Leavers’ Evensong

Yesterday I watched my daughter
stand where I once stood
stand before God in His House
to receive His blessing
before walking out into the world
over which she has been given dominion

Two by two they walked out
three and fifty young women, poised and silent and sure
walked with fearsome purpose through the cool stillness
of the cathedral’s solemn air

around the running water of its font,
which flows (O Pison Gihon Hiddekel Euphrates) to north south east west
to replenish the earth–
walked out through the great west doors, through which none but the great may pass
three and fifty conquerors stepping into their inheritance

They have worked for this–
They have earned this–
They accept it. It is their due.

Go forth and shine.

Written on 6th July 2013 and published on A-level results day, with love and admiration for my darling daughter and her fellow leavers.

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“…that thing indoors each one dwells”

You had to be there, they said. And I was.

Last Sunday night I was at the Royal Festival Hall, listening to forty women–poets and performers–reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. It is not an experience I will forget in a hurry: intense, searing, overwhelming, cathartic, at times scandalously intimate, it offered a view of Ariel and its author that went far beyond any one reading or analysis.

Introducing the performance, Plath’s daughter Frieda Hughes pointed out that in the years since her death, Plath has been analysed, dissected, re-interpreted, fictionalised, re-invented in any number of ways. (I paraphrase. I didn’t take notes.) This, said Hughes–this reading of the restored edition of Ariel (as distinct from the 1965 edition edited by Ted Hughes)–is the closest we can come to what Plath herself wanted to say.

It is not necessarily what we might expect to hear. The restored edition is a very different collection to the one I know. How interesting that in this ordering, despite the darkness and despair of the poems, the sequence opens with birth, with “Love set you going like a fat gold watch” (‘Morning Song’), and ends with a faint message of hope: “What will they taste of, the Christmas roses? The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” (‘Wintering’).

Listening on Sunday to these forty voices of Plath, though, I found myself wondering just what it is about poetry that speaks to us so powerfully and personally. At the risk of suggesting I know the answer, I’d like to put forward three ideas: introspection, ambiguity and individuality.

Continue reading

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Grace, and what it does

what-so-amazingWhat’s So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are so many books out there that purport to teach us how to live. Every one starts from some premise, some basic assumption or other: the self-help books that insist it’s all a matter of attitude and determination; the psychological treatises; and perhaps more in America than Britain, the unashamedly biblical.

Here are two of the latter that actually do what they say on the tin. What’s So Amazing About Grace? is Philip Yancey’s 1997 classic, examining grace as “the last best word” – the one great theological word that has not been distorted and devalued over the generations. Continue reading

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Never assume you know why…

Last Sunday night my daughters were singing in a performance of Fauré’s Requiem. Quite right too. Nothing unusual or alarming in that.

Except that the concert blew my mind.

Fair enough. The Fauré Requiem is a moving piece. But the piece still echoing in my head at 48 hours’ remove is the piece that opened the programme: Bach’s Partita no. 2 for solo violin, superbly executed by Adrian Adlam, its movements interspersed with a series of chorales performed from the back of the auditorium by a semi-chorus. The final movement, the chaconne, saw four of the semi-chorus weaving the chorales into the violin part, to extraordinary effect.

This interpretation of the Bach is based on the work of musical cryptologist Professor Helga Thoene. There is a recording available by the Hilliard Ensemble, and a review which discusses Prof. Thoene’s theories, not all of which are entirely convincing.

Nevertheless, the interpretation turns the Partita, which Bach wrote shortly after his first wife’s death, from a sublime piece of absolute music into a moving reflection on loss, grief and hope.

The programme note was quite clear: there’s no evidence that Bach intended it to be performed this way, but it offers an intriguing insight into how he might have heard it in its own mind.

I will certainly never hear the piece in the same way again.

Here’s the thing, though. Continue reading

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Lives less ordinary

When God Was a RabbitWhen God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a while you read a book that passes straight into your bloodstream, and you are hardly aware of how it happened.

When God was a Rabbit describes itself as the story of a brother and sister, “about childhood and growing up, friendships and families, triumph and tragedy and everything in between…about love in all its forms”. That is a perfectly fair description as far as it goes. What it doesn’t say is anything of the quiet and kindly magic with which Sarah Winman defines her characters.

Elly, her brother Joe and her childhood friend Jenny Penny are all outsiders – not the angry and embittered kind, though, but the kind who know they are in some small way different, unique, set apart. Continue reading

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The next ten words

Some time ago I posted an article called Precision Tools. It covered quite a complex sequence of ideas that had been taking shape in my thought for a few months. And yes, it’s longer than the average blog post, at just under 2,500 words.

One reader commented that he thought there was material in there for two or three posts. Perhaps it should be broken up into parts, he suggested, to allow each idea to be discussed properly. 

We seem to have accepted that blog posts shouldn’t go much beyond 800 words, and that that they shouldn’t cover more than one main idea. Why? Do we not risk losing our ability to construct (or, as readers, to follow) a complex argument? Is this perhaps a symptom of a society that fails to nurture polymathy?

My correspondent told me that on another site, one devoted to SME business people, he’d been told that his posts were too complex. He’d been advised to run them through some special software to determine the reading age at which they were targeted, and to reduce that age to 15/16.

As a litmus test of how society is operating, I find that rather scary. Continue reading

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Another excellent reason to live to one hundred

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and DisappearedThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gloriously absurd and implausible, with a charmingly diffident hero who manages to bumble through the twentieth century, from one major world event to the next, leaving political turmoil and outbreaks of peace in his wake. Now he has climbed out of the window of his residential home to avoid his own hundredth birthday party, and bumbles instead into an adventure involving a suitcase, an international criminal gang, a redhead, a yellow bus, an elephant and an increasingly frantic state prosecutor.

It has the same delightful, dry, straight-faced narrative voice – lightly seasoned with irony but with not a shred of sarcasm – of the best children’s literature (A.A. Milne comes to mind). Everyone, or at least everyone who matters, is going to live happily ever after, says the narrator’s tone (a phrase which will never quite mean the same to me again!), but we’re all going to have some thumping good adventures along the way. And so we do.

To be read when you’re in need of a laugh or when you need to believe in a truth that is as strange as fiction. Or indeed at any other time. Superb.

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