Religion

‘Sorley’: Gaelic for wanderer

Charles Hamilton Sorley, 1895–1915. He left just 37 complete poems. Adapted from The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1989): 

His posthumous collection, Marlborough and Other Poems (1916), was a popular and critical success in the 1920s, but he has since been neglected, though championed by Robert Graves amongst others. Graves said of Sorley that, with Owen and Rosenberg, he ‘was one of the three poets of importance killed during the War’. The best known of his poems include, ‘The Song of the Ungirt Runners’, ‘Barbury Camp’, and the last, bitter ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’ — found in the author’s kit sent home from France after his death.

Sorley’s father, describing his son’s life in a preface (1919) to Marlborough and Other Poems:

He was educated at Marlborough College, which he entered in September 1908 and left in December 1913, after obtaining a scholarship at University College, Oxford. Owing to the war he never went into residence at the University. After leaving school he spent a little more than six months in Germany, first at Schwerin in Mecklenburg and afterwards, for the summer session, at the University of Jena. He was on a walking tour on the banks of the Moselle when the European war broke out. He was put in prison at Trier on the 2nd August, but released the same night with orders to leave the country. After some adventures he reached home on the 6th, and at once applied for a commission in the army. He was gazetted Second Lieutenant in the Seventh (Service) Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment before the end of the month, Lieutenant in November, and Captain in the following August. He was sent to France with his battalion on 30th May 1915, and served for some months in the trenches round Ploegsteert. Shortly after he had entered upon his life there, a suggestion was made to him about printing a slim volume of verse. But he put the suggestion aside as premature. ‘Besides,’ he added, ‘this is no time for oliveyards and vineyards, more especially of the small-holdings type. For three years or the duration of the war, let be.’ Four months later his warfare was accomplished. His battalion was moved south to take part in the battle of Loos, and he fell on 13th October 1915, in an attack in which the “hair-pin” trench near Hulluch was captured by his company. ‘Being made perfect in a little while, he fulfilled long years.’

When I read his letters and papers, I am always taken aback by the voice that comes through — its unexpected modernity and warm intimacy:

… poetry up till now has been mainly by and for and about the Upper Classes … The voice of our poets and men of letters (ie, contemporary writers) is finely trained and sweet to hear: it teems with sharp saws and rich sentiment: it is a marvel of delicate technique: it pleases, it flatters, it charms, it soothes: it is a living lie. … all true poets (that is, poets who insist on truth) have been consciously or unconsciously in revolt. (From papers on Masefield and on Housman, read to the Marlborough College Literary Society, 3 November, 1912 and 15 May, 1913, respectively)

… the penalty of belonging to a public school is that one plays before the looking-glass all the time and has to think about the impression one is making. And as public schools are run on the worn-out fallacy that there can’t be progress without competition, games as well as everything else degenerate into a means of giving free play to the lower instincts of man. … One is positively encouraged to confuse strength of character with petty self-assertion, and conscientiousness with Phariseeism. (Letters: 25 February, and early April, 1914)

Do you know that Richard Jefferies, the greatest of English visionaries, felt exactly the same about the high parts of the downs as you? That you climbed great hills that should overlook the sea, but you could see no sea. Only the whole place is like a vast sea-shell where you can hear the echoes of the sea that has once filled it. Du Gott! One can really live up there! The earth even more than Christ is the ultimate ideal of what man should strive to be. (Letter: 14 November, 1914)

There is no such thing as a just war. What we are doing is casting out Satan by Satan. (Letter: March 1915)

Sorley is the Gaelic for wanderer. I have had a conventional education: Oxford would have corked it. But this has freed the spirit, glory be. Give me The Odyssey, and I return the New Testament to store. Physically as well as spiritually, give me the road. (Letter: 16 June, 1915)

… out in front at night in that no-man’s land and long graveyard there is a freedom and a spur. Rustling of the grasses and grave-tapping of distant workers: the tension and silence of encounter, when one struggles in the dark for moral victory over the enemy patrol: the wail of the exploded bomb and the animal cries of wounded men. The death and the horrible thankfulness when one sees that the next man is dead: ‘We won’t have to carry him in under fire, thank God; dragging will do’: hauling in of the great resistless body in the dark, the smashed head rattling: the relief, the relief that the thing has ceased to groan: that the bullet or bomb that made the man an animal has now made the animal a corpse. One is hardened now: purged of all false pity: perhaps more selfish than before. The spiritual and the animal get so much more sharply divided in hours of encounter, taking possession of the body by swift turns. (Letter: 26 August, 1915)

