Saturday, January 19, 2019

SHERINGHAM DIARY 24 ~ Adding a Splash of Spontaneity

One bright Monday morning Hubby piped up, 'Shall we take a short holiday?'  And so without much herald, fuss or fore thought we took off on a three night mid week break in York ~ the very next day. That's the nearest we've got to being truly spontaneous, going the following day, but hey! its a practice. Would there be much to do mid January when most tourist places are a bit half closed? Well quite a lot actually. 

There was viewing the famous Minster with a fabulous tour guide who knew everything and more, plus sampling the countless quality cafes and restaurants, to name just two. Those of you who know us will not be surprised to hear, it was quite a foody few days. The culinary highlights being an Egg Florentine at Carluccio's, the Vietnamese Starter at Coto and a Vegan Wellington at Bill's.

York Art Gallery had been closed for refurbishment when we were last in York. The newly refitted gallery is an excellent art venue. The upstairs exhibition space is now the home to its extensive collection of contemporsry ceramic, and at the moment the work of Lucie Rie. They have an unrivalled whole floor of her beautifully elegant modern ceramics. The current Lucie Rie Exhibition focuses in part on her production of ceramic buttons for the fashion market.

Travelling up and back from York, we had our usual much loved few hours break in Lincoln. This time we also took in some other slight detours. On the way up to cross the Humber Bridge and to stop to take in the artis-anal delights of Malton once more. On the way back we returned via The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. 

I'm not a fan of Barbara Hepwoth's sculpture, her work seems rarely to transcend its obvious influences. Nowadays both Hepworth, and Henry Moore's sculpture for that matter, can seem a bit hackneyed, lumpen, even derivative. This is not entirely their fault, as so much amateur cod-modernism to mass produced soapstone sculptures mine the Hepworth/ Henry Moore style axis mercilessly. There modern reputation stands on their twin pioneering of modernism within British sculpture, for which they should righly be still applauded. Even if their work desperately needs a re-evalutation of its quality and reputation.

Hepworth's early work in marble was strong, influenced by elements of Hans Arp's abstract organic forms and reliefs, and they are particularly finely executed. Her later work that emerges after Naum Gabo in exile stayed with her in St Ives, with all those pebble shapes with holes and webs of strings across, appears far too imitative and lacking in individuality.

The Hepworth Gallery does, however, display sculpture very well. Entrance is FREE folks. It's floor to ceiling windows bring a sense of what is outside in, and place the scultures within, or face out on, their surrounding urban landscape. They had an exhibition of work by the entrants for last years Hepworth Prize which provided the two highlights of this visit to the gallery. 

The combined sound and sculpture work Compostion For 37 Flutes by Cerith Wyn Evans, the worthy winner of the £30,000 Hepworth Prize.

A beautiful circle on the floor composed of irregularly sized deep black shiny beads made by Mona Hatoum. Both artists I have come across before, but it was nice to be reminded of the innovative inspiring quality of their work.

Both gallery visits sparked us off creatively. They reminded us how important it is to stay in touch with contemporary art, simply in order to keep the fire ones own imagination lit. Art in North Norfolk rarely steps beyond the predictable dull retreading of dead soil, usually figurative,or landscapes, not to forget the those obligatory wooden seagulls, sometimes on sticks or a gambolling bronze cast hare. We can become so caught up in the making of product for Cottonwood, we forget that creatively needs feeding. Space has to be invented, where we can freely explore our creative process outside the constraints that a narrow production line forces upon us, 

The Lucie Rie exhibition triggered in both myself and Hubby an interest in making handmade buttons, small ceramic tiles or panels. We've bought some air hardening clay and Fimo to simply muck about with and see what comes out of it, without becoming too reductive and product focused. These may or may not end up being introduced into the work we do for Cottonwood Workshop. This seems like another adjustment in the balancing act, between being productive whilst giving time for the pleasure of creative play, as a necessary sustenance.  Otherwise we'll become very dull boys.

Splash, the swimming pool of choice, closed for annual maintenance. So I tried out the pool at Woodlands Leisure. A more modern pool housed in what is really just a long large hut. Slightly more expensive to swim there, but with better quality tiling.

Woodlands,unlike Splash, has separate showers and changing rooms for each gender. This provides the stage upon which to observe male preening behaviour. If you thought hand held hair driers were just for drying the hair on ones head, then think again. In these days of clean shaven heads, more detailed and meticulous attention is given to beards, the fluffing up of chest hair and giving your pubes a bit of a tszuj. This affectation is not confined to hipster vanity but spans the generations. I've seen many a saggy back and sun wrinkled bottom of a retired gentlemen, standing stark naked before a mirror repositioning his chest hair and passing warm wafts of pseudo Mediterranean air over their genitals.

I finally visited the Norwich Zen Priory this month and I did not get lost, Hurrah!. The Priory is a semi-detached house on the Unthank Road. The Introductory Session was with the Reverend Leoma. Understandably a bit apprehensive beforehand, I actually enjoyed it immensely. Much of it proved to be familiar stuff, though I picked up some tips and different ways of viewing the practise of Zazen/Just Sitting. It was inspiring to sense how coherently the practise is embedded and central to making sense of everything else they do.

In Triratna its central meditations are 'developmental' in focus. Just Sitting, having little to consciously develop, is not clearly taught in its centres and hence not well understood. It becomes for a lot of meditators, just stopping making effort at the end or between meditations. Its more akin to a bookend than the book itself. One meditation retreat centre began teaching Pure Awareness, which is very like Zazen, but bedecked in Tibetan saffron and burgundy. A panic arose about whether this was inside or outside the movements core practises. As for many good people it was already their core practise, they were forced to find a good reason for it to be there, or face asking them to desist or leave.

The late Sangharakshita had some reasonable criticisms of Zen as a tradition. Triratna as a result has developed a questioning attitude towards it, that is rarely levelled at Tibetan Buddhism, for instance. Zen sometimes being slandered as not being Buddhist at all. I bring some of this attitude with me,which though not necessarily a bad thing, one should never be blind to faults, but neither should one over exaggerate them either. Some of the criticisms levelled at Zen it does make of itself. Any Buddhist practise misapplied or misunderstood on a fundamental level, becomes an obstacle and hence a problem.

