Sunday, March 31, 2013

On the fringe of Kathmandu

Today I traveled to the outskirts of Kathmandu to visit the refuge for children not yet able to be returned to their parents. It was a place rapidly urbanizing yet still with the open space of fields, vegetable gardens and the uncleared, forested tops of hills. It was above the punishing smog of the Kathmandu valley that today obscured any view of the mountains. All there was a pallid white-grey opacity.

The refuge was basic, simple but adequate and the children all go to an excellent school up the hill. The staff are caring yet in need of better training to address the psycho-social needs of children whose short life stories (and the youngest is six) have been scared with trauma. The trust's new office, further down the hill, is in the process of acquiring the space to sustain extra-curricular activities and provide confidential, safe counselling spaces.

On the journey up, I was able to see, for the first time, traditional Nepalese architecture, as here,  restored and sometimes brightly painted with psychedelic vibrancy; other examples were in straitened decay. I noticed that all, however, outshone their modern equivalents (though these had more aesthetic sense than much modern Asian (or indeed any) architecture). Even the modern had a sensitivity to the symbolism as well as the actuality of a house.

I saw too the happy mingling of religion, especially Buddhist and Hindu, even occasionally on the same shrine - the Buddha beds down beside Ganesha in a hopeful combination of fortune for the worshiper. Would that this architectural brotherhood fully extend to the habits of men. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Practice resurrection

The Resurrection by Sandro Botticelli.

"What you do to the least of these," said Jesus, "you do unto me" pointing to the children gathered about him.

If we practiced resurrection, living within the boundary of this Christian witness, my Easter weekend would have been very different. The stark reality of 'child trafficking' would be a thing of our collective past.

Sadly it is not and, therefore, such organizations as the Esther Benjamin Trust ( must exist- to rescue trafficked children in Nepal (and from Nepal in India), either to return them to their homes or care for them until capable of an independent life and to work on the causes of trafficking both in poverty and education and in changing the law and its enforcement.  

For a busman's holiday, I find myself in Kathmandu helping the committee and staff of EBT's Nepalese partner think through its strategy and explore ways of taking up new opportunities to implement that strategy. It is, as always, deeply moving to see a dedicated group of people (both voluntary and paid, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and simply human) explore together how they might 'do more' to help the most vulnerable. 

If 'child trafficking' is a sign of a falling failure, the response is one of practiced resurrection.

It was St Teresa of Avila, that deeply practical mystic, that said that Christ has no other hands than our own. It is only in and through our own hands that resurrection is made real, present.

I am finishing a re-reading of Jung's last autobiographical testimony, 'Memories, Dreams, Reflections'. One of his radical Protestant hopes was that we shifted our attention from practicing a religion about Christ and sought to embody the religion of Christ: a life lived in the Spirit that makes us free and whole to be as Christ is with God, fully at one and fully and particularly human.

Jung is suggesting nothing more that Christ Himself suggested that He needed to go, so that the Spirit might come and makes of us the Resurrection.

Practice resurrection. Happy Easter.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Prayer without ceasing until the sun goes down...

I arrived in Kathmandu this morning and stood smiling amiably at the Buddhist monk as we waited for our luggage to emerge on the carousel. He was every inch the modern monk with his lap top case and smart baggage.

Welcomed at the airport, I stepped in the car and discovered an array of Buddhas and Buddhist symbols to offer protection from the vagaries of the Kathmandu traffic including a solar powered prayer wheel (as depicted here, and available on Amazon).

'Is this cheating?' I thought but did not ask.

I do remember the poet and novelist, Lawrence Durrell, leaning over his breakfast table at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in France and telling an earnest Australian visitor that indeed you could get battery powered ones now. The Australian apparently had been at risk of repetitive strain injury given the fervor of his hand propelled spinning. But this is the first one I had seen.

St Paul tells us to 'pray without ceasing' to be so attuned to the Spirit's presence that the prayer that is always there in the Spirit's self-offering to Father and the Son is the very reality we as human beings, when aright, inhabit. This was a discipline of intellect, attention and feeling and their integration in the heart. I do not think he had Duracell in mind as an aid.

But it was strangely comforting, as we weaved in and out of the rush hour traffic, to see the mantra turning. It felt an active offering, even if mechanical. No doubt both driver and passenger, from time to time, catch its jaunty revolutions in the mind's eye and remember the mantra themselves and are grateful.

