Showing posts from December, 2012

A year's artistic highlights

The first was a renewed love of fresco. I was on holiday in Sansepolcro in June where you are present to one of this form's greatest masterpieces: The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca.

It is in the Museo Civico and so arranged that even when the museum is closed you can see it (at times) through a wide, glassed in, archway. I love the humanity of the sleep drenched guards and the one to the left who appears to be hiding his face from the dazzling truth of resurrection rather than simply sleeping through it. A subtle order of difference in our inabilities to comprehend!

But it was not only in its masterpieces that fresco seduces. In the same museum, virtually hidden up narrow stairs, were beautiful if humbler examples, akin to this one of St Catherine of Alexandra.

Here she patiently waits the construction of the implements of her death, resistant to tyranny, assured in grace. I love the (now) muted yet vibrant colours, the simplicity of the narratives yet so skilfully execut…

The Tree of Man

Patrick White is a painterly writer. On almost every page of this tremendous novel you are invited to pause to contemplate a picture in words, shaped with poetry, that allows, invites you to see an another world enfolded within the unfolding narrative of Stan and Amy Parker's lives.

It is always a world of transcendent possibility but one in which these possibilities often lie tantalising out of reach. Out of reach because of our inability to allow a humility to be born that might grace understanding or, more often, because such understanding might upset the comforting surfaces of our lives or conflict with our often cruel certainties.

There are wonderful set pieces in the book - of nature inflicting its challenges as the Parker's make a life for themselves in what was wilderness and will become virtual suburb by the book's close - of fire and flood and the terrors and revelations that such grand events may bring. But also of the revelations of quiet domesticity and famil…

A New Year's resolution

Do not buy anymore books until...

The record was created last year when I lasted until January 14th!

To ensure I last that long today, while in Waterstone's flagship Picadilly store, I bought three!

Oleg Tarasov's 'Icon and Devotion: Sacred Spaces in Imperial Russia', Victor Frankl's 'The Doctor and the Soul' and Patrick Wilcken's biography, 'Claude Levi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory'.

If there is any connection, apart from to demonstrate my eclecticism, it is the thread of how humans make meaning through symbols - though the first two are how transcendent meaning is revealed through symbol rather than fabricated.

Here is to days, hopefully weeks of 'cold turkey'!

Shambolic and Orwellian

The Most Revd Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminister should work harder at his metaphors. In an ill tempered and mis-judged Christmas address, he attacked the government's plans for legislating on 'gay marriage' as both shambolic and Orwellian. I think he should go back to '1984' - the whole point of Orwellian space is that it is so constructed and ordered that even apparent freedom is finally illusory. Nothing about it is shambolic.

Perhaps he meant that the outer shambolic nature of the government's actions was a cunning front hiding steely Orwellian machinations - in which case he grants the coalition government more competence and cunning than anyone else imagines. David Cameron as O'Brien...the Archbishop should definitely get out more...

But, more seriously, the Archbishop's message demonstrates the continuing displacement of religion in contemporary culture. This is not because according to polls the Archbishop is in the …

Titles from Hay

The number (and quality?) of bookshops in Hay on Wye appears to be in decline, replaced by outlets for fashionable goods and ceramics yet there are treasures to be found.

On an outing today, and with marketing help from Andrei, I came back with a further eight books to find space for, physically and in mind.

Beginning with the Nobels, the first was a replacement text for my battered, much read, copy of Patrick White's 'Riders in the Chariot' - a good second hand paperback to survive a few further readings of that remarkable exploration of the limits of good and the potentiality for evil. The second Nobel was 'The Slave' by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I have not read him in a long while, having enjoyed 'The Magician of Lublin' and some of the short stories, and indeed recommended him to Andrei, yet he never quite took off (or burrowed in). Time for another attempt.

Both sat light to any formal participation in the religious traditions of their birth, but both we…

Merry Christmas

According to Alexander Gilchrist, William Blake's first biographer, the painter, Samuel Palmer, visited Blake one day, towards the end of his life, and found William and his beloved Catherine, clothed 'as Adam and Eve in paradise' under a vine in their back yard.
Palmer, always a more conservative soul than his older friend and mentor, was not a little shocked at the Blakes' revealing of our naked state, recapitulating the paradise that is always ours, pristine and present to us, if the eyes, through rather than with which we see, are cleansed.
Palmer's own painterly journey was of vision gained, lost and re-found. He stepped into a vision at Shoreham in Kent of a world transfigured where the Holy Family can rest on their way to Egypt amongst a landscape 'actually loved and known' for the archetype is timeless, the history merely incidental. Later, in search of worldly confirmation of his gifts, Palmer mislaid them and became a good landscape painter, amon…

The incomparable Mr White

When his masterpiece 'Riders in the Chariot' was published, the Australian Nobel prize winner, Patrick White, received a telephone call. A man, with a thick East European accent, asked him whether he wanted to go further. Startled White declined and put down the receiver. Later he recalled the voice as that belonging to the relation of a friend and regretted his decision.

