Last summer, I wrote a series of posts on the highly pretentious sounding ‘dehumanising metrics of modernist ministry’. Don’t be put off (although in fairness, I have to say I was quietly pleased by the alliteration there) because the more I’ve thought about it, and the more I’ve chatted with folks, the more I think there are some crucial things to discuss. This is certainly not the perfect analysis nor last word. But I hope it will at least present something of what troubles me these days. Read more
There’s a key moment when the oleaginous Foreign Office chameleon, Giles Oakley, goads his protegé and A Delicate Truth‘s protagonist, Toby Bell, about what he should do with his qualms about government policy in the run up to Iraq War.
You’re exactly what the Guardian needs: another lost voice bleating in the wilderness. If you don’t agree with government policy, don’t hang around trying to change it. Jump ship. Write the great novel you’re always dreaming about. (p51) Read more
Nearly 10 years ago, a dear friend of mine was addressing a gathering of Ugandan MPs in the Parliament building in Kampala (around the 40th anniversary of independence). It included those from all shades on the political spectrum, including not a few post-colonial firebrands. My friend is certainly no great apologist for imperialism, but he posed two simple questions.
- “Which Ugandan regions (of those that the British failed to develop) have we since developed?”
- “What aspects of public life, government and rule of law have we improved on or done better in than the colonial regime?”
Which is a title sufficiently conceited to put anyone off reading this post. But let’s face it – it’s a not uncommon attitude. It lies at the heart of individualism, that pervasiveness western sickness that lies at the root of so many of our ills. It was the title I had in our current series, Great Lies of Our Time (I’m assured that the talks were not allotted because of some particular problem that needed addressing in each speaker – but who can say for sure?).
You can now download the talk here.
I’d been vaguely aware of these from a while back, but had never looked carefully at them. It wasn’t until they were used as running gags in last week’s New Yorker money edition that I sat up and noticed. Dan Tague has created a series of prints in 2008 of dollar bills folded in such a way as to reveal all kinds of subversions of American capitalism and western materialism. There is something rather delicious about making a dollar spell out ‘American Idol’ or an American revolution battle cry, or the best advice of the contemporary conspiracy theorist.
Ingenious Read more
I’d guess that only the most hardened petrol-heads and urbanites will fail to be moved to awestruck wonder by episodes in the BBC’s latest natural world epic, FROZEN PLANET. Quite apart from the stunning (ant)arctic panoramas, there are the focused dramas of a pack of killer whales harassing and (hours later) overwhelming a minke whale. Or comic moments, like the waddling penguins slipping on the ice, or the traffic jam of two narwhal clusters, equipped with their unicorn-like tusks and having to negotiate a head on meeting in a narrow, one-way only ice channel. Read more
During the 4 years we worked in Uganda, I would have this conversation with students all too often. They would despairingly deprecate African states for their oh-so predictable corruption, nepotism and despotism. It would be shrugged off and perhaps accompanied by a green-eyed comment about western political systems. And indeed, when chatting with friends back home, they would often enquire whether X or Y countries were doing ‘worse or better these days’ – shorthand for whether their respective rulers were now more, or less, openly corrupt and oppressive. Such is the caricature many outsiders have of Africa – and of course, there’s no smoke without fire, etc etc. Read more
Someone made the mistake of asking me the other day what magazines I read. And it came as a bit of a shock to me when I tried to work out my list. I’ve always been a magazine junkie, I suppose – because at their best, they’re far more significant than mere advertising vehicles or glorified gossip columns.
So here’s my main list, in no particular order. I remember Tim Keller saying in a talk once (but can’t remember for the life of me which talk it was, so you’ll have to take my word for it) that he reads a careful selection of magazines simply because they are often the best indicators of the shifts and prevailing winds of popular opinion or insight. Well, that did it for me! I became a professional magazine consumer as a direct result. So you can blame him…
To get a taste of each magazine, click on its image.
Well, some would say it’s a ridiculous indulgence. And it probably is. But here are my justifications (!)
