Archive for April, 2013

Life After God

April 27, 2013

‘The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God,’ says Theo Hobson, writing for the Spectator in an article that proclaims the death of New Atheism. Here are some of his paras:

Atheism is still with us. But the movement that threatened to form has petered out. Crucially, atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it. For example, he has observed that a sense of gratitude is problematically lacking in secular culture, and suggested that humanists should consider ritual practices such as fasting. This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton. His recent book Religion for Atheists rejects the ‘boring’ question of religion’s truth or falsity, and calls for ‘a selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts’. If you can take his faux-earnest prose style, he has some interesting insights into religion’s basis in community, practice, habit.

In these pages Douglas Murray recently recounted debating alongside Richard Dawkins and being embarrassed by the crudity of his approach. Murray is not one of life’s fence-sitters: it must have occurred to him that atheism has polemical possibilities that would suit him rather well. But he has the sense to turn down the role of the new Christopher Hitchens. A polemical approach to religion has swung out of fashion. In fact, admitting that religion is complicated has become a mark of sophistication. Andrew Brown of the Guardian has played a role in this shift: he’s a theologically literate agnostic who is scornful of crude atheist crusading, and who sometimes ponders his own attraction to religion. On a more academic level, the philosopher John Gray has had an influence: he is sceptical of all relics of Enlightenment optimism, including the atheist’s faith in reason.

It might sound odd to cite Alain de Botton as a critic of complacent self-regard, but this is central to his stated purpose. Attending to the religious roots of humanism can prod us out of seeing secular humanism as natural, the default position, and incite us to ponder our need for discipline, structure, community, and so on. At one point he commends the Christian perspective, that we are ‘at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures, a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable, always on the verge of anxiety, tortured by our relationships, terrified of death — and most of all in need of God’.

Polemical atheism was never going to go down well with the intelligentsia and immediately a kind of counter movement – what one blogger called ‘The New Sophists’ – grew up to oppose it. Though it was much more about tone than content, the New Sophistry had three basic positions: that religion was a lot more complex and interesting than we godless were willing to say, that atheism was more or less the same as religious fundamentalism (not that they ever criticised actual religious fundamentalists) and, finally, that criticism of religion should in many instances be regarded as racism. With Harris discredited, Hitchens still dead and Dawkins playing out an increasingly silly Twitter presence it must seem to Hobson that his own chin-stroking cabal must have won the bitter faith wars of the 2000s.

A few points, though. The first is that the philosophers Hobson praises have not connected with the public in the way that Dawkins and Hitchens did. There are no New Sophist bestsellers and most of Hobson’s cited names are little known outside academia and the CiF Belief blog. Andrew Brown, for instance, is the kind of nonentity even close friends sometimes struggle to recognise. To this point, Hobson would say that nuance is less marketable than grand sweeping assertions. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is that the arguments of Terry Eagleton, Karen Armstrong etcetera have not resonated because they are not particularly original or interesting. (For example, the link between medieval apocalyptist movements and the twentieth century Nazi and Communist totalitarians was explored with much more eloquence and verve by Norman Cohn in his The Pursuit of the Millennium, long before John Gray got anywhere near it.) And perhaps the New Atheists spoke to people who for some reason or another weren’t able to speak up. I think of that line from Paul Berman: ‘I wonder if bookish young Muslim women in the immigrant zones of Europe aren’t sneaking a few glances at Hirsi Ali’s writings and making brave resolutions for themselves.’

