Showing posts from July, 2012

A compelling civil war

There is a counter-factual history to be written: what if the Taiping rebellion against the Qing Dynasty had been successful?

A heterodox Christian movement would have established a new regime in China whose Prime Minister had extensive interaction with missionaries and who was open to the West.

It is an intriguing proposition: one that did not come to pass (though the rate of Christian conversion in present day China is notable and a cause of unease to the regime).

The Taiping civil war was the most destructive conflict of the nineteenth century in which up to twenty million people perished and millions were displaced, made refugees. For that reason alone it ought to better known outside of China.

Stephen Platt's 'Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West and the Epic Story of that Taiping Civil War' is a compelling account of that conflict seen from the perspective of key actors and observers both Chinese and Western.

I am about a third of the way through and two …

God, sexy women and eros.

Lucas Cranach was an entrepreneur. His workshop cranked out paintings, serving the needs of aristocratic patrons of both Catholic and Protestant commitment. He also ran a pharmacy (with monopoly privileges), a real estate portfolio, a publishing house and served as city councillor, mayor and occasional diplomat.

These diverse approaches to life have suggested to many a man without deep seated convictions. Artists (in our romantic imagination) are not meant to be worldly wise nor at the service of others. They should suffer for their imaginations or be solely vindicated by the light of them.

However, the historian, Steven Ozment in his 'The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther and the making of the Reformation' want us to see Cranach not only as a highly gifted artist but also, through his friendship with Luther and his position at the court of Saxony, one of the architects of the Reformation. What Luther was in the charisma of words, Cranach was in paint and print (and indee…

Flesh and blood

Michael Cunningham's novel follows, episodically by year, three generations of a Greek-Italian family from the 1940s into the future.

Constantine, the would be patriarch, is a poor immigrant who makes good building fancy but sub-standard housing (there is a metaphor for the modern world there). His wife, Mary, stays at home, making home and elaborate cakes, for her three children - Susan, Billy and Zoe.

Susan marries an aspiring lawyer and politician out of high school. Billy, who becomes Will, is gay and becomes a school teacher, both because it is a love and to spite his father and who settles in to a long relationship with Harry. Zoe has Jamal with a casual but intense Afro-American lover and succumbs to AIDS either through sex or injection.

Cunningham is a master of what might be described as melancholy affirmation. With the possible exception of Will and Jamal, none of his characters lives could be characterised as happy. They all bear wounds - the wounds of relationship, of…

A last day at MOMA

Today it was the turn of the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco.
 It is a very impressive building (which, I know, is a little like saying a book is printed on good paper). 

Here there was a very interesting German painter: Katharina Wulff on show. She reminded me of Edward Burra in the way she encompassed both the urban street and landscape and incorporated, as did he, elements of the surreal, the humorous and the shadowy. One of her landscapes, untitled, is above. She does not, however, have Burra's depth - neither the depth of re-imagined place: Burra's are particular, actual places, Wulff's fade into the non-specifics of dream nor of metaphysics: of the exaltation and tragedy of Christianity that haunts Burra's spaces, as here, in Landscape near Rye.

There was a wonderful room of Mexican painters - Rivera, Kahlo and Rufino Tanayo. Tanayo I had not seen before but there was a delightful painting of his 'The Lovers' a stylized man and a woman holding hands in…

Shape shifting in the gallery

The taxi driver's father came from England: an orphan shipped to Canada at the outbreak of the First World War who at eighteen, tired of his life as an agricultural laborer, walked across the St Lawrence, when frozen, to a new life in the United States! This story, and much besides, was relayed to me as we drove towards Fisherman's Wharf for a lunchtime meeting. I got the population statistics for the city (860,000), why its only intolerance was for intolerance; and, the miracle of people actually speaking to one another, on the street, as strangers, politely. He was himself gnarled, grizzled grey and fading hippy, and charming.

I had been to the de Young museum for American art in the Golden Gate Park. A striking building as built from over-lapping metal plates, austere but beautiful.

The first thing I saw was this remarkable sculpture by David Ruben Piqtoukun: 'Bear in Shamanic Transformation'. It is carved from soapstone. A bear seen from behind (as immediately abo…

A walk through poverty to the museum

I thought I would walk to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco between three telephone calls and a lunchtime meeting.

I stepped off my now familiar blocks into a different world. It was black. It was poor. It was threaded with hopelessness. I have experienced many contrasts in my travels and been confronted by the stark realities of poverty but this was shocking, so close to wealth, so stark. It was a five minute walk to Union Square and Louis Vuitton.

