Reporting back from Cheltenham 2018

The Cheltenham Literature Festival that is – they also have music and jazz and science festivals!

It is wet, thoroughly so, and there is a wedding in the village, and the mist is down, a still presence yet the wind blows the leaves in the ash tree, and the lawn, emptied of leaves when we mowed it close yesterday, is now covered again. We have a talk at the literature festival, Neil MacGregor, late of the National Gallery and British Museum…

We parked nearby, and scurried to the food tent, where we drank coffees without any form of literary aid, not even a newspaper. Though The Times sponsors. Where were they? Then another scurry, across the gardens to the Town Hall …

MacGregor subject in his recent radio programmes and new book is on sacred objects, and their place in society. They focus the connection between religion and community, whether it’s the Lion Man, carved from mammoth ivory, discovered in a cave near Ulm, dating back 40,000 years …  or a 19th century model from Siberia (a Siberian people under threat from Tsarist expansion putting down a marker) of a celebration of the solstice, also made from mammoth ivory, this time recovered from the melting permafrost… or Our Lady of Kazan, the protectress of the old Russia, and the new, with a photo of Putin and his torso bathing beneath the icon. (Not the original but a 16th century copy, but that hardly matters – and even the copy has a remarkable story.)

The icon supports power, and the state, whereas the Virgin of Guadeloupe marks a vision of a local peasant boy of the Virgin, which a reluctant church accepted as genuine, and it then became the symbol of all Mexicans, of the Mexican people. MacGregor also highlighted the statue given decades ago by America to France representing the flame of the Statue of Liberty, but given its situation above the tunnel in Paris where Princess Diana died, now a shrine to Diana, who has become a modern protectress for many.

What I wondered is how a resurgent China fits into this picture. China has its own symbols, establishing continuities with the past just as the Cultural Revolution tried to remove them. This is the all-powerful State overriding the local and the individual – co-opting the individual. Will we, can we, ever re-establish our connection with the sacred? Will state symbols come to dominate? Or the symbols of mass culture? Will they be the limits of the sacred?

To the festival the following afternoon, for a debate on the financial crash and its continuing legacy, with Alastair Darling, Kamal Ahmed and Rachel Lomax, former deputy-governor of the Bank of England. A high-quality discussion, with the hard experience of the first two providing insights – for example, the instant support from the USA when asked by Darling to keep the support going for RBS after the markets closed in the UK – would that kind of cooperation happen now? As for the banks, punishment has been meted out on a much bigger state in the USA, but accountability has hardly changed. And as for future issues – fintech, automation, AI – they didn’t really come to grips with any of this. But they only had an hour…

Back home, and hour or two’s respite, supper, then into Cheltenham again for a Leonard Cohen evening, with a conversation between three Cohen devotees, a rock musician, a music journalist, and a wonderful white-haired 70-year-old Canadian, Ted Goossen whose main job is translating from the Japanese (the new Murakami novel also features at the festival, and he’s translated) but he’s been singing Cohen songs in clubs since he was 16 – which suggest 1964 or 1965, beating me by a year or so.

Suzanne remains the first love of many. Chelsea Hotel was the journalist’s favourite – she focused on the word ‘that’ when Cohen says in the last line he doesn’t think of her (‘her’ being Janis Joplin) ‘that often’. Cohen returned to meditation seriously in his last years: Goossen spoke movingly about this side of Cohen, and the Zen connection. Likewise mention of Cohen’s love of Lorca, and duende, that mood of celebration and dance and melancholy that is so much part of Andalucia.

The second half of the evening had a big amateur orchestra and singers, The Fantasy Orchestra, combining in crazy yet wonderfully musical fashion to play and sing a variety of songs, memorably a big and bubbling lady in a cotton ‘William Morris’ dress who belted out So long Marianne, and had us singing along with the chorus… ‘Ring the bells that still can ring’- the message hit home. ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything,’ words that have cheered me through the recent dark times. They ended with Hallelujah – what I hadn’t realised is how long Cohen had laboured over the lyric – some eighty versions.

We all sang the chorus … not quite the usual Cheltenham event!

 

The sleep of reason (2) – Goya

I mentioned ‘the sleep of reason’ in my last post. I had in mind Goya’s Los Caprichos print series, and specifically plate 43, ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’. Owls gather above the sleeping artist’s head, no owlish wisdom here, just confusion, compounded by bats swarming behind – the owls lit, the bats unlit, and below two cat-like creatures look out, lynxes maybe, one directly at us, black and ominous, drawing us in.

By 1799 when Goya published Los Caprichos the high hopes of the Enlightenment had faded – his time maybe not too similar to our own.

Sleep of reason

Goya is clear that we cannot live by reason alone. ‘Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.’

We have in recent times been short-changed on both. Imagination looking back not forward, reason pilloried as ‘expertise’. And for many us, for the first time in our lives, we feel the tide of human improvement, I won’t say progress, is running against us.

