TFT style of course, so don’t expect tinsel or anything…
This is a picture of some mushrooms shooting up in a fresh pile of woodchips on our driveway.
Think about that- mushrooms are perhaps best understood as the ‘flowers’ of fungal mycota. That means that this pile of fresh woodchip (chipped no more than a couple of weeks before this) mechanically destroyed to almost-pulp, had already become seeded with spores which had time to spread through the chips and then pop out these lovely ink-cap mushrooms like magic.
Joy seems to me to be like that. It comes to our very core like a total suprise, even in the darkest times. Perhaps particularly in the darkest times.
In part one of this Christmas card, I was trying to desribe the desolation some of us feel at this time of year, and particularly THIS year. I thought it was important to acknowledge this experience because I know that I am far from alone.
For all sorts of reasons (not least, thinking about my late sister Katharine who died this year) I have been very tearful this Christmas. It took almost nothing to reduce me to tears- of course, the usual films and music could do this, but once I found myself bawling whilst on my own in the house for no apparent reason. But the strange thing was that this did not make me in any way immune to joy. In fact, it meant that when those moments came, they were like an explosion of light.
So, whatever you situation, cherish those moments.
For the first time since I started this blog, I am posting this after Christmas. Perhaps, given the strange disrupted times we are in, this is no suprise.
Perhaps too, given the poem I am about to post, hiding behind a calendar cushion is not bad thing either.
This year’s ‘card’ comes with a warning. If you are needing bells and tinsel and rosy-cheeked cheer, then perhaps it is not for you right now.
Not because I do not wish you all the very best for this season and the year to come. Lord knows we need some good news, right? But when I started this blog, I was determined to be as honest as I could be, even if this was sometimes ugly. For many of us, this Christmas has been painfully hard.
My mother, on her own, struggling with a cancer diagnosis.
My nephews and neices having the first Christmas without their mum.
My friend who had been longing to meet with her son and daughter only to be cut off from them by the fluctuations of coronovirus rules.
By comparison, I count my blessings. I managed to see my kids. I am blessed with the best companion that anyone could wish for.
Increasingly, I find myself broken by some of the contradictions we live with, and never more so then now. The excess of our celebrations feel false and obscene, even as I partcipate. The plastic. The false bonhomie filling the air waves. The tokenistic attention given to ‘the spirit of Christmas’.
I long for change, both in myself and in the world I am part of.
Sometimes it feels as though I know where to look for hope. At other times not, as if the icons and ideas behind Christmas have lain neglected so long as to become rusty and meaningless.
So, here is part one of my Christmas offerings.
What can I give him, wealthy as I am?
Does he need an i-phone, or a well-aged Parma ham?
Should I bring new trainers, a pair of brand-new jeans?
Or Halo for the X-box (whatever that all means)
In a tower block in Camden, a woman breaks her heart
Her credit score is hopeless, her marriage fell apart
Her cupboards all lie empty, her clothes are wafer thin
Her kids can thank the food bank for turkey from a tin
If I were a kind man, I would bring good cheer
I would house the homeless, if for only once a year
I’d buy my cards from Oxfam, for virtue is no sin
I’d send some Christmas pudding to poor old Tiny Tim
In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds still moan
And Mr Wilson’s waited ages to get the council on the phone
He’s worried cos his boiler has given up the ghost
And since Mabel got dementia, she feels cold more than most
If I were a wise man, I would do my part
I’d sell that gold and incense and invest it for a start
In gilt-edged annuities or solid pension schemes
For without good fiscal planning, what can ever be redeemed?
In a lock-up by the roadside a bastard-child is born
To another teenage mother whose future looks forlorn
A host of heavenly angels up high in star-strewn sky
Dear friends, what can we wish for this Christmas. What hope can we carry?
We have lost so much in our lockdown -some of us have even lost loved ones – but for all of us, pack animals as we are, the enforced seperation has been hard. Perhaps it is even getting harder.
During that first sun-lit lockdown, despite the looming apocalypse, there were some strong indications that we might learn some good things along with the bad. People were rediscovering the semi-wild outdoors on their doorsteps and a sense of community sprang up everywhere as people began to look out for their neighbours. There was much talk (including on this blog) of how the disruption of the pandemic might actually become a pivot point for much needed change in relation to huge issues like climate change and widening inequality and empty populists like Trump and Johnson might be revealed as Emperors without clothes.