That would be enough.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Even Larry Elliott... The Guardian writes of 'capital controls' as if they represented some kind of failure. It is true in the case of Cyprus that there sudden and drastic imposition (and pretended 'temporary' nature) are a response to failure (both of the Cypriot banking system and of the bailout of that system) but they are not, in themselves, intrinsically bad.

I mean if they had been in place all along, we would not have built up a banking system whose inherent irresponsibility has led to the current crisis.

Indeed the last capital controls in the UK were only abolished with the first Thatcher government and with their general global dismantling, post-1971, various things have happened.

The world financial system has grown increasingly unstable, it has generated less actual wealth year on year (measured in GDP terms) than the preceding decades but has contrived to allocate that wealth increasingly unequally.

Are these facts in anyway possibly connected? To which the answer is yes. No man can serve two masters. You can either build a genuine economy in particular places, shaped around nations or regions where money is controlled and the servant of the needs of the household and people. Or, alternatively, you can deconstruct economies and live (for a time, like King Midas) in a casino where all activity is at the service of money. This gives the winners a great (and addictive) buzz but sooner or later many in the real world come to wake from their affliction and try again to rein money in. The sad thing is this tends to happen only after a calamitous shock - like many an addict, it is only when they discover themselves in the gutter that they begin to wake up.

Is the gutter coming up to meet us? Sadly, yes. The financial system is fundamentally insolvent and the next shock or the one after will finish it off. This is a sobering thought and I wish we could all wake up earlier and change. Here is hoping.

A friend who interacts at a senior level with a number of central banks said to me recently that ultimately we will need some form of radical 'jubilee' of debt forgiveness. I can only agree. I wish it could be forgiveness that is conscious and orderly. I fear it will come as an unwelcome and painful correction. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Silver Darlings

The Silver Darlings is a novel by Neil M Gunn that became a film and (as here) a play.

It is an essay in social realism. It tells of the clearances that forced many to live at Scotland's edges and take to the fishing of herring. It was a fishing that offered both the prospect of modest prosperity and cruelly the unpredictability of the sea.

Set in the early nineteenth century, the story revolves around Catrine who loses her husband to a press gang, takes refuge with a relative, finds a new man, who she eventually marries on learning of her husband's death, and determines that her son, Finn, will not be taken by the sea.

But both her lover and her son have the sea in their blood, try as she might, she can keep neither from it nor persuade Finn to take up the path of education (using a small legacy she has acquired).

She is a typical 'Gunn mother' in that her version of her son's betterment (usually entailing escape through education) clashes with the son's desire to cleave close to his community and to nature.

The Silver Darlings was a transitional book for Gunn where the elements that moved beneath the surface of his realism began to peek out and become more prominent; namely, his highly embodied spirituality, whereby we come to recognise that there is another world enfolded in this one, that gives a new dimension to our seeing of, and being in, the world. It was a prominence that slowly alienated his readership (in the kitchen sink realities of the materialising 1950s) but which deserve now to be re-evaluated. Unlike his admired Hermann Hesse, he did not enjoy a swinging 60s and a new readership. His texts were probably perceived as too parochial (and too spiritually tentative) for that.

I have been watching the 1947 film of the book. It was a labour of love, taking two years to complete, and whilst being chronologically challenged when it comes to costumes (they are all over the place), it is a very moving, direct portrayal of the book's essence - Finn's coming of age, the harshness of the life, shot through with people's irresistible capacity to find celebration (and love). And a mother's consistent, constant concerning love for the safety and well-being of the two men in her life and her struggle to reconcile herself to their chosen destiny.

It is, also, a covert hymn to Gunn's nationalism - the herring industry (in which Gunn's own father was a trawler skipper) was built in the teeth of the clearances by ordinary Scots - which gives it a topical edge that of a country's self-reliance and the virtues of the local.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The paradox of blackmail

Wolfgang Schaeuble, the German Finance Minister, yesterday declared that he would not be blackmailed by anyone (presumably, in this case, Cypriots) only to say in the same sentence that he must do everything to preserve the euro (and its rules). You do not let yourself be blackmailed by actual people but are quite happy to be straight jacketed by a made up financial mechanism.

