Saturday, December 27, 2008

FEATURE 17 - The Pope,a theory, and a bit of bother.

I have to admit the Pope's views do appear to have been seriously twisted and misrepresented by the media, for melodramatic effect. He didn't specifically mention homosexuality, though you'd be forgiven for thinking he'd made it the central crux of his argument, judged by the publicity. It was more a logical implication of what he was saying, than an explicit example that he used. Yet, his basic premise remains the same; that all human life is under threat unless a clearly defined line is drawn on what is or is not permitted sexually for males or females. Monogamous family life being the 'god given' benchmark. Gender Theory blurs that line and therefore is a threat, is a bad thing.

As a gay man, I never really get what the rationale is here. Where is the evidence to support the view that Gender Theory or Homosexuality is a threat to heterosexual activity and family life? If monogamy and family life are under threat, it would appear to be more from living in an increasingly atomised society - one which values the individual, over the collective, pursuit of happiness. People who are gay, lesbian, transsexual or transgender are no different in buying into this aspiration than anyone else in society, and can hardly be held primarily responsible for its promulgation. The Pope seems more concerned to support married couples in their procreative habits than encourage the wider happiness of human life. Though for him the two do appear to mean the same thing.

The propagation of the human species is more under threat from a declining sperm count, as a consequence of human environmental pollution - which isn't caused by sexual orientation, perverted or otherwise - its a consequence of corporate insensitivity and greed. Human life is still being created daily at ever dizzying rates - by heterosexual couples. Males continue to impregnate females, on a scale only exceeded by rabbits and midges. The worlds human population is growing inexorable towards what is considered environmentally unsustainable. We would appear to need a reduction in heterosexual conception, not more. And the Pope thinks that Gender Theory, and the diversity of all things in Queerdom are the main threat to the survival of the species!

I'd never heard of Gender Theory before, so I had to 'google' it in order to discover quite what had got him so hot under the collar. At heart its the age old nature v nurture argument, dressed up in post-feminist language. It ex-tolls the role of culture in the creation of gender types and orientation, as being a more pre-eminent influence than genetic predisposition. It's the latter assertion of primacy that the Pope is warning against, for him, we are born as men and women, who are not remotely asexual or amorphous in our gender disposition. But at least Gender Theory is just that- a theory, and not an absolute that is somehow sanctified and god endorsed.

Judging from the opinions stated on the internet, its not just the Pope whose found these ideas rather unpalatable. Feminists, from the other end of the spectrum, are also outraged for rather different reasons. They see Gender Theory as the male patriarchy regaining the moral high ground from them, with a sort of 'gender stereotyping affects us all' slight of hand. So, its not just the pontiff whose touchy about this theory. But he doth protest too much, and has clearly misjudged the point here on a tragic scale - tragic for all of humanity! The most worrying consequence in the Pope making this statement, is that he has given every homophobe in the Western world, believer or non-believer, something else to justify their prejudices with in pub brawls. Good will to all men (and women) and all that.

Thanks for the advice Benny.

Friday, December 26, 2008

DIARY 89 - Two Gay Men - Make Mincemeat


David and I enjoyed our final Christmas in our current abode. We are two gay guys, who are, shall we say, somewhat foodie focused, and like nothing better than to 'do celebrations properly.' So our Christmas meal was a full on affair, a vegetarian version of traditional seasonal fare, well prepared and cooked to within an inch of perfection. We were, of course, being overseen by the lucious spirit of the Goddess Nigella - well, at least we'd made her Chilli Jelly (a Chilli Sauce given a less prosaic name). To accompany this I'd made a Cashew Nut & Mushroom Roast, with a richly flavoured homemade gravy, whilst David dealt with the roasties and veg side of things. Some Christmas Puddings can be so plum filled, there is a sense of foreboding for the effect they'll have on your already satiated appetite, before you've actually eaten them. My Christmas Pudding, came out dark and clean and even from its bowl, looked and tasted light, but was still full of a rich fruity flavor. All in all, it was a consummately well executed Christmas feast. However, during our afternoon perambulation down by the river, the full weight of what we'd eaten finally gained on us. My stomach felt distended beyond pleasant satisfaction, to feeling like my intestines were stuffed, stretched and twisted like barbecue sausages. So bloated, barping and burping we returned home to a welcome sleep, a brief break before we felt obliged to funnelled yet more down our gullets to our stomachs.

