Saturday, 22 September 2018

On the Radar: Cultural Highlights, W/E 22nd September 2018

It's a sign that I've been rather busy in recent weeks that I've so little to share. This is also my first post in two weeks. Work intervenes in culture!


FICTION

Lethal White – Robert Galbraith

The latest outing for Galbraith’s (AKA J.K. Rowling’s) detective Cormoran Strike. It remains a highly readable, twisty-and-turny series, very much in Mayhem Parva mode, with added swears and flashes of modernity. It’s an absolute doorstopper of a book which – given it takes c. three-hundred pages to get to the first murder – would have warranted better editing.

NON-FICTION

The Cold War: A World History – Odd Arne Westad

I can be a sucker for one-volume histories, and this is one heck of a door stopper. Nonetheless, it’s popular history, a synthesis by a Harvard professor. It contextualises the Cold War in the Great War which is actually very helpful, especially if one is inclined to read the Second World War as a continuation of the First War. Inevitably, Westad slides over large swathes of modern history, but this is immensely readable and timely stuff. Arguably, our current travails – re:- Korea and the US, the Russia and the UK and the EU – are essentially grounded in the issues of the Cold War.


CINEMA

The Little Stranger (dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

The tone of this offering is – like Stephen Resnick’s soundtrack – spectral and melancholic. It does its best with Sarah Waters’ gothic horror novel, but doesn’t quite reach the level it might (neither does the source material). Fine, period-appropriate performances, especially from Charlotte Rampling and Ruth Wilson. Domhnall Gleeson as the male lead is fine, but Hundreds, the house which is the focus for Glesson’s obsessions, isn’t quite the star it should be.



Saturday, 8 September 2018

On the Radar: My Cultural Highlights, W/E 08th September 2018

RADIO

Top Girls – Caryl Churchill (Radio Four Extra, on iPlayer till the end of September)

The BBC have re-broadcast a World Service version of Churchill’s play to celebrate her 80thbirthday. Her classic study of the tensions inherent in feminism and liberation (especially individualist vs communitarian versions), ought to feel very dated. However, that opening scene in which the central character gets pissed with increasingly lairy feminist heroes of the past still hits the mark. As their behaviour increasingly mirrors those of the men they want liberation from, it exercises a real grip. Its comments on Thatcher, the end of society, and the status of women unable to ‘get to the top’ remains essential.


Jaws – Peter Benchley (Radio Four, on iPlayer till the end of September)

I am part of a generation still terrorised by Benchley’s (false) representations of the perils of the Deep. This edited audio book – which cleverly uses John Williams’ score for the film version as soundtrack – brings out nuances lost in Spielberg’s adaptation. It’s pulpy, scary and compelling.


MAGAZINES/JOURNALS

PN Review (243)

Of the various poetry journals I subscribe to, PN Review is the one which challenges and extends me the most. In the latest edition, I’ve enjoyed new poems from the ever-witty Sophie Hannah, Ireland’s Vona Groake as well as Chris Beckett/Hiwot Tadesse’s translation of Bedilu Wakjira’s ‘Truth, my Child’. There are also four poems by the recently deceased Matthew Sweeney. Vahni Capildeo’s report continues to mesmerise.

POETRY

Michael Symmons Roberts – Mancunia (Cape: 2017)

Roberts continues to develop as a poet. That’s saying something, given his previous work. After the extraordinary effort of his previous collection, Drysalter, I was anticipating disappointment. Rather, this collection – an exploration of utopia and the Manchesters of the mind and soul – displays Roberts’ ability to marshall all his formal gifts with even greater boldness.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto: 2015)

I’m cautious around major prize-winning collections (this won the T.S. Eliot in 2015), but Howe’s debut collection is a tour de force. Her storytelling voice is sharp and bold and her formal skills are, at times, breath-taking. Her account of her dual heritage – Chinese and British – is scintillating.


MUSIC

The Little Stranger (OST) – Stephen Rennicks (2018)

Spectral and melancholic, Resnick’s soundtrack for the new adaptation of Sarah Waters’ 1940s ghost novel, is the kind of thing one expects to be played behind lots of shots of people wearing tweed, as they crunch across gravel and stare up at a louring country house.
It is perhaps a little unfair to read a film based on its soundtrack, but one imagines the accompanying film will look washed-out, autumnal and full-on Brit-heritage sumptuous. I can’t wait.


