A Persistent Peace

When John Dear was over here, he specifically asked us to pray for a book he had recently written, but was having difficulty getting published…his autobiography. So I’m more than delighted to say that not only did the publishing come through, but it is due out August 1. Read all about it, including advanced chapters, here.

There is also a possible film in the works over it, so continue to pray that all of that will come through.

dead men don’t write spy novels

ludlum

so I mentioned a while ago that I’d read every single one of Robert Ludlum’s books. now this guy died in March 2001, yet he’s still released 5 books since then (some of which were finished off/co-written by other authors). I’d read them all too, but then yesterday I was in K-mart and noticed he’s now released another two. can someone explain to me how a man who’s been dead for almost 5 years is still releasing novels? I mean, I passed the first few off as kind of finishing the books he had planned, but now I’m not so sure. is he dictating these to someone from beyond the grave? or did he just have 100 books written before he died and asked someone to release them slowly over the next 50 years? seriously, what is the deal here?

(with grateful thanks to the steve martin film which inspired the title of this post.)

nick hornby on music

this guy writes like I think. it’s eerie, uncanny, and homely and comfortable all at the same time. I recently finished his book 31 songs which is basically just him writing about how he thinks and feels about music, through 31 of his favourite songs. I have this deep and abiding love of music (as evidenced recently by my irrational panic when my mp3 player went down for the count) and in so many ways Hornby describes that love better than I ever could. It’s also a useful apologetic for pop music, which is my main musical diet. I’ve picked out some of my favourite quotes from the book (some of them rather long, admittedly, but worth the read):

Songs are what I listen to, almost to the exclusion of everything else. I don’t listen to classical music or jazz very often, and when people ask me what music I like, I find it very difficult to reply, because they usually want names of people, and I can only give them song titles. And mostly all I have to say about these songs is that I love them, and want to sing along to them, and force other people to listen to them, and get cross when other people don’t like them as much as I do…

So seriously…why doesn’t everyone else get how incredible Sullivan St or Anna Begins are? “Her kindness bangs a gong” may be the stupidest lyric ever on paper, but I still say it’s the climax of the most incredible four minutes of anyone’s life. Maybe that’s why I love Counting Crows fans too…they just…get it, with no need to explain the unexplainable.

On the snobbery of music fans:

That’s the thing that puzzles me about those who feel that contemporary pop (and I use the word to encompass soul, reggae, country, rock – anything and everything that might be regarded as trashy) is beneath them, or behind them, or beyond them – some preposition denoting distance, anyway: does this mean that you never hear, or at least never enjoy, new songs, that everything you whistle or hum was written years, decades, centuries ago? Do you really deny yourselves the pleasure of mastering a tune (a pleasure, incidentally, that your generation is perhaps the first in the history of mankind to forgo) because you are afraid it might make you look as if you don’t know who Harold Bloom is? Wow. I’ll bet you’re fun at parties.

I remember someone asking Adam Duritz outside the Palais in Melbourne, “I’m trying to write music. Do you have any advice for me?” Adam replied (and I’ll never forget it, because it redefined what was “good” or “acceptable” music for me) “Just make music that you like.” The girl goes, “But how do I make it good?” and he said, somewhat exasperated, “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it – make music that makes you happy. It doesn’t matter it if it’s happy or sad or whatever – if you get a kick out of it, what does it matter?”

It was an incredibly liberating moment – because if a song’s catchy but was performed by a boy band, who cares? You don’t become fun at parties (or in other words, enjoy life) by denying yourself such simple, cheap pleasures.

on pop music’s disposability:

…a three-minute pop song can only withhold its mysteries for so long, after all. So, yes, it’s disposable, as if that makes any difference to anyone’s perceptions of the value of pop music. But then, shouldn’t we be sick of ‘Moonlight’ Sonata by now? Or Christina’s World? Or The Importance of Being Ernest? They’re empty! Nothing left! We sucked ‘em dry! That’s what gets me: the very people who are snotty about the disposability of pop will go over and over again to see Lady Bracknell say ‘A handbag?’ in a funny voice. They don’t think that joke’s exhausted itself? Maybe disposability is a sign of pop music’s maturity, a recognition of its own limitations, rather than the converse.