The rest of the day we gorged on whatever could be easily foraged from off I-Player - Have I got news for you - Porridge - Dr Who Christmas Special - bookending a DVD of The Princess Bride. Now the latter is yet another movie many people have been astounded I'd never seen, extolling its qualities to the hills, and how much I would like it. I have to say, this sort of talk already had got my distrustful ears pricking with suspicion - Hmm, well we'll see shall we. It was mildly diverting, I could see it was on occasiona a witty, if not eccentric take on a traditional fairy tale, but it seemed to seriously underplay the necessary parody and irony. In short, I found it rather underwhelming, but maybe I just didn't get fully onto its wavelength. Though it did, surprisingly, feature a barely recognisable Christopher Guest as the arch-villain. Our movie memories are often based on how we were at the time, affected by who we saw it with, how old we were, our particular interests, mood and zeitgeist. Sometimes films don't wear well too well, and seem dated all too soon. What was radical, cutting edge, or simply a hilarious film in 1985 for instance, can look clumsy and creaking even a few years later. As for The Princess Bride - well, Shrek, has done this sort of thing so much better, since this movie came out in 1997.


Well, the gut ache, like the celebrations is now passed. So I guess its back to business as usual. How boring or bored can I be in 2009? On the work front, I manned the phones on Boxing Day with Tricia. As there was absolutely no communication coming from the outside world, this meant I got round to cleaning and repairing an old artwork of mine, that has been lying on a shelf in the warehouse, awaiting the right moment to arrive. Well, today was that moment. Though it was on a stairwell wall for eleven years in my old community in Ipswich, and in the warehouse for about six months, the grime hadn't become ingrained in the artwork. A brisk brush, hoover and wipe down was sufficient. I guess this demonstrates the veracity of Quentin Crisps dictum about the build up of dirt not getting any worse after two years. Anyway, its looking rather resplendent once more, hanging up at the end of a warehouse isle. There aren't that many spaces large enough to accommodate it, though as it hangs there it looks quite small. As an artwork it is something you need to be able to stand back from to see it at its best. Though its around fifteen years since it was completed, I still feel some sort of parental responsibility for its well being, akin to that for an independent and grown up offspring. I still care about all my babies.

SATURDAY 27th 08

The centre of town was a buzz with the full throttle of folk with only bargain hunting on their minds. There is talk about this being the last flurry before people batten down the hatches on their finances. But then that's always what happens after Christmas. I don't get any sense that people are seriously feeling the pinch, but they are definitely more cautious and insecure about the future. A feeling that is only increased in intensity with every report of firms closing or going into administration. But we have been fed a daily diet of pessimism from the TV, Radio and newspapers for months now. These media prophets of doom are now proving themselves to be a major part of the problem. I can't help but wonder if we knew nothing about what was going on, whether we'd all be at least a lot calmer, if not better off. Left with only our own impressions and immediate knowledge to go on, would we be noticing anything at all? The present pace at which we've collectively lost confidence in our economy is largely a media fueled one. The information we are given about the economy (about which we have little real control) can only produce a level of anxiety bordering on hysteria. Neither I nor David are presently feeling seriously impoverished. But then we don't have much money to start with, and demand a lot less from our lives for them to be OK. If Windhorse goes bust in the next eighteen months (which is not inevitable, but is a possibility if things don't begin to improve by next Christmas) then perhaps we'll feel differently. If you presently own a house, car, and have wives and children with needs to satisfy, holidays to plan and pensions to be invested in, I guess things might feel a bit more precariously balanced right now.

I had some Christmas gift cards burning a hole in my craving controls. 'Next' was in full Sale fever, I didn't find anything there that I either must have, or really needed. I'll return once the Sale is over , and the new seasons range has arrived, and see then if my temptation can be whetted. I also had some money to spend in WH Smiths, with which I chose to purchase a CD of Ladies of Letters - Go Green. These series of delightful and spitefully written letters, are read with great skill and high camp by Prunella Scales and Patricia Routledge. David and I were greatly amused by Ladies of Letters - Make Mincemeat, whilst they were on I-player over the Christmas break, stuffed full, as they are with barely suppressed bitchiness, rivalry and backhanded compliments between these two friends - Vera Small and Irene Spencer. The scripts make regular play on their perpetual one-up-woman-ship, pretentiousness, and their mistaken use of words - like, for instance, congenial and congenital being confused. Just one of those light fingered delicacies with which one can still uplift and nourish oneself, in the possibly trying year to come.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

DIARY 88 - Rends in the Fabric of Reality

Friday night I began the process of the BIG CLEAN. Funny thing about our flat is, that its only once you start deep cleaning it, that you realise quite how grimy things have become. I washed the sofa covers, something, which I'd been meaning to do since the summer. But as we are now leaving, this now has to be done. All seemed to go swimmingly until I started putting the covers back on. As I stretched a cover over one arm rest, to my horror, the fabric started to rend and a fibrous tear emerge. Rather than restore the sofa to a pristine state, I'm now an accessory to its grubby imperfection. I've done an invisible mend on the tear from the back, but from the front it shows, particularly as the fabric tear has an aura of light greasy mottling around it. Along with the rotting water mark on the carpet under the kitchen sink, there are a now two glaring stains on our status as good tenants. There could be a cost consequence on the value of our refunded deposit, due to this 'wear and tear.' Moving house is starting to get expensive. It's quite put me off my stride with whole cleaning thing, as I'm now afraid that whatever I do will only make things worse.