I can now understand the value of dogma, which is the General Commander-in-Chief of the mind. I am now beginning to think that free thinkers should give their minds into subjection, for we who have given our actions and volitions into subjection gain such marvellous rest thereby. Only of course it is the subjection of their powers of will and deed to a wrong master on the part of a great nation that has led Europe into war. Perhaps afterwards, I and my like will again become indiscriminate rebels. For the present we find high relief in making ourselves soldiers. … Ridley [a close friend at Marlborough and a Captain in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers] … recovered from his wound … Ridley with whom I brewed, ‘worked’ and shared a study, and quarrelled absolutely unceasingly for over three years. We have so thoroughly told each other all each other’s faults and oddities for so long a time that nothing now could part our friendship. (Letter to the Master of Marlborough College.
 One of three last letters, all dated 5 October, 1915.)

Eight days later, Sorley was killed, shot through the head by a sniper. He was 20.
 Herbert Ridley won an MC in 1917 and was killed in action at Ypres on 15 July that year, aged 23.

The Letters of Charles Sorley (CUP, 1919)

 Marlborough and Other Poems (fifth edition, CUP, 1922)

The Collected Letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley (Cecil Woolf, 1990)


Waking Up in Toytown

John Burnside’s second volume of memoirs is published this week. Of A Lie About My Father, Hilary Mantel, writing in the LRB, said:

To move from the interiority of this memoir back to what passes for ordinary life is like surfacing from under the sea, reshaped by its strong and unforgiving currents.

From yesterday’s Guardian review of Waking Up in Toytown (‘the important narrative is interior and episodic, a curation of carefully examined moments … the supple product of a sustained and quiet looking’):

… he fetched up near Guildford, to begin a “long and solitary ceremony of self-erasure” in garden centres and train timetables and dead-end jobs and cups of tea, a fantasy of latter-day monasticism whose sole point was to deny his awareness of liminal worlds, to shut out the voices with reruns of old movies, to replace the call of drink with fetishised routine. To discover in practice what he already knew theoretically, and most people glimpse sooner or later: that they are building ramparts against the dark and trying to believe in them, however flimsy they may be. And though it works, for a little while, it’s never going to be that easy. Darkness creeps in around the edges: sleep is elusive, and no amount of willed shut-down can rid his empty flat of the presences that animate it. Death stalks him …

… the answer turns out to be not a cycle of denial and fall, but a daily negotiation; what he calls, in A Lie About My Father, “the long discipline of happiness”. And it involves a turn to solitude and nature rather than drugs and alcohol; a sober, thrilled meditation on "the roads, and the places just off the roads, all that God-in-the-details of the land: the sway of cottonwood in the wind, the black of a secluded lake, the monumental quiet of a Monterey cypress near a roadside motel on the way from nothing to nowhere", or the "gloaming just beyond the hedge, where the night begins".

One day, late in the book, he finds himself travelling in Norway, far inside the Arctic circle. Arriving early at the small local airport, he sits and gazes out at the whiteness of the airfield. “I sat a long time, that day, waiting for my flight – and some of me is sitting there still, enjoying the stillness, becoming the silence, learning how to vanish. Every day, in every way, I am disappearing, just a little – and it feels like flying, it feels like the kind of flight I was trying for, that first time, when I was nine years old – but it has nothing to do with the will, and it has nothing to do with trying. If it happens at all it happens as a gift: and this is the one definition of grace I can trust.”

‘My misery is infinite with respect to my will, but it is finite with respect to grace.’ — Simone Weil (Notebooks).

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Historic Quotes

An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarised with the ideas from the beginning. — Max Planck

Found here — a great source of quotations, some just plain "historic", others forecasting the future, greeting new discoveries/ideas, etc, and getting things badly wrong:

"What use could this company make of an electrical toy?" — The President of Western Union responding to Alexander Graham Bell's offer to Western Union of the exclusive rights to the telephone for $100,000 in 1876.

