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And so, early in March, to Linford Wood, in Milton Keynes, while the trees are still bare:

Sad to say the wood sculptures are not what they once were – the grand old bearded philosopher and the big gorilla are long-lost to the elements – but it’s still a worthwhile wander, eyes primed for the crafted creatures; the bluebells will be out again soon and there’s a decent chance of seeing a jay.  Here’s one of the survivors:

2011

2017

Meanwhile, back indoors …

Engrossing evening of a dialogue outside ‘the bubble’ with Milton Keynes Humanists guest speaker Salah Al-Ansari, Senior Researcher with the Quilliam Foundation, an academic theologian and a practising imam.  Salah is one of the leading lights of the liberal wing of his faith – what is becoming known as Reform Islam – which recognises the Koran as a sacred text but significantly also regards it very much as an historical document – pretty much as the Christian Bible is seen by most these days.

A wide-ranging, open-ended conversation ensued, which was both enlightening and entertaining.  Salah kicked off the discussion with the view that we should be talking about Islams in the plural.  Interesting to learn that when he was studying to become an imam in an Egyptian university, his professor was a woman.  It was agreed that secularism does not imply atheism.  Positive change, albeit slow and not so often visible, is happening among the Islamic communities.  An ex-Muslim atheist in the audience added spice.  There is more about Salah at www.quilliaminternational.com/about/staff/salah-al-ansari/ and from there, if you are not familiar with them, it is well worth exploring the work of the anti-extremist (from all sides) Quilliam Foundation further.

Because it was there

I have piles of books I intend to read but I often take an impulse book out from the local library for no other reason than because it’s there.  The library I mean.  Use it or lose it!  Hence the next book, that happened to catch my eye.

I’ve always looked upon the American artist Edward Hopper as the painter’s equivalent of a one hit wonder – you know, the haunting Nighthawks, all the lonely people in that late night cafe.  Ivo Kranzfelder‘s Edward Hopper 1882-1967: Vision of reality (Taschen, 1995/2006) has disabused me of this but, to continue the metaphor, I still wouldn’t want more than a single disc ‘Best of’, and vinyl at that.  A bit samey, and I’m not convinced by the (please don’t take this the wrong way) proportions and posture of some of his women (like the one on the book’s cover, actually).

It’s a handsomely produced volume, with some stunning black and white photos by Hans Namuth of the man himself, not least those taken in places he painted.  Frankly, sometimes I struggle with writing about painters and what they were trying to do, and a chapter head like The secularization of experience doesn’t help.  Apparently he didn’t say much about it himself, but what did strike me was that 1942’s Nighthawks, and a number of his other more well-known paintings, were being done at precisely the same time as Abstract Expressionism (not that I’ve got much against …) was evolving and taking hold of American art in New York.  So good for him for sticking to his guns to the end.

Anyway, not to in any way get things out of proportion, I have to claim it was a bit of a trauma – after all the landscapes, townscapes, buildings, room interiors, urban scenes and absorbed individuals, all the mustards and terracotta, muted browns, dull turquoise, beiges, greys and olive greens – to turn over from page 105 and suddenly be all at sea; as it happens one of these was the first painting he ever sold.  Normal service was quickly restored.

What it says on the poster

Staying in the library, I learned a bit and was mightily entertained by this FoSSL (Friends of Stony Stratford Library) presentation. The turbo-driven opening chords of musical director Paul Martin on the mandola suggested we were in for a treat and so it proved.  Shakespeare – a musical celebration, curated by Vicki Shakeshaft, was a fascinating and nicely paced mix of music, songs (take a bow soloist Simon Woodhead), readings and contextual history with a colourful morris dance duo thrown in for good measure.  And all, if my powers of recall are functioning properly, without resort to “If music be the food of love …”  Came as a surprise to me that “Who is Sylvia / What is she” was the Bard’s (from Two gentlemen of Verona – if asked I’d have said music hall), and my English teacher never told me that Hamlet’s advice to the players was a rant and that “Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them” was a gripe at Shakespeare’s company’s erstwhile clown, Will Kemp, who once morris danced from London to Norwich.