This is, of course, a very common pattern in our human experience where 'abstracts' become more real than actualities. Plato called it 'sophism' - the tendency of the human mind to prefer its conceptual frameworks rather than the hard task of continually creating 'notional' responses to the world as it continually presents itself to our embodied minds, to people in action.

Ideally, we should be fashioning and re-fashioning the rules to meet the demands of actual needs as people. Currency was made for man not man for the currency (where have I heard that before)!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Memories, Dreams, Reflections

It must be one of the better childhood 'visions' - God sending down from His throne on high a giant turd to shatter the beautiful roof of His cathedral in Basel one bright, shining summer's day - and have one of His children, in this case the precocious Jung, both tested and graced as a result.

It is extraordinary story, told in Jung's 'autobiography': 'Memories, Dreams, Reflections'. The potential 'vision' was so disturbing to the twelve year old Jung that he spent several days in frustrated distraction lest he commit the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. But when he did finally think his way into surrender, he tells us he felt an extraordinary moment of enfolding grace. Apart from anything else it is a beautifully told story of childhood neurosis - have I committed a sin of which I am unaware? I am clean?

What matters, he tells us, is not following the outward signs of religion, including God's own recorded commandments, but being wholly obedient to God's will as experienced here and now.

Interestingly he tells us it was only in this experience of abandonment that he came to a sense of his full responsibility. You cannot surrender to God unless you are wholly sure that you have been fully attentive, conscious, and able to bear the consequences - and Jung implies that this responsibility is wholly directed at your individual being in the world. It does not give you licence to rearrange other people's consciences and lives.

It is, on reflection, both a profoundly Protestant vision in its context and Gnostic in its content (as God wills us to special saving knowledge beyond conventional views of 'good' and 'evil').

What struck me this time, reading MDR, was how gripping it is. In the hands of a lesser story teller, you might be tempted to see these early dreams and visions as the flotsam of the over active fantasy of a child. However, Jung both manages to convey how these strange realities impinged on him as a child and how they affected his subsequent life and thinking. You feel the very texture of how children takes these matters wholly seriously and you are invited not to put them away as 'childish things'. Something about recovering and inhabiting the wondering of a child is a prerequisite for imagining the kingdom of God.

I read MDR first when I was only slightly older that the Jung was was receiving these experiences, feeling haunted by moods of transcendence; and, was well placed to empathise. Re-reading them now, I feel reproved that I, unlike Jung, have been fitful at best at paying full attention. May I be graced with finding that again. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Flagellation

I saw the Flagellation by Piero della Francesca in Urbino last year. It is a very strange, yet beautiful, painting because the central narrative: Christ being flogged before the crucifixion is placed at the back and to the foreground are three men, variously identified.

The traditional view is that it is a complex allegory concerning the fall of the Byzantine Empire that happened twenty years before it was painted; however, it is wholly modern in allowing Christ to appear in a picture not as the central figure and as an allegory relating to some other event (rather than the other way around).

Or is it? I am reading Marilyn Aronberg Lavin's book on della Francesca in Phaidon's consistently excellent series: 'Art & Ideas'.

Her reading of the painting is a highly satisfying one because she capture a dynamic that you can see in all Piero's art namely the transformation of particular persons and places, either historical or contemporary, in the light of sacred narrative with a deep attention to the need of his patrons.

Here Lavin suggests we have a painting of 'consolation' offering a private space for devotion.

She convincingly identifies the two older men in the foreground with nobles of Urbino both of whom tragically lost a son at the age depicted by the gilded youth positioned between them. The youth is counterpointed to the flagellated Christ who yet is attached to a sign of future glory - the golden statue that sits upon the pillar to which He is bound. The painting offers a connection between the sorrow and tribulation of the grieving foreground and its final conquest by being shared and defeated by Christ. The imagery accords with the growing theological humanism of the Renaissance that acknowledges the importance of grief and the importance of offering to one another consolation.

It makes sense to me!

As do all Lavin's readings, they seem to give equal attention to the purpose of the patronage, to the theological demand both traditional and newly minted and Piero's accomplishment both in the abstract as mathematician and in the particular as a lover of particular places, most notably his home, Sansepolcro.