I stayed up too late Friday night soothing my nerves, with a bit of vegetating on I-Player. This only partly explains why I woke up Saturday morning with a stonking migraine-like headache, and crawled about as if I was hungover, assembling my breakfast like an automaton. There was so much I needed to do that morning too, it being the last weekend before Christmas. The list was dauntingly long. I needed to go to Tesco early, to avoid the crowds- to go into town early ,to avoid the crowds - to shop down Mill Rd, to avoid the crowds. Actually, all I wanted to do really was - avoid the crowds - full stop. Because of the headache, I felt more dislocated mentally than usual, even ordinary thinking was a struggle. These were obviously not going to be tasks I could do with any degree of serenity - so I ended up doing them with simmering resent. I bought from Tesco a new (cheap) toaster, the old one had packed up ages ago, but as we are I foolishly decide to take the self-service route out, but though the scanning went OK, I didn't do a number of things quickly enough for the computer, so it repeatedly sabotaged my transaction. I ended up feeling not only over taxed, but belittled by the number of times the assistant had come to help me, with swiping cards, and pressing buttons. She almost changed my nappy. It was not yet eight thirty, but mentally I was already feeling the strain. I wandered off without the toaster in the end, the pleading tones of the assistant failing to attract my fuzzy headed attention, until I'd almost exited the building. She caught me by the security bollards, which isn't a euphemism, more a shameful crime.

I spent the afternoon power hoovering the living room carpet, and regaining my self-esteem through my zen-like mastery of vacuum cleaner attachments. High suction, gives you're ego such a boost - with a spurious sense of being in control over the forces of chaos. All that comes within a few millimetres radius gets absorbed into the chasm of my irresistible vortex. I also merrily chucked out things that have been prime suspects on my list of 'things I know are obsolete, but I still have an unjustifiable sentiment towards keeping.' Having consigned some of them forever 'to the bin' or 'to be recycled', this left me with an unwarranted sense of self-purification. Though it didn't quite border on sanctity, I did feel inordinately self-satisfied - briefly- after all the tear in the sofa is still there to haunt my cheer filled moments.

Sunday morning I managed to drag myself out of bed early enough in the morning, and in a fit enough state to attempt a substantial bit of meditation practice. At present,in my current state of being alive, if I don't practice in the morning, I just know I wont get it to happen any time else. The practice had one noticeable positive effect. After I finished, I sat on the sofa drinking my morning cup of black coffee. I was gazing rather blankly in the direction of my shrine, that's placed on and under the windowsill. The sun was just starting to break through some low lying cloud, and rise above the houses on the crown of Newmarket Rd. As it did so it refracted and lit up every blob of condensation on the inside of the window, and gave the beautiful impression, for a brief, but tingling, moment, of it being encrusted with a dusting of diamonds. Talk about meditation heightening sensory awareness. More like that please!

FEATURE 16 - Five Experiences Treasured from 2008


Whilst it wasn't able to maintain beyond the first few episodes, the level of scurilous, cat scratching, and irreverant courage to take the piss out of every thing in Gaydom, it does none the less go in there as a most treasured thing. Go on , I dare you not to sing along.


The revival of 'A Dissappearing Number' at the Barbican, was the most exciting and inspiring piece of performance, I've seen in many a decade. Theatre so richly layered, thought provoking and visually enthrawling comes along so rarely.


Sadly, now departed this life by his own hand. But I feel I'm only just starting to discover the rich legacy he left behind in his novels and commentaries on the contemporary zetgeist. It all started with an obituary article in the Guardian that's worth checking out. Here he is talking about failure and the process of writing.


The weird world of Laura Solon, has reached the dizzy heights of Radio Fours half past six slot. David and I've become better acquainted with - 1001 uses for peas - why the China Lion is blue - and why a group of menstruating women on a boat are refusing to sail because a dolphin called them fat with his eyes.


Something turned around for me during this retreat, not just with regard to my relationship with the Western Buddhist Order I belong to, but also reconnecting with a sense of myself that I appear to have lost sight of during the last five years. A Vidyavajra who can be relaxed, happier and at ease with who he is. Reconstruction is still in progress - obviously.

REVIEW - Reading Highlights

In making this selection from the twenty eight books I've read this year. I can't help but notice a trend in the type of book I appear to have found most value in. I continue to be emotionally drawn to, and moved by, biographical non-fiction, rather than by fiction. Fiction when it does appear has to be either an out and out fantasy,or satire. The novel writing of David Foster Wallace clearly has legs in both of these camps.