On generational musical snobbery:

There is no doubt, though, that lyrics are the literate pop fan’s Achilles heel. We have all lived through the shrivelling moment when a parent walks into a room and repeats, with sardonic disbelief, a couplet picked up from the stereo or the TV. ‘What does that mean, then?’ my mother asked me during Top of the Pops. ‘”Get it on/Bang a gong”? How long did it take him to think of that, do you reckon?’ And the correct answer – ‘Two seconds, and it doesn’t matter’ – is always beyond you, so you just tell her to shut up, while inside you’re hating Marc Bolan for making you like him even though he sings about getting it on and banging gongs. (I suspect that this humiliation continues, and that it makes no difference whether the parent doing the humiliating was brought up on a diet of T. Rex, or Spandau Ballet, or Sham 69, and therefore should avoid the literary high ground altogether. My mother, after all, belonged to a generation that danced – danced and smooched – to ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?’ and if she felt able to be snooty about ‘Get It On’, then surely snootiness is a weapon available to all. Rubbishing our children’s tastes is one of the few pleasures remaining to us as we become old, redundant and culturally marginalized.)

I have this memory of trying to decipher the lyrics of Peter Blakeley’s “Crying in the Chapel” (which I found immensely engaging at the time), and thinking that what I heard couldn’t possibly be the real lyrics, whereupon my mother entered the room and confirmed for me just how inane they were. Then she said they used to dance to “Do the hot potato” and somehow that admission was enough to destroy any credibility she might’ve had in her generation being musically superior.

Theological reflection, Hornby-style; his chapter on Rufus Wainwright’s ‘One Man Guy’:

I try not to believe in God, of course, but sometimes things happen in music, in songs, that bring me up short, make me do a double take. When things add up to more than the sum of their parts, when the effects achieved are inexplicable, then atheists like me start to get into difficult territory. Take Rufus Wainwright’s version of his father Loudon’s ‘One Man Guy’, for example. There should be nothing evoking the spirit about it, really: the song’s lovely, but it’s a little sour, a little sad, jokey – the joke being that the song is not about the joys of monogamy but is about the joys of solipsism and misanthropy, a joke that is given a neat little twist by Wainwright junior’s sexual orientation – and it’s hard to imagine that God has time to pay a visit to something so wry and self-mocking. And yet, weirdly, He does. There’s no doubt about it. (And of course, in doing so, He answers once and for all the question of what He thinks of homosexuality: he’s not bothered one way or the other. Official.)

For me, He comes in at the beginning of the second verse, just when Rufus and his sister Martha begin to harmonize. Perhaps significantly (or perhaps He is merely demonstrating a hitherto unsuspected sense of humour), His presence first makes itself known on the line, ‘People meditate, hey, that’s great, trying to find the Inner You’. It’s the harmony that does it, although whether that’s cause or effect is a moot point. Does God come in because Martha and Rufus are singing so beautifully together – does He hear it from afar and think, ‘Hey, that’s My kind of music, and I’m going to see what’s going on’? Or does He enable them to sing together – does he spot what they’re pitching for and help them along the way?

When I say that you can hear God in ‘One Man Guy’ by Rufus Wainwright, I do not mean to suggest that there is an old chap with a beard – a divine Willie Nelson, if you will – warbling along with them. Nor do I wish to imply that this surprise guest appearance at the beginning of the second verse prov
es that Jesus died for our sins, or that rich men will have difficulty entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I just mean that at certain spine-shivering musical moments – and you will have your own, inevitably – it becomes difficult to remain a literalist. (I have no such difficulty when I hear religious music, by the way, no matter how beautiful. They’re cheating, those composers: they’re inviting Him in, egging Him on, and surely He wouldn’t fall for that? I think He’d have enough self-respect to stay well away.)

I’m not sure what difference it makes to me, this occasional vision of the Divine in the music I love. OK, maybe it comes as a relief, because a lot of people I have a lot of time for, writers and musicians and sports stars and politicians, have a great deal to say on the subject of God and hitherto I had felt a bit left out; now I have something, a little scrap of spirituality, I can wave back at them. Oh, and as a writer, I don’t normally have patience for the ineffable – I ought to think that everything’s effing effable, otherwise what’s the point? But I’m not sure there are words to describe what happens when two voices mesh (and isn’t the power and beauty and sheer perfection of a simple chord a bit, you know, Outer Limits? It’s no wonder Pythagorus got so worked up about harmony). All I can say is that I can hear things that aren’t there, see and feel things I can’t normally see and feel, and start to realize that, yes, there is such a thing as an immortal soul, or, at the very least, a unifying human consciousness, that our loves are short but have meaning. Beyond that, I’m not sure it changes very much, really. I’m not going to listen to stuff like this too often, though, just in case.

