Saturday, June 27, 2009

A very dangerous man?

I forget, have you met Donald Reeves? We've certainly talked about him, and I know you'll enjoy this story.

When, in 1980, Donald arrived at St. James's in Piccadilly, I was a member of the congregation. The next decade proved to be a memorable time at the church. A time when, along with Donald, we all felt that we were breaking challenging and exhilarating, new ground.
Eighteen years after his arrival, leaving behind a parish transformed, Donald moved on.

By then, I, too, had moved, but I continued to hear of Donald's achievements. Of how this irrepressible individual, a man of amazing energy and compassion, had founded The Soul of Europe, and sent himself on a mission to bring healing and reconciliation to the Balkans.

Only Donald could have done it . . . only Donald did it!
This year he was honoured with an MBE for his achievements.

Why am I reminiscing about Donald? Because he has written his memoirs, an absorbing and inspirational book entitled The Biography of ‘A Very Dangerous Man’. The other week, feeling both a little nostalgic and very privileged, I attended its launch at the Bosnian Embassy.

Little did I ever imagine that I would be invited to the Bosnian Embassy. But there I was . . . all thanks to Donald.

It was moving . . . and memorable . . . and highly idiosyncratic . . . just like Donald!
The Bosnian Ambassador gave a speech. The Publisher, from Continuum, also gave a speech.
And Donald . . . ?
Oh no, Donald couldn't give anything as orthodox and simple as a speech! Scorning the microphone used by the others, he wandered happily amongst his guests chatting to them, acknowledging them, and thanking them as he recounted his colourful story.

Was this to be his swan song? Was Donald about to retire?
Far from it! He was off to Bosnia the following week. He had great new plans . . . people to meet . . . books to be written . . . this was merely the start!

The affection for him in that room was palpable. His friends had gathered not out of a sense of social obligation, but because this man was dear to them. They loved him . . . and they wanted to say so.

Afterwards, Donald willingly signed copies of his book and, as he did so, I took a photo. It wasn’t until I returned home that I discovered the orb.
Can you see it?Link
There it is, exactly where you would have expected it to be . . . hovering, like a button-hole, directly over Donald’s heart.
'A very dangerous man . . .' ? No, Margaret Thatcher was misinformed.
More likely, wouldn't you agree, that the orb is paying tribute to a truly remarkable and unforgetable friend?

Monday, June 22, 2009

A small box . . . but a great silence

It was good of you to lend me this DVD before you'd had a chance to see it yourself. ‘Into Great Silence’ may be only a small box - but it brought an added dimension to Box Hill

I watched it on the first evening, and I’m glad I did. It affected the whole holiday. Was this really me, choosing not to listen to “The Today Programme” on Radio 4 the following morning?

I was tired when we arrived, I hadn’t realised quite how tired. Exhausted would be a bettter word. Foolishly, I thought that two hours and forty minutes of gentle contemplation in the French Alps would demand nothing of me in return. How wrong I was! But in a strange way, my very exhaustion, the effort needed to ‘participate’ over such a long and intensive period, only heightened the experience. When it finished at 10.15 I felt drained of every ounce of physical energy, but spiritually recharged.

This is not an experience that you want to know about in advance, so I won’t go into any details. Sufficient to say that without using a word of commentary it is the most persuasive personal statement you could hear. Philip Groning spent six months at the monastery, occupying a cell, living each day in a similar fashion to the monks. This is his ‘thank you’ letter - his love letter - to the monastery. Like all true love letters it is immensely tender. It handles its subject with passion, subtlety and gentleness. It rejoices in the smallest detail, it shouts its hymn of praise to God from the snowy peaks to the candle-lit chapel.

I said that I wanted you to come to it unaware of what awaited you, but there is one aspect that I must share. Yes, you go ‘into great silence’, but what the title fails to inform you is that such silence is rich with sound. Without the distraction of human voices you are alert to so much more . . . the tread of sandalled feet on stone floors . . . the varied notes of the different tools engaged in sawing wood . . . the crunch of scissors eating their way through thick fabric . . . the pondorous ticking of a distant clock . . . the gentle rustle of turning pages. . . the whirr of electric clippers moving over shaven scalps as the monks cut each other’s hair . . . the chopping of vegetables in the kitchen . . . and every sound regularly interspersed by the unifying, sonorous pealing of the bells. In winter the only noises come from within, but. with the summer months, the doors and windows are flung open and the resulting inflow of sound is breath-taking - so many birds . . . the rustle of streams . . . heavy spring showers gurgling down roofs and along drain pipes . . . bees . . . insects . . .

