Thursday, 28 April 2011

Happy Birthday

I am a big fan of Anna Higgie, who is a young Australian illustrator living in Barcelona. Her illustrations can be seen here or here and some of her paintings can be seen here. Today is her birthday so 'Happy Birthday, Anna':


(And yes, I admit it, I am her mother. But this is my blog.)

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Hunter Gathering in the Suburbs

I'm not sure if I'm boasting or complaining when I tell you that Canberra, where I live most of the time, is home to the Death Cap, the world's deadliest mushroom (at least that's what our local health authority reckons). Naturally, now that I know this I tend to steer clear of mushroom picking in the ACT - but that doesn't prevent me from bringing home any other free food that's going - or rather growing; I'm not in the market for half-eaten hamburgers or discarded bits of currant bun.

What I am in the market - or on the look out - for is locally grown produce. And I find it too. On Saturday, for example, I got these from a garden in the next street. The woman who lives there comes from New Zealand and she says they think feijoas are boring in New Zealand.  I think they're rather delicious:

On the same day I got these from a tree behind a house that belongs to public housing. The tenants don't want them - 'Go ahead, take as many as you like,' they told me when I asked them, 'we prefer takeaway', (I've never thought of lemons and KFC as the only two categories, but I didn't argue):
Despite the heavy crop on this tree though, I picked nothing from it. I mean, you have to draw the line somewhere:

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Freecycle - Temptation Continues

Offer - Whale Vertebrae (at least I think it might be)

Found this on a beach. Bulky and not all that pretty. About 25cm across.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Auditory Alterations

I was on my way back from a walk when I was accosted by the nine-year-old who lives across the road. She wanted to show me the medal she'd won at her Saturday morning gymnastics. I stopped to admire it properly and, as I did so, I pressed the button on my cassette player, to rewind the tape I'd been listening to. 'What's that noise?' she asked.

She'd never heard a tape being rewound. Indeed, she'd never had anything to do with cassettes at all. Very few people do have anything to do with them nowadays. I say that without regret - they are dratted things, although they are the only medium I have for listening to the 'US Foreign Service Institute, Basic Hungarian Course, Part Two', which I bought on E-Bay and, I am hoping, is going to be the thing that at last helps me to make the breakthrough from being peculiarly fluent on the subject of Hungarian real estate (because I once bought a flat there) to being able to discuss other aspects of life, besides square metrage, lift availability, balcony existence and proximity to public transport (plus common costs, possibility of damp, quality of electric wiring and gas heating).

Anyway, my young neighbour's question made me start to wonder which other sounds that we take for granted will soon be disappearing. At present, I suddenly realised, noises are coming and going tremendously quickly. The brisk ring of an old-fashioned telephone has pretty much vanished from most people's houses. That rather nice airy sound with faint pings in it that heralded connection to the Internet in the early days - evoking an image of electronic waves being sent through great distances of wire, across oceans and deserts, in order to sweep you and your modem into the great embrace of the world wide web - is gone already, although occasionally a fax machine gives a faint approximation of it, (but how long until fax machines disappear?) And the newest sound - the squodgy squeak of a Skype message arriving (and its sister, the semi-tune of beeps that heralds an actual Skype call), how long will it last - and what will replace it?

What other sounds have gone, without my even noticing? I'd love to be reminded of any that other people can think of. I know there is one sound I don't want to change ever - it's the ABC radio news theme, which can be heard from about 49 seconds into this.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Professor Emeritus T H (Harry) Rigby

Funerals are never cheerful affairs but one we went to with particular sadness recently was that of Professor Harry Rigby, described by another scholar of Eastern European studies as 'a real eminence in the study of the Soviet Union - one of the mere handful of Australians who had international recognition in that field.'

