Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Watching with John Henry Newman

I have recently been reading Newman: The Heart of Holiness (2019), a book by Roderick Strange about the priest-poet, John Henry Newman. In a sermon called 'Watching', dated 3 December 1837 (p.33), Newman discusses what it means to be 'watching for Christ', writing:

'Do you know the feeling in matters of this life, of expecting a friend, expecting him to come, and he delays? Do you know what it is to be in unpleasant company, and to wish for the time to pass away, and the hour strike when you may be at liberty? Do you know what it is to be in anxiety lest something should happen which may happen or may not, or to be in suspense about some important event, which makes your heart beat when you are reminded of it, and of which you think the first thing in the morning? Do you know what it is to have a friend in a distant country, to expect news of him, and to wonder from day to day what he is now doing, and whether he is well? Do you know what it is so to live upon a person who is present with you, that your eyes follow his, then you read his soul, that you see all its changes in his countenance, that you anticipate his wishes, that you smile in his smile, and are sad in his sadness, and are downcast when he is vexed, and rejoice in his successes? To watch for Christ is a feeling such as all these; as far as feelings of this world are fit to shadow out those of another.'

There were two further quotations which particularly caught my attention:

 'So it is with the souls of holy men. They have a well of peace springing up within them unfathomable; and though the accidents of the hour may make them seem agitated, yet in their hearts they are not so.'

'The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world does not see. He is the greater part of his time by himself, and when he is in solitude, that is his real state. What he is when left to himself and to his God, that is his true life.'

I think these are good descriptions as to what it is that one seeks in the pursuit of holiness - holiness simply meaning to live a life near to the presence of God. It is described very well in the 'Collect for Peace' (as found in the Book of Common Prayer's 'Office for Evening Prayer') as 'that peace which the world cannot give...'

A Collect for Peace.

O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee, we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

It is a beautiful prayer, the words of which are, in themselves, like liquid poetry when slowly and quietly spoken aloud. I am sure Newman had them in mind when he was writing.

                                             

Friday, February 23, 2024

The Metamorphic Power of Travel

Speaking (or rather, writing, as I was in my previous post) on the subject of cruising, whilst I was aboard the Artemis I was treated to a new literary quotation every night - each one on a little card placed on my pillow along with a square of chocolate by my cabin steward. Well-knowing that I delight in collecting quotations and am not particularly bothered about chocolate, my astute wife quickly realised she could trade her evening's quotation for my square of chocolate.

Many of these travel quotations were new to me. So, instead of devouring additional calories, I amassed a pocketful of erudition. The following three quotations are some of my favourites from this particular harvest:

"Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind."
Seneca (4BC - 65AD)

"Don't tell me how educated you are; tell me how much you travelled."
Muhammed (7th century)

"The world is but a canvas to the imagination."
Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), Author

Added to Robert Louis Stevenson's sentiment regarding travel, as remarked upon in yesterday's post ('On the Subject of Cruising'), one aspect that fascinates me is that, taken collectively, they span some two thousand years, and yet the sentiment remains identifiable and understandable, even within the modern world. Travel does indeed expose us to new destinations, new cultures, new ideas. It allows us to understand the similarities, as well as the differences, between people of different races, and to develop a genuine and lasting appreciation of the same. 

However, for all that, perhaps there is an even deeper consideration to be had. Above all, there is the undeniable fact that travel has the power to change us - that is, if we are openly receptive and allow it to work its magic. As a result of perceptive and receptive travel, each one of us becomes a new person, with new knowledge, a better informed mindset, and a wider outlook on life in general. As the British essayist and novelist, Pico Iyer, wrote:

'A person susceptible to "wanderlust" is not so much addicted to movement as committed to transformation'.

If allowed to take its full effect, that transformation works on a personal level, but also has the power to spill over into our personal groups and communities, to our families and our friends, and ultimately, to our social and work environments.

In effect, travel produces ripples of change, and left to work unhindered, those ripples have power to transform the world - for the better, if we allow it to be so. 

Thursday, February 22, 2024

On the Subject of Cruising

"Never a ship sails out of bay but carries my heart as a stowaway."

Roselle Mercier Montgomery, poet (1874 -1933).

Fourteen years ago this month, I had the great pleasure of spending two weeks cruising around the Caribbean aboard P&O's Artemis, in celebration of reaching my half-century.

