Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Letter From Bavaria (2)

Dear Andrew, 

 I really did mean it when I said I wanted to hear from you. When I was learning Latin at school we read Pliny’s letters. There was one where he said he took pleasure in seeing his friends enjoying the good things in life he could no longer partake of. I thought he sounded rather sanctimonious. Now it comes to it I find I do want to know what you are doing.Anyway, I have been to Bayreuth twice without you. 

The first time was when I was 15. I had become obsessively keen on Wagner about a year before. I first saw it on television, the Chereau Ring, you saw it too. Funny to think we both watched it. I always had toast and marmite while watching, what did you have? 

 I loved Wagner in an uncomplicated way. I didn’t know the ending of the Ring and watched it like an adventure story. I remember telling someone I met at a conference part way through the Cycle that I thought Wotan would sort it out somehow. I was wholly unaware of the politics - I remember telling Granny I liked Wagner and she said she did not. I assumed because it was too loud and too long but I guess there may have been other reasons. 

 My parents were more accommodating. They took me to Bayreuth on our summer caravan holiday. We stayed on a site outside the town and there were people going to the festival. They stepped out of their caravans in evening dress. I went on a tour of the theatre and bought postcards. In the evening I sat in the caravan laying them out in a scrapbook. I found it yesterday while clearing the cellar to make way for the law books. I remember waiting outside the doors for the tour. We ate in McDonalds to save time. 

 The next time I went to Bayreuth I was inter-railing with R & J. We were somewhere on a station and I looked up and saw a train going to Bayreuth - we jumped on and arrived in the evening. There was nowhere to stay. We drank chocolate in the station hotel until past midnight. Then we went to the park at the festspielhaus and slept on the benches under Wagner’s statue. We woke up at about 5am and went back to the station to get a train to Munich. I liked the idea of not staying to see it in the day. 

 The third time was with you so you know all about that. We lay on the lawn and I told you how I had slept on the bench. 

 I have spent my day setting put my belongings in the downstairs study. I have made it look as much like my old chambers as I can. I went to chambers for a few minutes to collect what I needed to bring home. It’s funny to think of the room and chambers going on without me. It’s like hotels - you spend a week in a place on holiday experiencing it rather intensely and when you leave it all goes on without you. My flat in London is like that now - even though it is all still there. 

Right now you are sitting in the Festspielhaus. I remember it in every detail. It’s something I do - I remember buildings perfectly but cannot remember faces. I also remember the hotel, we had breakfast in the garden and drank Sekt. There was a bottle of Sekt in the hall - is there one in your hotel? If so I hope you have had some. 

 I can’t even begin to suggest what the production might have been about. Remember the program for the Dutchman where the producer said he wanted his production idea to be easy to grasp so had set it in a disused space shuttle factory in Khurgizstan? Last time we saw Lohengrin it was at the Coliseum and the knights were wearing blue knitted Chan mail and clustering round a large red cigar. Maybe I am destined never to know what Lohengrin is “about”. I am off to bed soon. Have fun and write again tomorrow. Love Opera Buddy.

Dear Opera-Buddy

I always thought Pliny was doing the Jewish mother thing: "Oh, you go an have a nice time, don't worry about me." I say "I always thought" in the spirit of one who owns a translation of Pliny's letters and can probably find the one which contains the one definite no-kidding reference to T.H.J outside of the Bible.

Yes, I thought that coming on our trip by myself was going to be like that scene in Doctor Who when Donna has been kidnapped by aliens and her family go ahead and have her wedding party without her. In fact of course I am having a quite different trip; there are things I wouldn't think of doing my myself, like going out to dinner (although there isn't really very much time, or need for that) and doing other things, like talking about rats to strangers in the bar which I wouldn't have done if I had a companion.

The barman in the hotel is totally a barman. He appeared to have my beer poured out before I arrived. When I asked for a half, he explained that I had been drinking halves (half litres) and that what I probably wanted was a baby one.

You remember the old joke about country churches always being at the top of steep hills, to ensure that customers say "" before crossing the threshold. (Possibly not, because I think I made it up.) I believe the French really did bury Napoleon at the bottom of a deep hole so that no-one could look at his mausoleum without bowing. I think that this may be the neglected secret of Wagner's design of the Festspielhaus: all those standing ovations are caused by people who've been sitting down for 90 minutes and desperately need to stretch their legs; and all that stamping is being done by people who are trying to get some circulation back in their feet before staggering to the official bratwurst stand.

QUESTION: Is "Milkcoffee" coffee which is suitable for adding milk to, or coffee which has already had milk added to it? Or possibly "milch" means decaffeinated?

Today, in addition to the pretty six seater mini bus a full sized bus came to the hotel. It claimed to cost 3.50, but no-one seemed interested in charging us. A nice Australian man thought that the rats represented a corruption in the body politic that was cured by the coming of the new generation; the enthusiastic German in the bar (let's call him "Steffan" because that's his name) thinks that they represented the masses who are going to enthusiastically follow their leaders wherever they are sent because they don't have a choice. Possibly the nice American lady was nearer to the mark when she said that the producers were just trying to be different.

NOTE TO SELF, 1: Do not use Phylida Lloyd's re imagining of Brunhilde as a suicide bomber as an example of a modern interpretation which worked well: people always reply "Oh, how awful!". I had already undermined my credentials with American Lady by remarking that I saw Parsifal at Covent Garden last year. "Oh, wonderful, who sang it?" "Er...I don't have the faintest idea." We were able to bond over Bryn Terfel, though.

Australian Man was rather put out by the new regime (in which Wagner societies no longer get an allocation of tickets). Although the Australian Wagner Society only gets a small number of tickets, there are an even smaller number of people in Australia willing to travel to Germany, so he had been able to come fairly often. Back in the same cafe drinking iced mocha. Didn't queue for Lohengrin autograph in the end because I found I hadn't brought my copy of the programme. (The programme's by the way, contain the usual rubbish you get in E.N.O programmes – quotes from Karl Marx and Brecht and what have you --- but everything is printed in three languages, there loads of photos of the production, which is what you actually want, and no advertisements for private schools.)

I must admit to finding Tristan the most challenging of Wagner's operas. This is probably because it is the most purely musical of them. I do not for one moment deny that it has some of the best music Wagner ever wrote in it, which is to say, some of the best music ever written. But there really is an awful lot of it. King Marks aria in Act II, when he finds Tristan and Isolde together ("I'm not angry. I just feel that you've let yourself down. If you find your best friend in the arms of your sweetheart, brother, that's when your heartaches begin...")...right up to the point where he says "If Tristan --- Tristan – is untrue" is one of the most dramatic things I've ever heard; but it then goes on for another twenty minutes. And when Tristan and Isolde recover from their suicide pact in Act I, and look into each others eyes and sing each others names....fantastic. But he's made us wait a long time to get there. And obviously the beginning of the duet in Act II, which is basically the dirtiest music ever written, but did we really need an hour and half of it. Chap playing Tristan (Robert Dean Smith, I have my programme with me today) did a fantastic job of the mad scenes in Act III. I'd forgotten how much I like the long prelude, in fact, with the horn (poss. Cor Anglais, but don't write in); the ranting madness in the bed, and the shepherd playing his horn to indicate that Isolde still hasn't arrived. But Wagner does it three times. (I guess that's why Sam Beckett hovers around productions....waiting for someone who doesn't come, "nothing happens, twice" and so on. And Isolde's love death (which is German for "Love-death"), of course, which is the really what the opera is there for. But for those of us who are not quite clear which is the Tristan chord and what it would mean to have resolved it, there isn't a great deal of action compared with the Ring. I seem to think that one of the baby Wagner's (Wolfgang, possibly) said in a TV interview that Tristan is the best because it is the one where Wagner abandoned all the political bull sheet.

I think the flautist outside the bookshop is trying to do a medley of themes from Tristan.

