August 2010

He’s one of those awkward people,  too tall and not quite coordinated.  He doesn’t so much walk   and bounce along on the balls of his feet, his body held forward as if nearly falling over.  it’s like he is not of this world. He seems out of place, confused as if he can’t make out what he is meant to do.  He’s not rude.  In fact there is something endearing about him.  We want to laugh, but we would not wish to hurt his feelings.  But you get the impression he wouldn’t notice.   

He is one of those slightly odd  anti-heroes who confound and irritate the hell out of those who take themselves too seriously.   Playing tennis, he  has his own idiosyncratic method of serving, a back and forth movement of the racquet as if he was putting a pizza in the oven and then a smack, leaving his more professional opponents muttering darkly.  But don’t we love him just because he has a go?  His  car breaks down at the funeral gates but when he opens the boot to get his tools, the inner tube rolls into the wet leaves where it is mistaken by the funeral director as a wreath and hung on the tomb.  The wreath deflates but the mourners pretend not to notice and come up to shake M. Hulot’s hand for his courtesy.   And of course, it‘s Monsieur Hulot who gets to dance with the pretty girl, but there is no hint of guile or seductiveness is his behaviour.  He is just enjoying the innocent fun of being  Monsieur ‘Ulot on ‘oliday.   

If it wasn’t French, we would say that Monsieur Hulot’s holidays is a charming example of British humour,  the precursor of Mr Bean and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but it’s more subtle than either of those.  M. Hulot is not so much a belly laugh as a whimsical set of observations of people doing the sort of things that people do on holiday.  We are laughing at ourselves.  Jacques  Tati has a wonderful knock of holding up a mirror saying with just a hint of a smile,   ‘aren’t we all a bit absurd when we think about it?’

We had completed the first set of asanas and were just relaxing into the pranayamas

‘Now alternative nostril breathing.’  Pinch your nose between the thumb and ring finger of your right hand, breathe in through the right nostril,  close the right nostril, breathe out through the left, breath in through the left’.

‘What are you doing?’ 

A man, in his thirties, I’d guess,  looking somewhat weatherbeaten, and dressed in a black waterproof tracksuit sat cross-legged in front of us.  He was clutching a plastic bottle containing beer and proceeded to roll a cigarette.  I felt a bit wary, but he seemed ok. 

‘We’re doing yoga.’

‘Oh I know yoga.  Ali Akbar.  It makes you fit.’

‘ Yes. You can join in if you like.’ 

He looked at me curious, undecided.    

I carried on.  ‘Close the left nostril, breathe out through the right, in through the right, close the right nostric, breathe out through the left…..’ I sneaked a look at him.  He was looking perplexed but I didn’t want to have a conversation with him.  We were after all engaged in spiritual exercises

‘I had a few drinks with me mates last night.  I was so tired, I covered myself with cardboard and went to sleep by the motorway. 

 ‘I walked over here this morning.  I’m going to meet a friend.  She’s got a big belly.’  He winked at me. ‘You know what I mean.  I want to congratulate her’

I abandoned alternate nostril breathing and went to the next exercise.  Take a deep breath through your nose and then breath out and make a humming noise.  As you breathe in count up to five and as you breathe out, count down from 10.’  We all took a noisy breath in, held it and hummed for about 15 seconds.  Then we took another deep breath in, ….    My eyes were closed but I could hear him muttering. 

‘Now lie down in sharvasana.’  We lay flat on our backs.  Hands slightly away from your body, legs slightly apart, breathe gently through your nose.’

‘Ah that’s relaxation, that’s good for you,’  he muttered.

I went through the routine of progressive muscular relaxation.  My eyes were closed.  He was quiet.  I didn’t know whether he was joining in or not. 

‘Now as you lie there, you will be very sensitive to the things around you, the distant hum of traffic, the sounds of the birds, the gentle hiss of the river, the smell of a cigarette,  a light breeze blowing over your face and the faint heat from the sun permeating your skin and spreading into all the cells of your body.  We lay still and quiet, emptying our minds.  I lost all thought of him. . 

