Archive for July, 2015

I have had the opportunity of observing through practice how meditation works on a number of occasions. I have used the TM method: transcendental meditation, and the methods used by another group.

I am aware of the changes to mood and sense of self such practices bring. I have, though, over time and with reflection become dubious of the practices that go under this description.

This questioning was partly prompted by an exchange with an academic. We discussed various items and also meditation. The person signed-off by saying they had that summer attended a guided meditation, and through it had achieved one of the four meditation states of the Buddha. The exchange was around a text I had sent.
The person had not properly read the text, and so made many errors in their comments. I have had opportunities to observe the person in discussion before and after their guided meditation experience. Personality-wise there was no difference. The person may feel they have had a worthwhile and life-changing experience – but there were no indications to the objective observer that anything was different. The person was no more tolerant, open-minded, astute, observant or understanding.

We cannot know, of course, how the person would have been otherwise. My structure of argument here suggests the person could have been worse off.

So much how structuring.

To be aware of the short-comings of one’s structures is a workable way round this. What the structure also suggests is that the expected outcome would be one of incontrovertible change in behaviour and cognitive abilities.

So much for expectations.

There was an objective study of meditation published by Oxford University Press. The conclusion was to the effect that on the question of relaxation, and deep rest, meditation appeared no more beneficial than normal relaxation methods.

There have been times I have wondered whether meditation aids the absorption of the problems we are taught it helps dispel: they become us and so no longer appear as outside and disruptive. Meditation usually is part of a bigger learning package – does the practice help us absorb what we learn, and so become what we study, which is usually an identity, whether of a holy person, enlightened  being, or whatever the aspirational image put forward?

My overall conclusions about these practices are that on the whole their aim is to get the follower to lead an exemplary life.

It employs a form of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal wrote addressing gamblers and atheists that it  was much the better gamble to follow God and Christ’s teachings, on the basis that if it turned out there was nothing in it, then they would have lived an exemplary life to the benefit of all. If it turned out that the belief (part of the old faith vs revelation basis of religiousness) then they would be ‘rewarded in heaven.’

What are experienced as the ‘states of being’ the system has the follower experience are foregrounded normal peripheral states, usually encountered  on the edge of sleep or in trance/daydreaming.

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The Gerhard Richter, Arvo Part project for the 2015 Manchester International Festival ran from 9th to 19th July. It was based at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery.

The Gerhard Richter paintings

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Richter displayed four works for the project. They were Double Grey (2014), and the three pieces that comprise Birkenau (2015).

Birkenau consists of three blocks of four paintings each. Each of the four combines with the others to make a complete piece.
The paintings are based on photographs of Birkenau, taken by a prisoner in 1944. Richter’s  signature overpainting and squeegee application creates layers and layers of paint, whilst also revealing the layering by stripping away parts, areas, of top layers.
Accident is an element in the effect, but it is controlled accident; the care with which Richter employs both paint and squeegee has a fine degree of finesse.

Each section of each block does not fully meet; the effect is deliberate, it leaves the white of the wall between the sections showing through. This produces a thin white cross within the overall painting.

Double Grey takes up three walls of the exhibition space. Each piece is a double unit. The work consists of large sheets of enameled glass, enameled matt grey. The surface glass is shiny, clear, but the reverse side rendered opaque. Each glass sheet is a double statement in effect.

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The Arvo Part contribution to the collaborative project was an excerpt from a five song sequence. The sequence was performed as a full concert at The Bridgewater Hall, in the evenings. The full score of performed works was: Fratres; Stabat Mater; Como cierva Sedienta; Da Pacem Domine;  Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima.
Prices were in the range of £16 to £36.

