Friday, September 23, 2016

Book Notes: Autobiography, Eric Clapton

When I turned the final page of Eric Clapton's autobiography, my immediate thought was, "how on earth is this man still alive?" The fact that in 2017 he is returning to London's Royal Albert Hall for a series of gigs with his band, seems almost miraculous when one reads about how much of the 1960s he spent stoned, how much of the 1970s he lost to heroin addiction and how much of the 1980s to a serious alcohol problem. When you add to that the chaos of his relationships with wives and a staggering array of women, his survival is extraordinary.
The tone of the book is unusual, in that it is predominantly a confessional. Autobiographies of notable people, are usually replete with intricate details of their achievements. Politicians like to recount their key moments brokering deals, or bringing parties to the negotiating table, sportsmen like to dissect their greatest moments, with lessons for the reader on technique, training and tactics. There are no guitar lessons in Clapton's autobiography however, no speculations about the roots of, of enduring appeal of the blues, or explanations as to what he feels has enabled him to reach the heights of his profession and remain there for a half a century. Rather, we discover that he was massively screwed up as a kid, when he discovered that his 'parents' were actually his biological grandparents - and had to face maternal rejection. He found solace first in music generally, then in blues guitar. Then he says that he was lost in drugs and alcohol for so much of his life that he basically didn't ever mature beyond being a young teenager; despite having access to all manner of adult pleasures and pastimes. When looking back at the way he treated his first wife, he says things such as, "my moral health was appalling". He also documents several of his failures and misjudgements with the women and relationships in his life (as well as simply missing out several others who inexplicably do not get a mention in his tale). He spares the reader few insights into how badly he treated and used the women who came and went from his life, his drug binges and his bed. Perhaps this is carthartic writing; perhaps seeking some form of public absolution. Intriguingly, aside from his childhood issues and lack of sobriety he offers almost no explanation, or intended justification, for some of his shoddy behaviour.

The basic facts of his musical life are in there, John Mayall, Graham Bond, Cream, Blind Faith, and all his solo work. All the albums, and his collaborators are mentioned, as well as what was going on musically at the time, be it blues, raggae, folk, rock, or pop. However, for obvious reasons many of these are rather vague in their recollection of detail; as the main story is all about the state that Clapton found himself in at the time, and his tempestuous relationships. If you open this book hoping to find the definitive story of the Baker/Bruce feud that broke Cream, then you will be disappointed and left with little more than the acknowledgement that they didn't always get on (who knew?!)! 
The relationship between musical creativity and chemical intoxication is a curious one. The Beatles recorded some of their very best and absolute worst music when heavily drugged (personally I refer the more colourful LSD fuelled Pepper material to the heavier drugs which seem to undergird the White Album). Reading Clapton's autobiography, I was interested to note that the music of his which I admire most has been that in his most sober and controlled periods. While there were certainly plenty of chemicals flowing in the 1960s, behind much of the music of Cream through to Derek and the Dominoes, he wasn't out of control in that most productive era. However, I didn't really like a lot of what he did from then until the Journeyman/Unplugged era - which is when he finally completely sobered up. In terms of his own playing and musicianship, he freely admits it suffered badly during his periods of heavy addictions.
One of the tragedies of the book is that Clapton got to know the great Muddy Waters, but was unable to really develop the musical or personal relationship as it coincided with his heavy drinking days. The other is the awful story of the death of Clapton's four year old son Conor, the effect that the loss had on him, and how he dealt with it. This is painful and difficult reading, and Clapton is very open about this devastating part of his life.
Like great musical biopics of recent years, like "Ray" or "Walk the Line", the great plot of this book is about the fact that the central character doesn't end up dead like one of his girlfriends, a Jimi Hendrix, a Janis Joplin or a Phil Lynott; but conquers his addictions - and emerges from the rubble with a coherent and decent life. In fact, the final chapters of this book are all about Clapton's last two decades of sobriety, which have enabled him to build a happy marriage with his second wife and their three daughters. He also details the way in which he has been able to invest so much of his time and fortune in his Crossroads Addiction Recovery Centre.