Jackie Oates – The Joy of Living (2018)

Oates’ new album took me rather by surprise. About half-way through my first listen, I found myself in tears. This was partly because of the sensitivity with which Oates handles the album’s folk material; it was also a reflection of her ability to speak of joys and pains of being alive with understated vulnerability. Highly commended.

LIVE MUSIC

Camel – Moonmadness Live at the Bridgewater Hall (Friday 7thSeptember)

Andy Latimer’s rejuvenated outfit continue to dazzle. The night displayed Latimer and co’s ability to handle difficult music with precision, skill and wit. The rapport between band and audience was marvellous.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

The Limits of Sex: The C of E, priggishness, and its violence against LGBT couples

CONTENT WARNING: Contains references to Sex...


When I came to faith over twenty years ago, I worshipped in a large Evangelical-Charismatic church. As a new Christian, I was just beginning to explore what it meant for me – a trans woman – to offer my whole life to God. Part of that exploration concerned who God was calling me to be in my intimate relationships.

This ultimately led me into a quite extraordinary conversation with a new friend, a Christian of very longstanding, about sex. The conversation came down to a question: ‘What constitutes ‘sex’ for Christians?’ For, as I’m sure most of you will know, the official position of the Church of England is that sex is something only appropriate within the covenant/contract of heterosexual marriage. In this blogpost, I want to reflect briefly on what the ‘sex’ word might mean.

The provocation for this post is a couple of blogs written by Anglican priests, one by Richard Peers and the other, Jeremy Pemberton. You can read them here and here. Both reflect powerfully on the Church of England’s structural and pastoral mess around matters of sex and sexuality. They are very fine, sobering and, I found, distressing pieces of writing. They indicate the pernicious impact of the ‘official’ Church line on the psychological, emotional and spiritual health of same-sex couples.

Such was the respective power of Peers’ and Pemberton’s blogs, that I’ve felt compelled to reflect further on where I sit in this mess, as a single woman whose primary orientation (with a number of exceptions!) is lesbian.

Both blogs left me asking, ‘When the Church says same-sex couples shouldn’t have sex what does it think constitutes sex and sexual intimacy anyway?’

For, the current position suggests that, for same-sex couples to be obedient to the Church’s teaching, they must be ‘celibate’. (Presumably, this discipline applies also to het couples outside of marriage.)

Now, I don’t propose to wrestle with the hoary old topic of whether the word ‘celibate’ is being misused by the Church. Rather, I want to explore its (arguably) crude understanding of intimacy and sex. The prism for that exploration is my experience of worshipping in a conservative-evangelical context a couple of decades ago (a context that arguably modelled the Church’s current position on ‘sex’).

So, *that* conversation I had with my married friend. The provocation for the conversation was my – at the time – rather desperate, if sincere attempt to figure out who I was being called to be as a sexual being in the Church of God.

I’d picked up very quickly that in the Evo-Charismatic community of which I was part, ‘sex’ was not permitted outside of marriage (which, of course, was merely a het institution at the time). So much, so obvious. But was that the whole story? Let’s suppose I did start ‘going-out’ with a guy, what might be permissible sexually speaking??

I was no ingénue when it came to sex (most twenty-six year olds in the UK in the 90s were not!), but I was stunned by my friend’s account of what she and her husband had considered permissible ‘sexual’ behaviour, but NOT actually sex before they were married.

I won’t go into details. Let’s just say, to my worldly ears, they’d basically tried all the fun things in the heterosexual box with the sole proviso of ensuring that his penis didn’t enter her vagina.

Let’s be clear here, this couple were faithful, profoundly committed Christians, absolutely devoted to each other. Their love was inspiring. They wanted to remain faithful to the Church’s discipline and teaching on ‘sex’ and had found their 'strategy' to do so.

A further eye-opener for me was discovering that in the Evangelical sub-culture of which I was part, all sorts of conversations went on about ‘how far could you (faithfully) go?’ I.e. ‘What was the line of Sin?’’ Sex before marriage was off the table, but what might one do?

