Showing posts from January, 2012

Being interviewed...

Media week!

The responsibility of the imagination

On the border between Macedonia and Albania, on the side of the former, by the shores of Lake Ohrid, is the Monastery of St Naum. St Naum was one of the disciples of St Cyril and St Methodius who, in the language of the guide who first showed me it, brought education to the Slavs. He was betraying a speech learnt in the days of socialist Yugoslavia. Cyril and Methodius were missionaries and education was a means to an end: an acceptance of the Gospel.

St Naum's church is small beautifully frescoed and contains his tomb in a small side chapel, decorated with scenes from his life.

The building has a sense of abiding unity - the medium is the message - it invites you to pause, pray and wonder.

I was reminded of it when reading a phrase of Owen Barfield's 'the responsibility of the imagination'. 'What we behold', wrote Blake, 'is what we become', Barfield's version is more active, we are made (and judged) by what we make.

I was one day standing at the tomb …

Pavel Florensky

I first read of Pavel Florensky in Donald Nicoll's wonderful collection of essays, 'The Triumphs of the Spirit in Russia' in a chapter entitled, 'The scientist martyr: Pavel Florensky'.

Subsequently, I read his 'Iconostasis' - a powerful meditation on the meaning of the icon where his 'transcendent realism' is fully displayed. He says, at one point, that the only real question to ask of an icon is, "Is this the Mother of God?" It is a question of authenticity that can be meaningful asked of any art work: is this a true image?
By way of a very different example, you could ask it of the quiet, beautiful, present still lives of Giorgio Morandi, as here:

To which the answer is a simply, and wholly affirmative, yes. Florensky would not be surprised (or offended) by this juxtaposition: any authentic encounter with reality that allows nature to speak in its own voice is an encounter that opens this world to an enfolding next.
I, also, read Flore…

From today's Financial Times - on the day job

January 22, 2012 
Oxfam moves into fund world By Sophia Grene
Oxfam, the anti-poverty charity, is branching out into asset management by launching its first investment fund, which will aim to combine social good with financial returns.
The Small Enterprise Impact Investment Fund is a joint initiative between Oxfam GB and Symbiotics, a Swiss microfinance specialist. It will invest in financial intermediaries with a mandate to support small and medium-sized enterprises in Africa and Asia.
“One of the greatest obstacles facing entrepreneurs and small businesses anywhere in the world is access to funding,” said Stephen Acheson, a director at Standard Life Investments who will be on the investment committee of the SEIIF. “I believe that this new fund has the ability to assist many embryonic and small businesses and in doing so generate wealth, employment and economic growth in areas where business potential has historically been constrained due to a lack of affordable capital.”
The fund i…

It is the system

Arriving at Jeddah airport is always an experience.

The first thing that strikes you is given that this is the entry point to Mecca and Medina, the most sacred sites in Islam, focus of the Hajj, you might imagine a state of the art facility to enable the pilgrims to pass through with alacrity and a taste of desert hospitality.  Alas, however, the airport is a fading monument to 70s utilitarianism with the systems and facilities to match.

This time the computer system decided to freeze over my eyes. It would not process the picture. I was sent back to wait with no idea how long this process would take. The immigration official was apologetic, shrugging and saying, 'It is the system' as if this explained anything and everything. There was no way to amend, correct or thwart the system. I needed to wait and I did for almost two hours before my dazzling or demonic eyes passed muster and I was waved through, wafted on my way on a wave of further apology.

I was struck by one more ex…

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I type this sitting under one of Andrea's fine paintings - fine both normatively and because they are often woven from layers of detail, a dancing mass of colour that resolves as you approach into interlaced seeings, stories and dreams.

She has a highly developed sense of place, and place that is mapped both 'externally' as geography and 'internally' as story and spirit in a way that subtly questions that division. The world is one body of imagination and everything lives and is hallowed.

Now you know what to do between 21st January - 25th February, go to Ledbury!

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Even as he deeply respected them, the poet, Oscar Milosz, suggested that Swedenborg's spiritual writings, with their detailed, concrete depictions of envisioned heavens, hells and intermediate worlds, often felt as if they were theologies in search of emboldening vision rather than vision speaking into theology.

This may have been, in part, the temperament of a poet meeting that, in Swedenborg, of a scientist. William Blake, an errant disciple of Swedenborg's, also criticized the preachy, prim tendencies of certain of Swedenborg's heavenly inhabitants and their messages. They seemed too tidily lined up behind Swedenborg's exacting theological framework. For Blake, the divine imagination was more fluid, free and liberating from either narrow moralities or fix it all metaphysics than Swedenborg would allow!

But as Gary Lachman shows in his accomplished essay on Swedenborg (Into the Interior: Discovering Swedenborg), this was a man on a dedicated interior journey, whose …

Symbolism, the Sacred and the Arts

It is a very long time since I have read Mircea Eliade. I have to confess it will be a long time until I read him again. Reading his collection of essays, 'Symbolism, the Sacred and the Arts' following through on a recommendation of Roger Lipsey's (, I was surprised at my reaction.

