Saturday, July 28, 2018

On the hopes, realities and shadows of being nomadic...

Rowena Farre was a mystery. Was she born in India or London? What was her real name and ancestry? Was her first book (Seal Morning) an autobiography or fiction? It was a mystery that after the success of that first book and the presses' intrusive interest in 'solving' it that made her more consciously elusive than ever. It is, like many manufactured mysteries, probably redundant to an enjoyment of her work. Like any life her's was part fact, part creative memory, part fabrication - if only the fabrication of presenting your better part - but, on the evidence of her second book, 'A Time from the World', Farre was not a fantasist but a person drawn to a way of being in the world at odds with (yet deeply alluring to) the mainstream.

This in, at least, two senses. Firstly as a nomad, unsettled by the confinement of a career, she utilised her grant to attend art school only partly to learn art but principally to give herself the freedom to live with a succession of Gypsy and tinker families as they progress through the English and Welsh countryside during the 1950s that she, artfully, compresses into a narrative year. Second because she was (as she intimates but never says) 'fey'. This exhibited itself in an ability to give compelling fortune readings (that she admirably describes as an admixture of intuitively taking up a person's cues and yet something other, given). It, also, shows itself in a happy attendance on ghosts and hauntings (that again, being elusive, she addresses matter of factly 'on the side').

Her living with Gypsies and tinkers is told with clear, resonant, engaging prose and with a clear sightedness that, she says, mirrors the Gypsy's own lack of sentimentality. The book primarily focuses on the physical and emotional aspects of the life as lived rather than the more explicitly cultural, social or religious but achieves a resonant depth of engagement nonetheless, shot through with sympathy and with suffering. She makes intelligent distinctions between Gypsies, tinkers and mumpers (or tramps) and shows how they vary precisely in the level of choice exercised in their way of life (though she is hard on mumpers, too eager to differentiate them from (in her perception) the more upstanding Gypsy). But her quiet defence of the Gypsy is well taken - no population in Europe could be more discriminated against- and she notes, she is writing less than twenty years after the Holocaust that even yet has not won its rightful place in memory.

The suffering too is on a more personal plane because as she takes up with a Diddakoi - a Gypsy man of half blood - it accentuates both the pull of the life and how it differs from her own. The book movingly recounts that unfolding and her ultimate decision and its costliness.

Suffering too in recognising that she is witnessing a life on the edge of radical transition where familiar patterns of livelihood are being displaced. She goes hop picking but one farmer has already acquired an automatic machine for example. The pressures on settlement, both social and economic, are gathering pace. No longer is it a world, again by way of example, that can be simply navigated by the illiterate. The imprisonment of school beckons...

It is beautiful and resonant book and Farre emerges as a person of unusual thoughtfulness and a gifted protagonist for the free life lived with risk, skill and determination.

An added bonus, for me, is that the setting is countryside I know - Shropshire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire - including outings to my home town of Stratford - in the period immediately proceeding mine.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

In Our Time - the best of radio

One of the consequences (after a retinal tear in the eye) of being told to read less (advice that was happily overturned by a more senior doctor 48 hours later)* was rediscovering the joy of listening to BBC radio.

This was joy was not focused on the news output. Here the Corporation slides to new lows (often in the misguided pursuit of 'balance' or the pursuit of 'artificial' conflict rather than illumination) for which see its coverage of climate change where it pretends that the science is not settled - and the outcomes every day more sadly vivid - and allows pedlars of falsehood on (with no scientific credentials whatsoever) like Lord Lawson slithering with their snake oil of 'denial' that goes unchallenged by the interviewing journalist.

But, thankfully, within Corporation House, there does remain oases of public broadcasting rooted in an ethos of education and entertainment, quietly balanced. One such is Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' (whose website can be found here: The formula is simple - identify a subject from the arts or sciences either a theme, an event or a person, identify three academic experts (who are more or less lucid and certainly knowledgeable and generous) host an informative conversation about the subject for forty-five minutes, allowing your listener to learn and emerge better informed. There are, obviously, variations in quality. Does the chemistry work and it usually does because Bragg is a skilled facilitator; and, can the subject be adequately treated within the given time horizon, mostly yes, sometimes you wish for a Part 2.

