Friday, 27 December 2013

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

Drop reluctant children at Camborne station to go up to Devon to other family Christmas celebrations.
They say that they feel like Masaccio's painting Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (that I do not know) and send a link from Tiverton Parkway where they are due to get off the train ....

Repeated journeys become a form of autobiography. So many departures from Camborne - and arrivals.

Monday, 23 December 2013

For in the wilderness shall waters break out

Emily Dickinson: "The soul should always stand ajar, ready."
But for what? Revelation? Insight? Peace?
There's so little stillness in life usually.
We're just about ready for Christmas and think about turning off phones and wifi: so much virtual noise and hubbub.
Outside the weather is rough.

Putting material things and basic physical needs aside - food - shelter - warmth - what does everyone yearn for?
Someone - I wish I remember who - said that he never met anyone whose greatest need was not to be loved. Less obliquely: everyone's greatest need is to be loved, however hidden that need may be.
So what could the soul open to? Traditionally - something that sorts things out and makes sense of life. The end of having to organise, make things happen - making things right - the end of a personal attempt to order the chaos. Back to Isaiah:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be unstopped, and the ears of the deaf shall be opened.
Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert.
And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water.....

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Facing down the demons

"I know that i could never do nothing."
"I think you'd better start getting rid of that frame of mind as soon as possible ...'s all right to want to do something - but it's not all right to do something just because you're afraid of doing nothing."
Losing self, identity and ego:
".... emptied himself, taking the form of a slave."
To what extent is ego necessary? Iris Murdoch thought the ego was messy - and hampered clear vision and perception of truth. Need to read more about her idea of 'unselfing."
But perhaps politicians need ego: perhaps activists do.
Three days until Christmas: the tree is cut.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The journey of the Magi and getting lost on the way home

Tomorrow will be a longer day. Today is the Winter Solstice.

Start the day thinking of the journey of the Magi and T S Eliot's poem - this is the dead of winter.
"A cold coming we had of it
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, such a long journey
The ways deep and the weather
The very dead of winter."

It seems like it in St Just - though there is a good fire in the King's Arms.

"Why did you go to Jerusalem?"
Because it's the centre of civilisation - western civilisation - Christianity and Christian thought is at the centre of western civilisation. You can't ignore Jerusalem.
"Judeo-Christianity, you mean. Remember the Jews have been around a lot longer than Christians."

Granite doesn't always lift the spirits. The church is grim in the fading light - but inside a revelation - a Reredos carved in Derbyshire alabaster, so delicately that the back light shines through and gives it the depth of a painting. On the left hand side are the Three Magi - the theme of the day. (The Church guide says this was presented to the church in 1896 in memory of William Holman, owner of a local foundry based in Tregeseal. The Holmans were - perhaps - based in Camborne.)

The gifts carried by the Three Kings not as interesting as their journey - I've always thought. The gifts were symbolic.... gold for a king and precious spices to embalm a dead body.  Charged with meaning - what gifts for a baby.

But the journey was dangerous.
They had to find an alternative route home. Any association with the new King of the Jews was already dangerous.
They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod: 'They returned into their own country a different way."
Love the idea of 'a different way'.
A huge flag is propped in one corner of the church - so huge that it fills the corner from ceiling to floor. It's not a flag, in fact - it's an ensign. It was given to the church for safekeeping by a famous son of St Just, Captain Russell Grenfell. It was the ensign of HMS Revenge and was flown on 31 May 1916 at the Battle of Jutland. A symbol flown at the start of another journey -  into battle.

On the way home get utterly lost in unknown country near New Mill - or was it New Bridge. Narrow lanes and no signs. Sat Nav is not working. Stop to ask a man in blue overalls who is washing his car in the dark. Behind him is a huge outdoors Christmas tree, festooned in lights.
"Well, if I was going to Camborne, I'd go straight up this road, along, turn right, go on, up the hill, down over the river, past the woods into Gulval ...." Such long directions -  he loses me. "Or else you can just turn around and go straight back to Penzance."
Retracing steps is never seems an option. It always seems a defeat - and tedious.

Friday, 20 December 2013

An end to travelling - at least for today

Wild wind and rain outside: the anenomes from London have arrived safely enough. A present from Tessa at a party earlier in the week: from one celebration to another in a plastic bag on the luggage rack....
Others have suffered a bit more - white petals are more vulnerable.

