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A Hero for Our Time


JAMES BROWN

The end of a race. There’s no stopping that lad!

**Just a quick note before you begin to say that at the end of this post, I am adding some new information on what has been happening on the writing front as regards my own work. Now, please read on…**

Introduction


The person I wish to celebrate in the next couple of articles is my cousin James Brown – but there are a few things I feel I need to mention before handing over to him. I have called the series A Hero for Our Times because that is exactly what I feel when I contemplate his achievements.

First, in his youth James was a superb athlete. He represented Great Britain several times in Orienteering – a sport which requires intelligence, complete fitness and stamina. I once described him as the kind of man who, if he saw a steep hill, felt an irresistible temptation to run up it: and then do it again – but faster. I say this with all the admiration of a non-runner. Over the years of our friendship, I have observed the slow onset of multiple sclerosis which has put paid to James’ days as a runner, but which has never dimmed his spirit.

Second, – and this will be the subject of my second article – James is a painter of large canvases which celebrate the earth as seen through an orienteer’s eyes: paintings which bring to life the birth of streams, the flow of energy across the face of the earth, and his delight in raw colour and contrast.

Ruth’s Wharfedale, Ilkley and Cow.

James likes to experiment with new materials. He has recently been moving into writing fiction and poetry…. Is there no end?

These two articles, then, are a personal tribute to a man who is, in some ways, the younger brother that I always wished for and never had in reality: a companion to joke with and who is also at home with wide-ranging speculation.

 

The Mystery of the Ti0 Mila Rescuer 1981.

Part 1. THEN.

In 1981, when he was 19, James Brown spent some time living in Norway with fellow English orienteers Roger Bloor and Dave Cheesewright.  They earned their keep by designing special orienteering maps to be used in races located in the beautiful and rugged Norwegian forests. Being athletes themselves, the three young men spent as much time as possible training and competing in whatever races were available.  As James comments “Our plan was to become the best orienteers in Britain.”

For those unfamiliar with Orienteering, it is the name given to a race which tales place through terrain which is unknown to the competitors. He or she runs (or rides their mountain bike) navigating their way using only a compass and a detailed map of that  specific terrain. They are racing against the clock, and need to find and register their presence at specified checkpoints  each of which is marked on the map. Orienteering races are usually held amid mountains and forests, and in all types of weather; but the principle of navigating an unknown route can be applied to races taking place  in complex city centres like Venice orYork, or even through museums or shopping centres! However, orienteers of James’ kind like nothing better than to race in the wild, taking streams in their stride, and to arrive at the finish, muddied and winded, but triumphant (oh yes!) and ahead of the game.

Usually the sport is held for individual competitors, but there are specially staged relay races where groups of competitors come together to form a relay team. In relay races the runners see their map of the course for the first time the moment the race begins and they hare off, or the more elderly perhaps, tortoise off into the forest navigating towards the first control point. They then must continue to visit each checkpoint in the order they appear on the map until they have visited them all. They complete their race by handing over to their next team member and so on until the final team member has successfully visited each control and crossed the finish line.  Naturally, those who complete the arduous course first, are the winners. Rigorous checks are made to make sure the competitors have visit all the checkpoints. Failure to do so means disqualification.

It was during one such relay race that James had a most disturbing adventure. The race was called the Ti0 Mila (pronounced ‘tia meala’ in Swedish) and it took place overnight in a forest in Sweden. Several teams, each consisting of 10 seasoned orienteers were competing, and James, who was already well known in orienteering circles, had been invited to join a Norwegian orienteering club called OL Pa. James was to run the final leg of the 16 km course.

He describes what happened as follows.

“I had been running for an hour and a half and had completed about 14 kilometres of the 16km final leg. I was starting to feel the strain. It was already getting light but the air was still very cold, well below zero. Uncertain of my own location in the forest I paused to scrutinise the map and only then did I become aware of a man wearing an orange hat standing rigidly like a statue in a semi open area some 30 metres in front of me.  It was as though he was frozen to the ground. He didn’t look at me or react in any other way, which was strange. Normally runners acknowledge one another especially if they are lost.  But he didn’t appear like other orienteers at all, though he clutched a map in his hand. Even in the poor light of dawn, I could see that he looked as pale as a ghost. Then, as I watched, he leaned slowly forward and toppled over without even putting out his hands to protect himself. It was the bizarre way he fell that most alarmed me. I guessed that he must be semi-conscious. I was shocked and ran cautiously to where the man was lying motionless, face down in the snow. Having now stopped running for several minutes, I too was feeling the cold and was uncertain what to do.

I scanned around hoping to see head torches or at least hear the sound of other runners approaching but there was no one. I realised I was totally alone with him.

I rolled him over and spoke encouragingly to him, but  I saw he was in no state to answer and his eyes stared absently past me. But he did mumble something indistinctly. I knew I hadn’t the strength to pick him up and carry him though he clearly needed immediate help. I decided that although my team wouldn’t thank me for quitting the race, this man probably would. So I placed my gloved hands under his armpits, turned my back in the direction of the finish and began dragging him.

I dragged him slowly through the forest stepping cautiously backwards, snatching glances over my shoulder to check the route. I kept talking to him in the hope of keeping him conscious and as I walked backwards I looked at his legs making grooves in the snow and thought of the cold that must be seeping into him. I wished I could move faster.

The route I had chosen took us downhill. I’d spotted a wide path on the map and I hoped we’d find people there who could help. As I made slow progress my mind began wandering. I looked at the tops of his legs trailing there, and noticed he was wearing the type of baggy jogging bottoms that are held close at the ankles by tight elastic. These had been made fashionable by the then popular TV series called Fame which dealt with the trials and tribulations of a group of student dancers in America. This way of dressing had been adopted by many of the  people who joined the 1980’s jogging boom.

Suddenly the terrain changed. We entered an area where the trees had been felled. In some ways this made my task harder. Still walking backwards I caught my foot in a fallen branch and fell over backwards. I struggled up and continued hauling the now silent man towards the distant path.

Seeing his fashion pants, I wasn’t surprised to notice he didn’t wear the kind of shoes specially designed for this terrain. His trainers, which seemed to be coming untied, were an expensive pair of Nike Elites. These were the very trainers I’d saved up to buy for my own training and cross country races. Just as I thought this, the heel of his right foot was gripped by the cleft in a branch and his shoe was whipped off. He did not react to this and I saw his eyes were now closed. Still I dragged him onwards.

As we neared the path I was relieved to see runners coming out of the felled area and  racing into the final kilometre before the finish and my hopes soared. At last help was in sight though we still had another 100m of rough terrain to cross. I realized grimly that if I hadn’t stopped to help the man I would probably have already reached the finish.

We finally reached the path. I called out for help but was so exhausted that my voice was faint. I remember feeling furious that the runners ignored us and ran right by.

Then, from nowhere it seemed,  a competitor suddenly joined me and took one of the man’s arms and we dragged the freezing man together.

I wish I could remember the faces of the people who helped that day but the whole episode was becoming a hazy blur. It almost feels like fiction now. I remember my new helper shouting loudly in Swedish and a 3rd man joined us. Suddenly there was much shouting and pointing and the injured man was lifted and carried quickly away in search of a first aid point. The weight of my responsibility had finally been lifted from me and I wandered in a daze to the finish line where I handed over my incomplete control card. I knew that the whole team would be disqualified as I had not registered with the 3 final check points.

I was so shaken up that I couldn’t tell anyone about what had happened. You must understand that I was a stranger to my Norwegian team mates since I was a replacement for their missing leg 10 runner. I’d been asked to take his place only days before the race – and in any case I did not speak their language.  I’m sure they wanted to know what I’d done to get all 10 members of the team disqualified, especially so close to the end. But if they came looking for explanations, I had by then disappeared. I just wanted sleep and was on a coach heading back to Norway. I made my way down the aisle of the bus and couldn’t even tell my sleeping English friends about what had happened before I flopped down exhausted on the coach seat and silently cried.”

 

NORWEGIAN SILVER BIRCHES

Painting by James Brown

***********

Part 2. NOW

All that was 30 years ago.

When James first told me this true story I was deeply moved. I am aware of the ways in which memories, seemingly suppressed, can mature in the mind until it is their turn to be reborn.  It seems that the rescue story, after lying dormant for many years in James’ mind, had again come alive.  He had begun  waking in the night, thinking about the stranger he had rescued in the forest, wondering whether he had survived, and if so, whether he now had a family of his own. James was aware of his own young daughter just beginning to discover the joys of orienteering and of his twenty-year-old son who is also a runner and now at university.

Here was a story they could relate to, but it had loose ends and many questions remained..

It was time to find some answers.

In James’ words…

“When I wrote the above story, it was initially a personal project.  I wanted to put into words what had happened to try and make sense of the memories that had returned to me and had begun keeping me awake.  I then decided to use it to try and close the loop and find out whether the stranger I dragged through the forest had survived, and if so, what had happened to him.  I sent the completed story to Skogssport, the magazine for Swedish orienteers, thinking they may put a paragraph in the next edition to see if anyone remembered the incident or knew anything about it.”

They did far more than that.  Staff at Skogssport managed to track down the man who had been saved and who turned out not to be a regular orienteer at all, but the international cross country and marathon runner Hans Nilsson. He told them his side of the story.

Nilsson’s task, all those years ago, had been to follow and keep up with the race leaders. Like James he was running the 10th and final leg of the race. His team probably had high hopes of success knowing he had run a 2.16 marathon and 1.04 half marathon. These competitors were fit men, used to pushing their bodies hard.

Hans Nilsson recalls that the orienteering went well until only 2km of the course remained. Suddenly he felt a complete lack of energy and became dizzy. The next thing he remembers is waking up in hospital.  He does not remember the ordeal of being dragged through the forest. Luckily he had no permanent mental or physical damage, although he did have some initial heart problems when he arrived at the hospital with a body temperature of only 31ºc and atrial fibrillation. However Hans was running again within the week and got married 17 days after the race.

In the following photo, James meets Hans Nilsson for the first time in 30 years.

.

Now, Hans and his wife Inga-Lill have three sons in their twenties. He still runs 10km each day and coaches for a top athletics club.

The response to the story in Scandinaviawas astounding.  The media got hold of it and Hans was interviewed on Swedish TV. Next the story featured in several national papers in both Swedenand Norway. It also received two double page spreads in the magazine Skogssport.   Members of the Norwegian team in which James was running as 10th man made contact with him and sent him some very touching e-mails.  Harder Sandvik, the OL Pan team leader, sent an email saying:

Now that I know why the team were disqualified, I am Proud to have had such a man in my team’.

Apparently, after the race James had been known to their team as the ‘Stranger Man’.

In James’ words:

“In March I received an invitation to attend the Tio Mila 2011 race as the VIP guest of the event organisers and the Swedish Orienteering Federation.

So, at the end of April, Sophie, my wife and I flew toSweden. We were completely unaware of the scale of media attention the story had received.  Aboard the plane, the pilot recognised me as ‘the man from the newspapers’.  He came to shake my hand before I disembarked from the plane. Other passengers on our short trip seems to recognise me too!

A regards Hans, I had an emotional reunion with him in the very forest where the rescue had happened 30 years ago. The media were there to capture it all for the papers. This was followed by a perfect weekend at the Tio Mila race centre.  At the start of the men’s race I was invited onto a rostrum to watch the head torches of 600 runners racing into the forest. Later, the Swedish Orientation Federation made a televised presentation to me of a print of a painting of a orienteer who appears about twenty years old and is looking around vigilantly as he runs through a Swedish forest. Below it, there is the bold inscription,

‘In recognition of James Brown. Svenska Orienteringforbundet.’

And it bears the signatures of the Chairwoman and President. It expresses their gratitude for my actions of 30 years ago.

Sophie, who is a runner in her own right, was invited to run for a Swedish ladies’ team.  I, meanwhile, had the chance to catch up with old orienteering friends  whom I had not seen for years.

In July of this year (2011) Hans and Inga-Lill came to stay with us in Menston. Although Hans admits orienteering isn’t for him, we did our best to convert him from being a great road runner (which he is)  to a gnarly fell runner. I am glad to report that he got completely hooked on Ilkley Moor. We plan to visit Hans and Inga-Lill in Sweden next summer along with a trip to the Swedish 5-days.”

And there you have it: the humility of the man.

When James wrote the story about the rescue he simply wanted to find out who the man he had rescued was and whether he had survived.  He never anticipated all that has happened since! I suspect that most heroes of both sexes are simply people who let their best instincts take over at a  moment of Crisis.

It falls to the rest of us to celebrate them.

James then, entertaining….

When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen.

(Charles Kingsley)

Phil here…

I hope you enjoyed the article on James the Orienteer.  Before long we will be putting together an article on James the painter and poet.

And now for something completely different.

SF Gateway

A few months ago I received, via this website, a most interesting letter. It was from Malcolm Edwards, formerly of Victor Gollancz and now Deputy CEO of Orion Publishing who was trying to contact me but who had been told that I was dead!

