The train

Man gets on train at country station seen off by old man & teenage boy. Sits down. Looks up at next station to find it’s identical to the one where he got on. A man identical to him is being seen off by an old man and a teenage boy.

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Our books

I bought another book this morning. Nothing remarkable about that, especially not for me, but for some reason I started to think about how the contrast between the many books i have surrounded myself with as an adult and the few – the much cherished few – we had at home when i was a child.

We didn’t buy books but that’s not to say we didn’t have any at all. My dad had a few books on farming, a book about the minerals of the earth and a set of art encyclopaedias he must have bought in instalments, though I never saw him read them. I read them surreptitiously – we children weren’t supposed to touch them, discovering in their pages the wonders of prehistoric art and the women of Titian, both of which I still love. I also read the book about minerals but the farming textbooks were too much and so I never did learn how to raise cows for milk.

For her part, my mum had a beautiful leatherbound anthology of stories (“Alice in Wonderland”,”The Water Babies”, tales from the Mabinogion, etc) and poetry (mostly Tennyson, Kipling, Walter de la Mare & co). This book had a poignant history: it had originally been a present to one of my mother’s uncles from the German family who sheltered him after he was shot down during the Second World War. It was intended for his daughter Katherine who, having survived polio, was now bed-ridden with TB.

Sadly, she died and the book passed to my mum who was another quiet, sickly, careful child: when she passed it on to us, it was still in pristine condition. Not for long. The leather covers came off one by one and ink ‘annotations’ soon ‘decorated’ the pages. I didn’t mind. I read it from missing cover to missing cover over and over again. I’ve loved the smell of old paper ever since, as i have the weight of a book in my hands – two reasons why e-books have never tempted me.

The Victorian stories inside the anthology were as different as could be to the bland tales the teachers regaled us with at school: slightly macabre and supernaturally inventive. The language was richer but more formal. The sentences were longer and exotically punctuated: there and then i fell in love with the semi-colon. Then there were the pictures: Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland in particular. I was less keen on the poetry apart from the nonsense rhymes of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

It was in this book that i first had my heart broken by a story. It was the Mabinogion tale about a knight who leaves his dog guarding his young son. A wolf comes in and attacks the baby. Although the dog is unable to save the child he does succeed in killing the wolf. But when the knight returns and sees the the dead infant he believes it is the dog who has killed him: he slays his faithful hound only to  discover, a little while later, the corpse of the true killer lying bloodied behind a curtain. I cried when i read that story and even now the injustice of the dog’s death fills me with sorrow. By contrast, i can scarcely recall what the books we read at school were about.

Finally, we had one other book in our house and it was the book from which we were taught to read: the Bible. Well, a children’s Bible. This contained all the best stories from the Bible with magnificent coloured drawings on each page (Cain, i recall, was clad in a strange tasselled coat of the kind a Country Music singer might wear). The language was simplified from the original but retained the tongue-twisting polysyllables that passed for names. How i struggled with those Babylonian kings! My dad used to record us reading: on the one fragment that still survives i can be heard stumbling repeatedly over “Nebuchadnezzar”  while he corrects me – quietly in the background – and gets me to try again.

The Bible was an even greater rollercoaster of a read than the “Great Anthology”. It was supposed to explain what was good and what was bad and indeed it did contain stories of beautiful wisdom: Solomon judging the women fighting over a baby, Jesus challenging the would-be executioners of an adulteress. Yet it also contained examples of terrifying carnage such as the destruction of Jericho.  Eve seemed to me to be more victim than transgressor while the Philistines were like the “Red Indians” in American cowboy movies: condemned merely because history had come to belong to their enemies. I began to think and haven’t stopped since.

What a summer

I made up my mind when i came back from Turkey in April that i was going to make the most of this summer and not let it ebb away the way most of those before it have done. I set myself to searching online to find out what was happening in London over the next few months, particularly things that were free or cheap.