My brother picks me up from the station: the nicest moment of Christmas so far.
Two interesting thoughts from the journey:
"Men truly manifest themselves in the long pattern of their acts, and not in any nutshell of self theory."
The Black Prince/Iris Murdoch
"You can recognise a lunatic by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars."
Foucault's Pendulum/Umberto Eco
March 2014 will be the 700th anniversary of Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Templars who was burned at the stake in Paris

Journey west

The Grillo sisters have been found not guilty. Watch the 1 o'clock news while waiting for the taxi.
A very measured taxi driver who asks if I've remembered everything: sunglasses, phone charger - tickets...."So many times I have people who are stressed, who forget tickets... one man, his wife said 'Where's your wedding ring?' He said 'I took it off when I washed my hands.' We had to drive back, down the M4 because they were going to a wedding and people would ask what was going on and think there was trouble in the marriage if he wasn't wearing a wedding ring.... another man, the children go to school on Brook Green, I do not know what is the matter with that man. He is in the car with his children and says ' What is two times two?' and the little girl is shaking and crying and her sister whispers 'Four'. Then he starts shouting 'How many times have I told you? Do you never listen?!'
"His wife is nice, very pretty. He's a bad man, I see him plenty of times with other girls. I've heard him talking in Polish, Eastern European girls, I know a bit of Polish. Once he was in the car with his wife and he had his laptop and she started shouting and crying and saying 'Why are you taking that? We are only going away for a few days.' He said there were things he needed to do.
"The last time I saw her I said 'How's your husband?' and she said don't talk about him, he's gone.
"Another woman with two children, 14 and 18, the husband went off but she said she loved him and took him back. But the son says he hates him.
"I came from Afghanistan. I saw my brother killed in a rocket attack, my mother had a heart attack. I came here... first to Thailand with the UN, then here...."
"Who helped you get your papers?"
"The UN, I came here with the UN. I was so lonely, I was sitting in the park, crying, I didn't know anyone. Then I started to work, got this taxi."
A mass exodus at Paddington, though I have seen worse. It's not quite Christmas Eve.

A perfect seat.
The man in front of me is talking about his dinner the night before ".... roast potatoes, turkey, pigs in blankets and ... and guess how much it all cost? Oh, don't be silly! £15 - so that's only £5 each.... Adam says the car park opposite his house is free after 8 o'clock.... if it's raining I'll drive and pick him up..."

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Savoy cabbage and paths to nowhere

The Savoy cabbage leaf looks like a map, covered with lanes and roads but with no places and no destinations - just paths.  All journeys have points of departure but not all have destinations.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013


Someone at work tells me that a 'feast' in the Catholic tradition means a celebration of eight days.

Like the idea: maybe all celebrations should last several days. My birthday celebrations are limping on. Always difficult to celebrate in the midst of office Christmas parties. Someone a few feet from me has bare legs and diamante sandals. The coal fire isn't lit, strangely. Outside driving rain and wind on Pall Mall.

Three hundred miles away, things are ready for Christmas.

Shining leaves of pagan light in the depths of winter - the shine of holly and ivy thought to be magical in winter when everything else lost its colour. They say it's bad luck to take ivy indoors. Luckily glorious holly - speckled with the symbolic blood of Christ? - has no such aura. Stored (above) in a bucket in the cold in a shed in Cornwall until it's time to take indoors.

Feast too the name of a cookery book (a Christmas present a few years ago - alas never much opened) by Nigella Lawson. The trial continues: more testimony today from assistants accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands. They are out to discredit her and it is as if she is on trial. So many details aired in public - drug use, florists' bills, rolled up bank notes, white powder around her nostrils - who knows whether true or not. But the suggestions are like debris - flotsam somehow washing up against her.


Sunday, 15 December 2013

And the leopard shall lie down with the kid

The thundering voices of the Hebrew prophets are relevant during Advent - predictions of the changing and transformation of the world....

"The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid..."

Reading a sermon from St James's Piccadilly (a new Sunday morning ritual):  Lucy Winkett suggests that we walk by faith - not by sight. That is how the unimaginable happens: the Berlin Wall falls; the British Prime Minister apologises for Bloody Sunday; apartheid ends in South Africa.

A wolf lying down next to a lamb is unthinkable.
What we need  is persistent, hopeful imagination.

Clearing out the kitchen - these corks don't look like corks at all. Collected together in a jumble they have become something else altogether.

A storm in the night and the gable end of the neighbour's barn conversion - in mid construction - falls in.
Water has crept down into the cob walls since the roof was taken off.  It's all very nervewracking, he tells me: ' We've put some fairy lights up to make things more Christmassy.'

The rain continues: a cleansing perhaps.

Friday, 13 December 2013

St Lucy's Day and a dark start to the morning


'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks 
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ; 
        The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
  For I am every dead thing, 
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.         
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
  I, by Love's limbec, am the grave 
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ; 
Were I a man, that I were one 
 I needs must know ; I should prefer,       
   If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun 
At this time to the Goat is run 
 To fetch new lust, and give it you,       
  Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.
 John Donne

On the 730am train from Paddington.  The train ahead has problems with its doors. ...

