The Pope and the Emperor

This subject is a bit of a minefield, and I may tread on toes as well as mines…

The title of this post sounds like the old Investiture Contest revisited, with medieval Pope pitched against medieval Emperor. But before that, in 800AD, in Rome, the Pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor, and now  – a kind of role reversal – the city of Aachen, Charlemagne’s capital (all of 1200 years ago), has awarded this year’s Charlemagne Prize (given for contributions to European understanding) to the current occupant of the Holy See, Pope Francis.

One problem of course is that for many the papacy is a tainted source. Polly Toynbee (Guardian columnist in case you didn’t know!) for one: she took exception to the Pope’s comment that someone insulting his mother could expect a punch, in the context of freedom of speech and cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed, all in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. ‘Every religion has its dignity… In freedom of expression there are limits,’ had been the Pope’s response to a journalist asking him about the cartoons. ‘Punch’ may have been the best choice of word. But I wouldn’t expect the Pope to do other than argue for the dignity of his religion. Nor would I expect for a moment that dignity to be in any way enshrined in law, or even in convention. We need, on this as in so many things, to find a middle way between apparent opposites.

For good measure there’s this, going back 400 years, from Shakespeare’s King John (Toynbee keeps good company):

‘Thou canst not, Cardinal, devise a name/so slight, unworthy and ridiculous/To charge me to an answer, as the Pope.’

Vituperation against the Papacy would fill many volumes.

On the other hand… Pope Francis has been a powerful advocate for compassion at the heart of the Christian message, and has broken ranks with the old hierarchies in a remarkable way. There’s much I may not support or agree with, but I’m on his side.

I was reminded of his work in the slums of Buenos Aires, when archbishop there, while watching David Beckham’s TV documentary, For the Love of the Game, which follow Beckham round the world playing a football match on every continent. In Buenos Aires it’s a priest who works with disadvantaged youth who helps Beckham set up the match. There’s a remarkable and radical worker-priest tradition with the Catholic Church, especially in South America.

Back to the Charlemagne Prize. The citizens of Aachen would have had in mind the Pope’s address to the European Parliament just over a year ago, when he encouraged MEPs

‘…. to return to the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent. At the heart of this ambitious political project was confidence in man, not so much as a citizen or an economic agent, but in man, in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity.’  (Source: The Economist.)

And also the Pope on the European refugee crisis: ‘Who has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters? The globalisation of indifference has taken from us the capacity to weep.’

The Economist reminded the Pope that creating strong job-creating economies has also to be a part of the European project. I’d agree – jobs and wealth creation at an individual and national level are an integral part of man’s dignity. We shouldn’t disparage man as an economic agent.

But the Pope’s vision, for man and for Europe, is one I’d share.

I’ve tried to tread lightly through this minefield, where politics, hierarchies, dogma, personal faith and experience, and much more, are all confounded – more maybe a battleground than a minefield, where everyone has an opinion, and some opinions are held with a partisan passion. And I’ve probably failed.

That old collection of LPs

We’re rediscovering vinyl, or as once it was, LPs.

My daughter now has a turntable, as a Christmas present, and I want one. Boxing Day evening we sat down and played music, vinyls she’s just been given of War on Drugs and Tame Impala (band names, for the uninitiated) – and then some real oldies from my collection which haven’t seen a turntable for 20 years.

Sergeant Pepper for one. I’d bought the LP on 1st June 1967, its release date, and retired to my room on Oriel Street to listen. I can still remember a mild perplexity listening to the first track, to the band striking up.

And now? A Day in the Life, A Little Help from my Friends… I’ve listened to the CD in recent years, but the tracks all sound way better on vinyl. Maybe it’s just watching the rotation, being mesmerised, watching the needle. Maybe the sound is actually better. There’s an immediacy about vinyl that there isn’t about a CD which we slide into our music system, and the sound surrounds us, there’s no locus, or an MP3 file which even more is pure sound, all virtual, nothing else. Do we need some kind of focus for our musical attention? At least give me something tangible – give me a record sleeve. Remember all those wild Roger Dean album covers from the 60s and 70s!

