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Welcome to the Tristan Chord

 

I’m mindful of Wagner’s opera ‘Tristan and Isolde’, as I begin to traverse the days of this new year. The composer shocked his 19th century audience, by beginning his masterpiece with an unexpected chord sequence. A sequence of dissonant sounds. 

Dissonance (notes that seem out of place) holds an interesting space within the dynamics of any musical scale. Their sound feels disjointed from the assumed route that is expected to be taken. Something that carries the hints of a mistake. A disruption to the norm, that allows the composer to reach dimensions of tone beyond what is assumed for the piece of music. It has the edge of creating an uncomfortable space for the listener. Placing a demand upon each participant to trust in the process. Back in the 19th century, that is exactly what happened.

At the time, it was an accepted practice that if ever you introduced a dissonant chord, it would lead back into resolution. Discord back into harmony. So when Wagner chose to open up with the sound of dissonance, the listener was looking out for a particular chord to follow. Yet it never came within the Prelude. What proceeded was further dissonant chords. A sound that was never unharmonious, but left the audience unsure, unsettled. Questioning what would come next. The approach would later be termed the ‘Tristan Chord’. And it is this chord that comes to mind as I start the New Year.

In a landscape where many things are laid out for us. Where our access to knowledge, information, strategy and understanding seems easily available at a touch of a screen, we can very quickly believe our own hype of self-assurance. Many times our future seems planned out. Sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly. Yet the road map of our lives carry a familiar copyright of ‘what is to be expected’. 

Dissonance speaks of another landscape. A mysterious topography that is beyond our initial sight and accepted norm. It disrupts our plans and expectations, and leads us into an uncomfortable space of mystery. Where rules are changed, and the realisation emerges that we know only in part. It praises creativity and opens our senses to a sound often hidden by the noise of our lives. So let 2015 be a year where we all live well, being mindful of those moments that will disrupt with the norm. Urging us, encouraging us, daring us, to not always follow the expected route. 

It’s time to welcome the sound of the Tristan chord.

Andy Smithymanarticle
Calling out ignorance

Last week I watched a homeless community perform a play. A play based upon something I wrote in one of my books. 

Seeing something you have crafted and then interpreted by someone else, is always an interesting experience. It’s often like walking into a space that purposely provokes you to see beyond the confines of your own imagination. But this time, there was a difference. The lens I was gifted, by actors who are marginalised, often villianised, led me into a world I regularly choose to ignore. 

It is so easy for me to see, but not observe. Choosing to lean into the comfort blanket of ignorance. Safeguarding my senses from the multi-faceted layers of life that play out around me. I have always been aware of those who are homeless and struggling with varied addictions. Occasionally dipping into the ethical deeds of charitable service. Yet often is the case, that placing of my toe into the icy water of injustice, is also complimented by the warmth of my central heated capitalist lifestyle. 

And then last week happened. The week I saw their world being creatively interpreted through the limitations of my own imagination. In amongst their painful stories, unjust treatment, minimal support from an eroded welfare system - there was a statement of ‘life’ that refused to be silenced. Standing loud and proud, injustice came face to face with human form. Against the flow of political statements, grand ideas, and charitable deeds, one story took central stage. The true Bethlehem story of what it means to love your neighbour.

I find ignorance such a comforting thing. Until it gets disturbed from the margins: calling it out for what it really is. 

Andy Smithymanarticle
Love. It's an intricate narrative

 

“My task on the Sunday was to examine the Sunday Schools Meeting at Nantyr, but instead of the question and answer session it was far easier to turn it all into a prayer-meeting. I was to be there all day, but I felt a voice calling me to go down to Glynceiriog that evening. I didn’t know why, but that Sabbath evening a man gave himself to the Lord".
 

J. Ellis Jones: eye-witness to the Welsh 1904 Revival


The revival narrative can be a deceptive trail. Leading the reader upon the path of seeking out the spectacular based upon the size of crowd or breathtaking signs. It is true to say, those tales are true. But they don’t tell the whole story.