Can music help? Leonard Cohen’s words from his song, Anthem, have helped me. (I love singing it!) Simply the idea that there’s a crack, however formidable the surface textures might seem just now, there is a crack. A crack in everything.

Rings the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

Applies to the whole Brexit edifice. And the Trumpian. We haven’t come so far that we could now go back. Surely not.

I see that the artist Sarah Gillespie has made ‘the crack in everything’ the title of a painting. Maybe I’ll make it the title of a poem.

And another artist, Turner Prize-winner Wolfgang Tillmans, quoted in the RA Magazine: ‘ …this amorphous, right-wing, nationalist sentiment … has become the central issue of world politics …how, as a sort of avant-garde artist, do you engage with the number one political subject?’

How does an artist respond? Or a writer? A musician?

Propaganda has its place, but propaganda and art are not easy bedfellows. Caricature if it points up absurdity, gross behaviour and the like has a powerful role to play. But not if it only appeals to the already converted. In the hands of Hogarth, Rowlandson and Gilray caricature becomes an artform in itself. But we must tread carefully.

What we can’t do, in our anger or frustration, is allow ourselves to abandon reason, to let reason sleep awhile.

‘Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.’

Troubadours for our time

Leonard Cohen and Victor Jara 

Troubadour, two definitions : 1) medieval lyric poet/musician; 2) a singer, especially of folk songs. (Merriam Webster) It’s the first definition I like.

The death of Leonard Cohen set me to thinking. Who might be the troubadours of our own time? Troubadours for our time?

I tried in an early version of this post to characterise Leonard Cohen as somehow in that medieval tradition. As a poet of love, even courtly love. He was inspired and tormented by his muse, and his audience connected and were inspired in turn. But I’m foolish to try and say more than that. The more I listen to his songs the more in awe I am. There’s a fine piece by Edward Doxx connecting Cohen to John Donne. It gets closer than I ever could. He quotes Cohen:  ‘So come, my friends, be not afraid/We are so lightly here/It is in love that we are made/in love we disappear.’

Cohen didn’t take up the cudgels against violence and injustice, as Dylan once did.  Nor did he understand ‘the other side’ quite as Woody Guthrie did: ‘As I went walking I saw a sign there/And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”/But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,/That side was made for you and me.’

But he did write and sing ‘Democracy’, which lays bare a dysfunctional USA, but in the midst of it all just about finds reason for optimism. ‘It’s coming to America first,/the cradle of the best and of the worst./It’s here they got the range/and the machinery for change/and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.’ 

Asked two years ago if songs can offer solutions to political problems, he replied, ‘I think the song itself is a kind of solution.’

Dylan back in the 60s confronted the ‘masters of war’ and racists: ‘William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll,/with a gun that he twirled around his diamond ring finger.’ There was a rawness about Dylan back then, just voice and guitar and a language we’d never heard. There’s something about a troubadour who carries his guitar and gathers an audience around him wherever he might be. (Once or twice I did just that!) No band in sight.

Dylan put overt protest behind him, took on another persona,  many personas – but he’s still the troubadour.

As for others …..Buffy Sainte-Marie has long been a favourite of mine. ‘Welcome welcome emigrante,’ words for our own time as much as hers. Pete Seeger and Euan MacColl were at the political coal-face: amazingly MacColl also wrote ‘The first time ever I saw your face’. Joan Baez has never lost her touch or her commitment, or her ability to inspire. She was the first for me, back over fifty years ago.

Bruce Springsteen, a man with a guitar, and a rock band. A different kind of troubadour. As for Steve Earle, ‘hardcore troubadour’, Springsteen may have been the ‘consummate chronicler of welfare-line blues, but Steve had lived the life’. (Lauren St John).

There’s another , who I’ve just re-discovered, playing my old vinyls. Someone who maybe I should have put first, ahead even of Cohen, Guthrie, Dylan. I’m thinking of Victor Jara, a Chilean troubadour who died for his songs, his poetry, his guitar, his beliefs, his hands first broken, and then murdered in the stadium in Santiago on 1973, when Pinochet with CIA backing overthrew the Allende regime. His songs have a purity and a magic, and a simple beauty, and they stop me in my tracks.

Yes, my guitar is a worker/shining and smelling of spring/my guitar is not for killers/greedy for money and power/but for the people who labour/so that the future may flower. (His last poem, which could never be a song, written in the stadium.)

The Beatles could have been troubadours, if they’d followed the direction taken by Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby. Ralph McTell (Streets of London) was memorable, though sentimental. Billy Bragg never sentimental, stridently political, a street singer. But in truth he never inspired me. One song that did was Peter Gabriel’s lament for Steve Biko, which is searing, searching, and angry.

Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand… chanteurs/chanteuses, troubadours. There’s a Gallic intensity we Brits and Americans find hard to match. They’ve inspired me, but they’re not my focus here.

For I’ve a question. For anyone who reads this, for my children, for generations born in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, even the noughties.

Who are your troubadours?

Singers and poets for whom words matter, for whom stories matter, for whom love matters, and above all – injustice. Who sing to be heard, and to be understood. Who sing with passion and with anger.

Back in the 60s the civil rights movement galvanised us, in the UK as well as the USA. Apartheid likewise. We’d a sense that history was on our side, justice and social justice would prevail. Now, in 2016, post Brexit and the Trump election we’re on the defensive. Nativist, racist and sexist attitudes find favour. Trump somehow finds the rule of law and torture compatible.

(Trump and torture reminded me of Victor Jara. Pinochet’s soldiers thought torture and death legitimate. Once hatred in engendered anything is possible.)

Who is singing for us, writing songs, wanting to be heard? Who will be singing?

Maybe we’ve been listening to the music too much in recent decades, and we’ve forgotten the song.

Back to the world after ten days of silence 

I posted the message below on Facebook last Sunday. I wanted to put my feelings down while they were raw. Time inevitably anaesthetises, and I didn’t want to lose the impact of those morning hours. 

I’ve been out of all communication on a silent retreat in Herefordshire for ten days. (Why – another story and not for now!) I knew I’d be missing the American election but I had confidence. This morning a message from my daughter, Rozi, apologising for all the dreadful things that had happened in the world in my absence from it, concerned I might want to head back to my retreat and never come out again. That’s when I realised, 7.30 Sunday morning, that Trump had won.

Returning to the world after so long and so quiet away is emotional anyway. The Herefordshire countryside, the Black Mountains a high ridge out to the west, and the mist still lying in frosty fields, music on the radio… I was coping, just.

Back in Cranham – I learnt that Leonard Cohen has died. And that finally did bring out the tears.

I first sang Suzanne in a folk club in Oxford maybe fifty years ago, and I sang it again at an open mic evening just two week ago in Cranham. A few weeks before I’d sung That’s no way to say goodbye … And there was that wonderful radio programme recently about Marianne, and how they were in touch again shortly before she died.

‘It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah,’ in Cohen’s own words.

I and my generation have lost a hero. And there are new villains to fight. But there’s a new generation taking up the good fight and, thank God, my own children are out there among them.

Singing your way along the Camino

Many of the songs I’ve sung to myself on the Camino have travel in there somewhere. And, curiously, a sense of losing someone, and looking back. They aren’t songs of triumph – look I’ve made it! But they do tell stories.

What, I wonder, do other peregrinos sing on the Camino? To keep themselves company, for sheer joy and pleasure, or just because they match the rhythm of their step…. A few have headphones and listen to music from downloads, not from memory, and that puzzles me. Singing may be a performance of one, but you’re pro-active, as surely you want to be on the Camino, and not re-active. (Wear headphones and you also miss birdsong, the rush and babble of streams and brooks, the sound of the wind in the grass and trees.)

There’s a sense of re-engaging when you recall an old favourite. And you may be taken by surprise, by something old and long-forgotten. The rhythms of the Camino can take you surprising places.

For me, Kris Kristofferson for starters: ‘Me and Bobby McGee’: From the coalmines of Kentucky to the California sun,/Bobby shared the secrets of my soul….

Leonard Cohen has travelled with Suzanne for fifty years, as I have too (almost!) – I’ve been singing this legendary song since I was 19! On the Camino it was like meeting up with an old friend.  Susanne takes you down to a place by the river/you can see the boats go by,  you can spend the night beside her…

As for the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, ‘she would never say where she came from/… ‘There’s no time to lose I heard her say…’

Not sentiments you’d expect from a peregrino. Though how many of us are getting over, or moving beyond, an event that’s troubling us, that’s turned our life on its head? And we peregrinos – we do tell each other where we’ve come from – and hopefully, we have time to lose. We can go slow.

I’ve sung the blues along the way. But not travelling blues. Or Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hard Travellin’: I’ve been doin’ some hard travellin I thought you knowed…’  And I’ve not been riding the blinds – leaping and hanging on to passing trains!

One moment I remember (somewhere between Ponte de Lima and Rubiaes on the Camino Portugues), singing Howlin Wolf’s ‘Spoonful’. (Give me a spoonful of coffee…) After each of three repetitions of ‘that spoonful ‘ a cock crowed. He and I struck up a rhythm together. I tried a fourth time – but he’d lost interest. I carried on of course.

One other song, with no travelling connection at all, but when you sing it you bounce along, and that’s ‘Light my fire’. I love the original Doors version, but try singing it like Jose Feliciano, with a Latin, syncopated rhythm, and, well, not surprisingly, you’re almost dancing. So maybe don’t walk that way with too many other people around.

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.