Monday, January 31, 2011

Kuznetzov's Central Asian idyll

I have been reading Peter Stupples informative biographical study of Pavel Kuznetsov (published in the Cambridge Studies in the History of Art). 

Like many modern biographies it tends towards the accumulation of detail over the art of interpretation and many of the details are Kuznetsov seen from the outside - in memoir or criticism - as Kuznetsov himself destroyed most of the material that would allow us to trace his interior spaces (if he indeed committed his thoughts to paper). It, also, fights shy (in the contemporary way) of exploring questions of the meanings of the work as opposed to the surfaces of its style and the techniques of its development.

His early works are beautifully suggestive, he characterized them as 'intuitive symbolism', as here in 'Blue Fountain'. Where a fountain nourishes gathered forms at its base, female forms attending a child, baptized in watery light, lighted water. Even with a limited, muted palette, he demonstrates a mastery of colour that was to develop to a fullness in time.

The making of his art was the discovery of Central Asia as here in Eastern Motive:

There remains a level of the indistinct, the not shown, the figures have only the elements of faces but this nomadic scene of oasis shares the same emphasis on the nourishment of water, heightened to an intensity of the magical by the blue tree cast in moonlight and a general vibrancy of colour.

It is a beautiful art and has a wonderful aura of calm: of things in their places, of the domestic round considered and enacted in timeless rhythms; and, because of this something yet other being brought into being, or shown as being.

As Paul Eluard said, 'There is another world, but it is in this one'

Coming out of the closet...

Like Wittgenstein I have a confession - not that I once struck the pupil at a village school for being incurably stupid at mathematics nor that in a moment of Tolstoyan inspiration did I give my wealth away not to the poor but to my equally wealthy family members - but that I have a fondness for Westerns.

In Wittgenstein's case, he enjoyed the simple morality of good vanquishing evil without shade of moral ambiguity or ersatz sophistication. The man in the white hat defeated (after suitable trial) the man in the black hat and the world was restored (temporarily) to harmony (and got his gal in the process but I expect he found that altogether less interesting).

There are various reasons why the simplicity of this picture is false. It is a harmony restored by 'redemptive violence' of which I, if not Wittgenstein, disapproves. When native Americans, better known as 'injuns', appear it is usually as the dangerous other, whose primitiveness must be corralled at best, exterminated at worst (whose only virtue is that it does reflect reality as it appallingly does so often unthinkingly). And if my heart was always with the oppressed, my enthusiastic watching as a child onward can only have an element of condoning.

More practically on the only two occasions when I have mounted a horse (at suitably lengthy intervals) I have fallen off - most spectacularly into a stream in Colombia's First National Park. Thus my likelihood of employment as a cowboy would be nil (or as an 'Indian' for that matter).

It is perhaps the attraction of the wholly other but as a child I simply enjoyed the familiar dynamic to which Wittgenstein so obviously responded but, like Wittgenstein, I have not put aside childish things and the pleasure continues unalloyed!

I do wish to find a film of 'the West' that does genuinely portray a Native American vision of the onrushing catastrophe and has, as central characters, Native Americans (so I am afraid 'Dances with Wolves' for all its best liberal intentions manifestly fails).

But in the meantime I will continue to enjoy my guilty no longer secret. 

Unlike Wittgenstein, I can enjoy the genre when it has tried to inject a degree of ambiguity - I mean the hero in the Magnificent Seven wears black (and indeed all bar one are hired guns, a somewhat different category from Kurosawa's Samurai on which they are modeled). While in John Ford's extraordinary film, 'The Searchers' has as its central character 'Uncle Ethan' (played by John Wayne) who has a period of 'missing years' of which dark things are hinted and who spends most of the film searching for his niece, abducted by Indians, only in order to kill her to protect despoiled 'honour' and in the belief that she can never be returned to 'civilization' having being contaminated by the said Indians.

But my favourite Western remains, 'Ride the High Country', Sam Peckinpah's elegiac final work, that has two great 'B' movie actors, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, as fading guns, and erstwhile friends, for hire on one last job to escort gold dust back down a mountain. In the course of their journey, Scott is tempted to make play for what would be his pension, leaving McCrea to defend a code of honour (and morals) that is everywhere under test and in sacrificing his life in the process communicate a hopeful modeling of right action to the young couple traveling with them (the man of which has been equally tempted by Scott's low course, a course both he and Scott comes to abjure).

Apart from the universally fine performances (both older actors themselves delivering a virtual swansong) what makes it so moving is how McCrea's character persists in his character against all utilitarian objection and the disintegration of all that he has held to. Character is not surrendered lightly and the intimation is that 'personhood' is all that one ultimately can possess - and whether judged in time or in eternity, its standing is the only status that truly matters.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Painterly approaches to truth

Evening Primrose

Bird singing in the Moonlight

The paintings are in inverse order, chronologically and spiritually. Morris Grave, the painter,  is an exemplar of a pilgrimage we might all hope to take from a reality that is symbolized to one that is actual.

