Sunday, March 22, 2009

Note to Headline Writers

Next time the world's greatest poet becomes involved in a dispute with his neighbours over the construction of an outisde chemical latrine on his estate, here are two dozen headlines to use in preference to Blowin' in the Wind

Gonna change my way of stinking.

House of the rising pong.

This land is not your land

You're gonna make me litigious when you go

See that my cistern is kept clean.

Buckets of disinfectant

All along the wash towel

Idiot wind

I can't wait

If you gotta go, go now.

Where have you been, my blue eyed son?

Sooner or later one of us must go

Most likely you'll go your way and I'll go mine

Knock, knock, knockin' on the bathroom door

One more cup of coffee was probably a mistake

Ballad in plain pee

Man of pees

Wee shall be released

The gates are weed on

Subterranean homesick poos

Outlaw poos

Tangled up in poo

Freight train poos

Tombstone poos

Just like Tom Thumb's poos.

If not for poo

Floater

Shit of love

Defecation Row


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Penultimate Thoughts on Richard Dawkins

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.






The Independent has been giving away little booklets called "A Pocket History of the World." The "Classical" section spends 1,500 words dealing with the early history of Christianity:



"...Jesus was an enlightened charismatic who made a virtue out of poverty and lectured on the benefits of non-violence. His message was simple: be peaceful, love your neighbour as yourself; if someone strikes you on one cheek, do not hit back but offer then the other; do not worship false idols such as money or material possessions: and above all be humble, for one day the meek will inherit the earth..."




You couldn't possibly write such a short synthesis of such a big subject without making a couple of debatable points. A hypothetical post-evangelical liberal - let's call him "Andy" might read this paragraph and say "There's more in the New Testament than the Sermon on the Mount, you know. Are you sure you aren't unconsciously assuming that Jesus message must have been peace, love and toleration because, dammit, that's what all great teachers teach?" But he'd probably like the "above all, be humble" part. A hypothetical sceptic - Dickie, for the sake of argument - on the other hand, might assert that Jesus didn't, in fact, teach about peace, love, humility and turning the other cheek: but was a racist who thought that only Jews could go to heaven. The Christians suppressed this Jesus because they're all racist child molesters...er...



It goes on:



"...Jesus followers saw him perform miracles and came to regard him as the earthly incarnation of God as prophesied by Isaiah and other in the Jewish Torah. One of the most deeply held Jewish beliefs was that, at the time of the covenants between God, Abraham and Moses, the Israelites were identified as God's chosen people. Yet here was a man whose followers claimed he was King of the Jews and who offered the prospect of eternal salvation to anyone who believed in him, regardless of their colour, race or creed..."




Joey: "Er....wouldn't be a good idea to delete 'colour, race or creed' from your auto-text? I mean, apart from being a cliché, isn't 'If they believed in him...regardless of creed' pretty obviously a contradiction in terms?"



Jakob: "I don't know that Isaiah did prophecy that there would be an earthly incarnation of YHWH. I think that may be after-the-fact Christian exegesis."



Andy: "The phrase 'his followers came to regard him as the earthly incarnation of God' sounds like bet-hedging to me - as if the writer thinks, but isn't quite prepared to say, that the Real Jesus was a hippy rabbi and the Son of God stuff was a ret-con by his fans."



Dickie: "I've travelled from one end of this galaxy to the other; seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything that will make be believe in one all powerful force controlling everything. It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense."



"His body mysteriously disappeared three days after being incarcerated in a tomb and his disciples began to see visions of him. They wrote about these miraculous events, which they called the Resurrection, and believed it was their divine mission to spread the good news about the son of God coming down to Earth and dying on a cross so that everyone who believed in him might have everlasting life."




Davy: "That's a surprisingly credulous treatment of the Gospels. You seem to regard is as a datum that Jesus' body vanished and that the disciples honestly thought that they had seen him. But Paul knows nothing of the empty tomb, and 'the earliest and most reliable' versions of Mark don't have any Resurrection appearances. What you are doing is getting your allegory and your history muddled up. In fact the disciples came to believe that Jesus was alive, and made up the story of the empty tomb years later to explain the idea."



Rowan: "Right, it's an allegory but it has nothing to do with life after death; it's there to demonstrate that it's a bad idea to take your frustrations out on minority groups.."



