Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Longing for the Day


Image result for the end is nighThe congregation of Swanvale Halt is mercifully free of the brand of Christian who gets excited about signs of the impending end of the world, but somehow I was copied in on an email referring to a blogging evangelist who was calling attention to the Paris conference about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it portended the terminal stage of human civilisation. Much was made about the number of nations present, seventy, and its fulfilment of Biblical prophecy: I don’t need to go into it in detail, I expect. You get the picture. ‘We hurtle towards our Lord’s bodily return!!’

I sat in front of the computer and wondered why I didn’t feel more enthused. After all, I tell myself that the final triumph of God is the hope that undergirds my life. The answer, I fear, is more than mere distaste for dubious analysis of current events in the light (or obscurity) of Scripture, but hesitancy at the whole thing.

The following day we sat at Morning Prayer in church and read, as directed by our holy mother the Church of England, from Chapter 5 of the Prophecy of Amos. And among what we read was:

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light: as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

Well, quite. It’s inhuman to welcome mass suffering, no matter that it might be the birth pangs of something new and better, and God makes it clear that he knows this. The process of tearing apart good and evil, which at the moment are intermingled in us, is not going to be easy, never mind what it turns out to look like, and never mind when it comes. The Day of the Lord will be like surgery without an anaesthetic: adamantly necessary given the prevailing desperate conditions, but not a prospect to relish, if you are sane. Jesus says in Luke 21 that ‘when these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, for your redemption is at hand’: and so we should, and there is some exultation, some leaping of the spirit, in knowing so. But it’s going to be hard, and if I see it, I doubt I will like it.

Sorry about all the religion. Fundamentalist Christians are always in an apocalyptic mood, but perhaps the whole world is presently.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Which Counterculture?


Image result for benedict pope gardenA few weeks ago The Big Issue had a piece penned by Peter Seewald, Pope Emeritus Benedict’s biographer, about his forthcoming book about the retired pontiff and his work. Only a couple of paragraphs in, it’s clear that Benedict XVI Last Testament isn’t going to be exactly hard-hitting. ‘It has made me angry to see how a silly understanding of him has encroached on public perceptions,’ says Mr Seewald, ‘this not only contradicts the historical truth, it is also dangerous. It prevents us from engaging with Pope Benedict’s important message.’ ‘From the beginning’ he goes on, ‘I was impressed by his realism, his courage and his strong-heartedness’.

That's all fair enough. And this message is? ‘Ratzinger sees his Church as a resistance movement against the bedevilment of this age, against the Godforsakenness of fundamentalist atheism and new forms of paganism. He encourages us not to be bedazzled or carried away by the latest contemporary trends, yet at the same time he sets us against being rigid or narrow-minded’.

I would also like to see the Church that way. It would be energising and invigorating to see oneself as part of a battle-line in the combat for hope and love; even more, a sort of underground, countercultural one, as implied by the term ‘resistance movement’ with its suggestions of laconic women in macs and berets, secret caches of arms and crackly radio sets operating under the noses of the powers-that-be. I think that is, indeed, how many Christians see themselves. I’ve spoken here about rowing against the tides of the times, and what I see as the demand of the Gospel that power, complacency and socially-accepted delusion are exposed and called to account.

But it doesn’t wash, does it? This age may be subject to bedevilment, but all ages are: there’s nothing unique about the times in which we find ourselves. The radicalism of Jesus lies in his questioning, his elevation of heavenly standards beyond earthly ones, and his refusal to tabulate what he was talking about into easily-assimilated statements. That’s why the manifesto of the early Church wasn’t a doctrinal essay but an account of a life, and eventually four mutually-conflicting if complementary accounts of it. None of this was authoritarian or even stable: none of it could easily be corralled into a system which gave clear and unequivocal guidance how human beings should manage their lives or societies. It would always be turbulent, disruptive, no matter what the world around it was like. It would always, will always, demand more than human culture can ever deliver. The Gospel will always be at odds with the age.

