Friday, 30 October 2009

Sustainable Japan?

We are off to the airport in the morning, having come to the end of our trip, which has passed incredibly quickly - a good sign that we have all been enjoying ourselves. Here in Yokohama (today) we have been dazzled by the modern architecture of Minato Mirai, where I've been talking sustainability with RCE colleagues, Zinaida Fadeeva and Aurea Tanaka at the UN University Institute of Advanced Studies. Their team is funded by the Japanese Dept. of the Environment, for ten years - a sign of at least a degree of commitment to the subject.

Bicycles abound in the cities - more than at home - and public transport, particularly the train service, is excellent. Seeing the huddling of houses together, as the Shinkansen passes at vast speed through the suburbs, makes you think our town sprawl energy wasteful. But even up on the Buddhist monastic stronghold of Kôyasan - we spent the night before last in temple dwellings there (delicious vegetarian food, and a wonderful chanting ceremony at 6 a.m.) - to find a heated loo seat is a matter of course. And the shopping malls in the centre of Osaka and here seem endless.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009


Todai-ji in Nara contains this, the largest wooden structure in the world, and it houses the Great Buddha, which is one of the largest bronze figures in the world - originally cast nearly 1,300 years ago when Nara was Japan's capital city. Round the back of the statue is a column with a hole in its base the size of one of the Buddha's nostrils: to squeeze through it is a sign that you are ensured of enlightenment. I declined to try this afternoon. (Mini however made it without any trouble.)

We were commenting on the absence of beggars in the streets anywhere we had been so far. Today, we came across a Buddhist monk with his bowl outstretched: apparently he prays whilst begging; responding to which is I suppose no worse than paying for a mass for the dead.

The other beggars we saw in droves (or rather herds) were the sacred deer of Nara-koen, messengers of the Gods: never can there have been such tame animals! Charming at first, they become something of a trial at lunchtime. But Ida loved their attention of course!

Now, we are all exhausted.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Kyoto 2

We have had our first rain today, though not enough to dampen us or our spirits. After a short bus ride, we walked up a delightful pedestrian street, Sannen-Zaka to meet a former sudent of Caroline, her daughter and grand-daughter at the Morioka pottery: Caroline, Mini, Fujo and her daughter had lessons there. I talked to the charming and elegant widow of Kasho Morioka III (who doubled as a child-minder) and met her potter son. Fine teaware seems to be their speciality: it looks beautiful to my inexpert eye.

After lunch we jostled with all the other tourists, including hordes of neatly-uniformed schoolchildren, and walked up to Kiyomizu-dera, the most striking religious complex we've yet visited. There, we took off our shoes and walked down into the completely dark passage leading to an eerily lit carved stone wheel: we were "figuratively entering the womb of a female Bodhisattva, who has the power to grant any human wish," so the guidebook said. It was certainly the nearest I've come yet to getting the point of Buddhism - more potent than the rows of white prayer messages pegged to wire lines that you see in each of the sites.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

News from Kyoto

Here's a photograph of Mini and Leo in their formal Japanese wedding garb, attended by the two "miko", sort of supercharged altar servers, at their Shinto ceremony on Friday last, performed in the romantic surroundings of a hotel on the outskirts of Kyoto, by a wide river, overlooked by mountains and set in beautiful gardens.

Suffice to say, the marriage celebration day went brilliantly, with Mini looking amazing in her kimono, and many of her friends having made a similar effort to dress traditionally, because of the English connection. (In the same way, Caroline will take all her foreign students to see round Gloucester Cathedral, though in the normal course of things we would never darken its doors.) Leo must have posed quite a problem to his team of dressers, but he looked very splendid in his long skirt made of much the same material as a pair of wedding trousers at home, and his white socks and flip-flops.

So, on the one hand we had the strangest ritual for the couple, with just family present, seated either side of a small chapel-like room in the hotel, the shrine at the end, the priest wearing a hat which was a cross between a bishop's mitre and a space helmet and shiny black plastic clogs on his feet; and on the other hand the largest barrage of digital cameras you have seen, flashing endlessly at the couple when they emerged in front of the other guests: Leo, not the easiest person to get to sit for his photograph, lapped it all up, and Mini looked completely unfazed too, though they must each have been in a state of exhaustion by the end of the day. I certainly was; but it was a sensationally happy one for us all, and it was warm and sunny!

For me, the most moving moment came when Leo and Mini had departed during the ceremonial lunch; and then returned into a darkened room, filled with the sound of Imogen Cooper's Mozart, dressed in their Painswick wedding outfits (almost) - before, a very Japanese couple, and now an English one!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009


I dreamt I had an interview with God. 'So you would like to interview me?' God asked. 'If you have the time', I said. 'My time is eternity. What questions do you have in mind for me?' 'What surprises you about humankind?'