- Wired UK (monthly) – it’s not just a geek’s bible. It often has fascinating and well read, insightful articles about all kinds of technological and scientific advances. It is an education – but a highly enjoyable one (especially for geeks). The heights of human ingenuity are on display.
- The New Yorker (weekly) – ok, yes I know it’s high-brow and its articles are probably the longest on the planet. Each edition will have at least 3 or 4 10 page articles. But this is my biggest treat. It is perfect for long journeys – and it’s range of interests is incredible. One week you can be reading about an American art philanthropist, gun-running in the Sudan, the history of late night chat shows on US TV etc etc. The cartoons are fab too. What’s not to like?
- BBC History Magazine (monthly) – it partly reflects the centres of gravity of modern history teaching (eg there’s always something about the Tudors and the Nazis) which is a bit annoying. But the range of articles is usually good; there is always a fascinating section looking at the historical background of a big news item; and the book reviews are great. Oh and I always enter the crossword competition in the vain hope of winning a book. No such luck so far.
- Private Eye (fortnightly) – during his 5-minute interview on BBC Online, editor Ian Hislop explained that the purpose of satire was “to expose vice, folly and humbug“. Private Eye does that in spades – most of the time, it is not too scurrilous. Much of the time it is doing a great public service and I’m grateful for it. As well as hugely amused.
- Empire (monthly) – probably my longest subscription. I adore movies – and love to know how they were made etc. But I hardly get time to see them or even to watch DVDs these days. So at least I can read the reviews. Though my frustration with Empire is that it is becoming a bit too celeb-dazzled (or has it always been? can’t work it out).
- Christianity Today (monthly) – it’s always interesting to see Christianity from another cultural perspective – and this American mag (if you can get past the interminable adverts for Christian colleges and seminaries in the US) often provides that.
- Tate Etc (quarterly) – this comes automatically with being Tate Friends – and it is lavishly produced and a real treat. Very interesting for keeping up with developments in the art world. Often provocative but always informative and beautiful to look at.
Ok, so I know what some of you are thinking. How on earth does he have time? Doesn’t he have a day job? Should his employers not be informed?
Well, here are my explanations/further justifications:
- Reading stuff is part and parcel of my job – and being in touch with what’s going on is essential to it. So this is work.
- Although it is fair to say that this definitely combines business with pleasure.
- I have strange reading habits – I’m fortunate enough to be able to pick something up and read it for 5 minutes and then come back to it later. So if I’ve got a spare moment waiting for someone to turn up, I’ll read something. In fact, I’m sure I need to see someone about this – but I have a pathological need to be reading something all the time (even if it is about the calcium content of Corn Flakes).
- Most magazine articles are bite-sized anyway (apart from the New Yorker obviously) – and so designed to be read in short bursts. Perfect for loo-reading, then.
So there we have it.
Would be very interested to know if you have particular favourites. Or even if there are magazines you think I should add to the list!! :-)
It was all so predictable. I suppose the only surprise is that it took 14 years to manifest itself. But it seems that the idyllic, picket-fence world of Disney’s ‘perfect’ town, Celebration, is just a facade, as reports on Saturday told of murder and suicide within this corporate utopia. Every detail of the town was planned, owned, controlled by Disney. They presumably hoped that they could purvey their own branded style of happiness. But they couldn’t control the activities and passions of their residents.
I remember first hearing of it years ago when I first read Naomi Klein’s seminal No Logo – and she really went to town on this fabricated town, seeing it in many ways, rightly, as indicative of the most sinister but logical outcome of any multinational game-plan.
For the families who live there year-round, Disney has achieved the ultimate goal of lifestyle branding: for the brand to become life itself (No Logo, p155)
But Mickey’s big ears are never sufficient to mask the human heart. No amount of white picket fences will restrain the antics of those living behind them. We all need something far greater than the ‘perfect’ environment in which to live if harmony and shalom are to be possible.
