Thursday 31 March 2011

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Susan Tomes and Noriko Ogawa

The eternally interesting Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 featured yesterday a short item with pianists Susan Tomes and Noriko Ogawa.  I encountered Susan Tomes at an event I attended not so long ago (well, I suspect it was longer ago than I think, because everything always is). It was at the Southbank, on the topic of writing about music, and featured Eva Hoffman, a favourite writer whose novel, Illuminations (US title Appassionata), about a concert pianist, I’d just read and loved, along with Janice Galloway, whose novel, Clara, is a powerful, challenging evocation of the life of Clara Schumann. And Susan Tomes, a leading Scottish concert pianist who would play the piano and talk about her own books about her life as musician. 

All three were enlightening and inspiring. It was Susan Tomes, because I hadn’t known her work before, whose playing and whose talk excited me most. I soon found her blog, which I've been reading ever since.  I also bought her first book, Beyond the Notes. Her eloquent, penetrating, modest writing about the musician’s life has taught me a lot and made me think in new ways about listening to music. I'm keen to read her latest book, Out of Silence, whose tenor she evokes in this quite wonderful article.

Japanese pianist Noriko Ogawa was so moved and impressed by Out of Silence, its articulate and personal sharing of a pianist’s experience, that she became its translator into Japanese. In the radio clip – too short - they play their first duet and discuss what this writing means to both of them, the cultural differences in ways of talking about personal feelings and how the language of music transcends these differences.

Noriko Ogawa is in London to give a concert today at Kings Place in aid of survivors of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Her fundraising appeal is here.

Tuesday 29 March 2011

Grey city red

 (collage - side by side only in my mind's eye)

Monday 28 March 2011


So, yesterday I sat down on a seat in the sunshine and tried not to get up again until I’d written something, and was glad I had made the effort, grounded somehow by putting it into words. This, I know, is something I should do more often. But, of course, yesterday was Sunday. Today is Monday and I swim in work. There’s a metaphor in there struggling to get out and not to get too mixed. It’s about the stony ground I’m walking more and more of the time – great big, jagged stones that tip this way and that, so that walking just a very short way is exhausting. It’s about the river of life that somehow keeps on flowing, as long as the stones don’t block the stream completely; the stones whose very heft and jaggedness, shockingly, also open the space for the river to flow through. It’s about pausing every now and then to just trail a hand in the water.

The Shard

The Shard ...hmm

Sunday 27 March 2011


Sitting in the sunshine, round the back of Dulwich Picture Gallery. The light, again today, is gorgeously diffuse, but I didn't bring my camera - happy though I am that photos happen even in this weary, wordless place of recent weeks, I made sure to leave it at home and force myself to make word-pictures.

Here by the rear door of Soane's weirdly lovely mausoleum, just yards from the gallery entrance, the cafe and gardens no doubt crowded with sunny-Sunday visitors, it's surprisingly quiet and the big, old curved wooden seat, green with damp and age, is all for me. The branches of the massive tree move almost imperceptibly in the not-quite breeze. In summer it shades the seat, but now, still bare, it lets through unimpeded the sun that is here for a brand-new hour today, at four in the afternoon not yet dipping and cooling. The pale, misty globe above my right shoulder shines more clearly by the time it hits my notebook, makes a strong shadow of my writing hand.

Cars and people pass at a slow rhythm on the road behind the gallery.  Sunday afternoon, between weeks. The last days of March, between seasons. The grey-green leather of my shoes, the scrubby, greening post-winter grass, the old wooden seat and the once-bright bricks of the gallery, the greying blonde of the hair that falls in my eyes - all of them mottled between-colours. Here, where I sit, out of sight, is a quiet, tentative place between arriving and leaving. When the sun fades just a little more, I'll move on, walk quickly to get warm.


Saturday 26 March 2011

Angel's shadow

Esther de Waal

"...There was certainty, a flexible certainty. I could see it in the way in which people walked along a corridor, or as I watched them at meals: their body language was totally other than the great majority of those doing the same sort of thing here in London.

