Category Archives: everyday life


I went to Stoke-on-Trent yesterday, to lend a hand with canvassing. I got off to a bit of a bad – well, late – start, and didn’t get there till 12.15. I met a canvassing team on my way to the GMB office and would have tagged along with them straight away, except that they were knocking off for lunch. I might as well have gone to the pub with them; when I got to the office I was told that Jeremy Corbyn was due to speak at 1.00, so I’d be better off hanging on till then and look for some people to go out with afterwards. Not knowing anyone, and not being adept at striking up conversation with strangers, I decided to head back into town and grab something to eat. I found what I was looking for – a stall selling, and indeed making, oatcakes, which was doing a roaring trade. (I still can’t get over the fact that they make the oatcakes right there. Thought they came in packets…)

Back at the office, there still wasn’t anyone to talk to – well, there were lots of people, just nobody I felt comfortable talking to. This is where it would have been better to get there earlier, or for that matter to join the Spoons party. Security for the Corbyn session was tight – well, tight-ish. Was your name down? Failing that, did you have your party membership card? Failing that, did you have some form of photo ID, a post-1998 driving licence perhaps? Failing that (the guy with the clipboard was sighing audibly by this stage)… well, could you write down your name and address on this piece of paper? I could manage that, fortunately. Starting to feel like Harry Worth, I made my way through to the side room, where three rows of ten chairs had been set out – either pessimistically or because that was all the chairs they had, I’m not sure. There were already forty or fifty people there who’d had to stand, and more were coming in all the time; Phil reckons there were 150 in there by the time Jeremy Corbyn spoke, and I wouldn’t say he was wrong.

As for the speech, Corbyn made some good if fairly basic points, and sounded genuinely passionate – genuinely angry at times. It wasn’t a tough crowd, but he got us pretty well worked up; oratorically he wasn’t bad at all, apart from an odd habit of breaking up the slogan-talk with little patches of bureaucratese – “Britain deserves better! We can do better! And we will do better, as I indicated in my earlier comments on health and social care!” (It’s an Old Labour thing, I guess, going back to the kind of meetings where people would be equally impressed by the rhetoric and by your grasp of which composite was which.) Overall I was pretty impressed – with the speech and with the man – although I was disappointed that he didn’t so much as mention Brexit or the EU. “Real fight starts here”, as he said – and the message, explicitly or implicitly, was that it’s the same fight it always has been, for democratic socialism and the welfare state. I think this is profoundly mistaken; I hate to agree with Tony Blair, but I think he was right to link the two issues, given that the inevitable post-Brexit downturn will be the perfect justification for further privatisation and wrecking of public services. Gareth Snell – the candidate in Stoke-on-Trent Central – is promising to deliver the best possible Brexit for the Potteries, but I’m afraid this is a bit like offering the best possible programme of compulsory redundancies. Or rather, almost exactly like.

Anyway, after the speech I hung around the main room while it cleared, intending to work my way to where the party workers were handing out clipboards and leaflets and throw myself on their mercy (er, sorry… Manchester… on my own… haven’t actually done this before… maybe if somebody could show me the ropes… sorry…). Fortunately this wasn’t necessary, as somebody was putting together a carload and I was able to volunteer to make up the numbers. To my surprise and alarm, nobody gave me any lines or talking points, or told me what to do in any way – other than telling me which door to knock and who was likely to be there – but it was fine; I picked up what there was to pick up pretty quickly.

We were a group of five, not counting Mike with the board. I’ve been out canvassing in a group of three before now, which is a large enough group to give you an enjoyable sense of getting through the route quickly. Five is even better – we smashed that route. Several times I finished an address, looked round and saw Mike a good hundred yards further down the road, giving out addresses to the lead members of the group; the stragglers would catch up, get our addresses… and repeat. It wasn’t a quick job – we went out at about 2.00 and didn’t get back till nearly four – but I think we canvassed that route about as quickly as it’s ever been canvassed. (For locals, it was Hartshill Road – numbers 100-500, give or take.)

Back at the office, I baled out rather than go out again, for no better reason than that I wanted to be home for tea. Yes, I’m a lightweight; never said I wasn’t. If I’d had any doubts on that point, incidentally, talking to some of my fellow volunteers would have dispelled them; our group of five included people from Watford and Berkshire, both of whom had come up for the day, and both of whom were still there when I left for my half-hour train journey back to Manchester. I spoke to more than one person who’d joined the party within the last eighteen months, including one 1980s member who’d rejoined (plenty of those in our ward branch, too). It’s worth emphasising: even after the Article 50 vote, even with a candidate who isn’t especially left-wing, the new recruits are still turning out and getting the work done.

What was it like? It was an extraordinary experience. The sheer variety of housing was mind-boggling. Finished that block of 90s redbrick flats? Take this semi-D set back from the road up a flight of 30+ steps, or these high Victorian Gothic mews houses (complete with iron-bound fake-medieval front doors with huge ring knockers), or that flat over a shop and accessible only by fire escape… Nobody in? Post a leaflet and move on (new pet hate: those furry hand-grabbers which appear to have been fitted to every letter slot in Stoke-on-Trent). I got more exercise yesterday afternoon than I have on a Saturday afternoon in quite a long time.

But that wasn’t the question, was it. What was the ‘doorstep experience’ like – what did people say? Well, mostly they didn’t say anything, because mostly they were out. The stockpile of talking points and instant rebuttals that I’d imagined us being given wasn’t needed; with one exception, the doorstep encounters were over in a matter of seconds. That exception was, ironically, the first door I knocked on: it was opened by an old woman who was only too happy to tell me about who she was and wasn’t thinking of voting for, and why. (Although even she didn’t mention Brexit; perhaps Corbyn’s approach is right after all.) Listening to her, I thought for a few mad moments that John Harris had a point. She’d always voted Labour, until recently; her father used to say that Labour was the party of the working man, and she’d always lived by that. But now – Jeremy Corbyn, well… Some friends of hers had been lifelong Conservatives, and they’d switched to UKIP, and they were very clever people – they’d gone UKIP because HS2 was going to go near their farm, and UKIP said they’d stop it. She didn’t support the Conservatives, though – she thought it was dreadful, what they’d done to the NHS; we never used to have these crises all the time. But UKIP had said they weren’t going to privatise the NHS, so… She liked Nigel Farage, too – thought he said some interesting things. She didn’t like Paul Nuttall, though – didn’t trust him, particularly with the Hillsborough story – so she thought maybe she wouldn’t vote for UKIP; maybe she wouldn’t vote at all. From there we somehow got on to Tristram Hunt; she didn’t like him at all, and (bizarrely) expressed some bitterness about the way he’d been ‘parachuted in’ in 2010. She wasn’t sure about the candidate this time round – was he married? Was he related to so-and-so Snell, that woman, what was her name…? (I know nothing about Gareth Snell’s personal life, and the only female Snell I can think of is Lynda, so I was no help there.) Then it was back to UKIP, and – perhaps inevitably – immigrants. Her take on immigration was, firstly, that there was far more traffic on her road than there ever used to be, and secondly that we shouldn’t be taking people in when we couldn’t look after our own; this in turn led to her fears that there wouldn’t be any adult social care for her when she needed it. I thought of pointing out that something like one in four of the people working in care homes in this country are EU citizens – so far from making it harder to provide, EU immigration is one of the things keeping adult social care afloat. But I wanted to get on – and it’s a complicated point to make, not to mention one which directly challenged her beliefs – so I let it slide. Besides, I was still boggling inwardly at the one about traffic.

It’s worth remembering that the over-75 former-Labour-voter demographic is small and atypical. It’s not that it doesn’t matter how many of them we lose – clearly it does – but that addressing the reasons why we lost them may not do us any good more widely. In any case, how would we address the ‘concerns’ expressed in the previous paragraph? “We shouldn’t take people in when we can’t look after our own” is a good, emotive talking point, but it’s based on a false premise – we can ‘look after our own’; we could do it with ease, if we had a government that wasn’t set on dismembering the welfare state. Yes, the NHS should be properly funded. Yes, adult social care should be properly funded and supported. All good Labour stuff – what were those overlooked and denigrated concerns, again? Just the traffic, really; that, and the sense that things have changed for the worse, and that ‘immigrants’ are something to do with it. There’s no logic there, unless it’s dream logic: that thing that worries you? how about we fix it by getting rid of those people you’re suspicious of? no, it’s not connected – well, maybe it is connected, who knows? – but even if it’s not connected it couldn’t hurt, could it? And, of course, this irrational fix – which is literally the stuff of nightmares, sating one kind of anxiety by hot-wiring it into another kind of resentment – is precisely what UKIP have been selling all these years, like the Tory right and the Fascist parties before them. UKIP have succeeded where their forebears failed, in surfacing that fearful, resentful dream logic and making it respectable. The idea that any given social problem was caused by “too many immigrants” was, literally, unspeakable for many years, but it was unspeakable not out of ‘political correctness’ but for good reasons: because the attitude it represents is not only hateful and divisive, but irrational and hence insatiable. Now it’s mainstream. I don’t know how – or if – Labour can put it back in its box, but I’m sure we need to work harder than we have done on holding the line against it. (I’m looking at you, Andy Burnham.)

