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!


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 ingĂ©nue 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?