The production is the one that they showed as part of the live cinema series in the multiplex last year; people at the bar who know about these things felt that the new cast did not have quite the passion and physicality of last year. The production was far more penetrable than last night. Very brown. Act 1 is in a frumpy room, possibly meant to be the cafe on a cruise ship, full of chairs. Isolde spend a lot of the first minutes knocking them over, and then systematically knocks the last few down during her big scene with Tristan. Act two is in another big 1950s room, possibly the foyer of a hotel. (There is a life jacket outside one of the doors, so possibly we are in a port, or even still on a ship.) There are lots of light switches, all of which are turned off during the assignation, and dramatically turned on when Mark discovers the lovers together (a very nice effect, from dark to light quick enough to actually dazzle the audience.) Act three seemed to be in the same room, but a long time later – tiles taken off walls to reveal bare plaster. Tristan spent the act on an adjustable bed that tilted him to every possible angle. Isolde, after doing her big death song, simply lies one the bed (Tristan being conveniently on the floor by this point) and pulls the sheet over her face, which was very dramatic.

Everyone clapped exactly the right amount of time: footstamping for Tristan, footstamping for Isolde, rapturous footstamping for both of them together. Everyone then got up to leave, whereupon the whole company came out arm in arm and we had to go through the whole thing all over again. "The Germans are a terrible people Baldric: they have no word for "fluffy" and their operas last for several weeks." And it appears they also have no word for "leave them begging for more."

 No-one at the bar agree with me, but the more I think about it the more sure I am that the embryo in Lohengrin was meant to be the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Space Baby = Thus Sprach Zarathrustra = Nietzsche = Wagner. Makes sense to me.

 How did we ever visit foreign countries before we had I-Phones? I asked Mr Google Map to draw me a line from the hotel to Wagner's house, and here I am. I have put my waistcoat and tie in my bag, and will probably head directly to the theatre without going back to the hotel. I will, however, where my tux tomorrow (for Parsifal: I believe it is obligatory to fast before the production as well) and get some pictures taken.




 I am very sorry to say that I couldn't sell last night's spare ticket. All the others have been sold, so just imagine that the box over took them back for a 20% cover charge. There were four or five people outside the ticket office trying to buy and sell tickets – there was at least one other person with a single for Tristan, and one man with several to sell. (I did not know the German for "make me an offer", though I did resort to "Come on, I have a ticket for Wagner, I heard he was quite popular round here.") I may get "The man who couldn't give a ticket to the opera away at Bayreuth" printed on a tee shirt As a result of this, I spent both intervals being approached by people who thought I had tickets for Tannhäuser and Parsifal for sale. It probably helped that I was the mad Englishman in the waistcoat and orange tie. Considering that I am never likely to start smoking a pipe, I really wish I had bought a hat years ago. I am quite aware that it makes me look like an idiot, but it is brilliant to have something to put on and take off and even occasionally wave around, and people are so astonished by the hat that they don't notice the tie or waistcoat or the fact that I don't speak German. I think it communicates "I am the sort of fellow who cares enough about his appearance to have bought a hat, but cares so little about his appearance that he bought a hat."

If this is Bavaria, you must be the Illuminati.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Letter From Bavaria

Dear Opera-Buddy

So I said I'd give you a running commentary on what is going on in Bavaria. (I hope this is really what you want. If I had had to sell my golden tickets, I think I would have refused to even think about Wagner for a year – like the athletes who just missed out in being in "team GB" and went off to Las Vegas to pretend the Olympics weren't happening. Did you tape the closing ceremony, by the way? The German Lady in the bar last night said that the Opening Ceremony was so good she could hardly believe that the English had done it... I mentioned Paul McCartney and she said that his song was the best thing about it, so I was probably wrong about that.)

I realise that it is pathetic that I should have reached the age of very nearly 35 and still be as terrified of flying as I still am. Its not the flying bit. I entirely trust that the wings are not going to drop off the planes, but I spend the entire 24 hours worrying about things which are going to go wrong, as, will they refuse to let me on the plane wearing jeans, is my pass port out of date despite saying 2015, how on earth am I going to get to a hotel in a foreign country in the middle of the night. (I have decided to make no attempt to speak German to anyone: much safer to grin and point and, if they turn out to speak English, which lets face it they do, to complain about the awfulness of language teaching in English schools and say that it you understand that it is much improved nowadays.) Travel in fact went without a hitch: Taxi from Munich to airport hotel, shuttle from hotel back to airport, metro from airport to station. Since we were last here, German stations have become much more like English stations, with lots of different kinds of coffee and sandwiches.

(I am writing this in the breakfast buffet on Tuesday morning. It sounds as if Kundry is telling Percival that there is too much peril on the big TV in the front lobby, which is a nice touch.)

Obviously resorting to national stereotypes of any kind is very cruel, so I shall merely say that all the German people I have met are wildly eccentric, drink copious amounts of Guinness and kiss the blarney stone. Oh, and that all the trains run on time.

Any way you don't want to hear about this, you want to hear about the opera. I got to Bayreuth by about 1PM as planned, and by 2PM people in the hotel were wearing tuxes and or dinner jackets (possible even la smokings) eating very small sandwiches at the free buffet, and waiting for the shuttle to take them to the Festspeilhaus. (The shuttle was designed to look like and old fashioned vintage car, but it would have been better if it has been an ordinary minibus but bigger.) Reception set me up with a German lady who wanted to buy the spare ticket. We didn't manage much conversation. "It is beautiful, on top of the hill, yes? Very singular." "Yes, Covent Garden is really not quite the same." (There seemed, in fact, to be very few English people around: quite a large number of spectacularly over dressed Japanese people, though.) I opted for best waistcoat tie and hat rather than tux, although you will be glad to know that as a result of weightwatchers I can get into the smart suit if needs be. Probably for Parsifal. (I bought a pair of cufflinks on the station. That was quite fun: no, I do not want something with union jacks on them, or gold plated, or with diamonds. I want something costing about five pounds to keep my shirt on.)

For future reference, there is a very posh looking restaurant in situ at the festival house, but there are also kiosks selling champagne, coffee, ice cream, pretzels, official Bayreuth bratwurst etc etc etc. Each interval technically lasts an hour, although I think that means "the next act starts exactly 1 hour after the curtain goes down on the previous one". By the time you've applauded and got in and got out again, you don't seem really to have that long. (Better than insane Covent Garden 15 minute breaks half way through Mastersingers, of course. The leisurely pace of Bayreuth makes a real difference to your perception of opera, I think: it feels much more as if you are watching three short opera than that you've enlisted for a five hours of solid music. The end of act 3 in particular felt a lot like the climax of a whole long show.)
Of course, the last time we were here we saw Dutchman / Hollander so we didn't have a chance to get blasé about going in and out of the theatre I guess German fire regulations must be different from ours, or else they don't apply to Wagner. The whole of the main arena ("stalls" is to small a word) is a mass of long rows, without an aisle of gangway in site...everyone has to push past everyone else (efficiently if you are German, politely if you are English). The comfortableness of the seats has been massively exaggerated, especially by me. I almost had enough leg room. The lady in front of me seemed to glare at me because my knees were sticking into the back of her chair, but I explained in perfect English that given my height and Wagner's acoustics, this was probably unavoidable. The man behind be kept sticking is toes into my bottom.