I didn’t speak to many people on the doorstep, and apart from the woman I’ve been talking about very few of them raised any political concerns; only one, in fact, and that was a man who said he was voting Labour despite – not because – of the leader. Jeremy Corbyn, well… I hate to say it, but I think this is a problem for the party. I’ve been frustrated in the past by people’s unwillingness to say just what it is they don’t like about Corbyn, but I’m wondering now if that’s missing the point. The problem we’ve got now is that Corbyn’s stock has fallen so far that people don’t feel they need to object to anything specific: Corbyn just is a leader who you don’t take seriously. I’m not sure how we reverse that – or even if we can.

But if Corbyn’s leadership is a drag on the party, the effects don’t seem to be fatal – not in Stoke-on-Trent Central, anyway. I saw a number of Labour posters but no others, apart from posters for the Lib Dem candidate Zulfiqar Ali in the windows of a few businesses. I saw a few UKIP leaflets around the place; I think they’d done the same route before us. (The UKIP campaign’s current leaflet just says “We [heart] NHS” on one side; on the other it attacks Labour for accusing them of planning to privatise the NHS and says that UKIP would keep the NHS free at the point of use for British people (“it’s a national health service, not an international health service”). Very clever, very nasty.) As for the people I spoke to, there were three Labour intending voters (one critical of Corbyn); one Conservative; one ‘anyone but Labour’, balanced out by an ‘anyone but UKIP or the Conservatives’; one waverer who (as we’ve seen) had left UKIP for Labour but was wondering about either going back to Labour or abstaining; and two who said they weren’t going to vote. Generalised across the constituency as a whole, that would give vote shares of
Labour 45%-75%
Conservative 18%-25%
Lib Dem 0-18%
UKIP 0-18%
which would do me – although I suspect both the Kippers and the LDs will do a bit better than that. For Labour, I’m cautiously optimistic. For me, I’m glad I took the time out & would be happy to do it again (although, um, Thursday is actually a working day, and termtime, er…). Politics as in actually doing stuff with people – can’t beat it.

Not writing

“I haven’t written a thing since last October!”

The thought came to me with an alarm-clock-like jolt: – yes, it really is that time (of year)! And what have I been doing?

When I was insecurely under-employed, I shared an office for a while with a rather senior but semi-retired Law lecturer. When lecturing ended after Easter, he was off, generally in a camper van: “I aim to spend the dark months teaching and then spend the light months travelling”, he told me once. If that were me, I thought at the time, I’d at least spend the light months writing

Here we are in the middle of June – pretty light – and I haven’t written a single damn thing since October. What have I been doing all this time? Teaching, obviously – this year just gone, I delivered all the teaching (and assessment) on two optional third-year units, along with sizeable chunks of a Foundation Year unit and an MA unit. Then there was marking, which remains the single most intellectually exhausting task I’ve ever carried out in my life. But none of that’s writing.

At least, it’s not writing writing. But some of it does involve writing, in the old-fashioned sense of forming words out of letters in a visual medium. Here’s a rough list:

Review of a new edition of a textbook: 1,000 words
Student references: 1,000
Small grant bid (successful): 2,000
PG Cert ‘reflective writing’ assignments: 8,000
Contribution to large grant bid (unsuccessful): 8,000
Assessment feedback: 144 essays + 40 exams + 6 dissertations = ~20,000 words
Emails: 1200 emails = ~60,000 words

Fair amount of writing involved in assessment, it turns out. (Not many words per essay, but you do have to choose the right ones.) And those emails! Never mind the constant drizzle of incoming email (28 yesterday, none of them from students); I’ve sent 1200 emails in those eight months. That’s 150 emails per month – five a day, seven days a week. For comparison I totted up the number of emails I’d sent from my personal account; the total was 150 for the entire eight-month period.

So it turns out that I have in fact been ‘active’, as they say, when it comes to putting words on screen (and in some cases even on paper). I’ve written around 100,000 words since last October – twelve academic papers’ worth. It’s just that three-fifths of them have been in emails – and most of the rest were ephemeral too.

Oh well, back to work.

Hold on to the paper

I did something a few weeks ago which I hadn’t done for 22 years. I threw away a copy of the London Review of Books; volume 37 number 1, more specifically.

One down, 531 to go. I stopped throwing the LRB away quite soon after I first subscribed. The first copy I’ve kept, the LRB for 25th June 1992 (volume 14 number 12), features reviews by Gabriele Annan, Frank Kermode, Richard Mayne and George Melly (who wrote about Magritte). Contributors who are still with us included John Sturrock, Blair Worden and Hilary Mantel (“Her new novel, A Place of Greater Safety, will be published by Viking in September.”)

But I’m not telling you anything obscure. The only piece of information in the previous paragraph which can’t be found on the LRB Website is Hilary Mantel’s contributor bio – its 1992 version, that is. The same goes for the text of the reviews themselves – Sturrock on Proust, Kermode on Ahdaf Soueif, Mantel on Charles Nicholl. Whether I hang on to the paper copy or not, all those reviews will remain available to me for as long as I remain a subscriber, the LRB remains solvent and the Internet remains.

Never mind the content, though – what of the document itself, its inscape, its irreducible papery thingness? As an object, volume 14 number 12 consisted of 28 large, deckle-edged, four-column pages (very large; the pre-1997 LRB always put me in mind of the Beezer). There was advertising, but not very much of it – only two internal full-page ads (for Index on Censorship and Granta), one column of classified ads on the last inside page. There were those author bios, tersely written but elegantly worded (“George Melly is a jazz singer and an art scener, and was a friend of Magritte.”). The cover for that issue was a striking – and huge – shot of David Sylvester (“art scener extraordinaire”, presumably according to the same unknown hand). And there were photographs. To a much greater extent than the present-day LRB, the 1992 version often ran pictures illustrating or accompanying a piece; in this issue we had a 1973 shot of Ian McEwan and a ‘thirties’ photographic portrait of Magritte. But the journalism itself is all on the Website – where it’s easier to find, much easier to search and not a great deal harder to read.

Now, twenty-two years is a long time – and twenty-two years as an LRB subscriber is a lot of LRBs. Having kept them stacked behind the sofa for quite some time, in the early 00s I succumbed to an advertisement for binders and rehomed my collection. The binders are big, solid things, which would grace any library reading-room; they hold the actual papers by means of 24 long cotton threads, running top to bottom, onto each of which you thread a single copy of the magazine, open at the centre pages. It’s easier to do than it is to describe, although not by much; it was a long evening when I stocked my first ten binders. I got up to fifteen before temporary poverty dissuaded me from getting one for the year just gone; after that the moment to order another binder or two never seemed to arrive. At the start of this year I had fourteen and a half years’ worth of the LRB in binders and another eight years (192 issues) in a pile in the corner of the room.

