Monthly Archives: November 2013


Where are the Gods?

Thucydides, the great historian of the war between Sparta and Athens, gives an account of the fate of the Athenian prisoners captured by Syracuse after the disaster of the Sicilian expedition. They were imprisoned in a stone quarry, now converted into an elegant garden, deprived of food and drink and exposed to the chill of the night and the heat of the sun. Those who survived were later led off to be executed or sold into slavery, but Plutarch adds a curious detail. He writes that the fastidious and plainly refined Syracusans spared the life of those Athenians who were able to recite a passage from one of plays of Euripides.

It is an idle fancy to wonder why the Syracusans chose Euripides as the life or death test, but let us advance the (implausible) hypothesis that it was because they saw the plight of the defeated, enslaved Athenians as similar to that of the Trojans in such works as The Trojan Women, later adapted as an opera by Berlioz, or Hecuba, the work which gives rise to these musings. Hecuba was revived in a deeply moving, magnificent production in October by Dundee Rep in a version prepared by Frank McGuinness from a so-called ‘literal’ translation by Fionnuala Murphy.

In considering the individual contributors, we can only give Ms Murphy our gratitude. McGuinness is a professional playwright in the best sense, that of being an all-round man of the theatre. Born in Ulster but now resident in Dublin, he is author of masterly original works, some of which examine the plight of the divided community in which he grew up, notably Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching to the Somme, which looks at the Protestant-Loyalist-Unionist community, and its twin work, The Carthaginians, which performs the same operation on the Catholic population. His most recent play, The Hanging Gardens, which ran at the Abbey during this autumn’s Dublin Theatre Festival, has a title which recalls classical civilisation, but whose protagonist is an ageing Irish writer whose powers and memory are failing and who calls his family around him for what seems like a final reckoning. While the reminiscences of classical theatre are a frequent undertow to many of McGuinness’s works, there are many more strands, including humour and incisive emotional insight, to his creativity. At the same time, he has executed adaptations or versions of Ibsen, Brecht, Chekhov and many others. 

The modern reputation of Euripides has, in academic circles, suffered a dip as compared to that of Aeschylus and Sophocles, but his works, especially The Bacchae which was performed by the National Theatre of Scotland with Alan Cumming as Dionysus, are intriguing, multi-layered probes into dark corners of the human psyche. He was mocked and parodied by Aristophanes in his comedies, which is itself a left-handed compliment. He has a unique talent, unknown to his fellow tragedians, for giving some kind of sense of daily life as it was and of recognisable conversation as it was spoken, while also portraying human beings in the most desperate of circumstances and in the grips of the most ferocious and murderous of passions.

Although this Hecuba is described as a version, it is faithful to the plot of the original, but the language is cast in a contemporary idiom which never jars as many printed translations do. Since the work contains passages of dialogue and argument as well as elegiac lyrics, McGuinness veers between street talk, as when Hecuba scathingly refers to Agamemnon as ‘shacking up with Cassandra,’ to passages of more stately but never cloying verse fitting for the anguished reprimands to the indifferent gods. ‘Have the gods sanctified such suffering,’ asks Hecuba, giving voice to the recurrent refrain in this tragedy. Where are the gods? Why are they passive? Can they intervene and refuse to do so, or are they divine but impotent? Euripides appears at best agnostic about the power of the gods, and disdainful of their supposed benevolence towards humanity.

Since there is nothing so eternal or so human as what, self-deceptively, we like to call ‘inhumanity,’ updating of this work is unnecessary. The motivations of the people in this play are ugly and the subject the capacity of human beings to commit demonic, evil acts. The war in this version, as in the original, is the Siege of Troy and its aftermath, so there is none of the heavy updating attempted by French writers of the 1930s, such as Jean Giraudoux with his clumsy The War of Troy Will not Take Place. However, although the characters carry the names given them when the play was first seen in Athens in the fifth century BC, the director (Armanda Gaughan) and the designer (Leila Kalbassi) issue an invitation to draw parallels with more recent episodes of international conflict and savagery. A background sound track carries crackling messages on an old walkie-talkie, interspersed with the ra-ta-tat of a machine gun and martial words spoken in the accents of one of the Bushes or Winston Churchill about ‘inevitable victory’ or ‘defence of our values and way of life’. The rubble, human and material, of warfare is the same in occupied Berlin or Bagdad as in Troy, or in Thrace, where the Greek fleet is marooned and the action unfolds.

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Only one figure, a woman lying asleep or dead, is onstage at the opening, but from the destroyed pathway a hand and then a ghostly figure, covered with blood and dust, emerges. In Euripides he was a ghost. Here he may be a dream apparition, but he is Polydorus (played powerfully by Ncuti Gatwa), son of Hecuba and Priam, who had been smuggled out of Troy to the court of Polymestor, King of Thrace, for his own safety but had been treacherously murdered for the gold he had had in his possession. His speech informs the audience, but not his unconscious mother, not only of the catalogue of past catastrophes but also of those which will follow. Greek theatre was never interested in the build-up of dramatic tension through the carefully calibrated revelation of what was previously known only to the author. Since the source was myth, the audience was already aware of the main lines of the plot. What mattered was the vision of the cosmos offered by the individual writer, the unravelling of character and the clash of ‘man with more than man,’ in the Sophoclean formula.

