I am in London all day for meetings. Meetings about all sorts of things: from social media, the Meissen Commission (work with the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland), European work, recording a script, communications, etc.

Yet, it is the death of James Gandolfini that haunts my mind amid the busyness.

The three great TV series of the last couple of decades are (in my humble opinion) The West Wing, The Wire, and The Sopranos. The writing in each is superlative. The characters are well developed and rounded. The acting is brilliant. And each one shines a light into America at a particular point and in a particular way.

I winced at the violence of The Sopranos. But, this was better than any psychology textbook on fleshing out the personal, psycho-social, emotional, intellectual, relational and ethical mess that stood at the centre of the drama. Tony Soprano – husband, father, son, colleague, brother, friend, enemy – was the Mafia boss who went for therapy. Talk about confusing the stereotypes.

And James Gandolfini explored this character so convincingly. Yeah, the scripts were great, the production wonderful and the cast superb. But, Gandolfini made it all work.

Dead at 51. Tragic.

 

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.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say that morality is straightforward?

While on holiday I was reading William Boyd’s excellent book Ordinary Thunderstorms on the beach. I picked it up simply because it was set in London and I had read somewhere that he has a bit of a cult following. You have to suspend your sense of reality a bit – especially at the basic plot of the narrative – but it is a fast-moving and entertaining read.

But, what struck me was the way we so easily adopt hierarchies of morality and don’t seem to spot the inconsistencies. of course, we spot the inconsistencies of everyone else, but not our own. (I seem to remember Jesus saying something about specks and motes somewhere…)

Without spoiling the plot, there is a character – an assassin called Jonjo – who commits all sorts of violence against selected targets and finds imaginative ways to inflict pain. Trying to track down his main target, he has to engage along the way with drug dealers, prostitutes and other casualties of civil society. He treads a path through the hidden underbelly of London life.

But, while on this pursuit of the man he wants to kill, he spits out his contempt for what has happened to his city. He thinks that this ‘low life’ should be eradicated from the face of the earth, bemoaning what has become of London society. He is happy to blackmail, torture and murder human beings for personal monetary gain… but then can’t bring himself to shoot his own dog – the only time he gets remotely sentimental.

Reading this reminded me of a session I did a couple of decades ago in an open prison in England. I had been asked to address a group of around 100 prisoners and then face questions. It all went well until I responded to a question about something or other (I can’t remember what) and in my answer I mentioned the fact that when my first two children were born, we hardly had to buy them any clothes because so many people handed on stuff to us. Given that we were broke anyway, this was both welcome and necessary.

One prisoner got up and berated me. How could I possibly call myself a Christian and not buy the best new clothes for my own babies? Somehow this was offensive to him and I had my priorities all wrong. Later I asked the chaplain who the offended prisoner was and was told he was a double murderer coming to the end of his sentence.

So, murder was OK, but clothing my kids in secondhand clothes wasn’t.

This theme is brilliantly brought out in the excellent American series The Wire. Apart from expanding my vocabulary by multiple forms of the F word, the hierarchies of morality are cleverly explored (or exposed?) in a totally engrossing narrative. We are about to start on Series 4 (of 5) – next year we will re-watch the entire seven series of The West Wing. One character in The Wire is Omar – he seems to specialise in frustrating drug gangs, torturing people and killing those against whom he holds some grudge or other. He resorts to violence like the rest of us drink coffee.

In one episode of Series 3 Omar takes his mum to church. On the way out they get shot at by rival gangsters. Omar is livid and seems genuinely affronted by this. Not, as you might have assumed, by being shot at. No. What really wound him up was that he got shot at on Sunday when there was supposed to be a truce on shooting each other.

This then reminded me of the problems Jesus had with the self-righteous religious legalists. He kept healing the wrong people on the wrong day. Read the Gospels and you’ll see what I mean. When he heals a woman after years of suffering and social ostracism, ‘God’s people’ don’t celebrate; they just moan that he did it on the Sabbath and why couldn’t he have waited a day or two and been less embarrassing? It’s a repeated ability to completely miss the point.

In this sense, we are all the same as human beings. We easily spot the inconsistencies in the moral behaviour of others – especially those with whom we disagree. It is much harder to be honest about our own convenient hierarchies of morality. Only once in my 23 years of ordained ministry have I been asked to withhold Communion from someone who was sexually ‘compromised’; not once did anyone ask me to withhold Communion from someone who fiddled their expenses or used money in morally dubious ways. Yet Jesus said far more about money and greed than he ever did about sex.