Strange encounters in country churches



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?


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?



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.



Religious uncertainties


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God is of limited use without a religion…

Our Church is a short, heartfelt book by the philosopher Roger Scruton, and it’s given me a rare view into the Christian mind.

Or the Church of England mind, at any rate.  For Scruton, and doubtless for others too, the attraction of the Church of England is bound up with the enchantment (or ideal) of England the country. 

He loves the lofty language of the Book of Common Prayer, he loves the words (and the music) of our best-known hymns.  He treasures the ornamentation and architecture of the typical parish church.  He approves highly of the Church’s ability to compromise and so be a national church functioning alongside a secular, parliamentary democracy.  He loves the sacraments and the rituals of a church that is Catholic by virtue of being a continuation of the universal church founded by the Apostles, but that is not Roman Catholic.

When he tries to explain further why he is a member of the Church of England – in what is broadly a justification for Christianity – he talks of Jesus and his sacrifice without putting forward a convincing argument for Jesus’ unique place in the greater scheme of things. 

Now, I’m happy with an instinctive belief in God – I’m not one of those who needs ‘proof’ of everything.  But once you start getting into specifics and put a historical figure executed by the Romans at the centre of your religion, I think you do need to do more to be persuasive.

I value many aspects of the Church of England, and I’m just on the godly side of agnosticism.  But liking doesn’t make something true.

I’ve long been intrigued by many aspects of India, which is why two of my three trips outside Europe have been to that country.  But my interest in Hindu mythology, admiration for ancient South Indian temples, home-listening to Ravi Shankar music, taste for egg biryani, and awe of Himalayan splendours, doesn’t mean I can make any intellectual case for being a Hindu.

In common with most humans, I know what I like and I like what religion has to offer, even if indirectly: history, music, impressive buildings.  But they’re fripperies compared to the question of God’s existence or His relationship to humankind.

I just about have a God.  However, without a religion, I’m not too sure what to do about it.

View of Berwick Church

Berwick Church, East Sussex



All the President’s Shoes



François Hollande, Closer magazine claims, owns just one pair of shoes. I’ve no good reason to doubt the truth: the French rag’s staff have enough riveting information about the President’s private life to be getting on with, so why would they make up this sartorial detail?

But it still surprises me. Not the surprise of the Spectator columnist who wondered why a powerful man lacks a decent range of quality footwear, though. No, I’m scratching my head because surely everyone needs a different shoe for a different function, whether he’s the President of France or a Parisian croissant-delivery boy?

I’m assuming Mr Hollande’s shoes are smart ones for wearing with his dark blue suit. I think I would have noticed if he walked into his post-disclosure press conference in white tennis shoes.

So, what does he wear on his feet when he’s taking time off from the cares of high office, strolling along a Brittany beach in shorts and T-shirt? What keeps the presidential ankles supported when he hikes up an Auvergne volcano? What does he slip into when, enveloped in a woollen dressing-gown, he wanders downstairs for a bedtime chocolat chaud?

Yes - trainers, walking boots, slippers, light deck shoes, or variants on these are the essentials of a full, active, comfortable life.

The only item of footwear that a self-respecting, historically aware Frenchman might want to do without is the Wellington Boot.

a shoe

Kimonos and Kant: a review of ‘Atomic Sushi’


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Time for a review of a book I’ve just finished…

Travel and philosophy are soulmates.  It must be all that waiting around at airports, the long bus journeys, the existential anxiety of being away from home in an unknown, and unknowable, place.

I picked up Atomic Sushi by Simon May, expecting ‘travel writing’ and a wittily insightful guide to Japan’s food, culture and people.  But while there was wit in abundance, I didn’t imagine I’d be pausing so often to consider philosophical questions.

The author lived in Japan while teaching philosophy at The University of Tokyo.  While the book is presented as a portrait of Japanese life and its people, filtered through his own experiences, travel writing is not really his calling – he can’t resist philosophizing. 

After witnessing the death of a Japanese friend’s elderly father in a dingy hospital room, he casts his mind back to an open coffin he encountered in a Moscow monastery some years earlier.  Seeing the dead body had made him feel vital and bursting with health, “as if death were the final proof of the almost unbelievable reality of living”. 

So the contents of this book might contravene the Trade Descriptions Act, but if you like a bit of inspirational philosophy (and I do), you’ll find it to your taste.

He ends his year in Japan with his philosophical assumptions challenged: “Is much self-knowledge possible if… we have no stable continuous self to know, no inner core that remains untouched by our constantly changing social roles and environments?”  Phew… that’s a Big Question, and we’ve come a long way from the wedding parties and prostitutes’ dens of earlier in the book.

For him, the Japanese are essentially practical folk.  Their values are not like Western ones, but are humane and sound in their own way.  Is ‘pity’ as virtuous as we think it is, he seems to suggest in the closing pages?  Perhaps he’s thinking of his soon-to-be-bereaved Japanese friend, who stiffened when he tried extending a comforting hand.  Pity could be seen as a way of imposing your attitude on another person.   For the friend, this disciplined exterior is the real him; he is feeling upset inside, but thoughts eventually catch up with our actions.

Atomic Sushi is presented in short chapters, many of them self-contained episodes.  Like any good travel book, it tells us something fresh about the human spirit and diversity.  You don’t need to love Japan, or sushi, to appreciate it. 

Atomic Sushi - book cover

The business that’s stayed in the family for half a millennium



Many businesses can point proudly to their history and longevity, but most are mere start-ups compared to Balson’s the Butcher.

The current owner of this Bridport shop (est. 1515), a genial chap by the name of Richard Balson, was the focus of a BBC4 documentary on Wednesday night, the first in the Hidden Histories series looking at some of the UK’s oldest family businesses.