Which is where they remain, at least for now; I crossed a line the other week, but I’ve only committed myself to throwing away post-2014 issues. I’m not sure how long this position will hold, though. Returning to the 1992 volume or half-volume, what strikes me is… well, two things, one which I fully expected to find and one which took me by surprise. Firstly, it’s hard to find your way around. Flipping through the pages, there seems to be no particular likelihood of fetching up at a front cover, let alone a Contents page; the collection truly becomes a ‘volume’, one long, unordered series of reviews, pictures, Letters to the Editor. Secondly – and this probably shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did – it’s very easy to get lost in it, in a good way. Lighting by chance on a Contents page, I find that A Place of Greater Safety was reviewed (fairly favourably) by P.N. Furbank in the 20th August issue. The same issue featured pieces by E.S. Turner, Paul Foot, Mary Beard and Marina Warner, a Diary by Christopher Hitchens and letters from Michael Horovitz and Kurt Vonnegut; the cover was a very striking (and huge) shot of Carolyn Steedman, whose collection Past Tenses is reviewed by Patrick Parrinder. All that (and, of course, more) in one issue. It goes on: I turn a few pages and I’m reading – or at least having the option of reading – Perry Anderson on Thatcherism; Amartya Sen on Darwinism; Jenny Diski on Madonna; Adam Phillips on cross-dressing…

I once found a small stash of LRBs in a dentist’s waiting-room; the unexpected pleasure was blunted slightly by the realisation that they were all issues I’d read. But only slightly – you can’t remember everything you ever read, after all. I would be happy, more than happy, to sit down with that 1992 volume of the LRB – or any of the other fourteen – and work my way through, given a spare couple of days or weeks. But if I had any questions I wanted answered or memories I wanted to track down – even if I wanted to check something that had caught my eye in one of those issues I’d just leafed through – the Web site would win over the bound volume every time. (What was it that Craig Raine was saying about Kipling? Ah, here we are. Bookmark that.) And that goes double for the issues from between 2007 and 2014, standing forlorn in the corner of the room, unbound and unconsultable. I’m afraid their days are numbered.

But what to do with 528 LRBs, 336 of them in binders? How to dispose of them? Into the recycling, a year at a time? Surely not. Perhaps I’ll give it a bit longer, rather than rushing into anything. It’s been 22 years, after all.

Update I wrote this post with the LRB blog in mind; this was perhaps a bit quixotic, not to say cheeky, given that the LRB is still selling binders. I’ve kept to my resolution of throwing away new LRBs when I’ve finished with them, but it seems to have had the unintended consequence of making them harder to finish with: my backlog of part-read issues currently stands at four instead of the usual one or two, and I’ve only recently got it down from six. As for this blog post, the LRB turned it down – which is why you’re reading it here – but they did made me a present of some more binders. Which was nice.

That would be an ecumenical matter

Small personal update. I’ve just spent two days on a bid-writing retreat, organised to support people working in Humanities departments at my university – criminologists (like me), sociologists, linguists, historians, geographers and a lawyer or two. ‘Retreat’ was the operative word – it was a very quiet two days, rather solitary in fact. This was very much thanks to the venue, a huge Victorian house run since the mid-70s by a Christian community. One door had a sign saying that the room beyond was reserved for quiet meditation; it turned out to be a large, light and well-furnished living room, in which I could have meditated quietly for hours or more. The atmosphere was scarcely any less tranquil when the room had been occupied by five people staring at laptops.

I had a bit of trouble with my bid. I got a permanent position in 2010 and applied myself fairly concentratedly to teaching for the next couple of years. Now that I’ve cleared a bit of time and headspace for research, I keep finding I’ve had a brilliant idea which somebody else has already researched or written about – very often within the last two years, infuriatingly enough. (Or, most infuriatingly of all, a brilliant idea which has superficial but obvious similarities to part of a research project that somebody else has carried out within the last couple of years. Not that I’m bitter.) Anyway, I ended up essentially ripping up my original idea and starting again – a productive but difficult process which can’t really be done while sitting in front of a laptop. Standing up is involved – pacing, ideally; there is generally speech, also, or muttering at the very least.

In search of a room to pace and mutter, I found myself in a sunroom on the first floor. I did some quite useful rethinking, then looked around and noticed the books. I’d seen a couple of bookcases around the place and taken a vague bibliophilic interest in the religious texts in them, but the books in the sunroom were something else. There were books in that room I hadn’t seen in five years – ten, even: books that I’d last seen on my parents’ bookshelves. (My father died in 2001, my mother in 2006; they were both pillars of the local church and had been all my life.) Then I noticed the chairs – two in particular out of the many armchairs in that one room (that house was extraordinarily well upholstered). They were old-style high-backed armchairs, well-used, in covers with a light-coloured William Morris-ish floral pattern. I’d seen chairs covered with that particular material before – specifically, I’d seen them in my parents’ living room. When we’d set about clearing the house there had been some discussion with a Christian group, although it didn’t come to anything (fire regulations); I wondered for a moment if some less discriminating charity had come back later and scooped up chairs and books and all. They would then need to have transported them to the other end of the country, though, which I realised was unlikely. It was an odd moment. At the end of the first chapter of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The unconsoled (very minor spoiler), the narrator looks around his Central European hotel room and is reminded momentarily of his boyhood bedroom, before being struck by the realisation that it is his boyhood bedroom – the room he remembers so fondly has been rebuilt in this distant city, especially for him. This was a bit too close to that scene for comfort.

But of course (I reminded myself) there are lots of armchairs out there covered with Morris-esque florals. And, when I really looked, it turned out that most of the books I’d recognised actually weren’t books I’d seen on my parents’ bookshelves – not within the last ten years, at any rate. They were books, and authors, like these:

Michel Quoist
Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man)
Paul Tillich (The Courage to Be)
Don Cupitt
Rollo May’s Love and Will
The Truth of God Incarnate (this stood out a bit; it was written as a riposte to The Myth of ditto, which would have fitted much better but wasn’t there)
Bias to the Poor
Colin Morris (Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor)
The ‘Honest to God’ Debate (although not John Robinson’s Honest to God itself)
The New Inquisition (a critical commentary on the excommunication of Hans Küng)
a book taking a positive view of Taizé
a book taking a positive view of Pentecostalism

And now the trapdoor of memory really opened. Never mind ten years, these were books I hadn’t seen in thirty years or more; many were books I hadn’t even thought of in thirty years. They were still instantly familiar: they gave me the same kind of jolt of recognition that you get when you dream of meeting someone who’s died – “why did I think I’d forgotten you?”. (Even as I write it I’m struck by how eerie the simile is, but it is apt. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, and I think books are particularly rich in them.) Some of these were books that my parents had had in the house where I grew up, and turned out when they moved to Brighton in the mid-1980s; some were books that had been on the lending shelf in our local church, or on the freely-lent-from bookshelves in the Rectory, where the Rector’s wife used to keep open house for artists, musicians and local kids.

In short, as I looked around that room I was breathing the air of a certain kind of church in the 1970s (where ‘church’ means the community more than the building). I hadn’t realised how much I missed it. As well as being ecumenical as regards other Christians, being a Christian in a church like this meant being non-literalistic and generally non-doctrinaire on the Christian story itself. (When David Jenkins said that the Resurrection was “more than a conjuring trick with bones”, he was very much talking our language: as if to say, we’ll concede the flesh-and-blood resurrection if that means we can talk about what the Resurrection actually means. Shame it didn’t come across like that.) It meant not believing that you, or your church, had all the answers, or that anybody did (apart from God); it meant not worrying too much about being saved but believing that there was work to be done in this life (in the words of the Christian Aid motto, “We believe in life before death”). More specifically, it meant taking Jesus seriously when he talked about the eye of the needle and giving away your coat and the sheep and the goats. The Christians I met when I went away to university were all about Biblical literalism and accepting Jesus as your personal saviour; it was like going from seminars on number theory to being drilled in multiplication tables, badly. I never really went back to the church after that; I visited my parents’ new church in Brighton a few times and got to know the vicar (he preferred ‘priest’), but it wasn’t the same kind of church – higher, quieter, more doctrinally orthodox, less radical politically.

All of this is, of course, rather a long time ago; when you’re looking back at the age of 52, the people you had around you in your teens are often not there any more. Around 1979, the Rector moved on and was replaced by a new Rector (who didn’t much hold with the intellectual stuff and certainly didn’t hold with the ‘open house’ thing). Around 1984, my parents moved to Brighton. In the 1990s, the Rector died (fairly young, unexpectedly), and the new Rector retired (I don’t know who replaced him). The years since 2000 have seen the deaths of my father, the vicar in Brighton (who also died young and unexpectedly), my mother and the Rector’s widow. (My entire academic career to date has taken place in the same period, and most of it since my mother died – a disjuncture in time which made it particularly poignant to be faced by those books in that setting.) It’s as if the books had outlived their readers. Michel Quoist and Teilhard, Honest to God and Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor: names like these make up a picture, for me, but it’s not a picture I can easily check out with anyone else. Memory can be lonely, even when it’s supported by tangible things; perhaps especially then. Maybe that’s another, not too strained, reading of sunt lacrimae rerum – “these are the tears of things”: tears which the things keep to themselves until somebody strikes the rock and draws them out.