There’s also the fact that belief hasn’t moved on in the way that unbelief has. Let’s ignore the obvious examples of Islamism and the Vatican and look at Hobson’s Anglican Church. Far from the harmless caricature quoted by Hobson – ‘The idea of my late church-going mother-in-law beating homosexuals or instituting a pogrom is obviously ridiculous, although she did help with jumble sales’ – the Church of England is probably one of our most reactionary institutions. It almost derailed equal marriage. It did nothing to rein in the murderous homophobia of its Ugandan counterpart. It openly discriminates against its female employees. Liberal Christians are at the end of their rope. Here’s South Manchester Anglican blogger Rachel Mann:

I am still reeling from the most recent ‘Church of England’ statement on marriage. Much attention has rightly been focused on exactly who ‘the Church of England’ is in this statement and who thought this was a sensible statement to utter. The ‘we’referred to again and again in this statement may haunt all parts of the C of E for years to come. Even if it is the case that the government proposals for equal marriage are ill-conceived and no one in the C of E was consulted about the so-called ‘quadruple lock’, the Church House statement does little to affirm people like me – seeking to be faithful to Christ, to serve the church, but who are frankly tired being given the impression of having a place in the church on sufferance.

The awful suspicion comes that good people like Mann are actually in the minority. Julian Baggini, cited by Hobson in his article, said that the problem with this debate is ‘a lack of knowledge about what religious people, rather than the elite commentariat, really think.’ To get a better idea Baggini hung around outside various Bristol churches asking the congregation about their actual beliefs. Here’s his results:

So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.

For substantial numbers of people it really is about flying to heaven on a winged horse. And the controversy over gay marriage drew out further evidence of a literalist mindset. In the run up to the vote MPs were deluged with furious emails. One told the Independent that ‘Quite a few of us who were considering abstaining will vote in favour of gay marriage because of the unreasonable nature of the emails we have been receiving. Some of the emails I’ve had are simply appalling and I’m fed up with it.’ All those fine words about a poetic response to human suffering and the heart of a heartless world end in the same old ugly preoccupation with what lovers do behind closed doors.

What particularly annoys me about Hobson’s brand of new sophistry is its implication that we need to admit faith into our lives to experience the transcendent. A Catholic priest criticises Richard Dawkins, saying that ‘Dawkins stands in that long – and often noble – line of zealous irreligionists whose faith-foundation is reason and science. I deeply respect that stance, which is clearly religionless faith, but can it provide the ‘trusting place’ for the immanence, transcendence and mystery which our human spirits seem to need?’ Yes it damn well can, and I speak as someone who experiences these transcendental moments on a very regular basis. I did go through a religious phase in my teens – closely related to the OCD I grappled with back then – and it was absolutely terrifying. Being out of it is a liberation. The fact is that faith has little to offer and the rest of life offers so much more. Congregations were falling way before 9/11 and those atrocities gave us the chance to break with religion for good. We blew that chance and the twenty first century is a darker time as a result.


(Image: Coupland)

Bad News From Winterfell

April 24, 2013

I have just read a crime novel by the excellent Sophie Hannah in which the villain is so fixated on a particular English city – a ‘land of lost content’ – as the Housman poem Hannah quotes has it – that the antagonist’s romantic dreams turn into murderous fury. The book had an impact on me, partly because place has great resonance in my heart too. What is it that makes us fall in love with certain places? What is it about certain places that generate inspiration and magic?

Then I read of this week’s controversy – if the UK literary world can be said to generate such a thing – around the Granta 20 Under 40 lit list. It began when Granta’s US editor John Freeman remarked, of the shortlisted writer Sunjeev Sahota, that he ‘had never read a novel until he was 18 – until he bought Midnight’s Children at Heathrow. He studied maths, he works in marketing and finance; he lives in Leeds, completely out of the literary world.’

Oversensitivity is not a completely southern sensibility and the bannermen of Northern literature went ballistic. The Guardian’s Northerner blog said: ‘The more I read it, the clearer it says: Leeds is un-literary, it does not register on the literary landscape, and it is remarkable that anyone from Leeds could possibly produce anything literary at all.’ A letter from an angry woman in South Milford added that ‘Some of those born in Leeds, or with strong connections to the city, include Alan Bennett, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Jack Higgins, Keith Waterhouse, Helen Fielding, Tony Harrison, Arthur Ransome, Alfred Austin, Caryl Phillips, Kay Mellor – and even JRR Tolkien conceived of The Hobbit during his five years lecturing at Leeds University… I can see that John Freeman is saying that Sahota doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of a writer, but to suggest that Leeds is out of the literary world when it is a hotbed of literary talent is clearly unfair.’ Harrumph!