The streets wreaked of urine. Every third person appeared deranged. The fabric of the buildings were frayed, faded, disreputable.

Just as soon as you had entered, you were out yet left wondering whether what you had seen was real. It was, sadly, it was.

Then you were at a palatial square and there was the new museum for Asian Art.

It was an excellent collection and running parallel to it was 'Phantoms of Asia' - examples of contemporary art that was responding to Asian religious traditions. There were two very simple, pure abs…

City Lights

After my morning meetings, I went to City Lights Books - the legendary home (and publisher) of the Beat writers. It is one of those independent bookstores that remind you of the joys of accidental discovery and (for me at least) the joy of feeling actual books: the smell, the texture, the weight in hand and (ironically) the judgment of covers!

I bought  Andrei Bely's 'Kotik Letaev'.  This is his novel of early child development, greatly influenced by his interest in the work of Rudolf Steiner. Bely's is hard to find in English apart from his masterpiece, 'Petersburg', that is one of my favourite books. Petersburg transgresses genre: a story of generational conflict and terrorism, it unfolds in a comedy of serious intent and has Christ as a palpable but unnamed witness! As a friend who read it, on my recommendation, remarked on finishing it: "What was that?" Well, amongst much else, one of the most penetrating explorations of Russia's ambiguous pois…

Homeless in San Francisco

At first you think there is a surprising number of people drinking coffee at street corners In San Francisco until you realize that is their collecting cup and they are soliciting for alms. San Francisco appears to have a serious homeless problem: people are thick on the ground. Sadly, several people I saw were obviously mentally ill - one woman separating people down the street, like a boat cutting waves on the sea, obviously deeply disturbed. Another black man, dread-locked, sitting on the kerb energetically talking to himself or some imagined other.
It is both sad and disappointing.
For someone of my age and disposition, this is a legendary city. I am not old enough to be a 'child' of the Sixties, but I did inherit its breaking dreams, that haunted the 70s and beyond. I learned meditation at the feet of the Maharishi, well at least one of his long haired, Afghan coated, students. I read my first gay literature mostly emanating from here especially Armistead Maupin. The cultur…

To End All Wars

You are the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium in 1914. You are a campaigning woman, a socialist, a suffragette and a pacifist.

What do you have in common? You are brother and sister and share a deep, abiding affection even as you discount each other's opinions.

The central conceit of Adam Hochschild's book, 'To End All Wars' is to explore such divided loyalties in response to the First World War. He focuses on the British response and weaves detailed, particular biographies through a brush stroke account of that terrible conflict.

The book captures, but does not explain, how the war came to be fought with such opening enthusiasm and the continuous commitment to the sacrifice of thousands upon thousands. It is compellingly strange this euphoria of war and how many, opposed to it in concept, were converted. The ecstasy of belonging seduced in quite remarkable ways. Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette, went from branding war (in the pre-war…

Aborigines in Seattle

Bush Hen Dreaming Sandhill Country

Today I went to the Seattle Art Museum in search of paintings by Morris Graves and Mark Tobey and happily found them except all the Graves were early ones (from the 1930s), magical as they were, I still have to find one of his translucent late flower paintings, meditatively still, luminously beautiful.

However, the main event was unexpected: a major exhibition of modern Aboriginal Art.

On first look, it appears to the untrained eye as 'abstract' but closer inspection (and helpful contextualization) reveals that this is painting embedded in place and that place is always particular, dynamically unfolding and of a communal and sacred imagination. They can always be read at different levels - for everything has multiple levels of story interwoven.

What struck me so powerfully was how within Aboriginal culture, each group has its own individual pattern of making, using different (if overlapping) forms and materials; and, each is part of a vivid …

The 'atheist' priest

It was 9 am: the first lecture of  the day. A small class at the head of which was a tall, hunched elderly figure with thinning grey hair and a scalp that deposited flakes of dried skin onto the shoulders of his bulky, black polo neck sweater. His face was florid from a fondness for drink and indeed his breath permanently carried more than a tinge of gin.

He began to speak: his words were bright, hard, incisive and often funny. He was lecturing on Wittgenstein and this complex and in equal measure alluring and off-putting thinker, came alive, not only as a carrier of knowledge about but as a philosopher who genuinely challenged and teased your assumptions about the world and life.