Piero is a painter beloved of contemporary artists because of the conceptualism of his designs but I love him for the extraordinary balance he maintains between composure and expression. There is something transformed in his figures' emotions that speaks of a feeling beyond ego, that there is another world enfolded in this one, where we can be as selfs made in God's image and that image is borne by our embodied lives, now, not found somewhere other. They are beautiful testaments to the way the Renaissance, for a brief moment, acknowledged a perfecting balance between the divine and the human.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Agreeing with Mr Putin and The Economist

This is unfamiliar territory.

Mr Putin described the proposed bailout of Cypriot banks, where depositors holding over 100,000 euro would be charged a one time 'fee' of 9.9% as part of the agreed bailout package, as "unfair, unprofessional and dangerous".

The Economist described it as "unfair, short-sighted and self-defeating." (

I confess to agreeing with this unlikely concord.

By nature, I am mostly un-shockable but this 'agreement' has genuinely surprised me and my own adjectives would be mendacious, unjust, immoral and unbelievably stupid!

Immoral because it violates a much vaunted and now betrayed claim to trust on the part of the European Union. This is because it will effect people below the promised 100,000 euro threshold of depositor security with a proposed 'levy' of 6.25%. This 'levy' is now being negotiated downwards but the principle has been breached and the feeble claim that 'Cyprus is unique' is no protection against the perceived (and actual) betrayal of trust that this represents across the EU.

Unjust for two reasons (at least). The first because sovereign bondholders remain unscathed even though it is they, rather than depositors, who were the risk takers who ostensibly 'the market' should either reward or punish for the outcome of their risks. Second because officials are admitting that they felt emboldened to take this action because between quarter and a third of all deposits are held by Russians. The implication being that they are essentially perceived as 'money laundering thieves' who can afford it (and ought to be punished in any case). We (the good burghers of Europe) cannot be seen to be using 'our' money to bail out them!

Mendacious because those same officials, including today the German Finance minster, are calmly telling us that the deal is the work (and responsibility) of the Cypriot government, as if they thought it up all by themselves and are solely responsible. This is akin to suggesting that the bank manager who is forced to give the gang the safe code because the gang has kidnapped his children is solely responsible for the bank heist.

The stupidity is, of course, that such a deal (if imposed) undermines the whole credibility of the banking system especially, but not only, in other states troubled by debt crises; and, tells European citizens, loud and clear, that the trust that the German Foreign minister claimed that Europe had earned as a result of its response to the crisis (a dubious claim at the best of times) is utterly and completely misplaced.

The Cypriot President claimed that the only other alternative was to declare bankruptcy. This is probably true (given the obdurate idiocy of the European officials he is dealing with) - and, taking the leaf out of another small island with a bloated banking system, namely Iceland, it is probably the better way to go. But then Iceland neither belonged to the EU nor the Euro.

There maybe a lesson there somewhere that I expect the European officials who dreamt up this absurd plan hope no one notices... 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The multiple lives and mystery of Arthur Rimbaud

The unknown English poet, Lewis Thompson, was deeply influenced in both his poetic and metaphysical pathway by the exceedingly famous (or notorious) French poet, Arthur Rimbaud.

Could an intense focus on the practice of poetry disassemble the 'I' as ego and liberate a transparency of consciousness that allowed 'Reality' to shine through whole and in all its coloured particularities? Or would you come to realise that, however, deftly and intensely explored, language, in the words of Thompson, was always, however well intentionally aimed, Hypocrisy, falling short of capturing the truthfulness of things?

If you did realise this would that relativise your practice of poetry, making you seek an embodied surrender into the wholeness of truth in your life (as Thompson sought) or would you, tragically, abandon poetry for a different kind of life as Rimbaud did? And where would the meaning of that life be in relation to one's whole life journey? Did Rimbaud's poetic silence signify failure or was it a witness to a deeper truthfulness?

Graham Robb, Rimbaud's most recent, and accomplished, English biographer would think that Thompson's questioning was yet another example of projecting onto Rimbaud concerns that were his, Thompson's, not Rimbaud's. It has been, even when Rimbaud was alive, a crowded field of earnest (and frivolous) projection (accompanied by skilful supporting editing of evidence).

For Robb, Rimbaud's life takes two, equally accomplished halves, and there is no need for any grand connecting narrative. You can take up poetry - brilliantly - and put it down for any number of reasons at the comfortable level of psychology and you can migrate from an 'enfant terrible' anarchist with bad table manners in your youth to a self-contained accomplished (and wealthy) trader and explorer in your middle age (sadly truncated by cancer). You may have continued to write but these were notes towards a sober travel book on Abyssinia, full of recondite and practical information, rather than incendiary poems of symbolist flight.