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to either of these correspondents that Freeman could have simply made a throwaway comment, with no offence intended to our fair city. And like the humourless county councils who issue indignant press releases with every new edition of Crap Towns, the bristling defensiveness undermines our cause. An investment in regional identity will do that. Robert Conquest, quoting an interview with Dylan Thomas from ‘a time more verbally puritanical than ours’ reports that Thomas, when asked his views on Welsh nationalism, replied with ‘three words, two of which were ‘Welsh nationalism’.’ Irvine Welsh, although a committed anti-imperialist, regularly mocks the silliness of Scottish nationalism in his novels. And Oscar Wilde did not waste his talent in a lament for the decline of Irish identity. The problem with the North is that we have too much identity and not enough of anything else. We can’t spend fifty years exporting a comedy cloth cap Alan Bennett style of literature and then complain that we are not taken seriously.

Quoted on the Northerner blog, Kevin Duffy, founder of Hebden Bridge independent Bluemoose, criticises London gladhandling: ‘When big money advances are thrown at wunderkinds and celebrities, usually unearned, then the literary ringmasters have to keep spinning in order that those writers they’ve heavily backed keep getting their gongs and the media attention that follows.’ But I would say that kind of Tammany Hall literary politics has an analogue in the independent/underground world. The logic is: we’re independents, everyone’s against us so we need to praise and plug each other’s stuff relentlessly, regardless of quality. (For an example, the Northerner blog basically consists of a rave about Bluemoose written by Bluemoose’s online editor.) Whatever the scale, critical thinking goes out the window. The fact is that literary worlds exist because writers like anyone else are into community and tend to cluster around their own kind – although I would argue that a bolt of solitude never did anyone any harm and that it’s important to spend time with people with whom you have nothing in common.

And yet, and yet, and yet: there is a good point made here. The Granta list was indeed underwhelming, to the extent that even tame broadsheet critics could summon only customary praise. The list is so UEA lite that even the news that Granta has a US editor raised my eyebrows. Publishing like everything else that matters is congealed around North London enclaves. And there is an unspoken attitude that everywhere past the M25 is a kind of wasteland, howling with wind and ghosts. The idea that Leeds of all places can’t inspire great fiction – this beautiful city with its perfect fusion of the urban and the rural – is philistinism crystallised. The South is full of dull commuter towns and London is full of shitty boroughs with nothing going on. When I first went to university in Yorkshire I was struck by the multiplicity of upper middle class southern accents. The county was full of young people who had escaped tedious coastal suburbs to the urban north. Owen Hatherley, in his marvellous long essay on the Pulp Sheffield rock band, argues that this mass migration north happened because lonely teenagers escaped the drear of Andover or Little Holling through northern music like the Verve, Pulp and the Smiths.

All I’m saying is that sitting on the sidelines and cursing our chances gets us nowhere. It’s like politics: people complain that the North is hardest hit by the recession and hardest hit by the coalition’s voodoo austerity strategy. True. And worth saying. But self pity is not a strategy. An endless discussion of the nature of the problems doesn’t solve the problems. Accept it, deal with it, try and work it as best you can.

And remember TS Garp’s line that any place can be artistic if there’s an artist working there.


High Functioning Male

April 15, 2013

This week is National Depression Awareness Week. I think I can say with confidence that you weren’t aware of that. These National Awareness Weeks always remind me of the Simpsons episode where Mayor Quimby, at a grand public ceremony, announces that today will henceforth be known as ‘Flaming Moe’s Day’ – after a new drink marketed by the surly bartender. As Quimby makes this declaration, an aide whispers: ‘Sir, this is already Veterans’ Day.’ ‘It can be two things,’ an irate Quimby snaps back.

