January Poem

the-brain-of-the-child-1914

The brain of the childGorgio de Chirico, 1914

The brain of the child

 

V, have you grown old, flabby,

skin as grey as Poirot’s

brain cells, eyes closed against

the railway black inevitability of

the year of your creation?

 

1914 – inscribe that in your book,

or close the curtain on it.

But you cannot,

because this is the moment

after the first gun fired,

before the primed shell landed.

In a last drop of silence

the drapes have amassed

doric solidity,

station clocks are stopped,

democracy coagulates as mud.

 

Your mind empty

as an unglazed room,

you wish to hold back

from reality’s maroon stain.

Yet the thump of ordnance

will shock your arm into lividity,

brushing the book

from closure to vacancy.

 

There you will see blank leaves

fill up with burnt haste,

a catalogue of halted generation,

names cast down in ink

as red as the serpent’s tongue

that flickers through night shaded pages.

Poetry Challenge

Too Brave to Dream, the recent Bloodaxe Books publication of R.S. Thomas’s poems inspired by paintings in a couple of Herbert Read reference works has provided me with a new challenge for 2017. Each month I am going to try and write a poem in response to a painting in an art book from my shelves. The book I have chosen is Moderna Museet/Modern Museum 1998, a celebration of the collection held in Sweden’s principal museum of modern art, which opened in 1958.

Musical picks of 2016

2016-music-composite

There were some hugely emotional and deeply poignant albums released in 2016. The crises that seemed to be overwhelming artists brought out some intense sounds which reflected the dense unease and dis-ease in the world, certainly in the UK and the US. The elephant in the room on this top ten is Dark Star which didn’t make it simply because Bowie’s music hasn’t touched me as much as some others. It is a potent album and a good last testament to an exceptional musician, just not a favourite for me.

1. Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Kobalt Label Services.

With Cave black is always a multi-hued colour, imbued with a vast range of subtle shades from deep indigo to the densest burgundy. In these songs of love and loss, belief and loss, love and endurance, belief and doubt, he has dredged new, heartfelt personal depths and created music that aches with pain, sorrow, stubborn fury and a genuine engagement with a divinity he has a very ambivalent relationship with. At the moment I think this is his best album so far.

2. You Want It Darker, Leonard Cohen, Sony Music.

I could almost repeat the review for Cave and just insert Leonard Cohen’s name instead. Again, deeply personal, dialoguing with a deity with whom Cohen has a very tricksy relationship. On the surface the poetry is lightly structured, but underneath it sighs with intensity, which Cohen’s fragile voice brings right into the heart of the listener.

3. Adore Life, Savages, Matador.

Savages have been hanging out with Michael Gira and Swans, an association which has added more colour, more glowing violence, more nuanced noise to their sound. Savages songs are still swift, stabbing and skewed. I absolutely loved this album.

4. Seat at the Table, Solange Knowles, RCA.

What does it mean to be a black woman in America today? Solange Knowles explores the history of black lives in the US and how entrenched positions and prejudice still affect a woman such as her who is young, talented, rich and confident.  There is anger and sadness as well as a kind of edgy serenity as Knowles rises above her racist detractors – diminishing them but not belittling the crushing impact of their casual hatred. This is not a genre of music that I listen to regularly, so it isn’t surprising that it reminds me of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and This is Jill Scott, with the mix of sketches and songs. The mix of politics and polished beats is potent and I’ve been playing this a great deal.

5. The Glowing Man, Swans, Young God Records.

It is Swans and I am a great fan, so I’m biased and this was bound to be amongst my best of the year. However, I’m sort of glad that this is the last album by this incarnation of the band, because the music, while still good, is falling prey to the law of diminishing returns. The all out assault of sound, curving and curling like minimalism on steroids is still forceful and freeing, but the lyrics are less coherent, the phrasal links jagged and blocked, the intensity of thought and sound has passed and while the band sound tight they are also beginning to almost feel a touch ordinary. The Seer is one of my top ten ever albums, To Be Kind was step down and The Glowing Man is another step away from greatness. Good compared with most new music but not at the level Swans can attain. The accompanying DVD gives a hint of that ferocious brilliance and the total immersion of a live experience of Swans.

6. Will, Juliana Barwick, Dead Oceans.

This has probably been the album I’ve played most this year, and have seen performed live. It carries through the trajectory of Nepenthe with Barwick producing music that relies on her creative weaving of dense textures to envelope the listener in her own distinctive soundscape. Her vocals are mainly wordless, an extra instrument, but they are an intimation, which I think you would pick up elsewhere in the music if you didn’t know it, that taps into a feminine connectivity with creation and technology, pushing ambient sound in a subtle and extremely pleasing direction.

7. Lady Wood, Tove Lo, Polydor Records.

Funny, fresh, feisty, this is my Scandi pick of the year. Witty, naughty, neatly crafted and yet deliciously messy at times, there are obvious connections with such as Lykke Li and Grimes, but Lo is very much her own woman and her music has is less darkly introspective and more noirish raunch.

8. Holy Science, Elder Ones, Northern Spy.

Confronting some of my pet hates – the saxophone and free jazz – head on I was at first intrigued and then drawn into the music of Amirtha Kidambi. The musicians she has gathered around her are stalwarts of New York’s experimental music scene, but the music is very much hers and she is in control. There is a Hindu influence to this music and I think it was the spiritual energy and the jazz fusion with the Indian drone tradition that kept me listening and, more than that, kept me enjoying this album even though at times there was too much saxophone and too much ‘jazz noodling’ for me to be entirely comfortable. There are many folk less biased than me who might find this extremely pleasurable and productive music to explore.

=9. Sunergy, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Suzanne Ciani, RVNG INTL.

=9. Ears, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Western Vinyl.

I came to both of these albums late in the year while trawling through reviews on Pitchfork for something new to listen to and so haven’t played them as much as some of the others on this list, but they are now firmly on my playlist and knocking Animal Collective’s Painting With off the tenth spot. Aurelia Smith creates synthesiser based soundscapes, preferring to use something called the Buchla Music Easel, which I think is vintage synth technology. Sunergy, her collaboration with Suzanne Ciani consists of three long tracks and sounds a little how I had imagined Tangerine Dream would sound if making music today (I know they are, but I haven’t heard them since the mid-eighties). It was simultaneously backwards and forwards looking, a strikingly pleasing sound that was quietly energising. Ears is a collection of short tracks and is more gently nuanced with layered vocals making it more personal with a wider sonic palette. Lush and luminous.

I suspect 2017’s musical round-up will consist of more historical than contemporary releases.