All this in a few minutes – it was a dense experience as well as an odd one – in between pacing and muttering. As for my bid, having abandoned something about subjective experiences of procedural justice, I came away with an idea about subjective experiences of the rule of law – much more exciting. (It actually is much more exciting as far as I’m concerned, which hopefully will make for a more persuasive bid; I should certainly be able to dedicate more of myself to it.) It would make a better story if I said I would now be conducting research on the inter-generational construction of non-denominational religious identities, or something, but reality is obdurate. Besides, I need to keep something for the blog.

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

My cat lies to me. I find this interesting.

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

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

This‘ll get his attention!

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

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

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

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

If there’s a king in Heaven high

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

1. Nobody knows who they were

The other Sunday we went here:


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

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

2. Heaven and earth shall flee away

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

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

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

Oh, that. Fancy me forgetting.

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

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

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

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

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

3. And Christ receive thy soul

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

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

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

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

And people aren’t the half of it.

4. O’er heathen lands afar

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. You’ll remember Mercury.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gutting offers a longer (and stranger) answer.

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

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

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

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

7. Against principalities, against powers

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

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

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

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

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

8. Everywhere all the time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Sweetness follows

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. The marvellous revealed

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

The Folk Archive

You back? Great. (Good, isn’t it?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Careful now

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

Dear Mr Echo

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

The key priorities are:

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

Auf Englisch:

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

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

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

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

Curious omission, that one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To sum up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s over there, it’s over there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was an odd thing to leave out, really.

They really are a treat

On a not particularly amusing day, I was amused by the news that the LGBT section of the EDL had planned a leafleting session on Canal Street in Manchester, but had bottled ithad a change of plan.

What do we know about Canal Street? Three things. Firstly, it is mad busy these days; the top end of the street, especially, is basically paved with little round tables, and if you pass through after work on a weekday you’ll find a good half of them occupied. (I should say before I go much further that Canal St makes a particularly good short cut from the station to a bus stop that I use; I’ve passed through quite a few times over the years.) Some of the venues are bar/clubs, some are restaurant/bars; some are ‘mixed’ (i.e. straight-friendly), some are gay but tolerant of the hen-night trade, several are gay with a capital G. It doesn’t make much difference: walk down Canal Street at 5.00 on a Thursday and they’ll all be buzzing. What a sunny Saturday afternoon is like I don’t know, but I can guess. If we assume that the Canal St clientele has a similar political makeup to the population as a whole, that would mean that 60-70% of those people were positively hostile to the EDL. Tough crowd.

Secondly, it’s been the place to go for a gay venue from way back. Back in the 80s – before any of the joints I’ve just referred to existed – there used to be more of a (heterosexual) ‘red light’ vibe to Canal St; once when I was heading for my bus a young & cheerful woman actually fell into step with me and walked along next to me describing her services. (Wonder where she is now. Hope she’s OK.) Even then, pubs like the Rembrandt and the New Union were spoken of in hushed tones, as if to say no really some of the people who go in those places actually are gay, some of them even look gay… Then came Manto, a ‘mixed’ bar at the bottom of Canal St where I used to go quite a lot on Saturday afternoons in the mid-90s; at the time I don’t think there was anywhere else in Manchester where you could drink beer while sitting on hard chairs at little round tables on a terracotta pavement, and the novelty was quite appealing for a while. There also weren’t many places where nobody would care whether you were gay or straight. Compulsory heterosexuality has never really cramped my style, but I still quite liked the atmosphere created by a bit of discreet outness. Manto was the first of many, and not the most assertive by any means. (It’s still there now, under different management, although it’s looking a bit sad; it’s been rather left behind by the development of the area.) The point is, Canal Street was gay-friendly at a time when being gay-friendly was deeply unfashionable, culturally and politically – and the nationalist right were the most hostile of all.

Thirdly, the hostility was reciprocated. Digressing a bit, here’s something I wrote in response to Michael Walzer a few years ago:

We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation, a leap “into a realm free of determination”; what we can hope to do is move “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”.

the question is whether there are groups whose ‘determinations’ I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don’t have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti “KILL NAZI SCUM”. As I say, I’m not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn’t involve death – it’s more along the lines of “SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM” or “NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA” – but I can’t help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.

The bridge was over the canal, beside Canal St. Happy leafleting, lads.

Do you really want to be

Quoth John B, in comments on something else entirely at B&T:

Anyone who a) has career aspirations when they’re 17 and b) they’re not vet, doctor, scientist, writer or pop star, is a disturbing weirdo.


+ ACTOR & sportsperson, on reflection, but that genuinely is about it

I’m not sure, for two reasons. One is that being 17 now really isn’t what it was when me and thee were lads (unless thou art significantly younger than me). Snagging another B&T comment:

Life may have changed I suspect – or at least the balance of ‘acceptable to express hopes for the future’ may have altered amongst 17 yr olds. All this endless droning on about (i) the skills based knowledge economy and wot not; and (ii) the need to up our national game vis a vis the Asiatic surge to 21st Century dominance may have had its effect.

I’m certainly teaching students who have a much better idea of where they’re going than I did at their age. Come to that, my son has a much better idea of where he’s going than I did at his age, and he’s not even in Sixth Form.

More importantly, I’ve got a nasty feeling the disturbing weirdoes always did have the right idea. When I was 16 my career aspirations went something like this (in order of decreasing desirability and increasing realism – i.e. mentally insert “and if that doesn’t work out…” after each one).

  1. Poet, famous for writing poems that everyone thinks are brilliant, paid to write more poetry. Something like Dylan Thomas, only not drunk all the time. Not sure if anyone does that these days, but if they don’t I will.
  2. Rock star, kind of post-Bowie, bit intellectual, bit arty, costumes and dancing and so on. Something like Peter Gabriel. I could definitely do that, I’ve got the voice and I can learn the songs and everything.
  3. University lecturer. That would be OK, I’d be good at that. English or poetry or something. I could definitely do that.
  4. Journalist maybe? Can you get a job in journalism? What would you actually do?

By the time I was 21 and finishing my degree I’d crossed off 1. and 2. Unfortunately I’d also crossed off 3. – I’d got a look at the way graduate students studying English literature seemed to live, and decided it was simpliciter sanguinarius atrox (Joyce): privileged, unreal, pointless. Like the Leyton Buzzards, I didn’t want to end up posh and shirty – I wanted to work and get my hands dirty, or at least work at a proper job with an ordinary employer and a salary and hours of work and everything. Looking back, I’m not at all sure what was behind this impulse, although I think the Buzzards could have given me a clue if I’d listened more closely[1]. In particular, I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me that lecturers were employees too – and that graduate students, who weren’t even that, actually had things pretty hard. Really, I had it backwards – it’s not a life of privilege undercut by arid scholasticism, it’s a life of penury compensated by doing work you love. Perhaps the real problem was that I was in the process of falling out of love with Eng Lit, and it didn’t occur to me then to look further afield academically (and see [1]).

Anyway, I ended up as a journalist (and in answer to my teenage self, what you do is anything and everything that they ask you to do). After only nine years of writing for a living I managed to work my way into academia, and little more than five years after that I had a proper job. (Criminology, it turns out, is where it’s really at for me. Criminology and sociology. Sociology, criminology and the law. Criminology and socio-legal studies, and that’s my final offer.) Oh, and I’d worked in IT for eleven years before I managed to get into journalism, and I was on the dole for a good six months before I got my first programming job.

In short, I went into university with unrealistic dreams and came out with a goal that was realistic – there were lots of jobs in computing – but almost entirely wrong for me. (It wasn’t all bad. Coding can be fun, database admin is a good job in many ways and data analysis is brilliant.) It took me a good few years to get the boat turned round, and the key move was one I still look back on with mingled pride and horror, as it involved resigning from a perfectly good job with only a couple of months’ work lined up. (Twelve years on, I’m still not earning as much as I was paid at that job, even in cash terms.) It’s worked out, though, pretty much; arguably I should have stuck to one of my dreams all along (#3 would have been a good choice).

