All Hallows

Yesterday was All Hallows’ Eve, which makes today All Saints’ Day. Yesterday was also in warm and brilliant sunshine the last day of autumn (by my calculations anyway!) – the autumn colours burnt in the sun as I’ve rarely seen them, a multitude of shades, with their own luminescence – as if they didn’t need the sun to make them glow. Today is the first day of winter – the cloud is down on the hills, there’s a chill, the fire must be lit soon, and the leaves are thick on the ground. I raked them in the sunshine yesterday, but they’ve returned, and if I rake again, this time in the damp and gloom, they will return again, until the last one has fallen and I can put the rake away.

Yes, there’s an elegiac quality to all this. I listened to the adagio from the Elgar violin concerto driving back along the A419 heading toward the Cotswolds yesterday. That caught the mood. I knew this was the last day, the last of autumn, and there were not two hours till sunset.

The day before I’d listened to David Mellor on Classic FM, playing music from the Philharmonia under Otto Klemperer. A recording of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony when the great conductor was already in his 80s. He took it slowly. About the same time the recording was made I was, I remember, at a party at Professor Gombrich’s house. Ernst Gombrich was my professor at the Warburg Institute. Frau Gombrich mentioned they were going to hear Otto the following day. Otto being Klemperer. All with Viennese Jewish backgrounds, and the connections were still strong.

Klemperer had been recommended sixty  years before by Gustav Mahler (also that Jewish connection) to an orchestral position, and I felt my own connection listening to the final ecstatic bars of the symphony to Klemperer and Mahler. Almost a laying on of hands. Ridiculous in its way, but the music took me to another level. Triumphant – but also elegiac, and intensely moving.

Mahler died young, and two world wars had to work themselves out before Klemperer stood before the Philharmonia in the late 1960s.

I’ve felt betrayed by events this year – my values betrayed, values by which I’ve conducted by life over almost seventy years. The autumn leaves, the music, a sense of loss I wouldn’t ordinarily indulge. But I did this time, this once, just this once.

Rights, compassion and all that serious stuff

Our concepts of justice and social justice are closely tied to our ideas about the rights we enjoy as human beings. Rights easily taken for granted, and all too easily abused.

That takes us to another question, one that’s long concerned me – what lies behind the rights we enjoy? An external authority? Or something beyond that – are the rights we enjoy innate in who we are?

If this sounds heavy duty, please do bear with me. It gets to the core of why I set up the zenpolitics blog: how we can relate compassion, and the practice of compassion, to our everyday lives, and beyond that, to political life.

Negative rights assume self-interest is paramount: we respect the rights of others to pursue their interest to the extent that they respect our rights to do the same. Our loyalties are tied to family and community and to country: emotions attach to those loyalties, but they link back to our own selfish interest.

Positive rights assume a wider concept of interest, where the interests of self and others are ultimately the same, based on a natural justice common to all. From this derives everything from the right to vote and to an education, to the rights of the child, as in the UN Charter, and indeed to natural justice, where justice, and the legal system that enacts it, is common to all.

A natural justice common to all? Based on what? It can’t simply be a convenient construct, or rely on a hypothetical contract between citizens, which can be interpreted many different ways and swing as mood and opinion swings, or government or media interests dictate. (Though for many a construct or contract is as far as they’re prepared to go, following a trail blazed by Thomas Hobbes.) It must rely on something that goes deeper.

Religions avow an external authority, but I’m not sure we need religion as such. When we put ourselves beyond the addictive emotions, beyond anger, fear, desire, pride – beyond the attachments which cloud our judgement in everyday life, we find in the silence – a silence of mind – that compassion and fellow-feeling come entirely naturally. Compassion isn’t an emotion but a state of mind.

In Buddhist terms, your ‘original face’, in Christian terms, we’re back before the Fall, for the humanist we’re simply in touch with human nature. In the debate whether mankind is intrinsically evil or good I come down firmly on the side of good.

Silence – we have to find silence. Not a few moments walking to the station, or even walking the hills. Silence is silencing all the voices and emotions that take over our lives without our realising it. That’s where we go beyond our selfish selves, and find something else. Where the feelings of others are as important as our own.

The ‘others’ are not just our family, our peer group, community, country – they are by definition (compassion isn’t partial) all mankind.

We fall short all the time of course, sometimes a million miles short. But silence is our reference point.

A little help from my friends

The referendum has left most of us convinced Remainers worried, angry, feeling cheated – and feeling the country has been cheated. Waking in the night my first thoughts have been referendum, and my first emotions negative.