Andy: "The 'visions' part is something you've brought to the stories, not something you've found in them. In the stories, Jesus goes some way to establish that he is not a vision - he goes out of his way to eat, drink and display physical injuries. (It can hardly be said too often that the disciples already believed in ghosts, and Jesus had to assure them that he was not one.)"



Dickie: "You and your allegories! It's an entirely fictitious story and has no more to do with any historical person called Jesus than the story of the Lady of the Lake has to do with an historical person called Arthur. Sky Fairy! Invisible Jewish Zombie! Leprechauns! Long white beard! Child molestors!"



"Greek thinkers who followed the idea of a universal force of nature first put forward by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle found the concept of a single universal God who was open to all people rather compelling. The biggest problem for them was how to reconcile this all-pervasive divine force with a carpenter's son from Galilee whose followers claimed he was the incarnation of God. The problem wasn't finally settled until after Christianity was legalised in the Roman Empire by the Emperor Galerius in 311 CE in a desperate bid to contain the increasing threat the new religion posed to Rome's imperial authority. In the end the idea of the Trinity provided the answer. It combined the Jewish God of the Old Testament as the Father, with the person of Jesus Christ as his Son, and the divine Platonic or nature force pervading all things as the Holy Spirit. The idea of the Trinity still marks out Christianity as distinct from other religions. This doctrine was finally ratified and codified into an official creed at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE."




Andy: "Some idea of the Trinity must go back way further than 311 - the phrase "The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost" occurs several times in the New Testament. I like the 'ratified and codified' part, though: if everyone wrote that clearly, than children would be able to grow up in a world free of the horror of Dan Brown."



Rowan: "I wouldn't like to, as it were, set up the mystery of the Trinity as a hurdle that you feel you have, as it were, to get under, in a very real sense."



Davey: "To say that the 'trinity' marks Christianity out from other religions is to say nothing at all. You might as well say that luminous noses mark jumblies out from all other dongs. "





So I guess that's my question: are Andy, Rowan and Dave talking about a null-subject, like the internal organs of unicorns? Would the opinion of a person with more knowledge (about what Jesus said, what the early Christians said about what he said, and what modern Christians say about what they say they said he said) be better placed to have a a valid opinion than someone who thought that the three persons of the Trinity were Tinky Winky, Dipsy and La-La? Are the Indy's remarks about the doctrine of the Atonement and the Trinity ('theological' subjects if every there were two) so dull, so long-winded and technical as to be impenetrable to the general reader? How much does any of this impact on the general question of whether or not there is a God? (If the answer is, as I suspect 'not at all', then why do the Dickies keep referring to it?) Can religion be coherently talked about in the secular sphere? Or is the Independent suffering from an infestation by midichlorians?

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Review

John Lennon - The Life by Philip Norman


Woman, I know you understand
The little child inside the man...



The first paragraph of Philip Norman's fat new book John Lennon: The Life is so clever that it needs to be quoted in full:


"John Lennon was born with a gift for music and comedy that would carry him further from his roots than he ever dreamed possible. As a young man, he was lured away from the British Isles by the seemingly boundless glamour and opportunity to be found across the Atlantic. He achieved that rare feat for a British performer of taking American music to the Americans and playing it as convincingly as any home grown performer, or even more so. For several years, his group toured the country, delighting audiences in city after city with their garish suits, funny hair, and contagiously happy grins.

This, of course, was not Beatle John Lennon but his namesake paternal grandfather..."


We knew, I think, that Lennon's grandfather had been a musician. (Julian was the fourth consecutive generation of the Lennon family to cut a record, wasn't he?) But Norman is, I think, the first writer to make "John's grandpa was a singer" part of the grand narrative of John Lennon's life.


Norman is very fond of these story arcs. The four sections of his biography of the Beatles (unaccountably called Shout!) were entitled 'Wishing', 'Getting', 'Having' and 'Wasting' - such a perfect summary of the story that it risked making the rest of the book redundant.