The programme notes say that the question everyone asks about this production, to the exclusion of everything else, is "why are the chorus dressed as rats". I think that if you take a nice romantic fairy tale like Lohengrin and dress the chorus as rats (black rats, mostly, but a few white rats, and some pink rats during the love scenes) that is probably what you can expect audiences to focus on. During some of the exposition scenes, they lowered a big cine screen down from the ceiling and illustrated the action with cartoons of rats running down roads, being cut in half, and having crowns inside their heads. This didn't really help very much. They were, I must admit, very good rats: there was much action of them waving their little hands and a quite funny scene in one of the musical interludes where two of them were chased across the stage by people in green environmental suits, possibly intended to be rat exterminators. This is, apparently supposed to emphasis that Lohengrin is a very human opera about the relationships between two human beings, and not a fairy tale about a man from the land of the Grail and a magic swan at all. I mean, I like crazy productions, I like to be challenged and I don't even mind being annoyed, but I actually didn't understand what this was doing. Act one begins with Lohengrin struggling to open some doors on a blank white wall, possibly (if we agree with the programme) representing Time; but the whole of the rest of the act seemed to be set in some kind of laboratory, with the rat-chorus being poked by the exterminators. About half way through (when Lohengrin arrives and every body cheers up) they take of their rat costumes and spend the rest of the act in bright yellow pimp-suits (the rat masks and tales are suspend above the stage on wires.) This made me think of that scene in the Phylida Lloyd ring when the vassals go from being grey riot police to colourful wedding guests? But it wasn't nearly as well done. Possibly we were supposed to think of them as the Common People be experimented on? Lohengrin himself is done fairly straight, he walks on from the back bathed in light, with a swan in a boat (or possibly a bath) being carried by four of the rats. However, the music – particularly the end of the first act when everyone is singing joyfully about how Lohengrin has exonerated Elsa and is going to lead them into battle against the Hungarians (is it Hungarians? Foreigners, anyway) is quite brilliant: as everyone says the Bayreith chorus is on a different level to anything you've heard anywhere else.

(Getting the impression they'd like to me leave the breakfast room and go somewhere else. Efficiently.)

….Resuming in a coffee shop in Richardwagnerstreet. (Stratford doesn't have William Shakespeare Avenue and Measure for Measure villas, does it. I am not going to start doing that thing that people do in epistolary novels: "I am afraid that my host can barely say it.....") But I quite definitely have just ordered dark mocha. I did my usual thing of walking straight out of the hotel and finding myself in the mean back streets of Bayreuth, but eventually worked out where I wanted to be. Since Bayreuth is such a legend for us, its funny to think that for the people who live here, its just a place, with a discount supermarket and a sports centre and a disco describing itself as the Number One Partyspot. I think englishspeakingpeople should sooncopy the Germantalkingmethod of wordstogethersticking.

Coffee arrives slurp slurp.

Act Two of Lohengrin is if anything even more grotesque; we start with the baddies (can't be bothered to check spellings of names) plotting in what appears to be the wreakage of a hearse, complete with dead horse. And rats. The producer really likes that trick of moving scenery around the stage on invisible casters. Elsa spends the first half of act 2 in a room within a room, made of mirrors so she is talking to the reflection of herself, and, unfortunately and unintentionally, I assume, the reflection of the conductor. (It really is very strange and special not to be able to see the orchestra or the conductor: you wonder why, when so much else of Wagner's dramaturgy – good word – was copies and taken for granted, I don't think there's anywhere else that hides the orchestra under the floor. The stage is, I think, narrower – certainly more square – than at Covent Garden – but it seems to go back forever.) But the second half of the second act was so pretty that I couldn't really complain about it, even though still don't really follow it. The rats took their costumes off (again) and this time the men rats were in tuxes and the lady rats were in bring pastal coloured lolly pop dresses (they still had tails, though.) The act finishes with Lohengrin and Elsa walking down the aisle to be married in front of a cross. But two of the men in exterminator costumes come and take the cross apart; but Lohengrin takes the pieces and holds them in the air, so you end with Elsa kneeling in front of a cross which Lohengrin is holding.

I had an official festival Bratwurst in the interval.

The enthusiastic man in the bar tells me that Lohengrin (the singer) has been the cause of a controversial argument in the Germany, because his singing is not macho enough for the classic Wagnerian parts; but that if he is too lyrical for Sigmund he makes up for it by being such a good actor. (I didn't get if he was saying that he had actually done straight acting parts, or just that he acted far better than most opera singers too.) Certainly, he had the great otherworldly voice for the big Lohengrin arias, but was very natural and convincing in the love scenes with Elsa. (Although they both suffered from Sad-actor-disease; throwing each other across the stage and at one point Elsa curls up in a fetal ball in the way real people don't.) The chorus actually got rid of their masks altogether; they were wearing military uniforms with swan insignia.

The big question is : how did they do the scene where the swan transforms into Elas's brother? The answer in this case being, they didn't; or rather, he didn't so much transform as, er, hatch. I think everything had been so mad up to this point that all we could do with the ending was to nod and say "aha". When Lohengrin gives his answer to Elsa' question about who he is, there is a large question mark projected on to the back of the stage, which becomes an exclamation mark when he is finished. Subtle. The boat comes back, this time as a large object with a silk covering hanging on it, and a large swan embroidered on the silk. At the last moment, Lohengrin whips the cover off and underneath is, er, an egg. Lohengrin, with I have to say a completely straight face, turns the egg slowly around, and reveals a large male embryo (I take it that it was supposed to be the star-baby from 2001, but by this stage, who knows). The embryo stands up and cuts its own umbilical chord, by which point everyone else on stage, apart from Lohengrin, has dropped dead. I have absolutely no idea.

They really do milk the applause in Europe, don't they. Principles together, principles separately, chorus master, chorus master and the orchestra really perform in casual clothes, just because we can't seem them? I somehow assumed they'd be in full evening dress like BBC radio news readers.

There was definite booing from the front rows as the curtain went down, but a proper standing ovation for Lohengrin himself (a few people first off all, and then a few more people, and eventual, everyone, even the England.) I think that's a fair summary, actually, scattered booing for the production, standing ovation for Lohengrin.

The reception just called to say they have a buyer for Tannhäuser, so provided I can find someone for Tristan, you get your money back. It's worth knowing for another year: planning at trip to stay in Bayreuth and look at Ludwig's castles, but with a very good chance of buying tickets on the day. Although if it is true that the festival has loosened up about "the black market" it may be that this won't be as feasible in the future.

There is an exhibition in the grounds of the festspielhaus about Bayreuth and the Jews. Apparently, Wagner himself was quite anti-semitic, Cosima was very anti-Semitic, and Hitler was really not very nice at all. The exhibition is basically photos and biogs of Jewish singers some of whom performed in the early years but were progressively excluded by Cosima and the next generation. Which makes the point quite interestingly.

There is a large queue outside the bookshop opposite the cafe. I am going to go and see if Lohengrin will sign my programme.



Sunday, August 05, 2012

Long time readers may remember that I said this was my favourite new song of 2011. Today might be a good day to listen to it again.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Parish Notices

Yes, I know that a document entitled "DO NOT POST THIS" was posted for 25 seconds last night. Right wally I feel, I can tell you. Serves you right for using RSS, though.

I did a play review

Part Three of my history of Doctor Who is in the current Sci-Fi Now, available at your favourite newsagents, or, very probably your second favourite. I understand that it is also available on I-Tunes telephone if that's your kind of thing. But not Spotify.

From now on, my music reviews will have their own special blog, over here. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Being For The Benefit Of Mr Cameron

The Stolen & Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid; of Plato & Cicero. which all Men ought to contemn: are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible. but when the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce; all will be set right: & those Grand Works of the more ancient & consciously & professedly Inspired Men, will hold their proper rank. & the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. Shakespeare & Milton were both curbd by the general malady & infection from the silly Greek & Latin slaves of the Sword.

Rouze up O Young Men of the New Age! set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have Hirelings in the Camp, the Court, & the University: who would if they could, for ever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters! on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashonable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ & his Apostles that there is a Class of Men whose whole delight is in Destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just & true to our own imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live forever; in Jesus our Lord.

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets!

William Blake 1808

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I guess the first time I ever heard about a union, I wasn't more than eight years old. What I heard was the story of the two rabbits. It was a he rabbit and a she rabbit that a pack of hounds was chasing all over the countryside, and finally these rabbits they holed up inside a hollow log. Outside the dogs was a-howling. The he rabbit turned to the she rabbit and he said, "What do we do now?" And the she rabbit, she just give him a wink and said "We stay here til we outnumber them."

