Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Layer 60 Klimt

It doesn’t seem possible that the Tate Liverpool's exhibition of Klimt is the first ever exhibition of his work in this country. Are we not a nation of art lovers?

How can this be? Perhaps this lack of interest in showing Klimt’s work has been somewhat connected with the fact that Klimt and the Secessionists believed that sexuality is the key to human liberation and fulfillment, and that a good deal of Klimt’s work is highly erotic and a celebration of the beauty of the female form. The current concerns manifested in the British media with sex education and teenage pregnancy are showing us, as ever, how much we still fear and tend to avoid explicit conversation and discourse about sex.

Like his contemporary, Sigmund Freud, and Wilhelm Reich, another resident of turn-of-the-century Vienna, Gustav Klimt focused a lot of his creative energy on the subject of sex and sexuality, and believed that sexual & emotional health and sexual fulfillment play a vital role in human wellbeing - more vital than wealth or status, more important than bourgeois ‘respectability’ and material comfort and security.

Our society’s historical aversion to full-on engagement with human sexuality in any mature way is reflected in the actual location of the Tate show’s semi-darkened room containing drawings of women nudes masturbating - with genitals, fingers and splayed thighs depicted in loving detail.

This small room, which is more like a room within a room, is situated right at the end of the exhibition, and visitors have the option of walking straight past it, and avoiding it, in order to go out of the exhibition, and into the bookshop and merchandise area, where there's a variety of Klimt shopping bags, posters, key rings, fridge magnets, vibrators, etc, on sale.

(I made that last one up. Though they say the Anne Summers shop in the main shopping precinct is selling an exciting range of Klimpt Klit Stimulators, specially commissioned to coincide with and cash in on this exhibition, which is pulling in visitors from far and wide - people who would normally no more visit Liverpool than they would New Brighton or Birkenhead.)

But truthfully, when was the last time anyone went to an exhibition and saw erotic drawings like these by a major artist, depicting this important but virtually taboo aspect of female sexuality? Surely nice girls don't do that kind of thing? Actually they do, but you'd never know it from the output of the world's best-known artists. Klimt is unique, in very many ways.

(To be fair, nobody does paintings of men masturbating either, but that’s another story. At least everybody seems to know that men actually do it, whilst women’s self-pleasuring remains a subject surrounded in mystery, even to many women, unless you happen to be into pornography, which his critics actually accused Klimt of being. ‘Accused’, you see. Like it’s a crime he committed by creating powerful images of beautiful and erotic women, no matter how willingly the models posed, and how much they presumably enjoyed posing, since Klimt was said to have made love to most of them.)

I remember how startling it felt in the Musee D'Orsay a few years ago to come across Courbet's incredibly naturalistic and highly erotic painting of a model’s genitals with her mass of dark pubic hair. Was it OK to stand there and stare at it, like you would any other exhibit? Interestingly no-one else did. Yet it's a wonderful picture, aptly titled "The Origin of the World". (L’Origine Du Monde)

And it was interesting to observe visitors, including pairs of young women, in the masturbation room in the Tate, where there were also some drawings by Klimt of couples in various stages of love-making. Interesting to observe their somewhat embarrassed and giggly interactions. Clearly, walking round in silence was not an option for cool connoisseurs, but neither was any thoughtful or normal conversation. The attitude seemed to be that one should either be embarrassed, indifferent to, or amused by the drawings. Like it was impossible to be turned on by them, see oneself in them, or just simply enjoy them for their artistic genius.

It was also interesting to consider whether Klimt ever developed any of these drawings into oil paintings - which seems highly likely - and if so what happened to them, and where they are now. And if he didn‘t, why not?

Could it be that to acknowledge that women masturbate would be to acknowledge that women enjoy sensuality, sexuality and orgasm? Enjoy them, need them, and desire them. And how difficult and dangerous would that be for so many men, the majority of whom in Klimt‘s time and Freud‘s time, and it seems often in our own time, are pretty clueless about female physiology and sexuality? Why else do so many women desire, enjoy, and often prefer, vibrators?

Whilst he also painted superb landscapes, and clearly enjoyed painting well-to-do women in fabulous dresses, Klimt didn’t shirk the need for the artist to engage with the sexual and the erotic in the quest to illustrate and depict the human condition, which after all is surely the foremost duty of any artist. Human love, tenderness, desire and intimacy are at the very heart of our lives, or at least ought to be.

