Beyond the book……

pile of books

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are times when writing this blog is a bit like visiting subjects that have been written about before. For me this happens mostly with regard to books, and particularly here, whether they transfer well to other media. Everyone knows about the so -called ‘unfilmable’ books – many of which feature in my personal pantheon, and many of which I have written about here before. The reason I am returning to this particular chestnut is that a brand new version of Philip Pullman’s fantasy cycle ‘His Dark Materials’ has just appeared on screen courtesy of the BBC in the UK and HBO in the United States. As a long time fan of these books I looked forward to this new dramatisation and after watching the first episode (and the over long trailer for the rest of the series that followed on the BBC!) I have to say I was quite underwhelmed – for instance where were all the daemons? Everyone in Pullman’s world has a daemon but in the crowd scenes they were conspicuously absent. And some of the characters just did not match the images in my reader’s head – for example, in the book Lyra has “dirty blonde” hair, and the actress (Ruth Wilson) playing Mrs. Coulter just wasn’t right, and no matter how good James MacAvoy was as Lord Asriel he struck me as too young to play someone who I feel is clearly older in the book. Like some critics I found myself thinking back to to the ill fated film version of ‘Northern Lights’ made in 2007 and called ‘The Golden Compass’ and how Daniel Craig was a better Asriel, and Nicole Kidman a better Marisa Coulter and, my personal favourite, Sam Elliott had the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby down to a tee – in this new iteration Lin – Manuel Miranda seems too smooth for the role. In many other aspects that film was a disaster and Pullman’s weird creation was badly served – but in my opinion it had its moments.

Some books do defy filming – usually because run times (and attention spans!) seem not to last for the length of the discursive nature of fiction (the film versions of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ being an honourable exception!). Yet corporations still want to push their product out there, and as I may have said before, if these versions/ iterations take people back to the source books then hooray, but if they just become another strata in the geology of far too much choice then what is the point? Again, although I recognise that creative endeavour is a product I find myself saddened by the endless commodification of everything.

Whilst I was thinking on the piece I came across a useful article in The Guardian about this very subject – the writer offered this handy definition of the word ‘unfilmable’;

“For “unfilmable” is often just code for “we tried and it didn’t happen”, an excuse for all the films trapped in development hell, such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Bradley Cooper was once lined up to play a hunky Lucifer), and the long-awaited adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. “Unfilmable” can also mean “we tried and did a terrible job”. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is not unfilmable, but the 2017 take starring Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey might make you wish it was”.

Of course This is all just my opinion, there may be many who will love the new version – and one critic has suggested that, if successful, this new series could become a staple of autumn television (in the same way as the Harry Potter films have become). But Pullman’s alternate world(s) are the place for weighty discussions and important questions alongside the superb storytelling, these do not deserve to be watered down to fit someone’s ideas of prime time gold – or even the ever elusive search for the latest ‘Holy Grail’ of ‘water cooler’ television!

(The quote is from an article in The Guardian’s by Sian Cain in July 2019 and on the ‘paper’s website).

A Poem for the Day.

grayscale back view photo of elderly man with cane walking on dirt road

Photo by Vlad Chețan on Pexels.com

Old Man.

 

With the trudge of measured footsteps

Beneath a kindling sky,

His fingers check the course of moisture

From the river of his eye.

 

The image of gnarled movement

Possesses every step

With bones long past improvement

And the fluid passage of the hip.

 

Dirty gaberdine drawn in tight

Against the belligerent night,

Like shabby sails and broken nails

Nothing remains intact. All is flight.

 

What if there were a fierce baptism

Hidden in these folds of age,

And this awful passage of life

Was but the turning of a page?

 

I wrote this poem in 1980 (!). It’s appearance here is due to the rediscovery of a big notebook stuffed with my poems, and also a kind note from a friend remembering a small collection of poetry that I gave to her and her husband about the same time. I have dabbled with poetry ever since I was ‘nobbut a lad’ (as they say in the North of England) and I am coming back to writing again thanks to the Poetry Group at Coleraine Library, the luminous poetry of Mary Oliver, and Mark Oakley’s marvellous book ‘A Splash of Words – Believing in Poetry’ (Canterbury Press 2016), a superb primer on poems and their many meanings.

