Monogamy is not the first word that comes to mind when the name Leonard Cohen is heard. He was, to say the least, a bit of a lad.

I have just finished Sylvie Simmons' excellent and very readable biography of the great poet and musician. She quotes the Guardian's Robin Denselow describing Cohen's London gigs on his first European tour as being about “self-obsession, cynicism, non-communication; it is two strangers frantically making love in a shadowy hotel bedroom.” Perhaps this observation was more prescient than the critic knew at the time.

Leonard went through women like the London to Edinburgh train goes through stations. He was insatiable. And the tortuous process of writing, thinking and – eventually – performing accompanied his relationships with a self-referential singlemindedness that is both impressive and shocking. His approach to sex is as hard to admire as his stamina is hard to ignore.

But, as with many great artists, it is out of the flawed humanity, this wrestling with spirituality and sensuality, that their pips get squeezed and the fruit is pressed out.

Or is it?

What is clear with Leonard Cohen is that not once does he dissemble, lie or pretend to be what he is not. Selfish and self-interested he might be (although the way he fulfils his responsibilities towards his children is honourable and his generosity to friends and disadvantaged people – see the stuff about his gigs in mental institutions in Europe – remarkable), but he is not a hypocrite. His walking out on commitments to women seems to me to be deplorable, but none of his women seems to be surprised.

What I found moving about his 'pension restoration' world tour in 2008 was that here was a man of 75 who is now at peace with himself. Maybe, as George Melly once observed with evident relief and gratitude, age silences the torment of a rampant and enslaving libido. Cohen performs with humour, generosity, humility and wonderful skill – at ease with himself and the musicians who bring his music to life.

When I once expressed my admiration for Cohen in a blog post, I got a blasting response to the effect that he is simply a shameful louche. All I can say is: so was Mozart, but I haven't heard anyone suggest his liturgical settings should not be used in church.

Cohen comes over as a remarkable artist and a man whose suffering and searching has lasted a life time, leaving in his wake as many casualties as credits. But, I guess, like the older men in John 8, who, having demanded that the woman caught in adultery be stoned (and not in the sense that Cohen regularly got stoned), began to leave first, those of us who have lived longer recognise our own catalogue of failings and should be less swift to judge. Cohen, at least, is relentlessly honest.

So, now I am on to Christopher Browning's 'Ordinary Men' – another shocking exploration of the human condition and our easy acquaintance with avoidable cruelty. More anon.

 

Conversations with journalists often involves challenging the suggestion that the Church of England spends all its time in conflict over sex and women. If 5% of what we talk about forms 95% of media coverage about us and this shapes 100% of popular perception about the church’s preoccupation, no wonder we have a problem.

Well, despite my protestations that the bulk of our preoccupations have nothing to do with sex or conflict, the House of Bishops spent 95% of its meeting this week doing sex and women (bishops). One colleague at the two-day meeting in York, having wondered after months of bad weather what the big yellow thing in the sky was, asked why we couldn’t leave the stuffy room and meet outside – or as he put it, “Can’t we do sex outside?” Er…

Anyway, dispute now rages about women bishops, marriage and associated matters. More anon. Although my meetings this week about the media and the conflict in Sudan won’t hit the headlines…

What has made me laugh today, though, is the prospect of Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest in Baku. The human rights questions there raise enough questions, but surely the biggest challenge this year is how to lose the contest while appearing to try to win it. The country that wins the contest has to stage the event next year. And who wants to do that in the middle of a massive financial crisis?

It will be interesting to see how Greece, Spain and Portugal perform. A win might cheer them up during hard times – music can do that sort of thing – but a noble defeat will prove cheaper. And Ireland has chosen Jedward again…

(I met Engelbert Humperdinck in a BBC Radio 2 studio a couple of weeks ago. I only heard his song yesterday. Apparently they have chosen him because he is very popular in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Nice song, though…)

Way back in March this year I read an article in the Guardian about the (in)famous American cartoonist Robert Crumb and his recently completed four-year project to illustrate the whole of the Book of Genesis. Described as an ‘acclaimed satirist’ and ‘hero of underground comics’, he worked directly from the King James Bible and Robert Alter’s translation to illustrate the first book of the Bible.

