cultural stuff


It’s been a bruising few days for us Britons.

When I woke up on Friday morning, having driven a 300 mile round trip during filming to vote in Newhaven, and still recovering from a violent bout of food poisoning (which seems poetic in retrospect), I was KO’d by the referendum result. I lay in bed actually clutching my temples and feeling winded.

After days of rain and vomiting, the sun was shining, so I took my body-blow for a walk up onto the beautiful cliffs over Newhaven West Beach.

For me, the “Leave” vote meant generations of British people impoverished, cut off from the prosperity of one of the world’s biggest trading blocks, it meant further austerity, insularity, xenophobia in the face of global crisis and change. But watching a fox sniff across the rain-bright chalky uplands, I also felt physically nauseous from a sense of social split within my own circle, my own community.

I looked back over the town of Newhaven and knew that the majority of my fellow burgers had probably voted “Leave”. I knew two neighbours on my street who flew “Leave” pennants from their windows. I knew that as a Ferry port with a on-going battle with the French company that owns the harbour, most people in my town are at best apathetic to and mostly disgusted with the idea of Europe.

Walking back through the sunny but as-yet deserted streets I felt there was division in the air. I saw people and my first thought was :”How did they vote?”

Later that day, at work, when it was hinted that a colleague may have voted ‘Leave’ as well, both myself and my other “Remain” colleagues found it hard to talk to them. There were strong feelings of fear, of anger, of distain. Within families younger generations were angry with older parents and grandparents who had seemingly sold their future of free-travel and prosperity down the river. For a few days it felt like I was afraid of others in my own country and the split seemed irreparable.

But the weekend was healing in all sorts of ways. Some friends of mine got married, as a surprise, during their daughter’s naming day ceremony. I met my partner’s family (who had voted mostly to leave) and they didn’t have six-heads and poisonous eye-darts. I started to exit the bubble of Facebook and read what other sides were saying…

When I woke up alone that Friday, I took comfort of going on-line and checking-in with my friends on Facebook. I needed a safe circle of friends with similar views to hold my anger and upset.I was too upset and highly charged to be high-minded and equanimous.

But over the dizzy course of the next 48 hours, I thought about simply going to my “Vote Leave” neighbours and listening to what they had to say, how they felt, what they hoped might happen. I didn’t do it – but would it be so frightening to just listen to someone who had views 180 degrees from you – not argue or convince them, just accept that they exist?

I began to think about Facebook and the way that I and many of my friends get their information. I began to think about the way that the Referendum was reported and the way people encounter fact and opinion.

The very things that I fear most from a “Leave Vote” – isolation and intolerance – seem to go on all the time in the echo-chamber of a Facebook feed or a self-similar news source. Comforting as it is, to have a circle of friends mirroring and reflecting the same views and sentiments, the violence and contempt that erupted on Friday across social media was also scary. People saying that they wanted all “Leave Voters” to de-friend them and the branding the people who voted differently as racists and proto-Brownshirts massing on the edge of imagination – all this magnifies the division and tribalism in a different but equally troubling way.

A lot of us in the Remain camp feel angry and frightened by the consequences of (what most agree was an ill-informed) Leave vote but it is troubling to see how many people said they were “shocked”. Shocked? Really? With polls running neck and neck for weeks and “Leave” pulling ahead a couple of days before the 23rd?

I was so angry with the Daily Mail and the Sun and Express for their poisonous drip-feed of anti-immigrant stories but I reflected on Sunday that I’d never actually read any of them. So putting aside my life-long allergy to these right-wing papers I started adding them to my news feed. I found this in the Sun. I don’t agree with their politics and from my point of view, the protest vote of “Leave” is only going to leave the working classes more economically disenfranchised but you can suddenly see how the “Vote Leave are all ignorant racists” trope might feel from a Sun-reader’s point of view.

The Daily Mail, who’s raison d’être is to moan and complain and generate a sense of envy and discontent, seemed all at sea as their readers were suddenly stranded abroad with no money because of the Pound’s collapse. It was intriguing rather than disgusting to see this paper’s Brexit fervour curdle. Founded at the end of the 19th century with a female readership in mind, it’s the biggest selling paper in the UK and is still predominantly read by women. What do the women who read the Mail think when they read this paper?

Weirdly, as I opened up to the “leave” side’s half-hearted and jittery ‘celebrations’ my sense of anger and anxiety started to recede. The “us vs. them” split is the oldest and most powerful tool in anxiety’s toolbox and any deconstruction of it leads to a softening of the heart. And that felt really good after 48 hours of frightened constriction.

