Monthly Archives: November 2018

Till we have built Jerusalem…

Today, November 28th, is the birthday of one of England’s greatest poets and artists: William Blake. Most people know him best from the hymn, ‘Jerusalem’, quoted above; those lyrics are from the introduction to his great epic poem, Milton, and were first set to Hubert Parry’s rousing tune (beloved of groups as disparate as the England rugby team and the Women’s Institute) during the First World War.

Yet many people don’t know very much about him beyond that – and would probably be a bit shocked if they did. This is a man who saw angels in trees, spoke over the dinner table with Elijah and Moses, and once, famously, painted the Ghost of a Flea from life – but also a technical genius who came up with an engraving style that has taken modern printers years to imitate. Who wrote sweet little rhymes for children….that protested about subjects like religious and sexual oppression, slavery, child labour, and money-lending scams by the rich benefactors of charity schools. Who died in obscure poverty, but who later became a hero to WB Yeats, Benjamin Britten, Philip Pullman and Kate Tempest.

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Who was this William Blake, then? He was born in 1757, in what’s still the textile district of Soho, London, to a father who sold stockings for a living. He was an unusual kid, running screaming to his mother at the age of four when he saw God poke his head in at the window, and he carried on seeing visions all his life. Early commenters believed he was actually mad, but it’s been suggested that Blake was gifted with a neurological quirk called ‘eidetic vision’: the ability to ‘see’ the things you imagine, not inside your head as most of us do, but ‘out there’ in the real world, as solid objects.

And to those who would call his visions ‘just imagination’, Blake would have retorted indignantly that you could leave out the ‘just’. Raised in a dissenting Christian family, but also steeped in the mysticism of the followers of the visionary writer Emanuel Swedenborg, Blake believed passionately that the imagination was the spiritual world, that what we call the ‘real’ world was just an extension of it, and that far from being a vague, misty otherworld, it was precisely organised.

Perhaps part of that insistence came from the way he trained his artistic skills: apprenticed to the engraver James Basire, he was sent to sketch the Gothic tombs of Westminster Abbey, where he developed the sinuous, flowing linear style of drawing human figures that makes his work so distinctive. He went on to study at the Royal Academy, but he hated the style it espoused.

Blake didn’t want to paint naturalistic scenes. His favourite subjects were on a mythic scale: the Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Dante (he was working on illustrations for the Divine Comedy literally up until the day he died). But he also created his own universe of mythology, penning vast epic poems where titanic figures act out cosmic dramas.

One of Blake’s most famous images is the one generally titled The Ancient of Days:

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Most people think this shows the Judaeo-Christian God, in his archetypal ‘old man with a beard’ form, creating the universe (there’s a line in Paradise Lost about God using a golden compass, which is where Philip Pullman took the term from). But this isn’t your mama’s Father Almighty. Blake viewed the universe in a Gnostic sense, where creation meant binding Spirit into the confines of the material – and into all the rules and restrictions of human society. In his own myths, the figure who does this is called Urizen – a combination, perhaps, of ‘horizon’ and ‘your reason’. Blake also referred to him as ‘Old Nobodaddy’. He’s the arch-enemy of the fiery spirit, Los, who embodies the creative impulse that won’t be bound by any law.

If Los sounds a wee bit devilish, that’s no accident. Blake admiringly wrote that Milton, who made Satan such an anti-hero, was ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’ – and devils, in Blake’s cosmos, aren’t necessarily the bad guys. In his short work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, it’s devils who are the creative spirits, and infernal fire the creative energy – identified with the acid Blake used to etch his own poems and illustrations onto copper plates. The angels, by contrast, are rather stuffy and set on following rules.

Blake galled at rules of all kinds. When he was staying in Felpham, Sussex, he nearly came a cropper for cursing the King at a drunken soldier who accosted him in the street. While he was devoted to his wife, Catherine, he was also the first to use the term ‘free love’ in print, and at one stage, following Swedenborgian ideas, suggested that they took in a concubine! He was a friend of the father of the French and American revolutions, Thomas Paine, famously telling him he’d die if he didn’t leave England immediately (Paine was later sentenced to death in his absence, and never returned).

And here are some quotes that give a flavour of his radical viewpoint:

Prisons are built with stones of Law; Brothels with bricks of Religion.

One Law for the Lion and Ox is Oppression.

Poetry fettered, fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry, painting, and music are destroyed or flourish.

The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of of instruction.

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor,
And Mercy no more would be
If all were as happy as we.

Paine, in his infamous pamphlet, The Age of Reason, expressed views on the corruption of organised religion that Blake would have agreed with. Yet Blake fought all his life against the impulse of the eighteenth century that the phrase ‘Age of Reason’ has come to embody: the urge to reduce the world to its component parts and processes, devoid of spirit. He used (perhaps unjustly) Sir Isaac Newton as the embodiment of that blind rationality; he depicted him – as a heroic youth, not the bewigged gentleman of our old banknotes – sitting in an oceanic gloom, drawing out his formulae with, again, a compass.