For me, cruising is one of the greatest pleasures in life. Which, for those who know me well, may be considered somewhat of an unusual statement. Cruises are often considered to be relaxing, and I am not renowned for my ability to idle away time (or certainly that was the case back in 2010). Beach holidays, for example, certainly do not do it for me. However, I do find that cruising is one of the quickest ways to relax. I can spend entire days sitting on my cabin's balcony, happily reading or simply watching the water as I mentally compose a stanza or two for another poem. In fact, the first daft of my novel, Lamplight in the Shadows, was completed whilst onboard a cruise ship. 

The reason for this apparent paradox is quite simple. Whilst cruising, one is in the process of actually going somewhere. It is not a stagnant process (like sitting on a beach). Psychologically, I am content with the thought of being in the process of travelling to a new destination. The fact that I am not having to make any effort in bringing about that process is additionally satisfying, as well as relaxing. It doesn't even matter what the destination is, as long as one is moving.

That latter thought is very much in tune with the 19th century Scottish novelist and essayist, Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote:

"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is the move."

I couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Reflections of a Tourident

The following article was first published in Pissouri Contact 46, 10 October 2009, a local newspaper in the hillside village of Pissouri, Cyprus. Sadly, the newspaper ceased publication a few years ago. 

Reflections of a Tourident

It is possible (albeit unlikely) that the Oxford English Dictionary will one day include the following entry:

tourident

noun. 1 a person who is new to, and still learning about, a community, but who owns and occasionally resides in a property within that community. a cross between, or combination of, a tourist and a resident.

My wife and I are touridents in respect to Pissouri, having taken possession of our new apartment in the village in the spring of this year, and only managing three short visits thus far. However, there are advantages in such a position.

One benefit is that Pissouri is still an open book to us. We know what the picture on the cover looks like, and have read the blurb on the fly-leaf. However, we have thus far only progressed through the first few chapters of the contents, and most of the story is yet to reveal itself to us. Some characters appear on a regular basis, there are constant introductions to new ones, and many more exist, of whom we have only heard snippets and have yet to physically meet. Meanwhile, we are gradually treated to two unravelling storylines. The first, where the historical meets the contemporary. The second, where tradition meets modernity. The Cypriot meets the newcomer (and vice versa) and different cultures interact. The result is a plot worthy of that classic English novelist, Thomas Hardy, and just as enjoyable.

An aspect which is very evident to us is that Pissouri is a community. It is not just a collection of disparate individuals, who happen to live near to each other (as is often found in cities). Furthermore, Pissouri is a friendly community, consisting of individuals who know each other, who live and work together, who share interests and visions, who depend upon each other, and who strive to achieve collective goals for the better of the society in which they reside. That is the outward face of Pissouri. For the new-comer, whether it is the casual day-tripper, or the tourident, Pissouri has the appearance of a congenial family.

However, like all extended families, there are naturally disagreements, arguments, irritations, clashes of personalities and, inevitably, a few 'black sheep' whose actions are unpleasant and disturbing. Metaphorically speaking, I have now read sufficient pages of the narrative, to understand some of these issues. However, far from spoiling the picture postcard image of Pissouri, these issues make Pissouri even more genuine; even more of a community; even more of a family. Perhaps surprisingly to some, therein lies the village's strength. Families must learn to live with each other and make allowances for the likes and dislikes of individual members. Where there are differing points of view, compromises have to be reached and harmony restored. That is the richness of family life. Without such interaction, relationships are bland and nothing is achieved. Diversity of thought should bring people closer together in order to find and develop the common ground. That is, I believe, what is happening in Pissouri, and has probably been happening for many years past. The rich tapestry which is the modern Pissouri is the summation of all that has gone before. The beauty is that every now and again, someone will twist the kaleidoscope and the picture will shift slightly again, bringing new dimensions to what is already priceless.

My thoughts will probably say nothing new to those members of the collective community of Pissouri who were either born in the village, or who have been resident for many years. However, as a tourident, we are looking at the community with a fresh set of eyes, and what we see is, overall, a power for the good. We feel that we have recently married into a new extended family. We are slowly getting to know how the family ticks, but what we have learned thus far is that Pissouri is a friendly and welcoming community, and one to be valued. It is a community we are glad to have joined.

And remember, when the word 'tourident' does enter the Oxford English Dictionary, it was here that you first read it!

2024 postscript: The word 'tourident' has yet to appear in the OED! But there is always time... :)

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Notes from a Reading of Thomas Merton

Last evening, I was in the splendid company of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, priest, writer, and poet. 

