Showing posts from September, 2011

All you need is saints

It is with appropriate fear and trembling that I write a post on Robert Lax, poet and hermit, for at least three reasons: my own ignorance, my own ignorance amplified in comparison with two of the regular readers of my wittering; and, finally, Lax himself - a minimalist both in the poetry and in the life - whose sparing down, in the manner of these things, has an opposite effect. He magnifies in one's own consciousness and in those of his times (though the latter is the slow burn of recognition that death can afford to genuine quality).

I encountered him for the first time, as many do, in the autobiography of his friend, Thomas Merton, a noisy writer and hermit mirroring Lax in being opposite. T.S. Eliot suggested that Merton as a poet wrote too much and his poetry was too prolix, Lax wrote sparingly and pruned language to the barest of bones. Merton wrote a 'best seller' - The Seven Storey Mountain - and was a 'celebrity monk', Lax sold barely and was a lay perso…

Winifred Nicholson

My recent reading of Kathleen Raine's biography reminded me of her friend, Winifred Nicholson, with whom she would visit their beloved Scotland: one to write, one to paint, as here.

This painting manges to unfold many of her recurring themes - a landscape seen from the portal of door or eye of window; a simple jar or pot of wild flowers iridescent with singing colour and a humorous look at an aspect of the animal kingdom: here the 'cheeky chicks' who give the painting its name.

Nicholson was a Christian Scientist and her works radiates a sense of the goodness of creation: everything is a part of an abiding wholeness. Her delight in colour and exploration of prisms, light breaking in differentiation yet unified, is symptomatic of her seeing multiplicity in unity.

I will always remember her retrospective at the Tate Gallery. You stepped into a gallery infused by colour - exploring its many facets woven within the particularities of the world - it was a prayerful celebration…

Julian of Norwich

Denys Turner's 'The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism' is one of those works that transform your understanding of its subject matter by making the familiar productively strange.

He convincingly demonstrates that the category of 'mystical experience' as a discrete psychological happening, that is so wonderfully drawn by William James and adopted by much subsequent exploration, would have been alien to the medieval mind. For them mysticism was not a privileged set of experiences (over against other kinds of 'normal' experience) but a way of being towards the totality of reality: a transformation of the way of navigating all experience.

Mysticism is not a discrete form of theology relating to our interior, private spaces but a fully fledged way of approaching the totality of our understanding: public and private…


"A Transition Initiative (which could be a town, village, university or island etc) is a community-led response to the pressures of climate change, fossil fuel depletion and increasingly, economic contraction. There are thousands of initiatives around the world starting their journey to answer this crucial question:
"how can we make our community stronger and happier as we deal with the impacts of peak oil and economic contraction while at the same time urgently reducing CO2 emissions?" From

The origin of this movement was in Totnes, a small town of some 7,000 people on the River Dart in Devon. Thus do many people make a modern day pilgrimage (hopefully in a low carbon manner) to see it and, in the words of my host this week and old friend, Wendy, meet reality crunch against their high expectations.

The first shock is that the populace are not gliding about the place in electric cars (fuelled only b…

The story and the Fable

I completed Willa Muir's 'Belonging' in my friend's, Wendy's, delightful garden, backing onto the Dart river in Totnes.

It is deeply moving; a combined journey of 'true love'.

When first married, Edwin had received a vision the end point of which had been the two ascending winged towards light and the interior wing on each side falling away, so that their ascent was wholly dependent on each other. It was a vision triumphantly fulfilled.

A theme that Willa explores throughout is the relationship, in Edwin's formulation, between the story and the Fable.

The former is the unfolding history of an individual life, the latter the universal pattern of myth on which every human life is woven. The fullest possibility of an individual life is the realisation of that aspect of the Fable with which it is most concerned. It is what Jung would have called a journey of individuation.

Edwin's guiding aspect of the Fable was of the Fall and the long journey back to…

Gathering clouds

Continuing to read Willa Muir's 'Belonging' and I am immersed in the 1930s and Willa's honest account of how they both saw the gathering clouds of war and yet could not fully comprehend the oncoming darkness.

They had been aware of the depths of antisemitism since their stay in Germany in 1921 but never had that encounter suggested the possibility of the complete breakdown in values that was to come.

