Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Are we going to war?

I interrupt my normal programmes, as it were, to quote a letter written by a friend of mine to his MP. Is it overstated nonsense, or does he make sense?

 "Gloria, you’ll have perhaps noticed that the UK may be about to go to war. (However “limited” an air strike might be, if it is against the government or the people of any state, it is an act of war.)

Here’s my open letter to my MP:

Dear MP,

I fear you face a difficult vote of conscience in the House quite soon. The vote shouldn’t be whipped, but it probably will be. Good luck, but please bear this in mind:

If you vote for military action by U.K. forces, I shall never vote Labour again. Here’s why:

1)   It’s taken me years to try to forgive Labour for going to war in Iraq (at least Mr Milliband has managed an apology), and I cannot forget that John Reid said, as he committed 3,300 troops to Helmand province in Afghanistan, "We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years and without firing one shot." Wouldn’t we just, Lord Reid. The deployment was lethally mismanaged and…we all know the story since then. 

2)   The primary duty of any democratic government is to protect the people who elected them. You might be able to finesse an argument that explains how an air strike against Syria would protect us all – can’t see it, myself. It’s surely likely to further inflame many in the Arab world.

3)   Choosing sides in this civil war means choosing between a revolting regime that seems to be prepared to poison some of its own civilians, and disunited and chaotic rebel forces a significant proportion of which consists of people dedicated to attacking Western nations, and prepared to throw acid at women seeking an education. 

4)   The videos are harrowing, and poison gas is an obscenity. So is white phosphorous; I don’t recollect demands for air strikes against Israel during its action in Gaza 2008-2009. So is bombing nightclubs full of teenagers, or rocket attacks on farms; no calls for attacks on Hezbollah or Hamas. What arrogance is it in us that we think we should be the world’s police force? Why should we think we would make things better? Have we, so far, in the Middle East? The most optimistic answer would be “yes..and no.”

5)   In any case, how would air strikes help the suffering people of Syria?

6)   If UK forces carry out air strikes, what happens next? We can’t know. Have we even thought about it?

7)   There is no such thing as a “surgical” air strike. If we attack, people will die who have nothing to do with the Syrian armed forces, or the deployment of nerve gas.

8)   Let us discount the arguments of Russia and China. They are as self-serving as most nations’ foreign policies. But even should they, and the UN, “legalise” military action, please don’t support it.

I’m not a pacifist. I think I may be an odd sort of patriot. I’m trying to be a realist. I can’t see how military action helps anyone, except just possibly some military careers." 

OK, it's nothing directly to do with mortality - though it sure could be do with death.

Normal service will be resumed etc.

Deathly prizes in Bournemouth

Everyone knows what Bournemouth looks like:

but beware! in ten days' time in a secret underground bunker below the deck chairs and the elderly people strolling along the prom, it will be full of fiends celebrating the Grim Reaper, and waving tiny coffins aloft with glee:

Don't be silly, Gloria, I tell myself (often...) The Good Funeral Awards celebrate not the Reaper himself, but the work of those who try to help us and ours when He has Reaped. 

As His Reaperness says whilst sharpening his scythe and looking longingly at our necks,"It's a hell of a job - in some cases - but someone's got to do it. Next please." 

The assorted undertakers, celebrants, sextons, grave-diggers, chapel attendants and others who will be attending might echo the Reaper's sentiments about it being a hell of a job,  except that I reckon many or most of such people regard the work as hugely privileged and fulfilling. 

I was astonished (no really, darlings) to be nominated for an award last year, and my gob was well and truly smacked when I was runner up in a category about significant contributions to the understanding of death. I couldn't alas attend, but I was mightily touched.

This year someone close to me has been nominated as funeral celebrant of the year. He doesn't expect to get an award (the list is long and contains people known to me and him as truly outstanding people) but he's going to totter down there.

Because of course it's not about a tiny model coffin, it's not about winning or not; it's about celebrating difficult but important work, about like-minded people getting together, and it's to move forward public understanding and acceptance of our mortality. 

Because the Reaper's success rate so far is 100%, and either we accept that and use it to live better and happier lives, or we try to ignore it. Personally, I don't think the latter is a sound plan.