There’s an excellent post on depression by the always excellent Red Newsom. You should definitely read the whole thing but in this excerpt she nails the signs and portents of this peculiar syndrome:

  • Waking up one day feeling like something is wrong, like something changed overnight
  • Little Issues suddenly seeming awfully like Big Issues
  • Unease which turns into paranoia. Something isn’t right. Am I happy? Why aren’t I happy? I’m in bed with my furry family watching Buffy and I am in love and on paper everything is fine but why do I feel so terrible?
  • Inability to think short-term ie. ‘I don’t have a job. Why won’t my boyfriend marry me and have babies with me? I’ll never be happy ever again because my life isn’t where I want it currently. It’ll never happen. I AM SO FUCKED.’
  • Inability to think long-term ie. ‘Well, I can’t see myself being around for much longer.’
  • Paralysis of the body and mind; long hours in bed, staring at the ceiling and feeling nothing. Totally exhausted.
  • Anxiety, panic attacks and not being able to leave the house
  • Leaving the house, having a panic attack in Morissons and coming home perspiring madly
  • The very real sensation of all productivity flying out of the window along with all optimism, social skills and rational thoughts
  • The ‘Fuck This Shit’ approach to life where you stop caring about anything, like you’re playing a game of chicken or something. Self destructive thoughts
  • How do I shift these feelings? They are invisible and intangible, I need to make them physical so I can see them
  • Intense feelings of ‘There is nothing for you here. Why don’t you please go and jump in front of that nearby car so no-one has to deal with your stupid face any more?’
  • Crying and hurting and WTF-do-I-do-nowing

Some people who know me will be aware that I had some, well, emotional stuff going on before I left Manchester with loads of irrational self destructive impulses and dramatic mood swings. Some of the symptoms Red talks about are still familiar to me. An anxiety so gripping that you can barely breathe. Intrusive thoughts of disappointment and self-harm that recur at random moments. A conviction that death is ultimately the way forward. Ideation and arrangements. A reckless romantic fatalism that impedes long term planning. Okay, I’ll say yes to your boring social engagement, but the joke’s on you: I’ll be dead by then.

The nightmares followed me across the Pennines. I live in a beautiful city with loads of culture and great nightlife but, as the Stephen King line has it, if you put an asshole on a plane in Boston, the same asshole gets off in New York. The temptation is to just get lost in the sadness and try to come out on the other side – to reach that magical state that Sarah Hall described as the beautiful indifference.

A secondary problem: how to write about this sort of thing without sounding self pitying or pretentious or self aggrandising? The solicitor David Allen Green touched on this in an old post, where he reflects on a life that turned out well, in a way that he never expected:

And so after a decade and a half of frustrations and obstructions, I began to enjoy myself, which I never really had done since before university.

It certainly helped my depression, which had dogged me for years, and still does.

(Depression is something else one is not supposed to talk about.)

I think that last bracketed line still sums things up.

I used to be more optimistic about how far we had come, until I realised that in ten years David is the only working professional I have met who will say in public ‘I suffer from depression’. I think there are other people who have these problems but won’t say so, for fear of redundancy or a question mark in their HR file. It’s the old paradox: if no one steps up, nothing will change.

I think the key is to accept that you deserve love and happiness – or at least live as if you do.

You read. You run. You surround yourself with culture and music and gentle things. You talk to people. You go for long rambling walks. You go out. You socialise. You challenge yourself. You get up in the morning to earn a living. You stay high functioning.

And then, potentially, you get out of the valley, scramble up the hillside, to the place where everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.


Alt Lit Reading List

April 14, 2013

outstandingachievementThe Granta 20 Under 40 list is out tomorrow. On the Guardian books blogs, Claire Armitstead comments:

The 2013 selection will be rendered all the more poignant by the death of Margaret Thatcher, who – as Robert McCrum pointed out this week – inspired many of the class of ’83. Ian McEwan, one of their number, offered an explanation for this apparent iron lady irony: ‘We liked disliking her,’ he wrote. ‘She forced us to decide what was truly important.’