This time around, even though these things might still be true, it feels harder to be optimistic. Perhaps that is partly because of the almost-Christmas that never was; the one that probably should never have happened in the first place, but the loss of which felt all the more cruel because it came so close. Perhaps too the combination of winter and wearyness weigh heavy on us all. Perhaps it is about failed leadership as well – in the UK, we have a Prime Minister who seemed determined to make the same mistake over and over. In the US, the so-called Leader of the Free World is a lying bafoon with fascistic tendencies. Even the arrival of potental salvation in the form of vaccines is second-guessed, as if we can not quite trust anything, not even science.
Meanwhile, conspiracy theories proliferate exponentially, like the virus itself. They take hold of people and become the truth through which they view the world, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The rest of us don’t know what to believe any more.
So, once again, in the midst of this particular Christmas season, where can we find hope?
I think that is the point – we first have to go out and look for it.
Sometimes it might be a little more obvious. In times of pain and loneliness, kindness can be like choir of heavenly angels, but for the most part, the hope we seek is more subtle. It can be hard to see amongst the straw.
Even in winter, life is all around us. Here, red squirrels are visible everywhere in the bare branches, collecting food for the months to come. The seasons are changing, reminding us that we are lving in the great circle. We have been here before and this too will pass.
There is still the real possibility that we will learn important things from this – the virus is shining a light on things we have ignored for too long. The widening inequality, for instance, and how the highest infection rates of the pandemic have mapped themselves perfectly on to the areas of highest poverty and deprivation in our societies. It has shown us too that large scale multi-national and multi-lateral action in service of a common goal is possible again- something we had forgotten since the last world war, despite the looming threat of climate change.
On a smaller scale, it has shown us that some things are simply more important. Families split apart are unlikely to take the next Christmas together for granted.
We live in a seemingly perpetual Advent. Not just because of all the early Christmas decorating, but because we are all still waiting; for vaccines, for ‘normality’, for release, for and end to isolation and for the possibility of touch. Strange then that the actual season of Advent is now fully upon us.
I find myself remembering an old project, birthed by Si Smith, called ‘We who still wait’. It was a collaboration of photography (Steve Broadway), meditations (Ian Adams) and my poetry. (It is still available, here.)
I wrote the poems quickly, over a short period of time. Some felt ‘forced’, others arrived with tears, which may seem strange to some, until you realise that poetry is essentially about opening a vein and what comes out can be unexpected and overwhelming. Writing these poems forced me to fully engage not only with my own fragility, but also with those aspects of faith that still remain. Sometimes it seemed as if faith had been removed along with my religion, but at other times entirely the reverse, that only through losing religion was it possible to rediscover something deeper and more true.
Anyway, I offer you one of the poems from ‘We who still wait”. It says as much as I can say today.
Open the sky
Open the sky and let some light in
Let this night be night no longer
Let stars shine down in shafts of love
Illuminating ordinary things
All down with dirt and common use
Let donkeys laugh out loud
For even basest things
Are silvered up with grace
Lubricated in kindness
He is coming
Not to penthouses, to plump up cushions of comfort
Not to stroke the fragile ego of celebrity
Not to strengthen the hands of the powerful
Or expand their empty empires
Not to shape new cathedrals from seductive certainty
We live in polarised times. Populism has taken over politics and sold us simplified solutions to complex human problems. Brexit will either make Britain great again or destroy our economy. Trump has been and has not quite gone. On the British left, Corbyn rode a moderate wave of populism too for a while, before he fell/was pushed off.
The engine for this populism seems to have different parts; the rise of mass consciousness driven by manipulateable social media feeds; disenfranchisement and dissaffection with traditional politics; economic anxieties and austerity. We can also mix in with this the fact that much of the mainstream media is the the pocket of moguls with their own, mostly right wing agendas, despite Trump’s accusations of left wing bias. I suppose the fact is that politics in our (and America’s) first-past-the-post systems is always first about winning, and if this can be achieved via a populist illusion then so be it. Worry about the cost to integrity later…
Perhaps we are all tribal at heart. This seems to be one of the uncivilised persistant character traits of the social animal that we evolved from- the skew towards indentification with me and mine, to the detriment of you and yours. Politics at its worst feeds this instinct and left unchecked it is such a force for destruction. It is killing hundreds of refugees as we speak for instance. But even if I must acknowledge my own tribal prejudices, I re-joined the Labour party not because I wanted to ‘belong’ to anything, but because I am passionate about progressive change. I have seen close at hand what austerity and social injustice can do to both the winners and the losers and long for a politics of careful kindness in which we judge our success not on the extreme wealth of a few but the wellbeing of those most vulnerable. In this context, the purpose of a political party is to decide on a set of principles, then argue about the best way to put these into action. Oh- then how to sell these actions to the wider public who might or might not vote for them.
