Sunday, 29 November 2015

Hey, Boo

Geoffrey Brindle, "Bradford Jesus" - photo and portrait by Gary Beck

I just like walking

Earlier this year, Geoffrey Brindle died. Not a famous man outside West Yorkshire, but he was a very distinctive man who invariably smiled, often waved, and when asked “Why do you live the way you do?” (ie walking the streets of Bradford in a cassock), he replied “I just like walking.” Geoffrey died in hospital in August 2015, having fallen at home. He was probably 88 years old. He has been called various names over the years – Bradford Jesus, the Jesus Man, the Mad Monk, the Bradford Monk, the Airedale Monk, the Bradford Hermit, Holy Joe, Moses, Happy Harry – but all the tributes to him in the local newspaper when he died were positive and came from around the world. And came from people of all faiths and from people of no faith.

Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird….

Like Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s wonderful novel, Geoffrey Brindle shied away from the limelight. He was known to run away from journalists seeking interviews. He would never answer questions about himself directly. Rumours remained rumours: rumours about his extended family, rumours that he was escaping from a childhood trauma, or a rumour that shoe companies wanted to sponsor him, or rumours that he had magical healing powers or was a wizard! He remained mysterious because the only encounters anyone had with him involved him smiling warmly, being encouraging, giving time and attention….

Rumour doth double, like the voice and echo….*
(from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two)
Did he meditate in a cave near Settle for 12 days in the 1960s having left his job in a factory? Did he have a wife and children? Was he born in Derbyshire? What were his motivations? There are many testaments to his willingness to talk to people, especially anyone who was upset or in trouble. Social workers in Bradford mention how helpful he was with families in distress. He would sit, drink tea, listen…. Why did he live the way he did?
Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it.

Small acts of kindness

My last blog celebrated unhistoric acts – and Geoffrey Brindle seemed to be one of those people. There is talk of naming a new street “Brindle Walk” – a fitting tribute to someone who was forever putting one foot in front of another come rain, come shine, come snow, come fog…. Why did he live a life so unencumbered by material goods? Why was he so generous with his smiles and waves? For at least 50 years in and around Bradford? Why Bradford? Somehow his life gives me hope. Persuades me that life-affirming people will win. Reminds me to keep alive what matters. RIP, Geoffrey. Smile and wave.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Small acts of kindness

Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Miranda Raison in The Winter's Tale

Paulina in The Winter’s Tale

Last weekend I saw The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick Theatre in London (to be broadcast this evening in cinemas.) The character of Paulina is one of the most extraordinary in literature and I wanted to see the show live because one of my favourite actors, Judi Dench, is currently playing the role. Paulina behaves without regard to her own safety, life or convenience – and Judi Dench catches her sense of humour, her courage, her loyalty and, when needed, her blazing anger. It is hard to behave with absolute conviction the whole time. Most of us (me certainly) regularly compromise, regularly miss opportunities, regularly see both sides of an argument.


The end of The Winter’s Tale (like those other great Late Romances of Shakespeare, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Two Noble Kinsmen and The Tempest) is suffused with redemption and forgiveness. Hard-won lessons are learned, families learn to forgive and the future, though potentially painful, is a bit more hopeful. We are all in charge of our own reactions and responses to everything that happens. It astonishes me when suffering family members forgive terrorists and murderers who have slain their loved ones. In doing so, though, they are controlling their own futures, so I can appreciate why they choose forgiveness rather than revenge. I don’t know if I could.

Even as love crowns you, so shall he crucify you

Khalil Gibran’s quotation above is from a lengthier one on “Love.” The idea is well-known – if you love someone you open yourself to being hurt. Why does anyone do it? Victor Hugo in Les Miserables promoted “small acts of kindness” as one of the keys to happiness:
You can give without loving, but you can never love without giving. The great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness. We pardon to the extent that we love. Love is knowing that even when you are alone, you will never be lonely again. A great happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved. Loved for ourselves. And even loved in spite of ourselves.
Book illustrations, stage and film versions of Les Miserables

Unhistoric acts

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch Dorothea is the heroine that, like Paulina in Winter’s Tale, is a model for our time. Do one good thing. Then another. Then another.
Dorothea herself had no dreams of being praised above other women, feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better….
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
How many small acts of kindness have we had done for us in our lives? Who did them? How many small acts of kindness can we do tomorrow?
Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea in the BBC version of Middlemarch

Friday, 20 November 2015

Iron Tree

If this be magic, let it be an art/Lawful as eating

“Art” is a curious thing. When teaching General Studies I remember asking students to identify as many different branches of the arts as they could. We usually came up with a list that included painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, photography, film production, architecture, literature (poetry, drama and prose), music, dance, performance art and multi-media art. Do computer games count as art? Software programmes? Interior design? Furniture-making? Where does “craft” end and “art” begin? The Arts and Crafts movement (c1880 – c1920) suggested the distinction was unhelpful and I currently agree. If there is an aesthetic quality to something that has been made by a human, then I think it can be considered art if there is someone willing to look at it with some level of concentration.

