Showing posts from November, 2010

The Pool at Bethseda

Arriving back from Israel/Palestine, I went to the Post Office to collect my accumulated uncollected parcels and the highlight was a second-hand copy of the Hayward Gallery's 1985 catalogue of their Edward Burra show.

It is a balm for the soul. He is a strikingly accomplished painter with a unique, instantly recognizable vision.

First that each and every figure in his work is uniquely themselves and a character: personality exudes. He allows the people he sees their voice. He is noticeably a painter of bars, cafes, nightlife beyond the 'respectable' and paints with compassion, engagement, and liking.  He paints people of colour at a time (has it changed) when they were the systematically discriminated against, other in the very places of their marginalization, without any trace of anything other than equality of regard.

Second, and it is connected to the first, he is one of the most compelling twentieth-century painters of Christ (as above). His Christ is one fully engage…

Wine not to buy from the wicked monks

The Cremisan Monastery that self-describes itself as juxtaposed between 'Israeli tower blocks and Palestinian luxury villas' ( in fact stands on land donated by Palestinians in the nineteenth century from a village slowly being encircled by Israel's new security fence.

The 'luxury villas' are, in fact, houses, belonging to Palestinian refugees who have seen most of the territory of their village illegally incorporated into Israel and whose property is often subject to demolition orders by the Israeli authorities (as they will not grant the permits that would give, even their school, a legal status). When having tried and failed to get a permit, the Israelis do demolish your home (or, in one case, your pigeon coup), they send you a bill, and if you do not pay it, you find yourself banished from such incidentals as access to health care! Many people apparently demolish their own homes (when all legal delay is expired) to save them t…

A walk in a divided city

There is a both a synagogue and a mosque on the same site, honouring the Patriarchs: Abraham, Issac and Jacob. It is the place traditionally held to be their tombs. The roots of Judaism are here. The foundations of Islam are here. They are in the centre of the city of Hebron, where David founded his renewed kingdom of Judea. It is a place charged with conflicting religious meanings and competing historical narratives. It is, thus, a place of violence.

In the modern era, two moments stand stark to opposing memories - the massacre of 1929 when 67 Jews were killed by Arabs (though more than 400 were saved by being sheltered by their Arab neighbours) and in 1994 when a Jewish doctor entered the Ibrahim mosque and killed 29 Muslims at prayer. Since when the site has been closely supervised with two different entrances - one for Jews (and as I found 'the rest') and one for Muslims. You quickly notice that the indignities of 'security' are preserved for the Muslims - the bac…

Riding in the Chariot: Not for everyone!

When Patrick White's 'Riders in the Chariot' was first published, he records in his autobiography being telephoned one day 'out of the blue' by a person carrying a thick accent from somewhere in Central Europe asking him whether he wanted to 'go further'. He understood this to mean an invitation to more deeply explore the Kabbalah of which Himmelfarb (one of the book's central characters) becomes a student and whose imagery underpins the frame of the book itself.

White declined and it was only when he was putting the receiver down that he realized who the voice belonged to; namely, the relative of a friend, whom he had seen occasionally at social gatherings, out of place, carrying more than a flavour of the 'shtetl' and whose 'presence' had intrigued him. He was immediately filled with regret but equally felt that the moment of invitation had passed.

He possibly sensed that there is a significant difference between the intuitive, felt gr…

Foxy Montaigne

'Man cannot make a worm,' wrote Montaigne, 'yet he will make gods by the dozen.'

This is quoted by Morris Berman in an essay entitled 'The Hula Hoop Theory of History' that reflects on our human capacity for conversion to the next new idea, convinced that we now have not an answer to a particular contextualized question but 'The Answer' that supersedes all previous answers (until, of course, the next Answer comes along)!

Montaigne is suggesting, I think, that rather than be humble in the face of reality, contemplating it in its complexity, enterprising after ways of seeing it that never foreclose, we are more comfortable with total solutions - better to create a god in our own image (or ideology) than contemplate the mysteries and actualities of a worm: that which is gifted, present.

I was talking to a friend on Friday who is a highly gifted consultant on organizational development (a description that comprehensively fails to do her justice) and she was…

Off to Israel

My last visit to Israel was under the auspice of the World Bank to look at provision of micro-finance in the Palestinian territories. I duly wrote my report that was duly ignored. I did get a stream of queries for six months afterwards. None of which required me to provide an answer beyond a page reference to my prior report. I felt a career as a consultant to the World Bank was not one that was fruitfully pursued!

I vividly remember being so arduously pursued by an Armenian shopkeeper (of jewelery) that I had to take refuge in a bookshop (in the Old City of Jerusalem)!

Equally I remember a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where I noticed one of the ushers doing something unusual with his feet. He was dribbling an empty plastic Coke bottle to the head of a set of stairs, leading to a portion of the Church administered by a rival denomination, down which he surreptitiously kicked the said bottle! A vision of the religion of agape in inaction!

This time a first week is devoted …

Mobile decay

Sitting on the train, the man beside me answers his mobile and explains that he is on the train and apologizes that he may lose his signal. He continues to explain the particular business problem in detail until mercifully his signal is severed. There is no consciousness of an apology to the person who he is sitting next to, for carrying out a 'noisy conversation' and disturbing his reading. It is an apparently trivial act of 'social violence'.

Ironically his neighbour (me) is reading an essay by the American social critic, Morris Berman, on a meeting he attended at the Independent Institute in Washington to discuss how America could withdraw from Iraq. A meeting (one Saturday afternoon) at which, Berman observes, half the audience were disengaged from the speakers, occupying their own space, and texting or answering e-mail! It would never have occurred to them that this disregard for others' space in pursuit of self-enclosed interest was mimicking at a micro-level…

Oscar Vladslas de Lubicz Milosz

An evening reading the poems of Oscar Vladslas de Lubicz Milosz (one of the more glorious names in the annals of literature). He was a distant cousin of the Nobel laureate, Czeslaw Milosz, whom he treated as a son. Born of a Russian father and a Polish Jewish mother at his family's estates in Belarus, he was educated by solitude and in France and chose to write in French. France became his home after the Russian revolution though he originally chose the citizenship of Lithuania and represented them as a diplomat at Versailles and subsequently.

His closest poetic antecedent is a writer he probably did not know: William Blake. He is a poet of visionary intensity who seeks to offer a different world perspective from that of scientific materialism. He evokes a world of symbolic meaning where everything is translucent to a sacred ordering.

I encountered him first in the third edition of Temenos and one of his aphorisms in particular has always sung through my mind:

"To be free is…

Job: a just man

For a dedicated agnostic, Vaughan Williams wrote some of the most strikingly beautiful religious music of the twentieth century both framed within the liturgy - his Mass in G - and within 'secular' settings as with the piece I listened to as I drove to visit my mother: Job: A Masque for Dancing.

When I was nine or so, my mother found me, to her great surprise, propped up in bed reading the Bible! A surprise doubled by finding that I was reading the Book of Job with fascinated incomprehension! I was engaging in sibling rivalry as my older brother had embarked on reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation (a task I believe he completed).

I have no idea why I chose Job but it was my first acquaintance with that haunting text that had so drawn the attention of my beloved Blake, as here, with Job's complaint:

A meeting that made a difference

Out of the multitudes of meetings endured few survive to the memory of the following week (or, I am afraid to say, day) but one in 1999 is deeply memorable.

I walked into the office of Chris Underhill, then CEO of Intermediate Technology Development Group, now Practical Action, in their grand (but practical) office in Warwickshire, with grandly delighting views of the surrounding countryside in search of ideas. I had been re-appointed as the director of WIN (now Andrews Charitable Trust) that acted as a 'venture philanthropy' fund (before this appellation was invented). We aimed to start new charitable ventures that tackled either new problems or engrained old ones in new ways.

Nobly Chris tried to interest me in ITDG as was his responsibility as CEO. I fear I had to disappoint him: we did not work with established organizations (unless spinning off a new, innovative structure). We parked ITDG and began a discussion on the challenges of mental illness, compounding people's …