A Petrol Pump in the Cradle of Christianity is one of those song titles that you either think is poetic and resonant or self-indulgent and preposterous, perhaps depending on how big a fan you are of Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Pink Floyd.
I can justify it. The cradle of Christianity, in this case, is Whithorn in Dumfries and Galloway, which claims to be where Christianity was first established in Scotland (by St Ninian, around 390 AD). I visited Whithorn around 2006, not on any kind of religious pilgrimage, mostly just because I already happened to be on holiday in Dumfries and Galloway and had heard it was scenic. A short drive from our destination I spotted a church that had been converted into a petrol station. And as the song says, ‘I laughed until my sides hurt.’
It was hollow laughter. At the time, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – widely considered to be about oil rather than anything to do with 9/11, Saddam Hussein, or the Taliban – were already in their fourth year. The one in Afghanistan would later become the second longest war in US military history after Vietnam. George W Bush, a devoted Christian, had famously talked of a ‘war on terror’, as if America was fighting demons rather than pursuing various political and economic agendas. The longer it all dragged on, the more absurd and dishonest the whole thing seemed. A church with a petrol pump on it seemed like a potent metaphor.
A Petrol Pump in the Cradle of Christianity isn’t really about the War on Terror. I’m not sure I’d dare write a song about that; the whole thing felt far too complicated and messy and beyond my skill set. And I am emphatically not Bruce Springsteen or Billy Bragg. More to the point, I’ve never been to the Middle East so what do I really know about anything that happens there? And so instead I mostly wrote about my own relationship with Christianity.
I was raised by Christian parents (one Church of England, the other Church of Scotland) and accompanied them to church every week, partly because I hated Sunday school and refused to go. My mum always seemed more serious about it than my dad; the religious books he kept in the house were by people like David Jenkins and Richard Holloway, books about doubt rather than conviction. After I told him I was giving up on religion we would have big fights about it, in which I’d argue that he wasn’t a Christian at all because he didn’t seem to believe in any of it, and he’d argue that I was a Christian even though I claimed not to be because my sense of morality was based on a Christian upbringing. I was often furious with him at the time, and we didn’t speak for a while when I was about 19, which upset my mum a lot, but I miss those fights terribly now he’s gone. The line ‘I spit and use bad words and then dare you to forgive me’ was me baiting him.
When we reached Whithorn I walked to a rocky shoreline and stared at the sea on my own for quite a while. This was something I had done a lot as a teenager, mostly on Arran as an escape from the campsite where my family spent most summer holidays, and it was certainly a factor in my decision to give up religion. Anyone who’s stood facing an ocean knows how small and insignificant it can make you feel. A star-filled sky or a mountain – or even a photo of one by someone like Ansel Adams – can have a similar effect. The feeling you get will either turn you towards religion or away from it.
Which way you go perhaps depends on how you feel about Edmund Burke’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime – the difference being that sublime things affect us on a more profound level than things that are simply beautiful, because they overwhelm and terrify us as well as giving us pleasure. The ideas in Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful were later taken up by the Romantic poets, all of whom approached the idea of the sublime in different ways. Coleridge preferred the idea of the ‘metaphysical sublime’, a sight that suggested infinity without necessarily inspiring terror. Personally I’ve never been able to shake the terror. At the beginning of January I watched two of my children on a Hebridean beach playing that classic children’s game – running away from crashing waves and laughing. It was beautiful and hilarious and a joy to watch, but on some level I was still fearfully imagining them being swept away and the ocean’s indifference to this. At night I look at the stars and picture meteorites the size of cities hurtling towards us.
Ultimately I gave up on Christianity because I felt like it was lying to me about how special I was, even if it was doing so with the best of intentions. I couldn’t accept its reassurances or its self-image. In particular I kept questioning Christianity’s claim to encourage humility, when nothing about the idea of a god with a human son seemed remotely humble. Why would the offspring of god be human? What’s so important about people, in a world of millions of species and a universe of billions of stars with, potentially, alien species orbiting around millions of them? Also, Christians scared me. George W Bush and Tony Blair’s certainty that they were right about their wars, in the face of overwhelming opposition, was clearly rooted in religious conviction. Was there really so much difference between that and the religious conviction of the terrorists they were ostensibly hunting down, except that one group of religious people had much bigger weapons?
So anyway, A Petrol Pump in the Cradle of Christianity is about all that. It almost wasn’t though. My first idea was that it would be called It’s Gone Out Of My Head, and would be a kind of twisted cover version of Can’t Get You Out Of My Head by Kylie Minogue, in which someone is trying to remember the hook-line of Kylie’s song while dying in a car crash. Throughout the song there would be numerous variations on the ‘la la la la la’ bit of Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, all slightly wrong (which would handily get us out of any copyright infringement scenario). I can’t remember whether Hamish vetoed this idea or whether I abandoned it because it was awful, but I’m glad we went with the other one.
A postscript – as well as the wonderfully weird backing track that Hamish made, this song is full of recordings of short wave radio noise that I made as a teenager. Somewhere I still have a whole cassette full of these noises, which Hamish very happily sampled. I was a bit obsessed with shortwave radio noise for a while, sometimes trying to make it seem more musical by tapping out little rhythms on the aerial, sometimes just leaving it to make music on its own terms. One of my favourite movies at the time was a mostly forgotten 1986 film called Static, about a crucifix factory worker convinced he’s invented a device that can broadcast television pictures of Heaven. The problem is that all anybody else can see on the screen is static. I’m not sure this was the point of the film, but I really liked the static.