One of the intriguing things about Clapton's tale of escape from alcoholism was of his encounter with the 'higher power' known to all aficionados of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He talks rather candidly about his scepticism about organised religion and its doctrinal systems; yet, about reaching a point of 'surrender' before God as being a critical step in his recovery. He also suggests that his previous attempts to reform himself failed as he didn't ever reach that point. This is actually an essential element of the book as without this, it would end as an overdose of smugness; self-rescue and self-promotion. With it, it seems that hitting rock-bottom, he was lifted up by a hidden benevolent power. The book then ends positively, with a sober man, with a content family life, still playing the music he loves. There is an enduring note of sadness in it all however; a trail of debris from the damaged relationships, painful splits and some who never made it alive through the drug-fuelled frenzy. Also, somewhat skirted around is Clapton's ill advised anti-immigration outburst in the mid-70s that sounded racist, from a man who spent his time hanging out with BB King, Muddy Waters and playing Black people's music. Perhaps the confession about dreadful state he was in at the time is the best explanation for that sorry episode that we are likely to get.

Clapton's autobiography is a fascinating, if not at times, a rather bleak read. It does provide an intriguing insight into the guitar man behind such enduring classics as Steppin' Out, Layla, White Room, Sunshine of Your Love, and being the prime contemporary exponent of such blues standards as Crossroads, or Born Under a Bad Sign.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

College Days..

Recently I found myself walking past this place; Strode's College, where I did my A-levels, way back in the 1980s. In those days it was an odd combination of being a school 6th form, and an adult education college. It was also a state school, on the site of a former private school; which is perhaps why it looks so grand, when I am but a peasant!

Book Notes: Transgender by Vaughan Roberts

Many years ago the noted Anglican clergyman John Stott issued a book which went through many editions and updates called, "Issues Facing Christians Today". Over the decades, the issues he discussed changed, with early versions being more weighted towards matters such as industrial disputes, and Trades Unions, and the latter to more individual or personal concerns such as medical and sexual ethics. How much issues facing Christians have changed again since Stott's demise is perhaps seen no more clearly than in the new series of issues-based ethics introductions being published by The Good Book Company called Talking Points. I have just been sent a copy of the first of them, a slim 70-odd page booklet called Transgender by Vaughan Roberts.

So short a book, can obviously not do justice to the ethical, political, medical, theological, psychological, and pastoral areas associated with this contemporary debate. In fact, Roberts restricts himself to only addressing a few aspects of the discussion, with a significant reading list for people who wish to explore various aspects of the subject in greater depth. What Roberts does attempt to do is the following, (i) provide Christians with an understanding of the contemporary debate, including accurate definition of terms such as gender dysphoria, transitioning, non-binary, and so forth. (ii) Roberts identifies two responses which he regards as emotional and inadequate, which are rejection or discrimination against people with any of these gender identity issues, and at the other extreme, uncritical acceptance of the current transgender movement's claims. (iii) Roberts seeks then to use the Bible as a model for developing an understanding of gender which is essentially binary, but damaged by the fall. His aim is to reach a point which is both compassionate, loving, embracing of all people, but yet faithful to Christian/biblical orthodoxy. This is no small challenge, and there will no doubt be angry responses from people to his 'left' who will be dismayed by his understanding of the Bible, and from his 'right' from those who would want to use scripture to stir up discrimination, exclusion and disgust towards people who Roberts insists are precious bearers of the image of God, like everyone else.

Roberts is an interesting choice of author for the Good Book Company to ask to kick off this series of booklets. While he is a leading voice within conservative evangelical Anglicanism, he has spoken openly over the last few years about his personal struggles with his sexuality. He has been criticised heavily, especially by some gay Christians because of the traditional/conservative conclusions he has come to  about sexuality; but it does mean that his writing about issues relating to human sexuality or gender rather wonderfully lacks the harsh tones and angry judgementalism that mars some writing. One of the most compelling descriptions of Jesus is found in the fourth gospel which says that he is "full of grace and truth". So often, the church has felt that it has to choose to be one or the other of those things. There have been those who have made finding 'truth' the whole of the Christian life, and have little compassion for people, in the difficulties and complexities of their struggles and messy lives. On the other hand, others of a different disposition, have found that accepting people like Christ did, has led to an abandonment of the search for truth, and a collapse into a weak, relativist basis for ethical reasoning. People will no doubt criticise Roberts for this book (it is after all a deeply emotive topic), but critics from within the churches should at least give him credit for making a deliberate and concerted effort to approach the matter in a Christlike way, "full of grace and truth".