Monday, July 09, 2012

Bella, ciao

That's why, I think, these "political" lyrics contain so few arguments; why some of them seem almost deliberately naïve. The album; the concert; the act of making music and poems is the argument. The beautiful harmonies and terrible rhymes are offering us a model of a different kind of world.

I don't know if I believe it. I don't know if I believe "that words can save us." I don't know whether one guy spoiling a lot of people's night at the opera really does anything about the concentration camps. But that isn't the point. The little guy with the rattle is doing a small thing to re-assert his human dignity; just like the waitress who spits in the soup of the customer whose been leching at her and the soldiers who carry on singing until they're slaughtered. Maybe that's all we can do. The melody is the message.
     Me, 2010

If anyone asks me to explain my political beliefs at the moment, I tell them to listen to Chumbawamba albums. Not that anyone ever does. (Ask me, I mean.)
     Me, 2010

But I love, adore and respect this side idolatry the fact that Chumbawamba make every show they perform a political "happening", and somehow manage to do so without seeming preachy. Possibly because the songs are so sweet and fine: I imagine they could charm even a died-in-wool liberal democrat.
     Me, 2011

Chumbawamba have walked onto the stage wearing "Bono, Pay Your Taxes" t-shirts. This is why I love them.
    Me, Tweeting from Avalon Tent in Glastonbury, 2011

Catch your breath, 
feel the life in your bones
Enjoy what's to come, 

not the things that we've done.
Save all your prayers, 

take the pain and the hurt
And add your chorus to my verse

A playlist of songs which remind me of the good times. Usual caveats apply.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Happy Birthday

This song makes me want to be an American. I think it would still be my One Desert Island Disc.

That Would Be an Ecumenical Matter (4)

When Christians talk about marriage, they should make it clear whether they are talking about what is good for society, or about what I am calling, for want of a better word, "magic". 

Are you saying "I believe what Jesus believed about marriage because I think it's what's best for society, always assuming society agrees with Jesus and me about what 'best' means" or "I believe what Jesus believed about marriage, because Jesus believed it, regardless of the effect believing it has on society."

Mr Tolkien correctly called Mr Lewis out for being inconsistent on this point.

Some Americans have been putting stickers on their cars saying that "the Bible" says that marriage is between one man and one woman and that God made Adam and Eve, not Samantha and Eve. The extremely nasty Coalition for Marriage in this country have been using similar logos.

Someone who is wrong on the internet suggested ways in which the bumper sticker could be amended to cover the other kinds of marriage mentioned in the Bible – polygamy, forced marriage between slaves, serial divorce, etc.

But if I am right, this entirely misses the point. The other forms of marriage are talked about in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and (as we have seen) Jesus thinks that the two stories of creation in Genesis override what Moses taught in the Torah.

Christians can't have it both ways: they can't make a big song and dance about what Leviticus says about homosexuality if they think that Jesus told us to set the Torah aside. If they don't think we can set the Torah aside they have to explain why they aren't in favour of polygamy and divorce.

"What Jesus said" is the beginning, not the end, of a discussion about Christian ethics: we also have to take into account "what St Paul said about what Jesus said" "what the Church fathers said about what St Paul said about what Jesus said" "what the church has historically said about what the fathers said about what Paul said about what Jesus said" and "what contemporary thinkers think about what the church says about what the fathers said about what Paul said about what the Gospels say that Jesus said." 

If Christianity is a movement rather than a rule book, then tradition counts for something. Only Jehovah's Witnesses and Giles Fraser think that you can invent new forms of Christianity in complete isolation from what Christians have historically believed.


It is hard to see how theories which say gender is irrelevant or non-existent could be made consistent with anything which one would recognise as historical Christianity. (Would one have to say "It would make no difference if the Church were 'the Bridegroom of Christ' " or if the "It would make no difference if the Trinity were 'Mother, Daughter and Holy Spiritrix'"?) 

But it isn't clear that "gender does not exist" or "gender does not matter" is an essential part of the proposition that "a relationship between two men or two women can reasonably be given the name 'marriage'" -- although the discussion has sometimes been co-opted by people with an anti-gender agenda.


All sides ought to take care to understand what all other sides are saying, and why, instead of merely identifying the general tendency of an argument, giving it a label, and then condemning the label. There is just no point in saying "This is liberal and therefore wrong" or "This is homophobic and therefore wrong". 

In particular, we should beware of leaping on unfortunate analogies and comparisons and using them as the basis for ad hominen attacks that rule entire arguments out of court.

Let us suppose someone says "Granted that homosexual acts are tabu: well, if we know anything at all about Jesus, we know that he was welcoming and compassionate to people who broke tabus – prostitutes, women with issues of blood, people who took money from the Romans, lepers, and so on. So before evangelical Christians can even start talking about human sexuality, they need to adopt a Christ-like attitude to homosexuals." It would be most unhelpful to translate this as "Christian says homosexuals are like lepers" or make up a fictitious character called "Gay-leper-priest."

Let us suppose someone says "We take Jesus at his word and say that marriage is something hard-coded into the universe which can't be changed. The government can no more make a law that says that two men can get married than they can make a law saying that Pi =5. But the proposed law presupposes that marriage is whatever the government of the day says that it is. If we accept that the government can, in principle, define marriage as being 'between two men' it is hard to see why they couldn't, in principle, at some future date re-define it as being 'between three men' or 'between a hedgehog and a sofa'." 
It would be most unhelpful to say "Christian says that gay marriage will lead to polygamy and marriage between animate objects."

Let us suppose someone says "If the government proposes to legalise a wrongthing, then it is no justification to say that the wrongthing will not be compulsory. If wife beating is wrong in principle then it is no defence to say that your law will not require anyone to beat his wife who doesn't want to. If fox hunting is wrong in principle then it is no defence to say that your new law will not require anyone to join the hunt who doesn't want to. If gay marriages are wrong in principle, it is no defence to say that your law will not require any priest to conduct a marriage if he doesn't want to it." It would be most unhelpful to say "Christians say that gay marriage just as bad as wife beating and fox hunting."

It would also help a great deal if people on all sides thought a bit harder before they started to use inflammatory analogies. In particular, it would be a good idea not to pick an analogy which is obviously going to anger someone who hasn't been following the argument very closely and then act all surprised when someone who hasn't been following the argument very closely gets angry.


Analogies with Hitler are hardly ever a good idea.


All sides must be extremely careful of who they form alliances with. Christians who take Jesus teachings about divorce literally must be extremely careful of drifting into the language of, or sharing platforms with, believers in the Daily Mail Apocalypse Cult. (Using the word "marriage"to describe relationships between two men will not bring about the end of western civilisation. It just won't.) 

Christians who take Jesus teachings about divorce literally must be especially careful of forming alliances with headbangers who haven't read the book of Leviticus but understand it gives them a great excuse to bash queers.

People who think that gay people's relationships should be called "marriages" out of simple fairness and goodwill should be careful of forming alliances with people who wish to use the issue as a stick with which to beat the churches; or as tactic in their campaign to separate church and state; or as part of an extremist sexual radicalism which claims that gender does not exist.

This will be best achieved by people saying what they actually think and the reasons they actually think it and not marshalling "arguments" which they don't believe but which may bolster their cause. Remember that thing about facts and lampposts?

This applies to arguments in general. People who think that we ought to organize society in such a way that people who believe different things can all live harmoniously together should be careful of forming alliances with people who think that religion is a social evil which needs to be suppressed who should in turn be careful of forming alliances with people who pretend to dislike the religion of brown-skinned people because they have a visceral dislike of anyone with brown skin – even though it might happen that all three groups (secularists, atheists, and Daily Express readers) would rather there were fewer displays of religion in the public sphere. Equally, normal people should be careful of assuming that everyone who doesn't think that Muslim people should be allowed to wear Muslim hats in public is necessarily a Daily Mail reader. He must just be small minded, mean spirited and parochial.