I don’t know, though. Settling for a job I didn’t enjoy, on the vague pseudo-radical grounds that most people had jobs they didn’t enjoy (and see [1]), wasn’t a good idea. The problem is that #3 and #4 were dreams, just as much as #1 and #2 – they were careers that were just going to happen to me somehow. I remember thinking that a medical student friend of mine was a bit strange because his dreams seemed to be so specific – from about 20 he knew what branch of medicine he was going to go into, how high he was going to rise (consultant), how much he’d be earning and what car he was going to drive. I realise now that they weren’t dreams, they were plans – and they were going to get him into his ideal career in a lot less than 20 years. (And yes, he is a consultant, and if he doesn’t drive that car it’s because he’s traded up.)

Still, who wants a life that’s been planned out? Me, I’d much rather be happy than right any day.


Don’t want to end up posh and shirty,
I want to work and get my hands dirty.
Middle-class boy brought up like me
Got to do something to earn credibility.
Don’t want my friends all looking at me
As a hoity-toity, airy-fairy,
Arty-farty little twerp!

Le retour de la colonne Taafe

The complacent bourgeois academy’s recuperation of the challenge of the Situationist International reached a new height last night, culminating in a feeble attempt to commoditise what must surely appear to the cadres of the reactionary media as the most radical (and hence most marketable) gesture of all, selling it to a jaded public in the debased spectacular guise of entertainment.

To put it another way, the Sits were on Uni: the kind of thing I could never have imagined at the time I started writing my biography of Debord – and here it is happening, and I never even finished the damn thing. (Get me William Morris.) Even more embarrassingly, I missed the first question, which was something of a gimme – I was concentrating on something else at the time, resulting in this:

PAXMAN: “blah blah drone drone… the last edition of its influential journal carrying an analysis of the student riots in Paris in 1968?”
My wife: “You ought to get this one.”
Me [baffled but trying to look knowledgeable]: “Not sure, sounds like it might be Annales…”
STUDENT: “No idea, sorry.”
PAXMAN: “That was the Situationist International.”


For any other pro-situ nostalgics out there, the questions (and answers) were as follows:

PAXMAN: Your bonuses are on a radical philosophy. Firstly for five, which radical group was founded in Coscio d’Arroscia [sic] in northwest Italy in 1957, and was dissolved in 1972, the last edition of its influential journal carrying an analysis of the student riots in Paris in 1968?
STUDENT: No idea, sorry.
PAXMAN: That was the Situationist International. Secondly for five: the 1967 book Society of the Spectacle was by which French political activist who, together with Raoul Venegeim [sic], was one of the principal theorists of the Situationist International?
STUDENT: Don’t know, sorry.
PAXMAN: That was Guy Debord. And finally, the 1953 situationist work Formulary for a new urbanism gave rise to the name of which Manchester institution which operated from 1982 to 1997?
STUDENT: The Militant Tendency.
PAXMAN: No, it’s the Haçienda nightclub.

So that’s the situationists for you: it all started in 1957 or possibly 1953, it was a radical philosophy (ouch!) put forward by a political activist (ouch!) called Debord and someone else with a weird name, and, hey, Madchester. Got to love the answer to question three, too. One of the things that was so powerful about the Sits – and one of the reasons why dreamers like poor old Chtcheglov loom so large in its history – was precisely that they didn’t use words like ‘militant’; not positively, anyway. But I have to admit that “Militant Tendency” would have been a great name for a club night.

Owing to my state of mind

Jamie is on the trail of derelict mental hospitals (not ‘asylums’, thanks all the same). I used to work at Cane Hill – well, I worked there for about six months in 1979, but it seemed a lot longer. Some of the pictures behind that link looked incredibly familiar, even with several years’ worth of dilapidation – looking at one of the corridor shots I was half expecting to see someone pushing a floor-buffer. As an unqualified Nursing Assistant I did shifts more or less wherever I was needed, so I saw just about everything: the psycho-geri wards (very quiet but quite a lot of dirty work); the short-term ward (for people who had only just come in and people who would soon be well enough to leave, although these weren’t always the same people); the locked ward (less scary than it sounds – largely because everyone was drugged up to the eyeballs – but not much less). I spent most of the time I was there on a long-term ward; it was about half-and-half schizophrenics and people who were just too institutionalised to function anywhere else, many of whom had originally been found on the streets.

It was a dreadful place, which institutionalised patients more or less as a matter of course, and in some cases confined them for decades; there was an old man on the ward who’d had a bit of a weird episode at the age of 16, in 1932, and been locked up ever since. It also put vulnerable people at the mercy of staff many of whom were both dedicated and competent, but not all of whom were either. The long-term ward was run on the basis of a flurry of activity in the morning (wash, shave, dress and feed 25 men), another at lunchtime and a third in the evening. Between those times, nothing happened – nothing at all. Once the morning rush was over, in particular, the charge nurse would take the opportunity to call for tea and biscuits, then tell me and the student nurses about his views on life at enormous length. One long-term patient died while I was there (although after I’d been moved away from that ward); apparently he fell on the steps up to the ward, hit his head and lay there all night undiscovered. He was an unusually florid schizophrenic – nothing they could give him would stop him having strange ideas and compulsions, which generally involved wandering around the hospital – and the door to the ward was often kept locked to stop him getting out, although this was officially an open ward. As I understand it was locked that night.

But I’m not totally convinced that hospitals like that were a bad thing. One of the drugs we used to administer to schizophrenics was fluphenazine, a.k.a. Modecate. It was a slow-release ‘depot’ injection, designed to keep the visions and compulsions damped down for a fortnight at a time, and as such was administered intra-muscularly; you’d draw a cross on one of the patient’s buttocks with an alcohol swab, take aim for the upper outer quadrant and away you went. (I never did this myself – being untrained, unqualified and terrified – although I was repeatedly urged to have a bash.) I asked one day what would happen if you were careless and jabbed them in the lower inner quadrant. You don’t want to do that, you could paralyse them, I was told. This all came back to me the other day, when I noticed packets of Modecate on the pharmacy shelves at our local Boots, presumably for people being cared for in the community to take away and self-administer. The idea of trusting schizophrenics to inject their own anti-psychotic medication, at just the time when the previous dose is wearing off, strikes me as a bit hopeful.

Tangentially, it’s things like this which make me wonder what on earth the Tories’ plans for public expenditure cuts are actually going to mean. The old institutions aren’t there to be cut any more: the erstwhile populations of Cane Hill – and the others – have already been tipped out into community care. Similarly, councils have already been forced to outsource what used to be in-house services, the profitable bits of the postal service have already been carved up by TNT and DHL, and Stagecoach have already eaten public transport. If (on top of all that) defence is going to be protected, it’s hard to see what’s left to cut. Perhaps in another thirty years we’ll be looking at slideshows of abandoned universities.

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

I don’t wanna seem crude

So there I was in W.H. Smith’s, queuing up with my Radio Times, when… actually I wasn’t buying anything, I was hanging around the magazine racks waiting for my wife and daughter to get finished in Build-A-Bear; I just thought that would take too long to explain. In any case it’s only a bit of scene-setting, I might as well have been getting the Radio Times. Shall we start this again?

I was in W.H. Smith’s – that much is true – when my attention was snagged by a display stand opposite the tills. There, where you might expect to see something by Bill Bryson or an Ordnance Survey road atlas or a new variety of chocolate orange, was this:

Just Kate Moss with no clothes on. Move along, nothing to see here.

Whoa. Tracks, stopped in.

Now, I’m a man of the world; the idea of a magazine printing pictures of Kate Moss naked doesn’t shock me. I have long been aware of the existence of pictures of Kate Moss in the nude; I know that more than one photographer has been granted the opportunity to take pictures of Kate Moss starkers, and more than one of the resulting pictures of Kate Moss in the buff has escaped onto that Internet. I’m quite relaxed about the idea of pictures of Kate Moss letting it all hang out; pictures of a bare Kate Moss are fine by me.

(And people pay consultants to get hits on their Web pages! Piece of cake.)

Kate Moss nue, Kate Moss nackt or Kate Moss desnuda (see what I did there?), it doesn’t bother me. Or indeed surprise me – the model in question has been notably relaxed about doing the whole nude bit. But it was a bit of a jolt to see that image displayed in my face, or rather around waist height. For a moment it took me back thirty-odd years, when I used to get the train home from school every afternoon and hang around the magazine stall furtively glancing at the covers of Der Spiegel and Stern. For some reason German news magazines in the 1970s quite often put topless models on the front cover, which was more than English top-shelf mags did; once or twice Stern even featured a flash of bush, which left the teenage me simultaneously aroused and genuinely shocked (on the cover! can they even do that?). Transgressive stuff there from Gruner+Jahr. (NB “shocking” and “subversive” – not the same thing.) My German isn’t great, but de.wikipedia seems to be saying that a group of women sued G+J in 1978 over the sexist objectification of women in Stern, and frankly I’m not at all surprised. The next time I saw anything like that I was in Schiphol airport, having a drink at a café completely surrounded by hard-core pr0n and thanking the Lord I didn’t have any children with me (“Daddy, what’s ‘hot wet pink action’?”).