So hooray for Bournemouth, and hooray for the two jovial coves below: Brian Jenner, organiser of the weekend, on the left. On the right, Charles Cowling of Good Funeral Guide fame, co-conspirator with Brian in  these deathly celebrations. Bravo, chaps!

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Shrewsbury and identity quests

Rows of tented booths selling leather hats, tie-die shirts, mandolins, curries, and a huge marquee looming over all. Yes, it's a festival: Shrewsbury Folk Festival, scene of a swift one-day sun-blessed evaluation yesterday by your roving correspondent. 

It's a very pleasant, orderly, smallish, easy-to-attend festival; but I'm thinking that this folk music thing is actually stranger than it looks. Shrewsbury is well-established and successful, it all looks quite straightforward, but I'm not so sure it is. Why do so many of us like folk music?

The tradition evolves slowly, and is mostly anonymous at source. Contemporary singers and players find ways of delivering these songs and tunes to suit us and them.  This music grew out of a social, often a work-place, context, but it is now performed as art music. Why hasn't it died out as its social contexts have slipped away from us into our pasts?

My answer, for what it's worth, is that in a time of rapid social and cultural change, people who feel displaced, unsure of where they stand, go back into a real and imagined past. I don't mean that as a sneer; it's a bit more significant than nostalgia, and  - who wouldn't feel the need for solid ground underfoot when faced with the lunacies of Twitter and the relentless babble that insults us via TV adverts each evening?

At Shrewsbury there was quite a different feel from pop/rock gigs - less separation and adulation, smaller scale, less tension and drama around performance. Perhaps all this helps people feel connected through more than Facebook. (Festivals in general do so, I'm sure.) It felt convivial.

And of course a lot of the music yesterday wasn't folk music in any traditional sense. Singer/songwriters are usually lumped in with folk music if the simplicity of their presentation and accompaniment, as well as their singing style, is on nodding terms with the anonymous tradition - especially since they often sing more traditional music as well. What's in a label, anyway? But such singer/songwriters are perhaps seeking to connect their work with something much older than, say, Franz Ferdinand are looking for.

Morris dancers-  easy for a lazy joke. Signs are it's never been so popular as it is now (perhaps in part because women have been taking part for many years.) I'm no expert, but there was some marvellous leaping thumping and prancing going on yesterday. Again, morris dancing may be (even) stranger than it looks.  

I enjoyed the dancing very much yesterday, but after a while I began to feel I would simply have to sink my teeth into the next tinkling bell-bedecked calf than tramped past me. One can have too much of a good thing!

I reckon the morris is part of the same impulse, and it's this that makes a festival like Shrewsbury so interesting, as well as enjoyable. My theory is that it's full of people (including me) looking to reinforce their sense of identity, searching for connectedness and conviviality, wanting to grow roots down into something that feels old and solid. Even if it's actually quite recent, even if it was written yesterday by a named artist, so long as it shares a "folky" ethos and style.

Music matters so much to us that it's always about more than the music itself. It's about who we are.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The difference between a painted lady and a tortoiseshell: a new Way

I was recently lucky enough to be one of a walking group led, in a most unbossy and charming way, by a truly expert - I was going to write "botanist," which he certainly is, but the old term "naturalist" might be better, since his range of both knowledge and wisdom is huge, and it was put to excellent use for our benefit.

We walked around an area of coastal heath, then up to a high promontory, down to a disused lighthouse on a headland. We were lucky with the weather.

In case you're interested, I'll mention some of the creatures and plants we saw, such as this splendid chap below, but first I want to make my point before non-naturalists doze off.

If I want a sense of unity between me and the world, a sense of belonging and a feeling of balance, a usual route for me is via the natural world, and I think that's fairly common. But my typical approach to the natural world, and again, I'm hardly alone in this, is imaginative, aesthetic, meditative. Being in it, letting my mind stay in the present, looking at my surroundings as if for the very first time, feeling tuned in to the beauty of a place.

The Naturalist identified plants, birds, butterflies, land forms, soil types, underlying geology, and even the unbelievably ancient geological story behind it all. He did so in a typically gentle and encouraging way, which drew us out, and therefore in.

