Religion as activism…


Christian protecting muslems2

I have been thinking about our (often hysterical) response to the growth of Islamic extremism/militancy/activism/fundamentalism. Religion (particularly the religion of the other) as always portrayed as a force for bad, a force for evil even. It is impossible to envisage a militant Islam that sweeps into an area an brings good things. I am afraid I can not comment in any detail about the degree to which this might or might not be true now, but I do think we would do well to consider our own history…

A good place to start might be to look back towards Wat Tyler and in particular, John Ball, key figures both in what came to be known as The Peasants Revolt. There is a great programme by Melvin Bragg dealing with this period available on the I player.

The Key thing about the Peasants Revolt all the way back in 1381 is that the ideology that brought about a mass consciousness towards change was simply this- Christianity. It ended in dreadful persecution, mass hangings and a re-assertion of the power of Kings and Bishops and Lords, but it also changed the political landscape for ever.

What we know about John Ball is mostly told from the perspective of those Kings, Bishops and Lords that survived the Peasants revolt, but there is no doubt that for him, Christianity had only one logical outcome- something that we might recognise as an egalitarian state of equality re-envisioned by Marx. Rather than the opium of the people, religion was like gun cotton. This was the cry of ordinary people; When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

Here is an excerpt from one of John Ball’s sermons, used to convict him of sedition;

‘Ah, ye good people, the matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall not do till everything be common, and that there be no villains nor gentlemen, but that we may be all united together, and that the lords be no greater masters than we be. What have we deserved, or why should we be kept thus in servage? We be all come from one father and one mother, Adam and Eve: whereby can they say or shew that they be greater lords than we be, saving by that they cause us to win and labour for that they dispend? They are clothed in velvet and camlet furred with grise, and we be vestured with poor cloth: they have their wines, spices and good bread, and we have the drawing out of the chaff and drink water: they dwell in fair houses, and we have the pain and travail, rain and wind in the fields; and by that that cometh of our labours they keep and maintain their estates: we be called their bondmen, and without we do readily them service, we be beaten; and we have no sovereign to whom we may complain, nor that will hear us nor do us right.’
John Ball, in J Froissart, Froissart’s Chronicles (1385) translated by GC Macaulay (1895)

Ideas are dangerous- religious ideas are perhaps more dangerous than most. But when faced with such manifest injustice and inequality, how we need dangerous ideas. How we need troublesome priests and prophets who will challenge us to take another look at ourselves.

There is a famous song about John Ball, written by English songwriter Sydney Carter, who also wrote other Christian standards such as ‘The Lord of the dance’, ‘When I needed a neighbour’ and ‘One more step along the world I go’. Here is one of my favourite (and avowedly atheist) musicians singing it;

Or by way of poignant contrast;

The Dark Mountain Project…

dark mountian

I came across this project a while ago, and got very excited by it.

A lot of my writing on this blog has been an attempt engaged criticism with our economic/political/cultural malaise. I suppose I am seeking to make sense of where we are up to, and looking for what is changing, for good or ill. This means that some of the discussion in this blog has delved into the shady world of economics and that I find it impossible to avoid political statements.

But I am not an economist, or a politician. I approach these things as a writer, a poet, a person interested in theology. You will understand my interest then when I read about the Dark Mountain Project. This is how they describe themselves;

The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.

The Project grew out of a feeling that contemporary art and literature were failing to respond honestly or adequately to the scale of our entwined ecological, economic and social crises. We believe that writing and art have a crucial role to play in coming to terms with this reality, and in questioning its foundations.

The first thing that the project did was to publish a manifesto, funded by a crowd funding appeal, which sets out what they are about. If this is of interest it is well worth reading the whole thing, but here are a couple of extracts that made me shout YES!

The myth of progress is to us what the myth of god-given warrior prowess was to the Romans, or the myth of eternal salvation was to the conquistadors: without it, our efforts cannot be sustained. Onto the root stock of Western Christianity, the Enlightenment at its most optimistic grafted a vision of an Earthly paradise, towards which human effort guided by calculative reason could take us. Following this guidance, each generation will live a better life than the life of those that went before it. History becomes an escalator, and the only way is up. On the top floor is human perfection. It is important that this should remain just out of reach in order to sustain the sensation of motion.