The main theme is revealing accounts of lives, their virtues and vices, their bliss and sufferings. All being vividly described, either by the person concerned or through an author as intermediary. On top of this is a spiritual aspect, largely to do with reflecting on the nature of religious practice, particularly through the pursuit of solitude, silence and monasticism. These appear to reflect twin traits in my current psyche - the desire to understand myself through a deeper connection with other people, and the sometimes conflicting desire to understand myself better through retreating into spiritual isolation.

Through a series of interviews with victims and perpetrators, Murakami, tries to unravel what the effects of the Sarin attacks on the Tokyo underground in the nineties tell us about the psychological health of present day Japan. Have they really learnt the lessons of them? - is what he's asking - and he remains sceptical. At times the book is very human in its capturing of the everyday details of ordinary people struggling to comprehend extraordinary circumstances. But then, how decent peoples desire to do good became used to perverted and twisted ends, would prove uncomfortable reading for any Buddhist.

NANCY KLEIN MAGUIRE - An Infinity of Little Hours
One of my favorite books of 2008. Again through interviews conducted this time over decades, she traces the spiritual paths of five men who idealistically join the Carthusian Priory at Parkminster . This is an unsparing, yet inspiring, testimony to their struggles to live out their aspiration to follow the Carthusian Rule. I have read no finer exposition on the benefits and pitfalls of religious idealism, or the effects asceticism and isolation can have on practice within a monastic framework. Maguire, in recounting other peoples experience, keeps herself, and her own views and comments on what she's hearing, discrete and out of the narrative.

W.G SEBALD - The Rings of Saturn
There is no more associative or discursive writer than W.G.Seabald. At worst his books ramble all over the place, and though the journey is often pleasant and factually enlightening, it leaves no abiding emotional memory. Perhaps it was the fact that I know the area of East Anglia he travelled over, that I found myself resonating so strongly with this book, which hadn't happened with his books previously. The mood he conveys he is of deep regret, for past choices, for present consequences, of the legacy and impermanence of our desires, the loves and hatreds. Seabald, surrounds himself here with an diverse cast of characters conjured up from the sea, sand and sky of East Anglia, past and present. Though it is an abiding mood of an overwhelming loss, of lives abandoned to circumstance, the residue of melancholy and how that relates to the landscape, that lingers on afterwards.

Interestingly, this connects with 'An Infinity of Little Hours' in that the original genesis for this book, was the TV series The Monastery, where five men spend six weeks in Worth Abbey. The programme documented the highs and lows the regime of St Benedict's Rule provoked. What stood out in that series, and in this book too, are the evident qualities of Abbot Jamison as an empathic listener, a man so deeply grounded in his chosen vocation, and eloquent in his exposition. At the same time he doesn't tub-thump for Christianity. Though he does believe, that the spirit of the Rule of St Bendict has some thing to offer the urban secular world. He draws on his own experience of humanity, rarely takes up an unrealistic position based only on idealism,and remains aware of the vices, as well as the virtues, in monastic practice. Towards both he appears compassionate and equanimous in an exemplary way.

SARA MAITLAND - A Book Of Silence
As I've only last week reviewed this book, I wont, go on at length about it. Other than to say it is an excellent read, and one I wholeheartedly recommend should you feel overwhelmed by the world of shopping, credit crunch, and recessive economic cycles. Start seeking out a simpler, more silent life now. As a first step find a way to silence the clarion call of your own desires, and then become deaf to the external bleatings of our consumerist culture. Beautifully executed and thought provoking stuff.

REVIEW - Musical Highlights

I know the end of the year is a good week and a half away, but I can't help myself. This weekend I've yet again been experiencing the unpleasant aspects of my psychology and its accompanying anxiety and discomfort, so I'm feeling the need to consciously reflect on what has also brought pleasure into my life in 2008. One of them, as always, has been music. I've had to limit myself to stuff that's actually been released this year, there have also been plenty of re-discoveries and catching up. So here are my top five favorite tracks, in alphabetic, and therefore no particular order in terms of rating.

