Harvest Festival - XTC and the worlding-of-the-world

Susanna's Harvest arrangement in church this morning
Readings: Leviticus 23:34-44

Two extracts from the film Being in the World

Hubert Dreyfus: Heidegger had to work out a new notion of “world” because he was clear that it’s not “ideas” in another realm that Plato was thinking about, and it’s not the sum total of objects, which is what Descartes was thinking about. Well, what is it? What is it to be open to the world in the way we are? What is it that we are open to when we’re open to the world? What is it to have a world at all? There are lots of worlds. There’s the world of jazz, the world of carpentry, the world of cooking, there are sports worlds, and there’s our world, ours meaning the academic world.

Mark Wrathall: Heidegger thought that our highest dignity as human beings, what really set us apart from everything else in the universe, was our capacity to disclose whole new worlds; to open up whole new possibilities. Heidegger coined this idea of “disclosure” to capture something that we’re not used to thinking about and that is the way that things only show themselves when all the conditions of skill, and all the relationships between them, are possible and then the experience there is of something opening up. A space of possibilities opening up, a way of inhabiting the world opening up. And it’s not like it was there all along. It’s not like the world of jazz music was somewhere there in the middle ages, say, or the Greek world, just waiting to be discovered. It was something that had to have a space provided for it. 

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.


Harvest Festival by Andy Partridge

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

-o0o-

What I want to do today through the song "Harvest Festival" is try to point to something distinctive about ourselves as creatures who have the "capacity to disclose whole new worlds. To open up whole new possibilities". My initial illustration is very English and I am aware that it will not resonate with all of you in the way it does for me, an Englishman. However, this is not a problem, because it will help me make the odd kind of globally relevant harvest point I will conclude with today.

The disclosed world (or really an world within a world) I want to begin with today is the English harvest festival. This only came into being very late in the day after the Anglican priest, the Reverend Robert Hawker, held a special thanksgiving service for the harvest in his church at Morwenstow in Cornwall in 1843. Whatever the ultimate intention of Hawker, by the time of my childhood in the 1970s, the harvest festival he helped revive, far from becoming a contradiction-free Christian one, had developed into a highly eclectic, ad-hoc mix of Jewish, Christian, Roman, Greek and Pagan traditions. As you heard the songwriter Andy Partridge is well aware of this, and 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" but I, like him I think, love it to death. The basic service Hawker developed, seen here primarily in the harvest gifts, decorations, and our opening and closing hymns, sets the general form not only for most church celebrations today but, because the celebration spread into both English State and Public schools, it also provided the background for Andy Partridge's song, "Harvest Festival".

I am aware that there are some people who regret that the celebration of harvest in England turned into such a jumble and this has led to longing dreams of an imagined past or future time when harvest was, or will be, celebrated in a doctrinally and theologically pure and coherent way. But, for myself, I've always enjoyed the fact that for the most part, in England, the festival seemed to be about trying to sum up and hold together in a wholly non-doctrinal and inclusive way the myriad ways different peoples and cultures across several millennia have tried to express thanks for an infinite variety of nature's fruits ranging from grain and fruit on the one hand to, as our song suggests, even a longing look which was more than enough to keep you fed all year.

It is vital to understand that "Harvest Festival" is a song that can only have come to be, to be disclosed to the song writer and then to listeners like me, when certain conditions of skill and all the relationships between them had come together. Then "the experience . . . is of something opening up. A space of possibilities opening up, a way of inhabiting the world opening up." This is precisely the experience of the narrator in the song - a young boy who, thanks to the English world of school and harvest, begins to experience himself new possibilities and to find a world opening up for him in which, as an adult, he can begin to inhabit and find authentic meaning and purpose.

As we proceed, remember, it’s not like this song was there all along. It’s not like the world evoked by "Harvest Festival" was somewhere there in the middle ages, the Greek world or even the Victorian world of Hawker, just waiting to be discovered. Rather it is something that had to have a space provided for it. Andy Partridge inhabits this space, this clearing, and it this which gifts him, and us, with the song.

So let's turn to the song itself. Remember that we listen to it almost certainly first knowing its title. This means, before we begin that we're already gently placed in the world of harvest festivals.

The song begins with a couple of introductory bars of 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 standing up with the children ready for proceedings to begin.

When you know the world of the English harvest festival, with its iconic emphasis on decoration and gifts of food, 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". Of course, we know there isn't really an altar in a school assembly but we do know there was often an altar-like top-table behind which the head and other members of staff sat.

We next hear of the "the two who've been chosen" and how they walk "hand in hand to the front of the hall". This immediately suggests two things. Because they are holding hands the first thing we "get" is that between them there exists a special intimacy which inevitably excludes us in some way. The second thing we "get" is a sense that they are to play some kind of central role in this festival.