Professor Rigby was responsible for my husband and I first meeting each other in Moscow Airport right at the end of the Brezhnev era, (the story of exactly how, which involves Malcolm Fraser, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and my final realisation that, despite its charms, living in London's default climate of 'overcast' was making me feel as though I were trapped forever in a flat with low ceilings and poor lighting, is too long to tell here), and therefore he earned my eternal gratitude. He was also a particularly delightful and fine human being who, again quoting one of his colleagues, 'carried his authority in the most charming, light and unassuming way'. He will be much missed by those who knew him. This photograph - taken, apparently, at his desk in his office in the Coombs Building at the ANU on the day that he retired - captures him well, I think:
Strangely, for one who came to understand the Soviet Union so clearly later, while serving in Papua New Guinea during World War Two, Professor Rigby briefly joined the Communist Party. This prevented him from being allowed to join the Australian Foreign Service,  even though he had left the Party almost as soon as he had joined. Fortunately, the British Foreign Service was less fussy and Rigby and his family were posted to Moscow under that organisation's auspices.

It was while in Moscow that Rigby's atheism was tested, leading to his becoming a devout Anglican. In this context, he gave an address at the university commencement service at the Australian National University  in 1965, which was also published in the St Mark's Review in May of that year. It seems appropriate, on Easter Sunday, to reproduce it here:

Christ and Truth

TH Rigby 
(at that time: Professorial Fellow in Political Science, Institute of Advance Studies, Australian National University)

"I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life".

These words are those of Fyodor Dostoevsky, writing to a friend from his Siberian exile in 1854. And then he went on to make one of the most challenging and disturbing statements of Christian belief which has been recorded in modern times.

"How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now"), he wrote, "this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is. I believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no-one else like Him, but that there could be no-one. I would even say more: if anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth".

One hundred and eleven years after those words were written, no one would dispute that we are still in an age of scepticism and unbelief.

No one can escape this entirely and least of all those of us whose life is centred on the university. The dilemma which faced Dostoevsky, and to which he gave his burning answer, faces each and every one of us. Is this something a Christian should regret? Should we be hankering after an age of simple, untroubled faith? Certainly not. I am convinced that it is part of God's purpose to take us on paths beset by scepticism and unbelief, and not just in order to test and temper our faith, but because these paths will lead to a fuller knowledge and love of God than we have yet known.

These paths are not a broad, smooth highway. The rewards are matchless, but the going can be hard. These paths are not for the mentally and spiritually slothful and timid; they call for a mind and spirit which are energetic, adventurous, courageous and resilient. For what it means is this: that as our perceptions of what can reasonably be believed as fact, of what is delightful and beautiful, and of what is a good action – as these perceptions are broadened and deepened, the forms and formulas of our faith may become inadequate to contain them. Unless we are prepared to expose these forms and formulas to question, unless we are prepared for the pain and effort of broadening and deepening them too, then one of two things will happen, either our spiritual and intellectual growth will be crippled by these inadequate and immature religious forms and formulas or else our Christian faith will become increasingly irrelevant to our new realms of experience. Let us be certain of one thing: we cannot come closer to God by preferring fiction to fact, by preferring the unreasonable to the reasonable, by preferring the ugly and graceless to the gracious and beautiful, by preferring a smaller good to a greater good.

How do we go about squaring our growing experience with our faith? I'm not going to pretend to offer a simple, universal recipe for this, but I do want to suggest a few operational principles. Firstly, for most of us spiritual growth is a kind of dialectical process. Obviously, we cannot be constantly taking time off to incorporate our every thought, feeling and action into a harmonious pattern of faith and belief. On the other hand, it is no good thinking we can put off a search for wholeness and consistency indefinitely, on the principle, "Some day I'll sort it all out". For most of us spiritual growth entails repeated periods of accumulating tension between faith and experience, interrupted by sharp crises of intensive reappraisal.

My second operational principle is this: while we must constantly strive to harmonise our religious perceptions with our intellectual, aesthetic and moral perceptions, we must not imagine that we can simply translate one into the other. Religion is concerned with the transcendental. It is concerned with the reality of which the world enclosed in space and time is merely an abstraction. And yet when we try to express and communicate our sense of the transcendental, our knowledge of God, we have to use media which are bound to the limitations of space and time: this is true whether we use the language of rational discourse, the language of music, painting or drama, or the language of social action.