The other reason I re-joined the party was because of Jeremy Corbyn. I make no apologies about this, because even though he has become a polarising figure, the values that he represents are ones that I recognise. My late sister and I had many long discussions about how he represented, for us, a kind of politics that lit us up when we were young- a very British kind of democratic socialism in which the role of state is to mediate between the power of capital and the welfare of its citizens. He was regularly accused of ‘looking backwards’ and wanting to ‘return to the 1970’s’ but this misunderstands the Corbyn project entirely. The reason why Labour Party membership is more than all the other parties combined is because young people responded in droves to the idea of social change for the better.
But we are all having to examine the Corbyn era in the light of two major failings under his leadership.
The first was one of leadership itself. Initially I wondered whether he could find a way to lead in a different way; a more collegiate way. Could the party escape from Blairite neoliberalism through debate and aninflux of new ideas? It seemed possible for a while. But Corbyn, despite his fine record of being on the right side of so many issues (not least his long opposition to the dreadful Iraq war) was perhaps always more comfortable on the outside, marching with the protestors, than leading consensus. He had vast and well resourced forces against him but seemed also prone to shoot at his own feet regularly.
The second (and related to the first) is the issue of antisemitism. I wrote a long post for this blog about the Equalities and Human Rights Commission enquiry, but I never posted it because I simply did not feel that I could comment on the degree to which a minority group that I do not belong to should or should not feel aggrieved. I read it in full, trying hard to understand what had gone wrong and how a man whose whole life seemed to have been lived in opposition of racism in all it’s forms could have become forever associated with antisemitism. After reading the report, I do not necessary feel a lot wiser, but what is clear is that Corbyn was never able to reframe the story once it had been told.
Perhaps in part, he was also the victim of his own principles. Bear with me. Do you remember the raging arguments over whether the party should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism? The fact that Corbyn was seen to be dithering and seeking to clarify the definition, then to adopt some of it but not all of it played entirely into the hands of those who portrayed him as antisemitic. To anyone who had actually read the defintion however, and tried to weigh the implications of some of the ‘examples’ given (as I did) Corbyn had a point. Don’t forget that there had been a real push from some Israeli quarters to equate antisemitism with criticism of the state of Israel. Corbyn had spent decades arguing (entirely correctly) for the rights of Palestinians, highlighting the on-going breaches of international law perpetrated by the State of Israel. The IHCR definition has been criticised all over the world- consider for example the debate in Canada, which can be read here.
But the fact is that even if Corbyn’s reasons for objecting to the IHCR definition arose from a decent principle, something about him, combined with the forces seeking to oppose him, meant that he was unable to communicate the complexities of his position. Worse than this, the infighting that rumbled on in the party meant that investigations into antisemitism were never free of politics and clumsy attempts to ‘manage’ them from the centre.
Why then, in the light of all this and what has happened to Corbyn since am I still a member of the party? Because I politics is not the point of politics. Politics is about an investment in hopeful change. The Labour party, in populist mode or in the rather more prosaic and lukewarm Starmer mode has always been about shaping policies of liberation and despite the many times when things have gone wrong, how else do we achieve change, if not through seeking to contrbute to the ideas that lead to that change being operationalised?
Like Corbyn, I have always been an outsider. I too have my blind spots arising from my own character flaws. I have been thrust into leadership roles for which I have been only, at best, partially equipped to manage. Like Corbyn, the principles that run through me are too important to ignore.
But also, perhaps like Corbyn, I have to be open to criticism and correction from those whose views, both within and outside the Party, diverge from my own. I have to recognise that progressive voices arise in unexpected places. I also have to acknowledge that any movement needs Starmers as well as Corbyns.
An ancient hymn book, full of messages celebrating privilege. Celebrating a relationship with God who is on OUR side. The one who will kick ass on our behalf.
Of course, there is so much more than that in this wonderful ancient poetry – lament, hope, beauty, thankfulness, stillnes – but on one level, they were written as Israel-first propganda.
The danger is that we adopt them as a personal me-first version of the same.
Consider the most famous of them all, psalm 22. We wheel it out when we need it, like some kind of holy comfort blanket. It is beautiful, full of hope and assurance, offering us the hope of God on our side. I read it over and over this week because I am preparing to lead the funeral of a dear friend of ours.
We will desperately need psalm 22.
Beyond this, I found myself wondering what else this psalm had to say to me right now, and wrote this poem.