consistent with the policy having had no effect at all. Over any period, some fraction of an unemployed group will probably move into work, regardless of whether a benefits cap is about to be implemented. The number of people who moved into work as a result of the policy is 1,700 minus the number of people who would have moved into work anyway. We do not know the latter number, so we do not know the effect of the policy.”

The number of people, in a given group of claimants, who signed off over a given period is data. Collecting data is the easy part: take five minutes and you can do it now if you like. (Number of objects on your desk: data. Number of stationary cars visible from your window: data. Number of heartbeats in five minutes: data.) It’s only when the data’s been analysed – it’s only when we’ve compared the data with other conditions, compared variations in the data with variations in those conditions and eliminated chance fluctuations – that data turns into evidence. The number of people who moved into work as a result of the policy is 1,700 minus the number of people who would have moved into work anyway: that number would be evidence, if we had it (or had reliable means of estimating it). The figure of 1,700 is data.

One final quote:

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “The Secretary of State believes that the benefits cap is having an effect.”

Et voilà: policy-based evidence.

A man he may grow

Michael Rosen’s written a long and thoughtful piece about his experience of the grammar school system in the 1950s. I don’t know if it’s going to appear in print or on a higher-profile blog, but at the moment it’s just a post on his own blog – and he’s such a prolific poster that it’s going to roll off the bottom of the front page at any moment.

So catch it while you can – it’s a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the debate around grammar schools, or interested in debates about selective education, or secondary education in general. And anyone who’s got kids at school, has kids at school or is ever likely to. And anyone who went to a grammar school, or a selective school, or a comprehensive, or a secondary modern… Basically, you should read this.

It rings so many bells, both positively and negatively (really? we didn’t do that) that I’m tempted to live-blog my reactions to it, but that would be rather self-indulgent. I’ll just mention one small detail of Rosen’s story. He mentions that he was born in 1946, his mother’s second son, and that she died in 1976, aged 55. My own mother had her 55th birthday in 1976; I had my 16th. The coincidence of one date, and the differences of the others, raise all sorts of questions. I can’t begin to imagine my life if my mother had died in her 50s; it was hard enough when it did happen, thirty years later. Then: is it easier for an adult to lose a parent who dies relatively young? Then: easier than what?

But back to school, and a detail of Rosen’s story that sparked off a problem-solving train of thought. He writes:

the pass rate for the 11-plus wasn’t the same for boys and girls and it wasn’t the same from area to area. That’s to say, it panned out at the time that girls were generally better than boys at passing this exam. However, the places for boys and girls was split evenly between us. Somehow or another they engineered what was in reality something like a 55-45% split into a 50-50% cent split. Clearly, some five per cent of girls were serious losers in this and some five per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

But that last sentence can’t be right.

Say for the sake of simplicity that the children taking the test were evenly divided between boys and girls, rather than being 49:51 or 48:52. Then we want to know how many kids passed, and then how many were pushed up or down to even up the figures. Another thing I learned from Rosen’s post is that the pass rate varied from region to region(!), depending on the availability of grammar school places(!!), but let’s forget that for the moment and assume that about one in five passed the 11-plus (in fact the proportion ranged from 30% down to 10%).

So we’ve got, oh, let’s say 10,000 kids, made up of 5,000 boys and 5,000 girls, and 2,000 of them are going to Grammar School, the lucky so-and-so’s. Now, 55% of those 2,000 – 1,100 – are girls, and only 900 are boys. So we need to balance things up, and we skim off the dimmest 100 girls who passed and promote the brightest 100 boys who didn’t (each and every one of whom is officially less bright, and hence less able to benefit from grammar school, than the 100 girls we’ve just sent to the secondary mod, but we avert our eyes at this point).

So that’s 5% of girls demoted, 5% of boys promoted? No – it’s 100/5000, or 2%. When you massage that 55% down to 50%, the 5% that’s lost is 5% of the cohort that passed the exam (male and female), not of the girls (passed and failed). You could also say that the really serious losers – the ones who have been unfairly discriminated against even by the system’s own standards – are 100 out of the 1,100 girls who passed: roughly 9.1%. The serious gainers, on the other hand, are 100 out of the 4,100 boys who failed, roughly (reaches for calculator) 2.4%.

So there you go: applied maths for real-world problem-solving.

Clearly, some two per cent of girls (or nine per cent of the girls who passed the exam) were serious losers in this and some two per cent of boys some kind of gainers – at least as far as the system thought of us.

At which point I feel a bit like Babbage correcting Tennyson, but it’s right, dammit. And besides, without the maths I wouldn’t have arrived at the figure of nine per cent – for the girls who passed the eleven-plus but were artificially failed to even up the numbers – which is pretty shocking.

You divers bold

Here’s my version of Child ballad #68, variously known as “Young Hunting”, “Young Redin” and “Earl Richard”. It’s one of the strangest stories in a collection that has plenty of them. It’s not so much the supernatural elements which make it unusual as the fact that they’re essential to the resolution of the plot – a plot which is about a rather sordid murder case.

My text comes mostly from the version recorded by Tony Rose, who credited it to a folk singer called Pete Nalder. On looking at the original in Child’s collection (which is online) it turns out that Nalder did an extraordinary job piecing together a coherent song out of a disparate and fragmentary set of texts. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I’ve gone back to Child and tweaked it some more.

Here’s Nalder’s text and my text, and some notes on where it all comes from. Child has eleven versions, lettered A to K. Three of them – G, H and I – are short fragments; of the other eight, A and J tell a slightly different story, while D, E and F end (or break off) part way through. (It’s version 68F, more or less, that was later collected as “Earl Richard”; it’s been recorded by Spiers and Boden, among others.) B, C and K all tell the whole story. What Pete Nalder seems to have done, as you’ll see below, is to piece together a complete song from at least five different versions, probably B-E and J. For myself I either used or modified every verse of Nalder’s version except one (verse 13, the one with the “heavy smell”). I added three verses, all corresponding to verses in versions C and D. Like Nalder, I ended up using something from all of versions B, C, D, E and J.

A blank in Nalder’s column means I’ve added a verse; a blank in my column means I kept Nalder’s verse.

