Not every man is that kind of man

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Allegations, arrests and court cases concerning ‘historic’ child sex abuse have continued to make unpleasant news headlines.  

As far as I can tell, the perpetrators are always men. Women are, occasionally, the instigators of horrible acts, from Myra Hindley to sly poisoners to wealthy hirers of hitmen for husband-elimination: but sex abuse, at least where it involves high-profile figures, appears to be a man thing.

Do most men harbour perverted urges, albeit small and suppressed, within ordinary exteriors? I don’t think so at all (I speak as a man), but as the crimes stack up I wouldn’t blame any woman who answered ‘yes’.

And then I read a Spectator piece by Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, which left me feeling yet more deflated.

Noting that very many of the MPs who protested against HS2 were female, he adds that most men are ‘a teeny bit Aspergic’:

‘An assemblage of highly male brains may be great if you want to design a new jet engine, but elsewhere – finance, economics, politics, trains – it can lead to the wasteful and overzealous pursuit of goals which are more or less irrelevant to human happiness’.

I’m not trying to bracket HS2 fetishes with child exploitation or groping young women. But I do feel like standing up and making two points clear to the world. First, there’s no latent Rolf Harris in me. Second, many men think that throwing money at a shiny new high-speed railway project, despoiling Chilterns landscapes while doing little for the regions but instead making England even more London-centric, is definitely not the best course of action.

a tie;

Meditation for Managers

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view of mountains

View from monastery at Rumtek, Sikkim, North India

Companies up and down the UK have discovered Buddhism. Well, an aspect of Buddhist practice anyway. It seems businesses are almost as likely to send employees on ‘mindfulness’ courses as they are to stump up for vocational training or Health & Safety Days.

Some of the non-corporate, more traditional exponents of Eastern meditative practices, those who are more at home with love, peace and long-flowing robes than takeovers, spreadsheets and jacket-and-ties, dislike the use of mindfulness for selfish, or at least self-centred, purposes. In their eyes managers are solely concerned with improving their own wellbeing and increasing their employees’ productivity (in other words, the bottom line), in effect grabbing what they need from mindfulness and leaving behind the ethical values that mindfulness is all about.

If the whole mindfulness thing has passed you by – though it can only have done so if you’ve spent the last few years meditating on a mountain – it is, in a nutshell, about anchoring yourself to the present, being more aware of the world around you. As such, it can relieve stress and lift depression.

We spend too much of our time dwelling on the past – often with a hefty dose of regret. And when we ponder the future, it’s with trepidation. Even while enjoying our favourite leisure activity we allow disquieting thoughts to enter our minds.

With roots in the contemplative traditions of all the main religions, but Buddhism in particular, a course in mindfulness is a palliative for the frazzled mind in an ever-busier world.

Harassed government ministers and other Westminster politicians are looking to mindfulness – for the relief it can provide them, weighed down by the cares of office, but also because of the potential it offers the National Health Service to reduce the dependency on medication of depression sufferers, or to treat drug addiction.

Again, our more spiritually-inclined practitioners may applaud the attention it’s receiving from health policymakers, while being less keen on its use as a career development tool (for MPs or whoever) or its status as the latest corporate fad. Business leaders can do all the meditation-based training they want to, but if ethics are merely implicit rather than explicit then it ain’t mindfulness. Mindfulness can only be understood with reference to other people, and to compassionate behaviour. And it won’t solve the big problems our politicians and corporate highflyers are in a position to tackle – such as the marginalisation of the poor, or environmental degradation – without a deeper engagement, focused on outcomes, with the very issues themselves.

I haven’t tried mindfulness, as it happens, but I’m well disposed towards it. It’s not going to change Gordon Gecko into Gandhi: but by becoming hyper-aware, the mindfulness student is almost bound to become more empathetic, with the result that he is more likely to respect others and rein in the worst of his greedy grasping tendencies.

Do holidays expand horizons?

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A summer holiday is potentially much more than an idle luxury: going abroad or to a distant part of your own country is a chance to detach yourself from routine life and concerns, all the better to consider them afresh. And holiday sights, sounds and encounters inspire thoughts of other possibilities, other ways of living.

The writer Amit Chaudhuri, brought up in Bombay, spent childhood holidays in the city that gave its name to his 2011 memoir-cum-cultural history, Calcutta. In it, he suggests that part of any holiday’s enchantment lies in the non-engagement with ordinary life’s ‘rules of narrative’:

“It’s a period of time that’s static, unmoving, without the on-and-on progression that our lives generally have – but a period, nevertheless, in which a transformation occurs.”

