Saturday, September 29, 2007

FILM REVIEW - Into Great Silence

'Into Great Silence' is a rare cinematic experience, a film without a narrator, no one to explain or mythologise or create an unfolding mystery. There is no real story to relate here, it's without dramatic changes of pace or manipulative music to heighten the atmosphere. This film is as silent as a documentary can be, without turning the sound off. Very simply and unhurriedly, like its subject matter, it presents its findings. Philip Groning had to be patient to make this movie, it was nineteen years between his initial request and the film of monastery life being made. One is left wondering how this experience was for the monks, their every action being captured as they went about their usually solitary round of religious observances. How is it for anyone to have their private observances observed for public consumption? Groning scrupulously avoids any sense of you being voyeurs creeping in to watch forbidden things. He has an unobtrusive and patient eye, which paradoxically brings a fascinating richness and a quiet quality to his observing.

The day to day actions of thirty of so monks in the Grande Chartreuse, the head quarters of the Carthusian Order, are charted in minute detail, and you find yourself gradually adjusting your step to be in pace with its meditative rhythm. The lives these monks lead is stark, simple, and stripped bare of affectation. This is not a documentary indulging in the exotic otherness of monastic life. It's not a life without any sense of aesthetics, there is a rough hewn beauty to this rustic simplicity. I can feel it's attraction and get a sense for the spiritual values that are being made tangible, to a generally indifferent world. Though, in all of us there's a still small segment in our psyches that yearns for this ideal – to get away from a life ruled by the rampant desire for sensory distraction.

To our deeply social, sexual and individualistic society, spending time on ones own could be viewed with anxiety, if not derision. Yet, these monks have chosen to devote themselves to this life, mostly to spend their time alone in their individual cells, grouped as they are around a large communal cloister. The individual and the communal are given separated contexts within the monastery enviroment. At points during the day a monk pushing a cart bearing metal containers brings food to the cloister cells, stops by each, unlocks a small door hatch, opens it and places round food tins within it, then moves onto the next. Then there are the daily communal rituals, some called to by bell in the middle of the night. Once a week they're allowed to walk outside the monastery grounds, where they can interact and talk. On one such day some of the monks walked up into the snow covered mountains in twos, having great fun on the slopes on their makeshift skis. It left an impression that their lives, though serious in religious intent, were not entirely bereft of a sense of fun or playfulness. Perhaps the founding fathers were wise, and knew a life of such austere practice cannot be left without an emotional safety valve, opened to relieve the pressure at regular intervals. Most of their days they pray, they study, they work, they perform rituals without egotistically imposing their personality upon their devotions. No one appeared be self consciously playing up to the camera, which may be a virtue of good editing, as much as an expression of spiritual maturity.

Throughout the film there were shots of individual monks staring straight to camera for half a minute. Passive, characterful faces, full of expression, looked out at you. These seemed untroubled, but deeply human beings, self acknowledging, though interested, if not intrigued by why you the viewer were interested, if not intrigued with them. For over two hours and forty minutes I sat engrossed, a grin of sheer delight, if not envy, often appearing blissfully across my face

Sunday, September 23, 2007


When something happens, whatever it is you feel, if you stay with that feeling, your life is limited. then from that limitation, you create irritation, confusion, stress, and distress.

But to live a peaceful life, you cannot stay with that feeling; you have to return the result you have tasted into eternal possibility.

That way bitterness will not find bitterness. so when I get a taste from my feeling, I cannot keep that bitter taste warm in my heart


Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I'm now well into my second week working at Windhorse. The building itself is of course very familiar, I recognise its quiet relaxed atmosphere, it feels a steadier place to work and be in. The work is mostly new and still seems a huge overwhelming challenge. I'm pretty good at dealing with people and I know what needs doing to meet customers requests. However, my understanding of the XAL system,which would enable me to provide the solutions, still has major gaps in my understanding of it.

Considering I wasn't brought up using computers with my mother's milk, and have slowly learnt how to use one in the ten years since I was forty, I think I do pretty well. David's job is maintaining the computer network in relation to our Evolution shops, so he is obviously quite a whizz with these things. At home I sometimes ask him how to do a simple task, which he does with such speed I can't follow how he's done what he's done, so there's not a cat in hell's chance I'll remember it for next time. I do, in my own way, get there eventually, and do develop quite consistent practices and methods when working with computers. Computers don't strike me as particularly logical, more methodological, if you know the method it seems logical, if you don't know the method, logic wont get you anywhere.