Robb's biography does an admirable job of giving life and substance to the 'second half' of Rimbaud's life. He was as spectacularly successful in both achieving significant things (prosperity and exploratory discovery) and equally successful in eluding immediate recognition (outside a small circle of those 'in the know' whether literary in the first half of life or colonial in the second).

There in lies an intriguing mystery - that Robb leaves unexplained - and that leaves a door open for Thompson to step through - where does Rimbaud's compelling desire to be 'hidden' come from? Even in the midst of his accomplishments, he slips away and his 'identity' is remarkably flexible as if the 'ego' indeed was a servant not, I expect, of a grand metaphysical design but possibly, as Thompson recognised, a way of seeing into the reality of things, that was for want of cultural support, intensely fragile, compromised, and required his strikingly nomadic lifestyle to be, in any way, sustainable. Thompson went to India precisely because he felt that there was there a sustaining culture to such seeing that allowed it to take root, deepen and be fully embodied. For Thompson, Rimbaud's tragedy was in not being able to find that sustaining place.

If Robb comes to no conclusions - and how can we about any life, even our own - he does a wonderful job on making Rimbaud more complex than we often allow him and more multi faceted - and a remarkable example of a person who can pass through life both so accomplished and so unrecognised (and not, I think, care one jot)!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A new Pope

Apart from congratulating myself on my perspicacity on predicting a Latin American Pope on the basis that it needed to be shipped out of Europe safely and that meant to a place that mirrors Europe and speaks a Latin based language hence the Americas, I, like many, am pondering what this particular election means...

What it does not mean is any radical shift in the doctrinal teaching of the Church on matters beloved of liberals and obsessed over by conservatives. Sex remains conflicted. The Church will continue to exhort and the faithful will nod politely and continue to ignore the Magisterium.

The chinks of light are that Pope Francis is a Jesuit and committed to social justice.

The former gives him a commitment to a conscious, disciplined and structured pattern of spirituality that is designed and meant to deliver concrete results. Jesuit spirituality is not a path of exhortation and wishful thinking but a measured, thoughtful and imaginative path for evoking, responding to and channeling grace. The Church is, to quote St Benedict, 'a school for the Lord's service' and that pedagogy is meant to deliver results.

The latter gives the Papacy the opportunity, alongside a renewed emphasis on spiritual formation, to develop a real 'edginess'.

The truly counter cultural edge of the Church is not to be found rummaging through people's bedrooms but asking deep and meaningful questions about what they do at work, with the money they earn and about the structures of their economic life. 'Economic' life seen both as the organisation of the 'home' and of the 'polis'. It might not be seemly for a Jesuit to be seen consorting with a Dominican but if the Pope chooses a Franciscan mantle - of poverty and simplicity - he might like to add a Dominican one of deeply questioning the arrangements of the world that lead us away from St Francis' idealism.

He might care to begin with a global financial system ill-equipped to bring either stability or justice to the world.

I remember my first trip to Dublin and sitting on a bus and facing a fellow traveller (Dublin buses were designed to facilitate conversation) and being asked by him, brandishing a newspaper, 'Don't y'r think it usurious what these here credit card companies are charging?' (This was before the era of the Celtic Tiger and his subsequent extinction). "As St Thomas Aquinas says in the 'Summa Contra Gentiles'" followed by a swift and erudite criticism of the notion of 'interest."

It would be great if the new Pope took up these cudgels, not only the importance of focusing on the poor (in a charitable way) but of the rigorous Catholic social tradition that questions our modern arrangements that generate poverty, social inequality and ecological injustice.

A good attack on usury would be a great place to start for not only does it distort our economic relations but it places a crippling burden on our ecology!

Where better for a Francis to start. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Children, place and possessions

Given the content of this excellent piece by my friend, Jules Pretty, I can be forgiven for recycling it!

The importance of our attachment to particular places can never be underemphasised. For the important reasons articulated here as well as, I would add, their stimulus to creativity, not only the unstructured play, mentioned here, but of poetic response.