Human sexuality is mysterious and yet enormously important for most of us, and the role of the artist is surely to shed light on the emotional and spiritual aspects of our instinctual drives. But how many of us have been enriched and enlightened in this way? How many artists down the centuries have been capable of engaging with such challenging subject matter? It’s impossible to see Klimt’s work and not reflect on ourselves, our sexuality, our desires, our ideas of beauty, our need for kissing, for intimacy, for holding someone close, for physical union.

One of my favourite Klimt paintings, Nuda Veritas, The Naked Truth, is very explicit. A curvaceous nude with lovely auburn hair cascading over her shoulders stands facing the viewer, with lips and legs slightly apart, holding up a round mirror, in which we see our own reflection.

She’s a tall, proud, unabashed figure, asserting her nakedness and beauty, her naturalness, her attractiveness. Her only adornments are a few white daisies, which she’s fastened in her hair. But she’s confronting us with the mirror - daring us to look in it and thereby become aware of our own reactions to her. So what are they? Admiration? Appreciation? Attraction? Desire? Fear? Embarrassment? Envy? Resentment?

She’s not being deliberately provocative - she just IS. As pure and innocent and unadorned as any living creature. Klimt is giving us the naked truth - about another human soul, and about ourselves - if we only care to look. Yes folks - underneath those gorgeous dresses and gowns, this is what women actually look like. Is this a problem? Is this pornography? Or is it a source of awe and wonder, joy and fulfillment?

The printed guide to the exhibition describes the city of Vienna at the turn of the century, and says it was a place where “Sigmund Freud’s theories positing sexuality as a liberating force were highly influential, contributing to an overarching atmosphere of eroticism.” It goes on to say that “Against this backdrop Klimt put the female form centre-stage, oscillating between the extremes of woman as immaculate virgin and sinful seductress.”

The oscillation is the interesting part. Klimt is too much of a realist to have a simplistic view of women as either virtuous virgins, wives and mothers on the one hand, or whores on the other. As an artist he recognizes that every woman contains within her all the stereotypes, and travels through life, whether or not she admits it to herself or others, somehow oscillating between all of them. A woman’s capacity to experience arousal and desire may be stunted or wrapped in chains and vows, but the point is that she has the potential to experience and express herself and her needs sexually. And this was not a commonly accepted view prior to Freud and Klimt and the Secessionists.

The Tate’s booklet tells us that Klimt’s drawings “record the artist’s private investigation and explicit celebration of female sexuality”. And this is where he was such an iconoclast and pioneer - not only celebrating female sexuality, but doing it so explicitly. And for this alone, if for nothing else, he deserves recognition and praise.

Some of the other great pictures in the exhibition include portraits of Hermine Gallia, Eugenia Primavesi, Joseph Pembauer and Helene Klimt. There’s also the stunning Adam and Eve, Judith II, and The Three Ages of Women.

Finally, there’s a reproduction of the Beethoven Frieze, at eye level around three walls of a room. And it’s a truly symphonic piece of work, with so many elements that are in turn elegiac, erotic, spiritual, carnal, joyful, melancholic, lyrical and simply beautiful. One of the newspaper reviews dismisses it as merely a reproduction and not worth including in the exhibition, but for those of us who’ve had to make do with looking at disconnected details in books, and who aren’t likely to be visiting the original in Vienna any time soon, many thanks.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Layer 59 . Summer In The City VI

The night was hot and still, sultry and dark. It triggered memories of similar nights long ago in Nairobi, New York, Dar Es Salaam, and various Mediterranean cities. Only here, at home, there were no crickets or cicadas buzzing, sawing and cheeping, only silence in the darkness. People came and went slowly on the streets, languidly; dressed in their lightest clothes, buttons mostly undone, shoes without socks, dresses without tights, low cut tops, sleeveless teeshirts.

Over in the local grocery Old Kali was starting to pack up. It was a quiet day, he said. Lots of people gone away on holiday already. Lots of unsold newspapers to be bound in piles and returned to the wholesaler. Mad Kev came in for his cigarettes, and disappeared without a word. Steve the Greek looked on from his usual resting place, propped up in the corner, at the end of the counter. He wasn’t ready to go home just yet. He smiled a small tired hello, and carried on leafing through a tabloid paper. Nothing worth reading. Nothing happening. Prime Minister in Deep Shit. So what?

