Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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The Fisherman and The Pianist

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I am currently on sabbatical from my day job. And following the intensity of the Brexit debate - and with a view to September where it is likely I will return to postgraduate studies on a part-time basis - I have made a conscious effort to 'lighten up' in terms of my reading and thinking.

On preparing for a trip to Central Europe, I had a look through my books - currently boxed up in the attic due to house renovations - and I had a good scan around Waterstones, on a relatively rare trip into Manchester city centre. With 'lightening up' in mind, I cast the theology, history and political philosophy books to one side, insteading picking up a few novels.

I also opted, as much as possible, for smaller novels. This is partly because I have not read a book from cover to cover since last summer - instead tending to dip in and dip out out of books, a reading habit which I believe has been encouraged by internet reading.

The two standout books, from around half a dozen that made the shortlist, were 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway and 'A Life's Music' by Andreï Makine.

Ernest Hemingway's story, his last published work during his lifetime, tells the tale of an old Cuban fisherman named Santiago who - following a period of failure - sets out ostensibly for one last big catch. In doing so he goes out further than any of the other fishermen, who had largely taken to mocking him, into the deeper, more dangerous seas. This leads to the old man essentially 'half-catching' a huge marlin who he proceeds to struggle with over a number of days, in a fight to the death. 

The old man narrowly prevails and, exhausted, attempts to bring his haul back to shore - with an eye to both feeding himself and restoring not simply his pride (the dangers of which he is acutely aware, expressed during his monologues) but his deeply held identity as a man of the sea. This in itself brings around further struggles, as the towed corpse of the marlin attracts sharks which progressively destroy its fleshy bounty. The final image - one I have found has lingered with me for the past few weeks - sees the old man laid face down at home in a deep sleep with his arms stretched out and palms facing upwards, possibly in a coma, whilst being tended to by his young protégé Manolin (for whom Santiago has laid down a powerful marker about how to live). 

The catch, now a skeleton following the successive shark attacks, is applauded by the locals who recognise its inherent magnitude - regardless of its apparent loss - but significantly the passing tourists confuse it for a large shark or whale hinting that the old man's legacy is already being distorted and diluted. Yet, in his comatose state, the old man returns to a dream of lions playing on the beach - a pleasant dream he has had since his youth - suggesting he is somehow re-fulfilled or regenerated spiritually.

For all of my attempts to eschew more serious reading, I have since learned from reading about this novel, that it is in fact embedded with Christian imagery in terms of the old man's wounds to his hands, his Calvary-style carrying of his mast up the hill to his home and that final powerful image. The story also can be analysed as a commentary on nature, on the interplay between life and death, on humankind and the planet earth.

Having read 'The Old Man and the Sea', and from there 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (which I will not comment on at this point, having not really enjoyed it), I moved on to 'A Life's Music' by Andreï Makine. Again, this was a short novel - a novella - coming in at around one hundred pages.

'A Life's Music' is set within a small, obscure train station in the Ural Mountains around 1958, on the western edge of Siberia, at a time when thousands were being released from the gulags of the Russian Far East. The train station itself is described by the narrator in detail, as a passenger waiting for a delayed train, staring at other passengers and the cold, near-on inhospitable environment in which they are marooned - perhaps a microcosm for Communist Russian as a whole.

What follows is a conversation between the narrating passenger and an older man, dressed in such a way he first appears to be what we in the West may label as a 'tramp', 'vagabond' or 'down and out'. The conversation becomes a retelling of the older man's life story.

The older man, Alexei Berg, recalls his childhood as son of prominent artists and his own development into a pianist of great potential, bringing him to the night before his debut performance at a factory. Already aware of his family's precarious position as possible targets for purging - due to their place amongst those deemed to be dangerous intelligentsia - he arrives home to see, from afar, a member of NKVD (pre-cursor to the KGB) stood at his kitchen window. 

From there, he flees to Ukraine to seek refuge with family. It is 1941 and his journey westwards collides with the Nazi's push eastwards. In the carnage that ensures, Alexei takes the identity of a dead Soviet soldier and finds himself, whilst safe from the hand of Stalin, thrust into war. What follows is Alexei essentially becoming less and less of the pianist he wished to be and more and more of 'homo sovieticus' - gaining honour for his courage in battle and a seemingly privileged position as loyal-yet-robotic driver for one of the Red Army's generals.

But, what initially seems an insignificant development as Alexei watches the daughter of the general learn to play the piano, leads to an explosive climax in which he reveals his true self. All we are left to learn, from there, is Alexei was forced to joined the ranks of Gulag victims for at least a decade.

As with 'The Old Man and the Sea', there are so many points of reflection that could be drawn from 'A Life's Music' - both are stories that seem to sit on the mind for weeks after reading.

What I have personally drawn from both is that humans must each individually uncover our true self, what it is we truly wish to become and be, as interconnected yet unique sparks of creativity within the universe. For the Santiago, it was a life out at sea. For Alexei, it was a life in front of the piano. And in this continuing uncovering and re-uncovering of the true self, we must be willing to face fear, discomfort and possible ruin.

If we think about it, this is the age-old path of the hero - be that Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, King or Mandela. 

As I approach the next yearly cycle of work, as I weigh up a potential return to university studies which will require a significant commitment and may well change my career direction in the long run, I have found - for all my intentions to 'lighten up' - that these two stories have carried some serious messages. 

In the words of Ernest Hemingway, 

"Now is no time to think of what you do not have.
Think of what you can do with that there is..."


Brutalist memory lanes

I have just watched this short video on the BBC website about the Park Hill estate in Sheffield which has triggered many memories. It provides a snapshot into some of the urban regeneration taking place in Sheffield, and the wider English north - although I happen to believe that much of the English north, in terms of real, aspiration-enabling industry, has been for all intents and purposes left to stagnate.

Old meets new...

The Park Hill estate in Sheffield holds a fascination for me, ever since they decided to really push forward and renovate it, rather than demolish it, around a decade ago. The fact is the hand of local government was forced into renovating, because this awesome monument to 1950s and 1960s Sheffield's brutalist architecture - this legacy of a once progressive and assertive policy of slum clearance - was given Grade II listing in the 1990s.

I never really had the Park Hill on my visual landscape as a kid, it was the other side of the city and my voyaging outwards from my home in the Rivelin Valley area more often than not tended to be towards Derbyshire. I always remember the time I cycled around six miles, alone on my BMX, from home to the 'Welcome to Derbyshire' sign and it felt like I had journeyed to another country. I was excited and scared, and quickly turned around fearing I would become irretrievably lost. I was probably thirteen at the time and I am sure my parents wouldn't have been happy at just how far I'd travelled, as much as they allowed us freedom to roam the local countryside during the summer.

But the Park Hill did have a smaller sibling, the Kelvin Flats, which I would pass by every time I caught the bus into what we called 'towun' - Sheffield's city centre. The Kelvin Flats was a place of which many horrific tale was told amongst us children and some of the adults around us. We heard stories of thuggish muggers, tragic jumpers and malicious throwers (namely the tale of people throwing TVs off at passers-by below). At school, any fellow pupil 'offa Kelvin' was immediately deemed to be 'hard' and would be looked upon with a mix of fear, admiration and pity. So in many ways it was a morbid fascination to begin with.

Having said that, brutalist architecture was also part of my everyday environment as a child. It wasn't just the brutalist monoliths of Park Hill, Hyde Park and Kelvin that made their way onto Sheffield's horizons - many of the outskirts of the city had brutalist-inspired social housing estates, which our privately owned semi-detached was nestled amongst. These took the form of tower blocks set amongst maisonettes.

The tower blocks seen here were renovated around twenty five years ago, with red-brick cladding added...

Even then I had an understanding that there was some kind of divide between the pockets of privately-owned houses and these swathes of concrete houses. It was a visual demarcation as much as a social-economic one - the stark difference between the pockets of reddish-brown bricked traditional-looking houses and the swathes of light grey flat-roofed housing. 

Interestingly though - as much as I probably knew even at such a young age that my close friends in these houses were technically 'poorer' than my family and our privately-owned semi-detached house - I was often the poor relation, as I came from a similar lower income household but with six children to feed rather than one or two (on top of a more expensive mortgage to pay, I guess). This status would manifest itself in our less-fashionable clothes (a source of periodic bullying and ostracisation at school), a lack of a car for many years (another source of mocking), a lack of pocket money (resulting in some petty shoplifting followed by some severe tellings-off), a lack of the latest games console and so on.

But when it came to the summer holidays, the fact we all spent most of our days in the nearby parks and woodlands was a leveller-of-sorts. All you needed to get on during these days was a football, some hands for climbing trees and catching pond life, and when we felt more daring, a box of matches for a campfire. So as much as there was deprivation in various forms (though not necessarily outright poverty), we were blessed by Sheffield's 'golden frame'.

The Kelvin flats were demolished around the early 1990s and I remember vividly how the rubble - previously thirteen storeys high, making up a thousand dwellings - was rumoured to have been used partly to fill in the 'Hole in the Road' ('oil in't road'). 

The Hole in the Road, much like the Park Hill, was an iconic (yet increasingly-dilapidated) feature of Sheffield - so much so that there has even been a local folk song written about it.

There's also a lego version, which perhaps helps those who don't come from Sheffield perhaps visualise it a bit better.

I'm refusing to get too serious with my writing on this blog at the moment - this is deliberate, as I am meant to be on sabbatical. There is much I feel I could say as a result of reflecting on my trip down these brutalist memory lanes - about how my own life has in some ways radically departed from these roots (something that generates mixed emotions), how Sheffield (and other northern towns and cities) continue to struggle with poverty in the hangover of Britain's imperial boom, how many Sheffielders I know feel increasingly feel alienated by globalisation. But I'll perhaps leave you to reflect upon all of this yourself - and I always appreciate comments from the handful of people who read.

Here are two poems which may help also:

'Change' by Kathleen Jessie Raine
A poem, I feel, about how change can be opportunity masked by fear...

Said the sun to the moon, 
You cannot stay. 

Says the moon to the waters, 
All is flowing. 

Says the fields to the grass, 
Seed-time and harvest, 
Chaff and grain. 

You must change said, 
Said the worm to the bud, 
Though not to a rose, 

Petals fade 
That wings may rise 
Borne on the wind. 

You are changing 
said death to the maiden, your wan face 
To memory, to beauty. 

Are you ready to change? 
Says the thought to the heart, to let her pass 
All your life long 

For the unknown, the unborn 
In the alchemy 
Of the world's dream? 

You will change, 
says the stars to the sun, 
Says the night to the stars. 


'The Road Not Taken' by Robert Frost
A poem, I feel, about the human tendency to look back - and a warning to not place too much meaning on past events, particularly on those tinged by regret...

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Back from Central Europe, again

My wife and I have just arrived back from our summer trip to Central Europe, taking in Bratislava and Vienna via the Danube. We have developed a bit of a love affair with this part of the world over the past few years, having visited the Czech Republic, Croatia and Bosnia, Hungary and Switzerland. This latest sojourn was every bit as enjoyable.

It was a tale of two cities really. Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, is a much smaller and humbler capital than say Prague or Budapest - and certainly less so than Vienna. 

Prior to arrival, we had read some poor reviews about Bratislava as a cityscape, focusing on the concrete legacy of Soviet Union dominance when it found itself forcibly named as the Slovak Socialist Republic and locked into a federal union with the Czech Socialist Republic. Since 1993, Slovakia has been an independent liberal democratic republic, largely in the mould of its Western European neighbours, and a member of the European Union since 2004. In turn, it has invested heavily in restoring its 'Old Town' - its cultural heart - on the one hand and and its commercial districts on the other.

We loved the city as a whole and were we to consider moving to Europe for work, we both said we would not discount it as an option. Yes, there is clearly a legacy the country is still dealing with but there was also a entrepreneurial and creative spirit in the city - summed up, for us at least, by its Danubiana project (we are not modern art fans but this was a great way of doing modern art for the non-believers).

Vienna on the other hand has all the pomp (and more) of a former imperial capital, having been the centre of the Habsburg dominion and a centre of the Holy Roman Empire. We were quite taken aback with Vienna, just at the sheer number and scale of palaces, cathedrals, theatres and so on. Indeed, we became a little weary on a second day of sightseeing and made efforts to explore the different sides to Viennese city life - taking in the Therme Wien spa area, the Vienna Hills (including Kahlenberg, a key point in Vienna's defence during the second siege by the Ottoman Caliphate) and the traditional market areas slightly out of city centre.

We went to Bratislava and Vienna for a break, so I will refrain from slipping into any political or religious meanderings - but suffice to say we were enriched by more than just sunshine and good food from these visits to our European neighbours.


Church of Christ, Church of Nature

I'm journeying to Central Europe in the next 24 hours, taking in Slovakia and Austria, and just wanted to put on record two quotes I've stumbled upon these past two days:

"Amid the decay of creeds, love of nature has high religious value. This has saved many persons in this world — saved them from mammon-worship, and from the frivolity and insincerity of the crowd. It has made their lives placid and sweet. It has given them an inexhaustible field for inquiry, for enjoyment, for the exercise of all their powers, and in the end has not left them soured and dissatisfied. It has made them contented and at home wherever they are in nature — in the house not made with hands. This house is their church, and the rocks and the hills axe the altars, and the creed is written in the leaves of the trees and in the flowers of the field and in the sands of the shore. A new creed every day and new preachers, and holy days all the week through. Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving ordinance. Communion service is at all hours, and the bread and wine are from the heart and marrow of Mother Earth. There are no heretics in Nature's church; alt are believers, all are communicants. The beauty of natural religion is that you have it all the time; you do not have to seek it afar off in myths and legends, in catacombs, in garbled texts, in miracles of dead saints or wine-bibbing friars. It is of to-day; it is now and here; it is everywhere. The crickets chirp it, the birds sing it, the breezes chant it, the thunder proclaims it, the streams murmur it, the unaffected man lives it. Its incense rises from the plowed fields, it is on the morning breeze, it is in the forest breath and in the spray of the wave. The frosts write it in exquisite characters, the dews impearl it, and the rainbow paints it on the cloud. It is not an insurance policy underwritten by a bishop or a priest; it is not even a faith; it is a love, an enthusiasm, a consecration to natural truth."

(ht: 'A Day with John Burroughs' - Reverend Andrew Brown, CAUTE)

"One of the greatest teachers in the Celtic world, John Scotus Eriugena in ninth-century Ireland, taught that Christ is our memory. We suffer from the “soul’s forgetfulness,” he says. Christ comes to reawaken us to our true nature. He is our epiphany. He comes to show us the face of God. He comes to show us also our face, the true face of the human soul. This leads the Celtic tradition to celebrate the relationship between nature and grace. Instead of grace being viewed as opposed to our essential nature or as somehow saving us from ourselves, nature and grace are viewed as flowing together from God. They are both sacred gifts. The gift of nature, says Eriugena, is the gift of “being”; the gift of grace, on the other hand, is the gift of “well-being.” Grace is given to reconnect us to our true nature. At the heart of our being is the image of God, and thus the wisdom of God, the creativity of God, the passions of God, the longings of God. Grace is opposed not to what is deepest in us but to what is false in us. It is given to restore us to the core of our being and to free us from the unnaturalness of what we are doing to one another and to the earth.

Christ is often referred to in the Celtic tradition as the truly natural one. He comes not to make us more than natural or somehow other than natural but to make us truly natural. He comes to restore us to the original root of our being."

(ht: 'Knowing the Celtic Christ' - John Philip Newell, Heartbeat)

I think these point a little to were I'm at in terms of theology right now - not necessarily any kind of departure from my long held panentheistic view but another way of explaining it, I guess.

As it happens, I am not intending to take any great theological reads with me on this journey - or any overtly political reads (given the intensity of debate since the vote to leave the EU). This is deliberate, part of a desire to switch off from more complex thinking. I'm taking a few fiction reads with me and anything of note, as with years gone by, will no doubt get a mention in future posts.