We learned how meat was retailed in medieval market towns, and were introduced to some of Mr B’s relations.  These included his mother, who brought more recent history to life through her recollections of post-war rationing and the unrationed, ‘delicious’ tripe.  But there was no sign Mr B’s 33-year-old son.  We were assured that he wants to carry on the business, but at the moment he lives in London where he has a good job as an accountant. 

I’m sure I wasn’t the only viewer who, cheerfully bouncing along on this historical tour, at mention of the son suddenly began to worry for the future, even though only the faintest flicker of doubt disturbed Mr B’s genial face.  I stopped basking in the past and realised just how changing times are – well, just how changing times are now really changing things.  The shop has been in the family since Henry VIII was a slim and sane man, yet unless the young accountant decides that weighing up sausages in a small West Country market town is a better lifestyle choice than juggling figures in the metropolis, it won’t survive the early 21st century.

An American nephew, on a visit to the UK, dropped by.   Before dedicating himself full-time to selling sausages online in the US, he was a university academic, which is even more odd than having an accountant in a butcher’s family.

For the moment, Balson’s is doing well, trading on its status as Britain’s oldest family butchers’, and it should shift a fair few wild boar steaks as a result of its BBC exposure.  But the world has opened up, and communications make all sorts of things possible (such as selling bangers online).  In our age, it’s more and more the case that doing what your Dad did is either no longer feasible or just one career option among many.  Breaks with family tradition, as well as our evolving shopping habits, bring the shutters down on small shops.

town of Bridport

Bridport, Dorset – home to a remarkable family business

Films – a black-and-white choice


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Last weekend I went to the volunteer-run Electric Palace Cinema in Hastings to see The Artist and the Model, a film set in the south of France during World War II.  It’s about a Spanish refugee girl who takes on a job as a model for an elderly sculptor, and it’s filmed in black-and-white.

Walking back to my car afterwards, past the huddles of Old Town drinkers and a tottering reveller dressed as a chicken, I was thinking about why black-and-white is sometimes used in preference to colour. 

The film I’d just seen caught the drowsy hot summer, and the sunlight dappling the leaves, as precisely as it would have done in colour.  I was transported back to my own holidays in rural France, a world which I have, of course, only ever seen in colour.

I’d hazard a guess that the filmmakers eschewed colour because it would have rendered the images of the oft-naked model too in-your-face and vulgar.  Black-and-white means subtlety.  Another very recent film, Summer in February, was also about an artist (the young Alfred Munnings’ time at a Cornish artist’s colony in the early 20th century), but was in colour.  Perhaps black and white was never considered for that fairly conventional period drama, whereas the Spanish-French The Artist and the Model has arthouse tendencies. 

Sometimes there are more practical considerations.  That fine 1968 zombie movie Night of the Living Dead was shot on 35mm black-and-white film because the budget didn’t stretch to colour.  And who would wish it any other way? 

The Wizard of Oz famously changes to Technicolor once Dorothy arrives in the magical land.  The Kansas sequences are, to be accurate, sepia-toned rather than black and white.

Of the monochrome films I’ve seen, Schindler’s List presumably did away with colour (apart from an arresting, repeated image of a small girl’s red clothing) as a respectful acknowledgement of the sombre subject matter.  George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, which charts the CBS newsroom’s struggles against Senator McCarthy,  was filmed in colour and released in black-and-white, perhaps the better to take us back to the TV world of the 1950s. 

I can’t explain why David Lynch chose black-and-white for Eraserhead, but then I can’t explain much about that bizarre film.  However, black-and-white worked perfectly well for the Victorian London of his much more straightforward The Elephant Man.

Of course, it’s right to be wary of praising those who make the ‘artistic’ choice to use black-and-white stock.  Otherwise every French film with pretensions to art would use it, watering down the medium’s impact. 

scene from film

A scene from ‘The Artist and the Model’

Gone in 2013, but not forgotten: people who made their mark on me



There were times in 2013 when it seemed every week brought news of the death of another famous or distinguished individual.

Few, however they view the world politically, can deny that Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela were iconic figures. Both will have their lives picked over by historians for years to come. My own awareness of what they represented began at a young age: in a sense, they’ve always been with me. So it seems strange that they are no longer here.

I suppose the older I get, my 30s racing away from me, the more world leaders I am exposed to – so their deaths are going to have more significance to me than to even the most clued-up 21 year-old student of international politics. Likewise, every new film I watch or book I read adds to my accumulated experience, and nearly all are going to familiarise me with an actor or a writer whose death will one day give me a few moments, or more, of sombre reflection.

In the world of music, news of the deaths of two very different figures jolted my equilibrium in 2013. First, Lou Reed, who I discovered in the 1990s via one of THE great albums, The Velvet Underground and Nico. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, John Tavener, whose Song for Athene touched my youthful mind as I watched Princess Diana’s coffin leaving Westminster Abbey (and led me to his earlier work, The Whale).

In the world of books, we lost the admirable American crime writer Elmore Leonard. How many of today’s young or middle-aged novelists will still be producing the goods as octogenarians? But for its impact on me, the passing of Seamus Heaney cast the longest shadow. He showed that the earthy, commonplace experience can be turned into a poem every bit as affecting as verses inspired by epics or musings on love. Look at this description of his father digging potatoes in the Northern Irish countryside:

“The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.”

Before I end this final blog of the year, I should point out that I rarely find obituaries depressing. Rather, they remind me of what it’s possible to pack into a precarious human existence. And that’s something to celebrate.

sunlight through clouds


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