As the new week begins, I have to wonder too whether my much-beloved BBC was at fault. After the shock of Friday morning passed, there was as sense, during the weekend, of seeing things sharp and fresh: scouring multiple news sources, following the street protests, hearing opinions from friends in Berlin and from America, noticing on-line petitions, the politics of the wider EU, a sense of global history unfolding. And then when I turn on Radio 4 this morning it’s the same tiny Westminster focus that we’ve heard for months and months: a Tory MP talking about Boris Johnston; a live-broadcast of George Osbourne’s platitudes. It suddenly felt stiflingly parochial and small-scale.

I’ve written elsewhere about how the decision to give equal weight to Leave and Remain despite the massively unequal evidence distorted the debate considerably. I’m not sure what else the BBC could have done but I suddenly can see how the sense of a “Westminster’s Insider Club” can gain traction across the nation.

Despite these questions, I still feel that Friday’s decision was a protest vote gone wrong: an act of global vandalism. (We hear about ‘Regrexit’ where Leave voters are waking up from a trance to see the ruinous consequences of their vote.) And, if parliament goes on to ratify the referendum and we do go ahead and leave the EU, I still believe the economic, cultural and social consequences will be painful and permanent. We will suffer further from cuts and a catastrophic collapse in funding; free-marketeers will take advantage of the lack of EU legal protection to dismantle the NHS, roll-out environmentally damaging agriculture and tear-up our few remaining labour laws; and there will be nasty and permanent increase in racist attacks on our citizens. (Let’s not forget that an MP was MURDERED by a racist and people still voted Leave).

However, I do sincerely hope that the rupture that this vote has caused will wake us up from our bubble-chambers and self-selecting tribes and force us to LISTEN (not hector or convince or argue or rant at) our fellow citizens. The one thing we can’t let it do is shut our minds to 17 million people and walk the streets in a rictus of suspicion and hatred. Because then the racists and hate-mongers have really won.

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And the, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

Seamus Heaney, Squarings

I haven’t written here about a concert for ages. But I haven’t been to a concert like the one this evening for ages. Ever, in fact.

I don’t know if it was the way I am at the moment or whether it was the end of a lovely weekend or being “surprised by joy”, but at the close of Jonathan Harvey’s epic piece Weltethos at the South Bank I was literally unable to move.
I couldn’t really clap or cheer or speak much. I wonder whether others in the audience felt the same because the applause was fairly muted despite the hundreds of musicians and singers on stage.

I had been so in raptures with the closing ten minutes of this 90 minute piece that I was gurning and grinning next to my friend David like I was on ecstasy.
And ecstasy was pretty much the musical experience.

The piece commissioned in 2006 by Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic sets the words of the Swiss theologian Hans Küng and the six sections look at the commonalities of the six major world religions. I have to say, reading the programme notes, that my heart sank because it all sounded so dreadfully worthy.

I don’t really know Küng but the texts didn’t strike me as particularly deep or profound, though read out by Sam West, they were melodious and inoffensive. But it was Harvey’s music that was the star.

I’ve known his wonderful electronic music from the 80s, especially an early piece that treats his chorister son’s voice and the great bell of Winchester cathedral. And then a wonderful trilogy (?) of orchestral pieces treating Buddhist themes from the early Naughties.

But this was the cream on the milk. Harvey is very ill at the moment, I believe he’s close to death in fact, but this music is the distillation of a very life between music and spirituality. And his score here is an incredibly rich, dense and beautiful last great work.

It’s never obvious, never banal (despite a dreaded children’s choir that had to sing Küng’s rather cheesy words) and the unbelievable orchestral writing lifts the whole thing to another realm. I know this is probably more about me that an objective account of the music, but there were several moments in the 90 minutes which felt like the altered states of ayahuasca, most especially around the closing section and the third section on Hinduism.

With out lapsing into cheesy orientalism Harvey has mastered the art of hinting at the eastern without aping it. (The Tibetan horns at the beginning of “Body Mandala” are incredibly evocative but not imitative.) The sonic painting of this score hit me straight in the solar plexus. There’s a wonderful moment in the Hindu section where the text has talked about Shiva and VIshnu and the massive chorus roar over a deafeningly dense texture of brass and percussion and strings. The sound swirls and soars and smashes. And it reminded me of that bit in the Baghavad Gita where Krishna reveals his true nature to Arjuna: and it aint’ cute. It’s the end of the world and death and destruction and rebirth and everything all at once. It’s terrifying and poor Arjuna is struck dumb as I was by the theophany.

