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The frustration of Sergeant Pepper

Posted by Simon Parke, 20 June 2017, 5.26am

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band is now fifty years old.

It tops most charts as ‘The greatest album ever’...a remarkable achievement of both song writing and production.

But for The Beatles, it was born out of frustration rather than excitement; frustration at the way things were going for them as a band.

I remember hearing Paul McCartney interviewed as he came off stage after a gig in 1966.

He was a vexed man who didn’t know what to do.

The Beatles were massive; people screamed and fainted throughout the show. But as McCartney complained, they couldn’t hear themselves play anymore and they’d hit a creative wall.

The tours were hugely profitable; but somewhere inside they knew this couldn’t go on, something had to give.

So after three years of successful touring, they decided to stop.

(I can imagine some screams of disbelief in the accounts department.)

Instead, they hid themselves away in a studio for five months… and created something no one saw coming: ‘Sergeant Pepper’.

As I listen to the album again - and in particular, to Being for the benefit of Mr Kite - I’m reminded that it’s also good to listen to our frustration.

As with The Beatles, it may be a bridge to a fresh adventure, musical or otherwise.

And we start with the questions: ‘Why am I frustrated? What can I do about it?’

 

 

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Now that's what I call satire

Posted by Simon Parke, 19 June 2017, 1.38pm

Some satirists deliver quick-witted gags; Frankie Boyle also delivers gags, but they are hollow-eyed and bleak, with a back drop of existential terror and despair.

Laugh, by all means. But you may also want to shoot yourself.

His work reminds me of the 17th century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who famously described the life of man as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.

That catches the mood nicely.

And it is in this quagmire of hopelessness that he reviews the behaviour of the famous…and indeed everyone.

He’s as happy mocking amputees as he is American Presidents.

As in, ‘The tragedy is that if Oscar Pistorius had no arms, this would never have happened.’

There is no one off limits because in everyone there is a monster; and he sees himself (and his homeland) in every monster.

‘Nobody thought Mel Gibson could play a Scot but look at him now! Alcoholic and a racist!’

Comedy is meant to make you laugh; satire makes you catch your breath.

So with Boyle, there are no labels to hide behind; no great or good… and certainly no one left standing.

People say nurses should be paid more. Have they actually visited a hospital?’

He doesn’t come to preach, suggesting goodies and baddies or a right path to take; rather, he emanates a terrible solidarity between us all in our race to the gutter, in the shared-shower of hypocrisy, in our highly selective discernment of bullshit.

And I celebrate that; it’s a good place to start. Start from the unutterable fractures in ourselves and others.

You don’t have to end there…but it is the most truthful place to begin.

I close with his recent tribute to Theresa May, in his TV series, ‘Frankie Boyle’s New World Order.’

He compares the Prime Minister’s present predicament to that of a climber, clinging desperately on to the granite face, without grip or safe footholds…and no safety
net below.

For this is all she can do: ‘cling on or disappear, exist or die, and that’s why deep down I admire her, in a way I love her. Theresa May’s all of us, clinging on to our hopeless lives, our shitty dreams, she’s locked into an existential rictus of terror, devoid as we know of any other human quality except tenacity.’

Now that’s what I call satire…

P.S. ‘If you get offended by any jokes, by the way, feel free to Tweet your outrage on a mobile phone made by a ten year old in China.’

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Peter the seagull ups his game

Posted by Simon Parke, 19 June 2017, 5.40am

Did Peter the seagull train in marketing?

There’s something about his ability to stay in my eye line, to keep the product - him - endlessly visible.

(He does have two small children, on the flat roof above me, to support.)

So I’m aware of him now on the woodpile looking at me through the study window, I have mentioned this before.

I’m also aware of him at the kitchen door, which he arrives at before I can say ‘fridge freezer.’

Were I to get up now to make a cup of tea, he would be there before me, pressing his case for a meal.

And then I’m playing the piano in the front room, trying to get away from it all, and who’s knocking impatiently on the patio door a few feet away?

Peter.

Getting away from it all does not include getting away from him; and he’s clearly bemused by the music, (and indeed the arts generally) which is all such a waste of his time.

‘What’s it achieving?’ is his unspoken question through the glass.