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Alchemy

Before I forget … Last Tuesday, passing en route Lincoln's Inn — looking beautiful on what we might soon come to call an unseasonably cold night, I went to the Royal College of Surgeons for a Royal Institution Lecture: 'Alchemy, the occult beginnings of science: Paracelsus, John Dee and Isaac Newton' Dr Phillip Ball, freelance writer and consultant editor, Nature; Dr Peter Forshaw, British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of London; Professor William Newman, Chair of Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Indiana University, USA.

Alchemy first came across my path back in my teens (again), reading Jung and then discovering the bizarre Helios bookshop at Toddington in rural Gloucestershire. A chance to attend a Jungian therapists' informal conference quickly brought all this to a close: I was taken aback at their anti-scientific attitude, but I continued to be fascinated by alchemy, the origins of science … and, later, the NeoPlatonism of the Renaissance.

We arrived a tad late at the RCS, courtesy of the warmth and cheer of the Seven Stars, to find Philip Ball already in full spate, rushing through the life of Paracelsus, his extraordinary travels (Russia, the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, Scotland), his aspiration to devise the first "theory of everything", his rootedness in NeoPlatonism, the doctrine of signatures, chemical medicine, the tria prima (sulphur, mercury, salt), macrocosm and microcosm

Cornelius Agrippa and Marsilius Ficino investigated occult (hidden) forces and Paracelsus brought alchemy to this table. Philip Ball suggests that Paracelsus is important in the history or development of science — he worked from one observation to explain others and made central to his work the very idea of explaining the observed. Philip Ball's book, The Devil's Doctor, appeared earlier this year. The man was clearly extraordinary. From the Guardian review:

His stay in Basle [1527] had started out well. Many students had attended his unofficial courses. He told them that doctors didn't need "eloquence or knowledge of language and books", but "profound knowledge of Nature and her works". His own wisdom was, he told them, based "upon the foundation of experience, the supreme teacher of all things". 

… medicine in the early Renaissance had advanced little since Roman times. For instance, physicians did not think it necessary to examine patients, relying instead on a urine sample for diagnosis. "All they can do is to gaze at piss," said Paracelsus scornfully. He accused them of "villainy and knavery" and said that if people realised how they were being deceived, medics would be stoned in the street. They, in turn, accused him of drunkenness, and it's true that Paracelsus did prefer to expound his wisdom in taverns than in university lecture halls.

His written works, most of which were only published posthumously, could be "paranoid, repetitive, vain and self-aggrandising". But beneath the bluster and posturing were genuine insights. Giordano Bruno said of him: "Seeing how much this inebriate knew, what should I think he might have discovered had he been sober?" Paracelsus turned his back on Aristotle and Galen and embraced experience as his mentor. He taught that "every land is a leaf of the Codex of Nature, and he who would explore her must tread her books with his feet". Paracelsus brought "a new, questing spirit" to natural philosophy. He investigated the plague at considerable risk to himself, devised a "chemical diagnosis of madness" and, although celibate, wrote about "the diseases of women" at a time when medics turned a blind eye to their suffering.

… For Paracelsus, alchemy was not merely about the creation of gold, but was a medical and mystical philosophy that explained the functioning of the body (the transformation of food into flesh, blood and excrement) as well as the more general principles that revealed the mysteries of the earth. "Alchemy becomes so powerful and so beautiful in Paracelsus's hands," writes Ball, "because it is a part of a greater system: a magical vision of the universe distilled in the overheated alembic of a feverishly imaginative mind." Paracelsus saw the "great art of transformation" - alchemy - as the key to understanding man and nature. It was "a reflection of the natural art that makes a flower grow, that stores up metals in the earth, and brings wind and rain. By taking alchemy out of the smoky laboratory and setting it free in wild nature, Paracelsus stakes his claim to genius."

