Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Film Notes: Whiplash

Several years ago, I asked a Chinese friend why only one of her elite post-doctoral group of pure mathematicians, at her Scottish university, were from the UK. The answer I got was shocking. "I have a daughter in primary school here in Scotland, and you do not understand education here. Most of what my daughter does in school is play; her academic work is constantly interrupted by plays, parties, outings, assemblies; and the school day is so short. In China at that age, I studied maths every day at school. and for many hours before and after school too - here it is all play, play, play!" I recalled this conversation to a friend who at the time was head of one of Scotland's largest primary schools. His answer was telling: "Yes, but have you seen the suicide rate in China?!"

Whiplash is a film about individuals being crushed by the relentless drive for greatness in a particular field. It could have been maths, or sport; but the film is set in the world of competitive jazz - in which the key figure Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) is a drummer. The pressure to become "one of the greats" is certainly an internal drive for Neiman; but is taken from obsession to destructive levels by his teacher, Terence Fletcher (J. K Simmons), whose drive for perfection destroys students. Perhaps worse still, Fletcher seems convinced that the student must be broken repeatedly in order to make him/her push themselves beyond ordinary human limitations. "The two most dangerous words in the English language are, "good job"" he notes; whilst repeatedly recalling the incident when a band leader nearly decapitated a young Charlie Parker with a cymbal, on stage, for a mistake - an experience which proved to the making of him. As such, Fletcher's teaching method not only involved iron discipline and technical excellence, but a form of psychological warfare against his students. Films have occasionally shown army recruits being broken in this way; but rarely with the ferocity which Simmons brings to the part of Terence Fletcher.

The two central performances in Whiplash, are superb. Teller is excellent as the driven, intense, gifted, yet vulnerable young drummer; who learns to confront his demons both inner and external (in the form of his abusive teacher).  Simmons is truly horrific as the dangerously out-of-control Fletcher, who values winning, and perfection above people. Simmons' viscously foul-mouthed, blisteringly intense denunciation of errant students, is like something from the Maoist cultural revolution; it is gruelling watching - but impossible to turn away from. In Fletcher 's world, if he destroys fifty people, but makes one genius, he's a happy man; people are means not ends, in his manic, all-consuming, perfectionism. Like all the best movie villains Simmons/Fletcher is compelling viewing. In one scene (spoiler alert!), Fletcher weeps over the death of a student - a great player who he had 'broken' and made legendary. "He was a beautiful player", laments his teacher. We later discover that the young man had killed himself - the parents blaming Fletcher for the psychological torment he endured at his hands. Yet still, even as Fletcher appears to show some normal human warmth, or even vulnerability his words are chilling. "He was a beautiful player", seems to suggest that Fletcher wept not for the loss of a person; but for the loss of his talent. 

The film leaves us with an ambiguous conclusion; one one hand Nieman finally emerges as a great drummer; and gains the respect of his fellow musicians and his sinister teacher. And we are left with a question mark. Would he have achieved such greatness without Fletcher's psychological battering, or would he have consigned himself to a genial mediocrity? Leaving aside the much-debated issue of whether practice-makes-genius or not; the issue here is - what price is it worth paying for high achievement? Neiman is shown giving up on most aspects of what it means to have a normal balanced life, he has no friends, has given up on sport, and looses his girl in his thirst for perfection. He ends up as a specialist; but with a malformed life. These questions are pertinent in parenting and education. We may not be as extreme as Fletcher; but when is it right to push our kids; and when is it right to let them just meander along contentedly? Are our schools so fearful of the kind of Fletcher-dynamic depicted in Whiplash that they fail to inculcate any kind of love of excellence in our children at all? "Gold-stars all round - and who cares what mark you actually scored?!"

Central to the almost unbearable dynamic of this film is the way that the master propels the apprentice towards perfection under the constant threat of rejection. Being the 'core player' in the music school's prestige band was an honour entirely at the disposal of Fletcher; expulsion from the band something he could execute on a whim. The film depicts the pursuit of perfection as the ideal of greatness and significance; but it also depicts the self-destructive fear of rejection as the necessary stimulus for its achievement. This seems to leave us in an impossible dilemma in that either greatness doesn't matter on one hand, or that people don't, on the other. This is a remarkable example of un-Grace! Relationships which are founded on the concept of grace, (rather than accomplishments) work in exactly the opposite way to the dynamic between Fletcher and Nieman. In grace-founded relationships, (be they human-human, or Divine-human), the pursuit of greatness, is predicated upon the foundation of compete acceptance of the person; and a mutual striving towards the good. The force that propels the student (or disciple) forward, is not the fear of rejection and humiliation from behind (as with Fletcher); but forward towards a beautiful conclusion; be it anything from creativity to Christlikeness (as with God). Grace is the very idea that meticulously high standards and goals are not to be lowered, but that people are to be loved and valued even while those high standards are being worked towards. The fear of rejection is not the great stimulus to progress; but the grasping of a magnificent vision is. 

