Sunday, July 31, 2011

Convidando esta la noche

This is not the most visually appealing video designed to accompany this delightful composition from Baroque Latin America. However, it is one of the most appealing recordings I have heard. A blending of the contemplation of the mystery that is Christ's birth and a celebration of the night of His coming.

The paradox is that the need of that coming is seen in the realities of the Spanish conquest of the Americas; partly conducted in order to bring the message of that coming to those who had 'not heard'!!!

Such are the complex stories out of which beauty can be born - here indigenous instruments blend with new arrivals to tell an old story whose repeated telling has not guaranteed it ever being fully heard.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ursula Le Guin

Since I have not found a 'Book-buyers anonymous club', today's delivery from Amazon was a volume in PM's 'Outspoken Authors' series. It is Ursula Le Guin's  'The Wild Girls Plus...' an extended short story (revised), poems, two essays and an interview. Though one of the essays attacks the influence of the corporation on the publishing world (that includes Amazon)...ho hum...

Le Guin has resolutely refused to be unclassified as a writer of science fiction and fantasy which means that she sits in an exceptionally popular but sidelined place. She does not write 'proper literature'. This displacement must be one of the more absurd features of our culture of classification.

She is with out doubt one of the finest writers alive. Her fiction is beautifully written, deeply intelligent and explores both psychological depth and social possibility.

I expect even worse for her 'literary reputation' she writes not only for adults but for teenagers and children. She has imagined a far more interesting wizard than Harry Potter, in Sparrowhawk for her Earthsea books (but has been ill-served by her translators into film, though this has attendant difficulties created by the fiction, given that a significant dimension of these stories are psychological and internal).

But it is her 'adult' science fiction that she excels in creating worlds that imaginatively test our own.

First because she explores alternative social structures - she is by conviction a skeptical but hopeful anarchist - that challenge our racism (Sparrowhawk is red skinned), our gender stereotyping, our fundamentalism, our misplaced evaluation of power.

Second because she imagines societies that are a response to our collapse. She recognizes that our current ordering of things, grounded in perpetual growth, is unsustainable and is rightly questioning of our ability to change voluntary, without the corrective of necessary limits imposing themselves. She seeks to imagine orderings of society that are positive responses to that collapse, that see our potential lying in lives that are environmentally balanced, that eschew greed for proportion, and simplicity. This is reflected in her deep respect for Taoism (in both its naturalistic mysticism and in its potential social forms).

Third, because she explores alternate societies with a deep respect for the interior psychological spaces of her characters. They are never sacrificed to ideology. Her fiction is imaginary before it is of ideas - which means that as created spaces their impact is so much deeper.

She ought to be a Nobel candidate but alas that is seemingly preserved for 'real' fiction. There is no justice...but the valuation of the imagination will see her estate continually rise.

Friday, July 29, 2011


I was listening to this recording of Monteverdi coming home from the office today.

It is magnificent.

I found myself wondering why increasingly I find myself only listening to music composed before the end of the eighteenth century.

I have only a partial response.

First, I think is the balance between sacred and everyday (secular would be the wrong word). They interpenetrate in a way that allows both to be respected. Like carnival, it creates spaces where the known sacred can be held in suspension and the joy of everyday celebration can unfold.

Second, paradoxically, because the holy, both the hallowing of the everyday and the invitation to transcendence, is the ultimate reference point. Everything in the music is a signal of that transcendence.

Third, because though it is holy, it is sublimated passion. A desire that is earth informed by heaven.

Fourth because it has stillness at the heart. It takes emotional turbulence and gives it direction and hope.

I love it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tao Te Ching x 3

After the Bible, it is the most frequently translated text (though I expect the Bible wins hands down for multiplicity of languages) and I have three copies by my bedside.

I find I read a chapter a night, the same chapter in all three. I have two translations and a version. The translations are by Red Pine (that feels 'alien' confronting you with the idiomatic Chinese, complete with excerpts from traditional commentaries) and that of Gia-Fu Fend and Jane English (which is pithy, concise, and spiritual in a way that bends to a Western ear). The version is by Ursula Le Guin (as she knows no Chinese) using a prior translation/transliteration to evoke a text that helps fashion her own world view (and seeps into her fiction) and yet strikes you as the deeply authentic hearing of a text pondered long.