Strange as these contortions seemed to my newly-converted ears, there was something kind of cunning and impressive about this discourse. The Church-imposed constraints seemed to generate an extraordinary determination to test the limits of the rules. (Cynics might call it hypocrisy!) I think my own take was, ‘intimacy will find a way!’

Why am I talking about this? Well, because – frankly – what my friend told me she and her partner had got up to pre-marriage, struck me then, as it strikes me now, as sex and sexual intimacy

This committed adult couple – with all the cleverness of young people finding wriggle room within the rigid rules of the prudish and priggish Church – found ways to delight in intimacy and each other’s bodies. They’d been told that ‘Sex’ = penetration of a vagina by a penis… Understandably, they came to a mind – along with no doubt thousands of other Evangelical straight couples have – that the rest is … well, it’s a grey area …

I like to imagine that even for the chilliest, unimaginative person, Sex is not reducible to penetration of a vagina by a penis. If it is so reducible, doesn’t sex becomes deeply troubling? It displays a poverty of vision and imagination that runs the risk of leading to the very worst exploitative behaviour embedded in patriarchal power codes. It can become about body parts; it can become about regulation of women’s reproductive bodies … 

This might all seem a little icky for some, but this matters when it comes to Church polity and ecclesiology, especially same-sex couples.

When same-sex couples, utterly committed to each other, are told that if they have ‘sex’ they fail to be obedient to the church’s discipline, what is being said?

Does it really come down to ‘penetration’??!? (What kind of penetration?) If sex = defined, really, as a penis-vagina thing, then one presumes most same-sex couples are never going to have sex. Or if it does come down to penetration of any sort …then – as with my het friends, pre-marriage - ain’t the field wide open for all sorts of other intimacies?? 

Or is the Church actually suggesting that the riches of intimacy demonstrated by my faithful, loving straight friend with her husband-to-be are also excluded? Or is that irrelevant because, well they’re straight, and they were engaged anyway and … and …

Or … are there people out there who want to say that when even lovely straight, committed couples have lots of bodily fun (even without 'penetration') they are committing 'Sin'?

(This is before any consideration of the status of masturbation, mutual or otherwise …)

If the Church wants to condemn all varieties of intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage, what does it imagine it’s doings? 

Some will respond, ‘what matters is the difference between intimacy and affection’.

But where is the line drawn and by whom?

Is kissing ok (for gay and straight alike)? Holding hands? Kissing with tongues? Running a finger nail across the palm of one’s betrothed when one holds hands with them? 

Dancing, as long as people stay a foot apart?

If this is starting to sound ridiculous, that’s surely the point.

One of the profoundest dishonesties within the Church concerns its anxieties about the riches of adult consensual sexual intimacy; its account of desire and its relationship with sex and bodies displays profound poverty. The Church has dug itself into a terrible hole around the power and possibility of Eros.

The Church makes same-sex people pay a disproportionate price for its inadequate account of the body, desire and the scope of sex. The Church acts like the superego of a priggish adult who – straight-jacked by its crude formulations around the body’s possibilities – will only be happy if it applies them to everyone else.

When the Church dares to say to same-sex couples, ‘church discipline requires you be in a non-sexual/celibate relationship’, does it have the slightest idea what it’s saying?







Friday, 31 August 2018

'On the Radar' - RM's Cultural Highlights, W/E 01st September 2018


PODCAST

Slow Burn, Season Two - Slate (Episodes 1-4 currently available)

I’ve already raved about Slow Burn Season One, which focussed on the Watergate Affair. Now the team are back to examine the run-up to the Clinton impeachment. It’s quality podcasting, which often makes for uncomfortable listening as Bill Clinton’s serial womanising is revisited and examined in minute detail. 

