Saturday, 27 March 2010

Visceral Hymnody: Nick Cave

Today I celebrated a wedding (a convalidation, if you want to be canonically accurate) and a baptism. It was a grace filled occasion. At the end, the couple presented me with a gift and encouraged me to open it there and then. I could tell by its shape and weight it was a book of some sort. As I tore off the tissue paper, I could see it was Nick Cave Stories. I flicked open the hard cover and inside were the words "To Father Martin love Nick Cave". In our preparations, the couple spotted Nick Cave books on my study shelves and I had owned up to being a fan. For me, Nick Cave is rock music's equivalent of Flannery O'Connor. He possesses something of that same fearless perspective on all that is dreadful and grace-ful in human lives. Combine this with his theological intelligence and his observations sing with a unique clarity. Anyway, it just so happened this couple knew someone who worked for Nick Cave's record label, Mute...and hence the present. So, sincerest thanks to Cate and Martin. And this blog post is a thank you to Mr Cave for taking the time to make a Catholic priest smile.

Mortality, religion and atrophying love are the staple ingredients in the work of the Australian musician, Nick Cave, and his band, the Bad Seeds. These ideas, combined with Cave’s tormented, street preacher persona, have led some critics to label his music as “modern Gothic”. However, such a glib description ignores the complex theological interests in Cave’s music. At his best, Cave articulates the contemporary dilemma of believing in an age of pandemic indifference. “I’m a believer,” he admits, “I don’t go to church. I don’t belong to any particular religion, but I do believe in God. I couldn’t write what I write about and be creative without a certain form of belief.”

As a boy, Cave sang in the choir of the Episcopalian Cathedral of Wangaraata in Victoria. Cave’s secular hymns are rooted in his religious upbringing. The Wesleyan craftsmanship of Cave’s lyrics and his use of choral layering provide a distinctive resonance to his music. In the Foreward to Nick Cave Stories, James fox writes:

Cave had the luck to have a thorough education in the Bible and in sacred music through intense church attendance, which provided him with the richest mythology in the culture. The Psalms were his inspiration, and much else of the brutal prose of the Old Testament. "The Psalms are soaked in saudade (inexplicable longing and yearning of the soul), drenched in duende and bathed in bloody-minded violence," Cave wrote some time ago. It's a good description of the collected lyrics of Nick Cave and of his love songs. "What is required of love songs is that they unveil the face of God," he says. "I believe the love song to be a sad song. It is the noise of sorrow itself. The love song is the light of God, deep down, blasting through our wounds."

In 1978, when Cave was just twenty one, his father was killed in a car accident. In his radio essay, The Flesh made Word, Cave interprets this tragic event in religious terms, stating that “like Christ, I too come in the name of my father, to keep God alive.“ By immersing himself in the Christian narrative, Cave’s music becomes a sacred rage against the absurdity of death and loss.

In his early twenties, Cave became fixated with the God of the Old Testament, “the maniacal, punitive God, that dealt out to His long-suffering humanity punishments that had me drop-jawed in disbelief.” It was also this God that gave Cave the self-belief to “walk out on stage and open my mouth and let the curse of God roar through me.“ Old Testament references litter Cave’s work. In The Mercy Seat from the 1998 album, Tender Prey, Cave imagines someone about to be executed in the electric chair through allusions to Jewish blood rituals and moral codes of retaliation:

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth.
An eye for an eye
A tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die.

Later in his life, an Anglican vicar introduced Cave to the Gospel of Mark. The stereotypical Christ, “that wet, all-loving, etiolated individual that the church proselytised,” was replaced by the Christ that spoke to Cave “through His isolation, through the burden of death, through His rage at the mundane, through His sorrow.” It’s common for rock musicians to talk about Christ with smirking irony or as a publicity stunt. Cave, on the other hand, is serious about the Christian faith, describing himself as “a hammer-and-nails kind of guy.” However heterodox some of his views, what one senses and admires in Cave is his unflinching engagement with the divine mystery. “I don’t believe in an interventionist God” may be the credal statement of the song, Into my arms, but his oeuvre contradicts this.