The difficulty of translating religious experience into the language of other forms of experience is perhaps analogous to the difficulty of translating from one art form into another, or, for example, of communicating in words an aesthetic experience. Or, to use a different image,it is rather like trying to represent a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional picture. You may be able to convey a fairly vivid visual impression, say, of an apple and if the picture is a good one, anyone who has handled and eaten an apple may even be stimulated to recall something of the feel and taste of an apple. But if he tries to feel or taste it, he will soon find out it is not an apple, but only an incomplete representation of one.

Now these analogies and images are rather inadequate, but, if there is anything in what I am trying to say by them, then this has certain implications. It implies, for instance, that our own experience may justifiably lead us to reject as false certain representations of religious truth, just as we can say "that square black object couldn't possibly be an apple". On the other hand, because a man's efforts to express his experience of God seem to us to be illogical, or ugly, or immoral, this does not prove that he has no real knowledge of God or that God is an illusion: just because the apple is painted badly, we can't say "that man can't ever have eaten an apple", or, if we've never seen an apple ourselves, it gives us no right to say "something like what he has put into the picture could never exist in nature. Which proves what I've always said – that apples are myths". But then we would want to add a rider – and this takes me back to the point I made earlier – we would want to add: "I wish he would work harder on doing a good painting of the apple; if he did, he would not only have more success in evoking the sensation of the apple in others but he would discover things about the apple he had never noticed before". We could also take this point a little further. When a professional painter criticises our technique of painting an apple, we don't reject his criticism as irrelevant just because we suspect he has never eaten or even seen an apple. If we attempt to express religious experience in some specialised medium, then the criteria of excellence proper to this medium are fully applicable, however inadequate they may be as a guide to the quality of the religious experience itself. A bad hymn sung out of tune is not redeemed by the piety and fervour of the singers. This is a principle which has the most far-reaching implications both for our private and public worship and for the way we go about propagating the faith. It is not only Caesar to whom we must render what is his, it is Apollo and Minerva as well.

Well, you may say, that's all very well, but aren't you begging the question that you posed right at the beginning? Dostoevsky said that if someone could prove to him that the Saviour and the truth excluded each other, he would stay with the Saviour and turn his back on the truth. Now you seem to be saying that Dostoevsky is answering a non-problem, because in the long run the Saviour and the truth - whether it is philosopical, historical or aesthetic truth or the truth of practical activitiy - the Saviour and the truth do not exclude each other.  Well, it is true that I am saying this. But it's only a non-problem in the long run. In the short run it may be very much of a problem. Our mental and spiritual growth will almost inevitably bring periods of tension between our faith and our perceptions of truth, and at times there may appear to be an irreconcilable contradiction. This is where Dostoevsky's words can be of enormous help to us. Now, I do not think the answer is to draw away from our new and troublesome perceptions of truth, to close our eyes to them. Instead, we should constantly strive to go beyond them to a new harmony of faith and belief. Achieving this may mean some sacrifice both of our current perceptions of truth and the current forms and formulas through which our faith is expressed. This is not a matter of one or other area of experience giving way, or of their meeting each other halfway in compromise. It is rather a matter of reconciliation on a higher level. But all this is really just a footnote to what Dostoevsky is teling us, which I understand as follows: no matter how great our intellectual doubts, no matter how sharp the clash between our faith and our perceptions of truth - or in Dostoevsky's words, between our longing for faith and the proofs we have against it - we must hold firm and cherish the image and love of Christ, for this alone will carry us through and allow the work of reconciling faith and truth to proceed.

