Archive for the ‘reading’ 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.


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)

William Bloom on spiritual practice

Sunday, November 4, 2007

I’ve been a fan of William Bloom’s ever since I participated in his workshops and courses some years ago. His book, Money, Heart and Mind left a profound influence on me (and helped me get a 1st for some university coursework). Here’s a taste of his profound thinking, lifted from the Cygnus Review, in relation to the world’s spiritual traditions –

We are the first generation ever that is able to look at all the world’s spiritual traditions. This gives us a unique opportunity to see the core practices that they share. Despite all their differences – for example, from meditation to ecstatic dance – there are great similarities. It is like sport. No matter which particular sport you practice – golf, swimming, tennis – you still need to practice certain core skills such as fitness, muscle tone and stamina. Spirituality also has its core skills. Let me ask you three simple questions that illustrate this. The answers to these questions will show whether you have the basis of Spiritual Practice.

(But why, you may ask, would you want to do spiritual practice? Because, like piano or yoga or football, you want to get better at it! To become more awake and conscious. To be more connected. To soak in the beauty and wonder.)

Anyway have a look at these three questions and answer Yes or No:

  • Spiritual Connection: Do you connect with the pure wonder of existence?
  • Reflection: Do you reflect on your development and consciousness – and seek to guide them?
  • Service: Do you try to live a life that is of benefit to others?

If you answer ‘Yes’ to those three questions then, according to most traditions, you already understand and observe the three core skills of Spiritual Practice. Do them regularly and with consciousness and you actually have an ongoing and grounded rhythm.

I myself am a fairly lazy practitioner (William’s wisdom doesn’t go away, though), which is probably why I can be prone to depression. Thank goodness for good friendships. I suspect we need robust spiritual practice to stay grounded, equanimous and compassionate to contend with turbulence, as alerted to in the previous post. It’s time I engaged with spiritual practice more.

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.

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.

Curb their tongues – Anne Karpf’s ‘Human Voice’

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

This from a section called ‘Curb their tongues’, in the book ‘The Human Voice’ by Anne Karpf –

Belief in the unsuitability of women’s voices for announcing began in the early days of radio, in both the US and Britain. According to the [UK’s] Daily Express, ‘Many hardened listeners-in maintain that… Adam has a more natural broadcasting voice than Eve. Some listeners-in go so far as to say that a woman’s voice becomes monotonous after a time, that her high notes are sharp, and resemble the filing of steel, while her low notes often sound like groans.’ [19.9.1928]

Many different reasons for denying women access to the British and American airwaves were advanced in the 1920s. One newspaper reported that ‘the general opinion is that there is only one woman in about 10,000 who is sufficiently educated in the general problems of the day to be able to announce news items as they should be spoken’, and then went on to quote an official saying that ‘women should no doubt get flustered in the rushing from one studio to another’.

The female timbre was singled out for particular opprobrium. The wireless correspondent of the [London] Evening Standard suggested that women’s high-pitched voices irritated many listeners, and that they talked too rapidly, over-emphasised unimportant words, or tried to impress listeners by talking beautifully. High voice in women was associated with demureness, and low voice with sexuality, so that – in a Catch 22 – the voice that escaped accusations of promiscuity wasn’t considered authoritative enough for serious broadcasting.

Women were also indicted both for conveying too much personality through their voices (‘Critics consider that women have never been able to achieve the “impersonal” touch. When there was triumph or disaster to report, they were apt to reflect it in the tone of their voices’) and too little (‘For some reason, a man… can express personality better by voice alone than can a woman’). America, too, threw up similar complaints about lack (‘Few women have voices with distinct personality,’ according to the manager at a Pittsburg radio station) and excess (‘Perhaps the best reason suggested for the unpopularity of the woman’s voice over the radio is that it usually has too much personality’).

In 1933 the BBC finally caved in and, in an ‘experiment’, hired a Mrs Giles Borrett to announce not the news but, daringly, ‘This is the National programme from London. The tea-time music today comes from the Hotel Metropole, London.’ The barricades had been breached, the fortress stormed. Or, in the words of the next day’s newspapers, ‘£500 A YEAR FOR A FEW WORDS A DAY: BBC DEBUT OF WOMAN WITH GOLDEN VOICE’, adding, for good measure, ‘HER BABY LISTENS IN’.