It was a striking display, anyway – and a cursory examination confirmed what the visual grammar of that cover rather strongly suggests, i.e. that there are pictures without the masking tape inside. (And I do mean cursory – there are times and places for studying pictures of naked women, and standing opposite the till in W.H. Smith’s while waiting for one’s wife and daughter is neither.) A more leisured investigation later confirmed that Ms Moss is one of eight models featured in the issue; that Love, although it’s essentially a fashion magazine, prints rather a lot of elegant monochrome nudity; and that it’s not the only one – there’s a howlingly expensive mag called Purple which seems to specialise in naked female celebrities, while still ostensibly appealing to well-off women who like looking at posh clothes rather than well-off men who like looking at bare ladies. (I guess it’s possible that Purple‘s core audience is well-off women who like looking at bare ladies and posh clothes, but that seems too small a niche.)

There’s been a two-way traffic between fashion photography and the classier end of soft pr0nography for some time, with several people working both sides of the street; they both involve posing impossibly elegant women to look attractive, after all. Classy soft pr0n as fashion photography seems new, and rather odd – although it’s a trend that may have been brewing for a while: take this (NSFW) from a 2008 issue of W magazine, originally captioned “Christopher Kane’s cashmere sweater with polyester paillettes and glass beads”. Hands up anyone who thinks that’s a picture of Christopher Kane’s sweater.

So what’s going on? I considered the possibility that (to rework the saying about music) “if it looks too rude, you’re too old”. Back in the 1970s, when I wasn’t gawping at Stern from a safe distance, I did occasionally buy my very own copy of Mayfair or something – sometimes accompanying it with a copy of New Society or Omni, research purposes you understand…. Back then the combination of (a) a nice-looking woman and (b) no clothes was all a young lad would ask for from his top-shelf mag – which was just as well, as that was all he was going to get. But that’s a long time ago; maybe Kids These Days demand action sequences and extreme closeups, and anything short of that just doesn’t qualify as pr0n. Conversely, maybe nudity’s a tired old Anglo-Saxon taboo, and we’re all relaxed and European now. I don’t think that’s it, though – the reaction to those photos has been far from ho-hum (NSFW). I guess it’s partly a case of “pushing the boundaries” (yawn), getting attention by doing something slightly more outrageous than the last time – and what Love did the last time was a nude Beth Ditto photoshoot, so you can see the logic of going for the multiple-supermodel approach. In the case of American magazines like W and Interview, there may also be a bit of a transatlantic cultural cringe (directed our way for once), with the perception that the Europeans are so cool about nudity and Americans need to stop being so prudish – and massive over-compensation as a result. (That comparison is valid to some extent, but it’s pretty hypocritical either way round. I don’t think American men feel any differently than French or German men about looking at naked women – they all like doing it and think they have a fundamental right to go on doing it. It’s just that one way of putting naked women on display gets labelled as relaxed (or exhibitionistic), while another gets labelled moral (or uptight).)

I think there’s also something going on about the status of professional photographers, in this age of Internet-enabled mass amateurism, and the status of printed magazines. Which is, after all, something of vital interest to a shop like W.H. Smith’s: anything that makes printed magazines seem a bit less dispensable is good news for a printed magazine shop. (I initially wrote ‘physical magazine’, but if you write ‘physical magazine’ over and over again it starts to get distracting. Whatever did happen to Health and Efficiency?)

I think what caught my eye at the weekend was somebody’s USP. (No, not Kate Moss’s. Settle down.) Sure, you can take pictures of what you want when you want, and sure, you can download pictures of more or less anything you can imagine, but have you got a picture of Kate Moss, dressed in nothing but a pair of high heels, artistically lit and printed on large-format glossy paper? You haven’t? Well, isn’t this your lucky day – look what we’ve got here. Right here, just by the checkout.

(Title courtesy of Stuart, cutting to the chase in his inimitable way.

I saw a lady and she was naked!
I saw a lady, she had no clothes on!

Great song; the S/M imagery is particularly appropriate, bringing out how compelling and overpowering this kind of experience can feel (“Why she want to pick on me?”). It’s a hard life being a man, you know…)

I crossed off next week yesterday

Not a lot of blogging around here lately. There are a number of reasons for that, not all of which I’m entirely aware of, but one factor has got to be work.

Which reminds me, indirectly, of Jonathan Coe’s second novel, A touch of love. Two extracts:

Friday 4th July, 1986

‘Some years ago – I don’t know if you remember – I defended this man called Fairchild. Hugh Fairchild. He was being prosecuted by the DHSS for fraud. He’d finished his Ph.D., and he was doing a bit of teaching at the university, earning about ten pounds a week or something, only at the same time he was claiming the dole. So the DHSS finally cottoned on to this and they asked for everything back. It wasn’t very much, a few hundred pounds or so, but it was far more than he had, and it actually looked for a while as though he might have been facing some kind of jail sentence. … So he pleaded guilty of course, and then I got this quite convincing case together and we managed to get him off with a fine and negotiate quite a sensible repayment programme. Which, so far as I know, he’s still in the middle of.’ She frowned. ‘Four years ago, now, at least. Strange how time goes, isn’t it?’

Friday 19th December, 1986

It was at last beginning to dawn on Hugh that he would never find an academic job. The realisation had made its inroads slowly, like the winter weather, and he had developed the same way of coping with both, namely lying in bed for as long as possible, with the gas fire turned up to top heat. Half the time he would doze, half the time he would be wide awake, staring frog-eyed at the ceiling, his hand resting absently on his genitals. In this position, in order to avoid thinking of the future, he would think of the past. He would rehearse the proudest episodes of his life and compare them with his present state of stifled inertia: his graduation … the flush of intellectual excitement in which he had completed his MA thesis … the second graduation ceremony, at which he had been awarded his doctorate.

But always at the front of his mind there festered the knowledge that these events had taken place a long time ago. They had all occurred within a period of eight years, and since then nearly the same period had elapsed, and in all that time nothing had happened. Not a solitary highlight. … That day of triumph in Coventry cathedral seemed neither recent nor distant; it seemed, if anything, to belong to a quite different level of existence. His life now comprised other realities: the hiss of the gas fire and the heavy warmth of his bedroom; the texture of pubic hair as he twined it around his index finger; the smell (to which he had long since become immune) of the unwashed socks and underpants stashed under the bed; and the daily routine of forcing himself, at about 2.30, out of his bed, out of the flat, onto a bus and onto the university campus, in search of a kind of companionship.

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the book a lot, and would recommend it to anyone who’s liked anything else by the subsequently much more successful Coe. (I say ‘book’ rather than ‘novel’, which I’m not sure it is, quite.) The way Hugh’s character develops in these extracts from light comedy to extravagant grotesquery and on to a kind of grim pathos is typical of the skill & heartlessness with which Coe writes, or used to write. ‘At the front of his mind’ is good, too. (Digression on Coe’s ‘heartlessness’. It’s an odd style, which seems to be heavily influenced by Beckett’s first couple of novels; it combines a numb, depressive certainty that things are only going to get worse with a driven, determined and often really ingenious playfulness. You feel for his characters, but you don’t always connect with them as people. Coe’s earlier books are more heavily dominated by this style; his first novel, An accidental woman, is at once excruciatingly sad and infuriatingly arch. Something shifts with the fourth, the magnificent, unrepeatable What a carve-up!, where (as Justin reminded me in comments) the same hopeless world-view is felt from within as well as being played for laughs.)