What the Naturalist saw and felt around him was based on  detailed and exact knowledge - science, if you like. People speak of reading the landscape. He seemed part of it, on intimate terms with it. He understood its inter-relations, its changes and time-scales. Of course he had aesthetic responses - he is particularly fond of toad-flax. His analytical understanding was always at the service of his powers of synthesis- I mean that he fitted things together so wonderfully well.

This is what he has dedicated his life to.

He was also able, of course, to be exact about the season. "It's late to see so many..." or "We are lucky to catch him, they've usually gone by now," or "they are mostly migrants, on passage to Africa, and they should be in south-west England by tomorrow morning."

I think when we put all this together, we've got a particular way of living in the present, in harmony with change, unafraid of the scale of the earth's timescales, able to accept how limited is our stay here.

As I left the walk, I felt the sort of calm elation I usually only feel after a meditation, or after an aesthetic and meditative experience of the countryside. The Naturalist's science-based gifts to me were visions I treasure.

(You don't seem many painted lady butterflies, and when one settled on a flower head next to two tortoiseshells, the Naturalist quickly pointed out the differences, in colouring, characteristic flight, in general what a bird-watcher would call its "jizz." So now I know, now I feel, more intimately, these two lovely creatures, and where they belong.)


The lady is on top.

Small copper, large blue, gate-keeper, meadow brown, grayling and peacock.
Eyebright, western gorse, bell-heather and ling, hairy vetch, toad-flax, sheep-bit, tormentil and creeping cinquefoil.
Grey seal, Manx shearwater, fulmar, cormorant and shag, buzzard and rock pipit, willow warbler and curlew.

Beautiful though they are, these are just names. Put it all together with the Naturalist's vision and you can approach something beyond names and concepts.

I think a life's dedication to studying and observing has given him a Way, a kind of enlightenment that is new to me. It's based on knowledge, but it's so much more than just knowledge.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Morbid? Moi?

Recently, chatting with friends about the ludicrous idea that eventually each of our lives will come to an end, one of them said she didn't want to be morbid, but...and went on to explore her sense of mortality, and how she felt about her father's death and his funeral. She then said that all this stemmed from my telling them about my celebrancy work. 

This got me thinking (always painful and sometimes futile, of course.)

Concise OED gives us: "morbid: characterised by or appealing to an abnormal and unhealthy interest in unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease." (It also has a specialised medical use, of course.)

Is my preoccupation with mortality morbid, (i.e. is it an unhealthy obsession) is it purely professional, or is it in any way valuable? 

I doubt undertakers are seen as morbid - I expect most of us accept that they do an essential job that 99% of us couldn't do. But celebrancy is, I think, different. For many of us it's not a primary way of earning a living, and it's certainly not a long-established role (obviously, I'm leaving aside ministers of a faith when they are leading a funeral ceremony.) Do we celebrants obsess about the end of life? Is it "good" for us to spend so long thinking about death and bereavement?

We'll each have our own answers to these questions. 

The work is fulfilling and difficult, and it is easy to get a bit obsessive, talk about it too much. However, I tend to find that people want to talk about funerals, and mortality itself, when they find out what I do.

My friend wasn't being morbid. She was taking the opportunity to explore her thoughts and feelings, and perhaps it's not so often, in a social setting, that she meets someone who is prepared to help the discussion on. 

To the cognoscenti, the GFG commentariat, this is all pretty obvious; but for many people, I think I can tell that to talk about death is a welcome and unusual opportunity. I don't think there is, to use a yawnsome cliche, a simple taboo about death in our culture, but I do think there is a huge avoidance of the fact of mortality, and a tendency to skate over our feelings - hey, let's celebrate a life, let's not mourn. See:

Maybe I obsess about the work sometimes; but I think the really dangerously morbid symptom in our culture is our inability to bring death into our lives, to accept that life ends and to live in that knowledge. I'll return to this topic soon, be warned. See, I told you I was obsessive.....

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Loneliness in bereavement, loneliness in death work

It's a commonplace that being bereaved can be a lonely and isolating experience, perhaps particularly in cultures in which emotional restraint and an assumed stoicism is the norm. (Are we Brits just now emerging from this norm and creating another? In my celebrancy work I come across plenty of stiff upper lips, but also plenty of wobbly lips and hugs.)