Many adventures followed – far too numerous to list, but two events, both exhibitions, stand out:

The first featured sea paintings, etchings and sculptures by Maggi Hambling. I hesitated to attend it, unsure of the welcome i would get at the posh private gallery where it was being held, but decided to stick to my promise to myself and not be deflected by nervousness. I’m glad i did. The sculptures (bronze reliefs) i wasn’t keen on, the etchings were nice but forgettable – but the paintings! There were only three but they were spellbinding. It was as though she’d trapped the Sea itself in her whirls of paint. Looking at one of the paintings I noted:

Shades of white, blue and navy – sometimes so dark it almost looks black. No edges. Utterly still and silent yet full of movement and you’d swear you can hear it roar. It makes me feel drenched.

The other exhibition was very different. It featured the work of not one but many artists whose names however are long since lost. They lived in a state which falls within the boundaries of modern Nigeria and were contemporaries of the European Renaissance artists – and every bit as marvellous.

This was the exhibition of sculptures from the Kingdom of Ife.  Held at the British Museum it was visibly playing second fiddle to the exhibition of Renaissance drawings – including some by Leonardo da Vinci – that was showing at the same time. It saddened me that so few of those queuing up to see the sketches of the great Italian Masters would bother to see the works of their African near-contemporaries, but in truth i nearly didn’t go and see them myself. The ticket was bought on a moment’s impulse.

Inside i wrote:

Incredible! Some exhibitions are interesting; this is mesmerising.

About the sculptures themselves i noted:

Each figure is subtly unique, to the extent that you feel they contain real people, present with you in the rooms of the British Museum. And they’re old: some date to the 800s it seems (the Anglo-Saxon period in England).

The one that has made the greatest impact on me so far: a seated figure (one leg crossed) made from copper which has been dated to the 13th Century. Eyes closed, lips slightly parted, as though drifting into sleep. One arm is missing as is the lower half of the other arm, but the round, narrow shoulders are beautiful. Interestingly androgynous: I think it’s a plump, slightly built male but it could be a boyish small-breasted girl. Revered as a fertility symbol it seems. Naturalism is exquisite: tiny folds of fat above the hips.

Other figures are more stylised/monstrous: one from the 14th Century has bulging eyes, tiny clenched fists & an elongated torso.

They still haunt me those long-dead Africans immortalised, albeit anonymously, in copper. It haunts me too how close i came to not going. Even once i’d bought the ticket i wasn’t sure – would it just be an endless array of near-identical, earnestly exhibited antiquities? Then on the day itself i had transport problems and almost turned around and went home.

Not everything i’ve been to this summer has been that good; indeed some of the events have fallen rather flat. But those moments of wonder make the rest of it worthwhile. How glad i am that i stuck to my guns and made the effort to do, see, hear and go this year.

A visit to Henry Moore’s house

It’s been about a month since i last blogged. Hard to say why it’s been so long really. I suppose part of the reason may have been a stressful, not to mention tedious report which has been absorbing my energies at work. But another reason is that i’ve stuck to my plan of going out to see exhibitions and concerts this summer.

This weekend just gone i realised a much cherished plan to visit Perry Green in Hertfordshire. This was the sculptor Henry Moore’s home till he died in 1986 and is now the headquarters of the Henry Moore Foundation. The main attractions are the huge stone and bronze works scattered around the grounds but his studios have also been converted into indoor galleries where you can see smaller works and, most poignantly, blocks of stone he was working on at the time of his death. Yes, he was still sculpting aged 88!

Double Oval #1

First though there was a tour of Hoglands, the house itself. The name made me smile, just because it made me think of Harry Potter’s school, Hogwarts, but the house wasn’t particularly magical: just two small cottages knocked together and decorated in that hideous mixture of beige fabric and dark wood which passed for style in the 70s. The murky French paintings on the walls didn’t help: Courbet, yuck.

I did like the coffee table covered with little sculptures and other objects – well, not the coffee table itself, that was vile; but the fact that Moore and his wife were so matter of fact in their attitude to art. They didn’t worry about things getting broken or damaged; these precious objects were there to be touched and handled. We were told this by our guide, one of a team whose task it is to welcome and educate visitors whilst ensuring they don’t damage anything. They do a great job and really do make you feel welcome – very different from some art institutions.