Of course Pope-Emeritus Benedict knows all this well enough. What he leaves out, as Roman Catholic thinkers (and to an extent Christian thinkers more generally) usually do, is history. Notwithstanding the inescapably disruptive power of the Gospel at its core, the Church has been far from inescapably disruptive. It has crowned and approved of worldly power, used the secular sword to fight its battles and enforce its ideas – and less high-mindedly, its grubby self-interest – and showed only occasional bursts of conscience at its collaboration with the forces that nailed Christ to the cross. It has done very well out of it, thank you. And now, deprived of that long power, for the Church to make a virtue of necessity and suddenly to discover a counter-cultural mission is a bit rich.

One suspects that Benedict (and plenty of other Christians of all sorts of types) only see this age as especially bedevilled because Christians are not in charge of it. And no reverential biography of the retired Pope is likely to question him about that. 

Saturday, 14 January 2017

On Kosovo Field

On Kosovo Field is over now. This past week Radio 4 has been broadcasting a drama in the 10.45am/7.45pm slot, based on PJ Harvey’s trips to Kosovo with Seamus Murphy while preparing Hope Six, using material from her notebooks and the demo versions of songs for the album. The two central characters, Dardan and Rebekah, are young Kosovans evacuated to the UK in 1998, and now returning to find out what happened to their parents after the discovery of a mass grave (‘there were only 19 bodies’) near their home village. They negotiate their way through the hazardous young state, and undergo a very strange experience in the mountains where they discover that the past is not what they thought it was.

Of course I was deliriously excited: I was getting tearful before we even started. Then just as the first jangly guitar notes issued from the wireless on Monday morning the doorbell rang: it was my 11.30am appointment, some 45 minutes ahead of time. ‘Sorry I’m early’. Yes, you are a bit, aren’t you? Thankfully this is not the Old Days when if you missed a broadcast, that was it, Sunny Jim; and you, my interloper, should be more thankful for that even than I. I reorientated my emotional state  and in the end my appointment left at the time she should have arrived.

PJH fans have of course got very excited about the airing of material they’ve never heard before. Some of the songs for Hope Six were trailed in live performances before the album was recorded, but there are pieces in Kosovo Field which are entirely new to the world: songs called ‘Pity for the Old Road’ and ‘Dance on the Mountain’ relate directly to poems published in PJ and Seamus Murphy’s book, The Hollow of the Hand, and ‘The Red Road’ is the one where she grapples with the troublesome imagery of fallen plums (‘Think about what I can get a song from. Plums not good for song’, she admonishes herself in her notebook, pages of which are included in the e-version of Hollow – yet she goes ahead and writes one anyway). But ‘Clothes of Grief’ and ‘Where is our City?’ have no parallel in anything published hitherto, so for Pollywatchers those compositions are very interesting. Now, to be honest, there’s nothing earth-shattering about much of this material, and the singer’s voice, heavily reverbed, at the top of her range and stripped of anything but a guitar and the occasional piano note, sounds a little awkward. The songs are just rough outlines for the full versions, and there are presumably good reasons why some never progressed beyond the demos. But ‘The Red Road’ sounds rather thrillingly like Balkan folksong; and ‘Clothes of Grief’, composed in the English folk idiom, could have come from the 18th century. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful. It would have been interesting to see where both of these might have gone.

As for the drama itself, it starts a bit stiltedly and oscillates between realism and decidedly non-realistic scenes in a way which, as a listener, you either decide to run with or away from. The two young actors playing Dardan and Rebekah have to carry the unorthodox way the play reveals the characters’ past, and the past of their country, and frankly it’s tough on them. It sounds strangely as though they’re less real than the very expressive soundscape around them (which may be the point). But the awareness that, fiction though this is, it arises from absolute reality, and partly from the observations and experiences of someone we know (and some of us care a lot about), carries it forward powerfully.

The author, Fin Kennedy, hasn’t let on how this ‘collaboration’ came about (and of course PJH hasn’t either), and you wonder what the discussions were like. You might imagine Polly saying, ‘If you want to use the songs on the album you have to pay Island, but I have these you can use’, and they are in fact much more appropriate for the form, being less overpowering. Mr Kennedy and his producer retraced some of the singer’s travels in Kosovo, and you can spot elements of the songs appearing very directly in the drama – the woman who looks after the keys of her vanished neighbours’ houses from ‘Chain of Keys’, the ‘blind man [who] sings in Arabic’ who appears in ‘The Wheel’. In doing so, they provide another layer to the album, just as the album comments on the world. Pop singers are incessantly questioned about who has influenced them and, when they survive as long as Polly Harvey has, in turn get quizzed about the influence they themselves have had on others; but this is different. This is someone having an effect way beyond their own field, their work used not just as set-dressing in someone else’s, but their imagination shaping the imaginative works of others. Here is this woman who began by strumming a guitar in her bedroom thirty-odd years ago and who now affects the gravity of our cultural discourse.

