Friday, 24 October 2014

Enough Light: Three sonnets, one prose poem and an asymmetric scream - 5

On grief, en verve


It is the size of
long loves lost
lovers' fading faces
fleeting ecstasy of dust
It is the size of
a daily smile
the endless thrill
of oscillating refuge and release


It is the colour of
the bare-remembered hours
holding and cooking and playing
with those beautiful children
forever gone
It is the colour of
the helping hand
extended to a stranger
in their sudden time
of peril


It weighs the same as
the misty smile
of each fallen friend

It weighs the same as
the lifted heart
that sees the dawn


It reaches as far down as
those once-upon home-bound moments
knowing that boy-child smiles
will burst and hurtle
up and down the stairs
It reaches as far down as
the mind that wraps
around you
when you are truly lost
in a fictional world


It tastes like
the repetition and assurance
of each summer following 
each ritual journey
each comforting pattern
each family game
It tastes like
the rippling joy
of new invention
each time the opportunity


It is as swift as
the cancer that
It is as swift as
the poem that


It is as gentle as
my father's parting hug
his loving life
his final ask:
Did I do ok?
It is as gentle as
the paintbrush wand
that Monet used
to tell the world:
Look! Joy!


It is as stealthy as
the life that left
the little boy
safe and happy in the womb
unable - or unwilling - 
to join us in the
airborne world
It is as stealthy as
the languid words and
songs and games
that sons and father
turn, from time to time,
to joyous moment-filling


It is as subtle as 
the mysterious fug of
a family building its myth
and leaving it
in the past
It is as subtle as
the mysterious air
of a long walk
filling limbs and lungs
and circling us back
to the beginning


It is as real as
the dreams you once had
of one future or
somehow now
impossibly impossible
It is as real as
the infinitesimal mark
the only thing
of which to be sure:
to be a good
grain of sand

Enough Light: Three sonnets, one prose poem, and an asymmetric scream - 4

Every year it was the same, crisp and bright, the sun coming into the garden at a precise, pre-solstice angle, the aching blue sky as empty as the motionless couple.  Even the first year, when it was really year zero, that was how the weather had shaped them, as if the authorial voice had read too much Dickens, was too keen to meld their characters, too keen to have a tale to tell.

There is no tale; just the things that happened.  The thing that happened.  The thing that didn’t happen.

Years later the thing that didn’t happen sat at the centre of his soul like a glacier, a solid current running through his very being and everything he did.  Strength, it gave him, enormous strength, strength to cut through the solid landscape of life, strength to destroy and carry along the greatest weights, the most fearsome barriers, an immutable power to proceed.

And rigidity, too, great rigidity, trapped in the valley of the past, bound up with the [bits of rock] and boulders of yesterday, yearning for a melting spring that somehow never came.

Once, she had been the melting force, long ago now, she had had the heat, the wit, the rushing incandescent flare of life: but she, too, and even more so, had had to bear the thing that didn’t happen, deep inside her, and the heat had gone, the magma had subsided to leave a terrible crevasse, deep into her being, a slash to the core.  Every day she had to navigate around it, jump over it, build bridges across it, waiting for the skein of life to grow across it, and the years did indeed deliver, the skein thickened, but the vertiginous gape remained, at any moment capable of appearing as a rent through the surface of day to day life.

Day to day life had been where it started, of course.  Before the glaciation, before the tectonics, they had been young and confused.  The flat was as new and chaotic as their marriage, a gambolling adventure of partial carpets, clashing furniture, erratic eating, furious sex, working too hard, laughing too loud, Scrabble til dawn, better wine than before, and more finely rolled joints.  Who knows.  Outside it was San Francisco, or Zurich, or London.  Inside, it was the late twentieth century, and the CD played loud.

Every year it was the same.  Towards the middle of November, once all the leaves had abandoned their host branches, and for a period of perhaps three or four weeks, the geometry of window, nearby buildings and lovely orange sky ball brought extraordinary light direct into the living room, light as they rose in the morning to drink tea and shave and hunt for last night’s stockings and yesterday’s shirt and the calm delivery of worldly news, light that scythed across the narrow space between the ironing board and the bubbling coffee maker, light that danced across her knees and thighs as she moved lynx-like from stockings to skirt, light that fell onto his cigarettes to leave a shadow on the tiny fragments of dust that remained invisible until this time of year.

“Remind me what time the appointment is?” he asked, staring from the window for a moment to evaluate whether the light was enough to warm the air or whether he would need a heavy coat instead.

“Two” she muffled from somewhere behind him.  “Meet you there?”