After about 10 minutes silence, I said, ‘Just move your hands and feet and keeping your eyes closed, sit up in a meditative posture.  Rub your palms together, place them over your eyes.  Feel the warmth of your hands.  Feel your eyes, your forehead relax.’   I was aware he was joining in. ‘Now take your hands away, open your eyes, blink a little.  Look around.  Say an affectionate Namaskar to the people around you.’  We put our palms together and held them close to our chest in an attitude of prayer and bent towards him and said ‘Namaskar’.   He repeated the gesture.  

‘What’s that mean?’

‘It’s a hindi greeting.’

‘On Hindi, that’s India isn’t it?  I can speak all those languages; hindi, urdu – all of them. 

‘That’s good, I said, so you’ll know this. 

I put my palms together again and together we chanted, Ooohhm, shahnti, shahnti, shahnti-ji   

In our own time, we stood up.  He got to his feet too.  ‘My names Rick.  It’s nice to meet you’.  He then shook hands with each of us.  I thought for a moment he was going to hug me but perhaps my look of apprehension put him off.

 ‘Take care.’  I said.   

‘God bless you’, he replied and looking in my eyes, added, ‘I mean that.’

‘All life is Yoga.’  So wrote Sri Aurobindo,  sage and spiritual master, the author of ‘A Synthesis of Yoga.’  Yoga is not just a series of exercises to improve posture and make the body supple, its acolytes would define it as a method for self perfection  leading ultimately to a union with the Divine.  Yogis believe that since we are all potentially divine,  our aim must be to achieve the perfection of that divinity by improving each part of our own being; body, mind and intellect. 

Yoga achieves perfection of the body through the asanas and pranayamas (Hathayoga). Asanas are a series of stretches and postures, which, it is claimed, give you the same cardiovascular efficiency as vigorous aerobic exercise and vast improvements in fitness.  Each posture stretches a certain set of muscles and is followed by a posture that stretches the opposing set.  They need not be difficult and the postures do not have to be maintained for long.  Proceed at your own pace.  It will leave you feeling remarkable relaxed and refreshed.  Pranayamas are a set of breathing exercises that invigorate and balance the system.

Yoga achieves perfection of the mind through meditation (Radayoga).   The meditation is designed to clarify the surface layers of the mind as lack of movement clarifies a muddy pool so you can see down to the depths. It involves sitting or lying comfortably in a quiet place in a relaxed posture and by breathing and inward chanting to attain a deep state of consciousness akin to trance.  Preoccupations, worries, regrets are banished from the mind while you concentrate on the here and now.  In trance, there is a clearer focus on the sounds and feelings around you while everything else drifts away.  Meditation is focus and can be achieved through creative work; painting, sculpture, gardening, poetry, music, cooking, even  running and walking or even sitting quietly by the side of a river fishing.  Find the time and the space in your life to do this. 

Asanas, pranayamas and meditation exist for one purpose, that is to acheive that peaceful state of body and mine that allows a contemplation on the meaning of life, what yogis say is union with the divine, or an innermost state of peace and contemplation.

Yoga is not another religion.  Yogis do not believe in a single God or even a company of Gods, but they do believe in the notion of a divinity, a state of being that creates and pervades all existence and they revere sages like Sri Aurobindo as instruments to help us attain a state of perfection. 

I cannot believe in such a divine presence, although I acknowledge the power of the human mind to create it. There is much about our existence that we cannot explain, but I like to place my faith in evolution, cosmology and the amazing power of the human mind to create meaning out of our existence.  But I do believe that Yoga is a wonderful system of  healing the mind, the body and the spirit or meaning and I incorporate asanas and meditation as an essential components of my everyday life. 

Our lives are so fragmented; we express so many different aspects of ourselves at different times.  We are, in the words of Sri Aurobindo, disorderly ordered.   We seem to have a fatal attraction to pain and suffering.  Yoga is a means of liberating ourselves.  Yoga is not only a method by which man can attain that state of peace and relaxation that facilitates health, fulfilment and happiness.  It  also creates a state of being that allows reflection on the deeper meanings of our existence,  alongside but separate from our daily preoccupations with work, family and the material aspects of contemporary living.   