I mention vinyls to friends and there’s a refrain I hear – ‘I chucked them out 20 years ago.’ A minor gloat – I didn’t, and there’s a whole world of discovery, re-discovery, awaiting me. And maybe they’re actually worth a bob or two!

We tried a recording of Tub Jug Washboard Band music, one those happy musical byways I explored in my Oxford days. ‘Catch another mule sleeping in my stall/mama, going to tear it down.’ Love the image. Wonderful, crazy – and obscure.

And then the second James Taylor album, which I’d bought when it came out in 1970. Nothing obscure here. He’s as popular today as back in 1970. ‘Country Roads’ accompanied Martin Sheen as he walked the Camino, or at least the soundtrack did!

Joni Mitchell – ‘Michael from mountains/go where you will go to/know that I will know you/someday I will know you very well.’ All sorts of resonances from the past, shared with Rozi, who loves America, and loves song, and connects to Joni Mitchell as I do. Will thirty years on the next generation connect to another great songwriter, and Rozi’s hero, Sufjan Stevens? Let’s hope so.

Rozi has her turntable. And I will shortly have mine, and I’ll play my old collection, 200, maybe 300, one by one, and dig out the memories and the associations each has. Blues and folk music – so much that I used to sing, and have almost forgotten.

Almost, but not quite.

Tonight there’s an Open Mic evening at the local pub, the Black Horse, and I might just sing one or two of the blues hollers and the folk songs that I used to sing in clubs either side of 1970. I don’t need to hit high notes… the old bass resonances are still there, and that’s what matters, I can still deafen myself and others, given half a chance.

I will report back…..

No go. Pub too crowded, no space for a newcomer! But for next time I have a holler or two (Red Cross Store – a place to be avoided, charity in 1920s America, with strings), and a few folk songs  (Euan McColl’s version of To the Beggin’ I Will Go – if you didn’t want to work the looms, you could take to the road). You can get a great driving rhythm going on both.

Christmas morning

My daughter Rozi introduced me to a favourite song over our Christmas breakfast of smoked salmon, mushrooms and scrambled egg. ‘A cliche to be cynical at Christmas,’ the song’s called (yes, that’s right), by a band called …. Half Man Half Biscuit.

I ran down to the river at 8.30 this Christmas morning, and said a big Happy Christmas to every one I saw – five people in all, three of them ladies walking dogs – happy smiles and hellos. And two grumpy men.

But not a time to be cynical.

Not just at Christmas but every minute of every day of every year cynicism is an omelette…

That should have been ‘a complete’. Thank you spellcheck, that’s a beauty. Let’s try again.

Not just at Christmas but every minute of every day of every year an omelette is a complete waste of space.

Before we suspect another’s motives, question our own omelettes.

And that is quite enough of that.

I’d intended a serious point for this Christmas blog. But we all ended up laughing instead. 

One problem with writing blogs – you can be too b….. pompous. 

Christmas Eve – the other story

Christmas is a time for charity – but that doesn’t seem to go far when we think of all the violence in the world.

It’s been a year of refugees and displacement.

I listened to Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom earlier today and the words won’t leave me. (I’m only quoting here, not providing the full lyric.) The second line I’ve quoted remembers refugees. How could we, remembering the crisis at the end of World War II, have allowed it to happen again?

….Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight/ Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight/ An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night …. /

….Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute / For the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute/ For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit …. 

…..Tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed/ For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse / An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe

An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

There’s an editorial in the Christmas edition of The Week which argues that ‘people … aren’t that nice’, that Scrooge had a point. If we’re to like others, better they think as we do. Best just to come to terms with the fact, and get on with life.

That sounds all very reasonable, better not to seek the unattainable, we’ll do better if we understand our deficiencies.

But it’s precisely what we have to get beyond.

Compassion isn’t somehow a compromise with our selfish side, something which we engage in out of conscience and a mite reluctantly and find to our surprise that it’s quite rewarding. Compassion is where our true nature shows itself, and the rewards are immeasurable. Peace of mind, yes, but not peace because we seek it, but because it goes with the territory of caring for others. It’s the Buddhist message – our ‘original face’, and the Christian message – more than a pre-lapsarian state of grace, Adam and Eve in the garden – something that’s alive in the heart. And it’s the humanist message too, when we get beyond self.

