Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The poet and the archbishop

So last week after a series of hilarious disasters which involved my distinguished colleague trying to pee into a bottle rather than drive the car,  I managed to see the final few minutes of a John Cooper Clarke performance. The elder statesman of punk poetry, he ran through a list of his dislikes (undyed hair, Pete Seeger, Ewan McColl, Roger McGough, Poetry Please (it doesn't feature him enough), Radio 4) with the occasional poem thrown in. Such as the famous 'Evidently Chickentown', the famously sweary poem about provincial immuration: here's the version used on The Sopranos: evidently JCC's original language was too tough for even Tony Soprano (from 3.20):

and here's the full-fat version:

And if you're worried about ageing, JCC is clear that 'Things Are Gonna Get Worse'.

So anyway, after seeing the Elder Statesman of Poetry last week (not quite as disastrous as Simon Armitage, whose unreliability inspired me to abuse some poetry myself), this week was the turn of Rowan Williams, the Elder Statesman of Anglicanism, or as I like to think of him, the Religious Pratchett, whom he rather resembles. Despite being a Catholic Atheist myself, and finding the whole believing-in-God element a bit of a struggle, I thought I'd pop along to see what he had to say on the subject of poverty. In any case, Rowan and I go way back, by which I mean that he's an expert on RS Thomas and I've reviewed RST's poems once. I feel that makes us colleagues in spirit.

Sadly the water resolutely remained aqueous

As you'd expect, RW's oratory was pretty magnificent. He has gravitas, yet also a lightness of touch when required. Turning up the day the local council announced that it's sacking a third of its staff and reducing the terms and conditions of the rest, his theme was apt. His analysis was subtle and thoughtful: he delineated the 4 types of poverty: economic, cultural, access and security. He had a few sharp words for government (wryly recalling Cameron's claim that 'money is no object') and expounded on the far-reaching consequences of these types of poverty convincingly.

He still hasn't found what he's looking for…

He took several well-aimed swipes at capitalism and presented his pantheon of thinkers: David Goodhart, Maurice Glasman, Richard Hoggart (he called The Uses of Literacy a 'sacred text') and Karl Marx. Oh, and Jesus too. So you can see that RW's intellectual landscape is pragmatic, male, sort-of leftwing but also rather culturally conservative, which fitted into his attack on the media and entertainment industry for cheapening the human condition. With shows like Fuck Off I'm Fat and Benefits Street, it's hard not to agree with his thesis that the media present us to ourselves as nastier than we really are. I'm not entirely convinced, though his profoundly humane sensibility is genuinely inspiring. He also had a pop at the league-table obsessed school inspection system, for its damaging effect on students and teachers.

Williams called for more society, not just more state, and for more political engagement, perhaps through the churches. He certainly sees religious institutions as leaders of civil society, which does bother me: leaving aside their own internal cultural problems, the UK is a largely secular country and a polity filtered through a very marginal filter would not be representative. Sadly, Dr Williams didn't find room to mention trades unions as an important element of civil society – but at least the university's senior leaders had to listen to him attack corporate wage depression, something they've done to us for the last 5 years and intend to carry on doing.

(Rest of the pictures here)

What was missing from Dr Williams' entertaining, thoughtful, fascinating lecture was any suggestion of a solution. He knows what the social problems are, but he seems to think that niceness and calmly explaining where we've gone wrong is the solution. I asked him how we persuade the likes of Amazon that they're a part of society with responsibilities (to employ people properly, to pay taxes, to pay a living wage) and his answer is to point out to them that over the longer-term, social responsibility is economically viable. I found this a little frustrating: as far as I can see, our current political leaders plus the globalised corporations strongly believe in a low-wage, no-tax economy in which immediate shareholder and executive gratification is the only concern. They aren't going to factor in the future, or niceness, when there's money to be shifted to the Caymans.

Overall, it was a superb night. Rowan Williams doesn't swear as much as John Cooper Clarke nor dye his hair, though they are both poets so don't inhabit entirely separate universes. JC not only shares initials with the Messiah, people often treat him like one, whereas Rowan is only – for some – the Big Guy's local spokesman. But both have an oppositional, moralistic distrust for the state we're in, and I'm glad I caught them both.

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