Showing posts from March, 2012

An indescribably awful meal...

We were seduced by the cushions. They looked so 'authentic', colourful and inviting. We were choosing a restaurant last night in Istanbul. The dampness of one of the cushions might have alerted us to something amiss (as might the absence of any other diners). But most of our party were punch drunk after liberation from a four day workshop. The signs were ignored.

The waiter appeared cheerful, extolling the virtues of Manchester United and a stew baked underground in a clay pot and brought flaming to your table, where it is broken, liberating the said stew onto your plate. We ordered two of these.

Whilst waiting for the food, the dampness began to acquire an odour - of cats. They apparently liked the cushions and had made themselves fully at home in them, if not domestically trained to them!

We debated whether we should leave but the appetizers had arrived and were boundary acceptable.

The waiter had become yet more jovial. His favourite British TV programme, he declared, was …

Julian of Norwich: seen and unseen

Denys Turner's 'The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism' is a tour de force of interpretation, a challenging read that bears continuous fruit; and, places medieval mysticism in a context that properly allows it to speak out of its place across time in a way that, they, medieval mystics, would recognise. It makes people both stranger than they appear to modern eyes and more fruitful and challenging as a result.

So it was with expectation that I turned to his recent book on Julian of Norwich as theologian; that remarkable spiritual writer, the first women in the English vernacular to be so.

It is characteristically lucid and clear, and with much that is interesting to commend it, most especially his discussion of Julian's theology as a narrative of how the world is, just so and, more personally, on how thinking of ourselves as divided into parts, rather than woven out of competing desires, is usually unhelpful.

He defends Julian admirably from possible he…

Pictures at an Exhibition

Yesterday I went to the local 'cultural centre', an old refurbished building, standing in a square opposite the kremlin in Nizhny Novgorod, to see an art exhibition. It was a splendid amalgam of 'stuff'.

There was a room of paintings and ceramics for sale - a tad overpriced to my trained eye - of wildly varying quality and style - though vases of flowers and houses amongst trees, as always, were resolutely popular. You could, also, buy a half body size ceramic angel in gold and paled lime green - a meek and mild protecter with an open handed gesture to greet guests to your house!

There were three figured artists with space to themselves and several more rooms devoted to others. Excepting that the works were overwhelmingly figurative, there was no apparent connecting theme.

Of the three figured artists, one was irredeemably awful. The second was schizoid - when painting the world 'out there', she was bright, extroverted, intelligent: two elderly men talk on a p…

On a fast train with the life of a great poet

They let me on, finally, after much consultation of my ticket print out and punching combinations into their hand held consoles, and calling upon higher authorities. It would have justified R. S. Thomas' instinctive distrust of technology.

I was on the fast train to Nizhny Novgorod...

What a jolt to memory! When I first came in the 90s, it was an overnight train, a coupe of four beds with admirably starched sheets, a coupe kept at a temperature that stifled, guarded by a uniformed harpie of formidable bulk.

Now you arrive in Nizhny Novgorod (at 11.30pm) when previously you would be departing Moscow, sitting in spacious seats, well lit, and kept at room temperature (rather than that of tropical glass house). A trolley appears with coffee and snacks, whose custodian is young, male and charmingly polite. His name badge indicating that he speaks English and German as well as Russian.

Both trains had a valued similarity: they always seem to run on time.

You do miss, however, the happy…

Cantinetta Antinori

I knocked my chair over on departure from this restaurant yesterday. Was it the excitement over the cuisine? Or was it shock over the bill?

Possibly both!

If you wanted your conviction confirmed that Moscow is expensive, come here. If you wanted your conviction confirmed that this expense can be (partially) warranted, come here!

Apart from the over-salted quail in Andrei's main course and the rather ordinary cherry tomatoes in my opening salad (whose quail, especially the eggs, was exceptional), the food was universally excellent, the ambiance good and the company superlative.