Recently Read 2016

Mors Britannica(There was no Recently Read 2015)

  1. Meeting God in Paul – Rowan Williams, SPCK, 9780281073382. Like his earlier Meeting God in Mark this is one of Williams’s short, sharp, extremely lucid and enlightening little books. It cuts straight to the heart of Paul’s theology and is packed with insights on every page. A concise and approachable overview of contemporary Pauline thinking which both makes a great deal of sense and left me with much to think about.
  1. Wind/Pinball Haruki Murakami, Harvill Secker, 9781846558351. This is why I read books and not Kindle/E Reader screen text. A beautifully tactile hardback with a lushly textured jacket and with one novel starting at the front as usual while to reach the second one you have to turn the book upside down and begin from what was the back. These are supposed to be Murakami’s first novelistic writing, dating back to 1979. They probably are, but like everything with Murakami it is difficult to discern what is real and what is not. The book begins with an essay written by the author about how he began writing, how in the moment that a baseball player struck a double hit at Jingu stadium in 1978 he suddenly knew that he could write a novel and so went off and did. I’ve no way of telling if that is true or part of the myth of Murakami. The details are lovely, the writing is straight from a Murakami novel and Wind (Hear the Wind Sing) is full blown Murakami from the off. It centres around three characters – the narrator, his friend Rat and J of ‘J’s Bar’ where they all spend much of their time. Nothing much happens, but what doesn’t happen happens to not happen in an interesting way. The musings of the three characters, the daily round of the narrator and the details of perception that make up their daily lives are all beautifully rendered. It s a captivating read, one which I whipped straight through then turned the book over with glee to carry on with the same three characters in Pinball (Pinball, 1973). This time the narrator has finished college, set up a translating school and is living and sleeping with a pair of highly enigmatic twin sisters – sisters who share everything and have nothing. The narrator also has an obsession with playing pinball on one particular machine, an obsession which is explored with colour and depth and from strange angles in unfamiliar light. Lovely writing and a great start to the reading year.
  1. The Dazzle – Robert Hudson, Vintage, 9780099575887. Zane Grey, Martha Gellhorn, Kiki Preston, Joe Carstairs and a coterie of other damned and dashing folk meet at Scarborough in 1934 to follow the latest craze, hunting giant tuna. A fanciful and twisting plot ensues involving drugs and sex and rolling decks. It is a mildly jolly jape but a little heavy-handed and not quite as gripping as it ought to be.
  1. The Crucible in History and Other Essays – Arthur Miller, Methuen, 9780413775245. Very brief collection of essays by Miller on his own plays, the one on The Crucible being the longest and the most useful, describing what drove him to write it, how he began with the hysteria surrounding the House of Unamerican Activities but got drawn further and further into the horror of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Fascinating stuff, personal and insightful. Worth reading if you wish to explore the play.
  1. Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales – Sara Maitland, Granta, 9781847084293. Mayhap and maybe fairytales are forest born as Maitland argues but the interest in this book is laced too loosely – we have a visit to a different forest at each month over a year beginning every chapter, then some discourse on aspects of the development and propagation of fairytales, hooked together by tenuous links with the forest and its history. The chapters finish with Maitland’s re-telling of a fairytale, combining modern and ancient sensibilities to re-shape classic tales for our contemporary times. There is plenty to stimulate but the whole is an egg best served to curates – a little messy with a tendency for the parts to run into each other and mire the piquancy of the whole. Maitland evokes the fear and fascination humans have with the crepuscular otherness of the forest – entanglement or straight lines, bare earth or profuse undergrowth, the universal terror of finding ourselves lost and alone in a dark wood. And she has much to say about the current trend to bring our children into the safety of the virtual world rather than let them connect with the mulch and intrigue of our perhaps always semi-mythical ancient woodlands.
  1. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book – Michael Rosen, Quentin Blake, Walker Books, 9781406317848. Grief, personal, emotional, raw, messy. Written for children, perhaps, however just as applicable for adults it is not just about grief but the deepness of sadness that can lurk in, dwell in, blight or colour many lives and especially and often those who we least suspect are sad. It is honest about how sadness – in Rosen’s context the death of his son, Eddie, at eighteen – can grab you at any time and you might not have any mechanisms to cope with death. This is not a book with a resurrection message like Water bugs and Dragonflies, but I can see it being extremely helpful for many, young and old, who feel worn down and worn out by an inscrutable, draining sadness. I like the way that Rosen explores how his grief over his son’s death raises memories of his mum and adds new layers to the grief he felt for her. I like the way he tries to do something that makes him happy (and doesn’t hurt others) each day and his confession that being sad leads him to do bad things but that he isn’t bad. Unlike other reviewers of this book I didn’t find it drew any emotional response for me, but then I guess I see grief as an extra patina to the inherent sadness of being alive.
  1. Sidejobs – Jim Butcher, Orbit, 9781841499208. Fun, fun, fun. Compelling and teasing, a collection of short stories written for a variety of publications that fill in gaps, give different angles and add a little to the myth of Harry Dresden, wizard and private investigator. Cracking stuff, racy and moral, transformative and witty, I loved every page.
  1. Recently Re-read. Touching from a Distance, Deborah Curtis, Faber, 9780571174454. Every few years I re-read this and each time it gets harder, I notice different details and I learn something new about Ian Curtis. There is an element of myth-busting about Deborah Curtis’s telling of her short marriage to Ian. Short because of his suicide at the age of twenty-three. Myth-busting because she gives a trenchantly honest portrait of the young man who many would say was the greatest lyricist of his generation. Ian does not come across as a very pleasant person in this re-telling and what hit home to me this time was the meticulous way he planned his life to culminate in suicide just as his band was hitting stardom. Deborah Curtis chronicles so many missed opportunities to deal with his illnesses – epilepsy and what we might now call bipolar disorder – and the fearsome impact his suicidal mono-vision had on all around him. And yet, and yet, there is the music which, thirty-five years later still stands as poignant and relevant and beautiful now as it ever has done.
  1. Mors Britiannica: Lifestyle and Death-style in Britain Today, Douglas Davies, OUP, 9780199644971. In our quest for life we often shut out the certainty that death is part of the process and we leave the processing of death to professionals. At the same time because we want to plant our living stamp on every element of existence and to believe that we have control over our mortality – where it will take place, how it will be celebrated and what memorials might bookmark our brief flaming on this seething planet – we individuate the rites and resting places as just another element in the consumerist circus.

As its title suggests, Douglas J. Davies’ magisterial Mors Britannica: Lifestyle and Death-style in Britain Today, grasps these twin themes of vitality and mortality and eviscerates them to pick open how our attitude towards and behaviour around death can inform our understanding of the way we view life. It is an endlessly illuminating and utterly compelling work. The scholarly idiom may not appeal to all and its technical language is at times deliciously dense to the edge of opacity. But it is never tedious, and the in-depth, lively discussion of surveys and statistics from a wide variety of sources gives prescient insight into evolving trends in belief, funerary rites, secularization, individualization and much more.

One of its major themes is the rise of the NHS as the institution which shepherds most of us from birth to death. We see how it is beginning to take seriously its spiritual potency, struggling with the conflicting values of an organization whose very nature is predicated on preserving life but one which confronts death at every turn, thus demanding end-of-life care that is truly sensitive to patients’ spiritual needs and concerns.

Other pertinent and pressing issues discussed include the trend in the rise of cremation which has led to ashes becoming objects of possession to be dealt with in evermore individualistic ways. The loosening of the established Church’s grip on funeral rites is considered at length, with particular treatment of the burgeoning fashion for woodland burial grounds, often on unconsecrated land, in private hands and free from the tight regulation and protection of either church or council plots. Elsewhere, Davies scrutinizes military memorialisation as a new invented rite and the relatively recent phenomenon of an openly emotional collective response to celebrity deaths – Princess Diana and Lady Thatcher in particular.

While his observational and statistical study is not conducive to an emotional exploration of private pain, Davies does allude to the value many have found in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief model, even though academic studies have shown it to be inadequate. Road side memorials are discussed, not as shrines, which are explicitly religious in their deliberate construction but as instant outpourings of grief needing to be both rooted in a physical spot and be marked by a physical offering – flowers, soft toys, sports club scarves. Personally, I find these overt heart-on-sleeve outpourings of emotion to be grubby and regrettable, an ugly breakdown of the much touted English reserve. It is one thing if such folk rites help people grow through their grief, but too often these days the trend seems to be more towards keeping the deceased with us, keeping them in a limbo of not-alive-but-not-departedness. The example of fully charged mobile phones being placed in the coffin for burial (not cremation!) is more than a nod back to the Victorian fear of being buried alive, it is so that the living still have a way of communicating with their deceased loved ones. Social media is also being used to keep the dead undead, with Facebook and Twitter accounts for deceased people continuing to attract comments long after death. There is also the rising trend to expunge the word ‘dead’ from the vocabulary of funerals. Even funeral directors talk of the client as having ‘passed’ as if this is the most respectful way of dealing with death. Our attitude to mortality and vitality is becoming strangely twisted – we are confronted with death every day in explicit detail via the news media, the games we play, the television we watch and yet at the same time we are shrinking further and further away from the reality of death as the one inevitable within our own lives.