Thanks always to Heather.

The eagle eyed (or eared) among you will note the influence of Neil Young’s song of the same name. Where would we be without our influences? Enough, already, read the poem – I hope you enjoy it!

An Autumn Study.

img_20191011_090425.jpg

This how it happens,

Autumn’s alchemy,

The deep bright red

Leaches into light.

A deceptive dullness is revealed.

 

But look closer –

See the fine and fragile tracery

Come into its own

Dryness births deeper colours

Than summer’s gaudy parade.

This looks like death

Torn away from the fruiting stem,

But the eloquent wrinkles announce

A new beauty, a deeper hue.

 

This autumn leaf leaves

To be strangely reborn.

 

(This poem is for the late Mary Oliver – a greater poet than I could ever be – I was also thinking of the parable of Jesus recorded in the twelfth chapter of John’s gospel; “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”).

The Little Things…..

snail on green plant

Photo by Kenneth on Pexels.com

The little things in life are often overlooked – there are no prizes for saying that! But I thought that here I would try to reflect on some of the little things that bring me pleasure (in no particular order!). In this autumn season there is the sunshine on browning leaves with that echo of its summer energy, there are also the small toadstools that flourish on our back lawn and the crows that gather over the house on their way to their roosts in the nearby forest. There are the reflections of buildings and trees on the surface of a still river, those small moments of kindness and thoughtful action that smooth the day’s progress and the discovery that someone else admires that book you love, or that someone else’s first experience of reading almost exactly parallels yours. There are those moments when a piece of music leaps out, a guitar phrase, or a piano chord, or the catch in a singer’s voice in a moving lyric.

Paying attention to the little things is a matter of exactly that, paying attention, taking notice of what is going around you. Attention is an important part of Christian spirituality. We are called by the gracious creator to pay attention to the world and to those that share the world with us.  As someone once observed it is very easy to live ‘on’ the world instead of ‘in’ it, completely inured to the passing of the seasons and the changes going on all around us. It is of course possible to look for the big things – but I suggest that God often works in small ways, nudging and challenging but leaving us to work out the detail for ourselves. The book of Proverbs goes as far as challenging the faithful to “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider its ways and be wise” and who could forget the wisdom of Mother Julian of Norwich, this is a long passage from her ‘Showings’ or ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ but it is worth quoting in full;

And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially “oned” to him, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to him that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.

This little thing which is created seemed to me as if it could have fallen into nothing because of its littleness. We need to have knowledge of this, so that we may delight in despising as nothing everything created, so as to love and have uncreated God. For this is the reason why our hearts and souls are not in perfect ease, because here we seek rest in this thing which is so little, in which there is no rest, and we do not know our God who is almighty, all wise and all good, for he is true rest. God wishes to be known, and it pleases him that we should rest in him; for everything which is beneath him is not sufficient for us. And this is the reason why no soul is at rest until it has despised as nothing all things which are created. When it by its will has become nothing for love, to have him who is everything, then is it able to receive spiritual rest. (1st Revelation)

Reflecting on the ‘small’ things can be a doorway to bigger things, but it reminds us of the need to be thankful for all the mercies of life, big or small!

Soft Rock?

smart

I don’t know whether it is the onset of autumn with its chilly changes and vibrant colours, but I find myself turning to slightly melancholic songs of romantic longing and love lost and found. Over the last couple of days I have been listening to Stephen Bishop and Christopher Cross – two prime exponents of the style of music called ‘soft rock’ (for the pedants out there I suppose Mr. Cross belongs in the category of ‘yacht rock’ but the less sad about that the better!!). These albums are full of songs written with the heart firmly on the sleeve and when I was but a callow teenager they spoke volumes to me. I suppose it is the fate of people of my generation to find their own romantic longings reflected in popular music – perhaps it has always been the case because as someone once wrote “sad songs say so much”.

