A really encouraging truth is that people who are intellectually terrifying often have a wicked sense of humour. The joy that there is more than one way to relate to someone – that I don’t have to match their intellect so long as we can have a laugh.
Geoffrey Hill made me laugh during a poetry reading at the Serpentine (video posted below). Minutes before imitating the angel of Poetry who yells SOD OFF, he told London’s cultural elite:
“My belief that nothing more demonstrates the nature of the plutocratic anarchy that we are currently inhabiting than something by De Sade, such as The 120 Days of Sodom.”
At university I wrote my dissertation on his poetry and later I was blessed to become his friend. The way he used language gave words integrity.
Below I post an extract of an interview he gave and two of his poems (which happen to be my favourite).
“My interest in the Elizabethan Jesuits, and in particular Robert Southwell and Edmund Campion, is that they seem to me to be transcendently fine human beings whom one would have loved to have known. The knowledge that they could so sublimate or transcend their ordinary mortal feelings as to willingly undertake the course they took, knowing what the almost inevitable end would be, moves me to reverence for them as human beings and to a kind of absolute astonishment. The very fact that they lived ennobles the human race, which is so often ignoble.”
Funeral Music VIII
Not as we are but as we must appear,
Contractual ghosts of pity; not as we
Desire life but as they would have us live,
Set apart in timeless colloquy.
So it is required; so we bear witness,
Despite ourselves, to what is beyond us,
Each distant sphere of harmony forever
Poised, unanswerable. If it is without
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love,
How that should comfort us—or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldly place,
Crying to the end ‘I have not finished’.
What is there in my heart
that you should sue so fiercely for its love?
What kind of care brings you
as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew
seeking the heart that will not harbor you,
that keeps itself religiously secure?
At this dark solstice filled with frost and fire
your passion’s ancient wounds must bleed anew.
So many nights the angel of my house
has fed such urgent comfort through a dream,
whispered “your lord is coming, he is close”
that I have drowsed half-faithful for a time
bathed in pure tones of promise and remorse:
“tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.”
RIP Geoffrey Hill
“It doesn’t take an expert to diagnose the whole stinking system. I talk to a taxi driver from Pakistan and they’re saying the same thing as me. Everyone’s feeling it. David Attenborough’s feeling it; all the people we trust are feeling it. Can we address it? Can we inhale it? Can we withstand it?” ANOHNI
There’s something to be said about what we feel when everyone’s feeling it and how we relate to each other and to grief.
Maybe that’s the silver lining. In violence erupting on the street we see beyond our bubble and we feel what matters to us. We want people to stop being so shitty to other people and we want the future to be less of this mad dystopian energy that Brexit released.
Knowing what we don’t want – experiencing what we don’t want – reading it on our newsfeeds, having it happen to people we know. It might be the start of figuring out what kind of relationships we need to build with ourselves, between each other, to address the stinking system and withstand it.
Because this is the mess we will spend our lives sorting out. And it is probably just beginning.
One of the most serious promises I ever made was spoken between me and two others after we had known each other just 24 hours. We were together during the Ende Gelande action that shut down a coal mine and power station.
We reached a massive piece of mining machinery and climbed to the top of it. As we looked out over the vast open cast mine we felt overwhelmed by the fossil fuel industry and the absolute inadequacy of our resistance to it.
I don’t think I will ever see those two people again but this is the promise that we made:
“I promise that I will be there, physically or spiritually, as often as I can.”
One week ago we made public some ugly truths about ourselves, but it isn’t just Little England that we revealed. None of us exist in isolation and right now we are being bent into shape by our new awareness, our nationality, our shared humanity, the conversations we are having and the ways we are finding to cope.
How do I relate to myself in the world that is being revealed? And how do I relate to you – you whose fear is terrifying and in whose company hope – so slow and fragile – exists?
‘Everything starts as a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Every political movement begins as a counter-narrative to an existing narrative.’ Jeanette Winterstone
I suppose it is worth saying that we don’t have to sit on social media all day. And that if we see hate, we can oppose its isolating power through the strength of solidarity and shared love. To be encouraged that each moment we choose not to be resigned to the facts, but to recover from them instead, we are more than ourselves, we are hope.
“The truth is our world is changing and not for the better.” Patti Smith
It has been difficult to keep a clear head or heart when so much is wrong.
The massacre of the gay community in Orlando. The murder of a woman who was really good. The murder of 24 “mostly women” at a village funeral in Nigeria.
The facts of so many lives destroyed and then the despair: that we – humanity – collectively attempting to create a safe and prosperous world have created something much more brutal. The strange beauty of the world made less because such acts are possible.
What kind of people are we?
Three massacres in one week – particular people or groups of people chosen to die. Acts of terror that erupt from our society because of our context: our politics, our leaders, our culture, our direction of travel.
When Kim Leadbetter asks us to be part of her sister’s legacy she’s inviting us to be better than we have been:
“They have been vocal and passionate and have spoken from the heart with genuine emotion and no hidden agendas. We have to continue this strength and solidarity in the days, months and years to come. As part of Jo’s legacy.” Kim Leadbetter, Jo Cox’s sister.