NOVELS

Timothy Findlay – Famous Last Words (First published – 1981)

I suspect many of you will not have heard of Canadian novelist, Timothy Findlay (1930-2002). I first came across him when I read ‘The Wars’, his 1977 novel about the Canadian experience of the Great War. 'Famous Last Words' is a page-turning tour de force. It takes its title from an Ezra Pound poem (Pound is a character in the novel), and its mix of fact and fiction focuses on the confessions of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, written on a hotel wall in Germany at the end of the Second World War. In Findlay’s novel, Mauberley is not Eliot’s nobody, but a hugely successful writer caught up in one of the biggest plots in history. Its cast of characters includes Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Ezra Pound, and Rudolf Hess among many others.

It’s a study in insanity and the pursuit of perfection, alongside a forensic examination of vanity, the need to write, and the emptiness of success. Most of all, it has huge scope, is by turns shocking and compelling and it has the capacity to really get under your skin. Given its subject matter, it should be unbelievable; actually, it's all too plausible.

THEATRE

Love’s Labour’s Lost – Folksy Theatre (Ordsall Hall 26/08)

Not even the most passionate Shakespeare comedy fan would suggest Love’s Labour’s Lostcounts among his greats. This tale of noblemen seeking to foreswear women and devote themselves to study (and failing miserably), is slight. Promenade Theatre specialists, Folksy Theatre, did their best with the flimsy material and it was a shame the weather kept this production indoors. The cast were, for the most part, fresh out of theatre school and there were points where the production came across as a showcase for their many and various talents. We had dancing and singing and musical instrument playing as well as a fair amount of physical theatre. It was all good fun and they worked hard to interact with a good-natured bank holiday crowd. Their straight-line, pantomimic production was very entertaining and there was much laughter. What this spritely production revealed, however, is just how tricky it is to allow Shakespearean language in clear shape when proceedings need to be done in around two hours. It would have been wonderful if the actors could have let more of the play’s text breathe. A splendid bank-holiday night out, however.


MUSIC

Martin Barre – Roads Less Travelled (2018)

Martin Launcelot Barre is back for his seventh solo album. By turns gritty hard-rock and cunning folk, Roads Less Travelled shows there’s much life in the guitar maestro yet. Full review to come in Prog Magazine.

Ayreon – Into the Electric Castle (20thAnniversary Reissue)

Arjen Lucassen’s second album as Ayreon is as fresh today as it was twenty years ago. The remastering is delicious and the 20thAnniversary packaging impressive. Full review to come in Prog Magazine.

‘Come From Away’ – Original Cast Recording

I’m grateful to my friend and collaborator Ollie Mills for drawing my attention to this new musical centred around what happened when, on 9/11 2001, dozens of planes were re-directed from New York to Newfoundland. It’s breezy, heart-warming, and charming, and draws out both the shock and the opportunities presented to a small Newfoundland community when people from all over the world ‘landed on’ them in the midst of catastrophe. 

Friday, 24 August 2018

'On the Radar': RM's Cultural Highlights w/e 25th August 2018

 RADIO

Proms 33 – Thea Musgrave/Brahms (BBC iPlayer until mid-September)

Musgrave’s Phoenix Rising remains an exhilarating experience, by turns smart, comforting and challenging. It offers a potent compliment to Brahms’ equally dramatic Ein Deutsches Requiem. Golda Schultz and Johan Reuter bring solo brilliance to the clarity of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Richard Farnes.

Love in a Cold Climate (Radio 4Extra – BBC iPlayer till late-September)

A repeat of the 1999 adaptation. As ever with Radio 4 Classics, it’s well done, though the final thirty minutes feels a little rushed when compared to the novel. Mitford’s source material is simultaneously of its time – all the talk of ‘coming out’ and ‘we’ve had enough of Fanny’ may sound hilarious to childish modern ears – and yet Mitford’s handling of themes of sex, relationships and homosexuality is surprisingly modern.

NOVELS

Michael Hughes – Country (2018)

Hughes’s second novel takes the Iliad and places it in the Irish borderlands of 1996. Immensely readable, especially if, like me, you’ve always had a fascinating with the Troubles. It’s at its strongest when exploring the moods and motivations of its characters, including its Irish Achilles and British Hector. I struggled with the speechifying of the main characters which felt stagey and lacking in an ear for human patterns of speech. Pompous speeches work in Ancient Greek drama, which Hughes carefully mimics; less so in modern novels.

