Saturday, 22 August 2009

Some pictures

Some pictures of life chez Bo.

These two are images of the work-in-progress 'Gnostic ikon' I proposed here--it's about half done, as you can see. (Follow the link for an explanation of its symbolism.)

This is my office--my students sit on the sofa, complete, as you can see, with medieval hunting-scene cushions. The greenish cupboard came from a garage in Delhi. (Necessary plug: if you are a sixth-former, and thinking of applying to Oxbridge for an arts subject, you will probably get taught in intensive hour-long sessions in a room much like this--books everywhere, a sofa, that kind of thing---either by yourself or with one other student. If you're thinking about where to apply, Oxford and Cambridge would welcome your application, especially if you are currently at a school which has little or no past history of sending pupils to Oxbridge. Plug over.)

This is a bit of my living room:

And here's an Russian-style ikon of the Mother of God I did a few years ago and am yet to finish....

and my lovely mid 17th-century oak chest....

and finally here's an ikon of St Brigit which I painted in one day when I was an undergraduate:

Thursday, 20 August 2009

The Grauniad

After lamenting elsewhere that during my twenties I have gone from being a Guardian-reader to finding it unbearable, mainly for their horrible house-style and penchant for smuggery, I happened to come across this article today, courtesy of Fr. David Heron. In it, Stephen Bates, the Guardian's religion correspondent, says the following:

I was nervous of my lack of theological training, but at least I knew the British faith background and traditions and the Bible stories – I was quite shocked to discover that many of my colleagues on the paper did not have even a folk-memory of those. "What's a cardinal?" one senior desk editor asked as I attempted to explain a story. "Who was Noah?" an equally venerable colleague was asked when he told the desk about an archaeological dig at Mount Ararat.

I am going to be fiery and uncompromising about this. Not knowing what a cardinal is or who Noah was is not a sign of being an enlightened, liberal, post-religious British secularist. It's just a sign of being pig-ignorant and poorly-educated. These people aren't GSCE pupils in a sink Comprehensive in Slough, they're editors on a national bloody broadsheet. Mind you, this is a paper which regularly refers to 'astrologists' and 'theologists' instead of astrologers and theologians. They may well regard dictionaries as the work of an oppressive privately-educated 'elite', bent on preserving its power-base by squashing non-hegemonic views.

Oh God. I'm a left-wing type, you see. I agree with some of the Guardian's editorial stances, even though I find the general air of mimsy piety suffocating. But I just want to read a left-ish newspaper that's not so full of factual errors and misused words, all framed in an ugly typeface, that it makes me wince every time I open it. Is that so wrong?

That's why I now read the Independent, ignoring Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and that awful Hari boy, and then, having had my leftist fix, turn to the Times for Caitlin Moran.


I've been a bit silent of late, for which, apologies.

I've just reread Andrew Harvey's luminous, austere A Journey in Ladakh, my favourite Buddhist travelogue, and far better than his later, slightly creepy crypto-Oedipal Hidden Journey, his 'Mother Meera' book. (Meera is the monobrowed lady-guru Harvey later ditched for being a homophobe.) I prefer Harvey in his early All Souls Prize-Fellow mode to his later, flouncier histrionics: the writing is better, more sinewy and beautiful; there's more interest in the world around him and less campy going on about divine light emanating from his boyfriend's cock.

As he writes of the journey:

The journey itself is a rite of initiation. You pass from the lush green valley of Kashmir up the long winding granite sides of the mountains to Zoji-La; then at the heart of the Karakorams, you pass again through ring after ring of mountains, each more spectacular, tortured, brilliantly coloured than the last; then finally, when you are half-frightened and exhausted by the raids so much magnificence makes on your wonder, you move, by slow degrees, into the plateau of central Ladakh, edged and cradled by the Indus, and from that into the long, fertile valley of Leh and its surrounding villages and monasteries. It is an education in wilderness, this journey, a progress into a bareness that at the last moment breaks into the flame of wheat-fields and prayer flags; it is the penetration of an enormous Mandala with Kashmir for its lush and dangerous surround, the Karakorams for its walls, and Leh and its long valley for its inner room, the room in which the creator of the vision of his own inner making is seated in meditation and where the Gods can appear, shielded from cynical eyes, by walls of burning rock and snow.