“Gonna win the lottery?”

“Sure am. One of these days. Got to.”

“See you later.”

"Yeah, later."

Rosie the Ranter passed by and waved. She stopped and waved. She yoo-hooed and waved. Thank God she didn’t come in. Big Brother on TV. Can’t miss that. Gotta see that. It’s summer - innit! S’exciting. Innit. Nah’t a’mean? S’funny. S’a laugh. A right good laugh. Head cases. Luvvit. Me? No. Never seen it. Never have. Never will. S’bollocks. Boll - locks. Kali nods in agreement. Bollocks. Yeah - but it’s a laugh - innit!

I love evenings like this - so very rare in this country. Down at the Princess of Wales the outside tables were full. People sat by the river in the semi-darkness, talking and laughing. Inside there was no live band. This weekend was karaoke. Please! The young woman running it belted out a couple of her favourites, to lukewarm applause, and then urged the rest of us to get up and sing.

Two girls eventually, bashfully, did a duet, followed by an older guy who did some country rubbish. Half way through the next one I had to leave. Some poor guy, obviously not playing with a full deck, sloped on and incredibly laid into ‘Puppet On A String’- murdered it, gratuitously kicked its already pathetic little head in, and was about to disembowel it in the FLATTEST and least appealing voice I’ve ever heard when I had an irresistible urge to run screaming out of the place, downing the remains of my pint as I did so. Fucking Jesus - it was just unbelievable. I had no idea it was possible to ‘sing’ so badly and murder a naïve innocent little song so cruelly and callously. I wish I’d recorded it. An all-time classic of awfulness. Shit - I should have whipped out my phone and videoed it. Something as rancid and bad as that deserves to be on YouTube.

On the way out I bump into John the Labourer - the local ward secretary of the local Labour Party, who sees me leaving and comes out on to the pavement. Still hanging in there after all these years. He’s interested in my retirement, says I’m looking well, and ever-hopeful starts into asking me whether this means I now have the energy to get involved again, but stops himself almost immediately, realizing that it’s not going to happen. Not now. Not ever again.

I tell him he’s doing a very noble thing - a man of his principles and political persuasion, still organizing meetings, still going to meetings, in spite of all the New Labour arseholes who have ruled the roost for the past 10 long years, wasted years. Fucking hell, John, I tell him - they’ve even lost Glasgow! They’re fucked! They’re Thatcher Lite, they’re scum - people have had enough. People want revenge. They want to see them go down. It’s what they deserve. Two wasted landslide victories. Fucking Iraq. Letting the bankers and property inflaters do what they like. Holding down the minimum wage. They introduced it? SO WHAT! That what Labour’s FOR! It’s what they’re SUPPOSED to do.

John knows I’m right. He knows. But it’s a waste of time discussing it. He’s halfway through a game of pool in the bar. Must get back to it. See you. Yeah, take care mate. He’s a good man. Patient, caring, kind. Too good for the local New World Order Labour Lapdog tendency. Motto: Anything you say Tony - sorry, Gordon. Right On Message.

I remember one time being at a ward meeting and listening to someone we’d invited to speak - to liven up the meeting. A fucking New Labour clone if ever there was one - young, aspirational, on a trajectory towards Parliament for sure, having made the Cabinet locally, already. A man entirely wrapped up in his own ego, and without a single principle, unless you call defending globalisation and ‘the markets’ a principle. I laid into him about Iraq, the ‘war on terror’, American imperialism and the government’s failure to distance itself from a single American policy, including the continuing blockade of Cuba. His response? If he had his way he’d launch an invasion of Cuba and depose Castro immediately. The fucker was SERIOUS as well. How did I not at least suggest he needed his head kicking in for even entertaining the thought that a sovereign country should be invaded and however many lives lost - for what? This guy is a vile, sleazy joke. He’s a centraliser, an organization man, and clearly didn’t understand that in this country the Socialist party, as such, has no ‘National’ prefix. To read other people’s views on this git go to .

Read the comments by rachel, bishop hill, bobthedog and bob bob, and go on from there. Rachel’s term ‘patronizing muppet’ could as well serve for Hazel Blears and the rest of the current cabinet, as could bob bob’s ‘Zanu-Lab dimwit’.