Dawn is breaking as we wait.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

A hint of Bethlehem

The Christmas decorations in the Queen Adelaide,  Uxbridge Road, have something of the lights in the Church of the Holy Nativity. ...

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Christmas decorations and a thought of Caesar

My daughter notes that our Christmas arrangement might have been worn by Caesar, had he been Christmassy....

Sunday, 8 December 2013

What is prayer and a sermon from St James's Piccadilly

It's already the second Sunday of Advent. Find a sermon from Hugh Valentine at St James's Piccadilly who talks about the need for galvanising action and change - moving from darkness into light. He quotes Romans 11:
'The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.'
And American poet Mary Oliver: 'Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?'
Advent: the coming of light.
Mary Oliver's poem doesn't resonate with me. But I do like Carol Ann Duffy's poem on prayer. I remember Phillip Douglass, then vicar of Crowan, reading this one very cold winter night in the church one Sunday evening, prior to 20 minutes of meditation, by candle light. 


Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child's name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer -
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

Carol Ann Duffy

Friday, 6 December 2013

Christmas rituals

Our crib seems very crude this year. It always was, I guess (bought in haste in King's Mall, Hammersmith, many years ago.) But after visiting Bethlehem, it is a shock to take the white porcelain figures out of the tissue paper that wraps them year after year. These are totems, a symbolic representation.

Jewelled madonnas

Now home, I have a chance to assemble photos of jewelled Madonnas ( and a sacred infant). No doubt all are thought to work miracles. The jewels and embellishment don't only add monetary value. Somehow too they embellish the meaning.

  • the Madonna in the Russian mission in Jerusalem - here...
  • The jewelled bambino at S. Maria in Aracoeli in Rome - here on my keyring.

And much more gloriously in situ. I love the Santo Bambino: so very grim and determined.

A real miracle-worker - carved, some say, out of wood from the Garden of Gethsemane. Famously described by Charles Dickens in Pictures from Italy, 1846:

"I met this same Bambino in the street a short time afterwards going , in great state, to the house of some sick person. It is taken to all parts of Rome for this purpose, constantly; but, I understand that it is not always as successful as could be wished; for, making its appearance at the bedside of weak and nervous people in extremity, accompanied by a numerous escort, it not unfrequently frightens them to death. It is most popular in cases of childbirth, where it has done such wonders, that if a lady be longer than usual in getting through her difficulties, a messenger is dispatched, with all speed, to solicit the immediate attendance of the Bambino. It is a very valuable property, and much confided in - especially by the religious body to whom it belongs. "

  • 3. The Madonna in I Gesuati Church in Venice. 

Polarisation and unexpected viewpoints

The view from the terrace outside  my window at Ecce Homo convent was panoramic. Hard to have such a wide and inclusive view of the situation in Israel.

Have been thinking - since I've been back - about people's thoughts and reactions to Palestine.
Remember talking at Ecce Homo convent - over my hard-won half bottle of wine - to an American couple about the Palestinian territories - they asked about my visit to Bethlehem.

I said how confusing it was - and how complicated. That the Palestinians have used terror to further their cause, which could surely never be justified.
What else could they do? What else is left to them? said my companions.
Was surprised.

Then remembered working at Christian Aid in the early 2000s on the aftermath of visits by MPs to the West Bank arranged by the Middle East team. The results had proved controversial. Christian Aid had achieved its aim by encouraging debate and throwing a spotlight on the situation in the Palestinian territories.
But Jenny Tonge, then Lib Dem Mp for Richmond, not long afterwards said she might consider becoming a suicide bomber if she lived in the Palestinian territories which resulted in her being sacked from the Lib Dem frontbench.
Oona King wrote in the Guardian:
"The original founders of the Jewish state could surely not imagine the irony facing Israel today: in escaping the ashes of the Holocaust, they have incarcerated another people in a hell similar in its nature - though not its extent - to the Warsaw ghetto."
The Holocaust comparison came up during our trip to Bethlehem - our guide Yamen had said that he had said something similar on a previous trip. A Jewish woman in the bus had become hysterical - shouting and crying. He was surprised.
But it's a meaningless - emotive - and ultimately uninformed comparison.

Religion, politics and territory?

Talk to various people when I'm back. What is Jerusalem about? What drives life? I had thought when there that was about religion - that faith was the driving force behind everything that happened.
Others say is more about territory, power and strategic interests.
A brutal place in very many ways.
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gatherest her chickens under her wings and ye would not."  Matthew 23:37

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Thoughts on pilgrimage

A walk uphill through crowds from the convent to Damascus Gate.
Stop at my now favourite cafe en route. They are putting up even more Christmas decorations.

