Showing posts from October, 2012

The Wooden Shepherdess

Richard Hughes believed in the power of fiction to extend our moral sensibility. It breaks us out of our solitary confinement and allows us to see people as people, not as things, and this is 'the necessary groundwork of ethics'.

'The Wooden Shepherdess' is the second volume of his unfinished trilogy, 'The Human Predicament' that explores the movement towards war that was initiated by the failed peace of Versailles through core characters - English and German. Most prominently are Augustine, an atheist of humanist turn, a member of the landed English gentry of no gathered occupation beyond enjoying his inherited wealth and 'adventures' in Prohibition USA and Morocco, Mitzi, his distant cousin, blind and a secluded Carmelite nun and Adolf Hitler who needs no introduction even as he eludes fathoming (though Hughes portrait is compelling of a man absolutely committed to power who is continuously underestimated).

They form a fascinating trinity - the free …

Transition cities

In the UK a 'transition town' is one that is preparing to become more sustainable in a world of growing resource constraint, in Asia, though this concern for sustainability can be present, the emphasis is on growth.

It leaves me with an uneasy feeling - a welcoming to this sign of prosperity, of an assertion of a new, re-balancing world, where 'the West' no longer has the first and last word, coupled with a sense that it is all arriving too late, the time of ease is passing, and the model being utilized is one that is frankly out of date.

I sit in a city the size and complexity of Bangkok and feel that I am in an unreal place, that the obvious vibrancy is misplaced, a dancing on a thinning fabric that will give way.

This may be to misjudge the resilience of humanity in the world (or simply the time frame for discovering the lack of such resilience). I hope so!

It, also, reinforces a lesson that I absorbed from a presentation in Naples at the World Global Forum that as…

Love, honour and obey

Spending time with my mother at the weekend in a place that both my father and she adored, I was prompted to wondering how it was that that they enjoyed more than fifty years of marriage and were happy.

I thought of their wedding vows: to love, honour and obey.

That they loved each other was and is clear. The sharp contours of my mother's grief since his death, the absenting void, is painful witness to that. But so too was the day, passing through Paddington Station, I saw them by chance (and before they saw me) back from celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of their first date in Bruges. They resonated warmth, companionship and each was a blessing to the other.

However, all you need is not love.

Obey is a deeply unfashionable word but its Latin roots mean to hearken, to listen. In the opening words of the Rule of St Benedict it appears as an invitation to a deep listening to one another in God. That they were obedient to one another in this sense was a growing truth not without …

Pantomime debating

I remember a marvellous moment in the television series of Alex Hailey's 'Roots' (one of those landmark series that trace across your childhood when television meant something). We are in the 'Deep South' after the Civil War when white supremacy was being re-established after a brief interruption. An electoral candidate is explaining to an assembled group of listeners that he has studied the art of rhetoric and absorbed the speeches of Cicero et al. He steps onto the balcony and his first word, uttered as battle cry, is 'Niggers...'

He knows his audience and his task is not to advance an electoral address grounded in truth and value but to win. Win first the attention of his audience, appeal to their prejudice and fear and get their votes to win the election. He, if memory serves, succeeded admirably.

This memory surfaces, I fear, every time I see coverage of the US Presidential debates where the only thing that appears to matter is who appears to have won…

Southwold: The importance of scale and place.

In spite of inclement weather (a phrase especially evocative of the place itself), I had a delightful weekend in Southwold. It is a coastal resort about which the usual temptation is to say that it is 'beautifully preserved' and indeed it does have the feel, walking through it, of a film set. At any moment David Suchet will wander round the corner as Hercule Poirot in search of hidden villainy behind the aspidistras.

However that would be to do it a disservice: what it appears to be is a community that works as a community; and, one that has exploited its charm and period feel to allow something dynamic and meaningful to be maintained. It undoubtedly has its shadows, no community does not, but if you looked about you there were admirable signs of life well-lived. There was the enthusiastic Liverpudlian who showed us around the church - an 'outsider' yet so clearly and deeply in love with the place and embraced by it. There was the well attended WEA course on Venice th…

An Unknown World

Even though my admiration for Jacob Needleman is boundless, this (his latest) is not his best book: 'An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of Earth'!

It is a moving meditation on our responsibility towards the Earth and is grounded in a series of haunting dreams that Needleman had of his boyhood friend, Elias, who died of leukemia at the age of fourteen. Jerry was two years younger, poorer and Jewish, Elias was from a wealthy background, Armenian and Christian. They shared a love of science and how it created a deep sense of wonder in and between them about the nature of the world and their place in it. Indeed this evocation of a serious childhood friendship is one of the best parts of the book.

