“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
One’s relationship with religion can be deeply emotional, even if that is unbeknownst to oneself. Growing up in a 1980s/1990s village in England with friends who were deeply, familially religious yet being of a single-parent home with a complex family structure there, it is obvious, lay many sticky wickets. Many places where an unconventional boy growing up and his friends some of religious families may find conflict amongst themselves. I remember a day when, walking to the village green to play football, we crossed the dirty grassy track through the bush and my best friend asked me not to say the word “damn” around him, because he found it deeply unsettling and/or offensive. I found it offensive that he was censoring me (though I doubt my inner monologue used that term). We were ten.
My mum did humour me on at least one occasion and we came to the Sunday Baptist service. We did not fit in. It was wierd. From that point onwards the weekly youth activities on a Friday night became more tumultuous and the relationship with the leaders and their children – those they were ultimately doing these groups for – became fractured. To the point where it was indirectly suggested that if the attendees did not go to Sunday services then it was not really for them anymore. We were maybe eleven or twelve. That was the first real experience of religious intolerance that I experienced. There were (as far as I could be aware) no Muslims, Sikhs or Jews in our village – the most exotic theology was Catholicism and everyone found that family more than a little strange. Though if you ventured into Cambridge sometimes you would see an actual Buddhist monk wandering around in orange robes. That was like seeing an alien. Really.
The village had a divide – in that divide there were two sects: the builders with their Sunday morning football, weekly sermons at the pub on a Friday and Saturday which felt like something from witch-hunting days – families that seemed to be famous in the village, faces you recognised but you knew would never recognise you. Then there were the religious families, equally as famous, but in more of an old-village, rather than new-village way. Perhaps my outsider status with both groups afforded me clarity of perspective. That was not unique to me, it wasn’t a particularly small village, at least not when I finally left – when I was born it was a three or four hundred homes lighter. Neither side were welcoming, both were intolerant in their own way and so organised religion and old-fashioned village bigots became two sides of the same coin.
Fortunately my mother was deeply open-minded and curious for her children, she brought us up with a deep curiousity in other religions and cultures. She took a stance that was intentionally opposed to village bigotry. She read us stories from the Ramayana, voted Green, practiced yoga and made sure we felt we could be whatever we wanted. It was a great gift. Especially since the village often conditioned us to laugh at those values.
But now, as an established adult, how does one make peace with traditional English religion and values and embrace the good things like Lent – the forty days preceding Easter Sunday whilst being more mindful of their history? Well, when I was a kid I’d often give up sweets for Lent, and then pig out on them after Easter. But I gave up junk food a month or so ago (and have never had more energy in my life) so I need to find something else. I didn’t even have pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (something established to get rid of fatty ingredients in the house before the fasting of Lent). So what can someone who does nor partake in the new British tradition of dieting on junk food give up?
I shall give up negative thinking.
But why? Why do we bother giving anything up for Lent? Penance – absolution before God. Something any good, god-fearing Westerner ought to do, right?
Well, I’m trying to avoid ruining my mental health at the moment – I’m getting my body, mind and soul in shape and I don’t think that I need to berate myself for my sins. In fact, I do not necessarily think that I need to rid myself of them. Yes, for some it may work in the traditional Christian way, but it does not work for me. I’ve done bad things. I’ve been a bad person. We all have. I’m not going to repress it and develop a personality disorder, that just can’t be healthy. So I’m not going to try and self-harm myself into ridding me of negativity, instead I’m going to embrace harnessing negative thinking (and more obviously talking negatively) by what I’ve read in Pema Chödrön’s ‘Start Where You Are’ which described Tonglen meditation. I’m not going to ignore my history and the traditions of my environment, instead I’m going to try and embrace the opportunity. I’m also not going to beat myself around the face repeatedly until my mind falls in line – I’m going to trust what many others have found deeply rewarding and I think it’s going to work really well (see, I’m being positive already!)
The Staves played the last show of their pre-album launch tour to a warm and well attended J1/ The Junction, Cambridge. The Staves have been around a while now but have only more recently reached my radar. They did this through their 2014 Blood I Bled EP – cue the first subversion of the night: a joke about The Staves merchandise including tampons for the tour.
I am helpless in front of tangential stimulation and the three Staveley-Taylors were full of inspiration in that regard. From a passing comment about pre-ordering being ‘the way’ that one has to buy albums these days I detected a slash of label politics in the background. Add to that the assumption of them being of typical folk persuasion their relevance in a fickle world of music, sub cultures, ‘coolness’ and identity and I would imagine you would have label executives grimacing with potential pounds trickling from their grasp. They’re not exactly unattractive women – put it that way. Thankfully though they aren’t often compared to The Corrs. Ever ‘meta’, they alluded to the idiocy of all such discourse – if you can call it that – including a “fuck Bush!” as well as a gently sardonic promise to be playing not only new (unreleased) material that we’ve clearly not heard before but also their “greatest hits”.
Their forever-place in my heart was set.
The music, including identifiable perfect triple harmonising was polished, practised and brilliant. The rockier newer material had a serious groove, the gentle intimate acoustic songs where the other two gathered around Camilla’s mic ebbed and flowed into the audience. Their appearance could easily be described as demure (though thankfully they are happy to usurp that label) and ethereal yet more than that their performance imparted a true authenticity, beautiful music that spoke from a modern woman’s soul.
It was a great gig. Full of well refined sass, familial unison and a melting of sweetness with banter to produce one of the best sets for not only music, but talking; conversation and discussion between themselves and with the crowd. It was wonderful and a real breath of fresh air after having watched a few shows in recent years where there is no effort whatsoever to engage the crowd. I watched Band of Skulls a few years ago and between every song they allowed for a huge tuning break where they did not talk to the audience at all. It totally killed the vibe. Far from that, The Staves increased the wonder of the event by really, truly, engaging with the audience. Well into the set, Emily introduced the backing band, and Camilla, and somewhere along the line they moved on before she introduced Jessica (the rockier looking one of the three whom I noted in the crowd had attained the label, from a group of men, of the “fittest”) who kindly exclaimed “Oh I have to introduce myself then?” Later Emily turned to the other two and genuinely thanked them for a wonderful tour – to which the others seemed genuinely touched, but in an understated, taken-for-granted sisterly way. It was beautiful to see not just their utmost professionalism with their musicianship, but also their relationship play out before us: Jessica with the electric guitar, Emily with the keyboard setup as the eldest, and Camilla (Milly) the youngest, with an understated beauty, long luscious hair and faintly awkward smile.
They were very, truly absorbing and performed a brilliant set of exceptionally good music.