Mindfulness – the year’s most depressing trend

I chanced on a Telegraph article from last year – mindfulness ‘the most depressing trend of 2015’. And a headline I saw this week – ‘mindfulness is boring’.

I could spare myself the occasional read of the Telegraph, but I treat it as a penance. And the sport can be very good.

The Telegraph journalist from last year admitted she was only after a quick fix but felt qualified to opine that there was a ‘bigger, scarier point’. ‘Why are so many of us living lives we feel unable to cope with? How is it that we are so unhappy with our lots that we will willingly sit cringing in a room with our colleagues while remembering to breathe?’ She interviewed a wide variety of people for the documentary she was making, ‘even Buddhists’.

I am, I have to be as the author of this blog, a charitable soul, but the sheer inanity of her remarks take some beating. If I’m unhappy – it’s with this sort of drivel – the Brexit quick-fix mentality. If you want to find out how afflicted many of us our with our lives – read the Daily Mail.

Life is a slow burn, and if we could all give ourselves time to breathe, to show compassion – to be mindful – we’d be a million times better for it.

Beneath a tamarisk tree on the Cornish coast

Reading Seamus Heaney’s Glanmore Sonnets, sitting beneath a tamarisk tree on the north Cornish coast.

…hankering after stone
That connived with the chisel, as if the grain
Remembered what the mallet tapped to know.

That ties in well with the landscape all about me, which has memories of many millennia stored within its rocks, ancient tracks, stone-hedged fields and sand dunes.

I love its blooms like saucers brimmed with meal,
Its berries a swart caviar of shot,
A buoyant spawn, a light bruised out of purple 

Might that change the way you look upon the elderflower forever, or might it just be, depending on your mood, overwritten and overblown?

The tamarisk was planted long ago, when houses were cottages, and the land was ploughed, and the season was the farmer’s all year round, and not just the holiday-maker’s summer months. The wind scurries the fronds, a Cornish blue beyond and above, but they’re so fine that their susurrations lose out to the ash tree, which with the freshness of youth is a sounding-board for the breeze.

The tamarisk branches move uneasily, they creak, and the ash sways. The ash is all deep shade, the tamarisk a light touch of sun. A gull squawks, and when the wind falls low, there’s the distant sound of a combine harvester, for fields still do run away inland, when you climb beyond the pitched roofs and white facades of the holiday homes.

Junk food wins the day

Environmental regulations are under threat, and the funding of scientific research (despite government protestations) is threatened.

But at this stage they are concerns, not as yet actualities.

We now have an actuality – the scrapping of tough new measures to combat obesity proposed by health secretary, Jeremy Hunt. We’re left with a sugar tax and a plan to encourage primary school children to do at least one hour’s exercise a day, which is merely repeating exhortations made over the last twenty years, which have come to little. And what have we lost? Two specific items:

#  Restrictions on two-for-one offers on junk food – 40% of the food we buy is bought on promotion. So it’s hardly surprising that cash-strapped families buy junk food – and suffer the consequences. (The chair of the Commons’ health select committee refers to ‘the burning issue of health inequality.’ Money can’t buy you love but it can buy you health.) Two-for-one offers on perishable foods are also an major cause of the appalling scourge of food waste.

# Restrictions on the advertising of high-sugar foods, with celebrities no longer employed to sell them.

We’re left with a challenge to food companies ‘to reduce overall sugar across a range of products… by at least 20% by 2020.’ The best way to make progress we’re told is government working in partnership with industry on a voluntary basis. Given ‘progress’ to date, I am profoundly cynical.

The Times reports that Downing Street ‘doesn’t want to burden the food industry as the economy falters.’ I can’t imagine that there would be many job losses – consumers would switch to other products. There’s another agenda – a small-state anti-regulation agenda – operating behind this, the more doctrinaire element of the Tory right asserting itself, at the expense of a clearly defined and enforceable national health agenda. Note also the phrase ‘as the economy falters’ – and whose responsibility is that, I wonder?

And finally, we have the Department of Health justifying the emasculation of its earlier proposals: ‘we are confident that our approach will rescue childhood obesity while respecting consumer choice, economic realities and, ultimately, our need to eat.’ [My italics.]