Mors Britannica is an utterly absorbing and valuable book which should be required reading for all clergy, funeral directors and those working with the dying and the bereaved. The Reformation expunged the deceased from the funeral service and turned it into a reminder to the living of their own sinfulness and mortality. Mors Britannica reminds us that contemporary society is in the process of deleting death itself from funeral rites and turning the whole process of grief away from a corporate coming to terms with corporeal finitude and into another level on the quest for individual identity and immortality.

  1. The Peregrine, J.A. Baker, New York Review of Books (reprint) 9781590171332. Visceral ornithology at its very best, a classic of nature writing that has inspired many of today’s countryside authors, this is a book that scatters blood and broken feathers across every page, sometimes every paragraph. Baker was writing in the sixties, just after Rachel Carson’s prophetic Silent Spring and while the effects of DDT were still moving through the food chain, slashing the health and numbers of all farmland habitat species from the very bottom to the pinnacle predators like the peregrine.

Baker was a man with his own troubles in life – they bubble away in the background of his writing but he never voices them. Instead he obsessively follows wintering peregrine falcons for a season over an unidentified stretch of Essex coastline. His passion is total, his revulsion for the crassness of bumbling, wantonly destructive humanity is barely concealed as he strives to shake off his alien humanness and become just another part of the landscape.

His writing has a descriptive power that I have seldom experienced, he uses language in fresh and colourful ways, paradoxical images abound yet each gets you feeling more and more that you are there in amongst the flocks of knot and curlew, another heart beating with vitality but no self-consciousness, another feather coated breeding machine that is simply a tiny part in the great project of nature.

Peregrines are built to kill. It is their nature, their destiny, their reason for being. Only successful hunters survive to breed. Baker never lets you forget this, but at the same time he colours in the land around the predator with such vivacity, such explosive virtuosity that every wren in the undergrowth, every seed-head on a thistle becomes an elemental force of life.

Robert Macfarlane wrote the foreword, with much reverence, glee and relish. I had read Macfarlane’s own Landmarks last year and his debt to Baker was written large across every page. Landmarks is a fascinating look at our historic connection with the individuality of the land in our locality, at the vast network of language we created over many centuries to help us navigate, propagate and survive this land and how our urbanisation and consequent disconnection with the muck and mulch of geography means that many precious and site specific words are sliding into oblivion. Macfarlane provides list after list of these words throughout his book, Baker just uses language as a scimitar to slice open the very essence of each leaf, each bird, each mammal, each hill and tussock, cliff, field and mudflat.

Throughout the whole book Baker is there, we walk with him every day on his hunt for the hunter. But we never get to know him – the focus is always on the birds.  Helen Macdonald, in H is for Hawk, which I also read last year, also pays open tribute to Baker. But her book is a very different beast. The goshawk she joins with to train is altogether a weightier creature than Baker’s peregrines and Macdonald’s presence is also far more dense and looming. H is for Hawk is as much about Macdonald’s trying to come to terms with the death of her father as it is about her relationship with the hawk. Baker never lets introspection get in the way of the fire of his observation. Macdonald lives in a world lit by charcoal, a dull glow of grief so utterly pervades the book that I found it hard to read and much harder to enjoy.

At the end of the day there may be lacunae and misdirection in some of Baker’s observations but this is one of the best books I have ever read for the sheer over-ripe beauty of its prose and the utterly unsentimental yet vertiginous passion for its subject.

  1. Meadowlands: The Private Life of an English Field, John Lewis-Stempel, Black Swan, 9780552778992. Here we go again, contemporary nature writing that acknowledges its debt to Baker (The Peregrine), Blythe (Akenfield), Ewart-Evans (Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay) and many more. It is Lewis-Stempel’s love affair with the small, irregular patch of Herefordshire, hard against the Welsh borders, that he has nurtured and tended for many years. Laid out in diary entry form, it could almost be read as a daily devotional in praise of lost husbandry, lost wildlife and a lost communion with the land. Neatly observed with the infinitesimal details borne of close connection with a piece of land it richly and generously explodes with life, the raw power of hard labour, the visions and vicissitudes that each turning season brings. Lewis-Stempel connects himself with the history of his meadowland just as he roots himself in the rhythm of the noble small-holder. Raising good pasture isn’t an easy task, a species rich habitat needs constant and sensitive management, living a life that is in tune with the gifts and needs of the earth isn’t easy either. Underneath the notable poetry of the prose there hangs an incipient sadness – the greensward has been indelibly compromised and maybe these little nostalgic corners of old England are never going to be anything more than the postage stamps on love letters to a country that can never be held again.
  1. The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, SLG Press, 0728300923. Reading the Psalms firmly in the light of the life of Christ gives them, according to Bonhoeffer, a new and everlasting role for Christians today. Not only were these songs the prayer book of Jesus, but they should be our prayer book as well, encompassing as they do all the major themes of life, but with a triumphant resolution in the resurrection of Jesus. There is good stuff in here but, and maybe this is a fault in the translation, there is something rather off-putting, almost pompous about his certainty of the rightness of his position over and against the faithful witness of others.
  1. Into Your Hand: Confronting Good Friday, Walter Brueggemann, SCM, 9780334054139. Forty-seven pages for £7.99 seems rather steep (that’s SCM for you), but actually this little book is worth every penny and I shall probably read it many times. This is perfect reading for Holy Week (I read it along with Bonhoeffer on the Psalms during our Maundy Thursday Watch), concise, tight, a distillation of many years of thought and scholarship but immediately accessible, effective and affecting. Following the traditional sequence of the seven last words from the Cross they swiftly and tellingly get deep below the context of Jesus’s words to reveal a lasting connection with our contemporary lives and world.
  1. Life in the Psalms: Contemporary Meaning in Ancient Texts, Patrick Woodhouse, Bloomsbury Continuum, 9781472923141. This was my Lenten reading this year and it heavily informed the series of sermons I preached on the Psalms during the season. The set-up was of reading a psalm a day with excursus for six days of each week from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day. Most of the psalms chosen were of modest length, with some excerpts from 119, and the discipline of reading them through twice, then Woodhouse’s meditations and finally recalling and mulling over a single verse during the rest of the day was both a fruitful and useful exercise. Woodhouse’s choice of psalms was wide-ranging and his own thoughts perceptive and enlightening. He relies heavily on the writers who have influenced him, especially Thomas Merton and Etty Hillesum, but uses them strikingly and precisely, giving new and deeply resonate insight into these vital and eternally apposite songs. The only downside to this book is that it has been so heavily formatted for the Lenten market when I feel that it should have a much more lasting appeal.
  1. A History of the Great Western Railway, Colin Maggs, Amberley Publishing, 9781445612775. Sigh. Colin Maggs is a lay reader. He has also written more than one hundred books on the railways, the majority of them on the Great Western Railway. You know how it is often said that a preacher only has one sermon which they repeat in infinite variety. Well, as far as I can tell, Maggs only really has one book which he has repeated and repackaged over and over. This history of the GWR is useful because it gives the whole sweep of the company’s life in an easily digestible format so that you can follow its development and demise and understand the how’s and why’s of its existence. But, oh, it is a tedious book, badly written and badly edited with so many missed opportunities to tell the human story of the railways. There are anecdotes but they are told as data and there is much data but it is told so sparsely that without a fair amount of prior knowledge and understanding of technical terms the general reader will be totally bemused. There is also a profoundly pompous tendency for Maggs to call himself ‘the author’ throughout, as in ‘the author saw this’ and ‘the author remembers that’ which is utterly irritating and at one point near the end totally falls apart when he goes from ‘the author’ to young ‘Colin’ in the same paragraph. All I can say is that I hope he preaches better than he writes.
  1. Tears of a Giraffe, Alexander McCall Smith, Abacus, 9780349116655.
  2. The Full Cupboard of Life, Alexander McCall Smith, Abacus, 978034911725x. I’ll quickly review these two together – jolly good fun, jolly well written, light, generous and joyful. If they are peopled by stereotypes then they are pleasing ones, if the plots are slight then the colour and the atmosphere of Botswana are vividly drawn and if reading them is akin to snacking on comfort food, well, sometimes we need to indulge and I still have a soft spot for this series.
  1. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson, Faber & Faber, 9780571230082. Her first book, one which shares some enigmatic similarities with Lila as well as the beautiful writing of the whole ‘Gilead’ trilogy. Once again, she slowed me down – her writing is easy to read but has a rhythm and a depth that seems almost to freeze time, to make it more spacious, more generous. A tale of small town life at an indeterminate time (the 1950s?) and of two sisters left orphans and their survival and growth into or out of the land in which they have been planted.
  1. Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence, Peter C. Bouteneff, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 97808815124. A theological exploration of the music of one of contemporary music’s most serene and intense composers. Above and beyond all the examination of triads and tintinnabuli this is a thoughtful meditation on the spiritual resonances of silence and most especially creation out of silence.
  1. The Sacred Combe, Simon Barnes, Bloomsbury, 97801472914016. A gentle, gripping, insightful evocation of the places that take root in our hearts as the idylls we often yearn for but only fleetingly find. For sportswriter and naturalist Barnes there has been a certain valley in Zambia that is his sacred combe, a space where the veil between heaven and earth is torn and the raw viscerality of the natural world is suffused with a beauty that is simultaneously hyper real and ethereal, timeless, spiritual. While Barnes keeps going back and back and back again to this tiny slither of redemption he is equally sure that it can be found in other places, often much nearer to home – a postage stamp of a reserve in the heart of Redditch, a slice of Norfolk marsh, the interstices between buildings in our great cities. In one way Barnes is trying to show that for each of us there is a Diagon Alley, a place of delights that is only accessible at certain times and if you approach it from a certain angle. But he is also describing a mini Eden, a place of pastoral reconnection where humanity is a cog in the process of life rather than the motor grinding all the delicately balanced gears into dust.