Whiplash is finally a great film which is well worth discussing. The plot is intriguing, the dialogue alarming, and the acting intense and frightening. Allegedly based on the author's real experiences at a leading American musical college; it demonstrates the nature of abuse power-relationships, where the people are forgotten in the pursuit of some goal or accomplishment. Simmons' searing portrayal of Fletcher will remain the most poignant memory of Whiplash, and a sinister reminder of how ugly humanity looks when we use people to serve things, rather than things to serve people.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Kinnoull (yet!) Again

Click to enlarge....

Film Notes: Harlem Street Singer - The Rev Gary Davis

Harlem Street Singer is a 2013 documentary film about the life of Blues guitar legend, Rev "Blind" Gary Davis. Davis (1896-1972), was by anyone's estimation an extraordinary man, who lived a quite remarkable life - one which is well worth celebrating with a film like this. While there is extensive archive footage of Davis used throughout the film; the bulk of the material is contemporary interviews, performances and anecdotes about the man from the generation of younger folk, blues and gospel players who Davis knew, taught and inspired.

Davis was a hugely innovative and talented, self-taught guitarist, whose large and powerful hands attacked the strings and frets with percussive force, as he ranged through folk, blues, jazz, gospel, rag-time and spirituals. In his early years in Durham, N. Carolina, he played in bands, and would perform different styles of music, to suit the range of audiences who would pay him. With employment opportunities being limited by both his skin colour and disability, Davis became an adept performer, earning his way by pleasing audiences of whatever type; playing spirituals for funerals or entertaining the workers, farmers and traders who gathered at Durham's huge tobacco warehouses.

A significant change occurred in 1937, when Davis attended a Christian revival meeting. Here he committed his life to God's work, was ordained as an evangelist; and restricted his repertoire almost exclusively to spiritual music. The mid-century 'great-migration' of African Americans from the 'Jim Crow' (segregated) States of the old Confederate South, to the North was an acceleration of a movement that had begun as a trickle of people in 'the underground railroad', and become a mass-movement a hundred years later. This movement of people was driven by negative forces in the South (segregation, discrimination, physical threat, judicial persecution, economic exploitation, and fear); and by the positive fact that after WWII opportunities for Black folks in the North were beginning to open up. Davis was swept up in this movement, which tended to move people along long-established railroad routes; and he found himself in Harlem, New York - living in dreadful conditions and earning his living playing guitar on New York's streets.

In New York, Davis' exceptional playing gained him a considerable reputation, and lead to a secondary career as a guitar teacher. A remarkable number of young guitar players sought Davis out, and studied under him - and it is these guys who made this DVD possible. People as well known as Bob Weir (Grateful Dead), Jorma Kaukonon (Jefferson Airplane), John Hammond, as well as a host of folksters like David Bromberg, Stefan Grossman, and Woody Mann, talk candidly about days spent studying guitar at Davis' flat. Alongside Davis and his long-suffering wife, Annie, players like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Brownie McGhee would appear and jam. A massive breakthrough for Davis came when Peter, Paul and Mary covered one of his songs which generated his first reliable income and enabled him to buy a small house. This house became a musical centre, and the place from which Davis would set out across the city to gig, busk, and preach. 

The thing about this DVD is not just that it is a good story; nor that it is full of wonderful music. The most special thing about it is the massive love and affection with which it is made. The players who talk about Davis talk about him with a huge amount of love, respect and joy- he was clearly a father-figure to many of them. Long after some of the details of Davis life story, or the details of the 1965 festival footage of Davis, have faded in my memory - I will remember the genuine love so many people had for The Reverend Gary Davis. 

Davis was a huge talent, a hard man, a genuine eccentric (beware of a blind man who is ready to fire a pistol!), recordings of whose spiritual music still moves the soul to this day. This DVD is a charming labour of love, which is both highly educational in its content, and utterly captivating in its tone. And don't miss the DVD extras either - 'Wavy Gravy' will make you laugh and laugh!

Book Notes: The Gospel According to The Blues by Gary W. Burnett

When I opened a Christmas parcel and found, "The Gospel According to The Blues" by Gary Burnett inside, I was delighted. Here, two of my great loves and interests, Christian theology and Blues music meet together in one of my other great pleasures - reading books! I have far too many books about both of these subjects, on the one hand, commentaries, systematics, and topical monographs; on the other, (along with Blues CD's and DVDs), several books about The Blues in general (notably Paul Oliver and Robert Palmer), and several great biographies of various Bluesmen and women. Apart from James Cone's Spirituals and The Blues, and Stephen Nichols, Getting The Blues, I have not read a huge amount that combines both of these fascinations together, or seeks to explore the many aspects of the interactions between the two of them. The supposed dichotomy between the 'sacred' and the 'secular' exists nowhere more strongly than in the literature surrounding the Blues and the Gospel. Burnett's huge knowledge of both contemporary Christian theology, and the history of Blues makes his thoughtful contribution to this area, a most welcome addition to the genre.