The bird that sings in the moonlight is a beautiful expression both of itself but primarily as a symbol (or interlocking set of symbols) that with diligence and awareness can be read out of the picture - song, bird, moonlight.

The Evening Primrose is simply utterly itself: imaging reality in its own uniqueness - transcendence is immanent in the particularities of a flower seen its its 'suchness'.

Graves is quoted as saying that he had surrendered 'religion' as so much 'blah' - not because, I think, it is inauthentic but because it is inadequate: a set of signs pointing to the way that is not the moon. The primrose is simply a primrose at evening itself yet transparent to all things. Seeing a primrose as it is means seeing all as it is: that everything that lives is holy.

Graves was a serious student of both Japanese aesthetics and, more importantly, Vedanta, and in that latter study, rightly realized that 'maya' - the divine play that weaves the world in consciousness - is not (as it is often translated) 'illusory' but, if seen aright, illuminating. God dances into form and 'you' can dance into seeing/participating in its revealing beauty. It remains 'illusory' only to those (all of us most of the time) who sit on the stiff back chairs around the dance floor, worrying about our steps, our style, our partners (bound in that separating self-consciousness that can be heightened, rather than dissolved, by the 'blah' of religion).

The strange disappointment of restaurants

I went today to a well-regarded (and notable) restaurant in Mayfair where a charming, highly intelligent and interesting asset manager gave me lunch (thank you) as we talked renewable energy and our own project in South Africa (as well why China may go 'phut' - which is a highly technical geo-political term)!

The ambiance of the restaurant was exceptional (with very colourful David Hockneys decorating the walls) and the staff utterly charming and professional.

But the food...

There was absolutely nothing wrong with it and yet nothing about it (apart from the quality of the ingredients) stood out (except the coffee which was smooth, silky and positively seductive).

I mean I know several friends whose cooking meets these standards (even my own occasionally meets these standards) and though none of us, I expect, could feed more than a reasonably sized dinner party comfortably (though I did once cook vegetarian lasagna for fifty practitioners of Tai Chi), we can 'do it'!

And eating at home, in the home, yours or others, has a relaxed quality that is rarely achieved in restaurants so apart from convenience, the occasion of change, and a rest from culinary labour, why do we do it? Spending not inconsiderable sums 'dining out'?

There is, of course, the power of variety - at home you do (I do) tend to repeat yourself and the hoped for expectation of something out of the ordinary (that in my opinion has no real connection with 'money spent').

But it did strike me today that more often than not hopes are disappointed yet hope springs eternal!

There is, of course, the memory of when something does happen that arrests all your attending taste buds and makes them dance (and how that is so often a subtle combination of food, place and people). My first taste of lobster in Indonesia on my first ever 'development related' trip, a late dinner in a summer square in Copenhagen with the beloved; and, simple grilled fish and a beer, the lone diner at a restaurant in (Turkish) Cyprus table pitched by a crystalline sea, still and welcoming.

The last occasion was at a restaurant in Sansepolcro: a Sunday lunchtime, wine sold by how much of the bottle you drank, and the rabbit pasta that melted in the mouth!

The best path is possibly to travel hopefully, without expectation!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The sanity in madness

When originally researching in South India for what was to become Basic Needs  which celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, it became very apparent how many people labelled 'mentally ill' had very realistic, very rational abilities to assess their own condition.

Time and again you would meet people in the community centres/care homes we visited (primarily aimed at supporting 'middle class' Indians) who could give you very reasonable assessments of their condition and what, as a result, they could and could not entertain doing.
One man, I remember vividly, who happily introduced himself by saying, 'I am mad, you know' gave a very accurate and moving account of what he perceived as his limitations and opportunities for work within those limitations.

What equally struck home was the deep and necessary desire many people had for 'making a contribution'; that the ability to do work (paid or unpaid), to the limits of their known ability, was an important part of their perceived dignity and had an important part to play in their potential for recovery.

This desire (and its therapeutic and practical importance) was subsequently woven into Basic Needs' model of community based mental health care that has spread so successfully from its original inception in India to a range of other countries in Asia, Africa and now Latin America.

The notion of a sustainable livelihood was critical partly because when your are poor every penny does indeed count and the economic vulnerability of a poor family cannot sustain a mentally ill person, sometimes leading to abandonment but, more importantly, that work is a crucial aspect of identity and dignity. The ability to contribute in however small a measure helps make meaning for a person in a time when meanings are being deeply tested by the illness.

I was given cause to recall this last night when attending a talk on spirituality in mental health by one of the founders of the 'spirituality interest group' within the British College of Psychiatrists. It was a very interesting and sensitive talk about how to enable psychiatrists to be more aware of the spiritual/religious dimensions of the person when understanding their story (or 'case'). 

But it occurred to me as I listened that the functioning notion of 'spirituality' used here was very 'high' or 'vertical' - souls and spirits much to the fore - and that it might be possible and more productive to think more 'horizontally'  as well: of the  simple acts of inclusion that we fail to enact and recognizing the contribution that people can make when ill (as an aid to dignity and recovery). I remember  visiting a 'tool hire business' in New Hampshire run by people all of whom had serious histories of mental illness that gave people significantly more than a job: a community of common interest and care.

The talk reminded, slightly unfairly, of a friend who told me of his neighbour, a writer, versed in books on spirituality (and 'spiritual intelligence') who persistently let their rubbish bins overflow to the invitation of rancid smells and the visitation of vermin, much to the misery of their neighbours!

In one of Meister Eckhart's sermons he attempts a daring inversion of the traditional pattern: he honours Martha over Mary. Mary may sit at the feet of her Lord rapt in contemplation but it is Martha who creates the conditions out of which such contemplation is possible: a swept floor, food on the table. It is in these enabling conditions of a caring, cared for life that people with mental illness both need and, critically, need to contribute too; and, it is often the second dimension of this sentence that lies neglected in which a sound spirituality might be discovered.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Swan

The Swan
by Mary Oliver

Across the wide waters
something comes
floating—a slim
and delicate

ship, filled
with white flowers—
and it moves
on its miraculous muscles

as though time didn’t exist,
as though bringing such gifts
to the dry shore
was a happiness

almost beyond bearing.
And now it turns its dark eyes,
it rearranges
the clouds of its wings,

it trails
an elaborate webbed foot,
the color of charcoal.
Soon it will be here.

Oh, what shall I do
when the poppy-colored beak
rests in my hand?
Said Mrs. Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband’s company—
he is so often
In paradise.
Of course! the path to heaven

doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world,

and the gestures
with which you honor it.
Oh, what will I do, what will I say when those
white wings
touch the shore?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tao in art

I have been reading Jean C. Cooper's admirable, 'An Illustrated Introduction to Taoism'. The text is lucid and clear and the illustrations are beautiful and illuminating.

The chapter on Taoist art is especially good, speaking of the way in which the arts were integral: painters were poets and musicians. There was a harmonious weaving of disciplines together to form a whole. "The Sages of old used to say that a poem is a picture without visible forms and that a painting is a poem which has put on form."

Integral to all the arts was an absence of concern for ownership. Paintings were not signed nor sold as any genuine work was created out of the spirit of the Tao that informs all things, not the individual drives of any particular person. The aim of the artist was not 'self-expression' but (as Simone Weil put it) 'de-creation', a stepping aside of the 'self' so that the work could unfold unhindered. "Art, as soon as it is no longer determined, illuminated, and guided by spirituality, lies at the mercy of the individual and purely psychical resources of the artist."

What I love about Taoism is that it is a tradition in which joy and laughter play a significant part, with a strand of the compassionately satirical; thus, the poet, Su Shih:

Families, when a son is born.
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the child will prove
Ignorant an stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

And for its celebration of the natural world just as it is, a revelation of Tao within the ordering particulars of the world. Here Li Po:

The travelers, listening to the sound of the
Heard the rustling pines in myriad chasms,
The dying notes like falling frost on bells.
I had not noticed dusk come to the
Nor seen how deep the autumn clouds were darkened.

Evading truncheons in Tirana

The sad rioting yesterday in Tirana ( reminded me of a previous episode in the 90s where the same forces were locked in contesting a disputed election.

That election was undoubtedly fraudulent: a friend was an election observer working for the National Democratic Institute and announcing herself as such in a polling station just outside Tirana was greeted by 'election officials' saying, 'You Democratic party, we Democratic party' as they continued to fill in ballot papers and gleefully stuff them into the awaiting boxes.

The election duly 'won' and the victory rally held, the next day I was innocently walking back to my hotel through the main square only to find myself in the midst of an opposition rally where the Socialist party was contesting the 'result'.

The people were legitimately angry, and some of that anger was directed at 'the West' who were perceived to be supporting the Democratic Party government of the then President, now Prime Minister, Sali Berisha. Some of this anger was turned on me and I found people tugging at my arm and shouting spitting, 'Pinochet, Pinochet' at me! (This was an obvious analogy for 'the left' to use of a 'right' wing, Western backed manipulation of power. Though at the time, in the tension of the moment, when a crowd can seemingly inhabit any behaviour, it was both frightening and surreal)!

In fact the 'West' in the shape of the OSCE (now safely back in Vienna) were denouncing the election in uncharacteristically vibrant terms but no one in the crowd was likely to know this (nor care if they did)!

The government had banned the demonstration and soon the police arrived with batons and dogs and I was caught up in a maelstrom - people running, coagulating into brief groups, then dispersing in all directions as the police waded in brutally.

Suddenly I found myself about to be confronted by a truncheon wielding policeman and in a moment of complete (if on reflection eccentric) lucidity, I drew myself up to my not inconsiderable height and in a very loud voice barked, "You cannot do that to me, I am English"! At which point, startled momentarily, he diverted his attack and I slipped away, shaken but not battered (a fate that sadly befell many that day).

Later, after several pyramid saving schemes collapsed, Mr Berisha was ejected from power amidst much turbulence. I met him in this period in (of all places) the VIP lounge at Rome airport (I cannot recall how I managed to be there). I was on my way to Albania and he was trying, I discovered, to persuade some willing country to transport him to Mother Teresa's funeral in Calcutta! He rather disconcertingly decided to pour upon me his rather embittered recollections of perceived injustice as soon as he gratefully realized that I had recognized him!

Meanwhile, I know exactly where my supposed inspiration in the square had come from. It was a story Brian Mountford, the ever-running vicar of the University Church in Oxford, had told me. One day, walking down the High Street, he found outside his church, a cyclist and a driver involved in an altercation that had descended into a fight. Brian, without thinking, ran up to them, exclaiming, 'You cannot do that I am the Vicar', realizing immediately how apparently ridiculous it sounded! But it worked, startled out of their violence, they stopped, looked sheepish, apologized to each other and to Brian and left!

Sadly you also know that such inspiration works precisely because of its novelty. It is a novelty that cannot simply be repeated with similar effect. A one time only get out clause from a demonstration turning wrong and broken...probably...

Meanwhile, I wonder how the repeating cycle of violence can be broken in Albania where you have two, more or less, evenly sized main political blocks (with significant geographical allegiances) contesting power and dependent on a very fluid (and small) middle ground for leverage one over the other. It is a dynamic that shows no immediate sign of shifting or breaking up onto different grounds.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Moral bankruptcy at the Economist

"A company’s job is to make money for its shareholders legally. Morality is the province of private individuals and of governments."

This is a quotation from an article in this week's Economist about the recent deal between BP and Rosneft. (

It strikes me as an exemplar of moral bankruptcy.

The idea that a company is an entity separable from the individuals in community that compose it is indefensible as if we have dual selves; a private one bound to morality and a public one whose only measure is the present state of what is deemed legal.

The incoherence of this position ought to be recognizable even by the supercharged clever people who write for the Economist but obviously not.

So, for example, let us back track in history and examine an enterprise in Jamaica circa 1740.  It is profitable. The profits are generated legally. This legality is anchored in a broad social consensus and has the full sanction of a legitimate state. It is a sugar plantation and it is worked by slaves.

Is a slave plantation, legally generating profit maximization, a morally acceptable form of organization? According to the Economist, this is apparently a redundant question? Does anyone else imagine that it is? I truly hope not.

The question of slave ownership and organization is neither simply one that can be left to private conscience nor to government legislation: corporate entities are responsible agents (over and above their individual memberships) and should be held accountable not only to what is legal but to what is just.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Three paintings in a gallery

Between meetings yesterday in Manchester,  I dropped into the Manchester Art Gallery.

A collection representative of its solid, commercial nineteenth century roots with a commendable collection of Pre-Raphaelites including versions of both the iconic 'Scapegoat' and 'The Light of the World'.

For me there were three finds. The first was a Gwen John: The Convalescent:

In her trademark still interior a pallid girl reads with an abiding sense of effort underlying her quietness. The colours are drained and muted but the girl is now sitting upright, able to read at least. It was an image painted and re-painted so both had value for John, as image and materially. It has been suggested that it is symbolic of France (as John began to consider this image in the immediate post First World War world when France itself was convalescent).

I love her work for its still, contemplative quality but shot through with a robust, encompassing realism (especially around and in the portraits). John was by no means a simple, retiring figure: an introvert poised in contrast to her wildly extrovert brother, Augustus. She was, after all, both Rodin's model and his mistress (one of them). A situation requiring a certain robustness and common sense in expectation if one was to emerge whole (as she did).

The second was two unusual paintings by William Blake as they were designed to be decorative for his patron's, William Hayley's, library. A relationship that was difficult and lacked any robust navigating realism! One was of Shakespeare and the second (shown here) of Edmund Spenser (one of Blake's own favourite poets):

There is a subtle play on the image of Queen as both Faerie and monarch; and, I simply loved the idea of a library paneled by Blake. Sitting reading with eyes of variegated inspiration looking on with serious demanding glances.

Third was a painting by Winifred Nicholson - a perfect exemplar of flowers resting on window sill:

The delicate colour of the flowers set off by the white wrapping paper still attached to the pot. Flowers as islands of light in a human scale landscape. Nicholson said that flowers always evoked for her a 'key to the cosmos'. They are undoubtedly at one level functional: part of the process of reproduction yet they retain a sense of surplus gift, of simply being themselves in beauty. Nicholson had a deep sense of the graced, gifted nature of life to which the only meaningful response was celebration.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Month in the Country

Not the Turgenev but the novel by J.L. Carr: a mere 81 pages (of close text) and a gem.

Tom Birkin is a restorer of wall paintings and in the summer of 1920 arrives in Oxgodby, a small village in the north of England, to uncover a long hidden painting from the Middle Ages that is revealed as a masterpiece. Birkin is a survivor of the Western Front and carries with him the scars, made visible in a violent nervous tic that ripples across his face and a stammer. He is disappointed in love, a wife who has come and gone, come and gone again. Hard up, he lives in the church's belfry, much to the disapproval of the vicar,  who like Birkin is a southerner and who has not been taken into the hearts of his parishioners, unlike Birkin himself.

The novel traces Birkin's slow restoration to the possibility of life, and a moment in time which seized will be an oasis of fine memory, even if future life disappoints (as the narrative suggests it will). It tells of the relationships he slowly forms: with Moon (another survivor, an archaeologist searching ostensibly for a tomb), the family of the stationmaster and Methodist lay preacher, and the Vicar's beautiful, life enhancing wife, with whom he declines the opportunity of an affair.

All the while the narrative unfolds against the backdrop of the painting's uncovering (a Judgement over the chancel arch) and another kind of oasis, an offering from the past that both compels, and yet will one day slide into a feature, amongst other features, of an out of the way church.

As always when this subject arises, I am reminded of my own grandfathers (whom I never knew) but both of whom served on the Western Front and both of whom suffered from what would now be called post traumatic stress disorder (and was then simply shell shock or, worse, malingering) and which helped shape their lives and those of their children. One often retreated into the need for silence out of work and the other retreated to his allotment where his penchant for growing root vegetables, alienated my father from them for life! I often wondered how you might trace the effects generationally: trace histories of the continuance of the realities of war - the dislocations of the fathers inherited by their children.

It is a beautiful book with a wry humour and a vivid sense of the transience of happiness that you can only ever catch on the wing as it flies (to quote Blake) and though it offers no vision of final redemption, it does offer the minute particulars of goodness.

A Month in the Country was made into a faithful and fine film adaptation with Colin Firth as Birkin and Kenneth Branagh as Moon.

Oh to be an anarchist...

One of the challenges of working in Zimbabwe presently is how to talk about policy change/reform/improvement without talking about party politics and how to position your work so that it is seen (as it is in fact) not to have any bias towards the competing parties.

It is like walking on the proverbial egg shells. So, for example, the 'joint government' has numerous policy documents, like the one on small and medium sized enterprises, that, broadly, both 'sides' of the joint government are agreed on yet the policies remain in limbo, sitting in draft form, unimplemented because implementing them may be 'seen' to give advantage to one side or another. Better to do nothing it seems than give advantage to the other side.

It reminds me of the old Serbian joke about the two one-eyed twins. An angel appears before one of them and grants him a wish. The twin considers all the possibilities of advancement before requesting the angel put out his twin's remaining eye!!! Or the Macedonian joke that tells of a visitor to hell who is shown by the devil two pits. From both of which people are struggling to escape. From the first every time a person reaches the edge of the pit a demon comes to push them back in. From the second though the struggle seems equally fierce, no demons appear necessary. "Why the difference?" asks the visitor. "Oh," replies the devil, "the second pit is for Macedonians. Every time one of them reaches the edge of the pit, another Macedonian pulls them back in. No devils necessary!"

Excepting, of course, that in this instance while the parties to the joint agreement are failing to agree (or admitting to and implementing their agreements), the people suffer.

The mechanisms of this failure are what intrigue me because if this struggle for advantage is essentially corrupt and corrupting and about the control of wealth (for one's own advancement), I want to respond by saying 'look about you'! Who in the world are the wealthiest and tend to die peacefully in their beds having conferred their wealth upon their children (rather than eking out their days around a Saudi swimming pool, in exile and dis-empowered, a fate that appears to await the newly deposed President of Tunisia)?

It is the inhabitants of 'democratic states' which, for their many failings, still seem better able to grow and distribute the cake of wealth for their inhabitants more equitably and with greater longer term stability than any alternative system. At which point, no doubt, someone will throw China at me as a counter-example but it is one that remains unproven, especially in the stability stakes, and I fully expect the over-excited proponents of China's 'rise' to be mainly disillusioned over the next 50 years. And if I am wrong about this, which I hope I am, it is because, like Taiwan, China as a whole, has managed a democratic transition.

I suppose it may just be that the dark arts of authoritarian rule (and accompanying rent seeking) simply are different from the multi-coloured arts of creating wealth in an 'open' (if always manipulated) system. Mr Gates may have his dark side but it is of a wholly different order than (insert your authoritarian ruler of choice)! And whereas you could imagine Mr Gates or Carlos Slim (so as not to appear to be picking on one individual) making a reasonable stab at running a democratic state (though I expect it would be an adjustment as corporations are not democracies), you cannot really imagine, say Mr Castro, as the creator of Microsoft or Telemex (and I have deliberately chosen the most gifted authoritarian I could think of here)! Indeed Mr Medvedev (an authoritarian by proxy perhaps) has 'run' a major corporation as the chairman as Gazprom but since this is a virtual monopoly and probably one of the most inefficient energy companies in the world, this probably clinches my case! Authoritarians are, like the hedgehog, only good at one thing - managing power in a closed system.

Contemplating such things does tend to make an 'anarchist' of me - excepting we would probably be exchanging the tyranny of 'structured entities' like the 'state' and 'the market' for the tyrannies of the group (though these might be more intimate and less damaging overall)!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Peacock Spring

Sandwiched on the plane back from Zimbabwe, I finished Rumer Godden's 'The Peacock Spring'.

It is a beautiful novel with many of her signatures: the complex interactions between cultures: English and Indian: and, critically here Eurasian - that displaced category, existing betwixt worlds, accepted by few. The growth into adolescence and then adulthood and the way we oscillate between worlds: one moment full of adult moment and insight, the next a child again with its own particular way of seeing. The conflict between those ways of seeing - the searing innocence of childhood that imagines that all questions have answers (even if they are withheld by adults) and the more complex ambiguities of adulthood with all its uncertainties and compromises.

The two central characters evoke these differences: Una the fifteen year old daughter of a UN diplomat, posted to Delhi,  serious, full of an honesty that has never been truly tested and her 'governess' soon to be the diplomat's wife, Miss Lamont, an Eurasian woman who has undertaken many compromises to survive (and with whom, initially, we have no sympathy) and with whom Una is immediately in conflict (even as something unsaid leads them to a vexed sympathy).

The book is full of the sounds, smells, sights of India, deftly evoked. The story unfolds of two loves - Edward, the diplomat father, for Miss Lamont, Una's for Ravi the poet who, for reasons of his own, has become a gardener at the diplomat's house. Both are to be disappointed loves - the first, however, at the book's close offers promise of a more realistic future, the latter is shattered by the realities of circumstance: an early disillusionment that offers the choice of new life or a retreat into bitterness (and the book ends with no note of how that unfolds).

Rumer Godden is one of those novelists who it would be easy to imagine 'middle brow' - entertaining, deftly constructed plots unfold with a vivid psychological realism, constructed of admirably simple sentences. But there is always something yet other, often but not always inserted by way of a necessary but minor character.

In the 'Peacock Spring' this is Ravi's grandmother, with whom the fleeing lovers, Ravi and Una, take shelter in Varanasi. She has entered the traditional third stage of a Hindu life, retirement and detachment and in her dialogue with the pursuing and outraged father, Edward, suddenly all that has gone before, and potentially all that will come, is relavatized against a peaceful knowing that frees us to focus on the essential and which offers Edward a new way of seeing his failings to which he may rise in the fullness of time. It is a subtle, wholly understated, statement of the potential of the spiritual to liberate.

Godden was a friend of what I might describe as 'one of my landladies' - though in truth Dinah was a great deal more than that the mother of remarkable friends, and herself a delight. She would call from time to time and I would answer, waiting for Dinah, now ninety, to shuffle to the phone and we would exchange happy pleasantries. I wish I had known her work then!

Through Zimbabwe

Harare is a beautiful city, as attrractive as I remembered it... on the surface - wide streets bordered by trees, flowering bushes lolling over garden walls and open green spaces in the centre, parks tended with care. Yet it hides much. You notice how, for example, many common green spaces, away from the centre are given over to growing the vegetables and fruits of survival. Such 'urban agriculture' (as I learned later has become widespread - and a challenge to policy makers: to be encouraged as an appropriate step towards resilience or to be discouraged (as often practiced) it undermines many other environmental goods.

It was interesting to see the roadside advertising metamorphose from banks and cellphones (as you come away from the airport) to cigarettes as you enter the poorer parts of town: different patterns of aspiration and desire.

Meanwhile, the houses of the middle classes, beleaguered as they have been, fragile as they are, are surrounded by high fences topped by assorted fierce wires. Some of those houses are as if transplated whole from Surrey - complete with mock Tudor black and white design.  The elevation of Harare giving a summer Surrey time temperature all year round.

The first two days I went off into the country, visiting projects, greeted everywhere by singing and dancing women (with one or two more reluctant men). Once again I was reminded how the simplest interventions can help - a fence for a group of women market gardeners, chickens multiplying wealth for a poor woman and (my favourite) our 'four bag cement' latrine!

The government's design requires six (the responsible minister probably owns the cement works) and thus makes it too expensive for most people. In the district we visited our 4 bag design had been widely adopted and the area had been spared the cholera that has afflicted so much of the country
since it began disintegrating in 2003 and remains a serious challenge even as the country slowly recovers.

Recovery is the word people utter with great care (rightly tinged with scepticism). After the power sharing agreement and dollorisation of the economy, things have slowly improved (inflation had reached 1.3 million percent in 2008 and shops had emptied) but the two parties are locked in a perennial struggle to get advantage and the ever-running Mr Mugabe remains President (though his Duracell batteries do show some signs of faltering). Parliamentary elections are scheduled for this year (though may not take place) and people fear the return of intimidation and violence and all that implies for instability. There is a new constitution to struggle over and that offers a referendum carrying a similar threat of violence.

At the end of the first day, we tried to visit Great Zimbabwe, the beautiful stone palace that gives the country its name. But in spite of arriving 20 minutes before closing, the guards were not open to persuasion. So we came back early the next morning, when the king's palace on the hill was wrapped in mist.

The most impressive building is the Queen's enclosure - high circular walls, made of carefully carved stones (3 times the size of bricks) assembled to heights of 12 metres or more without any mortar or cement. They were built between 1200 and 1500.

When they were 'discovered' by missionaries in the early nineteenth century- all kinds of inappropriate, indeed fanciful, theories were advanced to explain them with Prester John much to the fore- anything but they were built by Africans!!!

At the exit was a marvellous sculptor at work carving a tree where it had fallen. It was, he said, to be the Zimbabwean king carrying on his trunk the story of the place so that it might be honoured and peace returned to Zimbabwe. His imaginative explanation of his craft was a wonderful mix of
African tradition and Biblical imagery.

A friend tells me she slept at the ruins in the early 70s, illegally, and they were and remain a magical place.

The landscape about is littered with random rocky hills of extravagant individual shapes, now bare rock, now hidden with clustered, clinging trees, as if a giant randomly cast down stones, arbitrarily but now with accidental beauty.

On the second day we did irrigation (and the crops we saw was testimony to its effectiveness) and met more singing women and slightly embarrassed men. At one site we met two neighbouring chiefs who clearly loathed each other. When one spoke first, the other ensured he spoke longer! They have to work
together - neither their communities nor the government will settle for less but are clearly not enjoying the experience.

The journey back to Harare was lively. It began to rain, the sky thunderous dark lit only by occasional and spectacular strikes of lightening. Harare is a dark city (with very inadequate street lighting) at the best of times, now it was pitch and you navigated with great care avoiding now invisible potholes,  cyclists with lights and pedestrians weaving between indifferent traffic.

The hotel in Harare, like much infrastructure in Zimbabwe, is faded but sound. Investing in renewal (or the new) has been so difficult that make do and mend has become the national preoccupation and it is not until this year that tourists have begun to trickle back as the security situation improves and the political temperature goes off the boil (for the time being). It is most decidedly worth it.

I had nothing but admiration for our staff - they have been through extraordinary times, traumatic times that would make in anybody a preference for a potentially stultifying caution but they are constantly both navigating all the complexities of the politics of the place and pushing at the boundaries of the new, of what can be done. It was a great privilege to work with them on sketching out some of those possibilities with which to press forward.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The last time in Zimbabwe

It was at the beginnings of the country's current troubles. The economy was showing the first signs of unraveling. The political situation was deteriorating into the pattern of confrontation and manipulation with which we are now all too familiar.

But my principal observation was how unaddressed the past was; and, how the confrontation between white and black remained a hidden wound. One that was soon to burst forth in land occupation and the terrorizing and killing of farmers.

I stayed at the Hotel Bronte and vividly recall: Sunday lunch. First in its culinary offering, it was a perfect replica of England in the 1950s (including the Yorkshire pudding as tough chewy object of dubious origin). Second how all the customers were white (and Zimbabwean, except for me) and all the waiters black and how one very robust strand in the overheard conversation was that of complaint about the current state of the country, expressed in terms that took no account of the sensibilities of the waiting staff. It was as if they were not there.

I remember going to the highest point in Harare where there is a park and a colonial monument and it was untouched by any transformation (or contextualization) after independence. It stood there celebrating conquest in a 'timeless' Salisbury.

But the most disturbing moment was going, on my last evening, with a colleague to a restaurant. My colleague was black (and thoroughly middle class and professionally successful) and the owner white. The restaurant was spacious and had room (though it was a Friday night) and there was no conceivable problem in our not having booked. However, we went through the most elaborate (and to me disconcerting) pattern of apology (for no possible reason) and to the embarrassment of the owner. It felt so improbable that at home I asked a mutual colleague and he confirmed undergoing a similar ritual of apparent obeisance.

Finally I recall visiting one of the new shopping centres on the edge of town with another colleague (Ethiopian) and his wife (Finnish) and realizing that we were the only mixed race group I saw that afternoon: separate worlds, moving in parallel. I remember Makonen, my well-travelled, exiled Ethiopian colleague, describing it as by far the weirdest and most disturbing country he had lived in.

What will I see this time?

The countryside as opposed to the city (unlike last time when my visit was confined to Harare). A country whose problems have multiplied. A country through the lens of both friends and colleagues.

One great pleasure last time was my fellow evaluator, a wonderful Zimbabwean woman, whose sloth of movement and speech belied a wonderful quick mind, and humour. I remember her coming into the office after an interview, sitting slowly down, and saying, "Nicholas....Nicholas... this so busy...busy..busy...(long pause)......But what do they do?" It could have been the whole of our report!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Subsiding buildings and buckled pipelines

I was tidying my computer and found this piece I wrote for someone, published somewhere...and quite like it so thought I would post it here!

"Subsiding apartment buildings and buckled pipelines; rampant encephalitis bearing tics; and, Central Asian migrants making their way in ever greater numbers to the heartlands are just some of the social and economic impacts of climate change emerging in Russia as the average mean temperature steadily rises; and, rises at a quicker rate than elsewhere, reflecting its more northerly latitude.

The most visible impacts – damaged infrastructure – are already a reality. In June 2002 a block of flats was ruined owing to the permafrost melting beneath it. In the summer of 2006, a car park in Yakutsk similarly disappeared, swallowing several cars in a giant crater.

But there are more insidious threats: in Tuva cases of encephalitis, a debilitating disease, sometimes fatal, is on the rise as the tics that carry it survive the steadily warming winters.

Meanwhile, as the poorer countries of Central Asia such as Tajikistan dry out with retreating glaciers affecting irrigation and sharper but less frequent rains damaging crops, people in ever greater numbers will be tempted to migrate to Russia in search of work. A process with which many ethnic Russians are deeply uncomfortable (said with typical English understatement): immigration stimulating the potential for social conflict.

These cumulative effects have the capacity both to lower economic potential and disturb social peace. They require co-ordinated, long term policy responses from a government not especially versed in the art of thinking into the long term; and, with a dual-headed administration only one of which (Medvedev) treats climate change with the seriousness it deserves.

But change is slowly underway with an emphasis on energy efficiency (reflected in new legislation) to cut emissions and the incorporation of adapting to climate change within policies emerging from the new governmental mantra of ‘modernisation’.

Russia has come up with realistic and robust targets for emission reduction based on what they think they can achieve rather than wishful thinking (or international grandstanding). They have taken a low key approach to the post-Kyoto negotiations but have never been obstructive (nor highly constructive). They are proud of meeting (their admittedly unchallenging) Kyoto targets.

The next phase will possibly depend on how far ordinary Russians (to whom the government does listen, sometimes and more than people, especially ordinary Russians, think) take climate change seriously; and, to this end, Oxfam GB has been working with a range of civil society organisations, particularly those working with young people, to raise the profile of the challenge Russia faces; and, why global warming in a cold climate is not necessarily a ‘good thing’!

The full report (of which I was the co-editor) on which this was based is ‘Russia and Neighbouring Countries: Environmental, Economic and Social Impacts of Climate Change’ published by WWF Russia and available in Russian and English from"

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Fiddler of Dooney by W.B. Yeats

The Fiddler of Dooney

"WHEN I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.

When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea."

This is a beautifully, and deceptively, simple poem.

But as any good Platonist would know (and Yeats was most surely that) ‘dancing like the wave of the sea’ is precisely an image of matter informed spirit: a harmonious alignment of worlds, a fullness of truth’s embodiment. And too that the good is analogous with joy (unless temporarily hidden by the incursions of evil) and joy springs out of and into that happy alignment of informed spirit that is the dance.

And that this ‘older’ tradition carries a priority over the learning of the priest – that the folk carry it in song and that Ireland carried it in anticipation of Christ’s coming – is a theme of Yeats (and of the Celtic revival generally).

A simple lyric carries great freight with a lightness of touch that is the indicator of a traditional imagination.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Where on Earth is Heaven?

A child's question to his father becomes the title of this engaging memoir of exploratory questioning, illuminating quotation and arresting story-telling.

Jonathan Stedall is a gifted documentary film maker whose subject matter has ranged from biographical studies of Gandhi and Tolstoy, imaginative explorations of place, especially with the late poet laureate, John Betjeman; and, award-winning depictions of the lives of communities - schools, the Camphill communities for people with disabilities.

For me the high point of his career was 'The Long Search': a thirteen part documentary series (if one can remember those) with the theatre director, Ronald Eyre, exploring 'comparative religion' and the modes of human spirituality with wit, intelligence, a continuously open, questing mind and, often, deeply arresting images. My favourite of which was a Buddhist monk's feet walking with extraordinary poise, grace and mindfulness across a beach.

But the book is more than a remembrance of films past, it is a inward, spiritual autobiography (that reminds me of Jung's 'Memories, Dreams, Reflections') an account of those people, ideas and encounters that have acted as 'awakeners' helping shape his understanding of the world as a meaningful whole. Foremost among the people/ideas have been those of the esoteric yet practical philosopher, Rudolf Steiner, and yet though the indebtedness is clear, nothing (as Steiner would have wanted) is taken on trust (or that strange 'admiration' attendant on the charismatic) but sifted through the lenses of both experience and reason.

I owe to Jonathan my introduction to Laurens van der Post (with whom he also made several memorable films - on Jung and on the Kalahari) who became the subject of my one and only published interview. It was almost a disaster since I became so absorbed in what Sir Laurens was saying that I forgot to turn my tape over, so was left reconstructing from memory (or inventing though out of a deep engagement with that mercurial man's works).

What remains with me foremost from the book is Jonathan's insistence that the heaven of the title is a 'state' present everywhere, every when, that we, with cleansed perceptions. look at the world, and act in it, with compassion. Simple to say, more complex to practice.

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...