A cosmopolitan harvest festival—“universality plus difference”—some reflections on the disturbing rise of nationalism in Britain, Europe and the USA

Harvest display of items required by the local foodbank
READINGS: Leo Tolstoy’s interpretation of Luke 10:1-2:

Then Jesus chose seventy people from his close followers and sent them to places he wanted to be himself.
          He told them. “Many people do not know the blessing of real life. I’m sorry for all of them and I want to teach them all.  But just as the master [husbandman] is not enough to perform the harvest of his whole field alone, I also cannot do this alone.”  

Cosmopolitanism in a Time of Petty Nationalism by David Breeden (July 28, 2016)

To be Humanist is to say, with the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, “My city is the world.” (In Greek the English word “world” is “kosmos.”)
          Humanists are necessarily cosmopolites, not because we are always leaping on jets touring the planet, but because we have realized that all perceived differences in humanity (homo sapiens sapiens) are superficial. The academic philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah usefully calls cosmopolitanism “universality plus difference.” This phrase expresses the realization that perceived human difference is at once tiny and all-encompassing.
          This is the idea that Humanist Gene Roddenberry attempted to express on the bridge of his fictional starship Enterprise.
          Humanist cosmopolitanism is not a statement of power or egotism or conquest, but one of humble acceptance of humanity’s true (multifaceted) place in our shared reality. Borders are artificial. Wholeness is the truth. Difference is at once an illusion and a potentially deadly reality. 
          As various Star Trek plots have expressed, we will either learn to respect both universality and difference or we will perish.

Andy Partridge (composer and member of XTC) speaking about his song “Harvest Festival”

As a kid, I had no idea what the harvest festival ceremony at school was supposed to be about. This bizarre mix of Christianity, Paganism, Help the Aged, a jumble sale and fridge raid, all seem to crash together (with schoolboy lust interest) in the lyrics of this song.
          I decided to move the arrangement from acoustic guitar to piano simply because of the evocation of an English school assembly. Music master seated at the grand in the hall, girls one side, boys the other. Furtive but powerful glances shooting between the ranks of confused white shirted trainee adults. A smile from a girl across the room can have an atomic blast impact on a spotty, shy lad of thirteen. Ground zero at your heart.
          I'm very proud of the lines “see the children with baskets, see their hair cut like corn, neatly combed in their rows”. This, for me, is the whole confused dream of school harvest festival distilled into a few words.

See the flowers round the altar
See the peaches in tins 'neath the headmaster's chair
Harvest festival
See the two who've been chosen
See them walk hand in hand to the front of the hall
        Harvest festival
        Harvest festival
        What was best of all was the
        Longing look you gave me
        That longing look
        More than enough to keep me fed all year
See the children with baskets
See their hair cut like corn neatly combed in their rows
        Harvest festival
        Harvest festival
        What was best of all was the
        Longing look you gave me
        That longing look
        Across the hymnbooks and the canvas chairs
        The longing look you gave me
        That longing look
        More than enough to keep me fed all year
And what a year when the exams and crops all failed
Of course you passed and you were never seen again
We all grew and we got screwed and cut and nailed
Then out of nowhere invitation in gold pen
        See the flowers round the altar
        See that you two got married and I wish you well



The articulation of a certain kind of modest, low-key national identity seems very important to me, however, with every fibre in my body I want to protest against the current slow-burning return here in Britain, Europe and the USA of a kind of old-school, sectarian nationalism that seems bent on dividing the world up into an imaginary “us” and imaginary “bad”-others — be those “bad”-others labelled, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers or merely foreigners of all kinds who look and talk differently to "us".

The re-emergence of nationalism is a dangerous genie that is not easily going to be persuaded to go back into its bottle and our historic commitment to various species of humanism (both religious and secular in flavour) means that we’ve long felt along with the Greek philosopher Diogenes that we are first and foremost citizens of the world and that the world is our city, and this also means, whether we like it or not, that a liberal religious movement such as our own, sooner or later, is going to have to challenge nationalism.

