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.

Mindfulness – the Ladybird way

Predictably – and happily – I was given Mindfulness in the new Ladybird series for adults for Christmas. Only 54 pages – and sometimes it misses the mark, and sometimes if gets it spot on.

Clive practises loving-kindness meditation – and it ‘finds it easier than bothering to meet his friends and lending them money’.

‘In ancient times Guru Bhellend entered a state of mindfulness that lasted 35 years. During this time he thought about everything.’ When he’d finished he writes ‘the answer on a grain of rice’. ‘He never married,’ it concludes.

(In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the computer Deep Thought comes up with 42, as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, after a 7 1/2 million year search.)

The easy way and extreme way, and both miss the path. The good old middle way.

Though even that may not work out. Last week walking on Offa’s Dyke we took the middle way, and ended up in a field looking east when we should have been by a stream looking south….

That old collection of LPs

We’re rediscovering vinyl, or as once it was, LPs.

My daughter now has a turntable, as a Christmas present, and I want one. Boxing Day evening we sat down and played music, vinyls she’s just been given of War on Drugs and Tame Impala (band names, for the uninitiated) – and then some real oldies from my collection which haven’t seen a turntable for 20 years.

Sergeant Pepper for one. I’d bought the LP on 1st June 1967, its release date, and retired to my room on Oriel Street to listen. I can still remember a mild perplexity listening to the first track, to the band striking up.

And now? A Day in the Life, A Little Help from my Friends… I’ve listened to the CD in recent years, but the tracks all sound way better on vinyl. Maybe it’s just watching the rotation, being mesmerised, watching the needle. Maybe the sound is actually better. There’s an immediacy about vinyl that there isn’t about a CD which we slide into our music system, and the sound surrounds us, there’s no locus, or an MP3 file which even more is pure sound, all virtual, nothing else. Do we need some kind of focus for our musical attention? At least give me something tangible – give me a record sleeve. Remember all those wild Roger Dean album covers from the 60s and 70s!

I mention vinyls to friends and there’s a refrain I hear – ‘I chucked them out 20 years ago.’ A minor gloat – I didn’t, and there’s a whole world of discovery, re-discovery, awaiting me. And maybe they’re actually worth a bob or two!

We tried a recording of Tub Jug Washboard Band music, one those happy musical byways I explored in my Oxford days. ‘Catch another mule sleeping in my stall/mama, going to tear it down.’ Love the image. Wonderful, crazy – and obscure.

And then the second James Taylor album, which I’d bought when it came out in 1970. Nothing obscure here. He’s as popular today as back in 1970. ‘Country Roads’ accompanied Martin Sheen as he walked the Camino, or at least the soundtrack did!

Joni Mitchell – ‘Michael from mountains/go where you will go to/know that I will know you/someday I will know you very well.’ All sorts of resonances from the past, shared with Rozi, who loves America, and loves song, and connects to Joni Mitchell as I do. Will thirty years on the next generation connect to another great songwriter, and Rozi’s hero, Sufjan Stevens? Let’s hope so.

Rozi has her turntable. And I will shortly have mine, and I’ll play my old collection, 200, maybe 300, one by one, and dig out the memories and the associations each has. Blues and folk music – so much that I used to sing, and have almost forgotten.

Almost, but not quite.

Tonight there’s an Open Mic evening at the local pub, the Black Horse, and I might just sing one or two of the blues hollers and the folk songs that I used to sing in clubs either side of 1970. I don’t need to hit high notes… the old bass resonances are still there, and that’s what matters, I can still deafen myself and others, given half a chance.

I will report back…..

No go. Pub too crowded, no space for a newcomer! But for next time I have a holler or two (Red Cross Store – a place to be avoided, charity in 1920s America, with strings), and a few folk songs  (Euan McColl’s version of To the Beggin’ I Will Go – if you didn’t want to work the looms, you could take to the road). You can get a great driving rhythm going on both.

Christmas morning

My daughter Rozi introduced me to a favourite song over our Christmas breakfast of smoked salmon, mushrooms and scrambled egg. ‘A cliche to be cynical at Christmas,’ the song’s called (yes, that’s right), by a band called …. Half Man Half Biscuit.