It's certainly true that each of us has to grieve alone, in so far as each must follow her unique journey of grief, each of us in her own way. But I think that grieving, the state of being for a while a bereaved person, can also bring people together. Not only in the obvious sense that family and friends may gather to support and help you, but because sometimes people will empathise, people you don't know especially well, and offer help -  emotional, practical or both. 

Recently, a couple I know were bereaved in tragic circumstances. New neighbours they had met only three times turned up with a casserole for my friends' supper, and took their young daughter off for a playtime whilst we talked. No fuss, no silly "Oh, I know how you feel, I remember when I..." Just essential, heartwarming neighbourliness exactly when it was needed.

Then there is the potential loneliness of funeral workers. Secular celebrancy can be a lonely business, in that it can generate high levels of uncertainty about the rightness of what we've written. I used to worry, in my more paranoid moments, that I'd be recognised and avoided in the street. I think this has happened only once. Celebrancy is in some areas increasingly competitive, so "colleagues" are less likely to provide the shoulder to cry on or the listening ear. The celebrancy organisations (BHA, IoCF, Greenfuse etc) offer some kind of support network, opinions on the efficacy of which, er, vary; nothing to stop celebrants from setting up a closed forum of like-minded people around the country. Could be of enormous value.

I think it must be much more of a problem for funeral directors/undertakers. The remnants of the old taboo about body-handling; the idea that the sight of the undertaker in his formal gear is a little chilling, a memento mori when we are not used to such reminders (in our culture, at least); the thought that we don't want to have to meet one any time soon; and the fiercely competitive nature of the business would, I imagine, create isolation in one prone to such feelings.

Actually, some undertakers I work with are generally quite jolly people. One is a lay preacher, an energetic, friendly man well known in his community; another is also well-known sociable, has a quip ready when people say "nice to see you, X, but not too often, eh?" (well, he manages not to yawn, at least!) 

Other seem to suffer a bit more from the various pressures of the work. Of course, any good undertaker takes the work seriously

but do they feel isolated by their work? I'd be interested to hear about it.

In fact, I'd be interested to hear about anything from anyone. It's so lonely being a blogger, you've no idea, you tap tap away, throw your thoughts upon the aether, and what comes back? Nothing. It's so.........sniffle sob sniffle....isolating......

Oh, suit yourselves, as Frankie Howerd used to say!

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Drugs Trip vs Natural High vs Presentmomentness

Someone I know says that in one sense she has been looking, in meditation at which she is expert, for an experience that relates to her LSD experience. (Her alleged LSD experience. Which was a long time ago, officer...)

It seems she had moments of huge insight and benevolence, out of time, in harmony with the world around her, courtesy of LSD or other hallucinogenics. The doors of perception were cleansed, and she saw, as Blake said she would, the Infinite.

That interested me. Now I never took LSD way back then. Because I was terrified of it, I guess. But I did go and see Donovan, all dressed in a white robe, who sang about the natural high being better than the drug high.

Words slip and crumble, don't they, but I take "high" as being a different thing from "tripping." With my relative ignorance about hallucinogenics and narcotics, I assume being high e.g. on an opiate or on cocaine or amphetamines, as being quite different from a hallucinogenic experience. If that's so, then a natural high is lovely, and I think quite common. Who hasn't been both elated and calmed at the same time by a moment of intense natural beauty, a piece of music that moved you out of yourself? Who hasn't been excited out of her head by some sporting moment?

(Well, not me, obviously, other than possibly, the first shot...)

(This druggy talk will eventually relate to mindfulness and mortality, just you wait and see...)

So I think we can put the true natural high to one side for the moment. It can relate to mindfulness, but in a different way. And I think we can accept that sedative or stimulant drug-taking, however useful or pleasurable people may find it to be, is not going to cleanse the doors of perception and help you live in the eternal present.

Mindfulness meditation, Zen practice, various effective meditation techniques - can help you simply exist in the present moment. Further, out of that can come a calm acceptance of your place in the universe, a feeling of identity with an infinite and unclassifiable reality. And that state, lived in even occasionally, can help you accept the insurmountable and otherwise outrageous news that one day you will fall off the log, your physical being will disintegrate and be otherwise distributed. (Sorry if that's a bit of a spoiler for anyone's self-narrative...)