The only shadow was one that stalks many a Moscow restaurant - the over-zealous (if, in this case, the wholly polite) waitress. You feel that no sooner have you finished your plate (and in the case of your glass or bottle before you have quite finished), they swoop down to clear away, as if staring at an empty plate was a culinary offence rather than a sign of a satisfactory task completed to be enjoyed, na…

The disgrace of memory

I remember my first visit to Moscow (in 1993) and being taken to Lenin's tomb. It was a sight of faded glory where the guards were agitated at the patent lack of reverential respect from the curious onlookers. On the other side of the tomb, along the kremlin wall, were the tombs of the famous fallen and many of the graves were accompnied by offerings of flowers. In this informal popularity contest, Yuri Gagarin, was the clear winner - a universal symbol of respect and national pride, followed a close second by Josef Stalin.

I remember my surprise, equipped as I was with a thoroughly Western consciousness of this man's evil. Yet here he was a figure of praise to many - the strong leader who made Russia a preeminent power and protector of the nation during the Great Patriotic War.

This ambivalence continues. When I lived in Moscow a decade later, a sweet little old lady sold a pamphlet at my local metro station exalting the life and legacy of Stalin!

Recently I visited the '…

The bridge over the Leach

This is my favourite place in the world - the medieval wool pack bridge over the River Leach in the Cotswolds, pitched between the two villages of Eastleach, Martin and Turville, and their two Norman churches. It is a place where my grandmother used to come for her holidays (from Birmingham) staying with friends.

I first visited it when I was seventeen, when my mother came to collect her mother-in-law, and after lunch, whose apple pie remains a vivid memory, I slipped away on a hot July afternoon and sat on these steps, feet dangling in the water. I read Gerard Manley Hopkins that extraordinary Victorian poet: the modernity of whose verse kept it unpublished until the opening of the twentieth century.

It was a perfect day, wrapped in a stillness that danced. The forms of the world held in grace. I was centred on what truly mattered, adolescent confusions dissolved, and you sat and saw. Saw not only the giftedness of creation but the generosity of my grandmother's friends, and their …

An R. S. Thomas poem

Chapel Deacon by R. S. Thomas Who put that crease in your soul, Davies, ready this fine morning For the staid chapel, where the Book's frown Sobers the sunlight? Who taught you to pray And scheme at once, your eyes turning Skyward, while your swift mind weighs Your heifer's chances in the next town's Fair on Thursday? Are your heart's coals Kindled for God, or is the burning Of your lean cheeks because you sit Too near that girl's smouldering gaze? Tell me, Davies, for the faint breeze From heaven freshens and I roll in it, Who taught you your deft poise?
I swear I have a book fairy lodged at home. Volumes I thought I had disappear, nowhere to be found, so I must acquire them anew. I bought R. S. Thomas' Collected Poems on being reminded by Ron Ferguson of their difference from George Mackay Brown's in their treatment of faith. Both poets had a bare, spare language but if Mackay Brown celebrated being at home in a world ritualised in faith, R. S. Thomas was more aware of …

Marriage difficulties

Our (UK) Arch/bishops are in a tizzy over the possibility of gay marriage. 

After last week's intervention by Cardinal Keith O'Brien where he compared the possible legalisation of such marriages to the prospect of legalising slavery (yes, my mother could not understand that one either), the Roman Catholic bishops' conference had a letter read this Sunday in all 2,500 churches in England and Wales warning against the radical nature of such a step and how it would undermine the traditional understanding of marriage, out would go 'the complementarity of male and female or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children'. 

