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Graeme Archer: The Sacred and Profane Love Machine

Archer Graeme NewGraeme works as a statistician, and won the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging in 2011.  He writes a column in Saturday's Daily Telegraph.  Follow him on Twitter.

It was cold. Nothing new there; not in this damn-awful, endless winter. New to me, however, was to experience that cold while standing in a damp field, watching a nearly naked man offer a prayer for our salvation.

The man was playing Christ, of course. We were watching a Passion play, performed by a group called Soul by the Sea in the open air, in the centre of town, just in front of St Peter's church; today is Good Friday.

Good Friday, Brighton! - repeated in my head, makes me expect Robin Williams, but this actor is called Matthew Howell, and he's good; so good that twice, on the brink of begging Keith to give up and leave (it's so cold, can't feel my feet, we could be watching Barrabas and getting the same sort of experience, but at home, in the warm): twice on the point of doing so, this gospel according to Matthew Howell and cast has brought me up short.

It wasn't (just) the obviously dramatic bits in the story that held the attention – the betrayal, the crucifixion, the resurrection. The deepest impact came from the parable of the prodigal son, a story I've never been able to get my head round before: why should the rotten brother get the fattened calf? On Friday, the cast member who acted the wronged (in my previous view) brother caught that look of indignation so well, that the audience laughed to see it; which may have let me into the parable's truth, for the first time.

Perhaps the mechanical act of the play – the actor's face as mirror – let us laugh at ourselves, reminding us of those days when we can't stop ourselves from judging, or seething (should have been me) as the spotlight falls elsewhere. Rather than thinking: thank God that love exists. Rather than remembering that everyone deserves a second chance, and that all of us – all of us - will one day or other be grateful to receive one.

The sacred love machine: that's the story of the prodigal son, and the Church's story of Easter, too, I should think (though not according to Lord Carey, about whom I have nothing to say, lest he feel victimised by my aggressive secularism).

The next day, the Saturday, the switch was thrown on the machine which permits a more profane celebration of love to happen: the city by the sea made a determined return to life. Winter – the months in which those of us who wander up and down the pier look like characters deleted from some early draft of an Anita Brookner novel ("They're miserable enough, darling, but too poor, and they can't speak French") – is turned off, overnight. By lunchtime on Easter Saturday, the seafront tearooms and bars  dug out their tables and chairs, the Volk's railway is chugging along the front, and the tourists were back.

You don't have to live in Brighton, of course, to feel the power or the necessity of love, whether sacred or profane. But this year, the temporal conjunction between celebrations of both versions underlined the importance – the (it seems to be) essential unity – of both. In the same twenty-four hour period, we had Easter, when Resurrection gives us hope of everlasting renewal. We had Easter, when Man pushes time forward from Winter to Summer. And we had Easter, when the seaside returns to life, and the non-natives return, to satiate their earthly, earthy passions.

The conceit (and title) of this piece is nicked, unsurprisingly, from Iris Murdoch, but for once I'm going to disagree with my fiction-goddess. Her novel charts the dissolution of a man who swings between the two poles, as he sees them, of his duty and his desires. But a life well-lived surely requires both forms of what we're perhaps too quick to classify as antithetical forms of human love, and Easter is the machine that lets us see that. It is sacred and profane; completely necessary, and Good.


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