Thursday, January 30, 2014

Edward Burne Jones and the faults of modern biography

The Garden Court by Edward Burne Jones
Fiona McCarthy's "Edward Burne Jones: The Last Pre-Raphaelite" is an exemplary modern biography. We learn in detail and at length possibly more than we wanted to know about the external flow of his life - where and when and with what enthusiasm or with which ailments. The focus though is on the ebbs and flows of his personal, psychological life.
She treats with great intelligence (and contextual sense), Burne Jones engagement with a succession of young girls following them into womanhood and always distressed at their marriage though keeping friendship afterwards. In an age attuned to 'paedophilia' as a horror precisely because it involves manipulation, force, and sexual violence, it is an achievement to delineate a quite different form of playful love of girls - intense, flirtatious, encouraging and kind and without any trace of crossing a courtly boundary into anything physical or inappropriate. It is great to be reminded that culture does shape ways of behaving and create different boundaries and expectations. It is not that there are, embedded within, universals - and sexual violence has always been with us, sadly, and, on the whole, always perceived as (at the very least) falling short of the ideal, if not wholly condemned. But history does shift possibility of emotional expression.
I am reminded of discussions such as was Walt Whitman 'gay'? To which the answer is 'yes' and 'no'. If we mean did Whitman enjoy sexual and loving relationships with men, the answer is yes but if that means that he recognised himself, or was recognised by others, as inhabiting a bounded sexual identity as 'gay', carrying all its modern connotations, the answer would be, of course, 'no'.
However, the book suffers from two features held in common by many of its peers. One is simply length. Do we really need to know what feels like reams of stuff about the externals of where and when and with what in order to understand a person's life. Modern biographers appear to be in the grip of a fever of 'high contextualisation', reminding me of an unfortunate colleague in Macedonia who was always put at the end of the circle of 'show and tell' at USAID meetings (without her ever noticing) because she would relate such 'fascinating' detail as the depth of frost on her car window on a recent trip to Belgrade and who when asked a question, another colleague was heard to mutter, 'Do n't ask her anything! She will answer it'!
The second failing is more serious. The subject's intellectual life virtually vanishes. Burne Jones, like his great friend and collaborator, William Morris (on whom McCarthy has also written well), wanted 'beauty' to save the world and for its products to be enjoyed by all. We would be hard pressed to know why from McCarthy even though she tells us he did. She acknowledges how people respected and engaged with Burne Jones not only through his art directly (which is highly intellectual in itself) but directly in conversation but what they talked about we have no real inkling!
This is most evident in the treatment of religion. Burne Jones at Oxford aimed to become an Anglican priest (and, at the high point, of the Tractarian movement flirted with Rome). He lost his faith (at least in institutional religion) yet became (together with Morris, himself, a self-declared atheist), one of the greatest designers of church art (both stained glass and mosaic) of the nineteenth century. What did it mean to him? Finishing the biography, you have not the faintest idea. What one of the great men of the era made of the 'long recessional of faith' (to use Matthew Arnold's phrase) is a mystery entire!
It is as if belief and ideas do not matter and this is a remarkable oversight and one that is often repeated in modern biography, making you feel, however, intelligently and engagingly written, as McCarthy's are, that you have neither met the person fully especially in what truly matters in terms of their legacy nor do you engage with their age and times.
Here was a man who counted both George Eliot and George MacDonald as close family friends - one the realist and moralist, unpicking the objectivity if not the subjectivity of faith, the other its skilled imaginative defender, subscribing to very different pictures of what is ultimately real. Where Burne Jones stood, and most importantly, how it is reflected in his art (and why)? Not a word!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Different sides of the mountain

I was in Parpan, Switzerland, at an impact investing get together whilst, over the other side of the mountain at Davos, the 'great' and the 'good' were attending the World Economic Forum.

Of this latter, The Economist's editor in chief described the mood as 'short term greed, long term paranoia'. The greed element was the belief (on behalf of CEOs) that the world had turned a corner and was back on the path to growth (unless you live in the Eurozone), the paranoia element related to the fear that technological change was stripping the economy of its ability to create sufficient jobs (for an increasing population).