One of the most beautiful tones within this symphony of diverse notes, is the sound of the individual. Not from a sense of selfish want or egotistical focus, but from a sense of heaven’s concern upon the ‘one’. In amongst the noise of many, there is a act of love being played out that goes beyond the constraints of our imagination. Where God’s Hand orchestrates a movement of people, expressing love’s embrace in a way that values the mundane actions of our lives.

In amongst the crazy noise of the Welsh 1904 revival, where the spectacular took its place upon the stage of our attention. There were a series of notes underpinning the song being sung. Where characters like Ellis Jones, who simply followed the prompting of his heart and walked the one-hour journey to another town. There he found a man who needed help. It wasn’t a crowd of conversations. It didn’t make the headline news. But it did bring praise into the very heart of heaven. 

Yes, revival can have the razzmatazz of the loud and dramatic. But we are ‘less’, if we build our hopes around that. Revival is about something more. And maybe, to discover it, means that we begin at the beginning. Love for God. Love for one another. Love outplayed in the mundane and dramatic. Each action playing a crucial part. Each action contributing to the other. Each action reliant upon the whole.

Love. It’s an intricate narrative, whose lines we can so easily miss.

Away from the headlines

 

Imagine the scene of a small, cross-eyed, theatrical preacher making his way towards a Bristol village in 1739. A village that was infamous for violent protest towards oppressive business practices. Due to the minimal voice of opposition from the established church concerning the treatment of workers, anyone who represented that religious structure was also considered an enemy. 

Depending upon the version of the story we tell, one could create an image of a powerful, spirit-led orator, by the name of George Whitefield, who captivated a mob of protesters with the Gospel message. With each sermon given, the numbers increased. Soon the success of such a mission led to a chapel being built, and a previously unconvinced John Wesley re-evaluating his initial distrust of open air preaching - “Kingswood does not now, as a year ago, resound with cursing and blasphemy, it is no more filled with drunkenness and uncleanness… wars and fighting… Peace and love are there”.

As with any narrative, there is another storyline. One I have mentioned a number of times within this blog and book 'Revival’s Symphony'. It is a storyline of unconventional preaching styles that challenged the  accepted ‘way to preach’ and ‘sermon content’. An analysis of these messages delivered by the early Methodist movement, reveals a mixture of political and social commentary, embedded in an holistic declaration of salvation that would make a number of our modern, fresh expression, churches feel old.

In the case of Kingswood? Whitefield’s critique and declaration of an alternative, encouraged a village revolution. This included, distribution of finance towards social services, education support and health care. It was this change, of the internal and external, that grabbed Wesley’s attention.

This movement of unconventional preaching styles and choice of locations, was not unique. 18th century preachers like Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris were part of a growing voice of people who were redefining expectations through the engagement of pain within the land. No more safe pulpits or verbal call for change from a comfortable space. This was about getting your hands dirty, exposing yourself to the pain of injustice, then making your stand upon the very ground that cried out for change.

One of the things that I appreciate about this amazing movement of social change, was their appreciation of the journey that led them there. Like all of us, the excitement of a breakthrough - that moment when your hope finally sees visible substance - is always valued. Whitefield, after his first sermon in Kingswood, wrote “Blessed be God that I have now broken the ice”. On one hand, a straight forward comment about being thankful for a breakthrough. Yet, placed within the context of a preacher who had faced rejection from many quarters of his faith - who had found his calling welcomed with struggles - and you begin to see another dimension to his words. 

Kingswood wasn’t a bolt out of the blue. It was an option considered and shaped by prayer. A consideration fuelled by the experiences of his journey thus far and by the readings he was investing in. These readings included the provocative writings of Richard Baxter. A man who challenged the pursuit of the ‘inner call’, the appreciation of diversity and its role in unity,  and the importance of standing up in word and deed against social injustice. This act of standing including the declaration of an alternative.