Now, this next paragraph may be nonsense. Do tell me if so. But my guess is that an LSD trip is much less consistent, much more variable, much less easily acceptable, and much more temporary. Most people - no, everyone - I know who took acid back then, stopped, eventually. Some people it wrecked, some people it hasn't. (I'm not moralising here, just observing.)

Meditation won't give you synaesthetic swirling wonderlands of colour, won't give you the sound red or visions of Lucy in the Sky. But it can be a door into the infinite. It can cleanse the doors of perception. It can take you beyond either/or.

And it won't give you flashbacks or bad trips. It isn't a substitute for a trip. It isn't a trip. It just is.

I'd love some old head to put me right here....

But I think

(Sorry, I do appreciate that you can't communicate a good trip through irritating graphics...)

is probably less useful a route to awakening, to enlightenment, than simply:

I mean, taking acid may have helped people escape a dreary conventional life, but has it helped people face their mortality? I'd really like to know!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Follow the heron into the springtime

It's a chilly but beautiful sunny morning at Mundi Mansions, and for my multitude of reader, time for another song from the wonderful Karine Polwart, about the end of winter and the coming of spring, with all the usual metaphorical richness relating to relationships, life, the whole business.
And there's a good feeling of acceptance in the last verse: we need the sermons of ice and salt water and stone, but we also need - daffodils. Don't we?

The clip has slightly scratchy sound quality, but don't you love the mud on her boots (festival time) and the nervy immediacy she brings to her singing? Live, indeed. Blessings upon her head, and yours, and mine too - it's SPRING!

Follow The Heron

The back of the winter is broken
And light lingers long by the door
And the seeds of the summer have spoken
In gowans that bloom on the shore

By night and day we’ll sport and we’ll play
And delight as the dawn dances over the bay
Sleep blows the breath of the morning away
And we follow the heron home

In darkness we cradled our sorrow
And stoked all our fires with fear
Now these bones that lie empty and hollow
Are ready for gladness to cheer


So long may you sing of the salmon
And the snow scented sounds of your home
While the north wind delivers its sermon
Of ice and salt water and stone


The Present Moment

Once you get into this stuff, little reminders pop up here and there....

This on a wall at Dartington Hall.

Over to you.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Evolution, comfort, Mrs and Mrs Darwin in grief

Last post was about evolution and how accepting it might be a liberating thing, might help us accept the impossibility, the outrage, of our own mortality.

But it's not always easy, is it? Even in the abstract. 

I think way back I posted a clip of this song, performed and co-written by Karine Polwart. I thought I'd pop it up again - it still works powerfully on me. The setting is Mr and Mrs Darwin grieving for the death of their daughter. 

I won't put up the clip of KP singing it, because you might just want to regard it as a poem as well as a song, it seems that strong and true to me.

We all look for comforts and supports; Darwin builds his own cathedral....

We're All Leaving

There is thunder on the skyline
And it tears her breath away
Like the twilight steals the day
A father's kind hand could not command her
To return to him once more
Like a soldier from the war
We're all leaving
Even the ones who stay behind
We're all leaving in our own time
We're all leaving in our own time

Each night surrenders to a morning
But beneath the April sky
He can hear an endless cry
On smiling fields there's a battle raging
And for every bloom he knows
Another flower never grows
We're all leaving …

And he has no Ark to bear him from this Flood
Just a broken vessel wrought in flesh and blood
Though the riptides pull him under
He will not cease to wonder
At the beauty, beauty, beauty, beauty

He brings her mother to the church door
And while she prays for what will come
He walks those woods alone
And there he builds his own cathedrals
And on every whirring wing
He can hear the whole world sing
We're all leaving …

Words & Music: Karine Polwart (Bay Songs 2009) & Dave Gunning (SOCAN)

Monday, 5 August 2013

Evolution and mortality

Pretty big title, hunh? Just one point, though.

Someone was writing on the BBC website recently about human day/night rhythms,  and putting forward the theory that artifical light disrupted the rythms with which homo sapiens evolved. Seemed plausible. Then s/he used the phrase ..."than evolution intended."

