I am looking forward to August when the diary thins into space. So, a day off today allowed me to get into practice for relaxing into the anticipated thinned space. Three CDs and one book are worth mentioning:

I can’t get enough of the genius that is Father Ted. Endlessly funny no matter how often I see it. So, last week my son-in-law lent me Well-remembered Days, a very funny and scurrilous satire on ‘all things Oirish’ by the co-writer of Father Ted, Arthur Mathews. It is laugh-out-loud funny and, like all good satire, is biting enough about religion to hit a few sensitive buttons.

About ten years ago I met a bloke in Wimbledon who shares my enthusiasm for the great Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. He lent me two or three compilation CDs on which Bruce performed acoustic songs. Concerts for a Landmine Free World was one of them, but it has taken me ten years to track it down again and get it. It is wonderful, funny in parts, and showcasing some lovely acoustic music from country greats like Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nancy Griffith, Kris Kristofferson and John Prine. Lovely stuff and all for a good cause.

Sometimes the best music doesn’t hit the heights of public recognition. I have just listened to two CDs from Scotland – both by friends. Rory Butler has inherited his father’s musicality and produced a beautiful first album called Naked Trees. Mature and moody, he has written songs of love and loss and hope and longing. Rory brings to mind early John Martyn – reflective and guitar that haunts the imagination.

Alan Windram stayed with us recently and sent his CD 10 o’clock to the morning yesterday. I love it. It brought to mind fellow Scottish band Del Amitri. One listen and I had to put it back on again. Then I read the sleeve notes and saw that Rory Butler had also played on it. Just get it and love it.

Anyway, the music shuts out for a while all the Olympics stuff, banking corruption and muckiness – creating space for beauty, poetry and imagination.

Not deep, I know. But, as Bruce Cockburn sang on You’ve Never Seen Everything: “Don’t forget about delight”…

So, here are a couple of samples…

Nothing ever happens is the title of the great Del Amitri song. The sentiment doesn’t quite fit my life just now. Having watched the final episodes of The Wire a couple of days ago, we got the train to Liverpool to visit our son, daughter-in-law and 8 week old baby, Ben. Back on Saturday night ready for an inspiring and full Sunday. (The photo is from the amazing St John, Upper Norwood, as the sun shines through.) Then off to Ireland to speak at a conference from Monday to Thursday.

On Saturday night BBC4 showed some great singer-songwriters from the last thirty years of BBC sessions. It was excellent. And it was followed by the first of a new short series of Songwriters Circle which brings together three singer-songwriters before a live audience for an intimate gig. A similar series ran for five sessions on BBC2 in July 1999 and it was just brilliant.

The orginal series began with Neil Finn (Crowded House), Roddy Frame (Aztec Camera) and Graham Gouldman (10cc). They each sang one of their own songs before joining in on each others’ songs in front of a small live audience. Later editions (five in total) involved such greats as Chrissie Hynde, Nick Cave, John Cale, Joan Baez and Paul Heaton.

The new series that began last night brought together Justin Currie (Del Amitri), Chris Difford (Squeeze) and Boo Hewerdine (The Bible). The weakness of the format is that the singers get to talk too much, but the singing of some classic songs was powerful – one Justin Currie song even bringing Chris Difford to tears because of its association with a time of a traumatic relationship break-up.

That’s the power of music and poetry. Difford writes some great narrative songs about otherwise ordinary things (like Up the Junction, Cars, etc.) – Currie sings withsuch a passion and intensity that (like I find with Neil Finn’s voice) you don’t want him to stop. The Beautiful South perfected the genre, but these guys will do.

And that’s the thing about songs. They give expression to common emotions and experiences, but with a language that shines a unique light on them. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but only after an excursion through The Wire – an extraordinary television drama that uncovers the complex problems of post-industrial America through the experiences of politicians, schools, media, unions and drug criminals in Baltimore. It’s no wonder it has become a cult classic.

What is extraordinary about The Wire (apart from the astonishing ubiquity and flexibility of the F word) is the way it refuses to play the game of normal TV drama. Characters are introduced full of potential for development, but go nowhere. Others seem destined for particular prominence, but then get randomly killed (Stringer Bell early on and Omar towards the end). You constantly get the impression that the writers are not going to indulge our tidy narrative minds that expect loose ends to be satisfactorily tied up in an orderly fashion before the end.

Life, says The Wire, is just not like normal TV drama. People (Omar, for example) control events with singleminded determination and brute force of personality – only then to get shot (while buying groceries in a shop) by a kid who doesn’t appear again. Life is messy, random, full of coincidences and choices with consequences. Much of what happens to us has little to do with getting formulae right or deserving particular outcomes: it just sort of happens. (Terry Eagleton touches on this in his book On Evil.)

We like to think that our lives are central to the world – that what happens to ‘me’ matters to the world. But, like when you are in a funeral cortege for someone you love – whose death has stopped your world – and people outside just carry on with their lives regardless of your grief, the world moves on without even noticing. Your world has changed, but the world hasn’t. It’s the indifference that hurts.

Yet, this is where the question of human meaning is most acutely posed. Who are we and why do we matter? Or, as God, searching for Adam and Eve in the Garden, asks: ‘Adam, where are you?’ The answer for us all, faced with moments of awareness of the seeming indifference of the universe, is simply that we matter because we are made in God’s image and are, therefore, infinitely valuable, infinitely loved. “I am because I am” might suit some people, but it doesn’t do the business for most human beings.

Del Amitri could have sung “Something always happens”, but it wouldn’t have worked so well. Something is always happening, but not everything seems to be replete with significance. And the real offence, caught in The Wire, is that we are not really ever in control of events: it is simply a conceit to think that we are. 

Which brings me back to the ordinariness of most people’s everyday life, lived hopefully and yet conscious of the moments of emptiness, loneliness or fear. Justin Currie sang of this as follows:

Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before

And we’ll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow

Bill hoardings advertise products that nobody needs
While angry from Manchester writes to complain about
All the repeats on T.V.
And computer terminals report some gains
On the values of copper and tin
While American businessmen snap up Van Goghs
For the price of a hospital wing

Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
The needle returns to the start of the song
And we all sing along like before
Nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
They’ll burn down the synagogues at six o’clock
And we’ll all go along like before

And we’ll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow

It doesn’t have to be that way. But, for a lot of people, it is. And the song captures it better than anything else.