Caught within the texts, journals, and letters of this movement, is a value placed upon the highs and lows of pilgrimage. You see a conviction, sometimes shaken, but not lost, of a demand to declare an alternative. And you see an honesty in their weakness - a reality that sometimes the most mundane action, fuelled by questions, can lead to surprising results. 

Appreciation of our steps. Such an important value to hold onto. We may long for those ‘break the ice’ moments, those actions that capture the headlines declaring change is here. Yet I find that the beauty of our pilgrimage is one that speaks of a change that happens during the journey itself.

That is where the alternative first finds voice. In the secret, in the weakness. Away from the headlines.

The morning after Bastille Day

The day after the French National celebration of Bastille - and I am reminded of what that moment symbolises. 

Some see the French Revolution as a blood bath of selfish greed. Some find a romantic strand of love, passion and justice. Some see it as a precursor to greater things, a declaration of human rights that would form into a worldwide legal statement in future years. And some find a narrative that seems irrelevant to our modern lifestyle and engagement with politics. 

For myself, my initial connection to the French Revolution came through the study of Methodism. I have sometimes referred to the early days of that religious movement as a revolution - an alternative disturbance of the norm, challenging society to rethink each persons responsibility to the other and creation. For example, their activism that developed alternative schooling, healthcare and workers rights. 

In my mind, I had always seen it as the better revolution ( as it ran concurrently with growing unrest within France ). One that provoked change whilst avoiding destruction of life and self centred agendas. Yet maybe that is a bit unfair.

Both revolutions had their so called high points, moments of hope that you could touch in your daily life. Those tangible dreams soon moved into the praxis of nations, laws and standards that we still benefit from today. Their low points also shared a commonality. Even though Methodism didn’t share the streets of blood narrative; vested interests, bias’ and power grabs all scuppered a work that was crafting out a new way of living. When I leave aside my unhelpful bias of trying to declare a winner of the best revolution, I see another dimension of commonality that brings relevance to my present day life.

The Bastille structure represented a system that oppressed opposition. It was a symbol that spoke of a clamp down on artists, storytellers, activists ( to name a few ) who dared to critique the present through a declaration of an alternative future. The use of force to suppress prophetic economies echoed the power grab by land owners and their oppression to those who lived upon their land. The storming of the Bastille on the 14th July 1789 represented more than an anger towards a building. It was a show of disgust to a system that was unjust, propelled by a voice that was active within the shadows and cracks of the political norm.

England had its own Bastille. Although not a building, the 18th century was rife with a system that made it hard to protest and live out an alternative to the political structure. It also favoured land owners with laws and processes that cemented their thrones of power in business, property, politics and education. 

The Methodist voice was more than a preach upon a hill or street corner. A revisit of their early sermons and locations of mission, and you see a voice and action that declared an alternative local economy. One that taught peaceful ways of protest and business relations - a precursor to a Trade Union operation. Financial structures for schooling and health support. Encouragement for women to enter into lines of work and community activism that was predominately geared towards the male agenda. And the list can go on.

Over 200 years have passed, and I find the tale of these two revolutions still relevant today. The argument over land distribution. The political force to uphold a way of living that benefits a few. A clamp down on alternative economies and educational possibilities. And in amongst all this - voices and actions crafting out a new future within the highways and byways, cracks and crevasses of the expected norm.

My personal challenge today? One that is directed at myself. 

Where am  I positioned - in the Bastille, or alleyway? 

I would like to say alleyway, but its not an easy choice. The Bastille offers comfort. Although fake and empty, its system tempts apathy and self interest to ignore the reality of how empty its shelves of commerce really are. And then the alleyway is a bit more awkward. It’s harder to live there because self is exposed. Apathy turns to active engagement into crafting an alternative way of living. It requires an adjustment, but the fruit of that choice is an abundant harvest of living well. 

The morning after Bastille Day, and I challenge myself yet again to choose life. A message I have read many times in a book I cherish about a Saviour who I think is the ultimate revolution. 

Andy Smithymanarticle
The eyes of creation are upon us for our next move.