His morning passed, meetings and phonecalls, and so did hers, phonecalls and meetings.  The modern world carried them on its shoulders, provided them with a view, a fine platform of information and education, medicine and civilisation, stable political institutions and an array of entertainments, technology and holidays, things to do and things to think about.  They worried, of course.  Who knows?  There were plenty of things to worry about.

And then the doctor’s face changed shape, somehow, at the same instant that his friendly chatter had dried in his throat, at the same time as the nurse had blanched, at the same time as her hand had gripped his, at the same time as the fabric of the universe seemed momentarily to bend impossibly, at the same time as the early winter sun disappeared behind the day’s only cloud.


But there was nothing they could do.  The baby, alive and growing, his heart beating, his fingers twitching, was incomplete.  The dice had been thrown.  He could live forever in a womb; but never beyond it.

He died quickly, the medical professionals assured them.  The contractions of the womb itself are too strong for such a small baby.  He would have felt no pain.  He looked bruised, calm, beautiful, old.  They held his tiny form.  They held each other.  They made arrangements.  They kept it together.  They held a funeral.  They asked to be alone.  They stood in the garden at the crematorium.

Every year it was the same.  They no longer lived in the same chaotic flat; and their children were boisterous and growing, loud and hungry, wonderful and fulfilling.  Their jobs were stable and interesting; in the mornings, the light arrived from different angles but still brushed against hurried shirts and snapped commands and questions and clashed with worldly news.  Life rolled on.  But somehow, whenever they visited him, though he was no more than ashes, no more than a memory, a boy who had never breathed or seen or spoken, somehow the sunshine knew that he had been real, knew that without him the world would have been different, would have been less, would not have had their other wonderful sons, would not have given the father the glacial strength, would not have given the mother the precarious power to balance, and out of pure cosmic respect, every year the sunshine delivered a morning of awesome light, at exactly the right angle, and they could lift their tear-stained faces to it and be warmed, be dried, feel the billions of years of life in the light, always outdoing the death.

Enough Light: Three sonnets,one prose poem and an asymmetric scream - 3

Sonnet 510

She paints, each stroke a wafted slice of life
her colours wrought from ancient lines of sight
she sees inside with tender piercing gaze
and understands with beams of loving light

He writes, each word a fleeting glimpse of sky
his rhythm forged with mystic Celtic rhyme
he sees inside with fierce but gentle eye
and captures metered lines of frozen time

They tumble, dance, exchange and seem surprised
with each delighted step beyond the known
their laughter fills their fingers bellies lips
astonished at how swift and much they’ve shown

Inside each other now: but is it real?
How should they treat the truth of how they feel?

Enough Light: Three sonnets, one prose poem and an asymmetric scream - 2

Eulogy for John

This man, a burning oak, a solid flame
who gave me both my stature and my name
who played the game of life without a show
who bathed us in his proud and loving glow

The steady shine that helped to keep us sane
persisted through those final months of pain;
the dark disease that dimmed then stole your light
could not conceal your dignity, your might

We know you know we loved you: still we cry
we miss the canny twinkle in your eye
We cherish all the time we ever had
with this good man, this husband, with this dad

The time is done, we say good bye John Fell
The highest praise is due: you lived life well

Enough Light: Three sonnets, one prose poem, and an asymmetric scream - 1

An Elegant Ellipse

The truths expressed each night in stellar flames
by chiming primal spheres wherein they dwell
evoke the dark precessionary spell
cast once by priests who first pronounced their names

Yet those that long divined the cosmic swell
were mastered by logicians’ youthful claims
of time, degrees and geometric frames,
of ratios the myths could never quell

Such esoteric signs still shape our aims
and colour all the stories you can tell:
a seamless essence glows when all is well
while metrics count and classify our games

These formulae to factor and refine
whereby you find your light, your truth, and shine

Monday, 13 October 2014

Towards the extreme middle

“And where two waging fires meet together
They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.
Though little fire grows great with little wind,
Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all.”

Last week I riffed on an inference from the Archbishop of Canterbury that materialistic consumerism was a form of extremism.  Today I read in Prospect magazine that “Extremism, when not violent, is not illegal but a social ill that British society should be intolerant of.” Even leaving aside the poor grammar, this is a little unsettling.  Shopping? A social ill? I thought it was the bulwark of modern Britain.

Unless, of course, I’ve misunderstood ‘extremism’.  Is it not the noun derived from the adjective ‘extreme’, meaning ‘reaching a high or the highest degree’ or ‘furthest from the centre or a given point’? I decided to check.