… writers from Blake to Borges have been captivated by his words …

Peter Forshaw took over, to speak at an equally fast pace about John Dee, adviser to Elizabeth I on matters astrological and scientific, a mathematician and a 'converser with angels'. A keen advocate of colonisation, he was the first man to use the term 'the British Empire'. Through the Propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558) to Monas Hieroglyphica (1564; Dee's glyph, right, is "explained" in this work), alchemy figures. Owner of the largest private library in England at the time, his marginalia indicate he interrogated the alchemical texts he read, testing, checking weights, recording the time taken for experiments to run and results to be achieved. His reading of Pantheus' Voarchadumia, as revealed in his marginalia to that work, was mentioned, and this is the abstract to Hilde Norrgrén's article, 'Interpretation and the Hieroglyphic Monad: John Dee's Reading of Pantheus's Voarchadumia':

John Dee's marginalia in his copy of Johannes Pantheus's Voarchadumia (now in the British Library) are an interesting source of information about the development of Dee's scientific ideas in the period between the Propaedeumata Aphoristica (1558) and the Monas Hieroglyphica (1564). In reading the book, Dee has systematically compared the text with Pantheus's earlier work, the Ars Metallicae, and noted any differences between the two largely identical works. Therefore, most of Dee's comments are not indications of his own interests, as has previously been assumed. Only the marginalia that are not concerned with comparing the two texts can be taken to express Dee's own views. These marginalia, probably written in 1559, provide evidence that Dee had already at this time a strong interest in cabbalistic methods as a means of gaining knowledge about natural substances. Cabbalistic speculation was to be central to Dee's thought in the Monas Hieroglyphica, and has previously been taken to indicate a dramatic change in Dee's scientific outlook, towards a spiritual quest. In his marginalia in the Voarchadumia, however, Dee appears to be using cabbalistic methods to gain information on wholly material, non-spiritual matters. The abundant use of the symbol of the hieroglyphic monad in the marginalia provides a further source of insight into the alchemical import of the symbol, five years before the publication of the Monas Hieroglyphica.

Finally, William Newman, author of Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe, Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature, Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution, and currently engaged in 'deciphering Isaac Newton's chymical laboratory notebooks and manuscripts' (read more at Newton's Alchemy, recreated). Boyle, Locke, Newton all believed in the possibility of transmutation. Professor Newman demonstrated some alchemical experiments performed by Newton: the "silica garden" (Newton's Alchemy, recreated: 'a 17th century version of a silica garden, made with potassium silicate and ferric chloride. In the 17th century, it was thought to confirm the fact that metals can be made to "vegetate"; 'Newton wrote an unpublished treatise about such metallic trees - for him they were an indication that metals had their own sort of life, and hence could, it was hoped, be made to multiply'); the apparent transmutation of silver into gold, as performed originally by Wenceslas Seiler (I think I have this name right) in 1677 at the Court of Leopold I; the "transmutation" of iron into copper, by immersing an iron nail in copper sulphate. (Inadequate cameraphone pics follow.)

 

 

Check out The Newton Project:

Although Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is best known for his theory of universal gravitation and discovery of calculus, his interests were much broader than is usually appreciated. In addition to his celebrated natural philosophical writings and mathematical works, Newton also wrote many theological texts and alchemical tracts. We already have texts and images of many of these works on offer on our site and our goal is to make all Newton's writings freely available online.

And the RCS needs an early re-visit …

   

A remembered future

Sometimes, posts just seem … right. This is (3 Quarks Daily):

The twentieth century was insane. We forget to remember that. … Through it all, the challenge to the coherence and sustainability of human experience was relentless. If tradition was disrupted and broken down here and there in the 19th century, it was upended completely, remade from the insight (inside ?) out, and sometimes obliterated during the 20th. …

Czeslaw Milosz was as sensitive to these issues as anyone. This is a man who picked his way through the rubble of Warsaw when its ruins were still steaming, when the place was just an open wound. That experience, and the knowledge gained from it, is shot through everything that Milosz ever wrote. For Milosz, man is guaranteed nothing. That’s it. Nothing. And man can be reduced, or reduce himself, to nothing, at any moment. …

Gombrowicz too experienced such things. … But Gombrowicz chose flight, literally and metaphorically. … That is his particular freedom. It is the freedom of Socrates as Kierkegaard describes him in The Concept of Irony, the freedom that escapes from every possible determination.