Land hits the headlines again, this time around the size of housing and the limited room some people find themselves with. It seems to follow on from the findings where,


    •    70% of the UK land is Agriculture, and held by 0.28% of the population.
    •    20% of the land is Waste (including mountains, rivers).
    •    5% of the land is Business, and
    •    5% is Domestic which houses 90% of the population. 

The topic of a ’space to live’ is an important one, and it was something that came up often during my research of Quaker Capitalism. Against the flow of building trends, business practice, distribution of finance and economic guidelines, a number of Quaker communities decided to buck the trend. Within a short space of time during the Industrial Revolution, they presented to the country a different way of doing business. From  employee services to health care, from social responsibility to community development, they put in practice an ethical and holistic model of living. This was over century before the emergence of the political funding buzz word of ‘social enterprise’ that we have today.

With our benefit of hindsight, it is easy to critique some of their practices. Suggesting maybe a less paternal approach, something that might have prevented the problems they ran into in later years. Specifically, the disempowerment of individuals and sustainability of services. But within all these faults, their impact radically, and positively, transformed business practice and living standards for many people within inner city life.

One of their radical models was around housing. Within a trend of uniform, terraced and ill-equipped accommodation, they developed an anarchic approach to architecture. In partnership with artists, they developed housing that carried individuality alongside living conditions that valued the people who were going to reside within the buildings.They recognised that what you designed spoke a lot about your own priorities and how you valued your fellow human being. Approach to space, living standards, profit first or humanity first. All these aspects, and more, revealed the secrets of the human heart.

It was a gamble that didn’t make financial sense in many ways. Increased costing, increased construction times, increased land allocation for each living space. But, within all the uncertainty there was a realisation that housing and engagement with land was a contributing element towards the fulfilment of life.

Their experiments and models paid off. Within a generation they proved to local and national government that a different approach to housing could effect the health, education and work ethics of individuals. The flip side, their proof and later abdication of responsibility to government structures, eventually led to a  profit first approach and ideology that missed the driving force of those experiments.

One driving force was the lifestyle guidelines that those Quaker communities fashioned during a time of persecution and opposition after the English Civil War. Finding themselves with limited options to survive within the economic system of the day, they developed alternative structures. An underground movement that imagined a new way of living. They articulated their hopes and dreams into practical examples, that gathered pace over time. And as persecution lessened as the years passed by, they emerged into the open with an alternative economy that was built upon an ethical framework of prophetic imagination and compassion for one another. All of this encased within an environment of honesty. A culture where truth and vulnerability reigned over spin and self interest.

Sadly, that bedrock soon disappeared as success led to governmental adoption. Finance requirements, vested interests and political goals replaced some of the key aspects of that alternative movement. But, its legacy remains today with some of our garden cities and employee services.

It is this legacy that leads me back to the article about housing.

“ The average floor space for a dwelling in the UK as a whole is currently 85 sq metres, whilst new-builds average only 76 sq metres – putting Britain at the bottom of a league table of 15 countries including Ireland, Portugal and Italy. “ 

“… the Home Builders Federation said market forces, most particularly the price of land, dictated the cost and size of new homes. “

Something needs to change - and that change needs an alternative language to the one we currently use. Imagination framed around terminology of a system that benefits just a select few will only prove to be a glass ceiling. Something that gives an illusion of change, yet continually prevents us from really stretching towards something new. 

Alternatives are needed. Alternatives are present now. Yet to speak of them and to act them out, then challengingly, they demand an imagination that doesn’t make sense to our current ways of doing things. 

Exciting opportunities? Fearful opportunities? Unwanted opportunities? 

The eyes of creation are upon us for our next move.

 

UPDATE:

A recent episode of BBC Panorama highlighted another dimension of the housing debate.


A re-interpretation of 'Journey'

To reinterpret what it means to journey : What an Indian Tribal Artist Can Teach Us About Rediscovering Our Capacity for Everyday Wonder.

A mere century ago, the vast majority of people never traveled more than fifty miles from their place of birth in their lifetime — and yet here we are today, jaded and irritable at the prospect of travel. How did we end up that way? And what if we arrogant moderns could, if only for a moment, strip ourselves of our cultural baggage and experience travel afresh, with eager new eyes and exuberant joy for the journey?