 Christians have, in my opinion, been most seriously guilty of putting forward arguments that they don't believe because they bolster their position: talking in terms of "building blocks of society" "social institutions" and "the imminent end of civilisation as we know it" because if they talked about Jesus' magical thinking they know they wouldn't be taken seriously.

Many of them, of course, don't really have any kind of argument at all: just a general sense that they aren't meant to agree with gays getting married in churches but can't quite remember why. This may be what they mean by "tradition".


My enemy's enemy is not necessarily my friend. My enemy's enemy may very well be a twat.


If there is a good argument to made against the proposed change to the law from a simple, rational, social point of view, then you should make it from a simple, rational, social point of view and not bring God into it. You should also make it clear that you are speaking as an individual, not as a churchman. The Archbishop of Canterbury claims to have special inside knowledge about what God thinks, which means that his opinion is of some importance to the people who claim to believe in the same God he does (about four million, at the last count). This is why he gets to talk in the House of Lords and on the Today programme. If he's just talking in simple, rational, social terms then there is no reason to pay any more attention to him than to anyone else.

This also applies to everything Giles Fraser has ever said about anything.

But so far as I can see, it is not possible to argue against the proposed change to law from a simple, rational, social point of view: if you are going to make the argument, it has to be on what I have called "magical" grounds. The Church has been singularly reluctant to do this, presumably because it doesn't actually believe in magic. (Which of course, raises the question of what it's there for.) 

The closest anyone got was that Irish fellow, but he wrapped it up in college buzzwords like "ontological impossibility" and an inflammatory analogy about slavery, so no-one paid any attention to him.


So: the question turns out to be different from the one we thought it was. The question turns out to be "How much attention should a secular government pay to the magical beliefs of its citizens?"

The Dawkinsbots would obviously reply "None whatsoever". But most of us probably think that it is more complicated than that. If a group of aborigines went to the Australian government and requested that a supermarket not be erected on a particular piece of land because it is the home to a great many spirits, then I think that some of us would have at least some sympathy to with the natives.

James Cameron made a film based on this kind of conundrum. It wasn't very good. 

The secular state would not need to commit itself to whether there really are spirits living on the land that Tescos wants to put a car-park on: but the fact that four million of its citizens believe that there are, and will be made unhappy by the land's desecration, would have some relevance to their decision

This is not the same as saying "Anyone can demand anything if he claims that it will upset his magical friend" although some of you are already typing a comment to that effect.

In any case, Britain is not a secular state. Some people, including some members of the Church of England, think it ought to be, but you shouldn't get "is" mixed up with "ought". England is ceremonially and constitutionally protestant. The Queen formally appoints the Prime Minister; the Prime Minister has a say in who she chooses as Archbishop of Canterbury and changes to the church's prayer book require an act of parliament. The national anthem is a prayer to set to a music. The teachings of the Church of England do, in fact, have some baring on British law-making.

David Cameron is woefully inconsistent about this. It does not seem to me that the Prime Minister can logically wave around deluxe souvenir anniversary editions of the Authorized Version of the Bible and talk about how England is fundamentally and essentially Christian (although the brown people are quite welcome to follow their own quaint customs, of course, provided they don't frighten the horses) and at the same time say that he is free to make laws which, according to the Bishops appointed by the Queen, contradict the Church of England’s beliefs.

This is not the same as saying "I want to live in a theocracy where the Church of England has an absolute veto on everything the governments does" although some of of you are presumably already typing a comment to that effect.


I myself do not know whether the Church should marry homosexuals or not. I wouldn't mind one bit if it did. 

I think that the Jesus of Matthew's Gospel draws a distinction between "how things will be in the Kingdom of Heaven" and "how things may have to be until then in this complicated world." Otherwise, we would have to say that he frequently commands the impossible or that the only way of practising Christianity is desert fathers monasticism. The Sermon on the Mount presents a picture of a world no-one feels anger, no-one feels lust, everyone lives in the present moment, a world divided into the majority whose vocation is celibacy and the minority who chose the more arduous path of marriage. This isn't a basis for lawmaking in society, and the rest of the New Testament represents a stepping back into a world in which Christians get married, have children who are sometimes naughty, own slaves who sometimes run away, go out to dinner with pagans, serve in the army, have legal disputes and generally live in the real world.

In that same real world in which some people are gay. Get over it.

I am also quite sure that no denomination should be forced to marry two homosexuals if their understanding of the Bible says that the relationship between two homosexuals cannot be called "marriage".

I am also quite sure that homosexuals and heterosexuals should be treated exactly the same by the secular law: whether Archbishop Senmatu thinks that we can use the word "marriage" to describe two "friends" shouldn't make any difference at all about whether those two friends can use each others bus pass or visit each other in hospital or share each other's hotel room.

I am quite sure that Cameron's proposals are a complete mess: he appears to propose that instead of two categories ("Civil Partnership" and "Marriage") there should now be three: "Civil Marriage"(two men, two women, or a woman and man) "Civil Partnership"(two men or two women only) "Religious Marriage" (a man and a woman only).

The only virtue of these proposals seems to be that they annoy everybody just about equally: the radicals and liberal Christians who can't see why gays shouldn't have religions weddings and the conservative Christians who can't see how two men can be married.

The "civil partnership" set up has been in force for barely ten years, and we are already talking about changing it: it is most unlikely that this dogs dinner of an arrangement will survive even that long.


Tolkien was correct to call out C.S Lewis for inconsistency. But he didn't seem to have taken on board the social question which Lewis raised. Is it the duty of the civil state to legislate to make people good? Are there some sins which are not the states business? What happens if not everybody (not even everybody of the same religion) can agree about what counts as a sin? Does anyone think that divorce should be legally prohibited and adultery punishable by law? (Anyone apart from Christian Voice, I mean: anyone sane.)

The simple and obvious solution is to create a single legal category called "Civil Partnership" which is open to anyone, gay or straight; and for the concept of "Marriage" to be placed outside of the law, governed by social convention or religious tradition. 

Some people would have a big ceremony at the Registry office where their Civil Partnership is celebrated, as at present. Some people would just sign the legal papers in front of a Registrar and then have a big party with their friends when they get home, as at present. Some people would get legal but not bother about the party, as at present. Some people would go and have a ceremony in a church, synagogue, mosque and temple, and it would be purely up to the church, synagogue, mosque or temple who they would and would not perform that ceremony for, as at present. Some people would regard these as very serious religious ceremonies, as at present; some would regard them as important only because they represent the traditional rites of the tribe, as at present; some would regard them merely as an excuse for some nice photographs, as it present. 

The only difference would be that the church, temple, mosque or synagogue ceremony would have no legal standing unless the couple had first become Civil Partners. There is no reason why some clergymen could not be inducted as Registrars (as at present) and perform both the marriage and the civil partnership at the same time. At present, the couple generally leave the church to "sign the register"; presumably under my scheme they would leave the church to conduct a quick "civil partnership" ceremony in the vicar's pantry. But it might be that, before a Church Wedding, you had to go and get civil partnered in front of a secular registrar, like "getting a marriage licence" in one of those cowboy movies.

This seems to be a sensible, secular compromise, since it recognises that there are genuine differences in belief and proposes a way for people with different beliefs to co-exist. 

But it is hard to see how it could come about while Britain remains formally and ceremonially a protestant nation.

Most non-religious people would presumably be happy for Britain to cease to be a formally and ceremonially protestant nation; indeed the majority of them would presumably be unable to tell the difference one way or the other. A substantial proportion of the Church of England would support the change. 

However, such a change would be politically impossible. The Daily Mail Apocalypse Cult, which owns the government, would undoubtedly portray any attempt to disestablish the church as anti-monarchist and therefore unpatriotic or even treasonous.