One of the great strengths of this volume is Burnett's sketching in of the historical background from within which Blues emerged. His pithy, and well-researched summary of the main themes in African American post-bellum life is really excellent. Particularly illuminating (and I suspect, little-known), was his explanation of the systems by which Black Americans were exploited, long after Lincoln's emancipation proclamation became the thirteenth amendment. His explanation of the role of lynching in the South during 'redemption' is good; but it was his writing about the abuses of the legal system and the existence of neo-slavery at places such as Parchman Farm, that were especially illuminating.

Burnett clearly loves The Blues, and has a great knowledge of the genre, from its earliest manifestations amongst slave-songs, work-songs and amongst field-hollers, through its gestation in the Delta between the wars, its popularisation and the great female blues singers of the 20s, through the Northern migrations and electrification of the Blues after WWII and on to the present day. The 'listening guides' at the end of each chapter are really great too, much of the stuff listed is available online and can be enjoyed alongside the book.

Burnett's book is theologically intriguing too. His basic thesis is that the age-old supposed tension between the Blues and The Gospel is mistaken. Following James Cone, Burnett sees the Blues as African-American assertions of their essential humanity in the face of a de-humanising world. He regards the tension between the two as echoing a muddled vision of the gospel of Christ, which is a 'soul-only', escape-from-the-world, heavenly orientated faith, which is both hyper-individualistic and ignores the synoptic gospels, and only focuses on Romans and Galatians for its inspiration. If one starts, not with a gospel which seeks to liberate individuals from the world, but of God bringing his Kingdom to earth through Christ's life, death and resurrection; then the Gospel and the Blues might not be identical - but are at least facing in the same direction. That is to say - they both affirm the dignity of all people, and long for a better world, and inherently protest against present realities. In this Burnett clearly has been immersed in the writings of NT Wright who has rightly placed the "on earth as it is in heaven", dynamic back at the heart of New Testament faith - from where it should never have been jettisoned.

The difficulty I found in Burnett's otherwise enchanting book is that I felt he pressed some of 'New Perspective on Paul' type ideas a little too far; certainly in ways which detracted from the the overall thesis of the book. Perhaps not exploring his own personal theological idiosyncrasies in such detail would have given the book a broader appeal to Christians of various stripes. I wasn't sure that getting involved in the spat between Piper/Luther and Wright on justification by faith alone, was useful here; and it did take the book into confusing and complex territory. By attacking Piper, and asserting that a Pelagian reading of Matthew 25 was the centre of the gospel message, while also seeking to affirm Paul's message of grace and forgiveness, I was left slightly puzzled by what Burnett actually meant by 'the gospel'. While Piper represents one extreme, in terms of seeking to hammer down every loose end, flatten every paradox and reorder scriptural narratives into lists of eternal propositions; Burnett is possibly at the other extreme. Like reading Wright for long periods of time, the reader can be forgiven for thinking that the word 'gospel', is a fish too slippery to actually grasp! This is a shame; as the main thrust of the book is just great.

However one frames and understands the gospel, (and I would have more sympathy with Luther than Burnett does!), there is no doubt that the pursuit of justice is an essential, non-negotiable part of what it means to be a Christian. Equally, much of the Blues is a response to injustice; and Burnett tells the stories of several of the Blues players who lived in an unjust world and railed against it, such as Big Bill Broonzy's "Starvation Blues". It was said that Rev "Blind" Gary Davis in his blues sang of a better world to come; and central to the gospel is that this faith is not mere optimism, but personal faith in Jesus Christ who made it possible; is even now working it out, and who will bring it to pass.

From that main-theme, Burnett branches out in various directions in his explorations of The Blues and The Bible; with differing results. When he takes us to imagining Blind Willie Johnson dying alone in his burnt out house, rasping and growling his gospel-blues songs of irrepressible faith in God, it gives great force to his reminder that Christians are called to live as members of God's Kingdom, and give to the poor. Tellingly, Burnett also contrasts the joyous faith of many destitute Bluesmen, with the anxious consumerism that characterises life in the early 21st Century West. His reflections on banking, finance, economics and justice are short, shocking and stirring stuff. His explorations of Jesus' teaching on non-violence in the Sermon on The Mount, I thought mis-fired; as they were over-reliant on Walter Wink's eisegesis. I suspect that just too much was being read into some of the statements there.

I was, of course, interested in how Burnett would handle the "evil Blues", and the whole crossroads phenomenon, which has to be addressed in a book like this. His treatment is generally helpful (debunking myths, and subsuming the sinister-propaganda associated with Robert Johnson, Peetie Wheatstraw and co, beneath his humanity-affirming and Kingdom-of-God building narrative); although why he needed to go into slightly esoteric territory of discussing a non-personal devil, other than his own theological hobby-horse, I didn't get. What perhaps I was hoping for was a book which took the reality of evil more seriously, but applied the redemptive narrative of the gospel to music. We know that Bluesmen like Son House, and Lemon Jefferson alternated between gospel and blues; but that is a very secular/sacred divided model: what would redemption of the Blues look like? I would be interested to read more on this angle on the old debate.