The dreams are marvelous but the commentary they give rise to does not feel sufficiently anchored in the reality and texture of them. They come off as too abstracted: a flawed explanation rather than a commentary.

However, there are very good things here.

Most notably is the defence …

Mount Analogue

The Ascension of Mount Analogue by Remedios Varo

"He questioned us one after the other. Each of his questions, although quite simple - Who were we? Why had we come? - caught us off guard and shook us to the core. Who are you? Who am I? We could not answer him as we would a consular official or customs agent. Tell one's name and profession? What good would that do? But who are you? And what are you? The words we pronounced - we had no others - were lifeless, repugnant, and grotesque like cadavers. We knew henceforth that we could no longer pay the guides of Mount Analogue with words."

Mount Analogue is an unfinished novel by the French writer, Rene Daumal. He succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of thirty six leaving his manuscript in mid sentence and with only a sketch as to how it was to be completed (in a further two chapters). It is (and was to be) short yet it is a beautiful, mysterious and resonant tale.

Led by Father Sogol, once a monk, now a mountaineer and inven…

Saga of Jenny

Visiting a classroom of 7 to 9 year olds in Delhi last week, I was asked (amongst many other questions): what was my favourite song? My mind was wholly stumped at the time - though my appeal for Help! from my traveling companions had them suggest the Beatles!

My mind went blank because I was trying to think of something that an eight year old in a moderately poor district of Delhi might recognise and, of course, I stumbled. I should have simply said what it was (anything!) and then tried to give it a context (though that too might have been difficult). Alternatively, I could have gone armed with the ubiquitous Justin Bieber (who has indeed penetrated thus far) except I have no conscious knowledge of any of his songs (or having ever heard them)!

However, as I was leaving, my mind was whirring trying to find an answer and because it could not settle on any particular song, it was reminded of the dangers of making up one's mind and that led to the 'Saga of Jenny' - Kurt Weil…

The Fox in the Attic

Richard Hughes is author one of the most compelling (and mysterious) books about children ever written: "A High Wind in Jamaica" where a group of children are captured by pirates and turn out to be radically more amoral than the pirates!

Such an understanding of childhood as beyond innocence and experience weaves through Hughes' 'The Fox in the Attic' - the first volume of an uncompleted trilogy (as he died only 50 pages into the third volume).

The trilogy is Hughes seeking to account for the rise of Hitler and the failure of peace to take root after the breaking carnage that was the First World War. He does this through a complex tale that incorporates both fictional and factual figures (including Hitler himself).

His central character is Augustine, a young English men, inheritor of a crumbling estate in Wales, who is breaking out after a time as a virtual recluse. He carries all the prejudices of his class and of a skin deep acquaintance with modernity. Throug…

Processing elephant dung

Bring 75% prepared elephant dung and 25% waste cotton together in water, allow your mixture to lie on a fine wire mesh frame, lift, turn over the frame, press down allowing the newly minted sheet to detach from the frame,  from where it will pressed to remove the water then dried. You have a sheet of paper.

On Thursday I made two sheets and they are now in my bag on the way home.

I was visiting Vijendra and his family - first in their home come paper works and second in a field they had purchased two hours drive from Jaipur where we learnt some aspects of Indian cookery: a new recipe for Dahl, how to roll a chapati and make a bread ball (whose name I forget) that is a specialty of Rajasthan - all under the stars, sparkling clear in the darkest of nights.

Vijendra's story, which, as a high context individual, he related in great detail was fascinating. A slow spiral movement from childhood poverty (his father had leprosy) to his current success and future prospects. (see http://el…

The weighted veil

There are moments when I feel that the veil is to be lifted and all the world will be seen in the original light of its creation - and I sense that it is your own fear of the freedom such seeing offers that is weighing the veil down, not allowing it to be drawn back.

Such a moment was at breakfast yesterday, sitting in the morning light, watching a prideful peacock strutting across the lawn, refusing its own display, tail feathers firmly held behind.

At the day's closing, I was standing in a field, remote from Jaipur, under the stars having shared food with a delightful family: the son of which is a delightful paper manufacturer with a compelling story to tell.

I am trying to thank his mother for her, their hospitality and she is insistently, simply telling me how delighted she is to be happy and to have made us happy and how she will pray for each of us; and, you just surrender into a mutual being happy, rather than insist on formulating your thanks, and all is well and all mann…

Education for all?

Teach for America has persuaded a significant number of young, well-educated Americans to take two years to teach in under performing schools serving poor communities in the United States. Thus enthused the high achievers return to their career paths and become advocates for better educational outcomes in the country.