Leonard Cohen sketches a wonderful, haggard and mournful face in his ‘Book of Longing’, literally sketches, and captions the sketch ‘a private gaze’, followed by the words

‘even though he was built to see the world this way, he was also built to disregard, to be free of the way he was built to see the world.’

I like that. We don’t have to resign ourselves to a selfish human nature. We are built to disregard. Dylan reminds us of a few of the million ways the world malfunctions. And we can do something about it.

Christmas Eve – and the peace of God 

It’s 5 o’clock and the service from King’s, Cambridge has finished. Outside the wind has dropped and the sky cleared, and over the park there’s a full moon, still low, but it will rise high tonight, amid the winter stars. Not ‘amid the winter snow’, although it’s Christmas Eve. Flood not snow is this winter’s story. But if the air stays still and the sky clear there there’ll be a dew which will rest  heavy on the grass, and the fields and the park will shine silver – and we’ll imagine the shepherds and the snow. 

Keep a distance away from the nightclubs and pubs which insist on opening on Christmas Eve and there will be peace over the land, so peaceful that a single bell will carry a mile, and if the dew gathers and drops from a nearby tree maybe we’ll hear that too. We don’t need heavenly choirs, we need silence – and we’re back in a stable 2000 years ago, and witness an event that has been celebrated by every age and generation since.

There will be bright stars tonight, and maybe Sirius rising will pass for a star in east. The stars in the southern sky on a winter’s night would confuse the wisest of men.

More than bright stars…by mid-evening high cloud lies across the moon, ice crystals in the upper atmosphere – where the angels might have been – scatter the moonlight to create a luminous halo.

I’d like to think this signifies, but if it does – only God knows!

A star over a stable …. no mention in the bible of a full moon. This was the humblest and lowliest of births, and would have been one of the quietest, had not the heavenly host (a little bit noisy?) appeared to the shepherds. 

Jesus came not in glory but as an outcast. 

Shout his glory from the rooftops if you will, but not tonight.

Argument and counter-argument – the beauty of debate

I seem to be quoting the Daily Telegraph a lot recently, which is worrying.

I was once a Guardian reader, disgruntled long ago, really from the moment the paper moved south and lost its link to the Manchester liberal tradition. I am of course from Manchester, and biased.

One friend from my college days has me down as some kind of Trotskyite, and I’m loathe to disillusion him, as it’s good for my ego, though I could do without the ice axe.

Where do I stand? If you’ve read other posts of mine you’ll know that I’m an arch-parliamentarian. And who or what is that?  (Not a latter-day Civil War Puritan!)

Michael Sandel in ‘What Money Can’t Buy’ refers to ‘the parlous state of public discourse’, with particular reference to the USA, but it also to a lesser degree applies here in the UK. Thinking of Congress ‘it’s hard (Sandel argues) to imagine a reasoned public debate about such controversial moral questions as the right way to value procreation, children, education, health, the environment, citizenship, and other goods’. 

Thankfully we haven’t got that far, and parliament can still be a place for serious debate.

But outside of parliament, opinions can be dismissive, personalised, and especially on social media, downright nasty. ‘Some,’ to quote Sandel, ‘see in our politics a surfeit of moral conviction.’ People believe too deeply. Sandel, and I’m with him on this, takes a different view: ‘The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument, but too little.’

We’re used to big opinions but we’re frightened of any debate about moral issues and even more so spiritual issues, and when we do have them, as the BBC does on Sunday mornings, the debate is boxed in and artificial – as if moral issues need a forum, and can’t simply be part of everyday discourse.

Moral debate goes hand in hand with measured debate. Moral positions convince no-one if they’re asserted. Listening to the other side, argument and counter-argument, avoiding posturing, keeping open minds….

I mentioned mind-maps in an earlier blog, where arguments are laid out in a form where we can begin to make judgements. Where there are moral issues involved, discussing welfare issues, for example, we need them addressed, not skimped, a degree of balance, different viewpoints.  We’re living in time when economic arguments, masquerading as moral, trump moral too often.

Not too much to ask, but it doesn’t always make for good viewing. TV and media assume that what we want is a good scrap, and sometimes we do. But we also want to be well-informed, on facts and opinions – the two kept separate. 