Where Roberts does not venture is into the problematic world of public policy. As this is written as a thought-provoking primer for churches, he doesn't go anywhere near the debates which are raging about bathrooms, membership of sports teams, or other aspects of human rights law. That's hardly a criticism of a tiny booklet, but there is clarity needed for Christians on the relationship between what Christians privately believe and practice, and what they would vote for the secular state to pursue. LibDem leader Tim Farron, is widely thought to have conservative personal ethical views, but thinks that the state should be very liberal and permissive of all choices, for example. Perhaps a future title in this series of booklets could address the relationship between the Christian voter and the secular state.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Book Notes: The Dark Night of The Shed by Nick Page

One of the few perks that come my way as a blogger, and writer, is the steady stream of offers of review copies of books for which publishers are keen to garner publicity. The vast majority of such offers I ignore, there simply isn't the time to sit and read everything. In fact, as I have got older I have read less, but far more selectively than I did when I was young and lived under the customary illusion that my allotted time was inexhaustible, and could be frittered away on unremarkable books. There are, after all, more than enough books worthy of filling my remaining years, even if I were to be given an unusually large quota. Such thoughts occupied me as I (grumpily) surveyed the publishers e-mails recently. Then I spotted this, "The Dark Night of The Shed:  Men, The Midlife Crisis, Spirituality & Sheds" by Nick Page. Reading the small-print, I discovered that this was in fact a book about grumpy middle-aged men, written by a grumpy middle-aged man, for grumpy middle-aged men. Friends have told me that I have been a grumpy old man since I was about twenty - it's just that my body has finally caught up with my personality (my detractors have been less kind). So perhaps this was just the book for me. I had come across the author, Nick Page before. I reviewed one of his books on this blog many moons ago - and even had a brief, but hilarious, e-mail correspondance with him, in connection with a job I did in the early 2000's. So, thinking this might be timeworthy, I accepted the copy.

One of my neighbours has recently built an absolute palace of a shed. When I asked him why, he said, "Middle aged men, either buy a motorbike, have an affair, or build a shed; and the other two looked dangerous." Nick Page confesses, not so much to having a classic midlife crisis, but to having something of a middle-aged glitch, a wobble, a temporary derailing and re-assesment of himself and his life. This disturbing life re-orientation, which entices so many of us to take up extreme sports, make sudden chaotic harmful decisions, or diminish us into unrelenting grumpyness, drove Page (like my neighbour) towards a shed. It was in his shed, as he built it, developed it, and then inhabited it; that this volume was forged - and a poignant little book it is too.

The first thing is that Nick Page writes with warmth, wit, and great insight. Several times in the course of reading "The Dark Night of The Shed", I thought, "yes - that's me!" The foibles of being forty-something are first and foremost quite amusing when given the observational comedy treatment. Perhaps if such material was presented by a precocious twenty-something I would have become quite apoplectic with grumpyness, but given that Page is a year or two ahead of me; I can laugh along; and we can all be self-deprecating together. While some cultures greatly esteem age, and approaching middle-age is celebrated as a grauduation to a superior caste; Western-culture is youth-centric and nothing but increasing irrelevance seems to beckon us. Men in their mid-forties routinely score the lowest on happiness indicators, and alarmingly highly in diagnoses of depression and experience of suicidal thoughts. Page is disarmingly honest about what it feels like to hit this age and stage; and experience everything from career stagnation, to the sudden absence of dependent children. Clearly the experience of a mid-life redefinition is widespread. For some it is a full-blown crisis, while for others merely a murmur. Likewise the reaction to these feelings range from shed-building to  disastrous attempts to recapture lost-youth. Nevertheless, Page has done us all a great service by honestly facing up to, and giving voice to the experience. For many readers, simply redifining their experiences as normal and just like everyone else, will be worthwhile.

