John Walsh: Tales of the City

'This act of garment-rending was hellish dramatic, a potent message using striking economy of means'
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"Then the high priest rent his garments, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy: what further need have we of witnesses?" (Matthew 26:25). "And it came to pass, when Ahab heard these words, that he rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his flesh..." (1 Kings, 21:27). "And Jacob rent his garments... and mourned for his son many days..." (Genesis, 37:34). I could go on. The Good Book is crammed with distressed, or grief-stricken or condemnatory folks expressing the extremity of their feelings by ripping their clothes asunder. According to the Talmud, every son whose father dies is duty-bound to tear his shirt in half to demonstrate grief but most biblical garment-rippers seem to set about destroying their wardrobes out of fury, rather than protocol.

Does this help us to understand what the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, was up to on the Andrew Marr TV show at the weekend? In the midst of a diatribe against President Mugabe's embarrassing presence at the Lisbon conference, the archbishop took off his dog collar and said, "Do you know what Mugabe has done? He has taken people's identity and literally cut it to pieces"; whereupon, flourishing a pair of scissors, he proceeded to chop up the collar, saying he wasn't going to wear another until Mugabe ceased to hold power.

The presence of the scissors revealed that this wasn't a spontaneous gesture; he'd obviously planned it in advance. But it was hellish dramatic, a self-conscious piece of personal-garment-rending that made you gasp, shortly before it occurred to you that President Mugabe will probably not be trembling in his boots at the archbishop's no-collar threat. He's more likely to clutch his cheeks in mock alarm and cry, "Oh no! How can I go on wielding power as a tyrannical dictator in a land of expropriated farmers, empty shelves, police brutality and media gagging, if I know that a senior English clergyman is on collar-strike protest?"

Yet we should applaud the archbishop's combative spirit, his old-fashioned embrace of gesture to convey things beyond words. We've mostly lost the capacity to be shocked by tribal abuse ("Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?"), but we note that Mugabe, when asked by a reporter for his message to European leaders, merely raised a fist in the air. The fist conveyed a simple message: that the press should Eff Off pronto and count themselves lucky not to be found in a pool of blood. The dog-collar removal is more portentous. It means the normal connection between man and God has temporarily ceased, that supposedly seamless garment has got lost, and every Christian African should strive to get it back. A potent message, using striking economy of means.

If we all started using the rhetoric of gesture, it could transform the language of political debate. For one thing, we know traditional garment-rending could have a chain effect. According to Samuel 13:31, "Then the king arose, tore his clothes and lay on the ground; and all his servants were standing by with clothes torn," presumably to demonstrate their sympathy with his majesty. Can future speakers at the Oxford Union debating society, say, when faced with opponents too contemptible to address in words, express their hostility by ripping their jackets up the back seam, and encouraging their supporters to do likewise? Cannot the hapless prime minister, when faced with future chortling insults from Old Etonian hoorays and Lib Dem pygmies, signal his displeasure by cutting up his socks, or incinerating his tie, right in front of them, while half the Cabinet, instead of waving their order papers, tear their tailored suits alongside to signify solidarity? Wouldn't it make you feel better, when in court on a speeding charge, if you were asked by the beak whether you had something to say, and responded by pulling your shirt-front open, like Superman? Rending your garments it says more about you than words ever can...


It's been amusing to read the obituaries of Karlheinz Stockhausen, as they've skirted around the (quite strong) possibility that the visionary of total musical serialism was as mad as a balloon. To many British art lovers, his name has long been synonymous with a strain of howling Euro-pretentiousness, seen most vividly in the "text scores" that invited musicians to, "Play a vibration in the rhythm of the universe," without offering them any notes with which to do so. With his staring eyes and long greasy hair, he was an unlikely love god, but surrounded himself with adoring female muses; with everybody else, from record company executives to performers, he had constant rows.

My favourite Stockhausen story dates from 1985, when he brought his Donnerstag aus Licht to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. At one point, the score demanded that a melancholy jazz trumpet should sound far away. During the final rehearsal, Karlheinz became enraged that the trumpet was being played too loud. The musician insisted that he was playing it as softly as anyone could. The composer directed him to stand by the far door of the auditorium. He did so. It was still too loud. He was sent into the corridor and tried again. It's still too loud, came the composer's cry. Exasperated, the musician walked to the exit and, down a side alley under the Covent Garden sky, raised the trumpet to his lips. A policeman spotted him. "You can't play that thing here, mate," he said, "There are people rehearsing inside." The German musician's protests were in vain, his trumpet was confiscated and Stockhausen and his ensemble waited inside the concert hall, for a cue that never came.