Some yogis may renounce all material connections, retire to an ashram and live a life of self perfection, but most of us cannot do that.  Each person must follow their own path. But we may find time during the day to carry out asanas and pranayamas and we may also be able to build into a more balanced way of life time to meditate and reflect on the deeper meanings.  This can only help us to cope with stress, to think about what we are eating, how we are living and deal better with the strains of life that cause illness.    

In June, I lived for three weeks in the Sri Aurobindo ashram high above the town of Nainatal in the foothills of the Himalayas.     

In Ancient Greece the Gods were never fair or just.  They were fickle, impulsive, they needed to be propitiated.  And there were so many of them.  If you tried to appease one, the chances are you would upset another.  Human beings were just pawns in their interminable political struggles.  They controlled everything; they made people fall in love, made crops flourish, started wars, killed Kings, impregnated their women and inevitably made them take their own lives.   They were Gods of Rule and Misrule; so inconsistent, they always kept their subjects off balance.  Full of mirth and merriment one moment, they’d turn on a wrong word and cause devastation. 

In her new play, Moira Buffin neatly compares the chaos and destruction of Greek mythology to the more recent tyranny and upheaval in African states such as Liberia and Somalia where the power struggles of the warlords and their complete disregard for human life cause societies to collapse amid widespread massacre and torture. 

In modern Thebes, the people have elected a ruler, a woman, Euridyce, who has ended the civil war and introduced democracy and stability through the appointment of women to key cabinet posts, but  she needs the financial and military assistance of Athens and their powerful leader, Theseus, who is a politician with an eye for the main chance.  He first tries to seduce Euridyce and then when she doesn’t submit to his power lust makes to support her opponent, the warlord Prince Tydeus.  But Theseus is undermined by news of the death of his wife Phaedra and her seduction by his son Hippolytus and leaves in his helicopter.   Euridyce survives, perhaps a little wiser and less naive.   

Welcome to Thebes presents a curious juxtaposition of ancient and modern, but it works.  The themes of politics and war are timeless.  It’s all about personal power.  Ignorance is the enemy of democracy.   No matter how much a leader tries to be democratic, the people see it as weakness and will always vote for the charismatic strength of the tyrant.   But even the best leaders, if they survive, become tyrants.    

Welcome to Thebes is currently playing at The Olivier Theatre on the South Bank.  It has a large cast, mainly composed of talented but little known black actors, all wonderfully directed by Sir Richard Eyre.  It’s scary, awesome, and a must see. 

Eichvald is a small Baronial village in northern Prussia, a patriarchal society dominated by powerful male autocrats who justified their abuse of their womenfolk and their children on the grounds that it was what they needed.  ‘This will hurt me more than it hurts you’.   

It is the autumn of 1913 and strange things have begun to happen in the village.  First it is the doctor’s ‘accident’.   His horse trips on a wire stretched across the gate to his house, throwing him heavily,  the end of his collarbone sticking out through the skin of his shoulder.  Next the farmer’s wife falls  through the rotten floor of the baron’s sawmill and is killed instantly.  In revenge and anger with his father, who refuses to claim compensation or grievance,  their  eldest son destroys the baron’s field of cabbages and is instantly dismissed, committing the family to starvation.  Then Sigi, the Baron’s son is kidnapped, flayed and found in the middle of the night hanging by his ankles in the barn in a state of severe shock.   Then the steward’s baby son is left exposed to the freezing cold.  Finally Karli, the midwife’s son, who has Down’s syndrome is attacked and nearly blinded.  The culprits are never discovered though a sinister group of children always seem to materialise offering to help after each an atrocity is committed.  It might appear that, led by Klara, the pastors eldest daughter, they are  taking their revenge for the cruel repression they had endured at the hands of their fathers, but we never quite know for sure.   

When Klara and Martin arrive late for supper, the pastor forces  them to wear white ribbons as a sign that they have not learnt to be responsible.   Martin is further humiliated by having his hands tied to the sides of his bed to stop him masturbating while Klara collapses while being severely and unjustly reprimanded by her father in front of the whole class.   