Let me quote the words of another great son of Russia, Boris Pasternak, summing up his experience of forty years of the Bolshevik Revolution, speaking through the mouth of Vedenyapin, the priest unfrocked at his own request, in his novel 'Doctor Zhivago', and this will bring me to my final operational principle. "As I was saying", says Vedenyapin, "one must be true to Christ. I'll explain. What you don't understand is that it is possible to be an atheist, it is possible not to know if God exists or why He should, and yet to believe that man does not live in a state of nature but in history, and that history as we know it now began with Christ, it was founded by Him on the Gospels. Now what is History? Its beginning is that of the centuries of systematic work devoted to the solution of the enigma of death, so that death itself may eventually be overcome. This is why people write symphonies, and why they discover mathematical infinity and electromagnetic waves. Now, you can't advance in this direction without a certain upsurge of spirit. You can't make such discoveries without spiritual equipment, and for this, everything necessary has been given in the Gospels. What is it? Firstly, the love of one's neighbour - the supreme form of living energy. Once it fills the heart of man it has to overflow and spend itself. And secondly, the two concepts which are the main part of the makeup of modern man - without them he is inconceivable - the ideas of free personality and of life regarded as sacrifice. Mind you, all this is still quite new. There was no history in this sense in the classical world. There you had blood and beastliness and cruelty and pock-marked Caligulas untouched by the suspicion that any man who enslaves others is inevitably second-rate. There you had the boastful dead eternity of bronze monuments and marble columns. It was not until after the coming of Christ that time and man could breathe freely. It was not until after Him that men began to live in their posterity and ceased to die in ditches like dogs - instead, they died at home, in history, at the height of the work they devoted to the conquest of death, being themselves dedicated to this aim."

Thus Pasternak.

In the fullness of his creation, God created man. He created man in his own image, that is he imbued him with mind, with power to choose between different possibilities of action, the power to perceive the patterns of creation, to use them for new purposes and to act upon them, the power to accumulate the experience of individual lives in culture, a new creative force in God's universe, and thus allowed him to share in this transforming and creative work, allowing the individual life of man to acquire a meaning transcending the limits of time and space, to share in God's eternal life. But the power to choose meant the power to make wrong choice, the power to destroy as well as to create, the power to bring discord and chaos as well as harmony and order, the power to live a senseless, pointless life and die in a ditch like a dog, as well as to live a creative life and live in one's posterity. In the last few thousand years the destructive as well as the creative implications of each man's choices have grown enormously, and with an accelerating momentum, as man's mastery over the secrets of God's universe has advanced. The possibilities of consciously sharing in God's work of creation and in His eternal life have extended enormously, but so have the possibilities of opting out of this work of creation and this eternal life. As the stakes have grown, so has man's need for a clue to right choices. Man received this clue with Christ. The clue is love. All our choices must be imbued with love - the love of God, the intimate and personal sense of God's creative presence - through all things and devotion to His creative presence - and the love of other men - every other man whose life is affected by our actions - the love which cares as much about how our actions will affect that other man as we would care if it were ourselves they were affecting - the love which is ready to devote oneself to providing for the needs of others. It is only through love, the sacrificial love of Christ, that we can exercise our freedom creatively and thereby share in God's eternal life; that we can end the "blood and beastliness and cruelty of pock-marked Caligulas" and the "boastful dead eternity of bronze monuments and marble columns". This applies not only to the choices which face us in our actions in the world, but to the choices which face us in our own personal growth. Just as love is needed to reconcile man with God and to reconcile man with man, so is it needed to reconcile the warring elements in our own minds and spirit, and to integrate our lives around a richer, more vital, more creative faith. Without this love, the supreme form of living energy, all our efforts will be in vain.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Someone to Blame at Last

All my experience of being 'managed' by people with MBAs and other  such qualifications has led me to the conclusion that management theory is a horrible rotting virus, leaching the life from everything it touches. The attempts by various employers to actually induct me into the faith, via 2-day courses and seminars and so forth, have only reinforced my view.  This article explains how the whole ramshackle snake-oil peddling enterprise started - and who started it. Damn you, Frederick Winslow Taylor. And damn you, you foolish bunch of Hungarians who played into his hands.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Freecycle - Mind Boggling

"Wanted - Frozen bananas, will collect anywhere any time.
(I am a childbirth facilitator and can help you towards a confident, joyous home birth)"

Are the bananas related to the childbirth facilitation? Actually, I don't really want to know.