Item 1 – The UK Government

“We will not tolerate extremist activity of any sort, which creates an environment for radicalising individuals and could lead them on a pathway towards terrorism.”

Weird comma.  Implies that the subject for the verb ‘creates’ is our non-toleration. I don’t suppose that’s what they mean, and I’m just being picky, but given that ‘we’ will not tolerate extremism ‘of any sort’ this sort of thing may turn out to be, important.

“Since the 2011 revised ‘Prevent’ strategy, the government has defined extremism as: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas”.

Lots of problems here, clearly.  If I’m quiet about it, it’s OK?  (I might be a stealth extremist…) And ‘fundamental British values’? Qu’est-ce que c’est? Can’t help notice, either, that both ‘democracy’ and ‘the rule of law’ have evolved and improved over long periods of time through recurring bursts of, ahem, ‘extremist’ behaviour – Emily Pankhurst, anyone?

And if ‘mutual respect and tolerance’ are fundamental British values, on what basis do we ‘not tolerate extremist activity of any sort’?

More interestingly, how does ‘materialistic consumerism’ shape up against this, er, definition?  Sticking strictly to the items cited by the UK government:

  • Consumerism is vocal and active – it’s called ‘marketing’ or advertising
  • Consumerism opposes democracy – witness the behaviour of the large businesses that maintain and benefit from consumerism as they resist regulation, fund lobbying, evade tax, and so forth
  • Consumerism opposes individual liberty – by sustaining the myth of ‘individual choice’ the beneficiaries of materialistic consumerism ensure mass behaviour consistent with their objectives
  • Consumerism opposes ‘mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’ unless and until a group within the population represents a ‘segment’ of sufficient ‘value’ to warrant its own ‘marketing campaign’ and a dedicated account manager
  • Consumerism has never, to my knowledge, called for the death of members of the UK’s armed forces.

Whilst pleased about this last point, I am forced to the conclusion that, even by the standards of the weak and ambiguous ‘official’ definition, materialistic consumerism is indeed an extremist activity.  It should not be tolerated.

Item 2 - Wikipedia

The Wikipedia entry on extremism is fantastic and ought – in my humble opinion – to be read carefully and often by the authors of the document discussed under Item 1.  I won’t even begin to rehearse the entry here, you can read it just as easily yourself: for present purposes, however, this quote from Dr. Peter T. Coleman and Dr Andrea Bartoli’s ‘Addressing Extremism’, published in 2009 by the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, is all we need:

However, the labeling of activities, people, and groups as “extremist”, and the defining of what is “ordinary” in any setting is always a subjective and political matter(my emphasis)

Which is by way of saying: the UK government’s identification of any group as ‘extremist’ is subjective and wholly political.

So, too, is my labelling of consumerism.

Item 3 – Everybody else

Let’s see what some of them had to say:

The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.
Martin Luther King Jr

I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists.
Nelson Mandela

Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones, but by contrary extreme positions.

Every great action is extreme.
Fran├žois de la Rochefoucauld

Much of junk culture has a core of crisis — shoot-outs, conflagrations, bodies weltering in blood, naked embracers or rapist-stranglers. The sounds of junk culture are heard over a ground bass of extremism. Our entertainments swarm with specters of world crisis. Nothing moderate can have any claim to our attention.
Saul Bellow

Consumerism diverts us from thinking about women's rights, it stops us from thinking about Iraq, it stops us from thinking about what's going on in Africa - it stops us from thinking in general.

Our own relentless search for novelty and social status locks us into an iron cage of consumerism. Affluence has itself betrayed us.
Tim Jackson

Consumerism is so weird. It's a sort of conspiracy we collude in. You'd think shoppers spending their hard-earned cash would be highly critical. You know that the manufacturers are trying to have you on.
J. G. Ballard

America is a great disappointment to me. As I said in one of my books, other societies create civilisations; we build shopping malls.
Bill Bryson

Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping.
Bo Derek

Item 4 – Enough

One of the rather lovely things about the word ‘enough’ is its dual character.  On the one hand, as it lies between too much (one extreme) and too little (the other), it connotes a middle ground, something rather bland.  Antonyms for ‘extreme’ include mild, dull, calm or moderate.  All a bit wishy washy, a bit grey, somewhat uninspiring.

On the other hand, somewhere between too much and too little is just right, exactly the right amount, perfect.  Enough is perfect.  Enough is balance, harmony.  Not stasis, not a steady state, but a positive, dynamic point between extremes: the extreme middle.