One does not have to agree with every sentence in a book to gain a huge amount from it (nor do I suspect that Burnett would demand that the reader does agree with him on every point!). Finally, this book re-fired my love of The Blues, and embedded the cries for justice contained within it, more firmly into my understanding of my calling as a Christian. For that I am most grateful.

Some useful links:
Gary Burnett's excellent blog "Down at The Crossroads: Where The Blues and Faith Meet"  is here
The issues of slavery, forced labour, and justice raised in the book are being addressed at IJM: click here
The Gospel According to the Blues is available online here
I get a weekly dose of Blues and Gospel from a radio show called "The Gospel Blues Train with Lins Honeyman", click here to listen anytime.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Film Notes: Amour

WARNING - this review contains major plot spoilers!

Amour is a film which leaves an indelible impression upon the viewer. It is a film which provokes discussion amongst those who watch it, and will no doubt continue to divide opinion for years to come. Amour is both a stunningly beautiful and yet ultimately dark film. Unsurprisingly it garnered 2 Baftas and 5 Oscar nominations, and a Cannes Palme D'Or.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuel Riva lead the cast as Georges and Anne Laurent, an elderly French couple, who are both retired music teachers in their late 80s. Their acting is spellbindingly brilliant, and the characters they create in their delivery of a 'difficult' story are both completely convincing, and emotionally engaging. I have seen too many films in which wooden or melodramatic acting has left me disengaged, and disinterested in the fate of the characters. Trintignant and Riva are the opposite of this, as the elderly couple negotiate joy, pain, sorrow, tenderness and rage; they do so, so with such depth and subtlety that I for one couldn't take my eyes off the screen for a second. It is sadly unusual to see elderly people expressing deep affection,
tenderness and love in films. Perhaps Hollywood is especially guilty in this regard; and it takes an Austrian film-maker, working in French to do so. Hollywood tends to think that love is the exclusive preserve of the smooth-skinned and fertile; whereas the real world contains people like Georges and Anne Laurent; life-long lovers and inseparable friends who gently and tenderly help each other with their daily tasks.

The film is brilliantly shot, and virtually every scene takes place in their apartment. The viewer feels completely drawn in to both the characters and the place. The camera's detailed studies of the faces of both Georges and Anne, are hugely impressive; and only add to the power of the performances by Tritignant and Riva.

Central to the story is the stroke suffered by Anne Laurent, in front of her husband. Riva is just superb, in her transmission of the strange combination of physical adjustment, fear, sadness and dignified resilience. Alongside her, Tritignant is wonderful as the husband both sorrowful at his wife's debilitation, but yet stoical in doing everything he can to help her recover as much as is possible. One scene I found especially moving was when George helps Anne with her recovery physio, working to try and coax life and response from her reluctant limbs.

Why then, is this a dark film? The reason is that as the story develops, George receives no help from family, friends, neighbours or the state and as he is left as the sole carer for Anne, and begins to personally unravel. Anne expresses her desire to refuse water and die, but he persists with his dogged caring regime, whilst internally disintegrating, to the point where he slaps his wife and collapses in regret. This emotionally jarring scene rams home the message that as the patient, Anne's physical deterioration is matched by Georges, her carer's, parallel psychological descent.

Finally, in a complex and difficult emotional scene, George grabs a pillow and smothers his wife; scatters her body with flowers and runs away. The viewer is left with a tangled sense of relief that Anne's suffering has come to an end, but horror at the way in which it has occurred; involuntary euthanasia - which is murder. There is also the acute sense that somewhere off-screen, Georges' psychological torment has only just begun.

The film has received differing reviews. While there seems to be unanimity about the undoubted quality of the cinematography and the acting; the film's moral message has caused some consternation because the film seems to be promoting euthanasia as the final act of love: "Amour". The film delivers a mighty amount of angst and emotional recoil from "the slap" scene; but appears to invite the viewer to share in the idea of euthanasia as a 'good ending'.

Margaret Morganroth Gullete, in her insightful review of 'Amour', for The Guardian writes: 

‘One of the implicit convictions of the film is that a carer – even one as assiduous as Jean-Louis Trintignant's Georges – will crack under the strain of caring for a stroke victim… yet the circumstances shown in Amour are highly unusual. Money is no object for this couple. The carer has no pressing health issues of his own. He is also a man. And, though highly educated, he is a man who apparently has never received any advice about caregiving.’