Recent history, however, has given this mechanism something of a battering. The past century too often threatened a descent into hell, rather than the promised heaven on Earth. Even within the prosperous and liberal societies of the West progress has, in many ways, failed to deliver the goods. Today’s generation are demonstrably less content, and consequently less optimistic, than those that went before. They work longer hours, with less security, and less chance of leaving behind the social back- ground into which they were born. They fear crime, social breakdown, overdevelopment, environmental collapse. They do not believe that the future will be better than the past. Individually, they are less constrained by class and convention than their parents or grandparents, but more constrained by law, surveillance, state proscription and personal debt. Their physical health is better, their mental health more fragile. Nobody knows what is coming. Nobody wants to look…

…We imagined ourselves isolated from the source of our existence. The fallout from this imaginative error is all around us: a quarter of the world’s mammals are threatened with imminent extinction; an acre and a half of rainforest is felled every second; 75% of the world’s fish stocks are on the verge of collapse; humanity consumes 25% more of the world’s natural ‘products’ than the Earth can replace — a figure predicted to rise to 80% by mid-century. Even through the deadening lens of statistics, we can glimpse the violence to which our myths have driven us…

…We do not believe that everything will be fine. We are not even sure, based on current definitions of progress and improvement, that we want it to be. Of all humanity’s delusions of difference, of its separation from and superiority to the living world which surrounds it, one distinction holds up better than most: we may well be the first species capable of effectively eliminating life on Earth. This is a hypothesis we seem intent on putting to the test. We are already responsible for denuding the world of much of its richness, magnificence, beauty, colour and magic, and we show no sign of slowing down. For a very long time, we imagined that ‘nature’ was something that happened elsewhere. The damage we did to it might be regrettable, but needed to be weighed against the benefits here and now…

…Creativity remains the most uncontrollable of human forces: without it, the project of civilisation is inconceivable, yet no part of life remains so untamed and undomesticated. Words and images can change minds, hearts, even the course of history. Their makers shape the stories people carry through their lives, unearth old ones and breathe them back to life, add new twists, point to unexpected endings. It is time to pick up the threads and make the stories new, as they must always be made new, starting from where we are…

We believe that artists — which is to us the most welcoming of words, taking under its wing writers of all kinds, painters, musicians, sculptors, poets, designers, creators, makers of things, dreamers of dreams — have a responsibility to begin the process of decoupling. We believe that, in the age of ecocide, the last taboo must be broken — and that only artists can do it.

Ecocide demands a response. That response is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists or campaigners. Artists are needed. So far, though, the artistic response has been muted. In between traditional nature poetry and agitprop, what is there? Where are the poems that have adjusted their scope to the scale of this challenge? Where are the novels that probe beyond the country house or the city centre? What new form of writing has emerged to challenge civilisation itself? What gallery mounts an exhibition equal to this challenge? Which musician has discovered the secret chord?…

This response we call Uncivilised art, and we are interested in one branch of it in particular: Uncivilised writing. Uncivilised writing is writing which attempts to stand outside the human bubble and see us as we are: highly evolved apes with an array of talents and abilities which we are unleashing without sufficient thought, control, compassion or intelligence. Apes who have constructed a sophisticated myth of their own importance with which to sustain their civilising project. Apes whose project has been to tame, to control, to subdue or to destroy — to civilise the forests, the deserts, the wild lands and the seas, to impose bonds on the minds of their own in order that they might feel nothing when they exploit or destroy their fellow creatures.

Against the civilising project, which has become the progenitor of ecocide, Uncivilised writing offers not a non-human perspective—we remain human and, even now, are not quite ashamed — but a perspective which sees us as one strand of a web rather than as the first palanquin in a glorious procession. It offers an unblinking look at the forces among which we find ourselves….

So, uncivilised as it might be, let us rise to the challenge! They are having a meeting at Whiston Lodge in Scotland next year- I may even try to get along…

I noticed that one of my favourite musicians is involved in the Dark Mountain Project- the wonderful marmite on toast songwriter Chris Wood. I feel an uncivilised song coming on…

Let the grand correction commence…

Today we heard from the Labour leader.

