Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Time for Clinton (and probably McCain too) to step aside

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Today, Obama gave the speech of his campaign, maybe his political life. Facing immense scrutiny regarding his alliance with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama had to explain how he could vehemently disagree with Wright’s highly politicised outbursts whilst maintaining his friendship. Andrew Sullivan rightly, I think, says this is a speech America has been waiting for for a long, long time –

This MSNBC discussion confirms the ripples the speech will have.


The most significant movement sweeping across the UK, and gathering interest beyond

Sunday, March 16, 2008

You may or may not have heard about the Transition Town movement, which is gathering momentum in the UK and catching people’s attention abroad as well. A place that I consider my spiritual home, for example – Forest Row in East Sussex – officially ‘unleashed’ itself as a Transition Town last Wednesday, on the back of year-long planning. One of the principal speakers at the official unleashing, Mike Grenville, closed his talk

with the oft-cited quote, “if not now, when, if not here, where, and if not us, then who?”

Here is Dr Caroline Lucas, Member of the European Parliament, about the subject of the book, The Transition Handbook

Courtesy of Treehugger.

Characters from the past: the Maharajah of Alwar in The Life of Lord Halifax

Saturday, March 1, 2008

One of the books I’m currently reading is a biography of Edward Wood, Lord Halifax. He is the Briton probably most famously remembered as Neville Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary, who stood by his Prime Minister on return from meeting the German Chancellor heralding ‘peace in our time’ to the world’s media. Their policy of appeasement soon dissolved into dust when Hitler invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany.

Perhaps less well known is not only Halifax’s stint as ambassador to the United States, thereafter, sent by Winston Churchill; but also Halifax’s incumbency as a Viceroy of India (1926-31).

The biography, written in 1965, is engaging, peppered with colourful characterisations, including the following of the poisonous Maharaja of Alwar (1882-1937), which I encountered last night –

Towards the end of May the Princes would gather in Simla for their Council, and the Viceroy became acquainted with these picturesque figures whose characters were as various as the size of their domains and the efficiency with which they were administered. He was much taken with the panache of these rulers, saying of one of them that he was ‘the greatest gentleman he had ever met’, but he noted their backslidings with a shrewd eye.

One of the first to pay his respects was the deplorable Maharaja of Alwar, who claimed to be descended from the Sun God and whose continued presence on his throne was thought by many to be an affront to public decency and a reproach to the Government of India. Here was a strong and baleful personality; a tall man of reptilian beauty and remarkable accomplishments, a philosopher, a scholar and a fine orator even in a day rich in the power of speech. Clearly a victim of schizophrenia, he was known to be a sadist and a pervert, and he had developed towards the English a manner at once insolent and correct that was difficult to endure. He was commonly supposed to have murdered more than one person who had crossed his path, and was said to have tethered a recalcitrant polo pony to the side of the hill in the hot weather, and made daily visits to watch it dying of thirst. Indeed, he was later to have a goat tied outside [Dorothy Wood, the Viceroy’s wife’s] window in his palace at Alwar so that it might be killed in the small hours of the morning by a tame panther and terrifying her by its dying screams, but she was fortunately able to forestall these hospitable preparations by releasing the goat.

Like some Sultan in the seraglio on the Golden Horn he went in constant terror of assassination, and yet was so brave that, disdaining the safety of a machan, he would hunt panther on foot with a spear and follow wounded tigers into the jungle without a qualm. He was a man who could literally produce a shiver in those who encountered him.

Part of Alwar’s insolence consisted in having all dogs removed from his sight, however distinguished their owners. Their proximity, he said, made him feel sick, and it speaks volumes for the man’s personality that he was able to force this intolerable rule on the Secretary of State, Birkenhead, and the Viceroy, two men in whose lives dogs played a large part.

He was also given to a cynical pretence, in order to cause inconvenience, that as his religion forbade him to touch leather he could not ride in an ordinary saddle, a claim that was never made by other Hindu princes, or hold ordinary reins. A buckskin saddle had to be found for him to use on the ride to Annandale, and brown silk gloves prevented contamination by the bridle. The rule of this evil man, who seemed to belong to some other age, was eventually ended by an uprising of his subjects, and he was to die miserably in Paris.