The letter had the virtue of greater coherence than the rambling article of the Cardinal in the Sunday Telegraph but neither his intervention nor that of the Roman Catholic bishops nor the Anglican Archbishop of York (who appeared on television to tell us that marriage and civil partnership are different and that this difference…

St Luke's hand - the other Russia

I recall when a relic of St. Luke's (if memory serves it was his hand) visited Moscow and came to rest at St Sava's Cathedral, thousands of people came to venerate it, long queues wove through central Moscow, principally women and children, who were strikingly 'provincial' in appearance. Polyester dresses and stout cardigans were accompanied by colourful headscarves and the children poked through their cheap sweaters and decidedly undesigned jeans. Driving past, as I was, were the Moscow middle class, looking on as if their city had acquired an alien invasion, from a different place.

I was reminded of this scene reading the first chapter of Orlando Figes' 'Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia' on 'European Russia' that opens with Peter the Great inaugurating, by fiat, the building of St. Petersburg, and explores the aristocracy's acquisition of 'European' (Western) modes of appearance and manner, alienating them from the co…

The Annunciation

'I remember stopping for a long time one day to look at a little plaque on the wall of a house in the Via degli Artisti [Rome], representing the Annunciation. An angel and a young girl, their bodies inclined towards each other, their knees bent as if they were overcome by love, 'tutto tremante', gazed upon each other like Dante's pair; and that representation of a human love so intense that it could not reach farther seemed the perfect earthly symbol of the love that passes understanding.' 

From Edwin Muir's 'Autobiography'.

The Annunciation by Edwin Muir

The angel and the girl are met, 
Earth was the only meeting place, 
For the embodied never yet 
Travelled beyond the shore of space. 
The eternal spirits in freedom go. 

See, they have come together, see, 
While the destroying minutes flow, 
Each reflects the other's face 
Till heaven in hers and earth in his 
Shine steady there. He's come to her 
From far beyond the farthest star, 
Feathered through time. …

Compassion at the heart of things

The Benedictine monk, John Main ( had an image of the mantra in prayer, of it being laid down in the mind and heart like a feather on a pillow.

Last night, in a dream, I collected my own image. I was walking on the beach, barefoot, and the sea was grey and calm, and a mist rolled over it, stroking the waters as it came, touching so lightly.
As I walked on the beach, toes filling, un-filling with sand, I found myself saying the prayer of the heart (Lord Jesus Christ, mercy) in rhythm with the mist touched sea, in rhythm with my breathing: the same rhythm. 
The emphasis, as always, was on 'mercy' and I woke with a calm sense of the compassion at the heart of things; and, still having the prayer say me.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

It is a pity one cannot sustain the lucidity and vividness of dreams into waking day as last night I had a remake on my hands of this science fiction favourite.

It was one of those dreams that are prolonged, detailed, vividly imagined and continue even after your sleep has been broken. I woke at 5.30am, visited the bathroom, went back to bed and picked up where I had left off!

In the interval, before returning to sleep, I even reflected on its possible meanings and remember thinking that it was a commentary on the tendency to say, 'if only, I was my true and proper self, what could I not be or become?' The self-serving fantasy that it is not my self-disciplined 'inner work' that is missing, lost in the swamp of my laziness, but 'an external other'!  Hovering in the back of my mind too was St Paul's lament that his body refused to follow the desire of his will. The very things that he wished not to be, he became.

My body snatchers, however, were not as comp…

Unresolved visits

Jung made several attempts to go to Rome and failed. He indeed collapsed on what proved his final attempt and decided that so powerful was his psychic relationship with the eternal city, he would not make any further attempts.

I have not collapsed at its thought but I am intrigued as to why I have never made it to the Orkney Islands.

They are the home of two of my favourite writers - one of whom, Edwin Muir, is so close I find it difficult  to find the rightly evocative description of our relationship. When I first read his 'Autobiography', I thought this is me (which, leaving aside forays into reincarnation, is, at the very least, intense)! The second, George Mackay Brown, a student of Muir's, I am both reading and reading about (in Ron Ferguson's 'George Mackay Brown: the Wound and the Gift') presently.

I have seen them. On a visit to Scotland in 2007, I spent a day driving north from Inverness and found myself on a blustery day looking across the Pentland F…