A shared taxi to the airport. Meet a party of 77 pilgrims from the Catholic Diocese of Westminster including someone who had once been interested in volunteering at Notre Dame Refugee Centre - with whom I have exchanged emails. What a coincidence. He is now working as Communications Officer for the Diocese. He says that the tour has been good - visiting one sacred site after another. It has been exhausting.

This is exactly what I didn't want to do. Ironically the journey was the important thing: making the effort to get here; working it out; carrying on, even though I really at one stage thought what on earth am I doing - even as I sat on the plane after we arrived at Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv, waiting for everyone to file off.

All that quickly disappeared - probably as I got out of the Nesser taxi at Damascus Gate and the driver shook my hand and said 'Welcome to Israel'. Then walking to Damascus Gate and up to the hotel - the light - the fruit - the smells - the excitement.

Have had few insights into the life of the soul: but interesting thoughts about seeing as praying and what faith means and might mean.

Jerusalem is probably about what faith means - it seems to be as I write at the airport.

Food is very expensive at the airport but am starving. A last Palestinian beer and - ridiculously - a slice of pizza.

A walk up the Mount of Olives

The Mount of Olives gets a very bad press. My American dinner companions last night said they were warned against it by people at reception downstairs when they checked in.
I ask the man there when I try and book a taxi much later for the airport tomorrow (it is in fact too late to book a taxi): he says that it is fine if you go in the day time; obviously don't take all your money with you. They had a guest who wandered over to the Garden of Gethsemane at dusk and came back crying because someone had robbed her money. What did she expect, was the implication - I quite agree - what did she expect.
The Via Dolorosa seems to lead straight to the gate out to the hillside. It's busy. Coaches parked by the side of the road sparkle up the hill.
The olive trees are enclosed by a wall.- you can't go near them - and they are clearly very very old.

There are taxi drivers outside, people selling trinkets as ever - a taxi back to the old City?
Up the hill (it is still before 10) the road rises and has a Mediterranean feel. Bougainvillea. People arrive in groups, so if you wait for groups to pass you have the place more or less to yourself.
The Russian Orthodox Church - Mary Magdalene - opens at 10am on Tuesdays and Thursdyas.
Wait outside and play chess on my phone. Ten minutes.
Glorious gold onion domes.

Inside a nun is tranquilly lighting one taper on each of the stands, to get things going.
I sit for a while then suddenly think I will read the Bible. Why not read what the apostles said about the Mount of Olives. Wandering in the garden at night. Strange that I didn't think of referring back to the source text before. Somehow the words make sense of everything.
The domestic touches that reveal life in the religious community.... here geraniums.

Further up the hill pass the Jewish graveyard. Here thousands wait for the resurrection: they face the Temple Mount, just visible from the gate through the pine trees. Someone is looking for a tomb...

The gold dome of the Temple Mount visible and - below only just - the thousands of Muslim tombs.
Both Jews and Muslims believe that the Last Judgement will be held in Kedron Valley - between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives.
Then what everyone calls the 'tear drop church ' - Dominus Flevit.
There are tours in the garden outside: groups leaders talking and explaining. The view across to the old City is spectacular. It is built here for a reason. The window behind the altar (which faces the Temple Mount) is clear.

There is a Latin inscription with Luke X1X v.41

"And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it.
Saying, if though hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.
For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side."

The altar is built against a window, which is of clear glass. Behind is the Temple Mount. Everything has come to pass, it seems.
Walk back into the town and a woman in a headscarf near Lion's Gate asks me for directions in Russian to Mary Magdalene church. Have lost all Russian.
Hasten to the Austrian Hospice. It is like stepping into Vienna and there are palm trees in the garden. Americano with hot milk and apple strudel. Send a picture to an Austrian friend.

Reading and watching

  • Foot by Foot to Santiago de Compostela/Judy Foot
  • The Testament of Mary with Fiona Shaw at the Barbican
  • The Testament of Mary/Colm Toibin
  • Schwanengesang/Schubert - Tony Spence
  • Journals/Robert Falcon Scott
  • Fugitive Pieces/Ann Michaels
  • Unless/Carol Shields
  • Faust/Royal Opera House
  • The Art of Travel/Alain de Botton
  • Mad Men Series 6
  • A Week at The Airport/Alain de Botton
  • The Railway Man/Eric Lomax
  • Bright Lights, Big City/Jay McInerney
  • Stones of Venice/John Ruskin
  • The Sea, the Sea/Iris Murdoch
  • Childe Harold/Lord Byron
  • All The Pretty Horses/Cormac McCarthy
  • Extreme Rambling/Mark Thomas
  • Story of my Life/Jay McInerney
  • Venice Observed/Mary McCarthy