I ran down to the river at 8.30 this Christmas morning, and said a big Happy Christmas to every one I saw – five people in all, three of them ladies walking dogs – happy smiles and hellos. And two grumpy men.

But not a time to be cynical.

Not just at Christmas but every minute of every day of every year cynicism is an omelette…

That should have been ‘a complete’. Thank you spellcheck, that’s a beauty. Let’s try again.

Not just at Christmas but every minute of every day of every year an omelette is a complete waste of space.

Before we suspect another’s motives, question our own omelettes.

And that is quite enough of that.

I’d intended a serious point for this Christmas blog. But we all ended up laughing instead. 

One problem with writing blogs – you can be too b….. pompous. 

Christmas Eve – the other story

Christmas is a time for charity – but that doesn’t seem to go far when we think of all the violence in the world.

It’s been a year of refugees and displacement.

I listened to Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom earlier today and the words won’t leave me. (I’m only quoting here, not providing the full lyric.) The second line I’ve quoted remembers refugees. How could we, remembering the crisis at the end of World War II, have allowed it to happen again?

….Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight/ Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight/ An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night …. /

….Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute / For the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute/ For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit …. 

…..Tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed/ For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse / An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe

An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

There’s an editorial in the Christmas edition of The Week which argues that ‘people … aren’t that nice’, that Scrooge had a point. If we’re to like others, better they think as we do. Best just to come to terms with the fact, and get on with life.

That sounds all very reasonable, better not to seek the unattainable, we’ll do better if we understand our deficiencies.

But it’s precisely what we have to get beyond.

Compassion isn’t somehow a compromise with our selfish side, something which we engage in out of conscience and a mite reluctantly and find to our surprise that it’s quite rewarding. Compassion is where our true nature shows itself, and the rewards are immeasurable. Peace of mind, yes, but not peace because we seek it, but because it goes with the territory of caring for others. It’s the Buddhist message – our ‘original face’, and the Christian message – more than a pre-lapsarian state of grace, Adam and Eve in the garden – something that’s alive in the heart. And it’s the humanist message too, when we get beyond self.

Leonard Cohen sketches a wonderful, haggard and mournful face in his ‘Book of Longing’, literally sketches, and captions the sketch ‘a private gaze’, followed by the words

‘even though he was built to see the world this way, he was also built to disregard, to be free of the way he was built to see the world.’

I like that. We don’t have to resign ourselves to a selfish human nature. We are built to disregard. Dylan reminds us of a few of the million ways the world malfunctions. And we can do something about it.

A bookshop window on Monday night

Delighted to have the resurgence of the book as print confirmed. Up 9.8% on last year. ‘Physical sales’ is the term used by the Bookseller (trade mag) editor, and that I rather like. E-books looked to be on a winning curve, but they’ve been armwrestled back.

On that positive note ….

Walking back from a movie, passing the Richmond Bookshop, there’s a book in the window which catches my eye, the ‘Wisdom of Grace’ I think the title reads. Closer inspection reveals it’s ‘Wisden on Grace’ – the cricketer, WG Grace, he of beard and enormous girth….

Nearby is ‘Find Fenton’, taking off the classic ‘Where’s Wally’. You’re tasked to search for the ‘world’s most disobedient dog’, none other than the Fenton which famously chased deer in Richmond Park, refusing to heed his owner’s anguished shouts of ‘Fenton! Fenton!’ Someone caught it all on camera, and it went viral in Facebook. And now – the book!

And a third title, ‘We Go to the Gallery: A Dung Beetle Learning Guide (Dung Beetle Reading Scheme 1a)’.  The format is ‘Ladybird’, and it looks like it’s in the new ‘for grown-ups’ series, but it’s not (maybe ‘Dung Beetle’ is a bit of a giveaway!) – rather it’s a very clever one-off, sending up contemporary art.

(Penguin who publish Ladybird weren’t too happy and sued the Dung Beetle publisher. Reading that sentence, and not knowing book publishing, you’d think – what the hell….)

So that’s two stocking-fillers. Wisden on Grace wouldn’t fit the stocking.

There’s also I see a ‘Corbyn Colouring Book’. This may not be acceptable in all stockings.