 
The London Jungle Book
£10.26
By Bhajju Shyam
We live in interesting times

Two books have hit the bestseller list recently on both sides of the Atlantic ocean. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, and the MoneyBall author Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys: Cracking the Money Code. Picketty focuses upon analysis and data, Lewis uses narrative - but both publications that base themselves within the world of modern capitalism share a common voice. They speak of how the increasingly ruthless world of capital has enabled a deeper gap between the rich and poor, whilst the richest of the rich get even richer.

It’s a reality that seems to slip of the tongue. For myself, a magnitude that is so hard to understand, that my casual phrases satisfy my need for protest, whilst continuing a lifestyle that supports such operations. John Lanchester picked up that thread recently in The London Book Review:

 

 In a New York Times op-ed, Paul Krugman argued that the important point isn’t so much the specifics of Lewis’s story, as the big picture of a dysfunctional and predatory financial sector: ‘Never mind the debate about exactly how much damage high-frequency trading does. It’s the whole financial industry, not just that piece, that’s undermining our economy and our society.’

The story about finance that he began to tell in his first book, Liar’s Poker, the exuberant and uproarious account of his time as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers, and continued with his credit crunch book, The Big Short, is getting steadily darker. In the prologue to The Big Short, Lewis wrote that when he sat down to write his first book, ‘I hoped that some bright kid at Ohio State University who really wanted to be an oceanographer would read my book, spurn the offer from Goldman Sachs, and set out to sea.’ Instead, and of course, ‘six months after Liar’s Poker was published, I was knee-deep in letters from students at Ohio State University who wanted to know if I had any other secrets to share about Wall Street. They’d read my book as a how-to manual.’ After finishing Flash Boys, I found it hard not to think about those missing oceanographers, the computer geniuses and engineers and physicists and entrepreneurs, all those brilliant minds, all that passion and energy disappearing into the black hole of money, lost to all the more productive and interesting things that we humans can do. It’s hard not to feel a sense of loss when you think of what these people would have done, if they hadn’t been sucked into the enterprise of making money out of money. If we ever get enough distance to look back with some sense of perspective on the delirium of modern finance, I think this is what will stand out clearly: that sense of human and intellectual waste.

You could well see Flash Boys as a case study in the story of Capital in the 21st Century. ‘It is tempting to believe that people who think this way eventually suffer their comeuppance,’ Lewis wrote about Wall Street, in his epilogue to the 2010 reissue of Liar’s Poker. ‘They don’t. They just get richer. I’m sure most of them die fat and happy.’

 

We truly live in interesting times where two financial books critiquing the very system that compensates our lifestyle greed finds such resonation within our purchase choices. I can’t help but think of Zizek’s recent book The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, where he encourages the delicate balance of reading the signs of a New future and the need for our openness to prophetically act it out. 

The two futures

There are two French words that describe the future:

Futur - the continuation of the present, the full actualisation of tendencies already in existence.

Avenir - points towards a more radical break, a discontinuity with the present.

One description potentially encourages apathy and resignation, a facilitator of restricted imagination. The other - a call, as Zizek describes it, “to risk giving birth to some radical Otherness … to break the hold of the future and thereby open up a space for something New to come”.

East India Company and their love of debt

I find it interesting that during the early 19th century, the East India Company (that some would suggest were the originators of the British Empire), used debt as a mechanism to subvert revolution or dissent. Debt not for themselves, but for others.

Working alongside money lenders, they recognised that by presenting people with what they wanted, but through the mechanism of debt, meant that they could continually control the individual through the threat of loss. They also identified that by burdening people with a growing amount of interest, or presenting them with the availability for further finance, you could stifle protest by a sense of disempowerment towards the system they were caught in.

In other words, they created an illusion of change and progress, but held tightly onto the reins of debt and control.

Food for thought when thinking about the systems of empire today.