Showing posts from July, 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.

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 teenager…


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.

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…

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 p…

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 as…

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…

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 dis…

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 c…

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 wha…

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


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 ea…

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…

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'!

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 …

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: R…

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 c…


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 b…

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.