I’ve been helped by a determination to ensure that an open and an open-hearted politics win out in the end – while at the same time taking on board a good few lessons. If I’d been aware in the past of resentment and anger among those who felt left behind, or that this was no longer their England, their UK – then that’s as nothing to my awareness now.

Getting away from it all also helps. Three books I’d mention –

Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, a magical encounter with the Cairngorms – a landscape I remember well. No writer lives landscape quite as she does – the corries and snow and skies, the eagle and the snow bunting, the storm and the silence.

(Of the peregrine falcon and eagle) ‘The speed, the whirls, the torrents of movement are in plain fact the mountain’s own necessity. But their grace is not necessity. Or if it is … the swoop, the parabola, the arrow-flight of hooves and wings achieve their beauty by a strict adherence to the needs of function – so much more is the mountain’s integrity vindicated. Beauty is not adventitious but essential.’

‘No-one know the mountain completely who has not slept upon it… Up on the plateau [on midsummer nights] light lingers incredibly far into the night…Watching it the mind grows incandescent and its glow burns down into a deep and tranquil sleep.’

‘Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shaped, should so tranquillise the mind I do not know…’ No one before, not even Wordsworth, has told it quite as she does.

She’s now destined, humble walker and explorer of the mountains as she was, to appear on a Scottish postal stamp.

At the other extreme, I delved into the poems of Sean O’Brien. But whereas with Nan Shepherd you feel you are living her memories as she is living them as she writes – we feel in O’Brien’s case that they are memories, and where Shepherd elevates he brings and keeps us down to earth – to the the sluices and dirty harbour waters in which fish yet swim, to drains, and empty parks, to deprivation sluiced through with politics. The landscapes draw you in, the language inspired because there’s magic in it, though the content may bring you down – and that’s the problem in my post-Brexit world. I want words to lift me up.

Someone with whom  I’ve shared my life for a few years now is the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He sought God in the silence and moved toward Buddhism and political engagement as the years past. Whereas I in the turmoil seek silence sometimes, he in the silence could not hold back from the turmoil. Like thousands maybe millions of others I connect with the manner of his life and his engagement with it – if not the detail. And his diaries are matter of fact, and detached, but there’s always a wisdom interwoven, and I turned to his diaries on the Friday night after the Thursday referendum vote, and it was 1968, and Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, and Merton wondered what else might happen that year. The Chicago convention, the death of Robery Kennedy of course – and his own accidental death.

This is 2016, and I wonder what else might befall the UK, and the world, this year.

If Merton on this occasion added a new dimension to anxiety, getting out beyond books in the post referendum week proved more successful.

All day in Kew Gardens with my partner’s grandchildren: you escape into their lives, and into Kew’s open and closed spaces – to the newly opened and magical Hive, where we literally tune in to the world of bees, and the Palm House, where the mist drips big drops of water on plants and people.

The Sunken Treasures exhibition at the British Museum – reclaiming remarkable artefacts from cities long sunk under the waters of the Nile Delta, a reminder of the transitoriness of life, civilisation and belief systems. And of course political life.

And finally, a day on a narrow boat of the Sharpness to Gloucester Canal, when after weeks of storm and rain and cloud the sun broke through and shone all day, and we could chug slowly to Gloucester and back through countryside hardly changed in a hundred years – the canal wide and the waters empty, and below us – yes below- the widening estuary of the river Severn.

No talk of politics, eight of us, a picnic of the river bank, and nothing to do. Just occasionally I took the tiller and took charge – though really it was the boat taking charge of me.

Revisiting the Camino – take two

This post is for Camino geeks. I’m revisiting in late May and early June, almost one year on. By car, but with short walks wherever possible.

There are good memories which stand the test of time, even improve on reacquaintance – and others which fall short, or simply disappoint.

Bilbao, YES. Off route I know, but the end of my stage one, June last year. The Guggenheim, and especially Richard Serra’s sinuous and space-defying structures.

Likewise the drive up into the mountains from Bilbao, in brilliant sunshine, unbroken forest as far as the eye could see. Beyond Vitoria, green hills with crags lining their summits, and I remembered the way they led me, guided me, when I walked that stretch from Punta la Reina to Logrono.

NO to Roncesvalles, though we did take a short circular walk up through the woods, then back down through meadows to join the Burguete path – meadows with rich odours of cow dung and deep shades of green beneath an equally deep shade of blue – that’s how I remember Navarre from almost a year go.

YES to all the following.

