Monday, August 13, 2018

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And don't lie." He was a legendary curmudgeon.

It put me in mind of a question, Lady Wheare, once my landlady in Oxford, put to me, as a prospective tenant. "Have you read War and Peace?" Pause. "There is a test, you know!" I never did discover whether you were rejected if you said no (or if she felt you might be lying in saying yes).

She was a remarkable woman, and formidable, as this obituary in the Oxford Times illustrates:

Since I was actually domiciled in the same house (two cottages in Wolvercote partially converted into one), I had an opportunity to watch her in action closely!

Though a devout Christian, she had a skepticism about bishops and women priests (they failed in voice projection) and a horror of reserved seats in church. These she would deliberately sit in and then defy anyone brave or foolish enough to try and eject her. She was irredeemably of her class but possessed of a notable egalitarianism before God. Her dislike of women priests was not theological. Alongside bishops, she placed St Paul, not least for his difficulties with acknowledging the authority of women. Called upon to read one such passage in the Letters during Evensong at St. Giles, she dumped it in favour of the Beatitudes. When reminded of this in a low timorous voice by the Vicar,  she replied to him, loudly and bluntly, "Yes, I know but I am never reading that passage" and carried on with the Blessings!

But under that formidable persona was a person of extraordinary kindness (and resolute practicality), the obituary only captures a fraction of her public charitable activities (excluding, for example, her helping to build Oxford's first student residence for people with a disability). Nor does it capture what was, I think, at her heart.

This was the conviction that everyone, without exception, was of interest, interesting and had something uniquely theirs to offer the world (even if, as she said, it might take several sherries to unearth it) and that if we had failed in the past, nobody was without the possibility of making amends and redemption. The man, for instance, she had employed cutting the grass of Wolvercote Green was an ex-prison inmate in need of work. It was an obligation to treat everyone with that interested regard that allowed them to try and be their best selves.

The worst failure you could make, apart from being St Paul, was to imagine that people were to be disregarded for any reason but especially any form of prejudice. She had a relation, by marriage, who was a racist (and anti-Semitic) and was suffered only for the reason of proximity. This did not prevent Lady Wheare happily inviting her neighbours to dinner (an Afro-American couple and academics) when the said relative was visiting and Lady Wheare happily bashed home her points as the relative inwardly cringed yet with such skill that the Afro-American couple were wholly unaware and at ease! Only I was in the know and watched a liberal of the heart on the politest, but most pointed, of warpaths!

Saturday, August 4, 2018

The prescient, secular saint: Aldous Huxley

Though usually resistant to the charms of long biographies, I will happily make an exception for Sybille Bedford's two volume biography of her friend, Aldous Huxley, both for its subject matter and its accomplishment. Since Bedford know Huxley well, at critical moments she can enliven the text with her own direct memory and because she was a friend of Maria and Laura, Huxley's wives, she can sympathetically see him from the perspective of the two people, especially Maria, who was the closest to him. As a novelist in her own right, she gives her book a narrative flow that is admirable most especially when it weaves judicious quotation from both the work and letters to and fro. In spite of (or because of) her friendship, she maintains an admirable objectivity, serving her subject's striving after truthfulness with her own. Unlike many apparent biographers, she has a lively interest in what her subject believed as well as did, in his ideas and their expression.

It confirmed for me three essential things about Huxley.

The first is that he was a good man and that his goodness grew as he aged. If one of his themes is how might we reach after, and nurture, our deepest human potential as compassionate, thoughtful, active beings, his experiment after these truths began with himself. What is wonderful in the life is that you can see it emerging, being recognised by others if never by his self-deprecating self, even as shadows remain. Bedford very lightly evokes the word 'saintly' at points and yes, you can see that  it is a word not out of place as long as one imagines holy rather than perfect. It was a holiness fashioned as a couple with Maria, his first wife, playing a fundamental humanising role and interestingly being the most susceptible of the two to mystical experience.