It is a delight to drift to sleep with resonances of this sage permeating one's last lingering thoughts.

Two strands recur to mind.

The first is the groundlessness at the heart of things. We live in a way that is verb: a becoming that arises, patterned, unfolding. That at the heart of life is a navigation, a continuous adjustment to truth's prescensing, born out of an awareness that is still, mindful.

The second is that we betray this unfolding by always attempting to fix 'truth'. Our labeling of reality, creating it as a noun, betraying the verb, is the sourcing of our ignorance.

The text continually invites you to step out of certainty and enterprise after a way of becoming, and because we become together, a shared way-ing, when we flow in this way, virtue arises.

The texts amplify and reflect on each other - each one adding a perspective. It is an exercise in meditative reading, and glimpsed liberation.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Pope in a rage

A friend told me last week that a friend of hers had been on holiday with a close friend of the Pope. At the end of this long holiday, having built a rapport with the Pope's friend, she suggested that perhaps he might like to broach the question of birth control with the Pontiff. The Pope's friend sadly replied that this was impossible: only to raise the subject in the Pope's presence was to send him into apoplectic rage!

I could imagine the Pope in varied states of emotion but apoplectic rage (as it happens) was not one of them (though it must be galling when the vast majority of your flock ignore you on what you see as a key aspect of morality while the majority of your flock tend to see it as a sensible, functional part of managing their family)!

Today, I heard that the Vatican had withdrawn their envoy from Ireland following the debate in the Dublin parliament last week on yet another damning report into the Church's mishandling of child abuse at the hands of its priests. The Irish Prime Minister's remarks (from a practicing Catholic) , though severe, seemed measured to me. Meanwhile, the Irish President, an exceptionally thoughtful and practicing Catholic, weighed in with robust yet thoughtful criticism of the Church and the continuing need for it to overhaul both its understanding and policies with regard to abuse. 

Frankly if the people of Ireland burnt paper Cardinals in the street and danced on the ashes it would be an appropriate response to legitimate anger that the Church should sensibly keep silent about!

But the measured remarks of politicians have the Papal envoy withdrawn in what can only be interpreted as protest.

Now on birth control (unlike child abuse), it seems perfectly possible to have a moral spectrum. It is not the Pope's opposition that strikes me as misplaced (though I personally think it wrong) but his apparent refusal to actually engage in a subject in a manner that conveys that your are at least listening to alternative perspectives.

This failure to truly listen and respond appropriately is evident in the Church's ongoing failure to get a grip on its abuse scandal (only this week it was reported that the Diocese of Portsmouth were arguing in court that priests were not the bishop's 'employees' so the diocese could not be responsible for their actions).

You wonder if it were the same in the 1520s: Vatican officials dismissing complaints about indulgences emanating out of Germany. It will blow over they thought to themselves if they ignore it long enough! Alas I think it is one of those issues that we will look back on and be foundational in restructuring how we see the Church - a seeing not to its benefit and it still shows no coordinated signs of fully responding to this, its systemic failure.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Touching the depths, illuminating the surfaces

Every death is significant: a particular life, actually loved and known, slips beyond the threshold. But this weekend appears, paradoxically, pregnant with death.

In Norway, an apparently lone ideologue (though egged on by a supportive atmosphere) wreaks blistering sadness onto the random passers by of government buildings and at the youth camp of the ruling party (one presumed wholly inoffensive until now).

A young famous and  troubled singer dies at twenty seven, losing out to a thread of addictions that undermined her, as they simultaneously appeared to sustain her. The strange exchange of creativity with peril.

And Lucien Freud an artist hailed as one of the most significant painters of the second half of the past century.