No-one, I should add, is underestimating the role parents, and schools, have to play in combating obesity in children, but it is a responsibility they share with government and the food industry, and if the government and the food industry rely on platitudes what chance do we have of really engaging with parents (I know how hard many schools already try), and getting them on board?

Inheriting a library

Inheriting books – that sets up a whole further range of problems. Problems I’m delighted to have but I’m also inheriting a responsibility. To a great aunt, who I knew well, but now I know her library – and I wish I’d known her better. Her books which take me through from 1910 to her death in the late 1990s are the story of her life – the intellectual, literary story. She read English at Oxford in the 1920s, but never worked, other than as a companion to a fierce-looking great-grandmother of mine, who I never knew.

When I downsized from house to flat I threw away some of the cheap novels (Everyman’s Library and the like) which had been her everyday reading staple – many duplicating books where I already owned copies, and others by authors hardly ever read today. But – for a few years now I’ve felt guilty. They were a mini-library, a personal story, and I wish we hadn’t parted company. I do sometimes imagine her up there, Auntie Frances, with a stern look and a gently wagging finger.

She was born in 1900 and her grandfather was the manager of a cotton mill, or so I understand, in Manchester, and he lived in Prestwich, and he was educated, a member of the new affluent middle class, that Manchester middle class which was the first real middle class in the whole wide world, and he was a book collector, and his books which my great aunt inherited were a pride and joy to her. And now to me.

As examples, two marvellous volumes, London City and London Suburb, which he subscribed for in the 1870s, and his name is in the back, along with all the other subscribers. Bound sets of Studio magazine. Beautifully bound volumes with tinted and tissued paintings of birds and flowers. Macauley’s History of England, in five volumes. Five – but I can only find four. I must have the fifth, surely? (I will be searching.) A middle section of  binding on the spine of volume two has come away, and that is on a small pile of books to be repaired. The metal clasp on a miniature prayer book has already been repaired.

But my biggest puzzle is a volume where the front cover hangs by a thread, and the opening pages are missing. Two books are bound together – a bible from the 1730s and a prayer book from the 1780s. Don’t ask me why they’re bound together. I will need to research.

The more I explore behind the old bindings the more conundrums, and the greater my pleasure. I now have a bookbinder who can help me out. And I will read – in so many ways Victorian books are superior to those of our own time – finer bindings, and illustrations each one of which was a labour of love.

Thirty years ago my great aunt took one book from her collection and gave it to me as a present. Pigot’s County Atlas of England, from 1840. Individual county maps, and a four-way fold-out map of England. I loved it, and when I set up my own publishing company in 1989, the little-lamented Garamond, I published it as a facsimile edition. It looked and looks superb, and I took delight seeing it featured in bookshop window displays. But, the book itself, well, it had to be broken apart before being sent for repro, and it came back to me with the counties as individual parts, the boards (cover) intact, but unbound. And it stayed that way until a month ago, and now at a cost of £230 I’ve had it rebound, and I’m as chuffed as can be to have it there, on my coffee table.

There’s another story to the book. My great-grandfather, whose second wife was the fierce-looking (and black-robed) lady I mention above,  was a successful builder – he built many the houses and shops which line the streets of Bramhall, my home village in Cheshire. And a young man, he’d worked for the rector of nearby Mobberley, the Reverend Herbert Leigh Mallory, the father of George Mallory, long a hero of mine, who lost his lfe along with Sandy Irvine somewhere above the Second Step just below the summit of Everest in 1924. His body was found in 1999.  So my atlas would have been in George’s library in the Mobberley rectory when he was growing up. I like that idea, and wonder if he might have perused and pored over it as I like to do.

I asked Noel Odell, the last man to see Mallory alive, disappearing into cloud, when I met him thirty years ago at the Royal Geographical Society, whether he thought Mallory and Irvine had made it to the summit – he was sure they had.

There will be other stories, I’m sure. More bookish adventures.

 

All about books

A friend of mine lent me ‘Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader ‘ by Anne Fadiman. And I will be forever in her debt.

Lending books – something Fadiman doesn’t have a chapter on in her wonderfully erudite and obsessive and mesmerisingly enjoyable book. I’m sure she does lend books to friends but books are for her, as they are for me, about ownership. Norma will get her book back – and I’ll buy my own copy.

