Four meditations on lines by T.S. Eliot: part I

CHORUS:

…King rules or barons rule; we have suffered various oppression, but mostly we are left to our own devices, and we are content if we are left alone.

We try to keep our households in order; the merchant, sly and cautious, tries to compile a little fortune, and the labourer bends to his piece of earth, earth colour, his own colour, preferring to pass unobserved.

Now I fear disturbance of the quiet seasons: winter shall come bringing death from the sea, ruinous spring shall beat at our doors, root and shoot shall eat at our eyes and our ears, disastrous summer burn up the beds of our streams and the poor shall wait for another decaying October.

Murder in the cathedral: part I.  T.S. Eliot

 

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The wisdom and humanity of old men

I first caught up with the music of Leonard Cohen about 4 years ago, finding by chance a broadcast of his live compilation video, Songs from the Road.  I was captivated from the start, as the camera pans across the applauding crowd in night time Tel Aviv and Javier Mas builds on the opening chords with a solo on the mandolin before Cohen starts singing.  As they pass the music between them, from verse to instrumental solo and back again, Mas is caught on camera shooting Cohen a look, as between two old men in hats playing dominos outside a bar.

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Cohen’s latest album seems prescient (he died just days before the neighbouring USA elected Trump on a white supremacist misogynist platform).

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

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Because I first found Cohen so late in his career, it feels to me that all his life he wrote poetry that was waiting for his old man’s voice of gravel, rich with humanity and experience.  The song, Suzanne, was written when I was a small child but I came to it fresh when I was myself beginning to become old.  It has so many beautiful and intriguing lyrics: “And she feeds you tea and oranges,  that come all the way from China” captures a sense of transitory seduction.  The second verse makes no sense as a narrative but seems to reveal some profound truth, borrowing and warping Christian imagery “And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water, and he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower, and when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him, he said, all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.  But he himself was broken long before the sky would open forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.”

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I have long intended to draw from this album.  This week, I have spent a few minutes late at night revisiting the video and trying to capture his face in ink, knife and crayon. I have also been reading The Pigeon Tunnel, reminiscences by John le Carre from a long life collecting material for his diverse novels, from the spies fighting the Cold War to post-communist Russia under criminal gangs, to the bite of big corporations on the powerless.

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Early in life he witnessed the cycle of pigeons trapped on the roof, channelled through tunnels, emerging in sunlight in the sight of the sportsmen’s guns, the survivors returning to the only home they know on the baited roof.  His horror at life as a rhythm of hopeless struggle in the face of uncomprehended powers runs as a thread through his anecdotes and creates humanity and wisdom in his novels.

Amnesty International campaign: Free Raif Badawi

Last weekend, I lost myself to my thoughts while cycling, pounding the country lanes crisscrossing the canal until I reached the flight of locks and junction with the canal path that would take me home.  I slogged through mud, half cycling half paddling until I emerged on the road again, to wheel my way with a flat front tyre.

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The dredging boat “Shoveler” at Kingswood Junction, Lapworth, drawn as evening fell and the winter light faded. This was sketched in ink and water, then layered with conte crayon and pastel.

 

My thoughts have been shaped by last week’s slaughter of cartoonists and journalists in Paris and from there to the killing of Ahmed Merebet, decimation in Nigerian villages, refugees fleeing civil war in Syria, children killed at school in Pakistan. There are so many victims of extremism, intolerance and war and so many of these victims are Muslim.  These reports have fleeting existence in news media before being replaced.

Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging begins:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

His writing has its roots in the physical act of digging, the hard slog, the smells of soil and potatoes, the sounds of cleaved turf.  He says of his forefathers:

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

But lacking their brawn and skill, he concludes:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Raif Badawi wrote a blog in Saudi Arabia.  Metaphorically, he dug with his pen.  He promoted the values of freedom, and importantly, tolerance and respect.  He is being beaten for it.  What little we can do, we should do.  I have linked to Amnesty International’s petition against this abominable act.