Rachel’s blog is always worth reading -

I went to bed feeling hot, and taking comfort in the thought that the best outcome for the next election would be a hung parliament - no party in overall control. I want New Labour to LOSE, but can’t really stomach the idea of Cameron and Co having a mandate. I want there to be NO mandate for anything, and everything needing to be properly debated and argued over, not just pushed through on the whim of a prat like Blair, or a drone like Brown.

I want proportional representation. I want the country to be governed for a spell by a coalition of the able, with the current discredited New Labour idiots sent on their way like the failures they are. Maybe the party can then be repossessed by a coalition of social democrats and socialists, as it needs to be if we’ve ever to have a progressive government. Two wasted landslides! 10 years of dross! Never again!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Layer 58 Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen . The O2 . Thursday July 17th

They say rock and roll is here to stay (in one form or another) and Leonard Cohen now looks like he’s going on forever. He’s created a genre all of his own, and his millions of devotees will ensure that his music and his poetry will live eternally - a huge body of work that is truly staggering in its scope, its variety, its beauty and its complexity.

Cohen, who’s now well into his seventies (and singing as well as, if not better than, ever), is jauntily making his way around the world in the company of an incredible group of musicians and ‘backing singers’, which includes his long-time ‘collaborator’, and sometime co-writer, the wonderful Sharon Robinson.

Another legend, another all-time great singer/songwriter, John Lee Hooker, carried on recording and performing well into his eighties, so why not Leonard Cohen?

He doesn’t just walk on and off the stage, he jogs - he almost runs. He wears a pinstriped double-breasted suit and a fedora, which he doffs regularly in response to his audience’s ecstatic acclaim. He even begins the show by thanking us for coming, saying it’s a privilege to be playing for us, and tells us that it’s 14 years since he last played in London - “When I’d just turned 60 - nothing more than a kid with a head full of crazy dreams . . .”

He then went on to list all the drugs he’s supposedly taken since passing that milestone, including Prozac and Ritalin! His self-mocking sense of humour pervades the evening, an element of his character and his work that seems to evade casual observers. The man is genuinely a humble genius, and possibly a saint or a Zen master, or their secular equivalent.

Over the years he’s perhaps written a few songs that are not of the highest class, or at least not in the upper ranks of his own work, but none of them are included in this long, loving reunion - it’s unfair to characterise this love-in with his fans as just a ‘show’. He has no need to. He’s written enough songs of the very highest calibre to fill with ease the near three hours he’s allowed us.

At one point, in the second half, he does a run of songs, including Gipsy Wife, Boogie Street, Hallelujah, Democracy and I’m Your Man that are overwhelming in their cumulative brilliance and the extraordinary panache of their performance. That’s not to say that the earlier and more familiar songs, such as Suzanne, Sisters of Mercy and No Way To Say Goodbye are less powerful, or less satisfying, but their relative and deceptive simplicity combined with their very familiarity tend to make them more like hymns and love songs than the anthems which these other songs undoubtedly are. Very few in the audience did not join in ecstatically with their own ‘Hallelujah!’, ‘I’m your man!’ and ‘Democracy is coming - to the USA!’

As the show moves toward its conclusion, and the time approaches 11.00pm, having started at 8.00 promptly, Cohen teases us with “So Long, Marianne” and brings vast numbers of us up on our feet, reckoning that these might even be the last few minutes of his last ever gig in London. But no, still to come is a brilliant version of “Closing Time”, with a fresh arrangement that’s sung and played with incredible joie de vivre and jauntiness.

But even that was not quite the end. Quite possibly, and surprisingly, the best song of the evening, for me at least, turned out to be the very last - a bluesy version of “I Tried To Leave You”, a fitting climax to an unbelievably brilliant show, perfect in every way. It’s a (generally) little-known track from one of his less well-known albums, New Skin For The Old Ceremony (1974), but for this tour he’s re-arranged what was a very simple song with a single guitar accompaniment into a stretched-out blues, which allows each and every member of the band (and I can’t remember the last time I heard either a bass solo or a drum solo) to showcase one last time their phenomenal skills. Cohen gives them all a name check and thanks them all individually with words of praise.

I wonder how many in the audience did not have a sense of him speaking to them personally as he sings “Goodnight my darling - I hope you’re satisfied”.

“And here’s a man still working for your smile.”