That his main descriptive metaphors for such places come from the writings of the Inklings – Tolkein and Lewis especially, is, I think, quite telling. Both writers were, in their creation of other worlds, trying to re-connect an increasingly urban society with, in general, God the Creator and more specifically with the Christian faith. Perhaps Christ could be seen as a sacred combe made manifest in human form and in liturgy we have a form of communal activity that tries to thin the air between heaven and earth, bringing us into a space that is both utterly real and utterly other. Which is, as I am sure Thom Yorke and many other musicians would argue, also something that good music often also achieves.

I’m not going to push this any further, instead I’ll turn back to the combe, however, in passing let me just mention that while reading Barnes book I was also re-visiting the novels the first got me into reading as a child, ‘BB’s tales of the little grey men and Bill Badger. The very act of re-reading such formative childhood texts was in itself the re-creation of a sacred combe, a place that is less homely than home while simultaneously being somewhere where you can be truly yourself. Of course, the ‘BB’ stories were also all about finding the ideal habitat, the nurturing community of a combe that can accommodate the ‘other’, in this case the natural familiars of gnomes and talking beasts.

While I can reasonably easily pick out the songs of many of our more common bird species I am no expert, certainly not in the league of Barnes, but like him I’m also not over concerned with chasing a ‘twitch’ halfway across the country. If a rare species, flora or fauna, crosses my path then, yes, there is a fleeting elation that leaves a comet tail of afterglow that it is sometimes tempting to try and re-create, however, experience has taught me that this is a recipe for frustration and disappointment. The afternoon in Bentley Wood when the drifting busyness of White Admirals was disturbed by the imperial cascade of a single male Purple Emperor from the tree tops to drink at the muddy path beneath our feet. The jewelled times on Martin Down walking the paths to spot Marsh Fritillaries or, later, Silver-Studded Blues, spying on the nesting Stone Curlews – getting that enormous yellow eye right in the centre of the ‘scope –  being buzzed by bumbling cockchafers as the evening light falls and then waiting for the moment the clapping and churring began and the nightjars started to display, before walking home on a path illuminated by glow worms. The one afternoon in Groveley Wood, when the whole place was alive with thousands upon thousands of Peacock butterflies, numbers so staggeringly huge the significant population of the Valesina form of Silver Washed Fritillaries, which we had come to see again, were totally swamped by their more gaudy neighbours. That searingly hot afternoon in the New Forest when, over a rapidly drying pool hardly bigger than the collection plate at Salisbury Cathedral, the clearing was vibrating to the beat of a thousand wings as dragonflies of all shapes and sizes – skimmers and hawkers, chasers and darters from a dozen different species fought for air supremacy. Or looking down on peregrine and puffin at St Aldhem’s Head, sitting for lunch on a clifftop tussock with adders sunning themselves on a nearby rock. Or that day at Studland when rounding every sand dune threw up something new – a swimming grass snake, bathing deer, round leaved sundews, sand lizards, basking smooth snakes, a water rail, diving terns and a shoreline covered in shells. Or crab catching on the Worms Head to the background whirr of Great Green Bush Crickets on the headland behind. Or that strange and surreal September afternoon when a single Swallowtail Butterfly hatched out in our North Somerset garden and took flight across the village in a doomed search for an autumnal mate. None of these are repeatable. I know, I’ve tried, these things never work out twice. Last year, at the third annual attempt we finally found the Large Blue Butterflies on Collard Down. Is it worth us trying again?

Perhaps Barnes is saying that it is. After all, he keeps going back to his Zambian combe. But what matters is not that you are trying to recreate some perfect day but that you remain open to the possibility of the new and that you keep your heart and mind, soul and instinct alert to the song of creation, because once that song has gone there will be no hope for the planet.

21.The Little Grey Men, ‘BB’, OUP, 9780192793508.

22.Down the Bright Stream, ‘BB’, OUP, 9780192792044.

