No one, so far as I know, has yet pointed out a potentially significant parallel between Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston marathon bombers, and Irfan Naseer, Ashik Ali and Irfan Khalid, the three ringleaders of the Birmingham terrorists, who were sentenced last week to a minimum of 51 years in prison, for planning to turn Britain’s second city into a terrorist ‘war zone’, as the judge in the case put it. On the face of it, the link also applies to the six men who pleaded guilty this week to plotting an attack on the English Defence League in Dewsbury, five of whom were from Birmingham, and one of whom was the brother of a ‘war zone’ ring-leader.
The parallel is this: on both sides of the Atlantic, they were all ‘self starters’, ‘Nike terrorists’ in the jargon of the security forces, a phrase used because of that brand’s well-known motto: ‘Just do it.’
None of these individuals, it would appear, was radicalized by an Imam, or attended a madrasseh, either here or in the Swat Valley, though they did visit Pakistan for technical training. They were not – for the most part – longstanding, earnest, pious, Islamic puritans. At least one of the Boston bombers liked the good life, being described by former friends as a ‘hard partying, pot-smoking, aspiring fighter,’ while the FBI told a local Boston mosque that the evidence they have so far gathered ‘doesn’t fit with the pattern of radicalisation.’
The leader of the Birmingham bombers, Irfan Naseer, grew up with the name Chubbs or Chubby and was by all accounts a very popular schoolchild, the centre of attention and the ‘school joker’. Another of the Birmingham bombers, Rahin Ahmed, though he may have professed to despise western culture, had nothing against the capitalist currency markets, wagering money the gang had conned in a charity scam. He lost £9,000.
How significant is this? It may be very significant indeed. Security experts believe that we are witnessing the emergence of a ‘second generation’ of terrorists, precisely these ‘self starters’ who do not seem to need any kind of Islamic infrastructure or coherence to shape their beliefs and actions. One of the Birmingham bombers was overheard to rail that they were acting out of ‘revenge for everything.’ How coherent is that? How has this come about?
Views proliferate but, in the course of researching the book I have just completed, an examination of how we have sought to live since the death of God, one of the most interesting set of ideas I have come across, which is directly relevant to these episodes, is that put forward by the French sociologist, Olivier Roy.
In Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways, Roy argues that a parallel process has been taking place recently alongside secularization. Thanks to globalization, religions have become divorced, de-coupled, from their cultural groundings, their cultural homelands (‘deterritorialised’). Christianity is no longer rooted in Europe and the Middle East, Hinduism in India, or Islam in the desert heartlands, but are all now more or less worldwide. Even Mecca, he says, has lost much of its specifically Arab character.
As a result, the cultural attributes that once formed an integral part of religious identity and practices have less and less place. Arabs will refer to ‘Muslim culture’, for example, by which they mean family, segregation of the sexes, modesty, food habits etc, whereas, in contrast, in order to circulate and appeal in a global context, a religion must appear universal, disconnected from a specific culture as traditionally understood for the message to be widely grasped.
And here is Roy’s crucial conclusion: ‘Religion therefore circulates outside knowledge. Salvation does not require people to know, but to believe.’ As a result, religions – as they have become ‘de-ethnicized’ – become ‘purer’, more ideological, more abstract, and, therefore, at the same time, more fundamental. They are, in a very real sense, Roy says, based more on ignorance than knowledge. He is especially vitriolic about Pentecostalism, the world’s fastest-growing religion, whose adherents ‘speak in tongues’ in a ‘language’ that is only ‘understood’ by those who have been touched by the Holy Spirit. But his view about ignorance, and the new faiths being ‘lifestyle choices’, like clothes, certainly seems to apply to the Boston and Birmingham bombers, none of whom appears to have been a serious student of Islam.
What we are witnessing, then, says Roy, is an evolution in religion (‘reformatted’ is his word), an evolution for which secularisation is partly responsible, because the culture of secularisation – science and business, including the Internet – has encouraged globalisation which has in turn robbed organised religions of many of their traditions.
There is a bad side and a better side to this particular coin. While fundamentalism is inevitably the result of this process of globalisation, the fact that it is based more on ignorance than knowledge, more a psychological search for purity than a theological search for God, means that the faith of these self-start bombers is a relatively ‘thin’ form of faith – ‘empty’ is a word Roy uses.