'That they get bored with childhood, they rush to grow up, and then long to be children again. That they lose their health to make money, and then lose their money to restore their health. That by thinking anxiously about the future, they forget about the present, such that they live in neither the present nor the future. That they live as if they will never die, and die as though they had never lived.'

God's hand took mine and we were silent for a while. And then I asked, 'As a parent, what are some of life's lessons you would like your children to learn?'

'That they can't make anyone love them: all they can do is let themselves be loved. To learn that it is not good to compare themselves to others. To learn to forgive by practicing forgiveness. To learn that it only takes a few seconds to open profound wounds in those they love, and it can take many years to heal them. To learn that a rich person is not one who has the most, but one who needs the least. To learn that there are people who love them dearly, but simply have not yet learned how to express or show their feelings. To learn that two people can look at the same thing and see it differently. To learn that it is not enough that they forgive one another, but they must also forgive themselves.'

'Is there anything else you would like your children to know?' God smiled. 'Just that I am here...always.'

From the magazine of a parish situated in the path of the proposed Heathrow Third Runway.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Off to Japan!

This time tomorrow, we shall, God willing, be airbound for Tokyo! We are there till 31st, celebrating, Japanese-style, Leo's marriage to Mini. That takes place in Kyoto, but we shall be visiting other places whilst we are there, including Osaka, Koya-san and Yokohama.

(Yes, we have offset our carbon - not that I'm convinced that's much more than a cosmetic response to the runaway train of climate change. I see this as being both our first and our last visit to Japan.)

As Ida's second birthday is whilst we are en route, she commemorated it at the weekend, whilst staying with her father and grandparents in Dorset: we all met up for a jolly lunch there yesterday - see photograph.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Stern about

The Summerfield Lecture at this year's Cheltenham Festival of Literature was the most authoritative I've heard for many years. Nicholas Stern gave it, his delivery low-key, almost deadpan; his message dynamite.

He gave us the up to date scientific consensus: not small probabilities of something unpleasant because of climate change, but big probabilities of something catastrophic. "Business as usual" for the next 100 years means a 50% chance of the earth's temperature being higher than for 30 million years, and movement of peoples on a massive scale. "This is not a Black Swan event."

Lord Stern explained exactly what's needed to give ourselves an even chance of limiting temperature rise to something manageable: the target is an 80% cut in each inhabitant of Europe's carbon emissions by the time 40 years have elapsed.

We need to decarbonise electricity, and switch all transport to using electricity; we need to develop low-carbon technology in every sphere; and we need to halt deforestation. A new industrial revolution is required to achieve the low-carbon growth needed to overcome world poverty.

The lecturer was hopeful of a robust outcome of the conference at Copenhagen, seven weeks ahead, but negotiations were at a critical stage. "We have an agreement to lose."

Saturday, 17 October 2009

James Joyce

Declan Kiberd's Cheltenham Lecture yesterday represented for me all that's best about our Festival of Literature. Here spoke someone, of whom I'd never heard, on a topic of which I lived in some fear, and by whose language I was transported for the whole hour.

Professor Kiberd, looking a little like an apologetic Groucho Marx, flattered us initially by extolling Cheltenham: "one of the last of the intimate cities." As, he said, was Dublin at the time of Bloomsday, "the dailiest day". People walked. They must circulate in the city streets, like blood in the body, "the weather as uncertain as a baby's bottom" (Simon Dedalus). Bohemia in Dublin was compulsory: in Paris, optional. Joyce was in revolt against a sort of arrogant bohemianism: culture separated from everyday life.

The lecturer, as a writer on Ulysses, described himself as like a soccer correspondent for the book. He quoted the Balinese response to Margaret Mead: "We do everything as well as we can." Joyce would have liked that bit of self-help philosophy: he wants you to become the parent of your own reading. "The ordinary is the proper domain of the artist: the extraordinary can safely be left to journalists."

Kiberd was particularly strong on Joyce's love/hate relationship with Catholicism. Religion has declined into fretful rule-keeping, yet Joyce hung around churches in Holy Week, knew the Latin of the Triduum liturgy by heart, and particularly loved it when they sang Lumen Christi at the Easter Vigil. "Good idea the Latin. Stupifies them first;" but after saying this, Bloom administers his own viaticum, offering bits of white paper to the gulls in the Circe episode: when they aren't fooled, he resorts to Banbury cake. Later again, Bloom gives Stephen the Eucharistic coffee and bun.

The lecturer described Bloom as the womanly man, akin to the central figures in so many Shakespearean tragedies, as contrasted with the comedies' manly women heroines. And Stephen Dedalus took to drink as the shy person's revenge, his way of dealing with the insult of the actual.

I see from my copy of Ulysses that I tackled it 40 years ago: time now to do so again I believe.