Truth be told, this version of freedom annoys Milosz. Because for Milosz, the possibility of meaning in human affairs is dependent on commitment. If nothing else, it is founded on the capacity for human beings to hold experience together even as forces from within and without work to tear it apart. How one does this is not entirely clear but Milosz’s entire oeuvre is the sustained attempt to do so even as he lacks a blueprint. That is a pretty brave literary task to set in front of oneself. From Milosz’s standpoint, Gombrowicz has retreated into his own consciousness instead of forcing himself constantly to confront the problems of the world as it is encountered. …

But then the two come together again, in Milosz’s mind, because Gombrowicz never falls into the trap of those intellectuals who have lost track of the root problems of experience, actual experience, that have been thrown up by the 20th century. Milosz writes that, “A comparison of Gombrowicz with western writers, with Sartre, for example, would reveal, in the case of the latter, a deficiency of a certain type of experience connected with history and specific cultural traditions, a deficiency that is compensated for by theory.”

I think we’re still working this stuff through. And I’ll make one more rash claim. The future right now is in the past. Sometimes it is in the past, the immediate past, where things get clear again. For those of us whose lives stretch from the era of the 20th century into the next one, the most important thing for taking the future seriously is doing work on the things that have recently past. Only now is it becoming even vaguely possible to understand how important are the tentative thoughts put forward by people like Milosz and Gombrowicz. And there are others, back there, waiting for us. We simply have to take seriously the idea that turning our backs on the future is a way of renewing it.

We are, beyond question, 'still working this stuff through'. Spot on.

'A remembered future'? In July of last year, I :

In 1984, Harold Fisch published A Remembered Future and wrote of how art can give us 'the unappeased memory of a future still to be fulfilled'. More recently, Heaney has written of how 'We go to poetry, we go to literature in general, to be forwarded within ourselves. The best it can do is to give us an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering. What is at work … is the mind's capacity to conceive a new plane of regard for itself, a new scope for its own activity' ('Joy or Night', 1990, in The Redress of Poetry, 1995).

For me, reading Milosz is to remember the future.

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Amartya Sen, again

Amartya Sen is a remarkable thinker. I blogged about him back in February. Now this, from the Daily Telegraph, via 3 Quarks Daily:

He praised Britain's multicultural society, from which he believed all of Europe, notably France and Germany, had much to learn. However, he felt that Tony Blair's government, for which he had voted, had unwittingly made two serious policy blunders - increasingly encouraging a society in which the ethnic minorities and especially Muslims were defined almost exclusively by their religion and endorsing the establishment of faith schools.

Prof Sen, who is addressing the Institute of Public Policy Research, the Asia Society, the Nehru Centre and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, explained to The Daily Telegraph: "It overlooks the way Christian schools have evolved and often provide a much more tolerant atmosphere than a purely religious school would. A lot of people in the Middle East or India or elsewhere have been educated in Christian schools."

He recalled: "A lot of my friends came from St Xavier's in Calcutta [a Jesuit-run public school] - I don't think they were indoctrinated particularly in Christianity. But the new generation of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools are not going to be like that."

Although he wanted mainstream British schools to broaden their curriculum to include more on the contribution of, say, Muslim mathematicians to science, he added that faith schools "are a pretty bad thing. Educationally, it's not good for the child. From the point of view of national unity, it's dreadful because, even before a child begins to think, it's being defined by its 'community', which is primarily religion. That also drowns out all other cultural things like language and literature. I am a believer in the importance of British identity."

But he wanted the definition to be framed in such a way that allowed the evolution of a "plural multi-cultural society", rather than a "mono-cultural" one in which different groups lived side by side with little interaction. "We have many different identities because we belong to many different groups," he said. "We are connected with our profession, occupation, class, gender, political views and language, literature, taste in music, involvement in social issues - and also religion. But just to separate out religion as one singularly important identity that has over-arching importance is a mistake. One of the problems of what is happening in Britain today is that one identity, the religious identity, has been taken to represent almost everything."

He argued: "Of course, this policy immediately has the effect of making some people extremely privileged - those who speak in the name of religion. There may be some moderate people but mostly they are extremists who appeal by saying, 'Forget everything else, you are a Muslim' ." Prof Sen, who has written a book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, added: "This is a point of view that Islamic terrorists share with western theorists who define human beings only in terms of their religion because both agree that if you are Muslim, then that is your primary identity. Religion has been inadvertently politicised by the UK Government in a way that is counter-productive. It makes the battle against terrorism so ham-fisted and clumsy."    

Sen's new book, Identity and Violence, is on my to-be-read-next list. There's an excerpt in the New Statesman, here.