One of their tasks of the the 30s was to spend a year on the translation of Herman Broch's 'The Sleepwalkers': a trilogy of novels chronicling in experimental terms the disintegration (in steps) of the values of western civilization. They instinctively resisted Broch's pessimism but when they met him subsequently, they realized that he was prescient. He, himself, became an exile.

The problem with reading of this kind is that it adds to the cumulative pile of future reading. I read Broch's trilogy when I lived in Wales. I fear I read with Muirs' eye…

False & True Imagination

"It is easy for the false imagination to hate a whole class, it is hard for the true imagination to hate a single human being."

Edwin Muir from 'An Autobiography".


If your beloved husband has written one of the finest literary autobiographies of the century, how should you respond in your own writing?

Write a memoir of your life together, recognizing how radically different were you ways of shaping a comprehension of a shared world.

And succeed triumphantly...

Whereas Edwin Muir sought the cohesiveness of myth to explicate the unity of the world, Willa Muir felt her way into a 'belonging to the universe'. Willa was more satisfied with a recognition of the limits to our understanding. Edwin was always seeking the transcendent sources of his vision.

But 'Belonging' refers not only to this felt patterning of being at home in the world, it refers to their being together: it was a resonant, meaningful marriage.

It is a memoir that, unlike Edwin's autobiography, is extrovert and takes in the particular contours of history.

It is beautifully evocative of arriving in Prague, for example, after the First World War, two innocents abro…

No end to snowdrops

"No end to snowdrops" is Philippa Bernard's authorized biography of Kathleen Raine which, unlike much contemporary literary biography, is mercifully short. Like many first biographies, it aims at a sensible, balanced accounting of the lineaments of a life rather than offer any judgement to posterity on the importance of that life or the subject's work. It is not, in any sense, a 'deep' work.

In this it succeeds admirably - in evoking the life of a poet I remember with guarded affection. Affection because she was nothing other than kind to me, though we had our disagreements primarily over Christianity, but because, as this book makes partially clear, she could cast a sharp edged shadow.

I learnt new things most especially how deep was her involvement with the College of Psychic Studies - both in in the governance of its journal, 'Light' but more interestingly her connection, through two mediums, with whom she believed to be the spirit of Gavin Maxwel…

Big nostril patience

The root of the Hebrew word for 'patience' means 'big nostrils' according to Jean-Yves Leloup in his excellent "Compassion and Meditation: The Spiritual Dynamic between Buddhism and Christianity".

Unlike Knitter and Thompson (reviewed here:, Fr Leloup is primarily focused on the practical: on the tools for transformation. The insights and tools are drawn from both traditions, compared and contrasted with one another and juxtaposed so the reader can ponder and practice how the doors of perception can be cleansed and we can stand in reality as it is, able to greet its suffering with compassion, with a grounded ego, broken open to transcendent life.

One of its many pleasures are these glimpses of how in entymology wisdom abounds of how body and spirit are part of a single whole. You can see in the example above the body breathing into patience, where breath and spirit are one, breathing in takes you to a …

Tests for serenity

A test for inner serenity is remaining calm in the back of a taxi in Tunis as its driver imparts a nearing death experience. Fascinating that the white lines in the road do not appear to be seen as markers of separation but as things to drive down: dead centre.

The city bears signs of continuing political nervousness as it moves towards elections for its constituent assembly: the hundred chosen to write the country's new constitution. Many public buildings are closely guarded and have spread around them rather decayed razor wire but otherwise on the surface all appears quiet and normal (indeed overt political activity, like posters, for example, were noticeable for their absence). All the kamikaze taxi drivers I spoke to were happy that Ben Ali had been deposed but the future sounded a mix of exhilaration and wishful thinking. They also were of one accord in thinking Gaddafi was mad.

The city was, in fact, full of Libyans displaced by or sheltering from conflict - and this had ma…

Sun Circle

I supposed it had to happen - a disappointing Neil Gunn novel! Not sufficiently so to surrender it, unfinished, but it is slow going.

It is set in an historical moment - Scotland during the Viking incursions - and tries to capture a world between - old traditions subsuming under new, as Christianity makes its way against a pagan past, old securities, known friends and enemies, give way to the new terror of an efficient, relentless marauding culture: the Vikings are coming.