Yet these monastics (mainly women but also men) were not living in some ivy-covered tower.  They were not exempt from any of the pressures familiar to us: they were handling huge problems of down-sizing, of money-raising, of international enterprise, of pastoral demands of every sort. What is their secret and can it - if not be followed - at least shared?  Have we anything to learn from them?

My own life has been shaped and strengthened by my encounter with the Rule of St Benedict. ...I did not find in the Rule the answers to specific questions, nor solutions to particular situations.  That is not the way of Benedict. Instead his purpose is to shape our attitude, to suggest the approach we should take, or, to put it in more religious terms, he addresses “the disposition of the heart”.

The demands of being over-busy are nothing new. They are only too familiar, indeed frequently addictive. Here is a letter from St Bernard written in 1150 to his protégé Eugenius III who had just become Pope:

Where shall I begin? Let me begin with the pressure of business. If you hate it, I sympathise with you. If you don't, I mourn all the more, because the unconscious patient is in the greater danger.... See where all this damnable business is leading you. You are wasting your time! What fruit is there in these things? They can only create cobwebs.

How do you handle time?
Do you see it as a gift?
Do you treat it with reverence and respect? And with gentleness?

...The monastic horarium established an enviable framework in which to live like this, providing a context which made it easier than for most of us. Nevertheless, it contains an underlying wisdom and it is worth thinking how it might still apply today.

That underlying wisdom is summed up in the word balance: no one thing is to absorb one’s life to the exclusion of any other. Life has different dimensions, or facets. Only by bringing them into a harmonious relationship can they together form a satisfying and balanced whole. And balance and harmony cannot be separated from order.


...Picture the daily pattern as the monks moved between the dormitory and the church, the refectory, the library (for study, and for the illumination of magnificent manuscripts), the chapter house (for administration and decision making, and for the allocation of jobs) and manual work further afield, from which they returned before meals to wash their hands and feet at the lavatorium situated in the cloisters.

...Thus what might easily have become an over-busy, complex and probably fragmented life is given a framework, a structure and a rhythm, because  everything is anchored in the times of prayer. The church to which the monastics go seven times a day for the saying of the daily offices provides the metaphorical baseline of the cloister. Everything flows in and out of prayer. There are huge implications here; we are being shown something of the most profound significance.  And it is even more powerful to see it presented visually before our eyes than to be told about it in words, however wise and helpful!

Now we come to the heart of it all: the cloister and the cloister garden are an image of our own selves.

...We must do what was common in monastic thinking: establish a relationship between microcosm and macrocosm. The cloister garden becomes a metaphor for my own interior, innermost self.

For each of us the daily life which goes on all around is busy, sometimes frenetic.  What can we learn by looking at the cloister garth about keeping a still centre, a heart of tranquillity, sensitive to the times and the seasons, kept green by a spring of living water?

...Experience of applying these images to my own inner self convinces me that we all need to discover ancient roots, ancient sources of wisdom. If we are to survive we need to go deeper than the words that are around today.

...Flow, structure, and framework are gentle words. They are an encouragement and not a restriction, as those who truly understand the monastic life express it. "Strict rules which orchestrate the day” reveal a profound wisdom: a structure which conserves energy, and makes the best use of time. It is in contrast to dissipated energies going off in all directions, with disastrous consequences of either depression or overwork or both. Instead I am given an image for a movement which unifies and strengthens.

...Time and change, light and dark, death and life. One of the immediate impressions of the cloister is the patterns of light and shadow cast on the ground. In southern Europe the extreme light and heat dictate the actual pattern of each arch. The sun moves daily, changing its position throughout the year. This movement of time, and of the changing seasons, is written in the cloister - and that dramatic pattern of bright sun and dark shadow is also of course a reminder of the pattern of light and dark, of death and resurrection, and not least the way in which  they are inseparably inter-connected.

Do we have to find the right connection? The way of coming & going?  Going out & returning? "

Esther de Waal is an Anglican theologian and writer. The full text of this talk, given in London in 2007, is here.

Friday 25 March 2011

Water and wine

Something simple and soothing. I'm so frazzled - got home early, at 7 pm, last night, sat on the sofa and fell asleep - woke at 1 am, crawled into bed and went straight back to sleep. Had meant to do some work yesterday evening, had meant to post something else (actual words) here too. Ah well, maybe at the weekend.  

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Monday 21 March 2011

Sunday 20 March 2011

Light and time

Vermeer's A Lady at the Virginals with a  Gentleman (c 1662-65)
on loan at Dulwich Picture Gallery from the Royal Collection

Scribbled in my notebook: The muted light and limited, toning palette. The 'caught in the moment' illusion. The pattern on the floor tiles that is like the pattern on the window panes. The carpet throw woven with the same red as her skirt, the same red painted on the virginal's lid. The chair whose blue upholstery is a darker version of the barely-blue walls. The dim, delicate reflection in the mirror. The multiple frames of tiles, pictures, mirror, square-contoured instrument. Everything here has its opposite, its diagonally opposite corner. The odd, questioning, tempting angle of the viewer to the room. The enigma of abandoned cello. The light on the white pitcher, which is brighter, more in focus, than the two figures. The subtlety, almost frustration, of it all, against the pure, strong beauty of the lines, the play of verticals, horizontals and diagonals. A game of perfection that builds and builds as you look, like a rising counterpoint. No desire, afterwards, to look at any other painting. The utter inwardness of this echt interior, and yet the other focus where the eyes are drawn is the window at top left, and thus the light, the world outside. So carefully staged that its careful staging makes it not one whit less 'real'. So timelessly lovely it floats above the fissure between fact and fiction and the fissure between now and then. How can the light of this day be 350 years old? So caught am I in the visual, only after some time does the aural imagination open, catch the tinkling of the keys - once heard, it persists. Is this the least luminous, and thereby the most luminous, most subtly luminous, of his paintings? Somewhere else, today, I saw the phrase: "the artifice of naturalness".

Saturday 19 March 2011

Friday 18 March 2011


Winter in Istanbul: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
(next time, I'll go in winter)

This is for Edition 5 of the >Language >Place blog carnival, to be hosted by Parmanu.  Contributions by Sunday 20 March. See link in my sidebar for details and how to submit.

Everything I remember of Istanbul makes me want to go back, which is really rather surprising, since neither of my trips there was much fun. I love to go to Istanbul by proxy, in the films and in the photographs of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, in the pages of Orhan Pamuk's novels and memoir. I go there several times a week through artist Samantha's beautiful blog, Harika. One day I'll go again for real.

The first trip was for work: brief, hectic, sleepless. We saw little, most of it on a roundabout taxi ride back to the airport - twinkling, chaotic streets and a dusty, mysterious skyline. A year or so later, I persuaded a friend to join me for a brief holiday. Mistake. It competes for worst holiday ever. It was summer and I was too hot. My friend was not. We never once wanted to do the same thing. I wanted the shady side of the street, she wanted the sunny side. I see us hovering crossly at the melting quayside where the boats leave for the islands, almost unaware of the grand, glaucous vista of the Sea of Marmara.  My consolation in discomfort was poring over the 'useful phrases in Turkish' at the back of my guidebook, learning these and trying them out wherever we went. When I got it right, was understood in this strange, difficult tongue, it was utter joy. And my friend cringed, pretended she wasn't with me.

She thinks I'm showing off! and it's so far from that; it's an escape from ego, from the me, me, me who is hot, hot, hot. When I can get beyond the heat, I'm entralled by this city. What is it about Istanbul? The dirty, gritty tangibility, I think. It's full of glories, history and beauty, but not just a place for tourists. It makes me feel the way I used to feel about the north of England - the satisfying, rough depth and breadth and contradictions, the bigness and complexity of everything, along with sparkling jewels of detail (and, no, I’m not oblivious to pollution, potentially oppressive religiosity, violations of minority rights). I want to touch this city, and through language, through touching words, I can touch it.

Istanbul ended our friendship. Not the wretched holiday (those happen), but her incomprehension and intolerance of my wanting to touch language. We were too different, and the week in Istanbul crystallised this.

It was some years later that Turkish film-makers and novelists rose to deserved international prominence, reminding me of that old enchantment, that I always meant to go back to Istanbul, to learn more Turkish.

Thursday 17 March 2011

Sepia Spring

Talking to our screens

I've been glad of my blogging friends, this weird, sad week of faraway cataclysm. Glad to read the thoughts I linked to below, and later to read those - each very different - of Beth, Parmanu and Fire Bird. For out in the non-virtual world we've spoken little of Japan - too busy, too rigorously superficial. Not that people don't care, but it seems to be only alone, facing our computer screens, that we think about and say these things.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

What we can

Even if it’s a drop in the ocean (a wince-inducing image after the tsunami), to do what we can is the only alternative to succumbing to despair and indifference in the knowledge of disaster on a huge scale.

BluePrintReview editor Dorothee Lang brought together some blog-posts she read yesterday and the day before about Japan. I also felt much in tune with everything my friend Marja-Leena Rathje wrote. Feeling like minds echo with like thoughts seems meaningful.

The creative impulse reminds us we are still alive, in spite of everything. It’s very force and beauty can sustain – that’s what I felt reading this poem by Roselle Angwin. It can also be one of many ways to offer a small, tangible help: some of these bloggers linked to one initiative or another by artists to raise money for the survivors of recent disasters in Japan and elsewhere.

These are some thoughts to hold, in the face of disaster we can do nothing, nothing at all, to prevent. And then there is disaster that could have been prevented: the other thought much in my mind today concerns a return to the activism of my youth against nuclear power.

Monday 14 March 2011

Information: what for?

Rolling media coverage of disasters, as we’re currently getting from the earthquake in Japan, both freaks me out and numbs me, leaves me not knowing what I feel, not knowing what to feel.

The news reports seem to come from nothingness, sit there in nothingness. They fail to acknowledge or contextualise themselves or their audience. What purpose are they intended to serve? How are they intended to make us feel?

Is learning of death and destruction on an unimaginable scale not supposed to make us feel anything? There’s no recognition that many of those listening or watching will haul themselves out of bed in the morning and trudge off to work feeling overwhelmed by fear and sorrow, having no idea what to DO about what’s happened, and no idea either how to carry on with our own stuff regardless. Instead, there’s kind of a tacit assumption that we'll want to know, but that we don’t really care.

It’s bizarre, detached from any sort of meaningful humanity, a horrible apotheosis of the way we live now. We get so much information that it’s worse than getting none, just as we live with so much of everything, so much access to everywhere, that it’s like being nowhere and having nothing.

I wish I could think of a useful, or even slightly redemptive, observation to conclude with. Well, perhaps acknowledging how I feel is a start.

Sunday 13 March 2011

Saturday 12 March 2011

Friday 11 March 2011

Still sunny

And, while it lasts, we all stride out with renewed energy.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Dark figures stalk

After all these months of grey skies, the sun dazzles and confuses. Dark, faceless figures stalk towards me. Strange times. The impulse to a different, more creative life wells up only with increasing force, it seems, as work and commuting drain and debilitate more every year and the fear of ending life in penury keeps slowly growing. I've been copy-editing papers by an economist whose latest research shows repeatedly that employing women in their fifties lowers a firm's productivity (not, I imagine, the finding he was expecting or hoping for). I can think of several reasons why this might be so, or be perceived as so, all of which fill me with anger and despair*. Trying not to shrink from the light, to find the human faces of the shadows as they bear down.

* If you're not sure what kind of thing I'm thinking of with regard to the potential of older women, among others, for lower productivity, see this article cited by my friend Maria at Small Change about how much more 'productive' an American psychiatrist has to be these days - a particularly shocking and poignant example, but one that can be extrapolated to almost any kind of job.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

So much has changed - so much has not

Clara Zetkin, whose idea it was

It was heartening to read an excellent article by a popular and mainstream UK journalist, Mariella Frostrup, for the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day.  

Sunday 6 March 2011

Saturday 5 March 2011