11 November 2016

Songs of Love and Hate

I can’t remember when I first heard Leonard Cohen, but that deep, rich voice wells up from a long time ago. I’d heard nothing like it before.

The Songs of Leonard Cohen is that rare thing, a perfect album, every song polished and lovely. He could have just left it at ‘Suzanne’ and I’d still be in awe, but then there are another nine little masterpieces… and she feeds you tea and oranges / that come all the way from China. I’ve listened to that album so often as I went to sleep that it seems entwined in the process of my consciousness unravelling. The strange, circular narratives of ‘Master Song’ and ‘Stranger Song’ that your mind struggles to hold as you go down, Please understand I never had a secret chart to get me to the heart of this, or any other matter. Well, he talks like this, you don’t know what he’s after. When he speaks like this, you don’t care what he’s after.

He had such beautiful words. He was so fine when speaking of love and of the beauty of women. Every poem I’ve ever written to a woman felt pointless when compared to Walk me to the corner / Our steps will always rhyme or:

Beneath my hands
your small breasts
are the upturned bellies
of breathing fallen sparrows.

Wherever you move
I hear the sounds of closing wings
of falling wings.

I am speechless
because you have fallen beside me
because your eyelashes
are the spines of tiny fragile animals.

I loved the way some of his songs would find me in unexpected places. ‘Seems So Long Ago, Nancy’ always put me in mind of a particular shade of green that I associate with my mother’s childhood bedroom in my grandmother’s house, and a picture of ballerinas on the bedhead there. It seems so long ago, Nancy was alone. A forty-five beside her head, an open telephone.

He had such power. I remember reading an anecdote about Nick Cave hearing ‘Avalanche’ when he was young and being stunned that music could be like that. Such violence and blackness, Your pain is no credential here / It’s just the shadow of my wound.

He seemed a remote figure when I first heard him, but then he began to turn up in strange places. Natural Born Killers, a cover on an REM b-side. When I became interested in Zen he’d already been there. When the poet Anthony Lawrence lectured me at university he knew his own debts. When I visit Greece I’ll make sure to go to Hydra. Once again it will feel like I’m following, but Cohen is always a path worth taking.

12 September 2016

Christians: A Spotter's Guide

Christians can be divided into 5 families: the Church of the East, Oriental Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. 
Although the first two are theologically distinct, they have less than 100 million members between them, so nobody really cares. 
The Eastern Orthodox Church has 300 million members, but isn’t that interesting from a spotter’s perspective as its various species usually have boring, self-explanatory names such as the Russian Orthodox Church or the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Be aware though, if you are keeping individuals from the Eastern Orthodox Church in a caged habitat they are prone to fight when placed in close proximity. 
While Catholicism is massive, with 1.2 billion followers, species are generally small and mostly concerned with variations on the liturgies used in different countries, usually based on slightly different scriptures or using a local language to the standard ‘Catholic’ rituals. 
For the dedicated spotter, Protestantism is the equivalent of the Brazilian rainforest. Why not try your luck against the following list of the most common, easiest to spot species:

Lutherans: the whole reason there are Protestants. Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation in 1517 with his whacked out ideas – basically that scripture, and not the Catholic Church, is the final authority on matters of faith.

Calvinists: Split from the Lutherans because they don’t believe that Jesus Christ is actually in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Presbyterians: Calvinists from Scotland.

Baptists: don’t baptise babies because babies don’t know what’s going on. If you want to get baptised you have to ask.

Anabaptists: same as the Baptists but they came up with the idea separately.

Anglicans: basically the broader name for the Church of England. It started when Henry VIII renounced papal authority so he could divorce Catherine of Aragon in 1533. It incorporated elements of both Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation via acts of parliament in 1558 and 1559. 

Methodists: split from the Anglicans because they don’t believe that all events have been willed by God.

Pentecostals: emerged from Methodism. They believe that the Bible is literally true and in such things as divine healing and speaking in tongues.

Quakers: Split from the Anglicans. They believe that you can access God directly. No priests are required as intermediaries.

Seventh Day Adventists: grew out of the Millerites (who grew out of the Baptists). Jesus is coming back in the very near future and Saturday, not Sunday, is the proper holy day.

Mormons: believe God revealed himself to Joseph Smith. Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830 as a complement to the Bible.

Jehovah’s Witnesses: look back to the early church. Believe Armageddon is just around the corner.

Unitarians: believe there’s just one God, not a trinity.

1 September 2016

Global Warming and Freezing to Death

“Are you worried about global warming?” asked Gerry. The sun was approaching the horizon and the whole world seemed daubed in red. Behind him the Berg glowed pink.
“You do realise it’s minus fifteen?”
“You know what I mean. Climate change.”
“I don’t think so,” said the Berg. “I’ve been around a long time… but before I was me I must have been snow and before that, water. If I melt I’ll just be water again.”
“That’s very philosophical of you.”
“I can feel it happening sometimes.”
Gerry looked at the enormous mass of ice looming over the boat. “What? Melting?”
“Maybe…  You know water is just H2O. Well, H2O is a funny old molecule.”
“You’re in a funny old mood. What do you mean?”
“Maybe it’s the sunset… “
Gerry snorted. “You were telling me about H2O.”
“Well there’s an oxygen atom, and two hydrogens, and they stick together because the hydrogens each share an electron with the oxygen – a covalent bond. They stick on like the ears on a Mickey Mouse hat. But the ears are a bit askew, and so the electrical charges are also a bit askew, so one end of the molecule is electrically positive and the other is negative. This means that each water molecule is attracted to those around it and they bond together with what are called hydrogen bonds. They’re not separate, but stick together in a giant cluster, a gel.”
“I think I’ve read this somewhere. More like one big molecule?”
“Sort of, but the bonds break and reform very quickly – under 200 femtoseconds. Anyway, all this means water has some odd properties – a very high boiling point for its weight, high surface tension… it’s why I float!”
The colour had drained from the sea and from the sky while the Berg talked. A cold wind made the suddenly slate sea break into chop. The hollow sound echoed up from where it slapped against the hull.
“That’s what I feel sometimes,” said the Berg. “The hydrogen bonds inside me are locked down, but on my surface, where I touch the water and the air, they’re fizzing away, spreading me out… ‘oceanic boundlessness’ as Freud might’ve said.”
Gerry regarded the Berg with sadness. “I’m sorry we’re melting you, we’re horrible sometimes.”
The Berg groaned and cracked like a gunshot. The water all around shivered.
“Ha! That’s very polite of you. I’ll last a bit longer yet though. My hydrogen bonds are very stable. It takes the same amount of energy to warm me from -160°C up to 0°C as it does to melt me.”
“Really? Wow.”
A silence fell between them. The sun was long gone. Hard, brilliant stars were appearing overhead. Gerry couldn’t feel his toes any more.
“You know,” said the Berg eventually, “you’re looking much healthier than you have been.”
“I’ve been eating O’Neill.”
“When the lifeboat capsized his was the only body I could fish out. He’s been frozen down in the hold ever since.”
“Hmmm. What does he taste like?”
“I’ve got nothing to cook him with. Frozen, hairy, greasy, horrific pork? I don’t know. I can taste him in my mouth all the time but I’m trying not to think about it.”
“Sorry. I suppose it’s a bit like me and the water.”
“Just shut up, ok?”