With the formation of the Bad Seeds in 1984, Cave found musical collaborators with which to develop his autobiographical and theological preoccupations. This happened in unexpected ways. In the love song, Brompton Oratory from The Boatman’s Call of 1996, Cave enters the Knightsbridge church during the celebration of Mass. His religious thoughts fuse with the memory of a failed love affair, “the blood imparted in little sips/ The smell of you still on my hands/ As I bring the cup up to my lips.” It is not God or the devil that has brought him to his knees, but his lover’s absence. He invokes “a beauty impossible to define/ A beauty impossible to believe/ A beauty impossible to endure” but it is unclear whether this refers to God or his lover. Like some urban John Donne, Cave effortlessly combines religion and sexuality. “Any true love song is a song to God,” he admits in his lecture, The Secret Life of the Love Song, “The love song exists to fill, with language, the silence between ourselves and God.”

Cave rejects the church because it has emasculated Christ. He writes, “The Christ that the Church offers us, the bloodless, placid “Saviour” - the man smiling benignly at a group of children, or calmly, serenely hanging from the cross - denies Christ His potent, creative sorrow.” He scorns the timid and anodyne in religion. He wants the full hit of religion, rather than “the decaf of worship.” His music and evangelical performance style are Cave’s attempt to provide in a secular context what he feels is absent in a religious one.

Cave’s fourteenth album with the Bad Seeds, Dig!!! Lazarus, Dig!!! continues the exploration of his main themes. The creative germ for the work comes from his idiosyncratic reading of Christ’s raising of Lazarus. “Ever since I can remember hearing the Lazarus story, when I was a kid, you know, back in church, I was disturbed and worried by it,” confesses Cave, “ We are all, of course, in awe of the greatest of Christ’s miracles - raising a man from the dead - but I couldn’t help but wonder how Lazarus felt about it. As a child it gave me the creeps, to be honest.” Cave’s ambiguous response to the miracle provides the imaginative scaffold for his songs, where Cave describes his lyrics as “a haemorrhaging of words and ideas.”

In the title track, the post-miracle Lazarus becomes a resident of New York where he stockpiles weapons and women and “feasted on their lovely bodies like a lunatic“. But the price Lazarus pays for his new lease of life is the cruel knowledge that it has an expiry date. He will face death again. Over a driving bass-beat, Cave tells us that “he (Lazarus) ended up like so many of them do,/ back on the streets of New York City in a soup queue./ A dope fiend,/ a slave,/ then prison,/ then the madhouse,/ then the grave.” This fantastical re-imagining of the Lazarus story allows Cave to apply his understanding of the mission of Jesus - the liberation of humanity from the prosaic in order for “our imagination to rise and to fly. In short, to be Christ-like.”

Frank Cottrell-Boyce

Frank Cottrell-Boyce. Do you recognise the name? If you don't, you may well recognise some of the films he has written screenplays for: 24 Hour Party People, Welcome to Sarajevo, A Cock and Bull Story, Millions. Frank Cottrell-Boyce is one of Britain's foremost screenwriters. He is, also, a fascinating example of how faith and culture can live harmoniously within a creative talent.

This post may look insubstantial (because it is insubstantial) but that's because Frank Cottrell-Boyce is more naturally eloquent than I could ever hope to be. For the next forty five minutes you are in for a treat and joy:

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Time's arrow

"What then is time?" St Augustine asked. "If no man ask me the question, I know; but if I pretend to explicate it to anybody, I know it not." He has a point. We all live in time; we all experience time as a fundamental reality of our lives - shaping us, controlling us, reminding us of the transcience of life. It is a reality that we cannot escape. We are in its grip. Time is the digital tick on my wrist watch; the pages of my diary; the deadline; that grey hair. T.S.Eliot austerely characterises our experience of time as "Birth, copulation and death." Time is relative. "When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second," Albert Einstein observed, "When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour." And yet those examples do not really tell us what time is or if it is just an invention. Does this fluid, ethereal, invisible reality we call "time" actually exist or is it just an illusory perception? Do dolphins have any concept of time or do only human beings possess this dark knowledge? Why does time seem to flow in one direction? Why can't we go back to the future? Why can't I wake up tomorrow and find that grey hair restored to its orginal glory? And if time is an objective reality what is it made up of? Where does time come from? Hmmmmm....