Hecuba does not rest, as does Oedipus, on some notion of an ineluctable, irresistible, superhuman fate. Human beings make decisions and consequences follow, might is not right but those in power behave callously, those without power endure stoically or react spitefully, justice is not a force among human beings, male or female. One of the attractions of Euripides for modern companies is that he wrote towering parts for women, but these women are as capable of savagery as any man. There is no support for the slack, modern idea that violence is peculiarly male, and that women in power would behave with greater temperance. Hecuba is out for vengeance, and her vengeance is as terrible as the provocation suffered and the offence afflicted on her. Euripides offers nought for our comfort as he surveys and dissects the human animal. Watching his tragedy unfold is the intellectual and moral equivalent of enduring the shock and awe of aerial bombardment.

Instead of existential fate, Euripides’s vision is founded on a notion of the precariousness of the individual hold on happiness, status, wellbeing, stability. ‘Is there nothing but chaos and change?’ asks Talthybius, played by Ali Craig as the no-nonsense soldier. Hecuba had been not only wife and mother but she had been queen in a prosperous city, and in one day all had been taken away from her, leaving her reduced to the most humiliating of all positions in a Greek worldview, that of slave. ‘Troy is ours now,’ jeers Odysseus to the pleading, subjugated Hecuba, while the chorus of Trojan women intone ‘we are the vanquished.’ Maybe the Geneva Convention and the principle of prisoners’ right, now under threat, was the greatest step forward taken by humankind. Here the part of the chorus is taken by one actress, Emily Winter, quite excellent throughout as she recites or chants probing words on the immediate action and on its wider ramifications.

Euripides focuses on the suffering of the defeated Trojans, and allows no ethical superiority to his fellow Greeks. Callum O’Neill plays both Odysseus and Agamemnon, the first as a slippery, devious shyster and the other as the bluff commissar, not capable of the weaker emotions, like genuine pity. Hecuba is the mater dolorosa, the victim of unimaginable pain but, unlike her Christian counterpart, determined to have blood for blood. Her daughter Polyxena is taken off by the Greeks to be ritually sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles to appease his spirit. In the original, she was haughty and defiant, telling her mother not to grieve as she went to die, but that attitude clashes with modern expectations of how that ordeal could be faced, and although the messenger’s account of her death has her cowing her executioners by defiantly ripping her dress to expose her breasts to the sword, Caroline Deyga makes her more fearful and frankly terrified as she is dragged off. That is not the end of Hecuba’s tragedy, for the chorus dispatched to bring sea water to allow her to bathe her daughter’s body before cremation, returns with the body of her son, Polydorus, who, unknown to her, had been already killed by Polymestor.

This act horrifies even the Greeks, but the vacillating Agamemnon will not respond. These closing scenes are among the most chilling but also most engrossing in theatre. McGuinness rises to the challenge of finding the appropriate register first for the political double talk of Agamemnon as he makes excuses for inaction, then for the polite meaningful words by which Hecuba calms the puzzled Polymestor as he arrives after receiving a summons, even explaining why she required his son to be there at his side. Her aim is vengeance, not justice. No court or judge is called, as happens in other tragedies. Hecuba shows no mercy as she kills Polymestor’s son and gouges out the eyes of the murderer himself. The ending is more terrible than in King Lear, for this is absolute tragedy, total blackness, in which there may be a settling of accounts but only as they are settled in a wolf pack, with the Chorus’s intoning words about ‘the pleasure of revenge’. There is no reconciliation, no justice, no final gentleness, and no catharsis. Even the closing prophecies are of dire days ahead – the killing of Agamemnon on his homecoming by the betrayed Clytemnestra, the death of Cassandra and the transformation of Hecuba into a bitch before her own death. I cannot see the uplift which tragedy is said to provide, and yet as we stumble or reel out of the theatre, we are aware of having undergone a strong, disruptive theatrical and moral experience which entails rearranging the litter of our own minds.

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However, I had the impression that the sheer blackness was too much for most of the cast most of the time. They were good, but there is one extra dimension they could not quite attain. I remember seeing Eartha Kitt decades ago play Hecuba in The Trojan Women in an Edinburgh Festival production, a performance of uninhibited rage and despair, with screams and cataleptic weeping as each new horror was visited on her. That is not the way of this company, who had plainly decided not to indulge in uncontrolled emotional response, but at times, a more forceful, less restrained reaction would have been in order. But none of this should be taken as a criticism of Irene MacDougall as protagonist. At times, standing observing with indifferent immobility as when the blinded Polymestor crawls on the ground, at others giving evidence of pain beyond endurance, and at others driven to uncomprehending despair, she was immense throughout.