Larrasoena, the village, where I stayed my third night, and the bridge that takes you over the river and back to the Camino from the village – 6.30 on a misty morning last June. All alone, and I couldn’t quite believe where I was! Memories of Zabaldika nearby, and climbing the belfry to ring the bell out over the valley.

Pamplona, sitting and watching the peregrinos wander through, most of them without the heavy boots, the day’s walk over. They have still 4 1/2 weeks to go…

Zariquiegui, and the walk up to the Alto de Perdon. The path of the winds gentler than last time round, and more peregrinos. I had it to myself last June. We talked to several on the way up – we listened. New Zealanders. Then as now, there are stories to tell. This time as last time – where are the Brits?  Are we content, too content, with our own patch?

Puente la Reina, sitting out in Calle Mayor and having lunch, the bridge and the river moving slow and green beneath. Chatting to someone who walked to Santiago four years ago – and is now walking the other way.

NO (sadly) to Estella. Estella was my favourite place, almost, last time, but now the shops were closed, it being Sunday, and the streets were dirty, rubbish uncleared, and the churches closed last June were closed now, and the wonders therein will have to wait for a third visit (I fear unlikely). But the way the Camino drops down past old houses into the town – that still has magic. And I made good friends in Estella.

Yes, big YES, to Logrono, and its wonderful evocative churches, the Ebro as a boundary, my furthest west point last June, and starting point last October, and coffee in plaza in the shadow of the cathedral, cold bright sunshine, multi-coloured cyclists about to take off en masse. The pinchons, and a wonderful hotel, the Calle Mayor, which wasn’t a memory as such because I stayed in an albergue last time….

I restarted 1st October last year, in Logrono.

Navarrete, YES, the square and cafe by the church emptier than last October, all the noise outside an albergue one street below, and the wind was chilly but the sky was blue and the dark shadowy church was full of atmosphere, the gilded retablo overpowering at the east end, likewise the emotions brought out by the background music – combining Taize, Pachelbel, the Handel Sarabande made famous by the Barry Linden film score, and Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind in orchestral form. I sat with head bowed and tears in my eyes, re-experiencing some of the more powerful personal moments from last year.

Santa Domingo de la Calzado – YES, almost. Santo Domingo doesn’t allow you to sit and drink coffee and experience it at its heart – the street cafes are on the modern street just south of the old main street, the Camino route, and the Parador is while wonderful inside a dead space if you’re looking to get a sense of the Camino. The cathedral evokes mixed emotions – beautifully restored and lit, evocative paintings and sculpture, especially the outside choir stall walls, and a c1500 retablo tucked away in a side chapel, where it’s hard to see it properly.

The museum is full of medieval, early as the 14th century, icon-like Madonnas on the one hand, and crucifixions and saints full of that that exaggerated piety which rings false to the modern eye, on the other. Likewise a cartoon image of Santo Domingo, dire – the old saint will be rotating in his grave.  You have to squeeze back against a glass case with a reconstructions of earlier versions of the cathedral to see a marvellous 13th century painting of the Garden of Eden – creation, temptation and expulsion.

From there by way of an industry park – what would Santo Domingo have thought to see what’s been created on the site of his original village – to San Millan de Cogolla.The monks there turned him down back in the 13th century. Their reputation  and the grandeur of their Romanesque monastery must have been marvellous in the eyes of the young Domingo. Had they accepted him – he would never have been a saint, and there would be no Santo Domingo town.

Back on – or just off – the Camino

I’m back revisiting favourite corners of the Camino, and also taking in places and landscapes which tantalised me last year by being just off route. Above all the monastery of San Millan de la Cogalla, where I’m writing this post.

We’re not staying in albergues, but in hotels – and some are almost smart. Do I miss the dormitories? And the snoring? Maybe not! Though I do have ambitions to walk the Camino Portugues later this year.

The monastery has claims to be the birthplace of the Spanish language, where what became Castilian was first written down by an early 12th century monk as marginal notes to a Latin codex. I knew when I first read about San Millan, in Navarrete last year, that I had to visit.

I loved and love the history of the Camino – the vast church interiors, ancient houses with coats of arms, streets winding through towns and villages as they’ve done for a thousand years, the Templar and Cluny connections, tales of battles against the Moors, my hero Sant Iago, the porch of the ruined church outside Navarrete now gracing the entrance to the cemetery on the other side of town, churches where pilgrims who might not make it to Santiago could nonetheless receive absolution  – all the powerful spiritual connections.

I’d attend pilgrim masses when I could, and light candles.