At what point would this phenomena begin to unravel the social contract between 'capital' and 'labour'? Underlying this theme too was the one of growing inequality. This was beautifully captured in the 'killer fact' of a report launched to coincide with WEF by my former colleagues in Oxfam: that the 85 wealthiest individuals in the world own assets equivalent to 3.5 billion people (namely half of the world's population, the poorest half).

Meanwhile, we humbler folk in Parpan were pondering the challenges of developing 'impact' or 'social' investing whereby as well as a financial return, you aim to deliver businesses (commercial or social) that provide social and/or environmentally beneficial impacts. A classic example would be a business that sells solar powered lighting products in, say, Tanzania through a chain of 'micro-entrepreneurs' (thus creating employment in rural areas) to end clients who now have less dependence on (expensive) kerosene and whose children can now finish their homework after dark.

One of the tensions in our conversation was whether we were developing 'impact investing' as a niche product within mainstream finance or whether we are developing a model of how all financing ought to be constructed? On which there were distinct differences of opinion.

My own is for the latter for it is only the latter (and in a radical version) that can address what the world needs which is to invent a coherent economy that does not require 'growth' (in the conventional sense) to sustain it.

The first place to start would be to acknowledge that the CE0's return to greed is only possible because many of the cost of doing business are not accounted for at the business level. These 'externalities' (for example the real cost of natural resource use in a finite world) are borne either by communities now (pollution) or future generations (no more oil to extract). So why not begin here? By taxing resource use, impact and depletion.

This would make the kinds of business that impact investors get excited about now, infinitely more attractive to 'mainstream finance' because, in fact, they would be the trend setters doing by design what everyone will have to do by the compulsion of taxing resource use (hopefully) or ecological breakdown (sadly). It will also foster radical innovation towards sustainability - 'green taxes' as the necessity that is the mother of invention!

Meanwhile, what about long term paranoia? If you tax the use of resources (and the accumulation of assets), you can afford to reduce taxes on labour. On the one hand labour intensification becomes more attractive and on the other people may be able to afford to work less. They will be able to enjoy the benefits of this technological advance such as we have been promised for over a century by every two dime futurologist. If we are truly lucky, we may find ourselves working at the same pace as our hunter gatherer or medieval peasant ancestors!

All of this might be possible if the Davos folk 'got out more' - out into the real world that offers abundant opportunity but which our economic paradigms have constrained into a narrow vision of 'greed' and, most especially, out from under those paradigms themselves which long since exceeded their sell by date. I often wonder whether future generations will bracket them in a similar way that medieval scholastic theologians are seen but instead of angels dancing on pinheads, we will puzzle over the obsession with 'perfect markets' and 'invisible hands'!

Meanwhile, we, the Parpan folk, need to be bolder in thinking about not only how to make these fascinating enterprises work (within the current system) but how do we re-design the system so that these enterprises simply become the norm rather than the niche.

An impact investing advocacy for global tax reform anyone?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Living gnosis

It was at this place, the fortress of Montesegur in the Languedoc, in 1244 that an organised tradition of 'Gnosticism' came to a tragic end. It was here that the Cathar made a last stand against the crusade organised against them by the King of France and the then Pope, rather inappropriately named. 'Innocent' III.

As Richard Smoley recounts in his excellent, if a little breathless, 'Forbidden Faith: The Gnostic Legacy from the Gospels to The Da Vinci Code', this is the moment when a tradition that can be genuinely seen as the fruit of an on-going transmission of Gnostic institutionalised practice is extinguished.

This is not to say that ideas concordant or resonant with 'Gnosticism' do not continue to influence patterns of thought and practice and indeed are given institutional form but those forms are 'artifice' - imagined re-creations shaped by radically different cultural contexts. It is rather akin to modern Druids who may sincerely imagine that they are connected to traditions of Iron Age faith, and whose actual faith may be wholly commendable, but who are irretrievably modern. The original embodied faith of Druids (who themselves indeed may be a 'modern' category) are lost to us.

I have always felt that this recognition is deeply sorrowful. Ever since I first read about the Cathars, as a student, and subsequently visited the Languedoc following their trail, I have wished that history had taken a different path. It would be good to step into a Cathar 'church'.