We often write (or paint or compose music) in a dialogue with particular places that inspire, frame and creatively bound our thinking. This is obvious with nature poetry or landscape painting or programmatic music but even quite 'cerebral' poetry can be and is rooted in conversations with particular places.

I think, for example, of Eliot's exploration of time and eternity in his Four Quartets, each of which is coupled to a place for more than simply the reasons of naming. Something in the nature of those places, actually loved and known, helped frame and embody Eliot's thinking and provide anchoring reference from which the poems take flight and to which they periodically return to touch the elements.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Live and Let Die

Maybe because it is the first one I saw (at a cinema in Aviemore, Scotland I recall when on holiday) but my favourite James Bond film (if not my favourite James Bond) is Roger Moore's first outing as 007.

It is undoubtedly politically dubious - mostly white virtuous people pitched against mostly black criminal people - and the trashy Voodoo and Tarot running theme is a travesty of both (and how they became to be interconnected is a mystery) - but it is simply so enjoyable.

From the opening scenes of the dispatch of three British agents, especially the New Orleans funeral shifting from slow mourning to jazz infected celebration through the memorable chase scenes with the decrepit double decker bus and the speed boats in the Louisiana bayou to the denouement on the train with the thug with the artificial arm, it is simply magical (and graced with a Paul McCartney inspired score that is fun too)!

Even the astonishingly wooden Jane Seymour (as the Tarot packed seer) is splendidly, enjoyably bad...

A Gift for the Magus

According to Alberti in his book, 'On Painting', a masterpiece of the Florentine humanism of the fifteenth century, 'to be a good painter you must be a good man'.

Fra Filippo Lippi (believed to be self portrayed above) was, by the standards of the age, notorious. Orphaned at an early age and placed in a Carmelite Friary, he proceeded to a life of disobedience, fornication and strong liquor and yet became one of the greatest painters of his age, whose paintings are graced with a harmony between heaven and earth. A new realism shot through with adoration.

He kidnapped (or rescued) a nun (or woman in the care of nuns), who had modelled for him, and she became his wife and the mother of a son, destined himself to be a distinguished painter. His most long lasting pupil was Sandro Botticelli.

Linda Proud has woven about this story both a fine historical novel and an extended meditation on the nature of goodness, the interface in art between inspiration and patronage and on a turning point in history - the Renaissance - a looking back (and through) time and Church to a period when, it was believed, that human exploration was freer, when thought could follow personal illumination and conjecture.

Her portrait of Lippi, whatever its historical 'accuracy', shows a man gifted both with the talents of an artisan and the inspiration of an artist, who was immensely fallible (and also free of the apparent hypocrisies of the Church) and who wrestled with his multiple distractions (internally offered, externally imposed) and brought forth grace - in art and family.

Like any good historical novel, you learn a great deal, painlessly, like the challenges that painters faced getting paid. Patrons would often express dissatisfaction with the finished product in order to elude having to pay the artist for it: an act usually followed by lengthy and costly legal proceedings of uncertain outcome.

You are, also, introduced to other historical figures that are richly engaged and described. Most notably here Cosimo de' Medici - the banker, patron and re-founder of a Platonic Academy; Fra Angelico - the painter whose fusion of ability and humility Fra Lippi most deeply admires (and fails to emulate) and Marsilio Ficino, the translator and interpreter of Platonic thought, the philosopher of the Renaissance.

The portrait of Cosimo is fascinating: how being rich (the Gates of his age) enabled him to do many things and yet it cannot grant him anything for which he has no talent (for example painting) and distances him from the simplicity he craves. It is a reality that both connects and isolates.

The Gift of the Magus is a prequel to Proud's 'The Bottocelli Trilogy' that I will embark upon. They are all, remarkably, self-published from here: and are not available on Amazon!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Mr Chavez goes to heaven...or to hell...

Whatever else he achieved in life, Mr Chavez certainly contrives to divide opinion with a starkness that is crystalline.

Either he is at the vanguard of democracy and socialism struggling against evil elites (and the dark hand of the United States) or he is a quasi fascist figure utilising the dark arts of charm, largesse and media manipulation to maintain power over the enthralled masses (and the cowed middle class). Take your pick and then manipulate your narrative accordingly!

I have to confess to having an innate distrust of anyone who imagines they should appear on television once a week for up to twelve straight hours and expect to be listened to (methinks a touch of narcissism there)...