Further musical adventures

No poster for the early March Vaultage, but it was a good ‘un.  Folkish duo Phil Riley & Neil Mercer – guitar and mandolin – did a great set of their own material with a singalong of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the free world somewhere in the middle, finishing with a thrilling Russian folk dance-based tune.  Oi!  The March Aortas – nice and varied – deserves a mention too.

First Scribal I’ve managed this year  – Out! Damn virus! – was another good one too.  Stephen Ferneyhough kicked off with a musical history of the Brackley Morris with one of those squeeze box things – I can never remember which is which.  A storming set from featured singer Bella Collins – great voice and material (folk, blues and beyond), skilled emphatic guitar, foot stomping on the floor.  Own songs and a couple of covers – Jimmy Reed’s Shame, shame, shame morphing into Prince’s Kiss and back again!  Stephen Hobbs is wearing his bardship well, as if there was any chance he wouldn’t.  Mark ‘Slowhand’ Owen’s dazzling fretwork on one of his songs had a couple of us fearing for our own fingers just thinking about it.

And finally … best book review ever (click on the picture if you can’t read what’s between the cat’s legs):

 

 

 

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WNOWNO MOF2I’m sorry, I see that logo and just think: wino.

Last time I saw the Welsh National Opera I was dipping a toe into Wagnerian waters with their Flying Dutchman, which was set on … a spaceship in outer space.  Not great.  That was a few years ago, but you can’t go wrong with Mozart, can you?  No, not really.  It was fine, glad I went – for all the spareness of the set, it was a nice spectacle, fine ensemble playing and voices, some fine melody lines and a real orchestra.  Still comes as a surprise to me how rhythmic Mozart can be; had a good beat.

The WNO Marriage of Figaro started off all Brechtian with the main performers just sauntering on with the lights still up, ‘doing’ their stretches and other prep stuff, which has a certain charm the first time it’s done.  Then there was the shock of them singing in English – a first for me.  I didn’t like it; still had the sub-titles over the top of the stage, because it remains difficult to actually hear the words being sung, but where you could some of the rhyming was treacherous.  And I was thrown by the wedding coming in the third act of a four act opera, and, to tell the truth, didn’t have much of a clue as to what exactly was going on in the forest in the fourth, given they were all in black cloaks and distinguishable only by the colour of their masks as the intrigue unfolded.  Should have done some homework.  No, really: I had a good time.

Mrs Hemingway

Mrs.Hemingway

There are four Mrs. Hemingways in Naomi Wood‘s beautifully constructed novel Mrs. Hemingway (Picador, 2014), though no actual marriage ceremonies feature in the action.  The cover’s a superb piece of book design – subject, period, delicate visual balance: great job.  And what is inside is up to it – a lovely, compelling piece of work.

Mr. Hemingway is writer Ernest Hemingway.  If it were a movie you’d say starring four women and featuring a man.  You don’t get inside his head, but, of course, it’s more than a bit part.  On one level you could say it’s a case study of the old chestnut: how come strong intelligent women fall for selfish bastards?  But there are plenty of good times, and this is no hatchet job.  Nevertheless, from the time when he and Hadley got together in the ’20s to the distressing end with Mary nearly half a century later, he never spent a single day as an unattached single man.

It’s Mrs.Hemingway number 3 – fellow war correspondent and writer Martha Gellhorn, the one who was able to get over him – who, at the house in Cuba, in 1944, is allowed a judgment:

He sat down by her; his T-shirt smelled of the cocktail.  “What can I do for you, Marty?”  His words were gentle now.  Poor Ernest.  He had never loved another more than he himself was loved.

But it was still her who describes him, in August in Paris later that year, during a caddish episode that does not show him at his best:

A man stands with his hands deep in the garbage cans.  Somehow, among the empty wine bottles, broken wooden crates, slimed scraps of food, Ernest still has the air of a man in touch with the gods.