While it is undoubtedly true that someone on the receiving end of a terrorist bomb hardly cares whether the terrorist’s faith is thin or not, this analysis does mean that such people are susceptible to alternative views, much more so than earlier terrorists who were radicalised by clerics who gave their charges a body of coherent beliefs – four of the Birmingham bombers, once they got to Pakistan, realised the horror of what they were doing, and contacted their families to get them home. Properly indoctrinated terrorists would not have driven to Dewsbury in a car without insurance as the men did who pled guilty this week.
More to the point, Roy says that this reformatted religion is not one that that can be inherited by future generations, for there is no reliable part of a culture to be passed on. Such a religion ‘cannot have an enduring hold on the souls of human beings’ because it essentially trivialises religion, ignoring all the cultural features that make a faith so appealing in the first place, and which helps create a genuine community.
Over the past few weeks, it has not felt as though we are winning the war on terrorism, but if Roy is right, and the religious profile of the terrorist is changing, the similarities between the Boston and Birmingham bombers offer a smidgeon of hope amid the blood and sadness.
The Pope Should Hold the Biggest Art Sale Ever
Is the new Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, from Argentina, serious about helping the poor? He appears to be a humble man, and seems keen to appear a humble man.
In his native country he became famed for his Spartan lifestyle, living not in the bishop’s residence but in his own small flat where he prepared his own meals; when he was made cardinal he had his robes made up by his sister, rather than waste money on an expensive Roman tailor; he travelled around by bus and metro, not by official car. Since election, he has said that he wants ‘a poor church, for the poor.’
Given the unprecedented scandals that have engulfed the Catholic Church in recent years – to the point where priests in Ireland are spat at in the street – there is a crying need for reform but not, I would suggest, just administrative reform, however badly that is called for. The new Pope’s church has need of a bold, eye-catching, breathtaking and above all redemptive gesture that will point it firmly in the direction of the poor, and carry conviction that its ways are changing.
There is one way above all others that such a redemptive reform will claim our attention and our respect. I propose that Pope Francis, as the champion of the poor, sells off the Vatican’s magnificent art collection and devotes the proceeds to the benefit of those who most need help.
Yes, of course, it is a breathtaking, audacious, mind-numbing move, at least to begin with. Part of the point of the Vatican is the art it contains, those glorious achievements of the age of faith – Michelangelo’s Pietà (c. 1500), Raphael’s Coronation of the Virgin (1502-1503), and his Transfiguration (1518-20), Leonardo’s St. Jerome (1481), Bellini’s Burial of Christ (after 1430), Titian’s Madonna de San Niccolo dei Frari (1523). And works by Veronese, Poussin, Bernini and Van Dyck.
But ask yourself this: what help are these works of art for the poor citizens of Rio de Janeiro, the Philippines or the Congo – all areas where Catholicism is increasing, and who are never going to be able to afford a visit to Rome? What sustenance – spiritual or material – can the works offer while they are locked away in the Vatican where, first and foremost, they augment the lives of well educated and well fed papal curia on reasonable stipends. If you visit the supermarket in the Vatican, as I have done, you will see that a very healthy proportion of shelf space is given over to alcohol.
I first proposed this solution in a novel I published in 1987, when I envisaged the election of a new pope from the Americas (the US, in my case not Argentina), a man not unlike Bergoglio, much troubled by the state of the poor in the world, and who had the courage of his convictions and mounted a massive ‘Vatican Auction’ of 22 major free-standing works (not the Sistine chapel, obviously).
Amusingly, the art market was jumping so much in those days that, in order to be credible, we had to change the values on the art works between publication of the hardback and the paperback a year later. Then, the valuation of the works – produced by experts – totaled $1,025,000,000 but of course that figure is way off now. It would surely be closer to twenty times that, maybe more.
Yes, at one level this sound like a crass exercise, introducing hard figures into a ‘spiritual’ area. But, being practical, how else are poor people to be helped? All the evidence shows that, when asked, what the people of the Congo, Rio and the Philippines most want is more and cleaner drinking water, better and more reliable supplies of food, more security, rather than, say, pastoral care. That takes money.
What would the Vatican be like without its art? Good copies could be substituted, or there could simply be gaps, to emphasise the sacrifices that have been made. Or the poor people who have been helped by the monies released by the auction, could themselves send their artworks to the Vatican for display instead. This could be just as moving an experience as the art that is there now – maybe more so, since for many it would have more resonance.