Everyone knows that John Lennon loved The Goon Show. And he referenced Lewis Carrol in at least several of his songs. One of Norman's most telling images is of teddy-boy John slumped in his suburban bedroom endleslys re-reading the Alice books. But for the controlling narrative of this biography, Norman fixes on John's liking for the Just William series. It works, up to a point. Lennon had certainly been a cheeky schoolboy, permanently outside the headmaster's study. He'd been the leader of various mildly subversive schoolboy gangs; the Beatles were arguably an extension of the same kind of playground fraternity. It's telling to compare John's return home, tail between his legs, after the first disastrous trip to Hamburg, with William coming back from yet another misadventure. When posh Brian Epstein wandered into the Cavern, it was exactly like one of those vicars or mayors who end up inadvertently sponsoring one of William's schemes. And apparently Lennon associated journalist Maureen Cleave with Richmal Crompton, causing him to speak too freely to her about the relative sizes of Jesus and the Beatles. Obviously.


Everyone knows that Yoko Ono was so profligate with John's money that she bought a genuine Egyptian Sarcophagus complete with mummy. Norman points out that buying antiquities and then lending or donating them to museums was a rather shrewd and tax-efficient form of investment at that time but when the item arrived, it turned out that the mummy was that of a "princess who came out of the East to marry a man of great power." Mrs Lennon had unwittingly bought the corpse of herself in a previous incarnation. Obviously.


Then again, Yoko's grandfather was, get this, a famous artist and musician, and, get this, he regarded his wife as an equal partner. "One day in his garden he spared a few moments to talk to a young man who was collecting funds for a workers' hostel. When Zenjiro declined to make a contribution, the young man assassinated him." Spooky. Norman says that John had wondered out loud if he could be a reincarnation of Zenjiro. (I think everyone was probably a reincarnation of everyone else in the 60s.) Yoko replied: "Don't say that, he was assassinated." Maybe she really did say that: but maybe the story has improved with 40 years of hindsight.


Or again: when John was a small boy, his father (after giving him an idyllic and extravagant holiday in Blackpool) asked him whether he wanted to stay with Daddy or go home and live with Mummy. John initially choose Dad, but then changed his mind and ran after Mum, an event which may provide a narrative key to the rest of his life. When the Judge in a perfectly above-board custody hearing asked Yoko's daughter Kyoko whether she would rather live with her mother or her father, Norman hears a "chilling echo" of this primal scene. It's also "weird" that Mark Chapman's wife was Japanese and "eerie" that when moptop John first visited New York, he was photographed quite near the Dakota building.


Finding patterns of this kind is, I suppose quite harmless: one of the ways in which we make sense of our lives, or of other people's, is to turn them into stories. (It's less safe when the structural paradigm you choose for your life-story is, say, The Catcher in the Rye or the text of 'Helter Skelter'.) One of the things which psychoanalysis arguably does is encourage patients to tell comprehensible stories about their lives. Rather disappointingly, it turns out that the "screaming" part of The Primal Scream is only a metaphor: primal therapy is actually a process of very deep psychoanalysis in which the patient confronts memories of childhood pain. (John did the literal screaming on his first solo album, of course.) During his therapy John apparently admitted to Dr Janov that he had been sexually attracted to his own mother. He had a memory of brushing his hand across her breast, and was haunted by the possibility that it might have gone further. At about the same time, he was visited by his estranged father; and melodramatically threatened to kill him. Alf Lennon took this seriously enough to melodramatically place a sworn affidavit with his lawyers in case he were subsequently found dead. Freud, of course, thought that the myth of Oedipus was the narrative key to everyone's life: remembering that you wanted to touch Mummy's tits and threatening to kill Daddy as part of the same course of therapy does seem to be taking things a little far.


Norman's book is very aware that people have been telling stories about John Lennon for a very long time. He's good at dealing with contested events which he wryly describes as "hallowed legends". He thinks there may be something in the too-bad-to-be-true theory that the undiagnosed skull fracture which may have caused the death of Stuart Sutcliffe may have been the result of a blow delivered by Lennon himself - if only because it's hard to think of anyone else who might have punched Stuart. The narrative in which John Lennon got drunk and started fooling around with a ladies sanitary towel seems to be true; but regrettably, no-one heard him asking the waitress if she knew who he was, so she can't have replied "You're some asshole with a Kotex on his head." The very important pissing-on-nuns story is scaled back to "embarrassingly sprayed some people who were on their way to church." Norman doubts that the middle-period Lennon would have been paying sufficient attention to Julian's school work to use one of his infant scrawls as the title for a song – although it isn't obvious to me why the later Lennon, (who had admitted to heroin use and wife beating) would carry on denying one coy reference to LSD.


Norman is inclined to believe Yoko's account of history's most important hand-job. Lennon certainly did go on holiday with Brian Epstein; Brian was definitely gay; John was definitely cute, and Brian definitely preferred younger men. According to Yoko, John told his friend Pete Shotton that he and Brian had briefly had sexual contact during the holiday "so that everyone would believe his power over Brian was absolute". But we know - because Norman keeps mentioning it - that Just William used to engage in utterly heterosexual group masturbation with his school mates and, indeed, contributed an incredibly witty sketch to Oh Calcutta! on the theme. ("You know the idea, the four fellows wanking....they should even really wank, that would be great".) So might he not have had a brief encounter with a slightly older man in a spirit of "all boys together"?


A John Lennon who was attracted to men, however subliminally, would provide an excellent story arc: his homophobia would be that of a straight man with unacknowledged gay feelings; his bitterness towards Paul over what was really only a business quarrel would be the baggage from an unrequited crush – hence his resentment of Linda, his possessiveness towards Yoko, and his taunting of Paul's pretty face. The theory falls due to the lack of any actual evidence. (I've never been able to hear John singing "Baby you're a rich fag Jew" and The Hours and the Times may be the dullest film I've ever seen.)


Norman is also very good at presenting smaller incidents and anecdotes. The story that when John finally met Jerry Lee Lewis he prostrated himself and kissed his boot was new to me. I knew that the working class hero grew up in a quite posh part of Liverpool; I hadn't known that Aunty Mimi had paid for a made-to-measure school uniform, or that the previous owner of their house had installed a system of bells for calling servants. I knew about John's prejudice against disabled people, but I'd never spotted that straight after telling the Queen to rattle her jewellery he makes a face which suggests he's about to do a childish impersonation of a what were still called "spastics". (It's interesting to wonder how the story of the Beatles, and, indeed, the second half of the 20th century would have developed if he'd followed through on his original plan to tell the Sovereign, on live TV, to rattle her fucking jewellery.)


Norman says that he hopes that his book will improve on Ray Coleman's by bringing John alive on the page. I have to say that I didn't feel that. John comes through with a novelistic intensity in the early chapters – school, art college, and Hamburg; but seems almost to disappear during the Beatlemania period. By the time we get to the post-Beatles section, the book almost seems to have a blank space at the centre: we don't "see" the Tittenhurst mansion in the way we saw the teenage bedroom (even though, as a matter of fact, we've seen pictures of it.) I think this is why Norman latches onto the Just William template so strongly. We can imagine what it was like to be a 1950s schoolboy and even a savage young ted going wild in Hamburg; John's life from 1963 - 1973 is almost literally unimaginable. So it helps to keep falling back on that picture of the cheeky kid in the school cap as the "real" John Lennon; the person who the story is about.


There are hundreds of hours of extant footage of Lennon, and millions of words of contemporary writing by and about him. One could wish for one of those English-establishment biographies that Private Eye delights in lampooning: one that doesn't search for patterns or narrative keys but which chronicles Lennon's life on a day-to-day basis. "On Wednesday, he had tea with Yoko, who remembers that he said X; and then appeared on Y's chat-show during which he said Z." The footage of the Dick Cavett shows, say, or the moptop press conferences allow us some level of direct access to Mr. J. W Lennon, the charismatic, witty Englishman in New York, who, incidentally, wrote quite a number of rather good songs. Is there a future Lennon Anthology or Lost Lennon Tapes which will give us un-mediated access to this material? But in the meantime, Norman's book has "definitive" written all over it.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Normal Service Will Be Resumed As Soon As I Cease To Be a Talktalk Customer

you are...YES you are...YES you are..."Your call is important to us".. you are YES...you are YES...you are YES...you are YES..."Your call is important to us"...you are YES...you are YES....you are YES....peace, love, bananas, nice things...you are YES...you are YES "Your call is moving up the queue"...you are YES!..."Your call is important to us"...you are YES! "Your call is moving up the queue."