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. My question is: what is this man living on? If he’s earning money from teaching, it must be teaching that can be done after 2.30 p.m. and without any preparation – and there’s not much like that. He hasn’t got any money saved up and his teaching pay, such as it is, isn’t being supplemented by the DHSS – on the contrary, he’s paying them. (Either that or he’s not doing any teaching at all and his benefit’s being docked at source. Either way, he’s not exactly flush.) We can make allowances – maybe he doesn’t always stay in bed till 2.30; maybe he gets a lot done on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, then spends the rest of the week vegetating in bed and mooching around campus... The trouble is, scaling back Hugh’s grotesquery for the sake of realism would deprive him of his pathos as well: he’s not doing that badly – at least he’s got a bit of money coming in, and he’s only having to work a couple of days a week…

I read this passage shortly after starting on Coe’s fascinating biography of B.S. Johnson, and it reminded me of Johnson’s doctrine of truth in the novel – ‘telling stories is telling lies’. It’s a dour and forbidding credo for a novelist; the results are only interesting in Johnson’s case because, in Johnson’s case, they’re so weird, in ways which don’t seem to be related to the ‘truth’ policy (although they may be related to what drove Johnson to adopt it). Nevertheless, the more I think about Hugh the more I think Johnson had a point. The character’s obviously meant to be representative of a certain kind of academic dead-end, and of the general apathy anomie acedie ect ect of its inhabitants. The dead-end is located quite specifically, in England, outside London and in the 1980s; the implication is that it’s one that Coe observed (or narrowly avoided) in person. But the real Hughs can’t have spent every morning lying in bed for as long as possible, with the gas fire turned up to top heat; not every day, not for a period of years – nobody could. And if that’s not true…

(Hugh isn’t the central character of the book, by the way. I wouldn’t want to put you off.)

I guess that particular shoe wouldn’t pinch most readers; the idea of never find[ing] an academic job is of more than academic (ho ho) interest to me at the moment. I got my doctorate just over three years ago, which in turn was six years after I got my MA. I’ve been working in academia, for various values of ‘working’, for four years now; as I write I’m living on odd bits of teaching, supplemented by smaller bits of research and editing. This is going to go on in various forms for at least the next seven months, and hopefully into next summer. After that, we’ll be into the next academic year, and who knows?

But there’s not much of the hiss of the gas fire and the heavy warmth of his bedroom about it. I made a list last week and realised that – what with current teaching, research, next semester’s teaching and various other bits of stuff – my to-do list includes pressing short-term tasks in three separate subject areas, large and demanding medium-term tasks in another three areas, and longer-term commitments (some of them with definite due dates) in another four. There’s other research I could be doing – I can think of three papers I could be working on without pausing for breath – but realistically I could only do it if I had more hours in the day, and more headspace to park the ideas in. The time and space I’ve got all seems to be booked up.

Looking on the bright side, by the time I get to the next academic year I should be quite staggeringly employable – particularly if I can find a job requiring expertise in behavioural regulation in the criminal justice system, complaints against the police, contemporary Italian politics, desistance from criminal activity, drugs, the Italian Communist Party, political violence, the Semantic Web, social statistics and victims of crime.

(On second thoughts, preferably not all of those.)

Thousands or more

In comments, Rob wrote:

I remember when I was at school there was much polemic in the pages of Folk Review from the likes of Dick Gaughan and Pete Bellamy about whether one could truly call singer-songwriters “folk” at all: specifically about the extent to which they were likely to be writing songs that would become the “traditional music” of the future. I suppose the exemplar there would be Ewan MacColl: when I listen to the old Radio Ballads I can’t always tell which songs are Trad. arr. MacColl and which are MacColl. Or this one which has been around for ages and has come pretty much detached from knowledge of its author (I’d certainly forgotten who wrote it). “Anon” being the larval form of “trad” I’d say it was on its way. And there are plenty of what you might call genre songs, like “Dorset Be Beautiful” and “Drink Up Thee Zyder” on the same journey.

I’m not sure. I’m a bit of a puritan – or possibly a pessimist – with regard to “traditional music of the future”: I don’t think there will be such a thing, unfortunately. Borrowing some stuff I wrote earlier (on Mudcat):

If recording technology were somehow abolished next week, a 22nd-century collector might well pick up local variants of Blowin’ in the Wind and Mr Tambourine Man. But we’ll never know: Dylan isn’t music of the people, Dylan’s a recording artist. Traditional and folk-transmitted music survives here and there – football chants, playground rhymes, some hymns and carols – but there’s really no music that’s “of the people” in the sense of living and developing among ordinary people in the course of their lives.

The ubiquity of broadcast and recorded music changed everything. Once a song’s recorded, there’s a single, readily-available answer to the question: “what should that sound like?” We know the right melody, the right chords and the right words, and if we want to know how it all fits together we can listen to the writer singing it. That’s a huge change from the conditions that existed as recently as a hundred years ago. Traditional music – folk music, as far as I’m concerned – is all about reaching back before that break and finding out what people used to do for music, before they could all listen to the same thing at the flick of a switch.

The problem is that the availability of broadcast music cuts away the ground from under the oral tradition. Do you sing while you work? Do your workmates? Do you sing at home to relax? When your friends or family want some music of an evening, do they suggest having a few songs? The oral tradition works in communities and societies where people can, by and large, answer Yes to all four. Those conditions may still obtain in some parts of the world, but they certainly don’t in Britain (or the US).

This isn’t something that’s happened overnight. The uniformity imposed by mechanical reproduction has been eroding the oral tradition for a long time, going back to pianolas and mass-produced parlour songbooks. Ironically, the oral tradition finally gave up the ghost (in this country at least) at around the same time the Revival was really getting going. Oral transmission among folkies does go on, but we aren’t so much a community as a network of hobbyists. Live music made by ordinary people without making a big deal of it – because it’s what you do, because it passes the time, because everyone’s got a song in them – has basically died out.

This isn’t an anti-folkie point – quite the opposite. (I think some of the anti-trad polemicists get this far and then take a wrong turning, writing off the music on the basis that (a) some people demonstrably claim too much for it (b) they don’t like those people and (c) they don’t actually like the music either. It’s easily done – ask me about opera some time, or rather don’t.) As far as I’m concerned, live music made by enthusiastic amateurs (and a few enthusiastic professionals) is great – it’s one of the brighter spots in my life at the moment. Live traditional music, in particular. The songs that have survived from the oral tradition – or survived long enough to be collected – are, by and large, really good songs: in performance, they work in a way that most new songs don’t. It’s true that there are new songs coming through in the style of the old songs – Shantyman, Bring us a barrel and so on – but they’re only ever likely to be heard by a tiny minority of the population. A bit of humility, and a bit of awareness of what’s gone, are in order. We’re not the folk, and any new music we make is never going to be folk music.

Which, apart from anything else, is what makes the folk music we do have so valuable. Counting variants, there are hundreds of songs out there from the traditions of England and Scotland alone. So much music, so little time! What’s more likely to sound good – a song that started life on a seventeenth-century broadside, passed through countless hands and voices before being collected in 1904, and has since been taken up and shaped and polished by three or four generations of revivalists, or “a song you won’t have heard, because I’ve only just finished writing it”?

My silly Cuban heels

A bit more oneirography (I don’t intend to make a habit of it). I had a dream last night which reminded me oddly of a dream I made up some years ago. (I wrote it for a short story (unpublished); the story was vaguely, partially autobiographical, but the dream was completely made up.) See if you can tell which is which. (Yes, it’s Am I Unconscious Fantasy Or Not. That old thing…)

I went round to see my grandmother and apologise for something, I forget what. I saw my grandfather through the glass by the front door, but I didn’t see him after my grandmother let me in. She started to make a pot of tea and asked if Earl Grey would be all right. I assumed she’d be using teabags, and was quite surprised to see her spooning loose tea into the pot; it was bright green and looked like grass cuttings. Reacting to something I’d said, she interrupted me indignantly – “Not Russell! Don’t bother with Russell! You want to get rid of Russell!” As she spoke, she furiously shovelled more and more bright green tea into the pot.

My father and I were queuing up together at a cold buffet: potato salad, crisps, poached eggs and a large bowl of pickled onions in a sticky red-brown sauce. My father had just come back from Japan, where he’d been for three weeks. “They have a whole different system out there,” he told me, “a whole system!” Then we reached the head of the queue and he began to help me to potato salad. Seen close up it didn’t look very appetising – there were pieces of yellow celery in it and bluish peas, and the lumps of potato were five or six inches long – and I was annoyed to see my father piling it onto my plate. I said, “I can manage, I can manage!” and tried to push him out of the way, flapping my arms uselessly.