When I was at school we went on an organised holiday to Venice and that included a day out to the Postojna Caverns in what is now Slovenia but was then (in 1986) still Tito’s Yugoslavia. We had our luggage on the coach trodden on by a sour-faced border guard, and were ferried on a tiny railway through the caves by an insane driver who seemed relatively unconcerned how many of us survived: but that was as far into the Balkans as I’ve ever ventured. When, over the next decade, Yugoslavia fell apart, I felt unaccountably affected by it, even as I struggled to understand all the internecine conflict which forms the background to On Kosovo Field. It was this series of wars that first made me realise how poisonous the construction of nationhood could be, and how conflict reveals what people really feel about each other, or part of what they feel. Across the Balkans neighbours discovered how they hated one another when they never quite had before, and found themselves written into savage narratives of resentment that began centuries before they were born.
I first uncovered my ancestry
From under my neighbour’s body
Where the grass starved to white.

I first learned the sound of my name
As that lascivious knife sucked out
From between his ribs.

I first heard the accents of my motherland
Visiting door to door
With the thin, heady sting of petrol in a can.

Don’t think it couldn’t happen here. It won’t come immediately, it will take time, but the walls are a-building: we live in the time of the Making of Nations. This is clearly Fin Kennedy’s concern, it’s undoubtedly Ms Harvey’s, and it’s mine. 

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Meeting in the Big House

Image result for cuckoo clockAt various points during the meeting at the house of our suffragan bishop, her cat positively launched itself at the arm of the chair occupied by the Diocesan Director of Training, and then, failing to gain purchase, slipped off back onto the floor, much to the Director's discomfiture. It then ran around the room chasing imaginary things. It would be unfair to suggest this was any kind of metaphor for the activity of the Church of England as a whole. 

We Local Vocations Advisers had been summoned after the departure of the diocesan Vocations Co-ordinator to - well, most of us didn't seem to have had the memo with the agenda, so I think it was mainly exchanging our experiences and outlining the diocese's general approach to the discernment of vocations. The diocese is keen:
  • to broaden the body of Advisers to include laypeople and a wider range of people generally;
  • to make sure the process isn't so sclerotic and controlled it stops people calling one of the Advisers for a chat and not being immediately channelled down the runnels of The System; 
  • to emphasise that vocation includes what people do in their working lives - that the Church needs more Christian teachers, doctors, and so on.
This is of course all to the good, though the bishop also definitely felt that raising the numbers of people being ordained would also encourage people to consider other vocations too. 

'Thank you so much for coming', she said to me and Daniel, the Vicar of Throop at the top end of the diocese. 'It's so important that we do all we can to make sure people from the Catholic end of the Church are encouraged to come forward, it's not healthy if it's all one-way'. Oy, tell me about it. Ideas on a postcard. 

Somewhere downstairs in the house is a cuckoo clock. It cuckooed five times at one point: I checked my watch and discovered it was eight minutes past 8pm. There's another metaphor one should resist.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Come and Play


Image result for journey ps4 gameplayBefore she entered the magical world of theme parks, Cylene the Goth talked to me about her devotion to a video game released in 2012 called Journeywhose adherents form a sort of subculture in themselves. In contrast to a lot of games, it’s neither violent nor competitive, but consists of – you may not be surprised to discover – a journey towards a mountain, glimpsed in the distance, which involves challenges and puzzles in which you may encounter other players, who can assist one another if they choose, but who cannot communicate with each other. Altruism is rewarded and as the player progresses (their ‘character’ is not a muscled hero or a heavy-chested girl with suspiciously revealing and impractical body-armour, but a sexless, abstract robed figure) the music shifts correspondingly. In the climax of the game, which may only take 90 minutes or so to reach, the player arrives at the mountain, ascends it by flight, and is extinguished in a suffusion of light. ‘I never reach the end without crying’, says Cylene, and you can see why: this is very clearly indeed a metaphor for the spiritual life; in fact even more than a metaphor, it’s a way of representing it in a non-religious form, a form so unspecific that players of any ideological tradition could get something out of it.