I find that ‘non-engagement’ can happen when I’m doing the simplest thing, like eating breakfast in a café in France. The familiar – eating breakfast – becomes foreign because we’re in a foreign place.

This idea of the transformational holiday got me thinking about what we actually do en vacances, and how it can affect changes in our minds deeper and more lasting than any sun tan.

It seems fairly clear to me that when we do varied, even active things, it’s not with any sense of growth or progression. We relax on sun loungers, we stimulate our minds in art galleries, we pull on trainers or walking boots to play tennis or hike; we get our adrenalin rushes by whitewater rafting, we speak to locals in an unaccustomed tongue, and try new foods. By the end, it’s been a hotch-potch of experiences, with no unifying purpose, yet we come back home convinced (and perhaps we’re right) that our lives will from thenceforth be different. We’ve had a Pauline conversion on our way to Baggage Reclaim at Gatwick: we’ve seen another way of living, and things will never be the same again – for a while, at least.

But then, obedient to the demands of the workplace, we become caught up in progress of a more conventional, urgent and unthinking kind: sustaining the momentum of life, earning money, and acquiring professional skills, knowledge and contacts.

croissant and coffee

In Praise of The Commonplace

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My taste in books, films and art is fairly eclectic, and that’s no bad thing. But I have always liked to think that there’s some common theme, and at long last I may have twigged what it is: The Commonplace.

The banal isn’t always boring in the art of film: I like the gritty ordinariness of Ken Loach’s Kes, and the Dardenne brothers make my kind of film, too – naturalistic in style, filmed in places like industrial Liège. I’m impressed by the way they usually get straight down to business – no fancy opening credit sequence, or music.

An involving play I saw recently at the National Theatre was A Small Family Business: the scenes are the interiors of standard British family homes of three decades ago, while the most interesting props are the 1980s clunky phones and some Fairy Liquid in its now obsolete white bottle. Similarly, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads programmes for television, and his short radio plays, draw their strength from a provincial world of seaside hotels and afternoon tea.

Commonplace occurrences, unglamorous locations – I can identify with them. A play or novel, in the right hands, illuminates the familiar. It doesn’t need to say anything new. It can simply state what we already know: the writer expresses in words, ideally as few as possible, what we could never quite put our finger on, let alone articulate to others.

This is the particular talent of Elizabeth Taylor – not the actress, but the novelist and short story writer whose centenary was marked in 2012. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, about elderly people seeing out their days as long-term residents of a hotel, conjures up a world of melancholy drizzly Sunday evenings and commonplace disappointments. No character is magnetic or larger-than-life. They are just impeccably realised, developed from the writer’s perceptive watching of the world around her. True, England circa 1970 is not my world, but characters and places are quite recognisable.

I’m most attracted to pictures I can imagine hanging on my living room wall, which rather rules out grand biblical scenes. Instead, it’s the more modest subject matter: a wintry English townscape, a dimly lit peasant’s cottage or a Dutch landscape painting such as Van Ruysdael’s River Scene (you can see it in London’s National Gallery), or perhaps Edward Hopper’s 1942 oil on canvas Nighthawks, depicting a solitary man and a couple in a downtown diner.

In music, I’ve begun to appreciate the stripped-down earthiness of folk. I wouldn’t say I identify with the subject matter of the songs; but the genre does, now I consider it, have a real link to The Commonplace.

scene from film Rosetta

The Dardenne brothers’ ‘Rosetta’ (1999)

Budding equine talent: the seasonal charms of the Flat

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Flat racing is a mystery to the general sports fan. How do you follow the fortunes of a top class horse when, so soon after it emerges top of its class, it retires to stud, never to be seen again?

Many big races are restricted to three-year-olds, so there’s a bewilderingly large new generation to get to one’s head around every year. While quality older horses do continue to strut their stuff, they are comparatively few in number. What’s more, many of their races will be abroad and away from the gaze of the TV cameras; in any case, knowing when they are due to run isn’t easy.

New stars come along. But then stars come along every year, invariably trained or owned by one or other of a select few. So how are we meant to get excited?

Somehow, we do. And I’ve been an enthusiast for many years now, long enough to sometimes believe I’ve seen everything.

