Showing posts from January, 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 reminde…

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 individua…

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 imagin…

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 fo…

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…

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 …

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 ste…

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 inv…

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 h…

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 s…