I find so little to celebrate in what he said, or the way he said it (so said the Guardian– “Miliband’s pedestrian, drooping delivery did no justice to the ambition of his argument.”)

In saying this, I feel sad. Sad that once again I am writing out of negativity not from a position of hope. Sad too that the party I have roughly aligned myself with all my life appears so bereft of ideas.

A swipe at the Tories, the bankers and Southern Cross care homes- then a strange promise that people who work hard or volunteer will get preferential allocation of social housing. (Sounds a bit like ‘the deserving poor’ to me.) But at least ‘I am not Tony Blair (awkward pause…..)

I have been asking myself what is missing- and I think it is this- a visible value base that comes from a passion that is not merely manufactured, or self consciously media friendly.

I have also been thinking a lot about just how bankrupt our political/economic system seems to have become. When did commerce become capitalism, and when did capitalism become turbo-capitalism? How did the survival of our affluent way of life come to require the addiction of a whole nation to the accumulation of ever more stuff that we do not need?

And perhaps the most important question; what might be an alternative way of ordering our collective economy?

Ed Milliband’s father, the late great Ralph Miliband, was a Marxist Sociologist whose writing was an essential part of my student days. For a while, my hope was for an egalitarian socialism to take gentle hold in our country- mixed in the very British way of changing slowly whilst still holding on to idiosyncratic anachronisms- because it is better to accommodate and compromise rather than to revolt and overthrow…

But it seems that at least for now, ‘Free Market’ Capitalism has cleared the playing field of all opposition. The Berlin wall has been reduced to the dust of folk memory.

And in the middle of all this economic mess, Capitalism (despite being the cause of so much difficulty) continues to present itself as the solution.

I am no longer a political ideologue. All of that was killed by Blair and middle age. But still, where are the critical voices? Where are those who bring hope for change- for better ways of living that are not geared towards entrenching the global inequalities that condemn the poor south to be one large sweatshop for our supermarkets and high streets?

Do we need more riots? More kids in hoodies running away with box-fresh trainers and security tagged x-boxes?

As someone who tries to follow Jesus, I am ever more conscious of the way he had of standing as a faithful, hopeful, critic of the way we live. This is not the same thing as condemning and rejecting- rather it might mean that we should seek to participate, whilst at the same time hoping for better.

Hoping for voices to be raised that offer an alternative- that start not from a position of protecting the status quo, but instead long for justice for the global poor, and a sustainable, honest and healthy way of life for the rest of us. Looking for love, Grace and beauty, then seeking to nurture it.

Little of which did I hear today in Milibands speech. But perhaps there is time yet…

Time for a song I think…

St Georges day, England and protesting…

It is St George’s day today.

Patron saint of old England.

(It has an interesting perspective from Scotland of course.)

Despite the apparent rise in popularity of the day as a significant celebration in England, a survey quoted on Radio 4 this morning  claimed that only one third of people in England were aware of the day, 40% did not know why St George is our patron saint and only 10% would happily fly the flag of St George.

The same commentator suggested that much of what we associate with St George is in reality a Victorian invention- killed by the Howitzers of the first world war. An idea of martial muscular Christianity, allied to the service of empire.

More recently, the flag of St George seems to have been associated strongly with football and the National Front. Laddish yobbishness and fascism… not something thing that I can feel any kinship or identity with whatsoever.

St George killed no dragons. Neither was he English. Rather he was a thought to be a third Century roman soldier who refused to participate in the killing of Christians, resulting in his own death. He was a man who lived in the shadow of Empire, whilst following a different way of being, taught to him by Jesus.

So those words of Blake written on the flag of St George above- about the building of Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land- or at least amidst it’s dark satanic mills- I always find them slightly ridiculous because of their association with England as Empire.

But it might be possible to read the words in a different way of course. Perhaps truer to Blake’s original meanings.

Because there is another England.. something deeper that is still precious to me, and so today, on the day of St George, patron saint of old Albion- I want to celebrate something English- particularly as we approach another election.

An England of protest and struggles against power by the working man. An England of the Peterloo Massacre where people died so that you and I can participate in free and fair elections (although to be fair it was a while longer before women had the same rights.)