One problem when you borrow a book: you can’t annotate – scrawl untidily in the margins. For Fadiman a well-annotated book is better than a clean one – so much better a used and loved and cherished book than a virgin tome, maybe even (sacrilege) with pages still uncut.

She loves typos, as we all do, especially if we’ve been editors. And I started my publishing life as a Penguin copyeditor. She quotes a prize find from a friend of hers, a sentence in a manuscript sent to a San Francisco publisher:

‘Einstein’s Theory of Relativity led to the development of the Big Band Theory.’ (Could, I wonder, E be for Ellington and M for Miller?)

She’s also wonderful on plagiarism, and I fully acknowledge my source. Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman.

‘One day when Sir Walter Scott was out hunting, a sentence he had been trying to compose all morning suddenly leapt into his head. Before it could fade, he shot a crow, plucked a feather, sharpened the tip, dipped it in crow’s blood, and captured the sentence.’

I like this and would like to replicate it, out on one of my walks, or long-distance runs, but I don’t hunt, and I don’t think I’d be too keen on plucking a dead crow. Writing in blood? Maybe. To establish an undying bond, over a dead crow? Maybe not. But there are sentences which occur, phrases, at the wrong moment, with no pen or pencil to hand, and typing into ‘notes’ on my iPhone seems a bit feeble. So what to do? I could carry a catapult and practise my skills, in the manner of David, with a stone or two. But I might kill a Philistine and miss the bird…

Fadiman having put aside a much-loved pen now uses a word processor. And she does what I do, she ‘moves the rejected phrases to the bottom of the screen, where they are continuously pushed ahead of the text in progress like an ever-burgeoning mound of snow by a plough’.

Great, but snow hardly describes my mis-spellings and mis-statements. I’ve used the same ploy writing serious e-mails, pushing rejected text to the bottom just in case it’s useful. Then forgetting it’s there and sending the e-mail with gibberish attached.

Both Fadiman’s parents were writers. A distinct advantage, if you as the offspring are also that way inclined. If not I guess you take up pogo-stick dancing, or similar, and pretend that’s your passion. It’s not just in the blood that books are found. They’re also out there, on the shelves, in your library, your attic. (‘No way will we have books in the dining-room,’ I remember being told.)

My problem is that while the shelves are bespoke and individual shelf heights can be adjusted, that means removing all the books from one section of my library, adjusting the shelves, and then discovering that, yes, you can now display your art books upright, but you’ve no longer room for those awkward over-sized B-format Penguins. I can cope with the Adeles (A-format), it’s the Emperors that cause the problem.

Fadiman quotes from three-times prime minister William Ewart Gladstone’s inspired and obsessive 29-page tome ‘On Books And The Housing Of Them’. He fantasised about library shelves on (tram)rails, so the shelves can be pushed together, and pulled out as need be. But maybe not in my sitting room, which doubles as my main library. (The Benedictines at Douai Abbey spent £1/2million on doing just that, building a wonderfully compact library containing tens of thousands of volumes from the libraries of now defunct and monkless monasteries. The books had nowhere else to go. How often are they consulted, I wonder? Theology I guess does go on forever.)

They read aloud a lot in the Fadiman household. Not least bedtime reading, when she and her husband read aloud to each other. She approves of the poet Heine, who ‘read Don Quixote to the trees and flowers in the Palace Garden of Dusseldorf’. That’s the kind of snippet I like. Not just any book, or any place. And not just quoting or murmuring, but reading aloud to the trees and flowers.

There were empty benches in the Parks in Oxford this afternoon. The sun was shining. I had my book with me, I could have sat down – and read aloud. I had trees and flowers all around me.

Books do get squashed between other books, and if they’re thin and almost spineless, they’re forgotten. A problem I recognise. But worse for me is having to tuck books behind, in a second rank, as a necessity, being the only way I can house all my books. (Yes, I have thought of buying a large house in the country, or a small house, with one very big room. Two can share a single bed, and we all had galley kitchens once.)

My Penguins, hundreds of them (once a Penguin always a Penguin), already on an unreachable top shelf, have a front and a back row. (The back row isn’t happy.) I’ve catalogued them all, so I know what’s there, but sometimes it seems almost quicker to go out and by a new book.

But, one big advantage – surprise. ‘I never knew I had that,’ I’ve exclaimed a few times.