Until my visit to the Zen Priory I was less aware how being surrounded by this atmosphere in Triratna had an alienating affect. Being alone in my enthusiasm for Dogen was one thing, but the negativity towards Zen styles of practise was a bit of a double whammy. Being at the Zen Priory doing a Zen practise, I did feel at home. It felt like it might be a better match to where I currently am, spiritually speaking. 

Favourite Sign of the Month
Whilst wandering around Wells Next The Sea we passed a small sign in a field, that said:-

'free range children and animals not permitted' 

I know what they are trying to say, but it is fun to be mischievous and imaginatively play with that

Thursday, January 03, 2019

SHERINGHAM DIARY 23 ~ Waving The Christmas Wand About A Bit

A tunnel of lights inside a hedge at Blickling Hall

Whilst still fumbling about on its lower southern approaches, Christmas can feel like a very steep hill ahead, strewn with all those strains to meet obligations, expectations and timescales.  Once you're into December each day you open an advent calendar door onto another shopping list, another task, another place to travel to in order to see if they just might have that special item. Apart from Bakers & Larners Food Hall.  North Norfolk, as you can imagine is not ripe with 'must go too retail destinations'. And we wonder why online retailing has become so popular!

December 1st is quite early enough for Christmas to arrive, thank you.. This year a smaller sized more manageable tree, less inclined to create a halo of pine needles, and a stylish wreath from Homebase I'll have you know, made out of white curls of painted wood, these were the only new flourishes in our festive decorations. Apart that is from a Poinsettia, apparently raised in Mexico, that like all Mexicans arriving in the UK for the first time shivered in the severe temperature difference, dropped all its leaves and its will to live within a week.

Though more last minute than usual in making nut roasts, pudding, cake and mince pies etc,they tasted on the day as good as ever. After all the preliminary efforts, once Christmas arrived we were surprisingly chilled and spent a lovely time together, watching the beautiful film Roma, the wacky delights of the Coen Brother's latest The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, plus The ABC Murders and the return of Luther - Plus the obligatory walks along the coast - What larks we had, Pip!

Conversational Snippet Of The Month 
Some times when you over hear people's conversations you feel the need for a bit more background detail. Simply to understand where the hell they are coming from. Quite often its as if you've scratched the scabby top off some festering lesion and you get a queasy whiff of what lies beneath as you pass by. Such as here, where we were walking around the gardens of a stately home and overheard a middle aged couple say:~

Woman - 'Oh, by the way, Ronald's chimney fell down on his cottage last weekend.'
Man - ' No schadenfreude there then.'

New Frame Design on Cottonwood Workshop

The 'Rinky Dinky Pinky Photo Frame Farce' of last month has had a wand of redemption waved over it this month. What felt at the time like the trickster work of a malevolent demon, has revealed a volte face. Initially I could have willingly consigned the frames to become kindling, but when my calmer head prevailed I took them right back to the bare wood, to see how I felt about them once all memory of how they'd been previously was erased. Abandoned was any desire for too elaborate or time consuming processes. Design ideas became refined down to their very simplest form, and more importantly, simplest execution. So, a multiple product disaster, in the end, forced a rethink on design and of how much time and effort was appropriate. The final results have turned out more coherent and quite pleasing. Rephotographing products and re-doing the websitec is taking us a bit longer than we'd initially anticipated, but soon, soon it will be done.

I'm currently working on a commission for a friend of ours to strip, revarnish and upholster four 1970's dining chairs for them. I've stripped varnish from a chair just once before. But this time by the second and third chair that unrelenting cycle of applying varnish stripper, wait 30-60 minutes, rub down with stainless steel scourer, dry, sand, repeat, began to relinquish what little charm it possessed to dogged stoicism. I finished stripping the fourth chair the Friday before New Year, so I begin the revarnishing process post New Years Day. Though one might  hope this will be less strenuous, it holds its own challenges in getting the varnish colour right and consistent in tone across all four chairs.

I've just finished reading CJ Samson's latest book in his Shardlake series 'Tombland.' The lead character Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who invariably finds himself involved in all sort of murder and mayhem whilst trying to execute a royal  request. The books are set in Tudor times and Samson paints the sights, sounds, smells and power dynamic of the era brilliantly. His earlier books I found to be really tense page turners which I avidly devoured in a few days. With each book in the series the compelling nature of that narrative has certainly slowed and the detailing of the context and issues of the period has become more prominent. They are also getting progressively longer with 'Tombland' clocking in at over 800 pages. There is a sense with each suceeding book that Samson's writing is increasingly chaffing against the fictional constraints of the period crime procedural.  The murder investigation gets all but abandoned about a quarter of the way through, then quickly resolved in the last 100 pages. Inbetween though is a very vividly sketched fictional re-imagining of what the Kett's Rebellion could have been like. Its tone ends up being interesting, but inconsistent.

Tombland begins with Shardlake going to Norwich to investigate a murder, but he unwittingly becomes deeply embroiled in the Kett's Rebellion. Six to nine thousand people forming a camp just outside Norwich to create political leverage for their social and economic demands to be met. Such camps as these had sprung up near towns across southern England in 1549 according to a roughly co-ordinated plan. Hyper inflation was increasing poverty and destitution, exacerbated by enclosures of common land by wealthy aristocracy. The impoverished peasantry rose up demanding something be done to improve their rapidly diminishing lot, talking of the 'commonwealth' of a more collective sense of ownership, society and economics. Though their demands might not be considered unreasonable to our eyes, to those in power in this period such poor people criticising their betters was considered an appalling, unforgivable and traitorous act. An awful slaughter of the rebels was to follow, and the restoration of the rule of the elite brought the rebellion to its end. Tombland is a humane, sad and salutary book with many a resonance with the tensions of our own time.