Please read these beautiful reviews which tell you everything you could possibly want to know about this tour and the members of the band. The Index!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Layer 57 Summer In The City V . . . Knives and Death on the Streets

A young woman in her twenties was stabbed to death in the Bellenden area of Peckham last night, according to the radio this morning. I drove through that part of the city at the weekend, and to look at it on a sunny afternoon you’d never imagine such things could happen there. Decent streets full of decent Victorian terrace housing, nice shops and restaurants, good-looking people going about their business. So much for appearances.

Because of my personal connection with this area - I have friends who live there and friends who work there - I now find myself wondering about the victim and the circumstances of her death. What was she like? Was she one of those well-dressed good-looking people I noticed on Saturday? Or was she one of the noisy, rowdy, aggressive types you can come across on buses and in bars and pubs? Women with ‘attitude’.

Not that it should make any difference. No-one deserves to live more than anyone else, and no-one deserves to die more than anyone else. Killing is vile and obscene, no matter who it happens to.

Whoever was responsible for this crime was either in the grip of dangerous and destructive emotions, or was a psychotic, a psychopath. We can be sure of that. If the latter, then were they being treated for their illness? What sort of treatment were they being given? Had they been identified as being in need of treatment? And if not, why not?

If the former, then why has this individual not been taught how to exercise control over destructive emotions? Has their experience of our education system made any difference at all to their ability to recognise the onset of overwhelming and destructive emotions, and their experience in school offered them strategies for coping with such swamping?

Has their experience of formal education taught them anything at all about allowing anger to grip them and drive them? Have they learnt anything about self-control? About the sanctity of life? About the foolishness of carrying dangerous weapons, and a willingness to use them? About human values?

And if not, why not? Was it because there are no exam passes to be gained in these areas of learning, and because time taken to concentrate on these forms of learning is time taken away from the ‘subjects’ that will be examined?

Did they spend any time studying the effects of desires such as revenge? Maybe this was a revenge killing. Maybe it was another girl who committed this crime, or someone committed it on behalf of a girl who had been insulted by someone, or who’d had her boyfriend taken from her by a rival. Have any of our young people spent sufficient time studying phenomena such as jealousy and envy, and how these afflictions often turn into destructive and seemingly uncontrollable emotions?

How on earth are young people supposed to know about combating and neutralizing intense and harmful emotions? How on earth can they be expected to resist the surrounding culture’s insistence that you must to inflict physical violence on anyone who shows you ‘disrespect’? Anyone who ‘cuts their eyes’ or ‘sucks their teeth’ at you? Anyone who ‘blanks’ you? Anyone who comes on to ‘your’ estate or ‘your’ part of town who doesn’t live there themselves?

Well-meaning commentators really have no idea about how life is really lived on the streets in the inner cities. Those same streets of respectable terraced houses contain hundreds of angry and explosive teenagers and young adults, even older adults, who live all their days with anger and hatred in their hearts, often with drugs in their veins (including legal drugs like alcohol) and no understanding of why they feel the way they do, let alone what they should do to change anything. The same applies to the sprawling estates and the tower blocks.

They feel lonely, unloved and hopeless. They can even be one of those who live with family and friends - because those people are also suffering from various sorts of emotional and spiritual sickness. They hate themselves, they hate the world, and they’re ready to inflict their unhappiness and their hatred on other people. Nobody who is basically happy or even content most of the time will go out with intent to kill, with intent to use a weapon. We’ll come to the pursuit of happiness in a moment.

Sullen, resentful, angry, mean-spirited individuals roam our streets. They don’t know why they feel this way, and they have no idea how to stop feeling this way. And in a sense, why should they? Why should they care? Nobody ever cared about them. Their lives have been full of bullying and regimenting, often by a system of schooling that makes them do the very things they hate doing and deprives them of opportunities to do the things they most enjoy doing. There are hundreds of wonderful teachers, but they’re not at liberty to really affect the timetabling, the scheduling, the cramming, the rote-learning, the deprivation of individual liberty, and choice, and self-determination.

I even fear for four year olds, who, on entering many a nursery soon find that they are expected to fit a mould, and do everything to order, everything to suit the teachers. Some can ‘fit in’, and some can’t. The roots of disaffection and low self-esteem can start here, or in the home, or both. God help those for whom it’s both.

