5 min read

For love there is no charge

Sian Brookes is studying for a Doctorate at Aberdeen University. Her research focuses on developing a theological understanding of old age. She studied English and Theology at Cambridge University.

Out of mind old people are at the centre of Allelujah! Sian Brookes reviews the film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play.
In a hall decorated for a celebration a person stands in front of a seated group, all have their arms raised in celebration.
Jazz hands at the hospital.
BBC Films.

Spoiler alert – this film review reveals significant elements of the plot. 

Allelujah! is not a film that shies away from the big issues. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a big issue this comedy/political commentary/drama/part-thriller doesn’t at least make reference to (and yes, it spreads itself across all of these genres too). With such an eclectic approach it is difficult at times to keep up with the narrative, and the deeper meaning of the film. Based on the Alan Bennett play, the plot centres around The Bethlehem, a small northern hospital for geriatric patients, which is facing closure due to the Tory government’s efficiency drive. It focuses on two members of staff, Alma Gilpin, a stoic and matter-of-fact but seemingly excellent nurse who has served the hospital her entire career, and a younger Dr Valentine. Other protagonists include an ex-miner patient and his son, a management consultant who has “made it” to London and is currently advising the Health Secretary to close hospitals such as the one in question for the sake of government finances. 

Whether it’s politics or the personal, this film has it all. It deals with levelling up, the cultural and economic gap between the north and south, the challenges of budget cuts in the NHS, the problems of a national health service claiming to 'care' but with managers more preoccupied by Westminster’s economic priorities. It depicts families waiting for older relatives to die in order to grab their inheritance, the broken relationship between an ageing man and his son, and those all-important stories of the older patients’ lives well-lived. And yet as the story line develops, a plot twist emerges which comes to overshadow the entire film, and in the process speaks to what is perhaps the most poignant of the many discussions it raises. Nurse Gilpin, who, until now has appeared consistently caring and committed to her patients, has been quietly administering fatal beakers of milk and morphine to those who she deems to be on “her list” of those who most need relief from their situation. When confronted by the doctor she justifies her actions with a multifaceted answer based on the requirement to provide more beds to a broken healthcare system, but also insisting “I had ended someone’s suffering”.  

When Dr Valentine remarks, “I like old people” a visitor responds “not even old people like old people”.

The manner in which Nurse Gilpin goes about what is effectively enforced euthanasia, is deeply chilling. And yet her reasoning is not entirely foreign to us – to end suffering could be deemed a noble cause. In fact, the need to simply delete the reality of suffering, particularly the suffering of the old is one that perhaps is not so uncommon. Throughout Allelujah!,we are reminded of our tendency to run from, to detest, to reject the suffering of the elderly in our society. When Dr Valentine remarks, “I like old people” a visitor responds “not even old people like old people”. A teenage intern declares to a patient “I hope I never live to be your age”. At the same time, characters look back on the days “when the elderly weren’t farmed out”, and questions are asked of families “if they love them, why do they put them away?”. A very good question. Of course, care needs are often too great for families to endure, yet it is still important to ask why the suffering of the old has become a professionalised service, which most of us avoid at all costs. Perhaps the answer to this is that we don’t like to watch the old suffer, we don’t like to watch them die, because their suffering and their death remind us of our future selves, our future suffering, our future death. In our sanitised, anything-is-possible-with-medicine-and-science society, death and the suffering that comes with it, is something from which we flee at all costs. Instead of acknowledging and working with it, we would rather pretend it wasn’t there at all.  

And yet, even as we try to avoid it, suffering and death are both certain parts of all our futures. 100% of us will die. For Nurse Gilpin, the solution to this is to bring on death prematurely, to erase the pain, overcome the misery by offering a false hope – that it doesn’t need to exist at all. In direct contrast to this, in a film which is littered with Christian references (Allelujah, The Bethlehem), there is a different approach taken by a messiah-type figure who seems to get everything right. Dr Valentine is compassionate and understanding. He not only challenges the political systems which undermine those most at the margins of society, but also has the kind of bedside manner we would all hope for in a doctor. In a closing monologue Dr Valentine utters the words of the doctors in the NHS, “We will be here when you are old, and we would die for you, we are love itself and for love there is no charge”.  

It is this suffering with which is so compelling, this suffering with which is truly sacrificial.

Nurse Gilpin and Dr Valentine offer two fundamentally different approaches to end of life care. One hastens the end quickly, deletes the suffering as efficiently as possible in order to make way for those in less pain. The other sits with those who suffer, holds their hand, gently cares for the human person that is in front of them. Even more, and perhaps most significantly Dr Valentine does not only watch from afar, but is willing to suffer himself for the sake of those in pain - working tirelessly, giving himself over day after day, fighting on with little sleep for limited pay just to make things a little less painful. It is this suffering with which is so compelling, this suffering with which is truly sacrificial, this suffering with which speaks of something much greater than politics, efficiency or inheritance, this suffering with which is indeed “love itself”, completely free of charge.  This is the logic that Christians see in the ancient notion of the incarnation, celebrated every Christmas, of God with us. This is what our older people need, this is what we will all need when we grow old. Let us only hope that when we get there, we find the one who is willing to offer it.

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5 min read

The spiritual depths of the genius

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

Moved by his songbook and his funeral, Belle TIndall considers the source, and sacrifice, of Shane MacGowan’s genius.
Upon his draped coffin, a picture of Shane MacGowan and a crucifix sit
Celebrating the life of Shane MacGowan at his funeral mass.