This set of circumstances, she argues, is rather contrived:

‘Carers are now advised to arrange respite care: to get out, eat properly, enjoy a social life. It's understood that their own health and mental wellbeing is at stake. As well as this, Georges could easily have secured more help from other agencies…  a daughter better educated about disability might have said words of love to her mother, and persuaded her – while it was still possible – to go out for tea, out in her wheelchair, to visit a friend. The family doctor, who makes house calls, could certainly have provided adequate pain medication for Anne; morphine could have eased her passing. Georges had more compassionate alternatives available to him than smothering his wife with a pillow.’
P.J. Saunders goes further, (perhaps his argument is in breach of Godwin's Law),  as he draws a parallel between Amour and the German film Ich klag an, which was used in 1941 as a way of making German public opinion sympathetic to euthanasia, as a prelude to the killing of significant numbers of sick and disabled people. However, one need not draw (or endorse) such an extreme parallel to Amour, to be deeply concerned about the moral undercurrent behind the film.

Finally 'Amour' is a brilliant piece of film-making containing simply stunning acting, but it is harnessed to deliver a dubious moral message. 

Book Notes: Fire In a Canebrake by Laura Wexler

Fire in a Canebrake is a rather odd title for Laura Wexler's narrative reconstruction of a mass lynching of African Americans, at Moore's Ford Bridge, Georgia, in 1946. The title comes from a witness to the events who described the sounds of guns firing as like the crack cane makes when it is burning. The book is first a fascinating account of brutal events, and then follows the trail of the pursuit of justice in their wake.

While there are almost too many books written about the central Civil Rights era to read, Fire In A Canebrake takes the reader back to 1946 - and paints a fascinating picture of race-relations at the end of the Second World War. At this point in history African Americans in the Deep South were not yet openly resisting Jim Crow, and the rigid race/caste system was enforced by the ever-present threats of economic sanction or outright violence. Yet African American veterans, returning from conflict in the Far Eastern or European Theatres, who had fought alongside whites, and spent time in the North; were returning to their share-cropping farms with a new attitude, and restlessness which would eventually become the Civil Rights Movement. When the lynchings at Moore's Ford occurred, the backdrop was an election in which race was a major factor, and the first attempts register black voters in Georgia were being made.

Laura Wexler traces the way in which an altercation between a black share-cropper and a white landlord (with the inevitably strong element of sexual psychology and politics which white supremacists seem peculiarly driven by) led to the mass lynching of two Black couples; George W. and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom. Roger Malcom was bailed from prison by a landlord, and while driving from the prison house to the farm, the mass lynching took place.

Once the story of the ghastly lynching is told; Wexler tells the story of the pursuit of justice. While in several cases, even after many decades, racist killers like Byron de la Beckwith, were convicted. However, despite a State and Federal investigation into what Wexler calls "the last mass lynching in America", no convictions were every made in these murder cases. Wexler's story is that the white population were too loyal to one another to break rank, and were more hostile towards the 'feds' than their local murderers; while the Black folks of Walton and Oconee Counties, were too afraid to speak out about what they knew, for fear of reprisals.

In Wexler's estimation, the national response to these murders is perhaps an indicator of the state of Civil Rights in Georgia in 1946. On one hand, nothing much has changed. Whites were able to murder Black folks with impunity, without consequence, and the law was utterly unable to convict them. Young Emmett Till's murderers were identified in a Mississippi Court after his lynching nine years later; but acquitted by the obligatory white-only jury. Justice in the Georgia of 1946 appears to have been even more corrupt and ineffectual. Yet, things were changing. The national press picked up the this story of a racial crime in rural, remote Northern Georgia and covered the story at length. There was a rising tide of palpable outrage at the shoddy legal outcome: "case-unsolved". In 1946, the pressures that would later explode the old South, were building - but had not yet reached a critical point. Black Lives Matter and in 1946, the nation was only just beginning to grasp that.

While some civil rights murder cases were finally solved many decades after the events; the truth about who brutally killed George W. and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom, has died with their generation. Some fantasists tried to claim they could solve the crime, and came forward as unknown witnesses; but their stories were inconsistent and unreliable.

Ultimately, Fire In a Canebrake, is a grim and tragic story of an unsolved racial quadruple murder. However, what is most fascinating are the repeated insights into the development of race relations in rural Georgia; an under-reported, yet deeply significant period in the unfolding racial drama of The South.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Monday, November 16, 2015

Up above the streets and houses....

An exceptionally vivid rainbow appeared over Perth last week while my daughter was off school ill. It led to an interesting discussion about kids TV, and what it was like in my day. She could *not* believe this clip I showed here.... 

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Book Notes: Deep South by Paul Theroux

"Reading made me a traveller; travel sent me back to books", writes Paul Theroux, reflecting on his physical and literary pilgrimage through the Deep South of the United States. 

Despite all I have read, I have never been to the Southern States of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee; although books like this one create the longing to do so. I hope that one day I will see, smell and feel this iconic land myself, but unless some unheard of relative dies and leaves me untold riches - I will have to go there vicariously through travel writers like Paul Theroux. Thankfully, Theroux makes a very amiable companion on such a paper-bound excursion.