The culture of the Languedoc, for that brief moment of time (for a century before 1244) had offered a rare witness to religious toleration, where two versions of Christianity had sat side by side, intermingled, and enjoyed a degree of mutual speculation and quiet disagreement, that is, on reflection, remarkable. Remarkable too in fertilising the tradition of 'courtly love' that has shaped our notion of romantic love and its meaning ever since.

Beyond this, in the Cathar tradition, and, as Smoley argues, in the Gnostic tradition as a whole, there was a radical emphasis on the importance of experience. Faith only took you so far, in order to truly taste the mystery that is Christ, you must allow yourself to be experienced, and transformed, by it. This was not salvation through accepted intermediation, wiping away sins, but a knowledge that transforms consciousness. This was not a mysticism as an uneasy adjunct to the Church but central to its reality. Each individual must taste and see for themselves.

Interestingly the modern thinker who comes closest to the Cathar ideal receives only the briefest mention in Smoley's book. This is Simone Weil, who wrote two compelling essays on the Cathar and the culture of the Languedoc, and who partly frames her refusal to enter the Catholic Church on the basis of the Church's failure to see the purity and intelligence of the Cathar faith and the error of persecuting it. It is an apology (sadly one of many) that the Church still owes. Ironically both for her (and for me) our conversations with the Church, deep and resonant, were conducted through the Dominicans for it was St Dominic's first mission to preach against the Cathars (though, thankfully, eschewing all violence, though his heirs were not so graced).

This 'tasting for oneself', a radical transformation of one's capacity to know, a freeing of the 'doors of perception' was central to Weil's thought (as it was to Gnosticism/Catharism). Weil described being taken hold of by Christ in a radical act of grace, not looked for, but given. A reality that freely broke into the necessity of the world and its givenness.

I cannot think of a more apt description of the central Gnostic perception that we live in a world sundered from the Spirit, that grinds itself out and along, and yet is vulnerable to being raided by transcendence, freeing us into a different place: grace meets gravity (to use Weil's terms) and grace is victorious.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Living out of gift

Sitting on the plane coming home on Friday, I found myself next to a Dutch engineer who was determined to enter into conversation. His last and successful gambit was to ask me whether I was enjoying the book I was reading. ''Yes," I replied, thinking if only he would leave me alone to enjoy it!

However, as is often the way with these things, we discovered that we had both met one of the book's oft quoted writers - the economist and monetary theorist - Bernhard Lietaer and greatly appreciated his radical proposals for overhauling our financial and monetary systems.

The book itself was Charles Eisenstein's 'Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society in an Age of Transition' that likewise aims to chart pathways through our current dilemmas.

At heart the conflict is between a monetary system that keeps on growing running up against a finite planet; and, a monetary system that, while it grows, is skewed towards allowing accumulation for the few and a destabilising inequality. It is, also, about a financial system that keeps breaking down. If it were a car, we would have long since either traded it in for another or taken it back to the garage and demanded our money back.

Money that ought to be a symbol of a flow of transactions within a real space of making and doing has become a thing to be sought in itself, as an anxious guarantee of security in a world of scarcity. This is not a new phenomenon but an accelerating one. Yet this world of scarcity is, as Eisenstein compellingly argues, a 'social construct' one that we can and should unwind and replace with another, more fruitful and compelling story. The book in essence is a long, practical exploration of Gandhi's observation that we live in a world that has everything we need but not for everything we greed. Meanwhile, most of what we need ought to be gifted rather than bought. The most moving sections of the book are when Eisenstein re-imagines the potential for an economy grounded in gift (as it is now, of course, were we to recognise it - we are all born into gratitude and mature out of our family's, our society's and nature's gifting).

Within this space, there are pressing demands of which the most powerful in my view is that there is simply 'too much money' in our current system, most of it conjured out of air through complex financial transactions that do not occupy the 'real economy' but which, sooner or later, must be translated from abstraction into real things. Thus, both the pressure to monetarise things that used to be free (or modestly priced public goods) such, as for example, bottled water, to convert ever more natural capital into goods (disappearing rainforest exchanged for palm oil plantations); and, 'asset bubbles' as this excess money desperately deludes itself about the 'next big thing', say, property in China!