DUFFY - Mercy

This is just a pure piece of addictive pop, finger snapping catchy. Sixties Motown styling, retro whilst remaining contemporary. Inheriting the legacy and space that Amy Winehouse has presently vacated, will hamper Duffy's future career if she's not careful. Amy is never anything other than herself - flaws and all. Duffy needs to somehow stamp out what her own territory is. This acoustic version of 'Mercy,' performed on the Culture Show shows more what she is fully capable of when she's not caught too perfectly in Amy's shadow. The album - Rockferry, was undoubtedly a bit of a let down after 'Mercy' got everyone hyper-ventilating. Most of it was average, soul tinged MOR, only occasionally rising out of vacuous. But then ,doing the big production number, has bedevilled more than one of this years best crop. Duffy has a big voice should always be out there, up front, belting it out - it shouldn't have to compete for your attention. Frequently on 'Rockferry' her voice is too buried or blended (or do I mean blanded?) in the mix, as if they were afraid her voice couldn't hold up a song if left alone. One only has to hear her on this version of 'Mercy,' and on 'Syrup & Honey' to glimpse her very real potential, a raw, honest voice,with its own integrity and strength, set sparsely against a simple guitar accompaniment. Keep it simple and all will be well.

ELBOW - Starlings

Yes, The Mercury Prize winners, and deservedly so, 'The Seldom Seen Kid' has so many gems it seems almost a sacrilege to just single one out. 'Starlings' is a stunning way to open any album. The burbling stream of electronic sound, the sudden unexpected blare of trumpets that startles, alerting you to the arrival of something glorious and angelic, but what is it? Its Guy Garvey's voice, with his characteristically confessional and lyrical tone, you're drawn into the fumbling descriptions of a man who is besotted -'find a man who needs you more than I' he sings. The songs intensity rises until the passion bursts through in a squall of sound, evoking a feeling of caged starlings being released, then silence, and he sings 'Darling, is this love' followed by the jarring blast of celestial trumpets. A magic moment.


The return in triumph of Portishead after a ten year hiatus, has been a real delight. They come back, harder, less trippy hip-hoppy, the songs are more folk tinged dances and laments surrounded by an unyielding bleak electronic underpinning. 'Dummy' their first album, ended up defining the musical sound scape for the mid-nineties. It became like an albatross around their neck, that was almost impossible for them to escape from. Whilst the second album cranked up the millennial angst, musically there was a sense of them self-consciously trying to compete with themselves, and retreading musical ground. With 'Third' they've finally laid that ghost and put a great cold concrete slab on top of it. This is a vital new music, brash, invigorating, challenging and almost pagan in its electro-driven relentlessness.

THE TING TINGS - That's Not My Name.

I've waxed lyrical about this track elsewhere, and I still think its THE stand out piece of a pop from 08, with a steadily building climax, that's timed to perfection. They'll never live it down now. They'd barely become No 1 before the backlash had begun against them. Again, the album tended to over embellish where it wasn't needed. Listen to them performing live on Jonathan Ross, and you can hear a much rawer,edgy, almost trashy aesthetic escape the constrictions of a tight studio production, one that effectively took the band off on an entirely different musical direction. There was another path this band could have taken, but global success got their before they'd had time to really decide.


At last a sparse and unfussy production style. But then these are almost the archetypal clean living uncomplicated ex-college kids from the US of A. The sense of a well defined musical aesthetic and fresh direction is what makes this track, and the entire album, a pure gem. It may be preppy, but its still a delight to the ear, brim full with musical wit, its 'new wave' propulsion stripped down to the barest of essentials, and cross bred with the spirited upbeat of world music. The result is so positive you'd have to be terminally depressed not to be uplifted by it. It's as if Paul Simon's Graceland album has fertilised with the entire oeuvre of Jonathan Richman - obviously losing his self-deprecating sense of humour, wryness and irony, that would be too knowing for VW. All they want to do is communicate their enthusiasm. So what you're left with is just clean,unadulterated fun, offending no one, but pleasing many, it brings a brimming joyful smile to your face. This is going to be a hard one for them to follow.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

DIARY 87 - Troughs & Balances

Without wanting to appear the least bit over-dramatic (what moi a drama queen!) this week has had a background drone of dreary despondency going on and on and on. It was more reminiscent of a bagpipes jarring whine, than the sustain of a medieval plainsong, in that its tone was not remotely soothing or sedating. It served only to put me emotionally on edge, and my thoughts to persistently veer into the bleaker cavernous ranges. This nagging type of mental noise appears effectively to jam, block out, or at the very least deter, any resolve to meditate or be spiritually disciplined in a positive way. Yet,when I look at the detail of my life it does not feel worthy of such deep despondency, so what exactly is up? Well, its the same old song, in a slightly different setting - that old favorite of mine -a lack of satisfaction. This state paradoxically seems able to kick back and put the kybosh on any thing I do value doing - nothing then seems to be worth making the effort for. This does appear to be a state I'm compulsively drawn towards, a trough I often wallow in like a pig in squalor. Yet how would I break my addiction to it eludes me.