But he really upped his marketing game last week.

We went round to our neighbours for a meal, across the road and down a bit.

It’s good to get out, a change of scenery, and I’m standing in their conservatory looking out on their garden…but also looking out on something familiar.

Peter.

Yes, he’s travelled with us, to ensure we don’t lose touch.

He’s a little put out, to be honest. (He’s always honest.)

And later in the evening, enjoying our meal at the front of the house, we sense we’re being watched.

And we are being watched.

Peter has left the back garden and is now sitting on our neighbours’ car in the front drive, looking in.

Oh, and he’s brought his wife, as you do on a Friday night.

Though the writer wasn’t referring directly to seagulls, it does remind me a lot of Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
  Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
  if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
  if I settle on the far side of the sea…

...and if I go to my neighbours’ house for a meal.

You are there, in my eye line, always there.

And wondering about the possibility of food.

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Where shall I find my identity?

Posted by Simon Parke, 16 June 2017, 5.59am

Some people look for their true identity.

They talk as if there is something be found, just round the next corner, with a little more striving.

‘One more push!’

But better than such searching in this instant is the letting go.

Do not seek your true identity.

Rather, let go of all that makes you un-free – resistance, rage, anxieties, aggrandisement, fear, image.

This is the better way.

While they pose and strut as our identity, we struggle, for they are imposters, false claimants to our throne.

But when these dull remnants of terror past are gone, kindly released, there you are, as one appearing through a dissolving mist or retreating smoke.

Rather than seek our true selves like some exhausting archaeological dig, daily, we simply note and release all that makes us un-free.

And daily, if only for a moment, as the smoke clears, there you are.

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Becoming human

Posted by Simon Parke, 15 June 2017, 5.57am

A conversation about being human with the former Bishop of London, Rt Rev Richard Chartres. 

And why the need?

Well, we’re all trying to be human in a difficult world; but there’s the insidious feeling, felt in the gaps, that we may not have actually started yet.

Do you recognise that?

We feel as if we’re playing on the edge of something important, certainly, but remain unsure as to whether we’ve touched very profoundly or what it actually means…what it means to be human.

And we’d like to get there.

‘It is a huge creative act to become human,’ says Richard, ‘but it doesn’t happen until well into life.’

And the agent of transformation?

‘The agent of transformation is the refusal to be god.’

I ask him to explain that a little bit more.

‘We all start out by wanting to be superhuman. We begin with a project of aggrandisement and accumulation.

We experience perhaps thirty seconds of innocence and surprise at birth, but then the cover story begins, the negotiations with the world.

We build up our personality and accumulate for fulfilment. But strangely, the more we aggrandise ourselves and accumulate, the more the little voice whispers and the more hollow our crown appears.’

I adjust my hollow crown awkwardly as he continues.

‘The first step to becoming human is refusing to be god.

We embrace our transience, accept the painful piercing of the inner crust which forms as life passes, and ironically, it is from this position, with defences down and vulnerable, that our feet touch the ground of the source of life.’

So the crust which, in our youth, protected us from the chill winds of disappointment and fear has now become a less-than-helpful friend?

‘Indeed. It was formed to defend us, protect us, position us…but it becomes our undoing.

The breaking of the crust, which sounds like the destruction of the personality – and it is undoubtedly painful – is the indispensible first step in reconnecting with our humanity from which we have wandered.

As I say, when we refuse to be god, we have begun the journey home.’

(This conversation took place when Richard was still Bishop of London.)

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Sometimes the sun

Posted by Simon Parke, 13 June 2017, 8.30am

My poem of the week is one of mine, ‘Sometimes the sun’, written fifteen years ago while I was a priest off the Holloway Road in London.

Sometimes the sun

Sometimes the sun shines on the righteous
Sometimes the damaged tree survives
Sometimes the pain it has an ending
Sometimes the darkness in us dies

Sometimes the sun shines on the righteous
Sometimes the abused forgive and grow
Sometimes there’s cause for celebration
Sometimes there’s meaning in the flow

Sometimes the sun shines on the righteous
Sometimes the net seems full to burst
Sometimes there’s friendship in the laughter
Sometimes a drink for those who thirst

And sometimes the sun shines on the righteous
And sometimes God’s whisper echoes far
And sometimes good’s so good it beats the diamond
And shines across the bleak lands like a star

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Theresa's choice of friends

Posted by Simon Parke, 12 June 2017, 5.46am

Never mind about May’s ill-fated choice of manifesto in the election.