Deep South is not an 'adventure story', in which the travel-writer embarks on an epic journey. Indeed he is anxious to distance himself from the 'writer-hero, overcoming great odds in search of some noble aim' type genre. Neither is Deep South a travel guide, and basis for an itinerary of notable sights and hotel reviews. Rather, this is the story of four meandering trips Theroux made from his Northern home, through the Southern States during the course of a year. His focus is on people, culture, lives, history and literature - not on tourist attractions, and he re-visits several people and places on his tours. He writes:
I had read Southern fiction all my adult life - not just Faulkner and the gothics but the lesser lights and the poets, the playwrights, the explainers, the apologists, the memoirists - yet for all the reading I had done, few of the books I'd read, prepared me for what I found in the South: the uncomplaining underclass that amounted to a peasantry; the opportunistic newcomers, Northerners and foreigners taking advantage of the South's accommodating culture; the powerful few, black and white, animated by their pretensions; the poverty, not the colorful kind.... but the grim and seemingly ineradicable hardship of... the back lanes of the Delta. It was a region in which books - apart from the Bible - hardly mattered to most people, and why should they, when people spent their days struggling to get by? Freaks and goofballs were well documented in Southern fiction, the working poor less so. (p282-3)
Theroux's travels, on backroads, and places seldom remarked upon, paint a vivid portrait of a land unlike anywhere I have ever been. Curiously, Theroux repeatedly remarks that although  he is American - and a very widely travelled one at that, The Deep South is unlike anywhere he has been. One of his favourite analogies is that many of the people he meets have lives akin to Russian peasants, worked out in an almost African climate.

The struggling economy of many of the rural towns and villages, is a key theme in the book. Some of the towns (with their tawdry, and decrepit motels) have slumped after being by-passed by new Interstate Highways. Others have never recovered from the decline in the cotton trade, but the worst and most hopeless places which Theroux finds himself in are those where manufacturing industry (fabrics, car-parts, tyres, food processing) has been moved to Mexico or further afield. Several places he visited were victims of the Clinton's NAFTA agreement, which invited capitalists to move their enterprises to subsistence-wage Mexico - without compromising their access to lucrative US markets. Yet the heart of Theroux's book is not a economics treatise, but the stories of those whose lives are worked out in these contexts. He visits projects such as "HERO" in Greensboro - and observes projects aiming to rejuvenate housing and create employment.

Theroux's reponses to the culture of the South are intriguing. Sometimes, he seems ill-at-ease in the contexts in which he finds himself, yet his writing is clearly a sympathetic attempt to understand, not an outsiders attempt to judge. The all-white gun-shows Theroux visits, which are the outlet for all manner of weaponry, artillery, Nazi memorabilia, exquisite manners, and paranoid conspiracy theories, are a perfect example of this. Theroux makes it clear that he can handle a firearm, and that he likes many of the people he meets there; but yet he is suspicious of the defensive, inward-looking nature of the culture which seems to endorse violence, and the unspoken but consistent racial segregation practised beneath Confederate flags and Swastikas.

The South's deep religiosity intrigues Theroux too. On one hand, everywhere that he travels he finds Christian believers seemingly obsessed with future-prophetic readings of the book of Revelation, and of portents of judgement in every political event, and natural disaster. "The Bible is the happy hunting ground of disturbed minds" he remarks on a couple of occasions - and while he writes empathetically of some subsistence farmers he meets in Mississippi who are end-times obsessives, he finds their faith disturbing. Having said that, he writes amazingly positively about other aspects of the faith he finds in ordinary people and their churches - such as the Rev Virgin Johnson in South Carolina.

The Cornerstone Full Gospel Baptist Church was larger than it seemed when I approached. It lay in the hollow of a low, poorish neighbourhood of small houses near a narrow creek, Cribbs Mill Creek. "Black Southerners find in their churches a unifying focus and respite from  a hostile (or strange) majority culture", John Shelton Reed writes in "The Enduring South", adding, "as immigrant ethnic groups do."  Bishop Palmer's congregation resembled just such an ethnic group, like-minded - looking for solace. The warm-up prayers were impassioned and delivered by a deep-voiced woman greeting the faithful, who were filing in, formally dressed, women in hats and gloves, men in suits.....  (p74-5)
"The Church has always been the centrepiece of the rural South", Bishop Palmer said. (p73)
Theroux seemed comfortable here, with people finding solace in their community and their God - as they had done since the days of slavery; as he did with The Rev Eugene Lyles, Black pastor, community leader, and local barber in Greensboro, Alabama; and writes charmingly of his times with them. This is yet more of the kind of reading that makes me want to travel..

