Even writing a blog takes some courage. Will anyone read it? Does it matter what I think about this book or that? Is this a good use of time?
Ah … time, that elusive quality of being. There is never enough it seems. We wish for more of it or sometimes less; it moves unbearably slowly, drags us down with its weighty refusals. Time and comparing ourselves with others. Those twin pressures can sometimes feel paralysing.
This much I know. To give air time to books encourages authors – and to encourage authors is to encourage literacy and education. To encourage any art form – as opposed to the mechanisms of publication – is to create value towards a more egalitarian way of being. It is to encourage dialogue. When we take the decision to write, or paint or draw or dance, whether we are recognised or not, paid or not, we take a stand for culture and for education. And it is these things – rather than politics or economics – that are the bedrock of peaceful societies.
All we can really decide as Gandalf said to Frodo in the LOTR trilogy, is what to do with the time allotted to us.
Time is that great unknown. We are all going to run out of it someday but until that moment comes we want to use our time in the best, most creative way. What that creative way is will be different for everyone but encouraging someone – the most creative of all acts – is something everyone can do even if we are not the next Ishiguro or the next Damien Hirst.
One thing that everyone on this planet has in common is our DNA – and our desire for peace. Our hope. But it seems we can’t agree on how to get to that place. An essential part of any peace process has always been dialogue – and writing is part of a dialogue.
A Buddhist philosopher says a candle can light up a place that has been dark for thousands of years. The setting of the sun promises a bright tomorrow.
Nothing is easy, but from this moment on is always an opportunity for change. Even things which seem entrenched can be changed and sometimes opportunities come in disguise. It took the pandemic only a few weeks to dismantle systems that previously were thought inviolable. Far from being the individual being powerless, we discovered a new term ‘key workers’ and learned that individual actions count for everything.
Wildflowers are neither vain nor haughty, neither jealous nor servile. They neither envy other flowers nor belittle them … they take pride in their individuality, knowing that each is a flower with a bloom like no other.
Prior to that, the water was brought up from the burn in a bucket.
It is almost as if the difficulties of the life Gavin Maxwell chose in remote Camusfeàrna where he lived with no made up road, no electricity, one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop, were a metaphor for his own life struggles. Gavin wrote a trilogy of books about his life in this isolated place, in a rented cottage overlooking the Sound of Sleat on Scotland’s west coast between the years of 1948 and 1968.
Here he lived with his various otters, Mijbil, Edal, Mossy and Monday. The books Ring of Bright Water, The Rocks Remain and Raven Seek Thy Brother became bestsellers and made Gavin Maxwell famous but now inevitably feel elegiac representing as they do things permanently lost. And like all fame, his did not come without a price.
More than this, many of the deep and true country ways of life were vanishing under an onslaught of new roads and telegraph poles even at the time Gavin was writing, but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has since taken place on so many levels and in so many parts of the country, Ring of Bright Water (which was made into a film with Virginia McKenna) is less of an elegy and more of an epitaph.
“The landscape and seascape that lay spread below me was of such beauty that I had no room for it all at once; my eye flickered from the house to the islands, from the white sands to the flat green pasture round the croft, from the wheeling gulls to the pale satin sea and on to the snow-topped Cuillins of Skye in the distance.”
What I loved about these books – more even than their feel of a Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity – is the poetry of the writing. I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of what is called the new nature writing. But Maxwell’s writing feels different. He was pioneer of the ‘new nature writing’ before the term was born or thought of and the empathy that he truly had with his otters and with the natural landscape of Camusfeàrna – and how those elements reflected back at him his own sense of unbelonging – is made manifest on the page through his lyrical writing.
After reading the trilogy, I looked for a biography of the author as I felt generally ignorant of all matters concerning his life. For example, I didn’t even know that the title of the book Ring of Bright Water is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems:
“He has married me with a ring, a ring of bright water
Whose ripples travel from the heart of the sea…
a poet with whom Maxwell had a tempestuous affair and who is said to have laid a curse on a Rowan tree at Camusfearna, after he threw her out quite literally in the middle of the night. The book I found was Gavin Maxwell: A Life by Douglas Botting (Eland) apparently the only authorised biography, other attempts at biography according to Botting having come up against ‘the twin obstacles of family and estate’.
Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland and at one time date of Princess Margaret. His CV included wartime instructor in the SOE, Guards Officer, Adventurer, Traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond). Hero club that is if you discount throwing ladies out of isolated habitions in the middle of nowhere at midnight, which I personally do not discount.