A friend, posting to facebook, puzzled over his own perception of an exceptionally gifted artist of the surface of things being hailed as an artist of deep psychological penetration. I suggested he hold his original perception. There is no doubt that our age assumes you can see with realism, that seeing must be best without sentiment, that only the objective, penetrating gaze will do. This is the illusion of our age.

In truth, you see truly only with love.

I am struck by the difference between Stanley Spencer's haunting nudes of himself and Patricia Preece - freed into their utter honesty by a seeing love - and Freud's that are earnest, intense, brilliantly executed and hauntingly superficial.

Meanwhile, it was another artist that occupied my weekend: Sir William Nicholson. He will, I expect, slowly come to occupy a place as one of England's finest artists of the first half of the last century,  a place shared with Spencer - artists in a radically different mode yet sharing a loved vision of things, resting in joy.

I stayed with a friend on Friday who regularly visits his daughter whose ninetieth birthday it was that day. In mentioning her visit, I was reminded of the art: beautiful in its accomplished stillness, allowing things to stand forth in their innate poetry, as actually loved and thus known. Nicholson knew that you can paint surfaces only if you see through the object with love, that the surfaces can only live if you caress the depths.

It is the lesson that violence never learns.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Film and text

Immersed in the second volume of the Raj Quartet, coming towards its conclusion, and thinking of the relationship between the text and the television series.

Your mind moves between your own self-created imagination of how the unfolding narrative appears and the imagination of the series. The adaptation was very faithful, and yet it is a different media and an interpretation (as, of course, is one's own).

The most obvious things that do not appear 'on the screen' are the interior aspects that it is always so difficult to incorporate, to make bodily. Thus both the religious context and the dreams that haunt particular characters are subdued and a whole dimension is diminished. Indeed re-reading I was struck by how important both are to the unfolding narrative.

The religious dimensions are manifold. There are the commitments of central characters, most especially Miss Crane and Miss Bachelor as members of Christian missions and their disbelief both about the effectiveness of their mission, and of the beliefs that underlie it and their fragility. There are the communal commitments that will play a developing part in the narrative as India suffers partition. There is the strand of unwinding belief - of beliefs that no longer carry the force they once did, of others that carry the weight of gathering politics.

The dreams are haunting, complex and drive the symbolism that underpins aspects of the novel. One key theme is 'play'. The way that, as in dream, we inhabit parts that are both meaningful and yet detached from our daylight selves. These selves might, of course, be less vivid than our dreams and on waking we might momentarily wonder which is the most real.

A wondering that for some characters continues into life. There is a compelling conversation between Susan and Sarah Layton that follows the death of Susan's husband at the front (repulsing the Japanese invasion). Susan is confessing that she has never felt a part of the world, that all that she has been is a 'play'. Her last attempt at belonging was marrying the now dead Teddy. With he gone, she is nothing. It is a powerful account of how people's selves can be wholly created by serving the expectation of others. Our 'selves' can be confiscated by the gaze of others (as the French psychologist, Henri Wallon, would describe it).

But there are simpler interfaces between series and text.

One of the central characters is Barbie Bachelor, played by Peggy Ashcroft, superbly if you only see the film, but in the book Barbie is a more superficial and vulnerable. Strangely an exemplary, known actor is always playing fragility in the film, brilliantly, but playing not being. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Being mentally ill

I found myself thinking about being interviewed today, and how rare it has been, and why.

Being asked why a three year degree programme lasted four years became the defining question of my first interviews as a recent graduate. It was a question that became a deal breaker. When you explained the reason, with a naive innocence that I quickly came to regret and retreat from, you watched people's openness fold up and disappear. I had to explain that I had a 'mental breakdown' (though it was more complex than that) and that life had shuddered to a depressed halt, now though happily resolved in so far as these can be. I was now a fully functioning person.

This did not matter. History mattered: the label of unreliability had fallen on you. You were out of consideration. the body language was eloquent on this point.

One of these employers was the then named 'Spastics Society' and here was an organization working in disability that could not consider absorbing a recently disabled person. They were not prepared to give to space to them. I still carry the image of the interviewer's facial expression in my head.