The art itself is nature

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a wonderful place to see works of art, surrounded by nature, sometimes pretending to be nature. It is easy to walk past everything there passively seeing but not thinking. But I love to engage my brain with questions. What does it remind me of? What does it make me think? What does it make me feel? What did the artist intend? How precise is it in construction, shape or colour? What are the proportions of the object or the space around it? What are the textures of the piece? What is its mood? How was it made? How long will it last? Will everyone feel the same about it? Will its meaning change over time?

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei’s Iron Tree is one of my favourite sculptures at the park. The prominent nuts and bolts suggest (to me) industry and history. I like to think the interconnected pieces relate to world harmony, working together and my favourite motto (from EM Forster’s Howard’s End) – Only Connect. I’ve read that Weiwei was inspired to creat the sculpture by the street vendors who sold wood in southern China. But at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park I can’t help feel that the setting of the Iron Tree inside a chapel garden reflects spiritual rather than commercial ideas. It reminds me of the Stark’s Godswood in Game of Thrones.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Falling Leaves Like Snowflakes

In their beauty strewed

Margaret Cole campaigned against conscription in the First World War. It was a deeply unpopular stance but then she was a very unconventional woman: a socialist, atheist and pacifist in a very “traditional” era.

Her poem The Falling Leaves is one of the classic War Poems, one I always enjoyed teaching because of its sound and rhythm as much as its content.

The Falling Leaves
by Margaret Postgate Cole 

November 1915

Today, as I rode by,
I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree
In a still afternoon,
When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky,
But thickly, silently,
They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon;
And wandered slowly thence
For thinking of a gallant multitude
Which now all withering lay,
Slain by no wind of age or pestilence,
But in their beauty strewed
Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay

Fathomless Eyes

W N Hodgson was warded the Military Cross in 1915. He had been killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916. His poem Glimpses was written in June 1914.

by W N Hodgson

I saw you fooling often in the tents
With fair dishevelled hair and laughing lips,
And frolic elf lights in your careless eyes,
As who had never known the taste of tears
Or the world's sorrow. Then on the march one night,
Halted beneath the stars I heard the sound
Of talk and laughter, and glanced back to see
If you were there. But you stood far apart
And silent, bowed upon your rifle butt,
And gazed into the night as one who sees.
I marked the drooping lips and fathomless eyes
And knew you brooded on immortal things.

Friday, 6 November 2015

In Flanders field the poppies blow


Approaching Remembrance Sunday….

Last August I was lucky enough to see the installation of the ceramic poppies at the Tower of London conceived by Paul Cummins and designed by Tom Piper, one of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s regular designers. The original artwork was titled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. I was pleased to hear that a section of the installation was touring to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park so on a crisp day in September I went to see Wave. The installation is staying at the YSP until 10th January 2016.

Complexity of the poppy symbolism

Poppies in the ancient world were associated with sleep and the hallucinogenic properties of morphine, named after Morpheus, the god of dreams. Prior to the First World War, poppy associations were predominantly negative: for example, the Nineteenth Century Opium Wars (China versus Britain, France, India and the USA); and the subversive influence of Thomas de Quincey’s mesmeric Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) which led to prominent figures like Branwell Brontë becoming addicted to poppy extracts.

Lt Col John McRae’s poem

Shortly after losing a friend in the First World War, the Canadian doctor Lt Col Jon McRae observed how the red poppies were springing up all over the devastated battlefields of the Western front, even pushing through newly-dug graves of fallen soldiers. It is believed that he wrote the poem very quickly in the back of an ambulance and initially threw it away, but his comrades liked it enough to persuade him to offer it for publication and the magazine Punch printed it on 8th December 1915.
Add caption

Not blood, not war, not death, not religion, not politics

It is worth reiterating what the poppy is NOT a symbol of. It is NOT a symbol of the all the things above: not blood, not war, not death, not religion and not politics. The poppy is a symbol of remembrance and hope – new life springing from a wasteland. The poppy is only red because that’s the colour of the Flanders poppies in the fields that inspired John McRae. Remembrance. Hope. Fresh Beginning.
The original installation at the Tower of London - Blood Swept Lands and Fields of Red

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae (1872-1918)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Word cloud created on the Yorkshire Sculpture Park website