But mention of humanist cosmopolitanism requires me to note that, whilst it is true there have always existed humanisms that have strong tendencies towards colonialism and imperialism — Soviet style communism, fascism in general and neoliberalism are three examples that immediately spring to mind — there has always existed another kind of humanism, one that, as Breeden puts it, “is not a statement of power or egotism or conquest, but one of humble acceptance of humanity’s true (multifaceted) place in our shared reality.”

One such cosmopolitan, humanist strategy we can choose to adopt that will help us push against divisive and potentially deadly nationalisms is to hunt out and celebrate, universally relevant stories and festivals that are capable of gifting us with a deep sense of distinctive local, national belonging and identity but which, at the same time, are capable of seriously undermining any attempts to create simple binary, black/white, right/wrong, pure/impure, insider/outsider oppositions.

I think that harvest is one such festival because, on the one hand, it is clearly a festival of universal importance but, on the other hand, it can only be properly understood and actually celebrated in different, local, geographical and cultural settings. Here we harvest corn, there they harvest grapes; there they harvest sugar cane, here we harvest sugar beet; here we bring the harvest in as the days shorten and the night lengthens, there they bring the harvest on days split evenly between light and dark; here we toast the harvest with a pint of ale or cider, there they toast the harvest with a glass of wine. Surely then harvest is, potentially anyway, a perfect example of a cosmopolitan festival, one which powerfully combines “universality plus difference.” It’s a universal festival that is joyously always-already different everywhere and, as such, can push against nationalism whilst still gifting us with a more modest, colourful and creative sense of in what consists a localized, national identity.

Now, I cannot speak for any other culture’s harvest festival (I hope some of you will be able to do that later on) but, today, I want to use a song by Andy Partridge of the band XTC to show that one of the things that makes the harvest festival in England distinctively English is that it is, itself, a humble acceptance of humanity’s true (multifaceted) place in our shared reality — which is for us a culture proudly mongrel and plural, a jumbled-up people part Viking, Dane, Angle, Saxon, Jute, Celt, Frisian, Frank, Roman, African, Pagan, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim, black and white, gay and straight, boy and girl and all in between. Despite being so very English it is a festival that simply cannot be reduced to any single religious, social, political nationalistic meaning or identity.

As you heard earlier the English songwriter Andy Partridge is well aware of this reminding us that, as a whole, it is a “confused dream” of an affair, a “bizarre mix of Christianity, Paganism, Help the Aged, a jumble sale and fridge raid” and it is precisely this imprecise, anarchic, subversive, highly plural state of affairs that I love beyond measure and which I want particularly to celebrate today. It’s a splendid harvest fruit of our mongrel, mixed-up culture.

Although on these isles harvest has almost certainly celebrated in one way or another ever since we stopped being primarily  hunter-gathers and began to cultivate the land during the neolithic period sometime between 5000 BC and 4500 BC, the harvest festival we celebrate today dates only from 1843 when the Reverend Robert Hawker devised a special thanksgiving service for his church community at Morwenstow in Cornwall.

A complete address could be devoted to Hawker alone and I’m fairly certain that the eccentric jumbled-upness of our harvest festival has its (rhizomatic) roots in him. So, to give you just a few examples, it is claimed that he dressed up as a mermaid, once excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sundays and that he dressed in a claret-coloured coat, blue fisherman's jersey, long sea-boots, a pink brimless hat and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket which, he claimed, was the ancient habit of St Padarn. He talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and kept a pig as a pet. Yo bro! is my response to this and makes me realise that my habit of wearing leather trousers on a Sunday is child’s play compared to Hawker!

Anyway, by the time of my childhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the harvest festival he helped create was far from being a contradiction-free, purely Christian one (as many of his more orthodox Anglican contemporaries desired), but had instead developed into the highly eclectic and colourful ad-hoc mix we’ve already noted.

So let’s now turn to this most English piece of pop music which gives the listener an impression of this strange but still celebratory English festival of thanksgiving.

It begins with a couple of introductory bars of school-piano followed immediately by the scraping of chairs as they are pushed back across a floor. These two sounds are intimately connected with the world of English school assemblies and suddenly we are there ourselves, standing up with the children, ready for proceedings to begin.

The next lines are immediately able to evoke a more specific world, not just of school assemblies in general, but of a school harvest assembly: “See the flowers round the altar/See the peaches in tins ‘neath the headmaster's chair” and we hear of the “the two who've been chosen” and how they walk “hand in hand to the front of the hall.”