As a result, I had to create my own role, and my own unique strategy to find it. It was almost twenty years before I had my next formal interview by which time whether three or four years was an irrelevance. I did have one 'interview' I recall that made me the director of a venture philanthropy fund but that consisted of sitting in the chairman's garden discussing Wittgenstein and how language related to the world: a very lateral kind of interview from a highly gifted and generous man.

This experience of marginalization I suppose is, in part, why I do what I do. It was decidedly a reality underlying the foundation of Basic Needs ( I recall telling the exploratory group of trustees this story when we were in India together (a fact that demonstrates my trust in them) and telling one of the people I met in Bangalore who happily me told me, 'I am mad you know' that I had been too. He went on to tell me very precisely what kind of work he thought he could do (and not do) to help his rehabilitation. The juxtaposition of madness and irrationality is only partially true (and creates a wholly unhelpful set of stereotypes).

It does remain one of the guiding experiences of my life (and not only because of the insight it gave me into mental illness) both because of the illness and the subsequent rejection - that granted empathy to anyone suffering mental illness and fashioned life choices that reverberate to this day.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Day of the Scorpion

According to his biographer, Paul Scott decided not to be homosexual. The risks in 1940s England were too great. With a significant act of sustained will, it was submerged, repressed. He married, had children and took to drink. He was borderline abusive as a result.

This tragic personal circumstance was transformed into art. In his masterpiece, the Raj Quartet, one of his central characters: Ronald Merrick is a repressed homosexual and manipulatively abusive. He is one of the great depictions of sustained 'evil' in literature and great precisely because Scott shows, from many perspectives, how he was formed with a sympathy and engagement that betokens a certain knowingness on his part.

I am happily making my way through the Quartet, now on the second volume, 'The Day of the Scorpion". This is my second reading, companioned by being a devotee of the Granada television series of the 80s that is a miracle of both compression and faithfulness.

The books are a thoughtful combination of the prosaic narrative and the experiment with form - narrators shift, journals and letters are included, different voices offer themselves - yet the language always remains utterly accessible, and rarely becomes lyrical.

I am struck that two of the most compelling novels of Britain's engagement with India (of the twentieth century) were both written by men, Scott and Forster, whose 'identity' remained hidden, and persecuted, and both chose 'rapes': actual and problematic to symbolize the relationship. There was an immediate sympathy with oppression on both authors part for which 'rape' is a meaningful sign. However, both complicate the rape with an another set of relations that evoke a different, more positive ordering of the relationship.

Daphne Manners in The Jewel in the Crown is in love with Hari Kumar. Their love is despoiled by Daphne's subsequent rape that Hari is powerless to prevent. Their child offers possibilities for the future but not one unclouded by doubt of her origin.

India and her past colonial masters are held in a complex relationship of love and hate.

It is this relationship that Scott tries, with consummate skill, to evoke and in the process illuminates history and its potential lessons through characters marvelously composed.

My favourite remains Count Vronsky, the premier of Mirat a small princely state. He is a force for good, reforming the state at a wise pace, and an acute observer of relationships both personal and political. He is, I think, a positive pole to Merrick. He is contentedly gay, and allowed to be so by his position - a Scott wish fulfillment perhaps...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Buddhist Christianity

Ross Thompson's 'Buddhist Christianity: A Passionate Openness' is a truly wonderful book. This is both an objective and a subjective view.

Subjectively because his opening autobiographical chapter is so resonant with my own. His encounter with Buddhism led to a conversion to Christianity but it was a conversion that did not supplant the 'errors' of Buddhism with the 'truths' of Christianity but which impacted and shaped the patterning of the Christianity he adopted.

This was true of me. I remember buying (from the remainder bin at W.H. Smith) a selection of "The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha' when I was fourteen and reading the first sermon in the Deer Park when the Buddha announces enlightenment and the path to enlightenment. I cannot recall how many times that I read it - then or subsequently - but it struck me, and continues to strike me, as one of the most sense making texts ever compiled: a speech that truly gives life. It captures what Thompson describes as both the 'hole' (a pessimist's view) and the 'doughnut' (the optimist's view) - a realistic assessment of the challenging nature of life as permeated by suffering as a result un-slaked desire and the offer, rooted in the Buddha's own experience, of a path of liberation.