You will often hear the cognoscenti say things like ‘this year’s crop of three-year-olds looks strong’. The horticultural collective noun offers us a clue to how we should think of the cycle of the racing year, if it is to make sense. Imagine trainers as gardeners on a grand scale: every year they must use the raw materials supplied by their patrons (owners) to put on a good display. How do the two-year-olds measure up? How, on the whole, do the English juveniles compare with those in trained in Ireland? Is the wet spring (if such is the case) holding back the progress of three-year-old fillies? What are the Godolphin yard’s three year olds like this year?

As you may have noticed, bluebells have emerged in all their spring glory, transforming scrubby patches of woodland. This happens every year, but they never lose their power to delight.

So here we are, after the winter hiatus, the European Flat season getting going and equine wonders to behold. Just like last year.

Predicting who will blossom this summer is harder than explaining the appeal of the sport. Kingman has already made a huge impression in his reappearance race, which is why he is favourite for tomorrow’s 2000 Guineas at Newmarket. Among the less exposed horses, Arod, Sudden Wonder and the Irish-trained My Titania could all have a moment or two in the sun.

Epsom scene

Ruler of the World, 2013 Epsom Derby winner

Dream with a theme

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This posting about dreams starts with a quote from Shakespeare, 450 years old today.

“And then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again”.

It’s often been said that there’s nothing more boring than having to listen to someone describe a dream they’ve had. However weird or far-out or funny the dream was, it’s one of those occasions when you just have to be there. We all have dreams of our own: we don’t need to marvel at anyone else’s.

Besides, dreams fail to follow a neat narrative course, so they don’t transfer well to storytelling. It’s also curious that however amazing they seem at the time, or in the bleary few minutes after the alarm clock sounds, the memory of them soon become hazy. In fact, I’ve often forgotten what I’ve dreamt about by the time I’ve taken my first mouthful of cornflakes.

My own dreams are always self-contained one-offs. I’m sure that recurrent dreams, if I had them, would stick in my mind like overplayed radio hits. Dreaming, or rather nightmaring, the same thing over and over again seems to be the sorry preserve of those who have suffered some unpleasant trauma.

On the occasions when I have a properly bad dream, it’s far from being an Exorcist-scale nightmare leaving me gibbering and clutching the duvet and not wanting to go to sleep again. Instead, a fairly mundane but awkward scenario plays through my somnolent brain: such as turning up to deliver a speech which I haven’t prepared. Though there’s always the obligatory surreal note: why is Paul McCartney in the audience?

Some desk research took me to a dream interpretation website. Apparently, dreaming about giving a poor speech could indicate… a fear of public speaking.

Well, if that’s insightful dream analysis, then I’m Dr Freud. As it happens, public speaking doesn’t worry me.

What I’d like is the answer to a more general point. Why, unlike Shakespeare’s Caliban, do I dream of social embarrassment?

cloud

Strange encounters in country churches

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I had a wander around a church last weekend…

On the white plaster ceiling, high up in the spacious church in Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, are two circular emblems. The details are hard to make out with the naked eye: one shows a pelican feeding her young with her blood – a widely-used religious motif, symbolising Christ’s sacrifice, while the other depicts the lower half of some chap’s body as he’s being gobbled up by a greedy, big-mouth demonic face.

It’s the devil swallowing Judas, I learn. Outlandish touches like this don’t match people’s cosy idea of Anglicanism. When we visit a Hindu temple in India we are shocked and fascinated by goddesses with necklaces of skulls, and all manner of other frightening figures. But even here in the quiet Cotswolds, places of worship have their dark, pagan or simply strange embellishments.

They’re not always prominently placed. But like appreciating paintings in an art gallery, or observing nature on a Cotswold Way ramble – the more you look, the more you see.

church, Wotton-under-Edge

St Mary the Virgin, Wotton-under-Edge

Who learns what from listening to MPs laying into one another?

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I switched on the radio after the Budget speech yesterday and heard Labour Leader Ed Miliband haranguing the Conservative front bench on the cost of living, tax breaks and all the rest of it.  I thought – how boring.  We already know what he thinks.  And only the most politically clueless amongst us would find his indignation surprising.  No Tory (or Tory-Lib Dem) Budget has ever been welcomed by Labour with the words ‘That was very sensible, actually’.  The same goes for Tory responses to Labour’s proposals.

