Showing posts from December, 2013

Trees, care taking and a Happy New Year

Vexilla Regis, 1948, Graphite and Watercolour on paper by David Jones
Since I find myself living anew in Switzerland at the edge of a forest, I should end the year with a picture of trees with a twist.
There are two great English language poets. one English, one Welsh, both Londoners, who wrote imaginatively out of the 'matter of Britain', rooted in a metaphysical vision, and who were great painters: the one is William Blake, the other is David Jones. Both visions were rooted in traditions of knowledge. In Blake's case, these were 'esoteric', a hidden tradition. In Jones' case, these were, at first sight, exoteric, known - Roman Catholicism, Welsh myth and folk lore and the Island's history. They intersect at a recognition that the world is brought fully to life in our conscious acts of it being actually loved and known. We have a responsibility to the world to bring it to its redeemed fullness that is ours alone yet which reveals everything as it is in it…

The most important place on earth

The most important place on earth is under your feet; namely the soil, though as the world rapidly urbanises this may be increasingly obscured. There are three features of this importance that go virtually unnoticed as we tramp along the highway of progress.

The first is how little we know about its life, how it all hangs together, builds up, lives and dies in spite of it being the very matrix of our lives. Matrixes would be more accurate because as we learn more about our 'environment', we find we live in complex, diverse ecologies where one set of understanding does not fit all. Not only the good must be done in minute particulars but our knowledge too must relearn the importance of place.

The second is that in spite of this unacknowledged ignorance we plough on in imagining and abusing it as an 'infinite resource'.

The third is that it is, in many places, for complex reasons, it is collapsing - eroding, compacting, dying.

The most important article I read this past…

Gossipy woods

Evening in the Woods by Ivan Shishkin
When we were launching what became 'Catch Up' (a literacy programme for eight/nine year olds), one of the realisations was that much of the existing material was gender inappropriate as it relied heavily on 'fiction'. Many of our 'clients' were boys and boys (many of them, especially at that age) are fact obsessed and need literacy support that reflected this.

It was an observation that resonated with me. At eight, I read history and maps. I remember a book by R. J. Unstead on Tudor England and repeatedly pouring over lists of the price of things; and, painstakingly replicating maps of France and New Zealand for a project at Cub Scouts. It was only in my teens that fiction and image erupted into consciousness as ways to think and feel. I recall in my twenties on holiday in France finding, at my hosts, a whole section of her library devoted to the classic literature of childhood and spending a happy ten days with Narnia and…

Two slim volumes...

Since I am in the process of moving and the library was dispatched yesterday in a van, and given that the hiatus may last up to three months, I sequestered several fat volumes to keep me in reading (both new and re-reads). I thought too I would need a couple of volumes of poetry, that I tend to read before bed, and that would have to be actually loved and known.

The two I chose were T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets' and Angelos Sikelianos' 'Selected Poems' (translated by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard).

Most of my books (unless second hand) look 'unread' given the care of their handling (possibly a little obsessively careful) but not my edition of the Four Quartets. This is partly a condition of their age (a slim, sky blue, Faber copy, the tenth impression from 1979) and their much travelled status (their size cries for a pocket).

I must have acquired them at school but the first full reading I remember was immediately after university when I was stayin…

Merry Christmas

Cumbrian Snowscape by Lorna Graves

New Year Snow by Frances Horowitz

For three days we waited,

a bowl of dull quartz for sky.

At night the valley dreamed of snow,

lost Christmas angels with dark-white wings

flailing the hills.

I dreamed a poem, perfect

as the first five-pointed flake,

that melted at dawn:

a Janus-time

to peer back at guttering dark days,

trajectories of the spent year.

And then snow fell.

Within an hour, a world immaculate

as January’s new-hung page.

We breathe the radiant air like men new-born.

The children rush before us.

As in a dream of snow

we track through crystal fields

to the green horizon

and the sun’s reflected rose.

A painting and a poem by two artists whom I love and who celebrated the magical properties inherent in our natural world when seen through the eyes of a loving imagination. Lorna Graves' Cumbrian Hills dream of Horowitz's snow. Snow that is both particles of crystalline water cold and touched into place by angels' wings. One of Lorn…

A spiritual friend

When I was helping to start Prison Phoenix (, I found myself, in my callow twenties, writing to people in prison about their lives in the context of spiritual development. It occurred to me that it might be helpful to have a 'supervisor' with whom, in confidence, I could explore the specific challenges of trying to help people see new ways of being and doing, especially when the background was of such suffering, both inured and inflicted.

A friend suggested Wendy Robinson, a convert to Orthodoxy and a psychoanalyst trained in the Jungian tradition. I went and over the next years she went from supervisor through spiritual director to friend. She had an unerring ability to acknowledge both the matter of the psyche and of the spirit, to give each its due and place, and neither to inflate the former into the latter nor collapse the latter into the former. One of her convictions was that many of our deepest challenges in relationship was imagining that &#…

The witness of trees

Oak in the Snow by Casper David Friedrich
On Sunday afternoon, I went for a stroll in the botanical gardens in Belem (Lisbon). They were virtually empty of people and you could wander at will with that spaciousness attendant on being alone. I sat for a long time at the winding roots of a baobab tree that reminded me that Jung had called trees 'thoughts of God', that sense of permanence and presence, of long thoughts and elastic time; and, with the sense, coming from visiting an ornate Counter Reformatory church, that it is always easier for me to pray out of doors. I was reminded too of this short piece of Hesse's in 'Wandering', a beautiful volume of prose and lyric poems illustrated with his own watercolours. It is a homily on the virtue of trees.
"For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone.