Similarly the closing ten minutes of radiant and seemingly endless swirls and lifts of choral and orchestral soundscape was almost too much for my little ears to bear. I felt my heart open and I was grinning like an oaf – but it was the beauty and the terror and I was so glad to have heard it.

I wonder how often such a massive score gets to be performed but I hope it becomes a 21st century classic like Belshazzar’s Feast was and places Harvey where he deserves to be – high, high up in the firmament.

I’ve loved J H Prynne’s poetry ever since Easter Term 1989. I know that date because it’s penned into the front cover of my now slightly dog-eared copy of ‘Poems’ in the original Agneau 2 edition. (There are two much more glossy, compedious Bloodaxe ones since then).

The funny curly A’s of my name and the just post-teenage uprightness of my handwriting on that fly leaf is touching. I was a bundle of raw anxiety and back-arching back then – but even then I was determined to be a poet – and unbeknownst to me Prynne was a big-hitter in the contemporary world. He was also my director of studies at college. I’m not sure whether I bought the volume to get some brownie points or because i was intrigued.

I remember vividly going to his rooms in Caius court with their subtle white wood panelling and odd collection of abstract art. He gave evening supervisions with a glass of port. We would listen to Tudor madrigals and try and puzzle out the words aurally. Or try and spot Irish song patterns in Larkin. Mostly we’d listen to his rainbow-coloured but barely perciptible flights of associative logic. I would drift off looking at the impressive collections of books. The complete editions of Celan in German. Ungaretti in Italian. Montale too. And we knew he was also a leading world authority in Chinese poetry. We also knew he worked through the night. How else could he possibly know so much stuff?

My dreams of being a poet didn’t survive two years of post-University reality but my love of Prynne’s writing has. It’s gone through patches of intenstity and lassitude. I occasionally write to him or see him in Cambridge. He was always very encouraging of my writing but it’s his that draws me in.

I can’t begin to explain why I love it so. There is certainly no message in his writing – there is no obvious meaning – and yet… And yet.

I once wrote a poem, probably back when I was 19, where I said:

The secret is around the words and I live there,
in the sounds around the words,

which was a pretty accurate description of my modus operandi when it came to poetry (and perhaps life). I daren’t get too involved in the obvious meaning but enjoyed the nuance. Perhaps it was growing up gay in a straight world – where the bare facts were too unacceptable and the nuances and spectral inflections nourished my hopes more. The bare facts were often too starkly uncomfortable – the boy I loved would never love me – so I hid in the aura and allusion around the facts. A penumbra of possibility.

(This is probably why I stopped writing and reading poetry when I got to Berlin aged 24 and discovered that the bare facts could be quite enough. Who needs spectral allusion when a nice German will actually get into bed with you?)

Anyway, back aged 19, and alive with the frizzing, electrical excitement of Cambridge after a life in the provinces, Prynne intoxicated my mind with allusive fumes.

That poem I wrote continues,

I live there,
in the sounds around the words,
in a Kirillian blue that haloes the Bikini Atoll
and all manner of matters, dark matter
or paler, the colour of grapefruit flesh
pale on the sand and in the sand

I think it’s a fine poem, even now, thirty years on. Certainly the type I like to read – but I also see how richly seamed it is with Prynne. This is the beginning of his poem ‘Landing Area’ from the 1974 volume, Wound Response.

The spirit is lame and in the pale flash
we see it unevenly spread with water. Lemon yellow,
very still, some kind of bone infection, both
heroic and spiteful.

I unconciously borrowed his ‘pale/flash’ as “pale… flesh” and my poem is personal and Romantic while his is objective and biological. But there is a similar avoidance of too much meaning.

Prynne’s whole poetic is about frustrating the meaning-making mind. If you engage with it deeply it becomes an phenomenological experience – about holding oneself on the edge of meaning-making and enjoying a spray, an exuberance of possibilities which sort of add up. They add up to a glow around the words that is ‘almost too much’.

I remember him being quite impressed (or perhaps relieved) by a hurried essay I’d knocked off about the musical spray of soundplay in Wordsworth’s Prelude. I was quoting Kristeva (as one had to back then) and talking about Gertrude Stein, but the basic idea was that there is a juice and a joy in the gush of sound that excedes meaning. Wordsworth talks a lot about sounds beyond hearing and there is a sense of exhilaration in stretching oneself to hear them.