The ‘dark Satanic mills’ of those famous verses may refer to an actual flour mill near Blake’s home in Lambeth, which burned down (possibly by arson, given that a lot of small mill-owners in the district disliked its presence) in 1791. But it may, just as likely, refer to the philosophies that reduced the whole universe to just a complex machine. Or to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, where those ideas were taught. Or, indeed, to the crushing authority of the orthodox churches.

He had to wait a long time, but the twentieth century finally acknowledged Blake as the genius he was. And were he around today, I don’t doubt he’d have a lot to say about Donald Trump and Richard Dawkins, the rise of fundamentalism, the Me Too movement, Amazon warehouses, food banks and Universal Credit.  Oh, wait…

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But the most important thing he has to teach us, still, perhaps, is about the vital power of the human imagination to go beyond the boundaries drawn by Old Nobodaddy and all his followers.

There is so, so much more to Blake. Find his poems and read them. Check out his art online – or go to Tate Britain; his exquisite little ‘illuminated books’ have to be seen to be appreciated. Visit his grave in Bunhill Fields in London, which since last August has finally had a proper tombstone.

And as for ‘Jerusalem’…it doesn’t really work when it’s bellowed out by the audience at the Last Night of the Proms, because it’s not about that kind of jingoism. It despairs of an England that uses the old legend of the young Jesus visiting England with his uncle – which Blake actually did believe to be true – to bolster an idea of itself as ‘special’ and destined to conquer its earthly enemies.

But maybe, just maybe, it points to another Jerusalem – the ‘Emanation of the Giant Albion’. The living spirit of freedom, beyond the flag-waving. Something in all of us. And that hope, nobody sums up like Billy Bragg:

For the men who marched through Picardy…

This Sunday, as every year, is Remembrance Day in the UK. But this year, above all years, it’s a big deal, because this is the hundredth anniversary of the moment – at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month – when the guns fell silent and the First World War ended.

When I was a wee fledgling, my grandfather was on the committee of the local Royal British Legion club, so I got an inkling of what that War involved from a young age. As a Brownie, I joined the processions each November, and stood in the freezing cold by our seafront war memorial as the Last Post was played. Back then, the emphasis was on the noble sacrifice of those who gave their lives in war. Patriotism tended to overshadow the reality of those muddy fields in France.

But the Great War, as it was called at the time, was, as I found later on, awful. The sheer loss of life numbs the mind. On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, over nineteen thousand British troops lost their lives. On the first day. And that particular battle went on for another five months. And it wasn’t the only total disaster of the war. ‘Lions led by donkeys’, was the judgement of many on the generals who sent courageous young men (many younger than they admitted) into situations they knew would end in massacres.

Red paper poppies, worn in the lapel, are the traditional token of remembrance, drawn originally from the famous poem by John McCrae. The scarlet poppy, Papaver rhoeas, has the habit of seeding itself where the ground has been disturbed, which is why it grows in the furrows of wheat fields. The churned-up mud of No Man’s Land was fertile ground for these fragile flowers, an age-old symbol of sleep and death.

Every year there seems to be some kind of kerfuffle over whether or not some ‘PC gone mad’ person or group has ‘banned’ poppies for being ‘racist’ – an urban legend spread around by certain groups, to try and induce outrage against (probably) Muslims. In reality, virtually everyone agrees that wearing poppies – which are sold, as they always were, to benefit veterans – is a Good Thing. And these past four years there have been even more of them: in paper and leather and Swarovski crystals, crocheted and knitted, and in ceramic form, as in the stunning artwork that adorned the moat of the Tower of London. There have been similar displays in many places.

The mud of the trenches stirred up something other than poppy seeds. Times of high emotion are fertile ground for the creative impulse. Much of the so-called ‘trench art’, the crucifixes and vases made from bullet and shell casings, were made behind the lines or by convalescing soldiers, and many were commercially produced. But even devoid of the time and materials to make objects like this, the soldiers still had words. The poetry of that war is justly famous; we’ve all heard names like Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke. But there were a great many lesser-known poets.

T. P. Cameron Wilson was a schoolteacher from Devon, who served with the Sherwood Foresters and was killed in the assault on Hermies in March 1918. He wrote a couple of novels and a number of poems. The best known, ‘Magpies in Picardy’, is a favourite of mine, for…obvious reasons. These are the first two stanzas:

The magpies of Picardy
Are more than I can tell.
They flash along the dusty roads
And cast a magic spell
On the men who march through Picardy,
Through Picardy to hell.

(The blackbird flies with panic,
The swallow goes with light,
The finches move like ladies,
The owl floats by at night;
But the great and flashing magpie,
He flies as artists might.)