Pete Nalder Phil Edwards Child source
Title: Young Hunting Title: Earl Richard Young Hunting: A, K
Earl Richard: D, F, G
As she was a-walking all alone
Down in a leafy wood
She has heard the sound of a bridle rein
And she hoped that it might be for good.
The lady stood in her bower door
In her bower door she stood
She heard the sound of a bridle rein
And she hoped that it might be for good.
C, E, K
“Bower”: C
“Wood”: E
She thought it was her father dear
Come riding over the land
But it was her true love Earl Richard
Came riding to her right hand.
C (Note 1)
“Come down, come down, you fine young man,
You’re welcome home to me,
To my cosy bed and the charcoal red
And the candles that burns so free.”
“Come down, come down, young Earl Richard,
You’re welcome home to me,
To my cosy bed and the charcoal red
And the candles that burns so free.”
B-F, K
“stay the night”: B, C, F, K
“O I can’t come down and I won’t come down
Nor come into your arms at all
For a finer girl than ten of you
Is a-waiting beneath the town wall.”
B-F, K
“come into your arms”: E
“Oh well, a finer girl than ten of me
I wonder now how that might be?
For a finer girl than ten of me
I’m sure that you never did see.”
C, E
Then he has leaned him across his saddle
For a kiss before they did part,
And she has taken a keen, long knife
And she’s stabbed him to the heart.
Saying, “Lie there, lie there, you fine young man
Until the flesh it rots from your bones
And that finer girl than ten of me
Can weary wait in alone.”
Saying, “Lie there, lie there, young Earl Richard,
Until the flesh it rots from your bones
And that finer girl than ten of me
Can wearily wait alone.”
“Until the flesh it rots”: from Young Henry, a later American version
(D has “till the blood seeps from your bone”)
But as she walked up on the high highway
She’s spied a little bird up in a tree,
Saying, “O how could you kill that fine young man
As he was a-kissing of thee?”
 C-E, G, J
“Come down, come down, you pretty little bird
And sit upon my right knee,
And your cage shall be made of the glittering gold
And the spokes of the best ivory.”
 A-G, I-K
“I can’t come down and I won’t come down
Nor sit upon your right knee,
For as you did serve that fine young man
I know that you would serve me.”
 A-G, I-K
“O then I wish I had my bended bow
And my arrow close to my knee.
I would fire a dart that would pierce your heart
As you sit there a-piping on that tree.”
 D, F, I
“Ah, but you’ve not got your bended bow
And nor your arrows close to your knee.
So I’ll fly across the sea to that young man’s home
And I’ll tell them what I did see.”
“Ah, but you’ve not got your bended bow
Nor your arrows close to your knee.
So I’ll fly away to that young man’s home
And I’ll tell them what I did see.”
D, I
So she’s gone back to her own house
And she’s crossed the threshold with a moan,
And she has taken that fine young man
And she’s walled him behind a stone.
So she’s gone back to her own house
And she’s crossed the threshold with a moan,
And she has taken young Earl Richard
And she’s laid him upon a stone.
E (Note 2)
And she has kept that fine young man
For full three-quarters of a year
Till a heavy smell it began to spread
And it filled her heart with fear.
 Verse omitted E (Note 3)
So she’s called unto the servant girl
And this to her did say:
“There is a fine and a young man in my room
But it’s time that he was away.”
She’s called to her servant girl
And unto her did say:
“There is a fine and a young man in my room
But it’s time that he was away.”
B, D, F and J all have “there’s a dead man in my room”,
which is a bit less effective
So the one of them’s took him by the shoulders,
And the other one’s took him by the feet
And they’ve thrown his body in the River Clyde
That runs so clear and so sweet.
Body in the Clyde: A-C, H, J, K
Head and feet: E
Hands and feet: F
And the deepest spot in Clyde’s water
It’s there they’ve thrown Earl Richard in
And they laid a turf on his breast-bone
To hold his body down.
Deepest part of the river: A-C, K
Turf: A, K (Note 4)
And they had not crossed a rig of land,
A rig but barely one,
Before they saw his old father coming
A-riding all along.
D, J (“rig of land” only in J)
“O where you’ve been, my gay lady?
And where have you been so late?
For we’ve come a-seeking for my only son
Who used to visit your gate.”
“O where you’ve been, my gay lady?
And where have you been so late?
For I’ve come a-seeking for my eldest son
Who used to visit your gate.”
D, J
And there came a-seeking for this fine young man
Many lords and many knights.
And there came a-weeping for this fine young man
Full many’s the lady bright.
And there came a-seeking for young Earl Richard
Many lords and many knights.
And there came a-weeping for young Earl Richard
Full many’s the lady bright.
Now the ladies turned them around and about
And they made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “We greatly fear that your son is dead
And he lies ‘neath the water and drowned.”
And the lady turned around and about
And she swore by sun and moon
Saying, “I never saw your son Earl Richard
Since yesterday morning at noon.”
A, J; G and K have the swearing but not the turning around (Note 5)
“I fear, I fear the Clyde’s waters
That run so swift and so deep
I fear, I fear your son has drowned
And under Clyde’s waters he does sleep.”
A, D, J (Note 6)
“So, who will dive from either bank
For gold and for fee?”
And the young men dived from either bank
But his body they could not see.
J; A and K have the unsuccessful diving but not the offer of gold
Then up and speaks that pretty little bird
A-sitting up high in the tree,
Saying, “O cease your diving, you divers bold,
For I’d have you to listen to me.”
 A, C, H, J, K
“And I’d have you to cease your day diving
And dive all into the night.
For under the water where his body lies
The candles they burn so bright.”
 A, C, H, J, K
So the divers ceased their day diving
And they dived all into the night.
And under the water where his body lay,
The candles they burned so bright.
 A, C, J, K
And they have raised his body up
From out the deepest part,
And they’ve seen the wound deep into his chest
And the turf all across his heart.
And they have raised Earl Richard up
From out the deepest part,
And they’ve seen the wound deep into his chest
And the turf all across his heart.
 A, J
And when his father did see this dreadful wound
He made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “O who has killed my only son
Who used to follow my hounds?”
And when his father did see this dreadful wound
He made such a mournful sound,
Saying, “Oh, who has killed my eldest son
Who held my hawk and hound?”
 J (Note 7)
Then up and speaks the pretty little bird,
Saying, “What needs all this din?
For it was his light leman took his life
And then threw his body in.”
Then up and spoke the pretty little bird,
Saying, “What needs all this din?
For it was his true love took his life
And then threw his body in.”
“O blame not me,” the lady says,
“For it was the servant girl.”
So they built a fire of the oak and ash
And they put that servant girl in.
A, B, J
But the fire wouldn’t take upon her cheek
And the fire wouldn’t take upon her chin,
And nor would it take upon her hair
For she was free from the sin.
A, J; similar to B, C and H (Note 8)
And when the servant girl touched the clay cold corpse,
A drop it never bled.
But when the lady laid her hand upon it
The ground was soon covered with red.
B, C, J (phrasing from J)
So they’ve taken out the servant girl
And they’ve put the lady in.
And the fire it reached a ruddy red,
And all because of her sin.
A, B, J (Note 9)
And the fire took fast upon her cheek,
And the fire took fast upon her chin,
And it sang in the points of her yellow hair,
And ’twas all because of her sin.
A, B, J, K (third line from K)


  1. Nalder presents the key meeting as a chance encounter, making the lady’s violence seem more than usually excessive. Most Child versions have the victim as the lady’s “true love”.
  2. I felt all right about changing this, since in Child the lady doesn’t put the body either on or behind a stone. There is a stone in version E, but it’s her doorstep; it’s only really there for a rhyme.
  3. The nine-month time lag only appears in version E; I thought the song worked better if it was all happening in the same time frame. The ‘heavy smell’ was Nalder’s invention (in version E word begins to spread, which is a bit different). I don’t think it was a great idea – it’s bound to break the mood.
  4. I put this back in to prepare for the discovery of the tell-tale turf on the body when it’s brought to the surface.
  5. Child has the (guilty) ‘lady’ turning around and about and swearing (in versions A and J), not the ‘ladies’ (who only appear in version B). This was another case where I thought Nalder’s change worked less well than the source.
  6. The second half of this verse is my addition. I was pleased with the parallelism, although I’ve realised since that it’s not a true parallel (“I fear the waters” vs “I fear that your son is dead”).
  7. “Held my hawk and my hound” is straight from version J; I preferred it to “used to follow my hounds”, which conjures up images of the father as an MFH. On the other hand, both the original and Nalder’s version definitely have “only son”, not “eldest son”; it just came out like that, m’lud.
  8. Versions B, C and H are a bit nastier and more judgmental – they specify that it was only the servant’s hands that were burned by the fire, since she (or in version H he) had used them to help cover up the murder. Version B has an even more discriminating fire – it won’t burn the lady’s cheek and chin either, but only the “false arms” that had previously held the victim (which seems a bit harsh, considering that the story starts with him dumping her).
  9. The fire flaring up is a great detail, but it’s not in Child. In several versions the last couple of verses are longer than the rest, as the ballad writer tries to get more information in while keeping to the basic structure of one idea to each verse; I think Nalder made the right move by splitting this last verse in two, even though it means introducing another idea.

So that’s the work that goes on, or can go on, when you get a folk song out of a Child ballad; June Tabor did something similar when she turned Jamie Douglas (Child 204) into her song Waly Waly. When you look at the source, not one of Child’s recorded variants makes as good a song as Nalder’s composite version, and some of them are so fragmentary as to be unsingable. For instance, here’s version I in its entirety:

‘Come down, come down, thou bonnie bird,
Sit low upon my hand,
And thy cage shall be o the beaten gowd,
And not of hazel wand.’

‘O woe, O woe be to thee, lady,
And an ill death may thou die!
For the way thou guided good Lord John,
Soon, soon would thou guide me.’

‘Go bend to me my bow,’ she said,
‘And set it to my ee,
And I will gar that bonnie bird
Come quickly down to me.’

‘Before thou bend thy bow, lady,
And set it to thy ee,
O I will be at yon far forest,
Telling ill tales on thee.’

That’s your lot. Admittedly that’s an extreme example, but the only versions without any gaps are J and K, which miss out a lot of the early part of the story told by versions A-E.

I think what this brings home to me is just how hard it is to sustain one of the recurring myths of folk music – that it is (or ought to be) Folk Music, the music of the people; that revivalists are simply reviving songs that have fallen into disuse for a couple of decades or centuries, ultimately with a view to taking them back to the people who let them slip in the first place. If you want a singable version of Child 68, you can’t just pick up the text. (There’s also the unavoidable fact that the song in all its versions is written in Scots rather than English, although clearly that won’t be so much of an issue for some singers.) And picking up a text and working with it is what you do with any traditional song – whether it’s a Child ballad, a song that Cecil Sharp collected from a farmworker in 1904, or an unknown song that you’ve just found in a collection of Victorian broadsides.

I’m coming round to the view that folk music is essentially a bank of songs or a repertoire. A broadside, a Child ballad, a song collected from a farm labourer or a Traveller: these are all traditional songs, because they’re all from the accumulated traditional repertoire. And they’re still traditional songs – they’re still part of that repertoire – no matter how you piece the text together and no matter how you perform it.

Folk music as a body of songs is more or less complete, on this reckoning; there aren’t any folk songs being written, more or less by definition. Nor are the Beatles, Arctic Monkeys, Take That or whoever “the folk songs of the future”: there will be no folk songs of the future, because the traditional repertoire isn’t being laid down any more. But it’s there, and it’s big, and it’s a damn good repertoire.

This is what differentiates folk from popular music – but, intriguingly, brings it closer to classical music. When a folk audience hears a song like this one

they will already know it. That’s true for scores if not hundreds of songs, and for the real standards (like this one) it’s an understatement: they’ll know it inside out. They’ll know every word of the song and every note of the tune, and they’ll have heard it sung by several different people (at least seven in my case). What you’re listening to isn’t the song, it’s what the singer does with it. And a folk singer isn’t a folk prophet or a tribune of the people; just a specialist in a particular body of words and music. That’s good enough for me.

Dear Mr Echo

The council are consulting on the future of our local library and leisure centre. I say “library and leisure centre”, and that seems to be what we’re likely to end up with, but they’re currently two separate things; the library, in fact, is a Carnegie library, built before the First World War with money from the great American Republican philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. (Republicans were different then.) And I say “consulting”, but they’re doing it in their own particular way: they state that they’ve identified the three key priorities in libraries’n’leisure, and then ask if we’ve got anything we’d like to add.

The key priorities are:

  1. Facilities should be sited whenever possible in community hubs tailored to the specific needs and requirements of the surrounding neighbourhoods, where residents can access activities, information and advice and use self-service in one place.
  2. The Council should continue to work with commercial partners and external funding bodies to provide new facilities with the aim of improving customer satisfaction levels and reducing running costs.
  3. All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute walk, cycle ride or public transport journey of a high-quality swimming pool.

