This is from an earlier version of this blog which never really got off the ground although one or two posts still seem apposite. I'm reposting them here (without updating)
I saw a council van the other day with the slogan 'looking after your environment' emblazoned across the side. It made me think about the way in which local government in the UK has changed and has detached itself from the community it supposedly serves. Many local authorities no longer operate on a public service ethos. The management speak of big business has taken over. That is why they can talk about 'your environment'. It isn't just just government at fault. Over the years local communities have been just as likely to see the council as 'them', demanding services and facilties for 'us'.
It doesn't have to be that way. I repeat - it doesn't have to be that way. It never had to be that way. An excellent book called Urban Renaissance by Dr Dick Atkinson looks at the failures of welfare reform. He estimates that about 30% of the population live in neighbourhoods experiencing problems - poor educational achievment, physical decay, unemployment - usually all at once. Something like £100,000,000 are spent in every neoghbourhood of about 15,000 people every year. By any standards that is a huge sum. Despite that some of these communities are still in dire need and have been since the 1960s.
Atkinson offers a real alternative. It depends on politicians giving up the power they have accumulated over the years and trusting local people to decide on what they need. Projects like New Deal for the Community and Neighbourhood Management are supposed to do that of course, but with some honourable exceptions they don't seem to be working. Atkinson proposes not a Welfare State, but a Welfare Society where communities in neighbourhoods organise themselves and take control of their own surroundings.
Shaw said, I think in the preface to Androcles and the Lion, that Barabbas has had 2000 years - its time to give Christianity a chance. Well, centralised welfare has had a chance - its time for the people.
I recently bought a book of essays by Clive James. I knew of his TV work and also that he was a poet, although I haven’t knowingly read any of his work. I say knowingly, because I was a great fan of Pete Atkin when he was a performer and the two of them wrote many songs together.
I didn’t realise however what a good prose writer he is. Whether writing about Orwell or Fellini or about personal experience – like learning to sing in his late 50s or meeting Princess Diana - he is always entertaining. He also displays a surprising (to me) depth of learning, something not evident in his persona as a TV presenter.
I’m not going to write an essay about a book of essays though – just go and read.
Although I grew up on Tyneside, I spent many holidays in North Yorkshire. The North Yorkshire dialect has many picturesque turns of phrase, that I was reminded of reading one of the books by Gervase Phinn of his time as a school inspector.
We don't put people on pedestals in Yorkshire - they nobbut want dustin'
Arranging a funeral – and the rather morbid realisation that I have more years behind me than ahead – led me into thinking about the way we handle death in our society.
Only about 7% of us attend the Anglican Church with any frequency and only about 16% attend any Christian church.
In the UK, Church membership and attendance are declining relatively rapidly. Church membership figures for the UK show 6.7 million church members in 1990, 17.3% of the Christian population, with 4.4 million church attenders. In 1995, the number of church members had declined to 6.4 million (16.8% of the Christian population), with 4.0 million attenders. Projections for the year 2000 give 5.9 million members (15.6% of the Christian population) with 3.8 million attenders. (Source : World Churches Handbook / Christian Research)
Even so, as far as I can tell the majority of British funerals are religious in character. That may be hedging our bets - although it’s probably too late by then! - but I suspect it is more to do with our need for ritual at times of great emotion.
I’ve never been to a Jewish or Muslim funeral so I can’t speak for what happens there. British Christian funerals are however underpinned by a strong tradition of hymn singing. The effect of that is very different to the same hymns sung by the choir. The funeral I recently attended included one hymn – How great Thou art - with a wonderful tune (and for a believer powerful words) that even as a long-standing atheist still managed to raise the hair on the back of my neck. Add ‘Abide with Me’ and ‘The day Thou gavest’ and you have a strong – and shared - emotional experience.
For the atheist, there is no equivalent. There is obviously powerful and emotional music to draw on, but it will not be shared in the same way as the Christian hymn. Nor is there a shared equivalent to the St James Bible. As a consequence, since most people probably do not plan their funeral in advance, I suspect therefore that when the time comes the relatives settle for the comfort of a familiar ritual.
As you might expect I have my own ideas about music.
West End Blues – Louis Armstrong (if only for the tremendous opening solo)
For all we know - Billie Holiday (because I can’t imagine going anywhere without Billie)
Ode to Joy – from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (going out on a big finish!)
Others on the short list:
Vissi d’arte from Tosca (it passed the neck hair test even though when I first heard it I had no idea of the meaning or the context)
Three from Duke Ellington
Ducky Wucky – (it makes me laugh) Warm Valley – (warm and sensuous - Duke at his best) Caravan – (more classic Duke)
My question therefore is this – given a non-religious ceremony, what music and what words would you choose?
If there are enough responses I'll post some form of list.
Speaking of a unified world, one of my American students confided in me after a trip abroad "they don't seem to have a cafe culture in Italy, do they?" 'What?," I stammered. 'Well, I didn't see a single Starbucks all the time I was there."
I have to confess I'm getting terminally bored with the whole Bush/Kerry argument about military service, but I was amused by this nice piece of invective - and the fact it was directed at Bush is a bonus!
"Senator Kerry carries shrapnel in his thigh as distinct from President Bush who carries two fillings in his teeth from his service in the Alabama National Guard, which seems to be his only time that he showed up," John Podesta, former chief of staff in the Clinton White House, said on ABC's "This Week."