After a two year gap, I've finally picked up my study of Dogen's Instructions for the Tenzo. I  swim my forty lengths then walk from the pool into town to the Whelk Coppers Tea Rooms on the sea front. I order myself a scrambled egg on sourdough toast, put a squggle of ketchup on it and then out come the books and notebook. Usually I stay for about an hour and a half, attempting to tease out the meanings in phrases and choice of words, and reflecting on these in the light of my own experience. I'm not necessarily settled on the Whelk Coppers as being the best cafe/study venue. In the last few weeks they've been really busy from the moment they open, particularly with kids, and hence noisier. I'm hoping that this is just because of Christmas and it will settle down once 2019 and the chill of Winter arrives. Chin - chin.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

SHERINGHAM DIARY 22 ~ Finding The Direction Of The Grain

The money has come through from my Dad's estate, as has the money from the sale of his house which completed on the 23rd November. Our finances are now the healthiest they've ever been in either of our lives so far.

Meanwhile, Jnanasalin has lost over a stone in weight in the first two months of his diet and fitness regime. My physical fitness, with the twice weekly swims is improving. I've been able to increase the number of lengths I do from 30 to 36 to 40 lengths per session. My fellow early morning swimmers are mainly retired ladies and gentlemen. There is your solitary silver fox in his early forties wearing his purple tracksuit and flip flops, his work suit hanging in the back of an SUV. But most cruise in on the muted metallic tones of a Citroen Picasso say, for a therapeutic swim to ease arthritic limbs, stimulate adrenalin and keep the mind active. I'm a strong swimmer, but not your Mr Super Speedo. I do hope as I get older and undoubtedly slower, I'm able to recognise when its time to downsize from the Fast to the Medium swimming lane.  Many elderly gentlemen appear not to be able to do that, as they do slow motion swimming up and down like floundering whales.

The Sheringham Christmas Lights have been switched on. Throngs of rather 'chunky' sized people, shall we say, turned out for further expansion of their already extensive stomachs with chips and candy floss. Meanwhile the Salvation Army band played Christmas Carols, interspersed with earnestly Christian blather about how they were 'truly besotted with Jesus'. I'd have gagged on my candy floss, if I'd had one. The switch on was underwhelming, as the same badly arranged strings of lights become progressively poorer in nick with every year they're re-used. Three out of the five snowflake lights on the Theatre are damaged. The Town Hall has a 'Hawaian Skirt' of lights draped in a drunken sag above its doorway. Presumably the prohibitive cost of putting up the lights every year, explains why they tend to be left up throughout the entire following twelve months. It is not surprising then that they are worse for wear. But then 'worse for wear' describes the shabbier side of Sheringham to a T. We left with some urgency as the strains of 'Wombling Merry Christmas' reached an unbearable pitch of overamplification.

Our primary reason for going into town on a Friday evening, was to see Alan Bennett's new play 'Allelujah'. This was being shown in Sheringham's Little Theatre, as part of the National Theatre Live broadcasts. Heavily pre-booked, we couldn't even purchase seats together. The regulars who attend Sheringham's Little Theatre could be almost your archetypal Alan Bennett audience, comfortably retired middle class, unreasonably fond of a good cardigan.

'Allelujah' is set in a geriatric ward in a small local NHS hospital called the Bethlehem. A ward filled with mainly female patients, exhibiting a wide range of ailments and dementia. They form a choir to keeps their minds active and improve their memory retention. The play is, as a consequence, interspersed with old time songs and dance routines. The Beth is under threat of closure, and a campaign is under way to save it.

Bennett is capable of being a sharp and acute observer. The play is as humane, touching and funny, as you'd expect a Bennett play to be. Quite why renaming one of the hospital wards after Fatima Whitbread becomes such an absurdly funny thing, one shouldn't perhaps enquire too deeply. If 'Alleluah' fails to pack the punch that Bennett obviously hoped for, its because his more acerbic comments are blunted by being prefaced and pursued by such jokes, its like wrapping discomfort in cotton wool to avoid further bruising. Given the subject matter, you ought to be finding it challenging or provoking of further thought. As it is, 'Alleluah' was a very enjoyable evening, but so is sucking slowly on a sherbet covered boiled sweet for a couple of hours. David Hare this isn't.

Our preparations for Cottonwood Workshop's relaunch in 2019 feels as thought its an uphill struggle at the moment. A few frames got scuffed or damaged whilst in storage, so I duly touched them up. I decided to improve how we stored things, by making individual bubble wrap pockets for all our picture frames and mirrors. Only to discover that some bubble wrap I'd used had a film of reddish pink stain on it which transferred its pinkish sheen or finger marks onto anything that came into contact with it, namely the very things I'd just retouched. The 'hissy fit' that followed passed, and I slowly progressed through the items affected, only to find the stain colour still came through. The only thing to do now is to sand back to the base wood.

Set backs have an intensity to them which undoubtedly can feel frustrating, but they do flag up areas where you need to improve. We've since introduced daylight quality lighting into my workshop, created an area within the craft room for painting and varnishing and bought better shelving for the garage stockroom. All the photography we did last month we chose to scrap because they weren't quite good enough. Jnanasalin is doing smaller photo shoots which are then fully processed before moving on to the next batch of stock, this is working out better. Gradually he's getting to know what works and what to avoid when photographing products and image processing. We are undoubtedly getting there, but the protracted and emotionally turbulent nature of our recent learning curve has been a strain and somewhat humbling.

Travelling to Sangharakshita's funeral turned into a modern pilgrimage. Arising at twenty to four in the morning and returning home at half eleven at night.  It took us both a full week to recover. The funeral was held in a large semi-open barn, that got progressively colder and damper as the four hours + service went on. This included the seemingly obligatory 'ramble without end' from Subhuti. The funeral was a fitting tribute to Sangharakshita's achievements as a Buddhist, something overlooked during the controversies and scandals which emerged during his life. As my first Triratna event since resigning the atmosphere of the funeral felt all too familiar. It was good to have chats with a few friends, including a brief but warm interaction with Padmavajra which I found quite touching.  Sangharakshita's death brings to an end a distinct period in Triratna, and for me it brought a fitting point of closure to my involvement.