Is it any wonder that kids bond together on the basis of their mutual resentment and hostility to what they’re made to endure? Even if they can’t love one another, because they have no capacity to love, they can at least ‘respect’ one another, and earn extra ‘respect’ points from one another on the basis of how rebellious, how assertive, how aggressive they can be. And so it goes.

They need smart trainers, they need drugs, they need ‘bling’, and they’re prepared to go out and rob and steal to get these things. And why do they concern themselves with material things to such a degree? Well - what else is there? They have no-one to love, no-one to love them, no capacity for love, and nothing else in their miserable, mean lives that could be called a passion. Nothing that fills them with delight, or a sense of accomplishment, or enthusiasm, or plain enjoyment.

They watch violent DVDs, in which tough guys ‘take care of business’. They play video games, in which the same things happen. It’s kill or be killed. This is how the world is, isn’t it? They listen to music whose lyrics extol aggression and ‘toughness’, whose ethic is basically do your own thing, get what you want, show the world how rough you can be, especially if anyone tries to get in your way. Ideal music for wimps and losers and messed-up teenagers trying to work out who they are and where they belong, if anywhere.

Because they certainly don’t belong in the world where decent people who have studied and worked hard have a decent life. They don’t know how to do those things and they don’t care to either. They have no idea how to engage, and no-one reaches out and shows them either. It’s play the game our way, or get out.

None of these things are new, of course. It’s just the intensity nowadays. Nobody dares to challenge feral kids on the streets and on the buses because of the likelihood they’ll be kicked or stabbed, or even shot. They was a time when an adult might receive a mouthful of ‘cheek’ for intervening in rowdiness or disorderly or drunken conduct, but nowadays that would be a mild comeback compared with the likely consequences for trying to be a good citizen. We’ve all heard the cases of guys killed or stabbed outside their own homes because they dared to challenge a noisy gang.

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting Ashburton, in rural Devon, and heard about a shopkeeper who was stabbed in his shop in the middle of the high street, in the middle of the day, for no apparent reason. It can happen anywhere.

Nobody who is spiritually and emotionally intelligent can possibly carry a knife. Therefore nobody who is spiritually and emotionally intelligent can possibly commit knife crime. This is the glaring truth. So why aren’t we helping young people to become spiritually and emotionally intelligent? The glaring truth tells us that it’s because we don’t care to, we don’t see the need to, and all too often we don’t know how to. We might pay lip service to these things, but we don’t seriously do anything about them, especially in our toughest areas, our toughest schools.

Whereas - there are lots of kids who have done well in examinations and tests of so-called academic ability who have committed, and will commit in the future, all sorts of crimes. What does this tell us about where our priorities lie as a nation?


Here’s the latest news report from the ITN website:

Gang culture based on drugs and violence has replaced family to become a way of life, a leading chief constable has warned.

Barbara Wilding, the Chief Constable of South Wales, said tribal loyalty had replaced family loyalty in some deprived areas.

She said custody could only provide a short term solution, with policies based primarily on enforcement "set on sand".

Ms Wilding reportedly said: "In many of our larger cities, in areas of extreme deprivation, there are almost feral groups of very angry young people.

"Many have experienced family breakdown, and in place of parental and family role models, the gang culture is now established. Tribal loyalty has replaced family loyalty and gang culture based on violence and drugs is a way of life."

The remarks come after the murder of 16-year-old Ben Kinsella, who was stabbed to death in Islington, North London, at the weekend. He became the 17th teenager to be murdered in London this year.

Ms Wilding, a former Deputy Assistant Commissioner at the Metropolitan Police, said the focus should be on tackling the complex social and economic causes that underlie criminal behaviour.
Ms Wilding, who read criminology at London University, was awarded a CBE for services to policing in the Queen's 80th birthday honours list.

Home secretary Jacqui Smith has vowed to tackle knife crime in the UK in the wake of the latest fatal stabbing. She said: "This is only something that we can solve if we come together - Government, police, young people, community groups - in the same way that we've done tackling guns and gangs."


Oh really, Ms Smith? Has anyone ever heard such a load of platitudinous and meaningless nonsense? If they do it in the same way they’ve tackled guns and gangs then surely they shouldn’t bother? Her ‘vow’ doesn’t mean a thing. She’s completely missing the point, which was very well made by Barbera Wilding in the speech reported on by ITN.