Not long ago another friend, Karla, who is also a determined gamer, drew attention to this article by Brie Code, a female games designer discussing why people don’t like video games and what her colleagues might do to change that. This is what Ms Code says in conclusion:

I'm not remotely interested in shockingly good graphics, in murder simulators, in guns and knives and swords. I'm not that interested in adrenaline. My own life is thrilling enough. There is enough fear and hatred in the world to get my heart pounding. My Facebook feed and Twitter feed are enough for that. Walking outside in summer clothing is enough for that. I'm interested in care, in characters, in creation, in finding a path forward inside games that helps me find my path forward in life. I am interested in compassion and understanding. I'm interested in connecting. … I want to make games that help other people understand life. ... We should be using this medium to help us adapt to our new, interactive lives. This is how we become relevant. … We want games that aren't gritty, toxic pseudo-realistic pseudo-masculine nonsense nor frustrating time wasters that leave you feeling dead inside. We want games about how each of us could be in the future, how the world could be in the future. We want games built on compassion and respect and fearlessness. This is so much more interesting.

I've never played a video game. I don't think I have any interest in doing so, either, because I don't have time to do all the things I want to as it is. I am, however, interested in the idea that gaming could provide a means for exploring and assimilating life. Via the magic of LiberFaciorum, I asked Karla:

How common do you reckon it is among games designers to think in these very idealistic terms rather than just in terms of supplying a market with entertainment?

To which she replied:

There are a fair number of indie developers who work with concepts like this …  My view of gaming was permanently marked by the game that really turned me into a lifelong devotee of the artform - Ultima VI: The False Prophet, which, although it used the standard structure of a computer role playing game of the time, revolved around themes of virtue ethics, unintended consequences of actions in the name of good, and justice in warfare. Other instalments in the same series looked at issues of racial prejudice, deception and religious intolerance, or demanded that the hero set the world to right not by slaying the Big Bad, but by becoming a moral examplar. They … really shaped my expectations of, interest in and hope for games as a medium to communicate something meaningful.

This all made me reflect that I, a non-gamer, engage in this business of representing life so it can be explored, assimilated and changed, partly through music and even gardening, but mainly through religion. Christian spirituality consists of an immersive, imaginative engagement, by a variety of means, in a story, reading your life and experiences through the lens of that story and adjusting the way you interact with the world as a result. Some time ago I said to a friend that the Church was a sort of Live-Action Role Play, and I only meant it part-facetiously. Apart from the assumption of Christianity that behind its key interpretative narrative lies something, and somebody, absolutely real, the mechanism is exactly the same. For people who have no faith, gaming could provide a means for doing the life-shaping job that religion does for those who have it. But saying that ‘gaming is like religion’ is a little obvious; it’s more interesting to posit that religion is a form of gaming. 

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Embroidery and Entombment

Sunny though it was, Thursday turned out to be a day of Gothic concerns. I sped up to London on the train with Is This Desire? on the headphones (a good start) and by noon was at the V&A for ‘Opus Anglicanum’, its show of material from the time – the 14th and 15th centuries – when English needlework was the envy of Europe. Amid the dark of the V&A’s temporary exhibition space, islanded within pools of light were works of such sumptuous detail and grandeur that they made one gasp. Of course I’ve seen a lot of this before, illustrated, but to see it in the flesh, in the thread and the silk, is a different matter. I was caught out by how long the vestments are: the great Clare Chasuble would come down nearly to my feet, and your average medieval clergyman would have been a bit shorter than me. Catherine-spotting was rewarding: she was present quite a bit. The ‘Embroiderers’ Lantern’, a hanging table-top-sized lamp with the known names of craftspeople picked out in black fretwork, managed to move me rather: these were the people whose fingers made these beautiful things, whose minds planned them, whose hearts rejoiced to see them complete and ready to be used.