Who would buy the art? The works are of course Christian, with the best Christian provenance they could have, so there would be no shortage of wealthy Christians who would pay top dollar, not just to own something with such an impeccable provenance but also to know what their funds were going to achieve.
The works would no doubt be proudly displayed around the world – this could be a condition of sale, that they must be publicly available, but few would object, in general wanting it known what they had done.
A diaspora of Vatican art works could become a major feature of our increasingly global cultural life, entirely in keeping with the way the world is going. It should even be possible to take these works on world tours, including some of the poorest areas, so that the Catholic poor in Rio or the Congo would at last have a chance to actually see the works that, by then, should have helped their material conditions, thus doing good twice over, materially and spiritually.
Both Leonardo and Michelangelo had their gay side. Who knows how they would have responded to the recent paedophile scandals in the Church. But they had their revolutionary side, too, and it’s a fair bet that they would have enthusiastically approved a redemptive move such as the one being suggested here.
Ice Age Art and the Discovery of Fatherhood
All Ice Age art is mysterious. As the exhibition that has just opened at the British Museum confirms, our distant ancestors were accomplished artists, but what they were trying to achieve with their images (if anything) is far from certain. The publicity for the show says it was ‘40,000 years in the making.’ You’d think that by now we would have some idea what our forebears were up to. But the exhibition doesn’t have any answers. Over the past few years, however, I have been working on a theory that, I think, explains some of the mystery.
The most curious Ice-Age objects of all are the so-called ‘Venus figurines’, small sculptures that can be held in one hand, showing mainly naked women with large breasts, bulbous buttocks, swollen stomachs and distended vulvas – they appear to be pregnant. Some have scratch marks on their thighs, suggesting the breaking of the waters. One has been found in Russia with 28 red spots on her thighs, intimating the menstrual cycle. Often they have no heads or arms, as if these aren’t important, but have a hole bored through the figure in a loop near the top. They were only ever carved, hardly ever painted on cave walls.
They have been found – dated to between 40,000 and 13,000 years ago – in a broad swathe running from the Dordogne region of France through Monruz in Switzerland into Siberia.
The starting point for my new theory is a suggestion made to me some years ago by Randall White, professor of anthropology at New York University, when I was researching my book on the history of ideas.
He observed there must have been a time when ancient men and women had not made the link between sexual intercourse and birth – the interval of nine months being too long. Women would then have seemed exceptionally miraculous creatures, swelling up for no apparent reason, and then producing an infant. No wonder ‘The Great Goddess’ was one of the earliest forms of religion.
With no understanding of the reproductive rhythm, it would have been of paramount importance for people to know when a woman was about to give birth. Not all women swell up to the same degree, or develop pendulous breasts, so other details needed to be recorded, like distended vulvas. The loop that features in many figurines would have been for string to pass through, so it could be a portable ‘aide memoire’ as the hunters roamed after the reindeer.
Parturition is a dangerous time, threatened by predators (the birth of elephants in the bush is still a dangerous time for elephants) and so I believe that hunter-gathers, chasing reindeer (which inhabited Eurasia from France to the Siberian steppes, between the northern limit of the ice sheets and the southern limit of the Pyrenees, Alpine and other mountain ranges), recorded the anatomical details of women nearing birth, so that they knew how to anticipate the event, and could find a safe cave.
Three pieces of evidence indirectly support this:
In certain Middle Eastern ancient cultures, women are shown giving birth to bulls. Since no one can have ever seen such a phenomenon, this image probably represents a myth, that woman could be impregnated by spirits. These images die out 13,000 years ago.
The latest evidence confirms that dogs were domesticated about 12,000 years ago. Dogs are the large mammals with the shortest gestation period (about 60 days; humans are 285, horses 340). Ancient people may well have conceived the male reproductive role from observation of dogs. Australian evidence underlines this: Aborigines discovered the male role when the dingo was domesticated.
Again in ancient Middle Eastern cultures we see a change, around 13,000-11,000 years ago, from communal burial to more familial burial pattern, individuals being buried under their houses, not in communal graves; and we see more ancestor worship. With the discovery of the paternal role, families and specific ancestors became more important.
The story doesn’t end there. In Genesis, in the Bible, Adam and Eve both eat from the Tree of Knowledge, after which they discover they are ‘naked’. This is incomprehensible unless we accept what the distinguished biblical scholar Elaine Pagels says, that knowledge and nakedness refer to sexual awareness in some form (as in ‘he knew his wife’).