Borrett’s voice was reviewed by the News Chronicle’s music critic: ‘[She had] good, clear vocalisation, correctly pitched, pleasing in its cadency, yet free from pedantic exaggeration’, leaving the paper’s radio critic to report on the technical, or perhaps electrical, side of the story – the reaction of her 15-month old son (‘He gurgled with pleasure when he recognised the voice of his mother’).

On 21st August 1933 Mrs Giles Borrett advanced further, reading the BBC six o’clock evening news bulletin for the first time, although two months later BBC officials declared that the experiment had failed, not for personal but once again for ‘technical’ reasons. Elsie James, Mrs Borrett’s American counterpart, appointed as first female announcer in 1935, met almost exactly the same fate. Her NBC employer soon declared that he was not ‘quite sure what type of program her hoarse voice is best suited for, but he is certain she will read no more Press Radio news bulletins. Listeners complained that a woman’s voice was inappropriate.’

– from Anne Karpf’s ‘The Human Voice – the story of a remarkable talent’ (pp.157-9). I just love the idea of the radio’s daily slot for tea-time music! Times have changed, but there still aren’t many, if any, news anchor-women in British Broadcasting with the reputation of a Trevor Macdonald or a Jon Snow.

Karpf’s book is an interesting read – spiced with anecdote and packed with research-based evidence – about the workings of the human voice, and the influences both upon, and caused by, it. Her perspective that the proliferation of communication technologies enhances rather than lessens does nothing to detract from the importance of the human voice is one that rings true for me. I’m only half way through – so far the above passage is where the author’s passion for her subject seems at its most unleashed. All in all, good stuff.

Remembering Roger Deakin

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

In case you’re new to the blog, I’ve been quoting from Roger Deakin’s book, Wildwood, published this year a few months after his death – various, small excerpts (I, II, III, IV, VI, VII, VIII, IX, and X) and a review (V).

Wanting to find out a bit more about the man, I rooted around the net. There’s a small archive of memories at the website of Deakin’s publisher, Hamish Hamilton, with some links to various articles. (Other stuff can be found through google.) I particularly liked the article by his friend, Robert Macfarlane. Deakin was a one-off who lived a magical life, and here are a couple of excerpts, beginning with one about his Suffolk home:

The fields, well tended but unfarmed, were also busy with life. Sparrow-hawks busked for custom overhead, deer picked their way through the hornbeam wood and tawny owls hooted from big ash trees. The land was separated into fields by a mile of massive old hedgerow, in places five metres high and five wide. Deakin had a habit of driving his cars until they were about to give out, then backing them into a particularly deep area of hedge and abandoning them, to be grown through by the briars and nested in by birds. Walking the fields with him, you would come across old Citroëns with their frog-eye headlights, peeping from the brambles. “All that needs is a new engine, and we could drive it to France,” he said, hopefully, as we passed one of these.

Deakin wrote as idiosyncratically as he did everything. Thinking my way through his house now, I can count at least five different desks, between which he would migrate according to his different moods. His sleeping-places changed, too. Over the years he had established in his meadows a variety of outlying structures, including two shepherd’s huts, an old wooden caravan with a cracked window and a railway wagon that he had painted Pullman-purple. He once emailed me happily about having been out in the wagon with the rain whacking on the roof. “An amazing thunderstorm last night as I lay listening. Like being inside a kettledrum with a whole symphony going on out there and with thunder in wraparound quadraphonic!” When he wasn’t writing, he was usually swimming, most often in his moat, or wallowing in the massive cast-iron bath that lived at the back of the house.

[…] Trees to him were herd creatures, best understood when considered in their relationships with one another (he loved the way that oak trees, for instance, would share nutrients via their root systems when one of their number was under stress). Trees were human to Deakin, and humans tree-like, in hundreds of complicated and deeply felt ways.