Which gets us back where we started: Church and State see marriage in different ways; and Church and State are hopelessly tangled up.

To be honest, we might just as well get back to yelling at parodies of each others positions.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter (3)

You see, this is where I get completely stuck. Is the Party line.

1: That plebs are not allowed to have certain Thoughts.

2: That plebs are allowed to Think whatever they like, but they are not allowed to speak those thoughts, in case they corrupt other plebs.

3: That they are allowed to speak whatever Thoughts they like, but they are not allowed to write certain thoughts down in case they corrupt other plebs?

4: That they are allowed to write down whatever Thoughts they like, but they are not allowed to publish these writings in case they corrupt other plebs?

5: That they are allowed to publish, in books or newspapers, whatever Thoughts they like, but they are not allowed to take out paid advertising to promote those Thoughts, in case they corrupt other plebs.

6: That they are allowed to take out paid advertising on billboards or newspapers to promote whatever Thoughts they like, but they are not allowed to take out paid advertising on the sides of buses, because advertising on the sides of buses is a special case.

People have been putting up posters with quotations from the Good Book on them since the year dot. In 1956 Mr C.S. Lewis expressed his impatience with people who "plastered the landscape with quotations about the Blood of the Lamb." But he was clear headed enough to note that this was an aesthetic, not a religious, objection: the beliefs of the people putting up the posters were presumably much the same as his own.

The Christian attitude to the Bible is in this respect almost completely unlike the Muslim attitude to the Koran: devout Christians are happy to hurl cheaply printed excerpts from the scriptures at all and sundry in the hope that one or two of them may read it. Muslims treat the Koran with great respect and on the whole prefer that it wasn't touched by unbelievers. There is a reason that you find Bibles but not Korans in hotel rooms.

Back in 2008 the Dawkinsbots became overheated because someone had paid to display a verse from Marks Gospel on the sides of London buses. Granted the Scripture Gift Mission - the people whose posters C.S Lewis had presumably seen on railway stations - is pretty non-denominational: all they want to do is put the word of God into people's hands. The Very Notorious Bus Advert, on the other hand, directed inquirers to a website which told you that if you had read and enjoyed Mark's Gospel, the next step was to find a church which practised believer's baptism. That is, they advert was in a strict sense, sectarian, although over a point which the Dawkinsbots would have at least pretended not to understand.

Had we been aiming for a quid pro quo, the sensible thing would have been for the Atheists to have paid to have had a quote from Origin of Species displayed on buses. Instead, they chose to up the stakes and stuck the never to be forgotten words "There's Probably No God" on the sides of the Routemasters. At this point, the more excitable Christians should have either matched them with "Oh Yes There Probably Is" or upped the stakes, say with something along the lines of "Richard Dawkins is a Tosser" or to be completely even-handed "Richard Dawkins is probably a Tosser." Instead, they went to law and attempted to argue that the advert was probably illegal, indecent, dishonest and untruthful because

a: believers shouldn't have to see their faith badmouthed on the way to work or

b: it wasn't true: lots of clever people thought there probably was a God.

The advertising standards people said there was probably no law against religious advertising and that it certainly wasn't their job to decide whether or not God existed. (They said the same thing when the excitable Christians took out counter-counter adverts saying “There definitely is a God”.) The atheist poster campaign lasted for a few months. The Scripture Gift Mission continued to put quotes from the books of Isaiah on railway stations. Civilization endured.

Back in April, we had to through the same thing all over again. Stonewall, the gay rights organisation, has been running adverts with the slogan "Some people are gay: get over it" for several years. (Readers with long memories may recall that I described the adverts as having an "admirably clear message, in admirably clear anglo-saxon words" but wondered if they "took the puritans and theocrats too much on their own terms.")

However when a longer, thinner version of the slogan was placed on the sides of London buses, a group of militant Anglicans (if such a thing can be imagined) decided that civilisation was imperilled. So they took out their own adverts, which were, I have to say, completely impenetrable, but which people who know about these things assure me insinuated that homosexuals could be ungayed. The Gay obviously found this highly offensive, but, once again, instead of responding in kind (with posters saying "You Can Be Cured of God") or raising the stakes ("John Sentamu Is Probably A Tosser”) they also sought legal redress . It turned out that the Church Militant had been fiendishly clever and run the posters by the advertising standards people in advance. They’d been assured that they weren’t against the Law of the Land.

And now my tale grows farcical, as a great man once said. For the past ten years, London has had a Mayor. (For the past thousand years, the city of London has had a Lord Mayor, but this is a purely symbolic role, generally given to pauper children with cats. The Mayor of London is a political role with actual power. This is a perfectly sensible arrangement. It also makes perfect sense for private schools to be universally referred to as “Public Schools.” If you are very good, I will explain the laws of cricket.) The then incumbent, game-show host and national embarrassment Borris Johnson, stepped in and unilaterally abolished the posters on the grounds that he was standing for re-election against Ken Livingtone, England's third most popular comedy communist, and needed all the votes he can get.

Even if we accept the Party Line that it can be offencive to display words on the sides of buses that it would be quite okay to display elsewhere, then I still doubt that arbitrary fiat by a single elected official is the best way of handling it. In 2000, it looked like a good idea to invent a new job called Mayor of London and give it to Ken Livingstone, mainly because it infuriated both Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. It also looked like a good idea that the powers of the Mayor of London should pretty much be limited to running the capital's transport system. This was a kind of consolation prize to Ken Livingstone for having been abolished in 1986. Transport is his favourite thing in the world, after newts and sci-fi movies. But was it ever implicit in the idea that one elected person should have overall control of all the cars and buses and trains in London that that person should also have the power to censor advertising on the sides of buses?

This kind of thing is never a good way of getting things done. It may seem very attractive to invoke the powers of the Lord Chamberlin to censor a play which might cause prols to have Non Party Approved Thoughts, but in the the end, the Right has far more reason to fear the free exchange ideas than the Left does. Including ideas which are wrong and silly. Especially ideas which are wrong and silly.

What would happen if I decided to put up posters on the sides of buses saying "The Earth is Flat" or "We Never Went to the Moon" or "Stan Lee created the Avengers"? It seems to me that we can be far more certain that the earth is round, that we did go to the moon and that Jack Kirby created the Avengers than we can be about sexual essentialism. But either we say that you can't use advertising to say stuff which is probably not true, which would make it impossible for the Liberal Democrats to ever run an election campaign again (no bad thing in itself, admittedly) or else we say that sexuality is a special case; or that buses are a special case; or that Boris Johnson is a special case. And special cases make bad laws.

Apparently, this has something to do with the debate that we are currently failing to have about gay marriage or equal marriage or whatever the party thinks I ought to call it this week. I understood the Stonewall Poster ("Some people are gay - get over it") to have been saying "Some people prefer to sleep with people whose genitals are the same shape as their genitals and this is none of your business". But apparently I have been caught out by their use of the verb "to be". It turns out that the "are" bit meant something like "are irreducibly, unchangeably gay due to genetic determinism and this is non-negotiable."

Which may, for all I know, be true. It certainly looks to me as if there are quite a lot of men who sleep with men at some times in their lives and with women at other times, but that may be a false impression. I imagine Stonewall know about this stuff. Certainly its very nasty for Christian psychiatrists to try to use therapy to make men who fancy men fancy women and women who fancy women fancy man, particularly if the light bulb doesn't really want to change. But I am very unclear how this relates to the semantic question about re-branding "civil partnerships" as "marriages", or inventing a third category called "equal civil marriage" or simply allowing prayers to be said at civil partnerships ceremonies one way or the other.