I love this chapter because although he’s coming from a different perspective (atheist as opposed to theist) we share something in common. God is never more real to me than in moments like that in music – in the tinkling piano and harmonies of the “Did She Wanna Run” alt to Sullivan St, in walking along the street to the bouncing guitar riff of The Ramones’ “It’s Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World)”, in the blasting horns of “Kick” by INXS. There’s a sense in which the pure joy of human life and expression is not so much transcended as intensified (sometimes a thousandfold) in such moments. But then, like he said, you can’t make the ineffable effable.

On thanking God in the liner notes:

The single biggest influence on most of these artists [British Top 10, August 2001] according to the acknowledgements in their liner notes, is…Actually, let’s see if you can guess. Who do you think is at least partially responsible for such songs as ‘Where the Party At?’, ‘Bootylicious’, ‘Bad Boy for Life’, ‘American Psycho’, ‘The Girlies’, and ‘Pimp Like Me’? Who do you think inspired the rapper on D12’s ‘Ain’t Nuttin’ But Music’ (‘Independent women in the house/Show us your tits and shut your motherf***ing mouth’ – a chummy reference, presumably, to Destiny’s Child, whose hit ‘Independant Women Part 1’ opens their Survivor album)? Give up? OK.

You may well be surprised to learn that the very first person thanked in the liner notes of the CDs containing these gems is the Almighty Himself. He gets thanked on seven of the ten albums, by sixteen different contributing artists. Brian, of Jagged Edge, for instance, declares that without God ‘we wouldn’t be here doing this third album’ – incontrovertible, according to much creationist theory, but a somewhat reductive view of the universe nonetheless. Let’s face it, without God the first two albums would have been pretty tricky, too. In a similar spirit, Michelle, of Destiny’s Child, is moved to point out to the Creator, ‘There is no one like you!!’, which is, on reflection, one of the tidiest ontological arguments you could wish to hear.

You really do have to wonder at the credentials of those who thank God in their liner notes, or in their awards speeches…somehow singing “I put it right there, made it easy for you to get to/Now you wanna act like ya don’t know what to do/After I done everything that you asked me/Grabbed you, grind you, liked you, tried you/Moved so fast baby now I can’t find you” and then saying how God made all this possible (or even, in many cases, Jesus) is more than just misguided, it’s literally blasphemous. I’m not even just talking about personal sexual morality; these people usually have no concept of who Jesus is or the way he treated people.

On why he has little time for shock art (or noise music):

That’s the real con of shock art: it makes out that it’s democratic, but it’s actually only for those who can afford it. And some of us, as we get older, simply find that we don’t have that much courage to spare anymore. Good luck to you if you have, because it means that you have managed to avoid more or less everything that life has to throw at you, but don’t try to make me feel morally or intellectually inferior.

I guess this book just goes a long way towards explaining why his novels strike so deeply home for me – he gets it in the same way I get it, and it seems that’s a rare thing. Sharing such a love, even with someone you don’t know and have never met, is a profound bond.

archy the cockroach

I grew up on this poetry by Don Marquis, about a cockroach named Archy who typed at night. of course, unable to use the shift key, he uses no punctuation. but he has a unique and often amusing insight into life as an insect, and hence, life as a human.

This is probably my favourite:

the lesson of the moth

By Don Marquis, in “archy and mehitabel,” 1927

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

archy

followed closely by:

warty bliggens, the toad

By Don Marquis, in “archy and mehitabel,” 1927

i met a toad
the other day by the name
of warty bliggens
he was sitting under
a toadstool
feeling contented
he explained that when the cosmos
was created
that toadstool was especially
planned for his personal
shelter from sun and rain
thought out and prepared
for him

do not tell me
said warty bliggens
that there is not a purpose
in the universe
the thought is blasphemy
a little more
conversation revealed
that warty bliggens
considers himself to be
the center of the same
universe
the earth exists
to grow toadstools for him
to sit under
the sun to give him light
by day and the moon
and wheeling constellations
to make beautiful
the night for the sake of
warty bliggens

to what act of yours
do you impute
this interest on the part
of the creator
of the universe
i asked him
why is it that you
are so greatly favored

ask rather
said warty bliggens
what the universe
has done to deserve me
if i were a
human being i would
not laugh
too complacently
at poor warty bliggens
for similar
absurdities
have only too often
lodged in the crinkles
of the human cerebrum

archy

it strikes me just now that perhaps the moth and warty bliggens are two sides of the same coin; and maybe that’s what I love about them both.

reading list

Time to take stock of my reading for the past three months or so. Not an exhaustive list, but some of the notables, in no particular order:

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
Recommended to me by another church planter, this is a book about the conditions that cause a social movement to reach the “tipping point” and explode into a social phenomenon. It’s full of fascinating psychological experiments, including research done on why Sesame St. works so well, why New York’s crime wave suddenly took a dive in the early 90s, and why Hush Puppies had a sudden resurgence in popularity.