The excerpt performed in combination with the paintings was ‘Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima’.
Notes inform us that Part took the vision of three young Portugese shepherd children. The vision was of the Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady of Fatima. This was in 1917.
There were three prophecies recorded with the vision, one of each was said to refer to the outbreak of World War 2.
This is the tie-in with the Richter paintings, much as the thin white cross in the paintings acknowledges Arvo’s deep Catholic sensibility.
The period marked by the collaboration saw the first overt expression of the disaster that was to befall both Germany and Estonia. It was a disaster that changed their worlds utterly, and held their countries locked in their own and Communist struggles from 1945 to 1990. Both artist and musician lived through the Third Reich and Cold War division and retrenchment. Richter was born in East Germany, and only moved to the West in 1961, in his twenties.

The exhibition’s opening three days hosted the Estonian choir Vox Clemantis, to sing the Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima. Thereafter local choirs took on the performances in the presence of the paintings, two each day, one each morning, and likewise an afternoon performance. Thursday 16th July hosted an evening performance in addition. The William Byrd singers performed the day I was able to attend.
Not all performances were alike; I was informed the morning’s choir, the Sacred Sounds Women’s Choir, favoured a stronger contrast of bass and contralto, whilst the William Byrd preferred a mellower, more restrained palette of sound. This brought out the rhythm, and highlighted a more chamber-music  tonal sound for the setting of the gallery’s enclosed space.

The 2015 Well Dressing season is underway!

My local town has SIX exhibits this year. The themes are what may be expected for watchers of current British cultural interests. But with one spectacular exception!
The themes have been commemorations of Victory in Europe Day (VE Day): 70 years. Magna Carta: 800 years. The Battle of Waterloo: 200 years. I will come to the exception later – none of you will guess what it is!

There are many and conflicting theories about the origin of Well Dressing.

The most touching I heard was that it was a kind of blessing and thanks for God’s mercy for sparing villages from the plague. Once villagers’ showed symptoms, it was said, the whole village took it upon themselves to isolate themselves from surrounding villages to not to spread the contagion further. Any food or necessities were left at the village boundary and no contact whatsoever was to take place. It is recorded that every member of some families died; even the village the priest died. No one was there to bury the dead. Terrible times. The few who remained afterwards blessed the well – maybe thought to be the one fount of clean water.

Was it a blessing to the local naiad; then Christianised and dedicated to a Saint connected with the local parish church? Or was it indeed a later attempt to introduce local colour and custom? It is  also claimed the Tissington well in Derbyshire was the first to bless its well, after a 14th Century plague.

Wikipedia has it the ceremony was started in the Nineteenth Century, at the instigation of local wealthy landowners

The ceremony takes place now throughout Derbyshire as well places in Staffordshire, Cheshire, South Yorkshire, Shropshire. There has even been a ceremony in Kent. (Reprinted from last year’s blog)

The exhibits:
The weather was holding out well; hot sun, dry;summer clothes, and good spirits. A crowd had gathered, the local  vicar was in attendance, and then the town major came forward to open the Well Dressing. She spoke of the origins on Well Dressing in the fourteenth century plague years, commenting wryly on how long it had taken this town to catch on to the practice. The northern English and small, mostly rural, town inhabitants appreciate the wry tone, the understatements that carry a stubborn pride in place, but that is not blind to the shortcomings either.

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The full display had to wait until the crowd dispersed:

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The two small side panels mention the local nursing home: Mount Hall (nearly adjacent) and the other side the tenth anniversary of well-dressing in the town.
I was interested in the craft of the display, so have tried to show how finely the flower petals are set in their wet clay base, and carefully arranged for effect:
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The hair of the soldier is constructed from coffee beans! The helmet and conflagration background are tight dried flower heads. Other effects are produced by using course sand.
The Opening Ceremony was followed by a year-nine children’s dance piece to ‘Blue Suede Shoes. Four rows of alternating boys and girls, and dressed like members of the film Grease. Why? See the next exhibit:
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This is an expressionist display commemorating eighty years of Elvis Presley. Yup, he would have been eighty this year!
The display was made by St Gregory’s School.

The town is a linear settlement. These first two exhibits are for one end of the town. A mile and more down the road into the hills we come to the other displays:
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A particularly fine exhibit commemorating eight hundred years of Magna Carta.
Its uses as a legal document have been notoriously varied. The first copy’s effectiveness was greatly diluted by the time the standard version was issued. It started as means of barons limiting a king’s power, and became in the standard issue a means of binding the barons to the following king. It has been used to support slavery, as well as to denounce it. A charter for all seasons? The question remains, however: where would we have been by now without it?

And then in the Memorial Gardens:
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The side designs  are of the colours of the various regiments of local men. The old willow tree behind still has Commemorative poppies twined in its foliage,
I find it strange how the overseas and commonwealth serving people still do not receive the recognition they deserved.

We now come to a large and well-executed exhibit:.
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This is a particularly fine display. You cannot tell the size from the photo but the two panels together must be over six feet in length. And you actually see the well that it is set above.
It is interesting to note how Wellington is shown fully, for all his obstreperousness, and Napoleon Bonaparte only shown from the back.

I have recently had the honour of meeting a man, getting on in years now, who was reduced to sleeping rough in this area. He knew this well and praised it for its ‘sweet water’. Thankfully now he has accommodation.
I had written above of the local people; they admire resilience, and also enterprise – of a certain kind, and up to a point. Anything beyond those limits easily tips over into vehement dislike.
What they don’t value are people who do not or cannot live up to this. People like this man. It is fear at the back of it, the ages old rural fear of poverty. To be poor in the countryside is to be really very poor. Rural poverty has the characteristics of the plague, in that is viewed with the same fear, and presumed as virulent and easy to catch from association. It is perhaps fitting that he knew and used this well that here partly commemorates the plague years.
The homeless carry around with them their loss: to lose one’s home leaves a major psychological gulf, it is though one loses part of oneself. It is very difficult to recover from it. And so this man wanders around the main town; he can often be seen feeding the pigeons. It is as though they are his only companions. We speak and spend time with him, but I doubt we can ever know him now. It is as though something has been lost in him.

The last exhibit:

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Ok, I had two goes at catching this one: a three-panel piece – but the light was beyond my camera to do anything about. Shows what a glorious day it was, though!
This was the last exhibit, at the far end of the town. Another Magna Carta theme, and you can see how the far left panel has wanted to catch a medieval-illustration effect. The right panel is based on an imaginative Runnymede setting.

This last exhibit was surrounded by seats, a stall selling cakes, and a stall providing tea and coffee. All for the weary traveller following the Well-Dressing route.There was a special leaflet with the route (see link below), provided free at the Opening Ceremony.

Further information and links: http://www.bollingtonwelldressing.co.uk/

Every so often a poetry publisher comes along with a list you really feel at home with. For me it is Picador Poets. Probably followed by Enitharmon and Peter Owen.
Not that the others do not list writers I value most highly, because they do.
But with Picador I always feel ‘These are my people.’

Annie Freud is on the Picador list. She first published ‘A Voids Officer Achieves the Tree Pose’, a pamphlet, on Donut Press in 2007. Later that year her first full collection came out: THE BEST MAN THAT EVER WAS. The book gained the Dimplex Prize for New Writing, and was Poetry Book Society Recommendation.
Her editor on that book was John Stammers, another of my valued Picador ‘friends’.

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This first book brims over with riches and abundance. There may even be too much. Either that or the layout makes it seem so. It is a treasure-trove of poems of all sorts and kinds, from the brief lyric, to full narrative poem. It is a very stimulating read, and a book you find yourself keep going back to.

Annie Freud studied English and European Literature at Warwick University. She lived most of her earlier life in London, with wide travel experience. She also worked as a talented embroiderer, and tutor.

The first book is steeped in place, and that place London. Having said that, it does not hum with it like many London-centred books and magazines: the fractured lines, the deliberately mannered, opaque language. Her work has an angled take on the place. She is essentially, and this is another thing I love her for, a European. She is completely at home with the German language and French languages; she knows where she writes about, what it means to walk down a Berlin strasse, a French rue. Lived-in environments.
Hers is a London that is not the thing in itself, complete and self-referential/reverential, but part of a bigger picture.

Her subject matter is always angled, her subjects never static. She inhabits the world from the inside. The reader feels her great appetite for life: sensual, gastronomic, colour-responsive. A Caneletto Orange navigates cultural kitsch, and historical and gender eddies, shallows and sudden depths, by use of tone of voice, personal perspective, authorial voice, and the sudden interposing of personification.
She writes archly about encounters with psychological groups and theories. We are made aware of her background: prying public expectation vies with personal privacy, and her own passing interest in such subjects. She is her own self, one who just happens to have this legacy and experience.

Currently she is literature/writing tutor back at Warwick University (as George Szirtes wrote, you have to be very thick-skinned to teach. I have heard of such comments as “Hey, I just bought one of your books for penny on Amazon!” “Do you teach because you need the money?”). She relocated to Dorset some few years back. As a recent Guardian interview states, she now owns a small-holding with a few hens etc. Since moving to Dorset she set up her own poetry group. This is the setting for her latest two books, THE MIRABELLES and THE REMAINS.

THE MIRABELLES ventured out into newer styles of writing. An avid practitioner of traditional forms, she had gained the confidence to broaden her practice.

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Where before she had avoided The Name, and its legacy, even at one point going under a different name, in these two books she has confronted her part in it all. That is no small feat. But she has made herself room to move, to maneuver, to negotiate her self’s positioning in the world and the legacy.
THE MIRABELLES contained a last section of poems based on, formed from, her mother’s letters. Kitty Garman also brought her own legacy, she was part of the Jacob Epstein family.

Above, I wrote the first book was maybe too full. There is also perhaps a feeling in contemporary poetry that the format is beginning to lack dynamic. In THE DETAILS she tackles this by interspersing her own paintings among the text. This adds a wonderful cross-genre feel. THE MIRABELLES’ cover outside and in, is a lovely painting, The Wreathed Jug, by Kitty Garman. Hugely attractive.
This is a great new direction: she has the painterly skills and writing skills to make the whole enterprise work.

THE DETAILS, as the title suggests, has a close focus. Gone are the hugely enigmatic long titles, except perhaps for ‘Anne Bancroft Addresses the No-Name Ladies’ Lunch Club’.

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The book ranges over human experience as before, but she listens to the depths sounding when she speaks their names: Something Gallant, for instance, celebrates a new mother’s forging of her own life-balance and dynamic among the advice, expectation and normative pressures.
Celebration is the key to the book.
Another key is the novel by Goethe, ‘Elective Affinities’. The title refers to a nineteenth century phrase from chemistry to describe the varying relationships of elements in a set environment. Introduce another and the arrangement changes. Indeed one of the images used in the novel describes a petri dish containing acids. A blue circle can be seen; when another acid added the circle expands as if beyond the bounds of the dish. This is a metaphor for the setting of the novel, and the consequences of the actions of the inhabitants in the wider world. For Annie Freud the novel is valued for the meticulous way it charts the changing relationships of the main characters, and their positions independent of each other, and emotional dependencies and independence as she has encountered them.

Describing these things one has to summarise, edit in, effect leave out, the details of lives. This has moral consequences far beyond one’s intentions. Should one’s ideas and world view become based on such edited versions, then what worth have they in the reality of our lived lives? This the art of writing: hitting just the right nodes.

Annie Freud’s writing has a warmth and humanity to it; she takes the pains to chart the difficulties as well, but they are a part of the overall shape of lives.
With some writers the reader travels the journey with them. It is so with Annie Freud. They surprise us, maybe wrong-foot us at times, but they also challenge us: the reader must open up to appreciate the writing, and that opening up rounds us out as people.

Annie Freud. – I especially like this photo, it shows strength, vulnerability, and also a suggestion of wit and humour.

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