Agatha Christie – Parker Pyne Investigates (1931)

One of Christie’s minor ‘tecs. Parker Pyne is a fat, bald statistician who uses probability to make assessments about his clients. Something of a time capsule – of questionable social attitudes to women, class and ethnicity – its episodic short stories make for an easy and quick read. Fun, not least for reminding the reader that Christie’s first use of the title, ‘Death on the Nile’ was in this volume.

MUSIC

Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton – Fleurs (2015)

This is one heck of a themed album: Sampson’s powerful voice (noted for her skill with baroque material) takes on flower-based songs from across the classical repertoire. There’s Faure, Britten, Schumann and Debussy, among many others. Middleton’s accompaniment is sensitive and discreet and allows Sampson the space to show her range. A striking solo debut, after years singing with Ex Cathedra.

Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Wapentak (2018)
I’ve never understood why prog-pop geniuses Sweet Billy Pilgrim haven’t become huge. Their previous album, Motorcade Amnesiacs (2015), should have been their breakthrough, but it was not to be. Now they’ve paired back, to a duo. What’s lost is the expansive rock-outs and wild arrangements; what’s gained is focus and intimacy. ‘The Briar Bell’ – a folky and dreamy ballad – is just one of the many outstanding tracks on this album.

Sam Sweeney – The Unfinished Violin (Forthcoming)

Sam Sweeney will be no stranger to fans of Bellowhead. This forthcoming release builds on 2016’s ‘Made In The Great War’ album, his collaboration with Hugh Lupton. On this release, he uses the violin featured in ‘Made In The Great War’ to play folk tunes associated with that conflict. Verity Sharp played the deeply affecting ‘The Battle of the Somme’ on Late Junction this week; some of the other tracks are available to listen to via iTunes. This promises to be very special.

Friday, 17 August 2018

RM’s 'Cultural Highlights' … W/E – 18th August 2018



This list makes no claims to being ‘on-trend’ or especially current. I usually come across new books about two years after they penetrate most people’s cultural consciousness … many of the things I’ll highlight are old faves of mine (especially books) and I’m not going to be too precious about ‘high’ vs ‘low’ culture distinctions. This is simply a list of stuff I’ve either loved, engaged with or intrigued me.


PODCASTS

‘Slow Burn’ Season One – Watergate

This podcast is now into season two, examining the presidency of Bill Clinton (more on that in future weeks). Season one examined the last days of Nixon’s reign. Even if you think you know this story, this podcast is hugely revealing and timely. It’s a reminder that what we face with Trump – a bombastic and arrogant man who thinks he’s above the law – is an old story. This is the first podcast that has absolutely gripped me since the first season of Serial.

POETRY

Matthew Sweeney – My Life as a Painter

Sweeney’s twelfth and – as has transpired – final collection combines all one has come to expect from him: surreal flights of fancy, a delight in word-play and sharp comment on creative-making. His death a couple of weeks ago adds poignancy to a fine collection.

LIFE-WRITING/BIOGRAPHY

John Le Carré – The Pigeon Tunnel: Tales from my Life

This book comprises a series of beautifully constructed and revealing anecdotes from Cornwell’s various lives. He’s honest about the malleability of memory and one wonders how many facts he’s abandoned along the way. If his recollections are carefully worked, his novelist’s skill only adds to the entertainment value. At times episodic, it reveals as much as it conceals.

NOVELS

Olivia Manning – Friends & Heroes

The final part of the Balkan Trilogy takes the Pringles to Athens in the months before the fall of Greece. By turns, insightful, frustrating and funny, Manning handles the classical sub-text to the end of the Pringle’s European adventures with real skill. I hadn’t expected to find going back to the Trilogy to be so timely. I recommend the whole trilogy to anyone reflecting on complacency and making the best of things while the world crumbles.

C.J. Sansom – Lamentation

A fine-old page-turner featuring Sansom’s enduring Shardlake character. The plot centres around Catherine Parr’s Lamentations of a Sinner, and for long-time fans its includes one or two shocks and new character developments. Perhaps, in need of a trim: some of the dialogue is flabby and I got sick to death of being told how dangerous everything was for the Queen and all involved. Smashing thriller though.