I believe we can prove this by means of a simple counterfactual. If very good evidence came to light that same sex attraction was purely a matter of nurture and environment (not something you were born with) then I don’t think that one person would say "Well, in that case gay people shouldn’t be allowed to get married after all." And if equally good evidence came to light that proved that blokes fancying blokes and girls fancying girls was something written on their jeans the day they were born, then I don’t think one single person would say "Oh, well in that case I’ll change me mind — of course gay people should be allowed to get married in church." I don't think the question of why people are gay (whatever "why" means) and whether you can change you mind about it, can possibly be relevant to the question one way or the other. The discussion can only ever be between those who say "If a group of people want to apply the word 'marriage' to their relationship, then it is certainly no business of the state's to tell them that they can't" and those people who say "Two women can't be married any more than two men can be sisters or a lamb casserole can be "vegetarian" because that's not. what. the. word. means."

It does appear that we are thinking about changing the definition of marriage. And it does appear that, outside of the pages of the Guardian, there is no unanimity about whether this is a good idea or not. I’m not sure if the two sides even agree about what they disagree about it. According to some people, we are talking about hugely fundamental questions including “Is there any such thing as gender to begin with?” According to others, its not about much more than a bureaucratic nicety, a pen stroke that will clear up a minor but symbolically important injustice.

I think we should have the discussion. I think that before we have the discussion we should have the discussion about what the discussion is about. I am tempted to say that we should have a discussion about what the discussion about the discussion should be about, but only because I have an unhealthy addiction to those kinds of sentences. But it is somewhat bothersome to me that we may be having it in an environment where some people think that some people should not be allowed to say some things through some channels. Even if those channels turn out to be the sides of double decker buses.

Monday, July 02, 2012


That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter (2)

The Barons compelled John to sign the Magna Charter, which said:
1. That no one was to be put to death, save for some reason - (except the Common People).
2. That everyone should be free - (except the Common People).
3. That everything should be of the same weight and measure throughout the Realm - (except the Common People).
4. That the Courts should be stationary, instead of following a very tiresome medieval official known as the King's Person all over the country.
5. That 'no person should be fined to his utter ruin' - (except the King's Person).
6. That the Barons should not be tried except by a special jury of other Barons who would understand.
Magna Charter was therefore the chief cause of Democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People).
                                    1066 And All That

What would Jesus have said about gay marriage?

I don't know, and neither does anybody else.

What did Jesus say about marriage?

Jesus said that marriage was absolute and irrevocable; divorce not so much forbidden as logically impossible.

It is (almost inevitably) more complicated than that. What follows is very boring indeed.


A story is told about what happened when a group of Jewish legal experts asked for Jesus’ opinions about marriage. The story can be found (in slightly different forms) in Mark and Matthew's gospels. Most scholars think that Matthew learned it directly from Mark. This is how Mark tells it:

And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?” tempting him.

And he answered and said unto them, “What did Moses command you?” 

And they said, “Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away.” 

And Jesus answered and said unto them, “For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife’ ‘And they twain shall be one flesh’. So then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.”

The lawyers are referring to a passage in Deuteronomy which states that if a man is unhappy with his wife he can dissolve the marriage provided he gives her a written certificate to that effect. She is then free to remarry; but if her original husband changes his mind again, he can’t have her back. It’s this (relatively rare) question about divorcees getting back together that Moses seems to be ruling on. The passage doesn't so much permit divorce as take divorce for granted but forbid men from marrying the same woman twice.

But under what circumstances can the original husband dissolve the marriage? The Deuteronomy text sounds fairly specific: "if it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand...." What does "some uncleanliness" mean? This seems to be the question that the Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus out with. Matthew's version, indeed, says that they asked him “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?

"Can a man divorce his wife just because he feels like it, or only under certain very specific circumstances?" Faced with a choice between two mutually exclusive alternatives, Jesus naturally chooses the third one. There are no circumstances under which divorce is lawful. Set aside what Deuteronomy says; go right back to the creation of the universe and have a look at how God originally set things up.

Some people talk as if Jesus was a kosher rabbi who just wanted Jews to be better at being Jewish, and that it was nastybad St Paul who invented the idea of Jesus the iconoclast overturning the Jewish Law. But here is Jesus talking about the Torah as if it was a contingent thing which Moses thought up, and appealing to an earlier, divine law against which Moses' teaching could be judged.

As everyone knows, the book of Genesis contains two quite different stories about God making the first humans. In the first story we are told that "God created Man in his own image. In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them". The second version contains a funny story about how, when "Adam" was found to be inadequate by himself, Yahweh "grew" "Eve" out of part of his body. The point is that both versions say that men and women were originally a single creature that somehow got split in two. In the first version, "Adam" is both male and female — either a hermaphrodite, or else a composite being made up of a male half and female half. It's this male-plus-female entity which is said to be the image of God. In the second version, "Eve" was originally part of "Adam's" body -- his rib. When two people fall in love, it's like the two halves getting back together. "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh." Jesus wanted this to be taken at face value. "Can't you read?"  he seems to say: "they are no longer two people, but one person. So of course they can't be split apart."

I have in front of me a Christian Union book called "The Message of The Sermon on the Mount". It was written by John Stott, who was much cleverer than me and had studied the Bible for much longer and in much more detail. Talking about this passage, he writes:

"Thus marriage, according to our Lord's exposition of its origins, is a divine institution by which God makes permanently one two people who decisively and publicly leave their parents in order to form a new unit of society and then 'become one flesh'."

But that seems to me like a bland, social-worker-ish gloss on the passage; as if he's trying to translate it into prose before we've understood the poetry. Harold Bloom's speculative reconstruction of the story's source (the lost, hypothetical "book of J") seems to get the point across much better:

Starting with the part taken out of the man, Yahweh shaped the rib into a woman, returned her to the side of the man.

"This one is flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone" said the man. "Woman I call her, out of man she was parted". So a man parts from his mother and father, clings to his wife: they were one flesh.

And look: they are naked, man and woman, untouched by shame, not knowing it. 

So once you are married, you can't be unmarried. A piece of paper saying "I'm no longer married" doesn't make you not married, any more than a piece of paper saying "I don't have a head" means you don't have a head. I don’t see any other way of reading this.

Before moving on, we should probably cast a glance in the direction of the dog which didn't bark. Obviously, we shouldn't attach too much importance to what the text doesn't say. Just because Jesus didn't mention something, that doesn't mean he didn't think it mattered. He might have thought it was so obvious that everyone would take it for granted. But we should at least record in our notebooks then while he is talking about marriage, the one thing that Jesus doesn't refer to, at all, even in passing, is, er, babies 

So: what about the plain passage from Deuteronomy which permits divorce? Ah, says Jesus: Moses only said that as a concession "for the hardness of your hearts" ("because you are so hard to teach"). The more I think about this, the less confident I am that I know what it means. Marriage after divorce is adultery; but Moses (reluctantly, because of the poor raw material he had to work with) permitted remarriage after divorce; so did Moses permit adultery? Are we to imagine him sitting at the foot of Mount Sinai says "Well, the Ten Commandments is more guidelines than rules"? This isn’t the usual Christian line: the usual Christian line is that the Torah added to basic moral laws which everyone agrees with (don't murder, don't steal, don't cheat) a whole lot of extra rules about washing after you’ve eaten shellfish and chopping bits off little boys which only applied to Jews, and which Jesus subsequently lifted. It isn’t usual to say that Moses permitted certain sins but that Jesus revoked the concession. 

I can’t parse it any other way than to say "Jesus seems to acknowledge that there are two kinds of marriage: the really really real marriage in which two human beings merge into a single creature; and a lessor state of living together which can be dissolved through a legal process, but which may be the best that we hard-hearted humans can marriage." It seems to be clear that he is saying that in his kingdom, only really really real marriage is going to be allowed.