Auf Englisch:

  1. Facilities should be sited … in community hubs … activities, information and advice … in one place.
  2. The Council should … work with commercial partners and external funding bodies … with the aim of … reducing running costs.
  3. All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute … journey of a high-quality swimming pool.

In descending order of enthusiasm, I’m at best neutral about #3; it smacks of drawing circles on a map around three or four shiny new High-Quality Pools and closing the rest. I suspect that all Manchester residents do already live in reasonably easy reach of at least a ratty old local pool, and I suspect more people get more use out of pools that way. I’m suspicious of #1, particularly when the ‘facilities’ we’re talking about are (a) leisure centres featuring a swimming pool and (b) libraries – I can’t see any benefit to anyone in having a swimming-pool in a library, or vice versa. (Has somebody misread Alan Hollingshurst?) As for #2, no, I don’t believe that this is what the council should do; in fact, I think this just what the council should not do. This is a simple case of robbing Peter to pay Paul: the only way that running costs can be reduced (while also making a profit for those “commercial partners”) is by finding the money from somewhere else, by making users pay a bit more on the door or by driving down salaries and service levels. You’d end up, all being well, with a lower council tax, higher per-usage charges and lower salaries, and with profits being taken out of the system – all of which is, of course, the precise opposite of the principles on which council-funded services were set up in the first place.

But there wasn’t a box for that. So I contented myself by adding a fourth priority

All Manchester City Council residents should live within a 20-minute walk, cycle ride or public transport journey of a high-quality library.

Curious omission, that one.

There was also some stuff about what we’d like to see in our shiny new leisure centre (didn’t answer, never go) and what we’d like to see in our shiny new library (I carefully ticked everything that you can only do in a library – see below – and left everything else blank). Then I completed the demographic information at the end, which seemed more like owning-up than usual (Oh, OK, it’s just another Guardian-reader…). And now they’ve consulted me.

There are also proposals – or advance warnings – for what’s going to happen to the Central Library, which has been closed for refurbishment for a couple of years. Things don’t look quite as bad as Jamie suggested – it will be a library, with books – but I think he was right to be suspicious. Highlights:

New ideas, new technology and new storage methods mean we can accommodate a better, more modern library service and accommodate partner organisations, but still streamline and open up spaces, making a feature of this building’s impressive architecture.

We don’t want the new library to just be a place where you come if you have an essay to write. We want you to relax there, meet your friends, drink coffee, enjoy performances, go online or just browse for a few impulse take-home treats. We want you to consider the Central Library home-from-home, open for longer and open for everyone.

They’ve been talking for some time about doing something new and different (but library-based) with the Town Hall Extension. It turns out that the Town Hall Extension will house the extended Central Library (not to be confused with the Central Library, which will be in another building). The extended Central Library will offer… oh, everything. Well, nearly everything.

The extended Central Library will be integrated with a customer service centre providing a one stop shop front for Council services. Open for longer than ever before; the library will be packed with all the things you like best, from best-sellers to DVDs, music and computers. There’ll be something on our shelves for every taste.

This is where new technology will really play its part in making the library more convenient than it’s ever been. You’ll be able to browse online, then call to pick up what you’ve chosen, then issue it yourself with your library card. You’ll be able to download e-books and audio books from home or in the library.

Everyone will find a niche in the extended Central Library, there’ll be songs and stories for little ones in a bright and exciting children’s zone; young people will have a place of their own with computers for school or for gaming, plus books and study support. There’ll be a decent latte in the café and a comfy place to sit while you sip it. We’ll have quiet places and noisy places, you simply choose where you want to be that day. New layouts and technology will enable all types of visit, from groups working collaboratively on projects through to those who want to read the paper in peace.

To sum up:

In the past, libraries were all about books. Now they’re about people.

I responded to the consultation… no I didn’t, there wasn’t one. All of this is coming, ready or not – “quiet places and noisy places”, “partner organisations” and all. But the City Council’s Web pages all have a little “Was this information helpful?” feedback widget, like so:

So I left a comment there. I don’t know if anyone will ever read it, but you never know. It’s just a grumpy pushback, but sometimes a grumpy pushback is all there is to do. Here’s what I wrote:

Perhaps that last paragraph was meant to be provocative. If so, it’s succeeded.

What is the one thing that you can find in libraries and nowhere else? Books. Physical books, to search or browse through at random; books you’ve heard of but never seen, books you never knew existed, books you always wanted to read, books you never knew you wanted to read. Books that can be borrowed at no charge. Books, and lots of them.

A library is a place of discovery: it’s not a place to go for something you already want, it’s a place to go to find out what you want. And I know this may sound boring – I sometimes think the definition of a librarian is somebody who’s bored with books – but shelves of books do that job better than anything else. All that information, all those ideas, all those stories, packed into an object that fits into your pocket – and next to it, another one, and another, and another.

There’s no better aid to literacy – at any age, but especially for kids – than shelves of books, freely accessible, not being pushed at you by educational diktat or marketing hype, just sitting there waiting to be picked up and read. There are only two places in the world that can offer that, particularly to a child; one of them is a home well supplied with books, and most kids don’t have one of those. The other is a library. Turn a library into a cool multi-media meeting-place that isn’t “all about books” and you destroy the library.

Manchester City Council is one of those councils that were so Labour in the 80s that they effectively had a (right-wing, old-school) Labour council and a (left-wing) Labour opposition. The latter eventually took over, and they’ve been running on self-congratulation and a vague sense of shiny new radicalism ever since. Essentially they were New Labour avant la lettre, and they’re still New Labour now. And they’re still in charge.

It’s over there, it’s over there

I’m slightly long-sighted; I prefer to have the screen a good long way away from me when I’m working. Flat screens and compact keyboards make this more feasible than ever before. Unfortunately this also opens up large expanses of empty desk space, and you know what they say – nature abhors empty desk space.

I was looking for my library card just now – not my work library card or my main library card, but the card for the libraries in the next council area along, and not the actual card but a little dog-tag thing they gave me with my number printed on it; I’m sure I last saw it on my desk. (I wanted it because I’d cleared my browser history a week or so ago, in a vain attempt to get my bank’s online system to do what they said it should be doing, and it wiped my login for the OED online. Did you know you can log in to the OED online with a library card? The actual OED, online – check it out.)

Anyway, I can’t see the dog-tag thing. What I can see, working roughly from right to left, is:

seven ink cartridges (various colours)
a 1 TB external drive, sitting on top of a seemingly identical 500 GB drive
two identical beany cats, sitting on top of the 1 TB drive
a camera (my son’s)
a watch (my wife’s)
a rubber (my daughter’s)
two cork-backed coasters promoting Caraca Cane Beer
a small cube of blu-tack
a pencil
four pens
a wireless mouse
a keyboard (viz. the one I’m using)
a two-level desk tray (don’t ask me what’s in it, we’d be here all day)
a beermat promoting a local beer festival
a Woodbine and Ivy Band badge
an onyx egg
an E-topup card for my phone (never used, no idea what it’s doing on my desk)
the security code for my wireless network, printed out in case I ever need to key it in again
a friend’s address
a screen (the one I’m looking at)
the stylish black screen cloth supplied with the Mac, draped over the iSight lens (I’m assured by those who know that there is no possibility of the iSight activating without me knowing about it, but I still prefer to keep it covered)
a small papier-mache capybara, perched on the screen cloth
a wired mouse, kept handy for when the batteries in the wireless ditto run down
a post-it note with some indecipherable notes in my son’s writing
an ornamental dragon and a pair of chopsticks, brought back by my son from his trip to China
a fortune-cookie motto (“When winter comes Heaven will rain success on you”), acquired in January 2011 and subsequently disproved
a headphone adaptor
two watch batteries
an MP3 player
a sandstone cat (bought many years ago, originally intended as a present for my mother but never given to her)
a papier-mache ornament consisting of two human-looking cats sitting on a sofa (a present from my daughter)
two different USB leads
three memory sticks
the screw-on handle for a digital recorder
another pencil
two pairs of in-ear headphones
two paperclips
a card-reader (from the bank)
a page-a-day Countdown calendar
several old pages from page-a-day Countdown calendars, for when I feel the need of a nine-letter anagram to solve (this rarely happens)
two rubber bands
a ‘medal’ awarded to my team for coming second in a local treasure hunt
a handwritten copy of the code for my wireless network
most of a bar of ‘espresso chocolate’ which tasted like it had chilli in (put to one side until I worked out whether this was normal)
a wireless router (with, may I stress this, nothing on top of it)
a tin of paperclips
an SD card (unused)
one of those little plastic bags with two buttons in that you get with a new jacket (jacket unidentified)
some very small post-it notes
a six-inch ruler (not mine)
four more beermats (awaiting conversion to two double-sided coasters)
a round wooden pot with a perpetual calendar set into the lid
a digital recorder
a recorder (the instrument)
a high G whistle
a D whistle and a C whistle, in a cloth bag
three more D whistles (on loan from a friend); there’s usually another one as well, which is the one I actually play
two plastic rods for cleaning recorders
another pen
a small plastic bag containing a zither tuning key, a length of wire and two plectrums
a printer
a box full of assorted software and PC games, sitting on top of the printer
several more PC games, sitting on top of the box
an AAA battery
another paperclip
an Arctic Monkeys badge
a pile of books and papers (mostly either work- or folk-related, although for some reason the book at the bottom of the pile is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)
a book of folk songs
a CAMRA membership pack (wonder what’s actually in there? I’ve spent all the JDW’s tokens, I do know that)
an Olympics brochure
another pile of books and papers (almost all work-related, although for some reason the book at the top of the pile is Tom Phillips’ A Humument)

My desk, in short, has every convenience; it’s going to make life easy for me. Hardly any clutter at all.