  1. Bill Badger and the “Wandering Wind”, ‘BB’, Jane Nissen Books, 9781903252413. These are the books that got me hooked on reading. Even now, forty years later, I could still walk into Hall Green Library and take you to the shelves where they would have been. Re-reading them after all these years was a risk. Would the actuality bear any relation to the myth? On the whole they have stood up well, the only disappointment was Bill Badger which seemed disconcertingly short and simplistic compared with the Little Grey Men novels. ‘The Little Grey Men’ and ‘Down the Bright Stream’ are a pair, telling the story of the last four gnomes left in Britain, their trek to find their lost brother and their final migration out of this crowded isle to the more hospitable welcome of Ireland. These are children’s books but their language and concepts are knowing, detailed and at times prescient. Just because they deal with gnomes and talking animals it doesn’t mean that they are fey and fuzzy. Far from it, ‘BB’ (naturalist, illustrator, author and countryman D.J. Watkins-Pitchford), makes clear in the introduction that the human speech of the gnomes and creatures talk in is just a device to allow the story to flow more cleanly. These are gnomes who kill for food, they have bodily functions, they are fully conversant with the fight for survival that creates the very balance of nature. These are books where death is an every day occurrence, where animal instincts are not seen to be lower than human cleverness and where the impact of human encroachment on the wild places of Britain has a lasting impact on the biodiversity of the land. Will I read them again? Yes. Would I recommend them to others? Yes. Will I be joining the ‘BB’ Society? Probably not, that seems like a nostalgic step too far.
  1. Little Stranger, Sarah Waters, Virago, 9781844086061. I love Waters writing – so strong and colourful with intense characters who richly repay deeper analysis and plots which hum with menace. But I forgot that she does a good line in chilling, and I don’t mean chillaxing, I mean scary stuff. Little Stranger is dark and greyly bleak, burning with a post war fatigue but it is also rather long and by the end no where near as frightening as I was expecting. Some lovely touches but the central GP character was a tad flat and far too boringly rational, not ever able to admit that his reasonable world might not be all that there is.
  1. Worst. Person. Ever, Douglas Coupland, Windmill Books, 9780099537397. As a rule I really enjoy Coupland’s books – his multi-level, po-mo thinking has been painfully accurate many times. But this book. Hmmm. If you’ve read Martin Amis’s Money you don’t need to read this. Both Amis’s John Self and Coupland’s Raymond Gunt are horrible, horrible people swilling through the shiny, shiny detritus of life and grabbing whatever comes in reach despite what might be stuck to it. Money is tighter, more descriptively gratuitous and very clever. Worst. Person. Ever. is bleakly black and weakly funny. Disappointing.
  1. Rose Gold, Walter Mosley, Orion Books, 9780297871750.
  2. All I Did Was Shoot My Man, Walter Mosley, W&N, 9781780220963. Rose Gold is an Easy Rawlins novel, with only a hint of Mouse. Hard, fast and funny with plot twists coming at you from all angles it is not as tough a brawl as All I Did…, which is the fourth in the Leonid McGill series. McGill is a shark working almost exclusively in heavily infested waters. Both Rawlins and McGill have brains as well as physical strength and both are prepared to be extremely aggressive to save the world they have built, but McGill comes with a perpetually disturbing undercurrent that means you can never be comfortable in his presence. Both books were great romps through the underbelly of US city life.
  1. Silent Night, Robert B. Parker with Helen Brann, No Exit Press, 9781843443476. Sadly this is the last of Parker’s Spenser novels and even this one had to be finished by his agent, Brann, after his death. The Spenser franchise continues with another author, but Parker was the creator and knew his characters inside out. The plot is light, the action is heavy and it is good for Spenser, Hawk, Susan and Pearl to sign off with Christmas hope cheering their souls.
  1. Silence and Honey Cakes, Rowan Williams, Lion, 9780745951706. I’ll be reading this again sometime. Vintage Williams with many vital insights into the relevance of the desert fathers and mothers for our frantic contemporary lives. One to ponder on, pray over and to use for encouragement, challenge and discipline.
  1. Becka’s Song, Frankie J. Jones, Bella Books, 9781594931383. Sigh, this was a real disappointment – poorly edited, poorly plotted, poorly written. It was an impulse choice from the library as they were just about to close and it was a bad decision. The blurb was sufficiently engaging – landscape artist, photographer and gallery owner trying to put her life back together post divorce in a quirky Arkansas town where there is no such thing as a secret. But the reality was clunky, repetitive and turgid.
  1. Faith, Jennifer Haigh, Harper, 9780007225095. Disingenuous blurb talks about a minister being caught up in a child sex scandal and the resulting fall out for him, his family and the family of his ‘victim’. Why they don’t make it clear that this a Roman Catholic priest in Boston I don’t know. Seems slack to me, whereas the novel, its twists and characterisations is taut and finely structured. This is a heart-wrenching story, the truth of which unwraps slowly. It is full of broken humanity, misinterpretations, institutional messes, power games, vulnerability, love, faith, fear, family ties and much, much more. It is sad and unnerving, but also compassionate and gentle. A powerful book and a desperate situation sensitively handled.
  1. Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger, Vintage, 9780099524175. Oh, my, this is a cracker. Twenty-one year old American twin sisters given a London flat overlooking Highgate Cemetery by their mother’s deceased sister, also a twin and who they have never met. So many secrets scrabbling around underneath this story of betrayal and love, hauntings, partings and beginnings. This is a book of layers – the layers we create in relationships, the layers in our lives, in the way we construct our personas, our living spaces, our death spaces. It twists here and about, but not dramatically, always well within what we know of each character, it brings the supernatural fully into the mix without going all gothic on us, it opens doors of possibility while at the same time firmly rejecting an easy ending. Lovely writing, full of place and colour, but especially good on creating multi-dimensional characters, whether fleshly or ethereal. A gripping read.
  1. Recently Reread. The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin, Vintage, 978099769910. It must be twenty-five years since I first read this. The world has changed much since. The disconnect between humanity and the land has increased rapidly, but so also has awareness of the catastrophic potential of this situation. The whole concept of singing the land, knowing the land through journey, through sole on soil contact, struck me afresh as of vital relevance to all of us. Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, provides a British context for this primal knowledge, a dictionary of landscape through words, many of which have extremely site specific meanings. But they are almost words in isolation, whereas the Aboriginal songlines are sung geographical, spiritual, nutritional maps that are held in part by individuals from different tribal groupings that act like woven threads in a cloth to bind together the whole nation in a system that maximises mutual cooperation and minimises aggression. Chatwin was a driven wanderer who, I think, overstates his justification of the need for us to be unsettled peoples, but I would say that as I have very ambiguous feelings about travel.
  1. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, Walter Mosley, Riverhead Books, 9781594485503. Like my favourite Mosley novel, R.L.’s Dream, this is a story about an old black man and a young woman. But whereas R.L.’s Dream was infused with the Blues, The Last Days… is slid through with the demon of dementia. It is a cracking story, compulsive, compassionate, drifting back and forth over a hundred years and shading back into the time of lynchings and desperate poverty. Like many of Mosley’s novels the characters are fully fleshed and stay with you well after the story has ended.
  1. And Sometimes I Wonder About You, Walter Mosley, Orion Books, 9781474600910. Continuing my Mosley fest with the next Leonid McGill novel in the series. A convoluted three stranded plot with heavy violence and some frayed edges, but still a compelling romp that I devoured eagerly and with some satisfaction.
  1. Advantages of the Older Man, Gwyneth Lewis, Seren, 9781781721902. Swansea lass in love with a poet who doesn’t notice her gets haunted by the ghost of Dylan Thomas. Only afterlife Thomas is not so hot on the rhyme and more keen on losing the pounds and pounding the tarmac to get fit, dead fit. Funny and lyrical, with a bittersweet edge this was a slim and yet immensely satisfying slip into liminal territory.
  1. Stardust, Neil Gaiman, Headline, 9780755322824. My first foray into Gaiman (apart from a twitch of the early Sandman series a long time ago in a different world) and this is good stuff. No, I haven’t seen the film, and no, I don’t need to, the book is enough, a richly imagined world of faerie that throws shades of Mervyn Peake into a mix of vibrant and darkly etched characters. Highly enjoyable, a reclaiming of fairy tales for an adult audience that feels more classical than fantasy.
  1. Zoo Time, Howard Jacobson, Bloomsbury, 9781408831748. Well, ho-diddly-hum, here’s a chunk of scallywagging humour from an arch trickster (well, it is in his name). Switching between the WAGdom of Cheshire and the louche lowlands of London, Jacobson’s pendulous puppet, Guy Ableman, is an author swigging on the dregs of literary apocalypse. In the app era the novel is so dead. Too long, too intricate, too darned wordy. Ableman’s signature Henry Miller-lite friction fiction has been buried in the backlist, while the backlist itself has been dumped in a lead-lined concrete coffin somewhere off the edge of reason. Limply lusting after his m-i-l while trying not to inflame his wife’s own literary desires he laments the loss of a decent reader, bookshop, publisher, market. Sometimes an over-egged pudding becomes a sulphurous stew but perhaps on this occasion the gnarly scabrousness of Ableman’s view of relationships is dusted over with enough black sparkle to make its cloying, sweeter than revenge ending a suitably irony loaded finishing point. It rankled because it felt too authorly knowing and yet it was classily, wittily plotted, inventive, amusing and just a fishbone away from being irritatingly prescient.
  1. Letters from the Trenches, Jacqueline Wadsworth, Pen & Sword, 9781781592847. Fascinating, revealing and heartbreaking collection of letters to and from the Front. Plenty of backstory to flesh out the men and families involved and some poignant insight from their wives, mothers and sometimes even children back home. The social upheaval comes through as clearly as does the horror of war. A well-researched and well-written book that it was worthwhile reading around the time of Remembrance Day, especially as it contained much material from Bristol.
  1. Becoming Reverend, Matt Woodcock, Church House Publishing, 9781781400104. I have blogged long and hard about this book. It wound me up to the Nth degree, but has much that is good about it once you get past the author’s overweening arrogance.

