This little cross is on my fire place at home in London.
Not because of Christianity, though I have to admit I’m fond of the odd icon, takes me back to being a kid. As a matter of fact I have artefacts from Judaism, Islam and Christianity in my home, because in our wider family circle, all these cultures and beliefs co-exist. Makes my house a bit Life of Pi, but it’s all the better for it. I also have some hand painted pine cones my daughter decorated. I picked them up walking on Zakynthos last summer. And they have nothing to do with religion.
Beautiful things all, that’s why I keep them.
The little wooden cross was a gift from my cousin Jim Deeds. He was over from Belfast for my book launch in September, and the craic was 91 as we like to say. Next morning, tender heads and small steps, he asked me if he could take a piece of wood from my back garden. I’d pruned back a plum tree the year before and the branches were stacked and waiting for a wood burner that never materialised. I told him to take his pick. He sawed what he needed, packed his bag and off he went. When he returned last week for his birthday, a visit which saw him crowned King of the West End incidentally; he gave me the little cross. Over a few beers he explained the work that he’d put into creating it. It was hand carved, absolutely no machine tools used, sanded again and again and oiled until the grain had absorbed the lacquer and it felt smooth as stone and warm to the touch.
It’s a work of art.
And not his main gig either. See amongst many other things our Jim is a writer too; a published poet, and his latest book, Finding God in the Mess, Meditations for Mindful Living is available now. OK, I have to be straight with you here. My cousin and I could not be on more distant ends of a spectrum when it comes to genre, interests and potential audiences. My book BLOOD WILL BE BORN is a crime thriller, and nobody in it goes looking for God in the mess, spends their time carving crosses or espouses Christian mindfulness. But each to their own, as I just said I’m cool with people having their religious and cultural expression.
But the point I’m trying to make here is not about religion, it’s about writing. For me, the art of writing is not about finding God in the mess. But it is about finding beauty in the chaos. No matter the genre, or the audience, good fiction writing must be both brutally honest, and have a have a beauty that takes us beyond this world. Yeah, we have to cut and carve, but especially when writing a novel, you have to sand, and smooth and oil the work again and again until it shines, and tells us something about this world and our experiences that can maybe outlast the person who wrote it. BLOOD WILL BE BORN may not do all these things, but I had the best of fun making an attempt. Amid the violence and psychosis that exist in the novel, I also found some unexpected symmetry, and a satisfaction in creating something that attained enough balance to stand alone, a little creation.
In this way Jim Deeds and I are two sides of the same coin. The cross is one of the most horrendous creations of all time, an instrument of torture which was used to prolong agony and humiliation. I have sometimes wondered who invented it. Imagine that was your day’s work. In short it is, without a great deal of argument, one of the worst things ever to have entered this world. And still, artists have turned to it, those who are religious and those who are not, and created lasting, stunning images which, as is the case with all good art, make the world a better place.
Stunning art is not always easy to swallow. Portrayals of the crucifixion, like scenes in noir crime thrillers, are not necessarily sanitised and smooth, nor can they be. I did say we have to saw, and carve. Jonathan Jones writing in the Guardian earlier this year said that Lucas Cranach the Elder’s 1503 painting of the crucifixion haunts and disturbs him. Have a look online, you’ll see why. Take Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, a modern equivalent. It has had its fair share of criticism for being gratuitously violent. I’m not here to hold a brief for Mel, but in my mind, such depictions of real world violence, however graphic, are still art, and in their own way, give us a terrible beauty that is larger than the brutality which they depict. I remember how the violence in Stuart Neville’s debut The Twelve and Adrian McKinty’s Dead I May Well Be stayed with me after my first reading. But not in the same way the details of real life torture in Martin Dillon’s The Shankill Butchers infested my mind and haunted me, as they did him.
Jonathan Jones argues that depictions of the crucifixion were more graphic 500 years ago because in those days death was all around and today we can switch it off, or as was the case with western media and the recent mass murder in Somalia, just ignore it. He’s probably right. He suggests we therefore need tormenting images from art to remind us of human suffering. On this point, I don’t agree. People understand human suffering all too well. But they don’t download a novel or open a book to feel bad. As Stephen King said it is love, not hate, that keeps us reading, following the lives of the characters on the page. BLOOD WILL BE BORN is a tale of vengeance, violence, but also redemption too. Bill Cunningham, the New York fashion photographer said it perfectly, ‘He who seeks beauty will find it.’
That’s why I have Jim’s little cross on my fire place, a beautiful work of art modelled on human suffering and turmoil. It’s a good reminder of what I aspire to achieve when I sit down to write.
Finding God in the Mess Meditations for Mindful Living is available on Amazon.co.uk @gymforthesoul