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Matisyahu

Matisyahu

To the Hammersmith Palais last night to hear Matisyahu, Hasidic reggae artist. I'd heard both Live at Stubb's (Dance Music has a short review) and Youth: his voice is terrific, the rhythms (with the forward guitar sound) immediately engaging. Pitchfork produced a snotty review of the latter; the Guardian had a brief but appreciative mention of it.

Notoriously, last December Sam Endicott said:

Matisyahu - just your average Hasidic reggae rapper. Yeah, you heard me. This guy is a straight-up Hasidic Jew from New York who busts mad flow over dancehall and reggae beats. This is the future of music.

Last Sunday's Observer had a lengthy interview with Matisyahu, and ten days before that there was this interview in the Guardian. PopMatters reviewed an Iowa City gig (January 2005):

He was dressed in the conventional Hasidic style. He wore a black fedora, dark suit and a white shirt whose tail stuck out revealing his tzitzits (fringes of his prayer shawl) underneath.

Matisyahu's vocal style resembled chanting more than conventional singing. He began each song in Hebrew, and then repeated the words in English. He introduced many of the songs as "written as a song of praise by King David," but he rarely sang an entire psalm. Instead he would just sing the opening four or five lines, and frequently restate short phrases and sounds as if they were a holy mantra.

There was a great similarity between Matisyahu's utterances and typical reggae lyrics. For example, when the Hasid began singing "Chop 'em down, chop 'em down, chop 'em down" over and over again, one could not help but be reminded of Bob Marley's classic "Small Axe". Other songs repeated lines like "Raise me up from the ground / I've been down too long", and "I will fight with all of my soul / all of my heart / all of my might" both of which are reminiscent of common reggae tunes. This is not accidental, as reggae uses the same Old Testament sources as lyrical inspiration.

Perhaps the strangest resemblance, which seems somewhat coincidental, has to do with both the Jamaican and Yiddish patois' use of the exclamation "oy". Matisyahu would croon "oy, oy, oy" in three/four rhythm between the verses -- something reggae artists commonly do, but in a slightly different way, more like "oy, yo, oy, yo" (think of Marley's classic "Buffalo Soldiers").

Matisyahu also preached to the crowd. At one point he got down in a catcher's crouch and started to sermonize. "According to Hasidic philosophy, every person, every being, even every inanimate object has a soul, an inner rhythm, a life force," he said. "This is the part of Hashem (the Lord) that makes us all one, a unity, and brings us light. Our job is to illuminate the darkness with our light. It is our true mission."

The jury's still out: 'The Crown Heights pioneer of Hasidic reggae is certainly bringing something new to the table' (Ben Thompson); 'Matisyahu earns respect as more than just a novelty act' (Steve Yates); 'it's treacle jammy stuff; with all those natty drum fills, MOR progressions and lockstep dub grooves, the good will goes to shit' (Sean Fennessey); 'it comes honey-sweetened and easy to swallow' (Thomas H Green).

And then there's this:

Earlier this year, Madonna sent word that she'd like to invite him to her Seder dinner at Passover. However, Madonna, by virtue of being herself, goes against Matisyahu's beliefs: according to Hasidic Judaism, women are not allowed to sing in public. ('Um, yeah,' he confirms uncomfortably, 'it's something that we wouldn't really support.') He didn't go to the Seder, needless to say, and seems embarrassed when the subject is mentioned.

Last night was packed. Never before have I seen such a Jewish presence at a gig, and the floor in the main knew the songs word-perfect — this man already has a cult following. The evening rocked and the final number, 'King Without a Crown' (lyrics here), was a tour de force that roused the audience to new heights. The 2006 tour has its own Flickr road journal. My photos are here.

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A bit of a gap

At my school, the last three weeks or so of the term that's just died are dominated by mock exams for the final year GCSE and A Level groups — and therefore, for us, the teachers, by marking. Hence, in part, my silence. This last week (the start of our holiday), I have been absorbed in things literary: John Burnside came and read for us a few weeks back, and then I wanted to finish his new book, the memoir about his father, A Lie About My Father, before he read from the book at the end of the Oxford Literary Festival (event 136, yesterday).