Race. It seems it is impossible to disentangle race from any aspect of Southern life. As Theroux travelled he found that Black farmers felt they were given little chance to compete with whites, while whites at gun-shows armed themselves against the loss of their culture and way of life. The shadow of Klan lurked menacingly in the background of many of the discussions he had with folks both Black and White across Alabama, yet everyone seemed to want to assure him that things aren't as bad as they once were. In between his travel diaries, Theroux engages in some stimulating essay writing which punctuate each season of his Southward excursions. While some of these are literary, (focusing on William Faulkner), at least two drill down into the subject of race. One is a fascinating and insightful essay about use of the "N-word", by racists and rappers; while the other tells the macabre story of Money Mississippi, made forever infamous as the setting for the lynching of young Emmett Till in 1955. Theroux pokes around the ghostly weed-entombed remains of Bryants Grocery Store, where the naive Northern teenager whistled at a white Southern Woman, violating the key psycho-sexual underpinning of Jim Crow; a mistake for which he would pay with his life.

Theroux's meanderings and reflections, take him through villages, towns, farms, welfare projects, along levees, into churches, and all the way down the mighty Mississippi River. In fact, he likens himself to that same 'old man river', sliding through the landscape, while not being part of it. Does Theroux do justice to the Deep South? Would inhabitants there accept his version of their places, their lives? Or would a reader from Alabama feel misrepresented by this outsider? I honestly don't know - as I have never been. But this rich and rewarding reading gives enough of a flavour of the people and their lives in the land, to make me determined to visit one day.

Theroux concludes:
It goes without saying that the vitality of the South lies in the self-awareness of its deeply rooted people. What made the South an enlightenment for a traveller like me, more interested in conversation than sightseeing, was the heart and soul of its family narratives -its human wealth.(p434)

And in page after page this wealth is wonderfully portrayed.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Friday, October 30, 2015

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Notes: From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple

"From the Holy Mountain" is not just an unusual book, it is by any measure, an extraordinary one. The author, William Dalrymple strides through history, politics, memoir, interviews, satire and theology with some style, with all these strands flowing from a travel diary.

In 578AD, a Monk named John Moschos toured the Levant, at a time when The Byzantine Empire was in its last years of decline across the Middle East. This formally "christian" state, was starting to crumble as Moschos explored it, due to internal disintegration and external threats. The lands he traversed would fall first to The Persians, and then Islamic Armies. Moschos' work The Spiritual Meadow, recorded his research, notably of the hugely varied Christian communities (both Orthodox and heretical), he visited. The Middle East was then burgeoning with monastic communities of Copts, Syrian and Greek Orthodox, Palestinians and others.

In the 1994, William Dalrymple set out to retrace Moschos' remarkable journey through Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel-Palestine and Egypt. His journey took him to many of the sites that are described in The Spiritual Meadow. Some of the places which Moschos described are completely lost today, long-forgotten Monasteries or Churches buried below Israeli dual-carriageways, for example. Others are ruins or archaeological sites, wind-blown desert sites where the remaining stones are used to corral sheep. In many of the places he explored still had living Christian communities in 1994, in some instances, the same monastic communities using the same music and liturgies that Moschos describes from the late 570s. In one or two instances, Dalrymple speaks to the very last inhabitants of these ancient communities which are steadily dying out.

Dalrymple writes:
The Christian population that Moschos knew and wrote about - the monks and the stylites, the merchants and soldiers, the prostitutes and the robber chiefs - all the strange and eccentric characters who wander in and out of The Spiritual Meadow, were conquered and subjugated, their numbers gradually whittled down by emigration, intermarriage, and mass apostasy.... [in a] process that has persisted ever since, greatly accelerating in this century. It is a historical continuum that began during the journeys of Moschos and the final chapter of which I have been witnessing on my own travels some fourteen hundred years later. Christianity is an Eastern religion which grew firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East. John Moschos saw that plant begin to wither in the hot winds of change that scoured the Levant of his day. On my journey in his footsteps I have seen the very last stalks in the process of being uprooted. (p453)
 And summarizes:

But if the pattern of Christian suffering was more complex than I could possibly have imagined at the beginning of this journey, it was also more desperate. In Turkey and Palestine, the extinction of the descendants of John Moschos' Byzantine Christians seemed imminent; at current emigration rates, it was unlikely that either community would still be in existence in twenty years. In Lebanon and Egypt the sheer number of Christians ensured a longer presence, albeit with ever-decreasing influence. Only in Syria had I seen the Christian population looking happy and confident, and even their future looked decidedly uncertain, with most expecting a major backlash as soon as Asad's repressive minority regime began to crumble. (p448)

In the light of what has unfolded in Syria over the last two years, this makes even more grim reading. Earlier in the book, I read with surprise, and a slight feeling of nausea when Dalrymple described his longing to escape from repressive Turkey into the relative freedom of Syria. The extinction of these old Christian communities which he caught the last glimpses of in 1994 - is now almost complete in many of the places he visited. From the Holy Mountain, may have been a wonderful piece of travel writing in 1994, but it now appears as a timely and invaluable historical document.