Thoughts about moving on spiritually did arise in the wake of the funeral. So I took the initiative and made plans to attend an Introductory Session at the Norwich Zen Priory one Saturday. We did a bit of Christmas shopping before hand until the time for me to split off and walk to the Priory came. I thought from looking at a map before I left home that I'd find the walk there relatively straightforward. Unfortunately I took a wrong turn very early on, and subsequently found myself well and truly lost. As the start time for the Introductory session loomed I got a bit flustered, until I had to acknowledge I was not going to make it. I hobbled back towards the city centre I never seemed able to get away from, feeling somewhat foolish. Perhaps my plan was a bit premature.

This experience represents the zeitgeist of the last month pretty well; the strains that emerge when it feels as though you're walking over the same ground again and again. In Taoism they use the analogy of paying attention to whether you are planing a piece of wood with or against the grain, when trying to align yourself with The Way  According to this if you're planing wood against the grain you'll be constantly snagging and gouging into the wood.  Whilst if you 're planing with the grain, your experience of things will generally be running smoother, as both you, the plane and the grain would be in better alignment. Sometimes it simply a matter of making small adjustments to the spirit with which you approach your life. It could even be that the moment for what you want to do has not yet arrived, and what is required is an ability to surrender yourself up to its gradual unfolding in real time. Though it has to be said, I do tend to exhume this old Taoist chestnut whenever my initiative is feeling unreasonably thwarted or robbed.

Monday, November 19, 2018

CARROT CAKE REVIEW No 11 - Zesty & Moist

Heydon Tea Rooms, Heydon, Norfolk.
Spiced Carrot & Orange Cake £2.50

First, I must confess a prejudice, Heydon Tea Rooms is one of my all time favourite places to go for coffee and cake. The range and excellence of their cakes is unmatched. How would they perform when stepping onto the hallowed ground of Carrot Cake? 

Well, if I'm being really really honest, this was never going to be the pure unadulterated Carrot Cake that I've extolled in fundamentalist detail in previous blog posts. ( You'll find those posts here:~ Perfect Carrot Cake ) The official title for this one was Spiced Carrot and Orange Cake. So thats spice, tick, carrot, tick, orange? well, lets see. Orange can easily sweep away all that comes into contact with it, so what started out in its bones the very essence of a carrot cake, is frogmarched into becoming a Tangerine. 

As you may be able to detect from the photograph this cake could never be described as solid or weighty. The cake's texture was light, springy and moist. My god was it moist, moist with all those bright zesty citrus overtones, but without being detrimental to the balance of the Carrot or the Spice. It was poised beautifully between the demands of all these competing flavours. There was still room in the mix for good sized chunks of walnut and a scatter of sultanas. Throwing all these ingredients together and not have a cake you could either fiill holes in a wall with or has the consistency of rain sodden soil, is nothing short of masterful. Though it may have looked insubstantial it had enough substance in its structure. It didn't fall into cake rubble as soon as you applied the fork, nor dissolve like a ghost as soon as it hit your pallette either.

Though this style of carrot cake exists on the more experimental fringes, in our world of culinary fantasy, it does somehow manage to pull it off. Plus, it does have a cream cheese filling, so that's another thumbs up from me.  I find it tricky though when assessing these modern twists on the traditional form, when it comes to how to mark them. Though not traditional they are, nonetheless, successful.  Here they manage to cover all the basics of the form, whilst adding a twist that accentuates without drowning the patient. Though it challenges what I set out to do with these posts, it is after all just a personal mission statement, that I can chose to adjust however I wish.


Thursday, November 15, 2018

BOOK REVIEW - Junichiro Tanazaki - The Makioka Sisters

I'm reaching the end of my year of Japanese novel reading. Its been a mixture of the inspiring, the informative and the frankly infuriating. When it comes to the latter The Makioka Sisters is a perfect example of a cetain type of mid-twentieth century Japanese novel.  Everything is described by its surface, emotions are restrained and reserved. Its as if the human tendency towards melodrama had flatlined. Previous works by Tanazaki I've greatly enjoyed. He has a mischievous, dry and ironic sense of the absurdities, as well as the beauties, of traditional 'Old Japan'. So if you were to skim the storyline of The Makioka Sisters you'd think this might be fertile ground for Tanazaki to find gold in. That it isn't, leaves this novel as nearly five hundred pages devoid of wit, humour, or in fact much happening at all.

Whilst not being imitative of Chekov, its clear that The Makioka Sisters is something of a Japanese homage to the spirit of The Three Sisters. Because here we too have three provincial sisters, Sachiko, Yukiko and Taeko. except everyone wants to stay in Osaka, no one wants to go to the big city, to dreary, dirty Tokyo.  The Makioka family used to have standing socially but has fallen on harder times. Though they are no longer able to cut the social mustard, they behave as if they still do. The modern world is passing them by, as they try not to play catch up. Of the three, only Sachiko is married, but as the eldest it falls to her to ensure the traditional process is followed and that the second eldest Yukiko is next to get married.

Unfortunately, Yukiko is now in her early thirties and they worry that she is a bit old to still be in the marraige market. If they don't find a suitable match soon, the shame of perpetual spinsterhood and dependency on the family will descend. Yukiko, has all the presence of someone who is constantly absent, her feelings and motives remaining essentially unknowable for the entire length of the novel. You neither love or hate her. Its as though she's become this empty vessel, a blank pawn in a very long game of chess. Her younger sister Taeko, by comparison is a free spirit who wants to make her own way in life, chose her own lovers and resist playing the marriage game. There are, however, tragic consequences to the choices that she makes.

That is it really as far as the storyline goes. There are passages of brilliant descriptive writing, such as the torrential rain and flooding in the centre of the story, and (spoiler alert ) a couple of death scenes. But these are brief blips, amid acres of not a lot going on of any import. I suspect there is much that could be labelled 'metaphor' in this novel, but this has not been heightened enough. The period the novel is set in is in the years leading up to Pearl Harbour.  The China Incident where Japan stages a proto-invasion of the Chinese mainland is a brief passing reference. The closeness of Nippon-Nazi relations is seen obliquely through the Stoltz family who live next door. That none of this impinges upon the Makioka obsessive pursuit of marrying Yukiko off, speaks volumes about Japanese insularity at this time.  They are literally living in another world to everyone else.