This is a great book and one that exhausted me: for all the difference between our backgrounds, there is enough in common between my father and John's for the effect to be both illuminating and draining. Blake Morrison reviewed John's book well in the Guardian, but it's to Hilary Mantel in the LRB that I keep going back:

The book ends as it begins, with Halloween, or rather in the light of the day following, as the writer leads his small son along the quay of a small Scottish fishing town on the east coast. We see that this is the child for whom the phantom of fatherhood must be raised. The writer leaves us with a final sharp picture of the man of lies whom the book has transfigured into truth. He sees him, on a distant night, standing on the edge of woodland; white shirt visible against the dark, a cigarette in his hand, he is captured in a moment which holds, on an indrawn breath, all the events and non-events of his life, all that happened and all that ever could. He did not want to die in public, but that was his unheroic fate: collapsing at the Silver Band Club, on his way to the cigarette machine. An ordinary man with an ordinary death, a nameless man with thoughts that few would care to name, he is now one of the ‘spirits’ who ‘feed our imaginations’. To move from the interiority of this memoir back to what passes for ordinary life is like surfacing from under the sea, reshaped by its strong and unforgiving currents. It is a book by a master of language, pushing language to do what it can. Fastidious, supple and unsparing, it is a book about lies that is more true than you can say.

It was a great pleasure to hear John and to have so many friends together: Tim, Colin and Molly, Olly and Ben, Karl, Mark and Georgie … Like that evening when John read at Radley, a couple of weeks back, this one wound up in the wee hours.

The day before, Karl and I had gone to hear Tim talk (event 97; capacity audience) about his latest book, What is the Point of Being a Christian?, and yesterday afternoon we'd taken in Tsotsi, a profoundly moving film — the book of which I'd read over two decades ago. (See also this Guardian piece.)

Tonight, I had the chance to read John's as yet unpublished sequence of poems centred on/inspired by Saint-Nazaire (which he read at Radley a few weeks back). My head is full of these beautiful, resonant poems — annunciation, tradition (Eliot!), the 'actually loved and known' …

On Molly's recommendation, I've just ordered Keeping Mum and am about to start on Memoir — and then news tonight that John McGahern has died. A bit of a gap.

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Falling out over satire

BBC News:

Newspapers across Europe have reprinted caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to show support for a Danish paper whose cartoons have sparked Muslim outrage. France Soir, Germany's Die Welt, La Stampa in Italy and El Periodico in Spain all carried some of the drawings. Their publication in Denmark has led to protests in Arab nations, diplomatic sanctions and death threats. Islamic tradition bans depictions of the Prophet, but media watchdogs defend press freedom to publish the images. Reporters Without Borders said the reaction in the Arab world "betrays a lack of understanding" of press freedom as "an essential accomplishment of democracy."

In Berlin, the prominent daily Die Welt ran a front-page caricature of the prophet wearing a headdress shaped like a bomb. The paper argued there was a right to blaspheme in the West, and asked whether Islam was capable of coping with satire.  "The protests from Muslims would be taken more seriously if they were less hypocritical," it wrote in an editorial.

Also from the BBC, further details of the Die Welt commentary:

The paper points out that the issue has nothing to do with "a battle between cultures" as there are "thresholds of consideration" which cannot be crossed when it comes to making fun of religion. "But the standards that Muslims require are overtaxing for open societies," the paper believes.

The daily points out that in the West there is no right of exemption from satire. "Christianity itself has become a subject of pitiless criticism, an object of satirical analysis, which marks the triumph of humour over religious worship", it argues.

It points out that there was no protest when a primetime programme on Syrian TV portrayed a rabbi as a cannibal.

And from the same BBC site:

Sweden's Expressen says the front-page letter published in Danish, English and Arabic by Jyllands-Posten in which it apologizes for publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad "sends out unpleasant signals that threats work".

"How Jyllands-Posten thinks - or rather does not think - plays less of a role after the flag burnings, threats and diplomatic pressure from Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries over the last few days", the paper says. Jyllands-Posten's "retreat-like humming and hawing is simply an unpleasant confirmation that fundamentalist threats - against individuals, against economic and political interests - win through", it goes on.

"Defending freedom of expression against fundamentalist threats is a cause. It is a matter of principle, whether it involves Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses', a film about veils and the oppression of women or some clumsy drawings in a Danish newspaper."

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