It is clear both from Maxwell’s own writing and from Douglas Botting’s biography, that Maxwell was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals.
These aspects of his life are more acutely realised in the work than any enduring human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful. At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for the many trips and adventures he undertook – there was always an old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.
Sadly though it seems Kathleen Raine’s curse may have taken effect. The final book in the trilogy charts Gavin’s series of financial and personal misfortunes which would lead to his death in 1969.
Perhaps the final irony of Maxwell’s life was that the overwhelming success of Ring of Bright Water and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved and to which these books are in memoriam.
Review of The Ring of Bright Water Trilogy, Gavin Maxwell (Viking, 2000)
There are many who would qualify as having changed the way we see the world, but I could only pick four, both for my sanity and yours. Before anyone gets in touch and says they’re all guys, next week I shall be writing about four ladies that changed the way we see the world.
Is there any more inspiring artist than Van Gogh both in the intense suffering of his personal life and the transformative and (still) stunningly original nature of his art?.
In letters to his brother Theo (The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics, 1997), Vincent wrote:
“I don’t know myself how I paint it.”
Although Vincent was unable to describe his working methods, from his substantial body of letters it is possible to follow the workings of his mind and stand in awe of his powers of observation. For example this description of a wood.
Behind those saplings, behind that brownish-red ground, is a sky of a very delicate blue-grey, warm, hardly blue at all sparkling. And against it there is a hazy border of greenness and a network of saplings and yellowish leaves. A few figures of wood gatherers are foraging about, dark masses of mysterious shadows.
In 1884 Van Gogh wrote to Theo after the latter had complained about the quality of some drawings Vincent had sent and told him his work needed to improve a great deal!
Vincent’s reply was:
“As far as saleability or unsaleability is concerned, that’s a dead horse I don’t intend to go on flogging.”
One of the prime lessons Van Gogh’s life offers us is how to believe in yourself as an artist, when the rest of the world doesn’t. I often wonder what would he and Theo make of the crowd control measures now necessary outside the Van Gogh Museum in Amerstdam?
Including poems inspired by the work of Vincent Van Gogh – No Enemies, No Hatred is the title of a collection of writings by dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017).
For the role he played in drafting and advocating the human rights manifesto called Charter 08 which called for democratic reform in China, Liu Xiaobo was arrested and in December 2009 sentenced to 11 years in Jinzhou prison.
In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize much to the chagrin of the authorities in China who tried to prevent any celebration of this award. Unable even to send a family member to Oslo, Liu’s Nobel lecture speech was given in absentia and read by the actress Liv Ullman. He died in July 2017. Here is an extract from his speech:
“But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by the convictions I expressed … twenty years ago – I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies. Although there is no way I can accept your monitoring, arrests, indictments and verdicts, I respect your professions and your integrity ….”
And on free speech:
“Free expression is the base of human rights, the root of human nature and the mother of truth. To kill free speech is to insult human rights, to stifle human nature and to suppress truth.” ~ Liu Xiaobo
Daisaku Ikeda is one of the world’s foremost living Buddhist philosophers, spiritual leader to millions across the globe who practise Nichiren Buddhism. He is the recipient of numerous peace and humanitarian awards and author of more than sixty books.
Here he is on the power of reading.
“Reading is dialogue with oneself, it is self-reflection which cultivates profound humanity. Reading is therefore essential to our development. It expands and enriches the personality like a seed that germinates after a long time and sends forth many blossom laden branches.
People who can say of a book “this changed my life” truly understand the meaning of happiness. Reading that sparks inner revolution is desperately needed to escape drowning in the rapidly advancing information society, Reading is more than intellectual ornamentation, it is a battle for the establishment of the self, a ceaseless challenge that keeps us young and vigorous.”
(Middleway Press, 2006)
No post on inspiration can be complete without a poet. But which poet to choose? I have decided on Rainer Maria Rilke not because I can read him in the original which I can’t sadly, but because the soul tearing profundity of his ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ is the same in any language.
And to speak again of solitude, it becomes increasingly clear that this is fundamentally not something we can choose or reject. We are solitary. We can delude ourselves about it, and pretend that it is not so. That is all. But how much better it is to realise that we are thus, to start directly from that very point. Then to be sure, it will come about that we grow dizzy; for all the points upon which our eyes have been accustomed to rest will be taken away from us, there is no longer any nearness, and all distance is infinitely far.