Sadly, Merton died in 1968. However, he left for us a tremendous literary legacy, much of which is accessible to the 'lay person' and not just meant for those of an academic mind. Through his books, one can truly be in his company and be inspired by his words of insight and wisdom.

Anyway, back to my reading of last evening. I was engrossed in what Merton said about (and indeed, wrote to) the Russian writer, Boris Pasternak, the author of Dr Zhivago. Dr Zhivago is one of my all-time favourite books. It falls into the literary genre of an historical-novel; the love story of a beautiful woman and a physician-poet, set amidst the social turmoil of Russia between the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Second World War. 

To Pasternak, Merton wrote:

'all our work remains yet to be done, the work of transformation which is the work of love, and love alone.'

He continued:

'All great writing is in some sense revolutionary. Life itself is revolutionary, because it constantly strives to surpass itself.'

The act of reading, alongside his writing, was extremely important to Merton. To further quote from him:

'I always have at least three books going at the same time'. 

That sounds familiar, and I can further concur with him when he says:

'The real joy of reading is not in the reading itself, but in the thinking which it stimulates and which may go beyond what is said in the book.'

In Merton's mind, for a monk, reading and thinking are inseperable processes from that of meditation. I am sure the idea is not confined to monks. Anyone with a love of silence and contemplation will warm to his words.  

Continuing that theme, Merton wrote that the books he read (which were, not surprisingly, mainly theological and philosophical in nature, although also including some novels such as Doctor Zhivago and also the poems of William Blake)...

'and others like them, have helped me to discover the real meaning of my life, and have made it possible for me to get out of the confusion and the meaningless of an existence completely immersed in the needs and passiveness fostered by a culture in which sales are everything.'

That world to which Merton refers still exists. It is the materialistic world of capitalism and commerce, and it is not a world that I warm to. As I sit here writing in my library, I know that it is a world metaphorically and literally "on the other side of the wall" to my own world of God, love, and books. However, it is increasingly a world that is strange and unrecognisable to me. It may be a product of age, but I find myself retreating further and further from that world, and in the process, rejecting what it stands for - with the exception, of course, for the ability to purchase more books...

and ice-cream.

Monday, February 19, 2024

A Postcard from Peru

In recent times, Peru has been increasingly featured in foreign news items, as government agencies have issued warnings advising increased caution when travelling there, owing to rising crime levels and general unrest. It is a great shame that it should be so. Peru is a beautiful country with a fascinating culture and history, as I discovered at first hand when I had the good fortune to tour there some eighteen years ago. At the time, I wrote a poem, trying to encapsulate the varied and astonishing geography, culture, and economy I witnessed. The result was 'A Postcard from Peru', published in my first collection of poetry, A Journey with Time (Lulu, 2008):


A Postcard from Peru

High above the Colca Mountain ranges,
beneath the cloudless, blue, Andean skies,
in a land little transformed by changes,
the sacred condor flies.

Beneath the snow-capped mountains hid by haze,
observed by villagers in clothes quite gay,
llamas, vicunas and alpacas graze
and haunting pan-pipes play.

O’er the waters of Lake Titicaca,
on floating islands of totora reed,
the Uros people chew leaves of coca
and fish to herons feed.

Braving earth tremors in Arequipa,
well-sustained by Pisco Sours,
English tourists haggle to buy cheaper:
the dollar here empowers.

Via the catacombs of San Francisco,
a shaman of the Island of the Sun,
through cactus-strewn plains of the Altiplano,
travellers’ days are done.

Behold the Ice Maiden, Juanita;
the Garden of Lovers in Lima Bay;
the Orient Express is a feature:
rolling on – no delay.

The towering walls of Machu Picchu
instil with awe, inspire, expand the mind.
Support the local trade, we beseech you:
‘Just one sol – that’s most kind!’

From the ancient tombs of Sillustani,
down the pre-Inca terraced, rocky slopes,
to borders protected by the army,
Peru portrays its hopes.

© Copyright 2006 Robert M Jaggs-Fowler

Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Value of Indolence

Following on from yesterday's post, I unearthed an entry from my journal, written in March 2010 at the time of my first reading Lawrence Durrell's Bitter Lemons of Cyprus. The following paragraphs are reproduced from it...

Cerebral Tai Chi

'Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.'

So wrote Lawrence Durrell in his 1957 book, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus. He later described the necessary travelling companions in order to achieve this utopia; namely, loneliness and time, declaring them as 'those two companions without whom no journey can yield us anything'.