But, wait a minute, Stephen Bishop is a fine songwriter whose work has featured in many different formats and, like Mr. Cross is still a working musician – which in the current climate must be worth something! Stephen’s first two albums for ABC in this country (‘Careless’ and ‘Bish’) were firm favourites of mine once upon a time – sure there were lots of love songs but there was also ‘Little Italy’, ‘Save It For a Rainy Day’, and my favourite Bish song ‘Vagabond From Heaven’ with its sweeping orchestral chart arranged by Gene Page, and its choir ‘The Whistling Bishettes’ featuring Carrie Fisher among others. There were also the guest players like Michael McDonald (who seemed to be singing on almost every album made about that time!!), Eric Clapton, Chaka Khan and Art Garfunkel. Songwriting craft like this is just too good to be passed off as whatever critics pass it off as and the same goes for Christopher Cross.

Again, his first records (‘Christopher Cross’ and ‘Another Page’) were favourites of mine – again they were filled with session musicians of the calibre of Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather but the songs remain strong and Mr. Cross’ ability as a guitarist (which once led to him been invited to join Steely Dan no less) shines through – listening to these records again I am impressed by the quality of his solos on songs like ‘Words of Wisdom’, ‘Poor Shirley’, ‘Swing Street’ and of course his big hit ‘Ride Like The Wind’. Although I am a great admirer of Messrs. Carlton and Lukather I always felt it was a shame that Cross’s solo ability wasn’t featured more often. Like Stephen Bishop, Cross’s lyrical canvas is a rich and romantic one but it is also full of craft and attention. I would like to think that the quality of these songs mean that they will endure when the latest auto tuned hit machine has ended up in whatever digital equivalent of the bargain bin there is.

One postscript; on YouTube there is a concert clip of Christopher Cross performing ‘Ride Like the Wind’ with Michael MacDonald – the real revelation for me is Cross’s blistering guitar solo – take a look and be amazed!!

(Due to the depredations of time and house moves my original albums by these gentlemen have gone, but there are two excellent compilations of their work which are worth listening to. ‘An Introduction to Stephen Bishop’ was issued in 1997 by Universal and ‘Cross Words – The Best of Christopher Cross’ came from Demon Music/ Music Club Deluxe in 2011).

The Pursuit of Prayer.

Cross shadow

On of the most reliable Christian tropes is the phrase ‘the power of prayer’ – you hear it used in a variety of settings – I once heard someone in a prayer meeting praying to find an adequate parking space so that they could do some shopping! But, even though I have struggled with my ‘prayer life’ all my life I have never doubted the power of prayer. I have called this post ‘The Pursuit of Prayer’ because I believe that is what I am engaged in, the pursuit of a way of praying that suits me, not in some egotistical sense, but in the sense of the best advice I ever received on prayer; ‘pray as you can and not as you can’t’.

The question behind all of this is of course ‘does it work?’, does prayer actually alter the course of human events, or does prayer makes God change God’s mind? As far as the first I would offer the thought that prayer does not so much change the course of human events as change the person who prays. Even a cursory glance at a prayer list provided by an organisation such as Tear Fund or Christian Aid informs you of people and situations very different to yours, and information means change – praying for refugees in Syria may not alter their situation overnight but it will alter your view of the world, and I am convinced that there lie the seeds of real change. Of course there is much more real political change needed there as in so many other places in the world, I pray for relief workers as well because they are doing God’s kingdom (or kindom) work! And prayer can be a salve for the terrible impotence I often feel as the television pictures depict unbelievable cruelty and suffering. And as to the second, the bible records the way that God changes God’s mind when the circumstances change – consider the strange story of the Flood in Genesis, or Abraham’s exchange with God with regard to Sodom and Gomorrah.