On this account then, the bible records a momentous event in our biological – and not theological – history: recognition of paternity. Hunter gatherers are notoriously polygynous. It was now, 12,000 or so years ago, that, as Elaine Pagels also says, marriage becomes monogamous and ‘indissoluble.’
It sounds very counter-intuitive, for the male role in reproduction to be discovered so late. What did early people think they were doing when they were having sex? Well, what do animals think they are doing then they have sex? I published the hardback edition of my book a year ago and now, at the time of the paperback, no one has come out of the woodwork, to shout me down. The British Museum exhibition is being reported all over the world. Now is a good time to study these figurines afresh, to see whether the new theory holds up.
Copy the Ryder, Make the Turner Prize Biennial
Here’s a simple cultural test. Does the name Grenville Davey mean anything to you? I thought not. Jeremy Deller? Me, neither. Tomma Abts? No again.
Now try these: José Maria Olazábel; Lee Westwood; Rory McIlroy? Yes, of course – Europe’s Ryder Cup-winning golfers, who triumphed earlier this week.
The first three names, on the other hand, are all past winners of the Turner Prize, the short-list for this week’s award also being announced earlier this week.
I’m not sure whether Britain has more art lovers or more golf lovers, and it is probably unfair to compare past winners (Granville Davey was all the way back in 1992) with the heroes of the week, but that’s not my point here. My point is this:
Viewing the latest contenders for the Turner Prize, at Tate Britain the other night, I couldn’t help thinking how weak it is this year, probably the weakest short-list there has been for a very long time, so weak that it crossed my mind that in this, the year of the dreadful Jubilee concert in front of Buckingham Palace, and the crass closing ceremony of the Olympics, do we really have as much talent in Britain as we keep telling ourselves? The Spice Girls standing on the roofs of London taxis could just as easily have been in the Turner Prize.
And it didn’t take me long to get from there to the idea that, one of the reasons the Ryder Cup always has the following it does, even without Europe’s dramatic fight-back that took place this year, is that it is not an annual shindig but a biennial one. And might it not be a good idea, right now, with this year’s Turner being so weak, to take a leaf out of the Ryder book, and make the Turner Prize a biennial rather than an annual event?
There’s plenty of precedent and sound reasons for doing so. Venice has its biennale, so does Paris. Beijing, Moscow, Havana and Dublin all have biennales and so, for that matter, does Stourbridge. If awards occur every other year, the tendency is avoided to turn out something just to meet the deadline, or the opportunity. There’s a distinct whiff of that this year with the Turner. I studied under R.D. Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist who is the subject of Luke Fowler’s video, and Laing was a lot less interesting, and considerably more mistaken, than this effort shows. And there used to be a cartoonist on The Sunday Times when I was there whose drawings were dead ringers for Paul Noble’s.
But the important point is that by making the Turner biennial it would be re-invigorated, the sense of theatre, drama and romance would be rekindled, the winners’ names would be better remembered, and we would stop automatically congratulating ourselves on how wonderful we are, and examine ourselves more closely
I don’t we why the change shouldn’t be applied to the Booker Prize also. Every year one of the judges laments proudly that he or she is having to read hundreds of books at all hours. If the Booker took place every other year, it wouldn’t necessarily double that load. Publishers might be forced to examine more closely what was worth submitting, and we might even see a reduction in submissions.
A biennial award is worth much more than twice that of an annual.
We Have All Lost Our Bite
On the face of it, Martin Amis and Barclays Bank have little in common. But it was while reading Lionel Asbo, Amis’s new novel, that the penny finally dropped for me. What they have in common is that, in the government’s tepid reaction to the Barclays scandal, and in Lionel Asbo, we have all lost our bite. As a nation we seem to have forfeited our appetite for the jugular.
Amis is still the greatest literary stylist of our day. A great fountain of words continues to cascade from his brain/mouth/pen – a kaleidoscope of metaphors, industrial strength verbs, scabrous analogies. In this regard he is still light years ahead of Messrs Barnes, McEwan and the rest. From beginning to end, Lionel Asbo lampoons proletarian ‘culture’ – its moronic brutality and vapidity, its frightening ignorance, its self-defeating selfishness. But in the end Amis does something that the vicious eponymous hero – with his far-apart teeth reminiscent of a Halloween pumpkin – would never do: he pulls his punches. We are let off the tragedy that ‘impends’ (a typical Amis construction), as if the author couldn’t quite bring himself to deliver the killer blow, and the novel limps to an end.