Eliade is a distinguished and highly influential historian of religion whose commitment to the reality of the transcendent and refusal to entertain reductionist accounts of the religious is deeply sympathetic to me. He usually writes fluently and well, and many of his points are intelligent, provoking and well-made. He does lapse into piling up examples of disparate cultures so that you lose track of where you are and you doubt whether these specific examples actually sustain the point he is making. The point is too general, too universalizing to be carried by the concrete particulars of his examples.

So why my recoil? Precisely becaus…

England is now and always

Yesterday I spent the afternoon in Alresford: a small town in Hampshire that I had not visited before. It was a quiet vision of loveliness. It is a town that maintains its own character with shops that are unique to itself - butcher, fishmonger, baker, if not candlestick maker, and tea shops abounding, two of which I sampled. The second with a fabulous fruit cake simply to die for! And an eccentric second hand bookshop, all fertile chaos, and remarkably cheap discovery.

I walked out along the river Arle whose waters had been used in the past to prepare cloth and now to fertilize the growth of pure watercress. The waters were wonderfully clear - light dancing in light as the late afternoon sun illumined their liveliness. The river was sided by diverse buildings of beauty, especially rich red brick and slate, and a quiet orderliness, surrounded by cultivated garden.

There was a wonderful sense of stillness through which time and people moved - a visiting couple like myself looking, dog…


When I was young and interesting, I found myself in a 'science and religion' group periodically engaged in dialogue and in that group I noticed one thing that has intrigued me ever since: beliefs resistance to evidence (or empiricism).

It was revealed to me first when a distinguished Jesuit theologian expressed a preference for dialogue with 'mainstream' scientists, namely those who prescribed to the still-dominant underlying materialist perspective, rather than those present who reflected emergent non-reductionist patterns of thinking (rooted in systems theory or complexity or exploring traditionally 'taboo' phenomena [within science] as 'psychic studies'). Or, alternatively, those scientists were preferred, who were professed believers, and whose practice of science was seen to be in a parallel domain to that of their religion. Science did not precede as a threat to religious claims (or vice versa) because they were different kinds of discourse.


Back to Burra

A second visit to the Edward Burra exhibition at the Pallant Gallery in Chichester and a simple question from my companion as to which picture (or period) I preferred.

Today I plumped for the 30s pictures of the French cities,  shows, streets and bars and one in particular, that I cannot find an internet image for, 'The Nitpickers'.

Here a group of off-duty prostitutes gather in the street of a Marseilles or Toulon and the heavy framed woman in the foreground address one of the hazards of her life, scratching her head to expel (or find relief from) 'nits'. Behind a half-opened screen you see her bed, crumpled, waiting and a lamp above the doorway, presumably the archetypal 'red lamp'. Around her, resting, smoking, pondering nothing in particular, are other women and the narrow street stretches back and out towards the blue of the sky (and sea).

It is a picture of pause, of rest, of ordinariness. The prostitutes are neither exalted nor eroticized nor judged. Th…

Crimea and the forgetfulness of war

Orland Figes makes a good case for the Crimean War as the first 'modern conflict' in his compulsively fascinating history, 'Crimea'. Not least because its was the first conflict that could be reported on virtually immediately (and photographed, though with a time delay and with rather static, posed images).

It was possibly the first war where hyperactive public opinion played a critical role in both its initiation and its bringing to an end against a formula that appears almost archetypal. We begin with enthusiasm flushed with outrage - for the protection of brotherly coreligionists in the Russian case oppressed by barbarous Turks or for the protection of the poor underdog Turks against the barbarous depredations of the Russian Asiatic horde in the British case. Only the French public appeared divided, many mistrusting Napoleon III's motives, that principally seemed to revolve around adding the glitter of foreign victory to his fragile new regime (and making sure …

Seeing eternity

The World by Henry Vaughan

I saw Eternity the other nightLike a great Ring of pure and endless light,          All calm as it was bright ;And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years,          Driven by the spheres,Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world          And all her train were hurled.The doting Lover in his quaintest strain          Did there complain ;Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,          Wit’s sour delights ;With gloves and knots, the silly snares of pleasure ;          Yet his dear treasureAll scattered lay, while he his eyes did pour          Upon a flower.

                          2.The darksome Statesman hung with weights and woe,Like a thick midnight fog, moved there so slow          He did nor stay nor go ;Comdemning thoughts, like sad eclipses, scowl          Upon his soul,And clouds of crying witnesses without          Pursued him with one shout.Yet digged the mole, and, lest his ways be found,          Worked under ground,Where he did cl…

Purity of Voice

The Anonymous 4 are a fabulous group of four female American singers whose interpretations of medieval music have a purity and simplicity that is striking and deeply moving. (It would make an interesting marketing device if they were, like Banksy, in fact, quasi-anonymous, except their art would either be confined to recordings or they could sing behind screens rather like medieval nuns)!

I cannot vouchsafe for their accuracy but hair splitting fury aside nor can anyone else which does not prevent the Early Music thought police trying.

As time proceeds, my love for Medieval and Renaissance music continues to deepen and as I drove back from Devon yesterday on the slow moving M5, I tried to fathom why this were so.

It is a long love, as my second record ever (black vinyl discs that revolved at 33 1/2 rpm) was of Alfred Deller, the great French counter-tenor, and his consort singing Gregorian chant. I bought it in Blackwells in Oxford with money I had been given for my eighteenth birthd…