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The SRB Interview: Richard Holloway

Richard Holloway is the author of more than twenty books, including Godless Morality: How to Keep Religion out of Ethics, Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity, Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning and Between the Monster and the Saint: Reflections on the Human Condition. His most recent is Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. It documents his education in an Anglo-Catholic monastery, his subsequent life in the Anglican church and his wavering dedication to his religious beliefs. His latest publication is a pamphlet entitled A Plea for a Secular Scotland.

He was the Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church until his resignation in 2000 and Chairman of the Scottish Arts Council from 2005-2010. In 2009 he was guest director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He is currently Chairman of Sistema Scotland, a charity that seeks to use the power of the orchestra to help and inspire disadvantaged young people.

Nick Major met Richard Holloway at his house in Edinburgh. They sat in an alcove in the sitting room, overlooking a cold wet street. Outside the persistent wind sent autumn leaves swirling into the air. Holloway, dressed in orange cord trousers and a black jumper, peppered his conversation with illustrative quotes from philosophy and religion. An unguarded enthusiasm for life was reflected in his frequently rhapsodic tone and a desire to unpack each problem he faced in search for some underlying meaning. His Border terrier, Daisy, kept guard over proceedings.

Scottish Review of Books: Aged fourteen you went to live in an Anglo-Catholic monastery for six years. That was a bold move, especially as you were quite young and didn’t come from a particularly religious family. There didn’t seem to be much debate about whether you were going or not. You just dived straight in.

Richard Holloway: Well, I tend to be impulsive. I’m a reckless kind of person anyway. I tend to make big decisions instinctively and sometimes I regret them. I didn’t regret that one. I don’t know what my life would have been like. I was scheduled to leave school at fourteen and I don’t know what would have become of me, whether the capacities I had would have been allowed to flourish in some other way. Anyway I’m enough of a Nietzschean to say that there’s no point in repining. You have to say yes to the life you’ve lived. It’s the life you chose, with all its flaws and mistakes, you have to say yes to that. But I think it opened me out, it educated me in an eccentric kind of a way. And one of the things about Kelham was that HK [Herbert Hamilton Kelly], the founder, was a maverick, a bit of a failure in his own eyes; he did instil into the ethos of the place a kind of scepticism towards human institutions, including religion.

It wasn’t how I imagined a monastic life to be.

It was an interesting, eccentric place for that reason. In many ways the Old Man [HK] thought the biggest rival to God was religion because religion is a human construct and its greatest danger is idolatry – making absolute that which is relative, that which is human. The illusiveness where HK was concerned was that only God was God but you didn’t know whether you were getting God or simply getting a projection of yet another human fantasy, which is why I hold things lightly and have a kind of scepticism about religious claims, human claims. There’s something almost Zen-like about it – that you never knew the word of God for sure but you had to do it.

There is this idea that God is just another voice in your head and you should listen to it but not necessarily do what it says.

But I still agree with Wittgenstein: there is something weird about being, the fact that there is something and not just nothing…there is something weird about the being of being. I agree with Wittgenstein when he said: when every conceivable, every possible scientific question has been answered the problem remains. Which is why we’re sitting here talking about this stuff still and will be in the next two, three thousand years. It’s these funny human brains we’ve got with the capacity for asking these impossible-to-answer questions.

Could you give an overview of how you started writing Leaving Alexandria?

It was the insistent going back to that graveyard [Kelham]. I did that over the years and in 2009 I took my notebook with me and decided I would write the day and that became the prologue – try and figure out why I was going back to that graveyard and weeping, essentially. I spent a couple of nights at the little hotel across the road from Kelham and just sort of wandered around and soaked up the atmosphere and sat down. It was lovely weather and I took notes of my reactions and then described that particular day. I wrote that up partly to clear my head, I think. Because I never really planned to write anything like this. It’s a memoir, not an autobiography. A memoir is a very different kind of form, at least as far as I’m concerned. It’s not a piece of self-justification which a lot of autobiographies are, which is why they are mostly written by politicians.

It was a piece of self-excavation, an attempt to try and discover a self. Kierkegaard said we live our lives forward and we understand our lives backwards. It was an attempt to try and look back, figure out why I left all those places. Hence the Leaving Alexandria motif. And then the book wrote itself. It was very helpfully edited by Nick Davies, who was then my editor at Canongate. I wrote it slowly over two years and it came in that kind of thematic rather than chronological way. And it was written after I’d reached the stage of peace and clarity about all this in which I was away from any kind of church commitment for about five years. I needed that sabbatical to clear my head. I inched my way back to what I call a position of agnostic Christianity where I’m still a religious person. I still practise but I hold the thing more as poetry than as prose, but it’s still clearly important to me to hold it. The epilogue hints at that because I’m back at Old Saint Paul’s as a sort of lay person. I occasionally will preach. I’ve got a narrow bandwidth within which I can still preach fairly honestly in a kind of Christian humanistic way. I can use God–language as a kind of way of talking about a search for ultimate meaning. I can even use it in ways that suit other people for their needs rather than for mine. But I’m in a fairly relaxed position about it now. I’m happy to live in a state of unknowing about ultimate reality.