Next week I shall be posting about four inspirational ladies who changed (or are changing) the way we see the world.
Recently attending a Remembrance Day service I was struck by the speech given by the local vicar who asked the gathering whether we thought we took our freedom for granted? Of course we take our freedom for granted if we are lucky enough to be free. If we have never known what it is not to be free. Can we imagine soldiers coming to our homes, dragging members of our family away, looting and burning? No-one who has not directly experienced such things can really imagine it.
How then do we teach the unimaginable? For teach it we must.
An item which appeared in the Museums Journal (November 2017) refers to Holocaust remembrance and discusses the Museums of 21st century will interpret this subject. The article starts with a description of two televisions screens in the V&A in London relaying testimonies from Holocaust survivors:
“We always say never again, but it happens all the time. Not for nothing does one say that history repeats itself.”
Education is a vital part of breaking the chain of history repeating itself yet a report by the 2015 Holocaust Commission apparently concluded that teachers are confused about how to teach the holocaust with many schools avoiding the topic.
With the voices of the remaining holocaust survivors being stilled by time it is vital that we continue to find ways to educate and warn new generations of the horrors of genocide. Not only the Jews but Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, history’s whole list of Chamber of Horrors murderers that gained power in the 20th century and held on to it long enough to cause the deaths of millions of innocent people of whatever race or creed, all this has to continue to be taught.
One of the usual ways ‘into’ studying the history of genocide is to look at the political, economic and cultural factors that were in play at the time. In many ways these are incidental factors, not reasons at all. There are never any reasons, or rather there is only one reason, that such horrors can occur – it is the same reason that nuclear weapons continue to exist despite that many people alive today witnessed reporting of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is almost not enough to stop people killing each other although that would be a great start. The challenge is to stop them wanting to. We have not yet achieved that.
Yet we continue to try. Music art and poetry find a way into places that don’t seem accessible through purely intellectual means.
Holocaust poet Paul Celan (1920-1970) wrote probably the most famous poem to come out of the Holocaust – ‘Todesfugue’ – death and music combined. There were indeed orchestras in the death camps. Celan’s poem was apparently so shattering when read in his own voice (according to his biographer John Felstiner) that even those with no German understood – not ‘the gist’ that oh so useless word – but the agonizing heart of it.
In 21st century Britain do we think of poetry as decorative? Therapeutic? Inessential? Difficult? Perhaps all of those things to some extent. In Stalin’s Russia there were no such doubts. Reading Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned by Nadezhda Mandelstam wife of the murdered poet Osip Mandelstam it is clear that poetry was a game played for the highest stakes.
The freedom of artists is the first thing to go in a dictatorship. In Russia, during Stalin’s era, the role of the poet was to tow the party line. Failure to do so was a deadly business. Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) effectively signed his own death warrant with a poem about Stalin. Twelve lines was all it took.
Mandelstam was arrested, but was not executed immediately. He was sent into exile for years, accompanied by his wife Nadezhda; much of this time was spent in Voronezh. He continued to the end to be hounded for his failure to take ‘an official line’ in his poetry and eventually was rearrested, dying years later in a transit camp waiting to be shipped to the Siberian camp at Kolyma or some such hell on earth.
While Paul Celan survived the holocaust in terms of years he drowned himself in the Seine in 1970, a victim of ungovernable trauma in a mind which had witnessed too much that could never be unwitnessed. Poetry, Celan said, could retrieve the German language from the abuses of the Nazis:
Reachable, near and not lost, there remained amid the losses this one thing: language. It, the language remained, not lost yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.
The poems of the holocaust are not just survivor or victim stories written in poetic form.
Teaching poetry fulfills the double function of filtering the unimaginable through language and the language of experience. Experiences evolve – we cannot showcase human experience only through artefacts in museums however horrific those artefacts may be.
It is difficult to freeze events in time. There is always a before and an after. A possibility of prevention and a possibility of re-enactment. Of history repeating itself. The best art drills down through time and concentrates intensity of lived experience, getting to its humanist core. The best poetry holds up a mirror and shows us ourselves stripped of political expedience and economic relativism.
 J. Felstiner. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. Yale University Press (New Haven and London: 2001)
 Introduction by J. Felstiner. Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence. Trans. Christopher Clark. Ed. Barbara Weidemann. The Sheep Meadow Press (New York, 1995)
Knowledge is knowledge. Wisdom is something else entirely.