According to Matthew, this is what Jesus' disciples took him to mean. "If that's how you understand marriage" they seem to say "Then celibacy is the easier option". ("If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is good not to marry.") Jesus agrees, rather cryptically, that “there be eunuchs that have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake” but adds "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given….He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." This has usually been taken to mean something like "Yes, celibacy is better, but I am only advising it, not commanding it." But again, that seems to weaken the force of the original passage. In context, it almost seems to mean the reverse: "Yes, marriage is very difficult: most people will have to take the easier path of celibacy". But isn't it interesting that having said that getting married is like two people becoming one flesh (irrevocably) he says that being celibate is like physically maiming yourself (also irrevocably). You either add a bit to your flesh, or cut a bit of it off. Hermaphrodite or eunuch; your choice.

If I were going to press the text in directions that it probably doesn't want to go, I would wonder out loud whether it was of any significance at all that the this incredibly difficult story, in which Jesus says that Christian marriage is almost impossible and that some of his followers may have to deny or remove the sexual part of their natures altogether, is immediately followed in both Mattew and Mark by the story in which he tells his disciples that if they want to be part of his kingdom they are going to have to become exactly like children.

And now we come to the difficult bit.

The core of the passage is clearly the verse about divorce and adultery. It is quoted in Mark, where it is not part of the discussion with the Pharisees, but an additional teaching Jesus gave the disciples in private. It is buried in a group of miscellaneous sayings towards the end of Luke's gospel, without any surrounding narrative at all. And it is quoted by Matthew twice: once in the Pharisee story, and again in the famous Sermon on the Mount. But where Mark thinks Jesus said:

Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

Matthew thinks he said:

Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

"Except it be for fornication". "Except for marital unfaithfulness" says the New International Version of the Bible. The Good News Bible goes out of its way to be confusing, as usual: "even though she has not been unfaithful", it says. Either way, it's a pretty substantial get-out clause. It almost turns Christian marriage into one of those wild west gunfights where you have to wait for the other fellow to draw first so you can shoot him and claim self-defence. Both man and woman are committed to a life long relationship, but when one sleeps with someone else (a sin) the other becomes free to marry again sinlessly. Which is very hard to reconcile with the rest of the passage. The disciples don’t say “Whew! What common sense and pragmatism: Jesus' version of marriage isn’t so arduous after all.” They say "Jesus is making marriage so hard that spiritual self-castration sounds like a preferable option."

Now, Miss Walker taught me that any differences between the four Gospels came about because, although the four writers were honestly writing what they remembered, different people naturally remember slightly different things. You wouldn't expect my essay about the school trip to St Albans to be exactly the same as Helen's essay about the school trip to St Albans. If we accept this theory, we would have to say that we simply don’t know what Jesus thought about marriage Mark and Luke think he said one thing; Matthew thinks he said something completely different.

Which is why it is easier to accept the view of the majority of scholars that the synoptic gospels are the result of a holy cut-and-paste job. We have to imagine Matthew copying the story of Jesus' discussion with the Pharisees more or less word for word out of Mark's Gospel, coming to the part which says that married people can never be divorced, thinking "Jesus can’t possibly have meant that: he wouldn't have commanded the impossible" and adding a few words of his own so it reflected what Jesus must have really meant. (*)

The existence of this inconsistency — the fact that Matthew is different from Mark and Luke — seems to me to be very nearly the most interesting thing about the whole passage. God makes an absolute rule: no divorce, ever — that's just not how the Universe works. Moses comes along and says "When He said 'no divorce', He meant 'no divorce without the proper paperwork.'" Later, Jesus says "Moses exceeded his authority. In my Kingdom, 'no divorce' is going to mean 'no divorce'." And Matthew writes this down as "'No divorce' means 'no divorce unless your partner is already cheating on you'."

"But Andrew: surely you must mean 'Matthew under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote this down as…' Because obviously, every editorial or scribal change to the text of the Bible up to May 2nd 1611 was directly and infallibly inspired by God, and any change made after May 3rd of that year is the work of PC new agers watering down the Word of God at the behest of the Frankfurt Group...."

Well, yes: obviously that must be what I mean.

But either way, we have to say that someone incorporated lines into the Bible which softened or granted exceptions to what seems to have originally been an absolute rule. Someone thought that there could be, and had to be, some gap between Jesus' concept of eternal marriage and how people could actually live. We have an exception to an absolute rule being introduced into a text which is about Jesus removing an exception which had been introduced into an absolute rule. 

And that's pretty odd.


Astute readers will have spotted several pages ago where I am going with this. The various Druids, Archdruids and former Archdruids who have recently been holding forth about marriage take Jesus at his word when he says that a marriage is something which takes place between a man and a woman, and say that it can't be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman because that's just not how the universe works. But they interpret Jesus with some liberty when he says that marriage is indissoluble -- even though it was the impossibility of divorce that he was actually talking about.

If we take Jesus at his word, we would have to say that we do not have any such institution as marriage in modern Britain. If marriage is the voluntary union of one man with one woman to the exclusion of all others for life then then mere possibility of divorce means that what you are signing up to isn't marriage. It certainly isn't marriage if you get a lawyer to draw up in advance a legal document about who gets the furniture if you decide to break the solemn unbreakable promise you haven't made yet.

This seems to me to be true even if you don't think that it matters one way or the other what Jesus taught about marriage. If you think that that human beings are basically fornicating chimpanzees you might still want to bestow legal and financial advantages, as well as a certain amount of status and respectability, on those chimpanzees who solemnly promise to stay together, come what may, for their whole lives. (In fact, the more strongly you believe that human beings are fornicating chimpanzees, the more reasonable it might be to want social structures in place to encourage life long coupling.) But I don't understand how you can add "But of course, you are completely free to break this solemn promise if you both agree, and then you'll be free to gain the same legal and moral advantages from entering into another promise of life-long fidelity that you don't intended to keep."

According to the Church of England's website Senmatu (current Archbishop of York and next Archbishop of Canterbury) as saying that we shouldn't redefine "marriage" as something which can happen between two men, because:

1: Thats not what the word currently means ("we must not torture language")

2: That's not how it was done years ago ("it's set in tradition and history")

3: That's not how it was done years ago ("very clear social structures that have been in place for a long time")

4: Sometimes bad people have tried to make big changes which haven't worked out too well ("that's what dictator's do")

But surely language, tradition, history and social structures are very much the kind of thing that you would expect governments to make laws about? It's only if you believe that marriage is not a social structure, but something hard-coded into the universe on Day 1 (or at any rate Day 6) that making changes to it becomes an issue. 

If we have accepted that life-long-but-not-really relationships between men and women can, in a manner of speaking, be described as "marriages", it is hard for me to understand why, for some of the Druids, extending the word "marriage" to cover life-long-but-not-really relationships between two men or two women is such a deal-breaker. Particularly when the whole content of the Gospels seems to point to a tension between what is ideal and real and what is possible in practice. "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.... For the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this precept."

I don't know if Jesus literally believed in an hermaphrodite Adam living in a middle eastern oasis about four thousand years in the past. He certainly didn't think that when a man goes to bed with a lady, they literally merge into an hermaphrodite. (And he really, really didn't intend even a small minority of his followers to lop off their own genitals.) But he seems to have taught that human marriage has a magical element to it. Something supernatural happens. It isn't about how we organize society; its about what is really really real. If this is what the various Bishops believe, I wish they would come out and say so in so many words. If it isn't, then I wish they would shut the hell up. 

(*) Scholars think that Matthew and Mark both had access to a lost fifth Gospel called "The Bumper Book of Jesus' Best One-Liners" or "Q" is you are German and humourless. They incorporated the "sayings" of Jesus from "Q" into their re-writes of Mark in different ways. The fact that the "adultery" saying crops up by itself in different contexts in Matthew and Luke suggests that they found it in Q. This is interesting, because it suggests that "If a divorced man remarries, he's committing adultery...." was originally a saying in its own right .... possibly an unexpurgated quote from our Old Friend The Historical Jesus. Is it, indeed possible that the conversation with the Pharisees and the speech about eunuchs were commentaries on the "divorce" saying, made up by first-generation Christians and put into Jesus' mouth in an attempt to clarify what they thought he meant.