This second week has, so far, felt a little less like my brain was a supersaturated sponge that could take no more water,thank you. Last week I had so much input and barely enough time to absorb or practice what I've been shown, before I was doing it live with a customer. I have, after all, just arrived in the team at probable their busiest time after the major gift trade show of the year. Training me up is the last thing they need really. When I worked in another admin team at Windhorse I learnt on another version of XAL and a whole different set of procedures, only some of which appear to cross over. My memory, of something I did on a daily basis two years ago, frequently deserts me. Though I can now sort of bluff my way through a day, I'm aware I could very easily stumble into a huge hole in my knowledge or comprehension, right in the middle of dealing with a customer. The full breadth of tasks that we do has understandable yet to settle into any recognisable form, pattern or scheme of comprehension.

My current mental state is a recognisable anxious one, I'm mentally uneasy on occasions simply because I'm not feeling fully in control of my work. I find myself being mentally clumsy, making simple mistakes, suddenly I forget what comes next and have to ask for help, or have something explained yet again. In my experience repetition of a task is the best way for me to establish understanding. Explanations or taking notes are good for reference, but they're no substitute for the doing. I have dearly wished in the past that I could grasp processes quicker, but actually that isn't how I learn, it is more a gradual and, lets face it, slow application of effort. I feel more confident in my approach these days and don't give myself a hard time. This doesn't mean my self esteem sits easily with the learning of new things, its still impatient not to feel like a stumbling novice and be the competent all knowing one, once again.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Aesthetics begins in the startle of surprise,
the breath caught, held in astonishment.

Aesthetics arises from an epiphanic image,
the full force of character revealed
as in a work of art.


DIARY 43 - Berlin Observations

After his return to Germany earlier this year, it was so good to meet my friend Eugen again. Being greeted by his beaming presence in the airport lobby was a lovely welcome. I've missed the delight of his company, for both the fun and the depth that our conversations will often go to. Eugen lives in Kreutzberg, an area of Berlin with quite a track record as a place of shelter for political radicals,social outcasts and immigrants. It has a cosmopolitan and bohemian air,with a vast range of ethnic caf├ęs, restaurants and shops that straddle the globe in the cultures they encompass. Quite a lot them are established in cellars, from second hand clothes stores through to art galleries. Eugen's flat is in this area, and I can see why he's fond of it. Apart from being a cheap area to live, it does have a warm approachable atmosphere to it. It was a popular place for squats in the sixties and seventies. Now Turkish immigrants are making their home here and contributing to an already rich mix of culinary styles available.

My first impression of Berlin was of the width of the streets, broad with two or three lanes going either way, trees lining both the right, left and middle. Large curved lamposts lean out over the road like tall distinguished gentlemen, they seem to say ' Here Sir, let me provide you with more light.' The urban environment of Berlin seems less pressured, openminded, civilised and respectful. The pavements are wide too, in most cases they include a separate path for bicycles. You can cycle everywhere with great ease and safety, the network of cycle paths is extensive. I hadn't cycled for a few years, so a sore bum and tired throbbing thighs were an inevitable outcome of my first full day of touring central Berlin. Over the four days we often found ourselves cycling alongside the former position of the Berlin Wall. Dividing up a city in this way seems ludicrous these days, but then in the Post War years, a strange paranoia did hang over Europe.

Berlin is full of building sites, as an astounding range of modern buildings still spring up to fill the gaps a war and a wall have left. The new Reichstag and Presidential buildings are splendid examples of modernism, the use of surrounding space, the playfulness with form and perspective, all make these buildings outstanding. I've reluctantly concluded that only continental Europeans seem to know how to pull off this style. Even though they often use English architects, one cannot forget they have a substantial architectural and design inheritance as the birthplace of German Gothic and the Bauhaus.

Should we attempt anything so bold and large scale in England,we invariable do it half heartedly, under fund it, and generally handle it in mean spirited, cack handed manner. According to Peter Ackroyd in his book on the English imagination, we have a cultural bias against big visions ( architectural or otherwise ), to me its both a character distinction and a limitation to our imagination. For me, there was a great sense of uplift and inspiration, of some faith being restored, to see architectural vision carried out with such bravura and care. I love Berlin for that if nothing else.