Neuroscience and philosophical schools of phenomenology are better equipped than a blog to begin to answer those big questions. But, it's clear that our preoccupation with time, while producing real benefits, can also produce a whole range of anxieties. The bullish argument in many industrialised countries is that efficiency, productivity and time management should be the temporal coordinates of human lives. But, others observe that living under the fierce, unforgiving god, Chronos, can make mere mortals stressed, unhappy and even ill (note the rise in Attention Deficit Disorder). Due to constant stimuli and hyper activity, it was recently announced that children in schools would be given lessons in how to sleep.

We can become so focussed on busyness and speed that we begin to lose a proper sense of ourselves. Individuals can feel that their lives are "spinning out of control" or worse, are about to "break down". The common response to the question, "How are you?", has become "I'm busy." We define ourselves in terms of frenetic activity. At the same time, other aspects and dimensions of our life (family, friendship, the social and the spiritual) are eroded by the constant pressures on our time. "We are money rich, but time poor," as someone put it to me the other day. In a similar vein, the poet, Carmen Firman, casting an analytical glance over America's dysfunctional relationship with time, puts it like this:

Time is everything in America. It is sold at each deli and hot-dog cart, on TV and by insurance companies, on slot machines or in the Have a nice day greeting everyone utters automatically only to get rid of you quickly...Time is money. The Soul? It is lying lonely somewhere on a shrink's chair, in front of a computer screeen or in a cell phone.

Firman's description of America could easily be translated and applied to other countries, including Britain. Eva Hoffman writes in her fascinating book, Time:
On more familiar ground, Leon Kreitzman in The 24 Hour Society, a study of time patterns in Britain published in 1999, finds that "A large proprtion of the British population believe that they are overworked, and that life is out of control." Few, however, choose to, or can afford to, work less. Rather, as Peter Cochrane, then head of research as British Telecom pithily notes, the contemporary work conditions have created a new class divide within society: between "those who spend a lot of time trying to save money", and "those who spend a lot of money trying to save time."

But there are pockets of resistance to these new velocities. The description by the art critic, Martin Gayford, of how the artist, Lucien Freud, works struck me as being in defiant opposition to the way that time is understood and used in most digitalised, over stimulated societies. Here is a flavour of Gayford's experience from a recent Times article:
One realises that this slow, deliberative pace is crucial to the quality of the results. A great deal of his time is spent not painting but thinking: mixing the precise shade and tone for each stroke of the brush, considering the strategy of the next mark in advance, pondering the result afterwards. One day my upper lip appeared, in an unexpected shade. “You’ve given me a moustache,” I observed. “Yes,” he replied with satisfaction, “it’s a lovely green colour.” Eventually, when the patchwork of brushstrokes was complete, it fitted in perfectly. After half a year, I remarked that I might have changed since the beginning — my hair was probably greyer, for instance. “Oh, have we been working for six months?” he replied, mildly surprised. “It seems like five minutes.”

One of the dangers of living under the unforgiving eye of the clock is that we risk losing the faculty of concentrated contemplation. In our haste, reality becomes a blur and we stop seeing the interior mystery of the present moment. Activism prevents the sublime contours of people and things being slowly revealed to us in their own time and at their own rhythm. Living at high speed, make acts of reverence almost impossible, partly because, in a secular age, there are few things that can command such contemplation and respect. The prospect of waiting for the auspicious moment and living with the tension of incompleteness has become anathema to many people. Instead, we bypass natural gestation periods, and force things (work, relationships, ideas, "spirituality") into a premature birth and then wonder why they don't answer our true longings. We substitute the twitter soundbite for deep thinking; the ticked box for an action done with care and attention; the slick meditation centre for the wisdom of a fourth century monk living in the Egyptian desert:
Unless there is a still centre in the middle of the storm
Unless a person in the midst of all their activities
preserves a secret room in their heart where they stand alone before God
Unless we do all this we will lose all sense of spiritual direction
and be torn to pieces.

Time, Eva Hoffman, Profile Books, 2009

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

David Beckham, poetry and the secular gods.