The only one of the ‘magnificent seven’ Victorian cemeteries ringing the capital I’d never visited was Abney Park, so from Kensington that was where I went. The great Egyptian piers of the entrance are rather grander than anything you find inside the rails: there are no big, elaborate monuments or characterful culturally-distinct sections such as you find at Highgate, Kensal Rise, or West Norwood. The cemetery’s status as a nature reserve (like its cousin at Tower Hamlets) means that much of it is even wilder than it would otherwise be, and straying off the main paths is a hazardous enterprise. The tree cover is such that even Abney Park’s grandiose centrepiece, the heroically unattractive Chapel, can easily be missed if you don’t know it’s there, no matter that it’s winter. The sun filters through somewhat reluctantly. There are many moving and pretty corners, though. The Chapel’s being renovated at the moment, hopefully rendering it a bit less dangerous than it is now: my Goth accountant friend Ms Death-and-Taxes was once photographed posing inside it for the cover of Accountancy News, and it looked as though the arches could collapse any moment. In the Visitor Centre I met the custodian, a middle-aged gentleman in a black leather coat and a pair of New-Rock boots who clearly has his ideal job. He was touchingly uncertain what to do when I requested to buy a guidebook and a handful of postcards, implying it was an unexpected eventuality. 












Thursday, 5 January 2017

Blue or Not, and Who Might Care

Here’s a recondite little liturgical matter for you. I was mildly surprised to see photos of a couple of my clerical colleagues from deeper in the Anglo-Catholic world than my own location having celebrated mass on New Year’s Day resplendent in blue for the BVM, which would never had occurred to me: at Swanvale Halt we kept it as the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus and, as a Feast of Our Lord rather than Our Lady, in gold.

I hadn’t picked up on the fact that in 1969 Pope Paul VI reclassified January 1st as ‘The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God’, I suppose concentrating on the Virgin’s maternal role, which is all very well. However I do wonder whether this is less about her as such, and more about the slight squeamishness we moderns may feel in approaching the fact of Jesus’s, or rather his parents’, obedience to Jewish custom in this inescapable respect. The old Anglican Prayer Book collect is, as usual, brutally upfront about the whole business:

Almighty God, that madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man: Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will.

This is authentically medieval, reflecting the theology implicit in that wonderful New Year hymn ‘Hac in anni ianua’, that Christ’s circumcision is part of his perfect fulfilment of the Old Law and therefore the liberation of humankind from its curse – liberation to obey God’s will in the Spirit rather than by rule-following. The modern Common Worship collect is basically the same as the 1980s version which replaced the BCP, with a bit more inclusive language:

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was circumcised in obedience to the law for our sake, and given the Name that is above every name: give us grace faithfully to bear his Name, to worship him in the freedom of the Spirit, and to proclaim him as Saviour of the world.

You will note that, even though the circumcision of Jesus is mentioned, it’s no longer the major theme of the collect; it’s the element of Jesus being named which has taken over. It does seem very odd to be celebrating the genital mutilation of a small child, however culturally specific and theologically glossed. Perhaps the squeamishness, thinking about it, is less to do with taste so much as the prospect of small children in church (assuming there might be some) lisping innocently to a hapless parent, ‘Mummy, what does circumcised mean?’ However, our Lord’s de-foreskinification did happen (Luke 2.21), and at least the Anglican Church seems actually to be less reluctant to face the fact than our Roman brethren are, or were in 1969 anyway. 

Over on LiberFaciorum a friend-of-a-friend commented on this that ‘Our Lord must shake his head in bemusement at us all’. My question in reply of ‘What does he know about it?’ was only half-facetious. These feasts, fasts and seasons are all means by which we limited human beings encounter, understand and appropriate the unfolding mystery which is Him, and I imagine he is more than content to let us work out for ourselves what best achieves it. What we choose to do with this particular day depends entirely on what signals we might want to send about how we think of ourselves and the Christian communities we are part of. Now, I am no great Marian, and I think Our Lady is a retiring character anyway, surely as satisfied as I am without yet another feast day in addition to her Annunciation, her Dormition, Conception, Visitation, Nativity, Presentation, all those peculiar Roman Catholic ones, and, my personal favourite, Our Lady of the Snows on August 5th (inconveniently for Anglicans, St Oswald’s Day as well). The inescapable carnality of the Circumcision positively forces people to face up to things about Jesus I think they may sooner not, and so is worth it for that.