In what used to be the office we found a clue to how the Foundation had managed to survive the lean years of the past few decades, a time when its master’s reputation seemed to ebb away (although thanks to the Tate exhibition it’s seen a revival this year). Moore’s assistant’s desk was pointed out to us. Apparently, the first person to hold this post had been quite small so a small desk had been bought. When his successor proved bigger the Moores didn’t buy a bigger desk however but simply stuck wooden blocks under the legs of the one they already had. You can take the lad out of Yorkshire…

Double Oval #4

Out in the grounds the sculptures were covered with a sheen of rainwater. That wasn’t a bad thing as it turned out; it made them even more tactile, especially those cast from bronze – a material i don’t normally like. I have to touch sculpture, as i’ve said in earlier posts. Here i could touch away to my heart’s content and i did. Some of the other visitors looked at me askance. I let them look.

I couldn’t get over how different the works looked when you were there with them. In photographs, especially small photographs, they’re flattened and diminished; but there in front of you, behind you, to each side of you, they dominate the landscape – and yet belong to it too. There were two great bronze ones i loved. The first was angular, a mass of joints. Its name was “Three Piece Sculpture: Vertebrae 1968”. The second was called “Double Oval” and was, well, a double oval. This is the sculpture which is shown in the photos in this post. It was formed of two separate pieces placed alongside one another and you could walk in between them. The gap was like an enchanted passageway.

Later, after a good cup of tea, i walked back along the Hertfordshire Way to Bishop’s Stortford. I got lost, stung by nettles and rather wet but what else would you expect on a walk through the English countryside? There was a lovely little village a mile or two before the town, the kind with a church, a duck pond and not much else. Eventually I arrived at the railway station where i caught my train home, tired and happy.

Thorley pond

And that concludes this first post of the month. Hopefully, now i’ve got going again i’ll keep going.

Four poems about fruit

Some people make pies from fruit, others crumbles and yet others poems. Just recently, I was re-reading a selection of poetry by the Bengali poet Jibanananda Das which i found on the Internet some time back and one poem in particular struck me:

Tangerine

When once l leave this body
Shall I not come back to the world?
If only I might return
Upon a winter’s evening
Taking on the compassionate flesh of a cold tangerine
At the bedside of some dying acquaintance.

(tr. unknown)

I was quite taken aback by this association of tangerines with death. Thinking about it, i realise that like most British people of my generation and background i connect them with Christmas. When i was a child that was the only time we ever ate them. They have always conjured up ideas of plenty, celebration, lightheartedness and hope. Now, juxtaposed with that is a picture of deathbed. For some reason i imagine the occupant’s hand to be cold and damp, like the tangerine itself.

Jibanananda Das was a great favourite of mine when i was at university. The slightly alien quality of his world resonated with me and i loved his sensual and yet sinister imagery: his poems were full of deer, grass and hands. The language was strange and oblique which appealed to me: i felt for once my lack of understanding of Bengali didn’t put me at such a disadvantage. In fact, it thrilled me that i could feel his distinctive style.

Another poet i discovered around the same time – actually probably a year or two earlier – and who appealed to me for similar reasons was Francis Ponge. His style was different: the poems were like free verse essays, almost extended dictionary definitions of the objects at their centre. One of my favourites was about blackberries:

Les Mûres

Aux buissons typographiques constitués par le poème sur une route qui ne mène hors des choses ni à l’esprit, certains fruits sont formés d’une agglomération de sphères qu’une goutte d’encre remplit.

Noirs, roses et kakis ensemble dur la grappe, ils offrent plutôt le spectacle d’une famille rogue à ses âges divers, qu’une tentation très vive à la cueillette.

Vue la disproportion des pépins à la pulpe les oiseaux les apprécient pue, si peu de chose au fond leur reste quand du bec à l’anus ils en sont traversés.