Wish I knew what I’d done with that library card, though.

Update 18th May
Obviously(?) there’s no great significance to this post, which I wrote mainly so as to get posting here again (and partly to shame myself into tidying my desk a bit). But there is one odd fact to report. There’s one object which I didn’t include on the list, even when I read it through after publishing it and made a couple of additions for the sake of completeness (they were “another pencil” and “another paperclip”, just to illustrate the level of completeness we’re talking about). It wasn’t lurking in a corner, either; it was sitting straight ahead of me, front and centre, between the Countdown calendar and the two USB leads.

It’s a wristwatch; it’s stopped working, which is why it’s on the desk (along with the two watch batteries, one of which I’d bought as a replacement). It’s not just any wristwatch, either; it’s my father’s old watch, handed down to me after he died. My father was bedridden for several months at the end; in fact he was in a hospital bed, which my mother had installed in their bedroom so that she could carry on looking after him. Apart from books, my father didn’t have that many personal possessions when he died; most of his clothes had already been given away, partly because he didn’t need to get dressed any more but mainly because the bed took up so much space that the wardrobe in the bedroom had to go. The books, for their part, stayed where they were until my mother died a few years later. So this watch is one of the few things that I (or anyone) can point to and say, that was his. (Another is his desk – which is an old-style drop-front bureau, and for that reason alone was never cluttered; my son uses it for his homework now.) I wasn’t particularly fond of my Dad’s watch; it’s got a metal bracelet, which I don’t like, and my father had only got it relatively recently, so it didn’t have any history for me. I had to be persuaded to take it when he died; I’m glad I did, though.

This was only my third watch; the second, which I’d had since I was 15, was a mechanical watch (they all were then) which I’d bought from an offer on a box of cornflakes, of all places. It was my father who brought it to my attention and lent me the money – it was about £7, as I remember, which was quite a lot for the mid-70s but well worth it. (I’ve still got it, but after two big repairs, several new glasses and uncountable replacement straps it reached a point where the next repair would cost more than it was worth.) All of which means that the watch I’m wearing – bought at the age of 51 – is the first I’ve ever owned which hasn’t had strong associations with my father.

I’ve been wondering what to do with my father’s watch now that it’s packed up; it’s not going out with the rubbish, for obvious reasons, but it can’t sit on my desk forever (despite some evidence to the contrary). I’ll probably find where I’ve put my (maternal) grandfather’s fob-watch – which was also informally handed down by my mother – and put it with that.

It was an odd thing to leave out, really.

I don’t remember Guildford

It’s Edward Lear’s bicentennial this year. I’ve always had a fondness for Lear. I grew up reading his poems; the Complete Nonsense was one of the first books I read cover to cover, and almost certainly the first book of poetry. It paid off; when I took the Cambridge entrance exam – back when you could get into Cambridge by putting on a performance in the entrance exam – I answered a question about the Romantics by writing about Lear’s verse. I may have been inspired by a running joke in John Verney’s novel Seven Sunflower Seeds in which Berry, the narrator, is told to read the whole of [King] Lear for an essay, gets the wrong end of the stick and sets about reading the whole of [Edward] Lear – the limericks, the long poems, the stories, the travel journals… (Great writer, John Verney.) I saw Lear – as did Berry and presumably Verney – as an overlooked poet of yearning and melancholia, with a late-Romantic suspicion of society and belief in the solitary imagination.

There was an Old Man in a boat
Who said, ‘I’m afloat, I’m afloat!’
When they said, ‘No! you ain’t!’
He was ready to faint
That unhappy Old Man in a boat.

They do tend to do that kind of thing. Here’s George Orwell on Lear:

“They” are the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing. For instance:

There was an Old Man of Whitehaven,
Who danced a quadrille with a raven;
But they said, “It’s absurd
To encourage this bird!”
So they smashed that Old Man of Whitehaven.

To smash somebody just for dancing a quadrille with a raven is exactly the kind of thing that “They” would do.

Getting the bit between his teeth, Orwell goes on to suggest that “the whole theory of authoritarian governments is summed up in the statement that Pobbles were happier without their toes”. Nonsense isn’t just nonsense; even the limerick about the Old Person of Basing has a subtext:

There was an Old Person of Basing,
Whose presence of mind was amazing;
He purchased a steed,
Which he rode at full speed,
And escaped from the people of Basing.


It is not quite arbitrary. The funniness is in the gentle implied criticism of the people of Basing, who once again are “They”, the respectable ones, the right-thinking, art-hating majority.

In similar vein, Michael Rosen (whose post inspired this one) writes:

nonsense is not without any sense. It nearly always creates something new which doesn’t tally with aspects of the world or aspects of texts which we regard as normal or conventional. So it frequently offers parallels, parodies, inversions and distortions. I guess we find a lot of this funny or attractive because it breaks up the world or texts we live with under compulsion and necessity.

He’s not wrong – Orwell wasn’t wrong either. But I feel that this argument, like Orwell’s, misses or underrates something very important about Lear’s “nonsense” work, and about “nonsense” works in general (although I think we now have other names for them). (Just as my own teenage idea about Lear as an Arnoldian post-Romantic is an interesting angle, but plainly isn’t the whole story.)

I’m thinking of the element of play, which may have no point at all or even be ostentatiously pointless. Consider Lear’s limericks, with their famously near-identical first and last lines. W.S. Gilbert couldn’t be doing with them and wrote this brilliant parody:

There was an Old Man of Dundee
Who was stung on the arm by a wasp.
When they said, “Does it hurt?”
He said, “Not very much,
It’s a good thing it wasn’t a hornet.”

(Best recited quickly.) But I think Gilbert’s sarcastic worldliness was also a way of being tone-deaf or missing the point. Put it this way, going nowhere is what Lear’s limericks do. Take that Old Person of Basing: reduced to its essentials, what his poem says is

There was an Old Person of Basing
Who made his escape from Basing

The poem undoes itself, in other words – by the last line there isn’t an Old Person of Basing. It reminds me of children’s rhymes that end by deconstructing themselves, or of this short piece by the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms:

There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears. He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily.

He couldn’t talk because he had no mouth. He didn’t have a nose either.

He didn’t even have arms or legs. He had no stomach, he had no back, no spine, and he didn’t have any insides at all. There was nothing to speak of! So, we don’t even know who we’re talking about.

We’d better not talk about him any more.

The movement of thought is ostentatiously, extravagantly pointless, as if to say: “I’m telling you something worth hearing… oh, no, I’m not! I’m making sense… oh, no, I’m not! I’m talking… oh, no, I’m not!” A lot of nonsense work (although I think we now have other names for it) performs this kind of defiant doodling and rug-pulling; Edward Lear certainly did.

We can see what’s going on a bit better if we insert Lear into his tradition: what I think of as the great tradition of Basingstoke. (Lear never actually referred to Basingstoke in his verse, but the Old Person of Basing is close enough; it’s about a mile and a half, to be precise. Moreover, Basing has priority over Basingstoke, historically if nothing else; Basingstoke is first recorded (in the tenth century) as Basinga stoc, which translates as “satellite settlement dependent on Basing” or more loosely “Basing New Town”.) Back in 1997, Michael Dobson noted the recurrence of Basingstoke in his LRB review of a collection of nonsense verse. Take this, from the “Water-Poet” John Taylor (so called because he made his living as a wherryman):

This was no sooner knowne at Amsterdam,
But with an Ethiopian Argosey,
Man’d with Flap-dragons, drinking upsifreeze,
They past the purple gulfe of Basingstoke

(“Upsifreeze”, apparently, is an adverb meaning “to alcoholic excess”.) A couple of decades later an anonymous poet invoked Basingstoke for no apparent reason at all:

When Basingstoke did swim upon the Thames,
And swore all thieves to be just and true,
The Sumnors and Bailiffs were honest men,
And Pease and Bacon that year it snew.

Basingstoke seems to have been a byword for solid English mundanity, whose appearance instantly accentuates the nonsensicality of nonsense verse, even at the time of the Civil War – which is remarkable in itself, given that the town saw a lot of action during the war: Basing House was Royalist, Basingstoke itself Parliamentarian. (You won’t find Basing House on the map now.)

But it didn’t end there. Back – or rather forward – to Gilbert, a writer who knew how to play with words but was never quite content just to play. He strikes me as a conflicted writer, somehow. (Yes, it’s Taking Victorian Comic Writers Altogether Too Seriously Week at the Gaping Silence!) I get the feeling that Gilbert could write so well, so quickly and so playfully that he distrusted his own fluency and wanted to puncture it somehow. In Ruddigore the character of Margaret, otherwise known as Mad Meg… well, I’ll let her tell it:

Margaret. …when I am lying awake at night, and the pale moonlight streams through the latticed casement, strange fancies crowd upon my poor mad brain, and I sometimes think that if we could hit upon some word for you to use whenever I am about to relapse – some word that teems with hidden meaning – like “Basingstoke” – it might recall me to my saner self. For, after all, I am only Mad Margaret! Daft Meg! Poor Meg! He! he! he!
Despard. Poor child, she wanders! But soft – someone comes – Margaret – pray recollect yourself – Basingstoke, I beg! Margaret, if you don’t Basingstoke at once, I shall be seriously angry.
Margaret. (recovering herself) Basingstoke it is!