Maybe I like A Journey in Ladakh best because it's a young man's book, full of searching intelligence and the ironies of the over-educated poseur. But it's also a very honest book, 'bleached' (as Martin Amis described it) 'by a higher light'.

* * *

A friend and I were reflecting the other day on the way that certain historical facts can be hard to focus on: they elude the mental eye, and don't square with our perception of the shape of history. (One of the jobs of the good historian is to keep breaking that imposed shell of expectation, reminding us continually of the unexpectedness of the past.) One of my favourites are the Cathars: who would have expected a full-scale eruption of Gnosticism at the heart of high medieval Christian Europe?! Similarly (and this is my second favourite) the first Catholic Archbishop of Peking was appointed in--wait for it--1307.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Part 1

Beth yw hynny yn dwad dros y bryn,
ai anghenfil, ai anghenfil?!

As The Automatic would have sung if they sang in Welsh.

One of the first phrases I learnt in the language, thanks to Gareth King's splendid, idiosyncratic grammar and dictionary, was mae angenfilod o'r gofod ar strydoedd y Bala!, 'There are space-monsters on the streets of Bala!' As a result, I'd got the vague unconscious impression that Bala was a rather racy and exciting place, perhaps full of strange goings on. So, when Rhian and I trolled off to the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol this year, I was, let's be frank, kind of hoping to see a monster.

Well, we found one, in the form of the horrendous, flint-hearted termagant who runs the Backpackers in the town, and who deploys, in so doing, all the sunny, effortless charm of a Stasi officer in East Berlin around 1972. More of her anon.

Apart from this solitary anghenfil, was we did see was all Welsh-speaking Wales, distilled into a field: strapping farmboys loping around in packs, all clippered haircuts and nasal Gwynedd accents; lustrous cyfryngies (media-types) from Cardiff in long beads and maxidresses, set off with oversized shades; gaggles of stalwart little old ladies making their way from tea stand to cake stand to cerdd dant performance; harried young parents wheeling pushchairs over the bumpy paths, wiping the snot off little Manon's face while Rhys wails his head off; Twm Morys (again, still red of face); and, I think, Siân Phillips desperately legging it towards the allanfa.

* * *

Rhian and I started the week off on the Wednesday, heading up through Llangollen towards Betws and Capel Curig, where we were staying for two nights. My jaw dropped as I saw Eryri for the first time:

Ensconced in 'Dolgam', the delightful farm B&B Rhian had booked, we relaxed over a couple of pints and prepared for the ascent of Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa in Welsh, the next day. Reader, it is one of my proudest achievements that I got up the damn thing, and down again, without having a heart attack or having to be airlifted off, waving feebly. But I did, and what's more, it was damn good fun as well as being quite extraordinarily beautiful. With the lakes cupped in the folds of the mountain to our left, and the scrotum-tightening prospect of Crib Coch to the right, it really is an extraordinary place. I made up a little fantasy about the kind of pseudo-Celtic fug that Lewis Spence, the barking Scottish romantic and bullshitting author of The Mysteries of Britain: Secret Rites and Traditions of Ancient Britain Restored, might have got himself in when faced with the prospect of Yr Wyddfa:

The lofty sight so impelled the soul of the ancient Cymry to the consideration of higher matters, that we are not to wonder that the profoundest mysteries of Bardo-Druidical theology did in part centre upon the mountain itself. Being the counterpart of the Hindoo's Mount Meru, that lofty point of contact between earth and heaven, the fastness of Snowdon was revered by the Druids of ancient Britain as the abode of the gods themselves, the Cymric Olympus. There, amid the eternal clouds and shifting fogs of rainbow light, dwelt Gwydion, greatest of the gods and the divine astronomer; there was Dôn, the Cymric Rhea, surrounded by laughing infants; there grave-faced Math ruled with his crystal wand outstretched in judgement, and with Llew his nephew by his side; there Olwen of the Luminous Teeth dispensed the nectar of the gods, a drink with the freshness of spring water and the sweetness of mountain honey; there also would come Manawydan, the son of Llŷr, albeit seldom, and ever drawing about him a grey-green shroud formed of the mist of the sea.