In my view, there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on now and people have a lot more to write about (and get angry about) than they did in the days of the late and lamented Mrs Thatcher. But the 1980s was a time for big adventurous novels whereas the 2010s will probably be remembered as a golden age of obscurantism. As ‘degrus’ says below the line:

You’d have to think hard to come up with half a dozen names, never mind twenty. This wasn’t the case in 1983. The first Granta list wrote itself, which couldn’t be said of any of the others since then. Look at Alex Clark’s list, which will be more or less the same as Granta’s. Francesca Segal, Stephen Kelman, Rebecca Hunt, Samantha Harvey, Evie Wyld, Naomi Alderman, Owen Sheers – only if you had a very impoverished sense of fiction’s potential would you be excited by these names. It’s an important question; what happened to the UK’s literary culture in the past thirty years that Francesca Segal is now being put forward as the future of the English novel? Her book The Innocents, though it won the Costa First Novel award (as if that’s supposed to mean much; this year the judges included a middle-ranking stand up comedian and a former presenter of Blue Peter) – this book clearly wouldn’t have earned Segal a place among the first Twenty Under Forty. It’s no less a piece of trash than the famous novel by Segal’s father Erich, Love Story.

The Granta list as an indicator of talent or longevity has also been questioned. As Boyd Tonkin points out, Jonathan Coe, Irvine Welsh and Timothy Mo never made the list but Granta still found room for Adam Thirlwell. Another big change since the 1983 list is that it has become harder for young writers to get published. The country proliferates with creative writing degrees, literary scouts and festivals yet there is a sense that doors are slamming. The perception is that corporate publishing is run by the gatekeepers and cultural bureaucrats, plus Amazon will kill the novel anyway. Too many talented young writers I know are losing confidence, and turning as a first resort to self publishing or small independents with no reach.

Still, it’s easy to be negative about these things so let’s do something positive. Here’s my personal talent list. Obviously, the following are all close friends of mine, or people I owe money to, but I’d still recommend their fiction.

Jenn Ashworth – Jenn has somehow managed to write three well received books in between working full time and raising children. And she’s still in her twenties. Phenomenal. Check out A Kind of Intimacy for a masterful reworking of the domestic novel.

Zoe Lambert – She’s not a familiar name and doesn’t have a major publisher, but Zoe is an excellent writer of the short form and I think her dedication and hard work will pay off, big time. You heard it here first!

Jeremy DunsWe know him mainly for his investigations into literary frauds, but Jeremy also writes compelling Cold War fiction. Start with Free Agent and work your way through.

Chris KillenOkay, he hasn’t published a novel since 2008, but Chris’s experimental skills plus his genuine warmth and feeling for the human condition earn his place on my list. In particular, check out the pilot of his sitcom with Socrates Adams, ‘Great Friends’. How did this show not get commissioned?

Gwendoline Rileyprobably the best and most accomplished writer to come out of Manchester in the 2000s. She wrote her debut Cold Water around ten years ago when she was still slinging drinks in Northern Quarter bars, and it has stood the test of time.

Ben Myers – I haven’t read his new one, but his first novel Richard is a tragic meditation on art, fame and death. (Query: Is Ben still in his thirties? Check)

Alex Preston – for me, Alex’s Alpha cult novel The Revelations was one of the standouts of last year.

Sarah Hall – has several novels under her belt, but it’s her short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference, that blew me away and got her onto the list.

Nick Laird – makes the grade for Glover’s Mistake alone. Set in London during the mid 2000s, this tale of a poisoned love triangle is also a frightening exploration of the emptinesses that intelligent people can make of their lives. Recommended.

And that’s all I can think of. Nine names. The commenter ‘degrus’ is right. This is hard. Any ideas?

Update: Here’s the Workshy Fop’s list.

Let’s Spread A Little Sanity Together

April 7, 2013

Political blogger Declan Gaffney looks back on a week of crazy welfare coverage and concludes that it’s time for sensible people to get out of the game.