Berlin has had a chequered history - one minute a hotbed for modernism, creativity and liberality, the next the reluctant home to a regressive and repressive regime. In either case it has left a mark on the city, some more sombre than others. How can a city, or a country, come to terms with a shameful period in its history? It's not a question with an easy answer, but Berlin seems at least willing to try and find one.

The Holocaust Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe is an astonishingly bold public statement of remorse, constructed right in the heart of Berlin's prime real estate. As a gay man I need to carp about the exclusion of other groups murdered by the Nazi from this memorial, but that does not detract from its evident emotional power. Walking through it was a major highlight of my all too brief visit to Berlin.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

DIARY 42 - Arrivals & Departures

I have yet to encounter a European airport that remotely resembles an English one. Stansted Airport has a beautifully designed shell, to walk into it should be like entering a large open and airy tent, a cool, spacious place you're instantly at ease with and can find your way around. Instead you arrive into a visually confusing entrance, so much demands your attention as you're barraged by information and a layout that isn't instantly comprehensible. After check in you quickly find yourself ushered into a cramped bazaar, under retail duress in very tawdry looking circumstances. What is worse is that you have to take half your clothes off in public, be x-rayed, your shoes scanned and the privacy of your luggage invaded, before you even get to it. It wasn't worth the wait.

Having said goodbye to my luggage for an hour or two, I waited for my plane to be ready to board, it was already gone 5 am and the retail malls were just stirring into life. In English airports shops are crammed into the smallest of spaces, to maximise rental income, which creates a pokey and oppressive sense of space. The piped music and flashy shop fittings remind one of a tart, all lip gloss and heavily applied eye shadow, trying hard to be alluring but ending up being vulgar and repulsive.

Once the flight gate was open I was off, I couldn't wait to get out of that trashy corral. Just a quick dash to the loos and then on to my departure lounge. An atmosphere surrounds the layout of Stansted, it feels like an environmental experiment which, being only temporary, will soon be replaced by a permanent version that will make more sense. This feeling extends to the toilets and the departure lounges. Whilst I sat looking bleary eyed around at my fellow early risers, it dawned on me why this was - both spaces are constructed from exactly the same materials. My departure lounge looked for all the world as if it were formed from recycled portaloo cabins. One could readily expect signs apologising, not for the inconvenience, but for looking like one.

Some interior design decisions confound logic and experience; knowing the volume of travellers passing through a busy airport like Stansted, what self respecting designer thinks its a good place to lay down carpet. Carpets that are stained from all manner of liquid spillages ( speakable and unspeakable ) ,have ground into them dust, fag ash and random spits of gum, the pile crushed then formed into wrinkles and rucks from the ceaseless barrage of luggage trolleys dragged across them. Carpet doesn't make an airport any quieter or a cosier place to be, it just transforms it into a grim, grubby, and gross place to be. Rip all the carpets up at once and lay some shiny linoleum - please!

If you descend from Arrivals/Departures the aesthetics take a turn for the worse. You enter a concrete bunker, where service ducts and pipes move in parallel with passengers trying to find their bus or train platform. It leaves an impression that money ran out and this perfunctory basement was all they could afford. All pretence at creating a comfortable, pleasantly human environment vanishes and you are left in a place where alienation is your only option. Some spaces seem designed for criminal activity, in this case for muggings and a good kicking in the underpass.

Arrivals at Berlin's Schonefeld Airport was a noticeable calmer and more relaxed space. It's not really an international airport, so it hasn't to deal with anything like the same amount of passengers passing through its gates. It is, however, clean, well maintained and uncluttered by the confusing plethora of signs and advertising that frequently blights and bares down on you in English airports. German signs appear to be fewer in number, only telling you essential information, often in easily understood symbolic form. The designers have taken simple and bold decisions, like making advertising spaces go from floor to ceiling across whole walls, and integral to the aesthetic effect of a space. The shopping area is contained to one broad unfussy corridor, the shops consisting of two duty free, a bakers/cafe and a burger king. The appearance is of a spacious, clean and visually pleasant place to be, and what's more, there wasn't a strip of carpet in sight, anywhere! When I see this level of care and attention I despair of being English, we are so often revealed to be clumsy amateurs when it comes to designing effective, efficient and human spaces, it is shameful.