Gladstone believed that his shelving system might ‘prevent the population of Great Britain from being extruded into the surrounding waters by the extent of their own libraries’. Maybe he imagined a future where we’d all be literate, and we’d put away all trivial pursuits, and buy books, and read – but instead we have our televisions, and our computers. We and our surrounding waters are safe…

I’m on the side of libraries, but say that to almost anyone these days and they look askance, they look amazed. Serious bibliophiles who mull and mutter through endless happy hours in libraries were then and are even more now a breed apart.

I will continue to mull and mutter.

The Plough and the Stars

Were I to write a review of the Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which I saw at the National Theatre last night, ‘bloody marvellous,’ might do it.

Intense, overwhelming, the agonies of Nora, which destroy her, and death of Bessie Burgess, shot by a British soldier who thinks she might be a sniper – they are sustained, stretched out, they leave the audience on a knife edge of emotion, they’re heart-rending and overwhelming. I felt when the lights went up at the end that I’d been an intruder, an uninvited guest, wanting but unable to intervene. This was not a time or place to applaud. (But of course we did.)

Curiously, one reviewer thought the play ‘so heavy going and full of crude stereotypes’ that it’s hard to care about the characters. Michael Billington, in the Guardian, on the other hand, got its measure: … once the play starts to exert its grip, it never lets go, and leaves you shaken and stirred’.

How an audience could fail to be stirred by this production – that disturbs me. Are we so inured to passion and poetry? So stultified by the easy emotions of endless evening soaps that we can’t distinguish real emotion – the real emotion of great theatre – from its cheap substitutes?

Let O’Casey have his say in the subject.

“The beauty, fire and poetry of drama [he’s writing about the early 1930s] have perished in a storm of fake realisms. Let real birds fly through the air; real animals roam through the jungle, real fish swim in the sea, but let us have art in the theatre. There is a deeper life than the life we see and hear with the open ear and the open eye and this is the life important and the life everlasting. So to hell with so-called realism, for it leads nowhere.”

He doesn’t mind going for the jugular, he’s not afraid of big characters and big emotion – and in The Plough and the Stars he gives the roles that rend the hearts to women. This isn’t a play about the front line – that’s around the corner, down the road, at the General Post Office. The confrontations, the aggression, are at home and in the local bar. Long after the event O’Casey reflected on his own life, and explained his aggression:

“I have lived a troublesome life in Ireland, in my youth hard times in the body, and in my manhood years, a hard time in the spirit. Hardship in my young days taught me how to fight hard, for if that characteristic wasn’t developed then, it meant that one became either a slave or a lick-spittle…. “So I learned how to resist all aggressive attempts to make me a docile one, and could hit back as hard as he who could hit hardest. This gift (for an earned gift it is) kept within me when I reached the world of thought as it had been in the world of hard labor – at times, I fear, fighting what I thought to be aggression where none was meant.”

‘…at times, I fear, fighting what I thought to be aggression where none was meant.’

Almost a throwaway line. I’ll always (this is ‘zenpolitics’ after all) argue against anger and aggression, and argue for facing up to it as soon as it arises. O’Casey faced up to it after the event. But given there are no perfections in life, and that theatre – as well as quiet places (walking maybe by the Liffey) – should always play its part in human existence, then I’m almost on O’Casey’s side. Sometimes anger simply does overwhelm. Better to realise that later (as O’Casey does!) than never.

And if one result is great drama, great theatre – well, should I be complaining?

[Quotations above taken from the New York Times O’Casey obituary.]

 

 

 

 

 

Run a mile from conceptual art

Run a mile from conceptual art.

That’s what I decided a long time ago, when it first appeared in galleries either side of 1970. At the ICA in 1969, and then the Tate in 1972. Shortly afterwards (1973-5) I was commissioning editor for art and architecture at Penguin Books, and maybe I do remember the ICA exhibition, but more out of frustration. Too damned intangible. I was used to artefacts – I loved Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and especially Anthony Caro – out there, forcing a response – the form demanding a  response, and the ideas behind the form likewise. Richard Hamilton and David Hockney were flexing their muscles, tangible, colourful. Bridget Riley dazzled me.

And then there was conceptual art.