It is the nature of men having escaped one extreme, which by force they were constrained long to endure, to run headlong into the other extreme, forgetting that virtue doth always consist in the mean.
Walter Rayleigh

One cannot be too extreme in dealing with social ills; the extreme thing is generally the true thing.
Emma Goldman

Balance, that's the secret. Moderate extremism.
Edward Abbey

Best of all, when you’ve had enough, you can say things like this:

Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.
Mahatma Gandhi

Clearly an extreme remark.  Was Gandhi an extremist? Would he, in this day and age, be ‘tolerated’ by the UK government?

Friday, 3 October 2014

War versus Shopping

I do not often find myself in agreement with either bankers or leading religious figures.  How curious, then, to find myself slack-jawed last Friday when, in the middle of his contribution to Parliament’s debate on the latest war in Iraq, the Archbishop of Canterbury and ex-banker Justin Welby said:

“We must face the fact that for some young Muslims the attractions of jihadism outweigh the materialism of a consumer society.”

My goodness.  The Archbishop is suggesting that jihadism is in some sense the same kind of thing as ‘consumer society’.  What kind of thing is that?  Welby says:

“If we struggle against a call to eternal values, however twisted and perverted they may be, without a better story, we will fail in the long term.”

And there we are.  Jihadism and ‘consumer society’ are stories; so is Christianity.  This latter story, needless to say, is the one the Archbishop wishes to see promoted as the ‘better story’ capable of defeating jihadism – and, presumably, consumer society.

By 'story' he is not, of course, referring to a mere fairy tale, or the narrative arc that courses through your favourite soap opera, or the anecdote you told your friend the other day about the humorous event at the weekend.  No.  He is talking about a grand story, an all-encompassing narrative, an explanatory myth: perhaps even a cosmology, or a paradigm.

These are things of which I have written before: here, for example, I talked about ‘the language of sustainability’ and argued that the ‘story’ of capitalism (or ‘consumer society’) comprises an interlocking set of concepts that, on one hand, holds itself in place through the interlocking process and, on the other, resists and rejects concepts that are inconsistent with the prevailing language. (There were/are some nice pictures , too.)

And here, and more recently, I tried to argue that, as they grow and develop, people encounter stories about the world around them, stories between which they have to choose, given the life they find themselves living, and which act as a frame within which they make the various decisions that they do.

This builds towards and around a line of thought that has been gathering momentum in the environmental/sustainability space in recent years (see e.g. here or here), namely that methods such as telling people that this behaviour is bad, or encouraging them to buy that ‘sustainable’ product, or warning them just how terrible things will be once climate change is in full effect – these methods are doomed to failure precisely because they do not provide a compelling and inclusive story.  The challenge facing those of us who wish to persuade millions of our fellow citizens to adopt sustainable lifestyles as part of a sustainable economy and a sustainable society is to have a story about the future that is manifestly better than the story of ‘consumer society’.

Some people, it seems, think that jihadism is such a story.  Justin Welby, presumably, believes that “the message of Jesus Christ and the justice, healing and redemption that he offers” is such a story. The competition, remember, is something of the form: “Shiny thing make it all better.”  

It strikes me that these are not especially sophisticated or impressive stories. Can it really be that hard to come up with something better?

Perhaps, in fact, it’s not just the story – it’s also the means of telling.  Jihadism speaks with brutal violence and mysterious savagery.  The Church has at its disposal innumerable buildings, preachers and rituals.  Consumerism has shops and advertising and an unending stream of innovation-fuelled products called 'new'.  Feel the glamour, the commitment - the power!

A secular twenty first century myth is required; and it needs not just to be imagined and written, but told and told again in the face of powerful resistance.  It would be nice if ‘science’ could step up to the plate – the rise and rise of popular science, of Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker and Brian Cox, is surely a step in the right direction – but I’m not sure it’s enough.  The grand myths of science (see E O Wilson) are wonderful in their own right, but there is some sort of gap between the cosmic grandeur of the universe or the stupefying outcomes of natural selection and the ordinary day-to-day experience of ordinary people.  For a myth – a story – to work (to be an organising principle for how to live a life) is has to join things up.

Aldous Huxley - a story-teller of some skill - tried harder than most to join things up, attempting to 'build bridges' (in the words of his 1959 lectures) between the domains of science, art and spirituality, he having concluded that humanity was otherwise pretty much doomed.  He failed, by his own measure, and half a century later we still seem in need of the 'providential genius' he thought would be necessary.

Still, I'd rather keep looking for a new Shakespeare, and preparing to lend a shoulder to his or her wheel, than prepare for a future of either war or shopping.