If God is present in this world (and other worlds) then prayer can be seen as an effort to align yourself with that presence either through words or simple silence. Simply holding a loved one in your thoughts can qualify as can just resting in silence – one writer on spirituality suggested that silence itself is the presence of God! In his book ‘The Christian Agnostic’ Leslie Weatherhead quotes a simple and elegant prayer by the missionary teacher Florence Allshorn; “O God, here I am and here are You”, she writes “Just as lying in the sun doing nothing, surrendering your body to it, with the sun blazing down on you, affects your body and your senses, so this surrendering of the soul to that transforming Power affects the soul, and I believe that as truly the sun changes the colour of your skin so that Power changes you at the centre”. Of course in these days we would want to read that with our Factor 50 firmly in hand I think that the analogy holds true. Prayer is always about more than words it is about a pursuit, and a surrender and an opening of your mind to the God who is everywhere.

Times of prayer can often be unexpected, H.G. Wells wrote this; “At times, in the silence of the night and in rare, lonely moments, I experience a sort of communion of myself with Something Great that is not myself”. There can be times when prayer is almost wrenched from the person praying as difficulties are realised and faced. As a minister faced with a difficult situation I learned the value of ‘arrow prayers’ shot up and out seeking guidance, or simply, presence. There is something deeply mysterious about this, something that defies any number of ‘how to’ books, and sometimes all you can do is simply pray – frame the words and find the silence and see where it takes you. Or you could, as I do often, go back to something old and trusted such as the Jesus prayer; ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’. I think that there is also a sense in which, when the words run out and the silence and darkness seem inhospitable, the ever faithful God carries you onward.

It remains impossible to say all there is to say about this deep and mysterious subject – here is Weatherhead again; “We must go on praying, for prayer seems to so alter mental attitudes and reinforce mental energies……….But we must not lose faith when God does not answer prayer in the way we think we should if we had His power”. I am still pursuing prayer, and I am still practising it because it is so closely associated with faith. And there are times when faith is really all I have but paradoxically all I ever need. Prayer is, like so much in this life, a work in progress.

To conclude this reflection here is a verse from the hymn by James Montgomery which says it all; “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, / Uttered or unexpressed, / The motion of a hidden fire / That trembles in the breast”.

(Leslie Weatherhead’s book ‘The Christian Agnostic’ (published in 1965) was given to me by a friend in a time of great doubt and need. It has been the most valuable book in my library and I commend it with reserve!).

The photograph was taken in Cumbria in a house with a view over Morecambe Bay.

 

 

 

 

 

A Poem for the Day.

photo of opened book

Photo by Sofia Garza on Pexels.com

“God ran away

When we imprisoned her

And put her in a box

named church.

God would have none

Of our labels and

Our limitations

And she said,

“I will escape and plant myself

In a simpler, poorer soil

where those who hear, will hear.

I will become a God- believable,

Because I am free

And go where I will.

My goodness will be found

In my freedom and

The freedom I offer to all-

regardless of colour, sex or status,

regardless of power or money”

 

Edwina Gately ‘I hear a seed growing’.

 

A foreign country?

smart

A few days ago I received an unexpected letter in the post. It was a copy of a small collection of my poetry that I had put together for a couple of friends nearly forty years ago. They had decided to keep the originals but thought I would be interested in a copy – the thing is that I cannot even remember giving the original to them in the first place!!

This started me thinking about the past and how in the words of the novelist L.P. Hartley “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” – although it is possible to meet up with friends you have not seen for ages and almost take up where you left off the past is still past, it may be a shared fund of memory (and embarrassment!) it is still past and gone. In a historical sense I have long been of the opinion that we are to some extent imprisoned by the past, as a culture we know how important it is to learn from the mistakes of the past but we don’t seem to learn and instead we fetishise the past as a template for the answer to questions we face in the present. Wise historians point out that although there is really nothing new under the sun and although there are abundant lessons to be learned from the past the correlation between past events and present questions is never exact. The swing to the populist right in many countries is lamentable but it is not simply a replay of the 1930’s in Europe.

On a personal level retirement gives space to reflect on the past (but not to overthink it) – for me the smell of new leather takes me right back to my first day in secondary school and listening to Santana’s first album takes me right back to the small record shop near my school and my saved up pocket money that bought the (vinyl) record. There is something distinctly Proustian about the action of these past memories. In some sense my past is all around me; in the collection of poems put together for friends, in the cache of photographs perused again after moving house and, of course, in the way that memory is triggered by seeming random events. It is there in rediscovered friendships and accidental memories – there perhaps as a resource or to raise a smile but a place that can never be returned to or lived in once again!