The really good news of the week, is that David and I are finally moving out of our noisy, increasingly hell like, flatlette. One of the Buddhist communities in my previous residence- Abbey House, has agreed to us joining it, as a couple. This is a first for a Cambridge Buddhist community, to have an openly established gay couple as part of it. The problem for the community was that it has two large bedrooms that need to be shared, and its grandest bedroom currently has only one person in it. When he moves to a single room at the beginning of January, that room would be empty, with little chance of them finding two guys wanting to share it, except for us of course. When I lived in an Abbey House community before, I shared with two different people during the three years lived there. I quite enjoyed sharing, but that really isn't so for most people in the Sangha, the present zeitgeist is for everyone to have their individual personal space. That said, having a room half empty, was not a situation Windhorse Trust, the communities landlord, could allow in the current economic climate. The chances of them have to rent it out to non-Buddhists was looming large as a distinct prospect.

The room has probably the same floorspace as our current abode, we also get a separate kitchen, dining, living and shrine room, plus a large walled garden thrown in. It is also quiet. So how could we resist? So we've handed in our notice. We'll need to spend a fair bit of time over the next four weeks packing and cleaning up after ourselves in the flat. It has got a bit grubby in places. David and I have been in a relationship now for very nearly four years ( on January 17th ) and lived together for three and half, so we have acquired a few bits of crockery and cookery equipment, etc, etc. I know the community wont have much space for these. Our current flat has served us well, but we have quickly outgrown it. Finding a larger place was going to increase both our outgoings a bit too much, and send us even further out of town. This way we will have the best of both worlds, our own private space, in a great community, in a beautiful house, that is also much nearer to town. Moving into Abbey House will also save Windhorse a bit of money on David's support package, and I will be quite a bit better off too. Hopefully, we'll get a bit of money back from our deposit, and the day when I can substantially reduce my bank loan grows nearer. There is bound to be some loss to us along the way, but I don't envisage them as being major, or things we can't accommodate ourselves to. We'll have to see how the rest of the community finds accommodating us, I think it will turn out to be beneficial for them too.

After getting into a bit of a rut with watching I-Player far too frequently, we decided to try not viewing anything during the week. As David was to be away for a long Christmas weekend with his folks, last night David ask if he could watch Nigella's Christmas Kitchen on my computer. Neither of us had seen her in the flesh before. We were enthralled,aghast and in awe, so ended up watching both episodes ,both of us could not believe what we were seeing, how posh, yet decidedly high camp, - my god, what a tart she is ! As she turned each dish to show you, above it, like spectral moons, hovered the cleft of her mammary shelf, taking ones attention completely away from the food - what exactly was she enticing you to eat, as she raised her eyebrows so archly? She seemed at times to veer completely towards being a self-parody. All the way through her fleshy pinnacles featured far too prominently, for those of infirm sexual health to contain their gustatory excitement. At one point the camera tracked showing her taking food to lay on a table, and David remarked, barely suppressing a hearty chortle, 'did you see that, the entire shot was cut to focus on following her boobs across the room, the plate of food wasn't even in it', sadly this was all too true. We want more of this sort of high quality television.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Its a bit like dental floss - life,
you never know when its going to run out

Taken from the radio script of - No Commitments.


BOOK REVIEW - A Book of Silence - Sara Maitland

As I started writing this article, my hearing was drawn, not to the qualities of silence, but to the potentially disturbing qualities of external noises. The Newmarket Road, at just after eight o'clock in the morning was starting to build up to its full daily cacophony of traffic sounds. This was accompanied by the whistles of a strong blustery breeze. The sign on the restaurant beneath our flat creaked as it swayed too and fro, conjuring up mental images of a bleak lonely place, somewhere out on a wild and desolate moor, not an urban causeway. That this sound summoned to mind such a strong association, meant that somewhere in the sound of that wind, was a more despairing echo of solitude and silence. My thoughts at the same time, were fighting with a desire to put on my headphones, and to blot out this experience of the outside world, by blasting my earlobes with musical noise. Random noise could easily be blocked out by a more refined sort of noise, of my own choosing, to bring a brief sense of being, if not at peace with my experience, at least pleasantly neutralised by it. Any unpleasant experience, whatsoever has then to be silenced. Any sense that silence might be discovered in the midst of this noise is thus routinely obliterated.

Sara Maitland comments that to a twentith century Westerner, silence is commonly held to be empty, an absence of noise, it has strong links with solitude, and in our chattering, nine to the dozen culture, it is generally considered to be, a bad thing. Silence can be a socially awkward, even threatening experience. Too much silence could drive you mad, but too much noise can too. Indeed an excess of anything pleasant, unpleasant or neutral,would push our minds to the brink. This is, at least, what a friend warned her, that silence just wasn't a healthy thing for anyone, least of all for her to pursue. But pursue it she has, and has produced this wonderfully life enhancing and enriching book as a result. All of this as a consequence of her strong urge to follow up and test her desire for silence. To reflect on, and understand, exactly what lies at the root of it. It's not just to satisfy her need though, but also the need of all humanity for a break from noise, a silent space within which to feel at peace with oneself. To be constantly surrounded by the input of external or internal noise, to be never able to escape it, unable to stop it, is almost by definition, a circumstance that would drive you insane. In the deepening of our experience of silence we can find a place of sanity,sanctity and serenity. It is this arising of grace into the fleeting flow of moments where a place is created by silence, that she is trying to acknowledge, and allow to flourish further.