Genesis (Crumb)I thought at the time that this would be yet another attempt to upset religious people and pour sneering scorn on their holy books. After all, his publisher Jonathan Cape was heralding the book as a “scandalous satire” which “presents a complex, even subversive, narrative that calls for a significant re-examination of both the Bible’s content and its role in our culture”. The publisher also called it a ‘reinterpretation’ of the Book of Genesis.

Now, I wasn’t going to write or say anything about this book until after the Times had published an article about it. The writer had a copy of the book sent to me so that I could comment on it for the said article. I had a very interesting and intelligent conversation with the journalist over the phone after I had read the book quickly. But I didn’t want to preempt the article by blogging it.

Then today I saw myself quoted by Ben Leach on the Telegraph website saying:

I didn’t think it was satire. He set out to say; ‘this is important, fundamental myth’ and it seems to me he’s done a good job.

Well, I did say that … to the Times journalist. But I have not had any contact from or conversation with Ben Leach from the Telegraph. So, where did this come from? I am interested to know. [Note on 19. October: I have now found the Times article from which my quote was (partially) nicked.] Why? Because the article is headed as follows:

A sexually explicit illustrated Book of Genesis by controversial artist Robert Crumb, which features Bible characters having intercourse, has been condemned by religious groups.

Actually, it hasn’t. Or, at least, it wouldn’t have been condemned if the said journalist hadn’t rung up Mike Judge of the Christian Institute who (from his response) clearly has not seen or read the book. When I got my copy it said on the cover, ‘Adult supervision recommended for minors.’ And ‘The first book of the Bible graphically depicted! Nothing left out!’ When I read it I thought it was excellent and realised that this is simply a case of an inept publisher trying to sell more copies by sensationalising what isn’t sensational.

Crumb's Genesis

In other words, what it says on the tin is not what you find within.

I would simply make the following observations:

1. Genesis is a bit racy at times and tells stories of sex, lying, violence, hypocrisy and all the other things that are to be found wherever you find real people. The book is about real people and real things. If you can’t cope with that, don’t read Genesis in the first place.

2. Surprisingly (to me, at least), there is no pornographic representation of sex acts that are graphically described in words in the original. If children need to be protected from drawings of breasts and a man ‘lying with’ a woman, then pity help the children.

3. The text of Genesis has been stuck to faithfully and taken seriously. Isn’t that brilliant?

4. The drawings bring the stories alive and impress upon the reader the ‘flesh and blood’ reality of the people and events described – thus rescuing them from the sort of ‘Holy Scripture’ we gloss over and making the stories powerfully and engagingly real.

5. Crumb faces the problem of how to depict God directly. In an interview he said: “My problem was, how am I going to draw God? Should I just draw him as a light in the sky that has dialogue balloons coming out from it? Then I had this dream. God came to me in this dream, only for a split second, but I saw very clearly what he looked like. And I thought, OK, there it is, I’ve got God. He has a white beard but he actually ended up looking more like my father. He has a very masculine face like my father.” He had considered, he said, drawing God as a black woman. “But if you actually read the Old Testament he’s just an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.”

Well, I disagree with the last bit, but I take his point.

So, who are the people likely to take offence at this book? I guess it will be the people who (a) haven’t read it or (b) take offence at anything that involves bodies, sex, God or cultural intelligence.

Ignore the sensationalist nonsense. If the publisher thought this was ‘scandalous satire’ and ‘subversive’, he should be sacked for having failed. It is an excellent book and well worth a read.

OECD (Children)The international Organisation for Economic Development (OECD), has produced a report on comparative rates of teenage pregnancy, drunkenness and young people not in education, employment or training (neets). Doing Better for Children makes some interesting observations about the effectiveness of spending on children and teenagers in different countries and poses some interesting questions. The Guardian has provided a useful summary of its main points (despite not relating these to the Children’s Society‘s Good Childhood Inquiry I blogged about earlier in 2009).