https://unsubtlereviewer.wordpress.com/2016/11/21/cast-your-words-away-upon-the-waves/

  1. The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, 9781471112157. Marvellous descriptions and textures building up a fleshy, messy New York at the start of the twentieth-century, which, when combined with great characterisation, help to create a story which is rich in symbolism, tension and passion. It is a tale of exploitation and outcasts, God’s people and no-people. Coralie is the water nymph daughter to ‘Professor’ Sardie, owner of the titular museum, which is a refined mix of scientific wonders and freak show delights. Eddie is a photographer attempting to slough off his Jewish heritage. When their lives collide they both learn to see the world through fresh eyes and a different medium. The book is written in both the first and third person. The first person narrative for both Coralie and Eddie is set in italic. Pages and pages of italic is almost unreadable – it is not a font meant to be sustained over more than a few paragraphs. After that it becomes offensive to read – like squinting at monkeys through barbed wire. The choice of font lets down what is otherwise a gripping and finely drawn novel.
  1. Being Disciples, Rowan Williams, SPCK, 9780281076628. Recently read and re-read twice, and I still haven’t got all the juice out of this rich and challenging gem of a book. It is only 86 pages long but so wise, so astute, so deep and at the same time so easily readable that for these reasons alone it should stand as benchmark for making theology readable and applicable to each and every Christian. I can’t praise this highly enough. It should be read by every minister and congregation. Short, lucid, penetrating, encouraging and challenging, it gives us a vision of the totality of following Christ – it is a complete way of life with a place for each and every one of us. The chapter based on St John of the Cross was particularly enlightening and valuable. As an exploration of discipleship it is exemplary – there is so much to learn, so much to live for as a follower of Christ – it is simultaneously utterly orthodox and utterly radical, if every church and individual Christian took it seriously we would be seriously transformed.
  1. How to Explain Your Faith, John Pritchard, SPCK, 9780281072545. Slim but practical guide to some of the key questions that embarrass Christians and hinder them from clearly and positively declaring what they believe. Jolly useful and at times both quite witty and quite penetrating.
  1. Journeying with Jonah: the struggle to find yourself, Denis McBride, Redemptorist Publications, 9780852314388. This is a cracking exploration of one of my favourite Biblical books – Jonah. Beautifully illustrated, especially by Jonathan Thompson’s evocative monotype prints, it is a deeply thoughtful and probing guide to the prophet Jonah’s mission, and ours. Centring on three questions which we, alongside Jonah, need to answer – who am I, where am I going and what forms my outlook on life – it delves under the surface of the text into our lives, our expectations of ourselves and God and our effectiveness as disciples. A great book for private reading or for whole church engagement.
  1. Smut, Alan Bennett, Faber, 9781846685262. Yes, well, these two short and surprising stories were jolly fun and darkly unnerving as they dug beneath suburban relational stereotypes. Sex was a tool in these tales to unpack tightly corded lives. Coyly enjoyable with niggles of mild social anarchy.

Which is a slightly louche way to end the year – but with the Lady in the Van on TV it seemed appropriate. On one level I read less than usual – partly because my eyes aren’t as comfortable with reading over long periods as they used to be – and partly because I dipped into and read great chunks of many more books than mentioned here. I haven’t included them as I didn’t read the whole book, but many of them were incorporated into other writing. That is the other reason less books appeared here – I have spent more time writing, which I hope is going to grow further in 2017.

My top 5 books read in 2016:

  1. Mors Britannica: Lifestyle and Death-style in Britain Today, Douglas Davies.
  2. The Peregrine, J.A. Baker.
  3. Being Disciples, Rowan Williams.
  4. Life in the Psalms: Contemporary Meaning in Ancient Texts, Patrick Woodhouse.
  5. Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger.

Author find of 2016 was Neil Gaiman, I hope to track down more of his work in 2017.

Where the Light gets in (2)

kintsugi2EPIPHANY             Isaiah 60:1-6: Matthew 2:1-12

At Midnight, on the cusp of Christmas Morning we celebrated the miracle that is God come to live with us, the Divine crossing over from heaven into our divided, broken, fallible and frenzied world. I quoted from an old song of Leonard Cohen’s: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.’

I was talking about how, in a world that seems to be beset by darkness from all sorts of sources, Christ comes as a light that spills through all the broken places, all the cracks, all the splinters to bring hope, to bring life, to bring fresh illumination of God’s way of equality and love. And then I concluded by suggesting that in all our flawed beauty, wounded and damaged as we are, we are charged by Jesus – a charge we take up on our baptism – to be the light flooding into the world.

Now we are celebrating Epiphany, which we know as the visit of the magi, and it feels as if there is something in Leonard Cohen’s words that might give us part of our vision for this year.

The reading we have just heard from Isaiah very much reinforces that theme of light: 1Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Once again, we hear that God will be our source of light, but we are challenged to live as that light, that goodness, for others.

There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

Cracks are places of ebb and flow. They are what make borders permeable, they provide opportunities for change.

Christmas and Epiphany are very much about borders and their breaching. What is birth but breaking through from the safe space of the womb into the risky, mucky, murky, unpredictable world of everyday living and growing? The birth of Christ is that, but infinitely magnified, as God smashes through the barriers that divide the logic of heaven from the randomness of creation. God born to a single mother crashes through the borders of respectability. The outcast shepherds visiting the Messiah slip through the prejudice of religious legalism.

Now here come the magi, stepping, literally, across the borders which divide countries, but also those which have held the Jewish people as separate, as the sole recipients of God’s message, God’s love, God’s care, God’s light. In the magi all nations are welcomed into God’s light.

Even their gifts remind us of borders: Myrrh, identified with anointing at death – death, the border state at the opposite end from birth dividing life in creation from life in heaven.

Frankincense, that burns as smoke which is neither solid nor air, and is a symbol of prayer, the channel of communication between created and Creator.

Gold: Kintsugi, which can be translated as golden joinery, is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using lacquer  mixed with powdered gold. It considers breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. If you look at a piece of pottery which has been treated this way you will see that the cracks in the china shine with gold, they leak light. The pot has gone from being something which contains – the china acting as a border to hold things in – to being a conduit for light, amorphous and beautiful in its brokenness.