My past is also all around me as many of my favourite records are re -released in new and shiny forms. The Beatles 1969 album ‘Abbey Road’ has undergone this process recently (following hard on the heels of ‘The Beatles’ last year). Listening to these records is amazing (apart from the technical legerdemain!) and takes me back to another time and place – as far as ‘The Beatles’ album is concerned the cover of my original vinyl copy was scratched by the handlebar of my bike as I took it to a friend’s house). But the fact that ‘Abbey Road’ has reached number one in the charts must say something not just about its value as an artefact from 50 years ago but about its current value and genius in ‘the musical world’!

The past is a tantalising place but when I visit it I know I cannot stay there – life pushes on and its impetus cannot be denied. My past has made me the person I am in so many ways; in terms of faith and experience but I am not the young man in the photo above. The late and lamented saxophonist Michael Brecker once said something like “I like to look back, but not too far”, he was speaking of the jazz tradition – another place where the past is important – but it seems to me that those wise words can be applied to any consideration of the past. There are lessons there, and, in the personal sense, a lot of good memories but it has gone and if dwelt on too much can be seductive and self defeating. Perhaps we are all a bit like Indiana Jones at the end of ‘The Last Crusade’ where he has to let go of the Holy Grail to save his life and that of his father and friends. Keeping the past where it belongs means we learn its lessons and cherish the memories and still ride off into the sunset.

What’s in a Name?

smart

My given name is Joseph but the only people who called me by that name were firstly my mother, to whom I was always ‘Joseph’ and not Joe, or Jo as some have had it. The other is a very old friend who calls me Joseph when I have done something ridiculous. For years I was ‘junior’ to my father who was Joseph senior following (I think) what I understood to be a working class tradition that the eldest son should carry the father’s name. And when I started work selling paint and wallpaper in the 1970’s I was known as ‘Joe’ by many, or ‘Joe Jnr’ or even ‘Joss’ by some by now long dead customer whom I saw most days.

A name is a fascinating thing and a cursory web search reveals that my name has a Jewish origin from the Hebrew ‘Yosef’ which means ‘he will add’. In the Hebrew scriptures Joseph is the eleventh son of Jacob and the first with his wife Rachel. In the stories in Genesis chapters 37 to 50 Joseph starts as a dreamer who arouses (deserved) jealousy amongst his brothers, is sold into slavery by those brothers and rises to prominence as a chief adviser to the Egyptian Pharaoh. Along the way he experienced further confinement with “a cupbearer and a baker”, the racy episode involving the wife of the Egyptian official Potiphar and his return to the status of a dreamer who influences the status of Egyptian society. The name is also given to the husband of Mary the mother of Jesus and his part in this story has always struck me a deeply unfair – the paternity of Jesus may be the subject of much discussion but his Davidic lineage is established through Joseph, and Joseph’s courage in the stories around the birth of Jesus is undeniable. Yet he disappears from the narrative with unseemly haste, remaining like an echo of deeper tradition as the fame of the carpenter of Nazareth  grows and grows. His mention in the Letter to the Hebrews as an example of faith seems a paltry return for his heroism and courage. However, another Joseph, this one from Arimathea who also appears in the gospels is another character who shows courage and sympathy in the darkest hours of the life of the family of Jesus of Nazareth. In the Middle Ages Joseph was a common Jewish name but less frequent among Christians. But the name returned to popularity in Spain and Italy, and the Protestant Reformation ensured its popularity as a name taken by rulers of the Holy Roman Empire.

But being named for such important people gives me a sense of pride – a name that speaks of faith, courage, humility and the willingness to be almost ‘airbrushed’ out of faith history. But my name became mine through a choice made by my parents, whether through conscious choice, or working class ‘tradition’. It is my name and there is in a sense nothing I can do about it, what I can do is to live up the best values associated with this name. These values of courage, faith, patience and trust remain of perennial value – whatever stories you tell and whatever name you bear!!