ACADEMIC WRITING

Kate McLoughlin – Veteran Poetics: British Literature in the Age of Mass Warfare, 1790-2015

A magnificent study of the ‘Veteran’ in British Literature. Sweeping and fascinating, its analysis of Lord Peter Wimsey was especially interesting for me, but it also examines the likes of Cormoran Strike, as well as West’s Baldry, Woolf’s Septimus Smith and Austen’s Wentworth. Readable, even for the non-specialist.

MUSIC

iamthemorning – Ocean Sounds

Fans of prog will already be familiar with Russian duo, iamthemorning. Combining classical chops (pianist Gleb Kolyadin is conservatoire-trained) with the ethereal and strange, their singer Marjana has one heck of a presence and set of lungs. Think Tori Amos meets Kate Bush meets Russian cool. Full review is upcoming in Prog Magazine, but I can say that this studio film is quite stunning: focused, beautifully recorded and performed.

Heidi Talbot –  Here We Go, 1, 2, 3 

Released in 2016, this album is for fans of the Barnsley Nightingale, Kate Rusby, as well as more recent breakthrough folk artists like Nancy Kerr. Less maudlin than many of Rusby’s efforts, Talbot explores spiritual themes alongside the everyday. Very impressive.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The Facts of the Body in a Time of Brexit …

I have no colon. It was removed in 2008, in a life-saving operation. Prior to this operation, I’d already had two different colostomies and one ileostomy, the result of lots of surgery to manage complex Crohn’s disease. Since 2008, I’ve had a permanent ileostomy and continue to negotiate the ups and downs of disability and chronic illness. (Thankfully, since 2013, many more ups than downs.)

I am quite used to coping with the complexities and the irritations of a stoma: the occasional major and minor accidents, the smells, and the fact that one is close to one’s own faeces, the sore skin and the way that bag-glue melts in hot temperatures. I have grown used to having a stoma. It is my stoma and I cannot imagine not having it. I’ve had a stoma of some description since 1999. This is me. This is my body.

The NHS has been wonderful with me. It’s saved my life. Without it I would be dead many times over. 

Equally, I cannot survive without NHS medical supplies. I try not to take them for granted, but without stoma bags and the various gubbins that go with them, I’d be in a terrible mess very quickly. Indeed, in my more febrile moments – those silly, three-am ‘what would happen if …’ moments – I’ve thought, what would I do in a situation of national emergency where there were no supplies? I guess I wouldn’t be one of those people who would last very long. 

In recent days and weeks, as the Brexit crisis has deepened, there has been talk about stockpiling of medical supplies and other items. The fact that insulin is not made in the UK has been highlighted, and a potential disruption in supply is an alarming prospect. It will affect friends and congregation members, potentially even our own Prime Minister.

The stoma products on which I rely are not made in the UK. They are made in the wider EU. I also rely on medical drinks that are not made in the UK.

Instinctively, I want to say, ‘It will all be OK. There’s no reason to suppose that we shall be so idiotic in our approach to Brexit that we’d risk the medical well-being of people in need.’ And yet …

I cannot imagine that those who voted for Brexit in the Referendum voted for widespread anxiety among disabled and chronically ill people. I cannot imagine they wanted potentially catastrophic disruptions in items that people like me rely on. If they did, it would be monstrous, based on some unutterably bleak idea of the disposability of the vulnerable.

All the evidence, including that around medical supplies, indicates the foolhardiness of leaving the EU. Even if we do leave, chances are that the cost of these supplies will go up for the NHS. 

We are now too thoroughly integrated to intelligently leave the EU. We are united at too basal a level. The level of flummox and chaos that has surrounded negotiations indicates this. Our government seems lost in a fantasy pick-and-mix solution.

Leaving the EU represents ideological foolhardiness. It shall only add to the ongoing anxieties the vulnerable experience. If someone with my level of relative privilege and power is feeling under pressure, how much more so those with relatively little?

I am used to being close to crap. As a person with a stoma I cannot avoid it. I know what stinks and what doesn’t. The ideological fury of those who advocate ‘Brexit at any cost’ stinks to high heaven. As ever, it will be those who are vulnerable who will pay the price.