Cyril was a tour de force: a maverick Irish Jesuit priest, he taught for many years at the University of Warwick and traveled to us (in London) once a week. He had lived for many years outside any Jesuit community, in the Society but a free spirit, drawing his own salary and owning his own house and accumul…


When I first visited New York, it would not have occurred to me to visit Harlem for its reputation and my timidity. It was the early 90s, crime was high in New York (though already on a downward trend) and anger was high, justifiably, at Harlem's poverty and exclusion.

Times have changed: the poverty is still here but there are palpable signs of regeneration and change. I am sitting in one, the friend's apartment I have borrowed, in a block built in collaboration with one of Harlem's many churches. The block brings new professionals into the area and it expands the churches ability to provide facilities and services to the neighbourhood. Incidentally it has fabulous views looking downtown across Manhattan. Harlem has many churches - big and small - in diverse buildings offering Jesus in various kinds of packaging as the route to salvation (found here only). Poor Jesus a universal highway of hope turned into so many toll roads of exclusion (even if all roads eventually lea…


The world would have been different had it fallen. If the Arab assault had succeeded in the seventh century and the city of Constantinople had fallen, Europe may have surrendered to Islam and taken a very different course in its development. There is a novel of virtual history there to be written!

This is a central thesis of Judith Herrin's excellent book on the history of Byzantium: because it survived 'we' the reader is shaped in a particular way (either in 'the West' or in ' Rest of the World') both through the fact of its survival and by what it offered, as a culture, to the world around it.

It offered a great deal not least I think the veneration of the image. Had it fallen - a narrower perception of the image would have prevailed - the Islamic view accentuating the Hebraic commandment against graven images would have dominated (and Byzantium itself, in the Iconoclastic controversy, wavered towards this perspective). Instead a complex and compelling t…


Today in the car park on the way into Waitrose, it came to me, as thoughts do, what if I dropped into death now...

and the response was simply what a fantastic life it is...

and it is to be continued in a mode yet to be fathomed...

and my body, mind, spirit broke into a broad smile and bowed in gratitude for the people encountered and the work done...

especially the people ... especially A and A ...

it was one of those priceless and happy moments of sheer gratefulness.

A Cosmic trilogy completed

Perelandra and That Hideous Strength are the second and third volumes of C.S. Lewis' Cosmic trilogy of science fiction novels and I read them while in Italy.

Throughout they are an interesting medley - at one level they are wholly of their time, you feel in the 1940s and 50s both in terms of being transported there but, more vividly, being 'stuck' there (in the form of the language and the social mores), even when you are, as in Perelandra, on Venus, at the dawning of its sentient evolution!

The narrative often strays into argument as if you had slipped into a work of philosophy or Christian apologetics in a way that gives it a 'clunky, unpolished' feel.  It has nothing of the imagination of other worlds entire that his friend, Tolkien, achieves, more a patchwork quilt.

But in reading the cumulative whole, you realise you are in the presence of a myriad-minded man of imaginative depth, real scholarship and a binding sense of purpose.

The novels are books of ideas …

Water, Earth, Fire

Water, Earth and Fire are three films by Deepa Mehta that have ignited controversy both religious and critical. The first kind sees them (rightly) as attacks on religious traditions (and, as often the case, confuses that with attacking religion); the second sees them as blunt instruments that fail to do justice to the complexity of social lives in colonial and post-colonial India.

I brought them with me to Italy to re-watch on long hot nights whilst waiting for the air to cool sufficiently to allow for sleep.

For the second kind of criticism, I have sympathy. Her worlds are drawn in black and white - we know whom to sympathize with and whom to deplore and the history is often badly drawn. There is a dinner party in Earth, for example, seeking to explain 'Partition' whose characters are constructed of cardboard after the manner of caricature; and, the way in which the inter-religious friends disintegrate in the face of the tensions of partition seem too hurried and ill thought…

Changing times in Urbino

Today it was over the mountains to Urbino. Grace was on my side as the only vehicles I met going there or back, around hairpin bends to startling heights (and drops), were all going the other way. Urbino is a university city, the size I would guess of my beloved Durham, and it is quaint to see the Department of Inorganic Chemistry housed in a building from the fifteenth century, when their forerunners would have been practicing alchemy, chemistry with wings...

The central attraction is the Ducal Palace, now the principal gallery of the Marche region, and a stunning building, light capacious rooms of high, vaulted, decorated ceilings and now (as then) hanging art. The prize of the collection is this painting above by Pierro della Francesca that had been moved from its usual place to participate in an exhibition on the Renaissance view of the 'ideal city'. It was an exhibition that, pardoning the pun, did not hang together. It was undecided as to whether it was an art historica…