They are like lonely p…

Owen Barfield's incomplete biography

'Owen Barfield: Romanticism Come of Age - A biography' by Simon Blaxland-de Lange is a heap of a book. It is as if the author had collected all that he could find, then sorted it into an unusual order (after starting with Barfield's own reminiscences in his nineties, we track backwards in time) and stopped half way. A great deal of material is here, much of great interest, for which we must deeply thank the author, but you finish it yearning for a more comprehensive, guiding intelligence to have been applied to help you through the thinking of this myriad minded man of great intelligence and sensitivity.

It may be a subtle anthroposophical exercise: your ability to make order of the material indicative of the state of your own consciousness!

For Barfield, described by C. S. Lewis as possessing the best mind of all his friends, was a devoted, if not uncritical, disciple of Rudolf Steiner (indeed Steiner would have expected that any of those who followed his pattern of thin…

Lisbon highlighted

I arrived in Lisbon (after foggy delays) for a short holiday and found that I could not connect my IPad at the (very nice) apartment I had rented. I huffed and I puffed and felt I was being denied a fundamental human right, then I caught sight of myself, smiled, and had five happy days virtual free (with one happy exception)! I was not even tempted by an internet cafe!

I had been to Lisbon twice before but only for conferences and so had only glimpsed its possibilities (including a reception at one of the world's largest aquaria) but now I was free to explore in fine 'winter' weather that allowed you to dine outside even at night!

I walked, and walked and walked. One of the deep pleasures was traversing up hill and down, winding through passageways, being arrested by views, squares, buildings, often beautifully decorated with the city's trademark tiles, getting lost and re-orientating yourself by a positioning towards the Tagus. 

Like most of my city visiting what most I …

Colin Wilson

Yesterday, sitting at the airport, checking my e-mail I saw the post on Gary Lachman's web-site, (, announcing the sad death of the author, Colin Wilson. I was happy to have received the notice this way as it came from a friend of the author and one who recognised and acknowledged his gifts and importance.

His having gifts and importance would not be apparent from reading the official obituaries (even the half decent ones). He was, at best, a one hit wonder whose subsequent behaviour alienated mainstream literary society and he disappeared to Cornwall (on the edge of the known universe) where he wrote, voluminously, about arcane, dodgy or esoteric subjects (that none of the obituary writers showed any signs of having read or of understanding them if they were to)!

As Lao Tzu said of the Tao if it were not laughed at (by implication by the foolish), it would not be Tao!

The one hit wonder, of course, was 'The Outsider' and even if he had only writ…

A Branch from the Lightning Tree

On a recent course at Schumacher College, we were accompanied for part of a day by the mythologist and storyteller, Martin Shaw, who, at the end of our walk, gathered around a fire in the grounds, evoked a story that he felt, rightly, resonated with our theme (of peace seeking, of spiritual activism), taken from the Norwegian, the venturing of two twins, one alluringly beautiful, the second shameless and weird. What was beautiful in the telling, apart from the resonating craft of it, was the ability to weave asides asking us to reflect on its unfolding meaning without ever disrupting the flow or the ability of the given images to strike the embodied depths of the listeners before they reached the surfaces of our minds.

It is a quality that carries over into his book, 'A Branch of the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace of Wildness' to allow the stories he relates to stand for and by themselves as they too carry his reflective themes. These themes themselves illuminate…

Foxes and Hedgehogs

The novelist, Linda Proud, was once told by the poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, that she was 'too old to read novels'. This struck me, reading it, akin to my favourite 'silly' remark of Kathleen's namely that the novelist, Patrick White, had 'written himself out'. This may have been true, as his last 'Three Uneasy Pieces' are aptly titled (and the whimsical notion of tracking a potato's feelings as it is peeled doubly so) but rather off the point. If you were one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth (or any) century, you can be forgiven for either running out of steam or falling into another direction. Whatever we think of Tolstoy's 'Resurrection' (or indeed his religious writings), it does not detract from the achievement of 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina'! It is like telling off Dostoyevsky for not having finished 'The Brothers Karamazov'!

I was thinking of this as I was finishing Theresa …

Thinking of my father

Sitting quietly after dinner, I found myself thinking of my father's notebook. As a teenager, I had found this one day in a drawer and begun to read without realising who the author was. It only slowly entered my head that this was a more fluid, younger version of my father's hand and that it was a notebook that he had kept as a young man in the Royal Air Force (during his National Service).

Also what had arrested recognition was the pattern of thinking (and what was being read) so distant this seemed from the man I knew (or thought I knew). I had prior glimpses of this person - an allusion here, a remark there - and I remember vividly my surprise when my mother mentioned my father's early love of the ballet (to which he had taken her). But all this (on the surface at least) had disappeared and the notebook in my hand was testimony to a road not traveled. My father had made an accommodation with his 'expected' life - family responsibilities, the demands of work as a…