The confusion arose, I think, because I had written a piece called In Memoriam and some people thought it was for me rather than by me. Malcolm made a nice joke on the famous quote by Mark Twain that “rumours” of his death had been “greatly exaggerated.” He was glad to  find I was still alive. He had important news…

Malcolm was my first editor and the man who plucked my first book, The Eye of the Queen, ouut of the ‘slush pile’. Indeed it was he who came up with the title of the book. He subsequently edited the Paxwax books, and it was at his suggestion that the original ms. be developed into two volumes – and this remains the hardest writing challenge that I have ever faced. After that he edited Pioneers… and almost edited Wulfsyarn – A Mosaic, except that he left Gollancz for fresh woods and pastures new..

I owe a great deal to Malcolm whose knowledge of publishing and of Science Fiction helped me immeasurably. He was trying to contact me because Orion Publishing was setting up an E publishing Website devoted to Science Fiction; the works being mainly drawn from ‘the last century’ and he was interested to know if I would care to be included.

I would! My books had been out of print for some time, and though I had written new work, those who were now managing Gollancz SF lists were not encouraging and one book was rejected.   Suffice to say that I ended up by reclaiming the rights to all my books since there seemed to be no interest in republishing them. However, that is whole other story, which may one day be told. In any case, I am conscious that the literary world is full of writers who feel that their work  has not been given the recognition it deserves: I do not really want to be part of their ranks.

So, when Malcolm explained what was happening I was delighted, especially as I had been thinking about E publishing for some time and felt it was the perfect medium for disseminating Science Fiction..

That period, i.e. the second half of the Twentieth century, was remarkable in many ways, not least being that it saw Science Fiction become a major genre, building on the mighty shoulders of socially aware writers as varied as H.G. Wells,  Jules Verne, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell et al.  Among publishers in England, Victor Gollancz was outstanding. The distinct yellow covers which clothed their books were a sign of excellence and always looked for when visiting the library. The variety of the writers they had published was enormous. You can see for yourself.

And now that Website is up and running. So if you are a SF fan go  to  http://www.sfgateway.com/

And even if you are not an SF fan, have a look, as SF is a vast and varied field of literature… it is not all dungeons and dragons.

The SFGateway Webpage is expanding all the time  in terms of both the number of authors represented and the range of titles available. In addition to books, there are brief introductions to authors, synopses of their works and a forum for discussion. I think it is worth a visit to the website even if you do not buy a book. For myself  – and in this I think I speak for most writers – I would love to see plenty of comments offered especially if they reveal why a book is loved or considered important. This is not just a matter of wanting to read nice things about one’s work – pleasurable though that may be. SF thrives on ideas and speculation and that leads to debate and discussion. Moreover, SF works, perhaps more than any other genre, reflect the time when they were written.. and that too is a cause for interest. However, good yarns last forever.

WULFSYARN – A Mosaic

I was once told that this book could not be adapted for radio. But  now I have received word that it is due to be broadcast in 20 episodes by Radio New Zealand sometime in 2012. . The adaptation has been completed by Owen Scott and he has done a brilliant job with that unruly text.

I will write more about this in my next blog. Those of you who do not know Wulfsyarn should go to the part of this website which deals with my novels. I have placed a sample of it there as well as some notes about the strange things that happened during its composition.

Till then. Happy reading.

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Strange Bedfellows


Quite recently, visiting my good friend Stefanie R and staying overnight, I was perplexed to find that, at the end of a splendid evening, I had not packed the book I was reading at bedtime. Now I, like most people I know, cannot get to sleep without something enlightening to read. So, I asked Stefanie if I could look through her bookshelf to find something to put me to sleep: and she, being understanding, said “Please do. Take your pick.” Whereupon I found that her shelves were laden with interesting texts of all kinds, some of which I recalled from my days at the University of Manchester.


What I was looking for was something light and entertaining, saucy even; and so naturally my hand hesitated, and then reached for and chose The English Poems of John Milton.

John Milton (1608-1674)

The full lips and tender eyes and obvious
concern for his appearance…
could almost be Oscar Wilde? No?


A happy choice as it turned out.


Now I had not looked at Milton since the 1960s… In fact the last time I can remember reading one of his poems was when I visited the teacher, scholar, theatre director, visionary and vibrant champion of Theatre in the Round, Stephen Joseph.

Stephen, who was important in my life for it was he who had encouraged me to take up the theatre as a profession, was very ill at the time. As I was to find out later, he was actually dying, though the full circumstances of this he kept from most of us.

Knowing that Stephen was not well, I had offered to work in his garden – clearing weeds and gathering flowers for the redoubtable Mrs Pemberton-Billing (PB to all who knew her) who kept house for him and was now looking after him. I knew that Stephen loved his garden, but would not be able to take care of it.

So there I was, down on my knees amid the flowers, when Stephen (still wearing his slippers I recall) came outside to see how I was getting on. He had a small book with him and, after some hesitation, asked me if I would read a poem for him. This alone was strange, but I did not question it at the time: and of course, I agreed. The poem was a sonnet by John Milton called simply On his Blindness. And here it is.

On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Read, with remembrance now, it can be a cause for tears.
Then? I think I understood, but I know I did not read the poem as well as I could. While the theological significance of the images in the poem was no doubt uppermost in Milton’s mind, the poem has come to be a secular plea and a source of comfort for those who, faced with death, feel that their work on earth is incomplete and that they yet had much to offer. Such I think was Stephen’s feeling. He did not speak when I had finished. But when he turned away, he murmured, “Tired now.” and went indoors. I did not see him when I left the house… or ever again, for it was shortly after that I went to America.
I was not ready for memories, such as this, which came to me as I leafed through the pages.Then I encountered Lycidas, which begins…

LYCIDAS

Yet once more, O ye Laurels, and once more
Ye Myrtles brown, with Ivy, never-sere
I come
 to pluck your Berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d
 fingers rude,
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year. 

Famous lines indeed. When my Grandma found out that I was studying this poem, she astonished me by launching into these first 5 lines with obvious relish and then the final line., “To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.” – a line which most of us get wrong. It is probable that, when my Granny was younger, she knew most of the poem by heart for in those days, children were often expected to memorize poems in their entirety.

We studied it at university. And so I began to read it, remembering that once, after an inspiring lecture, I looked up every reference and so compiled my own version. Sadly most of that knowledge is gone now, but I do remember the way that layers of meaning were revealed as I dug out the mythology, and the echoes of classical writers – whose very works themselves become part of the poem’s meaning. It was as good an introduction to the comp;lexity of Milton’s mind as one could wish for.

And why did I do this? Well partly it was because I have a ‘notes and queries’ streak in me which means that I may spend hours chasing down the possibilities of a crossword clue. But more importantly, it was because I was inspired by the example of the Professor of English at Manchester at that time and whose name was … Frank Kermode.

Of all my teachers, and I have been lucky in having many excellent teachers, Frank Kermode stands out both for his scholarship and his capacity to inspire. He was one of those teachers who, when he lectured you, made you feel more intelligent than you really are. (And let it be said that there are some teachers who leave one feeling the opposite.) He taught Milton and Spencer – and I was not alone in hurrying to the library after his lectures on Spencer to check references in pursuit of his allegory.

Here is Spenser looking a bit like the traditional Devil.



But to return to Milton, I can still see Kermode standing in front of the class, his notes seemingly forgotten, and simply talking about Paradise Lost and the traditions which Milton was consciously following; drawing together idea from the renaissance and the reformation; explaining why the Romantics (by and large) found Milton’s work congenial (though Keats was a bit sniffy) and what William Blake was driving at when he said. “The reason why Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

Kermode let us see what Milton had to offer, and the background that let one enjoy him – though of course one could just sit back and let the language flow. . I remember how stunned I was to discover that Milton was fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian and probably Dutch and studied old English. And yet that scholarship does not stop one enjoying his works, though it can be a bit intimidating. He was, as Blake saw, a ‘true poet’, and it is the energy in his language and in his vision – of which more presently – which communicates

Undoubtedly, the genial intellect of Kermode and the scholars he assembled round him in the English Department, explain why that time at Manchester was so pleasant and so fruitful and so enjoyable not just for me but for all of us I think … and why I am on occasion sad for the friends I had at that time of poetry and skylarking, and have now lost …

we have wandered far from Lycidas, but in a way we have come back to it. So to new fields…

I leafed on and finally came to one of my favourite poems On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. Milton was 21 when he wrote it.

.

The face of Milton with whom we are more familiar.
He looks as though he has the cares of
the whole world on his shoulders. Is this how
he wanted to be seen or remembered?
Now look again at the first portrait.


Immediately one can feel his youthful exuberance: Christ is coming to clean up the world, and put it to rights. Everything will change. The old Gods will be booted out, and a new kind of peace established.

As though to impress us, Milton has adopted a tricky rhyme scheme – which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t – and yes, he does show off his scholarship … But that can be forgiven in a young man who is just setting out in life, prepared to teach himself if necessary, and with a vision of the things he wants to say and do in the years to come.

I was struck most forcibly by the fact that already one can see the revolutionary in him. He was a man made for opposition, for the defending of principles. With little adjustment one can replace Christ with the Paliamentary revolution which was soon to come and wipe the slate clean. In this scenario, the old Gods and nymphs etc. can be equated with the Royalists, and ultimately with the execution of a monarch. Suddenly poetry has come of age, and the stakes are high. Soon the revolution will founder, and our poet will be forced into hiding to save his life with the coming of the Restoration. Look at that second portrait.

But all that is in the future. I read on, caught up again in the vividness of Milton’s imagination. Here is the effect of the coming of the ‘Prince of Light’.

V
No war, or battail’s sound,
Was heard the world around;
The idle spear and shield were high uphung;
 The hookèd chariot stood,
Unstained with hostile blood;
The trumpet spake not to the armèd throng;
And Kings sat still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.


V

But peaceful was the night

Wherein the Prince of Light

His reign of peace upon the earth began.

The winds, with wonder whist,

Smoothly the waters kissed,

Whispering new joys to the mild Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

And then suddenly I came to a verse I was not expecting. Indeed, it is the last line which captured me.

XIV
For, if such holy song
Enwrap our fancy long,
Time will run back and fetch the Age of Gold;
And speckled Vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.


I remember the first time I read this and the sudden shock of seeing the dirty cells and torture chambers and rat runs of Hell revealed in the sunshine of a new day. I think in the back of my mind I held those images from the war, – whether Dresden or Coventry – of buildings seen from the sky, with their roofs burned off, and which stared up at us like so many empty eyes.

I knew the line was from Milton, but I had forgotten from which poem, and when I found it again. it had lost none of its power to shock.

So that was it. That was my light reading. I closed the book and settled down, glad of the chance that had brought so many rich memories. Glad too that I had met up again with this writer who had such a rich command of English. It is not to everyone’s taste, I know that; but it can still stir the spirit.

All this and I have not really mentioned Paradise Lost…

As I fell asleep I thought that perhaps I was among the few who had originally read Paradise Lost because I was held by the plot.

The End


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What’s New in the rest of the Webpage?

I have added a personal tribute called A Ramble for Roger which I wrote to celebrate the career of Professor Roger Robinson, athlete, scholar and friend. You can find it among the Essays.

I have also added a few more poems. You can find which ones.

A Plan for Stopping Smoking

We are surrounded by catastrophes:

Christchurch,
Japan,
Libya,

Smoking…

I am indebted to Chris Madden for this brilliant cartoon. For those who enjoy the wit of cartoons – an art form which sometimes pinpoints the dilemmas of our times with the precision of an expert darts-player – I recommend Chris’s work which can be found at http://www.chrismadden.co.uk. Chris’s cartoons range over many topics.

Let me explain. I have decided to hold back on writing about Hans Arp – another dada artist and poet who’s work I enjoy – in favour of writing something about smoking, or rather not smoking. For the future, I have lots of topics piled up that I want to write about, but this one suddenly seemed more urgent.

I listened to an interview a few days ago which  covered the latest research on the effects of nicotine as an addictive, cancer-causing agent in cigarettes, and the actions of the well-known companies that make the cigarettes and who target the young and the vulnerable. Almost as bad as the cigarette companies are the advertising agencies who use their sophisticated arts to suggest that smoking is somehow mature or sexual or a desirable reward.

The interview upset me because I thought the battle against cigarettes was being won by education. But, like the pro-nuclear lobby and those scientists who call themselves ‘skeptics’ with regard to global warming, the companies that promote cigarettes never give up. We are not playing games here. Both the science and the statistics are stark. Cigarettes are sophisticated killers and highly addictive.

And before anyone says, “We each have the free-will to go to Hell in our own ways,” let me nod and say that in general way I would agree, but what kind of equation can bring together addiction with free will? Addiction destroys free will. Equally, how can we allow anyone to popularize and weave mystique about a product which is both addictive and a killer, simply for their own profit? Please think about it.