The Chequebook and the Cruise Missile by Arundhati Roy
This book consists of a series of conversations with social activist and commentator Arundhati Roy (most famously the Booker Prize-winning author of “The God of Small Things”). I originally became interested in her when Andrew Denton interviewed her on Enough Rope – her story was fascinating and compelling. That interview is still available online here and is well worth checking out. Just a small exerpt:

I think where there is a fear, there will… I mean, where there is fear, there’ll always be hope. Where there is oppression, it will always be challenged by those of us who will challenge it with greater intensity, you know? So that’s why I don’t believe that there can ever be peace without justice, you know? The two go together…always there will be people who demand dignity, who demand justice, who demand their rights. And, you know, that is as much physics as the physics of people who want power and who try to usurp it – it is the physics of those of us who will challenge it, and we’ll always be around.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins
If you read no other book this year, etc. etc….I know a lot of people say that, but wow, this book is a corker. John Perkins is a self-confessed former Economic Hit Man (or EHM for short), who on behalf of US interests blackmailed, cajoled and tricked developing countries into debt and ultimately expanding the US empire. This is an expose on the US belief that they are chosen by God to police the world according to their own values and beliefs, and their methods of ensuring that it is done.

No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies by Naomi Klein
The anti-consumerist’s bible. It details the very eclectic and disparate anti-consumerism movement, the reasons behind it and the tactics they employ. Marketing itself is a large part of the book’s focus, looking at the methods companies use to create community where there is none, and to brand us all in their image. It also details the horrific human rights abuses behind global corporations such as Nike and Shell, and the media spins they use to ignore or combat these events. A little long-winded for me, but certainly comprehensive.

Globalization and its Discontents by Joseph Stiglitz
Let me begin this by saying that the word ‘economics’ makes me run a mile – which is good for my fitness, yes, but my point is that I have no clue when it comes to economics. Or should I say ‘had’, since I have learnt a lot since reading this book. Stiglitz is a former economist in the Clinton government, and Chief Economist at the World Bank. This book is a scathing assessment of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the way their policies have continued and in some cases worsened widespread poverty in developing countries, counter to its imprimatur. The IMF is there, basically, to ensure that countries have stable and healthy economies in order for development to happen and poverty not to happen. Essentially, he argues that it is both incompetance and protecting first world interests (particularly in the form of repaid debt) that maintain the problems, and there is need for significant change.

The Promethius Deception by Robert Ludlum
Not so much significant for its own sake as for the fact that it was my last Robert Ludlum book. I went on a Robert Ludlum rampage for the last 2 and a half years, and read every one of his 32 or so books…I’m really not sure why, considering they are all basically the same, only with the character names changed. It’s the old one-skilled-but-alone-man-against-a-global-conspiracy-with-no-one-he-can-trust story, but it’s really fun stuff you can switch your brain off and enjoy. Maybe for me too it has that element of encouragement – that one person can make a difference, etc. (even if that one person is a highly trained covert ops assassin…)

How to be Good by Nick Hornby
Thus began my Nick Hornby binge – and what a beginning. The blurb explains it best:

Katie Carr, doctor (and self-declared ‘good person’) has just had an affair. It’s really not her fault – she is, after all, married to David: angry, cynical, negative (though undeniably funny) and a real pain to live with. But then David meets DJ Goodnews, astonishingly effective faith healer and do-gooder of the unbearably smug kind. And now David is good. Too good, actually – ‘a liberal’s worst nightmare’, he starts to put theory into practice, giving away their kids’ toys, reaching out to the hopeless and homeless in a very personal and, for Katie, disturbing way. It seems to her that if charity begins at home, it may be time to move…

A fascinating study of what it would be like if we were actually prepared to risk living what we believe.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
This is a magnificent story about male and female relationshjps. There was a movie made of it with John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones a while back, but in an Americanized way. If there’s not a dozen or so “I can totally relate to that!” moments as you read this book, I’d be surprised.

About a Boy by Nick Hornby
Another book that was adapted well for screen, although the book has a slightly different slant on the characters. Basically about two boys, one a grown man who needs to grow up and the other a young boy who needs to learn to be a kid.

Currently: The End of Poverty: How we can make it happen in our lifetime by Jeffrey Sachs
I’ll let you know how it goes when I finish, but basically, it’s an explanation of the arguments behind the MakePovertyHistory campaign and the requests being made of the G8 leaders this July to forgive debt, make trade fair, and increase aid.