(Anyone who thinks this exaggerated is advised to purchase John Matthews' anthology From the Isles of Dream.)

There were no glittering palaces of snow and silver pearls at the summit: just a new cafe, Hafod Eryri, and lots of fellow tourists stolidly eating pasties. To my astonishment, people had hauled small children and dogs up the mountainside; but this was nothing to my slack-jawed depression when, as Rhian and I descended, aching all over, we were overtaken at a run by an ancient greybeard. Perhaps he needs to change his bag, I thought sourly, wishing I were a bit more lissom and elastic.

On the Friday we headed down to Bala and to the Eisteddfod. My Welsh had warmed up a bit by this stage, though I found the Gog accent remarkably difficult to understand after years of being used to Rhian's open Cwm Tawe vowels and friendly, rounded monophthongs (ma' for mae, sâm for saim, ôs for oes.) It took me several days to get used to the swallowed, nasal vowel-sounds of the north, which struck my ear with the muscular jaggedness of Scouse English. (I have regular comic encounters with people from Bangor, whose accent I find completely and utterly baffling and which reduces me to incomprehension, much like a Bavarian tourist faced with Geordie English.)

We then trolled the Maes, me buying the usual twenty-five secondhand books, and sank a few pints. I also had the marvellous experience of seeing the Chairing of the Bard, the highpoint of the massive cultural dingdong that forms the ceremonies of Gorsedd y Beirdd. Except that this year, as the chief poetry judge informed us in a detailed analysis of the three best submitted poems, none was of sufficient quality to merit the presentation of the Chair. (What a pleasure to listen to slow, formal Welsh of the kind I am used to reading, though I love yr iaith lafar too.) Nevertheless, the cermonies of the Gorsedd in the Pavilion were quite wonderful to watch, at once lofty and tongue-in-cheek. The crowned Archdruid processed in wearing cream and gold, accompanied by white, blue and green-robed druids, bards and ovates, all looking very splendid and preceeded by crimson-robed buglers and men carrying big crystals on gilded staffs. I reflected that if you switched the white robes for black, changed the three-rayed awen symbol to a barred cross, and swapped the crystal-staffs for ikons on poles, the ceremony would look deeply Russian Orthodox. Cymharwch:

We were led in Iolo Morgannwg's Druid Prayer by the Archdderwydd, which I knew in English but not in Welsh, so my mind was running ahead of me with each line, trying to anticipate the next bit. By the time we got to Duw a phob Daioni, 'God and all Goodness', I was feeling a bit frayed. Then we had a lovely dance by flower-bearing maidens, which consisted of about thirty little girls in green dresses carrying bunches of flowers and dancing in rings on the stage, stopping every few seconds to touch the earth rhythmically. It was rather like CBeebies doing The Rite of Spring. Finally, the Archdruid announced the singing of the national anthem, and to my horror I felt a John Redwood moment hurtling towards me, my knowledge of the words being like the proverbial curate's egg. Erg, arg, Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi, gwlad beirdd a chantorion, enwogion o gollasant eu wyf i'm gwlad (because that's on pound coins) i'r hen iaith barhau!! Phew.

More in Part 2, especially on the subject of yr hen wrach ffiaidd yn y Gwesty.*

*'The ghastly old witch in the hotel.'

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Anaïs Anaïs

Another update on 'Famous dead writers I have met in dreams': after W. B. Yeats last week, I had an intense encounter last night with, of all people, Anaïs Nin. She kept going on and on about her 'mount of assembly' and her 'cage of Venus', the latter of which seemed to be a very intricate piece of downstairs corsetry involving fine wire mesh.

I couldn't help feeling she'd dialled the wrong guy.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Po-Mo Medea

Mother kills and eats own baby, stabs self through throat

To paraphrase a line of V. S. Pritchett's about Dickens: 'Never forget---Seneca was a highly realistic dramatist.'

* * *

Talking of goatsongs, I loved this modern Medea by Bernard Safran:

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