Showing posts from August, 2013

Untroubled by violence

The major anniversary of this week has been Martin Luther King's remarkable, impromptu speech, 'I have a dream...' that cannot but bring tears to the eyes of all of right heart. Rightly much of the commentary has focused on whether, and by what degree, that dream has been accomplished. To which the answer must be - a work in progress. But less attention has been paid to the underlying, underpinning way that dream ought to be achieved - by the disciplined, sober path of the practice of non-violence of which King, following Gandhi, was to follow even unto death.

This lack of attention chimes in melancholy tone with the major news event of the week namely the use of poison gas in Syria, the ongoing civil war and the threat of armed intervention to 'punish' the regime that almost certainly will go ahead (even if without British participation after yesterday's parliamentary vote). Virtually none of the mainstream commentary (nor the arguments about intervention) ha…

The Red line

You can 'dodge' bullets and bombs, take shelter, in a way that you cannot elude gas. Bullets and bombs offer a 'sporting chance', they are 'noble', however gas is underhand, cowardly and indiscriminate in its very nature. Somehow I can imagine myself 'under fire' (indeed have narrowly escaped a bomb) but shudder at the thought of being gassed.

However, be this as it may and try as I might, I cannot see the startling moral difference between indiscriminately shelling a civilian population and gassing it that creates this 'red line', the crossing of which has animated such stark rhetoric from the US administration (and others) about Assad's regime: the still only purported author of this ghastly attack. I mean being dead is remarkably, and sadly, an indiscriminate phenomena.

The attack itself is a miserable low point, in a relentlessly depressing civil war.

Now if it were suggested that the United Nations was to take action to impose peace on…

A sacred moment

It is twenty one years since Ann Wetherall died - friend, mentor and colleague - in helping her found the Prison Phoenix Trust that is twenty five this year.

On the anniversary of her death, a small group of trustees and staff go to her grave in the beautiful Cotswold village of Bibury for a time of quiet meditation, followed by each person bringing a reading to share, followed by breakfast hosted by Anne's older sister, Tigger, who is herself a trustee, hale of mind and body at ninety two. It is always a poised and beautiful moment, even when it has been raining (as it has in the past). The churchyard all stillness in its pristine maintenance. May Ann travel onwards within the mystery of consciousness that was her exploring home in life.

My contributed reading was Mary Oliver's poem, 'The Swan'

Across the wide waters
     something comes
          floating—a slim
             and delicate

ship, filled
     with white flowers—
          and it moves

A Pilgrim's Way

A weekend in Kent with friends and I was locked in by rain except for a late afternoon break in the deluge when I could venture out for walk that partly embraced the Pilgrims' Way from London to Canterbury. There is nothing that is spectacle in the Kent countryside but it contrives nonetheless to be beautiful. The curvature of hills and ridges are irregular breaking from the valleys in different ways such that all becomes surprise.

The Pilgrims Way is now mostly a meandering path of bridleway and quiet side road but once it trafficked souls to England's most popular site of pilgrimage, St Thomas a Beckett's tomb at its pre-eminent cathedral in Canterbury: the courtier turned archbishop turned martyr. Curious, in a way, that the popularity of a pilgrimage site bore no relation to the hierarchy of the relic. After all a mere saint (and a recent one at that) trumped, say, a phial of Christ's blood kept at Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire that was reanimated at Easter, flo…

Pallas & the Centaur

Last night I travelled up to Glasgow on the sleeper which was an enjoyable first. I could not help comparing it with many similar journeys on overnight trains in Russia. Tea in a paper cup did not compare well with the Russian equivalent contained in a glass with an ornate metal holder! Nor did the starched sheets and blankets of Russian railways find an equivalent in the limp duvet of Caledonian Rail. However, on the plus side, once checked in to your own compartment (no sharing with assorted others, an introvert plus), there was no more waiting upon ticket punching and there was no piped music to both see you off or greet your arrival. The greatest advantage was temperature control as I have been on Russian trains where in the intense heat, you found yourself wondering where your next breath was coming from. Also, you had your own basin so you could clean your teeth in luxurious privacy!

On the way back this afternoon, I was whisked by a Virgin train to Euston, and was reading a bo…

Monk by the Sea

Casper David Friedrich's  'Monk by the Sea' in its still, melancholy greatness is a favourite painting. No reproduction can capture its sense of space, subtlety of colour and movement and that sense, as Kleist noted, of stepping within it, of being rendered boundless.

It offers a particular view of 'contemplation' as being held over and against a tremendous mystery that makes one's own self transient and that the response to this is a sense of quiet sadness. It is both Romantic and Protestant to the last intimate stroke. It was criticised for offering no sense of consolation.

However, I wonder.