Please Yourself

For years and years, I have noticed how those who merit success do not always achieve it. I remember so many people from both school and university who could dazzle you with their intelligence in normal circumstances but somehow didn't shine when the heat was on. They were far more interesting and clever than the very nice but uncharismatic swots who won prizes, but, when it came to the crunch, they were unable to pull the rabbit from the hat.

                                            (From the New Yorker, 11 April, 2011)

One friend I had at university perfectly illustrates the kind of character I'm talking about: when she could summon up the confidence, she wrote poetry so brilliant that even the world-renowned poet, the great AD Hope, expressed his admiration. Despite this, my friend was unable to sustain momentum. She shook her head and insisted she wasn't much good really. She wrote things and then tore them up and threw them away. Other more minor talents rushed on to such fame and fortune as Australian poetry offers. Meanwhile, my friend continued not quite producing the work she was capable of, insisting her stuff was useless, that she wasn't as good as the others and eventually giving up.

And after university, when I started working, I found things weren't much different. People who were by far the best at managing and planning and all sorts of other things that mattered in their work, could not summon up the necessary skills when it came to interviews for promotion or dazzling the powers that be. The useless big noters - or, to be fair, the perfectly okay but slightly dull and mediocre types - would scurry up the rungs of the corporate ladder instead, leaving their betters loitering below.

I've always wondered why things so often turn out in that odd way. I've thought about the problem on and off for years. And then yesterday it suddenly came to me - I recognised the answer. I realised what the ones who fluff the important tests and challenges, the ones who don't appear to believe in themselves and their own abilities, need to understand. Of course, instantly I had visions of myself becoming a self-help guru, selling millions of copies of the book I would write to explain my new perception, having it translated into several dozen languages so I could spread my wisdom around the world.

But then I realised I'd have to waste three months of my life padding out what is essentially little more than a sentence or two, in order to make a book that would be thick (in all senses) enough to sell. I decided that I had better things to do with my time and that I would therefore provide my insight (such as it is) free to anyone who reads this blog. Here it is, in all its wonder:

The worst thing you can ask yourself when starting any kind of project or walking into any kind of interview or facing any sort of challenge is 'What if I fail?' (or, indeed, 'Am I going to fail?')

That's the essence of my 'amazing' insight, based on a sudden realisation that all the people I'd witnessed being successful had absolutely no self-consciousness whatsoever. They were people for whom the idea that they would not succeed never crossed their minds. Failure was not something within their imagination - and that was precisely why they never dried up in horror when hit with a sticky question. Instead, like a keen horse facing a big jump, they would just square up to the thing and tackle it head on.

They approached each challenge with only one question: 'What am I trying to do here, what am I planning to achieve?' They lacked anxiety about the opinions of others. If they had any thoughts about the people they might like to impress or emulate, they excluded them from their mind. They also kicked out the gang of creeps who'd made them feel small and stupid when they were at school. They shut the mental door on all of that and pushed home the bolts.

They had no fear of failure because they never even envisioned it. Because failure is only failure when someone else decides it is and the ones who won the prizes didn't think about what anyone else would think of them, they were immune from the sudden panic that they might not succeed. They didn't use anyone else as a measure or consider anyone else's opinion. They just ran at the gate and leapt.

Missing the Bush

Living up to the reputation of their human counterparts, Australian birds are a noisy, boisterous lot. I know Gaw's been complaining about sparrows but he should really try a walk in the bush.

There are the cockatoos to start with, the thugs of the Australian feathered kingdom. They sit about on gum trees, making it look as if it's been dotted with bits of white paper, and then suddenly they all erupt from it at once, their harsh jagged cries ripping through the silence like rusty saws.

Then of course there are the kookaburras, who seem to often sit by themselves, all puffed up, as if they've been offended and are on their own in a corner of the playground trying to pretend they don't mind. Perhaps that's why they let out their peals of laughter - it's all part of the pretence.