If it had been possible, I might have become a Buddhist there and then if I could have have identified a supportive community. I could not and instead I went to my own school library for further sustenance. I discovered F. C. Happold's 'The Journey Inwards' - a open-minded Christian account of the contemplative life that embraced supportive references to other faiths. It set me on a 'Christian' path.

In passing, I am struck by noticing that many of the important books in our lives are not seen (in the wider world) as especially 'important'. This one (though not his study and anthology on mysticism for Penguin) has long since been out of print.

Objectively the book is a beautifully lucid exploration of how it may be possible to embrace both traditions not by adopting either an unsustainable syncretism nor a consumerist pick 'n mix of ideas and practices but allowing them to mutually interrogate each other and in that conversation identify ways in which each tradition might enrich the other (and be changed).

For Thompson this conversation moves towards an explicit Buddhist Christian commitment that enables him to centre on a Christian life but one that is illuminated by an understanding of Buddhism that is compatible with it. This conversation, however, does not simply take place between Buddhism and Christianity but also between both traditions and alternative understandings of the world.

One of the most illuminating chapters is on the construction of desire. Christians tend to see a disordered desire transformed by redirecting it towards its proper place in God. Buddhists sees the need to still the whole structure of desire and to step into desirelessness. But both tend to see the problem of desire as that of the individual. Thompson shows that what we desire is constructed communally: we learn what is to be desired from the social structures we inhabit. Both traditions need to develop a more robust understanding of how corporately we transform the communities we inhabit that in turn liberate individual opportunities for transformation.

It is a book of striking images - as well as coherent arguments - of Jesus as a Bodhisattva who in our unfolding history has through his death and resurrection constructed a raft for our salvation that stepped onto and paddled can lead us to the other shore: our renewed life in the kingdom and that commonwealth of God is one that is always present, woven into the groundless lawfulness of life. Paradoxically you both row to meet it and relax into its current that carries you there!

The book is not offered as 'a solution' for everyone - the majority of Christians and Buddhists will recoil from its creative reworking of both traditions but it offers much to ponder both intellectually and in the heart.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Coming from Evening Church

Kenneth Clark called Samuel Palmer England's Van Gogh. With due respect to Sir Kenneth, this is a rather odd judgement. 

Van Gogh was conditioned by his vision: the revelation that he felt he was given, he found it challenging to receive.  Its intensity escalated, breaking containing form.

Palmer found his way to a disciplined pattern of imagination (as shown here) that was, in time, for complex personal reasons surrendered. It was always shaped by a guiding sense of form.

Palmer accessed an imaginative world through disciplined means, Van Gogh's painting was an attempt to contain his ecstasy. Palmer's vision was shaped by a coherent pattern of thinking rooted in a tradition, Van Gogh's was shaped by a set of feelings that had only a personally shaped pattern of thinking that groped form after the intensity of his vision. 

The results are very different. There is something serene about Palmer's vision. There is something alluringly disturbing about Van Gogh's

There is a new biography of Palmer.

that has been well-reviewed and which is timely. Palmer is another neglected national treasure.

The end of the war

The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War: Relief and Refugees After the Second World War

I finished reading  Ben Shephard's book on the train yesterday (helped by a delay when a preceding train had been 'hit by a metal object', causing everything to come to a halt).

It is an instructive (as well as illuminating read). He weaves the stories of particular displaced persons and refugee workers deftly into the wider narratives of organizational and political change.

The first lesson is that we do not learn the lessons of history very easily. Often the lessons we learn turn out to be the wrong ones: history becomes a burden to thinking through actual situations in the present and developing new future scenarios.

The second is that culture matters. The failure to understand the different cultural backgrounds of displaced persons (and the ways in which people had suffered) led to a catalogue of misunderstanding. Make haste slowly might be the motto here. In our eagerness to help, we can most definitely hinder.