On my way back by train to Brentwood today, I picked up a discarded copy of the Daily Mirror. Inside, between the latest tabloid stories of celebrity infidelity, was a poem by Carol Ann Duffy. But what really made me pay attention was that the poem was about David Beckham and his latest injury. There can't be many (if any?) poems written about a footballer by a poet laureate:

Achilles (for David Beckham)

Myth's river - where his mother dipped him, fished him,
a slippery golden boy flowed on, his name on its lips.
Without him, it was prophesied, they would not take Troy.

Women hid him, concealed him in girls' sarongs;
days of sweetmeats, spices, silver songs...
but when Odysseus came,

with an athlete's build, a sword and shield,
he followed him to the battlefield,
the crowd's roar, and it was sport, not war,

his charmed foot on the ball...

but then his heel, his heel, his heel...

For Duffy, Beckham is a modern day Achilles and not just in terms of his injury. Beckham has been ordained the golden hero of our age and his life has provided a worldwide public with a contemporary Iliad. "Like Greek myths," she says, "such public lives can contain triumph and tragedy and in a way we all learn from them, as we do from Ovid, or the Brothers Grimm, or Shakespeare." Certainly, we are fascinated by Beckham's triumphs and travails but whether he can tell us anything more profound about ourselves is questionable. He does, however, provide insights into the present configuration and direction of our culture.

In a secular age, Beckham, the cultural icon, provides a perfectly manicured symbol for the aspirations, values and moral ideals of our age. But this is a symbol without any weight, depth or valency. He is a symbol that is anchorless and open to interpretation by any group or individual in order to satisfy their needs. For example, the sports journalist, Matthew Syed, writing in The Times makes inflated claims for Beckham's influence:

By broadening and softening the contemporary notion of masculinity, Beckham nudged the nation towards a wider vision of inclusiveness: the idea that it is not what you are or what you wear that matters, but what you do. "I always liked to look good, even when I was a little kid," he once said. "I was given the option when I was a page boy once of either wearing a suit or wearing knickerbockers and long socks and ballet shoes - and I chose the ballet shoes and knickerbockers."

Such anecdotes are used as evidence that bending it like Beckham includes the bending of gender roles and identity. And that's why the David Beckham phenomenon is so potent. You can believe in David Beckham without having to believe in anything. You can say anything about him; pin any value or attitude to him and they will not be rejected. He is a cultural construct that satisfies the needs of a secular mentality for "diversity" and "inclusiveness" on its own terms. Beckham's tattoos are a visual advert for this philosophy. Their syncretism satisfies the secular principle that "all religions are the same". Spiritual quotations, snaking across his arms and torso, retain an exotic veneer by being written in Hebrew, Chinese and Latin. The names of his children and wife (Victoria in Hindi) snuggle between the wings of angels and an image of Christ as the Man of Sorrows. Beckham's body is a living passport, containing inky stamps accumulated during many years of spiritual tourism and for the secular mind, it can be read in whatever way you please, should you please.

If David Beckham was just a great footballer he would be of much less interest and value to our secular culture than he is at present. Beckham has been fashioned - by himself, sports agents and clubs, the media, the fashion and advertising industry, cultural analysts, etc - as much more than a midfielder. He is a sporting god. He is a hero and role model. He is a clothes horse and celebrity. He is a family man and gay icon. He is the Leytonstone boy next door and no.1 sportsman on The Sunday Times rich list...and, oh, he is a footballer who can curl a ball and create a piece of football magic. Maybe, that is where his real significance lies.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The Habit of Art: Benjamin Britten and Noye's Fludde

I am being stalked by Benjamin Britten. Up until last year, I knew the name and a little about the composer's work but that was the sum of my knowledge. Then, I read The Rest is Noise: listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross. The crudest description of this remarkable book would be to say that it is an introduction to the consonance and dissonance of contemporary classical music. But it is also concerned with politics and philosophy; history and art. Ross has a chapter on Britten where he describes how the Norfolk landscape combined with Britten's buttoned-up parochialism and homosexuality to find an original register in his work:
Britten lived for most of his life in the Aldeburgh area, and he once stated that all his music came from there. "I believe in roots, in associations, in backgrounds, in personal relationships," he said in a speech in Aspen, Colordado, in 1964. "I want my music to be of use to people, to please them...I do not write for posterity." Britten designed many of his pieces for performance in Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall and in churches around the area...In his Aspen speech Britten provocatively compared the regimentation of culture in totaltarian states to the self imposed regimentation of the avant-garde in democratic countries. Any ideological organization of music, he said, distorts a composer's natural voice, his "gift and personality."