As Ernest Hemingway wrote: ‘The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.’

Epiphany, of course was really on Friday, 6 January. It marks the end of Christmas, so is in itself a border between holiday and work time. Today is actually the feast of the Baptism of Christ. Which is a sign of the amorphous nature of borders. In two days we have jumped thirty years from an infant Christ to an adult about to start his  ministry. And then we jump back again – the Christmas season ends at the start of February with the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and we are back to infancy. All rules, even time, slip and slide through borderlands.

Baptism is very much a sacrament of the borders. It marks the transition between the old life we are giving up, the sins and mistakes of our past which we wish to be washed clean from, and the new life of hope as one of God’s children. For Jesus it means crossing the line that takes him from his old life as Mary and Joseph’s son to his new life as God’s Son, his chosen one. As I said earlier when we choose to be baptised we make the decision to be borders ourselves, to become streams for God’s light to flow into the world.

And church is also about borders and their blurring. Stepping through the doorway means moving from one world into another – from busyness to quiet, from the concerns of the world to the concerns of God. The Celts called sacred sites ‘thin places’, the spaces where heaven and earth touch. Our worship is part of how we create that thinness, how we rip holes in the borders that keep us apart from God. In our services we stand to hear the Gospel being read. This is a reminder that Scripture, the Word of God, is God among us. Ours is a God who transcends all boundaries. When we read the Bible, in worship or in private, then what we are trying to do is not understand God, but to allow God to break in and open us up. When we pray it is the same, an unsealing of channels that allow us to hear God’s call.

Back to the magi and to Leonard Cohen: Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.’

‘Forget your perfect offering’. We are not perfect, as individuals, as churches, as communities. We are cracked, broken. We can hold onto that brokenness, be defined by it, let it rule us, stop us from risking, stop us from leaving our safe places. Or we can offer it up to God, allow God to pour gold into our flaws, re-shape us and build us anew into holy kintsugi.

Perhaps this year is a time for us to explore borders. They can be risky places – why else do we have border guards? They are places of transition, of change, of release and redirection. Perhaps this is the time to explore our calling to be the bridges over borders for others, to break through different borders ourselves, to find God in the borderlands, the thin places. But perhaps also God is asking us to confront our brokenness, and learn how, as disciples of Christ, we might offer him ourselves with all our foibles and faults and how we might let go of our control over ourselves allowing the gold of God’s love fill our damaged spaces.

Epiphany – a moment of sudden and striking insight. When the light breaks in. The magi strode out together and together were transformed by their journey, by the boundaries they crossed and by their encounter with the Christ child.

I hope that during this year, together, through encouragement, study, prayer, worship and action, we too will let God’s light break through into our lives and to the lives of others.

 

Where the light gets in

005

MIDNIGHT MASS 2016               Isaiah 9:2-7: John 1:1-14

From Isaiah: ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness –on them light has shined.

From the Gospel of John: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’

From the band Primal Scream: ‘As sure as sin, peace begins within/ The world is a place where the light gets in.’

From songwriter Leonard Cohen: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.’

We have come together at the darkest time of day, at the darkest time of the year, at the nub end of a year which has often felt to be suffused in a claggy, cloying darkness – with shades of night continually cloaking Aleppo, discontent and division over Brexit, division, discontent and derision over the American presidential election, local tragedies and, for some of us, deep personal losses.

In many ways it has been a hard year, and I have found much of the toughness of it reflected in the music released in these last 12 months.

David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’ began 2016 with a burst of darkstar energy. On release, those few days before he died, it sounded disturbing, entangled, it was hard to pin down where the music was going. Hearing it again after his death it is transformed. The initial chaos of oblique lyrics turn into both a rage against the dying of the light and a dogged celebration of creativity, of life. At the heart of the title track a single candle burns.

The title of Leonard Cohen’s final album is ‘You want it darker’. It is a stark challenge to a world pushing itself to extremes. Again, as with Bowie, Cohen’s death brought the songs into clearer focus. Many of the songs are grappling with the God of Cohen’s Jewish faith, a tussle made more urgent by his own impending end. In one song he describes himself as ‘travelling light’ which you could take in several different ways, but contained within it, and many of the other songs on the album is a sense that the darkness with which we cover the earth will never be total, there will always be gaps and cracks where hope can shine.

Nick Cave’s ‘The Skeleton Tree’, with its plain black cover, was written around the time that one of Cave’s twin sons died in an accidental cliff fall near their Sussex home. Cave is one of the most theologically literate songwriters around and I’ve long been a fan of his work. Album after album has explored the light and dark of the world, morality, depravity, love, loss, contentment, resentment, pain and peace. And time and again he has dialogued and duelled with a God he wants to believe in but who he perceives to be impotent just at the times when divine intervention is needed most. So, ‘The Skeleton Tree’ was never going to be easy listening, especially for anyone who has ever lost a child, or who’s faith has taken a knock over what we sometimes coyly call ‘the problem of evil’. Indeed most of the media music reviewers declared this to be the album where Cave loses his faith. But it is not,  like grief it is far more subtle and nuanced than that, at the heart of his densest raging there is still a wavering but constant sliver of hope, of peace. The lyrics on the back of the CD sleeve run: ‘See the sun. See it rising. See it rising. Rising in your eyes.’

Going in a completely different direction both Solange and Beyoncé Knowles have released albums that deal with other shades of darkness.

Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ is a massively produced, multi-writer extravaganza of glossy tunes and catchy beats. But underneath the glitzy surface she is describing with  gritty eloquence the complexity of her feelings – rage, sadness, loss, disbelief – as she tries to cope with her husband’s infidelity and betrayal.

Personally, I think Solange’s ‘A Seat at the Table’ is the better album, and it is one I heartily recommend. With a combination of wit and anger, sampling, skits and blissed out beats she explores and exposes the endemic blight of racism that continues to polarise the United States. It is a timely album that cries out with pain and celebration, suppression and positive action.

Finally, Primal Scream. I was fortunate to see Primal Scream perform their 2016 album, ‘Chaosmosis’, in Bristol a few weeks ago. They’ve long been a band that plays with themes of light and darkness, but the stand out new track is ‘Where the light gets in’.

‘The world is a place where the light gets in.’ If you can sing those lines, then you have got to have hope for the world. Which takes me back to why we are here, now, at the dead of night, at the backend of the year. Because we believe, or want to believe in hope, that light will shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. Because we see in that tiny sliver of squalling humanity, that is the baby in the manger, a glimpse of a brighter, warmer tomorrow. Because celebrating the birth of a child is celebrating a future filled with possibilities. Because, 2,000 years ago, that baby came into a world much like ours – filled with war, injustice, pain and poverty – born at a time that seemed to be buried in darkness, and 2,000 years later that child is still a source of hope and light for millions.

We come because we believe, or want to believe, or some fragment in our hearts urges us, that this child is more than the everyday miracle of new life. What we are coming to witness is God breaking through from the white-light purity of heaven into the rainbow coloured noise of a complex, compromised, creation. What we are celebrating is God come among us as one of us – not God playing the divine dictator, imposing the will of heaven upon us, nor God coming as a super-warrior, tramping with iron-shod boots over all opposition – but God risking everything to live as us, to grow from child to man, to show us love in action and to give us the choice to decide for ourselves whether to accept or reject that love.

This birth was risky – an unmarried girl conceives a child in the midst of a military occupation, during a time of poor sanitation, little medical knowledge and high infant mortality. The life of God’s own Son, which is God’s own life, is put on the line right from the start with this plan. Something in its raw vulnerability touches us, something about it brings us here, now.