I have though done a dis-service to the book by quoting those two paragraphs though! Not, because they are in any way unworthy of quoting, but rather because they are very unrepresentative of the tone of the whole. These two more analytical quotes are very much the exception in a long book which is mostly anecdotes, stories, and adventures in unlikely places, interacting with a panoply of characters to amaze, delight and appal the reader in equal measure. From the Holy Mountain, like all the best travel writing, has the sense that the places and the people have left a deep imprint in the author - who is a good enough writer to pass that impression on to the reader. In turns it is insightful, educational, witty, exciting, bizarre, hilarious and then deeply and troublingly melancholy, From the Holy Mountain is a snapshot from the 1990s of one of the great tragedies of our age - the displacement of the Middle East's ancient Christian populations from their lands.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Lochs, Rivers, Bridges and Leaping Salmon - The Faskally Circuit

Despite the beautiful autumnal sunshine, clear weather forecast and almost perfectly still air, we didn't head for the high mountains. Sadly, my wife is carrying a bit of an injury to her right shin/ankle which seems to get aggravated by hard walking. Instead, we went to Pitlochry and walked the paths and roads which form a circuit of Loch Faskally and its two main feeding rivers, The Tummel and The Garry.

The Car Park near Pitlochry Station has a road which leads under the tracks and down towards the Hydro-Electric dam, which is one of the town's most well known features. The dam, which blocked the River Tummel just after WWII, created Loch Faskally, and provides 15MW of power for the National Grid. While some artificial lochs look very artificial, Faskally has a remarkably natural feel to it, given how short a period of time it has been part of the landscape. It is also home to a network of easily navigable waymarked paths which form pleasant and undemanding walking routes.

We struck Northwards up the East side of the loch. The route begins on a shore-hugging footpath, then diverts around some housing and picks up a minor road out to a boat club. Here, the town is left behind and the lochside path, decked in autumn colours is delightful.

The first landmark in the route is the bridge which takes the A9 trunk road high over the loch. Its amazing to think that until 1981, all the North-South traffic between The Central Belt and The Highlands was funnelled through Pitlochry High Street on the old A9. My Grandparents regularly drove (or moped-ed) the old A9, on their highland holidays, which often began with a Motorail journey through England - which itself had no complete motorway network in those days. The queues in Pitlochry High Street in the summer must have been demoralising for tourists and locals alike. These days the A9 is slewed across the glen and back, and Pitlochry is but a series of roofs and spires on the far side, as far as most travellers are concerned. The only negative aspect of this is that the railway line has not been upgraded over the years in which untold millions has been spent on (and is continuing to be spent on) the A9. That, and the fact that most travellers to the North are carried high above the lovely lochs, woods and rivers that surround Pitlochry, which are simply not visible from the tarmac and crash-barriers. Looking up from under the A9 bridge over which we have driven maybe hundreds of times, we realised what we had been missing!

Immediately under the A9 bridge, a footbridge crosses the river, we didn't cross it, but continued up the East
side of the Tummel - that bridge would be part of our return route, and the last in a series of remarkable and dramatic footbridges which have been hurled across the rivers here. The path follows the bank of the river, past the confluence of the Tummel and The Garry and the majestic Faskally House. eventually passing under the soaring bridge of the Loch Rannoch, Rannoch Station and Rannoch Moor road. Nearly a quarter of a century ago my wife and I drove over along that road on one of our first dates; today we walked under it with two of our three children, while our oldest (who earlier in the day received confirmation that he is entered on the electoral role and vote in the Scottish elections next year), stayed at home to revise for his exams: tempus fugit!

A few hundred yards past the high road bridge, an amazing footbridge crosses the river. A path continues to Killiecrankie, but time prevented us from going further, and we crossed to begin our return walk down the west side of the river and loch. Crossing the bridge, my wife realised that she had seen this view before - but wasn't sure where. Suddenly she unearthed a memory.... these bridges in the Pass of Killiecrankie had been on the cover of the University of Dundee 1990 Prospectus which she had received prior to going there to read medicine. It turned out that this was a walk she had been intending to do since then!

The path back down the west side of the Garry is charming, with open fields and farms complementing the fast-flowing torrent now on the left. The return walk is longer than the outward leg, as the River Tummel, joining the Garry from the West, presents an uncross-able obstacle at the confluence. A diversion of a mile or two up the Tummel to another (wonderful) footbridge is required in order to resume southward progress. This however is no bad thing, as the excursion up the Linn of Tummel is one of the highlights of the walk. As we were there, the waters were crashing over the rocks, with Salmon hurling themselves into the fray in their annual upriver migration. It would be worth coming our here for this alone!

Once over the Tummel, the route joins an unclassified road which runs behind the Clunie power station, and on to the first footbridge by the A9 road, and the completion of the circuit. All that remains is a gentle plod along the side of Loch Faskally back to Pitlochry - and the inevitable coffee shop visit before the drive home. This may not have been an epic mountain day, and McNeish might be optimistic in calling this one of "Scotland's 100 Greatest Walks", but it is a charming and delightful place, full of interest and beauty, perfect for a Winter walk, or to enjoy in autumn colours.