There are also countless incidences of someone in the family falling ill, or they suspect to be ill, or is a bit off colour, who then cossets themselves away until the often vaguely identified malady passes. Then there is the constant worry about that small spot above Yukiko's eye, will the appearance of this blemish spoil her marriage chances? To be followed by weeks of costly injections to eliminate, or at least reduce it in size. The body and the body politic have both become dis-eased.

Its a small fading world they live in, which is at times extremely petty, which Tanazaki relishes describing in minute detail. That the Makioka's are in some way cyphers for the Japanese malaise pre-war is pretty clear. There is, however, a difficulty for the Western reader of Japanese novels, there is frequently no sense of his characters engaging in any internal reflection.  'Internal dialogue' just doesn't happen, so you don't understand and hence never reach either hatred or empathy for these people. They are all a bit bland and featureless, with little sense for a mood or period. What's really going on within this family remains a disinteresting puzzle.

One has to be remain wary when reading any Japanese novel in translation, as your impressions of its value are entirely dependent upon the skill or otherwise of the translator. Converting an ideographic script into coherent English sentence structures must be inherently an unfeasible task. Murakami, when he reads the translation of his novels writes to the translator congratulating them on the book they've written, he no longer sees it as being composed by him anymore. Tanazaki's writing style I sense may have been let down by Edward G. Seidensticker's translation of it. I may of course be wrong and this really is one of the most tedious books I've ever read. But that it maybe the translation that is at fault is, for me, indicated by the last line of The Makioka Sisters, where Yukiko has finally found herself a husband and is travelling to Tokyo for her future marriage and life. This disingenuous sentence bears something of Tanazaki's trademark wryness and sense for irony. More like this and I'd have found this an enjoyable thing to read, instead of a bit of a drag.

'Yukiko's diarrhoea persisted through the twentieth-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo.'

What a way to end a novel! 

Saturday, November 03, 2018

SHERINGHAM DIARY 21 ~ Let Them Eat Paint - (Subsisting on Farrow & Ball )

Once you're accustomed to North Norfolk, you realise its reputation as one of the most popular places in the UK for the middle class to retire to, has had unforeseen consequences. The indigenous population, if indeed there is such a thing anymore, learn to survive in a minimum wage economy, with a minuscule chance of owning their own home. Their opportunities being swamped, if not swept aside, by the needs of these semi-retired wealthy incomers, and the house prices they raise in their wake.

The village of South Creake is some twenty miles along the coast from us. It's population at the last census was 516. Like most small villages in the UK it has lost its local corner shop, and any pub will have either gone, or gone gastro to a pricey and exclusive degree. Simple cod and chips, will be coated in a beery batter with a side of rustic potatoes fried in duck fat, accompanied by thick buttered wedges of 'artis-anal' sourdough. But, fear not, all is not lost because what South Creake does have, is its very own Farrow & Ball Shop, and bespoke kitchen design outlet. South Creake lives on the fringe of Burnham Market ( population 877 ) where this type of thing flourishes unsupported by any retail rationale. It has its own Joules and Gun Hill outlets, plus several high end interiors shops, and though not quite the archetypal butcher, baker and candlestick maker, it comes close. There is a cafe/shop that derives everything it sells from their own farm in Tuscany.

You may well shake your head in incredulity. Cottonwood Workshop exists on the coastal cusp of associating with this world. You could say we understand what part of our 'target market' is. I raise my hand, I confess, yes, I have purchased Farrow & Ball paint, not to eat obviously, but to use on our furniture refubs. Though actually Little Greene paints are finer quality, with better coverage and colours. So I'm not just going along with established market consensus here, I'm able to wag my individuality with the best of them.  Once you've got a taste for top quality emulsion paint its hard to kick the habit and return to the weak and watery 'in house value brands.' It bears similarity to eating cheap white sliced bread after trying handmade sourdough. Yes, the latter is more expensive, but goodness you do feel better about yourself afterwards. Worthy of having more of this well made stuff instead of cheaply made crap that leaves a nutritional deficit, not to mention a social or cultural one.

Seemingly everywhere round here, the smell of sourdough is whispering at you from cafe windows 'come put your mouth around a substantial crust'.  I consider myself reasonably adept these days at making a spelt, rye or wholemeal loaf, but have remained wary of approaching this prince of 'artis-anal' breads. I recently launched myself into singing the long song of sourdough. First, I had to kick the habit of just throwing a pack of easy yeast in a bowl and begin making a sourdough starter. This takes 4-5 days, feeding it daily like its a voracious child who loves wheat and lukewarm water. On the fifth day, my starter exploded out of the bowl, dribbling bacterial slurry all over the slats in the airing cupboard and a stored duvet beneath. On the fifth day though, thou shalt also form a gooey 'predough.' On the sixth day of sourdough you form your actual dough after much knackering knuckle kneading. After which, I rested the aching arthritic hands for an entire hour.

According to my recipe there follows a strange ritual, as in a clockwise movement you pinch, stretch and fold the dough as if it has love handles, once every hour, for three hours.  Finally, you can rest after the dough makes it into a loaf tin and you wait and wait for the rising of the sodding thing......for a further 4-6 hours! If you can make it through all of that, the delightful taste of the bread is the minor achievement. That you survived long enough to see the sourdough reach breadhood, was the real deal. There really ought to be a badge for it. I've joined the National Trust, I've bought Farrow & Ball, I've made sourdough, I've arrived in the middle class elite. Though I was born in Halifax, Yorkshire, lets not make too much of that. These days its who you think you are, not what you are that really matters. If toffs like Reese-Mogg can become the voice of ordinary working people, I can behave as if I have time and money to burn.

Having now completed our first month as free citizens, unencumbered by meaningless work and accompanying stresses. It would, however, be incorrect to assume we are now living the life of riley. We have a lot of work to do. With experience we know how to make the best use of this time. For instance, we've learnt photographing or programming all day just does your head in. So we space it out, and ensure we get to do craft work, if not every day, at least regularly. We both have backgrounds with a strong work ethic, and what we are doing now isn't quite what most working class guys who happen to have got educated do.