The solution is not legislation. I have just heard that the New Zealand Govt. is proposing to ban cigarettes in prison. I suspect that whoever proposed or promotes this idea knows little about addiction. I believe the result will be an increase in violence and drug smuggling in prisons. Prisoners denied tobacco will end up smoking anything from sawdust to dry leaves. Patches only help those who want to stop. I think far too little is done as regards education in prisons… but that leads me away from the topic.  I have, however,  included an article at the end of this post.

Regarding smoking, I speak with all the confidence of a former heavy… make that very heavy…  I mean a pipe-smoke inhaling, cigar inhaling, dog-end-gathering-from-ashtrays-when-the-cigies-have-run-out-at–party-inhaling addict. I started when I was about 13 and  I quit when I was in my 40s. And the only reason I was able to quit was because I knew that if I did not, I would be dead, and quickly too. But, I must admit that I wish I had never started. And I wish I had had the good sense not to drift into the habit just because it was what one did as a young man growing up where I did.

Anyway, I know whereof I speak  But, I am not an evangelist. I am not one of those who coughs loudly at the theatre if an actor has to light up on stage and I feel genuine sorrow for those I see huddled outside a building in all weathers because they are no longer allowed to smoke inside. That would be me. I understand totally those who say, “I am a smoker. I like to smoke. I am sorry if it bothers someone else and I will do my best not to involve non-smokers in my habit, but I intend  to carry on smoking.”

That too was more or less my position until I woke up one morning with shooting pains in my legs when I inhaled my first, pre-breakfast, still-in-bed smoke. A couple of days later I became dizzy. Then I had a dream in which my stomach was on fire and black oily smoke was pouring out of my mouth and  nose and ears. It was contaminating everything I touched. I woke up in horror, and I knew then that this was a death warning, that I would die if I did not stop. But my dilemma was that I knew I did not have the will power to stop.

“Skull with a Burning Cigarette” (1885 or 1886) by Vincent van Gogh

I do not think van Gogh meant this as a warning. I suspect he was amused by the idea of a skeleton smoking… but it is a timely image for the present.)

So, let us be very clear, my concern in this post is not with those readers who are smokers and who wish to continue; but with those smokers who enjoy smoking, who know they are addicted, but who, for whatever reason, want to stop: but can’t.

After many failed attempts at stopping – and in something like desperation – I finally decided to take matters into my own hands and design my own programme for quitting. It is this which I now want to offer to anyone who is interested. I do not claim it is original.

There are no patches and no costs. It worked for me, and it has helped friends who wanted to quit and who, like me, had suffered the ignominy of defeat.

In the beginning

The first requirement – and really the key to the whole result – is that one must genuinely want to stop. This might be because of health worries, or to save money or to please a partner or … well there could be many reasons. But the desire to stop must be real. Without that, any number of little things can be brought into play which will erode one’s best efforts. If it is any help at this stage, let me just say that the desire to smoke declines quite quickly once  you have managed to hold off having a cigarette for a while. The benefits appear quite quickly too. So, one has every reason to be hopeful, though the enemy never really sleeps.

First steps
Choose a day when you will transform from being a smoker to a non- smoker. If possible, let the day have special significance – a birthday for instance. (It does not have to be your own.) Or the next full moon, or the first day of the holidays, or next Sunday. The day should not be too far away: not more than a week or ten days at most. Equally it should not be too close either, for your mind needs time to anticipate, to prepare itself for change.

Up to that date of stopping, you can smoke as much as you want. Don’t be surprised if you feel the desire to stop getting stronger, but stick to your plan.

Also, become familiar with how many packets of cigarettes you buy. It is easy for this to get lost amid all the other purchases

Day Zero
The night before you stop will be very important. Prepare yourself. Know what you are going to do. When you finish that last cigarette – perhaps before going to bed – experience that last puff fully. Blow out, and take a deep breath in. Stub out the cigarette and then get rid of the dog-end and any others that have accumulated. Put them in the dustbin outside, You do not want the smell to linger longer than necessary. Wash the ashtrays and put them away on a high shelf. If you have spare cigarettes left, you can keep them. This may seem strange, but in my experience the very knowledge that there were cigarettes available should the desire to smoke prove too great, helped me. Later, when the danger of slipping back is over, you can throw them away.

Note book.
In preparation for stopping, make yourself a note-book. Four or five sheets of A4 folded in half and then stitched or stapled is all you need. On the left hand side of the pages drew three vertical columns. These are for the dates, and the times and the money saved. This little note-book will be your friend. Take a note of how much a packet of you favourite cigarettes costs.

Day One
To get yourself through the first day, remember this. Separate ME (which is your physical body) from I (which is your mind, the essential you). In other words it is your body that is addicted and which has the craving. You, the essential you, wants you to be free of addiction, in command of your life in every way and which is now going to fight on your behalf. You will find very quickly that you can observe the operation of addiction in action. It is like a clever foe that tries to trick you, but it is not as clever as your mind.

It is important to experience your addiction, almost as if you were seeing a film. Use your intelligence to feel the moment of desire to smoke. Previously you have simply reached for a cigarette: now you don’t. See what happens. How does the addiction attack you. What you are going to do over the next few hours is to start to make a friend of your addiction. That is the most cruel and destructive thing you can do to addiction, and eventually it will give up the fight for control because you will know all its tricks, and will have pulled all its teeth.

So, you wake up, and (if you were like me) the first thing you do is reach for a cigarette. But this time you reach for your note-book and pencil. Write the date and the time and then a brief note about what you are feeling. E.g.

DATE                       TIME          $           COMMENT
22 March 2011   7.04am   $10       Feel relief that finally I’ve stopped. Off for                                                                       a shower before I weaken.

And so you go on. Each time you want to reach for a cigarette, note the date and the time and what you are feeling. What does your body try to make you do? Does it undermine your resolve by inviting you to look ahead at a ‘bleak’ world of unsatisfied desire? Does it suggest that just one puff won’t make a difference? Does it make you feel guilty for yielding to those do-gooders who tell you to stop because it is for your own good etc? Note it down, and know that each time you do, it is a triumph for mind over matter. Know also, that every second you do not smoke, your body is shedding the addiction. It is cleansing its self, and all you have to do is hang on. Try not to think of the future, but only of the NOW.

Washing.
In my first note above I mentioned the shower. Washing is one of your staunchest allies. That first shower (wash) when you have stopped smoking is very important. Wash yourself slowly and consciously. As you wash you hair and your body, say “I am washing the nicotine out of my system.” This is literally true. The nicotine comes out through your skin and sensitive people can smell it. Use a new kind of soap, a new shampoo – the more new things you can do the better. Drying yourself is equally important, and when you see yourself in the mirror say, “I’m a non-smoker. I don’t smoke any more.”

When you get dressed put on clean clothes. Throw the rest in the washing machine.

Believe it or not, all your clothes will smell of smoke. You may not be able to smell that now, but non-smoker can and so will you, later. If you can afford to throw away old T-shirts and underpants and socks, do so. Buy new, before long you will have saved enough money to do this without any hardship. If there is an item of clothing you have secretly wanted, now is the time to buy it. Suits and pullovers should go to the dry cleaners.

You are re-making yourself… and you will be surprised at what you discover. Your sense of smell is shortly going to become more acute: let it guide you. You will also become very observant, watching others smoke.

Smoko.
So you have made it to 10.30. You have five notes in your note-book – there should be more except that it is difficult to write when you are driving or on the bus.  Smoko will be a bit of a test.

Do you tell your colleagues, those with whom you normally stand outside when you are having a smoke, that you have stopped? My own feeling is that you should not. No one is indifferent to a person who is in the throes of stopping smoking. Either they make the way harder or they make you self-conscious with their good wishes. Neither are really helpful. It is a battle you fight alone.

When I was trying out my system, I did not tell anyone that I was trying to stop. I lied. If someone offered me a cigarette, I said “No” and pleaded that I was feeling a bit off colour and had a sore throat or some such. At the same time, watch other people smoking. How acute is the yearning when you smell the smoke? If you  feel tempted, toughen up. Go inside. Write a long note to yourself.

Know this. The actual desire to smoke on any single occasion only lasts a few minutes. By now you will already know that not smoking a cigarette does not kill you…  and that most of the time you are not thinking about smoking. If you can ride out the moments of addiction, it quickly subsides. Note too the frequency of your moments of desire. Are there any patterns beginning to show? Finding these things out is what I mean when I talk about treating your addiction as a friend.

Lunch.
Eat well. Go for a walk. Go somewhere new. Try to see new things. Buy a new pair of shoes perhaps.

Take time out to think. This will probably coincide with a moment of craving. Have you ever wanted to learn to dance? Hey. Now might be the time to explore that one evening. Or had you ever thought of joining a gym? The new ‘you’ might enjoy that. Or, what about a swim at lunchtime? Or bringing some crumbs to feed the birds? Or…

Incidentally, please be ware that making yourself sweat is a good way of pumping the nicotine from your body. You then wash it off.

It is up to you to devise the new things you would like to do. Whatever you choose, it should not be matter of sudden frantic exercise, but rather something that is sustainable and that you enjoy. Do not punish yourself – though it is not unknown to feel a bit guilty when you stop smoking, as if you are betraying your addiction.

File:Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length portrait, seated in front of fireplace, 1896 (altered).jpg

Frances Benjamin Johnston, full-length portrait, seated in front of fireplace, 1896.

I like to subtitle this photo, “Her Last Cigarette” but of course it wasn’t.

The photo dates from the time when cigarette smoking among women was linked to emancipation. See, she even has a beer mug and is imitating the way a man might sit at the fire, showing a trim ankle

I am reminded too that the great storyteller and poet E. Nesbit died of lung cancer having been a heavy smoker most of her life.

My thanks again to brilliant Wikipedia for this image.

Evening.
Eat well. If you have a drink, be on your guard as alcohol can weaken your resolve to quit smoking. However, so long as you remain reasonably analytical about what is happening, you can resist even the most fierce temptation… and keep your notebook up to date. Always remind yourself that you have been without a smoke for almost 24 hours. That is an investment. You have done it! All you no need to do is persist.

Before bed, have another shower, treating yourself exactly the same way as you did in the morning. Incidentally, cleaning your teeth and cutting your finger nails can be quite important. Every action can be made into an affirmation. A new life: a new me.

The Second Day… and onwards.
The second day is pretty much like the first day, except that you are gradually earning yourself a few dollars without doing anything except not smoking. As the days pass and you know you are winning, you may also begin to smell the nicotine coming from your skin. You can even smell it on the curtains in the rooms.

You may start to feel very confident that you can stop. That is good but…

BEWARE. You are still only one cigarette away from being a smoker again.

The first three/four days are the most crucial. After that the incidence of moments of addiction will start to decrease. When those moments occur they may be as strong as the first day, but they will not last very long and you can overcome them, having by now invested plenty of time and your note-book is filling up. Equally your body may begin to feel a bit different. You may want to drink more water. That too is a cleansing.

You may also get a sore throat. I did. It was about six days after I had stopped and it lasted for over a week. I could hardly swallow. It was terribly painful, but at least I did not want to smoke because swallowing was so hard. I think the sore throat came about  because the smoke and the tar and all the other chemicals that are in cigarette tobacco had up to then coated my throat with something akin to lacquer. That coating was now being destroyed and my throat was actually recovering.  That thought brought me great comfort, and I had no difficulty in resisting the desire to smoke. Ina way, enduring the pain was also an investment.

Danger Times.
The following are the times to be very careful. Think of it this way. For the first few weeks you are only one cigarette away from addiction. If you do yield to temptation, DO NOT INHALE. And stub the cigarette out as soon as you can. Learn from that moment how easy it is to undo all the good work you have already done, and how careful you must be.

THREE/FOUR DAYS. After this time you will probably not need your note-book, but it is a good idea to keep a tally of how much money you have saved. You will be surprised. You can buy something special.

You will still be tempted to indulge, but you will have proved that you can withstand the temptation. Beware of being over-confident, however. And don’t accept a drag on someone’s cigarette ‘just for fun’.

TEN DAYS. You think you have conquered the habit and addiction whispers, “Go on. You can’t come to any harm now. You have conquered me. One puff. One drag on a ciggy just for old times sake.” And you do! Fatal!

One leads to another and with the inexorable logic of snakes and ladders, you are suddenly back at stage one with the whole bloody process to go through again. It may take you months before you are ready to try again, and you will hate yourself for being such a fool because the desire to stop will be stronger than ever as too will be your perception of the ruthless power of the addiction. It took me almost three years before I finally devised this system and managed to overcame the need to smoke.

TWO MONTHS. This is the same as ten days though you may well get away with a few puffs – but common sense will now say don’t bother, because it will only be curiosity which tempts you. The plain fact is that once addicted, always addicted. The difference is that  the craving is gone. Addiction is a sleeping monster: one that is very easy to wake up.