– from ‘Halifax, The Life of Lord Halifax’, by The Earl of Birkenhead (pp.184-5)

The arts of the possible & impossible: Obama on religion and politics

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Having recently been given Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, and zipped through it from cover to cover, I was impressed with the quality of his writing and his ability to communicate his experience and thinking in an engaging way. In it he covers the American political and economic landscape and ‘The World Beyond Our Borders’, chapters that stirred in me the impression of an outstanding political mind.

But I found his chapter on ‘Faith’ to be particularly constructive, which he began with a lyrical telling of his upbringing.

[…] my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist that she would become; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well. Moreover, as a child I rarely came in contact with those who might offer a substantially different view of faith. My father was almost entirely absent from my childhood, having been divorced from my mother when I was two years old; in any event, although my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition, like the mumbo-jumbo of witch doctors that he had witnessed in the Kenyan villages of his youth.

When my mother remarried, it was to an Indonesian with an equally skeptical bent, a man who saw religion as not particularly useful in the practical business of making one’s way in the world, and who had grown up in a country of Hinduism, Buddhism, and ancient animist traditions. During the five years that we would live with my stepfather in Indonesia, I was sent first to a neighborhood Catholic school and then to a predominantly Muslim school; in both cases, my mother was less concerned with me learning the catechism or puzzling out the meaning of the muezzin’s call to evening prayer than she was with whether I was properly learning my multiplication tables.

And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I’ve ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice, and scorned those who were indifferent to both.

Most of all, she possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that would properly be described as devotional. During the course of the day, she might come across a painting, read a line of poetry, or hear a piece of music, and I would see tears well up in her eyes. Sometimes, as I was growing up, she would wake me up in the middle of the night to have me gaze at a particularly spectacular moon, or she would have me close my eyes as we walked together at twilight to listen to the rustle of leaves. She loved to take children – any child – and sit them in her lap and tickle them or play games with them or examine their hands, tracing out the miracle of bone and tendon and skin and delighting at the truths to be found there. She saw mysteries everywhere and took joy in the sheer strangeness of life.

– Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, pp.204-5

To my eyes, these are unusual words for a politican to write, to say the least. He follows them with what seems to be constructive commentary on being a politician in an increasingly fractious, multicultural world.

Below is a video, which conveys Obama’s maturity and wisdom, posted on the campaign blog with the following introduction –

Barack Obama is a committed Chrisitan who has been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s Southside for the past twenty years.

In June of 2006, Senator Obama delivered what was called the most important speech on religion and politics in 40 years. Speaking before an evangelical audience, Senator Obama candidly discussed his own religious conversion and doubts, and the need for a deeper, more substantive discussion about the role of faith in American life.

I particularly like the distinction between politics as the art of the possible compared with religion as the art of the impossible. In Obama, I think, we truly have a world statesman for our times.

Sober reading

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

From George Monbiot, who argues the recent commitment, by the UK Secretary of State for the environment, to a stronger climate change bill is pathetic. This is because of the get-out clause of carbon trading that won’t do much to reduce emissions. His article began with a novel he read, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which he claims is the most significant environmental text ‘ever written’.

The only certain means of preventing runaway climate change is to cut emissions here and now. Who will persuade us to act? However strong the opposition parties’ policies appear to be, they cannot be sustained unless the voters move behind them. We won’t be prompted by the media. The BBC drops Planet Relief for fear of breaching its impartiality guidelines: heaven forbid that it should come out against mass death. But it broadcasts a programme – Top Gear – that puts a match to its guidelines every week, and now looks about as pertinent as the Black and White Minstrel Show. The schedules are crammed with shows urging us to travel further, drive faster, build bigger, buy more, yet none of them are deemed to offend the rules, which really means that they don’t offend the interests of business or the pampered sensibilities of the Aga class. The media, driven by fear and advertising, is hopelessly biased towards the consumer economy and against the biosphere.