And then there is the doctor,  who, not just content for abusing his housekeeper, is also forcing his attentions on Anni, his fourteen year old daughter.  And the steward, who thrashes his son within an inch of his life for taking Sigi’s whistle from him and throwing him in the pond.   This is a highly dysfunctional village that seems to thrive on malice. 

And Eva, who is unfairly dismissed by the Baron and then prevented by her father from marrying her sweetheart,  who teaches at the village school. 

It is the schoolteacher who finds out what has happened,  but when he confronts Klara and Martin, they lie; they know only too well the penalties for being honest.  Their father, the parson, grows angry and accuses him of spreading calumny on innocent children and threatens to report him to the school board.  

The note attached to Karli notes that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children.  It would seem that Klara and her gang become avenging angels.  Klara even kills her father’s pet bird, though her youngest brother poignantly offers to replace it with the bbird he has rescued because his father is so sad. 

The film ends with the news of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the imminence of war.  We are left with the sense that in some way the children have brought about the horror that was the first world war.  They didn’t, but the narrator, who is the schoolteacher as an old man, says that the events in Eichvald in 1913/14 might clarify what was eventually going to happen in Germany.  Theirs was the generation who became Nazis and perpetrated their own cruel repression on the Jews.      

White Ribbon was directed by Martin Hanneke and released in 2009,  being awarded ’ La Palme d’Or’ in Nice.   It is a powerful and disturbing film.  It is the children are the  stars of the film; they act their parts with such convincing realism while the cimetography with its long gothic shots of the snowbound village and its protestant inhabitants reinforces the dark repression.    

Alan is devoted to his mother.  His father died while he was still a teenager.  Mother and son became very close, always there for each other.  Alice was wise and understanding and did everything she could for him, but she could help him in the one area he needed; she could not set him free to learn about relationships with women.  He was naive; he just didn’t know how to be.  He just wasn’t equipped to deal with Sarah.  He became obsessed with her instead. 

Sarah was beautiful, charismatic and totally unavailable.  She avoided any emotional intimacy, any real conversation.  She could never commit to a man but she enjoyed the seductive power that she could exert over them.  They, in their turn, were fascinated by her;  they longed to possess her, and although she might permit an exciting physical intimacy to those she felt safe with, they could never know her emotionally.  And so it was that she allowed the naively polite Alan to consort with her in a brief relationship of silent passion.   For Alan, their relationship contained the toxic ingredients of addiction; sexual gratification and emotional abstinence.  He longed to know her, to have a proper relationship with her, but she refused to make arrangements to see him and was frequently absent from her flat.  And so he became hooked.  For Sarah it had the dangerous excitement of sadism.   

Frustrated and hurt by Sarah’s behaviour  and in weakened state of illness he allows himself to become looked after by Angela, who is one of Sarah’s acolyte’s and has pursued him relentlessly.  Angela loves the fantasy of marriage and children, but cannot face the realities and responsibilities.   She is scared of men, frightened of their passions.  She would rather avoid the whole messy, violent business of sex.  She needs  Alan to protect her from the dangers of the world, to look after her like a child – so she takes the opportunity to look after him.  Nevertheless they get married and soon she is pregnant. 

Then Sarah turns up again unexpectedly.   Alan is thrown off balance and pursues her to Paris, but she doesn’t take him seriously and does not keep his assignation.  While away, his friend and partner, Brian, calls; Angela has had a fall and gone into premature labour.  She has lost their baby and is in a state of shock, unable to cope.   She blames Alan for everything and refuses to leave her bed.  Jennie, fragile and so needy of love,  comes in every day to care for her, but she shows no sign of getting better. Alan tells Jennie not to come again whereupon Angela declines and takes an overdose of antidepressants and dies. 

Alan feels guilty and becomes depressed.  It takes him years before he feels strong enough to relinquish his preoccupation with Sarah.  He realises he is not equipped for a stable relationship with a woman and lives a solitary though not unhappy existence in London and Switzerland.   He never sees Sarah again. 