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The sense I got from a book like Between the Monster and the Saint is that now, for you, religion serves best not as doctrine but as art. Something on the level of fiction that can cast light on human meaning.

Both myth and fiction are words that get misunderstood. Fiction is something you make to express meaning because great fiction is about life. Myth does that as opposed to science. You know the famous distinction between Mythos and Logos? And that’s why we can still read ancient myths with meaning but we can’t read ancient science now. I think the thing that’s unique to the human animal as far as I can see is that we do ask these big questions of the meaning of our own existence. And religion has been one of the ways they have been traditionally answered. But I think religion has tended to misunderstand its own answers and has tried to scientize them. Nietzsche was good at this. He said you kill a myth when you historicize it. You kill the story of Adam and Eve when you say it actually happened. But when you recognize that it’s a myth, you recognize it’s still happening here. People are discontented and losing and walking away and all of that. I’ve reached that stage when I don’t try to hammer the way I hold these things into anyone else. And I resist them trying to hold the way they hold things by hammering it into me. I simply say: this is the way I now see things.

You’re quite fond of Friedrich Nietzsche aren’t you?

I’ve got a superstition: I never write a book without a quote from Nietzsche. He’s my rabbit’s foot in the racing car.

Is the historicizing of myth becoming more popular? You can see it with the rise of religious fundamentalism. I was wondering what your thoughts on that are, especially as you’ve recently written a pamphlet entitled A Plea for a Secular Scotland. Do you think there’s a connection between the two? As society becomes increasingly secular groups like religious fundamentalists or, at the other extreme, militant atheists, become more entrenched in their respective positions.

I think you’ve put your finger right on it. All this stuff is so intrinsically uncertain and uncertainty is very frightening for a lot of people. It’s a well-known psychological trope. Adam Phillips writes very movingly about it, that over–certainty, fanaticism, are ways you handle the big uncertain hole inside you that you can’t live with. And so you manufacture these certainties either of a negative or a positive sort. I think you’re seeing in a funny kind of way the Punch and Judy, the mirror image of, the extreme fundamentalists and the extreme atheists. They’re not unlike each other in their fanaticism to sort other people out, to clear religion out or to impose a particularly tight version of religion. It’s no accident that in a time of rapid change and uncertainty the religious groups that are growing are the fundamentalist ones because they give this package. They give an answer to every question. If that’s what you want: if you want to live with every question answered rather than questioning every answer, which I think is a much more exciting way to live, then you will get that and those religions. I don’t particularly mind them doing that. Frank Sinatra said he believed in anything that got him through the night. Anything that gets people through life. Where I depart from them, and I have to challenge them, is if their certainties start punishing and being cruel to other people and the trouble with a lot of hyper-certain fundamentalist religion is that it’s extremely cruel. It actually hurts people. I don’t just mean psychologically. It can blow people up. It can have them beaten up because they’re gay, all of that. That’s why I’ve reached a stage in my life when if I preach anything at all I preach the beauty and the tenderness of uncertainty and provisionality, except when you have to challenge manifest evil, when I think you really have to be strong. You can let almost anything go except people hurting your brothers and sisters.

Do you think there should be a change in terms of the debate? Using terms like ‘manifest evil’ is rooted in a Christian world-view. Often religious fundamentalists are fuelled by a battle between good and evil.

Language is always a problem. John Gray says it’s our original sin. Once you create language you create ideas. Once you create ideas you create opposing ideas. And you create uncertainty and people kill each other over them. You could do it over politics as well as over religion. I use the term manifest evil because it means a visible evil. I think you have to say that some things are evil. I think it’s clearly evil to rape and torment a two-year-old girl because you happen to have those particular tendencies. You may be able to explain it. The person who did it may himself have similarly gone through that experience. The abduction of children, the blowing up of innocent civilians, enslaving – I agree with Hobbes in many ways, in a very pessimistic view of human history. It is a history of folly, of cruelty, of punishment. But it’s also a history of the possibility of challenging those. I don’t believe we are on a progressive linear curve but I do think there can be improvements. If I were a woman I would rather live in this society now than when my mother was a child. If I were gay I’d rather live in Scotland than in Uganda.

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I’m interested in why humans are cruel to one another. Often it’s seen that evil is rooted in religion rather than a part of human nature. How far do you think evil comes from religion and how much is it just a part of us?

I think it’s a human reality but it can be amplified by religious modalities. We disagree and we conflict with each other on many many many issues. The problem with specifically religious angles on that is that they tend to load normal disagreements with the transcendental factor, the divine factor, and it makes it very difficult to challenge. If God is telling you to blow up someone or if God is telling you to stone a fag or to wrap a woman in a black blanket it’s difficult to challenge that if they have internalised that completely. Which is one reason why I think it’s important for our society to operate morally and politically on as secular a realm as it can because at least you can then challenge these things.