Have you ever seen a Catholic priest hold up a Buddha during a Mass? Or a crowd applaud and cheer after a reading from the book of Micah? Or Nick Cave miss his queue by half an hour?  


Then I suppose you’ve yet to see the footage of Shane MacGowan’s funeral.   

On a cold December afternoon - in a Tipperary church which was full to bursting – family, friends and fans gathered to (in the words of the presiding priest) "hold, help and handle the loss of the great Shane MacGowan… to celebrate his song, his story, his lyric, his living." I watched the footage because I had heard rumours of dancing in the aisles, renditions of The Pogues’ songs on the streets, bible readings by Bono and prayers led by Jonny Depp. And I can confirm, the rumours were all true.  

People really did climb out of their pews to dance around Shane’s coffin to ‘Fairytale of New York’, a song which has just lost its maestro. Fans really did line the streets of Dublin to greet Shane’s body with raised glasses of Guinness and renditions of his most-loved songs. What’s more, Bono really did read the bible and Jonny Depp really did pray for ‘a deeper spirit of compassion in our world’. In fact, far more interesting (but far less documented) than the presence of Jonny Depp, was the presence of Shane’s raw and gritty Christian faith, which was so obvious throughout. It wasn’t just cultural Christianity on display here, it was far deeper than that. But alas, I’m getting ahead of myself - I’ll get back to that in a moment.  

There was defiant joy, immense grief, loud laughter and silent sobs. There was lament and there was celebration, there was bitter and there was sweet, there was light and there was darkness. It was raw and messy and awkward and authentic and, in every way possible, profound. I suppose you could suggest that it was a lot like Shane in that way.  

Indeed, this was no ordinary funeral.  

Nick Cave performed a rendition of ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, which has only cemented my opinion that it is the most romantic song ever written (we can argue about it later). And then there was the eulogy, given by the person that I like to think inspired the song that Nick had just performed: Vicotria Mary Clarke, the woman who has loved, and been loved by, Shane MacGowan since she was twenty years old. And while it was the star-studded eccentricities that enticed me to watch the funeral, it is Victoria’s eulogy that has plagued me ever since. She delivered it with an eloquence befitting of a poet’s soulmate and the composure of someone who has been preparing to eulogise the man she loved her entire life.   

Victoria understood MacGowan completely, and through her words, she has helped us to understand him too. She told us how –  

"He wasn’t interested in living a normal life, he didn’t want a 9-5 or a mortgage or any of that stuff, he liked to explore all aspects of consciousness. He liked to explore where you could go with your mind…. He chose many, many, many mind-altering substances to help him on that journey of exploration. He really did live so close to edge that he seemed like he was going to fall off many times…"  

And I suppose therein lies the source, and sacrifice, of his genius. He was incredibly introspective, almost scarily so. It reminds me of another songwriter – a biblical one – King David, who once wrote:

‘Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.’  

I’m wondering if Shane made similar requests of God, whether anyone would have the boldness to pray this line with as much literality as someone who was fascinated by ‘all aspects of consciousness’. Perhaps such introspective depths are reserved for the geniuses that are brave enough to ask God to take them there. And that got me thinking about other such geniuses - some of them present in that very church - who have plunged the depths of themselves and gifted us with the spoils through their art, those who follow their romantic longing’s lead, those who have an eye for the unseen. I can’t claim to fully understand it, but how interesting that those who live as ‘close to the edge’ as Shane did tend to either bump into oblivion (Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, Ian Curtis) or God. Or, as in the case of Shane MacGowan, both.  

The reason I could never write a song like ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, is that Shane boldly went where I doubt I ever could - to the costly depths reserved for the brilliant. 

At one point, MacGowan was taking one hundred tabs of acid a day, and Victoria recounted (with a hint of a giggle – her adoration of him utterly tangible) how, in the early days of their relationship, Shane carried an encyclopaedia of pharmacology around with him. This was so that he could look up each drug he was being offered before accepting it. I suppose to an explorer of consciousness, this encyclopaedia is as close to a compass as it gets. And so yes, there was darkness there. But Victoria wanted us to know that –  

"He didn’t just like to go to the dark places and the weird places, he also liked to go to the blissful and transcendent and spiritual places… he was intensely religious."

She evidenced this with a story drawn from the last months of his life, all of which were spent in hospital, when a priest had to confiscate Holy Communion from Shane – who had obtained it ‘illegally’ and taken it daily. You see, in the Catholic Church, Holy Communion has to be administered by a priest under specific circumstances. And so, Shane became, perhaps, ‘the only man in the world who’s been busted for Holy Communion’. But nevertheless, whenever he came to the end of himself, Shane found God. And while he held the belief that no religion had a monopoly on God (hence the afore mentioned reference to the Priest displaying a Buddha), he was utterly devoted to Jesus.  

"I think what he was trying to get across was that there’s something in this stuff’ explained Victoria, ‘there’s something in Jesus that’s worth thinking about. It’s worth valuing. It’s worth exploring that Jesus is real."

I didn’t know this about Shane MacGowan; how actively he sought God, how deeply he enjoyed Jesus. But it makes complete sense. If one goes looking in the deepest places, they’re likely to find the deepest thing. Roam around the truest place, and eventually you’ll bump into the truest thing. 

 I, like Shane, believe that to be God. 

I suppose the difference, and the reason I could never write a song like ‘Rainy Night in Soho’, is that Shane boldly went where I doubt I ever could - to the costly depths reserved for the brilliant. Instead, I shall simply ponder how beautiful it is that God appears to wait for the brilliant to notice him, even in those depths.   

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