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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

‘Time and life come along and smash the sense of self into a million pieces’ – Nick Cave

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

‘An absolutely wonderful book. I don’t think I’ve ever read so integrated and searching an engagement with how faith works, how creativity works, and how grief is bound up with both.’ – Rowan Williams

I’ve just finished reading Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Seàn O'Hagan, Canongate 2022, (writes Debbie Thrower) and can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it. I’d spotted Rowan Williams had singled it out as his favourite read of the last year in the Church Times. Then a relative gave me a copy for Christmas and I’ve had my nose buried in it ever since.

From The Red Hand Files – Nick Cave with Seàn O'Hagan

It’s written in interview format, the result of hours of phone interviews over two years between the rock musician and artist Nick Cave – while holed up in his Brighton home during lockdowns – and the journalist Seàn O'Hagan, feature writer for The Observer and photography critic for The Guardian.

The book is both heartbreaking and hopeful. Permeating all Nick Cave’s descriptions of his songwriting, recording process and live performances, as well as his work on ceramic sculptures, is the grief of he and his wife Susie over the death of their son Arthur, who died in 2015 at the age of 15. Arthur fell from a cliff near their home after taking LSD, according to the inquest.

Distilled from more than 40 hours of the two men’s conversations emerge insights into Nick Cave’s creative drives as well as hard-forged wisdom about the human condition itself:

‘Well, it could be that you need to view my work, my relation to the world and, indeed, my position on things within a religious frame, or it may not really make sense.’

He explores subjects such as forgiveness, atonement and absolution. He extols the benefits of belief and the devotional life, saying that when he stops meditating for a couple of months or so his life changes and tends to slip back into chaos, low-level depression and anger.

‘I think all the work I do now, varied and frantic as it is, moves towards that need for inner peace, that need for release.’

Some of the most fascinating passages, for me, relate to his growing understanding of the man he once was coming to terms with who he is now in his mid-sixties:

‘Well, the young Nick Cave could afford to hold the world in some form of disdain because he had no idea of what was coming down the line. I can see now that this disdain or contempt for the world was a kind of luxury or indulgence, even a vanity. He had no notion of the preciousness of life – the fragility. He had no idea how difficult, but essential, it is to love the world, and to treat the world with mercy. And, like I said, he had no idea what was coming down the road. He was entirely innocent of all that.’

It seems to me that through Nick Cave’s website, The Red Hand Files, encouraging people to ask anything they want, he is practising his own form of chaplaincy. He undertakes to answer some letters privately from those who beat a path to him with their own stories of loss, suffering and bereavement – sometimes receiving as many as 50 to 100 a day.

In some private one-to-one exchanges with some of his correspondents, he endeavours to answer as many as he can in thoughtful, honest ways even though he concedes he is ‘not a therapist, a public intellectual or a political thinker’. In many of those letters, he’s seen his own pain mirrored.

‘I sensed that inside their questions was a need to speak about their own suffering so that another human being could acknowledge it… I felt it pointed to a form of healing through the combined acts of telling and listening… the Red Hand Files is not just about answering the question: it is primarily about listening to the question.’

He has his detractors, those who criticise him for being unqualified to dispense advice. But perceiving the need, he’s been determined to do it anyway: ‘The Red Hand Files are an attempt to give something back to the world. They are an explicit affirmation of the value of being human. Each answer says “I matter. You matter.”’

Nick Cave, who was born in Australia, is now 65 and as the book’s afterword in 2022 explains, the last few years have seen many of his significant family members and friends die including, most recently, his first son Jethro, in Melbourne.

One could go deeper into his views on growing older; how life for all of us involves the deconstruction of the self, as we navigate the ‘predicament of an imperilled life’ (insofar as as ‘anything can turn catastrophic at any time’) and the opportunity it affords for ‘the reassembled self’. But no snippets would do justice to the depth and complexity of suffering that’s led to such viewpoints via the narrative sweep of an extraordinary life.

Many readers – those who don’t discount scripture, silence, meditation and prayer as ‘falsities’ – may reach the final pages of this book with sincere admiration for someone who can speak so honestly about the ‘hell’ – ‘more often than not of our own making’ and also the redemption sought through his work and by (as curious as it might seem for a man with such a notoriously self-destructive past) trying to lead ‘a life that has moral and religious value’.

‘I guess what I am saying is – we mean something. Our actions mean something. We are of value. ‘I think there is more going on than we can see or understand, and we need to find a way to lean into the mystery of things – the impossibility of things – and recognise the evident value in doing that and summon the courage it requires to not always shrink back into the known mind.’

I’d really enjoy a conversation with him about what’s going on within the chaplaincy encounter and what more his experiences tells us about God, faith, doubt and growing older. Who knows? Stranger things have …




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