Curiously, those post 1968 years seem in retrospect little drab. (I’d self-defined myself as a hippy, and maybe it was always going to be downhill when that world fell apart.) I’ve some memories in vivid colour, and we walked on the moon in 1969 (via TV screens), and experimental art was everywhere, but the first flush had passed, it was getting more self-referential, and fashion and contrivance and posturing were beginning to characterise art and music. Rebelling against the last lot of rebels, even before they’d stopped being rebels. And I think I got a little bored.

But all that said, conceptual art intrigues me. I run a mile, but then I stop, retrace my steps and ask myself – what was that I didn’t see? ….

Art which puts ideas before actuality. Ideas are full of possibilities, they may be realised or they may not be realised. In the Tate exhibition there’s a half-full glass of water half way up the wall: it’s an oak tree argues Michael Craig-Martin, and in the interview that’s produced nearby he explains why. The idea before the form, and the idea has the potential to be – anything.

Keith Arnatt is actually eating his words, written on slips of paper, as revealed in a series of photos. But does he actually eat them? The idea, the process is there, in front of us, but the paper is still there. He disappears into the ground feet first in another series of photos, so the subject, if the subject is himself, is no longer there. I like Keith Arnatt.

Likewise Richard Long, walking up and down to make his own path through the grass. Marking out on a map his own walks on Dartmoor, then removing the underlying map but not his marked paths. Walking every path is a defined area of maybe ten miles within one county – I forget which, but it makes for an intriguing pattern. He’s also out in the fresh air. That helps.

But they were into philosophy and linguistics, or some of them (not least Victor Burgin), and they had a wonderfully obsessive journal which ran for four years, Art-Language, and the language is self-referentially repetitively obscure, and it continues for pages. Parody, and self-parody, but – walls of closely printed words that challenge the eyesight, and cabinets of the same – well, God help us all.

And nearby, a mirror, encouraging us to look beyond ourselves, and a black painting, painted over ten times in black, so it’s ten paintings in one – but we have to be told it’s ten paintings. There’s a pile of oranges (take one) and a dimpled do-not-touch heap of sand – full of significance.

There were video and performances and sound games at the time, not here though, and I remember the few I encountered with a bit of a shudder. They didn’t carry their justifications lightly. The Guardian reviewer uses the word hilarious and crazy referring to a conceptual art retrospective at the Whitechapel in 2000: maybe a few are in retrospect, gathered together, but appearing in a drib here and a drab there they didn’t seem that way at the time.

Gilbert and George appear, in a glass case: they weren’t officially part of the conceptual art movement.

So too pages from Studio International magazine, where Charles Harrison, curator of the ICA exhibition and much else, was deputy editor. Charles edited a book on 20th century English art for me at Penguin – I think it’s still in print. He was a good guy to talk to. The other art historians I met at the time were in the great and good category, and Charles was unkempt, straightforward and down-to-earth. And I think (!) he loved it all.

On the positive side, near the end of the exhibition, and near the end of its lifespan as a ‘movement’, it gets more political. I think they’d thought of conceptual art as a rebellion against of art as object, art out there, art as something unto itself – I think they’d thought art by getting away from often-expensive artefacts and connecting with ideas would somehow become art for the ordinary man and woman. Instead it became a clever game, and out of it came some clever and memorable images, as with Keith Arnatt, but it didn’t connect.

A series of photographs either side of 1972 depict the troubles in Northern Ireland, with equal treatment for Catholics, Protestants – and the army. There’s Homeworkers, a collage which gives visual form to the low wages and exploitation of people all but obliged by companies to  work from home. And above all Twin Towers and the focus in a related work on how an elderly lady, an elderly widow, infirm and hardly able to walk, survives in a tower block, and the accommodations she must make. This for me is art for any time – and art for our own time. Drab and serious and low on aesthetic value, but art that graphically brings home what deprivation and disability can be like.

It’s true of most art, most art movements: endless experiments, wrong directions and wrong turnings, but just a few artworks break though, define the way we look at things. Harder when by definition they don’t want to be visual, they want to do away with all points of reference – take it off the wall, or the floor, and dump it – I was going to say firmly, but tenuously would be better – in your head.

Some artworks do deserve to survive.  But – in the end – this exhibition hovers on the edge of boredom. And maybe that’s not the curator’s fault.