Archive for September, 2010

Sublime encouragement

September 17, 2010

Thames mosaic – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘Every human being is of sublime value because [her or] his experience, which must be in some measure unique,  gives [her/] him a unique view of reality… Therefore every human being must be encouraged to cultivate [her/] his consciousness to the fullest degree.’  

This is Rebecca West again.  Her recipe for such human development  – the encouragement of the individual view – is, of course, art, education, good environments.  In the context, it’s a throw-away remark, a statement she considers absolutely self-evident, within a discussion of nationalism (‘the desire of a people to be itself’) as opposed to imperialism (‘the desire…to prevent other peoples from being themselves’).

Just as imperialism, in West’s analysis, is an attempt to prevent ‘peoples’ or nations from being themselves, so – on an individual level – if human beings are prevented from the cultivation of consciousness, their supreme value as individuals is denied, their unique view of reality is ignored, or even suppressed.

To Rebecca West, writing in the early 1940’s, this loss wasn’t merely of individual potential; she believed that ‘the sum of such views should go far to giving us the complete picture of reality, which the human race must attain if it is ever to comprehend its destiny’.  So to deny humankind the opportunity to cultivate our consciousness ‘to the fullest degree’ is a retrograde step, away from the possible evolution of humanity.

Such idealism, during such times, seems almost wilful – yet what time could be better?  Only the closed consciousness can be indifferent to social injustice, the loss of civil liberties, the destruction of the environment, and the growth of imperialist attitudes, all of which created the background for fascism and war.  West took it as axiomatic that greater understanding of the human condition, through encouraging each sublimely valuable individual consciousness, must inevitably lead towards enlightenment.

But nobody wants to be fully conscious if they have to live in a vile environment, without natural beauty or architectural beauty or preferably both, let alone if they’re in poverty, with all the sufferings and fears of that condition.  In many situations, it’s merely a survival mechanism to close down the aperture of the consciousness to its smallest opening, and let as little light in as possible.  Then who knows what goes on outside?

Without access to the arts, or real education (both powerful awakeners of the consciousness), in a fragile natural environment under constant threat, no human being can hope to cultivate anything but a survival mentality.  This situation, in current political terms, is still brought about by the ‘desire to prevent other peoples from being themselves’, or in other words an ideological preference for a semi-conscious electorate, who won’t notice as their inheritance is dismantled.  It’s sabotage of the most destructive kind, not just of individual lives, but of the future.  

All those enlightened ones, Rebecca West et al, with their visions of the fullest degree of developed consciousness for all humanity, must be spinning in their graves.  But at least their writings remain, a source of sublime encouragement – and resistance.

Nightingales in Berkeley Square

September 6, 2010

Bees in the lavender – photograph by Liz Mathews

With the odd synchronicity that so often happens after encountering something new, when that same scrap of life reappears everywhere, this week has been plagued by the nightingale.  I was reading Scrapbook for the 1920’s by Leslie Baily (background research, and an entertaining picture of the period).  There I came across the story of Beatrice Harrison, the cellist who played duets with the nightingale in her garden, broadcast for the first time in 1924 in one of the great success stories of early radio.  She recalled that although the bird didn’t join in until nearly midnight, ‘I don’t think he ever sang more gloriously’.  Over fifty thousand of those who listened in wrote to thank her.

(In these early days of ‘outside broadcasting’, it was a bold move to try and catch something as unpredictable as birdsong live, but it was possible to break in to the late night dance music programme – also live, The Savoy Orpheans – whenever the bird began to sing.  This encapsulates the odd mixture of stiff formality and lax lawlessness which seems to characterise the Twenties.)

The experiment was repeated for the next twelve years, and there’s a marvellous picture of her and an excerpt of the musical nightingale on the BBC website.

The day after reading this, I happened to hear a programme in the Proms interval all about nightingales, where Beatrice Harrison made her appearance, and we heard her nightingale again.  Then, there was an even more extraordinary recording.  In 1942, the nightingale was due to be broadcast, and sang as ever, but the programme didn’t go out live because there was an unexpected element in the mix – the steady rumble of bomber planes going overhead in wave after wave.  Instead, the sound engineer recorded it, as a potent evocation of that surreal moment.  Listening to it, as Richard Mabey said, it was impossible not to hear the bird’s voice singing ‘Choose life!’.  (Just as Virginia Woolf’s birds sing ‘Vita!’)

This was a reading from Richard Mabey’s new book The Barley Bird, which I haven’t yet read but certainly will, on the basis of this extract – although on the page it will be a shame to miss his brilliant reading of John Clare’s phonetic notation of the nightingale’s song, a weird poem in itself.  The observation that John Clare saw the nightingale as a fellow-poet is true, too.  Much bleaker is Mabey’s analysis that the bird is rapidly losing numbers in England (it only visits the south), probably because of fewer insects – a result of climate change.  Here was a resonance with the new commission in the Prom, Dark Pastoral by David Matthews, based on a theme by Vaughan Williams, beautiful but elegaic.

The loss of the nightingale is like the vanishing bees; something many people care about not only for practical reasons but because of its poetic, mythic status, the essence of everyday magic.  It’s rather moving what a cross-section of different kinds of people are trying to help the bees – links to some of them here.  One of the happy results of urban beekeeping is that we can now get such local honey in London – ours is made by a beekeeper a few streets away, proudly labelled ‘Tufnell Park honey’.

Earlier this year, among the bumble bees that still visit our lavender, I saw an unfamiliar sort, with black and white stripes on its body.  I was puzzled, until I discovered from the poet Alison Brackenbury’s blog (on a recent post called Bumbling along), that it’s a new bee here, Bombus hyphorum, its range recently expanded by global warming. She has a poem about the bees, too.

We may have no choice but to adapt to this shift in what we’ve known, but before we mourn the absolute loss of our particular bees or birds, we can try to support them, both by practical measures and by invoking their particular magic. In literature, the nightingales will sing forever in Berkeley Square, or Hampstead Heath, or John Clare’s Helpston; on the radio we can hear Beatrice Harrison’s cello partner, Vita Sackville-West’s chorus serenading Ethel Smythe, the bird outsinging the bombers. But we also need to hear them now, in our own time and place, birds alive as well as immortal.