This week’s outbreak of irrationality over welfare has brought home to me just how far political debate on this issue in the UK has broken loose from any mooring in reality. It’s obvious that what people refer to as ‘welfare’ has little to do with the realities of expenditure levels, eligibility conditions, employment impacts, deduction rates or any of the other things that those of us whose job involves trying to understand social security systems worry about. Very little that has been said over the last week has really been about welfare in this sense. Rather, ‘welfare’ in the UK political imagination is a prism through which issues of class, social cohesion and purported national decline are refracted, magnified and distorted with little reference to the functions of social security or how well it fulfills them. When a former speech-writer to Tony Blair can reduce the entire debate, without any significant loss of nuance, to the headline ‘Labour can’t win if it’s on Mick Philpott’s side’ (£) it’s time for people like me to bow out and get back to our day jobs.

After the events of the last few days these are my feelings too.

It just seems that these days, if you’re not obsessed with welfare and immigration, if you don’t have an irrational consuming envy of benefit claimants and poverty-line refugees, then there’s no place for you in mainstream politics.

True, survey after survey shows a majority of people want a hard line on benefit claimants and immigrants. But there is a disconnect between what people want and what actually works. Conducting interviews with Tory backbenchers, Matthew Parris found that ‘Almost all my respondents said that on the doorstep they met fairly unconditional hostility to immigration. But they were worried about the practical difficulties in limiting numbers — and very chary indeed about bold promises.’ Most of the time, this disconnect isn’t even acknowledged.

This is not the space to discuss the rights and wrongs of welfare reform. I’ve had my say on that, at great length. Basically, I think welfare dependency is a problem, but what’s being proposed ain’t necessarily the solution. What’s not in dispute is that if you actually look at the stats you will find that what much of the public believe and what politicians base their policies on is from a position of unreality. These facts are publicly available, cited again and again by more reasonable commenters but this doesn’t change the narrative of the debate. We are not dealing here with rational demands. It’s not rational for people and politicians to be so fixated on a relatively small percentage of domestic expenditure.

Talk like this to any Labour hack or professional activist and you will be accused of being a snob, a naif, a liberal elitist – etcetera. We need to engage with concerns, they will say. Damn lot of good that has done. Twenty years of ‘engagement’ hasn’t reduced the demand for more hang-flog-deport policies, quite the reverse. And it alienates people with more moderate and reflective views, who are put off by the hysterical bitterness of welfare discourse. There are more of us than you think, in fact most people are fairly smart and tolerant, but the country is still somehow run for the benefit of parochial shriekers with a chip on the shoulder the size of Britain’s national debt.

Don’t think this is yet another rant about the coalition and the Tory press. Pro-welfare activists can proved they can be just as silly, and their aggressive self pity helps no one. An example from this week: the furore that erupted when George Osborne parked his car in a disabled space – well, he didn’t really, but as Libby T writes, that’s not the point:

Regardless of your political affiliation, and regardless of what you think of George Osborne’s policies, he is The Chancellor of the Exchequer, that is to say, after the Queen and the Prime Minister, one of the United Kingdom’s most senior public figures. American politics has its share of buffoonery, but I can’t imagine the US press getting excited because a Secret Service chauffeur stopped briefly in a disabled parking bay to pick up Hillary Clinton. In fact, I can’t imagine another country where police vehicle stopping for a few second in a disabled bay – especially when others were available – to pick up a very senior government official would be cause for commentary, let alone press coverage.

To repeat, the only effect of all this is to deter moderate and reasonable people from getting involved in mainstream politics. The political class have made it clear that they don’t want us there. They’ve been very candid about that. The field is going to be dominated by career activists, professional ideologues, busybodies, power freaks and other political swine. British politics is not a place for grown ups.

I remember John Irving being asked, at the height of the Bush years, why there was so little about politics in his novels. Irving responded that politics had become ‘too silly to write about’. At the time, I didn’t see where he was coming from. Now I do.


(Image via Tom Pride)