(This post comes from another suggestion from my daughter Rebecca and her pot of suggestions for writing subjects. Thanks!).  

Early Autumn.

selective focus photography of brown leafed trees

Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

I was at my first meeting of a local poetry group and after a very enjoyable session reading from and discussing Northern Irish poets the conversation turned to what the next session should focus on. Someone suggested ‘autumn’ as the trees are starting to turn and the days are turning chillier – the reply to this suggestion set me thinking – someone said “once you’ve said “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” you’ve just about said all there is to say about autumn”. This seemed to me to sell, not only John Keats’ poem ‘To Autumn’ short, but also this season too. Keats writes about the bounty of autumn and the third stanza of his poem celebrates the “songs” of autumn; lambs “loud bleat”, “Hedge crickets sing” and the “red – breast whistles from a garden croft”. The poem may say all there is to say about autumn but it can and should give pause to think about where this season sits in the landscape of the year.

Hereabouts it has recently been Harvest Festival time, a time where congregations have to be gently diverted from nostalgia for a vanished agrarian paradise towards a proper theological consideration of stewardship and thanksgiving in this threatened world. Also it seemed like only yesterday that local beaches were packed with holidaying families and their cars but now the scents of many barbecues have been supplanted by the sharp, stinging salt smell of the incoming tide. The trees are beginning their journey from almost uniform green to shimmering browns and golden ochre, it is strange and a little ironic that it takes the arrival of autumn to reveal the sheer beauty and variety of what look like commonplace trees. I think that Tolkien had it right when he created the Ents in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and gave trees a life and a spirituality of their own – there is a deep life here that we often only glimpse as autumn moves in. There is a subtlety in autumn that the heat of summer cannot convey – the autumn sun seems more refreshing because its heat has a sharper, more astringent feel to it. I also think that autumn brings in its wake an opportunity to ‘see’ what is going on around us instead of simply ‘looking’ at the world. From the shiny conker on my bedside table to the small mushrooms in our back lawn, from the sharp, smoky breath of morning to the condensate fog on our windows – early autumn preaches bounty and change. The herald of winter with a voice of its own the season has much to say and carries, as do all seasons, a reminder of our responsibility towards the earth as stewards and givers of thanks.

The words ‘Early Autumn’ also remind me of the song of the same name, originally recorded by Woody Herman in 1949 and later given lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Herman’s recording gave an unforgettable solo to tenor player Stan Getz. Like this season there is  a sort of bracing  hesitancy in this solo, as Getz demonstrates his talent for playing light and heavy almost at the same time. Gary Giddins describes this sound as “like a cool, burbling stream, disarmed – almost feminine – but sure”. In Stan Getz’s sound this is a signal of transition from the harder bop of his early playing to the mature styles of his later career. But like all artistic transitions it can be savoured for the delights it brings. Autumn may well be a signpost on the way to the chillier embrace of winter, but it has delights of its own to be savoured and enjoyed.

The last words here go to another poet writing about autumn. This is Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Fall Song’;

“Another year gone, leaving everywhere

It’s rich spiced residues; vines, leaves,

The uneaten fruits crumbling damply

in the shadows, dampening back

From the particular island

of this summer, this NOW that is nowhere

except underfoot moldering

in that black, subterranean castle

of unobservable mysteries – roots and sealed seeds

of the wanderings of water. This I try to remember

when time’s measure painfully chafes, for instance when autumn

flares out at the last, boisterous and like us longing to stay –

how everything lives, shifting

from one bright vision to another forever

in these momentary pastures”.

(My daughter Rebecca suggested I should write about the current season, and introduced me to Mary Oliver’s poems – something I feel deeply grateful for. John Keats’ ‘To Autumn’ is much anthologised and Gary Giddins’ comment on the artistry of Stan Getz comes from his essay in the book ‘Visions of Jazz’ published by the Oxford University Press in 1998. ‘Early Autumn’ by the Woody Herman Orchestra is also widely available).