This book is at its best when, in wrestling to express the nub of her experience, she manages to delineate a subtle, but significant, distinction. -for instance, between a dead silence and one that is alive. What exactly is it that makes silence alive or dead - this becomes essentially a spiritual question, what is it that we become alive too in silence? As a committed Christian, she draws on the inspired hermits and monastics from that tradition, particularly the early Desert Fathers, St Anthony and St John Cassian, for reference and example. Though she doesn't do this exclusively, her research ranges widely and draws on other religious traditions, such as Buddhism, for comparison or clarification. She also makes plentiful use of a wide range of secular sources, quoting from the auto biographies of mountaineers, explorers, adventurers and numerous literary sources, both classical and modern. These flesh out and bring a vividness and colour to what silence is, what it does, how it affects us, and makes it less specifically a religious concern, but also an environmental and psychological one. She writes with such perspicacity and expressiveness, being open and honesty about her flaws, as well as her virtues. She isn't making any claims for what she is attaining spiritually from her practice of silence, but nonetheless the frankness of her exposition is enthrawling. It takes you lovingly by the hand to experience, through her imagination, what the silence she is seeking and sometimes finds, is really like. We may want some of that silence, but we either don't recognise the need for it, don't want it enough, don't know how to obtain it, or what cultivates it. For Sara Maitland, the pursuit of silence has become a spiritual journey, one that draws her closer to the divine through prayer and contemplation. Silence seems to have become for her an act of communion. For a Buddhist, silence augments and supports meditative reflection, and this helps in liberating us from selfish preoccupation, to experience the truer qualities and nature of reality. In both traditions, external silence is a precondition, it needs to be present before any inner silence can permeate us and self transcendence can occur.

She makes it very clear in her exposition, that just because different religious traditions seek similar circumstances for practice i.e silence, that this doesn't mean that we should take up a universalised position, and assume they are 'all one'. The purpose and intent behind seeking the silence is the most important distinction, not any apparent similarity in the choice of method. A Christian seeking closer communion with God, and a Buddhist seeking self transcendence and Enlightenment, are not necessarily having the same experience, but giving it a different name. The concept and intention is a pre-condition of the eventual outcome, it paves the way. If you want to cook roast potatoes, you don't boil and mash them. Both may require a degree of solitude and silence for their goals to be obtained, but this doesn't make the goals identical. The silence serves entirely different paths and aims. She also makes an important distinction between the purpose of poetic and religious silence. The nineteenth century Romantic Movement desired solitude and silence to commune more deeply with nature, in order to be personally in touch with a deeper creative muse. This would release a fire bird of creative self-expression from within the artist. According to this viewpoint, the self is not transcended by an experience of interconnectedness, whether this is through a deeper communion with God or Enlightenment, but reaches a greater level of self-expression, both personally and artistically. The Self then is either to be overcome or fulfilled within that silence. In this the artistic and sacred conceptions of the purpose of silence, and of the self, pull in entirely opposite directions. The conflict for a writer or artist with religious convictions, is then, all too apparent. This dilemma has a long history, without a universal solution ever having been found to how these contradictory impulses can be, at the very least, accommodated, within the one being? Is it a fight to the death, or a integrative rapprochement that is required? Sara Maitland having seen and identified the nature of this problem, then has the courage to at least look it straight in the face. But it did arise out of a painful personal observation, that as the depth of her appreciation and practice of religious silence intensified, she noticed her ability to write imaginative fiction seemed to diminish accordingly. What she gained from the silence was done at an enormous cost; to herself as a writer; to the sense of her identity, to her own Self. This is what silence is meant to do, it simplifies and smooths out all the kinks in ones life and perspective, Perhaps this was why she ended up writing about silence in the first place, to help resolve, or partially absorb, these apparent dichotomies present in her own character.