How do we begin to take money out of the system? To which one answer (agreed on by my Dutch travelling companion and myself) was negative interest. What if there was a disincentive to accumulate capital (and no right to earn 'rent' simply from owning money)? You would have to invest it and the best place to invest it would be in real goods and services that have sustainability over time built into them. A forest investment would not be a short term act of profit maximisation but a long term act of restoration, care and management for the future. You could also 'invest' your money in things that preserved your capital (rather than aimed at 20% returns), for example, community and social enterprises that were building the infrastructure of connection and care that the new world we are creating demands.

Before one objects that 'negative interest' is simply fantasy not only has it been tried before - most compellingly during a series of regional experiments with local currencies during the depressions of the 20s and 30s with remarkable results, but also (too) briefly by the Swedish Central Bank in 2009 (and widely discussed by other central bankers). The only flaw here is that it is being seen as a 'temporary' measure to re-stimulate broken economies rather than part of a long term policy option to change how we see money - not as an abstract store of ever increasing value but once more as a convenient way of circulating flows of transactions through living communities.

As money decays, there is less of it about, so will that not depress economies? But this is to confuse (as we do now) the amount of activity with its quality (and its locality) and the assumption that anything of economic value most be translated into monetary transaction which when you think of it is nonsense. Child birth, rearing, nurturing and commissioning into adulthood is all gift (mostly) and yet is the most important task of home and community making imaginable - the true meaning of economy. Economies exist wherever trusted transaction is possible, and money is only one way of facilitating those transactions.

Less money (negative interest) is only one of Eisenstein's interlocking suggestions that include internalising the social/environmental costs of production that will reverse the flow of globalisation and regionalise economies again, making local currencies viable once more; and, a social dividend that enables everyone to be assured of a minimal level of existence. It is an attractive vision well articulated and argued (mostly) and illustrates a direction of travel that we can take willingly now or will have to fashion more problematically out of the ruins of the old system, now running its course.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Haunting of Hill House

I maybe not be ghost territory is a conclusion to draw from reading Shirley Jackson's classic novel that the Wall Street Journal described as, "now widely recognised as the greatest haunted house story ever written."

It is beautifully written with the set pieces of encroaching terror being always suggested rather than told, skilfully seen from their impacting the psyche of the four main characters, rather than described to the reader. It is, also, provided with appropriate comic relief - the Dudleys as caretakers, withdrawing at six each evening, caricatures of the relentlessly faithful but surly retainers and Mrs Montague, the wife of the organiser of the house's investigation, who 'communicates' with the dead through her planchette but remains oblivious to the actual hauntings!

The story ends tragically when one of the four, believing that she has found her 'home' is sent away by the other three, fearing for her balance and her safety, only to have her drive into a tree as she leaves the grounds either as a deliberate gesture to stay 'at home' or as the act of an unbalanced personality. Was she, we are left to surmise, a woman possessed by whatever evil patrols (or is) the house or simply, and sadly, a fragile woman who succumbed to suggestion (though it is never suggested that the hauntings are anything but real to the four who endure them).

This is, I think, the source of my reservation - the hauntings are real yet the conclusion is ambiguous. It is as if a showing forth of an imagined world is stolen from us at the last moment. We cannot truly succumb to possession and die horribly (from an external point of view) and return to a 'devouring' home (that might, in fact, be our home). There must be a flattening ending that suggests that maybe it is simply a sad tragedy of an individual fragile life. It drains the horror and the sense of other worlds enfolded in this one, some of which may not 'be nice'!

Hauntings of this kind, ultimately, are too insubstantial - psychological not metaphysical. They sit as (good) explorations of the characters experience but not of transcendence. Entertainments of the suspension of disbelief not the creation (or revelation) of believable alternate worlds. I am left wanting either something 'trashier' or 'deeper' not the merely beautifully clever.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A pilgrimage of dreams

I was sitting at breakfast in the 'Solar' at Dartington Hall opposite a large woman with striking black hair combed back into a perfectly shaped, rounded bun whose carrying voice (befitting the singer she had been) lent over the wide wooden table and demanded, 'Are you a poet? You look like a poet'. 'No,' I replied, 'I am afraid I am not' but in a moment of unbidden and mysterious inspiration added, 'But I do dream'.

No response could have had weightier significance for, Thetis Blacker, my morning conversation partner, was a formidable dreamer, indeed her book, 'A Pilgrimage of Dreams' records some of her most significant and they have the quality of mythic story.