Mrs. Hemingway is arranged in four sections, arranged chronologically by wife as each of them picks up the narrative baton, though it jumps around, criss-crossing in time and place within and between those sections, taking in Chicago, Paris, Arkansas, Antibes, Florida, Havana, London and, finally, Ketchum, Idaho, and ranging over the years from 1920, when Hadley first met Ernest in Chicago (which is not the opening chapter), to 1961 and Ernest’s suicide.  It’s quite a story, skillfully and stylishly handled.  “My wives,” he tells Mary, the last wife, who stayed with him longest, to the distressing end, “They have a way of finding each other without me being involved a jot.”  It is precisely the discovery of this aspect of it all that, the author says (in a bonus afterword in the Richard & Judy Book Club edition I read), prompted her to write the novel: “I was swiftly realising that though the wives and mistresses of Ernest Hemingway were enemies, they were also, quite often, friends.

The end – Mary witnessing his physical and mental deterioration – is painful to read:

Sometimes she walks out to the woods: the leaves of the cedar and birch are just on the turn.  fall has come so quickly, and the forest is all mustards, rust and blood.  Having loved its beauty so intensely, it amazes her that Ernest is blind to it now.

Ernest and Hadley in Pamplona 1925

OK, it’s Spain 1925, not Paris, but you get the drift. That’s Hadley in the middle.

This is a tremendous, ultimately sad, novel.  It’s clear an enormous amount of research went into it and, again in that afterword, Naomi Wood admits “… sometimes, in the midst of love letters and torn-up photographs, I felt like the fifth mistress.”  Mary Chapin Carpenter has a song called Mrs. Hemingway; it’s Hadley looking back on her time with Ernest in Paris in the mid-1920s, the time celebrated in A moveable feast, Hemingway’s memoir of those times which was assembled by Mary from his manuscripts and notes, and published after his death.  It’s a lovely piece of work that is on YouTube with an atmospheric slideshow of photographs, mostly from that era, including some of the couple.  Here’s the link; have a hankie ready: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j68s-C1ikO0

Scribal April 2016Vaultage mid-April 2016Another Scribal goodie.  We got a full complement of Roses and Pirates, previously mentioned in despatches minus a cello player, and mighty fine they were too.  The cellist (“Amy Farrah Fowler” said my companion) kicked off with some charming pizzicato and added a lot to the mix, even when, “relegated to percussion” (and I quote a fellow band member).  Three women with some decent songs and stirring harmonies, delivered with humour and zest.

Lee Nelson – the Lutonia poet, not the alleged London comedian – gave us a great set.  We had the Human League’s Don’t you want me completely re-written in sonnet form, which worked delightfully; the recognition of the sentiments re-imagined in a different lingua franca, without any resort to easy laughs (the concept is wry enough), was illuminating.  Lee has published a slim volume giving each track on the Dare album the treatment, so he asked for requests; inevitably someone asked for the instrumental.  Lee, you should get that slim volume a mention on the Dare Wikipedia page.  He’s now working on Abba, and he gave us one of those too.   Highlight of a varied set, though, was the epic 97, a funny and ultimately moving memoir of his father, written in part as a response to a request for something to go in a prime numbers-themed anthology, leavened by beautifully crafted tangents concerning the writing of the piece and other things on the way.  Outstanding.

Mid-month Vaultage saw a fine 30-minute spot to host Pat Nicholson in DADGAD mode.  I knew there was something different about him … he was performing … without a … hat.

Rhyme & ReasonMK HumsRhyme & Reason

The regular Milton Keynes Humanists April meeting was given over entirely to a look at poetry on humanist themes, and an absorbing evening it turned out to be, with featured poets Danni Antagonist (who sold some books!) and Sam Upton in fine form, and members of the group doing their own stuff, reciting old favourites or texts chosen specifically for the occasion.  Of the latter, Abul Al Al Ma’arri, a blind Arab eleventh century poet was something of an eye-opener.  There’s an article by Kenan Malik (The poetry of an old atheist) which is well worth a look, from which this short poem is taken;

Traditions come from the past, of high import if they be True;
Ay, but weak is the chain of those who warrant their truth.
Consult thy reason and let perdition take others all:
Of all the conference Reason best will counsel and guide.