The invitation was to study and penetrate the Kabbalah  - the mystical stream in Judaism - a profound intuitive grasp of which pervades 'Riders...'

This afternoon I found myself in a familiar quandary, namely what to read next, having finished John Shirley's excellent account of the life and teaching of Gurdjieff.  Pondering the bookcase of my personal 'canon' (in my bedroom), I considered whether I had the energy for a White.

He is after all a writer who, with conscious deliberation, creates sentences that require you to read slowly, ruminatively. Originally he wanted to be a painter, an…

An extraordinary musician and a piece of history

Ravi Shankar died today. He was a most extraordinary musician who carried a tradition with fidelity from its home place, India, into a wider world while at the same time allowing it to interact and play with other musical traditions. To be at one of his concerts was to be transported.
The piece of history is that his elder brother, Udday, was instructor, mentor and friend to my closest friend, and she had studied dance with Ravi under his brother's gaze. Once, when Ravi came to give concerts in London, I went with her and we met him after the performance - a charming, endearing presence - he stood confident in his powers and utterly welcoming.
They can dance together now with a celestial harmony.

Enlightenment Ain't What It's Cracked Up To Be

Ram Dass, former Harvard professor transformed into spiritual guide and successful author, was once slated to give a talk one evening where his host was a friend of his and mine (and who told me this story).

Ram Dass had arrived at my friend's house ahead of schedule, exhausted and dispirited, and suggested that prior to the talk they distract themselves in some way. They decided on the cinema and went to see the first Star Wars movie smuggling in pizzas to eat under their coats and sitting in the front row chomping away absorbed in the mysteries of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and the Force!

Arriving at the talk, Ram Dass noticed two pretty young women in the front row and said to them, 'Good evening! Glad you could come' and walked on, as he did so my friend, following, overheard one of the women excitedly, awestruck, proclaim to the other, 'Fancy, He spoke to us'!

The talk was (as befitted him) brilliant (and reflective of a genuine spiritual depth)!

Robert Form…

The stigma of mental health and poverty

Mental health is everywhere a subject that does not receive the attention that it merits nor the compassion that it deserves. Its capacity to create uncertainty and the complexity of its origins (and treatment) generates fear. When you compound this with the reality of poverty, the burden is extraordinary.

Basic Needs, that was founded in 1999, works to overcome this burden by giving people access to treatment, build deeper links with their communities, renew their livelihoods and campaign for change in how people are seen and treated.

It is a remarkable organization, of which I was a founding trustee, and this year it is one of the charities selected for the Guardian and Observer newspaper's Christmas appeal (see the above link).

On not finishing books...without guilt...

It may be a feature of ageing but I am developing a wholly guilt free attitude to not finishing books!

Today I decided not to finish Ann Wroe's 'Being Shelley'. It is very well written, approaching Shelley from 'inside out' as a poet first and foremost rather than as a biography of a man from which poetry occasionally surfaces amongst the complex to-ing and fro-ing of a life. It wants to rehabilitate Shelley as a 'metaphysical' poet and puts significant emphasis both on his indebtedness to the Greeks, most especially Plato, and to his experience of transcendence: an objective Beauty that stalks his life - illuminating and tantalising in turn.

But at 380 pages it is simply too long (and too diffuse) - example piles upon example until you are left simply saying, 'Yes, yes I get it...and...' This 'and' being what does this mean, not for Shelley, but for us, the reader? Does this metaphysical focus change how we see things? Does it shift the po…


Driving home this evening from Kingston upon Thames, I was listening to Radio 3 and was reminded what a versatile man Leonard Bernstein was, as here, conducting his own comic opera, Candide.

This struck me as a perfect choice for the man - Voltaire's text is of high moral purpose yet sceptical, satirical and humorous - and ends with one of the most pointed sentences in literature - that we should all cultivate our gardens. We should all take responsibility for what is in our purview, accepting both its limits and its possibilities. We should enterprise after knowing but totality of knowing lies beyond our, or anyone's, grasp.

It may not be the deepest of visions - and Bernstein, multiply gifted as he was, was not the most profound of composers - but it does carry a freight of tolerance and compassion that is realistic and attractive. I think I would like to be trapped in a lift (or indeed a garden) with Voltaire (or indeed Bernstein) in front of many more serious and weighty …