On days when nothing appears to be going right, a mood can descend - that we aren't doing enough - or not moving fast enough on our various projects - or worry about running out of money, even though we don't need to. Some of this is an emotional panic around making this year count, plus we've had unrealistic expectations concerning how much we can actually physically or mentally do. There is also a backlog of processing, of stuff we've both sat on whilst employed at our previous workplaces. Now we are both our master and our servant, emotions do bob to the surface because we are both less guarded and more relaxed.  So even whilst motivated and inspired we can slip into tenseness and anxiety. Primarily because now, there is no one else to praise or blame for what happens, but ourselves.

We've achieved more than we perhaps give ourselves credit for in our first month. Jnanasalin has completed the design revamp of our website, and is nearing the end of the minute nerdy details of the background construction that will support it. We've re-photographed literally hundreds of stock shots for it. I've gradually got into a groove with refinishing items. I've painted, varnished or upholstered three stools, repainted four picture frames and made a battered wooden shell into a fully complete decorative box. We've also started assessing potential cafe sites, at this stage just to get a sense for what we should be looking out for in future.

Splash Swimming Pool Sheringham

Since moving to Upper Sheringham we have both become unfit, as a lot of comfort eating has been engaged in. Since starting 'our year of living a wee bit dangerously' we've begun monitoring our food consumption and getting more regular exercise. Jnanasalin goes for a long walk almost everyday. I've got back into swimming twice a week, hoping to expand on that once my body has grown accustomed. After the first swim, my body screamed at me like a new born baby - 'don't you ever ever do that to me again, you sadist!'. Because everyone knows that after 'Mummy' and 'Daddy' the next words an intelligent baby masters are 'you sadist !' The accumulative effect has been a substantial lift to my general mood and sense of well being, easing my bodily discomforts considerably too. So I guess you might call that a 'win win.'

We've had friends staying with us on two separate weekends. It was very good to spend time with both Saddharaja and Vidyasiddhi, catching up a bit, walking, taking in scenery and generally sharing some of our favourite spots in North Norfolk.  It can feel as though we live in a bit of a self contained bubble, so it was good to hear how things are going back in Cambridge, and of other peoples lives and future plans. It was a real pleasure.

Urgyen Sangharakshita

This week we heard of Sangharakshita's death. He founded the Triratna Buddhist Order, that I used to be a member of, and Jnanasalin still is. Sangharakshita was a remarkable man, sensitive, perceptive and possessed of a formidably rigorous mind, His analysis of social mores was controversial, plus there was abuse of power scandals recently, that had taken place in the early years of the movement. Despite the latter, he remains to us one of the most significant positive influences upon both of our thinking, practice and lifestyle. We intend attending the funeral to pay our final respects and show our gratitude to the teacher, to whom we owe so much concerning the form of our lives as Buddhists. It will be the first Triratna event I'll have attended since my resignation from the order, the prospect of which, in my imagination at least, I'm finding a bit daunting. This year is turning out to be such a significant one, with so many things and people coming to an end.

As you drive from Kings Lynn towards Fakenham, you pass a favourite sign of mine. Its stuck by the road, on a turning into a dirt track running by the side of a farm. For a moment when I first saw it, I was perplexed. Painted in large red letters on a white background it simply says SHORT TREES.  Now there may be a whole trend for trees that are vertically stunted, that I've remained thankfully unaware of. But I've come to the conclusion that the simple addition of an apostrophe and an S after SHORT, might provide a more easily comprehensible solution. 

Saturday, October 20, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW ~ John Grant - Love is Magic

What is there left to say about John Grant that hasn't already cashed its chips in on an already established line of musical myth making?  Its as hard to look at an artist from a fresh perspective as it is for an artist to find one for themselves. Both develop expectations and associations built up from a repeated experience of what they love to write and what we love about them. We can become so accustomed to Grant's self confessional material that its robbed of its power to shock. amuse or awe.

He has often expressed his life experience in such a frank manner, its difficult to see beyond it to notice how he's filtered and packaged it for our consumption.  The results process his feelings via some of the most honest, witty, yet scathing songs about former lovers you are ever likely to hear. Emotional truths struck home and cause reciprocal resonant chords in others -'yes me too'.  Anyone who has broken up badly with a former lover and wanted to get back at them for the hurt they've caused, could hear it in a John Grant song. Much of this early solo material arose from a precarious sense of himself, to which the songs became a sort of cathartic therapy. Trying to rid himself of layers of self- destructive hate, doubt and anger. Over his three previous albums and associated live performances it was apparent that Grant has gradually been putting to rest, or at least managing better, the bitterness that drove his most cutting early songwriting. Where too now though for the bard of the withering put down?

As he releases Love is Magic, his fourth solo album, what more can we hear that hasn't been heard before? As Bella Union pre-released tracks from the album online, I felt concerned. What I was hearing, seemed like retreading old ground,  a lost sense for a melodic line, run out of fresh ways to write songs? Grant himself thinks this album is the most complete realisation he's yet achieved of what he's wanted an album to be. My feelings about it before hearing it in full were then a little troublesome. I was surprised then to end up loving it.

Queen of Denmark released in 2010 was in effect a salvage job by the group Midlake, to rescue Grant from slipping into a self imposed retirement. The resulting highly successful album has much more of a country lite feel to it, and had echoes of his previous work in the Csars. By the time of Pale Green Ghosts, three years later he's confident about where he wants to go musically experimenting with electronics, though still dropping back into the style of the first album from to time to time. This gave the album stylistically speaking an uneven feel, even though its full of songs that are some of his best.  My sense of 2015's Grey Tickles & Black Pressure was that it consolidated without developing further what he achieved on Pale Green Ghosts. With Love Is Magic, I believe I have a sense of what he's tried to achieve with this album. Its is more coherent in its form, being largely electronic in style from start to finish, but it also toys with something a bit more sonically adventurous too.