Whether the subject is something you know about or not, you emerge feeling that you have learnt something new - a new angle on the familiar or new depth on the unfamiliar. It is also a confirmation that scholarship (despite what some think and the culture wars that seep across the media) still exists and (for forty five minutes at least) people can share what they know, even when they might disagree, with a uniform civility and humanity.

Eyesight restored, I happily continue to listen and dip into the back catalogue. I am especially enjoying the science and history related slots because I know that whereas I would probably not now invest my reading time there, I am gleaning a solid background in what 'everyone ought to know' and have a feel for at least.

I enjoy too the surprises when you thought you knew something and it is adjusted and makes you wonder. For some reason as a child I developed a fascination for the Boxer rebellion. Listening to the 'In Our Time' programme on the Boxer rising, I discovered that half (10,000) of relieving force were Japanese, a fact occluded in most popular, Western accounts, and you suddenly see how meteoric Japan's rise was (in under fifty years) and potentially, you feel, how dislocating it must have been too. A single fact that suddenly prompts a whole repositioning of a spectrum of thought on that transition.

'In Our Time' is an online encyclopaedia and as such rewards (as those books did) happy hours of browsing, stumbling upon the new, the newly unfamiliar, the loved and known revisited.

* The more senior doctor told me that since I sleep and dream and thus have rapid eye movements involuntarily I do to my eyes more violence each night than I could possibly do reading!

Friday, July 6, 2018

Encountering Martin Buber

This week I re-read my first book on Martin Buber. While still at school, my interest had been stimulated by a chapter in Anne Bancroft's book, 'Modern Mystics and Sages' and one morning in the Heythrop library, now a student, I found Aubrey Hodes' 'Encounter with Martin Buber'. I read it at one sitting fascinated by its blend of personal observation and illuminating discussion of the heart of Buber's thought and practice. These two being intimately related - though Buber, at times, reads abstractedly, nothing could be further from his intention. His words were always intended to be rooted in life and to give direction to life.

He undoubtedly gave Hodes direction. A young kibbutznik Hodes found himself visiting a mentally ill relative in Tel Aviv. He was distressed at each encounter and one day found himself sitting, after such an encounter, outside a house with a still, peaceful presence, with a nameplate that of Buber. A name he knew and some of whose works he had read. Discovering one day a copy of 'The Way of Man according to Hasidism' in a bookshop, and reading it there, and being encouraged by friends to visit Buber, eventually this twenty five year old telephoned the seventy five year old Buber and they met that very afternoon forging what emerged as a deeply satisfying, mutual friendship grounded first in Buber's compassionate listening and quiet advice on how to respond to the continuing person underlying his relative's distress. This helped Hodes forge a deeper bond with her and accompany her on her path to recovery.

The book captures the heart of Buber - a man who was utterly a Jew and yet a universalist. A man who recognised the virtue of belonging and yet denied it the closure of exclusivity. The courageous champion of a people (especially in Germany between 1933-1938) and a prophetic critic of the nation that became Israel. A man for whom life was a hallowing in the sacred rooted in the encounter with God and who was a non-observant Jew delighting in the fact that in the Hebrew tradition, and especially the Bible, there was no word for religion. He described his position as one of a 'believing humanism'.

Hodes is especially good on showing the way in which Buber deeply realised that 'all real living is meeting', that every moment is an opportunity to genuinely greet the world as having value because each and every thing is a subject in its own right, unique in its particularity, and that genuine life is this treating of everything as an end in in itself, even when for practical purposes it too maybe a means, utilitarian, but the end must always come first and last.

And that we are tasked with living this - both everyday and in special moments of test. Hodes tells a beautiful account of realising this when, as a medical orderly in the 1956 war, he defends the life of an elderly Arab, whom he has treated, from young Israeli soldiers on a quest for sport and blood, shaped, as they were, with the scent of victory. Endless, Hodes relates, are the ways he could have justified his handing the man over but each justification would have reduced him, making him smaller, more incomplete. His resistance to this moment of potential evil was a turning point in his own self-evaluation. He was tested and won through in his own particular way.

For me, Hodes book was a gateway into Buber that has always remained open, living with this remarkable man, whose quiet insistence is always probing you to discover yourself. As one of the Hasidic rebbes proclaimed you will not be saved by imitating another, however, exalted, in his case either Abraham or Moses, but by becoming ever more deeply your unique self. God wants a Nicholas, this particular Nicholas as a living, unique being, not simply a copied model.

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...