You can read the whole thing here.

Another literary reflection on the brutality of this war, and war in general, was written by Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood scriptwriter who penned, among other movies, Spartacus. His novel, Johnny Got His Gun, tells the story of a young man, Joe Bonham, who wakes up in a hospital bed and finds himself horribly injured and unable to speak, see or hear. Between his attempts to make sense of his situation and communicate with the outside world, his mind ranges back over his early life growing up in the mid-western US, his parents, his sweetheart Kareen, his army buddies, and the landmine that left him in this condition. He also makes a passionate, savage attack on the whole notion of sending young men out to fight wars. (Naturally, Trumbo fell foul of the McCarthy era witch-hunts. Telling people that war is horrible just ain’t American.)

I recommend you read this book. I also recommend you don’t do what I did, which is read it on a bus and end up ugly crying in front of everyone. It’s that kind of a book. One of the most heartbreaking things about it is the scenes where Joe is thinking about everyday, ordinary experiences – the scents and tastes of his mother’s well-stocked larder, the sights and sounds of the county fair, his exploits with his co-workers at the pie factory, his first and last night with his girlfriend – things he’ll never know again.

If the book sounds faintly familiar to rock fans, it’s because it inspired one hell of a song – ‘One’, by Metallica. You can hear the machine guns rattling in the guitar riffs later in the song – but before the vocals start, there’s an acoustic phrase that evokes, poignantly, a golden Edwardian summer that would never return. A movie was made of the book in the 1960s, and Metallica actually bought the rights to it so they could use parts of it in the video. It’s pretty powerful.

There have been many, many movie and TV re-tellings of the horrors of the Great War. But for me, one of the most moving moments was in…a comedy.

Comedy? Yes. I mean, there was laughter in the camaraderie of the real-life trenches; you’d have to find some comic relief in the midst of the horror.  But this is the absurd fictional world of that historical scheming bastard, Edmund Blackadder. In Blackadder Goes Forth, he and his less-than-trusty batman Private Baldrick are stuck on the front and trying every possible trick to avoid going ‘over the top’, including becoming official War Artist, shooting a carrier pigeon, and feigning insanity by sticking pencils up his nose.

But all their attempts fail. And at the end of the last episode, after Blackadder mulls on his failures – ‘Who’d notice another madman round here?’ – they advance. And credit to Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, the writers, for creating the most heartbreaking end to any comedy series ever – and one of the best visual commentaries on this most stupid of wars.

It was supposed to be the ‘war to end all wars’, but of course it wasn’t. But maybe, just maybe, in putting it into a form we can understand, artists – then and now – have made it a little more possible that we’ll stop and think before we go over the top again. Maybe.

Trans/formation

Events in the last couple of weeks or so, in the US, have moved almost too fast for me to talk about them. The dire situation doesn’t need stating right now – least of all by me, a British woman who’s not on the receiving end of any of it personally. But I know people who are, and many of them are terrified.

Amid the chaos and bloodshed, one of the latest steaming dumps to emanate from the nether regions of Washington DC is the suggestion that the law should be tweaked to deny the existence of trans and non-binary people. US citizens, it says, should be defined solely and always by the M or F on their birth certificate, even if that doesn’t correspond to the gender they are now. And that can only be changed subject to genetic testing. If you have an XX, you’re a girl; XY, you’re a boy. End of.

Except…it’s more complicated than that. A lot more complicated. Nature always is.

I sometimes tell people that I became a proper feminist at art college. In the library, poring through Gray’s Anatomy – that brick of a book beloved of medical students and life drawing classes – I came across the development of the genitalia. Here comes the science bit: Basically, every embryo, a couple of months into the process of becoming human, has at its back end a little opening, and above it, a little bump – which can become, respectively, a vaginal opening and a clitoris, or (closed over) a scrotum and a penis. Internally, it has two sets of tubes, one of which might become sperm ducts, the other which might join up to become a uterus.

Seeing that, it suddenly struck me how you couldn’t say women were inferior to men, or even substantially different from them – not if our bits came from the same source. Right? (Finding Monica Sjöo and Barbara Mor’s The Great Cosmic Mother in the same library helped too.)

What I didn’t realise back then is that you can also end up with various ‘in-between’ anatomical states. And hormonal states. You can be a chimera, made of two separate cell lines with different sex chromosomes. You can be born with genitals that don’t look completely ‘male’ or ‘female’. You can have glands that are part ovary and part testis. You can have a genetic quirk that gives you an X and a Y, but also makes you insensitive to male hormones. You can have an enzyme deficiency that means you go through childhood looking like a girl…until you hit puberty, when you suddenly grow a penis.

And then there are brains, and personalities, and the fact – which no reputable medical person now disputes – that there are people in this world who, while born with the bodies our culture attributes to one gender, actually feel and know themselves to be another. Or who feel they have traits of male and female. Or who don’t feel they belong to any particular gender at all.