For, as Philip Yancey quotes in What’s So Amazing About Grace:
After reporting on such moments in church history, Paul Johnson concludes, ‘Attempts to perfect Christian societies in the world, whether conducted by popes or revolutionaries, have tended to degenerate into red terrors.’ This fact should give us pause as voices today call on us to break down the walls between church and state and restore morality to our society. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, ‘The project of bringing heaven down to earth always results in bringing hell up from below.’ (Yancey p234)
So it seems that Celebration is a double whammy – a symbol both of Disney’s profound naiveté about people, and, at the same time, its disturbing ambitions to swallow people up in its corporate machine.
For those who’ve not discovered her stuff, my sis-in-law, Miriam Jones‘ latest album (Fire-Lives) is a treat and a great way in to her music. Have listened to it loads in the last couple of weeks but it now comes out on general release this week – she and Jez and the guys have done a fabulous job on producing an intense, multi-layered and fascinating anthology. This album sampler hints at its joys…
But the single, Wondrous Mysterious (now available from iTunes), is one she gave last year as a ‘Christmas card’. I’ve loved it from the get-go – it’s a superb antidote to the grimly commercialised, schmaltzy, trimmings-laden but emasculated Christmas that we get bombarded with from around August 23rd.
I turned on the tv and it suddenly was Christmas and I hollered at the advert that they wouldn’t get my money and I could not believe they honestly were trying to take my heart for Christmas. The airwaves jammed with snowmen and with santa claus and angels, and I do believe in angels, but not the kind that do not scare you and I prayed some kind of holy fear would find its way to me this Christmas.
‘Cause my heart is dying to prepare for something wondrous, and mysterious, but this world is ringing in my ears and it’s thunderous and delirious.
I walked into town and it was red and gold and sparkling and while I waited for my watch I hovered round the shiny shops, oh you who have no money come and buy, and fill your hearts full up this Christmas. Steering down the sidewalk I could hear a conversation ‘bout a boy who had a head they’d like to push under a faucet and I wondered are we saving up all our loving hearts for Christmas.
Part way through December I pulled out the wooden figures from their boxes and I placed them and I looked into their faces, wondering what they all were looking at…
The lyrics are evocative and concise, full of suggestion. But my standout that I particularly love is line about not believing in ‘the kind of angels that do not scare you‘. A hole in one methinks…
Was leafing through the Royal Academy of Art magazine this week – and encountered this photograph filling a whole page. Was blown away.
It’s utterly mesmerising and bewildering all at the same time. Where are we? An airport? A fancy dress party? A film set? Who are all these people anyway? And what are they up to?
It is in fact a photograph taken in 2007 by Andreas Gursky called Kuwait Stock Exchange I. And it manages to convey the incongruities of the modern world, with a forum equipped with the latest communications technology populated by hundreds of men (not a woman in sight), dressed in the formality and uniformity of classic Arab desert dress. It is a picture of anonymity – even those who knew them wouldn’t really be able to tell them apart from this angle – it all looks beautifully stage-managed and set up. But i suspect it isn’t.
There are all kinds of interesting contrasts with another of his images, this time from the Chicago Board of Trade:
This is equally mesmerising – but this time is a living fireworks display of colour. Half close your eyes, and it could almost be a Jackson Pollock. Wonderful.
Photography at its best should do this – show us the world in a new way. Here is beauty in the rawest of capitalist temples… Surprising really.
Rather a bumper list this time…
- A truly remarkable essay by former hostage Brian Keenan about the importance of hope for those 33 trapped miners in Chile. (HT Nancy H)
- Howard Jacobson reflects on the horror of 9/11 and the sense of feeling left behind and lost. (HT Nancy H)
- Barry Cooper writes warmly about a mutual friend of ours, Tony Jones – I took over the same job from Tony at St Ebbe’s the following year, and am in awe of his capacity for work (I managed only half of what he did!).
- Computer models show how wind could have caused the parting of the Red Sea for Moses! (HT Charles Sperling)
- ‘Cranmer’ detects a great ecclesiastical gag played by the pope at Westminster Abbey.
- There seem to have been a number of events and publications remembering the London Blitz of 1940. This is rather a good website about London’s West End at war, including a page about the night All Souls was bombed. Some of this was drawn from the little history I wrote last year.