Mais le poète au cours de sa promenade professionnelle, en prend de la graine à raison : « Ainsi donc » se dit-il, « réussissent en grand nombre les efforts patients d’une fleur très fragile quoique par un rébarbatif enchevêtrement de ronces défendue. Sans beaucoup d’autres qualités, – mûres, parfaitement elles sont mûres – comme aussi ce poème est fait. »

Or, in English :

Blackberries

On typographical bushes constituted by the poem along a road which leads neither beyond things nor to the spirit, certain fruits are formed by an agglomeration of spheres filled by a drop of ink.

Blacks, pinks, khakis, all on a cluster, they look more like members of an arrogant family of varying ages than a very lively temptation to pick them off.

Given the disproportion of the seeds to the pulp, birds find little to appreciate, so little in the end remains by the time it has travelled from the beak to the anus.

But the poet on his professional walk mulls this over in his mind: “Clearly,” he says to himself, “the patient efforts of a very delicate flower succeeds to a large extent although protected by a forbidding tangle of brambles. Lacking many other qualities – blackberries are perfectly ripe – the way this poem is ready.”

(tr. Serge Gavronsky)

Very French! I’m not sure how i would feel about a poem like this if i encountered it for the first time now, but at the time i was enchanted by the way in which Ponge made ordinary things seem strange and perplexing; the way he made you look at things close up and at the same time distance yourself from them, so that you saw them for what they were and not for what they were to you. Blackberries reminds me of one of a postcard i have on my bookcase which shows a shoal of sperm captured under a microscope. It’s really rather pretty and people often ask what kind of ‘fish’ they are.

From a minute examination of blackberries to the raspberry as metaphor. This is a poem by my beloved Solveig von Schoultz:

Portrait of a raspberry

Just as raspberry runners travel under the sand
and put out new shoots each year
he had travelled
far from his beginnings, had forgotten
and since he only lived in his outpost,
his remotest rootlet, thought he was new
and singular to the species.
If he’d turned round
he’d have seen similar bushes the whole way:
even in the mother-bush the one he was.

(tr. Anne Born)

We might just as easily say: very Nordic. Schoultz uses images from nature throughout her poetry and in a very simple, yet powerful way. All these ordinary things, she seems to say, all these ordinary lives and ordinary sorrows which go unnoticed and yet matter so much. I can never put into words how much i love her poetry or why i love it so much. It’s often the way though: love eludes analysis just as admiration attracts it.

And that brings me to the final poem by the Turkish poet Oktay Rifat, a new poet to me. I picked up a book of his work during my recent trip to Turkey. The poem is about his love for his wife – but it does mention an apple!

To my wife

You bring coolness to the halls
A sense of space to rooms
To wake in your bed in the morning
Gives me daylong joy

We are two halves of the same apple
Our day and night
Our house and home are one
Happiness is a meadow
Where you tread
It springs to life
Loneliness comes from the road you go down

(tr. Ruth Christie & Richard McKane)

Four poems more or less about fruit: tangerines, blackberries, raspberries and an apple. Imagine a crumble made from those!

Writing as we speak

We really need to update our understanding of written communication. As it is, we’re still behaving as if we were living in the era of the letter, not that of the email – and definitely not that of Twitter. I’ve been thinking about this ever since that poor, unfortunate man in Doncaster was found guilty of threatening to blow up an airport following a mini-rant on Twitter – after he found the airport shut by snow.

The judge is quoted as describing the man’s tweet as

of a menacing nature in the context of the times in which we live.

But this is rubbish, precisely because of that very context. The times in which we live are times in which we often use the written word as would speech – because it’s almost as easy and as quick. We wouldn’t assume that someone who shouts “I’ll kill you!” on discovering that their partner/colleague has done something stupid is actually intending to murder this annoying individual, especially if we could see that the individual supposedly being threatened was not even present.  So why assume that the man from Doncaster was serious when he tweeted that he would “blow you sky high”, addressing the airport but sending the message to his his Followers, i.e. those that subscribe to his feed?