Using Basingstoke as a cure for nonsense, while maintaining perversely that it teems with hidden meaning, seems typical of Gilbert. (As Dobson points out, the character of Mad Meg was based on Elvira, the intermittently sane heroine of Bellini’s I Puritani, whose madness derived ultimately from the English Civil War – the war between, among other places, Basingstoke and Basing. Coincidence? Probably.)

Can we extend the Basingstoke-nonsense connection into the twentieth century? We certainly can, and things get more interesting when we do. Here (in full) is Henry Reed’s 1941 poem “Chard Whitlow”, a parody of T.S. Eliot:

As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again— if you can call it time:
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube.

There are certain precautions— though none of them very reliable—
Against the blast from bombs and the flying splinter,
But not against the blast from heaven, vento dei venti,
The wind within a wind unable to speak for wind;
And the frigid burnings of purgatory will not be touched
By any emollient.
I think you will find this put,
Better than I could ever hope to express it,
In the words of Kharma: “It is, we believe,
Idle to hope that the simple stirrup-pump
Will extinguish hell.”
Oh, listeners,
And you especially who have turned off the wireless,
And sit in Stoke or Basingstoke listening appreciatively to the silence,
(Which is also the silence of hell) pray not for your selves but your souls.
And pray for me also under the draughty stair.
As we get older we do not get any younger.

And pray for Kharma under the holy mountain..

What connects this quiet and precise parody to the older nonsense tradition is its dogged absurdity, the care which Reed takes to speak in Eliot’s late voice while saying almost exactly nothing. (As we get older we do not get any younger – and I love the image of the poet in front of a Third Programme microphone, solemnly apostrophising the listeners who have turned off.) Parody very often has this quality of nonsensical play; one way, and one of the more enjoyable ways, to undermine the text you’re parodying is to keep the form and remove the sense. You’re reading something dignified and meaningful and then… oh no you’re not; the rug is pulled, and you’re just reading some meaningless doodles. Some of the best – and funniest – comic writing is in the form of parody, in my experience – Dwight MacDonald’s Faber anthology of parodies is one of my very favourite books. It’s a form that gives the writer endless scope for going wrong, writing differently… writing nonsense.

Monty Python eventually got round to Basingstoke, too, but it took them a while. It was the third episode of the final series, and everyone was getting a bit tired by then, so there’s something rather laborious about the result.

Fawcett Sir, we all know the facts of this case; that Sapper Walters, being in possession of expensive military equipment, to wit one Lee Enfield .303 rifle and 72 rounds of ammunition, valued at a hundred and forty pounds three shillings and sixpence, chose instead to use wet towels to take an enemy command post in the area of Basingstoke …
Presiding General Basingstoke? Basingstoke in Hampshire?
Fawcett No, no, no, sir, no.
Presiding General I see, carry on.
Fawcett The result of his action was that the enemy …
Presiding General Basingstoke where?
Fawcett Basingstoke in Westphalia, sir.
Presiding General Oh I see. Carry on.
Fawcett The result of Sapper Walters’s action was that the enemy received wet patches upon their trousers and in some cases small red strawberry marks upon their thighs …
Presiding General I didn’t know there was a Basingstoke in Westphalia.
Fawcett (slightly irritated) It’s on the map, sir.
Presiding General What map?
Fawcett (more irritably) The map of Westphalia as used by the army, sir.
Presiding General Well, I’ve certainly never heard of Basingstoke in Westphalia.
Fawcett (patiently) It’s a municipal borough sir, twenty-seven miles north-north east of Southampton. Its chief manufactures …
Presiding General What … Southampton in Westphalia?
Fawcett Yes sir … bricks … clothing. Nearby are remains of Basing House, burned down by Cromwell’s cavalry in 1645 …
Presiding General Who compiled this map?
Fawcett Cole Porter, sir.
Presiding General (incredulously) Cole Porter … who wrote `Kiss Me Kate’?
Fawcett No, alas not, sir … this was Cole Porter who wrote `Anything Goes’.

And so wearily on. I think part of the problem is that, while the sketch has floated free of its parodic moorings – at least, it’s hard to see what this would be a parody of – it doesn’t have the free-ranging inventiveness of the best nonsense. (Even that sober Henry Reed poem has its stirrup-pump and that quietly ridiculous age joke.) But Basingstoke abides.

Parody – and the über-parody of absurdism, parodying form as well as content – was one place where nonsense found a home in the twentieth century. The other major stream of twentieth-century nonsense derives from Surrealism; in his piece on Lear, Orwell writes in passing:

Until Surrealism made a deliberate raid on the unconscious, poetry that aimed at being nonsense, apart from the meaningless refrains of songs, does not seem to have been common.

Much freer associations of ideas and images have been possible in poetry since Surrealism – and perhaps, in English poetry, since Dylan Thomas in particular; he could rattle off the bizarre combinations of imagery without a care, and on some accounts without much thought either. (A. J. P. Taylor recalled that he once saw Thomas revising a draft of a poem by methodically crossing out all the adjectives and replacing them with alternatives chosen at random – “Makes it more interesting for the readers, see?” On the other hand, Thomas was having an affair with Taylor’s wife at the time, so this perhaps isn’t the most reliable testimony.) Nonsense has come back in under the banner of the ‘surreal’, in poetry and especially in song lyrics. In the present day, when song lyrics are described as ‘surreal’, I think a lot of time what we’re hearing is what an earlier age would have called nonsense. That said, it’s arguable that nonsense always had a home in songs, if you looked in the right places – i.e. not too high up the cultural scale:

The grey goose and gander went over the green
The grey goose went barefoot for fear of being seen
For fear of being seen, my boys, by the light of the moon
Rise early tomorrow morning all in the same tune,
Rise early tomorrow morning all in the same tune!

The collector who noted down the earliest version of this song (in 1891) added: “Many years ago, this used to be a favourite song round about Leeds, though a very silly one. … Before railways and cheap trips acted like general diffusers of London music hall songs, suchlike ditties in country districts were common in the kitchens of quiet public houses .. I need scarcely say that this delightful production would be sung only after a certain degree of conviviality had been reached.” When better?

Whether it derives from capital-S Surrealism filtering down or subterranean folk nonsense seeping up, a lot of contemporary song lyrics are written in a ‘surreal’ register. When James Mercer sang

You’re testing your mettle
With doeskin and petals
While kissing the lipless
That bleed all the sweetness away

you could just about follow the train of thought if you tried (mettle/metal?/petals/soft/kiss/lipless/skull?/bleed/desiccate?…), but a large part of what makes the lyric work is the way the images bounce off each other without hanging around long enough to make sense: it’s a refusal to communicate, but a playful one that (paradoxically) invites the listener to join in. There’s a similar but more extreme effect in one of Paddy McAloon’s first Prefab Sprout songs, “Don’t sing”(!):

Like most I come when I want things done
Please God don’t let that change!
(The anguish of love at long range)
Should have been a doctor-O,
Then they could see what they’re getting.
Oh no, don’t blame Mexico!
They ask for more than you bargain for and then they ask for mo’, oh, oh
Oh no, don’t blame Mexico!
That’s a feast that the whisky priest may yet have to forgo, oh, oh
Rob me of colour and make me sound duller but never go away

“Don’t sing”, indeed – everything about that song is fighting against the condition of being a song (the ridiculously forced rhyme on “mo'”, the transparently fake folkie touch of “doctor-O”) – and fighting against the condition of having something to say or saying it intelligibly. (On the other hand, I haven’t read The power and the glory, which seems to be referenced here; it may all be in the book.) At the same time, with each successive line you’re right there with the singer, feeling what it’s like to have your mind full of stuff that doesn’t quite fit together.

Not that nonsense (which we now call by different names) is always about refusal and frustration. Sometimes it just lets the language play, takes it for a walk, lets it go… somewhere else. Take the Beta Band’s “To you alone” (lyrics, presumably, by Steve Mason):

She’s like the snow-capped trees in my jigsaw,
Loose at the seams with inferior dreams
She’s like a fool that you meet in the heart store
Hand in the pail and the blacker the veil,
The blacker the veil…

Hearing that, you know just what he means. Actually, no, you have no idea what he means, but you feel what he means. Or rather, you feel what he’s doing, even if you can’t begin to say what it means. It’s an Escher castle in words – an impossible construction, one that can’t really exist; and yet there it is, between your ears.

One final example:

I often dream of trains when I’m alone
I ride on them into another zone
I dream of them constantly
Heading for Paradise
Or Basingstoke
Or Reading

I often dream of trains when I’m awake
They ride along beside a frozen lake
And there in the buffet car
I wait for Eternity
Or Basingstoke
Or Reading

Robyn Hitchcock, who else. It’s striking that the insistent real-world detail of “Basingstoke or Reading” makes the image more dreamlike, more nonsensical: “Paradise or Basingstoke” on its own would just be bathos, and would have an artful, deliberate ring to it. The prosaic phrasing of the second verse – the first line especially – comes with a similar kind of depth charge of strangeness.

To envisage the world as it is, and yet entirely other -

Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.

The grey goose went barefoot for fear of being seen
For fear of being seen, my boys, by the light of the moon

Presiding General Who compiled this map?
Fawcett Cole Porter, sir.

