Friday, 21 August 2015

Sometimes I even forget the song

So, this is about a) religion and b) left wing politics. And, as usual, things that irritate me about both.

Many years ago I used to write worship songs. That is, songs which people in church could sing, all together, on the understanding that God - in Heaven - would hear them and find them pleasing. It's an odd concept, singing to God, but we did it anyway and who knows, maybe God liked it. Or maybe God just stared at us, like you would at a dog that keeps bringing you a horrible, saliva covered stick.

There are in existence thousands of worship songs, called things like "O Lord Be My Salvation" and "You Are the One I Worship". My writing of new songs was not in response to a perceived drought of material. I just found many of the existing songs unsatisfying - cloaked in arcane language or drowning in sentiment - and wanted to make my own contribution.

Among the songs I wrote was a bouncy, daft piece of whimsy called "I Really Like You". It was, as you may already have gathered, not a very serious song. It scampered along like a puppy, taking delight in the impossibility of articulating a meaningful response to the Creator of All Things.

Sample verse:

I think you're wonderful
Kind of indescribable
You sometimes seem peculiar
But that's alright with me

It seems you know everything
You're completely Omni-something
You can do what you want
But what you choose to do is often quite weird

It was almost impossible for a congregation to sing, but that was part of the delight. When I used to lead the song, I would comment on its impossibility and explain how that was kind of the point: singing a song to God is inherently nonsensical. If we take ourselves very seriously when we sing those songs - if we think we can do this well -  we inflate our own cosmic importance and reduce God to a commonplace thing, a galactic Simon Cowell, impressed by surfaces and acts of skill.

When it went well, it was a joy. The peculiar rhythms of the verse left us tripping over each other and collapsing into a mad sprawl of voices. We stopped trying to be a harmonious choir and became a bunch of flawed individuals, laughing and making mistakes together. The chorus was just about catchy enough to gather us up at the end of every verse, probably because it was more or less stolen from 'Everybody Needs Somebody to Love'. It was daft and fun, but heartfelt and - to my mind - more truthful than many other, more 'harmonious' songs.

Why am I telling you this? Well, obviously to point out how brilliant I am. I hope you got that. I am amazing. You should probably write that down. But also because my memory of this song is rooted in an event which annoyed me at the time and annoys me now. So I thought I'd annoy you with it.

Like all my annoyances, it is petty and almost completely unimportant.

During my reign as an amazing and paradigm-shifting church-song guy, I was asked to lead worship at some kind of Church away day. I can't remember what it was for, but everyone in the church had gone away to some lovely building in the countryside to be together and learn about Jesus and - of course - sing songs.

I played a few songs and encouraged the assembled mass to join in. Some of it was very reverent and quiet. Some of it attempted to be stirring and powerful. And then, to finish off and segue into the more talky bit of the day, I played 'Really Like You'.

It went pretty well, we all had a bit of a laugh, and I sat down. The leader of the talky bit got up. Let's call her Susan.

"Thanks Rob," she said. "Though I'm not sure that really works as a kids' song. I don't think 'Omni-something' would make much sense to children."

She wasn't being mean. It was a light hearted aside. But it irked me nonetheless. From my position in the congregation, I replied.

"It's not a kids' song," I said.

"Oh, of course it is," she smiled, and opened her Bible, ready to get on with the next bit now this was dealt with.

"No," I countered, "it's not written as a kids' song. That's why it has that language in it."

This was, by now, a bit more tense than was appropriate for the large gathering, who had enjoyed the song but were not really up for a debate on the semantics of its symbolism. So I let it go and we got on with the service.

Except, obviously, I didn't let it go, did I? I continued to be annoyed about it for years. It sat in my mind, a festering little speck of irritation which came up whenever I thought of the song. Because Susan's comments had that special quality of all really stupid arguments: it was hard to work out exactly what so irritating about it.

You'll be pleased to know I've worked it out now.

The frustration inherent in Susan's words came in two parts. One: redefining my song as 'a kids' song'. Two: then saying that it didn't work as 'a kids' song'.

First up, then. I say it's not a kids' song, so it isn't a kids' song. I didn't write it for 'kids' and it's my song so I'm right. So why did Susan decide I was wrong? Well that's easy - because it was fast and because it was fun. Like most Western Christians - and indeed most Western people in general - Susan had got locked into that tiny minded idea that a frivolity = youth. If it's fun or loud or colourful, it's for the young. If you want to talk to older people, then you better get serious and calm and quiet. It leads to the nonsensical idea that younger people can't cope with ideas of substance. It draws a false equivalence between serious tones of voice and intelligent, mature thought. 'Growing up' means 'slowing down'. 'Being young' means 'being an idiot'.

It's total horseshit and, worse, it's unchristian. It consigns people to categories. Patronises them. Assigns intellectual worth to slow speech and sensible shoes rather than ever really looking at what things mean. My song was daft, but it was getting at something complicated and true. And that something is this: If you're going to sing to God - God who invented the concepts of light, gravity, space and time - if you're going to sing to God, then 'I Really Like You' is no less ridiculous a thing to say than 'O Lord I Come to You In Awesome Wonder'. They're both just things, said in English to a being who probably doesn't speak English or possibly even exist in time as we understand it. They are both bloody ridiculous. I'm not saying that God might not appreciate it. I'm just saying that if She does listen, She's unlikely to give a toss about the particular class of language employed.

(Yes, 'She'. I don't know. He? She? Could be anything. Probably neither. But let's do a tiny bit to redress thousands of years of patriarchy, shall we?)

Anyway. There's that. And then there's the other, weirder part of this. Having incorrectly defined my song as a 'kids' song', Susan then goes on to say that it doesn't work as a kids' song. I mean... what? Huh?


The only one calling it a kids' song - is you! You, Susan, with your idiotic lack of understanding of how we begin to define things. You may as well look at a car and say "Well, that would be terrible for cleaning your teeth!  It has no bristles, it's too heavy and I'm afraid it's far too big to go in my mouth! This thing is a failure!" And then, when someone points out that this is a car, you smile a patronising smile and shake your head."Oh dear, no, this is a toothbrush. I've decided."

It's possible, at this stage, that you are starting to fear for my mental health. You may also remember, way back at the start of this, I promised some kind of left-wing politics.

Well, here it is. The story above is all true, and it does irritate me. But it was brought to mind recently, when observing the Labour leadership fiasco. Plenty of people have pledged their support to Labour in recent months, hoping to take part in the process of selecting a new leader.

Plenty of those people have been told they cannot vote, because they 'do not support the values of the Labour party.' Many of these are people who have supported Labour for years. The reason given by Labour is that they fear the party is being infiltrated by people who will subvert the true cause of the party.

It does not sit well with me. It feels like the definition of 'true Labour values' might have come adrift. My story above now feels like a parable.

Susan's arbitrary definition of my song, used to dismiss its value.

My frustration that my voice got lost.

And a sense that real meaning is slipping away, redefined by people who have lost perspective. That's a kids' song. That's a toothbrush. These are True Labour Values.

The chorus of my song goes like this. It might not mean anything, of course.

That's not to say sometimes you don't freak me out
That's not to say I don't have my doubts
I'm only human after all

That's not to say sometimes I don't get it wrong
That's not to say I don't sometimes forget the words
Sometimes I even forget the song