Last year, I met Prynne at a gig in Cambridge – in a warehouse with a drum and bass DJ. It was a classical / avant garde affair. The sort of thing that never happened when I was at Cambridge but seems to now. Prynne, now in his 70s, was wandering around, dressed as he always is in a corduroy suit and shirt. The music was deafening and wonderfully aggressive. I raised my eyebrows and he looked at me and said: ‘I love drum and bass’ and then told me a story about how he used to sneak into the Fridge in Brixton where his daughter used to work and skulk by the speakers where the music was at its loudest and most vast.

I love that image: his poetic mind, so attuned to so many registers of linguistic nuance, happily immersed into the brutal simplicity of very loud techno music.

Though Prynne’s poetic music is never deafening. It’s dizzying. I wanted to quote a bit but it defies quoting really. But I enjoy typing it out and patterning its sounds in my head. So, this is from the last poem in Wound Response (sadly, this blog software loses all the beautiful tabulation of the original):

Shouts rise again from the water
surface and flecks of cloud skim over
to storm light, going up in the stem.
Falling loose with a grateful hold
of the sounds towards purple, the white bees
swarm out from the open voice gap. Such ‘treasure’:
the cells of the child line run back
through hope to the cause of it; the hour
is crazed by fracture. Who can see what he loves,
again or before, as the injury shears
past the curve of recall, the field
double-valued at the divine point.

Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is either brilliant or dreadful. I refuse to decide.

For a long time I felt compelled by deep inner workings to love things completely or hate them. There were no shades of grey. If I was watching a film or listening to a new piece of music or a play then I would be rehearsing cut-throat defences of it or devestating annihilations of it for the foyer. It was us or them.

In psychological terms this is called defensive splitting. To make the world safe you have to separate it into all-good and all-bad. That done, you expend a lot of time making sure that everything is water-tight and there is no ambiguous leakage.

The British psychotherapist Donald Winnicott says that the mark of becoming adult is the ability to tolerate ambiguity.

So even as I was watching the movie with A. last night, I was conscious of those tendencies in my head. I had really wanted to see it and had rather pressganged him into the Screen on the Green to watch 9pm show. As it stretched on and on and the kaleidoscopic novelty of it slowly wore off, I could feel myself tipping from a very partisan, “I love this and am going to text all my spiritual friends to go see it”, to “this is pretentious tosh that could do with an hour edited out of it.”.

However, a two-hour movie, does at least give you time to ponder and move to a middle ground.

Malick made an indulgent but brave movie. It would be so easy to point out what’s wrong about it – the beach scene at the end? the endless shots of the mardy-faced teenager hating his father? (I think we got the message) the ten-thousand false endings? – but by the same token I am glad that something so pretentious and poetic makes it onto the screen out of America and that it gets the Cannes seal of approval.

I loved its lop-sidedness. A 30-minute visual meditation on the dizzying scales of cosmic time right in the first act? – that really doesn’t follow Disney plotification rules. And there were undoubtably beautiful images – perhaps too many.

One of the thoughts that flickered through my mind was that Tarkovsky is so much better at this because he has the confidence of his images. Where Malick nervously spoon-feeds a dozen beautiful fragments into our rather over-sugared craws – Tarkovsky will just give us one puzzling, simple thing that grows and grows and becomes cosmic. It’s almost like someone whispered into Malick’s ear over and over – “remember the MTV generation: too much is never enough”.

Which is a shame since Malick is definitely a beautiful cinematographer and the movie is brave in dealing with a massive theme. Job’s theme. Why do we suffer? Why does God take away a child from a parent? This theme runs through the film like a gratefully-grasped lifeline in almost drowning sea of possiblities. And yet the film tries to present a big answer. The answer being that in the cosmic scale of the Horse Head Nebula and the moons of Jupiter and the explosions of the galaxies, then the loss of one child is definitely a detail. But that details matter. As Alan Watts points out over and over, the tiniest details supports the whole. That mother’s scream of grief in the pinewoods is as necessary to the cosmos as the 20 billion megawatt explosion at the centre of a star dying. The universe is built out of insignificant details.

The big picture, however, is too big for us. Humans are not framed to really survive that amplitude of knowledge and accepting that limitation is part of the answer. Nebulae form. Blood flows. Job suffered. God is too big.

Even though Tree of Life fails – as it must – and sometime teeters on the ludicrous in its failing – I am grateful for the failure. Even as my split mind was tittering at the image of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn embracing in the beach heaven, another part was recognising exactly that scene – all my friends and family, dead and alive, on a beach – from ayahuasca visions that were so real and meaningful to me. So I am resting in ambiguity and feeling adult in my muddle.

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