But Amis is not alone in his new-found inhibitions, so far from Dead Babies. A short time before I read Asbo, I visited the Damien Hirst show at Tate Modern. This is, in my view, the worst-curated show in the long and otherwise distinguished career of Nicholas Serota. Panels on the walls of the exhibition tell you that the famous shark installations show us what fear is, close up. But they don’t. Inside a case, and surrounded by formaldehyde, they distance the shark so that they are every bit as tame as the formaldehyded sheep and cows that are displayed alongside. For Hirst (and the Tate curator, whose name I won’t mention), there is apparently no difference between a wild and vicious carnivore and a familiar and domesticated herbivore. In their world, a shark has no more bite than a sheep.
Nor are the spin or dot paintings any better, or the butterflies. They are whimsical, distant from life, devoid of emotional, still less intellectual content that relates in any direct way to our predicaments, past, present or future. Hirst had always been a second-rate artist for these very reasons, but now Amis has joined him.
So has David Hockney. How someone who is basically a scenery painter ever got where he is has always been beyond me. His recent show at the Royal Academy, with its bountiful sunshine radiating good fortune across the British landscape, would make L. S. Lowry pack up his paint box and jack it in. Hockney seems intent on making Britain as bland and as vapid as the Los Angeles he celebrated all those years ago, but with sunshine that is much less truthful. The success of the show only betrays how bland and vapid we have all become.
It goes further. David Hare’s latest offering, South Downs, has been on show recently, twinned with Terence Rattigan’s ‘The Browning Version’, at the Pinter Theatre. This is the David Hare of ‘The Permanent Way’, ‘Pravda’, ‘Plenty’ and ‘Stuff Happens’. To be fair, Rattigan is not quite the bland playwright he is sometimes dismissed as being, but the subject of Hare’s play is¸ by his former standard, blancmange.
The preponderance of musicals, revivals, and musical revivals in the West End theatre (Chicago, Shrek, Billy Elliot, Wizard of Oz), is also evidence of the fact that, even among audiences, there is not much demand any more for novel, provocative mordancy. Over at the National, ‘Collaborators’ treated Stalin as a joke, while ‘The Last of the Hausmanns’ treated ageing hippies as farce. In both cases, the plays were written for laughs which blunted rather than sharpened any more searching point.
Then there’s journalism. Let’s start with Tom Bower (until now at least a friend of mine). Bower is without question one of the most successful investigative journalists of our day – the scourge of Robert Maxwell, Richard Desmond, Conrad Black, Richard Branson and Gordon Brown, and to that extent a national treasure. His latest effort? A bio of Simon Cowell where the main revelation is that Mr Cowell uses black loo paper. Now, of course I am envious of the oodles of money Tom is making from the Cowell book, but you see the point: even Tom, at least for now, has lost his bite.
So has Rod Liddle, who writes the same column week in, week out, for The Sunday Times, using the same kind of ‘joke’, an analogy juxtaposing a ‘high’ culture victim alongside a ‘low’ cultural metaphorical parallel in which the main aim is not to skewer the victim but to show how funny and clever Liddle is for spotting the parallel he has invented – more like a pub rant without the risk of a punch-up if you go too far. And nothing like as tough as the Today show, where Liddle used to work.
The best-seller lists exemplify the same trend. In non-fiction it’s one book on World War Two after another – the literary equivalent of the West End revival and a long way from the world of now. In fiction, soft porn S&M outsells even Lionel Asbo – titillation where no one gets hurt.
Of course I have cherry-picked these examples. But these changes have overtaken Amis, Hirst, Hare, Bower, Liddle and others. Maybe it’s age (too much of it), maybe it’s money (too much of it), maybe it’s the ambition for status (too much of it), the longing to be above the salt, but, as Lionel Asbo would say, ‘Nah! Reset.’
You can call the government’s response to the latest banking crisis, which is slated to extend well beyond Barclays, as ‘tepid’ or ‘insouciant’, or you can put it down, more cynically, to the fact that the bankers and the cabinet were all at school together. But it goes deeper, and wider. More and more (and save for Jeremy Paxman), we finally resemble the civilization Ezra Pound first described in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, 1920, as that ‘of an old bitch gone in the teeth.’