When Basingstoke did swim upon the Thames,
And swore all thieves to be just and true

On the Coast of Coromandel
Where the early pumpkins blow,
In the middle of the woods
Lived the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò.
Two old chairs, and half a candle,–
One old jug without a handle,–
These were all his worldly goods:
In the middle of the woods,
These were all the worldly goods,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò,
Of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò

- that’s nonsense (although we generally now have other names for it). It’s a form of mental exercise, I think. Above all it’s a form of play, and requires no more justification than that. For a moment, as the poem or the song occupies your mind, you’re thinking differently, experiencing the world differently, making sense of it differently. Or, for a moment, not making sense at all. Just for a moment.

Dear Sir or Madam

I’ve always wanted to get into the LRB. I even got excited when Verso used a quote from a review I’d written in their full-page ad in the LRB – a bit fetishistic, I know, but still: my words! in the LRB!.

I haven’t cracked it yet, but I have just had my second post published on the LRB blog; it’s about the Situationists and Occupy. I think it’s quite an interesting read; it was certainly an interesting write, which ended up changing my opinion on Occupy (for the better). Essential reading: Ken Knabb, The Situationists and the Occupation Movements (1968/2011).

And this is me: Taking Down the Tents.

Ho, OK Ed, on P-hoe knicks!

My sisters and I used to play word games on long car journeys. The one I remember best involved taking turns to make up a story: you’d pick up from where the last person left off, and (most importantly) you’d have to incorporate three words that they gave you. I remember our last ever round of the game: my sister, feeling that I was getting a bit too good at it, gave me the words “brouhaha”, “nugatory” and “persimmon”. I proved her right (after asking her to define ‘nugatory’) by telling a story that didn’t use any of those words once, until the closing line of dialogue (spoken by a bystander after the story was over):
“What a brouhaha over a nugatory persimmon!”

If you think this game sounds like fun, why not try it yourself? Here are some words to get you started:

best, bim, blan, chill, chom, gang, geck, grit, hild, hooks, quemp, shin, start, steck, thazz, tord, tox, ulf, vap, week

If you’re feeling a bit more ambitious, how about these?

blank, blurst, day, dentist, fape, finger, jound, newt, phone, rusty, scribe, slide, snemp, spron, starling, strap, stroft, terg, trains, voo

Go on, what are you waiting for? Just pile them all in if you’re not sure – I’ve got my best blim blan, I’m going to chill with the chom gang… Sorry, I mean bim blan – not blim blan, that would just be silly. It would also be wrong.

If you’re wondering what on earth I’m going on about – and who could blame you if you were – let Michael explain. Or rather, Michael’s contact in the Department for Education…

“I have been receiving some complaints concerning the excellent Phonics test which, thanks to me, all Year 1 children will be taking June.

“The test works like this: first of all the children read some real words. They’re not in sentences because that would be cheating. They’re just words on a page. Phonics words. What I mean by that is words that are regular. By regular I don’t mean small – like coffee cups. I mean that they are spelled like they are said. Unlike, er…’said’ which looks as if it should be said ‘sayed’. Which actually is the way some people say ‘said’. Look, this is really quite easy and obvious.

One of my younger sister’s alphabet books – Charlotte Hough’s My Aunt’s Alphabet, of which I was rather fond – had a vocabulary list at the back, with some words printed in red to warn you that they weren’t pronounced the way they looked. There was a problem with these red words, which I only spotted some years later, after moving to the North of England. “Grass”, for instance, was a red word, because to look at it you’d think it rhymed with “lass”, say, or “gas”. Which of course it doesn’t – that would be wrong. “Bush” was also a red word, because of that sneaky ‘u’ – you’d think that “bush” rhymed with “hush” or “lush”, whereas in fact… There’s no explanation of what makes the ‘u’ in “bush” (and “bull”) the wrong sort of ‘u’ – except in “bush” and “bull” (and “push” and “pull”, and so on); it just is. You don’t pronounce the B in “comb”, you don’t stress the first syllable of “abyss” and you don’t rhyme “hush” with “bush”. That would be wrong.

Er…where was I? Yes, the test. So, there’ll be words. Not sentences. Sentences complicate things because children start guessing words by where they are in the sentences. And by what the sentence means. And ‘meaning’ as we call it, really has very little to do with reading. Or words. Meaning gets in the way of reading. We need the children to read. Not mean.

Someone once tried to start a conversation with me while I was reading a book over lunch – I know, the nerve of it! – the book in question being Raymond Williams’s Politics and Letters (a book-length interview with some people from the New Left Review, and actually rather interesting, in fact a lot more interesting than the job I was doing at the time, wasted I was there, wasted). “What are you reading?” I angled the cover towards her in an only partly deliberately annoying way. She faltered but pressed on. “Oh… I like politics…” I didn’t think quickly enough to reply “Really? I prefer letters”; it’s probably just as well. Actually I don’t much like letters; I do like words, but the idea of words divorced from meaning is an odd one, to say the least.

Now the test also has some other kinds of words. These aren’t words. They’re just words that look like words. Words like ‘blurg’. or ‘Skonk’. If you’re a reader, you’ll read those. If you’re not a reader you won’t. Now some people have said that some little children taking the test will think that if there’s a word they can read but doesn’t make sense, they’ll try to make it make sense. … So, a child who can read, might see ‘blurg’ and because it doesn’t make sense, they’ll try to turn it into a word that does….’blurt’ or ‘blurb’ or something. Then they’ll be wrong and score badly.

But the good news is that we’ve been listening to what teachers have been telling us about this. So do you know what we’re doing? We’ve hired an artist who imagines what a ‘blurg’ might look like and he draws a ‘blurg’. There it is on the page next to the word ‘blurg’. A bit like a Flannimal. Now isn’t that fun? Now the child looks at ‘blurg’ and says to him or herself…’Ho ho ho, that must be a blurg’. Problem solved.

This is the sort of thing we do at the Department for Education. We hire people to do pictures of blurgs.

Readers, he is not making this up. At the end of this school year, primary schools in England really are going to administer a reading test to Year 1 children consisting of 20 words and 20 made-up words, and the children will be marked on whether they say them correctly. And the made-up words – but not the real words – really are going to have little pictures next to them – pictures of smiley monsters. You can read all about it here. (SFW. Some smiley monsters.)

Apart from the bizarre detail of associating non-existent ‘words’ with smiley monsters, this scheme (and I use the word advisedly) has one rather major flaw. How do you pronounce ‘chom’? Is that ‘ch’ as in ‘Christian’ or as in ‘champagne’? What about ‘geck’ – GE without a U or an H in the way is a ‘soft’ G (as in “gem”), so presumably it’s ‘jeck’. Except that sometimes GE is ‘hard’ (as in “get”), so maybe it should be pronounced… er… ‘geck’… like it’s spelled… sort of. Then, what if some poor kid thinks the ‘geck’ smiley monster is in fact a gecko and misreads the ‘word’ accordingly?

And don’t get me started on ‘jound’.

Oh, go on then. How do you pronounce ‘jound’ – what’s the right pronunciation? Is it two separate vowel sounds run together (“Joe, under his rough exterior, was a kindly soul”) or separated by a glottal stop (“jo’und day stands tiptoe on the misty moun’ains, pet”)? OK, we don’t usually do those things in English – well, we don’t usually do those things in Standard English – well, I say we don’t usually… Well, anyway. Those pronunciations aren’t very likely to come up in English… er, standard English… er, the kind of English we… those pronunciations are wrong.

Some people might get different ideas about that tricky ‘ou’ digraph (a technical term for two letters together, from the Greek ‘di’ meaning two and ‘graph’ meaning letters together). So is ‘jound’ pronounced ‘jonned’ (using the ‘ou’ sound in ‘cough’), or ‘joaned’ (using the ‘ou’ in ‘though’) or ‘junned’ (like the ‘ou’ in ‘enough’), or for that matter ‘junned’ (using the ‘ou’ in ‘could’)? There’s a simple answer to this, which is No. No, it isn’t. Those pronunciations are wrong. You can easily see that they’re wrong, just by sounding out the letters, which is what you do when you learn to pronounce words. If you sound out ‘ou’ and then follow it with an ‘n’ you never get any of those sounds. Not in real words, anyway. Imaginary words could be different, but they aren’t. This one isn’t, anyway.

What you get when you sound out the ‘oun’ in ‘jound’ is… but look, I’ve given it away! You get the ‘ou’ sound in ‘sound’. So it’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘sound’, and ‘pound’, and ’round’ and ‘around’ and ‘around’. (Those last two are the same word. Yes, I know you know. Just making sure you know I know. Poetic or something. Anyway.) It’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘found’ and ‘bound’ and ‘wound’. That’s the ‘wound’ that rhymes with ‘bound’, of course, not the ‘wound’ that doesn’t. In short, it’s ‘jound’ to rhyme with ‘wound’, but not – this is important – to rhyme with ‘wound’. Glad we’ve cleared that up.

I like ‘quemp’, though; it’s a nice word. I’d like to try to get that into a story. Not if I was a kid, obviously, because I’d probably lose marks, because it’s not a proper word.

As Flying Rodent said earlier,

If I wanted to draw up a plan to sabotage what remains of public faith in one generation, mandated prayer and psalms in school assemblies would be right at the top of my list.

And if I wanted to stamp out spontaneous, playful joy in language, a good way to do it would be to make six-year-olds learn words like ‘snemp’ and ‘thazz’ – complete with smiley monsters to encourage them – and then tell them never to use those words, only ever to use real words… words like “week” and “phone” and “dentist”.