Take a simple modest issue like gay marriage. I think the Scottish government handled this very well because they said to religions: we realise that you guys will probably not allow yourself to do this because it goes against your rules and your ontologies and your metaphysics. We’ll respect that and we’re not going to force that, in spite of your anxiety about being taken to the European Court. But our tenderness towards you must be reciprocated. Because you do not have the right to veto people who do not have a religion, who do not believe in your God, or because they have a God that affirms gay marriage…the Unitarians and the Quakers and the Pagans should be allowed to go ahead and do this. What gives you the right to impose your God’s veto on the paradigms of other people?

I think religion has shown itself to be pretty ungenerous and ungrateful in Britain on these big debates, because it’s afforded a lot of space. It’s allowed opt-outs from equalities legislation. You can’t take it to court because it doesn’t ordain women – it’s not a job they would say! So, I think on the whole secular governments in Europe have been actually very magnanimous towards religion, partly because they realise that human history is very messy. But I think there has to be a bit of that reciprocity and so I wrote that little pamphlet for the Saltire Society partly in response to the way the gay marriage debate had gone in Scotland.

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Do you think that in order to be truly secular Scotland would have to be independent or could it be a secular nation within the UK? It seems strange to have a secular nation within Great Britain when we still have, for instance, the House of Lords.

If independence comes and we create a Scottish constitution then we get a chance to write on that blank sheet of paper that you don’t often get in history. At the moment I’ll be relaxed about whatever happens. That pamphlet in particular had one eye on the independence debate but I think it’s an argument that also applies to Britain as well as to Scotland, with the proviso that I keep making when I’m talking about these things with people that we’re in the middle – being a movie fan I always use this metaphor – we’re in the middle of the movie. Human history is a movie that has been going for a long time. Big debates, for instance, about the role of churches and church leaders on education committees in Scotland come out of the fact that most education was run by the church in Scotland until fairly recently so inevitably you have remnants and residues of that previous paradigm. You don’t ever get a shot at just scrapping the past and starting all over again and so it’s messy. But on the whole I think the current thinking – and it should be managed with humour and with a certain amount of carefulness – is towards running these institutions on secular terms, in terms of this world’s realities.

England, which has an established church in the way that Scotland doesn’t, which has bishops in the House of Lords, unelected, these are all parts of the long history. There has been a fair amount of reform in the House of Lords if we’re talking about that. But it seems an almost intractable problem because every new reform seems to make it bigger and weirder. I suspect that the bishops in the House of Lords will go in time. The way the British bit handles this stuff on the whole is by way of an improvisational institutional jazz approach. We’re a bit reluctant – and this is the British bit of me – to establish things on an ideological basis, we’re a bit pragmatic and I actually quite like that. I’m the opposite of an ideologue who knows what a pure culture would look like, a pure politics, a pure religion, and applies it. I agree with John Gray; the trouble with those things is that you usually have to get a lot of people out of the way to establish it. It seems to me often a choice between a good-natured muddle and a cruel clarity.


On the topic of secularism and education: how would religion fit in to a secular education? At the moment you have free schools being set up which base their teaching on religious doctrine, which I disagree with. On the other hand you don’t want to lose the importance of religion. I had a secular education and when I came out of college I knew next-to-nothing about Christianity, which is a problem if you want to study culture.

Again, it’s untidy. It might appear inconsistent: I don’t approve of the opening of faith schools on the rates as it were. I can understand from the mess of history how it happened. I can understand how Catholic education got going in Scotland because they were prejudiced against. They had to set up Catholic schools because of all the anti-Irish sentiment in Scotland. It was very ugly, it was very prejudicial and they had to do that to protect their own children. They have created a very good school system that a lot of secular people quite like, because they like some aspects of the discipline of it. It’s an example again of the way this is muddled and untidy. I think you can tolerate what came out of the past because it was conditioned by the realities of 50, 60, 100 years ago. I think it’s quite another thing to establish new variants of faith schools simply because we had them in the past. I think that consistency is unnecessary. Faith communities have the right to set up their own schools as voluntary associations paid for by the parents, but I have reservations about some aspects of the free school movement, particularly in England – Islamic schools, Creationist schools. I wish we could keep religion out of the new bit of this while understanding that okay, it came out of history and the old bit and we can’t tidy that up. But why do we go on running this old fashioned approach into the future?

To go to your other question about religion and human culture: I do think that because of the nervousness about all of this it’s quite difficult to teach religion in ways that don’t irritate atheists and secularists. I have been quite impressed by what I’ve seen in moral and religious education at the secondary level in Scottish schools. I’ve been impressed by quite a few of the teachers I’ve met, who teach it philosophically. I think it can be done well without imposing it confessionally on people. It’s not easily done. But when you think that these are the big existential problems we all argue about: where do morals come from? What is the best form of the good society? How should we respond to the elderly? What about people who want assistance to die? What about the ethics of aborting? All of those things. They are exciting to discuss and they are inescapable and religion makes a contribution to those because they tend to come at them from a confessional angle. You can look at these things in many different ways. I would quite often go into secondary schools and talk to fifth, sixth formers about these issues and they were always passionate about this stuff because it’s about being human.