But culture mattered in differentiating the help given - the British came as improvisors and social workers of amateurish disposition (often in a good sense) and the Americans appeared with an overwhelming advantage in material resources but also with plans of social relief and rehabilitation whose enthusiastic imposition often came at the neglect of the idiosyncratic and the personal.

The third strand that struck me was the power of propaganda. So adept was the emergent Jewish lobby in the United States that they managed to create the impression that the majority of displaced persons were Jews (which was far from the truth, both Poles and Ukrainians significantly outnumbered Jews) and though this helped their case about the establishment of Palestine, it hinder the options of particular Jews in choosing places for resettlement (that may also been a Zionist point). No one wanted to be 'swamped with Jews' except the new Israel!

Indeed 'Holocaust memory' (and sympathy) had not developed. This was an emergence that had to wait for the 1960s, sparked most notably by the trail of Eichmann.

The fourth strand was how wider policy can transform particular life options. As the iron curtain descended, and the war grew cold, the position of the 'anti-Communist' Balts and Ukrainians shifted. No longer treated warily as 'allies of the Germans', they were now seen to have only fought in parallel with them for the laudable aim of fighting the scourge of Communism! It was of no apparent importance to many (indeed most) that elements within had happily participated in the elimination of Jewish populations (that would have to wait for the 'invention' of the Holocaust)!

And finally the resonances it struck with today's humanitarian responses. The most striking fact being that no matter how far you prepare responding to actual events as they evolve still often captures you unaware or ill-equipped and here the quality of the people employed is utterly critical. They rise (or fall) to occasion but the happy thing is that it is most often the former. There is a critical mass of the willing and able such that help is offered, imperfect undoubtedly, but that enables people to carry on and ultimately shape lives that can and do flourish.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Transcendental meditation

A fascinating article that was very nostalgic. It is where I started as a thirteen year old.

My mother had learnt and her life changed. She was more relaxed, focused and forgiving. An evangelist she convinced my skeptical father. He began and together encouraged my participation.

I will always remember my 'initiation' at a house in Wellesbourne. A hot summer's day, the distant rumble of a lawn mower accompanying my faithful, poised repetition of my 'mantra' as I spent my first twenty minutes in silence.

Adolescence was woven through with an engagement with TM. We had introductory talks at our house. I went to compelling monthly meetings (even as I remained mostly silent) and weekend retreats and was befriended by our two teachers (then married) who were wonderfully engaging people.

It undoubtedly had an effect. Recovering from the sapping of confidence inflicted by a bullying teacher, I discovered a renewed resilience. A fact noticed by several of my teachers (without knowing what to ascribe it to).

More importantly it deepened my innate sense of spiritual inquiry: religion and philosophy at university followed.

It was at university I discovered an emergent rediscovery of meditative/ contemplative practice in Christianity and I slipped into it, developing a practice rooted in the prayer of the heart that has continued with me ever since, nurtured by several teachers.

But I recognize that TM remains a valid practice (even though its organization is over-elaborated and given to exaggerated claims) and the science here for its simple practical effects appears robust. Though similar techniques can probably be learned from a book preferably with the help of a capable teacher and so the justification for the 'costing' structure is a stretch!

A good place to start but not necessarily to end - and if it is good enough for Clint Eastwood!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

From the mouths of children...

My mother told me yesterday of a toddler, a girl, who approached her mother earnestly, demanding to be able to talk to her new(ish) baby brother.

Her mother tried to explain that her brother did not speak yet but her daughter tried to insist declaring, 'I need to talk (to him) about God. I am beginning to forget'!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

On restaurants

On holiday in Montenegro there was more opportunity to ponder the purpose of restaurants.

They undoubtedly save you from cooking and can be located in beautiful locations where the view can compensate for their usual failure to cook as well as you can.  They may be able to cook in more complex ways but complexity may not be the route to the best food.