But as for doing what Ms Wilding suggests and “tackling the complex social and economic causes that underlie criminal behaviour“ - we haven’t even begun to reach a consensus on what they are and how much effort and resources we’ve prepared to devote to such work. Time to begin, anyone?

More news from ITN:

A woman has died after being stabbed in south east London.

The victim, believed to be in her 20s, received a wound to her upper body during the attack at around 11pm outside a Lidl supermarket just off Peckham High Street. The woman was taken to Kings College Hospital but was pronounced dead shortly after midnight.

The controller of a nearby taxi firm said a group of ten to 20 girls were seen at the scene of the crime shortly before or at the time of the incident. The man, who did not wish to be named, added that it was a well-known trouble spot.

He said: "It is happening around here almost every night. At around 7 to 8pm people arrive and start drinking in the streets. They lose their brains and it turns violent."

The incident comes amid growing concern over knife crime in the capital. Hundreds of teenagers took to the streets as part of a protest following the death of 16-year-old Ben Kinsella over the weekend. He became the 17th teenager to die a violent death in London since the beginning of the year.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Layer 56 Summer In The City IV Conscience and Crime.

The preacher was a’talking, there’s a sermon he gave
He said every man’s conscience is vile and depraved
You cannot depend on it to be your guide
When it’s you who must keep it satisfied.
It ain’t easy to swallow, it sticks in the throat
She gave her heart to the man in a long black coat.

Bob Dylan, Man In A Long Black Coat
from Oh Mercy

This is a song I return to, sometimes every day. Melodically, lyrically, instrumentally, atmospherically it’s just superb, as are all of the songs on Oh Mercy.

Most Of The Time, which follows it on the CD, is similar in all those ways. This is the voice of experience, as well as the voice of wisdom and understanding, gently and melodically telling us that this is the way life is - he can keep both feet on the ground and follow the path, handle whatever he stumbles upon, and make it through, all on his own - most of the time.

I’m becoming more and more absorbed in the way Dylan’s voice functions as an instrument - the way in which his sounds and inflections manage to convey states of pure feeling or passion - or love, or anger, or disgust. You don’t even have to pay any attention to the lyrics to tune in to the mood he’s putting across, the feelings he’s conveying. Come to think of it, I’d like to hear versions of his songs with the vocal/melody track removed and replaced by piano, keyboard and guitar, - played, of course, by the man himself, ideally.

Before I get on to the main part of this piece I want to recommend a book called “Dylan’s Visions of Sin“, by Prof. Christopher Ricks, in which he quotes Dylan as saying,

“The politics of sin; that’s what I think of.”

And one of the things that Dylan has noticed is that so many people have turned a deaf ear to this aspect of his work -

“The things I have to say about such things as ghetto bosses, salvation and sin, lust, murderers going free, and children without hope . . .”

Before I get on to some thoughts on crime, schools and the education system I’d just like to slip in another Dylan quote from Ricks’ book.

“As you get older, you get smarter and that can hinder you because you try to gain control over the creative impulse. Creativity is not like a freight train going down the tracks. It’s something that has to be caressed and treated with a great deal of respect. If your mind is intellectually in the way, it will stop you. You’ve got to program your brain not to think too much.”

There speaks a true Gemini, a true air sign!

In essence what he’s saying is that creativity takes place where the planes of knowing, feeling and imagining meet and intersect; the point at which the axes of knowledge and instinct, spiritual intelligence and emotional intelligence cross over and link together. Because creativity and originality and personal expression depend upon combining all those elements of knowing, feeling, imagining, empathizing and intuiting. And the process has to be driven by instinct and passion.

So much for the creative impulse. How sad it is that so many never experience it, or do so very infrequently. Unless you count things like destruction and mayhem as a kind of negative creation.

Hicks talks about Dylan’s equilateral thinking - the triangle of music, voices and “his unpropitiatory words”. In the past Dylan has said, “I can hear the sound of what I want to say”.

Hicks has a very interesting way of organizing his book, his study of the art of Bob Dylan. Seven chapters on “The Sins”; four chapters on “The Virtues” - Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude; three chapters on “The Heavenly Graces” - Faith, Hope and Charity.

To people brought up in so-called Judeo/Christian societies these headings, combined with the notion of “sin”, might give the impression that he’s intent on some sort of religious exploration and interpretation, that he’s considering Dylan’s work through the prism of religion.