Noew I'm no evolutionary scientist, but that's bollocks, isn't it? Evolution doesn't "intend" anything. It simply happens.  It has no agency, intention, or identity. And if "intended" was just a metaphor, it's a seriously misleading one.   It's an easy error to make, though. One way we understand our world is to give human traits to nonhuman forces. The wind sighs in the trees, etc. But evolution can't intend, any more than gravity or electricity can, I guess.

So -what? Why does this matter? (Well, to me, anyway.) Because it can be really liberating to accept that evolution is a fantastically complex but entirely arbitrary set of interacting processes.

Death and life, generations, are part of evolution, which depends of course on generations of creatures - generational succession is evolutionary, evolution is generational. So all creatures live, die, and evolve. Even us. So that's one thing I can stop worrying about!

Evolution links us to the entire planet and all its life forms. We sit, as it were, in the midst of evolutionary change. We belong in it, it is part of us, we are evolving.

I think we can accept this whatever religious or non-religious beliefs we have, whatever the stage of spiritual journey each of us is on. 

(Sorry to all those who refuse to accept the idea of evolution - now that refusal really is a bit of a watershed! Flat earthers.... welcome to their beliefs, but please don't foist them on our children.)

All hail the mighty Darwin and all those who work away challenging, modifying, adding to his work. And happily, evolution also resulted in a very nice, humane sort of genius, to boot!

Well, that remains to be seen. But misunderstanding or misrepresenting evolution won't help us!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Mortality and folk music in Trelawnyd

Up to Trelawnyd Memorial Hall yesterday for Folk at the Hall, which ran from one o'clock to eleven o'clock. Trelawnyd is a village not too far from Chester; the fact that a day's music performed by some highly-regarded and accomplished singers and musicians is to be found in such a modest setting in front of a small audience is entirely down to the skill and enthusiasm of one family and their helpers. They don't make any money out of their ventures - at best they break even. Lovely people, lovely day, very reasonably priced. Thanks to you all. 

But my subject today is less this generous spirit than the nature of much of the "folk" music that we hear today, and how it just might relate to perceptions of mortality and human continuity.

Eliza Carthy, talented scion of trans-generational folk heroes Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, once summed up the difference between pop music and folk music: pop music, she felt, is most concerned with expressing individual, personal feeling, folk music with telling a story. So if this idea works, in folk music, perhaps the feeling is expressed more in terms of events and less as direct statements.

 Folk music which originated in the tradition (however modified) seems to me to have a distancing effect - yes, there is often more of a story, and that can generate a strong feeling of continuity.

Yesterday I heard a folk trio called Faustus sing the old ballad "The Banks of the Nile." The song presumably originated during the Napoleonic wars. It was very well arranged, sung and played.

The song is about a parting between a soldier and his love; she says she'll disguise herself and come with him, he says that's not possible, and off he goes. Then these words, which jumped out at me:

Oh, cursed be those cruel wars, that ever they began  
For they have robbed our country of many's the handsome men  
They've robbed us of our sweethearts while their bodies they feed the lions  
On the dry and sandy deserts which are the banks of the Nile.

Or on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates, or the Rhine, or the Somme, or....

Human continuity, and the realities of war, down the centuries. This isn't an introspective exploration of individual feelings; it sprang out of a simple, anonymous, archetypal story. 

Perhaps a realisation that people have been suffering the same tribulations and griefs, celebrating the same joys and delights, for many many generations, helps us to take a quick look in the general direction of our own mortality? I can't see that getting locked into an individual self-absorption with the facts of mortality is going to do much to help.

Here's Faustus with the song, not in Trelawnyd but in the wonderful "Songs from the Shed" series. Poor sound quality, but it gives you an idea.

Back to Folk at the Hall - it was noticeable, in a tiny venue, how friendly the musicians were, with each other and with us. No narcissistic vanity, self-dramatisation, posturing and competing. Non of the stuff that can often crop up with pop/rock. Strong musical personalities all, clamorous egos none. 

Songs from the Hall, songs from the shed - I love this directness, this simplicity of approach. It relates to the world we live in, even if the song is about the Napoleonic wars. 

Oh, and two of Faustus are also in Bellowhead. Quality will out.