But that prejudice aside, I confess to simply not knowing, so ideologically charged has the battle become that no honest assessment seems likely to emerge for a long time. When it does, I expect, it will be more colourful than the black and white tones of hagiography (or demonology) allow.

There was a very powerful sentence in Wes Jackson's 'Consulting the Genius of the Place' that has been playing in my mind all week. It is one where he comments that 'energy distorts perspective' (the energy might be actual energy or the energy of money or indeed of power). It enables you to do things now (by spending at a deficit) that are not sustainable, that you do not recognise, because they disguise, limits. Some of this may be necessary, some of it may enable you to invest in a future that does return you to equilibrium, but the temptation is always to get lost in the excitement of the energy and fantasise that the limit is either gone or too distant to notice.

In the language of sin, this would have been called 'lust' to which, like every other sin, the answer would be 'humility' (from the Latin word humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as "humble", but also as "grounded", "from the earth", or "low", since it derives in turns from humus (earth)).  I can think of no better word for consulting the genius of a place than the word 'humility' in fact.

It appears to me that this is what all our political systems presently lack - humility - the sense that they have, we have, necessary limits.

A great leader, one genuinely worthy of admiration, would be one who could mirror our rage against limits and allow us to begin to see the need for humility (and they themselves would have to embody that). The only problem with being such a leader is that, if by chance they came to power, we would probably dispense with them quickly. The only US President in recent memory to try it - Jimmy Carter - was quickly dispatched and then canonised so we could admire him without enduring any change!

My only running criteria for a great leader now is did he or she help us to recognise and reorganize for limits? Did they so arrange their societies current advantages to achieve this necessary transformation? Where are the indicators that suggest that was so? Sadly, as presently constituted, very few within the world's leadership would pass muster - Mr Chavez, may he rest in peace, included.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Spine tingling...

Rather randomly, over a decade ago, you walk into an office in search of ideas and in the course of that discussion (and much subsequent work) help bring an idea, already hatched but looking for a home, to fruition.

Today you are sent a link by a friend you did not know then about today's Women's Hour on BBC Radio Four. It is a report she has helped produce. It is about two women in Ghana - one suffering from bipolar disorder, another who suffered from post-natal depression - both of whom have found the support they needed from the organisation Basic Needs that sprang out of that discussion more than ten years ago!

The accounts of their suffering and their path ways out are very moving (and can be found starting at 16 minutes 41 seconds into the programme).

It is moments like these, listening to their voices of renewed hope, that remind me that changing the world in a more compassionate and just direction is always possible.

It, also, reminds me of how extraordinary can be the consequences of unplanned yet serious engagement. I could never have imagined that my conversation with Chris that spring afternoon in Warwickshire would have me in tears at the kitchen table so many years later at realising what a good thing we had done!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Authority junkies

Only Jesus, when wholly transparent to the Father, can teach with authority (that of the Father) and only when that teaching is absorbed in the uniquely transformative experiencing of each person does it have any purchase on the soul.

What the Church needs to discover is not its 'authority' - better it abandoned that notion once and for all since it has singularly, persistently failed it (as it can only do, being unable to possess it)  - and find the humility to consistently point to the reality inherent in Christ - a reality brought to bear in its saints.

The Church, as Karl Rahner observed, needs to become one of a practiced mysticism - or nothing at all.

Aiming to recover its 'authority' is rather like an alcoholic convincing himself as he breaks his dryness for the umpteenth time that this time it will be different! The only way to deal with power is to surrender it by distributing it far and wide and trying for wisdom instead.

Happy is the day when the Church realises that it is a tradition of wisdom rather than of authority (and power).

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Consulting the Genius of the Place

Wes Jackson's 'Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture' ought to be required reading by virtually everybody (though it could be helped by a touch of smarter editing).

It makes a simple, but cogent, case that we live by way of deficit and have done so ever since the invention of an agriculture, ten thousand years ago, based on crops made of annual, rather than perennial, plants. This deficit has been disguised first by our capacity to move elsewhere as soils collapse, secondly by improving plant varieties and thirdly by huge (and increasing) artificial inputs of non-renewable energy (actual and transformed) like the ability to convert natural gas into fertiliser, without which, it is estimated, 40% of the world's current population would be unfeasible!

Annual plants tend towards monoculture and are grown by disturbing the soil. Such disturbance can be managed more or less effectively but virtually never without incurring soil loss - either of its nutrients or its volume or both.