And it isn’t just the sound, visually it is quite intoxicating. Philip Groning uses his camera like a paint brush. The strokes are slow and precise, the effect is both profound and dazzling. Imagine a long sequence of Vermeer and Rembrandt paintings coming to life. He lingers lovingly on quiet corners, finds pure poetry in the shadows and brings a divine humanity to the faces of the monks.

At the start, before I was fully immersed, I was taken by the incongruities . . . the very modern watch on a monk’s wrist (why would a monk need a watch?) . . . another monk’s check shirt beneath his habit (if they never went out, how did they buy their undergarments
and their tooth-brushes?) . . . many of the monks wore glasses (how did they get
their eyes tested?) . . . one monk was writing the most beautiful calligraphy in his note-book (with a ballpoint pen?). But this questioning slowly dropped away

‘Into Great Silence’ is a profound, spiritual experience. Watch it as soon as you can . . . you’ll never regret it. Once you’ve allowed the tolling bell and the shadowed cloisters to weave their way into your subconscious, you’ve got them for life. I know that I have.

Oh yes, one more thing . . . there’s a gorgeous touch of sheer exuberance near the end of the film - I won’t say more than that, but don’t miss it!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Dear Fleur . . .

Dear Fleur . . . what can I say? What can I possibly add to the flood of obituaries. I put 'Fleur Cowles' into Google a few moments ago and was staggered by the response.
Were you really a hundred and one? I would never have guessed. But, there again, surely no-one else could have filled their century with so much creativity, so much generosity, so much friendship?
It was a privilege to be one of your many friends . . . and it was fun, it was enormous fun!
You enriched my life, Fleur, and I shall always be grateful.

Do you remember the occasion when you came to my flat to boost the confidence of my students before their English Speaking Board exam? And do you remember how you invited Rupert to the launch of "The Flower Game" at The National Portrait Gallery? Surely no other cat in history has received a personal invitation to The National Portrait Gallery . . . and didn't he enjoy himself!

I said that there was nothing I could add to all the incredible tributes you've received, but, as I think back, there may be one of your many talents that has been overlooked. Let me explain . . .

Many years ago I was spending a happy weekend with you in Sussex. As always, it had been a social occasion. There were, if my memory serves me correctly, six guests. These weekends always followed a formal pattern. The guests would arrive before lunch on Saturday, and would leave some time after lunch on the Sunday. The lucky ones stayed for tea.
On this occasion, just two of us remained for tea. It was a wet afternoon, so, instead of revisiting the garden, we sat with you as you painted. Your easel had been placed in front of the sofa and the two of us sat by the open fire watching you at work. Tea arrived at three-thirty. You barely paused from painting to take refreshment.

At four o'clock the door leading into the porch opened slightly. Tom was standing in the doorway. Instantly, you put down your brush and rose to your feet. There was no lingering look at the painting, no regrets that it was an inopportune moment to leave, no hasty gathering together of paints and brushes . . . instead, you smiled at us and thanked us sincerely for coming. Then, without even stopping to collect a handbag, you moved to the door . . . through it and into the porch . . . out onto the gravel drive . . . into the waiting car . . . and, all in a matter of minutes, were on your way back to The Albany.

Yes, I know, there were loving and attentive members of staff to take away the painting. There was no need of a suitcase as everything you needed would be waiting for you in London, and doubtless Tom had already taken your handbag to the car.
But the rare talent remained. With ease and grace you stepped from one moment into another. No regrets . . . no lingering . . . no doubts . . . your role called for you to move to London and there was no way in which you were going to argue.
Would that I could always accept my role in life with the same equanimity!

Bless you, Fleur, for a wonderful example of living in the present moment. Was that how you achieved all that you did achieve, in a creative, action-packed century? Is that why your paintings reflect such a joyful serenity?

Do you remember how you loved to paint butterflies?
Let me finish with a poem by Don Blanding. I came across it just the other week, and I think you're going to enjoy it . . .

"Why ask for proof
That soul lives on
When body dies,
Do caterpillars recognize
Their angel selves
In butterflies?'

Thank you, Fleur . . .

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pentecost at Malmesbury

The one great constant in my life is that nothing is ever quite as I expect!

What had I anticipated for the Pentecostal service at Malmesbury Abbey? I’m not quite sure. Probably something rather conventional and a little formal. Do you remember me telling you about the Evensong I attended at Westminster Abbey a few weeks ago? It was a beautiful, disciplined, but soulless State occasion. I suppose I thought that Malmesbury Abbey would offer the rural equivalent.
I certainly didn’t expect what I got!

At Westminster, the service had restricted the congregation to the role of docile observers. Malmesbury, by contrast, went overboard in offering an occasion for whole-hearted participation!