Set that alongside another report of a survey conducted by the NSPCC and Bristol University and a picture begins to grow. Of the 1,353 teenage girls and boys questioned across the UK, nearly 90% of girls aged 13 to 17  – and a similar number of boys – had been in an intimate relationship. But consider the following observations as summarised by the Guardian:

  • 25% of girls had suffered physical violence, including being slapped, punched or beaten by their boyfriends.
  • Of 91 young people questioned at length, one in six of the girls said that they had been pressured into having sex and one in 16 claimed to have been raped. Others who took part in the study said that they had been pressured or forced to kiss or intimately touch their boyfriends.
  • A small minority of the boys – one in 17 – reported being pressured or forced into sexual activity and almost one in five suffered physical violence in a relationship.
  • Many of the girls said they felt they had to put up with the abuse because they felt scared or guilty, or feared they would lose their boyfriend.
  • The NSPCC said that having an older boyfriend placed young girls at a higher risk of abuse, with three-quarters of them saying they had been victims.
  • Young women from a family where an adult had been violent towards them were also at greater risk.
  • For boys, having a violent group of friends actually made it more likely that they would become a victim, or be a perpetrator of violence, in a relationship.

Apparently, the report concludes that schools need to raise awareness of relationships where there is harmful, controlling and abusive behaviour. The Guardian report ends with the following:

Diane Sutton, head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, said: “It is shocking to find so many young people view violence or abuse in relationships as normal. Boys and girls are under immense peer pressure to behave in certain ways and this can lead to disrespectful and violent relationships, with girls often bearing the brunt. Young people need to learn to respect each other.” She added that parents and schools could perform a vital role in teaching children about loving and safe relationships and what to do if they are suffering from violence or abuse.

Not suprisingly, these rather disturbing findings got plenty of air-play today and I picked up on an interview on BBC Radio 5Live in which a policeman was describing the teenage behaviour he regularly meets on the streets. He stated that it would take generations to change behaviour and the attitudes that lead young people to behave in such ways that betray low self-esteem and immaturity in relationships. He was followed by a woman claiming that if teenage lads were cuddled and hugged more, they wouldn’t need to demand such affection from girls – which she clearly saw as a form of inappropriate transference.

JordanI thought this was quite interesting. Not only do we live in a highly sexualised society in which we have young girls saying on television that their goal in life is ‘to be like Jordan‘ (Katie Price, the glamour model best known for her dysfunctional relationships and pneumatic breasts) – ‘famous’ – but we also grow our children to be suspicious of all adults, to fear for their safety and to avoid touch. Now, this might be delicate and contentious, but let’s speculate about a couple of the possible contributors to this state of affairs:

1. I have vivid memories of being upset at primary school and being hugged by a teacher and sat on the lap of another teacher while she read a story to the class. I was six years old and I was grateful. That could not happen today. I recently heard a teacher describe on the radio the problems of being in a classroom with (possibly) one other classroom assistant when a child has an accident or needs to go to the loo. How can they cope when the child has to be accompanied by two adults and there is no one left to look after the class? Why be accompanied by two adults? Because we have now decided that no adult can be trusted with a child alone and that legal protection demands suspicion.

And what does this sort of arrangement – brought in for very good reasons in the wake of serious child abuse cases – do to the way our growing children view the world, adults, normality and relationships? All adults are to be fundamentally suspected of being deviant? Nobody can be trusted – or nobody should be trusted? And is this sort of arrangement really for the protection of children from sexual harm, or is it simply to provide the employers from legal redress or suspicion in the light of any allegations of such abuse? The distinction matters.

Lost Icons2. Does the lack of touch offered to children create a later unconscious craving for touch/affection that is then satisfied by ‘intimate’ relationships that are both immature and premature? Rowan Williams touched on this in his powerful critique of our society’s view of children in Lost Icons and I picked it up in my own book Finding Faith. Is the woman on the radio right to surmise that children/teenagers are increasingly seeking intimacy because they lack affection at home, never get touched appropriately by other human beings and are only given sexualised models of relating by our dominant culture? And is this particularly the case for boys who have no idea how to become men because there are no respect-worthy role models in their home?

This is sensitive stuff. But I worry that a society shaped by an antipathy to potential abuse does not necessarily create a healthy positive view of relationships. Maybe this is yet another example of the law of unintended consequences. It might be that we have no alternative but to protect the few by condemning the many. But, I wonder if there really are links between the findings of the OECD report, the conclusions of the NSPCC report and the observations of our own eyes as we wonder how this can be turned round in future generations.

Perhaps we need a wider public debate about this. In the meantime, … answers on a postcard?