Between the last two albums he's done quite a bit of feature vocals on other people's albums. Most noticeably on Susanne Sundfor's Mountaineers, and with Creep Show. Both these allow Grant to sing over the most gorgeous sonic backgrounds allowing space to accommodate the full richness of his vocal timbre. Susanne Sundfor's album Music For Troubled Times, is a patchwork of songs each beautifully wrought. At times sparsely backed, sometimes lushly orchestrated,  experimentalally mixing in the spoken word, whilst still hanging together as a whole album concept. Love is Magic bears a few similarities, there are re-statements of what is good in a John Grant song, whilst weaving into this bolder explorations of the song form, pushing at his own compositional boundaries. The track Metamorphosis for instance opens the album with a crazy in your face list of things that appear to have no association, bookending a sad little tune about the death of a loved one, written from the perspective of someone with an emotionally alienated sense of loss. It doesn't quite convince you to fully buy into whats happening, its a fraction too clever to touch you, but it is a courageous track to open your album with.

The theme that holds the album together, resides in the title track Love Is Magic. Laying out the different reasons for our experience and desire for love. He sings that however it arrives ' when the door opens up for you, don't resist  just walk on through, there's really nothing else to do.'  Since an earlier song Marz there's has been a nostalgic vein that reflects back on his early life. Its present here in the Tempest, where he yearns for someone to come play the Atari arcade game with him. It has within it a plangent vein of loneliness, requesting someone to come and share an enthusiasm with him, to love what he loves. Preppy Boy, is a young inexperienced gay teenager imagining himself falling for the most straight looking and hence unobtainable love object. Smug Cunt could be seen as another of Grant's character assassinations of a hate figure. But there is often a sense that Grant only dislikes them because they have what he wants, the Smug Cunt has unwarrented self-confidence, but by the bucketful. Diet Gum, opens with the line 'I manipulate, that's what I do, I manipulate that's what I'm doing to you' interspersed with a lot of gay bitching trying to put down the manipulator 'Do you really think you could seduce me in a leisure suit' . Yet these pathetic expressions of independence are empty ones. They are only susceptible to being manipulated, because they love the manipulator.

Critical appreciation for this album has been mixed, some have like me loved it, often for the very same things that others have found irritating. Sometimes, I have to say, Grant's use of electronic instrumentation can seem a bit like he switched the machine on and used whatever its factory default settings were. He needs a musical collaborator to push him to be bolder in his arrangements, someone who'll conceive a unique sound to enhance Grants songs further. That said, Love Is Magic's compositional themes are as rounded and thoughtful as ever. It still has its pokey moments, but in a gentler, less cruel way, and he is perhaps more forgiving of others failings than before. Though not quite the superlative album that one might still expect him to write, it points towards a few bold musical directions he could pursue and expand on further. Nonetheless, for all its sometimes half resolved quirkiness, its a really interesting album that I'm already quite besotted with.


Monday, October 08, 2018

SHERINGHAM DIARY 20 ~ Taking A Break From The Usual

A Pre-holiday Holiday
Five days after we both completed the last day at our jobs, we were now inhabiting a bardo of our own making, a place between two states of being and styles of work. Time for rituals to mark these changes in our surrounding landscape:~ writing the names of people or states we disliked or wish to leave behind onto pebbles and throwing them into the sea combined with the force of a Vajrasattva mantra behind them:~ on another day writing the people or aspects we liked and would wish to remember onto a thin Japanese paper which became transparent once placed in the bottom of a pot and anointed with water, adding soil, spring bulbs, then more soil before anointing again with water, and perfumed with the aroma of two sticks of incense. Sometime in early Spring they hopefully will grow and bloom.

This was a pre~holiday holiday, a week in which to put down work concerns, catch up with ourselves, and take time to tidy up the house a bit and simply relax. I prepared my workshop to be in readiness for the new work to begin post holiday. Jnanasalin made jams and preserves. It felt like a long weekend with no perceivable end, to be followed, according to our nightmares, by a return to our previous work by desperate pleas for help. So there was a bit of anxious emotional adjustment lingering around.  The finite nature of our savings creates a time pressure to crack on with developing Cottonwood, with it a distinct tension. But first, allow ourselves a break, travelling up to Richmond in North Yorkshire for seven days away from all that is familiar in hearth, home and work habits.

Celebrate Holiday

Richmond is an attractive Georgian market town, dominated by a huge castle towering over the fast flowing water serpent that is the River Swale. Its an ideal base from which to explore The Yorkshire Dales or Moors, even The Lake District. Having said that, what we did was spend three of our seven days hanging in and around Richmond.

Mainly we wandered about a bit, taking in a couple of lovely riverside walks, either side of the Swale. My favourite was along the old rail line to Easby Abbey which lies about a mile or so out of town. Jnansalin and I are never your purposeful ramblers charging on, walking poles in hand, to the next objective dragging both the willing and the unwilling behind them. We are, however, up for an nice easy strole, a gentle amble along a worn and hopefully well signposted route, motivated by the reward of coffee and cake at the end of it.

The best cafe we found was in Mocha, in Richmond Market Place. From the outside it appears just a high end chocolatier, but it has a small number of tables inside and out. These quickly get full, so you do have to stake claim to your territory when one comes available. Both coffee and cakes were the best in Richmond and district, so it was always worth it.

Finding a good range of vegetarian dishes on a menu in the North Yorkshire appears to be patchy and the results often feeble or unsatisfying. There wasn't a single cafe that could provide even a half good Veggie Breakfast. Most being let down, by over cooked fried eggs, grilled but still uncooked tomatoes or fried mushrooms that seemed to have been numbered and rationed per person. We also failed to discover a local baker who sold danish pastries that weren't doused in a vat of liquid sugar. The Noted Pie Shop, on the market square, wasn't notable for its culinary inclusiveness, for apart from an anaemic looking quiche it appeared to sell nothing but meat based pies.

We did have occasionally quite excellent meals. The Black Lion has a limited range of vegetarian dishes. but Jnanasalin enjoyed a richly flavoursome Mushroom Stroganoff there. On our last full day in Richmond we discovered Duncans Tearooms. A small upstairs restaurant with only a door at street level, it gets five stars and rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Its only open Wednesday to Saturday, so lunchtimes in particular you may have to book. But their menu is broad, ranging from superbly executed standards to rather more unusual fare. I had a creamy Potatoe and Leek Pie that was simply mouth-wateringly delicious, whilst Hubby tucked into a deep and richly layered Mushroom Tarteflette.