This is Anita Brookner at her best.  She has a deep understanding of the fragile and the lonely.  Her thoughtful prose explores what it means to lead a solitary life, the compensations and the pain of it.  ‘Altered States’ (1996), like most of her novels, is a skilful take on the psychological impact of inadequate socialisation, a territory she knows well.  Each of the three major characters,  Alan, Sarah and Angela, have not been able to grow up.  Alan is socially naive and can neither play the part of lover or husband.  Angela is like the anorexic who can’t face the responsibilities of marriage and ultimately reverts to the passive dependency of childhood.   Sarah is forever evasive of the reality of an adult relationship, but enjoys the power and drama of endless flirtation.  Each has been damaged by a controlling and in  varying degrees emotionally abstinent parent    

Altered States is a book of our time.  We live in a narcissistic society; in which many children have their material needs, food and diversions and toys, supplied in abundance but suffer deprivation of proper emotional communication.  Television and computer games do not equip kids or social responsibilities; they grow up acutely conscious of their own needs and finding it difficult to make and keep relationships.   Thirty five per cent of people living in Britain in 2010 live by themselves.  This figure has continued to rise year on year since the eighties as marriage as continued  to decline and fail and more and more children end up being brought up by a lone parent.  This may look normal.  Indeed it is, but the damage runs deep and threatens the stability of society.  Psychotherapy, these days, is largely conducted to help people cope with the pain and trauma of a narcissistic personality.

Peter was just too much, too intense, too needy, too much of a risk, even for Clarissa.  For wasn’t she the one who wanted the excitement of midnight boat rides on the lake,  loved parties and even dared a Lesbian flirtation with Sally.  Clarissa has charm and ‘joie de vivre’; she loves bringing people together, imparting a little joy to their lives.  It is  her mission.  So chose Richard,  handsome, dependable, loving  and just a little bit dull.  Richard would look after her and give her the status and position to act the hostess and impress.  With Peter, anything could have happened.  It would have been exciting but dangerous.  He offered that intoxicating combination of desire and risk that could transport her to ecstacy or lead her to devastation and destruction.   It was the classic romantic dilemma; excitement or security.   

Thirty five years and a war later, Peter returns from his adventures in India and joins the great and the good at Clarissa’s party.  Clarissa is distracted by the terrifying image of a shell shock victim she had seen earlier that day still trying to prevent his friend been blown up by a mine.  She learnt that he had jumped out of the window and impaled himself on the spikes of the railings below to escape incarceration by the doctor.  He had taken the risk, committed himself to the excitement of war,  and gone mad with the trauma of it.  

Clarissa escapes from the party and stands at the window looking down, but she is caught by the smiling face of the women in the house and she draws back from the edge, returns to Richard and has a last dance with Peter. 

Mrs Dalloway a tender poignant love story, one that I guess occurs all too often.  You might say that Clarissa made the right choice.  But which would you make?             

Mrs Dalloway is based on a novel by Virginia Woolf (1925), adapted for the screen by Eileen Atkins, directed by Marleen Gorris (1997) and starring Vanessa Redgrave.  Janet Maslin writes in her review for The New York Times,  ‘The film drifts easily between past and present, romance and pragmatism, hope and despair in its evocation of Woolf’s vision. At the centre of all this is the eloquent fragility of society hostess, Clarissa Dalloway, who is rendered larger than life by her capacity for intelligent reflection amid her seemingly mundane existence. Ms Gorris casts two actors for the younger and older characters and it works wonderfully.  The two Clarissas, one in her 50’s and the other exuberantly young, are both radiant. While Natascha McElhone brings a beaming nonstop ingenuousness to the younger role, it is Vanessa Redgrave’s marvelous performance as the aging, soul-searching, sad-eyed Clarissa that gives the film its grandeur.   There was a time, replete with vanilla clothes and house parties at the country manor, when she and young Peter (Alan Cox) might have shaped their lives differently, the same time when Clarissa found herself in a flirtation with the pretty, headstrong Sally Seton (Lena Headey). This was a time when each of the story’s principals, played by two actors apiece, showed a youthful fire that has long since vanished. By 1923 the men have grown pompous and paunchy, while Clarissa herself muses on the idea of being Mrs. Dalloway.’