I have not smoked for over twenty years, but I could start again tomorrow. I am not really tempted to do so,  nor do I think about it from one day to the next, but I know how to smoke, what it feels like and it would be easy to slip back into the habit.

I have a recurring nightmare and I wonder if other former smokers have it too. It is simply this: in the dream I am smoking, and the thought comes to me, “Oh why did I start again? Now I’m going to have to go through the whole wretched business of stopping again. I don’t know if I can do that again.” But then I wake up. Very sad. Until I think. “Hang on! But I don’t smoke. I am not tempted to smoke. I stopped smoking.  I don’t have to go through it again.”

The relief of that realization is enormous. So almost every day, in all humility, I thank my lucky stars that I managed to stop. I am not a man of great will power in these things. I needed the prop of my system. And if it helps you, then I am delighted. I think it also works for other addictions too.

If you have any questions, let me know. Meanwhile …

File:Sunrisebristolchannel.jpg

This happens every morning, every day.

THE END

But not quite….  Here is a clipping from a recent article in the Christchurch Press

Prisons to ban smoking

BY CLAIRE TREVETT

Prisoners will be forced to go cold-turkey on 1 July next year after a government decree to ban smoking.

Corrections minister Judith Collins announced the measure today saying it was out of concern for the health and safety of prison staff. There was also concern about potential legal action from prison staff or non-smoking prisoners over exposure to second-hand smoke if no action was taken.

Corrections head Barry Matthews said prisoners also used lighters and matches to damage property, such as throwing burning balls of toilet paper at guards and setting fires in their cells. He said he had considered the option of allowing it in designated outside areas only but that would have been problematic for staff having to shepherd prisoners outside for cigarette breaks and provide lighters.

Neither Ms Collins nor Mr Matthews were smokers and conceded they did not know how difficult it was to quit.  However, Ms Collins said the health of staff was their priority. Such bans were already used in Canada and in some Australian states. “Prisoners with alcohol and drug addictions have to deal with it. We don’t offer alcohol to prisoners with alcohol addictions or p to prisoners with methamphetamine addictions. This is a prison, it’s not a home.” Mr Matthews said Corrections had not consulted prison staff unions such as the Corrections Association over the measure. About 5700 prisoners currently smoke  –  two-thirds of the prison population. They are able to smoke in their cells as well as designated outside areas.

While prison staff will still be able to smoke outside, prisoners will be completely forbidden from smoking and having lighters and matches..They will instead be offered tax-payer funded help to quit smoking. Currently prisoners can get an eight week course of nicotine patches through the Ministry of Health Quitline programme and Ms Collins said that would continue.

No law change was needed to introduce the measure.

supermoonRevellers stand beside St Michael’s Tower on Glastonbury Tor watching the moon at its closest point to Earth.  Sat 19th of March 2011.
Thank you Metro for this iamage.

Is that not a nice way to end this very down to earth and serious blog? Next time I promise more mystery.

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The Necessity for Dada



THE NECESSITY FOR DADA

1. Kurt Schwitters

“I have always loved the Dadaists and I am sure they were absolutely necessary.  Madness and balance are vital in an insane world.” Lynda Finn.

(Copyright not known)

“The waste of the world becomes my art.”  So said Kurt Schwitters.

This collage was made of oddments which he found or was given and  which he then stuck together. I  was interested to read recently that the number of fake Schwitters available on the market is legion. I hope he would find that amusing.

A preamble grumble before we begin.…

I don’t know about you …. But sometimes the troubles facing our world seem overwhelming. Just this morning  on the news I heard of forest fires blazing out of control in Australia, and a massive volcanic eruption in process in Japan. Add to these, landslips in S. America, earthquakes galore, ferocious winter snows in the N. hemisphere, a hurricane wrecking the Queensland coast, tsunami warnings, famine, war, dishonest politicians … and the list goes on.

Beyond all these, we can feel gathering the dark wave of climate change which is fast breaking upon us. It is as though Mother Nature, having endured burning, poisoning, exploitation and neglect has finally turned on us. This was the theme of my last book The Burning Forest in the quartet called A Land Fit for Heroes.

Cassandra like, and in a way that has never happened before, we can now predict what is coming with some accuracy, but we seem unable to take the kind of radical world-wide action that is necessary to guarantee our survival… not to mention the well being of those creatures and plants who are fortunate enough to share our world with us.

When I get deeply upset about such things, one solution is to reach for the Dadaists who thrived in the early decades of the last century. They still seem modern to me, and in their presence, I can find relief as the balance is restored. Hence this article.

The Dada movement is sometimes equated with chaos, and that I think is wrong. Dada confronts chaos and transforms it into a thing of beauty. The movement drew a lot of its energy from the 1st World War which swirled about it like a burning red mist, though the roots of the movement lie earlier. The carnage of that war challenged all values. A generation of young men died, and I have often wondered whether our problems  might be the consequence of the loss of that genetic inheritance. And then, two decades later, along came another war… and then another.

Coming from the forge of those early catastrophic years of the 20th Century, Dada is the purest and simplest expression of the creative spirit, which is to say it can not be reduced or finally explained. It is! Da! Da! (Yes! Yes! – according to one explanation of the origin of the name.)

I was a student when I discovered that the irreverence and iconoclasm and sheer joie de vivre of Dada could restore my spirits. I hope it will do the same for yours. Let us begin with Kurt Schwitters.

(As ever I am grateful to Wikipedia for this image.)

This is Kurt Scwitters in a picture taken in 1944 by his son Ernst. He could be a professor of literature could he not? Or a top scientist at CERN unravelling the mysteries of the universe? Well he is, or was (for he died in England in 1948), something more than both of these. He was a one-man, walking exponent of Dada and his legacy is huge. I can do no better than quote Hans Richter from his book  DADA Art and Anti Art.

“Schwitters  was absolutely, unreservedly, 24 hours a day PRO-art. His genius had no time for transforming the world, or values, or the present, or the future, or the past; no time if fact for any of the things that were heralded by blasts of Berlin’s Trumpet of Doom. There was not talk of the ‘death of art’, or ‘non-art’, or ‘anti-art’ with him. On the contrary, every tram ticket, every envelope, cheese wrapper or cigar band, together with old shoe soles or shoe-laces, wire,  feathers, dish cloths, – everything that had been thrown away – all this he loved, and restored to an honoured place in life by means of his art.”

The stories about him are legion.  How he introduced himself saying, “ I am a painter and I nail my pictures together.” How he was rejected by some of the early Dadaists because he had a “bourgeois face.” I suspect they were jealous of his boundless creativity which revealed its self in paintings, collages, wit, performances, poetry and the peculiar columns he used to construct wherever he lived, and into which he would place small objects gleaned from his visitors. I take some joy from the fact that though he was a German exiled in England after the 2nd War, he was accorded some recognition and support by a Northern farmer who let  him work in his barn. The evidence of his presence is still there in Ambleside. And now, of course, he is famous.

From Hans Richter again, here is a description of a Schwitters’ reading one of his poems in Potsdam, the military citadel of the old Prussian monarchy. His audience is a crowd of retired generals and other people of rank. “Schwitters stood on the podium, drew himself up to his full six feet plus and began to perform his Primeval Sonata. Complete with hisses, roars and crowings, before an audience who had no experience whatever of anything modern…. I watched delighted as two generals in front of me pursed their lips as hard as they could to stop laughing…. And then they lost control. They burst out laughing and the whole audience,  freed from the pressure that had been building up inside them, exploded in an orgy of laughter.”

Would I had been there. Perhaps nowadays, Schwitters is best known for his visual art, and in particular, for his collages (see the opening illustration). I am told that many “original Schwitters collages” are now offered for sale on the Internet. Beware, most are forgeries. In the spirit of Schwitters – if you want a collage, make one yourself.

There is a story that he would board a tram or a train, equipped with his cardboard and glue. Then he would ask his fellow travellers to contribute anything from their pockets. These objects he would arrange into a pattern and glue them onto his cardboard. He would then give or sell the collage to the amused spectators. After which he would  bid them farewell and board another tram. Whether he made much money at this I do not know. But I do not think that was the most important thing in his mind. Anna Blume, that mysterious, mythical, magical lady was surely on his mind and he celebrated her in any way he could.

So, collages apart, it is good to remember that Schwitters was also a fine poet and it this side of his work that I now wish to celebrate.

Consider the following love poem called simply…

***

On Anna Bloom

O beloved of my twenty seven senses, I
love your! –You ye you your, I you, you my,
– We?
This belongs (by the way) elsewhere.
Who are you, uncounted female? You are
– are you? People say you are, – let
them say on, they don’t know a hawk from a handsaw.
You wear your hat upon your feet and walk round
on your hands, upon your hands you walk.
Halloo, your red dress, sawn up in white pleats.
Red I love Anna Blume, red I love your! You
ye you your, I your, you my, – We?
This belongs (by the way) in icy fire.
Red bloom, red Anna Blume, what do people say?
Prize question: 1) Anna Blume has a bird.
2) Anna Blume is red.
3) What colour is the bird?

Blue is the colour of your yellow hair.
Red is the cooing of your green bird.
You simple girl in a simple dress, you dear
green beast, I love your! You ye you your,
I your, you my – We?
This belongs (by the way) in the chest of fires.
Anna Blume! Anna, a –n-n-a, I trickle your
name. Your name drips like softest tallow.
Do you know, Anna, do you know already?
You can also be read from behind, and you, you,
The loveliest of all, are from behind, as you are from
Before: “a-n-n-a”.
Tallow trickles caressingly down my back.
Anna Blume, you trickle beast, I love your!

***

Before I start, let me say that I have already been taken to task for being slightly anti-Dada in my approach. Fighting Finn, from the Blume corner, caught me with a swift uppercut stating, “reading through your explanation of the Blume/Bloom love poem, I wonder if you are not trying to place a Dadaist writing into too conservative a box?   Dada, by its very nature, either defies explanation or leaves that entirely to the reader’s perceptions.   It is too wild and free to be contained in an explanation.

And she is right. All I can plead, from my position prone on the canvas, is that it is not my intention to explain this poem. I start from a belief that a work of art is already the simplest expression that a given idea can take. What I do want to do is share my own delight in the poem. To do so I have to reveal what I see and, being a teacher, I feel compelled to explain “Why.”  My hope is that my thoughts will inspire you to think further and make the poem your own. But to be on the safe side I have reduced my offering.

I want to share and celebrate the poem’s fun, wit and passion. It is, after all, a love poem… and LOVE, whatever else it might be, is sublimely irrational and can lead us a merry dance. Love is real. As is the cheeky smile of the muse whose aid all artists seek, and the dream lover whose arms we crave. It is my belief that all are present here.

The first thing you must do is read the poem aloud. Read it with the same concern for clarity and rhythm and passion as you would if reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?” of Auden’s “Lay your sleeping head my love,”

Don’t worry about the meaning for the moment. Do it now.

*

After which, a Preliminary Note.

The original poem was written in German, and what you have here is, for the most part, quite a direct translation. The German word “blume” is normally translated as ‘flower’. But here the translator has chosen to treat it as a surname. This frees him to pun on the word ‘bloom’ which can indeed, in English, be a synonym for a flower. Bloom also has other implications suggesting something that is bursting out, is fresh and at the stage before ripeness. That too is Anna.

It is good to remember the idea of flowers as you read the poem, especially  their fragrance and their colours.

In line 7, the original German can be literally translated as “They don’t know how the church steeple stands.” A line which has its own implications.

*

Stepping Through the first three lines of the Poem

Line 1. We normally content ourselves with five senses, but love has evidently enriched this lover with expanded organs of sense. What could they be? Touch for example immediately expands and specializes to lips, tongue, skin, finger tips…. Taste opens to….

Not to mention the higher faculties of imagination and fantasy. Make a list and you may come up with more than 27.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning knew what Schwitters was talking about when she wrote “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Though our poet is perhaps a bit more profane and earthy.

And look how the “I” is suspended at the end of the line in the full erect vitality of being, but awaiting fulfilment….

…which is achieved in Line 2  with the words “love your! “ This should be very emphatic. Note the exclamation mark.

Hang on. Your what? The poet does not say. He leaves a gap which we must fill. Many things spring immediately to mind beginning with the sensual and physical parts of the body: eyes, lips, arms and so on down.  Or perhaps it is more abstract such as a  vague feeling of promise, which might lead to joy and abandonment. We are talking about LOVE remember, and this perhaps invites us to ask questions of our self.  The truth is, I suspect, that this lover loves everything, everything that is connected to his loved one, and so no single, solitary thing can be named. What a dilemma!

As regards the rest of the line, it is the rhythm which counts. The words suggest either the tentative approach of the lover as he edges towards the longed for, hoped for, deeply desired first date, first kiss, first touch, first reciprocation. For all lovers each of these is a moment of truth.

Or, more robustly, the line can be read as the building to an orgasm. Try both readings or mix them up. Remember the poem was written to be acted.

In both cases the conclusion is “We” – union, togetherness, the two become one, the end of the quest…. Or perhaps the end of stage one.

But do note that the climax is so strong and full that the single word “We” fills up the entire line … What fulfilment! And we are only on line 3.

***

And here I will stop. I think I have said enough to set the wheels moving and the rest of the slope is all down hill, gathering speed. I trust, however, that I will not be accused of the literary equivalent of coitus interruptus. Find your own way. But if you would like to know more about the background to the poem and the controversy it provoked, I can do no better than recommend the article An Anna Blume in Wikipedia.

I would love to know what you, having read this far, find in the rest of the poem as well as how you react to this brief introduction.

Dada, in its many manifestations, has the ability to provoke. Some readers and viewers do not like this, but to me there is something ancient about Dada, something primeval and just-out-of-reach yet sensible: like the silence before the big bang or the in-breath before the great and original, “I AM”

Therein lies its powers to lift one’s spirit.

So. Enjoy Dada

In a later posting I hope to have a look at the work of Hans (Jean) Arp, another painter/poet whose work has stood the test of time.

*

P S

The last thing I want to say is that while the power of the old Dada movement lives on, we must, I believe, avoid trying to make it serve contemporary feelings of alienation or cynicism. Such feelings can easily slip into passivity and disengagement.

We, in the present age, do not have that luxury. Our plight on all fronts is eminently understandable and the outcome can be predicted if we care to look. Above all, our dangerous situation calls for action that is thoughtful, swift, compassionate, cooperative and effective…. Before it is too late.

We turn to Dada because the works of men such as Schwitters and Arp and Richter and Duchamp et al are unique, and they tease us, and challenge us in deep ways, and make us think. They remind us that creativity is always positive and a cause for growth, painful though that may sometimes be.

While saying that, I am also recognising that in addition to the effervescent Dionysic wine of Dada, we need the cool, clear and compassionate water of a writer such as Brecht who towards the end of his life, wrote as follows:

*

AND I ALWAYS THOUGHT.

And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself.
Surely you see that.

(It is that 4th line that gets me.)

Read Full Post »

For some time I have been wanting to write on the work of Alexandra David Néel. While in her writing, she appears to be one of the most rational, and certainly one of the most courageously sceptical of women who, like Madame Curie, was prepared to put herself on the line in order to discover the truth, each time I approached the topic I discovered mystery.

So finally, the story-teller triumphed over the essayist and I wrote the following Imaginary Interview. It is intended to be a tribute to this wonderful, intrepid woman. It is a work of fiction and I hope it will be read as a mystery confronting a mystery – for that is what I intended. Within my small scope I have tried to tell the truth of her beliefs, while adopting the style, but not the content, of M. de Maupassant.

As ever, I am grateful to  Wikipedia for  a couple of lovely photographs. The first of these is specifically referred to in the text.

File:Louise Eugenie Alexandrine Marie David 19th century.gif

An Imaginary Interview

It was in early September 1970 when I arrived in the small French town of Digne les Bains and took a room at the Hotel de Provence not far from the well-known bar called Le Casino. I had taken the opportunity of a few weeks leave from my work as translator for the small French publisher Libre Thé, to travel down to the South East of  France intending to do some hiking in that most picturesque part of the country, and at the same time – if I was lucky –  arrange an interview with a woman whom I had for a long time admired: Alexandra David-Néel.

You will appreciate my pleasure when, after writing to Mme. David-Néel, I received the following reply by postcard delivered directly to my hotel. It stated, “Interview granted. 10.00am to 10.45am. Week days only, except Wednesday. Please advise date of arrival.”  The card was signed with a large letter A. I was amused to observe that that the wording was reminiscent of the phrases used to advise the opening hours of a shop.

I knew some of Alexandra David Néel’s works already, and had greatly enjoyed her description of her brave journey under disguise to Lhasa, and the extraordinary experiences she revealed in Magic and Mystery in Tibet – which is, I venture to say, her most famous and her most popular book. However, interesting as her works are, it was a photo of her as a young woman which I had discovered in the course of my research, that had captured my attention. In the photo she was wearing strange extravagant clothes and beads. Her hair was long and braided, and her face suggested both innocence and boldness. However, it was the eyes that held me. They were brilliant,  Their combination of vulnerability and ravenous curiosity, almost seemed to speak. Nor was I unaware of the strong and forceful chin that was the foundation of her face.

So, as quickly as I could I penned a brief note in reply, stating that I was deeply grateful for the opportunity to meet Mme. David-Néel and would call on her on the coming Tuesday – that was in two days time. Much as I was impatient, I filled the intervening time by exploring the town and planning the questions I wanted to ask.

On the Tuesday morning, I found the address easily. It was in a quiet street with widely-spread houses that maintained their privacy behind high walls topped with ornate spikes in the form of a fleur de lys. I could not help but notice that the black paint on the gate and railings outside her house was peeling, that the bushes that poked through the railings were in need of a trim and that the brass numbers on the letterbox were tarnished. At the same time, I was aware that these things gave no indication of what I might find beyond the gates. The French, like the Italians, possess an ability to make an art of decay. The brick work of the walls, crumbling in places, has been mellowed by centuries of sun. Stone steps are worn to a hollow. The sloping wooden panels of a staircase may frame Renaissance treasures. And the carpets which muffle your tread,  may never have known a vacuum cleaner and could have made the journey from Turkey on the backs of mules. No. Buildings age gracefully in France… as sometimes do their occupants.

And so it was on Tuesday morning that I presented myself at the gate. I pulled a short rope with a Turks-head knot and was rewarded by the tinkle of a bell somewhere beyond the gate. Moments later a door opened and closed. Footsteps approached quickly and quietly. A key rattled in the lock and the gate opened a few inches.

I saw a short woman, dressed in black and with a shawl that covered her hair and shoulders. Her eyes were black also, and bright as beads

“Ah Monsieur Mann,” she said before I could speak. “Madame Néel regrets she is not able to meet you today. Please arrange another day. Not tomorrow.”

“Thursday then, “ I said hurriedly, before she could close the gate.

“Perhaps,” she replied and the gate closed.

Being something over six feet tall, I did at least manage to see over her head and enjoy a glimpse of the garden within. It was luxurious with banks of flowers, the yellow and blue and red. A small fountain sparkled in the sunlight. And beyond this, almost lost in the deep blue shade beneath a magnolia tree, I saw a bench upon which a single dark figure sat, watching us.

I heard the key turn and the footsteps retreat.

There was nothing more to be done, so I in my turn retreated to the Bar Casino and the consolation of black coffee. That I was disappointed was natural, but at the same time I was excited for in those few  moments I had glanced something rare in the beauty and peace of the garden. Monet at his finest could not have captured a place of greater tranquillity. I was certain that the seated woman I had seen was Mme. David-Néel in person. What is more, I detected a kind of ritual in what had happened. I knew from my reading that in Tibet a request is often not granted instantly. The postulant must wait, apply again, sit at the gate if needs be and for as long as is necessary, attending the pleasure of the one who dwells within. Thus, as in the mountain-shrouded valleys of Tibet, so in a quiet backstreet of Digne les Bains. If wait I must, wait I would.

On Wednesday I explored the hills surrounding the small town, wondering how Mme. David Néel felt about them after dwelling so long amid the gigantic shadows of the mighty Himalayas. Perhaps her adventurous spirit now appreciated the peaceful warmth of her native France. Perhaps I would know the following day.

And so it was.

At 10.00am sharp I again rang the bell, and again I heard the approach of slippered feet and the turning of a key in the lock. This time the gate opened wide.

“Monsieur Mann?” It was the same dark clothed lady speaking.

“In person.”

“Please enter.”

Which I did. The gate was carefully locked behind me, and then I was led directly down a flag-stoned path to the front door of the house. Though the flowers were as bright as on my earlier visit, the bench I had observed in the corner of the garden was not occupied. I had hoped the interview might take place there. But no… my guide hurried me inside the house as though she did not like the daylight. I was then guided down a narrow corridor the walls of which were decorated with sepia photographs. I had no opportunity to observe them in detail but I could see that most of them depicted dark figures in a snow-bound landscape with high mountains or gaunt buildings behind.

We came to a door and my guide knocked discretely and then turned the handle, pushed the door open and stood back gesturing for me to enter.

I found myself in a dark room. The shutters were almost closed and only sharp edged lines of light falling across the floor told of the sun that was shining outside. This gloom did not surprise me. I have been in many French houses, and frequently the French exclude the daylight. I do not know why. Perhaps it is just to protect the fabric of sofas and carpets which otherwise might surely fade.

My eyes began to adjust. In front of me was a round table covered by a heavy tasselled cloth and with a single white flower, a lily, in a tall white vase. Seated to one side of the table was a figure whose hands rested on the table but whose face was turned away from me. The servant who had led me in guided me to a chair, and then after a short and respectful bow, departed. I heard the door close with a click.

Silence. My eyes adjusted further to the gloom. The figure turned to me slowly. A woman – of course – an old woman with wrinkles and a face that expressed nothing but with eyes that seemed to stare right into me. I have been in the presence of Lamas before, and this is a technique they have, of looking within; but what they are seeing I do not know.

My first impression was that I was seeing a face of stone. I do not mean that to sound impolite. The high cheekbones and the forehead and the jaw all seemed so firm and chiselled. Immobile almost. Faces like this, grim at first, can suddenly transform like the green grass on a hillside which seems almost to be lit from within when the sun comes out. Such faces, when they smile, do so with a completeness that can dazzle you. But this woman did not smile; just studied me. I studied the lily. And then, after a slight clearing of the throat, she said, “Well, young man, what do you want of me?”

“To meet you,” I replied. “To ask questions. To hear your voice. You have led such an interesting life. I suppose I want to know more.  I am not a journalist.”

“I have written books. Is that not enough?”

“Books often leave the most interesting things unsaid. I think you know that better than I.”

For the first time I saw the glimmer of a smile, a slight softening of the face.”

“So, ask me a question.”

I opened my note book and glanced at the questions I had prepared. I decided to be provocative. “Women have been called the weaker sex,” I began. “What qualities enabled you to undertake the incredible journeys you made?”

She did not reply immediately, but looked at me steadily. Perhaps she was remembering, but my fear was that she was weighing me in some mental balance, that I had overstepped an invisible mark and that she would suddenly rap on the table with her knuckles, summoning her maid to escort me to the door. Then, without a change in her expression, she asked “How old are you?”

“Twenty eight.”

She nodded. “Old enough to know that it is not physical strength but mental strength that counts. I am a hundred and one. Terrible, isn’t it? But in those days, long before you or your father was born, I was young. And yes, I was strong for a woman, and yes I had a woman’s skill and charm… and yes I used them when I had to. But inside me, in here, (she tapped her head) and in here (she tapped her heart) I was possessed of a ferocious curiosity. It consumed me and kept me warm and made me bold. I wanted to know everything… to see and touch everything…  especially those things which are scarcely to be known, difficult to see and dangerous to touch. I was then, and still am, a very rational and brave woman… and as for weak. Ha! I have unyielding will power. I went looking for the truth about what is real.”

“But why Tibet? One of the most inhospitable counties on the…”

“Have you been there?

”No.”

“Well. Perhaps you should reserve judgement. In any case, how do we ever progress except by facing difficulties? Tibet is no more inhospitable than any other country: your native England for example with its slums and dirt can seem quite hostile. Tibet is home to an ancient civilization, and while it may not be palatable to the fastidious in some ways, it possesses more wonders per square metre than I can ever describe. I only touched the surface.”

“I meant in climate. I was not…”

“In any case, I fear you may have missed your chance now. It is a world that was passing even when I was there. I may even have contributed to its decline by provoking interest in its mystery. And the Tibetans can put on a good show. Do not be fooled by appearances. But at the end of the day, we all seek what we need, whether we  know it or not. Your being here, for example, at this very moment.”

Again her gaze fixed on me. I sensed she was waiting for something. Some response. “I do not understand,” I said. A weak and foolish reply!

“Oh come, come. I mean that we spend our lives looking for something. If you look hard enough and are hungry enough you will find your own Tibet, or it will find you.” She paused and looked at her hands. “But make no mistake, when I travelled there, I knew what I was doing. I was not a fool and I only took risks when there was no alternative. And I had a plan…”

“Which was…?”

“I believed that aspects of Tibetan Buddhism had never been explained properly in the West. I wanted to know about the different beliefs that one finds in Tibetan Buddhism and that meant I had to experience those beliefs in an active way. You can know with the mind, but you must also know with the heart. The only way to know about mysticism is to tread the path of the mystic. I was lucky that I was able to do so. I was lucky in those I met and who taught me. I was lucky in learning the language. I was lucky that I had a strong constitution, that I had servants who could cook. And… ” She learned forward. “I am a quick learner.”

“Is it true that you once walked for nineteen hours without stopping?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“There were no buses in Tibet.”

“And you slept on the frozen ground?”

“Often. No hotels either, you see.”

“You are making fun of me.”

“Yes. You do seem so incredulous. Don’t make me too special.  The truth is that you could do exactly what I did, if you wanted to… if  you are prepared to… if you are not too afraid or at least can hide your fear.”

“I think you have a way of charming people.”

“Ha!” She laughed at that, and as I prophesied, the face of stone came alive and slightly roguish. ”Come on, ask me some more questions. Time is passing.”

“Tell me about the Lamas you met who can run like the wind for days on end without tiring?”

“I saw them. I would like to have stopped one and questioned him.  But I was warned not to interfere with them as they were in a deep trance. It could be fatal. And they weren’t really running. It was more like bounding. Quite extraordinary.”

“Did you try to do that?”

“It requires very special training. I any case, I was not there for the Olympics.”

“What about keeping warm in the snow?”

“That was a  matter of survival. The motivation can be very strong when you are caught in a blizzard and the tent not rigged. So I needed to learn how to keep warm. When my teacher knew I was ready, he sent me up into the mountains with instructions to find a peaceful lake far from prying eyes. There I was to strip off and bathe in the cold water, and then sit and meditate without drying myself.”

“And did you succeed?”

“Well I’m here, aren’t I? In fact I meditated all night, and didn’t even catch a cold.”

“That’s a miracle.”

“NO.” This was said very forcefully. “It was not a miracle. I had the training. I used it. ”

“I have heard of Lamas who can dry sheets that are wet and melt snow just with their body heat.

“Yes, they have very special skills.”

“Would it have mattered if someone had seen you bathing?”

“It would have mattered to me. Not that I am prudish, but it would have spoiled the concentration. What it might have done to the spy I shudder to think.” She smiled again, remembering. “But solitude is necessary, and it is so beautiful. If you want to discover something, be alone.. Be walled up or surrounded by stones and snow and mountains. When you are alone you face yourself. It is nothing to be afraid of. It is when you are with others that the trouble starts, unless they are very special people. I travelled with very special people. But I was master of myself.”

She turned away and her lips moved but I heard no sound. I saw her breathe deeply. I could imagine her in her solitude: performing exercises, examining the changes in herself.  Finally she turned to me again. “You have more questions?”

“I’d like you to tell me about the tulpa that you made… the short fat jolly monk that you created with your imagination and who became a real being? Were you master of him?”

“Oh that. You have read my book to the end! Well I was the master at the beginning, but then things started to get out of hand, so I had to dissolve him.”

“What do you mean?”

“It is hard to explain.”

“Was it difficult?”

“It took six months and a lot of concentration.”

“Was it hard to create him.”

“Easier than you might think. But don’t try it.” The face became stern. “Luckily there are many stages before manifestation occurs, so you are not in danger. Why are you so interested?”

I did not reply. She leaned forward, staring directly into my face. “Why are you so interested?” she murmured. “Tell me why?”

Those eyes. I can see them now, even as I write. They looked right through me. I felt transparent. There were  no secrets she could not draw from me. “I had a strange experience once,” I began.

“We all have those. It usually means that you are learning.”

“When I read your book I was reminded of it. I was writing my first novel. It had alien creatures in it and they all seemed very real to me. Sometimes, when I was writing, I would hear their voices in my head. Well, it was one evening. I was getting towards the end of the book. I was sitting in my room, typing, and with my back to the door when suddenly I was aware that someone had entered the room behind me. I knew who it was. It was a character from the book called Jet. A giant, lizard like creature, but very clever and able to speak.  I turned round, but there was nothing to see, but still I could feel the presence. It wanted to talk to me. But I  didn’t want that so I got up and walked out of the room. On another day, some of the other characters from the same novel arrived – Cook and Winterwind were their names – and they were really interrupting my writing. They were arguing about what I should put into the novel.  I could hear them. They too were  marvelling that they could see and speak.”

“So what did you do?”

“I told them to go and live in the garden… that I did not want them worrying me… I was very emphatic, and I think I was quite rude. But they did move. And I finished the novel without any more interruptions.”

“Could you see them when they were in the garden?”

“Sort of. Through my study window, but only if I wanted to, and then only hazily. But I didn’t want to. And gradually they faded away. But I know that if I wanted to I could bring them back.

“And do you want to bring them back?”

“No. I think they are happy at home in the garden.”

Mme. David Néel laughed when I said that. “Yes well, you are obviously not as green as you look. I suspect the kind of thing you experienced takes place quite often. Imaginative work takes a lot of concentration. People don’t know what is happening and so they invent theories. People start to believe in magic and miracles. But there are no miracles and magic is mainly a matter of following the rules. It is the mind that matters. Consciousness. Ignorance is a real problem. The people I knew in Tibet had trained their minds to a fine point of concentration. If you want to know more, read the life of Milarepa. He suffered and triumphed. It is all in the wishing. All in the wanting. All in the will. All in the persisting. One day your scientists will discover this. They will be amazed and the world will become simpler… and stranger… and everything will change. We have gifts beyond our knowing. Hush now.”

She turned away from me. I knew that she did not want me to speak. Even if I had wanted to, I doubt that I could have broken that silence.

“And now,” she said finally, “I have had enough of questions. Sit still for a moment and put down your pencil. We are going to meditate.”

I did as she wished. And as I did so, I felt a twinge of fear mingled with excitement. This was not what I had wanted or what I had expected. I was like a swimmer who, having walked deep into the sea, is suddenly lifted off his feet by a wave. This serious woman had seen and done and experienced things of which I had  no knowledge. She was a far beyond me in understanding as I was from a cupcake in a shop window. Then, as if she had read my mind, she said. “Don’t worry, I am not going to turn you to gingerbread. Now. Close you eyes. Imagine you are in the high mountains of Tibet. Everything is silent. It is just after dawn, but last night there was snow and now the snow is all about you, untrodden, pure and white. You are sitting on a rock and it is comfortable and you are warm. You are facing a valley and a lake. Here is a little verse for you to repeat.

“The mountain rock behind.
The mountain lake before.”

See it.

And I did. It was as though a camera had been turned on in my mind. The rock behind me was reality:  solid, dependable and strange. The lake in front, mirrored the sky, the creative will which informs all things:  calm, deep blue and very still. It reflected the crescent moon,  the fading stars and the first sharp rays of the sun touching the mountain peaks. I felt a deep stillness steal into me. A joy in the moment….

How long I stayed there I do not know, but eventually I heard the silvery tinkle of a bell. And when I opened my eyes I found I was alone, and the door was opening.  The woman who had met me at the gate was waiting for me.

“Time to go, Monsieur.”

The passage. The front door. The path. The garden….

I looked across and there, seated on the bench in the shade was the bright-eyed young woman I had seen in my photograph, with her beads and necklace and long woven hair. She lifted a her hand and waved. I would have waved back and crossed to see her,  but my guide was at the gate, and the gate was already open. “Time to leave, M’sieur.” It was an order.

“May I come tomorrow, at the same time?” I asked.

“Perhaps.”

And the gate closed and was locked.

It was only when I reached my hotel, somewhat in a daze, that I realized I had left my note-book behind. How silly… not that I had taken many notes… and I could remember most things… but I should have been more mindful. “Tomorrow,” I thought. “Tomorrow. I will collect it. That will be best. Today is full. Today is closed. And I am in need of a pastis.”

The following morning when I approached the house in the quiet street, I was astonished to see that the gate had been re-painted. It was now a deep and royal blue. The hedge had been trimmed back but the trees seemed larger. The number on the door had been polished too and shone bright and golden in the morning light. Everything looked neat and tidy and cared for. At least the bell-pull was the same. I pulled it and heard the familiar ring.

There was no response. So after a few moments I rang again and this time I was greeted by a strong male voice shouting. “J’arrive. J’arrive.” I heard the front door slam, and then the heavy tread of boots approaching. The gate swung open – it had not been locked.

“Monsieur?” Facing me was a tall, bearded, scholarly looking man wearing glasses. I judged him to be some ten to fifteen years older than myself. “I was at the back of the house when you rang,” he explained. “How can I help you?”

“I have come to see Madame Alexandra David-Néel. I had an appointment for 10 o’clock.”

The man looked at me strangely. “Madame David- Néel, she…. She no longer lives here. I am sorry to tell you M’sieur that Madame Néel died almost exactly a year ago. She reached a good age. A hundred and one I believe, and had led a full and active life. I never met her personally.”

“But…” I began, and stopped. I did not know what to say or what to think.

I still do not… I believe I thanked him. And then I made my way slowly back to the Bar Casino.

THE END

Alexandra David-Néel in Lhasa in 1924

 

***

And now for something quite different

An alarming e mail regarding the future of

BEES

I recently received the following e mail which is a matter of concern to all of us: young or old, rich or poor, you and me.

Dear friends,

Silently, billions of bees are dying off and our entire food chain is in danger. Bees don’t just make honey, they are a giant, humble workforce, pollinating 90% of the plants we grow.

Multiple scientific studies blame one group of toxic pesticides for their rapid demise, and bee populations are recovering in countries where these products have been banned. But powerful chemical companies are lobbying hard to keep selling these poisons. Our best chance to save bees now is to push the US and EU to join the ban — their action is critical and will have a ripple effect on the rest of the world.

We have no time to lose — the debate is raging about what to do. This is not just about saving bees, this is about survival. Let’s build a giant global buzz calling for the EU and US to outlaw these killer chemicals and save our bees and our food. Sign the emergency petition now, and send it on to everyone and we’ll deliver it to key decision makers:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/save_the_bees/97.php?cl_tta_sign=e83fb61432e7d8747cdc306821e645c1

Bees are vital to life on earth — every year pollinating plants and crops with an estimated $40bn value, over one third of the food supply in many countries. Without immediate action to save bees many of our favourite fruits, vegetables, and nuts could vanish from our shelves.

Recent years have seen a steep and disturbing global decline in bee populations — some bee species are already extinct and last week we learned that some US species are at just 4% of their previous numbers. Scientists have been scrambling for answers. Some studies claim the decline may be due to a combination of factors including disease, habitat loss and toxic chemicals. But increasingly independent research has produced strong evidence blaming neonicotinoid pesticides. France, Italy, Slovenia and even Germany, where the main manufacturer Bayer is based, have banned one of these bee killers. But, Bayer continues to export its poison across the world

This issue is now coming to the boil as major new studies have confirmed the scale of this problem. If we can get European and US decision-makers to take action, others will follow. It won’t be easy. A leaked document shows that the US Environmental Protection Agency knew about the pesticide’s dangers, but ignored them. The document says Bayer’s “highly toxic” product is a “major risk concern to non target insects [honey bees]”.

We need to make our voices heard to counter Bayer’s very strong influence on policy makers and scientists in both the US and the EU where they fund the studies and sit on policy bodies. The real experts — the beekeepers and farmers — want these deadly pesticides prohibited until and unless we have solid, independent studies that show they are safe. Let’s support them now. Sign the petition below, then forward this email:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/save_the_bees/97.php?cl_tta_sign=e83fb61432e7d8747cdc306821e645c1

We can no longer leave our delicate food chain in the hands of research run by the chemical companies and the regulators that are in their pockets. Banning this pesticide will move us closer to a world safe for ourselves and the other species we care about and depend on.

With hope,

Alex, Alice, Iain, David and all at Avaaz

MORE INFORMATION

Bee decline could be down to chemical cocktail interfering with brains
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jun/22/chemicals-bees-decline-major-study?INTCMP=SRCH

Bee briefing
http://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=RXLEm9WXrHk%3D&tabid=439

$15 Billion Bee Murder Mystery Deepens
http://www.businessinsider.com/colony-collapse-disorder-still-unsolved-lead-researcher-had-connections-to-bayer-2010-10

“Nicotine Bees” Population Restored With Neonicotinoids Ban
http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/05/nicotine-bees-population-restored-with-neonicotinoids-ban.php

EPA memo reveals concern that pesticide causes bee deaths
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/green/detail?entry_id=79910

Beekeepers want government to pull pesticide
http://www.palmbeachpost.com/money/beekeepers-want-government-to-pull-pesticide-1107701.html

Bees in freefall as study shows sharp US decline
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jan/03/bumblebees-study-us-decline?INTCMP=SRCH

Pesticide industry involvement in EU risk assessment puts survival of bees at stake
http://www.corporateeurope.org/agribusiness/news/2010/11/16/pesticide-industry-future-bees

————–

WHATS NEW? (18 Jan 2011)

For those of you who relish TRAGEDY, I have just added the transcript of an interview that I gave some time ago on Tragedy in the Theatre, and which has now been published in a book of essays called EUROPEAN TRAGEDY – from Homer to Becket.

It is an interesting book and the range of the essays is indeed wide and stimulating. Publication details can be found in the Essays section of the website.

*

THREE SEEDS

This is a short story, originally written for radio. It is about a little girl growing up and facing the reality of  a death in the family. Grief can take many forms.

AN ORDINARY SATURDAY MORNING ON HILL ST.

A short story for children. A romp.

SEARCHING for GRACE

Carol Henderson of Wellington has written a moving book of family history called Searching for Grace. This work deserves to be better known, and so it is my pleasure to enclose here an unsolicited review of the work. Publication details are at the end.

Selections  from LYNNE HATWELL’s review of

“ Searching For Grace”

by Carol Henderson of Wellington.

available on www.dovegrayreader.co.uk Jan11 2011

Searching for Grace is a book currently not readily available in the UK, (though if you’re in New Zealand you’re in luck) but one that definitely should be for the light it shines on a period of time that’s much in our national consciousness right now, with Downton Abbey conversation everywhere and a second series to come. It offers further fascinating insights into the lives of the privileged, is an extremely well written memoir and I couldn’t put it down.

Have you ever wondered about the fate of those children born out of wedlock to the Edwardian aristocracy who were then silently whisked away into obscurity so that the season could continue, the presentations at court needn’t be interrupted, the lovers could still be bedded and the summers could still be spent languishing on the Riviera? I’ll admit I hadn’t given it much thought at all until Carol’s book arrived and I settled down to read the poignant story of her mother Heather Tovey’s life.

The family memoir predominantly written by Heather (nee Campbell) who was born in London on… well when was Heather born? She thought it was March 3rd 1911 but had no birth certificate to prove it. When Heather came to apply for a new passport in New Zealand in 1975, the country where she had lived for nigh on forty years, that lack became the focal point of her story as she proceeded to trace her life back to those earliest memories of growing up in Edwardian London in the care of three sisters, one of whom she knew as ‘Mummy’ and who had indeed been loving, but in a strangely remote way.

What became apparent as I read was just how important known parentage and identity can be and how unsettled and rootless it is possible to feel without those constants in your life. Heather had grown up with secrets, a child’s awareness that all is not quite right, the brick wall when the questions are asked and this coupled with the knowledge that Heather unearths, that she was indeed a child of the aristocracy, all had me deeply engrossed in this very readable book.

The book is full of deeply poignant reading as Heather imagines and describes some of these key moments in her young life. Then there are the ongoing uncertainties and insecurities that Heather has taken into her adult life, lying about her age and secretly marrying the New Zealand artist Gordon Tovey before emigrating to Plimmerton, north of Wellington in NewZealand, to start a new life with him at the age of eighteen. The letters to Heather in New Zealand from Mummy urge her to put it all behind her but, as the written words traversing thousands of miles become the vehicles of confession and admission of so many of the secrets surrounding Heather’s origins, she is most certainly unable to do that.

The veneer covering Heather’s insecurities is often painfully thin and easily scratched to reveal the rawness of what lies beneath, as when she gives birth to her own daughter Carol, the co-author of this book who inherits her mother’s cause and researches it further after her death. Or when Gordon sinks into alcoholism and takes a mistress to which Heather displays a limitless degree of tolerance and capacity in coping with his infidelity, perhaps deeply rooted in the infidelities of those who have treated her so badly in her own past.

Knowing and finding her family becomes an obsession that will haunt Heather for the rest of her life, and when she does find a sister, Priscilla once married to Viscount Curzon, and is initially welcomed but subsequently rejected, the pain makes for very sad reading.

Heather’s mother, a wealthy serial adulteress with a string of country seats (now luxury hotels Petwood in Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, Engelmere in Ascot) and plenty of lovers to meet there, reminded me slightly of Idina Sackville of The Bolter fame. When I read that at eighteen months Heather had almost been whisked back into the aristocratic fold but for Mummy’s protestations, I could only but think what a fortunate escape that had been for her. Whether Heather was ever able to see it in that light seems uncertain, and indeed it is Carol who takes up the burden of the past after Heather’s death and finally achieves that search for a different kind of grace, along with some sense of closure for the family and in honour of her mother’s memory.

So forget all the fictional accounts, here is a true story, wonderfully written and a brave and honest indictment of a time when class was everything, when reputations and social standing for those classes in society took precedence over all else, when an unwanted child’s life could be spirited away out of sight, when money could buy silence and secrecy and when lives could be cruelly manipulated beyond the grave. This is a powerful and really excellent read about Heather Tovey (nee Campbell), a woman of indomitable spirit.

*   *   *   *   *   *

For more information, about “Searching For Grace” please visit  http://carolhenderson.co.nz

or Steele Roberts Publishers info@steeleroberts.co.nz


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The Three Women I wish to celebrate are: Aung San Suu Kyi who will, I hope, one day lead Myanmar (or  Burma as many of us still call it) into a future of peace and prosperity; Jacquetta Hawkes, the archaeologist, poet, scholar, writer and mystic; and Alexandra David-Neel, the Buddhist adventurer (and some say anarchist) who, against all the odds, visited and explored Tibet when that country was still more or less closed to foreigners.

Among the qualities these women share are towering intelligence, great courage and fierce determination as well as what, for want of a better phrase, I must call a sublime and uncompronising femininity. Their vision of life is at all levels informed by their sense of being a woman.

So many of the power brokers in our world are men, and frequently aggressive men who speak of winning and defeating: but these three – each in her own different way, speak of nurturing and understanding and of looking outward, beyond the personal to wider patterns of significance. Their voices are unique, though two of them we can now only hear from the books they wrote.

One is still alive. Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi (1945 – …)

 

 

It is curious, is it not, the way that imprisonment, originally intended to stifle,  silence, intimidate or destroy those who dared to speaks in opposition to  whatever a guilty governement wanted to hide,  should achieve the opposite effect and ennoble the prisoner and publicise their cause? One thinks of Wei Jing sheng in China, of Ghandi in India, of Vaclav Havel who wrote Letters to Olga from his prison cell and of course (most famously) Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Well Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest for many years but was never far from people’s minds or from the headlines.

Quoting Wikipedia’s superbly stark account, “In the 1990 General Election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won 59% of the national votes and 81% of the seats in Parliament. She had, however, already been detained under house arrest before the elections. She remained under house arrest in Burma for almost 15 of the 21 years from July 20, 1989 until her release on 13 November 2010.”

Of course Aung San Suu Kyi has not yet been tested in power, and power is, as we all know, the most corrosive force on the face of this earth. I have long maintained that if you want to know what someone is like, just give them some power over people, then stand back and watch what happens. With this caveat in mind, I hope the day is not far off when Aung San Suu Ky will lead Burma and, simultaneously, the Generals be stripped of their trappings.

There was a wonderful cartoon in the Independent Newspaper of England on the 15th November. It  showed a General holding a cage from which the bird had flown, but a chain still linked the bird to the cage. How true. That cartoon, by the way,  gave birth to this.

For Aung San Suu Kyi


And what do they want,
these grotesques,
these hippopotami in uniform,
these pantomime dames
with their medals on show,
and who still hold the keys to her cage?

She is slim as a knife,
and beautiful too.
Bright as an arrow,
that catches the sun.
Strong as the north wind
which blows from the sea.
And calm as the pool
which mirrors your face,
when thirsty you bow down to drink.

They have much to fear,
these grotesques.
For she is dangerous,
as the truth always is,
as the river that flows
under a statue
eroding the sand
on which it is based.

******************************************************************

And now to Jacquetta Hawkes

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Jacquetta Hawkes    (5 August 1910 – 18 March 1996)

I must admit that this photo only shows one side of her personality. Here you can see the strength and determination of the woman, and perhaps something of her sensitivity and reflection. It is a posed photograph, I think, and little is revealed of the high passion that drove her, of the poet who swooned in the moonlight, of the scholar that felt in every fiber of her being the wonder of creation and horror at its potential destruction. If anyone has a better photograph I would be glad to see it and to display it, if that is possible.

I did meet Jacquetta Hawkes once, in 1973.  She was visiting New Zealand in company with her husband, J.B. Priestly. It was not an auspicious meeting.  Some of us who lectured in the arts at VUW were invited by the then Vice Chancellor, Danny Taylor to meet the great man of letters. Charming though he was, and entertaining – for he was a born story teller with a rich North of England voice and a merry manner –  it became evident quite quickly that Priestly was more interested in talking to the ‘ladies’ than to the rest of us ‘blokes’. I asked him finally if his wife was with him, and he looked round and then said, “Yes. Jacquetta is somewhere about. Probably reading.” It was then that I noticed her, and indeed, she was studying the shelves of books that lined the study.  I approached her. My first impression was of neatness and complete composure. She was not tall, but stood with that concentrated energy that one sometimes sees when people look at paintings in an art gallery

“Hello,” I said.

She turned to me. “Hello,” she replied and began to turn back to studying the books.

“Is this your first visit to New Zealand?”

“Yes.”

“What have you seen so far?”

“We have just arrived.”

“Well….” a long pause, and I became aware that she was longing to get back to the  books. “I hope you have a pleasant visit.”

“Thank you.”

And that was it.

Now, if  I had known her works then; if I had had an inkling of the brilliance of her mind and the depth of her scholarship and the profound concern she felt for the future of the human race, and her love of the arts and literature as well as her delight in the diversity of culture, her mystical feel for life and love and…. and… (I could go on), I would not have been rebuffed so easily. I could at least have offered to show her and her husband the city and perhaps take them on some of the walks through the bush; and my delight would have been to listen, for she and he, had many tales to tell, and I would have loved to see this land through her eyes. But the chance went a-begging.

To share with you my admiration for this woman, I shall concentrate simply on one of the many books she wrote,  Man on Earth. I think from this you can gather the essence of her thinking: and for those of you who are a bit jaded (not to say bored) by the on-going and grim battle between the scientific rationalists who advocate Evolution by Natural Selection and those other fundamentalists who see Divine Intervention as a shaping cause in the affairs of men, then you have treat in store. Jacquetta Hawkes speaks with the knowledge and confidence of an accomplished archaeologist and anthropologist, but her vision is based on her intuition, on her deep sense of causes beyond the obvious, and her ideas are expressed with the verbal sensitivity of a poet.

At one point she says . ” I simply can not explain our beautiful, surpassingly various and supremely imaginative world by the orthodox tenets of evolution. …..”  However, let me emphasize, this book is neither a polemic or a diatribe. She explains.  “It is not my purpose to make my heterodoxy an important issue in this book. My purpose is to attempt to give an impression of what in fact has happened to our kind on earth, and here I am  not in any way in disagreement with the findings of science and  history.  When the story lies exposed, it is for every reader to judge for himself what forces lie behind the narrative.”

I suspect it is the presence of these ‘forces’ which ‘lie behind the narrative’ that give the book its special energy and insight.

The book is both a celebration and a warning. It celebrates our kinship with all other forms of life on earth, as well as those things which we human beings have achieved since the dawning of our consciousness: it warns us of all that we might lose; for we stand at a very real cross-road and choosing the wrong path, given our present state of knowledge, will (not ‘may’) lead to catastrophe. The book was first published in 1954, and its message, ugent then, is ever more starkly before us now. However, dangers apart, (and these are reserved for the final chapter) the book is a journey of delight in which we  learn to follow the heart in the search for truth.

It begins as follows. “When I was a girl I took part in the excavation of a cave dwelling on the lowest slopes of Mount Carmel in Palestine.”

Just as later we shall follow the stages whereby man himself became self-aware, so in these opening pages we observe young Jacquetta becoming entuned to the world about her.

“One night,” she says, “when the land was still fresh from the rain, I was wandering near the camp enjoying the moonlight when an intense exaltation took possession of me. It was  as though the White Goddess of the moon had thrown some bewitching power into her rays. It seemed to me that our arid satellite was itself a living presence bounding in the sky – I do not myself understand this use of the word bounding , but it comes insistently and I cannot but use it to express some deeply felt vitality. Indeed, the whole night was dancing about me.

It appeared that the moonlight had ceased to be a physical thing and now represented a state of illumination in my own mind. As here in the night landscape the steady white light threw every olive leaf and pebble into sharp relief, so it seemed that my thoughts and feelings had been given a extraordinary clarity and truth.

So powerfully was I moved by this sense of possession that I climbed up onto a high outcrop of rock against the mouth of the waddi and knelt down there. The moonlight swam round, and in my head, as I knelt looking across the plain to the shining silver bar of the Mediterranean…”

A caravan passes in the night, with camels and bells and singing.

“For those minutes and I have no notion of how many there were I had the heightened sensibility  if one passionately in love and with it the power to transmute all that the senses perceived into a symbol of burning significance. This surely is one of the best rewards of humanity. To be filled with the comprehension of the beauty and the marvellous complexity of the physical world, and for this happy excitement of the senses to lead directly into an awareness of spiritual significance. The fact that such experience comes most surely with love, with possession by the creative eros suggests it belongs near the root of our mystery. Certainly it grants man a state of mind in which I believe he must come more and more to live: a mood of intensely conscious individuality which serves only to strengthen an intense consciousness of unity with all being. His mind is one infinitesimal node in the mind present throughout all being, just as his body shared in the unity of matter…. “

“That was all I knew, but as the moon leaped and bounded in the sky I took full possession of a love and  confidence that have not yet forsaken me.”

(This long quotation is a condensation of pages 15 – 17 of the Cresset Press 2nd edition.)

Later, after a visit to the Natural History Museum, she adds, “I was not only intellectually but also intuitively and emotionally convinced that the accepted doctrine of evolution misses the main power behind it. This power is so huge and so obvious that it can not be discovered by the little knives of analysis and for this reason the scientists fail to recognize it. One can not see landscape through a microscope.”

We are close to Wordsworth are we not, and to many other poets I suspect, who lacked the gift of verse?

The background to the book is geological change. Against this we follow the the emergence of life. Certain key moments are pointed such as the creation of the backbone which protects the spinal cord, the beginning of warm-blooded bodies which can regulate their own temperature and finally the growth of the brain with its complex folds and pons, its cerebellum and cerebrum etc. From this we move to a discussion of the origins of consciousness and culture  which finds its first and greatest expression in the dazzling paintings of animals in caves such as at Lascaux. There is true mystery here. How did it happen that after thousands of years of slow evolution we suddenly encounter this outpouring of creative energy, this artistic statement of being and of separation?

From this point in the book we follow the development of civilization and explore the vastly different civilizations of Egypt and those that sprang up and survived for a long time in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. The discussion now hinges on the different kinds of art and literature these civilizations produced. Suffice to say that one hungers to know more… but the book drives on, for its aim is now to reach the present.

But we linger briefly on the year 525BC. Jacquetta says “It is profoundly stirring to think of these great men, many of them on eart at the same time, the same sun greeting them as it advanced fromt Orient to Occident. Say perhaps a day in 525 when the sun first woke old Lao Tse and young Confucius, and sent the old man to his work among the archives at the Court of Chow or to meditation on the Tao, while somewhere in Shantung Confucious, already in his middle twenties far advanced in his search for wisdom, put on the mourning clothes he was wearing for his beloved mother and went out to teach his disciples. Then as the earth turned and Benares came into the sun’s light, dawn would find Siddhatta Gautama, the Buddha,with his days of pleasure as a Rajah’ son, set sternly behind him, rising from some comfortless bed and setting out with his begging bowl, to spread the enlightenment which had come to him seven years before under the Bo tree. Some hours later the sun would rise on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor lighting up the comfortable homes of the Greek natural philosophers of the school of Thales, public and professional men who rather than turn their eyes inward towards their own psyche, looked out towards a world they believed to be an intelligible whole, and used the senses and intellect in an effort to apprehend and order it.  Men who, rather than seek understanding under a Bo tree, would seek to understand the tree its self.  Of this school, Anaximander had already by his study of animals and fishes gained at least a hazy  idea of evolution, while that very morning, Xenophanes might be going out to collect fossils whose meaning as marks of former life he understood – probably the first man on earth to recall something of the events with which this book begins. Heraclitus,the proud aristocrat, would stay indoors in his study, for his intellect, leading him to think of existence as perpetual change and process rather than as various being, was turning him towards metaphysics and away from the abservation of nature. Westernmost, and therefore last of all, Pythagoras would wake up at Crotona, the Greek colony in southern Italy where he had recently fled from his home in Samos, breaking fast with the members of the mystical  brotherhood he had gathered round him, he may perhaps have spent the morning in a severe exercise of pure intellect, wrestling with some part of the theory of numbers which he believed could explain the  nature of the world.”

And so we move from the Greeks and the Romans and the strange division which sprang up between  the introspective East and the analytic West….. we are getting close to the present….

… and here I will stop. I have said enough. Perhaps too much, for enthusiasm can carry me away. The rest I leave for you to find. But it is the final chapter which puts all things in perspective. It is called A Myth for the Future.

Shortly our statesmen will meet to discuss Global Warming, conservation and how to feed the six and a half thousand million people who currently inhabit the world. Hopes are not high for a binding agreement. Now if ever, more than ever, we need a world vision informed by the wisdom, will, and humility so bountifully manifest in this book.

Suffice to say that in an earlier blog I wrote about the Future of the Ancient World:  well Jacquetta Hawkes’ book is the perfect companion though it traverses different territory.

Both books teach us to see more than just with the eyes. And both make the world more luminous.

************************************************************

Alexandra David-Neel

Delayed as I am still doing the research.

But look at the luminous eyes of this figure  – which is in its self almost like a doll made of porcelain – and  know that you are looking at the face of one of the most daring of women, and one of the cleverest and brave, and one of the most determined and learned. She lived to be 101.

File:Louise Eugenie Alexandrine Marie David 19th century.gif

Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969)
(I am indebted to Wikipedia for this magnificent photo. I do not know its origin. )

**************************************************************

However, while I am putting the new piece together, here is something I came across recently and which has, more or less,  a bearing on this Post’s theme.

It concerns the poet Mirabai (sometimes written as Meera Bai) who lived from 1498 to 1547  in NW India. To put matters very simply, Mirabai fell profoundly in love with Lord Krishna: so much so that she abandoned her husband and her former life to devote herself, her love, and all her art to Krishna.

The following is taken from an introduction to her works by  Suguna Ramanathan who explains why Mirabai’s work is so disturbing and challenging, then as now. I have added two of her many poems for your pleasure.

It seems to me that in these translations, the spaces in the lines speak as eloquently as they words, forcing us to slow down and make connections.

Faith Vs Discourse

Mirabai’s poems are an outpouring of FAITH. By Faith is meant here not an intellectual assent to, or an unquestioning acceptance of a prescribed code  of doctrines and rituals but a  joyful openness to an un-paraphrasable reality, an openness  characterized by vulnerability, dissolution,  freedom and abandonment.

Discourse on the other hand is the practice of power that keeps a society stable by delimiting a field, marking off its boundaries, legitimizing norms and perspectives. It generates its own concepts and texts to sustain a given established order. Discourse has to do with the material world of production and exchange; it goes usually unchallenged and its basis is hidden from itself.

But there comes a time when such a world is felt by some to be radically insufficient. The ensuing reponse unsettles priorities; the heart disturbed by love, moves to a point outside the given boundaries. Thus St Francis goes to the forest, St Bernard to his Cell, Julian of Norwich becomes and anchoress. So with Mirabai. She gives up the security of the married woman, she takes to singing and dancing, she loses all interest in her role as a wife. Clearly, Mirabai is challenging discourses.

In the Dark of the Heart

I sailed
in a swing
into sleep.
Saw him 

– and all
unsung
me asleep!

I rushed
to  appease
to greet

fell
into a sleep
waking

and lost him.

Those other
than me
says Mira

are blessed.
Their dreams
with lovers
begin when they wake.

Daylight
for Mira means
waiting till he

enters her dwelling and
makes all things well.

Poem 18


My eyes
stretched wide, see only
sleep.

I hear tell
there used to be
a lonely royal girl like me
upon a time.

Gazing from
the palacewalls
was all her life unti
unwarned

her eyes lit on
another’s smile
like beads that make
each other shine.

There is
yet one. Her tears
stitch gleaming pearls
all night.

says Meera
I count the stars, I wait
for one pin
of light.

WHAT’S NEW

I have added some pictures of the reunion to the Drama Studies page. This is a selection: more are available from Robert Cross.

I have added the long Science Fiction ballad John Death Elliot and his ship The Fare Thee Well, to the Poetry from the books page. This long ballad was part of The Fall of the Families.

New also is a commentary in Whispers from the Wings on the 1966  production of Comedy, Satire, Irony and Deeper Meaning by C. D. Grabbe, for the National Union of Students Drama Festival  in Bradford.

I have also extended the introduction to Wulfsyarn: A Mosaic giving more details of its strange origin.

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Eating Stolen Honey

A Poem

Here is a lovely poem written by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell who was the first New Zealand poet I met after arriving in New Zealand and who helped to educate me in the ways of Aotearoa and taught me how to pronounce Maori place names, as well as introducing me to contemporary New Zealand writing. The text of the poem may be found in It’s Love Isn’t It? Love Poems published by HeadworX, 2008. In the book Alistair and Meg’s poems face one another on the pages.

BLUE RAIN
(written in 1965)

Blue rain from a clear sky.
Our world a cube of sunlight –
but to the south
the violet admonition
of thunder.

Innocent as flowers
your eyes with their thick lashes
open in green surprise.

What have we to fear?
Frost and a sharp wind
reproach us,
and a tall sky pelts the roof
with blue flowers.

You and I in bed my love,
heads leaning together,
merry as thieves
eating stolen honey –
what have we to fear
but a borrowed world
collapsing all about us
in blue ruins.

Aren’t those wonderful lines, “Merry as Thieves / Eating stolen honey.”? How well they capture the joy and  the intimacy of love and love-making, but with that note of warning – for the honey is stolen… and, to use Auden’s phrase, ‘Time will have his fancy, tomorrow or today.”

If you enjoyed this poem, you will surely like the short sequence of seven poems called, simply  Elegy and the longer sequence called Sanctuary of Spirits. A full list of Alistair’s published work can be found on Wikipedia.

My first  meeting with Alistair occurred  when I was invited by Bill Austen to work on a stage version of Alistair’s radio play When the Bough Breaks.  After the first meeting I read as much of his poetry as I could find, and I was swept away by it. I suggested, somewhat tentatively, that he should use some of  his love  poems in the play, to support the strong emotional content. And he obliged. Some time later I worked on a staged reading of Sanctuary of Spirits and listened as Alistair talked about Te Rauparaha for whom he had a strange and deep attachment.  The house where Alistair and Meg lived stands on a headland, facing across to Kapiti Island where Te Rauparaha lived and fought.

Kapiti Island, from Waikanae Beach, NZ. Photo: James Dignan.

Alistair studied Classics at Victoria University. When I directed The Bacchae by Euripides at Downstage in 1970, I asked Alistair to come and watch a rehearsal and tell me what he thought of the staging. He was a good critic, very responsive and very willing to be carried along by the emotions of the play. Well he did come and sat at the back watching quietly. His reply to my questions took the form of a poem which was later published in Kapiti – Selected Poems. I may quote it  when I come to write about the Bacchae in the Whispers from the Wings page of this website, for it is a play that still bothers me – in a good, creative way. It is one of those plays that can never be resolved and which evolve with each new generation… and it is now over a generation since I worked on it.

In those long distant days, my wife Nonnita and I would drive our rattly old Ford Prefect (yes!) out to Pukerua Bay and thence to the Paekakariki Pub where we might meet up with some of Alistair and Meg’s friends and, enjoy a beer while swapping gossip with whoever happened to arrive.

Alistair and Meg in 1958.

Alistair and Meg much later. (Photos: Mark Pirie of HeadworX. Original source unknown.)

 

Alistair was born in 1925 and died in 2009. Meg, his wife, also a poet was born in 1937 and died in 2007. Both are greatly missed.

Alistair Te Ariki Campbell

Photo of Alistair by Robert Cross, a photographer who has made superb portraits of New Zealand writers. That is Kapiti Island in the background.


What’s new?

Nov 12. I have added a long poem called The Ballad of John ‘Death’ Elliott. You can find it under Poems from the Books. It was intended to be part of The Fall of the Families, but got missed out in the Gollancz edition. While it is clearly derivative from both Eskimo Nell and Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, it was not conceived as a pastiche and took on a life of its own. See what you think. Of course, it helps if you have read the book.

What the Critics did not tell…. but I will.

I have started a new page called Whispers from the Wings. This will be a long-term project as I want to write about some of the productions I have done and try to explain why I believe these plays matter and what I discovered when I was directing them. In my teaching, I always felt much more secure if I had had a passionate affair with the text, for that is finally what a production is.

I have directed quite a number of plays –  from experimental to classical, from new to old and… forgotten – and on many different types of stage.  Every production has been a quest of one kind or another. All too often directors say some thing like “I let the production speak for its self.” And of course, they are right: the theatre exists in the NOW, in the second of seeing, in the revelation or laughter of the moment; and perhaps something lingers for a few days or weeks afterwards. Some productions have an extended life as  a few fading photos: but it is always  surprising to me how quickly the photos age.

The sad thing is that productions sometimes only live on in the written words of the critics, who themselves work to deadlines, and whose reviews are often written during a coffee break  minutes after the play is over.  Their words, for better or for worse, become our history. The brilliant insight provided by Kenneth Tynan when writing on Brecht is a rarity in my experience.

I want to write about plays from the inside, about the dynamics of rehearsal, about the guesses and the gambles, about the wonderful moments when the play lifts from the page and you see the actors take fire. And I’ll write about some of the heartaches too. And I shall not be attacking the critics or pleading my own case or indulging in gossip. Sorry.

A Project in Prospect

The composer Michelle Scullion and I have decided to collaborate on a work for young readers. It is called Tales from the Borderland and is about the life and the adventures of creatures that live in a rock pool. We are now looking for an illustrator… Any offers?

An Honour

I was recently awarded the Sir Julius Vogel award for services to Science Fiction. So there you are. Now you know.

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