They can give you the opportunity to learn new recipes (or tricks from recipes) and try the unfamiliar. For example, Andrei got his first taste, and experience of eating, lobster (at a price) in Montenegro but rarely do they manage to justify their expense by actually providing a truly memorable meal. The closest I came on this holiday were the local variety of mussels (that preceded the lobster), they were delicious and subtly different from the 'normal' mussels that we consumed in great (and inexpensive) number.

A tally of memorable meals is a rather short tally given the actual number and more often than not does not focus on the food rather than the ambiance, company and location (singularly or in combination).

Food is prominent only occasionally - a tasting menu in Washington, the fish in a square in Copenhagen and a blueberry and lavender soup at a Shaker museum in New Hampshire come immediately to mind. 

What does make home cooking different?

Simplicity I think for one and that the ingredients are usually fresh, and freshly cooked. Also, the intangible qualities of a known cook and a place that is your own (either directly or through your host); and, you hope the company (of which known people have control): a 'quiet' lunch at one restaurant in Montenegro became broken by an Australian of Serbian extraction loudly imparting to his table and beyond parts of his wholly unexceptional life history!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Histories of doing good

Ben Shephard is one of the most interesting historians presently writing. I am reading his third book now. A common theme is the challenge of doing good (and describing it in ways that engage our attention).

His first book was an exploration of psychiatry in military contexts in the First World War, the Second and Vietnam. the second concerned how the Allied authorities responded to the horror of Belsen and how they improvised ways of assistance to a situation both stark and novel. The third concerns the wider challenge of displaced persons left by the wreckage of World War II.

The lesson of the first that sticks in mind is that knowledge is not simply cumulative. many of the lessons painfully acquired in each conflict was lost by the next and had to be rediscovered or invented anew in a different mode. We lose understanding by lack of institutional memory, personal transmission and a lack of practice.

From the third book, ( The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War: Relief and Refugees After the Second World War ) Shephard has already discussed how our present categories colour (and can indeed miss guide) understanding. Thus most of the Jews displaced were not, as we might think, survivors of the camps but people driven eastwards by the conflict and were now trying to return to some version of 'home'.

Nor were those camp survivors 'holocaust victims' - the Holocaust was not a category that had been invented. This was not a shared and assumed collective identity that emerged later.

One of the great virtues of his writing is to write from the multiple perspectives of the time in a way that, as far as is possible, tries to elude later categorizations. Taking us out of present lenses and putting us into past ones.

He writes both fluently about the 'events' and how people enjoyed and suffered them and on wider frames of interpretation and lesson. He is a most able historian.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Key of the Chest

On holiday, I continued to make my way through the oeuvre of Neil M Gunn by reading his novel, 'The Key of the Chest'.

It is a beautiful evocation of a Highland Scottish community in its interaction with an encroaching modern world.

What I continue to like about Gunn's work is his realistic defence of communal life. The village is a place of shared fortune and misfortune that never idealizes but offers a vision of possibilities that remain relevant.

One theme is that of 'being seen': many of the strands of life are observable by everyone and this brings both constraint but also the potential of mutual aid. People within the community know each other and offer one another the courtesy of both being themselves and shaping their own lives but also at critical moments falling into the help of others.

This falling is both challenging - we want to maintain the resilience of independence - and yet often necessary - we live in and through the lives of others.

We see this community through the lives of two sets of marginal personalities - two brothers, one a shepherd, one a failed ministry student, having lost his faith and two friends - the laird, a son banished for failing to enter the family business and given the 'Scottish estate' and his older intellectual friend. The mediator between their lives is the doctor, himself both fully present to the community as an essential worker after its well-being and yet placed outside by his profession.

The drama unfolds around a shipwrecked sailor who dies and the contents of his chest and the failed ministry student's relationship with the minister's daughter and her father's hostile reaction to it.

But it is primarily a novel of embodied ideas. They trip through thick and fast. The one that most lingers with me concerns different modes of seeing - a contrast between the communities embodied, practical, caring seeing and the laird's practice of photography that intrudes in curiosity; and, freezes rather than liberates what it sees.