Whilst in Duncans Tearoom, I had my best 'overheard' of the entire trip. As we were sat waiting for our main meal, a retired couple came in sitting on a table behind and just to one side of us. Middle class and country tweedy, her voice in particular would've cut a glacier in half, so clear I suspected she might actually want everything she said to be heard. I certainly caught everything darling ' Well, I first read the early novels of the lesbians when I was at university. There's not one mention of sex between them or anything, so its hard to see why they got in such a lather over it. But goodness there was a lot of bitchy conversations between them, it just goes on and on and on... and I had to study this thing, it was so utterly tedious I got extreee..mly bored.'

On a very wet day in Ripon we sought shelter from the whip of wind and rain in Lockwoods. Its a sort of hipster boho bistro I guess, but that didn't put us off. Surprise surprise, from its non-alcoholic cocktails, a starter of soughdough and olives, through to the mains of  Butternut & Feta Risotto, dribbled with walnut pesto topped with a tangle of pea stems, it was pure joy from start to finish. Excellent service, timed well, with just the right amount of attentiveness. We left sated and deeply satisfied. Highly Recommended.

Don't let the number of column inches I devote to food lead you to believe that is all we look forward to on holiday. Though everything else does tend to sit in a time limited orbit around when the next opportunity for eating might arrive. This time we tried not to pre-plan our week, attempting to stumble into spontanaity. Well, it certainly felt less pressured. Nevertheless, we managed to take in the marvellous, the historical and the cultural, a few of which are worthy of highlighting.

Many stately homes have first been a castle or abbey which subsequently became an ancestral pile. Raby Castle has always been a house that later applied for a 'license to crenellate', which is something I'd love to think you could still ask for. The current owners of the Raby Estate trace their ancestry back to the notoriously power grabbing Neville family.  Raby Castle on the outide seems a classic medieval fortress, has grand and ambitious interiors, extensively remodelled in the Victorian Gothic era. When you enter the Octagonal Room you do literally gasp, nothing in the rooms prior to it quite prepares you. Its the sheer audacity with which the bling has been thrown, plastered or hung around. It bears a similarity in spirit and style to the interior of the Brighton Pavilion, though the Octagonal Room was executed some forty years later, its in close sympathy with the Pavilion's camp ostentation. I loved it to bits.

From being quite young you could never please me more on holiday than to leave me exploring some castle, church, cathedral or abbey. In consequence I've gleefully wandered over countless ruined abbeys in my time. Its never clear until you actually get to a monastic site how much of it will be left, a few walls, a solitary broken window moulding, sometimes only a stone outline in the ground. So nothing quite prepares you for the size, scale, and level to which it is intact, of Fountains Abbey. No other monastic site in England I know of comes anywhere close. Yes, the roof is long gone, all its architectural and decorative flourishes in stone, wood, paint or glass have been stripped away, but what remains, the vaulting, the height of the walls, the clerestory, columns, arches and windows, is all without parallel.

Without fail on visiting a ruined abbey I get a mixture of feelings; great sadness and a silent hankering for what has been lost culturally and spiritually due to the dissolution, plus a fantasy of becoming a monastic myself. How these religious institutions would have fared had they been left alone, is hard to say. A place of true solitude away from the worldly, would be harder and harder to find as the subsequent centuries progressed. Perhaps, even leaving aside the effect of being mugged by the so called English Reformation, the writing was on the wall for them.

Close by Raby Castle lies the market town of Barnard Castle. It too still has its own castle, that has mostly had its crenelation nicked, with only a curtain wall left. What it does have is the Bowes Museum, built like a French Chateau, founded and paid for by the wealth of John & Josephine Bowes. Finding themselves unable to bear children they spent the rest of their lives using their surplus income to build a huge museum to house their art collection. Mostly the art works are second level Italian or French masters, with a couple of Canalettos and an El Greco to raise the quality a bit. Anyway, apart from the 200 year old mechanical swan, the main highlight was the exhibition Catwalking based around Chris Moore's fashion photography. Covering a period from the start of his career in the sixties to the present day, the often iconic photos are accompanied by the actual iconic dresses by Chanel, Dior, McQueen, Westwood etc plus the sculptural delights of Issey Miyake.

There was much about our holiday that was filled with quiet and small delights. Through a small door just off the market place and down a narrow corridor you are taken into this beautifully compact award winning garden. Not much wider than 4 or five metres Millgate House Gardens meander down the hill slope in the direction of the Swale, pausing to create small arbours for garden chairs, benches or tables, and then sidling on its downward path  The day we visited was a bit drizzly, the garden bore more of a dripping jungle demeanour with its luxuriant hostas blanketing the ground level catching beads of rainwater. The planting is deceptively but delightfully informal, but then you start to notice there is quite a bit of distinctly structural topiary scattered around. The Georgian house with its balconies overlooking the valley provides its own architectural accent to the splendid garden laid out before it. Its a garden worth taking a look at, anytime of year.

There were hardly any duff venues, but The Richmondshire Museum must get a special mention and the battered wooden spoon. We arrived just as it opened and the lady on Reception was a little startled, 'Do you want to see the museum then?'- 'So, will that be two adults?' She's obviously forgotten exactly what an adult looked like as two middle aged gentlemen loomed into view.  Five minutes later she catches up with us to hand us our tickets. The museum, run and set up by volunteers, hasn't been updated for fifty years, maybe more. All the items exhibited have faded or fogged labels originally typed laboriously on perhaps a pre-war typewriter. They're immensely proud of managing to acquire the set from All Creatures Great & Small after it last aired sometime in 1990. We couldn't wait to exit this museum which felt like being locked up in a dusty and heavily mothballed wardrobe.

Working For Ourselves
In most jobs how you schedule your work is constrained by the job itself, your boss, the people you work with, and other stimuli external to you. When you work for yourself all those prompts and responsibilities return home to you. The first thing we had to decide when we returned from holiday, was what our working day and week was, what to prioritise, how Jnansalin and I would work together. All of which was surrounded by slivers of Protestant Work Ethic, guilt about actually having the time to be creative in, and anxiety about making the most of this upcoming year.  We found we were pretty much on the same page about products and how we want to revamp our website. So - so far, so good!