And bear in mind that this was a tweet. Twitter is a sort of virtual blackboard on which people chalk up whatever’s on their mind at that instant. The atmosphere, generally speaking, is rather like you’d find in the kitchen at work: groups of people moaning, gossiping, joking and taking the mickey out of one another. It might be public but it’s experienced as private. The problem is we don’t yet have a model for these public/private virtual spaces.

Probably the most ironic thing about all this is that in venting his frustrations into the wonderful void that is Twitter our friend in Doncaster was dissipating anger that he might otherwise have ended up directing at the airport staff. That aside, the fact is that a man lost his job and ended up in court because of a failure to recognise how deeply the internet has altered the way we communicate. And we’re no safer from terrorist threats.

Killing Jesus

A recent encounter with a salesman – i thought he was an evangelist when he approached me – has reminded me of the scene i encountered when i was out shopping a few days before my trip to Turkey. It was Good Friday and, while supermarkets were frantically selling chocolate eggs, out on the street groups of Christian and Muslim preachers were preaching about the Crucifixion. What they were preaching however was very different: while the Christians were proselytising that this (plus the Resurrection) was the most significant event  in history, the Muslims were denying it had even happened: according to the Qur’an* (4:157–158) it only appears as if Jesus was crucified:

However, they did not slay him, and neither did they crucify him, but it only seemed to them [as if it had been] so.

Nevertheless this was the first time I’d ever seen Muslims making a fuss about the issue.

I say Muslims; but these people appeared to be Salafis,  a group which has doesn’t have much space for intrafaith differences of opinion, never mind interfaith ones. That in turn made me think of how things have changed since i was a child. Back then my best friend was a Bangladeshi and what impressed me most about her family’s religion was how reasonable, inclusive and life-affirming it was – especially compared to Christianity which seemed to have lost its way in doctrinal squabbles and evangelical arrogance. Most of all i admired the fact that there was no obsession with being perfect. It was enough to be a good human being. God was God, Man was Man.

It wasn’t until i moved to London and started university that i encountered a different kind of Muslim: ultra-pious, ultra-covered and ultra-judgemental: i remember her looking at a girl in a short skirt and saying she only had herself to blame if she got raped. At the same time however she emphasised the kinship of Islam and Christianity – even if she did make it clear which she considered superior – and never actively proselytised or rubbished Christian beliefs. In fact, it’s a startling thought, but those angry young Muslims i described earlier would probably denounce S as not strict enough. In fact, i wonder if they truly feel convinced that anyone is strict enough: for all Islam’s insistence that perfection is for God alone, it seems to me that increasingly it is developing the same obsession with it that, as i said earlier, mars Christianity.

And then there’s the irony of the fact that of all Christian beliefs it was the Crucifixion the preachers were attacking. The Qur’anic disavowal of this event** has always struck me as odd and seems to undermine the Islamic insistence on Jesus being Man, not God. It resembles a belief of the Gnostic strand of Christianity which was common in Arabia at the time Muhammad lived. The Gnostics rejected the idea of the humanity of Jesus: God, not Man. Docetism, as the belief was known, was the idea that Jesus’ body was illusory – he only appeared to be flesh and blood – and as such his crucifixion was too. This developed in various Gnostic groups into the idea that someone else took his place on the cross.

Strangely enough, i didn’t feel any great urge to discuss this issue with the Muslim preachers though. Nor for that matter with their Christian brethren who, were trying to emotionally blackmail everyone to go church (“He died for you”) a few metres along the road.

* The Message of THE QUR’AN Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad; ISBN: 1-904510-00-0; pub.: The Book Foundation (2003)

** Since this post was originally written i’ve started reading a book about the place of Jesus in Islam*** which makes it clear that (a) the Qur’anic verses relating to the crucifixion can be interpreted in a number of different ways (partly depending on how the Arabic verbs used are understood) and (b) the verses have been and still are interpreted differently by different Muslim sects.

*** Images of Jesus Christ in Islam by Oddbjorn Leirvik; ISBN: 978-1441181602; pub.: Continuum (2010)