Parliament can be and needs to be a model for such debate. It has a history as a great debating chamber, probably the greatest of all.

It can also be a bear-pit – and that makes for a good mix.

 

 

 

2015 and 1968

In the wake of last month’s massacre in Paris, and the Charlie Hebdo shooting earlier this year, there’s good evidence that the new millennial generation in France has found a powerful voice. Scroll down for extracts from Lucy Wadham’s article in Prospect.

What intrigues me – more than intrigues – is how their experience, their voice, marries up with the new generation in England, supporters many of them of Jeremy Corbin, but with few links to the old Left with which he’s strongly connected.

Almost fifty years ago, in the middle of the Cold War, with the possibility of nuclear annihilation still very real, the Vietnam War building rapidly to become a defining issue, I was part of a new generation with a similar sense of crisis in the world, and we were then as now looking for solutions, finding hope in crisis. Though nothing as immediate as the Bataclan massacre.

How, I wonder, do the two generations compare? Not just France and England, Paris and London, but 2015 and 1968? Can the relative failure of our hopes back then provide any pointers for the current generation? How can their hopes be turned into reality? (I say ‘relative failure’. In many ways the world hasn’t done too badly. We’re still here, and arguing, but the old problems of enmity and disadvantage have been cast in new forms, and we have a new threat to the planet in the form of climate change.)

As a powerful contribution to the argument I’d  like to quote from an eloquent and impassioned article by Paris resident, Lucy Wadham, in the current edition of Prospect. For the full article see:  http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/pariss-bataclan-generation-this-is-our-struggle-not-yours

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She quotes her son, Jack, describing Saturday evening, the day after the attacks of 13th November, in the Place de la République:

“It felt as if the whole world was there, present and in harmony, wondering what to build and how to connect… The calm, the particularly gentle energy, was indescribable. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

She continues: ‘This was the kind of phenomenon Jeremy Rifkin, the American social theorist and one of the great gurus of Jack’s generation, had written about in his book The Empathic Civilization. Jack had believed in, but never before experienced, this kind of empathy: “Our fear of each other,” he concluded, “and of death, felt completely surpassed, annihilated.”’

She quotes Pierre Servent, author and a colonel in the Army Reserve:

“I have confidence in this generation,” he said. “They don’t have the anti-militarist prejudices of the old French left… They’re hip, open, international, collaborative, but they’re not weighed down by the post-colonial guilt that has prevented such a large portion of my own generation from seeing the growing threat that is salafi-jihadism.”

She also quotes Le Monde asserting earlier this year that l’esprit Charlie is “a liberated tone, a satirical humour, an irreverence and pride built around solid left-wing values where the defence of secularism (laïcité) often comes first.”

No. In her own words: ‘I’m pretty sure that this is not the definition my children’s generation would give of l’esprit Charlie. For them the whole point about the extraordinary show of national unity in the aftermath of the 7th January attacks, and the thing that made the million-strong marches across the country that followed so unique and uplifting, was their apolitical nature and the spirit of tolerance towards France’s religious minorities, a tolerance that had been absent from mainstream public discourse.’

She contrast that with the views of  Alain Finkielkraut:

‘….members of the ’68 generation such as France’s principal bird of ill omen, Alain Finkielkraut, a philosopher. Finkielkraut was interviewed in the wake of the attacks by the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro, under the headline “We’re living the end of the end of History.” “His rigorous words,” Le Figaro declared by way of solemn preamble, “find a deep echo in the collective unconscious. How he is listened to. How he is read.”’

Wadham continues: ‘Not by the next generation he isn’t. For them, thinkers like Finkielkraut howl in the wilderness that is the past, still railing against an enemy that no longer has any teeth: the third-worldist leftists of the same generation. As Servent pointed out, Generation Y is not anti-militarist and does not suffer from post-colonial guilt. They’re a generation of pragmatic humanists who can see the world around them for what it is—multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multifarious—and they have a deep mistrust of grand ideas and highfalutin’ rhetoric.’

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Much to think on – and to agree or disagree with. We were once the next generation. Can the millennial generation engage with the world at a practical day-to-day level, and seek to change it as we did – and maybe with a little more success?