It is in the chorus which follows that the song’s narrator reveals a harvest gift vitally important to him: “What was best of all . . . was the longing look you gave me” shot across the hall to him by the chosen girl. As Partridge says in his own commentary on the song, “A smile from a girl across the room can have an atomic blast impact on a spotty, shy lad of thirteen. Ground zero at your heart.” This glance, a fruit of this particular harvest festival, was more than enough to keep him fed all year.

One of the many things that makes Andy Partridge such an interesting songwriter to me is that he is often able both to evoke the world of English suburbia and a much older, primordial even, rural world. He is highly alert to the ways, traditions and sights of both and if the “tinned peaches” in the song are designed to evoke something of modern English suburban life, the next line is surely designed strongly to evoke this older, more primordial, rural life: “See the children with baskets/See their hair cut like corn neatly combed in their rows.” Indeed, Partridge is himself very proud of this line which he feels “is the whole confused dream of school harvest festival distilled into a few words.” Remember, too, how at this point the chaotic out of tune recorders help locate us even more strongly in the world of the English school assembly.

The chorus returns to reinforce the harvest gift of that longing look, but notice the additional line, “Across the hymnbooks and the canvas chairs” which, in a wonderfully economic way, adds two more details highly specific to the local time and place.

The middle eight, again with remarkable poetic economy, allows our intuitive knowledge of what a failed harvest feels like to a farmer to be tied powerfully to a school child’s experience of failure in their exams. Though I have been fortunate to have brought one harvest home I'm not myself a farmer, but I am an experienced failer of school exams, and so I can viscerally feel the pain of this line in my gut: “And what a year when the exams and crops all failed.” 

We immediately discover that the failed harvest for our narrator includes, not just failure in their exams, but the failure of the harvest seemingly promised by that “longing look.” He failed his exams and was forced to stay in his home town; she passed her exams and left, never to be seen again . . . or so he thought. And so this teenager begins the long process of becoming an adult, a complex journey which is summed up in the line, “We all grew and we got screwed and cut and nailed.”

Here in this line we find, I think the fruit of the harvest which lies at the heart of the song. It's an extraordinarily rich and profound line because with it Partridge manages simultaneously to evoke both a highly negative reading — understanding "screwed and cut and nailed" as about being hurt and painfully injured in various ways by life (and Christ on the cross is clearly the religious image underlying this) — and also a positive reading, with screwed and cut and nailed being understood as the simply process of being built into this or that kind of human being. As we know from personal experience we are all, in varying degrees, screwed and cut and nailed in both the senses Partridge evokes.

And then there comes a kind of redemption heralded in the wedding “invitation in gold pen” which comes seemingly from out of nowhere.  We find the narrator now in a church setting whose general layout, decoration and ritual powerfully echoes that school harvest assembly all those years ago and he sees again the two who were chosen to walk hand in hand to the front once again. Secular past and religious present are collapsed together in the line: “See the flowers round the altar/See that you two got married and I wish you well.” Remember, too, the introduction in the music at this point of an organ and joyous wedding bells.

So what is the final fruit of the harvest for our narrator, screwed and cut and nailed in both of the senses I’ve already pointed to? Well, I think we can conclude by returning to Tolstoy’s interpretation of Jesus’ words found in Luke. In his “Gospel in Brief” we read that “Many people do not know the blessing of real life.” But the character in our song seems to be someone who has begun fully to know that the blessing, the harvest of life is to be found in learning to accept with gratitude ALL of real life’s broken, impure mixed-up richness where joy and woe, love and loss are always-already and forever woven fine — a life in which we are constantly screwed and cut and nailed to make us the complex, jumbled-up people we are.

But this (difficult) kind of universal harvest can never be brought in alone (by ourselves as individuals or as single and separate nations nor, as Tolstoy's words suggests, even by God). Instead it can only be done by us, all working together in our chaotic and jumbled-up and splendid diversity.


sfwc said…
A beautiful harvest sermon. Especially the penultimate paragraph, which was something I needed to be reminded of.
Thank you for your kind words. Much appreciated as always.