There’s the broader question: how well has Theresa May chosen her friends?

With the dust of battle still settling after a troubled campaign for May, her two closest advisors, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, have been fed to the furious wolves.

Even more than a policy change at the top, Tories have demanded a change of people.

Why?

Hill and Timothy go back seven years with May, working together with her in the Home Office.

Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, they protected her… they were ‘her Praetorian Guard,’ as one colleague put it.

They ran May’s operation with unrelenting hostility towards everyone - staff, journalists, cabinet ministers, the lot.

The working atmosphere, by all accounts, was unpleasant: if you weren’t at the table, you were probably on the menu.

As one former advisor put it, ‘They lacked flexibility, charm and a listening mode. Hill in particular never understood you don’t have to shout, you have to communicate.’

May herself struggles to communicate, she’s not an easy listen as her robotic election mantras hilariously/bleakly revealed.

The over-used ‘Strong and stable’ and ‘coalition of chaos’ rightly became comedy fodder.

(And rather haunt her presently.)

There is a separatist and closed aspect to May’s personality that struggles with relationship and spontaneity.

And unfortunately, in Hill and Timothy, she chose friends who accentuated this social isolation.

This ‘drawbridge’ mentality is OK if things are going well; but now, as blue vultures circle above and within the gothic buildings of Westminster and she needs friends, she finds herself lacking.

They say you don’t choose your family but you do choose your friends.

This is true…but it doesn’t mean we choose well.

I was talking to someone recently who has just had a purge of ‘friends’ gathered down the years; and she feels much better for it.

‘I just realised that quite a few of them, who I’ve known for years, weren’t good for me. I spent more time being hurt than happy. It’s a relief to be free.’

Whether May feels the same this morning, I don’t know.

Friends are there to unlock us in some way, to free us from the prison of ourselves.

But in Hill and Timothy, May chose warders rather than friends.

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Choices, choices!

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 June 2017, 3.30pm

It’s election week and we have a choice before us.

There are many aspects of our lives we’ve had no choice about, of course.

We didn’t choose to be born male or female.

We didn’t choose our country of origin.

We didn’t choose our parents, our birth family or our start in life, emotional or financial.

That’s quite a lot of ‘givens’ to live with….also known as ‘baggage’.

But growth into adulthood is the gradual making of choices for ourselves.

Some things we cannot change, some things we can.

So in election week, it’s good to remember the choices we do have.

We can elect, for instance, to listen to our breathing in difficult situations, and thereby turn knee-jerk reactions into more considered responses.

That’s a good vote.

And we can elect to listen kindly to our feelings, rather than repress them, because un-heard feelings poison and cripple our lives.

Another good vote.

And sometimes, when we’re ready, we might even elect to dismantle old choices we have made, in favour of new ones. In other words, to vote differently.

Life is change, after all…that could be a life-changing vote.

And then of course we can choose to vote on Thursday, Election day…

...because in some matters, we have both a voice and a choice. 

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How historical fiction can save the world

Posted by Simon Parke, 07 June 2017, 5.36am

Hilary Mantel, never short of an apposite word, has recently criticised women writers of historical fiction for falsely empowering female characters.

Some might think this a good idea, a much-needed redressing of the balance…but not Mantel.

Anyone squeamish about the difference between the role of men and women in certain historic periods should, she suggests, try their hand at a different job…rather than reworking history so victims are the winner.

So that’s telling us.

Speaking at the Reith Lectures she said:

‘Many writers of historical fiction feel drawn to the untold tale. They want to give a voice to those who have been silenced. Fiction can do that, because it concentrates on what is not on the record. But we must be careful when we speak for others.’

She understands the dilemma facing authors.

‘If we write about the victims of history, are we reinforcing their status by detailing it? Or shall we rework history so victims are the winners?

This is a persistent difficulty for women writers, who want to write about women in the past, but can’t resist retrospectively empowering them.’

Er, Jamestown, anybody?

And this, she says, is false.