Perennial plants, precisely because they require no uprooting, sink deeper, more extensive roots and tend to develop rather than to deplete soil. Their diversity helps ensure greater resistance to pest and greater resilience to climate shock.

The challenge now is to breed varieties that can achieve similar grain weights as annuals. It is a challenge to which The Land Institute in Kansas, founded by Jackson, is dedicated. They make progress and expect to have their first viable cropping plant in a decade.

But this scientific challenge sits in a deeper cultural and social context - that of an agriculture that sits within nature's limits, rather than imposes itself beyond those limits, and thus becomes a model for how a sustainable economy might function, equipped to addressing human need rather than untrammelled aspiration and persistant 'growth' (that within a finite, recycling system cannot be anything other than a 'short term' fantasy).

If the split from the world came first through agriculture perhaps Jackson hopes it can be healed through a renewed agriculture: one that consults and lives into the genius of particular places rather than constricts them within the binds of human fantasy. He quotes his friend and collaborator, Wendell Berry, to great effect, when he reminds us that Berry said of his fellow settlers of the American landscape that they came with 'vision' but did not 'see'.

What is so impressive in Jackson's work is the combination of the practicalities of having grown up in a farming context with the practicalities of applied science that has given rise to a wisdom that is disciplined by the limits of sight rather than the extravagance of vision. Like 'money', energy let loose has made a great many things possible whilst disguising their actual costliness.

The inconvenience of voters

This week's Economist cover (and accompanying article) garnered almost a thousand, mostly hostile, online comments and deservedly.

This was not because some of its criticisms were not germane (especially of Mr Berlusconi whose attraction to Italian voters remains to me a complete mystery except when you consider the immense media tailwind afforded by his owning much of it)!

It was because of its unconcealed contempt for voters - democracy is theoretically applaudable unless it gives the 'wrong' answers and like many centre-right newspapers that means if the voters (either in their pain and bewilderment or their intelligence or a confused mixture of both) question the dominance of the market.

This peculiar entity, 'the market' (always reified) is not fashioned by human hands and is apparently to be worshipped at all costs lest it wreak terrible revenge - like destroying the euro in a fit of wrathful peek! (It should, I think, never have been invented and should now be dismantled, undoubtedly painfully, sadly).

Italians should have voted for the saintly Mr Monti whose policies have mollified the 'market' and failing that the 'centre -left' (if suitably chained and restrained by Mr Monti) as a second best alternative instead they have voted for a political insurgency of an uncharacterised kind and a crook and crooner (rather than a clown). This is explained away by 'The Economist' as simply the electorate not 'facing reality'.

It was T.S. Eliot who suggested that we cannot bear much by way of reality but, if this is a common failing, it is one undoubtedly shared by the Economist who five years into the most serious economic crisis since the last one when the 'market' not made by human hands was allowed full reign, has still not questioned any of its own assumptions.

Financial markets if left to their own devices generate deceptive complexity and quickly diverge from any real economic activity into varied forms of fantasy - whether tulip speculation in the seventeenth century or stock markets in 1929 or credit default swaps in 2008. It is precisely because we cannot bear much reality that we need tight and binding rules anchoring 'money' to real world activity, to the adding of actual value to real things rather than fostering 'growth' (another word that tends to get reified).

In an undoubtedly very confused way the Italian voters see this and they blame politicians for failing to recognise this and to serve those actual needs of people preferring to feather their own nests by feeding our collective fantasies over 'growth', 'markets' and 'free lunches'. Likewise the UKIP result in England on Thursday is not on the whole a vote 'for' UKIP as against a political theatre that has become radically divorced from people's sensed need for secure anchoring in confused times (and probably against a government so improbably incompetent as only plausibly to be the creation of fantasy).

As is the 1930s, the choice is stark - listen to the people and reconfigure the world (and rein in finance) so that the polity can become again secure and real (the Roosevelt option) or choose a faked alternative (fantasies of left, right and a confused popularism). Our present leadership deficit is a very interesting one in either category (inspired or deranged), everyone comes over as a muddy version of grey. This is of its own sparing comfort if there are no Roosevelts in view neither is Mr Berlusconi or Mr Grillo a Mussolini in waiting. Be thankful for small mercies!

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...