No . . . I’m not being disparaging. Please don't think that for a moment. Unexpected it may have been, unfamiliar it definitely was . . . but it was also deeply moving. From the moment of arrival, I felt engulfed in good fellowship.

The service was passionate - not a word that usually springs to mind in relation to the Anglican Church! Never before have I seen the young and the middle-aged - all, seemingly, local people from the Wiltshire countryside - reaching out with their arms in evident joy and devotion. And, as they reached out to their God, so they also reached out to each other. For no apparent reason - certainly not one that could be linked to the service sheet - members of the congregation would suddenly and spontaneously swing round and embrace those standing beside them. Couples, young and old, stood singing the hymns with their arms intertwined. The love and goodwill were tangible.

I don't believe in leaving Rupert in the car, so I had him with me. He is totally dependable on such occasions, more to the point, he thoroughly enjoys them.
However, Malmesbury Abbey was to test even Rupert’s good manners. Around him people stood up, sat down, sang, prayed, gesticulated, and moved up to and back from the altar. Unmoved, Rupert continued to sit solemnly on his chair beside me in the back row. It wasn’t until the closing moments, when the Vicar was delivering the blessing, that Rupert stirred.

“Go in peace . . .” said the Vicar.
“Miaow!” said Rupert, clearly and distinctly. He rose to his feet, stretched . . . and, as the congregation responded to the blessing, jumped neatly to the ground!
The ninety nine per cent of the congregation who had been totally unaware of the cat in their midst, reacted in surprise and amusement. Even I, used as I am to his good behaviour, was amazed that he could have known that the service had ended.
Was it the blessing? No-one had yet started to leave. How did he know? It’s a mystery . . . and Rupert has no intention of enlightening me!

There's so much about that morning that will linger in my memory.
All right . . . arm stretching, clapping and hugging, may not be the norm on my spiritual journey - nor was the strong evangelical theme - but to each his own path. Standing on the verge of this one, observing the friendly people as they strode confidently along the way they had chosen for themselves, was something that I won’t forget and would never dream of criticising.

More than that, Malmesbury gave me a Pentecost for which I’m truly grateful.
Bless you for sharing it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Literary links

I know the internet is sometimes condemned as being voyeuristic and superficial. But, if you've a spare moment, may I say a few words in its defence?

Do you remember me telling you about the Indian poet, Pushkar? The young scholar whom I met early last year through the Poem HunterLink website. He had discovered my poetry and contacted me, via this site, to tell me of his love of English literature. Through the website, we've happily explored the subject, and I've enjoyed sharing many of his fine poems.
Then, last October, to celebrate Diwali, Pushkar - who is a Christian, but celebrates Diwali along with his Hindu friends - sent me, as a present, a short story by Chekov.

Not only was I surprised, but I was very touched.
It wasn't just the unexpectedness and originality of the gift . . . nor the beauty of Chekov's story . . . it was the symbolism of the gesture. By this simple act of friendship, the world had shrunk dramatically . . . cultures had integrated . . . time had closed in on itself. By touching a keyboard on a computer, far away in an Indian village, a young man had effected a small miracle. In consequence, here in London, I was celebrating a Hindu festival with a Russian short story!
Do you see what I mean . . . ?
A wonderful interweaving of cultures, centuries and generations - something that could never have happened before the liberating, international power of the internet. Something that, even twenty years ago, would have been inconceivable.

Why am I reminding you of all this? Because there's been an equally touching sequel to the story.
Last week, in one of his missives on the website, Pushkar was writing a little wistfully of a London he could only dream about. A London that had given birth to many of the poets he so admired. It had occurred to him, he wrote, that I might be living in the vicinity of a memorial to a poet, a plaque commemorating a poet. If this were the case, would I give that poet his tribute from India?
I wrote back telling him that G.K. Chesterton had been baptised in the church I attended. I would, I promised him, take his personal greetings to the baptismal font of G.K. Chesterton.

It was less than forty-eight hours later that I received a reply.
Pushkar could barely write for excitement. He had just been to his local village church for the Sunday service. There, glancing through the church magazine, he had been amazed to come across "The Donkey" by G.K. Chesterton!

What are the odds on a poem by Chesterton appearing in a church in rural India? What are the even greater odds of that poem appearing in the same week that one of the congregation learns of Chesterton's baptism in London?
Pushkar was beside himself with delight . . . and straightway wrote a poem by way of tribute to G.K. Chesterton.

As for me . . . I'm still a little bemused.
The coincidence . . . the synchronicity . . . only one thing is certain, Father Brown would have loved this story!