‘If you are squeamish – if you are affronted by difference – then you should try some other trade.’

And then we arrive at Mantel’s own position.

‘A good novelist,’ she says, ‘will have her characters operate within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers.’

I was aware of this tension in my recent historical novel, ‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover.’

The spy in the story is Jane Whorwood, a strong – and in many ways remarkable - female lead.

Her energy and resourcefulness spill across the years, she was a magnificent chaos.

But there was never any time in her undercover adventures – true on so many levels - when I felt, ‘Hey, it’s the 17th century, but sisters are doing it for themselves!’

I won’t spoil the (quite unbelievable) story.

But while she crossed many boundaries of expected behaviour for a woman, she undoubtedly lived (and suffered) in what Mantel calls ‘the ethical framework of her
day’.

She was the king’s closest confidante, well-connected socially, a successful wheeler dealer…and quite powerless.

That’s the truth of the matter and, to that extent, Jane is similar to Mantel’s Anne Boleyn in the ethical framework of the times.

Historical fiction must hang out with history; it can’t go solo.

It sits alongside the research of true historians, working the spaces behind the facts to offer psychological and narrative insight.

‘Tell the truth but tell it slant,’ wrote Emily Dickinson and that nails the task of historical fiction with one crisp blow.

And it’s also a role increasingly appreciated by historians.

‘I remember a conference in the 1990s,’ says Mantel, ‘discussing with a colleague what historians made of historical fiction. He said, ‘It’s like pornography to them –
they think it’s shameful, but they can’t wait to get hold of it.’

We have perhaps moved on a little.

The more open-minded history girls and boys are less prejudiced these days, aware it now means more than historical romance or fiction in tights.

But history’s victims – whether gender or ethnic - are better served in historical fiction by accuracy rather than wish-fulfilment; just as no political party is served by over-optimistic poll forecasts.

Accuracy is best.

The call is not to make the reader feel good but to feel there…in those days, in that moment.

Knowing accurately what has been is the best begetter of change…and how historical fiction might save the world.

(‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover’ charts the last eighteen months in the life of Charles 1st, the only English monarch to be executed. How did that happen? It is published by Marylebone House.)

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On shit knife and shit bomb attacks

Posted by Simon Parke, 05 June 2017, 4.20pm

Shit bombs attacks, shit knife attacks and shit pavement attacks in vans.

Understandably, they sharpen and harden the rhetoric of division.

Politicians, especially in election season, contort themselves to be more outraged than the other.

‘How outraged are you?’

‘Well, I’m very outraged.’

‘Only very? I’m extraordinarily outraged.’

‘Oh, so am I, so am I.’

‘And we must clamp down on these people!’

‘Only clamp down on them?! We must to do more than clamp down on them!’

‘I mean I’d intern them without trial.’

‘Well, I’d crucify them and be done with it.’

That’s the trouble with truly shit behaviour, as recently on display in Manchester and London.

It asks us to make hard what is in fact porous; and it asks us to make separate what is in fact whole.

The universe does not change in the face of atrocity.

from God to the goat;

from war to dinner party;

from Trump to Tutu

from Muslim to Christian

from hard left to hard right

from tea time to torture

from despair to awe

It is all one connected fabric.

There are not two tapestries comprised of different thread, one for you and one for them; but one thread holds us all and links us all.

And here is the problem with the label; for it separates everything and divides everything when everything is connected.

As John Donne put it:

‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’

Labels are island words, separating that which is a part of the main.

I understand they will always have an immediate short-hand value.

‘I live in Doncaster.’

‘Really?’

‘Well, I don’t actually live in Doncaster - I live just outside, in Kirk Sandall, but it’s easier to say Doncaster because people know that.’

Fair enough.

But the wheels fly off the truth of labels once we go a little deeper.

People sometimes ask me if I’m a Christian.

I’d find it easier to answer if I knew what the word means, I have no idea, everyone has their own definition.

But then I might use the word as short-hand on a census form as some sort of lazy approximation, meaning not very much.

This is the thing about labels. They really don’t mean anything.

So as Manchester and London display life-enhancing resilience in the face of blunt trauma separateness, we will not follow this separating path within ourselves.

There are not two tapestries but one and one thread connects us all. 

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