'The Book of Silence,' has two hearts beating furiously, both in and out of sync. Sometimes its a very personal exploration, an auto-biographical journal about her experience of silence, at other times a literary documentary on the experience, uses and abuses, that silence has been put to throughout human history. Silence is not about just sweetness and light, it has a shadowy dark side too. Maitland is also very practical, and pragmatic about the changes in priorities, the sacrifices you have to take, if you truly want to cultivate that elusive silence, in our busy,noise infested world. That she manages to hold all these disparate threads and pulls them together coherently, is a testament to her skill as a writer, and the breadth of awareness she has cultivated, of silence itself. She very lucidly describes how the pursuit of silence has impacted, changed and transformed, not only herself, but also the sense of her spiritual purpose as a human being. This is what makes this an entirely fascinating book to read, and to ponder upon extensively afterwards.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

DIARY 86 - Home Discomforts

Last weekend, I made a Pre-Christmas top-up visit to Aged P's, with food and presents. My parents were in reasonable nick considering their age and relative states of physical health - Dad not too bad, Mum not too good, but hanging on in there. There is often an air of philosophical resignation around them, that is I suppose one way of responding to a deteriorating quality of life, about which you can do very little. So far they are both still blessed with mental alertness and engagement with their lives. I don't particularly relish in the future seeing their minds degenerating. It pains me enough to see, my Mother in particular, struggling with her physical symptoms, and increasing dependence on my Father and Sister, for support in so many ways. But then that's impermanence and mortality for you - they miss no one out. There isn't much I can do of a practical nature on a day to day basis,as I live so far away. This year I have visited them more frequently, every couple of months, and have helped out with some re-decorating in their bedroom in the Summer. I do what I can, but it hardly feels enough.

Visiting ones family home can be a mixed experience. That ever so common sense of regressing to a pseudo-pubescent status - like adulthood never happened - is only one aspect. The main thing I noticed this time, was how I completely subdue my own tastes and preferences to those of my parents, particularly with regard to TV programmes. Plus there's the curious parental behaviour, with no doubt its own rational, like the fact that my Mother turns the sound off whenever the Adverts come on, the purpose of which I've never quite understood. Talk about having to overcome my likes and dislikes, when my weekend TV diet largely consisted of Strictly Come Dancing, with all its numerous spin off programmes, X Factor, Coronation St, Gardeners World and Casualty. Its all challenging stuff I can tell you. As I'd never usually seek out any of these programmes on I-Player, it was all something of a discomforting revelation. My Oh My, how they take it, and themselves, so seriously, with huge dollops of sickly melodrama, hyped up emotions, tears and tetchiness from the performers. Whilst 'Bruno the Bellicose' and 'Arlene the Aardvark', utter self-important pronouncements, with a staggering lack of eloquence or perceptiveness. They're loud, and they're proud, from out of their mouths spews a never ending stream of witless comments. No one appears to have thought to send themselves, or the programme up, a little self-deprecation would not hurt the ratings. I've rarely seen so much High Camp slavered over something of so little consequence. John Sargent got out before he was ritually slaughtered by the sequins or the stilettos.

X Factor would appear to have got to its semi-finals without finding anyone with an ounce of distinctive talent to remark on. Surely some achievement. This week it was down to - a warbly voiced blond whose hair and larynx looked, and sounded, like they'd been chewed on by a dog- another female singer who was already being dubbed the British answer to Beyonce (not a claim I'd want to avidly clutch to my bosom with pride I'm afraid) - a sixteen year old Irish boy, who looked too young to be let out unchaperoned without a maiden aunt ( I couldn't decide whether he was freshly out of Cute School, or was so annoying he required a good slap - I think I settled on the latter) -finally there was the ubiquitous bland boy band, pretty much like every one you've ever had the misfortune to see and hear, except these were dressed in a tastefully designed combination of browns and grays - some with and some without hats. The lead singer of the latter, in one of those cringe inducing pre-performance interviews, cried to camera about how he didn't know what he'd do with his life if he didn't win X Factor - do something else I expect. It was all so manipulative of the soft squidgy hearts of young teenage girls 'n' gays to save him from eternal damnation by phoning in your vote - his life depends on it for gods sake!.

When the dishevelled blond maiden became distressed during her final farewell song, after being thrown off at the programmes end, there seemingly wasn't a dry eye left in the entire country - tears or sorrow and tears of joy. The remaining contestants turned hysterically distraught at the news that the petrified blondie had to go, and sobbed loudly - why? - as if the woman had been playing Joan of Arc and no one had told them it would all end in a raging bonfire. Well, kiddies, its a knockout competition and what happens in them is that someone gets knocked out. I will successfully predict two more of you will have exactly the same experience before the year is out. Whoever wins will top the music charts within days (not a huge achievement these days, as more people bet on greyhounds than buy Christmas Number One's ) - an unremarkable career then awaits them in the spectacularly full glare of publicity. What an extraordinarily strange and shallow world we live in.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


Who sits in solitude
and is quiet
hath escaped from three wars -
yet against one thing
shall he continually battle:
that is,
his own heart

Taken from: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
Translated & Edited by Helen Waddell