Sometimes there is a misconception that secular nations are less religious. But is it not the case that secular nations operate on a kind of religious pluralism?

Voltaire said if you have two religions they will be at each other’s throat and if you have thirty religions they’ll live in peace. That’s what happened in post-Enlightenment Europe and it’s one reason why religion bedevils a lot of patriarchal and theocratic societies still because they are always having to do down other religions, hold other religions in check. Whereas all religions are allowed to flourish in our country provided they are not breaking the law. If a religion imposed female circumcision – that’s against the law in this country. Most of it is argued for on a kind of cultural basis but there may be deep religious angles to that as well. But in my experience secular governments bend over backwards to allow religions the space to operate their norms provided they are not spinning over. It’s very interesting to watch the debate about male circumcision that we’re beginning to tiptoe around. I read the Guardian, as you would expect, and various articles tiptoe around that.


I don’t know about that debate.

People are nervous about it because it’s the baptism rite of the Jewish community and of various other communities as well. There are people who are beginning to argue that it’s imposing a cruel religious rite on children – it imposes pain, there’s no rational need for it. I don’t know where my own mind is on this. But Giles Fraser, who is a Christian priest, ethnically Jewish, wrote a piece a few months ago justifying the circumcision of infant Jews because it is the sacrament of being Jewish. But I know liberal Jews who are now beginning to say you could have a spiritual circumcision, you don’t need to see that as a surgical operation. I’m not taking sides on this but it’s an example of the way a religious norm can suddenly start upsetting people precisely because it appears to be an intrusion into the lives of the innocent, a bit like female circumcision. The terrible thing about female circumcision is that it removes sexual pleasure from a woman, I understand, whereas male circumcision doesn’t. Although there are people who say the uncircumcised get more fun than the circumcised – but how could you possibly compare!


In the late 1990s you were patron of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and you came under verbal attack from some African and American bishops at the Lambeth Communion in 1998. A lot of the homophobic attitude in African culture seems to come from a hatred of sodomy. Do you think that’s an impact of Christian missionaries, a colonial imposition that African religion has internalized?

I wonder if that’s what’s going on here. I mean it think it’s probably pre-Christian. I remember an African academic at Lambeth ’98 after the African bishops had done this big challenge and she said what was really going on there was in a sense a kind of male supremacist sexuality and that’s why I quoted Andrea Dworkin because she’s good at this. She says: men fuck, women get fucked. And if you get fucked as a man then you’re not a man. Now I think a lot of that is atavistic – that’s kind of pre-Christian almost. Okay you put a kind of Christian gloss on it – not that there is a lot about sodomy in the Bible. If a man lies with a man as with a woman it is an abomination. That’s in the book of Leviticus. There are little bits in the Letter to the Romans. It doesn’t come in to the Gospels at all. So it’s never very overt and of course in Leviticus there are lots of things that are an abomination on the same level. Eating lobsters is on the same level…


I’ve read Leviticus and there are some strange ideas in it…

It’s to do with purity stuff…so I’m not sure that I would buy that particular diagnosis: why would Christian preachers in the 19th Century be talking about sodomy much at all? Because there was no out gay community to challenge it. It was almost implicit in the culture so I’m not sure. I think Africa is a very homophobic continent. I think South Africa is an exception but I think it must be deep in that particular culture as it was, of course, deep in our own culture until it was challenged by gay people themselves.


Until quite recently.

My God, within living memory. And the culture I grew up in was a kind of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ kind of culture. There was always a gay subculture and it recognised each other and it probably operated transgressively and riskily and it was only with twentieth century liberationist movements that it actually started challenging attitudes. I can remember the Wolfenden Report and we didn’t decriminalise homosexuality in Scotland until 1980. Eddie Morgan came out when he was 70 and he was Scotland’s greatest poet of the twentieth century. I think you probably find it in most cultures. In most places in the world it’s still probably pretty tough to be gay.

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Where do you stand politically?

I resigned from the Labour Party over the Iraq war, like a lot of people. I was a member of the Labour Party and I suppose like a lot of Scots, I thought the Labour Party – especially the post-1945 Labour Party – delivered many goods to my people. They created a welfare state; they helped my own people out of poverty into something richer and more creative. I can remember election day 1945 when Labour swept in. The Vale of Leven, which was a fairly left-wing community, was rejoicing over that.

I joined the Labour Party and I was thrilled when they got back in in 1997, but I became very disillusioned over the Iraq war. I marched against it like a lot of people. I’m still appalled by it. I’m appalled by the adventures in Afghanistan. We have no option but to do politics but politics like everything human is messy and conformist and is subject to a lot of folly. I think the war on drugs is folly. I think most military adventures are folly. Human nature is capable of enormous folly.