“Families, eh?” (S. Freud)

Update 15/6 – it was the first one. I haven’t thought of my grandmother for years, but she’s clearly still in there somewhere; she still connects in some way with things I know I care about. (I know who Russell is, and it’s not T. Davies.) I guess what’s going on in dreams like these is illuminated by Voyer‘s suggestive formulation (emphasis added):

If, for one reason or another, an individual’s character is dissolved, the phenomenal spectacular form of the totality is dissolved in its pretension to pass for the absence of value. Thus we have established, negatively for the moment, an identity between character and the spectacle effect. Whether the subject sinks into madness, practices theory or participates in an uprising, we have ascertained that 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 that unity of individual life which Reich unfortunately labels “genitality.” (We prefer ‘individuality’.)

Madness, revolution and the practice of theory (on which more here): all areas where ‘character’ (in what I understood to be Reich’s sense of the word) comes unglued and the spectacle with it. Closely related states, I would argue, include dreaming, psychotherapy and childhood. What’s at issue in childhood isn’t the dissolution of character but its initial formation; infancy, in particular, is truly a character-forming experience. As adults we partition off what matters (who’s in government) from what matters (who’s in bed with us), calling one ‘society’ and the other ‘private life’; but for children – as for psychotics, as for revolutionaries – it’s all in there together. And the place where it’s all there is the family. The place we first learn about authority is the same place we learn about love; we learn to acknowledge reality in the place where we learn to desire.

What this means is that your world was sculpted by love and fear before you ever started to put it together rationally – and, somewhere beneath the rational brickwork, it still is. In dreams, Gordon Brown is your Dad.

Says there’s none

Jamie picks up on a handy new proposal for making use of all those ex-servicemen the Iraq war is eventually going to leave us with:

Ex-servicemen and women should be retrained as teachers to bring military style discipline to tough inner city schools, a think tank has said. The Centre for Policy Studies says ex-soldiers could have a profound effect on discipline and learning.

“This is not merely because ex-servicemen are sure of their own moral authority. They are not intimidated by adrenaline-fuelled adolescents: they have, unlike most teachers, been there before,” it added. It also argued that the perception that these teachers had been in a “macho profession” would be well-received by inner city children. “Whether we like it or not, children from more deprived neighbourhoods often respond to raw physical power,” it added.

Chief of Defence Staff Lord Guthrie said knife crime, drugs and violence were reported daily in the inner cities. … “This will not, of course, solve all the problems of the inner city. But it will help,” he said. “It will provide youths with role models who understand discipline and self-restraint at the time in their lives when they need it most. And it will be a terrific boost for our Armed Services.”

Three different propositions seem to have got jumbled up here: ex-servicemen will help reform the rowdy kids by providing role models who understand discipline and self-restraint; they’ll cow the rowdy kids into submission with their raw physical power; and they’ll lock the place down with their military-style discipline. Presumably number 3 isn’t going to happen – apart from anything else, you don’t need military-style personnel to have military-style discipline, you just need to put someone in authority and give them a free hand. So what we want is role models and raw power – and since they’re not also talking about recruiting monks or doormen, presumably what we want is role models with raw power.

“Look at me, children. Hear the evenness of my voice, watch the precision and economy STOP THAT RIGHT NOW of my movements. Learn from me and you will STOP THAT NOW OR I WILL PERSONALLY RIP YOUR FACE OFF be like me.”

As it happens, when I was eight I had a primary school teacher who used to cane us and shout a lot, often about discipline!. But he wasn’t a former professional soldier, he was just mad. Being eight years old, I just thought this was one of those things – some teachers are nice, some are strict, and some are loud and violent and tell long and complicated stories – but I found out later that the school inspectors had been quite taken aback. They came to the school while I was there, and after they’d gone Mr Thomas didn’t come to teach us any more.

Self-restraint and raw power; discipline and violence. Or, to put it another way, dominance and submission, enforced through the ever-present threat of superior force. It’s a very old form of social organisation (more on that another time) and obviously has a certain atavistic appeal, but it’s hard to see what it’s really good for, anywhere outside the army – which is obviously a special case in terms of what people sign up for. A couple of comments from that BBC story:

Having taught in an exclusion unit in southern England for a number of years, I can attest that many of the exclusions who attended the unit were boys who had suffered violence at the hands of their military fathers who obviously believed that threatening their offspring was the best way to control them. Indeed, whole military families of children were excluded from school. I visited one family of five boys to give home tuition. All were excluded from school for violent and uncontrollable behaviour. Mother was illiterate and sat in on reading lessons. Father tried to maintain discipline with his fists and complained to me that the more he tried to get the boys to behave, the worse they became

Remembering – with fondness – my instructors from Bassingbourn Barracks, they would make mincemeat of the lot of them. But it has to come from within – the army is voluntary, you expect what you will get. School is compulsory…

I remember Mr Price, the headmaster, telling us merrily how Mr Thomas had been taken away by the men in white coats; a bit rich, really, coming from him. And I remember Mr Cook coming to take the class. He was an improvement: he caned us occasionally, but he didn’t shout very much at all and his stories were funnier and made more sense. He always had this slightly harassed air, as if he was trying to live up to something but he wasn’t quite sure what. It must have been quite a tough gig.

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

Up to my eyes

Rob has tagged me. I’ve had this particular meme once before, but I’m going to try it anyway and see if I come up with anything different.

Total number of books owned

About 1500, although my wife has just pointed out that many of them aren’t actually mine as such. (I had a big clearout a while back. If you’ve followed that link, I should point out that I do still own two biographies of Ezra Pound.)

Last book bought

Probably Busman’s Honeymoon; I had a Wimsey spree a while back. After that I very nearly bought Last Tango In Aberystwyth, but wiser counsels prevailed and I got it from the library. (Malcolm Pryce is good, but not that good. Besides, I’m economising.)

Last book read

Last one completed: When we were Romans by Matthew Kneale. Starts out very much sub-Dog in the Night-time (or sub-Walker Hamilton, of whom I was reminded when reading it) but develops into something sadder and darker. Last but one: Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Fun, but I felt it was done a bit too much for effect – effortful where it should have been playful.

Currently reading: no fiction, unless you count re-reading the A Series of Unfortunate Events books while reading them aloud to my daughter. (I tend to latch on to whatever someone else in the family is reading, as in the case of the last two.) I am reading Bryan Talbot’s beauteous phantasmagoria Alice in Sunderland, as well as Jean-Louis Briquet’s Mafia, justice et politique en Italie: L’affaire Andreotti dans la crise de la République (1992-2004), which I agreed to review in an optimistic moment. (I am reading it – just not quite as quickly as I’d anticipated.)

Five books that mean a lot to you

Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni (eds), L’orda d’oro: 1968-1977. La grande ondata rivoluzionaria e creativa, politica ed esistenziale
Worth learning Italian for. The subtitle says it all. (The main title means ‘The Golden Horde’; I was about halfway through the book before I realised it means that, rather than (for instance) ‘the golden turd’. It didn’t matter.)

Walker Hamilton, All the little animals
A novel which I borrowed, more than once, from Laugharne Library in 1973 and haven’t seen since. I see from ABE Books that it’s been reprinted – unlike Hamilton’s only other novel A Dragon’s Life, which will still set you back £30 or more.

Kazuo Ishiguro, The unconsoled
What a novel. I read The remains of the day, but I only got properly into Ishiguro when I read When we were orphans. I worked back to The unconsoled, which blew me away. A novel to get lost in. (But if you don’t like what you’re reading by the end of the second chapter, give up.)

Tom Phillips, A humument
Tom Phillips’s work has been a constant in my life for over 30 years. A humument is a touchstone for me – that’s how to do it. (Never mind what ‘it’ is.)

The Internationale Situationniste anthology.
After months poring over an old copy borrowed from a friend, I can still remember the thrill of getting hold of the reprint – all the more so when I found that the new edition included Debord’s notes on the Hamburg Theses!!!1!!1!! (OK, so it’s a minority taste. It’s my blog.)

As for tagging anyone else – well, I know I’ve done it before, but I can’t remember who else has. So I’ll take the easy way out and say that if you want it, you can take it – but leave a comment here so I know you’ve got it from me.

PS How did I do? One slightly different question – the number of books I’ve owned hasn’t changed much over two years. The Italians and the Sits were there in 2005, but along with Berger, Williams and Thompson instead of a couple of novelists and a painter (although, to be fair, I did give Phillips an hon mensh). I guess some years are more The unconsoled than The foot of Clive.

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