Where has knowledge got us? To a point of existential crisis. Technology has brought us medical advances and robotics. It has also brought the nuclear bomb. It has got us mass surveillance at levels of which the Stasi could have only dreamed, with all the ensuing oppression and threat to democratic structures.
But technology itself is neutral. Super computers can do all sorts of things – they can do nothing on their own. Someone, somewhere has to understand the technology which is governing all our lives – technology over which many of us have only an infant level grasp. It is certainly true that we all need a far greater knowledge of this technology – its limits or lack of limits – than we seem to possess. That is what Edward Snowden risked his freedom and his very life to tell us.
The freedoms that we hopefully envisaged would come with social networking have soured into commodification and entrapment. After publication of the book The Satanic Verses brought down a fatwa upon his head, author Salman Rushdie spent half his life trying to outrun extremist attempts to assassinate him and others connected with publication of the work, (which in the case of at least one publisher, succeeded). In his book Joseph Anton his autobiographical account of this time, Rushdie commented that he would not have stood a chance had the events taken place in the internet age. People are easier to find and easier to control.
We need knowledge but even more than that we need wisdom. Buddhist Philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda, says: “Simply put, knowledge corresponds to the past; it is technology. Wisdom is the future; it is philosophy.”
We need people educated to exhibit foresight and moral balance. Beyond the limits of the spreadsheet, the balance sheet, the nationalist rhetoric lies the still uncharted realm of the philosophy book. Human beings are human beings. They are not fodder for giant corporates or a collection of data to be stored for some as yet unspecified future use. Unfortunately that is not the message that narrow political views with their shadowy vested interest backers are keen to put across at the moment.
What do massive tech companies want from their employees? They want people who know how to run massive tech companies. They do not want balanced individuals who have been trained to question authority and think for themselves. Aye there’s the rub! We are sandwiched in between our increasingly desperate need for people who understand the technologies with which we have so liberally laced our unfree world – a new Bletchley Park peopled with those who can see off alleged hackers and keep our little island safe from viral incursions (at least of the digital variety) – and our need to create a new societal model in which people can think long-term, think their way out of crises situations before they occur, rather than constantly fire-fighting.
“Educators for economic growth will do more than ignore the arts. They will fear them. For a cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore equality.”
A program of economic development that ignores equality is the agenda which got Donald Trump elected to the White House. Proof, if proof were needed, of the dangers of the dehumanizing effects of modernity coupled with a complete inability to see others as we see ourselves.
When the actor Hugh Laurie accepted his Golden Globe award in January for a performance in the TV series The Night Manager “on behalf of psychopathic billionaires everywhere” we all felt the sharp end of the joke that wasn’t funny. The sociopath has no concept of ‘other’ except as something to be acquired, collected or used.
“aggressive nationalism seeks to blunt the moral conscience, so it needs people who do not recognize the individual, who speak group-speak, who behave and see the world like docile bureaucrats.” (Nationalism, London, Macmillan 1917).
In short, the real crisis shortage of labour is in people who can tell right from wrong. The big votes in 2016 were Brexit and the US election. Did voters in either case exhibit a rounded ability to think about all the political issues affecting the nation, to reason and debate, to make decisions based on sound judgement ? If our so-called leaders are not doing that …. ? Did voters exhibit the ability to recognize other people as individuals, fellow citizens, regardless of race, religion or gender? Or were they swayed by any nationalist rhetoric regardless of how illogical?
There may be many and complex reasons for the things that happened in 2016 but top of my list would be the decades long narrowing of the focus of education away from the humanities. Music, poetry and the arts ask us to wonder about our world – they ask us to take time to look inside it and question what we see. It can be said that the sciences do this too but these are concerned more with evidence and proof, rather than spirit and possibility. Science, business, economics, technology are great subjects for knowing how the physical world works, but they are not great at developing empathy. They are not great at teaching us to transcend cultural barriers at recognizing ‘other’.
But as Nussbaum points out, in the UK, since the Thatcher era, humanities departments of Universities have increasingly been under pressure to ‘justify’ themselves in terms of profitability a measurable short-term ‘impact’ being required, over the idea of philosophical development. In fact the very word ‘impact’ raises the bureaucratic spectre of ‘measurable outcomes’. James Rebanks, author of A Shepherd’s Lifewould be the first to admit that his ‘measurable outcomes’ at school were insignificant. This did not appear to stop him achieving a double first at Oxford and going on to write several best selling books.