Dream-permeable cartography

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Robert Macfarlane contrasts two types of map: that of the grid and that of the story.

A grid map places an abstract geometric meshwork upon a space, within which any item or individual can be co-ordinated. The invention of the grid map, which occurred more or less coevally with the rise of modern science in the sixteenth century, lent a new authority to cartography. The power of grid maps is that they make it possible for any individual or object to be located within an abstract totality of space. But their virtue is also their danger: that they reduce the world only to data, that they record space independent of being.

[…] The grid map has proved an exceptionally efficient method for converting place into resource, and for devising large-scale approaches to a landscape. It is a technique that has brought uncountable benefits and advances with it. But so authoritative is the grid method, so apparently irrefutable the knowledge that it dispenses about a place, that it has all but eliminated our sense of the worth of map-as-story: of cartography that is self-made, felt, sensuous. The grid’s rigorous geometry celebrates precision, and suppresses touch, feel and provisionality.

[…] As the American poet Robert Penn Warren beautifully observed, ‘our maps have grown less speculative, less interested in the elemental possibilities of the Earth’s skin, and that suggests that the Earth has lost it capacity to keep secrets. We tend to look at them for what we want to avoid, rather than what, in good fortune, we might discover. There is not much mystery in a landscape we cannot enter.’

In contrast, story maps

represent a place as it is perceived by an individual or by a culture moving through it. They are records of specific journeys, rather than describing a space within which innumerable journeys might take place. They are organised around the passage of the traveller, and the perimeters of the sight or experience of that traveller. Event and place are not fully distinguished, for they are often of the same substance.

[…] They are deep maps too, that register history, and that acknowledge the way memory and landscape layer and interleave. They are living conceptions, idiosyncratically created, proved upon the pulses of a place, born of experience and of attention.

[…] Maps such as these, held in the mind, are alert to a landscape’s volatility as well as fixtures. They tell of the inches and tints of things. They are born of a sophisticated literacy of place, rather than aspiring solely to the neutral organisation of data. We cannot navigate and place ourselves only with maps that make the landscape dream-proof, impervious to the imagination. Such maps – and the road-map is first among them – encourage the elimination of wonder from our relationship with the world. And once wonder has been chased from our thinking about the land, then we are lost.

– from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (pp. 141-145); he adds a few examples of those who specialise in map-as-story, such as eskimos. There is also the classic, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, that commemorates his experiences amongst Australian aborigines.

‘We live in loud times’ – a vocal call to listen

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Volume, pace and pitch summon whole worlds. Intonation is a language in itself. The American philosopher and wit, Sidney Morgenbesser, was in the audience at a lecture given by the American philosopher J.L. Austin at Colombia University in the 1950s. When Austin explained that many languages employ the double negative to denote a positive (‘He is not unlike his sister’), but none employed a double positive to make a negative, Morgenbesser waved his arm dismissively, and retorted: ‘Yeah, yeah.’

With the blast and blare of cinemas, restaurants, concerts, computer games and TV commercials,

– add to these the hydraulic waste-collection truck and the carpenter’s screaming, electric blade saw outside my window as I write –

we live in loud times. A recent study by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds suggested that birds that live near motorways can’t hear each other, leading to difficulties in learning songs and communicating with potential mates. Another study found that 5-year old children who attended nursery developed more voice problems that those who didn’t because of the high noise levels and unsympathetic acoustic environment. What’s the effect on humans when voices are submerged by the din? And how can we create an acoustic space in which this suggestive but perpetually elusive instrument, the human voice, can flourish?

To attune properly to the voice we must develop a keener sensitivity, a ‘deep listening’. To start a real conversation about this most vital talent, we need to hear with fresh ears.

– from Anne Karpf’s The Human Voice (pp.290-1)

On friendship – remembering Roger Deakin II

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

[…] friendship with Roger did not seem to follow the normal laws of time. ‘I want all my friends to come up like weeds,’ he had once written in a notebook, ‘and I want to be a weed myself, spontaneous and unstoppable. I don’t want the kind of friends one has to cultivate.’ That caught it exactly.

– from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (p.266)

The Isles Project – what and why – the how’s another question

Saturday, September 29, 2007

I’ve always found the world of the rock-loving geologist difficult to relate to; I don’t know what it is about the discipline of geology that has made it so for me – may be something to do with so much jargon, terminology and a regular lack of poetics in their use of language – and I don’t necessarily mean grand gestures of dramatic metaphor, or the sublime visions of the Romantics.

To give an idea, I love this piece of writing – coming from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places – about the British Isles, with its subdued, gentle overtones of genesis.

At the height of the last glacial period, the ice had been so dense and extensive that its weight depressed the land beneath it into the earth’s mantle. Think of that: it caused an entire country to sink down into the earth. Conversely, so it was that when the ice melted and its weight was lifted from the land, the bones of the earth rose – in some places by hundreds of feet. Geologists call this effect ‘isostatic rebound’. The rebound was most pronounced in the north of Britain, where the ice had been most massive; on the south coast, by way of counteraction, the coastline dipped.

As the ice melted, and the land tilted, the oceans grew. For glaciation had stored a significant proportion of the word’s water. The run-off from the melting ice across the northern hemisphere joined the oceans, raising sea-levels by nearly 400 feet in places, and transforming the map of the world. Among those transformations was the cutting, sluicing and filling of the channel between what is now England and what is now France. The ancient land-bridge of chalk, weald sands and clay was gouged over thousands of years by rivers. As the sea levels continued to rise, the water flooded up the river valleys, ate at the hills, and eventually overran the bridge entirely. Britain was islanded: the archipelago was made.

The ice retreated up through the land – lobes, fingers, sheets, reversing irregularly, northering. The land it left behind was at first entirely barren. Bare drifts of till, comminuted earth, a glittering domain of boulders, pebbles, sand and clay, rich in metals that had been filtered and sorted by the ice’s latticework. Pools of silver water gleaming in the hollows.

It was in those pools that the deepwood began to found itself. Sphagnum bogs thickened there, the bogs became stew-pots for floating mats of heath, and on those heaths grew dwarf forests of decidous trees: willows, briches and pine, relatively arctic trees, easily dispersed, finding shelter from the glacial winds in depressions and niches.

The wood deepened, keeping a steady distance from the ice: alders in thick stands along the river valleys, willow on the boggy ground, oak, lime, hazel, ash and hornbeam, and through it all a scrub, filling the aisles of the wood and thronging its borders.

In this way, there emerged a youthful, supple forest, new-born out of the glaciers. The blue ice gave to the green wood. Where the wood caught fire and burned, as it did at times, the energy of suns was returned to the air.

– from Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (pp.93-4)

This is the kind of ‘more-than-human’ history I wrote about before at Sumptuous World – ‘New ways of doing history’ parts I & II. I love it because I believe those of us in the developed world need more than ever a sensibility of place such that we can more easily see and feel where we are, where we’ve come from, and what possibilities we have for what’s increasingly appearing to be a fairly rocky road ahead. It’s the orientation in this kind of writing that has led me to the idea for what I have called the Isles Project. isles-project-logo.jpg

It amazes me that, with all its history and influence, there is no generic, situated (in London?) introduction to the British Isles on the cultural landscape; the British Museum, after all, is in the main a reflection (an inspiring reflection? A celebration of empire?) of most other places but here and has little about Britain or the British.

It’s my contention that the time is ripe for a mark on the cultural landscape that does just this: tells the story of these lands, and the relations between people and the lands, from a weaving of human and more-than-human, and poetic, standpoints. I can think of few better ways to adjust the cultural landscape to the socio-economic and political priorities posed by the profound – and potentially deeply disorientating and upsetting – challenges of sustainability.

Robert Macfarlane, incidentally, was a friend of Roger Deakin (see previous here), is a Cambridge University fellow and an instigator of the conference on nature and literature and the eco-literature Archipelago publication.