An England where tolerance, fairness,  respect and gentility are valued. And where there are infringement and disagreements, then there are folk songs…

I have been listening to Chris Wood’s album Handmade Life recently. I really like it, but Michaela does not like his voice. For me, he stands in a long tradition of English folk protest singers.

As a further celebration of Englishness of a kind that I can celebrate, here is one of his songs called ‘Let the Grand correction commence’.

An argument for folk music…


I have a love of folk music.

There I said it.

In some circles it is a confession that leaves a bad smell. I hope that this is less so than it used to be- people seem to be more eclectic in their tastes these days. But the dominance of mass produced music packaged up with an airbrushed image remains, despite the apparent freedoms brought by the internet.

I like most folk music- even some of the finger-in-the-ear-quavery-voice kind. I think I like it because it carries something authentic along with it- the real voices of generations past and present. Seen this way, folk music is a chance to reflect on who we are, and were we come from.

Here are a couple of quotes pinched from the English Acoustic Collective’s website.

Kazuo Ishiguro
“The way I see it is like this … There is this kind of treasure chest you have sitting in front of you, and if you were American or perhaps Irish you might have opened it by now, but because you live here it probably hasn’t occurred to you to do so yet. Well, I would urge you to open that thing up and delve inside it, because I believe you’ll find there a sublime vision of life in the British Isles at it has been lived over the last few centuries; and it’s the kind of vision that you can’t readily get from the works of say, Dickens or Shakespeare or Elgar or Sir Christopher Wren. If you don’t open that treasure box I think you are going to miss a certain dimension, a whole dimension of cultural life in this country so I urge you to do it.”
Speaking at the 2003 BBC Folk Awards, London

Dr John Sentamu
“What is it to be English? It is a very serious question. The English are somehow embarrassed about some of the good things they have done. Multiculturalism has seemed to imply, wrongly for me, ‘Let other cultures be allowed to express themselves but do not let the majority culture at all tell us its glories, its struggles, its joys, its pains’. A failure to rediscover English culture would fuel greater political extremism.”
Speaking before his enthronement as Archbishop of York, November 2005


I have blogged before about this thing called Englishness– how it has become a word that belongs to football supporters and a particularly loathsome kind of politician. Folk music connects me with another older England- which for the sake of differentiation, I have decided to call Albion.

Albion has roots that go deep into these rocky islands. And for centuries, around the camp fire,

and the haystacks,

and the factory floors,

and the shipyards,

and the old folks homes,

and the nurseries,

and the churches-

The people of Albion have been singing. Singing of their loves and sorrows, of injustice and of good food and wine, celebrating their hero’s- otherwise lost to history. Pricking the pomposity of those in power.

It is the poetry of the people, transmitted on a tune from town to town.

It may be speak of a version of ourselves that is overly romanticised and be shaped by unreliable oral traditions, but for all of that, the voices are real.

I love the folk from other places- where it is often valued more- but most of all, I love the voices of old Albion…

And for those Scottish friends of mine who think that I am forsaking my chosen place of residence, as well as my Irish roots- remember that the old word for Scotland (and parts of Ireland), ALBA- also comes from the word Albion. We share more than would seperate us, we children of these islands.

So, time for a bit of music I reckon…

And I reckon, in this wide world of wonders- there should always be room for the odd bit of Morris Dancing.

Englishness, marmite and folk music…

Here’s a bit of cockney folk-punk raconteur Billy Bragg, backed by a selection of brilliant musicians- including guitar genius Martin Carthy, and Chris Wood, he with the ‘dark brown voice’.

It manages to combine some stuff that says something right and true about being from a particular English tradition. One that is unsure of itself, and even if it has some awareness of it’s roots, is not static, but takes and incorporates from other cultures, and becomes something new…

And despite all the Empire Building and oppressing.

Despite the dark satanic mills and the miners strike.

Despite the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Poll Tax.

Despite the Spinning Jenny and the Enclosure Acts

Despite Margaret Thatcher and the death of ideology

England is still a wonderful place.

And because the sound quality of the last one was rubbish- here is a bit more from the collective of musicians called ‘The imagined village.’

Finally, from the same collection- a slice of Benjamin Zephaniniah which gathers some more ideas of Englishness…