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Monday 30 March 2009

The Eye of An Artist

I know a woman who can take an old Wellington boot, a rusty wheelbarrow or even an ordinary brick, fill them with flowers and turn them into the most exquisitely beautiful features of an 'English country garden'. I know someone who can throw a rug over a chair, put a few plants in the right place and turn the dullest room into an enchanted place. It's surely a gift - an artist's eye - and there is something so uplifting about gazing at the beauty that artists create.
This morning, seeing the new photographs on André Hilliard's site (the one posted here is taken from there) and thought how utterly beautiful it is to have the eye of an artist to be able to view things in such a way as to create and capture images that speak so immediately to the finest part of ourselves. The depths of colour; the minute attention to detail, all the things we normally rush past and don't notice, pointed out in such images raise the soul to its true dignity.
If, in the midst of so much noise and the clamour of the world and emptiness of political rhetoric, you like to find refreshment in reality and the beauty that is there when it is pointed out to us, you, too, will surely love these beautiful, artistic images:


Sunday 29 March 2009

In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, the Pre-Raphaelite artists - like Waterhouse, whose painting is posted here (and if that infringes copyright, I will remove it.) - seemed to withdraw from the world in order to create images of a time where values were very different. Unlike the society in which they were living - one based on turning humanity into a great machine - they created images of a mythical part, the legends of King Arthur, Camelot, that dream that is within all of us, and which the past two centuries seem to have destroyed.

There's no doubt that it was necessary for society to change. The population had increased and, with the move to the towns and cities, it was no longer possible for small villages simply to provide enough to live one year out on subsistence farming. It was surely a kind of evolution but one that - to me - took an off-course turn. Paradoxically, when people were herded into slums and the squalor of the new, ill-prepared cities, masses of humanity were crowded together and rather than that drawing people closer, it simply shut down any sense of personal worth or identity. Previously, living in space, there was room for personality, room for individuals, room for the 'village idiot', the crone, the eccentric; room for people to just be whoever they were.

We have lived with that legacy ever since and turned humanity into a mass of ants all running one way to work, in rush hour, then running back in the same direction at the next rush hour. Animals were fatted beyond their natural way of being, then placed in battery farms; living, feeling creatures seen as nothing but cogs in this wheel. And into this step the power-seekers who say that we need to live in fear; we need to fear outsiders - terrorists, disease, epidemics or whatever form 'outsiders' take - and only those in power can keep us safe by keeping us in these confines and adding more and more restrictions. The arrogance of claiming that little man is greater than Nature in Her seasons of ice ages and warm ages and tides and ebbs and flows, has been used as yet another means of lulling us into a sense of being needy and needing a patriarchal government to step in and 'save' us from ourselves.

It seems to me that the whole Mother Earth and God Himself (whatever one's conception of a Deity/Humanity/Spirituality) is rising up against this. Sounds a little off-the-wall but as the banks collapse, as the hypocrisy of politicians becomes clearer, as churches are emptying and the old institutions are crumbling, there is a kind of Armageddon going on. It's pretty obvious who will triumph in this whole debacle. On the one side, there is a little 'Wizard of Oz' sort of power-seeking that has been lulling people to sleep for decades. On the other, there is the millions of years old wisdom of ages that expresses in individuals and in the need to wake up to who we really are. Most people don't want wars, don't want to live in fear of one another. Most people are capable of making their own choices....

We don't need a King Arthur; we surely do need to recognize our own worth. And for that I love the Pre-Raphaelites.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Leeds City Varieties

Music Hall is something so evocative of a bygone age - a time of ornate theatre boxes and seedy goings-on behind the scenes; the clashing of the world of performers like Vesta Tilly and Marie Lloyd, and that of the gentlemen 'Dr. Jeckyls' by day and 'Mr. Hydes' by night. I love Music Hall; love Marie Lloyd singing, "When I take my morning promenade" (which I have on a crackling CD and would love to hear on the original wax cylinder) and imagine the whole parade of performers with their Union Jacks behind them as they roused the young men in the audience to march off to some hopeless war. The power of it - the intimacy of it - the clashing, cacophonous beauty of it all...a kind of innocence that is long gone.

The City Varieties in Leeds, where I live, is an old Music Hall (the place where they filmed the 1970s series of "The Good Old Days"). I remember there being photos of so many of the great Music Hall stars and in every footstep to the seat you could feel the history of the place and wonder how many thousands of feet had walked into that place in another era, seeking escape, seeking laughter, seeking all the extremes of emotion, from the laughter of "The Laughing Policeman" and "Don't Have Anymore Mrs. Moor" to the heart-rending ballads of, "After the Ball" and "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage". And beyond to, "Keep the Homes Fires Burning" and "Please Beak the News To Mother."

Music Halls speak of every possible emotion - from the heights to the depths. All those over-sentimental Victorian preaching songs about drunken/absent fathers (Yikes!! (Father's a Drunkard and Mother is Dead" and "Father, dear Father, Come Home to Us Now"), all the risqué songs like "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear" and all the really funny songs that Marie Lloyd sang. It's so interesting how music and the history of music speaks of social change and the different ages through which we have lived. Music Halls were of an era because it was the only era in which they would have 'fit'. It was the first time that so many people had been crammed together in one place, trying to make sense of so many different views and experiences all at once, and somehow in the 'varieties', they manages to capture it all.