Friday, 16 October 2009

A sustainable Festival?

Tim Smitt, responsible for "finding" the Lost Gardens of Heligan and for making a reality of the Eden Project, prowled around the Garden Theatre stage for an hour yesterday - a Festival of Literature event - with the large audience in the palm of his hand. He is a man of quite amazing energy. And given that he said he wanted to kill negative people, I need to tread carefully with my "But.."

Employment for Cornwall? Yes. Educational intent? Clearly of central importance. Local sourcing? Admirable. Encouragement to travel to the venues by public transport? Certainly. Sustainability rhetoric? In spades.

But what Tim Smitt has launched are massive, disruptive activities. And they need the hordes to keep on coming in. How much do peoples' visits really change their lives for the greener, rather than serve to enable them to tick one more must-see leisure destination off the list?

And I have the same sense of dissatisfaction with the Festival of Literature itself. So many thought-provoking events; but so little potential for any coherent building upon the process within the community! Like animals in our different cages at the zoo, we are fed tasty titbits by people of ideas; but at the hour's end, when they've signed their books, off they've snuck into the Writers' Room, having left us without any mechanism to connect up to discuss those ideas in a coordinated way, so that something may come from them. A sustainable Festival surely needs to develop some mechanism for follow-up.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Literary punishment

Old friends have been staying for the Cheltenham Literary Festival. They are gluttons for punishment, having sat through five separate events yesterday! We ourselves thought three were enough - but only overlapped on one occasion, Jenny Uglow talking about Charles II: a gambling man. (Here she is signing a book for Philip afterwards.)

I learnt a lot from Jenny Uglow's talk, or rather I relearnt it: I must have heard it all before at school, but that was long ago and far away. It's one of the pleasures of retirement that one can enjoy going back to school - even whilst remembering how painful school was in other ways. But I'm sure Fr. Hugh Aveling never told us that Charles II was grey-haired by the time he was 33, or that Louis XIV had 42 wigs.

Part of the enjoyment of the Uglow talk was that it was well-illustrated: Charles Saumarez Smith, on the other hand, who has spent all his life in the visual art world, gave us nothing to look at. Much as I enjoy the elegance of the way he speaks, it did make for rather a dry hour.

The most fun we had was with The Seven lives of John Murray, robustly chaired by Marcus Moore, with John Murray VII himself present on the platform, and going on tremendous riffs about authors published by his illustrious ancestors. Though the Murray archive has departed for Edinburgh, we learnt that 50 Albermarle Street was still full of an immense variety of items with disparate literary connections. A soufflé!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Cheltenham Christian Ecology Link

We had a good meeting at home last week, on Tuesday 6th, in a format rather different from the usual. There were 10 present, including a visitor from Zimbabwe, who led our concluding prayers. He described the steep inflation in Zimbabwe until recently, when the Zimbabwe dollar was replaced by the American dollar as the official currency. There is 90% unemployment. AIDS is rampant. Neither press nor radio is free internally. Farm invasions continue, and the new owners are far from being good stewards of their land. Tobacco production is one-third of what it was. There is little crop rotation. Cattle herds are almost all wiped out. Woodlands are cut away to provide fuel, and game reserves poached. Telephone lines are stolen for their copper content. In the cities, shanty towns are bulldozed. Foreign aid sent through the official channels is often sidelined.

On the other hand, there was much to be positive about. Many people in England raise funds, which are channelled through individuals in Zimbabwe, and used, for instance, to pay for schooling at primary, secondary and tertiary levels and in particular the relatively expensive exam fees, as well as other essentials. In the schools, the children are keen to learn. Committees made up of local women are often best fitted to know those in real need.

The country has gold, platinum and diamond reserves. And power-sharing has brought some improvements. Western democracy may be a long way off, but there is a strong sense of relationship, of family. The country's economy is kept afloat to a great extent by the generosity of its 3m overseas workers, who send hard currency home to their families. Many of these families include children whose parents have died of AIDS, and are being brought up by uncles, aunts and grandparents.

The country's Catholic bishops have spoken out: "God hears the cry of the oppressed!" was the title of a controversial pastoral letter a few years ago. "We are all guilty: we need reconciliation," is the theme of their latest, "God can heal the wounds of the afflicted," issued only on 1st October.

Although there is evidence that the cold season has lengthened over the years, there are as yet no great signs of climate change, as in Kenya. Greening the planet is not a live issue in Zimbabwe. Our visitor quoted the current Oxfam advertising: “People in developing countries aren’t thinking about how climate change will affect them. They already know.”

And although there was little tradition of thrift, there was a culture of sharing. Coming back to England for the first time for a couple of years, he was amazed by the range of goods available on supermarket shelves. "All we have is gift," he said: "Are we programmed to accept as gift, or are we programmed to accumulate possessions, and to go on doing so?"