Second that not only was he a myriad minded man at home, in both the sciences and the arts, he was a consistently prescient one. This prescience even extends to that area which gives Bedford the most unease (she is writing in the seventies) that of Huxley's quiet and sophisticated championing of drugs in both spiritual and therapeutic contexts. Bedford wants to exculpate Huxley from triggering the bewildering and painful deluge of indiscriminate drug taking that the Sixties represented (though a reanimation of such, after quieter decades, might be more accurate). Huxley would have been quietly appalled but, as now is becoming clearer, psychedelic drugs taken appropriately in the right context may have much to offer therapy for a range of conditions including addiction precisely the use that Huxley thought merited thorough exploration. More widely, however, again and again, you find Huxley ahead of the curve whether on the environment, the risks of advertising and media manipulation (and you cannot help think of what he would have thought of our social media conundrums) or the importance of early child development.

Third that this 'mystical agnostic' with his alert sense of the potentials and perils of technology and science yet constantly remained an explorer of both past and potential futures, sifting what was of the good and of the bad regardless of any perceived (or actual) authority. In religion, for example, there was good to be found and bad to be condemned and the division lay not betwixt traditions but passing through the heart of each. Bad ideas, whether metaphysical, religious or scientific, can kill and must be consistently identified and weeded out. What is good for the community as a whole is the lodestone of his sifting, what nurtures human happiness inclusively.

Would we be successful gardeners - this remarkable species - only time could tell and Huxley lived a striking balance between 'hope' - because we could turn what we know to a pursuit of the good; and, expectation - because history though it affords examples of this coming to be is probably more weighted on the darker side of the balance.

I love too his admirable assessment of his own gifts - not inconsiderable, deployed to humanising, ennobling effect - but he was his own severest critic. Of the novels, for example, that always remain, with possibly one exception, guided by their ideas rather than an embodying narrative. Yet his core work - over fifty years after his death - remains in print, available and widely read not only for the ideas themselves many of which remain lively, current and significant but for his manner of approach - an embracing openness of mind, of including myriad patterns of thought from varied disciplines and because of their challenge to the reader to think through themselves what it might mean to become truly and fully human as a person and as a society.

He modestly suggested that if he could sum his advice in one phrase it would be 'try and be a little bit kinder'. In that undoubtedly he was, and did every day, try to be more. It is the simplicity at the heart of a complex man and mind.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

On the hopes, realities and shadows of being nomadic...

Rowena Farre was a mystery. Was she born in India or London? What was her real name and ancestry? Was her first book (Seal Morning) an autobiography or fiction? It was a mystery that after the success of that first book and the presses' intrusive interest in 'solving' it that made her more consciously elusive than ever. It is, like many manufactured mysteries, probably redundant to an enjoyment of her work. Like any life her's was part fact, part creative memory, part fabrication - if only the fabrication of presenting your better part - but, on the evidence of her second book, 'A Time from the World', Farre was not a fantasist but a person drawn to a way of being in the world at odds with (yet deeply alluring to) the mainstream.

This in, at least, two senses. Firstly as a nomad, unsettled by the confinement of a career, she utilised her grant to attend art school only partly to learn art but principally to give herself the freedom to live with a succession of Gypsy and tinker families as they progress through the English and Welsh countryside during the 1950s that she, artfully, compresses into a narrative year. Second because she was (as she intimates but never says) 'fey'. This exhibited itself in an ability to give compelling fortune readings (that she admirably describes as an admixture of intuitively taking up a person's cues and yet something other, given). It, also, shows itself in a happy attendance on ghosts and hauntings (that again, being elusive, she addresses matter of factly 'on the side').

Her living with Gypsies and tinkers is told with clear, resonant, engaging prose and with a clear sightedness that, she says, mirrors the Gypsy's own lack of sentimentality. The book primarily focuses on the physical and emotional aspects of the life as lived rather than the more explicitly cultural, social or religious but achieves a resonant depth of engagement nonetheless, shot through with sympathy and with suffering. She makes intelligent distinctions between Gypsies, tinkers and mumpers (or tramps) and shows how they vary precisely in the level of choice exercised in their way of life (though she is hard on mumpers, too eager to differentiate them from (in her perception) the more upstanding Gypsy). But her quiet defence of the Gypsy is well taken - no population in Europe could be more discriminated against- and she notes, she is writing less than twenty years after the Holocaust that even yet has not won its rightful place in memory.

The suffering too is on a more personal plane because as she takes up with a Diddakoi - a Gypsy man of half blood - it accentuates both the pull of the life and how it differs from her own. The book movingly recounts that unfolding and her ultimate decision and its costliness.

Suffering too in recognising that she is witnessing a life on the edge of radical transition where familiar patterns of livelihood are being displaced. She goes hop picking but one farmer has already acquired an automatic machine for example. The pressures on settlement, both social and economic, are gathering pace. No longer is it a world, again by way of example, that can be simply navigated by the illiterate. The imprisonment of school beckons...

It is beautiful and resonant book and Farre emerges as a person of unusual thoughtfulness and a gifted protagonist for the free life lived with risk, skill and determination.

An added bonus, for me, is that the setting is countryside I know - Shropshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire - including outings to my home town of Stratford - in the period immediately proceeding mine.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

In Our Time - the best of radio

One of the consequences (after a retinal tear in the eye) of being told to read less (advice that was happily overturned by a more senior doctor 48 hours later)* was rediscovering the joy of listening to BBC radio.

This was joy was not focused on the news output. Here the Corporation slides to new lows (often in the misguided pursuit of 'balance' or the pursuit of 'artificial' conflict rather than illumination) for which see its coverage of climate change where it pretends that the science is not settled - and the outcomes every day more sadly vivid - and allows pedlars of falsehood on (with no scientific credentials whatsoever) like Lord Lawson slithering with their snake oil of 'denial' that goes unchallenged by the interviewing journalist.

But, thankfully, within Corporation House, there does remain oases of public broadcasting rooted in an ethos of education and entertainment, quietly balanced. One such is Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' (whose website can be found here: The formula is simple - identify a subject from the arts or sciences either a theme, an event or a person, identify three academic experts (who are more or less lucid and certainly knowledgeable and generous) host an informative conversation about the subject for forty-five minutes, allowing your listener to learn and emerge better informed. There are, obviously, variations in quality. Does the chemistry work and it usually does because Bragg is a skilled facilitator; and, can the subject be adequately treated within the given time horizon, mostly yes, sometimes you wish for a Part 2.

Whether the subject is something you know about or not, you emerge feeling that you have learnt something new - a new angle on the familiar or new depth on the unfamiliar. It is also a confirmation that scholarship (despite what some think and the culture wars that seep across the media) still exists and (for forty five minutes at least) people can share what they know, even when they might disagree, with a uniform civility and humanity.

Eyesight restored, I happily continue to listen and dip into the back catalogue. I am especially enjoying the science and history related slots because I know that whereas I would probably not now invest my reading time there, I am gleaning a solid background in what 'everyone ought to know' and have a feel for at least.

I enjoy too the surprises when you thought you knew something and it is adjusted and makes you wonder. For some reason as a child I developed a fascination for the Boxer rebellion. Listening to the 'In Our Time' programme on the Boxer rising, I discovered that half (10,000) of relieving force were Japanese, a fact occluded in most popular, Western accounts, and you suddenly see how meteoric Japan's rise was (in under fifty years) and potentially, you feel, how dislocating it must have been too. A single fact that suddenly prompts a whole repositioning of a spectrum of thought on that transition.

'In Our Time' is an online encyclopaedia and as such rewards (as those books did) happy hours of browsing, stumbling upon the new, the newly unfamiliar, the loved and known revisited.

* The more senior doctor told me that since I sleep and dream and thus have rapid eye movements involuntarily I do to my eyes more violence each night than I could possibly do reading!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Encountering Martin Buber

This week I re-read my first book on Martin Buber. While still at school, my interest had been stimulated by a chapter in Anne Bancroft's book, 'Modern Mystics and Sages' and one morning in the Heythrop library, now a student, I found Aubrey Hodes' 'Encounter with Martin Buber'. I read it at one sitting fascinated by its blend of personal observation and illuminating discussion of the heart of Buber's thought and practice. These two being intimately related - though Buber, at times, reads abstractedly, nothing could be further from his intention. His words were always intended to be rooted in life and to give direction to life.

He undoubtedly gave Hodes direction. A young kibbutznik Hodes found himself visiting a mentally ill relative in Tel Aviv. He was distressed at each encounter and one day found himself sitting, after such an encounter, outside a house with a still, peaceful presence, with a nameplate that of Buber. A name he knew and some of whose works he had read. Discovering one day a copy of 'The Way of Man according to Hasidism' in a bookshop, and reading it there, and being encouraged by friends to visit Buber, eventually this twenty five year old telephoned the seventy five year old Buber and they met that very afternoon forging what emerged as a deeply satisfying, mutual friendship grounded first in Buber's compassionate listening and quiet advice on how to respond to the continuing person underlying his relative's distress. This helped Hodes forge a deeper bond with her and accompany her on her path to recovery.

The book captures the heart of Buber - a man who was utterly a Jew and yet a universalist. A man who recognised the virtue of belonging and yet denied it the closure of exclusivity. The courageous champion of a people (especially in Germany between 1933-1938) and a prophetic critic of the nation that became Israel. A man for whom life was a hallowing in the sacred rooted in the encounter with God and who was a non-observant Jew delighting in the fact that in the Hebrew tradition, and especially the Bible, there was no word for religion. He described his position as one of a 'believing humanism'.

Hodes is especially good on showing the way in which Buber deeply realised that 'all real living is meeting', that every moment is an opportunity to genuinely greet the world as having value because each and every thing is a subject in its own right, unique in its particularity, and that genuine life is this treating of everything as an end in in itself, even when for practical purposes it too maybe a means, utilitarian, but the end must always come first and last.

And that we are tasked with living this - both everyday and in special moments of test. Hodes tells a beautiful account of realising this when, as a medical orderly in the 1956 war, he defends the life of an elderly Arab, whom he has treated, from young Israeli soldiers on a quest for sport and blood, shaped, as they were, with the scent of victory. Endless, Hodes relates, are the ways he could have justified his handing the man over but each justification would have reduced him, making him smaller, more incomplete. His resistance to this moment of potential evil was a turning point in his own self-evaluation. He was tested and won through in his own particular way.

For me, Hodes book was a gateway into Buber that has always remained open, living with this remarkable man, whose quiet insistence is always probing you to discover yourself. As one of the Hasidic rebbes proclaimed you will not be saved by imitating another, however, exalted, in his case either Abraham or Moses, but by becoming ever more deeply your unique self. God wants a Nicholas, this particular Nicholas as a living, unique being, not simply a copied model.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Cone Gatherers: A realistic parable of good and evil

Two men are up a tree, gathering cones. One sits uneasily, rheumatic limbs always waiting to ambush him at these uncertain heights. His companion is as comfortable as a monkey though the epithet is an uncomfortable one because he is deformed, a hunch back, and in the language of the time, 'simple'. Neil and Calum are two brothers and, as the Second World War rages, they labor on a Scottish estate. The cones are to provide the seeds, that can no longer be imported, to replace the forest when, in the Spring, it is cut down to aid the war effort. Neil, the eldest, is fiercely protective of Calum in his disability.

All might be tranquility in a peaceful rural scene but there is, as always perhaps, a serpent in this semblance of paradise. It is the gamekeeper, Duror. He is an outwardly upstanding man in a gathering state of inward crisis. His young wife, shortly after their marriage, developed an (unnamed) disabling disease and became bed-ridden and has slowly grown obese over more than twenty years. Her still beautiful face afloat in fattening folds. She is looked after primarily by her widowed mother, a woman who constantly laments the injustice of her daughter's fate and who leaks bile towards Duror as an inconsiderate husband who finds it increasingly difficult to spend time with his wife and the self-pity she expresses, fueled by her mother's laments.

Duror is gamekeeper to Lady Runcie-Campbell. She lives at the manor, whose forest it is, with her two children, with her husband away at war. She is a conflicted woman, eager to maintain her status in society, class bound and hierarchical, but also as a Christian with a plucking conscience to be generous and supportive. The two continuously collide and the elucidation of this conflict is the central and most illuminating feature of the book. A parable in miniature of all the compromises people make to the living out of their confession. Christianity is irritatingly simple minded as it is compelling in its simplicity. To worry at this conscience is her son, Roderick, who in childhood innocence and sense of justice, reminds us why, in the words of St. Benedict, Christ often puts his wisdom into the mouths of the youngest.

Duror develops a hatred of the cone gatherers, most especially of Calum. His disability offends Duror and multiple explanations are offered from him as a constant reminder of his wife's distress to an unalloyed, irrational hatred of the other. He tries, unsuccessfully, to besmirch Calum's reputation suggesting, as a lie, that he has seen Calum exhibiting himself amongst the trees and as an 'imbecile' cannot be trusted with the Lady's children so close by. He is not believed as his deterioration is increasingly apparent and because Calum's naked trust in the world and care for it - he cannot bear seeing any animal harmed - and his innocence before folk is too disarming.

It would be churlish to reveal the story's denouement only to say it is both tragic and potentially redemptive. I have not read a novel by Robin Jenkins before. I will again - there are over thirty to choose from written over a long career. He is an adept realist. There is no obvious experimentation with form simply a well crafted, psychologically and spiritually acute story that draws one in and makes even the most unsavoury character - in this case Duror - an object of real sympathy. It is undoubtedly a parable of good and evil and beautifully allows psychological insight to sit in a wider mystery just in the way this parochial moment of hatred and tragedy is at sea in a world at war (whose mysteries are as great or greater). It is also a very realistic account of social hierarchy that may have morphed in particular form but remains with us yet. We imagine deference dead but it (and status anxiety) lives with us all too really still.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Dark is Rising

'The Dark is Rising' is both the name of a series of five novels, originally written for children, and of the now classic, second novel in the series. This book was the subject of an 'online' reading group (on Twitter) initiated by the accomplished nature writer, Robert Macfarlane last Christmas that brought it to my attention. I finished the last in the series yesterday with one of those releasing sighs where deep satisfaction and tender disappointment are mixed when you 'finish' a reading experience haunting and well made.

Like all good children's literature, it can (and ought) to be read by adults for enjoyment and profit. Here for multiple reasons.

First of which is that she is a gifted nature writer. In a few deft strokes she can describe a place vividly, accurately and even when she steps into the fantastic a solidly, real world is before you. But her nature is a place of the uncanny too - of the natural wonder of its giftedness as well as its ability to transport you into new states of mind - heights and depths. The Dark (in The Dark is Rising) precipitates a deepening ice grip to help claim (and demonstrate) its victory and you start with a winter in the Buckinghamshire countryside but as the screws turn you descend into a prospective icy hellishness, carrying forward all the natural conditions of a winter, but made eerily, threateningly other. Nature is one of her principal characters.

Second her's is a nature interwoven with history, folklore and myth, rooted in places, of England and Wales principally. You could enjoy the books simply reference spotting (though no reference is made that is not thoroughly imagined as part of the unfolding story). Here is Arthur and the Grail, here is Lyonesse, the sunken kingdom off the coast of Cornwall and here is Herne the Hunter and his hounds.

Third, it is a fictional fantasy world with a simple, consistent and robust architecture. You have the everyday world of its young protagonists, worrying whether their next meal will arrive on time, through which runs the unseen battle between the Light and the Dark and under both is the space of the High Magic (the oldest, primordial tradition that is literally 'amoral' (or transcendent to the moral) and serves neither the Light nor the Dark but does set the laws of their encounter.

The Dark is fascinating because though its human agents can coerce, at several points one or other of the children are snatched in brief episodic kidnaps, the Dark itself cannot harm unless the subject either of their unguarded consciousness or own volition consents. Nor is the world ultimately rescued in any act of violence (redemptive or otherwise) but by symbolic act rooted in the greatest bond of all that is love and affection. This is consciously offered as a progression from the past - where Arthur fought the Dark literally at the battle of Badon, the children outwit and out love the Dark in this our world. The true magic is the hallowing of the heart's affections (though this being a British novel such loving is always more better shown in low key acts than emoted or said)!

Fourth, Susan Cooper, the author, plays with time. The children move through it, events connect in non-linear ways, adjusting remembrance of the past changes both it and the future, all of time is always present, presence, and nothing is ever lost in a 'disappeared' past because all is eternally present. There was no wonder in my mind when discovered, simultaneously, that Cooper has written a study of J.B. Priestley (and edited his selected essays) one time haunting writer acknowledging another 'time haunted' one (to use Priestley's own description).

And, finally, and necessarily, Cooper creates characters about who you care - most especially Will Stanton, the eleven year old protagonist of The Dark is Rising who discovers, on his birthday, that he is an "Old One", one of the aged guardians of the Light, and how that reality sits with his childhood self is fascinating. A childhood self that is always, rightly imagined in my view as both vulnerable, maturing and yet gifted with seriousness. I was reminded of Jung's discovery, at a similar age, that he was not one but two personalities and that the second was immeasurably older and wiser than the first. It is deftly crafted and wholly believable and you care what happens to him next on his journey as you care for the unfolding story as a whole.

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...