So what’s the point?  Radio 4 listeners are intelligent enough not to be spoon fed this regurgitated gruel.  The people who really need to know what Labour intends to do – the great mass of the voting-eligible public who form the target audience for populist rants by politicians of all persuasions – don’t tune in to these broadcasts anyway.

What goes on in the chamber of the House of Commons is effectively a game to amuse two groupings: the political classes, and political (and often partisan) boffins.  The rest of us get calm and considered food for thought from our newspapers and a balanced diet of other media. 

Houses of Parliament

Field Notes: Turner Contemporary, Margate

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I drove past the white glassy building a couple of times, paying it scant attention. I was keeping an eye out for the Turner Contemporary, which I’d come to Margate to visit. Then I found out that this was the Turner, the supposed statement building. Well, despite its slanting rooves, it didn’t speak loudly to me.

The night before, walking to an Indian restaurant, I had wondered why some spinning lights were being projected onto the building. I now know that it was the obligatory snazzy artistic touch to a gallery that’s too modern to be called the Turner Gallery (Contemporary is much more contemporary).

Inside, this recent addition to north Kent’s hitherto threadbare cultural landscape seems just another minimalist gallery, with big reception desk and gift shop in an airy open plan layout. The large sea-facing window offers a view of parked cars and sea. Upstairs, in the Balcony Gallery, things become more interesting. The window offers a painterly expanse of sea, a solitary platform on a pole poking out of the water. Unless I walked closer to the edge of the balcony and looked down, I couldn’t see the handful of cars parked on drab grey concrete.

And upstairs is also where the main temporary exhibition starts. At the moment it’s Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and J.M.W. Turner. It hangs works by an American artist whose exhibiting career began in 1950, alongside those by the great English painter who exhibited his last works in 1850, exactly a century earlier.

The connection is a little tenuous. So many painters have produced Abstract works or had abstract tendencies, even if (like Turner) they aren’t conscious of it. But where Turner is in real abstract mode, such as in his watercolour on paper titled ‘A colour wash underpainting with diffused cloud form’, we can see the Frankenthaler link. Particularly when we turn to her acrylic on canvas ‘Barometer’: this large-scale work of thick grey and white paint puts us in mind of turbulent waves or stormy skies.

Her ‘Lush Spring’, on the other hand, belongs to the Jackson Pollock school of splodgy painting. Thank goodness for the title. Without the reference to seasons and nature, the dark green and dirty mottled light green strokes would be mystifying.

But I found the exhibition illuminating, on the whole, and it introduced me to an artist (Frankenthaler) new to me. Even the building rose to the occasion: looking again at the exterior, this time from the far side, it appeared larger, and so more impressive. But a few more twists and curves and idiosyncracies would have varied the rectangular uniformity.

a view of Turner Contemporary

Did hippies find the promised land in the East?

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I feel sorry for ex-hippies.  They must be disillusioned with the way the world’s turned out.  And although they might not know it, in some ways they left it a worse place.

In his book Magic Bus, Rory MacLean suggests that the hippie trail to Kathmandu opened up hitherto peaceful and untainted regions to the grim conformity of mass tourism and commercialisation.  He notes Bruce Chatwin’s theory that the young travellers pushed Afghanistan down the path to bloodshed and ruin by planting in people’s heads idealistic expectations of self-determination.  Meanwhile, in newly-fashionable Goa, locals were barred from Western-frequented restaurants.

Veterans of the trail can’t realistically be blamed for being unaware of all this at the time.   But unless they have no sense of irony, it must hate listening to themselves criticising the behaviour of today’s backpackers.  They’ve turned into their own parents, who decades ago had furrowed their brows at the dropping out, drug-taking, and long hair of their offspring.

Pop music and drugs must have held their appeal at the time, but I wonder if the Westerners who stayed on in the Indian subcontinent feel melancholic and not a little lonely now (unless they’ve found a more wholesome and sustainable source of spiritual fulfilment). 

In Magic Bus, we encounter an old-timer who in the 1960s turned his back on materialism and his parents and headed East.  He now seems happily settled in Kathmandu, but he does lament that the city is ‘full of people reading the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam.  They sit in internet cafes sending each other text messages’.  In his day, the important thing in life was discovering fellow humans, bonding through convivial guitar-strumming sessions on the beach.   

The rebels and utopians of the 1960s find that young people aren’t like they used to be.

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