Curiosity was seen in medieval philosophy as a vice. It is a look without caring or practice, that seizes surfaces, and wants only to know for itself. It does not open up either conversation or response. Gunn's novel is amongst much else an extended meditation on the difference between seeing with a curious eye and with a communal one, embedded in shared knowing and loving.


Unbelievable was the expression a colleague used yesterday when showing me the Guardian headline about the latest evidence from the News of the World hacking into the phones of people and invading their privacy.

In this case it was not a 'celebrity' - wanting to discover some salacious gossip about their only too exposed lives (which is bad enough) but that of a young teenager who was abducted and murdered. The hacker apparently even deleted some of her voice mail messages giving her shattered parents the false hope that she was alive.

Sadly, I thought this was only too believable - and not only a systemic practice at News International but one that reaches out through other practitioners of this form of journalism.

This has led to predictable and (on one level) justifiable outrage. News International has both acted illegally and in a way that is morally despicable but before we all rush out to burn copies of the News of the World on the streets and dance in the ashes (not a bad idea, as long as we do not pay for them), we might like to pause and wonder for a moment what it says about the society we have built.

Gossip, so biologist/anthropologist Robin Dunbar argues, was foundational to the birth of language. It is a social glue. Much as we might like to think we talk mostly about 'important things' - our work, our loves, the meaning of life - up to 80% of it can be characterized as gossip (and we all enjoy it,  mostly).

Now prior to 'technology' this was confined within your relatively fixed social circle and policed thereby. Having lived in a small village, though you know it can be destructive/poisonous, on the whole, gossip is managed and corrected. Every village might have 'a gossip(s)' but knowing that and that his/her likelihood of twisting and turning the truth is high, you can both enjoy and critically dismiss their 'products'.

Now it runs wild and, in addition to our personal round, it is also focused on those perceived as 'celebrities' - and one of the deepest tragedies revealed by this affair is that we appear to treat the tragic victims of crime in the 'same' way as we treat a footballer or a pop star - as a source of 'interest' with which we 'colour' our own lives.  This is a sad comment on the emptiness of those lives - neither engaged in meaningful challenge nor cradled in a circle of nourishing (as opposed to destructive or intrusive) gossip.

You can hope (fitfully and without great expectation) that as this scandal unfolds we might get beyond merely the blood-letting of sacrificial editors to a more systemic exploration of what has gone wrong. This might include the collapse of journalism feeding an ever more desperate rush to the bottom as print media implodes, the ownership of newspapers in the hands of single 'moguls' maximizing profit and spreading ideology; as well as on our own failings - lives that need the vicarious proximity of status to make more bearable and which models of human being we chose to project that status.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A happy landing

Perast, as a UNESCO designated village in Montenegro, proved a perfect spot for a holiday, it was of a size to offer 'life' (and the all important wi fi enabled cafe) and yet spared either 60s 'Yugoslav' or 00s 'find a second home' 'development; and, perched beautifully on Kotor's fjord, surrounded by mountains, it embodied picturesque.

One of the unsolved questions of being there is the proliferation of churches.

This coast is where Venice met the Byzantine world (and its Slavic inheritors) so you get buildings reflecting both Catholic and Orthodox strands but the multiplicity is astonishing. Perast now has a population of a little over 500 and even allowing for a medieval doubling or even tripling of population, it was tremendously well-endowed with places to pray - two main churches were accompanied by at least seven smaller chapels (to my last day wandering count), nestling within the houses, often now shut, disused. This was replicated elsewhere.

Was it simply competition, denominational rivalry expressed in stone? A common medieval trait here happily architecturally preserved. Or in an historical vulnerable location - conflicted, shifting geo-politics and pirates too - that people fell back on the comforts of religion here more than elsewhere? Or simply that it was de rigueur of every private merchant family to have a chapel as a necessary symbol of wealth - the medieval equivalent of a suitably endowed yacht (of which we saw several)!

In any case days of swimming, reading and cooking (mostly fish) sailed by happily - and it rained seriously only as I started the car to return to the airport!

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...