In January I went to see Alan Bennett's new play, The Habit of Art, at the National Theatre. The play centres around the imaginary meeting between the poet, W.H. Auden and Britten. In a programme note, Bennett writes:
"The title comes from Flannery O'Connor. At least I thought I did. She wrote "Scientists have the habit of science. I have the habit of art." However John Bird, whose reading is much wider (and more rigorous) than mine, tells me that he came across it in the correspondence between Stravinsky and Jacques Maritain in the twenties."

In the play, Britten says to Auden:
I've never wanted to shock. I just want an audience to think that this is music they've heard before and that it's a kind of coming home - even when they're hearing it for the first time. I want it to seem inevitable...When I was boy - because at twenty-three I was still a boy - I was baffled by the torrent of words that used to pour out of you and I clung to my pathetic staves and bar lines lest I drown in your wake. These magnificent words - I used to think my paltry music just an afterthought, a servant to the words. But it's not. Music melts words...your words and Myfanwy's too. It's the music that matters, even in Gilbert and Sullivan. Music wins.

In a brief scene, Britten gets into conversation with a male prostitute called Stuart who has come to Auden's rooms in the Brewhouse, Christ Church, Oxford:
Britten plays a chord.
Stuart: I've never seen an opera.
Britten: That's good. I wrote an opera for boys like you who'd never seen one.
Stuart: Yeah?
Britten: It was quite jolly. Some of them couldn't play or sing but they did the music with drums and teacups.
Stuart: Teacups?
Britten: Yes. And the audience sang too.
Stuart: Did you have to pay them?
Britten: The audience? No. No. They did it for...well, for love, I suppose.

The opera that Britten alludes to in this extract is Noye's Fludde and it was this opera that was performed in Brentwood Cathedral last week....and, yes, there were teacups. In 1957, after hearing a concert performed by several hundred East Suffolk children in Aldeburgh Church, Britten decided to write a work for children to sing and play and act in a "a big building...preferably a church - but not a theatre." He chose to base his church opera on a Chester Miracle play: the story of Noah, the ark and the animals to be played by children. Rather than have an audience for his opera, Britten wanted a congregation who would actively participate in the drama by singing three hymns.

Great music has a gravitational pull, it draws individuals together and makes them a creative community. This was evident as the production of Noye's Fludde started to take shape in Brentwood Cathedral. The artistic process gave people a common goal, a new way of encountering community. The opera offered people a lyrical syntax with which to communicate their human experience with a new intensity; an original pitch with which (for a transitory moment) to live their lives. Britten's music and his theatrical enterprise found an imaginative way of using the different talents and levels of expertise of all those involved; assigning to each person a role perfectly fitted to their gifts and without which the project would be diminished. Some roles, such as that of the director, were more prominent than others, but all (from those who made the children's costumes to those who sold tickets) were essential. This was more than a democratising exercise but revealed the succouring ways that men and women, young and old can work together. Britten himself conceived Noye's Fludde as a liturgical act, both in terms of content and execution; an artistic sign pointing to the immense solitude of transcendence, a kind of coming home.

Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Arvo Part

OP-ATE | MySpace Video

For photos of Brentwood Cathedral's production of Noye's Fludde go to

The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett at the Royal National Theatre, Southbank, London.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The New Sexism: Porn, Pole dancing and Katie Price

"We have open auditions and it's very interesting - most of the women choose Jordan's autobiography as their favourite book," remarks the creative director of Big Brother, Phil Edgar-Jones, in an interview included in Natasha Walter's new book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism. The glamour model and celebrity, Jordan (aka Katie Price), offers a warped horizon of aspiration for many women. Jordan is marketed as "living the dream" and with enough silicone and self-exploitation it's a dream that all women can share in. In a hypersexualised culture governed by onanistic desires, women become de-personalised and are sold the idea that if they are anything then they are bodies and fantasy porn bodies at that. My Body is a Big Deal ran the copy line on posters advertising the television series based on Belle de Jour's The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. In its instrumentalised and commodified form women's bodies have become a big deal and the distorted locus for their self-understanding.