We have been told such a relentless story of competition that it is now radical, counter-cultural, anti-capitalist and extreme just to trust that putting each other first is the only practical way to resolve our anxieties. Like if we see, accept and love the humanity in ourselves and everyone then someone somewhere is pulling the wool over our eyes.
The opposite is true. We are exhausted by a system that tells us our human value is best achieved by keeping our heads down. We lose connection – the basis of our humanity – in the obsessive individualism that engulfs our planet: the dread that my future is endangered by the flourishing of yours. When we stay distracted, when we don’t act, when we keep silent, we give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness. And when we give permission to the darkness we lose our hearts.
Paying attention is serious and can be really sad, but if we avoid it now then we lose the only silver lining – the possibility of turning pain into experience and that experience into the foundation for a different way of doing life.
Attention is an act of connection – of relating to each other and of seeing the relationships between things. Every night I write a gratitude list of ten things that happened that day because it pulls this world and my humanity into focus. It allows me to build and perceive of myself as something that is not alone – that relates to others and the world – that is connected and plugged in.
It’s never been more important.
Stretch out to resist the temptation to stay safe. We are not safer curled up inside ourselves. Stretch out and allow ourselves to be defined by others. Stretch out and connect directly with the world.
“The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us but silence.” Audrey Lorde
Tragedy has hit my community. Mine because I am queer and have experienced hate. But not mine because the experience of being Latino and poor in the USA is so far from my privilege that to comment or identify feels completely mad.
Untangling the facts of the massacre from my outrage at the media response and from the imperative to tell Facebook ‘what’s on my mind’… It feels claustrophobic with no room to experience the anguish or process the incomprehension.
“I really wish I could think of something to say that was hopeful, that was useful, that was not simply a net of rats blocking the force of the sun.” Sean Bonney
I don’t mean to condemn the posting of online responses to human tragedy, but there is something grotesque in the volume of them combined and scroll-thru-able. Facebook: the keeper of our curated self and today (or yesterday) a platform for a community’s grief.
As though the act of posting sorrow to Facebook turns a statement from grief or memorial or gut reaction into a self-conscious performance of those things. Like this blog – it’s words put together following the event to let the world know that we have an opinion about this thing: to join the debate, to prove to ourselves by the collection of ‘likes’ that our feelings are a valuable part of our self.
I have read the news and almost in the same instant I have read the news filtered through the online reactions of my peers. With each piece of information discovered, the process of mass reaction goes on repeat. The net of reactions reaches wider and the noise of mourning sounds blunt and thoughtless.
Can responding to human tragedy, to a particular oppressed group, to being oppressed ourselves and to needing to recognise our role as oppressors be adequately contained in a status update?
We don’t give ourselves a moment to be offline, free from self scrutiny, to be humans that feel and ache.
I long for solidarity marches where instagram is banned, where we must be with each other without the lens of social media, where we can stand side by side in solidarity, feel our grief free from telling our networks about it, where we can remember the dead and just feel what it is to mourn.
Because it isn’t just real contact, communication and debate that is being corroded by our constantly updating feed. If we don’t give ourselves time to process the questions then the answers we come to will always be inadequate.
Responding to fear, isolation and hatred can’t be done in the echo chamber of our online worlds. For that we need to step beyond the worlds we know and the communities we click like to. We will need to resist systems of oppression that benefit when we consume and are consumed by a world in two dimensions. We will need to meet people who scare us and get real with them.
There have been a couple of times in my life when I have felt physically very close to climate change. The first was in 2011 on a cargo ship in the Barents Sea, hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle and approaching Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost settlement.
It had been so warm on deck that I’d taken off my coat and my sweater and was standing next to the Captain, wearing a vest. That temperature, at that time of year, at that latitude, freaked me out.
It freaked me out because such uncannily warm weather in such an unspoiled environment took climate change from the remote future and made it, for me, present; its destruction inevitable and any resistance to its man-made momentum – futile.
But worse than the futility I felt about our efforts to curb climate change was the overwhelming sorrow about the total impact of the species I belong to – that we should not be trusted with the beauty and abundance of this planet. We really have wrecked it.
Two weeks ago I was looking from a local tourism viewpoint into Germany’s biggest open cast mine. This is what I saw:
It’s not often that I have to feel myself so close to climate change. Like most people in the global north I don’t experience climate change as a daily reality and the world I inhabit encourages me to sidestep awareness of and responsibility for my carbon intensive life. Although it adds up – collapsing into my anxiety and my unconscious – I can choose to forget the planet being plundered, the species’ gone extinct, the nations and peoples – on the move – who are already being devastated.
But when I resist our culture’s imperative to close my eyes and forget – when I take myself to the mine and feel that close to climate change – there is no escaping how it makes me feel.
I am hurt by the devastation of this planet to fuel a way of life that causes more stress that it does joy. It just fucking hurts. And when I tune into that reality – the reality of us so distracted by what we want that we don’t notice we are destroying what we need – well first I have to hide and hold myself tight, and then I have to do something about it, even if the something that I choose to do won’t be quantified as ‘a practical solution’ by the yard stick of this current system.