Undoubtedly the consolation that it offers is neither easy nor cheaply obtained. For Friedrich I sense it only comes out of a realistic and humble sense of oneself as held in being wholly as gift. Nothing that one is belongs to one's self except the stubborn and misplaced believing that you are important, a centre at the heart of things, surrender that and consolati…

Under the bodhi tree with Jesus and Malcolm X

This week I had an, as always, fascinating conversation with a friend whose life has been dedicated to helping people think through what kind of organisation would best express their values and objectives and which would enable people to make their best contribution.

Part of the conversation revolved around how challenging it is for us, as people, to recognise our assumptions, the way in which we frame our understanding of the world. We touched on this first in relation to the on-going financial crisis, how often it is we encounter people whose 'modelling' of the economy has come unstuck but it is not the model that is dysfunctional but the application of it and if they (always it is them) had simply played by the rules, all would be well. If questioned about their assumptions, they either deny they have assumptions: no, this is how the world really is or defend their assumptions as the only possible rational ones: so there.

We all do it to a greater or lesser degree. We have…

Wild Child

This trailer for Francois Truffaut's 'The Wild Child' probably says more about the publicity team at MGM's view of childhood than Truffaut's - the juxtaposition between 'innocence' and 'animal' as if the human is the former and the latter is freighted with the unkempt, the unruly and the dangerous. If only humans were as innocent as animals, the earth could breathe more freely!

I saw this beautiful film many years ago and reading about it in Jay Griffiths' 'Kith' reanimated a desire to see it again. It tracks the historic story of a child found in eighteenth century France who, to all appearance, had grown up in the woods and the efforts undertaken to allow him to re-enter and learn human society (mostly forlorn). Such cases, few and far between, have fed long running debates on what it means to be human, most especially what is the role of language in the act of making human.

Similar territory is traversed by David Malouf in his wonder…

Balkan Spirit

The fabulous Hesperion XXI offer Balkan Spirit.

Every year the village of Galicnik in Western Macedonia enables one of its children to celebrate a fully traditional wedding ceremony, stretching over three days, accompanied by the engaged eyes of many visitors, including one year myself.

I most remember the music that accompanied each step of the wedding. It was often mesmerising with tunes unfolding in repeated cycles that spun you out of thought, teasing you out of time. There is a quality about traditional music that suggests an intimate relationship not only with people but with place. Its rhythms are that of culture and nature.

I recall stepping out of the village, taking myself out of the throng, walking up one of the hills followed by the strains of receding music yet with it entering the landscape as if the music opened a door to it, the seeing of it, singing you into a place. I do not think I ever been more 'there' present enwrapped in a landscaping.

It was hauntingly…

Kith - the importance of children going wild

When I was five, I used to walk to school and to my best friend's house alone. The first journey took about eight minutes, the second about twelve. Both required you to cross roads but none of them especially busy, and this was the primary safety consideration.

Jay Griffiths reports in her fascinating book, 'Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape' that one set of parents (in the UK) were reported to social services for allowing their children (eight and five) to take a similar journey unaccompanied (except by one another).

In the ensuing forty years, arguably the traffic has become marginally denser, though cars are better designed with regard to the potential to cause injury, and you are no more likely to be abducted now as you were then, the chance is very small (though utterly tragic when it does occur). What has changed is the fear that it might happen, magnified by its voyeuristic reporting, such that a child's felt sense of autonomy and resilience is undermined and …

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Another gold star for Phaidon's 'Art & Ideas' series, in this case, Laurinda Dixon on Bosch for a lucid, engaging account about this artist about which we know so little apart from his works (the canon of which scientific investigation is slowly establishing).

What is so successful about this series is how it places the artist in their time in such a way that in learning how they are answering their contemporary demands and issues, they are enabled to breakthrough to 'timelessness'. Unlike much art history, focused on analysing stylistic development and influence which is of interest mostly to the specialist, this focuses on what the art might mean both to its original audience and to ourselves.

The fault line of interpretation in Bosch is how conventionally Catholic is he: orthodox or heretic? Dixon lands firmly, but cleverly, in the orthodox camp. Cleverly because, as she notes, what it meant to be orthodox in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century has r…

The quest for the ahistorical Jesus

Reza Aslan having been subjected to a most shambolic and partisan interview on Fox New about his new book - 'Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth' - has benefitted enormously.

The interview went viral, his book sales are up and Fox News has egg on its face (from a liberal perspective). If you are going to be so partisan (aggressively questioning why a Muslim can write a non-partisan book on Jesus), you should at least do it well (and possibly read the book first)!

The answer, of course, is that nobody can write a non-partisan book about Jesus (or indeed about my Aunty Flo). All interpretation, as the great Hans Georg Gadamer would say, is prejudicial but prejudice not in the modern 'negative' sense but as 'prejudgement': the questioning frame you bring to any enquiry that shapes (but does not determine) the answers you receive.

What I found most inter…