It is in the chorus which follows that we are introduced to what, for the song's narrator, turns out to be the real Harvest gift: "What was best of all . . . was the longing look you gave me" - shot across the hall by the chosen girl to him, a white-shirted, trainee adult. As Partridge says, "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 was one more than enough to keep him fed all year.

One of the things that makes Andy Partridge such an interesting songwriter to me is that he is situated between the modern world of English suburbia and a much older, primordial, rural world. He is highly alert to the ways, traditions and sights of both. If the tinned peaches are designed to evoke something of modern English suburban life the next line is surely designed strongly to evoke this older, and more primordially rural, life: "See the children with baskets/See their hair cut like corn neatly combed in their rows". Note, too, how the out of tune recorders help locate us even more strongly in the world of the 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 for us two 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 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 and stayed; she passed her exams and left, never to be seen again, or so he thought.

And so the young boy becomes a man, a complex process which is summed up in the wonderful line, "We all grew and we got screwed and cut and nailed". Astonishingly, Partridge manages simultaneously to evoke both a highly negative reading, understanding "screwed and cut and nailed" as about being hurt and injured in various ways (and Christ on the cross is surely the image underlying this) and a positive reading with screwed and cut and nailed being understood as the process of being built into something sturdy and secure. Every human being is in varying degrees of course, screwed and cut and nailed in both senses.

"Then out of nowhere invitation in gold pen". Unexpectedly, years later, a wedding invitation arrives and the narrator finds himself in a church setting whose general layout, decoration and ritual powerfully echoes that school harvest assembly all those years ago. Past and present are suddenly brought very close together in the line: "See the flowers round the altar/See that you two got married and I wish you well". The special intimacy which existed between the couple way back then and which, despite the longing glance, excluded him at the time is now sealed in their wedding. He knows that their world is not his but he can and does wish them well. (Note the introduction in the music of an organ and wedding bells).

So what remains for our protagonist, screwed and cut and nailed in both senses I alluded to? Well, we know, thanks to its repetition  that, "What was best of all . . . was the longing look you gave me". The recollection of it still feeds him and for it he seems to have remained grateful, after all, it fed him for a year, a gift not to be sniffed at by anyone. On this hopeful note the song goes out on a joyous repetition of it's title, "Harvest Festival."

The first thing I need to say as I begin to draw to a close is that all the detail and meaning I've drawn out from this highly compressed lyric is utterly dependent on humanity's astonishing and miraculous ability to disclose whole new worlds, to open up whole new possibilities; in this case, a complex English world which allowed the blossoming forth of the chaotic English harvest festival celebrated in Partridge's song. But, of course, it need not have been like this - our English world could have taken many different forms and our Harvest Festival would have, perhaps, a wholly different shape and vibe. After all, Hawker wanted us all to become Tractarian, Anglican High Church men and women who would have found no place for the joyful, inclusive, doctrinal chaos that lies behind Partridge's song.  We also know through direct experience that it IS very different elsewhere in the world - harvest shows up around the globe with countless different colours, sounds, smells, tastes and liturgies.

This general realisation can help us begin to ask some very important general questions (asked by Hubert Dreyfus) which are always-already relevant to every culture on the planet, namely:

"What is it to be open to the world in the way we are?

What is it that we are open to when we’re open to the world?

What is it to have a world at all?" 


But we so often fail to reap this globally relevant (Heideggerian) harvest of questions because it is so easy for us to be seduced into thinking our own local, disclosed worlds with their particular flavours of festival are the only truly meaningful games in town, and that somehow they represent reality better than any other. It can cause many people to become so wrapped up in the intoxicating meaning, depth and richness of their own worlds that they forget there are countless other worlds of disclosure sitting just across the school assembly room that is this shared planet of ours; worlds that are likely to be as intoxicating, subtle, deep and rich as our own.

We know we cannot truly inhabit those other worlds (and festivals) with all the subtlety, depth and richness we can inhabit our own but we can choose to look up and risk experiencing a shooting glance across the room from one of them and let it have "an atomic blast impact" on our spotty, shy, adult selves and experience a "ground zero at our heart".

In my own life that "atomic blast" has been felt by me four times, once thanks to Judaism, once thanks to Zen Buddhism, once thanks to ancient Greek and Roman religion and, once, thanks to contemporary English paganism. I was changed positively and creatively by all the mutually exchanged "longing glances" and this helped me, in the positive sense of the line, to become better "screwed, cut and nailed." For all my basic English, Christian (atheist) fabric I know I am held together by many Jewish, Buddhist, Greek, Roman and Pagan screws, cuts and nails. For them all, I give harvest thanks.
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