I may not be the best person to talk about this. This Magpie has always known she was a hen bird, so to speak. I was assigned female at birth, and have never questioned that I was female. I have questioned a lot of the baggage attached to being female. I did get accused of ‘not being a proper girl’ because I didn’t have a ‘feminine’ obsession with appearance and grooming. But I never felt I wasn’t a girl.

Yeah, gender roles are a bunch of crap even for cis people. But trans and non-binary people have it way, way worse. I try to imagine what it would be like if I’d been told, from my earliest years, that I was, in fact, a boy, despite what I knew to be true. If I’d been called by a boy’s name, forbidden from doing ‘girls’ things’, punished for insisting I was a girl. If you imagine that happening to you, week after week, year after year…you may be able to picture a little of how trans people end up feeling. But they’re the ones who’ve actually lived this.

Most of the anti-trans people say that their stance has something to do with ‘God’. ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!’ has been their cry during the whole gay marriage debate. Now, it’s ‘Male and female he created them!’

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Someone has been posting a meme around the web pointing out that while God created pairs of apparent ‘opposites’, he also created the in-between states. Day and night, but also the glory of dawn and sunset. Land and sea, but also the beauty of coastlines. Male and female…but also a wide range of people who don’t fall into either category, and whom we should appreciate as divine creations in the same way.

Fair point. The creative Power of the universe doesn’t do stark opposites; most things in existence come in ranges of variation. But we humans do like categories – and while they do in some cases help us make sense of the world, we often use them a bit too much for our own good. We tend to regard things that are ‘neither one thing nor t’other’, liminal, as either sacred or suspicious. Dawn and dusk, and the turning-points of the seasons, are the times for supernatural shenanigans. People at in-between stages of life are either holy or taboo. And while ‘two-spirit’ people were sacred in many cultures, they were condemned in the mainstream Judaeo-Christian tradition, the one still most influential on our secular laws.

There’s something else going on with gender in our society. Patriarchy insists that men are superior to women. And to preserve any hierarchy, you have to forbid or exclude people who blur the boundaries. If you believe that women exist solely to bear children for men and to serve their needs, where do you put a woman who loves other women, or a woman who wasn’t born with a uterus, or someone who doesn’t think of themselves as male or female at all?

Answer: you don’t. And these people would indeed rather trans and non-binary (and gay, and bi) people didn’t exist. So much so, that they’re started the ball rolling to have their non-existence enshrined in law.

  1. I’ve said many times before that in a changing world, we need to update the mythologies we often use to justify attitudes. This is one instance where we might first go back to even older myths. Because very many of them don’t stick to a gender binary either, and they may have things to teach us today.

There’s the Greek story of Tiresias, the seer who struck the serpents of Hera and became a woman, then after some years was returned to a male form, and who was punished by Zeus for daring to state that women’s sexual pleasure was greater: Trans people can give us insights into how false notions of gender have negative effects on all of us.

There’s the Buddhist bodhisattva, or deity, Avalokiteśvara, who’s a male in Tibetan imagery, but whose cult travelled to China, where she manifested as the beloved goddess, Kuan Yin: Compassion and wisdom have no gender.

There’s the Norse myth in which the trickster god, Loki, turned himself into a mare, and in that form mated with a stallion, became pregnant, and gave birth to Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse who became the steed of Odin: Birth and parenting can happen in unconventional and unexpected ways.

There’s the Japanese transgender deity Ishikore-dome, who held up a mirror to transfix Amaterasu, the sun goddess, when she was finally lured out of her cave: People who defy gender stereotypes may force us to confront our own previously unknown selves.

And even in Eden…in Jewish tradition, there’s a rabbinical teaching that ‘Male and female he created them’ means exactly that – male and female, that G-d created one original, dual-sexed being, before later dividing them into separate male and female humans: We are all part of a common humanity that comes in a spectrum of different forms.

Of course, those are still old stories, and we need brand new ones. And those need to be created by the people who know, on every level, what it means to not fit neatly into society’s gender stereotypes – by trans and non-binary people themselves.

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But that can’t happen unless we work for everyone’s right to exist. Unless we all fight to protect everyone, of every gender, sexuality, race, creed, ability, you name it – which takes real-world action. And I, for one, support, and will speak out for, those who are creating those stories, with their lives and bodies; not just for the sake of the stories, but for the people themselves.

Here, to finish, is a piece from the late, great Angela Morley. She transitioned back in the days when being an out trans person in the UK was extremely rare. And she was also a damn good composer of music for the movies; she worked with John Williams as an arranger on Star Wars – and given that she specialised in woodwind, she was almost certainly the main brain behind the Mos Eisley Cantina theme. But this is one of my favourite pieces from Watership Down. May everyone be free to be and become who they truly are.

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