In liberal democracies, the central debate revolves around the concept of choice. If women choose to hang from a pole by their stilettos or pose for lads' magazines such as Zoo or Nuts then that is their choice and some argue, an "empowering" choice. For a time, the leading lights of the Feminist Movement, including Natasha Walter, uncritically accepted and promoted this philosophical position. This was, in part, a reaction to the aggressive polemic found in books such as Pornography: Men Possessing Women by Andrea Dworkin. But recently some feminists (see Ariel Levy's seminal Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture) have voiced their unease at the dominant vision of women as airbrushed, plastic sex dolls. Far from being liberating, they regard this objectification of women as morally claustrophobic and damaging, although they shy away from the judgement that it is "wrong".

In Living Dolls, Walter exposes the widely accepted tenets that underpin a pornified culture by using the testimonies of those involved in the sex industry. A former lap-dancing girl called Ellie counters the argument based on the idea of choice:

I did make a choice. It was a self-destructive, damaging choice, like taking drugs, but nobody forced me. At the end of the day I was lucky, I'm well educated, I'm from a middle class background, and deep down I do fundamentally know I can do something else...I do feel angry that women who could do other things, who are bright and intelligent and driven, but not as well educated, live in a culture now that encourages them to think that this is the best that they can do, that makes them want to aspire to this, and says this is all your worth...We hear a lot about choice or liberation, but it just isn't equal - you know, you just look at the lap-dancing club, and it says so much about culture. The men in there are respectable, they are in suits, they have bank accounts, the women are not respectable, they are naked, they have debts.

Ellie makes two astute points. The first is a political point. Poverty and poor education are significant factors in driving some women into the sex industry and prostitution. With few options in life, using your body in a culture where there is an insatiable demand for women's bodies becomes economically acceptable. Although, as Walter points out, few women (whatever their class) are immune from the all pervasive influence of a hypersexual culture. Middle class women can become neurotically obsessed with their body image as they try to parody some phantom version of Sex and the City. Ellie's second point is philosophical. Our choices are only real if we choose a basic good, such as, the preservation of human life. These choices allow for our human flourishing and well-being. Choices that vandalise and harm the human person are not, in any proper sense, true choices. They are damaging exercises in moral pathology.

Nowhere is such destructive activity more evident, Walter proposes, than in the ubiquity of pornography and its corrosive effects. Sex education has migrated from the family and classroom to the porn sites on teenagers' mobiles and computers. Young women are attune to the fact that their boyfriends' expectations of sex may well have been shaped by pornography with its often sadistic and abusive overtones. Women define themselves in terms of their physical appearance measured against the porn aesthetic. The self-giving and life-giving dimensions of sex have been removed, leaving only carnal performance. Women are often pressurised into having sex with the spurious notion that this is the only way to get or keep a boyfriend. But those women who challenge the hypersexual orthodoxy or say "No" to the demands for sex are caricatured as uptight prudes or made to feel like emotional pariahs. One young women quoted in Living Dolls observes

There is a total detachment from emotion when they (the young women she works with) talk about sex. I remember one young girl I was working with who told me about how she had lost her virginity in the school field at lunchtime one day. She said she had thought, "The bell's about to go, I may as well do it now or I'll not do it." There was this complete detachment from the act itself and what it means. This isn't rape or sexual abuse, but it isn't a positive experience. In some ways I find it quite disturbing. But people have so normalised this kind of sexual activity - it's totally emotionless. The act itself is no longer about intimacy, it's no longer about communication.

Walter's thesis is articulate and stimulating. Many of her arguments are persuasive; some less so. But what this book signals is a tectonic shift in feminist thinking to a place where questions are being asked about the meaning of sex, our bodies and the choices we make. Walter presents a disturbing picture of "many young women being surrounded by a culture in which they are all body and only body." Unfortunately, what she does not seem able to offer is any coherent alternative. Perhaps that must come from some other source?

Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, Natasha Walter, Virago Press, 2010