But of course there is no religious monopoly on, or religious ownership of, these words and concepts, which are, after all, human values, and belong to all of us. They belong to the world, including atheists and agnostics, Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems and the rest.

Human values are at the heart of any attempt to educate children in the art of living well, as are emotional intelligence, imagination, spiritual intelligence and creativity. A lot of the kids living feral and broken lives would be far better off listening to and studying the music and poetry of Bob Dylan everyday than they are studying what is to them irrelevant and empty subject matter that has nothing to do with their lives.

It was Springsteen who said, "I learned more from a three minute record than I ever learned at school", and there's another passionate genius whose work should be on the curriculum in every secondary school.


Last night Panorama on BBC1, and Channel 4 with three separate programmes, launched into a combined four hours of documentary, discussion and talking heads on the subjects of knife crime, teenage street gangs and broken lives. More and more kids are dying of knife wounds, and sometimes gunshots. The media is currently full of this stuff.

Dylan says that conscience can’t be relied on to be your guide - it’s you who must keep it satisfied. The comment that’s stayed in my memory from last night’s programmes is a kid saying,

“I didn’t have a conscience. I wanted to hurt people. I wanted to be ‘good‘. I wanted respect. I wanted people to be afraid of me.”

And someone else said, “You call this life? This is death out here, man”.

“Too much analyzing what’s happening just spreads fear.”

“Some of the older kids teach you bad stuff.”

And in conclusion,
“These days all people care about is themselves. Nothing’s going to happen and nothing’s going to get better unless everybody is prepared to stand up and make a difference.”

These kids are not total idiots, notwithstanding the fact that many of them lack consciences and have very little emotional or spiritual intelligence. What they also don’t have is the strength and the know-how to resist the pressures to become part of a gang or a group on the streets. They have no strategies or very few strategies to help them cope with fear, coercion and bullying.

So who’s for standing up and making a difference, as the young man suggested? Maybe no-one should have the right to an opinion on these matters unless they can explain what they are actively doing to make a difference, or unless they have a track record of making a difference before retiring from the battlefront. Unless they have a sick note to explain why they can’t be an activist. Unless they can clearly demonstrate they are making a difference.

Putting in some ground rules like this might exclude from the debate a great many loud-mouthed pundits, as well as most politicians and most civil servants and bureauk-rats too, all the vermin that scurry along the corridors of power and feed off the bounty of hard-working people, whilst despising their lifestyles, language and living conditions.

These are the highly-paid overrated fellows who specialise in scratching one another’s backs as they pontificate on the next great initiative and strategy for dealing with the troublesome proles and their feral offspring.

There are also lots of decent-minded and liberal individuals who also don’t have a clue what to do about the gathering storm. A couple of weeks ago I was listening to some BBC types, some programme-making types, talking excitedly about a documentary project that will focus on teenagers, gang culture and the need to teach kids “emotional intelligence”. There was a pause in their chatter, and then one of them, a very bright and able young woman, turned to me and said, “How do you teach emotional intelligence?” I resisted the temptation to ask her how many days she had, since I’ve spent a career trying to figure that one out.

What I can say very easily is that you can’t give someone a conscience. You can’t inoculate them from the sickness. You can’t inject them with resilience. You can’t force enlightenment on anyone.

Christ - we can’t even give them decent housing and living conditions. Simple, concrete, physical things. We can’t give them pride and self-esteem when we make them live inside chaos and decay. We can’t shield them from deprived, depressed and desperate parents. We can’t cut off their access to drugs and weapons.

But there are things we can do - in principle, very easily. We can stop putting them in schools which are no more than results factories where there is only boredom and cramming on offer. We can offer them opportunities to learn how to be creative and to love learning for its own sake. We can fill their days in school with colour and stimulation, with friendships and laughter and enjoyment. This is not rocket science.

What they increasingly have is just old-fashioned child abuse and denial of human rights dressed up as driving up standards. They know they are just pawns in a political/educational game. They know they have teachers who are too tired, too demotivated, too full of fear and too stressed to give them a smile or a chance to talk, a chance to express themselves.

And this is the real sickness in our society. Deal with this, and let the schools be managed by people who are concerned with meeting the real developmental needs of children, people who can steadfastly and patiently look after children, encourage them, allow them to learn at their own pace and in their preferred manner, and we might start to get somewhere.