The first difficulty is that Gunn's sense of balance deserts him in the face of the Vikings - they are the stereotypes of traditional historical understanding. They move about as ciphers of destruction. This would be admirable if it was a haunting technique to capture the Raven folk's perceptions of this new menace. However, everyone is seen from outside looking in - the neutral narrator - so you are left merely with an imbalance of seeing.

The second difficulty that is near fatal is the improbability of th…

Moments in London

The first moment, between meetings, was walking down Old Compton Street in Soho, laden with fashion magazines (all those glossy pages make for bulk), a labour of love, on my way to browse the poetry section at Foyles and being struck by how gay the street was. This might strike the informed as a statement of the bleeding obvious but what I mean was how normal it all it felt. All moral progress is fragile - what was acceptable in an Athenian square in one historical epoch, disappeared the next (as it were) - but here, now, however briefly, was a space that felt given and right. Here was a city's cosmopolitanism (and capacity to be indifferent to difference in a healthy way) on display (though the red trousers and the blue shoes was one display a guy might have rethought)!

A connector to the second moment was remembering a 'gay event' at the University of London Union in the 80s (indoors on a Saturday afternoon) and outside was not one but two transit vans of police, lest …

Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
       The barbarians are due here today. Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?        Because the barbarians are coming today.
       What's the point of senators making laws now?
       Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating. Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city's main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?        Because the barbarians are coming today
       and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
       He's even got a scroll to give him,
       loaded with titles, with imposing names. Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent em…

To His Love

To His LoveWritten at Seaton Delaval, Northumberland, January 1917.
He's gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We'll walk no more on Cotswold
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn river
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now...
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers -
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

Ivor Gurney was both composer and poet. This poem was written at the reported death of his closest friend, Will Harvey, during the First World War. The announcement of death was premature: Harvey was captured and the threads of friendship would be retied after the war.

It is a compelling example of his gift - melancholy remembrance of place, specific yet universal sentiment, sung not spoken. I have heard his songs periodically but onl…

Road to Heaven

Yuan- chao on her k'ang, waiting for the transforming fire by Steve Johnson.

"Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits" is a delightful and lucid account of the distinguished translator, Bill Porter/Red Pine's visits to hermits (both Buddhist and Taoist) in central North China in the late 80s.

Their survival was greeted with skepticism by Porter's Taiwanese friends (and by his mentor, John Blofeld, who had visited them in the 30s). They must have been swept away by sustained Communist hostility to religion, and especially by the terrors of the Cultural Revolution.

But no, as Porter found, and his companion, Steven Johnson, photographed, not only had a significant number survived, some had returned (after an enforced exile in lay life) and were being joined by younger, often better educated recruits (in the world's terms).

The book is both an account of the 'hermit tradition' seen through the lens of key past figures and meetings…

A Division of Spoils

This last (and lengthiest) volume of Scott's Raj quartet is moving towards its conclusion both by passing over key episodes in the preceding books, seen from multiple perspectives, and moving towards two denouement: of Britain's presence in India and of of the book's core character - the policeman, Ronald Merrick.

It is compelling that even though he is central, he is always seen through other eyes, he never has his own voice, only how it is reported by others. It captures with arrest his fundamental hollowness. He is an act of fabrication, a gifted illusion, that generates significant (negative) power; and, thus, is an apt cypher for a way of looking at the British in India. Beyond all the ideological counterfeit of imperial obligation is the wielding of (dark) power, driven in Merrick's mind by the balancing forces of contempt and envy. The latter requires to lay hold of power (over possessions, over others) and contempt justifies it.

If that were all, it would capt…

The joy in which we come to rest...

Twenty five minutes of silent meditation at Ann's grave started the day. This we followed with readings and breakfast at the Bibury Court Hotel, at Tigger's, Ann's sister's, hospitality.

I read a short poem by Wendell Berry:

"Learn by little the desire for all things
which perhaps is not desire at all
but undying love which perhaps
is not love at all but gratitude
for the being of all things which
perhaps is not gratitude at all
but the maker's joy in what is made,
the joy in which we come to rest."

I had introduced Ann to Berry's poetry and we both recognized in it that ability that poetry has of encapsulating a seeing, a way of being, in ways immediately recognizable, so that you taste the understanding of it, rather than merely understand.

I left for a meeting in Bristol and drove across the Cotswolds accompanied at first by Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending: music played at Ann's funeral and that has remained glistening in memory and regar…