Monday 23 March 2009

My grandmother

Today is the anniversary of my grandmother's death. She was born in 1896 and lived to the age of 98 and, as a child, I was constantly fascinated by the stories of her childhood and youth. Since history - for me! - seems to stop in 1918, it was incredible to hear first hand accounts of life up to and through to the end of the First World War. She remembered, as a very young child, the soldiers coming home from the Boer War and - being a northern mill girl - said, "Old Jepson (or some similar name) putting a barrel of beer in the street and all the men had a gill for free." When she spoke of the First World War (in which her closest brother was killed on the Somme), her voice always dropped, almost to a whisper, and she had that misty look of someone seeing into a memory they do not care to share. Occasionally, she mentioned things like, "They buried all the bodies in mass graves, but you mustn't tell anyone this, it's a secret," seemingly unaware that what was one a matter of 'state secrets' was, by my time, common knowledge.
Having left school at the age of 13, she loved working in the mill - in many mills - and she loved the whole camaraderie of a world that was quite poor but had a real sense of community.
It was to me a remarkable thing to have been able to spend time listening to the stories of someone who lived at the same time as Queen Victoria, who was older than two of the Tsar's children, and who would have read day to day in the newspapers of the terrible events as they happened.
I think she came from a generation that was incredibly strong. Nowadays, when people go for counselling because a pop group splits up, or when children aren't allowed to play with conkers for fear they might damage their wrists, we seem to a nation of ninnies. A lot of unexpressed emotion went into making up those people of the past - and that wasn't a good thing - but they did have guts and strength of character which is so often lacking today.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

The Kingdom Of Childhood

The Kingdom of Childhood is one of adventure and risk. There are dragons to be slain, dark woods in which one could be lost forever, glorious victories, kindly witches, wicked fairies, and a whole host of heroes and villains. It's a kingdom - like the Brontes' kingdom of Angria - filled with intrigues and intricacies that the adult mind struggles to understand because, while that kingdom never really goes away, it is viewed from such a grown-up perspective that the dragons, woods and villains are simply replaced by the stresses of work, lack of work, struggle and economics. The problem with adulthood is that we feel we ought to have slain and the dragons of childhood and are too grown-up to believe in the magic we once knew was true.
What is truly sad in recent times is the way in which we have not only smothered our own sense of childhood but, with an obsession with safety, have smothered that of children too. Adventures - though they doubtlessly continue though children's eyes - are inhibited by ridiculous laws of health & safety. Everything is cocooned and children are regimented to pass tests, till their brilliant imaginations have no outlet and all that is original is crushed out of them.
To my mind, this has been going on for a long time - a hundred and fifty years or more - probably since the beginnings of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, when people were suddenly regimented into working by the clock rather than by the sun; when animals were fed and fattened beyond what is natural, and humanity was herded en masse into cities and towns. More recently, it has taken a different turn - now, it is about creating little cogs to fit the wheel of 'society' - emphasis on maths and science, compelling everyone even in the most practical lines of work, to pass exams and gain some meaningless qualification - disregarding those whose natural talents are more artistic or creative or manual.
And what is the outcome? Well, isn't it obvious that sooner or later Nature Herself would rebel against this regimentation. Now, the banks collapse and whole false stability of economics is shown in its true light as something that can't be, and never could be, depended upon. This follows half a century of similar collapses. All those false institutions that attempted to control have been crumbling. Churches are emptying, the statesmen and women are not respected - and why should they be? - and everything that was set up to control and deprive people of their innate right to be who they are as mature and worthwhile individuals living in harmony, rather than cogs in a machine, is being shown for what it is.
This 'global' (how politicians love that term!) mess, which might well have been manufactured by those with an agenda to control, seems to have really turned people back to their own inner resourcefulness. My solution, for what it's worth, is a return to the archetypes of childhood. Once we see that the dragons and dark woods are not external to us, but are characters of our own making, we see that within us is the ability to slay all those dragons, to take risks and have adventures. There's no need for us to be kept 'safe' by those in power (in any form). We have within ourselves, the ability to live, to succeed in whatever we are created to succeed in; basically, we are free.

Friday 6 March 2009

Alice's Soul Searching

It seems to me that the more we swim against the tide or try to force our idea as to how things could or should be, the more frustrated we become. Perhaps it is for this reason that so many religious people resign themselves to 'the will of God' in such a negative way.

Dear Princess Alice, mother of Grand Duchess Elizabeth and Alix, the last Tsarina of Russia, seemed to struggle for so long, trying to make sense of her beliefs and following paths that led her away from orthodox views. The death of her little son, Frittie, somehow curtailed all of that and she resigned herself to 'the will of God' and died of diphtheria and exhaustion (or despair) at the age of 35. She was deeply mourned. She had spent her short life in Hesse not only raising her family but also doing all she could to care for the poor. A deeply feeling human being, she was a talented musician and of a poetic nature with a great sense of humour but I believe she went so far in her soul-searching and then, due to the pressures of the era (where the superficial Queen of Prussia labelled her 'an atheist') and the immediate circumstances of her life 'resigned' herself to the 'inevitable' and the orthodox views of religion and consequently literally choked to death over it.

Her children caught her soul-seeking and continued from where she left off. The saddest part of it all, is that two of her daughters who might have been so close and so mutually supportive, ended up opposing one another. Alix, the Tsarina, following the path of the mystical and the desperate at the same time; and Ella, following the path of the mystical and the need to be within a set regime. All these beautiful soul-searching people, working out their understanding and their own realities...The external events are hugely interesting but the inner lives are endlessly absorbing as they play out in all of us sooner or later, I think.