He was, of course, writing about his time in that wonderfully complex, Mediterranean retreat otherwise known as the Birth Place of Aphrodite. Indeed, it is where I am now writing, accompanied by a welcoming, though yet still cool, morning sun; its rays reflected by the expanse of yellow wild flowers and intensely luxuriant grasslands which rise behind my home here. The only sound is that of sparrows in a nearby carob tree, interspersed by the distant call of a wood-pigeon, and the soft mewing of a ginger cat, which has seated itself expectantly on the terrace outside my kitchen door, and which now stares back at me in the hope that I have something more exciting on offer than the occasional man-made 'meow' I return to it in the spirit of trans-cultural friendship.

Durrell is a writer I immediately warmed to. His work speaks of a man who understands the enormity of the mundane, the intrinsic value of indolence, the desirability of solitude, and the wealth of material residing just out of reach within the grey cells of one's mind, just waiting to be freed by the onset of some melancholically-induced cerebral exercise.

Cyprus is an island which allows for all of that. It is impossible to ignore the whispers from centuries past that filter through the rocks, like vapours through the pores of a living, yet antiquated, historical tome. 'Listen to me,' the land murmurs; 'listen and feel; listen and learn; listen and understand.'

So I listen, alone and unrushed. I allow the sounds of nature to filter through the labyrinth of neurones which somehow act as the repository of my thoughts; I let the rocky terraces speak to me of the island's origins and the tales of centuries past, laid down within it like seams of history, layer upon eventful layer, and I feel my mind tuning in to that same wavelength which endeared itself to Durrell, as it has to so many writers over the centuries. Yet, as I do so, my thoughts stretch, not just back down the monumental ages belonging to this island, but laterally across to the other side of the world, to the Caribbean Sea, where I sailed less than two months ago, and where, alone and with all the time in the world to muse, I cerebrally travelled back not just centuries, but through millennia, to the time of the world's earliest existence. It was a cathartic moment, and one which I tried to capture in a haiku, written whilst sailing:

Wave laps against wave:

wind's primeval voice echoes

from the start of time.

That, I believe, is precisely what Durrell understood could be achieved from travelling introspectively, with time and solitude as one's companions. It is achieved through bouts of unmoving contemplation; that splendid quality the Moslems know as kayf. It requires no more than the gentle stretching of the grey cells. However, the reward is immeasurable.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Bitter Lemons of Cyprus

Moments ago, I placed aside a book which left a lasting impression on my mind when I read it for the first time a few years back. I speak of Lawrence Durrell's book, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus.  

Written in 1957, the book relates Durrell's experience in Cyprus during the years 1953-56; a transition period between a soft, relatively untroubled Cyprus (if that is not a historical misnomer) and an island of great political upheaval and social unrest. Durrell captures the flavour of living in Cyprus with the detailed eye of a poet and artist. His story is truely bitter-sweet; revealing the hidden delights of Cyprus and its charming people, whilst also unpeeling the deep-seated angst of a trouble nation. It is a story that not only draws you in; it engulfs you until you share in the emotional turmoil. As a result, the final chapter will cause pain for the sensitive reader; and so it should. There are lessons for us all to learn from this chapter of history, and from the depth of human relations it portrays.

The book also reminded me of a personal pilgrimage I undertook a few years ago...

The island is still divided between a Greek southern Cyprus and a Turkish-controlled northern area, with a United Nations buffer zone in between. It is possible to visit both sides, albeit with various passport formalities. However, it is difficult to reproduce Durrell's enigmatic car journey from his village of Bellapaix, near Kyrenia, to Paphos, along the coastal road via Pano Pyrgos and Polis. Nonetheless, from the village I consider as my home in Cyprus - the hillside village of Pissouri - it is, possible to undertake a significant portion of the journey in reverse; a journey I once undertook, driving to Paphos and onward to Polis, with a detour to see Aphrodite's Bath, before continuing on along the north coast road to the border village of Pano Pyrgos.

The route is a beautiful one, taking in breath-taking views of coastal panoramas, set against the steep wooded rocks of the Troodos Mountains. That said, it is not for the faint-hearted, as most of the villages at this time of year (February/March) are devoid of activity, with nowhere for refreshment or refuelling. On top of which, there is the constant reminder of being close to a troubled border, with guard posts, small army camps, and abandoned damaged buildings scattered around the hills and valleys. Neither is there a quick way down. Having commenced the journey, one is left with a choice of driving back the same tortuous route, or traversing an even more tortuous route across the Troodos. (Drivers take note - a car with an automatic gearbox is a must. Mine was a manual gearbox and my left leg was very glad when the journey was over!)

For all that, the long and arduous journey was worth every mile of effort. Unfortunately, time did not permit me to tackle the last portion of the journey to Bellapaix on that occasion. However, it was a priority for a later trip, when I took delight in exploring the much-exulted ruins of Bellapaix Abbey, as well as paying a visit to the house where Lawrence Durrell lived during the aforementioned years. 

Although some might consider such a pilgrimage a slightly foolish undertaking, there is no doubt in my own mind that experiencing at first hand some of the scenes described by Durrell in Bitter Lemons of Cyprus greatly assists one with understanding and reflection. Nonetheless, whether you undertake the actual journey, or simply have an interest in Cyprus and its history, I wholeheartedly recommend Durrell's book to you. I defy you not to take something personal from it.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Book Review: The Dying Keats: A Case for Euthanasia

The Dying Keats was written for the 20th Biennial Keats Memorial Lecture in 2009. 

With 50 years' experience caring for the elderly and dying, its author, Dr Brian Livesely, has successfully researched and crafted a succinct argument for improved medical care for the dying; drawing on the distressing death of the 19th century poet and apothecary, John Keats, in order to illustrate how doctors so often fail their dying patients. 

Keats died at a young age from tuberculosis. Denied drugs such as opium to ease his terminal suffering, he experienced distressing symptoms up to his death, causing him to describe his final days as 'this posthumous life of mine'. Livesley describes this as the 'Keatsonian Experience', and compares it to euthanasia in the truest sense of its meaning, that being, 'a good and comfortable death'. 

As the author points out, it is astonishing that today's care of the terminally ill is often little better than that experienced by Keats. Livesley believes this to be due to the reluctance of doctors to consider death as a diagnosis that requires treatment. He reminds us that 'dying should be a humane experience for us all'. 

It is a sobering and thought-provoking read, not only for clinicians, but for anyone contemplating their wishes for the tail-end of their life.

The Dying Keats: A Case for Euthanasia
Brian Livesley
Matador (2009)
ISBN: 978-1848761-711

Thursday, February 15, 2024

A Writer's Prayer

As I restart this blog, I am reminded of 'A Writer's Prayer', written by me in 2008. It seems a good time for such a reminder, as it has already prompted me to delete two possible drafts for risking contravention of the last line of the prayer...

A Writer's Prayer 

Heavenly Father,

may the cloud of words,

which is omnipresent over my head,

with your blessing, pour down

as a shower upon me.

let it percolate through my brain and,

via the conduit of this pen,

reappear as sentences,

formed and erudite,

upon the paper in front of me.

May those sentences be the source of pleasure to many,

provoke thought in at least a few,

and be the cause of harm to no one.

Amen

 © Copyright 2024 Robert Jaggs-Fowler

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

A Poem for St Valentine's Day

Today is, of course, also Ash Wednesday, a day on which Christians traditionally repent, confess their sins, and renew their comitment to follow a life commensurate with that exemplified by the life of Jesus Christ. However, by a quirk of this year's calendar, Ash Wednesday coincides with Valentine's Day, a day celebrating love. Love is at the very heart of the Christian message, so what better way to observe Ash Wednesday than to also observe the value of human love? 

So, here is a poem dedicated to love. It was written some years ago, and is part of my second collection of poems called On Quarry Beach.

An Intermezzo for Love

Draw back the curtains of the night;                                                                                                              prolong the beauty of twilight.                                                                                                                      May the crimson skies once more show,                                                                                              reflected in the moon's soft glow,                                                                                                                  the softness of your features fair,                                                                                                            enhanced by joy, devoid of care.

And when, at last, the dark descends,                                                                                                        let love's embraces make amends                                                                                                                for all perceptions of neglect.                                                                                                                Then, let sleep come without regret,                                                                                                  bringing dreams devoid of sorrow;                                                                                                      recharging minds for tomorrow,

such that, when the dawn once more breaks,                                                                                                a new love for each other wakes;                                                                                                    empowering hearts to seize the day                                                                                                          and, all deeds done, once more to say:                                                                                                    draw back the curtains of the night;                                                                                                    prolong the beauty of twilight.    

(c) Copyright 2024 Robert Jaggs-Fowler                                                                                                                              

Watching with John Henry Newman

I have recently been reading  Newman: The Heart of Holiness  (2019), a book by Roderick Strange about the priest-poet, John Henry Newman. In...