This society that tells us again and again and again to believe in a future of absolute injustice and the end of the world rather than believe, care, demand and create a society that redistributes wealth globally and stops burning fossil fuels.
To me the story of humanity that begins today with our fear of the unknown and ends – in a century or so – with social chaos and environmental collapse is a total failure of imagination.
We are extraordinarily resilient and biologically programmed for survival. We are also nothing without each other.
Later today I will join ENDE GELANDE in a camp outside Europe’s biggest lignite coal open cast mine. Over the following days we will go to the coal mine to shut it down. We will risk arrest to be part of this mass act of civil disobedience. In joining in this act I will be given grace from my feelings of despair.
Our system is built on the assumption that no disruption will topple it. Mass resistance, mass movements of peoples, massive failures of the banking system – nothing can disprove the ‘logic’ of neo-liberalism. Our system thrives when we stop believing in the creative spontaneity that exists when two or more humans connect: the faith that anything can happen and probably will.
Over the coming days I will go somewhere and be part of an environment where some thousand people might find the courage and opportunity to shut down one of Europe’s biggest polluters. That miracle of David and Goliath – over the coming days I might get to part of something like that.
There is no such thing as ‘impossible’. The ‘logic’ of the society in which we compete, and call that competition ‘life’ is unraveling. This is why I am going to the pit. In a world experiencing the impacts of climate change – to be part of moments that scrape, resist and depend upon trust and connection – it’s where I go to remember and to be part of hope.
“There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams. Dreams in which failure is feasible, honourable, sometimes even worth striving for.”
We’re told that people are sick of politics. We don’t identify with the people in the Houses of Parliament and why should we bother when we get all the identification we need via our online following or by the brands we buy.
We’re told that there is nothing that we can do to change the world. That those who imagine a different world, or who daily live an alternative within this world, are a naïve minority. The status quo is the status quo and anything different has been proven not to work so don’t imagine change as part of our future.
Our opinions and our voices are excluded from a lot of the spaces where power is defined. We are allowed to exercise dissent in a piecemeal way as one of a million consumers or one of a thousand voters. But whether we boycott or we vote with conscience, we know that our actions are a drop in the ocean and will not shake the established order or be part of a sustained movement change.
And yet – from the fringe of the political establishment – a political party is growing, faster than any party membership has for a long long time. A party that has a vision of a fair future and the policies that if put into place could take us there.
This party is unlike any of the others because it is upfront and honest about where we are now. Unlike the others which want to keep you calm and consuming; to prolong the way things are – or create an exclusive myth of how things were – the Green Party begins with science that punctures every assumption in our present way of life: our one planet can no longer support the lifestyles that the West has assured us to expect.
With this fact established the Green Party invites us all to get very deeply involved – in recognising the failures of the current system, in protesting its injustice and in building our role in what the future must be.
In a world where power is male, it is the only party that has successfully challenged barriers and enabled women to lead. It is a party that accepts the world as it is whilst pushing forward voices that are marginalised and so speak with the dreams of what a different world could be.
Excluded from the television debates, the Green Party has complicated answers to complicated questions about how we will live together and live well with fewer resources on a less hospitable planet. They do not underestimate our need for better answers to difficult questions – and our readiness to fight to rediscover a more nourishing model of human success. So as Green Party membership soars and more people are involved in dreaming and designing this world turned on its head – the establishment is left in the past, neither asking nor answering the right questions.
“I can’t change you and you can’t change me, but together we can work to change the world.”
My online world is a clash of opinions. The debate that began 2015 was ‘who should we blame for the Charlie Hebdo murders’. And now there is so much more content to debate: the cynicism and hypocrisy of the world leaders’ photo-shoot; the populist news anchor calling for retribution and more death; our Prime Minister’s sleight of hand as he demands that we give up privacy to secure our freedom.
The articles, posts and memes have spiralled in feeds that filter – for our personality – the information we receive. And then we repost as we read our most recent and most passionately held opinion reflected back at us. The hashtags trend whilst, in the real world, the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terror attack are today laid to rest.
In the time between their shooting and their funeral the online world has stopped to have its say and what a say it has had. There is no resolution just a series of ‘final words’ directed at a limitless audience with a very limited attention span, and it makes me wonder if any of us are saying anything much at all, because we are definitely not listening.
Rather than proving who we are by our actions, we so much prefer to build our identities by the likes we notch up for the opinions we post online. As though at least online we can be who we want to be, untroubled by our journey into work that we silence through our headphones, or by the exhaustion of considering who we are and who we dreamt we’d be, or by the fact that time always seems to be running out.
And still vast distances continue to open up between us and all the people who are not our facebook friends. And these distances become unreconcilable gulfs if they are left, if we do not reach across. If we continue to polarize debate by having our say on the hashtag of today – and do not get out from behind our screens to find the places that are open for us to be together and be human.
The online world is where I react to things that I cannot control. If I stay in front of my computer for too long I forget that beyond this screen there is a world where I can do more than react. That there are more important ways to define my self than by what I will and will not ‘share’. That there is a need I feel so deeply that will never be met through this carefully constructed online version of me.