Then there are the currawongs, big glossy black creatures with terrifying beaks. They are brutal animals, happy to kill small birds. They look a bit like rooks and they have jeering voices. 'I'm going, I'm going' one will shout and another will yell back, 'Go on then, go on then,' 'Yeah we're following mate, we're following, mate.' and a cynical, sneering, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah.' I'm not sure if they are the ones who make a repetitive sound that is a bit like the noise of someone trying to start a motor or a rather weak engined chain saw and make another chant that sounds like a combination between a depressed toad and a baby - aaah aaaah aaaah oooooh' and also another like an old man trying to be sick.

A flurry of small parrots will often shoot across the sky above your head, squeaking like little rubber toys. Then best of all come the magpies - different in Australia to the ones in Europe. They sound like someone singing in the shower, or kids bursting, laughing and squealing, from a hall after an exam. I heard just the other day on the radio that they have two larynxes and can therefore sing two songs at once. Certainly they are the closest thing to musicians in the Australian bush - their voices make me think of crystal and honey and water all somehow combined.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Another One Bites the Dust

I find this story sad (while simultaneously being puzzled by the use of the word 'cadence' in the context). It also sets me wondering about where exactly that 'large, proud rose-coloured hotel' that is the opening image of the first Tender is the Night used to stand, if it had an origin in reality, rather than merely in Fitzgerald's imagination. The picture he paints in that opening scene is wonderfully uncrowded and civilised:

'On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half-way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-coloured hotel. Deferential palms cool its flushed facade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach ... when this story begins only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water-lilies among the massed pines between Gausse's Hotel des Etrangers and Cannes, five miles away.

The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one. In the early morning the distant image of Cannes, the pink and cream of old fortifications, the purple Alps that bonded Italy, were cast across the water and lay quavering in the ripples and rings sent up by sea-plants through the clear shallows. Before eight a man came down to the beach in a blue bathrobe and with much preliminary application to his person of the chilly water, and much grunting and loud breathing, floundered a minute in the sea. When he had gone, beach and bay were quiet for an hour. Merchantmen crawled westward on the horizon; bus boys shouted in the hotel court; the dew dried upon the pines.'

Is there anywhere as quiet and untouched left on the French Riviera? I fear it's all been overrun or swept away.

Stop Press: (No, not swept away, I discover, just put out of reach. Apparently, the model for Fitzgerald's hotel is almost certainly the Grand Hotel du Cap d'Antibes, and the prices, if you look, are breathtaking. In the summer the most basic room starts at 700 Euros per night - a bit beyond the reach I suspect, of present day McKiscos and other such ordinary mortals.)

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Portrait of the Artist

In this recent New York Times review of Les Murray's latest book, the writer says, ' wants, retrospectively, to reach out and comfort the boy he once was.' I've kept for ages a picture of Murray when he was a small boy. I think it evokes exactly the same response:

Tiny Worlds

When my mother's mother died many years ago, my mother found in a drawer of her dressing-table a locket containing an exquisitely painted miniature portrait of a golden haired child. No-one in the family had any idea who the subject of the picture was, and it still remains a mystery. Here is a picture of it, although, possibly due to my incompetence with cameras, I cannot manage to capture the detail of the thing (jewellers have told me that we should not open it to clean the glass as the picture might be damaged by exposure or never quite fit back together perfectly again):

Anyway, my mother very generously gave me the locket a few years ago and, whenever I wear it, people always want to look at it, fascinated by the minute brush-strokes. There seems to be something about perfect smallness that human beings find appealing.

I thought about this yesterday when listening to one of the New Yorker's splendid fiction podcasts. The story I heard yesterday was by  Steven Millhauser. It was called In the reign of Harad IV  and it tells the story of a 'master of miniatures'.