Ultimately, Page discovered, at his writing desk, in his shed-of-middle-age, that this debilitating, shocking, and disorientating phase of life can be navigated successfully, (even in Western culture, and with or without a shed) and even used for good. Drawing on sources as diverse as Percy the Park Keeper, Carl Jung, Moomins, The Old Testament story of Jacob, the experiences of countless friends called 'Steve', the life of Jesus, and the Orthodox Liturgy; Page ends up not merely coping with; but embracing the challenges of the years. In doing so, he even shed something of his grumpy demeanour, so perhaps there is hope for us all!

In one particularly entertaining section, Page writes about the death of the 'gods' of youth, which young men serve. These include Dosh (the god of wealth), Exhaustus (god of work), Kudos (god of status), Rumpo (god of sex), and Lycra himself  (the god of youth). His point is that we are socialised into giving such things the functional status of 'gods'; but as we feel the first signs of the ageing process these gods which have taken our time/energy and service and to whom we have looked for meaning/status/pleasure/security, suddenly appear to have feet of clay. Worshipping the wrong gods, must be replaced with worship of the right God; and it is in a deep-rooted rediscovery of Christian spirituality that Nick Page found a route through the tumult. Like the biblical character Jacob (a fraudster and rougue, who was brought low and wrestled with God), Page found that the place of re-orientation was in the conscious shedding of the 'idols' of youth, and wrestling with God. Where better for him to wrestle, than in his shed, his man-cave, which eventually turned into his prayer-chapel? Honesty and courage are the two characteristics which Page finds are the essentials for an authentic wrestling which goes deep enough to do the required work.

Emerging with less of the machismo and pretention of the young man who entered the experience, Page seems to come back from his 'dark night of the shed' with a renewed sense that a life spent serving others in the imitation of Jesus is a full and complete life; undiminsished by ever-slowing running or cycling speeds, and despite being overtaken by children in activities that he taught them to do! His conclusions, about humility, Christ-centeredness, the spiritual disciplines and some pithy wisdom about the importance of embracing creativity, and de-culttering, are delivered with a thoughtfulness which avoids dumbing such thoughts down into nauseating self-help cliches.

I was surprised not to see Tim Keller in the list of references at the end of the book as on the material related to The Prodigal God, and on the Counterfeit Gods, it read extremely closesly to Keller's two books of those names! Both of these would make excellent follow-up reading to this book, and helpful additions to his suggested additional resources.

Finally, Page calls men to a middle-age which is characterised by a joy which comes from a deeply-rooted spiritual life.
So why are we so grumpy? Many middle aged men are clinically grumpy. We can't help it. It's an instinctive knee-jerk grumpiness. It starts because we don't like change, or we don't feel valued, or we don't feel involved, or we're just annoyed at the sheer, banal stupidity of modern life, but before we know it, grumpiness and cynicism seem to be our default setting. It doesn't have to be that way. Grumpiness is a choice. And Jesus calls us to joy. I know, I know. Nothing is more irritating than being told to 'cheer up.' Like those posters that tell you to 'Think Positive'. You just want to take a flamethrower to them. But I want to let you know an important fact: it's true........... It takes some time though to change the muscle-memory of our own negativity. And we have to want to do it. Because we can get addicted to grumpiness. We get a kind of thrill about it, It makes us think that we know best, that we're not going to get taken in, unlike those silly, hopelessly optimistic idiots. Well, we're called to follow Jesus. To be like him. And whatever else he was, he was not an old grumpy-pants who thought that everything was better in the olden days.
With my predilictions so exposed and excuses rather elegantly dissected, it is perhaps time to get on with something positive....

The Dark Night of The Shed, is a short book, a straightforward read; but a profound one nevertheless in which serious themes are unusually helpfully explored, with wisdom, whimsy and a good dose of disarming humour. If you are planning your mid-life crisis anytime soon, the pages of The Dark Night of The Shed, might be an ideal place to start.