Let’s eat some toast

This blog seems to have ground to a halt rather. I’ve been busy (haven’t we all), and a lot of the spare time I have has been taken up by 52 Folk Songs (which is going well, but I don’t want to go on about it here again). Even the beer blog has been quiet, although not as quiet as this one – having a definite focus seems to help (“haven’t written anything about beer lately…”)

Anyway, I just wanted to say that if you’re not reading Michael Rosen’s blog, give it a go. It’s terrific. He’s got a lot to say, and it’s all good, or at least interesting; it’s mostly about education, but don’t let that put you off if you think you’re not interested in ‘education’. I wish he’d enable comments on it – he writes some really thought-provoking stuff, leaving me at least with nowhere for the provoked thoughts to go – but at the rate he’s posting at the moment it’s probably wise not to.

I don’t know Mike Rosen, although I have argued with him on blogs (mostly not about education). Like a lot of people, I first saw his name attached to children’s poetry, and children’s poetry of a particular kind. Now, I write (one doesn’t write about something, one just writes), and when I was at school I wrote a lot of poems; not because the teachers (or anyone else) wanted me to, but because it was something I enjoyed, felt I could do well, took pride in doing well. (Three slightly different things. I’ll come back to that.) And also because my older sister did and I admired her for it. I was an inquisitive reader and we had lots of books around the place – books we all valued, boringly grown-up books, weirdly grown-up books and (I think quite importantly) books that nobody valued at all; books we all thought a bit ridiculous, that were just there. (My mother’s incomplete Sociology degree had left her with a copy of Criminal Behaviour, by Reckless. What a book. Never once got it off the shelf.) What with the Important New Poetry anthologies and the Ridiculous Old Poetry anthologies, I read or skimmed through quite a bit of poetry, and I got interested in how you write poetry. So I wrote sonnets (both kinds) and villanelles (the proper tetrameter kind) and got into Gerard Manley Hopkins, and recovered from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and (after reading a bit of Shakespeare) got quite accomplished at iambic pentameter; it reached the point where I could turn it out at will, to length, with hardly any strain and quick as speech, or hardly any slower. Only a few of my poems rhymed, but most of them scanned, and the ones that didn’t scan I was generally going for a Ted Hughes-ish solemnity, a “hear the silence around the words” kind of effect.

So that was poetry, and it was something I could do; I enjoyed doing it, enjoyed feeling I could do it well, took pride in doing it well. For a studious middle-class child – or perhaps I just mean “for me” – the thought of me taking pride in something I could do came with a definite corollary, which was that there were lots of other people (or kids) out there who couldn’t do what I could do. And this didn’t bother me greatly; if anything, I thought of all the things those kids could do (centring on sport and respect) and thought, well, at least I’ve got this. The thought of writing poetry being a way into reflective & creative language use – and reflective & creative language use being something that everyone can benefit from doing, especially children, the earlier the better – didn’t cross my mind. If it had, I would probably just have thought “they’ll be sorry…

Then along came this Rosen character with his “poems” that just look like somebody’s sat down and started writing – or not even that, just like somebody’s stood up and opened their mouth. Along came Rosen and “poems” that anyone could write. Seriously, anyone. You didn’t have to understand poetry first, you didn’t have to read poetry first, you didn’t have to make your language fit a metric grid (should be metrical, need to work on that) – you could just write about stuff, and that was poetry! I was appalled.

The rest of the story can be told quite quickly. I was wrong.

He was right (about the whole writing poetry being a way into reflective & creative language use thing).

And he’s still being right – or at least interesting – about a bunch of things, mainly but not exclusively related to education.

Read the blog, it’s great.

Shifting the gear

(Crossposted from 52 Folk Songs and based on comments posted at fRoots.)

The Indigo album marks the first quarter of the 52fs year: 13 songs down, 39 to go. With that in mind, here’s a quick retrospective post on the project.

Songs posted so far: 34
Traditional songs: 22
Contemporary songs: 12 (authors: Peter Bellamy, Bellamy/Kipling, Peter Blegvad, Noel Coward, Bob Dylan, Green Gartside, Richard Thompson, Lal Waterson, Joss Whedon)
Whistle tunes: 3
Songs with backing: 11 (including all the last eight)
Backing instruments: 4 woodwind, 3 free reed (including a melodica I didn’t own two months ago), drums (not played for 30 years), voices, some programming

I had no idea there was going to be all this playing involved when I started! The next frontier is harmony; the ‘white’ album (over Christmas and New Year) is going to feature a fair amount of singing in parts, something I’ve never done before. It’ll be great, probably.

So, what have I learned so far?

1. My voice sounds very different when recorded. Very very very different. Obviously I knew this already, but spending a lot of time with my recorded voice has really brought it home to me. Lots of takes, lots of close listening, and you start hearing a voice that’s very different from what you thought you were producing…
1a. …and start thinking “maybe I need to work on that”. In my head I’m always giving a peak performance – that hypnotic Musgrave I did that time, that back-wall-nailing Trees They Do Grow High… Listening back, this turns out not to be the case; a lot of the time, particularly on first takes, what I hear is just this bloke singing…
1b. …and sometimes not in a terribly distinctive voice – although sometimes I do listen to a take and think “that’s me – I’ll do more like that”. I’ve been singing all my life, and singing in public on a fairly regular basis since 2004; it seems weird to be thinking about ‘finding a voice’ now, but there it is.

2. Although I’ve always seen myself as an unaccompanied singer, it turns out that accompanied singing is a lot of fun…
2a. …especially drones (which I never thought I’d get into)…
2b. …but also harmonies, rhythm tracks, chords (I love my melodica)…
2c. …although doing them all multi-tracked is an incredible time-sink…
2d. …which imposes definite limits on how close to perfection I can afford to get…
2e. …and layering separate tracks recorded without a click is an absolute no-no, unless you really enjoy wielding the virtual razor-blade in Audacity. There’s timing that sounds absolutely regular, and then there’s timing that is absolutely regular, down to the tenth of a second – and that’s a lot harder.

3. Uploading home recordings to a Web site is not going to enable me to give up the day job. (Fortunately I like the day job.) Obviously I knew this already too, but it’s really been brought home to me…
3a. …that there aren’t millions of people who like listening to this stuff, at least not online, not all the way through (why don’t people just leave the thing playing?) and…
3b. …there definitely aren’t millions of people who like downloading it; and, more generally…
3c. …the Web is no place to build a profile, unless you’re very talented, very photogenic, very lucky or gifted with a herd of football-playing pigs; it’s a great shop-front, but I think you still need to build awareness in the real world. There is just too much music out there for a single project like this to make much of a splash. (Or maybe it’s a slow-burning splash; there have definitely been more plays per day per track of the songs on the Indigo album than the ones on its Violet predecessor. We shall see.)

4. Bandcamp’s statistics distinguish between ‘complete’ (>90%) plays, ‘skips’ (stopped before 10%) and ‘partial’ (>10% but <90%). The number of partials and skips is extraordinary, not to say slightly alarming. (On the other hand, the songs with the most partial plays generally have the most full plays as well, so I suppose it all works out.) Aggregating all three, my top five tracks are:
1 Lord Bateman
2 There are bad times just around the corner (Noel Coward)
3 Derwentwater's farewell
4= Us poor fellows (Peter Bellamy)
4= The unfortunate lass

On full plays alone, the top five (or seven) are:
1 Lord Bateman
2 The unfortunate lass
3 There are bad times just around the corner
4 The cruel mother
5= Derwentwater's farewell
5= Us poor fellows
5= The death of Bill Brown

Propping up the table (sorted on all plays together) are

28. Hughie the Graeme
29. St Helena lullaby (Rudyard Kipling)
30. Serenity (Joss Whedon)
31. Percy's song (Bob Dylan)
32. The unborn Byron (Peter Blegvad)

(I'm excluding the album-only House[s] of the Rising Sun from the list; hence the last place is number 32, not 34.)

Things look slightly different if we sort on full plays, as there are six songs for which the 'complete play' count is stuck at zero – these songs haven't been played all the way through at all. What are you like, world? There's some great stuff here:

The unborn Byron
The death of Nelson
Percy's song
Boney's lamentation
Dayspring mishandled (Rudyard Kipling)
Danny Deever (Rudyard Kipling)

Generally the newer stuff seems to have gone down less well than the traditional songs – which are, after all, what 52fs is all about, so I can't really complain.

5. Even if I were the only audience – which I'm not, although (as we see) for a couple of tracks it's a close thing – 52fs is proving to be an incredibly enjoyable and absorbing project; I'm learning all the things about music I've always vaguely thought I ought to know, as well as some unexpected but useful things about my voice.

Here's the link to the album again: 52 Folk Songs – Indigo. Roll up! Roll up! And here are links to a couple of personal favourites, plus a couple which may have had less attention than they deserve.

Ciao, Ceausescu

It may be worth noting that La Repubblica appears to have just called Berlusconi a dictator:

An empty regime by Ezio Mauro

Unable to save Italy, they’re trying desperately to save themselves. This is all that’s left of the titanic force of Berlusconism, the “liberal revolution”, the government of “getting things done”, the Lega’s wind from the North. A terrified political class, afraid even to show their faces to their own supporters, unable to manage the crisis and now unable to come up with the solutions in government which the country needs.

The only solution offered is a cut-price agreement, inadequate at best and probably useless, which they hope will distract Europe’s attention for long enough to offer some breathing space for the shared desperation of Bossi and Berlusconi, shut away in government offices that have turned into their last bunker.

Both the effective leaders of Europe (Sarkozy/Merkel) and the formal leadership (Van Rompuy and Barroso) told Berlusconi that he had three days to pass the necessary measures to get Italy out of the Greek circle of Hell. The Prime Minister agreed. Then, back in Italy, he had to deal with the brick wall of the Lega Nord; with open crisis in his own party and in Bossi’s; with the ungovernability of his parliamentary majority; and with the self-evident exhaustion of his own leadership and its total loss of authority.

He should resign, allowing the country to try and save itself while there is still time. But he is no statesman; he sees his own personal fate as more pressing than the fate of Italy. He is locked into a political death-agony like something from the last days of the Christiam Democrat empire*, which may end up producing a lowest-common-denominator agreement, but can no longer produce either a political programme or a government. Europe and the markets will pass judgment on this utter lack of responsibility. We should also take note: governments regularly fall when their political time is up, but regimes can never find a way to end**.

* un’agonia democristiana, da tardo impero
**mentre i governi cadono regolarmente quando una fase politica si esaurisce, solo i regimi non sanno finire

The key word is ‘regime': this is strong stuff in the Italian context, as it specifically refers to non-democratic regimes – whether Communist or, er, what was the other one…

I’ve got a piece in the next issue of the Bulletin of Italian Politics about ‘the Italian transition': the idea that the period since 1993 has been a period of transition from the Christian Democrat-dominated First Republic to some new and more politically ‘normal’ settlement, featuring (among other things) Left and Right parties which can change places in government without bringing the entire system into crisis. Against this idea, many people argue that 18 years (and counting) is a bit on the long side for a period of transition; maybe this is the Second Republic and we (or rather the Italians) are stuck with it. I think the extraordinary fragility and turbulence of the current Berlusconi government, which itself derives from the steady erosion of his original centre-Right coalition, tells against this; we’re clearly not there yet, as there’s no ‘there’ here. In the paper I suggest that, rather than compressing the period of transition, we should extend it: the real ‘transition’ is the transition from Fascism to democracy, which stalled in 1948 with the imposition of Christian Democratic hegemony, stuttered into life again around 1993 and then ground to a halt again under Signor B.

Fascism has never quite been forgotten in Italy; the Republic was built on massacres by Fascists and massacres of Fascists. This is not to say that Italian politics is riven with anti-Fascist and anti-Communist passions; on the contrary, the strongest and most widely-shared passion is the passion for centrism, the dream of being a normal European country without any ‘opposed extremisms’. But this means that the one essential requirement for an Italian leader is the ability to put the Fascist past decisively behind him or her, to lead a governo and not a regime. La Repubblica is a centre-Left paper, generally more ‘centre’ than ‘Left'; its writers share that passion for normality, and the underlying passion for avoiding civil war. As a result they generally give the government – any government – the benefit of the doubt; a typical Repubblica editorial will urge the government to be more responsible and moderate, even when it’s clear that they’re committed to being anything but.

No longer: the paper’s served notice on Berlusconi that he is the problem. He must go, and soon.

Although I’m not rich

I’m a folkie, in a small way. In my teens I was mildly, vaguely into folk – folk-rock, really – until punk happened; I forgot all about it then, and didn’t rediscover it until three or four years ago. By that time I’d been a regular performer at a local folk club for several years, but the folk club didn’t lead me to folk music – I would have got there much sooner if it had done. (As I’ve said elsewhere, on an average night there you can hear sizeable helpings of anything but – and as folk clubs go it’s not by any means unique.)

Anyway, three or four years ago a combination of circumstances let me to discover – fall headlong into – folk music, and I haven’t got out yet. I still go to folk nights and sing songs, but nowadays I’m a dedicated traddie, devoted to that great ocean of songs that you never hear on the radio.

Last year Jon Boden of Bellowhead put together A Folk Song A Day: a Web site featuring a different song, newly recorded, every day for a year. There was some debate about some of the choices (I think “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” worked better than anyone had expected), but by and large AFSAD was a magnificent project. (And is. The Webmaster is currently cycling through the year for a second time, re-upping the songs month by month; if you missed it first time round, check it out.) Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and AFSAD has had quite a few emulators: there’s An Australian Folk Song A Day (which has been going for eight months), A Liverpool Folk Song A Week (six months) and A Folk Song A Week (seven weeks).

And there’s my own project, 52 Folk Songs, which is just about to enter its eighth week. The idea of 52fs is that the revitalisation of old songs shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of star musicians like Jon Boden, who have armies of fans, state-of-the-art recording facilities, multi-instrumental musical talents, encyclopedic knowledge and a pleasing and tuneful voice. No, we amateur singers can all play our part – even if we have very few of those attributes, or for that matter none of them.

I therefore set myself to record and upload a folk song every week for a year. Common sense and good taste might have suggested limiting myself to one song per week, but if they did I wasn’t listening: there are quite a few extras there too, not all of which are even folk songs. Those with time to kill and/or severe insomnia can read about the tenuous links I’ve made between the songs chosen each week at 52fs. The total for the first six weeks is 14 songs and three tunes:

1 Lord Bateman (FS01)
2 The Death of Bill Brown (FS02)
3 The Unfortunate Lass (FS03)
4 The Cruel Mother (FS04)
5 Lemany (FS05)
6 The London Waterman (FS06) + Constant Billy
7 Over the hills and far away
8 There are bad times just around the corner (Noel Coward)
9 My boy Jack (Rudyard Kipling)
10 Us poor fellows (Peter Bellamy)
11 Down where the drunkards roll (Richard Thompson)
12 Child among the weeds (Lal Waterson)
13 Hegemony (Green Gartside)
14 Spencer the Rover + Three Rusty Swords / The Dusty Miller

Not content with inflicting these assorted squawks on the world, I’ve had the effrontery to present them to the public under the guise of an ‘album': 52 Folk Songs – Violet. This is the first in a series of eight virtual ‘albums’ (I use the quotation marks advisedly) that will be appearing over the year, unless I can be induced to stop. It can be downloaded at 52 Folk Songs – Violet for a token payment of 52p (you see what I did there). This sum (which could do some genuine good in the world if donated to an appropriate charity) will get you 40 minutes of what can loosely be called singing and some frankly amateurish whistle-playing, plus a hastily thrown-together PDF file containing full lyrics plus assorted pictures, comments, musings and afterthoughts. The whole lamentable package is fronted by the most un-folk-like image you could imagine (“what’s the purple doughnut for?” – my wife).

Alternatively you can download the tracks individually and pay nothing at all, or simply listen online. Or you could listen to something else instead.

52 Folk Songs is at

The purple doughnut is here.

Share and enjoy.


As long ago as Long Ago, and as Long Ago Again as That, the City of Peking in the Ancient Land of China rang with jubilation and rejoicing; for a Son and Heir had been born to the Emperor Aladdin and the Empress Bedr-al-Budur

the Grand Vizier summoned a Special Meeting of State in the White Lacquer Room of the Imperial Palace. You may judge for yourself the importance of this Meeting, when I tell you that His Gracious Majesty the Emperor Aladdin presided over it Himself. Others present included the Lord Chamberlain; the Prime Minister; two Senior Generals from the Palace Guard; the Master of the Horse; the Mistress of the Robes; and an Unidentified Friend of the Master of the Horse.

‘Your Majesty!’ began the Grand Vizier imposingly. ‘Also Lords and Ladies of the Imperial Court! Also the Friend of the Master of the Horse. We are met here this evening to give Formal Voice to our Humble and Unworthy Joy at the birth of a Son and Heir to our Celestial Emperor of all the Chinas’

Thus chapter 1. In the next chapter, time having passed in the mean time, Aladdin’s son and heir comes of age, a topic discussed at an equally important meeting attended by the Prince himself and both his parents:

‘Your Imperial Majesties!’ began the Grand Vizier, imposingly. ‘Also, Your Imperial Highness! Also, Lords and Ladies of the Court! We are met here (all except the Friend of the Master of the Horse, who has been sent to his Room till Tea-Time) to give formal Voice to our Humble and Unworthy Joy at the Very Important Event of the Coming of Age of the Heir Apparent’

From Noel Langley, The Land of Green Ginger (1937 and 1966). It’s uncanny.

Update What I really find hard to comprehend is the glacial pace at which this story’s moving. Liam Fox seems genuinely not to have any idea that he’s done anything wrong, and the government hierarchy seems pretty nonchalant as well; the idea seems to be that he’ll be hung out to dry if and when the story becomes too embarrassing, which by implication it hasn’t done yet. Perhaps it’s deliberate news management; certainly it’s made life difficult for the BBC news, which has been left without any editorial stance on the story, other than noting that suspicions continue to grow that Fox may at some time possibly have done something that people might consider wrong in some way. This page is comedy gold; I like the 11.35 quote from Nick Robinson to the effect that Fox is telling people he’s the victim of a “hate campaign”. I may be out of touch, but I don’t think Liam Fox is hated by anyone who doesn’t know him personally – he’s not that important. If he’s the victim of anything, it’s a “WTF did you think you were doing (and who are you anyway)?” campaign. Interesting line of defence, too:

friends have also rallied round to help defend his corner, telling Robinson Werritty was a “a groupie who kept turning up pretending to be something he wasn’t”

(A ‘that’ would have helped there. Robinson Werritty – who’s he?)

The point here is that, even if that were true (which I don’t believe for a moment) it would still suggest that Fox was a bumbling incompetent who should be sacked pronto. Werritty “kept turning up” and helping himself to a seat at the conference table – and he just let him sit there? Why, exactly?

Final (genuine) quote from Fox, asked to identify the unnamed friend who was staying over the night his flat was burgled:

For the sake of clarity,
it wasn’t Adam Werritty.



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