Down the road from San Millan is Berceo, the birthplace of the first recognised Spanish language poet, Gonzalo de Berceo. Another reason for visiting.

From my hotel window in San Millan woodlands stretch up both sides of the valley into the heart of the Sierra de la Demande. And a cuckoo is calling, as it has been on and off through the day.

San Millan himself was a 6th century hermit, and around him gathered other hermits, and in the 10th century a Benedictine monastery was founded on the site. There are monks here to this day, though I’ve yet to catch sight of any! There are depictions of San Millan is sculpture and paintings in Benedictine attire (hardly a military uniform!) and brandishing a strange red zigzag sword, taking on the Moors as did Santiago Matamoros. Like Santiago he was a patron saint, of Castile and Aragon, but Santiago’s status has fared better down the years.

We walked up the valley this afternoon and climbed the hillside to one of the many hillside caves. The views up to the still snow-touched peaks were wonderful, likewise the woodlands which extend everywhere. We took out all our woodlands back home in the UK for firewood and building ships and to create pasture – not so here!

If you want to be a hermit, I can’t imagine anywhere better.

Dresden, Brussels and Good Friday

I talked about Dresden in a recent post, in a different context.

I listened yesterday to a Radio 4 meditation for Good Friday…. 3.15 it was. I was travelling to a service, and late, and in a jam on the M4. Plans do not always work out, but the jam meant that I heard a speaker and a story that I’d otherwise have missed.

The speaker’s father was a member of a Lancaster bomber crew that was part of the mass raid on 13-15 February 1945 that burnt Dresden city centre to the ground and killed upwards of 25,000 people. He never spoke about it to his son, save on one occasion. His son knew he must visit Dresden and a few years ago he attended a service of commemoration at the Frauenkirche in Dresden.

The taxi driver taking him back from the service asked him how he came to be in Dresden, and he explained his father’s role in the raid. ‘That was the day my mother was killed,’ the taxi driver said. He turned round, and they shook hands. There may have been more to the story – but that’s enough. (My apologies to the unknown storyteller for abridging the story.)

Dresden has for many years (in the UK, not least in its connections with Coventry) been a symbol of how Europe and the world can come together.

Will we in future times be reconciled to our enemies, will our enemies be reconciled to us? Hard to imagine when we’re faced with a nihilist ideology (John Kerry’s description) that espouses brutal violence. Where jihad requires violence.

We can, with seventy years now past, almost put behind us the violence of a Dresden or Hiroshima, but Brussels and Paris, and bombings in Turkey, and many times more than that the carnage in Syria and Yemen – they remind us – punch us – with an understanding of what brutal violence and loss of life are actually like – when it’s close to home, as it was for everyone in World War 2.

Reconciliation must lie at the heart of any positive view of our future, and there are powerful emotions that go with it – but I can’t put that harder emotion in response to cruelty and violence, with all the anger and bitterness it engenders, behind me – the more I think on it, the harder it is.

And that’s the dilemma, and there’s no resolution. I will always want to reconcile, but brutal violence has to be met with military action – and call that violence if you will. And that’s a hard message to put alongside the message of Good Friday and triumph of Easter.

(I’m referring here to IS, not to whether it was justified or not to bomb Dresden. That is another argument – and another dilemma. And the level of our own responsibility for the current Middle East debacle, as interpreted, for example, by the Stop the War Coalition. That’s also another argument, anothe dilemma, and one I’ve addressed in another blog.)

Good Friday

Good Friday. We all dash to the shops. The year’s extra bank holiday. Its purpose it seems all but forgotten. And yet the world fifty years ago (and for many centuries before of course) shut down on Good Friday. Today and Christmas Day were the quietest days of the year.

I will sit quietly at 3pm this afternoon, in a church somewhere – I don’t know where yet – taking part in a meditation on the crucifixion – traditionally celebrated at the ‘ninth hour’. It will be a time to think quietly about the Christian message at its very heart – release from all that bears us down and all the evil in the world. Whether we take it literally, as an act of supreme sacrifice, or not, the crucifixion is a remarkable symbol, and it connects God and man, the spiritual and the material, in a way that still strikes home for countless millions.

So it’s also a day not be cynical. Even if you’re a humanist or atheist.

Do we need symbols? you might ask. Reminders, connectors, pathways – they take us beyond the everyday. We all have our own private symbols. But the crucifixion is a worldwide symbol. We share it with the world, and at 3pm this afternoon (with a few allowances for timezone changes!) we will be sharing it at – almost- the same moment.

Superstition? – no – that sharing is powerful, and real.