Sunday, 31 October 2010

Racism, football and the collective.

One of the reasons I read The Times newspaper (although it frequently infuriates me and I constantly think about having an affair with some other paper) is the writing of the journalist, Simon Barnes. He is the Chief Sports writer for the newspaper, but also writes on his love of bird watching and a variety of other subjects, including his son who has Downs Syndrome.

Simon Barnes is what people now refer snootily to as a “prose stylist”. His words have a cleansing, Alpine purity and yet he is not afraid to exercise language and metaphor in order to create vivid sporting images. He has the ability to take foreign subjects and through the written word, make the reader believe that the alien sport he is surveying is also within their mental apprehension. Not only that, through his incisive analysis, the reader believes that sport has a meaning and value beyond mere distraction. This, in the sociologist, Peter Berger's famous phrase, is sport as "a signal of transcendence"

It is because Simon Barnes considers sport to be a human virtue, that he also recognises its vices. His latest article, No masking football’s ability to up the anti (29 October 2010), considers the relationship between racist, neo-Nazi organisations (in this case, the English Defence League, EDL) and football. He writes:

It’s always football. Whenever you follow the more grotesque forms of politics, you end up on the road that leads back to football. As I read the disquieting interview with Stephen Lennon, founder of the English Defence League in The Times this week, so I waited for the moment when we came up against football.

It happened in the sixth paragraph, with the information that Lennon is banned from going to matches at Luton Town as part of his bail conditions, after being charged with affray and assault after two separate incidents. The EDL, I learnt, began with Luton supporters handing out leaflets that read “Ban the Luton Taleban”.

Barnes thinks there are a number of reasons why football attracts such degenerate, disordered social views. “The politics of violent intolerance traditionally does best among working-class youth,” he observes, “particularly when they can be separated from older people and from women”.

The first part of this statement seems uncontroversial to me. The pale faced youths on the crumbling terraces of the 1970’s and '80's were the obvious recruits for the National Front. They were susceptible to the rhetoric of the far right. “Some people say we’re racists. We’re not racists. We’re realists,” says the character Lenny in Shane Meadows 2006 film, This is England, “Some people call us Nazis. We're not Nazis. No, what we are, we are nationalists and there's a reason people try to pigeonhole us like this. And that is because of one word, gentlemen - Fear.”

It is Barnes’s contention that when men (especially, young, impressionable men) are separated from the elderly and from women, their ideas become more easily manipulated. When ageing (with all its frailties, experiences and sense of approaching death) and the feminine are marginalised, men become more vulnerable to a distorting machismo that often finds expression in a brutal herd mentality.

“In a footballing context, jocose bigotry is socially and morally acceptable”, writes Barnes, “In football, it is perfectly acceptable to be illogical and absurd in the name of loyalty...When you turn to football, you are entitled to let your sense of fairness and common sense – almost your humanity – take a holiday. Tottenham Hotspur can hate arsenal and Arsenal can hate Tottenham and Everton can hate Liverpool and everybody can hate United....When the precariously maintained joke of rivalry and hatred becomes something people actually believe in, the madness begins.”

If this is true of football, then, perhaps, it is true of other collectives where men and testosterone predominate? I don’t know what the social theorists would say about this and I'm not entirely convinced by this suspicion. Nevertheless, as I looked out at my congregation this Sunday morning, the sight of young men alongside women and the elderly felt kind of healthy and reassuring.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Hamlet and the Search for Identity

To thine own self be true,/ And it must follow as the night, the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Over the years, I have seen a number of Hamlets (Anton Lesser, Ian Charleson, Kenneth Branagh, Jude Law, Ben Whishaw, Simon Russell Beale and I even, as a guilty pleasure, enjoyed Mel Gibson’s portrayal in Zeffirelli’s 1990 film of the play) and all have – to a greater or lesser degree – shed new light on the complex soul of the Prince of Denmark. Last week, I went to see the latest production of Hamlet at the National Theatre where Rory Kinnear (the son of the late, Roy Kinnear) takes on the role with a renewed freshness. His performance and the inventiveness of this production makes you feel as if you are watching the play for the first time.

One of the challenges that any actor faces when they approach Hamlet is to what extent they travel the fault lines between sanity and insanity in the character. Kinnear’s Hamlet is very sane and his “antic disposition” is a psychological mechanism to protect himself from the pain of grief and injustice. This Hamlet circles the epithet “to thine own self be true” and considers if that is possible when "the time is out of joint” and you are under surveillance from family, peers, institutions and society.

In such an environment, must we repress truths about ourselves in order to survive, achieve preferment or engender some form of acceptance from others? Are we ever willing to let down our guard and be entirely honest with ourselves or with another? Or is there always an element of self-deception when we look at ourselves and subterfuge when we present ourselves to others? Do we prefer to manufacture and live with the illusion rather than wrestle with our reality? Kinnear's Hamlet asks if it is possible to live a more authentic appropriation of who we are? If so, what might that look like? The director, Nicholas Hytner, in a programme note remarks:
One of them (the play’s chief concerns) is human authenticity. It’s one of Hamlet’s obsessions: the apparent impossibility of being authentically oneself, or of knowing others authentically. The first line of the play is famously resonant: “Who’s there?” The second line seems even more telling to me: “Nay answer me: stand and unfold yourself!” Is it possible to completely unfold yourself? To anyone else, or even to yourself?

Rory Kinnear commenting on the famous soliloquies that are so central to the play observes:
Hamlet is someone who’s constantly searching for the truth in humanity and in himself, and, through the continual betrayal of those he once loved or was close to, adopts more and more walls to protect himself or to obscure his motives. In those five or six soliloquies you’re able to be open, to enlist the audience to your situation and to work things through with them...He’s trying to be honest with himself.

This might seem like simply a psychological process of introspection - the caricature that many people have of Hamlet is of a melancholy youth, a sort of Danish Morrissey, endlessly soul mining or indulgently navel gazing depending on your prejudices. But Kinnear suggests that Hamlet’s self actualisation cannot be reduced to mere psychology or sociology but is something that also happens outside his immediate understanding of himself:
Madness seems to be a label for behaving outside the norms of society. Hamlet, in seeing the ghost of his father, seems to be taken – as well as to rage at the murder and adultery, which he might have already suspected – to a state of wonderment at this other-worldliness, a new sphere of life. But at the same time he’s wondering how he’s going to be able to deal with this knowledge. He instantly decides that the way to deal with it is to behave as “other” as possible. If he tries to sit on his new knowledge it will out somehow, so actually to let rip from the start.

I find these questions of identity, of what makes us who we are, fascinating and, perhaps, that is why I so enjoyed this production. Are we, as Descartes describes it “in the strictest sense only a thing that thinks: that is, I am a mind, or intelligence, or intellect, or reason...a thinking thing”? Is such an atomistic description of the human person adequate or is our authentic identity to be realised in something beyond the self, for example, in love for an Ophelia or a mother or God? Does the ek-stasis of being, the movement towards communion with others lead to a transcendence of the boundaries of the self and thus to true authenticity? Is the philosopher, Charles Davis, correct when he writes in Body as Spirit:
Man’s true subjectivity is not the self-sufficient independence of an isolated monad, but a self-possessed openness to the plenitude of being. As an embodied subjectivity, the self participates in the plenitude of being only in and through the world with which it is a bodily one.

Too many big questions here to think and write about in a brief blog post. But the fact that a production of Hamlet still has the power to stir such universal concerns makes it a profound, unsettling and moving experience.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Nothing is Self-Evident

One of the pleasures of writing The Invisible Province is that I often receive ideas and suggestions from people(and even if they don't make it into a blog post, they are always interesting - so do keep sending them to me). The following blog post is thanks to the chaplain of the University of Essex, Fr Paul Keane.

In 1988, the American writer, Raymond Carver reflected on the following words from St Teresa of Avila: "Words lead to deeds...They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness." Carver was receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Hartford and in his acceptance speech before a packed auditorium of university students and lecturers, he said:
Long after what I've said has passed from your minds, whether it be weeks or months, and all that remains is the sensation of having attended a large public occasion...try then, as you work out your individual destines, to remember that words, the right and true words, can have the power of deeds.

Václav Havel, the renowned dramatist, essayist and the first President of the Czech Republic, would agree with Carver. Words lead to deeds and that is why words are such volatile, powerful and important things. They are vessels of sacredness and should be handled with a sacramental reverence. One cruel word can, in the words of George Steiner, "do dirt on hope". On the other hand, words that are blessings, revelations of understanding can illuminate the darkest abyss and build communion. Contrasting the words of Salman Rushdie with those of Ayatollah Khomeini, Václav Havel famously wrote: "Words that electrify society with their freedom and truthfulness are matched by words that mesmerise, deceive, inflame, madden, beguile, words that are harmful - lethal even. The word as arrow."

For Havel, the question of our time is whether words can be expressions of truth that man can live by or have our words become so semantically corrupted by the virus of relativism (e.g. those schools of postmodern literary theory that advocate the deconstruction of meaning and the annihilation of all syntactical or lexical descriptions) that truth is beyond expression. Where words have been emptied of their truth and are reduced to the level of a euphemism, the value and power of language is called into question. In this environment, the meaning of words become so elastic that the linguistic bonds that unite human beings begin to fray and break. The idea that words are to be used responsibly is viewed with suspicion and disdain. Words become instruments of power and violence. Havel writes:
We should all fight together against arrogant words and keep a weather eye out for any insidious germs of arrogance in words that are seemingly humble. Obviously this is not just a linguistic task. Responsibility for words and towards words is a task which is intrinsically ethical. as such, however, it is situated beyond the horizon of the visible world, in that realm wherein dwells the Word that was in the beginning and is not the words of Man.

Václav Havel has just given a remarkable speech at the opening ceremony of Forum 2000. This is language used with all the fervour and energy of an Old Testament prophet. But, above all, this is language that has the power to make synaptic connections between different viewpoints. Havel links the destruction of our landscapes by a philistine consumerism with "a civilisation that has lost its connection with the infinite and eternity." In Havel's mind, the economic recession is of a piece with a mystical intuition that "strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out of the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people. Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds things will not go well." Havel really does believe that words can lead to deeds.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


The sad fate of the album XX is that it will end up being blogged about by middle aged men (worse still, blogged about by priests, which must be the kiss of death to anything cool and stylish). Unfortunately, XX is going to go the same way as every Portishead and Massive Attack album - the way of the middle class, hip dinner party and the television advertisement. This is a shame because around the addictive dubstep melodies and riffs the XX have crafted a musical landscape that echoes with dystopian menace and the heartbreak you find whimpering in council estate stair wells on a Saturday night.

The XX are four youths from South London dressed in black and looking as if they haven’t had a hearty meal for some time. A boy/girl duo – Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims – are the lead singers and their vocal interplay, all hushed intensity and jagged intimacy, veneer their lovesongs with an urban vulnerability. Supported by Baria Qureshi (keyboards/guitar) and Jamie Smith (programming/samples), the XX have created a critically acclaimed debut album that has just recently won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize.

As the musical interlude, Intro, fades, the listener is drawn into the seductive, languid spaces of XX - a bedsit, youth squat land for damaged hearts. Synth beats and smoky soundscapes give more than a respectful nod to the 80’s band the Cocteau Twins but this aural expansiveness is hooked to lyrics that dissect at the nuclear level the autistic anxieties and tics of contemporary relationships. Big sounds and emotional longing are what make XX an interesting listen. These are songs that, in the words of the track VCR, “live half in the daytime/live half in the night”, that no man’s land where authentic love is hard to come by.

One of the standout tracks is Crystalised. Its helter-skelter, unpredictable riffs conjure up a bruised psychological state of self-mutiliating uncertainty. “You’ve applied the pressure/to have me crystalised./And you’ve got the faith/that I could bring paradise ./ I’ll forgive and forget/before I’m paralysed./ Do I have to keep up the pace/To keep you satisfied.” Reading the unspoken contradictions of a relationship takes on a forensic struggle. The pressure and pace inherent in a youthful relationship is also recognised to be destructive and paralysing. This song, like so many on the album, has an unsettling sensuality, the closeness of breath and the grinding of teeth.

Some critics have complained that by the end of the album, the songs have melted into one luxurious, indistinguishable blend. There is some truth in this but with an album that provides so many unexpected pleasures, this criticism feels petty and mean. XX is a perfect soundtrack to all the consolations and terrors that swirl around our search for love. Let's hope it does not end up at too many dinner parties or on too many grandad blogs.

XX, The XX (Young Turks, Rough Trade Records, 2009)

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Is the internet weakening our ability to read?

There’s a striking passage in the Confessions, where St Augustine describes his surprise when he stumbles across Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, reading. Augustine observes that “when he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Often, when we came to see him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.” Augustine was witnessing what, we may term, a paradigm shift from a largely oral idiom to a written idiom, where the thinking subject internalises the word and becomes not just one who reads but a reader.

But this shift, Nicholas Carr believes, also marks a significant cognitive development with brain function being stimulated and exercised in new ways. For centuries, the commonly held neurological view was that, after the malleability of childhood and youth, our brains became structurally fixed. In this mechanistic understanding, the brain was like a combustion engine, its many parts having a specific character and function. If any deviance from these functions occurred the circuits of the brain, like those of the engine, would begin to break down. Such an understanding of the brain has recently been called into question and it appears that our brains are more “plastic” than previously thought. With repetitive thought and action, the neural circuits of the brain appear to develop and strengthen.

Augustine witnessed the shift from an oral to a literate culture but now there appears to be a further shift to an electronic vernacular, which, again, will provide challenges at the neural and cultural level. We are witnessing the digitilisation of text. It is conceivable that all the libraries of the world will be stored on a computer and accessed via the i-book in your hand. At the forefront of this revolution is Google that aims to scan every book ever printed and make them “discoverable and searchable online.”

In comparative terms, is this anything more than the change from vinyl to c.d that many of us experienced in the twentieth century? Does it matter if our texts are printed or digitalised, isn't this just a technological development which only the Luddite would see as threatening? Well, though there may have been benefits from the move from vinyl to c.d and more recently, to download, there have also been losses. No one listens to an album sequentially from track one to track twelve these days. The idea of artistic coherence, at least in the mind of the majority of listeners, has been lost. Instead the listener flits from track to track until they land upon something aurally attractive and then, when they are satisfied or their attention is tested, they move on. Our ability to listen to music - pop, jazz or classical - in a concentrated, uninterrupted fashion is challenged. It is not just that the music or the methods by which we listen to music have changed, what is changing is the very act of listening itself. Listening for the "still, sad music of humanity" has become an activity associated with a bygone age.

Similarly, having a digitalised text may have many benefits, such as easy access to a particular book but there are also likely to be losses. For example, what happens to the cohesion of a text? What happens to the intellectual discipline of following an argument? What happens when we stop exercising our more reflective faculties, when a text becomes just hyperlinked data, something to scroll rather than an integrated body of learning to be thought through? What happens to the architecture of our brains when we start thinking like this? Nicholas Carr writes ominously:

For Google, with its faith in efficiency as the ultimate good and its attendant desire "to get users in and out really quickly," the unbinding of the book entails no loss, only gain. Google Book Search manager Adam Mathes grants that "books often live a vibrant life offline," but he says that they'll be able "to live an even more exciting life online." What does it mean for a book to lead a more exciting life? Searchability is only the beginning. Google wants us, it says, to be able to "slice and dice" the contents of the digitized books we discover, to do all the "linking, sharing, and aggregating" that are routine with Web content but that "you can't easily do with physical books...The great library that Google is rushing to create shouldn't be confused with the libraries we've known up until now. It's not a library of books. It's a library of snippets.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Film Quiz

I have been exposed by my fellow priestly blogger, Stephen Wang, for what I really am: a nerdy cineaphile. It's true. There's no escaping my reality. His last film quiz provided me so much pleasure, especially his really difficult, cryptic clues. Now the fascinating Bridges and Tangents blog has stumbled upon a great film quiz from The Guardian newspaper...I'm doing okay at the moment, although a few of the film references have escaped me. Nerdy cineaphile, me?!