Yup, dateline: 11th century, Aleppo and Baghdad.

 

 

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Quite why this cartoon strikes me as the funniest I’ve seen in a long while, I’m not sure.  Displacement?  Modern anxieties, feelings of inadequacy expressed in a historical situation, another time, another place, a movie cliché at that?  Allied, of course, to the drawn body language.

As the line at the bottom betrays, it’s lifted from the bi-monthly New Humanist magazine, November/December cover date. The one with Al Murray on the cover – “Of course there is a god, and he’s British.  The Bible’s in English isn’t it?“- if you can find it on magazine racks anywhere.  If I’ve infringed copyright it’s because I’m trying to spread the word (to the select few who land and linger on Lillabullero, so no great invasion methinks) and Chris Collins deserves the exposure.

Great magazine, published by the Rationalist Association,  with a strapline of ‘Ideas for godless people,’ though I wouldn’t say godlessness necessarily precludes finding something of interest (like the affectionate interview with ex-Communard turned vicar Richard Coles).  £3.95 if, as I say, you can find it anywhere, though there is plenty – including the  cartoon – to sample on its website here.  Well designed, nicely illustrated and full of articles, journalism, think pieces, interviews, reviews, humour, great cartoons (well up to Private eye standard) and a regular Lawrie Taylor tailpiece.

And here’s a joke I came across in the Guardian’s Football Blog last Friday, where it was credited to “the sparkling” Simon Hoggart: “Did you hear Greece has banned exports of hummus and taramasalata? They’re in a double-dip recession.

Unexpected quote from Alison Graham in the Radio Times on Nirvana last week: “a quick blast of Smells like Teen Spirit is enough to clean anyone’s spiritual and emotional pipes“.  Well, yes.  And more prime words from her leading up to the Downton Abbey 2nd Season Finale:

I must admit I have always had an odd relationship with Downton, more Stockholm Syndrome than actual love.  I watch, see only its flaws, yet I am captivated and chained to the door handle.  Not Patty Hearst captivated; if Robert, earl of Grantham told me to rob a bank while wearing a beret, I wouldn’t.  But it always reels me in, despite my sturdy defences (cynicism, ruthlessness, a refusal to admit to weakness).”
Which is probably why I recoil in horror at the very idea of actually watching it; that and a reversion to class war instincts.  But,  I have to remind myself, the show certainly brings out the best in AG.

More Crossword wit
, courtesy of the Guardian’s compilers.  First some satisfying anagrams, starting with a couple of classics:
  • from Rufus: Stomach is churning – but he enjoys it! (9) 
  • from Tramp: Philosopher unconventional to realist (9)
  • from Gordius: The gaps it managed to fill (9)
  • from the mighty Araucaria: He was beat and needed a cure all right (7)
  • from relative new boy Bonxie: City slam United – that’s inexplicable! (8)

And now some more with musical subjects:

  • a couple from Rufus: Put on heavy music symbolic of Ireland (8) 
  • Four on the fiddle (6,7)
  • genius from another newie, Tramp: Singer has straight daughter – alternatively the opposite (7)
  • and from Gordius: Egg breaks listener rising to music (6)
Answers further down the page, under this photo of Robert Koenig‘s Tripod man, carved from the wood of a single oak tree, part of an interesting exhibition curated by The Public Arts Trust to be found at the side of John Lewis (the Collections side) in the Milton Keynes Shopping Centre mall (oh, all right: the centre:MK), which is there until March 2012.
Crossword answers:
Anagrams: Masochist / Aristotle / Spaghetti / Kerouac (a cure OK) / Mystical (6-1 was the score, I seem to recall)
Musical: Shamrock (groan) / String quartet (groan) / Orbison (or-bi-son!!) / Reggae (ear-egg) (not your normal crossword word)

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