Category Archives: big stuff

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:

Sacrilege

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.

And come to dust

The Belgian radical surrealist journal Les lèvres nues once featured a slogan which I found simultaneously funny, heartbreaking and intensely inspiring:

SAVE LIEBKNECHT

For someone with my kind of politics, “Remember Liebknecht” would be a great slogan, one to bring a tear to the eye and a clench to the fist; “Avenge Liebknecht”, even. But “Save Liebknecht” is something else – it evokes all those feelings but takes them somewhere else. As if to say, we’re not just going to bring about an irreversible transformation of capitalist relations of production and the everyday life they produce, we’re going to transform the past! The choice of Liebknecht rather than the more obvious Luxemburg is interesting, too – as if to say, we’re going to do a proper job; we’re not just going for the top-rank heroes here. History? The revolution spits in its eye. By the time we get finished, the wind will be blowing into Paradise!

Those crazy surrealist Belgians. But, visiting the British Library the other day, looking at a proof copy of “the Ballad of Reading Gaol”, I found myself feeling something very similar. The thought process went something like, “Oscar Wilde do two years hard labour? Stuff that. No way. We’ll have to do something about that…” And I realised it wasn’t the first time I’d felt the urge – the determination, almost – to change the past; I felt it when I discovered the work of Primo Moroni and realised he’d died the year before (aged 62). For some reason the English folk music scene seems to be particularly rich in might-have-beens, or rather really-shouldn’t-have-beens. OK, Mike Waterson and Johnny Collins both made it to 70 (although that doesn’t seem old these days) but Tony Rose was only 61 when he died, and Tony Capstick didn’t even see 60 – and he’d ditched the folk music twenty years before that. Get Cappo Cleaned Up will be high on the agenda of the post-revolutionary temporal rectification unit (musical branch). Not to mention non-fatal disasters such as Shirley Collins’s dysphonia or Nic Jones’s bloody brick lorry. And then there’s Bellamy:

Peter Bellamy dead by his own hand, in 1991, aged 47? No. Absolutely no way. We’ll definitely have to do something about that.

Earlier today something reminded me of this old post, in which I revealed (or rather discovered) that in some ways I’m more oriented towards the past than the future. The future, obviously, is where things are going to have to get fixed, but at a gut level I feel there are hopeful – vital – possibilities buried in the past, which we need to preserve and can revive. Which is part of why I identified with Moroni – an activist but also a historian and archivist – and why my book’s partly a work of history.

It’s also, perhaps, why the things I spontaneously feel determined to put right are things that never will be. Or not, at least, until the revolutionary conquest of time both past and future. SAVE BELLAMY!

Then take up the strain

One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.
- Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

There’s an old Chinese story about an acolyte who asks his teacher what he should do (to achieve enlightenment, or with his life, or that day, it doesn’t really matter). Sweep the path, says the teacher. He sweeps the path for an hour. The teacher takes one look at it and slaps his face. It’s not clean! He sweeps the path for two hours. He goes down on hands and knees and picks off every last speck of dirt. He tells the teacher he’s finished. The teacher takes one look at the path and slaps him again. It’s not clean! Not knowing what else to do, he sweeps the perfectly clean path for the rest of the day. As the sun sets the teacher comes out of his cell, looks at the path and slaps him once more: It’s not clean! Despairing, the acolyte pleads with the teacher to tell him how he can possibly make the path any cleaner than it is. The teacher takes a handful of rose petals and scatters them on the path. Now it’s clean.

Here’s a song by the Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers (starts at about 1:40, but the first part of the clip is worth watching).

You can read the lyrics here. The chorus goes like this:

Rise again! Rise again!
That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men
Those who loved her best and were with her till the end
Will make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.

I last heard that song at a singaround last week. Continue reading

When the winds begin to sing

Winter ade!

I went to a graduation ceremony at the University of Manchester yesterday. I’ve worked there for most of the last six years, so I’d taught a lot of yesterday’s graduands in all three years; it was good to see them make it to the end.

I’ve been to the last couple of graduations, but this will almost certainly be my last; I started work at another university at the beginning of February. For most of the previous three years I’d been working as what my new employer calls an hourly-paid lecturer. (Manchester, less grandly and less descriptively, calls the post “Teaching Assistant”.) This is not a great position to be in, particularly over summer. Summer 2009 was particularly difficult, and the start of the new academic year wasn’t much better. (It’s no coincidence that this blog was dormant for most of the calendar year 2009, or that I’ve been posting a lot more since February.) My current job was the right opportunity at the right time.

So yesterday’s ceremony roused some very mixed emotions. Leaving Manchester was a wrench, but it was the right thing to do and I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I left Manchester and it was the right thing to do, but it was a wrench. I’ve got the Anselm Kiefer picture at the top of this post on my desk at work (literally on my desk – I must invest in a mount or at least some sellotape). The verse handwritten across it is adapted from a German folk song; it reads

Winter ade,
scheiden tut weh,
doch dein Scheiden macht
daß mein Herze lacht…
gerne vergeß ich dein,
kannst immer ferne sein
Winter ade,
scheiden tut weh.

Which means something like this:

Goodbye Winter
Leaving hurts
But your leaving makes my heart laugh
Gladly I forget your leaving
May you always be far from me
Goodbye Winter
Leaving hurts

You talk so hip

In the previous post, I wrote:

not only is the personal political, the political is personal: which way you’re heading, and how fast you want to get there, depends to quite a large extent on something as imponderable as who you are

Which is why I’m rather ambivalent about Andrew Neil’s monstering of Chris Mounsey, he of Devil’s Kitchen.

Mounsey says himself that when he wrote the posts that made Devil’s Kitchen famous he was in part railing against his own situation, and that he’s calmer and happier now. This is good news, and I sincerely wish him well. But that’s not all there is to say.

From my very occasional reading of DK I had formed the impression that the writer was a middle-aged Scot who had missed his chances or been robbed of them, had no real prospect of finding them again and was now taking solace in blaming everyone but himself. It turns out that Chris Mounsey is English and in his early 30s. He’s also an old Etonian; which is to say, his education cost his parents a minimum of £28,851 a year in today’s money. As of 2007/8, 95% of UK tax-payers have a post-tax income of £46,800 or below. Anyone as low down the rankings as the 96th percentile would need to commit nearly 2/3 of their income in order to see their son through Eton; I think we can confidently assume that the income of the senior Mounseys puts them in the top 2-3%. In other words, Chris Mounsey was born into the elite.

Here’s an example of what Chris Mounsey used to get angry about:

The Tories want parents and other organisations to have state funds to set up their own schools.
Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove issued the call in a speech to the NASUWT teachers’ union conference.

And can you guess what the union response was? Go on – have a guess.

Was it (a) yes, what a wonderful idea: we’ll show you how a school should be run, given how much we profess to dislike the constant state interference, or was it (b)…

The union did not want to run a school, [union leader] said. Schools should be “democratically accountable” and not operated for and by “the pushy and the privileged”.

Ah. So, schools should not be run for and by “the pushy and the privileged” unless those pushy and privileged are the union members under state sanction.

OK, so this is fairly stupid. Gove suggests a system under which state funding would be used to set up new private schools; these might be excellent or might not, but would sink or swim outside the state system. If standards were low, the government would have no way of raising them; at worst, in other words, this would mean messing up the education of the children unfortunate enough to go to those schools. If standards were high, on the other hand, this would benefit those particular children but nobody else. Anyone who is concerned with providing a consistently good universal service – rather than providing an excellent service to a few and never mind the rest – won’t touch such a scheme with a bargepole. No national teaching union could ever endorse such an idea – Mounsey’s professed outrage is either spurious or stupid. As for his parting shot, I’m not even sure what it means – joining a union, signing up for the collective defence of working standards and employment rights, makes you “pushy and privileged”? Brane hertz. All in all, what we’ve got here is someone with one set of beliefs affecting to be shocked and outraged that someone with a completely different set of beliefs doesn’t agree with him. Or, to boil it down a bit more, someone having a rant at his political enemies. Mounsey, like Gove, doesn’t believe in trade unions, or in state provision, and I shouldn’t think he’s too bothered about the provision of a consistently good universal education. The union leader believes in all three, and so Mounsey hates her.

That was fairly stupid, but it’s not the passage Neil quoted back at Mounsey. The post continued as follows (WARNING: nasty stuff ahead). Continue reading

No sad songs for me

Oh, go on then. Picking up the gauntlet thrown down by Phil and Splinty, here are some of the saddest songs you could ask for. One per decade as required, although my musical memories go back a bit longer than totherPhil’s. (Back to this, if you must know – although I’d never seen that rather peculiar promo before tonight.)

Moving along, here’s one from the 1960s.

An early example of Scott Engel’s way with a song. Trundles along quite happily for a couple of minutes, then something strange and quite desolate happens. The good bit is almost immediately smothered by a ludicrous kitchen-sink big finish, but I think it’ll stick in your mind.