I cannot recommend the recording highly enough, including the discussion afterwards between the New Yorker's fiction editor and Cynthia Ozick, who selected and read the story for the podcast; if you are not a fan of listening, of course, (like my husband whose music report in primary school one year read, 'Prefers singing to listening'), you can find the text here instead. I thought it was one of the most intriguing stories I'd ever come across.

Monday, 18 April 2011

In the News

What I learnt from the newspaper today:

1. A new approach to growing old, courtesy of Grace Jones:

2. That choosing a garment because it is 'interesting' or 'unusual' or 'intriguing' will always mean that, when you are trying to say something important or serious, no-one will be listening; they will be too busy trying to decide if that thing you're wearing is a skirt or trousers or a sack or just the sitting-room curtains that you somehow inadvertently wrapped yourself in as you were walking out the door:

3. That, if all else fails, I can always try chook washing as a new career (I think those three little pink-clad girls may already be planning a similar future):

 (Babe, pig in the city, eat your heart out).

4. That - particularly cheeringly on this first (or is it the second? [that crazy church calendar, don't you love it?]) day of Holy Week - there are people who, when confronted by what looks pretty much like Hell, have decided to take Noel Coward's advice and 'rise above it' (I find this picture peculiarly touching):

Saturday, 16 April 2011

A Fearsome Bear

Stephen Pentz has a beautiful blog called First Known When Lost, a trove of poetic gems and exquisite illustrations. It has a particularly lovely masthead - a view through stone archways to distant landscape and cerulean skies - which is worth the visit on its own, even if you haven't time to read all the delightful posts just now.

Anyway, Stephen kindly dropped over here to reveal that Archibald Ormsby-Gore actually existed. He, and his friend Jumbo, were Betjeman's lifelong possessions - or companions, depending on the level of sentimentality you are prepared to admit to (one Internet page claims Betjeman died with Archie and Jumbo in his arms, but I think that is the sort of fact that can never be verified and is perhaps left undivulged, if true.)

Anyway, thanks to Stephen, here is Betjeman's poem about his bear, which he dedicated to Philip Larkin (entirely speculatively, I wonder if Larkin might sometimes have looked as if he were thinking 'They'll burn you on the Judgement Day', as Betjeman says Archie did):


The bear that sits above my bed
A doleful bear he is to see;
From out his drooping pear-shaped head
His woollen eyes look into me.
He has no mouth, but seems to say:
'They'll burn you on the Judgement Day.'

Those woollen eyes, the things they've seen
Those flannel ears, the things they've heard -
 Among horse-chestnut fans of green,
The fluting of an April bird,
And quarrelling downstairs until
Doors slammed at Thirty One West Hill.

The dreaded evening keyhole scratch
 Announcing some return below
The nursery landing's lifted latch,
The punishment to undergo
Still I could smooth those half-moon ears
And wet that forehead with my tears.

Whatever rush to catch a train,
Whatever joy there was to share
Of sounding sea-board, rainbowed rain,
Or seaweed-scented Cornish air,
Sharing the laughs, you still were there,
You ugly, unrepentant bear.

 When nine, I hid you in a loft
And dared not let you share my bed;
More agèd now he is to see,
His woollen eyes have thinner thread,
But still he seems to say to me,
 In double-doom notes, like a knell:
'You're half a century nearer Hell.'

Self-pity shrouds me in a mist,
And drowns me in my self-esteem.
The freckled faces I have kissed
Float by me in a guilty dream.
The only constant, sitting there,
Patient and hairless, is a bear.

And if an analyst one day
 Of school of Adler, Jung or Freud
Should take this aged bear away,
Then, oh my God, the dreadful void!
its draughty darkness could but be
Eternity, Eternity

Archibald Ormsby-Gore

It is coming up to Easter, which is as good a time as any to remind ourselves about the plight of those in our community who belong to minority faiths. That is why I decided last night to drag out one of my favourite picture books:
 The book tells the story of a bear called Archibald Ormsby-Gore and the struggles he must go through in rural Southern England in order to follow his faith. You could argue, in these multicultural times,  that it is a sobering parable. Here it is: