Sunday 30 September 2012

Thursday 27 September 2012

Passing through

I walked through here again today (the building project, which probably amounts to gutting and rebuilding behind a 'protected' central London facade, continues) and thought I ought to post this photo before the light clothes become too anachronistic - they already are, really.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Saturday 22 September 2012

The miraculous changing of leaves

The first day of autumn and a gloriously bright, crisp day here. What a time it’s been since this time last year, in the wide world and closer to home. Ay, ay, ay, ay.

At a recent event in London, though, I picked up a copy of the Spring 2012 issue of the US Buddhist journal, Inquiring Mind and read a piece about last autumn’s protests that gave me hope. It’s by Noah Fischer, who grew up around the San Francisco Zen Center, is now a New York-based artist and activist and took part in Occupy Wall Street.


" And then, at the time of miraculous changing of leaves, hundreds of people came together in Zucotti Park and didn't go home. From the start, it was clear that this was no ordinary protest. Rather, we were living change in our bodies and mending our connections to each other.

…we can’t live in this world without playing roles, like performers on a stage. In our occupy-opera, the NYPD play the role of protectors of the status quo, standing densely in their dark uniforms with guns, stern expressions and menacing riot gear, or rolling up with trucks full of steel barricades. I know that these men and women are exquisite buddhas, perfectly imperfect as I am. But as the tension builds, they become monuments to un-freedom, following commands that lead them to bash heads against the pavement and to put nonviolent people into little cells and slam the door shut behind them.


"…We have a better chance to dissolve the boundaries that separate us if we first make them visible. But violence can begin here to, so it’s important not to truly believe in these roles. I have tried to remember I am not separate from the cops and other actors, even while surfing the tension in these situations.

Early on in the protest, I switched sides as an experiment, wanting to explore the limits of this new social space. As an Occupy Wall Street group marched from Liberty Park to Wall Street Stock Exchange (a daily ritual in the first few weeks), several of us waited at the Exchange, dressed in business suits. When the protesters arrived we heckled them as we imagined a group of young and entitled Wall Street investment bankers might (and sometimes do). I yelled “Get a job!” loudly in the protesters’ faces, falling deeply into my new role. It felt a little transgressive too, like a man putting on a dress, and that was interesting – though I didn’t realize how many unknowns were at play here.

" The tension rose, emotions flared. All of a sudden, one of the drummers turned around and shouted at me, “I am a veteran of Iraq, I have PSTD and can’t get a job! Fuck you!” He hit me hard with his drumstick, which I was not expecting. The sting on my arm told me that years of suffering, anger, hurt and aloneness were coming forth. Yes, this was theatre, but it was also very real – as real as violence, as real as our emotions and bodies. In retrospect, it was like the Shoshan ritual in which Zen practitioners expose their inner life and pain in ceremony, for the sangha to share and support. In my conflict with the marine, we shared the sting of disempowerment. Later that day I found him, and we hugged it out and both apologized. Now we hug every time we see each other… "
Read the whole of Noah Fischer's article here.
More photos of changing leaves here.

Friday 21 September 2012

Not as bad as I thought

This is kind of a useful lesson, I think. I was disappointed by the many photos I took in Kings's Lynn on Monday and quickly decided that all but maybe one were too poor to share. Then today, reluctant to get on with a long editing job and hunting for a displacement activity, I had another look. Oh. One or two were not so bad, perhaps -  worth going through them to see what might be salvageable. I spent an absorbed couple of hours and ended up with nearly sixty photos - not the greatest (certainly, the light that day was difficult and I wasn't wholly up to the challenge), but a quite interesting set that give an impression of the place.

Why, going back a few days later, in another mood, did I judge them so differently? I don't really know, but it does tell me not to be so tough on everything or quick to dismiss what's imperfect as valueless. One day I thought: well, you failed at that. Another day I thought: I saw a lot in this very lovely and intriguing town, captured a little of it, and if I go back I'll be keen to try and do better.

I have a feeling this lesson applies to many things in life!

Tuesday 18 September 2012

King's Lynn

A day out yesterdat to mark six months. My first visit to the old Hanseatic port of King's Lynn. I loved its historic buildings and starkly beautiful riverside, but they largely defeated my camera. This is the only photo that does it justice.

Sunday 16 September 2012

The Descent of the Lyre

You’ve been looking forward to the new novel by Will Buckingham, a favourite blogger and a remarkably clever, versatile and talented writer. You very much liked his first published novel, Cargo Fever, about a man-like ape on an Indonesian island. It was a one-off, weird and wonderful and immediately engaging, where so many excellent novels these days are more of the same.

The Descent of the Lyre is a slimmish hardback volume (also to be published as a paperback and e-book), beautifully produced by Roman Books. You find it, for all the immediate drama of the storyline, conducive to gentle, uncompulsive reading - you who wish, mostly fruitlessly, to become a less avid and compulsive reader. You read it quietly and at first coolly, and slowly it gets to you and binds you with its quiet spell. It brings tears, even, which is not what you expect from something more fabular than realist.

You find yourself admiring this book very much: the fluid, flowing prose and fierce, colourful historical detail. Painted scenes of an early nineteenth century that seems much more than two hundred years ago - from rural Bulgaria's wild mountains full of outlaws in the harsh vastness of the Ottoman empire to the cosmopolitan streets of Vienna and Paris - leave a strong impression. But mostly it's a moral fable. It's the old, old power of story, about which the author has written in his philosophical work, Finding our Sea Legs: Ethics, Experience and the Ocean of Stories. It's a tragic, mythic tale of a memorable hero - Yvan Gelski: bandit, musician, saint - and it illustrates enduring truths: that life is cruel and suffering draws out our greatest weaknesses and faults as well as strengths and goodness; that talent, beauty, art (in this case the music of the guitar, of which Will knows much) may be redemptive, and then again may not; that the storyteller’s voice is powerful and lingers long in the mind. 

This stark, sad story somehow makes you feel a bit better about life, but not in any way that's false or facile. It's different from anything you’ve read in ages, and a fine, humane, intelligent work.

Will writes about The Descent of the Lyre here and here. Read an extract or listen to a podcast here.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Lifelong learning

If you asked me to comment in general on the idea of lifelong learning, I'd be all for it. What could be better than continuing stimulus, innovation, self-improvement? In practice, when it comes to my own life, oh dear, I find myself more ambivalent. At best it can be chastening to find there's still so much to learn, at worst alarming and depressing. As I face rather late in life the challenge of self-employment, of learning how to motivate myself, organise my own time, and set my own standards and limits, I find that, where I had imagined only the pleasure of freedom from other people's demands and priorities, there's also a huge hill to climb and unexpected depths to plumb.

There is the pleasure - yes, of course. It even starts to seem already that perhaps there will be enough demand for my work. But if I say yes to everything offered, I'll quickly become just as overtired and stressed and miserable as I was before. Even though it's mostly work I'm better at and enjoy more, if I spend every waking moment on it, this is not the life I want. Where, then, to set the bounds? How much time to hold back for admin work and strategic planning, never mind for time off?

For instance, on Sunday there was a day-long London meditation retreat with Stephen Batchelor. I'd booked and really wanted to attend. Then lots of work came in towards the end of the week and I was tempted to work right through the weekend. Gave myself a stiff talking-to: no! the other things I want to do must get as high a priority as work! So I went to the retreat, and it was rather wonderful - that's another blogpost. I'm so glad I didn't miss this. And it was tiring (three hours travel time too), so I didn't work on Sunday evening as I thought I might. And since then I've been really, really pushed to meet deadlines. Excepting force majeure, I always meet deadlines - no question. The question is: how does this make me feel? and is it what I want? I fear I am not good at judging this. And perhaps, since I'm so new to it, since each of us is clearly different, it can only be learned through painful trial and error.

Well, these are the problems you want to have, friends tell me - and I'd say the same, no doubt, if I was them. They are, of course, the problems I want to have. And then again, they really, really aren't the problems I want to have! I suppose I'd like to have faced and met these challenges long ago. 

Saturday 8 September 2012

Thursday 6 September 2012

Pre-Olympic traces

Jason Orton

Currently at the Photofusion photography centre in Brixton, Residual Traces is a wonderful small exhibition of work by six photographers, curated and published by Troika Editions, capturing some artefacts and atmospheres destroyed in the orgy of 2012 Olympic construction. It's work that takes the mind and heart and senses on a sad, deep journey in many moods and directions through a decaying, improvised, marginal cityscape just before its final disappearance.

This was - still is? - the Lea Valley of East London, as eulogised in anger and in sadness by Iain Sinclair (here's his latest essay for the LRB, along with links to earlier work) and by the Chinese poet Yang Lian (read some of his Lee Valley Poems in translation here).

This has never been part of 'my London' - it's such a vast city, but perhaps I know where its mourners are coming from: paradoxically, they take me back to 'my Leeds', the slivers of tumbledown red-and-green industrial landscape that I fell so deeply in love with when I moved to that city in the late 1970s.

All six very diverse photo series are very fine and strong. My favourite, I think, is by Gesche Wuerfel: interiors of sheds on the much-loved allotments mown down by the Olympic monster in its early days. These are small prints in deep, vibrant colours - pretty, poignant, sad still-lifes that I shall not easily forget.

Photofusion is a great place. The last show I saw here, Voices of the South Atlantic, was also memorable.

Gesche Wuerfel

Jan Stradtmann

Wednesday 5 September 2012


4.30 on a perfect, late summer afternoon. The sun slants low and dazzling on scenes of suburban bliss. Flocks of kids - back at school this week - and their parents surge on every street corner and spill into the park. Crikey, this is it: the glowing, leisurely, privileged hour from which I've mourned my exclusion for the past 35 years. I breathe it in, amazed, and shiver in the sunshine; will myself to find a balance: linger and appreciate, but not wait dumbly for the axe to fall.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

The view from up there

So, the Room for London was home for a few days last week to Teju Cole, and, like those who went before him, he left behind a podcast. Humane and complex and discomfiting, it's essential listening, responding on many levels at once to our question: how is the view from up there?