Friday, 27 July 2007

Good news is no news...

It's always good to discover thoughtful voices in the blogosphere - so I'm grateful to Tom for pointing me towards Andrew Brown's Helmintholog.

Brown used to be religious affairs correspondent for the Independent - and seems to have written intelligently about an intimidating range of other subjects. On the blog, he makes neat work of the "new atheism", but I was particularly struck by another post about the effect of reporting on religion:

I don’t myself know any religious correspondent whose faith has survived writing about it — possibly some of the more radically pessimistic Catholics, but even there I am not sure... The most one can believe is that some of these deluded people are doing better, both for themselves and for the world, than they would be without their delusions. This is quite enough to keep me from full-on pharyngular atheism. I don’t think human nature is modular enough that you can simply swap out the delusional bits, and leave the rest intact. Believing fewer false things is a very long struggle. Journalism teaches you that, too, if you want to learn it.

I like the way he explains his position, even if I don't share it. But the thought which came to me was that the loss of faith he describes sounds like a variant of the general tendency to cynicism among journalists. It's an occupational hazard (and one of the reasons I was glad to quit the newsroom): an understandable response to prolonged, close-quarters exposure to "news", skewed as it is towards the worst in life. Most of the things which make life worth living aren't remotely newsworthy.

This leads to another thought. Once upon a time, people used to worry about the influence of TV on young people. What I worry about is its influence on the elderly. If I were frail and lonely and reliant on BBC news for my picture of the world, I think I'd soon be too afraid to leave the house...

(Other suggestions for blogs I should check out gratefully received, by the way.)

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Wounded and Hopeful

There's something rather wonderful about discovering that John Berger, whose books more or less changed my life, also happens to share my taste in music!

I mean, as man born the same year as my grandmother, it would be understandable if he had paid little attention to the popular song of recent decades. But in his new book, 'Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance', there is an essay on erotic desire which quotes Nick Cave.

Then I came across this radio broadcast from the BBC World Service. (Be quick, it's only available till Saturday - the interview is about two thirds of the way through the programme.) Here he elaborates on his appreciation of Cave. "It's to do with the way that desperation and... not exactly pleasure, but fulfillment, are two profiles of the same face. Black beside gold, if you want to put it into colours."

He goes on to enthuse about Johnny Cash's final album, tracks from which have been haunting my playlist for months.

I've felt for a long time that there is a common theme, an attitude, which links the work of those artists and writers I admire - setting it apart from much else that you read or hear. It is touched on by the title of Berger's collected poems, 'Pages of the Wound'. What I am talking about is an attitude to brokenness which is quite at odds with the assumptions of our society - a recognition that the place of brokenness, the wound, is also the place of hope. In fact, the only place at which hope - which is quite different to optimism, or faith in Progress - can begin.

By contrast, most of our culture proclaims the desirability of unbroken perfection, fulfillment, satisfaction - so the wounds which we all carry become a source of shame, something to be evaded, or fixed with quack cures.

As I see it - and I suspect Berger and Cave might agree on this - the connection between brokenness and hope is the great, though often mislaid, insight of Christian theology.

In another key, the denial of brokenness characteristic of our culture may be connected to the categorisation of reality which Berger has always challenged. Years ago, he wrote about the last day in the life of his friend, the Austrian philosopher Ernst Fischer. A quote from Fischer has stuck with me:

The categories we make between different aspects of experience - so that, for instance, some people say I should not have spoken about love and about the Comintern in the same book - these categories are mostly there for the convenience of liars.

These categories are broken things presented as wholes. By challenging that presentation, by acknowledging the (damaged) connections between them, we may do something to limit the damage they continue to do.

In the World Service interview, Berger returns to this theme, when asked about the way he writes about Palestine, Iraq and the War on Terror alongside poetry, art and desire:

One of the reasons why we all can, at times, have a feeling of really being lost... is the way that - and this often begins at school, but now it goes on an enormous amount in the media - the way that subjects are divided up into special categories. [My understanding of this] may have something to do with the fact that I never went to a university - and universities are where all those categories and the walls between them... they are strongholds of those kinds of divisions. I never went to university, I left school when I was sixteen and that's all the formal education I ever had. After that I went to art school, but what did I do, I looked at films and drew naked models. Maybe it was something to do with that - maybe there was an advantage of feeling free to go from category to category...

I discovered Berger's books as I was beginning to recover from the disorienting experience of three years as an Oxford undergraduate. I learned from them a new way of learning, which was really an old way - led playfully, by curiosity, through conversations and encounters, across categories, wounded and hopeful. I don't know that any of my colleagues would realise this, but for me the vision of the School of Everything owes a great deal to John Berger.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Buy the anarchists a tank!

Now, I'm not a big fan of tanks or military hardware in general. (Although I do have fond memories of driving around Cumbria with a forty foot Soviet missile my friend Ed had borrowed from his boss.) Anyway, I couldn't resist this request from the Space Hijackers:

There comes a time in every activist groups development when they realise that there is something missing in their set up. We have been striving to cause trouble, save the world and wind up the powers that be for 8 years now. However we still don't own a tank, or indeed any kind of armoured personell carrier! Please help us right this wrong!

Besides the generally usefulness of owning a tank if you're a collective of anarchitects, psychogeographic pranksters and sworn enemies of Starbucks, there is a more specific rationale at work:

Every two years the ExCeL exhibition centre in East London plays host to DSEi, Europe's largest arms fair. Representatives from all of the major arms manufacturers pimp their wares to rogue states, impoverished nations and invading armies with the full support of the UK government. In fact the police firearms squad tried to raid the fair in 2005 only to be turned back by the government.

On the last two occasions we have attempted to infiltrate the fair, embarrass the dealers and cause a ruckus. In 2003, we caught the trains to the fair with the arms dealers. Suited up and looking business-like we pulled prosthetic limbs (arms) from our cases and attempted to sell them to the dealers. In 2005, worried about their obsession with phallic objects such as rockets we attempted to sell sex toys to the dealers to make up for their lack of "weapons capabilities". Generally however we are escorted out by the police.

This year we have decided to take things up a notch or ten. We want to buy a tank, we want to drive it into the arms fair! We don't want to be shoved around by burly policemen any more. Can't really say much more at the moment, but you get the gist.

The totalizer's already approaching £1000, but there's some way to go. So please, give generously!

Maybe they could arrange a timeshare with the Rebel Clown Army...?

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Time for Tea

This came via Tim.

I've felt for years that we suffer from the loss of a sense of 'timeliness' - or at least its marginalisation, edged out by Ben Franklin's famous equation of time with money. Believe that and time becomes purely a matter of quantity, a currency to be exchanged.

For me, the qualities of time are important: apparently contradictory actions may be equally proper at their different occasions. Lose sight of this - of the incommensurability of what matters - and life becomes harshly impoverished.

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