It was, as I say, not like a normal Christian Ecology Link meeting; but it brought home to me the fundamental reason I belong to CEL: as a response to the need for the planet's resources to be cared for and shared out more fairly.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Brendel in tandem

Richard Stokes, Alfred Brendel's interlocutor on the stage of Cheltenham's Everyman Theatre last evening, and the celebrated, recently-retired pianist gave us full value for money. The Everyman is used during the Music Festival, of course, but Brendel, a frequent July visitor to Cheltenham during the greater part of his playing career, will probably never have graced its stage before last night's Festival of Literature event.

We were as surprised as the audience at the first performance of Beethoven's G Major piano concerto must have been, by Brendel starting by introducing his interviewer: a very civilised idea, I thought, and one which could well be replicated for other events.

The two were obviously good friends, Professor Stokes being able to bring out twin aspects of his subject, his high seriousness and his impish, almost schoolboy humour. As Brendel said, wit and profundity are not mutually exclusive. In some works, Beethoven Op 31 no 1 was an example he gave, when a pianist hasn't made an audience laugh, he should become an organist.

As an illustration that a musician needs to sing and speak in tandem, we were treated to a story passed down by the late Sándor Végh: as a young violinist, he was playing for Chaliapin. "You can sing well on the violin, but you don't speak enough," the Russian bass advised. Later, Végh said he learnt the "speaking" from Casals.

Last night, the pair were introduced by current Festival Director, Meurig Bowen (seen here at the outset - I wasn't allowed to take photographs later on). I was proud to see my 1976 photograph of Alfred and Adrian Brendel, with Imogen Cooper plus Greenway cat, flashed up on the big screen.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Putin: the fear of God in me

For many years I have supported Pax Christi in a very small way, and believed in the vital importance of reconciliation between peoples. So, I was distressed last night to hear Oleg Gordievsky talking in Cheltenham Town Hall about the implacable determination of Russia, in the thrall of Putin and his cronies, to rebuild the Soviet Empire by all means at its disposal.

He spoke in hair-raising terms about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko three years ago in London, as well as his own dramatic escape to Finland in June 1985. Without having the opportunity to take him up on his pessimistic forebodings, I sat opposite him afterwards at a sponsors' dinner, given by the Summerfield Charitable Trust to mark its 20th anniversary. (Here he is with one of the Summerfield Trustees. The hyperlink is to the Trust's anniversary publication, which - as I mentioned a while back - I was pleased to have had a hand in.)

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Cheltenham Festival of Literature

Once more, we are in the thick of the Literary Festival hereabouts. More people than ever have been clogging the Town Hall corridors this weekend. Imperial Gardens is a tented city, on a scale which would amaze the Festival's founders of 1949 - or even those running the 1999 Festival I daresay.

The traditional Friends' stall has now been more or less hijacked by the Festival organisers. I did a stint on it last night. There are the traditional piles of books - mainly poetry - but though commerce was brisk for cards, mugs, tea towels, shopping bags etc., I sold just one book. This says it all to me about the way the Festival has morphed.

Saturday, 10 October 2009


MEANTIME is described as an independent arts platform for the production and presentation of new work, dialogue and exchange, supported by Arts Council England, Arts Development and Virtual Arts Centre at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, and the University of Gloucestershire.

Its entrance, tucked away behind the multiplex cinema, is not promising, but belies a useful first floor space - perhaps the only one of its type in central Cheltenham since the closure of the Axiom. Its occupant/exhibitor these last couple of days has been a young artist, Ben Garrod, with his "Photounrealistic Painting" show.

Ben bafflingly - to me - introduces his work as follows: "Taking a JPG from the MT website, I made it a BMP & using MSP pixelated a section with the simplest resizing operation possible. Thus losing much of the already sparse 411. With an R285 @ BSU it went from RGB to CMYK. & @ the DDC the colours were re-photographed and mixed into the appropriate VM bases. So through the process described above PBW became 15 others, mainly 30BB38037 & 1015R70B with some Martian Skies. This piece is concerned primarily with the creeping dissolution of the space between space & information & is inspired in part by Gregg Egan's PKD award winning novel Permutation City."

What it really seems to amount to is that he's taken part of someone else's digital photograph of MEANTIME's North end wall, blown it up, and painted the resulting pixels as equivalent panels with approximately the same colour in Dulux paint. Ben will correct me, no doubt if I've got quite the wrong end of the stick.

During my visit this morning, the sun shone obligingly in just the way it had done when the original photograph was taken.

Despite Ben saying the process was more important to him than the end result, that was of course all I could judge - and I liked it.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Feathered friends

Our back garden now has a new structure, so magnificent as almost - one would think - to require planning permission. It contains two chickens, much to the delight of Ida, Agnes and Caroline.