For the 1970s, Splinty’s had the obvious candidate; no song said She’s utterly gone and I’ll never, ever see her again like that one. But this comes close:

In the 1980s we get on to songs I actually knew at the time. I remember listening to this album in the winter of 1981, wrapping Christmas presents at my parents’ house – it’s a happy memory, which ought to disqualify the song. But it’s not a happy song; it’s really, really not a happy song.

You know that song Never Be Alone (a.k.a. We Are Your Friends)? I’ve always thought that was partly about fans’ imaginary relationship with pop singers, à la Rubber Ring (“A sad fact widely known…”) When I was 21 Julian Cope was my friend – it felt as if he’d not only read my mind, but been to places I was afraid of going in my mind and reported back. (When I read Head-On, years later, I discovered that the second part of this was quite correct.)

Runner-up: Anthony Moore’s Nowhere to Go, probably the most desolate and despairing piece of music I’ve ever heard; almost too despairing. That and Swans’ God Damn the Sun, which goes right over the top but redeems itself by being beautiful.

The 1990s go to Robyn. His saddest single song is probably She Doesn’t Exist, but the album version is meh. This, on the other hand, will pin your ears back. I’m not quite sure why it’s such a sad song, except that it seems to be about being lost and lonely – lost inside your own head (a mood it shares with the the previous song).

Hon mensh: Peter Blegvad, Something Else (Is Working Harder).
Yes, and don’t it feel like nothing’s real…?

2000s: oh, you’ve got to hear this.

I’d heard it a few times & simply heard a wistful, sweetly pretty song; then I read an interview in which KC explained that the song’s about his daughter, and specifically about talking to his ex-wife on the phone. Promise you’ll tell her…

Happy listening. Well, sort of.

Update 17/2/10 “With your repertoire, you could nominate the saddest song of the 1790s” – the Mrs.

Don’t know about that, but I do feel duty bound to bring to your attention the

Saddest Song Of All Time

Take it away, Tony. (No, that photo isn’t great. The album came out in 1976 and the sleeve has dated rather badly. The music hasn’t. That’s the thing with folk.)

If there’s a sadder song than that, I’m not sure I want to hear it.

Somewhere in the corner

Postdoctoral fellowship application, June 2006
12 months, to write and place two papers developing my doctoral thesis (analysing the Italian protest movements in the 1970s through contemporary press coverage) and submit an application for funding for a follow-up project (looking at British protest movements in the 1990s).
Rejected. Critical feedback.

Research grant application, January 2007
24 months, to analyse press coverage of four episodes of contentious activism (in Italy and Britain) and compare with subsequent legislation.
Rejected. Critical feedback.

Fellowship application, February 2007
24 months, to analyse autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans, trace processes of desistance and identify the key factors in encouraging and inhibiting cessation of violent activity.
Rejected. No feedback.

Focused research grant application, April 2007
24 months, to analyse autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans, trace processes of political radicalisation & embrace of violent tactics, and identify the key factors involved.
Rejected. Feedback mostly positive but some scepticism (“It is not clear what the researcher is going to do in the project period other than reading a series of Italian autobiographies.”)

Research grant application, September 2007
12 months, to analyse a selection of autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans together with accounts produced by non-political career criminals, tracing processes of desistance and identifying the key factors involved, with the goal of producing an analystical model which could be applied to subsequent interview-based research.
Rejected. Feedback positive.

Fellowship application, October 2007
24 months, to analyse autobiographical accounts produced by Italian armed struggle veterans, trace processes of desistance and identify the key factors in encouraging and inhibiting cessation of violent activity.
Rejected. Feedback positive.

Fellowship application, February 2008
24 months, to analyse the impact of the Crime and Disorder Act’s statutory duty on local authorities to minimise ‘disorder’ by examining the regulation of disorderly events in the Manchester City Council area over a three-year period.
Rejected. No feedback.

Typically these rejections take about three months to come back. I’ve only just heard about the last one.

In the same period I’ve applied for lecturing posts at four other universities (one of them twice) as well as my own (three times), not to mention research posts at my own university (four of them). I may have forgotten one or two. I’ve had two interviews (I’m pretty sure that figure’s right).

A week or so ago, before I got the most recent rejection, I had a dream about all this. I was at a social event at work, with a smartly-dressed, slightly nerdy-looking band set up in one corner. They started playing “Don’t worry baby” – complete with harmonies – whereupon a guy from my department seized my hand and started spinning me round, encouraging me to dance. Then he started clapping out a complicated rhythm and encouraged me to join in, but I couldn’t pick it up. He looked a bit crestfallen – “Oh, you can’t get it? Never mind.”

What’s lurking here, I think, is a strangely moving account I once read of Keith Moon’s solo career, and in particular one recording session where he took lead vocals on “Don’t worry, baby” (he was a huge Beach Boys fan) with somebody else on drums. He was a weedy vocalist & the track was decidedly average, but someone who saw the session said that he was obviously loving every moment – this was what it was all about! Except that, of course, it wasn’t, not if your talents were Keith Moon’s.

On top of that, it evokes the funny bit at the end of Sudden Sway’s “Relationships” where a [fictional] percussionist called Kevin persistently fails to get anything like the beat. Groans all round, and the singer wades in and makes matters worse (“OK, so we’re only a support band, so what?”).

I think there’s a bit of Syd in there too – “Have you got it yet?”

So here’s me, trying and failing to get a research grant – and a proper contract with it. And here’s a drummer who really wants to be a lead singer; no one has the heart to tell him that he really can’t sing, so he keeps trying. He thinks he’s getting somewhere, but he never will – he really can’t sing.

And here’s a drummer who can’t even drum properly, who will only ever be a support act – and hey, what’s wrong with that?

And here’s a tune that I try to get, but I can’t get it – I can’t get it, it’s not possible to get it.

It’s taken me a long time and a lot of work to get to where I am; ironically enough, it would also take a lot of work to get back to earning a living the way I did before. So what I do next is clear enough: I go on. I’m working on another research funding application and an application for a teaching post. Vedremo.

Postscript
After a night’s sleep, curiously, I remembered that I have actually been in the position of being a percussionist who’s berated by the rest of the band for not getting the beat – and a drummer who wants to be a singer. When I was about 16 and half my social life revolved around the local church, some friends of mine were in a drippy acoustic group. They played at church events and sometimes during services; there was a bit of a fuss the week they did “Goodbye Again” during Communion. I longed to join, partly so I’d get to hang out with girls but mainly so I could amaze everyone with my singing; at this point I’d never actually sung in public, but I thought I’d be great when I did. But if you haven’t got the nerve to sing in public, the chances are you haven’t got the nerve to ask to sing in public either. So I talked myself into a rehearsal, but I didn’t dare to suggest singing; I volunteered to improvise on flute or else to play bongos. The flute improvisation didn’t work at all; the bongos worked for about a song and a half, but after that got on everyone’s nerves. Part of the problem was that I hadn’t thought much about patterns, & saw my role essentially as providing a kind of running percussion solo, a la Rebop Kwaku Baah. (Meets John Denver. During a church service. Yup, that’ll work.)

It’s a pretty embarrassing memory. But it’s also a memory of feeling unable to do something – sing in public – which I now do regularly. And something else I longed to do when I was in my teens was to grow up to be a university lecturer – I didn’t know how I was going to get there, either. Around the time this thought crossed my mind, I drifted into a half-sleep and dreamed of performing a song called “Fake detector” – probably the angriest thing I’ve ever written – while stalking up and down in front of a long table, with a row of people sat behind it.

Why do I think I’m suited for this job? You want to know why I think I’m suited for this job?

Maybe not. Still, vedremo. To quote my favourite bit of Gawain,

Of destinés derf and dere
What may mon do bot fonde?

No king can compare

A post-Christmas meme from Rob.

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags?

Wrapping paper. Bags are for bottles of wine.

2. Real tree or artificial?

We switched to real trees a few years ago. This year was our first dead tree stuck in a bit of wood; it dried out quite a lot over the twelve days, and shed prodigiously when we took it out, but actually stayed greener than last year’s (purportedly) live tree in a tub.

3. When do you put up the tree?

Last weekend but one before Christmas.

4. When do you take the tree down?

January 6th. Obviously.

5. Do you like egg nog?

I think I’ve only had it once. It was OK. Like Rob, I’ll take mulled wine (or Glühwein) any day.

6. Favourite gift received as a child?

Depends what you mean by ‘child’. I’ve got very fond memories of the thing I got one Christmas to go with my Matchbox car track thing whose name I forget no not Hot Wheels… If you put in two D batteries, it would accelerate your cars to enormous speeds, without the need to clip the track on to the side of a table. I was mildly disappointed to see that the dials on the side were painted on, but despite that it was a present and a half (machinery! speed! noise!)

When I was much, much older, I told my parents where they could get Soft Machine’s Third at a 10% discount; since CBS had already cut the price to £2.83 (for a double album), this was quite a bargain. It’s pretty challenging music and I didn’t get it straight away, but that Christmas I really enjoyed not getting it – it had the two great attractions of seeming extremely grown-up and extremely unlike anything my parents would listen to.

7. Do you have a nativity scene?

Yes; it’s plastic and forty or fifty years old. It came from my wife’s mother’s house, when she moved into a home.

8. Hardest person to buy for?

I’ll pass on that one.

9. Easiest person to buy for?

And that one, although it does bring back a memory of when my daughter was quite small. We asked her what she wanted for Christmas; she thought for a while, then said, “A present.”

10. Mail or email Christmas cards?

Physical cards, definitely.

11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received?

Again, I’ll pass on the details, but it was one that made me think I thought they’d know I’m not like that! Closely followed by Do I look like I’m like that? Am I like that?

12. Favorite Christmas movie?

I’m male, I’m married, I’ve got kids, I worked for many years at jobs I didn’t like, so it has to be It’s a wonderful life. Closely followed by Muppet Christmas Carol. This year we also saw Pulp fiction; that was good, too.

13. When do you start shopping for Christmas?

It gets later and later.

14. Have you ever recycled a Christmas present?

Certainly not.

15. Favorite thing to eat/drink at Christmas?

More wine than usual. Posh beer, earlier in the day than usual. I particularly like strong, ‘fruity’ beers at this time of year. I put ‘fruity’ in quotes here because of a beer I saw in a supermarket recently, advertised as made with plums and pudding spices. Not the point at all – your ideal winter beer tastes like Christmas pudding, but also tastes like beer. (See also Orval – my favourite Trappist ale – which somehow tastes exactly like a) marmalade b) very dark plain chocolate and c) beer.)

Cheese straws. Stollen. Lebkuchen. And fruit cake, of course. The runaway winner used to be my mother’s rum cake (a fridge cake, made with (or rather consisting of) sponge fingers, coffee buttercream icing and rum); I must see if I can find the recipe.

16. Clear lights or colored on the tree?

One string of each.

17. Favourite Christmas song?

“In the bleak midwinter”, or “O come all ye faithful” (especially on the day, with the Special Christmas Day Verse – for a moment I can almost believe it again). “I wish it could be Christmas every day” (for a few years in the 1970s, Roy Wood was untouchable) or “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” (the original, sad version). It’s the season for a sentimental pig-out, basically.

18. Travel at Christmas or stay home?

I used to go to my parents’. (For several years the other half and I used to go to our separate parents’; it worked for us.) Then we stayed at home for Christmas and all went to my mother’s for New Year. Then my mother died. So it’s home, these days.

19. Can you name all of Santa’s reindeer?

If there’s anything I hate more than Clement Moore’s ghastly poem it’s that bloody awful song about the stupid bloody reindeer with the luminous nose.

Yes, I can name all nine of them.

20. Angel on the tree top or a star?

We alternate.

21. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning of Christmas?

Christmas morning – after breakfast, when we’re all together. This was a very big deal when I was a kid (I was one of five); we’d assemble round the dining table, each with a pile of parcels in front of us, and have a kind of diplomatically synchronised unwrapping session. These days it happens on the living-room floor and we let the kids go first, but it’s still a big deal. It’s Christmas, after all.

22. Most annoying thing about this time of year?

I think this year I’d nominate Sainsbury’s Stilton promotion. They bought it in by the ton – with a view to piling high and selling cheap – with the result that what they got was far too young: it was soft, crumbly and clean-tasting instead of solid, waxy and sour. Being young, it also didn’t keep, but went smelly within a fortnight. Bah, supermarkets.

23. Favourite ornament theme or colour?

Not really. We usually buy a new tree ornament every year.

24. Favourite for Christmas dinner?

Well, er, turkey. Followed by Christmas pudding. In flames.

25. What do you want for Christmas this year?

Bit late for that.

28. Shopping…Mall or on-line?

I try to avoid both, although it gets harder every year.

29. Do you decorate outside for Christmas or just inside (or at all?)

Just inside.

There’s a lot of my own childhood in the way I think about Christmas, and a lot of change and loss. Perhaps that’s part of what we do when we celebrate the longest night, in among the crackers and the mince pies (“Absent friends!”). Then Christmas passes, the days grow longer and the year turns.

Old Christmas is past
Twelfth Night is the last
And we bid you Adieu
Great joy to the new

A tree in Paradise

Some years ago, John Harris (not the pundit) proposed a thought-experiment called the Survival Lottery. The premise was that the supply of organs for transplant is currently inadequate to meet the demand. Moreover, the whole business of harvesting organs for transplant is fraught with practical and emotional difficulties, putting both the bereaved and potential recipients under a lot of stress which both parties could do without. The result is inevitably that people die who could have lived, and that many who do live have shorter and less satisfactory lives than anyone would wish on them.

How much better it would be, in terms of the greater good of the greater number, if the government organised a consistent supply of transplanted organs, which could be calibrated to meet the demand. The mechanism would be the Survival Lottery: every citizen would have a number assigned to them (the NHS number would do nicely), and a periodic random draw would be made. The unfortunate individual whose number came up would be killed and his or her transplantable organs harvested.

This would be an outrageously cruel and arbitrary system, which would probably cut short the lives of several blameless citizens every year. However, it could be guaranteed to save more lives than it cost – making it less outrageously cruel and arbitrary than the state of affairs we live with now. It’s true that, under this system you’d live under the constant threat of having your number come up and becoming an organ donor against your will. But you’ve already got that risk hanging over you every time you cross the road – and you’ve also got the risk of sustaining an injury (or developing a condition) which would put you in need of a donor organ, which might not be available. Viewed in this light, the phrase ‘Survival Lottery’ is a rather pointed misnomer – we already live with a survival lottery. Harris’s system, as unthinkable as it may seem, wouldn’t create the lottery or even exacerbate it; in point of fact, it would improve the odds.

And yet, unthinkable is just what it does seem. This is a real ethical problem, gifted to us by the development of medical transplants (not that uninventing them would be much of an answer). Kazuo Ishiguro’s heartbreaking novel Never let me go looks at one science-fictional solution, the development of cloning to the point where people could be created to become donors. Kathy, Ishiguro’s narrator, looks at the life of the human clones from the inside: we follow her through childhood (lived in a kind of year-round boarding school), through adolescence and into training to be a ‘carer’. (It’s a self-sustaining system: people like Kathy look after their friends, as they go through a series of donations and finally ‘complete’, before they become donors in turn.) Throughout the book, Kathy muses – brightly and not very reflectively – on what it’s like to remember someone who’s not there any more; what it means to leave something that you’ll be remembered by; whether it matters if you haven’t left anything to be remembered by, providing that you live on in people’s memories; and whether even that matters in the long run, since after all those people won’t be around forever – and in any case you won’t be there to know about it.

In other words, Kathy shows us life as framed by death – the same life we all live, albeit for most of us with a much longer timespan. (Clones are sterile, of course.) Along the way, Ishiguro raises the unanswerable question – would it be tolerable to treat an identifiable group of people like this – as a harvestable resource – for the sake of giving the rest of us a bit longer? Surely not – but if it were possible, how could you justify not doing it? And, to ask a darker and more political question, if we were doing this to an identifiable group of people, what could persuade us to stop? We can be thankful that transplant technology wasn’t available to the Nazis – or to the eugenists of Britain and America for that matter.

The ghastly flaw at the heart of Ishiguro’s clone-based solution also disqualifies the seemingly obvious solution to the donor organ shortage, permitting organ sales. The question is, can we guarantee that the costs and risks of organ donation would not bear disproportionately on an identifiable minority? If there’s money changing hands, clearly not. A similar, albeit less obvious, flaw disqualifies Larry Niven’s ghoulish fantasy of ‘organlegging’, which makes organ donation a corollary of capital punishment. (A typically lip-smacking description is quoted here – ‘cardiectomy’, indeed.) You only need to look into the issue of differential access to justice – and differential likelihood of coming to the attention of the police in the first place – to see the flaw here.

What makes the Survival Lottery interesting, and differentiates it from ideas such as these, is precisely that it has the merit of equity: everybody’s number would be in the hat. (Even the Queen’s, presumably.) There’s something distasteful about it, all the same. In his poem “The Latest Decalogue” the Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough offered a gloss on each of the Ten Commandments, including the sixth:

Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive
Officiously to keep alive

(Ouch.) The Survival Lottery seems to start from the identical assumption, that failing to keep alive is morally equivalent to killing – but Harris moves from this to the utilitarian (and very un-Cloughian) conclusion that killing so as to keep alive might be allowable, as long as there’s a net increase in the number of people who survive overall. Philosophically, it comes down to whether we think the taboo on killing in cold blood is there for a good reason, and whether that taboo is strong enough to trump utilitarian considerations. Politically, the question is whether we have sufficient trust in the wisdom of the state to empower it to answer either of those questions in the negative. Personally I’d prefer the question of state killing to have fewer grey areas rather than more.

Having said all of that, the idea of introducing ‘presumed consent’ for organ donation – in effect, switching from opt-in to opt-out – seems eminently sensible. As Rob says, it’s hard to see whose interests could possibly be set back by this change, as anyone who cared enough to object would be able to express their preference in binding form by opting out (“I would not like to help anyone live after my death”). I suppose there’s a case for saying that understanding of the policy couldn’t be presumed – in the absence of which presumed consent would be meaningless – but surely this is a case for public education, not for pitching policy to the level of the voters’ lack of awareness. (It took my grandfather a couple of months to get the hang of decimalisation – he still had to live with it.) What appears to be an honourable refusal to take decisions in the name of an uninformed electorate is really the refusal to trespass on the voters’ apathy and ignorance; it may be what those voters would prefer, but it’s hardly in their best interests. I’m particularly disappointed in Harry Burns – Andrew Lansley’s comments were predictable, but Burns should have known better. (I’d never even heard of Harry Burns before this morning, and now this – I ask you.)

Never return again

It’s been a bad week for deaths. Arthur Lee died last Thursday. If you drew a line from Brian Wilson’s ice-cream symphonies to Dylan’s lyrical manifestoes, you’d meet the Arthur Lee of Forever Changes right in the middle. Arthur Lee was a great artist, responsible for some of the strangest and most beautiful moments in recorded music. His best years were well behind him when he died – but then, I would have said something similar in December 1980, and that was still a dreadful loss. So is this.

On the same day that I heard about Arthur Lee, I read that Pierre Vidal-Naquet had died (thanks, Paul). Vidal-Naquet was a great scholar, a lifelong political activist, a consistent left-libertarian and an equally consistent challenger of historical revisionism – no small matter on the French ultra-left, sadly. He leaves a gap which it’s hard to see any one person filling. (Writing that line reminds me of yet another recent departure, for whom it’s just as valid: Murray Bookchin, who died the day before Vidal-Naquet. Hard times for left-libertarians.)

But I have to say that none of these losses affected me as much as a fourth. Bob Smithies, who died the same day as Arthur Lee, was a gifted photographer, a Manchester Guardian man and a local TV personality. But more, much more than this, he was Bunthorne, compiler of some of the best crosswords I’ve ever attempted to solve. Bunthorne didn’t go in for the kind of themed crossword which John Graham (“Araucaria”) made his own, or for Araucaria’s meticulous distribution of easy and hard clues. The puzzle as a whole, for Bunthorne, took second place to the clue. Here Bunthorne had two specialities. One was the vast, sprawling anagram of thirty or forty letters, spread over six or seven separate lights and immediately identifiable by the liberal use of punctuation marks and contractions. The other is harder to describe, but can be summed up as “clues that don’t look like clues”: sequences of words which make a kind of sense, but seem to supply either far too little information for solving purposes or far too much (the page linked above features a celebrated example of the latter: “Amundsen’s forwarding address” (4)).

Solving a crossword clue (for me at least) is primarily a matter of letting my mind work on it while I’m doing something else; the answer generally comes to me fully-formed, leaving me to work out how the subsidiary indications fit in afterwards. Still, there are clues that you can solve by mental brute force, decoding the subsidiary indications one after another and trying to make a word from what comes out (between the points, that’ll be compass points, maybe it begins with N and ends with S?”). It’s a perfectly valid way to set a puzzle; most of Araucaria’s puzzles could in theory be solved entirely by this approach, without any relegation to the mental back-burner. Not Bunthorne’s. I’ve never known a setter whose clues were so unamenable to the methodical approach or so insistent on being solved in a flash of (delayed) realisation. There was a teasing, gnomic quality to the best of Bunthorne’s clues: you knew you were being told something; you knew you didn’t – yet – know what it was; and you knew that thinking wouldn’t help. You couldn’t say, afterwards, how you’d worked it out, because you hadn’t. Every Bunthorne clue solved was a small but mysterious victory.

And now it’s over: there will never be another Bunthorne crossword. Bob Smithies has left a gap – and, unlike the other three people I’ve mentioned, he’s left a gap in my life personally. I hate that feeling, particularly at the moment. It’s been four months now but I still miss my mother, in much the same sense that somebody in a liferaft misses being on board ship. I’ve lost people before now and felt there was a gap in my mental skyline, but this time it’s more as if the ground’s gone.

Death just doesn’t seem like something we’re equipped to deal with. Tolkien wrote somewhere that he’d realised, after seeing friends killed around him in the First World War, that death was the great paradox: on one hand, for a loved one to die is the worst and most unbearable thing that can happen; on the other, death is absolutely universal and absolutely unavoidable, the one thing which we can say with certainty will happen to everyone who’s been spared it so far. Crushingly unbearable yet universal and inevitable: how can that be? Apparently the story of Aragorn and Arwen began as an attempt to deal with this paradox, as it were by taking a God’s eye view. If love, among mortal beings, leads to the worst pain imaginable, how could an immortal love a mortal? But if love is divine and mortals are worthy of it, how could an immortal not? To put it more simply and without the elves: how can love be worth the pain?

The answer is, I suppose, that it is because we need it to be – or else that it isn’t but we still need it to be, because the only alternative which would be even halfway comfortably numb would be a life without love, and that would be unbearable in itself. Shortly after a friend died, a couple of years ago, I saw a prize example of stoner-philosophy graffiti, which nearly sums all this up:

LOVE + PAIN = LIFE WHICH LEEDS TO DEAF

Nearly, but not quite – life also leeds to birf (and a whole new round of LOVE + PAIN), as eny fule kno.

Ain’t that close to love?

When my son was born the midwife commented on his oily skin – “he’ll be a spotty teenager”. My own skin is noted for its sebaceous quality, so my reaction wasn’t surprise so much as anticipatory fellow-feeling – tempered by the utter inability to imagine this eight-pound armful as a teenager, spotty or otherwise.

He’s nearly eleven now and he’s just got his first spot. I guess it all starts now. I wish him luck.

But I’ve got solid proof that he’s not a teenager yet. We were watching The Breakfast Club last night (online DVD rental, it’s a great system) when he walked in. He asked what it was about, and we told him the setup – five kids are thrown together in a Saturday detention class and we see what happens. He was baffled – he literally could not comprehend why anyone would want to watch a film with no plot, as he put it.

You have to have been a teenager, I think, or else still be one. My son had walked in on the effective, understated scene where the teacher cracks and challenges Bender to a fight. Bender, whose own father regularly beats him up, shrinks into a corner looking scared, bewildered and above all stuck. It’s as if he’s realising that his whole repertoire of bullying and violence depends on adults not replying with greater force – but that adults ultimately, inevitably, will. I can’t imagine even explaining that one scene to my son for another year or two. (Mind you, all of that goes for nothing in the crawl-space blonde-joke scene that immediately follows, where Bender’s back to playing a cross between Tony from West Side Story and Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. But it’s that kind of film – the point’s been made, so it moves on.)

I didn’t see The Breakfast Club when it came out; it’s a bit odd seeing it now, when I’m the age of the older-generation characters (the kids’ parents, the sadistic teacher, the philosophical janitor). Some things which I expected to grate were surprisingly bearable – chief among them the ghastly scene where Molly Ringwald’s character gives the Ally Sheedy ‘basketcase’ character a makeover, turning her from a nervy urban gipsy into a kind of sleepwalking Pre-Raphaelite mannequin, and hence enabling her to get the guy (in the shape of Emilio Estevez, ‘the athlete’). I’d love to think this was ironic, but I don’t think John Hughes really does irony, or not at anything above a Readers’ Digest level (“His parents wanted him to be a success, but it was the pressure they put on him that made him fail!”) If I’d seen that scene back in the 80s I would probably have walked out there and then. Now… meh. It doesn’t offend me, because it’s so clearly not about me. It could even be the kind of thing kids do.

On the other hand, I was irritated by some things which would probably have rung true to me back then. So Bender (‘the criminal’) has problems with his parents, notably that they get drunk and beat him up. It comes out over the course of the day that ‘the athlete’ has problems too – specifically, he has problems with his parents and their expectations of him. Ally Sheedy’s character has problems with her parents (they ignore her); the Molly Ringwald ‘princess’ character has problems with hers, too (they’re divorcing and use her to get at each other). The nerdy Anthony Michael Hall character doesn’t appear to have any problems, until it turns out that he’s contemplating suicide because he’s not getting high enough marks… to satisfy his parents. I mean, come on, kids! Isn’t even one of you losing sleep over your prospective choice of career or your gender identity or a lack of friends or illegal drinking or illegal drugs or illness or your penfriend not answering your letters or your cat dying, or anything apart from your parents? Always with the parents! They haven’t got it easy, you know, and I’m sure they’re all trying to bring you up properly (with the possible exception of the Bender household). We didn’t ask for you to be born, you know. Well, OK, I suppose we did in a sense, but we didn’t ask for you to be teenagers.

Still, they were nice kids. The dancing scene was another one which would have had me groaning and tutting twenty years ago – what’s this doing here, it’s just an excuse for a cut-price pop video…. Last night, I have to say, I found it really charming. I’ve retrospectively hated my teenage years for a long time (my twenties weren’t that great either), but that scene in particular made being a teenager look like a lot of fun; more to the point, it stirred a few vague memories suggesting that it might occasionally have been like that. As I head towards being the father of a teenager – a role I’m sure I’ll screw up horribly, just like everyone else – it’ll be good to have those memories to hand.

And I wish him luck.

When you’re a kid they tell you it’s all grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have kids and that’s it. The truth is, the world is so much stranger than that, so much darker and so much madder – and so much better.

Loss

Prompted by the title of a recent post, the other day I put on the Mull Historical Society’s first album Loss as a background for getting some work done – not so much music to work with as to work against. Colin MacIntyre (who is the MHS) wrote the songs on the album after the death of his father, which a number of them refer to; the album came out in the summer of 2001, shortly after my father died. On a conscious level, at least, I’d forgotten all this; most of all, I’d forgotten that the album ends with a song which is also called “Loss”. You can find Mull Historical Society lyrics all over the Web these days (you can find lyrics by anybody all over the Web these days) but not the lyrics of “Loss”: it was a hidden track on the CD (although not on the vinyl release), and that has apparently rendered it invisible to whoever it is that puts these things up out there. So here it is.

“Loss”
Colin MacIntyre (Mull Historical Society), 2001

I share my loss with you
I share my loss with you

I tried to be afraid
I think that’s what you do
I tried to settle down
Into something new

I tried to wonder why
I need to come to terms
I tried all these things
Hey, all you need is time

I share my loss with you…

I tried to get ahead
I think that’s what I need
But I’m the last to know
I just want to feel

I tried to get away
But all I need is here
I tried to take time
I tried to take time

I wish I could be calm
I wish I could be free
I wish it could be you
Running next to me

I share my loss with you…

I tried to be afraid
I think that’s what you do
I tried to settle down
Into something new

I tried to wonder why
I tried to get away
I tried all these things
I tried all these things

I wish I could be calm
I wish I could be free
I wish it could be you
Running next to me

I share my loss with you
I share my loss with you

Hearing that song unexpectedly had me in pieces. Because that’s it: that’s exactly what it’s been like. Most obviously, the lyrics evoke a restless search for something that would work against loss, together with a sense that nothing does: all those ‘I tried’ lines evoke the numb, baffled sense of still being stuck with it, starting yet again from zero. ‘I tried to be afraid’ seems like an odd line, but I know that I’ve been wading through waves of unfocused anxiety and hypochondria recently; I think it’s because fear of the future is more manageable than grieving over something which has, unavoidably, happened. (You can do something about the future, after all.) Come to that, I remember being convinced I wasn’t long for this world after my father died; I’m with Colin, I think that’s what you do.

But nothing works, in any case. Nothing works except time, and even that’s a false friend: I’ll be feeling OK in a year, right, so by now I should be feeling about 10% better and next month… “Hey, all you need is time” – the glib tone of the line suggests the awful realisation that time doesn’t work either, or not in any way that you can measure. Nothing works, except perhaps to recognise that nothing works and abandon all the restless, anxious pulling away: to give up on trying to get away from the loss, get beyond it, move on.

The song enacts the pulling away it describes: it avoids the subject for as long as possible, and avoids facing the impossible, insoluble problem.

I wish I could be calm
I wish I could be free

To say that is to recognise that I don’t feel those things, which is something in itself. And also, perhaps, to recognise that lacking those feelings, day after day, is hard to bear; and to recognise that, for now, there may be nothing I can do to get them back.

I wish it could be you
Running next to me

And there it is. It took a while to get round to it – it even took me a while to get round to it in this post – but that itself is part of the problem. It’s hard to admit to grief, except as a kind of traumatic response in the immediate aftermath of a loss. There’s something slightly undignified about the sheer excess of it: come on, the world seems to say, the person you’ve lost is always going to be dead from now on, so are you always going to be mourning? Even when nothing like that has actually been said out loud, it’s hard to counter it. It’s difficult, in other words, to say Yes, it’s been nearly a month, and yes, I’m functioning quite normally now but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt any more, actually, because it does actually still hurt like hell,actually. Or words to that effect.

As for why it hurts – or what hurts – look at the second line. Colin MacIntyre is a youngish guy and his Dad died before his time, so maybe he does have memories of them going running together. My parents were both well on in years, and I’m not that young or active myself, so I couldn’t really conjure up anything more active than ‘walking next to me’. But it’s still a beautiful and evocative image: it suggests two lives moving forward side by side, continually present to each other, heading into a shared future. And that’s what’s gone. And that’s what’s hard to bear.

It’s a beautiful song. These are hard times.

Public service announcement

Ellis:

there is one dissenting voice on the blogger left. He believes he has located “a devastating case against Chomsky, focusing in particular on the Srebrenica massacre.”Yes, I mean you, Phil.

Well, I’m on to it, comrade. And I think we are are about to enter the exhilarating territory of a fraternal disagreement.

More soon.

Personal to ES: let’s not, OK? At least, not just now. After last month’s events I’m still turning down and postponing work assignments, so a fraternal disagreement is the last thing I need. Least of all about Chomsky.

The fault’s mine – I shouldn’t have blogged the damn thing in the first place. I generally avoid the topic of Chomsky because it’s so hard, in two senses, to write about him critically (which has been the only way I can write about the guy for several years now). On one hand, he writes in a style which makes it unusually hard to make anything stick; on the other, he’s got a lot of devotees who will react to any criticism by leaping to his defence as a matter of principle. Oliver Kamm (whom I agree with about practically nothing, except his critique of Chomsky) has evidently got the obsessive dedication and the thick skin which the Chomsky-critic needs. I haven’t, frankly – previous engagements with Chomsky’s defenders have left me drained, mentally and emotionally. And this is, clearly, the last thing I need right now.

So, I’m a libertarian socialist but I’ve got it in for Chomsky. Who knows why? Maybe I was frightened by a generative linguist at an early age. Maybe I just can’t handle Chomsky’s unflinchingly bleak vision of the world. Or maybe I’m not so much a libertarian socialist, more a wet liberal apologist for imperialism – that would explain a lot. Up to you.

But the exhilarating territory of a fraternal disagreement? No thanks, Ellis. Let’s not.

Very Small Update: I feel compelled to note that I own five books authored by Noam Chomsky and one by Francis Wheen (which I haven’t read). I didn’t pay for most of them, mind you.

Absolutely Final Update: Emma Brockes is an ignorant idiot, or at least writes like one; I thought her ‘interview’ with Chomsky was a really dreadful piece of journalism. This doesn’t qualify my own views on Chomsky’s work.

Many many sheep

I dreamed about my father this morning. In the dream, I’d somehow managed to establish contact with him where he is now (he died in 2001). He wasn’t happy: he was bored, he was lonely, he missed us, he missed his home. I didn’t like to explain to him that he couldn’t come back; it seemed unnecessarily hurtful. I told him that they’d built a whole new wing on the place where he was living, but he wasn’t interested.

(I realised afterwards that this last part was a reference to John 14:2.)

I don’t believe in personal survival, not least because I find it hard to believe that anything recognisable as the soul of an identifiable human being would not be dreadfully homesick. (I think it’s Little My, in one of the Moomin books, who asks how you get back down from Heaven and is outraged to hear that you don’t.) I like Robyn Hitchcock‘s lines:

I was free as a penny whistle
And silent as a glove
I wasn’t me to speak of
Just a thousand ancient feelings
That vanished into nothing – into love

Along similar lines, here’s a poem I wrote many years ago. I’m not sure where it came from – falling asleep, possibly.

DyingAfter my last visitor was gone,
I lay and let my eyes close.
The world dwindled away, and I watched
A noise of memories jostling, chattering,
Seeing images snap out of nowhere, shrinking, dilating,
Muttering… Then they too left me.
My eyes held only a deep, clear grey.
My body lay, now, calm and heavy,
My limbs, their weight, spread like scattered rocks,
Rocks tumbled on a shore, slanted from the sea’s waves,
Or rocks old on a hillside scattered, crooked
Huge. A river rose among those rocks:
A river, cold and quiet in the night,
My running slowly out to meet the sea.
Passing, then, down through dark valleys,
All through grey and gravel-bedded lands
And on to cliffs, and cataracts! falling in foam
Into the still air, smashed on rocks and splashing,
Hurrying, trembling, coming at last to the shore,
To the rim of the ocean. Under the stars
Flowing, oh coursing into the sea’s cold basin,
And my diffusion, out to horizon’s depth,
Mingled with the dark, glimmering sea,
And ah! the infinite circles of the stars!

That would do. (Poetrivia: the last line came first, in the best Hunting of the Snark style. I can also reveal that, in the phrase ‘rocks old on a hillside scattered’, ‘old’ is meant to qualify ‘hillside’. I’m sure you were wondering.)

Another way of looking at death is to say that, whatever it is, it’s not life – which is to say, it’s not any of the things that we know in life. Which leads in to these words, which I sang at my mother’s funeral. It’s mostly Shakespeare, with a couple of modern amendments (mine).

Fear no more the heat of the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear no slander or censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan.
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
Follow thee and come to dust.

May no misfortune take thee
Nor remembrance forsake thee.
Unquiet spirit forbear thee,
No ill thing come near thee.
Quiet consummation have
And renowned be thy grave!

A friend commented that our parents have ‘big lives’. It’s an odd phrase, but I think it captures something. My life (or your life, if you insist) is vast: my life contains everything there is, as far as I’m concerned. Other people’s lives are tiny by comparison. Only a few people have lives anywhere near as big as mine: my partner, my children, my very closest friends (perhaps) and, above all and before all, my parents. Big lives, and big absences. But if they’re not here I can’t really see that they’re anywhere – and I’d hate to think of their spirits parked endlessly in a kind of heavenly holiday development, bickering idly and wondering how we were getting on without them. Better to melt into a cosmic background thrum of love – or flow into a dark sea reflecting infinite stars.

Letting go

I went to my mother’s funeral on Monday. Writing those words I’m immediately reminded of Camus’ use of a similar opening, which he put to strikingly blank and dissociated effect (After the first sentence: “Aujourd’hui, Maman est morte,” you know that you are in the good hands of Albert Camus. The existential theme is just awsomeJosh, Great Falls.) Well, I’ll see your Meursault, Josh, and raise you Oswald Bastable:

There are six of us besides Father. Our Mother is dead, and if you think we don’t care because I don’t tell you much about her you only show that you do not understand people at all.

Or, for that matter, Lemony Snicket:

If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.

This quite complete statement will stop here.

The funeral was an odd affair. It was billed as a ‘celebration of the life’, with a brief family committal ceremony afterwards. This way of rebranding funeral services usually strikes me as inappropriate at best and positively unhelpful at worst: to celebrate a life is all well and good, but the loss also needs to be honoured – and surely it can’t entirely be honoured without letting go and howling. (She wouldn’t want us to be sad? Not forever, no, but I think she’d want us to miss her.)

In the event, though, the celebratory elements of the ceremony didn’t grate on me; I never felt we were rejoicing in the life so as not to look at the death. The life we were celebrating is over, after all: ultimately, celebration only adds to the keenness of the loss. What I couldn’t share was the consolation-of-faith element. I wondered if this was simply because my religious faith, if not quite non-existent, isn’t strong enough for me to entertain any thought that my mother is in a better place or happier now, let alone that she’s hooked up again with my father. But then, I don’t think I’d want a faith that gave me such certainty about something so unknowable. I’m not sure I’d want a faith that took the edge of something so sharp, either – but that’s not quite the same thing.

The mood of the committal ceremony was quite different. The minister opened by saying that we were there “to let go and let God”, which struck me as exactly right: this was a ceremony to move us on, a place for us to say she’s not ours any more and begin to let our mourning take a different colour. (No less intense – no less painful, for that matter – but different: less anxiety, more melancholy.) The tone of the committal was not at all consoling, and it was all the better for that: the message was a public, collective acknowledgment that something huge and incomprehensible had happened; and that those of us left were in enormous pain; and that this is how it is. Which doesn’t bring in consoling certainties; what it does do (oddly) is make the pain a little more manageable. There’s no denying how I feel – but there’s no denying how it is, either.

China Miéville (via Ellis) got me thinking about mourning and celebration, by way of some thoughts on revolution in fiction. (Stay with me here.) China:

the fantastic is uniquely well suited to examine these issues. I think that there are certain political issues that cannot be dealt with by ‘realistic’ narrative, and for me, revolution is a key one.

a revolution described by someone not in a revolution, let alone a post-revolutionary society so described, cannot be anything other than the palest imitation of the Carnival of the Oppressed that it would be, the earth turned upside down, because our minds are the minds of those living in an earth stubbornly and annoyingly the right fucking way up so if we take seriously the utter radicalism of a revolution and after, it is unthinkable for we who aren’t there. It either turns into absurdity or bureaucracy, in our telling – but with the fantastic, and only with it, I can literalise, concretise, Rosa’s insistence on the revolution’s immanence: I was, I am, I shall be.

actually existing humanity is already pretty fucking great, in much of its numbers, much of the time, so just imagine how fucking great the unfettered variety will be. I’m trying to remember the last line of Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution: ‘From these, new heights will emerge’ – something like that, about the astonishingness of the new human

For what it’s worth, here’s Leon:

the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

But let’s not linger over Communist man. China’s key point – and a deeply Marxist point, for most decent values of the word – is that actually existing humanity is already pretty fucking great, in much of its numbers, much of the time. Amen to that, and cue Russell:

DOCTOR [genuinely shocked]: Who said you’re not important? I’ve travelled to all sorts of places. Done things you couldn’t even imagine, but… you two… Street corner. Two in the morning. Getting a taxi home. I’ve never had a life like that. Yes. I’ll try and save you.

Ordinary people – or rather, ordinary lives – they’re great.

But note the echo of Roy Batty’s death scene (“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”) Street corner. Two in the morning. Getting a taxi home. – those moments, too, will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Ordinary lives, they’re great. They deserve to be celebrated – and mourned.

Not to mention tea

My mother once said that when she retired she’d call her house “YBOTHACUKIN”. (After some discussion she agreed that this spelling was a bit common and accepted my suggested alternative, the fake-Welsh “Y-BODD-Y-CWCYN”. Too clever by half, we were.) She never quite reached the point of “why bother”, and never intended to; it was a daring, scandalous suggestion. Still, in her last few years she didn’t do much cooking – quiches from M&S and Waitrose were a favourite.

When we were young, though, she cooked a phenomenal amount. There was, among other things:

Bara brith. Served sliced and buttered. The trick was soaking the fruit in tea beforehand.

Cheesecake – and one recipe in particular, set rather than baked and using cottage cheese as well as curd cheese. Sounds a bit odd but was wonderful.

Cheese scones. Particularly good split and buttered while still warm from the oven.

Devil’s food (never “Devil’s food cake”). Very dark, very dense, very rich. Served in small slices.

Eggy bread – my breakfast every day for several years, school days included. (I don’t know what time my mother got up.) A slice of bread soaked in beaten egg and fried, served in quarters. Not to be confused with

French Toast, a simple but beautiful recipe consisting of two thin slices of bread, sandwiched together and toasted on the outside, then buttered on the untoasted side while still hot.

Hamburgers. When I was about ten I went to an air show with a friend’s family, and was surprised to hear his father talk about going to get some hamburgers – I couldn’t imagine anyone going to all the trouble of making hamburgers in the middle of a field. My mother’s hamburgers were labour-intensive; as well as mince (which she minced herself, sometimes from cold leftovers) they contained onion, flour and egg – and then there was all the bother of frying them, two or three at a time. They were good, though.

Hot cake. As this list grows I’m becoming aware of the key role played by butter in our family recipes. Hot cake was so called because it was best eaten hot from the oven. It was a lemon-flavoured sponge, baked in a square tin; you ate it in small slices, buttered.

Kartoffelpueffer (potato pancakes). You grate raw potatoes coarsely (squeezing the water out), then combine with chopped onion and bacon, bound with egg. And fry. One of the most satisfying meals I can imagine. (My wife’s Ukrainian mother had a similar recipe, but with the potatoes grated finely – more like latkes. Latkes are very nice, but my Mum’s kartoffelpueffer went up to eleven.)

Lemon meringue (never “Lemon meringue pie”). (Another Americanism – perhaps borrowed from Americans they’d met in Germany?) Every Sunday, we would all go to church. Every Sunday after church, my mother would make a roast dinner. And every Sunday, she would also make a lemon meringue, from scratch. This is, essentially, three desserts in one: make pastry, line a dish and bake it blind; separate some eggs and make a thick, sharp, translucent lemon custard with the yolks; combine the whites with sugar and beat them into meringue. Then combine and bake. By our current standards it’s insanely labour-intensive, especially for following a big meal; you wouldn’t dream of putting yourself through that on a weekly basis. But she did.

Marmalade. The first time I worried that my mother’s health might be failing was the winter when she said she wasn’t going to make marmalade. There are some good shop marmalades out there – I’m quite partial to Duerr’s 1881 – but nothing has ever come close to the marmalade my mother used to make.

Rolled oats. We were highly European. One of our favourite breakfast cereals consisted of rolled oats with sugar and milk. It was only years later that I realised I’d been eating a makeshift muesli.

Rum cake. A Christmas speciality, served from the fridge; as far as I can remember it consisted mainly of sponge fingers, buttercream icing and rum.

Spaghetti Milanese. We had spaghetti bolognaise [sic] and macaroni cheese, but we also had this recipe, which combined spaghetti with onion, bacon, chopped hard-boiled egg, grated cheese and tomato puree. (I’ve no idea if this is what anyone else would call ‘Milanese’.) It’s dry without being bland; if you make it right the tomato puree, the cheese and the boiled egg yolk effectively coat the pasta. Like the kartoffelpueffer, I still make this from time to time. Like the kartoffelpueffer, it’s superb.

Some of these are already lost to me – I doubt I’ll ever make marmalade (or lemon meringue for that matter), and ‘hot cake’ will probably always be a mystery. Still, some remain. I’ll take them from here. And I will mention

Tea. My mother was a great believer in cups of tea. She would always put the kettle on when I arrived, and always top up the pot so that I could have a second cup. She introduced me to tea when I was eleven or twelve years old. My son, who is ten, has recently started drinking tea. I’m glad about that.

I’ll see you in my dreams

My mother died this morning. She was 84.

She 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, PBs would share actual bread rather than the rice-papery wafers they use in the Church of England. 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 got his way; from then on, he brought his own supply of unleavened bread and communed with himself.

Growing up in an intensely religious household, my mother had the worst of both worlds: she believed that her parents’ religion was true, but she didn’t, herself, believe it; she wasn’t saved. Which meant that Jesus could come back at any moment, and she’d be bound for preterition. For a while she used to pray that Jesus would at least postpone the grand finale until her younger sister had been saved. Her sister spoiled this plan; not taking the whole religious thing quite so seriously, she was quite happy to please her parents by announcing that she was saved.

My mother didn’t do too well at school. She was studying psychology in evening classes when she got married; she gave up the course shortly before she would have completed it, feeling it wasn’t the kind of thing a young married woman should be doing. So, no qualifications. She always regretted this, but never did anything about it; she didn’t even learn to drive when my father did, feeling (in her fifties) that it was too late to be bothering with anything like that. (Then she regretted that decision, too.)

She’d married my father, anyway, when she was 28 and he was 35. (I always found their wedding day easy to remember in my Red youth, as it was the 1st of October 1949.) Neither of them ever talked much about the war. They lived in London throughout it; he’d had TB and wasn’t fit enough to enlist (he also worked at the War Office, which might well have been a reserved occupation). Soon after they were married he was posted to Germany, where they had a house, a maid and money to spend. They also had three children in just over two years (all girls, two of them twins). Coming back to Britain in the early 1950s – with no servants and a mortgage to find – must have been a shock to the system. I think it was around this time that my mother in turn developed TB, had half a lung removed and gave up smoking. (It’s thanks to my mother that I’ve only ever bought two packets of cigarettes – and one of those was for research purposes (If you can get twenty cigarettes for 50 pesetas, just how bad can they be?) She found out I was smoking halfway through the first packet (Gitanes, naturellement), and she came down hard.)

I was born in Purley – which wasn’t a famous place at the time, thanks all the same – at home, at midnight, assisted by a midwife who (bizarrely enough) had previously nursed my mother when she had TB. (She recognised her; her first words were “Do you think you ought to be having a baby?”) My mother told me later she was afraid for me during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We moved down the road to Coulsdon when I was three; I grew up in a detached, four-bedroomed house, which my mother later said they would never have taken on if they’d realised how much work it needed. When I was still quite small my father’s TB recurred; apparently my mother was just giving me my lunch when I saw him being taken out of the house on a stretcher and screamed. I don’t remember that, but for a long time I had a vivid compound memory of the music from Desert Island Discs, a willow-pattern plate and a nice big helping of some unidentified stuff (a bit like baked beans, only not beans, that other stuff, that stuff I used to have, I really liked that stuff…). I guess that was the moment before.

They were quite religious in this period. From my mother’s PB background and my father’s Chapel they’d both migrated to the Church of England, where they were fairly active; for a few years we even had holidays at church retreats. (On one of these I played with Tim Westwood and acquired a red plastic fish called Belinda. Unfortunately I only remember one of these.) There was religion and there were rows; my mother walked out on one occasion, fully intending to go to her mother in Thornton Heath, but came back when she realised that she didn’t have the bus fare. Things were less stormy by the time I was taking notice, but I do remember that the Sunday Lunch Washing-up Row was a regular fixture. (They even shut the kitchen door.) My younger sister was born in 1966. My father was still working for the War OfficeMinistry of Defence (the Civil Service may have changed now, but in his day once you were in a Ministry you stayed put); when my sister was two and I was eight, he was posted to South Wales.

The next five years were, fundamentally, magical. The schools weren’t great, the social life was highly circumscribed and it was a twenty-mile journey to the nearest cinema, concert venue, large supermarket or school uniform shop; for my older sisters it was a very mixed blessing, and for my mother – at least to begin with – it was unimaginably dull. But I remember it very fondly, as does my younger sister. There were woods to explore and cliffs to climb and miles of beach to walk, in and out of season – especially out of season. And there was that year-round sense of occasion that only village life can really give you: that sense that there are only a few events to look forward to, but everyone will be taking part in those same few events and everyone’s looking forward to them. (Years later we happened to be on holiday in Mullion Cove, in the West of Cornwall, on the day of the annual fete. I knew exactly what was going on – it hadn’t changed a bit.) Then there was the background thrum of pride that characterises the world of the armed forces. This isn’t just an officer-class thing. My parents, uniquely and rather scandalously, used to go to the Sergeants’ Mess as well as (and more often than) the Officers’ Mess. (My father was head of the local establishment on the civilian side, so naturally we were ranked as an ‘officer’ family; he was also the son of a Welsh miner and rock-solid Labour, so the idea of only mixing with other ‘officers’ didn’t sit too well with him.) I’d say that the sense of pride – and the sense that any privileges we might enjoy were entirely justified – came from (and was felt by) the other ranks as much as the officers: it was partly when the chips are down, we run this place but mostly if it needs doing, we’ll do it. It’s a remarkable atmosphere, and I’m not sorry to have been exposed to it.

I was nearly 13 when we came back to Coulsdon, and my mother was 52. My father was approaching retirement age, and there was some talk of retiring right there in Wales; they even looked into taking over the post office in a village called Login, which would have been interesting if nothing else. Nothing came of it, though. Once, before we went to Wales, my mother had got a part-time job on the telephone exchange; I more or less forced her to give it up, at one stage going out in the street with the intention of waiting till she came back. Things were a bit easier now, and she took a part-time job working at the godforsaken Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office, at Lunar House in Croydon. (Someone who’s an authority in my current academic field was working at Lunar House in the same period, as a twenty-something Executive Officer. I’m meeting him soon and had been looking forward to asking him if he remembered my mother, and telling her about it afterwards. I suppose I can still do some of that.) When she got home, during the school holidays, we would regularly share a pot of tea and a Caramel bar. (Doesn’t sound like much, I know.)

Later, she got involved in teaching English as a second language. This wasn’t class-based; she was given the details of two or three immigrant women who wanted to improve their English, and she’d go round and chat with them. I remember the Nigerian woman who my mother introduced, purely for social reasons, to a young Nigerian guy we knew; what she hadn’t factored in was that he was Yoruba whereas she was Ibo, which meant that it went off rather like a royal visit (So you do all the cooking? Good, good!) Another of her clients, Mrs A from Sri Lanka, became a family friend; I’ve got fond memories of her ‘rich cake’, which was essentially fruitcake reimagined as an Indian sweet.

It was Mr A who suggested that I get a job, between school and university, at the local psychiatric hospital (which was one of the institutions that ringed London, where the old Green Belt began). My mother encouraged me to take the job and to stick at it. I’ll write about that job another time; a two-word summary would be “unbelievably awful”. Then I went to university; then I went back home; then I moved to Manchester, to the great displeasure of both my parents. They didn’t understand my choice of career, they didn’t immediately get on with my girlfriend, and they certainly didn’t approve of my decision to move to be with the latter before I’d even got a job. Eh, well – water, bridge.

After my father retired, they moved to Brighton (selling the house to Mr A). The community in the street and the local church gave them both a new lease of life, my mother especially; she also worked in the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau for a while, and kept in touch with CAB people for a long time afterwards. (She also kept in touch with church people who had moved on, as well as with a lot of people from Coulsdon and one or two from Wales. That was how she was.) For several years I went to Brighton on my own at Christmas, while my girlfriend (same one) went to her mother’s. With five in the family, family Christmases were always a very big deal. It wasn’t quite the same in Brighton – not everybody could stay, apart from anything else – but for a while it was close. And then of course there was Brightonpace Arthur Machen, the best town there is for wandering around. It was less tarted-up and redeveloped then than it is now; the North Laines, in particular, were still scrubby and bohemian.

Then my girlfriend and I got married (still the same one) and had two kids of our own. When our second was still quite young, my father died. He’d been ill in various ways for quite a while – that’s another story which I’ll write another time – but the end, when it came, was gentle and quiet: one day he stopped eating, and the GP advised my mother to stop trying to feed him; a few days later he stopped talking; a few days after that it was over. It was a good death, for him. My mother had run herself ragged looking after him; she was determined to make sure he could die at home, even if it meant she had to give him what was effectively 24-hour care. She grieved a little after he’d died, but she didn’t collapse. She confided later that a large part of what she felt was relief.

I stayed in touch, of course, and we kept on taking the children down to Brighton, of course. As time went on there began to be something odd about the way she talked. The stream of recollection and anecdote was as fluent as it had ever been, but it seemed less focused – half the time I really didn’t know these people she was talking about – and more repetitive: she’d start with a story, move to a general point, then use the same story to illustrate it. But who was to say how well you or I would be functioning at 83?

Shortly before her 84th birthday we had a family get-together. We were missing one of my sisters (plus husband and two children), but otherwise we were all there: four children, five grandchildren and her. Apart from my father’s memorial service, that was the only time we were all in the same place. It was also the only time she visited the sister who hosted it in that house. She didn’t travel much after my father died; she said a few times she’d come to see us in Manchester, but never managed it.

Two months after her birthday she had a stroke. She didn’t lose consciousness, but she was paralysed down one side and couldn’t speak at all. Within a couple of weeks she’d regained most of the motor function and verbal ability that she’d lost, but something else had gone adrift. She went from the hospital to a specialist stroke rehabilitation unit, which discharged her with indecent haste (or so, at first, it seemed to us); she went to a nursing home, fees to be funded from the sale of her house. Gradually we realised that it wasn’t simply a matter of recovering from the stroke; dementia had already been eating away at her mind and memories, and the stroke had only made matters worse. (‘We’ here refers to her children, or at least the four of us who were in Britain and in regular phone contact. I will happily throttle anyone who uses the words ‘bright side’ or ‘silver lining’, but it’s true that we’re talking a lot more than we had been before.)

She was in that home for a little over two months. I’m not sure she ever really settled there. On two of the last three times when I saw her there, she was quite convinced that we had come to take her home – or, if not, that we could be persuaded to take her home – or, if all else failed, that we couldn’t actually overrule her if she told us she wanted to go home. It was distressing. Fortunately the third time was the odd one out; she was a lot calmer that day, possibly because we’d told her that we were calling in on our way back to Manchester. A few days after that she actually made a break for it and got about fifty yards up the road before anybody from the home caught up with her. Brighton’s not the kind of town where dotty old ladies can safely wander; the home told us that she’d have to go to another home, preferably one which was geared up to deal with dementia patients – and had locks on the doors.

Nothing ever came of that. About a week later, she had another stroke: a much larger bleed this time, and on the other side of the brain. She lost consciousness and didn’t come round again. My sisters and I went to Brighton, to sit with her. There was nothing to be done; the consultant told us that, while a sudden reversal couldn’t be ruled out, the chances were that she was in “the dying phase of her life” and that heroic efforts to revive her – or even to treat any infection that might develop – would be misplaced.

She didn’t develop an infection, as far as we could tell. I saw her yesterday morning; by all appearances she was simply sleeping peacefully, her breathing shallow but relaxed. I think now her breathing had grown more shallow over the three days that she’d been unconscious, but I may be imagining that. In any case, she died this morning, without ever regaining consciousness.

Early this morning I had a nightmare: four black dogs – squat, belligerent Labrador crosses – were outside our front door; when I opened the door a little way, one of them lunged, got its nose into the door and tried to attack me. No prizes for guessing where that came from. But there’s a difference between ‘bad’ and ‘sad’: this is an unutterably sad time, but what’s happened isn’t wrong or frightening, even for us. Certainly not for her. I talked to her a few times while I was there; one of the things I told her was that it was time for her to rest, and that she could go in peace. My sister helped to lay her out. She said that her face had an expression of pleasant surprise, “as if she’d just got the punch-line of a joke”.

Oh, so I don’t have to go back there!

I hope it felt like that, anyway.

Goodbye, Mum.

Flowers and their hair

Political radicals and activists are often stereotyped as people who’ve got something wrong with their lives – it’s just displacement, his Mummy wouldn’t buy him a pony… This is mostly wrong, of course, but I think it’s also partly right – and for the same reason that it’s mostly wrong. After all, everybody – with the possible exception of the young Buddha – has something wrong with their life; everybody knows the experience of loss, rejection, loneliness, helpless anger, despair. (If Melanie Klein was right we’ve already known a lot of this by the time we start saying mama.) The question is, as always, what you do with it. Your knowledge of what it’s like to be down there may fire you with empathy for all the people who are down there in real, physical terms, every day of their lives – or it may fire you with the determination to ensure that you’re never, ever going there again. And it’s not always obvious which set of eyes you’re looking through. Cue the Bill Hicks quote. (No, not the one about people who work in advertising, the other one.)

So that gives us two ways of looking at the relationship between personal sources of unhappiness and radical rage: it may be empathetic engagement (your wound, my wound, the bastards!); rather more sneakily, it may be fearful narcissism (they’ve got you, they may get me next, the bastards!) Another angle is offered by Jean-Pierre Voyer’s attempted fusion of Wilhelm Reich and the situationists. Voyer is one of those radical-left French intellectuals who went a bit weird in the 1980s and is now best approached with bargepole in hand (see also: Pierre Guillaume, Serge Thion). But he wrote some useful stuff in his time, notably Reich: How to use. From which this, slightly modified, quote stands out:

Whether the subject sinks into madness, practises theory or participates in an uprising … the two poles of daily life — contact with a narrow and separate reality on one hand and spectacular contact with the totality on the other — are simultaneously abolished, opening the way for the unity of individual life

To engage in a coherent critique of power relations in contemporary society, according to Voyer, was necessarily to think differently and live differently. Your own life would be the prism through which you would see the crushing, distorting, disempowering might of the totality – and one result of a sustained, active critique of the totality (a.k.a. practising theory) would be that things would get a bit strange for a while. (Have I actually read this stuff? I hear you cry. Well, I know I’ve read Reich: how to use at least once and found it worthwhile, but glancing at it now the vines of Voyer’s grandiloquent self-regard seem to be trailing rather heavily across the path of his argument. Knabb’s eccentric-seeming case study, on the other hand, is as lucid, thought-provoking and unsparing as most of what he writes, which is to say, very.)

Where does this leave the angry political blogger? Not, I think, engaging in the practice of theory, and not really looking through the eyes of love. More and more, I feel that when I post angry I’m posting, in part, to sustain and relish my own anger. It’s a bridge between personal and political (anger is always personal), but it’s a bridge in the form of a knot – all I’m doing is feeding myself reasons why I can go on feeling angry.

And – returning to the Rorschach analogy in the previous post – those reasons aren’t necessarily there. Does Charlie Falconer hate poor people? It would certainly suit my personal distempered vision of New Labour to suppose that he does, but I know that in reality he almost certainly doesn’t; he probably thinks the working class is perfectly sweet, when he happens to bump into it. My guess is that when he commends policies which seem to incarnate contempt for Labour’s historic constituency, he’s doing it not because he feels that contempt himself but because he hasn’t thought about it. Which doesn’t make him any less dangerous, but makes him harder to fulminate against. I think that’s a gain, in an odd way.

Another example is the case of Blair’s ‘idealism’. The other day I attended a seminar addressed by Giancarlo Aragona (the Italian Ambassador) and Steven Haines – an interesting speaker who was on particularly good form. Haines’ answer to one question from the floor struck me. An International Relations lecturer asked him where he’d place Bush and Blair on the classic idealist/realist spectrum: I mean, they may like to present themselves as idealists, but can they be really? (We could hear the footfall of Chomskyan dietrologia on the stairs – idealism? Halliburton, Iraqi oil, Paul Bremer’s missing millions, and you talk about idealism?) Haines was having none of it: the Foreign Office and the MoD were mostly staffed by realists, he said, and they certainly didn’t think Blair was a realist. I think this is exactly right: sometimes what you see is what you get. We may not share Blair’s ideals or his view of the appropriate ways to act on them, but the idea that he doesn’t have ideals or that he’s not acting on them is unsustainable. Which makes him rather less evil and rather more strange. I think that’s a gain, too.

So do me a favour, gentle readers (apparently there are seven of you now, which is nice). From now on, if you see me doing the blog equivalent of shouting at the TV or trying to set the world to rights over one pint too many (you know what’s wrong with the world? I‘ll tell you what’s wrong with the world!)… don’t encourage me.

(And if you recognise the howlingly obscure quote in the post title, give yourself a Shinylet me know in the Comments. I’ll give you a clue – there’s a connection with my last post but two.)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 204 other followers

%d bloggers like this: