Showing posts from March, 2011

The sins of the fathers are revenged by their children

That staple of teenage English literature classes, William Golding's 'The Lord of the Flies' has taught us that children are not innocent (though Richard Hughes' 'A High Wind in Jamaica' already traveled this ground with greater subtlety), this reality is given new depth in Michael Haneke's film, 'The White Ribbon'.

It is set in a claustrophobic north German village in the year before the First World War. The village is plagued with a series of incidents that strike the note of revenge and whose perpetrators remain hidden until suddenly it appears to the schoolmaster, at least, that the fault lies with a group of children, taking vengeance for actual and presumed hurts - from the realities of abuse to the sibling rivalry of the appearance of another child.

The vengeance of children, it is suggested, emerges out of slights both real and imagined. It is this latter point that is parable for what will unfold in Germany after the actual defeat of war -…

City of Lingering Splendour

The city is Peking as described by the Buddhist/Taoist scholar, John Blofeld, recalling a younger self who, in his early twenties, lived in Peking in the 1930s, teaching English,  and savouring its delights - from flower girls to Taoist hermits.

It is, as its sub-title advertises, a frank account embracing his first love affair with a flower girl (a sophisticated prostitute endowed with an education of traditional charms), his disapproving flirtation with opium and an idling life enjoying the many aesthetic pleasures of a city, poised on the edge of transformation, first a brutal Japanese occupation followed, after a corrupt Nationalist interlude, by the purging 'mercies' of Communist rule.

But a city where past traditions continued to hold sway, where the lingering scent of empire clung to the landscape.

Blofeld was incurably a romantic, drawn in his own belief by past lives, to a place he felt utterly at home and duly celebrates. It is a beautiful book where in the company …

The burden of vision

Films on the lives of artists are, I think, exceptionally difficult to realize.  The actual work of painting is crafty, particular, and slow: and, thus, wholly lacking in cinematographic energy (or guise). You may have to be content with the artist's life (that may or may not 'illustrate' the sources and performance of his or her art) and this inclines you to artist's whose lives are known, colourful and dramatic! A touch of, or even more so a disintegration into, insanity helps, as with Van Gogh, as here.

Seraphine De Senlis, as she is now known, was a maid, scratching a living around town in a variety of menial jobs from which she derived no recognition, but she had a gift: she was an artist. Whilst working at a local convent, her guardian angel had commanded her to paint, and paint she did, under the watchful eye of the Virgin Mary, paintings of gathering beauty came from her,  virtually unknown to all and recognized by none, until, whilst attending to one of her h…

Ozymandias in Dubai

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

This famous poem of Shelley's tends to leap unbidden to my mind whenever I visit either Doha or Dubai. They do strike you as exercises in environmental hubris (and a complex set of vanity competitions between disparate developers without any sense of place - either possibilities or limits)!

J. R. McNeill in his environmental histo…

A Passage on Forster

Sitting on the plane to Dubai, I found myself sitting between a man to my left listening to excerpts from the Koran and to the right, across the aisle, a woman reading the Book of Revelation from a well-thumbed Bible.

I felt deeply secular. I was reading Moffat's new biography of E. M. Forster at the point at which he was cruising a beach in Egypt hoping to belatedly loose his virginity. If serendipitous symbolism can be ironic, it was an irony that Forster would have appreciated!

Forster could be seen as a 'secular saint'. Christopher Isherwood described him as the sanest man he had ever met. Like all those marked as saints, he was a flawed human being yet one with qualities that were extraordinarily admirable, and thought provoking.

Critical to this was the importance he placed on friendship, as ideal and practice, and one that radically transgressed social convention, not only, most importantly of sexuality, but also of social class. He was not without the burdening of…

Huxley's Island

I found myself thinking today of Huxley's utopia, 'Island' his last novel, his last book. It was consciously written as a counterpoint to his dystopia, 'Brave New World'.

It is the account a cynical English journalist's re-education on the island of Pala where a civilization has grown up out of the joint strands of a sceptical nineteenth century Scottish doctor and the indigenous Mahayana Buddhist culture.

This blending has given rise to the discerning use of science and technology - especially to promote and secure health - and a religious tradition grounded in pursuit of the 'Final End': a unity of consciousness and being with the immanent logos and the transcendent Godhead that is essentially practiced rather than believed.

It is a vision of the world that is highly prescient - both in recognizing the likely contemporary challenges of ecology and pressing population and the opportunities of applying our 'scientific understanding' to a new hu…

Christopher and His Kind

I watched the BBC adaptation of Isherwood's memoir of Berlin in the 1930s.

It is a beautiful production, with all the appropriate values, but I am unsure that it captures Isherwood's depth. He, like many Englishman, was at pains to disguise this and his oft quoted image of being a camera 'simply' recording what was seen helps this image as does the crafted simplicity of his prose.

But if a man is measured by his friends a different image emerges: two stand out in my imagination - E.M. Forster who entrusted to Isherwood the long cherished privacy of Maurice, his novel of homosexual affirmation; and, Aldous Huxley who catalyzed Isherwood's long, paradoxical exploration of Vedanta. Both were men of deep seriousness (though accompanied by a gratifying humour) and recognized in Isherwood one of their own (even as, I suspect, a certain irony about this always clung about him).

What the film did capture, hauntingly, was how does a man committed to the centrality of indiv…


Daniel H. Pink's bestseller on motivation and its sources is energetically written: a cross between an evangelical tract and a popular science book!

I am converted!

It recognizes that external incentives to motivation (rewards or punishments) only work when the task is routine, susceptible to regularization with distinct, structured outcomes. After or beyond which it fails!

Yet much of our practice at home, at work or in the community is designed on the basis of it.

But we are curious beings, motivated by intrinsic rewards that enable us to practice autonomy and mastery, framed by purpose.

Given this our educational, working and societal structures need an overhaul. A redesign so that our organizational and cultural arrangements nurture rather than frustrate.

There are wonderful examples from the fact that blood donations fall in Sweden when monetary rewards are offered (people are more deeply rewarded by the felt altruism of giving) to companies that have dispersed their 'ca…

Painter of Paradise

Cecil Collins was once giving a talk critical of the state of the arts in England. He was asked by a member of the audience that if he were so critical of the art scene in England with whom was he comparing this country. Collins replied unhesitatingly, "Paradise"!

Cecil was an exceptionally gifted if idiosyncratic teacher and one of the finest artists in England in the twentieth century. Both are gifts - one in liberating the gifts of many: to be specifically artists but for many others to explore other creative opportunities. The second is to create an imaginative world that speaks to our condition - most especially a reminder, to evoke Durkheim again, of the celestial pole of our reality: a painter of paradise.

Like many artists who came to maturity in the 1930s, Collins passed through surrealism and from creating a fantasized world to the revelation of an imagined one. It was consciously 'universal'. He wanted to find a language that spoke of spirit but which did…

Rouault's mirroring of humanity

I remember visiting a small exhibition of Rouault's works at the Royal Academy in London.

One of which was a life size picture of a man stripped, bare, standing looking out. The painting was hung at human height, giving the impression of a mirror. You stood before it and was looked at by yourself. For the self in the painting was the man Jesus, utterly alone, abandoned by his friends, judged, awaiting death - behold the man, every man. I stood awhile, watching people, coming in front of the painting, and everyone, who let it bear scrutiny, was changed. The change was completely noticeable in the way they carried themselves, in the way they looked from then on. The shifts in body and timing were subtle but real.

In this painting Rouault had captured both the complete humanity of the self - the capacity of its exile and in having that exile shared by this particular man: a path restored home.

I was reminded here of Durckheim. One of his recurring themes was the 'acc…

Genre wars

Having watched the offending programme, the BBC's  'The Books We Really Read', I can imagine the author's ire at the absence of any mention of science fiction or fantasy or horror both given their popularity and the distinguished authors and works that have emerged from this space (and the irritating nature of the presenter who dripped condescension).

But you do regret that the criticism of absence cannot be offered without the denigration of the present. Science fiction is not popular because literary fiction is elitist (or hard reading or pretentious): chose your accusation! It is popular on its own merits and values (many of which it shares with other genres simply as good literature).

I noticed this as I was completing Ursula Le Guin's 'The Other Wind', a novel in her Earthsea series, most definitely fantasy genre - dragons, sorcerers, spells and princesses - an…

The Double Origin of Humanity

'Becoming Real: Essays on the Teachings of a Master' is a fascinating collection of essays by students of Karl Graf Durckheim, the German spiritual teacher and trans-personal psychologist.

One curiosity is that even in the biographical sketch (by Gerhard Wehr, his biographer) you do not receive what I would describe as an adequate picturing of the man. You have certain events (primarily internal) and thoughts but never a three dimensional felt image of what it was like to encounter him. This is true in all but one of the subsequent essays: they are peculiarly impersonal.

One dimension of his biography is glossed sadly namely his service to Germany after the rise to Hitler. He does appear to have lost his teaching position as a consequence of a presumed Jewish 'infusion' into his aristocratic German past. However, he served Ribbentrop's Foreign Ministry in Japan in the service of German cultural and educational promotion (and admitted to strong nationalistic feelin…

A planning session that worked!

A very interesting planning session might be an oxymoron and yet this week I attended one.

The Andrews Charitable Trust ( has twice had me as its director and twice as a trustee. In fact, I had to smile when the chairman included me in his introduction as a 'trustee board of new blood'!

The trust was a practitioner of 'venture philanthropy' before the term was invented: how to enable, through engaged giving that is more than money, an opportunity for creative social entrepreneurs to establish an organization to address either a new human need (we developed one of the first set of AIDS education responses, both in the UK and Africa) or address an established need in new ways ( in mental health and development was an example of this).

It demonstrates that with relatively small amounts of money (no investment has been over £1 million stretched across up to 7 years), you can lever significant, global change. This is partl…

Black Robe

There is a wonderful moment in 'Black Robe' - the film of Brian Moore's novel - when the priest (played by the exceptional Lothaire Bluteau) criticizes his native traveling companions because they do not question their way of life. The implication being because it is inferior to the priest's.

The point at issue is that they have asked for some of the tobacco the priest is carrying upriver (as trading goods) to be shared as a reward for the care they have shown him (and as an expression of natural generosity). All that they have is each others, all they do not, they suffer in absence together.

It is the turning point of the film - the priest's willful ignorance of those in whose hands he lives that is to be exposed as he travels up river, slowly peeling away his complacent doctrine and starkly ushering him into a shared humanity, a faith that is a humble expression of love.

This is all set in the early seventeenth century and the Jesuit missions to the native commun…

Butcher's Broom

It is the imagination of an historical injustice beautifully realized yet what most lingers in the mind is how contemporary the story is.

Neil Gunn's novel tells of a single community in a glen in Scotland whose live is shattered (at the opening the nineteenth century) by the clearances.  Clearances designed to replace the life of crofters, governed by subsistence yet workable, with the life of sheep, managed by few but accruing significant profits to landlords.

In the pursuit of this profit, the landlords use the law to betray centuries of accumulated tradition, breaking ties to 'their people', driving them to the margins (the sea in this case) or abroad. This will make the land open for 'improvement' and 'progress' (until in this case the 'opening' of the new worlds of American and Australasia made these sheep marginal). Efficiency tends to be a remorseless, unforgiving god.

The current inhabitants are slothful and ignorant. They have not signed u…

Spem in alium

I have never put my hope in any other but in You,O God of Israelwho can show both angerand graciousness,and who absolves all the sins of suffering manLord God,Creator of Heaven and Earthbe mindful of our lowliness Spem in alium Listening to this 40 voiced, 8 part motet this afternoon, with the sun briefly apparent, flooding the room, suspended in peace. It is one of my favourite pieces: voices melting one into the other, soaring upwards in supplication. This afternoon I found myself pondering the words (adapted from the Book of Judith). I was reading 'Butcher's Broom', Neil M Gunn's novel of the Highland clearances. The first part describes a Highland community poised on the unknowing brink of disaster. It is a community that combines old traditional ways and the accepted imposition of a hard Calvinism. Here God is a supplicant of last resort and the imposition of a morality that cuts across more natural patterns of shared life: a God of anger or remote, capricious en…

Creativity and Taoism

In my middle years I love the Tao
and by Deep South Mountain I make my home.
When happy I go alone into the mountains.
Only I understand this joy.
I walk until the water ends, and sit
waiting for the hour when clouds rise.
If I happen to meet an old woodcutter,
I chat with him, laughing and lost to time.

Wang Wei: My Cottage at Deep South Mountain.

The joy of Chinese poetry of this pure kind is that it has a self-sustaining reality. It is the image of a reality whose rhythm imparts to the reader neither a description of things nor a complex symbolism but a state of being, infusing that being to its reader. You enter a new space where subject and object interpenetrate and you sit in the 'suchness' of things as they are.

Accounting for why this is so is at the heart of Chuang-yuan Chang's "Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art and Poetry" recently re-published by 'Singing Dragon' ( It i…

Joining in the dance?

Recycling material but a review I wrote of  'Dancing in the Streets: A Collective History of Joy' by Barbara Ehrenreich that I have been re-reading. It is an excellent book!

You are attending a Society of Friend's meeting. Gathered in a calm silence punctuated by occasional quietly spoken testimony, one of the attendees begins to tap out a rhythm with their feet, they begin to sway, stand up, dance on the spot, speaking in words ecstatic, occasionally intelligible but mainly sounds of intense feeling. How does the meeting respond? Does it allow itself to synchronise its rhythms with the enthusiast and join in the dance? Does it shuffle uncomfortably in its seats, stretching natural tolerance to breaking point? Or does the clerk of meeting, gently lead the enthusiast out to a quiet corner and a cup of tea, fearing in them some mental imbalance? I suspect it might be the latter and yet, as their nickname of 'Quakers' demonstrate, the origins of the Society of Friends …

John Galliano

John Galliano is a highly gifted and deeply eccentric designer.

He appears to have a drink problem.

He also appears to express anti-Semitic opinions.

He appears to have a tendency to become abusive in ways that fueled by the former unleash the later. He does not appear to become actually violent (though in these contexts that always remains a verging possibility).

Does any of this matter?

To which my answer must be: not really.

The opinions expressed are unutterably vile (if our accounts of them are not distorted) but many of us when fueled by drink exhibit their shadow side to unforgiving display (and to their shame) but even if these are not alcohol related exhibitionism and go deeper (a fabricated belief system on which he acts), he is, in the last analysis, a person who designs clothes, clothes that do not yield to analysis as covert messengers of hate, but are clothes, well-designed and well-made.

However, it appears that our strange cult of celebrity would attach a grandiose im…