What are the limits of modesty in our society? I found myself thinking about this after an unlikely visit — thanks to Channel 4 — to debate the niqab at the East London Mosque. The only man in the room and the only non-Muslim, I was joined on my side of the argument by two Muslim women who weren’t fully covered. Otherwise it was burkas and niqabs all round. It wasn’t easy when someone made a point because no one knew where to look.
Afterwards, most were fairly polite and keen to discuss matters, had nice London accents and some cracking eyes. What many seemed seriously exercised by was the “sexual immodesty” of our society, particularly the prostitute call-cards they said were in all public phone boxes. I said I didn’t think it quite so widespread as all that but, while agreeing I didn’t like it either, pointed out that it was already illegal.
A lot of small “c” conservatives will have found themselves in this situation —that “well, you have a little bit of a point” feeling. My solution is to urge people to obey the law and otherwise, if possible, be a little better behaved. Their solution is to cover all women in shrouds and make everyone submit to sharia. So we parted, agreeing to disagree.
It was only later, in reading the account of the merely headscarf — covered lady on my side that I discovered she had been accosted by these “sisters” afterwards and bullied about her need to repent.
Her crime? “You sat next to a kafir man,” they “hissed”. Which I found very informative. So it isn’t just about phone-box call-cards after all.
I have long suspected time-travel to be the only possible explanation for certain artists. Without considering the possibility that the Italian composer Gesualdo got into a time machine, briefly found himself in the 20th century and then, baffled, headed back to the 16th, there seems to me almost no explanation for his harmonies. Likewise, there are few plausible explanations for El Greco’s painting other than that he benefited from some similar device.
I have occasionally considered writing a short paper on this, but, short on time, offer it up here as a subject for a reader to pursue. There are bound to be universities willing to accept doctoral study in this area.
John Tavener, who died last month, was one of those who appeared to have made the rather easier opposite journey. His version of holy minimalism took off in the 1990s partly because of the soothing effect his music had among the rigorous unattractiveness of much music of the period. I was a fan of some of his work, but the problem was never in the beauty of the music but in the taking of it in too large doses. In a concert of other work, Tavener, like Henryk Górecki and the slightly more important Arvo Pärt, acts like a sorbet course. But it’s never quite a full dinner.
One aspect of his work which has been little commented upon since his death was the strange relativism of his later works. He converted early on to a particular strain of Orthodox Christianity, but part of the attraction of Tavener’s austere style was its seeming refusal to bend from its own self-enforced musical and religious strictures. Then in the last decade or so of his life he turned to a sort of polytheistic approach. Mother Thekla, the nun who assisted with much of his earlier work, found herself being asked to help to write pieces based on other religious traditions. It seemed to me that once his music lost its own particular truth-claim its quality fell away. Boundaries are good for writers and artists. Get rid of them, and the work turns to mush.
After my summer of reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I have moved on to another embarrassingly not-yet-read masterpiece. Each morning I have been reading Pepys. I began by doing evenings too, but too much laughter before bed disrupts sleep. And Pepys makes me laugh like almost no one else.
There is nothing quite so wonderful as his description of the coronation of Charles II. His need to pee removes him from the ceremony for a substantial portion of it as he tours Westminster searching for a lavatory. Later, he describes drinking the health of the new king with friends “till one of the gentlemen fell down stark drunk and there lay speweing”. Pepys followed suit: “When I waked I found myself wet with my speweing. Thus did the day end, with joy everywhere; and blessed be God.”
I wonder what my companions in East London would have made of that. I also know with whom, if I had a time-machine of my own, I would rather spend an evening.