It is a way of living that puts aside force and power and might in favour of the gentle rule of love. Dictators compel peoples to follow a proscribed path against their will. Lovers gently guide each other in a mutually agreed direction. God is our lover and not a tyrant. The proof of that is this baby, in that manger, in that town, at that time. The hand of that child curls out to take hold of our hands. He trusts us, trusts us to listen to and live out his love.

‘The world is a place where the light gets in.’ perhaps should be rephrased as: ‘people are the places where the light gets in.’ The love of God is something that it is easy to talk about. But for us to be the places where the light gets in we have to demonstrate it in action, with integrity and generosity. When the Christmas child grew up he told the story of God’s love in both word and action.

Those whom society had thrown away – lepers whose disease had made them outcast, the woman whose blood disorder pushed her outside the boundaries of what was deemed to be decent and acceptable, the disabled who were seen as less than wholly human, were all made whole by his touch. He fed the hungry, took resident aliens seriously and welcomed all who felt lost and alone into the heart of God’s love.

So the message of Christmas is that if we are to be the places where the light gets in – imperfect and perhaps cracked as we might feel we are – then we too have to reach out and touch with our actions, as much, if not more so than with our words, all those who feel the weight of darkness pulling them down. Who they are is up to us to find out – as individuals, as churches, as villages. How we help is something we have to carefully discern, but we have to be prepared to move beyond the circles of light that are our own safe zones,

In a year when it has often felt that anger and intolerance have triumphed, we are called to continue holding the Christ child out as an offering to the world, and we need to live as that child lived – looking outwards, giving, sharing, risking.

The music I have listened to this year has come from many sources but much of it seems to have been saying the same thing – that even when we walk in darkness light has a way of seeping in. The Christmas story tells me that God slips through the cracks, into our world and into our lives. When the child in the manger opens wide his arms to embrace the world, that embrace is meant for each and every one of us. If we accept it then we can become the light.

And so I’m going to finish with some more lyrics, this time from a hymn, words which, for me, tie together many of the themes and concerns I’ve heard expressed in the music of this year, and which bring me back to the challenge offered in the manger, the challenge to live as part of God’s light:

‘I looked to Jesus, and I found/In him my star, my sun; And in the light of life I’ll walk/ Till travelling days are done.’

Crib Service 2016

lumpyleah

Characters:                

C = cow                       D = donkey

C         Moooo. Isn’t it nice and quiet here in the stable tonight?

D         He haw. Yes. Not like last year – wasn’t it noisy?

C         Terrible, you couldn’t hear the cock crow.

D         It was an odd thing wasn’t it?

C         When the humans decided to count themselves.

D         They call it a census.

C         It didn’t make much sense to me.

D         Every man had to go back to the place where he was born

C         And take his family with him.

D         The town was full.

C         The hotels were full.

D         The pubs were full.

C         Even the school hall was full of people who couldn’t find anywhere else to sleep.

D         And our stable was packed.

C         All those donkeys, and oxen and cows and sheep and goats that people had brought with them.

D         I couldn’t move to find a post to scratch my ears.

C         I couldn’t swing my horns without knocking someone else’s teeth out.

CD      All those animals.

C         And some of them talked with strange accents.

D         Donkeys that went ‘A-hee, a-haw’.

C         Cows that went ‘Hu-mooo.’

D         Very odd, very full,

C         Very noisy and very smelly.

Pause

D         Then just when we didn’t think we could get anyone else in the stable

C         In walked another donkey, with a very strange accent.

D         I couldn’t understand a word he said. All his sentences ended with ‘innit’.

C         A Nazareth donkey – small town, miles away.

D         And he wasn’t alone, he’d brought with him

CD      Humans.

D         To our stable. A man and a woman.

C         There wasn’t anywhere else in the town for them to stay.

D         They did look very tired.

C         And the woman was about to have a baby.

D         They had only just got here in time.

C         They needed some space.

D         I said ‘Shove up’ to a donkey that went ‘A-he, a-haw’, and the donkey said ‘A-shove up’ to a goat

C         And the goat said ‘shift up’ to an ox and the ox said ‘Humph, make some space’ to a sheep

D         And the sheep said ‘baa baa-udge up’ to a cow, and the cow said ‘you’ve got to moove it, moove            it’

to another goat

C         And the goat just turned and stared at us and said ‘you talking to me?’

D         But by then there was room in the middle of the stable,

C         So the man and the woman –

D         Mary and Joseph –

C         Flopped down in the hay

D         And the baby was born.

C         His name was Jesus.

D         They used a feeding trough for his cradle.

C         He opened his eyes, looked around at us all,

D         Sheep and goats, donkeys, cows and oxen.

C         We all went ‘Shhhhhhhh’,

D         The stable was silent

C         And the baby went ‘Waaaaaaaaaaaaaa’,

D         As babies do.

C         Except that it sounded like the most beautiful music we had ever heard.

D         In our hearts we all knew

C         That God was with us in the stable that night.

D         This baby was king of all the world.

Pause

C         We all settled down to sleep.

D         Trying not to snore in case we woke the baby.

C         But we needn’t have bothered trying to be quiet

D         Because no sooner had we got to sleep

C         Than we were woken up by some sheep

D         Banging on the door, trying to get in.

C         Not just one sheep or two sheep or three sheep or four

D         But a whole flock of sheep,

C         Baaing and bunting and bleating.

D         And not just sheep, but shepherds too.

C         They had come to see the king of all the world

D         While the shepherds were cooing and ooing over the baby

C         Some of the sheep told us their story.

D         It was a starry night, when the hills were bright,

C         The sheep were sleeping

D         When the sky was filled with light and singing,

C         It was if all the bells of heaven were ringing.

D         The sheep and the shepherds

C         Were shivering with fear.

D         There were angels in the air,

C         Angels, angels everywhere.

D         They told the shepherds not to be afraid,

C         That God’s son had just been born on earth,

D         That God’s love was living in their town

C         And that they must come and meet him.

D         So they gathered up their wits,

C         They gathered up their sheep,

D         They rushed to find the promised king,

C         And here they were, filling our stable,

D         You couldn’t swish your tail

C         Without swatting someone else on the nose.

Pause

D         Later on, when the shepherds had left, with their sheep,

C         And all the people had been counted and gone home,

D         Taking their animals with them.

C         When it was just us left in the stable with Mary and Joseph and Jesus

D         And the donkey who went ‘innit’,

C         We had some more visitors,

D         Camels.

C         They were big, they were tall, they were dusty from the desert.

D         You had to be careful where you looked when they were talking

C         Because they chewed and spat and spoke all at the same time.

D         I got something nasty right in my eye.

C         The people they brought with them were dressed in fine, bright clothes.

D         They were very excited to see the baby.

C         The camels told us that the people were wise and learned,

D         They studied the skies and had seen

C         A new star rise in the west.

D         It told of a new baby being born

C         Who would be king of all the world.

D         So they loaded their camels with luggage for a long trip.

C         They spent weeks crossing the desert,

D         Following the star which shone before them, leading the way

C         Until it stopped over our stable.

D         And here they were

C         Just like the shepherds

D         cooing and ooing over the baby.

C         But they brought him gifts.

D         Gold and frankincense and myrrh,

C         Although I think his mother would rather have had nappies.

D         Then they went home.

C         Soon after that Mary and Joseph and Jesus

D         And the donkey who went ‘innit’

C         Left for a new place to stay.

D         The stable was quiet once more, the town was quiet, the sky was quiet.

C         That was last year. Do you think we will hear about that baby again?

D         I’m sure we will, after all

CD      He is king of all the world!

Richard Greatrex, 2016