Sacred/Secular (?) Treasure
Meanwhile there’s been a lot of comings and goings on the Sacred/Secular divide in the western world – so here’s a new little sub theme with are one or two extra related links on that front:
- Alistair ‘We don’t do God’ Campbell gives an interesting (albeit party-political) take on what he meant by it.
- A fascinating article and graphic comparing national prosperity and levels of religious faith (from NY Times – HT Drew Woolf)
- And while we’re on the subject, Time magazine asks if France has taken secularism too far…
- But interestingly, recent surveys suggest that church attendance in the UK is stabilising or increasing.
- If this doesn’t put you off going to sea, I don’t know what will.
- A whole new way to check on flight arrival times…
- Truly inspiring images from The Royal Observatory’s Astronomy Photography Competition
- Amazing Robert Capa photos discovered from the Spanish Civil War.
- Astonishingly good quality colour photos from Imperial Russia in 1910 (HT John Goering)
- Lovely flowing redesign suggestion for the London Underground map (HT Information is Beautiful)
- I love these – I wish they were distributed daily in newsagents…
- This is an extraordinary journalistic sight – the mind boggles about seeing the banners of the Telegraph, Times, Grauniad, Mail, Sun, Mirror, Exchange and Mart, and the Racing Post all on one front page.
- Amazing coincidence that helped with the translation of the Rosetta Stone.
- Swish politician catches the giggles because of bureaucratic legalese.
- You have never seen time-lapse photography like this from Dan Eckert – the camera moves as well… (HT Kuriositas)
- 100 years ago, the only alternative to Google was this (HT 22 Words) – A cross-section of New York Public Library in 1911
While working on something else, I was glancing through some old notes I’d taken on various books, and retrieved this brilliantly incisive description of the way the western culture of capitalism makes us conform, in Naomi Klein’s seminal No Logo (recently updated for its 10th Anniversary).
This was written in 1999, but we appear not to have moved on that much…
The Kinko’s, Starbucks and Blockbusters buy their uniform of khakis and white or blue shirts at the Gap; the ‘Hi! Welcome to Gap!’ greeting cheer is fuelled by Starbucks double espressos; the resumes that got them the jobs were designed at Kinko’s on friendly Macs, in 12-point Helvetica on Microsoft Word. The troops show up for work smelling of CK One (except at Starbucks, where colognes and perfumes are thought to compete with the ‘romance of coffee’ aroma), their faces freshly scrubbed with Body Shop Blue Corn Mask, before leaving apartments furnished with Ikea self-assembled bookcases and coffee tables.
Naomi Klein, No Logo, p131
The irony, it seems to me, is that it results in a uniformity every bit as powerful as that which communism attempted to impose… with one essential, but subtle, distinction. We actually choose this conformity under the illusion that we are autonomous.
So yet again (a theme I return to repeatedly on Q), Communism and Capitalism are merely different manifestations of the same dehumanising, modernist worldview.
Every now and then I come across something that takes my breath away. And recently, I’ve found this happen more and more with contemporary Chinese artists. Q regulars may remember the powerful impact of Xu Bing’s work with his meaningless words. Well here’s another…
As this picture above illustrates, Chinese classical art is world-renowned for its stunning landscape painting (especially for the ways that the natural world is evoked by the slightest of brushstrokes).
But check this out.
Here are a few variations on the theme by the remarkable artist, Shanghai-based Yang Yongliang. At first sight, they seem to follow closely the path and styles of the old masters. But look closer – and you see that all is not as it first seems – for a start, they’re actually produced on an inkjet printer. Then he’s presented an incredibly powerful subversion of the style, as a way of exposing the way that aggressive capitalism and environmental exploitation have destroyed so much of the uniquely beautiful Chinese landscape.
No wonder that they have been appropriated by the China Environment Protection Foundation. No idea who or what they’re like, but i sure hope they’re able to stop at least some of the insanity.
Artificial Wonderland by Yang Yongliang