The model has been brought to India - Teach for India - and in Delhi they have 145 Fellows of the programme teaching in both public and low cost private schools.

It was was to one of these private schools I went this morning. In a 'contained' basement (but clean , well lighted and equipped), I attended a class of 7-9 year old children, uniformed, alert and prepared for our arrival.

They sang, and questioned and we questioned back - all in English - a language three months earlier they had little command of. I then went, as a part of a group, to visit the house of one of the parents. It was an illuminating conversation - he had three children and they and their p…

Change makers in India.

The day began with an introduction to mindfulness in the Vodka Bar at Claridges. This may be the first time a meditation group has assembled there for a session of relaxed quietness! Despite the incongruity, it was a lovely way to start the day - meditation in a group has its own particular energy that can deepen the experience of solitary practice. At present, I access it too rarely and must make amends on return.

Then it was out into the Delhi traffic - thick,  congested with each vehicle obeying an individual logic through which navigation is achieved (usually) with the application of great skill, fortitude and liberal use of the horn.

My group visited ITC Hotels Group to explore sustainability with Niranjan Khatri and discover a company that appears to be doing many things right - from its use of renewable energy, building supply chains to small scale farmers and employing people with disabilities. Most importantly in aligning sustainability not with corporate social responsibili…

India revisited

I am back in Delhi and impressed by its post-monsoon greenness. It is lovely to be back.

I spent the morning with a trust that works with street children where 30-40 new arrivals might grace a Delhi railway station every day. They flee abuse, a felt lack of opportunity and towards the dazzling allure of a city sold to them in minted Bollywood dreams.

The reality is harder: a Delhi nightmare  where you prioritize your expenditure on drugs (or glue), the cinema (for escapism and sleep) and possibly food or if you are a girl your income is prostitution and your outgoings go mainly to your pimp.

The Trust helps develop trust with the runaway and entices them into the possibility of a new life - either effectively as an 'orphan' in one of their centers or in a renegotiated relationship with their families.

The results are impressive - people progressively healed and given new opportunities - as was evident in our two young guides and their oft told stories retained both a freshnes…

The wonder striking world of Remedios Varo

One of the happy circumstances of ordering online for prospective books is forgetting that you have done so and there in your in-box is a note telling you that something no longer expected is on its way.

In this case it is a copy of 'Remedios Varo: The Mexican Years': a new book on this remarkable Spanish painter who lived for most of her life in exile in Mexico.

She began as a 'Surrealist' and is often described as remaining one. However, in her case, as with many artists touched and moved by surrealist impulse and experimentation, she developed a more disciplined, highly conscious art of the imagination.

It was an art saturated by a highly eclectic and personal spiritual vision that is both enchanting and difficult to read in any other language than its own.

It can (as above) be delightfully whimsical - cats, creatures of contained contentment, inhabiting their own quasi-medieval world where the wind is harnessed to the simple pleasures of a playful mobile. Each cat…

The Yoga of the Christ

Ravi Ravindra's commentary 'The Gospel of St John in the Light of Indian Mysticism' is a beautiful and challenging text.

Reading it on the plane to and from Dubai, I was struck first by how much of my presumed familiarity with the Gospel was imagined. A handful of key texts resonated with memory but many came upon me as if I have never encountered them before (that cannot be true as I have read the Gospel several times from beginning to end).

Like any re-reading, the reader, I, am different and so you notice the familiar differently and highlight different things.

This time I was struck by the compelling account it gives of how we fail to recognise what is in front of us both because it does not accord with our expectations and because it enthusiastically over supplies our expectations.

Running throughout the Gospel is a narrative about how Jesus the Christ fails to meet the religious establishment's assumptions about who the expected Messiah should be and how the pop…

Not a fan of Dubai!

It is disorientating looking up at the Burj Kalifa, the world's tallest building at 829.84 meters. It does not blend into an undulating space, like a mountain, or commune with other towers as in New York, it simply erupts from the ground: all shiny and glassy and out of place, belong to no space, it belongs nowhere.

The whole city is like this - it gives off the aura of being a random erection, unplanned, unstructured and just here: wholly arbitrary (though divided into apparently framing districts).

This is rather dispiriting when given that it was built within an autocracy by an autocracy. You may have imagined a greater sense of vision, guiding order and planning. They might have built something altogether new and imaginative. They did not.

The desert here is horizontal, parsimonious of resource, except for heat (and oil) and unattractive. Buildings could have been close quartered, grown from their landscape, created beauty cumulatively and from detail, and used heat, both act…