We exchanged dreams and became friends. By this time, Thetis had migrated from singer and textile designer to artist whose work graced both public and private collections and, most importantly, cathedrals and churches. Dream was often the starting point of her work. She would have an idea or a commission and would wait upon inspiration. This would often come, she told me, in a dream, often from a minute particular that would be the seeding of the whole.

Her paintings, based on her own unique refashioning of traditional batik techniques, were (as can be seen above) both saturated in colour and steeped in story. The above is from a sequence based on the Persian poet, Attar's 'Conference of the Birds' that beautiful exposition of how we passage from a painfully held together bundle of qualities towards a symphonic whole, mirroring the unity of God.

Birds were a continuing theme: each species carrying (as it does in Attar) a different symbolic presence within the living whole. The one she painted for me (the Dream Bearer) was a transfiguration of the dove who carries the olive twig back to the Ark and who carries with it God's covenant that out of the night (of the dark) henceforth there will always be meaning. The night, seen aright, is the fertilising of the day.

It was an affirmation that Thetis drew out of her own experience of the dark that were her searing, incapacitating depressions when everything appeared to desert her and yet light returned. It was, I think, the reason that the Phoenix was such a recurring motif in her work. The burning to ashes, the dark obliteration, being the prelude to new life.

She was utterly unique and a joy to know though she did carry the ability to embarrass one. Introducing her talk at a conference once on the relationship between dreaming and art, she declared that though she was herself a great dreamer, there was one in the audience who was an even greater dreamer than she because they were (in her eyes at least) a 'purer' person, followed by naming me (sic) such that for next three days I was hounded by conference participants wanting to share with me their dreams and me having to appear sagely!

On another occasion we went together to see an exhibition of Francis Bacon at the Marlborough and (appropriately) descending the stairs to the lower gallery, she declared in her unmistakeable and carrying voice, 'Behold Nicholas images of the Hell in which we no longer pretend to believe'! If only floor could swallow...even though the remark was the best critical comment on Bacon I have ever heard - the endless recycling of the same images of human being trapped in pain without end or meaning. Once would have been enough but, as Blake would recognise, Bacon was stuck where he was, what else could he do but repeat?

The highlight of friendship were visits to her cottage in Surrey, looking out over the Downs, a consummate lunch, vivid conversation, tea outside and, finally, a view of the work in progress and a discussion of its challenges and complexities. I cannot convey the privilege of this last part: an opportunity to help, in the very smallest measure the work in progress.

Pure gift.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Lark Ascending

If, unlikely as it is, I am invited onto BBC Radio 4's 'Desert Island Discs' (the archive of this long running interview programme can be found here: and am asked which of my eight recordings I would want to keep if the other seven were to be washed away, it would be this one: Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'The Lark Ascending'.

The reason would be abidingly personal. The violin cadenza was played at the funeral of my closest friend, Ann. This, in itself, would mark it and yet it took on a deeper significance. A year after her death, I visited India for the first time. India was the place of her birth and her fashioning. Though she was English, India had shaped her, biographically and spiritually. It has been a continuous presence in her home where we had worked closely together to build a new organisation serving the spiritual needs of those in prison. India was a place known even before I stepped across its threshold.

On my arrival there, squashed hurriedly into a completely full internal flight and separated in the melee from my book, I turned untypically to the inflight magazine and opened it at an article on Kalimpong where Ann was born: the first arrival in the new district hospital. On my return to England, turning on the ignition of my car at the airport, it was this music that flowed from the radio (starting from the opening bar, in complete alignment). My journey to her place, wholly framed by her birth and her burial.

This would be sufficient resonance on its own but obviously in itself, it is a utterly beautiful piece of music that both captures an imaging of place - an England that is now and always - that is natural and, however, obscured by passing time and human neglect, always waiting to shine forth and is glimpsing of transcendence.

Vaughan Williams always described himself as an 'agnostic' (especially when it came to the formalities of traditional Christianity) but in all of his art, he shows forth that he was not always (or indeed ever) of his own opinion. His work is saturated in the sacred sense of things. Like Shelley, expelled from Oxford for 'atheism' and to whose 'Ode to the Skylark' this music owes a great deal, he was of God's party.

"Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
    Bird thou never wert -
    That from Heaven or near it
              Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art..." captures it perfectly.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Myriad points of mercy

"Again that expression, le point vierge, (I cannot translate it) comes in here. At the centre of our being is a point of pure nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark that belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasises of our mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of our absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely."

Thomas Merton (shown here with D.T. Suzuki).

Mercy is the nature of this light. We all dwell in its embrace. No one can fall out of it. The invitation, constantly present, is to fall into it. Flick the switch and the lightening of mercy is always presence.

 Candle, Eigg by Winifred Nicholson

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A magical rendition of an alternative history

'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke is a modern Gothic entertainment that is beautifully written, imaginative and clever.

Two magicians aim to restore 'English magic' at the opening of the nineteenth century - the scholarly and timid Mr Norrell and the intuitive and courageous Jonathan Strange. They begin as teacher and pupil, descend into rivalry and 'end' as collaborators. Whilst they assist the British government in diverse ways, creating an 'alternative' history of the Napoleonic Wars as they go, by the end the government is tired of 'magic', creating, as it does, unforeseen consequences, and have begun to regulate it (undoubtedly for its own good)!

Neither Norrell nor Strange in accomplishing their magical feats are ever quite clear why what they do achieves (or fails to achieve) what happens in spite of their learning. It proves a beautiful analogy for our lives: we act in diverse ways in unacknowledged ignorance, things happen, we muddle through but the wider and deeper pattern of things often eludes us. This does not, on the whole, stop us nor (as in the case of the magicians) deflate our own sense of 'being in control', our own sense of our self importance. Except possibly at the end, as the magicians struggle to break free of their enchantment, they come face to face with a 'raven's eye' (symbol of the Raven King, mysterious originator of English magic) and are both 'seen' and find themselves, by comparison, very small. In humility might be the faint beginning of wisdom.

The book is lengthy but never loses its pace, inventiveness nor humour nor its sense of the period nor of the period rendered strange. The historical figures that emerge manage to behave precisely as they might in the face of this alternative history - Wellington putting Strange practically to work on his campaigns or Byron using the Gothic intensity of Strange's use of madness (to see Faerie) and grief (at the loss of his wife to enchantment) as matter for his poetry seen through a dispassionate, greedy eye. It, also, has a fine eye for the corroding differences of class and gender and mocks them. Nor does it ever lose a sense of its own logic. It creates a believable world that is a blending of history and the magical. It is a rare achievement.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year Resolutions

This was the path I took this morning in the forest close to my new (temporary) home in Switzerland. One of the first tasks on 2014 is to find a 'permanent' one.

It forms my first New Year resolution: walk more regularly into the woods. It is the landscape that I most dearly love. It brings a sense of enclosing stillness, of light playing in dark, of turning a corner always into the unexpectedly new (that appeals to one born under the sign of Aries) and there is always the possibility of becoming lost (and found). I come out each time refreshed and renewed (and possibly a little lighter)!

This particular wood on the edge of Steinhausen in the Canton of Zug is very definitely a place managed for amenity indeed on one side, I came periodically to sites that aimed to improve your opportunities for exercise by offering tips and discretely placed apparatus (sponsored by Zurich Insurance) yet you can, as always, loose yourself from these by stepping in amongst the trees and stand stilling, slowed thinking alongside that of the trees. Trees that are, in Jung's words, 'thoughts of God.' This being Switzerland you also turned a corner, found yourself at the edge, and brushed by the sighting of distant, inviting mountains.

The second resolution was to become, once more, a correspondent. As I was packing in England, I came across letters sent and received (mostly in the 80s and 90s) that reminded me of how different an art letter writing is from either e-mail or social media. They were revelatory both of an ability to write and of things worth saying, at depth, personally and universally. I have no idea who I may enlist in this desire for exchanging epistles but I aim to try. It could be done electronically (though I would prefer paper and stamps) but would require a different discipline than the usual patterns of swift exchange (however welcome in their own right).

The third resolution (as they should always like buses come in threes) was to try and be a more disciplined reader. By which I mean try to stop accumulating (in actuality or digitally) texts I know I am not going to enjoy and profit from and which I merely think I ought to read. That 'ought' simply ought to go. Time is too short and precious to spend time on that which does not carry beauty and compassion at its heart.

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...