But nevertheless I think there is no option but to do politics and in a democracy we all do politics. I quite admire, on the whole, most of the politicians I know. I think they can get trapped in ideologies and I resent the way they can get trapped in faith positions. I know a lot about those traps and so when I watch politicians arguing from the party policy document, which is a creed, I say: why can’t you tell us what you really think? But it’s as difficult for them to do that as it is for clergy because they’re sworn to a creed. It’s creeds that do me in because I think nothing in human history can be boxed in as tightly as that. But I understand the need for them because that’s the way parties operate.

So where I am politically at the moment in Scotland is that I voted SNP in the last Holyrood elections because I liked the way they ran things. I think what I want to go for is a kind of a competence that cares for the good of the total human community. I know a lot of politics is about interests but my interests would lie on doing the most good for the most people and so I’d be a kind of standard fairly left-of-centre kind of person without any very fixed ideological wave. We can all agree on the end but disagree on the means to achieve the end. I’m undecided about how to vote on the referendum. I’ve got a classically Scottish divided mind: the Caledonian antisyzygy. And in many ways I don’t want to too-quickly resolve that.

I’ll be comfortable no matter what happens after 2014. I’m a bit irritated by some aspects of the debate that’s going on but it’s probably an important debate to have. So I’m this queer mixture of wanting the best but knowing we never get the best and that’s because we’re not the best. I’m not the best, politicians aren’t the best. So again, a little bit of creative muddle, a little bit of jazz. Jazz is my favourite metaphor for everything!


When you were Rector of Old Saint Paul’s you did a lot of work with the homeless community. You helped set up Shelter in Edinburgh and soup kitchens among other things, all to help improve the lives of people on the margins. In the current situation of public sector cuts do you think there is a reversal going on for the homeless community? Is the work you and your colleagues did unravelling?

I think there is a new cruelty in UK politics. There’s a well-known mantra: it’s the rich that got us into the pickle were in and it’s the poor who are paying to get us out, which is one reason why I think the more I watch Westminster politics the more I can see it having a rebound impact on the referendum next year. On the other hand I think we can also trap ourselves into political responses that become institutionalised. It’s one reason why I started a movement called Sistema Scotland. We’re working in Raploch and Govanhill and we’ll open in other areas because it seems to me that what we can do in those communities is give the children back a kind of dignity and discipline through the joy of music, through the communism of the orchestra, and build joy and purpose into their lives.

There’s much that art and culture can do that politics can’t do. I think it can reinforce the dignity and discipline of individuals. I think this is a constant struggle; we have to be constantly working to better ourselves. We also have to recognise that very often the solutions for one generation become problems for a subsequent generation. There’s no doubt at all that we have created a system in Scotland whereby a lot of people are locked into a welfare dependency. I think the Westminster government’s attempts to get out of it are cruel and will not succeed because they are trying to microwave a rapid way out of a problem that accreted very slowly over generations and I think we can only get people out of it over generations. Politicians tend to go for quick solutions to slowly built problems – that’s why they never succeed because politicians are impatient and what I think that we need is a slow patient rebuilding of these communities and I think one of the – it’s counterintuitive – but I think the Sistema movement is proving that that can happen.


Can art alleviate the underlying socio-economic conditions in a community? If you don’t address that problem is it just a temporary fix?

I know what you’re coming at here but I think what this seems to be doing is empowering those communities to respond to this surrounding inequality by giving them strength of purpose in their own hearts and minds, by in a sense educating them to handle it better, because the worst combination is persistent poverty, inequality, and low self-esteem and little education. That is a toxic tsunami of a mix that adds up to misery – an intense waste of human resources. Whereas the counterintuitive side of this is: you liberate those children into art and creativity and their whole personality begins to fizz and they’re able to respond to the surrounding misery creatively.


You were chairman of the Scottish Arts Council for five years and Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival for one year. There is a big debate at the moment concerning cultural funding for arts bodies and institutions in Scotland. One argument is that the people currently at the top of these organisations don’t have sufficient knowledge of Scottish art and culture. Do you agree?

Yes and no. There’s no doubt at all that there is an indigenous Scottish culture, there’s a particular vibe up here. I see it in a different department. I see it when clergy from England come to work in the Scottish Episcopal Church – my church – they very often don’t get it. They think it just is an extension of England. It isn’t. I suppose it so happens that a number of our big cultural institutions over the years have been led by people who have come from outside Scotland and that can sometimes I think be over-interpreted or misinterpreted. I think it’s important that if they do come they learn the language; they somehow get the feel of the place before speaking too much or trying to alter the vibe. And they’re on a hiding to nothing of course because there is always a little bit of a tendency in Scotland – and it’s not universal among Scottish arts organisations and artists – but they have to get used to the fact that we’re a very argumentative culture.

There is a thing up here called flyting – really arguing a cause and challenging stuff and that can be quite disconcerting and I think that has to be recognised. I think that on the whole the politicians in Scotland have handled the politics of art and creativity reasonably well over the years. You’re dealing with a very flyty community, a very argumentative community that’s quick to challenge, quite rightly. And so you need somehow to be able to take that and understand it and not get too oppressed by it. I think on the whole the current minister of culture has got the rhetoric quite right. There was a bit of a blip when Creative Scotland came into existence. The politics of that maybe one day I’ll write about or speak about but that was quite complicated and I think the difficulty came with trying to merge two particular cultures: the instrumental theory of art and the intrinsic theory of art. There was a sense in which both of those are true but in Creative Scotland there was a dissonance. Was art being valued because it creates the gross domestic product or was it valued because it’s the best thing about it? I would hammer the intrinsic value of art; art for art’s sake, while recognising incidentally people actually pay to read books and go to the movies, to go to the theatre, to go to concerts. And so it’s a distinction without a difference but the debate got a bit fractious. I quite enjoyed my five years, partly because I enjoyed the philosophical side of the debate. I think it’s always going to be part of the rowdiness of Scotland. We’re a rowdy nation for that reason.


Leaving Alexandria starts and ends with you walking in the hills, first around Loch Lomond and later in the Pentlands. Where’s your favourite place to walk now?

I always walk with my wee dog and she’s getting old, she’s thirteen and she’s slowed down a bit. I’ve been out in the Pentlands a lot this summer and this autumn and the one I’ve tended to do partly for her sake: I go in between Bells Hill and Black Hill and over and down to Glencourse and up through the Green Cleugh and down Bavelaw. The only real climb is up Bells Hill from Balerno. And I’ve done that repeatedly. Sometimes I do a version of it: I go in from Red Moss and round Black Hill. I haven’t done the Kips and Scald Law yet this year. I tend to be a rather intense walker, but there’s a heron I’ve got used to in Logan Burn that I’ve seen quite a lot this summer and we kind of salute each other, and he gives me a quizzical look and I give him a quizzical look. It’s still the kind of strangeness of it all and the livingness of it all. Daisy knows more about what’s going on than I do. She’s more in tune. She’ll know where the badgers are. I’ll see the heron and occasionally I’ll see a raptor but on the whole I’m ploughing on!

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Event Review: ‘Two giants on one bill’ – Robert Wrigley & John Burnside 7/11/2013


Robert Wrigley and John Burnside 

photo credit: Scottish Poetry Library

Robert Wrigley & John Burnside,

Scottish Poetry Library, 07/11/2013

Though a hard wind and rain blew continuously outside, poets John Burnside and Robert Wrigley shared a cosy and intriguing evening of poetry in the small, packed-out, upstairs gallery at the Scottish Poetry Library. It was a mirrored experience for the audience as both poets had a similarly relaxed delivery and read poems that mused upon nature, women and death.

Prolific writer John Burnside is a regular fixture on the Scottish reading scene, though hearing him is always pleasant and enlightening. He read from his forthcoming collection from Cape, All One Breath, which made the audience feel a little privileged. Burnside mentioned he had been reading the Bible lately and ‘it didn’t do me any harm’. When he was young he was told ‘Aye, you’ll make a grand priest’ and he now confesses, ‘I am a little less pious’. Rocking on his feet, he read weighty but elegant poems about religion, family, badgers and birds. One line in a poem about peregrines stuck out gloriously: ‘flicker of sky in our bones, almost flight.’ Burnside ended with a poem about a burial – his own. Having had his idea for sky burial vetoed by his wife, he imagined one anyway, which contained the line: ‘up until then I thought I was afraid of nothing’. There was a kind and informal tone to his delivery which protects the fact that his poems explore old, deep hurts.

Hailing from Idaho, multi-award winning poet Robert Wrigley read from first UK collection with Bloodaxe Books, The Church of Omniverous Light. He had only been in Edinburgh a couple of days, he said, but loved it because ‘everyone was so friendly’. He sang the praises of Burnside who once sent him a letter expressing his admiration. In his rather long interlude before reading, Wrigley searched for some Scottish connections. ‘My oldest friend in the world has the name Robert Burns’, Wrigley said, ‘but he claims to be Irish’. He also has a friend whose last name is Edinburgh and whose first name is Scott. These jokes were a counterpoint to Wrigley’s poems which are not jokey at all, but contemplative and remorseful. He read with heavy intonations on select words.  He read several poems about his wife, the novelist Kim Barnes, who teaches Creative Writing alongside him in Idaho. Barnes attended the reading and he apologised to her about some of the more intimate details in the poems ‘Sorry baby, that’s why you’re sitting in the back’.  Poems about camping in the woods, and the forest view from their window seemed richly foreign. One about his wife’s silver lock of hair had an unexpected bouncy ending: ‘my world in a curl, girl, this man oh man half man I am / when you’re gone’. 

A more satisfying finale might have been to see the two writers in discussion, as a way of tying up the two halves of the reading. Perhaps the audience could have further mused upon why these two poets were paired together… other than both are extremely accomplished and their languid, lyric poems are firmly connected to the earth.  

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